The Religion of Liberalism & the New Heretics

The most astonishing fact about contemporary American politics—that there is not a single Protestant on the Supreme Court, while there are six Catholics—goes largely unremarked, even though on the surface it seems to fulfill the most dire predictions made at the time of John F. Kennedy’s ascendancy in 1960. On the other side, the fact that no Catholic since Kennedy has occupied the White House also attracts little notice.

The atmosphere
 that surrounded Kennedy’s election is today almost unimaginable, and the few sparks struck off Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in 2012 failed to ignite. There is a good deal of suspicion of, and hostility to, Islam, but such hostility remains socially disapproved.

Ironically, however, in this age of ostensible good feeling, religious animosities are now more intense than they have been for a long time, a fact that is not fully understood because of the deliberately ambiguous use of the term “religion.”

The membership of the Supreme Court illumines this. Those who opposed the nomination of the Catholic Samuel Alito did not oppose the Catholic Sonia Sotomayor, and vice versa. Going back more than seventy years, those who saw Southern Baptists largely through the eyes of H. L. Mencken nonetheless rallied behind Hugo Black and Wiley Rutledge. The explanation seems obvious: political ideology trumps religion. There are Catholics and then there are Catholics; there are Southern Baptists and then there are Southern Baptists.

The Religion of Liberalism
But this explanation falls short, because it fails to understand that in reality there are now two fiercely contending religions in America, which are—trite though the phrase may be—engaged in a fundamental battle for the American soul. Sotomayor is not seen as a Catholic except incidentally, and, although the issues were much less clear around 1940, Black and Rutledge were not seen as Baptists. In each case the nominee to the Court was recognized as really an adherent of another, unnamed religion.

One of the two competing contemporary religions encompasses perhaps most Orthodox Jews, orthodox Christians, and (in theory) devout Muslims. It acknowledges divine authority in the affairs of men, the need to conform the human will to the divine law.

On the other side, liberalism is now not merely a political philosophy compatible with many kinds of religion but has itself become a religion. Although the social sciences have long defined religion in very broad terms, it is expedient for liberals that their movement not be seen as a religion, since it thereby escapes the accusations of dogmatism and intolerance that are routinely made against conventional religions. Liberalism is a religion because, for liberals, ultimate meaning lies in a commitment both to the ever-expanding welfare state, which is the fulfillment of the ideal of justice, and to the continuing liberation of individuals from all binding authority, which is the key to personal happiness.
 Liberal ideology ultimately rests on an act of faith.

It can never be discredited by historical events, because the believer simply knows it to be right. Liberal ideas are considered self-evidently true, and, in their present ascendancy, liberals prefer merely to assert those ideas rather than discuss them. The religion of liberalism makes demands on the individual that traditional religion is no longer allowed to make.

The principal religious divide in America cuts across denominational lines on a diagonal, so that the religion of liberalism encompasses most “mainline” Protestants, many Catholics, most Jews, and (most significantly) those who are categorized as non-church-members or unbelievers.

The history of liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism is essentially the story of progressive emancipation from the binding authority of creeds, so that those movements have finally become anti-credal, thereby enabling the new religion of liberalism to encompass people who are agnostics and even atheists. Conversely, orthodox Christians and Jews are necessarily regarded by liberals with a high degree of suspicion, because they threaten a reversion to credal dogmatism.

Liberalism’s Imposition
All of which explains why religious animosity is at a higher level now than it has been for decades. While conservative believers are often aggressive in their criticisms of the liberal society, they are seen—rightly or wrongly—as being a minority, and they have little influence over the mass media, most of the educational system, or the agencies of government.
 For the most part, conservative believers have learned to accept a pluralist society, and their battles—such as over the Obama health plan or public-school textbooks—are merely on behalf of their rights as citizens. But as did most Catholics and Protestants in earlier times, the religion of liberalism considers itself the one true faith that has the obligation (and the power) to impose its beliefs.

When conservative believers demand their rights as citizens, they fail to realize that, as far as the religion of liberalism is concerned, “error has no rights.” The religion of liberalism holds that the media and the educational system should enshrine liberal beliefs and discredit conservative ones, that government should enforce liberal programs by law, and that it is an open question how far heretics should even enjoy freedom of expression.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Touchstone Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

James Hitchcock


James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

  • Prof_Override

    The problem with this analysis is that it’s couched in a modernist arch in a post-modern world. In terms of a simple Venn diagram the author has draw 2 non-intersecting cirles, which is how “traditionalists” (note I didn’t say conservative) view the divide. In a post-modern paradigm the “traditionalist” circle is completely surrounded by the “liberal” circle – it is a sub-set, no more, no less. Two very different views of the same situation with very different implications.

    • slainte

      What event triggered the movement from Modernist to Post Modernist, or, as you say, the traditionalist circle becoming surrounded and engulfed by the liberal circle?

      • Prof_Override

        Not an event, it’s perspective. To the post-modernist all viewpoints are relative. This by definition makes a traditionalist just another subset relative view within their greater whole. It is a hard argument to disprove and the root of comments like Paul Ryan’s on the arrogance of progressivism. They don’t take as valid, a traditional, non-relative view of the world. Quite similar to arguing with your cat.

        • slainte

          Thank you for the clarification.

        • slainte

          If a post-modernist claims that all positions are relative, doesn’t this very assertion constitute an objective truth claim?
          If there is at least one valid objectively truth claim, isn’t the universal relativism perspective compromised?

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            Given the fact of ethical pluralism, the Post-Modernist doubts that there is we have available to us a rational criterion, one that is valid for all, according to which we can decide which ethics is best, in that it is rationally founded. That is not, strictly speaking, a truth-claim.

            Of course, some ethical choices are made with the eyes open and some with the eyes shut, and the latter are choices that are made by paying continual attention to the consequences of the principles one has embraced. But the acceptance of consequences is itself the object of a choice.

            The Post-Modernist position is not, therefore, incoherent; merely, false in fact

            • slainte

              Thank you for your insight.

  • Duncan Anderson

    This is brilliant. I have often said to myself (and others forced to listen) that liberalism is a religion. I think Pius IX referred to it as a “sin.” But it takes Prof. Hitchcock to effortlessly draw the line connecting the dots, and show how the rest of us have actually underestimated modern liberalism’s perfect conformity to the definition of a state religion.

  • Watosh

    Does it make any difference as to a government official’s religion since they all promise not to let their religion influence their political decisions in order to gain office? JFK paved the way. No follower of the religion of liberalism ever has to make a comparable statement.
    I might note that the religion of liberalism has two main branches, the liberals on social issues, otherwise identified as democrats, and the liberals on economic matters, otherwise identified as republicans. Catholics have the freedom of taking their choice of which of these two sides they will line up with.

    • jcsmitty

      How are Republicans “liberal” on economic matters? I find that statement incomprehensible.

      • Alecto

        I believe “liberal” is used here in the classic sense, meaning unbounded; the implication being that Republicans seek to implement an economic agenda that is very seldom regulated by government and/or lightly regulated. What we now term “conservative” is actually a classic liberal position.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          That is a very good point. It was the Jacobins who, in 1791, passed the Allende Decree that allowed every individual to freely engage in any trade or carry on any occupation, business activity or craft of their own choosing, without having to serve an apprenticeship or belong to a guild and they then dissolved the guilds themselves with their monopolies and powers of regulating trade by the le Chapelier Law 1791

          Throughout the 19th century, liberals were the great opponents of protective tariffs and argued for the free movement of capital, labour and goods. In this, they were bitterly opposed by Conservatives, who supported the landed interest against the manufacturers

          • Malachy

            Looking at our 55,000 empty factories in America, the “conservatives” were right, again.

            • Michael Paterson-Seymour

              Disraeli taunted the liberals of the Manchester School, whom he accused of proclaiming “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform,” amid a starving people and a world in arms.

          • Alecto

            Has anyone ever told you you’re just too smart for your own good? 🙂

      • Watosh

        See Alecto’s comment below. Further the economic policies embraced by the “conservatives’ believes the market should be a Darwinian arena wherein the fittest will survive and the unfit will perish. This represents a liberal approach to the market operation. Weak and inefficient firms, according to this economic outlook will fail and the efficient firms will survive which ill benefit society. This ignores the possibility of the strong eliminating the less strong until the strong control economic activity. A very excellent treatment of this is in Christopher Ferrara’s book, “The Church and the Libertarian.” That the idea that the Republicans “liberal” on economic matters is a testament on how effective they have been in masquerading as conservatives, and they are aided in this by the Democrat Party being openly liberal on a variety of social issues, which allows the Republicans to pose as conservative.

        • jcsmitty

          So is capitalism “liberal” and socialism “conservative”? I know next to nothing about economics, obviously, but whatever label you put on these isn’t what is important. Are we talking about free enterprise vs government control? Whatever imperfections there may be in capitalism, it seems to beat slavery and dependence on government.

          I’m afraid I’ll have to bow out of this discussion since it’s way over my head.

          Thanks for your input.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            I should prefer to say that, at least historically, free enterprise is liberal and interventionism is conservative. An arch-conservative like Bismarck nationalised the railways, because, for him, they were, first and foremost, a means to mobilise reservists, in the event of war. He protected agriculture, coal and steel from foreign competition, again for strategic, rather than economic reasons. In France, one sees a similar pattern, from Richelieu to Colbert to De Gaulle.

          • Malachy

            I liked the days…up to LBJ…when Eisenhower was wooed by both political parties because they both agreed on a classic liberal agenda. With LBJ, social liberalism took over based on classic Marxism and massive re-distribution of wealth. It’s all run by psychiatrically wounded narcissists and nihilists,who are too similar to Hitler and Stalin for comfort. Look in the White House for an example. Political philosophy aside, the lunatics are running the asylum.

          • Nasicacato

            Neither is conservative. Putting our faith in either government or some metaphysical “market forces” is the wrong thing to do. Of course I would rather live in America in 2013 than the USSR in 1988 or whenever, but that doesn’t mean that both government and what calls itself free market capitalism aren’t both colluding in leading us to what might turn out to be a very bad place.
            The answer is some form of distributism which must be done from the ground up.
            Now I have to go back to work in the private sector.

          • Paul Tran

            Yep, I guess you could say Capitalism adopts a more “liberal” stance or a “laisser-faire” attitude toward the market, while Socialism is more “conservative” in the sense the state manages the market to what it deems as fit.

            However, pertaining to the current economic crisis (i.e. the Credit Crunch) it was Bill Clinton who deregulated the final remnants of the Steagall-Glass Act back in the late 90s which created the “subprime” market & over-inflated prices. This eventually led to the bubble bursting. It has to be said that the Steagall-Glass Act, which was created in the early 30s to prevent another Great Depression brought on by the financial sector, was slowly dismantled by both Republicans as well as Democrats through the years. But, crucially, the Clinton Administration was responsible for its demise.
            While I agree with most of what has been said in the article and in other posts, I have to say government/state involvement in the market is inevitable but should be limited (i.e. as a watchdog) so long as the market structure is based on sound ethics.

        • Alecto

          I have to disagree in part with your assessment. In general, the concept of creative destruction most informs Republican economic policy. Republicans take a more (but certainly not pure) laissez-faire approach to regulation.

          Underpinning this theory of creative destruction is the belief that markets are efficient, and will always seek to deploy resources and people to their best use. Regulations distort this process. I believe you may be confusing the concept of “concentration” where an industry is experiencing intense periods of acquisition and merger activity resulting in fewer, larger participants with “creative destruction”.

          The more government intervenes to save inefficient industries, or failing individual businesses within those industries, the less efficient they become because they have market advantages bestowed by the government and taxpayers (GM, Green Energy, etc…). You may look at this scenario and think it’s “good” because someone’s job is “saved”. I look at it and see higher taxes for everyone, inequitable treatment to competitors who run their business well, and higher prices for the goods and services that business produces.

          I do not believe the Darwinian reference works here because these are not individuals, these are businesses interacting with other business or with government. It helps individuals in the long-term to have as much flexibility as possible in the employment arena. You can distort markets some of the time, but there are consequences such as total collapse. Look at the Fed, or the government’s terrible command and control policies and how negatively that is affecting seniors who have saved for a lifetime, or savers and investors. Food prices, energy prices, healthcare have all skyrocketed because of government interference in markets.

          • Nasicacato

            Neither capitalism nor socialism is conservative. The article wisely notes that liberalism is “essentially the story of progressive emancipation from the binding authority of creeds”. Let’s face it, if a creed impedes the ability of a corporation to make a buck, the creed’s gotta go. Furthermore, corporations may pay lip service to the idea of a free market, but if they get big enough, we all know that they will do what it takes to manipulate government to their advantage. Which goes a long way to explain GM, Green Energy, Bank of America, you name it. They have a “duty to their shareholders” don’t you see. Ever notice how many of our iconic capitalist success stories (Gates, Bloomberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt) turn out to be rabid control freaks? It goes a long way to explaining Obamacare and the other messes we’re in.

            • Alecto

              The management at corporations make the decisions. If individuals do not have any internal creed, they will flutter in the wind without morality to guide them, or worse, with a negative moral code. It is up to each of us to act in a manner that respects our creed, Catholicism, and to honor God in all we do. Without a moral code, individuals put their “faith” in government and its substitute morality. But, government is not “good” and is never the source of prosperity or truth. Only God is good, and to intentionally seek to cut Him from our lives as government does is truly evil.

              • Nasicacato

                Agreed. But consider this:

                The management in government make the decisions. If individuals do
                not have any internal creed, they will flutter in the wind without
                morality to guide them, or worse, with a negative moral code. It is up
                to each of us to act in a manner that respects our creed, Catholicism,
                and to honor God in all we do. Without a moral code, individuals put
                their “faith” in free markets and its substitute morality. But, free markets are not “good” and are never the source of truth.
                Only God is good, and to intentionally seek to cut Him from our lives
                as many corporations do is truly evil.

                I took out the reference to prosperity because obviously free markets are a source of prosperity to many. But the same could be said of government.

                • Alecto

                  I disagree, government is incapable of creating prosperity. It only redistributes resources it confiscates from others who produce.

          • Watosh

            Government regulations make markets possible. The market is subject to many distortions besides government regulations which is why some regulations are needed. Can regulations be harmful? Of course. Some laws can be harmful, but that is no reason to be against laws.
            I would like to point out in regard to government interference of the working of a pure market the example of Toyota. When Toyota first entered the American market with a car some years ago they bombed, they weren’t able to compete. By conventional market thinking Toyota should have gone out of business. But the Japanese government decided it was important to keep Toyota in business and provided backing, and eventually you know the rest of the story. Doesn’t always work of course, but it is a counter example to the free market gospel that governments should not interfere with the market. Toyota now provides many Japanese and many Americans with jobs. As Americans we should recognize the necessity of keeping “all options on the table” as we are wont to say on every occasion.

            • Alecto

              Watosh! Markets are not bound to “obey” regulations. Governments do not make markets possible. Markets exist independently of the government. All government accomplishes is distortion. That’s all, that is the only power government has. Power to destroy through taxation and regulation or distort with subsidies.

              Toyota is part of the automotive industry. That industry is far from (as are all industries today) a “pure market”. That term means free from government interference. But even when Toyota entered the U.S. auto market, we had CAFE standards, OSHA, NLRB, EPA, and many, many more requirements on the auto industry. What turned things around for Toyota was the Iran crises, the exponential increase in oil prices during the Carter Administration.

              Other than purely economic arguments, to me the most compelling reason to keep the federal government (not states) out of industry is that it has no authority to intervene under the U.S. Constitution. Therefore most of what the federal government does to business is not permissible.

              • Watosh

                Once again you have given me another data point in my belief that is someone wants to believe in something badly enough they will find reasons to support their belief. It also supports a finding by a study that found that a good number of people who firmly believed “A,” when confronted with facts that proved absolutely that “A” was not rue, a good portion of these people would then become even more convinced that “A” was true. I think living in a democracy encourages this mode of thinking. The thing is if you want to get people in a democracy behind something you can’t just say this would be an improvement, but you have to argue that if this isn’t done the sky will fall in, otherwise the people will probably not rally behind this desired action. Also we Americans tend to go to extremes, we end up declaring war on poverty, on cancer, on terrorism, etc. and we feel that we have the answer to what ails the world. the liberals feel that equality the supreme goal, the elites and mega-business owners feel that the market, if allowed to function without any interference will automatically solve all our problems. Of course the latter will participate in no bid, cost plus contracts issued by the federal government, and contribute to the campaign coffers of politicians in order to get special treatment, but this does not offend their sensibilities regarding government interference in markets. And people have to believe in something after all, so why not believe in some idealized conception of a market. Class is over.

                • Alecto

                  Class is over? Time for a quiz:

                  Please define, then compare or contrast the following:

                  1. Statism
                  2. Socialism
                  3. Free Enterprise
                  4. Republicanism
                  5. Democracy
                  6. Communism
                  7. London School vs. Austrian School economic philosophy

                  This will constitute 100% of your grade. Thanks.

              • Nasicacato

                Sorry to sound like whatshername the 1/32 Cherokee senator from Mass., but some form of gov’t has to exist or else there would simply be chaos. Also, corporations didn’t exist until governments recognized these entities and limited the liability of their stockholders. As I recall, they began as people pooling their money to finance exploration in the New World and were recognized by European rulers (Virginia Company, Hudson Bay Company, etc.)

            • Adam__Baum

              Government regulations make markets possible.

              No. Trade predates governments.

          • Adam__Baum

            And don’t forget “education”. The price rises and the quality diminishes, not despite, but because of, massive governmental direction and subsidization.

  • crakpot

    Liberalism is a cult.
    A cult is without reason but claims superior thought:
    A baby is part of the mother’s body despite having distinct DNA.
    Homosexuality is nature, not behavior, even though that fails even the twin paradox.
    If I take all you make, and give back only what I say you need, you will work harder.
    To end violence, we need to disarm citizens, but arm to the teeth Mexican drug lords, church-burning Egyptians, Al Quada in Syria, and all our regulatory agencies.
    All life on earth is composed primarily of CO2 and water put together by plants, but these are lethal even in trace amounts.

    In the end, it’s just witch doctors pushing superstitions to stay in power.

    “Congress shall make no law…”

  • cestusdei

    The professors that I had who were most intolerant were the most liberal.

  • poetcomic1 .

    The religion of ‘nice’ will have its own Inquisitions and they will make Savonarola look like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

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  • Malachy

    Where’s the line between social liberalism and communism? Aren’t we moving from classic liberalism to social liberalism and on to Marxism? Along the way, the state becomes more powerful and the individual demeaned.

    • Adam__Baum

      Only fools believe in the socialist proposition. Whether it’s a soft version or Castro’s Cuba, it will have deficiencies, since It respects neither the laws of nature or economics; it is however the most powerful tool for the acquisition of political power, and there’s never a shortage of politicians greedy for power.

  • The Truth

    “Absolute Relativism” by Chris Stefanick. Read it and think about it.

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