Giles Fraser: Beware the dark side of liberalism

06 May 2009

Few words are bandied about with such casual abandon as “lib­eral”. In contemporary theological disputation, it is often assumed that everybody understands what the word means. Yet it can refer to so many different things — connected, perhaps, by family resemblance, but often by little more.

Roughly speaking: to be liberal when it comes to economics is to believe in free trade and a smaller state; to be a liberal in the theological sense is often understood as allow-ing human reason to stand in judge­ment over revealed religion; to be a liberal in the philosophical liter-ature is to believe in the possibility of human self-authoring; and so on.

Thus, in the free-trade sense, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the great liberals of the 20th century. On another reading, they were two great anti-liberals. Consider Luther: he sought to free the individual to stand alone before God without the mediation of the Roman Church. This was a pivotal move in the development of one form of liberalism. Yet Luther was fierce in his denunciation of human reason’s capacity to judge revelation.

What use does a word have that can be so variously applied? One could argue that the common thread in all these senses of liberal is the importance of freedom. There is some truth here, but only to the extent to which we are all liberals these days. The need for freedom from tyranny is a moral given in contemporary Western thought, Christian or otherwise.

Yet this emphasis on freedom has a shadow side. Increasingly, the rejection of any “outside” influence, in the name of individual freedom, has come to be expressed as the idea that I am capable of making myself up. On this account, the values and identity I acquire can be generated by myself alone, by some act of will. Here, I manifest my freedom by cutting myself off from any unchosen influence.

It is rather like deciding to put one’s child in an empty room for all of childhood, passing food through a hatch, and expecting him or her to emerge at 18 with values and iden­tities chosen and established. Of course, it is not possible for the child to do this because self-authoring is a nonsense.

We are creatures embedded in language, culture, and tradition. The desire to be released from these in the cause of liberal freedom is self-defeating. Culture and traditions are the founda­tions from which we build; destroying them in the name of freedom robs us of the conditions that make freedom possible. This is the point at which liberalism becomes a threat to the very thing it claims to love.

Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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