Acton Institute Powerblog

Fusionism and Western Civ

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Pope Leo XIII, writing in the midst of social crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, wisely observed: “When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to call it to the principles from which it sprang.” For the American experiment in ordered liberty, this means in large part going back to the Anglo-American tradition represented by Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Thus I argue in “Fountainheads of Fusionism” that “fusionism is a phenomenon that illustrates a deeper and more fundamental connection between social conservatism and economic liberty.”

In a recent column, David Brooks decried the “crisis of Western civilization,” in which he really decried not the abandonment of Western civilization as such, but that greatest modern achievement of Western civilization, the liberal order. Liberty, said Lord Acton, is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization, and for Brooks, Western civilization is a tree whose fruit is in danger of rotting away. “In America,” observes Brooks, “the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” Brooks points to Trump among other populist and authoritarian figures throughout the world, as an example of this trend: “While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care. The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it.”

Now this crisis of liberalism did not arise out of nothing or simply because of Trump, who is as much a symptom as he is a cause of anything. As Brooks notes, the crisis goes back decades, and indeed certain tensions of the liberal order are endemic to it, features rather than bugs, which when working appropriately help us to strike a balance, if a tenuous one, between stability and dynamism, order and liberty. Within the larger divide, often but not solely partisan, between conservatives and progressives, liberal Democrats and traditionalist Republicans, there is another dimension to the political and social discussion that is often overlooked, the place of libertarians and classical liberals, who have so often felt homeless in the American political landscape. If we define the conservative movement broadly, to include figures like Russell Kirk as well as Friedrich Hayek, we see that throughout the twentieth century conservatism has always been a diverse coalition.

As I argued back before the Trump phenomenon, conservatives and libertarians “do not share the same highest love, perhaps, and in this way might be regarded as two distinct peoples in some sense. But even so, they must live together in temporal peace, even if they make use of these temporal goods for different purposes.” It may turn out, as Franklin put it, that “we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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