Election Season in the Spiritually Vacant State
Acton Institute Powerblog

Election Season in the Spiritually Vacant State

clinton-trump“When the value-bearing institutions of religion and culture are excluded, the value-laden concerns of human life flows back into the square under the politics of politics,” wrote Richard John Neuhaus, “It is much like trying to sweep a puddle of water on an even basement floor; the water immediately flows back into the space you had cleaned.”Although he made the comment thirty-two years ago, the late Fr. Neuhaus could be describing the current election season.

While there is much that could be said about how and why we allowed our “value-bearing institutions” to fall into disrepair, for now I merely want to discuss what has replaced them. Everything is now about politics and all politics is now about liberalism.

As David Koyzis notes in his superb study of ideologies, Political Visions and Illusions, the first and most basic principle of liberalism is that everyone possesses property in their own person and must be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices, provided that these choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same.

Whether they call themselves a progressive, libertarian, or conservative, almost every politically involved American (and most who are not) subscribes to this foundational belief in the near-absolute sovereignty of the individual. The differences in political persuasions derive not from a denunciation of this principle but merely from disagreements over the role of the state in relation to the individual.

In his chapter on liberalism, Koyzis states that the ideology progresses through five distinct stages. While it is difficult to adequately summarize his explanation, the stages could roughly be outlined as follows:

First Stage: Hobbesian commonwealth
Example: early modern absolute monarchies
Distinctive aspect: Limits on the state are practical rather than legal or ethical and rooted in the self-interest of the sovereign, who refrains from doing anything that might cause his subjects to prefer the state of nature to his own rule.

Second stage: Night watchman state
Example: America from its founding to the late 1880s
Distinctive aspect: The focus on the individual right to self-preservation is expanded to cover property, in recognition of the connection between preserving one’s life and earning a livelihood.

Third stage: Regulatory state
Example: Teddy Roosevelt and the progressive movement of the early twentieth century.
Distinctive aspect: The realization that nonstate actors (i.e., corporations) can be a threat to individual liberty and that the state has a role in limiting and protecting against such infringement.

Fourth stage: Equal opportunity state
Example: The New Deal under FDR
Distinctive aspect: The creation of a more interventionist government which can offset the impact that impersonal factors (such as lack of economic resources) have on individual freedom. This attempt to increase individual liberty for all citizens often leads to the creation and expansion of the “welfare state.”

Fifth stage: Choice enhancement state
Example: Modern America (?)
Distinctive aspect: The task of liberalism is to accommodate the common desires of individuals without prejudging the choices being made. Because the individual is sovereign, the state must simply provide a broad procedural framework within which individuals are enabled to pursue their goals; to do otherwise would be a violation of the equality rights of the individuals.

Koyzis also refers to this fifth stage of liberalism, which takes a neutral stance towards different lifestyle choices, as a “spiritually vacant state.” The main problem with this state is that different lifestyle choices have different consequences that affect not just the individual, but society as a whole (e.g., higher rates of illegitimacy cause the state to expand itself to compensate for those ill effects).

Koyzis made reference to these categories in a 2004 election postmortem:

I wouldn’t wish to overstate the differences between the two parties, both of which represent the larger legacy of liberalism, though drawing on different strands. Using my own categories, the Republicans tend to reflect the influence of the 2nd and 3rd stages of liberalism, viz., the night watchman state and the regulatory state, while the Democrats embody liberalism in its 4th and 5th stages, viz., the equal opportunity state and the choice-enhancement state. Republicans have figured out a way to synthesize traditional Christian belief with this classical liberal ideology. Witness Bush’s speeches ascribing near redemptive qualities to the spread of freedom. Yet the Democrats have bought into a more obviously secular mindset for which belief in a transcendent God is increasingly foreign. How long this can last is difficult to say. The self-interested desire to win power, if nothing else, may force an internal reassessment within the Democratic Party.

That the Republicans’ synthesis might be an unstable one is something which has not yet occurred to its supporters, especially among evangelicals and Catholics. However, for the near future the “Grand Old Party” has the advantage over its opponent.

A lot has changed in the 12 years since the 2004 election. Specifically, the GOP has lost the advantage it had in synthesizing traditional Christian belief with classical liberal ideology because it has become too much like it’s opponent. This is especially true when it comes to presidential politics.

While it is not true, as is often claimed, that there is no difference between the major political parties, the distinctions between the parties’ presidential candidates has certainly narrowed, especially on economic and cultural issues.

Consider the odd situation in which socialist Bernie Sanders is not an outlier but the center of the candidates. Although Sanders will not be president, he is the pole around which the other candidates align. Because they are from the same party, it’s not surprising that Hillary Clinton aligns closely with Sanders. But so too does Donald Trump, who espouses a type of folk Marxism that differs from Sanders mostly in emphasis and style. Even the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson says, “of all the presidential candidates, I next side with Bernie Sanders at 73 percent.”

Why do they align with the democratic socialist? Because the fifth-stage liberalism they espouse (the choice enhancement state) requires the interventionist policies of fourth-stage liberalism (the equal opportunity state) to ensure maximum “choice enhancement” for their constituencies.

While each of the candidates now endorses the fourth and fifth stages of liberalism, they each put different focus on different issues. Where they completely align, though, is on refusing to seriously propose shoring up the crumbling value-bearing institutions of religion and culture. Instead, they each promise that if elected they’ll use government power for the preferred mix of choice enhancement their particular voters prefer.

With the election of either Trump or Clinton, we will move further along on the path of of fifth stage liberalism, deeper into the morass of the spiritually vacant state. Trump is unlikely to win, of course, but if he did it would remove the primary reason Christians and conservatives had for supporting the GOP in the first place: Because the party was dedicated to slowing —albeit only moderately, only in certain areas, and only relative to the other party — the process of cultural and institutional disorder. The GOP didn’t do much to help non-political institutions but they did tend to institute policies that allowed us room to maneuver so that we could work on re-strengthening and fortifying other institutions within society. Trumpism may end that tendency for good.

Since we will be stuck with either Trumpism or Clintonism for at least the next four years, the political culture will continue to to emphasize atomized individualism over community-building institutions. Fifth-state liberals like Trump and Clinton tend to think that authority is a zero-sum game played out between the individual and the state. Although they may recognize other mediating institutions such as the family or church, they view them in completely contractual terms. In their view, these institutions have no inherent authority or claim over the individual. They are merely extraneous parts of the “social contract.”

So what’s the alternative? The antithesis of this idea is what Koyzis refers to this as a neo-Calvinist political theory, what I would call a “Kuyperian conservatism.” Unlike the ideological form of modern conservatism (and completely antithetical to Trump-style populist Marxism), the Kuyperian form recognizes that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone who delegates authority throughout society to various institutional structures (the family, church, business, etc.),  an idea closely related to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. While these institutions are not immune to the effects of sin or human depravity, they still retain the legitimate authority given to them by our Creator and do not subsume everything into the political sphere..

Unlike fifth-stage liberalism and the other forms of political idolatry, Kuyperian conservatism doesn’t require accepting a false eschatology. It doesn’t have liberalism’s naive utopian belief that progress, rationality, liberty, or democracy will lead America to become the “City upon a Hill.” Instead it strives to respect the individual while conserving the sovereignty of the various spheres of the polis, maintaining order and striving for justice in order to create the necessary space for human flourishing until Christ returns.

In an age when politics dominates everything, such ambitions are rather modest. Indeed, Kuyperian conservatism isn’t likely to became a major force in our political culture, much less make significant progress in rolling back fifth-stage liberalism. Advocating such a view will be, as Neuhaus said, much like trying to sweep a puddle of water on an even basement floor.

But it’s a necessary task, and one we must cheerful undertake. We can strive to achieve what we can knowing that it is only when the Kingdom of God is fully ushered in that we will finally be rid of the spiritually vacant state.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).