One of the things roiling underneath the recent controversies among conservatives about the place of classical liberalism in our tradition is a religious difference. And I just want to venture a thought.
The predominant anti-liberal voices on the right are traditionalist Catholics. There is a tradition of anti-liberal thought in the Catholic Church that is as old as modernity. The prominent pro-classical liberal voices are Evangelical Protestants, some confessional Protestants, and agnostics. And I wonder if a great deal of the attitude toward the present isn’t informed by the political and theological trends in these religious bodies.
From the mid-century to now, the Evangelical movement in America has seen phenomenal growth, pulling in people from fundamentalist, mainline, and Catholic churches. Denominations closely associated with it like the Southern Baptist Convention have grown vastly more conservative and even reversed their positions on legal abortion. In their theological controversies, traditional orthodoxy has generally been ascendant. Defenders of a traditional Christian view of God’s Providence handily defeated the advocates of open theism in 2004. There are still problems: disaffection of Evangelical youth and slower progress at racial integration than some have hoped. But the general thrust to this outsider seems like progress, the opening and building of more institutions. Some of the wins against state power and discrimination have particularly advantaged Evangelicals. Their churches now often meet in public-school auditoriums on weekends. Their small groups can meet and expand on school campuses. The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop was an Evangelical proprietor. He won.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s growth as it touches the United States is only by movement, into and around. Some dioceses are growing, particularly in the American South, due to internal migration. And then there is immigration into the country. But since the Second Vatican Council, the trend is toward a massive fall off in practice. There is the massive, humiliating, sex-abuse crisis, implicating every level of the hierarchy. It has experienced the dissolution of the ethnic communities that sustained the archipelago of parochial schools, which are closing faster than they are opening. Many major dioceses are set to close and combine parishes: Boston, New York, Chicago. On the political front, the Catholic Church’s massive network of institutions — its hospitals, colleges, charities, and adoption agencies — have a public-facing mission that makes them the recipients of state and federal dollars. They are operating in industries that hardly exist apart from state funding and heavy regulation, which makes them vulnerable. Barack Obama, a president whose political career began within the Catholic Church’s social movements, turned around and had his Secretary of Health and Human Services specifically put the Church’s unpopular doctrine against the use and provision of artificial birth control into a major public controversy. Catholic adoption agencies are still being closed due to the application of non-discrimination principles. The ACLU has started testing legal tactics against Catholic health-care facilities and their prohibition on abortion.
Theologically, Catholic conservatives and traditionalists are more cohesive than they were before, say, 2007. But clearly they are on the wrong side of the current papacy. The pope defeated them handily in a controversy over divorce and the sacraments. Catholics also expect that the leaders of their prized institutions are often not-so-secretly on the other side. See how the president of Notre Dame — a priest — could not even take his own institution’s side in the birth-control debate. And more recently rejected calls from students to ban access to pornography on campus Wi-Fi.
Perhaps I’m wrong and the grass isn’t greener on the other side. But I think something of these dynamics is informing the basic optimism or pessimism among intellectuals about the current American settlement.