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Liberals, Liberalism, and Liberal Democracy

R.R. Reno

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A debate is raging within Catholicism over the legitimacy of modern liberalism. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine, stops by to help us understand the stakes in the debate.


Cy Kellet:

Modern ideas about freedom are not setting people free. Catholics are debating what to do about it. R.R. Reno is next.

Cy Kellet:

Hello, and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I’m psych Kelly, your host. First Things is a big deal. It has had a huge effect on culture in recent decades, and it is one of the places that religious people go, and in some cases, non-religious people go, for thinking about the relationship of religion and public life. It’s editor, it’s publisher nowadays, is R.R. Reno. He’s in the kind of standing on the shoulders of giants. I’m sure he would say was founded by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a true giant.

Cy Kellet:

One of the debates that’s been going on within the pages of First Things, and spilling from those pages out into the wider world, certainly out into the wider Catholic world, is a debate about modern ideas, about liberty, modern liberalism, modern liberal democracy. These things are not producing what they promised they would produce; fuller and freer, and more human, human lives.

Cy Kellet:

As a matter of fact, in many ways, they are enslaving larger and larger segments of the society. So what are we Catholics to do about it? Well, one way to think about it is that liberal democracy itself was, from its foundations, a failed idea. Another way of thinking about it is that liberal democracy was a good idea that got off the rails at a certain point, and we Catholics have the duty to get it back on the rails.

Cy Kellet:

Well, R.R Reno was, and we’ll call him Rusty in our conversation here, was in the office, and so we asked him about this debate that’s going on within the pages of First Things, and in the wider world, and here’s what he had to say. Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, probably the world’s most important publication on religion and public life.

R.R. Reno:

I would like to think so.

Cy Kellet:

I think so. Thank you very much for being here with us.

R.R. Reno:

Great to be with you.

Cy Kellet:

If you look at Catholicism from outside now, you see all the scandals, you see debates about liturgy and all that, and often that occupies us inside Catholicism, but there is actually a profound intellectual conversation going on in the Catholic world that I think is more robust in the Catholic world than it is anywhere else, and it has to do with liberal democracy, and whether or not, ultimately liberal democracy is humane or inhumane.

R.R. Reno:

There’s been an awareness. I mean, I think as I recall in, was it in the 1990s, or could even have been in the late 1980s, then Joseph Ratzinger wrote on Christian democracy and pluralism. He, at that juncture, made the argument that… and part of what the founder of first things, Richard John Neuhaus would say, that the best achievements of liberal democracy require the pre-liberal or non-liberal goods, especially the church and religious faith in order to flourish. The so-called [Birkenfeld 00:03:22] paradox. [Birkenfeld 00:03:25] was a German political theorist to argue that paradoxically, liberalism requires pre-liberal values or pre-liberal institutions in order to thrive.

Cy Kellet:

But that argument does not mean however, that any political system that a Christian society might produce will thrive because of the Christian underpinnings. There’s something about the system itself that has a potency, that it may require being, so maybe we might say, plugged in, to the energies of a Christian society, but it actually functions better plugged in than say a communism would or a socialism or a fascism would, or maybe even then monarchy would, I don’t know.

R.R. Reno:

Well, there’s that question about whether or not the liberal, modern, liberal democracy is the best regime.

Cy Kellet:

Yeah. That’s where I want to get to.

R.R. Reno:

I think the church has always been agnostic with respect to political regimes, whereas the church has functioned in empires and in city states, it’s functioned in monarchies and in obviously, in the modern era, in democracies. But that’s a separate question. The church can have an opinion about, which is the preferable regime without saying that the other ones are antithetical to the flourishing of the Catholic faith. But I would say with respect to like, let’s look back to Christianity, the Christian faith has a corrective effect on every regime. It helps correct its faults.

R.R. Reno:

And you can say that part of aristocracy or monarchy is, you could say that the great vice is pride. Those who are in the high reaches of society can be haughty, and look down with disdain upon those at the bottom. And obviously, the Magnificat is a warning and, the Christian call to humility, can correct the excesses in aristocratic society. Tocqueville worried that the democratic society had very different sets of vices; mediocrity, also that equality can become very… the principle of equality can lead to a great deal of resentment of the inevitable differences between any disparity-

Cy Kellet:

Any disparities seen as injustice.

R.R. Reno:

But I think that liberalism is a project of freedom; removing barriers to one’s ability to govern one’s own life, and that Christianity also can correct the excesses of that, it seems to me.

Cy Kellet:

Well, the way that the question functions within the Catholic intellectual kind of firmament right now, essentially is, is this thing that we have, this liberal democracy that we have, is it ultimately compatible with Catholic faith? Is it amenable to Catholic faith? It seems to me one of the most important books of our century thus far, is Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed. Everyone in the Catholic world who has this conversation is in a sense, having the conversation in response to that book, at least to some degree. It was that important, I think.

Cy Kellet:

But it seems to me that Deneen’s proposition really is no, these things are not amenable to one another, and that he writes in your pages sometimes. And then some others who write in your pages, I’m thinking particularly of George Weigel, well, their tendency would be to say yes, these things are amenable to one another. So resolve it for me.

R.R. Reno:

Right. That they’re not compatible. In what sense? I mean, for St. Augustine, the city of God is antithetical to the city of man. It’s a complex thinker, but to some extent, every, or for that matter, in the gospel of John, the world, whatever regime, hates the witness of Christ, or St. Paul talks about our bondage to the principalities and powers that rule the world. So I would say that every political regime is in some sense, antagonistic, if not antithetical, towards the true faith, because every worldly regime is tempted to see itself as the final and highest regime, so to speak; that its ends and purposes are ultimate.

R.R. Reno:

Because the state has a legitimate power to use lethal force, that’s one of the definitions of the state, is the state is that, which has the legitimate power to inflict death upon its own citizens as punishment, or to throw them into battle or what have you. If we think that death is the final power, so to speak, or that it’s the final reality, then it’ll be very tempting to think that state as the ultimate. And of course, the church is utterly opposed to that notion.

R.R. Reno:

In that sense, every regime, every political order, is at odds, always potentially at odds, with what the church teaches. But I find it hard to say, well, how could… I mean, it seemed to me that Christianity has, and still functions quite effectively in the American system, which is it maybe imperfect democracy, but does seem to be a liberal democracy. That seems to contradict Deneen’s point. So Deneen, would have to be making a more subtle point, which is that liberalism, as opposed to the liberal democratic society that we currently have, but liberalism as an ideology, if allowed to sort of run rampant, is antithetical to Christianity. I find that persuasive.

Cy Kellet:

That’s a very helpful distinction; the distinction between liberal democracy, which after all, is just, this is how we’re going to make decisions. We put it down on paper and then we make decisions that way-

R.R. Reno:

Well, democracy is a majority rule, and liberal is that there’s limits on what the majority can do. So the majority cannot dispossess me, so I have a right of property. The majority cannot send me to a Gulag, and kill me. I have a right to life, or the majority can’t dissolve the family, that there’s a natural right of the family. And so that’s what basically the theorists of liberalism, people like John Locke, what they were trying to do is articulate the limits on government power. Whereas democracy dictates who gets power, liberalism dictates the limits on that power.

Cy Kellet:

But liberalism then as an ideology or as a way of life, or as a set of maybe assumptions about what a human person is, and what society is, that is a different animal. That’s a different thing.

R.R. Reno:

Seems to me, right. Liberalism, I guess it’s underlying truth is that as creatures born, as created in an image of God, we have the capacity for autonomy. In other words, we have the capacity for self command, that I have the capacity to govern my own life, and that it is more noble to live a self-governing life than it is to live a life under the dominion of others. That seems to be the kernel of truth in liberalism. That is true. I think that Christianity affirms that.

R.R. Reno:

As we, Christianity, rejects any notion of forced conversion, for instance, and so the most important thing about our eternal destiny, is our decision for, or against Christ. And that has to be one that we make, and others are not making it for us. But then liberalism, the question is, how can you be self-governing? That strikes me, liberalism tends to assume that the great project is to remove the limits that are put on people’s freedom to decide for themselves.

R.R. Reno:

And I think that if that’s the project, eventually, it becomes like an acid that actually undermines our capacity for freedom rather than enhancing it-

Cy Kellet:

It seems to me that at least is it in part, I mean, it’s a very complex book, at least I found it somewhat difficult, Patrick Deneen’s book, but the underlying idea is that liberalism isn’t just about freedom. It’s about self-determination as the defining quality of freedom, is that you say what your freedom is for and what it for you to be free. When you are a self-determining entity, then you’re dangerous.

R.R. Reno:

Well, part of the thrust of the book is that, as liberalism erodes the authoritative institutions, the non-liberal institutions, whether it’s the authority of parents, the authority of teachers, religious authorities, the authority of moral norms throughout society, as it erodes these authorities, it claims to be empowering and liberating people. But I think Patrick’s insight, and it’s quite correct, is that we look around us and we see actually, it throws people naked and powerless before corporate power, or government power, or Twitter mobs.

R.R. Reno:

I compare my childhood… I certainly grew up in a time, the old kind of bourgeois morality of 1850s, kind of came of to age in the ’70s, and that still had some force, and to be odd or eccentric, was painful. I mean, there was a strong emphasis on being normal, so it was painful to be on the perimeter of the normal kids, but that pales in comparison, as I observed, to what high school students, especially girls feel, as their incredible vulnerability to being canceled on social media.

R.R. Reno:

So I ask, has our society become freer, or are we in more bondage? I think we’ve become more liberal in terms of liberalisms, removing of that constraint of normalcy. And that should have made people more free. But I think Deneen’s insight is that in fact it has deracinated them, and has deprived them of a context or a foundation on which to actually be independent of these social pressures, and corporate pressures, and economic pressures, psychological. I mean, gosh, the number of young people on medication for psychological problems is really what… it’s like a third now. This is not a sign of a society of Emersonian self-reliance, individuals-

Cy Kellet:

It sure doesn’t seem it, no.

R.R. Reno:

So I think one reason Deneen’s book really got a lot of traction, is people, they do think, “Well, liberalism claims to be triumphant,” and we’re looking around thinking, but we don’t feel very free. So what explains that? That’s, I think one of the reasons that the book really resonated with people; many of whom I wouldn’t put them in Deneen’s own camp, but they nonetheless felt like they had to read it and think about it because they knew that they had a problem.

Cy Kellet:

Yes. Right. Okay. So this tendency in liberalism for the human being to be, as you said, deracinated, and that’s particularly strong word, if you think of human nature as a social nature, and where even social media is more isolating than socializing, you become the lone figure-

R.R. Reno:

Paradoxically.

Cy Kellet:

Facing the IRS, or facing Walmart or Apple or whatever, and that is in fact inhumane, or the way we live, is inhumane, which is probably why we’re so medicated. If one third are legally medicated, that’s just the beginning of the problem, because we’re medicated in many, many other ways.

R.R. Reno:

Obviously, the heroin addiction epidemic and things like that, is a kind of medication.

Cy Kellet:

Pornography, for example, is medicating; in a certain sense, it’s providing a comfort and a context where otherwise, the self is just hurting.

R.R. Reno:

I guess you could say, look, liberalism is the ism of freedom. It’s in the very label, that it promotes liberty. So you could say liberty is being able to do what you want. I think that’s a non-controversial definition of freedom. Freedom is the ability to do what you want. Part of the political discontent in America, is that people don’t feel that they are able to do what they want. What do they want? They want to own a home. They want financial security. So in an economic realm, they feel more… and Deneen speaks to this in his book. They feel more constrained and not empowered.

R.R. Reno:

If you look at polling, we have a big decline in marriage among Gen Z-ers and Millennials, but there’s not a decline in the number of people who say they want to be married. So we seem to have people who don’t seem to get what they want. Maybe they’re in bondage to their own vices. It’s not like somebody’s got their thumb on them saying, “You can’t get married.” In fact, on the contrary, Obergefell meant that men can get married to men and women can get married to men. There’s been an expansion of the legal freedom to marry-

Cy Kellet:

More options. Yeah.

R.R. Reno:

More options. But as a social reality, I think people are not able to do what they want. I mean, this is the inside of the founders. They recognized that a democratic society required moral and religious foundations. You have to have a disciplined populous, in order to be able to employ the right of self-government effectively. But this is actually, I think that’s been a long term conservative; intuition so-called Ordered Liberty. But I think what Deneen is highlighting is that the triumph of liberalism and its aggressive erosion of non-liberal sources of authority, have actually made people less free.

Cy Kellet:

Indeed. Yeah, and part of that, I talked about human nature as social, but I had forgotten, but you just reminded me of it and something that you said that Deneen also talks about our separation from actual nature, from the natural world, because liberalism is an ideology of the domination of nature,

R.R. Reno:

Right, It’s kind of rooted in. I’m not sure it requires it, but it’s certainly intertwined with the Francis Bacon notion that the function of reason is to conquer nature, and to use our scientific knowledge for the relief of man’s estate, as it said. So we’re always trying to manipulate and transform rather than honor, and conform to nature. I think it’s just related to this question of freedom. Aristotle, and I think it’s a good Aristotelian insight.

R.R. Reno:

Aristotle recognized that again, freedom is doing what you want. Let’s keep with that definition, not Aristotle definition, we keep with that. It’s very modern. But if we act against our nature, then we’re going to meet resistance, so to speak. So we’re kind of doomed to failure, if our goal in life is something as contrary to our nature, because it’s like friction, or it’s like running up hill and sand or whatever the metaphor you want to use, to illustrate it.

R.R. Reno:

Whereas if our goals and ambitions and desires are in accord with nature, are nature, then we can operate smoothly and harmoniously, with much less friction. And so if what we want is in accord with our nature, we’re way more likely to get what we want. If what we want is discordant with our nature, we’re almost doomed, never to get what we want.

R.R. Reno:

This means that in a society that’s conducive to freedom, young people have to be socialized and trained and disciplined to want what is in accord with their nature. And that was a kind of long-winded way of saying that… and liberalism of course, rejects that anybody should have the authority to socialize others according to a determined and-

Cy Kellet:

No, not even parents should have that. At least of all parents, maybe nowadays-

R.R. Reno:

There’s a kind of fear that if we have a clear view of what human nature is, that that will be used to restrict the freedom of others. That’s what liberalism says. I’ve become more and more… I mean, yes, it’s always perilous to empower others to decide what human beings are for, but to refuse to accord to any that authority really does condemn young people to having to make it up on their own.

R.R. Reno:

I always told my students when I used to teach, “If someone comes to you and asks you, “What should I do?” and you say, “Well, do whatever you think is best,” it’s not good counsel. They wouldn’t be coming to you if they knew what was best, they want guidance.” And we have an educational culture broadly in the United States today that will not tell young people what’s best for them.

Cy Kellet:

Yeah. That’s a kind of cruelty.

R.R. Reno:

You decide what’s best for yourself. Well, this is a recipe for disaster.

Cy Kellet:

Well, I said that, as we have these conversations within the Catholic church, I do think they’re resonating through your journal certainly. You see non-Catholics interacting with this conversation. But I said that virtually everyone you talk to about these things, eventually Patrick Deneen’s book will come up, but it does seem to me that there’s at least the possibility that there’s some way in which Patrick Dunne’s book itself is a response to Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel and some of the things that were done and said in the decades before Patrick Deneen’s book came out, which I can’t tell.

Cy Kellet:

Honestly, I genuinely can’t tell, is there a difference in theory or in a difference in emphasis of what these various parties are saying? But there seems to me, at least to some degree, the emphasis of Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel and some others is more positive about the founding of modern liberal democracies, like the United States, more hopeful about that, if we will just engender a recovery of our Christian heritage and that the Patrick Deneen, and now I think even maybe Scott Hahn and some others in that are less sanguine about that. Am I reading that correctly, first of all?

R.R. Reno:

Yes. There’s a question of… Right. Yeah, I think that’s well put, but I guess I would try to, as I’ve tried to delve in this, some of these debates strike me as blind armies fighting at midnight. There’s a lot of heat, not a lot of light. People talk past each other. So I’ve tried to think it through, in my mind.

R.R. Reno:

I mean, someone like John Stewart Mill classic liberal 19th century. Mill in his book on Liberty sees that the best society liberates folks from social convention so that we can undertake experiments in living. So if you really believe Mill, then you would think it would be the duty of political authority to lend its power to the great task of undermining, or even removing the authority of the social consensus over individuals.

R.R. Reno:

And this helps explain political correctness and so on because it’s obligatory. People say to me, I say that political correctness or the contemporary woke project is an attempt to eliminate any authority. It’s a kind of anarchism with respect to of the moral life. Will say, “How can you say that when they’re so punitive?” Well, my view is it’s obligatory non judgementalism.

Cy Kellet:

Oh yeah.

R.R. Reno:

You have to be non-judgmental towards others. You have to be. So it’s paradoxical, right? There is-

Cy Kellet:

Or somebody would say self-contradictory.

R.R. Reno:

Well, I’m not sure it’s a because it’s a meta command.

Cy Kellet:

Yeah. Okay.

R.R. Reno:

During the 1968 student rebellions in Paris, the most striking slogan scrolled on the walls by the students was, “It is forbidden to forbid.”

Cy Kellet:

To forbid. Yes, I remember.

R.R. Reno:

So it’s a paradoxical statement. It’s forbidden to forbid, but it’s a meta statement that there’s one commandment, “Thou shalt not judge.”

Cy Kellet:

Yeah. Okay. Fair enough.

R.R. Reno:

And I think that’s the, redactio ad absurdum of John Stewart Mill’s position on Liberty. Mill’s a complicated character, but let’s just say that that’s a certain way of taking Mill to the nth limit. There’s a lot of that in our society now.

Cy Kellet:

Yes. Without question.

R.R. Reno:

And it says that we should use the power of the state. So we have hate crimes or you have anti-discrimination laws and you get the florist or the baker in Colorado dragged into court because he won’t bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. That’s using the power of the state to punish someone for violating the first commandment, thou shalt not judge.

R.R. Reno:

That’s a kind of, what I call liberal integralism, which is that everybody has to fall under the authority of, thou shall not judge and that responsible civic authority will empower people to enforce that commandment.

R.R. Reno:

I think Weigel and Neuhaus thought that that is in fact, a danger is tendency within liberal democratic culture and that therefore our project should be to constantly renew and revive the non-liberal institutions of society.

Cy Kellet:

Yes.

R.R. Reno:

That church, again, university, family, local Masonic lodge, whatever it is, so-called mediating structures of society and this will blunt the jihad character of liberalism unbound, to use that image. I think what Deneen and others are effectively saying is that, “Sounds good in theory, but in fact, politics and culture are always intertwined and that we need to have a politics that uses political authority to restore the authority of family, church, civic life and so forth, so that the liberal [integralist 00:28:56] says everything that needs to fall under to the shall not judge, whereas Patrick Deneen is saying, “Well, we have to tip the scales and the other direction.”

R.R. Reno:

And maybe not. There’s no one singular rationale, but that we need to use political authority in order to restore. I mean, it’s the principle of subsidiarity.

Cy Kellet:

Yes.

R.R. Reno:

It’s got two sides. Subsidiary is that the higher power should not userp the function of the lower power. But if you read, The 13th on this, it also says that there are times when the higher authority has a responsibility to provide subvention or to provide support so that the lower authority can fulfill its function.

R.R. Reno:

And so effectively child tax credits are principle subsidiarity. The higher authority, the political authority has a duty to provide the resources necessary for parents to exercise their legitimate authority over their own children or school choice or vouchers and all those kinds of things would fall onto that vision of subsidiarity.

R.R. Reno:

So this is my point about, I getting a lot of heat, not light. I mean with Neuhaus, in fact, I know for a fact that he argued for school choice and vouchers and things like that. Sabbath laws, or another example of the use of political authority to support the work of church communities. Some of my pastor friends say that one of the big threats right now is the invasion of Sunday mornings by sports leagues.

R.R. Reno:

Practices and games on Sundays mornings. And given, we Americans are these complete maniacs for sports stuff, this can really erode the church’s influence over young people. So again, I think this is part of what Deneen’s, to take the Deneen’s way of thinking and put it in practical terms. Well, should the city council establish what used to be called blue laws, sabbath laws that restrict sports leagues to Saturday and Sunday after 02:00?

R.R. Reno:

I mean, obviously this cannot be a violation of our constitutional order because we had these laws 200 years but the last two generations has seen the recession of any kind of will to impose those laws so those laws were repealed. So I see Deneen in this conflict, turning on a certain kind of limited government skepticism like, “Whoa, we start going down that route a and the secularists are going to get hold of it and really use the power of the state even more to impose their view.”

R.R. Reno:

Whereas I think the Deneen’s view is part of the state is already doing that, the singular commandment, thou shall not judge, so we need to enter into this political debate and propose, moderate, but significant uses of political authority to buttress-

Cy Kellet:

Those mediating institutions.

R.R. Reno:

Those mediating institutions. Like I said, I find myself siding with Deneen on that. I mean, the rhetoric, it can be overblown. While liberalism failed, I don’t think liberalism… I mean, I don’t think our constitutional system, I actually think it works actually pretty well. I mean, all the turmoil around the 2020 election and you got to look back and think, “You know, the founders, they weren’t stupid guys.” I mean, they kind of designed a system that’s… It works really surprisingly well.

Cy Kellet:

Yeah.

R.R. Reno:

I have no interest in-

Cy Kellet:

In seeing it as a thing of the past that it has in fact failed.

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. I don’t think-

Cy Kellet:

To see that its history is over.

R.R. Reno:

The problem is, is that our ruling consensus has become overdetermined by a singular emphasis on liberalism. I think liberalism.

Cy Kellet:

Ah, yeah.

R.R. Reno:

Liberalism is really bad when it’s a noun. Liberal is not good as a noun, but it’s very good as a adjective. A liberal democracy, a liberal Catholic. I would like to think that in some respects I’m a liberal Catholic. Capacious with respect to those who disagree with me, willing to listen even though I think a person is mistaken and wrong, according those who disagree with me room in our society to live in the way that they think is right.

R.R. Reno:

I think these are liberal qualities. But if I’m a liberal, if I turn it into a noun and make it, “What am I loyal to?” “I’m loyal to liberalism,” then I become an activist trying to pass laws so that the more Mormons can’t socialize their children into whatever.

Cy Kellet:

Exactly.

R.R. Reno:

You know what I’m saying?

Cy Kellet:

Yeah, “We’re going to close Catholic schools in Oregon,” as they tried to do.

R.R. Reno:

Yes. I think again, why liberalism failed, that as an -ism, liberalism has a trajectory towards intolerance, it seems to me. Because it’s kind of, monistic. Freedom is the only thing that we cherish when paradoxically, we can’t be free unless we cherish things other than freedom,

Cy Kellet:

How do you end up at a society that is not constantly over negotiating then over things that are really not negotiable, like killing children? You see what I’m saying? If we’re-

R.R. Reno:

Well, that is not negotiable, but the question of restrictions on commerce on Sunday, that is negotiable. I mean, in other words, there are people in Berkeley, California, who it’s a very secular place, but there may be liberals in Berkeley who worry about the commerce’s invasion of everything.

R.R. Reno:

I certainly know Jewish allies who would like there to be a Sabbath and given that’s a Christian nation, that’s going to be on Sunday, they would prefer that to what we have right now. I mean, whether we have a Christmas crush in the city square, again, these are things we can negotiate about.

R.R. Reno:

Whether or not high school seniors should be required to take a course in philosophy to graduate that’s up to negotiation. Whether or not they should have obligatory Bible class, biblical literacy. I mean our constitutional system, separation of church and state, we can’t have religious instruction, but the Bible is a-

Cy Kellet:

Pretty basic world literature.

R.R. Reno:

It is really basic world literature. It’s a touchstone for Western civilization and the idea that every high school student in America should have a working knowledge of some of the major books of the Bible strikes me as a perfectly sensible thing. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian to think that’s a good idea, so that’s negotiable.

R.R. Reno:

I think that we go down a long list of things where compromises can be made and agreements can be reached. Will they ever be finally settled? No. Welcome to political life. Yeah. T.S. Elliott said, “No culture war has ever finally lost because no culture war has ever finally won.”

Cy Kellet:

Which is a terrifying thought, but also an invigorating one.

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. But I think, to your point about the question of life, I mean, you can’t have a society where it’s okay to kill innocent people.

Cy Kellet:

No.

R.R. Reno:

Or to enslave people. So there are these intrinsically evil acts that are not open to compromise and negotiation, but we should never imagine that. The problem with liberals is that they have a tendency to do find their own policy preferences as part of the tablet of the 10 commandments. The new 10 commandments and they won’t broke any compromise or at least they pretend not to.

Cy Kellet:

Well, often I find myself reading these materials, some of which are in your publication, First Things and thinking, “I’m not exactly sure what the distinctions are.” I really appreciate your help in helping to make those clear distinctions.

R.R. Reno:

I mean, I think the distinction between, I think George Weigel and Patrick and other, Deneen, maybe, but other so-called integralists is that George certainly wants a renewal of pre liberal institutions and authorities, but he wants it to be grassroots. The integralists say, “This is a naive view about the interaction of politics and culture and there needs to be a political program for the renewing these authorities.”

R.R. Reno:

And this gives, a certain kind of conservative the heebee-jeebees because it means empowering the state to take action. But I think we can take state action. We do all the time with respect to everything and many things in our society. But altering tax credits to try to promote marriage and family doesn’t strike me as running the risk of coercion, which I think a liberal…

R.R. Reno:

Maybe I’m a liberal integralist. Remember liberal can be used as an adjective. I probably am. I probably am a liberal integralist in the sense that, the argument that the liberals make is, every society has to have some vision of man’s final end. So liberal neutrality is really the vision of man’s final end is to decide what his final end is.

Cy Kellet:

Yeah. Exactly.

R.R. Reno:

Right. So it’s this open-ended emptiness, and I think man’s final end is to know and love God. If you believe that man’s final end is know and love God, then as a legislator, you of course are going to try to encourage the possibility that people will come to know and love God.

R.R. Reno:

Now if you’re a liberal integralist, you have a lot of inbred suspicion of the power of government to achieve the ends that it proclaims to achieve. So if we say our goal is to bring people to know and love God, and we use the power of government to do it, it’s very easy for that to get co-opted by base motives, so you are very careful.

R.R. Reno:

And then secondly, you can be a liberal by also that core notion that whatever we do to encourage it should be an encouragement of people’s free affirmation of things. Every parent knows that you can’t raise your children in the church and make them believe. In fact, sometimes if you try too hard, it’ll backfire.

Cy Kellet:

Exactly. Right. Yeah.

R.R. Reno:

So you can encourage. To fail, to bring your children to church is to guarantee almost that they won’t. And we live in a liberal culture that does that. It says that it would be wrong. I mean, I know people, secular people, who say that, “Do you take your children to church?” “Oh no. We want to give them the freedom to make up their own mind when they’re adults.”

R.R. Reno:

But that guarantees that they won’t. So these kinds of intuitions that we have about the limits of what authority can do will inform our sense of, to what extent we can use political authority to achieve good ends.

Cy Kellet:

And it does seem that these Catholic thinkers are contributing to a wider discussion about the purpose of government, purposes of economies and all that and it’s one that your publication, First Things, founded by Richard John Neuhaus and the journal of Religion And Public Life is contributing to greatly. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

R.R. Reno:

Thanks.

Cy Kellet:

Congratulations on just the continued success of the magazine.

R.R. Reno:

Thank you.

Cy Kellet:

Just on a personal note, back in the late 90s, my dad bought me a subscription to First Things and that subscription has never lapsed in the year since. It’s meant a great deal to me, this journal, as it has to many other people. It’s not a journal where you agree with everything that is printed. It’s a journal where you are provoked to think more deeply about what your assumptions were, and it’s really a beautiful journal in that regard.

Cy Kellet:

In recent decades, I have really been struck by this debate, this ongoing debate, and it’s various dimensions about, just how much can Christianity, in particular Catholic Christianity be accommodated to the assumptions and the practices of the modern world? Those assumptions and practices that are so often defended as almost being the end of history as Francis Fukuyama said, but they’re not the end of history.

Cy Kellet:

Liberal democracy is not the end of history. History goes on. there’s more to debate and there’s better that we can do. So I’m very grateful that we got to have this conversation with Rusty Reno. Much thanks to all those people who put out this very fine journal, First Things. If you’d like to get in touch with us about this episode or any other episode, maybe a future episode, you’d like us to do, shoot us an email, [email protected]

Cy Kellet:

If you’re willing, please support us financially. It does take money to do what we do here. givecatholic.com is where you can support this conversation. If you’re listening on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or one of the other podcast services, don’t forget to like and subscribe so you’ll be notified when new episodes are available.

Cy Kellet:

And we’re growing on YouTube. We’re very grateful for that. Particularly Zach is very grateful for that because is job kind of depends on that, so if you wouldn’t mind subscribing and hitting that little bell down there, you’ll be notified when new episodes are available and Zach can keep his job. I’m Cy Kellet. See you next time. God willing right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

 

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