Many on the fringes of the Christian right are flirting with post-liberalism. Their curiosity is understandable—today’s culture is inundated by temptations that are hardly conducive to human flourishing or nobility, let alone Christian piety. Be it cheap sex or pornography, high divorce rates, or simply the general mantra to “be yourself,” Americans and Westerners today are terribly adrift.
These criticisms are hardly new, nor were older generations of conservatism unaware of them. They were diagnosed by traditionalists like Russell Kirk seven decades ago and by scholars like Allen Bloom in the late 1980s. What is new among the post-liberals is the insistence, first, that liberalism itself is to blame for today’s woes and, second, that the solution requires affirming a public commitment to a more comprehensive view of the common good. In this they hope to correct liberalism’s pretenses to neutrality and the extreme license it gives its citizens. In short, they want to replace liberalism with some new, unifying outlook that better captures and answers man’s natural, moral longings.
The most extreme solution is offered by the Catholic integralists who explicitly seek to subvert “temporal power” (i.e., the state/government) to “spiritual power” (i.e., the Catholic Church). Along similar lines, Patrick Deneen proposes “Aristo-populism” to oust corrupt liberal elites. Add to the bunch National Conservatives, new-age Pentecostals, and Reformed Protestants and it seems that all the cool kids are coming up from liberalism. No solution is agreed upon. But all agree that the regime centered on the protection of individual rights must be replaced by some new system with more intrusive powers to direct our lost souls.
The leaders of this broad coalition are not stupid and, therefore, their arguments should be confronted honestly and given due diligence. But dissuading them from their objectives will require more than pointing out how illiberal, homophobic, or un-democratic they are. Nor will it prove sufficient to point out how unrealistic their aims are in the context of the United States. Movements always begin with foolish hopes. What is needed instead are modern examples of states where similar revolutionary projects have been executed and produced less-than-ideal results. One state fits the bill nicely: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini’s project in Iran was surely more extreme and violent than what most post-liberals would endorse. But given the authoritarian affinities of many post-liberals (consider their muted defenses of Vladimir Putin, East Germany, and the Chinese Communist Party), a comparison to Khomeini’s Iran is more than appropriate. Indeed, given the character and aims of Khomeini’s Iran, it is necessary.
The example of Khomeinism in Iran is instructive because it illustrates two lessons that classical liberals have long known. First, when a special class of moral guardians is permitted to be above the rule of law, there is no check on their own corruptibility, which all but ensures future abuses of power. And second, using the full powers of the state to enforce religious belief will render both the state and its religion illegitimate in the minds of the people. If post-liberals are serious about reviving moral virtue or shoring up religious faith, they should study the tragic example of Khomeini.
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