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Ordered liberty has enemies

Free institutions are the antidote to despotism of both right and left


Ordered liberty has enemies
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Cancel culture seems to be running rampant all over America, and there does not seem to be any relief in the offing. In March, Judge Kyle Duncan was shouted down by a mob of crazed leftist students because he refused to use the preferred pronouns of a convicted pedophile who had undergone a sex change in writing the decision of United States v. Varner. Mary Eberstadt, author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, recently told of how she had been invited to Furman University’s distinguished Tocqueville Program to discuss her book, but decided against going for fear of undergoing the same nightmarish scenario that plagued Judge Duncan. Stories like these have been all too common, starting with Charles Murray’s experience of being run off Middlebury College’s campus back in 2017.

Rational Americans are alarmed at these kinds of practices that shut down free speech. And conservative Christians are alarmed over the long arm of government coercion, an arm that reaches into such everyday annoyances like airline fees. More importantly, they are alarmed at the government’s encouragement (at best) and mandating of (at worst) immoral practices and worldviews, not limited to the LGBTQ expansionist agenda, federally codifying abortion on demand, DEI in the workplace, and CRT in education.

Some Christians are attracted to a growing movement of authoritarian, hierarchical, sectarian, and monarchist Christian nationalism that promises to make quick work of the radical atheistic agenda of the left. I have spent the last twelve years arguing that “Christian nationalism” is historically complex (most recently here and here), and that many scholars have reduced the term to a simplistic category of oppression that applies only to the right. “Christian Nationalism” can mean many things, especially when progressives apply the label. But a new book with a specific definition has recently appeared that provides a helpful path forward for substantive critique.

Stephen Wolfe, in his 2022 The Case for Christian Nationalism, proposes a Christian state headed by a “Christian prince,” which he defines as a “civil ruler (as divinely ordained in nature) who possesses and uses government powers to order his people to commodious temporal life and to eternal life in Christ.” Judicial, executive, and legislative power is vested in the Christian prince, and as Wolfe describes it, the prince even serves as a king-priest: “Through him, as the mediator of divine rule, the prince brings God near to the people. The prince is a sort of national god ... as the mediator of divine rule ... to direct [the people] in their national completeness.”

We must reject the idea that our only two options consist in pagan or a radical Christian nationalism.

Identity politics and cancel culture on the left and Wolfe’s Christian prince on the right have this in common: both are demagogic despotic forces. President Biden’s legislative agenda promises to take care of all our problems to the most ordinary of degrees, while Wolfe’s Christian monarchic principle offers hope to establish pure humanity and Christianity through the creation, execution, and interpretation of civil law. Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the demagogic despot is apt for both the democratic despot and the monarchic despot: “He does not ask them to assist him in governing the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to govern it themselves.”

To stand against despotism, whether it threatens from the leftist desire to establish “equity” by force or the rightist urge to enforce a religious establishment, we must first reject the idea that our only two options consist in pagan or a radical Christian nationalism. The better way is to pursue and protect liberty under our constitutional order. Is liberty ever perfect in any political entity? Of course not, because human nature is fallen. But liberty’s gains are society’s gains, because liberty promotes the pursuit of the highest human goods without any need of assistance by a nanny state, tending either toward communism or feudalism. Tocqueville correctly argued that liberty requires sacrifice, patience, and vigilance on the part of individuals looking not only to their own interests, but to the interests of their fellow citizens.

Free institutions are one of the primary ways that liberty can be promoted, extended, and protected. Local institutions, when directed by citizens who, although they are from different backgrounds, are united in common cause, extend, and guard liberty. The local church, the civic club, the little league, and the community school stand as a bulwark against the demagogue who, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 1, “lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people.”

Let us not repudiate reverence for our American constitutional principles of ordered liberty, either for the despotism of the far left or the far right. Demagogic despotism cannot be the answer to our many societal dysfunctions. In this age, ordered liberty is the best platform for human flourishing and Christian liberty.

John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.

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