Book Review

Book review: Why Liberalism Failed

October 19, 2018

Political philosophy is rarely a topic of conversation in popular culture today. Streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu alongside myriad social media platforms generally provide more than sufficient entertainment to forestall discussions of the finer points of political theory—though, in fairness, both Facebook and Twitter routinely provoke considerable volumes of political squabbling. Even so, all of us live together in the real world. And as we live our lives, we encounter each day a common culture, the state of which concerns all of us. So the question merits discussion: what is the state of things today?

In his book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen offers a stark appraisal of Western culture. Deneen, professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University, is a first-rate scholar in the history of political thought and a critical observer of American culture and public life. Within the pages of Why Liberalism Failed, readers will encounter Deneen’s critical assessment of our current situation structured around his devastating critique of classical liberalism—the longstanding political theory that lies at the foundation of modern Western culture.

Broken by design

Deneen’s primary contention is that liberalism has failed. More specifically, in his estimation liberalism failed because it has, for more than two centuries, been wildly successful. And this is no mere wordplay. Deneen recognizes that classical liberalism has produced impressive results and that the unprecedented successes, innovations, and achievements credited to liberalism would have otherwise failed to become reality (19). Such breakthroughs include advances in industry, technology, medicine, flight, space exploration, and countless other scientific developments. All of this Deenen regards as fruit of the liberal vision that emerged from the Enlightenment, the fundamental elements of which were the democratic ideals of human equality, personal liberty, and limited government.

But as he surveys the many triumphs of modern Western culture, Deneen suggests that even these colossal feats may be insufficient to insulate liberalism from intense scrutiny. As Deneen contends, what we are witnessing in the West today—the fracturing of modern society—is the result of a flourishing liberal order. And this, he submits, is the problem: liberalism is killing itself.

Central to classical liberalism is a vision of freedom, a kind of libertarian autonomy that stands opposed to limitations or restraints—regardless of their nature. The problem with this vision, according to Deneen, is that it destroys the vital link between individuals and the institutions that separate individuals from the state. And this is no minor issue. Such mediating institutions including the family, the church, one’s local community, and sundry forms of civic engagement have, for millennia, borne primary responsibility for the formation of individuals. Together, these various institutions, whether it be religious gatherings, Girl Scouts, little league, or domestic labor, worked in cooperation with the family to form a sort of crucible for shaping a child’s character and morals. Or, to put it in Deneen’s words, to cultivate a strong vision of “virtue” and “self-rule” (37). To our detriment, liberalism’s vision of freedom has eroded society’s commitment to this process. Thus, we no longer reap its benefits.

Loosening the bonds

It is at this point that Christians can benefit most directly from Deneen’s work. Each of us profit from the successes of liberalism on a daily basis, but we likewise suffer from its liabilities. Unfortunately, as we live our daily lives within such a well-established liberal society, we are for the most part ignorant of its design. Deneen’s book highlights briefly the assets of liberalism—things we are sure to enjoy by default—but the work is dedicated to exposing its deficiencies. And as he demonstrates, it is liberalism’s weaknesses that most threaten both the culture on a larger scale, and the lives of our families, churches, and communities on a smaller—but arguably more important—scale.

Most concerning among the issues Deneen examines is this idea of loosening bonds. As he remarks, “The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability” (29). In other words, liberalism’s vision of freedom and autonomy has taken us too far. As a society, we’ve determined to remove every obstacle and to sacrifice all in the name of self-determination. One is now expected to view these “social bonds” with suspicion and permitted to consider any obligations that arise from things like familial and religious commitments as burdensome or oppressive.

Deneen claims that this is much more than a glitch in the system; it is instead, the inevitable outworking of the liberal vision. And this is his larger point. Since its inception, liberalism has depended on borrowed capital—on the vestiges of practices and social commitments that heretofore served to churn out responsible and respectable citizens. But through its success, liberalism has brought down the curtain on these practices by freeing us from all social responsibilities and commitments. But what kind of future—we may ask—awaits a society without such things? As Deneen sees it, liberal society will be ruined ultimately by an illiberal citizenry.

A Christian view of liberty

To remedy our current state, Deneen contends we need a new vision, a “liberty after liberalism”—not another comprehensive theory to supplant liberalism but a simple commitment to build upon the natural and fundamental relationships of human life. To that end, he calls for “people of goodwill to form distinctive countercultural communities in ways distinct from the deracinated and depersonalized form of life that liberalism seems above all to foster” (179). In other words, he calls for dissent.

There is much to appreciate in Deneen’s work. He writes with precision and makes a compelling case regarding the failure of liberalism. But while he skillfully exposes many of its deficiencies, I would join those suggesting there are a multitude of corrective efforts available short of abandoning the liberal order. Still, Deneen’s solution is, at least in part, precisely the correct course of action: the church must dissent.

For too long, Christians have willfully followed the culture wherever it led. But as society continues to place greater emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the value of self-determination, the church must offer a different vision. We must not shy away from calling sinners to deny themselves and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24). We must redouble our efforts to promote healthy families and to cultivate true community among our congregations. We must be concerned with instilling virtue, by teaching one another to live in obedience to the gospel (Rom. 1:5).

We may not turn back the tide of the culture, but we can offer the world a better picture of both liberty and flourishing. And we can do this by renewing our focus on the church as an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, a place where individuals are welcomed into a new family and a vibrant community being built by the Spirit. As the apostle Paul stated, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). That is a political philosophy for the church.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24