Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic
WHAT HAPPENED TO AMERICAN LIBERALISM?
By Stephen M. Krason
In an obscure article entitled “Catholics and Liberals: Decline of Détente,” in America magazine in 1974, the eminent Catholic scholar and historian James Hitchcock discussed a profound change that had occurred in American liberalism and argued that its new thinking put it increasingly at odds with Catholicism. Hitchcock was one of a number of writers at that time tracing the transformation of liberalism and one of the first to address its implication for Catholics.
Hitchcock said that the “new liberalism” was openly secular—the older liberals were not much interested in religion, but kept their secularism to themselves—and was riding the tide of the 1960s sexual revolution. It also had become increasingly intolerant. Hitchcock identified some of the especially troublesome elements of today’s liberalism coming into play even then. He talked about its moral relativism becoming evident and aggressive. He mentioned its hostility to traditional religion and push to make religion a strictly private affair. He also noted the fact that, despite it’s talking so much about individual rights, it didn’t give much attention to religious liberty. He said that the new liberalism itself had become a kind of substitute religion, whose stances became absolutistic and moralistic and which didn’t tolerate much dissent from within its ranks. He said it promoted a “new morality”—a term that had already come to be associated especially with the sexual revolution—and the civil law was now going to the sole determiner of morality, or at least of the morality that would govern social affairs. He said it saw the Catholic Church as the major obstacle to the triumph of the new era of permissiveness that it sought and viewed the Church as repressive and tyrannical.
Not only was the civil law—shaped without reference to any higher standard—to be the shaper of morality, but Hitchcock also said that the new liberalism was quite ready to use legal coercion to achieve its goals. Among the things some of its adherents were promoting were sharply limiting family size—no doubt in response to their belief that there was a population crisis—with compulsory contraception, sterilization, and abortion if needed. They also talked about changing the nature of marriage and radically restructuring the parent-child relationship because they viewed the traditional exercise of parental authority as “authoritarian.” Mainstream American liberals hadn’t imagined these things before then.
Hitchcock also emphasized the new liberalism’s lack of civility, willingness to polarize in the name of ideological purity, and readiness to ditch the normal procedures of representative government—“the democratic process”—so it could further its agenda without popular support through the courts and the manipulation of opinion and thought through the media and the schools.
Hitchcock held that the liberal transformation occurred as a result of the influence of the New Left of the 1960s. The “old liberalism”—which reigned from the New Deal until JFK—finally succumbed when the “McGovernites” seized control of the Democratic party in 1972. What was striking was how most of the old liberals just moved with the new tide. The ones who didn’t, like Michael Novak, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, came to be called “neoconservatives” and moved over to the Republican party. In many respects, neoconservatism was nothing more than the pre-1960s old liberalism—that is, the liberalism of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and New Frontier.
It’s not so much that Hitchcock and the other analysts who saw what was happening with liberalism were prescient as much as they just correctly understood the trends. What is striking is the straight line that American liberalism has progressed in since Hitchcock’s 1974 article. While as Paul Kengor has noted, liberalism doesn’t typically have a clear picture of where its thinking will lead, its basic outlook on major public questions was clearly in place almost fifty years ago and was bound to lead to what we witness today.
Even though the new liberals of 1974 weren’t too interested in religious liberty, they weren’t making the kind of headlong assaults on it that we’re seeing today with such things as the HHS mandate, medical personnel being forced to take part in abortions, pregnancy care centers—which were set up as abortion alternatives—being told to refer for it, business owners being punished if they won’t provide services for same-sex “weddings,” and county clerks imprisoned for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We also didn’t see a leftist U.S. Solicitor General admitting to the Supreme Court that if it gave same-sex couples the equal protection right to “marry” which he sought, it would indeed threaten religious liberty—and also intimating that traditional believers have it coming to them.
As far as abortion went in the 1970s, most new liberals seem to have been satisfied with an accommodationist position: abortion was legal, but they didn’t expect government to fund it. They also talked about abortion being made legal and safe, but rare. Now they positively celebrate it, and want government to make it free and accessible everywhere. They haven’t yet pushed for compulsory “family planning” and the like, but they hardly raise a peep about forced abortions in China. They are also eager to push for physician-assisted suicide, which all too often means forced death for the aged and infirm. They, of course, ignore the fact that legal abortion really represents a prerogative to kill the innocent just because of their young age.
So a “live and let live” orientation of sorts still prevailed in the liberalism of the 1970s, despite Hitchcock’s mentioning it’s becoming absolutistic. Millennial liberalism, on the other hand, is tied rigidly to ideological imperatives. No amount of facts, evidence, and reasoning seems to be able to pry it away from them. More, it seems as if the reference points for today’s liberal ideology are the broad assortment of leftist interest groups on a whole range of public issues. A good example was the uncertainty about how leading liberal politicians and even environmental groups would come down on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), until it was clear that the “correct” environmentalist position was to be against it. If the attitude of not permitting dissent was already visible then, it’s become pervasive now. There were still many pro-life Democratic politicians in the 1970s. Now it’s said that on any given vote in Congress, one or two Democrats might support the pro-life side.
The liberal bluster about changing marriage that Hitchcock mentioned culminated, of course, forty years later with Obergefell v. Hodges, so that its meaning—for all practical purposes—is completely open-ended as far as American law is concerned. Liberalism’s overthrowing of parental authority was happening at that very time with the passage of the Mondale Act. It set in motion the national child protective system (CPS), which in the name of a false claim of a national child abuse crisis opened the door to massive state intervention into the family and the forcible substitution of the child-rearing preferences of social service operatives—that is, government bureaucrats—for parents. The 1970s also brought us no-fault divorce, the personal and social consequences of which we are finally only beginning to take note of. To be sure, it wasn’t just avowed liberals who supported divorce and the CPS. However, they spearheaded these movements and the liberal mindset dominated the thinking about them.
Liberalism’s ready willingness to polarize that Hitchcock saw in 1974 has since become a staple of American politics. I believe that the new liberalism has mostly been responsible for it; the positions that conservatism has taken—with the ensuing ideological gulf—have mostly been in reaction to it. We saw this most vividly with Obamacare. This major public policy initiative—which was transformative of American health care and laid the groundwork for copying the European social democrats’ single-payer system—was pushed through Congress without a single Republican vote.
Hitchcock’s claim that the new liberalism furthered its agenda by ignoring representative institutions and instead relying on the courts and media manipulation certainly has become the norm in the intervening decades. While its beginnings may have been legitimate with the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in the era of the old liberalism, this is now done without limitation or scruple. As far as the lack of civility goes, it has continued and grown. One has to look no further than the outrageous protests in the aftermath of the November election, the vulgar rhetoric and behavior of the Women’s March, the violent actions of leftist anarchist groups in conjunction with these protests, and the sit-ins and disruptive demonstrations by Democrats in the House of Representatives chamber.
While the new liberalism has often claimed that it represents American ideals and resents being called “un-American,” its moral relativism, positivism (that is, nothing higher than the civil law), lack of civility and thus concern about building a community of friendship, lack of respect for the role of the family, hostility to religion and religious liberty, and unwillingness to accept any limitation on personal freedom make it profoundly at odds with the American Founding.
The new liberalism that supplanted the old in the 1960s has come to us unabated from that time. The only difference is that its characteristics and tendencies that Hitchcock perceptively pointed to have become ever more extreme, ideologically unbending, repressive, and intolerant.
Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and Associate Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Among his books are The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic; Liberalism, Conservatism, and Catholicism; and the forthcoming Catholicism and American Political Ideologies. The latter two books evaluate American liberalism and conservatism from World War II to the present from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching.