He criticizes liberalism as a complete failure. But he also praises liberalism for its achievements in promoting the ideals of human liberty, equality, and dignity. He also rejects the ancien regime for failing to achieve those ideals. He criticizes liberalism for its fundamental principle of individual choice, and yet he also affirms individual choice as the ground of social legitimacy. And in praising the good social life of the Amish, who have flourished in the American liberal order, he implicitly endorses liberalism.
"The achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged," Deneen insists, "and the desire to 'return' to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward" (182). The achievements of liberalism are in fostering the human liberty, equality, and justice that human beings long for, but which were not achieved in the preliberal age of the West, because of the "practices of slavery, bondage, inequality, disregard for the contributions of women, and the arbitrary forms of hierarchy and application of law" (19, 23, 185). Clearly, Deneen is rejecting all of the illiberal forms of order that have ever existed in the past history of the West.
So how can we build upon the achievements of liberalism "while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failure"? "The first revolution, and the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism," Deneen explains, "is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism--the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals" (31). So we might think that Deneen wants us to reject this liberal idea of voluntarist social order by individual choice, because this is the foundational reason for liberalism's failure.
But, no, that's not what Deneen wants us to do. He declares: "We can pursue more local forms of self-government by choice" (41). By choice! So he is not rejecting the idea of individual choice. In fact, he recommends that we use the freedom of choice offered by liberalism to choose "new forms of community" (xv). "The development of new cultures is what requires conscious effort, deliberation, reflectiveness, and consent" (191). By consent! We can choose to consent to "self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities" (42).
Deneen observes: "Ironically, given the default choice-based philosophy that liberalism has bequeathed to us, what might someday become a nonvoluntarist cultural landscape must be born out of voluntarist intentions, plans, and actions" (192). We can voluntarily choose to live in small local communities based on household economics, local exchange, and religious rituals; and "such practices will be developed within intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society" (196). So, rather than overturning liberalism, the "new forms of community" will arise by individual choice within the free and open society created by liberalism.
What does Deneen mean in saying that the formation of new voluntary communities can lead to "a nonvoluntarist cultural landscape"? Is he suggesting that once one generation of people voluntarily has formed new communities, later generations will inherit their social membership involuntarily? As children reach adulthood in these new communities, will they be coercively denied any freedom to decide whether they want to stay or leave?
Deneen's reader has to wonder what exactly this new form of self-governing community based on individual choice looks like. Deneen's only specific example of such a community is the Amish. He praises the Amish for living in small communities organized around a few families bound together by their Christian religion, living a life of humility, simplicity, and reverence for their traditional moral order; and all of this based upon voluntary choice: when their children reach young adulthood, they must choose to be baptized and thus consent to obey the restrictive order of the church for the rest of their lives, or they must leave the community and live in the outside world (105-107, 188-94). (The title of Alan Wolfe's review of Deneen's book in Commonweal is "Loving the Amish.")
Deneen refuses to admit, however, that since this Amish community is based on the Lockean liberal principle of social order through voluntary consent, and since the Amish life has flourished within the American liberal order, his praise for the Amish is implicitly an endorsement of liberalism, which contradicts his attack on liberalism. Moreover, Deneen does not recognize that the liberalism of the Amish is their return to the liberalism of the New Testament Christians.
A good survey of the history of the Amish can be found at the website of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and in the book The Amish by Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, and Nolt (2013). A good television documentary on the Amish was part of the 2012 season of the PBS "American Experience" series, which is available from Amazon.
The Amish trace their origins to the Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Europe. The Anabaptists belonged to the most radical side of the Protestant Reformation. The were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) by their critics, because they rejected infant baptism, and they baptized adults who had previously been baptized as infants in a Catholic or Protestant church. As early as 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, Anabaptists were baptizing adults. They argued that there was no infant baptism in the New Testament, that no child could be born into church membership, and that only adults could consent to be baptized and thus freely choose to join the church as a voluntary association.
For the Anabaptists, this view of the Christian church as a fully voluntary organization was a return to the practice of the New Testament Christians, who did not use coercion to compel membership in the church, and who enforced obedience among members by punishing disobedience with excommunication and shunning, but without any coercive persecution. They saw the violent persecution of pagans, heretics, and infidels by Catholic and Protestant churches as a violation of New Testament Christianity. And thus the Anabaptists became the first modern proponents of religious toleration, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. They were also pacifists because they interpreted Jesus' Sermon on the Mount literally as teaching that Christians must love and forgive their enemies and turn the other cheek.
Although the Anabaptists accepted the Old Testament as part of the biblical revelation, they stressed the superiority of the New Testament as transcending the Old Testament, and thus they rejected the Mosaic theocracy and violence of the Old Testament, while emphasizing the voluntarism and pacifism taught by Jesus and the first Christians in the New Testament.
Because of this teaching, the Anabaptists were persecuted as heretics by civil and religious authorities. Many thousands were killed. And many were forced to hide or flee from persecution.
In 1693, Jakob Ammann became a leader in the Swiss Anabaptist church, and his followers were called the Amish. To promote a community of disciplined humility rather than selfish pride, men were prohibited from trimming their beards, and both men and women were prohibited from wearing colorful clothing, jewelry, or cosmetics. This was part of the Ordnung--the "order" of social rules governing life that each community would enforce. This was combined with the New Testament rules for church organization adopted by the first Christians: membership in each church was voluntary, but once membership was freely chosen through accepting adult baptism, disobedience to the church's rules would be punished by excommunication and shunning, although the disorderly ones could be readmitted to membership if they repented and submitted to obedience.
All of this was affirmed in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, which was written in 1632. Candidates for baptism must affirm these eighteen articles of faith. Running through all of these rules is a spirit of humble obedience, in which members must obey those with authority over them: children their parents, students their teachers, wives their husbands, members their leaders, and younger ministers their bishop.
In 1681, William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania as an experiment in organizing a free society based on the Quaker principles of pacifism and toleration. Agents of Pennsylvania in Europe advertised the attractions of immigrating to Pennsylvania--peace, toleration, and cheap land for sale. By 1737, Amish began migrating to Pennsylvania. Some five hundred Amish had migrated there before the Revolution. Over the next two centuries, the Amish had migrated across North America--principally in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, but also into over 30 states and into Ontario, Canada. By 1900, there were about 9,000 Amish in the United States. Now, the population is over 300,000.
Following the example of the New Testament Christians, the Amish have no centralized formal church hierarchy. Each church is self-governing. There are no church buildings. Rather, every second Sunday, church members meet in one family's home for church services and communal meetings. Ministers and bishops are chosen by lot from a list of men nominated by the members. These church leaders serve for life without any salary. Each church constitutes a "district," and a collection of districts in a region constitute a "settlement." Each district must be small enough in population (20 to 40 families) and area that everyone can walk or ride in a buggy to church meetings.
Although there is great variation in the social norms across districts and settlements, There are a few core principles that govern almost all Amish communities. Most fundamental is the principle of voluntary communalism. While all church members have the freedom to express some preferences and individual differences, and while their membership in the church is a voluntary decision, their decision to take the baptismal vows as young adults constricts their subsequent range of choices. Beginning at about age 16, young adults are free to leave the community if they choose not to be baptized as members of the church. But once they become members, they are subject to church discipline, and to the ultimate punishment for disobedience--excommunication and shunning, which means not only separation from their family and their community, but also eternal damnation in the afterlife.
Part of that church discipline is enforcing the separation of the Amish from the moral and religious corruption of the outside world. This includes avoidance of urban life and the luxuries that it affords. The badges of Amish separation from the world include plain clothing and household furnishings, horse-and-buggy transportation, refusal to draw electrical power from public utility grids, and refusal of technology such as tractors, television, radio, and computers. The Amish engage in economic exchange and competition, but they try to avoid an excessive consumerism. For most of their history, the Amish have lived as small farmers. But in recent decades, most Amish have depended on non-farming enterprises and employment.
Separation from the world limits the Amish participation in politics. They refuse to serve in governmental offices. They rarely vote, except in local elections. They pay their taxes, because Jesus did so. They refuse to participate in the Society Security system or in any national health insurance program, because they think that insurance shows a lack of faith in God and in the mutual aid from one's community. They refuse to accept any social welfare benefits from government. As pacifists, they must resist military service. When subject to the military draft, they have asked for "conscientious objector" status, which allowed them to do civilian service for two years.
They are also separate from the culture of feminism, divorce, and gender diversity. They have preserved traditional gender roles, large families, and marrying within their Amish community.
They do not permit high school or higher education, because such advanced education is unnecessary for the simple lives they live, and because such education would promote an intellectual curiosity and questioning that would subvert the norms of humble submission to authority. They do educate their children up to the eighth grade, so that they learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and some history. After the eighth grade, children spend another two years in vocational training at home, learning from their parents.
In the 1950s, when state governments extended the compulsory schooling years to include some high school education, the Amish refused to comply, and many Amish fathers were arrested and sent to prison. Finally, in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder, unanimously ruled that this violated the religious liberty of the Amish as protected by the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment.
Here we see how the American liberal order of protection for individual liberty has secured the right of the Amish to live the kind of communal life that they have chosen. So while Amish communities might seem to be illiberal in their constraints on individual freedom, they are actually liberal in being founded on individual choice in joining the church and in being a voluntary association of American citizens.
The Amish are aware of their dependence on the liberty secured by American liberalism. For example, one of the most widely adopted textbooks in history for eighth grade Amish children is Uria Byler's Our Better Country: The Story of America's Freedom (7th ed., 1990). As the title indicates, the book presents America as the one country that has protected the religious freedom of the Amish, and thus Amish children as American citizens should appreciate the worth of the American way of life in supporting the Amish church.
The Amish and Anabaptist tradition manifests the link between ancient New Testament liberalism and modern Lockean liberalism as founded on the principle of voluntarist individualism, by which both church membership and political membership arise from individual consent.
This link is evident in the writings of John Locke--"the first philosopher of liberalism," according to Deneen. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke cites the same New Testament verses invoked by the Amish to support religious liberty, toleration, and voluntary church membership. Locke writes:
"Let us consider what a Church is. A Church then I take to be a voluntary Society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls."
"I say it is a free and voluntary Society. No body is born a Member of any Church. Otherwise the Religion of Parents would descend unto Children, by the same right of Inheritance as their Temporal Estates, and every one would hold his Faith by the same Tenure he does his Lands; than which nothing can be imagined more absurd. . . . No Member of a Religious Society can be tied with any other Bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal Life. A Church then is a Society of Members voluntarily uniting to this end" (p. 28).Notice that Locke, like the Amish and the Anabaptists, is assuming the position of the New Testament churches that were voluntary societies, as opposed to the practice after the fourth century by which church membership was involuntary and determined by one's birth.
Similarly, Locke in the Second Treatise sees political membership as voluntary:
"a Child is born a Subject of no Country or Government. He is under his Father's Tuition and Authority, till he come to Age of Discretion; and then he is a Free-man, at liberty what Government he will put himself under" (sec. 118).
"Every Man being, as has been shewed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any Earthly Power, but only his own Consent; it is to be considered, what shall he understand to be a sufficient Declaration of a Man's Consent, to make him subject to the Laws of any Government. There is a common distinction of an express and a tacit consent" (sec. 119).For most Amish Americans, their consent to be subject to the American government is by the tacit consent of remaining in America once they reach young adulthood. But their consent to church membership is by their express consent as young adults through verbally accepting the 18 articles of the Dordrecht Confession and being baptized. Without such consent, the church has no authority over them, and they are free to leave the Amish community. In this way, both their political membership and their church membership are based on the Lockean liberal principle of voluntary choice.
That's why I say that Deneen's endorsement of the Amish way of life is an endorsement of Lockean liberalism, which contradicts his criticism of liberalism.
Or would Deneen reply by arguing that even if Amish communities were originally completely voluntary, they have created "a nonvoluntarist cultural landscape" for their children? Although the adult children are free to leave the Amish community, and some do in fact leave, isn't it true that having been reared by their parents and educated by their community in such a way that they have been molded for Amish life, and so living outside the community will be unbearable for most of them, doesn't this bias their choice towards life-long church membership?
How truly free is the decision of someone outside the Amish community to join it, or of someone born into it to remain in it as an adult or to leave?
Kraybill et al. (2013, 159-62) report that the number of outsiders who have joined and remained members of Amish churches is small--perhaps less than 100 since 1950. Some of those who join Amish communities have become critics of modern society--like Deneen?--but then they direct their critical attitude towards the Amish themselves who seem not zealous enough in their Amishness. Many of these converts eventually drop out. Some of the converts come from troubled family backgrounds, and they are looking for some stable social order in their lives. About half of the converts arrive already married, and most of the others are men who marry Amish women. Some of the strongest converts are those who have arrived looking for a church that adheres to true New Testament Christianity.
On the other side of this, the rate of defection--native-born Amish leaving at adulthood--is highly variable (Kraybill et al. 2013, 162-70). In the first half of the 20th century, defection in many communities was as high as 30% to 50%. In the second half of the century, the rate of defection has generally dropped. Today, it seems to be about 15%. One explanation for this decline in defection is the elimination of the draft. When Amish men were drafted, they were required as conscientious objectors to serve in civilian public service work for two years, which gave them exposure to modern urban life outside of the Amish communities, and thus some of them could be attracted by the opportunities of the world outside the Amish church.
Some liberal political theorists have objected that liberalism cannot properly tolerate an illiberal social order like the Amish church, because its severe constraints on the lives of its members are a denial of liberty. But against this objection, one can argue that insofar as the Amish have chosen their life, this life is founded on the liberal principle of free choice. Kraybill et al. (2013, 20) observe:
"If choice and its concomitant responsibilities are prized in American culture--if indeed the essence of being American is to have choice--then the Amish can truly claim an American identity. If choice is the ubiquitous mark of modernity, then the Amish, like their neighbors, have been branded with this mark. In fact, their fundamental notion of what it means to be a church community is based on the idea of voluntary adult membership, a concept that reaches back to their religious roots in the sixteenth century. What could be more modern than the notion of choice in religious affiliation?"
"Yet Amish choices, ironically, restrict the range of individual choice. They have chosen, in other words, to limit choice."And yet, some liberal thinkers have complained that the Amish choice to limit choice is not a truly free choice (Mazie 2005). After all, haven't Amish children been so tightly controlled by their parents and their larger community, and hasn't their education been so limited, that children reaching adulthood cannot make a fully informed choice? This has led some liberals to criticize the decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder for not compelling a high school education for Amish children that might open their minds to the world outside the Amish community. But this would seem to violate the liberal principles of religious liberty and the right of parents to rear their children as they choose.
The best answer to this problem, as Mazie (2005) suggests, is to accept the fact that all life choices are constrained by one's familial and social circumstances. Of course, our choices as adults will always be deeply influenced by our childhood rearing and by our social environment. None of our choices is perfectly free from the influences of our social acquired temperament and beliefs. But there is still some room for choice in a free society: 15% of those Amish children--and sometimes 30% to 50%--have chosen to leave their communities.
If 85% of the Amish children choose to stay and join the church, if they thus choose to limit their choices, doesn't that show how a liberal regime allows for what Friedrich Hayek called true individualism--the melding of individualism and community in the voluntary associations of civil society?
Kraybill et al. (2013, 100-101) suggest this idea of communitarian individualism in Amish society in quoting a comment by an Amish father: "The idea that the Amish people give up freedom of choice and let the community make them all the same is a myth. Granted, Amish life has a strong communal dimension, but this doesn't mean individuality necessarily withers away for us. All it means is that we have another source of social strength and collective wisdom to help make choices for the betterment of all and ultimately for the good of self."
If this is so, then Deneen's attack on liberal individualism while praising Amish society is incoherent.
I must also say that there is a disgusting hypocrisy in Deneen's position. He praises the Amish for limiting the education of their children to an eighth grade education, and he scorns the elite universities of modern liberal regimes. And yet he has never joined an Amish community, and he is himself a product of elite universities--Rutgers, Georgetown, Princeton, and Notre Dame. Does he have any plans for forming an Amish community in South Bend, Indiana? If not, why not?
Byler, Uria R. 1990. Our Better Country: The Story of America's Freedom. 7th ed. Gordonville, PA: Old Order Book Society.
Kraybill, Donald B., Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. 2013. The Amish. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Locke, John. 1983. A Letter Concerning Toleration. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Mazie, Steven V. 2005. "Consenting Adults? Amish Rumspringa and the Quandary of Exit in Liberalism." Perspectives on Politics 3: 745-59.
Some of my other posts on New Testament liberalism can be found here, here, and here.