Sunday, June 18, 2023

Patrick Deneen Is a Liberal. Really.

A few years ago, I wrote a long series of posts on Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed (2018).  Now, I am thinking about his new book--Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future--that has just been published.

I have been reading Deneen's writings for many years.  For most of that time, I have been bothered by the feeling that I was missing something.  Only recently, I figured out what I have been missing.  

Dineen is not what he pretends to be.  As indicated by his new book, he claims to be an enemy of liberalism, who is proposing a radical "regime change" that would overthrow the liberal regime and replace it with an illiberal regime.  But if you read him carefully, you will see that while he enjoys posing as an opponent of liberalism, he is being dishonest, because he is actually a liberal.

This explains why he fails to make good arguments against liberalism and for a truly illiberal alternative to liberalism.  His arguments are weak because his heart is not in it.

If you read him carefully, you will see that there are many points in his book where the reader would expect him to defend some radically illiberal practices and principles that would destroy the liberal social order, but then he refuses to do that.  The only explanation for this is that his profession of belief in illiberalism is insincere, because he is a secret liberal.

For example, consider what Dineen says about the legal enforcement of religious belief and practice, which is crucial for any illiberal regime that must reject the liberal principles of religious liberty and toleration.  I will point to three illustrations--his account of Thomas Aquinas's "common-good conservatism," his defense of John Winthrop's Puritan governance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and what he says about the Lockean liberalism of the U. S. Constitution as it bears on the legal status of religion.


Deneen repeatedly identifies Thomas Aquinas as one of the major proponents of the "common-good conservatism" that Dineen professes to be the best illiberal alternative to liberalism (x, xiii, xv, 46, 48, 96, 125, 131-33, 165).  Any reader who knows something about what Aquinas recommended for the legal enforcement of Christianity would expect Dineen to endorse this as important for his illiberal conservatism.  Remarkably, however, far from endorsing this teaching, Dineen passes over it in silence.

For example, to the question of "Should heretics be tolerated?" Aquinas's answer was no (ST, II-II, q. 11, a. 3).  He explained: heretics "by their sins indeed deserved to be both separated from the church by excommunication and excluded from the world by death.  For it is a more serious crime to corrupt the faith, which gives life to the soul, than to counterfeit money, which supports earthly life.  And so if secular rulers justly put counterfeiters and other felons immediately to death, much more could heretics be both excommunicated and justly killed immediately upon conviction of heresy."  

Thus, Aquinas supported the Inquisition in its mission of investigating and killing heretics.  In 1233, Pope Gregory IX had given the Dominicans the supreme authority over the Inquisition.  Aquinas was himself a Dominican.

This is part of the illiberal conservatism of people like Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), who argued that all stable government requires belief in its absolute divine authority as enforced by the persecution of heretics who deny Christian orthodoxy.  De Maistre defended the violent persecution of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition as necessary to protect Spain from the heresy of Protestantism.

Now, this is a truly illiberal alternative to the liberal doctrines of religious liberty and toleration.  But Dineen says nothing about this.  He says nothing about Aquinas's justification for killing heretics, and he does not even mention de Maistre, who was the true founder of illiberal conservatism.

Today, the most prominent proponents of illiberal Thomistic political thought are the Catholic Integralists, who see Aquinas as expressing the social order of the medieval Christian Kingdom--particularly, the "Most Christian Kingdom" of St. Louis IX in France--in which there was no separation of Church and State, but an integrated fusion of secular and sacred order (Jones 2017).  Remarkably, Dineen says nothing about whether he agrees with the Integralists, although he does defend "postliberal integration" against "liberal separation" (187-237).

As far as I can see, the only good explanation for Dineen's evasiveness is that he cannot bring himself to openly endorse such radically illiberal principles as the fusion of Church and State because he is really a liberal, who believes in religious liberty and toleration.


John Winthrop was an English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  Deneen points to Winthrop and particularly his "Model of Christian Charity" sermon on the need for the Puritans to be "one body" in their organic wholeness as a community.   Deneen presents this as an expression of that common-good conservatism of the American Puritans that constituted the other American Founding--the illiberal Christian founding--that provides an alternative to the Lockean liberal Founding expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787 (193-198).

Dineen's readers might then expect that he would explain and defend the illiberal legal principles for enforcing Christian orthodoxy that prevailed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  His readers might also expect that he would defend the illiberal Puritanism of Winthrop and others against the criticisms of liberal Puritans led by Roger Williams.  But, again, Dineen is silent about all of this.  He says nothing about the illiberal jurisprudence of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  And he does not even mention Roger Williams.

The "Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts" (1647) is a codification of laws for Massachusetts that functioned as a constitution for the colony.  Much of it comes from the theocratic regime of the Mosaic laws in the Old Testament (particularly, the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy).  For example, the section on capital crimes includes the following (Lutz [ed.] 1998, 102):

"If any man after legal conviction shall HAVE OR WORSHIP any other God, but the LORD GOD: he shall be put to death.  Exod. 22. 20.  Deut. 13.6, 10.  Deut. 17. 2. 6."

"2. If any man or woman be a WITCH, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.  Exod. 22. 18.  Levit. 20. 27.  Deut. 18.10. 11."

"3. If any person within this Jurisdiction whether Christian or Paan shall willingly and willingly presume to BLASPHEME the holy Name of God, Father, Son or Holy-Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or highhanded blasphemy, either by wilfull or obstinate denying the true god, or his Creation, or Governments of the world: or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach the holy religion of god as if it were but a politick device to keep ignorant men in awe; or shal utter any other kinde of Blasphemy of the like nature and degree they shall be put to death.  Levit. 24.15.16.

. . .

"8. If any man LYETH WITH MAN-KINDE as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shal surely be put to death: unles the one partie were forced (or be under fourteen years of age in which case he shall be seveerly punished) Levit. 20. 13."

"9. If any person commit ADULTERIE with a married or espoused wife; the Adulterer and Adulteresse shall surely be put to death.  Lev. 20. 19. and 18. 20. Deu. 22. 23. 27."

Capital punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, witches, blasphemers, and those who refuse to worship God in the right way.  Kill them all.  Christians killing Christians for worshiping Christ in the wrong way. That's what a truly illiberal legal system looks like.  

So, when Dineen praises the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a model for the illiberal Puritan regime in America, his readers would expect him to praise these laws of Massachusetts and recommend them for his new illiberal regime for America.  Surprisingly, he is totally silent about them.  And his readers must wonder what his silence means.

His readers must also wonder why he is silent about the debate between John Winthrop and Roger Williams over the Mosaic theocracy that was established in Massachusetts.

A few months after Winthrop planted the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, Williams, a Puritan clergyman, brought his family from England to the colony.  He was welcomed by Winthrop as a "godly minister."  Williams and Winthrop largely agreed in their Calvinist theology.  But while Winthrop and the other leaders of the colony believed that the government must be an Old Testament theocracy that coercively enforces the true Christian religion by punishing pagans, apostates, heretics, and atheists, Williams believed that the New Testament taught that there must be a separation of church and state that protects "soul liberty"--the freedom of conscience that is the right of all individuals.  Williams was the first person to use the term "wall of separation."  And while Winthrop and the others believed that the authority of the Massachusetts government was ordained by God, Williams believed that earthly government was based on the free consent of the people without any divine authority.  Government was to serve "civil interests" rather than "spiritual interests."  This showed the split between the illiberal Puritanism of Winthrop and the liberal Puritanism of Williams (Barry 2012).

Previously, I have written about why I think Williams was right in showing the Biblical basis for liberal Christianity, particularly as rooted in the New Testament in opposition to the Mosaic theocracy of the Old Testament.

In 1635, Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He fled south to Narragansett Bay, where he bought some land from the Narragansett Indians and established a settlement that he called Providence, which later became the colony and state of Rhode Island.

In 1637, Williams and a dozen or so families drafted a political compact for Providence that they all signed.  They agreed that each of the men would have an equal vote in its governance.  Remarkably, there was no mention of God--unlike all the other founding documents of every other English settlement--and the new government was said to serve the "public good . . . only in civil things" (Lutz, 162).  So this was the first government in the New World to be based on the separation of Church and State and the "soul liberty" of all individuals.

In 1644, Williams published his masterpiece--The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Discussed, in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace.  This 400-page book was one of the most comprehensive treatises about the freedom of religion ever written, and it became one of the classics of liberal political thought.  It exercised a pervasive influence on later writings defending religious liberty, such as John Locke's Letter on Toleration (1689).

It is surprising, therefore, that in identifying Winthrop as the illiberal Puritan founder of American political thought, Deneen says nothing about Williams and about this founding debate between illiberal and liberal Puritanism.  Deneen's readers must wonder why he did not want to defend the illiberal theocracy of Winthrop against the arguments of Williams for liberal Christianity.

Deneen cannot say anything about this debate between Winthrop and Williams, because if he did, he would have to recognize the contradiction between the liberal voluntarism of the Reformed Protestant covenantal community espoused by Williams and Winthrop's call for organic wholeness.  Central to Puritan theology is the idea of covenants--between God and man and between men in society--that rest on free choice.  As Perry Miller observed (in The New England Mind): "The individual voluntarily promised to obey civil and scriptural laws, for the seventeenth-century Puritans believed that meaningful obedience could only grow out of voluntary consent, never out of coercion."  Thus, Winthrop's attempt to form his followers into one body ran against the voluntarist grain of Puritanism that was expressed by Williams.  Deneen does not want to explicitly take a side in this debate, because if he did, he would have to admit that he is on the side of liberal voluntarism.


Deneen's readers must also wonder why, in taking the side of the Antifederalists in their criticisms of the Constitution of 1787, Deneen says nothing about those Antifederalists who attacked the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution as a denial of America's identity as a "Christian nation" (Deneen 2023, 95, 123, 168-73).

Article 6, section 3, of the Constitution stipulates that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."  Previously, I have written about the importance of this clause in establishing the liberal principles of religious liberty and toleration for the United States.

Before the adoption of the Constitution, most of the states had a religious test requiring that the officers of government be Protestant Christians, and thus excluding Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists.  In some cases, even dissenting Protestants were excluded.  With the passage of Thomas Jefferson's Statute on Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786, Virginia became the first state to protect religious liberty.

But then, in the decades after the adoption of the Constitution, all of the states dropped religious tests for office and those other provision of their constitutions that established state churches and punished those outside the established church.

In the Ratification Debates, some of the Antifederalists objected to the "no religious test" clause.  For example, at the North Carolina convention, David Caldwell objected to this as "an invitation for Jews, and Pagans of every kind, to come among us," and he worried that "this might endanger the character of the United States" (Bailyn 1993, 2:908).

If Deneen is rejecting the liberal principles of the Constitution, why doesn't he argue against the "no religious test" clause and argue for illiberal religious tests that would exclude non-Protestants from public office?  Does this suggest that he does not want to openly deny the liberal principle of religious liberty because he is actually a secret liberal who rejects the illiberal theocracy of a politically enforced religion?  Certainly, as a Catholic, Deneen would want to defend religious liberty for Catholics in a predominantly Protestant America.

So Dineen must be a liberal.


If Dineen really is a liberal, that would explain why his attempts at arguing against liberalism fail.  I see at least six failures.

He fails to provide accurate interpretations of liberal political theory.

He fails to exercise any critical judgment in reading his favorite authors who criticize liberalism.

He fails to consider empirical evidence for liberalism's success.

He fails to provide a coherent argument against liberalism.

He fails to see how the American Founding established a true "mixed regime."

And he fails to provide any attractive illiberal alternative to liberal social order.

I will examine these failures in my future posts.


Bailyn, Bernard, ed.  1993.  The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification.  2 vols.  New York: Library of America.

Barry, John M.  2012.  Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.  New York: Viking.

Deneen, Patrick.  2018.  Why Liberalism Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Deneen, Patrick.  2023.  Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. New York: Sentinel.

Jones, Andrew Willard.  2017.  Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Academic.

Lutz, Donald S., ed.  1998.  Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Williams, Roger.  1963.  The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.  ln The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 3 of 7.  New York: Russell and Russell.


Barto of the Oratory said...

1. Dr. Arnhart writes here the following of Dr. Deneen: "you will see that while he enjoys posing as an opponent of liberalism, he is being dishonest...."
2. In this article, I saw no basis for accusing Dr. Deneen of "posing" and of "being dishonest." I have read a lot of Dr. Deneen's writing, and he seems sincere. I have never seen any basis for fairly characterizing him as a poseur or a liar.
3. I admit that at times, when I have been caught up in the passion of an argument, and when values and the order that I cherish seem threatened, I have unfairly accused other people of being dishonest and deliberately fake.
4. I view Dr. Deneen as a sincere intellectual groping toward a better political philosophy that will help make a better world. I view him as "human, all too human," to borrow Nietzsche's phrase, and thus, like Nietzsche, like Plato, like Aristotle, like Darwin, like Hobbles, like Locke, like Adam Smith, like Marx, like Camus, like Washington, like Jefferson, like Madison, like Wittgenstein, like Bertrand Russell, like Einstein (in his political writings and statements), and on and on, to be fallible, incomplete, lacking, contradictory, hypocritical, and ultimately disappointing.
5. Human minds invent gods and heroes in their fictions, philosophies, and religions because real humans and their systems of thought, all of them, upon close examination, are so disappointing. (Maybe the new AI machines will soon rectify all this.)
6. There are some truly and vastly deliberately dishonest and fake people out there, such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. They are truly "diabolical," narcissistic, sociopathic.
7. But I just don't see Dr. Deneen as being in that category.
8. Dr. Deneen's political philosophy is, in some key ways, contradictory, incomplete, inexact, and not fully antiliberal.
9. But does mean he can fairly be called a poseur or a liar?

Les Brunswick said...

I haven't read Deneen's new book, but what you have to say fits in with what I felt when I read his earlier one. This is that he likes a whole lot about modern liberal society, and so it's hard to see how he could develop a true antiliberal alternative.

This fits in with something I have been thinking a lot about. It's that there are few people in the world today who want to fully go back to premodern traditionalist life. Most antiliberals instead want to get rid of some aspects of modern liberal life, but also preserve a great many others, such as modern medicine. However, they disagree a great deal on how much to keep and how much to get rid of, with Deneen more on the side of minimal change.

I also think that none of these alternatives to full liberalism are coherent, fully developed philosophies that a society could sustain over the long term.