Why I am Neither Liberal nor Conservative.

It is rather unfortunate that in the wake of Gospel enaction the new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is labeled in highly divisive political categories by naive and ignorant reporters. The handling of religion by journalists is generally notoriously bad (want a sample and critique? Head over to getreligion.org) not least because journalists usually deal in generalization and have rather surface level understandings of religion in general, but also  because there is a larger narrative being woven through these markets; journalism is a commodification machine, for the most part,  looking for an angle to sell wherever such an angle can be excised and highlighted. And so, Pope Francis is a flaming liberal. I mean, obviously, right?

Simple statement. But, how true is this? Is this even a part of the Catholic narrative?

Hardly, least because dealing within these categories is just a mishandling of what Christ has called his followers to be/do.  Politics pervades, but to create such a binary opposition between liberal/conservative is both naive and highly contingent. But, contingent upon what? When we speak of contingency we are speaking of a resting on another thing, being dependent on. This binary opposition, a way of orienting public speech and action, depends on something larger that comes before it. it is not that reality is firmly and resolutely defined and oriented around these two terms, liberal and conservative; and further, it isn’t that politics is a way of being within one of these two categories.

The political life is dominated by the liberal tradition coming in after the slowly encompassing Enlightenment narrative, a narrative of autonomy and individualization.  In this understanding of life all humans are radical individuals, unencumbered selves with the ability, and often duty, to abstract themselves from the particularities of their social formation. Individuals are called to this understanding because, since it is an abstraction from outer realities and particularities, it is universal. It’s universality is dependent on total abstraction and “neutrality.” Of course, this understanding is itself highly contingent, and in this there is a sort of delusion that the individual is able to break away and enter into a total abstraction.

Humans are contingent beings, and our adoption of the Enlightenment story is just that: the adoption of another story, one which provides a narrative of abstraction and universality while having its basis within contingency and particularity! As Stanley Hauerwas notices: “Ironically, the most coercive aspect of the liberal account of the world is that we are free to make up our own story. The story that liberalism teaches us is that we have no story, and as a result we fail to notice how deeply that story determines our lives.” While this is a simplification (this is a blog post after all…), it is a fair, in my mind, understanding of the modern political system.  This is the modern liberal West, a politicization based in political abstraction, decisionism, and economic market capitalism.  And Christianity cannot fit within either one of these categories properly. Now, both sides of the same coin will co-opt Christian rhetoric in order to further their agenda, and many of those who co-opt religious language believe themselves to be staying true to Christianity, but the problem is that they have given into a very different metaphysic. Choice is the answer. Decision is the key. The abortion debate, for instance, is often syllogistically displayed with reference to primacy of choice. In either decision someone’s possible choice is contradicted. Either the unborn child, or the female, who is considered as an abstract entity who is to be granted the privilege of choosing, based on a deontological ethic, what is correct.  In the case of the Pope being anti-abortion, the reason has very little to do with this deontological ethic. It isn’t on the horizon, I would think.

Religion has, also, been a consistent commodified reality, particularly since the alignment of conservative capitalists and neoliberals with big Religion.

When it comes to the poor, it also has very little to do with a modern liberal-democratic understanding of what is right. Instead it is based on tradition in light of the work of the Christ of the Gospels who exhorted his followers to care for the widow, the orphan, the leper. There is no prior political point, when we speak of the liberal politic. But, there is a political point when we consider that politics (communal formation) is Christianity. As Hauerwas, Stephen Long, David Horrell, Doug Harink, John Milbank, MacIntyre, Yoder, and others have shown in the years of post-liberal theology, there is a primacy of communal moral formation that is found within the narrative of Christ. I cannot find myself within this usual spectrum of “liberal or conservative” because it is a narrative I eschew based on my prior allegiance to a different Kingdom. This Kingdom is of peace, something the modern liberal order continually breaches. The poor, the hungry, the widow, the uncared for, the broken, the dalit, the “illegal,” the confused, the dying, the meek, the powerless; they are the kingdom of life.  They represent what the liberal and the conservative never can bcause these post-Enlightenment political orders are concerned with domination and the commodification of persons; their priests are the economists, their sacred writings of justice are found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Locke, and Rawls; their lives oriented around false universals.


2 comments on “Why I am Neither Liberal nor Conservative.

  1. Brilliant article and excellent point.

    My two critiques: You outlined liberalism but not conservatism, and the point of the article is that the work of the Kingdom is neither. Unless you’re writing to a largely liberal audience, this seems to leave more weight on one side.

    Also, you located the issue of poverty in Kingdom theology, but not that of abortion. A sticky subject to be sure, but you’ve created a vacuum of expectation by treating one while only mentioning the other.

  2. Thanks so much!

    Your critiques are insightful and also bring up a further with the article: equivocation. I realize now that I used “liberal” as both one of the choices in the binary opposition between conservative and liberal and as the political tradition at large that represents both within the binary. So, that made it confusing, I think, and caused the trajectory of the piece to seem to be harping mostly on the

    Also, brilliant point that abortion, if it is to be countered, needs to be located in a Kingdom theology the same way poverty was. it is something I have often thought about (that the aborted represent the marginalized, thrown away, broken, and unwanted, same as the poor), but haven’t really explored in depth.

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