Category Archives: liberal politics

Understanding the Culture Wars…Why it Matters (Part One)

In every age Christians must consider carefully how to live in their unique circumstances. In one way this task is very simple: keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and hold on to the gospel and the apostles’ teaching. Remaining faithful does not require understanding all the ways people can be unfaithful. Knowing truth does not require studying all forms of falsehood. While this is a very important insight we would do well to keep in mind, not every Christian possesses thorough knowledge of the scriptures or deep understanding of the faith. Not all have become stable in discipleship to Jesus. They are vulnerable to deception by half-truths and clever lies. Hence some within the Christian community need to devote themselves to understanding the cultural context within which God’s people live and sharing their findings with the church. I find myself compelled to engage in this work.

This summer I’ve felt an urgent need for additional insight into the principles that animate the drastically different moral/political/religious visions that do battle contemporary culture. Don’t mistake my concern for despair. I am confident that God’s deity and existence are not at stake, much less in jeopardy, in these controversies. Jesus Christ is and will be Lord no matter what the outcome of the cultural war is. My worry is that some Christians could be swept up in the emotions of the day, take their eyes off Jesus, lose faith in the providence of God, and abandon themselves to hatred, division, and fanaticism.

The Raging Battle

Sometimes I feel like a man standing on a hill gazing silently at a battle raging in the valley below. Who are the participants? What’s at stake in the battle? How did this war begin and when will it end? I understand that I am a part of this world and a participant in this culture. As long as I live I cannot escape the conflict completely. But do not believe I should rush into the battle before I do all I can to understand why the war is being fought and how it relates to the spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).

Right and Left

The standard classification of right, left, and center seems inadequate to describe the present cultural landscape. Right, left, and center parties combine greatly disparate ideologies and interest groups to form their coalitions. At first inspection, the whole culture seems to be a chaotic, eclectic patchwork of temporary alliances of convenience.

The right and left are relative terms, and to convey any information they must relate to a fixed point. Historically, these terms derive from the era of the French Revolution (1789). The French National Assembly divided into supporters of the King who sat on the King’s right and supporters of the revolution who sat on the King’s left. Applied to the contemporary social order this mapping makes sense only in relation to an image of the traditional religious/moral/social order taken as a fixed point. The Right maintains a conservative stance toward this order and the Left calls for revolution.

I think the designations “Right” and “Left” are still useful in marking out two general attitudes toward tradition, but they do not help us understand the nuances of difference within each wing. Apart from understanding the Right’s reasons and principles justifying conservation of the past and the Left’s reasons and principles grounding its call for revolution, we can neither understand nor evaluate their programs.

I find it confusing that each party calls to its defense the same set of reasons and principles but apply them in different ways, with different levels of consistency, and in different combinations at different times. Even more confusing, the parties themselves do not seem to be aware, much less possess a theoretical grasp, of how they are using those reasons and principles. To understand the current situation we need greater clarity about the function of principles in the arguments of the parties.

The Rhetoric of Freedom

In the cultural struggle between “Left and Right,” all parties appeal to the same noble and commonly accepted principles. No one says, “I don’t care about other people. I want what I want no matter what others think.” No one lets it slip that they are power hungry or greedy or obsessed with perverted lusts. They talk about legal rights, constitutional rights, and human rights*. They complain of unfairness, injustice, discrimination, and inequality. Sometimes they invoke human dignity, the inherent right to happiness, or autonomy. Let’s explore the meaning of these principles and try to ascertain how they are used by Right and Left to support their positions.

*Note: A “right” is a broader concept than a “freedom” though it includes it. A negative right is identical to a freedom, but a positive right corresponds to what was traditionally known as a “privilege.”

The Many Faces of Freedom

In the history of philosophy and politics “freedom” has been used to designate three basic types of openness for human action. Two of the three have been adapted to develop theories of political freedom. In popular rhetoric, however, they are mixed together, and this conceptual confusion leads to misunderstandings. In view of this confusion let’s first get clear on the differences among the views of freedom being used in contemporary rhetoric.

1. Freedom to Act as One Pleases

According to John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, and John S. Mill, freedom is leeway to act as you please. Freedom understood in this way is openness to pursue your happiness in whatever way you find promising. You are free insofar as nothing outside of yourself obstructs your external action in pursuit of good things. Maximum liberty, then, is a circumstance wherein nothing external to you inhibits acting on your desires. But everyone knows that we will never enjoy maximum freedom in this world. The laws of nature, our finite powers, limited knowledge, and resistance from other people will not allow it. Pursuing maximum freedom despite its impossibility will work only destruction. Like it or not, we are forced to come to terms with our less than maximum freedom. But however realistic we may be about the limits the world places on our freedom, we may not be able to shake the feeling that we are being deprived of happiness. Different people cope with these limits differently. Some find contentment in resignation to their limits. Others nurse perpetual resentment and defiance. Still others are driven to think in alternative ways about freedom and happiness.

2. Freedom in Classic Liberal Politics

At its best, politics is deliberation about the optimum way to order life in society to facilitate the realization and preservation of the cherished values of the people. Adopting Locke’s, Edwards’s, and Mill’s understanding of freedom, classic liberal political theory holds individual liberty as its most cherished value. It aims to advance and protect each person’s freedom to pursue happiness in whatever way the individual finds promising insofar as such action can be harmonized with every other individual’s pursuit of their happiness. Liberty is so precious that it may be limited only by liberty itself.

A government administered as a classic liberal order refrains from telling individuals in what their happiness consists. In other words, it’s not a “nanny state” that assumes it knows better than you what is good for you. Nor does it take as its responsibility making sure everyone attains happiness; it’s not a “welfare state” whose task is to accompany you from cradle to grave to make sure you have everything you need every step of the way. It assumes that each individual knows best what makes them happy and that they possess the drive to pursue it. The art of politics in the classic liberal state is balancing the liberty of each with all and of all with each. The government assumes the role of a referee that makes sure the game is played according to the rules. There will always be disagreements, conflicting claims, and “bad calls.” The devil is in the details.

As we all know, however, a society ordered purely in accord with the classic liberal political theory has never existed. It’s probably impossible. Other such values as national security, religious and moral belief, human dignity, general welfare, aesthetic tastes, and prejudices often serve as the bases for laws that restrict freedom.

Next Time: Other views of freedom and political order.

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism—A Logical Analysis and A Christian Reflection

This essay is my third post interacting with Pluckrose and Lindsey, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. I advise taking a look at the first two parts before you read this one.

Today I want to address this question: Is reasserting classical liberalism the best way to the challenge the activist, reified postmodernism of contemporary race-gender-identity theories? Lindsey and Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, think so. And in part I agree with them.

Social Justice Theory versus Classical Liberalism

As previous posts documented, Social Justice Theory values marginalized identity, experience of oppression, and equity. In contrast, classical liberalism, as articulated by John Locke, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and John Stuart Mill, values reason, truth, freedom of expression, civil liberty, common humanity, debate, and evidence-based knowledge. Lindsey and Pluckrose juxtapose them in the following ways:

Knowledge—liberalism asserts that knowledge of objective reality is to some extent attainable. Theory asserts that knowledge claims are merely constructions designed to justify privilege and power.

Identity—liberalism values unique individual identity. Theory prizes group/intersectional identity.

Universal Values—liberalism measures human behavior against universal human values. Theory denies universals and replaces them with the interests of marginalized groups.

Debate and Truth Seeking—liberalism encourages debate, evidence-based argument, and submission of private and group interest to truth. Theory rejects the notion of truth as an illusion designed to support the status quo; it asserts that language is a means by which we construct “our” truth, that is, a narrative or ideology that supports our interests.

Progress—liberalism is self-correcting because it believes in objective reality, truth, and knowledge but admits that human beings can never achieve perfect knowledge. Theory does not accept criticism because it rejects the idea of objective reality, truth, and knowledge. Hence it treats every criticism as a power play to which it responds not with self-examination but with suspicion and outrage. It does not accept the obligation to listen to its critics.

Liberalism’s Rhetorical Advantage

When the positions of these two approaches are placed side by side most people in the Western world—even most university professors, including me!—will choose liberalism over postmodernism as the best available political philosophy for creating and maintaining a just society. And I think this popular preference may be the ground of Pluckrose’s and Lindsey’s hope that exposure of Theory’s irrationalism, intolerance, censorship, and potential for violent suppression of its opponents to the light of day, will encourage those who have been intimidated into silence by Theory to speak out. If nothing else, you can say, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it” (p. 266). Even though there are some places—university faculty meetings and classrooms, for example—where advocating liberal values in opposition to Social Justice Theory will get you shouted down, in most public spaces you will have the rhetorical advantage.

Two Twists on Freedom

Pluckrose and Lindsey consider classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory “almost directly at odds with one another” at every point (p. 237). And as documented in the list above there is much truth to this assertion. However I think they share a common view of freedom that animates their political activities. Liberalism and Theory both view freedom as removal of external limits that keep people from becoming and doing what they want. This view of freedom is the core value that has animated Western liberation movements from the seventeenth century until today. This understanding of freedom possesses a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, freedom negates every boundary and limit outside the self as a potential oppressor. On the positive side, the self—its desires and will—is the force that determines itself and its world and is the sole animating principle of its activity.

Clearly, this type of freedom can never be fully realized in its pure form. It is extremely individualistic and it views the self as a self-creating god. It is nihilistic in that it negates all values and structures outside the self—other people, moral law, nature, and God—to clear space for the realization of its own will. The debate in liberal politics, however, centers not on the nature of freedom in itself but on how and to what extent it must be restricted to keep it from destroying the community and itself. In this way, classical liberalism contains within itself an unrealizable ideal as its animating principle, which it must always compromise in practice. Theoretical idealism combined with practical realism is an unstable mixture that will produce wave after wave of radical movements intent on rejecting compromise and realizing the ideal no matter what the cost.

Social Justice Theory is the latest wave of idealists who, dissatisfied with the compromises made by liberal politics, think putting into practice their theories will create a better world. Don’t let the word “justice” distract you from Theory’s the quest for freedom. In the lexical world of Theory “justice” is indexed to liberation. In fact, the traditional meaning of justice can have no place in Theory, because “justice” means conformity to the way things ought to be, and in Theory, there is no objective way things ought to be. Theory’s use of the word “justice” is a cynical rhetorical ploy. In both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory the world is divided into the oppressed and their oppressors, and liberation from oppression, that is, removing restrictions on liberty so that one can to do as one wishes, is the goal in both. The difference between the two theories lies in the differing lists of oppressive forces and victims of oppression and the places where liberty must be restricted in favor of the victims.

Classical liberalism views centralized government power as the greatest threat to liberty and it works to enshrine equality of civil rights into law. And over the last two and a half centuries it has viewed progress as the advance of individual liberty and the retreat of government sanctioned inequality. Liberal politics attempted to ameliorate the worst negative effects of unfettered economic freedom—that is, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families and corporations—by instituting inheritance taxes, graduated income tax rates, regulations of all sorts, and creating a quasi-welfare state. Theory’s list of threats to freedom includes religion, moral law, objective truth, biological nature, and God. Its list of oppressors includes white people, men, and heterosexuals. It flips its prized intersectionality of marginalized groups on its head by making white, heterosexual men into the evil twin of the intersectional victim. It works to free people from restrictive notions of gender and identity and liberate people of color from the systemic racism of contemporary American society.


For all their differences, classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory are animated by the same definition of freedom: freedom in its pure form is the state wherein there are no restrictions on doing what you wish to do. In practice, both viewpoints restrict the freedom of some people so that others can enjoy a freedom of their own. Liberalism restricts government power so that everyone can enjoy equal civil rights and equal economic freedom. Theory wishes to use the power of government and woke social institutions to restrict the freedom of white people, men, and heterosexuals—which, taken together constitute the oppressor group in society—to do and become whatever they wish in the name of greater freedom for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized groups to do and become whatever they wish.

Hence both classical liberalism and Social Justice Theory adhere to a nihilistic, anti-Christian, anti-nature, and anti-human vision of freedom. The logical implication of their view of freedom is the dissolution of everything human, natural, divine, good, and right in the name of the arbitrary will of the self-defining self to become and do whatever it wishes. Social Justice Theory is just one more step in the progressive movement wherein a false view of freedom works itself out toward its logical end, that is, self-conscious nihilism and anarchy.

Next Time: What is freedom understood in a Christian way?