Is Postliberalism Anti-American?
Postliberal thought is the first step in showing the American people the value of tradition and its propagation.
There has been no shortage of controversy around postliberal thought in the wider conservative movement lately. This was inevitable in a way, as the basic presuppositions of the majority of modern “conservative” politics are called into question by postliberals. The accusation of postliberalism as “anti-american” has been frequently used. One could easily throw out this accusation as an empty one, but the increasing prevalence of this characterization has presented a unique opportunity to dispel this assumption should anyone hold it seriously. Postliberal politics is not anti-American, insofar as we define what is “American” by a proper reading of our founding and history, and not by modern distorted platitudes of the Enlightenment.
One thing about America that needs to be addressed is the tired notion that America is simply an idea, and Americans are simply those who hold American ideas. If we are to say that the Constitution is the premier document in which the ideas of America are manifested into law, then we should go further, and dissect where those ideas came from. It would be quick to say that Enlightenment liberalism is the obvious origin of our Constitution’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but it is not. Edmund Burke, in his speech “On Conciliation with the Colonies,” made a keen observation about how liberty in America ought to be conceived. American ideas are not just abstract ideals to strive to fulfill, but a distinct inheritance from our English background:
First, the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England … is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.
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America owes its ideas to English traditions and customs, and are also the inheritors of English liberty. Our common roots in the English tradition are the source of our unity and what it means to be “American.” We are the liberty-obsessed child of the British Empire. That said, however, we crave a “manly” and “well-ordered” liberty that has nothing to do with any of the pronouncements of the Enlightenment or a focus on abstract rights associated with Locke. The liberty which we have is fully contingent on our ability to uphold traditions from our English roots. Without a stock of people that still engages in these customs and carries the traditional sensibility of the English, the American way ceases to exist.
To criticize postliberals for being “anti-American” only works if you conceive America to be a mere idea, and not an inheritance which requires people to carry its flame to the present. Many people say that postliberals are “anti-american” on the grounds of their criticisms of the Enlightenment, falsely equating those ideas to those of the Founding Fathers. The Founders differed from person to person in their ideas, but broadly speaking, they were English lovers of ordered liberty, not modern idealists.
American ideals require true Americans to propagate, and, in the last 50 years, our heritage has been completely erased in the minds of the people. Our conception of liberty changed from the English sensibility to the abstract one. Instead of “do as you ought,” we chose, “do as you will.” Postliberalism is trying to revive this traditional freedom and morality that comes from the responsibility of inheritance. Conservatism today operates on the abstract sense of liberty that has no respect for responsibility. Today, liberty is something that one seemingly innately has in this view of things. That puts very little responsibility on an individual to cherish liberty and defend it.
True liberty is an inheritance, a liberty qualified with the sensibilities of thousands of years of customs, and the knowledge that the good things one has in their waking life on Earth is because their ancestors built this society, and have now passed the torch to their children, this liberty is intuitively worth preserving. Postliberalism simply acknowledges that the abstract liberty which conservatives have been sticking to is completely empty of anything substantive to good society.
Good societies allow liberty to be achieved should duties be met. Liberty is earned, not granted. Our mission as conservatives should be to relight this flame of animated tradition in America, one that is loyal to God and truly American. In this way, America, and its freedom, is not an idea, but a tradition.
Freedom comes from faith, a faith that Americans used to all have. Faith is what allows order to propagate to the farest corners of society. Freedom is not merely the liberation of people from the government, corporations, or the forces of hostile nations. It is through the profession of faith in God which liberates the soul. Freedom is within the hearts of the people, and the state should serve to guard this with its life. We should not merely allow people to free themselves in God, but facilitate it with all our might through the Church, government, and private life.
Postliberal thought is the first step in showing the American people the value of tradition and its propagation. Catholic teaching provides an excellent example of how tradition can be the bulwark of society, while adapting to the changing world. For example, this is evidenced by the Church’s stance on evolution, which allows for tradition to be reconciled with new discoveries and theories about how our physical world may work. Catholic teaching is timeless, and a Catholic need only look to Christ to know which port to sail, in life and in politics.
This is the way forward for America: to look back honestly at our English roots, reexamine our freedom, and reanimate ourselves and our ideas for the political moment. So, no, postliberalism is not Anti-American. It is the only chance America has.