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Religion Is Not Incompatible With Liberalism: An Interview with Deirdre McCloskey
A free society requires love and an authoritarian society kills love
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom.
Deirdre McCloskey is probably my favorite contemporary liberal scholar. Her work ranges widely across disciplines, it's always fascinating, and builds its defense of free markets and the open society in a deeply humane and compassionate fashion. I've talked with her on podcasts before, but today is a little different. Our topic isn't economics but religion.
Deirdre is a committed Anglican and her next book sets out the case that religious faith is an important component of a thriving liberal society and that those who think Christianity points in a more reactionary, illiberal direction get Christianity wrong.
A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: The place of religion, religious belief, and religiously motivated politics can be a little bit odd in a liberal, pluralistic society where the metaphysical claims that drive a particular set of religious beliefs might not be widely shared but can still be motivating of political goals. Given all that, what is the place of religious faith within a liberal order where one's faith might not be universal?
Deirdre McCloskey: Well, the conventional, straightforward opinion is that of the Blessed Adam Smith, namely that disestablishment is the correct way to go; separation of church and state, and I certainly agree with that. As it worked out in Europe in the 18th century, that was one of the main paths to liberalism. Although bear in mind that the Anglican Church was the established religion of England, and by established, I mean it was supported by the state. Whoever you were, you paid a tithe to the local church, whether or not you were Jewish or anything else.
Separation of church and state is crucial. You can see in earlier Christianity and in Islam and indeed now in Israel that the mixing of church and state can produce terrible results. From 1744, the House of Saud in Arabia was linked to Islam so tightly that it had the result it has in Saudi Arabia. Then, of course, obviously, Iran is another example, but so too was earlier Christianity.
Oddly enough, a country like Scotland had John Knox, a ferocious Calvinist who dominated Presbyterianism in Scotland in the 16th century, 16th and 17th for that matter. Yet Scotland became this beacon of modern liberalism. There's another point, which is that religion is inevitable. I don't mean belief in God necessarily, but I mean a belief often uninspected in some sort of transcendence. That too can be dangerous.
The nation, the dictatorship of the proletariat, social engineering, socialism itself, even science can have this pernicious effect — you can think of all kinds of examples of science taken as a religion and then aligned with the state sometimes has the same evil effects of theism aligned with the state.
“Separation of church and state is crucial. You can see in earlier Christianity and in Islam and indeed now in Israel that the mixing of church and state can produce terrible results. From 1744, the House of Saud in Arabia was linked to Islam so tightly that it had the result it has in Saudi Arabia. Then, of course, obviously, Iran is another example, but so too was earlier Christianity.”
Aaron: The focus there is on the state and the state as either established religion or motivated by a particular set of religion, but there is also the question of religious faith and the individual liberal citizen. Because if you are participating in the polity, you are either asking the state to do things, you're asking it to respect certain things, or you're asking other people that you share this national status with to behave in certain ways, restrict their behavior in certain ways. You're basing that upon a set of religious beliefs as opposed to freestanding philosophical beliefs, by which I mean, freestanding philosophical beliefs are not as freestanding as people make them out to be —
Deirdre: That's my point. That's point number two.
Aaron: How do we square the issue of, "You ought to behave in this way because I believe the following religious claims, and I say I shouldn't behave in that way because I don't accept those"?
Deirdre: I know. Again, it's extremely clear in modern Israel. Indeed in the early decades of the state of Israel, the "religion" was socialism. Now, since the balance of power resides with these extreme versions of Judaism, its theistic convictions are, "You're violating the 112th commandment in the Torah."
I want to emphasize that second point, that there are faiths that behave-- and then this is a very conventional idea. It's not some really genius idea of Deirdre, but there are faiths of a completely secular sort that function the same way. Certainly, it's true in the American case.
As an old friend of mine, an economic historian pointed out a long time ago, Americans have managed to sustain-- managed to have two ideas that contradict each other in their head at the same time. One is, don't tread on me, I'm a liberated individual. I get to say what I have to do. The other is, you neighbor, you've got to do what I say. That's been true, as John pointed out, from the founding of the United States, in congregationalist Puritan Massachusetts.
There was both. Right from the early 17th century, there was a constant tension between the two. I argue in the book that a version of liberalism, somewhat extreme many would say, is consistent with Christianity properly understood.
Aaron: Let's dig into that "properly understood" because there is where I think a lot of the disagreement is. One of the things that we have seen in the last several years is the rise of a-- or at least centering in kind of the national discourse and prominence of a particularly anti-liberal form of Christianity, and it has an intellectual version, which is say, Catholic Integralism.
It has almost anti-intellectualism in White Christian nationalism, but both of them tend to agree that Christianity, as they understand it, pushes back very hard against the deeply liberal society, the dynamic open society that you are arguing for.
Deirdre: Very much so. I did a review of Patrick Deneen who's a conservative Catholic, a book called Why Liberalism Failed. My review was entitled Why The Critics of Liberalism Failed.
A month or so ago in Harper's Magazine, Patrick and I debated along with Frank Fukuyama and Cornel West on the future of liberalism. I said to Patrick, "What's your alternative?'' What sort of society would we have if there hadn't been the liberty movement since the 18th century?" In my view, it would be a 17th-century nightmare. I said to Patrick, "You want to move forward into the 17th century."
By the way, there's also an anarchist or anarcho-capitalist extreme version of this. I'm forgetting his name [Gary North] but he was among the Austrians at Auburn, died a couple of years ago, and was a Protestant, but wanted to set up a theocracy which I find just “ugh”. Yes, these movements, it's rather similar to—now, this makes what I'm calling point number two again, it's rather similar to the atheism, atheistic faith in communism, and the drift away in mildly socialist countries like Sweden, away from churches.
The churches in Sweden and much of Europe now are empty. I don't believe that's necessary or even obvious. The reason they're empty is often that there are substitute faiths. For example, in Sweden, the substitute faith is environmentalism. What's-her-name [Greta Thunberg] is a good extreme example of this.
In any case, there's a conviction, which the new atheists (so-called) stress all the time and delight in pointing out that Christianity has resulted in many terrible pogroms and crusades and other evils and inquisitions. You can see why a modern person declares herself to be anti-religious because her version of religion is simple-minded, the Baltimore Catechism and the nuns to enforce it.
I say it doesn't have to be simple-minded. It can be my wonderful Anglicanism with markets, with what I argue is that the theological debates about the liberty of the will are paralleled by debates about liberty in markets.
Aaron: There's a ton to unpack there and I just have all of these follow-up questions that lead in different directions. I'm not sure which to ask first, but let me ask what I hope is a short and clarifying point. When you talk about religion in this way and the rise of secularism as something we shouldn't necessarily be excited about, you talk about the empty churches. Does religion in the positive sense that you mean it, need or entail institutions? What we've seen in the U.S. is a radical decline in church attendance, a rise of people who say they’re non-religious but they say they’re spiritual or they have religious things, but it's becoming increasingly non-institutional.
Deirdre: I've always found that to be a soft-minded way of talking, although a lot of people talk this way. In fact, there's a good deal of controversy about whether there has been a decline of even church attendance. In Brazil, once a solidly Catholic country, one-third of the population are now evangelical Protestants. A lot of the support for Bolsonaro in Brazil as for Trump in the United States comes from evangelicals who go to church every Sunday and probably more.
We tend to look at it from our little perspective, but Korea is a very Christian country now and once was Buddhist or Taoist something. I wouldn't put too much emphasis on this claim of declining church attendance and secularization, particularly because of point two that there are spiritual substitutes for the transcendent, the nation being one of the obvious ones.
It's like sports teams. You support the Chicago Cubs and that becomes very much a part of your identity. It's like a religion. People laugh about it being a religion, but I know people whose whole lives are tied up in the Cubs. Those poor sad people.
Aaron: Going back to what you said in your debate with Deneen, among others in Harper's, is Deneen wrong because the kind of religiously motivated illiberalism he has in mind would produce results in the world that are far worse than what he imagines them to be, that basically illiberalism doesn't work? Or is he wrong because he's getting Christianity wrong, that he thinks Christianity points at this, but it actually points at what you have in mind?
Deirdre: I think I would say that's a very nice way of expressing it. I say both, he makes both mistakes. The clericalism you might call it, that he's in favor of, and a lot of Catholic social teaching folks are in favor of, in my opinion, has a hideous outcome. Patrick wants women to go back into the kitchen and he actually does—it's like the Nazi formula, "Church, Children, and Kitchen". The other's true too—I've lost track of which your other interesting pair is. One is that this clericalism leads to a hideous society.
Aaron: The other is just taking the core beliefs of Christianity. Does Christianity point to that—even if that world worked, would it stand.
Deirdre: My answer is an emphatic and lengthy '“no.” I believe obviously there's a version of Christianity or Judaism or Islam that points this way, to this authoritarianism or hierarchies of men and women, blah, blah, blah, but there's the faith, the love gospel of Jesus does not point this way in my opinion.
In progressive versions—mildly progressive, I'll say, they're not necessarily socialists, but a lot of my Anglican or Episcopalian co-religionists are just nice people. Not all of them, some of them are not so nice, but most of them, when they're in church especially, they're on their good behavior. They perform a Christianity which is generous and tolerant and open to argument, curious, scholarly. We Anglicans, especially in the English-speaking world, are notorious for having book discussion groups. We're very bookish.
Aaron: The ultimate argument then, is it that Christianity, rightly understood, is this religion of love and that love manifests as equal respect and dignity for others?
Deirdre: This is what irritates my friends. It results in a market society, that market societies, not top-down coerced economies, are fit with the gospel of love. There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends.
Aaron: Yes. That fits with my frustration that I often have with my friends on the progressive left or even the Marxists.
Deirdre: I have lots of friends, by the way, having been one of them myself, I can understand their emotions and some of their alleged thoughts. I still have very many socialist friends.
“Market societies, not top-down coerced economies, fit with the gospel of love. There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends.”
Aaron: If I'm going to oversimplify, one way to distinguish the hard right, the Deneen style, is I think the actual motivations and the ends that they aim at are morally corrupt in a lot of ways.
Deirdre: Who are "they"?
Aaron: They being the hard right, Deneen style. The world that Deneen wants is morally bad. The left tends to be much more laudable in their goals, motivations, and values but the underlying frustration that I have is I think, seeing the way that you operationalize that sense of love, that sense of fellow feeling is through the state, is the state is how we give to each other.
Deirdre: That's exactly right. Another person in this four-person conversation we had in Harper's, which was then published in the magazine, was this wonderful man who I hadn't met before, Cornel West, who truly—everyone who knows Cornel knows that he's a sweetie pie. He's a very nice man and very generous, open, and loving.
He comes up to me, he's never met me before. He says, "Oh, Deirdre." He hugs me. He's a socialist and he knows that I'm not. I'm a liberal, and he's willing to engage with Patrick, who was once a colleague of his at Princeton. He is willing to engage with me or Frank Fukuyama in an open spirited way, unlike Patrick Deneen (who was kind of nasty, to tell you the truth) but you're right. Cornel's premises about how to help the poor are just completely wrong.
He wants to help the poor by giving them more money, by coercing other people to do things that he thinks will help the poor. I'll take a conventional example, the minimum wage, which screws very poor people. That's not the only one. He would surely believe, as so many on the left, even the mild left, like Biden, that protectionism, international trade restrictions are good for poor people. No, they're not. They're terrible for poor people.
I expect that Cornel would assume that occupational licensing, which is a terribly oppressive burden on poor people, is just a fine idea. This is even a guy, he's Black, of course, who must realize that making people who braid hair for a living get a state license is really a nasty thing to do to poor people.
As you said, it's out of the sweetest of motives, that come some really nasty results. Zoning, trade unions. I'm always the only person in the room who could become a union electrician in the state of Michigan. If this academic, public intellectual thing of mine doesn't work out, I'm going to go be an apprentice electrician because my grandfather, my uncle Joe and my cousin Phil, were all union electricians in Michigan. That's the only way you get to be a union electrician. Sorry, you can't. These are terrible things, but that's what they think are good.
Aaron: Let me pick up on this idea of love in a liberal society and the necessity or centrality of that because a lot of people on our side— free market economics kinds of people tend not to make love—a part of their argument, their argument is either pure utility or pure self-interest. That self-interest coupled with toleration are the motivating values of a commercial society.
Deirdre: By the way, their third characteristic is that they're all atheists, sometimes vocal atheists. Who's that fellow? If he didn't exist, he'd have to be invented at George Mason, the economist who takes exactly this line. You're talking about a hard-nosed libertarian line, but he's also an atheist. I forget, he's a professor at George Mason.
Aaron: It's interesting you bringing this up because in my own work, my project lately-- I am an atheist, but I am a also very committed Buddhist. Most Buddhists are…
Deirdre: I understand that Buddhism isn't like Abrahamic—yes, I understand that. It's not necessarily theistic.
Aaron: Right. One of my recent projects has been making the case—in the Buddhist faith or philosophy, there's what are called the four sublime attitudes, the Brahma-viharas that you cultivate. Among those are loving kindness or loving friendliness, which maps on, I think, to a lot to love in the marketplace that you are talking about.
Arguing for the necessity of those kinds of feelings, both as a way to help people participate in the liberal society, but also to protect liberalism against, and it seems like that sort of empathetic fellow feeling, compassion towards others has been pushed out of the way that we make the case for markets. I think that's had two effects.
One is that it has meant that particularly people on the left who would be sympathetic to the arguments say, "Those guys are kind of unfeeling." Randians would be the stereotype of it, but the other thing is it has basically ceded arguments from care and fellow concern to the left.
Deirdre: I agree with you. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I've been pounding on this for 20 years now, that a free society requires love and encourages love in a way that a centrally planned authoritarian society does not. In fact, it kills love, except love of a very narrow sort where you might love your husband, but you also might turn him in to the party for deviationism.
It's irritating to me, that this wonderful gospel of love or the Jewish focus on this business deal between Jehovah and the Jewish people or Islam's creation out of a Merchant of Mecca, they don't get that Jesus lived in a commercial society and He didn't insist that all the fishermen drop their nets and follow Him and on and on and on. The two can be brought together.
“A free society requires love and encourages love in a way that a centrally planned authoritarian society does not. In fact, it kills love, except love of a very narrow sort where you might love your husband, but you also might turn him in to the party for deviationism.”
The other point you're making is that if you don't bring them together, you've ceded the emotional case for a free society to the centralizers. Now I think a lot of my modern friends on the left, they're not party-line Stalinists. In fact, I wouldn't want to have a friend who's a party-line Stalinist. They believe that we'll have co-ops and we'll buy a jug wine and some tofu from the co-op and drive an old Volvo, and that'll be our way of getting in between a market that, "Oh, I hate the market," even though they use it every day, and on the other hand, the state.
I have a friend, a wonderfully learned and imaginative Marxist economist named Jack Amariglio, and Jack said to me once, "I hate the market." I said, "Jack, you don't hate the market. Your house is filled with lovely antique furniture that you bought in a market with your modest academic salary that you also earn in a market." Jack says, "I don't care. I hate the market." Well, Jack, hate and the market don't have to go together.
Aaron: Do you think that developing, cultivating, coming to embrace this kind of love fellow feeling, compassion, sympathetic joy, whatever we might happen to label it, that religious faith is necessary for doing so, religious faith at some kind of socially sufficient level?
Deirdre: No, I don't think so. I had lots of hopelessly atheistic people who nonetheless have a moral center and do show the gospel of love in their lives without really knowing that they are. It's a lot easier though to do it in community.
To go back to an earlier issue, people say, "I'm spiritual, but I don't belong to any church." Well, okay, maybe a great faith person, Simone Weil or something can do it without being in a church, but we ordinary people, we need to do it together on a journey and go to church or go to the synagogue or the temple. That educates us and keeps us on the path because faith is not a theorem.
I said this the other day to an atheist, liberal friend of mine. and he said, "I tried to believe in God, but I couldn't do it." You can work and come to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but faith is not propositional. Faith, to put it in California terms, is a journey. Belief in English is cognitive. It's a cousin of the word "lief", the old somewhat obscure word. "I would lief to go with you to town. I would prefer to go with you to town."
Love, lief, belief, beloved are all from the same root, which means following faithfully. In a hierarchical aristocratic society, you pledge your troth, and by the way, “troth” and “truth” are the same word. You pledge your troth to your beloved master, your chief. Until really the 17th century, that birth of crazy rationalism in Europe, people understood that Christianity was a journey, not dogma, not as I said the Baltimore Catechism and the nuns to enforce, but a commitment to working on it. As my friend didn't understand, he thought you work on the ontological argument and then you suddenly believe Christianity. That's just not how you get it.
Aaron: There's a similar—in Buddhism, there's the parable of the raft, which is we have all of this doctrine, the dharma, and so on, but it's just a raft. A raft is something you use to get from one side of the river to the other, but then you don't pick it up and carry it with you when you get there. Also, you talk about the need for this community. One of my favorite lines from the early Buddhist texts is when the Buddhist says “admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable comradery is the whole of the holy life.” It's just having that community.
I think you're right. The decline in seeing faith as something that we do together undercuts the cultivation of that, but at the same time, this is hard looking out at the world, looking out at the United States as we see it now, the argument you are making to— if I am a young person who is thinking about religious faith, its relationship to liberalism, how it can inform my life, and I have a set of liberal values, so much of what we're seeing of, say, Christianity in the US looks in conflict with that. It is the Deneens, it is the white Christian nationalists, it is the churches talking about groomers. If I am someone possessing liberal virtues, it's very reasonable for me to say, "I want absolutely nothing to do with that."
Deirdre: Well, that's the trouble. If your idea of Christianity is Jimmy Swaggart (to take an old case) or is an extremely conservative and simple-minded Catholicism of this character, Michael Knowles, with whom I'm supposed to debate in a couple of weeks about transgender stuff at the University of Pittsburgh, it's not going to come off. I'm actually not going to do it. His is just a hateful—It's Christianity as hate, [laughs] which is very bizarre.
There's this formula, of course, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." That's just nonsense. Let's take an extreme case, which is harder to defend than, say, just transgenderism; abortion. You hate abortion, but you love the abortionist. What? No, they don't. These people are rejecting the gospel of love, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves, in my opinion. Of course, contrary to their alleged conservatism, they want to bring the state in to enforce their opinions.
Aaron: What do you do about that as someone who believes strongly in the value of Christianity, including the value of Christianity to a liberal society? We can broaden this out to just the value of a healthy religious faith to a liberal society.
“There's this formula, of course, ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ That's just nonsense. Let's take an extreme case, which is harder to defend than, say, just transgenderism; abortion. You hate abortion, but you love the abortionist. What? No, they don't. These people are rejecting the gospel of love, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves, in my opinion. Of course, contrary to their alleged conservatism, they want to bring the state in to enforce their opinions. “
Deirdre: As Buddha said, this good companion business. He was against the lonely asceticism that he was offered in South Asia. You go into the forest and you don't ever talk to anyone and you don't eat anything, that's not Buddhism.
Aaron: What do we do about that in the current environment? How do we start to bring this back and—the obvious answer is everyone should go read your book, but outside of that, how do we start to crack this awfully difficult nut?
Deirdre: I think we need to appeal to the heart as well as the head. Maybe you can come up with his name, this notorious and in some ways wonderful professor at George Mason, whose name's escaping me just now, who is actually very willing to debate with people about atheism, and he's the one who talked about the irrational voter.
Aaron: Bryan Caplan.
Deirdre: Yes, Bryan Caplan is who I'm thinking of. I'm not against Bryan Caplan, but I am against Bryan Caplan, if you see what I mean. Not personally against him, but against his relentless appeal to the head instead of the heart. The left and indeed the right, the nationalist right, and the socialist left, both appeal to the heart.
As a former folky back in the 1960s, I know more socialist songs than any of my socialist friends. We had a faculty union at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I joined the union, and my friends in English and history were just delighted. We had a day of picketing, and I was teaching them union songs, which they didn't know. I walked the picket line against the stupid administration. Songs, movies, rock music, country music, rock music, like jazz in the old days, is a performance of liberty, which I don't think is sufficiently appreciated by our more stuffy classical liberal friends.
They like ballet and orchestras, which I do too, but they don't realize that ballet and orchestra were very popular with the Soviets, with the USSR, and they hated jazz because jazz is improvisation. It's like the marketplace. No, no, no, no, no. We got to have it planned. It's got to be top-down. There's got to be a choreographer or a conductor.
The other thing to do is what I'm insisting on, and a few others of us, not too many, are insisting on, which is that Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or whatever—Zoroastrianism, or for that matter, animism, are consistent with a loving market. Jeffrey Tucker has a nice collection of his essays, and the collection is called The Market Loves You: Why You Should Love It Back. That's about right.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcasts. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project of The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.