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  1. The Weekend Essay
29 April 2023

Dangerous minds

How Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony’s post-liberal theology went global.

By Suzanne Schneider and Yotam Hotam

Liberal democracy is in crisis. The values associated with liberalism – from individual rights to democratic governance, equality before the law, and free-market principles – have been attacked not just by intellectuals but by the political actors and institutions that are constitutive of democratic political systems. These challenges are best illustrated in the rise of right-wing nationalist movements and parties across the world, from the BJP in India, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Fratelli d’Italia, and Fidesz in Hungary to Trumpism in the US, and the coalition of far-right politicians and parties that constitute Israel’s government. Even where the right has not seized power, political parties such as the National Rally in France, the Sweden Democrats and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany have increased in strength as their hard-right ideas have moved mainstream.

With the waning of liberalism comes a new vision, for three fundamental political concepts: the law, the state and the people. The champions of what is called post-liberalism offer an alternative that collapses the distinction between these categories: the law becomes whatever serves the interests of “the people”, with the state charged with its implementation. This vision is rooted in a particular political theology that regards nations as divine creations and their preservation a sacred act whose fulfilment overrides all other laws. Understanding the theological dimensions of the post-liberal vision is necessary both to grasping its global appeal and in offering a viable alternative.

In the year AD 800, the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York penned a letter to Charlemagne, the newly crowned emperor of the Romans. “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.” Alcuin represented an elitist distrust of the masses that has informed not merely monarchists but many liberals down to the present. It was a sentiment shared by American founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton, who wrote, “The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right.” In 1934, the American political scientist Walter J Shepard likewise expressed his dismay with the virtues of democratic governance. Surveying an electorate he characterised as guided by “sentiment, caprice, and passion”, Shepherd called for conditional suffrage based on “educational and other tests which will exclude the ignorant, the uninformed, and the anti-social elements”. Political theorists, he added, should “no longer believe that ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’”.

The conservative thinker Patrick Deneen takes up Shepard’s case in his Why Liberalism Failed (2018), a book that both diagnoses the failures of liberalism to provide for human flourishing and proposes a reconstructed political order based on the revival of civic virtue. As opposed to other factions of the new right that idolise the founding fathers, Deneen rightly notes that the democratic deficit at the heart of America’s constitutional order is the by-product of a profound mistrust of the public. What founders like James Madison desired was a citizenry that was individualistic, pursuing private ends, divided against itself, and thus incapable of destabilising the polis. Deneen also notes that this same anti-democratic sentiment powered early 20th-century progressive efforts to make government more mechanised through bureaucracy. “Democracy was thus limited to the expression of preferences,” he writes, “the collection of individual opinions that could then be collated and inform expert crafting of appropriate policy by expert administrators.”

According to Deneen, liberalism has gutted the populace of the necessary civic virtues required for the pursuit of a collective good, for life outside the self. Deneen sees in Madison’s argument that government exists to “protect the diverse faculties of man”, the liberal demand that the state protects marginalised persons. Such a plurality of individuals pursuing their own aims represents, for Deneen, a deadly threat to the greater good. “The idolisation of ‘diversity’ in the form of personal identity was sewn into the deepest fabric of the liberal project, and with it the diminution of a common civic and fostering of a common weal.”

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Deneen breaks with other new-right thinkers in rejecting the strongman solution in principle. What he wants is a reinvigorated citizenry, guided by virtue. But for that to occur, civic virtue must return to what he identifies as its roots in Christian liberty. If the people are once again to be the “voice of God” and enabled to make democratic decisions, they must first be made virtuous through a specifically Christian understanding of liberty as pursuing “the just and the good”. This understanding of liberty is not without constraint. Criticising social contract theory, Deneen argues that “one of liberalism’s most damaging fictions was the theory of consent, an imaginary scenario in which autonomous, rational calculators formed an abstract contract to establish a government whose sole purpose was to ‘secure rights’. This view of consent relegated all ‘unchosen’ forms of society and relationships to the category of ‘arbitrary’ and thus suspect if not illegitimate.” Christian liberty, he argues, exists within certain limits; it does not entail the freedom to pursue one’s own desires so long as it does not harm another.

Civic virtue, Deneen argues, can only develop in local and immediate contexts – the guild, ward and congregation – shaped by a sense of interdependence, traditional values and restraints on individual freedom. “What we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of a civic polis life.” There are, he notes, already intentional communities that reject liberalism’s hegemonic norms – including conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews, new homesteaders and “radical homemakers” – and are creating self-contained countercultures to inculcate such virtues.

This emphasis on the local may seem out of place given developing communication and media technologies and modern forms of transportation that compress the sense of distance. Deneen’s view of social relations as essentially static becomes, however, more understandable once we consider how he imagines a virtuous population may once again prevail. Christians and those who share their moral compass – a world of strong, patriarchal families, healthy working-class wages, and robust structures of communal support – do not at present constitute a “moral majority”. They are a minority element struggling to stay afloat in a world dominated by woke capitalism, elite technocracy, and economic crisis. For some conservatives, the only possible manoeuvre is the so-called Benedict option outlined by the American writer Rod Dreher: to retreat from liberal cultural and political spaces and ride out the storm in virtuous enclaves.

But Deneen is not so sure that (as Dreher holds) “politics will not save us”. Rather, Deneen understands that state power is required to forge a citizenry possessing the proper Christian virtues. He offers a political-theological vision that rejects both the libertarian solution and the Benedict option. Christianity is inherently political, he insists, and there is no way to escape having to fight for its values on the political stage. What is required is rather for the state to make the people virtuous through law. The moral majority might not yet exist, but it can be coerced into being through state power. His emphasis on locality (“we need to focus on our town and city halls, our neighbourhood associations, seeking to foster the kinds of communities where our children can – and will – roam the fields again”) is also a pragmatic understanding of where conservatives possess enough strength to enforce their agenda. In the US, it is at the city and state level that conservatives have managed to ban abortion, forbid the critical teaching of American history, and persecute trans people, all in the name of preserving the cultural heritage and traditional integrity of “the people”.

“The people” thus conceived is more rhetorical trope than existing majority. An authoritarian suggestion is lurking here: namely, that only state coercion can engineer a virtuous public, and only a virtuous public can be trusted with true democracy. Until the moral minority becomes a demographic majority, Deneen’s logic suggests that anti-democratic measures are necessary, which helps explain his strong support for US Supreme Court rulings such as those that overturned the federal right to abortion and that have restricted states’ abilities to regulate firearms.

The bifurcation of “the people” into two groups – the moral minority on one hand and the “anti-American” opposition (liberals, social progressives, elite globalists, immigrants, non-Christians) on the other – illustrates how the friend vs foe dynamic defines the American political scene. The enemy here is not a foreign power or commercial rival, but immoral forces within the body politic itself.

If Deneen presents a post-liberal approach grounded in Christianity, Yoram Hazony outlines a “national conservative” vision allegedly rooted in Jewish tradition. Born in Israel in 1964, Hazony studied politics at Princeton before settling in the West Bank outpost of Eli in 1989. He began his career writing columns for the Jerusalem Post and speeches for Benjamin Netanyahu, and in 1994 co-founded the right-wing Shalem Center (now College) in Jerusalem. More recently, Hazony has been the driving force behind the National Conservatism movement, helping to organise NatCon conferences across the world. He now serves as the Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a public affairs centre that aims to “solidify and energise national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics.”

Hazony’s national conservatism stems from the belief that the nation is a divine creation and that the nation can only flourish in the context of a state that promotes its interests. He regards the Bible to be the basis of the Anglo-American political tradition, with the Israelites serving as the original nation made of a homogenous group of people, sanctified by God. Moreover, because God created separate peoples, “globalist” attempts to forge a universal multicultural society are a violation of the divine will in addition to an expression of imperial intolerance. Hazony thus juxtaposes nationalism with imperialism — the contemporary institutions of which include the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Criminal Court — and argues for the right of nations “to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” In practice, protecting nations from imperial intervention means shielding Israel from international sanction, asserting Hungary’s right to discriminate against Muslims and LGBTQ people, and protecting American soldiers from war crimes tribunals.

Though Hazony purports to offer nationalism as a universal political model, his vision emerges out of the experience of Zionism and Israeli state formation – a politics that is indebted to religious Zionism of a messianic sort. In his theocratic worldview, the state is the first sign of redemption, one that “upholds and honours God and the Bible, the congregation and the family, and the religious practices common to the nation”. It is important to underscore this idea of a unified national culture, particularly given the diverse nature of Jewish identity, practice, and political life. This is even more noteworthy in the context of recent moves by Israel to narrow the definition of who counts as a Jew (ruling out anyone not recognised as such by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment), with new agencies such as the Directorate of Jewish Identity charged with carrying out this mission. These are precisely the sorts of top-down manoeuvres allegedly required to protect the integrity of Jewish national identity, and it is evident that they are both exclusionary and wholly dependent on state institutions.

Hazony anchors his political-theological argument in a particular genealogy of the political community. He contends that states do not emerge from the social contract and its conventions: rational deliberation, choice, and consent. Rather, he locates the origin of the political community in the nuclear, patriarchal family, which progresses, somehow naturally, into an imagined homogenous group of people – a nation and by extension a nation-state – united by language, ethnic origin, history, and religion. National identity is thus ancient and precedes the modern state rather than (as historians of nationalism tend to argue) a product of state institutions. Just like families, national communities are maintained by bonds of loyalty and forces of constraint. Hazony shares Deneen’s contempt for liberalism’s emphasis on individual freedom, viewing it as something that undermines the body politic, and offers “collective freedom” of the national group in its stead. Embedded within this argument about the origins of the state is a degradation of the principle of individual freedom that is alarming in its forthrightness, though it should not be surprising given the anti-democratic nature of Hazony’s broader vision.

By asserting the supremacy of “the nation” in all political matters, he pits nationalism and democracy against each other and comes down definitively in favour of the former. Indeed, Hazony was an outspoken proponent of Israel’s controversial nation-state law, which was adopted in 2018, precisely because it clarified that nationalism, not democracy, is the state’s core concern. In his telling, all attempts to render Israel more genuinely democratic function “to obscure, attenuate, or displace the traditional concept of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people in order to bring the country into conformity with the theory of the universal constitution”. But Israel was not founded to be a democracy, but rather to provide a home for the Jewish nation. Ergo, policies must be evaluated not in terms of their democratic credentials but whether they further the interests of Jews, or at least some portion of them.

Since the nation incarnates the will of God, the nation not only represents the idea of sacred peoplehood. It destroys the supremacy of the law because states are instruments for organising nations, and the law is subordinate to the supposed best interests of the nation – or more accurately, the portion of it that is deemed morally sound. It is this effective collapse of the people, the law, and the state that best typifies illiberal democracies like Hungary under Victor Orban, where the law becomes a vehicle for persecuting those – LGBTQ people, non-Christians, immigrants, “globalists”, and political opponents – who supposedly undermine the integrity of the nation. So too Israel’s nation-state law makes explicit what was long true in practice: the state does not exist to serve its citizens equally but gives precedence to the portion of them identified with the Jewish nation.

Post-liberals argue that the nation and state must be bound to one another because the nation can only flourish when it controls the levers of state power. Defining who is inside and outside of “the people” is thus of central importance to Hazony’s project, which helps explain his appeal to right-wing constituencies worldwide. Because intra-tribal loyalty, not commitment to a common set of principles, is the stuff of political cohesion, all politics rest on a binary division between friends and enemies. The latter are usually an ethnic or religious Other but may also include internal traitors. The state is less an institution for competing constituencies to further rival claims than a vehicle for managing insiders and outsiders even within the same territory. In the state of Israel, these machinations are most clearly at work in legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens, attacks on Palestinian civil society organisations, and statutory provisions that reject Palestinian national rights.

Hazony defends such measures on principle. As he argues in The Virtues of Nationalism (2018), to the extent that “others” may exist within a nation-state, it is on account of sufferance rather than right. He also concedes that the right to national self-determination is not universal and must be weighed “in the balance of moral and prudential considerations”. Some groups, he contends, should settle for “a protectorate state with some measure of delegated authority”. He aligns himself with proponents of “Greater Israel” who champion permanent legal inequality between Jews and Palestinians as the solution to their long-standing conflict.

Convinced that the nation is a divine principle, and divisions among nations part of the divine plan, Hazony’s political theory stands ready to justify almost any measures carried out in the name of the people. Discriminatory and oppressive measures are necessary to preserve “the nation” – paradoxically viewed as both organic and eternal and yet highly susceptible to contamination and dissolution.

From the US and Israel to India and Brazil, post-liberals align themselves with either real or aspiring authoritarians. These alliances express a desire for strong sovereign authority that will have the power to decide when liberal democracy and its laws and norms can be overthrown. Unlike conservatives who have championed small government, post-liberals require a powerful government to further their aims. Indeed, the abiding paradox of the new nationalists is that they require the state to preserve and promote identities and social relations that are supposedly innate.

This is one reason that many post-liberals regard strength as the principle political virtue. A “strong leader for a strong nation” served as the 1999 election slogan of the Likud party; today, Trumpists vow to “make America strong again”. This desire for reinvigorated sovereignty concentrated in the figure of the leader sometimes bleeds into neo-monarchism. So too, in a recent interview, former Israeli journalist and member of parliament, Boaz Bismuth stated that “the prime minister of Israel is the king of the Jews”. “Israel,” he added, “is the kingdom”, a term laden with deep theological resonance. While Bismuth claimed his statement was just a metaphor, it reflects an important political impulse in contemporary Israel to regard the state as the manifestation of the divine will, and indeed, as a messianic vehicle. The state – embodied by the strong leader – in such a scheme demands nothing short of worship; in political theological terms, the obedience to the state replaces adherence to the (divine) law.

Yet for all its invocation of traditional religious morality, the new right is highly selective about its religious commitments. The fetishisation of “the people” displaces not merely liberalism but central religious tenets: to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, to recognise that all human beings are made in the divine image. Scholars have even noted a negative correlation between regular church attendance and anti-immigrant sentiment among American Christians, underscoring the fact that the current battle is badly misunderstood if cast as one between religious conviction and secular freedom. As the sociologists Philip S Gorski and Samuel L Perry have argued, “today, calling oneself a ‘Christian’ or even an ‘evangelical’ is sometimes just a way of claiming membership in an ideological or political tribe or defending a certain ‘way of life’.” When post-liberals claim that a strong state is required to enforce traditional religious values – to make the majority moral again – we must recall that theirs is a particular, somewhat thin, understanding of both religious identity and tradition.

We inhabit a world defined by an unprecedented mobility: of finance, consumer goods, and popular culture, and a global elite equally at home in Doha or San Francisco. Yet, ours is also a world wherein the movement of people – immigrants, refugees, and “suspicious” populations – is obsessively restricted: a world of border walls and barbed-wire fences, security checkpoints, military blockades, constant surveillance, and denunciations of “foreign” elements in the body politic. Appeals to the organic unity of the nation, however fictitious, must be understood in the context of these upheavals.

Post-liberals are sometimes described as traditionalists, but a mere return to earlier forms of political and social life are insufficient for their project. Their mission rather depends on the advanced technologies of governance – from state schooling to surveillance and criminalisation – to create a body politic that accords with their vision of the nation. In asserting the primacy of the nation, they are also willing to dispense with much that is valued by its actual members: individual liberties, legal equality, free and fair elections, even the peaceful transfer of power.

The political-theological aspects of this worldview betray a yearning for a bold leader, a sovereign who, echoing the divine, will serve and protect his people from enemies both without and within. In practice we cannot summon the house of David to play such a role, and the messiah is known to tarry. The post-liberals are untroubled by this reality because they regard the nation-state as far more important than any other aspects of divine creation; its interests likewise overwhelm the demands of human decency and even explicit religious commands. The nation – or rather the portion of it that aligns with the state – is what reigns supreme, me’ata ve’ad olam (now and forever).

This is an abridged extract of The Divine People? which was originally published by Emor.

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