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The Bankruptcy of Modern Liberalism . . . and Therefore Modern Conservatism

A review of Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, 240 pages (including index and endnotes), cloth, ISBN 0-06-039163-4

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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A review of Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, 240 pages (including index and endnotes), cloth, ISBN 0-06-039163-4

Bork's latest jeremiad (it follows his enormously successful The Tempting of America) eclipses the other recent neo-conservative assessments of our modern apostasy both in its courage of its critique and the extensiveness of its recommendations. Unfortunately it falls into the same trap as all the others in its refusalrather, its inability to proffer any viable solution.

Bork documents his chief thesis, that modern liberalism, defined as a synthesis of radical egalitarianism and radical liberalism, has undermined the moral foundation of the United States and threatens to elicit a wave of Dark-Age paganism: "The defining characteristics of modern liberalism are radical egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities) and radical individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification)" (p. 5). The chapters furnish illustrations of the pernicious results to which this radicalism logically leads, including (not surprisingly for Bork) an activist Supreme Court; a perverse and hedonistic popular culture (Bork advocates a workable censorship to curb this cultural cesspool; escalating crime, rampant illegitimacy, and self-destructive state welfare; abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia; radical feminism; hypocritical racial policy; anti-intellectualism; and sentimental, pusillanimous religion.

Bork suggests, in fact, that a religious revival as illustrated by the Promise Keepers phenomenon (p. 293) is the solution to and bulwark against modern liberalism (pp. 336, 337), and for that reason is to be welcomed. He takes little stock in theological accuracy, however, and falls into the common trap of supporting religious revival on utilitarian grounds: any religion tends to impede cultural hedonism and nihilism and is thus culturally useful. It is not religion's truth that is important to this line of thinking but its social function that renders it desirable. It often escapes the notice of its defenders that this notion is itself a form of relativism that trivializes religious truth claims, a trivialization which, in turn, undermines a moral culture. Bork at this juncture is really proposing nothing more than another civil religion. In the words of the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, he wants paradise without God, at least without the God of the Bible.

This does not diminish the adeptness of Bork's razor-sharp cultural critique. He laments, for example, the easy indifference which the benefits of technology tend to create:

A culture obsessed with technology will come to value personal convenience above almost all else, and ours does. That has consequences we will explore. Among those consequences, however, is impatience with anything that interferes with personal convenience. Religion, morality, and law do that, which [sic] accounts for the tendency of modern religion to eschew prescriptions and commandments and turn to counseling and therapeutic sermons; of morality to be relativized; and of law, particularly criminal law, to become soft and uncertain. Religion tends to be strongest when life is hard, and the same may be said of morality and law. A person whose main difficulty is not crop failure but video breakdown has less need of the consolations and promises of religion. (p. 9)

He does not tell, of course, whether by this he advises a halt to technological advance, though one suspects not (after all, technology has been around as long as man, and the same criticism could have been leveled at it fifty, a hundred, or three thousand years ago; the problem is sin, not technology). Nor does Bork offer any specific solutions to combat the excesses technology produces in a population. This is the common dilemma of cultural critiques that take for granted the validity of the sort of society maintained only by adherence to Christian and Biblical norms, but which refuse to affirm the need for those norms: society is corrupt, and there's not much we can do about it except wring our hands.

Bork notwithstanding courageously confronts head-on and refutes courageously the hypocrisy of modern liberals who decry the resurgence of conservative Christian political involvement:

The fear of religion in the public arena is all too typical of Americans, and particularly the intellectual class, today. Religious conservatives cannot "impose" their ideas on society except by the usual democratic methods of trying to build majorities and passing legislation. In that they are no different from any other group of people with ideas of what morality requires. All legislation "imposes" a morality of one sort or another, and therefore, on the reasoning offered, all law would seem to be antithetical to pluralism. (p. 277)

It is surely refreshing to observe the admission of a prominent conservative that imposition of morality as an aspect of law is, in Rushdoony's words, an inescapable concept.

Like the late Allan Bloom in his blockbuster The Closing of the American Mind, Bork pinpoints the Sixties as a pivotal era of liberal radicalism but, unlike Bloom, is at pains to trace the social conflagration to a slow burning that had been going on for decades below the perceptible surface. That slow burning Bork identifies as the corollary of the liberal vision: "Liberalism always had the tendency to become modern liberalism, just as individualism and equality always contained the seeds of their radical modern versions" (p. 8):

Since liberalism is a movement away from, an impulse, not a stable agenda, it continually revises the agenda it has for any particular moment. That accounts for the gradual transformation of the older or classical liberalism into the radical individualist component of today's [i.e., modern] liberalism. (p. 62)

Two pages later Bork contrasts modern liberalism with conservatism, the latter of which he correctly perceives as a modern residue of classical liberalism: John Locke's political contractarianism, Adam's Smith's laissez-faire economics, British Whiggery, James Madison's republicanism, and so forth. Bork's panacea is the recovery of something of this classical liberal (i.e., modern conservative) vision. The problem, according to Bork, is that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical liberalism just went too far.

I am confident Bork does not perceive the contradiction of this thesis. He as much as acknowledges that conservatism and liberalism are cut from the same Enlightenment cloth (pp. 58-65), and that conservatism is a half-way house between Enlightenment rationalism and modern liberalism. But in so doing he delivers the historical and philosophical coup de grace to modern conservatism, which is discovered to be nothing more than a transitional phase between a rigorous Christian Faith and therefore society, and the godless secularism that engulfs us today. It is forever the propensity of conservatism to shrink before the liberalism of the presentwhatever form the latter may take: secular capitalism always paves the way for secular socialism; libertarianism always leads to anarchy which summons despotism; free-thinking always conduces to free-from-God-thinking; relentless franchise extension always ends in a lethal egalitarianism. Conservatism is no match for liberalism, which is simply the logical outworking of the inherent premises of conservatism.

For this reason, all the stinging, noble, clever jeremiads of the Right are in reality nothing but toothless complaints. Conservatives incessantly whine about the destructive evils of modern liberal culture, but lack the courage to propose the only effective, comprehensive solution, that for which Chalcdon stands uncompromisingly and works tirelessly: the re-Christianization of all areas of thought and life with the Holy Scriptures as the absolute standard.

Until they are ready to affirm such an unflagging Biblical solution, their own agendas will only aid and abet modern liberalism's slouch towards Gomorrahand Hell.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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