Holy Ambivalence

Do Christianity and liberalism have a future together in the United States? Brad East looks at two new books to find out.

Holy Ambivalence

Awaiting the King by James K. A. Smith. Baker Academic. 256 pages.Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen. Yale University Press. 248 pages.

CHRISTIANS ARE HAVING second thoughts about liberalism. Across the political spectrum — indeed, flouting it — protests of one sort or another are rising to a fever pitch. For many, particularly Catholics, this is a return to normality: Rome was from the start the staunchest of opponents to liberal modernity, and a brief interlude more or less coinciding with the Cold War need not become a default position. Protestants, however, have always been more invested in the liberal project. Understandably so, since it was children of the Reformation who piloted it and who, ever since, have undertaken its maintenance, defense, and expansion. But no longer. In recent decades and especially the last few years, a growing number of Protestants have locked arms across the Tiber, hoping at the least to stand their ground, possibly even to advance, against that implacable foe, the bastard offspring, the godless monolith, Leviathan.

For nearly four decades the terms of the debate have been set by the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and, in theology, Stanley Hauerwas, along with their students and followers. MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue told a story that could not be ignored, of the unwitting loss of virtue in the West and late modernity’s blindness to the ruins in which it lived: as if Europeans today residing in the corpse of Christendom literally could not see the empty churches crumbling around them. MacIntyre famously concluded with the hopeful gesture of an unexpectedly transformative figure analogous to St. Benedict of Nursia, who in the decadence of the Roman Empire did not lead a movement to seize political power, but instead left the city and founded a series of monasteries. Living according to the Benedictine Rule, these communities of faith, hospitality, and learning sowed moral, religious, and cultural seeds that took centuries to sprout and blossom. Hauerwas, in turn, proposed the church as fitting MacIntyre’s semi-monastic prescription. Though the church not as it was — either the liberal mainline or conservative evangelicalism — but as it ought to be: colonies of God’s kingdom in the midst of American empire; nonviolent cells of an alien power resistant to modernity’s charms; exiles whose common life formed a sturdy, resilient, attractive alternative to the monopolizing claims of state and market alike.

Such a proposal generated as much resistance at the time as has its most recent popularized form, the so-called Benedict Option. In many ways, though, the field has since moved on from the frame offered by Hauerwas-cum-MacIntyre. Yet there is no moving on from the question of liberalism. At the level of theory, its opponents have only increased, and from all sides. More urgently, at the level of practice, its manifest failures have become too apparent to ignore.

What to do about liberalism? That is the question.


There are four basic approaches. First, retrenchment: liberalism has problems like anything else, but it’s nothing a little more liberalism can’t fix. Second, ambivalence: liberalism has endemic, insoluble problems, but it’s what we’ve got, and the status quo, however bad, is better than any known alternative and thus worth ameliorating in whatever small ways we can. Third, rejection: liberalism is an abject failure, unworthy of being propped up any longer, though admittedly there is no readymade substitute for it. Fourth, replacement: liberalism has reached its end, and there are far more just political forms available if only we would have the courage to open ourselves to radical change (a renewed Christian left, for example, or Catholic integralism).

A sizable regiment of Christian theo-political reflection — right, left, and center — is currently trying to chart a faithful path between or across the second, third, and fourth options. On the one hand, replacement garners the most controversy, and for good reason: proposals to overthrow the status quo suffer from the temptation common to all revolutionaries — confidence in the purity of their vision, inattention to dissenters and collateral damage, willingness to overreach if it brings the goal closer to realization. On the other hand, as Jake Meador recently observed, the dismissed and disreputable are where the action is; they recognize the severity of the problem and are willing to think creatively, even outlandishly, in response. In other words, those least inclined to cling to what is out of fear of what might be, those with the least to lose and the eyes to see, are most likely to take the risk of imagining something truly other than the status quo. If superficial tinkering with the liberal facade is not going to do the job, let’s not waste our time.

Having said that, until such time as replacement is a viable option and its supporters include more than a rough-and-tumble gang of Catholic trads and eggheads, the lion’s share of scholarly theological reflection will be found straddling options two and three. (Indeed, Anabaptists pitch their tent in that divide, committed to the view that it is simply not the church’s business to ponder, much less to execute, regime change.) But where does ambivalence end and rejection begin, if one lacks a solution to a problem as profound as liberalism? Two recent books by Christian thinkers, facing each other across this ambiguous line, represent opposing answers — though just how opposed will remain an open matter.


In his new book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen brings to a head two decades of work, formulating a blistering attack on what he calls the world’s oldest and last remaining ideology. That this has long been Deneen’s position and passion is worth noting given recent electoral events; as he notes on the opening page, the book was completed in October 2016. It is and is not a response to the current administration, then: a diagnosis not of symptoms or the latest presenting problem, but of the rot at the heart of the system. The crisis long preceded the age of Trump.

First the symptoms, then the diagnosis. Liberalism, Deneen writes, was a “wager” that extraordinary benefits would result from a fundamental reordering of political society. The wager succeeded in the sense that it was implemented and, like a contagious disease, has spread from one body politic to another more rapidly and totally than its creators could ever have imagined. In the relevant sense, however, it has failed entirely.

Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of powerlessness by relentlessly advancing the project of “globalization.” The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy […] is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fait accompli. The economy favors a new “meritocracy” that perpetuates its advantages through generational succession, shored up by an educational system that relentlessly sifts winners from losers.

In short: “Liberalism has failed.” But “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” Indeed, “the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.”

Apart from its effects, what is most insidious about liberalism is the way it hides itself as an ideology. It is so deeply interwoven with our life and thought that it has become the air we breathe, the water we swim in, the operating system we take for granted — until the whole system crashes. We are, Deneen argues, in a version of Plato’s cave, so mesmerized by the movie-set backdrops on the walls that we don’t realize they are two-dimensional projections. We need to get out, to seek the light. We need to expose our condition for what it is.


Liberalism is founded on a new definition of liberty rooted, in turn, in a new definition of the human person. Freedom means liberation from all that determines and is not self-determined: the past, tradition, culture, convention, religion, authority, family — enlightenment is deliverance from arbitrariness. Only the individual can be free, for only the individual can determine herself; to modify Sartre, servitude is other people.

But other people can’t be done away with, since the individual needs other people to protect her from other people: individuals are fundamentally self-interested animals, and political society is the accidental though necessary upshot of the species’s selfishness. Consenting by contract to give up some rights for the protection of others, individuals inhabit overlapping spaces in a kind of delicate “perpetual peace” treaty. In the imperishable words of Justice Kennedy, each individual decides for herself what the meaning of life is, even to the point of creating it. The state is the neutral arbiter between rights-bearing individuals, maintaining the tacit treaty and stepping in when it is broken: that is, when individuals claim to have been harmed. Violated rights require the state’s redressing.

In his book Two Faces of Liberalism, John Gray argues that liberalism has always had two sides, or emphases: consensus and coexistence. Reason alone as a means to universal agreement was an idealistic and ultimately impossible achievement. But coexistence remains possible, and foreswearing the possibility of consensus, it ought to be the future of liberalism.

Deneen counters: what made liberalism appear to work for so long was a consensus — moral, religious, cultural — a consensus it did not create but presumed, even required. But liberalism’s acids eventually wore away that consensus, since by definition liberalism “frees” individuals from ties not chosen by themselves, and launches them on a path of autonomous self-determination. In the absence of that prior consensus, it turns out both that the state cannot be “neutral” and that atomized individuals united by nothing but the pursuit of their own private good will increasingly come into conflict, thus calling forth arbitration of harms inflicted and rights infringed upon. But on what basis may the state decide what counts as harm and what does not, which rights are valid and which are not? Only on the basis of a consensus it defines, mandates, and enforces. Liberal coexistence is impossible without liberal consensus, albeit one now achieved by fiat, which is to say, arbitrarily.

This is why Deneen argues that individualism and statism enable and entail each other, and why he refers to the two main political options on offer in the United States as classical liberalism and progressive liberalism. They are but two sides of the same coin, working in tandem to produce the same result: fragmented individuals divorced from land, heritage, kin, progeny, body, self, and God. Liberalism provides cover for capitalism’s “creative” destruction, in a pincer movement of ecological and cultural devastation. There is no escape.

Liberalism was sold as a rescue from the state of nature, in which isolated individuals languished at war with others to secure their interests. But no such state ever existed, nor its lonely human protagonist — until liberalism’s triumph, that is. The liberal state created the subject it purported to save.


The villains of this story are well known: Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Madison, Mill, Dewey. Taken together, their ultimate vision of the unconstrained will of the individual leads inexorably to the crisis in which we find ourselves today. This crisis is at once political, economic, educational, environmental, and technological; created and exacerbated by liberalism itself, it is a feature of the system, not a bug.

In fact, Deneen argues, part of the problem is that liberalism began as pure theory. It did not arise organically from the life of a people united by goods, practices, and beliefs in common. It was imposed from on high, coincident with revolution. It shares this feature with fascism and communism, the 19th- and 20th-century ideologies lately defeated by liberalism. It is no accident, therefore, that Deneen’s manifesto is prophetic and not prescriptive; the pitfall to be avoided is precisely the temptation to theorize the perfect political form before installing it in reality. Liberalism has failed and something else will take its place, but we cannot know in advance what that will be.

The theory will arise from practice. So what we can do in the meantime is formulate and foster localized strategies of resistance to liberalism embodied in alternative forms of life. These efforts at humane common life need neither unlearn the goods of liberal society nor seek to return to a (false) pristine past. But they are nonetheless necessary. Leviathan is voracious, and never satiated. Without sustained, disciplined action, you, your family, and your community will be chewed up and spit out. You will be a member of the res idiotica, no longer defiant but acquiescent, willing, grateful. In the end, you’ll realize: you love Leviathan.


You are what you love, after all. Or so argues James K. A. Smith, who, in a decade-long project, has outlined a Christian philosophical anthropology that defines human beings, following St. Augustine, by what they love. We are first of all, not thinking or believing creatures, but desiring animals. And what we love above all we worship. Such worship is neither individualistic nor disembodied but enacted in corporate rituals of ultimate concern. These practices habituate us, forming and redirecting our loves to objects that constitute visions of the good, of what it means to flourish as human beings. Such routines of the body do most of their work at an unconscious level; the mind follows the heart, and the heart directs the body, which reciprocates in kind.

Humanity, in short, is homo liturgicus. Liturgy is not bound to the church building on Sunday morning; our lives are nothing but micro- and macro-liturgies to which we sometimes consciously but usually unwittingly belong, and which determine what we love and how we live. Examples include regular pilgrimages to that hallowed cathedral we call the mall, or bending the knee to the military-entertainment complex.

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology is Volume Three in a trilogy called “Cultural Liturgies.” Where the first two books discussed education and worship, respectively, this last entry’s focus is politics. Smith asks: “What difference will it make for our theological reflection on politics if we begin from the assumption that the same human beings who are by nature zōon politikon (‘political animals’) are also homo adorans (‘liturgical animals’)?” Moreover, what is the church’s role vis-à-vis society? What is its proper mission and aim? To what extent and in what ways should it be involved in the world of “politics”? And if the civil liturgies of the liberal state want the hearts of believers — if they have the power to draw out the allegiance, obedience, and devotion of liberal subjects, however privately devout — then how can the church engage the organs of governance without forgoing its first love and only Lord?

Smith’s answer is threefold. First, the church is called and sent by God into the world to love its neighbors, serve the common good, and bear witness to the way of Jesus. So there is no avoiding the encounter, because it is divinely mandated. Second, the church’s own liturgical practices are the heart of its life for a reason: centered on the worship of God, who alone is worthy of it, they have the power, through God’s own action, to form, equip, and commission believers for faithful life and witness in society. Their loves properly ordered, Christians are empowered by the sacramental practices of the local worshiping community to resist the liturgical capture of the state — though this contest of loves ought to be made explicit, the better to know where the danger lies.

Third, there is no one ideal or theoretical answer to the question of church and state; the relationship, at least on the church’s side, is ad hoc, contextual, provisional. Smith wants to avoid “progressivist hubris, triumphalistic culture wars, and despairing cynicism” in equal measure. No society can be heaven on earth; revolutions on the left and theocracies on the right are mirror images of the same mistake. Nor, however, should the church seclude or withdraw itself behind cultural, religious, or regional boundaries, a communal ark before modernity’s deluge, a new monasticism amid the rubble of the Pax Americana. Hostility and ultimate incompatibility between the church and state “do not entail mutual exclusivity or total antithesis”; what Smith proposes, rather, is “a kind of holy ambivalence […] a sort of engaged but healthy distance rooted in our specifically eschatological hope.” Such “political engagement requires not dismissal or permission or celebration but rather the hard, messy work of discernment in order to foster both ad hoc resistance to [the liberal state’s] ultimate pretensions and ad hoc opportunities to collaborate on penultimate ends.”

In sum: Worship as “the civics of the city of God”; mission as the motivating force for participating in the earthly city; holy ambivalence as the character of such participation; hope in the heavenly city as the tether suspending its citizens here below, as they await the return of the King.


Smith’s argument follows a classical theological line. Christians live “in between” the two advents, or comings, of Jesus. On the one hand, they should expect more than just the status quo, working for transformation in light of what God has revealed and accomplished through Christ: peace, mercy, forgiveness, a preference for the downtrodden and marginalized. On the other hand, they know not to expect actual kingdom come until the King himself arrives, bringing it in his train. Here and now, on the way to the heavenly city, the earthly city will remain fallen, sordid, beset by sin and injustice, wayward and rebellious, corrupt and corrupting. Any scheme to establish the perfect society, the flawless state, will founder — and probably with casualties in its wake.

It is this dialectic that marks Christian political thought in general and Smith’s proposal in particular. A tension nags Smith’s account, however. It is twofold in nature.

On one side, Smith wants to avoid outright condemnations of the political order. States are shades of gray, and while some may approximate true virtue more than others, he consistently rejects the option of Christians repudiating a nation or its governing ideology. One can only presume he has in mind authors like Deneen; he devotes an entire chapter to the goods of liberal democracy, balancing the verdict against it. But the question is one of principle: Should Christians never set their faces against the countries or governments in which they reside? Is unqualified opposition intrinsically unfaithful?

I doubt Smith is committed to this position. But the moment you open the door to the possibility of wholesale rejection, you must supply criteria by which to make such a judgment. And although Smith goes to great lengths to show that liberal democracy bears witness to an encounter with the gospel, he does not make a positive argument for why someone persuaded by Deneen should not denounce the liberal order. For the anti-liberal position is not that the church should not be involved in society, or that participation in governance is too impure an endeavor for Christians. It is that liberalism is fundamentally, unalterably corrupt, corrosive to human flourishing and to the health of all local communities, including the church. And so, although it should not be overthrown in a violent revolution, its demise cannot come fast enough, and we should do everything in our power peaceably to resist and oppose it. For all of Smith’s denunciations of Benedict Option–like strategies of so-called withdrawal or retreat, we are left wondering why liberalism should be treated like a potential partner, rather than an enemy.

On the other side, paradoxically, Smith relies heavily on the work of Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan to argue in defense of Christendom and thus for the church’s active participation in the work of the state. The single biggest question that hangs over the entire work, then, is this: Does Smith desire an established church? If he does, then he is perfectly aligned with O’Donovan (a full-throated establishmentarian who dates the end of Christendom to the First Amendment of the US Constitution), and Smith’s project makes much more sense. If he does not — and I could not find a clear statement on the subject in the book — then I am left unsure regarding what it is he wants. Because if his proposal is simply an “engaged” church neither co-opted by the state nor secluded in a religious ghetto … well, that’s much more anticlimactic than his language and principal influences would suggest. Are American Christians currently disengaged from politics? Perhaps ironically, the upshot of Deneen’s work is probably to push his primary audience closer to Smith: less libertarian and laissez-faire, more engaged in the mundane details of local civic life.

To be sure, the American church, especially in its white-majority manifestations, has capitulated time and again to the state; a church newly recentered on and by thick liturgical practices might have its eyes opened to Faustian bargains past and present, and reject big-league deals with the devil. My question is whether, for Smith, there is any way of avoiding the unintended result of shoring up the liberal state, even providing it a renewed foundation. And let me be clear: Gradualist amelioration may well be the wisest course of action, serving the most while hurting the fewest. But one does not get the sense from Smith’s writing that this is all that he wants, or that he thinks the liberal state is as benign as that might imply.

If, however, Smith would in fact welcome an established church, then not only would his proposal make much more sense, it would also be more radical; at the very least it would entail a critique that cuts to the heart of liberalism. The liberal state is not in the habit of submitting itself to the sovereign authority of Israel’s risen Messiah. Though laïcité is not always law, it remains the soul of liberalism, and thus the telos to which liberal polities find themselves irresistibly drawn. In any case, the logic of Smith’s argument presses him in this direction, where his holy ambivalence gives way to Deneen’s prophetic No.


Not all Christians are worried about liberalism. Fellow believers and reasonable critics have consistently raised the same challenge in one form of another: Are things really so bad? Is the liberal order really so desperate? Is now really the moment for beleaguered white Christians to be drawing attention to the social and cultural diminution of what Deneen calls “ancient and Christian understanding,” or to be reclaiming the heritage of Christendom for the church’s mission in the United States?

Christians do have a propensity for narratives of decline. But if, in Marilynne Robinson’s words, “fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” the trick is to tell a fallen story without its mutating into a tale devoid of grace, goodness, or God. The miracle of St. Augustine’s City of God is that, more so than any work of Christian thought before or since, it somehow strikes the perfect balance. It traces the path of the city of man, that polity defined by love of self, from pernicious beginning to infernal end. It is a story of sin, and Augustine is not known for his squeamishness regarding human vice. It is not a story of sin alone, however, for there is also the city of God, beginning with Adam, himself the first sinner and thus the principal cause of human misery here below. But God intended it for good, and in chiaroscuro, Augustine shades the ways of providence intermixed with earthly depravity across the biblical narrative, up through the fall of Rome, and into whatever future remains.

The result is a masterpiece of sober truth and cheerful hope. Chief among its many lessons is that no Christian historiography is faithful that is driven by anxiety or that leads to despair. As theologian John Webster writes, “we need to cease giving an account of ourselves as somehow located at a point in the history of human affairs where the usual rules of providence do not apply”; if our age is depraved, and we within it, “it is not because we are children of Scotus or Descartes or Kant, but because we are children of Adam.”

Despite the tension in his thought, Smith is therefore right to point us to Augustine. The African bishop knew all too well the limits of human perfectibility. The effects of original sin bear on society as much as they do on the individual. In his pastoral role, Augustine once wrote to a believer who served as a Roman General that “we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” That sort of purity is a dangerous mirage. The church is an ark for souls, sinners all. In its earthly sojourn, it is a mixed body: the church is in the world and the world is in the church. There is no escaping the age in which one lives, or its imperfections.

So how we tell the story is crucial, as is how we name the ills that bedevil our times, and how we propose to respond. The truth is that, for many of our neighbors, matters are dire. And if Deneen is correct; if, that is to say, in the alchemy of ideas and their effects, liberalism bears culpability for the suffering of the most vulnerable in our society and for the deracinating void swallowing up so many others, then under God let it die. But can believers permit themselves such imprecations without succumbing to alarmism? Can they pair their criticism with patient — that is to say, long-suffering — trust in providence? Can the church abide living in the interim between advents, as the King tarries, without letting prophecy degenerate into dejection?

To follow Augustine means to allow for the tragic. The arc of history does not bend toward justice; it bent and cracked long ago under the weight of another Empire’s injustice, under Pontius Pilate; now it wends in unknown and sometimes wicked ways, under our own disordered direction. Faith confesses that it has been and will be righted, once for all, but we know not when or how the denouement will come; only that it will be beyond history. Until then, even our most well-meaning attempts to bend it aright will confound our intentions, come to naught, unleash some strange fire on generations yet unborn. Christians hope in spite of, not because of, the course that history takes; like hope, trust in providence means faith in what is unseen.

The oldest ideology, in short, may live on. The crisis could continue. Deneen, with MacIntyre, is not wrong about the barbarism of our rulers; not wrong to wait for transformation, wrought by saints or otherwise. But whatever strategies we devise, whoever comes our way, the waiting will continue. Smith, with Augustine, is therefore right to hallow patience as the church’s central political virtue; right to remember that Christian hope has no earthly term. There is no living beyond one’s time: perseverance does not mean impatience. Even liberalism can be endured.


Brad East is assistant professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. His writing has appeared in The Marginalia Review of Books, Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, Anglican Theological Review, and elsewhere. He blogs at Resident Theologian.

LARB Contributor

Brad East (PhD, Yale University) is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the author of four books: The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021), The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Eerdmans, 2022), The Church: A Guide to the People of God (Lexham, 2024), and Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry (Eerdmans, 2024).


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