Reach Higher, Live Better

The first difficulty in reviewing a book by Alan Wolfe is that his books are so chock full of quotable quotes, salient observations and incisive criticisms, making it difficult to choose which ones to highlight. The second difficulty is that Wolfe provokes so many questions, you find yourself wishing he had written more on half a dozen issues. The third difficulty is remembering to feed the dogs: I am the slowest of readers, but once you start reading The Future of Liberalism, do not expect to get much else accomplished until you have finished.

Book cover
The Future of Liberalism by By Alan Wolfe Knopf. 352p $25.95

Many university professors write lethally boring books with ambitious titles, but Wolfe is not one of them. His prose never bogs down his examples and analogies ring true and sometimes he pens a sentence that makes you put the book down and wish you had written it yourself. "No one is more temperamentally conservative than a Manhattan leftist living in a rent-controlled apartment and holding tenure at a university,” Wolfe writes, in a sentence that shows at once his power of illustration and his courage in challenging his own.

"But in truth, liberalism's enemy is not religion but religious oppression and its friend is not skepticism but freedom, including religious freedom,” Wolfe concludes after cataloguing the complex history of liberalism and religion, one of the book's strongest sections. Essentially, he encourages liberals to abandon any hostility to religion while insisting that religion abide by liberalism's rules for governance of the public square. Unlike many liberals, who reject all religious arguments, Wolfe is more nuanced. He grants that religion can motivate people to justice as well as to intolerance: For every Jerry Falwell there is a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Only once does he overstep when he seems to condemn pre-Enlightenment religion: "Ostensibly in the business of saving souls, it had managed to find time for teaching orthodoxy, discouraging tolerance, and promoting obedience.” While the church must apologize for its indifference to the close relationship between human dignity and tolerance, teaching orthodoxy and promoting obedience are essential tasks of faith. As Wolfe catalogues elsewhere, a concern for truth is not unimportant and while obedience may not be a liberal characteristic, any religion that believes God has revealed himself must in some sense be obedient to that revelation.

Wolfe (director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College) shows why liberalism remains the political creed that still corresponds more closely than any other to human dignity. Against those who advocate censorship, be they the "hate speech” enforcers on the left or modern Puritans on the right, Wolfe argues, "From the standpoint of encouraging people to think about the world around them, wrongheaded opinions are better than no opinions.” He brilliantly links those who would resent the linkage in their shared disdain for liberalism: "Perhaps fundamentalist Christians and atheistic Darwin-ists should stop taking each other to court and instead join forces, united by their mutual contempt for the quintessential liberal idea that human beings have the capacity to create that monument of artifice called 'culture,’ which, in turn, enables them to bring meaning and direction to their lives.” Indeed, Wolfe's takedown of socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists is so exact, and so necessary, it should be mandatory reading for all who care about the meaning of the word freedom.

My only objection, and one that in fact supports Wolfe's argument, has to do with his treatment of Hurricane Katrina. He is spot on in showing how conservative contempt for government left the administration ill-equipped to deploy the government's resources when they were desperately needed in New Orleans after the hurricane made landfall. But the suffering in New Orleans was not, in fact, the direct result of the hurricane: It was the direct result of the failure of the levees that had been built by the Army Corps of Engineers. There was no escaping federal responsibility both for the catastrophe and for the response, or lack thereof.

Alan Wolfe is one of the few non-Christian writers who write about Christianity with deep insights that require attention. I can't think of another who would notice, still less understand, why what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty, or "freedom from,” ultimately cannot be the source of any synthesis between liberalism and Christian faith, that only a Kantian positive notion of liberty, or "freedom for,” can effectively enter into dialogue with Christian theology. Again, those pages alone are worth the price of the book.

Read this book. Dog-ear it. Keep it close at hand. Like its author, it is a treasure trove of intelligence, decency and wisdom.

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