Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on conservatism and liberalism.
Last year, I published “The Limits of Liberalism.” While the book is primarily about theological liberalism rather than social or political liberalism (my main concern here), there are definite overlaps.
In short, in whatever context they are being considered, liberals tend to have too high an opinion of human nature and thereby are often “guilty” of pride and misplaced optimism.
In the political sphere, those attitudes lead, among other things, to an overemphasis on the role of government to solve problems.
One of the more important quotes in “The Limits of Liberalism” is found under the title of the eighth chapter, “The Limits of Liberalism’s Understanding of Sin.”
Writing in his 2009 book “When Atheism Becomes Religion,” Chris Hedges, a former journalist for the New York Times, says, “We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin.”
Liberals talk a lot about social problems, and may even talk about “social sin,” but they tend to think that with enough human effort those societal sins can be overcome.
And make no mistake about it: There have been many social ills that have been largely overcome by the work of those who can rightfully be called liberals.
In the United States, slavery has been abolished, as have the evils of child labor and the exploitation of adult workers, as well as the male dominance of women, to a large degree. But can government create an ideal society?
As I write in “The Limits of Liberalism,” “Back in the 1960s, one of my revered seminary professors made what I thought were rather snide remarks about President Johnson’s attempts to create a ‘great society’ in the United States.”
Dr. Rust saw Johnson’s liberal policies as evidence of hubris, which the dictionary defines as “overbearing pride or presumption.” Rust may well have been right.
Liberals tend to see education and the creation of a positive social environment as cures for society’s ills.
Moreover, according to social and political liberals, it is the role of government to provide that education and to create that desired social environment. Again, education and safe environments are very important.
But problems remain. I also remember Rust emphasizing that if you educate a sinner, what you get is an educated sinner who will then be able to sin more ingeniously. And he was probably right.
Doesn’t it seem as though the greatest “sins” of our times have been committed by well-educated, well-heeled and well-placed people of power?
Partly because of their overly optimistic view of human nature, liberals tend to place too much emphasis on legislation and government spending to solve social problems and create social change.
They often fail to stress personal responsibility.
So perhaps liberalism’s main shortcoming is, indeed, its failure to recognize the problem of sin, which among other things means innate self-centeredness, and which is the root of personal and public problems that no government program can destroy.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. This column appeared previously on his blog.