Thoughts on Non-Western Liberalism

My friend Tracy Johnson passed along Paul Miller’s 2018 article “Non-‘Western’ Liberalism and the Resilience of the Liberal International Order”. Miller takes Donald Trump’s 2017 speech in Warsaw on the nature of liberalism’s relationship to Western civilization as his jumping off point. Miller argues that liberalism could have developed anywhere in the world, not just the West, and that the nature, origins, and failures of global liberalism and democracy demonstrate that liberalism does not need the civilizational features of the West (i.e., Christendom and its legacy) in order to flourish. It was a good read, and provoked a few thoughts from me. In no particular order,

1. Miller is working in the area of political science, not philosophy. Political science can be a helpful discipline (I did my undergraduate degree in it) to understand the quantifiable effects of policies, but it cannot determine whether policies are good. The good is a philosophical question; science, including political science, can only measure effects. But even the nature of the measuring rod used (e.g. the different ways Freedom House and the Center for Systemic Peace try to measure [quantify] freedom [qualitative]) is philosophically charged. Political science often makes the same mistake of the other sciences in thinking that the manner of measurement and the object being measured are objective and accessible, rather than subjective. This was one of the frequent critiques of Miller’s 2022 The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism. Miller in this article makes the same assumption: that the measure of freedom in a country is the same thing as its degree of liberality.

2. History is both accidental and providential. Miller rejects a point made by then-President Donald Trump, and says,

It is reasonable to believe that liberalism is uniquely Western because European thinkers originally explicated its philosophical justifications and most of its institutions first appeared in European nations. But the intellectual lineage of this view does not make it correct. Trump’s view is historically and culturally deterministic, and the facts do not support his determinism. The history of the relationship between liberalism and Western history is just that— history.

Now, all of history is contingent and accidental in the sense that God is not bound by history, and could have used any culture or historic moment to accomplish his will. It is also accidental in the sense that there is nothing inherent in the Roman Empire and its people (origins of Christendom and the West) over the Parthian Empire in being essential to the gospel and the church. In that, I agree with Miller. However, history is deterministic because God works all things according to the counsel of his will. We don’t know (and can’t know!) whether liberalism could have ever first developed in nations that are uninfluenced or uncontacted by Christendom. But the fact is that liberalism did first develop in the West, through Christian values incubated by Christendom. Perhaps this is just an accident of history, but God does determine all things.

Another aspect of this that Miller misses is that while nations may be accidents of history, the church is not. As he acknowledges, the West are those nations coming out of Christendom. God directs and oversees his church in a special way, which is very deterministic. Christendom is the society where the church is the soil of culture. If liberalism is inherently, and not incidentally, connected to the West, it would be because the church led culture. And that is not accidental.

3. This was Trump’s point, and what Miller recognized as one of the historic perspectives of classical conservatism. He mentions this view being held by Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, but could have gone on to include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adam, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Michael Oakshott, and Russell Kirk. What these statesmen and philosophers all have in common is that for liberalism to be maintained and flourish requires a liberal society, not just a liberal government. A culture needs to hold to the values of liberalism (e.g. natural rights being inherent and pre-political, the love of place as home, respect for social order and decorum, individual rights being secured against the state, government existing to secure the rights of its people, etc.) for a liberal government to be maintained. A democratic government or nation is not the same as a liberal nation. Miller’s citation of Iraq is a laughable example of him holding to a measuring stick (democracy) for liberalism that just falls flat. I suspect (hope) that he would also update his article to downplay Turkey’s and India’s “liberalism” since 2018. And the fact that he rejects Hungary’s explicit Christian identity in its constitution and is cool to its recent moves, very much democratic, indicates a waffling on this standard. Prominent Non-Western democracies are moving away from liberalism while another nation is maintaining liberalism with democratic moves being condemned for producing results not to Miller’s liking.

In short, for liberalism to endure it requires the soil that Trump paid lip service to in that 2017 speech. And the soil does not automatically produce liberality, only the conditions for it to last. This is why countries that are part of the West (e.g. Eastern Europe) are not necessarily at all times liberal.

4) Miller shows that the not all post-colonial nations became liberal and that some nations became liberal without any colonialism from the West. I think there are two explanations for this. First, not all colonialism is the same. The French and Belgian were far more interested in exploitation of resources than the Dutch, who had a mercantile approach. The British were also focused on civilizing their colonies. In short, different models of Western colonialism would have produced differing long-term effects before you even take into account the very real agency of the indigenous people. And this is exactly what you find: colonies that were held with a more civilizational perspective had more missionaries which produced more churches which led to more liberal democracy. The famous 2012 article “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” shows this definitively. In other words, the places that were colonized by nations dedicated to spreading the West (i.e. Christendom) are the ones most likely to be liberal now.

Second, Miller never answers a very simple question: For those countries without a history of liberalism, Christendom, or colonialism (e.g. Nepal) why was liberal democracy the alternative on which the nation settled? Why not some other model or some transitional practices or mediating structures? After all, this is what happened historically: liberalism was not invented in a laboratory, but something that grew over millennia. The difference now, of course, is that non-liberal nations can currently see liberal democracies. The West is globally hegemonic with the United States at the forefront of that. Simply put, nations without a history of liberalism or democracy that now embrace them are doing so out of imitation.

Great! This indicates that liberalism does not just have historical origins in the West, but its conceptual structure is entirely Western. Non-Western liberalism is still, actually, Western because it is living in the philosophical house built by Christendom. That house lasting without the foundations of the West’s values held by those nations is an open question that only time will tell.