Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Religion of the State

Jonah Goldberg's new book Liberal Fascism reminds me of all the great stuff I read in the 1980's by Rushdoony. He was at his best when he was critiquing the pretensions of the modern messianic state. Goldberg's perspective complements Rushdoony's and is desperately needed in 21st century America. Here's a nice summary of his thesis (pp. 22-23):
Today's liberalism doesn't seek to conquer the world by force of arms. It is not a nationalistic and genocidal project. To the contrary, it is an ideology of good intentions. But we all know where even the best of intentions can take us. I have not written a book about how all liberals are Nazis or fascists. Rather, I have tried to write a book warning that even the best of us are susceptible to the totalitarian temptation.

This includes some self-described conservatives. Compassionate conservatism, in many respects, is a form of Progressivism, a descendent of Christian socialism. Much of George W. Bush's rhetoric about leaving no children behind and how "when somebody hurts, government has to move" bespeaks a vision of the state that is indeed totalitarian in its aspirations and not particularly conservative in the American sense. Once again, it is a nice totalitarianism, motivated no doubt by sincere Christian love (thankfully tempered by poor implementation); but love, too, can be smothering. . . .

Finally, since we must have a working definition of fascism, here is mine: Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that if views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force of through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy. I will argue that contemporary liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism.


Jim said...

[1] In Bk 4 of "Democracy in America," Tocqueville demonstrates incredible prescience regarding the government of "kind intentions." An abosolutely stunning description of the bureaucratic state before it existed.

[2] I'd argue that "compassionate conservatism" has more in line with European-style Christian Democracy than with Social Democracy (socialism). Since Christian Democracy arose in direct reaction to Social Democracy, it's a hard argument that the former is actually a form of the latter.

[3] Interesting reference to "conservative in the American sense." Some of Goldberg's objections could be aimed at Edmund Burke, who is "the" conservative, but not in the American sense."

"American conservatives" of Goldberg's ilk are 19th century liberals, a la J.S. Mill. And that, in itself, is a totalizing ideology -- and one hostile to Christianity (and religion more generally).

No thanks.

[4] Finally, while there might be some echos between Goldberg's and Rushdoony's criticisms, Goldberg would surely include Rushdoony's "reconstructionism" in his criticisms of "totalitarian" conservatism.

Jeff Meyers said...

Jim: have you read Goldberg? Or Rushdoony for that matter?

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Rushdoonyite site; please visit

Jim said...


I've read a lot of Goldberg's essasys, albeit not this book. I'm responding to what you quoted; I didn't mean to imply otherwise.

I've also read Rushdoony. Maybe four or five books, perhaps more, and a number of his essays.


Jeff Meyers said...


I'm not quite sure how Goldberg or anyone else could include Rushdoony's political position in the category of totalitarian statism. Whether Rushdoony had more in common with 19th-century "liberalism" of the J.S.Mill variety, I don't know. But what I do know is that he could have written the last paragraph of Goldberg that I quoted.

Jim said...


I obviously didn't make myself clear. (And I don't mean that in the backhanded way that you didn't read me correctly.) Sorry about that.

I meant to agree that Goldberg's and Rushdoony's criticism of the modern state were similar.

I took issue with Goldberg's characterization that "compassionate conservatism" has a flavor of the totalitarianism he's decrying. To be sure, Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was pretty much punted after 9/11 (although witness his Africa trip right now), and has not been systematically articulated (although cf., the UT journalism professor -- what's his name -- who I "think" coined "compassionate conservatism").

It seems to me that Goldberg pretty much reduces "conservatism" to "promoting markets." (See, e.g., his WaPo editorial in Jaunary on the state of conservatism.) To be sure, there are nods to cultural conservatism, but whenever he gets systematic, it seems to me that he punts the culture and just goes for the market. That's why I think the tug is to 19th century "classical liberalism."

And it seems to me that if Goldberg thinks that what we have today is liberal totalitarianism, then he would almost certainly categorize Rushdoony's Christian state as totalitarian also. Now maybe not strictly speaking, given family and church institutions, but my recollection is that Rushdoony believes that Christianity is a totalistic world-view (not in the bad sense, of course, but in the "theonomy or autonomy" sort of way), and that biblical law would extend over "culture" and "economics" as well.

I just figure that Rushdoony's society was extend quite a ways beyond what Goldberg would consider an appropriate mixture of religion and government.

I hope that's clearer.

Jeff Meyers said...


Thank you for clarifying. It's always sobering to me how easy it is to misread the kind of short, quick comments we all make to blogs.

Yes, I agree that Goldberg, as well as many other conservatives, are focused on economics and the freedom of the market place. Mostly. But his book, as opposed to his essays and columns, really does reveal Goldberg's concern for life beyond the market. There's a lot more depth in this book.

I think you may be using "totalitarian" in a more metaphorical sense in your last paragraph about Rushdoony. Yes, perhaps we might say that RJR had a "totalizing" philosophy of the state. But his "totalizing" perspective on the state was to de-totalitarianize it. RJR's understanding of the state was actually pretty post-modern in many ways. He rejected the modernism's penchant for totalizing.