Liberal Amnesia: Review of “The Pretenses of Loyalty,” Pt. 1

John Perry’s recent book “The Pretenses of Loyalty” offers a clear, penetrating, and persuasive diagnosis of the predicament of contemporary liberal political theory through consideration not only of its present tensions, but more importantly, of its amnesia regarding its historical foundations. I say clear because Perry’s exposition is tightly focused, lucidly written, and structured so as to ensure ease of understanding. By missing no opportunity to repeat his main thesis and the key issues at stake, he walks a fine line, to be sure, between assisting and insulting his readers, but ultimately avoids the latter in my judgment. The diagnosis is penetrating because it does not rest content with surveying the ongoing contemporary conflicts between politics and religion and the critiques marshaled by communitarian theorists such as Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish—though he does this admirably in the first two chapters—but digs right down to the historical roots of liberal theory, the amnesia of which, he argues, is largely responsible for its present predicament….

John Perry’s recent book The Pretenses of Loyalty offers a clear, penetrating, and persuasive diagnosis of the predicament of contemporary liberal political theory through consideration not only of its present tensions, but more importantly, of its amnesia regarding its historical foundations.  I say clear because Perry’s exposition is tightly focused, lucidly written, and structured so as to ensure ease of understanding.  By missing no opportunity to repeat his main thesis and the key issues at stake, he walks a fine line, to be sure, between assisting and insulting his readers, but ultimately avoids the latter in my judgment.  The diagnosis is penetrating because it does not rest content with surveying the ongoing contemporary conflicts between politics and religion and the critiques marshaled by communitarian theorists such as Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish—though he does this admirably in the first two chapters—but digs right down to the historical roots of liberal theory, the amnesia of which, he argues, is largely responsible for its present predicament.

The argument is persuasive largely because of Perry’s limited objectives.  Critics of modernity, lining up to tell us where Western society went wrong in its turn towards liberalism, are legion today, even if their stridency has subsided somewhat in the past few years.  But rather than resorting to grand narratives that reach back to the Reformation, to Duns Scotus, or even to Constantine, and which draw heavily on a vast panoply of theological and historical resources, Perry confines himself to consideration of John Locke alone, who largely deserves, he contends, the pride of place that has been conferred on him as liberalism’s founding father.  By attending closely in chapters 3-5 to the structure of Locke’s thought (including, importantly, his early thought), Perry argues, we shall better understand the full complexity of the problem of religion and politics, and the oversimplification that has dogged Rawlsian liberalism’s approach to the problem.  Although narrow in focus, Perry’s argument sheds light on a very broad range of problems that afflict contemporary liberal theory and society.

Having offered a diagnosis, does Perry also venture a prescription to fix liberalism, or to replace it with an alternative vision?  No, not really.  He intentionally refrains from such grand pretensions in his closing two chapters, confining himself to surveying some promising (though in each case flawed) recent strategies for forging a successful pluralist public order, and offering a few tentative suggestions of his own at the end.  However, he argues (rightly, in my view) that accurate diagnosis is itself an immense step forward.  By rightly understanding the full scope of the problem that faces us, we disabuse ourselves of the illusion that civic harmony eludes us only because of intolerance or stubbornness, that balance can be achieved if we just tweak some principle or change some law.  The one firm prescription he offers is that we remove liberalism’s self-imposed barriers to mutual comprehension—its policy of “abstract respect” which imagines a homogeneity among citizens that does not exist, and makes us unable to appreciate or navigate the true nature of our differences.

The lack of clean answers, then, should not be viewed as a shortcoming of the book.  If it does have a weakness, though, it is the flip side of its strength—its narrow focus.  By confining himself so strictly to Locke in tracing the sources of the “conflict of loyalties” that undermines modern political thought, Perry deprives himself of the rich insight that could be gained by examining the back-story to Locke’s contribution.  To be sure, he does not pretend that Locke wrote in a vacuum, and attempts to give a cursory overview of the 17th-century debates that he was heir to.  However, it is only cursory, and this leads Perry to attribute too much originality to both the problems Locke faced and the solutions he offered.  Fuller consideration of Richard Hooker, for instance (by Locke’s own acknowledgement, one of his key sources), and to the dynamics of Elizabethan religious and political controversy, could have considerably enriched his account of the dilemma that Locke faced and sought to resolve.

But enough of the prolegomena.  What was this dilemma?  What, on Perry’s diagnosis, is the missing key whose absence has left contemporary liberalism confused and ailing?  The title of the book provides the answer—it is the concept of loyalty, and the danger, which all political societies are subject to, of “pretenses of loyalty.”  Perry illustrates the problem for us at the outset with the tale of Antigone—tragically and hopelessly torn between her loyalty to the polis, which summons her to obey Creon, and her religious-familial loyalty, which summons her to bury her brother.  In this play, Sophocles confronts us with the prospect that at times, two equally legitimate but contradictory claims will confront us, each demanding our action through the strong ties of loyalty that we have pledged, to our gods and to our fatherland.  “Johannine liberalism” (the strand running from John Locke through John Rawls) says Perry, has imagined that such conflicts of loyalty can be readily avoided through carefully establishing the “just bounds” of religion and politics: “If we align the authorities just so and if we divide up the jurisdictions just right, the good citizen and the faithful believer will always follow the same course” (6).

But as a host of controversial court cases over many decades, have shown, and more recently, tense relations between Islam and Western democracies, this harmonious outcome is not so readily forthcoming.  This is because our loyalties do not in fact make such neatly circumscribed claims upon us.  We are not abstract, disembodied individuals who make particular religious and political commitments, but are socially embedded beings, and our loyalties are constitutive of our identities.  “We experience our duties as tied to larger self-constituting loyalties,” says Perry (6), just as Antigone did.  Thus polities committed to establishing a religiously-neutral public space are condemned to failure as long as religious believers are among their citizenry.  Such believers simply cannot shed their religious loyalty like a cloak when they enter the public square, and there is no guaranteeing in advance that it will not make claims upon them that conflict with their loyalty to the public good.

And yet if we concede to believers the right to carry their loyalties with them into the public square, do we not mortally imperil the public good?  For if genuine religious loyalties weren’t threatening enough (and they may be), how are we to prevent fictitious claims about religious duties?  Will we not besieged with new religious sects insisting that their Scriptures forbid them to pay taxes?  This is the “pretense of loyalty.”  But the danger can go the other way.  Might not the city, pretending that the common good is at stake, make unreasonable demands on its citizens to abandon their religious loyalties?  As Perry shows, when we read Locke’s famous line about the “just bounds” in its original context, we find that he is in fact keenly aware of this danger of pretense.

Most urgently of all, this problem of loyalty threatens to disrupt the highest goal of liberal boundary drawing: toleration.  The purpose of seeking the “just bounds” between religion and politics to begin with, as the title of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration reminds us, was to enable the public toleration of all religions within a polity, a goal that was later widened into the liberal commitment to toleration more generally, predicated upon “abstract respect for persons.”  But religious believers, Perry points out, can only be convinced to embrace such toleration if they are sure their religious loyalty will not conflict with it.  For those believers convinced that God requires them to kill or proselytize all those of other religions, toleration cannot be an acceptable goal.  Indeed, if one believes, as do many conservative religious believers, that God may judge the commonwealth that rebels against Him, then we cannot be so sure of Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted line that “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Loyalties, in short, are not so easily disentangled as the modern “jurisdictional approach” would have us believe.  Perry summarizes, “It is unworkable on practical grounds and inaccurate on historical grounds (as we shall see, even Locke knew there was more to it). More important, however, it fails to account for how humans actually understand their obligations. To look at theopolitical conflicts solely through a boundary-drawing lens distorts our vision” (6).

So what did Locke know that many of his followers today no longer seem to?  Well, Perry argues, he realized what communitarian critics of Rawls such as Sandel and Kwame Appiah have pointed out—that fundamental loyalties are at stake, and must be faced down and harmonized before we can begin the business of distinguishing the “just bounds” of politics and religion.  Locke, Perry will show, recognized that such a “harmonization of loyalties” could only be achieved by persuading his readers not merely of the nature of political society, but of the nature of religion, so that its just demands might be understood not to conflict with the public good.  So successful did Locke’s harmonization prove, says Perry, that we have been able to forget it ever happened.  We have been able to delude ourselves that his “just bounds” were founded on timeless truths about the nature of religion and politics, and not on a particular theological construal that had to be contended for, and which is fast losing its persuasive power in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Although we have here telescoped Perry’s Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, together into the briefest synopsis (omitting his detailed analysis of debates in recent decades between such figures as Rawls, Sandel, Galston, Fish, Kymlicka, Gutmann, Appiah, Strauss, and Hauerwas), Perry clearly considers the historical examination the heart of his account, and it is to this that we shall turn in the next two installments of this review.

Brad Littlejohn is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is working under Oliver O’Donovan on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker.  He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the field of political theology, in which he has forthcoming book chapters on the role of Scripture in political discourse and on theological approaches to property rights. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!