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image of original book cover why liberalism failed

Why Liberalism Failed

Patrick J. Deneen
Published by Yale University Press in 2018

Yes, we need to critique the shortcomings of modern liberalism. But we also need a better model of authority, one shorn of nostalgia, patriarchy, and dangerous inattention to abuses of power.  Without that, our future may be even bleaker than that which Deneen depicts.


“Where Do Women Belong? A Critique of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Calvin College Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood, Henry Institute, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dec. 6, 2018

“We the people”…But exactly who are “the people” who are forming this more perfect union, and securing the blessings of liberty to themselves, and their posterity?

How well has the American political experiment done in providing not just equal opportunity, but belonging for all? More pointedly, are liberty and equality at odds with belonging?

These are some of the questions I’ve been asked to reflect on today, and I’ll be doing so in light of Patrick Deneen’s expansive critique of liberalism.

As a historian of women and gender, I’ll answer these questions with attention to gender. Feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe has invited us to ask a very simple question when it comes to any area of inquiry: Where are the women? This is a question that I always bring to texts, perhaps especially texts that are as sweeping, and at times abstract, as Deneen’s. I read his book with this question constantly at the fore. With each sentence, with each mention of “citizen,” of members of communities, families, the nation—is he talking about women, and if so, how? (The question of race is of course also important to consider in this way).

Where are the Women?

Here are a few claims that Deneen makes.

In his book, Deneen mourns the redefinition of liberty from a condition based on self-restraint to something defined by “the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition” (27). He laments the decline of “virtue” and an erosion of the common good, and regrets that “an emphasis on character was rejected as paternalistic and oppressive” (29). Sadly, liberty now “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms” (38). We are now left with an insidious liberalism, one that “ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth” (5). All this, of course, leads to very bad things.

At one point, Deneen contrasts John Stuart Mill’s liberalism, which he insists is “shaped largely for the benefit of the few strong,” with a Burkean society that “is organized for the benefit of the ordinary”—who benefit from informal “norms and customs that secure the path to flourishing for the most human beings” (148). But when we liberate people from the constraint of custom, we are left with a society” that benefits the powerful. As a US historian, it’s not hard to accept that liberalism has its downsides. It’s harder, however, to accept the claim that its alternative has long promoted the benefit of “the ordinary.” Just who counts as “ordinary,” in his book?

I think a closer look at agency is also in order. Did the old form of liberty, back in the good ol days, really privilege self-restraint? Or did it recommend self-restraint as an ideal, an ideal that only applied to powerful white men (and even then an ideal preached more often than practiced), because women, children, and people of color were otherwise restrained.

It’s not that Deneen neglects women entirely in his narrative. But on the rare occasions when he does address women specifically, as often as not it’s to deflect the obvious criticism that he might be overlooking the good liberalism has done for women. He quickly criticizes these imagined critics as those who would “regard any critique of liberalism as a proposal to thrust women back into preliberal bondage” (187). Well, then.

He goes on to argue that “the main practical achievement of this liberation of women has been to move many of them into the workforce of market capitalism, a condition that traditionalists like Wendell Berry…[and]…Marxist political theorists…regard as a highly dubious form of liberation.” Not only that, but, according to Deneen, “Today we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology, which frees them to serve a different, disembodied body—“corporate” America—and participate in an economic order that effectively obviates any actual political liberty. Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men alike into a far more encompassing bondage” (187). Make no mistake. Liberalism does not liberate women.

It’s worth noting that Deneen seems to hold a remarkably low view of work here. Or at least of women’s work outside the home.

There are many Christian discussions of vocation upon which I could draw, but instead let me turn to a classic feminist text to suggest that Deneen might be unfairly construing liberal feminism. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that women have been “denied full humanity, denied the human right to create, to invent, to go beyond mere living to find a meaning for life in projects of ever-widening scope. Man ‘remodels the face of the earth, he creates new instruments, he invents, he shapes the future’; woman, on the other hand, is always and archetypally Other. She is seen by and for men, always the object and never the subject.” ….”what she represents is more important than what she is, what she herself experiences.”[1]

(I can’t help but wonder if the real problem here is liberalism, or capitalism? Did not capitalism have a hand in doing away with public virtue, by redefining it as a feminine quality and one suited to the private, domestic sphere, so that men could pursue their economic self-interest unfettered? Is Deneen not continuing in this domestication and privatization of virtue, with his embrace of female domesticity?)

Deneen’s account is an expansive one, and I cannot do justice to the full range of his arguments. Today I will simply offer a few points for consideration in order to complicate some of the central lessons I think Deneen wishes us to draw.

All Men Would Be Tyrants: Abigail Adams

First, to our nation’s founding.

image of Abigail Adams, National Gallery (public domain)
Abigail Adams, National Gallery

Let’s begin with a well-known exchange between Abigail Adams and her husband John, in the spring of 1776.

On the 31st of March, Abigail writes to John:

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us….

I long to hear that you have declared an independency and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.[2]

A couple of weeks later John responded:

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight…[3]

It takes three weeks for Abigail to respond. As she put it, she did not feel “in a humor to entertain” him. “If I had taken up my pen,” she wrote, “perhaps some unbecoming invective might have fallen from it…” She went on…

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken…[4]

This isn’t just a charming anecdote of the hypocrisy of liberal men, I think.

Authority and Community

Let’s bring Abigail into conversation with Deneen for a moment. Abigail reminds us that we must be attentive to questions of power. I’d like to suggest that attention to power is not simply a passing postmodernist fad, but essential to our cultivation of authentic virtue. And, I think the case could be made that a revolutionary practice of the divestment of power is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. Abigail had eyes to see arbitrary and coercive wielding of power as problematic; John did not.

What role does power, and the coercive use of power, play in Deneen’s account? Little by way of overt discussion, but much if we read between the lines.

What role does power, and the coercive use of power, play in Deneen’s account? Little by way of overt discussion, but much if we read between the lines.

And that is why I want to set up what I think is a key dilemma of modern life—liberal or post-liberal. What is the relationship between authority, freedom, and community. Deneen suggests that freedom in the form it currently takes is antithetical to community. He is less explicit about the necessity of authority in enforcing the bonds that make community possible. But I think this can very much be inferred, on nearly every page of his book. I want to think about this tradeoff more explicitly.

Here I find the work of Alan Ehrenhalt, and his history of the 1950s, especially helpful. In his book The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, Ehrenhalt explores precisely this tradeoff through the lens of three Chicago neighborhoods—an ethnic working-class Catholic neighborhood, a segregated black neighborhood, and a middle-class white suburb. As his subtitle suggests, he challenges the liberal narrative that markets and unlimited choice are good for communities; to the contrary, he pits community against choice.

He traces the decline of community from the 1950s to the 1960s in all three neighborhoods, but he does not present his communities through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia. In the Catholic schools and neighborhoods, there was little privacy, harsh and often arbitrary discipline, oppressive shame, domestic abuse, local corruption, inequality, manipulation, and unchecked abuses of power. We now know that in these Catholic churches and schools, there was also widespread sexual assault that was facilitated in part by the authority those institutions wielded. All this leaves Ehrenhalt to wonder if the consequence of the abuse of authority didn’t leave an entire generation of Americans less able to consider the legitimate role of authority in a civil society. Who could blame them?

Then, we have the Bronzeville ghetto. A community rich with social bonds and vibrant local business. And a community formed through coercive segregation, inequality, cruelty, and injustice. With desegregation came liberation, and also the breakdown of a vibrant community. There were trade-offs. But when given the power to choose, many African Americans chose to abandon that community. They were aware of what was lost, even as they sought greater opportunities—not just financial opportunities, but opportunities for human flourishing, for themselves and their families.

In the father-knows-best community of Elmhurst, Ehrenhalt finds a community rooted in conformity. This is ground zero for American nostalgia, but it was also where many men worked dull jobs, where many women felt desperately isolated in suburban homes, sometimes popping valium to get through one tedious day after another. This is where young people “found the suburban community of the 1950s so fraudulent that almost any excess in the name of individualism could be justified.”

When it comes to authority and community, according to Ehrenhalt, a tradeoff must be made. The real question I think we ought to consider is, who will be making those choices, and for whom?

The Dangers of Nostalgia

Back to Deneen. Let’s look briefly at who gets things right, according to Deneen. The Amish. At times it seems that Deneen’s enthusiasm for the Amish rivals that of the Christian romance industry. Now Deneen is absolutely right to point out that there is a certain freedom in choosing to abstain from technology. Technology is not neutral, and it too often defines our choices in ways we remain dangerously oblivious to. The Amish subject every technology to the basic question: “Will this or won’t it help support the fabric of our community?”

What is, again, left unexamined here, is who ultimately asks and answers this question. The Amish “community” is a patriarchal one with direct and often unbending exercise of authority. From a distance, this might look like cheerful barn raisings and fresh-baked pies and handcrafted furniture, but up close things look a little less picturesque. Long before our #MeToo movement, stories were emerging about the devastating, predatory rape culture that flourishes, unchecked, within many Mennonite and Amish communities. I’m not here to take pot shots at the Amish, and they certainly don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to sexual abuse. But within their communities, the very authority structures and customs and coercive bonds that hold the community together, also facilitate the abuse of women—and provide women who are victimized with little or no recourse.

This may sound harsh. But in this #MeToo era, I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the persistence of sexual abuse in so many religious communities. Calling attention to this isn’t just a fad. Or it shouldn’t be. My first book traces the emergence of what we might now call feminist theologies in evangelical Protestantism in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. I write about Madeline Southard, a woman who thought it was a problem when women were defined primarily in terms of their relationships to men, rather than as individuals in their own right. In determining a woman’s status based on her being “the wife, mother, daughter, concubine or mistress of some man,” rather than “a person in herself,” Christians placed women at risk, she insisted.[5] Southard called out the spurious nature of men’s “protection”: “when men think of women as primarily the creatures of their sex relationships and of their blood relationships,” yet deny women any sense of equality with men, “they may love their own women, their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters,” and they might “go to great lengths to please women who attract them and from whom they wish to secure favors,” but outside of these circles “they are rude to women with a rudeness that easily slips into cruelty.”[6] This was not Jesus’ way of treating women. True “biblical womanhood” affirmed women’s status independent of their relationships.

Katharine Bushnell, too, penned a remarkable revisionist theology in which she took issue with “masculine egotism” that had produced “a whole fossilized system of theology” that gave men authority over women not because of their moral or spiritual character, but simply because of their male bodies.[7]

It’s worth noting that both of these women upheld the authority of the scriptures and neither of these women was motivated to thrust women into the capitalist workforce or to enhance women’s opportunities for sexual pleasure. They had both dedicated their lives to addressing the sexual abuse of women—of wives, of prostitutes, of “fallen women.” Only reluctantly did they locate patriarchal Christianity at the heart of the abuse of women. Here’s how Bushnell came to this conclusion: “The crime [of sexual assault] [was] indirectly the fruit of the theology, since if theology teaches the enslavement of woman to man inside the marriage relation… Men cannot make unquestioning, obedient slaves of wives only—sooner or later the iniquity of slavery will be visited upon the head of unmarried women also; for iniquity knows not the name of restriction.”[8]

Bushnell insisted that the sexual violence Christian men perpetrated against women—and the dismissal of this violence on the part of “respectable” Christian women and men—ought “to spoil all such theology as that.”[9] If you have never heard of Southard or Bushnell, it may be worth reflecting on why that is.

Finally, there’s Deneen’s hero, Wendell Berry. Full disclosure, I like Berry. I assign Berry in some of my classes. But when I read Berry, I ask…Where are the women? More often than not, they’re in the kitchen. Quite literally, if you read his fiction. Now, I like meal prep, the chore of daily cooking, and doing dishes as much as the next person…which is to say, I find this somewhat problematic.

Berry offers a beautiful vision of community “as a rich and varied set of personal relationships, a complex of practices and traditions drawn from a store of memory and tradition, and a set of bonds forged between a people and a place that—because of this situatedness—is not portable, mobile, fungible, or transferable. Community is more than a collection of self-interested individuals seeking personal advancement. Rather, it ‘lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness’” (78). While beautiful, this is all rather abstract.

Again, we would do well to ask what these bonds look like. Exactly who forges these bonds, and under what terms? As Sarah Grimke reminded us, bonds can hold people together, and they can hold people down. They often do both at the same time.

According to Berry, for community to work, “individualistic tendencies toward narrow self-fulfillment” must be disciplined. Deneen notes that Berry commends “arrangements [that] include marriage, family structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility for the instruction of children…” (79).

So here we learn that divisions of work and authority are necessary for community. Again, a question of agency. Who divides work, who assigns authority? Who wields power, and to what ends? What check is there on that power, besides a self-avowed commitment to “virtue” and “self-restraint”—terms that are much more slippery in practice than in theory?

Berry (and presumably Deneen) believes that these arrangements exist, in part, to reduce the volatility and dangers of sex, and more generally, to “chasten the absolutist claims of ‘rights bearers’” by maintaining “internally derived standards of decency” (79). What this might look like in practice includes removing books from libraries, insisting on Bible instruction in the classroom, private schools, and homeschooling.

Maybe It’s Just the Patriarchy

If this is starting to sound like the Benedict Option, you’re right. Both Dreher and Deneen see the liberal state as the antithesis of community. Beating back the liberal state is essential to preserving community—maintaining freedom from the liberal state is necessary in order to maintain the power to dictate the customs, rules, constraints for one’s own community. But, again, who is doing the dictating? In a patriarchal culture, it is largely the men who take it upon themselves to do the dictating, if not the enforcing.

At its root, is the rejection of the “liberal empire” and resistance to the expansion of the state really just an attempt to shore up the power of the patriarch?

How one responds to this question in all likelihood depends on whether one views patriarchal authority—or white patriarchal authority—as normative. Is patriarchy part of a creational order? Or is this the reflection of a corruption of community, a misuse of power.

A Way Forward

We must also consider the nature of authority more generally, and its relationship to community.

What is the nature of biblical authority? Bushnell asked precisely this question, and to her the cross was key. How could men who purported to follow Christ—the incarnate God who emptied himself and submitted to death on a cross—do so by claiming power over women—or anyone, for that matter. As she understood the gospel message, only a sinner would wish “to exalt himself and have dominion over others”—and he would do so “in exact proportion to the degree of selfishness in his heart.”

Might we not find in our Christian faith the makings of a different model of authority, a different pattern for social cohesion, one that does not pit freedom against community, because it redefines both. So yes, we need to critique the shortcomings of modern liberalism. We need a better model of freedom, of liberation, of human dignity and rights—certainly better than what may or may not be offered by the hollow, “deracinated” liberalism Deneen depicts. But we also need a model of authority and power that is far from that which is so often wielded by the few over the many. Without that, I fear our future may be even bleaker than that which Deneen depicts.


[1] This paraphrase of de Beauvoir is taken from Margaret Walters, Feminism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 98.

[2] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March, 1776,

[3] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April, 1776,

[4] Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 May, 1776,

[5] M. Madeline Southard, The Attitude of Jesus toward Woman (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), 15.

[6] Southard, The Attitude of Jesus, 100.

[7] See Kristin Kobes Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 92-93.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. “Where Do Women Belong? A Critique of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.” Lecture, Calvin College Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood, Henry Institute, Grand Rapids, Michigan, December 6, 2018.

Conversation & Connection

One Comment

  • This is fabulously well-done. Thank you for taking the time to write this. And thanks especially for this line, which is one of the most delightful I’ve read in awhile:

    “At times it seems that Deneen’s enthusiasm for the Amish rivals that of the Christian romance industry.”

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