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Liberalism's Achilles Heel

How the Left exploited the separation of church and state and installed a new bureaucratic morality.

The following remarks are from a speech at Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, Hungary. Please share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below.

We’re going to be talking today about the “long march through the institutions.” It’s a phrase that originates with the West German Marxist activist Rudi Dutschke, but in some ways takes its most impressive form in the United States. I’d like to explain why the United States was vulnerable to this kind of strategy and discuss the capture of state institutions from the 1960s to the present, the emergence of a new left-wing bureaucratic morality, and then suggest what can be done about it.

I think the key question that provides the foundation for all of this is the United States’ longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state. This is part of our history, a very basic tenet of our form of government. And the idea at the time, which was developed by English philosophers and then adopted in the United States during and after the revolution, was that a solution to the religious wars that had ravaged Europe for centuries was to have a strict separation of the church and the state, or the civil society and the government. And the idea was that if you could delegate religious or theological questions to the private sphere—in the United States, we had a pluralistic tradition of many different churches and religious faiths—and then have the government administer the state institutions in a more neutral way. You also had a common moral consensus that was able to downplay some of those doctrinal conflicts and depolarize what is called the “theological-political problem.”

And, for a long period of time, this worked quite brilliantly. But the problem is that this form of governing had three presuppositions. First, it presupposed a limited government, the idea that the government should be small and limit itself to only securing the basic liberties of the people. Second, it presupposed a robust civil society. This is something that the United States has always had. Even observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville saw that Americans were born organizers and had these very strong networks of non-governmental institutions. And third, it presupposed a basic consensus on Christian morality or Christian ethics, in other words, that all of the people of the time had the same basic Christian ethical framework, even if they had debates about doctrinal issues, they could be delegated to private society.

The problem is that all three of these conditions have now been eclipsed. All of the presuppositions that made this form of government possible no longer apply. First, conservatives in the United States have waged a hundred-year campaign, starting in the 1930s, to reduce the size of government. But, with the exception of a blip following World War Two, this campaign has failed. As a percentage of GDP, the United States government now spends approximately 45% of its economic output as government expenditure. And now the United States federal government spends more money as a percentage of GDP than communist China. It’s a very strange inversion, in which the most theoretically capitalist country has a larger state sector than the most theoretically communist country in the world.

Second, civil society in the United States has been in free fall for decades. Scholars on the Left and Right are in agreement on this. You have someone such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam on the Left or the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray on the Right, who have documented the dissolution of America’s social fabric. Family, community, faith organizations, civic participation have all collapsed. And since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and War on Poverty programs in the 1960s, these social institutions have been replaced by the state management of society—the state has taken over the function of the family, the church, and the civic organization.

Third, the Left has moved in direct opposition to a generalized Christian moral consensus. The left-wing theories of race, sex, and power have maintained that all existing social structures are forms of oppression. The theoreticians have, in some ways, inverted the Christian moral ethic and replaced a transcendent conception of justice with a materialist conception of social justice, and then concluded that, in order to realize this kind of society, they had to smash all of the institutions. Whether it’s heteronormativity, the two-parent family, or religion itself—all are seen as an impediment to social justice and, therefore, must be abolished.

And so, what did this do? It created a moral void, in which you have this very unstable social structure. You have a large state bureaucracy, a weak civil society, and a collapsed moral consensus. And because of the separation of church and state—a prohibition that was increased in its level of restrictiveness over time—the state slowly eliminated Christian morality from the public square altogether, to the point that, even if you run a private company in the United States, you can’t put a Bible verse on your paycheck, because that is supposedly a violation of your employees’ civil rights.

The Left saw this development as a great opportunity. Their moral ideology and their theory of revolution are explicitly secular, and therefore not restricted in any way by the separation of church and state. And they’re not opposed to a large state bureaucracy, or running a large state bureaucracy, which is also amenable to their politics. They had one problem, however: their ideology was not popular in the United States, so they had to develop a plan to achieve cultural power without popular consent.

This is the origin of the “long march through the institutions,” which is, of course, an allusion to Mao Zedong’s Long March during the Chinese Communist Revolution. The strategy was fairly simple: in the 1960s, American left-wing activists realized that the route to power was not through democratic participation. They knew that if they put their ideas up for a vote that they would lose, as they did to Richard Nixon in 1968, and again to Richard Nixon in 1972, resoundingly. So they said to themselves: ‘What we should do is bypass the democratic process, capture the state bureaucracy, and push our ideology through the public universities, K-12 education, and the administrative state.’

Unfortunately, conservatives were totally unequipped for resisting this maneuver. The Reagan conservative line was that government was the problem and, therefore, conservatives should work to reduce the size of government—which, in effect, ceded all state activity to the Left. It naturalized secular leftist ideology as the de facto ideology of the state and then created a taboo for most conservatives that using the power of the state to achieve conservative ends was forbidden. But for those who believe that government should be reduced in size—and I agree with this, it’s a good idea, we should still do it—there remained some critical unanswered questions: What should be done with the existing state? Who will run it? On which ideas will it operate? And, in the case of K-12 education, which principles and values should it transmit?

And, fast-forwarding fifty years, the moment these problems were revealed to the public was the George Floyd moment, when, all of a sudden, people in the United States looked around and they saw that left-wing racialist ideology, and then left-wing sexual ideology, was everywhere. It was in their children’s public school system. It was in state universities. It was in the federal government. And the American public suddenly asked in bewilderment: ‘What happened? I didn’t vote for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t know this was coming.’

And then, over the last three years, we saw the transformation of this ideology. Again, this is an evolution from the 1960s radical tradition, which was explicitly Marxist-Leninist, explicitly revolutionary, and explicitly violent, openly calling for the full-scale overturning of American society. You’re not going to see that kind of rhetoric when it’s coming from the Treasury Department or Lockheed Martin or your child’s elementary school. Instead, they translated those revolutionary principles into bureaucratic language. And so, we see the emergence of a bureaucratic morality that has animated all of America’s public institutions in the absence of any countervailing pressure. We see a rationalization of revolutionary ideology. We see its absorption into the institutions, first in the state institutions, then laterally in private institutions.

This new cohort sees itself as what Hegel thought of as a “universal class”: an all-knowing class of administrators that operates on universal principles in the best interest of society, but in a way superior to the democratic will of the people. The bureaucracy knows best. The HR manager that brings in this ideology sets the culture for everyone else in a more mundane way and he or she believes this is really in the interest of the universal good. And in the United States, this bureaucratic ideology takes the form of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The acronym is D-E-I and, if you know Latin, you know that the word dei means God—which may not be an accident. They look at this bureaucratic ideology as a total replacement for God, meaning the organic social institutions, meaning the male-female sex binary as part of Creation, and then, of course, replacing the Christian moral ethic with a new secular revolutionary moral ethic.

And so, to close, the question for conservatives remains: What can be done? We can’t simply give up. We can’t simply submit. We know that we have a democratic majority. We know that if you ask the people, “Do you want this?” they would say “No.” But we’re stuck with the problem of the state. We’re stuck with this problem that has resulted in a structural disadvantage for conservatives and a philosophical self-blindness or self-blinding, because of which conservatives believe: ‘We can’t touch the state. We can’t use the state. That is a taboo.’

But I would argue that, to the contrary, it’s time for American conservatives to begin, in some sense, to make peace with the state. We’ve tried to reduce the size of the state and it hasn’t worked for a full century. And what I take as a guiding principle for this problem is to look back to the Founding Fathers of the United States. They believed in limited government—and again, I share that belief, we should do all we can to reduce the size of the state—but they also believed in statesmanship. They believed that the government had to stand for some principles. They believed that the government needed to protect the liberty of the people and secure their rights. And they didn’t believe in a libertarian fantasy of a world beyond a state or a world without a state. The American anti-tax activist Grover Norquist famously said he wants the government to be so small, you could drown it in a bathtub. I don’t think George Washington would’ve said that.

And I think we also need to reapprise the line of separation between church and state, or between the moral system and the governing system. While it’s part of our heritage and an important principle to uphold, I think we need to have a more rational line of approach, so that it is not as restrictive as it’s been interpreted in recent Supreme Court decisions. And I think we might see some changes there. One good example in the past two years is that state governments have adopted universal school choice, which means that parents can opt their children out of the public school system, receive roughly $7,000 to $8,000 per year per child of state money, and take it to any schooling institution of their choice, including religious schools, such as Catholic schools, Christian schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools—any school.

These are common sense solutions that will yield a few results. One is that they’ll reduce the size of the state over time. Every child that exits the public school system and goes to a private option is going to be slowly reducing the monopoly of the state government. Second, it decentralizes power. It takes power away from the bureaucracy and gives it to families. And third, it provides the opportunity for a revitalization of religious communities—not mandated by the state, but in some ways enabled by this policy.

And, as a result of such policies, the state can help people build and maintain a cohesive community where they send their children to school, where they worship on their holy day, and where they participate in their community in social service. You can have a greater pluralism of religious faith. And that’s really the reason why we had separation of church and state: it was not to eliminate faith from public life, but to enable a greater pluralism and a flourishing of faith in public life, in a way that didn’t submit these questions to state repression or state decision-making.

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This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.

Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo