🎧 Elizabeth Bruenig on Religion, Liberalism, and Wokeness

Yascha Mounk and Elizabeth Bruenig discuss the nature of belief in liberal societies

  
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Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a Catholic socialist who writes on topics as varied as capital punishment and mothering two children while in her twenties. Her work is uniquely marked by her ruby-red Texas upbringing, the elite professional world she now inhabits, and her deep sense of morality, which draws from both Christian theology and left-wing politics.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Elizabeth Bruenig and Yascha Mounk debate the importance of dialogue across moral perspectives, whether wokeness bears any resemblance to theology, and how religious conviction can give rise to an authentically liberal defense of free speech.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: You're in a really interesting political space in the United States. You're an outspoken leftist. You, if I'm remembering correctly, strongly advocated for the election of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries in 2020. And at the same time, you're one of the favorite targets of a lot of the online left, because you don't quite play by the book. How do you see yourself in this political moment?

Elizabeth Bruenig: I am a Christian leftist, the type of person who's fairly recognizable in Europe, Latin America, and even parts of Asia as a fairly familiar political type. This is the sort of Christian democrat-type figure who builds coalitional governments with socialist parties. Christian, of course, but also welfarist. These are huge parties in the Nordic countries and in Germany. Historically, there have been parties of this kind, even in the UK and other Anglophone countries, that have been fairly successful. It's just that we don't have them in the United States: we only have this two-party monopoly that's been reigning for a while, though the commitments of the parties have shifted back and forth over time. But it's unusual in the United States for a lot of reasons. And so I think it winds up being sort of unintelligible, but that's where I locate myself: I'm just a fairly straightforward Christian social democrat.

I often talk to my husband about this because he's similarly far left in such a way as to be essentially politically celibate. When you're a socialist in the United States, that's what it is: it's being politically celibate. You're fairly disempowered. And so it becomes sort of laughable, all of these arguments we have on the American left among this extremely tiny minority of people over who's a Leninist, who's a Trotskyist, who's actually operating in the vein of the honorable socialist tradition and who's a wrecker and so forth, because all of us are equally impotent in actual American politics.

Mounk: Broadly speaking, if the United States were to move a little bit further towards the welfare state policies of Denmark or Sweden, that would be a good thing, and I'm on board. But then at times, [Sanders supporters] really are saying “no, we're socialists in the deepest sense.” There is a strategic ambiguity about what socialism really means in that context: on one side there’s a sort of, “We just want a generous welfare state” and on the other side, there’s “we want to end capitalism.” And to me, those are two very, very different propositions.

Bruenig: I do think clarity is worthwhile, [but] it's difficult to get the momentum you need to achieve clarity in a movement when you're so far estranged from the levers of power. Because what momentum do you have to really force people to make these difficult choices? You can say, “it's harming the movement, it's making it difficult for us to gather ‘converts’ that we have this level of turmoil and unclarity.” But it's difficult for us to gather converts because the chances of us actually having an actionable impact on politics is so small. That's the issue. 

But in terms of clarity being worthwhile, I take your point. In this case, in politics, it's better to be clear than unclear. And I would say that, like my husband, there is in this household a market socialist impulse that's very strong, with at least a short-term agreement in favor of a generous welfare state with an underlying market structure and a significant portion of the country's wealth that is democratically controlled without destroying the underlying market mechanism. That's the short-term goal. My husband tends to talk about sovereign wealth funds, or ways of setting aside portions of the country's wealth that have democratic elements, as a way to accomplish that without bloody revolution or something along those lines. And I think that sounds doable, peaceable and beneficial.

Mounk: So help listeners, who may be a little less familiar with you, understand why everything you have said so far, which it sounds like the left would be pretty happy with, nevertheless makes you a kind of controversial figure on the left in the United States?

Bruenig: Yes. It isn't as though everyone must agree with my politics, and I try not to assume that all of my critics simply respond to the aesthetics of who I am or something, because it's true that a lot of my critics are simply further left than I am. And there are those on the American left, as you mentioned, who believe that workers should entirely own the means of production, and so on and so forth. And they are more traditional socialists, those who envision a much more revolutionary approach than operating through the typical democratic channels and preserving the peace. Peace is an enormous thing for me as a Christian. I cannot get on board with anything explicitly marketed as, or envisioned to be, a sort of bloody revolution.

Mounk: I'm not a Christian, but I'm somebody who comes from a family that has been in the wrong place at the wrong time for many generations. And so, I think my most conservative instinct is the recognition that the best that politics has achieved in the history of the world is far less significant than the worst that it has inflicted. While we should always strive for improvement, we need to have an awareness of just how horrible things can get when they go wrong.

Bruenig: Right? I just have a real problem getting on board with that sort of thing. So there are legitimate reasons to object to my politics, and I don't want to downplay that, but there are also issues with the cultural side of who I am. My husband and I are from Texas, in the southern part of the United States. It's the best state. We're from the northern part of Texas, we grew up around the block from each other. We went to the same gigantic public high school in North Texas where we met on our debate team. I was 16. He was 18. He was my debate team captain. And we sort of agreed right then and there that we were going to get married. This wasn't totally unusual in the culture where we were brought up. But we were smart kids; my husband won a full scholarship to the University of Oklahoma because he did so well on a standardized test. He was a National Merit Scholar. I went to Brandeis. And he went to Boston University Law School where he won another very large scholarship for public service because he wanted to do labor law. I won a Marshall Scholarship to go to Cambridge and study Christian theology and got my master's in philosophy.

And so the fact of the matter is that we were two people who came out of North Texas, this culture that's traditionally conservative. It's a red state. It's a Republican state. It's a very Christian area. Actually, we come from Tarrant County in Texas, which is the most reliably red county in Texas. And then we wind up on the East Coast, which is very blue, very liberal, very highly educated, not necessarily especially religious, especially in the professional classes, and we just don't quite fit in. We got married as soon as we were done with our education. We dated the whole time. My husband's the only person I've ever dated. We married when I was 23. I got pregnant when I was 24. We had our first baby when I was 25. We had our next when I was 28. Now I'm 30. And we've been married for seven years.

I think there's a style in the northeast of being kind of fashionably busy and frustrated with your home life. And this is actually the part of my life I'm happiest with.

Mounk: It annoys you when people liken wokeness to a religion, and it annoys you as a religious person. Explain what the argument is for the parallel between wokeness and religion, and why you don't buy that.

Bruenig: Yes, I do get requests to write about it, not infrequently. And there has been a huge amount of writing already on the proposed parallels between wokeness and religion. And it always strikes me as a little bit insulting when one comes to my inbox, because I guess there are three ways you can make this argument: One is that wokeness is like a religion because it's dogmatic and it's not subject to criticism, and you just blindly believe it like an idiot. As a religious person, I think, “No, thanks. That's not precisely how I conceive of being religious.” The other is that wokeness fulfills some kind of need that religion fulfills for other people. This is sort of the Durkheimian analysis of what religion is and what it's doing—again, as a religious person, that’s not precisely how I conceive of what the faith is, and also I’m not totally certain that that's unique to either religion or wokeness. And then the last is that wokeness is supplanting religion in society, or in the lives of people who are heavily invested in it. And this is an argument frequently made by other religious people about wokeness. And I'm not sure that I agree with any of those analyses, but I disagree with them in different ways, and to different degrees.

[...] I would put it this way: Religion, such as it is—religion as a concept—is this epiphenomenon of liberalism, or an epiphenomenon of the Enlightenment. There needed to be this category of stuff that was sanded down if it was to be included in the public political sphere, because it was causing too many problems to be included fully in politics, with the Hundred Years' War, and so forth. And so in the case of metaphysical liberalism à la Rousseau, the idea was just to transform religion into something that can cooperate with liberal democracy. And so you essentially just abolish all the religious institutions and the specificity of Christianity, you take out all of the institutions and the organizations and you get to a functionally private and entirely individualized and personally-mediated spirituality. And that's really all that's left of it. 

This is the kind of moral therapeutic deism that people often complain about in Christian circles these days. And that's all that's left of the Christian tradition and the metaphysical liberal tradition. If you want to tell me that wokeness is similar to moral therapeutic deism—that's just a truism. That's just stating a fact.

Mounk: The criticism seems to be that wokeness fulfills some of the needs fulfilled by religions—it gives people a pretense of meaning, and it allows them to believe in positions that actually aren't very well justified or logically coherent.

Bruenig: I imagine that a lot of people—a lot of secular liberals—believe that I, a Catholic, simply believe what I believe because I have a fear of the unknown or something like that, and that it fulfills a lot of needs in me. Nevermind that I, a Catholic, agree to live with many more mysteries that I willingly identify as mysteries, and approach as mysteries, and worship as such. But never mind all that. 

With the woke stuff: whatever their reasons for having fallen into this kind of intellectual trap, they are making statements about what they want, and what should happen politically, which are considered beyond reproach. You're not really allowed to criticize them without enduring a bunch of acrimony and attacks, as though you're criticizing someone's very religion, their very concept of right and wrong. And they're doing this from a position of unimpeachable integrity despite the fact that they have not made adequate arguments about the priors, and about why the rest of society should agree with them. And so I do think it is similar in some way to almost imposing a kind of theocracy in that they're able to make claims about moral fact and the impacts that those moral facts should have on politics without justifying them in the way that we expect people to justify those things and be subject to public criticism in a liberal democracy.

Mounk: The political philosopher John Rawls essentially said “You, as a Christian, should be speaking in such a way that people who don't share these deep moral priors can understand what you're talking about; put your reasons forward in a secular way.” His fear isn't really something like theocracy—it’s about facilitating a kind of overlapping consensus between viewpoints, facilitating a conversation.

But I think when people criticize wokeness, it's more like they criticize what they regard, fairly or unfairly, as a kind of incipient theocracy. “I just have to defer because you’re the high priest, and I have no ability to contest what you're saying without serious risk to my total standing and my career.”

Bruenig: Yes, and one of the weaknesses of political liberalism is that it thinks about a diverse array of things as one thing. Liberalism creates this category that is “religion,” and it's just things that are too radioactive for politics.

The parts of liberalism that I have always been bullish on are freedom of expression and inquiry. I'm a Christian, and I have no problem with these things. Because I believe that God is the truth, and truth will set you free. I don't have any problem with free inquiry and free expression, because I believe that if you earnestly pursue the truth, you're only going to find God waiting for you. Just earnestly keep searching, and that's all you'll find. Maybe you don't identify it as such, but that's what you actually happen upon. This is Platonism. And I'm a Christian Neoplatonist. You're just going to find the forms, right? So I have no problem with that.

But free speech is actually the half of liberalism that's taken the hit, and the private property, capitalism shit is stronger than ever. That part of liberalism is doing just fine, while the freedom of expression and free inquiry part of liberalism is sort of crumbling. So now I find myself in the weird position of Nathan Hale in “The Crucible”, who shows up initially gung ho in favor of witch-hunting, and then by the last act is like, “Wait, this has gone way off the rails.” People have decided to go nuts on completely the wrong part of liberalism. The part that does all the vicious exploitation and destruction of human life and the wanton immiseration of everyone—that part they let off scot-free. It's the part that actually has led to tremendous amounts of progress that they have decided to attack.

Mounk: What is it that you find attractive about the free speech and free inquiry part of liberalism?

Bruenig: I think that people are natural philosophers, meaning we're made to search for meaning in the universe, and that an epiphenomenon of that search is the creation of art and expression. I think we're naturally social, and the way that we express our sociality is largely by expression. And I just have a really hard time imagining a justification for using the power of the state, especially a concentrated super-powered state such as we have now, to punish expression. I certainly think there are limits there. I believe there are just fucking worthless forms of expression. And there are forms of expression that have costs that are too high for the value of the thing being expressed, and these are the very typical examples you probably already have in your head: shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.

Mounk: If you think about how you organize a society in which you can be a deep, devoted Christian, and I can be an agnostic, and somebody else can be a convinced atheist—and we can share polity and be compatriots in a meaningful way—I think you wind up with a liberal account of individual rights. 

For me, there's a version of liberalism that isn't anti-religious, that doesn't deny the primacy that religion plays in the lives of many people; it actually flows from the recognition of its importance, and I want to know whether you would accept that version of liberalism.

Bruenig: I'm okay with that. We all get older. When I was younger, I had hotter opinions on everything. What I can say is that I've seen this integrist thing on the Catholic right, the view that Catholics should accept nothing less than the full integration of the Catholic Church and the state, and zero separation between church and state. I've also reported deeply on the Catholic sex abuse crisis. These people can't run a fucking railroad, man. They're not going to be able to run a country. Mixing the chocolate and the peanut butter here is not going to be good. 

I think a Christian’s job is to do the most amount of good they can with the dispensation they find themselves in. So I have begun to think, “What is the most good I can do in the dispensation I find myself in?” I find myself in a rapidly polarizing liberal democracy that's becoming somewhat dysfunctional, because of this brittleness, in this state of polarization. And so my interest has become trying to soften these chords that have become brittle between people and raising the tensile strength of the relationships between citizens, as a journalist and a member of the press—which is an important estate in this society—and trying to do what I can to act against a fairly stupid and self-perpetuating cycle of polarization that has to do with people losing face and trying to save face. And that's what I think the duty of Christians has to be at this point. The liberal democracy that we have is what we have. 

And liberal democracies are interesting. They are a little bit radioactive, in that when they're functional, they're safe. When they start to degrade, you don't know what you're going to get. I don't really know what's going to happen if our liberal democracy, under the forces of this polarization and brittleness that we are now encountering, starts to degrade too much. But I don't want to find out. I would like it to remain stable. I would like things to change politically. Like you said, I'm a Bernie Bro. I think that having a stronger welfare state would be great. I think having higher social trust would be fantastic. These are things that I deeply desire. And I want peace. And I think you know that if I tweeted out right now: “I want a generous welfare state. I want to abolish poverty. I want peace. I want forgiveness. I want high social trust. And I want strong relationships between the citizenry,” that would piss people off.


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