The Reader Writes: Disagrees with Prof. N. R. Van Til


Mr. Van Til’s article, “Can a Theological Conservative Be a Political Liberal?” in the November TORCH AND TRUMPET is an extreme oversimplification of a very complex historical development. Mr. Van Til’s greatest error is to see only one kind of liberalism and to force all liberals into that one mould.

Political liberalism docs not necessarily subscribe to the perfectibility of man—but docs subscribe to man’s responsibility to his fellow man and promotes the use of government as one of several instruments for meeting that responsibility.

Political liberalism does not necessarily find the sole source of evil in man’s environment—but does recognize that an evil environment is productive of more evil. Liberalism denies fatalism as does the Calvinist. Man can affect his environment and, in fact, is commanded to do so—not to perfection but to whatever improvements God sees fit to allow him.

Natural law is used, rightly or wrongly, by both conservatives and liberals. The. basis of political conservatism in the last half of the 19th century was Social Darwinism—the natural law of the survival of the fittest—and political conservatism has traditionally based its political ideas on the natural right to property and the government’s primary duty to protect it.

Ultimate political sovereignty obviously belongs to God. To the Christian liberal “popular sovereignty” means that in organizing society God may work through the people as a whole as well as through a king or an aristocracy.

Political liberalism has never supported perennial deficit spending for current comfort and convenience—only emergency borrowing. It has been used to finance purchasing power to revive a collapsed capitalist economy, to finance a war of survival, and to finance a cold war of survival. In this sense it was, and is, an investment in the future—and a fairly small one when compared with our gross national product. (If conservatives would be more willing to support tax reforms—withholding taxes on interest and stricter control of expense accounts—much of the deficit would disappear.)

And what logic is there in implying that in ministering to man’s “animal” comforts—food and shelter—we do so at the expense of spiritual considerations? Many of us do so because of spiritual considerations.

Mr. Van Til’s view of foreign aid is equally fallacious. Foreign aid is aimed at freeing men’s minds, not at controlling them.

A brief (and oversimplified) review of the history of conservatism and liberalism in the U.S. will reveal the complexity of the problem.

The 19th century conservative generally believed in a powerful central government, e.g., the Federalists, the supporters of big tariffs, and the Bank of the U.S., Lincoln’s Republicans, the supporters of federal court injunctions in labor disputes. The 19th century liberal generally believed in a weak central government, e.g., the Jeffersonians, the opponents of high tariffs and the Bank of the U.S., the state’s rightists, the opponents of federal interference in labor disputes. Today the liberal usually favors a stronger central government and the conservative opposes it. The political conservative has historically placed property rights and privileges above human liberty. When they controlled the government they advocated a strong central government to promote their own interests. When the government became progressively less secure in their hands they advocated a weaker central government to prevent it from interfering with their pursuit of material wealth. This is most clearly evident in the remarkable switch by a conservative Supreme Court around the turn of the century when it shifted from emphasizing the police powers of the government to protect property to emphasizing the due process clause of the 14th amendment to limit the power of the government to interfere with their manipulation of property.

Both conservatism and liberalism have been fairly consistent in their ends but not their means. The conservative goal has been the protection of property rights and privileges through a broad interpretation of the Constitution when they controlled the government and by a narrow interpretation when they lost control. The liberal goal has been the broader distribution of property through eliminating special privileges for the propertied by narrowly interpreting the Constitution until they gained power, when they sought a broad interpretation to facilitate a more just (not equal) distribution of property and opportunity.

The tragic error of the political liberal is that he has tended to allow the ends to justify the means; the tragic error of the political conservative is that he has tended to allow the means to justify the end. It seems to me that the Christian liberal and the Christian conservative must have the same goal—the glory of God and the promotion of my neighbor’s interests both material and spiritual. We may differ in defining these goals and in our means of promoting them. But the Christian, liberal or conservative, must justify both ends and means. Mr. Van Til has failed to state his ends or justify his means.

Sincerely yours,

Ronald M. Leistra


Let me begin by conceding Mr. Leistra’s first point. My statements of the liberal principles were certainly oversimplifications. This is unavoidably so because all statements of principles are oversimplifications in relation to the existential situation. For example, I charged that political liberalism has a relativistic ethic. The fact that I did not illustrate by pointing to all the devious expedients which have been the result of this ethic does not disprove the assertion.

Mr. Leistra goes on to assert that the political liberal does not necessarily subscribe to the doctrine of the perfectibility of man. He also asserts that the liberal does not necessarily claim that evil resides solely in the environment. Are Mr. Leistra’s assertions in keeping with the facts?

Perhaps if we take the word “necessary” in the Humean sense, to mean that a liberal by definition is one who believes in the two above mentioned principles, then there might be room for argument. However, if we take “necessary” or “necessarily” in the inductive sense saying that in the preponderance of cases it is a fact that liberals hold to those principles, then Mr. Leistra’s assertions fall by the board. If he wants to be an exception then he is not a typical liberal.

It is out of the mouth of self-conscious liberals themselves that we conclude that they believe in the principles asserted. Several references were offered. Moreover, those who are wont to comment on the views of the liberals say the same thing. For example, in commenting on the liberal’s tendency to make use of suffering-situations, K. R. Minogue, in the summer issue of The American Scholar, suggests “this use of suffering-situations makes a number of assumptions we need not discuss here, the most important being the liberal assumption that virtues are natural (since man is spontaneously good) whilst vices are the result of some part of the environment.”1

Next, let me suggest that I am not hoping to revert back to kings as the repositories of that sovereignty which resides ultimately with God. It is onIy my contention that it is a basically wrong approach to sovereignty which causes the liberal to insist that his representatives in government stand in a one to one relationship of responsibility to the electorate without the interposition of conscience or the demands of the law of God. It is also this approach to sovereignty which causes the liberal to agitate persistently for the withdrawal of checks and balances from our processes of government as is currently the case in Michigan politics.

As to Mr. Leistra’s denial that deficit spending is a principle with the liberals. he is denying something which I did not assert. I only asserted that the liberals have no prinCiple to prevent them from engaging in perennial deficit spending. History proves that they have made no effort to reverse the trend. As to its use “to finance purchasing power to revive a collapsed capitalist economy.” Why the Marxian emphasis? Do we have or do we wish to have any other kind of economy?

In calling attention to the liberals’ emphasis on animal comforts, no appeal was made to logic nor was any intended. Looking after animal comforts and ministering to spiritual needs are not mutually exclusive, to he sure. It is only an evident fact of our recent political history that the political liberals have used the lure of security and commodity purchasing power to gain political support. The history of the political affiliation of labor indisputably bears this out. Principles, such as the workingman’s right to work, mean nothing in the face of labor’s constant drive towards self-aggrandizement.

Foreign aid? Who can say that we are spending our billions to liberate men’s minds? We are just as eagerly trying to capture uncommitted minds as arc the communists. The fact that our total expenditures have been larger than the communists’ while our use of literature has been more limited only proves that we have been more crassly materialistic and direct in our methods of purchase. The difficulty lies in the fact that, like dishonest politicians, some of the nations with whom we deal refuse to stay bought.

Finally, “Mr. Van Til has failed to state his ends or justify his means.” This is the case entirely because there was no intention of doing so. I do not believe that it is one of the canons of criticism that one must offer a substitute system of political thought before he can properly criticize an existing one. It was only my purpose to show that the theological conservative cannot consistently be a political liberal. This I believe I did. It is always anyone’s privilege to come back with Emerson’s rejoinder concerning consistency.


1. K. R. Minogue, “The Modern Liberal’s Casebook,” The American Scholar, Summer, 1962, p. 367. Mr. Minogue, who is a native of Australia, is lecturer in political science at the London School of Economics.