"In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25 ESV)
"Liberalism", as a term, has been used in a wide variety of ways over the past two hundred years, whether referring to political, social, or religious spheres. Politically, the more classical view of being "liberal" was rooted in a morality outside of and higher than ourselves, and is not identical with the modern view of being merely "progressive". The former is shaped by an eternal, moral order and tends to favor a republican form of government over a pure democracy. The latter is more shaped by the values of one class of people -- usually an elite, being the educated, the scientists, the politicians, etc. -- and tends to favor, at least at first, a more purely democratic form of government. Both views are idealistic, but the ideals are rooted in different places.
Many of these issues are discussed in Alan Jacob's excellent work, The Year of Our Lord 1943 (Oxford, 2018), where a number of wartime thinkers were surveyed regarding how future democracies, ones which are to be free, moral, and humanist (in a good sense), might be cultivated and so prevent totalitarian, nationalist governments from ever rising again. There are excerpts from Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil. All these writers were agreed that healthy democracies must have their roots in a Judeo-Christian value system that values humankind as created in the image of God.
What is not often recognized is the tendency of liberalism-turned-progressivism to become autocratic. It begins in a more purely democratic, populist way. But if the ideals of our society are not eternal and objectively rooted outside of humanity then these ideals are the values of one particular group which must prevail over other rival views. It becomes a matter of which group's values will prevail. And, hence, to enforce these values -- to perpetuate an elite moral vision -- some form of autocracy or statism is bound to arise. This has been recognized by many observers...
T. S. Eliot, writing during and after World War II, maintained, "I do not need to remind you that a pagan totalitarian government is hardly likely to leave education to look after itself, or to refrain from interfering with the traditional methods of the oldest institutions... There is likely to be, everywhere, more and more pressure of circumstance towards adapting educational ideals to political ideals..." (Christianity and Culture, 1948)
Writing in 1956 author J. R. R. Tolkien said, "I am not a 'democrat', if only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are getting slavery." (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 246)
And later, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Here is a simple but profound truth: If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society is absolute. Society is left with one man or an elite filling the vacuum left by the loss of the Christian consensus which originally gave us form and freedom.” (How Should We Then Live, 1976)
Charles Krauthammer, commentator and liberal-turned-conservative, wrote, "That vision [of John Stuart Mill] was insufficient for 20th-century American liberalism. Mill lacked sweep and glory. Modern liberalism’s perfectionist ambitions—reflected in its progenitor (and current euphemism), progressivism—seeks to harness the power of government, the mystique of science and the rule of experts to shape both society and citizen and bring them both, willing or not, to a higher state of being." (Things That Matter, 2013)
So, where should societal values come from? Today's liberalism needs to rediscover values higher than personal preference. According to a recent book review by Kevin Stuart, Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism "correctly identifies liberalism’s need for moral virtue, but does not draw the further conclusion that her book suggests: liberalism is failing because it has rejected orthodox Christianity." The author, according to this reviewer, "...misdiagnoses the root cause of the failure of liberalism: its rejection of the kind of Christianity on which it depends. From its earliest days, some of its strongest proponents have recognized that liberalism on its own lacks the resources to form the kind of citizens it requires. With the waning of liberal Protestantism, western countries increasingly find themselves once more in need of help to produce virtuous citizens fit for republican self-rule. Now, more than ever, liberal societies need a vibrant, orthodox Christianity—even, or perhaps especially, one that is not tame."
Top image: “Justice Lifts the Nations” (1904). Mural by Paul Robert, in the former Swiss Supreme Court Building in Lausanne, Switzerland. Justice is represented by the woman, impartiality by the scales, and the standard of justice represented by the word of God.
Bottom image: "The Lord is My Shepherd" (1863) by Eastman Johnson, oil on wood painting on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The title of the painting comes from Psalm 23.