The word “manifesto” is defined as “a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, and motives”, and that is a fitting term for this book. There is no doubt that what Levin has written in this collection of essays flows from his passionate opinions — which, as might be expected of a radio talk show host, are in no short supply — about the state of American politics and governance in our present day.
I’ll be honest. I had never heard of this guy before I read the book. Few things frustrate me more than political talk show hosts, so I tend not to tune in to their programs. Apparently, though, Levin has made a name for himself as an “expert” in constitutional law, and has garnered quite a following, as evidenced by the fact that this book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was the #2 best-selling book on Amazon in 2009. Because so many people (including many of my friends and fellow church members) have read this book, I wanted to get in on the conversation.
I’m going to review this book a little differently than I do most books. Cyberspace already has plenty of point-by-point summaries of the political philosophy Levin outlines in this book, so I won’t go into that. Suffice it for now to say that his writing is very accessible, and he presents very concise and well-articulated arguments for most of the points he makes. Those who are fans of pundits in the Limbaugh/Hannity/Beck mold will likely find themselves in agreement with what Levin writes, and those who hold to an opposing view are not likely to be swayed by him. This is par for the course in punditry.
I’d like to focus this review on coming at this book from a different angle than most reviewers have done. I read this book — as I do all my reading — comparing its words to the Word of God. This was particularly fascinating with “Liberty and Tyranny”, because Levin has done much more than simply state a political philosophy. He has described a comprehensive worldview (“Conservatism is a way of understanding life, society, and governance“), covering issues ranging from political to economic to social to religious, and everything in between.
So the question before me was: How does Levin’s worldview of “Conservatism” compare to a biblical, “Christian” worldview? I attempted to answer this question by determining the a priori assumptions upon which his worldview is based. All worldviews have certain underlying concepts of propositional knowledge which are assumed to be true and which inform proponents’ views on every aspect of life. For instance, a biblical Christian worldview assumes that God is real, that the Bible is His Word, and that everything He reveals to us in it is True. For more on this, see my review of Edgar Andrews’ book “Who Made God?”
(Before going on, I should clarify that I am not attempting to create a false dichotomy between Christianity and political conservatism, but am merely comparing Christianity with the worldview of “Conservatism” as defined by Mark Levin.)
Right off the bat, Levin introduces us to the revered figures of his Conservatism (the Founding Fathers, and thinkers such as Adam Smith, Charles Montesquieu, and John Locke), and its sacred scriptures: the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The highest objective of Conservatism is the formation and preservation of “the civil society“. This society is characterized by “a harmony of interests” (quoting Adam Smith), and what Levin describes as “rules of cooperation that have developed through generations of human experience and collective reasoning that promote the betterment of the individual and society“.
This description is telling, as it reveals a basic belief in the evolution of society based on human experience and reason. This is the first assumption behind his worldview: Society will become better as men become wiser. The inverse of this belief is that society fails when people fail to properly understand these “rules of cooperation”, which is how he can justify the vicious name-calling of those with whom he disagrees (often calling them “stupid” or “morons”) that has earned his show such an infamous reputation.
This assumption also explains why Levin writes in chapter two, “Prudence is the highest virtue for it is judgment drawn on wisdom.” From a Christian perspective, the problem with Levin’s version of prudence is that it is based on wisdom built upon “generations of human experience and collective reasoning.” The Christian, too, holds prudence as a virtue. The book of Proverbs is replete with calls for prudence (in fact, one of the stated purposes [see Proverbs 1:4] of the book is “to give prudence”), but this is understood to be judgment drawn upon God’s wisdom, for all knowledge comes from Him (Proverbs 1:7). It is for this reason that the authority of Scripture is such an important assumption for the Christian worldview. It makes a great deal of difference whether our decisions are based on the Word of God or on some other source of “wisdom”. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world.” Therefore, we must base our every decision, and every aspect of our worldview, on the “word of the cross”, which is foolishness to the rest of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Levin’s “Conservatism” falls far short of this standard of wisdom. While he insists that the civil society requires a moral code based on “faith”, he fails to define the source of this moral code, or the type of faith that is required. The closest he comes is in mentioning that our rights are “endowed by our Creator” (a term penned by a Deist, not a Christian), and that our laws and policies are influenced by “Judeo-Christian values and traditions”, which is completely meaningless because “Judeo-Christian” is a nonsense political buzzword that cannot logically apply to either “values” or “traditions” (a topic I’ve addressed previously).
It is on the topic of faith where Levin’s arguments are the least consistent logically. First, he tells us that “the individual in the civil society strives, albeit imperfectly, to be virtuous — that is, restrained, ethical and honorable,” while rejecting “the relativism that blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, and means and ends.” Later, he says “the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time (another example of society’s evolution) and passed from one generation to the next,” and that faith “encourages the individual to personally adhere to a dogma that promotes restraint, duty, and moral behavior.”
There are two basic problems with this set of statements. The first is that not all dogmas are created equal. Not all systems of faith that “promote restraint, duty, and moral behavior” agree on the definition of moral behavior. What is virtuous and ethical to one may go completely against the “values, customs, and traditions” of another. While it is possible for these adherents of various belief systems to cohabit the same community peacefully, to say that civil society rests on “a moral code based on faith” begs the question: Which faith? Levin’s assertion that any dogma will do is itself a relativistic statement that blurs the very lines he seems so keen to protect.
The second problem is that his entire worldview is built upon a moral code with no foundation. This leads to problems when he makes statements like, “Unconstrained by constitutional prohibitions, what is left to limit the Statist’s ambitions but his own moral compass, which has already led him astray?” How can Levin make these kind of moral judgments without disrespecting the values, customs, and traditions of his opponents? His answer is a rather weak argument that essentially equates Secularism with Statism. In other words, he assumes that his political opponents are not just intellectually deficient, but morally deficient as well. Because they do not have a proper moral code, they are incapable of fulfilling their duty as citizens.
By contrast, the Christian worldview does have a solid foundation for ethics and a clearly defined morality. The Christian is able to respect the religious liberty of others while simultaneously reproving immoral behavior and seeking to persuade others to share our faith, because morality is not the foundation of our faith. We have all sinned, and continue to sin. The only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that Christians agree with God about our guilt, and have received His forgiveness by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Levin also wrongly assumes man’s position before God. Instead of believing that men are “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) and in need of a savior, he believes that men are merely “imperfect”. Instead of man’s being by nature evil (Ephesians 2:3) and unable to please God (Romans 8:8), Levin’s worldview requires the assumption that man is basically good (though “even good people are capable of bad things“). To his credit, this is at least consistent with the idea of a positive evolution of society, because a morality built on human experience and reasoning is dependent on the inherent goodness of Man.
So to recap, Christians assume that God is eternal and never-changing, and that the Bible is His authoritative Word regarding everything that exists, including morality. God’s Will — and objective moral code — has been the same since before Creation. Levin’s Conservatism assumes that life, society, and governance depend on the accumulated experience and reason of man, with a morality that hinges on rights supposed to have originated from an undefined Creator. This ultimately leads to a subjective morality judged by the “values, customs, and traditions tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next”. The difference in these sets of assumptions shows up in Levin’s conclusions in each of the essays in his book. Even in the points where the practical application of his philosophy of political conservatism intersects with what the Bible says about a given topic, there is a stark contrast in the motives for a given action. God is concerned not only with our actions, but with the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The actions dictated by Conservatism are naught but “rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13).
For instance, in the areas of economics and the poor, the Christian and the Conservative ought to agree that it is the responsibility of the individual — as opposed to the government — to provide for the needs of the poor. However, whereas the Christian is commanded in Scripture to give to the poor (for in this way we image our Lord, who did not leave us in our condition of spiritual bankruptcy, and who owns all we have anyway), Levin’s worldview provides no incentive or moral reason to do so. In fact, he betrays his feelings regarding the “destitute and uneducated” when he describes the negative impact their immigration — legal or illegal — has on our civil society. The Conservative has no moral obligation whatsoever toward these people apart from faith in Christ. So while Levin and I may agree that governmental wealth redistribution is not ideal, we differ widely on the actual purpose of wealth.
Perhaps the most striking difference between Levin’s Conservatism and biblical Christianity is the stated chief end of each. Levin believes that “the moral imperative of all public policy must be the preservation and improvement of American society.” Nothing is to be done that does not result in the increased power and prosperity of the United States and her citizens.
Conversely, Christianity teaches, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that “the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). Nothing is to be done that does not result in the glorification of Almighty God. All power and all wealth was created by and for him (Romans 11:36; Revelation 4:11). True Christians rejoice in poverty and in abundance; in power and in subjection. We may desire some of the same things that Conservatism desires, but our priorities are completely different. Those priorities — and our responsibility — remain the same whether the conservative, liberal/statist, communist, libertarian, anarchist, or whoever else runs the government.
We may be thankful to God for the many blessings He has given to this nation, not least of which is the ability to worship Him openly. But we must never forget that America is a gift; our allegiance is to the Giver.
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. ~ Philippians 3:18-20
Buy it here.