Simpson, “Permanent Revolution”

This week’s law and religion book notices begin with an absolute must-read. A new work of intellectual history tracing the way in which evangelical Protestantism’s reaction against Catholicism laid the groundwork for, and eventually became, contemporary liberalism. In this present moment of contestation about the sources, nature, and future of liberalism in American, this particular genealogical effort looks well worth reading and thinking about.

The book is Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism Liberalism(HUP), by James Simpson (history and English, Harvard).

The English Reformation began as an evangelical movement driven by an unyielding belief in predestination, intolerance, stringent literalism, political quietism, and destructive iconoclasm. Yet by 1688, this illiberal early modern upheaval would deliver the foundations of liberalism: free will, liberty of conscience, religious toleration, readerly freedom, constitutionalism, and aesthetic liberty. How did a movement with such illiberal beginnings lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment? James Simpson provocatively rewrites the history of liberalism and uncovers its unexpected debt to evangelical religion.

Sixteenth-century Protestantism ushered in a culture of permanent revolution, ceaselessly repudiating its own prior forms. Its rejection of tradition was divisive, violent, and unsustainable. The proto-liberalism of the later seventeenth century emerged as a cultural package designed to stabilize the social chaos brought about by this evangelical revolution. A brilliant assault on many of our deepest assumptions, Permanent Revolution argues that far from being driven by a new strain of secular philosophy, the British Enlightenment is a story of transformation and reversal of the Protestant tradition from within. The gains of liberalism were the unintended results of the violent early Reformation.

Today those gains are increasingly under threat, in part because liberals do not understand their own history. They fail to grasp that liberalism is less the secular opponent of religious fundamentalism than its dissident younger sibling, uncertain how to confront its older evangelical competitor.

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