James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019

A close-up

I hope browsing readers will feel the palpable connections between the revolutionary period of the Reformation and our own times. The Introduction and Conclusion would be the places to get that feel quickly.

Instead of simplistic accounts of liberalism emerging as in a direct and pure stream from Protestantism, we understand that Liberalism is all the more precious and rich for having fought its way clear of evangelical religion. Instead of simplistic accounts of evangelical religion as “conservative,” we understand its powerful magnetism as a crucial expression of Western modernity. And instead of assuming that the liberal position will always be free of religious violence and intolerance, we understand that liberalism emerged from the same furnace as evangelical religion; the forging of the Liberal order bears the same scars as does evangelical religion. Liberalism, no less than evangelical religion, and for the same historical reasons, is easily capable of its own intolerances. Evangelical religion and Liberalism share the same DNA.

The stakes of connecting these two forces that dominate American culture and politics (not to speak of other polities across the globe) are high. We stand to reconceive the following: the history of liberalism; the relation of liberalism to evangelical religion; and, by no means least, the nature of our own modernity. The stakes of such understanding are especially high in our own moment, with liberalism in global retreat before evangelical religion, and with liberalism in the West becoming increasingly fragile as it finds itself unable to formulate persuasive models of durable, flourishing cultural cohabitation, subject as it is to its own identity-driven exclusivisms, and its default positions of institutional distrust.

Readers interested in the history of despair, hypocrisy, the image, theater and the pursuit of “witches,” reading, and liberty itself will easily find their way to those separate histories in clearly marked sections.