At Crisis, James Kalb offers a simplified but reasonable summary of modern liberalism:
Liberalism—or progressivism, which is pretty much the same thing today—is the leading tendency in modern political life, and draws its power and ultimately its content from an attempt to advance the modern aspiration toward clear, comprehensive, and effective system.
That attempt can be seen in the modern state, modern natural science, and modern methods of economic organization. In politics it has settled, after detours into fascism and other violently extreme tendencies, on an attempt to re-engineer social life as a system that maximizes equal individual preference satisfaction, consistent with its own coherence, stability, and effectiveness.
One can argue whether fascism was in fact a "detour" on the part of liberalism, just as one can mock the jargon of "maximizes equal individual preference satisfaction"; but on the whole, and simplified as it is, Kalb's take on liberalism is not unfair. He even acknowledges the very real attraction that liberalism has for so many:
That project has immense appeal under modern conditions. It can plausibly claim to give everyone the best deal practically possible, and at the same time to justify the power of those who dominate characteristically modern institutions like business corporations and expert bureaucracies. After all, without a unified overall system based on rational institutions like global markets and transnational bureaucracies, how could overall efficiency, equity, and stability be secured? How could stubborn popular prejudices be suppressed and kept from affecting social relations? And how could all people be made full and equal participants in the life of society? (The latter goals, it should be noted, are hard to distinguish from the dissolution of all serious social relationships other than market and bureaucratic ones.)
Mr. Kalb then notes how modern liberalism impacts and interacts with traditional Christianity:
Religious liberalism as it is now can be viewed as the attempt to spiritualize the progressive project. It therefore downplays revelation and the transcendent, instead emphasizing improvements (judged by liberal standards) in the social and economic sphere. So it treats distinctions and restrictions as hateful and oppressive when they relate to institutions, like family or cultural and religious community, that interfere with the free action of global markets and transnational bureaucracies. The resulting suppression of particular connections in favor of a functionally integrated global system is thus idealized as love and inclusiveness; and subsidiarity, which is based on particular connections, gives way in social thinking to solidarity, to be perfected through a unified world order. True religion then becomes a matter of supporting open borders, the United Nations, ecumenism, the battle against discrimination, and comprehensive state social benefits and protections.
Again, while that last sentence may approach caricature, Kalb is not necessarily wrong to say that modern liberal Christianity is, for all intents and purposes, heir to the Social Gospel of the early twentieth century. Nor is he wrong in suggesting that, to the extent that liberal politics and liberal religion are seen to be seeking the same things, some at least will be tempted to discard the latter (religion) as superfluous:
A problem with the tendency, as many have noted, is that total integration of man into a global economic system makes him less than he is. He loses sex, family, and culture, and becomes most fundamentally an employee, client, consumer, and hobbyist. An aspect of particular interest to Catholics is that the tendency leads to the total absorption of religion into secular progressivism. It makes religion relevant to the secular world by turning it into a restatement of that world’s public aspirations, with nothing of its own to offer. The result, of course, is that it becomes inconsequential. There’s no serious reason to bother with it.
Kalb then explains that, whereas liberalism is social action, conservatism is reaction, which is both its raison d'etre and its ultimate weakness:
Conservatism is resistance to such tendencies. As such, it can take many forms depending on which tendencies are resisted. Libertarians resist bureaucratic supervision and control. Social conservatives resist the assault on family, communal, and religious connections. Patriotic conservatives resist the subordination of national independence and identity to transnational institutions. And neoconservatives, who hold a fundamentally liberal view but sense that pure liberalism can’t be self-sustaining, just want to restrain the development of liberalism to keep it from becoming self-destructive.
All such tendencies get reflected in various forms of religious conservatism, a tendency chiefly defined by attachment to the particularities that make one religion distinct from others. So evangelicals and Latin Mass goers, at least in America, are often nationalist and strongly capitalist in their views, while John Paul II Catholics, who favor basic aspects of the post-Vatican II liberalizing movement in the Church but don’t like it when it goes too far, have often allied themselves with political neoconservatives. Such combinations often strike observers as rather uneasy, but they reflect a disposition to resist several aspects of liberalism, and for that reason can usually be given somewhat reasoned prudential justifications.
The problem, of course, is that if current trends are fundamentally inhuman and leading us to disaster, more is needed than a consciousness that something has gone wrong and a selection of issues on which to oppose what is called progress.1 But what?
We are told that "when prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered abroad." What is lacking in conservatism, then, is the prophetic element. Liberalism has an overarching vision that has made it coherent through changes and given it victory after victory. Conservatism in contrast keeps arising in new forms as new developments provoke opposition. It always plays defense, and often ends by defending last year’s liberal innovation against further developments. The result is that it has gotten and can get nowhere.
A few caveats here: first, Mr. Kalb seems to have forgotten the common fate of prophets--the "prophetic element" is no guarantee of success. Second, I'm not so sure that modern conservatives necessarily defend "last year's liberal innovation"; at least in America, we have plenty of conservatives who still want to overturn the New Deal, the Great Society, the Warren Court, Roe v. Wade, and (of course) Obamacare. There are plenty of rearguard actions being fought by conservatives, and plenty of attempts, misguided and doomed though they may be, to turn back the clock of history. Finally, it seems to me quite an exaggeration to say that conservatism has "gotten nowhere"; I think Mr. Kalb is here confusing the wider conservative movement, which has attained substantial victories, with his own cultural and Catholic conservatism.
Nevertheless, Kalb is on firm ground when he concludes:
Those drawn by the conservative perception that modern tendencies leave out essential elements of life and the world, need more than a vision of what they don’t like. If they want to get anywhere they must be guided above all by a vision of what they love. But then they will be less conservative than progressive, although with a vision of progress radically different from the liberal one.
"A vision of what [we] love" ought to guide and infuse all our politics, liberal or conservative, just as it ought to guide and infuse, as much as possible, our everyday lives. If we can't agree on that much, we're going to have trouble agreeing on much at all.
1 I would argue that Kalb here makes the same mistake so many conservatives make: he allows his own rhetorical excess to undermine what is otherwise a quite reasonable argument. It is one thing to disagree with liberalism and to promote a different vision in its stead; it is quite another thing to refer to liberalism as "fundamentally inhuman" and to claim that, rather than simply leading us to a future not to Kalb's liking, it is leading us "to disaster". The inability to refrain from such unpersuasive (and frankly off-putting) hyperbole continues to be modern conservatism's Achilles heel; most people simply don't buy the doom-saying, especially when it's been so casually and so recklessly bandied about by conservatives for the past century. Modernity may well turn out to be the death of us all; but then, as John Maynard Keynes said, "In the long run, we are all dead."