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Fusionism, A Philosophy for All Seasons

By Eugene B. Meyer

My title disputes the claim that fusionism was a practical alliance in the fight against communism but inadequate and dated as a philosophy of politics. I believe this critique fundamentally misunderstands the idea of “fusionism.” Critics of fusionism applied the term derisively. It is not the first time that critics have labeled an idea and the label stuck. However, the label is misleading, even though it is too late to change it.

The core idea of fusionism is not that it is an effort to in some way “fuse” virtue and freedom, or to build an unprincipled coalition of those who take one or the other as the central idea for organizing society or government. Rather, it is that there are two great truths embodied in western civilization and the Judeo-Christian ethic: the importance of freedom and the importance of virtue. Both are central to human nature, and they complement rather than conflict with each other.

My father, Frank Meyer, wrote that “the western tradition bears onward from generation to generation the understanding rooted in the Christian vision of the nature and destiny of man of the primary value under God of the individual person. From his nature arises his duty to virtue and his inalienable right to freedom as a condition of the pursuit of virtue. Neither virtue nor freedom alone but the ineluctable combination of virtue and freedom is the sign and spirit of the west.”

In another essay he added: ”truth withers when freedom dies however righteous the authority that kills it and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny.”

If these quotes are correct, fusionism was not a political alliance designed to fight communism, as important as that effort was, but rather it is the philosophy which stems from the principles of western civilization and the Judeo-Christian ethic. If that is true it applies yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Traditional and social conservatives who stress the dangers of freedom should remember that man and woman were created in freedom. Witness Adam and Eve. Christianity was the first religion to believe in individual salvation. And most Christians believe that virtue to be virtuous must be freely chosen.

Indeed, the founders felt so strongly about freedom of thought and conscience that even, though many of them were far more religious than most are today, they tolerated heresy. Yes, even heresy, which they thought endangered your immortal soul—a matter far more important than life or death.

They tolerated hereney not because of moral relativism, but because the virtuous cannot force virtue upon others. The founders tolerated it because they understood that attempts to control the minds of others lead to authoritarianism at best, and tyranny at worst.

So they chose freedom. Their choice was made with a full knowledge that long term success depended on a moral and religious people. 

But on the practical side, people are weak and sinful—they often don’t use their freedom well. Wouldn’t it be better to have a societal structure which supported virtue and limited freedom when that freedom is used to undermine virtue?

In strongly morally based societies, that may work to some degree for a time. James Fitzjames Stephen argued well for this position in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.  

But what do we do since we clearly have no such moral structure today?  Indeed Stephen, after railing for two pages against what he viewed as one of the modern evils, said “What do [I] propose to [do practically]? Nothing…. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need cry hallelujah to the river god.”

Those who argue that virtue without freedom can flourish today need to consider carefully what Stephen said. His vision, the vision of partially enforced virtue, is a challenge even in a homogeneous society with fully shared values.  Today it is hard to make a case that it has a chance of success.  Indeed any attempts to enforce virtue through government  have usually led to the opposite result. At the same time, libertarians should remember that one of the great values of freedom is that a free society helps enable its citizens to live a virtuous life less encumbered by those who have a different vision of what people should do. I would note that a commitment to freedom should in no way preclude society and even government using non-coercive means to promote virtue.

So then how do we counter the very serious challenges we face today from identity politics and the left? I do not subscribe to the idea that practically we can do nothing. Civilization survives and indeed flourishes when good citizens rise to such challenges. For inspiration, let’s look at how our country was founded. It was revolutionary in many ways, including a genuine commitment to freedom of thought. 

  Now today, we face a major challenge to our civilization. Many question whether we have a good Constitution, and a good country, believing instead that America is conceived in sin.  Some of these attacks strike at the root of our civilization going so far as to attack the idea of reason as a Western means for perpetrating our wicked society.  But in practice we also see the beginnings of some serious resistance, including rethinking by some on the left. They are rethinking some of their principles because they hate what they are now seeing those ideas used for. 

When people are rethinking their basic philosophy it’s a time of opportunity. Witness Bari Weiss and her Substack. (And I wrote that before her speech to the Federalist Society). We can reach far more liberals than we could even a decade ago. But to reach them effectively we must not abandon the core principles of Western Civilization, the Judeo-Christian ethic, and the American Constitution. Those principles remain the last best hope of man and the way to inspire the young generation. But only virtue or only freedom will not persuade the young. It is our task, yours and mine, to find the words that will persuade the new generation of all these vital principles.

In that process, remember that it is true that freedom can and often is misused, but at the same time it is the indispensable predicate to virtue and to faith. Indeed, with all its dangers, perhaps it is God’s original gift to man.

Eugene B. Meyer is president and CEO of the The Federalist Society.


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