The Church Of Illiberal Liberalism
Where have been all the outraged liberals taking a stand against these and manyother examples of dogmatism — and doing so in the name of liberalism? I’ve been doing that in my own writing. And I’ve appreciated the occasional expressions of modest support from a handful of liberal readers. But what about the rest of you?
Linker has a theory about why liberalism in the current moment has gone from being a practical way of managing political and social life in a pluralist democracy to being increasingly intolerant and dogmatic:
From the dawn of the modern age, religious thinkers have warned that, strictly speaking, secular politics is impossible — that without the transcendent foundation of Judeo-Christian monotheism to limit the political sphere, ostensibly secular citizens would begin to invest political ideas and ideologies with transcendent, theological meaning.
Put somewhat differently: Human beings will be religious one way or another. Either they will be religious about religious things, or they will be religious about political things.
With traditional faith in rapid retreat over the past decade, liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good.
Under traditional liberalism, maintaining religious liberty is of vital importance; under the new, illiberal liberalism, religious liberty is a threat. In her analysis of the reaction to the Hobby Lobby ruling, Megan McArdle says that contemporary liberalism, as distinct from earlier iterations, drives religion out of the public square by abandoning the concept of negative rights (the right not to have to be forced to do something) in favor of positive rights (the right to force others to do something to serve you). Excerpt:
In the 19th century, the line between the individual and the government was just as firm as it is now, but there was a large public space in between that was nonetheless seen as private in the sense of being mostly outside of government control — which is why we still refer to “public” companies as being part of the “private” sector. Again, in the context of largely negative rights, this makes sense. You have individuals on one end and a small state on the other, and in the middle you have a large variety of private voluntary institutions that exert various forms of social and financial coercion, but not governmental coercion — which, unlike other forms of coercion, is ultimately enforced by the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
Our concept of these spheres has shifted radically over the last century. In some ways, it offers more personal freedom — sex is private, and neither the state nor the neighbors are supposed to have any opinion whatsoever about what you do in the bedroom. Religion, too, is private. But outside of our most intimate relationships, almost everything else is now viewed as public, which is why Brendan Eich’s donation to an anti-gay-marriage group became, in the eyes of many, grounds for firing.
For many people, this massive public territory is all the legitimate province of the state. Institutions within that sphere are subject to close regulation by the government, including regulations that turn those institutions into agents of state goals — for example, by making them buy birth control for anyone they choose to employ. It is not a totalitarian view of government, but it is a totalizing view of government; almost everything we do ends up being shaped by the law and the bureaucrats appointed to enforce it. We resolve the conflict between negative and positive rights by restricting many negative rights to a shrunken private sphere where they cannot get much purchase.
A totalizing view of government — good phrase. In the new American liberal dispensation, we begin to approach what in modern France is called laïcité — the idea that maintaining the secular nature of the public realm and the state’s monopoly on power requires keeping religion and religious expression firmly privatized. It may ordinarily be understood as the principle of the separation of Church and State, which almost all Americans, left and right, favor. But in France, it is generally taken to mean that religion may be tolerated only insofar as it does not interfere with the state and its purposes. If that’s not a totalizing view of government, I don’t know what is. These different emphases of what secularism is may seem subtle, but they’re important — and we’re seeing them take hold in this country.
Yuval Levin, in his initial reaction to the Hobby Lobby ruling, wrote of the changing
This is particularly so with regard to the exercise of religion, where we are the inheritors of a long tradition — the English common-law tradition of religious toleration — that has a very mixed record when it comes to protecting institutions rather than individuals.
I’ve taken up this question a couple of times around here in recent years, but to put matters very (very) simply, that tradition was born of efforts to find a way to provide protection for Jews and Protestant dissenters in a nation with an established church but specifically not to provide much protection for Catholics. It did this in large part by distinguishing between individuals and institutions. Catholicism is an exceptionally institutional religion, with massive charitable and educational arms that are Catholic but are not houses of worship and that not only employ but also serve non-Catholics. Such arms are much more rare in other religious traditions, and used to be even more so. This distinction therefore in effect once allowed for broad toleration of just about all religious minorities in Britain except Catholics. It was supported by a line of reasoning evident over centuries, and given expression even in John Locke’s great Letter Concerning Toleration, which is one of the foundational documents of the intellectual tradition of liberal toleration.
The American offshoot of this tradition of toleration has tended to think a little differently about this question, above all because we have not had an established church in the United States. We have tended to take the absence of an Anglican monopoly on legitimate religiously rooted social institutions to mean not that there could be no such institutions at all but rather that different communities of faith could build out different institutional forms and stake out for themselves a variety of roles in civil society and the private sphere. This has meant seeing some groups of people working together, and not just individuals alone, as protected by the various forms of the right of conscience and accepting as legitimate the idea that groups of people, as well as individuals, should whenever possible be protected from forms of coercion or restraint that violate their religious beliefs. And the extension of this attitude to corporations owned and run by people with religious convictions and in the service of those convictions has been perfectly natural.
The Obama administration has been pushing up against this American form of the tradition of religious toleration (which, being Americans, we tend to call “religious liberty”) in an effort to establish a public monopoly on the aims of social action. American progressivism has always wanted to clear out the space between the individual and the state and to confer rights only on individuals, rather than encouraging people to form complex layers of interacting institutions with diverse views of the good that each pursues with vigor and conviction. The HHS mandate, like so much of the administration’s domestic agenda, is intended to turn the institutions in that space, including private corporations, into arms of the government, carrying out the will of those in power.
The Church of Illiberal Liberalism worships a jealous god, who will brook no rivals.
Along these lines, TAC’s Samuel Goldman wonders whether religious liberty is possible in post-Christian America. In a MacIntyrean vein, Goldman says that American ideas of religious liberty emerged in a Protestant Christian context. That is, the ambit of what forms of religious expression it is reasonable to tolerate were judged broadly according to Anglo-Protestant norms. This is why, for example, the principle of religious tolerance was not broad enough to encompass the Mormon practice of polygamy. At some point, lines must be drawn, and the drawing of the lines took place according to Anglo-Protestant norms. Goldman continues:
The problem, of course, is that this world no longer exists. And not only because of secularization or immigration by Catholics, Jews, and more recently Muslims. As Sullivan observes, the American brand of evangelicalism encourages individuals to decide for themselves what religion means to an historically unprecedented degree. So we face the challenge of applying historically and theologically specific concepts of religion, liberty, and so on in a way that obscures their limits and contingency. Thus the knots into which both sides of the Court have had to twist their arguments not only in Hobby Lobby, but also in cases such as Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet.
There’s no obvious solution to this problem. We can neither revive Anglo-Protestant categories in a pluralistic society, nor can we formulate a definition of religion that will satisfy everyone.
He’s right about this. [UPDATE: And I should have emphasized here that the contingent basis for religious liberty — that it depends on norms set by Anglo-Protestant Christianity — is a much bigger problem for protecting religious liberty in post-Christian America than many conservatives realize]. As America becomes more secular — that is, as its practice of religion wanes, and the American people’s understanding of what religion is devolves into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (a protean, highly individualistic creed), the hegemony of the state will push religion farther out of the public square, because fewer Americans will grasp why religious liberty is important. Increasingly, the only religion Americans can understand is the sacred laïcité proclaimed by the Church of Illiberal Liberalism.
And here’s the most important thing to grasp about the Church of Illiberal Liberalism: its communicants do not have the slightest understanding that theirs is a creed, a set of dogmas, a worldview that makes exclusivist claims. They think their ideology is not an ideology, but reality, plain and simple. The book to read to understand where we are and where we are going is James Kalb’s The Tyranny Of Liberalism. The Mark Levin-esque title is misleading; this is a philosophically serious book. From a 2009 interview with Kalb:
Ignatius Insight: You spend quite a bit of time, understandably, in the book defining liberalism and variations thereof. For the sake of clarity, what is a relatively concise definition of the liberalism you critique? What are its core principles and beliefs?
James Kalb: By liberalism I mean the view that equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral principle. The big goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and as equally as possible.
That view comes from the view that transcendent standards don’t exist–or what amounts to the same thing, that they aren’t publicly knowable. That leaves desire as the standard for action, along with logic and knowledge of how to get what we want.
Desires are all equally desires, so they all equally deserve satisfaction. Nothing is exempt from the system, so everything becomes a resource to be used for our purposes. The end result is an overall project of reconstructing social life to make it a rational system for maximum equal preference satisfaction.
That’s what liberalism is now, and everything else has to give way to it. For example, traditional ties like family and inherited culture aren’t egalitarian or hedonistic or technologically rational. They have their own concerns. So they have to be done away with or turned into private hobbies that people can take or leave as they like. Anything else would violate freedom and equality.
Ignatius Insight: You argue that liberalism “began as an attempt to moderate the influence of religion in politics, [but] ends by establishing itself as a religion.” How is liberalism a religion? What are some examples of its religious nature? What significant challenges do these pose to serious, practicing Catholics?
James Kalb: People in authority treat liberalism as true, ultimate, and socially necessary. So far as they’re concerned, it gives the final standards that everyone has to defer to because they’re demanded by the order of the community and also by the fundamental way the world is. That’s what it means to say it’s the established religion.
Like other religions it helps maintain its place through saints, martyrs, rituals, and holidays. A candlelit vigil for Matthew Shepard is an example. There’s also education. All education is religious education, so education today is shot through with liberal indoctrination. Liberalism even has blasphemy laws, in the form of the laws against politically incorrect comments on Islam, homosexuality, and other topics that you find in Europe and Canada.
It also has some special features. Liberalism is a stealth religion. It becomes established and authoritative by claiming that it is not a religion but only the setting other religions need to cooperate peacefully.
The claim doesn’t make much sense, since religion has to do with ultimate issues. The religion of a society is simply the ultimate authoritative way the society grasps reality. As such it can’t be subordinate to anything else.
Liberalism has been successful at obfuscating its status as a religion, and that’s been key to its success. People believe they are keeping their own religion when they give first place to liberalism. What happens though is that their original religion gets assimilated and becomes a sort of poeticized version of liberalism.
You can see that tendency vividly in my former denomination, the Episcopal Church. At least at its upper levels “mission” now means promoting things like the UN Millennium Development Goals. I was in an Episcopal church recently in which the Stations of the Cross had been replaced on the wall by the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals.
That’s not a special oddity of the Episcopalians, of course. You can see the same tendency in all respectable mainline Protestant denominations. You also see it among many Catholics. That kind of assimilation is, I think, the biggest danger to the integrity of religious life today.
Read the whole thing. It’s really important. It is vital to fight in court and elsewhere to maintain authentic religious liberty against the dogmatic advances of the Church of Illiberal Liberalism, but in Kalb’s reading, it is more important for the traditional churches to fight within themselves to maintain their traditional self-understanding, in the face of MTD, which is the only kind of overt religiosity the Church of Illiberal Liberalism can tolerate. This is why Kalb, a Catholic, endorses what I call the Benedict Option:
Still, we’re stuck with liberalism right now. As things are, to live a life as free as possible from its poisons probably does require moral heroism. Certainly it means a break with the usual middle-class lifestyle. I can’t give a lot of useful advice to moral heroes, but it seems likely that a better way of life today will require things like homeschooling and other forms of intentional separation. We need settings in which a different pattern of life can be established. We all do the best we can, though.
I’d add that we all need to work together to build settings in which a normal good life is possible and indeed likely in the normal course of events. That, I think, is what Catholic social action should be about.
If you are not getting yourself, your family, and your community ready for what’s coming in post-Christian America, you are wasting time. Falling back on standard conservative categories of thought will not suffice.