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The Vacant Commons

Public square as arena -- and a vacant one (Pigprox / Shutterstock.com)

Wesley J. Smith writes about speaking on a panel at an international bioethics conference. The subject was euthanasia. Smith:

My co-panelist was a Dutch ethicist who supported his country’s liberal legalization regimen. We sparred courteously for an hour, and although the discussion remained cordial, we found no points of agreement, either on means or ends.

At the end of the convention, one participant—a UN bureaucrat—told me angrily that many people were upset because I was not willing to engage in “conversation.” I was surprised. “I flew 6,000 miles to engage in conversation,” I replied. “I have respectfully listened to opposing views and been civil in presenting my own opinions.”

“But you refuse consensus,” he complained. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t been invited to discuss and defend my viewpoint. Instead, I was brought there to reach an agreement, to find a compromise, by accepting “a little euthanasia” as the middle ground. But that was a fool’s errand—for me, a little euthanasia is still euthanasia.

Smith goes on to say this is an example of “why the West is increasingly incapable of engaging in true debate, achieving broad consensus, and reaching compromises about our most important controversies.” We have grown too far apart in our basic moral visions.

Citing Smith’s column, a reader of this blog said in a comment on the Next Culture War Front thread:


In short, Smith shows that the pro- and anti-euthanasia camps share so little common moral ground, so little cultural connective tissue, and speak “two different moral languages,” that there is quite frankly nothing for the two sides to talk about.

The same thing is happening around sexuality, particularly transgenderism. Rod Dreher (our stand-in for a cultural conservative) and Jill Soloway (our stand-in for a cultural radical) share so little moral common ground that there is no point in a conversation of any kind, except on the basis of a secret hope that one’s opponent will somehow spontaneously see the light and come over to the other side.

So what do we do? A key element of the historic American solution to such problems of social cohesion is federalism and privacy. But the Obama administration and the Supreme Court have eliminated this pathway to toleration and co-existence. So on the two sides fight, as “neither can live while the other survives”.

“My name is legion” indeed.

A reader wrote to me yesterday, saying that the Benedict Option will not be possible because ultimately the State will not leave us alone. I told him that in my view, we have to fight as long as we are able, and fight hard — but we also must plan for the day when we lose. What then? At the moment, I don’t see many culturally conservative Christians planning for enduring the long night. They seem paralyzed by the thought that it could happen, and seem to believe that by keeping it out of mind, they make it less likely. This is magical thinking.

We Christians on the whole are doing a bad job of raising our children to understand what it means to be a Christian; this is why so many of them profess Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is perfectly compatible with the kind of assimilationist, civic Christianity that the Establishment (including but not limited to the State) will allow. Our children, if they still profess the faith as adults, will offer no objection to the state oppression of our institutions, and the demonization of traditional Christianity, because they will have come to understand that being a Christian means little more than being nice. And bigots are mean.

But you know this is my thing. The main point here is that the public square is being vacated as the idea of the common good withers. I think this is a terrible thing, but I don’t know how to stop it, or if it can be stopped. The politics professor Patrick Deneen gets to the heart of the matter in this essay. He begins by saying that liberalism as we know it — “liberalism,” that is, as the political order we live under, not merely the political tendency of the Democratic Party — depends for its success on certain pre-modern assumptions that contemporary liberalism either ignores or attacks. More:

Many of what are considered liberalism’s signal features—particularly political arrangements such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism—are to be found in medieval thought. Inviolable human dignity, constitutional limits upon central power, and equality under law are part of a preliberal legacy.

The strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute “liberalism” inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of “liberty.”

These are foundational questions — and, as Wes Smith discerns, like Alasdair MacIntyre before him, we have reached a point at which on more and more of these vital questions, compromise is impossible, because the competing visions are too radical. When Americans of both the left and the right find the “common good” cannot include the Other, because the threat to Goodness the Other poses is too great to be accommodated, then the idea of the common good dies.

Europe at the moment is struggling with the question of whether its Islamic immigrants can ever truly be European while remaining faithfully Islamic. A number of Christians in this country watch this conflict from afar, and conclude that no, the Muslims can’t. And they may be right. But what traditional Christians ought to consider is that the day is fast coming, and in fact I believe will come in my own lifetime, when traditional Christians are seen as bones in the throat of the American body politic as Muslims are in Europe today. They will be asking the same questions about us: can we really be good and loyal Americans, given how we obviously hold to “un-American values”? (See David Cameron’s proposal to monitor all religious organizations in the UK, policing against “un-British values.”)

Power will pass back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in the years to come, but the general drift will be against traditional Christians and their religious liberties, at first because that’s where the elite culture is, but also because the popular culture is following them, more and more. In many cases, our own children and grandchildren won’t want us in the public square, seeing us as a menace to the common good. Because, as Wesley J. Smith says, “we have grown too far apart in our basic moral visions.” Damon Linker has written, of the reason why people like me have such a pessimistic vision:

Unlike the French model, the American approach to adjudicating conflicts between politics and religion has favored accommodation. This, in turn, persuaded devout Christians that they were free to live out their faith in public and even to seek political power, provided they didn’t try to set up an established church. But now, with the solicitor general of the United States musing before the Supreme Court about the possibility of stripping religious colleges of their tax-exempt status for upholding the sexual teachings of historic Christianity, these accommodationist hopes have been exposed as a ruse. All modern states follow a logic of laïcité, we can now see, even the United States — and even if it did so with a relatively light touch for much of the last few centuries.

Understand: my argument is not simply that the institutions of the Establishment — pre-eminently the State — are going to enforce the “logic of laïcité” against Christians individuals and institutions. It is also that in the next few decades these will be popular, even with people calling themselves conservatives, because for most Americans, Christianity will have either been abandoned, or will have become so thin and attenuated that it will offer have given its adherents no substantive basis for resisting. And much of the fault for that will be our own, for having not shored up our own foundations against the flood we all saw coming, and for having wasted time fighting for political solutions to cultural problems.

UPDATE: Reader Jonathan Scinto comments:

I’m a liberal utilitarian materialist atheist, which is about as far from an orthodox religious believer/social conservative as you can get. For a long time, I’ve dismissed Rod’s fears over the collapse of Western civilization as paranoia.


I’m beginning to believe the West has gone mad. Starting with the condemnation of Brendan Eich to the ranks of the unmentionables, to the insistence that men and boys confused about their gender, be allowed to use women’s’ restrooms. My fellow liberals have all lost their minds. Jill Soloway is a self-absorbed narcissist who would abandon her young child and her husband, to take up with a lesbian poet. Caitlyn Jenner is a man in his sixties, who thinks he’s a woman. A canadian man in his forties, is delusional and believes he’s a six year old girl. Pathetic little twits on college campuses, are determined to avoid any opinions that challenge their beliefs about the world.

I have a very high tolerance for behaviors that most social conservatives would find to be repulsive and disgusting. I operate from radically different first principles than religious believers. Yet, I’m finding myself agreeing more and more with Rod Dreher. If liberals and conservatives have lost the ability to speak to each other in meaningful ways, I’m going to say it’s because liberals have gone insane.

I mean, even on the issue of abortion, as much as I disagree with the Pro-Life side, I canunderstand why Pro-Life people believe the way they do. It might not be an issue where compromise is possible, given the assumptions involved, but at the very least Pro-Life people speak in a language I understand. The Jill Soloways of the world don’t speak in a language I understand. The Jill Soloways of the world, make me afraid for the future of Western civilization.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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