Sorry this is another lengthy post but worth the read.
I’ve been thinking about how to write about this topic for the past week. It doesn’t resonate in Canada like it does in the US because the majority of Canadians are already true believers and any dissenters have been for the most part shunned from the public square. Liberalism-progressivism long ago became the Canadian state religion. But in the US, these things still matter. I mentioned in a previous post how the Hobby Lobby decision has sent the American Left into fits of rage and intolerance – the Supreme Court ruled in favour of religious liberty which at one time was THE cornerstone of Western democracy. Now the Democrats and their leftist allies want to overturn even this very narrow ruling. There is only one right way to think and it is dictated by the state. Against gay “marriage” and contraception? That’s unacceptable and akin to racism. Either shut up or face the human rights tribunal. And you better apologize while you’re at it. Not that it matters
How Liberalism Became an Intolerant Dogma
In a July 11 article for The Week, Damon Linker explains “How liberalism became an intolerant dogma” (http://theweek.com/article/index/264546/how-liberalism-became-an-intolerant-dogma).
My own cherished topic is this: Liberalism’s decline from a political philosophy of pluralism into a rigidly intolerant dogma.
The decline is especially pronounced on a range of issues wrapped up with religion and sex. For a time, electoral self-interest kept these intolerant tendencies in check, since the strongly liberal position on social issues was clearly a minority view. But the cultural shift during the Obama years that has led a majority of Americans to support gay marriage seems to have opened the floodgates to an ugly triumphalism on the left.
The result is a dogmatic form of liberalism that threatens to poison American civic life for the foreseeable future. Conservative Reihan Salam describes it, only somewhat hyperbolically, as a form of “weaponized secularism.”
I have often argued with my liberal friends and acquaintances that their worldview, despite their adamant denials, is a religion. Of course they take great offence saying they are atheists and don’t believe in the invisible God or the quaint and outdated idea of Truth. But they do: their God is the State and their Truth is what the State says it is. To my liberal readers, I mean no offence – I’m just pointing it out.
The Church of Illiberal Liberalism
As you would expect, Rod Dreher (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/illiberal-liberalism-church/) is excellent on this issue:
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.
The Church of Illiberal Liberalism worships a jealous god, who will brook no rivals.
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.
There are lessons here for Canadian conservatives – maybe we should not have surrendered so easily? That quaint and cherished concept of the separation of church and state that liberals used to love so much means nothing. Now the state IS the church. Problem solved.