The Liberal Religion

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Some time ago I argued in a magazine column that liberalism has developed in recent decades from a rigidly secular political philosophy into a this-worldly religion with its own more or less developed though unsystematic dogma based on faith and a reciprocal concept of heresy, its own unwritten creed and sacramental system, a loose rhetorical liturgy that includes ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, principles of daily “ethical”  conduct, a penitential rite for public as well as private observation, a belief in sainthood and in the worship of saints, and a set of opposed angelic and demoniacal hierarchies.

In some instances, the liberal religion inverts the structure of Christian belief, morality, and worship, partly because it developed from Christianity and from pre-Christian natural religion based upon the recognition of natural rights. More often, though, it is its antithesis. Abortion, for instance, has become a liberal sacrament to which women are encouraged by other liberals (usually also women) to resort. All religions believe in the necessity for their adherents to strive toward moral perfection, whatever their criteria for perfection might be, and the liberal religion is no exception to the rule. A year after the column appeared, the growing national emergency on the Southwest border refocused my attention on the subject.

What liberals have euphemistically called “immigration” for the past 40 years is far more accurately described as a process of slow invasion, whose relative quietness ought not to be mistaken for peaceableness. Armed and violent or not (and many illegal border crossers, though of course not the majority of them, have been both armed and violent), invasion is always and everywhere an act of aggression. The chaos the Unites States is experiencing along the border from El Paso to Tijuana is almost invariably described by the American media and Democratic politicians as a “humanitarian crisis,” though it is all too obviously a crisis of national security. So far as a humanitarian element actually exists, the “migrants” (another euphemism) themselves are directly responsible for it. In fact, they have sought it. Film and photographic coverage show crowds of apparently healthy people, all of them well fed and many overweight, the majority youthful and well dressed. Whether or not they “yearn to breathe free,” they hardly represent the “huddled masses,” and certainly not the “wretched refuse,” of Emma Lazarus’s poem. Yet were the majority indeed the wretched of the earth in flight from political persecution at home, the crucial and determinative fact for the United States is that they are arriving by the hundreds of thousands, and that millions more are potentially behind them. Even looking beyond Central America, we can recognize hundreds of millions, even billions of people around the world, who could no doubt make equally valid (and invalid) claims to persecution and economic misery.

No serious person can honestly assert that existing national and international laws pertaining to asylum were framed in the expectation of large masses of asylum seekers from everywhere descending upon prosperous, orderly, and peaceable nations. The emergency along the American border with Mexico is patently not a crisis of humanitarian principle, or even immigration law, but of American laws of asylum that were devised in another and radically different era to serve another and far smaller purpose and are therefore fatally inadequate to present circumstances. Politicians and commentators have noted that Congress could revise standing law to address present realities in a single afternoon, were it so minded. But Democrats and liberals of both national parties refuse to do so. Political liberals in the post-modern twenty-first century no longer believe in adjusting law to circumstance, something they equate with compromising moral principle. This is because they have ceased to regard the civil law—i.e., public law—as being civil in its essence. For them it has become the moral law, always and everywhere absolute.

 

The logic behind this view is on its own terms irrefutable. Modern law is essentially liberal law; liberalism has attained the status of a religion; ergo, liberal law is effectively religious law. Just as an orthodox Catholic cannot in good conscience compromise on the issue of abortion, so an orthodox liberal cannot compromise on “human rights.” Hence the moral perfectionism that liberals and liberal jurisprudence have succumbed to, as well as the resulting political, legal, and national paralysis that the United States and other Western countries are experiencing. The former Liberal State has transformed itself into the Church of Christ Without Christ—and without his Wisdom as well.

The principal causes of this metamorphosis are postmodern liberalism’s two dominating obsessions: the first with “human rights” and the second with the absolute equality, legal and otherwise, of groups—religions, cultures, races, classes, and the sexes—as well as of individuals.  In the matter of rights, liberals think almost exclusively in individualistic terms. First they have personalized them and then prioritized them. Hence, in the instance of asylum law, liberals elevate the rights and well-being of individual asylum seekers above the claims and interests of the native populations while ignoring the social, political, contractual, and historical bonds that exist between their members and their governments. In the case of “equality,” liberals do exactly the opposite. Since “equality” is not by definition an individual concept but a collective one, legal equality in a liberal polity requires the de-personalization of individuals who are thus reduced to abstractions.

Generally speaking nowadays, public questions of importance fall into one or the other of these categories, and sometimes both of them. In all three cases, liberalism allows for little if any flexibility in adapting liberal principle to practical considerations; thus liberals’ principled rigidity in the face of many hundreds of thousands of more or less aggressive foreigners applying for asylum in the United States. National and international law recognize the right of asylum, they argue, and so these people must be given the chance, each and every one individually, to present his case for careful and conscientious consideration by a court of law. If the numbers pressing on the border today amounted to five million importunate people, liberals would remain inflexible. The law is the law, they are implicitly saying; law written, or approved, by liberal legislators, liberal judges, and liberally minded citizens (and non-citizens) may never be repealed or amended to reflect present circumstances, even in a national emergency that threatens national security and the integrity of the civil law on which every nation depends for its survival. The moral law, derived from natural law, is absolute. It is engraved in stone and must be honored at no matter what cost to the American public and the American nation.

As a more general consequence of post-modern legal absolutism, every law debated by a legislative body at whatever level of government must be rigorously scrutinized by the legislators to determine if the law could have unforeseen and adverse effects on the unshakeable bedrock principles of “rights” and “equality.” If, moreover, after passage and entry into the statute books, a law is found (or claimed, or imagined) to compromise either of these “values” in the most minute degree, an alliance of liberal pressure groups is certain to demand its immediate emendation or abrogation. Thus, for example, many an engineering project has been halted in the courts by liberal judges willing to rule against the greater or common good on behalf of a minute harmful impact whose reality is often unproven.

One may assume as a rule of thumb that liberal politics, law, and jurisprudence will always refuse to permit any possible damage to any good or value the liberal religion supports and defends—anything that the liberal religion holds sacred. The postmodern liberal system elevates legal over legislative action and decision, and the courts over the democratic deliberative chambers, in all the Western democracies today, with dire consequences for the observance of the Divine law and its supporters, for human societies, and for humanity itself.

In the 1950s Lionel Trilling, the American literary critic and scholar, published a highly influential book called The Liberal Imagination. However strong that imagination may (or may not) have been in the post-war era, it exists in nearly untraceable amounts today. In the early twenty-first century, the average liberal appears to have all the imagination for which the ordinary librarian has always been stereotypically famous. Liberals who claim to be perfectly comfortable and satisfied with scientific explanations for string theory and the existence of black holes, concepts on which they are likely to have no stronger theoretical hold than the common Trump voter (and I myself, for that matter) does, reject the existence of God because, they insist, no proof of him exists that they, as entirely rational people, could possibly accept. This may be so, but people who dogmatically reject the possibility of the existence of anything that cannot be proven sola ratīonem, i.e., anything that lies beyond the boundaries of rational scientific inquiry, obviously lack—despite whatever other admirable qualities they may possess—imagination of the artistic, the intuitive, and the moral sort.

This explains why liberals and millennials have Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, while conservatives and Christians have The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia volumes. What passes in popular culture and in literature goes for law and politics also, and there is a Spirit of the Laws as well of the Arts and of Philosophy. Today liberal legislators and jurists approach the business of legislating and of legal interpretation the way a community librarian approaches cataloguing and enforcing a scale of late fines for small children. How convenient, though, that the Spirit of Postmodern Law and the Spirit of the Postmodern Muses agree with the Spirit of Postmodern Liberalism itself.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, a U.S. Border Patrol agent speaks with illegal immigrants from Central America at the U.S.-Mexico border fence on February 1, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.  (Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr., recently resigned as editor of Chronicles magazine and is the author of many books, among them are After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and a novel, Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press). For over a decade, he served as Literary Editor, then Senior Editor, for National Review.

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