Why Liberalism is so Illiberal

Have liberals been getting less liberal? Or are they merely letting their true colors show, now that the culture wars seem to be going their way?

That’s the question Damon Linker recently broached at The Week, as part of his ongoing effort to persuade liberals to be more tolerant. Linker doesn’t understand why progressive secularists have become so hostile to even the mildest and most benign forms of religious expression. Once, perhaps, liberals could credibly claim that they merely wanted to open a space within American society to live as they wished, unmolested by the Christian right. Recent attacks on religious activity cannot plausibly be seen in this light.

Linker himself focuses on two recent episodes: Brian Palmer’s recent condemnation of missionary doctors (who undeniably help the sick, but have religious motivations for doing so), and recent efforts to revoke accreditation for Gordon College, in light of a “life and conduct” statement forbidding “homosexual practice” (together with fornication and other forms of sexual immorality) on campus.

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Linker is right to see both of these as reprehensible examples of liberal intolerance. People who participate in heroic missions of mercy ought to be lauded and admired. There is no reason to be “uncomfortable” about the fact that they are often motivated by religious convictions. Palmer’s expressed wish that missionary doctors (who are, by his own admission, the only people doing much good in many infected areas) would keep their God-talk to themselves just looks like an ugly prejudice. Are the sick complaining? Then why should Palmer care?

Events at Gordon College are in line with a number of other recent initiatives to punish and ostracize those who retain a traditional understanding of marriage and of sexual morality. We’ve seen the boycott of Chick-fil-A, the firing of Brandon Eich, and lawsuits brought against multiple businesses that refuse to participate in same-sex weddings or union ceremonies. Now this last week, we have seen efforts to intimidate Houston pastors into acquiescing to the LGBT agenda. Also, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, local authorities are attempting to strong-arm believing Christians into officiating same-sex ceremonies over and against their religious objections.

In short, the progressive agenda is advancing, and becoming ever more brazen in its methods. Noting this, Linker is attempting to call his fellow liberals back to a more moderate and tolerant perspective:

What happened to a liberalism of skepticism, modesty, humility, and openness to conflicting notions of the highest good? What happened to a liberalism of pluralism that recognizes that when people are allowed to search for truth in freedom, they are liable to seek and find it in a multitude of values, beliefs, and traditions? What happened to a liberalism that sees this diversity as one of the finest flowers of a free society rather than a threat to the liberal democratic order?

He admits that he doesn’t know the answer, but asks for acknowledgement that “something in the liberal mind has changed,” and that it’s time to return to what he regards as the best of liberalism. Tolerance, restraint and respect for pluralism are among the values Linker would like to reinstate.

Far be it from me to deter anyone who might persuade illiberal liberals to change their ways. I wish Linker luck in his effort to persuade his fellow travelers to be more genuinely broad-minded. But is he really right to suppose that his version of liberalism is truer and more authentically liberal than the aggressive, intolerant version that we’re seeing today? Or is secularism by nature a parricide, ultimately seeking to annihilate the Judeo-Christian culture that begat it?

There’s plenty of reason to believe the latter. The totalitarian tendencies of liberalism have been documented too many times to count, but more recent popularizers include them: Jonah Goldberg and Charles Kesler. James Poulous has offered some compelling analysis as to why progressives (along with, somewhat ironically, many of the more libertine libertarians) must continue along the path of intolerant hyper-regulation, demanding more and more intimate control of the lives of ordinary citizens. Yuval Levin has recently written a thoughtful essay detailing some of the reasons why an autonomy-oriented liberalism seems to be growing more brittle and less attuned to true human good.

These arguments cannot be adequately summarized here, but I recommend them to anyone who wishes to gain more perspective on the increasing intolerance of the progressive movement. For present purposes I will just say that these more thoughtful critics of progressivism seem to understand something that Linker clearly doesn’t: when human beings try to build societies on a too-thin understanding of human nature, they become successively less willing to live with one another. Over time, they lose the ability to navigate serious disagreements among themselves. This trend is becoming increasingly obvious in our ever-more-polarized America.

Traditional sensibilities and mores generally aren’t eradicated overnight. For that reason, progressive reformers can sometimes be better than their ideals as they draw on cultural “reserves” that their ancestors laid down over the course of centuries. To one raised in a traditional culture it might just seem that human sensibilities “naturally” discern the wrongness of wanton violence, sexual depravity or other extreme forms of misconduct. Shedding the baggage of restrictive ethical theories in favor of thinner, more permissive ones might seem in the short term to foster tolerance, freedom and mutual respect—all the values, in other words, that Linker associates with liberalism.

Over time, however, the unacknowledged reserves of tradition become depleted. Having rejected the philosophical foundations that made Western civilization possible, we find ourselves standing on thin ideological ice when depravities our grandparents would have rejected in horror (though often without articulating precisely why) are proposed as good and legitimate patterns of life. Before long, it becomes uncomfortable for progressives to live in the shadow of the thick Western traditions from which they have alienated themselves. Even when their compatriots are discreet and civil, their implicit judgment feels oppressive, especially once the evil fruits of the libertine path become more obvious. The reminder of what has been lost becomes unbearable. Destroying the remaining vestiges starts to seem like a necessary step on the path to a true autonomous paradise.

Real pluralistic tolerance (of the sort Linker claims to value) must be rooted in a deep understanding of why integrity is essential to human thriving. And that, of course, requires a robust understanding of what human thriving really means. If Linker really yearns to recover a rich and tolerant form of liberty, he may need to return to the Theocons whose company he once spurned.

  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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