Beneath the Religious-Liberty Debates

Published March 28, 2014

National Review Online

In response to this post on Monday, I’ve had a few email exchanges with readers and a few conversations with friends and acquaintances in the course of the week that have left me with a clearer sense of at least part of the reason why the Left and the Right seem to be talking past each other on the religious-liberty question. (The post also drew more than the usual volume of angry anti-Semitic e-mails, and I can only hope the readers who sent those notes at least had a sense of the irony involved.)

The most striking element of the response I’ve had from thoughtful liberals is the kind of implicit Whig theory of history at the core of their objections to the way that arguments for religious liberty are being used by some religious people today. Although they don’t always quite put it this way, their concerns seem moved by a sense that it is somehow hypocritical (or at least paradoxical) to appeal to human rights and civil rights to resist what they take to be the expansion of the orbit of individual liberty and to oppose the explosion of traditional beliefs and practices. The idea of religious liberty exists to protect people from subjection to oppressive dogma, they suggest, so it is therefore absurd for the partisans of what they deem oppressive religious dogma to claim protection behind such liberty. It is a view that implies that our rights exist to enable society’s progress toward greater individual liberation from the sway of tradition and prejudice – that religious orthodoxy is at best the primitive starting point in the story of liberal democracy and the principles of forward motion that drive that story cannot legitimately be employed in the service of reversing course.

It seems to me that many conservatives looking at the same pattern of facts react differently because we have a different understanding of the larger story of liberal democracy. We take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving. It is a means to social, moral, and material progress, but the shape of that progress is itself defined and debated in a dynamic, incremental, and ongoing way in that space in which society lives, rather than existing as an ideal of social justice understood as individual moral liberation and standing always as the criteria against which everything society does must be tested.

The purpose of government in this understanding of things is to build and sustain that space, which stands between the individual and the state, and to better enable people to take part in what happens there. Politics exists to serve society but it does not define society. And by requiring some orthodox religious believers to adopt the preferred views of the majority that now holds political power, many conservatives take the government to be closing off part of that space and inserting politics where it does not belong, rather than vindicating liberty. Sometimes that kind of closing off is unavoidable, given some other pressing public necessity, but when it is avoidable, as it certainly seems to be in the cases now before us, it should be avoided.

There are some conservatives, of course, who do not believe that this kind of principle of liberty can be enough, and who indeed see it as part of the problem, since it suggests an indifference to different ways of living and therefore to the good and the true. My friend Pat Deneen articulated a form of this view in this profound little essay earlier this week, which essentially suggests that traditionalism and modernity (and therefore, as he sees it, the good life and modernity, and perhaps especially the modern economy) are utterly irreconcilable in practice. He makes a deep and serious case, but one with which I ultimately disagree. They may be irreconcilable in theory, but that just means we need a better theory. Life is much more complicated in practice than in theory, and often in ways that make room for constructive compromises and for unexpected opportunities that ought to give us hope. The history of the modern age has not been a downward slide any more than it has been a forward march, and playing the Whig theory of history in reverse doesn’t make it any more accurate.

The permanence of the human longings for attachment and transcendence means that the endless parade of temptations and distractions modernity throws up to flatten our souls will make room for an endless series of opportunities for the truth to recapture our imagination and prove itself indispensable. Traditionalists should work to build room for their ways of living in the modern world, including in the modern economy, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better, as it has so often done, and that people will be drawn to the spark. This means traditionalists must see the good in modern life and in the market economy (which after all has made possible very great goods and has done more to lift up the material conditions of the poor of the world than anything humanity has ever thought to try). And it means traditionalists, more than anyone, must be committed to the preservation of spaces for private life that are protected from the perverse short-sightedness of politics; it means, in other words, that they should be intensely engaged in the sorts of fights now raging of a sudden.

I do not mean to suggest that this much-too-simple dichotomy of views of the liberal society can somehow resolve the debates in which we are now immersed over religious liberty. Those debates are quite particular, involving specific circumstances and a specific statute, and people’s views of these questions are as a result appropriately complicated. But I think the two rather different understandings of the liberal society that underlie the debate can nonetheless help us think about what people are arguing about and help us take seriously the views of people with whom we disagree. They can do that not by showing us that we ultimately don’t really disagree that much, but by showing us that we actually do, and that the dispute at the core of these controversies, and at the core of an awful lot of our politics, is really a serious and legitimate dispute about the basic character and purpose of our free society. That is a question worth taking seriously. The stakes are high.

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