RSS
Are secular liberals getting cocky?
In pressing their advantage in the culture war, liberals too often overreach
 
A little respect, please.
A little respect, please. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At first it sounds like a publicity stunt. A disgruntled ex-Mormon named Tom Phillips files a criminal complaint in England against the Mormon church, alleging that it promulgates untrue doctrines for the purpose of securing financial contributions from church members. A magistrate then responds by issuing a summons ordering the president of the church, Thomas S. Monson, to appear before a court in London on March 14 to answer charges of fraud.

The consensus of legal scholars seems to be that the case won't go forward — that the British government won't attempt to extradite Monson to make him demonstrate the truth of Mormonism's theological claims in court.

But that doesn't mean the case is unimportant. On the contrary, it's part of a broader, troubling trans-Atlantic trend of secular liberalism steamrolling competing, non-liberal visions of the good.

The trend marks an important change. Eight years ago I published a book with a subtitle describing how the religious right was placing "secular America under siege." Less than a decade later, the dynamic I discussed in the book has reversed itself, with liberalism now shoving traditionalist religion into a corner.

To some extent, this back-and-forth is perfectly normal. As I wrote in a more recent book, the borderland between religion and politics in a free society is less like a "wall of separation" than an "endlessly shifting skirmish line," with the sacred and secular each "constantly pushing back against the incursions of the other, adjusting its arguments and tactics as circumstances and situations change over time."

Under George W. Bush — whose electoral coalition included conservative evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews — the line moved one way. Under his successor, it has moved in the opposite direction, thanks to ObamaCare's contraception mandate and the spread of gay marriage, which has forced traditionalist believers of all faiths to comply with anti-discrimination statutes.

But that doesn't mean liberals should keep prosecuting the fight — constantly probing, like the English magistrate eager to take on the Mormon church, to see just how far the secular state can go.

When liberals act that way, they run the risk of turning themselves into latter-day Jacobins, the anti-religious zealots who dominated the French Revolution during its most radical phase. In its most violent form, this monistic, comprehensive version of secularism outlawed religion, ransacked and desecrated churches, and decreed that priests were to be murdered on sight — all in the name of freedom. In contemporary France, the ideological descendants of the Jacobins uphold the French "republican" ideal of secular government by banning head scarves and other overt religious displays in public.

The United States has typically been friendlier to faith. The form of liberalism embodied in its Constitution is pluralistic, not monistic. It tolerates broad differences among citizens about the highest good, and assumes that claims to metaphysical truth will proliferate under conditions of political freedom. The last thing a pluralistic liberal would do is seek to stamp out these religious and moral differences in the name of homogenous adherence to a single vision of the good.

One can see this pluralistic version of liberalism at work in the United States today in the push to pair same-sex marriage laws with statutes to protect the religious freedom of traditionalists who oppose gay marriage. It can also be seen in efforts to give ObamaCare exemptions to churches and church-affiliated organizations that oppose contraception on religious grounds.

In case there's any doubt: I support gay marriage, and I have no objection to birth control. But I also believe that a free society should permit its members to disagree on these issues. And that when liberals use the government's coercive powers to force believers to change their views or act against their most deeply held spiritual convictions, liberals (paradoxically) commit an act of illiberalism.

In such cases, the government stamps out differences in the name of respecting differences. After all, a traditionalist Christian, Jew, or Muslim ceases to be a traditionalist the moment he or she is made to endorse behavior or beliefs that traditionalist Christians, Jews, or Muslims hold to be wrong. That is something that no genuine liberal should be comfortable doing.

Unfortunately, too many contemporary liberals seem perfectly comfortable doing exactly that. Emboldened by their victories in the push for gay marriage and relishing the reversals of the religious right in recent years, they seem all too willing to compromise their principles for the sake of what they hope will be total victory in the culture war.

They would be truer to their highest ideals if they took a stand for tolerance and pluralism, and if they responded to the setbacks of their opponents with a bit more magnanimity — recognizing that few things in politics are more ephemeral than so-called total victories.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week