Item 1: In a widely discussed essay in Slate, author Brian Palmer writes about the prevalence of missionary doctors and nurses in Africa and their crucial role in treating those suffering from Ebola. Palmer tries to be fair-minded, but he nonetheless expresses "ambivalence," "suspicion," and "visceral discomfort" about the fact that these men and women are motivated to make "long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans," to "risk their lives," and to accept poor compensation (and sometimes none at all) because of their Christian faith.
The question is why he considers this a problem.
Palmer mentions a lack of data and an absence of regulatory oversight. But he's honest enough to admit that these aren't the real reasons for his concern. The real reason is that he doesn't believe that missionaries are capable "of separating their religious work from their medical work," even when they vow not to proselytize their patients. And that, in his view, is unacceptable — apparently because he's an atheist and religion creeps him out. As he puts it, rather wanly, "It's great that these people are doing God's work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?"
That overriding distaste for religion leads Palmer to propose a radical corollary to the classical liberal ideal of a separation between church and state — one that goes far beyond politics, narrowly construed. Palmer thinks it's necessary to uphold a separation of "religion and health care."
Item 2: Gordon College, a small Christian school north of Boston, is facing the possibility of having its accreditation revoked by the higher education commission of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, according to an article in the Boston Business Journal. Since accreditation determines a school's eligibility to participate in federal and state financial aid programs, and the eligibility of its students to be accepted into graduate programs and to meet requirements for professional licensure, revoking a school's accreditation is a big deal — and can even be a death sentence.
What has Gordon College done to jeopardize its accreditation? It has chosen to enforce a "life and conduct statement" that forbids "homosexual practice" on campus.
Now, one could imagine a situation in which such a statement might legitimately run afoul of an accreditation board or even anti-discrimination statutes and regulations — if, for example, it stated that being gay is a sign of innate depravity and that students who feel same-sex attraction should be subject to punishment for having such desires.
But that isn't the case here. At all. In accordance with traditional Christian teaching, Gordon College bans all sexual relationships outside of marriage, gay or straight, and it goes out of its way to say that its structures against homosexual acts apply only to behavior and not to same-sex desires or orientation.
The accreditation board is not so much objecting to the college's treatment of gays as it is rejecting the legitimacy of its devoutly Christian sexual beliefs.
The anti-missionary article and the story of Gordon College's troubles are both examples (among many others) of contemporary liberalism's irrational animus against religion in general and traditional forms of Christianity in particular.
My use of the term "irrational animus" isn't arbitrary. The Supreme Court has made "irrational animus" a cornerstone of its jurisprudence on gay rights. A law cannot stand if it can be shown to be motivated by rationally unjustifiable hostility to homosexuals, and on several occasions the court has declared that traditional religious objections to homosexuality are reducible to just such a motive.
But the urge to eliminate Christianity's influence on and legacy within our world can be its own form of irrational animus. The problem is not just the cavalier dismissal of people's long-established beliefs and the ways of life and traditions based on them. The problem is also the dogmatic denial of the beauty and wisdom contained within those beliefs, ways of life, and traditions. (You know, the kind of thing that leads a doctor to risk his life and forego a comfortable stateside livelihood in favor of treating deadly illness in dangerous, impoverished African cities and villages, all out of a love for Jesus Christ.)
Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism's moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.
That is a betrayal of what's best in the liberal tradition.
Liberals should be pleased and express gratitude when people do good deeds, whether or not those deeds are motivated by faith. They should also be content to give voluntary associations (like religious colleges) wide latitude to orient themselves to visions of the human good rooted in traditions and experiences that transcend liberal modernity — provided they don't clash in a fundamental way with liberal ideals and institutions.
In the end, what we're seeing is an effort to greatly expand the list of beliefs, traditions, and ways of life that fundamentally clash with liberalism. That is an effort that no genuine liberal should want to succeed.
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?
I don't have answers to these questions — and frankly, not a lot hinges on figuring out how we got here. What matters is that we acknowledge that something in the liberal mind has changed, and that we act to recover what has been lost.