Rock-ribbed vs. Faint-hearted Liberalism

I miss liberalism. Real liberalism. Not this namby-pamby, afraid-of-your-own-shadow faint-hearted liberalism. What I miss is the rock-ribbed, truth-seeking, justice-pursuing, rights-defending, I-don’t-agree-with-you-but-I’ll-defend-your-right-to-say-it liberalism. It was the liberalism that defeated Nazism and Communism.

It was your daddy’s liberalism, the sort whose champions would say something like this:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (John Stuart Mill, 1859)

Or this:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us. (Justice Robert Jackson, 1943)

Or even this:

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Senator Barack Obama, 2006)

Driving this liberalism was true tolerance, not the faux tolerance that is really just the old moralistic intolerance with a better marketing team, anti-religious inclinations, and far more political and bureaucratic power. (Is it a coincidence that the Moral Majority and Media Matters have the same abbreviation, MM? I don’t think so.)

In the old days – before social media’s institutionalizing and tacit approval of the once rightly-condemned “peer pressure” – your parents or your teachers (or both) would give you some pointers on how to manage your reflexes and navigate your thoughts in a free and open society. (I know that not everyone’s parents were rock-ribbed liberals like mine. But I can’t help that.) This would usually happen after you complained or whined about hearing, seeing, or reading something that challenged your deeply held beliefs or forced you to think in ways that were uncomfortable and disorienting.

Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds, 1774 [National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh]
Edmund Burke by Joshua Reynolds, 1774 [National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh]
They would say something like this: “Little Francis (assuming that is your name), one of the great things about living in a free and open society is that you have no choice but to understand and learn from those with whom you disagree. This is great for at least four reasons. First, the other guy may have the truth and by engaging him you have an opportunity to acquire it. Second, the other guy may not have the truth, but by confronting his challenges you will have learned to better appreciate and understand your own beliefs and what justifies them. Third, you may have the truth, and thus, when the other guy engages you, he has the opportunity to become more intellectually virtuous while making you a better friend because you have assisted him in acquiring the truth. Fourth, neither of you may have the full truth, but by dialoging with each other you may each have to adjust your beliefs, and as a consequence you not only draw closer to the truth, you draw closer to each other.”

This rock-ribbed liberalism is being quickly replaced by a faint-hearted liberalism whose advocates reject the core principles of rock-ribbed liberalism – the pursuit of truth and the presumption of liberty – and seek to replace them with the sovereignty of identity and the supreme blessedness of affirmation (euphemistically called “dignity”).

This explains why faint-hearted liberals become apoplectic when confronted with the claims of faith. For the religious believer typically affirms the sovereignty of God and the blessedness of union with God, both of which assume that ultimate goodness and truth are found in the transcendent and not in the immanent affirmation-seeking self. In this regard, rock-ribbed liberals could accommodate religious faith in ways that the faint-hearted liberal finds unimaginable.

Both the rock-ribbed liberal and the religious believer affirmed that the pursuit of truth and the presumption of liberty were important human goods. To be sure, there were always some tensions between some rock-ribbed liberals and some religious believers, especially on the meaning of liberty and whether it was possible to know transcendent truths or even the truths of special revelation. For those rock-ribbed liberals who were also religious believers, the tensions were less pronounced.

Nevertheless, the typical rock-ribbed liberal – well-versed as she was in the history of ideas – knew that there were just too many really smart people who believed these things for fairly sophisticated reasons, e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Leibniz, Reid, Burke, Leo XIII, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Paul II, Edith Stein, Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, etc.

Recognizing that there may be a sovereign higher than the state, the rock-ribbed liberal tried her best to reduce the number of times the state’s interests may interfere with the ends of that higher sovereign. For this reason, she gave us Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Liberty, the First Amendment, conscientious objection statutes, and religious accommodations.

For the rock-ribbed liberal, Jehovah Witnesses should not be forced to salute the flag, Mr. Johnson should be allowed to burn it, Quakers should not be conscripted to serve in the military, and the Amish should be exempted from compulsory education laws. But for the faint-hearted liberal, Christian bakers, photographers, and florists must employ their talents to cooperate with the celebration of a liturgical event they believe is a faux version of the authentic sort, or suffer crippling livelihood-destroying fines.

I miss rock-ribbed liberalism.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).