Friday, March 22, 2002
An extremely interesting article in First Things by Stephen L. Carter. The topic is liberalism and religion, a perennial topic but also a very specifically topical one. Carter's contention (correct in my view) is that liberal political theory is actively antagonistic to religion, and is inevitably going to lead to conflict with seriously religious people. The reason is simply stated. Contemporary liberalism, as Carter understands (correctly, in my view), is preference utilitarianism combined with a Rawlsian notion of equality. Human beings are monads. They are understood by the state from the perspective of the veil of ignorance - that is, we don't know who any individual citizen is, and therefore must construct our social and economic system on the assumption that we could be the worst off on the social scale. Worst off in what sense? Worst off in terms of our ability to exercise our preferences, since there is no agreed-upon notion of the good. Such a system is obviously irreligious. It comes into conflict with religion because actual citizens are not monads; we have, among other attributes, religious and other commitments that are prior to our allegiance to the state. Our preferences, then, may be for an order that is not so atomized. And we will exercise these preferences by, for example, trying to educate our children to replicate our commitments, and even by trying to change the liberal character of the state. This the liberal state cannot abide, and therefore it - very illiberally - tries to reconstruct the people (principally through public education) to better conform to the values that undergird the liberal state. In the end, by this process, liberalism hollows itself out entirely, loses sight of the meaning of freedom, and becomes a kind of imperial, totalitarian paganism.
All this is, I think, a very accurate representation of the conflict between the liberal state and religion. And I would agree with Carter that, if these are the lines of battle, I am on the side of religion and against the liberal state. But I do not think these are the inevitable lines of battle, and I think that liberal political theory has been of enormous benefit to mankind, and a tremendous advance over previous political models. I think that what is really the problem is that liberal theorists do not understand the foundations of the liberal state correctly. And I think that rather than resign ourselves to the decay and decadence of the liberal state, or move into a mode of religious opposition thereto, it behooves us to reconstruct those foundations on more stable ground.
"There is something chilling," Carter quotes Stanley Hauerwas as saying, "in the inability of liberal theory to give an account of why bearing and raising children is a positive good." I agree that liberalism, understood as Carter does, cannot account for this. But this is because liberalism properly understood pre-supposes a social structure that is prior to and creates the state. And, specifically, it presupposes the existence of families. Preference utilitarianism is a workable theory of how productive adults should get along with one another, but it is an obviously absurd theory for answering questions about how to educate one's children. Even Locke, is his account of the liberal state in his Two Treatises of Government, gets flummoxed on the subject of the family. He tries to explain filial obligations in liberal terms, and comes out sounding rather incoherent. Because, truth be told, Locke's liberal order of independently productive individuals agreeing, in the state of nature, to form a state to better secure their natural rights presupposes the traditional family structure: a husband who can be out there turning raw materials into more valuable products through in input of labor, a wife who will care for him and his children at home, children who will support him in his old age, etc. Even if we don't get into the emotional, moral and spiritual aspects of family life, simply as an economic matter Locke's account is incomplete because he fails to explain how these productive individuals are produced and what happens to them when they are too old to be productive. (This is a fundamental problem as well for the theories of our more extreme economic utilitarians today, the prime example being Richard Posner. Posner tackles sexuality, aging, and justice itself from an economic, preference-utilitarian perspective. He's not terribly convincing in any of these cases.)
Contemporary liberalism has undertaken these traditional responsibilities of the family because it cannot comprehend the family, and it cannot comprehend the family because the family is a corporate body, extending through time and space and making unshirkable demands on its members, and liberalism understands only monads. On some level, it knows that children are not monads, because it knows they lack the moral responsibility necessary to have their preferences accounted for. But if it recognizes this (and it tries to avoid doing so), it must change its own theory fundamentally. One possible direction of change - the direction in which liberalism has largely gone - would be to invest with content a theory that was intended to be procedural, declare that there is a notion of the good life where liberalism was supposed to stand above such deliberations. Liberalism views the citizenry from behind the veil of ignorance because this is a way to prevent the corruption of the state by particular interests; once invested with content, however, liberalism demands that all of us view each other from behind the same veil, and abandon our particular commitments to particular individuals, families, tribes, faiths, etc. in favor of an all-embracing commitment to humanity. Liberalism embraces preference utilitarianism because it is humbly agnostic on the subject of the good; once invested with content, however, liberalism demands that all of us embrace preference utilitarianism, and hold no absolute opinions about the good, and educate our children to have no such absolute opinions. Moreover, once the state acknowledges that children are not fully morally responsible creatures, and so must have their characters molded through education, the question arises: when does childhood end? There is nothing magical about the number 18. Are not all citizens who have failed to achieve characters that are compatible with the liberal state's ideology on some level children, in need of education? This is the logical path that leads to the soft Maoism of the nanny state that is the core ideology of the most committed of contemporary liberals (the prime example being Hillary "It Takes a Village" Clinton).
But there is another direction that liberalism can go, one which I think is more promising. Recognizing that human beings are only partly monads, but partly members of corporate bodies that have an independent reality, liberalism would, to some extent, endow these corporate bodies with rights (rights being the only thing that liberalism can properly comprehend), and balance these rights against those of individuals in the usual manner. The two corporate bodies most relevant are the family and religion.
Let's talk about the family first. A family is not just an association of individuals: it has its own reality. There is no human society without families, and attempts to destroy the family - whether through institutionalized inter-generational violence, as in the Chinese Red Guards, or through voluntary acceptance of radical communitarianism - have been drastic failures. The family, while its structure and scope may vary with time and from culture to culture, is natural. And, as noted, individuals cannot exist without families to produce them. All of this being the case, a reconstructed liberalism could view families not merely as voluntary associations of individuals but as real corporate organisms with their own rights. Family law is a morass of contradictions in the dominant liberal paradigm. Why do parents have visitation rights in divorce? What are these rights to - are children a kind of property, owned by parents who, if they divorce, must share that property in an equitable fashion? Why is divorce permissable at all, given the well-documented negative externalities it imposes on children, who do not have a vote in a decision that dramatically affects their lives, generally for the worse? At present, the state acts as the guardian of the rights of the parents and the interests of the child. This understanding biases the proceedings in the direction of equitable settlement of divorce rather than the preservation of the family. But what if, in some sense, the family itself had standing? What if the undertaking to divorce was something that had to be justified to the community? This would seem to be an illiberal position, but that is because the liberal order treats a family as a voluntary association with children as at least partly property, and this view of children is itself illiberal.
Of course, this raises the question of how a family's rights are to be articulated. There are various possible solutions. The patriarchal solution assumed in Locke's day - that there is one head of household, the father and husband, who speaks for the family - is unlikely to register much support today. An alternative would be for the adjudication of these rights to be embodied in convention - that is to say, there is a general community understanding of what a family's interests are, and a family will be presumed to exercise its rights in defense of its interests. And, indeed, this can be reduced to the single interest of self-preservation. It should be clear what I'm effectively doing. The liberal order is biased against the family, because it refuses to interfere with adults' rights to dissolve marriages and, in recognition that children cannot protect their own rights, intervenes in even intact families to protect the interests of children. These activities have profoundly illiberal consequences, in that this view of the family reduces children to property and this intervention on behalf of children interferes with the rights of parents to shape the moral lives of their children, and indeed risks reducing all of us to the status of children who lack the rights to make their own moral choices. My alternative order is biased in favor of the family, because it interferes with adults' rights to dissolve marriages and understands both adults and children to be partly independent beings with individual rights and partly components of a corporate entity that has rights of its own. The liberal order gives greater scope for the state to decide what are good values for individuals to hold, and to interfere with families in order to propagate these values. My alternative order would give greater scope for the community (and, therefore, the state) to decide what constitutes a healthy family, and to interfere with individuals in order to preserve such families.
Religions are the other corporate entities that could be understood by the liberal order to be real and to possess rights. Indeed, something of the sort must be lurking behind our first amendment free exercise clause, because while phrased as a matter of individual rights, it is unclear what the content of this right is independent of the rights of speech and association. I would argue that the real content of the free exercise clause is that it allows such corporate bodies to exist and operate freely without interference by the state (limited, of course, by the state's monopoly on force). I would draw a distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. The latter is purely internal and personal; one can have a free conscience as a sect of one. But the former is external as well, a matter of the submerging of the self in a corporate body with its own norms and values, which may or may not be shared by the state.
It is for these reason, indeed, that religious freedom serves as a bulwark of liberty. The freedom of religion carves out a particular kind of authority that is in a sense exempt from state authority. Freedom of speech is protected only by the state and can therefore be removed by the state. Freedom of religion allows an indepedent - indeed, as Carter points out, frequently subversive - center of power to develop, one with substantially greater resources (even though it lacks the recourse to force) than the lone persecuted individual. The importance of freedom of religion can only really be understood, then, with reference to religion's corporate character.
Carter articulates well how, in contemporary liberalism's formulation, religious freedom is little more than a special case of freedom of speech and association. As the latter freedoms come under restriction on basis of liberalism's egalitarianism, religion comes under similar pressure. It can be argued that many of these restrictions are themselves betrayals of liberalism. But things are not so simple. For example, take the conflict between anti-discrimination and freedom of association. Clearly, freedom of association means freedom to discrimination; a right to form associations with people means a right to form such associations with the people one chooses. Yet, when we retreat behind the veil of ignorance, it is clear that being a systematically excluded person is detrimental in terms of one's own ability to exercise one's preferences, and it is a reasonable argument that the loss involved in being a member of an outcast group is greater than the loss incurred by restricting the freedom of in-group members to form associations only with their own kind. Hence, in contemporary liberalism, anti-discrimination trumps freedom of association.
But applied to religion, as Carter points out, such a formulation would amount to the subordination of religion to the state. If, to choose an extreme case, churches were forbidden from discriminating in employment on the basis of religion, they would cease to function altogether. But even in less obviously central cases - for example, the employment of women - the application of liberal anti-discrimination law would mean forcing religions to structure themselves according to the moral rules of the state, which in practice would mean that the religions ceased to be independent sources of power at all.
We instinctively understand that religion is different. But why? Why should a right to be a member of a religion that discriminates against women be any different than a right to be a member of a country club that discriminates against women? Why should the latter be seen as rightly the subject of massive state efforts at extirpation while the former is viewed as untouchable?
The difference might be that religion is more fundamental because the state depends on religion for its legitimacy. This would amount to subordinating the liberal state to religion, which most liberals would stoutly oppose (see my ruminations on Peter Beinart's recent piece in The New Republic on this very topic). But another alternative would be for liberalism to view religion as, again, a corporate body with an existence and rights prior to the state. If religions are real, and not mere associations of individuals, then they may have rights that trump the preference utilitarian calculations of the state. I would not suggest that religious bodies might, for example, have the right to forbid members from leaving, on the analogy with my argument against no-fault divorce; religions, after all, do not cease to exist when members leave, and free exercise would be a pretty empty phrase if it did not mean the freedom to join the religion to which God wants you to belong. But it might mean, for example, that religious bodies have the ability to make the same claims with respect to discrimination that individuals do; a policy that privileged non-religious bodies in an area of religious competancy might be seen as wrong in this scheme. And it would certainly mean that religious bodies would be exempt, to some degree, from norms that would restrict other kinds of associations.
Again, what I'm doing should be clear. Carter points out the numerous ways in which liberalism actively works to undermine religion. In doing so, it is behaving illiberally, but it cannot help itself because it cannot accommodate the language and claims of religion within its own moral vocabulary. To avoid a head-on conflict between the liberal state and religion, the liberal state must be reconstituted. The two alternatives, it seems to me, are either reviving the religious roots of liberalism itself - the argument from natural religion that seems to be favored by the compassionate-conservative crowd that Bush is most associated with - or, in the alternative I have just outlined, recognizing the corporate reality of religions and endowing them with rights comparable to the rights of individuals or sovereign governments. In either case but in very different ways, the language and claims of religion would be readmitted to the public square.
This is a very important and current topic, not only because of its obvious relevance here in our own country, but because of our current war, which is certainly in part a war of liberalism against religious fundamentalism (specifically, Islamic fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is, I believe, the religious antithesis called forth by imperial liberalism. It is similarly highly abstract and logical, and similarly totalizing and aggressive. And it is absolutely incompatible with liberalism. In the Islamic world, there are four living models for how to construct a state: the Turkish, the Iraqi, the Moroccan and the Iranian. The Moroccan model - a traditional medieval monarchy - can be dismissed out of hand; no one thinks that such a state is anything more than a stage on the way to modernity. The Iraqi model - fascist, totalitarian and secularist - is generally and correctly understood as wholly evil. That leaves the Turkish model of a secularist, modernizing democracy and the Iranian model of a theocracy run by a clerical party. What is notable is that the Turkish state clearly views religion itself as a problem, a force to be coopted and suppressed, not granted freedom. The Iranian state, meanwhile, clearly views every aspect of the liberal order to be a threat. The achievement of a liberal order in the Islamic world is clearly an important long-term war aim, for a number of reasons. It is imperative, therefore, that we be able to articulate that order in a way that does not make Islam itself, or religion generally, the enemy to be annihilated. We have done this rhetorically, but we have not done this theoretically, and the reason, I think, is that this is an unsettled question in our own minds. For this very reason, it deserves considerably more attention from our political philosophers and our theologians - particularly from conservative ones who, much as they might object to imperial liberalism, leave no doubt that they would prefer to live in Turkey than in Iran.