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Liberalism's Dilemma

by James Hitchcock
February 25, 2006

Modern western liberalism simply does not know how to deal with religion, as shown by the recent explosion over cartoons satirizing Muhammed in a Danish magazine.

Liberalism identifies “tolerance” and “diversity” as the highest goods, which means that the cartoons were morally wrong, both because they ridiculed the man whom Muslims call simply “The Prophet” and because Islam forbids such images even when they are meant respectfully. The cartoons were a gross offense against liberal principles.

Or were they? Liberalism comes down from the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and, while tolerance was part of the Enlightenment message, so was the claim that religious belief is a dangerous thing, the chief cause of human backwardness. Thus men of the Enlightenment could simultaneously call for tolerance and initiate sometimes violent measures to suppress religion, as in the French Revolution. Liberalism is thus caught in a hopeless contradiction – progress is measured by the degree to which a society is tolerant but also by the degree to which it suppresses old beliefs.

Few liberal observers foresaw the resurgence of Islam over the past few decades, because until recently social scientists could only understand religion as an irrational survival from another age, something that was bound to disappear. They were caught flat-footed both by the Islamic revival and by the revival of conservative Protestantism in the United States, things that were just not supposed to happen in an age of science.

With regard to conservative religion in America, such liberals have no problem – it is simply a bad thing, deserving no respect, and terms like “theocracy” and “narrow-mindedness” are thrown around as a substitute for reasoned discussion. But Islam presents a problem because it is foreign, which causes the liberal respect for “diversity” to kick in. No matter how much they disapprove, good liberals cannot help but feel guilty about criticizing something from another culture, since liberal self-identity is bound up with the need to be more “open” to other cultures.

Of course liberals do not approve of the sometimes murderous riots the cartoons have provoked, therefore liberal opinion has settled on a formula – violent responses are bad, but those who published the cartoons were “insensitive.”

But insensitive they were not. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew it would be offensive. In the West it has now become routine to insult Christian beliefs, since many liberals regard Christianity as dangerous, especially because of its sexual morality. Christian protests are then either ignored or become the occasion for lecturing the protestors about “free expression.” Those who say the Danish cartoons should not have been published do not say that Catholic sacraments should not be ridiculed on television.

Those who published the cartoons were carrying out half the liberal agenda, to the point where it came into conflict with the other half, thereby exposing the incoherence of the entire agenda. Why should the magazine have refrained from publishing the cartoons? There seem to be only two logical answers, neither of which liberalism can admit. One is that Muslims are to be treated as immature, overly emotional people who have to be soothed and petted. The other reveals the mentality of the bully – only insult people who aren’t likely to fight back.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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