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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2012

Religion and the Liberal Society

Liberalism now understands religious freedom almost entirely as the right of individuals, not churches

by James Hitchcock

The secular media have an unending interest in things Catholic. A recent sampling includes a theology teacher allegedly dismissed for favoring the ordination of women to the priesthood, an announced lesbian (and, as it turned out, a Buddhist) refused Communion at her mother’s funeral, a music teacher dismissed from the Catholic schools because he planned to “marry” his male lover, and a priest disciplined by his bishop for refusing to recite the prescribed prayers of the Mass, extemporizing his own instead.

Since “gay rights” are defined as a civil-liberties issue, the rationale for the media’s interest in two of those cases was clear, although it is hardly news that the Catholic Church does not countenance homosexuality. But it is not at all obvious why the general public should be concerned with who receives Communion, who serves as a priest, or how the Catholic liturgy is celebrated, and the fact that these were made the subject of public controversy reveals a great deal about the dominant liberal culture.

Historically, liberalism assumed that the state was the prime threat to religious liberty. But since the 1940s the Supreme Court has tended to act on the assumption that large and well-established churches might themselves actually threaten liberty, while special care must be taken to protect those on the religious margins.

Thus over a period of more than fifty years (until very recently), the Court systematically restricted the presence of organized religion in public life while simultaneously extending religious liberty to such things as the ritual sacrifice of chickens. (Liberals were appalled when the Court some years ago failed to affirm a right to use a prohibited drug in a religious ceremony.) Such practices may or may not deserve protection, but the significant point is that they have no substantial social impact. The scope of personal religious liberty has been expanded in proportion to how much religion’s social influence has been curtailed. Liberalism now understands religious freedom almost entirely as the right of individuals, not of churches.

Given this individualism, the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty is inevitably defined not only as freedom of religion but — perhaps more important — as freedom from religion, and religious liberty is increasingly reduced merely to free expression. (Some liberal political theorists are surprisingly candid about their intentions. Kathleen Sullivan, a New York constitutional lawyer, claims that religion should enjoy less protection than other forms of expression.)

The most important guarantee of the liberty of churches has been the judicial principle that internal church disputes are to be settled not by civil law but by the constitutions of the various churches themselves. But religious dissidents now habitually appeal to the court of public opinion, an appeal that is often successful. Some bishops remain firm, while for others “clarifying,” apologizing, and retracting have become second nature.

A proper respect for religious liberty would recognize that the attempt to generate outside pressure on such matters creates a hostile environment that inhibits the freedom of the Church as an institution. (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in an article, “Archdiocese Defends Gay Firing,” presented the Catholic position fairly but did not explain why the Church should have to defend itself, and to whom.) Genuine liberty of every kind depends not only on law but on civil society. Laws prohibiting racial discrimination, for example, are not sufficient in a society where popular attitudes and social institutions remain hostile. Liberals clearly see this and obsessively police various social environments, especially universities, to ensure that no one “feels excluded.”

On the other hand, the liberal society seeks to exact a heavy social cost from conservative religious believers, which is a strong sense of cultural isolation and inferiority. Children understand that for some reason the reality of God cannot be acknowledged in their schools, that religious belief is a mysteriously sinister subject. The entertainment industry mocks traditional values, and the media treat orthodox religion as a menacing atavism.

David A.J. Richards, law professor at New York University, insists that it is not the duty of the state to “relieve the tensions and perplexities to which a good education may give rise,” an unexceptionable principle that seems to apply only to those “perplexities” that religious believers experience, while non-believers are protected from unwanted confrontations with religion. The decline in church membership in America is scarcely surprising, in view of the cultural obstacles religious believers must overcome in order to persevere. (Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges that even private religious beliefs are threatened by the secular liberal order.)

The anti-religious fires continually stoked by journalists like Maureen Dowd and Bill Maher are justified on the grounds of free expression, by the need for “robust discussion” of issues. Although unsleepingly vigilant against all kinds of stereotyping — racism, sexism, ageism, anti-semitism, homophobia, Islamo- phobia — enlightened opinion fails to notice the most outrageous anti-Christian bigotry, when it does not actively propagate it.

John Rawls, the most influential political theorist of recent times, identified “comprehensive” or “transformative” liberalism as not merely a guarantee of liberty but as a philosophy that considers its own beliefs normative and requires a commitment to those beliefs as a condition of full membership in society. As the intellectual gadfly Stanley Fish states, secularists consider themselves to have triumphed in the Enlightenment and do not intend to cede territory they have previously taken.

In theory liberalism rejects “dogmatism,” which is said to violate the free mind. Paradoxically, it follows that conservative religious believers — a substantial minority who are firm in their beliefs but are unlikely to become a majority — ought to be welcomed as a necessary component of the “pluralistic” society. But in fact the liberal society is not pluralistic in terms of ideas or beliefs. On many questions only one viewpoint is accorded legitimacy, as consensus quickly emerges on issues as diverse as stem-cell research, smoking, homosexuality, the environment, and foreign policy, after which no debate is considered legitimate.

Once a consensus is announced, it becomes a prism through which every part of the culture must be viewed. The liberal media have been extravagant in their praise of the Girl Scouts on the occasion of their centennial, but the focus is only perfunctorily on the group’s rich history and instead praises them for their recent practice of welcoming lesbian and “transgendered” members.

Secular liberalism justifies itself by an implied theory of progress, the conviction that it marks a higher stage of human development and that those who do not embrace it are willfully stuck at a lower level. Thomas Frank asks What’s the Matter with Kansas? (How Conservatives Won the Heart of America), pundit Garry Wills sees the American people as subnormal because so many believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and President Obama thinks the citizens “cling to” their religion because they cannot cope with their problems.

Here as elsewhere, liberals betray the fact that they are not actually cultural relativists, for if they were they would recognize that they are themselves a unique phenomenon found only in the recent past and in only a few places, a culture shared by only a minority of people alive today and an infinitesimal minority of all the human beings who have ever lived. At one time secularists merely assumed that traditional religion was disappearing, but the resurgence of Islam is only the most obvious evidence to the contrary.

Philosophical skepticism makes it impossible to justify liberalism in any compelling way, so that the late philosopher Richard Rorty insisted that liberal pragmatists do not have to offer arguments for a consensus that seems to them obviously correct.

Kathleen Sullivan argues that the Constitution establishes a culture from which there can be no legitimate dissent, religion tolerated “insofar as it is consistent with the establishment of the secular moral order.” The late historian Sidney E. Mead asserted that adherence to “particularistic theological notions” is contrary to the “universal theology of the Republic.”

Princeton political scientist Stephen Macedo urges the liberal society to admit frankly its uncompromisable hostility to certain kinds of dogmatic religion, and he justifies using the coercive power of government for that purpose, since that would promote greater freedom. Religious conservatives can be tolerated only because they are a disappearing breed, and toleration may be an effective way of drawing them into the broader liberal consensus, but they should not be allowed to “inject” their views of, for example, gender roles into public discussions and should not be allowed to serve as judges.

James Dwyer, professor at William and Mary Law School, argues that the government does not violate the Constitution so long as its actions are intended to inhibit religion rather than to favor it. Since all religious education inculcates “reactionary and repressive” values in children, the state is obligated for the good of the child either to prohibit religious schools completely or to monitor them closely, even to monitor home-schooling parents. (Dwyer makes explicit what many liberals obscure — that the liberal state possesses unlimited and ultimate authority to define what is good for individuals.)

By an act of faith, liberals treat the welfare state in all its fullness as the repository of wisdom, the guarantor of the well being of its citizens, so that church and state compete in offering those citizens authoritative guidance. (Nancy Pelosi is to be trusted over the Catholic bishops).

Not fully understood, the Obama administration’s health-insurance plan enacts the agenda of transformative liberalism. The welfare state extends its influence into territory the churches once occupied and simultaneously expands its agenda.

Kathleen Sullivan claims that the churches have no right to separate themselves from the welfare state and should not be given exemptions from any of its requirements. Thus the Catholic Church as such is conceded no right to be exempt from federal regulations concerning medical insurance, although individual Catholics conceivably might be, as a matter of conscience.

The welfare state’s ambition now extends far beyond economics, as it seeks to promote the total well being of its citizens and — even more important — define that well being. The controversy over contraceptives is inevitable because it is one of the numerous points at which the welfare state encroaches on morality. Being “sexually active” is defined as healthy and being “repressed” as a disorder and, as a student at a Jesuit university told Congress, people should not have to pay for those pleasures. (Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, goes so far as to insist that there is no right even to speak against the use of contraceptives.)

The welfare state tolerates the churches insofar as the churches support welfare in the broadest sense. In terms of material help to the needy (including medical services) the churches are increasingly funded by the state and answerable to the state, and on all moral questions they are expected to support the secular liberal agenda. The liberal churches long ago acquiesced, and it is here that the real religious division in American life is located — not between church members and the small minority of non-members but between liberal and conservative members.

As Winifred Sullivan, professor of law and religion at the State University of New York (SUNY), argues, the liberal state should therefore discriminate among religious groups on the basis of how “progressive” each is. According to Steven D. Smith, of the University of San Diego School of Law and co-director of the Institute for Law and Religion, religion can only enjoy constitutional liberties if it undergoes a basic transformation to make itself more “rational” or “self-critical,” and Ruti Teitel of New York Law School urges that groups that do not emphasize either public prayer or proselytization be granted a preferred status because of their “moderation.”

Leo Pfeffer, the architect of much of modern church-state jurisprudence, celebrated the “triumph of secular humanism” in the late l950s — a triumph he thought had transformed Protestantism into a “this-worldly” religion, but which some churches, notably the Catholic Church, still resisted. This made that church dangerous, because it had accepted democracy as a political system but not in matters of religion.

The tension between religion and the liberal society goes to the very nature of religion, insofar as religion’s principal purpose is otherworldly, reminding people of a higher reality. Privately, liberals may hold orthodox religious beliefs, but comprehensive liberalism excludes ultimate questions from the public square, because it has no capacity to deal with them. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s influential but absurdly premature book The End of History and The Last Man assumed that the triumph of comprehensive liberalism would put an end to all deep questions.

Such questions distract people from the task of building the comprehensive liberal society, within whose boundaries they ought to live their entire lives. There can be no higher authority than the enlightened consensus, nor should religious believers be allowed to introduce an alien (“divisive”) perspective into society.

Although they seldom state it forthrightly, traditional religion’s chief heresy, as liberals see it, is its belief in human sinfulness, a doctrine that both threatens the continually expanding liberal concept of freedom and casts doubt on whether the ideal society can ever be achieved.

The ongoing story of American religion is thus invariably told in terms of enlightened church members struggling to persuade the churches to accept liberal orthodoxy. A recent news story featured a homosexual congregation in Dallas that gave money to a black congregation in St. Paul whose minister lost parishioners when he endorsed homosexual marriage. By normal journalistic standards the story scarcely merited even local attention, but the incident was publicized nationally as a “miracle” and the minister was allowed to state as a fact that “the black community … still is, very homophobic.” (In present liberal orthodoxy, homosexuality trumps every other cause, including race.)

Ted G. Jelen, of the University of Nevada, accuses a Catholic bishop who threatens religious sanctions against dissident church members of being guilty of “a religiously based threat to the prerogatives of democratic citizenship.” But just as the liberal state may use coercion on behalf of progress, so may the church (as when the “homophobic” priest in Maryland was suspended by his archbishop) use ecclesiastical authority to support the liberal agenda.

Yet for the most part liberals will defend to the death the right of any Catholic to defy his or her bishop. They may regard the Mass as a superstitious ritual (“a cannibalistic reverie,” according to a contributor to the Huffington Post) — but a woman demanding to be ordained, or a priest making up his own rite, or the political activism of “Nuns on the Bus” are a different story. For they point to the day when no church is able to define itself, when each church is merely a collection of individuals who before all else are untroubled inhabitants of the liberal order.


James Hitchcock, professor of History at St. Louis University, is the author of The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton), and The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Twenty-first Century, to appear this fall (Ignatius). (See WFF web site:

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