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Establishment and liberalism

A lawyer with mainstream liberal views on the Establishment Clause sent me a note taking issue with some of my comments on my page on the Establishment of Religion and I responded. Here’s an edited version of the exchange:

Liberal Lawyer: How can you justify the assertion that liberalism is implicitly totalitarian? A society is totalitarian if only one belief on the nature of man, society, politics, economics, philosophy etc. is permitted and all others are ruthlessly suppressed. America and contemporary Europe aren’t at all like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.

Jim Kalb: America isn’t like Germany or Russia, but all three reflect in various ways certain bad features of the modern world. You might look at what I say about totalitarianism in The Tyranny of Liberalism. If you’re interested you can search for the word “totalitarianism” in the text and read the section.

I don’t view extreme brutality as a requirement for totalitarianism. To me it seems illuminating to think of it as a general tendency of modern politics, so that there could be soft as well as hard totalitarianism. The basic issue is whether it makes sense to call Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World totalitarian. I think it does. (My view isn’t completely idiosyncratic—try googling “soft totalitarianism” or “Brave New World” and “totalitarian.”)

So as I use it the term refers to the total reduction of human existence to a single set of principles that governing elites claim to possess in full here and now. The principles are capable of clear operational definition, and so the elites feel called on to enforce them throughout the whole of life everywhere and have a reasonable prospect of doing so. Unfortunately, the reason the principles can be defined in such a clear, comprehensive, universal and usable way is that they leave out concerns that are difficult to define and manipulate. The result is that things essential to our humanity get crushed as the principles are implemented. Governing elites treat the losses as nonexistent because their theory of things keeps them from noticing them and makes them view opposition as simple ignorance and evil.

LL: Liberalism states that there is no sure way to know the answers to ultimate questions, so all points of view must be permitted. People can argue about the answers, but they can’t use state power to enforce them.

JK: If liberals are uncertain of truth claims on fundamental points, and so accept various sorts of answers that people work out for the problems of life, I don’t see how liberal human rights law—which demands the radical top-down transformation of all social relations everywhere—is possible. It seems to me that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for example, believes that it has an absolutely sure way to know the answers to ultimate social questions. Those who disagree with it are simply wrong, and their views don’t matter because they’re bad. Since man is social, that means the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court believes it has special knowledge of the truth of human life. (I’m referring in particular to its actions regarding “gay marriage.”) And if liberalism is so sceptical and tolerant, where do all the re-education programs—sensitivity and diversity training etc.—come from?

LL: Look at how freely conservative Christians operate politically in the US. They have every right to put their views out in the public and a great deal of influence in the Republican Party.

JK: Triangulation, the practical need to conciliate the media and other social authorities, and the general principle that you tell the rubes one thing while doing something else with your fellow office holders mean that Christian conservatives have very little effective power in the Republican party. It’s all rhetoric.

Right-wingers can organize and propagandize all they want, but it doesn’t get them anywhere. They can persuade the people in Colorado that homosexual activities and relationships shouldn’t get specific protection but the Supreme Court will step in and say Proposition 2 is unconstitutional because there’s no possible good motive for adopting it. They can persuade the great majority of Americans that there should be greater restrictions on abortion and the Court will stop that too. Or they can try to make an issue of whether perpetual tranformation of the American people through mass immigration is desirable—the great majority of Americans think it isn’t—but they’ll find their rulers and mainstream media people aren’t willing to discuss the matter so under present circumstances the effort can go nowhere.

LL: You say that liberalism’s authoritative view is that individual man’s desire is the measure of all things. What alternative do you propose? God’s will? Fine, but which God are we talking about? Protestant? Catholic? Jewish? Muslim? Who decides what is his will? Congress? The President? The Pope? The Grand Rebbbe?

JK: I don’t see why that kind of issue gives liberalism an advantage over anything else. Presumably the basic idea behind liberalism is that social arrangements should be set up through the exercise of man’s knowledge and skill and brought into line with human choice and a few clear principles of how things should be. As Lenin said though, who whom? Whose knowledge and skill, and whose choices and principles? The view that social arrangements should be set up in such a way led to the murder of scores of millions of innocents in the last century. What’s so good about that?

It’s true it wasn’t the liberals who did the murdering, but it wasn’t Jerry Falwell either. So why are the liberals better than Jerry Falwell? He has a system that some agree with and some don’t, and ditto for liberals. The basic point: Catholics have a doctrine about what man and life are like and what good and evil are. So do Muslims and communists and anarchists. Liberals do too. All those doctrines conflict, and it isn’t possible for any government to respect them all equally. That’s why there are fundamental political issues. The liberal solution to basic political issues is that liberal doctrine should prevail in all cases. What’s equal about that? Why is it better, less contentious, and more respectful of a diversity of views than having the Pope run everything?

LL: The Founders of our country considered this issue when they devised the 1st Amendment. They were keen students of history and knew that basing a state on an explicitly theological principle with an established church means tyranny, oppression and warfare. They looked at Europe with its 1400 year history of crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, holy wars and massacres and understood that nothing is more destructive than entangling state and church. Also, they understood that no tyranny is worse than denying someone the ability to worship what he believes to be the true God and compelling him to worship what he believes to be a false one.

JK: The Framers of the constitution didn’t create a society, they set up a federal government with limited purposes—basically, international relations and promotion of commerce—to govern a society that already existed and included (and continued to include) religious establishments.

As students of history they no doubt realized that all governments with general powers are based on some understanding of things—man, the world, good and evil—and since such understandings conflict it’s usually best as a political matter to leave them settled when they’re settled. Otherwise you can get offensive jihads when a new view comes along, as well as defensive counterattacks like the Crusades or the Christian Right when existing views try to maintain themselves. When things become unsettled you can get enormous catastrophes like the Wars of Religion or the post-Christian disorders in Europe in the last century. So they made the powers of the federal government as limited as possible and said in the First Amendment that the feds had to leave state religious establishments alone. Today of course we’ve reversed that view, and the federal courts have become agents of crusading secularism (mojahed secularism would be better but most people don’t know Arabic). That’s bad.

LL: Liberals believe that since there is no way to know for sure the answers to ultimate questions, the state must keep separate from religion and set up only those rules that provide the minimum order needed to create a society where individuals can follow their own answers. The rules change depending on how minimum order is defined but the principle remains that the individual citizen decides what, if any God to worship—not the state and not a church. Individuals are free to advocate legislation and policies based on values derived from their religious principles, so long as the legislation concerns secular matters, e.g., civil rights, abortion, war or peace, not theological, who is “truly” a Christian.

JK: I don’t understand how your comments on minimum order apply to what’s actually going on. The modern liberal state is everywhere. It educates the young, supports people in distress, confers honor, disgrace and punishment, and feels called upon to reform public attitudes on things as basic to human life as the rearing of children and relations between the sexes. It spends a large part of our national income on such things. As a state it demands a loyalty that extends to matters of life and death. I don’t see how you can claim that it takes no position on ultimate questions. Don’t life, death and the manner of our lives together and obligations to each other implicate ultimate questions?

It seems to me that what leads to tyranny is not taking a position on ultimate questions—that’s necessary in government or for that matter any rational scheme of action that deals with life in any comprehensive way—but powerholders who claim that they have a simple scheme that answers all fundamental questions of social life and calls for transformation of all social relations whether people like it or not because if they object they’re just stupid and evil.

The issue isn’t really freedom of conscience, by the way. Old-line Catholic doctrine is that if you’re a Jew, Jehovah’s Witness or whatever you can’t be forced to convert or participate in religious observances that you don’t believe in, and you can worship as you please with your co-religionists and bring up your children in your faith. The traditional Muslim view is mostly the same although there’s more chance of compulsion. And so far as I can make out the current liberal view is that it’s illegitimate to advocate secular legislation (e.g., regarding abortion or marriage) based on religious views that don’t give the same answer liberalism gives.

LL: The Founders and most contemorary liberals didn’t and don’t regard religion as trivial. That’s why there must be separation of church and state. Otherwise, the seriously religious would be tempted by the allure of state power to use that power to shut up “heretics, infidels and unbelievers.” History shows that allure is irresistible.

JK: I agree that state power creates a standing temptation to remake things in accordance with the powerholder’s understanding and shut people up who object. The temptation gets worse if the understanding is completely this-worldly and is based on a radically simplified understanding of knowledge and of human life, so the powerholder can tell himself he knows everything anybody needs to know about the rules that should govern social relations and that his belief isn’t even a belief but is a simple statement of obvious reality.

As to the effect of liberalism on religion, it seems to me that if the understanding is that religious views of what man and the world are like can have no public relevance when they’re at odds with what liberalism tells us, so good citizens have to treat their own religious views as subjective private tastes rather than as legitimate understandings of how things really are, it’s going to weaken religion and make it a more trivial factor in our lives.

LL: Suppose Christianity were established as you propose. What is this Christianity? Does it include Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses? How about Unitarians? 7th Day Adventists? Do you really want the STATE to decide this type of question?

JK: I don’t see how liberalism has an easier time with these issues than anything else. At present judges decide cases based on liberal principles and schoolchildren get indoctrinated in those same principles. Whose version of liberalism? Should we all agree that affirmative action is good or bad? And again, I don’t see why liberalism is supposed to be some non-controversial system everyone can agree on. Are the Mormons and 7th Day Adventists supposed to say that established Catholicism is bad but established liberalism is of course OK?

LL: The state decides what kind of building in which to house its offices but in America, the state doesn’t prescribe official styles of architecture and punish those who want to build differently. So you can’t draw comparisons between religion and other things.

JK: The state defines and punishes crimes in accordance with some understanding of man, of good and evil, and of what we owe each other. It defines school curricula and social policy in accordance with all those things and more—what kind of people we should be, what social ideals and relations are desirable and so on. And real property zoning and building codes often tell people quite specifically in some respects what their buildings have to look like. The reason is that man is social, so my building affects the environment everyone must live in.

LL: Finally, if you entangle state and church, you will have, or could have, heresy regarded as treason, and punished accordingly. You could have politicians deciding who should serve as church officials and what should be church doctrine. The Establishment Clause protects church from state interference as well as vice versa.

JK: I don’t see why this is more of a problem for religion than for morality, medicine or physics. All those things ought to be free of direct political control, but they all have important implications for our lives together so the state can’t pretend it has no views on them.

LL: The bottom line is that with its Establishment Clause, America is the most religious of all industrialized nations.

JK: Why attribute that to the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause? That interpretation is really quite recent and is very much at odds with historical understandings.