Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Sin's Political Lessons

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Sin's Political Lessons

Article excerpt

While arguing that liberalism is ultimately incoherent, smothering the very individualism it seeks to foster, Wilfred McClay nonetheless rejects the conclusion that "liberalism is and was utterly false, an error from start to finish." Rather, liberalism is only "exhausted," having "done its historical duty," and is now "ripe to be superseded by something better." He concludes that liberalism's benefits - religious toleration first and foremost - might be grounded in distinctive features of the Christian faith.

McClay's indictment of liberalism starts with Alasdair Maclntyre's argument that emotivist propositions have replaced rational argument over objective moral ends. Instead, individuals report their feelings, and these do not necessarily reflect any objective moral order. Maclntyre and McClay see danger in this rhetorical (and philosophical) transformation. But identifying the danger does not end the discussion. Liberals might agree with his argument yet continue to believe that the emotivist move, on balance, produces more benefit than harm. It is this perceived benefit that I believe provides the staying power of liberalism.

We see such emotivist appeals even in the arguments for church disestablishment advanced by Jefferson, Madison, and others. These old arguments remain fresh today: The religious conflicts of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras remain, however obscurely, a driving force for liberalism. Residual horror at the devastation of the Thirty Years' War, underlined by the English Civil Wars, still prompts a visceral reaction by many to any hint of religion in the public square.

Even after a twentieth century in which secular ideologies led to the deaths of tens of millions, the horrific, if diffuse, memory of Christian slaughter still prompts the specter of "religious war" in even the most ordinary of conversations on religion and politics. I believe that, at its most primitive level, the liberal urge to convert truth claims into emotive statements stems from the need and desire to respond to the devastation of these wars.

But why should this urge drive liberals to convert truth claims into emotive statements? Liberals believe that the emotivistic move reduces conflict and opens venues for conversation rather than conflict. In short, it works to improve the human condition.

Last fall my college asked me to undergo a forty-hour course of mediation training that qualifies one to mediate disputes with the goal that disagreeing parties might resolve their disputes without the need for more complicated and costly processes. One central technique of the mediation process is to guide disputants to make emotive "I" statements rather than statements about the other disputant's behavior. This explicitly emotivistic device mutes the natural defensiveness of people when they are criticized, and therefore allows the disputants to begin speaking to each other again.

This manner of resolving conflicts is contrived. But it also seems to work surprisingly well. Similarly, liberals want to get religious disputants to emote and therefore to talk rather than to fight.

I don't think this process would be controversial if everyone understood its aim to be the promotion of communication rather than conflict. The problem arises when this procedure is conflated with claims about the nature of truth. This is the conundrum that liberals face, and it is the circle that liberals can never quite seem to square. Indeed, some liberals, such as Richard Rorty, seem so desperate to sustain the benefits of the technique that they prefer to give up on the idea of moral truth altogether and reject even the attempt to derive a coherent foundationalist account of liberalism.

As a result, for those living "after liberalism," it is not sufficient merely to refute the defects of the reigning philosophical system. It is necessary to address the quite legitimate felt needs that motivate liberalism. Addressing these needs requires an answer to the question of whether religious belief is intrinsically dangerous and whether claims of absolute truth are consistent with forms of toleration sufficiently robust to offer credible assurance that devastating religious conflict will not be repeated. …

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