Read the first article in this series, “How Did America Get this Crack in its Foundation?” here.
In the first article in this series, I summarized a common contemporary view of the relationship between morality and politics as follows:
“But now society has fundamentally changed. It is no longer based on a moral consensus, but on the acceptance of diversity. ‘Pluralism’ has replaced moral-religious homogeneity as the basic character of modern societies like ours. So, even though we may not approve, personally, of many lifestyle choices among our fellow citizens, it is not only politically necessary but in fact a moral duty to respect the diversity of lifestyles that flourish in a pluralistic society.”
Pay close attention to the italicized assertion. For this points up a significant sleight of hand that plays an essential role in what I will call the New Liberalism. For the claim is not only that our political circumstances are such that we must accommodate and work with people with different moral views than our own. That is obvious, and our LDS leaders have provided excellent counsel and encouragement in our efforts to do just that. But their tendency is to go much further and to transform this practical accommodation into a new kind of moral imperative, the imperative of a respect for “diverse lifestyles,” which shades into the assertion that it is somehow wrong to affirm the superiority of one way of life over another.
With this sleight of hand that passes silently from necessary accommodation to the denial of real moral distinction, many are led, often in the name of “rationalism” or “public reason,” to deny the reasoned connection between religion, morality and political freedom that I set forth in the last article. Thus many fall, sometimes without knowing quite what is happening, under the influence of a new morality that presents itself at first as the simple recognition of new political realities.
Liberalism Then and Now
To clarify this change that has come about in liberalism in recent decades and to see the dangerous implications of this change, I propose a simple but helpful distinction between Classical Liberalism and the New Liberalism.
Classical liberalism is practical and relatively modest in its aims; it is compatible with a traditional and religious view of morality and the family; in fact, it presupposes such a view. The New Liberalism is theoretical in the sense that it affirms its own theory, not only of political arrangements, but of human existence and its purposes. The New Liberalism thus aims to replace traditional, religiously-grounded morality with its own view of human meaning.
Classical liberalism limits itself to political questions in the narrower sense: it affirms certain definite individual rights, limited government, constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and is designed to encourage and to work in the social context “pluralism” of interests, opinions. But the pluralism of practical liberalism is not absolute, since it assumes a common, traditional framework of private morality, supported by a somewhat diverse but morally consistent religious belief.
There can be no more “mainstream” or consensual statement of the Founding generation’s positive view of the role of religion and religious morality in society than that of the Father of our Country, George Washington:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. .. [and] great pillars of human happiness, [the] firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” (Farewell Address)
Hardly anyone, or anyone of influence in 1787 or for a long time thereafter, would have considered Washington’s warm endorsement of religion and religious morality in any way controversial.
No Authority above Human Beings
The New Liberalism has roots that go deep into modern philosophy; the theory behind what I call theoretical liberalism derives its radical premise from this distinctively modern proposition: there is no authority above human beings. In America this premise remained largely buried under the actual practice of liberalism, as moderated by morality and religion, but it lay there like a ticking time-bomb that would eventually explode.
We can say that the explosion of theoretical liberalism into the actual practice of American democracy was ignited in the cultural and political upheaval of the 60s and 70s, which eventually brought into the mainstream (especially the academic and media mainstream) the countercultural ideal of “liberation” from all traditional “hang-ups.” The injunction to “do your own thing” sounds like a quaint relic from the time when now-aging baby bombers (like me) were young, but that’s just because the idea itself of liberation from traditional morality is now so common, so conventional, even so politically correct.
This explosion of the New Liberalism in recent decades may account for Elder Hales’ observation in the most recent General Conference that the gap between the Church and the world has gone from “this big” to “THIS BIG”. (Remember Elder Hales gesturing wide with his arms.) Classical liberalism left some cultural and political space in which religious morality could prosper. (Of course this meant there was also a space in which alternative religious and moral visions might conflict – it suffices to consider the predicament of Mormons under a largely Protestant moral consensus about 120 years ago.) The New Liberalism increasingly tends to impose its own comprehensive moral vision.
To explore in more detail the thinking behind the liberation theory of the 60s and the New Liberalism it has spawned, we could cite the fundamental philosophical texts of the movement, such as German émigré Herbert Marcuse’s potent if inconsistent blend of Marx and Nietzsche. But the United States Supreme Court has spared us the trouble of chasing down philosophical sources by reading right into the Bill of Rights the radical doctrine of the liberation of the individual from any authoritative moral framework or higher power. A remarkable and authoritative statement of this new, theoretical liberalism is this amazing pronouncement by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Here the U.S. Supreme Court, or rather 5 members of it, constitute themselves High Priests of the New Liberalism by presuming to answer for the American people the ultimate question of what is to be held sacred, what is the character of the ultimate moral authority: their authoritative answer is that the meaning of existence is the individual’s own power to define the meaning of existence, unlimited by Nature or by God.
Now, I realize that this radical formulation is hardly shocking to a contemporary audience, even an LDS audience, precisely because this New Liberal rhetoric has become quite conventional, almost routine, practically a matter of common sense, at least among cultural elites.