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June 23, 2011

No one is more keenly aware than am I that there are many honorable, fair-minded, and non-fanatical liberals. Since there were very few conservatives at Princeton when I was hired, granted tenure, and installed in the professorial chair I hold (and since my socially conservative views were at no point a secret), I know that I am the beneficiary of the honesty and integrity of many liberal colleagues. But I worry, as I know some liberals themselves do, that there is an authoritarian impulse in some liberal circles that threatens to undermine the historic commitment of liberalism to individual and institutional freedom and the rights of conscience.

Traditional liberals, such as the late John Rawls, viewed liberalism as a "political" doctrine--one that did not propose and seek to impose what he called a "comprehensive view," that is, an integrated set of beliefs about the human good, human dignity, and human destiny.  It's role was not to compete with the various comprehensive doctrines held by citizens in a pluralistic society, or to attempt to undermine reasonable comprehensive doctrines (such as Catholicism, as Rawls explicitly noted) or displace them.  Its ambition was to establish a framework in which "deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime."  Although I have in my own writings criticized various aspects of Rawl's theory of justice (especially his conception of of "public reason"---a conception I believe is too narrow to be compatible with his notion of liberalism as a political, rather than comprehensive, doctrine) this central ambition represents, I think, something laudable in the liberal tradition.

But as liberals around the country---not all, but many, and indeed increasingly many, it seems---abandon support for conscience protection and seek to force pro-life and pro-marriage citizens and institutions to comply with liberal ideological beliefs by, for example, referring for or even participating in abortions and providing facilities or services for celebrations of same-sex sexual partnerships, it seems clear that the Rawlsian ambition has been thrown over in favor of a crusade to establish what might be called (following Rawls himself) "comprehensive liberalism" as the official pseudo-religion of the state.  The impulse to crush the rights of conscience (where conscience is considered in its classical sense of what Newman called a "stern monitor," and not in the degraded sense of a faculty for writing moral permission slips) to ensure conformity with what have become key tenets of the liberal faith (abortion, "sexual freedom," "same-sex marriage") is the authoritarian impulse I mentioned.  (I want to emphasize the words "have become." Such ideas were no part of the liberalism embraced by such great figures in the tradition as Cesar Chavez, Hubert Humphrey, or Sargent Shriver, just to name some leading liberals from the quite recent past.)

Am I exaggerating the worry?  Is the word "authoritarian" or the phrase "crush the rights of conscience" out of line in this context?  Well, perhaps we have a test case emerging.  A George Washington University law professor who is well-known for bringing law suits to advance liberal causes has given notice to the Catholic University of America that he will be suing the university under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.  And what is alleged to be Catholic University's mortal sin against human rights?  Are you ready?  It is the decision of CUA president John Garvey (himself an eminent legal scholar in the field of religious liberty and human rights, as MoJers know) to shift the university from co-ed dormitories to single-sex dorms. President Garvey's objective (of which this particular change of policy is only a small piece) is to promote moral integrity as the Catholic Church understands that virtue and to combat the culture of promiscuity and alcohol abuse on campus.  And what could possibly be wrong with that?  Well, for "comprehensive liberals," it seems, having separate dorms for young men and young women is "discrimination" based on "sexual stereotypes."  It simply can't be tolerated.  Institutions that would separate the sexes in living quarters are practicing the equivalent of racism by imposing on their students the equivalent of the Jim Crow system in the segregated South.  Oy vey.

So we'll see where liberals in general line up on this.  It will, I predict, be instructive.  Some, I hope and trust, will sniff the odor of authoritarianism and perhaps even speak out publicly against this effort to whip a private religious institution into line with liberal ideological tenets.  But how many?  Where will Catholic liberals (especially Catholic liberal academics) come down?  Will they speak out? 

Posted by Robert George on June 23, 2011 at 10:28 AM | Permalink

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