The Liberal Consensus and the Orthodox Mind
by Daniel A. Kaufman
A rather bizarre dialogue over at Blogging Heads has induced me to pull together a number of thoughts I’ve been having lately with respect to the liberal consensus.
In the dialogue, Aryeh Cohen-Wade and Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk, discussed the infamous Mortara case – in which a young Jewish boy was involuntarily baptized by a servant and then forcibly removed from his parents’ care, by the Vatican, on the grounds that he was a Christian and should not be raised by Jews. Their conversation also referenced a recent article in First Things, in which Romanus Cessario, a priest and professor at St. John’s, Boston, defended the Vatican’s behavior in the case, on the grounds that the child’s abduction was necessary, in light of the gift of divine grace afforded by baptism and the doctrines set out in the Catholic Catechism. Over the course of the dialogue, Waldstein made it quite explicit that he agrees with Cessario and with the Vatican’s decision.
The case is a simple matter for anyone with even a rudimentary conscience, and the fact that contemporary Men of the Cloth fail to see the obvious monstrousness of involuntarily baptizing a child and then using that baptism as a pretense for abducting him from his parents simply demonstrates that there remain atavistic sub-cultures within the Church, something that we may have forgotten in the time that has passed since public attention was drawn to the odious Opus Dei in the early 2000’s. One might have thought that the members of a Church, rocked by the revelation that for decades it covered up its clergy’s raping of children, and still in the process of confronting its legacy as one of the key players in the systematic persecution and destruction of European Jewry, would display humility and contrition in discussions of the Mortara case and other cases like it, but self-reflection and a healthy sense of doubt are clearly a rare commodity among such people, while hubris and shamelessness apparently are in good supply.
But this is not my focus here. It is the liberal consensus I want to talk about and why it is essential, even – especially – for the religiously orthodox.
Among a whole host of subsidiary commitments, the liberal consensus, at its heart, is the agreement to live and let live. It conceives a substantial private sphere of family and friends, in which the people involved are granted almost complete prerogative and in which they can fully pursue their own good, as they perceive it, as well as a public sphere, in which one’s lifestyle and behavior are regulated only to the extent that they impose on others’ capacity to serve their own interests and values. Clearly, this is not an entirely neutral philosophy, as it disfavors those whose interests and values involve controlling the priorities and beliefs of others, which is why orthodox religious traditions have tended to resist it – historically, the Catholic church has opposed liberalism and democracy for precisely this reason, leading to its shameful affiliation with fascist dictatorships like Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy – but it was and is foolish for them to do so. Part of living in a modern nation-state means sharing a common citizenship and civil society with people of different ethnicities, religious faiths, beliefs, and lifestyles. Being a functional citizen of such a state involves, at a minimum, recognizing and accepting that this diversity will remain the case in perpetuity; that those “other people” aren’t going anywhere, so we’d all better get used to living with one another.
A positive case can be made for the liberal consensus, as John Stuart Mill does in On Liberty: Allowing for a multiplicity of lifestyles increases the likelihood that we are going to find better ways of living, and making room for diverse beliefs makes it more likely that we will discover the truth. But, I’m not going to make such a case here, as it is unlikely to persuade the orthodox mind, which is not characterized by the sort of uncertainty from which the valuing of diverse perspectives and forms of life naturally springs. Instead, I want to focus on the negative case for the liberal consensus, for it is here that we find the sorts of considerations that should persuade the orthodox that whatever its flaws, it is in their own best interest.
I just observed that those “other people” aren’t going anywhere, and it’s worth meditating on. Unless you’re planning on killing everyone who is not a co-religionist or who otherwise shares your values and lifestyle – impractical to say the least – diversity is a permanent fact of life in a modern country. Now if this was all there was to it, one might still resist the liberal consensus on the grounds that it would be preferable simply to subordinate those who do not embrace one’s own form of life, by controlling the levers of political power. The trouble, of course, is that one’s grip on those levers is tenuous: your side may lose the next election; your people may become a numerical minority where they were once a majority; your political bloc may fracture as a result of internal disagreement, diminishing its capacity to exercise power. In short, if you are even minimally realistic, you must realize that it is impossible to hold power forever, which means that one day, inevitably, you’ll find yourself at the political mercy of your opponents, and how you’ve treated them when you were in power will have a profound effect on how they treat you, now that power has passed to them.
The orthodox person must therefore ask himself the following question: Is it better to grant others the prerogative to pursue their own lives, relinquish one’s capacity to control the national ethos, and thereby engender the sort of good will that is more likely to result being granted the same prerogative when one is not in power, or is it better to take advantage of one’s currently empowered position to dominate others in the conduct of their private and public lives, creating the sort of bad will between people that is likely to result in the opposite? In a sense, this is very much like the question that lies behind the Social Contract itself, the answer to which ultimately rests upon a person’s rational perception of his or her own self-interest, when considered in light of the potentially contrary interests of others. We make the Social Contract, when we realize that in the long run, we will get more of what we want by giving up some of our personal prerogatives than by insisting on maintaining all of them, and we accept the liberal consensus when we realize that in the long run we will be more free in the conduct of our own lives if we grant others the freedom to conduct their own than we will be if we refuse it. And given that the orthodox, who among us are the most convinced of the rightness of their preferred forms of life, are precisely those who will suffer the most if denied the capacity to live them, one would think that they would be the first to embrace the liberal consensus.
One would think. Alas, the likes of Pater Waldstein and Romanus Cessario seem to suggest otherwise, and may indicate that the orthodox today lack the sort of basic rational self-interest that the great architects of liberal democracy assumed present in every normal human being. Hopefully, they are outliers, but if not, we are likely to continue to suffer the sorts of “culture wars” with which we have found ourselves burdened now for decades and which have done serious damage to our politics. And lest anyone think that the only orthodoxies we confront are of the religious variety, a mere moment’s reflection on the current state of the culture war will lead to the quick realization that secular orthodoxies are equally plentiful, with the same potential for socially and politically toxic results. The point here is not about religion — though the particular case in question is — but about the orthodox mind itself and how it engages with modern, pluralistic society.