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.






14 responses to “The Liberal Consensus and the Orthodox Mind”

  1. 1970scholar

    This is wonderful; simply the best statement of the Liberal position in as succinct a manner as I have seen. Thanks for writing it.

  2. I agree with the general sentiments (basic liberal principles), and also that the negative argument is the stronger one, and also that institutions like the Catholic Church are culpable on many fronts, and also that we are faced by dangerous secular orthodoxies.

    I point out however that there are other options than mass killing for those who don’t like our kind of society: they can do what many groups have done over the centuries and move to a place where they are in a majority. You talk about nation-states as if they are a given but many seem to be breaking down. Even some cities are fragmented (with no-go areas and so on). A world is possible in which various quite distinct political and social systems – at various scales – are in operation. A fragmented world, in other words, where different kinds of orthodoxy may flourish (if that is the word) in their own little realms.

  3. Mark English: I think the scenario that you describe is highly unlikely. People have grown accustomed to a standard of living/quality of life in the Modern world that requires large scale R&D, at a cost that only nation-states can sustain. Will a few weirdo cults break off and take over some empty region in Montana, a la the Branch Davidians? Of course. But the idea that orthodox Catholics are going to break off and form a little Inquisition-country is just fantasy.

    I know that the breakdown of the nation-state is the meme of the month, but I think it’s wildly overstated.

  4. Mark: Also, I should say that i don’t particularly find the negative argument for liberalism the most compelling one. The point is that the *orthodox* because of their unreasonable and unhealthy degree of certainty, are not going to be naturally inclined towards the positive argument for liberalism.

  5. s.wallerstein

    The problem is that the orthodox person is not a liberal and can never be a liberal. The orthodox person (and following you, by “orthodox”, I refer to people who are politically true believers as well as religiously dogmatic people) is sure that they are right, both morally and in terms of their appreciation of the political situation. So when they come to power, they are sure that others will soon “see the light” and so do not take into account the fact outlined above that
    they will be in power for a while and then be replaced by their ideological opponents. What’s more, politically orthodox people generally believe that history is on their side (this is obviously true of the left, but also of lots of free market people on the right and the Fukuyama “end of history” crowd on the right), so that with time their position will become common sense that everyone believes. Since as history “advances”, “everyone” will come to see the truth of their position, from their point of view there is little reason to show much, if any consideration, for their benighted opponents.

    By the way, I don’t want to go into here because it is very painful, but when my son Pablo was in the hospital, several Catholic priests showed that for them baptizing a child is more important than respect for others.

  6. S. Wallerstein: As I indicated in the essay, it does appear that there are people among the orthodox like you describe, and I reserved a particular word for them: ‘fools’.

    However, I am not at all sure that they are the majority of their kind. I know plenty of orthodox folks who have entirely accepted the liberal consensus and who understand that it protects them as much as anyone else; people who would absolutely recoil from the idea of involuntary baptisms and forcible separation of parents from their children.

    The question is which group will come to dominate. It is a battle that is a part of the larger battle going on within the Right today. And within the Left as well. For we have our own orthodox who are pushing for an abandonment of the liberal consensus.

  7. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan:

    In many societies there are minorities who can never achieve dominance either by force or by weight of numbers. They are, therefore, are not a realistic threat to the presently dominant majorities. Thus, regrettably, enlightened self-interest is not a strong ground for the sharing of power by those majorities with any such weak minorities.

    Liberalism needs a grounding in substantive justice and procedural fairness, I think.


  8. Not in modern democracies which is what we are talking about

  9. davidlduffy

    This is all a bit timeless – were the orthodox more or less restive in the 1950s, 1960s etc? And which country? Maybe the requirements of the social contract have become more onerous for the orthodox, or maybe, as in the case of institutional child abuse, it has been revealed that the contract has been breached by the churches (and see the Australian yeshiva cases), given the great accommodations re taxes, legal immunity etc they have enjoyed.

  10. s.wallerstein

    Politicians, in my experience, think short-term. They’re concerned about winning the next election, about
    campaign contributions, about using their influence to get a job for their brother-in-law, etc. They hardly ever think about the long-term effects of their decisions, about the fact that while they are in power now, in a few more years they and their party will no longer have a majority in congress nor control the executive branch, etc.

    It would be better of course for politicians to see things on a long-term basis, but that’s not their nature, I fear. Political theory should begin to take into account how frivolous and superficial most politicians are. Yes, in theory we could elect more thoughtful people, but thoughtful people are unlikely to get elected.

  11. I agree with Mark that our cultures and social groupings are fragmenting, more and more. However, I don’t see the modern nation state collapsing as a result of this. Indeed, much of this fragmentation is parasitical on the elastic strength and resiliency of the liberal state. After all, Dan is quite right that the liberal state makes possible, and occasionally even thrives on, social experimentation. Certainly capitalism does, which is one reason many conservative economists have long argued that the stronger a market capitalism, the greater the likelihood of sustainable democracy. That of course is not true, but there is a truth in it. A homogenous culture does not generate innovation in the manner of a heterogeneous culture – of any kind. It is unsurprising, then that we find states with homogenous cultures effectively buying, borrowing, or stealing innovations from heterogeneous liberal states.

    Now, the orthodox of which Dan complains may say this is untrue, they really have no interest in these innovations; but among them only the Amish would be saying this truthfully. More likely they would say that they feel they are owed the fruits of such innovations, they just don’t feel the need to recognize the work of the innovators who were probably never very orthodox.

    It may seem that I am discussing, in a round about way, technological innovations, and I am in part. But there have been social innovations that have come along with these – such as the ability to socialize with others of like minds many miles away. To participate in such is to participate in a new culture, the culture of the liberal state that produced that opportunity, whether one likes it of not.

    That there are neighborhoods one doesn’t care to visit doesn’t mean the formation of new governmental structures in such. Liberal state structures took centuries to patch together. They were effectively parodied by Communists for some time, they have been misappropriated by fascists of various stripe, occasionally in a horrific manner. But they generally have come out the other side largely in tact. Because without them, there is no meaningful law enforcement, no infrastructure, no marriages accountable in civil courts, no proper management of production or wealth distribution, etc., etc.

    Now it may be the case that the structures of the liberal state may be misappropriated again, possibly into some form of authoritarianism, as the social/cultural fragmentation increases. But they are unlikely to unravel completely, since they began as the secularization of records and procedures needed to maintain the religious institutions that preceded them. In short they began as laws and structures that people made which they were certain they had received from god, but redefined to the secular when it became obvious that god had apparently not foreseen steam engines, newsprint, or the economic collapse of seemingly ancient aristocracies. The structures of the liberal state and their development brought about – and were brought about by – the occasional violent revolution; but they are, ultimately, the result of reflective efforts to stabilize necessarily heterogeneous societies, even through periods of economic uncertainty.

    Such structures make it possible, in the modern world, to be an orthodox this, that, or the other. If these structures wind up appropriated to some form of autocracy, many of these structures will undoubtedly survive, as necessary means of maintaining social cohesion; and my guess would be that some tolerance for difference, experimentation, and innovation will have to survive along with them. At any rate, such a hope makes arguing for the liberal state worthwhile, in case any future political leaders pay attention to them.

  12. EJ: Bravo! This is just terrific.

  13. Late to the game, but I wanted to chime in that one of the most interesting things about baptism is that it seems to be a J.L. Austin-style performative speech act, akin to “I now pronounce you married.” Saying “I now baptize you in the name of …” makes it so: one is baptized through the pronouncement that one is baptized. But Austin is clear about the rules of performative speech acts: 1: “the convention invoked must exist and be accepted” 2: “the circumstances in which we purport to invoke this procedure must be appropriate for its invocation” (page 237 of his piece Performative Utterances).

    So, fine, let’s assume that “we” accept the convention of baptism, and the circumstances are “correct,” whatever that means in this particularly disturbing case. There is a third caveat: “if you use one of these formulae when you do not have the requisite thoughts or feelings or intentions then there is an abuse of the procedure, there is insincerity.” (page 239 of the same document) If the Church baptizes children without their understanding or consent, then they are tapping into this type of insincerity in a very troubling way.

    Can we imagine a world in which performative speech-acts were binding without the consent of all involved? One could be accidentally married while walking by a courthouse! My feeling is that EuroAmerican legal systems have done quite a bit of work trying to legislate insincere speech-acts- I’m appalled at this one. Then again, as you pointed out, the Church doesn’t have an excellent record of owning up to grievous mistakes.