Addenda

11 Nov

“Let us live to make men free” (in a specific way)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/11/16

Patrick Deenen on the molding of the liberal soul

“While there is a long tradition among political theorists and legal scholars who insist that liberalism is defined above all by a neutrality regarding conceptions of the Good, many thinkers — both critics of liberalism, as well as its most enthusiastic proponents — have insisted that liberalism itself embraces and promotes a deeply-held set of substantive commitments. These commitments arise from liberalism’s fundamental basis upon individual liberty, understood as liberty as a right to believe, act, or choose as one wishes where (to cite the proto-liberal, Thomas Hobbes) ‘the law is silent.’ The liberal political theorist Stephen Macedo has forcefully — and, with honesty and forthrightness, admirably — acknowledged that the liberal commitment to this form of freedom does not, finally, take the form of neutrality, but rather an active society-building and culture-shaping effort that molds the soul of man under liberalism. In a 1998 article entitled ‘Transformative Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion: Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism’ [in Political Theory 26, no. 1 (February 1998): 69], Macedo has argued that liberal constitutionalism is, and rightly should be, ‘a pervasively educational order,’ and not one that is neutral toward various forms of education. Among the shaping powers it does and should employ is the effort to diminish, weaken, attenuate, and even reduce if not outright eliminate non-liberal groups and entities within the liberal order. At a most basic level, he argues, liberal law and practice aims to ‘shape people to help ensure that [liberal] freedom is what they want.’ That is, far from being ‘neutral’ or ‘indifferent’ about whether liberal freedom is, or is not, the proper way to understand and animate human life and choices, Macedo acknowledges that a liberal order appropriately and actively seeks to ‘make men free’ in accordance with the liberal understanding of freedom. To do this, it must not only order the public realm in accordance with full access to liberal rights to free and unencumbered choice — it must, he writes, also ‘constitute the private realm in its own interest.’ Of central concern, then, is an area that many regard as liberalism’s attitude of indifferent toleration: religious belief, and the ways that religious belief is shaped and guided within the private associative realm of the family and church. Macedo argues that liberalism can ill-afford to leave this vital area untouched by liberalism’s soul-shaping and comprehensively educative efforts, and highlights, in particular, the success that liberalism has had in re-casting Catholicism in its image. 

“Macedo points, among other pieces of evidence, to the ‘ritual which Catholic judges and candidates for president have had to pass through in their quest for higher office.’ Citing Sanford Levinson, he approvingly notes that ‘Catholics have effectively “been forced to proclaim the practical meaninglessness” of their religious convictions as a condition of being allowed to serve.’ Macedo suggests that ‘such rituals are bound to be educative’ — that they have a shaping power for society at large. In particular, Catholics are effectively disallowed, through disapproval and dismissiveness of the liberal order, from a robust opportunity to express the substance of Catholic teachings, and even from a receptive hearing, by the order shaped by the deepest liberal assumptions. To the extent that Catholicism rejects the liberal conception of freedom and the basic anthropological assumption of radical autonomy on which it is based, Catholicism stands as a non-liberal competitor that must be effectively overcome by liberal philosophy and liberal pedagogy. Public claims of the validity of its belief must be effectively (perhaps legally, but most often informally) disallowed, and rather may be retained only as forms of private belief. As Macedo argues, ‘the healthy course of things in a healthy liberal democracy will be that beliefs in tension with fundamental liberal democratic commitments will be diminished in importance.’

“Moreover, such belief must be limited in its scope of influence not only in the public realm, but even as a shaping force in private life. For example, Macedo argues that liberalism cannot be indifferent to the education of children — liberalism has a civic interest in the shaping of properly liberal souls, ones that will ensure that it is ‘freedom that they want.’ Thus, ‘if parents want their children always to be guided solely by sectarian religious teachings both in politics and elsewhere then their view of good citizenship is at odds with the liberal one. We have good reasons to hope that there will be fewer families raising such children in the future.’ Far from offering a ‘level playing field’ of belief, per claims for liberal neutrality, Macedo forthrightly acknowledges that liberalism actively seeks to advance a view of freedom that is distinct from that view of ‘true freedom’ — a freedom in conformity to the Truth. . . . With refreshing honesty, Macedo acknowledges that liberalism seeks to be hegemonic, fostering, among other things, a ‘certain religious homogeneity’ that finally accords with the definition of freedom at the heart of liberalism.”

— from Patrick J. Deneen, “Religious Liberty after Liberalism: Re-thinking Dignitatis Humanae in an Age of Illiberal Liberalism,” in Communio (Summer-Fall, 2013) 

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.