Tolerance and Liberalism and Stanley Fish

If you can make it past the army of atheist/secular/religion-hating straw men in the first half of his essay in the NY Times today, you might find that Stanly Fish actually has something worthwhile to say.

Here's where it gets interesting, at least to me.

Liberalism, says Starr, “is only a framework – that is, it provides a space for free development.” Where there are deep “divisions over the meaning of the good life,” he continues, the “neutrality” of the liberal state “furthers mutual forbearance.”

But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

What Fish is really saying is that liberalism isn't absolutely neutral, and that's fair. But no system is absolutely neutral, and liberalism is more neutral than most, if not all, other belief systems. It's certainly more neutral than anything a Dominionist group, or even some more respectable religious/political groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention, would put forward. Live-and-let-live didn't just spring out of thin air, after all. It came out of the crucible of centuries of religious wars in Europe. To the Founders, the religious wars were recent history, and they wisely saw that in order for a nation not tied together by a single culture or religion to last, there were certain things that the central government couldn't take sides on--religion was preeminent among them.

Fish does a fair job of describing the tension between secular belief and those religions who feel it is their duty to impose themselves on the rest of society over the next few paragraphs. I especially liked this part:
Thus the toleration of religion goes hand in hand with – is the same thing as – the diminishing of its role in the society. It is a quid pro quo. What the state gets by “excluding religion from any binding social consensus” (Starr) is a religion made safe for democracy. What religion gets is the state’s protection. The result, Starr concludes approvingly, is “a political order that does not threaten to extinguish any of the various theological doctrines” it contains.

That’s right. The liberal order does not extinguish religions; it just eviscerates them, unless they are the religions that display the same respect for the public-private distinction that liberalism depends on and enforces. A religion that accepts the partitioning of the secular and the sacred and puts at its center the private transaction between the individual and his God fits the liberal bill perfectly. John Locke and his followers, of whom Starr is one, would bar civic authorities from imposing religious beliefs and would also bar religious establishments from meddling in the civic sphere. Everyone stays in place; no one gets out of line.
Eviscerate is a little unfair, but the overall point is a good one. Fish's next point is good as well, but perhaps not for the reason he thinks.
But what of religions that will not stay in place, but claim the right, and indeed the duty, to order and control the affairs of the world so that the tenets of the true faith are reflected in every aspect of civic life? Liberalism’s answer is unequivocal. Such religions are the home of “extremists … fascists … enemies of the public good … authoritarian despots and so forth.”
He's right. Such religions are the home of extremists, enemies of the public good, despots, etc. The people we're talking about here--Christian Dominionists, Muslims who would impose Sharia law--fit that description well. So what's the problem?

Well, Fish, along with a couple of people he quotes early on in the piece, say that makes liberalism close-minded with respect to religion. I say that in this continuum of discussion, pure open-mindedness isn't possible, and that liberalism is as close as you're going to get.

It's similar to the arguments one can have with anarchists or utopians who claim that their economic systems are the best, but that they haven't been actually tried yet--they've been taken over by totalitarians who have corrupted the name, blah blah blah. The real problem with those systems is that in order for them to work, everyone has to buy into the system. I think that, at heart, liberalism would like the arguments over religion to fit the anarchic/utopian mold, but as Fish has pointed out here, there are a number of religious groups who refuse to play along, and so the options either become live-and-let-live or do-it-their-way. One of these systems is clearly superior to the other for the larger world, and there's nothing intolerant about saying so and opposing them in the public sphere.

Fish seems to argue at the end of his piece that secularism is up against the wall, and he invokes Mark Lilla's interesting but ultimately flawed piece in the NY Times Magazine to make that argument. I have more faith in humanity, I suppose, because I've watched the politics of the extreme religionists in the last few years backfire in a way I wouldn't have thought possible a decade ago. Kansas, for instance, was a shining example of what could happen when extreme religious types got into power, and what has happened is that the more moderate in the Republican party there realized that they were linking themselves to and turned away. Perhaps that's an effect of what Lilla calls coping--I don't think so. I think it's evidence that truly religious people can look into the abyss and see that removing the secular wall between church and state in the US only benefits them if they're the church in charge, and they realized what could happen to them if one of the loonier groups was in charge instead. Politics may not be Darwinian, and it may not always be rational, but it can be, and rationality is what liberals do better than any other group.

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