Election Reflection III: Liberalism’s Illiberal Endpoint
This is the third and final part in a series of reflections on the 2017 UK General Election.
Shortly after the recent General Election the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, offered his resignation, issuing a statement which declared that he had found the tension between ‘remaining faithful to Christ’ and leading his party to be irresolvable. This came after a muted election campaign for the party which was drowned out by his obfuscations in the media on the moral status of homosexual relations and abortion, despite previously having voted for same-sex marriage and against greater restrictions on abortion.
Predictably, many secularists have been left bemused, taking his explanation as evidence of ‘his personal agony, not society’s’, whilst much of the Christian establishment have instead been quick to depict Tim Farron as an ‘honourable’ martyr. Neither claim is, in fact, true.
It remains unclear whether the shifting opinions of the Lib Dem leader on sexual ethics were a result of an attempt to shield Christian moral conservatism from the glare of the mainstream media or efforts to hide more liberal views from his fellow Bible-believing evangelicals. Either way he has done traditional believers a disservice: firstly, by choosing to eventually tell the press what they wanted to hear, he legitimised a form of questioning which he would later would he cite as an improper intrusion on a person’s conscience; more importantly, in order to get the media off his back, as leader he switched from previous minority votes for conscience clauses that would have protected people who didn’t support same-sex marriage, to arguing that the Christian owners of the Belfast-based Asher’s bakery should be legally obliged to accede to requests to make cakes with ‘Support Gay Marriage’ iced onto them, and that despite there being as yet no legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Even the leading gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell ended up condemning this transparent case of judicial activism as an attack on ‘freedom of conscience, expression and religion’, so it was an act of supreme moral cowardice for Tim Farron not to stand up for fellow Christians’ consciences when it counted. Some might even call it a failure to stand up for liberalism, but they would be mistaken.
Those wishing to attack overreaching secularism are not only are drawn into wrongheadedly defending Tim Farron, despite his record, but they even see this as an opportunity to come to the defence of an ever more dysfunctional liberalism. Andrew Lilico, for example, thought it appropriate to pair his support for Tim Farron with a rallying cry for the ‘Classical English liberalism … of John Locke’ and, similarly, Rev. Alexander Lucie-Smith argued that all we need is for Rawlsian liberalism to ‘underpin our national conversation’ and all would be well. As Yuval Levin has argued, however, Locke’s ‘liberalism’ was ideologically designed to be individualistic because his anti-Catholicism prevented his support for the freedom of institutions. That is the very origin of the false logic Tim Farron used to attack Asher’s bakery. Likewise, what was new about John Rawls’ philosophy was not his ‘Proviso’ on the exclusive use of natural reason with non-believers, which Aquinas had fundamentally articulated over eight centuries earlier. Instead, it was his ‘Original Position’ that, as Charles Taylor and others have demonstrated, replaced the perennial attempt to provide an account of the good life with criteria for a life of maximised individual autonomy completely detached from social context, a logical development of Lockean liberalism. The move robs us of the only real defence of human freedom: objective moral truth.
This is particularly apparent in the aforementioned conscience clause debates on same-sex marriage. In a parliamentary debate on the subject, after ‘invoking the memory of African-Americans in the southern states of the US before civil rights’, Labour MP David Lammy concluded: ‘What we are doing here is declaring that the sort of prejudice that stops gay men and women marrying is wrong. If we arrive at a place in the coming months where we decide that that sort of prejudice is illegal, it cannot be right for any teacher to be entitled to have a separate view and to propagate such a view to children.’
Many liberals would draw back from the idea of categorising opposition to same-sex marriage as a thought crime. And yet, David Lammy was actually drawing the obvious conclusion from the standard argument raised against traditional marriage legislation: namely, that it discriminated against homosexual couples in the same way that the United States’ anti-miscegenation laws had previously discriminated against interracial couples.
Of course, the two cases appear to modern liberals to be an analogue beyond mere analogy because all that concerns them is that both restrict the sovereign self, which is taken a priori to be sufficient evidence of injustice. But, as G. K. Chesterton argued, the right response to a fence in the road is not to clear it away if it obstructs you and you see no use for it. Instead, one should first determine the reason why it was put there in the first place and then decide whether that reason is sufficient to justify the fence remaining in place. Looked at in terms of their underlying reasoning, then, the differences between anti-miscegenation laws and traditional marriage become apparent. As Prof. Robert P. George has put it:
Anti-miscegenation laws were innovations that were introduced in certain states of the United States and a few other jurisdictions for one purpose only: to sustain and reinforce a vicious system of white supremacy and racial subordination and exploitation that began with race-based chattel slavery.
In contrast, reading the reasoning for the heterosexual ordering of marriage as a matter of pure animus against homosexual persons – even if it may have been a central motivating factor for some – is historically without foundation. All political and religious communities before the year AD2000 recognised marriage to be a union between a man and a woman. It is impossible that such a uniformity could have been shaped by negative social attitudes towards homosexuals alone, given that the heterosexual understanding of marriage existed even in cultures that had explicitly positive appraisals of homosexual relations and in societies prior to the modern notion of fixed identities of sexual orientation (i.e., prior to the very idea of a ‘gay person’ to discriminate against). Instead, as has been well demonstrated, the consistency in the understanding of marriage was grounded in the belief that marital relations had a procreative and unitive purpose. Fundamentally, past societies responded to the fact that men and women make children together but do not always raise them together, by establishing marriage as a social bond that best provides children with the sustained care of their mother and father whilst, at the same time, securing the parents one another’s support in the task of child rearing. This view explains the consistent criteria previously required for marriage: two people of opposite sexes, above a given age and not too closely related, who are able to consummate a union; the only substantial social variant being whether or not a person is allowed to have multiple marriages.
Any acquaintance with the debate in academia is enough to demonstrate that the procreative account of marriage holds up well in terms of its internal coherence and basic humanity. The only noteworthy critique, which claims that the procreative view is contradicted by the existence of infertile married couples, ignores that the purpose of an institution is not discerned by its outcomes but by its form (e.g., music colleges serve their purpose of creating professional musicians by providing appropriate training, not by guaranteeing that all their graduates become professional musicians) and that, in the case of marriage, this form is further ordered to the intrinsic good of bodily union, which is established by a couple’s active procreative complementarity independently of whether or not conception occurs.
Of course, sociologically the procreative view has long lost its purchase, as the advent of birth control and no-fault divorce meant that ‘heterosexuals had already severed marriage from procreation and permanence’ decades prior to the same-sex marriage debates. This led it to being replaced by a model of marriage as a non-permanent adult emotional union which, as Elizabeth Anscombe noted in 1972, logically would no longer need to be exclusively ‘between people of opposite sexes’.
It is clear, therefore, that here we are not necessarily dealing with people acting out of animosity towards certain groups, whether it be towards homosexuals or towards traditional believers, and so, unlike support for Jim Crow laws, which is racist at its very root, neither opposition to, nor support of, same-sex marriage deserves to be legally proscribed. Instead, we are seeing a common situation in which an impasse is reached after two sides talk past one another. Alasdair Macintyre provides a remedy to this state of affairs in his book After Virtue, when he cites rival ethical traditions that are ‘at odds with one another in their standards of rational justification’. This, he says, means that you can only rationally dialogue across such a divide if you ‘learn how to think as if one were a convinced adherent of that rival tradition’. As he added, though, ‘this requires the exercise of a capacity for philosophical imagination that is often lacking’.
This points to the real reason that liberals are averse to determining why the fence was erected before they tear it down. In this time of exceptional ethical diversity and the co-existence of an infinitude of worldviews, many fear lest they be unable to manage to navigate their own moral universe faithfully, let alone someone else’s. This, in turn, creates real underlying doubts about the capacity of human reason to establish objective moral truths. Given the vulnerability people feel of becoming convinced by the false arguments of rival propaganda, therefore, it is understandable that so many are drawn towards overarching principles for the determination of moral truth. Ultimately, though, these systems can rarely cope with the data and are only ever applied selectively: idolising ‘equality’ might help to argue a case for same-sex marriage, but it will not explain why unions ‘in which there is more than one conjugal partner’ should be excluded and, likewise, the principle of ‘freedom’ construed as bodily autonomy might be used to establish a legal right to abortion, but it will contradict any of the typical limits on late-term abortions. Therefore, liberalism consistently provides a consensus of contradiction that can only be maintained by coercing others into assent and silencing those that dissent, firstly by soft social pressure but eventually by diktat. This is the illiberal endpoint of liberalism.