22 August 2017

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

John Stuart Mill
In Part 2 we examined the implications of Kuyperian and liberal pluralisms for ecclesiology, that is, our understanding of the nature and authority of the institutional church. We noted, in particular, that liberalism, following John Locke, is compelled to reduce it to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals.

There are two implications to this liberal move. First, it is incapable of accounting for structural differences among an assortment of communities. State and church are not essentially different from the garden club or the Boy Scouts. Whatever differences appear to the casual observer can be ascribed to the collective wills of the individuals who make them up. Proponents are persuaded that, even if different groups of citizens operate out of divergent comprehensive doctrines, they must be made to look beneath these commitments to what are believed to be the raw data of human experience that bind all persons together. These data are, of course, the constituent individuals themselves.

Every community can be easily understood as a collection of individuals who choose to be part of it for reasons peculiar to each member. There is nothing unusual about this approach, the liberal insists. Michael Ignatieff believes himself justified in asserting that liberal individualism is not peculiarly western or historically conditioned; it is human and universal: “It’s just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not.” Therefore if the claims of groups and individuals come into conflict, as they inevitably must, Ignatieff confidently concludes that “individual rights should prevail,” despite the contrary claims of nationalists, socialists and many conservatives of a communitarian bent.

The second implication flows logically from the first. If liberals claim that individualism is simply human and universal, then this implies that their own worldview must be privileged above any that denies this. Liberal tolerance is thus conditioned by a worldview that explicitly denies that it is a worldview, and thus finds no difficulty positioning itself as a supposedly neutral arbiter of the competing claims of the other alternative worldviews.

Yet there are those who object to this sleight of hand. Karl Marx, for one, famously denies that such neutrality is possible and argues that political institutions, like all other human agents, always act in behalf of a particular economic class, even if they claim impartiality. There is, in short, no neutrality in the global class struggle. Liberation theologians in Latin America and elsewhere refer to this lack of neutrality as a “preferential option for the poor,” an oft-used expression that does not sit well with the liberal emphasis on the autonomous freely-choosing individual.

However, one need hardly be a Marxist or a liberation theologian to recognize what is at work here. James Kalb points to what he calls the tyrannical character of liberalism, despite its proponents’ undoubtedly well-intended pleas for tolerance of religious differences. The liberal strategy for tolerance requires that the particular claims of traditional religions be softened to more manageable private lifestyle choices. “Even religion, to be legitimate, must transform itself so that it simply restates established egalitarian, rationalist, consumerist, and careerist values.” Moreover, “No religion can claim superiority over any other religion or over irreligion. Each must understand itself as an optional pursuit, and thus as not a religion at all.” Accordingly, the authoritative claims of church institutions will be tolerated only in so far as these institutions accept the norms of a liberal society. The church can continue to claim authority in some fashion over its members, but it cannot do so in a way that might be interpreted to negate the voluntary principle. No one has to belong to a church, after all, and those denominations emphasizing individual choice and free will tend to fit more comfortably into a society governed by a dominating liberal paradigm.

By contrast, an obviously hierarchical church body with a strong confessional identity may be seen as at least potentially disloyal, as was the case with the Roman Catholic Church in nineteenth-century America. As late as 1960, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy felt compelled to assure the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he would not be taking orders from the Pope in the conduct of his office. Similarly, in his famous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, New York Governor Mario Cuomo explicitly stated that his belief in his church’s teachings on abortion was a private belief with no bearing on his pursuit of public policy.

Of course, it would be unwise to state categorically that all professed liberals everywhere necessarily follow a consistent individualist approach to human communities and religious diversity. With some spectacular exceptions, most people are generally better than their ideological visions would make them if they were to follow them consistently. Remaining open to correction by the real world is key here.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny the historic tendency of liberalism in its various permutations to downplay the significance of nonvoluntary community and to individualize and relativize the claims of traditional religious worldviews. We see this in the increasing trend in the western world to reconfigure marriage as a mere private contract between (thus far!) two persons and to deny any intrinsic structure that might negate this contractual status and even to stigmatize those who adhere to a “thicker” understanding of the marriage covenant. We see it too in judicial efforts to redefine the limited personal liberties found in the English Bill of Rights and its successors (to, e.g., freedom of speech) as a more expansive and normless individual autonomy (e.g., freedom of expression) whose only limit is conceived in terms of John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

However, Mill’s harm principle, despite its superficial libertarian flavour, has totalitarian tendencies in so far as it is suspicious of those communities bound by standards unrelated to this principle. Liberalism thus negates the very pluralism it claims to uphold. This suggests that another approach is needed.

Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

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