One of the Remaining Liberals, Not Progressive

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Among the highlights of my rhetorical life was the evening when Andrew Morse and I closed down the bar (so to speak) with Peter Steinfels at the annual Portsmouth Institute conference the year he spoke.  What made the conversation enjoyable was our common baseline sense of appropriate goals for public policy and understanding of the rules of logic and discourse.

I’m therefore not surprised to read him putting forward a reasonable argument with which I agree on the matter of religious freedom:

[Various forms of discrimination based on Indiana’s religious freedom law] are all possibilities, it seems to me, although not necessarily likelihoods.  They are the kinds of possibilities that we confront in the case of all our rights.  Freedom of speech and press “makes it easier” to destroy reputations, debase public discourse, deform democracy, and feed violent psychopaths online.  Insistence on search warrants, reading people their rights, and a host of other criminal and court procedures can “open the door” to crimes going undetected or the guilty going unpunished.  Social benefits of all sorts, from health and safety regulations to income assistance, are inevitably “invitations” to cheating, gaming the system, or otherwise “abetting” unfair conduct. (That’s what libertarians are forever lamenting.) We do our best to foresee and forestall the possible risks but not by denying the rights in the first place. …

Religious freedom means that I may very well want to question, critique, refute, moderate or otherwise alter religious beliefs and practices that I find irrational or unhealthy or dehumanizing or, yes, bigoted; but knowing how deeply rooted and sincerely held these convictions are, and how much about the universe remains in fact mysterious, and how much about my own perceptions of reality could in fact be mistaken, and how much religions do in fact evolve over time, I accommodate myself in the meantime to peaceful coexistence and thoughtful engagement.  In particular I refuse to coerce religiously sincere people into personal actions that violate their conscience.  And I refuse to dismiss their resistance to such coercion as nothing but bigotry.

This might be a useful marker of the line between “liberals” and “progressives.”  The former place their political faith in the civic and cultural processes that they believe will move society forward, while the latter have a zealous faith in the promised land of “progress,” which they think they know in its particulars and to which they think we can speed by any means necessary.



  • A policy that refuses to cater homosexual weddings is no different than a policy that refuses service to someone with no shirt and/or no shoes. Since I have no right to the goods or services for sale at that business I have no standing to claim harm. This pizzeria’s policy harmed exactly ZERO people (excluding themselves as a result of this nonsense reaction).

  • Warrington Faust

    The medieval philosopher/theologian, Erasmus, was criticized because he
    believed that intelligent people would respond rationally. Has the
    “Enlightenment” changed anything? More recently, it has been observed that
    democracy operates by hysteria. I think we are observing that. I would be more
    sympathetic if there were credible evidence that homosexuals are “born that
    way”. We do offer people protection from discrimination based on their
    “creed”. A person is free to select any “creed” which they desire. On the other
    hand, look at what happened to those religious zealots at Waco. Although it is
    hazy to me, I do seem to distinguish some distinction between service at a
    counter and catering a wedding. Substituting “bar” for “Counter” would an owner
    necessarily like his “bar” to become a “gay bar”?

    The possibility of poor service by an unwilling wedding caterer brought
    something to mind. A number of years ago I was consulted by a fairly successful
    black guy from North Carolina. I mentioned that I had roots and a farm in North
    Carolina. Thinking it over, I said “history being what it is, maybe I shouldn’t
    have mentioned that”. He replied “If you’re from North Carolina and you don’t
    want to deal with n-ggers, you’ll say so. Up here, we don’t know who we are
    dealing with”. Maybe pragmaticism was at the base of his success.

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