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.