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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

 

Linker v. Douthat: A Debate Over the "Liberal Bargain" and Theocons

posted by Dignan at Wednesday, October 11, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
Let me direct your attention to an outstanding discussion taking place at The New Republic Online between Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular American Under Siege and former editor of First Things, and Ross Douthat, an associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly and author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

In this discussion, Douthat and Linker pretty quickly get down to a large root of their disagreement, the "liberal bargain". Linker describes the "liberal bargain" thusly:
Like every other citizen, you must be willing to accept what I call "the liberal bargain." In my book, I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their "ambition to political rule in the name of their faith" in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking. It simply shouldn't matter whether or not you think that justice has a divine underpinning, anymore than it should matter whether you prefer Jane Austen to Dostoevsky. In a word, liberal politics presumes that it's possible and desirable for political life to be decoupled from theological questions and disputes.
In his response, Douthat says that this "liberal bargain" is the root of the disagreement.
Yet that's precisely what you seem to think the "liberal bargain" is intended to do--to discriminate against religious motivations in politics in a way that it doesn't discriminate against, say, the motivations of a secular social engineer seeking an earthly utopia. Sure, you do offer a way out for religious believers who want to put their faith-based ideas into action: As long as they're willing to make nonreligious arguments for their ideas, you generously allow, they're welcome in the public square. So the abolitionists and civil rights agitators pass your test, because "the goals for which they worked--the emancipation of the slaves, the right to vote, economic opportunity for all citizens--were perfectly defensible in secular-civic terms." (You also suggest, generously, that the pro-life movement might pass it as well.)
Douthat goes on to argue against the arbitrary standard of politcal involvement.
If you're the arbiter of what the liberal bargain means, then I want no part of it. The American experiment has succeeded for so long precisely because it doesn't force its citizens channel their "theological passions and certainties ... out of public life and into the private sphere." It forces them to play by a certain set of political rules, yes, which prevent those passions and certainties from creating a religious tyranny. But it doesn't make the mistake of telling people that their deepest beliefs should be irrelevant to how they vote, or what causes they support.
I am going to inject myself into this conversation as I have as lengthy a history and experience with the Religious Right as anyone. While I am often critical of the Religious Right, particularly in its blind devotion to the Republican party, I am going to side with Douthat here and take his point a little deeper.

A legitimate concern that many Christians have is that religious belief has been pushed into the realm of the private. Early in the 20th century, Enlightenment philosophy said that certain ideas were fine for private belief but had no place in the public arena of thought or politics. So it is fine to have whatever private beliefs you like, just don't talk as if they have any bearing on others.

The fallacy of this viewpoint is that it assumes that it is possible to take a "neutral" viewpoint. That somehow we can take some non-biased approach to various public topics. I hope that this is an obvious myth to all my readers. I'm not sure why some people think that by removing any mention of the divine that one's beliefs become anything other than just that.

Christians make a fair criticism when they react to being told that their beliefs are not an acceptable viewpoint in public life but that other "God-removed" perspectives are acceptable. I'm not sure how Linker's modern liberalism is anything but "religious".

I am concerned that this continued push of "religious beliefs" into the realm of the private is simply a way for some to exclude others out of the conversation.



Discussion

intriguing post. im going ot read the full debate ...

 

Here is what Jesus said:

"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is Gods".

Here is what the US Constitution says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

It's extraordinarily hard for me to imagine anyone thinking that issues touching on religious faith have been excluded from the public sphere. I find that you can't swing a political cat these days without smacking up against somebody's religious convictions.

Linker says this:

"I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their 'ambition to political rule in the name of their faith' in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking."

I have three comments to make about this:

1. That sounds like a damned good bargain to me.

2. If your ambition is political rule in the name of your faith, put up your dukes.

3. If you think the consequence of (2) is that your faith is irrelevant, politically speaking, you have a very limited view of human nature and political discourse.

Humans are integral beings. People's faith is of a piece with their political point of view which is of a piece with their life experience which is of a piece with, no doubt, what they eat for breakfast.

That said, who died and made you God (not you Dignan, but the rhetorical "you")? Your understanding is one of many. Put your point of view out there, others will do the same, and may the best man win.

If your ambition is to articulate your faith, more power to you.

If your ambition is to rule in the name of your faith, you're on a fool's errand, and I, personally, will resist you to the end of my strength.

Thanks -

 

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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.