Secular Liberalism as Consensus

Secular Liberalism as Consensus

By Rod Dreher - April 6, 2009

Recently, I got into a lengthy blog debate with liberal secularist writer Damon Linker on the topic of same-sex marriage. It ended, as these things always do, with mutual frustration. Linker decided that I, a traditionalist conservative, believe gay marriage should be illegal because ... I believe it should be illegal. And I reached the same conclusion about his support of same-sex marriage.

To Linker, my argument looks like faith-based special pleading. Likewise, his rationale struck me as little more than emotivism - the idea that something is true because it feels right.

We talked past each other, not only because neither of us can agree on what constitutes the Good, both public and private, but also because - indeed, especially because - we cannot agree on how to determine the Good. Because moral reasoning in our postmodern culture is largely incoherent, the Linkers and the Drehers are doomed to remain mutually incomprehensible - which, said philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, helps explain the shrillness of contemporary public debate.

But the Linkers have one great rhetorical advantage: In our culture, the framework for these arguments favors secular liberalism.

As James Kalb explains in his important new book, The Tyranny of Liberalism -which, despite the red-meat title, is an intellectually invigorating read - liberalism "has become an immensely powerful social reality," one so dominant "that it has become invisible."

"To oppose it in any basic way is to act incomprehensibly, in a way explicable, it is thought, only by reference to irrationality, ignorance or evil," Kalb writes. "The whole of the nonliberal past is comprehensively blackened. Traditional ways are presented as the simple negation of unquestionable goods liberalism favors."

Chief among those goods is the defining idea of modern liberalism, which Kalb calls "equal freedom." That is, liberalism's social goal is to maximize both equality and freedom. How does it propose to do that in a world that is to some degree both unequal and unfree? Through social engineering.

Liberalism depends on the modernist conviction that neither religion nor tradition nor inherited loyalties has any binding authority on us. Anything that denies equal freedom is to be condemned as oppressive and marginalized, even outlawed.

This is what Kalb means by liberalism's "tyranny." Having abandoned the idea that the Good stands outside the individual's judgment, our common life becomes a matter of negotiating preferences and satisfying wants. To trads, the same-sex marriage debate is inescapably about liberals trying to redefine marriage as primarily an expression of personal desire.

"Aha!" says the liberal. "Who are you to impose your morality on me?" That's supposed to settle the argument, even though, logically, the traditionalist could say the same thing to the liberal. But the liberal speaks from what he presumes is a position of neutrality, even though his views are every bit as dependent on axioms as the conservative's.

But that does the traditionalist no good. The broad liberal view is the consensus in American establishment, a social and political fact that conceals - especially from liberals - how much power liberalism exercises in determining not only the parameters of discussion but also the outcome.

Conservatives find it hard to articulate a case for traditional marriage in terms acceptable in liberal rights discourse, as well as in the shallow rhetoric of contemporary debate. Defending traditional marriage requires burrowing deep into the meaning of the human person, sex, gender, society and law - and that's just for starters. Life in community is a mysterious and complex thing that cannot be radically remade to suit a preferred outcome.

"If you can redefine [marriage] so that the sex of the parties has nothing to do with it, then you can redefine anything in human life any way you want," Kalb told me in an interview. "Man becomes the artifact of whoever is in power."

This, I think, is what scares ordinary people the most about the swift attempt to kick the foundation out from under traditional marriage. They intuit that there is something, well, tyrannical in the idea that virtually overnight, the long-settled meaning of marriage could change in a vast social experiment without historical precedent - and that any attempt to resist this radicalization stands condemned as God-intoxicated bigotry.

Trads are on the losing side of this argument, at least in the short run, given the cultural conditioning of latter-day Americans. Still, it is instructive to ponder the fate of modern Western societies that have cast out the biblical god as the source of moral reality. Wrote eminent historian Paul Johnson, "The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum has been filled."

For those fearful of despotism, it is not a happy tale.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

Rod Dreher

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter