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This, Too, Shall Pass: James Kalb on Secular Liberalism

August 29, 2013
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James Kalb

James Kalb asks, “How Long Will Secular Liberalism Endure?” (Crisis Magazine, 8/26/13)

Secular liberalism, the dominant political ideology in Europe and North America, “is at odds with Catholicism,” Kalb warns, drawing our attention to what should be definitionally obvious. (By “Catholicism,” he means conservative Catholicism.) A “harmonious relationship” might have been possible, he says, if the secular state had not become over-weening in its attempts to “change the beliefs and attitudes of the people,” but Catholics are “increasingly required to conform to anti-Catholic norms” and even “punished as … criminal[s] for public assertion of Catholic moral doctrine.” The U.S. Government, in particular, is now “radically opposed to religion and natural law,” while “progressive utopians” have cast the Church as “intrinsically antisocial and oppressive.”

Kalb reminds us that Catholicism has always had its enemies—first, the Romans, then the Muslims, and finally the secular political systems of the past century. But, he adds, secular liberalism is fundamentally flawed insofar as (1) it “lacks a grounded principle of authority,” and (2) it “makes maximum equal satisfaction its highest good,” thereby placing ever-greater demands on public resources and undermining discipline, loyalty, and public spirit. Its system of control consists not of “threats and force,” but of “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation.” And yet, secular liberalism continues to appeal to the masses, who “believe they have a right to get what they want.”

Kalb’s thesis contains a number of glaring defects.

The first is his assumption that there is a bright line separating Catholics and secular liberals. The truth is that most Catholics, at least in Europe and North America, are, for all intents and purposes, secular liberals themselves. How else are we to explain the indifference of most of these Catholics to their church’s teachings about same-sex marriage and contraception? They have become “father-deaf” about such matters and no longer bother confessing what they no longer consider to be sins. By and large, they support the secular state, unlike many of the responders to Kalb’s article (the so-called “faithful” Catholics, as Crisis Magazine would have us believe), who proudly declare that they’ve stopped voting!

Second, generous government subsidies and tax breaks for religious institutions and programs in this country and abroad belie the claim that these governments are hostile to religion. Furthermore, what he describes as “radical opposition” to natural law is nothing more than the galling indifference of those who don’t take it seriously. Few of its proponents have even agreed about what it is. Historically, it has been used to justify slavery, primogeniture, monarchical absolutism, and the oppression of women. To the extent that our judges and legislators are aware of this, we can only hope that they will escalate their indifference toward natural law to actual hostility.

Kalb maintains that, while progressive Christians have largely sold out to the secular state, the Church has remained “independent and refractory.” Kalb is correct, if by “the Church” he means the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the global magisterium. The laity is another matter. Indeed, one might make the case that the laity in the U.S. and Europe have been “independent and refractory” vis-à-vis the magisterium.

Third, Kalb’s assessment of secular liberalism’s prospects is premised on the assumption that Catholicism has something better to offer. But Catholicism’s “grounded principle of authority” is a stock of myth, folklore, superstition, tradition, and scripture with little or no internal coherence and absolutely no empirical basis. U.S. constitutional and case law may be far from perfect, but at least it is a reasonably coherent corpus of decisions dating back to our nation’s founding, and it furthers the principles of justice and fairness that almost all Americans espouse.

Fourth, secular liberalism doesn’t need to operate through “payoffs, propaganda, and regulation” any more than Catholicism needs to operate through fear, coercion, and threats of eternal damnation. To say that secular states sometimes use propaganda is not to say that propaganda is necessary to sustain the secular state. To say that they sometimes over-regulate is not to say that they must. Likewise, the long and shameful history of Catholic conduct toward Jews, heretics, apostates, freethinkers, and homosexuals is not proof that Catholicism and oppression are inseparable. We can all do better.

Finally, does secular liberalism make “the maximum equal satisfaction its highest good,” as Kalb claims? Not at all. What secular liberalism wants to maximize is the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This has become, in Steven Pinker’s words, “the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions.”  And he adds, “…its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”

Elevator floor, Paccar Hall, Foster School of Business at the University of Washington

Elevator floor, Paccar Hall, Foster School of Business at the University of Washington

Words semantically related to "CHANGE" -- Evolve, Adjust, Trade, Refine, Transform, Alter, Innovate, Create, Improve

Words semantically related to “CHANGE” — Evolve, Adjust, Trade, Refine, Transform, Alter, Innovate, Create, Improve

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Glance

August 11, 2013

Same-Sex Criminalization Laws Around the World

August 5, 2013

See an interactive map here.

Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

August 5, 2013

Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Language of Love

August 3, 2013

Sam Harris: Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy

June 12, 2013
Hajj pilgrims in Mecca

Hajj pilgrims in Mecca

“Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not,” writes Sam Harris.

Read his essay here.

New Zealand Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

April 17, 2013

Earlier today, New Zealand became the thirteenth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. In this video footage, Prime Minister Maurice Williamson delivers a stirring and drole answer to the bill’s opponents.

Rainbow on day of SSM Legal in NZ

View from PM Williamson’s office after legalization of same-sex marriage in New Zealand

Self-righteousness

April 15, 2013

“[Jesus] has a lot to say about self-righteousness, which he compares, not very tactfully, to a grave that looks neat and well cared for up top but is heaving with ‘corruption’ down below. Maggots, basically. And the point of this repulsive image is not just that the inside and outside of a self-righteous person don’t match, that there’s a hypocritical contradiction between the claim to virtue and the actual content of a human personality: it’s also that, for him, being sure you’re righteous, standing on your own dignity as a virtuous person, comes precious close to being dead. If you won’t hear the bad news about yourself, you can’t know yourself. You condemn yourself to the maintenance of an exhausting illusion, a false front to your self which keeps out doubt and with it hope, change, nourishment, breath, life. If you won’t hear the bad news, you can’t begin to hear the good news about yourself either. And you’ll do harm. You’ll be pumped up with the false confidence of virtue, and you’ll think it gives you a license, and a large share of all the cruelties in the world will follow, for evil done knowingly is rather rare compared to the evil done by people who’re sure that they themselves are good, and that evil is hatefully concentrated in some other person; some other person who makes your flesh creep because they have become exactly as unbearable, as creepy, as disgusting, as you fear the mess would be beneath your own mask of virtue, if you ever dared to look at it,”

—Francis Spufford, from his recent book,Unapologetic.

The Bottom of the Slippery Slope

March 23, 2013

Goat and sheep friends

Doctors Prescribe a Dose of Marriage Equality

March 21, 2013

BREAKING: The American Academy of Pediatrics finally endorses same-sex unions — for the sake of the children

by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon, 3/21/13

lesbian parents with childIn a very satisfyingly worded statement Thursday, the American Academy of Pediatrics – that’s “60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults” – officially made policy its endorsement of same-sex marriage. Citing its support for couples “regardless of sexual orientation” as “the best way to guarantee benefits and security for their children,” the AAP’s Benjamin Siegel issued a statement that “there should be equal opportunity for every couple to access the economic stability and federal supports provided to married couples to raise children.” Fancy that. Stability. It’s good for children.

Continue reading this article.