during the past thirty years, liberalism stopped being a mere political
perspective and turned into a religion. I
literally. Liberalism now functions for substantial numbers of its
adherents as a religion: an encompassing worldview that answers
the big questions about life, lends significance to our daily exertions,
and provides a rationale for meaningful collective action.
It wasn't supposed
to be that way. Liberalism arose as a solution to the destructive
religious wars of Europe's past, and succeeded because it allowed
people of differing religious perspectives to live peacefully and
productively in the same society. Designed to make the world safe
for adherents of differing faiths, liberalism itself was never supposed
to be a faith. But that is exactly what liberalism has become.
And this transformation of liberalism into a de facto religion
explains a lot about what we call "political correctness."
Have you ever
wondered why conservatives nowadays are so often demonized, even
by mainstream liberals? No matter how balanced, well-reasoned, or
rooted in long-established principle conservative objections to,
say, affirmative action or gay marriage may be, conservatives are
still likely to find themselves stigmatized as racist homophobes.
By the same token, reasonable conservative ideas are regularly deemed
unfit for reasoned debate. This preference for ostracism over engagement
amounts to a brilliant strategy on the part of the Left, but the
demonization of conservatives can't be explained as a mere conscious
tactical maneuver. The stigmatization of conservatives only works
because so many people are primed to respond to it in the first
So why have
conservatives been demonized? Maybe it's because the religion that
liberalism has become is so badly in need of demons. Traditional
liberalism simply laid out ground rules for reasoned debate and
the peaceful adjudication of political differences. One of the main
reasons why politics in a liberal society could be peaceful was
that people sought direction about life's ultimate purpose outside
of politics itself. But once traditional religion ceased to provide
modern liberals with either an ultimate life purpose or a pattern
of virtue, liberalism itself was the only belief system remaining
that could supply these essential elements of life.
So how does
liberalism grant meaning to life? How does liberalism do what religion
used to do? So long as it serves as a mere set of ground rules for
adjudicating day-to-day political differences, liberalism remains
too "boring" to serve as a religion. But what if liberals
were engaged at every moment in a dire, almost revolutionary, struggle
for the very principles of liberalism itself? What if liberals were
at war on a daily basis with King George III? With Hitler? With
Bull Connor? Now that would supply a purpose to life — a
purpose capable of endowing even our daily exertions with a larger
significance, and certainly a purpose that would provide a rationale
for meaningful collective action.
standard features of political correctness: the continual expansion
in meaning of terms like "racism," "sexism,"
and "homophobia" and the tendency to invent or exaggerate
instances of "oppression." Whereas racism once meant the
hatred of someone of another race, the term is now freely applied
to anyone who opposes affirmative discrimination, or even to anyone
who opposes reparations for slavery. Again, this stigmatization
of mainstream conservative positions makes a certain amount of tactical
sense (although it badly backfired in the case of the Horowitz ad),
but the tactics don't really explain the phenomenon.
The young students
who now live in "multicultural" theme houses, or who join
(or ally themselves with) multicultural campus political organizations
are looking for a home, in the deepest sense of that word. In an
earlier time, the always difficult and isolating transition from
home to college was eased by membership in a fraternity, or by religious
fellowship. Nowadays, multicultural theme houses, political action,
and related coursework supply what religion and fraternities once
did. But if the multicultural venture is truly to take the place
of religion, it must invite a student to insert himself into a battle
of profound significance. The fight for slave reparations, and the
unceasing effort to ferret out examples of "subtle" racism
in contemporary society, are techniques for sustaining a crusading
spirit by creating the feeling that Simon Legree and Bull Conner
are lurking just around the next corner. Conservative opponents
of affirmative action or slave reparations simply have to
be imagined as monsters. Otherwise the religious flavor of the multiculturalist
enterprise falls flat, and the war of good against evil is converted
into difficult balancing of competing political principles and goods
in which no one is a saint or a devil.
And what about
the tendency of political correctness to invent oppression-as in
those wildly exaggerated feminist claims about campus rape or economic
discrimination? The recent flap
over the Independent Women's Forum ad that exposed unreliable
feminist claims of oppression hit a nerve because false statistics
are not incidental, but are critical to the feminist cause. So many
of the young women who affiliate themselves with campus women's
centers are looking for a world view, a moral-social home, and a
meaningful crusade in which to take part. That is why the horrifying
(if false) statistics of female oppression purveyed by these centers
conjure up-and are meant to conjure up — images of slavery and the
Holocaust. Betty Friedan's, The Feminine Mystique, was a
powerful a book because it characterized the suburban home as a
"comfortable concentration camp" for women. Friedan's
repeated use of Holocaust metaphors for the alleged oppression of
women is of a piece with the contemporary feminist practice of making
absurdly exaggerated or downright false statistical claims. The
Holocaust imagery and the frightening statistics are meant to endow
the feminist crusade with an almost apocalyptic sense of urgency
and significance. That is why, no matter how many times Christina
Hoff Sommers and her compatriots at the Independent Women's Forum
expose the errors in feminist claims of oppression, feminists just
keep repeating them. It's not about the pursuit of truth; it's about
the creation of a cause, a fellowship, a reason for being.
Of course to
say that liberalism has ceased to be a political perspective and
has become a religion is another way of saying that liberalism has
betrayed itself and become illiberal. This point is made very nicely
in an excellent article entitled, "Illiberal Liberalism,"
by Brian C. Anderson in the current issue of City Journal.
Anderson shows how the persistent attempts to silence and stigmatize
conservative views by even mainstream liberal voices betray the
commitment to rational and civil debate at the core of genuine liberalism.
Once liberalism became a religion, the principles that made liberalism
what it was — principles like free speech, reasoned debate, and
judicial restraint in the face of democratic decision-making — went
by the wayside. The secular religion of the educated elite is still
recognizable as a distorted version of classic liberalism. But underneath
all the talk about "oppression" and "rights,"
what we're really looking at is a modern way of reproducing good
versus evil, and us against them.
religious character of modern liberalism explains a lot about contemporary
political life. I've already alluded to it in previous pieces on
the Horowitz ad and on
the president's faith-based initiative. Once you catch on, you'll
see it around.
From de Tocqueville
to Allan Bloom and Frances Fukuyama, we've heard the story of America's
growing and dangerous tendency toward individual isolation. That
story is largely true; but it is also incomplete. We cannot bear
our isolation. So in ways sometimes hidden even from ourselves,
we strive to overcome it. Liberalism as religion is one solution
to the problem of life in a lonely secular world. It allows us to
appear to fight for individual freedom, without quite acknowledging
to ourselves that we've enlisted in a grand, collective, and almost
classically intolerant, religious crusade.