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Myth of Liberal Intolerance

Wednesday, March 28 2007 @ 12:24 PM CDT

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Frank Cocozzelli: Religious conservatives make charges...

The Religious Right and their allies love to accuse liberals of hypocrisy. To that end, one favorite attack line is to accuse Liberalism -- for which tolerance is a core value-of itself being intolerant.

This is, of course is absolute nonsense. So much so, that when the leader of the neoconservative's pet religious battalion at the Institute on Religion and Democracy attempts to quote an esteemed liberal philosopher, he gets it so wrong that I begin to suspect that they actually believe their own propaganda.

In a recent article, Institute on Religion and Democracy President, Jim Tonkowich wrote on the subject of "The Dangers of Liberal Toleration," starting out by misstating both John Rawls' theory on morality as well the liberal...

... definition of the public good:

"…While the Church fathers urged toleration because of the nature of the good, liberals argue that we must suspend public judgments about the nature of the good. After all, as liberal philosopher John Rawls argued, while the Christian sees the good in one way, the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Marxist, or hedonistic pleasure-seeker each see it in other ways.

First and foremost, this is a wildly incorrect summation of John Rawls' teachings on morality. In fact, Rawls believed that all individuals share a rational nature that forms a common morality that is binding upon all -- "the categorical imperative." But more importantly, as I discussed in an earlier piece on the Religious Right's ongoing accusations of "Liberal Moral Relativism," Liberals do indeed live by mainstream American ethical values. As I then noted:

…I return to Value Pluralism. Based upon empathy, it is the concept of a basic but still commonly held general morality that embodies the Golden Rule. It wisely recognizes that for the sake of domestic tranquility that while we legislate the will of the majority, we simultaneously do not trample upon the rights of minorities. Most importantly, as Madison noted in Federalist No. 10, it prevents divisive factions from imposing their subjective will upon "…the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Here is the secret behind the IRD's Illusionist-in-Chief's stage trick; one in which he shows (ta da!) that Rawls "admits" that Liberalism is unable to distinguish between right and wrong. It is a simple but clever ruse, so you have to watch closely: Tonkowich just ignores Rawls' well-known belief that overlapping consensuses of certain moral positions are shared by all reasonable doctrines (for example, we all acknowledge that murder is evil and as such, it is more than a wrong against an individual, but one committed against society as a whole). He defined this consensual agreement as the original position.

The truth of the matter is that Liberalism does not seek to ban religious influence from the public square, but it does insist, (consistent with the clear provisions of the U.S. Constitution) that government not be used to be the enforcer a specific creed's belief when and if that belief runs contrary to the overlapping consensus shared of the aggregate citizenry.

Yet Tonkowich is undeterred: He takes Rawls' belief in religious tolerance, waves his magic wand and before your very eyes transforms it into an illusion of religious hostility:

Rawls calls each system a "comprehensive doctrine." And since comprehensive doctrines can't all be true, and each is more or less reasonable, the only solution for public discourse is to privatize them all, that is, ban all comprehensive doctrines from the public square. This, the argument goes, creates an environment of moral neutrality in which to make public decisions.

But here is where Tonkowich's magic trick comes apart on stage in an embarrassing denouement, in which he displays his false fact for all to see:

Rawls, said (former IRD board chair Dr. Jay J.) Budziszewski, considers his approach tolerant and just because he treats everyone in precisely the same way-not endorsing anyone's comprehensive doctrine.

But in truth, Rawls is not being tolerant at all. His view privileges some comprehensive doctrines and suppresses others. Any doctrine that is easily privatized is privileged while any doctrine (Christianity for example) that by its very nature has public implications is suppressed. The liberal argument is nothing more than a camouflaged grab for power.

What Tonkowich is preaching--under the cover of fake philosophy--is the justification of tolerating intolerance. He is telling us that his (ergo, the IRD's) personal recipe for salvation is the one that should stand above all others, even at the expense of domestic tranquility. His is the age-old religious supremacist's notion that the imperative of his notion of morality may be imposed over the rights of others.

Liberalism never pledges to always be completely neutral, but fair. It concerns itself with protecting not just the majority view, but the aggregate view-or what Rawls deemed a consensus morality. And that means that no one political or religious sect should foist upon the American people a highly subjective morality that is disagreeable to most.

Yet that is precisely what the IRD is trying to do. But when the citizenry balks at such high-handedness, Tonkowich and those of his ilk have the audacity to raise the false accusation of "Liberal intolerance." For him, "tolerance" means the ability to use the government as the enforcement arm of one particular interpretation of Christianity (or a coalition of highly orthodox interpretations)-a concept that Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would have found abhorrent.

Tonkowich is cultivating factionalism of a sort that can devour liberal democracy from within. In doing so he is trying to arouse unchecked emotions clearly designed to override a self-disciplined citizenry so necessary for the continuation of sound popular government. It is a cynical means to use faith for the pursuit of a greater economical agenda; one where what defines justice is best for the strong.


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