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Progressive Liberalism as Civil ReligionProgressive Liberalism as Civil Religion

Progressive Liberalism as Civil Religion

Social conservatism finished? Only in the pipe dreams of those seeking progressive Heaven.

Richard Bastien
12 minute read

In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election, social conservatives painted by the media as yahoos and know-nothings took much of the blame for allegedly costing the Republicans a presidency that should have been theirs. Moderate Mitt Romney's failure to control his supposed lunatic fringe shows how out of touch the GOP is with contemporary America, making it unfit to govern for at least four more years, the media mantra went.

The antisocial conservative drumbeat south of the border echoed arguments made in Canada months earlier, notably in articles published by the likes of Postmedia News political columnist Michael Dent Tandt, who argues that Canada has now reached a nearly perfect consensus about the basic tenets of the Progressive Creed (i.e. unfettered access to abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and recognition of gender theory). In the latest of these articles, Tandt suggested that this new consensus, far from being a mere passing thing, is explained by the fact that "the character of the country has changed," as attested by recent census data from Statistics Canada. Tandt believes that "the trend may be irreversible" and that the bell might soon be tolling for the death of Canadian social conservatism.

Like many other progressive liberals, Tandt exudes a deep confidence and optimism. In his view, we are now witnessing the rise of a creative movement that will provide for the greatest happiness of future generations by putting an end to the "old, divisive, angry debates about matters of individual faith and morals" and by ensuring the triumph of reason over the dark impulses of religion.

This optimism is reminiscent of earlier experiences in social engineering. In the 1930s, for example, progressive intellectuals were convinced they would create a perfect state of affairs in which peace would reign, prosperity would flourish, men would be compassionate and brotherly and the exploitation of the masses by the rich would be replaced by economic egalitarianism. These intellectuals were not devious. In fact, they were quite sincere, as undoubtedly are today's progressive liberals. The smartest among them—Julian Huxley, Harold Laski, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb—wrote books extolling the virtues of the Soviet regime and were widely recognized as prophets of a new era. Over the past three quarters of a century, we have learned, alas, that social and economic prophecies rarely turn out as expected.

In this essay, I propose, first, to assess some of the assumptions underlying Tandt's position; second, to show how the progressive liberal view seeks to replace the Judeo-Christian tradition that underlies a good part of Canada's history and institutions; and third, to point to some of the problems inherent in progressive liberalism.

Although tacit, some of the assumptions made by Tandt are quite obvious. He states, for example, that "discrimination based on race and gender and sexual orientation are history," and that "the shared expectation of equality under the law for all is now so firmly embedded as to be foundational." This presupposes that sexual orientation and race are human traits that can be put on the same footing. But that is not the case: race is not an impediment to relations between people of different races; homosexuality, however, impacts in a major way the kind of relationships one can have with people of the opposite sex. Race does not bar any kind of human relations, but homosexuality, by definition, is an impediment to intimate relationships between persons of the opposite sex and, consequently, to natural procreation. Race and sexual orientation are thus two separate realities that must be assessed separately.

A second assumption made by Tandt is that redefining marriage to allow same-sex couples to enter into it is a matter of equality. Here, it is assumed that marriage should be understood not as a union of a man and a woman open to children, but rather as merely an emotional or sexual bond between two people. This latter understanding is wrong on two counts. First, since the dawn of humanity, marriage has been founded on two interrelated ends: mutual love and procreation. If the purpose of marriage is limited to mutual love only, then there is absolutely no reason why it should not be broadened to include other interpersonal arrangements. Second, if mutual love is the sole end of marriage, there is no reason for the State to legislate on marriage at all. But the State does have an interest in legislating on marriage. Its interest is the continuation of human life and benefits for children. And the rearing of children cannot be separated from the conjugal union of their biological parents. Other arrangements for bringing up children are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by same-sex couples or in foster homes are all missing something essential to their well-being, which is why, in 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that not allowing non-married couples to adopt a child is not discriminatory and that same-sex marriage is not a human right under the European Convention of Human Rights.

On the issue of abortion, Tandt makes another assumption that is patently wrong. He derides those who, like Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, affirm that human life begins before birth and goes on to state that "if life is determined to begin before birth, of course, then abortion de facto becomes illegal." One would hope that Tandt could understand that it is not only pro-life people who say that human life begins before birth but also modern science and, indeed, any woman who has been with child. This explains why, in 2012, the U.S. federal court upheld an Arizona law banning abortion after 20 weeks' gestation based on scientific evidence that the unborn child can feel pain. A similar law banning abortion after 20 weeks recently took effect in Nebraska.

But these are relatively small points. What is most interesting about Tandt's piece is what it reveals about the progressive mindset. Progressive liberals believe that opposing their doctrine is irrational because the language of Christian faith is supposedly incomprehensible to reason. They claim to believe in reason alone. The most eloquent expression of this unbridgeable gap between progressive and Christian thinking can be found in the writings of American philosopher Richard Rorty, who described the progressive liberal ideal as follows:

"[I]n its ideal form, the culture of liberalism would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a divinized self. Such a culture would have no room for the notion that there are nonhuman forces to which human beings should be responsible. It would drop, or drastically reinterpret, not only the idea of holiness, but those of 'devotion to truth' and of 'fulfillment of the deepest needs of the spirit.' The process of de-divinization... would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meaning of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings."

Thus, the essence of progressive liberalism is not only that we can get along very well without God, but also that God is a liability to society. The sooner we can get rid of Him, the better. There is no creature in the universe that stands above us, and our future rests entirely with our ability to shun all forms of religious faith and to rely on reason alone.

As enthralling as it might first appear, this is an idea that has been tried before. One need only think of what happened in Germany long before the Nazis came to power. In the 1920s, a campaign was launched to sterilize people who were considered to be useless. And shortly after that, something called "mercy killing" was introduced. This happened long before the Nazis set up their extermination camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and was based on lofty humanitarian ideals. The whole history of the last century is one of unprecedented savagery pursued in the name of reason alone. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

At the outbreak of the Second World War, philosopher Karl Popper wrote:

"Our Western civilization owes its rationalism, its faith in the rational unity of man and in the open society, and especially its scientific outlook, to the ancient Socratic and Christian belief in the brotherhood of all men."

At the end of the war, Friedrich von Hayek said he was "convinced that unless this breach between true liberal and religious convictions can be healed, there is no hope for a revival of liberal forces." Although these two men considered themselves "non-believers," they were in effect promoting a classical liberalism—social conservatism in North American terminology—rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. What they said had already been articulated by the fathers of the U.S. Constitution, in particular John Adams, who wrote: "Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free government, but of social felicity under all governments and in all combinations of human society." One can find similar language in the fathers of classical liberalism—John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville—who understood that human rights are rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics.

Today, however, the progressive form of liberalism takes a completely different approach to religion and ethics. It views itself as intrinsically secular, which means that religion should be completely squeezed out of the public sphere and confined to the private sphere, the latter deemed totally separate from the former. This secular liberalism is based on a philosophy of human rights that denies the existence of a universal moral law, whether religious or secular, and tries to replace it with the principle of respect for the free value choices of individuals.

Personal autonomy is thus the new commandment that replaces the Decalogue. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." This view of autonomy was echoed in 1997 by some of the top public intellectuals in the U.S., including Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick and John Rawls, who claimed that "each individual has a right to make the most intimate and personal choices central to personal dignity and autonomy." Western civilization now idolizes individual autonomy and opposes any setting of universal moral laws. The concepts of universality and human person are being replaced by those of relativity and the individual subject. Progress requires that we be prohibited from violating, not the Ten Commandments, but personal autonomy. Everything becomes permissible, subject to John Stuart Mill's "no harm" principle.

Because of the emphasis on personal autonomy and self-determination, the State must be morally neutral. As philosopher Jürgen Habermas put it, "the neutrality of the law vis-à-vis internal ethical differentiations stems from the fact that in complex societies the citizenry as a whole can no longer be held together by a substantive consensus on values but only by a consensus on the procedures for the legitimate enactment of laws and the legitimate ex-ercise of power." But if such is the case, one might ask, why should we believe that each individual is endowed with a basic dignity and, therefore, worthy of respect? The Judeo-Christian tradition has always upheld the dignity of individuals by emphasizing that we are children of God. If the State is to be neutral about the Judeo-Christian God, on what grounds will it endorse the concept of human dignity?

The new secular philosophy of human rights seeks to bring about, through social engineering, a new culturally constructed humanity. In the Canadian context, this means imposing on Canadians a new identity elaborated by a few enlightened "experts" and inculcated through legislation, school curricula and government programs.

Progressives have all the zeal of new religious converts. They are more intolerant of dissent than classical liberals or conservatives—who generally accept dissenting views as normal—and ignore or vilify those who do not subscribe to their creed. Because they understand freedom as freedom from any religious or moral system that might constrain their natural inclinations, especially in sexual matters, they consider those who believe in an objective moral law as enemies of freedom and as intellectual morons. Consequently, for the first time in their lives, many Canadians no longer dare to speak their minds freely for fear of being branded as sexist, homophobic or Islam-ophobic, or of being dragged before one of our human rights commissars. What characterizes the current Canadian situation, therefore, is not the political consensus described by Tandt but a clash between two fundamentally different philosophies of human rights.

The social divisiveness wrought by the progressive interpretation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not the only problem progressive liberals face. There are other deep flaws in their view of the world.

One of those has to do with equality. Progressive liberals argue that their prime objective is to eliminate all forms of discrimination so as to bring about greater equality between all people, by which they often mean between gay and straight people. The problem, however, is that the equality they have in mind applies only to those who share their progressive views. For example, people who refuse to collaborate, if only tacitly, with the gay lifestyle are likely to face the rigours of the law. Under the progressive dispensation, we are all equal before the law except in particular cases where we act according to the prescriptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Anyone having doubts about this should speak to marriage commissioners or owners of B&Bs who have refused to accommodate gay couples.

But the most telling case in this regard is the recent Ontario legislation (Bill 13) that requires all schools, including Catholic schools, to offer Gay-Straight Alliances if requested by students. The legislation introduces in its preamble the acceptance of the disputed notion of "gender" as a social construct, making use of the acronym LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, intersexed, queer and questioning) to describe variants of sexual orientation. Under the pretense of protecting gay students from bullying, the legislation forces Catholic schools to set up student-led clubs for discussion of gender and sexual orientation issues and to exempt such clubs from any kind of adult supervision. The mandatory creation of these clubs is an affront to Catholic teaching as well as an infringement upon constitutionally guaranteed denominational rights.

In trying to eliminate all forms of discrimination, progressive liberals are in effect creating other forms of discrimination and, indeed, putting at risk some fundamental freedoms, particularly freedom of religion, which includes not only freedom of worship but also freedom to teach the faith.

Another major problem inherent to the progressive agenda has to do with the meaning of life itself. As mentioned earlier, the progressive creed affirms that we are alone in the universe and that we must rely on no one but ourselves to bring about our own happiness. This presupposes that we can live a fulfilled life without some concept of a Being greater than ourselves and, more important, without a purpose that transcends our selfish or greedy desires. However, there is a good deal of historical evidence to suggest that once we eliminate the idea that God created us for a specific purpose and that freedom exists to fulfill that purpose, then we are bound, as Blaise Pascal wrote, to expose ourselves to delusions of all kinds. The social problems we are daily confronted with—drug addiction, suicidal behaviour and sexual promiscuity among young people, the culture of divorce, and the prevalence of pornography in the culture at large—uphold that view.

Undoubtedly the biggest problem in this respect is that we are no longer reproducing ourselves. Canada's fertility rate, like that of most other Western societies, is below the minimum fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman required simply to sustain a population. This explains why our population is aging. If the trend continues unchecked, serious economic and social problems are bound to arise. The paradox in all of this is that progressive liberals are adamant about the need to protect endangered species, but seem totally oblivious to the fact that the future of the human species itself might be a source of concern.

In short, while the progressive liberal view of the world might convince us that life is something worth living, it is not convincing us that life is something worth giving. Progressive liberals claim to hold the key to human happiness. But how can a happy life be found where there is not so much as any desire to create life? Liberals may or may not want to admit that the culture of liberalism is a culture of death, but there can be no doubt that a triumph of progressive liberalism, if it ever were confirmed, would be shortlived.

To argue that the culture war is over and that the progressive camp has won is to imply that the vast majority of Canadians are resigned to accepting the new religion that is being incrementally imposed upon them in the name of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is simply not the case. The only thing that can now be said with any certainty is that, while the Charter enjoys wide support among media people, academics and public officials, it has become a source of growing unease in the more culturally conservative population at large, where respect for the Judeo-Christian heritage is still significant. Critics of progressive politics may not be strongly represented in Parliament and the provincial legislatures, but surveys suggest that a significant proportion of Canadians would like to see some regulation of abortion and are not at all reconciled with same-sex marriage, gender theory or the legalization of euthanasia.

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