The fatal flaw of liberalism was always its pretense or fantasy that the state could and would remain neutral on most questions of value, especially the big ones. This illusion was only possible because there was a broad consensus on most of the most serious matters in that realm. When, almost immediately after the establishment of the liberal constitutional order in the United States, a serious disagreement arose on a serious moral question, it led to civil war. I wonder now that the catastrophe didn't produce a deeper examination of the fundamental questions involved: what exactly is the moral status of the state, and by what right and according to what critera can it resolve a moral dispute? Lincoln's elevation of the preservation of the union as an ultimate principle has always struck me as strange, especially in a nation that less than a century earlier had separated itself violently from its rulers.
The pretense of neutrality is not only maintained today, but asserted ever more forcefully in the face of resistance to putatively neutral interventions in ever more situations, while liberal doctrines on questions of value have multiplied and solidified. Increasingly now we see imposition of those doctrines by legal force, with the imposer utterly untroubled by any sense of hypocrisy or contradiction. In The Tyranny of Liberalism, James Kalb explains that liberalism is now functioning as a state religion, "a system of moral absolutes based on a denial that moral truth is knowable."
As an established religion grounding a political order, liberalism tries to eliminate competing systems of religion and morality to the extent they cannot be reconfigured as representations of purely human aspirations and so converted into poeticized versions of liberalism itself. The effort is inevitable. Liberalism relies on claims of pellucid this-worldly rationality. Treating liberalism and equal freedom as simply rational, however, means that those who recognize other standards must be treated as irrational and not properly part of legitimate political discussion....
.... Simply by existing, transcendent religion and traditional morality are oppressive, since they affect the social environment by making it less tolerant and inclusive. They must be suppressed.
Suppression most often takes the form of insistence, backed by nagging and social pressure, that traditional faiths accept transformation into something radically different and, at bottom, trivial. They must be "tolerant," and "come to terms with modernity," which means that they must subordinate themselves to an official outlook that aspires to reorder the whole of human life. And they must accept their status as purely private pursuits with no implications for social relations or understandings of reality.
As if in illustration of Kalb's point comes the recent case in New Mexico in which the state's Supreme Court ruled that the Christian proprietors of a small photography business could not refuse to photograph a same-sex "commitment ceremony." The concurrence written by a Judge Richard Bosson is striking. No clearer instance need be sought of the liberal doctrine that in case of conflict between religious and other rights, it is the religious that must give way.
The Huguenins [the photographers] are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives. Though the rule of law requires it, the result is sobering. It will no doubt leave a tangible mark on the Huguenins and others of similar views.
On a larger scale, this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.
In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.
Not the least disturbing feature of this smug little exercise is the utter blindness of the writer to his own intolerance and decided lack of respect for the Huguenins' consciences. He appears to think it obviously right that all that glueing and lubricating requires a "compromise" in which only the Christian side must bend. But there is nothing apart from an unstated liberal dogma which demands that conclusion. I have no doubt that the couple could have found another photographer. (In fact, they did.) It was obviously important to them that the Christians be penalized, and it is equally important to the unimpressive mind of this judge. He seems to think that the Christians should be happy to accept as their share of tolerance that they are still allowed to believe as they wish, though the state reserves the right to force them to act against those beliefs. Perhaps that is the sense in which he feels that a compromise has occurred; he seems to court admiration for his own largeness of spirit in acknowledging that the Christians, crazy though they may be, are sincere.
And then there's the irony of the claim that the ruling is consistent with an effort to prevent discord. Well, I suppose it is, if failure to accept the liberal consensus equals discord. The judge sounds pretty pleased by the thought of that "tangible mark." A touch of the financial and legal lash will perhaps keep the Huguenins in line, and make "others of similar views" think twice about committing similar crimes. For, after all, it is but a short step from the refusal to document a homosexual romance to racial segregation, lynching, slavery, the Holocaust, and the Inquisition.
"It is the price of citizenship," says the judge. $6,637.94 is the price for the Huguenins today; it will be higher, perhaps, tomorrow.
"On a larger scale," says His Honor, "this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about." Indeed it does.
You can read the entire decision here. Bosson's concurrence is at the end.