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The uneasy alliance: liberalism, conservatism and religious belief.

We hear a great deal these days about the value of liberal democracy in allowing the free expression of all forms of religious belief. Very often, this is contrasted with the situation in Communist China or in some Islamic countries. And, of course, there is a good deal of truth in all of this. Modern Western democracies generally do allow all forms of religious beliefs while many non-democratic countries openly or covertly suppress certain religious practices. A current example would be the suppression of the Falun Gong movement in China.

But the situation is not quite as simple as it may seem. For one, the very term liberal is problematical. What is modern liberalism? How does it differ from conservatism or, for that matter, socialism? Again, we need to examine much more closely what modern liberal thinkers mean by "freedom of religious belief". I want to argue that religious beliefs are protected under liberalism only insofar as they are practised privately but are regarded as threats as soon as they enter the public domain. The religion that liberalism protects is a gelded religion. There is, in fact, a rather uneasy alliance between liberalism and religion. The former allows for the free expression of the latter, but then is equally effective in preventing religion from entering the realm of public affairs.

No doubt, many people in Australia today would regard a liberal as a person who supports the Liberal Party and, if you asked them what the term conservative means (in relation to political thought) you would probably get the same answer. But, of course, in the not-too-distant past, the terms liberal and conservative identified two opposing systems of political/philosophical thought. It is important, then, that we try to understand just what the classical definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" entail.

Classical liberalism may be traced back to the ideas of 17th-century thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke, but perhaps its most famous proponent was John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873). At the centre of classical liberalism is the idea of individual freedom. Locke supposed that this freedom was a "natural right" (i.e., not dependent upon human laws or specific religious ideas). Mill went even further to suppose that liberalism could be encapsulated in "one very simple principle"--the idea that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others" (On Liberty, opening paragraph). "Over himself," Mill says, "over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." Moreover, for Mill, liberty also entails absolute freedom in the promulgation of ideas--the individual is free to express ideas, irrespective as to whether such ideas are true or false.

In classical liberalism, these ideas on the primacy of individual freedom are linked to those of another liberal thinker, Adam Smith (1723-1790). Smith believed that freedom of the individual should be linked to economic freedom. In his own day, he attacked government restrictions on trade which he thought were hindering industrial expansion. In fact, he attacked most forms of government interference in the economic process, including tariffs, arguing that this creates inefficiency and higher prices in the long term. The individual's self-interest, he supposed, would generally serve to benefit the wider community:
 "It is not from the benevolence of
 the butcher, the brewer, or the
 baker that we expect our dinner, but
 from their regard to their own interest.
 We address ourselves, not to
 their humanity but to their self-love,
 and never talk to them of our own
 necessities but of their advantages."
 (The Wealth of Nations, 1776).

Liberalism, then, generally opposes the idea that the individual should surrender certain freedoms in order to conform to some tradition. Each person is his or her own master and need not conform to any external authority except where such conformity is necessary to prevent the actions of that individual from harming others. This freedom extends to economic activity and, by free and unfettered trade, what Adam Smith calls "the invisible hand" will create the greatest possible social good.

How does all this differ from conservatism? Many years ago the American writer and historian of ideas, Russell Kirk, attempted a definition of conservatism and laid down several general principles "upon which most eminent conservatives in some degree may be said to have agreed implicitly" (The Portable Conservative Reader, Viking Press/Penguin Books, 1982). The first of these is a shared belief in the existence of "a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society". That is to say, there is an objective moral order standing outside and above the individual human mind--morality is not a subjective thing, answering to the whims of the individual. The second is what he calls the "principle of social continuity"--order, justice and freedom are the products of a long and painful social experience and do not arise spontaneously. Hence, the continuity of a society should not be interrupted by other than prudent and gradual change. Note here that freedom is not a "natural condition" as it is in liberalism. The third is the "principle of prescription"--a respect for "the wisdom of our ancestors", to use Edmund Burke's phrase. Here again, liberals tend to regard themselves as having escaped the yoke of burdensome traditions. The fourth principle is that of prudence and is connected to the second principle above. Fifth is the "principle of variety"--the idea that a healthy diversity in any civilization requires orders and classes which may exhibit many inequalities. People are certainly equal before God and equal before the law but, in most other respects, some sorts of inequality are both inevitable and necessary for a healthy civilization. Lastly, Kirk enunciates the "principle of imperfectability"--the idea that human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults. It has also been called the "ineluctable perversity of human nature". A utopian order is simply not achievable given the nature of the raw material--human nature contains certain intractable elements which, at best, can only be moderated, never completely eradicated. As Dr Johnson once said, "the cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative".

Notwithstanding some very obvious differences between classical liberalism and conservatism, the situation today, especially in Australia, is one where liberal and conservative beliefs tend to be conflated. The Liberal Party in Australia is regarded as a conservative party. How can this be? In part, at least, the answer has to do with the upholding of classical liberal principles against its modern enemies, especially socialism. Modern liberals are conservative in that they wish to uphold the "tradition" established by their forebears in the Victorian age. In fact, modern liberalism has almost entirely subsumed conservatism so as to render it a sort of species inquirende. The Scottish-born moral philosopher, Alistair McIntyre, puts it this way:
 "Liberalism ... is often successful in
 pre-empting the debate by reformulating
 quarrels and conflicts within
 liberalism so that they appear to
 have become debates within liberalism.
 ... So-called conservatism
 and so-called radicalism in these
 contemporary guises are in general
 mere stalking-horses for liberalism:
 the contemporary debates within
 modern political systems are almost
 exclusively between conservative
 liberals, liberal liberals, and radical
 liberals. There is little place in such
 political systems for the criticism of
 the system itself, that is, for putting
 liberalism in question." (Whose
 Justice? Which Rationality?).

The earlier conservative tradition, very closely associated with Christianity in the West, is entirely forgotten.

Having given this brief and rather sketchy account of the differences between liberalism and conservatism, let me now attempt to explain how these two different strands of political philosophy impinge upon religious belief and, more importantly, upon religious practice in modern societies.

At first glance, it might appear that liberalism is far more receptive to the idea of religious belief and the practice of religion than is conservatism. After all, the individual's freedom to believe must be an improvement over the rigid prescriptions of tradition in which the wishes of the individual are often restricted by overarching beliefs, laws and customs. But the matter is not that simple. In the first place, we need to look much more carefully at some of the main tenets of liberal philosophy and their inevitable consequences. Here, I can do no better than to quote from Gertrude Himmelfarb, a well-known commentator on J.S. Mill and his times:
 "One of Mill's arguments, for example,
 for the absolute liberty of discussion
 is that such liberty is required
 for the sake of truth, for its
 emergence and continued vitality.
 About truth itself--that there is
 such a thing, Mill had no doubt. He
 was not, in this respect, a relativist.
 But his doctrine lends itself to relativism,
 even of an extreme kind. By
 making truth so dependent upon
 liberty ... it suggests in the free marketplace
 of ideas, all opinions, true
 and false, are equal, equally valuable
 to society and equally worthy
 of promulgation." (On Looking into
 the Abyss).

Now, Mill himself did not seek to deny that there was such a thing as truth (he still clung on to the old Judeo-Christian tradition in this respect, even though he was an atheist). But, as Himmelfarb goes on to point out, a later generation, deprived of this authority based on tradition, can become so impressed by the latitude given to error as to wholly relativise truth itself:
 "Thus postmodernists deny not only
 absolute truth but contingent, partial,
 incremental truths ... liberty is
 not ... the precondition of truth;
 rather, it is the precondition for the
 liberation from truth itself... ."

And, of course, once truth has been relativised, morality suffers the same demise. Here again, Himmelfarb points out just how Mill's ideas on morality have taken on a life of their own, far removed from the stiff, Victorian morality of his own time. But this is hardly surprising given Mill's insistence that social and moral sanctions represent encroachments on liberty. So long as they do not harm others, individuals must be free to act as they like, "without hindrance, either physical or moral".

Does liberalism believe that religion is necessary for the establishment and maintenance of a moral and ethical order? It is difficult to find an answer to this question because modern liberals are noticeably coy about the whole idea. Without question, the liberalism of J.S. Mill and his modern heirs is antithetical to the idea of religion as an organising principle in society. As Himmelfarb says:
 "As a matter of private belief and
 practice, religion and the morality
 derived from religion are fully protected
 by the principle of liberty. But
 as soon as they impinge upon the
 individual from the outside, in the
 form of legal sanctions or social
 pressures, they jeopardize liberty
 and contribute to the evil of 'social

So from whence come those moral and ethical principles that are necessary for the maintenance of a civil society? Mill seems either to take them for granted or to posit them in an entity which he calls "the religion of humanity". In his Essays on Religion, Mill is at pains to insist that religion is merely a sort of conduit or central clearing-house for a pre-existing set of moral principles developed as part of the process of attaining a civil society. These principles are not transcendent--they develop "in nature" as it were. This seems almost entirely at odds with Mill's contention, in the first Essay, that:
 "(The) doctrine that man ought to
 follow nature, or in other words,
 ought to make the spontaneous
 course of things the model of his
 voluntary actions, is equally irrational
 and immoral. Irrational, because
 all human action whatever,
 consists in altering, and all useful
 action in improving, the spontaneous
 course of nature: immoral, because
 the course of natural phenomena
 being replete with everything
 which when committed by human
 beings is most worthy of abhorrence,
 any one who endeavoured
 in his actions to imitate the natural
 course of things would be universally
 seen and acknowledged to be
 the wickedest of men."

In fact, Mill is often quite inconsistent in his writings; so much so that Gertrude Himmelfarb often refers to "the other Mill" as being in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde relationship. The problem is a rather obvious one. If "blind nature" is merely governed by physical laws and consists of no more than a great Darwinian struggle for survival, how can one account for the "evolution" of a set of moral principles so much at odds with the main tenets of evolutionary theory?

But these problems have either been largely ignored or skirted in the modern West. We have managed to pay lip service to religion and hitch it to our wagon of material progress, but to deny it any real power in fashioning or regulating the society in which we live. As the English social historian, Christopher Dawson, said over eighty years ago: "The present age seems to demand a religion which will be an incentive to action and a justification of the material and social progress which has been the peculiar achievement of the last two centuries." What we have witnessed, in the last two centuries of liberal democracy in the West, has been the gradual erosion of the idea of the sacred as having any role in public affairs beyond some vague and nebulous supposition that our Christian heritage in the West fully supports the idea of material progress and rampant individualism.

To explain why traditional religious beliefs, customs and laws are necessary for the long-term survival of any society I can do no better than repeat some words written by Leszek Kolakowski:
 "One of the functions of the sacred
 in our society was to lend an additional
 significance, impossible to
 justify by empirical observation
 alone, to all the basic divisions of
 human life and all the main areas
 of human activity. Birth and death,
 marriage and the sexes, disparities
 of age and generation, work and art,
 war and peace, crime and punishment,
 vocations and professions--all these
 things had a sacred aspect.
 ... The sacred provided society with
 a system of signs, which served not
 only to identify these things but also
 to confer upon each of them a specific
 value, to fix each within a particular
 order, imperceptible by direct
 observation. The signs of the
 sacred added a weight of the ineffable,
 as it were, to every given form
 of social life."

He goes on to explain that the role of the sacred was, therefore, a conservative one. The sacred order reaffirmed and stabilised the structure of society. To be sure, in so doing, it may have preserved many injustices and oppressions but these were often seen in an entirely different light--part of the necessary order of things in "The Great Chain of Being". But our modern, Western culture rejects this as a sort of primitive barbarism from which we have thankfully evolved into a more tolerant, open and "civilised" society. As Kolakowski says:
 "We live in a world in which all our
 inherited forms and distinctions
 have come under violent attack;
 they are attacked in the name of
 homogeneity, which is held up as an
 ideal with the aid of vague equations
 purporting to show that all difference
 means hierarchy, and all hierarchy
 oppression--the exact opposite
 and symmetrical corollary of
 the old conservative equations
 which reduced oppression to hierarchy
 and hierarchy to difference."

This is not to suppose that the freedom of the individual should be trampled. Rather, it is a question of maintaining a balance between conservatism and full-blown liberalism. There is a necessary tension between the two--between structure and development, stability and progress, custom and freedom. This tension is proper to life. If we destroy one we destroy all those customary distinctions in society which we take for granted. If we destroy the other, we stagnate for, as the old Roman aphorism says, "times change and we must change with them".

Here then is our predicament. When we lose the sense of the sacred in the realm of public affairs we lose all sense. For we then believe that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo--society is an endlessly flexible thing. But, by the same token, we are cast adrift in a sea of subjectivity with no compass and no anchor. As Kolakowski says: "Once I believe that I am the all-powerful creator of all possible sense, I also believe that I have no reason to create anything whatsoever." This is why we should take Nietzsche seriously. He was a sort of "canary in the mine" for the modern West. He showed us the terrible consequences of fully acting out the great liberal dream. The dream for ever-increasing health, wealth and happiness becomes, in Malcolm Muggeridge's words, "the great liberal death-wish".
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Author:Coman, Brian J.
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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