Acton Institute Powerblog

True Liberty Demands Respectful Disagreement

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Spend some time on social media or in mixed political company at the office and language inevitably becomes (euphemism alert) heated. Is there a better way to disagree, because disagree we must if we are to preserve liberty for thee and for me.

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In his classic The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak offers an observation about an ongoing struggle in a pluralistic society: the absence of a unified vision of the good. His passing observation regarding the psychology of why some people find this so objectionable is all the more salient today in our age of highly-politicized social media:

Persons who believe that the truth is so easily discovered often react with moral revulsion against conservatives and reactionaries who disagree with them. Since truth is so intellectually clear, [they reason,] those who do not see it must be persons of bad will. Daily experience teaches that this is not so.

I would only update this quote so as to make it nonpartisan. Everyone finds everyone else revolting these days. It’s not just a matter of progressives judging conservatives. Today we have far too many people who “believe that the truth is so easily discovered,” on the right as much as the left. They’re called illiberals or postliberals, depending on the context. Among conservatives, postliberalism has been resurgent since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, if not before. There are even specific postliberalisms among religious conservatives, where instead of pluralism and liberty being the baseline, they’re considered obstacles to a truly Christian moral order that they assume to be “intellectually clear.”

Novak’s point is that this abhorrence for the pluralism of free societies comes from overly simplistic thinking. Basically, one projects one’s own reasoning onto everyone else. Since, of course, one’s own reasoning makes perfect sense to oneself, anyone who did not come to the same conclusion is thought not simply to be mistaken or confused but deliberately vicious—i.e., “persons of bad will.” Thus, in this worldview there are the “good people” (composed, of course, of everyone who agrees with me), and there are “bad people” (who must deep down know I’m right but refuse to admit it because they hate what is good and, thus, are evil).

As Novak notes, however, “Daily experience teaches that this is not so.” I worry that perhaps our daily experience has changed. Everyone used to have a relative or friend or neighbor they’d see regularly who had wildly different political views, but whom one also regarded as well intended and good-natured. But as more of our culture has been politicized, more have chosen to associate only with the like-minded … except online, where one encounters countless anonymous others with no personal connection to or sympathy for one another. If one’s only encounter with pluralism has proved brutal, I get why people think pluralism might be the problem. It’s understandable, though mistaken.

Yet postliberals today may furthermore claim that this is precisely the problem with our liberal tradition—it has no forced plan or vision of the good moral order. What they aim to do is take control of the instruments of state power in order to restrict the freedom of those they deem “enemies.” Dan Hugger’s account of the second National Conservativism conference last year contains several examples of this. Theirs is a totalizing moral vision that has no room for the commandment of Christ: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).

But how do we do that without enabling some people to oppress everyone else? Liberty. Liberty in society is simply another term for peace. Indeed, as Jesus said previously in the same sermon: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:10). Peace and oppression are incompatible. The point is not to justify tyranny, but to illegitimatize tyranny through love, pointing each human person toward filial love and respect for the one who alone rightly exercises absolute power and authority: God. As Sebastian Castellio, the 16th-century French Reformer, wrote in the face of the religious violence between Protestants and Roman Catholics in France in his time: “Answer in the name of Jesus Christ, answer me whether you would like your consciences to be forced. I am quite persuaded that your consciences answer no.”

“Liberty,” wrote Lord Acton, “is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Why? Because it means protecting the outcast, the marginalized, and all other minorities among us—yes, even those we don’t like. It does not mean, however, anarchy. It requires a just state, grounded in the natural law, governed not by the whims of leaders but by the rule of law that holds all citizens, especially the powerful, to the same standards. As Acton continues to say, “It is not for the sake of a good public administration that [liberty] is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” Moreover, he calls it the highest “political” end, not the highest human end. Rather liberty is the political precondition for each to pursue the highest human ends as he and she understands them.

Novak defends this with an observation too few are able to see today: “It simply is not true that all right-thinking persons, in all conscience and goodwill, hold the same vision of the good and judge moral acts similarly. Pluralism in moral vision is real.” Yet he rightly cautions not to jump to relativistic conclusions—as postliberals often accuse conservative advocates of liberty—as if the point were that whatever anyone thinks is good or true for them is good enough: “It may well be that when persons or groups stand in radical moral disagreement, only one is correct. The problem for a free society is to discern which.”

Jesus also told us precisely how to discern which: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). Perhaps our would-be totalitarians today find abiding in Jesus’ word easy (though, of course, there is no resemblance between their goal of “punishing enemies” and the gospel), but the older I get the more I understand it to be a daily ascetic struggle, full of half-steps and staggered progress, frustrated failings, and continual repentance. I’m willing to bet most people sympathize with that rather than the post-liberal Pelagian presumption that knowing and doing the good is as easy as 1-2-3.

At the least, ought we not to start with loving our enemies, in other words, with liberty, before imposing any other command on others? Let each, through such a political order founded on that love, be free to try and fail and try again to abide in Christ’s word, as they understand—or even misunderstand—it to be, growing each day in this way closer to Christ, who is the Truth itself. True, not everyone wants to do that. Not everyone in our pluralistic societies is Christian. But they are free to become Christians if they wish. And Christians are free to travel the “narrow road” of obedience to Christ’s commands, bad as some of us may be at doing so sometimes. Thus, if that liberty would be the aim and the limit of our laws, we might even call them Christian. We certainly ought not give that name to any that would violate it.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.