Refuting the Myth of Liberal Intolerance.
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 10:24:17 AM EST
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.

And it is there where we will begin next week's discussion.

Budziszewski, cited here by Tonkowich, is a recent past chair of IRD. In fact, in a post from last year Fred Clarkson touched upon the link between the two.

As I've come to learn, Budziszewski is Catholic (actually a former Baptist), who suddenly disappeared from IRD after Andrew Weaver exposed the ultra-orthodox Catholic dominance of IRD from its earliest days.

In his article on "Liberal Intolerance," Tonkowich did not disclose his past IRD relationship to Budziszewski. It is also worth noting that Tonkowich identifies himself as the IRD president, but standard disclosure would also mention that he is the former editor of Breakpoint, the journal in which his diatribe on Liberalism was published.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 10:32:08 AM EST

In a lot of ways this epitomizes what is going on with IRD. When IRD replaced the late Diane Knippers as president, they chose Tonkowich, a miniters in the schismatic Presbyterian Church in America, (one of the original leaders of which was televagelist D. James Kennedy).

Tonkowich was the editor of Breakpoint, published by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship before joining IRD.

The chair of the board when Tonkowich was hired was Budziszewski, a Catholic.

These relationships epitomize the 'what's wrong with this picture' at IRD; as conservative Catholics; conservative evangelicals and schismatic mainliners join forces to attack the "liberal" mainline protestant denominiations.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 01:49:41 PM EST

The IRD appears to define tolerance as the complete absence of any criticism. It is common to hear members of the Christian Right complain that everything is tolerated except Christian belief, but the reality is that they define tolerance not only as enshrining their belief above all others, but also as a complete absence of criticism. Unless we are prepared to become a theocratic government, we have to fight these concepts.

by khughes1963 on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 05:00:04 PM EST
For them up is down, black is white--well you know the rest.

More than any criticism of their positions being recast as "intolerant,"  the Religious Right often applies that derisive monniker to even differing visions of Christianity.

Very uptight folks, aren't they?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 05:40:00 PM EST

Chris Hedges mentions in his book American Fascism that groups of authoritarian and fascist persuasion tend to give different definitions to words than ordinary people do. As an example, he mentions the dominionist definition of freedom, which differs significantly from the definition that you or I would have of freedom.

I will need to re-read Hedges' book and perhaps provide a book review of it. I also obtained David T. Morgan's he New Brothers Grimm and Their Left Behind Fairy Tales after hearing about it from a December post on this website.


by khughes1963 on Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 09:45:47 PM EST

I think Rawl's understanding of an "overlapping consensus" among persons of varying religions and persuasions is a better counter to the mistake/idiocy you cite.

It's clear to anyone who read him that Rawl's is a moral philosopher and probably clear to anyone who knows him that he is a moral person.  He's a fave of mine and much more of a moderate than a liberal, focusing on justice more than individual rights.


by Don Niederfrank on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 12:32:46 PM EST

While we cannot know for sure what was involved here, seems like willful propaganda is at least as likely as "mistake/idiocy",: when we are talking about highly educated individuals with a long record of, umm, divisive political propaganda behind them.

Attribution of motive where one cannot be established is an error -- but so is the presumption of the lack of motive in the context of the history of the people involved.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 12:41:33 PM EST

I choose to error on the side of 'blindness to malice'.  It's easier on my heart. :-)
But I trust your judgment in this.

by Don Niederfrank on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 08:37:45 PM EST

I've always believed Liberalism to be moderate, not extreme.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 07:56:03 PM EST
I don't know what the word is for persons who are extreme about individual rights.  Libertarianism is more complex and sophisticated that what I have in mind.  A Liberal I know refered to these folks as 'Liberalista'.  
To me the hallmark of liberal thinking is asking the question, "I wonder what conservatives have to say about this?" with real curiosity. :-)

by Don Niederfrank on Mon Mar 26, 2007 at 08:41:00 PM EST

Contemporary Liberals must begin to talk in terms of historical contexts. In other words, instead of ranting about "Christo-fascists"--terminology that will not resonate much beyond the base, we need to remind folks of what has happened when the wall of separation breaks down.

At that point we will most likely see people of some faiths being treated as second class citizens.  Domestic tranquility will be threatened as Northern Ireland type religious strife will develop. Such oppression will cause brain-drain since certain folks will move overseas to escape the suffocation of the rights and business oppurtunities. In other words, the impeding of their pursuit of hapiness will cause them to seek it elsewhere.

And did all this happen where there was little or no wall of separation? Yes it did.

Remember, the Founders, as well as clasical liberals such as Locke, Hume and Smith had all in their very recent past the awareness of religious war. They understood the horrors of Inquisition and of a St. Batholomew's Day Massacre. Even more so, they understood how it disrupted society. And as I will discuss next week, they understood the danger of faction--those who act out unresstained emotion to foist their views on the majority of their fellow citizens.

The IRD is factious and they must be described as such. It is the very type of entity that Montesquieu, Hume and James Madison warned us about. And discussing the danger of faction within the framework of our own American heritage will be much better received and considered by the mainstream citizenry.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Mar 27, 2007 at 07:57:38 AM EST

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