Linker, Rorty and the Theocons

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I've been following Matt's back-and-forth with Damon Linker over Linker's interpretation of Richard Rorty with interest, not least because what Matt sees as Linker's misunderstanding of Rorty and Rawlsian liberalism seems to me to be linked to some of Linker's arguments about the "theocons."

Here's Matt:

Rawlsian political liberalism doesn't say that individual people -- especially including political liberals in good standing -- must be indifferent to the comprehensive views of other. It's not as if in Rawls-land the priests and imams and rabbis and art critics and yoga instructors of the world are all supposed to stop offering opinions about good and evil, beautiful and ugly, because "hey, we're political liberals, we're indifferent to that stuff."

The goal is to hive off an autonomous political domain in which we bracket our views on broader, deeper questions and engage one another on the basis of a much-shallower but more widely held set of views about the conception of a citizen.

... Where Rawls and Rorty diverge is that Rawls, at least in his published writings, actually is indifferent about the "background culture" questions about God and truth and beauty. He doesn't work in those fields. He's not saying nobody should work on those questions, he's just saying he doesn't, that one doesn't need to do that stuff in order to do political philosophy, and that one shouldn't appeal to that stuff when conducting political arguments. Rorty, by contrast, isn't indifferent. He's a passionate advocate of secular humanism and anti-foundationalism in the background culture, and also a political liberal in the political domain.

If Rorty's aspiration that his background views might someday gain universal adherence makes him a bad liberal, then we're going to have to conclude that essentially every even-vaguely-orthodox Christian and Muslim are also bad liberals. That, however, clearly can't be what Rawls was trying to put forward.

But it sometimes seems to be what Linker is trying to put forward, in his disagreements with the religious right as well as with the Rortyan left. Part of his argument against Richard John Neuhaus and company is the straightforward, quasi-Rawlsian claim that they aren't sufficiently bracketing their religious convictions when they enter politics. (I disagree that this is what the liberal bargain requires, obviously, and we aired our disagreements at some length here.) But part of it feels more radical, and similar in spirit to his complaint about Rorty. "In Rorty's ideal world," he frets, "everyone would be . . . just like Rorty -- denying the existence of capital-T truth, treating metaphysical commitments with moral and intellectual suspicion, and so forth." In his TNR review essay on Richard John Neuhaus, similarly, he criticized Neuhaus not only for his willingness to mix faith with politics, but also for his desire to "Catholicize the United States" and his professed belief "that the Catholic Church provides 'the true story of the world,' of which all the other stories are merely a part, 'including the story of America.'" These desires, he suggests, are part and parcel of Neuhaus's longing for "an omnivorous Catholic Church to devour and to absorb American culture and public life."

In The Theocons, he makes the point this way:

The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith - that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions.

But wait: Is giving up "the ambition to political rule" really the same thing as giving up the ambition to bring social life into conformity with one's convictions? Can't one hope that argument and persuasion might accomplish the latter? It is one thing to call the "theocons" illiberal for trying to inject faith into a politics, wrongheaded as that accusation may be; it's quite another to accuse Neuhaus and Rorty alike of illiberalism for their desire to see American culture become more Catholic (in Neuhaus's case) or more anti-foundationalist (in Rorty's case). In his zeal to protect the liberal bargain as he construes it, Linker seems at times to be not only closing the door on religious arguments in the public sphere, but on proselytization and persuasion in the private sphere as well. The ideal liberal landscape, from this perspective, would be the modern elite university, where religious groups are tolerated or even encouraged, but only so long as they renounce proselytization - a policy that has made the Ivy League something less than a hotbed of freewheeling theological debate.

I think that Linker would deny that this is what he believes, and at times, to his credit, he explicitly renounces it. In his original piece on Rorty, for instance, he argued that "a liberal society will permit and even encourage the proliferation of competing comprehensive views of what constitutes a good human life." (emphasis mine) But I think that his admirable commitment to religious competition in theory tends to fray in practice: When Rorty waxes anti-foundationalist or Neuhaus waxes Catholic, Linker's inordinate fear of dogmatism leads him to see both thinkers as threats to liberalism, when they're just doing what he claims that liberalism should leave them free to do.

Update: No, Andrew, that's not what I said.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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