Religion and Sexual Freedom

We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.

G. K. Chesterton

A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”

“Object to what?” I asked.

“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”

“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”

“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”

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Has Equality Replaced Christianity?

In my previous post, I asked whether our society is “post-Christian” (as is commonly reported), and I suggested that the question might matter to readers of this blog insofar as many of our revered legal and political commitments are arguably grounded in Christianity (or at least in the bibical or Judeo-Christian tradition). I also quoted T. S. Eliot’s provocative contention that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” Eliot thought that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.”

Suppose Eliot was right in 1939, when he gave his lecture. Even so, things might have changed. So we might ask whether our own society has become “positively something else” other than Christian. Has some other “positive” ideology or philosophy or faith come along to replace Christianity as a foundation for our social and political arrangements? If so, what is that “positive” replacement?

Several years ago in a conference at Cardozo and again in a book published earlier this year (The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom), I speculated that Christianity may have been replaced as a cultural and political orthodoxy by “secular egalitarianism.”

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America’s Egalitarian Edge over Europe

World Cup 2014 competition resumes this week, with 32 teams in eight groups competing for 16 spots. Each group features four teams in a round-robin format, so every team will play three matches. The two top point-earning teams in each group will advance to the round of 16. (The Americans’ prospects for advancement appear somewhat but not altogether bleak.)

European football has always puzzled me in comparison to American sports. Europeans often pride themselves in advancing a more egalitarian society in which opportunities for success are widespread rather than concentrated. By contrast, the Americans, they argue, allow for great disparities and inequalities of income and wealth. (Some argue that the facts do not support this fulmination against income inequality, but leave that aside for purposes of this argument.)

The basic impulse of this criticism is a desire to promote equality of outcome, rather than greatness. If some at the top have to be moved down a notch or two, we may sacrifice magnificence at the top, but we will provide greater and more widespread opportunity overall.

The reason I find this puzzling is that, when applied to sports, Americans tend to prefer egalitarianism – known in sports as parity – when compared to their European counterparts. All joking about the Yankees and Lakers aside, championships are more widespread in American sports than in European football.

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Harvard to Go Egalitarian

Cambridge, MA, April 1, 2014


Harvard_Veritas_The_Truth_Will_Set_U_FreeIn a move designed to foster diversity and to create a university that “thinks like America,” Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard University announced yesterday that the school will embrace egalitarian admissions. The school will no longer give priority to students with good grades, high SAT scores, and impressive extra-curricular activities. Such policies have, Dr. Faust acknowledged, created an “elitist” and “inegalitarian” atmosphere at the college. “It is unacceptable in 2014 to be favoring the intelligent over the unlearned, and the energetic over the slothful,” she proclaimed.

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Oxfam’s Flimflam

A report of the British charity Oxfam recently drew attention to the fact that Britain’s five richest families had more assets than the lowest 20 per cent of the population put together. It called upon the government to consider instituting a wealth tax to reduce the gap, by how much it did not say. Would the poorest fifth be much the better off, or at least happier, if 20, say, or 50, rather than five families now had more wealth than they?

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The Equality of Self Government v. Egalitarianism

Thinking about President Obama’s second inaugural address and the ubiquity of egalitarian political rhetoric is enough to make you wonder if anything can be preserved from the reach of government. Even philanthropy itself, the unique American contribution to civil society, made by possible by the overflows from prior gains in trade, might now have to account to government for its independent work.  So what does equality mean in the American republic? The inability to speak in a grounded manner about this principle seems to doom attempts to limit the size of government, protect commerce from undue interference, and uphold a robust civil society, among other worthy goals.

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Friday Roundup, February 1st

  • So if you’re a stranger to this site, we post frequently on the administrative state. Some have referred to Greve’s candid discourses on this topic as the case of a disgruntled admin law professor. I don’t think “disgruntled” quite catches Greve on this matter. However, for a change of pace we went historical this week with Joseph Postell’s insightful review of Jerry Mashaw’s Creating the Administrative Constitution. Mashaw argues that what we think of as the administrative state had roots in the founding and, in any event, was present for most of the nineteenth century. Postell’s conclusion begs to differ:

Yet in order to demonstrate this, we would need some definition of what it means to have an administrative state.  The fact that we had administration since the Founding is unsurprising.  Even the fact that administrators had significant amounts of discretion and could enact rules to govern the enforcement and administration of federal laws is unsurprising.  After all, the Founders had no problem with administration, in the traditional sense of the term.  What they clearly did oppose are governmental institutions that made law, executed law, and judged law, especially when not constrained by frequent elections. . . .

To put it clearly: in the first hundred years of the republic, did we have administration, or an administrative state?  The existence of the former does not prove the achievement of the latter.

Any belief in greatness offends against the cult of equality, the morass of indiscriminateness into which any democratic culture is always prone to degenerate if it is not careful to value excellence and protect liberty. But the cult of equality demands that all opinions should be equal, all expression legitimate, and all objects fungible: “the substitution of anything for anything,” Kimball writes, “is the ideal” behind the attack on permanence. A belief in permanent monuments of cultural greatness is, moreover, a threat to the primacy of political power for many of the same reasons that religion presents an equivalent obstacle. Both supply a point of reference and a measure of value that transcend the prerogatives of those who happen to be in power at any given time.

America, Europe, and the Culture of Economic Freedom

Becoming EuropeThe only political prediction which I am proud to have made is that there would be demonstrations on the Boulevard St Germain if, in response to the riots in the banlieues of French towns and cities in 2005, the French government attempted the slightest liberalization of the French labor market. And so it proved: thousands of young people came out on to the streets to protest against what was really only a straw in the wind or a cloud on the horizon. They were protesting, in fact, against the potential withdrawal not of the privileges that they now enjoyed but that, as children of the prosperous and the fully-employed, they hoped to enjoy in the future.

It never occurred to them that the employment protections of some are the exclusion from the labor market of others. They were, in effect, like the white miners of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who went on strike in 1922 against the use of black miners as an economy measure by the mine owners. Their slogan, under the leadership of the South African communists, was ‘Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.’   

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Up in Smoke: Freedom and Responsibility in the Corporatist State

Smokers, I have found, are inclined to disbelieve just how unpleasant others find their habit. Since they themselves can’t or don’t detect the lingering smell of stale smoke in rooms, in corridors, on clothes, even in books (my second-hand copy of Father Coplestone’s study of Nietzsche is a smoke-filled room in itself), they think that non-smokers exaggerate when they complain of it. They don’t believe that the smoke that gets in your eyes stings, or that it rasps the throat, or that it destroys pleasure in food. The late Christopher Hitchens, an inveterate smoker, told a self-congratulatory anecdote about how he was bravely determined to strike a blow for freedom by breaking the law in New York. Determined to smoke a cigarette in a restaurant, he asked the people at the next table whether they minded if he lit up. It was characteristic of smokers’ egotism, and perhaps that of the author also, that he thought his question a neutral one, such that a reply to the effect that they did not mind meant that they really did not mind.

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Liberal Constitutionalism and Us

Michael Greve’s April 2012 post “Constitutionalism, Hegel, and Us” had several significant points in his short essay masquerading as a blog post. Greve notes that liberal constitutionalism per Hegel’s argument in Philosophy of Right has a problem, a big one.

[P]olitical liberalism (Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and, with some qualifications, Rousseau) confuses civil society with the State.  Again, that makes us nervous; but the distinction has a very large kernel of good sense. The principle of liberal constitutionalism, Hegel says, is “endless subjectivity,” or what we call “individualism.” A liberal constitution is a contract among individuals, who consent to limits on their autonomy insofar, and only insofar, as they are consistent with individualist principles. (Think Locke’s Second Treatise.) To state Hegel’s central objection at phenomenological level: you can’t run a free country on that basis.

So we need more than individuals. We need a society of persons constituted by familial, local, religious, and political attachments, recognizing that personhood contains aspirations and purposes that place it beyond the scope of state power. Society “possesses primacy over the state.” The state must serve the ends of the human person. On this basis we can relativize the state’s value.

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