The idea of the “marketplace of ideas” in which truth wins out through competition with error has a strong tradition in the U.S. Suggested in nascent form by Milton and Mill, US Supreme Court decisions appeal to it in free speech decisions, and it frequently appears in commentary and everyday conversations. It continues to hold axiomatic status in the U.S., at least outside of a set of college campuses.
I spend the better part of my professional life teaching “Great Books.” This semester’s lineup so far has included Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse (1775), Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). I’m committed to the proposition that these old books continue to speak to us, if only we have ears to hear.
My students don’t always agree, but they really perked up when I speculated about how Adam Smith would approach the phenomenon—the yuuge phenomenon—of Donald Trump.
My favorite novelist is also Barack Obama’s. That shouldn’t be a problem, you might say—two people of widely different political opinions can love the same beautiful things. As Paul Seaton has observed on this site, studying Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction, marked as it is by her very conventional academic-liberal political opinions, is not very conducive to appreciating the exquisite subtlety of her fiction.
The New York Review of Books late last year published an extensive conversation between the President and the novelist (which Joe Knippenberg commented on here). Obama and the author of Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008) come to an immediate meeting of minds, or rather hearts, on their faith in “democracy,” which, the ostensibly Calvinist Robinson posits, is based on “the willingness to assume well about other people.”
Asked by the President to explain the convergence between her Christianity and her “concerns about democracy,” Robinson offers the simplest possible explanation: she believes “people are images of God” and that “democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.” To the President’s and the novelist’s joint chagrin, though, the “loudest voices” for Christianity in American politics don’t really take their Christianity seriously; supposedly they fail to follow Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Robinson has gone so far as to describe Christian America as “associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.”