Left-wing activists use old tactics in new assault on liberalism
THEIBERALISM WAS forged in the revolt against the denominational state that had ruled Europe for over a millennium. In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church employed a transnational army of clerics in black coats who demanded obedience on all spiritual and moral matters and had a monopoly on education. The Reformation introduced religious competition, strengthening the denominational state. Jean Calvin crushed dissent in Geneva through imprisonment, exile and execution. Henry VIII began to boil the dissidents alive. The Roman Church invented the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books.
Liberalism began to tear apart this fusion of church and state 350 years ago. John Milton wrote that if the waters of truth “do not flow in perpetual progression, they fall into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.” Baruch Spinoza insisted that Scripture should be interpreted like any other book. David Hume and John Stuart Mill argued that the best way to establish the truth is through vigorous debate.
The fruit of this reflection has been gathered in three revolutions. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson has called “the loathsome combination of church and state” the root of most of the world’s ills. The French also established a secular republic. The gradual English revolution left the Church of England intact but marginalized.
Yet something extraordinary is happening in the West: a new generation of progressives is reviving methods that strangely resemble those of the denominational state, with modern versions of loyalty oaths and blasphemy laws. And this effort is carried out at the heart of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, often by people who call themselves liberals. Here’s how old tactics are revived.
Imposing orthodoxy. Orthodoxy today is supported by an intellectual elite rather than a spiritual one. Their natural home is the university. Some 70 to 80% of right-wing academics and doctoral students in Britain and America say their departments are hostile environments, according to Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College London.
The progressive left is even more dominant among students. There is nothing new about the leftist student revolts, but the protests of the 1960s were against the remnants of the denominational state: Radicals in Berkeley, California turned Sproul Plaza into a free speech zone, where everything could be said, and People’s Park in a zone of freedom for all, where everything could be done. Radicals today demand the application of codes of conduct and speech. A 2019 survey of over 4,000 four-year-old students for the Knight Foundation found that 68% felt students couldn’t say what they thought because their classmates might find it offensive.
Proselytizing. Religious denominations have always had a vanguard, like the Jesuit order, which sees it as their job to shift the boundaries of belief and behavior towards righteousness. The vanguard of the awakened revolution is made up of young militants. Belief in the foundations of liberalism such as free speech declines with each generation. The Pew Research Center notes that 40% of millennials are in favor of removing, in various unspecified ways, speech deemed offensive to minorities, compared to 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of baby boomers and only 12% of the oldest cohorts.
Progressives are replacing the liberal emphasis on tolerance and choice with an emphasis on coercion and power. As in many religions, the righteous have a duty to challenge immorality wherever they find it. They find many, believing that whites can be guilty of racism even if they do not consciously discriminate against others on the basis of race, as they are the beneficiaries of an exploitative system. Classic liberals have conceded that your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Progressives today argue that your freedom to express your opinions ends where my feelings begin.
Expel heretics. The new denominational state enforces ideological conformity by expelling heretics from their jobs, a practice the Liberals have shed a lot of blood in trying to eradicate. In academia, this is becoming familiar.
In 2018, Colin Wright, a post-doctoral student at Penn State University, wrote two articles claiming that sex is a biological reality and not a social construct, a statement that would once have been uncontroversial. Critics have issued a warning stating that “Colin Wright is a transphobe who supports Race Science” and have sent emails to research committees condemning him. Sympathetic academics told him privately that they couldn’t offer him a job because it was “too risky”.
Book ban. In Restoration England, the University of Oxford burned the works of Hobbes and Milton in the big quad next to the Bodleian Library. Today, academics put trigger warnings on books, alerting students to the dangers of reading them. Young publishers are trying to get controversial books “canceled”.
Although they have failed their most prominent targets such as JK Rowling (editors need to make money), they succeed with less fries, creating an atmosphere in which editors are less likely to bet on unknown authors with controversial opinions. Alexandra Duncan, a white American, even canceled her own book, “Ember Days”, after writing from a black woman’s perspective, which is now dismissed as “cultural appropriation.”
Creed. Churches have demanded that people sign a declaration of religious beliefs, such as the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, before they can hold civil office. The University of California (UC) does something similar. Applicants for faculty positions must complete statements on how they will advance diversity and inclusion.
These are laudable goals. But Abigail Thompson, until recently president of mathematics at UC Davis and a longtime liberal, points out that UCThe scoring system rewards a waking vision of how to achieve them. In 2019, the life sciences department of UC Berkeley rejected 76% of applicants based on their diversity claims without looking at their research records.
Blasphemy. Scotland, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, abolished the crime of blasphemy in March. At the same time, however, he reintroduced it by creating new offenses such as “incitement to hatred” and “abusive speech” – punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The analogy with the past has its limits: no one is burned at the stake. But it is a useful reminder that liberal values such as tolerance cannot be taken for granted. They were the product of centuries of argument and effort. The liberal state is still much younger today than the denominational state was when liberalism replaced it. ■
This article appeared in the Briefing section of the paper edition under the title “Echoes of the Confessional State”