Damon Linker

A Contest Of Metaphors


In Ross' civil reply to my provocation about Richard John Neuhaus's "liberalism," he writes (among other things):

a liberal tradition that cannot find, within its many mansions, room for Neuhaus (and, yes, for John Paul II as well), is a liberalism that any Christian worth his salt should think twice before subscribing to.

The metaphor of the liberal tradition having a room for Neuhaus and John Paul II in its mansions reminds me a different metaphor -- one I often employ when I'm asked why, given my current views, I ever went to work for First Things in the first place. My short answer to the question is that when I applied for and accepted the job at First Things I thought Neuhaus wanted orthodox religious believers to be granted a seat at the table of democratic discussion and debate; as a committed liberal pluralist, this was a goal I could, and did, endorse. But over time it became increasingly clear to me that what Neuhaus and his orthodox allies really wanted was to take over the table -- to rule it. And that -- the political rule of orthodox religion -- is an illiberal goal. 

Now, in this same post Ross also correctly states that Neuhaus considered certain aspects of modern liberalism to be illiberal in a similar way: as the attempt by one part of a highly differentiated political community (namely, the secular liberal part) to impose its metaphysical beliefs on the community as a whole. That is a serious charge, given modern liberalism's self-understanding as a political and not a metaphysical outlook. I hope to explore this charge in further detail on this blog in the coming months and reflect on how liberals should respond to it. 

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