The Church of the Left
Finding meaning in liberalism
June 6, 2001
by Stanley Kurtz
Sometime during the past thirty years, liberalism stopped being a mere political perspective and turned into a religion. I mean that literally. Liberalism now functions for substantial numbers of its adherents as a religion: an encompassing worldview that answers the big questions about life, lends significance to our daily exertions, and provides a rationale for meaningful collective action.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Liberalism arose as a solution to the destructive religious wars of Europe's past, and succeeded because it allowed people of differing religious perspectives to live peacefully and productively in the same society. Designed to make the world safe for adherents of differing faiths, liberalism itself was never supposed to be a faith. But that is exactly what liberalism has become. And this transformation of liberalism into a de facto religion explains a lot about what we call "political correctness."
Have you ever wondered why conservatives nowadays are so often demonized, even by mainstream liberals? No matter how balanced, well-reasoned, or rooted in long-established principle conservative objections to, say, affirmative action or gay marriage may be, conservatives are still likely to find themselves stigmatized as racist homophobes. By the same token, reasonable conservative ideas are regularly deemed unfit for reasoned debate. This preference for ostracism over engagement amounts to a brilliant strategy on the part of the Left, but the demonization of conservatives can't be explained as a mere conscious tactical maneuver. The stigmatization of conservatives only works because so many people are primed to respond to it in the first place.
So why have conservatives been demonized? Maybe it's because the religion that liberalism has become is so badly in need of demons. Traditional liberalism simply laid out ground rules for reasoned debate and the peaceful adjudication of political differences. One of the main reasons why politics in a liberal society could be peaceful was that people sought direction about life's ultimate purpose outside of politics itself. But once traditional religion ceased to provide modern liberals with either an ultimate life purpose or a pattern of virtue, liberalism itself was the only belief system remaining that could supply these essential elements of life.
So how does liberalism grant meaning to life? How does liberalism do what religion used to do? So long as it serves as a mere set of ground rules for adjudicating day-to-day political differences, liberalism remains too "boring" to serve as a religion. But what if liberals were engaged at every moment in a dire, almost revolutionary, struggle for the very principles of liberalism itself? What if liberals were at war on a daily basis with King George III? With Hitler? With Bull Connor? Now that would supply a purpose to life - a purpose capable of endowing even our daily exertions with a larger significance, and certainly a purpose that would provide a rationale for meaningful collective action.
Consider two standard features of political correctness: the continual expansion in meaning of terms like "racism," "sexism," and "homophobia" and the tendency to invent or exaggerate instances of "oppression." Whereas racism once meant the hatred of someone of another race, the term is now freely applied to anyone who opposes affirmative discrimination, or even to anyone who opposes reparations for slavery. Again, this stigmatization of mainstream conservative positions makes a certain amount of tactical sense (although it badly backfired in the case of the Horowitz ad), but the tactics don't really explain the phenomenon.
The young students who now live in "multicultural" theme houses, or who join (or ally themselves with) multicultural campus political organizations are looking for a home, in the deepest sense of that word. In an earlier time, the always difficult and isolating transition from home to college was eased by membership in a fraternity, or by religious fellowship. Nowadays, multicultural theme houses, political action, and related coursework supply what religion and fraternities once did. But if the multicultural venture is truly to take the place of religion, it must invite a student to insert himself into a battle of profound significance. The fight for slave reparations, and the unceasing effort to ferret out examples of "subtle" racism in contemporary society, are techniques for sustaining a crusading spirit by creating the feeling that Simon Legree and Bull Conner are lurking just around the next corner. Conservative opponents of affirmative action or slave reparations simply have to be imagined as monsters. Otherwise the religious flavor of the multiculturalist enterprise falls flat, and the war of good against evil is converted into difficult balancing of competing political principles and goods in which no one is a saint or a devil.
And what about the tendency of political correctness to invent oppression-as in those wildly exaggerated feminist claims about campus rape or economic discrimination? The recent flap over the Independent Women's Forum ad that exposed unreliable feminist claims of oppression hit a nerve because false statistics are not incidental, but are critical to the feminist cause. So many of the young women who affiliate themselves with campus women's centers are looking for a world view, a moral-social home, and a meaningful crusade in which to take part. That is why the horrifying (if false) statistics of female oppression purveyed by these centers conjure up-and are meant to conjure up - images of slavery and the Holocaust. Betty Friedan's, The Feminine Mystique, was a powerful a book because it characterized the suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp" for women. Friedan's repeated use of Holocaust metaphors for the alleged oppression of women is of a piece with the contemporary feminist practice of making absurdly exaggerated or downright false statistical claims. The Holocaust imagery and the frightening statistics are meant to endow the feminist crusade with an almost apocalyptic sense of urgency and significance. That is why, no matter how many times Christina Hoff Sommers and her compatriots at the Independent Women's Forum expose the errors in feminist claims of oppression, feminists just keep repeating them. It's not about the pursuit of truth; it's about the creation of a cause, a fellowship, a reason for being.
Of course to say that liberalism has ceased to be a political perspective and has become a religion is another way of saying that liberalism has betrayed itself and become illiberal. This point is made very nicely in an excellent article entitled, "Illiberal Liberalism," by Brian C. Anderson in the current issue of City Journal. Anderson shows how the persistent attempts to silence and stigmatize conservative views by even mainstream liberal voices betray the commitment to rational and civil debate at the core of genuine liberalism. Once liberalism became a religion, the principles that made liberalism what it was - principles like free speech, reasoned debate, and judicial restraint in the face of democratic decision-making - went by the wayside. The secular religion of the educated elite is still recognizable as a distorted version of classic liberalism. But underneath all the talk about "oppression" and "rights," what we're really looking at is a modern way of reproducing good versus evil, and us against them.
The hidden religious character of modern liberalism explains a lot about contemporary political life. I've already alluded to it in previous pieces on the Horowitz ad and on the president's faith-based initiative. Once you catch on, you'll see it around.
From de Tocqueville to Allan Bloom and Frances Fukuyama, we've heard the story of America's growing and dangerous tendency toward individual isolation. That story is largely true; but it is also incomplete. We cannot bear our isolation. So in ways sometimes hidden even from ourselves, we strive to overcome it. Liberalism as religion is one solution to the problem of life in a lonely secular world. It allows us to appear to fight for individual freedom, without quite acknowledging to ourselves that we've enlisted in a grand, collective, and almost classically intolerant, religious crusade.
This article appeared in National Review Online on May 31, 2001.
Stanley Kurtz is a former Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.