The future of liberalism, part 3

In two earlier posts, I followed up on a thread by Kevin Drum entitled “The future of liberalism.” I decided to continue this series of posts after a discussion with a good friend in San Francisco last weekend. Our talk ranged widely, but one comment in particular stuck with me – that the left loses support in some quarters because it fails to provide the linkage to morality that many, if not most, people need.

My first reaction was denial, but at root what my friend said is true. As I mentioned in my first post in this thread, liberalism has been a politics of issues, not worldview. Conservatism, especially those strains with a religious social agenda, definitely provides a “worldview” and not just a series of positions on issues.

I think it is worth understanding whether this is a necessary structural difference between the two, or whether it’s possible to have a liberal worldview which includes a “moral compass.” The answer, I believe, will have a great deal of impact on whether Judis and Teixiera’s “emerging Democratic majority” really will come to pass.

It’s certainly not the case that liberals – as individuals – lack a moral compass. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most folks calling themselves liberal share many of the same basic moral beliefs as those self-identifying as conservative. Much as conservative commentators would like us to believe otherwise, liberals as a group don’t seem to be interested in a world where “anything goes.”

But I do believe that the issue of cultural and religious diversity separates the two groups, and causes conservatives to claim that liberals have a “diffuse” or even non-existent approach to morality. The reasoning here is simple. Take Tom DeLay, for example, as our case study. DeLay has stated publicly that his purpose in office is to further a “biblical world view.” His viewpoint, and the specifics that fall out of it, are pretty well-defined. I can outline them, and so can you. We know instantly where DeLay is going to stand on a number of issues.

Finding this kind of clarity and certainty isn’t as easy with people self-identifying as progressive or liberal. Why? I believe this is a simple consequence of the progressive liberal commitment to equality and diversity. Progressives tend to look at people who speak different languages, have different customs, and even different religious beliefs than my own, and grant them the same rights we claim for ourselves. This has the effect of preventing any specific set of customs or religious beliefs from occupying a “privileged” place in our society.

And that’s what causes the apparent lack of a defined morality within the liberal “worldview.” We don’t point to Christianity, for example, and tell everyone that they must live according to its precepts. To the progressive, this would be discriminatory, because our nation is made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of many other religions.

The liberal-progressive worldview, therefore, is neutral with respect to religious belief. Cultural customs follow the same logic. To many liberals, this neutrality is an important consequence of our most fundamental of freedoms – those enshrined within the Constitution and its Amendments. The First Amendment places limits on government to restrict freedom of speech or exercise of religion — in other words, we can’t legally restrict anyone from exercising their faith. The Fourteenth Amendment provides for equal protection under the law to all persons. The Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments extend suffrage to women and persons of all ethnic or racial groups. Our constitutional rights create a civic system which must be neutral with respect to different beliefs, races, and cultural groups.

I would propose that these freedoms — and their consistent application — provide the basis for a “moral compass” which doesn’t rely upon everyone sharing the same religious views. These basic rights create a set of “civic morals” which should govern how we think about our freedoms, but even more importantly, our responsibilities. For I cannot uphold the Fourteenth Amendment while denying someone the same rights I claim for myself; if I wish that a specific act (for example, marriage) be legal, I have to be willing to extend it to all citizens without exception. If I wish that something be illegal, I have to be willing to make it illegal for everyone, including myself.

And in doing so, our code of civic morality comes to encompass the more specific moral traditions that many religions espouse. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Sounds like the Fourteenth Amendment, doesn’t it?

I could go on with further examples, but I think the point is clear: progressives and liberals can stand firm on morality, while still honoring diversity. We simply have to construct a civic moral code which is based upon the principle that our fundamental freedoms apply to all. Extending our rights and responsibilities to everyone will quite naturally also encompass the kind of moral standards we expect within our communities – whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim – and do so without enshrining one religion’s specific rules within the civic institutions that must apply to all.

Now, explaining this in a political campaign…that’s a different story.

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