"When Following the Prophet is Too Easy:

Against the Identification of Reason with Progressive Liberationism "

Ralph C. Hancock

SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall 2008)





I am feeling a little left out, again.  I observe that in recent weeks Latter-day Saints who claim or aspire to a respectable degree of philosophical acumen and worldly sophistication are enjoying a good round of often very nicely nuanced and ever-so-sensitive hand-wringing over the Church’s support of Proposition 8 in California.  All around the blogosphere I find faithful and thoughtful Latter-day Saints straining to express their willingness to follow the prophet but at the same time eager to make it clear that they are smart enough to have intellectual reservations, smart enough not simply and unflinchingly to join in the Church’s official support from Proposition 8.  But once again I find myself (as with the disciplining of “Mormon [so-called] Intellectuals” in Utah in the 1990s) [1] unable to find in these recent events a source of either a soul-stretching conflict of sympathies or of any intellectually fertile tension between faith and reason, between my covenanted loyalties and my addiction to rational reflection.  Here, in a word, is my problem:  the position the Brethren asked Saints in California to support strikes me immediately as eminently defensible on rational grounds and, moreover, as consistent with the most sober and sophisticated political judgment.  I must even confess that the temptation entered my heart to murmur, “it’s about time” – about time, that is, that the Church entered the political fray with all the strength we can muster where such fundamental moral and social matters are at stake.  But since timing is such a delicate question wherever the Church’s use of its political influence is concerned, I found it easy, after all, to defer on this point to Priesthood authority – thus missing yet another opportunity to share in the complex, agonistic, and qualified kind of support for Church leaders by which the more sophisticated among the faithful recognize and commune with each other. 

And so I feel I must explain my inability to join in this no doubt exhilarating and even cathartic outpouring of conflictedness.   It seems to me, to put it very plainly, that the cause of the present spiritual and cognitive disturbance among so many Mormons of a certain intellectual attainment or aspiration is not that they bear the burden of rare philosophical or political insight, but, on the contrary, alas, that their thinking is confined to certain all-too-common ideological categories, of which they often appear to be no more aware than a fish knows it swims in a sea.  The conflictedness may then arise not out of purposeful rebellion or proud cowardice; it may simply be the result of the fish having acclimated itself to ever-increasing pollution in its sea, making a dose of fresh water feel not bracing, but excoriating.  More plainly still: this sea is … yes, “liberalism” – or, if you will, what liberalism has become, the theoretical core of liberalism, now emancipated from the traditional practices and assumptions that once moderated and contained it: call it, “liberationism.”

“Science” and “Freedom”

As the contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent has pointed out, we citizens of modern liberal democracies take our bearings from two authoritative ideas or notions: science and freedom. [2]  Even, or especially, when we are not explicitly appealing to these ideas, they shape our most fundamental assumptions and thus regulate our discussions and inform the conduct of our practical lives, both public and private. 

A certain general conception of the authority of “science” now underlies what we take to be rational or reasonable.  Rene Descartes’ famous announcement more than 350 years ago of the discovery of a “method” of reasoning wholly exempt from dependence on truths revealed from a higher source or inherited from tradition [3] helped set Western reason on a path that was to be dominated by the idea of a universal technique for thinking that would yield absolutely verifiable and replicable results.  Certainly one must acknowledge the often beneficial power of this idea of method, even if the processes of discovery in the physical and mathematical sciences cannot be fully explained by it.  But the limitations of a universal scientific method ought to be still more obvious in the moral and political realms.  For in the practical realm the question of purpose is clearly primary, and Descartes’ method is based on the deliberate and systematic suppression of the question of purpose, or of the good. [4]  Science, and the technology (Descartes’ “mastery and possession of nature”) that issues from it, can help us get what we want, but they cannot finally help us decide what we should want. 

“Freedom” is the correlate of “science,” because science seems to leave us free to choose any good we want – reason constrains agreement on “facts,” but leaves “values” at the discretion of “the individual.”  In this way, science, as the arbiter of the meaning of “reason,” sustains its ruling authority by a breath-taking and perpetual sleight-of-hand: it somehow gets away with claiming at once to be sovereign and to be neutral [5], that is, incompetent to judge of the most important practical questions, questions of moral limits and purposes.  Modern reason is thus a blind giant – its power is gigantic, but obtained at the price of renouncing any responsibility for ends.

For all its undeniable technological benefits, the authority of “science” thus tends over the long term to undermine the authority of all concrete, particular goods, goods known immediately through practical experience and distilled in traditions and institutions.  Since, as I would propose, there is no way to know the good that is not bound up with some particular practice and experience, the tendency of “scientism” (a specious scientific “rigor” applied to moral questions) is in fact to disqualify (in principle and eventually) all real, concrete goods as “irrational.”

To be sure, some practical goods are more resistant to this solvent compound of science and freedom than others.  Some values are indeed “facts,” or almost.  When Thomas Hobbes exiled the question of the highest good from “rational” discourse, he contrived to ground his modernized reason in the allegedly greatest evil – that is, the death of the body. [6]   (This argument of course depends upon the unproven premise that there is nothing worth giving one’s life, or, when it comes right down to it, nothing for which it makes sense to sacrifice one’s security and comfort; modern “scientific” liberalism rests wholly on this absent proof.) More broad-minded makers of the liberal tradition from John Locke to John Stuart Mill to John Rawls have extended the range of concerns deemed rational to include the security and increase of property, free self-expression, and whatever “primary goods” (Rawls) we, or our social scientists, can agree everyone must want, including, in Rawls’ case, “the social bases of self-respect.”  This broadening has dulled considerably the sharp edge of Hobbes’ reasoning, but the basic thrust of the argument holds true to the absolutist founding intention of liberalism: only goods that have nothing to do with the elevation or fulfillment of the “soul” (whether the soul is considered as natural, as per Aristotle, or as divine, as per the Bible, or worst of all, as both, as in Thomas Aquinas, as well, let me suggest, as in the Restored Gospel) must be deemed “rational.”  The alliance of materialist science with the unsupported assertion of human freedom from any higher, authoritative good continues to drive the liberalization of liberal society.

The cult of “Progress” is the child of this marriage of science and freedom: all concrete and present goods – say, for example, our conviction, based upon experience, that men and women need each other, and need the institution of marriage to bring and hold them together -- are discredited by scientific rigor – try “objectively demonstrating” the experience of the normative goodness of old-fashioned marriage--, and the good is deferred to some ever-receding point in the future.  A “scientistic” understanding of reason dissolves all moral obstacles articulated in traditional and religious language that might stand in the path of a more and more absolute “freedom.”  Thus understandings of the good shared by the great majority of people and grounded in long experience are put on the defensive, and few notice that this extreme extension of liberalism, this increasingly influential progressive rationalistic liberationism, rests on the hollowest of foundations, that is, at bottom, on a simple, willful denial of any goods not reducible to the safety or comfort of the body– or, in the contemporary version, not reducible to the unlimited expression of sexual desires.

Liberal Practice and Liberal Theory

Before going any further in this critique of extreme liberalism, or liberationism, two observations will help to make it clear that this argument is not unfriendly to a moderate and reasonable liberalism, and certainly not to all the practical benefits of actual societies that are more or less liberal in the classical or traditional sense of valuing and protecting individual freedom, societies such as that of the United States.  First, let us give Hobbes his due: he lived in an age riven by wars of religion in which opposing understandings of the Good or of God’s will resisted all reconciliation or mediation by reason as traditionally understood.  So Hobbes’ project was understandable, and even, in some respects and up to a certain point, beneficial.  At the same time, our age is not Hobbes’, and it is now practically urgent that the blind spots in his argument and in the liberal tradition be addressed.

Second, one must distinguish, following the author of “the best book ever written on democracy and the best ever written on America" [7], between the theory of liberalism and the actual practice of liberal democracy.  Like Tocqueville, I much prefer the practice of liberalism, or liberalism moderated, contained, and elevated by the moral, religious, and inherited political context in which it operates, to its purely materialist and individualist theory.  But the trouble we now face is that this theory threatens to erode the last vestiges of the humanizing practices within which the Constitution as understood by its Founders, and by subsequent generations of Americans, was long embedded.  The liberation of liberalism from such moderating practices and assumptions might be said to have begun in the Progressive era.  (Woodrow Wilson was the first President directly and explicitly to criticize the Founders’ understanding and indeed to propose replacing it.) But this work really began in earnest with the unprecedented expansion of the meaning of “rights” in the latter half of the twentieth century [8], an expansion that found an extreme and notable expression in the fundamental premise on which the argument of Roe v. Wade rested: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such a radical, let us say existentialist, liberationism would have astonished and certainly perplexed the staunchest defenders of traditional liberalism. 

In order to resist the moral-political intimidation that clouds the vision of too many who might otherwise rise to defend traditional marriage, it is sufficient to see the liberationism behind the same-sex marriage movement for what it is. The morally truncated secular “rationalism” that grounds the anti-ethic of liberation passes for reasonable only because responsibility for engaging the most basic moral questions is perpetually shuttled back and forth between science and freedom – freedom deferring to the usually implicit authority of science (no restraints on liberation are valid that cannot be proven strictly and universally necessary), and then science in turn shifting the question of the good back to freedom (reason can only determine facts – the “values” are up to each individual).  In this way the immediate and most authoritative question, the question of the good (for individuals and their families, and for the larger community) is perpetually suppressed.

To see through this evasive swindle of progressive liberationism is the first step (and indeed practically the one thing needful) in a morally responsible approach to questions of marriage and family in modern society.

Against the Idol of “Neutrality”

Latter-day Saints, or at least those who aspire to a certain level of intellectual rigor, have not, alas, been immune to this swindle.  Their vulnerability to this liberationist intimidation takes two closely related forms. 

First, it is often assumed (an assumption learned ultimately from Descartes’ restriction of reason to a formal technique or “method”) that the most rational position concerning morality and politics is the most “neutral.”  The all-too-familiar notion is that questions of law and public policy are to be addressed with arguments somehow shorn of all substantive moral content.  Thus, many who disapprove of homosexuality and actually believe that happiness is most likely to be found within traditional marriage, or in a society that honors and defends traditional marriage, feel somehow compelled to forfeit this reasonable conviction to the idea of neutrality.  Thus it is not uncommon to hear a faithful Latter-day Saints opine that, while personally opposed to the practice of homosexuality, it would be wrong to “discriminate” against “gays,” who after all often seem like decent and well-meaning people.  One might wish others shared our views, these faithful might say, but they don’t, and what harm can it do anyway, to my marriage or anyone else’s, to allow gays to live as they will?

But this posture of supposed neutrality is based upon a pure illusion. The public sphere will never be neutral.  Our public space, as defined by laws, regulations, policies, and judicial as well as administrative decisions, will always reflect certain priorities and a certain understanding of common purposes.  To be sure, unanimity is never achieved, and public priorities are constantly contested by dynamic political and social forces.  But at any point in time a critical mass of elite as well as general interest and opinion is brought to bear on one side or the other of the national rudder, thus setting the ship of state on one or course or another.

A recent article by a prominent advocate of homosexual marriage perfectly illustrates the substantive moral position that lies behind many pleas of neutrality.  Andrew Sullivan, responding [9] to a piece by conservative blogger Rod Dreher, argues that Dreher “longs, as many do, for a return to the days when civil marriage brought with it a whole bundle of collectively-shared, unchallenged, teleological, and largely Judeo-Christian attributes.”  (He goes on to link traditional marriage with the oppression of women and their relegation to “child-bearing subservience.”)  Sullivan, who was raised a Catholic, then recounts his own transition to a faith that has become “more private … more informed by mystery, reticence, and doubt.”  This privatized faith is for him the correlate of a new kind of political community.  For how, he asks, “do those who are ready to live in this modern world” -- a world, as he has explained, of sexual freedom and easy divorce -- “coexist with those who still believe that it [modern sexual freedom] is not only misguided but evil?”  “There is only one way,” he answers. “That way is to agree that our civil order will mean less; that it will be a weaker set of more procedural agreements that try to avoid as much as possible deep statements about human nature.”  The conflict over issues such as same-sex marriage can be set aside, Sullivan thinks, if only we accept that we live in a “disenchanted polis,” a political community with no substantive moral content.  Our public space, he assures us, can be simply legal and procedural, and thus morally neutral.

However, we have only to raise the question “why?” in order to begin to see through this (no doubt completely sincere) protestation of neutrality.  Why would such a neutral society be good -- perhaps only because it manages to keep the peace among morally incompatible groups?  But will this “peace” not be constituted by one or another set of public priorities, and thus one or another dominant vision of a good human life? Mr. Sullivan does not keep us waiting long for a peek at his answer to such a question.  Only a few lines after celebrating the new, purely modern, procedural, and disenchanted polis, he yields to a lyrical impulse in expressing his underlying moral vision:  “We live in a new world, and we can and should create meaning where we can, in civil society, in private, through free expression and self-empowerment.” Clearly Sullivan’s privatized and neutral public sphere is grounded in a moral ontology that he is comfortable proclaiming as publicly authoritative, an ontology that locates ultimate meaning in the individual creation of meaning, and in the empowerment of the “self” to express its meanings without bounds.

Mr. Sullivan sees no contradiction between his posture of neutrality and his confession of faith in the ultimacy of self-expression, and we would not expect him to.  He holds his fundamental moral beliefs so dogmatically that he does not even see that they are anything but neutral. [10]   He thus believes that fears of traditional religious groups for their freedom are simply “preposterous”:  “The notion that there are rampaging mobs of gay people beating up on Christians is unhinged.”  Well, Latter-day Saints who witnessed threatening demonstrations at their temples and elsewhere, or who lost their jobs for supporting Proposition 8, will not find the concern for religious freedom so silly.  Of course Sullivan might counter that homosexual activists are legitimately objecting, not to the private beliefs and practices of Mormons, but to the “hate” implicit in their denial of rights to “gays”.  But this distinction cannot be sustained.  Certain homosexuals (those, at least, who, like Sullivan, are committed to the liberationism as an ethical ideal, and who justify their “lifestyle” in this way) will never feel secure in their rights or validated as fellow-citizens as long as they must live side by side with others who are freely and openly teaching that that way of life is wrong, no more than Southern slave-owners in the 1850s could be expected to feel secure in their “rights” while dominant opinion in the dominant section of the country increasingly affirmed the wrongness of slavery.  Serious opinions represent claims on the truth, and so by their very seriousness they spill over the boundary between “private” and “public.” Our country will not be neutral concerning a fundamental perception of the moral status of homosexuality. This is not to say, of course, that tolerance and a degree of diversity are not possible, but only that these liberal practices rest on a moral foundation that liberal theory cannot by itself supply, and that such practices are limited by the character of that very foundation.

The Limits of the Public/Private Distinction

Therefore it must be said, alas, that homosexual activists who feverishly decry the “hatred” and “bigotry” of Proposition 8 supporters see something more clearly than does Andrew Sullivan -- not that the supporters of traditional marriage are in fact hateful bigots, but that the public space cannot be neutral on the question of the “homosexual lifestyle.”  Either homosexuality will be dominantly regarded as a tolerable but unfortunate deviation from a traditional moral norm, or it will be regarded as exemplary of the fundamental right of every “empowered” self to participate in the most essential human experiences, those of self-expression and self-creation.  In the latter case, of course, those who hold to a more traditional morality might well be more or less tolerated, at least for a while, but they would be increasingly seen as backward, undeveloped selves, philistines limited by an obsolete moral code.  And it should be obvious that the dominance of the progressive-liberationist vision could not help, in the long run, but be reflected in the basic priorities of public policy, including, notably, law and policy in the areas of education and religious freedom.

No political community, then, is morally neutral; law and policy will always express and enact some set of priorities, and these priorities will always reflect some particular, substantive understanding of the meaning of human existence. No method of reasoning that claims neutrality with respect to such questions should be trusted with responsibility for setting the community’s course; deliberately or not, such claims always serve as masks for a definite moral agenda. For the community will have a course, and this course will necessarily affect our “private” efforts to practice our own religion, and, especially, to educate and raise up another generation of faithful and valiant Latter-day Saints.  Is it not obvious, after all, that we all have an interest in the general moral tone of our communities, even more fundamentally than in the physical environment we share? 

Readers who are familiar with contemporary political theory may be inclined to ask whether there is not a modern and “rationally” respectable alternative to the liberationist consequences of liberalism, namely “communitarianism.” [11] Here I can only suggest, very briefly, that most modern “communitarianism,” precisely because it accepts certain premises of modern rationalism, is finally derivative of liberalism.  One’s view of the good of a community must, after all, be bound up with some view of a good human life.  Many communitarians, for example, emphasize an ethic of “compassion,” which is admirable as far as it goes, but every such ethic must be guided by some understanding of the good of the person whose interests are to be cared for.  And most of our communitarianism is essentially liberal because the object of its compassion is precisely the individual understood as liberated from all inherited duties and roles as well as from any natural or divine standards. All traditional social and moral authority is thus understood as a cruel imposition from which individuals must be liberated, and this in the name of a compassionate “community.”  Often such “compassion” appeals to a supposedly Biblical ethic.  Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy has recently posted an eloquent (co-authored) riposte to such appeals:

One thing the Bible never suggests is that the world must work the way we desire it to. Jesus loves us enough not to let us do whatever we want. Every generation attacks biblical ethics in some new way, but the Bible endures. Hypocrites pretend they have no sin. Hedonists pretend their sins are good. Honest people repent. [12]

Such a realistic (that is, rational) and Biblical view of the human condition will inevitably be rejected as “cruel” and “bigoted” by those for whom the meaning of life consists in the progressive liberation from all constraints. There is no way to answer such people except by questioning the ethic of liberation on which their arguments are based, and by defending another conception, a better and finally more reasonable conception, of the good life.

Faith and Reason

Closely associated among Latter-day Saints (and not only them, of course) with the desperate appeal to an impossible “neutrality” is a second kind of vulnerability to what I have called “liberationist intimidation.”  This takes the form of a tendency radically to separate revelation from reason so as to exempt the believer from any responsibility for engaging public issues as a believer.  Such a radical separation is not, I would first argue, consistent with the teachings of the Restored Gospel. [13]  In any case, it is a sure formula, politically, for a unilateral intellectual disarmament before the relentless forces of progressive liberationism. Wholly to separate our religious beliefs from what can be known or appreciated by our natural faculties is preemptively to concede the intellectual high ground to those who equate morality with liberation and with compassion for the liberated self.  But we have seen that there is literally no reason for such a concession; no “science” has proven that liberation is the best human life.  More importantly still, to sever our religious beliefs from our reason is to sever them from our idea of truth, to render them, radically private, as in the case of Mr. Sullivan’s … shall we say “attenuated” Catholicism.  This privatization and subjectifying of belief is just a short, probably inevitable step from simple abandonment.  Thus C.S. Lewis has his devil, Screwtape, warn against awakening the “patient’s reason” – for as soon as one is concerned with truth (and not merely with what is “contemporary” or “practical” or grounded in “real life”), then one is on  “the enemy’s” (that is, God’s) terrain. [14]

If we hold our religious and moral beliefs seriously, including the teachings of modern prophets, then we believe that they rest upon true accounts of the way things are, including the purpose of human life and the true sources of human happiness. If reason is our natural faculty for apprehending naturally, as afar as is possible, the way things truly are (and not simply a technique or technology for getting us whatever we want), then there can be no ultimate conflict between the purpose of reason and that of revelation. This is not at all to say that we should insist that all of our most fundamental beliefs be translated immediately and wholly into public policy; this would be politically unwise, to say the least, and would betray a misunderstanding of the distinction (I do not say the utter separation) between the political and religious realms. In any case, the prophet is not asking anything like this of us.  But it does mean that it would not be rational for us to leave any and all convictions and insights we have concerning the human good at the gate by which we enter the public square. 

To enter this square, as our General Authorities increasingly invite us [15], we will be obliged to learn all we can about the moral premises of both friends and opponents, and to fashion our language as carefully, as moderately and as inclusively as possible, so as to foster friendship and alliance with as many lovers of traditional, moderated liberty and of the traditional family as possible.  Such friendships will not rest upon some purely neutral and in this sense universally rational “method” of reasoning (which does not exist, certainly not in the moral and political realms), but upon shared insight and conviction.  That such insight and conviction is grounded in and supported by tradition and scripture is in no way a disqualification from the standpoint of “reason,” as the liberationists would have us believe, but precisely what we would expect of principles deeply rooted in human nature, that is, in who we are, not as mythically abstract “individuals,” but as real beings whose fulfillment depends upon stable familial structures and upon moral norms upheld by a larger community.  To reason reasonably together about the preservation and strengthening of institutions essential to the common good is not at all to sacrifice preemptively all we know about the good before the twin idols of liberationism and scientism, but, on the contrary, to bring our positive, experiential insights (including that articulated in the best, morally attuned philosophy [16], literature, and yes, even social science) into the public square.  In this square we must be prepared to articulate and refine our insights, and also – since we are dealing with politics, that is, with the art of the best possible, prepared even to adjust our expectations to the realities of a relatively (but by no means absolutely) diverse society.  But such an ongoing political adjustment to inevitable variations in concrete understandings of the common good is an altogether different matter from the unilateral surrender that the liberationists would require of us.

We should therefore welcome the Prophet’s invitation to enter the public square and thus to learn better to articulate our moral convictions before various audiences and in various idioms.  The learning such an engagement requires is not only a political necessity, but an opportunity to examine more carefully and thus to appreciate more finely the insights – yes, the rational insights -- into our real, practical existence that are available in tradition as well as in scripture and continuing prophetic revelation.  We can become both more rational and more faithful by thoughtfully engaging public issues, but only after seeing through the rationalistic pretensions of progressive liberationism, and the specious neutrality by which it masks itself.



[1] See my “What is a Mormon Intellectual?” – soon to be posted at this site. [Back to manuscript]

[2] A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation State, trans. Marc LePain(Princeton University Press, 2006). [Back to manuscript]

[3] See especially the Discourse on  Method of  1637. [Back to manuscript]

[4] The French philosopher slyly defers fundamental ethical questions until his method can be perfected and brought to fruition --- that is to say, he defers ethics indefinitely, or forever. Thus ethics proves to be perpetually “provisional.” (Discourse, Part Three)  This is altogether characteristic of our modern, “progressive” deference to “science.” [Back to manuscript]

[5] See Philippe Beneton , Equality by Default, trans. R. Hancock (ISI Books 2004), p.111. [Back to manuscript]

[6] See, for example, Leviathan (1651), chs. 7 & 14. [Back to manuscript]

[7] Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, in the Introduction to their recent translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. (University of Chicago Press, 2000). [Back to manuscript]

[8] Here I mean an expansion in the very meaning of rights, and not their legitimate and long-overdue extension to all citizens, without regard to race. [Back to manuscript]

[9] http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/modernity-faith.html.  Accessed 12/4/2008. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Tocqueville put it this way: No society and, for that matter, no individual can exist without “dogmatic beliefs, that is, opinions men receive on trust…” (Democracy in America II.1.2.)  Eventually such beliefs refer to or connect up with “a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them…” (II.1.5)   If Tocqueville were writing today he might give “secular” or post-theistic examples of such general and ultimate ideas of the meaning of human existence, ideas grounded in notions of “liberation” and “progress.”  An example of the authority of such ideas will be given below. [Back to manuscript]

[11] Amitai Etzioni is a leading advocate of this would-be alternative.  Leading theorists include Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor (although neither is completely comfortable, naturally, with the label).  At least it is clear they are very acute as well as prestigious critics of the liberal theory of John Rawls and others. [Back to manuscript]

[12] http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2008/12/no_case_for_homosexuality_in_b.html   Accessed 12/16/2008. [Back to manuscript]

[13] See my “Reason and Revelation,” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Macmillan 1992). [Back to manuscript]

[14] Screwtape Letters: Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Macmillan, 1961), p. 12. [Back to manuscript]

[15] Consider, for example M. Russell Ballard, “Faith, Family, Facts, and Fruits,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 25–27.  The introductory blurb in the Ensign states succinctly the kind of invitation I mean: "The growing prominence of the Church and the increasing inquiries from others present us with great opportunities to build bridges, make friends, and pass on accurate information." [Back to manuscript]

[16] The precise character of such a “morally attuned philosophy” is a central research interest of the author.  He is attempting to specify this character through an engagement with the work of Martin Heidegger (who made a decisive contribution to overcoming the scientistic turn in philosophy, but who then threw out the baby of moral and political philosophy with the bathwater of “technology”), and with that of Leo Strauss (who saw with unsurpassed clarity the need to keep philosophy in touch with its moral-political grounds, but who conceived these grounds in too exclusively classical, non-Christian, and aristocratic terms).  The defects of each of these authors, I am preparing to propose, can be corrected by setting them in a framework inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s reflections on the unsurpassable tension between aristocratic and democratic matrices of meaning.  For a preliminary indication of this argument, see, for example, my  “Tocqueville’s Practical Reason,” Perspectives on Political Science 27:4 (Fall 1998) pp. 212-219, and “What Was Political Philosophy? Or: The Straussian Philosopher and His Other,” Political Science Reviewer 36 (2007).  And watch this online journal for further reports and distillations. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Hancock, Ralph C. (2008) "When Following the Prophet is Too Easy: Against the Identification of Reason with Progressive Liberationism," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHancockProp8.html, accessed [give access date].

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COMMENTS: 5 Comments

1) Orson Scott Card says:

Looks like I'm getting in on the ground floor!

Since I'm already on record elsewhere as sharing your views, let me make just a couple of additional comments:

1. Shame on you for making the rest of us look bad by actually using footnotes! <grin>

2. You're right that all we're seeing from the Other Side on this are standard rhetorical techniques: I'm the rational one, therefore my opponents are irrational; I'm the fair one, therefore my opponents are unfair.

What I've been most annoyed by is the number of celebs and others opposing proposition 8 who routinely and casually refer to those supporting marriage (and, along the way, the idea of constitutional amendment through democratic means) as "hate groups" and "haters."

Even the most casual observation shows that the people using hate speech, and speaking or acting with rage, are those OPPOSING proposition 8. Yet such statements, accusing our side of being the side of hate, are routinely accepted by everyone in the conversation as simple fact.

Just once, wouldn't it be nice if the host said, "Accusing them of hate IS hate speech. Lumping all your opponents together as having a single motivation IS bigotry. I prefer not to have the language of bigotry on my show"?

Orson Scott Card

January 2009

2) Nathan Oman says:


I find myself in agreement with much of what you say, but nevertheless ambivalent both about blanket prohibitions on gay marriage and with the church's high-profile involvement. First, because Mormonism is fated to be a tiny minority, I think that it is important to acknowledge more forcefully than you do the massive benefits that accrue to us as a people and to the Lord's work from liberal practices. While I am more than content to leave such calculations to the Lord's anointed, I do think that there are limits to what the Kingdom owes to the political sphere in terms of institutional costs borne in exchange for cultural benefits conferred.

As an affianado of the common law, I am extremely sympathetic to your prioritizing of liberal practices over a kind of perfectionist liberal liberationism. It is not clear to me, however, why one might not be persuaded by a more, modest, political liberalism that justifies a thin public sphere as an implication of moral diversity rather than the liberated self. Sullivan invokes such a liberalism, albeit inconsistently, and in many ways I find it persuasive provided that everyone understands it can also be used as a sword against the unstated liberal perfectionism that underlies much of Sullivan's rhetoric. My concern is that turning the legal difficulties faced by gay couples into a Manichean struggle over the meaning of sexuality in the public sphere, we foreclose precisely the sort of incremental, casuistic process of legal change that allows liberal practices to emerge as a workable modus vivendi of the political community as opposed to the implications of an overarching liberal philosophy. In practical terms, this leaves me opposed to attempts by both sides to constitutionalize the issues, although given the desire of both sides to use constitutional law as a trump, I realize this is in all probability a pipe dream. Hence, my ambivalence with Prop 8 and the church's involvement have nothing to do with some unreflective capitulation to the liberated self, but with the more concrete question of how best to allow for the evolution of liberal practices. Prop 8 may be the best one can do in a political and a legal culture already besotted with a liberationist idea of rights, but it does not strike me as ultimately leading us back to an organic liberalism rooted in an evolving tradition of liberal practices.

Nathan Oman
Assistant Professor
William & Mary Law School

January 2009

3) Ralph Hancock replies:

Thanks for joining the conversation, Scott and Nathan.  We hope to hear more from you in the future.

Nathan’s thoughtful and judicious response provides just the right counterpoint to my essay, which of course was all about the downside of advanced liberalism.  I was careful to note (in passing, to be sure) the benefits, religious and other, of the practices of a “moderate and reasonable liberalism” (such as precisely the “incremental, casuistic process of legal change which Nathan praises) as opposed to the finally Hobbesian and secular (not neutral) implications of pure liberal theory.  Mr. Oman, for his part, looks to the possibility of a “more modest, political liberalism that justifies a thin public sphere as an implication of moral diversity rather than the liberated self.”  In my piece I tried to explain -- too briefly and schematically, no doubt – why such modesty and thinness cannot be reliably supplied by the resources of liberalism itself.  What kept the radical implications of theoretical liberalism in its place was a mostly implicit and mostly shared moral and religious environment, which of course is now at risk, to say the least.  So my view was that Sullivan’s slippage from the rhetoric of modest and thin liberalism to the celebration of self-creation as the effective ground of a new public philosophy was by no means accidental, but rather quite typical of a powerful drift in liberal sensibilities. This drift, or rather its consequences, can be traced in the most famous and elaborate expression of political liberalism, namely John Rawls’s.  Rawls knows that, at least in our highly integrated modern societies, there is no such thing as a sheer “modus vivendi” without implications for a shared, or rather dominant, moral worldview.  His “political liberalism” is a moral theory, and more “comprehensive” than he lets on. But don’t get me started on Rawls.

No one wants to embrace Manicheanism (except actual Manicheans I suppose), but I’m not optimistic about legal incrementalism countering this drift, since the courts (including, alas, the highest) have all too often been the clearest, if not the most self-aware, exponents of the theory, or rather the notion derived, ultimately, from very old and very radical liberal premises, that every individual creates his own norms or “values.”  (I don’t have to cite the Supreme Court cases to Nathan.)  So, yes, I take no pleasure in confirming his doubts, but I believe a moderate constitutional incrementalism is now in fact a “pipe dream.”   I am no more confident of my own political calculations than is Mr. Oman, but my sense is that, since we are indeed a “minority” (if not now exactly “tiny” in the U.S.), we’d better be about making friends who are ready to stand with us in opposing the liberationist drift, which will not be a voluntary drift.  The Church’s involvement in the anti-Prop 8 campaign looks to me like an effort to begin doing just that.  My argument, by marking out the theoretical ground we can share with many non-Mormons, attempts to contribute to that effort.

January 2009

4) Richard Sherlock replies:

I must side with Ralph in his debate with Nathan Oman. Liberalism cannot be pushed to the limit without becoming inhuman. But what liberalism could not supply by itself, the moral and religious resources of a fading Christianity supplied-- namely, an account of the human good and of the moral principles of a decent life. Rawls is very instructive in this regard. Rawls’ seminal A Theory of Justice sought to renew liberalism with a contemporary version of contract theory. Rawls sought to defend welfare liberalism without ever addressing the foundational question: what is human welfare? Eventually Rawls concluded a foundational theory of the human good was impossible in liberalism. So he concluded in his last works that such a search for foundations must be avoided and in its place contemporary conventions must be substituted. We have a liberalism without foundations. Rawls more honest than some others have been. For him religion must be banished from the public square lest we have a holy war. His hyperventilated rhetoric was wrong, but he was deeply scared of the rise of politically active Christianity, i.e., Evangelical Christianity, conservative Catholicism, Mormonism involved in Prop. 8, etc. But let's be honest. Rawls thought that religion was properly involved when it was Rev. Martin Luther King but not when it was Rev. Richard John Neuhaus or Rev. Pat Robertson. But this just reflects his biases unless he is willing to make the very sort of argument he desperately wants to avoid.

Nathan is enamored of Ronald Dworkin, but Dworkin too makes claims for which he makes no real argument. At a central point, Dworkin writes of the justices deciding Brown v Board of Education, the seminal school desegregation case. The justices know that this was not intended in 1868 when the 14th amendment was passed. The justices know that if Brown had been thought to be even a vaguely possible result there would have been no amendment. But this is not decisive for Dworkin. The question is not what we were in 1868 or what we are (in 1954) but what we should become after 1954. This is a vision of the good for which no arguments are really given. The arguments can’t be just rights because we all recognize that China’s one child policy violates a fundamental right, and Prohibition was simply imprudent. What, then, is the argument?

I thus argue that either our religious and moral tradition must be renewed and invigorated to provide what it once provided, i.e., the ambit within which a truly humane and nested liberalism can be sustained--or we will end up with either nihilism on the one hand or statism on the other. Since, to quote the title of a great book by Jennifer Morse, It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, those who cherish liberalism for its gift of freedom, must stand against pervasive assaults on the dignity of life and marriage. Mormons, who have an abiding love of freedom, a metaphysical commitment to marriage stronger than anyone else, and a belief in the sacred character of all human life, should be in the forefront of this.

Richard Sherlock

February 2009

5) Meg Stout opines:

What a fun article. As Scott mentioned, with footnotes and everything.

I few years ago I managed to stop my family from watching television. It wasn't on purpose. I had merely fixed the TV in a manner that made sense to my engineer's mind and then continued with my job and 4-hour-a-day commute.

It took a few months for my husband to mention that the TV was "broken." 'Twas not broken, it turns out. I had merely inserted too many steps for it to be easy to use or decipher. [Nowadays we actually spend more time as a family reading scriptures than watching TV. Imagine.]

Having separated myself and my family from the ambient soup of liberalism, violence, and celebrity hagiography, I find myself rather embarrassed about attitudes I took for granted when I spent hours each day worshiping at the cultural altar.

One challenge I think Mormons face is that they (we) are not well understood outside their own enclaves. I remember my visceral reaction to Ostling's attempt to characterize our beliefs in his book, "Mormon America." He tried to explain that Mormons believe that Jesus was good, and thus we are inspired to be good. This imitation, he explained, was the Mormon doctrine of atonement.

My husband was reading this to me while I cleaned or something (he has a wonderful reading voice). So I had a listener when I retorted, "That's a piss-poor religion, if that were our religion." I mean, I am trying to be like Jesus (except when I fix TVs and use unfortunate language). But His mere example is not the core of my religion. If Ostling, who at least tried to comprehend our religion, mischaracterizes it so thoroughly, how can we expect the common schmo or antagonist to get it right?

Many of us are immersed from sun up to sun down in cultural soup created by folks who are ignorant, if not antagonistic, to our beliefs. It is, then, no surprise when we adopt the attitudes with which we have surrounded ourselves. How can we not be agonized by the dissonance?

So we must either remain in dissonance or we must choose.

Meg Stout

March 2009