POLITICAL LIBERALISM AS A SECULAR RELIGION
LINK TO THE FULL ARTICLE on the web
>>as a pdf — http://jaygaskill.com/liberalismasreligion.pdf
Editor’s note: This is a revision by the author of an earlier article of the same title that went viral after its release in 2004 – at least 6,000 readers saw it before 2008.
 THE CRISIS IN LIBERALISM &
 THE CHALLENGE TO CONSERVATISM
An Ongoing Analysis by
Jay B Gaskill
Let me define my terms. All thinking people who respect human life and dignity are liberals in the larger sense. So that makes me and most thinking conservatives liberals, too.
That larger, generous liberalism is not my topic.
For purposes of this essay, I’m applying the terms “political liberal” or “postmodern liberal” to identify a subset of the partisan left, those people for whom being a “liberal”: (a) is kind of a calling, in which some one’s declaration that “I’m a liberal” sounds very much like “I’m a Seventh Day Adventist” (my apologies to all SDA’s – this is just an illustration); (b) the liberal self-identification is meant to immediately imply a specific litany – a secular catechism — of specific doctrines. In general these are the positions that are shared by the 21st century left wing of the Democratic Party and the Green party.
A short list of the defining positions of political liberals would include several commonly shared liberal sentiments – opposition to racism, the devaluation of women and the concern for the protection of the quality of the natural environment, which are mainstream issues and sentiments widely shared by moderates and conservatives. But in the fevered minds of political liberals, these sentiments become conflated into an epic struggle against the grotesque foes of all that is good and true. We face a mythic “liberal” construct in which all middle class whites are inherently racist; all heterosexual males are irredeemably sexist; and all businesses (save a select few who donate heavily to liberal causes) are bent on raping the environment.
Beyond these silly caricatures, the same “liberal” minds tend to view all military and police as small minded, atavistic brutes, and see conservatives as living in trailer parks (or as having been somehow trained in them, retaining their trailer park values as they have become indecently wealthy by selling cars). In these same minds, concern for sexual freedom and female autonomy get turned into a general doctrine that decries any attempt to regulate what adult people do with their sexual and reproductive organs. Even discussions about regulating very late term procedures to terminate an unborn fetus (whose heart is actually beating), or attempts to control children who want to escape from the “sexual tyranny” of their parents are ruled out of bounds. We must not even entertain these thoughts, lest we – God forbid – practice right wing zealotry.
As I revisit and revise this essay, the progressive liberal establishment finds itself confronted by the murderous intolerance of a malignant mutation in Islam. Our current president, Barack Hussein Obama, purports to speak for his fellow liberals when he refuses to use the term “Muslim extremists” much less “Islamo-fascists”, “Islamo-Nazis” or even “radical Islamists,” seemingly in order not to offend the delicate sensibilities of all peace-loving Muslims, multiculturalists, or even the Wahhabi Muslims who rule Saudi Arabia.
Thus the postmodern liberal mind has turned tolerance into an endorsement of intolerance.
A recent article by Dr. Dennis Prager describes an incident where “Bill Maher, a man of the left on virtually every issue, began by defending liberalism’s honor against liberal hypocrisy on the subject of Islam.” Maher took hell for it from some of his fellow liberals.
Maher: “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. . . . Liberal principles like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities including homosexuals — these are liberal principles that liberals applaud for [pointing to his audience], but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.”
Bill Maher was invited to give a December 2014 commencement address at UC Berkeley. As a result of these remarks, he was almost disinvited, because of a single departure from the approved catechism. He had dared to excoriate the radical Islamists who killed a cartoonist and many others in France. The students and faculty members who attempted to stop the Maher’s commencement speech were members of the partisan, political left. Maher was an apostate because he had departed from the left’s secular catechism.
This is not the space in which to debate the merits of the public policy issues that make up the catechism of the political left. But we need to understand that, collectively, these views are a catechism.
There is no better explanation for the extreme resistance of the “political liberal” group to all rational argument. For this discussion, please try not conclude anything about my own views, except that they are determined issue-by-issue from a philosophical and moral framework that is rooted in certain durable verities and a commitment to real world engagement. Over the years I have taken and discarded liberal and conservative policy prescriptions alike as evidence and additional evaluation warranted.
A healthy dialogue requires a great degree of flexibility of approach, attention to evidence, and the willingness to reexamine assumptions; in short, it requires a dedication to doing what works in the real world. Dialogue is essential for wise policy.
Anyone who takes on the challenging but rewarding task of real-world moral engagement hits a bizarre wall when attempting a reasonable policy dialogue with the partisan creatures I’m calling “political liberals”.
Why is this? The political liberal mindset is dominant in a number of parts of this country. It is held by self-styled “sophisticated and thoughtful” people who vigorously reject the very idea that their belief system constitutes an ideology. Of course, when liberals deviate from the main doctrine, they tend to speak very softly indeed.
Liberalism in this form is a secular religion. This religion originated, innocently enough, as an attempt to off-load the entire charitable and humanitarian enterprise to the regulatory and social action agencies of government. Somehow, it has survived the demise of national and international socialism by appealing to some of the very groups who were threatened by the former ideologies.
The point of interest here is that political liberals consist of two groups: the angry and outspoken activists who define “pure” doctrine, and the much larger group who simply go along. It is the unwillingness of this second, larger group to openly deviate from doctrine that interests me.
I believe that, for this larger group (most of whom are well off financially and educated far above the “trailer park” level they tend to despise), the primary function of this secular religion is to protect the comfortable lifestyles of its adherents. 
It is no coincidence that political liberals thickly populate some of the wealthiest and best educated coastal and urban communities in America. They are bound together, not only by a political religion, but by shared experiences. For the most part, they constitute social cohorts that enjoy six linked sets of shared assumptions and attitudes:
- A comfortable hedonism enjoyed by predominantly well educated post-religious middle class and upper class sub-populations;
- A “hip” social outlook that tends to mask or anesthetize moral qualms about the enjoyment of their position; effect this is a shared social milieu in which “style” and social “sophistication” operate to confer on their life styles a sort of gentile veneer of social virtue, one characterized by “tolerance”;
- Compartmentalized morality, especially in the arts, an attitude that holds that the arts are generally to be free of all traditional moral stances and constraints, except for a small sub-component (honored more by gesture than actually patronized) in which the condemnation of oppression and the celebration of the oppressed are featured elements;
- Non judgmental attitudes about “sins” of the educated and tolerant, overlooking drug abuse, “life-style” motivated abortions, serial divorces and a whole range sexual behavior typically condemned in less “sophisticated” cultures;
- The tendency to see morality as the avoidance of social criticism, resulting in a cinematic definition of the moral “stand”, where morality is understood primarily in terms of appearances;
- The notion that morality is properly and even sufficiently manifested by moral gestures. As a result, “correct” positions and stances trump all gritty engagement with the world, even at the expense of practical results.
How do we explain the fierce grip maintained by the religion of political liberalism over its adherents?
Liberalism’s tendency to elevate “correct” stances and gestures creates an extraordinary ability to shield the comfortable hedonist life styles of its main adherents from moral criticism. Thus the religion of liberalism represents a form of social détente and clever camouflage.
How do we explain the isolationist / pacifist tendencies of political liberals?
This stance is a direct result of the comfortable hedonist life styles of its main adherents. Isolationist pacifism is a moral stance that deflects criticism of the otherwise selfish addiction to moralistic gestures without-teeth in the face of existential evil.
The religion of political liberalism has three principal canons:
- Nationalization of charity. Humanitarian endeavors cannot be effectively performed, nor equitably supported unless they are done by government agencies. This has the virtue of insulating its adherents from real moral claims on their personal resources. In effect, the political-moral stance that begins with the phrase– “I support….(you can fill in the blanks with a liberal cause here)” becomes the equivalent of “I gave at the office.”
- Social Marxism. This stance (going by various other names of course) dictates that a doctrine of (pretended) social equality substitutes for the now discredited ruthless redistribution of all wealth. This stance (which was really the ur-source of political correctness) allows its adherents to accomplish (or at least favor) the humiliation and social repression of those whom its shifting fashions might choose to label oppressors. This is a low cost approach to egalitarianism and protects those whose sophisticated hedonism would otherwise be criticized. The appropriately expressed politically correct bromides are the camouflage of “undeserved” well off.
- Collective Expiation of guilt. Social survivor guilt, the inevitable result of a sense of “unearned” well being, is expiated by this religion’s ritual practices. These rituals, for the most part, consist of bumper stickers, public gestures, cocktail party banter, and occasional political activity in support of liberal causes. Gestures are cost free insulation.
The psychological strength of the liberal religion derives from five related developments in the human condition, mostly confined to the highly developed and prosperous communities in Europe and the Americas:
(1) The collapse of traditional religious and other transcendent moral demands on the individual among the dominant intelligentsia of the developed world;
(2) Unprecedented material comfort and wealth that must somehow be preserved as the birthright of the “good people” (defined as the political liberals).
(3) The persistent, nagging voice of residual conscience, still suffered by those anti-traditional secularists who have not yet succumbed to outright nihilism;
(4) The emperor-has-no-clothes fragility of the whole act, such that any invalidation or repudiation of a part of the doctrine threatens the whole;
(5) The deep psychological dread of any prospective return to individual accountability measured by an authoritative moral system.
The last point raises a particularly frightening scenario for those liberals who lack refuge in a “Plan B” – the resort to the supporting infrastructure of a transcendent, stable belief system supported by a community of co-believers, in effect, to traditional religion.
The postmodern liberal mind tacitly or explicitly rejects religion except as a form of meditation or therapy. This is coupled with the rejection of the possibility of actual evil in the world. The devaluation of evil is a psychologically necessary step because, to recognize evil entails a moral obligation to take up concrete, risky and burdensome actions against it. Recall that postmodern political liberalism is designed to support and validate the comfortable lifestyle of its adherents. In the political liberal canon, evil and wickedness are to be treated as psychological/medical issues best addressed via therapies. Such minds have rejected the classical tradition, and they lack the safety net of ordinary religion – which was rejected by liberalism-as-secular-religion as the construct of atavistic superstition. For this large subset of liberals, the prospect of a return to individual (as opposed to collective) moral accountability is a deeply unattractive option. Why? It presents either of two unacceptable alternatives:
- A return to a moral system in which one’s own conduct is seen again as “sinful,” or –
- A condition of moral free fall in which civil order is threatened. Either choice threatens the comfortable enclaves of protected, gentile hedonism in which the followers of liberalism-as-religion hope to live out their anxious but well-protected lives.
This is why a reasoned discussion of conservative alternatives to social problems can so quickly degenerate into personal attacks and mindless sloganeering. These taunts are just a modern form of that ancient, bone-chilling cry: “Burn the heretic!”
Yet the radical Islamists are beheading the heretics. This presents a crisis in liberalism. The Liberal in Chief in the White House clings to the fantasy construct that we are not at war, that the Islamist threat is a series of disconnected events, that Israel will not be at risk if it just agrees to “get along” with it hostile neighbors, and so on…
The sad fact of human nature is that at any given time about 20% of adults (including the alleged “smart’ ones) are living in an alternate universe made up of their preferred fantasies. And of all the comfortable fantasies, denial ranks number one.
I am convinced that thinking liberals can be saved. And the moment has arrived. The Islamic war is primarily against liberal Western civilization. This presents a crisis within the postmodern political liberalism of the comfortable, prosperous West.
As liberals and conservatives, we need to ask ourselves “Why the rage against Israel and the USA?”
The followers of Islam have a great deal of difficulty accepting that their own religion’s retrograde elements are partly – even mostly – responsible for the failure of Islamist regimes to progress along the lines of a modern Western country. Blame the failures of Allah’s chosen peoples on Allah? …Of course not. A more comfortable view is that the West is “cheating.”
Look up “malignant narcissism”. The fanatical infatuation with radical Islam is a form of collective moral narcissism. The typical, full-on narcissist will pull down the whole world before acknowledging that he – and not the unfair world – is responsible for his own fate. In effect, the radical mutation in Islam is a form of collective moral narcissism.
It is clear to me that contemporary political liberalism has lost its way, and that a reasonable conservatism is needed to provide the necessary corrective, much as liberalism did in the 19th century for conservatism. Both approaches to life’s shifting problems are needed. Liberalism’s enduring project – currently overshadowing its historic commitment to liberty – is to mitigate the harshness of Darwinian competition on the people. Conservatism’s enduring project – formerly superseding its waning commitment to inherited privilege – is to protect the legitimate earnings of the people.
In former times, neither liberalism nor conservatism evidenced a particularly robust focus on the truly greater project: fostering the special conditions of ordered liberty in which creative human enterprises thrive – the very enterprises that constitute the fountainhead of all human progress, whether in the arts, technology or our social arrangements.
The challenges of the next 50 years will require creative adaptation on a large scale. We – conservatives and liberals – should be tending to the vital project on which our future will depend: the project of fostering, protecting and anchoring the human creative enterprise. The resumption of a fruitful dialogue between thoughtful conservatives and the enlightened, freedom-loving liberals requires a common understanding. Both sides need to grasp that the creative project, writ large, necessarily requires protected freedoms that have always been closely associated with the conservative project. Both sides need to grasp that creativity includes technology and the arts, that economic and creative freedoms are of a single piece. These are the very freedoms essential to the functioning of creative communities throughout history. They include the right to uncensored, unregulated expression, to the legally protected retention of one’s legitimately acquired property and earnings (particularly intellectual property and the fruits of one’s innovations and inventions) and the protection of voluntary mutual exchange, whether of ideas, art, goods, services or any other value that free men and women, working for themselves, can generate.
Fruitful dialogue requires us get past our ideological stereotypes. We need to understand that, on the deepest level, that as people, we are not our opinions. Our core values define us, but our opinions only define our approaches to common problems.
That we agree to honor the freedoms, laws and social arrangements that are essential to the functioning of creative communities throughout history will form the bedrock of a creative civilization imperative. I believe that this is a powerful idea, one that has the potential to transform both liberalism and conservatism.
Not coincidentally, the special conditions for a large scale, ongoing creative efflorescence have strongly rooted themselves in the New World, protected by the American constitutional structure of governance. This is the core value of American exceptionalism. The American experiment is at its very core the first modern example of a creative society grounded in protected liberties. As the force of this idea spreads and the policy implications sink in, the stage will be set for the Great American Recovery.
Once again, our example will lead the world.
This piece was first posted May 18, 2004 on The Policy Think Site, and was substantially revised on January 23, 2015, where you can find other topical and perennially relevant articles. Set your browser to www.jaygaskill.com for The Policy Think Site
Copyright © 2004, 2015 by Jay B. Gaskill
A license to link to this article or to publish pull quotes from it (with full attribution) is hereby granted. For all other permissions and comments, please contact the author via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author served as the chief Public Defender for the County of Alameda, CA, headquartered in Oakland for 10 years, following a long career as an Assistant Public Defender. Then, Gaskill left his “life of crime” to devote more time to writing. Learn more about Jay B Gaskill, attorney, analyst and author, at http://jaygaskill.com/WhoIsJayBGaskill.pdf
 And the secondary function is to supply that missing “meaning of life” component for those without religion or deeper philosophical principles.
 The attraction of this idea is powerful because most of us have “sinned” at least once!
 Note that political liberals have long ago rejected Plan C, the collective wisdom of the classical tradition.
 I can’t resist pointing out that political correctness has recreated sin by another name.
 A scholar who lived in the Muslim areas of the Middle East, sympathetic to the ‘better angels” of that religion, nevertheless points out: “Since the oil boom of the 1970s and ’80s, Saudi Arabia, whose official creed is Wahhabi Islam, has exported Wahhabism to parts of Africa, Asia, and the West through scholarships and the funding of radical mosques, preachers, and groups. Al-Qaeda is a direct spinoff of Wahhabi Islam, and IS an outgrowth from al-Qaeda, while the origins of Boko Haram lie in a network of Wahhabi-Salafi groups in Nigeria. This religious context provides the framework for justifying violence. Jihadists quote from Islamic scripture, prophetic traditions, and legal opinions to support their claims and activities. Jihad against non-Muslims and the ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed are in fact based on Islamic law. The same is true of the tactic of capturing women and children as war booty and keeping or disposing of them as slaves. Islam also promises rewards and pleasures awaiting the martyr. It is therefore simplistic if not misleading to argue that groups like IS and Boko Haram have nothing to do with Islam.” Author John Azumah in the journal, First Things –