The story of the resignation of the UK’s Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is easily interpreted as an indictment of liberal politics.
That’s how he himself interprets it.
The relentless questioning of his personal views on wedge issues such as the morality of homosexuality and abortion, despite his avowed support for liberal policies on these matters, forced him, he says, to conclude that no one with anything like his orthodox Christian beliefs could lead a party in Britain these days—even one explicitly devoted to liberalism and democracy.
“We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society,” he claimed.
The story points up a fundamental plurality in the very definition of “liberal,” a complexity that is as important in North America as it is in Britain.
Liberalism #1 is a commitment to freedom—hence its etymological roots in the Latin liber, or “free.” Liberalism in this sense champions the maximum freedom for individuals that is possible within the requirements of a cohesive and orderly society.
Liberalism #1 recognizes that human beings are flawed, but also capable of reasoning through difficulties, negotiating about disagreements, and cooperating despite differences in a necessary framework of law and legitimate authority.
Liberalism #1 is a perpetual conversation, an interaction of various interests and concerns worked out fluidly within an agreed-upon polity for the common good as each generation sees it.
Liberalism #2, however, is a rigid commitment to a set of values that will tolerate no deviance. Liberalism #2 insists on a woman’s complete freedom to choose regarding abortion; the full affirmation of diverse sexual identities and practices among consenting adults; the insistence that race, gender, and class are key categories affecting most, if not all, human interactions and always implicating white, male privilege at the expense of all others; and so on.
Those who hold to Liberalism #2 typically believe that their convictions are simply entailed by Liberalism #1: The only way to optimize freedom for everyone (#1) is to campaign for proper rehabilitative attitudes (#2).
The paradoxes, if not internal contradictions, of such a view, however, show up all over the place.
University campuses are roiled by liberal (#2) student organizations who refuse to allow anyone even to represent what they see to be illiberal ideas, for fear of “legitimizing” such ideas, let alone countenancing them.
Professional societies, human rights tribunals, courts, and legislatures forbid anyone from demurring out of conscience from participating in what they believe to be horrific medical practices now sanctioned by liberal (#2) authorities.
And political leaders, here and there, insist that candidates toe the party line on such issues, even if “liberal” is in their party name…because they are #2 liberals, of course.
Gone is any sense that freedom of (diverse) belief and speech is crucial to the “getting along” of disparate people in a complex society.
Absent is any self-doubt, any humbling worry that today’s sense of absolute righteousness might have been held equally firmly by people in the past who are now judged to be quite wrong.
Alas, however, many of those who mock these illiberal liberals have themselves been insisting on litmus tests, even on exactly the same issues.
“Report cards” on political candidates who held the “wrong” views on a few key issues such as, yes, abortion and homosexuality have been widely distributed on the political right for a generation or more.
Indeed, many of Donald Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters claimed that they voted for him for precisely one reason: to have him appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.
Thus we encounter Liberalism #3—the classic liberalism of free-market economics and small-government politics but combined with an alternative absolute morality—offering us a mirror-image of Liberalism #2.
Who, then, is left to champion Liberalism #1—that is, the defense of basic liberty?
As the political scientist (and Christian) Glenn Tinder said a generation ago, those of us who believe in God had better be very careful not to grant our neighbours less liberty than God does…