A Liberal Idea of Civility
A First Things: Evangel commenter who goes by “Remember Rollen” had this to say in the discussion on Hunter Baker’s article on dominionism:
If a “gay rights” law touching basic matters of justice cannot be justified in terms we can reasonably expect others to accept, then we violate a liberal ideal of civility when we restrict the freedoms of others through that law.
But I don’t quite see this with respect to [the overturning of] Prop. 8. (But you are surely here in in a better position to point out something I don’t see.) Maybe you can point to something in the court transcripts that contains the sort of violation you have in mind.
There is an attractive sort of ideal expressed there, one that I could really appreciate, if only it could work. Yes, let’s let our policies be guided by what we can reasonably expect others to accept. Since this came up in the context of dominionism, I take it that for Remember Rollen, this is one of the best ways to head off dangers of the sort represented by dominionism. (Whether there’s anything there that needs heading off is a different question. I do not know where Remember Rollen stands on that question, but it seems he is at least concerned about dangers of the sort that dominionism is supposed to present. I will refer to him as “RR” here, and I’ll accept the risk that I might be wrong in using the masculine pronoun.)
His point in that passage is this: if we can find a way to limit our public policy decisions to principles that can “be justified in terms we can reasonably expect others to accept,” then we can be assured no one’s freedom will ever be limited, except in ways they could reasonably be expected to agree with. That certainly sounds consistent with Western democratic principles. Unfortunately, working out that ideal presents problems that may be insurmountable.
To see why that is the case, let’s take a further look at what RR has to say. How can we identify “terms we can reasonably expect others to accept”? His approach to that relies on the concept of comprehensive doctrines. He presents a full definition of comprehensive doctrines in comment #27 on that thread. The following presents the concept by way of an example:
One can’t reasonably expect, for example, others to believe in papal infallibility, even if it might be a belief within a reasonable enough comprehensive doctrine. Therefore, if a Catholic is looking for a way to respectfully cooperate with non-Catholics, he should not impose rules whose justification, in all honesty, presupposes papal infallibility–even if papal infallibility is true….
What we’re talking about is what we can reasonably expect our fellow citizens to accept as a justification, given that they, reasonable enough, may not share our particular comprehensive worldview.
Again, this seems an attractive ideal. All of us would strongly prefer that our freedoms not be impinged upon by doctrines we don’t agree with. Religious beliefs are the obvious, prime examples of comprehensive doctrines on which not everyone can be expected to agree. Therefore it follows that we might want to maintain a safe and protective distance between religious belief and public policy. Referring now to RR’s first quote above, we can draw a clear application: if non-religious beliefs are insufficient to justify laws against gay “marriage,” then it is illiberal to have such laws on the books.*
Two Key Assumptions Behind the “Liberal Idea of Civility”
Unfortunately there’s more going on in this than may be immediately obvious. What if there is some unrecognized comprehensive doctrine at play in the push to change marriage law—one that we can’t all reasonably be expected to accept? I believe there is such a doctrine. Though it is virtually invisible to public consciousness, it is the ideological powerhouse behind the gay “marriage” movement. Homosexual advocacy is just one piece of it, though, a particular expression of it, if you will; for it is larger—more comprehensive—than that. This doctrine rests at the conceptual core of a movement that appears more like an irreligious analogue to “dominionism”—with aspirations as totalizing as any imagined theocracy—than a liberalizing movement of freedom.
And with that I’m in danger of sounding as much a conspiracy theorist as the dominionismists. Before you conclude I’ve joined the list of the loonies, let me explain what I mean. I’ll continue to use the marriage issue for purposes of illustration. Obviously America is embroiled in a heated dispute over what marriage is and should be. RR’s position appears to be that any law that restrict homosexuals’ freedom to marry each other could be—and probably is—a gross violation of civil liberty. It seems to me, however, that he has missed two key assumptions on which his argument depends. I haven’t asked him whether he accepts those assumptions as his own, but it seems to me it would be hard for anyone to affirm his position without them.
These two critical assumptions are:
- The definition of marriage is expandable to include same-sex unions
- That expansion can be accomplished through the law
It should not be hard to see how crucial these assumptions are to his position. He has said that it is (or at least it could be) a violation of civil liberty to enact laws that restrict persons’ freedom to marry. But if the definition of marriage were fixed and not susceptible to being changed (Assumption 1), or even if it were expandable but not expandable through law (Assumption 2), then it would be impossible for laws based on traditional marriage, or the enactment of such laws,** to be responsible for any violation of civil liberties, as RR says they might be. Absent these assumptions, marriage is what marriage is, and no law could possibly do anything to change it. We do not hold agents responsible for circumstances over which they have no power. If law cannot define marriage, then it cannot be held to blame for what marriage is or is not. You might as well call the law illiberal for not letting us all do slam-dunks like LeBron James. Apart from Assumptions 1 and 2, we could never sensibly suppose that “we violate a liberal ideal of civility when we restrict the freedoms of others through that law.”
Obviously same-sex “marriage” advocates accept Assumptions 1 and 2. I’d be willing to bet most of them do so implicitly. (I am speaking generally of same-sex “marriage” proponents now, not of RR in particular.) Believing as I do that these are implicit and thus unexamined assumptions for many of them, I also think it likely that few have recognized the possibility that others might not likewise share these assumptions implicitly. Regardless of whether they hold these assumptions implicitly or not, they take it that the form that marriage takes depends on nothing but human choices endorsed through man-made law. “Traditional” marriage is just that: traditional; and traditions are human-determined things. Same-sex “marriage” would on that view be a different thing, but no less and no more human-determined.
Thus (on that view) the struggle over marriage is between two human-defined, legally-endorsed conceptions of marriage. It is just human conception against another. Therefore the most rational principle for settling the marriage question seems to be that of liberty and freedom. It ought to be quite simple, in those terms. No one could see it otherwise unless they were insecure in their sexuality, a hater, a hide-bound traditionalist, or some other form of annoying irrationalist.
And Another Comprehensive Doctrine
From where do these assumptions come, however? Is there some comprehensive doctrine underlying them? I think there is, and ironically it bears striking relationship to Christian doctrines of dominion. I’m not talking about dominionism now, but Christian understandings of the term “dominion” in Genesis 1:26, 28. The term is interpreted in various ways by various Christians. Typically these interpretations start from what it is to be human: that we are a special, unique kind of being, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, sandwiched between the two references to dominion.) Though interpretations of dominion differ, they all feature some aspects of reality over which humans are understood to have stewardship or control, and other aspects over which we do not.
The assumptions underlying same-sex “marriage” advocacy also hang on what we understand it is to be human, and what it is we may or may not control. It is of course a secular conception. It tells us in the first place that we are evolved creatures; or more precisely, evolving creatures. Therefore humanness (what it means to be human) has no fixed nature. There is no such thing as the essence of humanness, for evolution does not produce essences, it produces populations in the process of change. What we are is we have evolved to be, but that is only a snapshot along the road. To speak of an evolved species like homo sapiens as if it is some permanent thing is to deny the core of evolutionary theory. Crucially, this is true both for physiology and behavior. Therefore marriage, being a product of evolved and evolving humans, must be an evolved and evolvable institution. There is no fixed nature or essence of marriage.
Now, somehow along the way we humans developed a unique capacity to recognize and thus direct the course of evolution, especially that of human behavioral norms and institutions. This evolutionary insight informs us that marriage is what we humans have defined it to be, and nothing else than that. That being so, we have the freedom to define it differently if we want. It is no stretch of language to say that we have dominion over the definition of marriage. That freedom, that dominion, is limited only by the practical necessity of coming to social agreement on what marriage is, and to enforce that agreement to whatever extent we might find useful. We do that through the law. Therefore marriage is what the law says it is.
It’s About Marriage and More
It’s not just marriage, by the way. It’s also family, and it’s maleness and femaleness. These are no more fixed, unalterable concepts than humanness is. If the law lets you choose your gender, then you can choose your gender, regardless of what the old biology books might tell you about your body. If you want to throw off all concepts of male and female entirely, then you can do that too, as long as the law allows; for these things are in eternal flux, and what authority is there to restrict you from adding your own impetus to that flux?
Let’s put this in context. Assumptions 1 and 2 are absolutely necessary for gay-rights advocacy to make sense; but they in turn require some underlying theory, some doctrine to justify them. They find this in the pervasive Western doctrine of the unfixed, ever-changing biology and behavior of the human species, as described in evolutionary theory. It is a comprehensive doctrine, for mainstream science (the arbiter of such decisions for Western society) has decreed that it is the explanation for all of biology and all of behavior.
Whether It Is True or Not
I do not present this as an anti-evolutionary screed. That’s not the point. RR said that Catholicism should not be imposed upon those who disagree with it “even if papal infallibility is true.” In the same way, we could say that evolution-based views of humans should not be imposed on others, even if it is true. Actually, I don’t claim to know for certain whether evolutionary theory is necessary to ground Assumptions 1 and 2; nor do I need to know for my purposes here. It’s possible there could be other systems of thought that would justify the two assumptions. At the same time, though, it can hardly be denied that given evolution’s widespread hegemony, in practical terms it is the doctrine that actually does support these assumptions.
In summary, then, RR’s proposed resolution of the gay-rights issue, as stated in the first quote above, makes sense only in light of Assumptions 1 and 2; and without those two assumptions, laws that limit marriage to a man and a woman could not possibly be unjust. Assumptions 1 and 2 rest on a comprehensive doctrine; therefore same-sex “marriage” advocacy rests on a comprehensive doctrine.
The Reasonability Clause
But that is not the end of the story; we’re only partway there. RR has not rejected all comprehensive doctrines; he merely says we should not base public policy on any comprehensive doctrine that cannot be justified in terms we can reasonably expect others to accept. (Another version suggests we limit policy to doctrines that reasonable persons are not likely to reject.) Obviously, in light of that, there remains the issue of reasonability. Granted that we all might hold to some comprehensive doctrine or other; the point is to find one upon which we can agree, or at least one to which no one could reasonably object. We can’t expect to agree on all of our beliefs, as RR rightly tells us; but maybe we can find something to work with anyway.
One of the motivations for talking about reasonable comprehensive doctrines is to bypass the controversial question of which one, if any, is true, or even closest to the truth. That’s the sort of question which citizens of a pluralistic society have no prospect of coming to an agreement upon (as I think we must acknowledge); it’d therefore be highly unfortunate if our views of government legitimacy and our respectful cooperation with one another depended upon our coming to such an agreement.
At this point I turn from analysis to question-asking. If it is true (if I am correct) to suggest that:
- Same-sex “marriage” advocacy depends rationally upon Assumptions 1 and 2, and
- Assumptions 1 and 2 depend (practically, at least, if not necessarily) upon the belief that humanness is essentially an unfixed, ever-changing concept, and
- This belief regarding humanness serves is founded upon and serves as part of a comprehensive doctrine,
… then is this a comprehensive doctrine we can reasonably expect others to accept? Is it one to which no reasonable person could ever be expected to object?
I think my answers to those questions should be obvious. If the test for liberty is that no law should be based on a comprehensive doctrine to which persons might reasonably object.
A Couple of Loose Ends
Before I close I want to wrap up what I was saying about “secular dominionism” and its totalizing aspirations. I hope it’s clear that I’m using dominionism analogically. I’m not trying to force-fit theologically-derived language onto secularists, and I’m certainly not a conspiracy theorist. I’ve heard stories (perhaps you have too) of secularizing conspiracy groups, but I’m not much persuaded of them, and that’s not what this is about in any case. The totalizing aspirations of which I speak are also something analogical or metaphorical: not the dictatorial intent of some sinister cabal, but rather the pervasive secular mindset of our culture, without which Assumptions 1 and 2 could not function effectively as unconsciously accepted guiding principles.
*I believe “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms. I prefer not to write in contradictions, so I use quotes around “marriage” in that context. I know some people object to that as tendentious. Take it for what it is, please. I do not use the quotes as scare quotes or for rhetorical effect, but just to maintain personal integrity regarding what I hold to be true.
**I use this language guardedly. I do not mean to support the popular misconception that the reason homosexual “marriage” is illegal is because laws have been enacted against it. Until recently it has simply been regarded as impossible because it is a self-contradictory concept.
Also posted at First Things: Evangel