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Liberalism: Political And/or Metaphysical?

John Rawls famously claimed that liberalism is a philosophy of politics, not a theory of metaphysics. This very much placed him within the liberal tradition extending back to early modern Europe. In contrast to ancient and medieval political thought, the first liberals sought to conceive of politics without reference to metaphysics or the soul. The old, exalted appeals might have sounded inspiring -- politics, according to Aristotle, leads us toward "the good life" of moral and intellectual virtue -- but in a world (like post-Reformation Europe) riven by deep disagreement about the content of the good life, such ambitions encouraged, or at least perpetuated, violent conflict. For the early liberals, it would be enough of an achievement for politics to secure what Aristotle described as "mere life" (the material preconditions of the good life, such as peace at home and abroad, economic prosperity for the greatest possible number of citizens, etc.).

Put in American terms, liberal politics protects the individual right to pursue happiness but leaves it up to each individual to determine the content of his or her own happiness in the the expansive private lives opened up by limited government. Liberal citizens can be devout Protestants or atheists, orthodox Catholics or Unitarians, secular Jews or committed Mormons. They can choose to live in a racially homogeneous gated community or to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. They can march for civil rights -- or oppose those who march for civil rights -- because they believe it is God's will that they do so, or they can make their decision based on purely secular considerations. They can live lives devoted to making money. Or they can join the peace corps. They can believe the United States is providentially blessed by Jesus Christ. Or that it is an abomination in the eyes of God. Or that it has unique humanitarian responsibilities in the world because of its power and ideals. Or that it has no special responsibilities at all beyond policing its own borders. And so on, through nearly every alternative open to the roughly 300 million citizens of our metaphysically centerless society.  

That is the liberal ideal: Politics without metaphysics. Not politics against metaphysics, as some illiberal atheists would apparently prefer. But politics conducted, as much as possible, in an idiom of metaphysical neutrality, taking no position for or against God -- or for or against any particular views about God and what He might or might not want from human beings. Individuals are free to believe just about anything about metaphysics, provided that they give up the ambition to political rule in the name of those beliefs -- that is, the ambition to use political power to bring the (highly differentiated) whole of social life into conformity with one particular metaphysical viewpoint.

It sounds great. But is it true? Does it describe the lived reality of contemporary American life? Or is it an illusion -- a liberal pipe dream -- covering over liberalism's barely concealed metaphysical commitments, which it actively seeks to impose, using government power, on American citizens with differing beliefs? The most intellectually formidable members of the religious right have been making precisely this claim for several decades now, and liberals (at least outside the academy) have done little to respond to the challenge. 

I admit that this seems like a strange time for a liberal to raise the topic for discussion, just over a week before the inauguration of a liberal president who won the largest non-incumbent victory in a presidential contest since the war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower triumphed in 1952. Yet it is no time for liberal complacency. Fifty-three percent of the vote feels very nice, especially since our winner-take-all electoral system grants the victor 100 percent of the political power at stake in the contest. But this can of course lead to an illusion of its own -- the illusion that the United States has undergone a fundamental shift in the direction of liberalism. The fact is that although Obama won nearly 70 million votes, John McCain won nearly 60 million. That's a lot of Americans preferring the other, much less liberal guy (and gal). If liberals truly want to consolidate and expand on their recent victory, they should take every opportunity to respond to a serious challenge from the right. This is especially the case when the challenge amounts to the assertion that a core liberal ideal -- the ideal of metaphysical neutrality -- is a sham. 

To be continued . . . .