Liberalism in Action: A Response to "Illiberal Liberalism?"

By: Teresa Donnellan

On Tuesday, October 27, the Religious Freedom Project held an event titled, “Illiberal Liberalism? The Fate of Religious Freedom in the Public Square.” The panel, moderated by RFP Associate Director Timothy Shah, featured Kirsten Powers, a political pundit and author of recent book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech; Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Phil Zuckerman, a professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and founder of the nation’s first secular studies university department. 

I was squirming in my seat before the event started. I hate conflict, and I couldn’t imagine that these three would agree on much. After all, the speakers represented different beliefs—Catholic, Baptist, and atheist, respectively—and opposing political views. (The irony of my discomfort in the face of a truly liberal event is not lost on me.) I was pleasantly surprised, however, when what followed was an engaging, thoughtful, and friendly discussion in the vein of the great liberal tradition.   

The event dealt with the major themes of Powers’ book, which comprises largely anecdotal and some empirical evidence that left-leaning students and faculty on college campuses across the country are making it difficult for certain individuals to voice their opinions. She cited several instances where students picketed conservative speakers or demanded that their university disinvite speakers who might offend certain people on campus. By doing things like this, many left-leaning students are effectively strangling a meaningful exchange of ideas on college campuses, thereby undermining the central purpose of an education.   

Furthermore, the phenomenon Powers describes threatens religious freedom as it occasionally ousts religious opinions in favor of a liberal moralism, which is by no means universal. If a single group of people enforces its beliefs on others, that’s oppression. By preventing their fellow students from hearing a speech from a person with different views from their own, these left-wing members of the campus community counteract the pluralism that is so important to the liberal tradition.   

While Zuckerman critiqued the book’s heavy use of anecdotal data, he conceded that Powers’ data on the increasing rate of “disinvitiations”—instances in which a speaker’s invitation was revoked due to backlash from the student body, particularly at more liberal universities—was powerful. He was also surprised and disappointed by some of the stories he read, adding his own example of Bernie Sanders being welcomed at Liberty University, an evangelical college, while George Wills was uninvited from speaking at Scripps College, a liberal school.   

Powers and Zuckerman posited similar explanations for this phenomenon: Liberal students see themselves as righteous. They’re “fighting the good fight,” so to speak, against oppressive and bigoted opinions by keeping them off of their campuses. Zuckerman drew the analogy between the last generation of liberals’ righteous causes, which included protesting the Vietnam War and supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and the cause of today’s young liberals, which, for lack of a more oppressive opponent, has become the suppression of ideas with which they disagree, often in the name of equal rights for sexual or other minorities.     

Russell Moore suggested that this phenomenon could be attributed to a form of tribalism. Taking a stance on a controversial issue has become a means of self-identification on many college campuses. Such tribalism leads to a conflation of one’s argument with one’s inherent dignity. Within this setting, the given persuasion in power becomes normative, and dialogue with competing ideas threatens or insults one’s identity.   

Using the example of same sex marriage as an issue around which there is tension between secular liberals and the more conservative religious, the three went on to discuss the role liberalism ought to play in society. Zuckerman pointed out that interacting with people who have different views helps us to see the humanity and inherent dignity in others. Because he has conversed with and gotten to know people of diverse religious, political, and sexual persuasions, he knows that, although he wholeheartedly supports gay marriage, one can oppose gay marriage without being a bigot. He explained that in order to engage with people of differing opinions, we have to be patient, try to start from common ground, listen carefully, and, at times, respectfully disagree.    

I wish I could say my experience at Georgetown has been the exception to the emerging rule Powers presents in her book. Unfortunately, I’ve repeatedly been disappointed in my attempts to engage my fellow students on certain sensitive issues.   

For example, I’ve been on the board of the pro-life student group for three of my four years at Georgetown. Last year I served as president of the club. I had a plan for a speaking event at which a panel comprising pro-life and pro-choice students, moderated by a third party, would present their opinions on abortion. To my dismay, the pro-choice group on campus replied to our invitation with a lengthy email explaining that they had come to the decision to decline. They explained that members of our respective clubs have already formed their opinions on this issue; so holding such a panel would only be incendiary. They also expressed the desire to maintain our clubs’ “respectful relationship.”   

In my opinion, it is precisely because there is no real exchange of ideas occurring on campus regarding abortion that we fail to have a truly respectful relationship. Not speaking to one another amounts to no relationship, at best. We should instead engage in public discourse in a respectful tone and serve as leaders on campus, demonstrating that conversation between people and groups who disagree on issues is possible and enriching for all members of the campus community. I’m not naive enough to believe any of the panelists would have a change of heart, but I do think the event would draw audience members who have yet to form serious opinions on the issue and would do much to foster an environment of open, civil exchange—that is, the type of engagement that should be at the center of an educational agenda.   

In a society that engages in mudslinging and silencing, “Illiberal Liberalism?” was an inspiring event to witness. True liberalism is essential for religious freedom to flourish. The resulting exchange of ideas is what leads to progress. Pluralism, and the protection of pluralism via freedom of religion and conscience (and the freedom to voice these positions), ensures that this exchange of ideas can continue. 

Teresa Donnellan is a 2016 graduate of Georgetown College, having majored in economics and English. 

This piece was originally authored on December 3, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/19/liberalism-in-action-a-response-to-illiberal-liberalism