Does Indiana Signal the End of Liberalism?

The “end of liberalism” can be taken to have two meanings, reflecting the ambiguity of both “end” and “liberalism.” “End” can mean the final or logical destination of an idea—the goal, if not its perfection (think telos); or it can mean that something is finished, over and done with, gone forever. And “liberalism” is a confused term in modern times. It originally stood for individual liberty, and was the cornerstone of limited government that respected not just individual rights, but the basic distinction of the public from the private. But today’s liberalism has become wholly authoritarian, though it is obviously ill-liberal in the extreme. Perhaps the increasingly overt authoritarianism of American liberalism was its telos all along? (Pat Moynihan thought so as early as the 1960s; he remarked to Nixon in 1970, “I know there is an authoritarian Left in this country, and I fear it.” What would he think now?)

This is what makes the controversy in Indiana so ominous. Forget the narrower questions about whether gays should be classified fully as a “protected class” for civil rights purposes like blacks and other minorities, whether bakeries (and wedding photographers, for some odd reason) should be considered the equivalent of public accommodations like hotels and restaurants, which is the other civil rights law category in play here, or where the boundary of religious liberty should be drawn in relation to discriminations of any kind. The larger question of whether the implications of the assault on religious conscience doesn’t entail the end of liberalism—in either sense of the phrase—is not being given sufficient notice.

By coincidence I was recently re-reading Leo Strauss’s preface to his book on Spinoza, where he offered this reflection on the dilemma posed by Jews living in liberal democracies:

Liberalism stands or falls by the distinction between state and society, or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. Just as certainly as the liberal state will not “discriminate” against its Jewish citizens, so it is constitutionally unable or even unwilling to prevent “discrimination” against Jews by individuals or groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private “discrimination,” to protect it and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require a legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, and the destruction of the liberal state.

What was that old phrase of Mussolini? “Everything inside the State; nothing outside the State; and nothing against the State.” (Certainly not any tiny bakery or pizza shop.) Yup, sounds about like where we are now.