Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists: 

 The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else! 

I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.

(Cross-posted from my personal blog, Snakes and Ladders, though off-topic here, because I don’t have comments enabled there and someone might want to come back at me.) 


  1. Is it that there are no Voltaires anymore that would defend the right to speak or that we have trouble deciding what counts as a violation of those rights?

  2. I agree. I hear the non-compatablists like Dreher (I think he is one) but I don't see any non-tyrannical alternative to liberalism when it comes to the world outside of the church.

  3. I think there are several things going on here, but I will touch on just two.

    1) There is a central tension within classical liberalism, which holds that there is no need to adjudicate between rival conceptions of the good life; each person should be free to make their own choice. But this presumption of neutrality is not, itself, neutral: it valorizes a particular feature (the freedom to choose) as central to the good life. If you, like me, believe that humans are not best described as consumers, this will be a deeply unsatisfactory philosophical stance. But the problem is not, as Amari thinks, that liberalism exalts rights over notions of the good—on the contrary, it instantiates a particular conception of the good.

    2) The values you rightfully cherish (patience, charity, etc.) are not fostered by the modern dispensation, which promotes "ethical fitness" no more than it does physical fitness. All character traits (compassion, empathy, aggression, dominance) evolve and flourish under different conditions. What qualities does modernity select for? I would say (among others) competitiveness, acquisitiveness, deceit (what is marketing but manipulation?), heedlessness (if something stops working, you don't take it apart to figure out what's wrong, you just throw it out and get a new one), and lack of inquisitiveness (just google it, without questioning the system that brings an 'answer' to you). Virtues such as charity and patience are not exactly excluded, but they are not promoted, either. I think they _are_ inculcated, however, by the practice of an art or the honing of a craft: the long, slow road to mastery that requires engaging with and receiving feedback from the hard reality of a violin string or piano keyboard, a ball of clay, a mathematical proof, a puzzling text, or any other subject of deep inquiry. I would argue that it is the lack of emphasis on developing such skills in early life—and the extraordinary success of modern technology at making so much of our quotidian existence physically effortless—that leaves us ill-equipped to cope with disagreement, resistance, and difference.

    By writing the way you do, and teaching the way you do, you are promoting these virtues. The fruits of your efforts may take years to ripen, but all we can do is plant seeds and prepare the soil.

  4. In the (unlikely!) event you haven't read it, this tracks with concerns in Alastair's "Social Media and Subsidiarity" post from December 2017 (I'm not linking it because I don't want to be caught in a spam filter, but should be the first hit if you Google that title).

  5. I want to say that a great deal of our current problems in discourse arise from the structures of social media and their proclivity to drive (literally) addictive outrage cycles. If that's true, then this suggests a structural problem that needs a structural solution. Here's a provocative one: Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT and teaches there, argues in the Atlantic that a publicly funded social media platform could overcome the "echo-chamber effect" of social media. (See "The Case for a Taxpayer-Supported Version of Facebook" 5/7/17.) I have no idea if it could work, but this feels like a step in the right direction and it could provide a much needed model for social media discourse.

  6. At a similar point of dilemma, as a lay-Christian in the trenches, I found 1 Timothy 4 very encouraging, and perhaps you will too:
    2 Timothy 4:1-5
    1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

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