by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Readers in this forum with a socially conservative perspective are likely to enjoy much of Princeton professor Robert George’s latest book, Conscience And its Enemies. Those who spend little time thinking about same-sex marriage or abortion might have less interest in the book, though George covers territory that should prove thought-provoking for anyone who fears growth of “the state.”
Take this passage from George’s essay on the late Richard John Neuhaus, a once highly esteemed liberal thinker who found himself driven out of that camp during the 1970s, largely as a result of the abortion debate.
Of course, Neuhaus famously fought the liberal movement as it increasingly associated itself with the cause of driving religion and religiously informed moral witness out of the public square and into the merely private domain. His book The Naked Public Square did far more than introduce a catchy phrase; it revolutionized the debate. Neuhaus easily saw through the dubious (and sometimes laughable) “interpretations” of the religion clause of the First Amendment by which ACLU lawyers and judges in their ideological thrall attempted to privatize religion and marginalize people of faith. What motivated him most strongly, however, was the perception of the indispensable roles that religious institutions and other mediating structures played in preserving a regime of ordered liberty against unjustified encroachments by the administrative apparatus of the state. The real danger, as Neuhaus rightly saw it, was not that religious groups would seize control of the state and establish a theocracy; it was that the state would undermine the autonomy and standing of those structures that provide credible sources of authority in people’s lives beyond the authority of the state — structures that could, when necessary, prophetically challenge unjust or overweening state power.
For Neuhaus, the liberal movement had gone wrong not only on the sanctity of human life but also on the range of issues on which it had succumbed to the ideology of the post-1960s cultural Left. While celebrating “personal liberation,” “diverse lifestyles,” “self-expression,” and “if it feels good, do it,” all in the name of respecting “the individual,” liberalism had gone hook, line, and sinker for a set of doctrines and social policies that would only increase the size and enhance the control of the state — mainly by enervating the only institutions available to provide counterweights to state power.