The following article is excerpted and adapted from “The Perils of Religious Liberty,” a recent lecture by Yuval Levin hosted by First Things, a journal on religion and public life that leans politically conservative. A video of the full lecture and links to other Body Politic articles on this theme are available at the bottom of the article.
It is very alluring to think that we are consistent in our political, moral and public commitments. If, for example, someone is in favor of equality, and that person looks to the Civil Rights movement as a movement that sets an example for equality should look like in the United States, it would be easy for that person to turn it into a defining paradigm for how they interpret or approach any other area of our public life where we do see problems that we need to ameliorate.
It’s human nature to feel tempted toward simple solutions to difficult problems in this manner, but the appeal of simplicity is not the only reason we go through this mental exercise of trying to make complex questions fit simple answers. In fact, that impulse is not even entirely bad. To some degree, we do tend to naturally recognize the danger of unmooring our lives entirely from principle and from philosophy and from truth. We don’t want to simply argue our way through our lives together on a case-by-case basis. We want and need over-arching truths to offer us guidelines along the way.
It is true that the beliefs that guide the way we live with one another in our society are rooted in certain kinds of natural truths and moral truths. But that doesn’t mean that we understand those truths so perfectly that we can carry our understanding of them to its absolute logical conclusion in every practical case.
Actually living in a free society means not taking anything to its logical conclusion. (That’s probably an effective summary of ten volumes of Edmund Burke.) It’s very difficult to accept that, because we all want to believe that our public life answers to principles and not just to history or to the whims of the moment.
And that’s true. Our public life does answer to principles. But those principles are not so coherent and they are not so perfectly accessible to us that we can just live our lives as applied philosophy. That’s not what social life is. It also has to answer to history.
Social life has to answer to communal pressures, to special interests, and all kinds of other things. All of that is legitimate. Those things are not just intrusions on what should be just a perfect space for applied philosophy as politics. We have to acknowledge the legitimacy of that. And we have to accept that making room for working through our case-by-case questions means that life together is probably going to be difficult.
Decisions are made by arguing with one another, seeing who is more persuasive to more people. That’s not satisfying. That’s never going to be satisfying—especially if you’re not more persuasive to more people. But that’s probably what it takes to make a free society work.