“Peace if possible, truth at all costs!” Thus heralded Martin Luther half a millennium ago, and let no man accuse him of failing to practice what he preached. Of course, whether or not a Christian agrees with Luther’s particular interpretation of truth will determine whether he is a Catholic or a Protestant. But less obviously and perhaps more interestingly, whether or not a modern American agrees with Luther’s principle—that despite the very real goodness of peace, truth trumps it each and every time—will in large part determine whether he is a conservative or a liberal.
It’s no secret that these two contemporary political labels are problematic. Unfortunately, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are too often associated with just two distinct sets of seemingly randomly connected positions on the hot-button issues of our day. But perhaps the two contemporary camps identified by these labels of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are not as random as they seem. And perhaps Luther has presented the key for understanding their primary difference.
The question is this: Why does the pro-life camp typically align with the anti-“same-sex marriage” camp? Why are those in favor of the death penalty so often the most outspoken critics of euthanasia and assisted suicide? The answer cannot simply be partisan loyalty, for a large number of critically reflective persons today would just as soon have no affiliation with any political party.
There indeed is something deeper linking these various positions together: while the conservative agrees with Luther and recognizes truth as a higher good than peace, the liberal would again and again subordinate truth to peace for the sake of maintaining societal harmony.
Take “same-sex marriage” as a case in point here. A popular New York City subway ad captures the relevant liberal sensibility quite well: “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.” The idea there, of course, is that while everyone may not agree about whether or not a same-sex couple is capable of becoming a married couple, the law should leave that discernment up to the discretion of each individual. As is heard so often today, “one should not impose one’s own personal morality upon others.” The Left thus seeks to preserve peace by letting everyone decide the truth for himself.
On the conservative side, while of course societal peace is always a consideration, the key question is rather one about the truth of the matter. Even the so-called “New Natural Lawyers,” a morally traditional philosophical camp famous for drawing a fairly rigid distinction between metaphysics and morality, have realized that the primary question in this whole debate is very simply ‘What is marriage?’ Conservatives thus try to get at the nature of marriage to determine whether or not it even makes sense to talk about a marriage between two persons of the same sex. This is the reason I have been putting “same-sex marriage” in scare quotes throughout this article: not to purposefully give offense to those who disagree with me, but rather to emphasize that the central issue here is whether or not that phrase even makes sense. If marriage is necessarily oriented to procreation, then no legislative or judicial fiat can make homosexual unions into marriages at all.
We similarly could break down any number of other examples into this type of truth-peace distinction. In the case of abortion, conservatives say that the truth of the unborn child’s right to life makes killing him reprehensible, while the liberal tries instead to preserve peace by insisting that every woman ought to be able to decide that for herself. Likewise with euthanasia, and the list goes on and on.
So, who is correct, the conservative or the liberal? Which is the higher good: truth or peace? To ask that question is to answer it, for of course what the question wants to know is the truth of the matter about which is better. But, should the reader remain skeptical, here are two further arguments to persuade the unconvinced.
First, we can know that truth is more important than peace because the only peace worth having in the first place is true peace. Hence Jeremiah’s curse on those who cry “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. But truth, on the other hand, is worth having even when it leads to conflict. For example, battling slavery in the United States led to animosity, violence, war, and death. But because of the importance of the cause—namely, upholding the inherent dignity of all human persons—peace could be justifiably sacrificed to defending this truth.
Secondly, a la C.S. Lewis in his essay “First and Second Things,” we can know that truth trumps peace because when we subordinate truth to peace, we lose not only truth but peace as well. The eugenic plots of so many totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are a prime example of this. The goal there was essentially to stabilize and thus bring peace to society, but because such important personalistic truths were sacrificed at the altar of utopianism, there was less peace and more instability than ever before. In a less bloody but no less real way, the unrest in America today regarding abortion and “same-sex marriage”, even once both have been deemed legitimate by civil law, also reveals that peace itself is lost when truth takes a backseat to it.
So while the liberal’s desire for peace is good, he errs in putting peace first, making toleration the summum bonum, and embracing moral relativism for the sake of avoiding conflicts. The conservative on the other hand, following in the longstanding tradition that stretches back to Aristotle and beyond, recognizes that our political order ought to follow from the moral order, which itself flows from our human nature.
Where does this battle between conservatives and liberals finally end? If our opponents emerge victorious, nowhere good. For the logical conclusion of liberalism—which liberalism fights against in the name of peace, but which liberals insofar as they are men must be led towards by the natural reason they try to suppress—is Nihilism, the most terrifying worldview imaginable. Eventually, “my truth” and “your truth” are seen for what they really mean: No truth. And a culture without any grasp of truth is a culture without any connection to reality, a culture thus doomed to die. We can still avoid demise, but to do so, we need a hefty dose of metaphysics, a serious consideration of truth to serve as the guiding principle of our civilization.
Michael Hannon studies philosophy, religion, and medieval studies at Columbia University.
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