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Whenever secular liberals are challenged on one of their latest innovations in ethics, their reply almost invariably goes something like this: “Well, if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, then marry someone of the opposite sex.” Or: “If you are so against abortion, then don’t have one.”

In other words, in the immortal words of Rodney King, why can’t we all just get along? I’ll let you have your morality if you let me have mine.

Occasionally, though, the veil slips and liberalism shows that its fondness for the “live and let live” principle is only skin-deep. The latest example of a more bare-knuckled liberalism comes from that famous mangler of the English language, Vice President Joe Biden. On his recent visit to the Far East, he expressed his “understanding” for China’s one-child policy, which is regularly enforced by compelling women in their second pregnancy to abort their child. True, he went on to criticize that same policy, but only on utilitarian grounds: As to the delicate point of government lackeys dragging women from their homes and fastening them to hospital gurneys”not a word. “Pro-choice,” indeed.

The Vice President’s nod to what I will call here “coercive liberalism” is unfortunately not an isolated case. In the August 29, 2011 issue of National Review , the vigorous and witty polemicist Mark Steyn collected a veritable rasher of examples of secular liberalism at its most heavy-handed, including the cases of Lars Hedegaard, a Danish journalist convicted of “racism” for questioning Islam’s treatment of women, Stephen Boissoin, a Canadian convicted of violating a “human rights” law for writing a “homophobic” letter to his local newspaper, and Dale McAlpine, a British street preacher arrested for publicly promulgating Christian teachings on homosexuality. Perhaps what is most disturbing about this trend is that these attempts at micro-tyranny are coming from liberals , who used to be the ones most hyper-reactive to restrictions on free speech.

Speaking very generally, liberals get their initial inspiration from John Stuart Mill’s classic text of political theory, On Liberty , while conservatives get theirs from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France . From those conflicting inspirations come the caricatures that each side holds of the other: Liberals see conservatives as hidebound worrywarts, always defending tradition at any cost, while they in turn are bravely upholding the right to free speech: you can say whatever you want, and let the government lump it.

So how has liberalism come so far that it now abandons so cavalierly what ought to be the foundation of all its subsequent policies? Without a robust devotion to free speech, what is the point of being liberal at all? What happened?

The story of this declension is a long one, and surely Friedrich Nietzsche’s blistering attack on Enlightenment reason must play a key role here. As soon as one thinks that truth-claims are but assertions of the will-to-power, it then becomes all but impossible to uphold the formerly liberal idea of the universal “rights of man,” a coinage that served as the title for the famous manifesto that inaugurated the French Revolution.

Not that liberals are showing much “will to power” of their own these days. Rather, recent attempts to muzzle free speech”especially speech criticizing Islam”seem to stem from their desire not to be bothered . Notice how weak-kneed was the reaction of the ruling classes in England to the recent riots by the young offspring of Britain’s permanent welfare class, a cowardice that reminded more than one commentator of the effete Eloi hiding in their houses at night from the marauding, light-fearing Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ great science-fiction novel The Time Machine . Never confront, always hide.

But our modern-day Eloi are not just hiding from adolescent yobs. Whole neighborhoods of mostly Muslim immigrants and their children are now being declared effectively off limits, as is criticism of anything pertaining to their religion.

Theoretically, one might think that, of all the religions in the world, none would prove more repugnant to the basic values of liberalism than Islam. Yet, in country after country in Europe, the sensibilities of Muslims are cosseted and their critics harassed. In 1999 the European Parliament passed a resolution sponsored by the Green Parties and other assorted busybodies on the left condemning the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women. But dare to criticize Muslim mistreatment of women, and”as Lars Hedegaard found out to his consternation”you can look forward to a not-so-pleasant spell in the Danish pokey.

The liberal worldview has imploded so quickly because no one, absolutely no one, believes in its myth of progress anymore. To go back to Nietzsche once more: whatever else his legacy means, advanced civilizations can no longer believe that things are getting better (which is why, among other reasons, there is so much hoopla over “climate change”).

Oddly, though, and in one of the great ironies of history (which knows only one law: the Law of Unintended Consequences), the collapse of this myth of progress has been turned to great advantage by Muslims in Europe, giving them a leg up in their search for converts, as Christopher Caldwell notes in his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe :

Islam may be quantifiably backward, but it is backward at a time when progress has acquired a bad name. To say that controversial Muslim figures “come straight out of the Middles Ages” . . . does nothing to blunt their appeal. The Middle Ages is their selling point. One need not be fundamentalist or a fanatic to worry that it is in the West’s nature to advance too far, too fast. The Green and anti-globalist movements share such worries.

By no means are liberals alone to blame for this turn of events, however. Christians, too, are deeply implicated in helping to bring about this upside-down world, especially those in the liberal churches, where dogmatic integrity is eschewed, if not completely scorned. I will conclude these somber lucubrations with another quotation from Caldwell’s immensely insightful book:

The problem is not just that Saudis do not permit Christianity in their country; it is also that Europeans are less interested in evangelizing there than Saudis are in proselytizing in Europe. As long as Muslim believers are more passionate than Christian ones, and as long as the Christian world is more free than the Muslim one, [reciprocity] is a nostalgic wish, rather than a demand.

And so we come to the dénouement of this bizarre story: an epicene liberalism practices its petty harassment on an epicene Christianity because it can afford to do so, but it gives a safe-conduct pass to Muslims because it is afraid to do otherwise. To pester Muslims in Europe and Canada with the same measures meted out against Christians would at least mean that liberals are consistent in their schoolmarmish hectoring. But actually, all they want is not to be bothered.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Theology.

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