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Nicholas Kristof’s blatant use of a tired liberal trick astounds me. What does it say about our liberal institutions that a regular columnist at the New York Times can combine a call for tolerance and understanding with crude denunciations of Christian conservatives?

The occasion was his Thursday, February 12th column in the Times. The presenting issue was the murder of three young people in North Carolina and the question of whether the fact that they were Muslims incited their murderer. Kristof linked this to the judicial resistance in Alabama to a federal judge’s decision that the Constitution of the United States contains a right for men to marry men, and women to marry women.

From this tendentious association of a brutal murder to the umpteenth stage of the expansion of gay marriage Kristof wonders “if a common lesson from both may be the importance of resisting bigotry, of combating the intolerance that can infect people of faith—or of no faith.” He calls for “everyone to reflect on our capacity to ‘otherize’ people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality—and turn that otherness into a threat.”

Which is exactly what he does to conservative Christians. We’re “sanctimonious blowhards” who betray the words and spirit of Jesus. We’re arrogant, thoughtless, “I-am-holier-than-thou-chest-thumping” people “on the wrong side of history.”

Kristof allows that “there is a huge difference between burning someone alive and not granting a couple a marriage license.” But this generous concession isn’t really so generous after all: “It’s not much of a slogan to say, ‘We’re better than ISIS!’” Christian conservatives aren’t as bad as Muslim extremists, true. But we’re in the same category.

The pattern is very, very familiar. A liberal like Kristof calls for tolerance and understanding—and then proceeds to denounce all who disagree with him.

Most of us have experienced this mode of attack. Today’s liberalism almost always avoids any direct encounters with disagreement. Kristof mocks the notion that any reasonable person could have the slightest objection to same-sex marriage. We’re to be addressed with meta-moral categories: bigotry, hate, fear, out of step with history.

This mode of non-engagement is part of the deepest failure of post-modern liberalism. It systematically “otherizes.” A traditional Christian (or Muslim) regards a proponent of same-sex marriage as mistaken about sexual morality, the nature of marriage, and the will of God. For a liberal such as Kristof, those who disagree with him don’t even rise to the status of human beings trying to live in accord with their moral convictions. We are fundamentalists “obsessed with homosexuality.” Or as Justice Kennedy put it, we’re motivated solely by an irrational animus.

The non-engagement is not accidental to liberalism. It helps liberals discredit any challenge to their power. If I object to President Obama’s policies on immigration, then I’m a nativist. If I think affirmative action policies misguided, I’m a racist. That I even suggest in the slightest way that women may be more likely than men to want to stay home to raise children makes me a sexist. And, of course, opposing same-sex marriage is just an expression of my homophobia.

In all instances I can be summarily dismissed as sub-rational. No conversation need take place. In fact, that’s not permitted. It’s a liberal dogma that those who disagree must not be accorded the dignity of a response. One does not discuss with bigots.

Everyone is tempted by underhanded techniques in public debate. Mea culpa. A great deal is at stake. And we want to win. But today’s liberalism encourages a very powerful culture of dismissal and denunciation that undermines the liberal spirit.

Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court insists upon resurrecting a doctrine of state’s rights buried fifty years ago. To my mind his reasoning is unpersuasive. But Kristof won’t even entertain the possibility that a serious legal mind might rebel against the federalization of every moral issue that liberals obsess over, as they are presently obsessing over gay marriage. (Tomorrow it will be transgendered rights.) Instead, he slashes away with denunciations.

I’m not optimistic about the future of liberalism. In my lifetime it has become more rigid, parochial, and punitive. If Kristof denounces me with such abandon, how can the liberal culture he represents function peacefully in a world that includes conservative Muslims who, though by no means proponents of Jihadist radicalism, also get categorized with me as bigots, fundamentalists, and “on the wrong side history”?

A profound self-deception characterizes American liberalism today. It compliments itself as tolerant and inclusive while nurturing a search-and-destroy attitude. It often speaks of pluralism, but in fact insists upon its own singular role as arbiter of what counts as “inclusive” and “tolerant,” as well as “bigot” and “fundamentalist.”

Nicholas Kristof’s columns suggest that our liberal culture is perverted. Given the great power of our nation, I fear it may prove to be a significant source of disorder in the world in the coming decades. It preaches peace, but is full of aggression.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.

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