The Intolerant Tolerance


As the primary season comes to an end, two trends stand out that seem to surpass the usual campaign exaggerations, insults, and linguistic acrobatics. The first is the growing number of people who refuse to identify themselves as liberal or conservative, and who are looking for a political third way. The second is their passion for ethical reform in the political process as the one issue that goes beyond the traditional political divisions.
A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine recently showed what looks like a candidate for political office addressing a crowd. With his hands raised high, he was saying, "Give me moderation, or give me death." At around the same time, a poll taken a few weeks ago showed that a majority of voters identified themselves as ideological moderates, instead of liberals, conservatives, or even just moderates. Has Patrick Henry's cry about liberty or death really come down to this, to ideological moderation?
What could moderation as ideology mean? In the United States, the ideal of liberty, which has been the constant thread in its history, shows itself as an essentially contested concept, a term coined by historian Eric Foner. That is, there is not one simple definition of liberty that would fit all the experiences associated with this ideal in American history. This does not mean that liberty has been pursued without any reference to philosophical or religious convictions. On the contrary, these-especially religious convictions-have been important factors in the American quest for liberty. Moderation comes from the recognition that people have the right to hold, express, and propose different convictions about what life is about. This has been characteristic of the American quest for liberty in the multi-cultural and pluralistic society this country has been throughout most of its history, especially now.
Moderation becomes ideological when it prohibits us to pursue or defend views in the political arena based on philosophical or religious convictions about the ultimate meaning of life. To claim that appeals to ultimate meanings are forbidden in politics is to create a split in the human person itself between the convictions that motivate us as human beings and political life. This split is alienating. The purpose of political life is precisely to determine the social context in which to pursue our vision of the purpose of life. Tolerance cannot mean the prohibition of efforts to share publicly these philosophical or religious convictions. That is intolerance in the name of tolerance.
The current passion for ethical reform in the political process seems to be related to this intolerant tolerance. This attitude has another name: moralism. It comes from the inability of a Protestant-generated culture to withstand the influence of secularism because of its lack of confidence in reason. Unable to withstand the critique of secularism, and the challenges of multi-cultural pluralism, Protestantism can only degenerate into the moralism of ideological moderation, or the intolerance of a morality not based on our common humanity.
Of course politics should not be separated from morality. The problem surfaces when politics becomes morality, or when morality becomes politics. This is when social or political moralism is born. What is morality? Morality is fidelity to truth, and truth is the attraction of reality. Morality is life according to the splendor of the truth. But when one no longer believes in our ability to know reality, what happens to morality? It becomes sentimentality, an intolerant sentimentality, a cruel sentimentality, a deadly sentimentality, since it cannot be sustained by the splendor of the truth, by the beauty of reality. It can only be sustained by power. Politics, which is a way to discharge the powers available to a society, turns the moral sense into an instrument of power.
Flannery O'Connor saw what was happening when she said that today we govern by a tenderness (a sentimentality) that is deadly, because although we can feel more strongly today about human values, we cannot see reality as well as before. We feel more, but we see less, she said. This attitude is the very opposite of Fr. Giussani's words to his students: I see what you see, but I see more. A moral politics is one that is open to the search for truth, to the manifestation of reality in all its dimensions. Instead, what is called a moral politics today is in fact the very opposite: a moralism that narrows our vision of the real.
Politics will never build the kingdom of God. A realistic political position might require alliances between people who do not share convictions about what it means to be a human being, provided it would not require cooperation with actions that violate the dignity of the human person. Nor can political power itself be a motivation. Political power is not the key to a fully human life; indeed it can be a very dangerous obstacle to it. What is important is to create the social condition for seeing more! Politics will always require compromise precisely because the destiny of the human lies beyond the possibilities inherent in the present way of life. Liberty is incapable of being totally grasped or achieved by politics. Indeed, liberty is our link with the Infinite, the Transcendent Mystery that breaks open all restricted, limited views of human possibilities.