Ducks and Democracy

The life of one of TV's most successful shows lies in the balance. Phil has backers and antagonists. But the reaction of the culture to his words brings to light a contemporary issue: the transforming idea of liberal society.


The problem facing a so called liberal society is this: liberal society, always priding itself on the liberty of its citizens, is threatened by the very tolerance it sought to defend. Liberal society has, up to now, focused on universalizing the rights of the people, but now it talks about sex. A lot.

The first question is: why? What changed? Jonathan Chaplin argues that what was in the background, civil society, has moved to the fore. Liberalism is now confronted with multiple voices that seek to determine the direction of liberal society. Liberal ideals are supposed to support the freedom of citizens to form association and remain rooted in particular cultures, but those identity forming cultures are now much more focused on the shaping of liberal society itself. Feminism, LGBT movements, religious groups all contend not only for freedom, but for direction. Chaplin outlines a number of responses both from a political, non-religious viewpoint and a Christian perspective.

Political liberalism, as advocated by John Rawls, supports a society that is neutral with respect to all but the most core responsibilities. The core, according to Rawls, is a consensus on justice. If this is achieved, then what directs such a consensus--the underlying diversity--is irrelevant.  Such notions of a neutral society have, in the last decade, been mostly abandoned. It appears that the strength of diversity is that the particular directional pulls of diverse groups constitute more than a motive for plurality in society. Justice, it seems, is something that is very difficult to divorce from the ideologies that give rise to its definition. Justice, for the proponents of gay marriage, necessarily includes marriage equality. Consequently, Phil's remarks are seen as unjust by many people.

Second, is transformational liberalism as advocated by Stephen Macedo. Macedo argues for liberalism to retain diversity by shifting from tolerance to an intolerance of particular groups who are at odds with liberalism. This would include religious groups. The opposition would, according to Macedo, be gentle and transformative, but, as its end goal, would seek to reform those groups in such a way that they become liberal or extinct. Chaplin points out that this view has become increasingly popular since 9/11 when liberal society seemed under threat from fragmentation. Public exclusionary language from a TV star is to be pitted against the concern for a liberal society and, therefore, to be maligned.

A more nuanced solution, the diversity state, is proposed by William Galston who argued that while illiberal groups should continue to be protected they should not be allowed to decide who is and who isn't allowed to join those groups. The freedom to associate should be under the control of the state while the freedom to constitute particular groups should not. The implication of such a view, Chaplin, points out, is that groups would be under great pressure from the state to remove all discriminatory language from their conditions of membership. Glaston hoped that this would protect diversity by using the power of the state to ensure freedom of association. This, in part, leads to situations whereby an atheist could, in principle, be a voting member of a Christian association on a college campus. But it also leads to the idea that marriage, being an institution, is to be similarly stripped of discriminatory conditions. Anyone opposing this is to be seen as a threat to liberal society.

Chaplin turns to various Christian responses to plurality in society. Christian monism  is the idea that Christians should actively seek to "take back" the state and create a self-consciously Christian state. This strategy involves giving up the notion of common ground and routing the very principle of liberalism from society. Many who find the Christian pronouncement on marriage and sinful sexual practices distasteful fear that Christians support the idea of a theocratic state. They suppose, wrongly, that Christian religious commitments entail an anti-liberal agenda. For them, it is either secularism or inquisitions.

Christian agnonism, on the other hand, sees the role of Christians as those who are excluded from power, but who, nevertheless, are compelled to play their role in public life. First, Christians should focus on how its own community is constituted and, second, on peacefully negotiating co-existence with an ofttimes hostile state. This rather pessimistic view appears to be gaining traction. One commentator I heard recently remarked that the liberal agenda of our times has the consequence of pushing Christians from public life. This includes military and political service.

Rather than either a move to the margins or an attempt to seize power Christian establishment espouses a middle ground. By establishing a state that favors one religion, but does not require adherence, the state can protect minority views while promoting one view. This view supposes that equality is, in practice, impossible. The state must align itself with one view, but, constitutionally protect all others. This view might be more at home in a country that has an established religion, but, say its proponents, given the problems of contemporary America, it may not be the worst solution. The trouble is that it is very difficult to imagine American Christians supporting such an idea.

Chaplin's view, Christian pluralism, holds much in common with Galston's view except that the definition of the "state" would be a distinctly Christian definition. Such a definition reaffirms much of the language of protection of people of diverse association, structurally rooted in institutions and communities directed by diverse ideas and values. But it does so with the understanding that the primary duty of the state is not derived solely from the principle of individual liberty, but from a Christian understanding of common good.

Chaplin argues that the mistake we make is assuming that a liberal society means a neutral society. There is no such thing, argues Chaplin. And if there is no such thing, then there is no reason Christians should not contend for a Christian view of society and, according to Galston, there is no reason why a Christian diversity state is impossible or somehow less morally justifiable than a secular diversity state. 

There are values that a Christian view of the state would uphold: lifelong marriage between man and woman and the ensuing family, the life of the unborn or the regulation of rampant capitalism, for example. Chaplin contends that such a view need not fall into a Christian monism since it does not outright oppose a liberal society, only a secular liberal society. His view is that Christian pluralism should take the place of secular pluralism. Chaplin concludes:
If this line of argument is correct, then the implication is that Christians should stand ready to declare honestly--and, where appropriate, publicly--that they aspire to reshape the boundaries of legally  accepted expressions of directional plurality in their societies in the light of a vision of state and society rooted in Christian faith. Such a declaration, it need hardly be added, is intended not to close off democratic debate but rather to reinvigorate and enrich it. And Christians can have faith in the possibility of such genuine interdirectional communication because their vision is not advanced as mere tribal confession but as an attempt to account for universal, creation-based conditions for just political order--conditions which all human beings experience and of which all must in some way render an account.
This last part is vital to Chaplin's view. If Phil's remarks are seen merely in the context of secular liberal society, then they are merely a view of a tribe. How one then deals with tribes would be dictated by a societal view, a view that attempts to create a secular liberal society. However, if the remarks are an attempt to make a claim about a "universal, creation-based condition for just public order" then they are not an argument for the tolerance of a particular group nor the grasping of that group for influence, but a statement of a Christian conception of society in the created order. The latter is what most advocates for Christian marriage are defending. However, in our cultural discourse, liberals perceive his comments as at least anti-liberal. But that is not necessarily so. Secular, they are not, but they need not be illiberal in a Christian sense. I don't know Phil, and perhaps he wishes to see a theocracy, but my point is that he does not necessarily have to be committed to a Christian monism to be committed to a Christian view of society and state.

Whatever one's view of Chaplin's suggestion, his analysis seems prescient in our day. I think he puts his finger on the problem and provides a synopsis of the various ideas that lead to our culture's moments of crisis. The main thing we have to do is work out a public response in terms of how we, as Christians, think of society. It is fairly clear what we think of gay marriage, abortion and other hot button issues and we should not tire of declaring scripture's teachings within the church and to the culture especially focusing on the gospel message. But, to the secularist, it is not clear as to what we think about society, how we all live together, believer and unbeliever.

I admit to only having vague notions myself. Am I a libertarian, a conservative, a republican? Do I adhere to a more individualistic or communitarian vision of society? How should religion relate to public life? Should Biblical reasoning be as acceptable in the public square as any other kind of reasoning? I admit, I am not sure. However, Christians can respond to these issues in debate with secularism.

May I suggest some responses to the Duck problem. First, we need to point out that there is no such thing as a neutral society or neutral state. A secular society is not an agenda-free society. It is always ideologically driven. There is a blindness in current liberal thinking. It is blind to its own prejudices and hatreds. We should be able to point this out.

Second, we should be clear that support for a Biblical ethic does not entail Christian monism or a theocratic state. One can be for a "liberal society" as long as we are clear that a Christian version of such a society is readily available. Christians believe in protecting the weak, looking after the poor and voiceless. We believe in working toward a common good. Support for family and the unborn follows from such ideas.

Third, we should ask our interlocutor to account for his or her own universal conditions for just public order. What exactly are they justified by? While it is clear that a Christian vision for a society with rule of law and rights of people is, at least in principle, justifiable, it is very unclear whether there is any such justification found in the secular alternative. Secularists have very little foundation for their views and make many unjustified assumptions. These assumptions should be checked and a foundation for them requested.

From Jonathan Chaplin, "Rejecting Neutrality, Respecting Diversity: From 'Liberal Pluralism' to 'Christian Pluralism'" in Taking Every Thought Captive (Abilene, Abilene Christian University Press, 2011), 289-313. 

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