The Argument for Christianity from Liberalism

There is something a bit odd about the position staked out by Marcello Pera here.  Pera is a self-described atheist, who nonetheless thinks that the tradition of European liberalism (democracy, human rights, religious liberty, rule of law, individualism, limited government, etc.) depends on Christianity for its philosophical basis.  Fair enough.  But why then is Pera a liberal since he thinks that Christianity is false?  Pera seems to be reduced to a kind of tribalism:  we Europeans are liberals because those values are “our” values, they are what makes us European.

Interestingly, the Pope, in his conversation with Pera, is engaged in a new kind of apologetics.  Indeed, he is creating a new kind of argument for Christianity:  call it “the argument from liberalism”.  The argument can be represented in the following simple sylogism:  (1) if liberalism is true, then christianity is true; (2) liberalism is true; therefore (3) christianity is true.  The controversial premise, at least for most people living in Europe, is the first one.  But Pera seems to accept it; or, at least, he seems to accept the following:  (1a) only christianity can provide a credible philosophical defense of liberal values.  The Pope wants Pera to conclude from this that he has a reason to be a Christian.  The argument from liberalism is a version of the moral argument.

Another related point.  Pera is motivated by a concern that Europe be able to defend liberal values in the face of the threat from radical Islam. 

The senator said that we must ask ourselves “who we are, what do we believe in, what is my identity, our identity; if I do not ask these questions, I do not know how to defend myself from those who attack me and I do not even know what to teach.”

But here Pera’s tribalism poses a real problem.  By his own admission, Pera, as an atheist, is unable to provide a rational basis to defend liberal values; only Christianity provides the metaphysical resources to mount such a defense.  So, Pera is reduced to defending liberal values as “our” values, as constitutive of European identity.  But, this argument only works with other Euoropeans.  When speaking to Muslims the resort to European tribalism is ineffective.  Muslims do not care about European identity.  Pera’s tribalism guarantees that the encounter between modern, liberal Euorpe and Islam will be a “clash of civilizations”, “our” values against “theirs”.  By contrast, for the Pope, with the metaphysical resources available to him as a Christian, universal reason and natural law provide a basis on which to conduct a conversation with the Islamic world that is something more than an arbitrary assertion of “our” values against “theirs”.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

I’m reading the essays on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the New Left Review Number 52 (July August 2008) and the follow up essay in Number 54 (November December 2008).  The NPT prohibits countries that do not already have nuclear weapons to acquire them, in exchange for assistance from the nuclear powers in acquiring civilian nuclear power.  (it also prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, and imposes am inspection regime to ensure that signatories do not violate the agreement).  The nuclear powers are not required to get rid of their nuclear arsenals, nor even to reduce their seize.  All they are required to do is to negotiate in good faith over whether to reduce their arsenals.  The NPT then is plainly unjust.  It prohibits some countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, while permitting other countries to keep theirs.

The left has generally supported the NPT nontheless.  The thinking here is that sooner or later the nuclear powers can be persuaded to reduce their nuclear arsenals pursuant to the treaty’s provision for good faith bargaining over reductions.  But this has not happened.  Instead, perversely, the goal of nuclear non-proliferation has become a major justification for miltary action.  It was the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq, and there have been threats to use military action against both Iran and North Korea over their nuclear weapons programs.  The New left Review argues that the left should abandon the NPT and the goal nuclear non-proliferation and instead defend the right of countries to legitimately acquire nuclear weapons for defense.

Its hard to argue with the New Left Review’s argument.  Nuclear weapons are primarily defensive weapons used to deter attacks and have not been used after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They have a stabilizing effect on conflicts because they create strong incentives for nuclear powers to prevent conflicts from escalating to all out war.  The actual use of nuclear weapons, even defensively in response to an attack, is unjust.  And, the consequences of nuclear war are so horrible that we have strong reasons to eliminate the risk that the will be ued to zero(which can only be done if we get rid of them entirely).  But the nuclear powers seem unlikely to evern reduce their nuclear arsenals, much less to get rid entire of them entirely.  Moreover, if the goal of nuclear non-proliferation is simply a convenient rationalization for the existing nuclear powers to retain their nuclear monopoloy, then there is really no justifying it.

More on FOCA

In a post entitled, “Why FOCA is a Nuclear Bomb,” Mark Stricherz makes the case for Catholics to oppose FOCA despite complaints from some quarters that FOCA is something of a red herring since it is unlikely to become law:

This line of argument is not outlandish. It is true that at present the chances of FOCA becoming law are slim. Even moderate Democrats support some restrictions on abortion, not their wholesale evisceration. It is also unclear that if FOCA were enacted, medical personnel unwilling to perform abortions would have to do so. But the unlikelihood that the bill will pass is not comforting, nor is the ambiguity about the bill’s constitutionality. As Rick Hertzberg wrote once, it is a 99 percent certainty that a nuclear bomb will never detonate, but the 1 percent chance that it will is terrifying.

If FOCA were enacted and fulfilled its supporters’ expectation, the legislation would be the cultural equivalent of a nuclear bomb. The Church operates 573 hospitals, which served 84.3 million patients. Surely the vast majority of these would shut down. In addition, hundreds of state and federal abortion restrictions would be struck down. Thirty five years of pro-life efforts would go down the drain.


And it is possible to imagine scenarios in which FOCA became law. Suppose Obama did become another FDR and help his party add dozens of seats in the off-year congressional elections. The Democrats might have the votes to pass FOCA. Or suppose after withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and righting the nation’s economic ship, Democratic leaders used their political capital to whip FOCA hard, pressuring moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans for their votes. (As things stand, Democrats effectively have at least 58 votes in the Senate and 257 in the House).

Obama would have to sign the legislation. While it is true that Obama has not discussed FOCA since July 2007, at the time he said it would be his first priority as president and continues to endorse the bill on his website.

It is also possible to imagine scenarios in which Catholic physicians would be unable to invoke freedom of conscience to not have to perform abortions. One of the five socially moderate or conservtive justices on the Supreme Court could step down and be replaced by a socially liberal justice. This scenario is unlikely. Then again, even Planned Parenthood’s president expressed shock that Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton had invalidated almost all of the nation’s abortion restrictions.

I would add that it is in the interest of Catholic supporters of the the Obama adminsitration to make a stink about FOCA now before it becomes an issue.   The worst case scenario is that FOCA makes it out of committee for a full vote of the Congress.  FOCA would still likely be voted down, but the fight would be divisive and distracting.  Besides, one reason to think that FOCA would be voted down is that Catholics are expected to oppose it forcefully.  No reason then for us not to do so, early and often.