Why did Fish’s essay need a response? In large part because it made this argument:
If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.
This is Sohrab Ahmari’s argument, 23 years avant la lettre.
Neuhaus began his response by quoting a part of the passage I just quoted and then setting out to refute it—though not with a whole heart, because Neuhaus realized that one variety of liberalism is indeed programmatically opposed to religion. That variety contends that confidence in metaphysical claims—especially claims about what human beings are, and are for—is always dangerous because those claims are just not true. But Neuhaus saw that there was another kind of liberalism that is programmatically modest about what a whole society can claim to be true—and that kind of liberalism, he thought, was useful.
Thus, in his essay, he cites the great American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray:
John Courtney Murray said that pluralism is written into the script of history, and I would add that it seems God did the writing. By pluralism, I mean a world in which people live by significantly different accounts of reality, including moral and religious reality, and must learn to live together.
Neuhaus thought not only that Good Liberalism is compatible with Christianity, but also that Christians, if they are properly mature, are among the best-suited to live in such an environment: “The Christian understanding of reason, faith, and how the world is created to be is the best guard against the totalitarianism, whether liberal or religious, that is invited by a monistic view of reality … This gives the Christian confidence that he can enter into conversation with the non-Christian … The Christian therefore tries in various ways to enter into the reason and language of non-Christians in order to help reorder them to truth….”
Ahmari thinks that “civility and decency are secondary values,” but even if that is true, they remain values, and Ahmari is not warranted in discarding them so flagrantly. Yet I am not sure that that statement is true. And here again, Neuhaus’s response to Fish is relevant: “The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom is titled Dignitatis Humanae. Respect for the dignity of the other person created in the image of God requires that we not silence or exclude him but try to persuade him.” Even when people are wrong, he says, “we must put up with them or tolerate them or, much better, respect and love them”—not because that is a politically effective strategy, which it may or may not be, but because we are so instructed by God.
— Sarah Pulliam Bailey (@spulliam) June 3, 2019