This is the first in a series based on Mrs. Pearcey’s just-published book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.
“Islamization” is coming to America. That’s the meaning behind the controversial Islamic community center-slash-mosque near Ground Zero. The secularization of the public square has created a vacuum that Islamicists are finding ways to exploit.
America has always welcomed anyone willing to assimilate to its national character. But radical Islam rejects assimilation and is bent on the conquest of our national character.
This is clear in the thinly veiled threat by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who said on “Larry King Live” that if the proposed Cordoba mosque is moved to a different location, “anger will explode in the Muslim world” causing danger to “our national security.”
Secularism has crippled America’s ability to respond effectively to such threats, because it reduces morality to the subjective level—to personal feelings or ethnic tradition. These are things that cannot be rationally debated.
Persuasion gives way to emotional manipulation and personal attacks. “Racist!” “Hater!” “Intolerant!” “Islamophobe!”
The word tolerance once meant we all have the right to argue rationally for our deepest convictions in the public arena. Now it means those convictions are not even subject to rational debate.
At the birth of our nation, the American founders recognized that politics is a profoundly moral enterprise—the pursuit of moral ideals such as justice, fairness, and the common good. In the words of James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution, the goal of government is not merely to protect individual interests but to secure “the public good.”
The public good is, in turn, grounded in a transcendent source. The seminal insight in the Declaration of Independence is that human rights are secure (“unalienable”) only if they are derived from a transcendent source—“endowed by the Creator.”
Even as those words were penned, however, the concept of the public good was coming under attack. Impressed by the rise of modern science, many Western thinkers adopted the philosophy of empiricism, the doctrine that all knowledge derives from sensation—what we see, hear, touch, and feel. Even morality was reduced to sensation—what feels good to you. Personal preference.
Virtues were replaced by “values,” a term that literally means whatever a group or individual values. The moral principles that undergird Western civilization were no longer part of a coherent system of truth. They were shoved off into a separate and distinct category, on the same level as a preference for chocolate over vanilla.
The crack-up of truth had corrosive consequences in all the academic disciplines. In political science, theorists decided that statements about the public good were nothing but masks for private taste. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution writes, political thinkers concluded that saying, “X is in the public interest” was merely a covert way of saying, “I like X.”
With the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century, this view became widespread among America’s cultural gatekeepers. They argued that any commitment to transcendent, universal truth (dubbed “absolutism”) would lead to tyranny—to an elite who would seek to impose that truth on everyone else—and that the way to protect liberty was to embrace relativism.
In The Crisis of Democratic Theory, Edward A. Purcell explains: “Most American intellectuals were convinced that theoretical absolutism logically implied political authoritarianism,” while by contrast “philosophical relativism implied … an open and democratic structure.”
The flaw in philosophical relativism is not hard to see, however: If there is no universal, transcendent moral truth, then there is no basis to condemn tyranny, injustice, or Islamic terror as morally wrong.
The acceptance of relativism has turned America’s public square into a battleground between competing sets of subjective values—pitting the demands of one group (class, race, gender, religion) against another.
This is why Americans have come to hate politics, says E. J. Dionne in a book by that title: “Americans hate politics as it is now practiced because we have lost all sense of the public good.” Without the recognition that there exists an objective good, public debate disintegrates into a cacophony of warring voices.
Finally nothing is left but sheer force. As economist Lionel Robbins famously wrote, when we disagree over subjective values, “It is a case of thy blood or mine.”
This explains why someone like Imam Rauf can hold a knife to America’s throat with subtle threats of violence and death. Islamicists are demanding “tolerance”—or else.
Many people assume that secularism is a problem for religious groups only. But the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks included Christians Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists. Secular relativism is sapping our nation’s ability to stand against Islamicist threats and fear-mongering. To protect American freedoms, we must recover the Founders’ vision and fill the moral vacuum in the public square.