For secular liberals, “dogma” refers to beliefs deeply held by other people. Secular-progressive convictions are rational and obvious and therefore in a way neutral — beyond discussion because they are the unquestioned premise of all “reasonable” discussion.
As this paper’s editorial also notes today, several Democratic senators stirred up some controversy last week by questioning a Catholic’s fitness to be a federal judge. (The New York Times and The Atlantic took notice and raised good questions about the senators’ approach.) In a Senate confirmation hearing for Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, expressed concern that the candidate’s traditional Catholic beliefs would interfere with her legal judgment. In examining the nominee, both progressive senators expressed a view of the law that imagines it to be completely void of all “personal” beliefs. “Dogma and law are two different things,” Feinstein intoned. “I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. The dogma lives loudly within you.”
Hirono seconded Feinstein’s view of the law as somehow a neutral instrument, a set of consensual procedures supposedly untouched by any beliefs or principles derived from merely “personal” convictions concerning, say, God or human nature: “I thought that justice was supposed to be blind.” It seems “blind” no longer means simply “impartial concerning the persons involved,” but, well, really blind, as if law were a purposeless machine that runs by itself and for itself. When Hirono complains that the “nominee’s personal views” are not sufficiently open to the Senate’s scrutiny, as if they “have no role” in shaping a person’s understanding of the law, she takes it for granted that her own views are beyond scrutiny and simply identified with the “blind” legal machinery she favors.
Of course such a morally and religiously neutral or blind view of law is impossible, indeed unthinkable. A legal order is part of a political order, which is central to a community of human beings that is always shaped by some view of its purposes and character. And in fact our Democratic senators did not fail to tip their own hand regarding the character of the community they regard as authoritative. “You are controversial,” Feinstein informed Barrett. “You’re controversial because many of us who have lived our lives as women really recognize the value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems, and Roe entered into that, obviously. You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail.”
So this is obviously what the dispute comes down to: Barrett’s views are “controversial” and “dogmatic” because she is opposed to abortion (although she has committed as a judge to following legal precedent). Feinstein’s views are not “controversial” or “dogmatic,” because she adheres to the apparently neutral or obvious value of personal freedom unlimited by any religious or moral restraint, a lofty ideal that sometimes obliges a woman to sacrifice her unborn child.
Clearly the progressives’ commitment to the blind neutrality of the law applies only against those whose merely “personal” beliefs present an obstacle to the progress of the progressives’ own personal understanding of the meaning of freedom and of the character of our political community. But there is no “neutral” or “objective” or “blind” foundation of moral and political order.
“There is hardly any human action, however private it may be,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their fellows. Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates.”
Even John Stuart Mill, a patron saint of contemporary progressive liberalism, understood that “ in all political societies which have had a durable existence, there has been some fixed point; something which men agreed in holding sacred.”
Secular progressives who don the mask of neutral rationality in order to marginalize those they disagree with are the most dangerous dogmatists, because they cannot see that they worship their own secular gods. Political and legal debates are always framed, implicitly or explicitly, by ultimate beliefs about the good, or the meaning of human existence. Reasonable and politically constructive engagement with the religious and moral foundations of law can only begin when both sides recognize they have a dog in the race.
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.