Comment have been running a series on “living with liberalism”. A recent piece is by Jonathan Chaplin’s who discusses liberalism and the issue of tolerance. Halfway through his discussion he makes an interesting suggestion:
A hypothesis worth pursuing (further than I can here) is that the new liberal regime is expanding its remit at the same time as—and perhaps because of—its decreasing capacity to deliver the wide-ranging social services it used to think of as essential to its mandate. If there is truth is this, the irony is rich: as liberal states, under pressures from increasingly globalized economic exchanges, are less and less able or willing to resist the progressive marketization of civil society, and the consequent dismantling of their welfare systems, they simultaneously pursue the progressive politicization of civil society. As the power to restrain business corporations slips through their fingers—indeed, as they all too willingly cede it—they grab hold ever more jealously of the reins of voluntary associations, which are easier targets. A diagnosis of this new apparent twist in the pathology of late modern liberal states awaits.
Part of this politicization of civil society is the “monopolistic enforcement of an individualistic regime of tolerance”. What this means is that "arithmetical equality, understood as identical treatment for individuals across a wide range of institutional practices within all societies" is given priority with no, or little, concern for the internal beliefs and purposes of diverse associations. That means that associations are not given freedom to set their own limits to tolerance within their sphere of action and competence. This is a problem because there has to be differently set limits to tolerance within different societal spheres. Parents, teachers and leaders of political parties have to set different limits to toleration for their children, students and cabinet members, limits that may be inappropriate in different contexts.
To illustrate the inappropriate enforcement of an individualistic regime of tolerance Chaplin focuses on situations where student groups on university campuses affiliated to the student associations have been disaffiliated on the basis of discrimination due to their position on homosexual relations.
Yesterday a similar issue hit the news here in the UK. In my home town of Exeter the Christian Union (which has now been “democratically” forced to change its name to the Evangelical Christian Union) has been suspended from the student guild and had a bank account frozen (see here and here). Not on the basis of a position taken on homosexual relations, but because members are asked to sign a statement of belief in Jesus as their God and saviour and officials to sign a more comprehensive statement of belief.
The declaration which members have to sign includes the phrase: "In joining this union, I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour, my Lord and my God". The Guild of Students President Jemma Percy said the requirement to sign the declaration meant "participation in the society was not open to every student".
This is clearly a case where the individualistic regime of tolerance has over stretched itself to the point of self-contradiction, undermining freedom of association.