WASHINGTON — The trend of illiberal liberals shutting down open debate is similar to certain forms of religious zealotry, a diverse set of panelists argued.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore compared liberals' growing intolerance toward religious views on college campuses to certain fundamentalist Christians' dissent of heretics. Though representing diverse political and theological viewpoints, the other panelists made similar arguments.
The Tuesday afternoon panel, Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, liberal pundit Kirsten Powers and atheist Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman, was hosted by Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. Religious Freedom Project Associate Director Timothy Shah moderated.
The discussion was inspired by Powers' new book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. In the book, she lists the numerous examples of how liberal colleges across America are punishing people, even some fellow liberals, for dissenting from certain liberal viewpoints on issues like gay marriage, abortion, Islam and others by, for instance, taking away honorary degrees or uninviting scheduled guest speakers for things they have said.
In explaining the purpose behind her book, Powers, who previously worked for the Clinton administration and now serves as a contributor to USA Today and Fox News, stated that colleges are attempting to silence opposing viewpoints on certain social issues in an attempt to avoid having to debate these viewpoints.
"Even though my book isn't explicitly about religious freedom, there is a crossover because a lot of the issues that have to be off limits [or] silenced, are beliefs that tend to be held by religious people," Powers, who recently converted to Catholicism, stated. "It usually involves same-sex marriage, or it involves abortion and these views are treated as if they are actual attacks. When someone expresses one of these views, they have somehow created harm or committed an act of violence by expressing a view that other people don't want to have to discuss on campus."
As a professor at a liberal arts college in a liberal town in a liberal state, Zuckerman agreed with Powers assertion that colleges' attempts to silence opposing viewpoints is becoming a dangerous trend and threatens the liberal principle of free thinking.
Zuckerman took a crack at theorizing why this trend is occurring by explaining that his era of liberalism rose to prominence with the idea of defending society's most oppressed classes like African-Americans, women and the oppressed victims of the Vietnam War against "the powers at play" that were harming and hurting people's human dignity.
"The liberal folks that I know and grew up with are very much fighting a moral fight," Zuckerman explained.
But now that the powers at play are liberals, Zuckerman believes that liberals of today's generation are still looking for a cause to fight for and are searching for "anything that makes them feel as though they are fighting the good fight."
"When the folks in power are not greedy capitalists, war mongers, and the person in power is a liberal woman, what are you going to do when you are looking for that fight?" Zuckerman asked. "You are going to have to find it where you can."
"They think that when they are protesting George Will or they are protesting Ayaan Hirsi Ali [an atheist and prominent critic of Islam], a person that is my hero, they think they are fighting that similar fight of a generation or two earlier and they are mistaken," Zuckerman added. "They are wrong and it's horrible. I totally agree that free speech and rigorous debate is the heart of democracy and a society that I would want to live in. I applaud Kirsten's calling out of this trend."
Moore offered a bit of different explanation as to why he thinks campus liberals are trying to quiet religious conservatives.
"We are living in this sort of world where argument is simply, for the most part, a means of tribal identification. When I make an argument, this is in order to say, 'I am affiliated with these people and not affiliated with these other people,'" Moore argued. "I think that can be really dangerous when you have that phenomenon going on and then you have, not being able to distinguish the dignity of the person from an argument [you] disagree with and you add to that power, then persuasion is replaced by power."
Although liberals are the culprit of this silencing on college campuses, Moore asserted that the same phenomenon can be found with right wing conservatives.
"I am dealing this week with a pastor in a community in which there is great hostility toward a mosque being built in that community, and he has people in the community wanting the government to zone this mosque out of existence," Moore explained. "He is appealing them on the basis of liberty, religious freedom, as well as Gospel witness. You can't use the power of the state to turn people into Christians, you can only drive them out of town or turn them into pretend Christians."
"You have in that situation a group of people who have some sort of power and their is kind of [theme] going on there [that says] 'In order to be a conservative, you have to deal with Muslims in this way,'" Moore continued. "I think the same thing happens on the left in college campuses: 'In order to be identified as a progressive, free-thinking, forward-directed person, then you have to take on this sort of crusade or else you are somehow out of the tribe."
Moore then discussed how prominent feminist Germaine Greer has gotten into hot water and has been turned down from an honorary degree from a college in England after she asserted that transgender Caitlin Jenner is not a woman.
"As a feminist theorist, she does not think that gender can be changed. You can agree or disagree with her but the reaction to her, I have seen that reaction before, and it's not disagreement, it is the response to a heretic from a certain form of fundamentalist. That is happening on most secular college campuses."
Powers, who spent most of her life as an atheist/agnostic until about 10 years ago when she became Christian, reasoned that the the silencing of free speech on college campuses is a result of "lack of intellectual diversity" and the fact that many secularists don't understand religious beliefs.
"They are not even aware they are being intolerant. They really see what they are doing as being quite righteous and they don't have any framework to understand religious belief," she said. " Religious belief is very complicated for people who are even knowledgeable about it … It's almost like you are speaking Japanese to somebody. They really don't understand what you are talking about. I can relate because I didn't understand it [before becoming a Christian]."