This week Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, resigned because he found his Christian faith incompatible with leading his party. Apparently, the problem was that while he agreed with the Liberal Democratic position that homosexual relations and same-sex marriage should be legal, he also believed, like many Christians, that homosexual relations were wrong. Many party colleagues found the combination of these two positions intolerable.
But this kind of combination traditionally defined the essence of liberalism, supposedly the guiding light of Farron’s party. Liberalism was exactly the view that government had no business regulating actions or beliefs unless they could be demonstrated to cause concrete harms to a third party. As a result, liberals have supported legalizing all sorts of matters that they may have believed immoral or imprudent. In my view, the best test for a liberal is the willingness to tolerate behavior of which he morally disapproves.
In the 16th century, Europe experienced a long series of nasty and violent religious wars. With Christianity splitting into many sects, each one wanted its own political power. Once a sect gained that power, it used it to oppress the others. The oppressed sects then fought that much harder to achieve their own independence.
Into this fray of religious warfare, Thomas Hobbes entered and proposed a solution: Instead of fighting about which religion would hold sovereign power so as to extend its influence, we could all just collectively decide that sovereign power would only promote peace and stability for its citizens. By defining sovereignty down, Hobbes hoped to avoid bloody religious warfare. Amidst this redefined sovereignty, Hobbes proposed picking one overriding religion—it didn’t really matter which one since all were equally untrue—and imposing it on all.
In a famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington wrote:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.