Public Matters

William Galston is a most unusual hybrid: an academic political theorist who doubles as a political operative. He cut his teeth as issues director for the Mondale campaign in 1984-could there be a more chastening introduction to the national political stage?-and was subsequently active in the Democratic Leadership Council, which launched the Clinton presidency. Galston then served at the Clinton White House, although this chapter in his career is seldom referenced in the book under review. As Commonweal readers know, he is also a prolific writer. Thirteen of his recent essays have been collected in Public Matters, which provides an excellent introduction to Galston’s thinking on divisive policy questions (stem-cell research, the war in Iraq), the role of religion in public life, and the future of the Democratic Party.

Galston is an exponent of what he calls “liberal pluralist democracy”-an approach to politics that limits the role of government even as it champions the necessity of a strong state for purposes of individual and collective welfare. Save for the gravest of reasons, having literally to do with individual or collective survival, the state may not intrude on the sacred space of family, religion, and conscience. But the right to be left alone comes, as rights invariably do, with corresponding obligations. No matter how passionately an individual cleaves to a particular set of moral norms, she must be prepared to honor the conscience-based convictions of others. Practically speaking, this means living as fellow citizens with persons whose views on certain issues deeply offend one’s own. It means striving to find a language that can bridge the moral divide so that civic discourse is possible. Above all, it means a willingness to tolerate ambiguity.

As a historian, I would argue that Americans have been pretty good at liberal pluralism, making room in the polity-often resentfully, it must be conceded-for Catholics, later Jews, and finally the full range of the world’s religions and religious movements. But I share Galston’s fear that liberal pluralism is singularly threatened in our own time by what he calls “the powerful if peculiar understanding of liberty as untrammeled individual choice.” The cult of the unfettered self is not only a deplorable model for citizenship, it tends to stimulate among religious minorities a truculent self-righteousness that frustrates public debate and poisons the political atmosphere. Thus the nation’s most difficult policy discussions-concerning abortion, stem-cell research, the civil rights of homosexuals-are increasingly ceded to the polarized extremes, and sometimes in the process short-circuited by the courts. The pragmatic middle-the principal source of our liberal pluralist tradition-is effectively disenfranchised.

The essays in Public Matters address a wide range of issues, ranging from tax policy and universal military or civic service for the young to the prospects for an Islamic pluralism. Readers of this magazine may be particularly drawn to Galston’s meticulous analysis of Catholic social thought and its compatibility with contemporary liberalism, a version of which originally appeared in Commonweal. What holds the volume together is the aforementioned theme of liberal pluralism; even the “political” essays, which necessarily deal with demography and economic trends as well as cultural issues, speak to this larger concern. Not that Galston has found a sure-fire means for adjudicating disputes between competing groups or between such groups and the claims of expressive liberty. His is a more modest project, concerned in the main with the ground rules for such conflicts and the attitudes that should attend them. But as Galston’s essay on Mormon polygamy perhaps inadvertently shows, even getting the ground rules right can be formidably difficult. It is one thing to reject, as Galston does, a discourse that links polygamy with barbarism and American family law with Christianity. (The U.S. Supreme Court spoke in such terms when it sustained the outlawing of polygamy in the late nineteenth century, and Galston quite reasonably deplores its rhetoric.) But can one really oppose the legalization of polygamy without invoking the history and traditions of the nations from whence our common language and political institutions come, or the Christian inheritance that defines monogamy as essential to the dignity of woman and her equality in marriage? Galston is silent on this score.

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 
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Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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