Gray on Liberalism

John Gray has been an insightful critic of various features of, or tendencies in, political liberalism for decades. Whether it be the problem of evil in the modern world, the extent to which law is merely an artifact of state power rather than “a free-standing institution towering majestically above the chaos of human conflict,” the stubborn hope of a “secular eschatology,” or the by now largely discarded “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin, Gray’s arguments have been consistently interesting and provocative (though rather bleak).

Here is a new book out this November by Gray targeting the heart of his work over the years, though one with evident (and, I think, rightful) praise for one of the major figures in liberalism, Thomas Hobbes: The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Macmillan). Sure to be greatly engaging and provocative.

Ever since its publication in 1651, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan has unsettled and challenged how we understand the world. Condemned and vilified by each new generation, his cold political vision continues to see through any number of human political and ethical vanities.

In his wonderfully stimulating book The New Leviathans, John Gray allows us to understand the world of the 2020s with all its contradictions, moral horrors, and disappointments. The collapse of the USSR ushered in an era of near apoplectic triumphalism in the West: a genuine belief that a rational, liberal, well-managed future now awaited humankind and that tyranny, nationalism, and unreason lay in the past. Since then, so many terrible events have occurred and so many poisonous ideas have flourished, and yet our liberal certainties treat them as aberrations that will somehow dissolve. Hobbes would not be so confident.

Filled with fascinating and challenging observations, The New Leviathans is a powerful meditation on historical and current folly. As a species we always seem to be struggling to face the reality of base and delusive human instincts. Might a more self-aware, realistic, and disabused ethics help us?

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Development, the 2d Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Connecticut’s decision to repeal religious exemptions from its mandatory vaccination laws, while still permitting medical exemptions. The court found that the act was neutral under Smith and thus dismissed plaintiffs’ challenges.
  • In Sims v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, the 11th Circuit found that in a suit where a Muslim inmate argued that he was denied an exemption from a Florida prison’s grooming rules requiring beards be no longer than half an inch, the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s requirement that inmates exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit only required him to exhaust the prison system’s grievance process. The Department of Corrections argued that the PLRA required inmates to file a rule change petition before filing suit.
  • In Huntsman v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the 9th Circuit reversed dismissal of a suit brought by a former member of the LDS Church who alleged fraud on part of the church after he contributed $2.6 million in tithes to the church. The court rejected the Church’s argument that the suit was precluded by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
  • In Carter v. Transport Workers of America, Local 556, the Northern District of Texas ordered sanctions against Southwest Airlines for failing to comply with a prior order that found Southwest violated Title VII by terminating a flight attendant for posting her religiously-motivated views of abortion on her social media. The court also ordered Southwest’s attorneys to attend at least 8 hours of religious liberty training.
  • In Burke v. Walsh, a Catholic couple filed suit against a foster care agency in the District of Massachusetts. The couple brought free speech and free exercise challenges because the agency denied them a foster care license because they “would not be affirming to a child who identified as LGBTQIA.”
  •  In Doe No. 1 v. Bethel Local School District Board of Education, the Southern District of Ohio dismissed a suit brought by Muslim and Christian plaintiffs alleging free exercise, due process, and equal protection challenges to a school board’s policy allowing students to use the bathroom of their gender identity.