SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

Should I stop reading BHL? Or should I keep reading and stop criticizing it? You tell me, PoT readers, because I find myself shaking my head at some of the stuff they’ve been producing lately.

Take Mike Munger’s latest post on religious toleration. Munger opens with some comments on Trump’s views on Muslims, then quotes a bit from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, then “concludes” (sort of, but not really) that while he thinks Trump is wrong, Locke’s Letter convinces him that he’s not sure that Trump is wrong. The conjunction of the two claims skates perilously close to Moore’s Paradox, but set that aside, if you can. What exactly is the argument that convinces Munger that Trump might be right?

It’s mainly this passage from the Letter, overtly discussing Muslims, covertly discussing Catholics, but taken by Munger to apply implicitly to Trump and to Muslims today:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Munger’s comment:

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

I think the “relevant question” is how any commentary on this subject could get this confused this fast.

First, a pedantic opening criticism: Munger gets Trump’s views wrong. He describes them like this:

He [Trump] has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.

The link goes to a December 7 article in The Washington Post. A day or two later, however, Trump had changed his tune:

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

I quote this not just to score points–though I don’t mind doing that–nor just to make hay, for the nth time, of BHL bloggers’ strained relationship with the realm of fact. I say it because there’s something really implausible about thinking that Trump’s views are stable enough or theoretically interesting enough to have their roots in Locke’s Letter. Trump doesn’t mention Locke. Nor does he make arguments. What he does instead is to tweet 140 characters at a time, yell down his interlocutors, and let everybody else do his work for him by pretending that he’s said something that counts as political discourse.

So I have to wonder: what is the point of putting theoretical arguments in the mouth of a politician who doesn’t have any arguments of his own, and seems to want to turn the country into a police state? From treating Trump’s claim in heuristic fashion as if it were Lockean, Munger somehow skates in a clause or two to the claim that it just is a Lockean argument. At this rate, I guess BAIR is a Lockean organization, and an armed mob’s surrounding a mosque is a Lockean activity. What next? Lockean internment camps?

So let’s return to the text and try to understand the contorted route by which Munger wants to make Locke relevant to Trump. Though the passage is about Muslims, Munger takes it to be a shot against Catholics, then infers that what is true of the Catholics of Locke’s day might be true of the Muslims of ours. Here’s a suggestion: why not skip the pointless intermediate step and just read the passage as stated?

Here it is again:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

I won’t comment on how this passage applied to the Muslims of Locke’s day, but it has almost zero application to the Muslims of 2015.

First, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate, but there is no caliphate today (even ISIS only aspires to become one), and there hasn’t been a “real” one since 1924.

Second, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate to which Muslims universally or at least ubiquitously swear allegiance, but Muslims didn’t universally pledge allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate even when it did exist. To cite just the simplest and most obvious example, the Muslims of the Palestinian national movement rebelled against the Ottomans during World War I.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find universal allegiance to any caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 AD). The disputes over caliphal succession began with his successor, Abu Bakr, and have continued to this day. Dispute over the legitimacy of this or that caliphate has been one of the major themes of Islamic history ever since. (Has anyone at BHL heard of the Sunni-Shia split?) To write about Islam and not know this (or not show any sign of knowing it) is like writing about Islam from the historiographical equivalent of a blank slate.  You might as well write about Christianity without having heard of the Protestant Reformation. It adds insult to injury when what you’re doing is making Trump into a Lockean while scratching your head about the plausibility of his proposals to violate the rights of American Muslims.

Third, caliphate aside, there is no global analogue to a “Church” among contemporary Muslims. The closest analogues might be individual mosques or Islamic Centers, or at best larger scale organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. But these don’t differ from their Protestant or Jewish analogues, and no respectable person is sitting around wondering whether we should deprive Protestants or Jews en masse of their rights because they belong to religious organizations that could conceivably (in someone’s morbid thought-experiment) rival the states we live in.

Nor is any decent person asking whether we should do the same for Catholics, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively makes adherence to consequentialism a sin against conscience (#1789), and regards abortion as morally on par with murder and genocide. The potential for conflict with the rule of civil law is pretty obvious on both counts: abortion rights are the law of the land, and “interest balancing” is an essential feature of contemporary jurisprudence. In fact, experts on the subject tell us that anti-abortion views entail violent civil disobedience, not that I agree. So  if we’re going to take Lockean worries about Catholicism seriously, we needn’t get lost in the thickets of Locke’s polemical intentions or the details of English history ca. 1688. Locke’s worries can be raised about Catholics today and used to buttress Trump-like proposals today–used, at any rate, by anyone whose commitment to the principle of rights is weak enough to be tossed about by the winds of Donald Trump’s oratory.

And then there’s the issue of the Church’s view on its lack of accountability to “the civil authorities” regarding accusations of pedophilia engaged in by Catholic priests. In the Apostolic letter Sacramentoriam sanctitatus tutela (2001), then-Cardinal Ratzinger  argued that “Cases of this kind [=accusations of pedophilia against priests] are subject to the pontifical secret,” i.e., that the Church has no binding obligation to report the findings of internal investigations into allegations of pedophilia to the civil authorities, even if it finds the accused guilty. I think by now we all know the story of how Cardinal Law escaped the law, whether or not we’ve seen “Spotlight” (I haven’t, yet).

The Vatican has long regarded itself, and its canon law, as above the civil law of any country and above international law as well, at least in cases of conflict between them.* And canon law binds all Catholics as firmly as sharia binds Muslims. So once again we confront a moral-political equivalence, not an idiosyncrasy of Islam: adherents of both faiths claim the right to supersede civil law, and both claim that God’s law stands above human law. (It should go without saying that I don’t mean that Catholics or members of any other religious denomination should be treated in the way that Trump wants to treat Muslims.)

Bizarrely, despite Munger’s misinterpretation of Trump, he doesn’t think Trump is limiting religious freedom, even if we (falsely) take Trump to be barring literally all Muslims from the United States. Here is Munger again:

That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

“The claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.” No, not at all. I wonder whether Munger has heard of Trump’s proposals to close down mosques. Or to put Muslims in internment camps. Or the suggestion (if that’s what it is) that Muslims be put on a registry–not ruling out the possibility that they have to sign up and register for it in the way that 18-year-old males currently have to sign up for Selective Service.  If these aren’t limitations of religious freedom, how would he characterize them?

But maybe he wants to focus narrowly on the issue of barring entry to Muslims, including citizens. Fair enough: here’s a real-life example. My parents spent the last three weeks in Pakistan, returning last night at JFK via Dubai. They’re both naturalized citizens. Though my mother is religious and my father is not, for present purposes let’s call them both believing Muslims.

So imagine that my parents arrive at JFK bearing visa stamps from Pakistan and the UAE, and bearing a Muslim-sounding name like “Khawaja.” On Trump’s original proposal, they wouldn’t be allowed back into a country that they had lived in for forty years. They’d never see friends or family again–and if Muslim, their American friends and family would never see them again, for fear of not being allowed back to their homes after visiting them abroad. My parents would forfeit all of their assets, including their house, and possibly including their bank accounts and their prospective retirement income. Since they’re not dead, their will wouldn’t apply, so all of those assets would revert to the state. They would have to find a home back in Pakistan, a place they left forty years ago–or else in the UAE, where they would lack citizenship and not know the language. They’re both in their 70s, but they’d have to begin their lives anew. (Would it be money laundering if I cut my parents a check or two for food? Would I be materially aiding the enemy if I sent them a care package of rice, lentils, and achaar?)

Perhaps Munger thinks that a barrier on entry back to one’s home country is not a limitation of specifically religious freedom, since the people in question are not returning home for a specifically religious reason. (Well, let’s be careful here. My mother is a kind of folk occasionalist, so as far as she’s concerned, every action is a divine action, and everything is a “religious reason.”). But obviously, their freedom would be limited on religious grounds–i.e., because they were Muslims. It seems obvious that Trump’s claim can accurately be characterized either by saying he wants to limit religious freedom, or more pedantically by saying that people’s freedom should be limited on a religious basis. One obvious way of reading “limited” would be to take it as a euphemistic synonym for “violated.” In other words, the proposition Munger is considering is: “Should we or should we not, on a Lockean basis, violate people’s rights, as long as they’re Muslims?” Is that really an improvement on Trump, or is it evidence that he’s managed to sweep libertarian academics into his juggernaut?

We’re left with one last issue. What if Islam “ipso facto requires…that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws”? Gee. In other words: what if Muslims were…anarchists, like half of BHL? Then we’d really have a case for keeping them out of the country. I guess this means that the next time Michael Huemer leaves the country, he’s indefinitely to be detained at the border and refused entry back into the United States. Same with Gary Chartier, Roderick Long, and all those other anti-authoritarians at C4SS. I can’t wait for the next time APEE holds a conference in Guatemala City, and half of the libertarian movement is stuck there for the rest of their lives. That’s a long time to have to pore over Locke’s Letter.

I guess the advice I’d offer here is: instead of speculating whether Islam “ipso facto requires” the rejection of non-Muslim civil authority, why not do some actual research and discover the answer? Every religion, and probably every major secular doctrine, can be interpreted in such a way that it entails a rejection of “civil authority and its laws”–Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, and (believe it or not) Lockean libertarianism. And every religion and every major secular doctrine has been interpreted so that it has implications that involve the rejection of such authority on particular occasions. The same is true of Islam. But the obvious inference is that every religion and every major secular doctrine can also be interpreted so that it’s compatible with civil authority, and compatible most or a lot of the time.

The vast majority of American Muslims interpret Islam in this latter “compatibilist” way. (The majority of them are garden-variety Democrats.) The relative minority who don’t accept Islam’s compatibility with “civil authority and its laws,” are, to be sure, a political, cultural, and security problem. But they aren’t a unique security problem, and we don’t need to target every adherent of the faith to deal with them. In case you haven’t noticed, Trump is focused on Muslims as such. He intends to target all of them. So it’s not to the point to haul out a version of Islam that no longer applies, to haul out centuries-old texts entirely irrelevant to our situation, and to wonder whether that’s why Trump is saying what he’s saying, and well, if so, maybe he’s got a point. That’s not why he’s saying what he’s saying, and he doesn’t have a point.  To write as Munger has is to ignore the obvious while creating mysteries where none exist.

Predictably, the BHL discussion devolves into claims like this:

Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

I’m sure the results would be pretty ugly. Of course, they’d be equally ugly if we widely publicized and held a Draw Fagin and/or Shylock Contest, offering a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry, and permitting contestants to festoon their drawings with choice quotations from “On the Jewish Question,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or Mein Kampf.  But even if all of the contestants of this would-be contest ended up dead at the hands of Jewish terrorists, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to embark on a witch hunt against “domestic radical Judaism.” Practically speaking, the implication would be that we’d have to exercise vigilance against these terrorists, and (without banning them outright) also have to question the wisdom of holding such contests. Exactly the same reasoning applies in the Muslim case.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, every passing day brings increasing confirmation of Edward Said’s much-derided but very prescient speculation that anti-Muslim bigotry (“Orientalism”) is a covert and modified form of anti-Semitism. He speaks in this passage of Arabs, but the point he’s making applies generally to Muslims, whether or not they’re of Arab ethnicity.

The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target [is] made smoothly, since the figure [is] essentially the same. …

Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels toward the Orient. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist…, and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental (Orientalism, p. 286).

Try that hypothesis on for size. I think it explains a lot about life in the Age of Trump, Cruz, and Carson.

In any case, witch hunt is a good description of what Trump is after. I realize that one isn’t apt to discern a witch hunt if one has never been accused of witchcraft, but take it from someone who has: Trump & Co are out hunting witches. It’d be nice for libertarians, of all people, to see that, and to deal with it with the seriousness it deserves.


*For a book length argument, see Geoffrey Robertson QC, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse (2010). Coming from the reverse political direction, many left-wing Catholics have insisted that illegal immigrants should enjoy legally incontestable sanctuary in Catholic churches. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the move, it’s a rejection of civil authority.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, my mentor Alasdair MacIntyre used to make a special bragging point of Catholicism’s rejection of civil authority when it clashed with some claimed prerogative of the Church (e.g., the confidentiality of confession vs. the duty to report a crime to the police). He interpreted his liberal students’ indignant reaction to his views as evidence of their debt, and liberalism’s debt, to Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism (cf. Leviathan, Part IV).

Postscript, December 29, 2015: Having seen “Spotlight” since I wrote this post, I highly recommend it–for the acting, for the story it tells, and for being the rare movie to dramatize intellectual inquiry in an effective way. It also nicely focuses some of the issues discussed in the original post. The next time someone describes political Islam as being a unique threat to American liberty–there’s no Catholic equivalent of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or sharia, after all–it might be worth asking what Islamic institution has sexually violated as many children and done as much damage to the rule of law in the United States as the Catholic Church. Still, that’s not a reason for violating the rights of Catholics or of anyone else. It’s a reason for re-doubling our commitment to respecting and protecting rights on principle across the board.

Eleven years ago, by the way, I was writing online essays like this one. No one can legitimately accuse me of being uncritical of Islam or of events in the Islamic world. But my views haven’t changed. What’s changed are the double standards that surround us. From cutting Muslims a bit of slack in the name of multicultural tolerance, we now seem to have slid to the reverse extreme of demonizing Islam as the root of all evils in the contemporary world. A little objectivity and sense of balance would be nice.

Postscript, February 25, 2016: I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I wish I’d said this in the first place. Munger had said:

Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

How is covert rejection of the civil authority and its laws an overt incitement to violence and revolution? That claim is self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if incitement is overt, and we assume that incitement is justly illegal, where is the puzzle involved in dealing with it? The solution is obvious: arrest all and only those engaged in the illegal activity.

Munger appears to avoid this dilemma by predicating “threat” and “incitement” not of agents but of “religion” as such. But since a religion is not an agent, its content only becomes threatening or inciting when an adherent makes it one. Threats and incitements that sit within the pages of some dusty tome can only sit there until someone makes use of them. If the sheer existence of claims is to be regarded as inciting or threatening, you may as well start legal proceedings against the books themselves.

Bottom line: in addition to all of the other problems Munger’s view faces, it faces a fatal and obvious dilemma. And yes, I’m done discussing it.

5 thoughts on “SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

  1. Pingback: Sad but True: The Republican Predicament | Policy of Truth

  2. Your analogy of anti-semitism to drawing Mohammad is ludicous. Jews do not hold riots and kill massive numbers of people over cartoons, Muslims do. Until people like you admit that Muslims have a unique antipathy to freedom we will not make progress.


    • I didn’t make an analogy of anti-Semitism to “drawing Muhammad.” I made one of anti-Semitism to Islamophobia. Until people like you acquire better skills at reading comprehension, we will never make progress.


    • Not that I’m all that eager to get into a conversation with you, but I have to wonder: you just managed to comment on a post and say literally nothing about its main topic. All you’ve done is skip to the end, skim a bit, and misconstrue whatever your eyes went over. So where do you stand on the version of Trump’s proposal that Munger was discussing? The proposal was to keep all Muslims–citizens as well as non-citizens, legal as well as those without a visa–out of the United States. Do you agree?


  3. Pingback: Donald Trump’s Muslim Registry: A Demand for Clarity and a Call for Pre-Emptive Civil Disobedience | Policy of Truth

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