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Stumbling Toward a Compromise

“If you want to understand why evangelicals could vote for someone of Trump’s morals,” Megan McArdle suggested, read Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet’s “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism.” There Tushnet wrote:

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. . . . For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who— remember—defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)

Or recall Solicitor General Donald Verrilli saying that religious institutions’ tax exemption was “certainly going to be an issue.” Statements like these lead many traditional religious believers to fear another four years of Progressive governance more than they feared the uncertainty and vice of Donald Trump. “Where will we go?” has been the common question, posed again and again on blogs, in congregations, and at dinner parties. Having felt at home in their societies for most of their lives, the traditionally religious—not exclusively, but mostly Christian—have been experiencing a “seismic shift . . . like nothing that has happened before.” They wonder whether they should stand tall, endure disgrace and penalties, and fight for their place in the public square, or turn inward and seek to build their communities in more isolated safety from a hostile world.

Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe begins with this question, posed by a group of traditionally minded, religious dinner guests in Denver. She examines cases “in which acting on religious conviction has been punished” and she asks a book-length rhetorical question which, when distilled, runs roughly: “In light of this, people of good will can agree that secular progressivism has to find a way to live with those who dissent from it, and that those dissenters should be allowed to live out their beliefs publicly, right?” The list is comprehensive, but Eberstadt’s analysis of and response to the problem do not go far enough. Moreover, she overlooks important dynamics in secular hostility to traditional religion and the debate over religious liberty. As a result, It’s Dangerous to Believe is a missed opportunity to address a real problem with the depth it requires—a problem that Trump’s election as President compels all Americans to take note of, even as it alters it in ways we do not yet understand.

Eberstadt is at her best when cataloguing that problem. The list contains many familiar cases of individuals and institutions coming under fire for acting on socially conservative beliefs: the Atlanta fire chief, Brendan Eich, the closing of Catholic adoption agencies, the firestorm over Gordon Conwell’s student-conduct statement. Others are simply surreal, such as a teacher in Great Britain fired for offering to pray for a sick child, which was defined as “bullying.”

The strongest chapter shows the crucial role that religious charities play in adoption services and care for the poor and immigrants. Progressive organizations sue these charities for not providing care in the way they think necessary, forcing them to divert valuable funding to fighting lawsuits. They also threaten to close them, even though there are no easy replacements for their work. The ACLU, for example, has sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because its shelters for children and teen immigrants do not offer contraception and abortion. Eberstadt writes:

This is a particularly telling example of how far progressive activists will go to interfere with Christian charity. . . . The USCCB settles a full quarter of the refugees that come into the United States each year—including for starters some 68,000 children and families whose flight across the southern border in summer 2014 made headline news for weeks.

Eberstadt sees these developments as part of the retreat of religious faith from the French Revolution through the 20th century. The past 15 years, however, have delivered “epochal setbacks,” with the Catholic priest sex-abuse crisis and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. After fears of budding theocracy during the Bush administration, the Obama administration has given secular Progressivism victory after victory. Doctrinally faithful Christians “are the only remaining minority that can be mocked and degraded—broadly, unilaterally, and with impunity. Not to mention fired, fined, or otherwise punished for their beliefs.” Traditionalists have been losing for a long time now, and yet their opponents still call for their marginalization and penalization. Eberstadt recounts this with parallels between the Salem witch trials and the “neo-puritanical” movement against contemporary religious believers.

These conflicts are actually a deeper “contest of two opposed, fiercely held faiths,” she argues: “on the one hand, the faith of the Christian religious tradition; and on the other, the much newer secularist faith built piece by piece for half a century atop doctrines and commandments and precepts developed out of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.” We need to acknowledge that this is a contest of religions, she writes, and we need people on the secular side who have been silent to take a stand in the name of the public good: “Sooner or later, secularist progressives are going to have to find some way to live with those voluntary dissenters.”

Unfortunately, Eberstadt is stronger on asserting this point than developing a deeper argument about and rebuttal of Progressive beliefs, or a deeper analysis of why Progressive activists do what they do. To begin with, Eberstadt’s account is shaped by her own experience as a conservative intellectual living in an elite, liberal cultural setting (Washington, D.C.). From her vantage point, Progressive bullies are cleaning up the end of a long assault on traditional believers, who have not had serious traction in culture and politics for some time. She also comes from a generation whose liberalism fought to tear down taboos that they felt obstructed free expression and open debate.

But the outlook of many Progressives is different in both respects. Younger Progressives emphasize equality, whose principles are clear and require action. Talk is cheap and leaves injustice unremedied. We don’t need more voices in the discussion, they argue, we need the right ones. When the sociologist Mark Regnerus’ studies on same-sex families came under fire, a Progressive friend told me that if you knowingly allow your scholarship to lead to a restriction of human rights, you deserve ostracism.

Progressives also see traditional religious views as more powerful than Eberstadt does. A few years ago, a lesbian friend of mine and her partner moved from Oregon to Massachusetts. Somewhere in between—Idaho or Wyoming, perhaps—they stopped at a gas station. By the time the tank was full, and with no words exchanged, it was clear their kind was not welcome there. They left fast. My friend is not an anomaly in this regard. Gay teens are more likely to be bullied, abused, or homeless than straight ones. In African and Middle Eastern countries—not to mention in Russia—homosexuals are beaten and imprisoned, frequently with religious justification. It was not that long ago that American police raided gay bars and published a list of those arrested, leaving those who had been present afraid that they would lose their jobs.

For Progressives, the traditionally religious are not a waning, powerless minority. They are closely aligned with the systemic injustice that Progressivism seeks to uproot. Recent victories like Obergefell are new and earned after a long, hard fight that cannot end until inequality is eliminated. Forcing the baker to bake the cake for the gay wedding is a small but important part of changing the culture so that gay teens won’t hear “No homo” in the locker room.

If religious traditionalists want to persuade Progressives to live and let live as Eberstadt does, they need to take this into account. Traditionalists need to make clear that they oppose anti-gay violence and want to let Catholic adoption agencies assist only heterosexual married couples—and that these are not mutually exclusive.

However, even with such caveats, Progressives are unlikely to find Eberstadt’s pleas persuasive because the conflicts between Progressives and traditional believers are not just over sexual morality, but more fundamental things: the malleability of human nature, the role of the will, justice and equality, truth and power. Important as they are, pointing out that Progressivism functions religiously and pleading for good faith cannot bypass these disagreements or progressivism’s religious function. Progressives have an internally coherent account of their actions. They really believe that the orthodox Christian understanding of human sexuality is as much an affront to equality and justice as racism is. It makes sense, then, that they would treat traditional believers like racists: Even decades after desegregation, we still ostracize white supremacists.

Another reason that Progressive “religion” and traditional religion conflict is that they both want to be at home in America. Liberal societies bracket higher religious and metaphysical claims—there is one God in three persons—so that their members can be united on more modest grounds of common values and morals—justice is good and stealing is bad. While these values may be common, they are not neutral. For most of American history, they have been vestiges of Christianity. It did not matter if you came from a culture where widow-burning, wife-beating, or bribery were culturally acceptable. Participation in American liberal democracy meant you could not act on those beliefs when they contradicted the liberal—Christian—values at its foundation.

The culture wars are ultimately a fight over what those foundational values are. The more closely you share those values, the more you will feel at home in a liberal society. Eberstadt quotes Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider.” “Surely,” she replies, “the same rule applies to his fellow believers today.” But rhetoric like this begs the question. Pluralistic liberal societies inevitably have insiders and outsiders. For much of American history, Protestants felt at home in America while Catholics were outsiders. Making Catholics feel like insiders did not, ultimately, make Protestants feel excluded because a shift in fundamental values was not required. It is not clear that the same case applies between Progressives and traditionalists. For most of American history, sexually transgressive Americans felt out of place and religious traditionalists felt at home. After decades of social change and activism, the roles have begun to reverse.

The election of Donald Trump was a last ditch attempt by various groups to feel at home again. His victory was not the beginning of a theocon uprising but a plea for moderation in the culture war. But like Eberstadt’s own plea, it addresses none of the ideological dynamics that make a truce in that conflict unlikely. Moreover, it reinforces Progressive fears that religious conservatives are a dangerous opposition. Religious conservatives are glad to have more room to breathe, but Democrats, when they next gain power, might double down on the tactics that helped them lose this election. There seems to be no easy way to break the cycle beyond uneasy compromises. Both sides would need to prove that each is not a danger to the other. That would mean tempering the desire for dominance, breaking the circle of ideology, and acknowledging that for the present, America is an uneasy home for most of its citizens.

Reader Discussion

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on December 15, 2016 at 09:05:14 am

Richard Ferrier, this is for you.

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Mark Pulliam
on December 15, 2016 at 11:21:40 am

"There seems to be no easy way to break the cycle beyond uneasy compromises. Both sides would need to prove that each is not a danger to the other. That would mean tempering the desire for dominance, breaking the circle of ideology, and acknowledging that for the present, America is an uneasy home for most of its citizens."

Perhaps, we ought to recognize that the best way to deal with a bully, in this case the Progressive zealots, is to punch back. Only then does the bully take time to reflect on matters - and perhaps, a confirmation that the right *could conceivably* pose a threat to the secular religious movement may give them pause to reconsider their overly assertive stance towards those who are more comfortable in a traditional setting.

In other words, Did force of arms or considered conversations DURING WWII result in a healthier Japan and Germany AFTER WWII?

(And no I am not advocating violence - only a stout defense of one's position).

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gabe
on December 15, 2016 at 11:46:25 am

Thanks for the nice article. I think that the problem discussed is even deeper. The Frankfort School ethos was transferred into the US by European intellectuals escaping Hitler. In relevant part this meant the application of the social sciences to the political system. It is no accident that Progressive responses to conservative opponents sound like psychiatric diagnoses. Terms like homophobia, trigger warning, and safe space come right out of psychology. According to Progressives, a nationalist may not know it, because it subconscious, but she is a racist because what else is nationalism but racism; a labeling of members of the tribe versus "others"? So, the sides don't actually discuss anything; they are ships passing in the night. For conservatives, progressives are wrong, but for progressives conservatives are mentally ill.

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Ron Johnson
on December 15, 2016 at 12:10:57 pm

Nice essay! This is a frequent topic of discussion over at First Things (“Should we implement the Benedict Option?”), but they’ve banned me from commenting there. So it’s nice to have the opportunity to comment here.

For much of American history, Protestants felt at home in America while Catholics were outsiders. Making Catholics feel like insiders did not, ultimately, make Protestants feel excluded because a shift in fundamental values was not required.

I largely share Eberstadt’s perspective regarding how we arrived at the current situation. Yes, historically Protestants were in, Catholics out. But no, the unification did not result when woke up one day and discovered that they no longer cared about their doctrinal differences. Rather, they woke up and discovered that they faced a common enemy in the form of secular society—especially the sexual revolution and, more recently, the rise of atheism.

Catholics and Protestants (and orthodox Jews) share the unity of the foxhole—much like the unity shared by the West during the Cold War. But now that the Cold War is over, the Western nations have begun putting up walls again. Similarly, if secularism were to decline, I expect that Catholics and Protestants (and Jews, oh my!) would rediscover the importance of their doctrinal differences.

I also largely share Eberstadt’s view that society may have gone too far in restricting certain behaviors by people with traditional perspectives. But I differ in many particulars.

1. I disapprove of 501(c)(3) status. Government should tax income on the basis of income. Granting tax exemptions based on status basically lets private parties allocate government resources. This makes government an agent of private discrimination. In short, government should collect money on the basis of bona fide relevant criteria, and then allocate the resources to achieve bona fide governmental purposes. Let private parties fund private purposes with their own resources.

2. Government has a bona fide need for paperclips—and should get them on the best terms. If the best terms are available from a factory run by the Church of Scientology, then government should buy the paperclips there. Similarly, government has a bona fide need to educate its population. If the best provider of education is affiliated with the Church of Scientology, then government should buy the educations (via vouchers?) there. Government should not use its market power as a means to discriminate on the basis of religion, pro or con.

3. On the flip side, I’d like to shield private discriminators from liability for discriminating—even discriminating based on suspect categories by providers of housing, employment, and public accommodations—provided the discriminator bears the burden of showing where comparable benefits can be secured nearby under comparable terms. That would let most bakers, photographers, and florists off the hook. I’d even let government clerks refuse to serve people, provided there was a substitute clerk available to serve people. In short, I want to bring back “separate but equal”—with the understanding that the discriminator bears the burden of demonstrating that the substitute goods/services were truly equal.

4. Adoption agencies: Private organizations, and should be allowed to discriminate on pretty much any basis they choose—using private resources, not government’s resources. But here’s the rub: Are adoptable kids a private resource? I really don’t know. If government can contract with the KKK to run an adoption agency that excludes all but white people, then government should extend the same treatment to Catholic adoption agencies. If not, then not.

[F]or the present, America is an uneasy home for most of its citizens.

Agreed—but thus it has always been. At no point in history was America an easy home for its poor citizens, its female citizens, its black citizens, its Hispanic citizens, its Asian citizens, its LGBTQ citizens, its disabled citizens…. This is not new. What is new is the fact that some people who were previously part of the IN crowd are now coming to experience the life that was reserved for the OUT crowd.

They don’t like it—and understandably so. But the remedy does not lie in attempting to reinforce the old hierarchy for the benefit of the few; it lies in shoring up the bottom for the benefit of the many. Admittedly, this will be hard. Working-class people who have built their sense of self-worth by looking down on other working-class people may resist acknowledging that we’re all in the same boat now.

But we’re all in the same boat now.

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nobody.really
on December 15, 2016 at 12:38:20 pm

Nobody:

ARE you still banned from First Things? Geez Louize, that was a long time ago. I would think they would allow you to return from Coventry by now.

"Working-class people who have built their sense of self-worth by looking down on other working-class people may resist acknowledging that we’re all in the same boat now."

The conclusion is correct even if the premise is flawed - at least within the working class with which I am familiar (and lived).

" If government can contract with the KKK to run an adoption agency that excludes all but white people, then government should extend the same treatment to Catholic adoption agencies. If not, then not."

Where you go wrong on this one is that the Catholic adoption agencies are not discriminating in the manner practiced by the KKK. Catholic agencies did not facilitate adoptions only for Catholic babies; nor did they limit their outreach to Catholic adoptive parents. As a matter of fact, neither did Catholic schools. Regrettably, (and inadvertently, I would suppose) the assertion would appear to equate Catholic Charities with the *charitable* efforts of the miscreants of the KKK.

Also, the reconciliation (apparent or real) between Catholics and Protestants began sometime before the "sexual revolution;" however, it is clear that the initial impetus toward this *outreach* gained considerable momentum after the rise of the new secular (sex-ular?) religious urge.

And no, America has not been a Paradise for certain segments; but it has not been, nor is it, quite so dire as you seem to need it to be!

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gabe
on December 15, 2016 at 13:02:06 pm

Now this is the kind of "stout defense of one’s position" I can get behind, Mr. Gabe. Of course, its never prudent to say "never" regarding the various other options, too.

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Paul Binotto
on December 15, 2016 at 13:03:01 pm

Gabe:

1. Thanks.

2. Where are you from? "Return from Coventry" is a pretty obscure idiom these days. Are you British? (Or an English major?)

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nobody.really
on December 15, 2016 at 16:19:30 pm

I am fond of saying that I am "From the South - the southern part of New York State - NYC." Perhaps, there is more *truth* in that than even I imagine!

And I may be said to have a "major" difficulty with most languages.

Anyway, The First Things "thing" has gone on for far too long. BTW: I gave up on them and only rarely visit.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on December 15, 2016 at 16:44:16 pm

I gave up on FT after their despicable treatment of Maureen Mullarkey.

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Paul Binotto
on December 15, 2016 at 21:19:34 pm

"Participation in American liberal democracy meant you could not act on those beliefs when they contradicted the liberal—Christian—values at its foundation." Does this qualify candidate Peters as a reformist, revisionist, or traitor?

Quoting Professor Samuelson, condor is “incumbent upon each citizen in a free republic.” See libertylawsite.org/2016/12/15/george-washington-american/#comment-1506655 , indeed an excellent post.

"Both sides would need to prove that each is not a danger to the other. That would mean tempering the desire for dominance, breaking the circle of ideology," and collaborating for broadly-defined-civic-safety-and-security as individual-independence-with-civic-morality.

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Phil Beaver
on December 16, 2016 at 09:59:08 am

I like First Things. I haven't found a good substitute.

Why are Catholics over-represented on the Supreme Court? When Democrats need an intellectual, they can go fishing in any number of ponds. When Republicans need an intellectual, they're pretty much restricted to the Catholic pond. So when I want to hear a thoughtful conservative argument, I hunt for some libertarian-leaning sites (such as this one), and First Things.

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nobody.really
on December 16, 2016 at 12:11:08 pm

nobody:

re: Catholics and SCOTUS / intellectuals: It may be due to the fact that a Catholic school education is (or WAS, not so much now) a superior educational environment and that a "classical liberal" education was provided; indeed, to the extent that grade school curriculum may be said to "permit" such an education, it WAS evident even at that level. One outcome is a certain rectitude, perhaps, a predisposition towards duty, responsibility and an ability to apprehend the notion that there may be something higher than our simple selves.

BTW: Is Pete spiliakos still with 1st things? Why not e-mail him and request privileges again. I would back such a request (even if pete may still be PO'ed with me for critiquing his NeverTrump essays.)

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gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.