Progressives have redefined the sacred and are reviving the concept of blasphemy without realizing it.
“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.