Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
They Said It:
And as the observance of the ordinances of religion is the cause of the greatness of a State, so their neglect is the occasion of its decline; since a Kingdom without fear of God must either fall to pieces, or must be maintained by the fear of some prince who supplies that influence not supplied by religion. But since the lives of princes are short, the life of this prince, also, and with it his influence, must soon come to an end; whence it happens that a kingdom which rests wholly on the qualities of its prince, lasts for a brief time only; because these qualities, terminating with his life, are rarely renewed in his successor . . .
Princes and commonwealths that would save themselves from growing corrupted, should before all things keep uncorrupted the rites and ceremonies of religion, and always hold them in reverence; since we can have no surer sign of the decay of a province than to see Divine worship held therein in contempt. This is easily understood when it is seen on what foundation that religion rests in which a man is born. For every religion has its root in certain fundamental ordinances peculiar to itself . . .
And it will be plain to anyone who carefully studies Roman History, how much religion helped in disciplining the army, in uniting the people, in keeping good men good, and putting bad men to shame . . . for when religion is established you may readily bring in arms; but where you have arms without religion it is not easy afterwards to bring in religion . . ..
Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, 1531.
INDIANA AND THE NON-CHRISTIAN STATE RELIGION.
As you may or may not have seen, Steven Crowder, an actor, comedian, conservative agitator, and online/radio talk-show host, posted a fascinating video last week. Amid the controversy over Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Crowder decided to test the “tolerance” of some bakeries in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit that has the has the largest population and highest concentration of Arab-Americans and Muslims in the country.
Crowder posed as a gay man seeking a wedding cake for his same-sex marriage and filmed the reactions at several bakeries. The results were not exactly surprising. Many of the bakeries refused to sell him a wedding cake.
Crowder wanted to gauge the reaction of Muslim bakers to his request for same-sex-wedding services, not because of what it would reveal about devout Muslims, but because of what it would reveal about those liberal individuals who are the angriest and the most agitated by Indiana’s somewhat ham-handed attempt to preserve the right to religious freedom and who tend, on the whole, to blame Christianity and its practitioners for what they perceive to be society’s general hatred of and bigotry against gay men and women.
The terms of the controversy are relatively well known. Simply stated, a few business owners have over the past several years become unwitting pawns in the national push for “equality” for gay couples. Examples include a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; a photographer in New Mexico who refused to take pictures at a same-sex ceremony; and now a family that owns a pizza parlor in South Bend, Indiana that committed the grievous error of answering a reporter’s unsolicited question, only to find its future, its safety, and its business at risk. Writing at Reason.com, Robby Soave provides the details of the “Memories Pizza” affair from Walkerton, Indiana:
The owners of Memories Pizza, the O’Connor family, did not willingly seek out controversy, deny service to a gay person or couple, or even go out on a limb to suggest that they would. No, they merely responded to a question from Alyssa Marino, a local reporter for ABC 57 News who had come to their shop in search of a story.
And they did give her a story — but not the one she reported. Her initial headline was “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service” (Michiana is the region in Indiana where Memories Pizza is located). That headline implies two things that are false. The O’Connors had no intention of becoming the first Michiana business to do anything discriminatory with respect to gay people; they had merely answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if a gay couple asked them to cater a wedding. And the O’Connors had every intention of providing regular service to gay people — just not their weddings.
That policy, while not as gay-affirming as many of us supporters of same-sex marriage would like, isn’t as discriminatory as what the headline claims. And though ABC 57 changed it at some point, several bigger outlets ran with the distorted version. PJ Media has a good rundown of it: The Huffington Post reported, “Indiana’s Memories Pizza Reportedly Becomes First Business To Reject Catering Gay Weddings,” and BuzzFeed ran with, “Indiana Pizzeria Owners Say They’d Deny LGBT People Service.”
Stripped down to the actual facts, there wasn’t much of a story here in the first place, writes PJ Media’s Scott Ott:
If I were forced to mark out a story line, it would be this: A nice lady in a small town tries to be helpful and polite to a lovely young reporter from “the big city.”
In other words, Memories Pizza didn’t blast out a news release. They didn’t contact the media, nor make a stink on Twitter or Facebook. They didn’t even post a sign in the window rejecting gay-wedding catering jobs. They merely answered questions from a novice reporter who strolled into their restaurant one day – who was sent on a mission by an irresponsible news organization.
Memories Pizza, as you may well know, was forced to close because of the threats directed at it and its owners in the days after the initial report. The owner of pizza parlor has said that he is not really sure if or when he will be able reopen. All of which is to say that Memories Pizza was effectively shut down by a media-inspired internet mob that didn’t like the way its owners answered a reporter’s questions. Of course, the worst part of the whole Memories fiasco may have been the reaction of the O’Connors’ own Indiana State Senator, a nasty wannabe totalitarian named Jim Arnold, who insisted, that “this kind of thinking has no place in this town.”
Against this backdrop, the reaction – or the non-reaction, if you prefer – to Crowder’s video is, we think, telling. No one anywhere has stomped their feet and insisted that an example must be made of the Muslim bakers. No one has threatened the folks in Dearborn. No one has even bothered to follow up with any of the bakers who refused Crowder service. Note if you will that the Memories Pizza folks simply answered a question about a hypothetical situation. They didn’t actually refuse service to anyone. That’s NOT the case with the bakeries in the Crowder video. Although Crowder isn’t actually gay and wasn’t actually seeking to get married to another man, the bakeries in question didn’t know this, and yet they refused him service anyway. And NO ONE cared.
We would argue that the intentional, premeditated duplicity here is part of a broad and largely deleterious inclination in Western civilization, one that is all but certain to affect the political climate over the next several years at least, to the nation’s detriment.
There are, we think, several explanations for this duplicity. First, the American Left, for all of its incessant prattling on about equality and fairness and treating all races and all individuals uniformly and justly is, nevertheless scared to death of “the other.” In the abstract, it is unfair to link Islam and terrorism. In the abstract, anyone who assumes that Muslims are different from anyone else is a hateful bigot. In the abstract, only intolerant and intolerable conservatives link “violent extremism” with the “religion of peace.” In the concrete, the social justice warriors wouldn’t dare to criticize, much less threaten a Muslim baker, for fear that said Muslim baker – or his coreligionists – would threaten them back. As with free speech, when it comes to equality, fairness, and universal tolerance, the social-justice-Left talks a far better game than it walks.
A second explanation is the fact that the Left is perpetually and obliviously acting out its racialist fantasies, which they call “multiculturalism,” but which were more accurately labeled by George W. Bush, who called them “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” To the Left, you see, Muslims can’t be held to same standards as the rest of us. If the Muslim prophet is caricatured, then that’s an offense worthy of wanton slaughter, because . . . well . . . because that’s their “culture.” If a young girl is viciously raped by a gang of Muslin savages, that’s her own fault and she must be punished, because . . . well . . . that’s their culture. Similarly, if a Muslim baker doesn’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, that too is fine, because . . . well . . . that’s their culture. To the Left, Muslims can’t help themselves, they’re just following the dictates of their culture. And who are they/we to say that their culture is wrong? To do so would be an offense against multiculturalism, and a greater sin the Left cannot fathom.
The third explanation, which is by far the most significant and the most relevant, is that the Left doesn’t care about the Muslim bakeries. Muslims and their attitude toward gays are irrelevant. Heck, to the Left, same-sex weddings are, more or less, irrelevant too. What matters to the Left is the Christian morality that purportedly underlies the Christian bakers’/photographers’/pizza-makers’ opposition to same-sex marriage. The Muslim bakers don’t matter because they’re not Christian. The Christian pizza parlor owners matter because they are Christian. The enemy is not bigotry toward gays. The enemy is Christianity.
For nearly a quarter-century, some social conservatives, namely the Family Research Council, which coined the term, have been complaining about “the Gay Agenda.” And for nearly a quarter century, a great many social liberals have, understandably, been mocking said conservatives as deeply paranoid and bigoted for their views on homosexuality and its acceptance.
Personally, we tend to think that those who are overwrought about “the Gay Agenda” have too much leisure time on their hands. At the same time, we do think that there is something akin to an agenda in this debate; it’s just that it has nothing to do with acceptance of gay men and women specifically, and everything to do with the secular Left’s longstanding and ongoing battle for cultural supremacy over traditional Christianity.
Individual gay men and women and gay couples are as diverse in their political, economic, religious, and social beliefs as anyone else in the country. In the context of the broader political struggle, however, these men, women, and couples represent fantastic and powerful contrivance for the Left, the means by which to challenge the dominant moral structure and hopefully to break it once and for all. Consider, if you will, the following from a weekend column by The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:
And homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.
That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.
But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.
It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras. . . .
So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.
“Human understanding of what is sinful has changed over time,” said David Gushee, an evangelical Christian who teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University. He openly challenges his faith’s censure of same-sex relationships, to which he no longer subscribes. . . .
“Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people,” Gushee said. . . .
Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to L.G.B.T. people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”
Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”
His commandment is worthy — and warranted.
Bruni packed so much into this one little column that it’s hard to know where to begin. The first thing to notice here is Bruni’s insistence not just on moral progress, but that true moral progress is something that he and we can know absolutely. As the author and journalist Rod Dreher put it:
Today, we have special access to the truth…[contrary to the truth] that St. Paul, the authors of the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and virtually every Christian in history until around 1970 in the West believed to be true. And not only do we know they were wrong, we have the duty to make those who still believe in clear Scriptural teaching and the reliability of authoritative Tradition repent of their heresy.
Bruni is, in short, a Gnostic. He knows the truth. He understands the moral absolutes. And no one before has ever had awareness and understanding as deep and profound as his. Bruni, like most “progressives” is enamored by the Enlightenment notion of moral progress, the belief that man is progressing, slowly but surely, toward moral perfection, a state that lies indubitably along a linear path. This is a foolish and dangerous notion. Moreover, it is a notion that has caused, has contributed to, and continues to exacerbate all sorts of moral confusion. Winston Churchill perhaps put it best, as follows:
Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvements as the centuries have rolled. The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged. Under sufficient stress–starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds . . . We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility. We may find ourselves in the presence of the strength of civilization without its mercy.
Bruni has determined, understandably, we suppose, that the old morality is wanting. But he goes beyond that, beyond the idea that he has the right to refuse to believe in the old morality, determining that the old ways are so wanting that they can and should be overturned by force, by coercion, by the sheer strength of will. The comment near the end of the quoted section above makes this clear: “church leaders must be made. . . ” They must be made to surrender to the new reality, the new morality. They must, as Dreher put it, “be made to bow.”
The second thing to notice is Bruni’s citation of David Gushee, who insists that “Conservative Christian religion is the bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people.” This is absurd on so many levels.
For starters, most “conservative Christians” tend not to be preoccupied with other people’s sexual practices. Like the Muslim bakers in Dearborn, they want nothing more than to be left alone. They don’t care what other people do, as they as other people don’t care what they do.
Now, it is undeniable that some Christians, conservative or otherwise, do indeed worry about others’ private behavior. And many of them are quite vocal and quite hateful in their denunciations of those whom they consider sinful. But that’s hardly proof that Christianity itself or “conservative” Christianity represents a “threat” or an encumbrance to anyone’s private behavior. Most Christians believe that personal behavior issues are best kept between the individual and God. What conservative Christians object to is the act of being dragged, kicking and screaming, into that relationship, being asked for sanction of personal behavior, and being told that they are evil for not instantaneously and joyously granting that sanction. Most Christians believe – BY DEFINITION – in forgiveness, redemption, and love of thy neighbor as thyself.
By contrast, Islam does not brook such general deference to the personal conscience. Islamic states, Islamic scholars, Islamic theologians, and the preponderance of Islamic practitioners condemn homosexuality – and homosexuals. President Barack Obama today is intensely and cheerfully negotiating with a regime that openly and proudly hangs homosexuals in public. The majority of Muslim countries in the world and Muslim people in the world treat gay men and women as the vilest of sinners. As Eric Sasson put it in an essay for The New Republic last fall:
There is near unanimity of opinion regarding LGBT rights in places where Islam holds power: that it’s sinful and, more often than not, punishable by law. Even in countries where consensual homosexual activity is de facto legal, there is scant evidence of an openly gay populace, let alone examples of influential voices speaking up or influencing government policy to advance LGBT equality. The lives of LGBT people in so many of these nations is characterized by silence, humiliation, shame and erasure.
These cultural norms are deeply engrained. In most of these nations, upwards of 90 percent of people consider homosexual activity morally wrong. With these states acting as enforcers of a moral code roundly accepted by their people, even the discussion of LGBT rights is pretty much a non-starter.
Many of these same “cultural norms” carry over to the practice of Islam in the West – in places like London, Paris, and yes, Dearborn. Nevertheless, the enemy that is identified here, the enemy that stands as a “bulwark” against full acceptance of “L.G.B.T. people” is not Islam, but Christianity. One might argue that this distinction makes sense, given the predominantly Christian nature and history of this country. But since the question at hand is not one of tolerance of gay men and women, but full equality up to and including universal participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies, the tolerance claim falls short. In a nation with less than 1% Muslim population, we’d be willing, nevertheless, to bet that more Muslim-owned businesses would refuse participation in same-sex weddings than non-Muslim-owned businesses. And since this universal participation seems to be the standard of judgment, the notion that Christianity is the sole barrier to equality strikes us as contrived at best – and contrived in pursuit of a specific end.
It is worth noting here, we think, that nearly the entire last half-millennium in Western history is dominated by revolution against and hatred of the Catholic Church first and then Christianity more generally. From the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment, Europe’s educated, talented, and earnest pushed back against the Church, not necessarily as it existed canonically, but as it existed practically, at least in many places and at many times. Not to put too fine a point on these three monumental movements in Western civilization, but all three were, in essence, reactions to the distortions of the Middle Ages, to the corruption, darkness, and superstition that had come to represent established order and the institution that most represented that order, the Church.
The political Left as we know it today has its origins in the French Enlightenment and specifically in the prelude to the French Revolution. Beginning largely with Voltaire, the French intellectuals railed incessantly and mercilessly against the institutions of their age and especially against the Church, Christianity, and the established order more broadly, all of which, they believed, prevented the realization of human ability and perverted the relations of society. As Voltaire famously put it in a letter to Frederick to Great:
[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.
Voltaire led to Rousseau. Rousseau led, in turn, to the Revolution and to Robespierre. Robespierre led to Wilhelm Weitling. Weitling led to Marx and Engels, then to Lenin, to Hitler, to Mao and all the rest. The lone constant in all of this – and in the post-Enlightenment philosophies of the French and Germans – is hatred of and opposition to Christianity as the mother and perpetuator of all evils. Voltaire’s “war against Christianity,” became Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, which became Marx’s “the opium of the people.” For at least 500 years, the Catholic Church has been the object of derision and rebellion. And for nearly 300 years, Christianity itself has been attacked as the hated facilitator of a status quo that prevents man from achieving his true greatness. Voltaire cried “Ecrasez l’infame,” i.e. “crush the infamous thing. Rousseau lamented that “Everything is good in leaving the hands of the Creator of Things; everything degenerates in the hands of man,” which is to say that the institutions of man, especially the Church, corrupt man’s soul.
Is it any wonder then that today the wan successors to the philosophes insist that “Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people” and that “church leaders must be made” to bend? Christianity has been the perpetual enemy of the Left since the Left’s genesis in the fever swamps of pre-Revolutionary France. There is no reason whatsoever to expect that to change today. If only the Christians can be crushed, once and for all, the new morality, the true morality can be realized and man can live happily ever after.
Or so we are told.
Regular readers will recognize that we have long posited that the West in general and the United States in particular are in the throes of a “clash of moral codes,” pitting traditionalism against, essentially, postmodern relativism. This debate is, unquestionably part and parcel of that clash.
In this sense, then, the question of same-sex marriage is not much different than any other clashes we have seen over the last half-century. But there is something else here as well, a desire to destroy and to “crush the infamous thing.”
Nearly two years ago, Jody Bottum, then the editor of First Things, wrote a piece for Commonweal in which he shocked the (admittedly small) religious studies world by conceding the case for same-sex marriage. As he did so, though, he argued that he was accepting the case for marriage only, which he believes is earnest and well-meaning. He did not, however, accept the case for destroying the religious fundamentals that have traditionally opposed same-sex unions. Indeed, he flatly rejected it. “[I]f that’s what the same-sex marriage movement is really about,” Bottum wrote, “the redefinition of history as Christian oppression, the rereading of even success stories like the civil-rights movement as tales of defeating Christian evil, all for the purpose of cutting off the religious roots of Western civilization—then to hell with it.”
In a sense, we suppose, we’re in a similar position to Bottum’s. As we have noted many times before in these pages, we are incredibly sympathetic to the case for same-sex marriage and even more sympathetic to the case for basic human and civil rights for gay men and women. Unfortunately, we believe that this current spate of conflict regarding Indiana (and Arkansas) shows fairly conclusively that this fight is not just about same-sex marriage or equal rights. As we noted above, we think most gay men, women, and couples want simply to be left in peace to live and love as they wish. Likewise, most Christian men and women want essentially the same thing, which is to say that there should be no serious societal conflict here, certainly nothing that cannot be overcome. The problem is that the present argument is more than that – far more. It is, again as we noted above, a social wedge issue being employed by the Left –and mostly the straight Left – to weaken the cultural institutions of civil society and thus to strengthen the power of the State.
In a fantastic essay published last week by National Review Online, Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs magazine, explained that this impulse to control the thoughts and beliefs of the populace and to direct their religious yearnings toward state-approved ends has a long and ugly history in Western Civilization, a history that was expressly rejected by the American Founding Fathers, or at least by the “father of the Constitution.” To wit:
The case against the establishment of religion was particularly important to the author of the First Amendment, James Madison. Madison’s writing and activism on the question of religious liberty in Virginia had always emphasized the establishment question above all — an emphasis that had not always been part of the Anglo-American understanding of religious toleration, since Britain (like most of the American colonies and, at first, the states) had an established church.
Madison’s case against an established church, perhaps most notably in his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” was rooted in a core principle of religious liberty that is particularly important to remember in the kinds of debates we have seen in the last few years: That religious freedom is not a freedom to do what you want, but a freedom to do what you must. It’s not a freedom from constraint, but a recognition of a constraint higher than even the law and therefore prior to it and deserving of some leeway from legal obligations when reasonably possible. (And remember, Indiana’s law says only that when such freedom is burdened, it should be clear to a judge that it was so for a compelling reason and that no less burdensome alternative was available.) Madison put the point this way:
It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.
It is important to note that Madison was making this case not in the context of arguing for permitting the free exercise of religion but rather in the context of arguing against the establishment of any religion by law. . . .
[T]his is also the essence of the argument that a wedding vendor who wants to remain free to refrain from participating in a same-sex wedding would advance. The question of the definition of marriage is, for many people, a fundamentally religious question. It is, of course, also a civil question in our country. But some religiously orthodox wedding vendors are finding themselves effectively compelled by the civil authorities to affirm an answer to that question that violates their understanding of their religious obligations. They would like to be relieved of that compulsion, but they are being told they can’t be because the larger society’s understanding of the proper answer to the question should overrule the answer prescribed by their religious convictions, and if they want to participate as business owners in the life of the larger society they must give ground. . . .
This distinction between individual and institutional religious freedom has actually been at the core of a lot of the religious freedom battles we’ve had in the Obama years. It has been more prominent in the HHS-mandate debates, but it’s very much a part of this argument about whether a florist shop or a pizza parlor can be Christian. In a country with a non-Christian state religion that it takes seriously, the answer is basically no. The florist can be Christian as an individual, but his store can’t be, because institutions, unlike individuals, are creatures of the law and our law already has a religion: progressive liberalism.
This, we think, is the key to understanding what is going on in and around Indiana and what its likely impact on the country and the culture will be. This is NOT simply about same-sex marriage. It is about the advancement of the Left’s secular religion. It’s about crippling the traditional impediment to the State’s power and the State’s control, namely civic and religious institutions. It’s about crushing the infamous thing in the hope of advancing a more tightly regulated, State-sanctioned belief-system.
Go back up and take a look, if you will, at the comments made by the O’Connor family’s state Senator. “This kind of thinking has no place in this town.” It has no place in this country either, according to the likes of Sen. Jim Arnold. And that’s the nature of this fight. Jody Bottum argues that the same-sex marriage debate is one that should be seen as distinct from the effort to “redefine history as Christian oppression.” We agree. But unlike Bottum, we’d go a step further and argue that the fight we’re fighting today is indeed the latter, not the former. The fight in Indiana is a fight to redefine history, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the rights of same-sex couples. In this case at least, same-sex marriage is pretext and nothing more.
History has shown us what happens and how erstwhile civil societies fare when they attempt such a redefinition of history and such a public excoriation of traditional religion. The worst case scenarios, of course, were the French Terror, Nazi Germany, and the like. The best case scenarios are only marginally better. Contemporary Europe provides, we think, a best case. Traditional Christian churches are empty, the State having stripped them of their validity. Traditional and indeed radical Muslim churches, by contrast, which have escaped the State’s wrath by virtue of other tenets of the State’s faith, namely multiculturalism, are overfilled.
In both cases – the worst and the best – the intrinsic human desire for a solid, concrete, sacred belief-system is not quelled by the State’s actions, only re-directed. If the State succeeds in this country in breaking the religious nature of the people of making the Christians bend, then the results here will be similar, we’re afraid. And in the meantime, the arguments will get uglier and uglier. The secular Left will continue to attack traditional believers, and said believers will all but certainly fight back, more angrily, more aggressively, and less charitably. Caught in the middle of all of this will be those for whom these battles are allegedly fought, the gay men and women who want merely to enjoy equal rights and the religious men and women who want only to practice their faith in peace. And so shall it go as the war for the soul of the American people continues, as always, to ignore the people themselves and to serve only their rulers and would-be masters.