The flawed assumption underlying both sides of the intra-conservative debate kicked off by Sohrab Ahmari
We get your holidays off. Most TV shows have a Christmas episode. I’ve heard about “the spirit of Christmas” more times than I can count. There are churches everywhere. The most-watched news network and some of the most popular websites denounce “happy holidays” while issuing fever dream warnings of Sharia law. Visit Israel or a Muslim country and you’ll see what it looks like when Christianity is culturally weak.
But that’s not the type of power culture warriors and defenders of conservative Christianity are talking about.
To get to the supposed crisis, we have to dismiss a lot of political and cultural power. Even then, examining specific instances of encroaching secular culture shows that “no longer dominant in every area, but still powerful overall” is more accurate than “under immense threat and headed for annihilation.”
The Actual Threat
There are, of course, incidents of religious Americans facing discrimination. There are also incidents of non-religious Americans facing discrimination. The question is not “do religious conservatives face any opposition?,” but whether that opposition is so powerful, and conservative Christians so weak, that the threat is existential.
Consider some of the most prominent cases:
Universities and Free Speech
David French cites a lawsuit in which he defended “a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith.” That’s wrong — it’s religious discrimination — and he won in court. There are many universities where no professors were denied promotion because of their religion, and others, such as Bob Jones in South Carolina, that are allowed to utilize religious criteria.
French also cites the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which he used to lead. I share some of their criticisms regarding campus censorship — see, for example, my article on free speech — but it hardly amounts to social conservatives’ impending annihilation.
As an example of threats to free speech on campus, FIRE maintains a database of disinvitations, in which activists tried to prevent someone they dislike from speaking. From 1998 through 2019, FIRE identifies 427 incidents. Of these, 257 cases involve protests coming from the speaker’s left (not all of which involve religion). That means an average of 11.68 cases per year over 22 years. With about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, about 0.2 percent see a disinvitation attempt prompted by the left in a given year.
That’s not the only illiberal activity on campus — and I think many of them deserve criticism — but an existential threat it is not.
Obamacare required health insurance plans to cover contraception, and the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately-held chain of stores, objected. They’re conservative Christians, and argued that being forced to pay for contraceptives violated their religious freedom.
But they weren’t forced to pay for contraceptives. They compensated their employees with health insurance, and then, if the employee chose to buy contraceptives, the insurance company paid for it. Millions of employees spend their paychecks on things their employers disapprove of, but the employers can’t stop it. There’s no reason non-cash compensation should be different.
What the owners of Hobby Lobby wanted is the type of power Ahmari craves — the ability to impose religious beliefs on others. No one forced them to use contraception. No one even forced them to buy someone else’s contraception. But the possibility that employees might choose to use their health insurance for something the employers didn’t like was too much.
In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. As a result, if you work for a private company, and the owners are religious, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with some of your compensation.
You may be more sympathetic to Hobby Lobby’s position than I am. Either way, no existential threat here.
Gay Wedding Cakes
The 2015, 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. That’s probably the biggest example of social conservatives losing the power to impose their beliefs on others. However, while no church has to perform a gay wedding, and no one has to attend any wedding if they don’t want to, legalization created some situations that impose on religious Americans.
Should religious wedding vendors have to sell to gay couples? It’s a fascinating question, because two fundamental rights come into conflict: equal protection for the couple; freedom of religion for the vendor. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ducked the larger question, deciding 7–2 that the Commission displayed religious animus in its treatment of Masterpiece.
For me, it comes down to what the vendor’s being asked to do. Refusing to sell a standard product — something off the shelf they’d sell to other couples — is blatant “we don’t serve your kind here” discrimination, like banning black people from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. But if it’s a custom product — something not unreasonably called art — then the government making the vendor do it is coerced creative labor. (I tackled this in greater detail here).
The 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s conformation to the Supreme Court looms large in social conservative narratives of existential threat. For Ahmari, it’s proof they “face enemies who seek our personal destruction.” Dreher says it “radicalized” him. French agrees that it shows conservative Christians under threat, but argues that Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates why the principles of classical liberalism, such as due process and presumption of innocence, are the best response. (As I said, their debate’s primarily over strategy, not the threat’s existence).
Underlying all of these claims is a staggering presumption of bad faith. Ahmari, Dreher, French and many other conservatives don’t consider the possibility that at least some of the opposition to Kavanaugh might’ve been opposition to Kavanaugh himself, not to American Christians in general.
To get there, you have to assume Christine Blasey Ford was lying, deluded, and/or put up to it, that people who say they believe her allegations of sexual assault are also lying, and that the women who poured their hearts out over their own sexual assaults were crisis actors out of Alex Jones’ imagination, or at least manipulators exaggerating how they feel because of their secret anti-Christian agenda. And you also must dismiss concerns from Americans who think Kavanaugh’s previous experience as a partisan operative isn’t a good fit for the nation’s highest supposed-to-be-impartial body.
Most importantly, you have to ignore the recent Supreme Court confirmations of Neil Gorsuch (conservative and Catholic, like Kavanaugh), Samuel Alito (conservative, Catholic), and John Roberts (conservative, Catholic), none of whom faced accusations of sexual assault. You have to concoct a story where the left wasn’t angry during Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 — even though they were openly furious that the Senate blocked Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland — but developed such fury over the subsequent year that they decided to invent and then pretend to care about accusations of sexual assault.
A lot of people care passionately about the Supreme Court, with many on the left strongly opposed to right-wing positions on abortion, prayer in schools, and other issues involving religion. And there’s no doubt some political operatives oppose every Supreme Court nomination from the other party and will latch onto whatever they can to fight it. But this does not add up to Christians under existential threat.
The Kavanaugh case reveals the fuzziness of the distinction between cultural and political power. According to right-wing culture warriors, winning elections is not a sign of lasting power, because it’s political, not cultural. However, nearly losing — but still winning — a Supreme Court seat is a sign of cultural weakness so menacing that Christians must adapt a crisis mentality.
Social conservatives worrying about cultural annihilation may find all the above examples unconvincing. They all involve institutional power — court rulings, Senate votes — and one of the cultural warriors’ arguments is that conservatives must do anything to hold institutional power as a bulwark against the cultural threat.
Consider, then, the case of Chick-fil-A.
In 2012, the family-owned fast food chain came under fire when the chief operating officer publicly opposed same sex marriage, and it came out that the family’s foundation donated millions to organizations fighting against legalization. In response, LGBT rights activists called for protests and a boycott..
So it went out of business, right? Or if it didn’t, it’s because a court came to the rescue?
Nope. Conservatives rallied to the restaurant’s defense. Sales rose 12% in the aftermath of the controversy, and the chain has continued expanding, growing larger than Burger King or Wendy’s. Activists fought the expansion — here’s one warning of “Chick-fil-A’s creepy infiltration of New York City” — but failed.
It’s Not a Crisis
The Chick-fil-A case encapsulates my argument. Social conservatives face motivated opponents that have some cultural power. But religious conservatives have quite a bit of cultural power too. Plus a lot of judicial and political power. Ahmari’s frame of existential danger is divorced from reality. French’s “immense threat” is overstated.
There’s no question that Christianity is weaker in the United States in the 21st century than it was in the 20th or 19th. Mainstream movies, television, and pop music often portray social conservatives negatively (if at all), and portray things social conservatives disapprove of positively. But what this all adds up to is competing in American society as a large, powerful bloc — not impending annihilation.
The slope isn’t slippery.
Conservative Christians hold the keys to statehouses, House and Senate seats, electoral votes. There’s a friendly majority on the Supreme Court, and friendly judges throughout the system. Christianity has an enduring cultural power, because it’s deeply embedded in American life, and because millions of Americans practice various versions of it every day.
The narrative that religious conservatives face cultural apocalypse is one of the most toxic in American politics. It is one of the biggest causes — not the only cause, but a big one — of zero-sum, no-compromise, fight-over-everything hyper-partisanship. Because after all, if you’re facing extermination, you have no choice.
This logic bears enough resemblance to racist theories of “white genocide” that it should give social conservatives pause.
But it’s also good for political mobilization and media consumption. And a lot of people seem to like thinking of themselves as victims. So I wouldn’t expect it to stop.
The tyranny of “PC culture” is real — and a threat to liberal society
Political correctness is simple idea everyone should be treated with equal dignity & respect. It’s not cause of terrorism. It’s antidote.
Yet only a few days earlier, there had been a flurry of reports on a very different kind of political correctness. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, had been subjected to vicious harassment for objecting to a Day of Absence, in which white people were asked to stay off campus for a day. Amid calls for his firing, Weinstein was surrounded and berated by student protesters and finally informed by the police that it was not safe for him to be on campus. There was very little dignity or respect in the way he and his supporters were treated.
So which is the real political correctness?
.. culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg, who argued that attempts to create “bias-free language” — such as “person of size” instead of “obese” — not only leads to “impoverished and clunky” newspeak but also encourages avoidance rather than examination of difficult issues.
.. Muslim Haseeb Ahmed as saying that fear of causing offense made it difficult to talk honestly about Islamist fanaticism and terror groups
.. “PC” generally refers to over-the-top outrage at things no one but a hypersensitive fringe actually finds disrespectful, or rigid taboos on opinions and facts that could be construed as offensive, or extreme and punitive intolerance toward any deviation from the one true faith
.. Yes, there definitely is such a thing as political correctness or PC culture, built around identity politics and intersectionality — an ideology that views life in modern liberal societies as shaped entirely by an entrenched system of intersecting oppressions and sees all human interaction in terms of oppression and privilege.
Because this ideology is intensely focused on changing attitudes and eliminating subtle, deeply embedded biases, speech- and thought-policing are not just unfortunate excesses of zeal but an essential part of the “social justice” project.
2. While critics of the concept of political correctness often assert that PC doesn’t limit freedom of speech but merely exposes the privileged to criticism from the marginalized, many PC incidents are likely to have a very real chilling effect on speech and expression.
.. PC also threatens free debate and exchange of ideas by defining heretical opinions as harmful and violent. The effects are particularly baneful when it comes to discussion of contentious issues related to race, gender, and sexual identity.
.. Tuvel, who fully supports transgender rights, was accused of “enact[ing] violence” and causing “harm” by, among other things, using the term “transgenderism,” referring to “male genitalia” and “biological sex,” and mentioning Caitlyn Jenner’s pretransition name, Bruce
.. 3. The “crimes” targeted by the PC police are not about deliberate or even subconscious bigotry but about violations of ideological taboos (such as cultural appropriation) and/or far-fetched, paranoid interpretations of innocent words and actions (such as the Confederacy allusion in the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”).
.. Since one of the tenets of PC orthodoxy is that questioning the validity of grievances expressed by the marginalized is itself a harmful microaggression, the accusations come with a built-in presumption of guilt. It doesn’t matter if most members of the same disadvantaged group see no offense.
.. What’s more, PC has nothing to do with actual social justice: Stopping white people from wearing dreadlocks will not, in any appreciable way, help with the real problems facing the black community, just as banishing the word “crazy” will do nothing to improve the situation of the mentally ill.
.. In some cases, intersectional PC actively prevents confronting oppression. For instance, since Muslims are defined as marginalized, feminists who speak out against the misogyny of Islamic fundamentalism can be accused of promoting Islamophobia.
.. First of all, political correctness by itself is destructive to the liberal project — to reasoned discourse, free exchange of ideas, culture and community. What makes it uniquely injurious is its rising dominance in spheres of society traditionally associated with intellectual openness and pluralism: the academy, quality journalism, literature, and the arts.
.. Secondly, PC culture also invites an equally or more toxic backlash
.. Political correctness enables bigotry both by trivializing it — if you can be called a racist for wearing a sombrero on Halloween or a misogynist for admiring sexy women, the words lose much of their bite — and by green-lighting it when it’s directed at “privileged” groups. When comments like “yet another opinion from an old white man” become weapons of choice in what passes for debate in PC culture, the principle that people should not be attacked or demeaned on the basis of race, gender, or other aspects of who they are becomes increasingly difficult to defend.
.. Donald Trump’s election victory, itself almost certainly aided by the anti-PC backlash, has made it clear that we need to heal our dysfunctional political culture. One necessary step toward such healing is to restore the classical liberal norms of free thought and free speech. That does not preclude rejecting real bigotry and hate, but respect does not require political correctness. In fact, political correctness is the opposite of respect.