George Will and AEI’s Jonah Goldberg discuss the broad changes affecting American politics and conservatism.
(14:00)This is an outgrowth of the Flight 93 election syndrome which is that the end is nigh unlesspeople listen to people like us.It’s a way of pumping up the grandeur and magnificence and importance of people whosay, “We stand at Armageddon, and things have never been worse, but they might get worsetomorrow unless radical things are done.”Jonah: Right, and people who disagree with you must shut up for we are at an existentialcrisis.George: Exactly, existential crisis, but the self-dramatizing, things aren’t that bad.I mean, I’m not happy.No one writes political philosophy if they’re content, right?Because you’re irritated about something or anxious or afraid or something.But I just think this hysteria is to be ignored.Jonah: I quote you in one of my previous books.There’s a story you tell about how when you first got your syndicated column, you calledGeorge…William F. Buckley, “How the heck am I going to write two columns a week?”What was his advice to you?George: He said, “The world irritates me three times a week.”He wrote three times a week.He said, “The world irritates me.”And it turns out it’s true, the world irritates or amuses or piques my curiosity 100 timesa year.I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have three or four things I wanted to write about.
There is no such thing as an outrage-free week anymore. On Wednesday, President Trump offered us a particularly stunning example of this new political reality, telling the ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos that he would welcome foreign interference in an election and probably wouldn’t bother to tell the F.B.I. about any outside governments bringing him dirt on his opponent. On Thursday, he doubled down on this position, arguing, in effect, that accepting help from Vladimir Putin would be no different from dining with the Queen of England and the “Prince of Whales,” as he put it in a tweet. Trump, instead of proclaiming “no collusion,” now seemed to be announcing that he is pro-collusion. It didn’t take long for commentators to wonder about his strategy here as much as about his poor spelling: Does the President actually want Congress to impeach him?
One of Trump’s great skills has been to confound his opponents. In the third year of his Presidency, this is as true as it was on his first day in office, and his critics, at home and abroad, have, in the intervening time, become more skilled at reading Trump but hardly less capable or united in agreeing what to do about him. They have received the message that he is a threat to the established order—just about any established order—but resistance has often been more loud than effective, and the divisions over how to take him on seem to widen by the day. He is historically unpopular for a President by many measures, but no matter what he does the allegiance of some forty per cent of the American public has so far remained unwavering.
In Washington, Democrats currently have two opposite and contradictory theories of the case. They cannot both be right. For the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the idea is to beat Trump politically in the 2020 election and, while using Congress’s powers to aggressively investigate him and his Administration, refuse to be drawn into a politicized impeachment proceeding that will not result in his removal from office. “A reluctance to drop the hammer is a healthy thing in a democracy,” Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who agrees with the Speaker’s approach, told reporters on Thursday, when confronted with the President’s latest insult to his own law-enforcement agencies. Many of the nearly two dozen Democrats running for President are also believers in a version of this theory. Though some have endorsed impeachment and all are vociferously anti-Trump, they are focussing their campaigns less on the damage that the President poses to the constitutional order than on wonky, issues-oriented appeals to voters.
Then there is the Biden school. The former Vice-President regularly called Trump an “existential threat” to the country this week, in an Iowa campaign swing. In this, he is more or less in synch with those lawmakers back in Washington who believe that the evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by the special counsel Robert Mueller warrants immediate impeachment proceedings, regardless of whether they turn out to be politically advantageous for the Democrats. So far, there are about sixty members of the House (including a majority of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee and a lone Republican, Justin Amash, of Michigan) who are on the record as supporting this course, which leaves a couple hundred more to convince. On the campaign trail, Biden leads early polls with his “Make America America Again” approach, but, if his opponents are right that voters want more than just an anti-Trump crusade, then his theory of the case will be not just wrong but disastrously so.
A fight between Pelosi and her fellow-Democrats is exactly what Trump wants. He seeks division and discord; he benefits from it. It is surely one reason, among many, why the damaging revelations reported by Mueller have had almost no effect on his public standing. If anything, this week’s tiresome outrage cycle is a reminder of Trump’s uniquely successful brand of public crazy. Does anyone remember that he also announced this week that he will soon meet alone with Putin again, despite the uproar over their still mysterious one-on-one summit this past year, in Helsinki? Or that Trump said that he wouldn’t allow the C.I.A. to spy on his “friend,” the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, after revelations that Kim’s murdered half-brother had been an American informant? Or that Trump spent the first part of the week claiming that he had cut a secret deal with Mexico on illegal immigration, a deal which Mexico denies exists and whose particulars he has yet to produce?
Trump is a political octopus, squirting so much diversionary black ink at us that diversion is the new normal. The new issue of Foreign Affairs out this week declares this historical moment “the self-destruction of American power” and offers a depressing autopsy on the vanishing of U.S. global leadership. But there are too many outrages of the day, of every day, to think about it. Some members of Congress are now publicly confessing that they haven’t had time even to read the Mueller report (and more are saying so in private, as I myself have heard). I doubt that they are stopping to consider the collapse of the liberal international order.
I happened to watch this week’s edition of the Trump show from the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, which, later this year, will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the American-midwifed reunification of Germany that followed. I attended a meeting of fervent transatlanticists that was dominated, as conversations invariably are these days, by the question of what to do about Trump. The Germans are no less confounded than the Democrats.
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including President Trump’s comments about willingness to accept foreign opposition research, the status of election security legislation, candidate lineups for the upcoming Democratic presidential debates and the politics of Democratic socialism.
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.