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.
Shep Smith turns on Trump over Intelligence Team
The Trumps have often been compared to a mob family. Certainly, in the White House, they have created a dark alternative universe with an inverted ethical code, where the main value is loyalty to the godfather above all else.
An anti-Trump group called Mad Dog PAC has a billboard reading: “MAGA, Mobsters Are Governing America.”
.. As Michael Daly noted in The Daily Beast, “Traditionally, rats begin wearing a wire after they get jammed up.”
.. In the taped call, Cohen tells Trump that he has talked to the mogul’s trusted money manager and “Apprentice” guest star, Allen Weisselberg, about how to set up a company to reimburse David Pecker, the National Enquirer owner, for buying off Trump goomah Karen McDougal. Federal investigators in Manhattan now want to interview Weisselberg.
“Long term, this could be the most damaging,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me, “because it gets into Trump’s wallet.”
.. Cohen the Fixer claims Trump knew about the Russian meeting during the campaign with his son and Paul Manafort. The president hit the mattresses on Twitter, denying it all.
.. Rudy Giuliani has somersaulted from a RICO-happy prosecutor to a man acting like a Mafia lawyer, telling Chris Cuomo that Cohen is an “incredible liar” when only three months ago he pronounced him “an honest, honorable lawyer.”
.. If the White House seems more and more like “Goodfellas,” it is not an accident.
“Trump has a very cinematic sense of himself,” O’Brien said. Like many on social media, he is driven to be the star of his own movie. He even considered going to film school in L.A. before he settled into his father’s business.
.. O’Brien recalled that Trump told him that he thought Clint Eastwood was the greatest movie star. “He and Melania model their squints on Eastwood,” the biographer noted. Trump also remarked, while they were watching “Sunset Boulevard” on the Trump plane, that a particular scene was amazing: the one where Norma Desmond obsessively watches her silent films and cries: “Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them!”
.. Trump is drawn to people who know how to dominate a room and exaggerated displays of macho, citing three of his top five movies as
- “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,”
- “Goodfellas” and
- “The Godfather.”
.. As a young real estate developer, he would hang out at Yankee Stadium and study the larger-than-life figures in the V.I.P. box:
- George Steinbrenner,
- Lee Iacocca,
- Frank Sinatra,
- Roy Cohn,
- Rupert Murdoch,
- Cary Grant.
He was intent on learning how they grabbed the limelight.
.. “In his first big apartment project, Trump’s father had a partner connected to the Genovese and Gambino crime families,” said Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer. “He dealt with mobbed-up suppliers and union guys for decades.
.. “When Trump was a little boy, wandering around job sites with his dad — which was the only time he got to spend with him — he saw a lot of guys with broken noses and rough accents. And I think he is really enchanted by base male displays of strength. Think about ‘Goodfellas’ — people who prevail by cheating and fixing and lying. Trump doesn’t have the baseline intellect and experience to be proficient at governing. His proficiency is this mob style of bullying and tough-guy talk.”
As Steve Bannon noted approvingly, Trump has a Rat Pack air, and as O’Brien said, Trump was the sort of guy who kept gold bullion in his office.
.. Trump’s like a mobster, D’Antonio said, in the sense that he “does not believe that anyone is honest. He doesn’t believe that your motivations have anything to do with right and wrong and public service. It’s all about self-interest and a war of all against all. He’s turning America into Mulberry Street in the ’20s, where you meet your co-conspirators in the back of the candy store.”
Trump seems to think that Kim can be swayed not simply by threats and pressure, but by flattery and promises as well. The White House released a four-minute video that showcased Kim as someone who could be a great historical figure if only he would fundamentally change. The video also went to great lengths to show what North Korea could gain economically were it to meet US demands. The president even spoke of the North’s potential as a venue for real-estate development and tourism.
What seems not to have occurred to Trump is that such a future holds more peril than promise to someone whose family has ruled with an iron grip for three generations. A North Korea open to Western businessmen might soon find itself penetrated by Western ideas. Popular unrest would be sure to follow.
.. Trump emphasizes the importance of personal relationships, and he claimed to have developed one with Kim in a matter of hours. More than once, he spoke of the trust he had for a leader with a record of killing off those (including an uncle and a brother) he deemed his enemies.
.. His depiction of the summit as a great success that solved the nuclear problem will make it that much tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure North Korea.
.. The danger, of course, is that subsequent negotiations will fail, for all these reasons, to bring about the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea that the US has said must happen soon. Trump would likely then accuse Kim of betraying his trust.
.. In that case, the US would have three options. It could accept less than full denuclearization, an outcome that Trump and his top aides have said they would reject. It could impose even stricter sanctions, to which China and Russia are unlikely to sign up. Or it could reintroduce the threat of military force, which South Korea, in particular, would resist.
.. But if Trump concludes that diplomacy has failed, he could nonetheless opt for military action, a course John Bolton suggested just before becoming national security adviser. This would hardly be the legacy that Trump intended for the Singapore summit, but it remains more possible than his optimistic tweets would lead one to believe.