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.
How technology reshapes consciousness.
Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging and America’s mental health over all is deteriorating. What’s going on?
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.
As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.
That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
Sometimes your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.
People ensconced in social media are more likely to be on perpetual alert: How are my ratings this moment? They are also more likely to feel that the amount of attention they are receiving is inadequate.
As David Foster Wallace put it in that famous Kenyon commencement address, if you orient your life around money, you will never feel you have enough. Similarly, if you orient your life around attention, you will always feel slighted. You will always feel emotionally unsafe.
New social types emerge in such a communications regime. The most prominent new type is the troll, and in fact, Americans have elected a troll as the commander in chief.
Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.
Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.
Trolling is a very effective way to generate attention in a competitive, volatile attention economy. It’s a way to feel righteous and important, especially if you claim to be trolling on behalf of some marginalized group.
Another prominent personality type in this economy is the crybully. This is the person who takes his or her own pain and victimization and uses it to make sure every conversation revolves around himself or herself. “This is the age of the Cry-Bully, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper,” Julie Burchill wrote in The Spectator a few years ago.
The crybully starts with a genuine trauma. The terrible thing that happened naturally makes the crybully feel unsafe, self-protective and self-conscious to the point of self-absorption. The trauma makes that person intensely concerned about self-image.
The absurdity of denying Trump’s bigotry.
It’s hard to say what’s a bigger taboo in American politics: being a racist, or calling someone one.
Sure, the Republican Party will occasionally try to distance itself from one of its more egregiously hateful members, like Representative Steve King of Iowa, who lost committee assignments after seeming to defend white nationalism. But mostly, right-wing politicians and their media allies pretend, to the point of farce, that the primary racial injustice in America involves white people unfairly accused of racism. This makes talking openly about the evident racism of our president harder than it should be.
To see how this works in microcosm, consider the House Oversight Committee hearing at which Donald Trump’s former consigliere Michael Cohen testified on Wednesday. Cohen said, in his opening statement, that, in addition to being a con man and a cheat, Trump is a racist. This should be clear to all people of good faith, given that Trump was a leading figure in the birther movement, defended white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville,and claimed he couldn’t get a fair hearing from a judge of Mexican heritage, to mention just a few examples.
But Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, strenuously objected to Cohen’s description, and came up with what he seemed to think was an airtight rejoinder. Meadows, who is white, had Lynne Patton, an African-American woman and longtime Trump employee now at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, stand behind him, and quoted her saying that she would not work for a racist. Checkmate!
In the past, one person who would often publicly vouch for Trump’s non-racism was Omarosa Manigault Newman, the “Apprentice”-star-turned-White House aide. Then Manigault Newman came out with a book calling Trump “a racist, a bigot and a misogynist.” As part of her promotional tour for that book, she released an audio recording of a conversation she had with Patton and another African-American Trump supporter, Katrina Pierson, strategizing about how to handle the fallout should a tape surface of Trump using a racist slur. On the recording Patton, the person Meadows called upon as a character witness for the president, didn’t seem doubtful that Trump could have said such a thing.
Many liberals were agog at this stunt by Meadows; on the left it’s largely accepted that responding to charges of racism by pointing to black friends — never mind black employees — is clueless at best. Some white conservatives, however, seem convinced that you can’t be racist if you have an affectionate relationship with a person of color. And so when Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, called out Meadows toward the end of the hearing, he was so aggrieved he nearly melted down.
The “fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself,” said Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American. Red-faced, indignant and seemingly on the verge of tears, Meadows demanded that Tlaib’s words be stricken from the record, turned the charge of racism back on her, and said that he has nieces and nephews who are people of color. In a stunning dramatization of how racial dynamics determine whose emotions are honored, the hearing momentarily came to a halt so that Tlaib could assure Meadows that she didn’t mean to call him a racist, and the committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, who is African-American, could comfort him. “I could see and feel your pain,” Cummings told him.
This contradiction is behind some of the madness of our public life right now. Normalizing Trump, which has become a central mission of the Republican Party, depends on denial about what racism is. Not for the first time, Tlaib got in trouble for pointing out the obvious — the president is a bigot, and that in bringing out Patton to exonerate him, Meadows only demonstrated his own gross insensitivity.
On Thursday, Tlaib and Meadows reportedly had a warm conversation on the House floor; according to a CNN reporter, they hugged. I’m glad; given how much she’s been demonized in her short time in Congress, it’s probably in her interest to make Meadows feel better about their earlier exchange. Who knows, if she’s friendly enough, maybe he’ll be able to cite their relationship next time he’s caught saying something awful.
Contemplation is radical in that it goes to “the root” (radix) of all our problems. Contemplation is the heart of the matter because it changes consciousness and thus transforms how we enter into communion with God, with ourselves, with the moment. Without the contemplative mind, all our talk about and action for social change and justice can actually do more harm than good. In working for social change, we all get angry, disillusioned, alienated, and hurt. We make mistakes, we don’t agree with others, we discover that change takes longer than we’d hoped and the solution isn’t as simple as we’d imagined. I have seen far too many give up, grow bitter, or just nurse a quiet cynicism when they can’t hold disappointment with a contemplative, nondual consciousness. Action needs to be accompanied by contemplation for us to stay on the journey for the long haul. Otherwise, we’re just constantly searching for victims and perpetrators, and eventually we start playing the victim or perpetrator ourselves.
Contemplation is not a new idea; it’s one of the treasures of our Christian tradition. Jesus himself modeled this way of praying and being. It was taught systematically in monasteries for centuries, for example, by Francisco de Osuna (1492–1540), a Spanish Franciscan friar, whose writing liberated Teresa of Ávila. The desert mothers and fathers in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Cappadocia understood and cultivated it for centuries. While systematic contemplative teaching was largely lost for the last 500 years, today interfaith and inter-denominational interest in contemplation continues to grow all over the world.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI invited Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Church in England, to address the Synod of Catholic Bishops. Williams emphasized the foundational and radical importance of contemplation:…