The spectacle made me think of Prohibition, the last time rich white progressives imposed their moral views on the whole nation with a serene confidence in their rectitude and virtue. Hyperbolic, overheated criticism greeted governor Mike Pence’s decision to sign Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Outcry dissuaded Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson from signing a similar bill. For a couple of weeks it seemed as though the entire Establishment got into the act. CEOs locked arms with prominent celebrities. The NCAA harrumphed and threatened. Even governors from states that already have similar laws got into the act. I’m surprised Harvard and Yale didn’t refuse to fund travel to Indiana like San Francisco State did.
This display of establishment power suggests a shift. In this issue, Patrick Deneen examines the role of the “power elite” in the Indiana furor and, by implication, in the gay-rights movement more broadly. That term comes from the title of the famous 1956 book by Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills that detailed the ways in which power in postwar America was concentrated in the hands of a small elite.
By the 1960s, the Establishment was on the defensive. The successes of the civil-rights movement came in spite of the Establishment’s ambivalence. Its handwringing on the sidelines significantly undermined the moral credibility of white elites. The same was true of the antiwar movement, feminism, and the student rebellions. The cultural revolutions of the 1960s, often launched on college campuses by the Establishment’s own children, challenged what used to be called the System. In a few short years, Harvard undergrads went from coats and ties to blue jeans and flannel shirts. It seemed as though the Establishment was doomed, swept aside by irresistible social change.
It was and it wasn’t. The old WASP-centered Establishment quickly gave way. That’s perhaps because WASP preeminence had already passed it use-by date. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century influx of immigrants, empowered by the experience of World War II and enriched in the postwar boom, felt fully part of white America. But in another sense the Establishment endured. Places like Harvard and Yale, the big corporations, white-shoe law firms, the Foreign Service, and other parts of the permanent government reinvented themselves. Affirmative action co-opted the rising generation of black leaders and high-achieving women (who in any event were often from well-to-do WASP backgrounds). And the rebellious white male Baby Boomers who led campus rebellions? They got older, many eventually becoming pillars of the renewed Establishment.
In an important essay, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” historian David A. Hollinger gives an extensive account of the many ways in which midcentury liberal Protestant leaders encouraged this reinvention of elite society. In an article in the Christian Century in 1960, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a major figure in midcentury liberal Protestantism, urged his readers to recognize the new “multicultural context.” That meant renouncing a self-complimenting WASP ethnocentrism and developing a more inclusive approach to cultural leadership.
Smith’s way of thinking carried the day in the then dominant mainline Protestant churches. The result was a blurring of Christian identity and institutional decline of mainline denominations, epitomized in the now complete eclipse of the once influential National Council of Churches. It’s a familiar story, one well recorded in the pages of First Things. But that’s only half the story. As Hollinger shows, cultural progressivism may have killed mainline Protestantism, but among secular elites it has moved from strength to strength. Wilfred Cantwell Smith was a prophet.
Something similar can be said of the WASP-dominated Establishment. The specifically ethnic component is dead, but the ideological-cultural commitments of liberal WASPs who were once so powerful have become even more dominant. The Obama administration is staffed by people whose skin colors and ethnic backgrounds make them look very different from the old WASP elites. But they’re almost entirely formed by Establishment institutions once run by WASPs, institutions that deliberately and successfully reinvented themselves with slogans of diversity and ideologies of multiculturalism. The president himself is perhaps the most perfect example of the new Establishment, which has emerged in profound continuity with the old one.
It’s more than a return of the postwar Establishment. The furor over the Indiana RFRA was fueled by haughty, moralistic (in its postmodern iteration) propaganda. Again and again commentators waved the bloody shirt of discrimination, even though there’s no evidence that gays and lesbians are discriminated against in Indiana (or elsewhere). The outcry was purely symbolic, meant more as a display of cultural power than as a reasoned intervention into the question of the nature and scope of religious liberty. It was shock and awe.
For this reason, the proper historical analogy is not the Establishment circa 1960, which, as the pronouncements of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and others clearly indicate, was already a self-doubting Establishment aware of its weaknesses and preparing to reinvent itself. Instead, we’re seeing something more like the progressive Protestant Establishment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That Establishment entertained very little self-doubt. In Indiana we had a glimpse of the old Establishment confidence, even arrogance, as well as its sense of entitlement to power. Today once again the Great and the Good (and the Very Wealthy) feel it their duty (and right) to bring Justice and Virtue to the benighted—and punish them if they are recalcitrant.
Prohibition was the old Establishment’s greatest campaign. Rich Protestant women led the charge. They were from what used to be called “good families.” Today’s crusaders for gay rights are no longer Protestant or women, but they’re affluent—sometimes more than affluent—and from “good universities,” which is today’s surest sign of Establishment membership.
The campaign against alcohol was part of a larger culture war. The crusades against demon rum were linked to nativist anxieties. Prohibitionists fixed on the unwashed immigrants and their penchant for the bottle, as well as on degenerate, native-born Americans who needed to be put on the straight and narrow. Who better than the pious, proper, and progressive to use the power of law to tutor the nation?
Today’s Establishment no longer draws on Christian sources to legitimate its claims to moral authority. Moreover, today’s targets of their coercive benevolence are not immigrants but rather untutored bakers, florists, and pizza makers. Their sin is not intoxication. Instead, it’s “homophobia.” But these differences operate within a larger similarity. The furor in Indiana reflects a zealous moralism. Homosexual marriage must be affirmed! The slightest possibility of a spot or stain horrifies. Homophobia must be wiped out! We must have teetotalism! Tim Cook, the Apple CEO who wrote one of the first calls for national resolve to fight against Indiana’s RFRA, is today’s Carrie Nation.
I count myself among the degenerate, which means I’m chastened by the parallels between the new Establishment’s self-complimenting commitment to gay rights and the old Establishment’s zealous support of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment banned alcohol in 1919. It was a confident application of the full force of law.
We’re very likely to see analogous attempts to ban “homophobia.” Today’s Establishment does not amend the Constitution by passing amendments. This is too unwieldy. Instead, judges do so by inventing new rights. Odds are good that this will include a right for men to marry men, and women to marry women. Add to this legislation detailing gay rights, along with judges eager to apply these laws with special vigor, and a great deal will be swept up into an Establishment-driven campaign to impose a pro-gay teetotalism.
But I also feel a certain optimism. Prohibition was America’s experiment in elite-imposed cultural totalitarianism. Its failure discredited the Protestant Establishment of that era. H. L. Mencken wrote that the impulse behind Prohibition was the need to satisfy a perverse moralist passion. It reflected “the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.” I’ll defend the honor of Puritanism against this charge, but the browbeat, punish, and humiliate part rings true of the overreaching, controlling impulse of the Great and the Good in America.
Today’s Establishment seems doomed to overreach as well. The male–female difference is more fundamental to the human condition than longstanding traditions of alcohol consumption. That difference will continue to assert itself, making most of us less than enthusiastic about reorganizing society so as to suppress social and legal recognition of the male–female difference, which is what a thoroughgoing regime of gay rights will require. Today’s Prohibitionists invariably describe this lack of enthusiasm as “homophobic,” seeing it as evidence of the need for more-extensive “reeducation.” This will collide ever more violently with our inborn loyalty to the male–female difference.
There is the further fact that Christianity is not a passing fashion. Even abstracting from the supernatural character of the Church, Christianity’s global reach and existential potency give it extraordinary staying power. There are only two forms of life in the West that survived the fall of the Roman Empire—the Church and the synagogue. Now that the university is becoming the Bureaucratic-Academic Complex (as David Gelernter calls it), today only the Church and the synagogue have survived the capitalist and democratic revolutions that remade so much of modern life. Given this record of endurance, it bids fair that the biblical testimony about sex, family, and marriage will continue to form hearts and minds.
The Metaphysical Revolution
At the end of April the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the same-sex-marriage cases. Legal scholar and Ethics and Public Policy president Edward Whelan recently observed that he hasn’t given much attention to the briefs submitted, nor does he plan to follow the oral arguments, “because there is little basis to believe that these cases will be decided on legal reasoning.” As Justice Ginsburg said in so many words in a February interview, Americans are ready for gay marriage, so we’ll give it to them. Legal “reasoning” to follow.
The prospect of a purely political decision from the Court led me back to the famous First Things symposium published in November 1996: “The End of Democracy?” The occasion for that symposium was a federal circuit-court decision finding a right (subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court) to doctor-assisted suicide. The reasons given were identical to those used to justify America’s abortion regime. Richard John Neuhaus and the others who participated in the symposium were deeply concerned about the perverse way in which our constitutional system was turning liberty into an enemy of life.
“The End of Democracy?” essays are well worth rereading (or reading for the first time, if you never have). It’s quite striking that a number of the contributors clearly saw gay marriage on the horizon. As I reread, I found myself stepping back from the legal details. There are deep metaphysical assumptions at work in our current pattern of constitutional amendment by judicial fiat.
The 1992 Casey decision reaffirmed Roe’s extreme abortion license. Defending his support of the right to procure an abortion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This sentence has been much (and rightly) mocked for its rhetorical overreach. But what Kennedy was trying to say is fairly simple: Freedom is especially important when it bears on the most intimate aspects of our lives, “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.” A law unjustly impinges on our freedom when, absent legitimate reasons, it limits our choices in these areas.
This definition of freedom is entirely sensible, the “mystery of life” nonsense notwithstanding. As a consequence, everything turns on what counts as legitimate reasons. It’s on this point that the Court has been revolutionary. In his contribution to “The End of Democracy?” Hadley Arkes points out that judges now “pronounce the traditional moral teaching of Judaism and Christianity as empty, irrational, unjustified.” As a consequence, our current system of law treats traditional moral judgments as presumptively unjust and discriminatory. We see this in Windsor, the decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In his opinion in support of this decision, Justice Kennedy implies that a biblical view of sex, marriage, and family is based on an irrational animus against homosexuals.
Viewed historically, this turns things on their head. In his Farewell Address, George Washington endorsed religion as the basis for morality and “a necessary spring of popular government.” This judgment was commonplace. Many of the Founders were ambivalent about Christianity’s theological claims, but they were united in their conviction that religiosity strengthens the nation’s moral character. Now we’re seeing the opposite, at least when it comes to the intimate aspects of life. Courts increasingly treat with suspicion religiously motivated moral views about marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. What was once thought to be the wellspring of democratic culture—the general influence of a Judeo-Christian moral outlook—is now thought to be a persistent threat to freedom.
This change in legal presumption reflects a larger social change. Today, we’re seeing a shift in consensus, at least in the Establishment. It’s moving from Washington’s view of religion as, on the whole, good to one that sees religion as oppressive. That’s not because religion has changed. It’s because our view of freedom has. The human body has become an enemy of freedom, and because Judaism and Christianity affirm the body, we’re now seen as allies of the enemy.
We can see this metaphysical revolution in the dark consistency of the pro-abortion position. The willingness to kill in the womb stems from a fundamental judgment about equality: Limiting abortion burdens women unjustly, because they’re vulnerable to pregnancy in a way that men aren’t. In what sense, the defender of the American abortion regime asks, can women enjoy an equal freedom with men if they must live in bondage to the natural fertility of their bodies? Therefore, to be equal under the law, women must be free from any law that binds them to their naturally fertile bodies.
In the battle to defend the sanctity of life, we sometimes fail to see the depth of this revolution. We rightly focus on the absurdity of determining, as the Court has done, that the life of the child in the womb does not constitute a just reason—a supremely just reason—to override a woman’s personal decision to abort. If the sanctity of life is not a limit on personal freedom, what can be?
Abortion-rights advocates simply refuse this logic. Planned Parenthood doggedly fights against any restriction on the abortion license. This implacable stance indicates the depth and significance of the metaphysical revolution. It transforms a woman’s fertility into an enemy of freedom.
This view of freedom concerns more than women and the natural teleology of sexual intercourse toward conception and new life. As we have learned in doctor-assisted suicide cases, as well as gay-rights cases, the logic of Roe and Casey is expansive: No fact about our bodies can constitute a legitimate reason to limit our freedom.
The reasoning is simple. Why should the fact that two men have male bodies limit their freedom to marry? Indeed, the reasoning is much easier than what’s needed to justify abortion, because there’s no clear cost to this new freedom. Traditional moral principles depend on metaphysical assumptions about the moral meaning of our bodies and our bodily acts. These are dismissed (rarely with arguments) as irrational and unjustified. So we’re left with the principle of utility, which gives the appearance of objectivity but is in practice vague and malleable. That’s why proponents of gay marriage are unfazed by data showing the negative effects of same-sex marriage on children.
The same view of the body will lead to transgender rights, which is an even clearer instance of the metaphysical revolution. Proponents of transgender rights are asking this: Why should the misfortune that I’m born into the wrong body limit my freedom? The transgender movement indicates that we’re living in an unprecedented era in which that most basic dimension of our bodily existence—our maleness and femaleness—has lost any moral meaning.
I’m fairly confident that this same view of the human body and freedom will lead to the right to procure children. Why should the fact that my sexual acts with other men are sterile prevent me from having children? Why should a single, forty-five-year-old woman have her choices limited? As reproductive technology advances, Justice Kennedy’s reasoning in Casey will underwrite a broad “liberty interest” in procuring children by whatever means are available.
A right to doctor-assisted suicide also participates in the metaphysical revolution. Why should my bondage to a dying body limit my freedom? Should my body impede my freedom by becoming so sick and debilitated that I cannot kill myself, I must have free recourse to the assistance of others to exercise my freedom.
St. Paul asked, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19) Our bodies are not our own. We have them on loan, as it were, and a large part of what it means to live with dignity involves respecting the natural order of bodily existence, especially its male–female complementarity, which includes, but is by no means limited to, fertility.
By contrast, today’s secular culture sees the human body as a canvas for us to write on, a machine for us to use as we see fit, an instrument of our will. We tattoo and pierce—and, if we’re so inclined, we pay doctors to amputate and rearrange and reconfigure our sexual organs. We treat our natural fertility as an impediment, a burden—until we want children, at which point we quickly resort to technological manipulation if our bodies refuse to cooperate. Our sexual organs are tools with which to procure pleasure. We preempt our mortality with suicide. We cremate. In our era, the body has no moral meaning.
There are close legal arguments to be made against this expansion of pseudo-liberty. There are moral arguments to be made in hopes of restoring a degree of sanity to Western culture. But as we make those arguments we need always to remember a fundamental truth: We have become metaphysical heretics in an era that denies the body any moral meaning. This makes us the bad guys in today’s culture wars, the enemies of postmodern freedoms, which are no longer political but personal.
It’s about time Harvard and Yale paid their fair share. Higher education may be a bastion of progressivism, but it’s also a sector in which wealth inequality is extreme. The richest forty universities in America hold two-thirds of all the endowment wealth in higher education, with a median of over $6 billion in cash and investments. The top ten hold one-third of the endowment wealth in American higher education, an amount totaling $236 billion.
I can’t understand why academic progressives don’t speak out against this extreme wealth inequality. We all know that education is becoming more and more important for young people—and more and more expensive. Even with Pell grants and loans, many poor and middle-class young people have to work full-time to pay college costs.
In January, President Obama proposed a solution, or at least part of the solution. It involved an array of new taxes designed to fund free community-college education. Unfortunately, his initiative was a nonstarter. That’s because the proposed taxes burdened the very same middle class that’s getting squeezed by tuition bills. And it’s also because today’s liberals are One Percent types who are fixated on getting their kids into elite schools and hold their noses when somebody mentions community college. They’re more concerned with gay marriage than with the kinds of people who have to work full-time to pay for classes at schools that readers of the New York Times have never heard of.
We need to revive the president’s plan. Free community college is an excellent idea. There’s too much cheerleading for elite schools. I’m constantly hearing that our colleges and universities are the world’s best. That may be true of the rich schools, which no doubt provide great opportunities for the top students (who are usually from well-to-do backgrounds). But the system as a whole does not work well for ordinary people who need decent training for mid-level careers in our increasingly globalized economy.
New York City runs a multicampus system that combines aspects of community-college vocational training with more-traditional four-year degree programs, the City University of New York. Only 20 percent of incoming freshmen are still enrolled four years later. This low retention rate is typical for institutions that serve the general population. Only 20 percent of students enrolled in two-year associate degree programs get their degrees after three years.
This is not “world’s best” performance.
We need to reorient educational policy and spending. To do so, we should tax large endowments. With the revenue from this tax we can easily fund expanded community-college programs.
An endowment tax represents a realistic option that needs to be taken seriously. The Obama plan called for $60 billion of spending on community colleges over ten years. This can be funded by a simple tax on outsized endowments: an annual 2 percent tax on endowments that exceed $100,000 per full-time student, rising progressively until we reach a 5 percent tax on endowments of $1 million or more per student.
I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation. The richest forty schools have endowments that total $416 billion. Some are very rich. Two of the largest endowments, Harvard’s and Yale’s, amount to nearly $2 million per student. Others have lower endowment-to-student ratios. Let’s assume that the average tax rate is 3 percent. That yields over $12 billion in tax revenue per year, more than enough to fund an upgraded and free community-college system nationwide.
I’ve proposed this tax in the past, and without effect. My conservative friends are appalled, thinking any new taxes wrongheaded. My liberal friends are also appalled, because they regard elite education as sacred. The liberal response makes sense. Today’s elite universities are secular liberal churches. So I can understand why, for progressives, these institutions can’t ever be too rich. Any liberal with an ounce of strategic insight into twenty-first-century cultural politics will resist with all his might any diminution of Harvard or Yale or Stanford’s wealth and power.
The conservative response is thickheaded. In the first place, unlike today’s liberals, who use identity politics to mask their reorientation of American public life around the needs of the One Percent, we should be concerned to renew the American tradition of opportunity. That means better access to higher education. Free community college is a good place to start in every sense.
The Catholic principle of subsidiarity argues for as much local control as possible. The community colleges are a great deal closer to the communities of ordinary people than are high-toned private colleges and universities with their country-club facilities and high-flying faculty. They’re much more likely to have connections to local industries and local markets. Even a modest tax designed to redistribute education wealth could have a beneficial effect, not just for kids at community colleges but for the system as a whole.
Oh, and there’s a political side benefit. The endowment tax will loosen the stranglehold that a few elite institutions have on our educational culture. Higher education will be less ideological if our plain vanilla institutions have a little more funding and our double-dark chocolate deluxe institutions have a little bit less.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.