On March 20, the United States organized a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the following topic: “Integrating the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons into the Council’s Mandate for Maintaining International Peace and Security.” This effort is but another step in the American-led push to compel the entire world to adopt our progressive social agenda. In April 2022, the Biden administration produced an Interagency Report on the ways in which all aspects of our government will advance gay rights around the world. These government measures dovetail with a vast network of academic programs, conferences, and legal clinics, and with foundation-funded activist organizations operating at every level. Were someone to tally the direct and indirect expenditures on gay rights and related causes, I would be surprised if they didn’t reach $1 trillion per year.
The ambition is simple: to strengthen the Rainbow Reich and ensure that it attains global hegemony. From Brussels to Washington, this goal is pursued by every major institution in the West, including, it seems, the Catholic Church in Germany. Often the Rainbow Reich is disguised by calls for the defense of liberal democracy. Of course, without exception, no country counts as “liberal” that does not wholeheartedly endorse the latest progressive dogmas. In effect, as the hegemon in Western initiatives and alliances, the United States leads an ideological crusade to conquer the world.
This turn of events paradoxically reverses the roles played by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1950, under the leadership of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the recently formed National Security Council was commissioned to assess the Soviet threat and outline an American response. The upshot was NSC-68, the document that guided U.S. strategy during the Cold War.
In his memoir, Present at the Creation, Acheson summarizes the main thrust of NSC-68. The document characterized the essential difference between Soviet and American ambitions: “The priority given by the Soviet rulers to the Kremlin design, world domination, contrasted with the American aim, an environment in which free societies could exist and flourish.” Acheson refines this contrast further. Russia adopted this imperial principle: “No state is friendly which is not subservient.” The U.S. adhered to a capacious approach: “No state is unfriendly which, in return for its rights, respects the rights of other states.” Put simply, the Soviet Union wished to globalize its communist regime. By contrast, the United States wanted to protect its own way of life, and we were willing to ally ourselves with other countries organized in accord with quite different principles, provided each respected the right of others to live in peace.
In the twenty-first century, we seem to have adopted the Soviet imperial principle. After September 11, a consensus formed concerning the need to convert the entire world to the American system. In his Second Inaugural Address, George W. Bush insisted, “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” He was not calling for a global Rainbow Reich, but he established a precedent. The judgment that the American culture of freedom could not survive unless the entire world adopted our conception of liberty (now perverted to entail a right to abort children, marry someone of the same sex, and choose whether to be a man or a woman) is not altogether different from the Soviet ambition of world domination.
Marxist true believers held that communism would inevitably triumph. It’s a sentiment echoed by countless progressives who condemn those deemed “on the wrong side of history.” But the triumph remains in the future. The cause remains vulnerable. Back in the day, the Bolsheviks believed that the survival of communism at home required the success of communism abroad. And they held that the best hope for world peace depended upon the expansion of communism to the entire world. American progressives aim for a different future, but adhere to similar imperialist assumptions. Although coercive, the totalitarianism of the Rainbow Reich proceeds under the sign of choice, as the ideology of abortion makes plain. The Biden administration’s commitment to ensure gay rights everywhere dovetails all too easily with the call for “the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
Seeking greater precision, in his commentary on NSC-68 Acheson once again formulates the contrast between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the early days of the Cold War, “our society felt no compulsion to bring all societies into conformity with it, [whereas] the Kremlin hierarchy was not content to entrench its regime but wished to expand its control directly and indirectly over other people within its reach.” I fear that few in power today would affirm Acheson’s statement about America. In the economic sphere, the “Washington consensus” seeks universal adoption. How can we have a truly free global market unless everyone accepts free-market principles? A mercantilist or protectionist nation spoils the system. In politics, all nations must become liberal democracies. A vast array of human rights that encode progressive ideology into their meaning is obligatory, and our embassies fly the rainbow flag. We now play the Kremlin’s role.
Meanwhile, America’s greatest geopolitical adversary has adopted our older and more pragmatic outlook. China feels no compulsion to transform Iran, India, or Indonesia in its own image. Chairman Xi seems satisfied to fold other nations into a Chinese-dominated economic system and enjoy alliances of convenience against American hegemony.
Count me anxious. When the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its ideological ambitions, Mikhail Gorbachev famously said, “You will miss us a lot.” I can’t say that I have. But looking back, I find that the Kremlin played a role something like that of the biblical concept of katechon, the power that restrains and withholds. After communism’s demise, American elites were free to indulge in “end of history” fantasies, and the mythical aspect of our country (Novus ordo seclorum—a new order of the ages) became an ideological burden. I fear that unless we regain a habit of restraint, we will collapse under the weight of the Rainbow Reich.
We do not live in a free country. There are many kinds of tyranny. Ours is certainly not like that of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. Government agents are not knocking on doors in the dead of night. Dissenters are not being arrested and sent to prison camps. Nor is twenty-first-century America quite what Alexis de Tocqueville feared, a society of isolated and timid individuals who welcome the smothering embrace of sovereign power that “covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowds.” It is true that we are atomized and live under a blanket of social control. But the “sovereign power” is not officialdom pure and simple. It is something more diffuse. Like our healthcare system and retirement benefits, the tyranny is distinctly American, imposed by a complex combination of government power and private initiative.
Imagine a lawyer, a devout Christian with traditional moral convictions, who works in a large national firm in New York. In years past, he was required to participate in diversity training seminars. These sessions were not mandated by any government agency. Rather, they were established by management in order to protect the firm in the event of civil rights litigation. He participated and held his tongue when the “training” turned to abortion and gay rights.
After the uproar of the summer of 2020, anyone with half a brain recognized that the stakes had become much higher. Some big clients became more aggressive about demanding clear signs of “diversity” in the firm’s legal staff. In response, management hired a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. They wanted to insulate the firm from legal and reputational liabilities. The new DEI officer revised the diversity training, rebranding it “Allyship in the Workplace.” Thenceforth, all lawyers were required to make positive commitments to advance “historically marginalized communities,” which, given the power of the LGBT lobby at the firm, has meant highlighting their concerns.
The process is complete. DEI practices are as much a part of firm culture as billing. Again, neither the position of DEI officer nor the refashioned “allyship” training is mandated by government, at least not directly. There is no party commissar assigned to the firm. But some of the young associates have formed groups and are making demands. And management knows that the New York legislature has drawn up an amendment to the state’s constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender expression, pregnancy, and pregnancy outcomes.” It seems more than prudent to be proactive in ensuring that the firm is in full accord with the rainbow agenda.
So it looks as though the devout Christian lawyer must either submit and mouth an endorsement of the latest dictates from the Human Rights Campaign—or be fired. Maybe he can skillfully maneuver and avoid confrontation. Or perhaps he has lucrative clients or powerful parents who will protect him. This is of no moment. In the Soviet Union not every dissenter was arrested. What matters is the atmosphere of threat, which brings people into conformity.
Nor is it just a matter of losing your livelihood. As Scott Yenor recounts in “Anatomy of a Cancellation” (January 2023), activists will target you, your family, your friends, and your employer with a barrage of insults, threats, and denunciations. Those mounting the attacks are private actors, to be sure, but their measures are rarely if ever punished by institutional authorities that enforce social norms. Recently, Fifth Circuit Court Judge Kyle Duncan was invited to address a student group at Stanford Law School. Law students who objected to his very existence hurled vulgar insults and tried to intimidate him. His talk was disrupted by jeers, and he had to be escorted from the room by federal marshals. In the aftermath, the Law School dean made strong statements about the importance of free speech and open discussion. But she assured the students that none will be subjected to discipline for their behavior.
The Stanford episode is our situation writ small. In the aftermath of its “mostly peaceful protests,” Black Lives Matter and related organizations were showered with money. (The Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life has documented donations to BLM and related causes, which total more than $80 billion). A year later, we heard accusations of misuse of funds. One BLM leader was accused by colleagues of embezzling $10 million. Private lawsuits have been filed. We are not an entirely lawless country. But to my knowledge, not a single district attorney has opened an investigation. Meanwhile, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has doggedly pursued a dubious case against Donald Trump for payment of hush money to a porn star.
In the halls of academe, at our workplaces, and in the trenches of political combat, one gets the message. Those advancing the progressive party line are empowered and protected by authorities. Anyone unwise enough to dissent in public or, worse, enter into active resistance becomes a target.
This tyranny is soft, not hard. Outside of Portland, there are no bands of progressive thugs with truncheons roaming the streets. You and I can go about our days unmolested. But only up to a point. A friend reported that during the summer of 2020, a major automobile company fired factory workers who posted negative comments about Black Lives Matter on their social media accounts. More recently, a Georgia police officer was told to resign or be fired. His offense: a social media post saying “there’s no such thing” as gay marriage. These blue-collar folks were naive. They thought they lived in a free country. Well before 2020, those of us who work as professionals were aware that we needed to self-censor.
Further events have intensified the atmosphere of threat. In 2022, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers and froze the financial accounts of individuals who had donated to the trucker protest in Ottawa, effectively expelling them from economic life. The measure was criticized and soon lifted. But we got the message. And then there were FBI investigations into the possibility that parents who objected to the indoctrination of their children at school board meetings might be “domestic terrorists”—to say nothing of the bizarre FBI memo identifying the traditional Latin Mass as a potential source of “right-wing extremism.” These excesses have been exposed and subjected to a good bit of public pushback. But, again, we got the message: Dissent at your own risk.
We should be grateful that we live in a time in which ideologues backed up by state power are satisfied with getting you fired rather than putting a bullet in your head. But let’s not kid ourselves. Progressives have adopted tactics meant to instill fear in those who dissent, and fear is the great enemy of freedom.
A current of fear is coursing through more than political and cultural conflicts. It’s fueled by more than progressive tyranny. Polling suggests that young people are pessimistic about their economic futures. Debt, rising house prices, and healthcare costs—they fear that they’ll never get a solid foothold. Will they find the right person and get married? Many worry that they won’t. In Return of the Strong Gods, I argue that our “open society” and “open economy” consensus has dissolved what once were solid places to stand. In a liquid world, we fear that we will drown.
In these pages and elsewhere, I’ve argued that we need to reconsolidate our society around enduring truths. There are many, but among them are the three Fs: faith, family, and flag, three anchoring loyalties that give us places to stand, bulwarks against fear’s onslaught. Unfortunately, this cultural-political project is not popular today. Moreover, even if our elites shift their emphasis and turn toward renewing solidarity around shared loves, the renewal will take decades. In the meantime, we need to recover personal and interior sources for freedom so that we can live with dignity in difficult times.
In the years immediately after World War II, the German writer Ernst Jünger penned a meditation on freedom, Der Waldgang, translated as The Forest Passage. Jünger does not detail the social situation in occupied Germany. Rather, he evokes a general atmosphere of threat and intimidation that punishes anyone who is not “with the program,” as we might say. Under these circumstances, one seeks, somehow, to “get out.” The image of going into the forest (one sense of Waldgang) serves, therefore, as a metaphor for spiritual escape, while that of walking the forest paths (another sense of Waldgang) serves as a metaphor of living in freedom.
The city is man-made; the forest is nature’s place. Going to the forest means reconnecting with reality, trusting that God’s creation endures, even as man’s vanity erodes and destroys. In a different way, Matthew Crawford sounds a similar note. His books and essays detail the ways in which competent navigation through material reality builds our confidence. A man who knows how to fix his car is far less likely to be pushed around by an officious bureaucrat or intimidated by someone who tells him that his views are “out of date.” In the forest—in the repair shop—we are disciplined and anchored by reality. Thus disciplined and anchored, we can endure the onslaughts of propaganda and resist groupthink.
There is much to be said for the curative power of nature. I’ve known doctors whose intimate knowledge of the human body makes it impossible for them to conform to transgender ideology. But Jünger recognizes that our full freedom requires more. Tyranny threatens our jobs, reputations, and places in society. Tyranny warns that if we dissent, we will be stripped of every protection: our salaries, bank accounts, and friends. These threats stoke fear. Naked before the world, we are vulnerable to annihilation. “At all times, in all places, and in every heart,” writes Jünger, “human fear is the same: it is the fear of destruction, the fear of death.”
When he wrote The Forest Passage, Jünger was not yet a Christian. But he was a fellow traveler, seeing in Christ the image of one who “enters the kingdom of death” and conquers its power. In Christ’s train, fear of death is overcome. Although Jünger does not quote St. Paul, the apostle’s bold words in 1 Corinthians are apposite: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” One thinks of St. Lawrence, who when put upon a grill above a roaring fire, mocked his executioners, telling them that he was done on one side and should be turned over.
Tyranny can maintain its governmental, social, and cultural power. Our soft tyranny is likely to do so, at least in the near term. But insofar as you and I mock death, as did St. Paul, we are more powerful still. In Christ’s wake, Jünger notes, “followed not only martyrs, who were stronger than stoics, stronger than caesars, stronger than the hundred thousand spectators surrounding them in the arena—there also followed the innumerable others who died with their faith intact.”
Nietzsche saw Christianity as a way of life that celebrates weakness. Against this “slave morality,” he asserted that only the strong could be free. Even as an unbeliever, Jünger recognized that Nietzsche, while right about freedom, was wrong about Christianity. Those who do not fear death are the strongest of strong men, for they can never be conquered. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, in Christ “we are more than conquerors.”
This claim to possess indomitable power is no pious illusion. Today we are subjected to tremendous pressure to endorse transgender ideology, and we are cattle-prodded to affirm gay marriage. Some resist, because they are rooted in reality and recognize that men are men and women are women. But if we look around the public square, we see that the majority of those standing up against woke tyranny are religious believers. We do this not because basic facts about biology and the male-female difference require the affirmation of revealed truths. Our ability to speak out rests in our freedom, which, as Jünger recognized, comes from our knowledge that we are under the command of a King far stronger than any worldly power.
As I write, the renunciations and disciplines of Lent are aiming toward Easter. We owe our fellow citizens a due measure of civil involvement. We need to fight perverse cultural norms and bad laws. And we need to vote and lobby to reverse some of the destructive trends. But the greatest service we can provide is to yearn for an ever-greater interior conversion. At the Easter Vigil, in the gloom of night’s darkness, the Exsultet, Christianity’s great triumphal song, announces: “This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” To thrill to those words prepares our hearts for a free life. And thus do we inspire our fellow citizens. They see that even a common man, an ordinary woman—which is to say, people like us—are undaunted and unbowed by worldly powers that imagine their petty threats can rule our lives.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Tish Harrison Warren documents the changing character of American Christianity, which is as profoundly affected by immigration-driven demographics as the rest of our society. Writing for the New York Times newsletter, she assesses the implications:
This influx of nonwhite believers will challenge white religious conservatives to choose between xenophobia and building alliances with immigrants who share their views on social issues. These trends will also challenge them to unbundle their religious views on social issues from a kind of libertarian economics that harms those who are less wealthy. In the same way, white progressives will be in the awkward spot of choosing whether to continue to push boundaries about sexuality and gender—which will put them on the side of largely white, wealthier Westerners—or to be in solidarity with those from the majority world who most likely hold views that are out of step with social progressivism.
The “xenophobia” slur is gratuitous and without basis. Do there exist any conservative groups, religious or non-religious, that are not eager for allies? Is it a New York Times requirement to ring the changes on the charge of “racism” when speaking about conservatives? As for the parallelism between conservative and progressive, count me unpersuaded. It is far easier for First Things readers to dismiss the Cato Institute than for the readers of the Christian Century to do or say anything not authorized by the Human Rights Campaign.
♦ The mistreatment of Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School was widely reported, so I will not detail the thuggish behavior. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez subsequently sent a letter of apology to Duncan, which of course triggered further protests. In the 1920s and 1930s, Bolsheviks and Fascists were uninterested in discussion and debate. When they judged it advantageous, they exploited the rule of law to destroy their enemies. When procedures impeded them, they employed intimidation. As I note above, today’s tyranny does not resort to brass knuckles and bullets. It is satisfied with verbal aggression. But it shares a desire to destroy the opposition. Dean Martinez issued a further statement with strong language in support of a legal culture based on rational debate. I wish her well, but I’m not optimistic. A Bolshevik and Fascist mentality has colonized elite law schools, and it happened on the watch of the faculty and administration that promoted Dean Martinez. It’s a sign that our society is heading for trouble.
♦ In my reflections above on today’s tyranny, I expressed gratitude that, unlike their totalitarian predecessors, progressives are satisfied with destroying careers and reputations. Perhaps I was too optimistic. In the aftermath of the uproar at Stanford, Wayne State University English professor Steven Shaviro posted his thoughts on Facebook. After an initial throat clearing (“Although I do not advocate violating federal and state criminal codes”), he went on to say, “I think it is far more admirable to kill a racist, homophobic, or transphobic speaker than it is to shout them down.”
♦ During the uproar at Judge Duncan’s lecture, Tirien Steinbach, associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Stanford Law School, intervened and delivered prepared remarks that implied the “the harm” of his presence was “so great” that Stanford ought to waive its free speech policies. This appeal to “harm” and threats to the emotional “safety” of students led a friend to send me a passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves:
There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
♦ Like smoking, social media can be bad for your health. W. Bradford Wilcox and Zach Whiting observe the correlation between dramatic increases in social media use and equally dramatic declines in mental health. Rates of depression for teen girls have doubled (from 12 to 26 percent) since the widespread use of the smart phone began in 2010. Suicide for that demographic has rocketed to forty-year highs. Self-reported anxiety and sadness are also at historic levels. “So, what’s the answer?” Wilcox and Whiting ask. In response, they venture: “We must treat Big Tech the way we dealt with Big Tobacco at the end of the last century—as an industry whose access to a vulnerable population, our teens, must be curtailed.”
♦ Ed West is not a fan of life-sucking social media. But he questions the assumption that our smartphones explain the spike in mental health problems among the young. He notes that the rise in negative indicators corresponds to the rise of wokeism. Climate catastrophe, rampant white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia: Today’s progressive mind is filled with dire diagnoses. West quotes Jill Filipovic:
I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they are captains of their own ship, not that they are simply tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.
Perhaps one cause of rising teen suicide is late-model liberalism and its embrace of the cult of the victim.
♦ Interestingly, depression and other mental health problems track both sex and ideological orientation. West cites a 2021 study, “The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs.” From the study abstract: “Trends in adolescent internalizing symptoms diverged by political beliefs, with female liberal adolescents experiencing the largest increases in depressive symptoms.” Conservative boys showed the lowest rate of increase in depression.
♦ Writing in Tablet magazine, Jacob Savage notes the remarkable decline in Jewish enrollment at elite universities. Early in the twentieth century, quotas limited Jewish enrollments at Ivy League schools to 10 percent or less. When quotas were eliminated, the proportion of Jews surged, only to fall dramatically in the last decade. “Harvard has gone from being 25% Jewish in the 1990s and 2000s to under 10% today.” Yale’s Jewish population represented 20 percent of its undergraduate student body in the 2000s. Now it makes up around 10 percent. Other elite universities reflect that same trend. Intermarriage and a drop in Jewish self-identification may partly explain the sharp declines. But Savage recognizes that our DEI regime surely plays a role: “To even suggest that a 15%-20% Jewish undergraduate student body might be acceptable in a country in which Jews make up 2.4% of the total population is anathema in today’s liberal society.”
♦ The New York legislature has passed an amendment to the State constitution that will come before voters in 2024 to be ratified: “NO PERSON SHALL BE DENIED EQUAL RIGHTS UNDER THE LAWS OF THIS STATE OR ANY SUBDIVISION THEREOF BASED ON THAT PERSON’S RACE, COLOR, ETHNICITY, NATIONAL ORIGIN, DISABILITY, OR SEX INCLUDING PREGNANCY AND PREGNANCY OUTCOMES, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, AND GENDER EXPRESSION.” With this wording, women will have a constitutional right to abort their children right up to the moment of birth—and perhaps after (“pregnancy outcomes”). The amendment will compel public recognition of all transgender claims. In sum, the Rainbow Reich gets full control of state power.
♦ A friend from out of town visited the office. He related recent changes at his urban parish. More young people are coming. They kneel to receive the consecrated host on their tongues. Some of the women wear veils. “Am I witnessing a slow-burning Catholic version of that wildfire Protestant revival at Asbury University last February?” he wondered.
♦ Deliberatio.eu is a new web magazine. Drawing upon a wide range of European authors, it offers intelligent conservative commentary on current events, as well as longer essays on seminal figures and timeless topics. Recommended.
♦ The annual First Things Intellectual Retreat in New York City will take place August 11–12. Our topic will be “Creation and Fall,” with readings drawn from Scripture, theology, poetry, and literature. The retreat begins with dinner and a lecture on Friday evening and continues with seminar discussions of assigned readings on Saturday. The full day ends with a festive dinner and a concert by the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band of Dominican friars whose recent record, Holy Ghost Power, reached #5 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. Great books, good company, and fine music—it’s a marvelous opportunity to feed mind and soul.
♦ Fr. Joseph Fallon of Garnerville, New York, would like to form a ROFTERS group. If you live in or near Rockland County and would like to join, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.