Never has a piece of writing spread across my social media niche as prolifically as Mark Oppenheimer’s Time essay arguing for an end to federal tax exemptions for religious organizations. In the past few days, more than two dozen Facebook friends shared the article, each one appending either a note of alarm or a resigned I-told-you-so.
More important than the size of the article’s reach, though, has been its scope: Every single person who posted the essay has been a politically-aware religious conservative. While it is true that my online social circles are skewed toward political and religious conservatives, I still expected at least one person outside of that niche to share the piece with an expression of confusion, conciliation, or disgruntlement at apparent conservative alarmism.
Their silence—the silence of everyone outside the small circles of outspoken conservatives from whom concern is expected and thus dismissed—when faced with the opening salvo in the tax exemption battle is, more than anything else, a clear sign that the battle may well be a fait accompli.
The appeals to classical liberalism and pluralism that we are relying on require culture war non-combatants and even some opponents to be willing publicly to speak out in favor of a pluralist society that includes and even finds value in anti-same-sex marriage sentiments. But this pluralist view undercuts the fundamental myth of the same-sex marriage movement—that we are living through a new civil rights era. The vitriol and social shaming that has thus far so effectively consolidated LGBT movement gains depends on this myth; without it, same-sex marriage becomes what its opponents have always claimed it to be: just another policy to be discerned in civility among people of good will.
Anyone who’s been paying attention understands this. They know, either intuitively or from experience, that pluralism is subversive to the Movement of History. They know that History (conveniently backed by mainstream political, cultural, and economic power) takes no prisoners. And they certainly know what side of that power—er, History—they want to be on.
Now, the silence from the political peanut gallery does not imply consent. I don’t think everyone who found Oppenheimer’s piece unworthy of comment agrees with him. I do think, however, that a great deal of those people are uncomfortable with his analysis but have no idea how to articulate that discomfort without risking social censure.
This is why the best Oppenheimer’s nay-sayers have been able to muster is not a principled argument but a political prediction: Churches won’t lose their tax-exempt status. They don’t argue that they shouldn’t, only that it’s unlikely.
But this is exactly why it’s likely. Just as with marriage, the practical political argument will shift along with practical political considerations. As people with fewer intuitive objections publicly relinquish those objections, the practical argument will fade—and there will be nothing left to replace it. With no principled high ground on which to stand, more and more people will be swept away by the accumulating flash flood of political, cultural, and economic power that we drolly call “History” in order to obscure its true nature.
And appeals to pluralism won’t save us. If those arguments were going to have persuasive force, we’d have seen conscientious liberals deploying then. (Even if they half-believe the arguments, a pluralism that includes bigots is just too subversive.) The best attempt at a principled argument I’ve seen is this: It would be unfair to strip some or all churches of their tax-exempt status without doing the same to every non-profit. But the counterargument is clear: Other non-profits contribute to society in a positive way; churches, especially bigoted churches, are either neutral or harmful social influences and therefore do not deserve government favor.
How can anyone outside of an orthodox religious tradition possibly respond to this argument? The prevailing wisdom is that there’s no special inherent value to religious belief; it’s just one lifestyle and value system among many. Religious tax exemptions, like marriage itself, appears to be a relic of a bygone age.
For that matter, how are orthodox believers to respond to this argument? By taking the libertarian line that the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers? But in Obergefell the government has already picked a winner and a loser. And we lost. The only question is how deep into civil society that decision will be enforced.
We could double down on a kind of light libertarianism, asking the state to resist molding civil society around a particular idea of the good. We will fail, I fear, but perhaps there is good in trying to preserve the best of the liberal tradition in rhetoric, if not in reality. Perhaps this will position us well to take advantage of a renewal of classical liberalism some time in America’s future.
But what if no such renewal is forthcoming? What if our liberal appeals are degenerating into nothing more than unseemly begging for table scraps? Then our arguments for marriage and justice and freedom properly understood should take on a different tenor—that of the urgent renewal not of liberal principles, but of truth and goodness and beauty.
I don’t know what post-liberalism looks like, except what I can see around me. I see a movement that claims the mantle of liberalism but which has succeeded and continues to succeed by ignoring liberal niceties. I see a burgeoning culture that is, whether it realizes it or not, intensely moralistic (even if in uneven and inconsistent ways). I see, that is, a civilization where relativism is preached but not practiced, where there is therefore a void that is being filled by a destructive and hedonistic new orthodoxy.
I see, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, an opportunity. It is an opportunity, in the long run, to supplant the status quo and to win individuals and families and communities—souls—by appealing to rather than obscuring the comprehensive truth of Christian doctrine. Light chases darkness.
If my suspicions are correct—if the liberal order is fracturing whether we like it or not—then we should argue for marriage not because the Supreme Court overstepped its authority, but because marriage is true and same-sex marriage is false; we should argue for tax exemptions not because of fairness, but because the Church deserves the state’s favor; and we should argue for freedom not because of the words of Jefferson or Madison, but because of the Word of God.
This may seem unrealistic—extravagant, even. But is it any more extravagant than same-sex marriage was thirty years ago? We at least have historical precedent for Christian civilization. Our task, which must begin now, is to discern how to remake that civilization in a post-modern, post-liberal world.
Brandon McGinley is a 2010 graduate of Princeton University. He writes from Pittsburgh, where he works for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.