It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies
by mary eberstadt
harper, 158 pages, $25.99
Members of traditional religions became moral outlaws in the United States once equal rights for sexual preference and gender choice were enshrined in regulation and law. To believe that homosexual relations are sinful, as does biblical religion, defines the believer as a bigot in the view of liberal opinion, which is backed by the federal regulatory apparatus and the regulators of most American states, as well as by most of the judicial system.
As Mary Eberstadt reports, expressions of religious belief that society considered innocuous and normal until quite recently are now grounds for dismissal from jobs, denial of employment, and boycotts by the media. Devout Christians believe they must choose between their faith and job security, and they commonly conceal their faith in the workplace to avert discrimination. (Muslims are exempt because liberals consider them a threatened minority and make allowances for their misogyny and gay-bashing.)
Actions or speech (quoting a Bible verse or leaving a religious symbol in plain view) elicit persecution. In some cases, evidence of past incorrect opinion is sufficient: The CEO of the software firm Mozilla, Brendan Eich, was hounded from his post in 2014 for a $1,000 contribution to a 2008 California referendum campaign against gay marriage, evidence of a position he shared at the time with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Eberstadt is a wonderful writer. She has written passionately and with insight on faith and demographics, for example in her 2013 volume How the West Really Lost God, which I reviewed with enthusiasm. She has a great ear for anecdotes, and her field reports of Christians persecuted for ideological heresy entertain as much as they alarm. But her book is not only testimony to the gravity of the problem, but evidence as well: It betrays weakness within the Christian camp. She quotes friends who ask sadly, “Where can we [Christians] go?” and ponders the “Benedict Option,” forming small closed communities of Christians shut off from the world.
Eberstadt calls the persecution of traditional religion a “witch-hunt”—a critical error. A witch-hunt is a search for malefactors who pretend to be good people but really are intent on doing evil. There is a witch-hunt going on today, namely the search for secret racists at American universities. The witch-hunters pillory teachers and administrators who claim to hold politically correct views but allegedly betray their secret racism through wicked actions, for instance by correcting bad grammar in minority students’ term papers. Loyal liberals who commit no aggressions are said to be guilty of micro-aggressions.
By contrast, the purge of traditional Christians and Jews is a heretic hunt, an Inquisition, whose objective is to isolate and punish individuals who actually profess opinions contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy. There can be some overlap between an Inquisition and a witch-hunt, to be sure. But today’s liberal Inquisitors are not searching for individuals secretly in communion with God—yet.
This is a critical distinction. Witch-hunters eventually discover that burning a few old hags does not prevent cows’ milk from souring. Inquisitions, by contrast, usually succeed: The Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out broadly held heresies, as in the Albigensian Crusade of 1220-1229, which destroyed between 200,000 and 1,000,000 inhabitants of Cathar-controlled towns in Southern France. In many cases a town’s entire population was killed, just to make sure. For its part, the Spanish Inquisition eliminated all the Jews, Muslims, and Protestants, although it sometimes drove heretical opinions underground, with baleful consequences for the Catholic faith.
Because Eberstadt confuses the present persecution with mere witch-hunting, she hopes that the witch-hunters will realize their error and do the decent thing. She compares the persecution of Christians to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Here is the nub of her argument:
[I]t was the actions of people on McCarthy’s own side that were decisive—those of the political right who disassociated themselves from his bullying tactics, beginning with seven Republican senators.
All of which is to say that neither the accused witches of Salem nor the objects of the Red Scare were able to end those moral panics on their own. Momentum for change had to come from the other side. The same is true of the present antagonism towards religious citizens. What’s needed is for people on the other side to acknowledge that things have gone too far.
The comparison is misguided. McCarthy was not attacking individuals who professed Marxist sympathies, but individuals who concealed their Marxist sympathies while serving as high-ranking military officers and officials of the Eisenhower administration. He was a witch-hunter drunk on his own power (as well as drunk in the usual sense of the term). He had to be humiliated, and he was.
McCarthy claimed to know of secret Communist agents in high Establishment positions. And unlike in the Salem of the witch trials, in Eisenhower’s America there were in fact “witches” to be hunted—that is, hundreds of secret Russian agents or agents-of-influence. American intelligence decoded more than 3,000 covert messages to and from the Soviet embassy in Washington after 1943, in which hundreds of Americans were mentioned, some of whom later were proven to be spies. The U.S. government couldn’t reveal its covert sources, so it encouraged “witch-hunts” to flush out suspected traitors. McCarthy got out of control. But by the time the U.S. Senate passed a motion of censure against the rogue Wisconsin Senator, in December 1954, the problem largely had been eliminated.
In a similar way, the liberal establishment will eventually conclude that its witch-hunt—its persecution of academic liberals—has gone too far. It will decide that correcting grammar in a doctoral dissertation submitted by a minority student is not a firing offense. Witch-hunts respond to an observed problem (spoiled cows’ milk, a plague, failed crops, and so forth). I have suggested previously that the academic witch-hunters are responding to a catastrophic outcome among minority students: “Little more than a third of black male college students obtain a bachelor’s degree (ideally a four-year program) after six years of university attendance. The college entrance rate is identical for white and black high school graduates at about 70%, but graduate rates diverge. Sixty percent of white male students graduate within six years, almost double the proportion of black males.” That is not the fault of liberal academics who correct the grammar in black students’ term papers, and eventually the liberal establishment will call off the witch-hunt.
But that has nothing at all to do with the persecution of Christians, which will continue.
There is something to be learned about this from the Albigensian Crusade. The Catholic philosopher Michael Novak observed that St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Novak hailed as the “first Whig,” supported the extermination of the Cathar heretics. It wasn’t that Aquinas wanted to kill everyone who disagreed with him; on the contrary, he expressly forbade the killing of Jews, a common occurrence in the thirteenth century. Unlike the Jews, who practiced their religion in isolation, Christian heretics formed a threat to the social and political order. The fragility of medieval society required the elimination of heretics.
Today’s Inquisition is energized by a similar sense of fragility. The liberal establishment lives in terror that the people will rise in revolt. Its program has failed. After eight years of the most liberal administration in American history, most Americans believe the economy still is in recession. Labor force participation is at the lowest level since the early 1930s, and real household median income remains almost a tenth below its peak.
Half a century of affirmative action and anti-poverty programs have not lifted the fortunes of black Americans. Seventy-two percent of black children are born out of marriage. The New York Times observed, “Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.”
Even the liberal elite has suffered from liberal hegemony. What has liberal intellectual life accomplished in the past fifty years? The universities train legions of students in deconstructionist literary criticism, ethnic studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies, and similar ideology-driven claptrap. It has created an incomprehensible language in which it can talk to itself but to no one else. And it cannot find jobs for its most committed cadre.
Liberal intellectual life is a scam, a goof, a fraud, a hoax. There are no reasonable liberals to whom Christians might appeal in the name of fairness and free speech. There are only terrified, beleaguered, fanatical, and embittered liberals, painfully aware of the spreading discontent among the untutored masses. If they were not sure of it before 2016, Donald Trump has made it clear to them.
Mary Eberstadt is a friend and a comrade-in-arms, so it pains me to say that she is wrong. She will get no quarter from her persecutors. When the brilliant Catholic writer Joseph Bottum argued in 2013 that the Catholic Church should make its peace with same-sex marriage, I responded that no peace was possible. The liberals fear that Christian America will rise up and avenge itself against their tyranny. They will keep coming after you.
Your alternative is to counterattack.
Ridicule your enemies. Expose their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Assert the superiority of your own intellectual tradition. Single out some of the “New Atheists” and attack their intellectual pretensions. Target individuals; liberals are brave in a mob but cowards in a corner. Make fun of the employment prospects of gender- and ethnic-studies students. (How about leafletting their classes with statistics on their post-graduation employment rates?) Conduct a how’s-that-working-out-for-you survey asking undergraduates whether hookups and binge-drinking make them happy. Aim for the brightest and most ambitious students on campus: If you convince them that their professors have feet of clay, you will have won half the battle.
Do to the left, in other words, what the left did to the universities in the 1960s, when the Establishment got tangled in the Vietnam War. The next time a university fires a professor for holding religious views, picket the administration building. Stage a sit-in holding posters of Martin Luther King. There are plenty of black and Hispanic clergy who cannot refuse to support the right of students to express Christian beliefs—get them to join you. Raise a banner bearing the single word: “Hypocrites.”
Seize the moral high ground in the fight for free speech and fair treatment. Give religious students something to fight for and weapons with which to fight for it. If you plead for mercy from your oppressors, your best young people will fall away, demoralized. If you ask for sacrifice, they will rally to you.
Will you succeed? That’s above my pay grade. But you have nothing to lose. There’s nowhere you can go, and the Benedict Option is impractical. You might as well be hanged as it were for a sheep as for a lamb.
David P. Goldman is a columnist for Asia Times and P J Media, and a former senior editor at First Things.