Commentary Magazine


Topic: culture wars

Gay Marriage and the Myth of Progressive American Secularism

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

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Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

On Saturday, the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom posted a press release about the Knapps, a married couple both of whom are ordained ministers. The Knapps own and run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The state recently passed an anti-discrimination law that applies to the state’s businesses. Hitching Post is a for-profit chapel. Thus, according to state officials, the law plainly applies without exception to the Knapps.

The ADF press release was a bit ahead of itself. “Officials threaten to punish senior citizen couple – both ordained pastors – if they decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” it said up top. But the threat, really, was as-yet implied. The state did, however, confirm that the law applies to the Knapps, and the Knapps have since refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. The clock, then, is ticking–though as of Monday the Knapps had not been charged. They are suing the state to ensure they won’t be, by asking a federal judge to bar enforcement.

Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski makes an astute observation:

No one ever expects the Secular Inquisition.

Except that we actually did expect it. In fact, it’s inherent in the fundamental basis of the left’s arguments for gay marriage.

Tracinski has no objection to gay marriage, and in fact considers himself “an advocate of secularism—including secular morality and a secular basis for liberty.” He therefore opposes coercing couples like the Knapps because he doesn’t want his “views similarly discredited by association with the oppressive acts of a new Secular Inquisition.” When he says “similarly discredited,” he is referring to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition “served to discredit religion by associating it with brutality.”

Perhaps. But there’s another way of thinking about this: we should operate under the assumption that there is no secular party in this drama at all.

On October 1, Mosaic Magazine republished Irving Kristol’s 1991 COMMENTARY essay on “The Future of American Jewry.” (Mosaic has just published an e-book of Kristol’s writings on Judaism.) It is a trenchant–and just as relevant today as it was then–take on American Judaism and its entanglement with secular humanism.

About the emergence of the “American creed” of toleration mixed with relegating religion in America to a more private role, Kristol wrote:

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

Instead, he explained, in what might be the single best one-paragraph précis of left-liberalism then and now:

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol wrote that in 1991, but in some ways was ahead of his time. Seventeen years later the Democratic Party nominated for president a man who appealed directly to the left’s religious zealotry by painting himself as a progressive prophet and redeemer. Announcing that his looming nomination victory “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is the language of a religious fanatic, which Obama is and which his followers are as well.

And this is a religious country. Obama won, after all, promising various forms of redemption to his supporters. But the Obama phenomenon was only possible because the demand for such a false prophet existed in the first place. In fact, anyone who has observed American politics and religious discourse in recent years will be aware that when it comes to evangelism, those professing to be godless or secular or progressive are the most thorough. (For a clever take on this, watch Portlandia’s hipster version of door-knocking missionaries. Example: approaching Seattle residents with the line, “We were wondering if you were interested in accepting Portland into your life.”)

Atheists have begun to bring that spirit to life. Last year, the Associated Press detailed the rise of “atheist mega-churches” around the world. (Complete with “Born Again Humanist” bumper stickers.) That movement inspired a column in (where else?) the Guardian railing against the idea of a church for nonbelievers. As the column’s author Sadhbh Walshe, a devout nonbeliever, wrote:

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.

Ah, but Walshe is right! The trappings of religion are for “people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.” And that is, it appears, most people. Especially in Western countries with religious heritage but aggressive and modern nihilistic instincts. The “secular” left needs a God figure just as much as the religious right. The difference is that the religious right eschews Inquisitions, and the left is just learning how effective they can be. Just ask the Knapps.

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Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

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Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

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Brendan Eich, the Culture Wars, and the Ground Shifting Beneath Our Feet

Last month, Ross Douthat used his New York Times column to talk about how opponents of same-sex marriage (like himself) were attempting to negotiate the terms of surrender. “We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation,” he wrote. “Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.”

Yesterday was the clearest indication that, in fact, such surrender is futile: it will not be accepted. The CEO of Mozilla (the company that makes the Firefox browser), Brendan Eich, was forced to resign by an angry mob both within and without the company because six years ago he donated $1,000 to California’s Prop 8 ballot initiative reaffirming traditional marriage. The most disturbing part of this disturbing story was the fact that the company chairwoman explained the decision by saying Eich never displayed any behavior that would be objectionable to anyone. He simply held the wrong political opinion. As Jonathan Last noted, this is pretty much the definition of prosecution for a thoughtcrime.

There are a few important implications of this story, though I’d like to offer the most encouraging one first: the pushback from supporters of gay marriage. Andrew Sullivan, who has been quoted or linked to by just about everyone on this story, was thoroughly disgusted by “the hounding of a heretic.” Slate’s William Saletan confronted the left with what the logical end of this purge would look like. He seems to think they’d be disgusted by it, which is probably wishful thinking. Sullivan notes that such behavior is bad for the gay-rights movement. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Caleb Crain’s novel of post-Cold War Prague in which the American protagonist is introduced to an East German who was anti-Communist until the Berlin Wall fell, and then, implausibly, switched sides:

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Last month, Ross Douthat used his New York Times column to talk about how opponents of same-sex marriage (like himself) were attempting to negotiate the terms of surrender. “We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation,” he wrote. “Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.”

Yesterday was the clearest indication that, in fact, such surrender is futile: it will not be accepted. The CEO of Mozilla (the company that makes the Firefox browser), Brendan Eich, was forced to resign by an angry mob both within and without the company because six years ago he donated $1,000 to California’s Prop 8 ballot initiative reaffirming traditional marriage. The most disturbing part of this disturbing story was the fact that the company chairwoman explained the decision by saying Eich never displayed any behavior that would be objectionable to anyone. He simply held the wrong political opinion. As Jonathan Last noted, this is pretty much the definition of prosecution for a thoughtcrime.

There are a few important implications of this story, though I’d like to offer the most encouraging one first: the pushback from supporters of gay marriage. Andrew Sullivan, who has been quoted or linked to by just about everyone on this story, was thoroughly disgusted by “the hounding of a heretic.” Slate’s William Saletan confronted the left with what the logical end of this purge would look like. He seems to think they’d be disgusted by it, which is probably wishful thinking. Sullivan notes that such behavior is bad for the gay-rights movement. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Caleb Crain’s novel of post-Cold War Prague in which the American protagonist is introduced to an East German who was anti-Communist until the Berlin Wall fell, and then, implausibly, switched sides:

“In reality I had no choice. So many horrible people were becoming anti-Communist that day. It was an opportunity for them. They were my–what is the word? In Czech they are called korouhvicky.”

“Weathervanes,” Rafe supplied.

“They were my weathervanes,” Kaspar continued. “If they were willing to betray Communism, there was something in the idea after all.”

What has always been so inexplicable about the marriage-equality movement is that its adherents have some strong arguments–libertarian, cultural, among others–in their favor, yet they don’t deploy them. They deploy the pitchforks and torches instead. Which brings us to the second implication of the Mozilla purge: religious liberty protections must be strengthened and codified wherever and whenever possible.

Religious Americans and others in favor of natural rights should not be complacent when a specific battle on this front is fought that doesn’t involve them, because the ground is continually shifting beneath our feet. Catholics should not be the only ones opposing the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, and opponents of gay marriage should not be the only ones up in arms about the forced baking of goods for wedding ceremonies. Precedents fuel the pitchforks here. Erick Erickson likes to say that “you will be made to care.” He is unquestionably correct about that.

The other implication has to do with the intended effect of such sickening purges: chilling the participation, especially of outnumbered minorities, in the political process. Yesterday I wrote about Charles Koch’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending himself from deranged attacks from the left generally and Senate Democrats specifically. No one pities the billionaire, I wrote, and so the left was outraged Koch would dare speak up for himself.

But forget about the Kochs for a moment. Forget, too, about the left’s major donors like Tom Steyer, who plans to spend $100 million in congressional midterm elections in support of Democrats. What about the guy who donated $1,000 to a state ballot initiative six years ago? Should he lose his job somewhere down the line because public opinion has shifted against an old ballot initiative? To the left, the answer is: Absolutely.

This is part of why conservatives have been leery about the Democrats’ proposals to force disclosure of the kind of donors who give to Republicans (while exempting many of their own major donors). The left claims it wants full disclosure of political participation in the name of transparency and electoral integrity. We now know this isn’t remotely true. They want disclosure so they can extend the purge of heretics from private life and thus deter libertarian and conservative political participation. They want a permanent record of everyone’s political opinions to use against them at any time in the future. This is about disenfranchisement and blacklisting and nothing more. That should have been apparent before, but it’s crystal clear now.

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