Why Would Conservatives Want to Turn This Into a Religious Thing?

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I’m truly perplexed. During the long long hours I spent yesterday watching Endgame, I couldn’t stop thinking about our recent discussion. David French and other intelligent conservatives want to insist that America’s culture wars are primarily “a religious dispute.” I disagree, but the real question is this: Why do conservatives want to say that they are? The answer seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something.

 

Here’s a little background: In his argument for free campus speech, French made the following assertion:

It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.

As strategy, I get it. If conservative ideas are a religious imperative, they will get more respect. If culture wars are religious disputes, then both sides should get equal status, at least from the perspective of the government. But as an intellectually coherent way to understand America’s culture wars, I don’t get it. Lots of people share religious ideas yet find themselves on opposite sides of culture-war issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.

One sharp reader offered a better defense than French did. As PH put it,

we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

The way I see it, though, people who share the same religion still disagree about key culture-war issues. For proof, we don’t need to look any further than the Veep’s office. Does Mike Pence represent conservative evangelical Protestantism? The community of Taylor University says both yes and no. And, as I argued recently in WaPo about Karen Pence’s lame defense of her anti-LGBTQ school, there is not a single, undisputed “orthodox” rule about proper social policy for LGBTQ people. Plenty of conservative evangelical Protestants are plenty “orthodox,” yet they disagree with the Pences on these issues.

So to me, it seems achingly obvious why some conservatives might want to redefine political disagreements as religious ones: For at least half a century now, politically conservative people have tried to insist that only their politically conservative version of religion is the true version of religion. They have argued that people who disagree with them cannot possibly be true Christians or Muslims or whatever.

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

If real, “orthodox” Christianity insists on racial segregation, for example, as Bob Jones Sr. famously argued in 1960, then the US government has no right to demur. If real, “orthodox” Christianity requires belief in a literal six-day flood and a recent creation of humanity, for example, as Ken Ham famously argues today, then evangelicals have no business questioning it.

Just like questions of LGBTQ rights, however, neither of those ideas are really as simple as conservatives like to think. Debates about them divide people who share the same religious backgrounds. The cultural battles over racism, creationism, and sexuality are not battles between people who have different religions. They are fiercest between people who SHARE religious ideas but have different ideas about public policy.

So are America’s culture wars “a religious dispute?” Only if we use a tortuous definition of the phrase. To say that conservative positions on sexuality, race, or gender are just being “orthodox” only makes sense as a political strategy. As an actual description of the divides we face on such issues, it doesn’t help at all.

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Conservatives Should Be Nervous About This

I’m no conservative, but if I were I wouldn’t be celebrating this recent essay by David French. I’d be quaking in my penny loafers. If we’ve learned nothing else from the history of the culture wars, it’s that this kind of talk heralds the bitter end.

Here’s what we’re talking about: In the pages of National Review this week, conservative pundit David French made the case for freer conservative speech on college campuses. He decried the tactic used by progressive students to declare conservatives beyond the pale of civil discourse. Too often, French lamented, aggressive progressives freeze out any conservative challenge by labeling it “dehumanizing.”

As French puts it,

An atmosphere that is devoid of truly meaningful debate is one that is more likely to give birth to bankrupt ideas. And the woke progressive monocultures in quarters of academia and Silicon Valley have advanced and protected both the idea that speech is violence and the idea that disagreement is dehumanizing — especially when disagreement touches on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m no conservative myself, yet I’m on the record as agreeing with French that college campuses should welcome real culture-war debates. If I were a conservative, though, I would be terrified to hear French talking this way. If I knew my culture-war history, I’d know that this line of argument is always a memorial to a battle lost long ago.

Consider the case of creationism in public schools. A hundred years ago (ish), at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, the defenders of evolution education pleaded with America to allow evolution to be heard. As lead attorney Dudley Field Malone made his case,

For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open — close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both. Let them both be taught. Let them both live….

It was a desperate argument for a losing side. Evolution education was not popular in 1920s America, at least not in places such as Dayton, Tennessee. As I discovered in the research for my first book, anti-evolution laws were usually only the sharp point of a much vaster campaign to impose theocratic rule on America’s public schools.

Fast forward seventy years, and the argument had switched sides. By the 1990s, it was the radical creationists who were pleading to have children’s minds kept open. They made their case for inclusion because by the 1990s creationists were just as desperate as Dudley Field Malone was in the 1920s. In 1995, arch-creationist Duane Gish told crowds it was now the creationists who were frozen out. Gish insisted he only wanted to fight against the “bigotry” of excluding creationism.

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu…

What does any of this have to do with David French? A lot. Evolution-lovers like Dudley Field Malone only pleaded for inclusion when they were frozen out. Radical creationists like Duane Gish only begged for inclusion when they had already decisively lost the creationism culture war. By the 1990s, Gish’s brand of young-earth creationism had already become a relic of an imagined fundamentalist past, a fossilized idea that no longer had any real chance of returning to its spot in the American mainstream. It was still popular in fundamentalist pockets, but it had zero chance of returning to its former glories in the Princetons and Harvards of these United States.

If I were a conservative, I’d worry that French’s let-me-in rhetoric heralds the same sorry state for his outdated ideas about sexuality, gender, and race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are strong conservative arguments that can be made in favor of greater inclusion of traditional sexual norms, but French ain’t making em.

The idea that traditional gender ideas should be included because all ideas should be included won’t convince anyone. Moreover, the fact that French feels obliged to make this case shows how desperate he is. If I were a conservative, these kinds of arguments would make me very nervous about the current state of conservatism in America.

Bizarre Attacks on Conservatives

Watch out! Conservative ideas might subject you and your family to thuggish home invasions. Even more creepy, conservative ideas might get you erased from your own personal history. As we observe American conservatism from the outside here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve noticed the steady stream of conservative complaints about persecution. Today’s crop of victim alerts, though, rises to a new level of weirdness.

As one sophisticated and good-looking regular reader of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) noted recently, conservatives are not the only ones to emphasize their own status as victims. Patrick asked,

Who doesn’t emphasize their own victimhood these days? Perhaps the question should be why doing so has become an American tradition. One way of looking at it is to point out that we are an optimistic bunch, perpetually hopeful that if we consistently expose unfairness and hypocrisy, we will help solve the problem by raising awareness of it. Why else would the news always be so depressing?

It makes intuitive sense that every side in our tumultuous culture wars would complain loudly about their own suffering. It is the same dynamic as any family squabble. Victims get justice. Aggressors get punished, at least in theory.

Bubbling up from the conservative commentariat this morning we find two new claims to victimhood. In Wisconsin, we hear, conservative activists have been subjected to jackbooted attacks. And one high school has taken steps to erase its memory of one of its conservative graduates.

First, to Wisconsin: David French’s exposé of hardball culture-war politics tells the story of mild-mannered conservative families subjected to brutal attack. In the aftermath of Wisconsin’s Act 10, conservatives have been targeted as part of a concerted campaign to embarrass and humiliate them. In short, according to French, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm pushed a “John Doe” investigation of Wisconsin conservatives.

In this kind of investigation, proceedings are kept secret. Investigators have wide latitude to seize relevant documents. As a result, conservative activists had their homes invaded by terrifying police agents. Doors were pounded on. Floors were stomped on. Children were shaken out of bed. Neighbors gathered and gaped. Conservatives were threatened. Computers and phones were seized. Dogs barked.

As French put it, “For select conservative families across five counties, this was the terrifying moment — the moment they felt at the mercy of a truly malevolent state.”

These raids turned at least one Wisconsin conservative into an outlaw, in her imagination at least. As she explains,

I used to support the police, to believe they were here to protect us. Now, when I see an officer, I’ll cross the street. I’m afraid of them. I know what they’re capable of.

Yikes.

Conservatives targeted for home invasions precisely because of their conservative activism. Police used as intimidation agents, to harass and intimidate political activists. All bluster aside, these are profoundly disturbing charges.

Even more bizarre, though, is the story coming from a Baltimore high school. Ryan T. Anderson, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, was first lauded, then removed, from his high school’s Facebook page.

Anderson had been the subject of a front-page story in the Washington Post. The article called Anderson a “fresh voice” for traditional marriage.

At first, according to a story in the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, Anderson’s high school posted news of this alumni success on its Facebook page. Later, the school took down the post. Why? In the words of school head Matt Micciche,

I can understand why the belief that Mr. Anderson’s views were being endorsed by the school would be deeply troubling to some members of our community. The nature of these views goes beyond the realm of abstract political ideology and calls into question the fitness of same-sex families to raise children and the right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry the person they love. While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school.

Maybe it is less scary to be removed from Facebook than to have one’s house broken into by aggressive police, but the implications of this Baltimore story are, IMHO, more sinister.

We're proud of our alumni!  Oh, wait...no.

We’re proud of our alumni! Oh, wait…no.

By removing notice of the significant conservative accomplishments of Anderson, his alma mater, in effect, suggested that conservatism is somehow shady, illegitimate, disreputable . . . even shameful.

I don’t say this as an endorsement of Anderson’s ideas. Nor do I claim to understand the intricacies of Wisconsin’s culture-war politics. For those of us trying to understand conservatism and the culture wars, though, both these stories raise important questions:

  • Is it legitimate to oppose same-sex marriage?
  • Do conservatives have a claim to victimhood?
  • Do these strange stories offer proof that conservative thinkers and activists have been uniquely and unfairly persecuted?

Racists Welcome

Is even the vilest speech protected? The expulsions of racist chanters at the University of Oklahoma has riled up conservative commentators. No matter how hateful the speech, some say, colleges have no right to expel students for exercising their rights to say it. I can’t help but think that the real target of conservative ire is the current vibe on college campuses.

In this case, the speech in question was undeniably horrifying. Frat members sang along that Sigma Alpha Epsilon would never welcome an African American member. Of course, they used a much more offensive term than “African American.” They cheerfully shouted that they could lynch any offender. Horrible stuff.

But is it protected?

Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy thinks so. There is no exception to free-speech rights for racist language, even language that creates “hostile environments.” Unless one is issuing specific threats, one may even use language that suggests violence.

Voices of protest?  Or drunken howl?

Voices of protest? Or drunken howl?

At National Review, David French agrees. In its rush to justice, French says, the university failed to observe basic constitutional principles. It was entirely right and just for the national officers of the fraternity to punish the Oklahoma chapter. And it seems fair that the Sooner football team will now lose a prize recruit—to Alabama, no less. But such private-party sanctions are different than official university sanctions.

As have many other conservative commentators, French identifies the broader problem as one of higher-education ideology careening out of control. “Our public universities,” French writes,

are becoming national leaders in trampling the Constitution to legislate their brand of “inclusive” morality.

I understand the argument. And generally, in these pages, I try to refrain from injecting my own opinions. I can’t help but wonder, though, if these conservative intellectuals have over-stepped in their constitutional rationalizations. It seems some conservatives are too quick to protest any action by the leaders of today’s universities.

As I argue in my new book, this anti-university tradition among conservative intellectuals has a long history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, conservative thinkers bemoaned the changes taking place at leading schools. Instead of passing along time-tested truths, universities made it their job to subvert and question those ideas.

These days, many conservatives lament, universities have become special homes for welcoming certain sorts of offensive speech. For instance, as Professor Volokh points out, many kinds of hateful speech—even violent speech—have long been recognized as protected on campus. No student would be sanctioned for displaying pictures of African American militants wielding shotguns and intoning, “By Any Means Necessary.”

There seems to be an important difference, though, between speech meant to protest against existing conditions and the SAE’s brand of exuberantly hateful race-baiting. The students in this case were not engaged in thoughtful commentary on unfair conditions. They did not hope to attract attention to their cause by using intentionally inflammatory language.

Instead, this looks like a drunken outburst of knee-jerk segregationism, a case in which vino exposed a terrible veritas. When exposed, the expelled students did not defend their actions on the grounds of free speech. Rather, they humbly acknowledged the shamefulness of their actions.

Indeed, it might have been more compelling as a free-speech case if the students had defended their outburst. If, that is, students had been even more painfully racist; if they had been intentionally offensive and if they had knowingly provoked this sort of reaction, then they would have a better claim to constitutional protection. It seems to me, though, that these students are merely petty campus despots, shouting in secret language that they abjure in public.

Does it count as an exercise of free speech when even the speakers find it offensive?