The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Panic Attack: Rod Dreher and Overreaction

In the week since Indiana amended its Religious Freedom Restoration Act "to clarify that this new judicial standard would not create a license to discriminate or to deny services to any individual as its critics have alleged," there has been a--how to put this charitably--a freakout on the part of Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative about the impending death of religious liberty. To take but one example:
Liberal values like tolerance and pluralism, to which gay rights campaigners have long appealed, were a ruse. Don’t you believe it when the other side appeals to them. They have the power now, and they’re using it to demonize all dissent. It’s here, and where it is not now, it will be soon. Handwriting, meet wall.

To me, the most chilling thing of all this is what the Irish psychiatrists have said. Why? It brought me back to the year 2000, when I was in Jerusalem, and visited the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. There was an exhibit at the time tracing how the German media and medical establishment paved the way for the Holocaust in the early 20th century by taking advantage of the country’s mania for hygiene, and defining Jews as parasites on the body politic. The health of the German people meant ridding the body of Jews and other parasites.

The exhibit was stunning, because it showed how the mass persecutions didn’t come from nowhere. For twenty, thirty years, the German medical, political, and media establishments prepared the German people for it by training them to think that Germany needed to be turned into a “safe space” for das Volk, and to do that required expelling from public life the demons that threatened the health of innocent Germans. It was not about that at all, of course, but about rationalizing hatred of the Other — a hatred that eventually turned into an apocalypse.

Am I saying a new Holocaust is coming? No, I am not. The Holocaust was an extraordinary event. Nobody knows the future, but let me say on the record that I don’t believe we face that. But just because social demonization of the Other only very rarely turns into something like the Holocaust does not mean that it does not exact a terrible cost on the weak.

(Actually, the freakout has been evident elsewhere on the right, too, but I'm picking Dreher because when he isn't trumpeting the Apocalypse, he can write irenic and touching pieces about faith.)

Seriously, this is arrant nonsense. First and foremost, as Dreher's own commenters point out--with nary an acknowledgment from him--his facts are wildly wrong. He cites as examples of oppression medical professionals complaining that the research anti-SSM advocates are citing does not comport with the current state of scholarship. One Catholic school has ended playing against another over their different views on the topic. Aye, that's real Vlad the Impaler stuff.

Basically, Dreher's position is that traditionalist Christians should not face criticism, should note lose face, for their disparate treatment of GLBT people. Again, arrant nonsense. (I'm starting to sound a bit Jon Pertwee, here, but, c'mon.) Neither Free Speech nor Free Exercise insulates you from criticism or others rejecting your views, or even you along with them. Dreher's rights do not trump my right to think poorly of what is, to my mind, a grotesque distortion of Christian orthodoxy.

And I do. As I have written elsewhere, the selection of the so-called "clobber passages" on same sex attraction as the hallmark of Christian orthodoxy over, say, the prohibition agains usury--adverted to more than three times as often in the Bible than homosexuality, by any measure-makes the peripheral (at best) central, and marginalizes the core of Jesus's teaching. It's "interpretation in support of what is most comfortable to the interpreter." It's off-shoring the cost of discipleship, by defining morality as that which is congruent with the culture with which the interpreter is comfortable. In sum, Christianity on the cheap.

Dreher does not ever engage with the belief of orthodox and traditional Christians like me--I'm a Nineteenth Century Lux Mundi Anglo-Catholic who says the Creed without crossing his fingers at any point--who believe that recognizing the legitimacy of the lives, love and ministry of our GLBT sisters and brothers is part of the Gospel imperative. Nope. All evil liberal secularists, out to destroy faith, despite the fact that theologically we agree on quite a lot.

But the irony is this: the whole reason RFRAs became a thing is that in Employment Division v. Smith, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--then comprising Scalia, Rehnquist, White, Stevens (Ok, he's a moderate-to-liberal), O'Connor, and Kennedy, in an opinion by Scalia, overturned a bunch of Warren Court precedents that allowed for some accommodation to avoid substantial burdens on free exercise of religion resulting from laws of general applicability. It was the liberals on the Court--Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun--who voted for some degree of accommodation for religious practice.

So much for the evil liberal secularists.

Look, the point is quite simple: the Christian Right showed absolutely no desire to compromise when it thought it had the upper hand in the culture wars. With rare exceptions like Peter Ould, traditionalist Christians did not call out the abusive rhetoric on their side. Indeed, many re-aligning American Anglicans chose to affiliate with the Church of Nigeria, which supported jailing gays and those who advocated for their rights. And think of Proposition 8 in California, or the North Carolina same sex marriage amendment. All of these come at a cost. As Rachel Held Evans
pointed out:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)


In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:

“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”

Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.
As the support for legal equality grew, conservatives turned to RFRAs, which ameliorate the conservative majoritarian reading of the First Amendment.

But exemptions that swallow anti-discrimination law are deeply problematic, and go beyond the liberal jurisprudence overruled by Scalia et al. A discussion of what exemptions should be allowed is a legitimate and important one. But it should be had with a little grace, and a little willingness to see the other side's perspective. Comparing having to live under the First Amendment regime prescribed by Scalia and his colleagues as the culmination of a left-wing plot, and dark hints at the Holocaust are discrediting to Dreher, not his interlocutors. Some of the Christian virtues of charity might be helpful here.

Or, as Sgt. Hulka might say:

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