At The Gathering, I attended a discussion between the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Evangelical law professor John Inazu, who writes a lot about religious liberty. Prof. Inazu has offered in the past some criticism of The Benedict Option. We had breakfast this morning and talked over our differing visions, and it surprised and pleased me that we have more in common than I thought. My sense from reading his writing is that Inazu shares my concerns about religious liberty and the future of the church, but is generally more optimistic in tone than I am. He generously agreed to do a dialogue on this blog about religious liberty, pluralism, and Christianity in the near future.
Anyway, I went to his presentation this morning, and found lots to think about. Unfortunately (I guess), I don’t get the sense that he’s all that more optimistic than I am about where we are and where we are likely to be headed in this culture. I say that based solely on his public remarks. I look forward to being able to talk to him in depth later.
The first thing he said today that struck me was his discussion about the effect of a loss of transcendence in American culture. He said that the number of people who believe there is a realm that transcends the material plane makes it much more difficult to advance arguments for religious liberty and pluralism. If the default position is a kind of materialism, then it’s hard to get materialists to understand why religion matters to others, and why it’s important to protect the right to practice it.
Inazu said the important 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division vs. Smith, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, has a “significant and disastrous” effect on the free exercise of religion. Because of that ruling, said the law professor, the position of the Christian cake baker in the case now before the Supreme Court is pretty weak.
At the heart of the conflict — both legal and cultural — over religious liberty and gay right is this question: Is homosexuality the same thing as race when it comes to civil rights? If the answer is no, said Inazu, then there is room for discussion and legislative compromise. But if the answer is yes?
“Then it’s game over,” he said.
(The federal judge’s decision this week in the Minnesota case, in which he likened the unwillingness of Christian videographers to film a same-sex wedding to racism is a stark indication of where this is likely to go, I think.)
Inazu said that the argument that homosexuality is not like race in terms of civil rights “is not an argument that is going to be won in the cultural space by white Christians and white Christian institutions, for historical reasons.” He said conservative white Christians need to do lots of coalition work with blacks and Hispanics, and not just for instrumental reasons. White Christians need to get to know Christians of other races, and work with them on advocating for their interests too.
In the future, there will be “far more clashes around transgender rights,” he said — adding that a lot of people haven’t been thinking hard about this. Complicating matters is that there will be many non-religious groups (such as fraternities and sororities) who have a stake in the outcome of those cases. This is going to make the legal politics of transgender different from homosexuality.
Michael Gerson, also an Evangelical, hopped in at this point, saying that transgenderism is also theologically challenging.
“There’s very little Biblical guidance” on sexual dysphoria, he said. “I think that complicates things immensely.”
(I hadn’t thought about this until Gerson’s comment, but it seems to me, coming out of the Orthodox and Catholic tradition, that the Bible does offer fairly clear guidance on these matters. But then, the same Cardinal Raymond Burke who called gender theory “madness” once, as a Wisconsin bishop, approved of a man becoming a nun after undergoing a sex change, so I dunno. It’s certainly the case that priests and pastors had better start thinking and teaching about it, right now.)
Talking about the future, Gerson said that conservative Christians are going to be dealing with boycotts of their businesses by pro-LGBT groups and individuals. Inazu added that Christian colleges are particularly vulnerable because the Constitution says nothing about how non-governmental accrediting agencies behave.
“They have the power to delegitimize and in some cases shut down institutions,” he said.
Inazu talked about how the California state judicial code in Calif says judges cannot be members of “invidiously discriminatory organizations.” That included the Boy Scouts because of Scouting’s stance on homosexuality — until the Scouts changed their policy. There’s a religious exemption in the code, said Inazu.
“But ask yourself: how long will that religious exemption stay in there?” he said. Inazu added that in his law school classes, he has notices a shift among his students toward no support for religious exemptions to non-discrimination laws and policies.
On the matter of college accreditation, he said, “those questions are coming back, and coming back stronger than they were before. It’s not just the academic creditors, but the athletic ones. … Think of the reputational and marketing consequences for a particular school if they were kicked out of the NCAA.”
There will be no legal arguments against the NCAA if it pulls this trigger, warned Inazu. (This tells me that Christian colleges and universities had better decide right now if they are prepared to give up their NCAA programs for the sake of holding to their convictions on LGBT issues. I am not confident that most would make that sacrifice.)
Strengthening the point, Gerson said that we need to pay attention to how these issues are evolving at the grassroots level. Whatever happens in the courts and in the legislatures, the situation in the culture is something else. He said, “Gordon (College) in Massachusetts is sort of viewed the way Islam is in Alabama: as fundamentally illiberal institutions incompatible with democracy.”
In the Q&A period, I asked Prof. Inazu what advice he would give to churches and Christian institutions on preparing for the future.
“The challenges with formation that local churches are facing are massive,” he said. “I’m not trying to downplay the legal and cultural challenges, but there are much bigger fish to fry than that.”
For example, the way Christians and their families use technology could well have more to do with whether or not the kids hold on to the faith in adulthood than other things. This resonates deeply with me. Christians who think the future of the faith is going to be decided more in the courts than in churches, communities, and families, and their practices, are fooling themselves.
Inazu said that we are going to have to develop in our churches “thick practices that are going to cost us a lot.” Legal and political questions are important, he said, but if we don’t have the formation question solved, it’s not going to matter.
Finally, Inazu said it’s important for Christians to be establishing relationships with people we don’t necessarily agree with on what constitutes the common good. But it’s not clear that this can be done — this, because we have lost a shared sense of transcendence, which we still had in the recent past, with the idea of civic religion.
“I’m looking for the common vocabulary and framework that holds the ‘us’ together,” he said.
“We are left with a fairly urgent question of what fills that void [left by the loss of civic religion],” he said. “What makes us the people united? Can we name the common good in this country with any particularity beyond the need to build roads?”
To that end, I encourage readers to check out Michael Hanby’s great First Things essay on the end of “the civic project of American Christianity.” It’s going to be a very tough pilgrim road ahead.
If you don’t read Hanby’s essay, at least take these fragments:
This creates a great temptation for protagonists on all sides of the civic project—right, left, and in between—to conflate their Christian obligation to pursue the common good with the task of upholding liberal order, effectively eliminating any daylight between the civic and Christian projects. For example, virtually absent from our lament over the threats to religious freedom in the juridical sense is any mention of that deeper freedom opened up by the transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection, though this was a frequent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. If we cannot see beyond the juridical meaning of religious freedom to the freedom that the truth itself gives, how then can we expect to exercise this more fundamental freedom when our juridical freedom is denied? Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods—including religious freedom.
Yet something greater than liberal freedom is at stake. There seems to be a prevailing sense that this moment is something of a kairos for American Christianity, a moment of deep change in the public significance of Christianity and a moment of decision in the life of the Church. When George Weigel concedes his naivete over the possibility of a “Catholic moment” in America and concludes that the West no longer understands freedom, or when Robert George solemnly declares to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast the end of “comfortable” Christianity, then you know that the times they are a-changin’. Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.
This is no time to go wobbly. The times are radical, and demand a radical response. I wonder if the difference between Prof. Inazu and myself is that he has more hope than I do that Christians can still work faithfully within the liberal order. I hope to explore that point with him in our dialogue.