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Fighting As Guerrillas In The Culture War

Pete Wehner says conservatives and Republicans had better face a hard truth about how culture-war issues are going to cut very hard against the GOP in the next and future election cycles. Excerpt: What I told this GOP lawmaker is that what cultural issues were to Republicans in the 1980s–think welfare, law and order, and […]

Pete Wehner says conservatives and Republicans had better face a hard truth about how culture-war issues are going to cut very hard against the GOP in the next and future election cycles. Excerpt:

What I told this GOP lawmaker is that what cultural issues were to Republicans in the 1980s–think welfare, law and order, and George H.W. Bush’s criticism of Michael Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance–is what they are to Democrats in the 2010s. This conversation took place before the Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, but the reaction to it confirmed the observation. Democrats, in their frenzied overreaction to the Court ruling–none more overwrought than that of Hillary Clinton–clearly believe this is an issue that will help them politically.

In many places, they’re probably right.

Wehner says the GOP should not become socially liberal, but should prepare itself to respond with policy and rhetoric in different ways. More:

Social conservatism, if it ever hopes to succeed, needs to be articulated in a way that is seen as promoting the human good and advancing human dignity, rather than declaring a series of forbidden acts that are leading us to Gomorrah. That alone isn’t enough to turn the tide in a nation that is trending toward liberal social views on many issues. But it is a start.

He’s right, and I take that as a personal challenge. This strategy is a big part of what helped the gay rights movement advance. One reason I tend to be henny-penny about these matters on this blog is because so many people on my team (the social and religious conservatives) still don’t quite grasp how far in the hole we are. They live in 1980s bubbles in which they believe that the majority agrees with them, more or less, and it’s only liberal elites who don’t. This is a delusion, and a dangerous one.

That said, it strikes me as unwise for social conservatives to take a solely irenic approach. Even though we are losing, and have mostly lost, the broader culture, we cannot be entirely dependent on the kindness of our opponents to grant us space to operate. We have to be willing and able to assert our rights, boldly if necessary, just as the gay community was when the broader culture had yet to rally to their side. This is why I, though a conservative by conviction and temperament, am quickly becoming a functional libertarian. I don’t require that you love me and my people, but I do insist that you respect our rights.

As someone who is especially concerned about religious liberty, I think it is worth thinking about the role we Christians have played in bringing the current dire condition to pass. I say that not as an exercise in self-flagellation, but rather in dispassionate analysis, so we can better understand the current moment and what the best way forward for us might be. What brings this to mind is seeing the harsh pushback on the priest-penitent privilege thread from earlier today. Very few people seem to grasp the religious liberty principle at stake in the case of the Louisiana Catholic priest ordered by the state Supreme Court to break the seal of the confessional in a sex abuse civil suit. It seems from the comments that the outrageous behavior of the Catholic Church over the years in handling sex abuse cases has cost it all sympathy, such that many people seem entirely unwilling to consider what’s at stake for all of us — including us non-Catholic believers — if the state prevails.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying here. I am not saying that there is only one side of this issue, or that those who reject the religious liberty claim have no good case. I am saying that the unwillingness of many to consider that a very important religious liberty principle, a principle worth defending, is at stake in this matter is alarming — and a testimony to how much suspicion and contempt with which traditional religious believers, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, are held in post-Christian America.

For those who don’t know my full background, I was a conservative Roman Catholic who was thrown into a terrible spiritual crisis as the result of my researching and writing about the sex abuse scandal, and the rage I had over the abuse and the Catholic bishops’ cover-ups, especially the attempts many of them made to destroy victims and their families in court, cost me my ability to believe in the Catholic Church’s claims. I eventually left Catholicism. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I say all that to make it clear that I have zero sympathy for the Roman Catholic institution over its actions, and I perfectly well understand why so many people do not.

Nevertheless, it is hugely important that we separate whatever anger, justified as it might be, we have towards the Catholic Church and any church that tolerated abuse, from the religious liberty principle. I apologize for overstating this, but I want to make it very clear that I am not predisposed to go easy on the Catholic Church, or any church, in the matter of sexual abuse.

Now, having said all that, it is also important for us religious believers, Catholic and otherwise, to grasp what the cost of the bishops’ corrupt leadership has been and will continue to be to the broader church, and to religion itself. Here is an explainer from The Week about the scandal’s effect on the Catholic Church in Ireland. Ireland’s experience is more extreme than America’s, because Ireland was so thoroughly Catholic, but the same dynamic is at work here. Excerpt:

How Catholic was Ireland?
It used to be easily the most Catholic country in the world. The church’s connection to the island nation dates to St. Patrick’s conversion in the 5th century, and the modern Irish state is explicitly bound up with the church. The constitution opens with the words, “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority…” and continues with reference to “obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.” In Ireland, the church, not the state, runs almost the entire education system. Until recently, social life, too, revolved around the local church. In 1984, nearly 90 percent of Irish Catholics went to Mass every week. But by 2011, only 18 percent did. It’s a massive cultural shift.

What changed?
Mass attendance began dropping rapidly during the 1990s, as Ireland began its “Celtic Tiger” economic boom. The country was modernizing, urbanizing, and taking on a more global perspective, and the local church was no longer the only nexus of community life. For the first time, the country had a vigorous debate about abortion and began teaching sex education in schools. At the same time, several long-hidden scandals began to emerge. In 1992, the Irish learned that a powerful and beloved bishop, Eamon Casey, had a fathered a son, and that the Rev. Michael Cleary, the “Singing Priest” with best-selling records and his own radio show, had a secret family with his housekeeper. But the biggest seismic jolt came over the last decade, when the priestly sex-abuse scandal horrified the entire country.


How have the Irish reacted?
The string of revelations has undermined the very legitimacy of the church. To a great extent, the church’s authority was premised on control of sexuality. “They made this island into a concentration camp where they could control everything — and the control was really all about sex,” says Father Mark Patrick Hederman, abbot of Glenstal Abbey. “Generations of people were crucified with guilt complexes. Now the game is up.” Since priests were the enforcers of sexual purity, to have so many exposed not merely as sexually active, but as sexual predators of children, has deeply shaken Irish faith. The priesthood has lost its luster, and enrollment at seminaries has plummeted.

I am not as well informed about the Irish situation as I wish I were; some of you who may be may wish to contest this description. I have heard from multiple sources over the years that the fraught situation about sex and social control was particular to Irish Catholicism. You simply do not see this kind of thing to that degree in continental Catholicism.

Let’s not get lost in the Irish weeds here. It must be acknowledged that the rush of “Celtic Tiger” wealth that Ireland experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s had a lot to do with the country’s secularization. Just yesterday I spoke with a friend who had worked as a foreigner in the early 1990s in Dublin. He said that Dublin back then was poorer than any other Western city he’d ever visited. It has been widely observed that secularization tends to be strongly correlated with rising wealth. In the US, we would be in a very similar situation vis-à-vis secularization if the abuse scandal had not happened.

But it hasn’t helped. And it doesn’t help that for decades, the courts and the media deferred to bishops in these cases (the Boston judge in the Geoghan case in 2002 broke with convention and made public documents that courts in all places had previously put under confidential seal). Churchmen really were privileged, and abused that privilege. Therefore, it is a lot harder than it ought to be for the public to see how much enormous good the Catholic Church (and churches in general) do for society. It is also a lot harder than it ought to be for ordinary people to grasp how important religious freedom is.

Going back to the original point of this post, we who feel compelled to defend religious liberty must not delude ourselves about the context in which religious liberty is under assault. To take Pete Wehner’s lead, we have to make the case that religious liberty is not only a right, but also something that promotes the common good and advances human dignity. We will have no credibility with the public if we don’t reckon with how much damage religious leaders have done by abusing the social trust that accrued to them with their authority.

The Left, having been victorious in the culture war, is about to undertake mop-up operations. Wehner is right: if we conservatives are going to hold the ground we have left, we have to fight differently. It is a new world. Conservatives are reduced, and will continue to be reduced, to fighting as guerrillas. That means a different kind of war.




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