Beliefs Are Not Always Facts
A reader named Salim writes, about The Benedict Option:
I read Emma Green’s review & your response with interest. Without having read the book, it’s hard to know how fair or unfair she was being. (From a reviewer’s perspective, the book has to stand alone, so one can’t expect her to inform her review too much from your blog or the interview).
What struck me is how unaware Green is that the majority culture now represents a belief system. If you asked her, “how should Muslims and Christians live together?”, she would no doubt have a sensible answer very similar to yours or mine. Muslims and Christians should respect each other, collaborate where possible, and keep their disagreements in appropriate venues. It wouldn’t do for shared, public institutions to force people to pretend to agree the other religion’s tenets.
What Green and others often don’t recognize is that their beliefs – especially their beliefs about sexuality – are beliefs. She finds your dismissal of pro-LGBT arguments disgusting where she would find a similar dismissal of Muslim beliefs sensible.
I find that I often have this problem in talking with progressives, even fair-minded ones like Emma Green (who may or may not be a political progressive, but who is apparently progressive on social issues). They genuinely don’t grasp that their take on certain issues are just that: a take. I’m not sure why that is. I have a couple of insights as to why. Take ’em or leave ’em.
For one, social liberalism is so overwhelmingly normative in American journalism that it obscures to those inside that particular bubble how subjective their views are. Fifteen or twenty years ago, two political scientists from Baruch College did an analysis of mainstream media reporting from around 1980 to the present. They found that the national media did a great job of reporting on the rise of the Religious Right inside the Republican Party. But they completely missed the parallel rise of the Secular Left inside the Democratic Party. The scholars hypothesized that because secular liberalism is the default mode of American newsrooms, they could not see what was happening right in front of their eyes. They just saw it as normal.
For another, sexual mores have drifted so far from Christian orthodoxy that Christian orthodoxy simply looks odd, and contrarian — especially to younger progressives, who have little or no cultural memory of how radically American society has changed on homosexuality. The Prophet Anthony Kennedy spoke truly for contemporary America when he said:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Of course that right has limits. It has to; we don’t live in anarchy. In the progressive imagination, it seems to me, conservative Christians are the ones who wish to deny liberty to others. It never occurs to them that they wish to deny liberty to us.
The church has to own up to its own failures too. We have become so accustomed to compartmentalizing our Christianity, and holding to it cafeteria style, no matter our church tradition, that people who don’t do that (or who at least try hard not to) don’t make sense. It looks like bigotry, when in fact it’s mere theological and philosophical consistency. As Salim said, lots of progressives would accept this in a Muslim, whatever their private regrets about the belief, but not in a Christian. I think that has a lot to do with the role conservative Christians play in the progressive imagination as bogeymen.
Similarly, I’ve found over and over that I run into a reaction from liberal interlocutors that can be summed up like this: “You’re driving me crazy. You seem normal and nice and smart, but you believe this preposterous thing because of your religion. Argh!” Look, I subscribe to the New Yorker and The New York Times, drink fine wine, eat well, read widely, like to travel, and so forth — but I remain stubbornly troglodytic on this one issue. It doesn’t make sense to them.
(Nota bene, I’m not trying to read Emma Green’s mind here. I’m just riffing off the reader’s e-mail, and generalizing. Y’all please be nice. You aren’t defending me in any way I want to be defended if you trash Emma Green.)
[I’m probably more optimistic than you, but I think modern America does a pretty good job at tolerating beliefs & practices. You can be generous or profligate, health-obsessed or couch-potato, teetotaler or tippler, Trinitarian or Taoist, vegetarian or omnivore, erudite or a reality-TV fan, Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, and find very little resistance in the vast majority of workplaces, marketplaces, churches, and neighborhoods. Elite college campuses are occasionally loony, and there are some other exceptions. But mostly, people (at most) note their disagreement and move on.]
Yes, this is true. I was puzzled by Emma’s sincerely expressed concern over how people like me think about getting along with people not like ourselves. Hey, that’s been my daily life for forty years or so! Truly, it is not a big deal. Some of my dearest and oldest friends are atheists and liberals, and I would defend them to the death. And one of my oldest and dearest friends is gay. I think there’s a lot of projection going on from progressives, who can’t imagine that moldy old conservatives like me actually enjoy the company of people not like ourselves, and that we are capable of holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts in our heads at the same time. Emma’s point struck me as so odd because I take pluralism for granted — something that many progressives in fact do not, hence their inability to tolerate religious and cultural conservatives in their midst.
There seem to be two core problems for orthodox Christians. The BenOp can help with one, but probably not with the other.
1. How to encourage ourselves & our kids to be holy in a secular world that is utterly suffused with entertainment. The BenOp can help enormously with this.
2. How to maintain the integrity of our institutions against legal assault when they demur from the dominant belief system and praxis. I don’t think the BenOp will make much difference. With or without it, orthodox believers will need lawyers and politicians to protect them from the left’s culture warriors.
I look forward to reading the book soon – maybe you can convince me to modify my views!
Well, I think the book will help Salim understand my POV better, though he may not, in the end, agree with me. In the book, I say that we Christians have to stay involved in politics, if only to protect religious liberty. I talk about that in some detail. But the day is likely to come when the left rolls over us. We do not have younger people on our side. It’s just democratic politics. If we don’t have a Plan B for living out, teaching, and passing on the orthodox Christian faith should our lawyers and politicians keep losing, we will be in serious trouble.
UPDATE: This from a DC lawyer:
I am a very big fan of your blog and your writing – I can say with honesty that encountering your thought some time ago slowly made me realize that it’s okay to be an orthodox Christian (I’m Catholic). Without going too far into my life story, I am (with highly notable exceptions) the typical, millennial DC lawyer. I went to an elite law school, full of fairly liberal professors and fairly liberal students (many of whom are my dearest friends). Not a single one of my friends regularly attends religious services, besides me.
That small bit of autobiography is why I’m writing you. The article that Emma Green wrote about your book (I pre-ordered it!) was deeply interesting to me because it precisely encapsulates so much of the dissonance I experience just about every day living in the District. Specifically, the obsession with gay rights as a kind of touchstone, a moral litmus test that one must pass in order to be taken seriously. And with that, the fact that Emma sadly seemed to miss an opportunity to explicate some of the more fascinating — and, I think, more important — pieces of the Benedict Option.
The most generous defense I can think of to Emma Green’s article, and its general tone, is this: the world at large, and America in particular, has always failed to live up to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There has always been war perpetrated by Christian societies; there have always been poor starving to death in Christian societies; there has always been adultery and divorce and pornography in Christian societies; etc. etc. The list goes on. Bottom line is that anyone with a basic education knows that Christian societies haven’t always been so Christian.
Being aware of that history, Emma probably rightly wonders: why the Benedict Option now? Why not in, say, the late nineteenth century when workers were treated savagely in factories? Or in the eighteenth century, when slavery was legal? Why 2017? From her perspective, American society has simply failed to live up to yet another (supposedly Christian) imperative: the prohibition on adultery, to wit, homosexual sex. And if that’s true, then, well, sure. Under that light, the Benedict Option really does look a lot like Christians freaking out about one particular evil in a society that historically has suffered many of them.
So how does one respond to this line of thinking? Well, you can probably trot out the arguments better than me (you already have). We all know that the Benedict Option is about more than stubborn resistance to changing mores. It’s about the motivations and the decades-long, subtle rewiring of basic institutions (e.g., marriage) that have lead to broad acceptance of gay marriage. In law, we might say that we don’t much mind the holding, so much as we care about the reasoning. Or put simply, it’s not the what, it’s the why.
One final note (sorry for the length of this email): for me, one of the most powerful arguments that you have articulated is not actually about society writ large. Insofar as the Benedict Option is predicated on a descriptive theory of the American zeitgeist, it does indeed discuss and talk about secular trends (even subtle ones that folks like Emma miss). But the real gist, the real meat, the real normative content of the Benedict Option isn’t about America, it’s about Christianity. It’s about the structure and organization of Christian living. Above, I say that Emma focused too much on the what, and not enough on the why. I think she totally ignored the how: how should American churches move forward in the 21st century? That’s the most interesting question, at least to me.
Anyway, like so many of your readers, I have a ton of thoughts about the Benedict Option. I have a bunch of theories, a plethora of ideas, numerous concerns, but I’ll avoid inundating you with more blather. Especially since the damn book hasn’t been released yet! Ha.
In any case, thank you so much, Rod, for all your hard work. I sincerely look forward to reading your book!
P.S. For the record, I really, really like Emma Green’s writing. I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, and I don’t mean any of the above to impugn her or her credibility as a religion reporter. I hope my account above didn’t come across as too negative.
Thanks so much for all your warm words, and for pre-ordering the book. And thanks for praising Emma Green. I’m a fan, and still am. It’s okay for people to disagree about this stuff.
I think it’s simpler than your model. Obergefell was the catalyst, because suddenly, in constitutional law, orthodox Christian churches became bigots. That ruling gave justification for attacking our institutions, and for demonizing conservative believers. This all happened in the broader context of general Christian belief and religious participation declining.