Ross Douthat tries to get to the bottom of the Ben Carson presidential campaign. He concludes that Evangelicals and other conservative Christians ought to get real and quit fantasizing. They are wasting time and focus on Carson when they ought to be paying attention to a candidate who can deliver the one thing they (we) need more than anything else in 2016:

In this election cycle, though, the evangelical hero quest is particularly self-defeating. With same-sex marriage established nationwide and social liberalism ascendant, religious conservatives have a clear policy “ask” they should be pressing every major Republican contender to embrace. They need guarantees that the next G.O.P. administration will move proactively — through something like Senator Mike Lee’s evolving First Amendment Defense Act — to protect religious schools and charities from losing grants or accreditation or even tax-exempt status because they maintain a traditional position on sexual ethics.

I’m sure that a President Ben Carson would deliver these protections. I’m equally sure that the longer the fantasy of a Carson presidency persists, the less likely it becomes that religious conservatives will get them.

Absolutely correct. This dovetails perfectly with what I’ve been saying for some time about the conservative Christian fantasy that Kim Davis’s resistance is going to advance our cause in the religious liberty fight. In fact, it’s likely to be a setback.

I want to share something with you from the history of early Christianity that is relevant to the situation contemporary Christians find ourselves in, and increasingly will find ourselves facing. This is an excerpt from church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s book The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. In this section, Wilken discusses how the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who ruled from 361 to 363, set out to return the recently Christianized (in name, at least) empire to paganism. Wilken writes:

Julian wished not only to restore the traditional forms of worship, most notably animal sacrifice; his aim was to subvert the influence of Christianity and eventually purge the society of the new religion. To do this he devised two ingenious projects. The first had to do with the schools, and the other was a bold and improbably building project in Jerusalem.

Six months after he became emperor, Julian issued an edict that “schoolmasters and teachers” should excel in “morality” and “eloquence,” and city councils across the empire were to evaluate the qualifications of teachers in light of these criteria. On first reading, the decree sounds innocuous, but the body of traditional writings (such as the poems of Homer) studied in school were chosen not only on literary or aesthetic grounds: literature carried the moral and spiritual values of the society. Since those values were suffused with religion, even the teaching of grammar and rhetoric, the foundation of the educational system, instilled belief in the traditional gods, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Heracles, and the others.

The publication of this edict alarmed Christian leaders and angered Christian parents whose children, they believed, would be deprived of a proper education. Training in rhetoric was the gateway to a successful career in law or the civil service. Their fears were well grounded. The emperor said that Christian teachers had to make a choice: either they must give up their Christian beliefs or resign their positions in the schools; teachers should not “teach what they disapprove. If they are genuine interpreters of the ancient classics, let them first imitate the ancients’ piety toward the gods. If they think the classics wrong in this respect, then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the Church.”

Julian’s school law was an astute and calculated attack on the leadership of the churches. He knew that Christians had not yet developed their own educational system and were wholly dependent on the pagan schools for the education of their children. Without the benefit of a solid grounding in grammar and rhetoric, the Church would soon lose one of its most potent resources, men who could speak Greek or Latin correctly and write refined and elegant prose.

Fortunately for the early Christians, Julian died in battle two years into his reign, and the emperor’s throne passed back into Christian hands. Wilken goes on to say that for all his anti-Christian zeal, Julian the Apostate was “a man of the past.”

Unfortunately for us latter-day Christians in America, the Julian spirit is the wave of the future. This is why the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) is so important. As National Review editorialized the other day:

FADA is so important because it would provide a safe harbor from the real threats to conscience that the progressive juggernaut on gay marriage poses. Among FADA’s modest aims: protect the tax-exempt status of entities that adhere to the belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman; protect individuals who hold the same belief about marriage that President Obama professed when he was elected from being deprived of eligibility for federal grants, licenses, and employment; and prevent colleges and schools from losing their accreditation because of their position on marriage.

In simpler terms, FADA would protect religious individuals and institutions from losing their tax status, licenses, and/or accreditation because they dissent from LGBT anti-discrimination statutes. It defends our place in the public square from those contemporary Julians who would drive us out as a way of delegitimizing our faith and ultimately purging it from society.

The Neo-Julians understand what the first Julian did: that educational institutions are the gateway to full participation in the professional life of society. In his day, there were no Christian schools. In our day, they exist, obviously, but if they begin to lose their accreditation because they hold at the policy level to traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, most of those schools will in short order cease to exist, because their diplomas will be worthless. Those few schools which survive will be attended by Christians who will have given up realistic hope of participating in American life except at the margins. This may be a sacrifice we are called to make, but we should fight hard to keep that day at bay. If we lose the institutions within which our local communities we can hope to cultivate an authentically Christian life in a hostile paganizing culture, we will be in very serious trouble.

This is not a Chicken Little fantasy. Gordon College in Massachusetts is going through this right now, with the regional college accrediting authority threatening to withhold accreditation unless Gordon changed its institutional policies about LGBT. The college and the agency reached a truce, but it looks temporary, and Gordon made significant concessions.

If Christians want to block the efforts of Julian’s disciples in our own time, we had better get serious about finding a Republican candidate who is electable, and who will fight for and sign the FADA. The idea that we are going to overturn Obergefell is risible. The real fight now is to protect Christian institutions from coercion under antidiscrimination law, and to protect the right of traditional Christians to participate in licensed professions without in effect having to apostatize.

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