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Of Sad Defeats & No Progeny

The beatific Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs expansive gay rights legislation recently (GovAndrewCuomo/Flickr)


There was a time when the idea that the law would make it possible for women to rent out their wombs would have struck most everybody as a moral horror — especially Catholic Democrats. Now, for the Catholic Democrat who is governor of New York, commodifying childbirth is progress, especially because it makes it possible for gay couples to have children.

We’ve come a long way, baby. New York’s Catholic governor just signed landmark legislation expanding LGBT rights. He signed a law guaranteeing that abortion would be legal in New York up until the point of birth.

Cardinal Dolan this past weekend said that the legislation was “grisly,” but is resisting calls to excommunicate Gov. Cuomo, saying in a public letter the New York archbishop had read at masses that Catholics “should not respond with more bitterness and divisiveness.” Okay. I wonder what, exactly, Cuomo would have to do before Dolan abandons what Ross Douthat calls his “bingo hall winsomeness” on the matter.

(Can anybody point me to any public criticism other religious leaders in New York issued of Gov. Cuomo for his abortion legislation? I can’t find anything that Eastern Orthodox bishops said, aside from giving Cuomo a human rights prize (!) a couple of years back. Even though the only religious leadership that matters politically in New York State are the Catholic leadership, it would have been good to have others in the state on record condemning Cuomo’s barbarity.)

I was thinking about Cardinal Dolan last night as I was re-reading Ryszard Legutko’s book The Demon In Democracy. Legutko, a Polish philosopher and statesman, writes about the uncanny similarities between communism and ideologically militant liberal democracy. The former Solidarity activist found the idea for the book when he observed former communist apparatchiks moving smoothly to embrace liberal democracy. When he looked into the similarities more closely, Legutko found that the two philosophies have more in common than most people think.

In the book’s final chapter, on religion, Legutko talks about how both philosophies have eviscerated the power of the Christian religion. One did it through the power of the state’s applied force, but the other has done it much more peacefully. Legutko writes:

If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism a militant ideology, pushing religions to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priests must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. Is not — one may wonder — this nonreligious and antireligious reality of today’s Western world very close to the vision of the future without religion that the communists were so excited about, and which despite the millions of human lives sacrificed on the altar of progress, failed to materialize?

It seems to me like he’s exaggerating a bit for rhetorical effect. The communists did not crush religion in Legutko’s country, Poland, but they did a great job of it in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. Still, his point is a good one: the West did not need atheism in power to bring the church to its knees; it only needed time in a culture dedicated to pursuing pleasure and individual choice as its greatest good.

Legutko goes on to say that “the only option left for Christians to maintain some respectability in a new world was to join the great progressive camp so that occasionally they would have an opportunity to smuggle in something that could pass for a religious message.” This is a big mistake, he contends. Those Christians who believe that Christianity will get a hearing if it appears more conciliatory and accepting of changing norms in post-Christian society are deluding themselves. This cannot happen, because the anti-Christian foundations of modernity are part of liberal democracy’s DNA.

Legutko warns that the relationship between churches and liberal democratic institutions “is reminiscent of the dialogue their older colleagues conducted with Marxism.” In communist days, he says, churchmen tried to find good things to say about the Marxist system, for the sake of dialogue. All this did was to show the weakness of the Church’s hand. Marxists conceded nothing, or if they did make concessions, they were along the lines of, “Let’s admit that the Church’s program does have some aspects of Marxism in it, so the Church isn’t entirely bad.” In the old days, with the Marxists, as today with liberal democrats, Churchmen who take up this “dialogue” fail to understand that the relationship between the Church and representatives of the secular liberal order is inversely proportional: that the more favors the dominant power grants to the Church, the weaker the position of Catholicism (and Christianity in general) is.

Legutko says that Christians today who think they can compromise with liberal democracy are fooling themselves:

[L]iberal-democratic ideology has long since ceased to be open (if it ever was) and has entered a stage of rigid dogmatization. The more conquests it makes, the less the victors are wiling to show clemency to anyone outside the winning forces. The Christians who put on humble faces and declare their readiness to seek a common ground of action for a better world stand no chance to survive, regardless of how far in their self-repudiation they go. Sooner or later they will have to sign an unconditional surrender and to join the system with no opt-out and no conscience clauses, or, in the event of a sudden declaration of non possumus (“We cannot”), they will be instantly degraded to the position of a contemptible enemy of liberal democracy. So far, nothing indicates that the regime will lose its ideological momentum.

I predict the ultimatum is going to come when the non-state institutions of liberal democracy compel Christian schools to fully accept and affirm LGBT ideology. The First Amendment will likely protect Christian schools from state orders, but there is little a Christian school can do if a private accrediting organization refuses to accredit a Christian school on grounds that it’s a bigot factory. There is little a Christian school can do if other private institutions shun them and their graduates, thereby rendering a diploma from that school worth much less.

Legutko says that Christians today

should act as an energetic and full-blooded group, strongly committed to their cause, openly determined to imprint their mark on the world. The opposite strategy — obliterating the boundaries, diluting their message in liberal jargon, cajoling the idols of modernity, paying homage to today’s superstitions, self-effacing their identity — condemns Christians to a sad defeat with no dignity and no progeny.

“A sad defeat with no dignity and no progeny.” Searing words. I’m reminded of a story a young Catholic in Madrid told me last month. In 2018, Madrid’s Catholic cardinal archbishop endorsed a militant feminist march, telling the marchers that they should be proud of what they’re doing, because even the Virgin would have marched. They paid him back by spray-painting anti-Christian graffiti on churches in the city. The city’s chief representative of Catholic Christianity suffered a sad, undignified defeat, all right, and he will have no progeny, because which Christians want to follow a leader who grovels like that in the public square?

If Catholic and other traditional Christian leaders (and their followers) stand up for what they know is true and just, they’ll probably be driven out of the public square. Fine. As Legutko asserts, it’s delusional to think that bingo hall winsomeness in the face of this anti-Christian ideology is going to give any church leader any influence over those in power. If you’re bound to be defeated anyway, then go down fighting with dignity, within integrity, with honor. You might then inspire people in coming generations that the Christian faith is something worth fighting for, and dying for, instead of aspiring to be nothing more than the prayer auxiliary of a ruling class that hates it anyway.

UPDATE: A reader points out that Carl Lentz of the hipster megachurch HillsongNYC denounced the law as “shameful and demonic.” I’ve been critical of him before in this space, for being a squish on sexuality issues, but I’ll give him credit for this. That’s not an easy position to take in New York City. And, just to be perfectly clear, Cardinal Dolan did condemn the law in no uncertain terms. At issue is whether or not the cardinal should put some force behind his condemnation, given that the governor is a Roman Catholic under his spiritual authority.

UPDATE.2: A reader posts this condemnation of the law by the Archons (which is to say, the Greek Orthodox). I wish they would rescind the human rights award they gave Gov. Cuomo in 2016.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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