Home/Rod Dreher/The Future Of Christians In Post-Christian America

The Future Of Christians In Post-Christian America

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn says that religious colleges ought not to receive accreditation:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold. If accrediting agencies are playing by the rules in this continuing fiasco, then the rules have to be changed—or interpreted more aggressively, so that “respect” for “belief systems” does not entail approving the subversion of our core academic mission by this or that species of dogma.

Let me be clear. I have no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed. However, I have a profound objection to legitimizing such an association through accreditation, and thereby conceding that the integrity of scholarship and teaching is merely negotiable. I also object to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in support of religious ideology, in particular when that ideology has set itself in opposition to the findings of modern science.

In other words, religious colleges ought to be driven out of business, and out of public life, because God. Alan Jacobs eats Peter Conn for lunch:

Conn is, if possible, even farther off-base when he writes of “the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton.” I taught at Wheaton for twenty-nine years, and when people asked me why I stayed there for so long my answer was always the same: I was there for the academic freedom. My interests were in the intersection of theology, religious practice, and literature — a very rich field, but one that in most secular universities I would have been strongly discouraged from pursuing except in a corrosively skeptical way. Certainly in such an environment I would never have dared to write a book on the theology of reading — and yet what I learned in writing that book has been foundational for the rest of my career.

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” Wheaton is differently closed than Penn; and for the people who teach there and study there, that difference is typically liberating rather than confining. It certainly was for me.

Read Alan’s entire response here. 

The sheer spite of Conn’s essay is striking, but we see a lot more of that kind of thing these days. On this Fourth of July, I find myself thinking about the rage — there is no other word for it — with which many liberals responded to the Hobby Lobby decision, and it makes me despair for the future of an America that came into being in large part because of religious liberty. Think about it: the Left has definitively won the culture war, and they’ve even achieved a decades-long dream: universal health care. And yet, as the Left piles up victory after victory, they have not become more tolerant of dissent, but quite the opposite. This week’s reaction from the Left has been in the spirit of the infamous quote attributed to Diderot: “Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.”

In 1996, First Things sponsored a hugely controversial symposium called “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” The magazine began its essay collection like this:

Articles on “judicial arrogance” and the “judicial usurpation of power” are not new. The following symposium addresses those questions, often in fresh ways, but also moves beyond them. The symposium is, in part, an extension of the argument set forth in our May 1996 editorial, “The Ninth Circuit’s Fatal Overreach.” The Federal District Court’s decision favoring doctor-assisted suicide, we said, could be fatal not only to many people who are old, sick, or disabled, but also to popular support for our present system of government.

This symposium addresses many similarly troubling judicial actions that add up to an entrenched pattern of government by judges that is nothing less than the usurpation of politics. The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Americans are not accustomed to speaking of a regime. Regimes are what other nations have. The American tradition abhors the notion of the rulers and the ruled. We do not live under a government, never mind under a regime; we are the government. The traditions of democratic self-governance are powerful in our civics textbooks and in popular consciousness. This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception. By the word “regime” we mean the actual, existing system of government. The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy.

That Neuhaus et al. even posed the question was massively controversial, even among his allies on the Right, who thought it offensive, and maybe even dangerous, to consider the possibility of withdrawing support for the American system of government. In one of a series of responses the magazine published, Midge Decter strongly rebuked Fr. Neuhaus for indulging in “careless radicalism.” John Leo urged calm:

But if the real revolution in the courts is still hidden from the people, this means that it is surely too early to say that apocalyptic action may be looming as our only option. The right-to-die/euthanasia issue is not settled. The euthanasia option disturbs a great many doctors and ordinary members of our elites. Legal marriage for homosexuals is vastly unpopular too, and this case can be made through the usual channels.

Our job is still to change the culture, not to turn our back on it or to take up arms. This will involve efforts to influence the law schools, to get better and more impartial reporting, and to make a political issue out of all judicial nominations and confirmation hearings. No dramatic last-straw activities, please. Let’s just keep working for change.

What a difference the last 18 years have made. Social and theological conservatives have lost the culture. In his “End of Democracy?” essay, the legal scholar Hadley Arkes anticipated what was to come:

In sum, the Court has fashioned, in Romer v. Evans, a powerful new instrument for blocking from the academy and the professions people who are “overly serious” about their religion—which is to say, people who take seriously the traditional moral teachings of Christianity and Judaism.

Through a series of small steps there is produced, over time, a dramatic change. And now we find ourselves at the threshold of a situation in which a serious Catholic, in a law firm, can be seen as a source of liability, and may need to be quarantined. But the oddity is produced by the same trend of affairs that stamps the Christian Coalition, or the religious in politics, as aggressors. The question goes strangely unasked as to what it was that “politicized” these groups in the first place and brought them into politics. During the controversy over gay marriage, the surveys showed about 70 percent of the public opposed to that novelty. But the same surveys would reveal portions of the public, comparably large, recoiling from the very people who are inclined to force a public discussion of the issue. There may be atavistic moral reflexes, drawn from a Christian past, but they seem readily matched these days by the reflexes of a newer sensibility that is wary of anyone who seems “judgmental.” Gay marriage may seem wrong, but in the new scale of things there seems something harsh or tacky about the people who would argue about the matter in public. And so the political matrix: The judges advance the interests of gay rights at every turn, and those who resist them are labeled as the fanatics.

With the same dynamic, the “Christian Right” is tagged with the responsibility for unsettling our national politics by injecting the issues of abortion and school prayer. A former adviser to George Bush asks, earnestly, “Can’t we just agree to get this issue (of abortion) out of national politics?” And he was evidently taken aback when I said, “Yes, we might make that deal—if by the ‘national’ government you also mean the courts.” For what was it, after all, that made abortion into a national issue? It was nothing other than the move of the federal courts to create a new “constitutional” right to abortion, and, in the name of that right, to sweep away all of the laws in the separate states that treated abortion as wrong. The federal courts have shifted the power to themselves as branches of the federal government, and politicized the issue at a new level of significance. Yet the people who would resist them are the ones who are condemned for bringing these divisive issues into our politics.

But this sense of the matter has taken hold precisely because the media and the public have absorbed the understanding put forth by the courts of the rights and wrongs of these matters. If there is something retrograde, something suspect, about making “discriminations” between forms of “sexuality,” then serious Christians and Jews instantly qualify as bigots. And the laws that forbid all manner of discrimination seem to emanate from a disinterested public “ethic,” suitably cleansed of any sectarian shading. The real question for us then is, How did we arrive at the state of affairs in which this sense of the world has been absorbed by a vast public in this country, which persists nevertheless in describing itself mainly as Christian and overwhelmingly as “religious”? On the question of euthanasia, the judges have quickly moved from the implausible to the unthinkable, inventing new rationales for ending the lives of people who were quite plainly alive and not dying at a decorous speed. On this matter, as on gay rights, there should have been more than enough to set off alarms for people whose sensitivities had been shaped by their religious traditions.

We find ourselves asking, then, in a blend of wonderment and outrage: What would it take in this country—what would have to happen?—before serious Christians and Jews would recognize, at once, that a critical line has been crossed? It is one thing to say, as the courts already have, that the moral precepts of Christianity and Judaism may not supply the premises of the law in a secular state. It is quite another to say that people who take those precepts seriously may be enduring targets of litigation and legal sanction if they have the temerity to voice those precepts as their own and make them the ground of their acts even in their private settings.

Perhaps Rousseau, with an edge of madness, had it right: that all of this simply came along with the ethic of modernity, as it was spread through the diffusion of the sciences and the arts. “We have all become doctors, and we have ceased being Christians.” Whatever the cause, it should be plain now that something in the religious sensibility has been deadened. My friend Russell Hittinger argues, with increasing persuasiveness, that the courts are making the political regime unlivable for serious Christians and Jews. To sound that alarm is to offer the call to political alertness. But the alarm cannot register, it cannot be felt, among people who have not been affected yet by the sense, as Christians and Jews, that there is anything taking place that is especially worth noticing.

It is not news that we have had a quiet revolution in this country on matters of sex and sexuality, and, as I wrote last year, that the philosophical and legal stakes in the same-sex marriage debate could hardly have been bigger. Many Christians and Jews never did get the sense that there was anything taking place that was especially worth noticing, and they may not get that now. In fact, I don’t think that they (we) do. But you see in eruptions from the Left like this week’s the skull beneath the skin, and how ferocious the hatred of religious and social conservatives is.

Twenty years ago, a journal like First Things could plausibly claim that judges were usurping politics and damaging democracy, but now, the public has pretty much caught up with them. If First Things were to revisit the question now, it would have to ask how traditional Christians and Jews and other religious believers who haven’t sold out to novus ordo seclorum should live in a country that increasingly sees us as enemies of the people. Last year, in (yes) First Things, Peter Leithart pondered this in the wake of the Windsor decision overturning DOMA:

Justice Alito was exactly right when he wrote in dissent that Windsor was a decision between two alternative notions of marriage – one a traditional, conjugal definition and the other a consensual, romantic, emotional definition. The latter is, in the Court’s opinion, the Constitutionally-approved definition. Justice Scalia is correct too that the very same reasoning is set up to strike down State statutes and Constitutional provisions defining marriage in traditional terms. Challenges are already coming from several of the thirtysomething states that currently do not recognize same-sex unions as marriages. We know what this Court will decide when those cases get to them.

Scalia was right, as we have seen. There should be no doubt as to how the Supreme Court majority will rule when given the opportunity. The only question is whether or not Justice Kennedy will insist on a strong protection for religious dissenters. More Leithart:

President Obama quickly reassured us that religious liberty will not be infringed. And he’s technically right. Nearly every state that has passed same-sex marriage legislation has made exceptions claiming that no pastor will be required to perform same-sex marriages. But as Robert George has pointed out, the protections are thin indeed. Tax exemption will be challenged, and so will accreditation for Christian colleges and schools that hold to traditional views of marriage. Once opposition to same-sex marriage is judged discriminatory, no institution that opposes it will be unaffected. If you want to see what the future looks like, consider what Paula Deen has been through the past few weeks.

All this means that Windsor presents American Christians with a call to martyrdom. In Greek,martyria means “witness,” specifically witness in a court. At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology. But Windsor presents a call to martyrdom in a more specific sense. There will be a cost for speaking the truth, a cost in reputation, opportunity, and funds if not in freedoms. Scalia’s reference to the pagan Roman claim that Christians are “enemies of mankind” was probably not fortuitous.

(Here is that quote from Scalia’s dissent in the Windsor case:

In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement. To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the majority is sure) with the purpose to “disparage,” ”injure,” “degrade,” ”demean,” and “humiliate” our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual. All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence—indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history. It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.)

Back to Leithart:

Many churches have already capitulated to the Zeitgeist , and many others will. Some Christians and some churches won’t be up to the challenge. For those who heed Paul’s admonition not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, things are going to get sticky. But we are servants of God. He opens our ears to hear, and he gives us tongues to speak truth. If that means we are insulted and marginalized, if it means we yield our back to the smiters and our face to those who spit on us, so be it.

Note well that Leithart is not talking about violent resistance, but advocating bearing the contempt of the mob with courage and grace. More:

This will force a major adjustment in conservative Christian stance toward America. We’ve fooled ourselves for decades into believing that Christian America was derailed recently and by a small elite. It’s tough medicine to realize that principles inimical to traditional Christian morals are now deeply embedded in our laws, institutions and culture. The only America that actually exists is one in which “marriage” includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.

That is a radical statement. Is it careless? I might have thought so once. Now, I feel compelled to stand with Cardinal George, who in 2012 said:

Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist. Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow. A small irony of history cropped up at the United Nations a few weeks ago when Russia joined the majority of other nations to defeat the United States and the western European nations that wanted to declare that killing the unborn should be a universal human right. Who is on the wrong side of history now?

The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is.

Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” What I said is not “prophetic” but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.

American Christians faithful to Scripture and tradition had better start thinking outside of the usual categories, and preparing themselves for what’s to come, especially given the technological capabilities of the national security state. Now is the time for realism. A bleak thought for the Fourth of July, but there it is.

But you know me, I’m a natural pessimist. Somebody give me reason to hope, eh?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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