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Indiana & the Benedict Option

The handwriting is on the Hoosier wall for the future of post-Christian America

A Catholic professor and lawyer who blogs as Sardonic Ex Curia reads the handwriting on the Hoosier wall. Excerpt:

The Indiana RFRA is welcome. But it is weak, and will fall in front of the storm. As predicted by a friend in a recent Facebook post, at some point in the near future, within 1 – 5 years by my own reckoning, the RFRA laws, federal and state, will be overthrown in a Supreme Court decision. This will surprise only those who have lived with their heads under rocks, for it will be the logical outcome of the Court’s long jurisprudence of sexual individualism.

We are at war. It is a war we did not wish, but it is thrust upon us. And the sooner we realize it, the sooner we can raise the barricades. We must take every opportunity in law to argue against the eventuality. But we should not expect the law to do much for us any longer. There are those who will say that what is written here is “divisive” or seeks no compromise. This is untrue. For we must compromise, if only to hold the peace as long as possible, while we form communities and keep alive what tradition and religion we can. But, while we will not breach the compromise (laughably, the RFRA is seen as such by many!), it will certainly be broken. The fleeting withdrawal from the federal RFRA has shown us as much. And the refusal to read and understand – this law, our religious faiths, the philosophy of the West – is evidence that compromise may be possible only for a little while longer.

I remind you of where the concept of the Benedict Option comes from. Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, writing in 1981:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

It is quite possible that Sardonic Ex Curia is responding as hysterically to the Indiana event as so many on the left are. I tend to think not, because the left’s moral panic is driven by the most powerful elements in society, and they are on a holy crusade. Crusaders never take prisoners.

Hans Fiene at The Federalist says this is about “Selma envy” among his generation (Millennials). I would say it’s about Selma envy for older people too. Excerpt:

Then, one day, manna descended from heaven in the form of gay marriage. Here it was! The cause we’d longed for all these years had finally arrived! Here was an injustice no one had ever opposed before. Here was a group of marginalized people no one had ever defended. So by embracing this cause, we would instantly be more compassionate, more accepting, more saintly than every human being who had ever lived.

What did it cost us to embrace this cause? Absolutely nothing! It required no moral consistency, no financial sacrifice, no effort. We could sleep with as many people as we wanted, divorce as many people as we wanted, father and then abandon as many children as our hearts desired, and lose no credibility. We could spend our entire adult lives defecating on the institution of marriage and this could not sully our gay marriage halos.

On top of that, these oppressed souls were so gainfully employed that they paid for their own lawyers and lobbyists, so we didn’t need to give them a cent. All we had to do was change our profile pictures on Facebook and beatification was ours. Our prayers were answered. The bright, shiny diamond of righteousness no other generation could claim had been placed into our hands.

But after all those years of waiting for that diamond to arrive, we weren’t going to let anyone to tell us what we held in our hands was really a cubic zirconia. This cause made us righteous. We were certain of it, so no opposition was allowed. No debate on the issue could be tolerated. No damn, dirty facts would take our saintly status away.

So when you argued that disapproving of gay marriage didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as oppression of black Americans, we knew you were right. Of course we know that politely telling a customer you’ve served for nine years that you can’t, in good conscience, provide flowers for his wedding isn’t in the same moral universe as murdering a black teenager for talking to a white woman. Of course saying “you don’t get to vote because your skin has a different amount of melanin than mine” is logically indefensible, while saying “I don’t think a union that’s biologically incapable of procreation fits the definition of marriage” is an argument that needs to be fairly considered, even if we don’t agree with it. But we wouldn’t consider it, wouldn’t even let your words embed in our ears because we would not risk having to surrender our halos in the offhand chance that you maybe, sort of, kind of had a little bit of a point.

Fiene is right, and this is the important takeaway: the gay rights cause is not, as the pro-SSM conservative David Brooks wishes it were (as do I), a clash of competing principles whose resolution ought to be guided by tolerance and pragmatism. Brooks, on liberal absolutism:

This deviation seems unwise both as a matter of pragmatics and as a matter of principle. In the first place, if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation. Some people have lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. There are too many stories like the Oregon bakery that may have to pay a $150,000 fine because it preferred not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. A movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side of a government that compels a photographer who is an evangelical Christian to shoot a same-sex wedding that he would rather avoid.

Furthermore, the evangelical movement is evolving. Many young evangelicals understand that their faith should not be defined by this issue. If orthodox Christians are suddenly written out of polite society as modern-day Bull Connors, this would only halt progress, polarize the debate and lead to a bloody war of all against all.

As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.

I wish that were the world we lived in, but I see little evidence that it is. Indiana has been a clarifying moment in this respect. I have said in this space many times that I am grateful that we live in a time in which gays and lesbians are more free than in the past, and I acknowledge that my people — Christians — failed to treat our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters with due respect and charity. Those historical moral wrongs need to be made right, insofar as it is possible. I am a religious conservative who does not want to go back to the past when gays had to live in the closet. Those days are over, and good riddance to them.

But we must not exchange one closet for another.

It is not the case that sexual desire is in the same category as race — or if one believes that it is, it should be conceded that the equivalence is not straightforward. That is, it ought to be apparent that there are legitimate philosophical grounds for disagreement on the issue. I understand why many Americans today believe that there is no moral difference between sexual desire and race, but I cannot grasp why they do not recognize that the issue is not clear-cut for many others.

The issue of sex, generativity, and sexual complementarity goes back to the fundamentals of Judaism and Christianity, back to Genesis and the order of Creation. I’m not asking people to agree with me here; I’m asking people to recognize that the orthodox Christian conviction on this matter goes very, very deep, to the roots of the religion. For orthodox Christians, to capitulate on this issue would mean repudiating something we profoundly believe to be true, and an intrinsic part of the cosmic order. Again, we can’t expect everyone to share that belief, though nearly everyone did, until the day before yesterday. All of us, I think, concede, or should concede, that America has changed, and we are going to live in a republic that permits same-sex marriage.

But here’s the thing: if we live in an America that not only permits same-sex marriage and a broad array of gay rights, but also turns any religious dissenters into modern-day Bull Connors, criminalizes our religious practices, anathematizes us in common discourse, and drives us out of the public square — then it will be an open question as to whether this is still an America worth our allegiance.

It may well be. After all, well within living memory, black Americans were treated under law far worse than anything orthodox Christians conceivably face in the near future, and they remained patriotic, believing in the promise of America. Many white Christians — especially in the South — did nothing to relieve their suffering, and in far, far too many cases, exacerbated it. Yet they still believed in America. I met just such a black man last year, a World War II veteran who fought for this country, then came home to the segregated South, where he had to live as a second-class citizen in his own nation. I hope that if I am ever put to the test as that great man was, that I will bear up with as much courage and patience.

The point is, this conflict should not even be conceivable, but the righteous moral fervor of the progressives — including their allies in big business — is driving the country to this precipice, for no good reason. Consider this reworking of Macintyre’s statement:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the American republic and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that republic.

We aren’t there yet. We may never arrive at that point. I hope we do not. But for those with eyes to see, it is entirely foreseeable that we might, and as Sardonic Ex Curia points out, it is time to build the institutions to carry us through that time. This begins with facing the handwriting on the wall.

And that begins by looking through the ridiculous dishonesty on both sides of the issue. Cato’s Roger Pilon takes both left and right to task on this. He rightly pillories Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for being unwilling to say that the law does what it plainly does: provide grounds, however meager, to defend a business owner’s right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, if it violates his sincerely held religious beliefs — and (this is crucial) if he can demonstrate to the satisfaction of a court that there is a reasonable alternative for the state to achieve its legitimate aims in that particular instance. 

Pence’s inability to tell the truth about this, and defend the principle that religious liberty, like free speech, is not an absolute right, but it only really matters when the religious practice or the instance of speech is unpopular. And this, says Pilon, is where the left is dishonest and wrong:

In truth, we have in this Act the analogue of what we see every day in the area of free speech, which the left assiduously and rightly defends—but this is religion, and for the left, that’s another matter. Just as we defend a person’s right to say what he pleases, which is not the same as defending what he says, so too here we can defend a person’s right to discriminate on the basis of his religious beliefs without defending those beliefs or the actions they may require of a believer. As one more sign of how modern liberals have turned the Constitution on its head, they would have the statutory rights created by our anti-discrimination law trump the constitutional rights the First Amendment was ratified to protect.

On this issue, the left has the media, the academy, much of the legal profession, and corporate America on its side. That’s a powerful coalition. It is the Establishment. And you will not escape its view. Two years ago, Erick Erickson wrote a piece that holds up very, very well today. Excerpt:

The left will allow no fence sitting. You may not believe me. You may think me hyperbolic. But the history of the world shows this. Events ultimately come to a head. They boil to their essence. And at that point you must choose.

That is why so many Christians are fighting. Because we see in Europe and Canada what will happen here. Christianity is a religion of the city square. Christ compels us to “go forth and teach.” It is the Great Commission. We cannot go forth and teach when the left bars us from the town square.

Many people say we should have legal gay marriage, but not have religious gay marriage. The left will not honor the distinction. Look to Canada. Preachers can be brought up for hate crimes charges merely for discussing passages of the Bible that deal with same sex sexual relations. You may not care that it is a sin, but the world surely does. Look at Louie Giglio, who could not honor the President at his inauguration because of his orthodox Christian beliefs on this subject.

In short, you may choose not to care and in so doing sit on the sidelines or give aid and comfort to the open minded and tolerant who want gay marriage so everyone can have equal rights.

But the world will one day make you care. Your church, should it open its doors to all, but refuse to perform a same sex wedding, will be accused of discrimination. In some places, the church will be forced to stop performing weddings. Many churches will lose their tax exempt status. The costs of sharing the gospel will go up.

Already Christians are being harassed by fellow American citizens for not wanting to participate in a gay marriage.

The time will come, more quickly than you can imagine, when you will be made to care.

It is time to write the Benedict Option book, so orthodox Christians and other religious dissenters will have a framework for thinking about how to live in post-Christian America. I am putting together a proposal now.



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