The Thin Red Line
An important drama played out in the Senate chamber today — important for what it says about politics, religious liberty, and the future. Stay with me here.
In the wake of Monday’s Bostock decision by the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats moved to have the Senate vote on the Equality Act, which was passed by the Democratic House, but has been bottled up in committee in the GOP-controlled Senate for some time. In brief, the Equality Act — here is a link to the full text of the bill — would write sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) into US civil rights law. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president, the Equality Act would have massive effects on society. Ryan T. Anderson explained some of them here.
Have you, conservative reader, heard about this bill? Do you have any idea how radical it is? I bet not.
So, the Democratic Senators made a legislative move today to ask the Senate to approve the Equality Act by unanimous consent. Under the rules, a single senator who objected to this could stop the unanimous consent motion — but they would have to come to the Senate floor and do it openly. This morning on C-SPAN, I listened to Democrats make impassioned pleas for equality. Jeff Merkley, one of the Oregon Democrats, said that religious believers have always stood in the way of movements for equality, claiming religious liberty.
Only three Republican senators — Utah’s Mike Lee, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and Oklahoma’s Jim Lankford — rose to speak against the Equality Act. If not for them, the bill would have passed and would be on its way to the president’s desk.
Mike Lee, in his remarks, pointed out that the Equality Act would demolish protection of women-only spaces like locker rooms and bathrooms, putting women who fear for their safety with biological males present there.
Josh Hawley pointed out that the Equality Act guts key provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, amending it to not apply to SOGI. It would force faith-based adoption agencies out of business unless they conformed. It would force doctors and nurses to perform, or assist in performing, abortions — and give them no conscience right of refusal.
Jim Lankford said that this bill is not about finding a middle-ground compromise, but about one side imposing its views on the other. If you like women’s sports — high school, college, and professional — then you should know that if this bill passes, it would be a violation of federal civil rights law to prevent a biological male who identifies as female from competing in women’s leagues.
So, the Equality Act will not be passed by the Senate today, thanks to these three GOP senators who took a public stand. But here’s my question: Why were there only three Republican senators willing to do this? Lots of Democratic senators showed up to argue for the Equality Act. Where were Republicans?
It is possible, of course, that had the bill passed, President Trump would have vetoed it. But maybe not. If no Republicans would have had the courage to vote against it, or object to unanimous consent, why should he have taken the risk to veto it? In any case, it is very clear that a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president will make the Equality Act law.
I talked to a Capitol Hill aide familiar with the process behind what happened today. He spoke frankly on condition that I don’t identify him.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “For stuff like this, the initial knee-jerk response is ‘Mike Lee.’ Mike Lee is the the only one who can always be counted on to stand up to this stuff.”
The aide figures that Hawley’s speech Monday about the Bostock decision freed him to be able to join Lee. About Lankford, he’s uncertain.
The aide is frustrated with social and religious conservative lobbying groups, who, in his opinion, don’t fully appreciate the political dynamics at work.
“This is not about principle,” he said. “It’s about politics. If you polled every Republican member of the US Senate, they would agree that this [SOGI] stuff is bad. But they’re not afraid of social conservatives, and there is no political upside to standing up to this [SOGI] stuff.”
“Why should a political conservative from a red state waste political capital going to the floor if he’s not going to pay a price for not going to the floor?” the aide said. “The problem with social conservatives is that they have no political juice right now.”
The sharp negative reaction some religious and social conservatives had to the Bostock decision, which was authored by Justice Gorsuch, might be a wake-up call, the aide said.
“I think [GOP politicians] are realizing that [social conservatives] might just stay at home this time, because the bargain is not working out for them,” he said. “Maybe the establishment figures who actually run this party, who don’t share our values, and who just want to win, maybe they need to know that they have to have us.”
Speaking more broadly, the aide said that despite the shock Gorsuch decision in Bostock, social conservatives have gotten more from the Trump administration than they did from George W. Bush’s administration.
“The Trump administration does things that are important, but not flashy — things that still matter,” he said. “George W. Bush was an Evangelical who winked at the voters, and they expected him to do these things, but he didn’t. We have a president now who doesn’t necessarily share our values, but who understands that politics is a deal-making enterprise: you vote for me, I’ll give you what you want.”
I asked the aide what message he would send as a political insider to his fellow religious and social conservatives among the electorate.
“They need to stop trusting that anyone with an R in front of their name is doing the right thing behind the scenes, because they aren’t,” he said. “These guys are not spending real political capital and putting their necks on the line to fight for these priorities. Name a law that’s been passed in the last twenty years that’s a social conservative priority. A single law. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban was a long time ago [2003, in fact — RD]. It’s all judges. Judges, judges, judges.”
We see now, the aide said, the limits of that strategy.
Before we ended our call, the man paid me a compliment. He said, “The Benedict Option is going to go down in history as a prophetic book.”
I didn’t want to waste his time asking him to explain what he meant, and besides, it felt like fishing for a compliment. But I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been preparing this post. Here is an aide, a man I know (through the assurances of mutual friends we have) to be a serious traditional Christian. He is working in national politics at the seniormost level, watching the dynamics of culture and law. And now, in 2020, he sees the message of the book to have been a prophetic warning to the church.
One of The Benedict Option‘s basic claims is that the hour is very late for traditional Christians, and that politics is not going to hold back, much less reverse, this cultural revolution. The book argues not for heading for the hills (as I say in the first chapter, there are no safe spaces), but for a conscious defection in place, and the immediate institutions of teaching and practices within families and religious communities. The idea is to create communities of resilience and resistance. It’s not escapism, but rather a call to discipleship that will produce Christians capable of suffering for the faith, and passing it on to their children, and their children’s children. It’s like in Terrence Malick’s great film A Hidden Life: the Catholic farmer Franz Jägerstätter could not hide from the Nazi Antichrist in his tiny Alpine village, but when the Nazis showed up there, and even seduced his Catholic neighbors, Franz and his family were not fooled. Because of their fidelity, they recognized evil when they saw it, and they were willing to endure the scorn of their village to stand for righteousness. Franz, of course, paid with his life.
The Benedict Option is about creating a church of Jägerstätters. They’re not going to arise overnight. And by the way, Live Not By Lies, out this fall, has more direct and urgent resistance counsel. I apologize if I come across as trying to sell books here, but I wrote these books because I am an Orthodox Christian father of Orthodox Christian children, and I see what is coming to America. I see that most of my fellow believers, both big-O and small-o, are almost completely unaware of how serious the situation is, and how thinly defended we are. We tell ourselves that if we just keep voting Republican, and keep being nice people, it’s all going to work out for us.
It’s not. The only thing today keeping the Equality Act — with its evisceration of religious liberty, its forced participation in abortion, and all the rest — from going to the president’s desk was three Republican senators who were not afraid to be smeared as bigots. The thin red line. In five months, we are going to have an election in this country. If the Democrats win the Senate and the presidency, it’s over. If you take this as motivation to vote Trump, and vote Republican, no matter what, you certainly have good reason.
But don’t be fooled: there are 53 Republican senators. Fifty of them did not show up to speak against the Equality Act today. Some may have had a good reason, but the fact is, they didn’t show. It fell to three men to hold the thin red line today. When it came time to risk being savaged in the media as a bigot because you stood up for religious liberty, for the rights of the unborn, for conscience rights of medical personnel, for the safety of women and the meaning of male and female — fifty out of fifty-three Republican senators chose silence.
If that doesn’t tell you social and religious conservatives where we stand politically in post-Christian America, I don’t know what it’s going to take. Prepare!