April 28, 2005,
Harper’s Magazine’s May cover stories about “The Christian Right’s War On America,” frightened me, although not the way Harper’s meant them to. I fear these stories could mark the beginning of a systematic campaign of hatred directed at traditional Christians. Whether this is what Harper’s intends, I cannot say. But regardless of the intention, the effect seems clear.
The phrase “campaign of hatred” is a strong one, and I worry about amplifying an already dangerous dynamic of recrimination on both sides of the culture wars. I don’t doubt that conservatives, Christian and otherwise, are sometimes guilty of rhetorical excess. Yet despite what we’ve been told, the most extreme political rhetoric of our day is being directed against traditional Christians by the left.
It’s been said that James Dobson overstepped legitimate bounds when he compared activist judges to the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, that was an ill-considered remark. I hope and expect it will not be repeated. But Dobson made that comparison extemporaneously and in passing. If that misstep was such a problem, what are we to make of a cover story in Harper’s that systematically identifies conservative Christianity with fascism? According to Harper’s, conservative Christians are making “war on America.” Can you imagine the reaction to a cover story about a “war on America” by blacks, gays, Hispanics, or Jews? Then there’s Frank Rich’s April 24 New York Times op-ed comparing conservative Christians to George Wallace, segregationists, and lynch mobs.
These comparisons are both inflammatory and mistaken. Made in the name of opposing hatred, they license hatred. It was disturbing enough during the election when even the most respectable spokesmen on the left proudly proclaimed their hatred of president Bush. Out of that hatred flowed pervasive, if low-level, violence. I fear that Bush hatred is now being channeled into hatred of Christian conservatives. The process began after the election and is steadily growing worse. This hatred of conservative Christians isn’t new, but it is being fanned to a fever pitch.
Chris Hedges, who wrote one of the Harper’s cover pieces, is a former reporter for the New York Times and a popular author among those who oppose the Iraq war. Hedges’s article will be noticed on the Left. I fear it will set the tone for a powerful new anti-Christian rhetoric. The article’s entitled “Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters.” If you still don’t get it, notice the picture juxtaposing a cross with an attack dog. Of course, reducing America’s most popular Christian broadcasters to a hate group is itself a way of inviting hatred.
Hedges is worried about extreme Christian theocrats called “Dominionists.” He’s got little to say about who these Dominionists are, and he qualifies his vague characterizations by noting in passing that not all Dominionists would accept the label or admit their views publicly. That little move allows Hedges to paint a highly questionable picture of a virtually faceless and nameless “Dominionist” Christian mass. Hedges seems to be worried that the United States is just a few short steps away from having apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft declared capital crimes. Compare this liberal fantasy of imminent theocracy to the reality of Lawrence v. Texas and Roper v. Simmons (the Supreme Court decision that appealed to European precedents to overturn capital punishment for juveniles).
Both of these decisions relied on the existence of a supposed national consensus on behalf of social liberalism. In conjuring up that false consensus, the Court treated conservative Christians as effectively nonexistent. That is the reality of where the law is, and where it is headed. It is completely unsurprising that after a long train of such decisions, conservative Christians have decided they’re tired of being trampled on by the courts. The reality we face is judicially imposed same-sex marriage in opposition to the clearly expressed wishes of the American people. Yet to cover its imperial judicial agenda, the Left is now concocting nonsensical fantasies of theocratically imposed capital punishment for witchcraft. Yes, witchcraft is back. Only now traditional Christians have been cast in the role of devious enemies who need to be ferreted out by society’s defenders.
Hedges invokes the warnings of his old Harvard professor against “Christian fascists.” Supposedly, Christians carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance are the new Hitlers. The Left is loathe to treat Islamic terrorists as moral reprobates, but when it comes to conservative Christians, Hedges calls on his fellow liberals to renounce their relativist scruples and acknowledge “the power and allure of evil.”
Hedges needn’t worry. For a very long time now, secular liberals have treated conservative Christians as the modern embodiment of evil, the one group you’re allowed to openly hate. Although barely noticed by the rest of us, this poison has been floating through our political system for decades. Traditional Christians are tired of it, and I don’t blame them. That doesn’t justify rhetorical excess from either side. But the fact of the matter is that the Left’s rhetorical attacks on conservative Christians have long been more extreme, more widely disseminated, and more politically effective than whatever the Christians have been hurling back. And now that their long ostracism by the media has finally forced conservative Christians to demand redress, the Left has abandoned all rhetorical restraint.
Of course, Harper’s has every right to accuse conservative Christians of making war on America, to treat them as a hate group, to warn us that conservative Christians are the new fascists, and to invite us to battle their supposedly Hitler-like evil. Certainly it would be folly to try to control this kind of anti-religious rhetoric legislatively. But I do believe the Harper’s attack on traditional Christians is dangerous, unfair, and extreme far more so than Dobson’s rhetorical slip. The way to handle the Harper’s matter is to expose it and condemn it. Or is that sort of public complaint reserved for Dobson alone?
Meanwhile, as Harper’s levels vicious attacks on conservative Christians, the California assembly has passed a bill designed to prevent politicians from using “anti-gay rhetoric” in their political campaigns. Opposition to same-sex marriage itself is considered by many to be “anti-gay.” So has public opposition to same-sex marriage been legislatively banned? As a secular American, I don’t personally see homosexuality as sinful. Like many Americans, I welcome the increased social tolerance for homosexuality we’ve seen since the 1950s. Yet it’s outrageous to ban political speech by Christians who do sincerely understand homosexuality to be a sin.
Along with the move toward same-sex marriage in Scandinavia and Canada, we’ve seen systematic efforts to criminalize and silence expressions of the traditional Christian understanding of homosexuality. We’ve been told that the American tradition of free speech will prevent that sort of abuse here. Yet now, California’s battle for same-sex marriage is calling forth legislation that takes us way too far down the path toward banning the expression of traditional Christian views. While Harper’s is spinning out fantasies of a Christian theocracy, the California state legislature gives us the reality of a secular autocracy.
The companion piece to the Hedges article in Harper’s is a long report by Jeffrey Sharlet on Christian conservatives in Colorado. Sharlet notes the conviction of these Christians that they’re being turned into “outcasts in their own land.” He treats the notion that traditional Christians need to flee the urban centers of Blue America as a paranoid fantasy. Well, California’s latest attempt to control political speech shows the fears are real. And what happens to traditional Christians who refuse to flee the cities? King’s College, a quality Christian school that’s decided to move from the countryside to the heart of New York City, is about to be destroyed by the New York State Board of Regents. It’s hard to see in this move anything other than anti-Christian bias.
Conservative Christians have good reason to fear cultural ostracism. The mere expression of their core religious views is being legislated against. The courts have banned traditional morality as a basis for law and have turned instead to secular Europe for guidance. Traditional Christians can’t even set up a college in New York City. And now Harper’s is calling them evil fascists. Yes, conservative Christians have the ear of the president and of the Republican leadership you bet they do. Given the way they’re being treated in the culture at large, they’d be fools not to protect themselves by turning to politics.
Yet traditional Christians are playing defense, not offense. Harper’s speaks of a “new militant Christianity.” But if Christians are increasingly bold and political, they’ve been forced into that mode by 40 years of revolutionary social reforms. David Brooks has already explained how Roe v. Wade unnecessarily polarized the country, making it impossible for religious conservatives to have a voice in ordinary political give and take. We’re still paying the price for that liberal judicial arrogance.
Now judicial imposition of same-sex marriage has poured fuel on the fire. When Frank Rich compares conservative Christians to segregationist bigots, when Chris Hedges compares conservative Christians to evil fascist supporters of Hitler, its the Christian understanding of homosexuality that’s driving the wild rhetoric. None of the American Founders would have approved of same-sex marriage, yet suddenly we’re expected to equate opposition to gay marriage with Hitler’s genocidal persecutions.
Last Sunday’s New York Times gave us a clear explanation of the Catholic Church’s understanding of sexuality. The Catholic position rests on the idea that there is a special tie between marriage, motherhood, and sexuality. Now there’s room to differ on the nature and extent of the links between parenthood, marriage, and sexuality. Traditional Catholics will see the matter differently from traditional Protestants, who in turn will see things differently from secular social conservatives. Whatever your view on how marriage, sexuality, and parenthood ought to be related, there can be little doubt that important social consequences will follow and have followed from how we handle these issues. We can argue about whether same-sex marriage will strengthen or weaken the family, but the debate itself is, or ought to be, necessary and legitimate.
Yet to much of the mainstream media, the complicated question of how society should structure the relationship between sexuality and the family has been reduced to an all-or-nothing choice between bigotry and freedom. The overreach of this sort of intolerant secular liberalism is the real source of our cultural battles. The drive for same-sex marriage has been every bit as much of a political disaster for this country as the ill-conceived conflict over abortion. The mistake was to frame the debate as a fight against bigotry instead of as a tough decision about how to structure our most fundamental social institution. On same-sex marriage, the Left took the easy way out not only using the courts to make an end-run around the public, but deliberately framing the issue in a way designed to silence and stigmatize all opposition.
Now we see the results of this terrible decision. Traditional Christians are openly excoriated in the mainstream press as evil, fascist, segregationist bigots. Their political speech is placed under legislative threat. Their institutions of higher education are attacked and destroyed. Naturally, America’s traditional Christians are fighting back. They’ve turned to the political process in hopes of securing for themselves a space in which to exist. Weary of being the butt of hatred by those who proclaim tolerance, conservative Christians are complaining, with justice, about the all-too-successful attempts to exclude them from society.
If “Dominionists” try to force all Americans to pay church tithes, or call for the execution of blasphemers and witches, I will oppose them. But that is not the danger we face. The real danger is that a growing campaign of hatred against traditional Christians by secular liberals will deepen an already dangerous conflict. The solution is to continue our debates, but to change their framing. Conservative Christians cannot stop complaining of exclusion and prejudice until cultural liberals pare back their own excesses. Let’s stop treating honest differences on same-sex marriage as simple bigotry. Let’s stop using the courts as a way around democratic decision-making. Let’s stop trying to criminalize religious expression. Let’s allow Christians to establish their own institutions of higher learning. And let’s stop calling traditional Christians fascists. It would be nice if the folks complaining about “Justice Sunday” addressed these issues as well.