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It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (Mary Eberstadt)

Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous To Believe offers very clear analysis and very wrong recommendations. Eberstadt eloquently describes how the elite and powerful in today’s America have subscribed to a new religion, the religion of sexual autonomy without limit, and are increasingly using their immense power to punish heretics, in the form of traditional believers. But, because she misapprehends the historical processes at work, she fails to adequately address how the targets of oppression can, or should, respond, and her actual suggestions are harmful fantasies.

First things first, though. If you reject the premise that traditionally orthodox Christians (let’s call them “TOCs”) are today’s “out group,” you will find nothing in this book to interest you. This book, and my review, depend on that premise being true. Eberstadt does try to prove this premise by example—in fact, much of the book consists of anecdotes demonstrating this premise. But as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data, as powerful as Eberstadt’s anecdotes are.

The premise, more fully stated, is that to be a public TOC (what exactly that is I address below) in America today, in any academic setting; any sizeable business setting; or interacting with any government entity, is to be the object of derision at best, hatred and the target of deliberate harm at worst (though the harm intended is confined to economic and psychological harm, so far, in the United States). Or, put another way, in the vast majority of American environments today, with the three exceptions of the home, wholly Christian social environments, and non-managerial labor, a TOC is well advised to keep the fact he is a traditional Christian to himself, or he is likely to suffer harm—hounded in the public square, driven from or downgraded in his employment, and chased by government functionaries. Moreover, this process is rapidly accelerating in scope and aggressiveness. Again, if you think that’s ludicrous, there is nothing to discuss, so you should not read this book, or this review.

What is meant here by a “traditionally orthodox Christian”? It means someone who not only actually subscribes to abstract statements of Christian doctrine such as the Nicene Creed, but further believes that God requires us to do, and not do, certain very difficult things. Such things are set forth in the Bible and in the coherent, unified teachings of Christians for two millennia, and they are not in doubt or dispute. Such teachings include a strict code of solely marital, solely heterosexual sex; they include many other difficult teachings, but in today’s culture, the sexual teachings are those that receive the focus, and as explained below, they are those that receive the incandescent fury of the new secular religion. Contrasted with the TOC is what Rod Dreher has pithily named “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—someone who claims to be Christian, but does not actually believe that God requires anything of human beings, except to be generically “nice,” and even then not if that would make the believer feel bad about himself or limit his pleasures. Most American Christians today fall into this, what we will call “MTD.”

This is not to say there are no other varieties of Christianity. The virtue, and the curse, of Protestant Christianity is that in it, as Luther said, is “every man his own priest.” Certainly, at some point someone who rejects the universal teachings of Christianity cannot reasonably be called a Christian, but there are Christians who are both actually practicing Christians and reject traditional teachings, including those on sexual morality. Their theology may, or may not, be an evolutionary dead end, since organized groups of such Christians, including all the traditional mainline Protestant denominations, are dying, and there is no evidence that such a theology has any gravity. But without doubt, there are devout Christians who reject traditional teachings, so are not TOCs, but nor are they believers in MTD. They are not the targets of the new secular religion, although they have to intermittently offer incense to idols to make sure they are not mistaken as TOCs. In any case, they are not the focus of this book.

On a related note, no doubt many of those who espouse and have espoused TOC (which is, over the history of Christianity, roughly 99.99% of declared Christians—MTD and other variations are a purely modern phenomena) can justly be accused of hypocrisy. One type of hypocrisy is claiming to agree with Christian teachings while not actually following them. Up to a point that’s not hypocrisy—it’s just sin, the natural condition of all Christians. At some point, though, it becomes a false claim of belief, if you never change your behavior. But for purpose of analyzing this book, a more relevant form of hypocrite is those who accept pre-marital sex, divorce and remarriage, and other actions clearly forbidden by TOC, but reject all homosexual actions as heinously sinful. Yes, there is an argument that homosexual actions are intrinsically disordered, as officially held by the Catholic Church, in a way that heterosexual ones are not. But it seems the height of hypocrisy to reject TOC teachings on heterosexual sexual morality while ruling that homosexuals must adhere to them, especially since only a tiny percentage of the population is homosexual, and thus it’s easy to lay the responsibility at their feet while disclaiming it for oneself.

However, that TOC hypocrisy exists or is widespread is not to say that there are not many TOC believers, even today. It is merely a falsehood, held as a bogus truism, that all Christians fail to live up to their own religion. And, of course, TOC beliefs have formed the basis for all of Western culture for two millennia. Therefore, a claim of hypocrisy does not undermine any part of Eberstadt’s book. I merely note it, to foreclose a simplistic line of possible attack.

All this is a long introduction, mostly of my thoughts, not the author’s, to the main point of Eberstadt’s book, which is that opposed to TOC is a new religion, that of secular sexual autonomy (which I’ll call SSA). Its “fundamental faith is that the sexual revolution, that is, the gradual destigmatization of all forms of consenting nonmarital sex, has been a boon to all humanity. The fundamental principle and starting point of the new secular morality is that freedom may be defined as self-will. ‘Doing what you want’ is the new master ethic. . . . It follows from this self-evident truth that traditional moral codes represent systems of unjust repression. . . . Two corollary imperatives are that whatever contributes to consenting sexual acts is an absolute good, and that anything interfering, or threatening to interfere, with them is ipso facto wrong. . . . Every act committed in the name of this new intolerance has a single, common denominator, which is the protection of the perceived prerogatives of the sexual revolution at all costs.” (Hence the exaltation of not just sexual activity, but also progressive sacraments such as abortion.)

After defining SSA as a new religion, Eberstadt spends quite a bit of time, every bit of which is necessary, on a detailed exegesis of the new faith. This is the most powerful section of her book, and while the quotes here are representative, they do not do her exegesis full justice:

“What believers and everyone else need to grasp is that contrary to what is sometimes argued among Christians themselves, secularist progressivism is not a nihilistic worldview. To the contrary: it embraces an alternative orthodoxy and a well-developed (and still developing) body of beliefs. The fundamental impulse leading to the penalizing of Christian believers today is not libertarian. It is instead neo-puritanical—that is, it is aimed at safeguarding its own body of revealed and developed truths, and at marginalizing, silencing, and punishing its traditional competitors.”

“This substitute religion mimics Christianity in many ways. It offers a hagiography of secular saints, for example, all of them patrons of the revolution: proselytizers for abortion . . . . crypto-scholastics . . . quasi-monastic ascetics, like the grim public priestesses of the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List . . . and even foreign missionaries . . . .”

“This, in a nutshell, is the new secularist faith, and in various influential quadrants, it is the culturally dominate narrative of our time. The so-called culture war . . . . is a contest of competing faiths; one in the Good Book, and the other in the more newly written figurative book of secularist orthodoxy about the sexual revolution.”

Eberstadt does not really trace from where SSA arises. That would be a very long and contentious discussion, relating to the rise of autonomic individualism as the touchstone of modern man. Maybe in another review. But she merely points out, incisively, that SSA is a religion, and that this is where we are now.

It would seem to follow from this, directly and unequivocally, that this is a contest of faiths, and the result will be determined as is customary for contests of diametrically opposed faiths (on which more below). But here Eberstadt loses the plot. In Eberstadt’s view, anti-Christian behavior and attacks driven by SSA are all just a form of temporary hysteria. She repeatedly draws analogies to the Salem witch trials, as well as to more recent infamous hysterias, such as the McMartin preschool in the 1980s. In Eberstadt’s optimistic analysis, the current wave of anti-TOC persecution will subside, leaving, as did the Salem witch trials in very short order, chagrined and shamefaced former persecutors. At that point, Eberstadt calls not for a restoration of TOC values to dominance in America, but rather a return to Jeffersonian tolerance, such that TOC and SSA can co-exist.

The problem with the witch hunt analogy is that witch hunts die down because witches do not exist. They are based on an unreality, a temporary insanity in society, and in any non-primitive society, they die down as people come to their senses. But a conflict of religions is a conflict of incompatible visions, and there is no moment in which one side of the conflict opens its eyes to an unreality, because there is none. The better analogy is not Salem, but the Albigensian Crusade, where, in the 13th Century, Pope Innocent III directed a military movement to crush the Cathari (a Manichean dualist sect) in Languedoc, resulting in tens of thousands dead and the utter destruction of the Cathari.

Who, then, are today’s Cathari? To rework the old poker joke—if you look around the table, and you can’t tell which group is today’s Cathari, it’s you.

Now, I am sure that those few SSA believers who read Eberstadt’s book will say, in essence, that this is what TOC believers deserve. They will say that TOCs have long effectively persecuted non-religious people in America, along with people who are religious, but violate religious norms. Eberstadt would disagree with this (although she does not address it directly), probably with talk about Jeffersonian compromise. But she would be wrong. This objection is correct. It is in the nature of two incompatible religions. Jeffersonian compromise will only take us so far, and the dominant religion in a culture will necessarily, to a greater or lesser degree and more or less actively, crowd out competing faiths. TOC cannot tolerate the dominance of SSA, any more than SSA can tolerate the dominance of TOC. There can be only one.

This is why Eberstadt’s witch hunt analogy is wishful thinking. She’s right in her analysis—there are two competing religions. But given the claims of SSA in particular, and the facts of competing faiths in general, only one can survive with widespread public acceptance. In this respect, and only this respect, SSA is much like Islam, which necessarily requires that in any society its believers occupy all positions of power, and believers in a small number of other tolerated faiths are allowed to exist, if they formally acknowledge the authority of Islam and agree not to cause trouble. Most likely TOC could be more tolerant of SSA than the reverse, though it is hard to say. Regardless, there is no universe in which attacks by SSA on TOC subside and Jeffersonian tolerance becomes the order the day. Eberstadt calls for engagement, persuasion, comity and courtesy. These things are useless.

TOCs (a group with which I have much sympathy, but am not fully a “member”) are instead faced with two actual choices, which Christians have faced many times before: the self-abnegation of martyrs before the lions, or the sword of Peter in the Garden. Or, to offer modern metaphors, the choices are “passive acceptance” and “Highlander.” (For those not in Generation X, “Highlander” was a 1980s movie and 1990s TV series, featuring a nearly immortal Scot, condemned to fight other near immortals until the last battle, for “there can be only one.” I knew I could work that into a review someday!)

Christians have always faced an internal tension, since the time of Constantine (312 AD, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge). Before then, Christians were a frequently persecuted group, to which they, from necessity and from the instruction of Jesus, turned the other cheek. As Eberstadt notes, of the thirty-two Popes prior to 314 A.D., every single one was martyred. But after that date, Christians had the temporal power to resist persecution, and eventually dominance. For a long time, until roughly 1000 A.D., Christian doctrine generally called for strict pacifism and separation of the organized Church from military action and violence (although Christians were certainly allowed to serve in the military, given the specific endorsement by Jesus of serving in and officering the Roman military), until the combination of feudal ideas and Muslim expansion caused the doctrinal changes leading to the Crusades. Thereafter, in every time when Christians face attack, they tend to respond in one of two ways.

Those two ways are starkly contrasted in the 1986 film “The Mission.” It concerns the efforts of Spanish Jesuits to convert the Guarani Indians, in what is now Paraguay. They face initial opposition from the Indians, but responding with persistence and charity in the face of martyrdom (the first scene is of a crucified Jesuit descending a waterfall), they convert the Indians, who become devout (as happened in real life), and the Jesuits found the mission of the title. There are two relevant Jesuits: Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, is the superior; Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert DeNiro, is a subordinate. Mendoza is a former slave trader and mercenary, who led a life of violence and greed, then repented and was brought to Christ by Father Gabriel, who strictly abjures Mendoza against violence, no matter the provocation.

The Jesuit mission’s real opposition is the Portuguese, who want the land of the Indians, in which they are ultimately supported by the Church hierarchy (due to political machinations relating to Spain and Portugal). The Portuguese arrive with military force to seize the mission. The Jesuits respond in ways emblematic, for a thousand years, of Christian choices in such matters. Father Gabriel, holding a monstrance (containing the Eucharist for presentation), is cut down in a hail of bullets, praying for his enemies. But before the Portuguese arrive, Mendoza breaks his vow of obedience, retrieves his blades and guns, trains the Guarani, mines a bridge, and dies trying to blow the bridge as the Portuguese cross it. Both die for Christ, as they saw it, but their visions were so different that perhaps both could not be right. This, of course, is the paradox of Christian defensive action. Which path?

Passive acceptance seems like a simple, if not easy, choice. But even there, Christians face sub-choices. Should they be silent, and simply pursue their faith in private, meeting in the catacombs and avoiding employment that requires cooperation with SSA, even though such employment constitutes all employment with prestige, possibility of advancement and high remuneration? Should they actively try to form communities, not necessarily physically separated from larger society, to retain and pass on the faith (Dreher’s “Benedict Option”)? Whatever the form, though, the ultimate goal would be a restoration of the role TOC has always played in the West, with the belief and understanding that the current path of the West will lead, sooner or later, to disaster, and TOC will be needed to restore the ruins. This view is embodied in the famous phrase of the late Francis Cardinal George, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. 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.”

Highlander is the harder choice to make, with some aspects less supported in Christian doctrine and more supported by human nature, and with more divergent paths. One path here would be to devote oneself, and one’s community, to missionary work. On this path, TOCs would be John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, yet making the path ready. Or they would be the nameless crucified Jesuit who begins “The Mission.” Or they would be the Apostles—all of whom, after all, were martyred save for John of Patmos. This path is attractive in principle, and really, it’s well-trod, both in time and space. For TOCs, this seems plausible, and less passive.

Another Highlander path, viable only if persecution turns violent (as it may well, since most persecutions do), is the propaganda of the deed, the John Brown solution—it never works out for the doer, but men will die when inspired, and violence, even Christian violence, inspires. It is in the nature of man. This has little of a Christian pedigree, though, and what it would look like in offensive form is not clear. Or, in the longer term, were there instability and fragmentation, a revival in a different form of the military orders, such as the Templars and the Hospitallers—we can call that the Mendoza Option. After all, military and militant Christianity has a long and respectable TOC pedigree, fully valid today, despite what the ignorant may say.

Certainly, there are other, hybrid paths. Passive acceptance can be not purely passive; it can present thorns to discourage the persecutors. Christianity for a thousand years has found it necessary to actively defend itself. Rearguard actions, like Roland at Roncesvalles, might be fought, without the goal of victory in this age. Or TOCs might ally with traditional enemies, Muslims, with whom in the face of SSA more common ground might be found than in the past. It is hard to say what might ultimately develop, and where it would lead. As Tolkien said, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

But at the end of the day, metaphorically, TOCs must choose Door One or Door Two. You will not be left alone. Eberstadt’s book, while it wakes TOCs to what they face, does not admit this choice, instead retreating into fantasies of near-future comity. But “good will towards men” is not the cry of SSA, nor will it be, and this truth, properly understood, is essential to fully grasp, such that right action can be ordered rightly.

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