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What Do You Do When You Are on the Wrong Side of History?


It is almost a cliché now that Christians and all those who oppose same sex marriage are ‘on the wrong side of history.’  I do not dispute the assertion if by ‘history’ we mean the train of cause and effect set in motion by our deeds but escaping our control.  Popular opinion is shifting rapidly, fueled by relentless media promotion and by the perception of unstoppable momentum.  Same sex marriage is legal in seventeen (or is it eighteen?) states and the District of Columbia, and the Attorney General has announced that the federal government will honor those unions.  State attorneys general in a number of other states, following the Obama Administration’s lead in ignoring laws it doesn’t like, have declared that they will not enforce the same sex marriage bans in their own states.  Courts across the nation are taking their cues from the specious reasoning of Justice Kennedy in U.S. vs Windsor and striking down those bans as fast as they can.  And Ross Douthat has thrown in the towel.  Same sex marriage, awaiting the fall of all but the last few dominos, is for all intents and purposes already the law of the land.

Irrespective of what the state decrees, there remain institutions and individuals who regard same sex marriage not simply as politically unwise, sociologically harmful, or morally objectionable, but as ontologically impossible—as a matter of fundamental philosophy and not merely as a matter of faith.  Those of us who find ourselves in that position should therefore strive to understand more deeply just what it means to be ‘on the wrong side of history’, not least because we have no choice but to remain there.  And we need begin to think long and hard about what may be required of us and how we are going to have to live.

We must recognize first of all what this appeal to the inevitability of history is.  It is not an argument but a ‘conversation stopper’ designed to put an end to argument by urging  opponents of same sex marriage to resign themselves to a fate which they are powerless to resist and exempting advocates of ‘marriage equality’ from the burden of having to think about, much less defend, their position with depth or rigor.  And by placing opponents of same sex marriage beyond the pale of progress and civilization, it encourages those who fancy themselves on the ‘right side of history’ to treat their opponents with contempt.  The appeal to history is thus a nifty little piece of rhetorical violence, a ‘performative utterance’ that seeks to bring about the fate that it announces and to excuse the opposition’s loss of agency as the inevitable triumph of justice.

Of course all of this has been underway for quite some time, well before the bend in the ‘arc of history’ became so obvious.  Some American Christians—more American, perhaps, than Christian—were easily blown about by a change in the prevailing cultural winds.  Many others have capitulated under the weight of enormous social pressure, indifferent or perhaps unaware of the profound theological and anthropological stakes of this question, which far surpass the narrow framing of this issue (here).  Same sex ‘marriage’ raises unavoidable questions about the truth of the human being and the nature of human society, questions about the meaning of freedom, embodiment, childhood, and even human nature itself.  But as my colleague David Crawford has convincingly shown (here), the public and legal argument over same sex ‘marriage’ has been framed from beginning to end by the ontological and epistemic assumptions of classical liberalism.   Liberalism answers these questions in advance, effectively determining the public meaning of human nature and the human good, while its constricted notion of public reason conceals the fact that such fundamental questions are being adjudicated in the first place.  Liberalism thus prevents a real argument over these questions from ever taking place by excluding its philosophical rivals a priori and preventing philosophy from entering the realm of public reason alongside sociology and other quasi-empirical disciplines which share its ontological assumptions.  From the constricted vantage of liberal public reason, philosophical objections to same sex marriage lack even a rational basis, as the courts have repeatedly opined.  And so opponents of same sex marriage, unclear about the ontological presuppositions already at work in liberal jurisprudence and desperate for their arguments to qualify as ‘public reason’, have largely declined to raise them.  Liberalism thus determines that opposition to same sex marriage can only be a matter of private morality which, after the legally conjured fact, cannot but become public bigotry.   Justice Kennedy and several of the lower courts have declared as much, and this is exactly how the opposition to same sex marriage is now regarded by the media which have apparently renounced any interest in the truth (here).

One may still hope, with Douthat and Rod Dreher, that the victors will be magnanimous, though one may also doubt whether magnanimity will be enough.   The inevitability of history falls equally, after all, on the just and the unjust.   For magnanimity to prevail it would somehow have to overcome not only the momentum of current social and legal trends, but the very metaphysical and political logic by which same sex marriage has gained the ascendency.  The practical conclusions of this logic appear to be inexorable.  If arguments against same sex marriage are irrational arguments, then, as Crawford says, they are also publicly bigoted arguments and thus inherently unjust.  Publically bigoted and unjust arguments are publicly immoral, antisocial, and uncivil as well, and those who adhere to them inevitably—and justly—suffer the special fate which a civilized culture reserves for such odious views:  cultural intimidation, legal coercion, and de facto exclusion from respectable opinion and from public life.

If this is what it means to be on the wrong side of history, then the question of what to do about it cannot principally be a question of statecraft; not because Christians should retreat from the public square and content themselves with an ‘Amish’ interpretation of the so-called ‘Benedict option’—the Catholic Church cannot retreat from the world without relinquishing its claim to universality and thus ceasing to be Catholic—but because this fate systematically excludes us from public life and denies us the very possibility of effective participation in the body politic.  This will be a bitter pill to swallow for those Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, who have made their peace with classical liberalism and who have perpetuated the defining project of American Christianity over the better part of the last century:  reconciling Christianity with liberal order.  Assuming that liberal order is merely juridical, protagonists of this project have hoped that Christianity might fill the moral and metaphysical void at the heart of liberal proceduralism by supplying the liberal state and civil society with its missing public philosophy—perhaps through some version of natural law theory sufficiently watered down to qualify as public reason.  When viewed from an ontological perspective, this project was always misguided; for despite what many of its protagonists believed, liberalism was always already a public philosophy with a definitive view of God and human nature and a definitive view of liberal order itself as the human good, a philosophy whose defects tragically vitiate its otherwise noble ideals.  Insofar as the liberal understanding of nature is mechanistic, it was destined to undermine the foundations for the intelligibility of natural law.  Insofar as liberalism equates freedom with limitless possibility, it was destined to erode the moral and cultural foundations of civil society inherited from Protestant Christianity.  Insofar as liberalism elevates this freedom to the highest good, it was destined to make liberal order itself the summum bonum and absolutize the state as the guarantor of that freedom.  Same sex marriage, which presupposes a mechanistic conception of the body and a voluntaristic notion of freedom, can even be regarded as the logical outworking of these philosophical commitments, which would help to explain its rapid ascent.

Whether or not one chooses to accept this controversial diagnosis, the verdict of ‘history’ effectively brings this project to an end.  To say that this project is over, however, is not quite the same thing as saying that it should cease.  The same liberal presuppositions that relegate opposition to same sex marriage to a ghetto of merely private morality tend to reduce religious freedom to the right of privately holding an irrational and idiosyncratic opinion.  So conceived, religious freedom is unlikely to fare well when it conflicts with perceived public goods, which will increasingly be the case as the erosion of our Protestant culture patrimony alters our perception of these goods and as the underlying philosophy of liberalism is more securely codified.  The wisdom of casting such controversies as same sex marriage and the HHS Mandate principally as matters of religious freedom is therefore deeply questionable.  It looks like special pleading, and it obscures the deeper fact that the state is imposing a normative anthropology and philosophy of human nature through these decisions.  And yet this contest of rights is really the only ground on which liberal public reason will permit itself to be engaged, and the assaults on religious liberty, even on liberalism’s impoverished understanding of freedom, are real.  Precisely because of their commitment to liberalism, protagonists of this great twentieth century project have been the most stalwart defenders of religious freedom.  Given the aggressive posture of both the state and the culture, this fight should certainly continue even though it is unlikely to succeed.  I would suggest however that this grim assessment requires us to conceive of this effort in the light of a deeper understanding of freedom than the liberal imagination can provide.

On April 15, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI gave a brief, ‘off the cuff’ homily to members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (here).   Though the significance of his words was largely overlooked at the time, history may show them to be among the most remarkable of his pontificate.  They are all the more poignant given the fact that they were spoken in the midst of a global firestorm,  provoked by a series of misleading New York Times articles which had sought to implicate him personally in the cover-up of sexual abuse. Reflecting serenely on the appointed Scripture, the appearance of St Peter and the apostles before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, Benedict relates that the tribunal made Peter a tempting offer of freedom “on the condition, however, that he does not continue to seek God.”  But “a freedom bought at the price of renouncing the journey towards God would no longer be freedom.”  Hence Peter’s famous reply, which echoes the words of Socrates before the tribunal in Athens:   “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29).

Contrary to our ordinary juxtaposition of freedom and obedience, the Pope insisted that obedience itself constitutes freedom, even going so far as to say that that “without obedience there is no freedom.”  “Obedience to God is a freedom because it is the truth; it is the reference that comes before all other human needs.”  It is precisely this truth that gave Peter “the liberty to oppose the institution.”  Autonomy severed from obedience, by contrast, is both an “ontological lie” and “a political and practical lie” which leaves us at the mercy of “subtle forms of dictatorship…:  a conformism, which becomes obligatory, thinking as everyone thinks, behaving as everyone behaves.”  Without the truth consensus of the majority becomes “the last word which we must obey.” A last word, in other words, which acquires all the necessity of fate.

We miss the profundity of these remarks if we interpret them merely as a license to civil disobedience.   Rather they point to a dimension of freedom typically overlooked in the debate about religious liberty, a freedom more fundamental than the negative freedom, the immunity from coercion, presupposed by the Constitution.  This is the freedom which the truth itself gives.   Without it, even this negative freedom eventually collapses in on itself since every assertion of a negative ‘right’ is at the same time an extension of the state’s power to enforce that right.  Truth is integral to freedom— “the truth shall set you free”—because it opens up a horizon beyond the ‘necessity’ imposed by fate, even where this fate is otherwise inescapable.  Truth gives freedom within fate, because witness to the truth transforms the passivity of suffering into the activity of a free self-offering.  Truth thus makes possible the highest form of freedom, the freedom of the martyr to make his fate a gift.  As Pope Benedict put it, “The freedom of the martyrs, who recognize God precisely in obedience to divine power, is always the act of liberation through which Christ’s freedom reaches us.”

The absolutism of liberal order is a subtle thing in comparison to other forms of absolutism.  It consists, in the first instance, not in the state exhaustively dictating everything one can and cannot do—liberalism can be quite permissive in this regard—but in establishing itself as the all-encompassing horizon against whose backdrop social facts are subsequently permitted to appear, as the whole that bears no relation to anything beyond itself over which it is not finally arbiter and judge.   Liberal order is in this sense more extensive than the liberal state, though the state remains an indispensable instrument in the enforcement of that order.  The global media are  an important instrument as well.  They absolutize this order by mediating reality and determining for all public purposes that what counts as the ‘real world’ appears in the image of liberal presuppositions (here).  We see this absolutism in action in the a priori framing of the same sex marriage debate, both in the courts and in the culture at large, which excludes even the possibility of a rational dissent from these presuppositions.  Liberal order is absolute, in other words, precisely insofar as it defines the limit of our vision and imagination; for these determine,  in turn, our possibilities for action.

The freedom of the martyr in witnessing to the truth is a threat to this and every absolutism, because it exposes and makes visible the otherwise invisible limits of this horizon.  This is the deeper sense—deeper than the negative liberty of the Constitution—in which religious freedom is our ‘first freedom’:  because truth is integral to freedom, and only the truth can finally limit the power of absolutism.  But this also alters the meaning of religious freedom itself and, with it, the terms of the present debate.  Religious freedom is commendable, politically speaking, because the state’s acknowledgment of religious freedom is a necessary (but not sufficient) step in its acknowledgment of a reality greater than itself.  But the Church does not depend on the state for its freedom.  Its freedom comes by nature (and by grace) from the truth of God.  Insofar as no state can ever fully succeed in abolishing this truth, no state can ever really take this freedom away.  Indeed this freedom often seems to grow in proportion to the attempts to suppress it.  The blood of the martyrs, Tertullian once said, is the seed of the church.  The greatest threat to religious freedom therefore comes not from the liberal state, but from the failure of Christians to see beyond the confines of the liberal imagination.

Any mention of ‘martyrdom’ in connection with the tolerant and comfortable West will seem to many to be just one more example of a self-indulgent ‘persecution complex’ by those who really have nothing to fear.  This is particularly galling at a time when Christians in other parts of the world are paying for their faith with their very lives.   The title of a recent Commonweal article by Gabriel Said Reynolds, “When Martyrdom Isn’t a Metaphor,” expresses this dismissive sentiment.  Certainly it would be obscene to equate our present difficulties with the ordeals faced by Christians in other parts of the world.  We in the West should be grateful that this is not our plight, and we should do what we can—no doubt infinitely more than is presently being done—to attempt to relieve theirs.  And it is just as certain that there are important distinctions to be drawn between the subtle forms of coercion and intimidation increasingly confronting faithful Christians in the West and the persecution facing Christians in lands where the faith is effectively proscribed—distinctions important both for avoiding exaggerated self-pity and for understanding the subtlety and complexity of our evolving situation.  But pious sympathy toward the suffering of others abroad should not be used as a weapon against one’s political opponents at home, and to pretend that there is no price to be paid for being on the wrong side of history is not only to turn a blind eye to a rapidly unfolding reality, it is to refuse the responsibility of understanding that reality and of paying that price if need be, to refuse even the possibility of suffering for the sake of those who come after us.

If martyrdom is a threat to absolutism, then perhaps we should consider liberalism’s apparent success in eliminating martyrdom not simply as a measure of its benevolence—for which we can be genuinely grateful—but also as a measure of its scope and power.  Since a martyr is fundamentally a witness— one who sees—before he is a victim, eliminating martyrdom means eliminating from public view just that horizon of truth to which the martyr’s freedom gives witness.  It is a measure of liberalism’s success in wiping away that horizon that the very idea of martyrdom seems so ridiculous and is so unthinkable to us.  The end of martyrdom does not mean the end of suffering or coercion, however—just ask Brendan Eich.  It simply means its removal from sight, at least when its victims aren’t prominent CEOsIt belongs not just to the benevolence but also to the genius of liberal order that it creates its ‘martyrs’ not visibly by lions in the Colosseum but invisibly by ten thousand bureaucratic paper cuts.  And it is a testament to its power that it succeeds in diffusing its coercive force throughout a center-less system which is never exactly visible and for which nobody is ever exactly responsible.  But then, that’s how ‘history’ works.

Ours appears to be a peculiar fate in which the prevailing order coerces in part by denying the possibility of martyrdom and depriving it of its visible witness.  It is no easy question how to live freely at such a moment—or even what sort of question this is—and there can be no simple blueprint for it, though it is certain that our ability to do so will depend on whether we can see the truth.   The forms this takes will no doubt be as varied as the subtle forms of intimidation and coercion which we will increasingly face.  The legal and political fight for religious freedom, compromised though it may be, can still be a powerful form of witness, and this is why the great civic project of American Christianity should carry on—like Frodo and Sam trudging on to Mordor—even though it is doomed.  But it makes all the difference in the world whether one carries on for the sake of achieving that elusive ‘Christian century’ or ‘Catholic moment’ in American political life or because carrying on is a witness to the freedom of the Church and the truth of the human being.  For this will determine whether the horizon of possibility is defined by the pragmatic criterion of political success or by “Christ’s freedom,” the freedom granted to us by the truth.

The point may be moot in any event.  Just as liberalism has attempted to have Christianity without the cross, so the great project of reconciling liberalism with Christianity has striven to create a society in which the Church could live faithfully without suffering.  To wake up and discover oneself on the wrong side of history is to find oneself living in a world where that is no longer possible.