Damon Linker does not suffer victory lightly. Following George W. Bush’s reelection, the former First Things editor became disillusioned with the religious right over the Iraq War, gay marriage, and abortion. He published a tell-all entitled “The Theocons,” detailing the illiberal inclinations of his pious cohorts, broke with the Right, and found his spiritual home in the tent of live-and-let-live liberalism. The unimaginable happened in 2013: his new side won the culture wars. He’s spent the past year over at The Week standing athwart history, yelling Wait.
Each new month brings a Brendan Eich, or Hobby Lobby witch-hunt, or campus attack on Christian organizations. And with it Linker pens a brave, thoughtful column asking liberals why they became so illiberal. What happened to defending against the tyranny of the majority? To pluralism?
On a range of issues, liberals seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life — and sometimes coerced into compliance by the government… the proper response to the distinctive dogmatism of our time is to urge liberals to return to their tolerant roots. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in my own writing, and my efforts will continue until more liberals come to their senses and begin recalling their comrades to a robust defense of their own pluralistic principles.
One gets the sense that Linker did not know what he was signing up for when he broke ranks with the “theocrats” and joined liberal culture warriors. Pluralism was never the goal—and he would have realized that had he been paying attention to the last great culture war.
The Last Great Culture War
“We need someone to step in and decide whose rights should prevail, and that’s government’s responsibility.” That was New York City anti-smoking activist Joe Cherner talking to Penn and Teller back in 2001, but it could just as easily have come from the mouth of any number of talking heads during the debate over Arizona’s amendment to the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) earlier this year.
If you want to see how pluralism works in twenty-first-century America, just ask for an ashtray on a restaurant patio. Then look over your shoulder. You can’t miss him—the fit, middle-aged man with handsome white hair, his countenance contorted into unmistakable disgust. He’ll turn to his date and speak in a casual, half-apologetic tone, but at a volume loud enough for you to hear: “I can’t believe they allow that. I thought this place was respectable.” After the waiter brings you the ashtray, the man will wave him over. The man will point and the waiter will turn toward your table.
The patio has been the last refuge of Washington DC smokers since the City Council banned the dread indoor cancer stick in 2007, but conflict is inevitable come summer. Live-and-let-live pluralism sounds good in theory, but when two diametrically opposed forces meet, the waiter has to make a choice. He will return to your table and kindly ask that you extinguish the cigarette.
Turning the Gun on Marriage
Even our tobacco-rich founders, fallible beings that they were, didn’t have the foresight to protect the act of smoking in the Constitution. But those conservatives crying religious liberty, U.S. Constitution in hand, and those moderates asking for pluralism at the dawn of the gay marriage era can learn a lot from humbled smokers today. The arguments that brought us to our current anti-tobacco state provide a good roadmap for what traditionalist citizens—everyone from the Baptists who endorsed the smoking bans to the Catholics who owned the pubs—can expect from the new marriage regime.
The smoking rate fell nearly 20 points in the 25 years that followed the 1964 surgeon general’s report linking smoking to cancer. By 1990, non-smoking sections were de rigueur in restaurants and public schools were telling every Dick and Jane the weed was poisonous. The free market responded to falling smoking rates with pluralism. Plenty of restaurants and bars had already started catering to the 80 percent exclusively, while those who ignored the Surgeon General congregated at businesses that welcomed them.
Libertarians and conservatives seemed to think the cultural tobacco wars ended there. Nick Naylor, protagonist(?) of Christopher Buckley’s great 1994 satire “Thank You For Smoking,” believed he had the answer. He spent the novel arguing that the tobacco lobby should abandon their challenges to the reality of smoking’s harmfulness and assume the barricade of liberty to win the day. Buckley, however, misread the intentions of True Believers. They don’t want to live and let live: they want extinction. Calls for pluralism are the last refuge for scoundrels, the cries of the beaten. There is no truce, just unconditional surrender.
Ads After It’s Over
Anti-tobacco hysteria reached a fever pitch in the wake of “Thank You For Smoking.” Every level of government, and the goody two shoes over at The Truth, bombarded airwaves with what had been common knowledge for decades using the hundreds of millions of dollars the state seized from the tobacco settlement. With record-levels of government spending, tobacco use declined a whopping 2 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The PSAs may not have done much to curb smoking rates, but they emboldened heavy-handed activists, lawmakers, and bureaucrats to nudge, as the paternalists say. The tactics shifted from criminalizing the product, to criminalizing the producer, to criminalizing the enabler, to criminalizing the individual user.
We all know how this ends. New York City banned indoor smoking in 2002. By 2009, North Carolina, the state tobacco built, turned its back on the staple crop. Increasingly onerous measures followed. My office building says it’s illegal for me to smoke within 25 feet of the door; a nearby restaurant has a non-smoking section on the patio (only enforced when the weather is nice enough for the anti-smokers to venture outdoors, of course). Companies and local governments have initiated smokers-need-not-apply policies. Some municipal governments have banned smoking on private property.
The health of the individual was never the goal. No matter the public and private expenditure, 20 percent of the American population never seemed to get on board with anti-smoking zealotry (while 100 percent enjoyed it while drinking). People were content to leave the nonbelievers to their smoke-filled rooms. The advent of second-hand smoke campaigns, however, raised their consciences. Suddenly the actions of barroom enablers and individual users threatened the poor waitress.
The Gay Lobby’s Secondhand Smoke
The gay lobby has found that self-esteem is their secondhand smoke. Waitresses are turning ample tips into homophobic hatecrimes. Gay meth addicts murdered by their drug-dealing lovers are victims of homophobia. States that have experienced no wave of homophobic hiring practice despite the lack of anti-discrimination laws for gay people are at risk of mass-discrimination by quote-unquote religious people. And if your church preaches what every church—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, hell, even Communism—preached for millennia, well then, you’re no different than the inhuman, diabolical douchebags draping “God Hates Fags” banners over military funerals.
The problem isn’t that the traditionalist view exists; the problem is that traditionalists exist. The new goal is to punish, not persuade, the individual, because of his potential threat to the community writ large. New York Times writer Josh Barro went on a July diatribe that illustrates this view has taken hold. It seems pluralism will not be enough to curb his hatred for religious liberty.
Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 24, 2014
We don’t even need to change everybody’s mind. Making people too embarrassed to express their anti-gay views is valuable progress.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 24, 2014
In Barro’s defense…sorry I fell asleep for a week trying to finish this sentence. Anyway, Barro felt no need to apologize for the tweet, nor should he. It’s a neat look into the true motivations of gay marriage activists. He tried to clarify by explaining the meaning of “ruthless” is that not enough Christians apologized to him for Prop 8 or something.
We went directly from “gays destroy society” (actually still in TX GOP platform) to “waaa stop oppressing me” without pausing at “I’m sorry”
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 25, 2014
He’ll acknowledge your rights just as soon as you kiss the ring (this worked out so well for Eich, you’ll remember).
No More ‘Coexist’
There’s a difference between the change pundits recognize as important and the change ambitious politicians and regulators realize is important. Pundits, Right and Left, think the marriage and religious liberty debate has changed because people are exposed to homosexuals on a regular basis; because people are less affiliated to traditional religion; because poll numbers have done a 180 since the 2004 election. Politicians, Right and Left, have noticed these trends too, and concluded that Americans have grown indifferent to how religious people are treated.
The 1993 RFRA passed the Democratic House unanimously and the Democratic Senate with only three dissenting votes. The American Civil Liberties Union endorsed. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer sponsored. President Bill Clinton signed. Two decades later, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who has gone out on a limb for “bigoted” immigration laws, vetoed the bill to protect the religious liberty of business owners. 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke against the protection of individuals whose faith guides more than their political donations. Libertarian pundits the world over said that one type of liberty trumped another. When the Supreme Court granted religious business owners conscience protections in the Hobby Lobby case, Senate Democrats in the midst of tough election year saw no risk in fighting to do away with pluralism.
Religious liberty defenders may think they have a solid case arguing that the First Amendment reflects inborn rights from God, Himself, but modern liberalism knows that the only thing that predates birth is sexual orientation. They will fight ruthlessly to make you accept that too. They started by fighting the legal regime and now set their sights on the individuals on the wrong side of history.
They won’t stop there. Some liberals want to do away with religious tax-free status. Others want to punish Catholic resistance to buying birth control for nuns. Over in Europe, homosexuals are suing churches to perform gay weddings.
The interior of the restaurant isn’t enough. They want the patio, too.