Here’s the thing I like least about Mary Eberstadt’s latest book, It’s Dangerous to Believe. Liberals don’t seem to be reading or discussing it. Or if they are, I can’t find the evidence.
Admittedly, it’s a hard-hitting book. Very few words are wasted in sympathizing with liberal progressives, and some may prefer not to read whole books comparing them to McCarthyites and witch-hunters. I’d encourage them to read it anyway. This is one conversation religious conservatives would really like to have with you. Call it the Mary Eberstadt Challenge.
For Eberstadt’s more like-minded readers, the book offers a good opportunity to reflect on the challenges currently in front of us. How have we gotten to this point? What should we do next?
The Purge Begins
Much of Eberstadt’s book is dedicated to documenting the evidence that, indeed, Christians are becoming the objects of persecution. She offers scores of cases, all from recent years, in which Christians have been denied freedoms and protections that would be afforded as a matter of course to any other group. The arguments given for this suppression are transparently ludicrous or paranoid. Christians have real reason to be afraid.
Describing these incidents as “persecution” may seem overdrawn to some. Christians today face soft penalties like job loss, harassment, or social stigma, but we’re not being thrown to the lions (at least here in America). We haven’t yet rolled out the torture chambers for Catholic priests or Bible-distributing Gideons. Is Eberstadt perhaps going too far in describing Christian belief as dangerous?
One hopes so. Still, the trend lines are genuinely disturbing. Christians are turning into the sort of minority it is socially acceptable to despise and marginalize. Ordinary rules of civility and social inclusion don’t seem to apply to them. We believe in free speech, except not for Christians. Freedom of association doesn’t necessarily apply to them. Rules of civility and decency are more optional when Christians are involved. Shall we even pretend that freedom of religion is a cherished American commitment in our day?
When a group is “approved” for this kind of marginalizing treatment, it’s hard to predict where it will stop. Christianity hasn’t changed very much, at least in the relevant respects. Christians became moral renegades because the mainstream culture shifted, leaving our beliefs “on the wrong side of history” as progressives have envisioned it. We’re vilified for maintaining positions that have been embedded in the Christian tradition for centuries. If the dominant culture can change enough to permit this level of kulturkampf against an ancient Western faith, who can say how much further it might go?
Witch-Hunts and Heretic-Hunts
Two questions now present themselves. Why is this happening? Also, what should we do about it?
Eberstadt presents the persecution of Christians as a kind of witch-hunt. Even though traditional religion is in fact culturally marginal, progressives view Christians as a monstrous threat, poised to subvert the whole nation with our anti-freedom theocratic agenda. We’re a kind of cultural boogeyman in an age of overwhelming anxiety.
On this reading, the impulse to persecute arises from a kind of mania. Deep cultural anxieties get transferred to Christian scapegoats. Progressive fear of Christians is like a Freudian psychoanalytic phobia.
David Goldman, in his review of Eberstadt’s book, points to another possible explanation. What if progressive fear of traditional religion isn’t based on a delusion? Perhaps liberals correctly perceive that their cultural dominance is fragile and already beginning to crumble. Perhaps they fear Christians because they accurately identify is as the most significant cultural force outside of liberal progressivism itself. Perhaps they sense that traditionalists, even when relegated to a counter-culture, have the cultural resources to challenge their hegemony.
Is the assault on religious freedom a witch-hunt, or a heretic-hunt? The question seems to turn on whether traditionalists are an imagined threat to progressive goals, or a genuine one. Witches are a phantasm of the hunter’s imagination. Heretics can be real.
Eberstadt herself offers some reason to think Christians might be heretics rather than witches. They incite liberal wrath in part because they profane liberal progressive “faith,” a kind of hedonistic pseudo-religion that focuses intensely on sex. The primary sacraments of progressivism are sexual self-expression (especially in non-heterosexual forms) and abortion, both of which represent for progressives the vanquishing of nature in the name of unfettered personal autonomy. Christians keep stubbornly insisting that the body, in its natural form, has moral significance. That’s a deeply offensive message to the devout progressive.
At the same time, Eberstadt makes a strong case that progressives are prone to hysteria wherever Christians are involved. We’re not really trying to snatch away women’s 28-day packs. We don’t want to dominate the world with a Bible-thumping theocracy. The paranoia of progressive arguments lends credence to the witch-hunt theory.
Can There Be Witch-Hunting Heretics?
G.K. Chesterton once suggested Protestant societies were more prone to witch-hunting, an observation he attributed to a widespread Protestant failure to incorporate femininity robustly into their spirituality. Catholics, with their intense love of Mary, were able to restore the psychological balance, acknowledging the power of the feminine in a non-terrifying way. Meanwhile, where the Reformation took hold, the unexpressed power of the feminine started to haunt the imagination of Protestant thinkers. Then misfortune would strike (a drought, an earthquake, or a series of bad crops) and they would imagine that a malevolent, unopposed woman was somehow behind the mischief.
I’m not qualified to evaluate Chesterton’s theory with respect to Protestantism and witches. I do think it may shed light on our current situation. What Chesterton shows us is that in some instances, “witches” really do represent an unacknowledged source of power. That power may not actually be malign, and the witch-hunter’s terror may say far more about him than his hapless quarry.
Witches are not real per se, but the myth has some connection to reality. Properly understood, women do have their own kind of power, and men who have failed to appreciate this have reason to be apprehensive. They may “discover” the power of the feminine at an unexpected time, quite possibly in an unpleasant way.
Elite liberals are in a relevantly similar position. Their ideologies seem to be spinning out of control, and traditionalists have some disconcertingly powerful critiques to levy against them. In this instance, the “heretic” (one who opposes those ideologies on principle) may also make a very suitable “witch.”
Over the last few decades, the progressive elite has enjoyed congratulating themselves for outgrowing traditional religion. Religious people have long been presented in the media as reactionaries and rubes, hopelessly blinded by hateful prejudice. A thousand elite autobiographies have begun with a smug recounting of the progressive “saving experience” wherein the child in church realizes that God is dead, and that the Sunday School teacher is just a pitiful functionary of a corrupt purveyor of fairy-stories. This condescension towards religion is an elemental component of progressive faith.
Now the liberal elite has a problem. Traditionalists aren’t nearly as extinct as we’re supposed to be. Actually, our beliefs and communities are looking surprisingly resilient. Committed Christians met a nice, gay couple (even several!) and still held to traditional sexual morals. The pro-life movement keeps hanging around like a bad cold. Liberal progressivism has not been the unqualified political and cultural success they expected it to be.
Things feel precarious. Liberals feel threatened. The psychic balance between progress and tradition is wildly disturbed. Panicking because a Christian friend offers to pray for you is in a way quite absurd, but to the insecure liberal, the offer to invoke divine influences may seem genuinely ominous. They don’t understand traditional religion, but it seems to have an eerie staying power. Some traditionalist spokesmen, if you listen to their siren song, actually seem fairly reasonable. They even have the audacity to bolster their self-image by doing good deeds!
Suddenly those reactionary rubes start seeming like a real threat. The hysteria begins to mount.
Followers of the Lamb
Eberstadt seems to have written this book in hopes it will function for liberal progressives (or at least a few of them) as a kind of wake-up call. Ostensibly obsessed with “inclusion” and “diversity,” progressives are morphing into exactly the sorts of villains that populate their own favorite morality tales. Appealing to the better angels of their nature, Eberstadt urges them to consider walking it back before the situation becomes truly dire.
Goldman believes this effort is futile. I’m with Eberstadt on this point. Not all liberal progressives are beyond the realm of reason. It’s still worth trying to snap the evil spell.
Like Goldman, though, I’m mildly perturbed by the way Eberstadt presents Christians as culturally weak and helpless. To be sure, many elements of the present situation are beyond our control. Persuasion is very important at the present moment. In many respects, though, progressives are right to fear us. They have reason to shut down conversations before they can begin. We aren’t really looking to dominate them through theocratic tyranny, but we do have some very powerful critiques of their sex-obsessed “faith.” Also, our traditions have a depth and balance and reasonableness to them that progressives have barely begun to appreciate.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Christians will populate these American shores for a long time after our insecure degree-toting elites have been relegated to the pages of dusty books. That’s a good enough reason for progressive liberals to read Eberstadt’s book, and reflect on their manic animosity towards Christians. It’s also reason for Christians to persevere in hope.