The Masterpiece Cakeshop case the Supreme Court recently decided centered on the Christian faith of Jack Phillips, the bakery’s owner. From a different angle, however, the case was more fundamentally about a different religious faith, one many of America’s elites follow.
That religion, secular progressivism, so dominates the most powerful institutions in American life that it may rightly be considered our de facto established religion. Thus, the hidden question at issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is the extent to which our governments will be forced to tolerate competitors to our national progressivist religion.
Yes, There Are Secular Religions
“Religion” is not an easy concept to define. A religion may posit one god or many, or spirits but no gods, or perhaps even that the spirits and gods have only illusory existence. What unites these diverse belief systems under the umbrella of religion? All seek to understand humankind, the meaning and purpose of life and whether life may continue after death, the world around us, and the supernatural realm (including the existence and nature of God or the gods). Also, all seek to do so in a coherent or integrated way.
Most Americans today view secularistic and atheistic belief systems as not being religious, but that categorization results more from the history of rhetoric than from a systematic analysis of ideas. In the late Middle Ages, those few Europeans who denied Christianity were viewed as denying religion. In the French Revolution, the secularistic revolutionaries were only too happy to agree with this assessment, since religion—i.e., Christianity—was blamed in part for the excesses of the ruling class. But this denial of the religious nature of secular beliefs does not hold up to scrutiny.
Marxism provides a clear illustration. This belief system tries to make sense of humankind in terms that uncannily parallel Christianity. It tells of original innocence (primitive communism); of the fall into sin (private property); of the human condition since the fall (class struggle); of the conquest over sin (the proletarian revolution); and of the paradise to come (pure Communism). Marxism also tells us about the meaning of life, claiming that our purpose is merely to produce the means of satisfying our needs, and that society can be perfected in this purpose when we finally jettison property and class and achieve Communism.
This is humanity’s earthly salvation, and there is no life after death. Not even the world around us and the supernatural realm escape Marxism’s all-encompassing scope. Dialectical materialism explains them both: only the material or natural world exists, and it operates according to a process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. There is no God.
Finally, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw to it that each element of this system arguably makes sense with all the other elements. The system is coherent, even integrated. In sum, Marxism is quite simply a non-theistic religion.
Progressivism Is Simply Evolved Marxism
Progressivism spawned from Marxism and evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century. Although the progressivist belief system is less narrowly focused on economics than its parent was, we are right to see it as Marxism evolved.
Progressivism maintains Marxism’s beliefs in the centrality of the struggles between oppressor and oppressed, the materialist nature of the world, the absence of God and an afterlife, and the necessity of revolution to save humanity through the evolution of the perfect human society in which outcomes are equal for everyone. Like its ideological parent, progressivism is a non-theistic religion.
Indeed, many progressives orient their lives around spreading the progressivist faith and finding comfort in communities of fellow adherents. Many choose their career paths and neighborhoods with these goals in mind, and no corner of their lives remains untouched by their beliefs. Moreover, progressives hold to their views with religious zeal, signaling their virtues to one another and using narrative and emotion to insulate their beliefs from reasoned argument.
Progressivism Is The American Religion
Over the last century or so, progressivism has gradually emerged as America’s dominant belief system. Its manifestations are numerous: LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, third-wave feminism, socialism, the “white privilege” police, and so on. Its adherents are in every influential sphere, from Silicon Valley and Hollywood to New York and DC, even down to faculty lounges, textbook producers, corporate HR departments, local media outlets, and state-level civil rights commissions (like that in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case). It even sets the standard for how we interpret our laws, for they are viewed as appropriately neutral under the Constitution when they are secular.
It is certainly true that progressivism’s influence is stronger in Chicago than Cheyenne, in Colorado than Kentucky. But can any American escape its reach? Even in traditionalist enclaves, most people probably imbibe progressivism through network newscasts and pass it on to their children through textbooks and blockbuster movies. The orthodoxy of the American public square is progressivism. That is our civil religion, our established faith. Not officially or expressly, but in effect.
The question, then, is what sort of established faith progressivism is and will be in the coming years. Broadly speaking, religious establishments fall along a spectrum from absolute establishments that adhere tenaciously to core beliefs and stamp out competing views, to tolerant establishments that hold loosely to core beliefs and tolerate dissent.
Mary Tudor had hundreds of Protestants killed as she sought to solidify the re-establishment of the Roman Church in England. Less tolerant still were the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks, and the Taliban is a modern example of an extreme absolute establishment.
At the other end of the spectrum, today’s Church of England and Church of Sweden are tolerant establishments that maintain only modest connections with their core beliefs and are quite open to non-Christian views. In fact, some would go so far as to say that these latter two have become more open to non-Christian views than to traditional Christian ones, stretching the spectrum to what might be called merely “formal” establishments.
Masterpiece Cakeshop Versus Progressivism
This brings us to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. On account of his beliefs, Phillips had refused to bake a wedding cake to help celebrate the nuptials of Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, a homosexual couple. The couple sued him for discrimination under Colorado’s civil rights laws. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission decided in favor of the couple, a decision upheld on appeal. Then the Supreme Court reversed the decision in a 7-2 ruling on the ground that the commission had violated Phillips’s right freely to exercise his religion, as protected under the First Amendment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion focused on the commission’s “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips’s religious beliefs. This hostility was evidenced by commission members’ on-the-record derogatory statements against Phillips’s faith, as well as “the difference in treatment between Phillips’s case and the cases of other bakers who objected to a requested cake on the basis of conscience.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent denied the constitutional significance of such discrimination.
Justices Elena Kagan, Neal Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas each filed a concurrence staking out territory on matters of broader applicability, such as the nature of marriage and its relationship to religious belief, and whether a wedding cake constitutes “expressive conduct.” With the possible exception of Thomas’s opinion, which examined the case on free speech grounds, all of these opinions had the hidden question in play: what sort of established faith is progressivism to be?
Clearly the justices did not expressly pronounce on this hidden question, for progressivism is established only in effect, not officially. But given our current societal context, their arguments did effectively address the question.
Kennedy and the majority set our current, moderately tolerant baseline of “neutral and respectful consideration” of religious claims. Governmental institutions can be more tolerant than this standard, but they cannot lawfully be less. In her dissent, Ginsburg put forth a small picture of what a more absolute progressivist establishment would look like: even a government agency’s overt prejudice against an alternative belief system would be preferable to tolerating that system.
In their concurrences, Gorsuch and Kagan effectively wrestled over whether the progressivist understanding of marriage equality should be binding upon the Supreme Court in future reviews of states’ actions. The specific point of contention was Gorsuch’s description of the cake Phillips was asked to create, as a “cake celebrating a same-sex marriage.”
Kagan denied such a thing exists. On the contrary, she insisted, what the couple ordered was “simply a wedding cake,” the cake’s nature being independent of the sexes of those getting married. (Ginsburg also reinforced this point in her dissent.) Kagan’s position reflects the progressivist view of marriage, that a marriage between two men or two women is, in its essence, the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman.
This is the equality of outcome that progressivism seeks, and Kagan advanced the position that the Supreme Court must adhere strictly to this progressivist belief. Marriage equality isn’t merely a civil right, it is a civil orthodoxy, and there is to be little or no compromise on this core tenet. Kagan’s position would still entitle religious dissenters to neutral and respectful consideration, but beyond that the progressivist establishment could be absolute.
Will Progressivism Tolerate Dissenters?
Gorsuch argued for a gentler progressivist grip, a more tolerant establishment. For an orthodox Christian like Phillips, a marriage between two men is not the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman. Indeed, only the latter has the true nature of a marriage at all. Thus, Phillips’s beliefs say that a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage differs, in its essence, from a wedding cake. The nature of the cake does depend on the sexes of those getting married.
Gorsuch took the position that the Supreme Court should recognize and tolerate this view, despite its affront to progressivism. The progressivist establishment should hold on to this core belief loosely and tolerate Phillips’s competing belief system. Indeed, we should not be surprised were we to learn that Gorsuch, a devout Catholic, would prefer a watered-down, merely formal progressivist establishment, or better yet, no progressivist establishment at all.
The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision does not resolve in any full or final sense the question of how tolerant the progressivist establishment will have to be in the coming years. The current standard of “neutral and respectful consideration” of religious claims provides some moderate tolerance for religious dissenters. Our establishment is clearly not absolute.
Still, if the Supreme Court continues to resolve each case on its own unique facts and avoids answering the broader questions that the concurrences raised, progressive-controlled institutions will have significant license to impose something along the lines of Kagan’s rather more absolute establishment, stifling dissent and pushing other belief systems to the margins of society. Here’s hoping that the court addresses the question soon, and that Gorsuch’s gentler, more tolerant establishment carries the day.