February 5th, 2011

Liberal Myths, Religious Realities

Timothy StanleyBy Timothy Stanley.

On Politics, History, Sex and Morality.

A Response to Damon Linker.


In the last issue of this magazine, Damon Linker wrote an excellent article on the subject of sexual traditionalism. I would recommend reading it. It is well conceived and well written. But it also engaged in a certain amount of liberal mythmaking.

Linker argues that the religious right is wrong when it says the sexual revolution of the 1960s was the result of a liberal conspiracy. On his view, contemporary moral laws reflect a new, enlightened public consensus that emerged without premeditation. Liberalism, apparently, favors neither Puritanism nor permissiveness, but tries to defend people’s right to practice either. If only the sexual traditionalists realized this, he concludes, they might see that they have much to gain from embracing the liberal order.

To prove his point, Linker makes four claims. First, he states that America has never been an innately Christian society. Pre-Sixties sexual traditionalism was not the result of “the nation’s Christian essence”, but of “a historically contingent cultural consensus.”

Second, Linker argues that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was not a top-down revolution: it was not “the organized effort of decadent liberal elites in the nation’s education and media establishments to impose a hedonistic ethic on the country through antidemocratic means.” Instead, it was a bottom-up revolution that shattered America’s sexual consensus through incremental change. The liberal state merely adjusted its laws to reflect shifting public opinion. Linker states: “Whereas the overwhelming majority of Americans once considered it appropriate for laws and mores to regulate private sexual conduct, somewhat less than half of the country supports such regulations today.”

Third, Linker argues that liberalism is “not politics against metaphysics… but politics conducted, as much as possible, in an idiom of metaphysical neutrality, taking no position for or against God.” In layman’s terms, liberals don’t care if you’re an atheist lesbian or a flat earth Christian – they discriminate against neither, trying merely to find a consensus position between the two.

Finally, Linker argues that liberalism is the solution to America’s culture war. An appropriately applied “morality of rights” would allow sexual traditionalists and libertines to behave however they wish within their own private spheres. In case one doubts where he stands, Linker concludes: “Today’s sexual traditionalists are thus wrong to view themselves as victims of a liberal state hell-bent on spreading hedonism throughout the land… The liberal state is not predisposed to defend and enforce sexual liberation; it is predisposed to stymie the efforts of a part of society to use state power to impose its vision on the whole of society.”

I disagree with all of these points. This is not necessarily because I agree with the views of religious conservatives here stated, although I have a mountain of sympathy for how poorly their beliefs are presented in popular culture. I disagree with Linker because I think he misunderstands the nature of faith and American history, which have been entwined in a bitter love affair for over two hundred years. American society is more conservative than Linker suggests, and religious conservatives are considerably less dumb.

First, I struggle to see why the difference Linker posits between a “Christian essence” and “a historically contingent cultural consensus” should have the force he ascribes to it. I don’t think the average Baptist preacher would either. Some Christian sects have claimed that America is a Christian “space” in the way Israel is a holy land. But Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists and Quakers do not. Obviously, America was majority Christian up until the 1960s because its population was… majority Christian. And doubtless, if the Founding Fathers had been Wiccans then we would be having a different debate.

So why talk about this supposedly historically contingent cultural consensus? I think Linker makes this point in order to imply that religious conservatives are Romantic nationalists with no sense of historicism. But this is mistaken. What conservatives – accurately – believe is that the Founding Fathers were Christian men who established a republic rooted in Christian philosophy. This included a keen sense of the dignity of the individual, which (despite Linker’s contrary view)is not  an idea invented by liberals. The Founding Fathers believed that man is endowed with natural liberties because he was created in the image of God. If the doctrinally Christian nature of the republic is not explicit in its constitution, then this is because the Founding Fathers lived in a religious age – and, hence, thought the the Christian nature of the constitution was obvious.

Second, if the sexual revolution of the 1960s depended upon the breaking of the Christian consensus then someone – who? – had to break it first. Linker at times talks as though religious conservatives weren’t aware that sexual mores have changed since 1968; but of course they are. During the Clinton impeachment crisis, the Republican Party was astonished to discover that the President’s popularity actually went up with every sordid revelation.  Rightwing activist Paul Weyrich wrote in 1999: “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually share our values. If there really were a moral majority, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago. The culture we are living in has become an ever-wider sewer. […] We are caught up in a cultural collapse … so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” Religious conservatives don’t deny that moral values have changed. What they dispute with Linker is what drove that change.

Religious conservatives are sexual realists. The dogma of Original Sin leaves them ever-prepared for the worst in human behavior. Linker presents a surprisingly linear view of sexual history that would be challenged by most queer theorists, for example. But no Christian would be surprised to discover that that the Second World War sparked a silent sexual revolution in the 1940s – testified to by the massive anti-VD campaigns run by the belligerents. What was different about the 1960s was that, on this rare occasion, every sphere of public authority (except the army) either catalyzed or endorsed sexual experimentation. The idea – implied by Linker – that the independent judiciary (called “another liberal institution” by Linker, as if conservatives oppose it) was merely reflecting public opinion when it handed down Roe vs. Wade in 1973 is absurd. According to contemporary opinion polls, 80% of Americans opposed the decision. Between 1970 and 1973, there were three state referenda on legalizing abortion. Prochoice advocates won by a narrow margin in Washington (54-46%) and lost by clear margins in Michigan (61-39%) and North Dakota (77-23%).

The historical reality is that liberals don’t like consensus, because it usually goes against them. The margin of conservative strength has fallen since the Equal Rights Amendment failed to get ratified in the late 1970s. But it is still there. And liberals still ignore it. In California in 2008, Californians rejected legalized gay marriage in a referendum. That indicator of public opinion was ignored by a federal judge, and will probably get overturned by the independent judiciary (in that sense, yes, it really is “another liberal institution”). Traditionalists and libertarians should be worried about this trend as it is obviously antidemocratic.

Third, Linker is wrong to suggest that liberals take “no position for or against God”. Why then take prayer out of schools? Why ban Christmas trees in public places and the Ten Commandments outside courthouses? The evidence is strong that there is a popular consensus in favor of all these things. That’s one of the many reasons why the Republican Party has done so well since 1968.

This is Linker’s biggest cultural misunderstanding. To religious conservatives, God is not a “take it or leave it” issue. If you accept that he exists, then you are obliged to follow his moral teachings because the alternative is Hell. Worse than sinning alone is to encourage others to misbehave too; turning a blind eye to promiscuity damns two souls at once. This is why religious conservatives laugh at liberals who say that they are personally Christian but wouldn’t want to force it on anyone else. The “metaphysically neutral” Christian is not a Christian at all, because he/she is ignoring the call to Evangelize. Read the Bible. Jesus was not an armchair Messiah who sat around contemplating his dream catcher.

And so we come to a problem with Linker’s final point on the “morality of rights”. Linker wants religious conservatives to accept a state that is “metaphysically neutral” and which acknowledges everyone’s right to do as they wish so long as it does not hurt others. Most religious conservatives would accept that proposition. The problem is that America cannot agree on what is and isn’t hurtful. Abortion is the prime example. A Christian cannot say “I am personally pro-life but I won’t stand in the way of someone else having an abortion.” To many Christians, a fetus is a life and abortion is murder. What kind of public consensus, overseen by a benevolent “independent judiciary,” could regard murder as a “metaphysically neutral” subject beyond the state’s interest?

Linker’s article is typical among liberal treatments of the problem of balancing modern sexual rights and established religious mores. It mixes snobbery towards the religious right with a naïve faith that differences can be smoothed over with capable political leadership. This is exactly the approach President Obama has taken to the issue. It has not worked. He too has tried to smooth over abortion, by protesting that it is wrong but that government has not the right to do away with it. His response to the question put to him during the 2008 election, “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” was indicative of Linker’s model of a disinterested state. Note that the question wasn’t about when life begins, but at what stage in life the “morality of rights” Linker celebrates kicks in. Obama said the question was “above my pay grade.” For those who think abortion is a matter of life and death, that is not a satisfactory answer.

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