Peter Thiel, the GOP and the ‘Fake Culture Wars’

Can Rene Girard point the way to a peaceful truce?

By John Zmirak Published on July 27, 2016

In his stirring speech to the Republican National Convention, tech marketing genius and libertarian intellectual Peter Thiel condemned what he called the “fake culture war” between Christians and gay Americans. Most media that reported on that statement saw it as a rebuke of the Christian right, a suggestion that we have been the aggressors in a battle against gay Americans, one which Mr. Trump has parachuted in to settle, at last, by negotiating our surrender.

That doesn’t sound hopeful to those of us still bewildered by this cultural Pearl Harbor. With lightning speed the cultural left has overturned universal norms of marriage by court fiat, and made ordinary business owners and churches potential defendants in legal actions for upholding norms that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton affirmed just six years ago.

It’s possible to read Thiel’s statement as a call to surrender. After all, the billionaire Paypal co-founder also said in the same speech that he was proud to be a gay Republican. But I don’t think he’s prone to such a boilerplate “victimist” view of things.

Victimism: The Go-To Headgame of Power-Hungry Activists

Victimists are those who, according to Christian anthropologist Rene Girard, mimic sympathy with the downtrodden in order to accumulate power themselves, just long enough to win the chance to victimize others. Thiel is a scholar of Girard’s fascinating work, and I think he’s too sophisticated to join the shouting mob. Let me unpack the victimist narrative in a little more detail, and offer another reading of Thiel’s remarks, one which offers common ground between conservative Christians and patriotic gay Americans like Thiel.

The victimists dominant among media elites assert that Christians concerned for religious freedom are deluded, that none of our legitimate rights are at issue, and we’re engaged in nothing more than a pointless rear-guard action, in the hope of someday restoring laws that are in fact oppressive to homosexuals.

Accepting the Machiavellian view of power, victimists hold that there is no “sweet spot” of balance between competing groups, where everyone’s valid claims can be accommodated; instead, any group that has power would be crazy not to keep on accumulating it, since any slow-down or pause in that process is simply a sign that its enemy is gaining power instead.

Each group has every reason to fight as hard as it can to gain all the power that is available, without any logical stopping point, because the instant momentum starts to shift, it’s part of an inexorable path to persecution. Power is a pendulum, which must be pushed with all our might till it smashes the other side, then held there as long as possible.

Are Christians Headed for De-Nazification Therapy?

Certainly that’s how victimist Prof. Mark Tushnet views the “culture wars,” which he models on World War II: They represent an irreconcilable conflict between two implacable worldviews, one that can only finally end in unconditional surrender by one side — which is why he advocates treating orthodox Christians and Jews as the Allies did the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, that is as objects for total defeat, removal from power, and systemic reconditioning. The alternative, on this theory, is a repressive theocracy that persecutes homosexuals. You must be either scapegoat or high priest; there is no middle ground.

If the Americans engaged on the other side of the “culture war” were orthodox Muslims instead of Christians, the victimists might be right: There is no legal compromise possible between a sexually tolerant society and an “infallible,” unalterable sharia culture that demands execution for homosexuals and adulterers (among many others). The battle that’s shaping up in parts of Europe in the wake of mass Islamic colonization may very well be to the death — as Dutch gay activist and Islamo-skeptic politician Pym Fortyn learned when a sympathizer with Muslim immigrants murdered him to keep him out of power.

Fortyn’s political successor, the libertarian Geert Wilders, likely sees things just that way; he is at once a major politician and a defendant in a “hate crime” prosecution, who lives under 24-hour guard lest Muslims murder him. Prudent Christians with backbones will stand alongside Wilders, and the terrorized homosexual citizens of every country afflicted by Islamists, braving with them the smears of the mob.

Christians Shouldn’t Make Victims or Play Victim

But things don’t have to be that bad in America. No tenet of Christianity demands or even suggests execution for homosexuals, and it has been centuries since any secular court imposed such an outrageous penalty. For decades before the Supreme Court used the bad logic of Griswold v. Connecticut to strike down anti-sodomy laws, they had gone almost totally unenforced — because of the fundamental liberality that’s native to Christianity. Our founder was a victim himself (a willing one), and he called on us never to sacrifice anyone else on his behalf.

We don’t see most sins as crimes, though sometimes we write into law essential mores to underscore their importance. Here’s one such distinction: We believe that since marriage is ordered toward children, it doesn’t in its nature make room for same-sex unions. To remake marriage on any other lines is to encode in the laws of the state a principle at odds with Christian faith and natural law.

The Constitutional arguments the Supreme Court cited in 2015 to say otherwise were totally illegitimate, as four learned justices in the minority argued without any reference to religious dogma or authority.

The LGBT movement regards same-sex marriage as fundamental and non-negotiable, and has built on its victory in exactly the Machiavellian fashion that Prof. Tushnet urges — trying to equate any same-sex marriage opposition to invidious racial discrimination, which the state rightly tries to repress except in the narrowest possible boundaries of purely private behavior.

That movement has pushed even further, striving to banish from the laws any remnants of “heteronormativity,” the idea that biological sexes have real existence and significance that should be recognized by the law. This is the real meaning of the “bathroom wars”: so long as people are permitted to speak and act on the fact of two distinctive sexes, same-sex relationships will not be seen as “normative.” That offends some people’s notion of “dignity,” and the majority on the Supreme Court claimed in the Obergefell decision that it is a basic Constitutional right not to be so offended. Therefore the reality of two distinct sexes must be repressed and obscured by the state. (See Jeffrey Rosen at The Atlantic on what a dangerous innovation this invented “dignity” right might prove.)

A Christian/Gay Peace Treaty

There is a third way, which rejects victimism, Machiavellian power games and a Hobbesean war among citizens. Could this be in fact what Thiel meant when he called the “culture wars” phony? I can’t read his mind, but since he is a principled libertarian, I doubt very much that Thiel favors the state persecuting churches — choosing between them, granting one set of “approved” religions special tax benefits and denying them to others, as Obama’s solicitor general admitted the IRS might very well do, to the detriment of churches that won’t bow to Obergefell.

I would also be very surprised if Thiel thought that the state should force private businessmen to perform services which their consciences forbid — such as catering or hosting certain types of weddings. Indeed, a strict libertarian would not even apply such laws to racial discrimination, but instead let racial bigots lose business if they wished to, and suffer widespread boycotts. The principles of “freedom of contract” and “freedom of association” are fundamental to libertarian thinking; it’s a pity that more libertarians didn’t apply them consistently.

So is there a non-Machiavellian “sweet spot” where orthodox Christians and proudly gay Americans can co-exist as fellow citizens, not victims, forswearing a zero-sum war for power? I offered one in an article I wrote back in 2013, a proposed “grand bargain” and truce in the marriage wars that pleased neither side.

It will please neither now, but surely a negotiated peace is preferable to culture wars without end waged toward unconditional surrender. Gay activists may have the upper hand at the moment. But they ought to recall that for all their disproportionate cash and influence, they still represent at most 2 percent of the general population. Church-going Americans are much more fertile than secular ones, and a religious “Great Awakening” could reverse those trends. Much better for all involved to seek a fair, liberal compromise than count on holding the pendulum in place forever. So here goes:

The state should recognize and enforce the terms of any reasonable partnership contract between two romantic partners. Instead of having a one-size-fits-all marriage law with no-fault divorce, which is stretched to accommodate homosexuals, instead allow individuals, churches and lawyers to draft the marriage contracts that suit them. Presumably Christians would draw up much more substantive contracts (since real marriage is far more than a mere legal contract); the state should enforce them, as it does the looser bonds preferred by others. The state should recognize any such reasonable contract for all legal purposes and enforce it, but leave private citizens and organizations the freedom to judge it otherwise.

And if gay caterers don’t want to make fabulous the reception for someone’s Catholic wedding, that should be their privilege; the converse should also be true. Get the state as much as possible out of the marriage business, and out of the business of enforcing laws that forbid any of us to act on his conscience, whether that conscience is secular or Christian, “heteronormative” or not. Make “freedom of association” and “freedom of contract” fighting words for Americans of every race, creed, and color. Let a gorgeous mosaic of local norms, on which people vote with their feet, replace the ham-handed diktats of five autocratic judges imposed upon 300 million citizens.

Such a compromise would allow millions of Americans to call a truce in a divisive culture war, and focus on the issues which unite us — including our mutual defense against the truly implacable, intolerant forces that wish to victimize us all. As a fellow Girardian, I hope that’s what Peter Thiel had in mind.

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