How to Stop the Progressive Haters
There's a secularist witch hunt afoot against believers, Mary Eberstadt argues in her new book, and it's past time we say so.
What kind of person wakes up in the morning thinking, “I want to shut down a charity today”?
This is the question at the heart of Mary Eberstadt’s new book It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. For far too long, Eberstadt argues, religious believers have been playing defense, forced into the corner of explaining why they aren’t bigots or haters. But if we truly want to have the open society progressives say they want, it’s time to flip that on its head. And that means challenging the secularists who are seeking “tolerance” and “diversity” to practice what they preach by making room for people of faith.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mary and discuss this and other elements of her new book.
THE STREAM: What does it mean to say it’s dangerous to believe, particularly in the West, when we know it’s really dangerous to be a believing, practicing Christian in the Middle East?
MARY EBERSTADT: There is no moral equivalence between the wholesale slaughter of Middle Eastern Christians and what’s happening in the Western world, obviously. On the other hand, two points.
“… what we need to remember as Christians is the gift of reason we were given, which is to say there’s no giving up on the possibility of persuading other people. If we thought we couldn’t persuade other people there’d be no conversion, religious or otherwise.” Mary Eberstadt
First point: these two phenomena are related in very important ways. The sidelining and stigmatization of western Christians, which seems to be the aim of the ascendant secular progressivism we see today, has made it harder for western Christians to help Christians elsewhere in the world.
And a progressive presidency hasn’t helped matters either. While Secretary Kerry finally got around to saying it a few months ago, the United States was at the end of a long line of actors on the world stage willing to say that what has happened to Christians in the Middle East is genocide.
For years, experts on the Middle East, and Christian leaders around the world like the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis and many others, implored that this be recognized as a genocide. So once again, if you think that Christianity is a problem in your own country — or at least something to be reined in and pulled back and its expression more limited — you are not going to put the plight of Christians in the Middle East at the top of your to-do list.
Second point: The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay that was well known in its time called Defining Deviancy Down. What he meant by this was the general collapse of any sense of gradations in moral actions, such as the rise in the idea that “if it’s not illegal, then it must be okay.”
The fact that in the West Christians are not being murdered like they are in the Middle East does not mean that what’s happening to them is alright. To suggest that logic chain is another example of defining deviancy down. The idea that people are only losing their jobs and not their homes or their lives doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to have to stay awake at night worrying that they might lose their livelihood simply for believing what Christians have believed for thousands of years.
THE STREAM: Who or what are the enemies to religious liberty in the West?
EBERSTADT: At the end of World War II, philosopher Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies, the definitive attack on historicism. It argued that the historicist vision incubated by Plato and developed in full by Hegel and Marx — the idea that human beings are the marionettes of immutable historical forces beyond their control — is inimical to the very idea of freedom.
Historicism is the enemy of liberty.
I borrowed that phrase of Popper’s because his point is critical to our own day, and specifically to the question of religious liberty. Today, a related but different historicist fallacy is afoot: the idea that capital-H History has somehow trumped religion and rendered Christianity, in particular, obsolete.
It’s reflected in common sayings, such as that religious people stand on the “wrong side of history,” that society can’t “turn back the clock,” that “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle,” and so on. All of these are retail expressions of historicism. They’re used as ideological weapons to shut down free debate.
To say that religious believers (or others) have been overruled by “history” is to imply that their opinions no longer have merit.
We need to be aware of the threat that today’s historicism poses to freedom itself, just as Popper was aware. Anyone who puts “religious liberty” in quotation marks, as many people now do — anyone who acts as if religious freedom is somehow a suspect phrase, or a stalking horse for something else — is on the wrong side of the open society.
THE STREAM: You describe our current state of affairs as a secularist witch hunt. What do you mean by this?
EBERSTADT: One good definition of “witch hunt” cited in the book comes from a sociologist of the Salem trials: “the pursuit of a group of persons for their supposed characteristics or beliefs, rather than for anything they have done.”
What’s happening today to small-o orthodox Christians in the United States and elsewhere fits that definition eerily well. Unapologetic believers today are commonly called “bigots” and “haters” and assigned other degrading epithets, for example, just in virtue of being religious believers — and with no evidence for the charge that they hate anyone at all.
The fact that they’re not subject to ordinary standards of proof is reminiscent of panics of the past, during which irrationality got the better of reason, and people were convicted unfairly of bogus charges.
Vigorous debate and genuine airing of differences are critical to the open society. But the kind of intimidation seen in the public square today — much of it aimed against Christians who won’t recant their beliefs — is something else. There’s a level of unreason and irrationality among and within the secularist-progressive alliance that didn’t exist before.
In the book, I call this phenomenon an anti-religious panic. When inquisitors are in charge, that’s a problem for everybody — not just for believers, but for all fair-minded people who respect freedom and diversity.
THE STREAM: What do you mean when you say that attacks against Christianity end up hurting the poor the most?
EBERSTADT: Ask yourself this question, what of sort of person is motivated to get up in the morning by thinking, “I’m going to shut down a charity today”? Or, “Today I’m going to make life difficult for an adoption agency”? Or, “I’m going to sue the bishops at the US-Mexico border because their refugee settlement program doesn’t include contraception and abortion services”? Or, “I’m going to sue pregnancy centers — places where women can go and get medical tests and assistance and diapers”?
These sorts of places are being sued all over because they don’t bow before the secularist altars of abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.
What does your mindset have to be if shutting down other people’s good works is your idea of a purpose in life?
Progressivism’s record in this regard is reprehensible.
People on the traditionalist side are so used to being on defense, it’s hard to see opportunities to go on offense, when they’re right under our noses. But if you want to talk to your secular friends the next time you’re put on the spot about being a hater or a bigot, I think this is a great place to start: What about the fact that trying to help poor people is getting harder and harder? These situations are going on everywhere, and are going to get a lot worse.
And to the point, who is picking up the slack here? Who is taking care of those kids who are now waiting years for adoption instead of months because all the Catholic adoption agencies are fighting for their lives for refusing to place children in the homes of same-sex couples? Who is benefiting and who is being hurt here?
It’s irrefutable that the people being hurt are the people who can least afford it, who are most vulnerable. Progressivism has no moral high ground in this matter. And I think it’s past time we point that out.
THE STREAM: Are there any signs of hope for believers that this “new intolerance” won’t be a permanent fixture in our cultural landscape?
EBERSTADT: I think what we need to remember as Christians is the gift of reason we were given, which is to say there’s no giving up on the possibility of persuading other people. If we thought we couldn’t persuade other people there’d be no conversion, religious or otherwise.
Human beings are theotropic, they lean toward God. What’s happening in the modern world is very rare — to have whole societies where religion doesn’t play much of a role. That’s the outlier, the anomaly. Generally speaking, and independent of education or social class, people lean toward God. Secularism can’t get rid of religion.
What secularists have to realize is that they need to stop being neo-puritans and start being Jeffersonians in this matter. So there’s a lot of room for hope. And it starts by trying to be a model of civility in a time when a lot of people on the other side aren’t.