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February 12, 2014 4:45 PM The Secularist Menace

By Ed Kilgore

Maybe I just travel in different circles from my old buddy Damon Linker. But as a Man of the Left who is also a Christian, I just don’t see the “broader, troubling trans-Atlantic trend of secular liberalism steamrolling competing, non-liberal visions of the good” that he laments at The Week. To get one thing out of the way, it’s highly questionable to use British and French examples of hostility to religion to deduce some “trans-Atlantic trend;” as Linker himself notes, anti-clericalism is deeply rooted in the French (and European) liberal tradition, and some European countries still have (even in an attenuated form) state churches.

More to the point, as Damon surely understands, the developments in the U.S. he is worrying about—the contraceptive coverage mandate and the rapid trend towards legalization of same-sex marriage—create gray areas in church-state relations, not some sort of “attack.” In the former case, aside from the Obama administration’s many efforts to accommodate religious organizations, there’s an inherent conflict between respecting the religious views of employers and those of employees—not to mention employees’ interests in obtaining health services. And when you get right down to it, much of the heat over the contraception mandate has involved the claims of religious organizations about scientific facts—particularly the claim that IUDs and Plan B birth control cause abortions rather than prevent pregnancies—where they are straying well into secular territory.

With respect to same-sex marriage, until we have clear-cut real-life examples of all the hypothetical cases of people losing their livelihoods for failing to participate in gay marriage ceremonies, I don’t see why this particular religion-based form of discrimination should gain more respect than prior (or contemporary) assertions of the inferiority of African-Americans or women.

In any event, these are conflicts, not acts of religious persecution, and the idea that it is liberals who are being intolerant here strikes me as partaking of the kind of “floodgates” argument that eventually leads one to equating exposure to “Happy Holiday” greetings to the stake and the cross.

Beyond Linker’s groundless (IMO) fears, there is the very old but much-forgotten historical fact that secularism has been very good for religion in America. TNR’s Isaac Chotiner notes that America’s uniquely “pluralist” form of secularism has encouraged the faithful to adjust to changing circumstances and respond to challenges to the faith. In the same magazine in 2005, Alan Wolfe made a powerful argument that the very types of conservative evangelical Protestant Christians most agitated about “liberalism” today owe their existence and growth to liberal church-state separation doctines. Here’s a sample (do read Wolfe’s entire essay if you are interested in this topic, and as it happens I also wrote a gloss on it back in the day):

America’s free air and free soil worked to the benefit of all American religions, but its truly special blessings flowed to conservative Protestantism. Protestantism’s greatest source of strength has been its capacity to re-invent itself. As older modes of worship lost their power to attract, new modes rushed in to fill the gap. In the nineteenth century, the urban revival hall and the rural camp meeting drew crowds away from the staid chapels of the more upper-class faiths. In the twenty-first century, the megachurch brings in those more exposed to Oprah than to Amos, as organ music and hymns give way to contemporary Christian rock, and the diet book is studied more carefully than the Bible, and Sunday attire is replaced by aisle-rolling and spirit possession. Listen to the sermons in the sprawling, dynamic, and theologically incoherent world of conservative Protestantism, and you may hear liberalism denounced from the pulpit; but these jeremiads are philosophically and historically blind, since they are oblivious to the fact that without liberalism, there would not exist the vibrant voluntary sector, the responsiveness to popular taste, or even the freedom to attack the Democratic Party that serve as the homily’s backdrop.

I think what bugs me most about Damon’s piece is that he’s reinforcing the conservative view that the greatest threat to American religion is from the hostility of unbelievers, while I continue to think a larger peril flows from the confusion of belief with fundamentally secular efforts to advance laissez-faire capitalism, American nationalism (and sometimes militarism), partriarchal family structures, and what God-hater Ayn Rand called “the virtue of selfishness.”

Perhaps I’m wrong, and my lack of sympathy for “Christian martyrs” who have to accept the validity of other religions or the scientific primary of evolution or women’s demands for reproductive self-control or the love of same-sex couples shows a hardened heart. Maybe I should feel more umbrage at the casual contempt of some atheists for those who believe in supernatural things, and less at Erick Erickson’s denials that I’m a Christian at all. But the bottom line is that I cannot accept that religious liberty means the right to carve out some sectarian universe where one does not have to contend with other people’s beliefs and needs, and Christ is hailed as the Lord of This World.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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