Two recent controversies about the religious freedom of public and political officials have provoked similar outrage among my fellow social conservatives. I’d like to respectfully suggest that there’s a difference, and that conservatives are mistaken to equate the two.
The outrage about one of the stories is absolutely justified. The hounding of British Liberal Democratic Party leader Tim Farron from his post by leftist zealots intent on ferreting out his possible private religious objections to homosexuality and abortion marks a new low–if such a thing is possible–in the modern progressive descent into Maoism. Farron, a working-class evangelical Christian who headed a secular, upper-middle-class party that, while centrist on economics, is culturally at least as left wing as Labour, has kept his politics in line with his party’s. He is resolutely pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion rights, pro-green, pro-immigration, pro-EU … doubtless pro-holistic-health and ungendered toys as well. But that wasn’t enough for the Torquemadas of the left. His religious faith made his commitment to the cause suspect, so throughout the recent campaign he was browbeaten by the media to confess if he believed that homosexuality and abortion were sins.
In response, he of course groveled before the inquisitors, recanting a ten-year-old interview in which he had suggested that abortion was “wrong” (though legally sacrosanct), and proclaiming the virtuousness of all things gay. And of course they still demanded his scalp, which they got last week in a resignation in which he stated that “I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader … of a progressive, liberal party in 2017.”
The Farron affair shows that we’ve come a long way (at least in Britain, but most likely on this side of the Atlantic as well) from the days when liberal politicians like Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro and Jessie Jackson could take a “pro-choice but personally opposed” stance on abortion, or similarly distinguish between their individual consciences and political positions on other moral issues. The radical New Left slogan that “the personal is the political” has now become the dogma of “mainstream” liberals, who demand not just political support but personal enthusiasm for their ideology. As Sohrab Ahmari wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it isn’t enough to support transgender rights, you must “feel in your soul that Chelsea Manning was always a ‘she.’ It isn’t enough to legalize abortion, you…must like it.” Now, even those who don’t claim to be “personally opposed” to abortion or gay sex must be subject to Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions to determine if, deep-down, they really are.
But I think that Ahmari, Rod Dreher and others are wrong to compare the inquisition of Farron with the other recent religious freedom controversy: Bernie Sanders’ attack on Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, for his statement in The Resurgent last year that Muslims “stand condemned” “because they have rejected Jesus Christ.” (Vought was defending–justifiably, I believe–the action of Wheaton College, an evangelical school and his alma mater, in terminating a liberal professor who had declared that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”) Conservatives like Dreher and David French, and even more liberal writers like The Atlantic’s Emma Green, have accused Sanders of imposing a religious test for office in violation of Article VI of the Constitution. Their argument is essentially that the belief that non-believers are condemned is a crucial if implicit part of orthodox Christianity and many other serious belief systems. Therefore Sanders was forcing Vought to renounce his religion in order to gain confirmation, and thus banishing orthodox believers from the public square.
The damnation of unbelievers may indeed be implicit to any serious religious belief system, but in a pluralist democracy there are good reasons why we don’t explicitly say it. (This discretion may pre-date pluralist democracy. French quotes Christ’s declaration that “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me,” which made the point rather more diplomatically.) The analogy to the left’s attack on Farron would have been if Vought had not explicitly said as bluntly as he did that non-believers were damned to hell (or at least had said it as diplomatically as Jesus did), but Bernie had nonetheless browbeaten him to try to ferret it out because he was an evangelical. In that hypothetical, as in the Farron case, it would have been the left that breached the unwritten rules of decorum necessary for pluralist democracy. In this case, though, I think it was Vought. (I say that regretfully as I presume my politics are much closer to his than to Bernie’s.)
I should make two points here before elaborating further. First, I’m of course not challenging Vought’s right to say what he did. This should go without saying, but at a time when religious and other First Amendment freedoms are genuinely in danger, it doesn’t. Second, as I noted, not just social conservatives but even some religious liberals are to my right on this one. There may be a fundamental gap in not just outlook but comprehension between those of us who grew up in non-religious families, no matter how far to the cultural right we’ve travelled and how sympathetic to religion we’ve become, and those from religious backgrounds no matter how far in the the opposite direction they’ve moved. The concept of damnation may tap this divide.
But the realization of the depth of this chasm just strengthens my view that Vought kicked a hornets’ nest that’s better left unkicked. I have a few close personal friends who are orthodox religious believers, and who I assume, or know, think that I’m going to hell. I think it’s obvious that it would be very unhealthy and presumably fatal for our friendships if they kept telling me so–and that this kind of in-your-face candor about something as delicate as eternal damnation is equally noxious on the societal level.
By the same token, it would also be fatal to my relationships with my friends if I kept hectoring them about it: “You think I’m going to hell, don’t you? Don’t you? How can you think that about me? How can you be friends with someone you think is going to hell?” And this kind of individual encounter session is even more unhealthy when extrapolated to the broader macro level, which is one reason why the left’s treatment of Farron was so poisonous.
The way to avoid this pernicious breakdown on both the individual level and among the citizenry at large is to follow the wisdom of my parents’ generation, which understood that there are some things you just don’t talk about. Don’t ask; don’t tell. This of course requires a certain amount of (shudder!) hypocrisy and (even more shudder) “denial,” those arch taboos of the therapeutic age of authenticity and “letting it all hang out.” If you think about it, how can my friends truly be close with me if they think I’m going to hell? And how can I be friends with them if they do? If you think about it. So we don’t.
Two final points. First, of course Bernie mucks up his argument by harping in hackneyed jargon on “Islamophobia,” allowing Green, the liberal on the other side, to absolve Vought of this cardinal sin of progressivism as if that settles the matter. But neither of them sees that citizens giving full-throated voice to their sincerely held beliefs that a significant number of their fellow citizens are going to hell presents an even deeper problem than mere bigotry.
Second, I’m aware that my defense here of “the unwritten rules of decorum necessary for pluralist democracy” comes a little too close for comfort to the justifications offered by the authoritarian left for the social policing of un-pc speech about sex and race. One distinction is that, to reiterate, I’m not proposing legal restrictions on speech–and I don’t trust the left when it claims it isn’t either but then in the next, Orwellian, breath says that “hate speech,” whatever that is, is not protected by the First Amendment. The more fundamental differences, though, are about the quantity of speech affected and the treatment of those who breach the decorum. The pc left would effectively ban broad swaths of expression. I’m just asking for some restraint on one particularly fraught topic that, even more than sex or race, goes to man’s most fundamental self-concept. And I don’t want to turn Russell Vought into a pariah, mock his faith, sic the Twitter mobs on him, or render him unemployable in the private sector. I just think he should be a little more discreet in discussing his beliefs about which of his fellow citizens will burn in hell for eternity. And if he can’t or won’t I don’t think it’s a totally illegitimate factor in considering his fitness for high public office.