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Why do conservative American Christians feel discriminated against? A 2019 debate

Last month, Sohrab Ahmari, a Catholic and the op-ed editor of the New York Post, published an alarming and revealing opinion, "Against David French-ism" (First Things, May 29, 2019).

Ahmari describes "what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart" as an expectation that Christian beliefs can be upheld politely and voluntarily on a cultural level rather than through legislative force. On this model, people would use their autonomy to live guided by Christian values rather than by some other kind of values. Ahmari derides it as "an idle wish that all men become moral." French-ism, he says, "is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets" that, beyond any individual, "pervade[s] a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism." It happens that French is Protestant.

When confronted with "the cultural civil war," Ahmari insists, "the only way is through," meaning that one must have "the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils [my emphasis] in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." The only other option is ceding the public square to "the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side." Social institutions aren't "neutral zones" that "accommodate" everyone. They are zero-sum: there is a winner and a loser.

Ahmari complains that the "libertines" wish to require Christians to "positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your [Christian] disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous." Ahmari agrees that "Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community." The 2016 presidential election reflected an increasing Christian desire to once again begin privileging "order, continuity, and social cohesion" above mere individual "autonomy" which in practice empowering the government ("and not just the church, family, and individual") to "help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control." (He attributes this belief to Trump. I disbelieve that Trump himself has any political philosophy, but of course I understand that many of his followers have political philosophies and perhaps they project them onto Trump.)

He concluded:

"Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty."

Ramona V. Tausz responded in "About Drag Queen Story Hour" (First Things, June 4, 2019)

She raised concerns that "videos of past story hours reveal pornographic adult entertainment: provocative outfits, sexual dancing, and twerking," while two of the drag queens "were later exposed as convicted sex offenders and pedophiles." Beyond such reasonable objections to the performers and content at specific events, however, Tausz also objects more generally to drag, quoting Anna Bohach as calling such performances "a sexist minstrel show.” Bohach opposes, as Tausz explains, "the inherent misogyny of drag queen culture, which reduces femininity to crude stereotypes."

Calling drag queens "demonic," she says, is "certainly not all that is needed — but it is a good start. The effort to ban Drag Queen Story Hour starts when we have the courage to clarify the moral stakes."

A note: These two articles in First Things make a couple assertions that lean toward non-fact territory. Ahmari says, without providing a source, that the accusation of Trump's collusion with Russia is "discredited," which it most certainly is not. Tausz quotes a sentence from the American College of Pediatricians, a group founded 17 years ago as an anti-LGBT advocacy group that has only a few hundred members, not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics founded 89 years ago as a real professional organization that today has tens of thousands of members. The value of a statement from the former group is dubious and question-begging, because if they had pro-LGBT facts, they'd hide them, and if they had pro-LGBT beliefs, they'd dissolve. Tausz also mentions a recent paper by Lisa Littman that "suggest that gender dysphoria in adolescents spreads through social contagion." In that August 2018 paper, Littman defines the term "social contagion" as "the spread of affect or behaviors through a population" especially to refer to the influence of peers and she emphasizes that she does not intend "in any way to characterize the developmental process, outcome, or behavior as a disease or disease-like state, or to convey any value judgement." Littman only interviewed parents of transgender children, not the children themselves, about their perceptions about how their children's gender identity was forming and expressing; following controversy, the journal issued a correction in March 2019 so that the paper would meet the journal's publication criteria.

The June 20, 2019 episode of The New York Times' "The Argument" podcast responded to Ahmari's article. The episode is called, “Are we headed for war with Iran? And have conservatives given up on liberal democracy?” The first question is dealt with in the first half of the episode, while the second segment, beginning at 20:25, deals with the second question about the debate between conservatism and liberal democracy as exemplified in Ahmari's article.

David Leonhardt led a discussion between Michelle Goldberg and Ross Douthat. “To me," Goldberg began, "the fight seems to be about whether or not conservatives can continue to tolerate a society in which they don’t rule." She continued by saying that "there really are which there is a conflict between liberal notions of equality and religious exercise. But this [drag queen story hour] isn't one of them. This is just a community event that Ahmari is angry that he can't ban, and to me it kind of reveals that what they're demanding, once again, is primacy in public life that they feel like they deserve and have been denied, and, having been denied it, they're sort of ready to give up on the whole 'experiment' of American liberal democracy."

Whereas, Douthat's opening: "I think fundamentally what's going on are two things. One, you have a bunch of religious conservatives who made a lot of compromises in supporting Donald Trump or who didn't make those compromises and are now trying to decide whether to support him for reelection...and so they're thinking through justifications for essentially supporting a very unpleasant figure, and one of those justifications is this sense that political liberalism has become so hostile to conservative Christianity that you have to make deals with Donald Trump...that's a big part of the Ahmari vs. David French Trump looms over this." The second issue Douthat describes is "almost a power play" between libertarian "political conservatives" and Christian "social conservatives," in which Christians chafe at the observation that they are delivering votes to the Republican Party yet aren't seeing their social values reflected in the party's primarily fiscal agenda and successes.

Goldberg sought clarification about the suggestion that conservatives are not in charge. What haven't they gotten? What do they still want? Douthat responded: "Marco Rubio and Mike Lee and a few other people wanted the tax bill to be more pro-family and the rest of the Republican coalition wanted it to be more pro-business, and for the most part the pro-business side won." Goldberg challenged him by pointing out that Ahmari wasn't talking about anti-trust laws or taxes, but about a "culture war." Douthat suggested that Ahmari's language was just "chest-thumping" and that Ahmari would likely back off when questioned. He believes that Ahmari is "reacting to the sense that, in the new liberal culture, you get drag queen story hours, and if you're an evangelical florist who doesn't want to do flowers for a same-sex wedding, you get fined and driven out of business." Liberals, too, are unbending in their pursuit of the highest good; they "a corporate-sponsored Pride Week as the liturgy of our society."

Many Christians are still persuaded by the ideal of pluralism in which some people can live as openly gay and others can live out their own religious values. But, Douthat said, other Christians are alarmed at what they see as creeping restrictions on Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies that would compel these institutions to perform abortions or place children with same-sex couples. "A neutral public square," he said, "is a hard thing to sustain." That civic effort goes beyond "you don't have to marry a guy if you don't like gay marriage."

Goldberg reminded Douthat that her impression is that Christians are upset because they have less power than they used to have, and that Douthat seems to be providing alternative "reasons that they feel disenfranchised and victimized." But isn't that the same, she pushed him, as saying that they are upset "because they no longer rule?" She asked Douthat: "Is Catholicism or is orthodox Christianity oppressed if they are not allowed to discriminate?" Yes, Douthat said. Political pressure, even if "gentle," affects internal Christian tradition (as with the phase-out of Mormon polygamy). Goldberg challenged this, saying that she doesn't know any liberals who want to use the political sphere to influence what happens internally in churches. What happens in adoption agencies and whether they can discriminate against gays, Jews, and Muslims, is different. For some reason, Christians interpret those anti-discrimination efforts as discrimination against them.

Speaking from the Catholic perspective, Douthat said:

"The promise of American life in the 20th century was that, if Catholics made their peace with exactly this liberal pluralism that we're talking about and abandoned some of the 19th-century Catholic critiques of liberal democracy, then America would make a place for them and Catholicism would continue to thrive in the US...I think, since then, the turn that liberalism has taken, secular liberalism, around a whole range of issues starting with abortion and sort of moving through the debates around the sexual revolution, have essentially rewritten the bargain that Catholics made to become full Americans."

While this is not grounds for "tearing up the deal," it is unsurprising that "it provokes anxiety, uncertainty, and a lot of weird debates and experiments."

On October 2, 2020, Eric Trump went on North Dakota radio and said his father has "literally saved Christianity" as "there's a full-out war on faith in this country by the other side."


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