The Coming Persecution

I am not surprised that Kevin Vallier agrees with many of the points in my response to him – and that’s because Vallier is the last of a noble but dying breed, the classical liberal who is still sufficiently conscious of the roots of the liberal tradition to recognize its deep reliance upon a Christian inheritance.  My argument was not so much against him, as against his claim that his position was likely to carry much weight as we move decisively into the next, logical phase of liberalism – its fruition as a fully realized political ideology.   

Indeed, the liberal universe is populated increasingly by voices exemplified in the responses of Michael Shermer, who have concluded that Christianity is one long story of oppression, discrimination, irrationality, and backwardness that is thankfully being wholly superseded by science and liberal democracy.  If Christianity comes on board, fine; if not, then the levers of liberal government can and ought to be used to bring the churches to heel.

Vallier already signals the limits of his own “classical liberal” capacity to accept the legitimacy of Christian contributions to the public sphere in concluding that there is no rational grounds on which to defend conjugal marriage.  That is, to the extent that it is a “faith-based” discriminatory claim, it cannot be accepted.  However, Vallier perhaps does, or certainly should, be familiar with a growing body of work by a number of Christians that lays out a reasoned argument in defense of conjugal marriage, for example, the book What is Marriage? by Robert George, Ryan Anderson and Sherif Gergis.  That this argument cannot be “heard” suggests that even for the most capacious “liberal” like Vallier, there is still an ideological core that rejects arguments against nominalism, contractarianism, individualism, and an acknowledgment of natural goods and limits.

It is thus a small step from Vallier’s disallowance of the reasoned Christian – but not only Christian – position on conjugal marriage and Shermer’s far more hostile and dismissive view toward Christianity that is marshaled in defense of state coercion of Christians who object to the redefinition of marriage.  Vallier generously believes that one can dismiss the Christian understanding of marriage while defending religious liberty, but this is increasingly a minority view among liberals, who insist that all commercial institutions, and increasingly even church-related institutions, be forced to embrace the redefinition of marriage. 

Shermer lauds the liberal society being brought ever more fully into view under the liberal dominion as one of equality, liberty, prosperity, and peace.  This is at the very least a willful misreading of the signs of the time.  The society that comes ever more clearly into view is one that efficiently and ruthlessly sifts the “winners” from the “losers,” the strong from the weak.  It has transformed nearly every human institution – from the family to the schools to the universities to the government – to assist in this enterprise.  Modern liberalism congratulates itself on its liberation of disadvantaged minorities – so long as some of their number can join the side of the winners – but is content to ignore or apply guilt-assuaging band-aids to the devastation of life prospects experienced by the “losers.”  Tyler Cowen has described this aborning world as one in which “average is over,” in which you will either be one of the 10-15% of the winners, or 85-90% of the losers destined to live in the equivalent of favelas in Texas where you will be provided an endless supply of free Internet porn.  This is the end of history, if we follow the logic of liberalism.

So, since Shermer ends with a prediction, let me make one also.  Those Christians and other religious believers who resist the spirit of the age will be persecuted – not by being thrown to lions in the Coliseum, but by judicial, administrative, and legal marginalization.  They will lose many of the institutions that they built to help the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the disinherited.  But finding themselves in the new imperium will call out new forms of living the Christian witness.  They will live in the favelas, providing care for body and soul that cannot not be provided by either the state or the market.  Like the early Church, they will live in a distinct way from the way of the empire, and their way of life will draw those who perhaps didn’t realize that this was what Christianity was, all along.  When the liberal ideology collapses – as it will – the Church will remain, the gates of Hell not prevailing against it.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet “constructive,” in that it welcomes religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy.

Response Essays

  • Patrick J. Deneen argues that the boundaries of political discourse have moved leftward. As a result, so-called religious conservatives now stand in the place that classical liberals formerly occupied: All that they want is a simple religious liberty, with an acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian character of the morals needed to sustain such liberty. Today’s so-called classical liberals have forgotten their own heritage, and they stand ready to align with secular progressives. Deneen charges that these progressives have as their object nothing less than the criminalization of Christian belief and expression. Those who value small government should therefore side with Christian conservatives.

  • Maggie Garrett takes some issue with the classification system outlined in Kevin Vallier’s lead essay; she does not recognize herself, for one, in Vallier’s portrait of secular progressives. She denies that she stands for secular establishmentarianism in particular, and she would not discount the opinions of people of faith. Yet to count as a valid reason in public policy, she believes that more is required than bare divine revelation; justifications must be given that carry the power to convince others. She would refuse the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise secular institutions, like businesses, that would deny services to same-sex couples or marriages. She defends the contraception mandate along similar lines.

  • Michael Shermer argues that science is producing better government, and that religion hasn’t been a help to it. In a liberal democracy, citizens can experiment with how they want to be governed. They can compare ideas and try out new ones. The American experiment, as it is often called, has been a success in many different ways. Meanwhile, expressions of religion in the public sphere are increasingly “obsolete.” This fact should be recognized; religion should retreat from public life just as it has from scientific inquiry, and for the same reasons.