Roberto Rivera

Atlanta, We Have a Problem


Roberto Rivera

To the surprise of no one, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed House Bill 757, a.k.a The Free Exercise Protection Act, saying that “We do not need to discriminate against anyone in order to protect the faith-based community in Georgia.”

As the saying goes, I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the gentleman from the great state of Louisiana, and the people he quotes—with the caveat that what prompted the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act wasn’t, as Ryan Anderson puts it, “our contemporary over-active progressive government,” but things like anti-drug laws and prison wardens valuing good order in prisons over the free exercise of religion.

But I quibble. Rod Dreher is correct when he says that “We have to fight as hard as we can to hold what little ground might be available to us, but orthodox Christians and other religious conservatives must face the fact that we are in trouble.” Actually, we’re in more trouble than this implies. That’s because of the way questions of religious freedom have historically been determined in this country.

As I noted elsewhere, historically speaking, the legal boundaries of religious freedom have been defined in reaction to the claims by what I call religious “sectarians,” e.g., the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. That’s because—forgive me for quoting myself—“their practices were more likely to fall outside the mainstream of what Americans thought of as religious practice. They were more likely to make demands on the majority that were extraordinary in the original sense of that word.”

Because these groups were small, and thus posed no threat to the cultural status quo, it was easier to accommodate them, at least legally. What’s more, the larger society could applaud itself for its magnanimity and courts could avoid peering into what a friend of mine calls the “black box” of religious beliefs and practices, and simply take a person’s claim about the centrality of a certain religious practice to their faith at face value.

To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we are all sectarians now. We are all in the position of making claims that the majority view as extraordinary, or to put it more precisely, extreme.

The trouble, to get back to Rod’s phrase, is that the people asking to be accommodated, like the above-mentioned smaller and marginal groups, believed that they were part of a “moral majority” (not scare quotes) not too long ago, and even more recently, insisted that they were part of the “real America.” (Okay, that was a bit of a scare quote.)

Similarly, our opponents have trouble seeing orthodox Christians, to use Rod’s phrase, in that way. Truthfully, so do we, if we’re honest about it. This is one of the reasons that many of us find Rod’s “Benedict Option” so unsettling—we see the current cultural moment as a temporary setback, not the “new normal.”

If by “temporary” you mean “for the foreseeable future,” then it’s temporary. Regardless, what’s required is a mental pivot that I’m not confident we can make, if for no other reason than I’m not confident that we are aware that such a pivot is necessary. (See “temporary setback” above.)

We are coming face-to-face with the reality described by Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue”: “Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception.” MacIntyre adds that this critique of liberalism is equally applicable to what passes for conservatism. “That conservatism,” he continues, “is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. . . .”

MacIntyre’s swipe at a “commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy” was especially prescient given recent events in Georgia, Indiana, Arkansas, and Arizona. None of these debacles would have been possible without the forceful intervention of those in charge of what Lenin once dubbed “the commanding heights of the economy.” That, almost to a man, these commanders vote Republican just goes to show how prescient MacIntyre was.

As Rod said, we are in trouble.


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