Balkinization  

Friday, November 29, 2019

An olive branch spurned

Andrew Koppelman


I am fairly new to Twitter, so as a naïve newcomer I’m perhaps excessively discouraged by a dialogue of the deaf recently begun by the following tweet by the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher:

Liberal: "You admit Trump is awful, but you're still considering voting for him over 'religious liberty.' That's so trivial, given the enormity of his badness!" Me: "If it's so trivial, then give us what we want. You'll get our votes, or at least Trump won't." Liberal: [silence]

That elicited a long conversation:  94 responses within 17 hours.  (Perhaps a lot of people had time on their hands while the turkey was in the oven.)  There was a tendency to regard Dreher’s concerns as a demand to harm gay people.

Dreher’s tweet is actually an olive branch to the left: he understands how grotesque it is for Christians to be supporting this hateful, cruel, stupid, evil man, and is looking for a way to make it stop.  Comment threads are often dumb, but this one seems to me to accurately represent the hostile response he will get from many of my fellow leftists.

I fear that many on the left don’t understand how endangered religious conservatives feel as a result of the growing success of the gay rights movement – a movement I’ve been part of for more than thirty years.  The cases where conservative Christians have been held liable for discrimination feel to them like an existential threat.  They fear that the law will treat them like racists and drive them to the margins of American society.  Were their fears exaggerated?  A majority of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights declared that proposals for religious accommodation “represent an orchestrated, nationwide effort by extremists to promote bigotry, cloaked in the mantle of ‘religious freedom,’” and “are pretextual attempts to justify naked animus against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”  Pretextual: the assumption is that they don’t really believe what they say, that they pretend to believe it as an excuse for hatred.

I know enough conservative Christians to be confident that this is nonsense.  There is, of course, a certain charm in the suggestion that our adversaries know they are wrong and are just pretending to disagree with us because they are horrible people. The labeling of their views as “pretextual” seems to rely on the idea that no one could really believe this stuff.  But that notion evades the familiar problem of religious diversity. Other people’s religious beliefs often seem obviously bizarre to us.

The gay rights/religion issue has been a disaster for Democrats.  If Hillary Clinton had received Barack Obama’s 2012 percentage of the white evangelical vote in Michigan and Florida, she would have won.  She made no effort to reach those voters, evidently thinking that there was nothing to talk about with them.  It’s not clear that any of the current leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will try to do that either.

Trump’s message was that Christians needed to suspend their moral compunctions about him (and his flagrantly authoritarian policy proposals) because they were endangered.  In the Republican primaries, white Evangelicals rejected their coreligionists in favor of someone who promised to be a tough guy, and then remained loyal to him even after he was caught on tape admitting to sexually abusing women.  “There is an assault on Christianity. . . . There is an assault on everything we stand for, and we’re going to stop the assault.”  Only the ruthless use of political power could save them:  “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.”

Surely it is possible to make some kind of deal that accommodates these voters’ perspectives and fears.  I explore that possibility in my next book, forthcoming this spring from Oxford:  Gay Rights v. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict.

Trump’s support among conservative Christians is inherently fragile.  Secular liberalism and conservative Christianity alike condemn lying, cruelty, poverty, oppression, and prejudice.  They need to unite against their common enemies.  But before they can do that, they need to end this war.



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