A pall hangs over this Fourth of July celebration, as progressive developments in the realm of law and politics threaten historic liberties: our fundamental freedoms of speech, of assembly, of self-defense, of due process, of religion, of freedoms enumerated in the Constitution because they are (as the Declaration of Independence puts it) the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” knowable by reason quite apart from any religious revelation. State governments in thrall to the demands of sexual revolutionaries are trampling consciences and ruining livelihoods while threatening their targets with reeducation.
Examples: In Washington, florist Baronelle Stutzman was sued by a longtime gay friend and client with an assist from the ACLU for declining to provide arrangements for his gay wedding, and now faces the likely loss of her livelihood and life savings (she’s 70 and on the cusp of retirement) because she will not accept Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s deal to pay a fine and promise not to “discriminate” in the future. Also in Washington state, the Stormans family, Christian pharmacists who decline to involve themselves in the sale of or referral for the abortifacient drug Plan B, ran afoul of a 2007 state anti-discrimination law which in part specifically forbids pharmacists to exercise their conscience for religious reasons. Having exhausted their legal options in Washington state, their appeal to the Supreme Court was refused. And in neighboring Oregon, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa have paid a fine in the amount of $136,927.07 levied against them for declining to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. (They continue their appeals.)
Chilling were the words of Oregon’s Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian in regard to the Sweet Cakes affair, who as a state senator pushed the 2007 law currently catching Christians of conviction and conscience in its clutches. When asked about the case, he said, “The goal is never to shut down a business. The goal is to rehabilitate.”
“Rehabilitate.” The language betrays an ideological totalitarianism that sees its opponents suffering pathologies, which, ironically, is itself actually the pathology of a therapeutic culture. This ideology of pansexualism regards itself as generous in offering a cure for those willing to take it, but what is in store for those who refuse? Financial and personal ruin, for now.
Today’s aggressive progressivism can do no other than crush dissent, for its fundament is total self-definition of personal identity rooted the feelings of the individual. Rooted in the anti-metaphysical literary and cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s with their rejection of reality and thus truth and reason, progressivism today simply can have no concept of the person. Because there is no reality, no truth, no reason, individuals decide what they are, and refusal to accept anyone’s self-definition is denial of their personhood, their existence. It’s discrimination, which progressivism understands as its solemn duty to stamp out.
Christians have often tried to separate sinner and sin in their rhetoric, speaking of loving the former and hating the latter. That may work for those who have a general conception of the human person as made in the image of God but affected by original sin. But it doesn’t work for those who don’t, like today’s progressives, for whom identity is a matter of self definition.
Sherif Girgis made the point with especial clarity recently at First Things. Girgis first describes how today’s cultural and politics are dominated by elites who deny any relevance for the body and as ideologues simply know they have the key to knowledge, thus making them a new species of Gnostic, as the perennial heresy rears its head again. Girgis then writes:
It’s not that the New Gnostics are an especially vindictive bunch. It’s that a certain kind of coercion is built into their view from the start. If your most valuable, defining core just is the self that you choose to express, there can be no real difference between you as a person, and your acts of self-expression; I can’t affirm you and oppose those acts. Not to embrace self-expressive acts is to despise the self those acts express. I don’t simply err by gainsaying your sense of self. I deny your existence, and do you an injustice. For the New Gnostic, then, a just society cannot live and let live, when it comes to sex. Sooner or later, the common good—respect for people as self-defining subjects—will require social approval of their self-definition and -expression.
Read the paragraph again, slowly, and note again these particular words well: “Not to embrace self-expressive acts is to despise the self those acts express. I deny your existence, and do you an injustice.” Robert R. Reilly, whose May 2015 CWR article “The New Gnosticism of the Homosexual Movement” serves as a reference point for Girgis’ essay, states that “this is not about some sexual peccadillo that we can wink at and push off into a corner—it is a lie about humanity itself. … As a society we have moved from the point where the rationalization for homosexual misbehavior has been accepted as normative to the point where that rationalization will now be imposed and enforced, legally and by social forces at large, on everyone.”
And so the sexual revolution is a juggernaut proceeding at lightning pace, where presidents and presidential candidates who once formally stood against gay marriage as recently as early 2012 now champion the pansexual revolution.
Save the coming of a cataclysm that fundamentally reorients Anglo-American society—and Deus avertet—little hope remains that real religious liberty will remain a reality beyond the sanctuaries of our churches and four walls of our homes as freedom of religion is ground down by the millstones of progress to freedom of worship. Even if a GOP candidate were elected president, it’s GOP presidents who have given us SCOTUS justices such as Souter and Kennedy, far from friendly to concerns of conscience, of life, of religious liberty. It’s unfortunate that the Court determines everything of moment today, and highly unlikely the Court will be constituted in a way friendly to our concerns in our lifetimes.
And so opportunities for white martyrdom will abound for those Christians who don’t cave. (And perhaps we should thank God that for the foreseeable future it’s just a matter of facing white martyrdom.) If we study Scripture, we shouldn’t be surprised, for there we find that the people of God perdures on its pilgrim journey to heaven in a state of fundamental estrangement from the powers of the world, and our call is to cruciform martyrdom, white or red. Jesus in St. John’s Gospel teaches quite clearly that the world hates God, hates him, and hates them (Jn 15:18-25, 17:14), even though God loves the world (Jn 3:16). Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel teaches not only that he himself must go to the cross (Mk 8:31) but also those who would be his disciples (Mk 8:34-35). St. Luke goes so far as to suggest that all the kingdoms of the world stand under Satan (Lk 4:5-6). If this is the case, we shouldn’t be surprised at what’s happening now. The United States may have been exceptional, but its people and politicians have no exception from original sin.
The current situation is frightening, but also presents an opportunity. Providence is hard to read in a given moment, but perhaps it’s even God’s doing, to chastise and purify his people in America. Pope Benedict’s prophecy of almost fifty years ago (found in full in the collection Faith and the Future), a rhetorical sign of contradiction uttered almost fifty years ago during the heyday of the Catholic Church’s misplaced optimism, seems ever more prescient:
The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.
She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes … she will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek … But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Rod Dreher, indefatigable chronicler of current affronts to religious liberty, is formulating what he calls the “Benedict Option,” a sometimes misunderstood and often wrongly-maligned approach to our increasing marginalization in which the deep formation of Christians, their families, and congregations deeply in Christian habits of mind and practice, a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life”. Drawing inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher sees us entering a new dark ages for which St. Benedict of old serves as a model: no simple withdrawal from society, no happy hiding in the hills heaping condemnation on the mass of the damned below, but (in MacIntyre’s words) “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”
The new and doubtless very different Benedict of which MacIntyre spoke may just have been Pope Benedict. Pope Benedict’s 2008 address to representatives of the world of culture is a masterpiece. In it Pope Benedict explained how St. Benedict’s monasticism generated many glories of Western culture. St. Benedict’s quest was quaerere Deum—to seek God. Seeking God generated developments in language and literature, however, since Benedictine monasticism involves deep meditation on Scripture in lectio divina. Music too flourished, for seeking God meant praising God in sacred song. So did agriculture, horticulture, and viniculture, as Benedictines worked close to the land, the Benedictine labora complementing their ora, and the cultus involved in seeking God also involved cultivation and the generation of culture.
Yes, we should fight for religious liberty within the American Empire, as early Christians such as Lactantius and Tertullian did in the face of a hostile Roman Empire, as we’ll need to carve out all the freedom we can get if we’re to form the Christian communities needed to weather the coming storms; we shouldn’t forget what Henry VII did to the monasteries as we embark on a new monasticism forced on us of necessity. And we do have a natural right to much the State now regards as retrograde and repressive: religion, speech, association, families, children, mothers and fathers. But every minute we spend fighting for freedom should be matched with an hour of deep prayer. Ultimately, two things are effective in defeating ideologies: guns or the witness of martyrdom. With Jesus, we ought to go with martyrdom, the fruit of profound love of God and neighbor, love which is ripened in the richness of all possible forms of prayer.
Patriotism isn’t mindless devotion to country right and wrong—as Chesterton reminded us, that’d be like saying “my mother drunk or sober.” Patriotism, rather, is love of country, and love is best defined as St. Thomas defined it: willing the good of another (cf. CCC 1766) as we exercise proper pietas towards our wayward country. We will love her best by praying for her and getting our Christian lives together, as individuals, as families, as parishes, as a Church. Only then will we become the creative minority bearing the Benedictine witness (which is what “martyr” means) our fellow men and women need.