What might explain the rise of illiberal views among putatively liberal people?
We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.
G. K. Chesterton
A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”
“Object to what?” I asked.
“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”
“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”
“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”
“Well, of course, in talking about broad cultural movements involving millions of people, we have to generalize, and simplify. But . . . .”
“No,” Gus interrupted. “That’s not the problem. Of course we have to simplify. But you’ve been simplifying in a wrong-headed, fundamentally obtuse way. Because the movement for sexual freedom, which you sometimes associate with ‘secular egalitarianism,’ isn’t a ‘secular’ movement. It’s a religious movement in its own right. What we have, in other words, is not ‘religious’ vs. ‘secular’ but rather a new religion fighting against an old one. So Hobby Lobby, for example, wasn’t a fight about ‘religious freedom’ versus some ‘secular’ interest; it was about which religion government should recognize and accommodate. Until you understand that, you won’t properly understand the conflict, or the hysterical reaction in some quarters to the Court’s utterly modest and moderate decision. In fact, I might add, you won’t properly understand ‘substantive due process’ and ‘equal protection’ jurisprudence running all the way from Griswold and Roe to United States v. Windsor.”
My friend, it seemed to me, was being needlessly contrarian. “Well, Gus, we all know that ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ are slippery terms that can be used in various ways. If you want to call the campaign for contraceptives and abortion and sexual liberty a ‘religious’ movement, I can’t stop you. Admittedly, there’s a lot of passion and zeal in the movement. But is that enough to call something ‘religious’? I think you’re using words in an idiosyncratic way. And I don’t see what you gain by doing that.”
“No, I’m not using words in an especially unusual way. And what I gain is a better understanding of what’s going on around us– of the strange, fraught situation we’re in.”
“How so?” I asked.
“It’s true that there’s no single, canonical definition of ‘religion.’ But I offer this as a pretty good one: ‘religion’ is about identifying the summum bonum– the ultimate good– and helping people to orient themselves toward that good. Most of the things people classify as religions– Christianity, Islam, Buddhism– are centrally concerned with helping people understand and achieve the summum bonum. So that’s pretty conventional usage. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Let’s go with your description, for sake of discussion anyway. So then what?”
“So, through much of Western history the dominant religion in Europe and America was Christianity, of course. And Christianity taught that the summum bonum, or the highest good that humans could achieve, was union with God. The beatific vision. In this union, without actually losing his individuality, a person would transcend his partial and fragmented existence, his confinement to this puny, bodily defined space, and would be joined with something else, with something larger. Thereby expressing and achieving his real identity. And that joining would have an ecstatic quality. It would be the ultimate bliss. Which is why mystics like St. Teresa so often used sexual imagery to try to describe their spiritual union with God.”
“Okay. I’m no historian, or theologian. But that sounds pretty much right, as a description of the way Christians used to think.”
“And if the beatific vision was the summum bonum,” Gus continued, “then it followed that the rest of life should be structured so as to orient human beings toward that ultimate good. Including sexuality. Which could be consistent with marriage. Or, depending on the person, with a life of abstinence or celibacy.”
“That would make sense. On those premises.”
“But now suppose you reject that whole account of things. Suppose you think that this material world, and this life in that world, are all there is. The beatific vision won’t be the summum bonum anymore, with its implications for society and sexuality and all. On the contrary, all this will sound like antiquated, delusional mumbo-jumbo. So then, what will replace it?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“Think of the leading candidates for an ultimate good,” Gus urged. “Money? Everyone wants money, but everyone also understands that money is only good for getting other things. Power? But power is also good for getting other things; otherwise it’s just a burden. As the Kevin Spacey character in ‘House of Cards’ denies but so clearly shows. So then, what? What’s the good?”
“I don’t know. Lots of things. An evening walk on the beach. The pleasure of hearing a really well performed piece of music. A tasty enchilada. A loyal friend. A loyal dog. Lots of things.”
“Well, sure, those are all good things,” Gus conceded. “But they aren’t the ultimate good. They aren’t the summum bonum.”
“And you’re telling me that sex is the summum bonum? Seriously?”
“I’m not exactly saying that sex is the summum bonum. I’m saying that once the Christian summum bonum is discarded, sex is a leading candidate– maybe the leading candidate– to replace it. Think about it. Sex is an ecstatic experience. It takes a person outside himself, brings him into unity with something beyond himself. It is– or at least it’s commonly reported to be– the most exquisitely blissful experience one can have in this sensate sphere. In short, it’s the thing in our natural life that most closely resembles the Christian summum bonum.”
“I don’t see it that way,” I replied.
“I’m not saying you need to see it that way,” Gus explained. “And once again, I’m emphatically not saying that sex is the summum bonum. Still, isn’t it clear that a lot of people today believe it is, consciously or unconsciously? The producers of, or at least the audiences for, many popular movies. The audiences for thousands of popular songs. Most teenage boys. Maybe even the church-goers who hypocritically carry on on the side, in contravention of everything they purport to believe. What about the unremitting ads for Viagra or Cialis or whatever? Let’s be honest: our culture is literally saturated with the idea that sex is the highest good, the ultimate fulfillment– that human beings are who they are because of their orientation toward sexuality, that you can’t have a truly fulfilling life, or even be who you really are, without sexual consummation.”
“Well, it’s pretty obvious that our culture is obsessed with sex. So then, what are you saying that everybody doesn’t already know?”
“I’m saying that just as much of life during the Christian centuries was structured so as to help orient people toward what was perceived as the ultimate good, the same is true today. The movement for sexual freedom isn’t just something independent of traditional religion that occasionally happens to come into conflict with some religions, as in Hobby Lobby. That doesn’t capture it. Rather, the movement for sexual freedom is a campaign to displace and replace traditional Christianity. It’s doing the same thing Christianity tried to do; the only difference is that it has substituted a different summum bonum (though the one that most closely resembles the Christian idea within the purely natural world).
“That’s why,” Gus continued, “the supporters of the contraception mandate are so incensed by the Christian claims of people like the Greens, the owners of Hobby Lobby. In reality, the Supreme Court’s decision did next to nothing to prevent women who want contraceptives from getting them. As Justice Kennedy’s legally gratuitous and rather supine opinion desperately tried to make clear. Kennedy seems to have sensed that he was ruffling the sensibilities of the constituency on which he has staked his legacy. It would be a shame– wouldn’t it?– in one carelessly honest interpretation of the law at the end of his career, to forfeit all of the legacy credit he had piled up over so many years in Casey and Romer and Lawrence and Windsor. So he went out of his way, a bit pathetically, to try to reassure his constituency that they weren’t really losing anything, and to servilely flatter the Ginsburg faction. (Seriously . . . a “respectful and powerful dissent”? In whose world?) But none of that could pacify the supporters of the mandate, because they understood that the Greens, and serious Christians generally, are not just following a different legitimate path; the Christians are in direct opposition to their religion. And they can’t tolerate that. They’re struggling to establish their own religion with its conception of the good as the dominant, legally-supported orthodoxy.
“Of course, most Christians in this country (including the Greens) are okay with contraception,” Gus concluded. “This isn’t really about contraception per se, as a medical matter. It’s a religious clash, as I said. The cross and the contraceptive are central emblems of two different religions– religions that are fundamentally opposed in their summum bonums. And in Hobby Lobby, however narrow and fragile the decision was, those symbols went head-to-head, and the cross came out on top. Barely. For the moment. And of course only as an ‘exception’ to the officially favored religion. Even so: an opposing religion can’t just lie down for that, however harmless the practical consequences. Or at least this religion can’t.”
I’m not sure whether there’s anything in Gus’s view. I can imagine plenty of objections, some substantive, some more semantic. For myself, I expect to keep talking about “secularism” and “secular egalitarianism” when the occasion dictates. Also, it should be clear, in case I didn’t mention it in the beginning, that Gus holds some pretty peculiar opinions, and that he sometimes expresses these in ways that some people will find offensive. (But, seriously, how is that to be avoided, these days?) Still, I’m an old-fashioned believer in the “marketplace of ideas,” and Gus’s idea seems to me to deserve a hearing. Which of course is why I’m reporting it here.