Mary Eberstadt is the author of It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (Harper), which examines how Christian moral teaching has become the chief target of a powerful secular orthodoxy that elevates sexual rights above America’s “first freedom.”
Protestant and Catholic believers and institutions have come under fire for resisting key priorities of the sexual revolution — the promotion of contraception and legal abortion and the expansion of sexual rights to include same-sex unions.
As partisan groups attack opponents of same-sex “marriage” and so-called “bathroom bills” as “haters” and “bigots,” and as conscience protections are framed as a “license to discriminate,” Eberstadt argues that religious believers must challenge these slurs to set the record straight.
Eberstadt is also the author of several other books that explore related themes, including How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization and Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. Her novel The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism has been adapted for the stage and will premiere in fall 2016.
In July, Eberstadt was in Kraków, Poland, to teach at the “Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.”
During an email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, she warned of a stepped-up campaign to “prevent the transmission of Christian thought” in education, the workplace and the public square.
What prompted you to write a book about the “enemies of religious freedom”?
It’s Dangerous to Believe was sparked by accident several years ago, when I began following the explosion of religious-liberty cases in Great Britain: among them, the teacher fired for praying for a sick child — which her managers defined as “bullying”; the Christian health worker who was disciplined for “bullying and harassment” after asking a co-worker if she’d like a prayer said for her (the co-worker said yes); the couple who were denied status as foster parents because they would not recant “unwanted” passages in the Bible; the delivery driver who lost his job for leaving a crucifix on the dashboard of his company’s van; the preschool teacher fired for refusing to read a book about same-sex parents aloud to 3-year-olds; and the street preacher who was sent to jail for speaking “threatening” words from the Book of Leviticus.
These and other cases handled by English barrister Paul Diamond and his group Christian Concern were among the first pieces of evidence suggesting that a real sea change in Western civilization was under way.
Then came the eruption of the new intolerance on our own side of the pond: the CEO [Brendan Eich] who lost his job as head of Mozilla when it was revealed that he had donated $1,000 to a group that defended traditional marriage; the fire chief in Atlanta who was fired when it was revealed that he’d written a book defending Christian beliefs about sexual morality; the pastors in Houston whose sermons had been subpoenaed by the mayor’s office to see if they ran afoul of a new city ordinance; the professors and teachers here and there fired or suspended for teaching theories of natural law or biblical ideas — or, in one case, for saying a prayer on a football field at the end of a game.
These and other recent instances of legal, social and political encroachment on religious liberty became the backbone of the book, alongside many conversations around the country revealing the new unease and rising anxiety now felt by many tradition-minded believers in the United States.
You state: “The new intolerance is a wholly owned subsidiary of the [sexual] revolution.” When did the revolution veer from celebrating individual sexual expression — as long as it “doesn’t hurt anyone” — to repudiating Christian sexual ethics as a form of hate speech?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment. Certainly the new atheism set an impressive rhetorical low bar for Christian-baiting and overall hostility to faith, even as a series of Supreme Court decisions made issues relating to the sexual revolution off-limits for social revision.
At the same time, though, today’s new intolerance has deeper and more systemic roots. Same-sex “marriage,” the so-called “bathroom wars,” the mainstream cultural embrace of transgenderism: All of these are epiphenomena.
Many people wonder how such sweeping social changes have occurred so quickly. The truth is that they haven’t. They are, instead, examples of the continued working out of the logic of this new secularist faith, as discussed in the book.
In your collection of essays, Adam and Eve After the Pill, you argued that the sexual revolution spawned deep unhappiness, yet now our cultural elites and many committed activists defend its legacy.
What’s at stake in today’s epochal struggle over the sexual revolution is nothing less than civilizational change.
The desire to safeguard secularist orthodoxy about the revolution goes way beyond elites. It’s Dangerous to Believe argues that the Western world has now given rise to a rival faith, rooted in the sexual revolution. Its doctrines have evolved and are evolving still; its orthodoxy is not yet complete. But that it possesses an orthodoxy is without doubt — just as it also possesses other elements of a full-blown belief system, like gnostic equivalents of holy people, holy writ, scholasticism, sacraments and other parallels.
Though most elite U.S. universities were founded as Christian institutions, recent government policies that penalize small Christian colleges send the message that Christian ideas don’t belong in higher education. What’s going on? Are Catholic schools facing the same legislative and regulatory challenges?
Two flagship evangelical colleges have had their accreditation questioned in recent years. Christian students, collegiate groups and speakers have also been on the receiving end of intolerance on secular campuses, as many examples show.
We need to understand that the proliferation of cases like these is happening for a profound reason: because some secularists are aggressively seeking civilizational change. They want a world in which “freedom of religion” appears only in skeptical quotation marks, rather than regarded as a universal human right. They want to make “religious liberty” a suspect phrase.
This new intolerance is dangerous, including to our constitutional order. And though it has been focused thus far largely on Protestant institutions and clubs, it is all but foreordained to be visited on Catholic education down the road. No one’s religious freedom is safe when anti-Christian ideologues write the rules.
You examine efforts to restrict or eliminate home schooling and suggest that these actions are chiefly inspired by a desire to “prevent the transmission of Christian thought.” What do you mean?
Secularist hostility toward education at home is a matter of public record. Alpha atheist Richard Dawkins and others have called religious home schooling akin to “child abuse.” Another progressive bellwether, the National Education Association, maintains that home schooling is inferior to government institutions. Animus against opting out of public school is a staple of progressive punditry, too, as noted in the book.
This secularist campaign offers one more informative microcosm of today’s bias against Christianity. The drive against home schooling exhibits the condescension of today’s secularism against people of faith. It also suggests the same double standard seen elsewhere these days: If home schooling were something secularists did, would it be attacked so ferociously? Likely not.
Third, the attack on Christian freedom of expression reveals once more the illiberality of today’s belligerent secularism. One of the great thinkers in the liberal tradition itself, John Stuart Mill, was home-schooled by his father from an early age; and he also observed that government schools existed to impose uniformity rather than diversity. Yet today the same activists who claim Mill as an ideological antecedent seek to curtail the freedom of Christians.
That’s one of many historical ironies in this moment of ascendant secularism.
How should Church leaders, religious-freedom advocates and their allies counter efforts to label Christians as “haters”?
The only way to combat the smear that “Christian” equals “bigot” or “hater” is to resist it. Playing defense only emboldens secularists to bully harder.
Believers might also bear in mind that in objecting to injustice and ostracism, there’s more on the line than any individual’s reputation or social standing. One whole chapter in the book details what today’s intolerance is doing to the needy these days via ideological and legal attacks on Christian charities of all kinds — from adoption agencies to refugee resettlement to crisis-pregnancy centers and more.
To stand against the new intolerance is to stand for all the vulnerable and marginalized people who suffer already and who turn to the churches for help. They will suffer even more if secularist efforts aimed at closing down Christian good works continue to proliferate.
You blame the contemporary “witch hunt” against Christians on a rival, quasi-religious belief in unrestricted sexual rights. But modern totalitarianism also sought to supplant organized religion and generated anti-Christian propaganda to justify attacks on believers. What’s different now?
It’s true that today’s evolving faith in the sexual revolution isn’t the first time a rival secularist belief system has come to challenge Christianity. The totalitarianism of the 20th century, much of it grounded in Marxist historicism, preceded, and in some ways even informs, today’s newer system.
Yesterday’s secularist faith of Marxism and the secularist faith we see today are joined at the root. [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels and their heirs attacked the institution of the natural family, for example, because they understood that its mere existence threatened the possibility of ideological control — much as activists today attack the family for the same reason.
And, of course, these rival faiths also share the same philosophical error: historicism. Today’s faith in the sexual revolution finds expression in the oft-repeated idea that Christianity “stands on the wrong side of history.” This is a retail version of the same claim to capital-H history made by Marxism — and it’s just as empirically wrong now as it was then.
During this election cycle, some will argue that a contentious issue like conscience rights should be downplayed.
But the Founders called religious liberty the “first freedom” and Catholic social teaching describes it as the foundation for all other liberties. Why is the defense of this freedom essential?
If civilizational change is to be on the table, as it now is, thanks to aggressive secularism, then religious believers should not allow the other side to achieve victory by stealth.
Let’s instead ask the citizens who want to circumscribe religious freedom to own up to what they’re doing. Let’s insist respectfully that they defend in public the injustices being committed against religious believers today — injustices that many progressives apparently believe to be justifiable collateral damage for the sake of the sexual revolution and its evolving doctrine.
Similarly, secular activists who see no problem with shutting down Christian charities in the name of liberation also owe the rest of us an explanation of why they believe this. Is it all right for the revolution’s demands to trump aid to the destitute and forlorn? If so, let those who think so persuade the rest of society.
Conversely, if there are secularists and progressives who are not all right with what Pope Francis has called “the polite persecution” of believers in today’s better-off societies, now is the time to hear from them, too. This book appeals to those very people, in the hopes that some will step forward and re-assert an older version of liberalism, according to which everyone in America has inalienable rights to freedom and expression — religious believers included.
In the end, It’s Dangerous to Believe is the result of two desires: one, to give hope to people on the receiving end of today’s new intolerance via the presentation of the empirical record; and, second, to ask today’s secularists and progressives whether this fallout is really what they want for our country and our civilization, or not.
It’s a conversation that hasn’t been had before and needs to be, both for the sake of religious liberty and because the survival of our open society itself depends on it.
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.