Review: Eberstadt's 'It's Dangerous to Believe' Part II

Yesterday, I began my review of Mary Eberstadt's book It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, and today I shall conclude my review.

The chapter entitled "Anatomy of a Secularist Witch Hunt" gives some flavor of Eberstadt's inflated sense of persecution. Of those she considers the persecutors of "traditional Christians" she writes that their "fundamental faith is that the sexual revolution, that is, the gradual destigmatization of all forms of consenting nonmarital sex, has been a boon to humanity." She details some extreme positions along these lines and then pens this astonishing paragraph:

Note the absolutist character of these beliefs as they play out in practice. For example, it is precisely the sacrosanct, nonnegotiable status assigned to contraception and abortion that explains why - despite historical protestations of wanting abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare" – in practice, secularist progressivism defends each and every act of abortion tenaciously, each and every time.

Why lump abortion and contraception together unless you view both of them primarily as abstractions rather than as most people experience them, as wildly different, and very concrete, things? And, I did not think the adjective "nonnegotiable" had been coined by the secularists, was it? And, what does Christian opposition to abortion have to do with the destigmatization of consenting nonmarital sex? And, could not the observation about fighting "each and every time" apply as well to the traditionalists, for example, their fight against civil unions for gays before their fight against same-sex marriage, never thinking to find a workable compromise that respected the dignity of those with whom they disagreed? Physician, heal thyself.

Eberstadt litters her text with assertions with little or no proof that they are true. She writes "abortion within this new faith has the status of a religious ritual. It is sacrosanct. It is a communal rite. …" Proof? She writes that "progressivism today does not regard the traditional Judeo-Christian moral code as simply passé. Thanks to evolving doctrine about the sexual revolution, that code today is seen instead as the equivalent of evil." Proof? Or this: "People are commonly called 'homophobes,' for example, simply in virtue of being religious believers. To call someone a 'homophobe' is a serious charge. It ascribes a psychology and set of motives to your opponent that denies his rationality and assigns him a malignity of motive." Commonly? Outside the environs of college campuses? I got to Mass every Sunday, usually to Latin Mass. I profess my belief in the Catholic church openly and all three of my jobs are related to the work of the church. No one has ever called me a "homophobe."

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Indeed, Eberstadt's book is at its worst when she is writing about the relationship of religious believers to homosexuality. Here, her analysis is either shockingly ignorant of even recent history, or willfully tendentious. She writes "But a 'reactionary' in this culture war sense does not ipso facto a 'hater' or 'bigot' make." I see her "ipso facto" and raise one Anita Bryant. Perhaps she does not remember George Weigel blaming the clergy sex abuse crisis on gay clergy, when the blame for the abuse rests properly on pedophiles, who are more concerned with their access to a victim than with the victim's gender, and the blame for the crisis rests with the hierarchs who tried to cover up the abuse, including some of Weigel’s friends and heroes. She accuses "secularist progressives" of attributing unheard of powers to religious believers, just as the witches of Salem were so accused, yet how many times since those glorious 1980s have we heard about "the gay agenda"? From her telling, the cultural history of the past fifty years is entirely a one way street.  

Eberstadt's flawed analysis extends beyond homosexuality and she seems to think that all the trouble in the culture began with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Those she claims oppose religious liberty are those who wish to advance a libertine sexual ethic the country has never experienced before, and who are willing to trash the work of the founding fathers to achieve their sexual agenda. She does not evidence any awareness of the 1747 satire "The Speech of Miss Polly Baker" written by America’s most illustrious founding father, Benjamin Franklin. The appropriately named Miss Baker had borne five illegitimate children and argued that she should be praised, not judged, for had she not fulfilled "the first and great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God, Encrease and Multiply?" Eberstadt similarly does not introduce what is, for the Christian, a far greater threat to our conception of morality as it regards sexual matters than sexual license: eugenics. Yet, Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Teddy Roosevelt to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to the advertisers in the Harvard Crimson today looking for surrogates and sperm donors, all wondered why humans should pay such attention to the pedigree of horses and not pay a like attention to the pedigree of humans.

Eberstadt brings up the treatment accorded to home schooling parents to further prove her point that Christians are discriminated against. She calls attention to an article by a law professor who examined the ways Christian parents home schooled their children "in most instances escaping meaningful oversight." Eberstadt frets that "the use of the word oversight is a red flag – one signaling that there's a need to keep closer track of those sneaky Christians, as though they were up to something baleful." Huh? We expect oversight of the education offered in schools too, do we not? She shows no evidence of the long, fraught history of religion and the schools in this country, neither the mid-19th century riots that broke out when Catholics refused to read from the King James Bible, nor the fight over the "school question" in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, a fight within the hierarchy not between the church and secular forces. All this history and all the context such history provides, is apparently of no interest to this astute student of culture.

There is little history and no nuance in Eberstadt's treatment of the government's relation to religious organizations either. She takes umbrage when someone understands religious liberty in a less expansive way than she does, someone like President Obama. She writes, "As one headline neatly captured the point, 'Obama Touts Religious Liberty to Pope While Litigating to Force 15 Diocese to Cooperate in Abortion.'" The headline is from the right-wing website cnsnews.com and the article is by Terence P. Jeffrey who, among other things, managed Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign. It goes without saying that the headline, like the article, mischaracterizes the president's position. Eberstadt's is the maximalist position on religious liberty: If you invoke religion, it can cloak anything you want it to, regardless of the common good or the desires and rights of fellow citizens who do not share your religion. If you want to discriminate against gays and lesbians, just claim the mantle of religion. I need scarcely add that she also understands the issue of what constitutes material cooperation in a similarly maximalist way: If you want to claim that the very form by which you register your objection is itself a permission slip, fine.

It is all well and good to conclude this book with a call for tolerance. "About matters concerning the sexual revolution, in other words, as about other articles of deeply held faith," she writes, "people must agree to disagree. That is the sine qua non of a civil tomorrow." But, where was this willingness to "agree to disagree" throughout the years of the Moral Majority that Eberstadt looks back on with such fondness? I am a big believer in the value of tolerance, and I am not shy about chastising my fellow liberals when they fail to demonstrate it or, as is more often the case, when they set other goods, such as equality, before it in ways that are excessive. But, Eberstadt can't manage even once to question her own team.  

As I said at the beginning, this is a lousy book, not an incomplete book, or a biased book, or even just a bad book, but a lousy book. It is a tissue of propagandistic threads woven into an incoherent whole; It is agitprop. Those who have praised it are betraying their bias too: A little self-criticism would go along way on the American Christian right these days, but apparently it will not soon be forthcoming. In the meantime, those of us who care about religious liberty, and wish to see it occupy its proper place amidst other rights and the common good, must seek a discussion that is supple, informed and incisive. But, where will we find that?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 


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