Forget everything you’ve heard over the last few decades: the theocracy to end democracy will come from the secular liberals, not from conservatives.
One of the usual cheap shots thrown at conservatives has been the charge of pursuing a theocracy. The right has its second amendment, whereas the left likes to cite the first amendment’s reference to religion as its favorite calling card, alleging that conservatives of today are at odds with the founders’ secular focus. “You’re a Puritan!” “Separation of church and state.” These lines reflect a tendency to dislocate conservatives so they align not with the Constitution’s authors but rather with the closed-minded New England fanatics who burnt people for witchcraft and against whom the eighteenth-century Enlightenment generation, ostensibly, was reacting.
But some developments of the last year have given us reason to fear that the left has a more theocratic appetite than the right. As I noted in an American Thinker piece earlier this year — “Narcissus Revises Christianity, Makes It Liberal” — there has been a discernible uptick in leftist commentators accusing conservatives of not being true enough to their Christian faith. Sometimes we can lose the distinctions and nuances in how the left attacks us, but we do so to our peril. There is a difference between the leftists’ claim that conservatives are trying to force their religion on America on one hand, and on the other hand, their claim that conservatives are wrong about the basic tenets of their faith. In the former case the leftist attack is a secularist repudiation of religion in public life, while the latter case entails a de facto endorsement of religion in public life. Worse, they want to change what the religion is so that they can wrest regulatory and punitive power away from their conservative opponents.
It is one thing to repeat the usual relativism that has formed the basis for so much twentieth-century liberalism: “you have your beliefs and I have mine, but the public good is not the place to argue about religion.” It is quite another thing to say that religion should be a driving and organizing force in civic life, and liberals would like to be in the drivers’ seat. It is not an overstatement to say that the left has made many more appeals to religious authority lately: Elizabeth Warren claiming she is a pious Christian, Hillary Clinton saying she wants to be ordained, a host of established seminaries now issuing pro-gay revisions of Christian orthodoxy, and then a less straightforward layer of the ultra-pious (especially Catholics and Southern Baptists) claiming they are upholding the gospel by shifting to social gospel politics as they ostensibly leave Christian teaching on sex intact but merely direct people’s attention to the more pressing matters of economic fairness and antiracist activism.
The liberals’ vexed motives betray them, even (or perhaps especially) when they couch their new faith-based politics in the more conservative Catholic and evangelical language. The impact of French deconstructionists, particularly Barthes, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard, is unmistakable in the way they argue. For example the supporters of James Martin play language games that exemplify French postmodernism, with their endless Derridean deferral of meaning, their deflection of questions with more questions, their confident and unapologetic espousal of impossible contradictions like “I am not changing the church’s teachings but rather returning them to their proper place in the mind of the believer” or “I challenge deeply held beliefs in imitation of Christ, who challenged people’s deeply held beliefs” and so on and so on. Lyotard talked about the plasticity of language, the endless contortions into which we can wander when we play with words and draft new dictionary entries that refer to each other in endless circularity. Much of this comes from the delicacies of the French language.
Evangelicals, too, are starting to reveal the mission creep of French postmodernism as they play with theology and boldly try to have their cake and eat it too. They sign the Nashville Statement, in some cases, proclaiming that they will stand in complete defense of Biblical teaching on sexuality while still keeping their past stances denouncing ex-gay therapy and blaming the church for not welcoming gay identity. Things unfold within a cloud in this system, with the form of words or detours into debates on tone, emphasis, framework, etc., delaying and shipwrecking the conversation so the deeper disagreement–are you saying that God made people gay?–is avoided with all the effete maneuvers one would expect of Baudrillard musing over his coffee.
All these increasingly blatant expeditions into the heart of conservative Christianity reflect an underlying reversal in the liberal agenda. Liberals are not, at this point, trying to keep religion out of the public square. They are not letting religion into the political realm of discourse either. Instead, they are moving their politics into the religious realm of discourse.
I conjectured in one piece on BarbWire that the underlying dynamic here is gentrification, which is a distinctly liberal sin. Liberals have a history of deciding, when they bore of institutions they dominate, that they ought to go out and take over institutions that don’t really belong to them. When they bore of suburbs they move into inner cities and push out poor people. When they bore of inner cities they move to the country, take up organic farmers’ markets, and push out farmers. When they bored of rock and roll and drug-fueled orgies, they moved into academia and kicked out the tweedy old professors with leather elbow pads sewn onto their sports coats. When they bored of academia they went to neighborhood associations and took over block clubs and civic associations, kicking out the housewives and neighborhood patriarchs. And now, bored of all these things, bored of the military and Hollywood and Madison Avenue and Wall Street, they have decided to move into the churches and kick out Christians, whom they will replace with themselves the way they turned Williamsburg, the ghetto, into Williamsburg, the artists’ colony. In some ways liberals lose respect for institutions like the military, which capitulate to them without much of a fight. The churches are a bigger challenge; they want to get in and rewrite doctrine all the more.
But it is more than that too. What’s going on is also a real political expediency. Liberals saw that even with their total control of almost all institutions in the United States, they could not stop Trump from winning office. It became clear, with just a little bit of research, that Trump’s bizarre constituency was put over the top by the support of evangelicals, who were socially conservative but not fiscally conservative–in other words, they were the absolute reverse negative of the libertarian NeverTrumpers whom conservatives had pinpointed incorrectly for years as the most promising vanguard of the right.
With the election of 2016 the gentrification aims of taking over churches moved beyond the realm of a mere pastime and became a project necessary for the left’s very survival. The left has no intention, of course, of making any concessions on abortion, homosexuality, or any of the hot-button issues that have become their signature (and costly) issues to champion. The goal for many on the left seems to be to leverage race in order to get what they want from churches on the topic of sex. For in the realm of race, the Bible aligns with calls for racial justice. In the realm of sex, the left’s project is hopeless; there is no way to de-stigmatize sodomy or make unchastity the equivalent of chastity. Confronted with sexual issues, the aspiring Christians of the left hope to make the contradiction go away by changing the topic or they will use their usual postmodern French conversational techniques to present obvious contradictions as obvious consistencies. Also, they will engage in their usual manipulations of power structures and toss out “experts” in religion with PhDs to express their bizarre theology in fancy seven-syllable words.
We are left, unfortunately, with a left that now seeks to impose a theocracy. Because the left has also been more aggressive about regulating vast areas of human life, giving them any kind of authority on religion is dangerous. And then there is the problem that they don’t know what they are talking about on religion and they’re totally wrong. While conservatives let the left gentrify so many institutions from the marketplace to the schools, they need to stop the leftist march through the churches. For the theocracy the left seeks to promote will not only be a political disaster–it will anger God and destroy our relationship with Him.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.