But Levin also cautions against making religious liberty protections the sole or most important priority. Here’s why:
The argument from religious liberty inherently involves an almost exclusively defensive posture. When social conservatives put religious liberty at the top of their list of priorities, they approach the larger public in the guise of a fundamentally plaintive and inward-looking minority asking to protect what it has and in essence to be left alone. But what social conservatives ‘have’ is a vision of the good life and a deep conviction that it would be good for everyone – and therefore ought to be shared and made available as widely as possible. (170)
What Levin Gets Right
Levin is right to point us away from an overly defensive posture that fails to prioritize the positive vision of the good life that we must embody in our communities and share with the world. If we direct our energy toward the carving out of space for religious freedom yet fail to embody our moral vision, then we will be taking a stand for values that are no longer true of our communities.
What Levin Gets Wrong
But Levin is wrong to describe religious liberty as the battle to be “left alone.” It is much more. Religious liberty assumes that certain rights are inalienable; that is, they are recognized by the government authorities, not granted by them.
Religious liberty is not just a Christian way of saying “Live and let live.” It is itself an integral part of a flourishing society and a fundamental right for all people.
For this reason, leaders who support religious liberty for Christians also support conscience rights for other faiths.
- It’s why Christians celebrated the court ruling that recognized the right of a Muslim prisoner to grow a beard.
- It’s why evangelicals who do not object to birth control defend the right of a Catholic charity to choose not to cover the pill through its insurance plan.
- It’s why Southern Baptists pass resolutions that defend religious liberty for all Americans, including Muslims, to build houses of worship.
Religious freedom advocates are not inward-focused. The fact that Levin describes their struggle this way gives ammunition to those who would put scare quotes around “religious liberty” – as if it is merely a mask for self-interest or bigotry.
No, religious liberty is more than just a way of making space for our moral vision to flourish; religious liberty is itself part of that moral vision to be shared with the world.
Dissenters on Defense
That said, we shouldn’t miss the substance of Levin’s critique. Levin explains why Christians feel like they are on defense these days, and why social liberals cannot understand how their promotion of the Sexual Revolution is anti-Christian.
[Social conservatives] are not the ones who made sexuality the center of the culture wars. Social liberals have for the most part picked these fights because orthodox views about sexual morality (which insist on fundamental limits to the scope of personal choice) strike them as uniquely oppressive and backward, and they cannot abide their persistence. Indeed, many liberal combatants in our contemporary culture wars probably aren’t otherwise troubled by religion much at all. This is why they are baffled to find themselves labeled enemies of Christianity. They believe sexual freedom is essential to the project of modern liberation but need not be essential to the project of Christian godliness. (171)
The First Church of Secularism
Mary Eberstadt makes this point when she describes secularism as a worldview that holds to sexuality as its sacrament. Sex is the symbol that captures the neo-Puritanical enforcement of new moral norms:
[The Sexual Revolution] embraces an alternative orthodoxy and a well-developed body of beliefs. The fundamental impulse leading to the penalizing of moral traditionalists today is not libertarian. It is instead neo-puritanical — that is, it is aimed at safeguarding its own body of revealed and developed truths, and at marginalizing, silencing, and punishing competitors.
The so-called culture war, in other words, has not been conducted by people of religious faith on one side, and people of no faith on the other. It is instead a contest of competing faiths: one in the Good Book, and the other in the more newly written figurative book of secularist orthodoxy about the sexual revolution. In sum, secularist progressivism today is less a political movement than a church.
“Given the Freedom to Try”
If Eberstadt is right, Christians become cultural heretics. We are the dissenters from the Sexual Revolution’s orthodoxy. That’s why our common moral vision will become increasingly countercultural. Levin puts it this way:
Because the larger culture has drifted away from the traditional norms of family life, for instance, mere persistence in those norms is becoming a countercultural statement – and a community consciously built around them becomes, almost by default, a subculture with a moral life of its own, provided it is given the freedom to try… (174)
Read that last phrase again. “Provided it is given the freedom to try.” It looks like something of an afterthought in Levin’s argument, but it’s the key that explains the priority social conservatives are giving to religious liberty these days.
On the one hand, Levin is right to remind us that religious liberty cannot become the totality of our message.
This defensive struggle cannot be the main event in our culture wars. It is a precondition for the essential work of social conservatism. Its goal is to keep open the space in which cultural conservatives might appeal to the larger society – but it must not substitute for that appeal. (172)
On the other hand, Levin underestimates the possibility that social liberals would happily shut down the “space” for conservatives to appeal to larger society. (For example, look at legislation that would severely hinder faith-based universities in California. Or Justice Samuel Alito’s who, in a dissent yesterday, described a recent Supreme Court case to be “an ominous sign.”)
The Benedict Option sounds nice, assuming Benedict still has the right to cultivate and nourish a distinctive moral vision. But lately, it seems the Sexual Revolutionaries won’t be satisfied until the monastery is closed. And that’s why religious liberty makes for a good priority right now.