Civil rights and civil priests
When I was in high school and George W. Bush was president, progressive circles feared that a Christian “fundamentalist” had kidnapped the nation. Bush did what polite society would never do, which was to openly speak of faith in public without irony or qualification. America, liberals feared, would be turned into a theocracy; A vocal conservative Christian minority would undermine the separation of church and state in the country and undermine its founding principles. We are still told today that Christian law poses an existential threat to American democracy, even as social liberalism continues its rise to the dominant heights of the media, academia, and corporate boards.
The liberal fear of Bush, or a Vice President, Mike Pence, was that religion could infiltrate politics and impose Christianity on unbelievers. But under a President Joe Biden, we must look at the front and assess it openly: the possibility that the political can infiltrate the lives of believers in order to subordinate belief to politics. If Bush and Pence were possible incarnations of a heretical Christian nationalism, as commentators like Ross Douthat and TACRod Dreher has argued that we must equally be aware of the possibility that President Biden may have embodied a militant, alert Catholicism and, more broadly, Christianity was capitalized. Ironically, the end result would be similar: the imposition of a dogma on the unbelievers by the coercive forces of the state. The left-wing politicization of the Christian faith can easily devastate conservative Christians in the Biden years, just as fundamentalist Christianity is said to have done to the infidels of the Bush and Pence years.
The comparison may seem far-fetched at first. How could the progressive left, many of whom felt downcast before civil rights gradually extended to feminism and LGBTQ activism, possibly wield the stick of state after seeing the other end of the stick for themselves? Yet commentators like the Pole Ryszard Legutko, who lived under both communism and progressive liberalism in the style of the European Union, note disturbing parallels between the oppressors of the Cold War and today’s freedom fighters. As the title of his book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in a Free Society suggests that the politically correct liberals of today and the communists of yesterday share an eerie parallel: nothing can be left outside the totalizing or totalitarian jurisdiction of either. No institution can remain unaffected by the leveling, so-called egalitarian impulse of these ideologies. In practice this means that every organization, association or institution – public or private – must ultimately conform to the declared values of the ruling system, communism then and there and liberalism here and now. This includes pre-liberal institutions such as ecclesiastical hierarchies or the traditional family, which are not intrinsically egalitarian – recalcitrant bodies that must be disciplined and put to rest if they undermine the illusion of universal approval of the political ideology in question. As Christopher Caldwell argued in his most recent book, The age of aspirationThe Civil Rights Act of 1964 has become a de facto rival to the freedom to amend the US Constitution.
But what does it mean in practice when religious freedom and equal protection under the law meet? Some of these scenarios have not yet played out in our second Catholic Presidency. But such a case is far enough past us in France and far enough away to permit an attempt at dispassionate analysis. This is the controversy over the civil constitution of the clergy, which was adopted in 1790 at the height of the French Revolution. This law required – in addition to things like closing supposedly “unproductive” monasteries and convents and nationalizing church property – that bishops and priests be elected by the voting public and swear allegiance to the new revolutionary government. In the words of the decree: “The new bishop may not ask the Pope for confirmation, but instead, as the visible head of the universal Church, writes a testimony to the unity of faith and communion with him.”
According to historian Peter McPhee, this controversial legislation led to “unforeseen and unintentional” opposition to the revolution and ultimately to the counterrevolution. “Patriotic clergymen” who had sworn an oath to the state, thereby recognizing their source of religious authority in the “people” and not in the papacy, were actually in a state of first religious and then actual civil war with the “festival of fire”. Clergymen who refused to take the oath, in their view breaking the divinely ordained apostolic discipleship that linked them to the first apostles of Christ. McPhee sums up the conflict in a way that doesn’t sound too strange to the modern Christian listener looking to Obergefell for the latest court rulings: “In the end, it was impossible to reconcile a revolution based on popular sovereignty, Tolerance towards all faiths and the certainty of earthly fulfillment through worldly reason with a church based on hierarchical appointment, divinely revealed the dogma and the certainty of a true faith. “The words“ impossible to reconcile ”can be found today in cases where alleged discrimination and claims to religious freedom converge. In a court battle between “worldly reason” and “divinely revealed dogma”, I know where I would place my bets. If the divinely revealed dogma does not lead to new revelations from God on previously unknown rights, the dogma is invalid.
On January 20, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States, issued a statement on the inauguration of President Biden. “It will be refreshing to work with a President who clearly understands the importance of religious belief and institutions in a deep and personal way,” said Gomez. But his praise was qualified:
At the same time, the bishops of the nation have a duty as pastors to preach the gospel in all its truth and power in all seasons and off-season, even when that teaching is impractical or when the truths of the gospel contradict the directions of the broader society and culture . Therefore, I must point out that our new President is committed to taking certain measures that promote moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, particularly in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender. The freedom of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their conscience are of great importance.
Seemingly overnight, the same cleric who had been honored for condemning President Trump’s immigration policy was declared an ally of the Catholic right-wing. The news outlets quickly uncovered quotes from progressive Catholics who found Archbishop Gomez’s words offensive and saw no real conflict between President Biden’s beliefs and his above-mentioned public policy positions. In the language of liberalism and a world that has been aggressively reorganized according to its logic in all aspects, there are no Catholics, only progressive or conservative Catholics. You have to fit into every political category – not both and neither of the above.
The liberalism of the American establishment and the liberal Catholic elites in clergy, politics and entertainment would never be so clumsy and tenacious as to openly build a parallel ecclesiastical structure as in the case of revolutionary France. But in a Biden presidency, in addition to a similar phenomenon in American Protestantism, a de facto schism between the lively “patriotic” and the conservative “fireproof” churches of Catholic America could well arise. With a member in the White House, it will be smooth sailing for the former and rough seas for the latter. Some communities and educational institutions will be brought to justice and some will not. Some are tested and some are not. For some, the tax exemption status and federal funding is questioned or revoked, for others not. The process is made mundane by legalistic proceduralism, to the point where it will be difficult to notice when it begins, and equally unnoticed when its work is done.
President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and progressive Christian leaders like them imagine they have succeeded in reconciling beliefs and politics and averting more serious conflicts. But everyone will know, if not openly acknowledge, that some churches receive government funding and others don’t. The irony will be that people who painfully recall their own experiences with the overwhelming pressures to conform to regnant orthodoxy decades ago will neither understand nor empathize with the new minority in this enlightened age.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish literature. He teaches high school history at an independent school in Los Angeles.
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