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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Liberalism Wins

May 2nd, 2024 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

Several years ago the Lincoln City Council passed a so-called "Fairness Ordinance" that was... fairly bonkers. We wrote about it at the time.

The short version is that the ordinance was chiefly concerned with "public accommodations," which it defined, essentially, as being any place in the city aside from private homes. It also defined violations of the ordinance as being any "speech" that gave "offense" that took place in a public accommodation. So, per the letter of the ordinance, a pastor reading Romans 1 in the pulpit on Sunday morning would be in violation of the city's Fairness Ordinance. Fines for violating the ordinance started lower, but escalated up to $50,000 per offense.

Needless to say, this was a religious liberty nightmare.

And so the city's evangelicals gathered up our guns and generic balaclavas, joined up with a bunch of internet Nazis, had a huge riot, smashed up the capitol, and intimidated the city into repealing the ordinance. After that we established a Christian prince to rule over the city as a benevolent theocratic caesar presiding over the Lincoln Evangelical Autonomous Zone.

Actually, no.

We didn't do any of that. It would have been a violation of Romans 13, and therefore sinful. What's more, it would have been monumentally foolish because it would have alienated virtually all of our neighbors and turned them against at precisely the time we could least afford to antagonize most of the city.

But we did beat the fairness ordinance.

So what did we do?

Well, it started with the Nebraska Family Alliance drafting and circulating a petition to the city council. Local laws allow for citizens to draft such petitions in protest of council actions. If a certain number of signatures are gathered and ratified, the council then has to either let the city vote on the issue at hand or they have to withdraw the offending ordinance.

We got 18,000 ratified signatures—roughly four times what was needed to force the council to act. The council then dithered a bit and argued over what to do before ultimately deciding to withdraw the ordinance.

I bring this story up for a simple reason: As long as we have a baseline commitment to liberal democratic norms, Christians who are the targets of state action have legal recourse. And, quite often, we win. The First Amendment is, obviously, an enormous help here and is one key factor that distinguishes the situation in America from the situation in Canada or the UK, for example.

Yet even without the First Amendment, a group of conservative nationalists was able to hold a conference in Brussels recently, despite fierce opposition from local government. They won the same way Lincoln's conservatives did: Using the processes and norms of liberal democratic governance to present their case to the governing authorities.

There is a further point here as well: If a minority of Christian conservatives can press their case legally and win, that implies something important about progressives as well: Many progressives are not as illiberal as they are sometimes made out to be. When the law mandated that the Lincoln city council either rescind the ordinance or let the city vote, the council did not respond by enforcing it anyway. When former President Trump won the 2016 election, President Obama stood down and attended Trump's inauguration. More recently, all three liberal justices on the Supreme Court concurred with the six conservatives in saying that states cannot remove President Trump from the ballot through citing the 14th Amendment.

I'm not saying progressives always play fair, to be clear, nor am I saying that progressives won't sometimes act illiberally when it suits them. Certainly we saw unjust weights and measures during the summer of 2020 when churches were told to shutter and yet large political protests were allowed to proceed as normal, sometimes even when those protests included vandalism and acts of violence. You won't struggle to find an illiberal streak in American progressivism. It's there and sometimes it announces itself very loudly. Indeed I think that's precisely what the Fairness Ordinance fight here in town and the attempt to ban the NatCon gathering in Brussels both make plain.

Even so, both our situation in Lincoln and last week's events in Brussels suggest something important: For all the understandable concerns about the erosion of liberal norms, liberalism is actually still more robust than many think. Indeed, when push comes to shove the post-liberals themselves (many of whom congregate at places like NatCon) are quite content to avail themselves of their supposed enemy in order to convene a conference—and I think they are right to do so, if also (in some cases) quite inconsistent.

Years ago Michael Brendan Dougherty (I think it was him, anyway... I'm getting old in internet years) remarked of the integralists that their project was dead on arrival if for no other than the fact that if the current occupant of Peter's chair got his hands on the power the integralists say he should have, his very first target would be the integralists themselves. This is another way of making the point that the positions one takes up in theory have a way of altering themselves when one is pressed by events. One might be all sorts of post-liberal when in power or unthreatened by political power, but once one begins to be threatened it is remarkable how quickly one can become a liberal, at least of some sort.

None of this is to say that our current liberal order is entirely healthy, without flaws, or not in need of change, renewal, or reform. There are many problems in our current social order, including in the ways many liberals imagine what it means to be a liberal.

My point here is more modest and simple: If you are on the right, you would do well to note that even in the capital of the much hated European Union, liberalism actually still worked. It worked enough, at least, to condemn the absurd acts of the local mayor who sought to shut down a lawful public gathering of concerned people and to instead allow that gathering to take place. Should it have been as hard to gather as it was? Of course not.

But in the end the gathering did happen and that was because of the work of lawyers utilizing the legal system within a democratic polity. If liberalism can work to protect you in those situations, then perhaps the solution to our current ills is not to abandon liberalism, but to seek its renewal.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).