From the land of “the culture war is interested in you,” here’s this new report from Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post:
From the official Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination’s Gender Identity Guidance, just released last week:
Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.
Now, churches hold events “open to the general public” all the time — it’s often how they seek new converts. And even church “secular events,” which I take it means events that don’t involve overt worship, are generally viewed by the church as part of its ministry, and certainly as a means of the church modeling what it believes to be religiously sound behavior.
You should read the whole thing for context, but the upshot is that there are serious conversations happening right now in the state of Massachusetts that could lead to legal action against churches that do not use a person’s preferred pronouns. Legal action may even be taken against churches whose congregants engage in such behavior, depending on how laws are written and courts rule.
For some conservatives, it would be easy enough to go straight to “we told you so” after reading that report. If in the near future Rod Dreher or Doug Wilson climb up to their rooftops to start crowing, one could hardly blame them. But the more important point to be made here is what this suggests about that fraught topic of pluralism.
One of the moves that many evangelicals are making today is toward an argument for tolerance via the desirability of pluralism as a value in our public square. Russell Moore makes this argument in some shape or fashion every time he talks about religious liberty. Likewise Alan Noble and Michael Wear’s promising new project, Public Faith, explicitly frames pluralism as a social good to be protected. Andrew Walker, meanwhile, seems to have similar ideas, as he calls on supposedly more broad-minded liberals to rein in their more zealous allies.
The difficulty here is that popular-level western culture, if we are even unified enough to use that term, possesses no basis for such pluralism. Put another way, pluralism is not a self-justifying political ideal. It arises from more basic, elementary principles. The founding principle of the current regime, a radical individualism that denies (sometimes quite explicitly) the existence of any mediating institutions between individual and state, has no basis for such pluralism.
Thus there is a kind of incoherence to contemporary proposals from evangelicals for religious liberty, not because of any incoherence in the concept of religious liberty itself, but because what few shared moral principles our society does possess leave no room for such a thing. The only widely shared principle left to us in the contemporary United States would seem to be the inviolability of individual identity. Indeed, it’s the one thing that the government still acknowledges rather than defines.
If you can agree to that core belief, you will do quite well in America—or at least you will if you’re at the top of the food chain and won’t be eaten up by the downstream social consequences of such a regime. Which is simply another way of saying “You’ll do well if you’re the person making the rules but not one of the people made to live by them who lacks the inherent advantages enjoyed by the people making the rules.”
The absolutist nature of such a system has two consequences. First, like all absolutist systems, it cannot broker dissent. Second, due to its hard individualism, the existence of a group that disputes that belief is itself an act of dissent—which is why we’re seeing a python-like constriction of religious liberty happening before our eyes. This combination renders any kind of pluralist proposal dead on arrival.
We live in Julia’s World now, and in that world there is the individual and the state—and there is no room for anyone who dissents from that status quo and believes that there are other prevailing social institutions between those two entities (whose claims may even trump those of the state). This is a point we must understand.
An appeal to pluralism within such an order, then, is doomed because the principle that evangelicals are leaning upon as they make that case does not exist within the post-religious liberalism of the current American regime as it exists on both the right and left.
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