I have seen a number of articles lately having to do with religious liberty law — the one that reminded me to write this was two questions in an MTV interview with Ben Domenech, but I think I have also seen David French at NRO and Rod Dreher at American Conservative making similar points, which I may address separately. Domenech argues that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, made a mistake by not adopting a more culturally hands-off policy.
To begin, this is the question and answer from Domenech’s interview:
I think that some people are bothered by a sense of hypocrisy on the part of some conservatives. Like the defense of religious freedom, until someone wants to build a mosque. How would you respond to those concerns?
Domenech: I think the real problem is that a lot of the religiously minded [wanted and still want] to use the power of government to try to create the society that they wished [existed] within the United States…
But you also saw it in [those who were] basically being busybodies about the way people live their lives. The question I would [ask] to social conservatives is: Are you confident that the way you view a life well-lived is a compelling enough model that it will win on its own merits?
… I think that one of the errors that social conservatives made — particularly Christian social conservatives — was a belief that they needed to use the power of government to try to shore up the various things that they believe make up a life well-lived. The whole design of our government policies were sort of engineered toward this 1950s/1960s perspective on what living looks like… As opposed to recognizing that, hey, if that type of lifestyle is something that is ultimately rewarding to people, and something that makes them happy, then they’re going to follow that path more often than not, and that you don’t need to use the engine of government to push them in that direction.
I don’t know if Domenech was trying to sell me, but he failed. The first error is mistaking necessity for desire. By his own admission, using the government to engineer the good life wasn’t the Christians’ idea. It was done in the 1950s and 1960s, right in the middle of the great millennialist withdrawal. Christians as a category didn’t re-enter American political debates until that using of the government to enforce a particular way of life began to infringe on their way of life. Exactly when isn’t clear — we could date it to Roe v. Wade in 1973, or the Silent Majority speech in 1969. There are probably arguments for earlier dates, too — but it is clearly post Eisenhower, and the use of government to enforce a way of life began in the New Deal.
So what I want to do is go home, be allowed to govern my city and state as I like, and be left alone. But it is abundantly clear that this is not possible. The government, from the feds to the locals, in every policy area from schools to immigration, is going to dictate a way of life to me. The government is far too powerful, and all attempts to weaken it have failed.
Against this logic Domenech argues that I should be confident that, if freely chosen, the virtues of my way of life will be so obvious that everyone will adopt them. This is not a well thought out argument. First, simply as a matter of doctrine, Christians literally think that the virtues of Christian life cannot be freely chosen without a literal miracle (which we celebrated yesterday). But even as a matter of secular Western thought, no one has ever thought virtue was freely chosen. Aristotle argued that it had to be cultivated at an early age and maintained by a lifetime of effort. Domenech’s argument is a straight utilitarian argument that ignores that, 1) I am not a utilitarian, and 2) Even JS Mill thought that you could only have a utilitarian society if proper virtue and taste were taught to children and other utilitarians acknowledge that short-term thinking can result in long term failure but short-term benefits. And of course, we are entering into the world that Brave New World critiqued — a utilitarian dystopia.
So, just to clarify, he has no plan for eliminating the One Ring, but if we Hobbits are so cool, obviously the forces of Mordor will be overcome by our superior virtue and join us, rather than slaughtering us all.
And while Domenech doesn’t address it, the accusation of hypocrisy regarding defending only Christian prerogatives annoys me because — while I am quite willing to defend Muslims building their mosques in the US or wearing beards in prison — I am under no delusions that this admirable intellectual consistency is going to buy me any reprieve from the left. Oh, super-intellectual people like to quote that Thomas Moore line about giving the devil the benefit of law — seeming to forget that the movie ends with the king subverting the law and executing Moore anyway.
I remain unconvinced.