Book review: It’s Dangerous to Believe

Printed from:

There’s a new witch hunt underway. Occurring at the behest of an ascendant secular orthodoxy, the 21st century version is no less zealous in its fervor, its dogmatic absolutism, and its lack of concern for the evidence than the Puritan witch hunts of 17th century New England. Its victims? Small Christian colleges, faith-based homeschoolers, and Catholic charities, according to writer Mary Eberstadt.

In her new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (Harper, 2016), Eberstadt argues that the long-running culture war over abortion and other kindred issues has, over the last decade, taken a sinister turn for the worse. In the past ten years, nuns have been forced by the federal government to include contraceptives in their health insurance offerings. Pastors in one of the country’s largest cities have been ordered to submit any sermons on homosexuality or other gender-related matters to the mayor’s office. Bakers have been sued and shamed out of business for refusing to provide wedding cakes at gay weddings, which now bear the imprimatur of state approval.

“Belligerent secularism, not religious traditionalism, is the true heir to Puritanism today,” Eberstadt declares. “It is standard-bearers within the progressive-secular alliance, not religious traditionalists, who now enforce dogma on the wider society, who police cultural precincts for heretics, and who shun and shame dissenters.”

What explains this shift in the culture war?

Eberstadt identifies a conflation of seemingly unrelated causes of intolerance of believing Christians. Perhaps the most surprising thing Eberstadt identifies as a cause for the new Puritanism is the September 11 terrorist attack. Yes, it was fundamentalist Islam that was put in the crosshairs of our intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and military apparatus by the events of that fateful day. But many atheist voices rallied after 9/11 to call attention to what they view as homegrown fundamentalists—faithful Christians. The evil that led to 9/11, these secularists believe, was religious fundamentalism. And, whatever it’s form, it must be stamped out.

Then there was the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, which broke the following year and which dealt a mighty blow to the moral authority of the Catholic Church — a blow from which the Church is still recovering, according to Eberstadt.

Eberstadt identifies two more recent developments that have reinforced the beliefs of anti-Christian secularists: the enactment of President Obama’s health care reform legislation (Obamacare) and its accompanying contraception mandate and the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage throughout the nation. Both, Eberstadt says, have put traditional believers on the defensive like never before.

“As stories in these pages go to show, anyone who dares to dissent from today’s ideological desiderata faces heightened risks of public ridicule, shaming, and professional setback,” Eberstadt writes. “For the men and women now unwillingly caught in its sights—mostly, though not only Christians—the result of today’s ideological juggernaut is a world more ominous than it was before.”

For Eberstadt, ‘witch hunt’ is more than mere metaphor. She devotes an entire chapter to outlining the basic elements of what constitutes a witch hunt—including a lack of due process and real evidence, public shaming, wildly overstating or assigning imaginary powers to one’s adversaries, and public recantations. She then painstakingly ticks off how the witch hunters of today are following the same playbook to a T. For those who think modern society is beyond witch hunts, Eberstadt points to the daycare scare of the 1980s. (Here is a brief synopsis.)

At times, Eberstadt’s book reads much like an indictment of the new secular orthodoxy. Unlike the prosecutors of the actual witch trials, Eberstadt is not lacking for actual evidence. Especially compelling is her dissection of the faux ‘diversity’ regimes that reign over liberal arts campuses across the country, demanding tolerance of everything but Christianity.

She recounts the absurdity behind the California state college system’s expulsion of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—a well-known and respected evangelical ministry for college students—from its 23 campuses on the grounds that the group had the gall to require that its campus leaders actually be Christians.

The organization was later allowed to return to 19 of the 23 campuses on the basis of a technicality, but others have not been so lucky. Eberstadt notes that another Christian group, Chi Alpha was booted off the campuses of the California state colleges on similar grounds.

One of the most alarming cases she cites hits close to home.

In 2014, in response to an impending executive order aimed at sexual discrimination, D. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College, a small evangelical school on the North Shore of Boston, co-signed a letter to President Obama asking for a religious exemption to the new rules.

The reprisals were immediate and severe. The city of Salem—home of the infamous witch trials—barred the college from using its town hall for historic reenactments, a practice that had been allowed for years under contract. Another town ended a partnership program in which Gordon students-teachers could operate in its schools. “In other words, 312 years after the witch trials, a new hunt for imagined demons was on in Salem and environs,” Eberstadt writes.

Perhaps more worrisome, Gordon College’s accreditation was briefly put in jeopardy, ultimately surviving after the school agreed to host speakers who did not share its traditional Christian beliefs, according to Eberstadt’s synopsis of the chain of events.

Eberstadt also cites the NewBostonPost’s reporting on the way the episode put at risk the poor who are served by Gordon’s many charitable activities. Eberstadt is at her sharpest when she calls out progressives for their hypocrisy in professing concern for the poor, while simultaneously seeking to stamp out organizations that serve them when such organizations profess belief in traditional mores.

“[T]he episode confirms that secularist orthodoxy about sex trumps efforts to help the poor. The syllogism is simple. Unless material resources are infinite, as they are not, then to discredit and impede people who help the poor is to hurt the poor,” Eberstadt writes.

The witch hunt is not limited to higher education. The noose of ‘respectable’ public opinion is also tightening around Christian homeschoolers—from comedian Bill Maher’s characterization of former Senator Rick Santorum as running a ‘Christian madrassa’ in his living room to a 2010 article by a George Washington University law professor warning that those like Santorum are ‘escaping meaningful oversight’—language that suggests “sneaky Christians” are “up to something baleful.”

“Here as elsewhere in our examination of anti-Christian soldiers, the first salient fact is that activists even have a lockstep position against homeschooling, rather than a diversity of views. Here as elsewhere, diversity is a thin word—whereas the thick reality of intolerance is something different,” Eberstadt writes.

What makes such a critique so effective is that it cuts into the heart of the laissez-faire ethos the sexual revolution exudes. Contrary to what their free-wheeling attitude towards sexuality might otherwise suggest, secular progressives are in fact the Puritans of our age, purveyors of a new dogma and punishers of any who would dissent from it.

As lawyer and political commentator Robert N. Driscoll has observed, “Today, members of the social elite reject the Puritans’ notion of sin and rigid view of sex, but they are just as convinced of the righteousness of their moral code, and they possess a similar desire to feel superior to others by ostracizing those who don’t conform.”

Taking stock of all this, many traditional Christians are increasingly weighing the so-called “Benedict option”—a deliberate withdrawal from public life into close-knit communities akin to the monasteries founded by Benedictine monks amid the anarchy and barbarism that characterized the early Middle Ages. Eberstadt does not deny this is a viable option. But she does not endorse it either.

Instead—despite the ominous tone suggested by constant emphasis on anti-Christian witch hunts—Eberstadt retains a note of optimism, ending her book with a call for a less draconian approach. The solution, she says, is simply to find ways to agree to disagree. Put another way, the key is for honest liberals to stand up in defense of their values: tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.

Simple as that may sound, it won’t be easy. And it will take moral courage from the very sorts of people now prosecuting today’s witch hunt. Here Eberstadt issues one of the more passionate pleas of her book. “What’s needed if we are to change the punitive social and political trajectory of the moment,” she writes, “isn’t lawsuits from here to eternity. It’s two, three, many Nathaniel Saltonstalls—the only judge to have quit the witch trials in Salem.”