If I had to name only one thing I have learned in my many years of making arguments, it would be this: You cannot convince people of anything that they sense it’s in their interest not to know. I thought about this often as I was reading Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone story about American evangelicals’ love of Trump.
One such moment came when Morris related a conversation with her family:
“Do you think because Jesus is coming soon that the environment doesn’t matter?” I eventually ask.
“Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”
“But according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true.”
“All we can do is love them.”
“No, we can cut back on carbon emissions. There are a lot of things we can do.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be here.”
Maybe the first thing I want to say here is “according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true” is not a great reply. Morris could have pointed out that the Bible itself says no one knows when Jesus will return, and that the Earth will be renewed and restored, and that in Genesis we are given stewardship over all Creation, a responsibility never to be taken away. She could — I’m getting carried away here, I know — she could have given her aunt N. T. Wright’s essay “Jesus Is Coming — Plant a Tree!”
But setting all that aside for now: It is very much in the interest of Morris’s aunt, and in the interest of millions and millions of other people, not to know that we are, through our economic choices, bringing ruin to the planet that we’re supposed to be the stewards of. And so she doesn’t know. Like so many others, she makes a point of not knowing.
But I think the problem of motivated not-knowing isn’t found only on the conservative evangelical side of things. Here’s one passage from Morris’s essay that seems to be drawing a lot of attention:
“The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says [Greg] Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”
In that second sentence, the clause “In Trump’s America” is a problem. What does it mean? In one sense, the entire nation is “Trump’s America” right now, whether we like it or not; but maybe Morris means something like “Americans who enthusiastically support Trump,” or “the parts of the country that are strongly supportive of Trump.” Impossible to tell. Thornbury didn’t use the phrase, but presumably he said something that led into his line about “religious liberty” as code for something else.
So the passage is unclear, but I’d like to know what Thornbury means. I’ve written a good deal about the importance of religious freedom on this blog and elsewhere — just see the tag at the bottom of this post — so does that mean that I am using that topic as “code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage”? If so: explain that to me, please.
Maybe there’s something that Greg Thornbury and Alex Morris have an interest in not knowing: that even if millions of white Americans abuse the concept of religious liberty, religious liberty could nevertheless be in some danger. Indeed, I think this is one of the key points that progressive Christians make a point of not seeing, because if they did see it then they might sometimes have to come to the defense of people (especially evangelicals) they don’t want to be associated with. They know that as long as they denounce white supremacy and homophobia, and endorse (or at least remain silent about) abortion, they won’t run afoul of the progressive consensus. Why put their status at risk by defending willfully-blind bigots?
One answer might be: Maybe the cultural consensus won’t always be in your favor. Almost a decade ago I warned conservative Christians that if they sought to deny religious expression to Muslims they might someday find the shoe on the other foot, and in the obviously hypocritical position of demanding rights for themselves that they tried to prevent others from exercising. (Update: they didn’t listen.) Perhaps progressives believe that that could never happen to them, that, even if they lose the White House from time to time, they can never find themselves out of cultural power and in need of powerful people to come to the defense of their rights. Well … Isn’t it pretty to think so?
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I’m in an odd place with regard to all this: As a person who thinks we’re ruining the planet; who has consistently condemned the Trump administration and its enablers, especially the Christian ones; who believes that white supremacy is demonic; but who is also strongly and I hope consistently pro-life, I find that I am publishable but not employable in the circles my progressive friends inhabit. Funny old world.)
One of the most (unintentionally) comical articles I’ve read in recent weeks is this Ian Millhiser piece at Vox. Millhiser is in a kind of moral agony over the forthcoming Supreme Court case of Tanzin v. Tanvir:
Muhammad Tanvir, the plaintiff at the heart of the case, and this first story is likely to inspire a great deal of sympathy among liberals. Tanvir says he was approached by two FBI agents who asked him “whether he had anything he ‘could share’ with the FBI about the American Muslim community.” After Tanvir told the agents that he did not wish to become an informant, those agents allegedly threatened him with deportation and placed him on the “No Fly List.”
Because of this treatment, Tanvir also claims that he was unable to fly to see his ailing mother in Pakistan, and that he had to quit a job as a long-haul trucker because he could no longer fly home to New York after a one-way delivery.
The core issue in Tanvir’s lawsuit is whether he may sue these FBI agents for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law protecting religious liberty.
Why is Millhiser in such a state about this case? Because, while he is deeply sympathetic to Tanvir’s plight, “If the Supreme Court holds that such lawsuits are permitted under RFRA, the biggest winner is unlikely to be religious minorities like Tanvir. Rather, the biggest winner is likely to be the Christian right.” Oh shit! What a calamity! How can I ensure that people I approve of get religious-freedom rights while people I don’t approve of are denied them??
In the coming years, I predict, there will be a clear answer to this dilemma from the left, including the progressive Christian left: Sorry, Mr. Tanvir. Sucks to be you. Liberal proceduralism is so, so dead.