Liberty is enshrined as the greatest good of the American political experiment. Its primacy is codified in our founding political documents, anthemized in our patriotic music, and honored in political speeches, legal rulings, and newspaper editorials. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote the Supreme Court majority in its 1943 ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Yet, is that truly accurate?
Liberalism’s advocates certainly argue that America’s political philosophy both maximizes personal autonomy, and vociferously protects it. There has been, however, a centuries-long tension between preserving individual freedom, and the coercive demands of the state. Some libertarians call any form of taxation theft. Others, particularly pacifists or isolationists, chafe at the federal government’s periodic application of conscription, now managed by the Selective Service System. The fact that federal and state governments have exercised these functions without massive, violent resistance suggests that most Americans acknowledge some concessions to freedom are required for citizenship.
There are, nevertheless, some more tricky cases, many of which have to do with religious liberty. Can an organization be compelled to offer medical services (like contraception) to its employees, for example, even if those services violate the organization’s religious beliefs? In July, The Supreme Court ruled in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania that it cannot. Can an organization engage in selective hiring and retention, not only in reference to religion, but sexual or gender identity? Also this year, the Supreme Court ruled that employees of religious organizations enjoy a “ministerial exemption” that precludes the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Of course, a Supreme Court with different members, who perhaps hold to a jurisprudence less sympathetic to religious liberty, could have ruled the opposite in both of those cases. Why, one might ask, does religious freedom necessarily trump sexual, gender, or economic freedom? Indeed, in some jurisdictions, adoption agencies’ religious beliefs have been viewed not as sacrosanct, but subordinate to contemporary progressive norms about gender and sexuality. Moreover, what actually constitutes religion in the first place? And who gets to decide that? Herein lies a problem, and it is one that Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley discuss in their new book, It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion.
Hahn and McGinley discuss what other prominent thinkers, including Columbia University professor John McWhorter, have similarly identified: a lot of socio-cultural and intellectual movements, parading as neutral and empirical, actually possess a lot of the same qualities as what we traditionally think of as “religion.” The ideology of woke progressivism, for example, has its own dogmas (e.g. primacy of racial identity, sexual libertinism, et cetera), its own conception of sin (“white privilege”), and its own soteriology and eschatology (the dismantling of racist power structures, racial reparations, et cetera). Those who refuse to conform are maligned as heretics. Fearing cancellation, the latter then employ ritual-like penitential language to seek mercy.
Such examples lead Hahn and McGinley to observe: “There is no neutrality. There is no perch above the fray. There is no Switzerland. There is no comfortable indifference.” The fact of that matter is that all individual Americans—and all of our diverse social and political organizations—make universal claims about truth, justice, and morality that they desire to make norm in American society. Many proponents of “wokeism” would like to see religious institutions coerced into accepting the former’s own beliefs regarding sexuality and gender. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, for example, supported removing tax-exemptions for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage. Others would like to go much further. “The question isn’t whether society will be based in religious principles, but rather which principles will be reflected and supported, and which will be ignored and suppressed,” argue Hahn and McGinley.
It isn’t so much that liberalism denies the inescapability of religion, but that it obscures it. “Liberalism is a shell game, promising a neutrality that it can never deliver, always shifting its self-understanding, and even language itself, to obscure its own substantive, moral, and yes, religious commitments.” Secularism, quite deceptively, clears religious beliefs out of the public square by relegating them to irrelevancy, by categorizing them as private, subjective, and relative. This is the case even if those precise religious beliefs—like Catholicism’s corporal works of mercy—necessitate participation in the polis.
Moreover, as Polish political philosophy professor Ryszard Legutko argues in his new book The Cunning of Freedom, liberal laws that purport to be neutral and indifferent are often nothing of the sort. The legalization of gay marriage, for example, not only accommodated homosexuals eager to enjoy the same rights as heterosexual persons, but has been used by various cultural and political institutions to normalize LGBTQ+ identities. Those laws are then weaponized against religious dissenters, such as cake bakers and photographers. Hahn and McGinley rightly note: “Marriage and sexuality are no longer ‘moral issues’ but matters of state.”
There are far more disturbing examples than undermining an ideological opponent’s professional and economic livelihood. Last year, a Texas court awarded a mother full conservatorship over her seven-year-old transgender child, much to the protest of the child’s father, who insists the child is a boy, not a girl. It can be surmised that we are not far afield from trans activists initiating a national conversation on whether the state must intervene when parents refuse to honor the gender dysphoria demands of the minors under their care. Or there’s the concerning fact that many state laws expressly permit surrogacy, a new form of slavery that is also a not-so-subtle commodification of children. Anonymous sperm donorship represents a similar commercial exploitation of both adults and children (“we want a blonde child!”).
The pride of place that cultural Christianity once enjoyed in America is increasingly sidelined by a new, woke progressivism which, though purporting to be neutral and science-based, is in fact a competing religious ideology. The more that it dominates our cultural and political institutions, the more it can misuse the coercive powers of the state and societal pressure to ensure conformity. This exploitation can take the form of corporations demanding their employees undergo woke anti-racism training, academia demanding applicants do woke research (as the University of Chicago’s English Department has done), or punishing businesses deemed bigoted.
What, then, is the solution? Hahn and McGinley urge readers to recognize the public realities of true religion, namely, Catholicism. Though this would of course be excellent, it is unlikely to have much appeal outside a traditionalist Catholic audience. Certainly if more Catholics were to understand and practice their faith in a more public manner, it would have a positive, transformative effect, as McGinley also argues in his recent book The Prodigal Church. Yet even if this happened, it is unlikely to reverse the more essential problems with the liberal political experiment that people like Legutko, and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, have identified.
Another (and arguably more realistic) goal would be to persuade more Americans of the inherently religious nature of woke progressivism, and convince them that it should be considered as such by our legal authorities. At the same time, we should aggressively identify how its totalitarian tendencies often result in less freedom. This would necessarily require a concurrent narrative that argues that liberty is not a good in-and-of itself, but must be oriented towards objective, even transcendent realities. Yet even this achievement may not be enough to substantially alter our current cultural and political trajectory, given how impervious our ideological opponents are to subtle, logical argumentation.
Ultimately, and perhaps only after suffering through the devastating failures that woke progressivism will wreak on our society, Americans will be ready to receive this message. If we aren’t destroyed in that purgative process, there may still be hope for American civilization.