Tag Archives: culture wars

Why does the Right hate victims?

Attack the Parkland kids? Of course they do.


We’ve seen this script play out before: One or maybe a small group of people suffer a tragedy in their lives, and it motivates them to speak out. They speak for themselves. They speak for those who didn’t survive. They speak for countless people like them who have suffered similar losses. Their voices ring with authenticity, and the public begins to listen.

And then conservatives try to rip the hell out of them.

That’s the story of Ann Coulter and the 9-11 widows. “I’ve never seen people enjoy their husbands’ deaths so much,” she wrote in her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV … reveling in their status as celebrities. These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation and acted as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them.”

It’s the story of Donald Trump, his supporters, and the Khan family. Captain Humayun Khan had rushed at a explosive-laden taxi in Iraq. The driver then detonated prematurely, killing himself and Khan, but sparing the hundreds of soldiers in the mess hall the bomb had been intended for. Khizr and Ghazala Khan appeared at the Democratic Convention to tell Trump that Muslim families like theirs are also Americans, that many of them have paid a high price to be good Americans, and that they do not deserve his bigotry. Trump responded by demeaning their religion and their marriage, saying that Mr. Khan alone spoke to the Convention because “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” His supporters (like Roger Stone) went further, claiming that the Khizr Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent”. The honorary Trump campaign co-chair for New York argued to Fox News’ Alan Colmes that Khan was a “terrorist sympathizer“.

It’s the story of Trump and all the women he has molested. They’re liars paid by the Democrats, and besides, they’re too ugly to be assault bait.

After Cleveland police gunned down Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in his own neighborhood — and did it within seconds of arriving on the scene — a story about his father’s “history of domestic violence” got shared on Facebook over eight thousand times. The Rices aren’t victims, you see, they had it coming.

And Trayvon Martin wasn’t just an innocent teen-ager shot down by an over-zealous neighborhood watch guy, whose death the police didn’t think was worth investigating until the community protested. He wasn’t just a victim of Florida’s ridiculous stand-your-ground law that promotes gun violence. He was a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe“. Even his last purchase — Skittles and a soft drink from a convenience store — became evidence of a drug habit.

No victimization is too trivial to let stand. Remember Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old “Clock Boy” who tried to impress his teacher by showing her the electronic clock he had made, and wound up arrested on suspicion of building a bomb, or maybe a “hoax bomb”, or something? His experience drew attention to the excessive suspicion American Muslims live with every day, so he had to be taken down. The whole event was staged, the conspiracy theorists said. Ahmed intended to get arrested, you see. It was all a plot by his terrorist-supporting father to make their town (Irving, Texas) look bad, because its mayor had been outspoken against the Muslim threat. “For some reason Irving is important to the Islamists,” Glenn Beck speculated to the mayor, who did not dispute the point, replying only that “I would hate to think that’s true.”

If I included attacks on public figures, I could go on forever: John Kerry’s wounds in Vietnam were only “superficial”; that’s why delegates to the Republican Convention wore band-aids with purple hearts on them. Ann Coulter claimed Max Cleland was “lucky” that the accident that cost him three limbs happened in Vietnam, where it would make a better story for a political campaign. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, doesn’t “stand up” for veterans; when she argues, she “doesn’t have a leg to stand on“. On and on and on.

Sandy Hook. The most direct parallel to the Parkland kids are the Sandy Hook parents. They also were “crisis actors” participating in a “hoax” designed to take away Americans’ guns and pave the way to dictatorship.

Four years on, the genuinely crackpot notion that the attack was a staged hoax — that no one died — has persisted, and the harassment of victims and their families in the name of investigating the idea shows little sign of abating.

A recent Vice News report followed the administrator of the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook page, as he toured Parkland and tried to project the same theories onto that shooting.

Did people die? I don’t know. But I don’t think what happened here is a genuine calamity. There was something perpetrated here that defies logic, that I think was something done deceitfully to bring about political change. It’s Sandy Hook all over again, if you ask me.

And Sandy Hook parent Lenny Pozner agrees: It’s Sandy Hook all over again.

There’s almost nothing different in the conspiracy theories relating to the Parkland shooting. The hoaxer playbook is immediately finding any inconsistency in any footage that’s being shown online, and then freeze-framing it, and drawing circles and lines and arrows on it, and claiming that this is faked, that’s staged, this person is practicing their lines.

The Parkland kids. So why should anyone be surprised to see them come after the survivors of the Parkland shooting?

Did you see the picture of Emma Gonzalez ripping the Constitution? Or David Hogg giving a Nazi salute? Did you know that Hogg wasn’t really at school during the shooting and made up everything he said about it? Did you see the videos where Gonzales is compared to the Hitler Youth and Hitler’s voice is dubbed over Hogg’s speech at the March for Our Lives?

On top of the fabrications were the insults. Gonzalez is a “skinhead lesbian“. Congressman Steven King went after Gonzalez for wearing a Cuban flag patch on her jacket:

This is how you look when you claim a Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense. [1]

An aide to a Tampa state representative emailed the Tampa Bay Times that Gonzalez and Hogg “are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” They’re “poor, mushy-brained children” who are “liars” and “soulless”.

These kids have skills. To a surprising extent, though, the teens have been able to hold their own. Leslie Gibson, the Maine state legislature candidate who made the “skinhead lesbian” comment, also called Hogg “a bald-faced liar. Hogg struck back like this:

Who wants to run against this hate loving politician he’s is running UNOPPOSED RUN AGAINST HIM I don’t care what party JUST DO IT.

Maybe rivals just sensed his vulnerability rather than took orders from Hogg, but Gibson fairly quickly picked up both Republican and Democratic opposition, and then dropped out.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham also went after Hogg, needling him for getting rejected by four colleges (like that’s anybody’s business) and accusing him of “whining” about it. Hogg responded by tweeting a list of Ingraham’s largest advertisers. Advertisers started leaving Ingraham’s show, and then she gave a half-hearted apology. When that didn’t work, she took a vacation.

Probably the best response happened when The American Spectator blamed the Parkland kids for bullying the shooter, Nicholas Cruz. (See, they really did have it coming.) Isabelle Robinson wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “I tried to befriend Nicholas Cruz. He still killed my friends.

That kind of skill has just been making the attackers more unhinged. Paul Waldman quotes National Review editor Rich Lowry whining about “The Teenage Demagogues” and how sympathetic they are.

“It is practically forbidden in much of the media to dissent from anything they say,” Lowry says, claiming for the right the status of noble victims, brutally silenced by a system that forbids them to speak their opinions out loud.

But is that true? Tell me: What opinion on the subject of guns has been declared verboten in the current American debate, never to pass the lips of a conservative lest he be banished from the media forever?

… Despite what conservatives say, no one is going to criticize them when they disagree with the Parkland students on any substantive matter. If Rich Lowry argues that the students are wrong and goes on to explain why the minimum age to buy a rifle should remain at 18, no one will respond, “How dare you disagree with those lovely teenagers?”

No, what conservatives are really mad about is that the tactic of demonizing those they disagree with … has, in this case, been taken away from them.

Just politics. It’s tempting to say that this kind of thing is “just politics”. Politics, after all, “ain’t beanbag“. As soon as you step into the arena, you’re fair game.

But revictimizing victims is a strangely one-sided kind of politics. Did the 2008 Democratic Convention make fun of John McCain’s years as a POW? In fact, nobody did that until Trump.

Kate Steinle’s death and the murder trial of her shooter became a focus for anti-immigrant anger. A bill to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities became known as “Kate’s Law“. And yet, I can’t recall a single conspiracy theory about her. No one Trayvoned her, or went after her family for wanting her death to lead to political change. Not trusting my memory, I just googled “Kate Steinle smear” and “Kate Steinle conspiracy theory”. I found nothing. The Wikipedia section on the reactions to her shooting is all about policy, not about bizarre attempts to claim she had it coming, or is still alive somewhere, or maybe never existed in the first place.

Victims-of-immigrant-crime is in fact a whole genre in conservative media. I’ve never heard anyone argue that those victims (or their families) are crisis actors. We argue the statistics of immigrant crime, and question the appropriateness of the remedies conservatives propose. But we leave the victims alone.

So what’s the difference? Why is attacking victims such an important part of conservative rhetoric that when it’s taken away (by victims who are simultaneously too sympathetic and too skilled), they feel that they’re being silenced?

It’s simple: At its root, conservative policy is about giving the powerful even more power. So, by its nature, conservatism is constantly producing victims: When guns are everywhere, people get shot. When you take away health insurance, people die. When you rev up deportations, families get ripped apart. When you restrict food stamps, people go hungry. When you defund food inspectors, people get food poisoning. When you stop policing polluters, people get cancer.

Real people. Innocent people who are just trying to live their lives. People you would sympathize with if you met them.

To be a conservative at all, you have to live in denial of all this: There are no victims. Cuts in government spending don’t impact real people, they just prevent more money from swirling down a drain somewhere. There are no transgender soldiers who just want to serve their country. There are no committed same-sex couples who just want to get married like everybody else. There are no young black men getting shot by police for no reason.

When you deny something, and then somebody tries to make you see it, you get angry. That’s how people are: I was happy in my denial, and then these victims came along and screwed everything up for me. How dare they!

When people get angry, they want to strike back. They want to make the victims go away, or at least to make them stop showing up on TV where they’re hard to ignore.

The basic pattern — denial leads to anger leads to striking back at victims — is human. You can find examples of it across the political spectrum. But denial is much more central to conservatism than to liberalism. So victim-bashing has to be at the center of nearly every issue. When that rhetorical tool is taken away, or made counterproductive, they feel disarmed.


[1] This is bogus in numerous ways. First, Cuba’s gun control isn’t particularly oppressive. There are about 4.8 privately owned guns in Cuba for every 100 residents — not as many as in “free” countries like the U.S. (101) or Yemen (54.8), but more than in such despotic nations as Ireland (4.3) and the Netherlands (3.9). Second, the Cuban flag predates Castro, and is flown or worn by many Cuban Americans. And finally, King is making up special rules for Hispanics that no one applies to Europeans. When I raise a stein for Oktoberfest, nobody shames me for not speaking German.

Trump’s Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand

From John the Baptist and Herod to Jerry Falwell Jr. and Trump is a very long fall.


In general, it’s been hard to raise much excitement over the Stormy Daniels story. OK, Trump had an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby. Ten years later, as the election approached, his lawyer paid six figures to hush her up. (And if you believe a Steve Bannon quote in Fire and Fury, she’s not the only one.) Assume all that is true: Does it change your opinion of Donald Trump?

I didn’t think so. As Shakespeare’s fool Touchstone says:

If you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn: no more was this knight swearing by his honour, for he never had any.

Trump can’t lose his reputation for moral uprightness or even basic decency, because he never had one. The American public is well beyond being shocked by any new revelation about his character. A similar scandal about Obama would have been earth-shaking. But Trump? Not so much.

So if you want to get a story out of the Daniels incident, you need to widen your scope somehow, like ask where the money to pay her off came from, or look at somebody who still has a reputation to lose.

I think that’s why so much of the public outrage has shifted its focus from Trump himself to the self-styled moral leaders who defend him and the pitiful defenses they have mustered. The truly shocking thing about the Daniels story is the way that so many Christian leaders have been willing not just to debase themselves, but to spend down the moral capital of Christianity itself in order to protect the man they put in the White House.

Pious enablers. For Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, illicit sex is no more serious than golf — at least when Trump does it. “You get a mulligan,” he says. Presumably, this follows the mulligans he had already given Trump for all the women who accused him of sexual assault, or for his own bragging about assaulting them.

Franklin Graham, in a single interview, said both that “our country has a sin problem” and that Trump buying the silence of a porn star is not a big deal because the president isn’t expected to be “the pastor of this nation”. Robert Jeffress has been notably silent about the Daniels payoff, after defending Trump’s “shithole countries” comment two weeks ago: “I’m grateful we have a president like Donald Trump who … has the courage to protect the well-being of our nation.”

But the prize goes to Jerry Falwell Jr., who defended Trump by debasing the words of Jesus himself. CNN’s Erin Burnett had connected Stormy Daniels to the many women whose stories flesh out Trump’s boastful confession on the Access Hollywood tape, and then asked Falwell how many times Trump has to offend

before you say “This is a person who lacks character”?

In response, Falwell falsely claimed that Trump had “apologized” and “asked forgiveness” for his past wrongdoing. (If you’ve repented, you stop calling your accusers liars.) Then he asserted  that Trump is “not the same person now that he was back then”. (The Daniels payoff happened in 2016.) Then he capped his defense with this argument, which I’m sure Christian philanderers all over America are filing for future use:

Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery. You’re just as bad as the person who has, and that’s why our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.

As I’m sure Falwell must know, the context of the Jesus quote was to call his followers to a higher standard, not the lower one Falwell is offering. What Jesus is saying in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is: Don’t just restrain yourself from murder, root out the anger and hatred in your heart. Don’t just avoid adultery, stop indulging your adulterous fantasies. Don’t just love your friends, love your enemies too.

But Falwell has turned Jesus’ message upside-down. Now it’s a blanket excuse for anybody to do anything, because everybody else is just as bad. If the thought of cheating on your wife with a porn star is already as bad as the deed, then why not just go ahead and do it? And if we’re all equally guilty anyway, then what basis does any pastor have to tell his flock to do or not do anything?

I’ve never been to Falwell’s church, but I guarantee you this is not a message he has ever preached from a pulpit. This is a special gospel that applies only to powerful men he has allied himself with, and whose approval he desires.

The truth-to-power tradition. But the Bible doesn’t offer a special gospel for the powerful; it points in the opposite direction. Moses doesn’t approach Pharaoh with praise and flattery, he announces plainly: “Let my people go.” The Prophet Nathan doesn’t offer King David a mulligan, he accuses David to his face and proclaims God’s judgment:

You had Uriah the Hittite killed in battle. You took his wife as your wife. You used the Ammonites to kill him. So warfare will never leave your house.

Elijah doesn’t go to King Ahab and say, “Hey, don’t sweat it, everybody worships a false god now and then.” His message was unequivocal.

I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.

And finally, John the Baptist, at the cost of his own head, tells King Herod that it was wrong to take his brother’s wife. Like Falwell, he could have said, “You know, everybody has imagined doing the same thing, and that’s just as bad.” Maybe that would have gotten him an appointment to Herod’s But he didn’t.

Nowhere in the Bible does a prophet say: “Maybe if I soft-pedal God’s message so that it fits what the King wants to hear, he’ll keep me around and I’ll be able to get godly judges appointed. Wouldn’t that do more good in the long run?”

But that’s precisely what today’s Christian leaders do, or at least the white evangelical ones.

“Just shut up.” I’m not the only one who has noticed this. I think former RNC Chair Michael Steele spoke for a lot of people when he requested that leaders like Perkins and Falwell “shut the hell up”.

I have very simple admonition: just shut the hell up and don’t preach to me about anything ever again. After telling me who to love, what to believe, what to do and what not to do, and now you sit back and the prostitutes don’t matter, the grabbing the you-know-what doesn’t matter, the outright behavior and lies don’t matter — just shut up! They have no voice of authority anymore for me.

Steele is coming out of a political worldview, but you can also hear the sorrow in his voice. This isn’t just about Republicans and Democrats any more, it’s about Christianity, a religion that he cares about.

Remonstrance. It’s also about Christianity for John Pavlovitz, the former youth pastor of a conservative megachurch in Charlotte and current youth pastor of the more liberal North Raleigh Community Church (whose web site says “We believe Christianity is worth saving“). On his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said Pavlovitz posted “White Evangelicals, This Is Why People Are Through With You“. He argues that worldly power and white identity politics have replaced Jesus as the center of the white evangelical message:

They see your hypocrisy, your inconsistency, your incredibly selective mercy, and your thinly veiled supremacy.

He points to evangelical leaders’ demonization of President Obama, “a man faithfully married for 26 years; a doting father and husband without a hint of moral scandal or the slightest whiff of infidelity”.

They watched you deny his personal faith convictions, argue his birthplace, and assail his character—all without cause or evidence. They saw you brandish Scriptures to malign him and use the laziest of racial stereotypes in criticizing him.

But with Trump, everything is different.

With him, you suddenly find religion.
With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution.
With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission.
With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart.
With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement.
With him, you see only Providence.

And why?

They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it. They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus—not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.

Not just one incident. Christians who want to hang on to Jesus and his message have been writing similar remonstrances to their white evangelical brethren for some while now. In November, when white Evangelicals stood by Roy Moore in spite of multiple credible accusations of his predatory behavior, and in spite of (or maybe because of) his long history of anti-gay bigotry and putting Christian partisanship above the rule of law, Miguel De La Torre responded with “The death of Christianity in the U.S.“.

To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of those who use him as a façade from which to hide their phobias — their fear of blacks, their fear of the undocumented, their fear of Muslims, their fear of everything queer.

Evangelicalism has ceased to be a faith perspective rooted on Jesus the Christ and has become a political movement whose beliefs repudiate all Jesus advocated.

De La Torre’s article looks further back, to “Evangelicalism’s unholy marriage to the Prosperity Gospel” and those who “remained silent or actually supported Charlottesville goose steppers because they protect their white privilege with the doublespeak of preserving heritage”, as well as Christian leaders’ support for Trump in the 2016 election. “The Evangelicals’ Jesus is Satanic” he writes, and concludes by urging the followers of this perversion of Christianity to “get saved”.

Trump’s election was the occasion for mournful remonstrances like “Life After Evangelicalism” by Rachel Held Evans. Evans, who has taken refuge in the Episcopal Church after finding the conservative Christianity of her youth unsustainable, wrote to those Evangelicals for whom the election was a wake-up call.

There’s an op-ed out every minute urging the bewildered to get out of their bubbles and get to know some Trump supporters, but you don’t need to do that, do you?

These are the people you worship with each week, the people whose kids hang out with your kids, the people who brought you a chicken casserole when you had surgery, the people you call with good news, the people you’re now wishing you’d spoken with more bluntly, more honestly.

They aren’t strangers to you, are they? But suddenly, you are a stranger among them.

And she offers them hope that Christianity itself isn’t dead yet, even if their own Christian community has abandoned or marginalized them.

The good news is that Jesus is already on the margins. Jesus is already present among the very people and places our president-elect despises as weak. When we stand in solidarity with the despised and the suffering, Jesus stands with us.  We don’t have to abandon Jesus to abandon the unholy marriage between Donald Trump and the white American Church. In these troubled times, a prophetic resistance will certainly emerge, made up of clergy, activists, artists, humorists, liturgists, parents, teachers, and volunteers committed to partnering with and defending “the least of these.” I found my faith again in the margins—through the Gay Christian Network, for example, and among fellow doubters and dreamers who limp from their wrestling with God

A long time coming. A great religion can’t be corrupted overnight. To those who have been following more closely, evangelical abandonment of the Sermon on the Mount in favor of white identity politics is old news. Michele Goldberg relates some of the history, beginning with Jerry Falwell Sr.’s pro-segregation sermons in the 1950s. (I would have gone back further, to the Christian defense of slavery. That’s what put the “Southern” in Southern Baptists.)

“When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students.

What galvanized Falwell’s commitment to politics — and that of 1970s Evangelicals in general — wasn’t abortion, the cause usually cited, but the IRS’ denial of tax-exempt status to segregated schools. [1]

In the 1980 election, Falwell’s Moral Majority supported America’s first divorced president, Ronald Reagan, largely erasing the previous stigma of divorce. [2] Goldberg quotes historian Randall Balmer:

Up until 1980, anybody who was divorced, let alone divorced and remarried, very likely would have been kicked out of evangelical congregations.

Bending its “family values” to accommodate Trump, she says, is nothing new.

Trump has simply revealed the movement’s priorities. It values the preservation of traditional racial and sexual hierarchies over fuzzier notions of wholesomeness.

“I’ve resisted throughout my career the notion that evangelicals are racist, I really have,” Balmer told me. “But I think the 2016 election demonstrated that the religious right was circling back to the founding principles of the movement. What happened in 2016 is that the religious right dropped all pretense that theirs was a movement about family values.”

She concludes:

it seems absurd to ask secular people to respect the religious right’s beliefs about sex and marriage — and thus tolerate a degree of anti-gay discrimination — while the movement’s leaders treat their own sexual standards as flexible and conditional. Christian conservatives may believe strongly in their own righteousness. But from the outside, it looks as if their movement was never really about morality at all.

The price. For Americans who grew up before the advent of the Moral Majority, or before evangelical leaders became so nakedly partisan, Christianity largely retains an aura of wholesomeness and goodwill. But for younger Americans, this is vanishing. The 538 blog produced this graphic from data collected by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among Americans above 65, 26% consider themselves white Evangelical Protestants, nearly 80% identify with some form of Christianity, and only 12% say they are unaffiliated with any religion. But for those 18-29, 38% are unaffiliated, 53% are Christians of some sort, and only 8% are white Evangelical Protestants.

In 1987, 23% of white Evangelical Protestants were over 65, while almost as many, 20%, were 18-29. But by 2016, the 65-and-older cohort was dominating the 18-29s, 30%-11%. The Barna Group finds that among those born since 1999, 13% identify as atheists, compared to 6% in the general population.

In the prologue of her latest book, Rachel Held Evans recalls an attempt to explain younger people’s disenchantment:

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.

Authentic can be a hard word to define, but I can tell you very quickly what authentic Christianity isn’t: a set of soundbites that prop up a morally bankrupt president because of the favors he promises to Christian leaders and institutions.

The price of the corrupt bargain made by Perkins, Graham, Jeffress, and Falwell — what they have traded for their White House access and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court seat — is the destruction of the Christian brand. Say “Christian” to a young adult, and the word-association you’re likely to get back is “hypocritical” or “judgmental”.

Columnist Michael Gerson (a never-Trump Republican) sums up:

When presented with the binary choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I can understand a certain amount of anguish. But that is not a reason to become sycophants, cheerleaders and enablers. Politics sometimes presents difficult choices. But that is not an excuse to be the most easily manipulated group in American politics.

The problem, however, runs deeper. Trump’s court evangelicals have become active participants in the moral deregulation of our political life. Never mind whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is of good repute. Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks. In the process, they are associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.

Christians like Evans, De La Torre, and Pavlovitz may be working hard to undo the damage the Trump toadies have done to the Christian brand. But it will be an uphill battle. For more and more Americans — especially young Americans — the word Christian itself is stained. Describing an idea, an institution, a speaker, or a political position as Christian no longer evokes a open, accepting attitude in American listeners. Quite the opposite, it puts more and more of us on edge; it signals that something dodgy is about to be presented, something that justifies existing oppressions, something self-serving, self-righteous, and quite likely hateful.

White Evangelicals would like to attribute this stain to the slanders of a hostile secular culture. But outsiders could never manage such a feat. The stain comes from the leaders that so many Christians have chosen to follow.


[1] At the time of Rowe v Wade, abortion was actually a debatable issue among evangelical theologians. Only after a political anti-abortion movement started to take off did opposition to abortion become a cornerstone of Evangelicalism. The religion did not lead the politics, it followed.

[2] Those who claim that the Religious Right holds true to traditional Christian principles will often cite its opposition to abortion and gay rights, as if these issues had been central to Christianity in any other era. Both abortion and homosexuality existed in Jesus’ time, and yet you will search the gospels in vain to find any mention of them; he appears not to have been all that concerned about them. Certainly he does not condemn either in terms that are nearly so direct and unequivocal as what he says about divorce in Matthew 19:

Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

It is currently beyond the pale for Evangelical churches to accept non-celibate gays and lesbians, ostensibly because they persist in their sin without repentance. But divorced-and-remarried couples are equally persistent in what Jesus described as adultery, and they are welcome.

As with Trump and Reagan, standards are infinitely flexible if a church likes you, but strict and literal if it doesn’t. The Bible has nothing to do with this.

Roy Moore: Are we really having this conversation?

By now you know the basics: Thursday, the Republican senate candidate in Alabama got accused of drawing a 14-year-old girl into a sexual encounter when he was 32, back in 1979. As Josh Moon of Alabama Political Reporter put it:

For nearly 40-year-old allegations, the Post’s story was about as solid as it could be.

In other words: We’re not talking about rumors-backed-by-anonymous-sources. The Washington Post article that broke the story names and quotes the 14-year-old (Leigh Corfman, now 53). Three other women (also named) tell similar, if less extreme, stories about Moore:

Moore pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s, episodes they say they found flattering at the time, but troubling as they got older.

The Post found these women; they didn’t come forward on their own. (The one detail I’d still like to hear is how the reporters found the women.)

Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.

Other details are corroborated: Corfman’s mother remembers the incident where her daughter met Moore, and recalls Corfman telling her about Moore’s advances in the 1990s, when they saw his picture in a newspaper. (Moore says he never met her.) Two of Corfman’s childhood friends (one of them named, the other anonymous) remember her talking about an older man at the time, and the named one recalls Corfman saying Moore’s name.

After the story came out, CNN found more corroboration from Teresa Jones, who was a deputy district attorney working in the same office as Moore at the time:

It was common knowledge that Roy dated high-school girls. Everyone we knew thought it was weird. We wondered why anyone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall.

In other words, if the story is a smear, it would have to be a fairly large conspiracy, and there’s no way the Post’s reporters aren’t in on it. Is that really the most likely explanation?

Moore has called the accusations “outlandish“, “garbage”, and “politically motivated”, and he says he’ll sue the Post. (I’ll bet we never see that suit.) But there’s something a little off in his denials. In an interview with Sean Hannity, who surely was not trying to trip him up, he claims not to remember Corfman (“I never knew this woman.”), though he does remember two of the women who claimed he approached them when they were teens. (He “generally” didn’t date teen girls, he says.) He doesn’t remember going out on dates with them, or giving one of them alcohol even though she was under the drinking age (as she reports). He did date “a lot of young ladies” at that point in his life, but he doesn’t remember having a girlfriend in her late teens, and “I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother”.

I would guess that most 30-something men don’t remember dating any girl who needed the permission of her mother. But that phrase is suggestive of something else, as I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs.

The political situation. Moore is running in a special election for the remainder of Jeff Sessions’ term in the Senate, which lasts until 2020. The election will be held December 12. It’s already too late to replace Moore’s name on the ballot, though write-ins are possible. However, it’s hard to imagine a Republican write-in candidate succeeding without Moore stepping aside.

Other options are described in the NYT: The governor could delay the special election, which she says she won’t do. If Moore wins, the Senate could refuse to seat him. The Constitution addresses this possibility:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members … Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

Ironically, Moore quoted this same passage in 2006 as part of an argument that the House should not seat Rep. Keith Ellison because he’s a Muslim. In Moore’s case, two-thirds would mean all 48 Democratic senators and 19 of the 52 Republicans. Expulsion would set up another special-election situation.

Before the story broke, the RCP polling average on this race had Moore ahead of Democrat Doug Jones by 6 points, with one poll putting the margin at 11. I had been thinking that the polls understated Moore’s lead, because the Raven Republicans (“never Moore”) probably would have come around the same way most never-Trump Republicans did.

Maybe they still will, but there appears to be an initial reaction to the story: A Thursday-to-Saturday poll had Democrat Doug Jones ahead of Moore 46%-42%, or 48%-44% when Undecideds were pushed to make a choice. Another poll, however, shows Moore’s lead shrinking, but still at 10%.

Defense in depth. National Republicans are either partially or totally against Moore. The safe line is Mitch McConnell’s: Moore should get out of the race “if these allegations are true”. But a few national figures have gone further: John McCain left out the “if” and just said “He should immediately step aside.” Mitt Romney was even blunter:

Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the accusations are more credible than the denials, and Moore should drop out.

But a number of Alabama Republicans have rallied around Moore. Many are simply repeating his charge that the whole thing is a political smear. A number of them, though, have gone further: Even if the allegations are true, they’re just not that bad, or at least not bad enough to allow another Democrat into the Senate.

State Auditor Jim Ziegler offered this as evidence that Moore’s intentions were honorable: He eventually married “one of the younger women”. Moore’s wife was 24 when he married her at age 38. (I had a similar thought — that Moore’s choice of wife proves that he has an eye for younger women — but I wasn’t planning to go there until I heard Ziegler do it.) Also, Joseph was much older than Mary when they married and raised Jesus. (If the sheer absurdity of this doesn’t faze him, I wonder why he doesn’t make an even stronger claim: Think how much older God was when He got Mary pregnant.)

The religious divide is bigger than you think. In general, American Christians tend to picture extreme Christians as like themselves, only moreso: They attend church more often, take the Bible more literally, are more offended by sinful behavior, and so forth. But the Moore controversy is uncovering a conservative Christian subculture that is totally outside the mainstream.

In particular, the claim that there’s nothing wrong with 30-something men pursuing just-out-of-puberty girls is related to a “traditional” view of marriage that most American Christians would find repellent: A 14-year-old girl isn’t going to be an equal partner with a 32-year-old man; but if a wife’s only purpose is to obey her husband and have a lot of babies, she can do that as well an adult woman. Maybe better.

That’s not middle-of-the-road Christianity only moreso, it’s a whole other worldview. Writing for The L.A. Times, Kathryn Brightbill describes growing up within that world, where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson (whose son Willie spoke at the Republican Convention) advocates marrying 15-year-old girls. (His own wife was 16, and he started dating her when she was 14.) And speakers at conventions for Christian home-schoolers both advocated an exemplified such marriages.

We need to talk about the segment of American culture that probably doesn’t think the allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore are particularly damning, the segment that will blanch at only two accusations in the Washington Post expose: He pursued a 14-year-old-girl without first getting her parents’ permission, and he initiated sexual contact outside of marriage.

If anything bad happens, of course, it is the girl’s own fault.

Much of the sexual abuse that takes place in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, or IFB, churches involves adult men targeting 14- to 16-year-old girls. If caught, the teenage victim may be forced to repent the “sin” of having seduced an adult man. Former IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap argued that he should be released from prison after being convicted of molesting a 16-year-old girl, asserting that the “aggressiveness” of his victim “inhibited [his] impulse control.”

Nancy French relates similar experiences in The Washington Post.

I was delighted when the preacher volunteered to drop me off. As we drove, I chatted incessantly, happy to have him all to myself without people trying to get his attention in the church parking lot. When we got to my house, I was shocked that he walked me inside my dark house, even more surprised when he lingered in conversation, and thunderstruck when he kissed me right on the lips.

At 12 years old, I swooned over my good luck. He picked me out of all the girls at church. But the relationship, especially after he moved on, reset my moral compass. If all the church conversation about morality and sexual purity was a lie, what else was fake? Now that the “family of God” felt incestuous, I rejected the church and myself. Didn’t I want the preacher’s attention? Didn’t I cause this?

What this is all going to turn on is whether Alabama’s Christians, even those inclined to vote Republican, take a hard look at Roy Moore’s version of Christianity, and realize that they have very little in common with it. Ross Douthat might be a model:

One lesson is that any social order that vests particular forms of power in men needs to do more, not less, to hold the male of the species accountable.

Some cultural conservatives, in evangelical Christianity especially, combine a belief in male headship in churches and families with a “boys will be boys and girls shouldn’t tempt them” attitude toward sex. It’s a combination that’s self-contradictory and deeply toxic, handing men not just power but a permission slip to abuse it — which, predictably, they do.

A Few Points About Confederate Monuments

Confederate monuments and what they represent has been an issue I keep coming back to. In 2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I made the case that these are “victory monuments” for the eventual triumph of white supremacy in the South after the overthrow of Reconstruction. After the Charleston massacre in 2015, I urged people to “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag“, arguing that pro-Confederate symbols of all types are hopelessly entangled in racism, no matter what you may intend when you display them.

Those points have only been magnified by the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Undeniably, Nazi, KKK, and other alt-Right groups take inspiration from Confederate monuments, and regard Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson as heroes because they fought for white supremacy. All over the country, monuments are being toppled or moved or transformed-in-place by the addition of explanatory plaques or statues of civil rights heroes.

A number of white supremacists and people who claim they aren’t white supremacists, including President Trump, are defending the monuments. But the points they’re making are almost entirely bogus. Here are my responses.

The Confederacy can’t be separated from slavery. Claims to the contrary usually hinge on a few half-truths. Abraham Lincoln, for example, didn’t run for president on a platform of ending slavery, but only of preventing its expansion. Once the war started he was slow to embrace it as an abolitionist crusade, and sometimes explicitly denied that purpose. (The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t take effect until January 1, 1863, more than two years after the first southern state seceded. Congress didn’t pass the 13th Amendment until the war was nearly over.) Although Lincoln hoped for slavery’s eventual end, war-for-emancipation was not his method of choice.

But the Confederate states, on the other hand, had no similar ambivalence. South Carolina’s “Declaration of Immediate Causes” for its secession pointed to Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as the most immediate cause:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.

A few weeks before war broke out, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave his “Cornerstone Speech“, in which he found fault with Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal”.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

A long list of similar quotes could be produced. Slavery was the Confederacy’s reason to exist. The war to defend the Confederacy was seen at the time as a war to defend slavery; the two causes were identical. Only after the South’s defeat did the Lost Cause mythology postulate alternative causes for the war.

We should never forget our history, but not all of it deserves to be celebrated. In his speech just before the removal of a Lee statue, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said: “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

To see that difference, contrast the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee (particularly as it sat in Lee Park, before the city renamed it) to The Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, where the Gestapo’s headquarters used to stand. The Germans could have “remembered” that site by turning it into Himmler Park, and centering it on a triumphant statue of the Gestapo’s commander, but they chose not to.

Lee, of course, was not Himmler. A better German parallel would be Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a brilliant military tactician whose genius was applied in the defense of an evil regime. Rommel actually deserves a somewhat better place in history than Lee, because of his suspected role in a plot against Hitler. Nonetheless, Germans don’t name their high schools after him. (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 American public schools are named for Lee, roughly twice as many as are named for Benjamin Franklin, a far greater American. What’s that about?)

Vox underlines this contrast:

But unlike in Germany, where memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are erected on the ruins of Nazi buildings as a way to teach future generations about the sins and horrors of the past, most Confederate statues were designed to glorify the sins and horrors of the past.

Present-day defenders of the Confederacy create a false choice between celebrating Confederate history and erasing it. No one wants America to forget slavery and the rebellion that sought to preserve it. Critics of Confederate monuments simply want to stop glorifying the Slave Empire, particularly in cities like New Orleans, where so many citizens are descended from slaves.

Many Confederate monuments were built to promote false history. Mayor Landrieu noted that the South’s monuments are at best a selective remembrance.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth. And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

Sometimes the lies aren’t by omission, but are direct Lost Cause propaganda. For example, the inscription on the Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia tells a glorious story of the Confederacy that has nothing to do with slavery. It was erected in 1908, when Lost Cause mythology had become Southern dogma.

Reconstruction history has been similarly misrepresented. One of the most shameful episodes of the Reconstruction Era was the Colfax Massacre, where a disputed election led white Democrats to attack blacks defending a county courthouse and murder those who surrendered. Such violence was a key element in whites regaining control of southern state governments and ultimately disenfranchising blacks completely. The official marker describes it like this:

Many Confederate monuments were intentionally built to celebrate white supremacy and intimidate uppity blacks.  “Historical” monuments are rarely entirely about the era depicted; usually their builders are also trying to make a symbolic statement about their own era.

You can see that in the following graph of the creation of Confederate monuments. There are two peak periods: During (and just after) the establishment of Jim Crow early in the 20th century, and when Jim Crow is being disestablished during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s; this is also when the Confederate flag regained popularity.

Wikipedia:

Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements.

National Geographic:

Once the Dixiecrats got a hold of it as a matter of defiance against their Democratic colleagues in the north and the African Americans in their midst, then the Confederate battle flag took on a new life, or a second life. In the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam, you began to see more and more public displays of the Confederate battle flag, to the point where the state of Georgia in 1956 redesigned their state flag to include the Confederate battle flag.

The timing suggests that Confederate symbolism has less to do with remembering the Civil War than with reminding blacks that whites are in power.

There is no slippery slope from Robert E. Lee to George Washington. In his Tuesday new conference, Trump asked:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

George Washington did indeed own slaves. Thomas Jefferson not only owned slaves, he fathered children with one of them and raised those children as his slaves. None of these facts should make Americans proud, and the monuments we build to Washington and Jefferson should acknowledge such failings. (Mount Vernon and Monticello do acknowledge them.)

In each case, our challenge is to see our Founders as people of their time and place, rather than as faultless gods. Slave-owning complicates our pictures of Washington and Jefferson, but doesn’t undo the positive roles they played in creating the United States, defining ideals we still struggle to live up to, and leading the nation through its difficult early decades.

The difference between the Founders and Confederate heroes like Lee, Jackson, and Davis is that the Confederacy is their only claim to historical significance. When we honor them, then, what we are honoring is their defense of slavery, because they have no positive accomplishments of comparable importance. You cannot, for example, separate the Charlottesville statue of a uniformed Lee on his horse from what he is doing on that horse: leading the defense of a government created to protect the right of whites to enslave blacks.

By contrast, I know of no monuments to Washington and Jefferson as slave owners — no statues showing Washington with a whip in his hand and blacks cowering before him, and none honoring Jefferson’s sexual abuse of Sally Hemmings. If there are any, they should come down; those are not the things we want to celebrate about Washington and Jefferson. But monuments to the Declaration of Independence, the Yorktown victory, and the early presidencies should stand.

What should be done with Confederate monuments? Each one should be judged separately according to

  1. what the purpose of the monument is, and
  2. how the local community feels about it.

Let me start by describing two monuments I think should stay. After the war, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College, which is now Washington and Lee University. He is buried on campus beneath Lee Chapel, where there is a statue of him sleeping. The statue is clearly a remembrance of the man rather than a celebration of white supremacy. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the war; it is entirely appropriate for VMI, a military school, to honor their most famous general.

Other remembrances should stay as well: Plaques and monuments enhance cemeteries and battlefields, as long as the inscriptions are accurate. And of course there should be museums that give a broader context to historical events.

No one really wants history forgotten, least of all the victims.

But a monument is suspect if it glorifies people or events that those who have to live with it find shameful or insulting. (To bring that point home to white Southerners, someone started a Facebook page proposing to erect a statue of General Sherman in Atlanta.) Some historical names are so offensive they could pass for inventions of The Onion, like the majority-black high school in Florida that until recently was named for KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Forrest had no personal connection to the area. The name appears to have been chosen in the 1950s to protest court-mandated school desegregation.) If Arlington, Virginia wants to rename its segment of the Jefferson Davis Highway, it should be allowed to do so.

One hopes that local people can meet each other with empathy and work out compromises. Sometimes moving a statue to a more obscure park or to a museum would suffice. A critical plaque could be added, or the impact of a monument balanced by new competing monuments. What will not do is an attitude of “We like it, so deal with it.” That’s what supremacy is all about.

What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?


I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.


[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.


I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

Themes of 2015: Religion, Morality, and the Law

All year, gay rights has had to compete with claims of “religious freedom”. I should have predicted that: If you look back in American history, bigotry has always hidden behind religion.


As 2015 began, same-sex marriage was clearly headed to the Supreme Court. The ruling in Obergefell v Hodges wouldn’t come until June, but both sides were making their final push to bend public opinion in their favor. So in February, I wrote “When Hate Stays in the Closet” to answer what seemed to me to be the two most reasonable-sounding arguments against same-sex marriage. (A consistent gripe I have about the national debate is that all sides tend to focus on the most hateful and unreasonable arguments made against them, and leave the more reasonable ones untouched.)

On April 6, “Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way” explained the principles involved in the various cases involving bakers, photographers, and other folks who felt their religious convictions should allow them to not serve gay couples who were planning their weddings. The key principle, which was already embedded in First Amendment cases and didn’t need any new religious-freedom laws to enforce it, was:

a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

So if a baker refuses to put “Gay Marriage Rocks” on a cake, that’s his First Amendment right. But if the shop sells wedding cakes to the public, it isn’t free to refuse a wedding cake to a same-sex couple.

I continued on the religious-freedom theme in May with “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself“, making the point that the new religious-freedom laws were clearly intended only for conservative Christians, and predicting that

If “religious freedom” laws end up giving atheists and Muslims the same consideration Christians are claiming, Christians will repeal those laws themselves.

For example: Inscribing “In God We Trust” on the money forces atheists either to do without the convenience of a national currency, or to hand out pieces of paper that denounce their own religious views. How can any non-sectarian religious-freedom law not ban that?

In May, I gave my best explanation of why I think bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, even though the people who ratified the 14th Amendment probably never envisioned protecting same-sex couples.

In current law, the [legal] roles of husband and wife are virtually interchangeable. … So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

In short, the Constitution and the 14th Amendment haven’t changed, but the world has changed around them. Nor is the Supreme Court being asked to “redefine marriage” or to pass a “judicial law” legalizing it. That’s not what a court is for. But we do need the Court to tell us what “equal protection” is going to mean in the context of today’s marriage laws.

Also in May/June, the Josh Duggar molestation scandal broke. For reasons I can’t recall, I resisted devoting an article to it, but a segment of a weekly summary was of article length and scope, concluding:

Morality, as I conceive it, is about how we’re all going to live together on the Earth without making each other miserable. If you picture it instead as a private interaction between yourself and the Divine Lawmaker, I think you’ve still got some growing up to do.

In early June, the Bruce/Caitlin Jenner story suddenly put transgender issues in the headlines. I had never thought about the topic seriously before (and it showed; ever since, commenters have been educating me about how not to inadvertently give offense). But rather than mask my own squeamishness, I decided to explore it to see what insight it could give me into the people who saw the celebration of Jenner as a “snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become”. In “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?” I announced an abstract principle that I should probably break out into its own article sometime: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.

I think the unifying principle of social conservatism is the desire to believe that the categories in our heads — male/female, black/white, good/evil, friend/enemy, and so on — correspond to real and solid divisions in the external world. Social conservatives increasingly retreat into an information bubble as it becomes more and more obvious that what they want to believe simply is not true. Binary categories are just kludges evolution has provided to help us simplify a world too complex for our brains to fully grasp.

When the Obergefell decision arrived in June and same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, I was pleased by the result but (once again) disappointed in Justice Kennedy’s reasoning.

Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.  Not in other marriage cases – that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

By founding his decision on a vague “right to marry” that he scries out of the word liberty in the 14th Amendment, Kennedy fed conservative rhetoric about “redefining marriage” and “judicial activism”. In the long run, I believe the reasoning that will stand is the equal-protection argument above, which I learned by reading the lower-court decisions.

After Obergefell, opponents of same-sex marriage largely went into denial, claiming that the other branches of government (or some popular uprising) could still stop this abomination (which has been happening in Massachusetts for more than a decade with no visible ill effects).

The opponents hate to be called bigots, and argue that their opposition is based on religion, not hatred. So it’s completely different than say, the opposition to interracial marriage in the 1960s. In order to make that argument, you have to be completely ignorant of history, so I tried to fix that with a history lesson in “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot” (the year’s most popular new post). After reviewing the religious arguments that have justified segregation and slavery, I concluded:

There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation.

In other words, it is totally typical for Americans to hide their disregard for their neighbor behind their love of God. Today’s Mike Huckabees and Kim Davises are heirs to a long tradition of religiously justified bigotry, even if they would rather not claim that legacy.

In his Obergefell dissent, Chief Justice Roberts raised the specter of polygamy as the next step down the slippery slope. In July, I examined that possibility, finding that (A) it’s not nearly so simple a step as Roberts implied, and (B) it’s also not the horror that he imagined.

By September, we had the Kim Davis saga, which I covered in “Is Kim Davis a Martyr?” I describe the standard of purity Davis  and others want to apply here — that Christians shouldn’t involve themselves in other people’s sins in any way — as “a ‘sincerely held belief’ that was invented solely for this purpose.” I see no reason to take it seriously.

As the year ends, the push to define religious freedom broadly — for conservative Christians, if no one else — continues, accompanied by the self-justifying fantasy that American Christians are persecuted. We’ll undoubtedly see more states pass laws that legalize discrimination against gays, and since the male-Catholic-conservative majority on the Supreme Court (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy) shows no signs of grasping the problem yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if they extend the religious-freedom principles in the Hobby Lobby decision even further in 2016.

I don’t see this trend stopping until unpopular religious groups start claiming their equal rights under these laws and interpretations, and forcing conservative judges to explain why they don’t deserve the same consideration Christians get. When those laws start protecting the broadly defined religious freedom of Muslims and pagans and atheists, conservative Christians will lead the repeal effort themselves.

So What About Polygamy Anyway?

After same-sex marriage, is polygamy a further slide down the slippery slope, the next step of progress, or a separate issue entirely?


For the last 10-15 years, people who brought polygamy into a discussion were usually talking about something else. Polygamy was supposedly the next stop on the slippery slope we would step onto if we legalized same-sex marriage: Once you start fiddling with the definition of marriage, the doomsayers prophesied, there is no clear place to stop. In the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision, Chief Justice Roberts brought that argument into his dissent:

One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.

Slippery-slope arguments are often a way to create flashy distractions from the issues that are actually present: If you have no coherent case to make about why a loving, committed same-sex couple shouldn’t be married, you talk instead about legalized polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Maybe no one is actually making those proposals yet, but they could at some point down the road.

On the other hand, some slippery-slope arguments actually are prophetic. In his Lawrence dissent in 2003, Justice Scalia warned:

This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Twelve years later, here we are.

And sometimes, when we look back on prophets of doom, our modern eyes see them as unintentional prophets of progress. The downward slide they feared, we recall proudly. For example, shortly after the Civil War, Rev. R. L. Dabny published a retrospective justification of slavery and secession: A Defence of Virginia. In it he warned the North of the horrors its abolitionist notions would ultimate bring to pass:

But other consequences follow from the abolitionist dogma. “All involuntary restraint is a sin against natural rights,” therefore laws which give to husbands more power over the persons and property of wives, than to wives over husbands, are iniquitous, and should be abolished. The same decision must be made upon the exclusion of women, whether married or single, from suffrage, office, and the full franchises of men. … But when God’s ordinance of the family is thus uprooted, and all the appointed influences of education thus inverted; when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!

Wives owning property! Women voting and running for office! Surely society must collapse from the unnatural strain of such abominations. Why didn’t we listen when Dabny warned us? If only we’d kept blacks in slavery, we could have avoided all this.

[You knew that was sarcasm, right?]

So OK: But for a few dead-enders, same-sex marriage is a done deal now. So polygamy’s usefulness as a slippery-slope horror is over. But are the predictions correct? Is that where we’re heading next? And if we get there, will it be a downward slide or an upward climb?

In Politico Magazine, Fredrik deBoer got right to work with “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy“. Jonathan Rauch then answered with “No, Polygamy Isn’t the Next Gay Marriage“. And deBoer responded on his blog with “every bad argument against polygamy, debunked“. Another worthwhile piece promoting polygamy (with a better collection of links) is William E. Smith’s “Who’s Scared of Polygamy?” on Religion Dispatches.

I’m not going to take a pro or con position, but I would like to shape the discussion a little.

If you’re worrying (or hoping) that some judge will legalize polygamy next week, stop. Think about how hard it would have been to implement same-sex marriage during the Washington administration: At the dawn of the American Republic, men and women had different legal rights, and husband and wife were unequal legal roles. Same-sex marriage would have been absurd then, because women were legally incapable of playing the husband role, and before they could become wives, men would have to give up inalienable constitutional rights. To make same-sex marriage legal then, the whole legal relationship of men and women — which was embedded in countless laws — would have had to change.

But everything was different by 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered the question. Massachusetts had passed an Equal Rights Amendment into its Constitution in 1976, so men and women were equal under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Louisiana’s Head and Master law in 1981, so husband and wife were legal equals. All that really had to happen to make same-sex marriage a reality was to change the forms from Husband and Wife to Spouse and Spouse.

(You can accurately describe American marriage after 1981 in a lot of ways, but “traditional marriage” is not one of them. I don’t know of any traditional society where husbands and wives have been equal under the law.)

Polygamy today resembles same-sex marriage in the Washington administration. Changing the forms to allow an indefinite number of spouses wouldn’t come close to defining it. Are we talking about Biblical (or Mormon) polygamy, where one man marries several women? Jacob and Leah and Rachel, say, or Solomon with his “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines“? Or a group marriage where everybody listed is married to everybody else? Or maybe a chain marriage, where Bob marries Carol marries Ted marries Alice, but Bob and Alice are just friends? Or is some central couple the prime relationship, with other spouses secondary? The possibilities are endless, and the law would have to account for them.*

However you picture it, giving polygamy legal recognition would mean establishing legal infrastructure to answer questions that don’t come up in binary marriages. In a group marriage, can one spouse divorce the others, or does the whole relationship dissolve and need to be reformed? What’s the property settlement look like? Do all spouses have equal rights and responsibilities regarding the children, or do biological parents have a stronger legal bond? In a Biblical polygamous marriage, are all the wives equal, or does the first wife have a special role?

In any of the polygamy models, it doesn’t take much imagination to spin out questions that may not be unanswerable, but aren’t answered in any obvious way by current law. Such questions go all the way down to the most trivial level: What fee should a clerk charge for a plural marriage license? Are current fees based on per-person or per-marriage logic? That question never comes up as long as all marriages are between two people, but someone would need to decide God-knows-how-many minor issues like that.

Consequently, a court can’t simply order to a county clerk to issue a three-person marriage license. The judge would have to rewrite big chunks of the legal code, which a judge is not equipped to do, even if one thought he or she could get away with asserting that kind of power.

Is polygamy a legal right? A somewhat more realistic fantasy/nightmare goes like this: A judge might find that three or more people have a right to the legal advantages marriage offers, even if the judge can’t say exactly how that right should be implemented. That would have to go through a legislature, which is equipped and empowered to rewrite large chunks of the legal code.

So a judge could order the legislature to rectify the situation within a specified time. The legislature would probably refuse, and then the judge could assess damages against the state, which the governor could refuse to pay, and from there who knows where it all goes.

A key part of that scenario, though, is that the legal argument for a right to polygamy is sitting there inside the same-sex-marriage jurisprudence, waiting for some bold judge to notice it. In spite of John Roberts’ dissent, I don’t think that’s true.

In order to have this discussion, though, we need to set aside the particular opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, which really is as bad as the dissents claim. (I covered that when it came out.) It’s not at all typical of marriage-equality opinions, and it contains little in the way of a legal framework that could be extended to polygamy or anything else. I suspect it will have the same kind of influence that Kennedy’s similarly mushy DOMA opinion had: In subsequent lower-court decisions, judges made their rulings consistent with the outcome of the DOMA case, but didn’t attempt to apply Kennedy’s reasoning, such as it was.

The way pro-marriage-equality judges other than Kennedy have approached the issue is through the equal protection of the laws, a position I summarized in May: The opposite-sex marriage laws create an advantageous institution (marriage) and extend its benefits only to opposite-sex couples, when same-sex couples could be included by simply editing the license form, and no credible evidence suggested that negative consequences relevant to the mission of the government would ensue. (The possible offense to God claimed by anti-gay activists is not something the Constitution instructs the government to take notice of. Read the Preamble.) Under those circumstances, there’s really no way to claim that gays and lesbians are being granted the equal protection of the laws promised by the 14th Amendment.

What lies in the background of that argument is that the separation between gays/lesbians and the benefits of marriage is not something the affected individuals can easily fix on their own. Sexual orientation may or may not be innate, but it is not generally changeable in adulthood. And while legally, a gay or lesbian person could enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex, it’s hard to see that as a satisfactory solution. Consequently, because of who you are, you might be unable to take advantage of the marriage laws.

That argument is much harder to make for polygamy, which feels more like a lifestyle choice than an innate orientation. The government set up an advantageous path hoping to induce you to live one way, but you decided to live another way. I would defend your right to make that choice, but I don’t see how it gives you a right to the advantages of the other lifestyle.

Maybe some other legal argument for a right-to-polygamy is possible, but I don’t know what it is. I think you’d need to show that favoring binary relationships is an irrational thing for the government to do, and can’t conceivably lead to any social benefit the government might reasonably want to achieve. Constructing such an argument would be much harder than just cutting and pasting from the same-sex marriage arguments.

If polygamy isn’t a right. If polygamy isn’t a right inherent in the laws currently on the books, then if people want it, they need to convince legislatures to pass new laws. And that means convincing a large chunk of the electorate (who may or may not have polygamous fantasies) that a society that openly includes polygamous households is better — or at least no worse — than the society we have now.

If we’re debating in a legislature rather than before a judge, then I think the burden of proof shifts a little on both sides. To win in court, a polygamy supporter would need to show that banning it is completely irrational. To win in a legislature, they’d just need to argue that allowing it makes more sense than banning it. deBoer sums up:

my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.

As in same-sex marriage, we’re talking about real people doing real things. What’s our basis for telling them not to? I’m not saying there is no basis, I just can’t explain what it is off the top of my head.

On the other side, a legislature would have to debate a real proposal, not just an idea. Exactly what relationships are we giving legal form? How do all the details work? In particular, a law shouldn’t create holes in the system, which would be easy to do. (If my health insurance plan covers my spouse, maybe I could establish universal health care by marrying everybody. Or maybe I could solve the immigration problem by marrying all of the undocumented immigrants. Yes, those examples are ridiculous. But it’s not hard to imagine more realistic unintended scenarios, where groups might redefine themselves as marriages to take advantage of a poorly phrased law.) deBoer argues that the difficult logistics of polygamy isn’t a reason not to do it. But a real proposal would have to deal with those logistics.

In short, I would tell both deBoer and Rauch the same thing: I’m convincible, but I’m not convinced. The anti-polygamy argument isn’t sharp enough, and the pro-polygamy argument isn’t detailed enough. But however the issue eventually comes out, it will do so on its own merits, and will not follow automatically just because gay couples or lesbian couples are getting married.


* I’ve questioned whether I should even use the word polygamy to cover all these possibilities, since it often refers specifically to Biblical polygamy, with polyandry referring to a woman with many husbands. But the articles I’ve referenced are comfortable with that usage, so I have reluctantly followed it.

Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy

By all means, celebrate. But, looking to future gay-rights cases, Justice Kennedy gave us more rhetoric than precedent.


Friday, the Supreme Court ended the decades-long legal debate on marriage equality, making same-sex marriage legal for the entire nation in Obergefell v Hodges. Across the country, supporters of gay rights were jubilant as they read to each other delicious paragraphs out of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. But I have a complaint: Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.

Not in other marriage cases — that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

The DOMA hangover. As regular Sift readers know, I have mixed feelings about Justice Kennedy, particularly on the subject of gay rights. He tends to rule the way I want, and he’s often the swing vote that puts my position over the top. But being the swing vote, he usually ends up writing the majority opinion, and he writes it badly. That’s what happened when the Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) two years ago, which I covered (along with Chief Justice Roberts’ hamstringing of the Voting Rights Act) in an article I demurely called “This Court Sucks“. And it happened again Friday.

The reason Obergefell came to the Court in the first place was that lower courts could not follow Kennedy’s mushy reasoning in the DOMA case. The Supreme Court is supposed to do more than just decide the current case, it’s supposed provide interpretive frameworks for lower courts to apply, so that future cases can be decided without involving the Supremes again. But when Judge Kean was throwing out Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage, for example, he wrote that he had “gleaned” — not quoted, gleaned — two principles from Kennedy’s DOMA opinion. Other courts gleaned other principles and disagreed, so the highest court had to sort it out.

This time, Kennedy has made marriage equality the law of the land, but he’s done it with another piece of mushy reasoning that is a poor climax to the distinguished series of lower-court decisions supporting same-sex marriage, going all the way back to the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts. Instead of following the compelling logic laid out by one lower court after another, Kennedy’s opinion looks like exactly what critics of marriage equality say it is: a judge redefining marriage according to his own values. His ruling is full of beautiful tributes to the dignity of same-sex couples, but short on the kind of step-by-step legal thinking you can find in the lower-court rulings, which I summarized last month.

Due process isn’t enough. Every pro-marriage-equality judge I know of, other than Kennedy, has centered the argument on the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws”. As I summarized:

In practice, that phrase has been interpreted to mean that if the government treats some people differently than others, it has to have a good reason. The more significant the discrimination, the weightier the reason needs to be.

That’s why laws that provide a marriage option to opposite-sex couples but deny it to same-sex couples are in trouble: because it’s increasingly hard to say what legitimate reason the government might have for that discrimination.

… So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

Instead, Kennedy focuses on the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause, and finds a fundamental right to marry in the word liberty. His rhetoric is inspiring if you already agree with him, but if you don’t, his reasoning isn’t compelling. The dissents by Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito eviscerate his argument, and rightly so.

Kennedy’s biggest problem is that the Constitution doesn’t require governments, either federal or state, to recognize marriage at all. (If Oregon wanted to become “the free love state” and stop performing marriages entirely, that would be up to Oregonians.) Liberty traditionally means being left alone by the government, not that the government must help you in some way. So Roberts makes an argument that appears in some form in all the dissents:

Our cases have consistently refused to allow litigants to convert the shield provided by constitutional liberties into a sword to demand positive entitlements from the State.

The question Kennedy should have raised is: Once the State has defined the “positive entitlement” of marriage for some people, what’s its justification for denying those benefits to others? But that’s an equal-protection issue, not a liberty issue.

In short: the ruling came out the right way, but the people who still want to hold out against marriage equality feel vindicated in their view that the Court has usurped the power of the legislative branch by “redefining marriage”. It didn’t have to be like this. Why, oh why, couldn’t Justice Ginsburg have written this ruling?

Why it’s important. The lower courts nearly all used the equal-protection framework: Define a level of scrutiny appropriate to laws that discriminate against gays, and then examine the government’s reasons for discriminating under that level of scrutiny. One of the issues to decide, if you go that way, is whether gays and lesbians are a class that has traditionally faced discrimination, and so how much benefit of the doubt a legislature or electorate should get as to its motives.

Racial discrimination, for example, faces the highest level of scrutiny. As a matter of judicial precedent, laws that discriminate against traditionally disadvantaged racial groups are inherently suspect. Similarly, laws that discriminate against women are inherently suspect. It’s possible that some particular race- or gender-discriminating law can be justified, but a court will not give the government any benefit of the doubt.

The traditional discrimination against gays and lesbians certainly would justify giving laws against them some heightened level of scrutiny, but the Supreme Court has never done so. Kennedy doesn’t do so either.

Pro-marriage-equality judges who don’t invoke heightened scrutiny are forced to give the legislative branch the benefit of the doubt. And so they end up having to argue that same-sex marriage bans are completely irrational. That argument has been made, and was sitting there for Kennedy to endorse. He didn’t.

Going either way would have established a precedent for fighting other anti-gay discrimination: Either anti-gay discrimination would face heightened scrutiny in the future, or there would be a precedent for saying that certain kinds of anti-gay discrimination are irrational.

Instead, Justice Kennedy gave us just this result, justified by a lot of effusive rhetoric that has no further legal consequences.

The “threat to American democracy”. All four dissents lamented a judicial usurpation of powers properly belonging to the democratic branches — which is in fact a fair criticism of the argument Kennedy made. The place for flowery rhetoric is in the legislature or on the campaign trail. But it wouldn’t have been a fair criticism of the equal-protection argument Kennedy avoided.

Dahlia Lithwick raised the right question:

And all I could keep thinking was, “Where was all this five unelected judges chatter when you all handed down Citizens United? Or Shelby County? Why does this rhetoric about five elitist out-of-touch patrician fortune-cookie writers never stick when you’re in the five?”

The most-quoted Roberts line was:

Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.

If you’re a straight person very distant from the gay community, this might sound convincing. But if you imagine yourself in the place of a same-sex couple, it isn’t convincing at all. Would you rather have widespread social approval ten years from now, or the equal protection of the laws today? The answer is pretty obvious.

The comparison to interracial marriage is apt. XKCD draws the chart:

Our fellow citizens are being persuaded of the justice of marriage equality — not, for the most part, by referendum campaigns, but by living in society with same-sex couples. That process will continue apace.

In these the-sky-will-fall-if-we-allow-this situations, most people have to see something in action before they realize the panic-mongers are conning them. As I predicted back in 2003:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Today, no one cares how interracial couples got the right to marry. Most young people have trouble believing it was ever an issue. (Have you ever tried to explain to a teen-ager why his friend’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal 50 years ago? I have.) So it will be for same-sex marriage.

What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?

Transsexualism is the latest example of a difficult truth: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.


The interview. When I started watching Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner (as he was still calling himself in late April), I can’t say I was fully comfortable either with transsexualism in general or with the idea that the hero of the 1976 Olympics [see endnote 1] thought of himself as a woman.

I sort of understood transsexuals in the abstract, or at least I could repeat the right words: For some reason nobody can adequately explain, the gender that society assigns you (based on your genitalia) just feels wrong; you think of yourself as a woman with a penis or a man with breasts and a vagina. Jenner described the feeling in Christian terms: feeling like he had “the soul of a female”.

But as someone who has a hard time pointing to his own soul or tracing its outlines, I can’t really claim I know what that means. At times I have felt like a dissenter from various aspects of male culture — the violence, say, or the joy so many men take in humiliating others — but I have always experienced myself as reaching for a different kind of masculinity (just as so many women in my generation reached for a different kind of femininity) rather than rejecting the whole concept. I’m not sure what it would mean to not feel like a man “inside”. I’m like the fish who hears another fish say that swimming in water just feels wrong, that he was meant to fly through the air. And I respond, “Water? What is water?”

In my personal life, no one has forced me to come to terms with transsexualism. More than one of my casual friends has a child who has adopted a new name and a new pronoun. But learning that name has been about all the adjustment required of me. Occasionally I have found myself in a social setting with someone whose gender was ambiguous — combining breasts with a beard, say. And I have been uncomfortable, but what I mainly felt was fear of making a social error. My discomfort manifested as a desire to be somewhere else, not to harm that other person or make him/her be different.

So I was perhaps the perfect target audience for the Sawyer/Jenner interview. The distance — identifying through a screen with Sawyer sitting across from Jenner — was about right for me to put aside my discomfort and listen with empathy as he (at that time, Jenner was still using the masculine pronoun and talking about “her” as a person he had not yet revealed to the public) discussed his decision to create a new public identity as a woman.

First reactions. After watching that interview, a few things seemed obvious to me:

  • At 65, Jenner is old enough to know what s/he wants.
  • Jenner gave masculinity a fair shot. If it hasn’t worked, it hasn’t worked. In some ways, his external success — being an Olympic hero, trying marriage with three gorgeous women, fathering six and step-fathering four “wonderful, wonderful children” — makes the case clearer. A less successful person with Jenner’s inner life might have blamed himself and said: “Masculinity would be fulfilling if only I were better at it.”
  • Sixty-five is a do-or-die point for a lot of things in life. If there’s something you’re going to regret not trying, you better get on with it.
  • If Jenner’s kids and step-kids are OK with the transition [2], why should the rest of us object?

So this week, Jenner’s new female identity — Caitlyn — made her public debute with an Annie Leibovitz portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Looking at that photo, I assume Kim Kardashian is happy with the way Caitlyn “rocks it”. [2])

Not pink and blue, red and blue. The public reaction has generally split on political lines. Liberals like me have mostly praised the courage it took to go public with something this controversial, while the conservative reaction has been described by the Washington Post as “apocalyptic“. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer said on his radio show:

If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become, all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Matt Walsh wrote for The Blaze:

It’s all so evil and so bizarre and so unthinkably ridiculous that no dystopian sci-fi writer could have predicted that the collapse of western society would look like this.

President Obama has praised Jenner, while Republican candidates to replace him have either said nothing or lined up against her. (Lindsey Graham is the exception. And while the WaPo article lists Hillary Clinton as “generally supportive”, I can’t find a quote.) Mike Huckabee has been particularly interesting to watch, as he defended the Duggar family’s handling of their son’s abuse of his sisters (but then removed their endorsement from his web page), while trying to make a joke out of transsexualism.

The social-conservative base that the Republicans need to appeal to has been anything but silent. All you have to do is pick any of the links above and read the comments. They’re not just opposed, they’re actively hostile about it.

Why? Now, part of me (and probably part of you) is saying, “What else is new? Conservatives are rejecting somebody for being different from them, sometimes in very aggressive, insulting ways. Par for the course.” But it’s worth considering all the reasons that it didn’t have to be this way.

  • Jenner is one of their own. In the Sawyer interview, Jenner self-describes as a conservative Republican who “believes in the Constitution”. Jenner talks about God creating his male body and female soul, and thinks seriously about what mission God had in mind for that combination. And Jenner is not just a nominal Christian, but has a real relationship with a congregation. In the WaPo, a minister describes how the Jenner/Kardashian family was “an integral part of this nondenominational evangelical church” and put considerable effort into founding a new church in their neighborhood.
  • There’s really no scripture about this. You’ll search in vain for a verse that says, “A man shall not become a woman.” (If God foresees all, why wouldn’t He have included that verse in His scripture?) The Bible assigns different roles to men and women (not always consistently), and Deuteronomy 22:5 bans cross-dressing (though this rabbi interprets that ban in a limited way). But as for spelling out how you tell whether God meant for you to be male or female, the Bible is silent. Biblical verses supposedly condemning transsexualism all require a lot of interpretation. What motivates people to do the work necessary to arrive at that conclusion?
  • It’s not our business. We all have the option to say, “I wouldn’t do that, but I guess it takes all kinds.” In Thomas Jefferson’s words, Jenner is neither picking my pocket nor breaking my leg.
  • It’s a freedom thing. Who knows, maybe Caitlyn has made a mistake she will eventually regret. But she’s risking her own future life and happiness, not yours or mine. People following their own vision and risking it all for a goal that seems important — that’s something conservatives usually admire.
  • Jenner is a great family-values story. When unexpected challenges arise in the life of one of its members, does a family pull that person closer or push him or her away? The Sawyer interview shows Jenner embedded in a matrix of close family relationships, and the family supports Caitlyn. I’ve got to admire that, and you’d think people who define their politics around “family values” would too.

So there’s plenty of room for conservatives to support Jenner, or just to shrug and move on. But clearly they don’t want to do that. Why not?

What I think is going on. When I look at my own initial discomfort, I think it traces back to a source so basic that it’s pre-verbal. Before I can talk about it, I need to tease it out. So bear with me while I seem to go off on a tangent.

The human mind is kind of a kludge. It has to be. After all, how is a three-pound piece of meat supposed to make sense of such a vast and complicated universe? One of the kludgy short-cuts our minds take is to break the world into categories, i.e., to clump different things together and treat them the same. Many of those categories are binary: male/female, child/adult, right/wrong, friend/enemy, and so on. Others have more options. (In grade school I was taught that there are three races of humans: caucasian, negroid, and mongoloid.) Some of the categories seem in-born, while others are taught to us so early they might as well be. For example, a certain amount of species recognition is practically hard-wired. Kids at an early age will tell you that two dogs are similar while a dog and a cat are different.

We really, really want to believe that the categories in our heads are objective descriptions of the world out there, but science keeps telling us that they aren’t. For example, there are no races, but rather a continuum of genetic difference. If you pluck two people from distant parts of the continuum, they may look like members of distinct races, but in the world as a whole, you won’t be able to trace any boundary line between those races.

Similarly, species are not platonic ideals, but clusters in the genetic continuum. So (contrary to Plato) there is no ideal horse or dog, just lots of individual horses and dogs, any two of whom resemble each other. There are no gay people and straight people, but rather a continuum of bisexuality. There are no nationalities — a point made very strikingly in a fascinating book called The Discovery of France. And like nationalities, modern languages are largely political constructions. In medieval Europe, for example, each village would have a dialect slightly different from the next. If you plucked people out of distant places on that continuum — say one from Paris, another from Madrid, and a third from Lisbon — they would sound like they were speaking different languages you could call French, Spanish, and Portuguese. But, like races, there were no boundaries where one butted up against the other — until politics created those boundaries and imposed them.

And now we are discovering that gender is a binary categorization imposed on an underlying continuum with multiple dimensions. It’s more complicated than just John Waynes with penises and Marilyn Monroes with vaginas.

If you think seriously about how flawed the fundamental building blocks of our thinking are, it’s scary. At any moment, some part of the Universe you’ve been assuming away could come back to bite you. That’s the human condition.

That’s why we get such an oogy feeling whenever we see an example of something we were raised to think didn’t exist: an effeminate man, two women kissing, a child with dark brown skin and frizzy red hair. It’s a reminder that we don’t really grasp the Universe; we just apply kludgy notions that more-or-less work most of the time.

What social conservatism is. At its root, social conservatism is a way to deny that fear and transmute it into anger. Conservatism reassures us that the categories in our heads are real. We didn’t make them up; God created them. They’re natural.

You can see that principle operating across the board. For example, that’s why social conservatives have such a hard time accepting evolution: If species are real things and if humans evolved from some other kind of primate, then each being in that mother-to-child chain belonged to a species. Somewhere along that line, the impermeable boundary between species had to be crossed: an ape mother gave birth to the first human child. Impossible!

Likewise abortion. The moral worth of a member of the human species is a unitary thing. It can’t develop gradually along a continuum, but has to exist either in its entirety or not at all. And a fetus is either a member of the human species or not. We aren’t allowed to recognize that in its early stages, a human fetus is virtually indistinguishable from the fetus of a pig or cow, or that it begins to differentiate from a chimp fetus even later.

This reification of the categories is why conservative rhetoric is obsessed with the word real: real men, real Americans, real conservatives. Liberals are more likely to describe themselves as authentic. Authentic is a relative word; it points to a harmony between what I am and the image I project. Real is absolute; I am a real X because I match an ideal definition of X that exists eternally in the mind of God.

Now, not even social conservatism can deny the existence of things that don’t fit neatly into the proper categories. But it can reject them as abominations. The list of abominations depends on the categories you were raised with: Men attracted to other men are abominations. Women who operate heavy machinery are abominations. Families who cross from black to white are abominations. Americans who can’t speak English are abominations. Mixed-race people are abominations. Genetic engineering produces abominations.

Functionally, an abomination is anything that causes confusion by making us doubt our categories. And by labeling it as an abomination, we transform our doubt and confusion into anger at whatever confused us.

So: Caitlyn Jenner is an abomination. Just by existing, she creates confusion about the kludgy notion of binary gender. She points out that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our philosophies … or our religions. That’s a scary idea, and by raising it, she becomes an object of anger.


[1] I remember eating Wheaties out of a box with Bruce Jenner’s picture on it. In the 1970s, (moreso than today, for some reason) the Decathlon was a legend-making Olympic event. Americans who won it — Jim Thorpe and Bob Mathias, for example — were famous for more than just a four-year cycle. They became the defining image of the perfect all-around athlete. Physically, they were what every American boy was supposed to want to become.

Bruce Jenner was a record-setting Olympic Decathlon champion, and he arrived at a moment in history when white males were starting to feel insecure about their athleticism. Black sports heroes (Jesse Ownes, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson) had once been tokens, freakish exceptions who were “credits to their race”. The next generation of black athletes (Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Willie Mays) claimed their place in the mainstream. But by the mid-70s, it was white players (Rick Barry, Dave Cowens) who looked like tokens in the NBA, and the NFL and MLB seemed headed in the same direction. Blacks would never be great quarterbacks, we told each other. But secretly we wondered if there would ever be a white running back on the level of O. J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, or Walter Payton. (According to this CheatSheet.com top-ten list, the answer was no.) Even the last American Decathlon champion (Rafer Johnson) had been black.

And then came Bruce Jenner, the hero we needed at the time we needed him. A white man’s white man. Or so we thought.

[2] The most amusing reaction Jenner reports came from step-daughter Kim Kardashian. Following a “breakthrough” conversation with Kanye West (of all people), Kim became “by far, the most accepting” of the children. Jenner quotes her volunteering to help shape Caitlyn’s style:

Girl, you gotta rock it, baby. You gotta look good. If you’re doing this thing, I’m helping you. You’re representing the family. You gotta look really good.