Religious Persecution in America

Review: Mary Eberstadt, ‘It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies’

cross on church steeple
June 25, 2016

Backing up her claims with 29 pages of notes, journalist Mary Eberstadt shows how American secular culture is growing increasingly intolerant of religious beliefs that enter the public domain. The secular left wants to return to what Richard Neuhaus called the naked public square. It appears Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale had it wrong in the mid-80s; the ones who nowadays start witch-hunts are, for the most part, progressives who limn diversity.

This is why they seek to ban college campus Christian groups such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship because of alleged discrimination. Inter-Varsity groups have the temerity to desire Christians as their student leaders! Some question whether any Christian student groups should be allowed on campus at all, or if any Christian colleges should get accreditation. But the same people do not question the right of Buddhist or Hindu (or any other group, for that matter) students to have their own groups.

This book is a litany of such cases. Christians and lawyers who represent them are called names such as "bigot" and "extremist" and "haters" because they disagree with the views of the secular left. Everyone has a right to have legal representation but to some on the secular left, lawyers who represent pro-lifers or other traditional Christians are beyond the pale.

The secular left also attacks groups such as Catholic Charities and evangelical colleges, such as Gordon College, that have done a lot of good work for the poor. Gay activism forced the shut down of the Catholic Charities adoption program in Boston. Eberstadt quotes the president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who said, "Catholic Charities has really been a gold standard in providing adoption services to children in the welfare system for a long time, so this is a tragedy. This is a tragedy for kids."

The secular left’s activism, according to Eberstadt, shows all the traits of a dogmatic religion gone awry. Eberstadt says this secular dogma has to do with the sexual revolution:

Foundational to today’s secularism/progressivism is the doctrine that the Pill and its backup plan, abortion on demand, have liberated humanity—first, by freeing women from the chains of their fertility; and second, by having broken down the door to the fortress of traditional morality, after which one sexual minority after another has also been liberated. This, in a nutshell, is the new secularist faith, and in various influential quadrants, it is the culturally dominant narrative of our time . . .  The so-called cultural war . . . . is . . . a contest of competing faiths: one in the Good Book, and the other in the more newly written figurative book of secularist orthodoxy about the sexual revolution.

What can be done? It can be hoped that many will tire of the secular left and turn to faith. It can also be hoped that progressives such as Andrew Sullivan, a vociferous supporter of gay marriage, will continue to bravely object to the vilification of those who oppose gay marriage (and other progressive issues), such as Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who lost his job when it was revealed he had supported opponents of gay marriage in California.

Eberstadt proposes we look to Thomas Jefferson, often cited by those fanatical about separation of church and state, who "understood that the United States would tear itself apart if religious freedom were not made the ‘first freedom.’" The only solution is to be more civil. As James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, was when, after Justice Scalia’s death, he tweeted, "Thank you for your service to our country, Justice Scalia. Condolences to your family and friends."

However, two things about this book bothered me. Eberstadt begins it with her experience of Christians asking her, "Where will we go?" in the face of persecution. This struck me as a bit breathless. The secular left’s persecution is more of a McCarthy phenomenon than it is Salem; people have lost jobs and suffered but not, generally speaking, tortured or killed. It made me wonder if what some Christians fear is the loss of their privileges and wealth more than their freedom of speech.

And this: aren’t Christians supposed to be glad when they are persecuted? Didn’t Jesus say, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you"? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for freedom of religion, but it does help keep things in an eternal perspective.

Published under: Book reviews