The pride of place that cultural Christianity once enjoyed in America is increasingly sidelined by a new, woke progressivism which, though purporting to be neutral and science-based, is in fact a competing religious ideology. The more that it dominates our cultural and political institutions, the more it can misuse the coercive powers of the state and societal pressure to ensure conformity.
Liberty is enshrined as the greatest good of the American political experiment. Its primacy is codified in our founding political documents, anthemized in our patriotic music, and honored in political speeches, legal rulings, and newspaper editorials. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote the Supreme Court majority in its 1943 ruling, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Yet, is that truly accurate?
Liberalism’s advocates certainly argue that America’s political philosophy both maximizes personal autonomy, and vociferously protects it. There has been, however, a centuries-long tension between preserving individual freedom, and the coercive demands of the state. Some libertarians call any form of taxation theft. Others, particularly pacifists or isolationists, chafe at the federal government’s periodic application of conscription, now managed by the Selective Service System. The fact that federal and state governments have exercised these functions without massive, violent resistance suggests that most Americans acknowledge some concessions to freedom are required for citizenship.
There are, nevertheless, some more tricky cases, many of which have to do with religious liberty. Can an organization be compelled to offer medical services (like contraception) to its employees, for example, even if those services violate the organization’s religious beliefs? In July, The Supreme Court ruled in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania that it cannot. Can an organization engage in selective hiring and retention, not only in reference to religion, but sexual or gender identity? Also this year, the Supreme Court ruled that employees of religious organizations enjoy a “ministerial exemption” that precludes the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Of course, a Supreme Court with different members, who perhaps hold to a jurisprudence less sympathetic to religious liberty, could have ruled the opposite in both of those cases. Why, one might ask, does religious freedom necessarily trump sexual, gender, or economic freedom? Indeed, in some jurisdictions, adoption agencies’ religious beliefs have been viewed not as sacrosanct, but subordinate to contemporary progressive norms about gender and sexuality. Moreover, what actually constitutes religion in the first place? And who gets to decide that? Herein lies a problem, and it is one that Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley discuss in their new book, It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion.
Hahn and McGinley discuss what other prominent thinkers, including Columbia University professor John McWhorter, have similarly identified: a lot of socio-cultural and intellectual movements, parading as neutral and empirical, actually possess a lot of the same qualities as what we traditionally think of as “religion.” The ideology of woke progressivism, for example, has its own dogmas (e.g. primacy of racial identity, sexual libertinism, et cetera), its own conception of sin (“white privilege”), and its own soteriology and eschatology (the dismantling of racist power structures, racial reparations, et cetera). Those who refuse to conform are maligned as heretics. Fearing cancellation, the latter then employ ritual-like penitential language to seek mercy.