Published February 20, 2015
(To view a video of the lecture on which this piece is based, click here.)
In November, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a speech at the Catholic University of America in which he said, “Mercy has become the theme of [Pope Francis’s] pontificate. . . . With this theme, Pope Francis has addressed countless individuals, both within and without the Church. . . . He has moved them intensely, and pierced their hearts.” The cardinal added, “Who among us does not depend on mercy? On the mercy of God, and of merciful fellow man?”
Those questions move all people of good will, and they also go straight to the core of this essay. Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper teach that mercy means meeting people where they live. We should take their counsel to heart and apply it to ourselves at the present time, looking at where many Christians in America and Europe and other places live today because they are Christians. We are not speaking here of the believers across the planet who suffer grievous harm for the sake of faith. We’re talking instead about something else: the slow-motion marginalizing and penalizing of believers on the very doorsteps of the churches of North America, Europe, and elsewhere, in societies that are the very historical strongholds of political and religious liberty.
Men and women of faith in these societies are well-off, compared to many others. At the same time, though, their world is unmistakably darker and more punitive than it used to be. Let us show empathy and solidarity with all people who need it. Repeating the cardinal’s watchword, mercy, we hope that moral and political and intellectual leaders of all persuasions hear it too.
For there is no mercy in putting butchers and bakers and candlestick makers in the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs—but that’s what the new intolerance does. There is no mercy in stalking and threatening Christian pastors for being Christian pastors, or in casting out social scientists who turn up unwanted facts, or in telling a flight attendant she can’t wear a crucifix, or in persecuting organizations that do charitable work—but the new intolerance does these things, too. There’s no mercy in yelling slurs at anyone who points out that the sexual revolution has been flooding the public square with problems for a long time now and that, in fact, some people out there are drowning—but slurs are the new intolerance’s stock in trade. Above all, there is no mercy in slandering people by saying that religious believers “hate” certain people when in fact they do not; or that they are “phobes” of one stripe or another when in fact they are not. This, too, happens all over public space these days, with practically no pushback from anyone. This, too, is the new intolerance at work.
All these are facts of life for Christians and other believers in the West today. This is where a lot of real people now live, and where they need to be met.
The new intolerance has established residency in the societies of the West so quickly that its existence is now a commonplace. Those very three words, “the new intolerance,” have lately been the title of prominent pieces in several venues, as well as the ongoing subject, sometimes shouted and sometimes whispered, of anxious conversations around the world. The new intolerance has also been recognized by those speaking for the Church. As Bishop Mario Toso, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, put it in a statement to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe last year, “Intolerance in the name of ‘tolerance’ must be named for what it is and publically condemned.”
It may be tempting in the face of what looks like a juggernaut to hide from it or to pen one more jeremiad of the times. It may be tempting to reach for the Benedict Option—named for the saint, not the recent pope—and withdraw from the whole toxic scene. But we’re taking a different tack.
A book published forty-four years ago that doesn’t get enough use as a literary springboard in First Things circles, namely, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, comes in handy here. One particular scene in that book comes to mind. In it, the book’s narrator, accompanied by his lawyer in a hotel room, is experiencing a series of hallucinations:
“Look outside,” I said.
“Why?” [says the attorney]
“There’s a big . . . machine in the sky, . . . some kind of electric snake . . . coming straight at us.”
“Shoot it,” said my attorney.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to study its habits.”
Let’s do the same to the new intolerance, study some of the habits of this swelling creature and distill them into five facts.
The first fact is that the new intolerance isn’t just a Christian problem. It’s an everybody problem. It shouldn’t have to be said, though the new intolerance forces it to be said, that civilized people do not stand by and hit the “like” button as their neighbors and friends and coworkers are subjected to maligning and opprobrium. Free speech isn’t just some religious quirk, and the attempt to make it one needs to be called out.
Or to put the point another way, as someone wrote about the forced resignation in April 2014 of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich: “When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance.” Thank you, Andrew Sullivan.
The new intolerance is also an everybody problem in another sense. Like related cultural unleashings, it will not stop at whatever courthouse door it’s sniffing at the moment. It will want more.
Translation: Nobody’s free speech is safe when little Robespierres write the rules. That includes people who now think they are safe because they have preemptively accommodated prevailing dogma and silenced themselves. Guess again. Practicing Christians who refuse to recant are on the front lines of the new intolerance today. But where they stand now, others will in the future.
Tomorrow it might be someone with no religious beliefs whatsoever who draws the line at, say, the legalization of polygamy. Or at lowering the age of consent, as has happened in a number of countries farther along in acquiescing to the sexual revolution’s demands than our own. Other people might think to object to other ongoing experiments, again on nonreligious grounds—such as the womb trafficking of poor Third World women to manufacture babies for rich Western ones. Or to offer another example easily imagined: Feminists who are otherwise on amiable terms with the sexual revolution today might sometime object, as has happened across the years, that pornography, especially on today’s scale, harms the interests of women and ought to be less ubiquitous.
If and when any such people ever do such things, the new intolerance will seek to ostracize them just as it has all other dissenters from the sexual revolution’s many desiderata. The new intolerance, to repeat, doesn’t do mercy.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying theist to question what’s going on out there, after all—and that’s exactly the point. In fact, much of what’s known today about the post-revolution world, ironically enough, has been mapped over the decades by people without any religious agenda whatsoever.
Walter Lippmann, who was hardly a cat’s-paw of St. Peter’s Square, argued that the use of contraception would change the world. Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology and also not exactly a flack for the Apostolic Palace, wrote a piece in Lifemagazine half a century ago, followed by a short book, in which he condemned the sexual revolution in terms that would have had him in handcuffs in some places today and certainly denied tenure just about everywhere. Some of the sociologists who have drawn attention to the centrality of the sexual revolution in Western economies and cultures are similarly without a dog in theological fights and have nonetheless also seen yellow and red lights in assessing the scene out there—like sociologists Lionel Tiger and Kay Hymowitz, and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Gilder, Charles Murray, scores of writers for the Public Interest, and more. The bigotry that today shouts down researchers like Mark Regnerus, and any other scholar who reaches any unwanted conclusions, would shout down all of these thinkers, too—and many others.
The new intolerance is an everybody problem for one more reason: It penalizes people who are a clear net-plus for society, people who spend their days helping the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the cast-off, and otherwise trying to live out the Judeo-Christian code of social justice. More and more, those people are also witnesses to a terrible truth: The new intolerance makes it harder to help the poor and needy.
I met one such witness last year, a young woman who works for Catholic Charities. She is every inch the kind of paragon who puts the rest of us to shame—someone pulled closely into the Church’s orbit by the sheer gravity of her desire to help the poor.
Much of her time now, she said sadly, is spent not where she wants to be, in soup kitchens or hospitals or nursing homes or with destitute immigrants. (Her particular archdiocese is half Spanish-speaking, and its humanitarian work among immigrants there is critical.) Why not? Because her days are spent largely on countering legal and other maneuvers by activists intent on closing Catholic Charities’ foster care and adoption services—for the sole reason that Christian teachings about the family infuriate sexual progressives.
This witness said, “I know the time is coming when we’ll either close our doors, or decide to keep up our work regardless—in which case we’ll end up in jail. But who will take care of the children? Not the people who have sued us out of existence—they’ll move on. Who will take care of all those kids?”
To repeat: The new intolerance is bad for the poor, and concern for the poor is not just some boutique Christian quirk—at least, it isn’t supposed to be. Everybody who cares about social justice ought to deplore the new intolerance.
Fact two about the new intolerance: It’s different from what’s come before. Reflecting recently in the Wall Street Journal on the galloping revival of anti-Semitism in many countries of Europe, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks drew some interesting distinctions. At one time, he points out, the Jews of Europe were hated for their religion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were hated for their so-called race, and not only under National Socialism. In our own day, he continues, the main reason for anti-Semitism is something else again: hatred of the fact of their nation-state, Israel. Thus one enduring hatred, anti-Semitism, consists of different variations on the theme.
In an analogous way, what might be called the varieties of anti-Christianity can also be distinguished over the centuries. One current form is the antipathy in parts of Europe to acknowledging the Continent’s religious roots. Scholar Joseph Weiler has gone so far as to call this Christo-phobia. Other instantiations have abounded. The Romans persecuted Christianity because of the threat it posed to society and state. Friedrich Nietzsche and like-minded philosophers charged it with holding back humanity itself. Nazis and Communists killed and persecuted believers because they correctly saw in Christianity a mortal competitor to totalitarianism. (A country called Poland and a saint called John Paul II would ultimately vindicate them, as George Weigel’s writing has shown for the ages.) And of course a number of Christians themselves in different centuries found time here and there to hate each other, often over points of doctrine that seem remote today.
The new intolerance facing Western religious believers today differs from these. It is not an intellectual or philosophical force. In fact, it’s hardly about ideas at all. It is instead something very specific, taken from playbooks that nobody should be proud of studying. It’s about using intimidation, humiliation, censorship, and self-censorship to punish those who think differently.
Here’s another witness. An American friend who is a Christian writer said recently that his biggest fear in life is that his children will someday grow to hate him, because they will be ostracized on account of their religion. This happens to be someone who spends his free time on all manner of do-gooding, like riding his bike for miles to benefit handicapped kids and otherwise seeing Christ’s face in the people he meets. He’s one more example of someone the new intolerance threatens to shut down.
And if he can’t help thinking that way, what does that tell us about many millions of other mothers and fathers of the West? What will they decide about the religious upbringing of their children, in an age when taking them to church might get them laughed at, and maybe much worse? Anyone concerned about secularization has got to be concerned about the new intolerance—because the new intolerance will cause secularization, by making people fear for themselves and for those they love. The new intolerance gives intimidated people one more reason not to go to church. From New York to Paris to Sydney to Buenos Aires, it already is doing just that.
And in the name of what? If all the fury directed at religious believers could be pressed into a single word, as it can, that word would not be, say, theodicy. It would not be supercessionism. It would not be Pelagianism, Arianism, or other words that parted Christian waters in the past. No, in our time, that single word would be sex. Christianity present, like Christianity past and Christianity to come, contends with many foes and many countervailing forces. But its single most deadly enemy in our time, the one with which it is locked in mortal combat, is not the stuff of the philosophy common room. It is instead the sexual revolution.
The new intolerance is a wholly owned subsidiary of that revolution. No revolution, no new intolerance. That is another aspect of the thing that demands to be understood.
The fact that many Christians themselves wish that these facts were otherwise, and wish also that the new intolerance were otherwise, is a poignant human truth. It is also, of course, a strategic liability for the believers. Everyone wants to be loved—or at least not hated. The fact that the new intolerance is able to exploit this ubiquitous desire, and to use it to tear Christianity from within as well as to isolate and intimidate people in its way—this is what makes the new intolerance so lethal.
The desire not to be hated is a powerful and underestimated thing. Recently, while reading some of the writings of Christopher Dawson and Karl Popper and C. S. Lewis and other great minds debating the subject of historicism in the first half of the last century, I felt myself turning fifty shades of green with envy for their world. How much more fun it would be to talk here about the perils of historicism, I thought. (Admittedly, this is a nerd’s idea of fun.) Or to talk about the new stage-play being launched in the fall. How much more agreeable in every way it would be to talk about something—just about anything—else.
But that isn’t where people live and need to be met right now. The story of my friend is just the littlest microcosm of what happens every day under the new intolerance, and most of the time with larger and more pernicious consequences—namely, it makes people think twice about what they say in a bad way. And it makes some of them press “mute.”
This brings us to fact three about the new intolerance: It is dangerous not only for the obvious reason that it spells censorship, but even more because it spells self-censorship—including within the churches. Inside Christianity itself, the scramble over the sexual revolution turns a community of sinners united by the shared search for redemption into something very different: a discrete series of aggrieved factions, each clamoring for spiritual entitlement. It’s institutionally destructive.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the divisive tone of some discussions within Christian ranks these days is itself evidence of the power of the new intolerance. Given the sheer malignant force of the thing, capitulation seems to some an obvious if not optimal protective resort. But that’s an illusion. This is not a theological point. It’s a historical fact. Religious capitulation to the revolution’s demands has been tried over and over, and the results are plain to see: The churches that tried to protect themselves in that way are dying. They do not replace themselves literally or figuratively; their morale is low; some will not even exist a hundred years from now. Responding to the sexual revolution with religious capitulation is doomed to failure. It’s like trying to put out a house fire by throwing dynamite at it.
As a related matter, it’s worth at least pausing to wonder whether the revival of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe today might not have a religious component after all. For while the beatings and ostracism visited on Jewish people in parts of Europe today are delivered by those who hate the state of Israel, the inexplicable tolerance of these acts by many other people in Europe still demands explanation. Maybe some of it has to do with the shared moral code that joins Judaism and Christianity at the root—and the deep resentment of some people today that such a code has ever so much as existed.
Fact four about the new intolerance: It claims to command the moral high ground, but in fact it does not and cannot. Let’s start with the briefest of tallies here. In the name of the revolution defended by the new intolerance, unborn innocents are killed by the millions every year, overwhelmingly on the sole ground that they are inconvenient. The revolution singles out as particularly unwanted the fetuses who are female, millions more of whom are killed than males, to the apparent and bizarre indifference of many who claim otherwise to speak for womankind.
Also, as we have already seen, that same revolution is no friend of the poor—far from it. The latest compelling evidence comes from sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman’s seminal work, For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America. Among the arresting findings:
We estimate that the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.
The revolution, in other words, has been driving one of the most divisive political issues in Western society today: income inequality. It has been driving the middle class into the ground. And that is only the beginning of the problems presented to the poor by a political order that aids and abets the revolution, let alone the attending moral hazards. To name just one, there is no shortage of rich white people whose solution to the problems of poorer black people, especially in Africa, is to tell them to make fewer of themselves (a phenomenon P. J. O’Rourke has memorably dubbed “just enough of me, way too much of you”).
Out there in the flooded public square, two visions compete for human beings. Which one stands on higher ground?
Look back again at what happened when the federal government of the United States decided that the demands of the revolution included mandating that health insurance cover contraception. The particular battle between the government and the Little Sisters of the Poor came straight out of central casting—from hell.
It’s as if the producers of a movie had sat around pitching ideas that went like this: “I know! Let’s do something really preposterous. Let’s make the federal government beat up on nuns.” And someone else says, “I know! Not just any nuns, but nuns who work with the destitute and outcast.” And a third one says, “I know! I’ve got it! How about we have the government try and kneecap . . . the Little Sisters of the Poor?”
Of course, had any such meeting actually happened, everyone would have walked away from the project—because anyone in Hollywood could see that there’d be no purchase in attacking the Little Sisters of the Poor; who would stand for it? As it turned out, plenty of people—people aligned with the new intolerance. This is only high ground if you’re standing in a ditch.
The new intolerance says it’s on the right side of history; it isn’t, as a growing parade of witnesses proves. The idea that history has sides at all, let alone that believers are on the losing one, has been pulverized repeatedly, most recently and memorably by Robert George. Here is one more proof, a new one, of why it fails.
Of all the witnesses that can be produced to shut down the new intolerance, the most compelling may be the most hitherto unseen. These are the former victims of the sexual revolution themselves—the walking wounded coming in and out of those proverbial field hospitals, the people who are believers not because they want to jettison the Christian moral code, but because they want to do something more radical: live by it.
The truth that has not been reckoned with by religion’s cultured despisers today is this: Christianity is being built more and more by these very witnesses—by people who have come to embrace the difficult and longstanding Christian rulebook not because they know nothing of the revolution and its fallout, but because they know all too much.
These are the heirs to St. Augustine and every other soul who ever found in Christianity’s tough code a lifesaver, and not a noose. They line up in the pages of First Things and elsewhere with brave testimonials about why they are where they are—in church. They are witnesses like Dawn Eden, a convert who writes about overcoming childhood sexual abuse by appeal to the saints. They include Luma Simms, writing about how Humanae Vitae made her a convert, and how, as a divorced woman, she nonetheless prays that the Church will never abandon what she knows are bedrock truths. Another who steps forward is Eve Tushnet, writing often about what it is to be Catholic, attracted to women—and celibate.
There are many others, too, among them witnesses who plead openly that the Church keep being a sign of contradiction—witnesses who must be heard at an hour when the Church has put questions of the family front and center. Consider Louise Mensch, who wrote an essay in the London Spectator entitled “I’m a divorced Catholic. And I’m sure it would be a mortal sin for me to take Communion.” There are also people like Anny Donewald, a former prostitute recently profiled in Christianity Today who has gone on to found a ministry for other women exploited by the so-called adult entertainment industry.
There are the conscientious objectors to the new intolerance, those who come forward to avow that they do have free will—no matter how many other people insist they’re not born that way—and who are vilified all over for committing secular heresy. There are organizations like the Catholic group Courage and others that do good, despite the nonstop recrimination aimed their way.
And there are witnesses elsewhere, too. I think of two men who attended a conference on the social costs of pornography a few years back. Each testified before scores of strangers about what pornography had cost him personally—mainly, the loss of love. They are witnesses to the wreckage of the sexual revolution, and exceptionally courageous ones.
All these men and women and many others like them are living, human signs of contradiction to the times, and most especially to the new intolerance. They are part of the growing coalition of people who defend faith in all its thorniness not because they have known nothing else, but precisely because they do know the revolution. And they reject the idea of marching in lockstep with it. None of them should be on the receiving end of the vituperation hurled by the new intolerance. And neither should anyone else.
There’s one final reason beyond even the new intolerance why those witnesses must all be heard and not wrongly written off as losers to history. On June 10, 1194, a great fire swept through a prominent Romanesque cathedral in a town southwest of Paris. Its loss threatened to devastate people and towns for many miles around, and for many generations, too. There must have been plenty of villagers living then who wanted to give up, declare disaster the existential winner, and go elsewhere.
What happened instead was, and remains, something extraordinary by any standard. Those people and their leaders persevered and determined not to have their lives disfigured once and for all by disaster. In a remarkably short time, a cathedral bigger and even more magnificent was raised up in its place.
That cathedral is known as Chartres. One of the outstanding examples of Gothic architecture on earth, it was built up by men and women who had witnessed the signature disaster of their times—and who refused to resign themselves to it.
So too will the figurative cathedral of religion itself tomorrow come to be built, not by partisans of the new intolerance or by people who buckle to the new intolerance via censorship or self-censorship. It will instead be laid stone by stone by some of the very people burned in the original fire.
This is already happening. This act of moral jiu-jitsu is unfolding before everyone with eyes to see, though nobody has yet done justice to it. But as real as the new intolerance is the mostly unseen renewal movement that will end up its greatest contender.
These final witnesses, like the others mentioned here and many more, are building history, the history of the faith of the future. And they’re doing it with the same tool that Cardinal Kasper and Pope Francis hold up: mercy. Mercy that is wide enough to embrace all the people outside Christianity and also all those holding their lifesavers tight, struggling to stay inside.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author, most recently, of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.