As someone who is passionately irreligious and moderately liberal, I did not have high hopes for the panel on “Current Challenges to Religious Liberty” held at the University of Dallas last week. All too often, discussion of religious liberty is simply a veiled attempt for the (invariably conservative) speaker to justify his (and it is almost always his) prejudices under the banner of religious persecution. That these speakers never seem to address any religion other than orthodox Christianity makes these discussions not simply partisan but boring.
That being said, I am pleased to report that only one of the speakers met my expectations. The first two speakers — Andrew Doran and Matthew Kacsmaryk — focused their presentations on the plight of Middle Eastern Christians while praising the peaceful pluralism of the United States. Both Doran and Kacsmaryk spoke of religious tolerance as one of the founding principles of the U.S., and that our ability to exist despite a myriad of differences in dogma is part of our nation’s greatness.
After their discussions, I was genuinely worried I might not have anything to write for the paper. “Speakers Advocate Common Sense, Decency” is hardly a headline. Luckily, the third speaker — Peter Wolfgang — quickly allayed my fears.
After describing the issues of abortion and gay marriage as an “unholy trinity,” Mr. Wolfgang’s talk, broadly construed, centered on what he termed the “Brezhnevism of the Left”; that is, the operating principle of the Left is, according to Mr. Wolfgang, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” In his analysis, the broad cultural victories of the Left — Roe v. Wade and the normalization of LGBTQ identities, specifically — are the product of liberal stubbornness and Republican capitulation, as though the Left were a howling, irrational toddler and the Right a weak-willed single mother, ever giving ground to that irascible infant tyrannical in the faint hope of peace and quiet.
I found Mr. Wolfgang’s analysis, much like his ability to count, dubious. While it is true that a woman’s right to an abortion and a queer person’s right to a same-sex marriage are by this point non-negotiable beliefs of the Left, simply saying so is not a useful analysis (nor much of an analysis at all). The story of the Left — from religious radicalism to secular pragmatism, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, from progressivism to intersectionalism (along with some nasty forays into eugenics) — is long and complicated, housing thinkers as wildly different as Richard Rorty, Judith Butler and Cornel West.
If it is possible to ascribe a single thesis to a movement so heterogeneous, I would say that the guiding principle of the American Left of the 20th and 21st centuries is only the old principle that “all men are created equal” and ought to be allowed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but understood with and through the lenses of critical theory, feminism, race theory and disability studies.
Each lens reveals a particular structure — classism, the patriarchy, racism and ableism, respectively — but each is applied with the goal of revealing those structures and prejudices that inhibit the freedom of the oppressed. Each lens requires the correction of the other, so that attempts at improving the common good don’t wind up leading to, for example, the heinous forced sterilization of “undesirable” peoples (inevitably poor or black or disabled). No matter how foreign these theories may appear, they are all aimed at the utterly American goal of freedom and equality for all.
The victories of Roe v. Wade and of LGBTQ politics in general are only two of the most visible results. The average person can see a woman’s desire to control her own body, but not the personhood of a zygote.
The average person can see the love, the dedication that two queer people can have for each other, but not the airy and metaphysical notion of “ends” that somehow makes that love immoral. These things are seen. But most importantly, they are seen, too, by those who do hold such scriptural mandates, and who do hold a Thomist metaphysic. The Left is intractable because it can see it is right; the Right can only believe it is right.
Which brings me to my final qualm with Mr. Wolfgang. I heard him talk much of the “Brezhnevism” of the Left, but of the “Brezhnevism” of the Right I heard nothing. The Left will never change its views on LGBTQ issues? I think so. But I also think that neither will the Church. However “liberal” the Catholic Church becomes, it will never modify its view of homosexuality as a disorder. Even if the Church comes to accept queer people into its organization, it will never accept their queerness. At best, the Church can only respond to queer Catholics with a tolerant smile whilst muttering to itself, and not so silently, “Love the sinner …” But it will hate the sin.
Dialogue can only occur when people are open to the possibility of changing their views. Neither the Left nor the Right has any such intention. We are all Brezhnevs.