Many of us who observed the “don’t make me be civil” controversy among conservatives stirred up by New York Post op-ed page editor Sohrab Ahmari went right to some of the more alarming ideological implications of his rejection of liberal democracy as normative, and may have given too little attention to the immediate impetus for his freak-out. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reminds us, it was the phenomenon of Drag Queen Story Hour, “a public event series founded in 2015 in which drag queens read to children and lead singalongs.”
For Ahmari, this and similar signs of acceptance of LGBTQ people in American society are enough to make one revolt over the whole ethos of civility and mutual respect:
The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.
Only, the libertines take the logic of maximal autonomy — the one [David] French shares — to its logical terminus. They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.
Ahmari is drawing a sharp line between the minimal tolerance he is forced by the law to exhibit toward the LGBTQ community and the acceptance he furiously believes the culture is demanding. It’s this perceived interference that has pushed him to the brink of what sure looks a variety of proto-fascism. It’s bad enough that his government can no longer punish, systemically discriminate against, or otherwise stigmatize gay people for what they are. He feels oppressed by the expectation that he should be all right with these changes, instead of working to reverse them.
As Goldberg observes, this is barely sublimated anger at having lost the sanctions of law and culture:
Conservatives are not being subjugated because they can’t stop other people from holding a public event that offends them. It’s telling that some of them think they are.
She mentions a Red State piece defending Ahmari’s offended tirade, which is reminiscent of the absurd “War on Christmas” meme. It involves Twitter criticism of a Catholic bishop in Rhode Island for publicly warning his flock not to attend or support a Gay Pride march this weekend. Surely thousands of Christian martyrs in heaven are laughing or crying at the idea of social-media heat as representing some sort of Stations of the Cross for people who are supposed to be made of sterner stuff. But at Red State, the idea of faithful Christians being marched to the stake or even the ovens by criticism is taken seriously:
You are never going to convince these people not to mob you. You are not going to be permitted to belong to a church, or any group, for that matter, that doesn’t adhere to the liberal secular orthodoxy … If we don’t increase the level of pain we are able to inflict upon them to the point where they back off, we might as well climb in the boxcar that is heading for the camps because that is our destination.
Really? As it happens, I live in Monterey, California, a place where coastal liberalism is probably exceeded only by that of nearby Santa Cruz. The gay-friendly mainline Protestant church where I worship weekly is on the same block as a conservative Presbyterian church that split from the national Presbyterian Church (USA) over the denomination’s acceptance of openly gay clergy. I’m reasonably sure no one has marched into their sanctuary to demand a Drag Queen Story Hour, or to interfere with them in any way. That’s also true of the innumerable conservative places of worship where, as best as I can tell, it is taken for granted that godliness more or less conforms to the white patriarchal culture of the 1950s. Where are the boxcars? On Twitter?
The sort of paranoia Ahmari and his friends exhibit helps explain the recent shift of emphasis from the Christian right to a “religious liberty” agenda. Dressed in the sympathetic clothing of self-defense (which in some cases of secular overreach is appropriate), the real goal seems to be to cultural apartheid: carving out as many areas of life as possible in which conservative Christians can be free of any exposure to LGBTQ, feminist, or “un-American” influences. It’s a sort of collective Benedict Option (the idea of retreating from secular culture to maintain spiritual integrity) allowing the creation of a voluntary (for independent adults, anyway) Gilead.
But there is often a sort of touchiness in this effort that helps explain the apocalpytic language — a sense of grievance over the loss of political and cultural power that apparently feels like the rack and the cross. The Red State essayist quotes conservative archbishop Charles Chaput to reinforce Ahmari’s contention that no compromise with the Enemy is possible:
Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it. So it always has been. So it always will be. And America has no special immunity to becoming an enemy of its own founding beliefs about human freedom, human dignity, the limited power of the state, and the sovereignty of God.
So many politically militant conservative Christians have little choice but to tolerate those who are Evil. But by God you’d best not push your luck by getting in our faces with your satanic lifestyles or total war may become necessary, and a good old-fashioned Inquisition against disobedience to God’s Word a lively option again. That’s the threat beneath the whining of those who claim liberalism enslaves them.
It may not, then, be an accident that this particularly virulent strain of anti-liberal and anti-democratic religious conservatism has erupted during Gay Pride Month. What has for most of us — Christians included! — become a welcome celebration of diversity and freedom seems like hell to those who really think all those marchers should get right back into the closet — or else.