Or Rather, What to Do When People Keep Telling You You’re On the Wrong Side of History

Michael Hanby uses some very long words and very deep thinking to advise on “what to do when you are on the wrong side of history.” I recommend reading the whole thing (and if you’re like me, maybe reading it two or three times before you get it). But if you don’t have time, here’s the gist: Don’t let yourself be trapped by the definition of “history” that is deemed acceptable by political powers. And don’t look for which side you want to be on; instead, look for truth.

We must recognize first of all what this appeal to the inevitability of history is.  It is not an argument but a ‘conversation stopper’ designed to put an end to argument by urging  opponents of same sex marriage to resign themselves to a fate which they are powerless to resist and exempting advocates of ‘marriage equality’ from the burden of having to think about, much less defend, their position with depth or rigor.  And by placing opponents of same sex marriage beyond the pale of progress and civilization, it encourages those who fancy themselves on the ‘right side of history’ to treat their opponents with contempt.  The appeal to history is thus a nifty little piece of rhetorical violence, a ‘performative utterance’ that seeks to bring about the fate that it announces and to excuse the opposition’s loss of agency as the inevitable triumph of justice.

The same liberal presuppositions that relegate opposition to same sex marriage to a ghetto of merely private morality tend to reduce religious freedom to the right of privately holding an irrational and idiosyncratic opinion.  So conceived, religious freedom is unlikely to fare well when it conflicts with perceived public goods, which will increasingly be the case as the erosion of our Protestant culture patrimony alters our perception of these goods and as the underlying philosophy of liberalism is more securely codified.  The wisdom of casting such controversies as same sex marriage and the HHS Mandate principally as matters of religious freedom is therefore deeply questionable.  It looks like special pleading, and it obscures the deeper fact that the state is imposing a normative anthropology and philosophy of human nature through these decisions.

Religious freedom is commendable, politically speaking, because the state’s acknowledgment of religious freedom is a necessary (but not sufficient) step in its acknowledgment of a reality greater than itself.  But the Church does not depend on the state for its freedom.  Its freedom comes by nature (and by grace) from the truth of God.  Insofar as no state can ever fully succeed in abolishing this truth, no state can ever really take this freedom away.  Indeed this freedom often seems to grow in proportion to the attempts to suppress it. The blood of the martyrs, Tertullian once said, is the seed of the church.  The greatest threat to religious freedom therefore comes not from the liberal state, but from the failure of Christians to see beyond the confines of the liberal imagination.


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