On Why I Don't Think I'm Illiberal
...or authoritarian, or possessing a delirious desire to exercise coercive power, and the like
Here I was, thinking pleasant thoughts about how fortuitous it had been to be out of the country and mostly off Twitter over the entire Racist-Christian-Nationalist-Meltdown Week, and also pondering how we should all consider following Air France's lead and make coffee, wine, and champagne the default drink options at any meal. Slightly groggy as I wound my way through the long line at immigration, I deleted my eSim card, switched back to my cellular plan, and pulled up Twitter.
Altogether, it was a rude awakening. The dirty ORD waiting area, no access to Global Entry because my kids were in tow, no wine or champagne or croissants anywhere in sight, only to then discover that I'm being maligned by a fellow Christian historian as an authoritarian-leaning activist writer who has decided to hell with liberal democracy and all that, on par with folks like Eric Metaxas and Charlie Kirk.
If you're confused by now, so was I.
A bit of background:
Jay Green, a historian at Covenant College, former president of the Conference on Faith and History, and someone I'd consider both colleague and friend, decided to bring order to the disorder he's been experiencing over the last seven years or so, when "what once functioned as sturdy alliances, shared beliefs, and presumed common ground among friends and fellow travelers--left and right--crashed and burned in a cloud of anger, confusion, and distrust." He first gave this talk last month at Lee University, apparently, and yesterday published a version at John Fea's Current.
Green suggests that we'd do well to abandon the binary poles that we use to define opposing sides of the culture wars. Things like "left" and "right" do not have self-explanatory or stable meanings, he explains, and so he has taken it upon himself to offer a clearer organizational schema--one that takes into account both goals and strategies designed to achieve those goals.
So far so good, with the caveat that the sense of profound disorientation Green identifies is not universal; it's been felt most keenly by a certain subset of conservative white Christians, including presumably Green himself.
In terms of goals, the x-axis on Green's chart, we can think in terms of two poles: Civilizationists, or those advocating "for something like a thick Christian Civilization," and Emancipationists, or "concerned Christians" who want to see an America "marked by a growing realization of personal freedom and social equality, a diverse American family eager to welcome all who wish to join in wide-ranging 'pursuits of happiness.'" Emancipationists celebrate the expansion of civil rights and liberties to the poor, to racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ Americans, and all those systematically disadvantaged and marginalized.
Next up, we have the y-axis. This is where things get interesting, and this is the essence of Green's contribution to the conversation. The "means utilized or proposed" by members of both camps that matter as well, and differences here, Green asserts, have "generated far more disagreements within the respective camps on either side of the x-axis than it has between them."
Here, too, we have two poles. At the bottom of the y-axis, Green locates "Christians who maintain essential, non-negotiable commitments to the liberal tradition: civil discourse, open inquiry, free speech, tolerance of difference, the illuminating power of dissent, and the hope of reform through persuasion and compromise." Sounds lovely. Green calls these folks Minimalists.
At the top, we find those who toss aside traditional liberal ideals, showing "little respect for free and open inquiry" and "a rising tide of authoritarian tactics." Unlike Minimalists, who are "bound by commitments to liberalism," these folks are Maximalists who will do "whatever it takes" to advance their cause, to gain power, and to keep it.
A couple key passages:
Crucially, Maximalists of both sorts believe the rules of liberal democracy simply no longer apply. They have gradually come to justify their principled and tactical abandonment of procedural liberalism because their opponents did so first. For them, liberalism is thought of as a form of "politeness" that the other side doesn't deserve and that our side simply can't afford....
The "whatever it takes" impulse that defines the Maximalist disposition is expressed as an intense, even delirious need to gain political power and then employ the levers of the state to advance its vision of society and destroy its enemies. They do not regard the institutions of the state as deliberative spaces for the exercise of liberal procedures.
After sketching out his two axes, Green gets down to business and names names.
Civilizational Minimalists are represented in organizations like the Acton Institute, IRD, and TGC. These are mostly conservative NeverTrumpers.
Emancipatory Minimalists are folks like David French, Russell Moore, Tim Keller, Tish Harrison Warren, Paul Miller, and Karen Swallow Prior.
I'll admit this gave me pause, because until this point in Green's article, I'd assumed this would be where I'd find myself. But, no.
Civilizational Maximalists, meanwhile, are the authoritarian-leaning Christian nationalists, those who want to fight "radical Wokeism" with brute force, righteous anger, and brazen tactics, who believe "the power of the state should forcefully suppress the enemies of Christian virtue (i.e., Wokeism), who will otherwise fill local communities with 'critical race theory' and pro-LGBTQ propaganda." Here we find folks like Rod Dreher, R. R. Reno, Eric Metaxas, Dinesh D'Souza, Charlie Kirk, and the crew at The Daily Wire.
Which leaves us with Emancipatory Maximalists, aka "the Woke." Who are we talking about here?
While it might seem like their convictions are rooted in traditional liberalism, don't be fooled:
...They have largely abandoned the procedural niceties of liberalism in exchange for a hardened vision of identity politics; think Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ advocacy, and radical feminism. They emphasize America’s long history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but see these impulses not as poisonous forces that have thrived despite Christianity and the liberal order, but as implicit dimensions of American life because of Christianity and the liberal order—or, at least, because of the white patriarchal version of Christianity that they think has long characterized American evangelicalism. Liberalism is tainted by the many ways it always privileged cisgender male, straight, white, Christian nationalist priorities. “Nothing,” they claim, “has changed since the days of Jim Crow.”
Emancipatory Maximalists exercise a religious fervor intent on rooting out racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. They aren’t keen on “persuading” their opponents. They wish instead to use coercive power to produce conformity to an unyielding dogma that regulates speech, artistic representation, and institutional policy. Speech that doesn’t conform to these concerns is “harm,” and “Silence is violence.” We must pursue “whatever it takes” to cleanse society of the “evils” that have been visited upon “the marginalized.” Such endangered communities will not be “safe” until every part of society has been brought into conformity with these goals.
Emancipatory Maximalists have gone after “religious carveouts” that allow churches, Christian schools, and other religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.... They have made headlines in recent years for shouting down and “de-platforming” campus speakers whose views do not hue closely enough to the canons of contemporary race and gender orthodoxy. A great multitude among them has abandoned Christianity, viewing it as wholly complicit with white supremacy, homophobia, and anti-trans ideologies. Nevertheless, various versions of “progressive” Christianity have aligned themselves with these cultural orthodoxies and are easy to find among mainline Protestant churches and seminaries. Operating within politically aligned rainbow-flag-waving Christian organizations and churches is tolerable for some, while others are “deconstructing” their faith or moving away from it all together.
You know, "activist writers" like Jemar Tisby, Shane Claiborne, Danté Stewart, Beth Allison Barr, and, yes, me.
Excuse me, but what the hell?
Jemar, Shane, Danté, Beth, and I are the equivalent of Metaxas and Kirk? We have embraced a "whatever it takes" mentality, abandoning any principled commitment to liberalism, tossing aside the rules of liberal democracy? We prefer coercion to persuasion?
I'm sorry, but the guy who spends his days protesting state-sponsored executions, embraces poverty, and lives by an ethic of nonviolence is your model of an authoritarian-leaning Maximalist? Shane Claiborne doesn't have a coercive bone in his body.
Apart from Shane, the rest of us are, coincidentally, not white men. And we happen to write about race and gender.
We write books. We engage critics. We are active members of our churches. We have not, to my knowledge, ever advanced or promoted or even suggested the abandonment of liberal democracy in favor of coercion, of brute force.
I'll speak for myself, now, because this is personal. The protection of liberal norms and institutions has been one of my primary motivations in nearly everything I've done over the past several years. In my writing and in my social media presence, I've worked to elevate the discourse. I don't participate in "cancel culture," even as I'm often the target of right-wing cancel culture. I answer questions honestly and take pains to engage intellectual and ideological opponents with integrity. I am intentional about listening to and learning from those who think differently, on both sides of the ideological spectrum. And I will not hesitate to call out falsehoods, wherever they may be coming from. As I am doing here.
According to Green, there should be great animosity and entrenched conflict between people like me and Emancipatory Minimalists. Instead, I have publicly and privately gotten along exceedingly well with all of those named in the Emancipatory Minimalist category. There is significant mutual respect among us even as we openly disagree on some important issues. We are not only civil, but some of the folks mentioned I'd consider friends.
Even as I have great respect for these individuals and value their contributions, I can't help but wonder, in what word do folks like Tim Keller, Tish Harrison Warren, Russell Moore, David French represent the whole of the Emancipationist good guys club?
Green himself defines the category in terms of supporting the rights, liberation, and pursuits of happiness of women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ Americans, and all those oppressed through systemic injustices. Yet nearly all of the examples he mentions are complementarian, none affirm LGBTQ Christians as far as I know, and all are white.
I can't help but wonder what moves one from the Emancipatory Minimalist category to the Emancipatory Maximalist one? At first glance, it seems like anyone to the left of Green on any social issue ends up a Maximalist? This confuses his axes but makes sense of where he plots people. Maybe simply affirming the rights of LGBTQ individuals and openly and freely acknowledging them as sisters and brothers in Christ--even while defending traditionalists from accusations of bigotry--is all that it takes to qualify one as illiberal and land one in the Maximalist category?
This is simply nonsensical.
It may say something about where Green personally feels most comfortable, but it does not map onto any semblance of reality.
All of this is a stunning misreading of my work and the work of my colleagues--Green's colleagues.
Is this the result of sloppiness, maliciousness, or something else? Maybe the problem was that once Green had sketched his categories and placed himself and his friends in his favorite box, there was only one box left for the rest of us. But maybe therein lies the real usefulness of his chart. Maybe this really isn't a both-sides situation, whether you choose one or two binaries to play around with. Maybe within American Christianity the Maximalist category is far more likely to be populated by Civilizationists than Emancipationists. And maybe there are ideological reasons for this.
In the end I really can't say what Green was thinking. Apparently at least one member of his audience at Lee objected specifically to his categorizing people like me as Maximalists, but he seems not to have found their objections compelling. He's sticking to it.
But don't worry, John Fea--editor/platformer/promoter of this piece--has assured us that responses and rebuttals will be coming soon at Current. Unfortunately, if like me you had to read the first salvo a few times to try to make sense of the nonsense, you're out of free articles. You'll have to pay for the privilege of reading any rebuttal. Or even better, Fea recommends against "stirring the social media bee hive" (pay no attention to the fact that he's promiting and defending the piece on...social media) and instead writing out a lengthier response. If it's deemed good enough, and if they have the space, they might even publish it at Current. Not a bad business model.
P.S. Lest anyone be tempted to misconstrue my strenuous objection to Green's piece as yet another case of illiberal cancel culture, let me be clear: I am not calling for it to be taken down, nor in fact am I asking for an apology. Nothing of the sort. I am merely asking Jay to stand by what he wrote and kindly provide even a shred of evidence that he has correctly categorized me and my work, and that of my colleagues. This seems like a perfectly resonable request from a fellow academic, fellow member of the CFH, and fellow supporter of civil discourse, open inquiry, the illuminating power of dissent, and the hope of reform through persuasion and compromise.