I have long been a critic of Rod Dreher’s. Initially, I found his criticism of big government and big business interesting. While we will likely always diverge politically and religiously, I used to respect Dreher’s more nuanced approach to religious conservatism. What I have realized over the years is Dreher is not that nuanced. It is only that his rhetoric appears much more nuanced. In reality, Dreher often reinforces the rather shallow critiques of religious (read: Christian) conservatives. Dreher’s main defense of religious freedom against what he perceives to be the success of the sexual revolution (even though queers were not participants in the sexual revolution, but rather that even the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s itself was heteronormative) the trope of “it’s not queer antagonism, it is just religion.”
There have always been several ironies that I have found in Dreher’s thought. Most of them relate to Cornel West’s critique of Alasdair MacIntyre (as representative of communitarianism). West argues that while MacIntyre critiques the liberal focus on individualism, MacIntyre relies on a communitarian argument that presupposes the liberal state because it demands religious freedom for believers. Dreher is no different as far as I can tell.
The mantra of “it’s not queer antagonism, it’s just religion” presumes religion as an apolitical sphere of private activity, an activity outside the discourse of public morality (or ethics). Yet, it’s not that simple because Dreher like most religious conservatives demands that a) there should be a robust civic Christianity but b) like religion in the private sphere, this robust civic Christianity should be above the reproach of ethics or morality. Dreher wants Christianity to be the foundation of the political, yet he doesn’t want the contestation and agonism that comes with politics. I also think Dreher ignores we (he and I as religious outsiders) benefits from the freedom of religion because civic Christianity has often been primarily a Protestant endeavor that sought to exclude religious outsiders (both within and outside Christianity).
Reliance on liberal principles is no surprise because the notion of religious freedom applying to individuals is a liberal reading of the Constitution (the importance of the Incorporation Doctrine of the Fourteenth Amendment, an Amendment often opposed by conservatives, if not de jure, then de facto). Again, this only highlights the fact that while Dreher and other conservatives oppose liberal principles, they often rely on those very principles. The issue is that the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution also allows for equal protection, which directly conflicts with how much religious freedom a person has. Where does religious freedom end and equal protection begin? Dreher’s articulation of this and defense of a more maximalist approach to religious freedom leaves his response underdeveloped.
This leads me to another point in the myopic view of Dreher and other religious conservatives. The religious conservatism of Dreher is myopic because it presumes society would be better if Christianity remains the foundation of morality and politics. Yet, even when Christian discourse maintained (I still think it maintains a very public role despite the kvetching of Dreher and people like Franklin Graham), there was no consensus on what those kind of politics should look like. Of all the political debates that US society has had throughout its existence, there have been Christians on both sides of those debates. We might think of the Civil Rights Movement as the great triumph of Christian morality, but we shouldn’t forget that religious conservatives and moderates often supported Jim Crow. Virtually all moral debates have had Christians on both sides of the issue. Civic Christianity doesn’t change uncertainty. While one might attribute Christians who supported Jim Crow to not practicing an “ideal form of Christianity,” this assertion is a deflection, and it fails to address that Christians throughout history have held morally dubious political, moral, and religious public civic positions.
More to the point, Dreher wants to position his version of religion as the ideal form of civic Christianity. Why should anyone accept this premise given the varieties of civic Christianity? Problematically, Dreher wants to position queerness outside of the Church as akin to the secular. Yet, some of the most vocal supporters of queer inclusion (and same-sex marriage) are themselves Christian religious leaders. Again, this is part of my previous point, but emphasizes that Dreher can only imagine a queer antagonistic form of Christianity as a legitimate form of civic Christianity. But this is a problem because those who support queer inclusive Christianities don’t think they are practicing cafeteria Christianity (and if “cafeteria religion” is a credible analytical category, which I don’t think it is, then Dreher’s form of Christianity is just as much a “cafeteria Christianity” as progressive Christians). Rather, they envision queer inclusion as an extensions of the religious obligation and practice.
To conclude, Dreher’s analysis of religious freedom is dubious. For Dreher, civic Christianity relies on being outside of reproach, problematic because Dreher’s form of civic Christianity deemphasizes equal protection while bolstering religious freedom to an unrealistically high precipice. The issue, of course, is that other forms of morality are displacing some within Christianity. As someone identified with queer politics, I question how much this is really the case (queer antagonism won’t dissipate with Same-Sex Marriage). But Dreher’s complaints strike me like how person A is deemed as suppressing free speech when they criticized the racism/homophobia/sexism/etc. of person B’s speech (or actions). It really is like the whiny teenager who claims they’re being marginalized when really they already have everything.