“This is What Anti-Christian Bigotry Looks Like,” Abridged & with One or Two Key Changes, Mostly by David French.
The first thing you have to understand about the battle for free speech, religious freedom, and freedom of association in this nation is that it is primarily cultural, not legal. From a First Amendment perspective, legal protection against government censorship and government repression is at or near an all-time high. The First Amendment has never been more robust. Panic over court decisions is mainly panic at the margins, whether key decisions and doctrines will be undermined, not discarded entirely.
At the same time, however, talk to virtually any social conservative — especially a Christian conservative — and they will tell you that they feel free less free to speak and to exercise their religion now than they did five years ago, or ten years ago, or 20 years ago. Why? Because of cultural shunning. Because of cultural shaming.
Earlier this month, Immanuel Christian School in Virginia landed squarely in the cultural crosshairs. Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, took a part-time job teaching art to elementary-school students. Karen Pence is a believing Christian. The school is a church ministry, and it upholds orthodox Christian teaching about sexuality — the belief that sex is reserved for marriage, and that marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman.
A media feeding frenzy followed, with progressive pundits across the land condemning Pence’s alleged bigotry. A hashtag, #ExposeChristianSchools, popped up on Twitter, leading a New York Times reporter to openly called for people to come forward and discuss their Christian school experiences. And, this week, a local private academy called the Sheridan School decided to prohibit its sports teams from playing games at Immanuel. The reason? According to the text of an email from the head of school, obtained by Rod Dreher, some students felt “unsafe.” No, really. Here’s the key paragraph:
Since the majority of students wanted to play, we were initially planning to go to ICS with the student-athletes wearing a statement of support (such as rainbow socks or warm-up jerseys). As we talked more, we understood that some students did not feel safe entering a school that bans Jewish parents, students or even families that support Jewish equality. Forcing our children to choose between an environment in which they feel unsafe or staying home was not an option. So we decided that we would invite ICS to play all of the games at Sheridan. Since ICS declined our offer to host, we will only play our home games and will not go to ICS to play. [Emphasis added]
Unsafe? Absurd. Just absurd. But it’s worse than absurd. It’s bigotry. If there have been specific incidents that make a person reasonably fear for his or her safety at Immanuel, then the head of school should identify them. Otherwise, the argument is that Immanuel’s Christian environment is just too terrible to endure.
Time and again, officials and parents complimented our kids, our coaches, and our parents for their hospitality and sportsmanship. Games were intense, yes, but the intensity was related to the on-court action, not the race, sex, or religion of the participants. In my travels to public schools or to secular private schools, never once did I think that I was in a safer environment than the private Christian schools in our league. If the experience at Immanuel is different from the common experience of Christian-school parents and students, we need evidence.
And in this more-important cultural fight, it’s critical to wrap our arms around principles, not politicians. There’s not one darn thing that even the president can or should do to force the Sheridan school to associate with the kids from Immanuel. Combatting intolerance is a matter of persuasion, and it depends on Christians exercising a degree of personal courage and resolve — if you feel pressure at work, speak anyway. If you see a colleague facing persecution for his beliefs, stand with him. If a Christian school faces public shame and public sanction for its fidelity to Scripture, send your kids anyway.
Of course, French did not say “Jewish,” The real essay is about LGBTQ students. We could, of course, run the same essay with “black,” perhaps with or without adding on a prohibition on miscegenation. After all, strongly-held beliefs about the inferiority of African-Americans—and against miscegenation—were a rather widespread feature of Christian conservative schools for quite some time.
Is it so simple? One could obviously flip my example around and talk about Immanuel refusing to play against Jewish schools that banned attendance by Christians. Is this religious bigotry? Does it matter if the minorities in question have experienced a long history of discrimination for their beliefs, identities, or both?
Christian conservatives certainly feel like an oppressed minority; they have some of the characteristics of an insular community; and, despite their political power, they constitute a minority of the population—and their numbers are looking to shrink substantially over the next few decades. At some point, we all may need to think differently about these groups.
At the same time, religious exemptions—with LGBTQ rights as the point of the spear—will likely soon join the idea of the “equal dignity of the states” in eviscerating the Civil Rights regime of the Second Reconstruction. So while French’s concerns deal primarily with social stigma, the underlying issues extend far beyond the tyranny of opinion.
Regardless of these broader concerns, French’s ridicule of the very idea that some students might feel “unsafe” suggest a lack of awareness of the actual experiences of many minorities—religious, racial, ethnic, sexual—when finding themselves in institutions that publicly deny their legitimacy and explicitly ban them from their communities. It is clear that French finds Christian conservative schools a safe space, but that does not mean everyone else does. All of this strikes me as particularly odd in a piece structured around the idea of Christian conservatives as surrounded and attacked by a hostile majority, let alone one written by someone happy to decry others for desiring spaces where they feel free to be, and to express, themselves.