Civil Rights and Civil Priests 


When I was in high school and George W. Bush was president, the fear in progressive circles was that a Christian “fundamentalist” had hijacked the nation. Bush did what polite society never would, which was to speak of faith openly in public without irony or qualification. America, liberals feared, would be turned into a theocracy; a vocal conservative Christian minority would subvert the country’s separation of church and state, undermining its founding principles. Today, we are still told that the Christian right is an existential threat to American democracy, even as social liberalism continues its ascent to the commanding heights of media, academia, and corporate boardrooms. 

The liberal fear of Bush, or a Vice President Mike Pence, was that religion could infiltrate politics, imposing Christianity on unbelievers. But under a President Joe Biden we must consider and frankly assess the obverse: the possibility that the political can infiltrate the lives of the faithful to subordinate faith to politics. If Bush and Pence were possible embodiments of a heretical Christian nationalism, as commentators such as Ross Douthat and TAC’s own Rod Dreher have argued, we must be equally alive to the possibility that President Biden could personify a militant woke Catholicism and, by extension, woke Christianity writ large. Ironically, the end result would be much the same: the imposition of dogma upon the unbelieving through the coercive powers of the state. Left-wing politicization of the Christian faith may easily wreak havoc on conservative Christians in the Biden years, just as fundamentalist Christianity is supposed to have done to nonbelievers of the Bush and Pence years. 

The comparison may seem far-fetched at first. After all, having experienced the other end of the stick themselves, how could the progressive left—many of whose rank and file felt oppressed before civil rights gradually expanded to include feminism and LGBTQ activism—possibly wield the cudgel of the state? And yet commentators such as Poland’s Ryszard Legutko, who has lived under both communism and E.U.-style progressive liberalism, notice unsettling parallels between the oppressors of the Cold War and today’s freedom fighters. As the title of his book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in a Free Society suggests, today’s politically correct liberals and yesterday’s communists share an uncanny parallel: Nothing can be left outside the totalizing—or totalitarian—purview of either. No institution can be left untouched by the levelling, so-called egalitarian, impulse of these ideologies. In practice this means that any organization, association, or institution—public or private—must ultimately conform to the professed values of the ruling system, communism then and there, and liberalism here and now. This includes pre-liberal institutions such as church hierarchies or the traditional family, which are intrinsically non-egalitarian—recalcitrant bodies that need to be disciplined and brought to heel when they undermine the illusion of universal assent to the political ideology in question. As Christopher Caldwell argued in his recent book, The Age of Entitlement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has become a de facto rival to the amendment liberties of the U.S. Constitution.

But moving from the abstract to the particular, what does it mean in practice when religious liberty and equal protection under the law clash? Some of these scenarios have yet to play out in this, our second Catholic presidency. But one such instance is far enough past us, and far enough away, in France, to allow an attempt at dispassionate analysis. This is the controversy surrounding the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed into law in 1790 at the height of the French Revolution. That law required—in addition to things such as the shuttering of supposedly “unproductive” monasteries and convents and the nationalization of church property—that bishops and priests be elected by the voting public and swear a loyalty oath to the new revolutionary government. In the words of the decree: “The new bishop may not apply to the pope for any form of confirmation, but shall write to him, as to the visible head of the universal Church, as a testimony to the unity of faith and communion maintained with him.”

According to historian Peter McPhee, this controversial legislation resulted in “unforeseen and unintended” resistance to the revolution and, ultimately, counter-revolution. “Patriot clergy,” who swore an oath to the state and thus acknowledge their source of religious authority in “the people” and not the papacy, were effectively in a state of first religious, and then actual, civil war with the “refractory” clergy, who refused to declare the oath and thus, in their view, break the divinely ordered apostolic succession that united them to the first apostles of Christ. McPhee sums up the conflict in a way that will not sound too unfamiliar to the modern Christian listener who watches for the latest decisions from the courts in the wake of Obergefell: “In the end, it proved impossible to reconcile a Revolution based on popular sovereignty, tolerance of all faiths and the certainty of earthly fulfillment through secular reason with a Church based on hierarchical appointment, divinely revealed dogma and a certainty of one true faith.” The words “impossible to reconcile” reverberate today in cases where alleged discrimination and claims of religious freedom converge. In a court battle of “secular reason” versus “divinely revealed dogma,” I know where I’d place my bets. Unless divinely revealed dogma leads to new revelations from God about previously unknown rights, dogma is invalid. 

On January 20, Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a statement regarding President Biden’s inauguration. “It will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions,” declared Gomez. But his praise was qualified:

At the same time, as pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So, I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.

Seemingly overnight the same cleric who had received accolades for denouncing President Trump’s immigration policies was now declared an ally of the Catholic right wing. News outlets were quick to uncover quotes from progressive Catholics who found Archbishop Gomez’s words objectionable and saw no real conflict between President Biden’s faith and his public policy positions mentioned above. In the language of liberalism, and a world aggressively reordered in all aspects to its logic, there is no such thing as Catholic, only progressive or conservative Catholics. One must fit into either political category—not both and not none of the above. 

American establishment liberalism and liberal Catholic elites in clergy, politics, and entertainment would never be so clumsy and heavy-handed as to openly erect a parallel ecclesiastical structure as in the case of revolutionary France. But in a Biden presidency, alongside a similar phenomenon taking place in American Protestantism, a de facto schism between Catholic America’s woke “patriotic” and conservative “refractory” churches could very well appear. With a member in the White House, it will be smooth sailing for the former and rough seas for the latter. Some parishes and educational institutions will face lawsuits, and others won’t. Some will be audited, and others won’t. Some will have their tax-exempt status and federal funding questioned or revoked, and others won’t. The process will be made banal by legalistic proceduralism, to the point where it will be hard to notice when it starts and equally unnoticeable when its work is complete.

President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and progressive Christian politicians like them imagine they have succeeded at reconciling faith and politics, averting graver conflict. But everyone will know, if not openly acknowledge, that some churches are state-sponsored, and some aren’t. The irony will be that people who painfully recall their own experience of overwhelming pressure to conform to regnant orthodoxy mere decades ago will neither understand nor empathize with the new minority in this enlightened age. 

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school.

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