The Intelligentsia Against Religion
Imagining a more anti-Christian elite culture (via Elizabeth Bruenig's mentions).
In a couple of posts here on the difficult relationship between religious thought and the secular intelligentsia, as well as my recent column on the meritocracy and faith, I basically took as a given a particular relationship between elite culture and traditional religion, one that’s obtained since the same-sex marriage debate took its decisive turn.
That relationship I would describe as follows. On the one hand, religious traditionalism is regarded with some combination of bafflement, hostility and indifference in a lot of elite spaces, and to the extent that they participate in the larger order of the meritocracy, conservative religious groups and institutions face various kinds of pressure to conform themselves to progressive norms on specific issues — gay rights and transgender rights, and increasingly the language of anti-racism as well.
At the same time, however, to be religious in some traditional or semi-traditional way is not necessarily all that socially difficult in the meritocratic day to day. There are flourishing religious communities, conservative as well as liberal-leaning, on most elite college campuses. I know plenty of serious religious people who move through elite-level graduate programs and professional schools without encountering overt hostility, even if they tread carefully in various situations and expect their beliefs to count against them to some extent on the job market or set up awkward moments with HR. And the Trump era has had a complicated impact on the situation, because many religious believers in elite spaces aren’t particularly ardent Trumpers, and in many situations it’s now probably a bit easier to form and keep friendships across religious-secular or traditionalist-liberal lines than it is across partisan lines. At the very least — and I can personally attest to this — there is still a certain kind of curiosity and interest around Christian beliefs, to go along with the bafflement and hostility, that prompts more interesting conversations and relationships than do, say, partisan beliefs about whether the 2020 election was on the up-and-up.
Admittedly everything in the prior paragraph might be contested by the many religious conservatives these days (the ones not named David French, that is) who paint a grimmer portrait of the Christian situation under current liberal conditions. And certainly as an established writer with a Times imprimatur I enjoy a certain distinctive privilege, and as a member of an older generation I probably don’t pick up on every current shaping the lives of younger people.
But still — in coming back to an Ivy League town after fifteen years away I’ve found it changed but not as changed as one might imagine reading about the most egregious cancellations. To the extent that the new progressivism has created novel ideological pressures, new rules that impose conformity or stress, they often seem to lie heavier on secular liberals or centrists than on religious students. And for every new form of pressure there are also novel forms of religious and intellectual community that didn’t really exist in my own time.
Which is one reason I was struck by this essay in the Hedgehog Review, and cited it while writing about the schismatic pressures on and within Catholicism this week. The author, Anna Keating, a former Coordinator of Catholic Life at an unnamed small liberal-arts school, describes an atmosphere in which even progressive forms of religious faith come under social suspicion for their mere connection to the alleged patriarchy or white supremacy of their originating tradition — in which students ask her not to post pictures of them attending Mass — in which the administration’s understanding of anti-racism and “equity” becomes a reason to consider eliminating the chaplaincy entirely (because there are more Jewish and Catholic than Hindu or Muslim students, and more donors supporting the first two programs) and replacing it with “wellness education aimed at stress management, substance abuse, and sexual safety.”
I was struck by this account, to be clear, not because I think it describes the fullness of elite reality but precisely because it doesn’t, because it reflects instead a novel tendency within that culture, not nearly dominant as yet. Which, in turn, makes it a useful case for thinking about what it would mean for the American elite to become more overtly anti-religious, or more overtly “anti-Western-religion” or “anti-traditional-monotheism.”
In practice, I think, the key turn would be this: Under current circumstances there are social and professional costs for the public expression or endorsement of a few particularly unpopular, understood-as-bigoted teachings that are common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But those same costs don’t apply to practicing and participating in those traditions, even in their more conservative expressions. Whereas under the emergent, new-progressive circumstances described by Keating, the costs would increasingly apply more broadly: Thus to simply attend Mass, even under the auspices of a liberal Catholic chaplaincy, would become an act of association with bigotry — plus colonialism plus white privilege plus a longer list of Western sins — that risks social sanction, and in its administrative forms liberalism would increasingly look for excuses to marginalize any faith with those associations that didn’t stage a complete break with the Christian or Western-religious past.
In the debate between Rod Dreher and David Brooks over the trajectory of the new progressivism I am somewhere in between, but for now I would make a Brooksian bet against this particular anti-religious future coming into being outside the true progressive hothouse.
Still, the animating impulse is clearly real enough, with various palpable expressions. To take a close-to-home example, for instance, I think it explains some of the extraordinary online hostility that greeted this essay, from my soon-to-be-former colleague Elizabeth Bruenig, discussing her own experiences as a “young” (by meritocratic-class standards) mother.
A certain kind of anti-religiosity isn’t the only explanation for the Bruenig freak-out: You can also trace it back to the vicious online debates of the 2016 Democratic primaries, or follow this Noah Millman essay through the existential implications of fertility decisions and why they arouse such anxiety and passion.
But I think it isn’t a coincidence that so many readers (or at least Twitterers) took an essay written by a Catholic woman that conspicuously did not champion specifically Catholic ideas about family and marriage, but merely described a way of being in the world that’s clearly influenced by the author’s faith, and read into it some sort of religious/trad/fundie chauvinism against other women’s choices. I think that kind of reading-into is an expression of the same tendency Keating is describing, in which you are judged by the progressive reading of your faith tradition’s doctrines, their unacceptable conservatism or misogyny or patriarchy, rather than anything you yourself have explicitly said or done. Thus a lot of anti-Bruenigism boils down, basically, to this: You say you’re just describing your own experience, but you’re a practicing Catholic so we know what you really think — about this and everything else — and we’re going to punish you for that.
Except that at this point Bruenig’s punishment is … being offered a job at The Atlantic and being lured away from our pages. So whatever is happening around her on the internet is not the dominant force in elite liberalism as yet.
But can trends on Twitter or in the academic hothouse suddenly stage a larger takeover? Yes, we know they can. So does the tendency bear watching? Yes, I think it does.