When Certain Religions Are No Longer Primus Inter Pares

The nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is Catholic, has, once again, moved religious conflict into the political arena (let’s be clear, this is, in part, a cynical move by a very cynical administration to peel off Catholic support for Biden, who himself is Catholic). A column by Elizabeth Bruenig (who is Catholic) gets close to but not all the way there as to what this is about (boldface mine):

Rather than regenerating a long-vanquished prejudice, Judge Barrett’s nomination has merely renewed attention to a fundamental conflict, centuries underway, between Catholicism and the American ethos.

The United States is unusual among nations: We are a country founded along the contours of a philosophy. That philosophy, liberalism, is the logic that underlies our founding documents and our national ethos of individualism, self-reliance, liberty, equality and tolerance. Whether we live up to those values is another matter; they are our reason for being, and the principles that bind us together.

But liberalism, like any storied philosophy, has its difficulties and points of contention. While liberal societies seek to build legal and cultural climates of toleration for expression and religion (among other things), liberal theorists have long recognized that it’s risky to tolerate notions and movements that could undermine liberal democracy itself….

Roman Catholicism does not readily distinguish between public and private moral obligations [many religions don’t actually]…

Even the most modern and liberal-friendly popes have noted without special fanfare that the teachings of the church pertain to the decisions Catholics make about politics…

Generally, contemporary American Catholics aren’t particularly beholden to the church; as I wrote recently, the logic of partisanship has replaced the moral primacy of the faith. That means that, for most Catholics, their religious beliefs never clash with their civic interests in a disruptive way. When they do, the solution is typically some kind of exemption from particular legal or civic obligations…

Catholic institutions have asked for exemptions to various laws, citing the First Amendment. In Lockean terms, they have argued that business putatively conducted in the civil sphere actually belongs to the religious one, and thus ought not be subject to the rules of civil government. They are staking out and reclaiming jurisdictional territory from the state, in other words, and each victory adds ground to the church’s domain.

From the vantage point of a religious minority (Jewish) whose minority status is never in doubt, I’m not sure Bruenig gets it right. To me, it looks like conservative Christianity, both its Catholic and Protestant wings*, which from the late 1970s to around 2015 (I’ll return to that date) was defined as ‘religion’, is becoming a minority religion. It is no longer the default setting for ‘religion’ or ‘faith.’ It is no longer primus inter pares (first among equals).

A small, politically uncharged (hopefully) example is Jews who take time off for the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are about as important as Christmas). In some parts of the country, this isn’t a problem: there are enough Jews that this is seen as normal occurrence. In some places, schools even close (Westchester County, NY used to do this; don’t know if they still do). But in some other places, non-Jews aren’t always so accommodating. “Do you really have to take the entire**** day off?” (yes, we do. And we had this conversation last year. And the year before that…).*** In those places, the reverence for ‘faith’ doesn’t extend to Jews or Jewish observance. Jewish holidays aren’t federal holidays, unlike Christmas. Judaism obviously isn’t the default setting for ‘faith.’

Of course, conservative Christianity, from the late 1970s to around 2015, was never the dominant dogma among self-described Christians. But in national life, ‘religious’ became synonymous with conservative Christian. One enoromous advantage of being primus inter pares–and it is an unnoticed advantage until it is lost–is the ability to argue from authority. One can simply say that policy X is a violation of (your) religious beliefs–that is, generic ‘faith’–and shut down debate. Religious minorities can’t do this: we have to argue in universal, non-religious terms.

For example, one of the 613 commandments for Jews is to not oppress the worker. But were I to argue that overturning labor protections is a violation of my religious beliefs and thus should be opposed, I would not be taken seriously; as a Jew, I have to make a universal, secular case. Primus inter pares religions have a much lower bar in that regard**.

The irony facing conservative Christians is that, as they have gained political power and the ability to include their sectarian dogma in public life, they have lost legitimacy as the default religion. The reason I define the heyday of conservative Christianity as the late 1970s to around 2015 has to do with ‘their’ president, Donald Trump. While religions in the U.S. might intrude into the public sphere, this is usually seen as a continuation of the private sphere, as an extension of personal religious behavior. But Trump makes conservative Christianity look cynical: how can you intrude into other people’s private sphere, when your champion is horrible in that regard? It’s hard, in the face of this hypocrisy, to maintain the mantle of generic ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ while unabashedly supporting someone who is so counterethical to many people’s conception of morality and religiosity.

So conservative Christianity–which numerically, if not politically or culturally, has always been a minority religion–is now losing its primus inter pares status, even as it gains in political power. Yes, it does have tremendous political power: the majority of the Supreme Court are conservative Christians, and the Republican Party, which holds the White House and Senate (for now), is dominated by them.

But what is shocking to conservative Christians is that they are losing a privileged cultural status they have held for decades, one that has had significant secular, political advantages (along with psychological ones). This terrifies them.

Welcome to the minority. We other minorities will keep a seat warm for you.

*Which sometimes disagree with each other.

**One thing the ‘woke left’ often overlooks when referring to ‘white men’ is how conspicuously absent, to religious minorities, the word Christian is in that formulation.

***And, of course, we’re using our vacation time for the High Holidays, which is fine, but Christmas is a federal holiday, despite the supposed War on Christmas.

****Back when most Reform Jews only celebrated one day of Rosh Hashanah, not two (this has changed in the last few decades), non-Reform Jews often had to convince them to stay out of work for two days, so non-Reform Jews wouldn’t be pressured to show up to work on the second day.

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3 Responses to When Certain Religions Are No Longer Primus Inter Pares

  1. Mr grumpy says:

    Nailed it. I would also add that we can look to Israel as an example of what happens when the most conservative version of a religion has optimus inter pares status and stare sanctioned power. We’re headed for that shit show.

  2. peter says:

    Trump makes conservative Christianity look cynical: how can you intrude into other people’s private sphere, when your champion is horrible in that regard? It’s hard, in the face of this hypocrisy, to maintain the mantle of generic ‘religion’ and ‘faith’ while unabashedly supporting someone who is so counterethical to many people’s conception of morality and religiosity.
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