You must fight to keep your beliefs inside the Overton Window

Americans, being liberals, believe in freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.  It’s a sincere belief.  Of course, when you press them, there are limits.  “What if my religion/conscience demands I do ______?”  (Insert grossly evil and socially harmful act.)  Well, freedom of religion can’t be entirely open-ended.  How shall we state the limits?  How about this:  people can follow their religion/conscience/philosophy as long as it doesn’t involve breaking the law.  That’s no good, because it renders freedom of religion meaningless; the Roman martyrs were breaking the law, after all.  In practice, the way it works out is that a belief is respected–meaning life is not made intolerable for its adherents–if the majority believes it to be a belief that a reasonable person might hold, even if most of them don’t actually hold it.  Yes, I know that liberal philosophers have attempted to find neutral, non-question-begging ways of ascertaining what counts as “public reason”, but the thing can’t be done.  We must decide which version of reason is used to evaluate rationality and which epistemic community gets to call itself “the public”.  Given this necessity, I actually think the informal rule of what gets tolerated makes a lot of sense.

We Christians have made a grave mistake in ignoring the informal limits of public tolerance.  The American Catholic Church, for example, has decided for the past half-century not to make any attempts to convince people of the intrinsic evil of contraception.  Apparently making life easier for the clergy is more important than trying to save the 90% of lay Catholics who are headed toward hellfire for regularly committing mortal sin, but that’s material for a different post.  The point is that the episcopate assumed that traditional sexual morality would continue to be a respected and tolerated belief even if no effort was made to convince people that the belief is reasonable.  And the only way to convince people that a belief is reasonable is by at least trying to convince them that it is true.  You may not convince them, but if your arguments have merit, you will probably at least convince them that yours are beliefs for which society should allow room.  If all you do is demand respect for your beliefs because of your sincerity, it will make no impression, because a person who is sincere about his beliefs doesn’t go on about his sincerity; he gives arguments for why he holds those beliefs.  The liberal majority are not going to accept our beliefs as reasonable if we give them no reasons.  Nor should they.

Today, there is a feeling that things are getting much worse for us.  It can be a shock looking back at the television shows and movies from my childhood; I notice that even in the 80s and 90s, the cultural conversation about matters of sex, gender, and community was entirely one-sided.  Even then, there was no visible defense of natural law positions; the only difference is that now, after so many decades of silence from our side, the majority has decided that there is nothing to be said for our beliefs, that they are irrational animus which not only deserve no respect in law, but should be actively suppressed.  Like many other reactionaries, I often fall into the habit of suggesting that the liberals somehow cheated to get their hegemonic position. They propagandize through schools!  They propagandize through the movies!  Yes, true, but really, isn’t this what one would expect people with sincere convictions to do, tell the truth as they see it in education and art?  Shouldn’t we do the same?  It’s our own fault if they have the stomach for a fight and we don’t.

11 thoughts on “You must fight to keep your beliefs inside the Overton Window

  1. The American Catholic Church, for example, has decided for the past half-decade not to make any attempts to convince people of the intrinsic evil of contraception. Apparently making life easier for the clergy is more important than trying to save the 90% of lay Catholics who are headed toward hellfire for regularly committing mortal sin, but that’s material for a different post.

    Totally agree. I just mentioned my RCIA class in another comment. I remember that in that class, on the discussion of natural birth control, I asked why the clergy never, during any of the Masses I attended, attacked contraception or urged the congregation to have more children. The short answer the priest gave was “this would make a lot of people in the congregation uncomfortable.” My response to this was, “It is in fact more important to urge people along the path of truth and virtue if they hold morally or factually questionable beliefs than if they don’t. Are you going to stop preaching against abortion and gay marriage when 51% of the congregation thinks these things are acceptable?” He basically shrugged this off, not that I really expected him to say, “yes you are right and I am going to breathe fire from the altar next Sunday.”

  2. In yesterday’s mass there was a prayer of thanks for “freedom of religion,” and as I intoned the response I thought, “what a craven and defeatist sentiment this is.” All we really ask is to be left alone. We don’t claim to possess religious truth, we don’t care about religious error, and we’ve grown soft and lazy under the umbrella of “freedom of religion.” As you say, all opinions are not equally worthy of respect, and every opinion should be required to earn whatever respect in can the court of public debate. I often despair and think that religious debates are pointless because no one ever changes their mind; but I accept your point that good arguments can earn respect even when they fail to win assent and effect conversion. Apologetics is the battle with which we win our freedom to entertain Catholic beliefs. If other religions wish to win this freedom, they are welcome to try, but it is not something they can simply have for the asking.

    Obviously, most ordinary Christians are not cut out to be polemicists or apologists, but I think we should do much more to equip the faithful with basic arguments for our religious, moral, and political doctrines. Scripture explicitly tells us to arm ourselves, as if for battle. It does not advise us to survive by drawing up mutual non-aggression pacts. A man wins his religious freedom when he repulses the attack of someone who attempts to take his religion away, not when he’s loafing under the paternalistic eye of some playground monitor.

  3. I think you mean:

    The American Catholic Church, for example, has decided for the past half-decadecentury not to make any attempts to convince people of the intrinsic evil of contraception.

  4. You may not convince them, but if your arguments have merit, you will probably at least convince them that yours are beliefs for which society should allow room.

    And if you can’t achieve that, you will have at least fanned a winnowing fan upon the Church.

  5. The American natural lawyers are still political liberals, believing in ‘freedom of conscience and expression’ as interpreted in 1950s.

    The matter is a State is defined by the kind of arguments that arise in the state and the kinds of arguments that are acceptable in the public discourse. That is called Public Reason in political theory. The state belongs to those that control the public discourse.

    The content to the freedom of religion is provided by the current understanding of what religion is and it boils down ultimately to one’s convictions about supernatural. If a person lacks any conviction about supernatural realm, he is not going to give content to ‘freedom of religion’ the same way as a Catholic would give to. He is not necessarily being malicious, he simply does not understand.

    It is impossible to have an originalism in Constitutional interpretation without a certain sympathy for pre-Civil war America. The constitution was written by particular people for a particular people.
    And when people change, and more importantly when public reason changes, the interpretation changes inevitably.
    And thus there is no need to change the constitution. Again when the people become sympathetic to traditional arguments, the constitution would be interpreted in accordance.

  6. “Shouldn’t we do the same?”

    Exactly. My question is: why has it taken this long for the Catholic church to realize (for example in the ‘New Evangelization’) that new media has incredible power? A similar point applies to schools, as you mention in the post.

    • The Church moves slowly.

      And, as much as you guys like to rag on Cardinal Dolan, his satellite/internet radio channel has been a tour de force for upbeat evangelization and unapologetic orthodoxy. Now that their hosts have gained so many listeners, they’re increasingly “expert guests” on the mainstream news channels, replacing people like Maureen Dowd.

  7. “It’s our own fault if they have the stomach for a fight and we don’t.”

    Well said indeed. It should be obvious, but seemingly isn’t, that the Traditionalist cause is helped by action, publicity, and anything that effects the public conscious.

    In my view, the whole scene is far too given to smug Jeremiads that end up sounding like hollow protests by sore losers. We cannot be that. What I would suggest, first and foremost, is that we try to inject some sort of joie de vivre into the movement.

  8. Although conversing and organizing are important, the indispensable ingredient of a major movement is a leader. And the Church has lacked excellent leaders since Pope Paul VI, and maybe even before him. Pope Paul VI was implacably against contraception, which I remember well because I was in high school. Since then, I have read about the dubious Vatican II called by Pope John XXIII. I recall the abandonment of Latin well. I recall popes not orally attacking (and see their continuing reticence) American liberal leaders. How can popes expect to see the faithful take aggressive action when the popes fail (or at least appear to fail) to take aggressive action? I cannot imagine they are afraid considering Whom they represent.

  9. Pingback: The alternative to freedom of religion | Throne and Altar

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