Does capitalism corrode culture? I think the answer is yes and no.
Is Inclusiveness Evil?
In United States v. Windsor, the case that invalidated the Federal definition of marriage as the marriage of man and woman, the Supreme Court based its holding of unconstitutionality on the assertion that “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of [the definition] are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” and later spoke of “the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure [those persons].” It was evidently of no interest to the Court, because they didn’t mention it, that there is a public interest in supporting marriage as an institution, that it is impossible to understand the features that give marriage its unique importance without understanding it as a union of man and woman, and that to say that other sorts of relationships are not marriages is not an attempt to “demean,” disparage, or injure anyone.
The claim that the principal purpose of DOMA was to injure people is not the sort of thing one would expect as the settled judgment of sane and intelligent human beings who had been presented with all the arguments. The Court’s holding is thus one sign among many that American public life has entered Bizarro World, in which normal principles no longer apply and are even considered incomprehensible. That’s too bad, if you want to live in a world that hangs together and works. It’s where we are, though, and we have to figure out the principles that apply, what they mean, and what dangers and opportunities they present.
The key moral principle in respectable public life today, the one responsible for the Windsor decision, is that discrimination based on traditional components of personal identity, such as sex, ethnicity, and religion, is transcendently evil, and inclusiveness with regard to such matters is transcendently good. Advancing inclusiveness is considered the great moral challenge of our time, and achieving it would eliminate dangerous social divisions and liberate people from irrational, outdated, and oppressive stereotypes, so that they become free to create their own lives and identities.
Windsor shows how powerful that view has become. As naturally and traditionally conceived, marriage excludes same-sex couples, so today it has to be redefined and any resistance classified as simple hatred and bigotry. Any number of other examples could be cited, from the decision to put women on submarines and in the SEALs, to criminal prosecutions in Western countries of people who say there are problems with Islam or homosexuality, to the emerging principle, embodied for example in the Yogyakarta Principles for applying international human rights law, that one’s legal identity as a man, woman, or something else is simply the identity one chooses for oneself.
Inclusiveness is backed by force of law and its effects are far-reaching. Treated as a supreme principle, it carries with it the goal of depriving traditional constituents of identity of social effect and meaning, so that they no longer identify anything very significant. It tells us in effect that any arrangement that does not treat us as disembodied egos who create our own identities and relationships is oppressive and illegitimate, and must be eradicated. Taken seriously, that demand appears to require abolition of almost any social institution other than global markets, transnational bureaucracies, and whatever can be set up by contracts that are equally open and available to all.
Coming Soon to a Church Near You
Such a situation evidently creates a huge problem for traditional and institutional religion. That kind of religion is a traditional constituent of identity, so inclusiveness tells us it should be made not to matter. The problem is that inclusiveness excludes nothing. The whole point is to reorder attitudes and relations throughout society down to the level of intimate human interactions so that the effects of oppressive distinctions are eradicated. Everybody has to buy into the principle, and there is no mercy for recalcitrants or backsliders. Bigotry has no rights, the same is true of bigots, and the net is cast rather widely. Since that is so, why shouldn’t religious organizations be subject to the same antidiscrimination standards as everyone else?
Given present understandings it is hard to understand why refusing to marry same-sex couples or hire active homosexuals to teach moral theology is more protected by the First Amendment than Indian tribes’ use of peyote in their rituals. Isn’t pervasive homophobia worse than sporadic drug use? If what religious organizations stand for is so important, then they should meet the standards expected of other organizations. That, indeed, has been the litigating position of the Obama administration. That position has not yet prevailed, but “gay rights” didn’t prevail immediately in other settings either. As a matter of present-day principle, it is hard to see why the free exercise of religion shouldn’t be balanced against the interest of individuals in fundamental rights like marriage, choice, and individual expression, or why the latter should not always win, as they did in the case of the Obamacare mandate for religious institutions to provide free contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization services.
After all, it is hard to see on present understandings why institutional and traditional religion should get special protection. Its very existence as traditional and institutional interferes with the free development of individual choice and self-definition. In addition, it carries forward beliefs, attitudes, and standards from a past that is now considered discredited to the point of criminality. In the case of Christianity, those beliefs support a view of human nature as fixed and fallen rather than freely self-chosen, and a code of conduct based on concepts of nature and God’s will rather than choice. Such views are now considered horrendously damaging, and they are thrust by religious institutions on all who fall into their hands, including helpless children. So from the view now dominant, organized religion is essentially oppressive and should be abolished as a social force. You can have freedom of worship, which is freedom to engage in whatever private devotions you want—that, like your right to possess virtual child pornography, is part of your right of privacy and expression—but any more social expression of religion should lose protection. As the expression now goes, you can be spiritual, but not religious.
Such is the moral and increasingly the legal environment in which Christian churches must now make their way. As Windsor shows, those at home in that environment, who include a majority of the Supreme Court and the great majority of leaders of thought, are absolutely sure of themselves and find it inconceivable that any decent and intelligent person could think differently. So the churches are evidently entering a period in which they will be increasingly subject to pressure from an ever more intrusive state to become something radically different from what they have been.
So what should they do under such circumstances?
The first thing they need to do is reform their own outlook and way of living so that it is based much less on what we absorb from the electronic media, and from authorities like the Supreme Court and the New York Times, and much more on Christianity and an understanding of man and the world that has room for something other than technology and hedonism. The battle in which we are engaged has to do with the most basic understandings, and must be fought at that level. When America was connected to classical Western culture and vestigially part of Christendom it seemed to many of us that we could go with the flow and assume that all our connections and loyalties support each other and the truth. Those days are gone, and we can’t rely on the customs, attitudes, understandings, and institutions of a technocratic society to carry us forward.
We need, for example, to regain an intuitive grasp and fluent articulation of right reason and natural law. That achievement would make it much easier to debunk inclusiveness as an overriding ideal. Paying lip service to it is clearly a mistake. It makes no sense as an ideal, since any social system demands some things and suppresses others, thereby “demeaning, disparaging, and injuring” those attached to whatever is suppressed. Worse, a movement striving toward inclusiveness demands demonic figures, since it is motivated less by a vision of the good, which it treats as subjective and individual, than a vision of oppression. A steady supply of human targets like George Zimmerman who can be identified with the evils to be overcome is therefore central to its emotional economy.
So inclusiveness isn’t against discrimination and exclusion in general, but only on some dimensions. It wants to eradicate the effect of distinctions related to traditional institutions like family and inherited culture, but has no objection to the distinctions liberal institutions like markets, bureaucracies, and formal expertise find important. It thinks distinguishing a man from a woman is evil, but distinguishing a Yale from a West Point graduate is OK, as long as both institutions have adequate affirmative action programs. Inclusiveness thus represents the imperialism of money, bureaucracy, and formal expertise and training over all other institutions, in particular over those related to family, religion, and particular culture.
A New Kind of One-Party State
From the standpoint of overall social functioning, inclusiveness is therefore best seen as a demand by our present ruling class that its kind of power be made sole and absolute. No family, no religion, no inherited culture, just money, bureaucrats, and therapists. As such, it’s self-defeating if the goal is actual human respect, equity, and well-being, because it destroys the arrangements ordinary people live by in favor of those their rulers can fully control. That is why the age of inclusiveness ushered in by the ‘60s and their aftermath has also been an age of increasing inequality among economic classes, which are defined by their relation to the institutions liberalism considers legitimate. The current situation has made Oprah a billionaire while the average life expectancy of white women without high school diplomas has dropped five years since 1990. Life has even gotten worse for the majority of those supposedly saved from the evils of traditional arrangements. The longstanding decline in poverty rates among black people stopped by the mid-‘70s, around the time affirmative action came into effect, and the success of Barack Obama and Colin Powell has done very little for the 71 percent of black children who are now born to unwed mothers or the one in eight black men in their late twenties who now find themselves in jail.
Finally, inclusiveness destroys liberty and diversity. Every significant institution must accept it and make it an overriding priority. If the institution is one that traditionally transmitted Western culture, like a museum or university, it must turn it against itself. Art must become edgy, curators and critics must interrogate the works they study and show how they are either subversive or wanting. The same applies to the churches: the Faith must be reformulated on inclusivist lines to bring it in line with the new order, and claim to represent the cause of the oppressed while in fact serving the interests of the comfortable and extremely self-satisfied ruling class whose members and hangers-on are the audience for liberal mainline religion.
Against the inclusivist straitjacket we must assert a strong principle of independence for institutions and communities as a necessity for a tolerable degree of peace, freedom, and justice in a diverse world. That means a strong principle of freedom of association and contract, which means cutbacks in antidiscrimination laws. It also means reduction of the scope of government, and an emphasis on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and the American principles of federalism, limited government, private property, and local control. The shared understandings of life and the world needed to support comprehensive government involvement in everyday affairs on the European and recent American model no longer exist. Obamacare and its contraceptives mandate provides an example of how government social programs are now inevitably used as tools for remodeling social relations on the lines demanded by our rulers. Why should the churches, or anyone else concerned with a humane and functional society, support that?
The times seem bad, but our cause is just, while the issues grow ever more clear-cut and those in power more delusional. If we act as we should, the future may be bright. It will not in any case belong to the intellectual descendents of those who drafted and adopted the Windsor decision. Radical failure to understand human life is no recipe for an enduring scheme of government. The churches and others of good will should work so that what replaces it is something better rather than something yet more mindless and brutal.
James Kalb is a lawyer and independent scholar who lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of Against Inclusiveness and The Tyranny of Liberalism, and his essays, reviews, and columns have appeared widely both in the United States and in Europe. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School.
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