In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher wonders whether conservatives and traditionalists on matters of gender will end up as strangers excluded from the marketplace and society. I wonder whether they will not also end up as strangers to their own coreligionists, at least the ones disinclined to enter the trenches with them.
Rowan Williams’s review of Dreher’s book is a case in point. Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, ought to be no stranger to those who believe that same-sex marriage and transgenderism amount to sinful deviance from God’s design based upon the teachings of the very religion that he belongs to and speaks for. But instead he treats them as strangers–prodding them with a very long pole of adjectives and qualifiers as “those who hold certain convictions on (predominantly) gender- and sexuality-related questions” and goes on to describe Dreher’s attitude toward his political and cultural enemies as “unsettling.”
This is an uncharitable tone to strike. We may comfortably imbibe the latest from the campus Left and the social justice warriors on how the sinister, cisgendered Illuminati of Patriarchal Privilege invented and imposed the lie that boys and girls are different and are supposed to marry each other, but the phrase “the LGBT agenda” is “unsettling.” This is the literary version of the conservative’s dilemma in public speech: one can be what is out of fashion–a conservative or a traditionalist, or a Catholic, or an evangelical, or a complementarian or whatever–but one cannot say what is out of fashion. One can inherit convictions, but not choose them, or talk about why one is convinced by them, much less write or teach in order to convince others, at least not without some usually soft reprisals. At just the places where Dreher’s traditional beliefs rub most uncomfortably against ascendant progressive morals, just the places when some empathy and understanding from a fellow Christian is most needed, Williams recoils.
This sort of disingenuous wordplay isn’t unique to Williams–who supposes himself a moderate on these matters–it’s just a good example of a broader attitude toward conservatives that pretends to charity and an even-minded tolerance but cannot stomach going through with it. Williams suggests that the upside of the book is that it challenges a predominantly liberal order to learn to allow religious conservatives to “dissent.” Well, The Benedict Option is such a dissent; it proceeds from an attitude of dissent and an intention to show conservative Christians about how best to dissent. But for Williams and other falsely moderate critics, the substance of that dissent is “worrying” and “unsettling.” Whatever Williams concedes may be admirable on the one hand is negated by all sorts of worrying, unsettling things on the other. This is how it has been for those of us who have not been swept away by the gender revolution. Those who would style themselves as moderates may condescend to allow religious conservatives the honor of tending the flame of some romantic thing called “dissent,” but one finds in their startled tone that they have no stomach for anyone actually dissenting from the order of progressive sexual ethics.
If “the salient political challenge is whether the liberal consensus can live with a diversity of cultures and their convictions” then the salient critical challenge is whether moderates like Williams can allow those convictions to be expressed plainly and vociferously without tagging them with cheap labels like “worrying” and “unsettling.” God forbid any of them “sound a note of angry anxiety and contempt”–even though meanwhile in the social justice camp, anger, anxiety, and contempt are all laudable passions with which to #resist the forces of oppression.
My bet is that moderates like Williams are capable of tolerating dissenting words from conservatives, just not when they hear them, and certainly not when appear on the NYT Bestseller list. That would be too unsettling.