The Closing of the Secular Progressive Mind

There are many unfortunate consequences of the culture wars. But one in particular, rarely noticed, is how it has insulated secular progressive academics from the habits of mind, ways of life, and types of reasoning that are integral to the worldview of religious conservatives. Consider just these two examples.

On the matter of the sanctity of human life, secular progressives will sometimes accuse religious conservatives of only caring about the unborn child before he is born, but not afterwards. They often go on to argue that if you do not support abortion rights, then you lack compassion for women in crisis pregnancies. Consequently, if you are not willing have your tax dollars fund abortion, contraceptive services, and child welfare programs for those poor women who do not choose abortion, then you are selfish and greedy.

What secular progressives miss is how their position sounds to religious conservatives. For this is what they hear: a pregnant woman has a greater obligation to pay for her neighbor’s abortion, contraception, and children’s welfare than she has to care for the innocent, defenseless child in her own womb.  For the religious conservative, this sounds like the secular progressive is saying that those closest to us and to whom it seems we have a special responsibility – our own family members, those children we sire and beget – demand less of us morally than people we do not even know.

This sounds so strange to religious conservatives that they find it difficult to believe that otherwise intelligent people, who claim to be the champions of empathy, sympathy, compassion, and community, are actually suggesting that charity does not begin at home.

I am, of course, not suggesting that religious conservatives believe that we do not have obligations to those outside our family circle. For to suggest such a thing would be inconsistent with what virtually all religious conservatives believe their faith teaches about the wideness of the human community and the common good.

Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization on Earth, having had nearly two millennia of experience in creating and sustaining a wide array of institutions in areas as diverse as education, health care, and poverty relief.

What I am saying – and what religious conservatives actually believe – is that without charity first being nurtured in home and hearth, it becomes more difficult for our nation to understand what it means to love the desperate stranger, the lonely neighbor, or the homeless immigrant.

Similarly: On the issue of marriage, secular progressives often depict the view of religious conservatives as arising purely from animus against gay and lesbian citizens. In fact, this depiction has been so successfully advanced in the culture that even the deeply literate Justice Anthony Kennedy has made it the one dogma of his sexual orientation jurisprudence that cannot in principle be disproven.

But for religious conservatives, the distance between this depiction and how they really think of marriage is so great that they do not recognize themselves in it. Yet because the portrayal is so deeply ingrained in the wider culture, any rebuttal of the depiction sounds to the secular progressive as a desperate rewriting of reality in order to rescue a floundering political cause. Nevertheless, let’s give it a try.

For religious conservatives, marriage is a unique institution in which two members of the two halves of the human race – male and female – are united so that they may forge a permanent bond for the primary (though not exclusive) purpose of begetting and raising children.

This bond is more than the sum total of its parts, since the permanent uniting of male and female in matrimony provides to the partners’ progeny as well as the wider community a protected and honored place in which the different needs, desires, and complementary powers of each partner may flourish for the common good. That is, marriage is truly a merging – a wedding, if you will – of the only sorts of humans nature knows, male and female.

Behind the religious conservative’s understanding of marriage is a particular philosophical anthropology that maintains gender complementarity as essential to matrimony. Consequently, on this view, sexual orientation is irrelevant to marriage. That is, gender is the only concrete and objective difference between human beings that bears on the nature of marriage.

For that reason, as long as a marriage is consummated and it includes only one man and one woman, the sexual orientation of the partners is of no relevance to its licitness. This is based on the belief that marriage is a special sort of community in which the discord of the fundamental difference of gender may be truly unified for the common good, the good of its participants, and the children born of that union.

For advocates of this view, what grounds the nature of marriage is similar to, and in some cases overlaps, what grounds a variety of other moral beliefs that ordinary people (and some philosophers) associate with the proper ends of human nature, such as the belief that human beings have intrinsic dignity, are not by nature property, ought not to kill each other without justification, and should eschew ignorance and seek knowledge and wisdom.

Clearly, this philosophical anthropology is essentialist and teleological, which means that it is out of step with the dominant understandings of the philosophy of nature in the academy. Nevertheless, it is an integral aspect of many reasonable worldviews, including the world’s major religions as well as several philosophical schools of thought.

In the largely insular world of the secular academy, there is virtually no attempt to try to understand the beliefs of religious conservatives on their own terms. Although that certainly harms religious conservatives, it harms secular progressives and their students even more. For it denies them the sort of full-orbed appreciation of differences that secular universities incessantly preach, but rarely practice.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).