Damon Linker has written some truly baffling things about religion and politics, but his latest column in The Week really leaves me shaking my head. He actually argues, entirely seriously, that the current push for gay rights is the result of — wait for it — Christianity.
But things aren’t quite so simple. Just flip through the opening pages of everyone’s favorite work of secular prophesy — Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–1840) — and you’ll find a provocative alternative interpretation of Christianity’s indispensable role in the creation of the revolutionary ideal of human equality. The stunningly rapid rise of support for gay marriage over the past two decades is just the latest in a very long line of victories for that consummately Christian ideal — and it’s unlikely to be the last.
Tocqueville begins the introduction to his two-volume study of American democracy by noting that “a great democratic revolution is taking place among us.” The 700-page book is his attempt to make sense of this revolution, which was transforming life across the European continent during his lifetime, but which was already far more advanced in the United States by the time of his famous visit in 1831.
For Tocqueville, the march of equality was upending age-old institutions and moral habits “in all the Christian world.” It was a “providential fact,” by which he meant that there was nothing anybody could do to stop it.
The ultimate source of the democratic revolution — the motor behind its inexorable unfolding — is the figure of Jesus Christ, who taught the equal dignity of all persons, and declared in the Sermon on the Mount that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and that the meek shall inherit the earth.These are among the most subversive teachings ever uttered — and according to Tocqueville, Western civilization has been working out their logic for the better part of two millennia, as political communities have applied Christ’s egalitarian teachings in stricter and stricter terms.
*headdesk* First of all, the notion that egalitarianism is the “consummately Christian ideal” is profoundly a-historical. Does he really think that no other religious tradition has thought of the idea of equality? You can certainly find the same thing in the other great religions, though this ideal is usually ignored in favor of hierarchy, division and authoritarianism.
Secondly, every single fight for equality in this nation’s history has been fought almost exclusively against the institutional Christian church. It was from the traditional churches that nearly all of the opposition came to separation of church and state, ending slavery, giving women the right to vote, ending segregation and legal discrimination, and the current fight for gay rights. Jesus’ pretty words have done nothing to prevent the weight of the institutional church that claims to follow him from fighting against equality at every single turn.