Down the Rabbit Hole (pt.2): of saints and sophistry

Down the Rabbit Hole (pt.2): of saints and sophistry July 27, 2016

This week, I continue down the rabbit hole of conservative religious thought with chapter one from Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe. I planned to write about both chapters one and two, but there was a lot to unpack in chapter one, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll write on chapter two next week. If you missed part one, covering the introduction, you can read it here.

The first chapter of It’s Dangerous to Believe promises, based on its title, The roots of the New Intolerance, to be a brief history describing the roots of intolerance towards Christians. Eberstadt places the root of the problem with the beginning of the Enlightenment, decrying Enlightenment area thinkers like Voltaire and Thomas Hobbes. She notes that there has been a general trend towards the creation of a more secular society, writing on page 3 that “the preferences of the faithful have been consistently countermanded in a series of pubic arenas with adverse court decisions and other legally binding changes involving school prayer, contraception, abortion, pornography, marriage, and related subjects long addressed by religious teachings.”

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In a sense, Eberstadt is correct. The ability of religions to dictate moral standards using the force of government has been and is being curtailed. In fact, I wrote recently on this blog about how the United States went from a nation that used the force of government to protect religious majorities to a nation that used the force of government to protect religious minorities.

Eberstadt quite rightly sees that the culture is changing and that it is a matter of personal opinion if this is a good thing or a bad thing. To her credit, she does acknowledge that “secularist anxieties about American Christians were not wholly unmoored from reality.” However, her claim is that there is no longer any reason to be fearful of the Christian right because it no longer has the power to shape the culture or the law – it has become a minority as impotent as American Jews in the early 19th century. Of course, that isn’t grounded in reality whatsoever. A simple look at state legislation in places like Texas or Missouri will reveal that on a state level, Christian conservatism still very much has the power to influence legislation, particularly when it comes to abortion rights. However, in general, I believe Eberstadt is more-or-less correct that Christian Conservatives are dying breed. I would disagree that this is a bad thing.

The real issue with Eberstadt’s work isn’t the expected tropes regarding so-called Christian persecution, but rather her tendency to mislead her readers when giving examples of said persecution. Two examples of this jumped out at me immediately.

On page 14, Eberstadt writes:

“There is no moral high ground in putting butchers and bakers and candlestick makers in the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religion; or in stalking and threatening Christian pastors for being Christian pastors; or in denigrating social science that doesn’t fit preconceived ideology about the family; or in telling a flight attendant she can’t wear a crucifix; or in firing a teacher for giving a student a bible…” [emphasis mine]

I decided to check the veracity of the statements I’ve italicized above. You’ll probably not be shocked to learn that both are misleading.

In the first case, Eberstadt is citing the case of a British Airways employee who was sent home from work at Heathrow airport in February of 2007 for wearing a cross necklace. On the surface, Eberstadt’s claim appear correct: the woman was targeted for wearing Christian symbols. However, if you actually look up the news article cited by Eberstadt herself, you will discover, like I did, that the claim is total bullshit.

The woman in question, Nadia Eweida, was not sent home for wearing a Christian cross, but for violating the company’s uniform policy, which prohibited the wearing of visible jewelry and, according to the Daily Mail article, “made no distinction between those worn as a manifestation of belief or for cosmetic reasons.” Eweida lost an appeal in court against the company because the court ruled that the rule did not put her at a “particular disadvantage” and that “there was no evidence that Christians considered it a requirement to wear a cross visibly.”

There are several things to note here. Firstly, the uniform rule is itself not discriminatory because it applies to every employee equally. There is no ban on only Christian jewelry. Secondly, there was no ban on the cross necklace or any necklace for that matter. The prohibition was against visible jewelry, which means Eweida could still have worn the necklace so long as it wasn’t visible to the public.

Once the facts of the case come to light, Eberstadt, who must have been aware of the nuances since she cited the same article I’m citing, is revealed to be nothing more than a petty sophist at best and an opportunistic liar at worst.

This is a trend that continues with the second citation I looked up: that a woman was fired for giving a student a bible.

Again, at first glance this is true. A teacher in New Jersey was fired after giving a student a bible. However, that isn’t the whole story. I looked up Eberstadt’s citation, which you can read here, and it revealed that the teacher’s termination was overturned by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The teacher, Walt Tutka, simply told a student that he could have his bible after the student told Mr. Tutka that he didn’t have one but wanted one.

Whatever you think about the appropriateness of Tutka’s actions, the point here is that the court system and government agencies that Mrs. Eberstadt accuses of persecution actually ruled in favor of the Christian teacher and got him his job back. To be fair, Eberstadt does mention this in the notes of her book – but why not mention it in an already long-winded paragraph?

The answer is because Eberstadt’s entire purpose is to fill a persecution narrative for her readers – the facts be damned. That may not come as any surprise to people used to dealing with Christian Conservatives with a proclivity for being persecuted, but it does call into question Eberstadt’s credibility as an author, journalist, and educator.

Her Amazon bio states she is, “A frequent contributor to magazines and journals including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and First Things, Mrs. Eberstadt (nee Tedeschi) has also served as an editor at The Public Interest, The National Interest, and Policy Review. She has been associated with various think tanks, including most recently the Hoover Institution and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In 2011, she founded a literary organization called the Kirkpatrick Society that has mentored hundreds of writers.”

The irony of her being associated with an ethics center aside, I feel sorry for any writing students who have studied the art of the half-truth under Mrs. Eberstadt.

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