The burkha-logic of NOM

The burkha-logic of NOM April 23, 2009

In his New York Times column, Frank Rich calls that NOM ad (see the previous post) a “camp classic,” which it is, and sees it as “the bigots’ last hurrah,” which I’m afraid it isn’t.

The ad alludes to several cases of Christian chauvinists “suffering for their faith” because they ran afoul of anti-discrimination laws. None of those cases has anything at all to do with same-sex marriage, mind you, and none of them is really explained in the ad. Big thanks to konrad for supplying the link to this remarkably patient and sensible video, which explains not just the particulars of each of these cases, but also the strategy of turning each of them into an urban legend. (I liked that video so much that I’ve added the Waking Up blog to the too-long list there to the right. Do check it out.)

There are a host of other things we could discuss about that fascinatingly awful ad. The difficulty of casting, for example. Or the question of whether its “gathering storm” motif is intended as a Nazi reference (maybe, but allusions to Churchill might be a stretch for these folks).

What I find most striking in this ad, though, is how explicitly it demonstrates the phenomenon of what we’ve referred to here as the persecuted hegemon.

It’s not unusual to encounter American evangelicals who simultaneously hold two contradictory beliefs about their faith and its relationship to the larger American culture. These beliefs are opposite and incompatible, yet both are, equally, essential to these evangelicals’ sense of identity. They are beliefs not just about the larger culture, but about who they consider themselves to be.

Belief A: America is a Christian nation, the majority of which is composed of godly, Christian people. Christians therefore ought to be allowed to express this majority faith both officially and unofficially — with Christian prayers in public schools, Ten Commandments (Protestant formulation) placards on courthouse walls, and pervasively sectarian Christmas greetings on the lips of every store clerk — and religious minorities will just have to deal with the fact that they’re outnumbered.

Belief Not-A: Christians are a persecuted minority, the righteous remnant in the Sodom and Gomorrah of 21st-century America, a nation so sinful and decadent that it deserved the attacks of 9/11 and the devastation of Katrina (God has bad aim). Public expressions of faith by Christians are always retaliated against, yet brave Christians demonstrate their courage in the face of adversity by continuing to thank their creator at awards shows and sporting events, to invoke his blessings at election rallies, and even to take the radically counter-cultural step of sending greeting cards on Christian holidays.

Skim through the literature or the Web sites of religious right groups such as, for example, the Family Research Council, and you’ll see them switching back and forth between assertions about Belief A and Belief Not-A, sometimes in the same paragraph. It’s kind of like watching Faye Dunaway at the end of Chinatown — “My sister! My daughter! My sister! My daughter!

Yet while these folks may be two-faced, in a way, they’re not duplicitous — they really, sincerely believe both things. They believe that their sect has — and ought to have — hegemony in their culture. And they believe that they are “persecuted.”

The scare quotes there are necessary, since this use of the term persecution wouldn’t be recognizable to first-century Christians, or to 17th-century Anabaptists, or contemporary Chinese Christians or Falun Gong adherents or Tibetan Buddhists. But set that aside.

I suspect that American evangelicals’ persecution complex is an inevitable side effect of sectarian hegemony. Once you believe that your faith requires cultural dominance, and that it deserves it, then any threat to that dominance — even just the unwelcome reminder of the existence of alternative points of view — is perceived as a threat, as a kind of persecution. Thus, for example, Hannukah is perceived as a threat to, and an attack on, Christmas.

The persecuted hegemon is thus an oxymoronic creature driven by an oxymoronic principle: non-reciprocal justice. For these folks, turnabout is never fair play, turnabout is merely backwards. Thus when others respond to them in kind, or even simply remind them of the Golden Rule, they take offense, as though this constitutes an injustice toward them.

We’ve seen how this plays out on the national scene two, three times a month. Some pious dignitary remarks that homosexuality is just like pedophilia or bestiality — a statement regarded within the hegemony of the sect as wholly innocent and inoffensive. Someone outside the sect will reply, accurately, that this is an offensive lie, a vicious slander. That response will be perceived, within the sect, as “religious persecution.” The response — any response other than “thank you, sir, may I have another?” — implicitly rejects the legitimacy of the hegemony and rebels against the privilege enjoyed by the sect. (A big part of that privilege, it turns out, is the expectation that one can say offensive things without others taking or expressing offense. This has become far more important as a hallmark of American evangelicalism than, say, Sabbath-keeping.)

This points to the key confusion of the persecuted hegemons. They are unable to distinguish between challenges to their hegemony — to their privilege — and threats to their faith itself. This is a spiritually perilous confusion, particularly so for Christians who claim to follow a crucified outcast.

The word I’m stretching for here, Stanley Hauerwas would say, is “constantinianism” — the inversion and perversion of Christianity that occurred when a religion of slaves and women and the poor became a religion of emperors and empires. Constantinian faith requires and assumes the establishment of an official, privileged religion. It comes to believe, in the language of the First Amendment, that its own free exercise depends on such an establishment — that its free exercise is incompatible with the free exercise of any other religion (or of no religion at all).

We’ve illustrated this before with the religious practice of wearing burkhas — or, more accurately, the religious practice of requiring the women one controls to wear burkhas. That practice is intrinsically hegemonic, intrinsically constantinian. It cannot be left as a matter of individual freedom or conscience. It’s not sufficient for those who believe in that practice for only the women of their household or congregation or sect to be clad in burkhas. That still leaves open the possibility that one might be exposed to the immodest displays of the wrists and ankles of other women in the market or the public square. The logic of the burkha requires that all women — every woman that every man might see — is fully sheathed so as not to assault the eyes of the faithful.

We see this same burkha-logic at work in that “gathering storm” ad produced by the National Organization for [Our Kind and Only Our Kind of] Marriage.

“Some who advocate for same-sex marriage,” the intern says, “have taken the issue far beyond same-sex couples.”

“They want to bring the issue into my life,” says the closeted actor (subversively playing up a bit of a lisp) who can’t believe he’s doing this for a paycheck.

“My freedom will be taken away,” emotes the young woman.

The script for this ad purportedly has no grievance with others living however they want to live — but only insofar as their freedom doesn’t impinge upon our right to live in a world where we never have to see them, or to acknowledge their existence. That “takes away” our freedom to live as privileged hegemons. And since we can no longer distinguish between our faith itself and the privileged status of that faith, we perceive this as religious persecution — as an injustice against us.

Your freedom threatens my freedom to live in a world in which people like you are not free to do the sorts of things you might do with your freedom. “And I am afraid.”

That’s burkha-logic in a nutshell.

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