Jimmy Seibert, right, of Antioch Community Church in Waco.

Photographer: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Left's Doomed Effort to Coerce the Right

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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That faux controversy over at Buzzfeed has been put to rest. An article this week asked whether Chip and Joanna Gaines -- co-hosts of one of those HGTV renovation shows where you start with a falling down wreck and end up with something that will make all your friends too envious of you to ever accept another dinner invitation -- opposed same-sex marriage. HGTV quieted things down by saying that they would allow a same-sex couple to be featured on the show.

Progressive fans of "Fixer Upper" can resume enjoying the fantasy of better-living-through-shiplap-and-Mason-jars, their consciences untroubled.

Those of us who are worried about the parlous state of our country’s politics may, however, remain worried that this faux scandal could ever have led someone to write an article and some outlet to publish it.

Over the last few years, as controversies have erupted over the rights of cake bakers and pizza places to refuse to cater gay weddings, the rights of nuns to refuse to provide insurance that covers birth control, the rights of Catholic hospitals to refuse to perform abortions, and the rights of Christian schools to teach (and require students and teachers to practice) traditional Christian morality, some Christians have begun to feel that their communities are under existential threat.

The response from the left has (mostly) been that this is so much whining, clinging to a victimhood belied by Christians' social power and majority status. No one, they have been assured, wants to touch their freedom to worship, but when they enter the commercial realm, they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws, whatever their private beliefs.

What happened to the Gaines family makes that feel like a false assurance. Buzzfeed had no evidence that the Gaines family was discriminating. (It is true that they have not featured any gay couples on their show, but they live in Waco, Texas; how many gay couples had applied?) They had not, as Mozilla’s Brendan Eich did, donated to an anti-gay-marriage campaign. The entire substance of the article is: “They attend a church where the pastor espouses something I find reprehensible.” 

What message does this send? “Sure, the government won’t actually shut your church down. But the left will use its positions of institutional power to try to hound anyone who attends that church from public life. You can believe whatever you want -- but if we catch you, or if we even catch you in proximity to people who believe it, we will threaten your livelihood.”

I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals who, despite their reservations about the man, ended up voting for Donald Trump because they fear that the left is out to build a world where it will not be possible to hold any prominent job while holding onto their church’s beliefs about sexuality. Discussions I’ve had in recent days with nice, well-meaning progressives suggest that this is not a paranoid fantasy. An online publisher's witch hunt against two television personalities -- because of the church they attend -- validates the fears of these Christians.

When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of “convert or die,” you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.

There’s a reason that our constitution was written to enshrine substantial religious liberty, an uncommon idea at the time of the Founding Fathers: We had many different groups who thought that their spiritual victory had already been foreordained, and allowing them to seek total annihilation of the errant losing side would end up in the same ugly politico-religious wars that had roiled Europe for centuries.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution had learned from that history that religious beliefs are a primal force, even harder to dislodge by the sword than by the sermon. Eventually both sides of those religious disputes noticed how fragile their victories were, how easily the swordpoint conversions were reversed when the fortunes of war shifted, and how devastating their own subsequent losses often were. They decided that it was better to live uneasily together than to try to stamp out the other side. 

When Elizabeth I famously declared “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” she wasn’t saying she didn’t care about theological error; she was recognizing the reality that England couldn’t stand much more heresy hunting without tearing itself apart. Subsequent generations realized that this applied as much to cultural sanction as to political persecution, and both England and America gradually allowed Catholics, Jews and other groups the majority considered guilty of grievous moral error to nonetheless become full participants in economic, social and political life. They did so because they valued tolerance, of course, but they also did so because the alternative was a cold civil war that it wasn’t entirely clear the Protestant majority was going to win.

With America seemingly dividing into two countries, riven by intractable value differences, this is a lesson that culture warriors on both sides need to relearn. Really, what is the cost to society if two HGTV hosts are allowed to thrive without disavowing their pastor's comments on same-sex marriage? The far greater risk comes from trying to compel them to do so, whether through hard government power or soft private coercion. We can tear windows into the souls of others only at the risk of others tearing holes into us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net