August 26, 2016

Book explores reasons behind actions against religious groups

Reviewed by Sean Gallagher

Cover of It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its EnemiesMuch of the legal action taken in recent years by people and organizations of faith—including but not limited to Catholics and other Christians—to defend their religious liberty has ultimately been based upon the First Amendment’s guarantee that the government shall not prohibit “the free exercise” of religion.

In her new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (Harper, 2016), author Mary Eberstadt contends the challenge to religious freedom in contemporary society is more related to the other clause regarding religion in the First Amendment, which “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Eberstadt argues that a broad array of secularists are effectively working to impose a new “religion” in which dissent is not tolerated:

“Its fundamental faith is that the sexual revolution, that is, the gradual destigmatization of all forms of consenting nonmarital sex, has been a boon to all humanity.”

Throughout her book, Eberstadt shows how adherents to this faith punish those who question it by means ranging from informal social marginalization to formal fines imposed by the government, such as those levied against organizations who refuse on conscience grounds to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive mandate.

Such moves against those who affirm the good of traditional sexual morality has been making headlines for years.

What Eberstadt does in It’s Dangerous to Believe is place these actions in a broader context.

She sees in actions taken by secularists and the government against dissenters from the sexual revolution the kind of hysteria witnessed in the Salem witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts and the Red Scare whipped up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.

An aspect of this is the relatively low threshold of evidence that secularists accept to declare people guilty of dissent from the sexual revolution, and therefore deserving of the punishment they receive.

In the Salem witch trials, so-called “spectral evidence” could convict a person of being a witch. Such evidence included apparitions that only those allegedly afflicted by people accused of witchcraft could see.

Similarly, McCarthy and his supporters often used the slimmest of evidence to label a person a communist or communist sympathizer.

Although secularists style themselves as upholders of reason in contrast to believers who cling to superstition, Eberstadt claims that there is an alarming lack of reason behind today’s campaign to marginalize the questioners of the sexual revolution.

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced out of his leadership position of the major software company in 2014 simply because he had been a relatively minor supporter of California’s Proposition 8, passed by 52 percent of the state’s voters, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Supporters of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act will recall how that law was mischaracterized as discriminatory in the secular media and on social media, despite a more than 20-year track record of similar laws defending religious minorities against government overreach and no cases where they protected unjust discrimination.

Eberstad’s book details actions taken against believers in education, business and in government service.

What is perhaps most troubling, though, is the chapter titled “Inquisitors vs. Good Works.” In it, Eberstadt shows that the defenders of the sexual revolution are so determined to stand up for the “new orthodoxy” that they doggedly work to shutter charitable agencies that have traditional moral beliefs as part of their guiding principles.

It doesn’t matter if such religious groups lead the way in helping to facilitate adoptions or serve elderly poor people. Nor is it relevant that secular alternatives either don’t exist, or cannot come close to serving the same number of people in need with the same quality of service. If the organizations affirm, among other beliefs, that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, then they must move aside.

In seeking a way out of the current hysteria against dissenters from the sexual revolution, Eberstadt again looks to previous witch hunts. The Salem witch trials came to an end when spectral evidence was ruled out. They also began to lose their moral authority when one of the judges, Nathaniel Saltonstall, resigned.

Similarly, the Red Scare led by McCarthy lost its credibility when American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow revealed the unjust actions taken by the senator and when, during one of his committee hearings, Army chief counsel Joseph Welch famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” after the senator had persistently pursued the supposed communist ties to a young lawyer in Welch’s firm.

Eberstadt says people with the courage and reason of Saltonstall, Murrow and Welch need to emerge from today’s secularists in order to bring an end to the witch hunt against supporters of traditional morality.

The fact that punishments of various kinds are being levied against dissenters from the sexual revolution cannot be denied. Eberstadt cites case after case.

And her comparison of today’s actions to the Red Scare and the Salem witch trials has, it seems to me, some validity.

She doesn’t describe, though, among the ways to bring today’s witch hunt to an end any actions that can be taken by upholders of traditional sexual morality. For her, it would appear that the solution is for secularists to wake up to what they’re really doing and to then stop.

Perhaps Christians and other adherents to traditional sexual morality could continue to make the case for the reasonableness of their beliefs, and to show how actions taken against them are unjust.

Regarding the latter point, Eberstadt has done just that with her book.

Many sexual revolution proponents believe they have been and continue to be unjustly discriminated against by their opponents. That may be a reason why they take the strong actions that Ebertadt recounts against dissenters.

Of course, many in Salem at the time of the witch trials felt themselves threatened by supposed witches. Many Americans in the 1950s Red Scare felt vulnerable to alleged communists.

A reasoned response from upholders of traditional sexual morality to this hysteria may fall on deaf ears. If that happens, then those who have made the case will still be witnesses to what is good, true and beautiful.

But a reasoned response may also move the hearts and minds of sexual revolution proponents. Perhaps they will reconsider the views of their opponents, question the validity of today’s witch hunt and even refrain from it.

Hopefully, Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe can do just that.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter who covers religious liberty issues for The Criterion. It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies is available at major bookstores, and

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