Beckwith: They Don’t Understand Religious Conservatives

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/28/2014

Unfortunately, I think Frank Beckwith is right about this:

There are many unfortunate consequences of the culture wars. But one in particular, rarely noticed, is how it has insulated secular progressive academics from the habits of mind, ways of life, and types of reasoning that are integral to the worldview of religious conservatives. Consider just these two examples.

On the matter of the sanctity of human life, secular progressives will sometimes accuse religious conservatives of only caring about the unborn child before he is born, but not afterwards....

On the issue of marriage, secular progressives often depict the view of religious conservatives as arising purely from animus against gay and lesbian citizens. In fact, this depiction has been so successfully advanced in the culture that even the deeply literate Justice Anthony Kennedy has made it the one dogma of his sexual orientation jurisprudence that cannot in principle be disproven.

But for religious conservatives, the distance between this depiction and how they really think of marriage is so great that they do not recognize themselves in it. Yet because the portrayal is so deeply ingrained in the wider culture, any rebuttal of the depiction sounds to the secular progressive as a desperate rewriting of reality in order to rescue a floundering political cause....

In the largely insular world of the secular academy, there is virtually no attempt to try to understand the beliefs of religious conservatives on their own terms. Although that certainly harms religious conservatives, it harms secular progressives and their students even more. For it denies them the sort of full-orbed appreciation of differences that secular universities incessantly preach, but rarely practice.

This is a real problem, and it’s one I’m not sure how to get around, because no amount of reasoned arguments can trump a suspicion of bad motives once it’s firmly implanted. If it’s assumed our arguments aren’t being made in good faith, why should anyone take the time to try to understand what they consider to be illegitimate rationalizations?

Just last week, after a brief back-and-forth between us, one commenter on this blog thought he was getting down to the real issue when he said in response to a post arguing for man/woman marriage, “Please ask yourself: what is the source of the bitterness or fear or personal discomfort that leads you to oppose an expansion of the concept of family? Is it all really just based on a half-dozen or so phrases from religious texts from thousands of years ago?” His characterization of the situation revealed not only that he didn’t understand the arguments I was making, but also that it didn’t occur to him we’re convinced our arguments are true. It’s only because we think the health of our society depends on an accurate understanding of what marriage is that we’re arguing against same-sex marriage; but because he hasn’t worked to see things from our perspective, the only thing that makes sense to him is that we’re reacting out of bitterness and fear.

Whenever something like this happens, I’m amazed that people are more willing to believe that half the country is made up of hateful bigots than to consider that either they’ve missed the arguments sincerely being made or they’ve failed to take them at face value.*

(It’s worth reading the rest of Beckwith’s article to hear his brief description of the conservative religious view on both marriage and abortion.)


*I can already hear the inevitable comparison of our arguments with those promoting slavery. Weren’t those arguments made out of bigotry? And weren’t they made by half the country? Yes, but the inability to see the difference between our arguments and theirs illustrates the very problem I’m explaining. Those arguing for slavery cited the ontological inferiority of black people as a premise in their arguments. But none of our arguments contains the premise that homosexual people are less deserving of rights than heterosexual people. The arguments aren’t about a lower status of human dignity for homosexuals, they’re about the objective and relevant differences between men and women. And yet, despite the fact that it plays no part in our arguments, bigotry against homosexuals is consistently read into them, and the real premises ignored. The fact that people can’t see this major difference between these two lines of argumentation merely proves they don’t understand the actual arguments well enough to do so.