Maritain: Christianity, Democracy, and Free Speech

Last week I talked about a guy who wrote an introduction to Jacques Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy. This guy argued that you can’t have democracy without Christianity, and the gays are trying to exclude Christianity from the public sphere and they’re ruining democracy in the process. Having now actually read Christianity and Democracy, there’s a bit of contextualising that I’m able to offer back into that weird introduction.

Anecdotally, one of the things I’ve noticed about conservative Christian writers is that they all seem to be obsessed with Nazis and communists. There’s this underlying conviction that the gay rights movement is some massive totalitarian conspiracy – that gays are secret Hitlers and only the brave conservative Christians can stand up for human freedom of spirit. I’ve been writing about this topic for a while now, in different forms and instances, and I wanted to take a moment to explore why this book on Christianity and democracy, written in 1943, is prefaced with such a strong ‘GAYS ARE SECRET HITLERS’ introduction.

Jacques Maritain, who wrote Christianity and Democracy, was a French Catholic theologian who fucked off to America when the Nazis turned up in France. C&D was published in America in 1943, near the end of the war, and Maritain was starting to look ahead, starting to consider what the future of democracy was going to look like. Obviously it had gone wrong somewhere if it had developed into Nazism in Germany, and so maybe the process needed a little refining. So Chapter 2 is called ‘The Tragedy of the Democracies’, and it explains where he thinks things went wrong – it’s that sort of book. One of his claims here is that “the principle reason” for the failure of democracy is that democracy “springs in its essentials from the inspiration of the Gospel and cannot subsist without it.” That’s matching up with Dennehy from last week – and really you can take it or leave it, I don’t care. What’s really interesting to me is how the language of democracy and fascism is deployed.

Maritain defines the true essence of democracy in Chapter 5, ‘The True Essence of Democracy’. He sees it as sitting in opposition to “the slave philosophy”; it is characterised by the “inalienable rights of the person, equality, political rights of the people whose consent is implied by any political regime… and an ideal not of war, prestige or power, but of the amelioration and emancipation of human life – the ideal of fraternity.” One of the key ideas for anti-gay conservative Christians is that the gay rights movement is about disenfranchising the wider population. It is considered totalitarian precisely because it denies one or several of these principles. Let’s take a closer look at some expressions of this idea and see what we find.

Last week I cited this article as my favourite textbook example of ‘the gays are coming for our rights’. It seems like a good place to start, although I’m kinda having second thoughts about continually directing traffic towards this website. Ah, whatever. So the National Trust in the UK had a campaign called ‘Prejudice & Pride’ where they explored queer history during the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation. They asked volunteers to wear rainbow lanyards, some volunteers protested, and the Trust told them they wouldn’t be put in visitor-facing roles. This, according to our article writer (who tbh is a bit of a cunt), is an instance of the totalitarian impulse. People are being denied their right to volunteer in a visitor-facing position for a charitable trust campaign centered around gay history without wearing paraphernalia that celebrates the subject of the campaign, and it’s fucking fascist.

So obviously this is stupid. Maybe there’s something more to the story, but in the way it’s presented, it’s stupid. Totalitarianism is about a style of government, about a legal structure. In this instance, nobody was having their rights violated. There was a job for a charity, and the charity has rules about public-facing presentation, and if you don’t want to obey those rules, you can fuck off. Plenty of Christian charities have much more onerous codes of conduct, and conservatives aren’t crying foul about that shit. Back in 2014, the American branch of World Vision announced that they’d stop banning gay employees. Think about that for a second – if you were gay, you were not even allowed to work for these people. How is that any different to the National Trust situation? Either both are fascist, or neither are fascist and conservatives should shut the fuck up. Here’s the best part of the article – it’s the height of accidental self-parody.

“That those who did not wish to wear a symbol of the LGBT movement were deemed unsuitable to be seen by members of the public was as perverse as it would be to ban gay people from ‘visitor-facing’ positions.”

This sentence is self-incriminating. It basically says, ‘If we did that to you, you’d be outraged, because it’s a bad thing to do, so therefore you should stop’. It’s an implicit condemnation of those Christian businesses that refuse to serve gay couples, or hire gay staff. If it’s perverse to ban anti-gay people from volunteering (volunteering for fuck’s sake!) to serve visitors during a gay history campaign, then the writer is also saying that Christian charities need to stop discriminating against gay people. But if the Christians can do it, so can the National Trust. Oh – incidentally, World Vision reversed the decision two days later under mass pressure from evangelicals, so gay people still aren’t allowed to work there. Is that perverse? Ask the National Trust.

So there’s a very clear difference between the rules in a private company and the rules set forth by the state. Fascism and totalitarianism are types of government. This is one of the major confusions that I’ve seen from conservative Christian writers: someone gets criticised for their anti-gay views, and the criticism is turned into evidence of totalitarianism. The conversation is usually framed in terms of rights – ‘doesn’t he have a right to free speech? can’t he say that gay people are immoral?’ There’s a very basic confusion here about what a legal right is. Legally, free speech means that the government can’t lock you up for saying things they don’t like. It’s a buffer against the totalitarian state; you’ll notice that free speech is often described as a cornerstone of democracy. Free speech does not mean that people are obliged to listen to you. It does not mean that people are obliged to like you. It does not mean that people are obliged to let you finish or give you a platform or treat your views with respect and thoughtfulness. These are not legal rights that you possess. Free speech is not the legal right to immunity from criticism from other members of the public. Free speech is the right to not get sent to jail for your views. It’s about your relationship with the state. It’s not about your relationship with your employer or your friend or your neighbour or people on the internet. You do not have the legal right to be taken seriously.

In short, this is the problem I have with the language of totalitarianism as deployed by conservative Christians. It’s too often taken out of the context of political organisation and thrust into the realm of Facebook arguments or media representation or some other realm where it doesn’t belong. I realise that I’ve gone way off topic – I was intending to write about the nature of democracy vis a vis the legal status of gay marriage. We’ll start with this though, and next week we’ll get back to the queer community, who are still definitely not secret Hitlers.

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