There are a number of ways to escape “the news of the day.” Suicide, of course; substance abuse (mostly booze), studied ignorance…I can’t be the only person who needs some respite from the daily reports of Trump damage, environmental despoliation, insane conspiracy theories and the like.
Recently, I’ve been escaping into fiction. Mostly science fiction and mysteries–guilty pleasures that are finally available to an almost-retired person. I’ve particularly enjoyed a series written by a Canadian writer, Louise Penny, who follows an Inspector Gamache through sixteen books. I was reading book number 8, when I came across an observation that explained not just crime, but political behavior. The Inspector was explaining motivation–and attributing much of it to fear.
Especially, he said, fear of loss.
Could there be a more apt description of the political insanity we inhabit? During the past four or five years, the word “grievance” has become an indelible part of our political discourse. It applies almost always to people who believe they are at the cusp of loss–loss of the world in which their particular identity dominates others. As I have often noted, research has established that “racial grievance” is the most reliable marker of Trump support.
Other research has found that certain Christians exhibit an almost hysterical fear that their “religious liberty”–defined by them as their right to prescribe the behavior of others– is slipping away. Linda Greenhouse, one of the most thoughtful observers of the Supreme Court, focused on that fear in a recent New York Times column. She wondered whether Amy Coney Barrett would join the “grievance conservatives.”
Greenhouse began by discussing the recent 5/4 decision exempting religious gatherings from COVID restrictions, and noting that it was likely to be moot, since the restrictions had already been modified.
The real significance of the decision lay in the which-side-are-you-on test it posed for the newest justice. I don’t mean the conservative side versus the liberal side. Obviously, she’s a conservative. What matters is that a month into her tenure, she chose to align herself with what I call grievance conservatism: conservatism with a chip on its shoulder, fueled by a belief that even when it’s winning, it’s losing, and losing unfairly.
The embodiment of grievance conservatism is Justice Alito, who in a speech last month to his fellow members of the Federalist Society said that “it pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
Greenhouse pointed out how ironic this was:
Justice Alito is a member of a Supreme Court majority that during his nearly 15-year tenure has been more deferential to the demands of religious believers than any Supreme Court in modern history. Just this past summer, the court ruled that a state that offers a subsidy for private-school tuition must include parochial schools in the program; that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry; and that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plans.
As Greenhouse also reported, Alito and Thomas wrote “sympathetically in early October about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused for religious reasons to issue marriage licenses to same- sex couples.”
Since the two justices were neither voting to grant the appeal nor dissenting from its denial, their opinion was entirely gratuitous. They simply used the case as a platform to reiterate warnings about the threat to religion from official recognition of same-sex marriage.
Greenhouse is absolutely correct when she observes that what religious adherents want is not equal treatment. Equality is no longer sufficient. “Special treatment is the demand.”
There is also irony to this (quite correct) “special treatment” characterization. Back in the early days of the gay civil rights movement, religious figures hysterically objected to any grant of civic equality to members of the LGBTQ community, asserting that laws against discrimination weren’t equal rights, but “special” rights.
What these frantic warriors for “religious liberty” really fear is loss of their unearned privilege. And as Inspector Gamache understood, fear of loss can make people do criminal things.