“You could have said that yesterday,” a friend wrote on social media, slapping down someone who was inveighing against the alleged racism of an accomplished sports figure who had died a few hours earlier. “You could have said it tomorrow.”
Out of respect, we honor the dictum “Speak no ill of the dead” — for a day. Mourning, we might extend the period to months, or even years, but to maintain that attitude in perpetuity would mean that we suspended forever our judgment of precedents: We could never criticize any action if it was taken by someone who, being human, went on to die.
Pamela Geller and the participants who were targeted by gunmen at the “Draw Muhammad” event she organized outside Dallas earlier this month are still very much living, thank God. In discussing the aborted atrocity, some of her defenders have insisted, however, that she merited the “Nil nisi bonum” treatment all the same. They felt that it was inappropriate to find fault with either the content or the style of her message or to say anything about it at all except that she had the right to deliver it.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”: So a biographer of Voltaire summed up the philosophe’s generous concept of free speech. Rhetorically, everything depends on the order of the clauses that turn on that coordinating conjunction “but”: The clause that follows it has the force of finality. To spin an argument that ends on “but that’s the law” or “but that’s her right” (you might recognize the pattern from abortion-rights talk) is to imply, “Our work is done here.”
Those who engage in what Bret Stephens sarcastically calls “the higher criticism” flip the order: They will defend Geller’s right to offend Muslims, but they are mainly interested in explaining why they think she was wrong to do so, or to do so as she did. In the current issue of National Review magazine, Charlie Cooke argues against the very idea of a “but” and two separate clauses, never mind their order: Geller had a right to do what she did, period. Say more and you’re temporizing on the principle that people should not be shot at for speaking their mind.
I’ll speak mine — the story has passed from the news cycle, after all, and the period for observing the equivalent of funeral etiquette seems to have elapsed. I disapprove of what Geller did in Garland, Texas, though I like much about her larger mission. She aims to galvanize opposition to Islamists who try to pressure us, Americans and other Westerners, to treat Islam with greater delicacy and deference than we accord to Judaism, Christianity, or secularism.
Of those three systems for organizing public life, secularism is what Geller expects Muslims to conform to: “I think a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim.” The implication is that a moderate Jew is a secular Jew, and that a moderate Christian is a secular Christian. This is where my sympathy with Geller’s outlook begins to taper. Exactly what she means by “secular,” I’m not sure, although her apparent enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and her reported support for abortion rights and gay marriage give me an idea of where she’s coming from.
With her cartoon contest, Geller asserted the secular value of free speech over the values of Islamic fundamentalism. Most traditional, devout Jews and Christians can still sign on to that much. In effect, though, the contest was also an insinuation of the message that, where secular values and those of organized religion conflict, the latter must yield.
That aspect of her project spells trouble for any adherent of any religion (other than secularism — yes, see below). I’ll speak here only for mine, Christianity.
It’s caught in a clash of civilizations that involves political Islam on one side and secularism on the other. For Christianity worldwide, the greater threat is obviously from political Islam. For Western Christians, however, the more immediate menace is posed by secularism, which is ambitious to regulate and, in the process, curtail religious freedom. Here I nod to Yuval Levin, who notes the attempt to establish progressive liberalism as in effect a competing religion — a state religion under which to act on traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sexual complementarity, for example, would amount to heresy punishable under civil law.
Conservative Christians who cheer Geller’s cartoon contest fail to consider how the logic behind it applies to their faith, too. Geller herself does not make the application, but others do, as on the matter of eucharistic desecration, for example. Andres Serrano established that desecration of the crucifix, a sacramental, is protected speech. Presumably so is desecration of the full-fledged sacrament — “the Blessed Sacrament,” Catholics call it — that is the Eucharist.
In practice, our freedom from religious persecution in the United States depends ultimately not on any neatly formulated abstraction, as no two people agree on an exact definition of “religion.” It depends rather on the fragile understanding that to press certain sensitive questions — e.g., “If we have the right to burn the American flag, why not to stomp on a Communion wafer consecrated by a Catholic priest?” — is . . . what’s the word? Inappropriate.
That understanding is breaking down, as conventional organized religion declines and secular ideologues are feeling their oats. Geller has affirmed, and many conservatives have joined her in affirming, our right to commit, for any reason or for no reason, what in the eyes of some Muslims is not merely an offense but a sacrilege. Well, consistency demands that Christians receive equal treatment. Expect it to be dished out with increasing severity by a secularism intent on demonstrating both its impartiality and who’s boss.
The magnanimous secularist will promise to refrain from trampling the Eucharist as long as he trusts that no Christians would shoot, stab, or bomb him in retaliation; of course, he will be the judge of their trustworthiness, thank you. Moreover, if each party vows not to make a bloody martyr of the other, it still remains permitted for the secularist to do what, in the eyes of the devout traditional Christian, is worse: Note that among the saints venerated by the Catholic Church are eucharistic martyrs, who preferred to die rather than surrender the Blessed Sacrament to those who would violate it.
Most secularists would probably dread the thought of going down that road, but the logic of the gesture Geller made opens it up.
You think the scenario I described above is strained: “We will maul the Eucharist, for the sole purpose of teaching Christians that freedom of expression is more sacrosanct, because we have drawn pictures of the prophet for the purpose of teaching Muslims the same lesson” — you think the line of continuity drawn there is far-fetched. “People are not that logical!” as the philosopher and political scientist J. Budziszewski once wrote.
“Ah, but they are more logical than they know,” he continued; “they are only logical slowly. The implication they do not grasp today they may grasp in thirty years; if they do not grasp it even then, their children will. It is happening already. Look around.”