Everyone has blind spots. And some people have bigger blind spots than others. But the people with the biggest blind spots of all? It might be secular liberals, especially when it comes to thinking about conservative forms of Christianity. Their double standards are so egregious that they'd be laughed out of town on any other topic.
The examples are legion. But two in The New York Times over the last week were particularly shameful.
Example #1: Frank Bruni's column on Wednesday took aim at the Catholic Church for hypocrisy. How can Pope Francis denounce gendered pay inequity (as he recently did) when the church is as patriarchal as can be, refusing to ordain women as priests or give them much institutional power at all?
Good point. I agree that this is a vulnerability for Catholicism, as I've written about on more than one occasion. Unlike the church's teachings about divorce, which are based on explicit statements of Christ in the canonical gospels, and its teachings about homosexuality, which are deeply embedded in an elaborate theory of natural law, the doctrine that limits priestly ordination to men has a weak foundation. There's the fact that Christ chose 12 men (and no women) to be his apostles. (That it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who discovered the empty tomb and first saw the risen Christ is judged irrelevant to the issue of ordination.) Then there are some metaphors about the church being the bride of Christ and priests being like fathers. And sweeping dismissals by popes.
That's pretty thin stuff. For that reason, I suspect the church will face mounting pressure to reform in this area and have a harder time resisting it than on other topics.
But Bruni wasn't merely analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the church's views on women. Neither was he criticizing those views from inside the church, as it were, drawing on under-emphasized aspects of the Catholic tradition to make his case. He was simply saying, in effect, "I find this sexism ridiculous and think the church should bring itself into complete conformity with secular liberalism." Bruni made precisely the same kind of argument a few weeks ago in a column about conservative Christian views of homosexuality, which asserted (by way of a quote from Mitchell Gold, a gay philanthropist) that "church leaders must be made 'to take homosexuality off the sin list.'"
Bruni is free to write anything he wants. But let's think about this for a minute. Is it even conceivable that he would pen a column about the patent ridiculousness of ultra-orthodox Jewish views on gender, including strictures on how women present themselves in public, where they sit in religious services, and how much time they can devote to Torah study? Or about ultra-orthodox Jewish views of homosexuality, including its status as an abomination in the eyes of God, with homosexual acts strictly forbidden?
And how about Islam, with (in some forms) its hijabs and burqas and genital mutilation for women, its acceptance of polygamy and domestic violence against wives, and its draconian (and sometimes capital) penalties for homosexuality?
My point isn't to defend or excuse these views. It is simply to point out that it's extremely unlikely that Bruni would write a column mocking and disparaging such beliefs and practices, even though they are in many respects far harsher than anything found in Catholicism or most traditionalist forms of Christianity today.
If that's not a double standard, I don't know what is.
And that brings us to Example #2, which can be seen just about every time a literary figure or left-leaning commentator reacts with outrage to precisely the kind of harsh criticism of Islam one would be unlikely to find in a Frank Bruni column. We've seen an awful lot of this over the past week. First, dozens of writers denounced the PEN American Center for bestowing an award on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of a deadly terrorist attack in January, and which many critics insist steps way over the line into unacceptable ("racist," "Islamophobic") portrayal of Muslims. Then there were the reactions to a terrorist attack on an exhibit in Garland, Texas, at which drawings and paintings of the prophet Muhammad were displayed (which some Muslims consider gravely offensive).
For an exquisite example of such reactions, take a look at this Times editorial, which declares that nothing can "justify" the Texas exhibit and other "blatantly Islamophobic provocations" because they inflict "deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims," "exacerbate tensions," and "give extremists more fuel."
Maybe that's right. But then shouldn't the Times editorial board also denounce The Book of Mormon, the runaway hit musical playing just a few blocks up the street from the Times offices for the past several years? Strangely, I can recall no such denunciation, even though the play relentlessly and vulgarly (and brilliantly!) ridicules the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from start to finish. Why has the Times neglected to rise to the defense of the LDS against this blatantly Mormonphobic provocation? Is it only because Mormons don't resort to terrorism over ecclesiastical insults?
And what about the countless other offenses that conservative Christians endure every day? Offenses like what, you ask? How about the 1998 Manhattan production of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which, as blogger Rod Dreher helpfully reminds us, portrayed "a gay Jesus who has sex with his disciples." That certainly sounds like it rivals the mere depiction of Muhammad for insult potential. So did the Times support Christians who protested against the production and got it canceled? And did the paper come to the defense of the theater owner, who capitulated to the public pressure?
"It is easy to appreciate the dilemma Lynne Meadow, the Manhattan Theater Club's artistic director, found herself in, but it is impossible to approve her decision," wrote the Times in an editorial titled "Censoring Terrence McNally," explaining that artist freedom demanded she not capitulate to the critics. Instead, she should have opted for "standing firm and relying on the police for protection."
That was 17 years ago. Is there any chance that standards have evolved since then — that the Times now simply cares less about freedom of expression than it once did, and that it would apply this changed standard equally to both Christians and Muslims today? Do we have reason to anticipate editorials denouncing the Christophobic prejudices of various cultural exhibitions and events taking place around New York City, along with calls to shut them down for fear of inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Christians?
That certainly wouldn't make me happy. I'd prefer consistency in the other direction — in favor of a strong defense of free expression in nearly all cases.
But I have very little reason to worry. Consistency on such matters is the last thing I'd expect to see in the opinion section of The New York Times.