A prominent theologian, an angry conservative undergraduate, and the leadership of a sorority set out to define an ethical relationship to pluralism. Oddly enough, the only punchline here is that this isn’t the set-up for a joke. Instead, this is contemporary America, and only the sorority, Alpha Phi International Women’s Fraternity and its Delta Tau chapter at Louisiana State University, got it right.
Emily Hines, the undergraduate in question, was expelled from her sorority for mocking U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, an openly transgender public figure, in a transphobic TikTok video in which Hines sported a baby blue Alpha Phi sweatshirt. For its part, the leadership of Hines’s sorority responded to her TikTok post by reminding her that the sorority’s commitment to “a pluralistic society” includes refraining from discrimination “on the basis of age, race, sexual orientation, national origin, religious preference, or disability.” A few days later, the sorority’s judiciary board held a hearing at which it decided to terminate Hines’s membership. Her case hasn’t exactly become a cause célèbre on the Right, but the basically fascist youth organization Young America’s Foundation and the alt-right rag Breitbart both proved willing to air Hines’s complaints about allegedly being ‘persecuted’ for her religious beliefs.
According to Hines, it’s Alpha Phi that failed to embrace “diversity” by moving to enforce the very standards she presumably agreed to when she became a sister. She took umbrage at her chapter adviser “telling me what my own intentions were” by noting that the video was demeaning, according to Breitbart’s reporting. Incidentally, the video can still be viewed on Breitbart, and I would challenge anyone to watch it and in good faith come to any conclusion other than that it was clearly meant to be demeaning toward trans women.
“How people perceive things is not my issue, in fact, that’s what makes this country diverse. We’re not all identical and all have different beliefs,” Hines said, according to YAF’s reporting. The angry undergraduate also complained that her religious beliefs, which include the contention “that God made male and female in his image, and that one cannot become the other,” were “pushed under the rug” by Alpha Phi. In addition, she told Breitbart, “It’s just them trying to censor the opposition out of existence, but it does the exact opposite, by fueling conservative voices to speak out even more, and louder.” Because if there’s one thing the America that produced January 6 clearly doesn’t have enough of, it’s loud conservative voices.
Perhaps A-list culture warriors aren’t exactly lining up to advance Hines’s cause because she’s too blunt and unsympathetic, though her talking points are the stuff of just about any statement of faith or lifestyle agreement required of students and faculty at evangelical colleges, and of employees of evangelical ministries. It could be that her family is unwilling or unable to hire expensive spin doctors, as in the case of Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann. Or maybe, in the aftermath of a nightmare presidency, in a moment when violence is flaring up between the Israeli government and the occupied Palestinian territories, and at the beginning of the end of an exhausting pandemic in which right-wingers have been preoccupied with bucking sensible public health measures and attempting to kidnap the governors who enforce them, there’s simply too much going on for Hines’s situation to draw wide attention. But even so, Hines’s views are pervasive and powerful on the Right.
In fact, her naked embrace of the aggrieved majoritarian stance neatly illustrates what’s wrong with right-wing attempts to package anti-pluralism as pluralism or diversity. If, after all, you believe that trans people should not exist—even that we do not exist, despite all evidence to the contrary—you aren’t exactly welcoming those who are different from you. Of course, Hines wouldn’t have been sanctioned for merely holding that bigoted belief. But when you demean and disparage a member of a marginalized group in a very public way, you’re contributing to the hostile climate that leads trans folks to experience stigma and violence.
And when you openly display your sorority affiliation while doing so, it is entirely appropriate for the sorority to discipline you for violating its standards. The First Amendment right to free speech, after all, doesn’t mean that speech will never have social consequences, and it doesn’t bar private organizations from setting their own standards. By the same token, the First Amendment right to free religious exercise, properly understood, does not entail the right for members of any one religious group to dominate members of other groups. For freedom of religion to be meaningful, it must be understood as providing for equal accommodation, including for nonbelievers.
Hines’s intellectually dishonest protestations notwithstanding, that’s what’s really at stake here. Her “sincerely held religious beliefs” about queer people would still be willfully ignorant and generally deplorable if she kept them to herself, but she has the right to hold them. No one is censoring them. However, her beliefs are also driving the current spate of clearly anti-pluralist legislation targeting trans children in numerous American states—including Louisiana, though its bill severely restricting gender-affirming healthcare for trans minors has been shelved for now.
A robust understanding of freedom of religion and an authentic embrace of pluralism do not allow for one group’s religious views to override the rights of others. The toleration of intolerance must have limits, or the intolerant will take over, to the detriment of all who fall afoul of their ideology. When the logical endpoint of your understanding of “freedom of religion” is state-sanctioned violence against othered people, I contend that you’re doing freedom of religion wrong.
This will bring us back to the prominent theologian I mentioned at the beginning of this article. (You didn’t think I was going to forget about him, did you?) Presbyterian Church of America minster, author, and apologist Tim Keller—he of “sex outside of straight Christian marriage is dehumanizing” infamy—has been taking to Twitter to share some thoughts about pluralism:
b) the illusion that State’s laws can be religiously neutral. All laws assume beliefs about human nature and purpose and about moral norms that are not empirically verifiable and thus are matters of faith. 3/5
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) May 17, 2021
Finally, see Richard Bauckham’s “Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story” arguing that Christianity provides a vision of reality that provides a moral absolute but not one that undermines domination and totalitarianism. 5/5
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) May 17, 2021
Leave aside for the moment the nonsense assertion that nothing about human nature is empirically verifiable. It is, strictly speaking, true that no institution or legal-framework can be entirely value neutral. However, it’s still a tell when conservative Christians emphasize this lack of neutrality in a sort of faux-defiant way. The subtext is that a struggle for domination is inevitable, and I don’t agree that that follows. If, instead, we all sign on to a social contract in which we choose to value equal accommodation, is that not better for everyone, simply pragmatically, than the Hobbesian war of all against all that Keller wants to wage “politely”?
Human health outcomes are empirically verifiable, and pursuing policies that promote good outcomes does not hinder anyone from practicing even religions that are hazardous to one's health (like, you know, evangelical Christianity). True pluralism is equal accommodation https://t.co/AgtMdWOGJI pic.twitter.com/c1S9ZBV2Ki
— Chrissy is fully vaccinated (@C_Stroop) May 17, 2021
In theory, the U.S. constitution—while certainly flawed by the white supremacism that pervades its drafting and subsequent history—provides us with a secular contractarian framework rather than a blueprint for a Christian nation. Within that framework, we can work to expand the human and civil rights of all. Unfortunately, America’s Christian Right, which consists of conservative, mostly white evangelicals, ‘trad’ Catholics, and most Mormons, have rejected the very notion of a secular social contract. A minority that has disproportionate power thanks to the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, these anti-pluralist Christians are working hard to protect their privileged position in the social hierarchy.
If we hope to oppose them effectively, we cannot let them get away with distorting the meanings of religious freedom and pluralism beyond all recognition, which is why those of us who support democracy need to make a habit of talking about these concepts. Alpha Phi has my thanks for its defense of a democratic approach to pluralism.