Last month, the new chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, Virginia’s largest, swore his oath on the Book of Baphomet, the same devilish goat-god whose altar was destroyed that same month by an offended Christian at the Iowa State Capitol.
All right, he didn’t. There is no Book of Baphomet, not yet. But Karl Frisch instead chose to take his oath on a stack of five LGBTQ screeds, some of which include instructions for boys to pleasure a man. The books reportedly include “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,” “Lawn Boy,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Gender Queer” and “Flamer.” According to the Washington Examiner, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” describes graphic sexual encounters involving boys, and Flamer contains sexual interactions. “Gender Queer” contains images of a boy performing fellatio on a man as well as images of a boy masturbating.
Three new members did not swear on a book at all. Three other new Board members did in fact swear on a Bible, two of them explaining their choices as for sentimental reasons, or one because “faith is such a big part of (her) identity,’ and assuring a Washington Post reporter that she really admired the choices of her fellow School Board members. “I thought it was super cool that they were things that were important to them, like my Bible is important to me,” Ms. Robyn Lady, the new representative from Dranesville district, said in a modern ladylike way. God forbid you should think she was a crazed Christian fundamentalist. A Hindu member swore on the scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita, which presumably she takes as seriously as a Christian or Jew does their Bible. Incidentally, so did Tulsi Gabbard when she was sworn into Congress.
The remaining four swore on a hodgepodge of books including the classics “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and “The Little Prince.” One member swore on a book called “Homegoing” by a Ghanaian-American author. My own new school board member swore on Howard Zinn’s tendentious “A People’s History of the US,” favored by America-skeptic lightweights and a book about an autistic boy because…of course…her son is autistic. The board member who swore on a stack of books relevant to her Mexican heritage said it would help her represent the Latino and immigrant students in her district. It was not clear how she plans to represent the others, if any remain. The excuse given by Frisch and others for the books they chose is that they are “banned” by other unidentified school districts so they must fight for the freedom to inflict their preferred propaganda on children. But of course, you can buy them at your local bookstore.
Halfway across the country, an ex-Navy pilot and former congressional candidate, the Christian referenced above, destroyed a robed effigy of Baphomet, installed in the Iowa Capitol for the Christmas season. Outraged by the idol, Michael Cassidy “pushed over and decapitated this Satanic statue before he discarded the head in a trash can,” according to his Give Send Go fundraising site. He surrendered to police and now faces charges of fourth-degree criminal mischief, which could carry a year-long sentence and a $2560 fine. The Satanic Temple that sponsored the display claims not to worship Baphomet or Satan, or have any deity at all, but as critics have alleged, wages an ongoing war against traditional believers, especially those who try to express their faith in public spaces. According to its website, the Satanic Temple has generic beliefs that say virtually nothing and sound very tolerant, except of the rival Church of Satan. In practice, the Satanic Temple is a determined political vehicle for those opposed to any public expression of faith. This is not the first time they have occupied space or performed in a public forum such as state capitol buildings.
As we know, there is no religious test for office. One need not swear on a religious book, or indeed any book including the Constitution. Atheists or those unable to swear to God may “affirm” their intention to honorably perform the duties of their office. So what to make of the opposite extreme, where the texts chosen are a Tower of Babel?
An oath is a promise, or covenant, to a community participating in what political theorist Vincent Ostrom called a “shared community of understanding,” a group that shares the same normative conceptualization of their interactions with each other. What is civic good? What is a promise? Why does a promise matter? What is honor? So whether you choose the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita or simply state the oath, you are acknowledging the interests of the broader community in which such an oath signifies sincerity in the undertaking and a commitment to the public good (this assumes a public that respects if not always practices religion).
When you swear instead on pornography or books about one thin slice of the broader constituency, or even “The Velveteen Rabbit,” you prioritize your own subjectivity over anyone whom you are claiming to serve. It adds nothing to your oath, and communicates nothing to the audience, except possibly your unseriousness.
The exercise of subjectivity has its limits, however. Had I been elected to the Fairfax School Board, and chosen to take my oath on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” or Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve,” or Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, nobody would have greeted it with the equanimity they did the literary choices of the Fairfax County School Board members.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, Mr. Cassidy took Baphomet seriously as a challenge to his Christian faith. Whether it was wise to attack the display, it seems clear that the Satanic Temple intended it as such a challenge and Mr. Cassidy took it as such. The message of the Baphomet display is that the preeminence of Judeo-Christian imagery in public spaces must not be tolerated. Victory lies in destroying the common understandings that underpin our national covenant, not necessarily in replacing it with an alternative.
We are seeing all around us what happens when the Constitution, the Bible, and basic views about ‘the good life’ and morality are deliberately mocked, marginalized, and then evicted from the public square, or rendered into simply “one perspective among many.” And then we are not far from what Father Richard John Neuhaus predicted, “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” If orthodoxy becomes simply one flavor among others in the public square, the liberal tolerance that frowns on normative judgments about right and wrong will push to the margins and then forbid doctrines that are inherently disapproving of others. It will be Roman times, all over again, when each people were permitted their own gods in a pleasing kaleidoscopy.
As Father Neuhaus said, “Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior.“
How can you have a conversation aimed at achieving the good and the true with people who aggressively assert the bad and the ugly are just as good? There is no covenant with such. This is a hallmark of the postmodernist approach that has been squatting in academia for many years, and of its intersectional fruit in which the world must be viewed in terms of oppressive and victimized groups and pedagogy has become an activist method to attack traditional understandings of reality. Only the views that promote disintegration, division, and degeneracy are hailed.
Leil Leibovitz, in this month’s issue of First Things, casts some light on the motivations of the pagans. “Debate, conversation, any attempt at reason—those are all losing propositions, a truth that is difficult for those of us reared on the free and unfettered exchange of ideas to accept… But how can we discuss matters of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, with a person whose goal is the devastation of our civilization? The thousands who clogged the Brooklyn Bridge earlier this year, hailing the murderers of October 7 as “our martyrs,” aren’t in the market for a good argument; they are here to cheer the desecration. They are here to…befoul our sacred spaces with their idols…(t)he impulse to desecrate is shockingly widespread in post-Christian America.”
What to do about the situation, then, in which idolaters are shouting down the civilized and the God-fearing? When judges interpret the First Amendment to embrace perspectives that do not aim at persuasion or elevating civic discourse but rather at its destruction? Leibovitz argues somewhat vaguely that we followers of God’s commandments must defend them beyond the voting booth and the courtrooms, presumably by living them. The prescription sounds very much like Rod Dreher’s portrayal in “Live Not By Lies” of Christians living under Communist rule who defied their political masters by adhering to their faith and moral principles. Are we doomed to live this closeted future?