The term “dhimmitude” originally referred to the second-class status of non-Muslims living in any Muslim-majority country whose laws officially favor Islamic norms and practices. Religious minorities, such as Christian and Jews, may be tolerated in such a country, but they are also discriminated against. In exchange for security they must accept special cultural and legal constraints from which their Muslim neighbors are free. The term is of recent vintage—though its Arab root, dhimmi, is not—and it remains controversial among historians. But in the past decade it has become popular with social conservatives as a metaphor for the condition of Christians living in the secular West: they, too, are tolerated and protected, but also despised by the secularist elites who control our cultural and legal norms. Or so it is said.
This story is not altogether false. The gap between the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially on questions of sexual morality, and the beliefs, customs, and laws of the “surrounding culture” continues to grow; and this makes it harder to follow those teachings, or to be associated with them. There is no point in denying this, whatever one thinks of the teachings in question. Not that many would deny it. It is obviously easier to do or believe what most other people do or believe. It is obviously difficult, psychologically and socially, to uphold beliefs most of one’s neighbors disapprove of (though that difficulty may end up being a source of strength for a religious community).
A few days ago my friend Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote a blog post about the “dhimmitude of sorts” that faithful Catholics face in a country whose government is pursuing policies starkly at odds with the teachings of their Church:
I think we’re heading into dhimmitude of sorts. Our culture is becoming more and more dominated by post-religious attitudes that dictate the terms of the social contract. We’ve seen that very clearly in the university where religious voices have learned to obey rules set by the secular academy. The rules are sometimes cruel (Stephen Pinker), or sometimes sympathetic as long as certain liberal dogmas are respected (Martha Nussbaum), or even permissive (faith as part of the great pluralist postmodern conversation). The culture of the secular university is now becoming the norm for society as a whole, at least in part, which is why we’re feeling the pressure.
Rusty is describing a real predicament here. It is no doubt uncomfortable to find oneself alienated from one’s own society because one continues to believe what most of that society seemed to believe until just yesterday; to be told, because of this belief, that one is on the “wrong side of history” (one of the most overused phrases in our political discourse); to be shamed and shunned for what one regards as fidelity by people who are congratulating themselves for having evolved. Yes, this is bound to be felt as a predicament, whether one considers it the hard honor of a lost cause, the onset of winter before another spring, or just the tough love that history administers to the most intransigent reactionaries.
What it’s not is dhimmitude. Dhimmitude is only possible where there are two sets of rules: one for the majority and one for a minority. In the case of the HHS mandate, which was the occasion of Rusty’s post, Catholics are being required to do only what everyone else is being required to do. The Obama administration has not imposed a special set of rules on Catholics or other Christians who believe contraception to be immoral. The administration has simply declined to extend an exemption from those rules to everyone who disagrees with them, which is a very different thing. Insofar as there has been a double standard, it is to the advantage of Catholics, not to their disadvantage. Precisely because of the Church’s opposition to contraception, parishes are exempt from the mandate and other Catholic institutions are accommodated.
One may think this accommodation should be extended to every Catholic employer. One may oppose the mandate, root and branch, and work to see it reversed by a future administration. But one should avoid using language that suggests that any law or regulation felt as a burden by some religious minority is a case of oppression. Catholics in eighteenth-century England—that’s dhimmitude. Catholics in twenty-first-century America, not so much.