State of the Union

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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Coming Out Catholic: The Movie

At the Level Ground film festival the other weekend, I got to see “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” a truly moving and well-made documentary—and an example of the movement I described in my “Coming Out Christian” piece.

“Desire” lets three gay or same-sex attracted Catholics tell their stories. It’s not confrontational or argumentative; the overall tone is tender and reflective. I saw it twice, and it evoked both laughter and sniffles from the audience.

And the stories seem perfectly crafted to disrupt conventional ideas of “ex-gay” narratives. At first Paul seems like your central-casting disco kid, who fled a life of promiscuity. Rilene’s the lonely woman neglected by men, who is seduced at a low point in her life by a predatory lesbian. And Dan had a boyfriend, but began to find himself falling for a woman—his chance to have a “normal” life and a family. So far, so frustrating. But the movie is startlingly well-paced (its “plot twists” got gasps and exclamations) as we learn that these three lives are anything but pious paint-by-numbers cartoons.

There’s so much to say about this film! Director Eric Machiela’s use of nature imagery is perfectly-timed and poignant. (The saccharine piano music is the only major aesthetic flaw.) It opens a bit defensively, with the three subjects talking about how they just want to be known and not judged, but once we settle in to hearing their stories the movie finds its rhythm. I wanted to know so much more about all of them; I wanted to hang out with them. There are tart words from Mother Angelica, “the pirate nun,” and tender memories of the good old nights at Studio 54; there’s fondness for the Church and fury at God; financial upheaval, a miserable peace sign, self-sacrificial gay love, and a Good Friday buzzkill from John Paul II himself.

There are some fascinating theological contrasts: Paul’s most direct experiences of God come when he is being rescued or spared something he expected to be unbearably painful—the most intense example comes when he’s on the way to the doctor to learn his HIV status—whereas both Dan and especially Rilene see God’s hand most clearly in the losses and humiliations of life. (For readers of my AmCon piece: I was struck by how unembarrassed Dan and Rilene were by their own loneliness and suffering. It’s a part of life, to be approached with the same passion and good humor as other parts.) I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.

“Desire” beautifully shows common human experiences such as longing, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, the slow building of a lifelong love, and the attempt to reconcile religious faith and romantic love, experienced from a unique perspective. These stories are as richly textured as a nineteenth-century novel, suffused with hope and mystery, and told just about as well as I can imagine. I’m not sure how to get a copy, but you can try Gorilla Pictures or Level Ground—it’s worth making a real effort to find this thing.

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A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching

For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines).

This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.

The real action does not involve liberal “Catholics” at all. Liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished. Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.

The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley Arkes, and Robert Royal.

Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project. Read More…

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How Pope Francis Challenges the Right (and Left)

A consensus has emerged since Pope Francis issued his very first “apostolic exhortation”: this is the most liberal pontiff since Pope John XXIII ushered in the ecclesiastical reforms of Vatican II.

I exaggerate, slightly. But after Rush Limbaugh characterized his exhortation as “just pure Marxism,” the die was cast. This impression was deepened even further last month after an Italian newspaper published an interview with the pontiff in which he indirectly responded to Limbaugh. When asked about the “ultraconservative” outcry, Francis told Turin’s La Stampa that, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

He continued:

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

So while the “ultraconservatives” in this country are gnashing their teeth over the pope’s “Marxist” exhortation, Francis is reminding us of what classical conservatism looks like. Pointing out that the economy is not doing what powerful people have long said it would doesn’t make you a Marxist. Pointing out capitalism’s destructive tendencies, however, especially with respect to the most vulnerable around the world, just might make you a conservative.

Institutional Christianity has always been concerned about poverty and other faceless forces of dehumanization. In a sense, by making the distinction between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine, the pope is challenging American conservatives (as represented by Limbaugh & Co.) to expand their moral horizons. If they can’t, then their conservatism, however much it aims to provoke moral outrage, is exposed as being merely good for business.

Read More…

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How Community Keeps Us Sane

Geel market statue demonstrating the strength of family life. NLanja / Flickr
Geel market statue demonstrating the strength of family life. NLanja / Flickr

Since the medieval ages, the small town of Geel, Belgium has had an eccentric but vital vocation: its inhabitants have created a safe home of sorts for the mentally insane. Inspired by St. Dymphna, patron saint for the mentally ill, Geel became a place of sanctuary for the mad: patients were lodged in the homes of local townspeople as “boarders,” and were expected to work alongside and participate in family life. Mike Jay shares the town’s story at Aeon Magazine:

The family care system, as it’s known, is resolutely non-medical. When boarders meet their new families, they do so, as they always have, without a backstory or clinical diagnosis. If a word is needed to describe them, it’s often a positive one such as ‘special’, or at worst, ‘different’. This might in fact be more accurate than ‘mentally ill’, since the boarders have always included some who would today be diagnosed with learning difficulties or special needs. But the most common collective term is simply ‘boarders’, which defines them at the most pragmatic level by their social, not mental, condition. These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them.

Sadly, Geel’s patient population has been steadily declining—partly because of modern medicine and psychiatry, but also because of modernization’s effect on the familial, vocational life of Geel: “Few families are now able or willing to take on a boarder,” writes Jay. “Few now work the land or need help with manual labor; these days most are employed in the thriving business parks outside town … Modern aspirations—the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel—disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends.” Even as people remark upon Geel’s incredible familial, communitarian response to mental illness, the societal structures necessary for its existence are fading away.

The traditional community is often derided for its tribal instincts: for possessing a dangerous tendency toward discrimination and judgment. But Geel’s story exemplifies an idealized community: one in which care is dispensed freely and charitably within small, private associations. The needy find solace within a family structure, rather than within the solicitude of the state. As Jay notes, “The people of Geel don’t regard any of this as therapy: it’s simply ‘family care’.”

Geel also shows us community’s vital role in humans’ mental health. Geel’s population is not huge, and its landscape is largely rural. This simplicity and closeness—to the land and to people—seems to have healing powers for the mentally ill. Even without medication, psychiatrists, and specialized care, “boarders” have flourished in Geel for hundreds of years. Perhaps what we really need, more than drugs or doctors, is human nourishment. “However we might categorise or diagnose their conditions, and whatever we believe their cause to be—whether genetics or childhood trauma or brain chemistry or modern society—the ‘mentally ill’ are in practice those who have fallen through the net, who have broken the ties that bind the rest of us in our social contract, who are no longer able to connect,” Jay writes. “If these ties can be remade so that the individual is reintegrated with the collective, doesn’t ‘family care’ amount to therapy? Even, perhaps, the closest we can approach to an actual cure?”

It’s a vital question to consider, especially as we confront urbanization and individualism within our culture. What happens if private associations begin to die away—if the familial and vocational structure of small communities erodes with the rise of more atomized lifestyles? Such social structures may lead to larger paychecks and prominence, but if Jay is correct, they may also harm human flourishing.


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When Schools Appropriate Religious Education

In one region of Germany, Muslim students can now be taught their faith in state-run schools, just as Catholic and Protestant students are. Germany has a tradition of teaching religion not just as history, but as a system of ethics, starting as early as first grade.

According to the New York Times, the courses are intended to salve concerns about exclusion and to try to influence their assimilation in the style of Henry Ford’s English School:

By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, emphasizing its teachings on tolerance and acceptance, the authorities hope to inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.

After another holiday season filled with lawsuits and news stories about the place of Christmas in public schools and in government business, Germany’s Islam classes might be a cautionary tale for religious conservatives who want to see their faith more closely woven into state education.

When running classes in Islam, generally, the German schools run into the same conflicts that must come up when they give students classes in generic Protestantism. Already, in one community, a group of Sunni parents are trying to keep members of the Ahmadiyya reformist sect from influencing the curriculum. When schools teach religion as a matter of ethics, not history, school administrators must either run ecumenical councils or, more likely, just set a curriculum more in line with the school’s goals than the faith’s.

What would a Christian ethics course in this mode look like? Perhaps the story of the loaves and fishes would be retold, as has become popular, as a miracle of sharing. After all, that’s a salutary lesson for first graders!

The separation between church and state is there for the protection of both institutions. The state has enormous power to shape culture, and it’s natural for religious communities to want that power deployed molding the culture in their own image.

But the state’s power will serve the state’s ends. So state-sponsored religious education will still, ultimately, be designed to raise good citizens, not good Christians. The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but if muddled together in an attempt to gain advantage in the culture war, it will be a lot harder for a religious tradition to untangle its identity should another Becket moment ever arrive.


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Becoming His Brother’s Keeper

In John Steinbeck’s novel Winter of Our Discontent, businessman Ethan Hawley is haunted by the presence of the town drunkard—his childhood friend, Danny Taylor. Once like brothers, the two men’s paths slowly diverged over time. Now, Hawley watches his old friend succumb to squalor and self-abuse. He cannot forget his guilt.

It reminded me of old Scrooge: Dicken’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” who lived with squalor and illness on his doorstep, yet didn’t care. He couldn’t see over his insurmountable mountain of greed.

Our current lives are filled with Ethans and Dannys, Scrooges and Tiny Tims. Take Mike Remboulis: he and his half-brother grew up in the same Queens apartment, but their fortunes have changed drastically over the years. New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns shared their story last Sunday:

Even amid lighthearted banter and savory plates, reality almost always comes rushing back: Beyond those restaurant doors, his big brother is teetering on the edge, barely hanging on. Mr. Remboulis, 51, is an aerospace engineer with a graduate degree. His half-brother, Glenn Yuzzi, 59, is a carpenter with a high school diploma. They grew up in the same Queens apartment, but today they live on opposite sides of the economic divide. It is a twist of fortune that haunts Mr. Remboulis. “I don’t want him to scrape by,” he said. “I don’t want my brother to drown.”

It seems these unfair disparities become more prominent in the American mind around Christmastide. After all, it’s freezing cold outside in most of America. Most of us are huddled in coats and scarves, drinking coffee, thinking about presents, food, and parties. In the midst of this happy holiday reverie, we see a man slumped on the street corner, McDonalds cup sitting empty at his side. Even if one isn’t surrounded by the homeless, it’s almost impossible to live in a town or city without knowing at least one family whose fortunes have fallen on bad times. We grow up hearing so much about “Christmas spirit”—the spirit of giving that supposedly animates and transports us during the Christmas season. We read The Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, frown disapprovingly at the money-grubbing fiends.

Steinbeck set the advent of his novel on Good Friday. There’s death in the air. Over Friday and Saturday, change stirs in Ethan Hawley. But it isn’t change of a good kind. His money lust is awakening. From Saturday evening to Sunday morning, the morning of resurrection, Hawley begins to see himself as a snake that has just shed its skin. He’s transformed.

It reminded me of old Scrooge: he awakens on Christmas morning after a haunted nighttime vigil with ghosts. He is also transformed—but by losing his old self, completely rebirthed into newness: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.” Scrooge scatters his money like dust to the wind, overflowing with generosity and joy. To Tiny Tim, “he was a second father.”

Who will we be this Christmas? I scurry down cold city streets and see the pleading eyes, listen to stories of families “getting by.” Part of me wants to bark out like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But that’s what the Christmas story is about: the One who had everything became nothing, to save the lost brother. He bore poverty, sorrow, and shame in the winter of our discontent. And He promised us that, like Scrooge, we could be “born again.” He wouldn’t let us drown.

He truly was “better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.”


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Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?

Since the release of Evangelii Gaudium there have been countless articles and commentary about the economic portions of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation. Some of the commentary has been downright bizarre, such as Rush Limbaugh denouncing the Pope as a Marxist, or Stuart Varney accusing Francis of being a neo-socialist. American conservatives grumbled but dutifully denounced a distorting media when Pope Francis seemed to go wobbly on homosexuality, but his criticisms of capitalism have crossed the line, and we now see the Pope being criticized and even denounced from nearly every rightward-leaning media pulpit in the land.

Not far below the surface of many of these critiques one hears the following refrain: why can’t the Pope just go back to talking about abortion? Why can’t we return the good old days of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI and talk 24/7/365 about sex? Why doesn’t Francis have the decency to limit himself to talking about Jesus and gays, while avoiding the rudeness of discussing economics in mixed company, an issue about which he has no expertise or competence?

There are subtle and brash versions of this plea. At “The Catholic Thing,” Hadley Arkes has penned a characteristically elegant essay in which he notes that Francis is generally correct on teachings about marriage and abortion, but touches on these subjects too briefly, cursorily and with unwelcome caveats of sorts. At the same time, Francis goes on at length about the inequalities and harm caused by free market economies, which moves Hadley to counsel the Pope to consult next time with Michael Novak. The upshot—be as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics.

On the brash side there is Larry Kudlow, who nearly hyperventilates when it comes to his disagreement with Pope Francis, accusing him of harboring sympathies with Communist Russia and not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. (R. R. Reno, who is briefly allowed to get a word in edgewise, wisely counseled Kudlow not to fight the last war—or, the one fought three wars ago, for that matter.) Revealingly, Kudlow counsels the Pope to concentrate on “moral and religious reform,” and that he should “harp” instead on “morality, spiritualism and religiosity,” while ceasing to speak about matters economic. Similarly, Judge Napolitano, responding to a challenge from Stuart Varney on why the Pope is talking about economics, responded: “I wish he would stick to faith and morals, on which he is very sound and traditional.”

These commentators all but come and out say: we embrace Catholic teaching when it concerns itself with “faith and morals”—when it denounces abortion, opposes gay marriage, and urges personal charity. This is the Catholicism that has been acceptable in polite conversation. This is a stripped-down Catholicism that doesn’t challenge fundamental articles of economic faith. Read More…

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Yuval Levin’s Must-Read Primer on America’s Ideological Faultline

Official Photo by Heather Reed
Official Photo by Heather Reed

Raise your hand if you’re a conservative who has cited Edmund Burke without actually having read him closely.

Nobody?

Really—you’re all scholars of the Irish-born MP and oft-celebrated “father of modern conservatism”?

Okay, what did Burke mean by the phrase “the little platoon”?

Bzzz.

Wrong.

Yuval Levin explains in his wonderful new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left:

The division of citizens into distinct groups and classes, Burke writes, “composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,” by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society. To remove these traditional restraints, which hold in check both the individual and the state, would mean empowering only the state to restrain the individual, and in turn restraining the state with only principles and rules, or parchment barriers. Neither, Burke thought, could be stronger or more effective than the restraints of habit and custom that grow out of group identity and loyalty. Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon—“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”—is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections, the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.

Still feeling Burkean? Ready to go the pipe-and-slippers, Brideshead cultist route and declare yourself a loyal subject of the queen?

Levin reminds us that the context in which Burke wrote those words was a long-running intellectual dispute with a European-born radical, a man who was cheering on the secular revolution in France—and, oh, by the way, also one of the forefathers of our own revolution, favored by none other than Ronald Reagan himself—the Common Sense and The Crisis pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

That the rivalry between Burke and Paine cuts both ways through our hearts—this is precisely the kind of dialectic, if you will, that Levin hopes to provoke in the reader.

Make no mistake, though; Levin is a Burkean. In fact, the most eloquent exponent of Burkean conservatism, properly understood, since George Will circa 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft.

While scholarly and measured in tone, The Great Debate is a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance.

Indeed, The Great Debate is the must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party. How can America, these conservatives ask, the land of the rugged individual, the conquerors of the frontier, choose statism and collectivism over freedom and liberty?!

Levin’s book provides the answer: You’re looking at the Democratic Party all wrong. It’s just as individualist as you are—maybe more so.

And that is the problem!

Read More…

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C.S. Lewis: Scholar to the Common Man

The first book I read by C.S. Lewis was, perhaps obviously, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was immediately captivated, and Lewis’s writings became an integral part of my growing up. He was the first author to introduce me to theology and philosophy. During college, his space trilogy offered a delightful escape from textbook reading. But it was also during college that I first encountered C.S. Lewis skeptics, people who criticized his tone and style, deriding him as a not very “serious” scholar.

In a sense, they’re right. Lewis was very jolly. Most of his books seem to glow with laughter. His humorous writing showed that one needn’t divorce serious subjects from good humor. Perhaps this is why some angst-ridden existential types seem to dislike him so: Lewis (even at his most serious) refuses to take life too seriously.

Their dislike of his work could also stem from his casual, friendly writing style. Some people have said C.S. Lewis sounds as if he’s talking “down” to his readers. But his style is only childish in the sense that it is grammatically simple. His pithy writing welcomed readers of all ages and backgrounds. It makes sense that this would anger some intellectuals: most academics write for each other, not for the ordinary reader. Yet that is what Lewis sought to do. When writing books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, he did not merely have Oxford scholars in mind. He presented his readers with lucid arguments on a variety of theological problems. His books could make any churchgoer feel like a scholar.

Read More…

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