State of the Union

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.

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Searching For a Truly Compassionate Conservatism

No one would deny that American philanthropy is grounded in good motives. But as The New Atlantis contributor William Schambra points out in a detailed article, philanthropy can become as poisoned as any other human venture:

America’s first general-purpose philanthropic foundations — Russell Sage (founded 1907), Carnegie (1911), and Rockefeller (1913) — backed eugenics precisely because they considered themselves to be progressive. After all, eugenics had begun to point the way to a bold, hopeful human future through the application of the rapidly advancing natural sciences and the newly forming social sciences to human problems. By investing in the progress and application of these fields, foundations boasted that they could delve down to the very roots of social problems, rather than merely treating their symptoms … According to the perspective of philanthropic eugenics, the old practice of charity — that is, simply alleviating human suffering — was not only inefficient and unenlightened; it was downright harmful and immoral. It tended to interfere with the salutary operations of the biological laws of nature, which would weed out the unfit, if only charity, reflecting the antiquated notion of the God-given dignity of each individual, wouldn’t make such a fuss about attending to the “least of these.” Birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, a Rockefeller grantee, included a chapter called “The Cruelty of Charity” in her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization, arguing that America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” Organizations that treat symptoms permit and even encourage social ills instead of curing them.

Schambra traces the history of “philanthropic” eugenics through the years, along with its roots and causes. “Philanthropy’s involvement in eugenics should forever remind us that, for all our excellent intentions and formidable powers, we are unable to eradicate our flaws once and for all by some grand, scientific intervention,” he writes.

The article highlights some inherent flaws in philanthropy that conservatives, and isolationists specifically, are very sensitive to: namely, the extent to which our “compassion” is motivated by a desire to control, fix, and regulate things not our business. It’s the “nanny state” paradigm, manifested in individuals like Mayor Bloomberg. It’s typically an accusation leveled at “compassionate conservatives.”

One commenter on a recent human trafficking article said he feared “a strong sense of self righteous, neo colonialist domination inherent in this kind of ‘cause’.”

However, in our fear of becoming meddlesome welfare statists, conservatives run the danger of becoming heartless. Paul Krugman accused Republicans of such sentiments in a Thursday column—he writes, “Republican hostility toward the poor and unfortunate has now reached such a fever pitch that the party doesn’t really stand for anything else — and only willfully blind observers can fail to see that reality.” Patrick Deneen excellently defined the problem with our attitudes in this regard in a recent TAC blog post:

The motivation of charity is deeply suspect by both the Right and the Left. The Right—the heirs of the early modern liberal tradition—regards the only legitimate motivation to be self-interest and the profit motive. They favor a profit-based health-care system (one explored to devastating effect in this recent article on health care in the New Yorker), and a utilitarian university (the “polytechnic utiliversity” ably explored by Reinhard Huetter in the most recent issue of First Things). The Left—while seemingly friends of charity and “social justice”—are deeply suspicious of motivations based on personal choice and religious belief. They desire rather the simulacrum of charity in the form of enforced standardization, homogeneity, and equality, based on the motivation of abstract and depersonalized national devotions and personal fear of government punishment.

I do not think most conservatives (unless they really are Randian to the core) want to forsake true “compassionate conservatism”—just its current manifestation in political circles. How, then, does one exercise philanthropic sentiment properly?

The key, according to Schambra, is personal caritas (love). He writes,

loving personal concern is at the heart of charity traditionally understood. It can only be practiced immediately and concretely, within the small, face-to-face communities that Tocqueville understood to be essential to American self-government. There, the seemingly minor and parochial concerns of everyday citizens are taken seriously and treated with respect, rather than being dismissed as insufficiently self-conscious emanations of deeper problems that only the philanthropic experts can grasp.

One could say this is the localism movement’s compassionate conservatism. It is based in present needs, rather than remote philanthropic endeavors. It seeks to love one’s neighbor, and not to “fix” him.

Does this mean true conservatives shouldn’t get involved in global crises? It might depend on the person and situation. The concerns of Coptic Christians in Egypt are of immense and immediate concern to me, because I consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ. Do I believe all secular American should intervene on their behalf? No—it is not their responsibility as it is mine. But Schambra is right: perhaps we should first focus where we are planted, and then slowly, thoughtfully spread from there.

It is sad that the Republican Party, a political group filled with religious folk, often shows callousness toward the impoverished—either by refusing to help them, or by offering only conditional charity.  The Christian faith is filled with instructions to unconditionally love and help the unfortunate. Consider this passage from Isaiah 58, in which God rebukes the nation of Israel for being “religious” by fasting, but neglecting the poor:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ … If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.

Notice that it doesn’t say, “Only cover the naked or feed the hungry if they aren’t being lazy.” God doesn’t say, “Undo the heavy burdens—unless they really need to work harder.” Neither does he say, “Make sure they show a change of heart or get converted before you help them.” This isn’t a gospel of cutting food stamps. Perhaps it is a gospel in which food stamps never should have been necessary in the first place. If conservatives—especially Christian conservatives—want to say “government should mind its own business,” then perhaps it is time they start minding theirs.


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What Is Pope Francis Saying to the Right?

Faithful Catholics are deeply confused about what the pope is up to. As our spiritual father, he deserves our deep respect and the benefit of the doubt. When he says things that make us uncomfortable, we ought to be open to the likelihood that he’s saying something true that we’ve overlooked, maybe even presenting a truth we have tried to hide from. (Think of how disquieting some of Christ’s words are in the Gospels.) If even after reflection and prayer we feel sure that he’s wrong—as popes in their personal statements and human decisions have often been wrong in the past—we ought to remember Noah, and not act like scornful sons. We ought to greet papal mistakes with solemn sadness, earnest prayer, and respectful attempts at correction. It is in that spirit that I wish to comment on Pope Francis’s recent interview.

The pope’s most controversial statements seem to arise from a single motive: He doesn’t like “right-wing” Catholics, and wants to make it clear to all the world that he’s not one of them.

Up to a point, I see what he means. From what I have read, in Argentina, a swath of the folks who fought for the Latin Mass also supported the right-wing dictators down there—which means they winked at torture and murder, but their consciences proved too tender to countenance altar girls. I have met this kind of smug zealot up here in the U.S.—the guy you meet at the coffee hour who starts off with pro-life talk, then finds a way to assert that most abortionists are Jewish … and pretty soon he’s pressing on you poorly printed pamphlets that “prove” the Holocaust never happened. I used to argue with people like this, but it led nowhere. (Although I learned how to have some fun with them by “proving” that World War II was also a myth, and that all its “casualties” had really been abducted to serve as slaves in the Zionist tin mines on the Moon.)

I finally had to accept the cold fact that some people are not sincerely mistaken, or even deluded, but rather of evil intent, with wicked hearts and culpable motives. In fact, they’re the kind of “evil company” St. Paul tells us to flee. Likewise, I learned to scorn folks who reject religious liberty, who joke about burning heretics or who condemn the American founding because so many Founders were Freemasons. (They don’t, I notice, denounce the nation of Spain, which was founded by Arian Visigoths.) Some right-wing Catholics embrace a hardline agenda because they feel weak and irrelevant, and prefer magnificent fantasies of wielding power over their neighbors to the slow grunt work of evangelizing. Read More…

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What Tolstoy Has to Say About Syria

Yesterday was Leo Tolstoy’s 185th birthday. Most well known for his infamously vast novel War and Peace, Tolstoy was a complex and fascinating writer—a devout Christian with anarchist leanings, whose views on private property may have annoyed today’s libertarian. But despite what one might think about his more controversial beliefs, Tolstoy must be admired for his dogged pursuit of truth. He did not shy away from its raw, demanding light.

Tolstoy’s works are now available online for free—all 90 of them. This new Russian website hosts all his work, along with extensive biographical resources. If you have heard tales of Tolstoy’s legendary verbosity, be not dismayed: he has also written some excellent short works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a notable example, along with Father Sergius and Hadji Murat).

Raised by rich nobility, Tolstoy spent his early years as a poor student and avid gambler. He was horrified by the violence of the Crimean War; perhaps this helped push him toward the Christianity and pacifism of his later years. He married in 1862, had 13 children, and achieved great literary acclaim. However, after writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis. He then devoted the rest of his writings to religious and moral subjects.

Considering the Syria debate that has enthralled the media lately, I found this selection from Tolstoy’s essay “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” particularly noteworthy. Though Tolstoy’s pacifism and anarchism may be extreme, he had some interesting arguments regarding the use of violence that should be considered in today’s debate:

But besides corrupting public opinion, the use of force leads men to the fatal conviction that they progress, not through the spiritual impulse which impels them to the attainment of truth and its realization in life, and which constitutes the only source of every progressive movement of humanity, but by means of violence, the very force which, far from leading men to truth, always carries them further away from it. This is a fatal error, because it leads men to neglect the chief force underlying their life—their spiritual activity—and to turn all their attention and energy to the use of violence, which is superficial, sluggish, and most generally pernicious in its action.
…The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion. The use of violence only weakens this force, hinders it and corrupts it, and tries to replace it by another which far from being conducive to the progress of humanity, is detrimental to it.

Could Tolstoy be right that force repels progress and corrupts the truer motives of men—that using force to suppress force will not, in fact, bring freedom, but will instead subjugate the deeper, truer power of public opinion and reasoned discourse? If the people of Syria perceive that their progress only comes through deplorable violence, when will they stop? When will they convert from bloody revolution to the peaceful pursuit of representative government?

There may be times and places in which violence is absolutely necessary. However, one must never view it as a good means to procure peace: violence is never excellent. Tolstoy recognized its cyclical nature, and rightly saw it should be avoided at all costs. In Tolstoy’s mind, the greatest good one could do was to live without greed or avarice: to tend one’s own land, family, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems in this time of great national decision, there are many ways in which our government should tend its own land and family before seeking to suppress or fight violence elsewhere.


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German Children Seized From Parents for Crime of Homeschooling

The Wunderlich family with Mike Farris, chairman of the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.
The Wunderlich family with Mike Farris, chairman of the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.

The German government forcibly seized four children from their parents in a raid last Thursday in Darmstadt, Germany. Why? Because the Wunderlich children were home schooled – an illegal activity viewed by the German government as “child endangerment.”

Reports by World Net Daily and The Daily Mail said the police were armed with a battering ram, and held father Dirk Wunderlich to a chair while they removed the children. A team of 20 social workers, police, and special agents entered the home. According to a report by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that advocates for parental choice in education, the children were taken to unknown locations and officials told the parents they would not be seeing their children “anytime soon.”

In a phone interview, Wunderlich called the episode a “nightmare.” He said that for several days, he has felt “very down and crushed,” but is trusting that “this terrible thing is one piece in God’s big plan.”

Michael Donnelly, lawyer for HSLDA, said, “This shouldn’t happen in Germany. This is a very peaceful family.”

Not only did the German government seize the children – they seized the children’s passports as well. This prevents the family from attempting to move to another country where homeschooling is permissible. According to Wunderlich, the children could be taken from them permanently if they made such an attempt. “Our children are prisoners of the German government,” he said.

The Wunderlich family has been trying to homeschool their family legally for years, and attempted moving to other countries with greater educational freedoms. Although they found refuge in France, Mr. Wunderlich was unable to find a job. They had to return to Germany.

For the Wunderlichs, homeschooling is preferable for both religious and educational reasons. Wunderlich believes school can be a rather “artificial place for learning.” Via homeschooling, their children can immediately pursue and study specific interests. He also believes homeschooling has bolstered family relationships. But living in Germany has been hard for them. There are few homeschooling families in Germany. “In America, it’s perfect,” Wunderlich said. “But here in Germany, most parents are alone … if people were gentle and nice, it would be better, but society and authorities are against homeschoolers.”

German law states children must attend school from age six to 18. Homeschooling is not permissible. Two German Supreme Court rulings on the subject have given the state equal authority as parents over children’s education. The law is meant to ensure children receive the appropriate socialization, Donnelly said.

But according to Donnelly and other homeschooling advocates at HSLDA, this law is in direct contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Germany has signed. The ICCPR gives the following permissions to parents: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” This parental liberty, Donnelly says, includes the right to homeschool.

In addition, Germany has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which says states party to the covenant “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

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Egypt Needs a Political Solution, for the Copts and the Brotherhood

Andrew Doran’s article in National Review last week rightly notes the brutality undergone by the Copts in the aftermath of Egypt’s coup. He even compares the brutality with Nazi persecution of the Jews:

 The Muslim Brotherhood’s systematic and coordinated attacks against Christians in Egypt are reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when Nazi paramilitaries systematically vandalized Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues and murdered scores of Jews in a disturbing foreshadowing of the fate of European Jews over the next few years. It is no accident that many Jews, including Barry Rubin and Jeffrey Goldberg, have been quick to raise the alarums over the persecution of Christians: They recognize the dangerous signs. “They have hatred in their hearts,” says Thabet of the Brotherhood, echoing observations commonly made of the National Socialists in 20th-century Germany.

But the Copt’s persecutors are not a well-organized military force, with a charismatic and powerful leader. Rather, they are a hurt and angry mob, with a rapidly dwindling leadership. Their acts of aggression against Coptic Christians seem less a calculated ruthless policy than the raged revenge of a hurt and angry people. Of course, this is not to excuse those horrendous actions. However, it does change the way in which we seek a solution to the problem.

In Egypt, the mob and the military are not unified; rather, their very friction has helped instigate and foster this persecution, more or less. More military crackdown only seems to result in more Coptic persecution. Thus, a foreign military strengthening Egypt’s military arm is not likely to fix the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has been weakened significantly in recent weeks; this, as Eric Trager argued in The New Republic, makes the group even harder to control and direct in a peaceable manner. And this does make sense: without leadership with whom to reason, the group will become more and more unreasonable:

… By disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals, who will no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders. Many younger Muslim Brothers, in particular, lean towards Salafism, and their upbringing in the Brotherhood—whose motto concludes with the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”—has made them willing to die for Islamism, and possibly willing to fight for it as well.

In addition, one cannot exempt the military from blame in Coptic persecution: John Storm, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday that “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in [Morsi’s] ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them.”

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David Brooks, Healthy Religion, and the Real Danger of “Nudges”

Church, Pie Town, New Mexico (LOC)
Church, Pie Town, New Mexico (LOC)

On August 8th, each of New York City’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, ran op-eds on the rise of social science approving and assisting some of our most cherished social concepts. David Brooks recommended the rise of “nudging,” where soft incentives or opt-out systems are used to encourage positive, socially and personally beneficial behavior. Ari Schulman, an alumnus of Brooks’s employ, considered the laudatory treatment of religion by various recent studies.

Brooks hailed the rise of what he called “social paternalism,” arguing that “most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good” and so “to some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms.” Thankfully, “this has been a great era for the study of error,” so we have reams of fresh evidence to show how “people are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.” These innate defects of our constitution disadvantage us in the aggregate, causing inefficient group behavior and opening the door for systemic manipulation by for-profit actors seeking to exploit our failures for their own gain. ”As these cognitive biases have become better known,” then, “public spirited people naturally want to design ways to help us avoid them.”

One such bias could well be found in the decline of religious practice. For as Schulman reported, “A ream of recent scientific research has given the faithful reason to rejoice: Belief is good for you.” Yeshiva University researchers found that “those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.” A social media analysis found that “Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.”

Researchers working from Harvard, Duke, University College London, and many other institutions have repeatedly found that “religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.” Yet social science is simultaneously finding that religious belief, identification, and participation is in decline, as the proportion of Americans declaring themselves to have a religious affiliation of “none” has skyrocketed, and church attendance has collapsed, especially among the young.

Such religious refusal in the face of empirical evidence would seem to be just the sort of cognitive bias Brooks refers to, choosing the short-term pleasure of a warm bed on a Sunday morning to the long-term benefit of riding the pews regularly, calculating risks poorly in the face of the potential of such overwhelming adverse consequences should a Christian eschatology pan out, and being too mentally lazy to understand all the this-world benefits religious practice would bestow. “These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one,” after all, so “some modest paternalism might be just what we need” to nudge our citizenry back into Sunday and Saturday services, for their own good.

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Considering John Kerry’s New Faith-Based Office

When the State Department announced its new office for religious engagement last week, Secretary John Kerry promised that the “separation of church and state” would be preserved. But Salon writer Austin Dacey questioned that statement Sunday:

“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with ‘faith-based organizations’ will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as ‘religions’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

How much can the state interact with various faith groups without violating the Establishment Clause? Different commentators have contributed to this discussion over the past week. Some said the project will give state officials needed insight into other nations’ religious policies. While the U.S. has always enforced religious/political separation, other states have linked them indelibly. “The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution,” wrote Linda Woodhead at Religion Dispatches on Sunday. “Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again.”

In their book Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, authors Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson write that “Foreign policy practitioners in the United States … are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where their imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.” This view seems relevant when considering recent diplomatic difficulties with Egypt, as well as Syria.

Some authors spoke favorably of the attention this initiative will bring to humanitarian crises and religious persecution: “As important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains,” wrote Peter Mandaville at the Brookings Institution. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”

Is it indeed the State Department’s role to stabilize Afghanistan, bring prosperity to Africa, and “achieve democracy” in the Arab world? How can it achieve such a broad transformation through dialogue with religious leaders who – it must be acknowledged – often disagree, even to the point of violence? Such a political effort may necessitate the sort of government endorsement that Dacey cautioned against.

The U.S. has a long tradition of state/religion separation. We believe the government should not play favorites with various religions or denominations. There is danger that this initiative will encourage such favoritism, despite Kerry’s assertion that it will help religious people “unify for the greater good … without crossing any [Constitutional] lines whatsoever.” In actual practice, one fears that “crossing lines” may be an all-too-easy temptation.

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In Egypt, Violence Begets Violence

The Egyptian government announced a month-long state of emergency, after the military raided pro-Morsi sit-ins Monday morning. The measures came because of “danger due to deliberate sabotage, and attacks on public and private buildings and the loss of life by extremist groups,” according to the presidential statement.

But Monday’s crackdown resulted in a reported 278 dead, according to Egypt’s Health Ministry; Ashraf Khalil wrote in a dispatch for TIME Magazine that across Cairo, “a much more prolonged and potentially bloody battle is unfolding.” By mid-afternoon, Vice President and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei announced his resignation.  “The social fabric has become threatened with rupture, because violence only begets violence,” he said on TwitterInformed Comment’s Juan Cole noted that military and Interior Ministry leaders have been divided between using force or a gradual, attrition-based approach to quell the protests. “The military had appeared to wish to treat the Brotherhood members as members of a conspiratorial and manipulative covert organization,” he writes. “They may now have a green light to proceed in that way.”

What implications does this crackdown have for Egyptian politics? TIME’s initial commentary sounded almost hopeful: Khalil wrote, “The storming of the sit-in camps could mark the beginning of a new phase of the Egyptian political crisis. By purging the Brotherhood, the interim government might be able to begin organizing a new transitional roadmap—including scheduling fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.”

But the siege has had detrimental repercussions thus far: clashes are spreading throughout the country. Christian news outlet WORLD Magazine reported that Morsi supporters have set fire to churches in regions outside the capitol, the latest attacks in a swath of intensifying religious violence. Ishak Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve seen attacks like this before, but not of this severity and coordination. These attacks are directly related to the dispersals of sit-ins.” Christians fear the implications of this dispersal — and rightly so: NPR‘s Cairo reporter Leila Fadel commented on the worsening situation Monday:

John Rossomando called Copts a “favorite target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other radical Islamists.” Egyptian Christian Ramez Salama told WORLD, “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” he said. “It’s all hate speech.” Some commentators fear the crackdowns will merely enflame and bolster protesters’ rage:

 

Egypt’s citizenry is wedged between a harsh military state and the threat of militant religious radicalism. Protesters, secularists, and minorities will now “choose sides.” Unfortunately, the military’s brutal crackdown has only served to compromise any moral ground it formerly held. The U.S. has been reluctant to withdraw Egyptian aid up to this point; perhaps it is time, as TAC’s Dan Larison said Wednesday, to “cut Egypt loose.”

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Reza Aslan, Fox News, and Bulverism

You’ve probably seen a clip of it already: Fox News aired a cringe-worthy interview of the author of the latest Jesus tell-all book on Friday, much to the delight of many on the internet. In the now-viral interview, Fox News anchor and religion correspondent Lauren Green shows zero interest in the arguments or content of scholar Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Instead, she leads off the interview with “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan’s eyebrows threaten to rise right off of his face, but he comports himself honorably in a painful ten-minute conversation that never moves past this misguided line of questioning: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

But even if Green’s line of questioning weren’t laced with xenophobia, ignorant about the purpose of scholarship, or breathtakingly incurious, it would still be problematic. There is a deeper philosophical problem behind focusing on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the following: Reza Aslan brings personal biases and prejudices from his Muslim faith to his study of the historical Jesus; the liberal media is breathlessly excited by Aslan’s book, even though it merely rehashes debates that have been going on in historical Jesus studies for decades, because that media tends to be hostile to traditional Christian faith.

In fact, there may very well be reason to believe those things. But to think that they have anything to do with the merits of Aslan’s arguments about Jesus is to engage in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism. He explains:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly… Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.

Bulverism a great way to score points while getting no closer to the truth, and it comprises perhaps 95% of writing about religion on the internet.

If you’re actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn’t care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you’re looking for answers to that question, Aslan’s Muslim faith, Fox’s hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America’s cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.

Textual criticism and and historical methodology can be boring and hard. Questioning motives and feigning outrage is always fun and easy, and serves as a particularly shallow way for people to engage in intellectual triage. That’s why interesting subjects only suffer when they get dragged into the culture wars.

And it’s why I’m going to try to keep reading my way through Zealot, as well as more orthodox takes like NT Wright‘s.

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