Rod Dreher

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Tradition & Law

Today at the Tradition conference, the discussion is about Tradition and the Law. I can’t follow most of this discussion except at a shallow level, because I have no legal training. But it’s a fascinating and challenging discussion to listen in on.

Most of the people at the table are law professors. At one point, the discussion touched on lawyers and the legal profession being a naturally conservative class and phenomenon because it guarantees stability and continuity, since bound by precedent. Change has to therefore be gradual.

A political theorist spoke up and talked about the importance of forms (e.g., those followed by the lawyers) for conveying tradition, especially in democratic societies, which tend to be against formalism. This is true. But his observation made me recall the dialogue Dante has with Folco in Canto IX of Paradiso. Folco tells the pilgrim that the Pope and the Roman Curia care nothing for living by and stewarding the Biblical tradition, and seeking the salvation of souls, but only for money and worldly power. He compares churchmen of Dante’s day unfavorably to Rahab the prostitute (from the Book of Joshua), who hid the two Jewish spies. She is in heaven because she was repentant and her loves were rightly ordered — unlike the Pope and his circle. Here’s an excerpt from Anthony Esolen’s translation; the words are Folco’s:


The “cursed flower” refers to the coin of Florence. Here it symbolizes the corruption of wealth. As I wrote about Canto IX in this space:

The Decretals are canon law; legal commentaries were written in the margins of the books of Decretals. What the poet is saying to us is that the Church has become a massive bureaucracy that cares wholly about maintaining correct form, and manipulating it for the wealth of the Pope and the cardinals, and nothing about the substance of the faith, as revealed in the Gospels and in the Church Fathers. More to the point, given the role of the Roman church in civil life in Dante’s day, to be an expert in canon law, says John Ciardi, “could make a shyster’s fortune.” The Pope and the Curia, Dante says, are Pharisees — whitewashed sepulchres who prostitute themselves and Holy Church to money and power, while an actual prostitute who risked her own life to serve the Lord receives her reward in Paradise.

The reason I bring Dante up in this context has to do with Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinctions (mentioned yesterday) between icon and idol. An symbolizes a thing beyond itself, but in truth only refers us back to itself. An icon, by contrast, both symbolizes a thing beyond itself and points us to that thing. In the Dante passage, the Pope and the cardinals have, in Folco’s judgment (= the poet Dante’s), come to see the Church as something that exists for itself, and is there to be used by its leaders for worldly gain. The canon law in this corrupt situation is not a means to achieve justice, but something to be manipulated for the sake of gaining power and wealth (which are basically the same thing). As a result, the Pope and the cardinals cut themselves off from Christian memory and tradition (that is, the events in the Gospels, the revelations, on which our faith is based), and make it hard for the Church to do what it is supposed to do: be the ordinary means of salvation for humanity.

What does this have to do with secular law? This, I think: the law brings itself into disrepute when it ceases to be an icon of justice, but rather an idol — that is, a thing that exists for itself. And if it is an idol, then it is a thing to be manipulated to achieve worldly ends. The result will be social disorder.

Does this describe the law in our time? I can’t say for sure, but I’m inclined to say yes. At least it’s a question worth asking. Now, the law is (generally) not crassly used for enrichment of the powerful, as you might think. That’s not my claim. My claim is this:

  1. All law, aside from procedural and administrative law, is legislated morality. It embodies a particular view of the Good, of transcendent moral order.
  2. The Christian moral order — or, if you like, the Judeo-Christian tradition as revealed in the Bible — has generally been the basis for our laws in the American tradition.
  3. But this is no longer the case, not really. Our society has lost a genuinely Christian view of moral order. That’s not to say that the moral order is anti-Christian, necessarily, only that the extent to which it reflects a Christian view is incidental, given that contemporary American culture, especially elite legal culture, has severed itself cleanly from its base in Christian morality and metaphysics. For better or for worse, this is the reality we’re living out.
  4. Therefore, absent a transcendent basis for our laws, the law ceases to be something that attempts to mirror the divine order (that is, the law doesn’t point to a reality beyond itself), but rather becomes  merely about manipulating things to achieve ends we choose.

This does not mean, I hasten to say, that the makers and interpreters of the law will use it to enrich themselves and hoard power. To the contrary, I would say that principled liberals are not cynical in the way Dante accused Boniface VIII of being. They genuinely believe they are pursuing the Good. The problem from a traditional Christian point of view is that the telos, the ultimate Good they are pursuing, is expanding individual autonomy, the sovereignty of the individual. 

One law professor, explaining this point to me during a break, said that he teaches a case in which a court had to decide what to do with frozen embryos a divorcing couple had conceived and stored during happier times. The verdict established the principle that individuals have a right to sell their embryos. The professor said that the core of the jurisprudence here was based entirely on individual autonomy. He mentioned one student who rejected any system of legal reasoning that would fail to guarantee same-sex marriage. The professor said this kind of thing is common among law students today. They’re not bad kids at all, he said; their moral imaginations have been formed by a culture that worships individual autonomy. We should not be surprised, then, that young lawyers and lawyers in training regard the law as an instrument to compel social progress, by their definition.

Later, in the group discussion, another professor said that part of the radical nature of the  Obergefell decision is how it excludes an entire category of argument from the judicial process — specifically, Judeo-Christian arguments for how Creation works. Again, you, reader, may believe that is a very good thing. I expect that most of you do. But from a Christian point of view, this is extremely problematic, and problematic in a way that many contemporary Christians don’t understand.

It’s like this. For orthodox Christians, Christianity is not simply a construal, that is, a complex set of opinions about how the world should be ordered. It is a revelation of how the world really is ordered. For example, to say that God created man and woman in His image is not simply a poetic expression. It is a poetic expression that embodies a profound anthropological and theological truth. Any laws based on a contrary point of view is false, literally. And if those laws end up justifying practices (e.g., trade in human embryos) it might be evil.

Yesterday at the Tradition conference, a participant brought up Tocqueville’s position that liberal democracy depends on religion to form the character of the people, so that they are capable of self-rule. Madison, by the way, said this too, famously holding that our Constitution is only suitable for “a moral and religious people.” Absent this, the unbridled passions of men would tear through our constitutional order “like a whale through a net.”

Anyway, the participant said that liberalism is not producing the kinds of people it needs to perpetuate itself. This point is explored at length by Patrick Deneen in this essay. Excerpts:

Liberalism began with the explicit assertion, and has continued to claim, that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision-making. Yet implicitly it was constituted as a constructive or normative project: What it presented as a description of human voluntarism in fact had to displace a very different form of human self-understanding and long-standing experience. In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships. Liberalism often claims neutrality about the choices people make in liberal society; it is the defender of “Right,” not of any particular conception of the “Good.”

Yet it is not neutral about the basis on which people make their decisions. In the same way that courses in economics claiming merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships fungible and subject to constant redefinition, but so are all relationships—to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism tends to encourage loose connections.

The second revolution, and the second anthropological assumption that constitutes liberalism, is less visibly political. Premodern political thought—ancient and medieval, particularly that informed by an Aristotelian understanding of natural science—understood the human creature to be part of a comprehensive natural order. Man was understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and so humanity was required to conform both to its own nature as well as, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which human beings were a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. Aristotle’s Ethics and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica are alike efforts to delineate the limits that nature—thus, natural law—places upon human beings, and each seeks to educate man about how best to live within those limits, through the practice of virtues, in order to achieve a condition of human flourishing.

Liberal philosophy rejected this requirement of human self-limitation. It first displaced the idea of a natural order to which humanity is subject and thereafter the very notion of human nature itself. Liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences, premised on the transformation of the view of human nature and on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.


If my analysis is fundamentally accurate, liberalism’s endgame is unsustainable in every respect: It cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it continually provide endless material growth in a world of limits. We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back slowly but inexorably into a future in which extreme license invites extreme oppression.

The ancient claim that man is by nature a political animal and must in and through the exercise and practice of virtue learned in communities achieve a form of local and communal self-limitation—a condition properly understood as liberty—cannot be denied forever without cost. Currently we lament and attempt to treat the numerous social, economic, and political symptoms of liberalism’s idea of liberty but not the deeper sources of those symptoms deriving from the underlying pathology of liberalism’s philosophic commitments.

If Deneen is right — and I believe he is — liberal democracy in this radically individualist, post-Christian culture will eventually devolve into tyranny because it cannot do otherwise. It is baked in the cake. Commenter Rob G., on yesterday’s Tradition conference post, said:

This tendency is exactly why Dostoevsky has Shigalyev say “Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.” Radical individualism cannot help but eventually become some form of tyranny.


That’s from the novel Demons. Philosopher John Gray comments:

[Dostoevsky] was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called “nihilism”.

We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. There are plenty of people who believe something similar today.


Dostoyevsky’s novel contains a lesson that reaches far beyond Russia. Early English translations bore the title The Possessed – a misreading of a Russian word more accurately rendered as Demons. But the earlier title may have been closer to Dostoyevsky’s intentions. Though at times he is merciless in his portrayal of them, it isn’t the revolutionaries who are demons. It’s the ideas to which the revolutionaries are enslaved.

Dostoyevsky thought the flaw at the heart of Russian nihilism was atheism, but you needn’t share his view on this point to see that when he writes of the demonic power of ideas he has fastened on a genuine human disorder. Nor do you need to approve of Dostoyevsky’s political outlook, which was a mystical version of nationalism deeply stained with xenophobia.

What Dostoyevsky diagnosed — and at times suffered from himself — was the tendency to think of ideas as being somehow more real than actual human beings. It would be a mistake to imagine that we haven’t also fallen into this sort of delusional thinking.

In contemporary America, we are nihilistic in the sense Dostoevsky meant, according to John Gray. The core idea of the Enlightenment — that humans are not bound by religion, tradition, or any obligations not self-chosen — is, in the Dostoevskian sense, demonic. This is not going to end well.

There was some talk at the table about how difficult it is to get students even to think beyond individual autonomy. (It sounds like trying to get theology students in a medieval cathedral school to think beyond the concept of God’s existence.) One professor said it’s likely that the best thing we can do at this point is to educate our children in the kind of moral realism that is the antidote to the false religion of our time. We have no guarantees of success, but the resistance that Tradition must put up depends on culture — or rather, counterculture. You know where I’m going with this, so I’ll stop now.

What a great conference this was, and how important and relevant to our time. These conversations, these alliances, these networks — they all need to be happening now, and expanding. We are going to need each other in the years to come.

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How Should A Vexed Conservative Vote?

David Frum conducts a helpful thought experiment, coming up with the best cases for conservative voters vexed with their choices in the presidential race. Frum starts from the point of view that the hypothetical voter is a principled conservative who can’t stand either Trump or Hillary, but is committed to voting anyway. What should she do? Here are some excerpts.

From the case for reluctantly voting Trump:

You remember what elections do. Elections choose governments, and then empower those governments to do certain things and refrain from doing other things. A President Trump will do more of what you want done than a President Hillary Clinton will; and do fewer of the things you wish not to be done. A President Trump will try to lower taxes. A President Hillary Clinton will try to raise them. Trump will lighten financial and environmental regulation. Hillary Clinton will tighten it. Trump will direct government spending in ways you are likely to benefit from. Hillary Clinton will try to redirect money away from you to benefit her supporters instead. You don’t blame the young and the urban from voting to move money from your pocketbook to theirs. But aren’t you equally entitled to vote to protect what you earned and created for yourself and your family? It’s not as if you aren’t paying a lot of taxes already—and seeing much of it vanish God knows where, and to enrich God knows who.

At least for the first two years, President Trump will face a Republican Congress. You have no illusions about that either. You know that Trump cares nothing about conservatism or the Republican Party. He’s poisoned his relationship with the House and Senate leadership. However, he’ll sign their bills! It won’t be dignified. There will be scandals. It’ll never be like Reagan again. But then, you’ll never be 25 again. This is good enough for now.

From the case for reluctantly voting third party:

What you want to do is send a distinctly conservative protest against both Hillary Clinton’s progressive ideology and Donald Trump’s con-man narcissism. The bigger the protest vote total, the more respect your conservative ideas can demand in future. Hoist the “Don’t Tread on Me” banner, and check out who else is on the ballot: Libertarian, Independent, or Constitution Party.

From the case for reluctantly voting Clinton:

Do you like Hillary Clinton’s program? No. Do you imagine that she will volunteer concesions to you and your beliefs? No again. Would you count the spoons afterward if Bill Clinton came to dinner? For sure. But can she “do the job”—manage a crisis, pay the bills, respond to hurricanes, face national enemies? Obviously. Look at how she’s coped with that maniac Trump on the debate stage. Couldn’t have been cooler. Despite yourself, you’ve been impressed. She’s smart and tough and open to reason. We could do worse. It’s four years—not even. She’ll perhaps be boxed in by a Republican Congress for the first two years; much more probably so in 2019 and 2020. By then, it’ll be time to try again, this time with a Republican nominee not suffering from a major personality disorder.

But whatever happens, you won’t flinch from the reality of the binary decision. Gestural politics are just ways of evading responsibility. “Don’t blame me, I voted for McMullin.” But choices are judged by their consequences, and the consequences here are stark: If not Hillary, then Trump. If not Trump, then Hillary. Since it can’t be Trump, it must be Hillary. You understand why people might evade that unwelcome reality. But you didn’t get where you are by evading realities. You face them, you meet them, you make the best of them. You’ll hope for the best, but at least you’ll know you did all you could to prevent the worst.

Read the whole thing. There’s more to all of them than I am able to highlight here. If you’re a troubled conservative voter, which one describes you? Did any of Frum’s cases change your mind?

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We Can’t Stand Too Much Justice

Last week, I noted that a number of Trump defenders among conservatives, especially conservative Christians, are following a hypocritical script that we saw in the sex abuse crisis. Got a lot of pushback on that. Today, in the Washington Post, the conservative Evangelical writer Nancy French writes about the same thing, but from a highly personal position: she was sexually assaulted as an adolescent by her family’s pastor. Excerpts:


Some found out about the abuse several years later, but nothing changed. The preacher was too valuable to confront? As far as I know, no one ever mentioned it. He preached with a straight face and lost interest in me when my breasts fully developed.

As soon as I got old enough to leave the house, I quit Christianity, painted my nails black, became a liberal and picked up a cigarette habit.

He didn’t do anything wrong. You caused this. You enjoyed it. You deserved it.

These words in my head bounce around, and I’ve never been able to catch them to properly evaluate their veracity.


The first female president possibly will have ridden the coattails of her husband (who has been accused of rape) to the Oval Office; the GOP nominee likes younger women, used to hang out with a known pedophile and bragged on video about doing to women what the preacher did to me so many years ago.

When the Trump videotapes broke, I watched the news and Twitter feeds of prominent evangelicals to see justice be done. But what I saw was all-too-familiar and yet somehow still shocking. “This is how men talk,” one said. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” another said another — who used to “focus on the family” and had never uttered that phrase to refer to any Democrat who ever walked the face of the earth.

It’s hard to describe the effect 2016 has had on sexual abuse survivors. I believed the men in my party when they shrugged off the constant liberal accusations of being anti-woman.

But Pope John Paul II’s words ring true: “Christ … assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man.” If that’s right, the men in my party, in my church, in my life have failed; they ask me to participate in overlooking the offense.


Of course, dear. Take that bullet for the team. For the greater good. If you don’t, the Enemies of Righteousness win.

Read the whole thing. It’s a punch in the gut. I remember sitting in front of the television in my apartment on the day Bill Clinton was impeached, thinking that it was so great that justice had been done, and that powerful man had not been able to get away with his abuse of power. So many of us on the Right felt that way, and enjoyed pointing out what a pack of hypocrites liberals, especially liberal feminists, were to defend Bill Clinton simply because he was on their side, and if he went down, the Enemies of Righteousness would triumph.

That is still true about the left. And it’s true about us on the right too. It was true about many on both the Catholic left and Catholic right during the scandal. Partisans of both sides, neither wanted to focus too much on malefactors on their own side, and rationalized not doing so.

Humans want justice, but we can’t stand too much justice.

UPDATE: The Catholic writer David Mills nails it:

These men gave up, because their politics requires they give it up, the sympathy to see how such remarks affect others. The men I’m thinking of aren’t normally so callous. But politics.

They know rape is bad, but that’s as much as they’ll admit. Every form of sexual abuse, even being “handsy” and making suggestive remarks, has a place on the spectrum with rape at the other end. Each violates the woman’s integrity and dignity and each includes the threat of further violations. Each objectifies the victim, de-humanizes her, and thereby makes her vulnerable.

Many men would be surprised at how many women they know have such stories and how angry they are about it. Christian men might be surprised at how often these stories involve Christian men.

I want to tell such men: If you can’t understand how this experience affects women in general, try to imagine a man talking like that about your wife or your daughters. How would you feel if you walked into a room and found an older man being “handsy” with your 22-year-old daughter or making flirtatious remarks to your wife about her body?

What would you say or do then? That’s what you’re notsaying or doing when you say the hot mic remarks are just the way guys talk, or declare “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” or demand Christians forgive the speaker though he hasn’t repented, or change the subject to the political issue you think is at stake, or try to divert attention by pointing to the other side’s problems, or in one of several other ways rationalize away such talk. You are not caring for the least of these as Jesus tells you to.

Read on. Again, a punch in the gut. We need to be punched like this.

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The Soul Of The Clinton Machine

The Hillary Clinton Machine  (PiwoJasne/Shutterstock)
The Hillary Clinton Machine (PiwoJasne/Shutterstock)

Charles Krauthammer, explaining why he’s not voting for either Trump or Clinton, says this about Hillary, in light of the recent Wikileaks revelations:

The soullessness of [Clinton’s] campaign — all ambition and entitlement — emerges almost poignantly in the emails, especially when aides keep asking what the campaign is about. In one largely overlooked passage,Clinton complains that her speechwriters have not given her any overall theme or rationale. Isn’t that the candidate’s job? Asked one of her aides, Joel Benenson: “Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?”

It’s that emptiness at the core that makes every policy and position negotiable and politically calculable. Hence the embarrassing about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the popular winds swung decisively against free trade.

So too with financial regulation, as in Dodd-Frank. As she told a Goldman Sachs gathering, after the financial collapse there was “a need to do something because, for political reasons . . . you can’t sit idly by and do nothing.”

Of course, we knew all this. But we hadn’t seen it so clearly laid out. Illicit and illegal as is WikiLeaks, it is the camera in the sausage factory. And what it reveals is surpassingly unpretty.

Read the whole thing. 

Who on the left is genuinely excited about voting for Hillary Clinton? Sure, there are some, but she strikes me as being a Democratic figure who’s a lot like Mitt Romney was on the Right: the perfect distillation of a kind of Establishmentarianism within their own party. (I hasten to say that whatever my disagreement with Romney over policy might have been, he always struck me as a thoroughly decent person. Hillary Clinton … not.) It is hard to think of two more different figures on the Right than Mitt Romney and Donald Trump — temperamentally and otherwise. Yet within four years, the GOP convulsed so much that it got Donald Trump. What Trump’s triumph over the GOP Establishment showed was its deep weakness. It just needed a strong push.

Might that be the case for the Democrats post-Clinton? Who is the Donald Trump of the Democratic Party? Where might he come from? I don’t think we can see him (or her) now, but I have a hunch that he’s out there. I find it hard to believe that the Democrats are not going to be immune to the same economic and cultural forces that dismantled the GOP. I could be wrong. Her sort of conniving, careerist, technocratic liberalism surely is not long for this world. Yes?

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The Allure of Annihilation

Into a dark wood, there be orcs (VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock)
Into a dark wood, there be orcs (VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock)

As I said earlier, I’m hearing more and more from conservative friends that the whole damn system is rotten and needs to be blown up. A reader e-mails this morning:

I was struck when reading the comments section on [the] Intemperate Minds [post] of the difference George R. R. Martin pointed out between Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. His argument was that Tolkien doesn’t wrestle with the ugliness of ruling. It’s all fantasy. When one of your correspondents wrote “you can’t control a revolution” I thought of this. The “blow the system up” response is real and authentic and I think you’ve identified a lot of the reasons it exists (whether the system is the GOP of the media). I find that view appealing and sympathetic.

But the idea that once you blow the place up it’s going to operate successfully and smoothly (which is Trump’s promise) is where I find a leap too big to make. That’s the governing part that Martin is talking about. Trump in that environment, with his instincts, has shown nothing this campaign that shows he can handle the governing part. To simply grant him power to control the revolution is (as you point out in your piece) a gigantic leap. I think that’s objectively true. He is a disrupter it’s true, but disruption has costs and those who pay the cost aren’t only the ones who created the system that called out for Trump’s disruption. I think.

This is true, and a profoundly conservative insight. It made me think of something Sen. John McCain said the other day in a radio interview in Pennsylvania, where GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is running for re-election:

“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” McCain said. “I promise you. This is where we need the majority and Pat Toomey is probably as articulate and effective on the floor of the Senate as anyone I have encountered.”

“This is the strongest argument I can make to return Pat Toomey, so we can make sure there are not three places on the United States Supreme Court that will change this country for decades,” McCain said.

Now, for a religious and social conservative like me, there is a strong temptation to take this position. The thing I fear the most about Hillary Clinton’s presidency is what it would mean for the Supreme Court. But what McCain said is both wrong and destabilizing. You cannot have a stable and just system whose rules will only be observed if the outcome is guaranteed in one side’s favor, and defied if not. The system in that case becomes about nothing more than gaining and exercising power. There is no transcendent moral vision sustaining it. What McCain said here was extraordinarily reckless, and, if attempted by Senate Republicans, would surely provoke a constitutional crisis.

If Republicans were actually conservative, they would be instinctively wary of putting our constitutional system to the test like this. We don’t know what’s on the other side of that revolution.

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The Tradition Conference

Good morning from New York. I’m at a two-day conference sponsored by St. John’s Law School dedicated to the discussion of Tradition. Everybody here is an academic of some sort or another, aside from Your Faithful Scribe, who, I suspect, was invited to mix the Sazeracs at cocktail hour. I will be blogging the conference today and tomorrow, putting all my comments in this space, on a running basis. The one protocol I am bound to observe is to keep everyone’s comments around the conference table anonymous. I welcome your comments here throughout the day.

We began with someone mentioning Jaroslav Pelikan’s observation that it is “a mark of an authentic and living tradition that it points us beyond itself.” Tradition, he says, is like an icon. Here’s a clip from the readings. Pelikan:


So, tradition, on Pelikan’s view, has to be rooted in transcendence. He says that the Enlightenment’s claims of universal rights grounded in Reason saw itself as not depending on Tradition at all to arrive at the truth. The problem with this, he says, is that we find that it is very difficult to hold on to these supposedly universal truths without having grounded them in the tradition that produced them. And this is something proved simply by reading the daily newspaper.

One question raised around the table: Can a tradition that’s conscious of itself do what a tradition must do? The question is closely related to Charles Taylor’s point about religion in a “secular age” — that it is impossible in our time and place for religious belief to be unconscious of itself as anything other than chosen. That’s not to say that particular religious claims (or claims for tradition) are untrue, so much that our relationship with them is unavoidably contingent, because we can’t escape awareness that we could live and believe otherwise.

UPDATE: Someone said that he doesn’t think that the problem our culture faces today is a problem of the Enlightenment and its rationality, but a return to “extremely dangerous” tribalism. A reinforcement of Enlightenment rationality would shore things up.

Another person said that tradition is the hard wall we build around our animal instincts. Most people don’t reason everything out, and cannot. Tradition tell us “we don’t do this thing” without us having to think about it. A colleague agreed, putting in this way:

“The tradition has been trying to de-animalize what is animal. It is dealing with the animal side of human nature to make it more human.”

Someone said that Tradition is challenged from two sides: “Emancipators” and “Purifiers”. St. Paul, he said, seeks to emancipate the Greeks but purify the Hebrews. He went on:

“I think multiculturalism is actually a purifying project. … I’ve come to recognize that anti-Traditionalism is only possible in the West. It is a purification challenge to Tradition, not an emancipation challenge.”

One law professor pointed to Josef Pieper’s assertion is that tradition has to start with revelation.

“Can we in contemporary America point to revelation as the ultimate authority, and if it can’t, what does that mean for the preservation of Tradition?” he said. “It seems that we can’t do that, because we don’t have a shared religion, and a common religious authority.”

Finally in this morning’s session, a professor said that when thinking about how to present Tradition in an attractive way to young people, we should talk about “sustainability,” and ways that Tradition is necessary to provide sustainability across time. (Note: is “sustainability” another way of saying “stability,” in the Benedictine sense?)

UPDATE.2: The topic moves on to Tradition in religion. One college professor said that it is so difficult to get undergraduates to openly criticize other religious traditions that he fears it results in them being unwilling to take their own traditions seriously.

Another professor said that there is a great deal of anti-religious hostility in the culture. It’s just expressed in other ways:

“Folks aren’t ‘anti-Catholic’; they’re just ‘anti-hate,'” he said. “That BYU is not allowed in a football conference, that’s the future.”

Another professor said his undergraduate history students are deeply shocked by the religiosity they encounter in their readings in American history. He said that they even find it difficult to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because of its religious content. But here’s the interesting thing:

“They don’t want to be terribly critical of Islam. They view it as a common enemy against the Christianity they oppose. They’re much less critical of Islam, even though Islam is just as conservative as Catholicism, and even more conservative sometimes.”

UPDATE.3: Noted conservative Catholic thinker: “I am more and more fascinated by the irrelevance of Catholicism to the politics of the nation.”

Noted Evangelical legal scholar disagreed, pointing to the fact that so many Supreme Court justices are Catholics. Said that “Evangelicalism has a sort of ideological void that’s being filled with Catholic ideas. Evangelicals know the important things — about the Bible, and so forth — but when it comes to thinking about society, they don’t have a clue.”

Catholic responds: “Where has that gotten us? Now we’ve got Trump. Catholicism has turned out to be ineffective.”

Evangelical shoots back: “We do not have Trump. We have Paul Ryan. And what religion is he?”

(Orthodox scribe thinks to self: “Hmm, who’s ‘we’?” Paul Ryan’s popularity recently took a massive hit among Republican voters because he is not fully on board the Trump train. Trump is not embraced by conservative and Republican elites, it’s true. But the conservative political party does have Donald Trump. At dinner last night, I was talking to a prominent anti-Trump conservative intellectual who is worried about how the #NeverTrump people will react after Trump’s defeat. He is afraid that they will harshly bash Trump Republicans, in a way that hurts conservative politics overall. There is no way to go forward unless we on the Right figure out how to do it together.)

An Eastern Orthodox academic says that most of the Catholics he comes across are essentially Mainline Protestants. He said that this is true in his own Orthodox parish, despite the fact that Orthodoxy is a very traditional form of Christianity. The real religion of Americans, no matter what their tradition, is individualism. This, as you know, is precisely what Christian Smith et al. found regarding Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

UPDATE.4: Said one scholar: “Liberalism depends on a kind of individual that it doesn’t produce.”

He explained that to succeed, liberal societies depend on other institutions to build character in its citizens. He made the Tocquevillian point that minority religions are important in this respect — minority, because their countercultural witness emerges out of their communitarianism. “You only really get that from a minority religion, a religion of people who know they have to stick together, that they can’t just send their people out into the world and expect everything to be fine,” he said.

Another professor responded: “I don’t know how much longer the wider society is going to allow those communities to flourish. … I’m not so sure this is going to be a viable strategy going forward.”

Very prominent law professor agrees, says that he doesn’t believe that Catholics and other dissenters from the Sexual Revolution will be permitted by the state to live by their convictions.

(From me: This is the stage where somebody always says, “And this is why the Benedict Option will never work. They won’t let you do it.” And then I say: “No, this is why the Benedict Option is more necessary than ever. Whatever force the state brings to bear onto us, we have to find a way to resist. Do you think it will be more difficult to hold on to our Christian traditions in post-Christian America than it was for the Polish Catholics in Nazi-occupied Poland? Or Christians in the Soviet bloc? I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties ahead, but I do think it’s unrealistic for conservatives to say that the Benedict Option is pointless because sooner or later, the state will stop whatever we try. Well, what’s the alternative? If the state went so far as to close down all dissenting churches — a worst-case scenario that nobody seriously expects, at least at this point — would Christians at that point throw up their hands and say, “Well, that’s that. Goodbye, God!” Of course not. So the question then becomes: OK, how do we hold on to our faith even under the direst conditions? )

UPDATE.5: I apologize for not keeping up here. The conversation is so rich, but also so very varied. Hard to both write and listen.

Now we’re talking about politics. One law professor is saying that just as we don’t have  real religious traditionalism in American life, we don’t have a traditionalism in American politics. Tocqueville, he said, pointed out that American religion is democratic, not hierarchical. There is an absence of hierarchy and established authority — and that’s true for our politics as well. Our constitutional order was founded on a revolution.

Another professor said that the Anthony Kennedy conception of liberty (“the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”) is the dominant one in the American imagination, which makes passing on a political tradition (or frankly, any tradition) very difficult.

Earlier, there was a brief exchange about whether or not American politics is built around symbols, or principles? Or is this a false distinction? One law professor said that symbols matter a great deal to Americans, which is why we have a culture war over our history, and what history means. Whoever controls the past controls the present, as the saying goes. Another person at the table said that you can see this in the popularity of books about the Founders.

I pushed back a bit on that. It’s true today, but will this be true tomorrow? The way technology is training younger generations to think about the past might make it impossible for them to receive a tradition. Here’s what I mean. My 17 year old loves music, and has extremely eclectic tastes. It’s a marvelous thing to see, because he really loves this stuff. His appreciation for popular music is far broader and deeper than my own. He has only been able to do this because technology (Spotify, primarily) has made the past come to his fingertips. Again, this is a great thing. But I don’t think he has a sense of musical tradition, and how it developed. This is probably not such a big deal, but it does make me wonder if younger generations, whose imaginations are formed by having the world mediated to them through the Internet, will come to think of our political tradition not as something received, but as something to be manipulated for our own use. Said the professor next to me, “History as bricolage.”

Yes, that’s it. Again, I’m probably overthinking this, as I do everything, but I think it’s plausible to think that the way technology construes the way we relate to the past.

UPDATE.6: A discussion about how the historical experience of slavery and racial discrimination has greatly narrowed (even poisoned) the ability to appeal to tradition, and traditions, when it comes to contemporary political issues.

Should access to marriage be constitutionally guaranteed to same-sex couples? Bommmmp! Can’t discuss it, or at least can’t discuss it meaningfully and honestly, because slavery. That is, as soon as someone analogizes the issue to slavery or segregation, the argument is effectively over.

“You can’t live in a free society if everything is an analogy to slavery,” said one man. “Ultimately, what it is to think traditionally is to allow practices to develop through the normal experience of public life. … The slavery argument against localism is not crazy. There are instances in which local majorities oppress local minorities. That really happens. But you can’t have a real discussion about politics if everything is the Civil War.”

(Note passed to me by law prof on my left: “Liberals are Civil War re-enactors (but they don’t know it)”.)

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View From Your Table



Not the best framed VFYT, but I had to record it for posterity. This is the grilled octopus at Molyvos, a Greek restaurant in Manhattan, near Carnegie Hall. It is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. I could have eaten five of them. You sir, you madam, you go to New York and you go to Molyvos and you order the grilled octopus and you thank the Lord. Trust me on this.

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Beyond Trump & Clinton

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I know a lot of my conservative readers are very frustrated over my unwillingness to embrace Donald Trump in the face of Hillary Clinton. You know where I stand on Trump’s deal-killing character defects. Hillary is also a disaster, but of a different kind. I am very pessimistic about the future of America. But this is not news to you regular readers.

I want to give you a little more insight into where I’m coming from. First Things published a very good piece by Michael Hanby of the JPII Institute at Catholic U., in which he put the current Storm and Stress into perspective. Excerpts:

The kind of “soul-searching” I have in mind is not the endless cycle of mutual recrimination between those who are alleged to have sold their souls to Hillary, those who are alleged to have sold their souls to Trump, and those allegedly cowardly souls who withdrew from the fray. Besides the garden-variety cynicism and sophistry we have come to expect from American politics, times as confusing as these are sure to produce colossal but well intentioned errors of judgment on all sides. I leave it to God and the party apparatchiks to sort all that out. It is still the Year of Mercy, after all. Besides, I do not find the question of who voted for whom all that interesting. The vices of each candidate are well-known. They do not need to be weighed and measured yet again. A Trump election would likely have accelerated our descent into chaos, fueling violent social disintegration and fragmenting the “deep state” into an ad hoc collection of bureaucratic fiefdoms unresponsive to the erratic declarations of an unstable executive whom they regarded as illegitimate. A Clinton election almost certainly means that the juggernaut of progressive Cultural Revolution will proceed unobstructed. Each of these dismal possibilities is sure to bring painful real-world consequences, and together they manifest the exhaustion of liberal order and deep civilizational crisis which we lack the wherewithal to fully recognize or understand. It is this crisis that we should reflect upon.


“There is nothing like a good shock of pain,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Silver Chair, “for dissolving certain kinds of magic.” If there is hope to be found in this painful political year, it is in the fact that the spell which liberal modernity has long cast over the Christian imagination might finally be starting to dissolve even as technocracy tightens its grip on our everyday lives. The fundamental question in the wake of that dissolution and in the face of the interminable juggernaut of technological and liberal order is not whether we can rebuild conservatism or renew the moral foundations of civil society, but whether we can find our way to the fullness of the transcendent faith with all that this implies, and live in the light of a truly eschatological hope.

Or, to put it another way: In the end, shoring up the imperium is not what should concern orthodox Christians in A.D. 2016. Shoring up the church and the living Christian tradition is infinitely more important. Whence The Benedict Option.

I’m in New York for a couple of days attending a conference on big-t Tradition. I don’t know what the ground rules are, but I’m hoping to be able to blog on it, either in real time or later. I’ll find out tonight. There are some great people here. I hope to interview some of them for this blog.

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O Ye Men Of Intemperate Minds

What would Burke make of Trump's paranoia? (Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock)
What would Burke make of Trump’s paranoia? (Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock)

Some further thoughts on last night.

I really can’t understand the lack of alarm on the part of so many of my fellow conservatives over Donald Trump’s refusal in advance to confirm that he will accept the results of the election.

“But what about Al Gore?” you say. “He contested the results of the 2000 election.” Yes, he did, and he was right to do so — and so would Trump be in those circumstances.

Gore won the popular vote, and the presidency depended on the integrity of the results in South Florida. The US Supreme Court made its decision, ultimately. I don’t recall that I had much good to say about Al Gore, ever, but his decision to accept the Court’s verdict as final was an act of selflessness and patriotism. Many of his supporters believe the Court’s call was nakedly political, and unjust. It may have been, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that whatever his belief in his heart, Gore affirmed that in our system, the Supreme Court has the final say – and in so doing, affirmed our system.

What if Gore had spent 2001 gallivanting around the country rousing angry liberal audiences against the government, saying he had been cheated, and so had they? What kind of condition would the nation have been to meet the challenges ahead on 9/11? Had Gore done that, he would have had a far stronger case than Donald Trump can possibly have, given that he, Gore, won the popular vote.

But he didn’t do that. He accepted a loss he surely believed was unjust for the sake of the good of the country.

Donald Trump is going to lose on November 8, and he is going to lose badly. He is going to be soundly beaten by a terrible Democratic nominee, a woman who is unliked, tainted by corruption, and the most divisive figure in public life other than … Donald Trump. I believe it is true that the Democrats are capable of engaging in voter fraud, and I take it as given that somewhere in America on election day, it will happen.


If the current polls hold up (Clinton ahead by seven points), the scale of Trump’s loss will far exceed anything that could be credibly attributed to fraud or any other kind of “rigging.” It is extremely reckless for Trump to be seeding the nation with doubt about the validity and legitimacy of the election. The only reason he’s doing it is to protect his own vanity when he is walloped, and walloped by a woman at that – and not only walloped by a woman, but walloped by Hillary Clinton, who would have been a pushover for any other GOP contender.

The Republican establishment has to realize that Trump didn’t rig or otherwise steal the party’s nomination: he won it fair and square, and he won it mostly because the party establishment itself fell badly out of touch with the mood of the country and its voters. You don’t have a fool like Trump defeating what was once touted as the deepest GOP candidate bench in history if Trump didn’t know something that that allegedly deep bench did not.

And yet, Trump has blown this race entirely on his own. In truth, he never really stood a chance, because the only way he was going to win it was to pivot towards being someone he’s not. No 70-year-old man is going to be able to do that, especially given that he has made his public reputation by saying outrageous things on camera. We all know Trump’s many weaknesses, so I won’t rehearse them again here. The point to be made, though, is that Trump gave Americans who might have been persuaded to vote for him 1,001 reasons not to. Hell, he rubbed the nation’s face in them.

For me, it has always been a matter of character with Trump. I know what Hillary Clinton is about, what she stands for, and what she will do in office. I dread it and reject it strongly. I think she and her husband are grifters. I believe that Project Veritas has credibly demonstrated that there are elements within the Democratic Party machine willing to engage in Saul Alinsky-type provocations, and even voter fraud. I concede that the national media are reflexively biased against the Republican nominee, no matter who it is.

And yet, we still have no reason at this point to think that Trump will be denied the presidency because the election was “rigged.” 

Apply Occam’s Razor to this situation. Donald Trump represents a sharp deviation from the Republican norm in terms of his policies. Hey, that’s what a lot of people like about him! It’s why I have been somewhat sympathetic to him for most of this year, and if not #NeverTrump, then anti-anti-Trump in my convictions. But there was always going to be no small number of Republicans who found him hard to take.

Then there was his shrill, bombastic rhetoric, his many lies and self-contradictions, the many reports of his shafting people he’s done business with, his recklessness, his self-absorption, his abrasive and thin-skinned temperament. Even if you sympathize with the guy, he specializes in making it hard to vote for him. And this was before he was caught on tape bragging about forcing himself sexually on women.

Yes, the undeniable awfulness of Hillary Clinton covers a multitude of sins in any Republican nominee, but I fear more for my country under a Trump presidency than a Clinton one, precisely because of his unhinged personality. I have no idea what he would do with power, and what kind of constitutional crisis he would provoke, but I am very confident he would provoke one. Hillary is a hawk, for sure, but how can anybody believe Trump would be a more sober, restrained steward of foreign policy?

Look, maybe I’m wrong about him. But you’ve got to concede that Trump himself has given voters, especially women voters, ample reason to reject him. That’s not the result of conspiracies. There is something deeply, deeply wrong with that man.

Trump’s behavior reminds me of my own when I was a little kid, and would run foot races with my little sister. She was two years younger than I, but a really good athlete. I couldn’t stand the prospect of being beaten by her. She was a girl, after all, and she was younger than I was. Sometimes, my ego would be so great that as we approached the finish line, and I could see she was going to win, I deliberately fell, and claimed that I had tripped. Anything to deny her the satisfaction of knowing she beat me.

It was cheap and revealed a lack of character, but I did it. I was nine. Trump is 70.

If, by some unforeseen circumstance, Trump’s vote comes close to Hillary Clinton and/or there is clear evidence of significant voter fraud, I hope he will challenge the results. But if the Clinton victory is upheld by the Supreme Court, do you think he will accept it? No, he won’t! He will tour the country complaining about how the corrupt system robbed him, and trying to whip up people to rebel against the system.

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I do believe that our system is in serious trouble. Jim Rutenberg of the NYT and I talked briefly the other day about Trump’s claim that the election is being “rigged” by the media. Excerpt:

It was as tense as anyone had seen it since the candidacy of George Wallace, and yet it was almost understandable given what Mr. Trump had been telling them: The news media was trying to “poison the minds” of voters with “lies, lies, lies.” All of it, he said, is part of a “conspiracy against you, the American people” that also includes “global financial interests.”

The idea that the press is part of some grand conspiracy against the people, presented in such incendiary terms, goes well beyond the longstanding Republican complaints about liberal bias. You’d more expect to hear it from Lenin or the pages of the anti-Semitic publication American Free Press than from the standard-bearer of the Republican Party.

But it is resonating with a large portion of the American electorate. There are many reasons, some of which should cause the news media to make good on its promises to examine its own disconnect from the cross section of Americans whose support for Mr. Trump it never saw coming.


There also tends to be a shared sense of noble mission across the news media that can preclude journalists from questioning their own potential biases.

“The people who run American journalism, and who staff the newsrooms, think of themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, told me. “They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care to know it.”

Mr. Dreher lives in Louisiana and has worked at five major city newspapers across the country. He does not support Mr. Trump but says he understands why his supporters are so frustrated. As far as he’s concerned, mainstream journalists are “interested in every kind of diversity, except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices.” Those include, “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people.”

To be perfectly clear, it’s obvious to me that Trump is trying to deflect criticism of his own flaws and failings by scapegoating the media in classic demagogic fashion. That said, it’s important to think about why this attack by Trump works so well with so many people. As I indicated with Rutenberg, it’s because the kind of people to whom Trump is speaking know perfectly well that the media really are biased against their point of view in most cases. They’re being manipulated by Trump here, but for the reasons I gave to Rutenberg, they have brought a lot of this mistrust and loathing onto themselves. And not only the media, but most institutions of American life.

I have been going on for a while about this thing I call the Benedict Option, not because I think the system is so corrupt that it’s impossible for honest Christians to live in it, but because I believe that our culture itself has moved so far away from Christianity that the faith is in danger of disappearing via total assimilation (more on which in another post). That is the most important thing to me, and it ought to be the most important thing to all serious Christians, not the preservation of liberal democracy. I think a Trump presidency would greatly accelerate the break-up of the culture and the country, but I think another Clinton presidency will do the same, only on a slower basis. Maybe it’s inevitable. The only reason I can see choosing Trump over Hillary is the possibility that he will appoint Supreme Court justices that will protect religious liberty, and generally make better decisions. If I thought Trump had anything remotely like a sound character, I could convince myself to vote for him. But he doesn’t, and he’s a dangerous crank. For example, only a dangerous crank would be running around the country a month before the election telling everyone that the outcome, if it goes against him, will have been fraudulent.

I’ll leave this topic alone. I want to say, though, that conservatives had better be very careful about how far we go in kicking the foundations out from under our form of government. Yeah, yeah, I’m one to talk, with my growing doubts about liberal democracy. If we are going to fathom changing the constitutional order, it had better come about slowly and deliberately, not because some demagogue went out into the fields ranting and firing up people’s passions. The Republican Party establishment is partly responsible for Trump because it would not change to accommodate new realities. That’s on them.

The Democratic Party, and liberals more generally, is partly responsible for Trump because they have long embraced identity politics, in particular racial grievance politics, and are somehow shocked when it’s turned back on them. Liberal college administrators don’t have the courage to stand up to racialized mobs trampling on the normal modes of liberal democratic discourse. The Democrats are going to get their own Trump one of these days. Again, though, that’s on them.

But it’s on us, the conservatives, to respond with gravity, steadiness, and restraint to this crisis in front of us, and not to yield to our passions and go the way of the mob. It’s hard. I know it’s hard. Lots of times I too want to kick the damn thing over. But once we smash it up, then what? Trump is playing a very dangerous game here.

“It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Their passions forge their fetters.” Think about it. If you don’t think things could get any worse, you have no imagination. Now is not the time for panic. We are going to have to keep our heads for the next four years, if not longer.


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Trump Disqualifies Himself

This is it. This is the election, right here:

Republican candidate Donald Trump refused to say on Wednesday that he would accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, leaving open the possibility he would challenge the ultimate outcome.

In the third and final presidential debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Trump said he would wait to decide whether the outcome was legitimate.

“I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense,” Trump said.

The Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidency said on national television, three weeks before the election, that he might not accept its legitimacy.

On no grounds whatsoever. 

Every horrible thing Hillary said tonight, every horrible thing she stands for, every horrible thing her presidency is going to mean for the country and the causes most important to me — all of it is obviated by this statement. A man so vain and so unspeakably reckless cannot be trusted in the White House.

This country is in a hell of a place.

UPDATE: Just FYI, I am traveling this morning, and will only be able to approve comments sporadically.

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