Rod Dreher

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Is The Benedict Option Good For The Gays?

Emma Green’s review piece on The Benedict Option is up today at The Atlantic site. Here’s a link to it. She didn’t really like the book. That disappoints me, because she’s one of the best religion reporters out there, and I admire her work. But she seems to understand that the book isn’t really for readers like her. Anyway, I appreciate the attention she gave to my book. I do want to respond to some of her points, though.

We talked for over an hour a few weeks back. I enjoyed the interview, but I told my wife afterward that I was struck by how much time Emma spent asking me about LGBT issues and the Ben Op, as if that were the main part of the book and the project. I got the impression that the main question she has about the Benedict Option project is whether or not it’s good for the gays. This didn’t surprise me too much, given that she writes for The Atlantic, which has a particular affinity for writing favorably about LGBT culture (e.g., “Meet the Latino Drag Queens Defying North Carolina’s Anti-LGBT Law”). Still, it struck me as off-kilter — in fact, as an example of progressives and journalists deciding that social and religious conservatives are obsessed with homosexuality, when in fact it is they who are preoccupied with it, and focus disproportionately on it when they see churches not on board with full LGBT acceptance.

And so it turns out that Emma Green didn’t really like The Benedict Option because … it’s not good for the gays. Excerpts:

Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.

And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.

“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”

She finds this alarmist. But I argue in the book that the de-Christianization of Western culture is a process that has been going on for centuries, and that it is something that has been masked in recent decades by the political influence conservative US Christians have enjoyed. I make the argument that political success is misleading, because it conceals the abject failure of traditional Christians on the cultural front. As I explain in the book, being a faithful Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican. The fact that so many of my fellow conservative Christians have made that mistake over the past 30 years are so helps account for the dilemma we find ourselves in today.

More:

There was a time when Christian thinkers like Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative, might have prepared to fight for cultural and political control. Dreher, however, sees this as futile. “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood?” he asks. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” This strategic withdrawal from public life is what he calls the Benedict option.

Dreher’s proposal is as remarkable as his fear. It is a radical rejection of the ties between Christianity and typical forms of power, from Republican politics to market-driven wealth. Instead, Dreher says, Christians should embrace pluralism, choosing to fortify their own communities and faith as one sub-culture among many in the United States.

But it is a vision that will not be easily achieved. Conservative Christianity no longer sets the norms in American culture, and transitioning away from a position of dominance to a position of co-existence will require significant adjustment, especially for a people who believe so strongly in evangelism. Even if that happens, there are always challenges at the boundaries of sub-cultures. It’s not clear that Dreher has a clear vision of how Christians should engage with those they disagree with—especially the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture.

Well, let me clarify the judgment in that last line. Quite often secular or progressive people want to know why conservative Christians are so concerned about LGBT issues. They ask it as if there is something wrong with us for our concerns. There are several reasons, but the most pertinent one is this: LGBT activism is the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war. The struggle over gay rights is what is threatening our religious liberty, putting Christian merchants out of business, threatening the tax-exempt status and accreditation of Christian schools and colleges, inspiring the federal government to order public schools to allow transgenders into locker rooms (thankfully, the Trump administration is going to reverse that Obama order), and so forth. We pay so much attention to LGBT issues because we are made to care. Our religious liberty and the doctrinal integrity of our churches, especially our understanding of human nature and the meaning of sex and the family, depends on it.

This is not the fight that most conservative Christians I know (including me!) want to have. But it’s the fight that has been brought to us, and is brought to us every day.

More:

“We Christians have a lot to learn from Modern Orthodox Jews,” he told me in an interview. Many of Dreher’s suggestions appear to echo Orthodox Jewish life, including daily prayers, restrictions on diet and work, and extensive educational networks. “They have had to live in a way that’s powerfully counter-cultural in American life and rooted in thick community and ancient traditions,” he said. “And yet, they manage to do it.”

This comparison is telling about how Dreher perceives the status of Christians in American society. Jews make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Modern Orthodox Jews are a tiny minority within that group—Pew estimates that they account for 3 percent of all American Jews, or roughly .06 percent of Americans. While it’s impossible to estimate the exact number of Americans who would identify with the ecumenical, theologically conservative Christianity Dreher describes, it is far bigger than the number of Modern Orthodox Jews.

It seems as though Dreher is saying that Christians need to be ready to live as religious minorities. But he fails to acknowledge an important distinction between the two groups, beyond mere size. Jews act like a counter-cultural, marginalized group because they’ve been that way for two millennia—powerless, small in number, at odds with the broader cultures of the places where they’ve lived. The American conservatives Dreher is addressing, on the other hand, are coming from a place of power. For many years, they dictated the legal and cultural terms of non-Christians’ lives. The Benedict option is relevant precisely because America is becoming more religiously fractured, and Christianity is no longer the cultural default.

I think I see where the disconnect is between Emma and me. She can’t shake the idea that political power is the best measure of religious influence. Over the course of The Benedict Option, I marshal evidence to show that Christianity in America, even conservative Christianity, is a Potemkin village, one that’s going to be pushed over in the decades to come, because there’s nothing behind it holding it up.

By far the more important measure is the one sociologist of religion Christian Smith and his colleagues have made of the actual religious beliefs of young Americans, regarding Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Here is an excerpt from The Benedict Option:

This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”

MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.

As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.4 Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

If you want to see the future power of conservative Christianity in America, look to Europe today. If I write with an alarmist tone — and I do — it’s because I’m trying to wake up the churches, my own people, and tell them that we are in much worse trouble than we think. I spoke to a campus minister who came to hear my talk last night in Canton, and he said everything I said about how unprepared Christians are for the world we’re in now, and the world we’re going into, is true, based on his experience.

In the Q&A portion of the event, an undergraduate stood and said, “I don’t understand. You say we have to do this Benedict Option, but what’s wrong with just loving Jesus with all your heart, like I was taught to do growing up?” She was sincere and genuinely confused by what I was saying. My heart went out to her, because her winsomeness and innocence was so palpable, but this world is going to eat her alive.

The pastor who approached me said that young woman is so typical of the young people he works with at the institution he serves. They’re sincere and good-hearted, but they think that’s going to be enough to carry them through. It’s not. The pastor said, “We have to do a much better job of discipleship. That is our challenge today.”

I had a wonderful conversation with a small group that included reader Chad Green, who drove all the way in from Columbus for the lecture. He told a story about a significant sacrifice he and his wife are making to ensure that their kids are receiving real formation in church, as opposed to youth group shallowness. On this blog this morning, Chad reflected:

I woke up this morning thinking about the young lady in the back who asked the question at the conclusion of your talk “Isn’t loving Jesus enough?” Your answer was very patient and kind but I think she was shaken by it. In my experience, there is very little emphasis on orthopraxy in most evangelical churches. There is very little in the way of instruction or discipleship taking place either. Her question re-enforced the awareness of the responsibility I have as a father to impart the faith to my four boys. Those of us who profess Christ as Lord must seize the initiative in our families to instill in our children the faith that has been entrusted to us. I am not sure of all the details of how the Benedict Option fits into this exactly, but a community of Christians reinforcing the teachings in the home is vital to our spiritual survival.

It’s like this: we could have Republican Party-led government from now till kingdom come, led by politicians endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and the lot — and it would avail the church nothing. That is the message of the Benedict Option. American Christians who want to hold on to Christian orthodoxy in a post-Christian society would do well to emulate Orthodox Jews. It’s like this: a young Evangelical high school student told me that her current (public) school is one in which she is only one of a handful of confessing Christians. She said her old public school, the one she attended before moving, had a lot more Christians in it. Yet she says she prefers the school she’s in now, because “at least here I know what it really means to be a Christian.” I asked her to explain. She said that all her youth group friends in the old school are now smoking, drinking, sleeping with each other, and living no different than the non-Christians in that school. The fact that they are members of the youth group allows them to think that they’re really walking the walk, when in fact it’s just cultural Christianity. My young correspondent told me she appreciates the clarity in her  new “post-Christian” environment.

Emma Green focuses heavily on the chapter of the book in which I talk about the Sexual Revolution as having been catastrophic for orthodox Christianity. She writes:

Most importantly, he writes with resentment, largely directed at those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and their supporters—the people, he believes, who have pushed Christians out of the public sphere.

“We are on the far side of a Sexual Revolution that has been nothing short of catastrophic for Christianity,” he writes:

It struck near the core of biblical teaching on sex and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and the Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible.This has had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of life. In the professional world, “sexual diversity dogma” is pervasive, he writes—an attempt by companies to “demonstrate progress to gay-rights campaigners.” In the future, “everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training,” he says, “and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.”

In politics and culture, “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it,” he writes. “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.”

That chapter — one of ten in the book — is based in large part on this TAC essay, “Sex After Christianity,” which I published in 2013.  If you want to know the philosophical roots of my position, please read it. And yes, I write in a prophetic, alarmist tone, because that is the actual reality facing the church. In the book, I am clear that this is not the fault of gays, that the heterosexuals who made the Sexual Revolution’s first wave demolished the Christian model of sex and sexuality. I quote Philip Rieff, no Christian he, on how the Sexual Revolution dissolves orthodox Christianity. I certainly don’t expect progressives, Christian or otherwise, who favor affirming homosexuality to agree with me and others who uphold the orthodox Christian view. But I do expect them to recognize how radical what they’re asking of us is, and how accepting their position requires us to surrender far more than we can.

More Emma Green:

Nothing in this language suggests that Dreher is ready to live tolerantly alongside people with different views. If progressives wrote about the Bible as “a lot of babble about Jesus and God,” using language similar to that of the parent Dreher cites, he would be quick to cry foul against the ignorance and intolerance of the left; his language is dismissive and mocking, and he peppers in conspiratorial terms like the “LGBT agenda.” At times, it seems like the goal of the Benedict option is just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity. The book seems to suggest that mere proximity to people with alternative beliefs about sexuality, and specifically LGBT people, is a threat to Christian children and families.

That’s just weird. I have been living and working tolerantly alongside people with different views — including gays and lesbians — for almost my entire life. So what? It’s a big world out there. The threat I perceive is not from LGBT people per se; it’s from affirming the Sexual Revolution, which is something one has to do in order to affirm — not just tolerate, but affirm — homosexuality.

More Green:

[LGBT] lives implicitly pose the hard question Dreher has failed to engage: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them—including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings?

To his credit, Dreher nods to this, ever so briefly. “The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church,” he writes. “Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.” He does little to specify these past errors, though, and he never tries to answer the broader question: how Christians can live as one people among many in America without learning how to respect and relate to those who challenge their beliefs.

I really don’t get this criticism. For one, I didn’t “specify these past errors” because the whole question of homosexuality is such a small part of this book. Here is the fuller passage from which Green draws these quotes:

All unmarried Christians are called to live celibately, but at least heterosexuals have the possibility of marriage. Gay Christians do not, which makes their struggle even more intense.

Worse, too many gay Christians face rejection from the very people they should be able to count on: the church. The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in large part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church. Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.

But that does not mean—and it cannot mean—that we should abandon clear, binding biblical teaching on homosexuality. Gay Christians, like all unmarried Christians, are called to a life of chastity. This is a heavy cross to bear, but one that cannot in obedience be refused.

Our gay brothers and sisters in Christ should not have to carry it alone. In recent years, several same-sex- attracted Christians living in fidelity to orthodox teaching have found their voice in the Spiritual Friendship movement. It is based on the writings of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century abbot.

“Aelred helped me to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance,” writes Ron Belgau, one of the movement’s founders. “Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.”12

That’s an important point, for gay and single Christians alike. Too often chastity is presented only as saying no to sex. Though we can’t deny the real and painful sacrifice the Christian ethic requires of unmarried believers, we should not neglect to teach and explore the good that may come from surrendering one’s sexuality. Though monasticism had not yet developed when the New Testament was written, Jesus said that some are called by God to be chaste singles (“eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven”). This is a steep path to holiness, an especially treacherous one in our thoroughly eroticized culture, but a path to holiness it is for some. We have that on Christ’s authority.

It is hard for single Christians to stay on that path, but at least straight Christians have the prospect of marriage to comfort them. Not so for our gay brothers and sisters. Christians—individually, within families, and within parish churches—must give honor, respect, and friendship to gay Christians who have embraced celibacy.

Moreover, gay Christians who reject traditional teaching must still be treated with love, because they too are image-bearers of Christ. Love wins, though not in the way the LGBT movement says. But it still wins. Christians don’t dare forget it.

Hear that? “Gay Christians who reject traditional teaching must still be treated with love, because they too are image-bearers of Christ.” And I would say gay non-Christians too. Those are actual words. That I wrote.

I could be wrong, but it’s hard for me to conclude other than that for this reviewer, affirming homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism is the most important thing Christians should do. Inadvertently, this points to why orthodox Christians have to spend so much time dealing with this topic: because the pressure coming against the churches from outside (as well as from sympathizers within) is constant.

It didn’t occur to me to spend much time in the book dwelling on how Christians are to live in a pluralistic world because it’s obvious that we have no choice. In fact, though, I do address this in this section from The Benedict Option, talking about the Benedictine habit of hospitality. I’m writing here about the Benedictine monks in Norcia:

The monks live mostly cloistered lives—that is, they stay behind their monastery’s walls and limit their contact with the outside world. To do the spiritual work they are called to do requires silence and separation. As lay Christians living in the world, our calling is to seek holiness in more ordinary social conditions.

Yet even cloistered Benedictines practice Christian hospitality to the stranger. The Rule commands that all those who present themselves as pilgrims and visitors to the monastery “be received like Christ, for He is going to say, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger, and you took me in’ (Matt. 25:35).” If you are invited to dine with the monks in the refectory, they greet you the first time with a hand-washing ceremony prescribed in the Rule.

Brother Francis Davoren, forty-four, the monastery’s brewmaster, used to be the refectorian, the monk charged with overseeing the dining room. He approached that task with sacramental imagination.

“Saint Benedict says that Christ is present in the brothers, and Christ is present in our guests. Every day I would think, ‘Christ is coming. I’m going to make this as pleasant for them as I can, because it showed them that we cared,’” he said. “That’s a good outreach to people: to respect them, to recognize their dignity, to show them that you can see Christ in them and want to bring them into your life.”

As guest master, Brother Ignatius is the point of contact between pilgrims and the monastic community. He explains why the monks take Christ’s words about receiving strangers so seriously: “It is kind of a warning: if you want to be welcome in heaven, you had better welcome people as Christ himself now, even if you don’t like it, even if you suffer because of those people,” he said. “If your life is to seek Christ, this is it. You will find redemption in serving these guests, because Christ is coming in them.”

Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.”

The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality.

Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict [Nivakoff] believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”

The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness. It is prudent to draw reasonable boundaries, but we have to take care not to be like the unfaithful servant in the Parable of the Talents, who was punished by his master for his poor, fearful stewardship of the master’s property.

Is it not clear that we are to relate to those outside our communities with love and hospitality? We have to draw the line at the point where that hospitality threatens to disrupt our ongoing formation in truth. I get the idea that it is not enough that we relate in peace and tolerance to our neighbors who don’t share our religious convictions. We must approve.

One more excerpt from the Atlantic piece. Emma Green recognizes that for cultural traditionalists, these truly are alienating times:

And yet, Dreher begrudges a similar fear in people unlike him, including LGBT people who have long wanted to live freely in public—something that was largely impossible when conservative Christians dominated mainstream American life. From this vantage, his Benedict option seems less a proposal for pluralism than the angry backwards fire of a culture in retreat.

I did not record my interview with Emma, so I could be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure I said that I do not want to go back to the days of the closet. That I think it is a good thing that gays and lesbians are treated with more dignity and respect now. I even supported civil partnerships back in the day. But it’s not marriage. Anyway, how, exactly, do I begrudge a similar fear in people unlike me? If it’s LGBTs, the only grudge I have is that activists and their fellow travelers hold all the cultural high ground today, but act as if they will not be free of fear until the last Southern Baptist florist is strangled with the guts of the last Evangelical pastor. They treat conservative Christians as if we still hold all the cultural trump cards, and point to the election of Donald Trump — an openly pro-gay Republican who doesn’t have a religiously conservative bone in his body — as if that proved anything. You watch: the GOP Congress will not send any meaningful religious liberty legislation to Trump’s desk. If they do, then I might be willing to listen to complaints that LGBTs have to live in fear of the Jesus-Freak mob. From where I sit, we conservative Christians really are in retreat, and are being driven out of the public square mostly because we don’t affirm the new orthodoxy.

You want to talk about tolerance? How much tolerance would a conservative Evangelical or an orthodox Roman Catholic face on most college faculties, in most law firms, in most newsrooms, and in all the other centers of cultural power and formation? This is where the real power is for the long term.

Last quote from the Atlantic piece:

Dreher wrote The Benedict Option for people like him—those who share his faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. But even those who might wish to join Dreher’s radical critique of American culture, people who also feel pushed out and marginalized by shallowness of modern life, may feel unable to do so.

Well, yes, I can state without fear of contradiction that I wrote The Benedict Option for Christians who share my faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. That’s why the subtitle is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”! The Ben Op cannot be all things to all people. It is not going to appeal to secular people or religious liberals. The fact that some people see examples of conservative Christians attempting to hold on to theological and cultural distinctives in a culture that is overtly hostile to them as weird or otherwise threatening — this, in a culture that does not see a threat from other groups doing the same — goes a long way toward explaining why The Benedict Option is so necessary right now. Whether we like it or not, the issue of sexuality, especially homosexuality, really is the chief dividing line within all the churches. When a book with such a wide-ranging Christian critique of contemporary culture gets boiled down to its stance on homosexuality, you understand why this issue, as I said earlier, is the tip of the culture war spear.

Read the whole Emma Green piece. I genuinely appreciate her attention to the book. And I think her essay, however mistaken I think she is on major points, really is helpful in that it signals how non-religious conservatives are likely to read the book.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I just read the Atlantic piece Emma Green wrote about the book, and I was a bit puzzled by some of it. She writes, “it’s not clear that Dreher has a clear vision of how Christians should engage with those they disagree with–especially the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture.”  She also writes,”Their lives implicitly pose the hard question Dreher has failed to engage: How should Christians be in fellowship with people like them–including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings?”

There’s so, so much going on in just those quotes, but what really puzzled me was that the article says she interviewed you. There are direct quotes and everything. Did she NOT ask you any of these questions directly? If Green wanted to know what your vision was for variations of the BenOp incorporating LGBTQ people, why didn’t she just ask? Or if she did, did she not include your responses in the article?

I’ve been reading you for a while now. You’ve engaged these issues repeatedly and explicitly on your blog at great length. It’s not hard to find your thoughts on the matter, and it’s clear from reading your blog that your thoughts are complicated, and that while your BenOp’s orthodoxy might exclude LGBTQ folks, you’re not declaring that every BenOp should, especially since the thrust of your critique is aimed at the arc of modernity’s atomizing, self-aggrandizing foundations. (Unless I totally misunderstand it, in which case I encourage correction!)

From my lay perspective, the piece reads like journalistic malfeasance, even though Green seems to strive to be fair. It’s just hard to believe that she read your words thoughtfully, given that the above quotes misrepresent your views. For instance, it’s not that “the LGBT Americans” pushed Christians out of mainstream culture. It was a variety of secularizing factors, including but not limited to the Sexual Revolution, which predates the contemporary civil rights battles surrounding non-hetero sexualities by decades. (Not to mention the degree to which the Church undermined itself in the U.S.) Then there’s the bizarre notion that Christians would be “in fellowship” with “those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings.” I suppose that all of us wrestle with the doctrinal, liturgical, and institutional failings of our church bodies. But fellowship is a practice of unity on central teachings. What does that actually mean? Is Green limiting herself to just LGBTQ folks who have been cast out of conservative churches? Is she encompassing all manner of grievance with orthodox teaching? Doesn’t that vary by denomination? My church, for instance, embraces gay clergy and performs gay marriages. But it is resolutely Trinitarian. Am I supposed to be in fellowship with someone who denies the triune God, even if they denounce gay marriage? Not to mention the fact that even if you, in your BenOp, aren’t in fellowship with an openly gay couple, it does not preclude you from being a good neighbor to them. Apart from Southern hospitality, that’s a part of orthodox Christian hospitality, and a part of the BenOp ethos. Right? Am I the one totally misunderstanding this, or did Green just not do her homework?

This seems to be the condensed symbol in practice. Green seems to wrist-slap you for talking primarily to other Christians at this point, but that may be necessary, since so many of them understand the BenOp the same way she does.

Then again, maybe it’s folks like me who misunderstand it, and I just need to slow down and read your blog more carefully. Just to make sure I don’t repeat Green’s mistakes, I’m just writing you directly. Hopefully you’ll post a response to her piece on the blog that that will clear all this up.

Well, I hope that the blog entry above answers a lot of your questions. I don’t see how small-o orthodox Christianity can reconcile itself to any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage, either hetero or homo, nor can marriage be, for Christians, a same-sex thing. I suppose the question is, what does one mean by “exclude”? I make it very clear in my book that we are not to shun LGBT folks, or mistreat them — and to the extent that Christians do or have done that, we should repent. But that’s not the same thing as affirming that homosexuality is a moral good, or even morally neutral. The question is not really, “What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?” but actually “What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?” Because all the pressure to conform to the new orthodoxy is coming from that side, and a lot of it is punitive. It’s Orwellian how they lament our supposed intolerance, but practice the very thing they purport to condemn.

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White Nationalism In Christian High School

A reader who goes to a conservative Christian high school, and who says he is a white, male conservative Christian, writes:

As someone who’s seeing the rise of Milo’s ideals specifically in teenagers raised in a conservative context in my Christian high school, I feel like I have a perspective that you don’t.

Milo isn’t getting conservative ideas out there in a subversive label that’s appealing to Millenials. He’s a prophet of the deeply un-conservative alt-right. He’s not creating a climate that’s accepting of conservative ideals. He’s creating one that specifically rejects those values as hallmarks of a system that they view as a failure through not being radical enough.

That’s why all the good little Christians at my high school are falling in behind him — not because they actually give a crap about conservatism but because he’s giving angry, aimless young men whose church hasn’t given them anything solid to fall back on an alternate source of values that happens to be steeped in fascist and white supremacist ideals. It’s just as absorbed in identity politics as any social-justice movement on the left is, except focused on white men and not LGBT people.

It has swallowed up most of the guys in the senior class at my school, and I’m tired of it. You can’t just not talk about politics with them, because everything is politics to them. Every discussion devolves into things like which girls are “feminazis,” celebrities dating outside their ethnicity being “white genocide,” and so on. It’s suffocating to feel like if you say “actually, that’s really racist” you’re going to be brushed off as some liberal or a cuckservative. I’m genuinely scared that it’s going to spread to the point where I won’t have anyone I can talk to like a normal human being. This isn’t hyperbole.

I’ve sat and heard multiple conversations in the school hallway about things like how the very concept of legal immigration is “cultural Marxism” and about how if all the blacks in America moved back to Africa there’d be less crime, and Africa would be better off because they would have people who had learned things in America. It’s absolutely nuts, but what am I going to do? I don’t know that any adults would take me seriously if I told them this was a problem. The alt-right has defensive talking points are baked right into the ideology so as to make it more palatable for conservatives, just like how communism masqueraded as concern for the workers in the early days to make it appealing to moderate socialists.

Maybe that’s just the norm for kids my age now, and I’m going to just have to be paranoid that everyone that I meet is secretly a white nationalist.

Wow. I’m going to have to think about this one. I verified this reader’s identity. High school readers of this blog, and college student readers, what are you seeing and hearing in your schools?

UPDATE: Another reader writes:

I cannot comment so much about what is going in high schools these days, but I can tell you that it is downright eerie how stale my college’s chapter of College Republicans is. There is no acknowledgement of the changing and changed situation in America or the world, just reflexive support for tax cuts and poking Russia in the eye. Some of them can quote Hayek at you for hours, but it is a shallow allegiance to conservatism, devoid of real life and creative growth. In a word: stagnant. Like a tree without deep roots, all it will take is a mighty wind to knock them from the comfortable perches held by their fathers before them.

I can believe that. When I was in college in the 1980s, the College Republicans at my school were huge. I can’t see, though, why any intellectually serious conservative college student today would want to give himself or herself over to working in the Republican Party (or anything related to movement conservatism, frankly).

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A Double Standard On Milo?

I received a short time ago this exceptionally thoughtful e-mail about l’affaire Milo from a reader who prefers to remain anonymous:

Your first instincts on Milo are correct, I think. Milo is a degenerate provocateur and conservatives should be very careful to distance themselves from him. He is a deeply unprincipled person who discredits the Christian faith with his flippant use of it as a flag of convenience. That such an individual was invited to speak at a putative conservative conference is a shameful reflection upon what the movement is becoming.

I think it is important to pay attention to the responses on this issue, though, because they can be revealing.

I wonder whether there isn’t something of a double standard being applied to Milo. A number of darlings of the bien pensants have made similar remarks in the past and haven’t been hounded out of public life on account of them. [The UK gay rights campaigner] Peter Tatchell has suggested that the age of consent be lowered to 14 and, in a letter to The Guardian, praised the courage of a book challenging the idea that all sex between adults and children is abusive. George Takei has laughed and joked about being molested as a 13-year-old by a cute camp counselor, denying that it was molestation and calling it cute. StephenFry created a play about the relationship between a Latin master and his 13-year-old pupil which has been criticized for its minimization of the seriousness of what is actually abuse. He has also argued that girls who had sex with rock stars at 14 weren’t victims. Of course, a significant percentage of the rock pantheon is guilty of having sex with underage girls.

The difference between people’s reactions to statements seemingly minimizing ephebophilia when it comes to their heroes as opposed to their opponents is telling. It suggests to me that people recognize that the issue is a lot more complicated than we would like to think and that they are prepared to cut people a lot more slack if they like them, while being merciless if they don’t. I would like to see all sides ratchet responses down a level.

The strength of reactions on this issue seem to arise from the scale of our abhorrence of the abuse of teenagers and young children coupled with the reality that there really are both grey areas and exceedingly controversial facts in this area, facts and grey areas that we would really like to pretend didn’t exist. Some of these facts and grey areas:

1. Our concept of consent is a highly contestable social construction, which differs sharply from other societies, both present and historical, and which relies upon arbitrary lines that determine a lot of sex that people consider consensual to be non-consensual.

2. Young teens’ sexual experiences with adults are nowhere near as negatively experienced as many suppose. This is especially the case for boys with women, who, in the linked research, reacted three to five times more positively than girls with men.

3. There are some significant gender differences here. Discussions of concepts such as consent tend to dissemble the important but unpopular reality of sexual difference.

Had sex with teenage boys, got a postage stamp (Oldrich/Shutterstock)

4. The attitudes to intergenerational sex or sex with underage men held by some in the gay community. As with the scale of the practice of open relationships, it is something that isn’t good PR for the movement.

5. There seems to be growing reason to believe that paedophilia (which is distinct from hebephilia and ephebophilia) is itself a sort of ‘orientation’, a fact which unsettles many of the popular assumptions of the natural goodness of having been ‘born this way’.

There are strong—and, I believe, necessary—taboos surrounding sexual actions towards minors, but I think it is important to lower the temperature of the discussion and to find ways to talk about some of these complicated realities and unwelcome facts. There are important issues here that are ill-served by being addressed through emotional reaction, rather than careful reason.

I think we are seeing in the case of many new ‘affirmative consent’ guidelines the problems that can arise when we are so concerned to tackle abuse that we fail to attend to the messy nature of reality. I think we might be facing similar problems here. Also, when it comes to the case of paedophilia as an orientation—NOT actions of child abuse—I think that we need to remove the instinctive social judgment that the taboo excites (focusing it on abusive actions, not persons with an unchosen predilection) and provide supportive structures so that such persons do not offend.

By the way, in the 1960s, gay icon Harvey Milk took Jack Galen McKinley, a 16-year-old runaway boy, as his live-in lover. I didn’t realize that. According to Milk biographer Randy Shilts, McKinley said he ran away from home and came to New York to throw himself into the gay sex scene. So he was eager.

In the second Obama administration, Harvey Milk got a postage stamp with his likeness and a US Navy ship named after him. So there’s hope for Milo yet, if only he will embrace progressive causes.

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Saith The Man-God: ‘Everything Is Permitted’

Glenn Tinder, on the political meaning of Christianity:

If the denial of the God-man has destructive logical implications, it also has dangerous emotional consequences. Dostoevsky wrote that a person “cannot live without worshipping something.” Anyone who denies God must worship an idol—which is not necessarily a wooden or metal figure. In our time we have seen ideologies, groups, and leaders receive divine honors. People proud of their critical and discerning spirit have rejected Christ and bowed down before Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or some other secular savior.

When disrespect for individuals is combined with political idolatry, the results can be atrocious. Both the logical and the emotional foundations of political decency are destroyed. Equality becomes nonsensical and breaks down under attack from one or another human god. Consider Lenin: as a Marxist, and like Marx an exponent of equality, under the pressures of revolution he denied equality in principle—except as an ultimate goal- and so systematically nullified it in practice as to become the founder of modern totalitarianism. When equality falls, universality is likely also to fall. Nationalism or some other form of collective pride becomes virulent, and war unrestrained. Liberty, too, is likely to vanish; it becomes a heavy personal and social burden when no God justifies and sanctifies the individual in spite of all personal deficiencies and failures.

The idealism of the man-god does not, of course, bring as an immediate and obvious consequence a collapse into unrestrained nihilism. We all know many people who do not believe in God and yet are decent and admirable. Western societies, as highly secularized as they are, retain many humane features. Not even tacitly has our sole governing maxim become the one Dostoevsky thought was bound to follow the denial of the God-man: “Everything is permitted.”

This may be, however, because customs and habits formed during Christian ages keep people from professing and acting on such a maxim even though it would be logical for them to do so. If that is the case, our position is precarious, for good customs and habits need spiritual grounds, and if those are lacking, they will gradually, or perhaps suddenly in some crisis, crumble.

To what extent are we now living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished? To what extent are those savings already severely depleted? Again and again we are told by advertisers, counselors, and other purveyors of popular wisdom that we have a right to buy the things we want and to live as we please. We should be prudent and farsighted, perhaps (although even those modest virtues are not greatly emphasized), but we are subject ultimately to no standard but self-interest. If nihilism is most obvious in the lives of wanton destroyers like Hitler, it is nevertheless present also in the lives of people who live purely as pleasure and convenience dictate.

And aside from intentions, there is a question concerning consequences. Even idealists whose good intentions for the human race are pure and strong are still vulnerable to fate because of the pride that causes them to act ambitiously and recklessly in history. Initiating chains of unforeseen and destructive consequences, they are often overwhelmed by results drastically at variance with their humane intentions. Modern revolutionaries have willed liberty and equality for everyone, not the terror and despotism they have actually created. Social reformers in the United States were never aiming at the great federal bureaucracy or at the pervasive dedication to entertainment and pleasure that characterizes the welfare state they brought into existence. There must always be a gap between intentions and results, but for those who forget that they are finite and morally flawed the gap may become a chasm. Not only Christians but almost everyone today feels the fear that we live under the sway of forces that we have set in motion—perhaps in the very process of industrialization, perhaps only at certain stages of that process, as in the creation of nuclear power—and that threaten our lives and are beyond our control.

There is much room for argument about these matters. But there is no greater error in the modern mind than the assumption that the God-man can be repudiated with impunity. The man-god may take his place and become the author of deeds wholly unintended and the victim of terrors starkly in contrast with the benign intentions lying at their source. The irony of sin is in this way reproduced in the irony of idealism: exalting human beings in their supposed virtues and powers, idealism undermines them. Exciting fervent expectations, it leads toward despair.

Read the whole thing. I thought of that Tinder essay — though it’s from 1989, it’s still fresh — after reading this essay about the roots of the Alt-Right not in Nazism, but in Italian fascism. Excerpts:

The character traits applauded by today’s libertarians – ambition, superbia, speed, drive, spin, success and spikiness – are the qualities the Futurists valued. There is fire here but never warmth; appetite but never food. If conviviality has an opposite, it is this: anti-vivial, anti-genial and, in its treatment of the future, anti-generative.

More:

Like contemporary libertarians, the Italian Futurists saw themselves as anti-establishment – opposing political and artistic tradition – and driven, as the name suggests, forward to the future. As Marinetti wrote in the Futurist manifesto: ‘Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute.’ Libertarians, like the Futurists, loathe the past, which they associate with the natural world: the future is artificial, and they want to own it. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Donald Trump backer, describes himself as ‘way libertarian’, and is heavily involved in the Singularity, a vision of transhumanism that promotes artificial super-intelligence to create the end of natural history.

And:

Central to the Futurist manifesto was an adoration of the machine, to the point where the ultimate aim was the technological triumph of humanity over nature. Marinetti foresaw – and was intoxicated by – the idea of a war between organic nature and mechanised humanity. Futurists fetishised cars, planes and technology in general, loving steel and loathing wood, which came gentle from the natural earth. They wanted to force the Danube to run in a straight line at 300km an hour, hating the river in its natural state (‘The opaque Danube under its muddy tunic, its attention turned on its inner life full of fat libidinous fecund fish.’)

Do read the whole thing, but if you’re like me, you will be gobsmacked by the author Jay Griffiths’ blindness to how contemporary progressive ideologies are also all about “the technological triumph of humanity over nature.” They are also anti-teleological, anti-Christian, and all about will to power. They just draw the lines in different places, and take different routes to get there. Whether it’s making the Danube flow in a straight line or using hormones and surgery and philosophical-legal legerdemain to make men into pseudo-women, it’s all the same thing. If there is no logos in nature, all is chaos.

Ross Douthat is correct: if you don’t like the Christian Right, wait till you see the Post-Christian Right. To that I would add: look at the Post-Christian Left. You cannot deny the God-Man and replace him with the Man-God with impunity.

 

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View From Your Table

Obertauern, Austria

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Stoning Milo The Prophet

Rachel Fulton Brown, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, defends Milo. Excerpt:

Everybody hates a bully, or so we say. Yesterday, the national media bullied a young man into silence who had risen to fame speaking to audiences of young women and men about the lies that the grown-ups had told them for decades.

Lies about the relationship between women and men. That women don’t need men. That all men are potential rapists. That women should aspire to something other than motherhood or they are wasting their lives. That women should like casual sex with strangers, hooking up just for the sake of the orgasm. That the children will be fine if their parents divorce. That abortion is morally good.

Everyone knows these are lies. The young woman who wakes up in the morning having lost her virginity to a man who isn’t there and will not marry her. The young man who is tempted into exciting and transgressive sex with an older man and finds himself trapped by his desire in a lifestyle he cannot leave. The young woman who spends her most fertile years working in a career that leaves her childless at forty because she can no longer conceive and has no husband. The young man who has no ambition to work because he has no wife to care for or children to feed.

But the grown-ups tell them to shut up, not to complain. Don’t they know how awful it is that women don’t earn as much over the course of their lifetime as men? Don’t they know that men are still the ones with all the power, even though the number of men completing higher education has continued to drop? Don’t they know that nobody should be able to force a woman to bear a child she does not want, even if she did enjoy the sex by which the child was conceived?

And then a young man comes along and tells them, they were right all along. The young women wanted to be pretty, not grotesquely overweight. The young men wanted to be strong and vigorous and manly. The young women wanted babies as well as careers, and were willing to make adjustments to their ambition in order to stay home with their children. The young men wanted to be challenged to be gentlemanly and chivalrous.

“Gender roles work,” the young man told them. “Feminism is cancer. Abortion is murder.” And the young women and men cheered for him, because they loved him for telling the truth.

Whole thing here. Bold claims, these.

UPDATE: People, don’t assume that I agree with Rachel Brown. I don’t. I’m just putting her provocative comments out there for your consideration. By the way, she’s profane in parts, so be aware if you click through.

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A Reader Defends Milo

Milo Yiannopoulos (NextCONF/Flickr)

Published with the reader’s permission:

I normally agree with everything you say but I completely disagree about what you said concerning Milo.

I think he explains it quite well in his latest statement https://www.facebook.com/myiannopoulos/posts/851826321621931

and see also the video https://www.facebook.com/myiannopoulos/videos/851905428280687/

Milo was abused as a child by a priest. This has clearly affected him (perhaps even contributing to his homosexuality – he had in the past said that in his case his homosexuality was mostly nurture rather than nature). To cope with the event he laughs about it pretending that he was in control. This way he does not see himself as a victim. I can’t see anything wrong with that.

(See his response for the other stuff. His reference to boys and older men was about 16/17 year olds – above the age of consent – not 13 year olds)

Notwithstanding this abuse he seems to have found the grace within him to forgive (or at least not condemn) the priest who did that to him. And instead of a catholic hating atheist he is someone who always defends the Church and its magisterium (see here for a collection of writing by a hostile atheist: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/barrierbreaker/milo-yiannapoulos-leading-catholic-guilt-evangelist/).

Milo has an audience of young people who are disaffected by liberalism. Instead of just getting them to to hate the left he also feeds a positive message to them (the social conservatism of the catholic church). But he does so in a subtle way. 80% of his speeches are just useless entertaining (for some) packaging but the 20% he does communicate is great and important. The reason he does so is to ensure that the left does not actually engage with him on his positive message (because they think he is just a troll who does not have one). But the way it looks to his fans is that this guy does have a message and not no one is actually engaging with him on the substance. And so he wins by default.

He plays up the sexual libertinism but that is part of the goal. In most people’s minds social conservatism is the same thing as prudishness. And no one likes prudes. As such communicating the message is harder if one is perceived as a prude. Milo plays all that hedonism up so that he is not perceived that. This disables the defence of the interlocutor against social conservatism. And then he explains why abortion is wrong, why contraception is bad, why marriage is between a man and a woman, why same sex couples should not adopt, etc… Milo is probably the most effective communicator of social conservatism that there is nowadays (at least among the young).

And in his more serious moment he does show real dignity and compassion. You saw his video at Memories Pizza. And also other moments where he talks about working class americans and how they have been mistreated. He does genuinely care.

What Milo needs right now is not our vilification but our prayers.

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Question Gender? Your Life Might Fall Apart

From an interview with Andy Izenson, a 28-year-old lawyer living in Brooklyn:

When I moved to the city I discovered the poly community and found all of this support. That was about seven years ago. I only know like one trans person in New York who’s monogamous. Once you start questioning gender, sometimes a lot of other things fall down like a house of cards. [Emphasis mine — RD] If I’ve been told my entire life that I have to be a girl, and if that’s not true, then what are the other things I’ve been told I have to be that might also be fake or not applicable?

I date the occasional cisgender person, but I’m mostly T for T (trans for trans). I have a partner I live with, my statistically significant other, but I don’t use hierarchical understandings of relationships. We live together in a collective house in Brooklyn that’s all queer, all trans, all polyamorous, all very political. I also have a partner who lives in Boston, and another who lives in New Hampshire who I get to see about once a month. I’m just googly-eyed over them right now. I also have a few sweethearts or “comets” in D.C. who I get to see a couple of times a year. “Comet” is a term I heard recently for the type of partner who you collide with occasionally when they come through your orbit in this little burst of brightness that’s brief and beautiful, like a comet.

Izenson says that the Trumpening has caused a disturbance in the Force:

Most of the people that I’m in a relationship with are alarmed and destabilized by the current political climate.

“Destabilized”? How could you tell?

The reader who sent this interview to me took note of the line about everything falling apart once you question gender. Another way to put it is, “Once you start questioning that there is ultimate meaning and purpose in material reality, sometimes a lot of other things fall down like a house of cards.” Andy Izenson is living out the end game of modernity. Andy Izenson is also living in a nuthouse.

UPDATE: A reader writes to say that the reader’s family was part of a conservative private school attended by Andy Izenson as a little girl. The school was not specifically religious, says this reader, but it was full of practicing Catholics and Evangelicals, and observant Jews. “The curriculum was traditional,” says the reader. “You would have been very happy to have had your children in this school.”

The reader is crestfallen to see what has happened to one of the alums. Says the reader: “Despite all we can do to protect our children, we are all dependent on the grace of God.”

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Testosterone-Jacked Girl Defeats Other Girls

Mack Beggs’s not-so-secret weapon (Zerbor/Shutterstock)

Girl on testosterone wins wrestling competition in north Texas:

Mack Beggs, a transgender 17-year-old at Euless Trinity, won the girls 110-pound championship at Saturday’s Class 6A Region II wrestling meet after a Coppell wrestler forfeited the final. Beggs, a junior, is taking testosterone while transitioning from female to male.

Madeline Rocha’s forfeit came 11 days after a lawsuit was filed against the University Interscholastic League by Coppell attorney and wrestling parent Jim Baudhuin, urging the governing body to suspend Beggs because of the use of the steroid. The suit claims that allowing the wrestler to compete while using testosterone exposes other athletes to “imminent threat of bodily harm.” Baudhuin’s daughter is not in the same weight class as Beggs.

Pratik Khandelwal, whose daughter also wrestles for Coppell, is named as the plaintiff and is bringing the case forward on behalf of his minor daughter and “other similarly situated female wrestlers” in the state, according to the suit. Khandelwal’s daughter did not wrestle Beggs because they were in different weight classes this weekend.

 

Here comes the comment from Mack Beggs’ grandmother. You have three guesses as to what she will say, and the first two don’t count. Here you go:

“Today was not about their students winning,” said Nancy Beggs, Mack Beggs’ grandmother and guardian. “Today was about bias, hatred and ignorance. (Mack Beggs and wrestlers from the Coppell team) have wrestled each other before, they know each other and they were not happy with this.”

Hate! Hatey-hatey-hate-hate! You think it’s cheating for a female jacked up on testosterone — she’s been taking it since 2015 — to compete in wrestling with other females? Bigot!

To be fair, Beggs wants to compete against males, but she cannot, because she is a biological female as far as reality and the State of Texas are concerned. She is in a no-man’s (ahem) land as far as athletic competition goes. Is it too much to expect her not to compete? Since when does she have a right to compete?

All the female wrestlers who come up against this testosterone-pumped girl will be cheated. But that doesn’t matter, because transgenders are a privileged class. Everything must be turned upside down to accommodate their desires.

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Economic Insecurity

In the new issue of Commentary, Nicholas Eberstadt writes a piece so sobering that it makes Carrie Nation look like Foster Brooks (it was the ’70s, you had to have been there). Eberstadt, a demographer, looks at economic, health, and demographic data for the US in the 21st century, and sounds the alarm.

 

Yes, things are very different indeed these days in the “real America” outside the bubble. In fact, things have been going badly wrong in America since the beginning of the 21st century.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.

The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it. (So much for the vaunted “information era” and “big-data revolution.”) Now that those signals are no longer possible to ignore, it is high time for experts and intellectuals to reacquaint themselves with the country in which they live and to begin the task of describing what has befallen the country in which we have lived since the dawn of the new century.

What has gone wrong? Well, take the economy. By some measures, it’s robust. The stock market has gone through the roof, and Americans are richer than ever, on the whole. Sure, the windfall is unevenly distributed, but still, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? Why are so many people so angry that they voted for Donald Trump?

Those numbers don’t really tell the story of what’s going on, says Eberstadt. If you dig deeper, you’ll see that because of the 2008 crash, the US has suffered what amounts to a “lost decade” in GDP growth — which between 2000 and 2007 was already weak compared to the period between 1948 and 2000. Economists can’t figure out precisely why this is, but they agree on this: economic growth is going to be very minor for the foreseeable future.

 

On the employment front, the work rates  — people engaged in any paid employment — are dismal, at “their lowest levels in decades.” Writes Eberstadt, “Unless you are a labor economist, you may not appreciate just how severe a falloff in employment such numbers attest to. Postwar America never experienced anything comparable.” Eberstadt:

 

On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” For Americans outside the bubble, such talk must seem nonsensical. It is true that the oft-cited “civilian unemployment rate” looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era—in December 2016, it was down to 4.7 percent, about the same as it had been back in 1965, at a time of genuine full employment. The problem here is that the unemployment rate only tracks joblessness for those still in the labor force; it takes no account of workforce dropouts. Alas, the exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) Thus the “unemployment rate” increasingly looks like an antique index devised for some earlier and increasingly distant war: the economic equivalent of a musket inventory or a cavalry count.

 

“There is no way to sugarcoat these awful numbers,” says Eberstadt.

They are not a statistical artifact that can be explained away by population aging, or by increased educational enrollment for adult students, or by any other genuine change in contemporary American society. The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.

There are other economic measures Eberstadt talks about, all of them shocking. The people inside the bubble don’t see any of this, he says, because they’re doing pretty well. They may not understand why public trust in institutions is plunging, because everything’s working out for them. But that’s them; that’s not most of America.

It’s not just an economic problem, Eberstadt says. Family breakdown has been proceeding since the 1960s, so that’s not new, nor is the steady decline in civil society — the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon. The decline in health statistics is something new, and ominous.

Eberstadt mentions the famous 2015 study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showing rising death rates for middle-aged whites, especially the working class — much of it “accounted for by suicides, chronic liver cirrhosis, and poisonings (including drug overdoses).” Overall life expectancy in the US recently posted its first decline in decades. The data show that “health progress in America essentially ceased in 2012—that the U.S. gained on average only about a single day of life expectancy at birth between 2012 and 2014, before the 2015 turndown.”

There’s the opioid epidemic, of course. Get this:

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.

We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.

 

There’s more — lots more — but you get the idea. Eberstadt says:

The funny thing is, people inside the bubble are forever talking about “economic inequality,” that wonderful seminar construct, and forever virtue-signaling about how personally opposed they are to it. By contrast, “economic insecurity” is akin to a phrase from an unknown language. But if we were somehow to find a “Google Translate” function for communicating from real America into the bubble, an important message might be conveyed:

The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.

 

You can read the whole thing if you’re a Commentary subscriber.

Economist Tyler Cowen has even gloomier news.  He says when people talk about the coming mass automation of jobs, they talk about how it’s going to be a new Industrial Revolution. That’s not a comforting thought:

The shift out of agricultural jobs [in the first Industrial Revolution], while eventually a boon for virtually all of humanity, brought significant problems along the way. This time probably won’t be different, and that’s exactly why we should be concerned.

For example, depressed wages. Cowen says the lack of wage growth we’re living through now is reminiscent of the first Industrial Revolution. And there’s this:

Industrialization, and the decline of the older jobs in agriculture and the crafts economy, also had some pernicious effects on social ideas. The early to mid-19th century saw the rise of socialist ideologies, largely as a response to economic disruptions. Whatever mistakes Karl Marx made, he was a keen observer of the Industrial Revolution, and there is a reason he became so influential. He failed to see the long-run ability of capitalism to raise living standards significantly, but he understood and vividly described the transition costs and the economic volatility.

Western economies later turned to variants of the social welfare state, but along the way the intellectual currents of the 19th century produced a lot of overreaction in other, more destructive directions. The ideas of Marx fed into the movements behind the Soviet Union, Communist China and the Khmer Rouge. Arguably, fascist doctrine also was in part a response to the disruptions of industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I like to think we will be more intellectually moderate this time around, but the political developments of the last few years, and the observed global tilt toward the authoritarian, are hardly reassuring.

Read the whole thing.  I’m going to revise one of the Benedict Option talks I’m going to deliver this week to account for all this. The Benedict Option is primarily a way to hold on to the orthodox Christian faith in a time of chaos, turmoil, and decadence. But I’m beginning to think that it is also a way to build solidarity in the face of economic chaos and political turmoil of a sort that will characterize American life in the decades to come.

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