Rod Dreher

E-mail Rod

Reform, Restoration, Or The Benedict Option?

A reader sent me the above 14-minute clip of an address the Catholic screenwriter and retired TV director Ron Austin gave to a Dominican gathering earlier this summer. In it, Austin talks about the cultural crisis of our time (political, economic, artistic, etc.) and different Christian responses to it. In terms of filmmaking, he says that movies today traffic almost entirely in emotion disconnected from meaning. He also says that Christians today don’t understand what’s happening in our culture, as well as how we are compromised by it.

Austin identifies three basic stances:

Reform: Held by those who think the institutions of government and education are sound, but just need some reform. No need for basic, big changes

Restoration: Held by those who think that things are worse than that, but that a moral revival of some sort could bring our institutions back to their former soundness

Benedict Option: Held by those who believe neither reform nor restoration is possible, and that a more radical response is required. Austin says this is his point of view. Remember, he’s addressing a Catholic audience as a Catholic. I see no reason why this sensibility could not apply to all Christians. He says:

What is implied by [the Benedict Option] is a more, independent, autonomous building of Catholic community. We need to step forward, and first work together. … Certainly there’s a danger of trying to isolate ourself. I don’t think that should be the impulse. … But we need to come together, join together, and create community that can be a model for others. … None of these problems are going to be solved by abstractions. To the extent that this country can be brought back together, it’s going to become credible by other Americans saying, “Look at them. Look how they’re living. Look how they’re working together.”

I respect the Reformers, I respect the Restorationists. I don’t think that’s going to happen, frankly. And so what sounds like the most utopian — that we should really begin to build our own communities, identifiable Catholic communities and the work we do, I think it’s the most realistic.

I love this clip because he never mentions me, or the book. This is great because it indicates that the Benedict Option may be moving into a conceptual rallying point for creative minority responses to the post-Christian condition. It’s not something I own, or want to own, but I want it to be a diagnosis that prompts Christians of all sorts (and non-Christian fellow travelers too) to put our heads together and figure out what we can do as little platoons (“To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle [the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” — Edmund Burke).

Having spent the weekend in California talking to a bunch of different folks about where we are and where we might go — and mind you, not all of them were Ben Op supporters — I feel more confident than ever that we all really might be finding our way together into a new and constructive kind of social conservatism.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . Post a comment

View From Your Table

Inglewood, California

Behold, the only food I’ve eaten all day. I left Orange County plenty early this morning for LAX, but was defeated by traffic on Interstate 405. Man, Los Angeles rush hour traffic is a force of nature. I got through airport security ten minutes late for my flight back home, and there was no way United could get me to Louisiana today. I had no choice but to find a hotel near the airport and hole up for the day.

Spent most of it sleeping, because I had gotten to bed so late last night. Woke up mid-afternoon hungry, and ordered pizza. There are worse ways to spend a Monday, but when you want to be home with your family, this is not fun.

Posted in . Tagged , . One comment

Chariots Of Fire Vs. Minivans Of Apathy

Here’s news from the Baltimore Sun, about church closings in the city and surrounding area. Excerpt:

The driving force behind the trend is the well-documented decline in Americans’ commitment to organized Judeo-Christian religion.

Denominations large and small report falling membership numbers, decreased attendance and faltering financial support. The decline began accelerating in the 1990s.

Membership at churches and synagogues has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points since World War II, according to Gallup.The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA have lost nearly half their members since 1967. More than a thousand Catholic parishes have closed since 1995.The number of Jews who call themselves culturally but not religiously Jewish is rising sharply among millennials.

A few faith traditions have fared better. The Muslim and Orthodox Jewish populations are growing, and evangelical Christianity’s numbers are holding steady. But more than 20 percent of Americans say they’re unaffiliated with any religion. That’s the highest number ever.

One influential Christian author has said such changes are nothing new. In works such as The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle argued that the Christian church has undergone a clarifying shakeup every 500 years.

The Rev. Daniel Webster, canon for evangelism and media for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has studied and written about the current trend for nearly two decades.

While it’s hard to pinpoint a single most important factor, Webster says, it’s impossible to ignore the repeal of most of the old state blue laws, regulations that had long placed restrictions on commercial activity on Sundays, starting in the mid-20th century.

Today’s faith leaders must compete with everything from youth soccer and pro football games to shopping at the mall.

“When I was growing up in what I call the salad days of the 1950s and early 1960s, the question in the neighborhood was ‘What church do you go to?’” Webster says.

“Now it’s, ‘Why do you go to church?’”

“We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.”

More and more often, the answer seems to be: shed your baggage, move more nimbly and sharpen your sense of mission.

On Sunday evening, I spoke at a private Benedict Option event in Orange County. It was gratifying to meet so many interesting and engaged Christians there, including some Biola University professors, and a contingent of Norbertine friars, an orthodox and growing community of Catholic priests and monks from nearby St. Michael’s Abbey. I was also able to speak with some Evangelical laypersons and pastors from the area, and met a couple of guys who attend St. Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa. (I had planned to go to the liturgy there on Sunday, but was unavoidably delayed in Malibu — a big disappointment for me.)

The decline of active Christianity was a frequent topic of conversation after the talk. One thing that really got to me, because it’s shockingly common, and hard for me to understand: that so many Christians believe Sunday sports is more important than church.

I spoke at length about this to one pastor’s wife at dinner last night. She said that at their mission church, they struggle with parents who want their kids to be Christian, but who refuse to put church before Sunday morning sports. Soccer first, Jesus second. People see the institutional church in consumerist terms, as something that ought to be there to meet their family’s needs on their own terms. If Sunday morning sports is more important to the family, well, pastor, why do you have a problem with that?

Her husband, the pastor, told me that one of his biggest challenges is figuring out how to tell his congregation what they need to hear, versus what they want to hear. He said that after I had listened to his wife explain the mentality they’re up against in the suburbs, and it made me a lot more sympathetic to the challenge all conservative/orthodox pastors face. As a pundit, it’s easy for me to say exactly what I think, and let the chips fall where they may. Unlike these pastors, I am responsible neither for the fate of souls nor for keeping the lights on.

The reason I have so much trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Christian families really do choose Sunday sports over church is that it is so blisteringly obvious that this is spiritually suicidal, in the sense that kids catechized by the popular culture in this way will not practice the faith as adults. The faith will likely die in their generation. Their parents and their community will have taught them by example that God is less important than sports. Or, to put it another way, that sports is the true God.

(Interestingly, this morning a Catholic friend from Baton Rouge texted me, about Sunday:  “We still pretend that it is off limits. But it will get taken over when people realize that no one is using it for church anymore.”)

See, this is how assimilation happens. You can carry around in your head the idea of God, and that you affirm your religion, but that’s vaporous if you don’t put it into practice in this ordinary way. I bring up in speeches a lot the challenge I received from a Christian undergraduate at a talk earlier this year: “Why do you say practices are so important? Why isn’t it enough to love Jesus with all our hearts, as we were taught growing up?” This Sunday sports thing is one reason why. Not a single Christian parent who chooses sports over church believes that he or she is denying the faith. After all, they still believe, in the sense of affirming certain propositions, right? But unless the faith is manifested and embedded in practices — communal practices — it is not going to last.

Here’s a passage from The Benedict Option about liturgy:

Liturgy restores the stability we’ve lost by cementing the story of the gospel in our bodies. As MacIntyre has said, if we want to know what to do, we must first determine the story to which we belong. Christian worship, done properly, provides us with regular reminders that we belong to Christ and to the story He is unfolding. It also teaches us, though, that we are not free to improvise the story but are bound to write our own chapters according to what has been revealed to us in the Book, and in continuity with what our fathers and mothers of the faith have written before us.

Even secular sociologists recognize the power of these physical acts to maintain cultural memory. In his book How Societies Remember, the social anthropologist Paul Connerton studies practices that various peoples have undertaken to hold fast to their stories in the face of forgetfulness. He says that when a community wants to remember its sacred story, the one that gives it meaning, it must make the story a matter of “habit-memory.” That is, it must absorb the story as something “sedimented into the body.”

The most powerful rituals involve the body, says Connerton. They make use of all the senses to impress the sacred story upon the individuals gathered. For example, when worshippers kneel or prostrate themselves at a certain point in a ritual, they learn in their very muscles the awe-filled meaning of that sacred moment—and it helps them remember.

Connerton’s study found that the most effective rituals do not vary and stand distinctly apart from daily life in their songs and language. And if a ritual is to be effective in training the hearts and shaping the imaginations of its participants, it has to be something that they are habituated to in their bodies.

In that passage, I’m using Connerton’s work to talk about worship liturgies, but the point is easy to generalize about cultural liturgies — that is, the habits of daily life that form us. Like, what we choose to do, or not to do, on Sunday morning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long blog entry about Connerton’s book. For some reason, it’s not coming up on Google search right now, but here’s a lengthy passage explaining this in greater detail:

Two quotes to start us off:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera

“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” — Alasdair MacIntyre

On the flight home from Richmond, I read social anthropologist’s Paul Connerton’s 1989 book How Societies Rememberwhich had been mailed to me by a reader who said I should read it for research on the Benedict Option bookIt is thin but very dense and unsexy, but it hit me with the force of revelation. When I read its final lines as the plane was taxiing to the gate in Baton Rouge, I felt the last conceptual piece fall into place to write this book. Reader, I owe you more than I can say. I am going to try to sum up Connerton’s argument, and relate it briefly to the Benedict Option.

Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these performances have to be embodied to be effective. Let’s unpack this.

When a new regime or social order takes over, the first thing it does is to find ways to sever the society’s connection to its past. ISIS is now doing that in the areas it controls, by erasing any physical embodiment of the memory of the area’s pre-Islamic past. “The more total the aspirations of the new regime, the more imperiously will it seek to introduce an era of forced forgetting,” says Connerton.

ISIS is an extreme example, of course, but this happens in all societies that are undergoing revolutionary change. The Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe tried this too. Echoing Kundera, Connerton says that the “there were people [there] who realised that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting.”

Connerton discusses three types of memories — personal (something in the past that the individual experienced), cognitive (something in the past that the individual knows from having learned it second hand), and habit-memory, which he defines as “our having the capacity to reproduce a certain performance.” It’s like muscle memory: we may not remember how we learned the thing, but we can recall it when necessary. Reading this, I recalled the experience of Father George Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy while in a Communist prison because he had committed it to memory. The liturgy reminded him of who he was and what was true, in a time and place in which the authorities brutally tried to force him to forget. Connerton calls this third kind of remembering “habit-memory.”

When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. Connerton says that “performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution.”

In simpler language, this means that the words spoken in a rite both bind its participants together and remind the people who they are, as a people. Further, the most effective rituals involve the body. Connerton:

To kneel in subordination is not to state subordination, nor is it just to communicate a message of submission. To kneel in subordination is to display it through the visible, present substance of one’s body. Kneelers identify the disposition of their body with their disposition of subordination. Such performative doings are particularly effective, because unequivocal and materially  substantial , ways of ‘saying’; and the elementariness of the repertoire from which such ‘sayings’ are drawn makes possible at once their performative power and their effectiveness as mnemonic systems.

The most effective rituals do not vary, and are removed in the form of speech and song from everyday life. And:

Finally, ritualised posture, gesture and movement, instead of flexibly combining to impart a variety and ambiguity of information as in what we conventionally describe as everyday situations, is restrictive in pattern, and hence easily predictable and easily repeatable, from one act to the next and from one ritual occasion to the next.

More:

Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.

One more passage:

On my trip, I had several conversations with conservative church folks in middle to upper middle class social groups. Washington DC and Charlottesville, Virginia, (home of the University of Virginia), are full of such people. My interlocutors told me how hard it is to get many people in their circles to believe in anything prophetic in the Christian way of life that would prevent them and their children from participating fully in the meritocracy. When these are rival goods, mom and dad know which kingdom they serve. A man and a woman ask their pastor to speak to their college-age child, who wants to become a missionary, and ask him to talk her out of it; they want her to be successful, not to throw her life away.

In most cases, I understood my interlocutors to say, these in their social circles are not liberals. Quite the opposite, actually. What they appear to want, though, is a faith that baptizes the American Way of Life. Anything that conflicts with that they resist. Consequently, they cannot see how the American Way of Life, with its relentless valorization of innovation and individualism, annihilates Christianity by assimilating it.

You can have left-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can have right-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but neither one is Christianity. Both are the pseudo-religion of the Rich Young Ruler from the Gospel parable. Every single one of us is subject to this temptation, by virtue of the fact that we are Americans, and we live in modernity.

It occurred to me while reading this that the most dangerous enemy we face is not the State, and what it might yet do to individual Christians and their institutions and businesses. The most lethal foe is the Empire of Amnesia, which induces us at every turn to forget who we are, to forget who God is, and to forget what He wants from us. The Empire of Amnesia does not force us to forget our sacred Story as the Soviet empire did to believers; rather, it entices us to forget so we can set free our passions. So we can have our best life now. So we can be as gods. And as Ross Douthat once wrote, “no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.”

This is the mission of the Benedict Option: to turn away from the Empire of Amnesia, to build “new forms of community” that can offer sustained resistance to it, and to give ourselves, our children, and our communities resilience in the face of its power, and ultimately to create, over time, the conditions for the resurrection of Christian civilization.

All that might sound like a lot of theoretical hoo-ha, but what it means, deep down, is this: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me. Not on Sunday morning, not ever. Choosing Sunday sports over church is many things, but it is also to induce cultural amnesia into your family, and to embrace a new, godless culture and its liturgies — sports on Sunday morning, say — by sedimenting its values into your family’s bones. You are teaching your children and yourself that there is no sacred order other than the one you choose. Do not be surprised if they learn this lesson well from you, and as adults, choose not to pretend that they really believe in God. And you will not be blameless in this.

I know I’m being harsh here, but people, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.  We American church people like to tell ourselves that if the secret policemen were to show up at our door to arrest us for being Christians, that we would bravely go to our fate, as the martyrs and confessors of the past did. What crap. Many of us won’t even say no to soccer on Sunday morning. If the secret police in some distant dystopia were to come to our door and ask if we are Christian, we will already answered that question many times in the past, by the quotidian choices we will have made.

This is why I am, yes, alarmist about the Benedict Option and the future of Christianity. Things really are as bad as all that. When I talk about “strategic withdrawal” as necessary for the preservation of the Christian faith, I’m talking about things as mundane as taking your kids out of sports leagues that require them to play on Sundays (or Saturdays, if you’re Jewish) and holy days. It really is a big deal, bigger than most people realize. You might think, “He’s saying head for the hills, but we can’t do that, because we have to stay engaged, to be salt and light to the world.” Come on, really? If you really want your kids, and yourself, to be salt and light, then you cannot choose sports over Sunday worship, because in so doing you will have lost your savor, and accepted assimilation over fidelity.

Believe me, I’m not lecturing from my high horse. These conversations in southern California I’ve had these past few days have highlighted to me ways in which I can and must do better as a Christian and as a father, in strengthening the liturgy of my life and my family’s life. I have not been doing as well as I ought to be doing. The good thing is that it is never too late to change.

So, to go back to the Sun article:

“We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past.”

More and more often, the answer seems to be: shed your baggage, move more nimbly and sharpen your sense of mission.

Yes. Ordinary Christians have to wake up and comprehend what has happened, and is happening. A reader wrote today:

I just wanted to thank you for speaking at the Santa Monica Catholic Church this past Saturday night. I first heard of you and your book, The Benedict Option, from a New Yorker article my sister gave me. I was drawn to your story because I too am an outsider and your longing for a sense of home is something I can sympathize with.

I’ve never written to a public figure before, but I wish to encourage you to continue raising awareness of the growing threat to the church and our world as a whole. Some of the other panelists’ attempts to dismiss you as ’alarmist’ were well intentioned, but naive at best. Living in the comfort of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the world can dull one’s sense of reality. But I am no different.

This past Sunday, I was leaving my church after a joyful time of worship and bible study only to encounter a gruesome scene: someone had committed suicide by jumping off a high rise luxury condo two blocks away from my church. The police had to close off the street because of the blood and body parts.

I know one shouldn’t extrapolate too much from one data point, but I took this as a challenge that the church needs to do more. The field hospital metaphor for the church shared on Saturday is apt, but incomplete. Due to the rising hostility against our faith, many who are in need of the Gospel would never darken the door of a church. How can we share the Gospel to a world that doesn’t want to hear it?

The Sun article said churches, to survive, have to “sharpen” their sense of mission. I take that to mean that they have to stand for something clearly and firmly. I mentioned to my interlocutor at dinner last night that I sometimes think that churches ought to focus more on being finder-friendly than seeker-friendly. That is, if you water down your sense of mission to make it accessible to the kind of people who would rather go to soccer games with their kids on Sunday morning than come worship and commune, then you risk driving away those who do come, and who may well be desperate for formation and discipleship.

We need Christian families and communities who are all about Chariots Of Fire, not Minivans Of Apathy.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

We are Mormon and moved from Utah to a very religious and conservative part of Texas recently. We were aghast at all the Sunday sports leagues for kids, which we had never seen in Utah. My kids play ice hockey, but we refused to play on Sunday, and as a result my kids were treated like trash (“letting down the team by not playing on Sunday!”). I remain really shocked by this treatment from people who consider themselves devoutly Christian. And now I see how wonderful it was to be in a place (Utah) where no one would ever think of scheduling a youth sports event on Sunday because no one would show up! We are also told by our Church leaders not to go to stores or amusement parks or such on Sunday–that is, to try not to spend any money at all on Sunday so that businesses would not be needing as many workers on Sundays (so that these workers could go to Church instead). I agree with you that we need to draw lines and stand firm on these issues that might not seem important, but which surely are.

God bless the Mormons for holding the line!

UPDATE.2: Reader TimG, an Evangelical pastor in Mexico:

Here in a very Catholic neighborhood in central Mexico, Sunday morning is soccer morning. The fields are full (ripe for harvest?) and the faith is skin-deep.

My 14-year-old son joined a football team (American) and most of their games were on Sunday. We had to make a choice. Church won. We did squeeze in a couple afternoon games.

The point is that this goes beyond the US. It’s a human thing. In the book of Judges “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” It’s a continuous battle every generation, although I’m pretty sure the problem in Israel back then wasn’t soccer on Sundays.

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , , , , . 14 comments

Tim Keller & The Benedict Option

Cultural engagement, Babylon-style (Gustave Dore, via Nicku/Shutterstock

Hello everybody from Malibu. I’ve been at and around Pepperdine University these past couple of days, giving a couple of lectures on politics and the Benedict Option.  My trip is sponsored by Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy and its dean, Pete Peterson. I really can’t say enough good things about these folks. Everybody on this Christian campus has been incredibly welcoming to me, and the things I’ve learned about the Public Policy School here have been so encouraging. It is, as Dean Peterson said to me, “a Great Books public policy school.” From its About page:

Public policy is not limited to the study of government solutions, but is broadened to embrace a full range of community-based and free-market approaches to public policy challenges.
Effective public policy solutions are rooted in the classic literature of history, philosophy, and economics and are guided by moral and ethical principles best captured in the lives of great leaders.
The teaching of public policy goes beyond the theoretical survey of problems, highlighting policy applications that have proven to be effective.
Many policy challenges are best resolved at state and local levels. Southern California and Los Angeles provide an ideal laboratory in which to study such issues.

All of this intersects with the Benedict Option, but especially the first two principles. In my talks, I spoke of “politics” as something much broader than campaigns and legislation. Politics is the way we come together to order our life in common. In that sense, getting involved in your local community doing charitable work is a form of political engagement. It’s my belief that as America moves further into laïcité in the decades to come, this kind of politics is going to be the main one open to small-o orthodox Christians.

I keep running into the wall of people thinking that I’m arguing for Christians to turn their backs on the public square. I have yet to see a more succinct dissection of this issue than Andy Crouch delivered here:

1. Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.

Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 20%

Portion of journalistic coverage of the book devoted to this claim: 90%

Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 98%

Likelihood of this claim being true: 50%

How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 5%

2. Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularized modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.

Portion of The Benedict Option devoted to this claim: 80%

Portion of journalistic coverage devoted to this claim: 10%

Portion of social media buzz (pro and con) devoted to this claim: 2%

Likelihood of this claim being true: 90%

How much this should cause acute distress for those who believe that Jesus is Lord: 100%

Yep, that’s about it. The book is addressed not to the general public, but specifically to Christians who broadly identify as theologically and morally conservative. What I’m claiming is that Western civilization has definitively cast aside the Christian faith, despite outward trappings, and that this means that the participation in the public square of Christians who do not bow down to the secular elite consensus will be restricted. I am also claiming — more importantly — that the churches are not remotely prepared for this. Our catechesis and our formation is disastrous. I’m with church historian Robert Louis Wilken on this:

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

I strongly encourage you to read “The Church As Culture,” the 2004 essay from which that passage is taken. Wilken is a leading historian of the early church, and discusses how believers in the first centuries of the faith created a distinctly Christian culture within which to pass down the faith. He argues that culture is necessary to forming Christians. Of course culture itself is not the same thing as Christ, but properly seen, culture is an icon through which Christ is mediated through us.

Anyway, I find that some of the strongest critics of the Ben Op idea are Christians, especially Reformed Christians, who model themselves after the well-known successful pastor Tim Keller. Here’s Keller on his ideas about Christian cultural engagement:

When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They “mocked” him (Acts 17:32) and called him a “babbler” (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.

Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans’ call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics’ insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Does it surprise you that I agree with this? I’m still looking for ways in which Tim Keller and I substantively disagree on cultural engagement. If you know of any, please let me know — I’m serious about that. What I emphasize in The Benedict Option is that if we Christians are going to do that in a hostile, post-Christian public square, we have no choice but to take a step back from the public square to deepen our knowledge of the faith, our prayer lives, and our moral and spiritual discipline.

I also argue that Christian parents need to be a lot more aware of the malformative effects of our cultural liturgies on their children — and, of course, on themselves. Holding the correct doctrines, and having one’s heart in the right place, are not enough. Nor is participating in church, if church life is not consciously countercultural — that is, if church life doesn’t understand what post-Christian culture means and what it does, and train those in the fellowship to push back as hard against it as it pushes against us.

My concern is that many Christians are eager to “engage the culture” without a realistic understanding of how and why the broader culture is hostile to them and to the Gospel. Sometimes when I hear “engage the culture” types talk, I find myself thinking of the kind of thing Aaron Renn articulated here:

The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors.  These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.

… [Tim Keller] explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.

If that’s a fair description of Keller’s vision, then I can go a long way with it, but not all the way. My fear is that this approach, taken up by sincere Christians who aren’t being properly formed and discipled, will end up with them sacrificing important Christian truths for the sake of maintaining access to the public square. For example, I’m thinking of an Evangelical woman who held an influential position in a secular media company. In a conversation two years ago about same-sex marriage, she said, with palpable frustration in her voice, “When can we quit talking about this and get back to talking about Jesus?”

The idea that you can separate sexual morality from New Testament Christianity is a novel one, to say the least. But it’s exactly what you would expect from Christians who are successful professionals working in the secular world, and who want to assuage the anxiety they feel over their non-conformity with the sacred tenets of that world. When the faith becomes primarily relational — that is, maintaining relationships — then it becomes easy to justify minimizing or turning aside the Bible’s “hard teachings” for the sake of maintaining those relationships. This is especially true in a church and a culture, like our own, where Christians have forgotten what it means to suffer as Christians.

My idea of cultural engagement sits in the space between Jeremiah 29 and Daniel 3. Here’s Jeremiah 29, 4-7; God is speaking to the Hebrews in their Babylonian exile, through the Prophet Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

And here is Daniel 3, 8-23:

At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold,11 and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—who pay no attentionto you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.”

13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what godwill be able to rescue you from my hand?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.

The story goes on to say that the fire did not consume the men, and that God delivered them from death. I cut the story off here, though, because at this point, the three men did not know for sure that they would not be killed in the furnace. They went to what ought to have been a horrible death with faith and confidence. In truth, countless Christian martyrs over the past 2,000 years went into the fiery furnace, so to speak, submitting to death before apostasy.

Yes, we must do what we can to serve our neighbors as Christians, and to evangelize. But we can only do this rightly if we have been living as the three Hebrew men were: serving the people, but God first. There was something about the way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were living as faithful Jews in Babylon that gave them the strength to choose death before idol worship. For us, “cultural engagement” can only take place if we have been formed with that kind of hardcore spiritual and moral discipline. This is what I mean by strategic withdrawal: a partial withdrawal not to turn our backs entirely on the public square, but only to regain focus and clarity, and strengthen ourselves so that when we go back into the public square, we know who we are, what we stand for, and what we must endure for the sake of the true faith.

I don’t see that happening in most churches today. Over these last two days in southern California, I’ve had a few conversations with Catholics and Evangelicals both, who have talked about how feeble most (but not all) churches around here are on discipleship.

This is why I think Aaron Renn is onto something with this:

 The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”

[I write:] Here’s the thing, says Renn:

Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves. 

It can be assumed that everything after that followed. Renn concludes:

[T]he church needs the manly virtues of enduring suffering, hardship, and having values that are higher than worldly social status and success – people who stand on solid rock, not who have a finger in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing so they can conform.

So: yes, engage the culture, and be the servants of your neighbors and the common good. But you cannot do this properly if you are not God’s servant first. And you cannot be God’s servant in this post-Christian culture without deep and serious formation from a life of worship, prayer, contemplation, and Scripture study. The faith cannot be part of one’s life. It has to be one’s entire way of life. There is no alternative.

I’ve got to go down to Orange County now. If any of you readers who know Tim Keller’s work wish to help me understand better how his approach differs from mine, please weigh in, and I’ll approve your comments when I can. I think it’s true that I’m more negative towards the culture outside the church than Keller is, that I don’t share his optimism … but what else?

Posted in , . Tagged , . 57 comments

Moralistic Therapeutic Hannityism

The Pope of Moralistic Therapeutic Hannityism (Gage Skidmore/Shutterstock)

I watched Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas interview Sean Hannity onstage at church today, via a webcast from the church. Hannity is formally a Roman Catholic, but he told Jeffress that he is “more of a born-again Christian now,” and complained that the Catholic Church gave him “guilt”.

Hannity said that the Roman Catholic Church “got it wrong” on how the Church was founded.

“They sure did,” said Jeffress, who has said that Catholicism is a version of a “Babylonian mystery cult.” 

The Catholic Church thinks Jesus was founding the church on Peter as pope, says Hannity — which is true, and let me say that the Orthodox Church, my church, disagrees with the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18 too.

Hannity explains what Jesus really meant: that you, Peter, know he is the Messiah because God spoke it directly to your heart. Says Hannity: “That inner revelation — Peter knew who Christ was, because God reveals it to his heart. I know when I’m being a jerk, when I’m angry, when I’m wrong, because God tells me in my heart when I’m wrong.”

So, Hannity is his own pope. If he were a properly formed born-again Evangelical, then he would say that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority to which he bows down. But he didn’t say that. He said that it was his conscience, and that conscience is the arbiter of whether what we do is right or wrong. The implication here is that if he feels guilty about something, it must be a sin. If not, not.

The pastor of one of the biggest Southern Baptist churches in the country did not contradict Hannity. The congregation, which earlier applauded Hannity when he said, “I hate liberals,” gave the Fox News superstar a standing ovation at the end. [UPDATE: A reader says that Hannity actually said, “I don’t like liberals.” It’s a distinction with a small difference in this context, I think, but a meaningful one. I appreciate the correction. — RD]

Moralistic Therapeutic Hannityism, folks. And Robert Jeffress has made his church its temple.

To be fair to Hannity, his stated belief system is the de facto religion of American Christians. Anyway, you can probably find video of the interview later on the First Baptist Dallas website. 

Posted in . Tagged , , , . 70 comments

Fox + America + Jesus

I’m just gonna put this out there:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , . 17 comments

Evangelicalism’s Lost World

What did St. Athanasius of the 4th century know that American Christians do not? (kavring/Shutterstock)

An Evangelical reader passes on a recent edition of The Masculinist, an monthly e-mail newsletter about “the intersection of Christianity and masculinity,” written by Aaron Renn. I can’t find a place to link to the article, so I’ll quote it. The reader told me that I should take a look at it, because it might explain the cool reception The Benedict Option has had in some Evangelical circles.

The essay leading the newsletter (#13) is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. I’m going to quote it at length, but let me say at the front end that it’s so good that I immediately subscribed to The Masculinist, and I strongly suggest that you do too. Renn is a conservative Presbyterian who is concerned about the decline of a sense of manhood within Christianity (and in society), and the failure of the churches to respond to the crisis.

Renn begins this essay by critiquing Sen. Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, which focuses on twentysomethings who fail to launch into adult life. Renn says the book is “very good in many ways,” but addresses only the top 20 percent of American households — the kind of people whose kids are going to have a much easier time launching than all the rest. Renn:

 

 

Sasse does not forthrightly address any of the serious problems facing America’s youth with any proposed solutions that might get him into the slightest bit of hot water.  (He did give family breakdown a mention, but did nothing with it). The kids growing up in white working class communities with rampant family breakdown, unstable employment, drugs, etc. have much bigger problems in life than learning how to travel well. Drug addicted parents are injecting babies with opioids to make them stop crying (true story). There’s one woman I know personally who had four kids by three different fathers, two of whom were brothers. And who went though a significant stretch to drug addiction where she was completely out of the picture while her kids where raised by grandparents. Those kids face serious problems. (Two of them have already had out of wedlock children of their own, one of them already with multiple partners).  Similarly, a black teenager in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood faces much bigger problems than his summer reading list.

Sasse, despite all of his pretention to moral superiority, despite his constant anti-Trump preening, despite all of his Evangelical faith, despite being a US senator, is unwilling to stand up in the public square and say unpopular things to confront the serious problems in America, ones not amenable to uncontroversial feel-good solutions like “consume less.”

In this curious blend of moral posturing and play it safe proclamations, Sasse is very representative of what’s probably the dominant strain of Evangelical thinking today. So it’s worth exploring what that is – and why it exists.

Renn goes on to talk about “the Three Worlds”:

Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity. In my framework, there are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.

1 Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2 Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute.  It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3 Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

To illustrate the differences, consider these three incidents:

1 Positive World: In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.
2 Neutral World:  In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
3 Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.

Even for those who hate Christianity, the rise of Trump, something only possible in a post-Christian world, should give them pause to consider.

Renn then discusses the church’s “strategic response” to these worlds.

When we lived in Positive World, we saw emerge the Religious Right, the Positive World paradigm, which was “highly combative and oppositional vs. emerging secular culture.” We also saw the emergence of the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch movement. Its success depended on a basic friendliness to Christianity in the broader culture.

 

The church that emerged out of Neutral World are the “urban church” types. Renn:

The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors.  These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.

Renn says that with the exception of “some Southern Baptists and some older white guys,” the Evangelical leadership today is Neutral World. Tim Keller is the No. 1 example of a successful Neutral World pastor. His success at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City “powerfully validated the Neutral World model.” Renn:

He explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.

 

Here’s the problem, according to Renn: Since around 2014, we have shifted from Neutral World to Negative World — but a lot of Evangelicals still think we’re living in Neutral World, or wish we were. Renn:

When the world switched from positive to neutral, the cultural engagement strategy was readily developed. With the switch from neutral to negative, the church needs a new strategy. However, one does not appear to be forthcoming. The lack of negative world ideas is remarkable not just for the fact that it has not occurred, but that it has received so little attention.

There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds. He even physically moved from backwoods to Louisiana to New York City then back again. He’s also Eastern Orthodox, not Protestant.  He’s all over the map in many ways, and as a result the Benedict Option is critically flawed in my view. However, at least it’s addressing reality.

Interestingly, neutral world Evangelicals seem to have largely rejected the Benedict Option, and therein lies an important tale.

What is that tale? Renn says that in 2014, he reckoned that “as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.”

This didn’t happen, he said. What happened instead was that Neutral World Evangelicals have taken up the response of Mainline Protestant church by embracing the world and the social gospel. “In other words,” writes Renn, “they decided to sign on with the winning team.” More:

The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).

I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus.

More:

I won’t speculate on their motives, but it’s very clear that neutral world leaders have a lot to lose. Unlike Jerry Falwell, who never had secular cachet and lived in the sticks, these guys enjoy artisanal cheese, microbrews, and pour over coffees in Brooklyn. They’ve had bylines in the New York Times and Washington Post. They get prime speaking gigs at the Q conference and elsewhere. A number of them have big donors to worry about. And if all of a sudden they lost the ability to engage with the culture they explicitly affirmed as valuable, it would a painful blow. For example, to accept Dreher’s Benedict Option argument they’d have to admit that the entire foundation of their current way of doing business no longer works. Not many people are interested in hearing that.

The neutral world Christians – and again that seems to be much of Evangelical leadership today – are in a tough spot when it comes to adjusting to the negative world. The move from positive to neutral world brought an increase in mainstream social status (think Tim Keller vs. Pat Robertson), but the move to a negative world will involve a loss of status. Let’s be honest, that’s not palatable to most. Hence we see a shift hard to the left and into very public synchronization with secular pieties. That’s not everybody in Evangelical leadership, but it’s a lot of them. Many of those who haven’t are older and long time political conservatives without a next generation of followers who think like them. (Political conservatism is also dying, incidentally).

Renn explains that he lives in Manhattan and loves it. He’s happy there, and has a lot to lose if he were to accept the implications of Negative World and live by them. He would prefer that Negative World were not true.

But the reality is even in my secular urban work the ground is eroding under my feet. Everything is becoming hyper-political, whether I want it to be or not or whether it should be or not. I’m going to end up in a higher conflict mode whether I want to or not. Just like what happened to Tim Keller at Princeton. Buckle up.

People are going to be forced to make choices, across a wide spectrum of domains. I’m afraid current trends indicate that Christian leaders are going to make the wrong ones. We already know from the past that social gospel style Christianity is a gateway to apostasy. That’s where the trend is heading here.

I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world.  Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.

So, what does this have to do with masculinity? Renn asks.

The battle now beginning in the world is going to require “masculine virtues, ones in desperately short supply in the church.

 The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”

Here’s the thing, says Renn: Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves. 

It can be assumed that everything after that followed. Renn concludes:

[T]he church needs the manly virtues of enduring suffering, hardship, and having values that are higher than worldly social status and success – people who stand on solid rock, not who have a finger in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing so they can conform.

I wish I had a link to the entire essay to post here, but there is none. However, if this essay is the quality of analysis you can find every month in The Masculinist, it’s well worth subscribing.

I’d love to read Renn’s critique of the Benedict Option (Aaron, if you’re reading this, write me). As I tell audiences, I don’t have all the answers, but I hope I’m asking the right questions. I am eager — I mean this — to receive constructive critique. The Benedict Option is meant to start conversations within which members of the church universal — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — can bring ourselves to face the world as it actually is, and develop meaningful responses to it. For me, the Ben Op project is a work in progress; I really do want to help the church build resilience in the post-Christian world, and if I’ve gotten something wrong, or only half-right in my work, I welcome fraternal correction.

But, to get back to Renn’s theme, I’m reminded of this quote from the theologian Robert Louis Wilken, which I cite in The Benedict Option:

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

Wilken is an eminent historian of the early church. What he sees happening today, in our post-Christian culture, is the church today returning to a position like in its early centuries: as an often-despised minority within a pagan society.

Renn is right: a weak, compromising, emotion-driven church is not going to survive what we are in now, and what is to come. If we don’t know who we are, deep down, and if we have not had that identity sedimented into our bones through serious study of Scripture and Christian thinking (“a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend”) and disciplined practices, we are going to be assimilated. Period. The end. That’s the reality.

Here’s what’s not going to work:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Tell that to the fathers of the Council of Nicaea. How lovely it would be for a 21st century American Evangelical to go back in time and tell them to knock off the arguing over Arianism, that Jesus never wrote a Creed, and that they should really focus on dialogue and relationship-building with the Arians. Athanasius was not winsome, thank God.

The reason for the Church councils back then was to hammer out what Christian orthodoxy demanded the faithful believe about the nature of Jesus Christ. These weren’t issues about which we could agree to disagree. They mattered a lot. The reason we have Christianity today in the form we do is because the Church fathers thought hard about this stuff, took difficult stands, and defended them.

Our world is very different from the world of the fourth-century church, but one thing is constant: the need to defend Christian orthodoxy, in thought, word, and deed. It is not enough to defend it intellectually. It is more important that we embody it in our lives, that we live it out, and make our lives a witness to the Truth. It is true that doctrine itself is not the key to salvation, from a Christian point of view. But it is also true that without embodiment in certain concrete forms — beliefs and practices — Christianity cannot survive.

It is important to have a relational faith, yes, but if we are guided in our thoughts and actions by the telos of maintaining relationship, we are bound to apostatize at some point. The Negative World doesn’t dislike, and at times loathe, orthodox Christians because we fail to be winsome. It dislikes and loathes us because of what we believe to be true.

I think that the Church Clarity initiative by LGBT Christians — to name and shame churches that aren’t 100 percent endorsing of LGBT sexuality and identity — is an ugly thing. But I think there’s real value in it, in that it compels, well, clarity on where we stand. A church that is unwilling to claim and defend orthodox Christian teaching, even within a welcoming and pastoral setting, is ultimately going to capitulate to cultural pressure. Calls for “dialogue” and “listening” are fine on the surface, but what they ultimately mean is that this is a time for the orthodox within the discussion to work out their rationalizations for capitulation. Because in the end, that’s the only way these churches will retain cultural respectability.

At the nominally Catholic Georgetown University, a group of student activists is petitioning the university to defund a student group that defends the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Why? Because the group stands accused of “hatred and intolerance.” I’ve mentioned in this space before talking to a professor at a Catholic university who told me he would never attempt to teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage and family, even in a neutral academic way, because he would surely be denounced by students to the administration for creating an “unsafe space,” and the university would move to fire him. He wasn’t joking. I talked to other professors at the same institution who said it was true.

This is happening at some Catholic universities right now. You think it’s going to get better? You think secular universities are going to avoid this somehow? You think this is going to be contained within certain communities? A reader wrote me the other day saying that his own sibling told him that he and his wife ought to be imprisoned because they didn’t endorse progressive doctrine on LGBT.

An Evangelical reader writes:

As a brief aside relating to what you’ve said about young Christians being in retreat on this issue, two young evangelical friends of mine were involved on [a Facebook thread about a conservative Evangelical college’s LGBT stance]. Both are professed Christians and at least claim to not believe in the morality of homosexuality; both were against the college excluding LGBT-affirming denominations. One of them responded to my criticism on the thread of the letter with an angry personal attack in which she divulged private information about my religious background. As I’ve mentioned to you in a couple of emails before, I’ve seen plenty “on the ground” with young evangelicals and homosexuality, and I can tell you from my experience that most older Christians have no idea how willing to capitulate on this issue the great majority of them are. Even those who take a more or less orthodox stance on the matter regard things like opposing transgender bathrooms or legalized same-sex marriage as crank positions on par with an unswerving faith in Fox News or believing that the moon landings were faked.

Everything you’re saying in The Benedict Option is spot-on; I doubt your critics would be able to keep up their words about the book very credibly if they could see what I’ve seen. It’s a disheartening picture, but believe me – having been on the ground for years in evangelical youth culture, I can tell you that what you’re saying is spot-on.

The point I wish to make here is not simply that the Evangelical church in the pews (like the Catholic church in the pews) is going to collapse doctrinally on LGBT issues. It’s that when pressured by the consensus of the broader culture on issues that contradict longstanding orthodox Christian teaching, they will capitulate for the sake of maintaining a relationship with that culture. Today it’s LGBT; what will it be tomorrow? Remember, most Christians in Germany during the Nazi era put aside their convictions and rationalized supporting the Nazi Party. It can happen here to Christians who don’t know what the church of history teaches and expects of them.

Put bluntly, it’s as if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rationalized that maintaining their relationship with Nebuchadnezzar and his court was worth bowing down to the golden idol, because after all, they need to be salt and light, they can do a lot of good as the king’s servants, yadda yadda.

Fiery furnaces as the price of staying true to God? Shoot, most Christians today don’t even want to think about being disliked by the world. When the time of testing comes, I expect that most of us will fail, and won’t even notice that we’ve failed, because we will be so ignorant of what Christianity is that our consciences will be untroubled. And then our children will not be Christian at all.

I take Renn’s criticism that The Benedict Option is a problematic response to the challenge of staying faithful in Negative World, though I’d like to hear more from him about where and how it fails (I’ll publish it on this blog if he hasn’t published it anywhere else). But look, you don’t have to think that I get the prescription right in the book to recognize the validity of the diagnosis. This is why in the book I invite Christians to get involved as a “creative minority” to pioneer ways of living that will strengthen us now and in the time to come. This is going to require having hard conversations about difficult truths. But we have no alternative. Take the Apostle Paul Option if you like. It’s the same basic thing: understanding the situation the church faces in these post-Christian times, and focusing intensely on building up its inner life, so that when we do go into the world, we will do so as faithful Christians. And if the world should reject us, we will be willing to suffer that as Christians, without backing down from what we know to be true.

Again: there is no alternative. We don’t live in Positive World or Neutral World. The virtues of church life that obtained in those periods don’t work anymore.

By the way, Renn criticizes Evangelicals, of which he is one, but there is very little in his essay that does not apply to all Christians living in America.

UPDATE: A reader sent me a couple of Masculinist issues in which Renn mentions me critically. I want to offer a brief response:

Your life has to be congruent with the message you’re sending. So I’m writing this newsletter on masculinity, I need to be living it out or I’m not credible.  Paul was congruent.

Lack of congruence is one of the reasons Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” can be rightly rejected.  Why? Rod himself is not living a Benedict Option life, or he certainly doesn’t give the impression he does. He did move to Louisiana, but this appeared to originally be prompted by family considerations. He routinely posts pictures from his trips to locations like France and Italy, along with the fabulous meals he and others eat. That’s an odd image to give off for an alarmist who in effect claims the sky is falling. He talks about strategic partial retreat from the public square, but there’s no evidence that he’s retreated even an inch from any form of politics and the public square.  In fact his entire livelihood is based on advocacy in the public square. Other than living in Louisiana, it’s hard to to think of what’s he’s doing to live a Benedict Option lifestyle himself, judging by his blog posts I regularly scan. Resulting credibility: low.

Well, my credibility might be low, but it’s a logical fallacy to say because I’m not living out the Benedict Option (in Renn’s view) my argument shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Still, to his point: I admit in just about every talk I give about the Ben Op that I don’t have all the answers, and that I’m struggling myself to live up to my ideals. When you read me preaching about this stuff, I’m talking to myself too. I’m trying to be more faithful to my ideals, but it’s hard. If I give the impression that I’m some sort of model, please let me dispel that image from your mind.

Second, I leave a lot of stuff out of this blog by choice. My wife insists — and she is right to insist — that I keep blogging about her and the kids to a minimum. I’ll mention them all in a general sense from time to time, but I try to respect those boundaries, because they’re legitimate, and important.

Plus, I don’t like the idea of holding myself out as a positive example. It sounds like bragging. “Hey everybody, I kept the fast well this week” — that’s not a good look. Believe me, I am very far from living up to my own standards on this stuff, but when I do manage somehow to pull it off, I’m not likely to talk about it here.

Regarding travel and good food, I don’t see anything wrong with feasting … as long as fasting and tithing is part of one’s life too — but again, you’re not going to see me post photos of almond butter sandwiches I eat for lunch on fasting days. You’re not going to see me posting pics of the beans and rice I have for dinner during Lent. But there also might be a difference here between me as an Orthodox Christian — that is to say, one who lives by a sacramental sensibility — and Renn as a Calvinist. I think the sky really is falling, but we should enjoy the good things God has given us in season. I don’t believe faithful Christianity requires me to pull a long face every day. If there is no joy in the Christian life, I can’t see that we are being faithful.

I didn’t move to Louisiana for Benedict Option reasons, it’s true — but then, I never said I did. We did move from St. Francisville to Baton Rouge, 30 miles away, for Ben Op reasons.  I loved our house in the country, but when our mission church lost its priest, we had no doubt at all that we could not live without an Orthodox church close by. The nearest one was in Baton Rouge, 45 minutes away. Plus, my wife took a teaching job at the classical Christian school in Baton Rouge where our kids were going to be attending that fall. Had we remained in the country, Julie and the kids would have spent 90 minutes each day on the road, and then the whole family would have done the same thing on Sundays. We would have done it for the sake of keeping our parish going under Father Matthew’s leadership, but when the mission could no longer afford to keep him, we moved to a place we didn’t want to go to for Benedict Option reasons: church and Christian school.

It feels cheesy to talk about this here, but Renn’s comment made me wonder if readers really do think that I have no skin in the Ben Op game. I really do. As far as retreating from the public square, where do I say that we have to do that? My argument is that we must strategically retreat — that is, step back from uncritical immersion in the public square for the sake of strengthening the inner life of ourselves, our families, our churches, and our little platoons, so that when we go back into the public square, we can do so as authentic Christians.

The greatest challenge to me personally as a Christian trying to live the Ben Op is the fact that I make my living writing for a public audience about news and current events. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in principle, but I find it hard to set it aside, get off the Internet when I ought to be, and to get out of my head (meaning that even when the computer is off, I’m still orbiting Planet Big Idea in my mind, instead of being present in the real world). A writer friend who quit social media and the Internet to focus on his current project told me the other day that he has enjoyed the peace of mind so much that he probably won’t return to it when he meets his current book deadline. I told him that was my hope one day: to get to a point in my own writing career when I didn’t have to immerse myself in news and the Internet daily. But this is where I am now, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to do this job. I feel often like a restaurant critic who struggles to do his job without getting fat — and who’s losing. Nothing to be done except keep working at getting better, without losing sight of my ideals.

The other criticism — in another issue of The Masculinist — Renn made of me has to do with what he calls “The Tragedy of Rod Dreher.” What is that tragedy? He writes:

Generally speaking, I think they are right when they look askance at people who are publicly boorish. Such behavior in our world often does reveal something of the character of the person. But they too often give the benefit of the doubt to “civilized” people who are nothing of the sort. And they are too quick to overlook the manhood deficits of nice, civil men whose masculinity is developmentally atrophied – me who can too easily get steamrolled in the real world. (I don’t think it’s any coincidence that everyone’s stereotype of the Christian guy in college is someone who is extraordinarily nice and polite, but also quite effete).

Thus they find themselves trapped. This conception of gentlemanliness is so core to the identity of people like Dreher that even when they see that it is fatally flawed, they can’t bear to change. They can only confront in battle that which society at large has given them permission to.  And even then they are unwilling to do what is necessary to actually win, hence the rejection of pagan alt-right masculinity while functionally surrendering to its victory. What is Dreher actually going to do to blunt the appeal of Jack Donovan? As far as I can see, nothing.

In short, the modern American Christian is all lamb, no lion.

He knows this about me how? Because I consider Donal Trump to be a boor? If that’s what it takes to be considered a tragic case, okay, I’ll take that criticism, which is especially weird coming from someone who professes belief in a man courageous enough to suffer without fighting back, even though he could have called down a host of angels to defend him from his enemies. There’s sometimes big difference between being a man, and being masculine.

What, exactly, am I waiting on society to give me permission to confront? Not to toot my own horn, but I publicly confronted the leadership of my own church repeatedly for nearly four years regarding the child sex abuse scandal, until it finally broke me. A whole lot of Catholic men who are more conventionally masculine than I am stayed silent. I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to work in a mainstream newsroom again because of the things I’ve written about marriage and sexuality. That’s fine; I wrote and do write what I think is true and important to say — and it’s not the kind of thing that wins me friends and admirers. I’m sure there have been battles that I’ve failed to fight, and I suspect my courage will by tried in the future, and I’ll fail. I hope not, but I would not presume to say. But look, if I turn into a hater and a crank and an asshole, then I’ve lost my honor just as much as if I shied fearfully away from a fight that I ought to have joined. But again, there’s a big difference between being a man, and being masculine.

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Mission. I have seen it a number of times, and I have never been able to settle in my mind whether the more courageous response to the attack on the mission was Robert De Niro’s or Jeremy Irons’s. I’ve always sided instinctively with De Niro, but in recent years, I’ve come to think that I might be wrong, and that Jeremy Irons’s character might have lived by the higher wisdom.

Anyway, none of this is to take away from the value of Renn’s writing. Again, I encourage you to subscribe to his newsletter, as I’ve done. I just didn’t want to let these criticisms go unanswered, because if he’s articulating them like this, many of you have probably had the same thoughts.

 

Posted in , , , , . Tagged , , , . 82 comments

On White People Acting White

SEIU International / Flickr.com

I have this friend who is a very hard worker. He’s what you would call one of the working poor. I may have known people who worked as hard as him, but I’ve never known anyone who works harder. He has a big heart. Yet he is poor, and the older we both get, the more I’ve come to realize that he will always be poor. When we run into each other and get caught up, the stories he tells about his own life and the lives of his extended family members beggar belief. No need to go into details, but let’s just say that it would take a vivid imagination to come up with a set of collective behaviors more likely to produce chronic poverty.

Once he was living with a woman who was treating him abusively (not physically). He told me he wanted out, but owned some property with her, and didn’t know how he could extricate himself from the bad deal he had made. I wanted to help him, so I went to my lawyer, told him the whole story, and asked him to get involved. I told him I would pay the legal bill for my friend. My lawyer looked at me skeptically and said, “I’ll do it if you want me to, but let me tell you from my own experience: he’s going to go back to her. These kind of people always fall back into the messes they’ve made.”

Well, I told him, I’ll take that chance, just to help my friend get free of this woman. I told my lawyer to stand by, that I was going to get in touch with the guy and make the offer. We got together three days later, my friend and me, and I told him I’d hire a lawyer to help him get free.

“Oh, we made up,” he said, nonchalantly. “I’m gonna stay.”

“But what about all those things you told me about last week?!” I said. “That’s serious stuff. You shouldn’t have to put up with that.”

He looked at me like I just didn’t understand. My lawyer had been right. The whole thing made me sad, because like I said, this is a good man, a man I care for, a man who gets taken advantage of all the time. It’s very clear to me that most of his problems — and the problem of his clan — has to do with foolish personal choices. Yet to hear him talk about it, they are all in the hands of fate. Things just happen to them.

These are white people, by the way, and that’s why I thought of my friend and his clan when I read Kevin D. Williamson’s piece on what he calls “the white minstrel show.” The essay, in his terms, is “about white people acting white.” That is, it’s about irresponsible poor white people blaming others for their self-inflicted problems, and especially hating whites who live more orderly, disciplined lives. Here are excerpts:

The parallels to the “acting white” phenomenon in black culture are fairly obvious: When aspiration takes the form of explicit or implicit cultural identification, however partial, with some hated or resented outside group that occupies a notionally superior social position, then “authenticity” is to be found in socially regressive manners, mores, and habits. It is purely reactionary.

… American authenticity, from the acting-even-whiter point of view, is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home — the world John Mellencamp sang about but understandably declined to live in.

Shake your head at rap music all you like: When’s the last time you heard a popular country song about finishing up your master’s in engineering at MIT?

White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment. The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.

Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.

Before you jerk your knee, understand that Williamson grew up in this underclass, in Lubbock, Texas. He writes about it in this piece. Williamson acknowledges that conservative social criticism often fails to take into account larger social and economic forces working on poor communities. It also fails to see how racialized its take can be. For example, says Williams, the crack epidemic (from a white conservative point of view) was all about poor blacks not being able to control their craving for drugs. But now that whites are overdosing on opioids, white conservatives find themselves more willing to look at the complexities driving addiction, and not simply reduce it to moral failing.

But — and here’s where his own biography comes in — there really are moral failings at work here. You need to read the piece to get the gritty details, but unless you do read it, you can’t sit in judgment of Williamson’s point of view. Here’s the lesson he learned from his own family’s experience, including his folks being chronically broke, despite his mom and stepdad earning decent money:

They didn’t suffer from bad luck or lack of opportunity. Bad decisions and basic human failure put them where they were. But that is from the political point of view an unsatisfactory answer, because it does not provide us with an external party (preferably a non-voting party) to blame. It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.

Of course they hated, just hated, “elites.” Williamson says this kind of resentment-driven populism soothes the anxiety and pain of those who hold it by relieving them of any sense of agency for their own fate. He writes:

The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show.

Read the whole thing. Honestly, please do. As I’ve said here before talking about Williamson’s views on the white underclass, I would place more blame on those outside forces than he seems to, but then again, Kevin D. Williamson has actually lived the underclass life, as a child. I have not. It’s easier for me to be sentimental about such things (unlike, say, my lawyer, who works with the poor a fair amount in his practice). I think it’s easy to miss Williamson’s larger point, which he lays out in that final graf I quote. It’s not about claiming that the playing field is always level, and that nobody ever rigs the game against anybody else. It’s not, and they do. Williamson’s point is that life is by its very nature hard unfair, but you’re supposed to make the best of it anyway, with the cards you’ve been dealt.

This was my father’s point of view too. He didn’t grow up in the underclass, but he did grow up very poor in the Great Depression. His father spent most of my dad’s young childhood on the road, making money to send back home to the family, which consisted of my dad, his older brother, their mother, and their grandmother, all living in a little cabin in the country. Many nights all they had to eat was cornbread and mustard greens. Daddy told me that on some nights, if they wanted any meat at all, he and his brother had to go into the woods and shoot squirrels with their BB guns.

Daddy came out of that experience with a very strong ethic of work and self-reliance. He never, ever felt sorry for himself. We never had a lot of money growing up, but we lived comfortably enough. The thing about my father is that he never despised a poor person, and warned my sister and me that we had better not, because he too had grown up poor. But there was nobody on this earth he despised more than a man who would not work to better himself, and who blamed others for his problems. Now that I think about it, my dad had a real immigrant’s mentality in that sense.

What he could not see is that the narrative that he accepted as a young man was the classic postwar American story, where working-class men could use the GI Bill to go to college, get an education, and rise into the middle class. Daddy believed that hard work — including in school — and self-discipline really could raise a man and his family up out of economic distress. Because it did it for him, and it did it for most of the men of his generation, and their families. By the time he retired, the job market had changed so much that he could not fully comprehend how unstable things were.

And yet, it is still the case that for most people, getting an education, having a strong work ethic, and getting married (and staying married) will produce a better economic outcome and greater stability than its opposite. What else is there to do? Yeah, marriage is hard. School is hard. Self-discipline is hard. It was never easy for anybody. Again: what’s the alternative for any of us? Failing to do those things will only result in us digging ourselves deeper into the hole. We can’t change everything, but we can take responsibility for those things we can change. In fact, we have to take responsibility for those things.

I think Daddy could have been more understanding of broad social and economic forces that drove people into poverty, or kept them there. But I think Daddy was more right than wrong, and even if he was quite wrong, his ethic was a noble one, a much better and more human one to live by than what’s on offer today. My father was less a Christian than some kind of existentialist, in that he believed in radical responsibility. This is why he didn’t have a lot of regard for inherited wealth either, and why he looked down on wealthy folks who didn’t work. You could be a millionaire, but in his eyes, if you were a hard worker who lived a morally responsible life, you were a good man. But if not, not. One of the problems he had with me is that he could not grasp how anybody could get paid for writing. It didn’t seem like real work to him. Deep down, he thought I was getting away with something.

Anyway, yes, my father’s worldview was flawed, in my judgment. But I think he and Kevin Williamson would have understood each other perfectly, though to be honest, it’s hard to think of my dad taking the harsh tone that Kevin often does. I think about him a lot, my dad, because even though we saw the world differently in many ways, I deeply admire the life he made for himself with what he was given, and I honor the values of self-discipline, work, getting an education, and taking personal responsibility, that he imparted to me. It was a real gift.

However, had my father lived, I’m pretty sure he would have voted for Trump, all that notwithstanding. He had a lot of anxiety about how the country that he knew and loved was going to hell, and I think he would have pulled the lever for Trump not as the lesser of two evils, but because he believed in him. My dad died in the summer of 2015, so I’ll never know for sure, but based on long conversations with him the last three years of his life, I can say with confidence that he would have been a Trump voter. For him, it would have been a matter of anguished nostalgia for a lost America. That would have kept him from seeing what Kevin Williamson saw clearly: that Trump is the repudiation of the kind of conservative values that my dad honored.

Daddy was afraid for the future, though, and reasonably so. I think part of his fear had to do with the fact that the decent, respectable white working class that he had grown up with, the people he understood, a class that he was proud to be a part of, was falling apart. He had lived long enough to see that, and it grieved him. I mean that: it really grieved him.

“I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see where all this is headed,” he said to me one day, watching the news. I didn’t disagree with him on that, but for me, the state of the world may not have been our fault, but it was our problem, and we have to figure out what to do about it. At this point, the greatest threats to our stable, meaningful lives are not the kind of things that can be voted away. This is why I work on the Benedict Option.

There is nothing Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, the state of Louisiana, or anybody in this world can do for my friend that will make her his life better than the things that he can do for himself, despite his poverty. And if he doesn’t do those things, it’s likely that nothing that anybody else does for him will make much difference.

Posted in , , , . Tagged , . 123 comments

A Traitor To Her Political Class

‘It’s a lot more complicated than that,’ says liberal woman reader (Dan Holm/Shutterstock)

A liberal female reader writes (slightly edited for clarity):

Today I saw “taking a knee in the culture wars” and I didn’t click-because I am so darn tired of it all. i realized I am walking around in a bad mood all the time and that’s a sin.

I ran to Hobby Lobby today and as a good blue state liberal felt a twinge of “what will the Episcopalians think if they knew I was hitting up Hobby Lobby for the Sunday School lesson?” I went to Hobby Lobby knew they would have the materials I needed to put together that lesson. Joann’s might, but I KNEW Hobby Lobby would have the goods. When I arrived, I saw a big poster in the front of the store advertising for help.

Hobby Lobby, that terrible organization, pays full time associates $16 per hour (in our city), well above minimum wage, and offers full medical and dental, retirement benefits, sick leave, and vacation. AND since they are closed on Sunday you get one predictable day off which is unheard of in retail.

Now..I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck so I know that there may be very few full time associates in each store and part timers get paid $12 per hour with no bennies–but…we also have a labor shortage so it may be that people DO get full time schedules there.

Employers do get to decide what benefits they will and will not offer–nobody is forcing Hobby Lobby to offer dental insurance or paid time off. They do pay well for a retailer.

But nobody knows that Hobby Lobby is living out their Christian values by treating employees justly–they are just mad that they aren’t paying for their IUD’s. This is how the culture wars warp and distort our minds–mine included.

I decided to be out and proud about supporting this company-because the greater good is a just employer paying a living wage. And employees earning a living wage are empowered to buy that IUD with their wages if they so desire.

Posted in . Tagged . 37 comments

Trump: America’s Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the USSR’s collapse (Evgeny Eremeev/Shutterstock)

Here’s an interview I conducted via e-mail with political scientist William Reno of Northwestern University. Prof. Reno specializes in researching conflicts in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East:

I understand you had a striking exchange in conversation with a senior African diplomat recently. What happened?

The exchange was with a former foreign minister of an East African country. We spoke several months ago while I was in his country to meet with army officers for my research on civil – military relations. Well read and well informed, he expressed distress over what he saw as the Trump Administration’s attack on the foundations of American power in the world. He compared Trump to Gorbachev. I was curious about this comparison, given that most Americans generally view Gorbachev in a positive light.

He explained that Russians know Gorbachev as the man who destroyed a superpower. He said that “Trump is your Gorbachev” because he is also destroying his country’s global power. He noted that Trump was systematically undermining the architecture of American power, such as NATO and all sorts of other arenas of cooperation that make America essential in the calculations of other countries. He pointed to people like Sebastian Gorka and took the time to find out who he and some of the other advisors actually are. His country, he explained, prefers to get advice from “reality-based professionals” and wondered how others in the American political establishment could tolerate people who are so harmful to American power.

He and other officials with whom I spoke tended to view the US as an “essential country”. They explained that countries in the region might meet to discuss common interests, but would not make a commitment until they heard from a US official. This gave the US official the opportunity to integrate US concerns in the arrangements between other countries. These guys lamented that the US has retreated from this role, and warn that the future will be made without the US.

Another official, this one of an important US ally in the region, said that the American political establishment doesn’t understand its own political system. He thought that this is a sign of rapid decline ahead. He is in a position to influence his country’s future directions in international politics, and has played an important role in interpreting the American system for his leadership. He says now his country has to hedge its bets, which means taking more seriously the need to tend to relations with other countries such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and so forth. He’s confident that his country will prosper without US power, and he tries to convince his counterparts in other countries to be realistic about this future. As a career diplomat, he hates the Trump tweets, and points to them as evidence of incompetence. This signals unreliability and weakness.

I was working in Iraq in January when Trump made his CIA speech. My friends there couldn’t believe that an American president would disrespect his own intelligence services. I was asked why the CIA and military don’t just launch a coup. They couldn’t believe that a president would begin his term with such a direct attack on the basic elements of the coercive side of American power. Several of them agreed that Trump must really be a Russian agent. That was about the time of the US dossier, which helped to feed a reflexively conspiratorial Middle Eastern political environment.

What kind of world will these other nations have to navigate with American power and influence declining?

Most likely it will be a more chaotic world. US power backs up international cooperation on a ton of big and small things; uniform standards of airport security, how many tuna can be fished out of the sea, international shipping standards, you name it. While others benefit from this cooperation, this power provides a big bonus to the US because much of it was designed with US interests in mind. The incoherence of US foreign policy, withdrawal from cooperation and erratic decision making processes creates vacuums that others will fill. This is likely to be competitive in some regions, which is not in US interest. Other countries will do things according to the standards of other regional powers that will try to order things to their advantage.

There are some Americans who may not care for the way Trump is handling US foreign policy, but who nevertheless think that the US is far too extended overseas, at least militarily, and would do well to leave a smaller footprint on the world. What would you say to them?

Military over-extension is a real problem. In places like South Korea where it’s a very good idea to keep that commitment. I would have preferred the president to keep his mouth shut about NATO commitments to places like Estonia. That weakening of commitment might save a little bit. It might encourage others to shoulder greater burdens, but it also might signal to potential adversaries that now is the time to create new facts on the ground. That’s destabilizing.

What happens if the US retreats and then is challenged? A big challenge might produce significant domestic pressure on Washington to restore the old balance. Doing that would require much more forceful action to restore deterrence. That’s a situation that is prime for miscalculation. Moscow, for example, might reasonably conclude that Trump is weak. Now is the time to change the neighborhood to its liking. Therein lies the potential for miscalculation. Even so, Trump does a lot of Russia’s work for it. Pushing away allies helps to weaken and possibly break up NATO. Little countries will have to make their peace with the big neighbor.

Over-extension in the “War on Terror” is a separate problem.The US has advisors in most every African country. This can lead to mission creep; the recent deaths of four US soldiers in Niger points to this problem. The US military is very good at killing people who need to be killed. That’s good tactics, and sometimes soldiers get killed too. But the key to making this work is tactics need to be guided by strategy. Trump’s Administration, however, likes the tactics and tells the military that the leash is off. That’s fine in some respects, but combined with the weakening of the State Department and the failure to fill appointment positions, we’re left with a strategy of tactics, and that’s actually not a strategy at all. Left to its devices, the military keeps chasing bad guys and the mission creeps. There’s no guidance, no strategic thinking. It’s bad enough that a Norwegian diplomat with whom I had lunch in an East African capital lamented that he doesn’t know who to talk to in the US embassy. Most of the experts left and no one is in charge, he said. There’s a large US contingent in that country, doing what they do well. But again, great tactics, no strategy. That’s because they have no leadership at the political level.

What do ordinary Americans who don’t follow foreign policy and international affairs not understand about what’s happening to US power in the Trump era? I’m thinking about grassroots voters who love how Trump is offending liberal elites, and, more seriously, social conservatives for whom Trump’s appointment of conservative judges covers a multitude of sins and failings.

Trump could still offend the liberal elite at the same time as having a coherent concept of American power. Judicial appointments, Obamacare–all that is domestic. The transactional elements of the foreign whatever-it-is because it isn’t a policy, drains power. Power in the world is achieved through might and the coordination of others. Might has to be leveraged and multiplied by convincing others that it is in their interest to help, or at least not oppose American power. Otherwise, the US is just a fraction of the globe’s economy and population, and others bandwagon against it whenever it makes demands on another country. That shrinks the US to its objective global minority status. Power has a lot to do with behavior; the aesthetics of power. Trump is terrible at that.

It’s early yet in the Trump administration, but can you foresee ways in which the US can begin to rebuild its power after Trump goes? Or, following the Gorbachev analogy, will the next American president be a Yeltsin figure: a president who, on foreign policy at least, will be overwhelmed by managing decline?

Political scientists should be wary of invitations to predict. It might be more productive to think in terms of several scenarios. The swamp really does exist. What are the odds that a Trump successor is just a front-man for the rent-seekers? They’ll continue to feed off Washington and convince average Americans that the political system can’t function right. Maybe some will think that we need a new political system.

Or it could be that we’re just in one phase of a repeated cycle, the prelude to a wave of reform like the Progressive Era, the New Deal and so forth. A strike on North Korea would be a game changer. There are scenarios (such as first use of nuclear weapons) that would make the US a pariah in international society. Or the US could be surprisingly effective in a conventional strike and the North Korean regime crumbles. Alongside this would be the concern whether the Commander-in-Chief has the capacity to make rational decisions that are in the national interest during such an intense event.

Or we just see a slow decline as the rest of the world learns how to live without American power. Trump is the best thing that has happened to China in quite a while. They’ll know what to do, even if the US gets its act together.

I hate those stupid “Make America Great Again” hats. I think that I fit in the category of people across the political spectrum who care about America’s power in the world. For a lot of us, alarm bells are ringing.

Readers, I will be traveling today, out to California, where I will be speaking at Pepperdine University tonight at 6:30pm on the politics of the Benedict Option. Come see me if you can. The event is free and open to the public, but you have to register here in advance. Please be patient with the slowness of approving comments today.

 

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 53 comments
← Older posts