Hey everybody, I’m not posting so much right now because I’m at a classical education conference, and gave two talks today. Tomorrow I should have a couple of good interviews up, though. Just wanted to let you know that I’m fine. It’s touching (seriously) when some of you will see that I haven’t posted in hours, and will write to see if I’m okay.
Here’s an interesting essay by a woman named Wendy DeChambeau, who moved with her husband and kids to Ecuador, because they didn’t want to raise the kids in the US. She writes:
Some of our friends turned on us, calling us terrible parents, or saying we were unpatriotic. Why would we want to leave the land of the free and the home of the brave? And where was Ecuador, anyway? Somewhere near Mexico? Africa? We were taking our children to a country that most Americans can’t even point to on a map. What were we thinking?
Well, we were thinking a lot of things, and taking a number of factors into consideration. In America, it seemed every third child was taking pharmaceuticals to treat behavioral issues, anxiety, or depression. High school students were unloading automatic weapons into their classmates. Opioid use was reaching all new highs. Bank executives were defrauding their customers and Wall Street was walking an increasingly thin tight rope. It felt like The American Dream as we knew it was all but gone, having transformed into a shadowy unknown. We fretted about what the future would hold for our family. We thought maybe, just maybe, a simpler lifestyle somewhere else was the answer. And so, in 2011, our family walked up to the edge of the unknown, took a deep breath, and jumped.
She writes that the culture shock was pretty intense at first, but they got used to it. And then good things began to happen:
For example, over the last six years, my children have experienced childhood without viewing the world through a privileged first-world lens. Though we live comfortably here in Ecuador, my sons are surrounded by families that work hard and live simply. There is no internet shopping. There are no big box stores stuffed to the brim with the latest useless merchandise. And Christmas in these parts is about church and family, not piles of presents and deepening debt.
While they’re still kids with wants and desires, runaway consumerism and material greed has passed right by my boys. When they do want something special, they’re willing to work for it — like when my oldest son baked and sold cupcakes to earn money for that electric piano keyboard he had been eyeing.
My kids have also learned to be patient. Living in a country where instant gratification is a laughable concept, you learn to develop some mad waiting skills. When my youngest found that his 11th birthday present was going to arrive two weeks late, he took it in stride. “That’s okay, mom, we’ll celebrate my birthday when it gets here.” I know that if this had happened to me, my 11-year-old self would have collapsed into tears.
Read the whole thing. She says that they’re going back to the US (the boys) for college, but she will always be grateful for them not having an American childhood.
What do you think? Which bad things about an American childhood would you like your kids to avoid, or to have avoided? Which good things would you worry that they would miss if you moved abroad?
If you had enough money to live comfortably in another country, and decided that you did not want to raise your kids in America, where would you relocate for your kids’ childhood? Why?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Ecuador: quelle b.s.
I was in Guayaquil A few years ago at Christmas. At our hotel, they instructed us to take taxis everywhere in the city because armed robberies were the rule and not the exception for tourists.
Not only that, they told us not to hail taxis or call taxis directly, because it was not uncommon for fake taxis, or possibly real taxis, to rob the people they would pick up at various sites of interest.
Instead, we were instructed to call the hotel, which had taxi drivers that it trusted. They would send a taxi driver from the hotel to pick us up anywhere in the city. It did not cost any more, so I think the motivation really was safety and not money.
The only safe area was along the river in a protected zone where people were checked for weapons before being allowed to enter. That was the only place you could walk freely in the city day or night.
And on Christmas Eve, or maybe it was New Year’s Eve, we were told not to go outside for the fireworks because most of what we heard was automatic weapons being fired into the air.
That said, we really did have a great time in Ecuador. But moving there to escape the evils of America? What a joke.
In Touchstone, Bradley W. Anderson has published a long, mostly positive review of The Benedict Option. He finds it to be like a contemporary version of Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 book How Then Shall We Live?, more on which anon. I very much liked this graf high in the review:
While a Protestant reading the title might wonder otherwise, The Benedict Option is an ecumenical book in the best sense of the word, written for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox alike. Part of this is because the author himself has an eclectic background, growing up in a mainline Protestant world in Louisiana, converting to Roman Catholicism as a young man, then coming to embrace Orthodox Christianity in more recent years—with each step on the journey seeming to be prompted by positive motivations rather than reactions against what came before. But perhaps more than any personal factors, it is the times themselves that drive Dreher’s broadly catholic approach. For those who would be faithful to Christianity, the comforts of camaraderie can be hard to find, and kinship must be clung to wherever it can be found.
While in Europe recently, I met a Catholic who said that naturally it is a pity that I left the Catholic Church, and that he hopes I will return, he does not dismiss the possibility that God permitted my leaving for Orthodoxy to fulfill a greater purpose yet to be seen. “You could not have written The Benedict Option as a Catholic,” he said. I took him to mean that it would not have been received by Evangelicals had I been Catholic, and therefore the book would not have had ecumenical credibility. This Catholic reader very much believes that all traditional Christians need to draw closer to each other in these days.
Anderson says that people who think I’m advocating “head for the hills” withdrawal are wrong, but that I ought not be so surprised by that, having titled the book and the project after a monk who did head for the hills. He points out by way of clarification that I got the idea and the title from reading Alasdair MacIntyre, and responding to the suggestion at the end of After Virtue that those wishing to live by the old ways would do well to try to form communities within which those virtues can be lived out plausibly. That does require some kind of separation, though the forms that could and should take are debatable.
At the heart of Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a belief that the culture war is over and traditional Christianity has lost, decisively and permanently (for the practical purposes of anyone alive today). The tide has irrevocably turned. Not only will Christians in the future lack even passive support from a Western culture that until recently was dominated by unconscious but real remnants of Christian sensibilities, but we will be actively assaulted in ways that will make it difficult for a historically recognizable Christianity to
[W]e in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it. Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones. (17)
The classification of traditional Christian teachings as bigotry and “hate speech,” the imposition of sweeping bureaucratic imperatives on sex and gender that are at odds with the entire preceding history of Christian thought, an increasingly aggressive intolerance in the educational system towards any views at odds with the new orthodoxies, and technological changes in reproduction that are happening without reflection, let alone debate—seeing all this and more, it is hard to argue forcefully with Dreher on this point.
I appreciate this succinct summary of my viewpoint. As a related aside, I want to draw your attention to a short reflection by David Wolpe, a rabbi within Conservative Judaism, sent in by a reader. Rabbi Wolpe here talks about how incomprehensible it is to interfaith couples who come to him asking to be married in a Jewish ceremony without the non-Jewish partner converting. The rabbi writes:
Two prominent Conservative Rabbis recently left the movement in order to officiate at intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews, which the Conservative movement prohibits. Among the many arguments on both sides, there was an underlying reality: America is very uncomfortable with particularism. Borders, boundaries, and exclusions make us uneasy. Standards smack of elitism. Saying to someone, “you may not join,” goes against our American ethos.
In the American story, love erases all boundaries. Think of the Disney movies: beauty marries the beast, the mermaid marries the man. The people who stand on the sidelines in such stories and say, “you cannot marry each other, you are from different worlds,” are either clueless or evil. How many American movies, shows, and books tell the story of the outsider who is finally accepted? You can be a green witch, as in “Wicked,” or a green ogre like “Shrek,” but underneath everyone is the same.
Crossing boundaries is part of the American national story. Interracial marriage, and later gay marriage, were boundary questions, decisively resolved in American society by denouncing the validity of those boundaries.
He goes on:
To ask someone to convert, to become something other than they are, can feel like a different sort of dismissal — “I’m not good enough as I am?” In a society awash in language of self-acceptance and embrace of the other, how can a Rabbi sit and say, “I cannot celebrate your love unless you change”?
Yet we know what happens when there are no borders at all. Without boundaries there is no nation, without standards there is no institution, without periodic rejection acceptance means nothing. So on one side religion risks being seen as narrow and exclusionary, and on the other side is the possibility of losing all self-definition.
Rabbi Wolpe says quite correctly that if Judaism gives up its particularity because that particularity is an offense to modern standards of inclusion, it will disappear. He writes, “I continue to believe that the collapsing of boundaries is inseparable from the collapsing of standards, and that welcoming is a step from dissolving.”
He’s right about that. Though we draw our lines elsewhere, Christians face the same challenge. Saying “yes” to modernity, in the sense we’re talking about here, is to say “yes” to collective suicide of the faith. This is a reality that most conservative Christians today do not comprehend. And this is why though I see critical threats to the faith coming from outside the Church (e.g., Anderson’s list), I see even worse threats coming from inside the Church via doctrinal collapse into emotivist incoherence.
I’m not going to continue quoting parts of Anderson’s well-written review in which he states his agreement with The Benedict Option, though I will say there are many. Here’s one big place where he disagrees. He’s just quoted a passage from the book that says Christians today place far too much emphasis on politics:
I agree with that entire paragraph—we only have so much time and energy, and politics is, ultimately, one of the least important things in life, if one has any sort of perspective at all. But Dreher goes further: “Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires” (99).
Going back to the Alasdair MacIntyre quotation, Dreher is here making a not-so-subtle correlation between the “Roman imperium” and “American Empire.” It is hard to unpack everything in his argument, but I am content with saying that I am troubled by the tone and emphasis. I have largely done my own version of “seceding culturally from the mainstream,” have unplugged (and as regards social media, never did plug in) from the electronic cacophony of the wired age to a degree that many today would find odd, and years ago consciously chose to disengage from my previously very active involvement in politics.
Yet I would be quite troubled if too many “men and women of good will” did the same today, and I would hold my manhood a bit cheap, to put it in Henry V terms, had I not done my own tour of duty on the political battlefield. Dreher admits that the political fight for religious liberty has importance for Christians (even if his tone implies that it is more or less already lost), but politics doesn’t really work the way he seems to think it does. Meaningful influence requires comprehensive involvement. While Dreher can point to the requisite caveats in his book, one need only compare their relative tepidity with the vigor of his harsh critiques of Christian political involvement: withdrawal is Dreher’s take-home message on politics. But to embrace that idea is to believe that the spread of Christianity would have played out the same way if another Diocletian, rather than Constantine, had taken the throne in the early fourth century.
Let me clarify all this, if I can.
In the book’s chapter on politics, I say explicitly that we Christians cannot withdraw entirely from political life, especially when it comes to fighting for religious liberty. My concern here is the sense among conservative Christians that the chief threats facing the Church are political and legal, and can be dealt with through politics and law. To put it crudely, what I’m attacking in this chapter is the idea that everything is going to work out fine if we just elect more Republicans (and the right kind of Republicans). As I write in the book:
No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
Leaving aside any number of things that Trump has done that principled Christians may plausibly object to, the Trump administration has certainly been more friendly to religious conservatives than a Hillary Clinton administration would have been. And if you think it doesn’t matter which party holds Congress, I invite you to consider the pointless theological inquisition Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chris Van Hollen inflicted on the Evangelical nominated for an Office of Management and Budget office. This kind of thing is going to become increasingly normal in our politics.
But: Have you seen a robust defense of religious liberty from the Congressional GOP? I haven’t. They need to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, which the president has vowed to sign. It’s going nowhere, even though Republicans control both houses of Congress. The corporate juggernaut on gay rights is hard for Republican lawmakers to resist. And they are terrified of being called bigots. Maybe they will find their voice, but I wouldn’t bet the future on it. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to face the fact that the constituency for religious liberty when it clashes with gay rights is dwindling, along with the Christian faith itself in America.
Point is, conservative Christians need a Plan B, for when politics and law fails us. Critics of the Ben Op are right to say that the state is not going to leave us alone. I have never said otherwise! My argument is that we Christians have got to start digging in now, and making plans for how we are going to be the Church when the State becomes ever more hostile to us.
Anderson says that in politics, “meaningful influence requires comprehensive engagement,” and he’s right about that — but it somewhat misses the gist of my critique. As the saying goes, politics is downstream from culture, and with conservative Christianity in decline, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy on key issues, we cannot realistically hope to have meaningful influence in the years to come. Maintaining religious liberty is the key issue facing orthodox Christianity right now, given the attacks on it coming from social progressives. Given the trends toward acceptance of homosexuality, especially among Millennials (70% of Catholic Millennials, and 51% of Evangelical Millennials), support for religious liberty when it clashes with gay rights specifically and sexual permissiveness broadly will be feeble.
Think about it: how much political success do you think racists would have in making religious liberty arguments protecting their right to discriminate on the basis of race? Well, that’s going to be orthodox Christians defending our liberties in the public square. It does not matter that the comparison between race and sexual orientation does not hold up philosophically. That’s not how most Americans see it. Don’t get me wrong: we have to keep fighting on the political battlefield, but we should not harbor illusions about our prospects of success — and that’s why we should shift our focus to a different kind of politics, one I call (after Vaclav Havel) “anti-political politics.”
About the reviewer’s Constantine vs. Diocletian comment, I reject the relevance of the analogy to this discussion. Obviously the conversion of Constantine made an incalculable difference in the spread of Christianity. And obviously persecution at the hands of determined persecutors can as well. All things considered, I would rather live in a state in which the Christian faith was welcomed and supported than in one where it was despised and persecuted. But the future of the United States on this front is not really up to Christians, at least not principally.
Besides, if there were no religious liberty challenges at all on the LGBT front or the contraception-and-abortion front, and believers were free to run our institutions as we like, the vitality of the Christian faith would still be declining. People are not falling away from orthodox Christianity today because the state makes it hard for them to be Christian (though that is coming). They are falling away because orthodox Christianity is no longer experienced by them as compelling. Part of this is the fault of the institutional church, part of it is the fault of families, but most of it, in my view, is the consequence of living in liquid modernity. When I talk about politics-as-usual being a hindrance to authentic renewal of the Church, I mean it insofar as it encourages believers to think that the solution to the crisis threatening the faith is primarily political and legal. What I argue is not for abandoning politics altogether, but rather recalibrating our engagement to suit present and future realities.
Anderson also takes issue with my claim in the chapter on Work that younger Christians need to think long and hard before committing themselves to working within a profession that will likely compel them to compromise their core beliefs:
… I think writers, pastors, teachers, and parents should tread with great care when discouraging young people from entering a particular profession at all. As I remarked to my administrator friend, I am of the school of thought that I want “them” to have to kick me out, if my line of work is someday going to be closed to devout Christians. If they are going to cheat us, they should be made to do it to our faces, and not get to use the excuse that there aren’t any Christians in a profession because none apply.
With due respect, that kind of bravado is a lot easier for Dr. Anderson — a physician with nearly 30 years on the job — to say than it is for a young doctor, lawyer, scientist, or other professional just starting out, or considering whether or not to enter a certain field. From The Benedict Option:
Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment. So will psychologists, social workers, and all in the helping professions; and of course, florists, photographers, backers, and all businesses that are subject to public accommodation laws.
Christian students and their parents must take this into careful consideration when deciding on a field of study in college and professional school. A nationally prominent physician who is also a devout Christian tells me he discourages his children from following in his footsteps. Doctors now and in the near future will be dealing with issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender identity but also to abortion and euthanasia. “Patient autonomy” and nondiscrimination are the principles that trump all conscience considerations, and physicians are expected to fall in line.
“If they make compliance a matter of licensure, there will be nowhere to hide,” said this physician. “And then what do you do if you’re three hundred thousand dollars in debt from medical school, and have a family with three kids and a sick parent? Tough call, because there aren’t too many parishes or church communities who would jump in and help.”
The book does not say that no Christian should ever enter any specific profession. Rather, it discusses which professions are likely to be meaningfully hostile to orthodox Christians now and in the future, and advises believers to take this reality into account when considering a profession — and before taking on loads of college debt. These are facts that cannot be adequately confronted with “Come and get me, copper” bravado.
Now, back to the Francis Schaeffer claim. Anderson says The Benedict Option will affect younger Christians in much the same way that Schaeffer’s work affected Evangelicals a generation ago:
This book, in spite of its weaknesses, will, I suspect, do something similar for a great many readers—opening eyes to the dangers to Christianity of the current and coming age here in the West, inspiring lifelong deliberate and conscious efforts to build Christian communities that are loving and mutually supportive, spurring the founding of classical Christian schools and classical homeschool co-ops, and reassuring us that yes, we really can do this, no matter how hard it may get.
Maybe a decade after I was out of college, I went back and re-watched the film series of How Should We Then Live? and picked a couple of Schaeffer’s books off my shelf, and I was surprised to find them to be virtually unreadable and unwatchable—in content, argumentation, quality of writing, datedness, you name it. It wasn’t just that I had converted to Orthodoxy by then, because I still delved widely and appreciatively into the writings of Protestant and Catholic thinkers alike—it was that I had read deeply in the Western Christian tradition for myself, and had moved on.
I found it hard to believe that I had been so affected by Schaeffer, and yet I had been, undeniably so—and I remained grateful. His books were for a certain place and time in our country’s religious and cultural life, and for a particular setting of intellectual vulnerability from which I might not otherwise have emerged spiritually intact. I wasn’t alone in how I was affected—a whole generation of conservative Protestant Christians was shaped by the same experience. It is hard to know, but I imagine others likewise shared my reaction upon returning to consider Schaeffer later in life.
The Benedict Option is a book that is going to get a lot of well-deserved press, both positive and negative. I suspect that, like Schaeffer’s books, it won’t hold up all that well with the passing of years. Those who are inspired by it really won’t mind that, because they will by then be far down a path that changed their lives for the better.
This sounds familiar. I tried a decade or so ago to read How Then Shall We Live? because so many Evangelical friends I respect recommended it. I couldn’t get through it, and told them so. Most of them agreed with me about that book’s limitations, but offered some variation of, “You cannot imagine how much I needed that book back then.” They would explain that Schaeffer opened doors of thought and imagination to them that their own churches had not. Yes, they had grown beyond him, but they would not have grown at all if it had not been for him.
Maybe that’s how The Benedict Option will be. If so, that won’t be such a bad thing. As I never tire of telling people, the book is not meant to be a collection of answers as much as a book that asks the right questions, and offers a framework for discussing them among orthodox Christians. If The Benedict Option is a gateway drug to much deeper books and sources of intellectual engagement with the Great Tradition of the Christian faith, and the West, then it will have done everything I hoped it would do. A book like this is meant for a popular audience, and cannot possibly be more than a gloss on the topics it touches. There are hundreds of deeper, more vital books to be read — and to be written! — by fellow Christians who might never have thought to do so had they not read The Benedict Option.
In the end, if I’m wrong about this or that thing in the book, I am truly eager to accept correction. It only helps the public cause most meaningful to me: the survival of the Church in the West. The book only exists, at least in the mind of its author, to compel truthful and meaningful answers to the question, “How then, in 2017, in the post-Christian West, shall we then live?”
By the way, TAC publishes today an English translation of a critical Russian review of the book. The reviewer says, in part:
Meanwhile, in the US this year quite a bit of attention has been generated by a book urging genuine Christians to abandon the struggle to salvage a dying post-Christian world; to instead withdraw to their religious communities, continuing to observe Christian norms and maintaining those prohibitions against which secular society rebels.
… It is easy to sympathize with Dreher, who, seeing no other way out for Christians, recommends self-isolation in closed communities of like-minded people.
Here’s what’s strange, though. It turns out that the “Benedict Option,” in the context of Dreher’s book, operates something like a self-contained metaphor that doesn’t actually require realization in the real world. After all, Dreher is not writing instructions on how to lead a monastic life. He does not demand from his readers that they actually remove to settlements populated only by the faithful, places where neither television nor the Internet will be available any more. It is obvious, to the contrary, that he himself peruses the Internet, and even those newspapers and magazines where they write about love that is “free and pure.” The Benedict Option is nothing more than a person’s self-alienation from the affairs of the surrounding society, a refusal to strive for victory within this society. It is something more like heroic pessimism in the spirit of Max Weber: the world is dying, so let us be the courageous witnesses of its last days, not sharing in hopes for its miraculous salvation.
… Secular humanity is moving towards some kind of flickering light; Christians know that this is not the Light that shines in the darkness, but if Christians leave this world, who then will be left to point that out?
If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.
To my mind, it is in this well-known fragment from the Gospel of Matthew that we find our best answer to the book by an American religious conservative and his call for retreat from frontline positions that are not yet fully overrun.
Once again: The Benedict Option does not recommend “self-isolation in enclosed communities of like-minded people.” Boris Mezhuev, the reviewer, seems disappointed that I did not write the book he thinks I should have written, so that he could criticize it. Indeed, I wonder if he read my book at all, or is simply reacting to what others have said about it. If he were to read the actual book, he would see that my counsel to small-o orthodox Christians is to strengthen our own commitment to the faith, individually and collectively, and let that light shine in the gathering darkness.
UPDATE: I forgot to ask you readers who have read both How Then Shall We Live? and The Benedict Option to please consider writing about the similarities and differences between my book and Schaeffer’s. I’m very curious to know!
It is hard to believe that Ofc. Jeronimo Yanez got away with shooting Philando Castile to death. I am not a lawyer, and I didn’t sit through the testimony, so I don’t know what technicalities might have swayed the jurors (including its two black members). What David French — who is a lawyer, and a conservative — says makes sense to me. Excerpt:
If you read carefully [from the transcript of the encounter], you’ll note that it appears that the officer shot Castile for doing exactly what the officer told him to do. Yanez asked for Castile’s license. Castile told him that he had a gun, and the officer – rather than asking for his carry permit, or asking where the gun was, or asking to see Castile’s hands – just says, “Don’t reach for it then.” At that point, Castile is operating under two commands. Get his license, and don’t reach for his gun. As Castile reaches for his license (following the officer’s orders), and he assures him that he’s not reaching for the gun (also following the officer’s orders). The entire encounter, he assures Yanez that he’s following Yanez’s instructions.
He died anyway.
Yes, the evidence indicates that Yanez was afraid for his life. He thought he might have been dealing with a robber (a fact he apparently didn’t tell Castile), and he testified that he smelled marijuana. But Castile was following Yanez’s commands, and It’s simply false that the mere presence of a gun makes the encounter more dangerous for the police. It all depends on who possesses the gun.
If he’s a concealed-carry permit-holder, then he’s in one of the most law-abiding demographics in America.
French calls the verdict a “miscarriage of justice,” and from what I’ve read, it sounds like he’s right. What else could Castile possibly have done to save his own life? He was obeying the officer — and unlike anybody who would tell a police officer that he has a gun with him is not the kind of person likely to shoot the cop.
The fact that even the two black jurors voted to acquit Ofc. Yanez makes me wonder if this verdict is not (or not simply) an expression of racial prejudice, but is rather a symptom of latent pro-authority prejudice when it comes to law enforcement. Hear me out on this, because my usual stance is to be supportive of the police unless given reason otherwise, and I still think that stance makes general sense. But it can become an excuse for wrongdoing and even criminal misconduct.
What brings this to mind, believe it or not, is the fact that here we are 14 years after the start of the Iraq War, and the United States government is finding fresh ways to dig the country into war in the Middle East — this time, risking a proxy war with Russia over Syria. And there’s no protest anywhere! You’d think people would be tired of all this fighting, and be asking hard questions in public of why our government, no matter which party holds power, backs endless war. TAC’s Andrew Bacevich explored this depressing phenomenon earlier this year in this piece, with regard to Congress. More broadly, there is no anti-war movement. Americans seem resigned to letting this thing drag on. Bacevich here discusses the costs of war, and criticizes US leaders and the American people for avoiding facing realistically what it would take to win our current wars — if it can be done at all. And so on.
The militarization of our police forces has long been discussed. For example, Radley Balko, who wrote a book on the subject, once commented:
Too many police departments today are also infused with a general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us-versus-them mentality that sees the public not as citizens to be served and protected but as a collection of potential threats. Police are regularly told the lie that their jobs get more perilous by the day—actually, the job has been getting safer since the mid-1990s, and 2012 was one of the safest years for cops in decades. And they are told that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. Consequently, they are trained literally and conditioned psychologically to treat every encounter with a citizen as if it could be their last. Consider the striking essay by Sgt. Glenn French, SWAT commander in Sterling Heights, Michigan, published in August on the law enforcement site PoliceOne:
We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector. The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. . . . Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war. That is why commanders and tactical trainers stress the fact that even on the most uneventful portion of your tour, you can be subjected to combat at a moment’s notice.
French’s figures are way off. Not only are police far less likely to be killed than a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, they’re less likely to be murdered than the average resident of many big cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Nashville. But French’s math isn’t nearly as disturbing as his mindset. This is a police officer in a Michigan town that has often been cited as one of the safest communities in America, yet he views the town as a battlefield and his fellow citizens as potential enemy combatants. “Black helicopters and mysterious warriors exist”, French concludes in his essay. “They are America’s answer to the evil men that the anti-SWAT crowd wouldn’t dare face.”
That’s the cops. What I’m interested in is we the people. Is there a connection between America’s endless wars and the militarization of the police? More to the point, has all the “support the troops” rhetoric that we’ve gotten used to since the Iraq War started helped train Americans to accept behavior from police that they would not have before? Has “questioning the police” become as taboo in American popular culture as “questioning the troops”?
I don’t know. I’m throwing it all out there for discussion. Again, I am usually pro-police, and maybe there were things about the Castile case that were clear to the jury, which heard the case, but not to me. Still, I can’t grasp why Castile’s killer got away scot-free, and why there hasn’t been much of an outcry. If a police officer can shoot to death a motorist who was obeying all his commands, and walk away a free man from that shooting, how safe are any of us? This is not the Alton Sterling case, nor is it the Michael Brown case. Not even close. I’m concerned that there’s a connection between our collective habit of deferring to the generals (or at least the idea that the military knows best) and a culture of policing that results in events like Castile’s killing, and the cop who did it getting away with it. Do we really believe as a people that those who bear arms in the service of the state have the right do fulfill their mission by any means necessary?
Don’t read this post as offering answers. I’m just asking questions, trying to get a good discussion going. I’ve been out of the country and not able to keep up closely with the news back home. The Castile verdict really is a shocker.
I never thought I would ever see Venice. Truth is, I never wanted to. I’ve always imagined it would be one big tourist trap. There are many places in Italy I would rather see, I thought. But when this conference in Trento came up, and I had to fly in and out of Venice because it was cheaper than the alternatives, I thought: Why not? When will this chance ever come again?
I’m so glad I made that choice. Yes, it’s pretty much the world’s most baroque, costly tourist trap, but it’s also one of the most special places on the planet. Not even the giant cruise ships disgorging tourist effluent into the overcrowded streets can obscure the wonder of this old, old city. When my son Matt and I disembarked from the water taxi on Saturday morning at the Fondamente Nuove and made our way on foot towards our hotel, my cynicism was jacked up. It didn’t survive the first 200 yards into the city. By the time we made it to the hotel 15 minutes later, we were both agog. Can such a place really exist? In this world? Really?
Really. There’s a view like this around every corner:
Yes, the streets are crawling with tourists, and at times are jammed. That’s not hard to do in a medieval city where many of the streets are so narrow you can extend your arms and touch buildings on both sides at the same time. And when they aren’t lousy with luxury goods, the shops are filled with kitsch (Murano glass clown sculptures, anybody?). All of that is true — and it’s all beside the point.
The point is that Venice exists. Nobody would ever plan a city like this. Nobody would ever imagine it. But here it is. Venice was built by Roman people escaping the fifth-century barbarian invasions. They settled on marshy islands in the lagoon, figuring they would be safer (they were). They built the city on piles made of wood and limestone, sunk into the marsh. By the High Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe and an imperial power. Her economic and geopolitical decline began around the 16th century. Napoleon’s invasion finished off the thousand-year republic. Today, Venice is more or less a museum, and maybe this is the best fate that such a city can hope for.
I say this because Venice — the island city — is spectacularly unsuited for modern life. It’s medieval warrens are an unintentional work of art, but there is no rationality to them, and it must take forever to get things done here. I used to chafe at the thought of Baron Haussmann in the 19th century destroying the medieval tangle of streets in the heart of Paris, but being in Venice gives me an idea of why the government hired him to do it. No normal modern city could succeed with a built landscape like Venice’s. But then, I have rarely been in a modern cityscape that seemed more built for the human being.
That might say something about what I find to be human, though. Matt and I were in the Renaissance-era Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci on Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy. I didn’t understand a word of it, of course, but I knew where we were in the liturgy most of the time, because as in the Catholic Church, the liturgy is the same everywhere. Not understanding the Greek gave me the chance to appreciate the sheer beauty of the liturgy and the chanting. It occurred to me that Orthodox Christianity, which I have been practicing for 11 years, feels a lot like the streetscape of Venice. It’s so rich and winding and organic and, well, Byzantine, but if you’re new to it, you’re often lost, but pleasantly surprised by what you wander into within it. You sense that you are adrift in a place that is more ancient than you can comprehend, but not to worry, because it’s a place built for human beings, not machines, and soon enough these pathways to God will become comprehensible, after you have lived with them for a while, and allowed them to become a part of you.
Again, we got lost a lot, even with Google Maps on my phone (much better than Apple Maps, which was fairly disastrous there), but that was no problem at all. It was fabulous to get lost in that city. You round a cramped corner and stumble into a courtyard the size of your pocket, lined with café tables resting in the shade of a church wall. Not knowing what you were going to wander into in the next five minutes, but having the certainty that it will be old and beautiful and intimate, gave me a sense of pleasure I haven’t had traveling in a long time. By the end of our short stay, I had already intuited the street layout around our hotel, though I couldn’t have drawn you a map to have saved my life. “Not all who wander are lost,” as the saying goes, but in Venice, all who wander are lost, but you aren’t really lost, for you stand a good chance of finding some secret about yourself or about life that had been hidden from you in the real world.
On the other hand – and this is a weird experience – I felt exhausted by all that beauty. It
was too much to take in. Can’t say that’s ever happened to me. The only place that ever had a similar effect on me was Jerusalem, which is not aesthetically exhausting, but spiritually so, or that’s how I found it. I mean, I loved Jerusalem, but it was so intense that it felt disorienting. I’m back in the US now, but I started writing this entry on Venice from my hotel room there on the last night. It has been difficult to say what I want to say about Venice, because I don’t know what I think yet. I spent a day and a half walking through a great and glorious mystery, and one doesn’t have hot takes on great and glorious mysteries.
I write all this from my hotel room in Dallas, where I am attending a conference on classical education. It seems to me that Venice itself is an education, even if you have only seen it for a short time. This city arose out of the malarial marshes when barbarian raids destroyed the world of the Romans of the Veneto. God made Italy, but the Venetians made Venice. Through genius, courage and cunning — sometimes cutthroat — they built a city of impossible beauty atop the green water of the lagoon, and from it became extremely rich and powerful, ultimately ruling a de facto small empire.
They could not keep it. New discoveries — geographical and technological — passed them by. Their formidable trading fleet was not prepared for ocean voyages, which is how trade shifted following the discovery of the New World. They were pressed by the Ottomans, whose rise they arguably assisted by their horrific sack of the Byzantine Orthodox capital of Constantinople in 1204, leaving the Byzantines much weakened and more vulnerable. Yet the Venetians and their Latin Christian allies achieved a magnificent, civilization-saving defeat of the Ottomans in the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto. The Republic of Venice, then at her military and cultural apogee, managed to stay relatively strong for another century or so, until steep decline struck in the 18th century. By the time Napoleon threatened in the 1790s, Venice had been spent, and could not muster the wherewithal to defend herself. The historian John Julius Norwich writes:
The fact of the matter was that Venice was utterly demoralized. It was so long since she had been obliged to make a serious military effort that she had lost the will that makes such efforts possible. Peace, the pursuit of pleasure, the love of luxury, the whole spirit of dolce far niente [pleasant idleness] had sapped her strength. She was old and tired; she was also spoilt. Even her much-vaunted constitution, once the envy of all her neighbours, seemed to be crumbling: votes were bought and sold, the effective oligarchy was shrinking steadily, the Senate was reduced to little more than a rubber stamp. In this last decade of her existence as a state, almost every political decision she made seemed calculated to hasten her end. Did she, one wonders, have a death wish? If so, it was to be granted sooner than she knew.
Napoleon, that great villain, sacked the city and ended the thousand-year Republic. Today, Venice lives off of barbarian invasions — tourists like me whose money keeps up the place.
I am still too dazzled by what I saw to draw any complex conclusions from the Venice experience, and in any case nobody can take any profound lessons from only two days there. Still, I think that the immediate lessons of Venice, at least the ones that remain with me as I look out the window of this high-rise hotel in Dallas, are these:
- Much of that rich beauty was obtained through the pain and suffering. I have been reading Rebecca West, who is murder on the Venetians for the way they treated those under their exploitative rule in the Balkans. And, of course, the horses and much else in St. Mark’s was stolen by the Crusaders from Constantinople, where they sat a whore upon the Patriarch’s throne in the Hagia Sophia. Nevertheless, this is the story of all rich nations and peoples. The beauty does not negate the cruelty, nor does the cruelty negate the beauty. They live together, side by side. Wheat and tares. This is universal. (It is, by the way, why I am so divided within myself over the Confederate monuments. The Venetians had a similar controversy over a Napoleon statue in the city back in 2003. I can understand why the Venetians would not want a statue of Napoleon in their city, and I can understand why African-Americans and others would not want statues of Confederates in their cities. What worries me, though, is a Puritanical tendency to purge ourselves of objects that remind us of the morally problematic past. Those grand plantation houses of the South were built in part on the bodies of slaves. The palazzi of Venice were built in part on the plunder of others. Yet who can possibly believe that we would we be better off by tearing them down? But I digress… .)
- The fragility of civilization, and its inevitable decline, was made more visceral to me in Venice than it ever was in Rome. Rome has ruins; Venice does not. But somehow, seeing Venice as it was physically during its heyday, but knowing that it is nothing now but a stage set for dolce far niente — well, it affected me more deeply. It requires a leap of the imagination to think of Rome at the height of its imperial glory, but you don’t have to work hard to imagine Venice in full ripeness. The entire city is a memento mori of hypnotic power. The conditions that made Venice — or to be more precise, the conditions that made the people who made Venice — are long gone, but the outward form remains, as it does not in most other cities, at least not to this degree. The transience of life, the way it slips through our fingers, is on full display in Venice, in a way I have not seen elsewhere. A closed fist can strike powerful blows, but it cannot contain water.
- Venice arose from the swamp, the work of human hands, and like every work of human hands, it will descend into the swamp. This cannot be stopped. Everything that rises must converge. To lose oneself in Venice is to be reminded of what once was, and of the tragedy of living in time — but also of how the sweetness of life depends on its transience. To enjoy something fully requires an awareness of the inevitability of its loss.
The sheer pleasure of sitting at a table drinking wine with my 17-year-old son was intensified for me by the certain knowledge that he will soon be away at college, and then starting his own life apart from us. I hope we will have the opportunity to travel like this again, but that might not be granted to us. The reason I’m taking these trips with my children on this, my 50th year, is also an awareness that death always awaits us. That might sound morbid to you, but I will never forget the shock of my 40-year-old sister, in the prime of her life, learning that she had terminal cancer. Within weeks of her diagnosis, she was bald, pockmarked, and badly swollen from the chemotherapy. She and her husband and children made one final journey on the last summer of her life, to South Carolina, but Europe would have been out of the question.
We are only given today. By the grace of God, I was granted the resources to make these trips with my kids this year. The memories I am making in them will comfort me the rest of my days, and, I hope, will do the same for my children.
On Sunday afternoon, Matt and I got lost on the way back to our hotel from St. Mark’s Square, and found ourselves standing in front of La Fenice, the city’s theater. The map indicated that the way back to our place required taking the street that ran along the theater’s right side.
As we walked, we suddenly heard the voice of an opera tenor coming from one of the upper floors of the theater. It stopped us in our tracks on the corner of the Calle Fenice and the Rio Verona, where the theater abuts the canal. The tenor was upstairs practicing an aria. I had the presence of mind to take out my video camera and record a few seconds of it. I won’t post an image of my son here, but this is the view from our spot. On the video, you will have just seen him beaming, mouthing the words, “Wow.”
My best guess is that the tenor was singing in the theater window with the open shutters that you see in the middle of the photo, but it’s just a guess, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that we stumbled onto extraordinary beauty wafting over the canals, campielli, and vine-buffered lanes of this old, old city. Edmund Burke’s phrase “the unbought grace of life” came to mind. Here is a short reflection on it by Burke’s 20th century disciple, Russell Kirk:
I mean by the phrase “the unbought grace of life” those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order. I mean also the sense of duty, the feeling of honor, the concept of ordination and subordination, and the adherence to the classical definition of justice which grow out of the spirit of a gentleman. I mean all those super added ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. I mean the wife of imagination, harmony and generosity which sometimes flourishes in those societies commonly called “aristocratic.” More than this, I can hardly express lucidly, except by describing particular examples of this high grace, the meaning of “the unbought grace of life.” I do not say that this complex of sentiments and traditions, which Burke calls the spirit of a gentleman, is the only pillar of civilization. As Burke himself declares, the spirit of religion is the other great source and support of our social establishments and our culture. But the spirit of religion still retains many able defenders, and the spirit of a gentleman has few; therefore I am confining my remarks here to the unbought grace of life, as distinguished from that elevation of spirit which is the effect of religious belief. I do not think that the on bot grace of life, or the spirit of a gentleman, could subsist indefinitely without the animating power of religion; but, with Burkett, I do not think that religious establishments, as we have known them for 1000 years and more, could endure along in a society which had discarded the last traces of the unbought grace of life.… Wherever the unbought grace of life withers, the church as a living force is much diminished, if not extirpated; and wherever religious establishments are broken or derided, the spirit of the gentleman has short shrift.
We had the blessing of this grace that afternoon, standing in the shade of the theater. For me, that moment more than any other summed up our Venetian weekend, and made me want to return one day to spend more time among its treasures. That night, for our last experience of Venice, we went to see a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in the church of San Vidal. (Vivaldi was a son of Venice.) I glanced over at Matt during a particularly thrilling moment in the concert, and saw his face beaming, and him mouth the word, “Yes!”
In Venice, Matt was able to glimpse some of the finest achievements of Western civilization. May he spend his lifetime saying yes to them all, and getting lost in the streets of Venice for the sake of finding himself.
That was an early supper last night: cichetti (bar snacks) with Prosecco. Prosecco is a local wine in the Veneto region, so I’m drinking it with every meal. The local Prosecco is crisper and slightly more effervescent than what we get in the US. It’s very satisfying.
Then, later, here is what we had for dinner:
As you can see, I got my grilled baby octopus, as I had been dreaming of. It came atop a serving of casseroled potatoes that had been prepared with olive oil and fresh black olives. It was a new taste to me, and entirely delicious.
I had been hoping to eat like a boss here, but Matt and I find that Venice simply overwhelms us. And it’s too hot to eat much anyway. Today we went to the Divine Liturgy at San Giorgio dei Greci, then ate at a pasta place not too far away. I had spaghetti with calamari. This is not so much a VFYT as it is a shot of food. I was so hungry after the Eucharistic fast that I forgot the VFYT aesthetic for this one. Sorry:
Let’s not forget the gelato (in this case, fig and walnut):
The wi-fi at my Venice hotel is very slow, so I haven’t had the opportunity to post my final Germany VFYTs. So here they are. Here is probably the best meal of the entire trip: fish soup at Fisch Witte, in the Munich Viktualienmarkt:
If you visit Munich, you must not miss this place!
Finally, here are a couple of VFYTs I received from readers in recent days:
The blueness of the lake!
The reader is preparing to eat fried cuy — that is, fried guinea pig. Better him than me, is what I say.
[My blog post] accuses those of us who have long argued that homosexuality is involuntary or innate of being cynical liars: “The ‘truth’ in this matter [0f the origins of homosexuality] has always been ‘what works to advance the cause.’” He then argues that there is such a thing as “latent homosexuality” that can be “made active” by a more tolerant society. Hence the need to reinstate stigmatization of gay people as human beings who have chosen sin — to keep anyone else from experimenting and thereby becoming gay.
That’s not a fair summation of my point at all, though I did pop off about “what works to advance the cause,” and I can see why that would have offended people like Andrew, whom I don’t believe to be a cynical liar. So I apologize for that.
Once more, hopefully with more clarity this time:
- I believe that sexual desire emerges from a confluence of nature and nurture. I believe some people are born with strongly heterosexual desires, and others are born with strongly homosexual desires. I think most people are somewhere along the spectrum — which is where nurture comes in.
- It stands to reason that societies that are accepting of homosexuality (and transgenderism, while we’re at it) will see more of it manifest, as those who would have otherwise resisted or repressed those desires give them expression.
- It is true also that many gay people will not suffer as much psychologically, emotionally, and otherwise as they would have under a more repressive social regime. I think this is on balance a good thing.
- But it is also true that if one believes that sexual activity outside of traditional marriage is sinful — as orthodox Christians do — then acting on those desires is a bad thing, and a society that encourages people to do so is a society that encourages people to do themselves spiritual harm.
- This applies to heterosexuals too.
- From the point of view of traditional orthodox Christianity, our society has gone off the rails on sexual matters since the Sexual Revolution. Among the negative effects of this disorder is the ongoing dissolution of the family, which is at the core of social order.
- Some LGBT activists like Andrew Sullivan, and their allies, have argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would stabilize gay life, and lead it to conform to broader traditional social norms.
- Opponents (like me) have argued that normalizing same-sex marriage would erase the philosophical grounding for marriage by seeing it as having no intrinsic meaning connected to our biology.
- We have also argued that this is what the Sexual Revolution did long before gays began getting active on behalf of same-sex marriage. Gay marriage in specific, and normalizing homosexuality in general, solidifies trends that have long existed.
- We lost this battle both legally and culturally.
- Andrew argues that the higher rates of homosexuality and transgenderism today is because people no longer feel the shame they used to about these desires, and feel comfortable expressing them. I think this is obviously true.
- I think it is also obviously true that at least some of these people would have married and lived conventional heterosexual lives, and been satisfied in them. Why? Because the same-sex desire within them wasn’t as strong as it was in others, and they could manage it, or grow past it.
- On the other hand, the kind of society that gave them the psychological support for embracing exclusively heterosexual expression of their sexuality would also cause more suffering for those whose sexual desire is more strongly same-sex oriented.
- Can we have a society in which heterosexuality is considered normative, but homosexuality is tolerated, and gays and lesbians treated with respect, dignity, and love? I think it is possible in theory, but it seems to be utopian.
- In the New Yorker profile of me, the writer said:
Like many orthodox Christian intellectuals, Dreher holds labyrinthine views on homosexuality. He is opposed to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. In principle, he is against gay adoption, but in practice, he told me, “there are so many gay couples who are wonderful parents that I find it hard to maintain any ardor for stopping it.” Early in our correspondence, he referred me to an essay called “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” by Michael Hanby, a Catholic philosopher. The essay represents same-sex marriage not as a rights issue but as part of an ongoing, technology-driven revolution in our view of personhood. Hanby argues that, where we used to see human beings as possessing intrinsic properties—masculinity, femininity, the ability to glorify God through procreation—we now take a nominalist view of ourselves, seeing our bodies as subservient to our minds. We use technology, such as the birth-control pill, to subvert the natural way of things. Gay marriage, in this account, is a stepping-stone to a profoundly technologized society in which “the rejection of nature” is complete. Today, it’s sex-reassignment surgery and surrogacy; tomorrow, we’ll be genetically engineering our way into a post-human future.
The point of the essay is that there’s an irreducible conflict between orthodox Christianity and political liberalism. On his blog, Dreher acknowledges that “gays, understandably, find their personal dignity insulted by people who believe that their sexuality is in any way deficient.” He writes that gay couples can “genuinely, deeply, and sacrificially love each other.” Still, he maintains, “our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. Christian orthodoxy is not nominalist.” He regularly defends religious people who act illiberally “for conscience reasons”—Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims, the florist Baronelle Stutzman, who was sued when she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding.
Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”
14. I would invite Andrew to reflect on his statement that there is no way that an orthodox Catholic (or Orthodox Christian, as I am, or Biblically orthodox Protestants) can accept same-sex marriage. The reason is because as Christians, we cannot accept that homosexual desire is morally neutral. (Nor, I hasten to add, can we accept that heterosexual expression outside of marriage is morally neutral.) How could we possibly be expected to believe that a society that de-stigmatizes same-sex desire in every way is a moral good? It makes no sense. So — and this the unbridgeable gap part — it all comes down to how you answer this question: What is sex for?
Not, “what is gay sex for?” or “what is straight sex for?” but “what is sex for?” The Bible, and the teaching of the Church, has a clear answer to that. It is not the modern answer.
15. The reason we cannot agree on what sex is for is that we don’t agree on the answer to the question, “What is a human being for?” Meaning, “What is our purpose in life?” Is it to live in harmony with God’s will? Is it to fulfill our desires? Is it something else? Again: traditional Christianity has clear and consistent answers to these questions — and they are not the modern answers.
16. I have said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I am glad the closet is gone, and would not want to see it return. I would like to live in a society that leaves gay people alone to live as they like. It is fair, though, for people like Andrew to ask how, exactly, I propose to privilege heterosexuality without in some form re-instituting the closet. I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question.
17. But here’s the question I would put to Andrew and his supporters. This week, a jury found Michelle Carter criminally liable in the death of her boyfriend, a suicide whom she had urged via repeated text messages to kill himself. I don’t feel sorry for Carter, who is manifestly a hateful person. But this is a dangerous legal precedent. Will orthodox Christian parents, clergy, counselors, and others who affirm traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality be criminally charged in the future if LGBT people commit suicide and leave a note behind blaming them? How far would gay rights supporters go in tolerating religious believers who express negative views on homosexuality? Is it possible to tolerate the expression of belief and behavior that gays and their allies believe is immoral, and doing damage to others? Or should orthodox Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) belief regarding homosexuality be stigmatized socially for the sake of increasing social virtue, and bringing about a better society? If so, well, aren’t you saying that Christians (Muslims, Jews) should go into the closet with their beliefs?
LGBTs and their allies may believe that this is something that ought to be done for the greater good of society. But they should also accept that they are doing to us exactly what they accuse Christians like me of trying to do to them.
18. All of which is to arrive at the depressing conclusion that one way or the other, there’s going to be a closet. It’s already there for many orthodox Christians who work in academia and other professional circles, and it will expand. A lot of Christian kids will grow up feeling immense pressure to leave the faith or in some sense to be unfaithful to orthodox Christianity because of all the stigma heaped upon it over sexuality. Many of those who don’t will feel shame over their faith, and keep it to themselves, or within safe enclaves. This will be seen by those driving them into the closet as something that needs to be done for the greater good of society. What you refuse to tolerate, you discourage — and who doesn’t want to discourage bigotry, right?
Meet Till Engelhard and Yves Reichenbach, two new friends with whom my son Matthew and I have been spending the past few days in Munich. They are faithful Catholics who are interested in The Benedict Option. Till and his wife Monica invited us to stay with them in Munich, and their friend Yves flew in from Geneva.
We had a wonderful time sharing beer, wine, and good food, visiting churches, meeting other friends from the Engelhard’s circle, and talking about the faith. Tobias Klein, a young Catholic journalist who writes for Die Tagespost, a German Catholic newspaper, took a six-hour train down from Berlin to meet me and talk Ben Op.
Tobias and his wife are ready to get started being the “creative minorities” that Benedict XVI said Christians must be. We talked about how local churches have a lot of properties they aren’t using. Why don’t they renovate them and turn them into rental housing for Christians who want to live in closer prayerful community? We talked about things like this. Yves is working on a project with farm families and monasteries in France. Things are going on over here. Yes, the faith faces a hard road ahead, but don’t for one second believe that there are no Christians left here. I’ve spent the past few days with some who know who they are and Whose they are.
It really is happening. We really are starting to know each other, and building these networks of friendship and mutual support. Hospitality is a Benedictine virtue, and I have never been shown more generous hospitality than the Engelhard family of Munich showed to my son and me. To know such strong and gentle Christian souls are living their lives and raising their families over here is such an encouragement to me — and to you, I hope.
I need to get that website designed and launched so we can arrange international meet-ups with Ben Op Christians who are traveling, and who may like to meet for something as simple as coffee. We in the US rarely hear about Christian life in Europe, unless it’s a story about how it’s on its last legs. But when you come here and spend time with believing families, you find hope.
“You have a home in Munich,” Till said as we left. I know he meant it. And his family has a home with mine in Louisiana. Fellowship is a precious thing. Thank you, Engelhard family! Thank you, Yves! Thank you, Tobias, and all the rest.
What a joy these days in Munich have been. I leave much encouraged about the future. We are off to Venice in a few hours. But one more thing: today we visited the grave of the Blessed Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit Catholic priest from Munich who went to prison and then to a concentration camp for standing up to Hitler. What a stunningly brave man. He is buried in a Munich church. I knelt at his grave and prayed that we would all have his courage in the days to come.
Tim Farron resigned his post as leader of the UK’s Liberal Democratic party. You might say that he quit because the party took a walloping in the recent election, which it did. But Farron quit because the UK’s secular establishment hounded him constantly about his Evangelical Christian faith. Here is his resignation speech in full:
This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election.
That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.
Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.
No one else occupies that space. Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.
We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.
From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.
At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.
Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.
A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.
To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.
I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.
There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.
Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.
In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.
That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.
This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.
My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.
The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.
That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.
I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.
Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.
In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.”
Farron supports same-sex marriage and supports abortion rights, but that was not enough for his media inquisitors. They wanted to know if he thought those things were sinful. It wasn’t enough for him to pledge to defend gay rights and abortion rights. It wasn’t even enough for him to clarify that no, he doesn’t think that gay sex is a sin (a heterodox position for a Christian to take, but he took it.) No, Farron had to think correct thoughts, and to have thought them at all times, clearly, or be shamed and hounded out of public life. As he has been.
At least in the end, he learned that it profits a man nothing to gain the world if he loses his soul.
We live in an age in which our liberal media elite and most people who call themselves Christian in social surveys treat liberalism and Christianity as strangers to themselves and each other. Farron sought relief from his public trial by recalling the proud history of his faith in the reformation of British politics. No one wanted to hear it. He called upon the decency and forbearance that are supposed to mark British society. There is none left.
Unlike Tim Farron, I think the creative tension between political liberalism and Christian orthodoxy has ceased to be creative and is now just tension. But it is hard not to respect his witness. Today is the day Tim Farron landed on a truth in his statement: “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” The truth has set him free.
You saw last week Sen. Bernie Sanders declaring that an Evangelical Christian nominee for a budget office position in the Trump Administration was unfit for public service because of a private theological opinion he holds about the fate of Muslims in the afterlife. You saw a Christian colleague of Sanders’s, a Democrat who is a theological universalist, agree with him; the Evangelical nominee is the wrong kind of Christian, apparently, at least for these two Democratic senators.
We are not yet in the same place as Britain regarding Christianity and liberal, Democratic party politics. But we’re getting there very quickly. Ask yourself: what stands in the way of the US devolving into British-style bigotry? No laws were broken in the hounding of Tim Farron from political life. It was just the relentless pressure from secular bigots in the media, and, one presumes, at least some liberal voters.
A couple of years ago, columnist Damon Linker — himself a liberal — denounced liberal intolerance of Christianity. He wrote:
Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism’s moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.
That is a betrayal of what’s best in the liberal tradition.
Liberals should be pleased and express gratitude when people do good deeds, whether or not those deeds are motivated by faith. They should also be content to give voluntary associations (like religious colleges) wide latitude to orient themselves to visions of the human good rooted in traditions and experiences that transcend liberal modernity — provided they don’t clash in a fundamental way with liberal ideals and institutions.
In the end, what we’re seeing is an effort to greatly expand the list of beliefs, traditions, and ways of life that fundamentally clash with liberalism. That is an effort that no genuine liberal should want to succeed.
What happened to a liberalism of skepticism, modesty, humility, and openness to conflicting notions of the highest good? What happened to a liberalism of pluralism that recognizes that when people are allowed to search for truth in freedom, they are liable to seek and find it in a multitude of values, beliefs, and traditions? What happened to a liberalism that sees this diversity as one of the finest flowers of a free society rather than a threat to the liberal democratic order?
It’s going away, fast. Today the Democratic Party will tolerate Christians like Tim Kaine, a Catholic who supports abortion rights though he is personally opposed to abortion. For how much longer will they? And is it possible for any Democrat to succeed in national party politics without being 100 percent on board with every gay rights claim, even those made at the expense of religious liberty?
If it is, it won’t be much longer. There are no restraining forces in liberal politics, or in the institutions of liberalism (media, academia, etc). As I’ve said again and again: there are conservative Christians who may not like Donald Trump or approve of him, but who voted for him because they are confident that the Democrats hate them and would seek to do them harm. I believe they are correct in their judgment of the Democrats, though not necessarily of Donald Trump. The point is that these Christians are not afraid of a phantom here. This liberal intolerance is real. Britain is farther along the road than we in the US are, but we’re getting there.
It’s not only going to be in politics. What does gay rights have to do with soccer? A Christian female soccer player quit the national team last week rather than wear the gay pride jersey the team decreed its players must wear. Believers who work for companies are going to be required to declare themselves “allies” of the LGBT community, either formally or informally, or fall under suspicion. If you think you can declare yourself an ally and retain your faith-based dissent quietly, think again. One day, you will be asked why you attend a bigot church if you aren’t a bigot yourself. And so on.
Liberals will say it won’t happen here. Don’t believe them. There is no reason to believe them at all. None. True, there are some liberals who oppose this intolerant, illiberal trend within their tribe, but they are not the determinative factor.
Hear me clearly: Christians have to fight this politically and legally with all we have. But we also have to prepare for serious and painful trials ahead. The grounds for political and legal victories in the future are fast eroding. From The Benedict Option:
The practical challenges facing us are unlike any that most believers in this country have ever dealt with. Schools and colleges—morally, spiritually, and vocationally—will have to prepare young believers for some increasingly harsh realities.
Because of florists, bakers, and photographers having been dragged through the courts by gay plaintiffs, we now know that some orthodox Christians will lose their businesses and their livelihoods if they refuse to recognize the new secular orthodoxies. We can expect that many more Christians will either be denied employment opportunities by licensing or other professional requirements, because they have been driven out of certain workplaces by outright bigotry or by dint of the fact that they cannot in good conscience work in certain fields. What will they do?
If we aren’t thinking about these questions and talking about them seriously within our churches and Christian communities, we are fools. We don’t have a lot of time here. Tim Farron is a Christian canary in the coal mine. We had better have a Plan B.
A reader writes:
I am bisexual, although in a mild way. What that means is that there are very few men I am attracted to (probably less than 5% would be a good estimate — if there’s 4-5 I see in a year who visually attract me, that’s a very “bi” year) whereas I notice attractive women all the time, as in every single day. But … within that small framework, it’s undeniable — I had a crush as a kid on another boy (again, one crush as opposed to dozens on girls, but it did happen and was real and like girl crushes), and as I say very rarely I will notice someone who is male who is attractive to me in that way — it’s always notable to me because it is so uncommon. After my divorce about 15 years ago I had a long-distance relationship with a younger man for about 9 months (he didn’t have anything to do with the divorce, I met him a couple of years later), and I fell in love with him and all that, so I know I am bisexual, but it just doesn’t commonly manifest.
I suppose this was probably “always there” to some degree — after all I did have the crush when I was young (I think it was 7th or 8th grade). But, I also do not doubt that if I had been growing up today I would have acted on my curiosity about this aspect of me much more when I was younger. I did not, for various reasons (the strongest one being fear of getting sick — I am your age, and came of age during the AIDS crisis, which struck me as being a bad time to explore this in any great detail, especially since I was much more attracted to women anyway), but I think that if I had the same aspect and were growing up today, I likely would have acted on my curiosity about this rather small side of myself much, much more than I did, and I would have identified myself, to myself, as bisexual likely very early on due to that boyhood crush (I actually never considered myself bisexual until I had that relationship, because it was always so marginal compared to my attraction to women), and likely would have acted on that much more because it would have been a more firm identity. So I think you are quite correct that the environment in total has an impact on whether marginal cases, like me, end up acting out very much on these things, especially while younger and in formation. However, I think it is also correct that some of this is wired in — I was not molested, had a decent, not perfect, father, and so on. It just was always there, but never prominently there (for me). I think a different environment can take a marginal case like me, when young, and make him act out on these things in a way that he otherwise might not have done.
Of course, after my relationship with that guy ended, I repented of it when I returned to the Church and it’s clear to me that the sexual aspects of that kind of relationship are clearly sinful. But in terms of the origins of them, at least in my experience, it was a mix of nature and nurture — nature having them be there to begin with, and nurture (or anti-nurture) discouraging me from acting on them — which would be kind of opposite from where we are today. So I think the point is well-made, but there is also a nature component involved to some degree.
Note I think that this analysis doesn’t apply in the same way to women. Women, in my experience, are often (not always, but often) much more sexually fluid and “flexible” than men are, and more contextual, and this isn’t really related to the rise of LGBT activism in the 00s. Women have been acting out on sexual fluidity with other women since the start of the sexual revolution, really, and it appears to be a very different kind of thing than male homosexual/bisexual activity. Although I am obviously not a woman, I would guess that we are seeing marginally more women self-identify as bisexual (that part is new), but not a hugely different number of women actually participating in some same-sex activity — the latter isn’t new, and it isn’t like male homosexuality because women do appear to be more contextually flexible and fluid in their attractions (again, not all, but many). So while I can understand why both young men and women are more prone to use the bisexual label, I think the real change here is likely among the men, in terms of actual same-sex activity because it was always high-ish among women (at least relative to what it has been among men generally speaking, in *our* culture, rather than Greece/Rome, etc.).
UPDATE: Sorry, I should have indicated that this note is a follow-up to the “Born This Way? Really?” post about nature, nurture, and sexuality. If you haven’t read that one, this one won’t make a lot of sense.
That was second breakfast, after the Corpus Christi mass on the Marienplatz. It was hot today in Munich. What, you expect Christian men to not have a cold beer after standing in the sun for over an hour? We sat outside the Andescher am Dom cafe behind the Frauenkirche with our friends, and drank helles lager and ate the best pretzels imaginable, with mustard.
For a late lunch, we went to the biergarten in the Englischer Garten park. That’s my wurst and sauerkraut on the left, and a cold helles lager.
Tomorrow, I need to be sure to order pork knuckles, and more Bavarian sausage. I am just the wurst, I tell you.