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The Shocking Sharyl Attkisson Story

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Erik Wemple of the Washington Post has an advance copy of former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s forthcoming book. If what she says is true, it’s jaw-dropping stuff. From Wemple’s column:

The story debuted in May 2013, when Attkisson appeared on a Philadelphia radio show and declared that there may be “some relationship” between her computer troubles and the sort of tracking that descended upon Fox News reporter James Rosen in a much-discussed leak case. On a subsequent appearance on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor,” Attkisson said she thought she knew who was responsible for the ruckus.

All of which was just enough to whet the appetite for the treatment in “Stonewalled.” On one level, the book is a reminder of all the ways people can mess with you. It’s not just her computers that showed signs of tampering, says Attkisson, who bolted CBS News earlier this year. “[B]y November 2012,” she writes, “there are so many disruptions on my home phone line, I often can’t use it. I call home from my mobile phone and it rings on my end, but not at the house.” More devices on the fritz at Attkisson Central: “My television is misbehaving. It spontaneously jitters, mutes, and freeze-frames,” she writes, noting that the computers, TVs and phone all use Verizon’s FiOS service. At one point, “Jeff” inspects the back of Attkisson’s house and finds a “stray cable” attached to her FiOS box. That cable, he explains, could be used to download data.


Next big moment: Attkisson gets her computer checked out by someone identified as “Number One,” who’s described as a “confidential source inside the government.” A climactic meeting takes place at a McDonald’s outlet at which Attkisson and “Number One” “look around” for possibly suspicious things. Finding nothing, they talk. “First just let me say again I’m shocked. Flabbergasted. All of us are. This is outrageous. Worse than anything Nixon ever did. I wouldn’t have believed something like this could happen in the United States of America.” That’s all coming from “Number One.”

The breaches on Attkisson’s computer, says this source, are coming from a “sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that’s proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency (NSA).” Attkisson learns from “Number One” that one intrusion was launched from the WiFi at a Ritz Carlton Hotel and the “intruders discovered my Skype account handle, stole the password, activated the audio, and made heavy use of it, presumably as a listening tool.”

To round out the revelations of “Number One,” he informs Attkisson that he’d found three classified documents deep inside her operating system, such that she’d never know they were even there. “Why? To frame me?” Attkisson asks in the book.

Another tidbit, in which Attkisson observes and records with her iPhone someone hacking into her computer and cleaning documents off her hard drive. She calls a computer consultant in to examine her computer:

Don Allison, a security specialist at Kore Logic, takes a close look at Attkisson’s iMac. The results turn up scandalous, as Attkisson writes: “While a great deal of data has been expertly wiped in an attempt to cover-up the deed, Don is able to find remnants of what was once there. There’s key evidence of a government computer connection to my computer. A sort of backdoor link that leads to an ISP address for a government computer that can’t be accessed by the general public on the Web. It’s an undeniable link to the U.S. government.”

Read all of Wemple’s piece here.  In fact, follow this link to his blog for all of his stuff on Attkisson’s experiences with government surveillance. He promised the other day, in his initial Attkisson piece (the one I quote from here), to write a lot about this story. He’s delivering.

In the book, Attkisson blasts her former employer, CBS News, for spinning the Benghazi story in ways favorable to Obama before the 2012 election. Her allegations are specific and detailed. Steve Kroft, a correspondent for “60 Minutes”, had the president on videotape in a Benghazi interview saying something that undermined the White House’s subsequent spin about the president’s reaction to Benghazi. It was a relatively small thing, but as they say, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. If Attkisson’s allegations against her former employer (she resigned in March) in this matter are true, it is hard to deny that CBS News withheld valid news in the final weeks leading up to an election, because it made President Obama look dishonest.

Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast reports Washington gossip that CBS News is conducting a whisper campaign to discredit Attkisson, who has a reputation for being an aggressive reporter, as a right-wing nut. Grove:

A senior manager in the CBS Washington Bureau, where the 53-year-old Attkisson toiled for two decades, winning a number of prestigious journalism awards, until her abrupt resignation in March out of frustration with her bosses, has supposedly “been going around doing a whisper campaign against her,” says an Attkisson loyalist who claims to have heard about it from various “prominent D.C. journalists” who are considering interviewing her as part of her book tour. “The word is she’s crazy, she’s a kook, you can’t trust her, she lies, she makes up stories.”

Attkisson has defenders:

Former Washington Post investigative reporter Susan Schmidt, who shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for the stories that brought down super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, counts herself a fan.

“I admire her guts,” Schmidt says. “She’s basically an aggressive reporter, and if she’s covered stuff that other people–except for right-wingers–weren’t covering, they were real stories…I think she’s got good instincts, and she’s willing to take on some sacred cows.”

Schmidt adds that she agrees with Attkisson’s assertion that much of the mainstream media, until recently, has given Obama a pass on such issues as federal government largesse awarded to green energy companies run by Obama campaign fundraisers, the mishandling of the attack the American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and the troubled launch of the Obamacare web site—stories on which Attkisson led the pack.

“With some exceptions, people don’t seem to be digging as hard as they have in other administrations,” says Schmidt, now a corporate consultant. “Obama came into office saying he was going to make his administration the most accessible and transparent in history; in fact, the opposite has happened.”

Here’s a link to Grove’s entire piece.  Susan Schmidt says it’s telling that the media celebrate Glenn Greenwald for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, but turn their nose up at Sharyl Attkisson’s work on what the government allegedly did to her to stop her Benghazi reporting. Says Schmidt, “I don’t mean to sound like a right-winger, but you go have to go where the story leads you.”

Here’s a link to Attkisson’s personal website.

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America: From Israel to Babylon

Jeremiah, prophet of the Babylonian Captivitymountainpix/Shutterstock
Jeremiah, prophet of the Babylonian Captivitymountainpix/Shutterstock


My Southern Baptist friend and reader Ryan Booth cited this quote from Trevin Wax, from a piece he did on how a new generation of Southern Baptists differs from the old guard:

It’s common to hear the story of young evangelicals fleeing conservative churches and embracing center-left politics. I don’t see this happening among young Southern Baptist pastors. What I do see is less emphasis on bringing change through political engagement and more emphasis on dealing pastorally with the implications of a secularizing society.

When I talk with older Southern Baptists about recent cultural developments, I get the impression that many of them see mobilization of Christian voters as the best way to effect change. When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority. Therefore, the strategy becomes more about preserving space for Christian morality and less about enshrining our views in law. This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.

That expresses my view exactly. “Babylon” here refers to the Babylonian captivity, where the Israelites lived as strangers in a strange land. This is the reality of where orthodox Christians find themselves today. Those Christians who understand this and figure out how to live and to thrive in Babylon will make it. Those Christians who persist on thinking that we are living in the Promised Land will not, in large part because they will not have prepared themselves. If you haven’t read my TAC colleague Samuel Goldman’s piece from a while back on what he calls “The Jeremiah Option,” please do.

Take a look at these quotes from a report on a conference on marriage and the family in contemporary America that the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission had this week:

Addressing Christian ministry in a “post-marriage culture,” R. Albert Mohler opened the event by saying the crisis regarding the biblical, traditional definition of marriage as a permanent union of a man and a woman began “with the heterosexual subversion of marriage.”

“The divorce revolution has done far more harm to marriage than same-sex marriage will ever do,” the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told the audience made up primarily of pastors and other young adults. Heterosexuals “showed how to destroy marriage by making it a tentative, hypothetical union for so long as it may last, turning it only into a contract” that produced a “consumer good,” Mohler said.

“By the time the moral revolution on same-sex relations arrived on the scene, most of the moral revolution had already happened,” he said.


Western civilization is in the final stage of a moral revolution — one that is “happening at warp speed,” Mohler told attendees. British theologian Theo Hobson has said three things must happen for a moral revolution to occur. Those developments, Mohler said, are:

– “Something that was nearly universally condemned is now nearly universally celebrated.


– “That which was celebrated is condemned.


– “Those who refuse to celebrate are condemned.”


The church is now in a position of being “a moral minority,” Mohler said.

“We are accustomed to ministry from the top side in the culture, not from the underside,” he said. “We are accustomed to speaking from a position of strength and respect and credibility. And now we are going to be facing the reality that we are already, in much of America, speaking from a position of a loss of credibility.”

Responding to this situation, Mohler said, “is going to take an awful lot of Christian thinking. It’s going to take a lot of prayer, a lot of agonizing conversations. . . . the kind of conversations that take place in the middle of an emergency.”


Other speakers encouraged attendees to think and act biblically toward those with whom they differ on these issues.

“We need to recognize that even though we disagree with the gay rights movement on many things, including sexual morality, including the definition of marriage, there are some human dignity issues involved,” ERLC President Russell D. Moore said. “And we also need to recognize that we have gay and lesbian persons created in the image of God who are treated with indignity and really with evil and wickedness in many places in the world.”

I am really impressed by where and how Russell Moore, Al Mohler, Trevin Wax and others are leading the Southern Baptists. I haven’t yet seen leaders in any church who are more aware of the nature of the times in which American Christians live, and the urgency of changing our response and way of living to meet the challenges of those times in an authentically Christian way. The rest of us small-o orthodox Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — need to watch them and learn.

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Our Friends the Free Syrian Army

Theo Padnos, an American journalist and former hostage of jihadis in the Syrian war, writes about his experiences among them.  Somehow, Washington believes that we should be funding the Free Syrian Army (FSA) goons. Padnos’s experience suggests otherwise. Excerpts:

I returned to the F.S.A. troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.

“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”

“Certainly, very,” he replied.

The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.

“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”

More, after escaping from Al Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria:

By this point, I knew better than to seek refuge among the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army. I asked a passing motorcyclist to take me to a hospital. At the hospital, a dour-looking man greeted me. “I am a journalist,” I said. “From Ireland. Please, you must help me. I love the Syrian people.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I am the F.S.A.”

The FSA, our dear friends and agents in Syria, sold or gave him back to the Nusra Front.

Finally, here is a lovely snapshot of what these monsters have in store for their families, and for ours:

Over the last 22 months, I had stopped being surprised when Nusra Front commanders introduced their 8-year-old sons to me by saying, “He will be a suicide martyr someday, by the will of God.” The children participated in the torture sessions. Around the prisons, they wore large pouches with red wires sticking out of them — apparently suicide belts — and sang their “destroy the Jews, death to America” anthems in the hallways. It would be a mistake to assume that only Syrians are educating their children in this manner. The Nusra Front higher-ups were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers — they didn’t — but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway station back home. They want these Westerners to train their 8-year-olds to do the same. Over time, they said, the jihadists would carve mini-Islamic emirates out of the Western countries, as the Islamic State had done in Syria and Iraq. There, Western Muslims would at last live with dignity, under a true Quranic dispensation.

Read the whole thing.  I don’t for a second believe that these people can succeed in creating emirates in the West. But they can kill a lot of innocent people in the attempt.

Bashar Assad is a monster, but he is not a monster who has the intention and the means to kill us in our own countries.

Meanwhile, we continue to back the FSA:

“At this point, the intent of the coalition is to build a coherence to the Free Syrian Army elements that will give it the capacity and the credibility over time to be able to make its weight felt in the battlefield,” retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, named by the White House to help coordinate the anti-extremist coalition, told reporters in Washington this month.

No fool like an American fool.

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The Book That Reads You


Harriet Rubin, on The Divine Comedy:

We read Shakespeare. Or Proust. Or Homer. We exult in their stories. Dante reads us. He sees not just into his characters’ souls, but into ours. “There are works of art which are beautiful objects and works of art which are keys or passwords admitting one to deeper knowledge, to a finer perception of beauty; Dante’s work is of the second sort,” Pound insisted. He believed Dante’s word had magic.

So do I. It’s like no book I have ever read. I’m getting hung up writing this book because when I re-read some cantos, new insights appear — not insights into the text, strictly speaking, but insights into the problems the text helped me think through. It’s common for readers to discover things in great books that they missed on the first reading, and maybe even things that they missed on the third reading. But the Commedia is different, somehow. There is mystery here, and, well, there is magic.

Why this is true I do not know. Maybe I will know one day. That it is true, I have no doubt, because I’ve experienced it, and do experience it every day. This book I will be reading for the rest of my life.

Has you ever had this experience with a book or an author? That the work, uncannily, seemed to be reading you? Tell me about it.

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Changing the Catholic Flag

In a follow-up to his much-read Sunday column, Ross Douthat explains at length why the Synod troubled him, why he’s not calling for schism, why’s he’s a Catholic, and why he will remain one even if the Pope has his way. Excerpts:

I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it’s because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself. A point that Cardinal George Pell, recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, made in a talk this week — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught” — is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith’s continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It’s that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me, rather than the doctrine that controls my reading of the record, and indeed if you asked me to write a long defense of “infallibility” as a concept I’m sure I’d end up caveat-ing it a lot more heavily than some Catholics of fiercer orthodoxy: The language that I think the historical record supports is more likeimpressive continuity on the most important questions.


When I suggested that church might have to “resist” the pope on these questions, I had in mind public argument and pressure, a more significant version of the pushback at the synod, rather than a beeline to the local SSPX chapel, and if Pope Francis were to make what I consider a kind of doctrinal backflip I wouldn’t be making that beeline myself; I’d remain an ordinary practicing Catholic, remain engaged in these debates (because I would still think my side’s view is closer to the original teaching of the faith), but my understanding of papal authority would be changed in ways that would inevitably change my underlying relationship to the church. And it’s that change, working itself out across enough people and enough time, that I think would make it hard for the church to escape the fissiparous fate of Anglicans and Methodists and Presbyterians and other churches that have explicitly divided on these kind of sex-and-marriage questions, why is part of why I raised the possibility of schism: Not (God help us) as a prescription but as a prediction, based on the unhappy experience of our fellow Christians, of where churches where authority is compromised or absent on these kind of debates tend to ultimately end up.

Ross quotes an old, pre-Catholic essay by Richard John Neuhaus:

… A priest in charge of ecumenical affairs for a large diocese explained to me … why John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger constitute “a return to the Middle Ages.” In leisurely conversation he expatiated on what a “really renewed” church would look like. Women would be ordained, pastors would be elected, academic freedom would be absolute, and all questions would be democratically settled in church conventions with a majority of lay votes. Yes, he agreed, such a church would look pretty much like the Methodist or Presbyterian church down the street. But in what way would it be different, in what way would it still be the Roman Catholic Church? He seemed taken aback by my question. “Well, of course,” he responded, “there would still be the bishops, there would still be the pope, there would still be the sacraments and the other things that really matter.”

But why should these realities still be there after every reason for being there is gone? That they would still be there, he allowed somewhat defensively, is an article of faith. So it is that we witness at least some Roman Catholics dismantling the house piece by piece while confidently asserting that the house is indestructible. Curiously, this particular priest harshly criticized [John Paul II] because “he talks about the church as though it were an abstraction.” Yet the church this priest describes —decontextualized, dehistoricized, and deprived of all its thus and so-ness —will, he believes, forever remain the Roman Catholic Church in which he made his first Communion and his ordination vows.

Read the whole thing. There’s a lot there.

I had not read that Neuhaus piece before, and I’m glad to have been introduced to the thought. I’ve had so many conversations like that with Catholics, both as a Catholic and as an ex-Catholic. They all seem to believe that they can profess whatever they would like to, and still be Catholics in good standing. Not “bad Catholics” or “struggling Catholics” or anything short of the mark, but Catholics who have nothing to learn from the Church, and certainly nothing to change about themselves. It’s like First Lady Barbara Bush’s speech to the 1992 GOP Convention, in which she said, “However you define family, that’s what we mean by family values.” If however you define Catholic means Catholic, then the Catholic Church will dissolve.

One of the things that amazes me about Catholic Christianity is how deep and comprehensive it is. It is impossible to compartmentalize. The reasoning behind the Church’s economic teaching is intimately connected to the reasoning behind its teaching on sexual morality. If you tear one thing down, it is at least possible that you will pull out the link on which the entire structure of belief stands.

Does this matter to most Catholics? I don’t think so. I say that not to criticize, but to state what I believe is a sociological fact. Once, in the first year of my marriage, I brought to the confessional some struggles I was having with following the Church’s teaching on contraception. The priest said that my wife and I should be using the Pill. That shocked me. I believed then, and I believed every single day that I was a Catholic, that if the Church speaks on something so clearly, then we as Catholics have to accept it, and do our sincere best to live it out. All of us will fall short of living up to the fullness of Church teaching. Catholics who said, “This is hard, I struggle to believe (or do) it,” I understood. I was one of them! Catholics who said, “This is hard, therefore I don’t have to worry about it, because the Church has no right to tell me what to think or to do” — I didn’t get them at all. Still don’t.

I know that makes me a rigorist in the minds of many, but I don’t understand how Catholicism makes sense otherwise. In practice, many Catholics and their priests have the same understanding of orthopraxy as Orthodox Christians do: they live by the principle of economia. Here is a clear, concise explanation of the Orthodox conception of marriage, and how it differs theologically from the Catholic conception. The essay, by Bishop Athenagoras, references economia as a longstanding pastoral practice in the Orthodox Church (all the emphases below are in the original):

But now the question remains, what is “economia”? Well, according to the canon law of the Orthodox Church economia is “the suspension of the absolute and strict applications of canon and church regulations in the governing and the life of the Church, without subsequently compromising the dogmatic limitations. The application of economia only takes place through the official church authorities and is only applicable for a particular case.” This is allowed for exceptional and severe reasons, but creates no precedent. The Church, which continues to extend Christ’s redeeming work in the world, has on the basis of the Lord’s commandments, and of the apostles, determined a number of canons. Through these the Church helps the believers to come to salvation. But it should be noticed that these rules are not applied on a juridical basis, for the Church always holds in mind what the Lord Himself has said: “The Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2, 27).

A canon is a “rule” or “guide” for the service of worship, the sacraments, and the governing of the Church. There are canons determined by the apostles, the Church Fathers, the local, regional and the general or ecumenical councils. Only the bishop, as head of the local Church, enforces them. He can enforce them rigidly (“akrivia”), or flexibly (“economia”), but “precision” is the norm. Once the particular circumstance has past – that demanded a conceding and accommodating judgement – “akrivia” assumes once again her full force. It cannot be that the “economia”, which was necessary in a specific situation, should become an example and should be later be retained as the rule. The “economia” is for the Orthodox Church a notion that cannot be compared to “dispensation” in the Roman Catholic Church. Dispensation is an anticipated exception, which provides a juridical norm parallel to the official regulation.

Economia is based on Christ’s command to his apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20, 22-23). This is the case when the human marriage experience becomes impossible, due to the spiritual death of love. It is then that the Church – as the Body of Christ – with understanding and compassion and out of personal concern, can apply the “economia” “by accepting the divorce and not rejecting the sinful humanly weak believers, or depriving them from God’s mercy and further grace.” It is the precise goal of economia that the weak person not be irrevocably banned from the church communion, according to Christ’s example, who came, after all, to save the lost.

Economia is an approach to pastoring that I have observed, or heard of, many Catholic priests following, thought it wasn’t called that. Though it can obviously be abused and treated as a “get out of jail free” card by Orthodox believers who want to avoid amending their lives according to the teachings of the Church, I find it to be a sensible general principle, one that, when applied wisely, makes the Christian life livable.

In theory, I would like to see it brought into the Roman church, certainly on the matter of divorce and remarriage. In reality, I don’t know the Romans could do it without doing serious violence to the logic of their own tradition. I’m not a theologian, Catholic or otherwise; maybe it can be done. Many serious Catholic theologians don’t believe it can be done, or at least seriously doubt that it can be done. And if it is forced through, this will have implications for Catholics like Douthat:

So my dominant emotion isn’t anger right now: It’s a mix of dismay and determination, anxiety and hope, cycling back and forth depending on events. And if the change being bruited were to happen I’m quite sure that my main emotions would be rue and regret – rue that I had somewhat misjudged the church I joined eighteen years ago this spring, and regret that an institution that I believe to be divinely established notwithstanding all its human sins turned out to have a little less of the divine about it than I thought.

I get this. I’ve been through that myself, for different reasons. It’s a hard place to stand firm in. Faithful orthodox Catholics do this all the time; often I have heard Catholic friends say that if it weren’t for their rock-solid conviction that what the Roman church teaches about itself is true, it would be hard for them to stomach what they have to put up with week in and week out in their parish. In my own case, when I concluded that being in formal communion with the Roman see was not necessary to my salvation, everything collapsed under the pressure from the abuse scandal and more, and I was out the door to Orthodoxy (the only valid option).

I don’t know if my friend John Zmirak still considers himself a Traditionalist Catholic (N.B., this is not the same thing as a conservative/orthodox Catholic), but he wrote this in 2010 when he was one, and it makes an important point:

Here’s what we Trads have realized, that the merely orthodox haven’t: Inessential things have power, which is why we bother with them in the first place. In every revolution, the first thing you change is the flag. Once that has been replaced, in the public mind all bets are off – which is why the Commies and Nazis filled every available space with their Satanic banners. Imagine, for a moment, that a newly elected president replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Confederate battle flag. Or that he replaced our 50 stars with the flag of Mexico. Let’s say he got away with doing this, and wasn’t carried off by the Secret Service to an “undisclosed location.” What would that signify for his administration? If people accepted the change, what else would they be likely to accept?

It’s no accident that the incessant tinkerings with the liturgy came at the same time as the chaos surrounding the Church’s teaching on birth control. As Anne Roche Muggeridge pointed out in her indispensable history The Desolate City, the Church’s position on contraception was “under consideration” for almost a decade – which led pastors to tell troubled couples that they could follow their consciences. If the Church could change the Mass, ordinary Catholics concluded, the nuances of marital theology were surely up for grabs. No wonder that when Paul VI reluctantly issued Humanae Vitae, people felt betrayed. (It didn’t help when the Vatican refused to back a cardinal who tried to enforce the document, which made it seem like the pope was winking.)

The perception that the Church was in a constant state of doctrinal flux was confirmed by the reality that her most central, sacred mystery was being monkeyed with – almost every year. I remember being in grammar school when they told us, “The pope wants us to receive Communion in the hand now.” (He didn’t; it was an abuse that was forced on the Vatican through relentless disobedience until it became a local norm, but never mind.) Then, a few years later, “The pope wants us to stand for Communion.” A few more grades, and we heard, “The pope wants us to go to Confession face to face.” What had seemed a solid bulwark of formality and seriousness was suddenly shifting with every year’s hemlines – which is precisely what the heretics conspiring to change the Church’s teaching had in mind. That is why they pushed for these futile, pastorally destructive changes of “inessentials” – as a way of beating down resistance to changing essentials. And, in a worldly sense, they almost succeeded.

The campaign of dissenting priests, nuns, and (let’s be honest) bishops culminated, in America, with the Call to Action Conference, which its leading advocate John Francis Cardinal Dearden described in 1977 as “an assembly of the American Catholic community .” This gathering of 2,400 radical Catholic activists was composed of “people deeply involved with the life of the institutional Church and appointed by their bishops” (emphasis added). The Conference approved “progressive resolutions, ones calling for, among other things, the ordination of women and married men, female altar servers, and the right and responsibility of married couples to form their own consciences on the issue of artificial birth control.” This is the mess made by the bishops appointed by the author of Humanae Vitae, which his rightly beloved successor John Paul II spent much of his pontificate trying to clean up. What we Trads feel compelled to point out is that he couldn’t quite finish the job, and that the deformations of the Roman liturgy enacted by (you guessed it) appointees of Paul VI helped enable all these doctrinal abuses. They changed the flag.

Changing the Catholic Church’s teaching or practice (a distinction that may be without a meaningful difference) on marriage as Pope Francis and his team want to do is very far from “an inessential thing,” in Zmirak’s phrase, but it is at least changing the flag. This matters more than many people think.

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Has the GOP Given Up on America?

Ryan Booth is a personal friend and a fellow Christian conservative (he’s a Southern Baptist). He was also a longtime leader in the top echelons of the state Republican Party (read Ryan’s 2010 history of the state GOP for an indication of the level at which he worked). Back in April, though, he said farewell to politics, and announced that he’s going to seminary. He put a comment up on my Wendy Davis thread this morning that deserves its own post. Ryan commented on my statement that, “I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems.” 

Here’s Ryan Booth:

As a former GOP political operative and activist who has come to the same conclusion, I am now trying to come with new standards for deciding whom to vote for. One thing that I have decided is that I don’t want to vote for any “Christian conservative” who expresses hatred for liberals, as I now believe such people hurt my witness as a Christian. If someone is running as a Christian, I want to see evidence of Christian love. So, my witness now comes first.

On social issues, I see a very interesting dynamic emerging. Whether they admit it or not, the GOP (and especially the Religious Right) has basically given up on America. Their idea of America has nothing in common with the depth of community Tocqueville found. It’s rather a vision of a lone family, left alone by government and everyone else, in the woods with their guns.

In other words, the rising anger with popular culture has resulted in a GOP move towards libertarianism and an antipathy towards all government. When I worked for the Louisiana GOP in the mid-90′s, we actively worked against gambling expansion. In the George W. Bush administration, we still had an attorney general who actively prosecuted some pornographers. I first really noticed the impact of godless libertarianism in the GOP in this year’s legislative session in Louisiana, when we couldn’t get together a solid opposition to the payday loan industry.

The general feeling seems to be that personal liberty now trumps all other issues. If the government permits everything, maybe they won’t bother us when we homeschool. Maybe we’ll be allowed religious liberty.

I think that hope is wrong, period. When everything is permissible, the only thing that won’t be tolerated is “religious intolerance.” In the meantime, we’ll have legalized drugs, prostitution, assisted suicide, etc.—and a society filled with much more social evil. And of course, a doctrine that everyone should be able to “do what is right in his own eyes” completely undercuts opposition to abortion. It’s already undercut our opposition to gay marriage.

So, I find myself increasingly in opposition to my former compatriots in the Christian conservative movement. They are standing for an overall philosophy which is NOT Christian (see Romans 13 to see that government is a creation of God) and which will ultimately backfire on their pro-life and pro-family goals.

The result of all this is that I now have a hard time finding anyone to vote for.

I agree entirely with Ryan that libertarianism (“rugged individualism”) is hard to reconcile with Christianity and the history of Christian political thought. His comment, though, highlights two ideas I’m trying to work out within my own thinking on religion and politics.

First, to say that Republicans, especially Christian conservatives, have “given up on America” because they no longer have Tocquevillian ideals is, I think, sort of true — but then, is it not the case that America has given up on itself in that regard? Who really believes in the common good anymore? We have become an atomized nation of individual consumers who believe our preferences must be indulged no matter what. It’s true of the Right as well as the Left. The main reason it’s so hard to talk about the common good is that so few people are willing to recognize an independent authoritative standard for determining that good.

Here’s a non-political example. I was part of a conversation recently involving several teachers, and one former law school professor. They were talking about how astonishing it is to see how far colleges go today to cater to students’ every whim, to the point of undercutting the authority of teachers. The teachers agreed that this is where our culture is today: these kids have been catered to and coddled by their parents, and come to college expecting that they have a right not to fail. And some colleges lean on the teachers not to fail them, even if the kids don’t do the work.

The former law prof told us about a class she taught a few years back in which a student phoned her the day before a scheduled quiz. The student asked the prof if she could take the quiz later, given she had missed the class review. The prof said no, if she didn’t come to the review, that was on her. “Yeah, but I’d like to take the test later, because I missed the review,” the student repeated. The prof said they went back and forth, and she had to slap down threats from the student to call the administration and get her (the teacher) punished.

The point of this coming up in discussion was that in our therapeutic culture, nobody wants to be inconvenienced. It’s the mindset, and all of us have it to a certain degree. But we like to think of ourselves and our tribe as the reasonable ones, and the others as the problem.

The self-absorbed student story is perhaps only tangentially related to politics, but I think it reveals something about why the old idea of America has been hollowed out by the liberal individualism of both the right and the left. Again, I think we are all at some point implicated in this. Think of a liberty that you would be willing to give up for the sake of the common good. Hard to do, isn’t it? We Americans have come to think of “the common good” as “maximal individual liberty.” In fact, individual liberty is a necessary condition for achieving the common good, and for that good to have meaning (because freely chosen). But in America today, it has become our idol. It has become the end of our politics rather than a means to an end. It is so in our personal lives, so why shouldn’t it be in our public ones?

For Christian conservatives, we see the movement to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples, and we don’t see an expansion of liberty; we see the obliteration of the idea of the family as a binding, normative social institution. In truth, it is both — but the American people have decided that individual liberty is more important. On gambling, I see it as a vice that destroys the poor and their families. Others see it as an exercise in liberty. Those others carry the day in America. I expect that it will get more and more this way as the generation taught that the only real sin is to judge others comes into power.

All politics is about balancing the rights of the individual against the community. Too much collective power is oppressive; too much individual power is anarchic. In a democracy, we will always be struggling with this tension. What has changed, I think, is that we have come to a point where people no longer think of the common good. This is Dante’s great lament about Tuscany in his day: that people only thought of the good of themselves and their own party or tribe. The result was chaotic, and tore at the fabric of society.

This is where we are headed.

I am not a libertarian; if anything, I’m a Red Tory, or a Christian Democrat in the European sense. But ours is not a culture where Red Toryism or Christian Democracy makes much sense. It might have at one time, but not anymore. I have been thinking for a couple of years now that if I’m going to protect my religious liberty rights (the most important right, in my view), I’m going to have to figure out how to do so within a libertarian framework.

A thought that rests uneasily in my mind after reading Ryan’s comment: have I given up on America too? Does this describe me?:

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.

I think it probably does. It makes it hard to know who to vote for, though. In a time like this, prophets are more important than politicians.

Maybe that makes me an “unpatriotic conservative.” I know what I want to conserve, but I don’t know that it is compatible with what our country is becoming. I’d like to be wrong.

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Lessons from the Wendy Davis Disaster

Discovery World 3/Flickr


The image above is from a protest against conservative Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was accused by those liberal critics of focusing on abortion-related issues instead of the economy. Funnily enough, the same slogan could be used against Wendy Davis, the failing Democratic candidate for Texas governor, who, according to Michael Brendan Dougherty, is learning that you can’t build a successful political campaign around social issues. Excerpt:

Davis was an obscurity in the Democratic Party before her 2013 filibuster of abortion regulations that threatened Texas clinics with closure. Fascination with her shoes exceeded that normally given to the Roman Pontiff‘s footwear. The money poured in. Here was a national figure for the moment, a Joan of Arc ready to win the War on Women.

Alas, social issues are not enough. Polls show that Attorney General Greg Abbott, an anti-abortion Catholic, is attracting as much or more support from Texas women as Wendy Davis.


I’m a social conservative through and through. I think that social issues are legitimate political issues, and that it is important to debate them. But social issues are rating near the bottom of voter concerns heading into the 2014 election. Abortion and other social issues rarely rate more than a few percentage points above zero when Gallup polls voters on their concerns. It turns out that the Republican implosion on social issues in 2012 was not a prelude to Democratic triumphs on the same.

The whole thing is here. 

About Davis, I haven’t been following this race at all, but I was struck the other day transiting through the Houston airport by the cover of Davis’s campaign memoir, which I passed by on a bookstore display:




I found this title jarring, in this sense: it struck me as a sentiment that would appeal to women only, and, frankly, only a certain kind of woman. I see what Davis is getting at, but the phrasing does not convey fearlessness. Now that I see from MBD’s report that Davis is running about even with her pro-life male opponent among women, I feel that my instinct about Davis’s failure to connect with many Texas women is confirmed.

A couple of things here. First, it annoys me to no end when conservatives promote themselves and their candidates as “real Americans.” The liberal version of this involves promoting themselves and their candidates as “real women” (or, much less openly, “real [minority group].” Of course it’s insulting, but more than that, it can lead those who embrace that rhetoric to blind themselves to the reality of the electorate and its concerns. Wendy Davis is associated with a national pro-choice “Stand With Texas Women” campaign. It turns out that about half of Texas women are standing with her opponent.

Second, as a social conservative, I hate to admit it, but MBD is right: social issues matter a whole lot to a subset of liberals and conservatives, but most of the public doesn’t really care. (Environmentalism is like this too; it polls very low on the general public’s political priority list.) I vote primarily on social issues, but I’m much less likely to do that than I was in the past. This is in part because I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems, but it’s also — and relatedly — because I am much less willing to sign off on hawkish foreign policy as an acceptable cost for getting social conservatives into office. War is a social issue too. When you see how going to war affects the families and communities left behind, you understand that.

Same deal with economics.




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The ‘Rage’ of Ross Douthat? Huh?

Behold, a right-wing Catholic ragemonkey in complete thermonuclear meltdown Mark Blevis/Flickr

The world as seen by Andrew Sullivan, in reaction to Ross Douthat’s column about Pope Francis:

So this is why it took Ross Douthat so long to utter an opinion about the recent Synod on Family Life in Rome. He was weighing whether to call for schism! For the record: for all my questioning and concern about the direction Benedict XVI was taking the church, I never wrote a column that actually called for open revolt against him.

Well, let’s think about this. The Synod officially ended with the release of its final report on Sunday October 19. Ross Douthat’s first column after the Synod ended was — wait for it — about the Synod. How, exactly, could Ross Douthat have written a column any sooner?

About never writing “a column that actually called for open revolt” against Pope Benedict XVI, I will assume for the sake of argument that that is true. However, he has contended that Benedict is a closet case:

So Benedict’s handsome male companion will continue to live with him, while working for the other Pope during the day. Are we supposed to think that’s, well, a normal arrangement? … This man – clearly in some kind of love with Ratzinger (and vice-versa) will now be working for the new Pope as secretary in the day and spending the nights with the Pope Emeritus. This is not the Vatican. It’s Melrose Place.

He blamed Benedict for the collapse of the Church’s authority, even though the abuse crisis in the Church began decades before Benedict’s papacy:

He did not just fail; his papacy has been a rolling disaster for the Church in the West.

He lost Ireland, for Pete’s sake, if you’ll pardon the expression. His version of Catholicism entered the public square and has been overwhelmingly refuted, rejected, and spurned by not just those outside the Western church but by so many within it. And in his inability to rise to the occasion of unthinkable evil in the child-rape conspiracy – to clean house by removing every cardinal and every bishop and every priest implicated in any way with it – he has presided over the global destruction of the church’s moral authority. By his refusal to face the fact of huge hypocrisy in the church over homosexuality – indeed to double down on the stigmatization of gay people, reversing previous gradual movement toward acceptance – he has consigned the church to what might well become an institutional tragedy.

Funnily enough, Pope Francis hasn’t removed “every cardinal and every bishop and every priest implicated in any way” with the scandal. But not a peep out of Andrew.

He has contended, against evidence showing that John Paul II was the bad guy in this case, and Ratzinger the good guy, that in the case of the wicked Fr. Marcial Maciel, Benedict is a defender of “evil”:

Evil remains at the heart of the Vatican. And I am not going to pretty it up. I’m going to get in its face. And stay there. I do not know what else to do. What else is there to do?

Andrew wondered if Benedict ought to be dragged to the Hague in chains:

What fascinates me is whether he can now be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity” for having enabled and concealed the rape of countless children in an institution under his direct authority – from the moment in 2001 when every single sex abuse case went to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to his decision to leave Marcial Maciel alone to keep raping the innocent and continued cover-ups even after the reality had been so brutally exposed.

To put it more bluntly: now that he is no longer protected from legal accountability as a head of state, can lawsuits proceed?

And so forth. So yes, it is possible that Andrew has never written a column that actually called for open revolt against Benedict. But that is a distinction without a bit of difference.

These remarks about Benedict I’ve highlighted are manifestations of rage, or at least of an astonishing degree of anger. It’s what Andrew Sullivan does. Hey, it takes one to know one; I rage too. We both lead with our hearts on things that matter to us, something that’s sometimes a strength, and at other times a weakness. I share his rage at some of these things, especially child abuse in the Church. But rage is not a substitute for clear thought, as I have had to learn, and continue to learn.

But look: the one word that no one who has read Ross Douthat or who knows him personally would use to describe his thinking and writing is “rage.” It’s completely unhinged. If you haven’t read Ross’s column about the Pope from Sunday, please do. You may disagree with it, and disagree strongly, but to call it “rage” is nothing more than a hysterical act of projection.

In related news, Pope Francis yesterday denied that gay marriage is really marriage:

He warned against the common view in society that “you can call everything family, right?”

“What is being proposed is not marriage, it’s an association. But it’s not marriage! It’s necessary to say these things very clearly and we have to say it!” Pope Francis stressed.

He lamented that there are so many “new forms” of unions which are “totally destructive and limiting the greatness of the love of marriage.”

If Benedict had said this, my friend Andrew would have been tearing his garments and howling at the moon.


Death by Church Bureaucracy

Organization Men Ian Burt/Flickr

A former clergyman named Steve Billingsley posted this comment to the “Last Episcopalian” thread. It was so interesting I decided to give it its own post, and invite comment from readers who have seen what he has seen. Here it is:

I served for a decade as a pastor in the United Methodist Church – whose U.S. membership has declined over 30% in the last 45 years despite a very real and vibrant plurality of theologically orthodox (small “o”) members (and a booming membership in Africa and Central and South America). I served in one of the saner and more healthy regions (Central Texas) and was continually frustrated by the persistent tendency to major on minors and a denominational bureaucracy that was self-indulgent and clueless. (When I left the UMC ministry – my district superintendent told me that he (along with over half of his colleagues) was on anti-depressants and that he suspected that when he retired he wouldn’t need them anymore.)

Understand – I’m not against anti-depressant medication – it can literally be a lifesaver for folks suffering from clinical depression – but he was telling me that his job environment was so toxic that he needed to drug himself to cope (and frankly saw no irony in that fact). This is just symbolic of the denial that so many in leadership in these denominations live in. Our annual conferences were multi-day exercises in self congratulation and furrowed brow deliberation over countless resolutions that accomplished nothing other than solidify the entrenched political power of the denominational apparatchiks. Clueless old-school church politicians fighting over the remaining scraps of organizational power deluding themselves into thinking all is well.

I wouldn’t characterize it as a “liberal” vs “conservative” divide or even simply as orthodoxy vs heresy. It is taking the faith seriously enough to wrestle with serious issues in one’s own life and the life of one’s church and to trust that the faith that was delivered to us by our forebears through centuries of struggles, victories and defeats is not to be lightly cast aside for passing trends and the spirit of the age.

Fascinating. I would love to hear from pastors and church workers who have experience with the bureaucracies inside their institutions. Does what Steve Billingsley said correspond to your experience? Why or why not?

I have no experience at all with church bureaucracies, but Billingsley’s comments did bring to mind what a Catholic friend with long experience working for the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy told me back during the early days of the abuse scandal. She said that people who work for, or who have worked for, the Church were not surprised by any of it. It’s not like they knew the extent of the destruction and corruption, but rather that it did not shock them that an institution that runs like the Catholic Church does could breed an internal culture in which abuse was tolerated and perpetuated.

As I recall — my memory could be faulty — she explained that the clergy believed (consciously or unconsciously) that the Church existed for their benefit. That is, “the Church” referred to the institution; therefore, the good of the Church was, to their way of thinking, what was good for the class that managed the bureaucracy. This, by the way, was by no means confined only to the ordained. Laypeople who worked for the bureaucracy and that had absorbed the bureaucratic mindset were just as culpable.

I think this tells us little about Christianity and much about bureaucracy. People from outside the bureaucratic structure typically have no idea how much being on the inside affects the way you see things. A good friend of mine worked for a big company that, because of changing market conditions, began losing a significant amount of business. He was in management there, and told me that the leadership class within the company was truly concerned about what they could do to turn around their situation. The thing was, all their proposed solutions favored what the managerial elites wanted to do in the first place. That is, they would consider no possible measures that would mean doing something that challenged their own settled convictions, and certainly nothing that would harm their own perceived internal interests.

Result: the company continued to lose market share, and the bureaucratic managers grew increasingly anxious. It’s been years since we talked, but the main thing I recall from that conversation was that in his view, the management (again, of which he was a part) was so immersed in its own bubble that it did not understand how blinded it was by its own interests.

Don’t forget the late historian Barbara Tuchman’s elements that are present in all great and consequential institutional collapses (e.g., her account of how six Renaissance popes allowed conditions within the Catholic Church to degrade so much that the Reformation happened):

1. obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents
2. primacy of self-aggrandizement
3. illusion of invulnerable status

Again, this is not a Christian thing, specifically, but a function of bureaucratic mindsets within government, industry, academia, and all complex social entities. Being religious does not liberate you from being human. It can, though, convince you that whatever you’re doing as a leader within a religious bureaucracy must be right, because you are serving God. I’ll never forget the case in which a Catholic bishop told an adult victim of a priest’s sexual abuse — the priest was the woman’s confessor, and used information he gained in the confessional to blackmail her, a married woman, into a sexual relationship — that if she went to the authorities with this story, he, her bishop, would ruin her, “because I have to protect the people of God.” True story.

Anyway, as I said, if you work for a church bureaucracy, or have worked for one, I would love to hear your stories. Does Billingsley’s account seem right to you? If not, why not?

UPDATE: Startling comment by reader Jeff:

Denominational bureaucracy in two other “mainline Protestant” denominations I’ve worked with, the tradition in which I’m ordained and the one in which I did extensive supply preaching and consulting in, is exactly as the lead commenter described.

I respect very much Roger Talbott’s comment about the need for and the occasional positive aspects of “middle judicatory” life, but in the three Midwestern states I’ve served in as pastor and professional, all of the mainline Protestant bodies have a startlingly liberal, careerist, and I would say un-parish oriented staff cadre. There are various cynical and sarcastic explanations for how such folk end up in those jobs, but the striking thing to me is that since World War II, the denominational histories and documentation confirm what’s even more the case today: they see congregations as the problem, not a solution.

And frankly, when in personal conversation, a shocking percentage of them not only do not believe in any sort of orthodox supernaturalism (now, Reiki or homeopathy, those are big with them), I’ve had more than a couple admit “I don’t believe in God.” I (sadly) got used to my fellows in ministry not believing in the Resurrection from before seminary, but not even believing in God still leaves me breathless.

In two cases, I had the opportunity and presence of mind to say, I hope compassionately, “So why don’t you quit?” And both said the same words, years apart: “What else would I do?”

I once asked a Catholic priest friend how on earth the bishops could have done the things that they have done, re: the scandal. It just made no sense to me. He looked at me soberly and said, “I think a lot of them just don’t believe in God.”

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Frying Your Brain on Fake Pot

This weekend I found myself at a party at which I met a psychiatric nurse. She’s been at her career for most of her life, and is nearing retirement age. I asked her about her work and its challenges. At one point, she mentioned how striking it is to see the serious damage people who smoke so-called synthetic marijuana (herbs sprayed with chemicals intended to mimic a cannabis high) do to their minds. “How is this stuff still legal in places?” she said.

And then she described the psychosis that sets in with some who smoke it. They really do severe and seemingly permanent damage to their minds, she said. I told her that we know a brilliant young man who lost his mind because of this stuff. It’s terrifying, and tragic beyond all telling. The nurse said that she believes that those who fall victim to the stuff are people who likely had a latent underlying psychosis, one that smoking synthetic marijuana unleashed. Once that demon is out of its box, there may be no putting it back.

What this nurse said to me resonated deeply because I’ve watched this wonderful, smart, well-educated young friend go from being a creative and beloved teacher who was headed to the top of the world to being a delusional, sometimes-homeless vagabond who has all but destroyed his life. It began with his synthetic pot habit, which caused psychotic breaks, one in which he nearly killed himself, and another in which he was arrested under humiliating circumstances, and committed to a psych ward. He then ended up homeless, despite his mother and father’s best efforts to help him, but came back to himself briefly when he stopped smoking the synthetic pot. His sanity seems to have fallen apart again, though I don’t know if he’s back on the drug. Point is, this over-the-counter herbal mixture fried his brain. It’s not a joke or an exaggeration, as a number of people (including some readers of this blog who know the man in question) can attest. If you use this stuff, or know someone who does, or who is tempted to, please stay away from it. You have no idea what it might do to you. But I do, and so does this psychiatric nurse I talked to.

UPDATE: A friend e-mails to say that a couple of years back, a kid in her church started smoking Spice, one of the versions of synthetic pot on the market. One night, he went into the sanctuary, doused the altar with gasoline, and set it on fire. By happenstance, a parishioner was walking by the church as the arsonist left, and was able to get inside and put the fire out before too much damage had been done.

Today, my friend reports, the young man who started the fire has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, and jailed. “He will never recover from it,” says my friend. A normal, nice church kid before he took up Spice.

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