Rod Dreher

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Engaging the Bible & Evangelical Distinctives

A reader sent in this e-mail last night, which I post with his permission. I think it’s a valuable contribution to the discussion around a couple of recent threads here. His words challenge me personally, as an Orthodox Christian who doesn’t read the Bible nearly enough, and for whom that is a serious fault in my own piety and practice:

As a mainliner by raising, atheist/ agnostic in college, and evangelical protestant now (I had a trajectory similar to yours, it seems, except we’ve ended up in different denominations) I had a few thoughts about the Irish situation that brought me back to your post a few days ago where you asked what Evangelicals were doing “right,” given the relative stability of our numbers.

If you read some of the coverage of the Irish vote, you find lots of “Bergoglio voters,” which you mentioned—voters who consider themselves Catholic but who voted Yes because for them, faith means love, or faith means loving everyone equally, or other such MTD claptrap. And what it reminded me of was the experience of an Episcopalian friend who converted to Catholicism because he couldn’t escape the reasoning that the church had the continuity of Christ’s church, was the “real deal”—a claim Catholics (and the Orthodox) proudly make. A couple of years later we had the chance to catch up and he told me that what he could not get over was that his parish—and he was in a conservative, city parish that offered the latin mass—had no one who was interested in reading or discussing the Bible. He was appalled by the illiteracy of the word of God among his fellow Catholics. It just wasn’t part of the culture.

It’s my experience (and his) that many conservative Catholics and Orthodox are conservative about Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Their primary concern is the liturgy, the latin mass, the proper posture of worship, the holding of church doctrine. All fine, as far as they go, but those things will not bear the weight of the suffering to come. When being a believer becomes cause for social censure, a love of tradition, or liturgy, or beauty, just isn’t going to cut it. We have to catechize our children to know EXACTLY what the Bible says, where it says it, and how it speaks to us.

And this is—in my experience—the strength of Evangelicalism. As you have pointed out, “Evangelical” is a very broad label. Conservative Reformed Dutch protestants are evangelical and Joel Osteen would say he is too. But when I went to my current Associate Reformed Presbyterian church for the first time, I felt like someone had hit me in the face with a Bible. My knowledge was PITIFUL. If you ask someone in my church why Gay marriage is wrong, he or she will probably say something like this:

1) In Genesis 1-2, we learn that God has created us male and female, with complementary bodies, and blessed our union and procreation.

2) In Leviticus, we learn that God considers sexual activity that does not honor him to be an abomination.

3) In the gospels, we hear Jesus constantly referencing the old testament law approvingly. While those laws are not binding outside of Biblical Israel (and we can prove that biblically too), it is clear that Jesus finds God’s law just.

4) In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians, Paul takes an especially low view of sexual sin, specifically enumerating homosexual sex.

I don’t say this to brag about my church. My church has plenty of problems, in particular being too comfortable with wealth and status and, being a white southern protestant church, the race question. But if you sit in my church on a Sunday morning you will see that almost everyone has brought their own bible, and that Bible will be underlined, dog-eared, and used to death. It is just assumed that you are reading 2 or 3 chapters per day on your own and meditating on it. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in a home and seen children being catechized with the Westminster Catechism while they do the dishes. Family devotionals are also de rigeur, with Dad reading from scripture and leading discussion and prayer certainly and dinner and in many cases at every meal.

But if I had to single out Evangelicalism’s strength vs. Catholicism’s weakness, and simultaneously point to a reason why so many supposedly faithful Catholics voted yes, it would be this. In its best form, Evangelicalism teaches its people the Bible thoroughly and daily, which gives them a much stronger worldview than what Timothy calls “the doctrines of men.”

Lest we on the outside have too rosy a picture of what’s going on inside Evangelicalism, Jake Meador identifies a major generational fault line.  He says that the biggest mistake his fellow Evangelicals make is thinking that their problem getting the rest of the world to take them seriously is one of presentation:

Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs. That’s why Louie Giglio was uninvited from President Obama’s second inaugural. That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them. That’s why laws so modest and restrained as the Indiana RFRA illicit such outrage and why the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling met a similar reaction last year. The groups being attacked in these cases are not Fred Phelps clones or even Pat Robertson clones. They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.

If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get ussomewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.

But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that. As Rod Dreher noted several months ago (and David Sessions made much the same point here), what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.

The second point follows from the first. If ours is a problem of credibility, then we begin thinking less about the core elements of the Christian life and public ministry and more about managing perceptions, convincing people that we aren’t like those Christians, and so on.

The trouble with this approach is that when you begin behaving like a marketer, that’s what you become. And the clear presentation of the faith is lost amidst a thousand qualifications as you apologize for this awful Christian and try to distinguish yourself from that embarrassing group. By the time your done clearing your throat and awkwardly laughing at those silly evangelicals all you’ve succeeded in doing is confusing the room and causing no small number of people to wonder what exactly you do believe. But, then, clarity isn’t really the point if you’re a marketer. Getting the sale is.

Read the whole thing. It’s enlightening to this outsider. Jake cites a speech given by Bryan Chappell, a prominent pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, who delineates the divide within his own communion:

I want to share with you some recent correspondence to a friend. He is the head of a mission agency and has been visiting a PCA church. He was impressed enough to consider membership and asked for my honest assessment of the state of the PCA. Here, with a few edits, is what I shared with him:

My friend, the local church that you are attending is a fine representative of one part of the PCA, but clearly it is not representative of the whole. Your church would be on the “progressive” side of things and would represent a majority of the younger pastors and the churches that are growing. It is hard to tell, however, if that church represents a majority of the PCA as a whole. If it does, it is barely a majority. The denomination, as a whole, is clearly divided between traditionalists, progressives, and neutrals. The traditionalists are highly committed to Confessional fidelity and are often worried about perceived doctrinal drift.

The progressives are frustrated by the perceived cultural isolation of the denomination and the lack of Gospel impact upon the larger culture.

The neutrals are happy (even proud) for the PCA’s biblical fidelity, are at a loss for why their churches are not growing, and perceive that the traditionalists and progressives fuss too much about too little.

Theological zeal and institutional loyalty keep the traditionalists engaged despite their concern about the church. The progressives are increasingly concerned that the church cannot move forward without controversy, and segments of this wing occasionally talk about whether it’s worth staying — even though most votes go their way at the General Assembly level. The neutrals always hold the swing votes at the General Assembly level — they can be frightened into action by the traditionalists but generally are more inspired by, and aligned with, the progressives.

Chappell said that those within the Evangelical fold who are 50 and older grew up in a time in which they perceived that Christians were a majority in American culture, and only needed to be mobilized to “take back the culture,” and so forth. Those who are 40 and younger, by contrast, grew up always aware that they were a cultural minority, and many of them — to the shock of their elders — grew angry at those elders (the Francis Schaeffers, the Pat Robertsons, the Chuck Colsons) for doing things that alienated others from the message of the Gospel. More Chappell:

What often separates the generations by their dominant cultural experience can also separate segments of our church. Those whose main concern is cultural erosion perceive their dominant mission to be protecting the church culture they love and believe is biblical. These genuinely feel the need to combat those inside and outside their immediate church culture who threaten its continuity.

In contrast, there are those whose main concern is cultural impotence; these are also divided into two major subgroups whose main concern is either spiritual conversion or cultural transformation. Despite these differences, both subgroups share the concern that the world has changed, left the church on its own minority island, and death to the church will not come by doctrinal or societal erosion but by sectarian introspection and intramural controversy.

It is important that both main groups understand that the other’s concern is biblical and genuine. We must learn to work for common ends across relational boundaries, loving one another in Christ, believing that the biblical concerns each expresses are genuine, and dealing with one another in integrity even when differences are acute.

All of Chappell’s speech is here. Interesting that he doesn’t have anything to say about people in my demographic: between 40 and 50. This makes me reflect on how I sometimes feel that I’m seen as too liberal and accommodationist by older Christians (who, in my view, don’t understand how much the world has changed around us) and too rigid and conservative by younger ones, who don’t understand how non-negotiable are some of the theological fundamentals that keep them from being embraced by the world.

Chappell goes on to say that “pluralism” is by far the greatest enemy facing the church today. He doesn’t define it, but it seems from context that he means the idea that there is no such thing as Truth, only opinions about the Truth, none of which can be said to be more true than any other. If I’m reading him correctly, a better word would have been “relativism.” I could be wrong.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things to me — again, as an outsider — about Meador’s piece is his observation that a certain class of Evangelical (“almost always white and middle-to-upper class,” he writes) tend to turn on the previous generation of Evangelicals, and define themselves in opposition. Jake says that what this often amounts to is replacing one generation’s mistakes with another.

What I take from Jake’s piece is a sense that neither side in the Evangelical debate really understands the nature of the culture in which they live. The older folks cannot deal with the fact that America is post-Christian, and the younger folks cannot deal with the fact that the world doesn’t reject Christians’ style, it rejects Christians’ beliefs (i.e., winsomeness is not enough).

UPDATE: A conservative Protestant reader writes:

I am doubtful that knowing the Bible well is what helps Evangelicals resist progressivism.


1. Most progressive Evangelicals know the Bible well. It’s part of the culture. They certainly know what it says on controversial issues.

2. Resisting the specific heresy of progressivism isn’t necessarily related to doctrinal fidelity in general: Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, even many pagans are all on the right side of resisting progressivism, without being good on the Bible or Christian doctrine overall.

This idea that what we really need is to double down on the catechizing (Catholic) or Bible study (Protestant) is delusional. See James K.A. Smith.

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Schism Over Gay Marriage

Protest in Milan against Church teaching on homosexuality and marriage (Eugenio Marongiu /
Protest in Milan against Church teaching on homosexuality and marriage (Eugenio Marongiu /

The shock waves from the Irish vote on Friday continue to reverberate. In an extremely sobering piece, the prominent English religion journalist Damian Thompson, himself a Roman Catholic, discusses the real potential that same-sex marriage has to provoke a schism in the Catholic Church. From his column:

• In the West, practising Catholics – let alone lapsed ones – are strikingly more gay-friendly than they were even 10 years ago. To quote Pew Research, ‘among churchgoing Catholics of all ages – that is, those who attend Mass at least weekly – roughly twice as many say homosexuality should be accepted (60 per cent) as say it should be discouraged (31 per cent)’. Admittedly, practising Catholics have been merrily disregarding Catholic teaching on contraception for years, safe in the knowledge that no one has a clue whether they follow the rules. But – no offence – gay couples in church often stick out a mile. If they’re in a civil union, many priests will refuse to give the Communion – or, alternatively, make a big show of allowing it. So much depends on the parish. Indeed, attitudes towards gays have become an easy way of distinguishing conservative from liberal parishes, and of creating division in the first place.

• Liberal bishops and priests, even some cardinals, are beginning to change their tune on same-sex marriage. Here’s one reaction to Ireland’s gay vote: ‘I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.’ That was the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, an arch-liberal who wins applause in the Irish media by attacking old-style Catholic prelates (many of whom, conveniently, are deeply compromised by covering up child abuse).

Thompson says that there is an enormous gulf between the bishops of Africa, where the Catholic faith is booming, and the liberal bishops of Europe (and North America, he might have added), where the faith is either dying or stalling out). Nobody among the Catholic hierarchy seems to have noticed that this issue has all but extinguished the global Anglican communion, which is down to a withering liberal European and North American flock, and a huge, vibrant African one. Meanwhile, there is the Synod coming up this fall, where there will be a showdown over communion for the divorced and for gays who do not live chastely (it is reported in the French media that today, key European bishops are meeting privately in the Vatican to plot out strategy for pushing through liberal reforms at the Synod). Thompson suspects that if this goes much further, the tension will snap the bonds of communion:

But (see above) Catholics have a Magisterium whose teachings on homosexuality can’t be changed without the Church deciding that it has the authority to scrap them. At which point some traditional Catholics will up sticks to the modern equivalent of Avignon and we’ll have two popes. Or three, if dear Benedict XVI is still alive.

You think this is alarmist? As Thompson avers, it has happened before (the Avignon papacies). Besides, the same people who tell you to relax are the ones who insisted that the marriage of their gay neighbors wouldn’t change a thing, and those who said it would were just being paranoid. Today, in 2015, you are a fool if you believe that. This issue is going to split nearly every church in our country, as it has been doing in the Mainline Protestant churches. (Though the Orthodox churches are among the most conservative, one hears talk through the Orthodox grapevine that revisionist, pro-gay opinions are taking root in elite ecclesial circles.) As the polling shows, even regular massgoing Catholics in the US do not stand with their Church on this issue, but with the Zeitgeist.

Normalizing homosexuality is so radically at odds with the clear teaching of the Bible, and two millennia of unbending Christian teaching, that should it happen in the Roman church at the fall Synod or at any time, the act will be a sign to traditional Catholics that something has gone terribly wrong — and we will likely have a schism.

Never bet on bishops of any church to take courageous, unpopular stands. For the bishops of Europe and North America, standing with Scripture and 2,000 years of consistent magisterial teaching is becoming extremely unpopular. What’s happening to Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco, besieged by his own flock, is a preview of what’s coming for many, maybe even most, American bishops. As the Pew numbers show, if the US held a referendum on same-sex marriage today, and limited the vote to Catholics who go to mass weekly, it would pass by Irish-style margins. Think about that.

Now, when gay-rights groups start suing under anti-discrimination law to remove the tax-exempt status from religious schools and institutions that uphold traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and sexuality in general, how strong do you anticipate bishops, priests, and lay leaders — Catholic and non-Catholic — to be in the face of those kinds of attacks? How much support do you expect they will have from a laity, the majority of which has already gone to the pro-SSM side? And on the Catholic front, how strong do you expect a bishop to be when he cannot count on Rome having his back, as is the case under this pontificate?

Questions like these are why there is no more important story in the life of the Christian churches in the West today than the struggle over gay rights. It cuts to the heart of the authority of Scripture and Tradition, as well as radically challenges the normative anthropology of Christianity. There are plenty of people, both inside and outside the churches, who have a vested interest in denying the radicalism of this struggle. But don’t be fooled. And don’t be misled on another point: These problems are not simply theoretical. They are right here, right now, and will only grow more powerful and more divisive. Ireland is a bellwether for all of us in the West, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

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The Modernism of (Some) Religious Conservatism

It is sometimes pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism is a modernist phenomenon. I think it must be true of all religious fundamentalism.

Over the weekend, I got into a brief Twitter exchange with a pastor of a nondenominational “Bible church” (as if all churches aren’t Bible churches) in Texas who said that I am not a Christian, because Orthodox and Catholics are not Christian. I pointed out to him that Christianity did not begin with the Reformation, but then decided to block the guy on Twitter, because the last thing I wanted to do was get into an exchange with a guy like that.

An hour later, I was standing in our Orthodox vespers service, thinking about that guy and smiling. There we were, praying in a church that can trace itself in an unbroken line back to the apostles. We chanted Psalms and read passages aloud from the Old Testament. We sang hymns commemorating the Council of Nicaea (325), and its victory over the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus. As in every vespers service, we sang the hymn “O Joyful Light,” which is the oldest surviving hymn from antiquity, having been composed in the late third or early fourth century; tradition says it was written by a bishop on his way to martyrdom. He didn’t write it for a praise band.

And I thought about all the Christians of the Middle East being exiled and martyred today for their faith in Jesus Christ. These Christians are almost entirely Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, or members of one of the Nestorian churches. Whatever their communion, their ancestors were worshiping Jesus Christ as God when the ancestors of nearly all of us northern Europeans were praying to pagan gods.

And yet, to this fundamentalist Protestant in Texas, these people are not Christian.

It’s such a risible position to hold that one can only smile at it. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand the reality of theological conflict, and actually admire people of whatever church who don’t elide real division for the sake of comity. Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox all have serious theological conflicts among us, conflicts that cannot be easily resolved, if they can be resolved at all. It’s important to acknowledge that fact.

But to hold a position that says, either explicitly or by implication, that Christianity cannot be said to have existed prior to the Reformation — or, as I have heard it said, to hold a theory that the real church somehow went underground after Constantine’s conversion, and only emerged at the Reformation — is bizarre. Many of the things modern Fundamentalists object to about Catholicism (and presumably Orthodoxy) were well established in the Church before Constantine’s conversion. For example, the early church had bishops and priests, and the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr in the year 107, had been appointed bishop by Peter himself.

For that matter, how does Mr. Bible Church think the Bible came into being? From the Church! There were no Protestants at any of those early church councils that defined dogmas and created the canon of Scripture, which was set firmly by the fifth century. Christians like him are heavily dependent on everything that came before them. Whatever else it is, that guy’s position is radically unconservative.

Don’t misunderstand: though I reject the Reformation, I recognize that there are good, and good faith, arguments to be made for why the radical ecclesiological development that the Reformation represents was God’s doing. But if I understand this correctly — and I may not, so I invite your correction — the Fundamentalists go even further than the leading Reformers, denying that there was any church at all from the Constantinian era until the Reformation. I looked up this pastor’s church, and judging from their statement of beliefs, they are classical Fundamentalists — but claim no affiliation with any historic Christian confession. The first thing on their Statement of Beliefs is that the Bible is the inerrant and final word of God, and it contains everything that man needs to be saved. Okay, but that is not what the early church believed, and could not possibly be, because they did not have a canon of Scriptures for centuries … and Scripture did not canonize itself. By whose authority was Scripture canonized?

Well, anyway, I have no interest in engaging in theological disputation here, and won’t. What prompts this post is my curiosity about this question: Does laying hold to a position so extreme and so ungrounded in history leave people like Mr. Bible Church vulnerable in other ways to the forces of modernity, which deny the authority of the past? That is, does the nature of their conservatism leave Christian fundamentalists particularly vulnerable to the cultural forces that are tearing Christianity apart in the West?

This reminds me of firebrand political conservatives who seem to think conservatism began with Ronald Reagan, and that before his appearance among us, there was a vast void between the age of the Founding Fathers, and Reagan’s coming. Their historical ignorance denies them deeper philosophical resources that they could rightly draw on to defend their position against contemporary challenges. All true conservatives — as opposed to ideologues — lay hold to continuity with the past, and the democracy of the dead.

Christians who refuse, even denigrate, the Church’s deep theological roots in history, strike me as holding a conservatism that is a hard outer shell. What happens when the experience of living in modernity, with its valorization of radical autonomy, erodes or pierces the armor? With their creedless, non-denominational, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to Christianity, they are sitting ducks. They deny themselves the wisdom and profundity of tradition, which would give them deep roots. Ironically, their approach to ecclesiology is itself part of modernity, the very thing they oppose so fiercely. Christian fundamentalism, especially in its nondenominational variety, is parasitic on older, more ancient forms of Christianity, in ways that its adherents don’t appreciate.

It’s like political conservatives who don’t grasp that conservatism is a far broader and deeper thing than Reaganism and post-Reaganism. Given Reagan’s celebration of the free market, they don’t know what to say when questions are raised about the market’s role in undermining traditions that conservatism has historically stood for upholding. So they double down on dogmatism and ideology, which, as time goes on, persuades or attracts fewer and fewer people.

This is going to happen to fundamentalist Christianity, I think. It is an unstable thing, and far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time than its believers think. We can all look at liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism, and see how they are withering. Fundamentalism looks strong by contrast. I think this is deceptive.

And yet, it must be conceded that all that tradition, and all that doctrinal depth and comprehensiveness, is not producing Catholics who believe in what their own church teaches, as opposed to Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (which are not the same thing). This may be the same with Orthodox Christians too, but we are so few in the US that I honestly don’t know what things look like outside of my own individual experience. Poll numbers routinely show, though, little evidence that magisterial Catholicism has formed the worldviews and consciences of the Catholic laity, such that their views are distinctively different from the general populace. The Fundamentalists lack a lot of the things that liturgical Christians like me have, but we lack something they have: zeal.

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Irish Vote: Triumph for Bergoglian Catholicism?

You might have expected some blindly optimistic Catholics to spin the Irish vote approving same-sex marriage by a two-to-one margin as “only a flesh wound,” or something. But writing on Time’s website, Christopher J. Hale, says it’s not a defeat for the Catholic Church, but actually a triumph of Catholicism in the Pope Francis mode. Excerpt:

In fact, many who voted “yes” on gay marriage did so because of their faith, not in spite of it. One elderly Irish couple put it this way: “We are Catholics, and we are taught to believe in compassion and love and fairness and inclusion. Equality, that’s all we’re voting for.”

The idea of an inclusive Catholic Church may have seemed like a pipe dream not many years ago, but under the tenure of Francis the Troublemaker, it doesn’t seem that farfetched. Two summers ago the Pope tweeted, “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

On the eve of Pentecost, it seems that Ireland has taken that message to heart and sent an unmistakable message to the Church and society at large: A community that excludes anyone is no community at all.

Huh. Pope Francis has spoken out multiple times against same-sex marriage (for example, here). On the other hand, he did just name an outspokenly pro-gay English Dominican as a top advisor to the Vatican on peace and justice issues.

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Mom’s Gone!


Julie and the two younger children just took off for a six-day trip, leaving Matthew, 15, and me at home. Confided Matt to me earlier this morning, “When Mom and the kids go, I’m going to put on the Clash, and turn it up just to the point where the boom from the speakers threatens to kick the needle out of the groove.”

That’s my boy. Forty-five seconds after Julie’s SUV cleared the driveway, we were listening to “Clash City Rockers” at volume 11. Soon to come: Man Movie Marathon, a parade of films that Mom, being a girl and all, finds yucky, inappropriate, and un-British-costume-drama-like. Caddyshack, here we come! There may be eating ice cream out of tubs, the dog sleeping in the bed, and much, much worse.

‘Tis bliss to be alive.

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You Kids Get Off That Internet

My son has been going through my dad’s old issues of Popular Science. From June 1995, these complaints about how overblown this new invention called the Internet is:



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Josh Duggar & a Culture of Abuse

I haven’t written anything about the admission of sexual molestation by reality TV and right-wing political star Josh Duggar, because I’ve never seen the show, and don’t travel in the circles in which he is a star. So I don’t know what his spectacular fall means. Now that Owen White has published his own reaction, I don’t feel obliged to say a thing, because the best that can be said has been said by Owen, who works in a psychiatric hospital and who sees extreme brokenness every day. Excerpt:

Josh Duggar grew up in a home that was close to Bill Gothard. Gothard had to resign from his ministry because he fondled at least 32 girls. The Duggars were also connected with Doug Phillips, who was forced from his ministry after being outed as a sexual predator. The pastor of the Duggars’ church, the man who gave Mrs. Duggar her Mother of the Year award, resigned after a sex scandal. The highway patrolman, a family friend and an elder in a church connected to the Duggars’ religious circles, who was the first law enforcement person Jim Bob Duggar reported Josh’s issues to, is now serving a 56 year prison sentence for child porn. Josh Duggar grew up in a home that revered men in leadership who have turned out to be sexual abusers. One way or another, Josh Duggar did to his sisters what he knew (intuitively or directly) to do.

Anyone who assumes that sexual abuse in the Duggar household begins and ends with Josh is living in a TLCesque unreality world. I hope that Josh Duggar may see his life as full of worth and wonder, found safe in God (but not the god of the Duggars), with some thread of dignity that can get through this unbelievable humiliation. And God protect the children living in the various Duggar households.

This sin is disgusting. All sin is disgusting. Josh Duggar isn’t any more disgusting than you or me. He’s no different than the kids I eat my meals with at work, who also come from very messed up families. I would hate to see any of them become the laughingstock of the world, and a “proof” of everything we hate about their kind of people. I think we might do well to offer kind words to and about Josh Duggar. This world is dirty, messy, hateful, unfair, and brutal. What the boy did was in keeping with the world around him, as he had experienced it. Let’s not kick a person who is down.

Honestly, read the whole thing. It’s short and bracing. Owen says if we want to kick somebody, lets kick those who profited out of making this kid and his siblings into celebrities — starting with the Duggar parents.

UPDATE: I want to say for the sake of clarity that what Josh Duggar did was horrible, and should not be minimized. I don’t read Owen White as doing that, but rather trying to point out that the kid was formed by a deranged culture within his family and church circles. That is not an excuse — and no, we must not forget that there are victims here, and they have to live with their violation by Josh Duggar — but rather a reminder that in many cases, people who do horrible things aren’t monsters who arise sui generis, but are in part made by the others around them. I think about what I hear from a number of teachers and educators I know, who say that the way parents neglect the moral formation of their children today is astonishing and heartbreaking to see.

UPDATE.2: A pastor who asked to remain anonymous writes:

Thank you for the link to the Owen White article on Josh Duggar. I haven’t been following the story closely, but it’s been popping up a lot in my wife’s Facebook news feed, and the response to it has really been bothering her. It’s been bothering me too. I’m not interested in teasing out whether the Duggar parents did exactly the right thing or exactly the wrong thing. Time will tell. What really bothers me is the commenters who say things like, “He should’ve been in prison for life,” or worse, “If you ask me, he should’ve just been put to death.”

We’re talking about a 15-year-old boy. As White pointed out, whether he’d been abused or not, he was certainly around it. And as White also said – his situation, as ugly as it is, isn’t all that unusual. Quote from his post that resonated with me the most:

This sin is disgusting. All sin is disgusting. Josh Duggar isn’t any more disgusting than you or me. He’s no different than the kids I eat my meals with at work, who also come from very messed up families. I would hate to see any of them become the laughingstock of the world, and a “proof” of everything we hate about their kind of people. I think we might do well to offer kind words to and about Josh Duggar. This world is dirty, messy, hateful, unfair, and brutal. What the boy did was in keeping with the world around him, as he had experienced it. Let’s not kick a person who is down.

I’m a little worried about Josh, as White is. But I’m a lot more worried about the 13-year-old abuse victim who molested his younger siblings and is now reading in comments on this story that people like him are hopeless and deserve to die. (And of course I’m worried about his victims, and of course they deserve justice and to have their voice heard.) I’ve known two people – both female – who were abused as children, and who sexually touched their younger siblings afterwards, while still children themselves. In both cases, I was the first person they’d ever told (parents knew in at least one of the cases). I think it’s fair to guess that this is probably EXTREMELY common behaviour among kids who’ve been abused.

One of those women told me that she’d looked around online at forums at one point to see what kind of support was available for people who felt sexual attraction to kids. She found a forum where someone had asked what he should do if he was attracted to children. The first response was someone telling him to kill himself. The second was someone suggesting he list his home address so that if he didn’t have the nerve to kill himself they could come and do it for him.

I wish every commenter online would think of that 13-year-old abuse victim / perpetrator before wishing death on Josh Duggar. But I suppose even then, some would say, “Good riddance” if they commit suicide. And in some ways, I can understand why. We’ve come to a point in society where we find it incredibly difficult to say, “I love you and acknowledge you as a human being like me, but I think you are acting in seriously evil ways.” Either a person is a monster, or a person (and all their decisions and desires) ought to be accepted completely. For that mentality, the only way to avoid accepting child molestation is to make all molesters (including underage ones who are victims themselves) into monsters. It’s bad, but the alternative is worse.

Anyway, sad all around – sad that the family made their lives so public in the first place, and sad that the conversation around the abuse is being aired so publicly.

This pastor said it better than I did. It is hard to find a balance between proper recognition of the evil of child molestation — even if minors are the perpetrators — and respect for the humanity of the wrongdoer. I know that I have been on the wrong side of that line many times, in dealing with the Catholic sex abuse scandal. The unwillingness of the Catholic bishops to man up and deal with the problem was utterly repulsive to me, and my anger and disgust with them ended up driving me out of the Church. I would never, ever defend the actions of the bishops, but my own moral panic over this kind of thing is something I have worked since then to get under control. I am reminded of things I’ve learned from friends and others who have fostered children who have been sexually abused. These kids often try to act out what was done to them — I’m talking about kids who are seven, eight, nine years old. Are these kids monsters? Do they deserve to die? I cannot accept that such an attitude would ever be right. Nor could it be right in dealing with Josh Duggar, who at 15 did these things.

Now, 15 is not the same as eight, and he bears greater moral responsibility. I believe that with such a serious sin in his background — a sin that, like all sins, can be forgiven by God — he ought not to have participated in so many public controversies, nor should the Duggar parents have invited TV cameras into their family’s life. It was bound to come out, and now the destruction that public shame and the hatred of the mob is going to wreak on Josh Duggar and his wife and kids is going to be awful to witness. It certainly does nothing in helping us figure out what, exactly, is the just but merciful way to respond to something like this, which could happen in any family (I’ve known perfectly normal families who have had to deal with this — in one of them, their child was almost certainly being molested by the parish priest). What is the morally responsible way to respond, one that can lead to the healing of both the victims and the victimizer?

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The Gay Rights Revolution in Ireland

Many people ask me why I write so often about LGBT stuff on this blog. Even people who pretty much agree with my position are tired of reading about it. I get that, I really do.

The reason is simple: I care about religion and culture, broadly speaking, more than just about anything else. The biggest news on that front is and has been for years coming out of the cultural revolution in gay rights, and what that means for Christianity. An older secular liberal friend of mine — strongly pro-gay rights — who lived through the Civil Rights era said to me not long ago that the swift change in our culture’s attitude towards gay rights is the most astonishing social revolution she has ever seen. She’s right. For society and for Christianity, the changes are massive, even though most people don’t yet see them.

You may welcome these changes. You may reject these changes. What you may not plausibly do is to deny the revolutionary nature of these changes, and of this historic moment in the history of the West.

The most astonishing thing yet happened yesterday: the people of Ireland — Ireland! — voted to institute same-sex marriage. Complete and official results won’t be in until later on Saturday, but early returns suggest that the vote is not even close: two-to-one in favor of legalization. This makes Ireland the first nation in the world to embrace gay marriage by a vote of its people. This was not some socially liberal country like Denmark, but Ireland. Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley:

Why were the forces behind Yes so overwhelming? Well, it could just be that the case for gay marriage is so strong – that the siren call of equality was irresistible. It could also be that the No side’s arguments were out of touch with how the West now views not only gay rights but the institution of marriage itself. No campaigners kept on talking about the importance of parenthood – as though marriage was still a legal contract entered into with the express purpose or hope of raising children. But this traditional understanding of marriage has long since passed away. It’s about love, children are not necessarily a priority, and religion is window dressing. Given this tectonic shift in attitudes towards marriage, it’s going to be harder and harder to insist that it be limited to just a man and a woman – or even just to two people.

But this referendum was about more than just the right to marry. Much, much more. It was the manifestation of a social revolution that’s been simmering away in Ireland for some time.


To emphasise, the Yes vote was undoubtedly a reflection of growing tolerance towards gays and lesbians. But it was also a politically trendy, media backed, well financed howl of rage against Catholicism. How the Church survives this turn, is not clear. It’ll require a lot of hard work and prayers.

Notice Stanley, who is a conservative, did not say “how the Church reverses this turn”; he said “how the Church survives this turn.” I can’t see how this vote can be read as other than a sweeping and decisive rebuke of the Roman Catholic Church, which has discredited itself in Ireland with a series of horrible sex and abuse scandals (however exaggerated some of them may have been in the media). Catholicism in Ireland appears to be collapsing in the same way it fell apart overnight in once-solid Quebec. To be clear, I think this is a disaster of the first order. But leaders of the Irish church bear some responsibility for it.

That said, even if the Irish Catholic Church’s leadership was filled with saints, I doubt the result would have been much different, precisely because of that “tectonic shift” that Stanley mentions. More on that in a moment. Before we get there, though, consider what Brendan O’Neill, the maverick atheist editor of Spiked, had to say about the atmosphere in Ireland surrounding the vote:

So, the armed wing, political wing and chattering wing of the Irish elite is behind Yes. And what’s more, they’re actively demonising the No side, treating them as pariahs whose backward ways of thinking could harm Ireland and her citizens. The Psychological Society of Ireland issued a dire warning about the arguments of the anti-gay marriage camp, claiming they could ‘impact detrimentally on people’. A writer for the Irish Times called for the establishment of a ‘homophobia watchdog’ to keep a check on the words of the No side. The end result of the sacralisation of Yes and demonisation of No is a strangled, unfree debate. This is especially the case on social media. There, in the words of O’Hanlon, those who express doubts about gay marriage can find themselves ‘driven offline’.

This moralisation of the marriage debate is a dangerous game, for it means that, whatever the outcome on Friday, Ireland will likely feel more divided than ever — between a new class of allegedly decent people in Dublin and the old, the religious, The Other.

And consider this powerful column from Irish journalist and gay marriage opponent John Waters bears reading and reflection, because it sounds very familiar to many of us Americans. Excerpts:

I met a man the other day who confided his belief that, in pushing this amendment, [Irish leader] Enda Kenny had provoked in Irish society a “mental civil war”, which will have ramifications of their type just as serious as the Civil War of 93 years ago. He may be correct. The stories I’ve come across of intimidation and hate-mongering are for me unprecedented in over 30 years writing about Irish life and politics. I met men whose daughters begged them not to let anyone know they were thinking of voting No, lest they, the children, be ostracised by their peers.


This has been the most comprehensive betrayal of democratic principles by an establishment in living memory. And it is not that most politicians actually care one way or another – many have simply either caved in to the bullying or are playing to the “cool” vote, perhaps thinking that they’ll be safely over the line to their pensions before the consequences kick in. But the consequences will come, and sooner rather than later, devastating families and individual citizens in thousands of tragedies played out in the courts, in proceedings in which neither nature nor biology will any longer feature as a criterion of parenthood.

Whereas the scars of this ugly campaign may acquire a superficial healing in time, the deep tissue damage to our most fundamental protections will persist until some saner generation, perhaps chastened by disaster, grows to sense in this Republic. The amendment has been sold through the misuse of words, especially “equality”. The Irish Constitution already provides that all citizens should be equal before the law, allowing for different treatment by virtue of difference of capacity and function. But equality has become a blackmail word, which in this revolting campaign has been employed with extreme prejudice to compel people to abandon not just their own most precious rights and protections but also those of their children’s children.

One acute difficulty is that the discussion is so surreal that most people are unable to see how serious the danger is, or even get their heads around why we are having this conversation at all. How did a tiny minority manage to impose its will on the entire political establishment, when most causes and grievances don’t rate a Dáil question?

We find ourselves asking each other questions that in a million years we’d never have dreamt of wasting a moment on – like, does a child really need his father and mother or might not the schoolmistress and the milkman, or the fireman and the milkman, be just as good? People are dizzy with this because when you try to answer an absurd question you come up only with absurdities.

Same-sex marriage is so radical an idea that it would make for a difficult sell even if the model on offer were free from detrimental consequences and canvassed with sensitivity and discretion as part of a listening process in which the normal checks and balances of democracy were in full working order. Since the opposite is the case here, the results can only be catastrophic. Almost nobody – including many an intimidated nodding Yesser – is ready for what a Yes is likely to mean, so that, in time, the consequences flowing from a Yes would create a climate of antagonism towards gay people far worse than anything conjured up in the lurid imaginations of LGBT lobbyists. A Yes would also be a green light to any group of bullyboys in Irish society with an agenda to peddle. In this campaign, the blueprint has been written, refined and road-tested, setting out how, by threatening, demonising, intimidating, and smearing you can have your way.

There will be other consequences too: a new climate of prohibition concerning certain forms of thought and speech, an Orwellian revisionism directed at texts and records bearing witness to old ideas. And if you think this extreme, ask yourself: who among our political class is likely to resist? The fingers of one hand will prove more than adequate to the task of enumerating them.

Read the whole thing.

We are dealing with a less intense version of the same thing here. Gay marriage is going to come to this country by Supreme Court vote next month, but do not be under the illusion that this will settle anything. The “new climate of prohibition concerning certain forms of thought and speech, an Orwellian revisionism directed at texts and records bearing witness to old ideas” is coming to America too. If you don’t see this, you are being willfully blind. Bishops and leaders of the orthodox, or at least officially orthodox, churches — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — who are not soberly but unhesitatingly preparing their people for this is a sign of their dereliction of duty.

There can be no doubt that elites embraced the gay marriage cause early, and have campaigned relentlessly for it. The propagandist role of the news and entertainment media, which barely pretended to neutrality, is one that will be studied by future historians. But we must resist thinking that this outcome is one forced on the rest of us by elites, and we should take this landmark moment to reflect philosophically on why it happened. And, we should stop reacting to every single one of these advances, and step back and consider the long game.

One of the most difficult things for many American conservatives, especially religious conservatives, to accept is that gay marriage did not come from nowhere. It is the logical outcome of the Sexual Revolution, which in itself is the logical outworking of Enlightenment liberalism. What do I mean?

It may be helpful to draw on a recent book that is not at all about the culture wars, but that offers a perspective on them: Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head.  Crawford says that “autonomy is arguably the central totem of modern life. It hovers about our concepts of individuality, creativity, and any number of other terms that convey the existential heroism we’re expected to live up to on a daily basis. It is an idea that we moderns have made our dignity hinge on.” And he says it was baked in the cake from the Enlightenment:

Locke’s concern with illegitimate authority extends beyond the kind that is nakedly coercive to the kind that operates through claims to knowledge. His political project is thus tied to an epistemological one. The two are of a piece, because “he is certainly the most subjected, the most enslaved, who is so in his Understanding.” Locke does some of his most consequential liberating in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 

Charles Taylor points out that “the whole Essay is directed against those who would control others by specious principles supposedly beyond question.” These are the priests and the “schoolmen,” those carriers of an ossified Aristotelian tradition. The Reformation notwithstanding, political authority and ecclesiastical authority remained very much entwined and codependent in Locke’s time.

Political freedom requires intellectual independence, then. Locke takes this further. Following Descartes, he calls on us to be free from established custom and received opinions, indeed from other people altogether, taken as authorities. … The project for political freedom thus shades into something more expansive: We should aspire to a kind of epistemic self-responsibility. I myself should be the source of all my knowledge; otherwise it is not knowledge. Such self-responsibility is the positive image of freedom that emerged by subtraction, when you pursue far enough the negative goal of being free from authority.

Crawford goes on to say that the natural progression of this line of thinking is to doubt the possibility of the Self knowing anything for certain — other than its own feelings, he implies. He says that “the origins of modern epistemology are intimately bound up with the origins of our moral-political order.

What is at risk, when we start revisiting the question of how we encounter things, is the whole chain of forgotten polemics by which a very partial view of the human person got installed in our self-understanding: the anthropology of modern liberalism.

Understand that by “liberalism,” he means not the social politics of the Democratic Party and its supporters, but the entire Enlightenment framework of social and political ideas.  All of us Americans, whether we call ourselves liberals or conservatives, are liberals in this sense. I am no different. I believe in free speech, freedom of religion, civil rights and the other hallmarks of liberalism. Now that liberalism has evolved into hostility to what I believe to be true about religion, morality, and human nature, I — like all orthodox Christians — have to face the fact that liberalism, which all of us Americans took in with our mother’s milk, may ultimately be alien to our faith, because in the end, it enthrones the choosing Self over God or any conception of external, transcendent Truth.

This is not simply a matter of political power having shifted away from those who hold to a more-or-less orthodox Christian view, so now these people (like me) are tempted to take our football and go home. This is about the radicalism of same-sex marriage, and how quickly it has taken hold in the West, and realizing that it has done so because it is a fulfillment of liberalism, which exalts the autonomous individual. It is to consider that under postmodern liberalism, Anthony Kennedy was right when he said that the bedrock of American liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Is this not what our culture now believes? Is this not the end point of liberalism?

Reflect on Michael Hanby’s long, important First Things essay about the “civic project of Christianity,” especially this part:

The prevailing nominalism, voluntarism, and mechanism infected eighteenth-century assumptions about nature and nature’s God with a built-in obsolescence. Therefore, it is fair to say that the ontological presuppositions of liberal political theory were fated to undermine the classical and Christian moral inheritance and the nobility of liberalism’s own ideals. For instance, inasmuch as the founders’ notion of free self-government rests on an essentially Lockean conception of freedom as power outside and prior to truth (however much God or truth imposes an extrinsic obligation to obey, and however reasonable it is to do so in view of future rewards and punishments), then American liberty will eventually erode the moral and cultural foundations of civil society inherited from Protestant Christianity. The founders fretted over this possibility in their own lifetimes.

John Locke in the Second Treatise remarked that law enlarges the scope of freedom. He does not appear to have considered the converse, that freedom enlarges the scope of law. But insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself. The liberal state then becomes the mediator of all human relations, charged with creating in reality the denatured individuals heretofore existing only at the theoretical foundations of liberalism.

The result, as Pierre Manent and others have observed, is a paradoxical coincidence of absolutism and libertarianism, indeed an absolutism that grows in proportion to the increase in liberty. For every clarification of negative rights brings with it an increase in the scope and power of the state to secure and enforce them. The line between negative rights and positive entitlements is thus inherently blurry. If I am to have a right to free speech, for example, then I must be empowered to speak and be heard, which means using the power of the state to give me the resources I need and to suppress anything that might disempower me. Finally, insofar as a mechanistic understanding of nature and a pragmatic conception of truth are the correlates of the abstract individual and the liberal notion of freedom as power, even a ­Newtonian understanding of nature, reason, and freedom will eventually destroy the foundations for the rationality of natural law, as reason is reduced to the calculation of forces and law becomes an ­extrinsic imposition.

The civic project has taken as gospel ­Murray’s conviction that the founders “built better than they knew.” But this presupposes the very thing in question: that the state and its institutions are merely juridical and that they neither enforce nor are informed by the ontological and anthropological judgments inherent in their creation. That exactly the opposite has more or less come to pass suggests rather that the founders built worse than they intended, that the founding was in some sense ill-fated. This does not make liberty any less of an ideal or its obvious blessings any less real. It simply suggests a tragic flaw in the American understanding and articulation of it. Nor need this diminish our affection for our country, though it is an endlessly fascinating question, what American patriotism really means today. One can love his country despite its philosophy, provided there is more to the country than its philosophy. Yet it is surely a sign of the impoverishment of common culture and the common good—and an index of the degree to which liberal order has succeeded in establishing itself as both—that we are virtually required to equate love of country with devotion to the animating philosophy of the regime rather than to, say, the tales of our youth, the lay of the land and the bend in the road, and “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.”

This creates a great temptation for protagonists on all sides of the civic project—right, left, and in between—to conflate their Christian obligation to pursue the common good with the task of upholding liberal order, effectively eliminating any daylight between the civic and Christian projects. For example, virtually absent from our lament over the threats to religious freedom in the juridical sense is any mention of that deeper freedom opened up by the transcendent horizon of Christ’s resurrection, though this was a frequent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. If we cannot see beyond the juridical meaning of religious freedom to the freedom that the truth itself gives, how then can we expect to exercise this more fundamental freedom when our juridical freedom is denied? Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods—including religious freedom.

What he’s saying here, in part, is that liberalism stands on philosophical (that is, ontological and anthropological) principles that are at bottom antithetical to the Christian understanding of what being is and what man is. You can hear the MacIntyrean echo in this passage, when Hanby warns that it is a mistake to commingle one’s Christian duty with upholding the liberal order. What does the orthodox Christian think, say, or do when the liberal order brings about something that the faith tells him is evil, and establishes laws and customs that inevitably lead to the dissolution of the family? A reader e-mails this morning:

The Irish vote yesterday is quite a shock.  Somewhere I read once that the rapidity of “Progress” these days makes strangers between parent and child.  In my mid 30′s I feel I am already an alien to popular culture; this despair should have been prolonged – how am I to thrive with this feeling for another 5 or 6 decades!?

Nisbet extrapolating from Ortega y Gasset:

“…to suppose that the present family, or any other group, can perpetually vitalize itself through some indwelling affectional tie, in the absence of concrete, perceived functions, is like supposing that the comradely ties of mutual aid which grew up incidentally in a military unit will long outlast a condition in which war was is plainly and irrevocably banished. Applied to the family, the argument suggests that affection and personality cultivation can somehow exist in a social vacuum, unsupported by the determining goals and ideals of economic and political society.  But in hard fact no social group will long survive the disappearance of its chief reasons for being, and these reasons are not, primarily, biological but institutional. Unless new institutional functions are performed by a group – family, trade union, or church – its psychological influence will become minimal.”

Marriage and family seems doomed in democratic society; the evidence is everywhere.  I imagine I am late to the game in recognizing this.  I knew it was on its knees and wobbly, but Nisbet is forcing me to come to terms with its eventual disappearance.

Yes. We must be realistic about where we are, and where we are likely to go. Liberalism and its institutions — including, note well, market capitalism — are not destroying Christianity and the traditional family because they are being perverted. They are destroying Christianity and the traditional family because it is in their nature to do so. This is not being forced on people — though their desires have certainly been manipulated — but it is something they have chosen, because it expresses what they believe to be the truth about being, about man, about meaning, and about liberty.

The Russian Orthodox philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, in his The End of Our Time, written in the early 1920s:

Holy Truth is union and not disunion, and it is not a limitation; nor is it concerned above all to maintain man’s right to err, to deny and outrage Truth, although Truth itself includes liberty. But what is humanist Democracy if not an assertion of a right to error and falsehood, a political relativism, a sophistry, a giving-over of the decision of truth to the votes of a majority? And what is rationalist philosophy if not an entire confidence in the individual reason, fallen though it be from the height of Truth and cut off from the sources of being? — moreover, an affirmation of a right in thought not to want to choose truth or to look to it for the ability to know.

… Truth must be accepted freely and not under constraint, it will not allow slave-relations with itself: Christianity teaches that. But modern history has for long been wedded to a theoretical liberty to accept Truth, to a liberty that had no free choice, and that is why it has made up ways of thought and life that are founded not upon Truth but on the right to choose no matter what truth or lie, which means the creation of a culture and a society without an object because they do not know in the name of what they exist.

So has been brought about this latter time when men prefer not-being to Being, and as man is not able to serve and live for himself alone he makes false gods, if he does not know the true God. He has been unwilling to receive the liberty of God of God and perforce has fallen into a cruel bondage to deified deceits, to idols. He has been without freedom of spirit and it is not in the name of liberty that the man of the end of this age rises in revolt and denies Truth. He is in the power of an unknown master, of a superhuman and inhuman force that grips the society that does not want to know Truth, the holy truth of God. Only in Communism have we been able to learn something about the tyranny of this master. Nevertheless, it has already made what I have called a breach in the defences of modern history. We must choose. Liberty as a formula, as now understood, is discredited; it is imperative that we go on to its substance, to true liberty.


Life is not dominated and controlled by the Church but by the Stock Exchange; the people are large do not understand, much less are ready to fight and die for, any sacred symbol; men no longer discuss the dogmas of the Faith, they do not live on Christian doctrine, the divine Mysteries [Sacraments] mean nothing to them: they consider themselves emancipated from “the holy folly of the Cross.

… The disciples of “progress” cannot bear any suggestion of a return to the ideas of the middle ages and zealously oppose any tendencies which they consider mediaeval. This has always surprised me. Firstly, they do not believe at all in the vitality of the beliefs which are associated with the mediaeval spirit, still less in the possibility of their triumph; they re convinced of the solidity and lastingness of the principles of modern history. Then why so much excitement? Secondly, it should be made clear once and for all that there never has been and there never will be any return to past times; their restoration is impossible. When we speak of passing from modern history to the middle ages it is a figure of speech; such passage can take place only to a new middle age, not to the old one. That is why such an event should be considered as a revolution of the spirit, and anticipated creative activity, and not at all as the “reaction” that it seems to the “progressives,” who are frightened because their own cause is so deteriorated. Moreover, it is time that people stopped talking of the “darkness of the middle ages” in contrast with the “light” of modern history; such talk represents views which are too thin, if I may say so, to be worthy of the level of contemporary historical scholarship. There is no need to idealize the middle ages as the romantics did. We know their negative and truly dark aspects quite well: brutality, roughness, cruelty, violence, serfdom, ignorance of nature, fear in religion bound up with horror of hell-fire. But we also know that the mediaeval times were truly and eminently religious, that they were carried along by a longing for the vision of God which brought the people to the verge of a holy madness; we know that their whole culture was directed towards that which is transcendent and “beyond,” that they owed their Scholasticism and mysticism, to which they looked for the resolution of the supreme problems of being, to a high tension of the spirit to which modern history has no equivalent. Those ages did not waste on exterior things energy that could be concentrated on interior… .

In reality the mediaeval civilization was a renaissance in opposition to the barbarism and darkness which had followed the fall of the civilization of antiquity, a chaos in which Christianity alone had been the light and the principle of order. … A return to the middle ages is then a return to a better religious type, for we are far below their culture in the spiritual order; and we should hurry back to them the more speedily because the movements of negation in our decadence have overcome the positive creative and strengthening movements. The middle ages was not a time of darkness, but a period of night; the mediaeval soul was a “night-soul” wherein were displayed elements and energies which afterwards shut themselves up within themselves at the appearing of this weary day of modern history.

And finally:

Knowledge, morality, art, the State, economics, all must become religious, not by external constraint, but freely and from within [Emphasis mine -- RD]. No theology can regulate the process of my knowledge from outside and impose a norm: knowledge is free. But I cannot any longer realize the ends of knowledge without adverting to religion and undergoing a religious initiation into the mysteries of Being. In that I am already a man of the middle ages and no more a man of modern history. I do not look for the autonomy of religion but for liberty in religion. No ecclesiastical hierarchy can now rule and regulate society and the life of the State, no clericalism is able to make use of external force. Nevertheless I cannot re-create the State and a decayed society otherwise than in the name of religious principles. I do not look for the autonomy of the State and of society in regard of religion, but for the foundation and strengthening of State and society in religion. Not for anything in the world would I be free from God; I wish to be free in God and for God. When the flight from God is over and the return to God begins, when the movement of aversion from God becomes a movement towards Satan, the modern times are over and the middle ages are begun. God must again be the centre of our whole life — our thought, our feeling, our only dream, our only desire, our only hope. It is needful that my passion for a freedom without bounds should involve a conflict with the world, but not with God.

Berdyaev says that regarding religion, the culture cannot “maintain a humanist neutrality but must inevitably become either an atheist and anti-Christian civilization or else a sacred culture animated by the Church, a transformed Christian life.” He further says that in our time,

modern religion has become merely a department of culture, with a special place reserved for it — a very small one. It must again become all, the force which transfigures and irradiates the whole of life from within: its spiritual energy must be set free to renew the face of the earth.

Writing about the prophetic Berdyaev (who aligned himself in exile with the neo-Thomist Maritains), Bradley Birzer said:

At the conclusion of The End of Our Time, Berdyaev once again stressed the unreality of politics–as a distraction and a hindrance from that which really matters, the order of the human soul towards the highest things, especially God and eternity.

Or, as Berdyaev put it, politics attempts to remove us from “the interior life.”

For the Christian to assume victory over the next century, he concluded in 1923, would be sheer folly. Throughout the West, in every type of regime (free and unfree), he feared ruin. Far from establishing a century of progress, God was calling Christians back into “the catacombs, and from there to conquer the world anew.”

As Christians–of whatever stripe–”we are entering an epoch of ill-omened revelations and we must fearlessly face up to realities. And there is found the meaning of our unhappy joyless age.”

Reading Nicholas Berdyaev is not uplifting, but it is truly enlightening, in the best sense of this distorted word.

Certainly, looking back from 90 years after Berdyaev wrote these words, one would be hard pressed not to see not only the mystic but also, perhaps even more importantly, the prophet.

Practicing politics as usual distracts us from the essence of the challenge, and how it is to be met. Those who hold to orthodox Christianity must understand the nature of the times, and quit trying to fight the forces of liberalism on their own terms. We can’t hope to win, and, as Hanby says, we can’t afford to make the mistake that doing our duty before God is the same thing as upholding the liberal order. We must prepare ourselves, our families, and our communities to live out now and in the generations to come, amid the ruins of modernity, Berdyaev’s neo-medievalist vision.

This, I believe, is called the Benedict Option.

I look forward to seeing what Brian Kaller, the American Catholic expatriate living in rural Ireland, has to say about the meaning of today’s vote. I don’t know where he stands on gay marriage, but I do know where he stands on modernity. I think Brian years ago decided to undertake his own version of the Benedict Option.:

I did what many people do; I joined groups and got tangled in the internal politics. Eventually I left them behind, and years later they’re still bickering over the same things. I wish I knew an easier way to recover than to salvage what you can and leave the rest.

As he said in a recent interview:

 Most people sense something has gone terribly wrong with the world; they don’t agree on the specifics or the solutions, but they feel it in their bones.

Our culture diagnoses such feelings, prescribe medicine for them, and offers screens to distract you from them. Entire ecosystems spring up – talk radio, conspiracy groups, online subcultures and new churches – to explain the world, and most just direct everyone’s frustration at some other group. But if you look at the world’s situation right now and feel a measure of grief, it doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re decent. That feeling is why our species deserves to be saved.

Another reason for hope: It took only small groups of people – suffragettes, civil-rights workers – to move mountains in the past, and you probably have far more wealth and privilege than they did. We possess greater fortune than any people in history, and have a responsibility to use it.

It doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re decent. And: salvage what you can and leave the rest. 

The world has heard the collective voice of the Irish majority today. People like me, and like many of you, need to listen now to the still, small voice of an Irishman (by marriage) named Brian Kaller. There are Brian Kallers all over our own country, and they will be finding their voice, and finding each other. If we see things as they really are, we will understand that we have no choice. And this will be made clear to us in the weeks, months, and the years to come.

UPDATE: Contemplate this:

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Boy Scouts Face Reality

Scouts march in Pride parade, NYC 2014 Stuart Monk /
Scouts march in Pride parade, NYC 2014 Stuart Monk /

You might have seen that Bob Gates, the former defense secretary who now leads the Boy Scouts of America, this week told the organization that they’re going to have to accept gay Scoutmasters. You might have assumed that this was an example of a weak-kneed Republican establishment figure Growing In Office, i.e., going wobbly in the face of progressive attacks. In fact, Allahpundit points out, Gates was simply being realistic:

If you glance at the headlines, you might think this was a by now familiar I’ve-searched-my-conscience statement of moral “evolution” by a political figure. Nope. Gates isn’t trying to persuade here. He’s warning BSA officials in fairly dire terms: The courts are coming for us. We either change our policy now, “voluntarily,” and hopefully retain some modicum of control over our membership standards or we continue to resist, watch Scouting troops break away in protest or be shut down as punishment by the national organization, and have some judge somewhere ultimate decide that the BSA’s “duty to God” is incompatible with modern antidiscrimination law. Just because the Scouts won the first fight on this subject in court doesn’t mean they’ll win the rematch, especially when gay rights has all the momentum among federal judges. (It has momentum within the BSA too. Two years ago, the organization voted to allow gay Scouts, although the ban on gay Scout leaders remains.) Gates’s solution: Let each troop sponsor set its own standards. If religious sponsors like churches want to maintain the ban on gay Scout leaders, they can. If non-religious sponsors want to allow gay leaders, they can. It’s a federalist-type solution at a moment when the Supreme Court is poised to blow up federalism on gay marriage.

Below, I’ve pasted in video of Gates’s speech. You really need to watch it from the 8:45 point. His tone says it all. Allahpundit’s summary is accurate, but you would do well to listen and watch Gates say it. Note well the role that the Indiana RFRA fallout had in shaking Gates up. Allahpundit is also correct, I think, to doubt Gates’s federalist-type solution. Local chapters that want to adhere to the old standard will just find themselves sued too.

Watch Gates level with his people. This is the kind of conversation that all kinds of churches and socially conservative organizations are going to have to start having right now. (The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod leadership has just put out a very dire letter to its pastors on the topic.) The courts really are coming for you too.

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Teaching Racism at Fieldston

The Fieldston School, a highly progressive private academy in NYC, recently decided to undertake a comprehensive approach to smiting latent racism within its student body. Excerpt:

But Fieldston’s program would be bolder, more radical: It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means. It would be a boundary-pushing experiment, in other words, in a place that seemed exceptionally hospitable to progressive experimentation — but also, undeniably, a privileged and racially anomalous bubble. Fieldston’s unusual identity gave it a better shot than most schools, perhaps, at making this work; and if it did work, its administrators thought, the impact might reach far beyond its cloister.

To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal owner­ship in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.

Apprehension moved like the flu among certain factions of the parents. In heated conversations in parking lots and on playing fields over the next few months, they shared and amplified one another’s anxieties, invoking yellow stars, blacks-only water fountains, the Japanese internment — “Brought memories of the Soviet Union right away,” wrote one father on a parents’ email thread. The word segregation came up a lot. For many of the parents at Lower, this program violated the values they’d learned back in their own elementary schools a generation ago. You just don’t sort human beings by race.

Reactionaries! Don’t they see that dividing children up into groups by race and causing them to talk about race is bound to teach them all to sing in perfect harmony? Not all the parents think so, and said so in an intense parent meeting:

A Jewish parent raised his hand, according to another parent who was there. He grew up in the South, he said, where Jews were seen not as “white” but as something categorically different. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue. To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history, he said.

“When you walk in the room, I see you as white,” one person there remembers an African-American parent interjecting. “Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembers it this way: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”

Well, the black parent had a point. But can you blame the parents who objected?:

White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice — the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes. The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race — that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration) that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close friends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.

I suspect the Jewish parent who complained would not have complained if his kid had been able to be slotted into an approved progressive victim group, and “racism” would have remained something of which white Gentile conservatives are guilty. But maybe not.

Read the whole thing, and be glad that your kid does not have to be dragged through this grievance-building fun house.

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