Rod Dreher

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What Is ‘Traditional Christianity,’ Anyway?

You will not be surprised to learn that I agree with Damon here. Nor will you be surprised to learn that I think this has been a process underway for quite some time; it’s just that now, the sh*t is getting real.

I think it’s worth asking, though, what we mean when we say “traditional Christianity.” I use the phrase too, interchangeably with “small-o orthodox Christianity,” or just “orthodox Christianity.” What I mean is Christians of whatever tradition who adhere to, um, tradition. You see the problem.

When I push further, I say, in a Kierkegaardian vein, “Well, it means Christians who think that religion deals in objective truths, subjectively appropriated. Christians who believe that truth is something that exists outside of ourselves, as opposed to being something we can bend to suit our time-bound desires.”

But this still doesn’t get us very far. I consider a faithful Southern Baptist, a conservative Anglican, an orthodox Roman Catholic, and an Orthodox Christian all to be “traditional Christians.” Still … whose tradition? What sense does it make to say that Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics are on the same side as “traditional”? From a Catholic perspective, the Baptists are so far gone theologically from tradition that it makes no sense to think of them as “traditional Christians.” And from a Baptist point of view, the Catholics may be “traditional,” but they lost their way when they began adding man-made things to the pure Gospel, like the early church had.

(I’m not trying to argue either side, just pointing out that the term “traditional Christians” is highly relative, and highly contextual.)

It seems to me that “traditional Christian” is political code for “Christians who adhere to traditional teaching about sex and sexuality.” After all, it is possible to be a traditional Christian and a socialist on economics. It is possible to be an archtraditionalist on liturgy and sacred music, but an archliberal on morals and politics — and vice versa. It is much more difficult to say that traditional Christians can believe in a Reformation ecclesiology or a Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiology, and both be paid-up traditionalists. But we certainly do. In fact, one of the core issues involving “traditional Christianity” is the source and nature of religious authority — does it reside in the Church, guided by Tradition and Scripture? Scripture alone? In the individual conscience? — but that concept never really comes up in our generally accepted use of the term. When I deploy the phrase “traditional Christians” in my writing, I’m not thinking about ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or any other thing that separates Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy.

What I’m thinking about — what we are all thinking about — is this: what separates “traditional Christians” from “modern Christians” (or “progressive Christians”) in our common discourse is their beliefs about sex. Nothing else, or at least nothing else meaningful. Think about it — for purposes of general discussion these days, what would you say separates those you would call “traditional Christians” from other kinds of Christians? Take sex out of the picture, and what do you have? If we’re not talking about sex, what are we talking about?

This is quite revealing, if you think of it. We’ve known for quite some time that our politics have been largely defined by attitudes toward sex, even if some people don’t want to think about it. Look back at Thomas Edsall’s 2001 piece in The Atlantic about how the “morality gap” is (was?) the key factor in American politics. Excerpt:

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.

Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors—and better indicators of partisan inclination—than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).

It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge—one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.

Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street, they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice. 

It’s even more true today than it was 20 years ago, don’t you think? Look at what none other than Thomas Edsall wrote in the NYT the other day about what he terms “the coming Democratic schism”: in short, that Millennials are much more Democratic, but make their voting decisions not so much on economic issues and racial equality issues, but on “social and cultural issues.” So, if racial equality isn’t a “social and cultural” issue, what is?

Answer: for the most part, sex. Dick Morris and Mark Penn nailed this nearly 20 years ago. If it’s true for our secular politics, it’s much more so for our religious politics.

Once again, I call you back to the piece I wrote for TAC titled, “Sex After Christianity,” especially this passage:

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

Sexual autonomy is increasingly more important to contemporary Americans than religious liberty, which was one of the founding principles of our nation. What we call “traditional Christians” in our discourse refers to what 50 years ago would have simply been called “Christians,” given that there was no dramatic dissent among the various Christian sects and churches on sexual morality. So, when we say that we are living through the transformation of traditional Christianity from majority to minority status, what we’re really saying is that the Sexual Revolution has conquered Christianity in America, and that Christians who still believe about sex more or less what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed are becoming a declining population that will be seen as as reactionary weirdos.

If we’re not saying that, well, what are we saying?




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The Hills Are Alive

A friend put me on to a new, one-hour documentary called Desire Of The Everlasting Hills, a portrait of three adult Catholics living with same-sex attraction, but in fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is an extraordinary piece of work tracking the journey of three extraordinary human beings. The trailer is here; but if you click on the first link in this paragraph, it will take you to a site where you can watch the movie. If you are a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction, or if you know someone who is, please watch this movie. If you think that chaste gay Christians are propagandized robots who need to get over themselves and affirm their sexuality, please watch this movie; you will be startled by the complexity of these three people, and the humanity of their journey.

Our Eve Tushnet — Catholic, lesbian, chaste – wrote about the film this past spring. Excerpt:

“Desire” lets three gay or same-sex attracted Catholics tell their stories. It’s not confrontational or argumentative; the overall tone is tender and reflective. I saw it twice, and it evoked both laughter and sniffles from the audience.

And the stories seem perfectly crafted to disrupt conventional ideas of “ex-gay” narratives. At first Paul seems like your central-casting disco kid, who fled a life of promiscuity. Rilene’s the lonely woman neglected by men, who is seduced at a low point in her life by a predatory lesbian. And Dan had a boyfriend, but began to find himself falling for a woman—his chance to have a “normal” life and a family. So far, so frustrating. But the movie is startlingly well-paced (its “plot twists” got gasps and exclamations) as we learn that these three lives are anything but pious paint-by-numbers cartoons.

There’s so much to say about this film! Director Eric Machiela’s use of nature imagery is perfectly-timed and poignant. (The saccharine piano music is the only major aesthetic flaw.) It opens a bit defensively, with the three subjects talking about how they just want to be known and not judged, but once we settle in to hearing their stories the movie finds its rhythm. I wanted to know so much more about all of them; I wanted to hang out with them. There are tart words from Mother Angelica, “the pirate nun,” and tender memories of the good old nights at Studio 54; there’s fondness for the Church and fury at God; financial upheaval, a miserable peace sign, self-sacrificial gay love, and a Good Friday buzzkill from John Paul II himself.

There are some fascinating theological contrasts: Paul’s most direct experiences of God come when he is being rescued or spared something he expected to be unbearably painful—the most intense example comes when he’s on the way to the doctor to learn his HIV status—whereas both Dan and especially Rilene see God’s hand most clearly in the losses and humiliations of life. (For readers of my AmCon piece: I was struck by how unembarrassed Dan and Rilene were by their own loneliness and suffering. It’s a part of life, to be approached with the same passion and good humor as other parts.) I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.

That’s what startled me about the film: how it doesn’t make plaster saints of these three, or make them fit into a neat, clean story line. All of them obey the teachings of the Church, and do so with a palpable sense of joy. It’s very clear that they struggle, but what is so interesting about this is the paradoxical sense that this yoke is easy, the burden light, compared to the lives they had before.

There is nothing in this film about praying away the gay, and nothing here to condemn gay people. In fact, as I said, this is a film document of extraordinary humanity: these three simply tell their stories, and let the viewer draw his own conclusions. Like I said, you can’t put these three into anybody’s ideological box. You can’t easily condemn their choices, because these people are not easy to write off. Nor can orthodox Christians easily affirm their choices, because there’s no way to watch this without feeling guilty, somewhat, over how hard we straights in the church make it for people like Paul, Dan, and Rilene to feel welcome among us, as brothers and sisters.

I’ve been trying to think about how to respond to Brandan McGinley’s piece about how we who believe in traditional marriage need to learn how to listen to the stories of gay people, and how to tell stories of our own. McGinley writes about Saeed Jones, a young gay man whose own story involves being gay-bashed to within an inch of his life. Jones ties that in to the meaning California’s Prop 8. Here’s McGinley:

It is cold, almost crude to boil down Jones’s story into nothing more than a piece of ordnance exploded in the culture war (even if this is how Jones has chosen to deploy this story). We must grapple with the fact that Saeed Jones almost died because someone hated him for his sexual attractions. We must grapple with the fact that our neighbors who identify with the LGBT community, in small towns, sprawling suburbs, and big cities, live with the very real fear of violence.

I have no idea what it feels like to walk down a dark street with the trepidation that the next passer-by might assault me because of whose hand I’m holding. I also have no idea what could possibly motivate such an assailant—what pathetic insecurities, what warped codes of ethics, what twisted malignancies of character. I do know that whatever the motivations would be, they are repellant to my Catholic faith, and to the faith traditions and moral codes of all “social conservatives” I’ve ever known.

But this is where the precisely-crafted juxtapositions in Jones’s account come in. He lays down reference points of time—the year Brendan Eich donated to Prop 8—and of place—where a religious freedom bill was recently defeated—that unmistakably put his narrative in the context of our cultural disputes over marriage. He places his explicit particular story into an implicit general story of our society, in which the historic definition of marriage, those who seek to maintain that definition, and even those who seek to carve out legal protections for religious believers are all implicated in his assault.

This is gallingly effective—especially because Jones is being sincere. I am quite sure that he believes that defining marriage between one man and one woman is part of a culture of marginalization of LGBT persons that tacitly permits if not encourages violence like that which he endured. And I am quite sure there is nothing I could ever say to disabuse him of this notion. This is not an argument that can be won, because it isn’t an argument at all; it’s a subjective personal narrative that points to implied moral and cultural truths. Once one accepts the validity of Jones’s story—and how could one not!—the new truths about marriage fall into place.

McGinley isn’t really complaining here. He was deeply affected by Jones’s story, as anyone with a conscience would be. McGinley’s point is that personal narratives have political (and cultural) consequences. It has been well known that one reason gay rights has triumphed so thoroughly is because so many straights listened to the stories of gay people they knew, and sympathized. Thus did “new truths about marriage fall into place.” And, as McGinley shows, these “new truths” portend a great deal of danger for religious liberty.

How to push back against the narrative in love, and therefore effectively (“push back” not to deny those stories, but to point out that theirs isn’t the only story)? Here’s McGinley:

Here’s an old aphorism about compelling narrative writing: show, don’t tell. We show that the proper definition of marriage is compatible with love of our LGBT neighbors not by writing or talking about such a possible world, but by creating that world in our families and communities. We can and must live as compelling witnesses to the truth of marriage while treating our LGBT friends and family not as representatives of a type but as full, flawed, beautiful human beings full of dignity. In so doing we both tell our story—a story of tradition, yes, but of tradition filtered through the timeless values of love and charity and peace—and begin the hard work of earning once again the trust of contemporary culture.

You really should read his entire thoughtful essay. Seems to me that Desire Of The Everlasting Hills is effectively the best answer to McGinley’s concerns that I’ve yet seen. The three Catholics it profiles are LGBT Christians who are not representatives of a type but are full, flawed, beautiful human beings full of dignity. And they embrace the tradition. Just as it is hard to turn away from stories like Saeed Jones’s with all your prejudices intact, it ought to be hard for all people — gay and straight — to turn away from the stories of Paul, Dan, and Rilene without being shaken up by their humanity.

I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. Whatever you think about gay rights, whatever you think about gay rights and the church, you need to take an hour to watch it online, and share it with your friends. It’s not preachy, it’s not propagandistic. It’s real.


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Vietnam And The Father Of Lies

Did you know that we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Gulf Of Tonkin incident, which launched America into the Vietnam War? Beliefnet asked me to write a reflection on the Vietnam War at 50. I considered the war as an affair shot through with pride, hubris, and lies. Here’s how it begins:

In 1971, a US Navy veteran of the Vietnam War testified before Congress, telling senators why he turned against the war. The soldier charged that people were dying because of America’s pride won’t let it admit that “we have made a mistake” by going into Vietnam.

“We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” said the veteran, John F. Kerry, who now serves as Secretary of State. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” We might also ask, as we mark the 50th anniversary of America’s entry into the Indochina war: How do we think morally and spiritually about a mistake that cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and roughly one million Vietnamese combatants and civilians? The Congressionally mandated guidelines for commemorating the Vietnam War are unhelpful.

They order no critical reflection on how and why America entered into the war. Perhaps this kind of thing is to be expected of the government, but allowing the official story to bound our thinking about the meaning of the Vietnam War robs us of the chance to understand how catastrophic pride can be, and how consciousness of this fact of human nature can spare America deadly follies like Vietnam in the future. Of course we must honor the service of Vietnam veterans, many of whom had no choice but to fight in the unpopular war. We all know that they came home bearing physical and psychic wounds, injuries compounded by the loathing with which many on the homefront greeted them.

This was wrong. The nation has, blessedly, learned from that mistake. But honoring the service and sacrifice of the soldier does not require honoring the cause – and in fact, can serve to retroactively justify that cause, against all evidence. Those soldiers, living and dead, were victims of the hubris and pride of the American leadership, which, in a democracy, ultimately means the hubris and pride of the American people. As early as 1963, senior US government leaders knew that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime was unlikely to prevail against the communist-nationalist insurgency, but did not want to accept it.


I can think of no greater way to honor the dead and the wounded soldiers of the Vietnam War than to recognize, with solemnity and respect, and with utmost consciousness of the tragic nature of all human endeavor, that they died obedient and faithful to a nation whose military and civilian leaders sacrificed them at the altar of vanity and pride. There is no comfort in that – none — except in the possibility of gaining wisdom, of achieving spiritual maturity.

Read the whole thing. 


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Westminster As Chinatown

Don’t know if you’ve been following the burgeoning scandal in the UK, but it seems that a hundred files possibly containing damning information about a 1980s-era pedophile ring involving high levels of the British establishment have gone missing. More:

Lord Tebbit has said he believes there may have been a political cover-up of child abuse allegations against politicians in the 1980s as Theresa May came under pressure to explain how the Home Office lost or destroyed more than 100 files related to accusations of organised paedophilia.

The former cabinet minister, who served under Margaret Thatcher, said the collective instinct of establishment figures at the time was to protect “the system” and not to delve too deeply into claims.

The home secretary is preparing to make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday to explain what happened to the missing documents relating to historic organised child abuse over a period of 20 years.


Tebbit said: “At that time I think most people would have thought that the establishment, the system, was to be protected and if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system.”

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme if he thought there had been a political cover-up at the time, Tebbit said: “I think there may well have been. It was almost unconscious. It was the thing that people did.”

Do keep this in mind when trying to understand why the Catholic bishops did what they did. It was more important to protect the system than to protect children. It was true in the case of the Church, and it is almost certainly true in the case of the British State (as it no doubt would be in our country). And it was true of the BBC with Jimmy Savile.

I am personally and intimately aware of two cases in which two different national media organizations spiked a stories about serial sexual abuse because in one instance, the reporters’ work was perceived to threaten the organization being investigated, and in the other case the reporter’s investigative work threatened — how to put this? — a cause important to his bosses.

The key lines from Lord Tebbit’s interview: “It was almost unconscious. It was the thing that people did.”

The thing that people did. Forget it, Norman, it’s Chinatown.

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Broke Pastors, Broken Ministry Model

David Wheeler writes about middle-class pastors becoming a thing of the past as jobs, decent-paying and not, for clergy dry up:

For someone seeking a full-time job as a church pastor, Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.

Ouch. More:

 Not only is church attendance in long-term decline, but financial giving by church members is at Depression-era lows. Meanwhile, seminary students are taking on ballooning debt for a career that may not exist by the time they graduate. This trend began before the Great Recession, and has only worsened since then.

Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree (the typical degree for a full-time pastor), more than 25 percent accruedmore than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt. Those lucky enough to get a full-time job as a pastor will join a profession whose median wage is $43,800, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nobody goes into the ministry expecting to get rich, but pastors have to be able to pay off their student loans and raise a family, right?

You readers who are pastors, or who are studying for the ministry — what are you seeing? What are you thinking?

UPDATE: Fantastic comment by Charles Featherstone, who just finished Lutheran seminary:

When this matters comes up with my clergy and seminarian friends, it becomes clear there are two things at play.

The first is the kind of substantial scriptural education that at least deals with the long heritage of how the church catholic has interpreted and understood scripture. A “professional” clergy is, hopefully, a well-educated clergy (at least they’ve had a smattering of it, and there’s a fighting chance). A lot of church bodies that don’t formally train their clergy don’t know how to deal with scripture in the way the historic church has done so. There’s less of a chance of “crackpot theology” this way, though I suppose a lot of that depends on what your understanding of “crackpot theology” really is.

It also takes training and experience to learn how to do many of the things pastors are expected to do — sit with people in times of trouble and grief, help them find meaning, lead worship, these kinds of things. Again, this is especially true if you come from a church (as I do) that is at least somewhat grounded in the traditional practices and understanding of the church catholic. Professional training and education helps with this. Yes, many people called to ministry have gifts for these things, but it takes training, time, and practice to hone these skills. They’re like any other kind of skill.

But there is the other side to “professional.” As I understand it, a “professional” is someone who is specially trained, approaches their job with some scientific detachment and expertise. Professionalism is the managerial ethos of mass-industrial democratic modernity, and at some point in the 19th century (I always blame Schleiermacher) the church accepted modernity’s truth claims in exchange for the “Christianization” of modernity. Since industrialization was taking place in ostensibly Christian societies, the church would modernize too. Accept science, the nation-state, it aims, means and ends. In exchange, clergy became the chaplains to the state and society, responsible for the management of souls and moral well-being. They were never entirely alone in this, but this was the deal.

Well, what place do a “professional” clergy have in a post-Christian society? Who listens to us in matters of morals and spiritual well-being anymore? We can no longer command captive audience as the relationship between being a respectable bourgeois and being Christian is broken (I’m all for breaking that relationship, as it promotes a kind of piety that is essentially unforgiving and unmerciful in nature). No one listens to us, even as many of us do our best to be relevant, to serve the state, to make its ends and means ours. In this, I think the expectation that being a pastor, priest or minister will be a respected, influential, and reasonably well-compensated person are probably over. If they are to be our model, we need to remember that none of Jesus’ disciples died quietly and happily of old age in a retirement community centered on a golf course. Only John allegedly died of old age, and he was exiled to a tiny island and plagued by visions.

Honestly, it would be nice if this weeded out those who pursue ministry because it has historically been a fairly easy way to live well and with a little prestige.

As for the future of theological education, there is a role for denominations, confessions and churches to continue to educate future pastors, particularly in the ways of understanding scripture, leading worship and caring for God’s people. And there even need to be a few proper accredited, PhD-granting institutions. But much of this education can and probably should take place in situations similar to monasteries (this will be difficult, but not impossible, for protestants who accept married candidates for ministry) where study weaves together Bible, the ancient (and modern) intellectual heritage of church, worship, and practical ministry. And does so from the moment a candidates starts studying. I’ve long thought that adopting “professionalism” was a mistake, and it would be better for us to see ourselves as craftsmen (and women), that we learn by doing because the doing itself has much to teach us. (Professionalism tends to discount any knowledge that isn’t formally acquired, or comes as a result of experience.) These places of teaching would not have to be accredited themselves, since all they are doing is training pastors, though it would probably be wise for them to be affiliated with seminaries. Some kind of labor would likely also be involved (the young priestlings of the Institute of Christ the King must do a year of farm work as part of their studies), since one of the problem the professional church in modernity has is with appreciating the dignity of labor that isn’t done on a computer in a cubicle or an office. And they could become significant worshiping communities as well.

What this would cost is anyone’s guess. Depending on where you locate these “monasteries,” you could find abandoned places and then slowly, through the effort of those studying, repair them. That would also weed out people unwilling to do hard work (and I met a fair number at seminary who believed certain kinds of physical work was beneath them).

The church has and, and still wants, to be valued by the world, and to be valuable to the world on terms the world understands. That day is done, and it may be gone for a long time. The church is valuable to the world, but on Christ’s terms, not ours. And Jesus will continue to call people to ministry, to feed sheep, regardless of whether or not feeding sheep is a prestigious and respectable position or not.

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Russia, As Seen From Silicon Valley

Here’s a provocative essay by Max Skibinsky, a Russian emigre who is now a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. A Russian friend passed it on to me, and said Skibinsky nails how it is in Russia today. I know this blog has some Russian readers, and readers knowledgeable about Russia, so I request their feedback.

Here’s how Skibinsky begins:

Many people in Silicon Valley inquired over the years why I was not coming back to Russia often (I visited once in two decades) or why I’m not spending much time helping Russian startups. I usually answered these questions in generalities while keeping my grim thoughts and predictions to myself. The events of the past few days, unfortunately, show that the worst predictions I feared all these years did come true. The nightmare scenario is now unfolding as we speak, and Russia position in the world is now altered forever.

Well, “forever” is a very long time. Anyway, Skibinsky says that modern Russia is a corrupt oligarchy in which the great masses of people are misled by state propaganda, and supported by oil revenues:

Modern Russia is not a weaker version of Soviet Union “empire of evil.” This capability is, thankfully, long gone. Russia is “cargo cult” of Soviet empire. It lacks competent professionals, leaders and minimal work ethics to accomplish anything on that scale. It just have enough capacity to cover everything in a blanket of lies, and as long as it works on captive domestic population that is all that it’s leaders need to keep channeling profits from Russia to London accounts.

The best way to understand modern Russia is to imagine a steep pyramid. At the very top there is a clique of KGB-affiliated oligarchs, who manage barely-competent class of middle-managers (which can and do steal a fraction of everything they touch) which in turn sit on top of largely brainwashed and deranged mass population living on life-long government welfare.

Needless to say this is most toxic environment imaginable to incubate a startup ecosystem.

He goes on to say that Russia’s political, legal, and social situation conspire to drive out the kind of people who could revitalize its economy:

Creative class was a minority in modern day Russia and there is a strong emergent behaviour that draining their numbers. That is a class of people with the skills most in demand in Europe and USA. During “peaceful” decade of Putin’s rule over two million people emigrated from Russia: this is a number higher then immigration after communist revolution and civil war.

By my estimate there is probably few hundreds of thousands of people in the creative class in Russia. This vocal, yet very small group so far never succeeded at thwarting russian mafia state at anything.

Skibinsky concludes that Silicon Valley ought to be doing everything it can to support Ukraine and to disassociate itself from Russia, from which, he says, “there is nothing of value to recover.”

What do you think? Do not assume that by posting this, I agree with him. Perhaps if I knew more about the situation, I would agree with him. Or not. I can say that of the handful of Russians I know, mostly emigres but also a Russian Orthodox academic in Moscow, and none of them liberals in the American sense, this fairly represents their position on prospects in their homeland, if not necessarily their position on the Ukraine-Russia fight (thought it might; I’m not sure).

What’s interesting to me about this is what it says about prospects for Russia, or any nation whose creative minority believes it cannot thrive in that country. I’ve been thinking a lot about exile lately, not only because of Dante, but because of a side project I’m working on. Few people go willingly into exile. Many are sent, but many also send themselves, as the lesser evil. At what point do things get so bad in a country that people who do not have to leave, either because they’re thrown out of fear for their lives, decide that they and their children have no meaningful future there, and so must become strangers in a strange land.

(Oh, earlier today an old (Catholic) friend wrote from Paris to say that with the latest spasm of Islamic anti-Semitic violence, he’s never been so downcast about the future of his country. So things are bad all over.)

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View From Your Table In Paradiso

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Sentimental me, I’m posting this through tears:

Here’s something i would never have done without reading your blog — I had dinner in Florence at the foot of Dante’s statue. The first pic is the man himself, looking as if he disapproves mightily; the second is the dinner of pasta with duck breast, green peas, and a glass of the house white.

Below, the other pic. At this time in my life, this is the greatest possible View From Your Table for me. It can be equalled, but it cannot be surpassed. Reader, I can’t find the words to thank you for this gift.


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Good Father/Bad Father

A Daytona Beach father walked in on Raymond Frolander, an 18 year old family friend, allegedly raping his 11 year old son. He whipped Frolander’s a**, then called 911 for the cops to come carry the dirtbag to jail:

The father has not been charged with a crime, and police sound as if they believe his actions were justified.

‘Dad was acting like a dad. I don’t see anything we should charge the dad with,’ Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood told WFTS. ‘You have an 18-year-old who has clearly picked his target, groomed his target and had sex with the victim multiple times.’

A subsequent mugshot showed that Frolander had been badly beaten around the face, leaving him with swollen lips and eyes, bruising and lacerations.

When the 911 responder asked the father if any weapons were involved, he said: ‘My foot and my fist’.

The 35-year-old man, who has not been identified, told a 911 dispatcher in the early hours of Friday: ‘I just walked in on a grown man molesting [name redacted]. And I got him in a bloody puddle for you right now, officer.’

The dad can be heard on the 911 call, addressing the unconscious Frolander, telling him “damn lucky boy that I love my God” — or he, the dad, would have killed Frolander.

Dad really was acting like a dad. Father of the Year!

But look what he did next:

The father who pummeled an 18-year-old man police say was sexually battering his son put his son’s picture on social media Monday and initially asked for $1 million in donations to help rebuild the child’s life.

“Rebuilding Innocence” was the headline atop a picture of a sleeping boy on a website called The father posted a link to the website on his Facebook page.

A few hours after the original Facebook post Monday, however, the son’s picture was removed from the gofundme page. More description was added and the headline was changed to “Help Restore My Son’s Innocence.” And by 9 p.m. Monday, the father had pulled down the page and removed the donation campaign link from his Facebook page. It was removed after the father reduced the initial $1 million request to $100,000 and donors had contributed $145.

In a manner of speaking, he “prostituted” his raped little boy, exploiting the child’s suffering, hoping to become a millionaire. Somebody should crack him over the head.

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Hobby Lobby & ‘The Bad Old Days’

Did you catch Brett McDonnell’s essay arguing that the left made a mistake in its reaction to Hobby Lobby? McDonnell, a liberal law professor, argues that the Hobby Lobby decision was actually a liberal one. Excerpt:

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby answered two questions, and each answer channels core liberal principles.

The first question was: Can for-profit corporations invoke religious liberty rights under RFRA? The court answered yes. HBO’s John Oliver nicely expressed the automatic liberal riposte, parodying the idea that corporations are people. It is very funny stuff.

It is not, however, especially thoughtful stuff. The court does not argue that corporations are just like real people. Rather, it argues that people often exercise faith collectively, in organizations. Allowing those organizations to assert religious-liberty rights protects the liberty of the persons acting within them. The obvious example is churches, usually legally organized as nonprofit corporations.

The real issue is not whether corporations of any type can ever claim protection under RFRA — sometimes they can. The issue is whether for-profit corporations can ever have enough of a religious purpose to claim that protection.

To me, as a professor of corporate law, liberal denial of this point sounds very odd. In my world, activists and liberal professors (like me) are constantly asserting that corporations can and should care about more than just shareholder profit. We sing the praises of corporate social responsibility.

Well, Hobby Lobby is a socially responsible corporation, judged by the deep religious beliefs of its owners. The court decisively rejects the notion that the sole purpose of a for-profit corporation is to make money for its shareholders. This fits perfectly with the expansive view of corporate purpose that liberal proponents of social responsibility usually advocate — except, apparently, when talking about this case.

He goes on to argue that the Hobby Lobby decision also advanced the liberal goal of tolerance of diversity within a pluralistic context. But the left doesn’t see that.

Molly Ball writes that the Hobby Lobby fallout has “split the left” and is hurting the gay rights cause. Excerpts:

One chapter of the controversy is set to close on Monday, when President Obama plans to sign a long-awaited executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against gays and lesbians, according to a White House official. But the debate that began over that order’s provisions for religious nonprofits has spilled over into a broader conflict. Many prominent gay-rights groups have now withdrawn their support from a top legislative priority, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, over the religious exemption it contains.

“The religious exemption debate has now been polarized to the point where people are saying, ‘All or nothing,’” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy for the center-left think tank Third Way, whose research and activism on gay marriage have been instrumental to that cause’s mainstream acceptance. “The narrative that’s now beginning to form is that Democrats are against religion. It’s not true, and it’s very dangerous.”

On what planet is Hatalsky living? Of course it’s true. It is obviously, incontrovertibly true. The Democrats are only “for” religion when it doesn’t threaten their other priorities. I wish it were not so, but I don’t see any way around it. For example, they are “for” progressive religious groups that accept their interpretation of gay rights, but not for tolerating religious groups that do not. Naturally one does not expect progressives, religious and secularist, to endorse religious beliefs and practices they find immoral or unpalatable, but toleration does not require endorsement. In fact, as Damon Linker has pointed out, liberalism requires broad tolerance if it is to be true to itself.

More from Molly Ball’s piece:

The larger fear is that such splits could bring back the bad old days when gay rights and religious rights were seen as irreconcilable—and liberals suffered politically for the image that they were alienated from religious values. The advocates in the middle of this debate hope too much progress has been made for the current controversy to undo it. Sharon Groves, director Human Rights Campaign’s religion and faith program, acknowledged the events of the past few weeks have created tension. But, she said hopefully, “The deep work has already begun to happen in faith communities. I don’t think we’re going to see a return to the old culture wars.”

They are irreconcilable — and honest scholars were saying this as far back as 2006. In this NYT report on the debate back then, the law professor, lesbian, and gay rights advocate Chai Feldblum, who now runs the EEOC, says that gay rights and religious liberty are ultimately irreconcilable — and in her view, gay rights must always win. Back then, Maggie Gallagher wrote the piece to read on this, reporting from a Becket Fund scholarly conference on gay rights and religious liberty. Excerpts:

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” [Becket Fund head Anthony] Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

For scholars, these will be interesting times: Want to know exactly where the borders of church and state are located? “Wait a few years,” Picarello laughs. The flood of litigation surrounding each point of contact will map out the territory. For religious liberty lawyers, there are boom times ahead. As one Becket Fund donor told Picarello ruefully, “At least you know you’re not in the buggy whip business.”

Gallagher says in reading all the papers from the Becket Fund conference, she noticed that those scholars who favored gay marriage were much more aware of the nature of the conflict than those who opposed gay marriage. Chai Feldblum, for example, said that both sides fail to appreciate what’s really going on in this struggle:

“Gay rights supporters often try to present these laws as purely neutral and having no moral implications. But not all discrimination is bad,” Feldblum points out. In employment law, for instance, “we allow discrimination against people who sexually abuse children, and we don’t say ‘the only question is can they type’ even if they can type really quickly.”

To get to the point where the law prohibits discrimination, Feldblum says, “there have to be two things: one, a majority of the society believing the characteristic on which the person is being discriminated against is not morally problematic, and, two, enough of a sense of outrage to push past the normal American contract-based approach, where the government doesn’t tell you what you can do. There has to be enough outrage to bypass that basic default mode in America. Unlike some of my compatriots in the gay rights movement, I think we advance the cause of gay equality if we make clear there are moral assessments that underlie antidiscrimination laws.”

But there was a second reason Feldblum made time for this particular conference. She was raised an Orthodox Jew. She wanted to demonstrate respect for religious people and their concerns, to show that the gay community is not monolithic in this regard.

“It seemed to me the height of disingenuousness, absurdity, and indeed disrespect to tell someone it is okay to ‘be’ gay, but not necessarily okay to engage in gay sex. What do they think being gay means?” she writes in her Becket paper. “I have the same reaction to courts and legislatures that blithely assume a religious person can easily disengage her religious belief and self-identity from her religious practice and religious behavior. What do they think being religious means?”

To Feldblum the emerging conflicts between free exercise of religion and sexual liberty are real: “When we pass a law that says you may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, we are burdening those who have an alternative moral assessment of gay men and lesbians.” Most of the time, the need to protect the dignity of gay people will justify burdening religious belief, she argues. But that does not make it right to pretend these burdens do not exist in the first place, or that the religious people the law is burdening don’t matter.

“You have to stop, think, and justify the burden each time,” says Feldblum. She pauses. “Respect doesn’t mean that the religious person should prevail in the right to discriminate–it just means demonstrating a respectful awareness of the religious position.”

Feldblum believes this sincerely and with passion, and clearly (as she reminds me) against the vast majority of opinion of her own community. And yet when push comes to shove, when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, she admits, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

Everything that has happened in the eight years since this conference vindicates the views of the pro-gay progressives. The right has been routed in the courts. Marc Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, predicted then that some massive legal cases would be coming, including:

Finally, I ask Stern the big question on everyone’s mind. Religious groups that take government funding will almost certainly be required to play by the nondiscrimination rules, but what about groups that, while receiving no government grants, are tax-exempt? Can a group–a church or religious charity, say–that opposes gay marriage keep its tax exemption if gay marriage becomes the law? “That,” says Stern, “is the 18 trillion dollar question.”

Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable that a Christian or Jewish organization that opposed gay marriage might be treated as racist in the public square. Today? It’s just not clear.

“In Massachusetts I’d be very worried,” Stern says finally. The churches themselves might have a First Amendment defense if a state government or state courts tried to withdraw their exemption, he says, but “the parachurch institutions are very much at risk and may be put out of business because of the licensing issues, or for these other reasons–it’s very unclear. None of us nonprofits can function without [state] tax exemption. As a practical matter, any large charity needs that real estate tax exemption.”

He blames religious conservatives for adopting the wrong political strategy on gay issues. “Live and let live,” he tells me, is the only thing around the world that works. But I ask him point blank what he would say to people who dismiss the threat to free exercise of religion as evangelical hysteria. “It’s not hysteria, this is very real,” he tells me, “Boston Catholic Charities shows that.”


Marc Stern is looking more and more like a reluctant prophet: “It’s going to be a train wreck,” he told me in the offices of the American Jewish Congress high above Manhattan. “A very dangerous train wreck. I don’t see anyone trying to stem the train wreck, or slow down the trains. Both sides are really looking for Armageddon, and they frankly both want to win. I prefer to avoid Armageddon, if possible.”

If this issue interests you, it is really interesting to go back and read Gallagher’s 2006 story from the perspective of 2014.

So, when Molly Ball speaks of “the bad old days” when gay rights and religious liberty were seen as irreconcilable, I don’t understand what she’s talking about. What she really means, I think, is the days before homosexuality was as widely accepted by churches, so as to give a religious veneer to gay rights. The progressive religionists don’t see a conflict between religious liberty and gay rights because they have none, and don’t see any because they believe that orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims should violate their own scriptures and traditions to accept the pro-gay line. It is an ideological smokescreen to say that the idea that there’s a conflict between gay rights and religious liberty is an outdated concept of a past culture war. When the gay rights activist Sharon Groves tells Ball that she doesn’t foresee returning to “the old culture wars,” I agree in this sense only: a decade ago, the religious liberty side held much more ground, both in law and in public opinion. That’s gone.

The war could be averted if the left were to do as Stern suggested the right should have done when it held the high ground: adopt a live and let live attitude, consonant with pluralist democracy. The left can’t and won’t do that, because Error Has No Rights. The culture war will continue until there is total surrender. And the Democratic Party has chosen its side. This is true, and while it may be “very dangerous” in Hatalsky’s view, the danger consists in voters who prize religious liberty waking up and understanding what is happening to their rights, and who is pushing for it to happen. From a religious liberty perspective, these are the bad old days — and they’re getting worse.

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Bacevich On The Greater Middle East War

A reader passes on a short, clarifying essay by Andrew Bacevich titled “Lessons From America’s War For The Greater Middle East”, a war he says we have been fighting since 1980, and are not likely to win. Hence the lessons, among them:

No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element.

Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this. So they contrive alternative explanations such as “terrorism,” a justification that impedes understanding.

Our leaders can proclaim their high regard for Islam until they are blue in the face. They can insist over and over that we are not at war with Islam. Their claims will fall on deaf ears through much of the Greater Middle East.

Whatever Washington’s intentions, we are engaged in a religious war. That is, the ongoing war has an ineradicable religious dimension. That’s the way a few hundred million Muslims see it and their seeing it in those terms makes it so.

The beginning of wisdom is found not in denying that the war is about religion but in acknowledging that war cannot provide an antidote to the fix we have foolishly gotten ourselves into.

Does the Islamic world pose something of a problem for the United States? You bet, in all sorts of ways. But after more than three decades of trying, it’s pretty clear that the application of military power is unlikely to provide a solution. The solution, if there is one, will be found by looking beyond the military realm — which just might be the biggest lesson our experience with the War for the Greater Middle East ought to teach.

Readers, I’m going to be away from the keys for the next few hours. Please be patient with comment approval. I’ve scheduled some posts to go up, but I won’t be able to approve comments for a bit. Thanks.

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