Rod Dreher

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Philando Castile Aftermath

This is not a soldier. It is a police SWAT team member (Getmilitaryphotos/Shutterstock.com)

It is hard to believe that Ofc. Jeronimo Yanez got away with shooting Philando Castile to death. I am not a lawyer, and I didn’t sit through the testimony, so I don’t know what technicalities might have swayed the jurors (including its two black members). What David French — who is a lawyer, and a conservative — says makes sense to me. Excerpt:

If you read carefully [from the transcript of the encounter], you’ll note that it appears that the officer shot Castile for doing exactly what the officer told him to do. Yanez asked for Castile’s license. Castile told him that he had a gun, and the officer – rather than asking for his carry permit, or asking where the gun was, or asking to see Castile’s hands – just says, “Don’t reach for it then.” At that point, Castile is operating under two commands. Get his license, and don’t reach for his gun. As Castile reaches for his license (following the officer’s orders), and he assures him that he’s not reaching for the gun (also following the officer’s orders). The entire encounter, he assures Yanez that he’s following Yanez’s instructions.

He died anyway.

Yes, the evidence indicates that Yanez was afraid for his life. He thought he might have been dealing with a robber (a fact he apparently didn’t tell Castile), and he testified that he smelled marijuana. But Castile was following Yanez’s commands, and It’s simply false that the mere presence of a gun makes the encounter more dangerous for the police. It all depends on who possesses the gun.

If he’s a concealed-carry permit-holder, then he’s in one of the most law-abiding demographics in America.

French calls the verdict a “miscarriage of justice,” and from what I’ve read, it sounds like he’s right. What else could Castile possibly have done to save his own life? He was obeying the officer — and unlike anybody who would tell a police officer that he has a gun with him is not the kind of person likely to shoot the cop.

The fact that even the two black jurors voted to acquit Ofc. Yanez makes me wonder if this verdict is not (or not simply) an expression of racial prejudice, but is rather a symptom of latent pro-authority prejudice when it comes to law enforcement. Hear me out on this, because my usual stance is to be supportive of the police unless given reason otherwise, and I still think that stance makes general sense. But it can become an excuse for wrongdoing and even criminal misconduct.

What brings this to mind, believe it or not, is the fact that here we are 14 years after the start of the Iraq War, and the United States government is finding fresh ways to dig the country into war in the Middle East — this time, risking a proxy war with Russia over Syria. And there’s no protest anywhere! You’d think people would be tired of all this fighting, and be asking hard questions in public of why our government, no matter which party holds power, backs endless war. TAC’s Andrew Bacevich explored this depressing phenomenon earlier this year in this piece, with regard to Congress. More broadly, there is no anti-war movement. Americans seem resigned to letting this thing drag on. Bacevich here discusses the costs of war, and criticizes US leaders and the American people for avoiding facing realistically what it would take to win our current wars — if it can be done at all. And so on.

The militarization of our police forces has long been discussed. For example, Radley Balko, who wrote a book on the subject, once commented:

Too many police departments today are also infused with a general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us-versus-them mentality that sees the public not as citizens to be served and protected but as a collection of potential threats. Police are regularly told the lie that their jobs get more perilous by the day—actually, the job has been getting safer since the mid-1990s, and 2012 was one of the safest years for cops in decades. And they are told that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. Consequently, they are trained literally and conditioned psychologically to treat every encounter with a citizen as if it could be their last. Consider the striking essay by Sgt. Glenn French, SWAT commander in Sterling Heights, Michigan, published in August on the law enforcement site PoliceOne:

We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector. The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. . . . Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war. That is why commanders and tactical trainers stress the fact that even on the most uneventful portion of your tour, you can be subjected to combat at a moment’s notice.

French’s figures are way off. Not only are police far less likely to be killed than a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, they’re less likely to be murdered than the average resident of many big cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Nashville. But French’s math isn’t nearly as disturbing as his mindset. This is a police officer in a Michigan town that has often been cited as one of the safest communities in America, yet he views the town as a battlefield and his fellow citizens as potential enemy combatants. “Black helicopters and mysterious warriors exist”, French concludes in his essay. “They are America’s answer to the evil men that the anti-SWAT crowd wouldn’t dare face.”

That’s the cops. What I’m interested in is we the people. Is there a connection between America’s endless wars and the militarization of the police? More to the point, has all the “support the troops” rhetoric that we’ve gotten used to since the Iraq War started helped train Americans to accept behavior from police that they would not have before? Has “questioning the police” become as taboo in American popular culture as “questioning the troops”?

I don’t know. I’m throwing it all out there for discussion. Again, I am usually pro-police, and maybe there were things about the Castile case that were clear to the jury, which heard the case, but not to me. Still, I can’t grasp why Castile’s killer got away scot-free, and why there hasn’t been much of an outcry. If a police officer can shoot to death a motorist who was obeying all his commands, and walk away a free man from that shooting, how safe are any of us? This is not the Alton Sterling case, nor is it the Michael Brown case. Not even close. I’m concerned that there’s a connection between our collective habit of deferring to the generals (or at least the idea that the military knows best) and a culture of policing that results in events like Castile’s killing, and the cop who did it getting away with it. Do we really believe as a people that those who bear arms in the service of the state have the right do fulfill their mission by any means necessary?

Don’t read this post as offering answers. I’m just asking questions, trying to get a good discussion going. I’ve been out of the country and not able to keep up closely with the news back home. The Castile verdict really is a shocker.

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About Venice

Venice, Italy

I never thought I would ever see Venice. Truth is, I never wanted to. I’ve always imagined it would be one big tourist trap. There are many places in Italy I would rather see, I thought. But when this conference in Trento came up, and I had to fly in and out of Venice because it was cheaper than the alternatives, I thought: Why not? When will this chance ever come again?

I’m so glad I made that choice. Yes, it’s pretty much the world’s most baroque, costly tourist trap, but it’s also one of the most special places on the planet. Not even the giant cruise ships disgorging tourist effluent into the overcrowded streets can obscure the wonder of this old, old city. When my son Matt and I disembarked from the water taxi on Saturday morning at the Fondamente Nuove and made our way on foot towards our hotel, my cynicism was jacked up. It didn’t survive the first 200 yards into the city. By the time we made it to the hotel 15 minutes later, we were both agog. Can such a place really exist? In this world? Really?

Really. There’s a view like this around every corner:

Yes, the streets are crawling with tourists, and at times are jammed. That’s not hard to do in a medieval city where many of the streets are so narrow you can extend your arms and touch buildings on both sides at the same time. And when they aren’t lousy with luxury goods, the shops are filled with kitsch (Murano glass clown sculptures, anybody?). All of that is true — and it’s all beside the point.

The point is that Venice exists. Nobody would ever plan a city like this. Nobody would ever imagine it. But here it is. Venice was built by Roman people escaping the fifth-century barbarian invasions. They settled on marshy islands in the lagoon, figuring they would be safer (they were). They built the city on piles made of wood and limestone, sunk into the marsh. By the High Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe and an imperial power. Her economic and geopolitical decline began around the 16th century. Napoleon’s invasion finished off the thousand-year republic. Today, Venice is more or less a museum, and maybe this is the best fate that such a city can hope for.

I say this because Venice — the island city — is spectacularly unsuited for modern life. It’s medieval warrens are an unintentional work of art, but there is no rationality to them, and it must take forever to get things done here. I used to chafe at the thought of Baron Haussmann in the 19th century destroying the medieval tangle of streets in the heart of Paris, but being in Venice gives me an idea of why the government hired him to do it. No normal modern city could succeed with a built landscape like Venice’s. But then, I have rarely been in a modern cityscape that seemed more built for the human being.

That might say something about what I find to be human, though. Matt and I were in the Renaissance-era Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci on Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy. I didn’t understand a word of it, of course, but I knew where we were in the liturgy most of the time, because as in the Catholic Church, the liturgy is the same everywhere. Not understanding the Greek gave me the chance to appreciate the sheer beauty of the liturgy and the chanting. It occurred to me that Orthodox Christianity, which I have been practicing for 11 years, feels a lot like the streetscape of Venice. It’s so rich and winding and organic and, well, Byzantine, but if you’re new to it, you’re often lost, but pleasantly surprised by what you wander into within it. You sense that you are adrift in a place that is more ancient than you can comprehend, but not to worry, because it’s a place built for human beings, not machines, and soon enough these pathways to God will become comprehensible, after you have lived with them for a while, and allowed them to become a part of you.

Again, we got lost a lot, even with Google Maps on my phone (much better than Apple Maps, which was fairly disastrous there), but that was no problem at all. It was fabulous to get lost in that city. You round a cramped corner and stumble into a courtyard the size of your pocket, lined with café tables resting in the shade of a church wall. Not knowing what you were going to wander into in the next five minutes, but having the certainty that it will be old and beautiful and intimate, gave me a sense of pleasure I haven’t had traveling in a long time. By the end of our short stay, I had already intuited the street layout around our hotel, though I couldn’t have drawn you a map to have saved my life. “Not all who wander are lost,” as the saying goes, but in Venice, all who wander are lost, but you aren’t really lost, for you stand a good chance of finding some secret about yourself or about life that had been hidden from you in the real world.

On the other hand – and this is a weird experience – I felt exhausted by all that beauty. It

Painted on a wall in Venice

was too much to take in. Can’t say that’s ever happened to me. The only place that ever had a similar effect on me was Jerusalem, which is not aesthetically exhausting, but spiritually so, or that’s how I found it. I mean, I loved Jerusalem, but it was so intense that it felt disorienting. I’m back in the US now, but I started writing this entry on Venice from my hotel room there on the last night. It has been difficult to say what I want to say about Venice, because I don’t know what I think yet. I spent a day and a half walking through a great and glorious mystery, and one doesn’t have hot takes on great and glorious mysteries.

I write all this from my hotel room in Dallas, where I am attending a conference on classical education. It seems to me that Venice itself is an education, even if you have only seen it for a short time. This city arose out of the malarial marshes when barbarian raids destroyed the world of the Romans of the Veneto. God made Italy, but the Venetians made Venice. Through genius, courage and cunning — sometimes cutthroat — they built a city of impossible beauty atop the green water of the lagoon, and from it became extremely rich and powerful, ultimately ruling a de facto small empire.

They could not keep it. New discoveries — geographical and technological — passed them by. Their formidable trading fleet was not prepared for ocean voyages, which is how trade shifted following the discovery of the New World. They were pressed by the Ottomans, whose rise they arguably assisted by their horrific sack of the Byzantine Orthodox capital of Constantinople in 1204, leaving the Byzantines much weakened and more vulnerable. Yet the Venetians and their Latin Christian allies achieved a magnificent, civilization-saving defeat of the Ottomans in the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto. The Republic of Venice, then at her military and cultural apogee, managed to stay relatively strong for another century or so, until steep decline struck in the 18th century. By the time Napoleon threatened in the 1790s, Venice had been spent, and could not muster the wherewithal to defend herself. The historian John Julius Norwich writes:

The fact of the matter was that Venice was utterly demoralized. It was so long since she had been obliged to make a serious military effort that she had lost the will that makes such efforts possible. Peace, the pursuit of pleasure, the love of luxury, the whole spirit of dolce far niente [pleasant idleness] had sapped her strength. She was old and tired; she was also spoilt. Even her much-vaunted constitution, once the envy of all her neighbours, seemed to be crumbling: votes were bought and sold, the effective oligarchy was shrinking steadily, the Senate was reduced to little more than a rubber stamp. In this last decade of her existence as a state, almost every political decision she made seemed calculated to hasten her end. Did she, one wonders, have a death wish? If so, it was to be granted sooner than she knew.

Napoleon, that great villain, sacked the city and ended the thousand-year Republic. Today, Venice lives off of barbarian invasions — tourists like me whose money keeps up the place.

I am still too dazzled by what I saw to draw any complex conclusions from the Venice experience, and in any case nobody can take any profound lessons from only two days there. Still, I think that the immediate lessons of Venice, at least the ones that remain with me as I look out the window of this high-rise hotel in Dallas, are these:

  • Much of that rich beauty was obtained through the pain and suffering. I have been reading Rebecca West, who is murder on the Venetians for the way they treated those under their exploitative rule in the Balkans. And, of course, the horses and much else in St. Mark’s was stolen by the Crusaders from Constantinople, where they sat a whore upon the Patriarch’s throne in the Hagia Sophia. Nevertheless, this is the story of all rich nations and peoples. The beauty does not negate the cruelty, nor does the cruelty negate the beauty. They live together, side by side. Wheat and tares. This is universal. (It is, by the way, why I am so divided within myself over the Confederate monuments. The Venetians had a similar controversy over a Napoleon statue in the city back in 2003. I can understand why the Venetians would not want a statue of Napoleon in their city, and I can understand why African-Americans and others would not want statues of Confederates in their cities. What worries me, though, is a Puritanical tendency to purge ourselves of objects that remind us of the morally problematic past. Those grand plantation houses of the South were built in part on the bodies of slaves. The palazzi of Venice were built in part on the plunder of others. Yet who can possibly believe that we would we be better off by tearing them down? But I digress… .)
  • The fragility of civilization, and its inevitable decline, was made more visceral to me in Venice than it ever was in Rome. Rome has ruins; Venice does not. But somehow, seeing Venice as it was physically during its heyday, but knowing that it is nothing now but a stage set for dolce far niente — well, it affected me more deeply. It requires a leap of the imagination to think of Rome at the height of its imperial glory, but you don’t have to work hard to imagine Venice in full ripeness. The entire city is a memento mori of hypnotic power. The conditions that made Venice — or to be more precise, the conditions that made the people who made Venice — are long gone, but the outward form remains, as it does not in most other cities, at least not to this degree. The transience of life, the way it slips through our fingers, is on full display in Venice, in a way I have not seen elsewhere. A closed fist can strike powerful blows, but it cannot contain water.
  • Venice arose from the swamp, the work of human hands, and like every work of human hands, it will descend into the swamp. This cannot be stopped. Everything that rises must converge. To lose oneself in Venice is to be reminded of what once was, and of the tragedy of living in time — but also of how the sweetness of life depends on its transience. To enjoy something fully requires an awareness of the inevitability of its loss.

The sheer pleasure of sitting at a table drinking wine with my 17-year-old son was intensified for me by the certain knowledge that he will soon be away at college, and then starting his own life apart from us. I hope we will have the opportunity to travel like this again, but that might not be granted to us. The reason I’m taking these trips with my children on this, my 50th year, is also an awareness that death always awaits us. That might sound morbid to you, but I will never forget the shock of my 40-year-old sister, in the prime of her life, learning that she had terminal cancer. Within weeks of her diagnosis, she was bald, pockmarked, and badly swollen from the chemotherapy. She and her husband and children made one final journey on the last summer of her life, to South Carolina, but Europe would have been out of the question.

We are only given today. By the grace of God, I was granted the resources to make these trips with my kids this year. The memories I am making in them will comfort me the rest of my days, and, I hope, will do the same for my children.

On Sunday afternoon, Matt and I got lost on the way back to our hotel from St. Mark’s Square, and found ourselves standing in front of La Fenice, the city’s theater. The map indicated that the way back to our place required taking the street that ran along the theater’s right side.

As we walked, we suddenly heard the voice of an opera tenor coming from one of the upper floors of the theater. It stopped us in our tracks on the corner of the Calle Fenice and the Rio Verona, where the theater abuts the canal. The tenor was upstairs practicing an aria. I had the presence of mind to take out my video camera and record a few seconds of it. I won’t post an image of my son here, but this is the view from our spot. On the video, you will have just seen him beaming, mouthing the words, “Wow.”

My best guess is that the tenor was singing in the theater window with the open shutters that you see in the middle of the photo, but it’s just a guess, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that we stumbled onto extraordinary beauty wafting over the canals, campielli, and vine-buffered lanes of this old, old city. Edmund Burke’s phrase “the unbought grace of life” came to mind. Here is a short reflection on it by Burke’s 20th century disciple, Russell Kirk:

I mean by the phrase “the unbought grace of life” those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order. I mean also the sense of duty, the feeling of honor, the concept of ordination and subordination, and the adherence to the classical definition of justice which grow out of the spirit of a gentleman. I mean all those super added ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. I mean the wife of imagination, harmony and generosity which sometimes flourishes in those societies commonly called “aristocratic.” More than this, I can hardly express lucidly, except by describing particular examples of this high grace, the meaning of “the unbought grace of life.” I do not say that this complex of sentiments and traditions, which Burke calls the spirit of a gentleman, is the only pillar of civilization. As Burke himself declares, the spirit of religion is the other great source and support of our social establishments and our culture. But the spirit of religion still retains many able defenders, and the spirit of a gentleman has few; therefore I am confining my remarks here to the unbought grace of life, as distinguished from that elevation of spirit which is the effect of religious belief. I do not think that the on bot grace of life, or the spirit of a gentleman, could subsist indefinitely without the animating power of religion; but, with Burkett, I do not think that religious establishments, as we have known them for 1000 years and more, could endure along in a society which had discarded the last traces of the unbought grace of life.… Wherever the unbought grace of life withers, the church as a living force is much diminished, if not extirpated; and wherever religious establishments are broken or derided, the spirit of the gentleman has short shrift.

We had the blessing of this grace that afternoon, standing in the shade of the theater. For me, that moment more than any other summed up our Venetian weekend, and made me want to return one day to spend more time among its treasures. That night, for our last experience of Venice, we went to see a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in the church of San Vidal. (Vivaldi was a son of Venice.) I glanced over at Matt during a particularly thrilling moment in the concert, and saw his face beaming, and him mouth the word, “Yes!”

In Venice, Matt was able to glimpse some of the finest achievements of Western civilization. May he spend his lifetime saying yes to them all, and getting lost in the streets of Venice for the sake of finding himself.

In a Venetian shop window

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View From Your Table

Venice, Italy

That was an early supper last night: cichetti (bar snacks) with Prosecco. Prosecco is a local wine in the Veneto region, so I’m drinking it with every meal. The local Prosecco is crisper and slightly more effervescent than what we get in the US. It’s very satisfying.

Then, later, here is what we had for dinner:

Venice, Italy

As you can see, I got my grilled baby octopus, as I had been dreaming of. It came atop a serving of casseroled potatoes that had been prepared with olive oil and fresh black olives. It was a new taste to me, and entirely delicious.

I had been hoping to eat like a boss here, but Matt and I find that Venice simply overwhelms us. And it’s too hot to eat much anyway. Today we went to the Divine Liturgy at San Giorgio dei Greci, then ate at a pasta place not too far away. I had spaghetti with calamari. This is not so much a VFYT as it is a shot of food. I was so hungry after the Eucharistic fast that I forgot the VFYT aesthetic for this one. Sorry:

Venice, Italy

Let’s not forget the gelato (in this case, fig and walnut):

Venice, Italy

The wi-fi at my Venice hotel is very slow, so I haven’t had the opportunity to post my final Germany VFYTs. So here they are. Here is probably the best meal of the entire trip: fish soup at Fisch Witte, in the Munich Viktualienmarkt:

Munich, Germany

If you visit Munich, you must not miss this place!

Finally, here are a couple of VFYTs I received from readers in recent days:

Lake Lauerz, Switzerland

The blueness of the lake!

Huanchacho, Peru

The reader is preparing to eat fried cuy — that is, fried guinea pig. Better him than me, is what I say.

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Alas, All Societies Have Closets

My friend Andrew Sullivan is angry over my post the other day about sexuality, nature, and nurture. Excerpts:

 

[My blog post] accuses those of us who have long argued that homosexuality is involuntary or innate of being cynical liars: “The ‘truth’ in this matter [0f the origins of homosexuality] has always been ‘what works to advance the cause.’” He then argues that there is such a thing as “latent homosexuality” that can be “made active” by a more tolerant society. Hence the need to reinstate stigmatization of gay people as human beings who have chosen sin — to keep anyone else from experimenting and thereby becoming gay.

That’s not a fair summation of my point at all, though I did pop off about “what works to advance the cause,” and I can see why that would have offended people like Andrew, whom I don’t believe to be a cynical liar. So I apologize for that.

Once more, hopefully with more clarity this time:

  1. I believe that sexual desire emerges from a confluence of nature and nurture. I believe some people are born with strongly heterosexual desires, and others are born with strongly homosexual desires. I think most people are somewhere along the spectrum — which is where nurture comes in.
  2. It stands to reason that societies that are accepting of homosexuality (and transgenderism, while we’re at it) will see more of it manifest, as those who would have otherwise resisted or repressed those desires give them expression.
  3. It is true also that many gay people will not suffer as much psychologically, emotionally, and otherwise as they would have under a more repressive social regime. I think this is on balance a good thing.
  4. But it is also true that if one believes that sexual activity outside of traditional marriage is sinful — as orthodox Christians do — then acting on those desires is a bad thing, and a society that encourages people to do so is a society that encourages people to do themselves spiritual harm.
    1. This applies to heterosexuals too.
  5. From the point of view of traditional orthodox Christianity, our society has gone off the rails on sexual matters since the Sexual Revolution. Among the negative effects of this disorder is the ongoing dissolution of the family, which is at the core of social order.
  6. Some LGBT activists like Andrew Sullivan, and their allies, have argued that legalizing same-sex marriage would stabilize gay life, and lead it to conform to broader traditional social norms.
  7. Opponents (like me) have argued that normalizing same-sex marriage would erase the philosophical grounding for marriage by seeing it as having no intrinsic meaning connected to our biology.
    1. We have also argued that this is what the Sexual Revolution did long before gays began getting active on behalf of same-sex marriage. Gay marriage in specific, and normalizing homosexuality in general, solidifies trends that have long existed.
    2. We lost this battle both legally and culturally.
  8. Andrew argues that the higher rates of homosexuality and transgenderism today is because people no longer feel the shame they used to about these desires, and feel comfortable expressing them. I think this is obviously true.
  9. I think it is also obviously true that at least some of these people would have married and lived conventional heterosexual lives, and been satisfied in them. Why? Because the same-sex desire within them wasn’t as strong as it was in others, and they could manage it, or grow past it.
  10. On the other hand, the kind of society that gave them the psychological support for embracing exclusively heterosexual expression of their sexuality would also cause more suffering for those whose sexual desire is more strongly same-sex oriented.
  11. Can we have a society in which heterosexuality is considered normative, but homosexuality is tolerated, and gays and lesbians treated with respect, dignity, and love? I think it is possible in theory, but it seems to be utopian.
  12.  In the New Yorker profile of me, the writer said:

Like many orthodox Christian intellectuals, Dreher holds labyrinthine views on homosexuality. He is opposed to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions. In principle, he is against gay adoption, but in practice, he told me, “there are so many gay couples who are wonderful parents that I find it hard to maintain any ardor for stopping it.” Early in our correspondence, he referred me to an essay called “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” by Michael Hanby, a Catholic philosopher. The essay represents same-sex marriage not as a rights issue but as part of an ongoing, technology-driven revolution in our view of personhood. Hanby argues that, where we used to see human beings as possessing intrinsic properties—masculinity, femininity, the ability to glorify God through procreation—we now take a nominalist view of ourselves, seeing our bodies as subservient to our minds. We use technology, such as the birth-control pill, to subvert the natural way of things. Gay marriage, in this account, is a stepping-stone to a profoundly technologized society in which “the rejection of nature” is complete. Today, it’s sex-reassignment surgery and surrogacy; tomorrow, we’ll be genetically engineering our way into a post-human future.

The point of the essay is that there’s an irreducible conflict between orthodox Christianity and political liberalism. On his blog, Dreher acknowledges that “gays, understandably, find their personal dignity insulted by people who believe that their sexuality is in any way deficient.” He writes that gay couples can “genuinely, deeply, and sacrificially love each other.” Still, he maintains, “our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. Christian orthodoxy is not nominalist.” He regularly defends religious people who act illiberally “for conscience reasons”—Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims, the florist Baronelle Stutzman, who was sued when she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding.

More:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

14. I would invite Andrew to reflect on his statement that there is no way that an orthodox Catholic (or Orthodox Christian, as I am, or Biblically orthodox Protestants) can accept same-sex marriage. The reason is because as Christians, we cannot accept that homosexual desire is morally neutral. (Nor, I hasten to add, can we accept that heterosexual expression outside of marriage is morally neutral.) How could we possibly be expected to believe that a society that de-stigmatizes same-sex desire in every way is a moral good? It makes no sense. So — and this the unbridgeable gap part — it all comes down to how you answer this question: What is sex for? 

Not, “what is gay sex for?” or “what is straight sex for?” but “what is sex for?” The Bible, and the teaching of the Church, has a clear answer to that. It is not the modern answer.

15. The reason we cannot agree on what sex is for is that we don’t agree on the answer to the question, “What is a human being for?” Meaning, “What is our purpose in life?” Is it to live in harmony with God’s will? Is it to fulfill our desires? Is it something else? Again: traditional Christianity has clear and consistent answers to these questions — and they are not the modern answers.

16. I have said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I am glad the closet is gone, and would not want to see it return. I would like to live in a society that leaves gay people alone to live as they like. It is fair, though, for people like Andrew to ask how, exactly, I propose to privilege heterosexuality without in some form re-instituting the closet. I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question.

17. But here’s the question I would put to Andrew and his supporters. This week, a jury found Michelle Carter criminally liable in the death of her boyfriend, a suicide whom she had urged via repeated text messages to kill himself. I don’t feel sorry for Carter, who is manifestly a hateful person. But this is a dangerous legal precedent. Will orthodox Christian parents, clergy, counselors, and others who affirm traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality be criminally charged in the future if LGBT people commit suicide and leave a note behind blaming them? How far would gay rights supporters go in tolerating religious believers who express negative views on homosexuality? Is it possible to tolerate the expression of belief and behavior that gays and their allies believe is immoral, and doing damage to others? Or should orthodox Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) belief regarding homosexuality be stigmatized socially for the sake of increasing social virtue, and bringing about a better society? If so, well, aren’t you saying that Christians (Muslims, Jews) should go into the closet with their beliefs?

LGBTs and their allies may believe that this is something that ought to be done for the greater good of society. But they should also accept that they are doing to us exactly what they accuse Christians like me of trying to do to them.

18. All of which is to arrive at the depressing conclusion that one way or the other, there’s going to be a closet. It’s already there for many orthodox Christians who work in academia and other professional circles, and it will expand. A lot of Christian kids will grow up feeling immense pressure to leave the faith or in some sense to be unfaithful to orthodox Christianity because of all the stigma heaped upon it over sexuality. Many of those who don’t will feel shame over their faith, and keep it to themselves, or within safe enclaves. This will be seen by those driving them into the closet as something that needs to be done for the greater good of society. What you refuse to tolerate, you discourage — and who doesn’t want to discourage bigotry, right?

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Benedictine Hospitality In Germany

Till Engelhard and Yves Reichenbach

Meet Till Engelhard and Yves Reichenbach, two new friends with whom my son Matthew and I have been spending the past few days in Munich. They are faithful Catholics who are interested in The Benedict Option. Till and his wife Monica invited us to stay with them in Munich, and their friend Yves flew in from Geneva.

We had a wonderful time sharing beer, wine, and good food, visiting churches, meeting other friends from the Engelhard’s circle, and talking about the faith. Tobias Klein, a young Catholic journalist who writes for Die Tagespost, a German Catholic newspaper, took a six-hour train down from Berlin to meet me and talk Ben Op.

Tobias Klein and Area Man

Tobias and his wife are ready to get started being the “creative minorities” that Benedict XVI said Christians must be. We talked about how local churches have a lot of properties they aren’t using. Why don’t they renovate them and turn them into rental housing for Christians who want to live in closer prayerful community? We talked about things like this. Yves is working on a project with farm families and monasteries in France. Things are going on over here. Yes, the faith faces a hard road ahead, but don’t for one second believe that there are no Christians left here. I’ve spent the past few days with some who know who they are and Whose they are.

It really is happening. We really are starting to know each other, and building these networks of friendship and mutual support. Hospitality is a Benedictine virtue, and I have never been shown more generous hospitality than the Engelhard family of Munich showed to my son and me. To know such strong and gentle Christian souls are living their lives and raising their families over here is such an encouragement to me — and to you, I hope.

I need to get that website designed and launched so we can arrange international meet-ups with Ben Op Christians who are traveling, and who may like to meet for something as simple as coffee. We in the US rarely hear about Christian life in Europe, unless it’s a story about how it’s on its last legs. But when you come here and spend time with believing families, you find hope.

“You have a home in Munich,” Till said as we left. I know he meant it. And his family has a home with mine in Louisiana. Fellowship is a precious thing. Thank you, Engelhard family! Thank you, Yves! Thank you, Tobias, and all the rest.

What a joy these days in Munich have been. I leave much encouraged about the future. We are off to Venice in a few hours. But one more thing: today we visited the grave of the Blessed Rupert Mayer, a Jesuit Catholic priest from Munich who went to prison and then to a concentration camp for standing up to Hitler. What a stunningly brave man. He is buried in a Munich church. I knelt at his grave and prayed that we would all have his courage in the days to come.

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Tim Farron: Christian Canary In The Coalmine

Tim Farron resigned his post as leader of the UK’s Liberal Democratic party. You might say that he quit because the party took a walloping in the recent election, which it did. But Farron quit because the UK’s secular establishment hounded him constantly about his Evangelical Christian faith. Here is his resignation speech in full:

This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election.

That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election.

Most importantly the Liberal Democrats have established ourselves with a significant and distinctive role – passionate about Europe, free trade, strong well-funded public services underpinned by a growing market economy.

No one else occupies that space. Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do.

From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I’m a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I intend to serve until the parliamentary recess begins next month, at which point there will be a leadership election according to the party’s rules.

This is a historic time in British politics. What happens in the next months and years will shape our country for generations.

My successor will inherit a party that is needed now more than ever before. Our future as an open, tolerant and united country is at stake.

The cause of British liberalism has never been needed more. People who will fight for a Britain that is confident, generous and compassionate are needed more than ever before.

That is the challenge our party and my successor faces and the opportunity I am certain that they will rise to.

I want to say one more thing: I joined our party when I was 16, it is in my blood, I love our history, our people, I thoroughly love my party.

Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.

In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.”

Farron supports same-sex marriage and supports abortion rights, but that was not enough for his media inquisitors. They wanted to know if he thought those things were sinful. It wasn’t enough for him to pledge to defend gay rights and abortion rights. It wasn’t even enough for him to clarify that no, he doesn’t think that gay sex is a sin (a heterodox position for a Christian to take, but he took it.) No, Farron had to think correct thoughts, and to have thought them at all times, clearly, or be shamed and hounded out of public life. As he has been.

At least in the end, he learned that it profits a man nothing to gain the world if he loses his soul.

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

We live in an age in which our liberal media elite and most people who call themselves Christian in social surveys treat liberalism and Christianity as strangers to themselves and each other. Farron sought relief from his public trial by recalling the proud history of his faith in the reformation of British politics. No one wanted to hear it. He called upon the decency and forbearance that are supposed to mark British society. There is none left.‌

Unlike Tim Farron, I think the creative tension between political liberalism and Christian orthodoxy has ceased to be creative and is now just tension. But it is hard not to respect his witness. Today is the day Tim Farron landed on a truth in his statement: “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” The truth has set him free.

Truth.

You saw last week Sen. Bernie Sanders declaring that an Evangelical Christian nominee for a budget office position in the Trump Administration was unfit for public service because of a private theological opinion he holds about the fate of Muslims in the afterlife. You saw a Christian colleague of Sanders’s, a Democrat who is a theological universalist, agree with him; the Evangelical nominee is the wrong kind of Christian, apparently, at least for these two Democratic senators.

We are not yet in the same place as Britain regarding Christianity and liberal, Democratic party politics. But we’re getting there very quickly. Ask yourself: what stands in the way of the US devolving into British-style bigotry? No laws were broken in the hounding of Tim Farron from political life. It was just the relentless pressure from secular bigots in the media, and, one presumes, at least some liberal voters.

A couple of years ago, columnist Damon Linker — himself a liberal — denounced liberal intolerance of Christianity. He wrote:

Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism’s moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.

That is a betrayal of what’s best in the liberal tradition.

Liberals should be pleased and express gratitude when people do good deeds, whether or not those deeds are motivated by faith. They should also be content to give voluntary associations (like religious colleges) wide latitude to orient themselves to visions of the human good rooted in traditions and experiences that transcend liberal modernity — provided they don’t clash in a fundamental way with liberal ideals and institutions.

In the end, what we’re seeing is an effort to greatly expand the list of beliefs, traditions, and ways of life that fundamentally clash with liberalism. That is an effort that no genuine liberal should want to succeed.

What happened to a liberalism of skepticism, modesty, humility, and openness to conflicting notions of the highest good? What happened to a liberalism of pluralism that recognizes that when people are allowed to search for truth in freedom, they are liable to seek and find it in a multitude of values, beliefs, and traditions? What happened to a liberalism that sees this diversity as one of the finest flowers of a free society rather than a threat to the liberal democratic order?

It’s going away, fast. Today the Democratic Party will tolerate Christians like Tim Kaine, a Catholic who supports abortion rights though he is personally opposed to abortion. For how much longer will they? And is it possible for any Democrat to succeed in national party politics without being 100 percent on board with every gay rights claim, even those made at the expense of religious liberty?

If it is, it won’t be much longer. There are no restraining forces in liberal politics, or in the institutions of liberalism (media, academia, etc). As I’ve said again and again: there are conservative Christians who may not like Donald Trump or approve of him, but who voted for him because they are confident that the Democrats hate them and would seek to do them harm. I believe they are correct in their judgment of the Democrats, though not necessarily of Donald Trump. The point is that these Christians are not afraid of a phantom here. This liberal intolerance is real. Britain is farther along the road than we in the US are, but we’re getting there.

It’s not only going to be in politics. What does gay rights have to do with soccer? A Christian female soccer player quit the national team last week rather than wear the gay pride jersey the team decreed its players must wear. Believers who work for companies are going to be required to declare themselves “allies” of the LGBT community, either formally or informally, or fall under suspicion. If you think you can declare yourself an ally and retain your faith-based dissent quietly, think again. One day, you will be asked why you attend a bigot church if you aren’t a bigot yourself. And so on.

Liberals will say it won’t happen here. Don’t believe them. There is no reason to believe them at all. None. True, there are some liberals who oppose this intolerant, illiberal trend within their tribe, but they are not the determinative factor.

Hear me clearly: Christians have to fight this politically and legally with all we have. But we also have to prepare for serious and painful trials ahead. The grounds for political and legal victories in the future are fast eroding. From The Benedict Option:

The practical challenges facing us are unlike any that most believers in this country have ever dealt with. Schools and colleges—morally, spiritually, and vocationally—will have to prepare young believers for some increasingly harsh realities.

Because of florists, bakers, and photographers having been dragged through the courts by gay plaintiffs, we now know that some orthodox Christians will lose their businesses and their livelihoods if they refuse to recognize the new secular orthodoxies. We can expect that many more Christians will either be denied employment opportunities by licensing or other professional requirements, because they have been driven out of certain workplaces by outright bigotry or by dint of the fact that they cannot in good conscience work in certain fields. What will they do?

If we aren’t thinking about these questions and talking about them seriously within our churches and Christian communities, we are fools. We don’t have a lot of time here. Tim Farron is a Christian canary in the coal mine. We had better have a Plan B.

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Note From A Bisexual

A reader writes:

I am bisexual, although in a mild way.  What that means is that there are very few men I am attracted to (probably less than 5% would be a good estimate — if there’s 4-5 I see in a year who visually attract me, that’s a very “bi” year) whereas I notice attractive women all the time, as in every single day.  But … within that small framework, it’s undeniable — I had a crush as a kid on another boy (again, one crush as opposed to dozens on girls, but it did happen and was real and like girl crushes), and as I say very rarely I will notice someone who is male who is attractive to me in that way — it’s always notable to me because it is so uncommon.  After my divorce about 15 years ago I had a long-distance relationship with a younger man for about 9 months (he didn’t have anything to do with the divorce, I met him a couple of years later), and I fell in love with him and all that, so I know I am bisexual, but it just doesn’t commonly manifest.

I suppose this was probably “always there” to some degree — after all I did have the crush when I was young (I think it was 7th or 8th grade).  But, I also do not doubt that if I had been growing up today I would have acted on my curiosity about this aspect of me much more when I was younger.  I did not, for various reasons (the strongest one being fear of getting sick — I am your age, and came of age during the AIDS crisis, which struck me as being a bad time to explore this in any great detail, especially since I was much more attracted to women anyway), but I think that if I had the same aspect and were growing up today, I likely would have acted on my curiosity about this rather small side of myself much, much more than I did, and I would have identified myself, to myself, as bisexual likely very early on due to that boyhood crush (I actually never considered myself bisexual until I had that relationship, because it was always so marginal compared to my attraction to women), and likely would have acted on that much more because it would have been a more firm identity.  So I think you are quite correct that the environment in total has an impact on whether marginal cases, like me, end up acting out very much on these things, especially while younger and in formation.  However, I think it is also correct that some of this is wired in — I was not molested, had a decent, not perfect, father, and so on.  It just was always there, but never prominently there (for me).  I think a different environment can take a marginal case like me, when young, and make him act out on these things in a way that he otherwise might not have done.

Of course, after my relationship with that guy ended, I repented of it when I returned to the Church and it’s clear to me that the sexual aspects of that kind of relationship are clearly sinful.  But in terms of the origins of them, at least in my experience, it was a mix of nature and nurture — nature having them be there to begin with, and nurture (or anti-nurture) discouraging me from acting on them — which would be kind of opposite from where we are today.  So I think the point is well-made, but there is also a nature component involved to some degree.

Note I think that this analysis doesn’t apply in the same way to women.  Women, in my experience, are often (not always, but often) much more sexually fluid and “flexible” than men are, and more contextual, and this isn’t really related to the rise of LGBT activism in the 00s.  Women have been acting out on sexual fluidity with other women since the start of the sexual revolution, really, and it appears to be a very different kind of thing than male homosexual/bisexual activity.  Although I am obviously not a woman, I would guess that we are seeing marginally more women self-identify as bisexual (that part is new), but not a hugely different number of women actually participating in some same-sex activity — the latter isn’t new, and it isn’t like male homosexuality because women do appear to be more contextually flexible and fluid in their attractions (again, not all, but many).  So while I can understand why both young men and women are more prone to use the bisexual label, I think the real change here is likely among the men, in terms of actual same-sex activity because it was always high-ish among women (at least relative to what it has been among men generally speaking, in *our* culture, rather than Greece/Rome, etc.).

UPDATE: Sorry, I should have indicated that this note is a follow-up to the “Born This Way? Really?” post about nature, nurture, and sexuality. If you haven’t read that one, this one won’t make a lot of sense.

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Views From Your Table

Munich, Germany

That was second breakfast, after the Corpus Christi mass on the Marienplatz. It was hot today in Munich. What, you expect Christian men to not have a cold beer after standing in the sun for over an hour? We sat outside the Andescher am Dom cafe behind the Frauenkirche with our friends, and drank helles lager and ate the best pretzels imaginable, with mustard.

Munich, Germany

For a late lunch, we went to the biergarten in the Englischer Garten park. That’s my wurst and sauerkraut on the left, and a cold helles lager.

Tomorrow, I need to be sure to order pork knuckles, and more Bavarian sausage. I am just the wurst, I tell you.

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View From Your Table

Munich, Germany

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Tradition And Traditions

Greetings from Munich. This week, I have been in Trento, in northern Italy, attending a conference about the role of Tradition in contemporary American, European, and Russian life. I was there with a group of academics from all three places. The conference was more of a workshop than a formal event. I’m still trying to get my thoughts about what I heard sorted, but I do want to present you with some preliminary insights.

To protect the anonymity of the participants, I will not identify them or attribute particular comments to particular persons. It’s not that people said anything scandalous, but rather that I wanted people to be free to say what was on their minds without having to worry about being quoted. I will honor that here. I am also hesitant to attribute this or that view to members of a particular group, because it is possible, even likely, that those within the group dissent. Please read what follows as subject to clarification or correction. I offer all of this to spark discussion here.

With that out of the way, here we go.

I noticed at the beginning a sense among many of us that the others had an unrealistic idea of what conditions were in our own home countries. For example, the Russians were eager to counter the view of American traditionalists (like me) that looks to Russia as a defender of traditional Christian moral and religious values. Some of the Russians present are religious believers, others are not, but there seems to be a general consensus that there is much less to this religious revival in Russia than sympathetic Americans think.

One Russian contended that what is being reborn in Russia is not Christian tradition but Soviet tradition that has been lightly baptized. He said that the trauma of totalitarian communist rule destroyed Russian Orthodox traditions. The only clergy who survived the persecution were those who collaborated with the Soviets.

Other Russians disagreed with this. Nevertheless, it seemed to me useful to consider in our own American context how what we call “traditional values” may not really be all that traditional. It is surely true that in some cases, we are investing a particular set of political, or cultural-political, stances with the authority of tradition. This is misleading. “Tradition” can be a useful concept for pushing through a political agenda. Some of the Russians talked about how what is being portrayed as a religious revival is actually little more than a revival of nationalism, with religious sanction.

We may argue over what “tradition” means in Russia and in various European societies, but nobody denies that traditions exist. As I rode the train north through the Alps of Italy, Austria, and Bavaria, I was struck repeatedly by the age of the built landscape. Look at that medieval church built on that outcropping. Does anybody pray in it anymore? Maybe not, but cultural memory is hard to avoid. Tradition took particular forms — artistic, architectural, social, and so forth — as it evolved in European countries.

Not so in the US. What does “tradition” mean in a country and society where the tradition is anti-traditional? America is an Enlightenment nation, which was consciously and affirmatively anti-traditional. Our dynamism as Americans comes in large part from our anti-traditional orientation, including our individualism.

This, I think, accounted for the difficulties that some of the non-American participants had grasping how quickly and radically the situation is changing in the United States. Even though all of us come from countries and societies that are in transition, Europe and Russia have more stable traditions — not necessarily religious ones. I might be wrong about this, but I intuit that this has something to do with why the Manif Pour Tous movement to preserve the forms and privileges of traditional marriages and families emerged in France but not the United States — even though the level of religiosity is much higher in the US.

One of the European participants who reads this blog said that it is hard to believe that things in the US are as dire as this blog often depicts them. Several of the Americans (other than me) affirmed that yes, they are — particularly in academia. They offered particular accounts of how discussions regarding gender and sexuality that ought to be a normal part of the educational process are now off-limits — and the professional and personal costs of violating these new, severe taboos. How do you defend any kind of tradition that conflicts with these norms when dissenting from them can mean social and professional ostracism at best, and career suicide at worst?

Moreover, this new, rigidly intolerant way of thinking is colonizing the minds of the younger generation of Americans. One professor said that his students simply cannot understand why any decent person would disagree with them on LGBT matters. This is not a matter of them thinking that the moral or religious traditionalist is wrong. It is a matter of the older view being utterly incomprehensible. It is, therefore, either wicked, morally insane, or both. In private conversation, I related the story of a theologian I know who cannot risk teaching in his Catholic university what the Catholic Church proclaims is moral truth on sexuality — not even as a topic for classroom discussion. He fears that his students will protest that he has created an “unsafe space” in the classroom, will protest to the university administration, and he will be sanctioned or fired.

The idea that a professor cannot even discuss things like marriage, family, and religious freedom as they relate to LGBT matters unless he takes the pro-LGBT line without reservation — this was hard for some of the non-Americans to comprehend.

One of the Russians expressed frustration that the most contentious issues regarding religion and tradition have to do with homosexuality. He believes that Christianity has nothing to do with homosexuality, and that Christians who insist that it does are making a big deal out of nothing important. This was a minority view among the Russian delegation, though some of those more sympathetic to Orthodox tradition said that the strong hostility to LGBT issues in Russia has a lot more to do with sheer prejudice than with theological reflection. This they rightly deplore — and they certainly expressed disgust with the cruelty and abuses that thugs are heaping upon gay Russians.

On the other hand, things have gone so far in the opposite direction in the US, and for the same reason (mindless prejudice and hatred of the Other), that it is easy for us traditionalist Americans to understand why Russians have so much hostility to the idea of expanding gay rights. And it’s easy why Russians would take the lesson from our example that expanding tolerance on LGBT issues only opens the door to radical intolerance once LGBT activists and their supporters gain the upper hand.

The question of Islam arose as well. Modern laws, in both Europe and the US, are based not on religion, but on a secular conception of rights. True, secular liberalism emerged out of Christianity, but takes a more neutral stance towards particular religions. How will European countries deal with believing Muslims among them? Believing Christians within European nations may now be a minority, but nobody expects them to disturb the civil peace. That’s not true with Muslims, obviously. Yes, yes, not all Muslims, and so forth. But no serious person in Europe today believes that they don’t have a very, very difficult problem on their hands. Besides which, how do you respect the legitimate desires of Muslim Europeans to live by their own traditions? Where do you draw the line?

Obviously we don’t have nearly this problem in the US, owing in part to the fact that we are much better at assimilating immigrants, and that we don’t have a large Muslim population. I sensed within myself, at least, a struggle to get inside the heads of Europeans regarding Islam in their civilization. As an American who strongly believes in religious freedom, my first impulse is always to defer to maximal religious expression. Yet that ideal cannot obscure the fact that Europeans face an immensely dangerous and complex problem. One question the emerges from it: How do a people whose religious traditions are diminishing in importance fare when confronted by a minority people whose devotion to religious tradition is strong?

At one point, the group talked about how hard it is to establish and preserve a modus vivendi (way of living peaceably together) in a pluralistic society. One speaker said that if one side gets too much power, it becomes impossible to do. He said that the United States is not there yet. I disagreed, saying that we are very much getting there with the clash between LGBT rights and religious liberty. The secular elites — political, business, media, entertainment — having either gone over to the progressive side, or, in the case of conservative politicians and far too many religious leaders, having chosen to avoid speaking out for fear of being called bigots — has tipped the balance. What many of my fellow cultural and religious conservatives don’t grasp is that in a short while, the balance among the people will also tip to the pro-LGBT side, given that traditional views are disproportionately concentrated among older Americans.

And then what? One of the problems I see with the stance taken by Prof. Robert George of Princeton (see this short video conversation on the Benedict Option with George and Sen. Ben Sasse) is that the to-the-culture-war-barricades stance he takes is radically insufficient. I agree with him that we have to fight as hard as we can! But what good will our freedoms do us if we have lost our own internal cultures? The Benedict Option is not an either-or, but a both-and — with greater emphasis on cultural formation, not legal and political combat. Anyway, I will write more about the George-Sasse conversation later.

Another topic: one professor brought up what he termed “the Hasidic mistake,” defined as believing that preserving authentic Jewish tradition requires dressing like 18th century shtetl-dwellers. He certainly has a point. On the other hand, it’s also the case that ideals have to be instantiated materially — in art, architecture, customs, practices, and yes, even clothing. The trick is determining which of those things are vital to keeping the tradition alive, and which are not. And that brings us back to the point that some of the Russians made at the conference’s beginning: that what constitutes authentic tradition is a matter of real and consequential dispute. An American law professor observed that in the US, the progressives are trying to redefine religious liberty as the more restrictive “freedom of worship,” and calling it consistent with American tradition, though it certainly is not.

Later, walking through the streets of Trento and talking, one of the American conferees said he was struck by how different the Russians’ problems were from ours, but also how similar. Both of us are dealing with the role of the State with regard to the life of religious believers — in the Russian case, with the State bigfooting everything, in part through political co-optation, and in the American case with the State moving towards restricting religious liberty. It occurs to me that the weakness of religious tradition in both countries as a counterforce to modernity accounts for the common crisis.

The Russians who brought up my book The Benedict Option were somewhat critical of it (constructively, I might add, which was welcome), but they all agreed that it should be translated and published in Russia, because the thesis is relevant to Russia’s own struggles. That surprised and gratified me, as did the interest the European conferees showed in the book. I finished this post on the train from Trento to Munich, where Matt and I will be staying with some Catholic fans of The Benedict Option. I look forward to hearing their ideas, and learning how we tradition-minded Christians can all work together. It has been a good week for that kind of fellowship.

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