Rod Dreher

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That Time My Uncle Took Me To A Whorehouse



During our big move, I was startled and delighted to come across this old t-shirt of mine. It was presented to me outside a Natchez whorehouse on my 15th birthday by my Uncle Murphy, who had taken me and my buddy there to celebrate my big day.

Let me explain.

Uncle Murphy — Big Guy, as we called him — was a chronic prankster. When I turned 13 or so, he started telling me, “Boy, when you turn 15, I’m going to take you to Nellie’s to get you broken in.”

Nellie’s was a legendary Natchez bordello that operated openly, not far from downtown. Miss Nellie Jackson, a black woman from Woodville, Miss., was the longtime proprietor — and believe it or not, was a beloved local figure. She got around town in a white Lincoln, and favored French poodles. Here’s a clip from an Indiegogo appeal for funding to support a documentary about Nellie’s life and times:

Here’s the website for the film. I hope they make it.

Anyway, as my 15th birthday approached, Big Guy started the drumbeat. I was scared to death. Scared. To. Death. One Saturday evening, he arrived at our house with three friends, and picked my buddy and me up. We were going to Natchez. I wanted out, but my dad said I needed to go through with it. Secretly, I thought Big Guy wouldn’t really take two 15 year old boys to a Natchez brothel … but what if he did? You shouldn’t put anything past him.

We motored the hour or so north on Highway 61, and went to the house of his old friend Dickie Prescott, who was waiting for us. Dickie mixed a blender full of daiquiris, and gave one to each of us boys. Our courage having been boosted by the first drink either of us ever had, Big Guy, Dickie, and their pal Walt took us out to the Oldsmobile and drove us over to Nellie’s.

I was shaking. This was really going to happen.

We pulled up to the place — which I wasn’t entirely sure was real until I saw it — and there, in the backyard, was a statuesque Vietnamese woman hanging out laundry in a clingy dress. It was a warm February day.

“Boys, get on out,” said Big Guy, opening his door.

To tell the truth, I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I recall standing there in the driveway with my friend as Big Guy presented us with t-shirts he’d had made commemorating our visit. Our names were embossed on the back. Pictures were taken. I have the shot somewhere in a box at home, but I’m not going to post it, to protect the image of my childhood pal. I recall that my face in it looks stricken with utter anxiety, while his was filled with let’s go, boys! anticipation.

Of course we didn’t go in. That had never been the plan. (Though I wonder: what if we had begged to go in and sample the wares? What would Murphy have done? Had he gone through with it, my mother would have killed him, buried him, dug up the body, and shot him again). The guys piled us two virginal striplings back into the Olds, went back for their wives, and we all headed to a fancy restaurant for a birthday dinner. Murphy got us good and drunk, and deposited us back at my house at midnight.

photo-32-300x225We didn’t get anything at Nellie’s other than a pretty good story. Big Guy died in 1987 (I’ve written many times about his self-designed tombstone, won in a card game, with its epitaph, “This ain’t bad — once you get used to it”). Nellie outlived him, but she did not survive the Mississippi frat boy who showed up late one night at her bordello, drunk, and was refused entry. He returned with a gas can, doused her and the cathouse with gasoline, and set them on fire. She was 87, and had been running her brothel for 60 years. From a newspaper story about her after her death:

For many people, Nellie Jackson was a legend because of her acts of kindness to neighbors and strangers alike.

“She was an utterly kind person,” said Joan Gandy, managing editor of the Natchez Democrat and a close friend. “I never know her to have hard feeling toward another. At her house, she had standards. She would not let anyone in drunk or after midnight.

“She cared about the young women who worked there. If they called up two years later needing help, she would help.”

She also helped if someone had been burned out of their house, or if someone needed help to go to school, or if some of the city’s nuns needed a ride to Baton Rouge or catch an airplane, or, in the Civil Rights troubles of the 1960s, a black activist needed help getting out of jail.

These acts of charity and the fact that she ran a quiet business are the main reasons Nellie Jackson managed to operate all those years with impunity. Natchez itself was the other reason.

“This has always been an open kind of community, being a river town with a bawdy reputation,” said Gandy. “Things are accepted here for what they are.”

Whatever you think the South is, you’re probably wrong, as I keep discovering the older I get. This is a deeply weird place, and I can’t think of a better place to be a writer and observer of the human condition.

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View From Your Table

Coupeville, Washington

Coupeville, Washington

The reader writes:

Northwest berries — boysenberry, loganberry, marionberry — on the Keystone Spit near the ferry dock to Port Townsend, on the Olympic Peninsula.

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Old Home, New Home



So, that was the view from my front porch on Friday. When we took our most beloved icon out, we knew that was it: we were gone. You’ll recognize the background from the cover of Little Way:


In the photo above, the rocking chairs are gone. The porch swing is gone. And now, so are we.

I’ll miss that old house. It was our first home when we moved back to my hometown. It was, it is, a beautiful old house, and we had so many good times there. Hated to move, but the family that owns it did not want to sell — I don’t blame them one bit — and we were ready to put down roots. We now live a mile from my mom and dad, and a mile from church, in Starhill. And a wonderful young couple is moving in to take our place. We passed them as we moved our chickens out, and they moved some things in. I know they’ll love the place as much as we did.

So, on to a new chapter in our family’s life. The hens are in a new place too. The words are Latin for “Bless this nest.” It seemed appropriately homeschooley and nerdy for us:



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Against The Emerging Dhimmitude

First, let me ask your pardon for my absence since yesterday, and the unprecedented (for this blog) delay in approving comments. We moved out of town into a house we bought out in Starhill, closer to my parents and to our church. The move took much longer than we anticipated; I finished my part at 8:30 last night, but poor Julie is still at the old house cleaning as I write this at 10:45 pm. Wifi is not working in the new house, and frankly, I’m too damn tired and bleary-eyed to get on the iPhone and try to approve comments. [UPDATE: It's Saturday, and I had to go to a store in a nearby town for more moving supplies; I'm sitting in the parking lot of a coffee shop just long enough to transmit this. No time even to approve comments. -- RD] I’m writing this late Friday night, having just settled the kids into bed, walked the dog, and stretched out for the first time since six a.m. Friday. God willing, the only other move I will have to make will be just down the road, to the Starhill Cemetery, when my time comes.

Second, I want to say a little more about my cancelling my New York Times subscription over the Josh Barro tweet.

After I posted yesterday, I learned that my friend Alan Jacobs had cancelled his Times subscription earlier in the week, furious at a stupid and bigoted column by Timothy Egan that compared the five Catholic Supreme Court justices to ISIS and Boko Haram. Alan wrote that he’s finally had enough of the Times‘s attitude on these matters, which in his view seeks to make it impossible for traditional religious believers to live in this country (I’m paraphrasing; I can’t access at the moment the tumblr post in which he announced this.)

I completely agree with this. Nobody cancels, or should cancel, their newspaper subscription over a single offensive column, or a single arrogant tweet by a reporter. It’s far, far more true that no one should cancel a subscription to the best overall newspaper in the world over a single incident, or two incidents. And I did not. Nor, I suspect, did Alan.

What Barro’s tweet was for me, and Egan’s ope-ed for Alan, was the tipping point. I have been reading the Times as a subscriber for nearly 20 years. It sometimes made me furious, it sometimes thrilled me, it usually made me think, and I was almost always grateful for it. I started my Times subscription in south Florida, kept it when I moved to New York City, held on to it when I moved to Dallas, then in Philly, and stuck with the digital version in St. Francisville. I’ve been with the Times for longer than I’ve known my wife. We have a relationship, that newspaper and I.

It has never been friendly to conservatives, of course, and that’s just part of the deal. But the Times plays things reasonably straight — except on coverage of social and religious conservatives. This is not just my view; it’s the unapologetic view of Bill Keller, the former executive editor. A few years ago, Keller said at a conference in Austin that the paper didn’t even try to be evenhanded in its cultural coverage.

[UPDATE: Here’s the quote, from a TMatt column:

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. … We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

Even though I care about culture and religion more than anything else, I gritted my teeth and read the paper anyway. It was worth it. Besides, they employ David Brooks and they hired Ross Douthat, and that counts for a lot in my book.

I’ve noticed, though, that as gay rights became more prominent in the public square, and as the Times took on a no-holds-barred advocacy role (it’s not just me saying that; two former NYT ombudsmen have made the same observation; I don’t have the links available to me, but you can easily look it up), it’s attitude toward religious believers anywhere to the right of the Episcopal Church left became increasingly nasty. Now the Times not only didn’t try to be fair, it seemed to go out of its way to be hostile. Look, I expect the Times to give ample coverage to gay issues, given the particular prominence of the gay community in NYC, and among the creative elites the paper keeps its eye on. I’m not sure when it happened, or why it happened, but at some point I started to think that the Times really does hate social and religious conservatives. I mean hate.

I worked as a newspaper journalist in New York City, and I perfectly well know that people like me – normal and mainstream in most of America — are considered freaks in that milieu. Again, it’s just part of the deal. You roll with it. Yet now, we are seeing the world change very fast, to the point where simply holding the views I do as a Christian about marriage and sexuality – views that were nearly universal when I was born, and views that are deeply and explicitly grounded in sacred Scripture – marks one as a pariah. For me, the Brendan Eich thing was a defining moment, one that told me the kind of thing orthodox Christians are going to be fighting for decades.

The Times is a cheerleader for this kind of thing. Something snapped in me when I read the Barro tweet. He said out loud what I believe most people in news and editorial at the Times say only among themselves: that people like me should be ruthlessly driven out of the public square over our views on homosexuality and related issues. When I read it, I realized that the Times is going to keep doing this, and thinking themselves paladins of virtue for doing so.

People say, “Oh, so you think we should embrace anti-LGBT bias?” There’s the rub: for one, I don’t think the kind of things I and many orthodox Christians believe constitutes bigotry, but I know that’s not an argument I’m going to win with critics. But more importantly, I think that yes, we should tolerate a certain amount of anti-LGBT bias, and anti-Jewish bias, and anti-Christian bias, and on and on, as the price of living in a pluralist polity.

Anti-Christian bias hurts communities. I wish people didn’t hold it. But I don’t believe in ruthlessly tarring people who hate Christians, and making them outcasts in society. For one thing, who decides what is malicious anti-Christian bias, and what is fair criticism of Christians and Christianity? I think it fair to say that the late Christopher Hitchens was a bigot as far as Christians and other religious people are concerned. So what? Should he have been exiled from polite society, ruthlessly suppressed, and made unemployable and despised? Absolutely not! He was about far more than his prejudices, and besides, even though I believed he was a terrible anti-Christian bigot, I sometimes learned from his splenetic criticism from time to time.

Besides, I don’t want to live in a society in which anything that offends the majority, or a powerful minority, must be hunted down and snuffed out, and the people who believe those things pushed to the margins. In my town in the 1990s, a gay man with AIDS moved to die. He was a stranger. People from at least one of the churches helped care for him and his partner until he died. Do I think those people held what Josh Barro and the NYT considers to be “anti-LGBT bias”? Yeah, many, maybe most, of them probably did. But they loved that poor man, and helped him and his partner till the very end. I’ve seen white people who are deep down racial bigots go out of their way to help black people. If you look around outside of your bubble, you will find that people who hold views you would find despicable do good and noble works.

Why? Because people are complicated.

I want a world in which LGBTs, Christians, Muslims, atheist, libertarians, socialists, and the whole lot have a reasonable amount of freedom to live and work and practice their religion (or lack thereof), without being oppressed and stigmatized. It’s not a perfect world. But we all know that people who seek perfection and purity can easily turn into monsters in the process of purging the world of evil. If I could, I would outlaw pornography. But as a conservative, I know that the process of trying to purge the world of pornography would turn people like me into monsters, and probably cause a greater evil than the one I was trying to extirpate.

The world the New York Times is trying to bring about is a world in which the only thing that matters about Christians like me is our opinion on LGBT issues. They are actively anti-religious, except for Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) who behave like good dhimmis — that is, second-class citizens who know their place and who do not challenge the social order. The Times and its reporters and writers — Barro, Egan, and all the rest — are going to continue on with their hateful and illiberal and unjust project of purifying the public square of anti-gay thoughtcrime, and all manifestation of traditional religion that offends their progressive sensibilities.

But they’re not going to do it with my money.

I hope to be back online by Monday. Thanks again for your patience. All comments will be approved (or at least read) eventually.

UPDATE: One more thing, and I think it’s important. I can’t speak for Alan — I have not talked to him about this — but it seems to me a loss that he and I feel as if we can no longer in good conscience be part of the Times’s conversation. I subscribed to the Times for so long because it really and truly is a great newspaper. I care about a lot of the things it writes about, and loved the Times being part of my thinking, and of being part of the Times community, broadly speaking. I’m sure it was the same thing for Alan. He teaches in a university; I’m a writer. We are both part of diverse worlds in which we deal every day with people different — sometimes very different — from ourselves. To conclude that the Times is actively trying to create conditions in which people like us — orthodox Christians (he’s Anglican, I’m Russian Orthodox — are hated, stigmatized, and driven from public life is no small thing. For many, many years, I have defended the NYT from conservative friends who hate the paper, but who don’t really understand why it does the things it does, and what makes it great, and worth supporting, despite its flaws. I still do this with NPR around certain conservative friends (and I also support NPR financially). NPR is hopelessly liberal in its biases, but it’s also a great news organization, one from which I learn every single day. I get the idea that NPR doesn’t really understand people like me (social and religious conservatives), or care to learn much. But — and this is a key difference between NPR and the NYT — I also don’t think NPR hates us and would like to see us go away.

Finally, let me underscore that for me, this is not just about LGBT (and for Alan, LGBT never came up). Timothy Egan, in his execrably anti-religion column, never mentioned gay issues. I have found, though, that on the issues I most care about, the Times uses LGBT as a way to marginalize orthodox Catholics, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives. Look at this: according to figures you can get from the NYT’s own database, the NYT covers gays — a tiny percentage of the US population — more than it covers Catholics.  Of course this is a problematic conclusion. “Gays” and “Catholics” are not exclusive terms, among other things. Besides, the gay community in NYC is much bigger than elsewhere, and more influential. Still, as a 20-year NYT subscriber, I agree with the past ombudsmen: the NYT is wildly disproportionate in its coverage of gay issues relative to other populations and their issues — and it distorts the paper’s perspective on its own biases. The men and women who run that newspaper literally do not understand their own country.

Daniel Okrent, former NYT ombudsman, once wrote that:

But it’s one thing to make the paper’s pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls (European papers, aligned with specific political parties, have been doing it for centuries), and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don’t think it’s intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn’t have to be intentional.

The gay marriage issue provides a perfect example. Set aside the editorial page, the columnists or the lengthy article in the magazine (”Toward a More Perfect Union,” by David J. Garrow, May 9) that compared the lawyers who won the Massachusetts same-sex marriage lawsuit to Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. That’s all fine, especially for those of us who believe that homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexuals.

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.

That was 10 years ago. It’s only gotten worse. Former exec editor Bill Keller openly said that when it comes to social and religious conservatism, error has no rights to be treated fairly at the NYT. Now that we’re starting to see that “error has no rights” mentality applied to life outside the Times bubble in American life, I see the Times as a threat to my future, and the future of my children and my community.

UPDATEHere’s Jacobs’s post:

The historical blindness, moral obtuseness, and self-satisfied pomposity of this op-ed by Timothy Egan is only the most recent in a long line of New York Timespieces meant to incite hatred of religious believers. But it’s the last one I’ll read. I have canceled my subscription and will no longer read anything published in that newspaper, with the exception of columns and blog posts by my friend Ross Douthat.

If journalistic integrity, elementary fairness, and the peace of our nation mean anything to you, I would suggest that you try to find a way to protest the combination of belligerence and utter ignorance that has come to characterize almost all of the NYT’s coverage of religion, especially American religion.

And I see from the comments section that the great Ken Myers, creator and host of Mars Hill Audio Journal, has also cancelled his Times subscription:

I’ve been reading the Times religiously (a paradoxical adverb, right now) since 1969. I just cancelled my subscription, and told the nice clerk who processed my cancellation that the Times’s smug prejudice toward traditional religious beliefs had just become too much. When asked what I liked about the Times, I told her the arts coverage and the seriousness of its international news. But those assets no longer outweigh its characteristics as (as Alasdair MacIntrye characterized it in 1988) “that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment.”

For a while, I enjoyed Stanley Fish’s NYT blog, in which, honest postmodernist that he is, he attempted to gleefully deconstruct the untenability of Enlightenment reason. It was fun watching the altar guild huff and puff at his sacrilege. For a while.

Rod, thanks for defining a tipping point.


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The Powerful Bigotry Of The Secular Left

Damon Linker goes after it. He says he used to be a social conservative, but turned away from the movement — yep, I remember the moment of his apostasy — but moved to the left, accepting gay marriage and all the rest. He hated the way conservatives a decade ago treated liberals. Now, he’s still a social liberal, but he’s standing up for the other side against liberal intolerance. Excerpt:

Liberals usually pride themselves on defending minority rights against the tyranny of the majority — and above all when the tyranny threatens to become more than metaphorical through the use of the coercive powers of the government. Yet when it comes to the rights of religious traditionalists, many liberals seem indifferent, and more than a few seem overtly hostile.

That’s what I’ve been calling out in my recent controversial columns — about Brendan Eich, aboutHobby Lobby, about stupid New York Times op-eds. When the theocons threatened to turn secular liberals into a persecuted minority, I objected. And now, with gay rights activists treating social conservatives like heretics and federal regulators threatening to force religious traditionalists to violate their consciences, I’m doing the same.

“But you’re saying we need to tolerate the intolerant!” — I see that objection every time I write something critical of liberal dogmatism and bigotry.

To which my stock response is: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying — because that’s what liberalism is, or should be, all about. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — disagreement. That’s why it’s called tolerance and not endorsement or affirmation.

Reading the irate responses to the Hobby Lobby decision, I get the feeling that some liberals not-so-secretly long to see social conservatives suffer for the sin of upholding sexual teachings that clash with liberal norms.

I’m sorry, but that’s not a liberal sentiment, no matter how many so-called liberals express it.

Amen. Thank you. Read the whole thing.

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Josh Barro Wins The Wall Street Journal A New Subscriber


Josh Barro is a New York Times reporter. I’m not surprised by this. What I am surprised by is that he actually said in public what many of his colleagues surely believe in private.

The Law Of Merited Impossibility: It’s not going to happen, and when it does, you people will bloody well deserve it. 

And The New York Times will be right there to cheer it on.

If you are the sort of person who thinks traditional Christians are “obsessed” with sex, you need to think about how it would feel to you to you to read a tweet that said, “Pro-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly.”

I am not what you would call “pro-LGBT,” but if I read something like that, it would deeply alarm me, and I would fight against it. The thing is, Josh Barro is not an idiot. He wouldn’t have tweeted something like that if he thought there was any chance that it would cost him professionally.

Regarding The New York Times, as a longtime subscriber (almost 20 years), I’ve been like the put-upon Episcopalian who has said for years, with each passing outrage, “If they do just one more thing, I’m out of here” — but who never leaves.

This morning, I left. Cancelled my subscription. I don’t expect the Times to reflect my worldview, exactly, but I will not subsidize journalism put out by journalists who want to “stamp out, ruthlessly” the religious convictions of people like me.

On Monday, I will subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, which I’ve thought about doing for a couple of years, but never quite got around to because of my Times habit. Barro’s tweet is the last straw. Sorry Ross. Sorry David.

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View From Your Table

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans, Louisiana

Dessert at dinner tonight. The eater of the dessert was the great actor Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk Moreland in The Wire, and Antoine Batiste in Treme. TAC’s Noah Millman, who is also an independent film producer, and I had dinner with Wendell at Gautreau’s, on Soniat Street. Wendell has a role in a film Noah’s working on, and Wendell and I have been involved with a project together, more on which later. I’ve had the chance to get to know Wendell’s extended family, and it’s hard to express the degree of admiration I have for them, and for him. I’ve learned so much from the time I’ve spent with that family, and it has changed, and is changing, the way I see things. I’ll have to tell you about it sometime in the future, though. Suffice it to say that this time with them has been an unexpected and undeserved blessing.

I just got home from the city, and have to get up before daylight tomorrow to finish a TAC piece before the big move. This is the last night in our St. Francisville rental house. We’re moving tomorrow to the Starhill place we bought. Posting will be light on Friday. Y’all be good.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention something very odd that happened. Wendell was telling me late yesterday afternoon a very, very cool story about something Catholic he did (like many black South Louisianians, he’s Catholic), and I thought, “I’ve got to tell Raymond Arroyo about this.” Raymond, as you may know, is the anchorman who runs the news operation at EWTN. We’ve known each other for years, and have a funny habit of bumping into each other on trains, in bars, on the National Mall, and so forth. A couple of hours later, Wendell, Noah and I are having dinner, when who should walk in but … Raymond Arroyo! I kid you not. Raymond lives in DC, but he’s a New Orleans native, and just happened to be in town last night and meeting a couple of priests for dinner. Turns out Raymond went to NOCCA, the New Orleans performing arts high school. He and Wendell met last night as alums. What are the odds?

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It’s New Orleans, Baby


Overheard this conversation at a coffee shop on Magazine Street this morning:

Customer: “Thanks man, I appreciate you.”

Barista: “No man, I appreciate you. Have a great day.”

I love this state.

Readers, I’m in NOLA today for a pretty grueling day of work on a couple of writing projects. I’m not going to be able to update the blog often. Thanks for your patience.

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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?

UPDATE:  Approving the comments is frustrating, because no small number of you seem to believe that I think that defining “traditional Christianity” is all about sex. I do not — not in a theological or philosophical sense. Please stop saying, “If Christianity is only about sex, no wonder it’s dying.” I agree that the theological and philosophical essence of the divide has to do with how we know what Truth is, how we know what Authority is, and how we know how to stand in relation to it. Put another way, it has to do with whether or not there is a telos to which we must submit, or whether we can do whatever we want because there’s no essential meaning to the body, or anything else. Where the answer to that question/those questions becomes relevant to the public square — which is to say, at which point the theological and philosophical express themselves in the sociological and political — is on matters of sex and sexuality. That’s where the conflict is in this place, and in this time. I bet that if you had a room full of people representing all the churches in North America, the quickest way to determine who was “traditional” and who was modern is not to ask them about the Creed or anything else, but to ask them who accepts homosexuality as normal and who does not. Once you divided them according to that issue, I’d guess that nine times out of 10 further questioning would find deeper philosophical commonalities among those who agree on homosexuality, because how you think about homosexuality comes out of deeper philosophical and theological commitments.

Religion journalist Terry Mattingly devised the “TMatt Trio”: three questions, the answer to which neatly summons the divide between traditional and modern Christians in America today:

1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Only one of those has to do with sex — but only the sex question has to do with conflicts outside the realm of church circles. That is, only the sex question matters in the public square. Which was the whole point of this post. Please understand that before you comment.



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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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