In 1994, I visited a friend in Oslo, in the dead of winter. I was a new Catholic then, and determined to get to Sunday mass no matter what. My friend warned me not to expect much. Nobody goes to church anymore in Norway, she said. It’s true: church attendance in Norway is among the lowest in the world. My friend said that I should expect to be the only young person in the entire church.
It was hard for me, a Louisiana boy, to walk on the ice, so I arrived at Oslo’s Catholic cathedral, St. Olav’s, late for mass. When I opened the door, I could barely squeeze in. The cathedral was filled beyond capacity with Catholic worshippers! Seriously, there was barely any room to stand. Only a small minority of us were white. Most everybody else was either black African, Filipino, or Vietnamese.
I love Norway and Norwegians. I really do. But the white people of Norway were not at Sunday services in the Lutheran churches, to which the overwhelming majority of Norwegians belong. The immigrants were.
I wonder how Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham and other Evangelicals who have been big public Trump backers feel about the president designating countries where huge numbers of faith Christians live as “shitholes,” and saying he would prefer that America take in immigrants from godless Scandinavian countries.
To be clear, I think there’s nothing wrong with any country deciding what kind of immigrants it wants to let in. It’s perfectly reasonable to have that discussion.That’s not what this controversy is about. It’s about our vulgar president’s contempt for entire nations full of poor, non-white human beings.
From two days ago:
Complaining about the temperament of the @POTUS or saying his behavior is not presidential is no longer relevant. @realDonaldTrump has single-handedly changed the definition of what behavior is “presidential” from phony, failed & rehearsed to authentic, successful & down to earth
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) January 10, 2018
Other nations of the world — nations where you can find lots of people who pray to the same God as Messrs. Falwell, Jeffress, and Graham, and where lots of churches have supported missionary efforts for decades — are, to our authentic, successful, down-to-earth president, nothing but shitholes that produce the kind of garbage people we don’t want in America.
The thing speaks for itself…
UPDATE: Here’s what I think. If Trump had said, “We need to consider the kinds of immigrants we allow into this country, and make sure we are favoring those with skills America needs” — nobody would have said a critical word. But he used a vulgarism, and by contrasting it with “Norway” — which, as someone pointed out, is not a skill — left himself wide-open to plausible accusations of racism.
UPDATE.2: Well, there you go:
JUST IN to @TheBrodyFile : Pastor Robert Jeffress on President Trump’s immigration comments: “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.”Full statement here. @robertjeffress @realDonaldTrump @WhiteHouse @POTUS pic.twitter.com/tmSOyBrZRl
— David Brody (@TheBrodyFile) January 12, 2018
This won’t mean a thing to most people who read this blog, but if you’re 45 years old or older, and you grew up in the Baton Rouge area, you’ll be very sad to hear that Buckskin Bill Black died this week at age 88.
Bill Black began his television career as a cameraman and floorman. During that time, he wanted to create a television character that children could relate to. Black had worked his way through college as a rodeo clown and was a comic and emcee in army shows during his stint in the Korean War. He knew how to command an audience.
Black conceived of the idea of an Native American Indian scout. It was to be understood that the scout was not a real character, but one who could research and tell stories intended for a young audience. Dressed in buckskins, Black stepped in front of the television cameras and began a brand new show with the greeting “Chickama Scouts!” He became known as “Buckskin” Bill. Tens of thousands of performances later, he earned his place as one of Baton Rouge’s living legends.
Eventually Buckskin Bill created not one, but two children’s shows. Storyland aired weekday mornings at 9am and was geared to smaller children. The Buckskin Bill Show came on later at 3:30 p.m.-just in time for the older school crowd to tune in. In a week’s time, everyone from Cub Scouts to high school seniors appeared with him on the program.
Over the decades Buckskin Bill Black accomplished much in the way of community service through both his television programs and on his own time. He helped Baton Rouge acquire its first zoo and then raised money to buy its first two elephants.
It is hard to overstate what a big deal Buckskin Bill was to kids in the Baton Rouge area growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. In the clip above, Buckskin performs his final “Monday Morning March.” That music is so, so familiar. My mom told me that when I was very small, I used to put a colander on my head and march around the living room while watching Buckskin Bill. What a kind, loving presence he was on television. He made so many kids happy. Y’all Baton Rouge native readers remember his sign-off? “You’re never completely dressed till you put on a smile.”
Ah, memories. Thanks, Buckskin Bill. You were great.
The Federalist has some takeaways from James Damore’s civil suit against Google, which he accuses of discriminating against white male conservatives. You gotta see this stuff to believe the corporate culture there. Excerpts:
In a section claiming Google tries to “stifle” conservative parenting styles, the suit reads: “Google furnishes a large number of internal mailing lists catering to employees with alternative lifestyles, including furries, polygamy, transgenderism, and plurality, for the purpose of discussing sexual topics. The only lifestyle that seems to not be openly discussed on Google’s internal forums is traditional heterosexual monogamy.”
A footnote next to the word “plurality” adds: “For instance, an employee who sexually identifies as ‘a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin’ and ‘an expansive ornate building’ presented a talk entitled ‘Living as a Plural Being’ at an internal company event.”
The suit also includes a screenshot of the presentation on “living as a plural being” when the presenter is discussing how to address coworkers with multiple identities. Examples of “not okay” etiquette listed include “addressing any one headmate in particular; we’re all listening!”
You can see the screenshot. Living as a plural being. They actually had a company event to discuss the proper forms of address for people who believe they are both dragons and buildings.
This is the corporate culture of one of the most powerful companies in the world. But it’s not all silly. In fact, it’s scary as hell. More:
‘Discourage them all throughout the industry’
“If we really care about diversity in tech, we don’t just need to chase serial offenders out of Google, we need to discourage them all throughout the industry,” a lengthy internal post on Damore read. “We should be willing to give a wink and a nod to other Silicon Valley employers over terminable offenses, not send the worst parts of tech packing with a smile …”
‘I will hurt you’
Damore’s memo prompted another employee to post this quote: “I’m a queer-ass nonbinary trans person that is fucking sick and tired of being told to open a dialogue with people who want me dead. We are at a point where the dialogue we need to be having with these people is ‘if you keep talking about this shit, i will hurt you.”
‘You’re being blacklisted…at companies outside Google’
Google manager Adam Fletcher wrote in 2015 he would never hire conservatives he deemed hold hostile views. “I will never, ever hire/transfer you onto my team,” he wrote. “Ever. I don’t care if you are perfect fit or technically excellent or whatever. I will actively not work with you, even to the point where your team or product is impacted by this decision. I’ll communicate why to your manager if it comes up.”
“You’re being blacklisted by people at companies outside of Google,” he added. “You might not have been aware of this, but people know, people talk. There are always social consequences.”
If that’s not a hostile work environment, what on earth is?
Consider the power that Google has, and is acquiring more and more of as it strengthens its position as the primary gateway to knowledge and information. And this is the corporate culture at Google, this hive of hateful progressivism. I look forward to this trial, and hope that Damore doesn’t settle with Google out of court. The world needs to know what kind of people are positioning themselves as gatekeepers.
The First Things book review essay by Father Romanus Cessario in which the Dominican priest defends Pope Pius IX’s actions in the 1858 Edgardo Mortara case has stirred up a hornet’s nest. I wrote about it yesterday, and was quite critical of Father Cessario for his full-throated defense of Pius IX and the Church of that day. Cessario wrote:
In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life. Edgardo received instruction about the gift baptism imparted to him.
What he’s talking about is the Church permanently removing a Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized by the housemaid from his parents, so that he could be raised as the Catholic that he was by baptism. Cessario presents this atrocity as if it were a blessing from God.
Father Cessario, it appears, has a way with euphemism. In this lecture, he contends that the Church was victimized by the reporting of the sexual abuse scandal. Excerpt:
In other words, it’s more accurate to speak of priests raping and molesting children as “unchastity” as opposed to sexual abuse. This makes sense, I suppose, given that Cessario longs for the return of the old privilegium fori — the right the Catholic Church once held (not in the US) to exempt its priests from trial in secular courts, and instead grant them trial in ecclesiastical courts.
Read the entire paper here. If you depend on Father Cessario for your information about the John Geoghan case, you will not learn that Geoghan was a serial child molester who preyed on the children of the poor. You will not learn that the Archdiocese of Boston knew all about Geoghan’s crimes, and kept reassigning him to parish work. Geoghan and his molesting confrères were guilty only of “unchastity,” and poor Cardinal Law was hard done by the media. This is repulsive clericalist claptrap, but it does give you an idea of the mindset behind this particular defender of Pius IX’s sacred kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.
I bring up Cessario’s paper in this Mortara discussion because both cases compel conservative Catholics (and sympathetic Christians in other churches, like me) to face squarely the serious issues emerging from the clash between liberalism and integralism. It is not so difficult for us to perceive the many problems with liberalism, from a traditional Christian point of view. But we need to think clearly about the proposed integralist solution to these problems, and whether it is a solution at all.
Integralism is the belief that a nation is one, and that there should be an integration of Church and State. The term was coined by the far-right French Catholic Charles Maurras to describe the reactionary response to 19th and early 20th century French anticlericalism. Here, from the pro-integralist website The Josias, is a short definition of integralism:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
If you want to know more about Catholic integralism, The Josias is a good place to begin.
The Eastern Orthodox churches have an ancient history of the Church and the State being tied closely together. The social teaching document of the Russian Orthodox Church is really interesting in this regard. It calls for a separation of Church and State — or at least regards this as normative in modernity — but also calls for both to work together for the good of society. Notice this in III.7 (emphasis in the original):
Any change in the form of government to that more religiously rooted, introduced without spiritualising society itself, will inevitably degenerate into falsehood and hypocrisy and make this form weak and valueless in the eyes of the people. However, one cannot altogether exclude the possibility of such a spiritual revival of society as to make natural a religiously higher form of government. But under slavery one should follow St. Paul advice: «if thou mayest be free, use it rather» (1 Cor. 7:21). At the same time, the Church should give more attention not to the system of the outer organisation of state, but to the inner condition of her members’ hearts. Therefore, the Church does not believe it possible for her to become an initiator of any change in the form of government. Along the same line, the 1994 Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church stressed the soundness of the attitude whereby «the Church does not give preference to any social system or any of the existing political doctrines».
The Russian model offers ways to think about the relationship between Church and State that are more harmonious (“symphonic” is the word the Russians use) without being integrated. Yet the Russians seem well aware that their model emerges out of their society’s own history, and that it is only really workable in a society that is predominantly Orthodox. A superficial reading of the document makes it easy to imagine that this model could work in predominantly Catholic countries, at least in theory. Perhaps it could be adapted to predominantly Christian countries. I would be quite interested to read Catholic and/or Orthodox scholars who have compared and contrasted Catholic integralism with the Russian Orthodox model. I am not sufficiently well informed about either to understand their similarities and their differences.
We have to remember, though, that it is quite unrealistic to expect anything like that to take root in the US or Europe any time soon. As the Russian document observes, without the re-spiritualization (reconversion) of society, a form of government that involves the Church to the degree proposed by the Orthodox is fraught with peril. But it’s also true that, as the document says, we can’t discount that a form of government that is more religiously favorable in nature could emerge from that re-spiritualization.
Regular readers know that I write often about the problems with liberalism, particularly its hegemonic overreach in its advocacy of emancipating the choosing individual. It is by no means a fantasy to imagine the liberal state removing children who consider themselves to be transgendered removing them from the homes of parents, Christian or otherwise, who deny that they are. Ontario last year passed a bill adding denial of gender identity and expression to its list of reasons why the state may remove a child from a family. Officials said Christian concerns that the government would seize trans kids from families on that basis alone are exaggerated.
I wouldn’t trust that at all. LGBT advocates are very quick to argue that unless you give transgender youth whatever they ask for, they are at suicide risk. If a government accepts that parents denying a child’s self-professed gender identity and expression is a valid reason for intervening to protect the child, and authorities accept the argument that a child living with unsupportive parents is a suicide risk, then why wouldn’t the state intervene?
Despite its pretenses, liberalism is not neutral (and if you doubt that, I urge you to read James Kalb’s brilliant book The Tyranny of Liberalism, the title of which makes it sound like a conservative talk radio screed, which it absolutely is not). Nevertheless, a consideration of the Mortara case, as well as reading Fr. Cessario’s meditations on the abuse scandal, ought to make it clear why liberalism is not to be dismissed tout court, even by conservative religious critics of liberalism.
Let me put it like this. I agree with those who say that Edgardo Mortara was, in a real (= not merely symbolic) sense, transformed into a Christian by his baptism. But it does not follow that it was therefore morally right to remove the Mortara boy from his Jewish family, against their will, to raise him in a religion he had not chosen, nor would his parents have chosen for him. Yes, there is a certain logical consistency in what the pope did, but on that same logic, wouldn’t it make sense for the Church to send squads out into the world to baptize non-Christian children for their own eternal good, then have the state seize those children from their parents so that they can receive the Catholic upbringing that their baptism mandates?
Nobody would advocate such a scheme, but if you accept the cold logic justifying the Mortara boy’s seizure — that it was good and necessary to save his soul — then on what grounds would you object? After all, can we really rest easy, knowing there are all those unbaptized children headed for Hell? (I don’t believe this, obviously; I’m proposing a thought experiment.)
In the real world that we live in — the post-Christian world — it seems to me imprudent for conservative American Christians, including Catholics, to give up so easily on liberalism, despite all its problems. Militant liberalism is turning into a secular version of Pius IX’s church. The First Amendment — an artifact of liberalism — is our greatest protection as an increasing (and increasingly despised) minority. It is not absolute protection, but what else do we have?
Besides which, even though I am a critic of liberalism, I do not want to live in a Christian state that reserves the right to seize children from their families for religious reasons, and that allows the clergy to be above the same law that governs all of us. Do you, my fellow conservative Christian?
This is the kind of thing I believe Patrick Deneen is talking about in his new book Why Liberalism Failed, when he says at the end that in looking forward to whatever comes next, we should not discount the good things that liberalism brought us. We are not going to return to the Papal States, nor should we wish to even if it were possible. Pluralism is a fact, at least in the United States. Absent the re-spiritualization of society — which is a primary goal of my Benedict Option — we traditional Christians are going to have to do our very best to retain the rights to live as we believe God calls us to live. I don’t see any practical prospect for this except by appealing to liberal ideas and categories.
But it’s also true, as Deneen demonstrates persuasively in his book, that liberalism is unsustainable. (See my interview with Deneen from yesterday for a sense of his argument.) In contemplating what will emerge from liberalism — a process that Deneen concedes will take a long, long time, and will be pretty messy — it would do us conservatives and traditionalists well to consider why liberalism emerged in the first place.
And it would do liberals and progressives well to confront the limitations of liberalism, and whether or not they want to turn into left-wing versions of Pius IX, and use the coercive power of government to enforce their idea of the Good, on the principle that “error has no rights”? After all, Pius IX’s denunciation of religious liberty came in the wake of revolutionary regimes in Europe, especially France, actively persecuting the Church and confiscating its churches and monasteries — all under the name of religious liberty. At what point would contemporary liberals be willing to grant conservative religious believers the right to live according to principles that liberals believe are wrong?
These are not abstract questions. Pope Francis has strong beliefs about the desirability of immigration to Europe. Would integralists really be at ease with European governments yielding public policy to the pope’s wishes on this point? Plus, at some point in the next few years, there will be a transgender Edgardo Mortara, and we will see secular liberals be as ardent as Pio Nono was. Yesterday on Twitter I brought this up, and a Catholic priest responded that the situations are not compatible, because Catholicism (and Catholic baptism) is true, and transgenderism is not. Yeah, well good luck with that argument in the American courts. Liberalism is deeply problematic, but I don’t see what realistic alternatives we have.
I welcome your input. Please stay focused on the topic. Any comments ranting about anti-Catholic bias, anti-trans bigotry, etc, will not be approved. Let’s have an intelligent discussion and disputation, shall we?
Woo, sit down before you read this absolutely superlative rant in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, on how fed up he is with academia and society at large. I’m going to give you small excerpts here, to give you a flavor of it:
I have had nearly enough bullshit. The manure has piled up so deep in the hallways, classrooms, and administration buildings of American higher education that I am not sure how much longer I can wade through it and retain my sanity and integrity.
Even worse, the accumulated effects of all the academic BS are contributing to this country’s disastrous political condition and, ultimately, putting at risk the very viability and character of decent civilization. What do I mean by BS?
BS is the university’s loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions, because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.
BS is the farce of what are actually “fragmentversities” claiming to be universities, of hyperspecialization and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns.
BS is the expectation that a good education can be provided by institutions modeled organizationally on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls — that is, by enormous universities processing hordes of students as if they were livestock, numbers waiting in line, and shopping consumers.
BS is the ascendant “culture of offense” that shuts down the open exchange of ideas and mutual accountability to reason and argument. It is university leaders’ confused and fearful capitulation to that secular neo-fundamentalist speech-policing.
BS is the invisible self-censorship that results among some students and faculty, and the subtle corrective training aimed at those who occasionally do not self-censor.
BS is the only semi-intelligible outbursts of antagonism from enraged outsiders incited by academe’s suppressions of open argument, which primarily work to validate and reinforce the self-assured superiority of the suppressors, and sometimes to silence other legitimate voices.
BS is the anxiety that haunts some faculty at public universities in very conservative states about expressing their well-considered but unorthodox beliefs, for fear of being hounded by closed-minded students and parents or targeted by grandstanding politicians.
The list goes on, like an artillery fusillade. Then Smith analyzes the problem. Excerpt:
Essential to realize in all of this is that most of the BS is produced not by pernicious individuals, but instead by complex dysfunctions in institutional systems. It is easy to be a really good academic or administrator and still actively contribute to the BS. So we need to think not individualistically, but systemically, about culture, institutions, and political economies. Pointing fingers at individual schools and people is not helpful here. Sociological analysis of systems and their consequences is.
This reminds me of a remark Sen. Ben Sasse made at a public gathering last fall that I attended. He said that before he got to the US Senate, he assumed that the institution was fine, but the people within it were the problem. Having been on the inside, he said, he now realizes that most of the people in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, are fundamentally decent people who want to do a good job — but the institutional, systemic challenges they face to that goal are overwhelming. More Smith:
Many thoughtful people in higher education today are well aware of different piles of BS around them. Fewer seem to recognize the magnitude of the mounds of it that have accumulated and how badly they defile us. Most people involved also feel helpless to fight it, don’t want to risk careers that benefit from the status quo, or are professional boosters of the existing system and so are obliged to yammer on about how great everything is.
I too feel helpless. It seems the most I can do now is to try to preserve whatever valuable remains in undergraduate liberal-arts education. Real change will most likely happen long-term and be forced on academe from the outside against its own lumbering inertia. That will not be pretty, nor will it necessarily produce anything better. We cannot take for granted a happy self-correction. In my view, genuinely positive changes in higher education, if they ever do happen, will have to combine some forms of visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism. We will need people with the capacity to retrieve and revitalize the best of higher education’s past and restructure it organizationally in ways that are most effective in the future.
“Some form of visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism.” I’d love to hear from academics who read this blog as to what that might look like.
About this time last year, Breitbart News eulogized the World Economic Forum. The annual gathering of global elites in Davos, Switzerland would be a “somber occasion,” the far-right outlet wrote, because “their influence on the global stage is waning rapidly” in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory.
That reckoning just came home to roost. Stephen K. Bannon — who last year was busy setting up a forward operating base in Trump’s inner sanctum for Breitbart’s brand of economic nationalism — suffered further debasement Tuesday from his feud with the president by losing his job running Breitbart itself. Meanwhile, the White House confirmed that President Trump will be heading to Davos in two weeks, the first U.S. president to attend the conference since Bill Clinton.
And if the thought of Trump rubbing shoulders with world leaders, financial giants and media mandarins in the literally rarefied air of the Swiss Alps wasn’t enough to turn the stomachs of the MAGA crowd, the White House offered them another emetic on Tuesday.
The president presided over a 90-minute meeting, more than half of it before television cameras, with lawmakers from both parties during which he pledged to pursue a comprehensive immigration breakthrough, saying he wants a “bill of love.” There wasn’t much chest-thumping about building a border wall. “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said. “I am very much reliant on the people in this room.”
Congress is full of people from both parties who believe that the point of our immigration policy is to provide cheap labor to their donors and to atone for America’s imaginary sins against the world. They couldn’t care less about immigration’s effect on you or your family–these are the same people the president now says he trusts to write the immigration bill, the one he will sign no matter what it says. So what was the point of running for president?
Being a Trump voter isn’t always easy, it’s like rooting for the underdog in baseball, the old Chicago Cubs. On one level there is pride, the pride that comes from doing something that fashionable people consider insane, and that’s a good feeling. But there’s also some disappointment along the way and honestly, there is some embarrassment. But you silently bear it because you know that when they finally win the World Series it will be worth everything you went through. Every sarcastic dig from your brother-in-law at Thanksgiving will seem small by comparison. In the Trump presidency, the World Series is this immigration bill. It’s the big payoff, the whole point of the exercise, and they’re not allowed to blow it.
It’s almost like George Orwell has been Michael Wolffing his way around the White House lately:
He had only one criticism, he said, to make of Mr. Pilkington’s excellent and neighbourly speech. Mr. Pilkington had referred throughout to “Animal Farm.” He could not of course know-for he, Napoleon, was only now for the first time announcing it-that the name “Animal Farm” had been abolished. Henceforward the farm was to be known as “The Manor Farm”-which, he believed, was its correct and original name.
“Gentlemen,” concluded Napoleon, “I will give you the same toast as before, but in a different form. Fill your glasses to the brim. Gentlemen, here is my toast: To the prosperity of The Manor Farm! ”
There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover’s old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.
But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
But in between secularism and traditionalism lies the most American approach to matters of faith: a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.
Because this kind of faith is not particularly political, because it’s too individualistic and personalized (and comfortable with the post-Me Decade American status quo) to be partisan and programmatic, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves from a press accustomed to analyzing everything in terms of the clash of left and right.
Douthat says there actually are are conservative and liberal manifestations of this spirituality, but
the divide between blue-state spirituality and red-state spirituality is much more porous than other divisions in our balkanized society, and the appeal of the spiritual worldview cuts across partisan lines and racial divides. (Health-and-wealth theology is a rare pan-ethnic religious movement, as popular among blacks and Hispanics as among Americans with Joel Osteen’s skin tone, and when Oprah touts something like “The Secret,” the power-of-spiritual-thinking tract from the author Rhonda Byrne, she’s offering a theology that’s just Osteen without Jesus.) Indeed, it may be the strongest force holding our metaphysically divided country together, the soft, squishy, unifying center that keeps secularists and traditionalists from replaying the Spanish Civil War.
If Oprah entered the political fray as a Democrat, she could lose her religious power, says Douthat. But that’s not the only possibility:
Or it could be that her religious authority would make the Democratic Party far more popular and powerful, more a pan-racial party of the cultural center and less a party defined by its secular and anticlerical left wing.
You really should read the whole thing, especially if you’re skeptical. That’s a fascinating point, that last one: that Oprah could make the Democrats a religion-friendly party. Sure, it would be, as Douthat titled his (excellent, important) previous book, “bad religion,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not religion (even if it calls itself “spirituality”).
Oprah’s spirituality is consonant with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, in that it is non-doctrinal, and sees matters of religion and spirituality as essentially about self-expression (telling “your truth”) and self-improvement. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have shown, this is the de facto religion of tens of millions of Americans, though it is expressed in different ways. The Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts has said this about his own tradition, and how susceptible it is to popular theology:
Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.
The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.
It’s not just an Evangelical problem. This is a general problem for American Christianity. Oprah’s “religious authority” — that is, the fact that so very many people see her as a spiritual leader, even if she doesn’t claim to be — is greater than is generally understood. I don’t fault her for this — she is incredibly charismatic, and seems like a genuinely kind person — but it’s there, and it must not be dismissed. Look at this:
e.g. Oprah routinely polls near the top of Gallup’s Most Admired Women list, a rank that’s usually reserved only for politicians and religious figures. https://t.co/FxFvckJ6Vo pic.twitter.com/F6tve64uKs
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 9, 2018
I am, frankly, shocked to read an essay defending the Vatican’s 1858 kidnapping of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara from his parents — but here it is, in First Things, from the pen of Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican priest and theologian.
The Edgardo Mortara case shocks the modern conscience. The Mortaras were a Jewish family living in Bologna, which was then a city of the Papal States. When the baby Edgardo fell ill, and was thought to be near death, the family’s Catholic housekeeper secretly baptized him. He recovered. Five years later, when the boy was six years old, the Church learned that Edgardo was a baptized Catholic … and sent a Dominican priest, the local inquisitor, to investigate. Result: carabinieri took the child from his mother and father’s home, and delivered him to the Church.
Edgardo Mortara was raised as a ward of Pope Pius IX. The civil law in the Papal States, as well as canon law, required Catholic children to be given a Catholic upbringing. Pius IX said that his hands were tied in the matter. Father Cessario writes:
The requirement that all legitimately baptized children receive a Catholic education was not arbitrary. Since baptism causes birth into new life in Christ, children require instruction about this form of new life. Furthermore, although the Italian Risorgimento had begun, the diplomatic world in 1858 still recognized Pius IX as both pope and prince in Bologna. While the pontiff displayed his human feelings by making Edgardo his ward, Pio Nono nonetheless felt duty-bound to uphold the civil law. This law was not unreasonable, moreover. Even today, the Code of Canon Law, can. 794 §1, assigns to the Church the task of educating Catholics.
As the Catechism puts it, “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ.” This mark is invisible, and one thus may certainly understand why the Jewish community of the time interpreted Edgardo’s relocation as an act of unjust religious and political hegemony. Their nineteenth-century Gentile sympathizers, who took the Church’s action as an affront to religious liberty, deserve less sympathy. In fact, the Mortara case exacerbated anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, giving the dying Know-Nothing party a few more years of influence. And prejudiced manipulation of the Mortara case has not disappeared. Steven Spielberg is currently preparing a film adaptation of David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. In order to forestall wrong and unwarranted interpretations, which may include allusions to child abuse, Catholics and other people of good will must acquire a right understanding of baptism and its effects.
The argument is based on the teaching that baptism causes an irrevocable ontological change in the person who receives it. More:
Baptism opens the door to a new way of life. The Catechism calls it “the way of Christ.” A baptized Christian is called to set out on a supernatural life of faith, hope, and charity, or what the Catechism twice refers to as the “theological” life, which includes religious instruction and access to the means of grace, notably the Eucharist. As the Catechism says, “Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens . . . incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism.” These articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not. The Church offered to enroll Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, but his parents refused.
Prior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic. In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life. Edgardo received instruction about the gift baptism imparted to him.
Those lines are shocking. The Church “offered” to compel a Jewish child baptized without his consent or the consent or knowledge of his parents to receive a Catholic education against the will of his parents? Some offer. And God “kindly arranged” for this child to be taken from his Jewish parents and raised by the Church?
This is monstrous. They stole a child from his mother and father! And here, in the 21st century, a priest defends it, saying it was for the child’s own good. Fr. Cessario continues:
Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith? We should be grateful if that question does not become pressing, but we cannot assume it will not. Christians who are tempted to side with the enlightened critics of Pio Nono should examine how much they themselves prize the gifts of supernatural grace that ennoble human nature.
What is that supposed to mean? The Pope kidnapped a child from his parents. What would Fr. Cessario and those who agree with him say to radical Muslims today who kidnap non-Muslim children, compel them to say the shahada (profession of faith — the Muslim equivalent of baptism), then refuse to return them to their parents because they cannot let a Muslim child be raised by infidels? The jihadist argument is that this is just, and better for the souls of the children.
Note that one goal of this essay, according to the author, is to instruct Catholics “and other people of good will” on what baptism means, so they won’t be misled by an upcoming Hollywood movie, and think that what Pius IX (“Pio Nono”) did to that family was wrong. Really? The author even says (see above) that anti-Catholic bigots made a big to-do over the Mortara case — as if that were any kind of defense of the Vatican’s actions. Cardinal Law also tried the same kind of argument to neutralize the Catholic laity’s anger over the Church’s indefensible actions in the child abuse scandals.
In fairness, I can’t for the life of me understand why Hollywood is still so eager to stick it to the Catholic Church, which is pretty much flat on its back today, while giving the deeds of extreme adherents of the world’s truly dangerous, truly illiberal, truly militant contemporary religion a pass. It’s a weird kind of death wish. Pio Nono and the world he represented is dead and gone. Nevertheless … it really happened. All the theological syllogisms in the world cannot cover the moral crime committed by the Pope against that powerless Jewish family.
The kind of argument that Father Cessario makes in this essay may make emotional sense to men who have never fathered a child. Nevertheless, it is grotesque. We are talking a lot on the Right these days about the failures of liberalism, but even Catholic scholar Patrick Deneen, in his excellent new book Why Liberalism Failed, writes that
the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.
For all liberalism’s serious faults — which I regularly catalog in this space — one of its great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family. As a very conservative Christian, I say that that’s a liberal achievement worth defending.
The personal story of an American Jewish man who as a child during the Holocaust was hidden by a Polish Catholic couple demonstrates a respect for Judaism by the young priest who became Pope John Paul II.
In an account of the saving of little Shachne Hiller, recorded in “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” (Avon Books, NY, 1982), Hiller, renamed Stanley Berger, told author/editor Yaffa Eliach that in 1946 a newly ordained priest named Karol Wojtyla refused to baptize him a Catholic despite a request by the woman who had cared for him as her own.
Berger told Eliach that through a letter from the woman in Poland who had saved him, he learned that she, Mrs. Yachowitch, had approached “a newly ordained parish priest who had a reputation for being wise and trustworthy” to convert him “as a true Christian and devout Catholic” after she knew for certain that his parents had died in the crematoria. The priest refused after asking what was the wish of the boys’ parents in entrusting him to their Christian friends. Yachowitch acknowledged that his parents, in face of their almost certain death, requested that their son be raised as a Jew, to which Father Wojtyla replied that “it would be unfair to baptize the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him.”
It must be acknowledged that Edgardo Mortara, who would become a Catholic priest in adulthood, wrote a memoir in which he expressed gratitude to Pius IX for doing what he did. That fact should not be suppressed. On the other hand, what do you expect from a man who was raised from an early age as a ward of the papacy? One of the Christian boys snatched by Ottoman soldiers, forcibly converted to Islam, and raised at the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul to be one of his janissaries would likely have written a testimony as an adult thanking the Sultan for giving him the opportunity to be brought up in the True Faith.
Theologically the Mortara case is a challenging question, because Christians really do believe that baptism is a permanent thing. We really do believe that Christianity is objectively true. Plus, modern people have to be very careful about judging the acts of people from much earlier ages by our standards today. That said, at best, what happened was a tragedy. By my reading, the First Things author would have Catholics “and people of good will” think it was an unambiguous blessing for Edgardo Mortara. The coldness of Fr. Cessario, writing in the 21st century, euphemizing the kidnapping and what amounts to the forced conversion of a Jewish child as “divine Providence kindly [arranging] for his being introduced into a regular Christian life” — well, it’s breathtaking.
UPDATE: From Gabriel Rossman, a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, who is incensed by the essay:
Finally, I had as religious experience reading in First Things the testimony of Christian de Chergé as he awaited martyrdom. The contrast with Chergé’s agape, even for his killers, does not flatter the magazine’s legalistic defense of abducting children of Papal State dhimmis.
— Rogue Works Progress Administration (@GabrielRossman) January 9, 2018
“Papal State dhimmis.”
UPDATE.2: Karl Keating comments:
When I read your post, Rod, I thought you meant that Fr. Cessario had written a regular essay, but it’s a book review–of a book that I’ve read and you haven’t, apparently. I suggest you do so. In fact, you should have read it before writing your overheated post.
“Kidnapped by the Vatican” was published by Ignatius Press last year. The subtitle is “The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.”
The 75-page introduction is by Vittori Messori, an Italian journalist who has written or edited many books. The best known in English were his interviews with John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” and with Joseph Ratzinger, “The Ratzinger Report.”
The foreword to the book is by Roy Schoeman, author of “Salvation is From the Jews” and a convert to Catholicism from Judaism. He is well known and well respected in Catholic circles.
The back-cover endorsements are by James V. Schall, S.J., who taught at Georgetown; Mitch Pacwa, S.J., who has a show on EWTN; and Fr. George Rutler, who has written more than a dozen books. These are all responsible and respected men. If you had had the book in your hands, the presence of their names would have made you suspect that the book might not be the wild thing you make it out to be.
Messori’s long introduction I found to be generous, understanding of the parties and of the times, and alert to present-day and nineteenth-century appearances and concerns. He does a great job explaining the political and cultural situation of the time.
The heart of the book is Mortara’s memoir. You dismiss it out of hand, suggesting that he was brainwashed. That’s not the impression someone reading the memoir would get. Mortara comes across as a well-educated and truly saintly priest and as a thoughtful recounter of what happened to him. There isn’t anything in his version of the story that could lead one to think he persisted as a Catholic, or became a priest, involuntarily or under any sort of undue influence.
I know it’s hard for a present-day person to believe, but Mortara repeatedly expresses his gratitude for what happened to him, even though it meant sorrow for his parents and himself. You may not think such an attitude is possible, but you shouldn’t judge until you’ve read his account.
Well, like I said, Karl, I don’t fault Mortara. I have no reason to believe that he was dishonest in stating his gratitude. My point is simply that this is what one would expect from a priest who had been raised in his circumstances. Whether or not Father Mortara was grateful for what happened to him, or was bitter about it, has no bearing, it seems to me, on whether or not it was morally right. Anyway, I don’t take a position on the book (which, as you say, I have not read), but the legalistic position advocated by Fr. Cessario in this review: that Holy Mother Church and Pius IX did Edgardo Mortara a favor by taking him from his Jewish family’s home and fostering him, because of a rash act the family maid did in a moment of fear for the child’s life. I still think Fr. Cessario’s position is wrong, but why couldn’t he at least acknowledge the immense tragic aspect of this case?
UPDATE.3: On Facebook, Princeton’s Robert George (a rather prominent conservative Catholic, in case you don’t know) comments:
The taking of the child by force from his parents and family was an abomination and defending it is an embarrassment. The gross, unspeakable injustice of such an action (and of its predicate, namely, baptizing a child against the will of its parents) was well understood by the early and medieval church and was affirmed and explained by Aquinas. Christians, including popes, can commit, and sometimes have committed, profoundly unChristian acts–and can, and have, committed them in the name of Christianity. This, shamefully, was such a case.
UPDATE.4: Catholics eager to defend the Church in the Mortara case would do well to think about what it will be like to raise children under this secular religion rising in dominance: liberalism. Readers of this blog are all too familiar with the claims transgender activists make about trans children, and the moral obligation their parents have to let them be their “real” selves. Do not for a moment think that we will never face the day when the State attempts to seize supposedly transgendered children from their parents (Catholic or otherwise) because those parents refuse to let the child “be who ze is.”
Look at that beautiful garment. Those are my favorite sweatpants. They are at least a decade old. My wife is taking advantage of the fact that I have the flu and that I threw my back out today to rob me of their companionship.
Why do women do this? Is she going to throw me out when I start to tear and fray? They were just getting good and broken in!
True, in a weak moment, I conceded that maybe, because she gave me a new pair of sweatpants for Christmas, it would be a good idea to retire the tattered ones. Naturally, having a heart, I began to recant.
“Nope,” she said, curtly. “You said we could get rid of them, and you can’t take it back.”
The only warmth in my home is the heating pad under my lower back.
Today is the publication date of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen’s much-anticipated book, Why Liberalism Failed. I read an advance copy of it late last fall, and knew at once that it would be one of the most important political books of 2018. Not just among conservative books, but among political books, period. You’ll see why below.
In his review for TAC, Gene Callahan says Deneen’s book is vitally important to understand what’s happening in Western politics now. That’s spot on, whether you consider yourself on the Left or the Right. In a separate post, I will offer my own thoughts about this must-read book, but here I want to share with you an e-mail interview I did with Prof. Deneen in which he lays out the thesis of Why Liberalism Failed.
RD: Let’s define an important term. You’re a conservative, but you have not written a book about why the philosophy that defines the Democratic Party has failed. What do you mean by “liberalism” here.
PD: By “liberalism,” I am speaking of a longstanding political philosophy, not a narrowly partisan position. Liberalism is the modern political philosophy of the emancipated individual, defined in the “state of nature” philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as a monistic and desiring self. The condition of the “state of nature” is the condition of absolute liberty: the capacity of the individual to achieve his or her desires without obstacle. But because such a condition gives rise to conflict, government is created to secure the rights of such individuals. Under liberalism the primary reason that we have a public order is to secure individual liberty.
Liberalism is thus a political philosophy that rests upon the realization of the autonomous individual self. This means not only must such individuals be politically free from arbitrary government power, but they must be free from what come to be considered all arbitrary and unchosen relationships that include social and familial bonds. Not only must all relationships ultimately be the result of the free choice of the sovereign individual, but, in order to preserve the autonomy of the liberated self, those relationships must be permanently revisable and easily exited. Thus, liberalism not only shapes our public institutions, but our social and private ones as well, ordering society toward the sovereign choice and autonomy of the individual choosing self. We see the liberal human coming fully into being not only in our political domain, but in the breakdown of most of our social and familial institutions, including the rise of the “nones, “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and the deepening generational avoidance of commitment, marriage and children.
We can say, then, that liberalism is the political operating system of America. Our different parties are like “apps” that operate on that liberal operating system, reflecting its deepest commitments in what are most often its main political agendas: on the Right, the picture of the emancipated individual chooser that animates libertarian economics; and on the Left, the vision of the emancipated individual chooser that animates their libertarian “lifestyle” aspirations, particularly relating to sexuality and abortion.
You write that liberalism “has failed because it has succeeded.” Explain the paradox.
The aspiration of the liberated individual was always moderated by many other historical and cultural influences, especially – in the West – by orthodox forms of Christianity. For a long time, many people of good will understandably could be strong supporters and proponents of the official liberal political philosophy of the American order because of those moderating influences. However, I argue that those moderating influences have been eviscerated by the “success” of liberalism, by its coming fully into being. In this sense, it is an ideology that remakes society in its image – not in the violent manner of those competing and defeated ideologies of fascism and communism, but, rather, in most cases, through the invitation to regard individual liberty as the highest aspiration of the successful life. However, understanding its basic commitments, we can see ways that the liberal regime has certainly been extended through the powers of the state, including through such avenues as the HHS mandate as well as less obvious ways, such as transportation and housing policy, that moved most Americans out of communities and into suburbs.
I argue, then, that we see liberalism failing because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” it becomes more immoderate and reveals the falseness of its anthropological assumptions. The breakdown of our political order as well as the loss of any kind of common culture and even civil comportment is, in a sense, the reflection of the successful artificial creation of a state of nature. We are now seeing the results of a 500-year experiment that aims at liberating the individual from social, religious and familial ties, now held together only by the belief that what we have in common is the fact that we are all rights-bearing individuals.
There’s another paradox in your analysis: that the more liberalism liberates us as individuals, the more dependent it makes us on the state. What do you mean?
The political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel once wrote that “state of nature” scenarios were obviously the imaginings of “childless men who had forgotten their own childhood.” He meant that the imaginary version of our true “nature” as radically individuated selves is in fact no-where to be found as our “natural” condition. We are first and foremost by nature relational creatures. And yet, we see a different reality now coming into being, not as the result of our “natural” condition, but through the efforts of a massive architecture that has been erected to make possible human lives increasingly lived in disconnection from permanent relations and absent constitutive cultural forms of membership and belonging.
The state becomes the main creator and supporter of this condition. A range of policies – economic, social and political – have as their aim the realization of this creature once only imagined in the state of nature, but now increasingly the default human of modern political and social world. The best representation of this phenomenon is probably found in the Obama campaign ad, “The Life of Julia,” which portrays the lifespan of a woman, from childhood to old age, whose complete independence was the result of a slew of government programs. She has no apparent relationships with other human beings (she seems to have a child for a brief span, but that nameless little person is taken away on a yellow school bus and never reappears), and the point of the ad is that her complete freedom is the result of the total lack of reliance upon any other particular human being.
The result of this liberation from particular people, as Tocqueville predicted, would be a growing reliance upon the state. This reliance, in fact, at first seems less oppressive than the bonds of more traditional societies, because we are freed from particular obligations. People expect not to take care of their elderly parents, and so we support health care that includes long-term elderly care that allows us the liberty not to assume the duty that had been the expectation of children in every civilization before ours. And the more the various constitutive institutions are weakened, the more the state becomes the only remedy for our various needs.
Thus, the irony: individualism and statism are not opposites, but grow together in tandem. In our daily partisan politics, we have tended to pit individualism against statism – Ayn Rand against Karl Marx – with conservatives claiming to be individualists and progressives claiming to support an expansive state. But what we have witnessed is the simultaneous growth of both the state and the rise of individualism, not as opposites, but as necessary partners. The world has never seen a more individualistic society nor a more encompassing state. The state has empowered itself by claiming to empower the individual. The practical effect is to leave the populace disempowered amid our liberty, along with a felt sense of inability to control or influence the state, the economy, and much of our own fates.
Is the Trump presidency an example of liberalism’s decay, or a last gasp to save the system?
We can see how the attraction for a strong, blustering, iconoclastic leader would arise in this context. The appeal of Trump arose from the pervasive sense of helplessness by a broad swath of Americans, especially those who have suffered most from the dissolution of families, churches, communities, and a range of constitutive bonds. On the one hand, I see the effort to exert some control over our destiny – by demanding an economy that works for average citizens, by insisting that a national culture amount to more than borderless non-judgmentalism, and rejecting the “political correctness” accompanying a sexual revolution whose wreckage is accumulating exponentially – as a “last gasp,” as you put it, and even an admirable one.
On the other hand, the appeal to a strongman is simply a perverted echo of liberalism’s belief that the deep dislocations generated by the liberal order can be solved by the national state. Of course, the state has to act in ways that will support thriving communities, neighborhoods, and families. But one can hardly imagine a person less capable of speaking to, and seriously addressing, the breakdown of the social, communal, and familial fabric of Trump Country than Donald J. Trump. Those who supported Trump deeply intuit the need for a fundamental change, but, amid the wreckage of a dissolved culture, lack the tools to build new foundations.
Perhaps the most powerful chapter of the book is the one in which you approvingly cite Solzhenitsyn’s observation that liberalism’s weakness is its incapacity to generate people capable of self-government. Yet people must be governed somehow. How has the “death of culture,” as you put it, prepared the American people for tyranny?
In liberal philosophy and increasingly for liberal practice, the greatest obstacle to the liberation of the individual is “culture.” Broadly speaking, culture is the deep-seated set of norms and practices that are transmitted as a matter of course and tradition, a generational inheritance. Culture arises from “the bottom up,” from practices that become traditions and customs, a “way of life” that is not the object of conscious choice and decision. If you remember the trial scene from “A Few Good Men,” there’s a moment when the Tom Cruise character asks how the soldier knew how to get to the mess hall everyday, even though the route wasn’t specified in the Marine Corps manual. One might describe such knowledge as “customary” or even “common sense” (i.e., knowledge which is broadly and commonly shared).
Culture takes many forms, of course, and not all cultural norms are just and desirable. However, many of those norms govern and guide behavior in fraught areas of life: coming-of- age, adolescent relationship between the sexes, marriage, childrearing, care for the elderly, death. Also, cultures arise in the observance of annual festivals and commemorations, often connected to seasons and linking everyday human life to the changing of seasons, to deep rhythms of nature.
Cultures are most deeply embedded and expressed in religious observances. Typically, such cultural forms are learned in homes but also reinforced in the broader society. Today, more likely than not, society aims to undermine any culture learned in the home, and it’s increasingly the case that there is exceedingly little culture learned and transmitted even within homes. Instead, we are pervasively recipients of a prepackaged, commercialized set of non-norms, appeals solely to our desiring selves without guidance or reinforcement of how to live.
What we call “culture” today is actually an “anti-culture.”
For liberalism, cultural norms tend to be regarded as irrational, unchosen, oppressive, inegalitarian, and therefore must be overturned. Liberalism demands that the informal norms be replaced by express legalized mandates, ultimately backed by the power of the state. The first is done in the name of freedom; the second, both to regulate freedom and apply equal standards to every person under its domain.
For instance, norms governing the relations between men and women have been displaced in favor of the consent of free individuals. Liberalism proposes that we can replace the thick set of norms that governed dating and courtship with a cultureless landscape of individuals making decisions on the fly. We have seen the outcome of this particular form of liberation, both in the sexual anarchy that exists on college campuses, and the deeply flawed nature of “consent” when relations are inescapably unequal. On our campuses, the response has been to introduce a new set of government rules that seek to punish transgression after the fact, deemed necessary with the elimination of once-pervasive cultural norms governing sexual behavior and character that were to guide us before the fact.
While it’s the widespread view in liberal society that such norms were oppressive especially to the marginal, I think it’s the case that such norms were most often developed to protect and shelter those who might be subject to predation – children, women, the elderly. It was John Stuart Mill who argued in On Liberty that “custom” held back individual transgressiveness, and in order to allow the progressive benefits of transgression, custom should be overthrown. We have a society today that favors the transgressive, and which leaves those who are arguably protected by the guidelines of a variety of norms at the mercy of the predators. Those most exposed under liberalism are children (including, and especially, the unborn), women, and the elderly.
A friendly critic on the Right rejects your thesis that liberalism is in crisis. He says that the crisis will only come when people can imagine a realistic alternative to liberalism — and that is not on the horizon. Does he have a point? After all, nobody in the US seriously proposes that we embrace any of the various forms of illiberalism on the world stage, e.g., Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China.
First, I think it’s very possible for liberalism to be in crisis without a “realistic alternative.” The book opens with a quote from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that describes how the breakdown in belief in the legitimacy of medieval claims about of chivalry and noblesse oblige – increasingly contradicted by the shortcomings in their practice – led to the abandonment of faith in that system. There was no “realistic alternative” in the wings ready to replace feudalism. Rather, a long period of instability and trial-and- error was the consequence of the loss of confidence in a once-stable system.
I would also suggest to this “friendly critic” that there are pockets of growing interest in various alternative forms, including attraction among some to Putinesque rejection of liberal internationalism and progressivism, something I see among some of my students (admittedly, a decided minority). The election of Donald Trump is a more populist expression of this yearning, obviously, and the intensity of the reaction of Left against “Russian meddling” is an indication not only of the panic over Trump, but more deeply, a deeper insecurity over the prospects for liberalism in the world given the growing sense of an alternative on the world stage, visible in Russia, Poland and Hungary.
Then there is a growing interest among especially among younger traditionalist Catholics in “integralism,” a dissolving of the distinction between Church and State along the lines described by Andrew Willard Jones in his book Before Church and State. While I am fascinated both by this condition as described by Jones, and even more so, by the attraction among some younger contemporaries to this period, I am completely unpersuaded by the notion that such a settlement is a possibility for the world’s first Protestant nation.
So, I would agree with your “friendly critic” that none of these alternatives is appropriate nor should be attractive to Americans. My more parochial question is, can there be an “alternative” for a nation that has, by and large, only been liberal? Are there non-liberal currents within the American tradition that can be built upon, and if so, what would new iterations and combinations of those existing building-blocks look like? I believe that we have such soil that has lain fallow, and I hope in my next book to explore what such an “alternative tradition” in America might look like.
Your advice to the reader on what to do about all this is modest. What is it — and why are you not more ambitious?
Actually, I suggest that we need two tracks. The first is quite ambitious, the rethinking of the American political project along the lines of my last answer. However, we need to be humble and realistic about its prospects: I regard this task as a multi-generational project, one that will need at least a century if not more. Liberalism is a 500-year project, and we are just at the beginning of its reassessment and the necessary new thinking and development of practices that have yet to come into being. We are deeply within the liberal mindset if we believe we can just come up with a new theory and, presto, we will have a new politics and a new way of life. We are also, ironically, in the liberal mindset if we believe we have exhausted all possible forms of political, social and economic life, implicit adherents of an “end of history” narrative. I believe we are only at the earliest stages of life – and political philosophy – after liberalism.
The second recommendation tracks your arguments in The Benedict Option (which I favorably cite in my conclusion), and complements the work of the first track, but represents a task that we can and should undertake immediately. Amid the wasteland of the liberal anti-culture, a main task is the creation and sustaining of true culture. Of course, it is the work fitting for households, but also of whole communities where they exist or might be fostered. It is the work especially for religious communities, and your book is a wake-up call that the fostering of Christian culture needs to be done in conscious differentiation from and even opposition to the dominant anti-culture.
Some critics have already suggested that this is essentially a “liberal” proposal, and in a sense that’s true: it seeks to take advantage of the shrinking space within liberal society for non-liberal communities, but it is a short- and medium-term strategy that can be effected today, not a proposal for a long-term alternative. Such work needs to be undertaken with the conscious understanding not that what is being sought is rapprochement with liberal society, but the development of resilient cultures that might survive its demise. From such practices – not from theory alone – we can develop true alternatives, ones made all the more attractive for their viability and attractiveness as the wreckage of liberalism mounts.
Finally, there are clear commonalities between your analysis and the one I drew on for The Benedict Option. I suspect that you will run into the same problem I did: many Americans will be unable to grasp your argument because we Americans lack a tragic sense. That is, we are so progress-minded and optimistic by nature that we struggle to imagine how this could all fall apart. Of course it’s in human nature to resist bad news, but in your view, is there something particularly American at work in this?
I suspect many Americans will be not only unable to grasp the analysis, but many will spare no effort in attempting to refute and discredit such claims. The increasing shrillness of our political square is not merely because America has gotten more partisan: we are seeing the rise of liberal reaction, a new form of reactionary politics especially by the “winners” in the liberal order who will do anything to preserve their status and position in the current regime. I see the effort to enforce norms of speech and thinking, especially upon Christians, not as a sign of liberal strength and ascendancy, but weakness and desperation.
This is not to say that it is not a politically dangerous phenomenon, especially when backed by the power of the state. But increasingly a regime that loses legitimacy among the populace will resort to outright force, whether through efforts at public denouncing, bankrupting, and even arresting critics of the regime. The weakening legitimacy of a political ideology is revealed often by the corresponding exposure of the bald force that backs its position.
Yet, I think that there’s enormous receptivity to the kinds of analyses that we’ve undertaken in our books, more so than at any other time that I can remember in my lifetime. I suspect that had you written The Benedict Option around the time of Crunchy Cons [2006 — RD], it would not have received interest comparable to what it’s generated since its publication. And the same I suspect to be true of my book, which wasn’t necessarily written to be a contemporary book, but which suddenly seems almost too topical.
This receptivity is actually a cause for some sadness on my part: while I think my book helps to explain the growing sense of political and social dislocation and confusion in America and the West, I take no pleasure in that fact. And because there are no easy answers that will “fix” our current problems, I find myself responding to those critics who ask for my counsel, in the first instance that we understand our true home and patrie lies in Heaven, and our best answer today lies in prayer. I pray desperately for a decent future for our children, and hope that the unraveling of our current order marks not the beginning of a new dark ages, but a time of hopeful possibility.
A tragic sense demands at least the admission that we don’t know what awaits, and in all likelihood, it will be an inescapable mixture of good and ill.
Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed is published today by Yale University Press.