Rod Dreher

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Conservatism Does Not Equal Anti-Liberalism

Whitby Abbey. Dare we make these bones live again? (Neal Rylatt/Shutterstock

In 2005, the rightist historian John Lukacs wrote that America’s political future might well be decided on the Right, in a contest “between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love liberty, and others who love liberty more than they fear liberals.”

That line came to mind last night, reading the paeans to Trump for giving the news media hell in his press conference yesterday. As I’ve said, I simply don’t get why so many conservatives think that performance is anything to be proud of. It was not the performance of a strong man, but rather of a weak one. What brought it to mind specifically was reading an advance copy of The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the Western Tradition, by James Matthew Wilson, who teaches literature at Villanova. It will be published in June. This book will undoubtedly propel Wilson into the first rank of conservative public intellectuals.

The Vision of the Soul is a defense of Christian Platonism, which Wilson says is at the core of the Western intellectual tradition. What he sets out to do is to go to the fundamentals of thought that today we call culturally conservative, but which is really an attempt to keep faith with Western civilization in modernity. I don’t want to say too much about it so far out from publication, but I will say here that Wilson’s book gives a defense of the Western tradition that is breathtaking in its depth and clarity, conveyed in prose that genuinely delights with its elegance, lucidity, and splendor. I have never read a book in which content so profound takes flight with such lightness and style. It’s like watching a 747 maneuver with the grace and precision of a hummingbird. Future generations of conservatives will look back to their encounter with The Vision of the Soul with the same sense of gratitude and awe that we today remember the first time we read Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. This book is not only true and good, but also beautiful. I know that I will be reading it, and re-reading it, for the rest of my life. The Vision of the Soul should be a cornerstone for every classical school. This is one of the ten books you take to your Benedict Option monastery, and around which you build the rest of your intellectual life.

Why do I bring it up here. Because you only have to read a few pages of Wilson to exult in what the conservative intellectual and artistic tradition has been and can be, but to despair over what it has been reduced to in our time. This is not a book about politics, or rather, it’s a book in which politics are but one expression of deeper convictions about the nature of things. But exulting in the book also induces despair at how far from our roots we have fallen. Trump is not in this book, but in a way, he’s all over this book. He is a symbol of decadence — as is the establishment against which he rails (and yes, this includes the media establishment). In classical culture, disorder of the soul produces disorder in the polis. This is why, most fundamentally, we are in the trouble we’re in today.

Lukacs, the historian, proudly calls himself a “reactionary,” and a decade ago, he foresaw the rise of populism displacing the institutions and customs that had served our Republic for over two centuries. From an interview he did in 2006 with Jeet Heer:

In conversation, he’s willing to grant praise to a certain form of populism, citing the mass movements that have brought democracy to Central and Eastern Europe. ”The people are often right,” he notes. ”Just think of my country. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a real popular uprising. Although it was defeated it had very salutary consequences in the long run. It was the Stalingrad of international communism. The repression in Hungary afterward was much less. They did not quite restore 100 percent terror. That is why in 1989 the change of the regime came along without bloodshed.”

But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ”conservative” has come to mean simply ”antiliberal.”

”Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,” he says. ”It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.”

”In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,” he continues. ”That’s why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people’s political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a ‘cultural issue’ or a ‘moral issue.’ These are half-truths.”

Although Lukacs has won his share of esteem in a career that spans more than five decades, he now finds himself oddly isolated as someone who criticizes the Republican party from a traditionalist vantage point.

”What is there traditional in George Bush?” he asks with exasperation. ”Nothing. Nothing.”

The old reactionary’s point, you might say, is that Trump didn’t come from nowhere. George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.

Anyway, for those for whom conservatism means something more than anti-liberalism, for those who wish to dive deep into the conservative tradition in search of pearls, pre-order The Vision of the Soul. We’re going to need it. Here’s a snapshot from its introduction:

Traditional conservatism, in contrast, strikes the contemporary breast only in those brief moments when the loneliness of the modern individual breaks forth and leads him to question the normally unquestioned good of technological and media-saturation; when he sees for a moment that the material ugliness of our civilization cannot be solved by “green” technology but only by a fundamental readjustment of the human person’s attitude toward creation and acquisition to antique standards; when, ever more rarely, he reads a book that stirs in him an image of genuine heroism unmotivated by mere trauma and realized in a form more lasting than the bloody phantasmagorias of contemporary Hollywood; or when he senses that the heart’s deepest longing is for a permanent happiness, and that happiness is possible only in an extended natural community with ties that bind but ties that uphold as well.

At these margins, and in these fugitive moments, can some restored literary conservatism be revived? Does our age have within it a Burke, a Coleridge, an Eliot? The historical record does not give us cause for optimism, and the present age of relativist skepticism and consumer spectacle, of pornographic anti-culture and enthralled senses, gives us positive grounds for doubt. But the chapters that follow are founded on hope: hope that the defense they make of a culture of truth, goodness, and beauty—and indeed, of the reality of that trinity as ordering reality as such—will resonate with the sensibility of its readers and help them on their sundry roads to living well in the world; hope that its arguments will be sufficiently compelling to cause a few souls to rethink our present cultural regime; and hope, finally, that its resources may help the conservative voices of today and tomorrow to find a language adequate to express the passions of their breast.

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Crushing Barronelle So #LoveWins™

Barronelle Stutzman (photo courtesy Alliance Defending Freedom)

You have probably heard the news from Washington state:

A Richland florist who refused to provide flowers to a gay couple for their wedding violated anti-discrimination law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled unanimously that Barronelle Stutzman discriminated against longtime customers Rob Ingersoll and Curt Freed when she refused to do the flowers for their 2013 wedding because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Instead, Stutzman suggested several other florists in the area who would help them.

“We’re thrilled that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. The court affirmed that we are on the right side of the law and the right side of history,” Ingersoll and Freed said in a statement.

Stutzman and her attorneys said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also held out hope that President Donald Trump would issue an executive order protecting religious freedom, which was a campaign pledge.

Stutzman called the ruling “terrifying when you think the government is coming in and telling you what to think and what to do.”

I would be surprised if SCOTUS agreed to hear the case, but who knows?

Here is a key part of the ruling:

The decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding. As Stutzman acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism.

A wedding between Muslims or atheists is still a wedding between a man and a woman, which Stutzman believes to be good. Because she is a Southern Baptist, she believes that same-sex couples cannot marry, and that homosexuality is in some sense sinful. What same-sex couples do is not analogous to what sexually complementary couples of other religions, or no religion at all, do. You may believe her to be wrong, but unlike racism, hers is a religious belief that is deeply rooted in the Bible, as well as in history and anthropology. It was not even a matter of significant controversy until recent decades.

The Court seems to believe that homosexuality is in the same category as race: morally insignificant. No orthodox Christian can believe that. I don’t think that orthodox Christianity requires one to refuse to arrange flowers for a gay wedding, but it’s not my place to tell another Christian (or Jew, Muslim, Hindu, et al.) that they have to violate their conscience to do so, any more than I have the right to tell her that she must violate her conscience by arranging flowers for the wedding of a man and a woman who have been living together prior to marriage, however prudish I may find that to be. Because sexuality is categorically different. 

Anyway, that’s that. Never mind that Stutzman knew her customer, Rob Ingersoll, was gay, and had been kindly serving him for a decade or so. In this story in the Christian Science Monitor, Ingersoll talks about how Stutzman, a gentle grandmother (I met her last year), broke the news to him:

As part of the preparations, Ingersoll went to his favorite florist to ask her personally if she would handle the flowers.

At that brief meeting, Stutzman reached across the counter and took hold of Ingersoll’s hand. He would later recall to Freed the words she used: “You know I love you dearly. I think you are a wonderful person, but my religion doesn’t allow me to do this.”

In response to Ingersoll’s request for a referral, she suggested three local florists from among a dozen flower shops in the area. They talked a bit more, then hugged, and Ingersoll left the shop.

So he went and got the ACLU on his side, and he sued the hateful hag. Because #lovewins™, or something.

David French, who is a lawyer, describes the injustices that the Washington courts have inflicted on Barronelle Stutzman on behalf of these two spiteful narcissists:

The pretext for overriding the florist’s rights to free speech and religious liberty was Washington’s so-called “public accommodations law,” which required the owner, Barronelle Stutzman, to provide goods and services to customers “regardless” of their sexual orientation.

Let’s be clear, according to the plain language of the law and the undisputed facts of the case, Stutzman did nothing illegal. She had always consistently and joyfully served gay clients, including the man who ultimately decided to bring potentially ruinous legal claims against her. On each of those prior occasions, however, she was not using her artistic talents to help her clients celebrate an occasion she considered immoral.

In other words, she was not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. She was making a decision not to help celebrate an action, a form of expression. She would no more celebrate a gay wedding than she would any form of immorality, gay or straight. To dispense with her argument, the court did what numerous progressive courts have done: It rewrote the law. It rejected what it called the “status/conduct” distinction, and essentially interpreted the word “orientation” to also mean “action.”

To understand how nonsensical and dangerous this is, one need merely apply it to other categories of expression. Is it now racial discrimination to refuse to bake a cake with Confederate flag icing, since the person asking for such a cake will almost always be white? Is it gender discrimination for fashion designers to refuse to “dress” Ivanka or Melania Trump? They’re women, after all.

French says that the state Supreme Court compared what Stutzman did to Jim Crow. It’s fatuous nonsense. French points out that in the segregated South, black Americans were widely denied access to goods and services. Here?:

The gay couple in this case had no trouble finding flowers. Stutzman even recommended other florists who would have been happy to help them celebrate their wedding. So, given the absence of any real harm, the court said that the state had a compelling state interest in punishing the “independent social evil” of discrimination toward a “broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace.”

That’s it right there: the state religion. It reserves for itself the exclusive ability to name, define, and eradicate “social evils,” and heaven help the individual citizen who disagrees. There is no need to show a traditional, legally recognized harm. There is no need to prove lack of access to alternative artistic expressions. There is only the need to show that the business owner won’t use her unique talents to help celebrate the sexual revolution.

You should read his entire piece.

Last summer, I met Barronelle Stutzman, and interviewed her. Look at and listen to this video of her to get a sense of the kind of woman she is. When I was with her, the serenity of her bearing conveyed the granite strength of her religious conviction. This Southern Baptist woman shall not be moved. The state court has made it possible for the plaintiffs to sue her personally to cover their legal fees, which will probably go up to a million dollars. Understand: they aren’t satisfied to destroy this 72-year-old woman’s livelihood, but they also want to bankrupt her.

Because #LoveWins, always.

The Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby said last year of Barronelle Stutzman:

I am deeply aware of how scandalous, even how obscene, it seems to speak of martyrdom from within the relative safety and prosperity of the liberal West, while so many of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world are dying for the faith. I have no answer to this powerful objection, and so I am also aware of the famous remark of Wittgenstein, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And yet the suffering of a Barronelle Stutzman does not become less real simply because liberal order has perfected the art of bleeding its victims slowly and invisibly through ten-thousand bureaucratic paper cuts, rather than with the sword or lions in the Colosseum. Certainly we must be grateful for that, and yet there is a peculiar challenge for Christian faith and witness in the fact that liberal order diffuses its power quietly, almost imperceptibly, without blood or spectacle or responsibility. It creates a real possibility that one’s sufferings may be visible only to God, so that it will always be possible to say, as many of our Catholic brethren seem only too eager to say, “Move on, there is really nothing to see here.”

Attention must be paid. What they do to her today, they will do to you tomorrow. Count on it. Will you and I have the courage to pay the price Barronelle Stutzman is paying? Will you and I at least stand with her and help her pay the financial cost her persecutors will levy on her? In The Benedict Option, I write:

A Christian family might be forced to sell or close a business rather than submit to state dictates. The Stormans family of Washington state faced this decision after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring its pharmacy to sell pills the family considers abortifacient. Depending on the ultimate outcome of her legal fight, florist Barronelle Stutzman, who declined for conscience reasons to arrange flowers for a gay wedding, faces the same choice.

When that price needs to be paid, Benedict Option Christians should be ready to support one another economically—through offering jobs, patronizing businesses, professional networking, and so forth. This will not be a cure-all; the conversion of the public square into a politicized zone will be too far-reaching for orthodox Christian networks to employ or otherwise financially support all their economic refugees. But we will be able to help some.

Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom, and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have. That is the way of spiritual death. When the Roman proconsul told Polycarp he would burn him at the stake if he didn’t worship the emperor, the elderly second-century bishop retorted that the proconsul threatened temporary fire, which was nothing compared with the fire of judgment that awaited the ungodly.

If Polycarp was willing to lose his life rather than deny his faith, how can we Christians today be unwilling to lose our jobs if put to the test? If Barronelle Stutzman is prepared to lose her business as the cost of Christian discipleship, how can we do anything less?

That passage comes from the Work chapter of the book, which focuses in large part on preparing ourselves for earning a living in an environment in which we will not be allowed to hold certain jobs or enter certain fields. Folks, it’s getting real now. And so had we better.

Let this inspire you:

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Narcissus In The White House Press Room

Did you see the Trump press conference? If not, you can watch it here and read the transcript, or read the annotated transcript here.

If you do, you’ll find things like this:

QUESTION: Mr. President, on national…

TRUMP: Wait. Let’s see. Who’s — I want to find a friendly reporter.


TRUMP: Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.


TRUMP: Go ahead.

QUESTION: So first of all, my name is (Inaudible) from (Inaudible) Magazine. I (inaudible). I haven’t seen anybody in my community, including yourself or any of the — anyone on your staff of being (OFF-MIKE).

Because (OFF-MIKE). However, what we’ve already heard about and what we (OFF-MIKE) is (OFF-MIKE) so you’re general forecast (ph) like 48 (OFF-MIKE). There are people who are everything (ph) happens through their packs (ph) is one of the (OFF-MIKE)…


TRUMP:…he said he was gonna ask a very simple, easy question. And it’s not, its not, not — not a simple question, not a fair question. OK sit down, I understand the rest of your question.

So here’s the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti- Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person. In fact, we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican — quiet, quiet, quiet.

See, he lied about — he was gonna get up and ask a very straight, simple question, so you know, welcome to the world of the media. But let me just tell you something, that I hate the charge, I find it repulsive.

I hate even the question because people that know me and you heard the prime minister, you heard Ben Netanyahu (ph) yesterday, did you hear him, Bibi? He said, I’ve known Donald Trump for a long time and then he said, forget it.

So you should take that instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.

And this:

QUESTION: Mr. Trump?

TRUMP: Yes, oh, this is going to be a bad question, but that’s OK.

QUESTION: It doesn’t(ph) have(ph) to be a bad question.

TRUMP: Good, because I enjoy watching you on television. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, thank you so much. Mr. President, I need to find out from you, you said something as it relates to inner cities. That was one of your platforms during your campaign. Now you’re —

TRUMP: Fix the inner cities.

QUESTION: — president. Fixing the inner cities.


QUESTION: What will be that fix and your urban agenda as well as your HBCU Executive Order that’s coming out this afternoon? See, it wasn’t bad, was it?

TRUMP: That was very professional and very good.

QUESTION: I’m very professional.

I will never, ever get this about Trump: his obsession with the media and how it covers him. He is President of the United States, yet he stood on the stage for a long time, bitching about the media. It’s crazy, just crazy. Hey, I don’t much care for the media either, but this is just nuts.

No! Now we hear that Mattis ally Vice Admiral Robert Harward (Ret.) has turned down Trump’s offer of National Security Adviser. The FT, quoting someone close to the discussions, says “Harward is conflicted between the call of duty and the obvious dysfunctionality.”

You think? Would you want to work for that dumpster fire of a White House? Does seeing the president’s press conference today bolster your confidence in him and his executive leadership?

At some point, it is bound to occur to even strong pro-Trump partisans that there’s something really wrong with this guy. You cannot, you know, run a country if you spend so much time obsessing about the media. Richard Nixon was a thousand times smarter than Donald Trump, and his paranoia did him in. Ronald Reagan probably wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Trump, and he got bad press too, but he was a lot smarter about the media than Trump is.

UPDATE: The President of the United States is running an online survey about how the media are covering him. Really, he is. Meanwhile, today in Washington state, the Baronnelle Stutzman got pummeled by the state Supreme Court, which is destroying her business on behalf of a gay couple. But please, let’s not get upset over the strangling of religious liberty in this country, and the crushing of the livelihood of a gentle Washington grandmother by two vindictive gay men. Let’s worry about how mean CNN is to Donald Trump.

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Lent & The Greatest Love Of All

Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all

— from ‘The Greatest Love of All’ (Creed/Masser)

In the spring of 2004, I went to a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, two days before Ash Wednesday. The film tore me to bits. I went to Ash Wednesday services at my local Catholic parish (I was Catholic then) ready to don sackcloth and ashes and repent. The priest’s homily that day centered on how Lent was really a time for us to learn to love ourselves more.

After that, I knew that this priest had nothing useful to teach any of us about the spiritual life. It was about nothing more than coddling the bourgeoisie.

I thought about that moment when a friend yesterday sent me a link to Glitter + Ash. It’s a movement to encourage churches and penitents (“penitents”) to smear glitter on foreheads instead of the traditional grey ash. Here’s why:

Glitter is an inextricable element of queer history. It is how we have displayed our gritty, scandalous hope. We make ourselves fabulously conspicuous, giving offense to the arbiters of respectability that allow coercive power to flourish.

Glitter+Ash is an inherently queer sign of Christian belief, blending symbols of mortality and hope, of penance and celebration. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a season of repentance. During Lent, Christians look inward and take account in order to move forward with greater health. At this moment in history, glitter ashes will be a powerful reminder of St. Augustine’s teaching that we cannot despair because despair paralyzes, thwarting repentance and impeding the change that we are called to make.

Glitter+Ash exquisitely captures the relationship between death and new life. We do not live in fear of ash – of death – we place it on our foreheads for the world to see. We know that fear will rise, cramping our hearts. We also know that God specifically calls us not to project that fear onto the Other, the alien, the stranger in our midst. God insists that we look for the spark of life, of hope, in ourselves and one another. This Ash Wednesday, we will make that spark easier to see. We will stand witness to the gritty, glittery, scandalous hope that exists in the very marrow of our tradition.

What a complete trivialization of the sacred, an emptying-out of holy tradition to serve the Almighty Self and its sexual desire. Not even Lent is free from LGBT cultural politics. It’s all about them, all the time.

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The Last Evangelical Citadel

To defend the citadel, soldiers need new strategies — ones that are actually quite old (Alexlukin/Shutterstock)

David Goodwin, head of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, writes that Evangelicals (of which he is one) regard the Bible as their “citadel,” but now find themselves struggling to defend it in post-Christianity. The problem, it seems to me, is fideism. Excerpts:

What has been lost with Evangelicals is the intellectual tradition of Christianity. Evangelicals scramble to rightly contextualize God’s word because we are not intellectually equipped to do so. 50 or 100 years ago, we were convinced to broaden verses like “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female in Christ” (Galatians 3, Colossians 4) to justify our support of progressive agendas like feminism, while passing over other verses about sexual roles in the church, family, and society (1 Peter 3, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 3, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 11…). This led us down a road that converged with the Enlightenment’s view of the individual. We mis-applied Galatians 3 to embrace the idea we live in a structure and under an authority defined by ourselves, rather than by God.
But did God create male and female so they could self-identify against the nature He created? Or, against the purpose for which they were created? If so, then who is sovereign—man or God? Puzzled Evangelicals have no systematic way of resolving this conflict, so we predictably fall back to our favorite Evangelical verse: the Great Commission from Matt 29, v. 19-20, which calls us to “go into all the world.” We just need to tell others about Jesus! But, in doing so, we skip past v. 18: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

What he’s saying is that popular Evangelicalism has avoided doing the hard thinking about divine order, human nature, hierarchy, and suchlike, doubling down instead on preaching and revival. This is a failure of discipleship, and an inadvertent downplaying of the Incarnation, which entails the existence of a divine Logos manifest in all Creation.

More Goodwin:

The only systematic theology most Evangelicals encounter is the progressive American theology taught in the media and in public school—which stands for extreme self-determination.

For a time, Evangelicals will hold out in our crumbling biblical citadel. We will take Paul and Christ at their word. We will defend the traditional family (weakly). But if someone asks “if men and women can self-define their roles, why can’t we all self-define our gender?” There will be a pause. Evangelicals who lack a systematic truth system based in scripture will succumb to the lie offered by our culture. This is why we Evangelicals should embrace classical Christian education. In classical Christian classrooms, we remember that Jesus was given all authority in heaven AND on earth. We study every single subject as an integrated whole with theology as the queen, ruling over all knowledge. We dedicate the 16,000 hours that our children are in school to this one critical task.

Goodwin cites the recent podcast interview Al Mohler did with me, in which Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the nation’s leading religious conservatives, said that Evangelicals don’t have what it takes to do the Benedict Option because they are not intellectually serious enough to ground themselves in the Reformation roots of their own tradition. Goodwin:

In the end, Al Mohler was right. Most Evangelicals do not presently have the ability to execute the Benedict Option. But if we return to the systematic theology of our Protestant forefathers (and the educational system they used to perpetuate that theology), we have the strength of the gospel on our side. It really does all hold together with the power of His Word.

Read the whole thing. Biblical fideism is not enough, not in liquid modernity. I hope The Benedict Option will inspire some tough, fruitful conversations among Evangelicals. The challenge facing Catholics and Orthodox is different, but based on a fideism particular to them: the belief that the Church system is sufficient to produce new generations of Christians whose hearts and minds are formed by Christianity.

Right now, Christian Smith’s research shows that just about everybody is failing catastrophically at this.  We have to do better. Our institutions are at this point only managing decline. This is no time for complacency.

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Spies Spying On White House?

What, me worry? (<a href="a katz/Shutterstock)

The Wall Street Journal reports that intelligence agencies do not trust the President of the United States:

U.S. intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.

The officials’ decision to keep information from Mr. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump accused the agencies of leaking information to undermine him.

In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.


“This is not about who won the election. This is about concerns about institutional integrity,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior intelligence official.

“It’s probably unprecedented to have this difficult a relationship between a president and the intelligence agencies,” Mr. Lowenthal said. “I can’t recall ever seeing this level of friction. And it’s just not good for the country.”

This is absolutely extraordinary, any way you look at it. On one hand, you could say that the spy agencies are being patriotic, defending the country’s best interests over that of its president, who they considered compromised by Russia (or at least some in his inner circle may be compromised). Think about what that means.

On the other hand, you could say that the spy agencies are attempting to undermine a democratically elected president, thereby carrying out a soft coup. That is Damon Linker’s view. Excerpt:

The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down.

The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.

Unelected intelligence analysts work for the president, not the other way around. Far too many Trump critics appear not to care that these intelligence agents leaked highly sensitive information to the press — mostly because Trump critics are pleased with the result. “Finally,” they say, “someone took a stand to expose collusion between the Russians and a senior aide to the president!” It is indeed important that someone took such a stand. But it matters greatly who that someone is and how they take their stand. Members of the unelected, unaccountable intelligence community are not the right someone, especially when they target a senior aide to the president by leaking anonymously to newspapers the content of classified phone intercepts, where the unverified, unsubstantiated information can inflict politically fatal damage almost instantaneously.

Either way, this is bad. This is really bad.

Meanwhile, there’s a country to govern, right? What about getting things done? The New York Times reports:

Congressional Republicans, who craved unified control of the government to secure their aggressive conservative agenda, have instead found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer, gliding toward nowhere.

After moving to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act just days after President Trump was sworn in last month, Republican lawmakers and Mr. Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health care law have been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed. The same is true for a proposed overhaul of the tax code.

The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexican border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.

At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health care and financial regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.

Trump can’t govern. That’s not surprising, because he can’t govern himself. The question going forward is going to be the extent to which the Congressional Republicans get tied up by his foolishness, his constant, unnecessary drama, or manage to get things done and sent to his desk on their own. Right now, the GOP and its president are laying the groundwork for a powerful resurgence by Democrats, and President Elizabeth Warren.

This morning, the Tweeter-in-Chief continues his war on his own intel agencies:

I don’t think this is going to work out for him. Or for the country.

UPDATE: John Podhoretz says that everybody needs to watch their mouths. Excerpt:

I am myself unnerved by the evidence of high-level lawlessness in the Flynn matter, but a “coup d’etat” refers specifically to a military ouster of a leader, not a leak-driven campaign using the press to nail someone. This is sure to persist, though, if the Flynn-Russia matter accelerates—and if the reluctant House and Senate do begin investigating the matter in earnest. If the language surrounding the investigation remains florid and purple, if Democrats try to please their Trump-hating constituents by screaming impeachment and liberal media tries to garner audience by jumping openly and vociferously on the bandwagon, the Trumpians will respond in kind by stirring the pot through their media and their argumentation.

The result might well be violence. Not rhetorical violence. Actual violence. Actual political violence. Actual conflicts between anti-Trumpers and Trumpers. At demonstrations. In the streets. Of our cities. Political violence of a sort we haven’t seen in 50 years, and maybe haven’t really seen in this country in the modern era. Those who believe Trump is a unique menace whose threat to our democratic way of life will be met with those who believe the elites are using illicit means to oust the legitimately elected president of the United States.

This is not a fantasy. This is one possible future. And every rational person who cares about the future of the country should be mindful of it, and should work to forestall it.

UPDATE.2: Commenter Carlo says:

Actually this looks more and more like Berlusconi’s trajectory, and his problem was not that he could not govern himself.

He came to power with a sweeping program of reforms, and he spent most of his time battling unelected establishmentarian opposition (in his case, judges), and thus ended up getting very little done.

So, Trump’s personality may make things worse, but the real problem is sociological. Certain elites hold so much administrative or cultural power that they can block anything that does not fit with their hegemony. At the same time, they are radically detached from huge segments of the population (what David Lebedoff calls the “Left Behinds”), and hated by them. It looks like a recipe for disaster.

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Globalization, Mechanization, & Political Stability

Here’s the result of a good conversation I had with my old friend Bill McKenzie, who is now the Editorial Director at the George W. Bush Institute, and editor of its magazine Catalyst, in the current issue of which the entire interview appears. We’re talking about politics in the Trump era. Excerpt:

McKenzie: I could throw a bunch of statistics back at you about how automation has actually changed the job place more than global trade or how globalized production helps working families by keeping the price of products like cars and jeans lower. But I think what you are describing is a far more visceral response. It’s a fear of losing what was. So, if you’re like me, and think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy, how do you reach people who feel the way you describe?

Dreher: You’ve hit on one of the defining political issues of the period into which we have now entered. It’s one in which the familiar ideological stances of left and right don’t offer much help. Nor does the new populism, as articulated by Trump – if “articulated” is the right word – have a clear idea what to do about automation, for example. We are all, to some extent, flying blind.

I don’t think the fear is based on nothing. The numbers on income stagnation, a slowdown in productivity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, and so forth, are undeniable. People feel in their guts that something has gone very wrong – and they’re not wrong. I don’t believe that Trump has the slightest idea how to get the economy back on track, but who could possibly have confidence that the neoliberal establishmentarians of the Democratic and Republican parties do?

A lot of folks on both the left and the right sensed that those establishments were satisfied to manage the decline of the middle class. This is what the Bernie Sanders phenomenon was about on the left, by the way. Sanders didn’t have the answers either, but at least he was speaking to the deep sense of alarm that people have, and the erosion of authority in the normative institutions – especially the political parties – in contemporary America.

The economy cannot be easily separated from the rest of life. It matters a lot to the sense of self-worth of workers that their labor is meaningful. Cheaper cars and jeans cannot compensate for the loss of work with dignity.

This problem is not quantifiable, which, in the minds of many economists and others, renders it unreal. But it’s happening. I am doing better economically than most people my age, but now that my first child is getting ready for college, it occurred to me the other day that I do not believe that my children will be more secure economically than their mother and I are.

I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents. That was the natural order of things, or so we thought.

It didn’t hit me till the other day that I don’t know anybody who believes that anymore. Most of us, in my experience, believe that our kids will have to fight hard simply to hold on to what we have. The crash of 2007 and 2008 shattered a lot of people’s faith in the economic future, and I don’t think it has recovered.We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo. Brexit and Trump show us that. In the future, politicians of the left and right across the West will have to find a way to rein in market forces for the sake of social stability.

We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo.

Pope John Paul II said that the market was made for man’s flourishing, not man for the market’s. Before the present moment, one might have considered that to be religious idealism. Now, it’s political common sense, and leaders who don’t understand the wisdom there are going to be swept aside. Greater automation, though, is going to make the job of politically managing the decline of manual labor even more difficult.

What I don’t hear too many people on the left or the right talking about is the role that moral libertarianism plays in the unraveling of our society. I’ve been reading an advance copy of “Move Fast And Break Things,” a hard-hitting book by Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

The book’s title was Facebook’s motto for a while, meant to express Mark Zuckerberg’s ethos of disruption, which is what they call “creative destruction” these days. Taplin writes about how the form capitalism has taken in the digital age has tremendously negative consequences for democratic self-government. His book goes into detail about the Silicon Valley ideology of “techno-libertarianism” – Taplin’s term – has come to exercise outsized power in postindustrial America. It’s an economics book, mostly.

What I find so fascinating about the book is how the economic libertarianism Taplin talks about has developed alongside an equally powerful moral libertarianism – one that cannot help but have serious social and political effects. Put simply, radical individualism is powering the digital economy and dissolving old forms of doing business, just as it is powering social change, and dissolving old customs and forms.

The loss of community has been something social critics of the left and the right have been talking about since the end of the Second World War. Now we are seeing the family falling apart.  A professor at a conservative evangelical college told me not long ago that he doubted whether many of his students would ever form stable families. When I asked him why, he said, “Because so few of them have ever experienced one.”

Capitalism is tearing apart the social institutions – families and communities — it needs to sustain itself. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating socialism. But we have to understand what the dynamics of our individualistic cultural and economic values are doing to our social fabric, and deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. 

Here’s a link to the entire conversation. 

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Catholics, Orthodox, & Ben Op, Part 2

A reader writes:

I’m a Roman Catholic Seminarian studying for the Priesthood. I really appreciate your work. I just wanted to a) respond to your post b) ask you a question.

I think that you are essentially right; Catholicism and Orthodoxy both have the tools to survive the upcoming storm. But like a man with a big beautiful garage full of wonderful wood-working gear, it won’t really matter what fancy tools we have unless we use them. I think there are increasingly more young men studying for the priesthood (in the Catholic side of things) who are very faithful and orthodox Christians, and who want to use the tools at hand. Most of them are associate pastors and seminarians right now, but hopefully we will see some changes in the near future at the parish level.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that things will be easy for them. They will have to deal with a Church infrastructure designed in the 19th century which is rapidly fading; we have too many churches, built in a time when people had to walk to get to church, and not enough parishioners to support them all. I know a young priest who has four country parishes to minister to and is the vocation director for his diocese. I don’t know how he will be able to build a rich Catholic community with all that work, but by God he is trying.

Additionally, I notice in the commentary that some readers think that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is not capable of providing the rich liturgical backbone for any Ben Op community. I would disagree, though I will admit I understand why they say that; there are a lot of boring masses, and a lot of study, silly things can happen in a parish during the mass. But I think that the Ordinary form, done with reverence, can be just as powerful as any other Liturgical rite out there. I might be a little biased though, that is the rite I am studying!

Which leads me to my question: What should pastors and those studying for the priesthood do to build up rich, fervent communities of dedicated Christians? It sounds strange, but you often hear about discussion about what the Laity can do (which is fantastic) but I am thinking about the Ben Op from a pastor’s point of view.

What a good question. It brings to mind something a Catholic parish priest friend told me 15 years ago: that the laity has no idea at all about the crisis coming their way — meaning the priest shortage. The numbers don’t lie, he said, but the laity carries on as if what they have today is going to go on forever.

Anyway, I agree with you about the Novus Ordo, believe it or not, because I have seen it celebrated with great reverence — especially by Father Paul Weinberger out in Greenville, Texas. Making a successful Ben Op dependent on the Traditional Latin Mass is unnecessary and futile. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the TLM for Catholics who want it. I just don’t believe it’s strictly necessary. That said, that’s not an argument for me, but for Catholics.

What could priests and pastors (including Evangelical pastors) do for the Benedict Option? Here are some thoughts that come to mind:

    • Prepare their congregations for hard times to come. No need to get all End Times about it — that would be counterproductive. But start talking in concrete terms about how important it is to double down on studying Scripture, church teaching, church history, and the lives of the saints.
    • Build a culture of prayer and contemplation. Spiritual progress does not come without inner stillness, which is something very difficult to find these days. Churches tend to be very good at teaching people how to be Martha (that is, active in the world), but not so good at teaching people how to be Mary (that is, still, contemplative, present with Jesus). For many of us (this is certainly true about me), we think that we are doing the Lord’s work when we are reading theology or blogging, et cetera, when in fact we may be undermining ourselves and our Christian commitment by neglecting our prayer lives.
    • Talk about what makes Christians different from the world, and the risk of losing our distinctiveness, and indeed our faith, through assimilation. Far too many of us prefer to live in a bubble, thinking that everything will always be this way. It won’t be. Which distinctives are important to hold on to? Where is the threat of assimilation coming from? How do we meet it?
    • Take your parish school to the classical model. It falls to the Christian churches to preserve the heritage of the West. More importantly, classical Christian education provides a powerful counternarrative to what the world says the human person is. Education will be a prime locus of resistance to post-Christianity.
    • Encourage community building, in part through doing traditional liturgies, communal prayers, and feasts. We need to thicken our communities, including our ties to the church of the ages, by reacquainting ourselves with traditional Christian culture. Read this Robert Louis Wilken essay for an idea of what we need to be doing.  I just received this e-mail from an Evangelical who runs a school:I attended a well-regarded evangelical seminary. While there we learned that one of the great errors of the old missionary movements was the transmission of culture in addition to the Gospel.Why it did not dawn on me (or anyone else) that the moment we cross a border with a book, we are importing a culture, I do not know. I suppose only knowledge heavy, analytical math types (my seminary had many) would think they can reduce the Gospel to the affirmation of propositions. To this day, many evangelical seminarians are great analyzers of the text but have trouble putting it back together into a story that affects the culture and inhabits a people. Do Greek Orthodox believers have discussions about leaving culture behind while taking the Gospel?After reading you and Jamie Smith, it is clear that culture is much harder to divorce from the Gospel than many had hoped or envisioned. There are cultural practices that either support or do not support Christianity. In typical evangelical Protestant ignorance, we abandoned traditional culture and norms without realizing that something would necessarily take its place! Its like abandoning liturgy but having the same you’ll-be-damned-if-you-change-it order of service every Sunday.

      It is obvious to me now as a school principal that if we are going to direct the loves of our children that culture is the very thing we need to preserve. The practices of the old tradition were amenable to the necessary philosophical underpinnings of Christianity. Unfortunately, our youth programs in churches abandoned any adherence to the norms and traditions of Christianity and adopted progressive views of education from public schools. Youth group often amounted to nothing more than having a good time with emotive moments of commitment while transferring Christian content and encouraging children not to do bad things.

      Take the entertainment god as an example. The love for unbridled and unabated entertainment enabled by the always-on-Internet has been co-opted by many youth pastors. All the while, this god requires us to think only of the pleasures of entertainment while ignoring that we are physical and spiritual beings with an obligation to self-sacrificial works which ennoble the soul. What good does it do to teach Christian content in a medium which teaches that pleasure is the ultimate goal of existence?

      In my experience, Catholics are no better at this (despite having more resources), and neither are a lot of Orthodox churches. We all have to do better. All of us.

    • Bring back fasting. Catechizing congregations on the importance of asceticism is critically important. All Christians used to fast at the appropriate times in the church calendar. They should again. It’s important.
    • Don’t fear hard teaching. You will offend lots of people if you talk about what the church teaches, especially in the areas of sin that are most likely to have captured your congregation. If people leave, they leave. They were bound to do so anyway. If you preach right, you will call some to repentance, and you will encourage those who are trying to do the right thing — and especially you will encourage parents who are trying to teach their kids the faith. They (we) need to know that the church is behind us.
    • Present the Christian life as a pilgrimage and an adventure. As something that cannot be reduced to rituals and moralism. As something that offers a real and powerful alternative to the emptiness of mainstream post-Christian culture. I did not know until I was an adult that there was more to Christianity than that, and that it was accessible to me as an ordinary believer, though I would have to work at it.
    • Talk about real life. One grows weary of sermons that are perfectly good on paper, but that have no apparent application to the challenging lives people actually live.
    • Challenge your congregation to get its hands dirty. I often tell the story about sitting around my Brooklyn apartment circa 2000, griping with some Catholic friends about the mediocrity of the institutional church and parish life. There was an orthodox Catholic priest present, and he said, “Everything you say is true, but you know what? That means that you guys have to step up.” He told the story about how his parents, raising him in the 1970s, could see the collapse of catechesis in their parish, and took it upon themselves to educate him and his siblings in the faith. The priest continued, “You can go onto tonight and order a library that Aquinas couldn’t have dreamed of, and have it delivered to your door. The resources are out there. Stop complaining and do something for yourselves.” I’ve never forgotten that. You, as a pastor, cannot be expected to do it all yourself. We in the laity have to step up. It was true in 2000, and it’s especially true in 2017.

Those are some thoughts off the top of my head. What do you orthodox Catholic, and believing Orthodox, readers think? Do you have some more suggestions? If you want to see the church liberalize, please withhold your comments on this thread.

(I wouldn’t mind hearing from conservative Evangelical readers too.)

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This Old Man

I apologize for being away from the keys most of the day. Today is my 50th birthday. I drove up to the country to have lunch with my mother. We reminisced about the old days. “Lord, but you had a big head,” she said. The really old days.

She presented me with a present she has been working diligently on for over two years: a hand-stitched quilt incorporating my late father’s old work shirts, which he selected himself. The center panel, shown above, was lettered by him at the start of the project, months before he died. That’s his handwriting, is what I’m saying, rendered in stitches by my mother.

Look at the level of detail in her work:

Every single stitch, put there by hand! And here’s the thing: she has arthritis, which means that she labored through pain. For over two years! Stitching a quilt big enough to cover a bed.

It’s an heirloom, of course, and I love it with all my heart. What a sweet, kind, generous mother I have. She gave me life. I am knitted together from scraps of her and him. And now I have this quilt forever.

Christmas 2013

Julie and the kids gave me some nice presents too, but this one just knocked me flat and made me cry. It’s a watercolor of my faithful friend Roscoe:

I apologize for the glare in the photo. I couldn’t figure out how to get the reflection off of the glass (the painting has been framed). The artist is our friend Susan Woodard Kelly, who paints all kinds of things, including pets. When I took the wrapping off and saw the image, I was looking at Roscoe. I mean, this is my dog! I don’t know how Susan captured his expression, but she did. It’s all in the eyes. Oh, I was so happy! I cried like a baby. If you love your dog, you need to click on that link to Susan’s name, and commission a watercolor. She did that one from a photo of Roscoe. That too is an heirloom.

It was a happy birthday. It is still going to be a happy birthday. For dinner, we’re having sushi, vintage Champagne, and Chantilly berry cake.

I would like to read an open thread here from readers talking about how they met their true love. No politics, no culture war — just tell your love story. Now, I’m going out to get the sushi, and I will try not to break my hip. Fifty! Lord have mercy. Grateful, is what I am. Grateful.

UPDATE: Best dog ever. Don’t you dare contradict me:

UPDATE.2: View from your birthday table:

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Neither Benedict, Nor Bonhoeffer … But Who?

When our ‘long national nightmare’ ended, there they were (Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock)

Not even a month into the new administration, and already its National Security Adviser has resigned after admitting lying to the Vice President and other White House officials about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador. Just another day in the hot mess that is the Trump administration. David Brooks today writes about how to best resist the calamity. 

If the main threat from Trump is that he will impose autocracy, then the model of resistance is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes Brooks, and that means mass protests and “aggressive nonviolent action.” But what if the main threat is that national politics turns into a sinkhole of wrathfulness, backbiting, and corruption? Brooks:

If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.

If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.

Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.

That’s interesting. Last week, I spoke with someone well-connected in Washington, who said that there are a lot of Christian Millennials in DC who are considering quitting their jobs and moving back home out of disgust, and because they believe that they can do more meaningful work elsewhere.

Read the entire Brooks column. He explains why he thinks we’re neither at a Bonhoeffer nor a Benedict moment, but rather at a Gerald Ford moment, awaiting a figure who can restore confidence and effective government to a system shaken to the core by crisis.

But first, the crisis. After these first three weeks, that crisis is not going to be long in coming.

UPDATE: By the way, The Benedict Option contains an entire chapter prescribing “antipolitical politics”.

UPDATE.2: I’m curious to know if any of this blog’s readers who work in or around Washington in a political capacity (including being part of the federal bureaucracy, working in a think tank, for a lobbying group, etc.) have been considering leaving for more settled pastures. If so, why?

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