Rod Dreher

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Yankee Bigot Scared Of Chick-Fil-A

Midtown distributor of Jesus cooties on chicken, according to New Yorker writer (DW Labs Inc./Shutterstock)

In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness, it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space. Here’s the headline:

“Creepy”. It’s a fast-food joint, you woke twerp!


New York has taken to Chick-fil-A. One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city. And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, is adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays. Its C.E.O., Dan Cathy, has been accused of bigotry for using the company’s charitable wing to fund anti-gay causes, including groups that oppose same-sex marriage. “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation,” he once said, “when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ ” The company has since reaffirmed its intention to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect,” but it has quietly continued to donate to anti-L.G.B.T. groups. When the first stand-alone New York location opened, in 2015, a throng of protesters appeared. When a location opened in a Queens mall, in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a boycott. No such controversy greeted the opening of this newest outpost. Chick-fil-A’s success here is a marketing coup. Its expansion raises questions about what we expect from our fast food, and to what extent a corporation can join a community.

Where are the thinkpieces in the New Yorker interrogating Muslim and Hasidic Jewish-owned businesses, asking whether they should be allowed to “join” the New York community? They don’t exist. Evangelical Christians and the food prepared in restaurants they own are a unique threat to New Yorkers, it would seem. They probably make nugget breading from the blood of kidnapped theybies.

Here, the author attacks the famous Chick-fil-A cows:

It’s worth asking why Americans fell in love with an ad in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place. Most restaurants take pains to distance themselves from the brutalities of the slaughterhouse; Chick-fil-A invites us to go along with the Cows’ Schadenfreude. In the portraits at the Fulton Street restaurant, the Cows visit various New York landmarks. They’re in Central Park, where “eat mor chikin” has been mowed into the lawn. They’re glimpsing the Manhattan Bridge from Dumbo, where they’ve modified a stop sign: “stop eatin burgrz.” They’re on the subway, where the advertisements . . . you get the picture. The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Its arrival in the city augurs worse than a load of manure on the F train.

Again, this is beyond parody. Read the whole thing — note that the author accuses Chick-fil-A of being infected with “suburban piety” —  and chortle. Finally, the cherry on top, is the piece’s description of the author:

Dan Piepenbring is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Of course he is! Of course.

All that is funny. But here’s what’s not funny.

Would the New Yorker have published a piece critical of a fast-food chain owned by pious Muslims, characterizing their appearance in New York City as an “infiltration,” and saying that because of its ownership, the restaurants do “not quite belong here”? Of course it wouldn’t. So why do they single out Evangelicals for this spiteful treatment? I think we know the answer, but I wish editors at the magazine would ask themselves this question.

And I wish they would ask themselves how they would respond if a magazine somewhere out in Jesusland published a piece stating that the local opening of a national chain stored owned by Orthodox Jews amounts to an “infiltration,” and that the Jewish-owned store “does not quite belong here.”

I love the New Yorker, and have subscribed to it for years (and it has loved me back). But this Piepenbring piece is not only an example of laughable cosmopolitan hickishness, it is rank anti-Christian bigotry.

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‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘Dialogue’

Two of the most dodgy words in contemporary religious discourse are “fundamentalism” and “dialogue”. They don’t mean what they seem to mean; in fact, they are often used as a way to gain power.

To explain what I mean, consider that Marquette University, a Jesuit university, is holding a “Pride Prom” this weekend. When some outside the university angrily questioned what a Catholic university is doing sponsoring an LGBT dance, a university spokesman responded:

Notice the rhetoric here. Stolarski is justifying a Catholic university holding a dance for LGBT people by claiming that the university is actually being faithful to Catholic teaching by so doing. It’s like something from the Ministry of Truth. But that’s Catholic higher education for you in a lot of places today. You’ll recall the recent incident at which an orthodox Catholic undergraduate at the Dominican-run Providence College was made into a pariah for publicly agreeing with what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and sexuality.

How does a religious institution — a college, a church, and so forth — get to this point? It often starts with “dialogue”. Who could be against dialogue? Just talking about things, right?

The problem is that there’s dialogue, and then there’s dialogue. By this time, within churches, orthodox/conservative people should have learned that calls for “dialogue” are almost always a strategic move by heterodox/liberal people to establish a beachhead from which to dislodge and defeat orthodoxy.

It works like this:

Progressives propose a dialogue about the role of LGBTs in the church. That’s fine. It’s an important topic. But what is really being proposed is not a talk about “how can LGBTs live faithful to church teaching in this culture, and how can the rest of the church help them do so while integrating them more closely into the life of the church?” That would be an important talk to have, challenging to everybody, and faithful to church teaching. 

But again, that’s not what’s being proposed. The end game, from the progressive side, is to achieve the goal of having the progressive position normalized within the church or church organization — and ultimately to have it replace the orthodox belief. The game is over the first time the parties sit down together if the dialogue is framed in such a way that the orthodox belief is up for debate. To enter into dialogue with others in the church on those terms is to surrender in principle what cannot be surrendered.

The battle is mostly won at that point by progressives. It’s just a matter of time before their view becomes the new orthodoxy. Once they have power, they make their view the new orthodoxy, on the grounds that justice requires it. As Richard John Neuhaus once observed, wherever orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.

If someone undertook to do a history of how orthodox Catholic teaching about homosexuality became heterodoxy at the ostensibly Catholic Marquette and Providence College, they would surely find that it began years, even decades earlier, with calls for “dialogue.” Eventually you end up hosting Pride Proms and demonizing those Catholics who disagree.

In the Orthodox Church, there are a couple of Orthodox grad students agitating for the acceptance and normalization of homosexuality within the Orthodox Church. Their website’s name is — surprise! — Orthodoxy in Dialogue. To be clear, dialogue is no bad thing in and of itself. But in this case, the “dialogue” sought is not one that helps LGBT Orthodox live faithfully by church teaching, and helping non-LGBT Orthodox help them to do so with charity. The only acceptable end result of this “dialogue” will be to marginalize the orthodox Orthodox within Orthodox institutions, and to stigmatize them. By pursuing “dialogue” framed this way, they co-opt the orthodox into their own displacement and diminishment.

Sometimes the progressives let their masks slip. This happened recently on Orthodoxy In Dialogue when the site published a cri de coeur (“I Will Not Be Silenced”) by a gay European man who labels himself “Orthodox Provocateur”. This week, OID’s editors confessed: “We Made A Mistake”. Excerpt:

On February 10 we published Nik Jovčić-Sas’ “Orthodox Provocateur: I Will Not Be Silenced” in good faith. Mr. Jovčić-Sas is a young Serbian Orthodox man living in the UK who devotes considerable time, effort, and resources to LGBTQ activism in some of the historically Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe. He often partners in this endeavour with Moldovan seminarian Ion Andronache, a husband and father of three small children.

In an editorial note at the end of his article we explained our decision to publish in this way:

With the publication of this article Orthodoxy in Dialogue recognizes the need for a complementary two-pronged approach to questions of sexual and gender diversity in human life: the theological effort to understand its place in the divine image and likeness, and the activist effort to ensure that all of God’s children enjoy the safety to thrive in private and public life.

Today we were dismayed to find the author’s Facebook page, Orthodox Provocateur, promoting the so-called “Orthodox Calendar.” This annual production combines homoerotic soft porn with Orthodox icons, clerical vestments, liturgical objects, the interior of churches, etc.

In no way does Orthodoxy in Dialogue wish to be associated, directly or indirectly, with the perpetuation of this sort of blasphemy. Our position is to explore possibilities for the sanctification of same-sex love, not to promote the carnality of same-sex desire or to conflate sexual desire in its fallenness with sacred images.

Accordingly we have removed the content from Mr. Jovčić-Sas’ article.

Go to that Facebook page, and you’ll see images that can only be described as demonic. It’s where this stuff inevitably goes if you give it space within the church. I saw it over and over when I was writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Remember “St. Sebastian’s Angels”?  Because so many of the “arguments” in this “dialogue” are not arguments at all, but rather emotivist appeals, like this gay OID editor’s impassioned apologia for his transgender son. Excerpt:

Do I have all the theological answers? Ha, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My own “transition” as the father of a transgender child is a never-ending journey of heart and soul in which I sometimes feel that I haven’t even taken the first step. Much less do I feel equipped to expatiate theologically or philosophically on why some persons simply must transition in order to go on living.

Let the full force of that sink in: In order to go on living.

But I do know this. Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, during His earthly life, reserved His condemnation for the following: the “moral” who judged others; the religiously self-righteous; those who thanked God for making them better than other people (you know what you can do with your “There, but for the grace of God…”); those who turned prayer and worship into a capitalist venture; and those who ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the foreigner, the lonely, the convict, the sick. In short, everyone whom the religious establishment deems “non-normative” comes to us as He Himself in disguise.

Beloved Masters, Fathers, monastics, brothers, sisters, theologians, and religious thinkers in the Orthodox Church: Until you have met my son face to face, looked into his eyes as through a window into his heart and soul, witnessed his love for the least of Christ’s brethren, listened—truly listened—to the story of his life, his need to be loved and welcomed by you, his reasons for transitioning to save his own life, you have nothing of value, or legitimacy, or authenticity, to say to him.

That is extremely manipulative language — but in a culture where emotivism has replaced rationality, it’s highly effective. The problem here is that if emotivism is the standard (“Do I have all the theological answers? Ha, I wouldn’t even know where to begin”), the only barrier to accepting anything is disgust. There would have been a time when the idea that Marquette would have sponsored a dance for LGBT students would have struck many Catholics involved in the dialogue as shocking, even disgusting. It no longer does. There would have been a time when laying a gay rights rainbow flag over an altar in a Catholic Church would have shocked and disgusted Catholics. Maybe it still does, but it happens here and there (for example). The Orthodoxy In Dialogue people may have been genuinely shocked and disgusted by what Orthodox Provocateur posted — I cannot know their minds — but it is certainly the case that OID having promoted the words and thoughts of this freak hurts the credibility of OID with the kind of unsuspecting conservatives and moderates they hope to draw into “dialogue”.

Mark my words: if OID gains traction within Orthodox institutions, and among Orthodox elites, it is simply a matter of time before the blasphemy of Orthodox Provocateur becomes if not mainstreamed, then moved within the category of the tolerable. All the necessary emotivist cant will be deployed to justify it. “Dialogue” is a tactic to move the Overton window — the frame of tolerable discourse — to the progressive side. Eventually those who profess what the Orthodox Church teaches to be true will be demonized as heretics, as the Providence College undergraduate discovered.

Let me be clear: there is an important dialogue to be had within the Orthodox Church about LGBT issues. But if actual moral-theological orthodoxy is up for debate, the dialogue is a trap, period. Orthodoxy In Dialogue said last fall that it has taken an editorial position to publish frequently about homosexuality, arguing for its normalization and affirmation within the Orthodox Church. It says:

Orthodoxy in Dialogue promotes true dialogue, not an echo chamber.Dialogue presupposes that the voice of the Church and the mind of Christ can be truly discerned over time only when many voices have the freedom to express themselves without fear. Endless charges and counter-charges of heresy, apostasy, “liberalism,” “conservatism,” and equally endless calls for the excommunication of anyone and everyone who disagrees with us on any topic whatever—these serve no purpose but to tear to shreds the seamless garment of love that characterizes Christ’s true disciples, His Church and Body and Bride.

Thus we welcome articles that take positions opposite from the ones that we have already published. We have proactively solicited submissions from authors who we know disagree with our articles. Yet only one has graciously responded to our overtures; with him we are in the process of working on a joint project to be published in November or December. We invite others to follow suit.

I don’t know why others haven’t taken them up on the invitation, but I know why I wouldn’t: because to join this “dialogue” is to participate in a process that will ultimately attempt to legitimize heterodoxy, plain and simple. Theological truth on a subject that both Scripture and the Church fathers have spoken very clearly about will not be determined through some sort of Hegelian dialectic. Again, the right dialogue to have is on how all Orthodox Christians, gays and straight, can live out the Church’s authentic teaching, and help each other to live it out in charity. Anything else is a potential trap. If you don’t see how this process has worked to destabilize Mainline Protestant churches, and the Catholic Church, you’re blind.

I suppose that makes me a “fundamentalist.” Some Orthodox liberal recently denounced me as a former Evangelical, even though I have never been Evangelical. They have this mindset that any Orthodox convert who doesn’t believe in embracing the LGBT agenda within the Church simply has to be some sort of fundagelical yokel who can’t leave his hickish morality behind. The word “fundamentalist” has almost no stable meaning in common discourse, other than to designate religious people that one do not like. You’ll remember this week’s post in which we looked at sociologist George Yancey’s 2011 survey data, in which he polled philosophy professors to ask which category of person they would be unwilling to hire. Here’s what he found:

Who is a “fundamentalist”? I doubt many, if any, of these surveyed profs could tell you what a Christian fundamentalist is, historically speaking. It’s one of those scare words that people like to use to marginalize and delegitimize conservative Christians they don’t like (the movement conservative version of this is to designate wobbly right-wingers as “RINOs”).

In the discourse of the respectable, nobody likes fundamentalists. If you can label their position as “fundamentalist,” then you don’t have to take them seriously. Within American Orthodoxy, one often sees liberal Orthodox who wish to take the church in a more modernist direction denouncing as “fundamentalist” other Orthodox who oppose them. It’s a slur that is often tied to criticizing Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy — as if their theological orthodoxy on sexuality is somehow foreign to Orthodoxy, even though they affirm what the Orthodox Church teaches!

So, there’s an academic Orthodox conference coming up:

It will be interesting to read the papers this conference produces. In my limited experience in international Orthodoxy, it is true that there are some monks, bishops, and others, who have an extremely rigid interpretation of Orthodoxy, one that you might call fundamentalist, though again, I think the term has been so corrupted by political usage that it’s meaningless. The thing to watch out for is precisely that: the use of the term not to advance understanding, but rather to obscure it by labeling anti-modernist views within Orthodoxy as “fundamentalist”.

In an e-mail this morning, an Orthodox philosopher pointed to the Yancey findings and said:

These are facts worth bearing in mind when people sling around the term fundamentalist. It’s not just a derogatory term (like, say, stupid or backwards) — it’s a weapon that’s highly effective in stigmatizing people, especially in academic and professional settings.

There’s a very sophisticated game being played here. And quite a few honest, faithful Orthodox people are setting themselves up to be played. This fight has been late coming to the Orthodox Church, but it’s here, and those who wish for the Church to be faithful to what it knows to be true had better wise up to the tactics and the strategy of the progressives, and learn from the bitter experience of the small-o orthodox within Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. Some of us converts came into Orthodoxy not from Evangelicalism, but from more established churches that have been hollowed out to some degree by progressivism. We have seen this all before. We know how it ends.

Ask yourself: when has one of these “dialogues” ever resulted in church progressives abandoning their positions and agreeing with the orthodox? And ask yourself: where are the churches whose abandonment of orthodox teaching on sexuality has led to flourishing?

It has never happened. They don’t exist.

UPDATE: The declining Episcopal church is tightening the screws on conservative dissenters, who at one point in the antediluvian age were invited to “dialogue.” This stuff only goes one way. A reader writes:

You Orthodox are so ’Nineties when it comes to Dialogue.

We conservative Anglicans were dialogued out of the Episcopal Church. Now the Archbishop of Canterbury has moved on to indaba and “good disagreement.”

The end result is the same:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Reader REM writes:

Let me perhaps help to give a what I understand to be a traditional (I hesitate to say fundamentalist because it is such a loaded term, even though that is how it will be characterized by many) outline of an Orthodox take on the Faith. It might make RD’s take on dialogue more comprehensible to some.

1. All knowledge of God comes through God’s revelation of Himself to us. We do not figure it out; it is given to us. (As Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory once said, no philosopher or theologian would have come up with the doctrine of the Trinity– a Cross for the human mind if there ever was one–on his own. All they do is reflect on the Mystery which has been divinely revealed.)

2. The Church is composed of those persons who embrace this revealed Truth AS Truth, and who attempt to incarnate that Truth in their own lives. As such, they voluntarily place themselves in obedience to that Truth.

3. None of those persons in the Church are perfect. They all fall short of the mark in one way or another. Therefore the Christian life is a constant struggle. When we fall, it is our obligation to get up again, repent, and set out upon the struggle again. The Church offers spiritual remedies for these maladies in its role as a spiritual hospital, in its pastoral work. As any good therapy, it is personalized for the particular person, but the goal is the same for all: spiritual health.

4. If we find ourselves in disagreement with the teaching of the Faith our default position should be that I must be wrong and the Church must be right, and then try to clear up the (our) confusion and eventually accept once again the Faith as delivered.

5. If we insist that we are right and the Church is wrong on the disagreement, it is our duty to follow our conscience. In doing so we leave the Church, and we will be answerable to God for our action at the Judgment. He will be the final judge. But as it is an article of the Faith that the Church is the Pillar and Bulwark of Truth, we are far more likely to be wrong than the entire Church throughout history.

From all this, it should be clear that a dialogue where one side expects the Church to change its long-held beliefs on the basis of the latest fashion is out of the question for a believing Orthodox Christian. Since obedience to the Faith is incumbent upon all the Church’s members, seeking to change the faith is an act of rebellion which puts one outside the bounds of the Church.

We understand that the Truth of the Faith concerning articles of belief and basic morality is eternal and unchanging, because God is eternal and unchanging. How that Faith is transmitted to people at any particular time and place will vary with circumstances. How that Faith will be lived by each person will be personal as well. But it will inevitably be lived out as spiritual warfare with our own passions, lusts and sinful desires. If that struggle is to be successful, it must be carried out without quarter, without compromise with our fallenness. How the clergy and the faithful help each other in those personal struggles is pastoral and personal, and is often surprisingly tolerant as long as we each embrace our struggle and work out our salvation in fear and trembling. It is only when a person throws in the towel and instead insists that the Church accept those passions, lusts and desires as good and beneficial that there can be no “dialogue.”

Sorry for the long post, and I know many will not understand or agree. But do at least try to see what our framework of thought is, and why we think as we do.

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Paul Ryan’s Career Suicide

Better days for Paul Ryan (Seth C. Fisher/Shutterstock)

The libertarian writer Will Wilkinson says what Paul Ryan stood for is what dooms his party. Excerpts:

Mr. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” released in 2008, at the time of the catastrophic collapse of the American economy, set out a plan for the radical retrenchment of the American welfare state. It made a splash. Mr. Ryan became the party’s de facto wonk in chief and played a critical role giving the Tea Party’s otherwise inchoate politics of grievance a definitive shape. As he rose to the commanding heights of the Republican Party, first as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and then as speaker of the House in 2015, Mr. Ryan’s libertarian-leaning technocratic tactics for the piecemeal dismantling of the safety net became party orthodoxy. 

Mr. Ryan’s ideas have always resonated with the corporate Republican donor class. But they are indifferent, at best, to the challenges faced by the mass of ordinary Republican voters. For decades, American innovation and growth has been largely concentrating in a handful of big liberal cities. When the recovery finally came, it came to the Democratic metropolis. Most of the sparse Republican outlands never bounced back.

Jobs were scarce, opioid addiction was rife, and life felt insecure. Indeed, life expectancy for many rural whites fell. A few red states graced with booming metro areas, like Texas, flourished under Republican regimes of low taxes and light regulation. But in more rural Republican states, like Kansas under Mr. Ryan’s mentor and former boss, Gov. Sam Brownback, taxes had been cut to the bone, and the promised boom never materialized to make up for the loss and degradation of public services.

Meanwhile, many tens of millions of loyal Republicans in struggling regions came to rely on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and disability benefits just to scrape by. By 2016, the last thing grass-roots Republicans wanted was yet another bloodless, ideologically rigid iteration of the stale Reagan formula. But thanks to the intellectual leadership of dogmatically small-government conservatives like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, that’s mostly what they got. Except from Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump spotted opportunity in the injured dignity of the Republican base and the feckless irrelevance of the establishment’s agenda. He told Republicans shaken by the reality and risk of downward mobility that they were the only Americans who counted, and that they had been cheated and betrayed.

He promised never to cut their Social Security or Medicare, and expressed admiration for single-payer health care. He took their side against immigrant rapists, murderous jihadis, plundering trade deals, dangerous city people and disloyal, condescending elites of all parties and persuasions. He promised to use his billionaire superpowers to rig the economy to their advantage. It didn’t matter that he is a transparently corrupt, bigoted, sexually abusive, compulsive liar. He offered the dignity of recognition, promised to fight, and won.

Whole thing here.  There’s more to it, in Wilkinson’s view, especially in how Ryan dealt with Trump (described by Wilkinson as “a Democratic turnout machine”). But that’s the gist.

I suspect Wilkinson is right in the above passage, and I don’t pity at all the Republicans who would not abandon Reaganite orthodoxies, despite conditions having changed. One analysis I would like to see — and if somebody has written it, and it’s linkable, please post it to the comments — is the Trump phenomenon as a manifestation of the steep decline of trust in American institutions over the past ten to twenty years.

The Republican Party has been the first of the two major parties to suffer from this, but the Democratic Party does not exist outside of this dynamic. After all, it nominated the embodiment of the Democratic Party institution, and she was such a bad candidate that she lost to a buffoon like Donald Trump. At some point, there will emerge a Democrat — probably not out of the party itself — who will be a Trump-like figure, someone who will run against the stale pieties of his or her own party, and win the nomination.

Thinking out loud here … if you were a senior Democratic strategist, and you were taking stock of how the GOP self-immolated, and you were looking to head off similar dynamics within your own party — what would you do? That is, what steps would you take to prevent the Democratic establishment from losing control of its own party to a populist outsider? Which policies would you recommend to keep it from being locked into ideological orthodoxies like those that captured Paul Ryan and brought down the GOP establishment?

First thing I would do is to marginalize the Social Justice Warrior faction within the party and focus almost entirely on economics (jobs, health care, economic security, etc). This will be very hard to do, because all the passion in both parties is around identity politics. If it doesn’t happen, though, the party is going to end up tearing itself up over internal orthodoxies, while alienating a lot of ordinary people, or at least failing to excite them, thus making way for an outsider.

I could be wrong. What would you tell this hypothetical Democratic strategist? That is, what are the lessons for the Democrats from the failure of Paul Ryan and the political faction he represents within the GOP?

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The Pee Tape

I’m old enough to remember a time when we didn’t have to wonder whether or not the Kremlin has a secret video of the President of the United States paying Russian hookers to urinate on a bed in his Moscow hotel room. From the Washington Post‘s report on former FBI director James Comey’s new book:

The nation’s intelligence chiefs had just finished briefing Donald Trump on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election when FBI Director James B. Comey stayed behind to discuss some especially sensitive material: a “widely circulated” intelligence dossier containing unconfirmed allegations that Russians had filmed Trump interacting with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.

The president-elect quickly interrupted the FBI director. According to Comey’s account in a new memoir, Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking — rhetorically, I assumed — whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”

The January 2017 conversation at Trump Tower in Manhattan “teetered toward disaster” — until “I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him,” Comey writes.

Trump did not stay quiet for long. Comey describes Trump as having been obsessed with the portion dealing with prostitutes in the infamous dossier compiled by British former intelligence officer Christopher Steele, raising it at least four times with the FBI director. The document claimed that Trump had watched the prostitutes urinate on themselves in the same Moscow suite that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama had stayed in “as a way of soiling the bed,” Comey writes.

Comey writes that Trump asked him to have the FBI investigate the allegations to prove they were not true, and offered varying explanations to convince him why. “I’m a germaphobe,” Trump told him in a follow-up call on Jan. 11, 2017, according to Comey’s account. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.” Later, the president asked what could be done to “lift the cloud” because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump.

Yeah, he cares so much about hurting Melania. More:

The next month, Trump called Comey to complain about the Russia investigation as a “cloud” that was impairing his presidency and, again, brought up the Moscow prostitutes allegation.

“For about the fourth time, he argued that the golden showers thing wasn’t true, asking yet again, ‘Can you imagine me, hookers?’ ” Comey writes of their March 30, 2017, call. “In an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ”

Read the whole thing.

For the first time, I think the Russian videotape thing might — might — be true. Yes, I can imagine Trump hiring hookers. What, you can’t? Come on.

Stormy Daniels, the porn star with whom he is alleged to have carried on, was paid $130,000 for her silence by a shell corporation controlled by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

Former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal said that after they first had sex in 2006, Trump offered to pay her, but she refused, and was hurt by the insinuation that she was a prostitute. She was paid $150,000 by the National Enquirer‘s parent company for exclusive rights to her story … which they never published. This is a way of buying silence.

Trump has denied having had a sexual relationship with either woman. Presumably with a straight face.

If believing that there’s no tape of Trump hiring Russian hookers to perform a perverted act in a Moscow hotel room hinges on believing Trump would never hire a hooker, then put on your raincoat and open the Purell.

Of course Trump may be innocent of this disgusting thing. But what kind of innocent man keeps asking the FBI director to commit agents to investigate something he knows is not true? Isn’t it more credible to think that he wants to use the FBI’s unparalleled investigative powers to discover if the Russians really do have videotaped evidence of something he knows he did, or if they’re just bluffing? Why would it matter so much to him if he knew it was a lie?

That’s the thing about Trump: anything is possible with him. Anything. Donors to the Republican Party are actually funding a website,, dedicated to discrediting the straight-arrow former FBI director. Comey might be a dour stick-in-the-mud, but to see the Republican Party spend money and moral capital with a tabloidy website trashing a former director of the FBI is grotesque. But hey, it’s Trump’s party now. Golden showers all around!

I had a conversation late this afternoon with a friend who is conservative, churchgoing, and decent to the marrow. An ordinary guy. Pillar of the community sort. In all the years we’ve known each other, we’ve never had a political conversation, to my recollection. But today, as we were talking, he unloaded on Trump. He’s just disgusted with everything — the filth, the lying, the tweeting. “What kind of idiot tweets out taunts to a country with nuclear missiles?!” he said. “It’s crazy! We’re talking about war!” Et cetera.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the pee tape. #MAGA

By the way, don’t miss James Risen’s Intercept piece about Joseph Mifsud, the missing academic with links to the Russia investigation. Risen, a veteran investigative reporter, says he has long been skeptical of the case for collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, but he now believes the case is stronger than he first thought.

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The Ikhwan & The Benedict Option

Shadi Hamid (via The Brookings Institution)

Here’s a really interesting piece by Shadi Hamid on the failures of liberalism, the failures of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) at governing, and, of all things, the Benedict Option. Hamid says that as Western populations come to terms with the role of religion in the public square in an era that is postliberal (and, I take him to imply, post-Christian), we should look at how these questions are being dealt with outside our civilization:

On this, at least—how to conceive of national identity and alternatives to liberalism—the West finds itself lagging behind the Middle East. More than seven years ago, the fall of stagnant autocracies during the Arab Spring opened up a vibrant, contentious debate over the role of religion in public life and the nature of the nation. Islamists and non-Islamists had different non-negotiable commitments: Would the state be ideologically neutral or could it entrust itself with a religious and political mission?

Liberalism, as it turns out, doesn’t really work in Islamic countries as they are present constituted. Note well that Hamid is a Muslim and a liberal, so don’t take him as saying that it can never work (more on this shortly). He is saying that given the Islamically-informed social matrix of the present-day Middle East, liberal democracy has not worked. You could say that people rejected Islamist government as incompetent (e.g., Mohamed Morsi’s failed Egyptian regime), or that power elites rejected it (e.g., the military coup in Egypt that overthrew Morsi). Hamid doesn’t take a position in this short essay. He notes, though, that political conditions in Arab countries are such that an open debate about the role of religion in society is not possible there.

But we in the West are starting to have that debate right now, as part of our discussion about the end of liberalism. Hamid writes:

With his book After Virtuepublished in 1981, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre announced himself as one of the most influential critics of Enlightenment liberalism. He argued that Western societies had given up any pretense of “genuine moral consensus.” In the liberal imagination, he wrote, “we are born not with a past, only with a present and, of course, a future.” Presaging the rage over political correctness, he railed against “the attempt to impose morality by terror,” which he referred to as a “desperate expedient.” These debates—always important, but once obscure—have now gone mainstream. To read today’s post-liberals is to find echoes of MacIntyre nearly everywhere: liberalism, once a political tradition, has become an ambitious ideological project with little tolerance for true challengers. Vices are embraced as virtue, religion has become strange, truth relative, and loneliness endemic.

The Benedict Option takes its title straight from MacIntyre’s observation that what we’re waiting for is “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” By this he meant a someone who can pioneer a life-giving and resilient was of living through the ruins of liberalism. Politically, the gist of the Ben Op is that:

  1. The liberal order is breaking apart, and that it is unlikely to be saved;
  2. In its late form, it is both actively and passively hostile to the Christian faith; whether or not it always was is a secondary question; as it exists now, it does not have within itself the ability to tolerate orthodox Christianity;
  3. Small-o orthodox Christians should still involved in ordinary politics, if only to protect their liberty to run their own institutions and keep the interference of the state at bay;
  4. But they should place most of their focus on building up small, intentional communities of faith capable of preserving and passing on the faith in these adverse conditions;
  5. Quietism is not an option for Christians; Christians should re-conceive “politics” as localist activity serving the common good.

In The Benedict Option, I celebrate the teaching of the late Vaclav Benda, an anti-communist Czech dissident who pioneered a way of being politically responsible in a system where non-communists had no political power. Christians in the West are far from that condition, of course, but not as far from it as most of us think. To live in a democracy that is post-Christian is to live in a polity where the majority of people reject to some degree what Christians believe to be true. Left-wing liberalism in the USA — that is, what people identifying with the Democratic Party believe — in 2018 sees orthodox Christianity as an ideology of bigotry. This is fast becoming true of right-wing liberalism (GOP) as well. This is not because a cabal of elitists are hoodwinking the American people. This is because for a number of reasons — economic, social, technological, cultural, political, etc. — Americans have lost the historic Christian faith.

Here’s what got my attention about Shadi Hamid’s piece. Emphases below are mine:

Although the divides in the Egyptian Brotherhood are ostensibly about organizational and tactical issues, they hide a deeper ideological divide over what it means to be at once a religious movement and a political party. Movements and parties are, after all, fundamentally oriented toward different goals—religious education, social service provision, and purity for the former and winning elections for the latter. Within the more reform-oriented faction, there is a group of younger Brotherhood members and sympathizers who are interested constraining the state and even weakening it (and before anything else probably purging it). For them, the very existence of the nation-state—and Islamists’ longtime obsession with gaining control of it through elections—has corrupted these movements’ religious foundations. They would rather be left alone, free from state interference, to rebuild their movements from the bottom up.

These younger Islamists are unlikely to be familiar with the American orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, who has popularized the idea of post-liberal “intentional communities” as part of a wider argument that neither electoral politics nor the state will allow Christians to live out their values. Yet they might as well be. As one former Brotherhood activist put it to me recently, the guiding principle is “strong society, weak state.” “You can’t use the state to implement your intellectual vision,” he explained, “especially when that vision is different from the majority’s.”

The irony is that intentional communities, particularly illiberal ones, have only found success within liberal societies. Short of a liberal society, the most promising route for those wishing to refashion society along different lines might be semi-failed states, where the central government lacks control over large swaths of territory. It is little surprise, then, that Lebanon—arguably the world’s most successful failed state—features its own distorted version of intentional communities, in which people’s primary loyalty is sectarian rather than national, and groups live together in a cold peace. But for the localist model to hold any real promise probably requires reckoning with premodern approaches to community. In the Muslim imagination, the Prophet Muhammad’s proto-state of Medina was effectively an intentional community of like-minded believers—and the foundation of Islam’s original intertwining of religion and politics.

All of these premodern and modern inspirations share one common feature: a weak state that is decentralized, enjoys limited jurisdiction, and has a diminished interest in managing the lives of its citizens. Whether in the West or the Muslim world, these sorts of states are difficult to find. The modern state, by definition, is expansive. If the work of undoing what has been already been done seems daunting, that’s because it is. Still, that is unlikely to stop anyone from trying.

Read the whole thing.

There’s a lot to think about there. First, it should be noted that Islam, unlike Christianity, presupposes an Islamic state, and that it is uniquely resistant among major world religions to secularization. That’s not just me saying that. That’s Shadi Hamid saying that, in a different essay. Excerpt:

Why exactly is Islam exceptional? I chose the word “exceptional” because I think it’s as value-neutral as you can get. Exceptionalism doesn’t have to be good or bad. It can be both. It can be one or the other, depending on the context. So I want to make that very clear, that being exceptional is not necessarily a bad thing.

Let me mention here two factors that contribute to Islam’s exceptionalism. First, there is Islam’s specific intertwining of religion and politics. The founding moments of religions matter. Jesus, for instance, was a dissident against a reigning state. The New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about law or governance. And why would it? That’s not what Jesus was doing. That wasn’t his project. The Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, was quite different. He was not only a cleric, theologian and a prophet; he was also a politician. He was a head of state. He was a state builder. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined in the person of Prophet Muhammad.

For the believer it couldn’t be otherwise. So a Muslim would say that this was God’s plan. This is how it had to happen. There is no counter factual that we can consider.


While Muslims aren’t bound to their founding moment, they can’t fully escape their founding moment either. There have been secularists and liberals, particularly in the last century, who have argued for some kind of separation of religion from politics or some kind of privatization of religion. They can make those arguments, but it’s a hard sell because, in effect, they have to argue against the prophetic model. They have to deal with this fact of history that Prophet Muhammad intertwined both religious and political functions.

The second factor is that of Quranic inerrancy. There is no equivalent in Christianity. This became increasingly clear to me the more I explored Christian theology and spoke to Christian theologians. Muslims misunderstand this important aspect of Christianity. The equivalent of the Quran in Christianity is not the New Testament, but Jesus – the “Word made flesh.” In any case, Christian evangelicals don’t argue that the Bible is God’s actual speech, but that the Bible is the word of God. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the Quran is God’s actual speech, that every letter and word is directly from God. There is no human mediation, or interference, or any kind of involvement of that sort.

He continues:

It’s remarkable to me how built in to our national debate certain assumptions are. We just assume that all cultures and societies will follow a certain trajectory: from reformation, to enlightenment, to secularization, then on to the end of history. There this almost patronizing tone I often hear, which is, well, you know, Muslims will get there. They’ll figure it out, just like the Christians did. They’ll go through the same linear progression that the Christians did.

Hamid — who, again, is Muslim, and a political scientist — says this simply isn’t the case with Islam and Islamic societies. Read the whole thing. 

I bring that up to make very clear that the relationship of Christians to politics and Muslims to politics is fundamentally different. There are Christians who believe that the state should be confessional (i.e., the Catholic integralists), but that is not a requirement of Christianity, as it is in Islam.

Nevertheless, as Hamid avers, it’s fruitful to think of the similarities that believers in premodern religion have in trying to live within a modern liberal political order. It seems clear to me, from the outside, that faithful Muslims within Muslim societies would have a far easier time living out a Muslim “Benedict Option,” as long as they don’t try to impose it on the entire society, or challenge state power. How they reconcile this kind of pluralism with Islamic theology, I have no idea. But if they want to live that way, it’s possible.

For Christians in the West (and observant Muslims), this is a much more difficult task. The ethos of the West is increasingly anti-religious, and the power of the state is growing. Believe me, I have a great deal of sympathy with my friend Patrick Deneen, who ended his great book Why Liberalism Failed without proposing a clear political program, aside from urging localist initiatives, à la the Benedict Option. This is, in my view, the only realistic thing anybody can do at this point. The Catholic integralists, for example, have a clear idea of the kind of political order they seek, but they have not the remotest chance of seeing it realized under present or foreseeable conditions. Meanwhile, they are going to have to figure out how to preserve the faith within their own communities under increasingly hostile conditions.

Modern conservative politics have been a rough amalgam of libertarianism and traditional (cultural and religious) conservatism. I am not a libertarian, but I find it hard to see any way forward for people who hold my views except in a libertarian political structure, in which the state’s power is clearly limited. This is a prudential judgment, not a theoretical one. I am open to having my mind changed, so please, have at it.

The grave problem that religious believers — those who haven’t been assimilated into the liberal order, that is — have is that the emerging liberals today hold their own views with religious fervor. Unlike the old-fashioned liberals, they don’t believe in tolerance. They want to combat evil and smash heresy wherever it shows its face — and they have very powerful tools to do so.

When people ask me at Ben Op speeches, “What makes you think that the state will leave us alone to run our own communities?”, my answer is, “I don’t.” I explain that we have to use whatever morally licit means are available to us to combat this — and this is why we have to keep a hand in ordinary politics. But it will not matter what the state does or doesn’t do if we lose our children to cultural assimilation — and this is what the Benedict Option is meant to combat. Besides which, assuming the worst possible scenario — which is what Christians like Vaclav Benda lived with under communism — Christians still have to find ways to live out the faith and to pass it on to their children. We can start thinking and acting on this now, while we have the freedom to do so, or we can wait until we’re under great duress. I prefer to think and act now, while we have the gift of time and liberty. We won’t always.

I’ll be seeing Shadi Hamid at a religion and journalism conference early next week. I’m looking forward to talking with him about ways that American Muslims and small-o orthodox Christians can work together constructively to build our own Benedict Options in the face of a hostile secularism. As I wrote here recently, American culture is dissolving the faith of huge numbers of American Muslims.  There was a time in the last decade when I would have thought that to be a good thing, because they will pose no threat to us as American Christians. Now, I’m not sure of that at all. I would a thousand times rather have an observant Muslim family as my neighbors, and have observant Muslim kids playing with my children, than many other more likely alternatives — including among Christians. But then, the situation in the US is very different from the situation in Europe.

We live in very confusing times. I’m going out now to pick up Shadi Hamid’s 2016 book Islamic Exceptionalism. Here’s a 2014 interview with him about political Islam:

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How To Tell If Your Baby Is Trans

Barrettes: Diane Ehrensaft from 4th Wavenow on Vimeo.

That is Diane Ehrensaft, one of the nation’s top pediatric gender specialists, advising a medical conference on how to tell if one’s baby is transgender.

I found that clip via the must-read website 4th Wave Now, a community of people — often parents of supposedly trans kids — who are skeptical of transgender ideology. 4th Wave Now is not religious or politically partisan. I strongly urge you to spend some time there. It will make you think hard about how this incredibly destructive ideology is being marketed in the medical establishment, and in (and by) the mass media.

I’m reading now Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally, which is a great primer on the transgender phenomenon for the lay reader. It may shock you to discover in detail the degree to which the “science” of transgenderism is driven not by science, but by cultural politics. I mean, you probably suspected it, but to get into the weeds, as Anderson does, is to be hip deep in true madness.

And yet, they’re making public policy, even legal decisions, based on this (a federal court recently ruled that transgenders are a protected class under Title VII). Here’s a story from the Arizona Republic about how in a divorce, judges today tend to award custody of gender-confused children to the parent who does not favor the child transitioning. It’s a fairly long story, with several pro-trans experts quoted. Not once does the reporter cite a single expert with a point of view supportive of the reluctant parent’s position. You don’t learn from this story that the overwhelming majority of gender-dysphoric children ultimately resolve their dysphoria in favor of their birth gender (they usually end up identifying as gay as well). The story only features prejudiced judges ignorant of science — but the reporter is not telling the whole scientific story!

Whether the journalist knows what she’s doing or not, she is construing reality in such a way as to get ordinary people to accept a lie. This passage from an essay from the American College of Pediatrics website explains how this kind of thing works. Excerpt:

Professor of social work, Dr. William Brennan, has written that “[t]he power of language to color one’s view of reality is profound.” It is for this reason that linguistic engineering always precedes social engineering — even in medicine. Many hold the mistaken belief that gender once meant biological sex. Though the terms are often used interchangeably they were never truly synonymous. Feminists of the late 1960’s and 1970’s used gender to refer to a “social sex” that could differ from one’s “biological sex” in order to overcome unjust discrimination against women rooted in sex stereotypes. These feminists are largely responsible for mainstreaming the use of the word gender in place of sex. More recently, in an attempt to eliminate heteronormativity, queer theorists have expanded gender into an excess of 50 categories by merging the concept of a social sex with sexual attractions.9 However, neither usage reflects the original meaning of the term.

Prior to the 1950s, gender applied only to grammar not to persons. Latin based languages categorize nouns and their modifiers as masculine or feminine and for this reason are still referred to as having a gender. This changed during the 1950s and 1960s as sexologists realized that their sex reassignment agenda could not be sufficiently defended using the words sex and transsexual. From a purely scientific standpoint, human beings possess a biologically determined sex and innate sex differences. No sexologist could actually change a person’s genes through hormones and surgery. Sex change is objectively impossible. Their solution was to hijack the word gender and infuse it with a new meaning that applied to persons. John Money, PhD was among the most prominent of these sexologists who redefined gender to mean ‘the social performance indicative of an internal sexed identity. In essence, these sexologists invented the ideological foundation necessary to justify their treatment of transsexualism with sex reassignment surgery and called it gender. It is this man-made ideology of an ‘internal sexed identity’ that now dominates mainstream medicine, psychiatry and academia. This linguistic history makes it clear that gender is not and never has been a biological or scientific entity. Rather, gender is a socially and politically constructed concept.

You absolutely cannot trust the media on this issue.

Reader, you might think that this is a fringe phenomenon that has nothing to do with you. You are wrong. In Ontario, where pro-trans legislation has been passing swiftly, the state has the right to seize children from families that do not support the child’s wish to live as transgendered.

You will not hear politicians here talking about this. They are afraid to — afraid of being tarred in the media as bigots. But it’s happening. Read 4th Wave Now to see what parents across the ideological spectrum are dealing with.

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So Much For The ‘Francis Effect’

Where’d everybody go? (Jurga Jot/Shutterstock)

So much for the so-called “Francis effect” in US Catholicism. Gallup reports:

From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.

By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.

As Gallup first reported in 2009, the steepest decline in church attendance among U.S. Catholics occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, when the percentage saying they had attended church in the past seven days fell by more than 20 percentage points. It then fell an average of four points per decade through the mid-1990s before stabilizing in the mid-2000s. Since then, the downward trend has resumed, with the percentage attending in the past week falling another six points in the past decade.


Although the percentages saying they have attended church in the past seven days are relatively low, it should be noted that majorities of self-identified Protestants and Catholics of most ages are still active churchgoers. This is seen in responses to a separate question in which majorities say they attend once a month, nearly weekly or weekly. The only exception is Catholics aged 21 to 29; the majority of these say they seldom or never attend. [Emphasis mine — RD]


After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days — so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly. Further, given that young Catholics are even less devout, it appears the decline in church attendance will only continue. One advantage the Catholic Church has is that the overall proportion of Americans identifying as Catholic is holding fairly steady. However, that too may not last given the dwindling Catholic percentage among younger generations.

Read the whole thing. 

This analysis does not separate out Evangelical Protestants from Mainline Protestants, or Pentecostals. Ergo, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from it regarding Protestants. For Catholics, though, the news is very bad, and reveals that the “Francis effect” — the idea that having a more liberal, personable pope has drawn the disaffected back to Catholicism — is anecdotal and driven by wishful thinking.

However, we have to be fair. Does anybody really think these numbers would be different if Benedict XVI were still in office? Seriously? Religious conservatives like me are fond of thinking that if only leaders of religious institutions would do what we wish they would do, things would turn around. That’s not true, at least not in the short term. Monsignor Charles Pope, an ardent proponent of the traditional Latin mass, has published a warning to his fellow trads. Excerpts (emphases below are in the original):

Some years ago (as far back at the early 1980s) we who love the Traditional Latin Mass often said (or it heard said) that if we would just return to the beautiful Latin Mass our churches would again be filled.

At first this appeared to be happening. As many dioceses (through the various indults of the 1980s and 1990s) began to offer the Traditional Latin Mass, those churches were filled, often to standing room only. Liturgical progressives were horrified and traditionalists were joyfully pleased and felt vindicated.

But as the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass has increased, it seems that a certain ceiling has been reached.

In my own archdiocese, although we offer the Traditional Latin Mass in five different locations, we’ve never been able to attract more than a total of about a thousand people. That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this archdiocese each Sunday.

One of our parishes generously offers a Solemn High Mass once a month on Sunday afternoon, a Mass that I myself have celebrated for over 25 years. But we have gone from seeing the church almost full, to two-thirds full, to now only about one-third full.

Explanations abound among the traditional Catholics I speak to about the lack of growth in attendance at the Traditional Latin Mass. Some say that it is because more options are now available. But one of the promises was that if parishes would just offer the Traditional Latin Mass each parish would be filled again. Others say there are parking issues, or that the Mass times are not convenient, or that the Masses are too far away. But these things were all true 20 years ago when the Solemn Mass was thriving.

It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum.

Some traditional Catholics I speak to say, “If only the archdiocese would promote us more,” or “If only the bishop would celebrate it at all or more frequently.” Perhaps, but many other niche groups in the archdiocese say the same thing about their particular interest.

At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.

Monsignor Pope criticizes his fellow trads for what in his telling sounds like an “if we build it, they will come” mentality — as if the Latin mass was so obviously superior that people would flock to it. This is a challenge too for us in the Orthodox Church in this country. The Orthodox liturgy is so beautiful, and its spirituality so rich and deep, that we often forget that we need to evangelize as well. Nobody will come unless they know about it.

Again, I’m not as sure about the particular prospects for Protestants, but for Catholics, the Gallup numbers and trends point to why pursuing a Catholic form of the Benedict Option is the best prospect for securing a Catholic future. Here’s why.

The Benedict Option is not a strategy for direct evangelization, but rather for shoring up a fast-eroding base. Gallup, along with many other researchers, shows that religion in America is in steep decline overall, because young people are walking away from the faith. Catholicism is in worse trouble than Evangelical Protestantism, but all Christians are in trouble. Why is this?

No doubt insufficient evangelism is part of the problem (e.g., not enough evangelism, or ineffective evangelical techniques). Mostly, though, I think that the churches are not remotely responsive to the vast cultural changes happening around us in liquid modernity. I’ve written here many times about how Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the real religion of American Christians, and how far too much of standard American Christianity is MTD. The Catch-22 here is that a watered-down, non-demanding, emotionally satisfying MTD is what grabs to greater numbers of people, but they don’t stick around, because there’s not much to it beyond surface appeal. But a church that tries more serious discipleship is simply not going to draw the big numbers, because Christian discipleship is demanding.

It’s a false choice to say that a church has to choose between evangelism or discipleship. In his apostolic exhortation this week, Pope Francis has a lot of good things to say about evangelism, and serving the world, and he has good things to say about the need for prayer.

It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.


Yes, “contemplatives even in the midst of action.” But doing that requires formation, discipleship, strong catechesis, and spiritual discipline. There’s very little about that in the apostolic exhortation. This is what the traddier Catholics could bring to their common mission, but the Pope seems to dismiss them all as “Pelagians”. As Father Dwight Longenecker said, “It seems to me that the Holy Father keeps attacking precisely the wrong problem. In the Catholic Church I have come to know, the problem is not punctilious observance of the liturgy and laws. This, it seems to me, makes up a tiny minority of Catholicism.”

The Benedict Option concept is not a full retreat from the world, but a strategic one, in the sense that it recognizes that if Christians are to serve the world faithfully as Christians, then they need to be less given over to worldliness. The trad website Rorate Caeli quotes the last will and testament of the recently deceased German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who was a towering liberal influence on the post-Vatican II German church. This is quite a confession:

In the period after 1945, we, all of of us, even in the Church, dug our hands into this world, buried our selves in the immanent realm. This applies to me as well. I ask God and man for forgiveness. The renewal must come from deep faith, hope, and love. Therefore, I call to everyone in the words of my motto, which come from St. Paul, and which have become ever more important to me: Stand fast in the faith!

Strengthen those who stand, indeed! From a Ben Op point of view, the goal is not only to evangelize, but also to develop the spiritual disciplines and catechesis that will enable Christians to stand fast in the faith in these turbulent post-Christian times. This will probably not arrest the decline in the short run — Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis features a convincing analysis of why the hopes of conservative JP2 and BXVI Catholics failed, as has the liberal Catholic project — but building a strong and committed core is laying the groundwork not only for endurance through this time of trial, but of growth in the future.

Pope Francis has urged Catholics to “go to the margins” with the Gospel. Fine, but what do you do when the center is not holding? What do you do when the Catholics you send to the margins don’t have anything specifically Catholic to share with the marginalized?

(By the way, I want to point out that Pope Francis has just apologized for what he terms his “serious errors of judgment and perception” regarding the Chilean bishop who covered up for a molester priest, and who was in turn defended by the pope [the bishop, not the molester]. I wrote about that angrily on this site, and want to report that good news of the pope’s repentance and apology. Good for Francis.)


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Mike Pence, White-Haired Knight?

Hey, you never know (a katz/Shutterstock)

I complained earlier today about how poor the Congressional GOP has been, but it’s well worth your time to read this anonymous Republican Congressman unloading on Donald Trump to Erick Erickson. Excerpts:

“I read you writing about this, about wanting to say nice things when you can and criticize when you need to. He may be an idiot, but he’s still the President and leader of my party and he is capable of doing some things right,” he says before conceding it’s usually other people doing the right things in the President’s name. “But dammit he’s taking us all down with him. We are well and truly f**ked in November. Kevin [McCarthy] is already circling like a green fly circling sh*t trying to take Paul’s [Ryan] job because nobody thinks he’s sticking around for Nancy [Pelosi]. She’s going to f**k up the cafeteria again too. [Lord’s name in vain], at least I’ll probably lose too and won’t have to put up with that sh*t.” He won’t lose. His district is very Republican.

What’s the problem, though? Well, get ready…

Oh, man, is it rough. And then:

“I say a lot of shit on TV defending him, even over this. But honestly, I wish the motherf*cker would just go away. We’re going to lose the House, lose the Senate, and lose a bunch of states because of him. All his supporters will blame us for what we have or have not done, but he hasn’t led. He wakes up in the morning, sh*ts all over Twitter, sh*ts all over us, sh*ts all over his staff, then hits golf balls. F*ck him. Of course, I can’t say that in public or I’d get run out of town.”

The congressman’s base loves the President. And we’re done. He feels better having let it all out. It was a funny conversation with a few additional remarks about the President’s personal life I dare not print.

And yes, I agree, it is bad form to say all this in private while publicly praising the President. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Washington. Everybody does this sh*t here.

Read the whole thing. It’s not pleasant, but it’s enjoyable. And it speaks to a real issue in the GOP: the base loves Trump, even though Trump is a terrible leader. I get the base’s despising the GOP establishment — once again, I encourage you all to bow in the direction of Tucker Carlson’s great January 28, 2016, Politico essay — but that doesn’t make Donald Trump competent or good.

Ross Douthat speculates today on whether or not religious conservatives ought to be rooting for Trump to be impeached and replaced by Mike Pence. From his case:

In the 2016 election, once Marco Rubio was defeated and Ted Cruz dispatched, religious conservatives faced a binary choice: Vote Trump or get Hillary. One does not have to agree with the ultimate decision that most of them made to understand the logic that motivated a decision for Trump.

But the politics of the coming year, once the Mueller investigation ceases to be a black box and delivers whatever it’s going to deliver (you’ll get no predictions from me!), might offer a very different choice. If Trump were impeached and removed from the White House, the presidency would devolve to precisely the kind of man whom much of pre-Trump religious conservatism insisted that it wanted in the Oval Office: an evangelical Christian family man with a bluenose’s temperament and a boring Reaganite checklist of beliefs.


Sure, making use of Donald Trump to keep Hillary Clinton from being president is a fascinating flourish by history’s Author, but the idea that the Almighty might use a porn star to make Mike Pence president represents, if anything, an even more amazing miracle. So anyone interested in looking for the hand of God in history should probably welcome that miracle’s arrival, rather than resisting in the name of MAGA.

Am I jesting? Only to a point. That God has a sense of dramatic irony and narrative surprise seems like one of the most obvious lessons to be drawn from the Trump era. That God is using Trump not as an agent of his good work but as a kind of ongoing test of everyone else’s moral character seems like a not-unreasonable inference to draw. That God would offer religious conservatives in danger of selling their souls a chance not just to step back from the brink but to literally replace Donald Trump with a fellow religious conservative — well, that seems like just the kind of opportunity that a beneficent deity would grant to erring members of his flock.

And for those same religious conservatives to pass up the chance, preferring a scorched-earth battle in defense of priapism, would be a sad confirmation of the point that a beloved Christian author made many years ago: The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

The moral credibility of Religious Conservatism, Inc., has been demolished by Trumpism no matter what, but I do think it would be easier for the Republicans to defend their seats this fall with Pence in the White House, not Trump. On the other hand, with a resentful Trump out there pumping up the base to hate the “treacherous” GOP, it might be a slaughter led by the stay-at-home Trumpkins.

Well, let it not be said that we live in boring times.

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What Does Paul Ryan Mean?

On any other day, the announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan that he intends to retire at the end of this term would be staggering news. It’s not that it’s unexpected — Washington insiders have been expecting this for some time — but rather what it symbolizes.

Ben Domenech has a good analysis piece up today. Excerpts:

Polls today clearly show the GOP is now President Trump’s party. It was truly his party from the moment he won the nomination, but now it is even moreso. His approval ratings are higher now than they were on Election Day. His ideology has not thoroughly supplanted Ryan’s – there are still free traders and free enterprise folks in the mix, supply sider Larry Kudlow is running the White House’s economic policy, and Republicans still give lip service to entitlement reform (mostly for the poor, not the old – they know where their bread is buttered). But Ryan’s departure is a departure for Ryanism as well – a clear-eyed look at the nation’s finances which deems them utterly out of control and in need of a sharp correction, a correction that has not and will not come.

It’s easy to forget how Paul Ryan was vilified by the media. For a politician with so few marks against him – the worst thing one could say was that he suggested staffers read Ayn Rand – Ryan was treated incredibly unfairly in 2012 as a vice presidential candidate, with no moment greater than when his policies were described inaccurately by Martha Raddatz in a terribly run debate with no question was even asked about his signature Medicare reform policies.

Ryan’s response to this trend was to grow frustrated, and irritated, but also to carefully and politely explain his policy perspective in more detail, to try and convince his interviewers, to build momentum for the type of Republican Party he thought the nation needed. Donald Trump’s response to this was to punch the media in the face, repeatedly. The voters let us know which response they prefer.

Jonathan Chait, writing from the left, has a much less charitable assessment of Ryan. Excerpts:

Ryan burst onto the national scene in 2010 because he simultaneously fulfilled two major needs. The Republican Party needed a new leader who could rebrand them after the disaster of the Bush administration. And the national media and the business elite needed a Republican who could serve as a projection of their disappointment with the Obama administration.

And so the image of Paul Ryan that was introduced to the country was as America’s accountant, the Kevin Kline character from Dave, an earnest midwestern boy with a passion for saving the country from fiscal calamity. The kind of nightmare Ryan imagined was a very peculiar dystopian fantasy. Ryan believed the Obama administration was undermining the moral foundations of American society by redistributing too much income from the makers to the takers.


What finally killed off the myth of Paul Ryan was Donald Trump. Here was a figure who absolutely revolted the same elites Ryan had cultivated. In the face of something as large and obvious and grotesque as Trump, Ryan could no longer straddle the gap between his base and the national media. He tried, for a while, by publicly standing behind his party’s nominee while signaling his discomfort sub rosa.

Once Trump assumed the presidency, the contradiction became impossible to ignore or manage. Ryan submitted himself fully to the president. As House Speaker, Ryan has played an indispensable role in insulating Trump from public and legal accountability. Ryan has buried votes that would compel the release of Trump’s tax returns, and unleashed Devin Nunes to run a counter-investigation designed to discredit the Department of Justice and ultimately clear the way for Trump to halt the probe of Russian interference on his behalf.

And now the House will still probably flip to the Democrats.

Whatever the truth about Paul Ryan is, it cannot be denied that the GOP is no longer a place for politicians like him. It was easy to imagine back in 2012, when he was the vice presidential nominee, that one day the young, smart, personable Ryan would one day become president. That today, six years later, we are witnessing the end of Paul Ryan’s career, is a stunning testimony to the destruction Donald Trump delivered to the Republican Party establishment.

As Paul Waldman writes, the fall of Paul Ryan is also a symbol of the GOP’s inability to govern. Excerpts:

After fifteen months with total control of the government, Ryan and his colleagues achieved almost nothing, and he’s now decided that there’s nothing more to do.

In his press conference this morning, Ryan explained his departure this way: “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren’t getting any younger.” So what did he accomplish?

For years, Ryan has presented himself as someone deeply concerned with fiscal discipline, committed to getting America’s books in order. As anyone with any sense realized, this was a scam: Like all Republicans, he used the deficit as a bludgeon against Democratic presidents, then forgot all about it when there was a Republican in office.

At the same time, Ryan, a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand, the philosopher of selfishness, dreamed of destroying the safety net, eviscerating Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, slashing food stamps, and generally making life in America more cruel and unpleasant for all those who aren’t wealthy.

But as Paul Krugman observed, Ryan failed at both his pretend goal and his real goal. He’s leaving office after setting the deficit on a path to exceed $1 trillion in 2020, and yet he failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and didn’t even bother to wage an assault on Medicare, almost certainly because he knew how disastrous it would be for his party.

So what does he mean when he says “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do”? He can only mean the tax cut Republicans passed last year. In other words, engineering a giant giveaway to corporations and the wealthy was enough for Paul Ryan to say My work here is done.


Conservatives will have a few things to show for this period of absolute control of the federal government, especially a large group of federal judges President Trump has appointed. But given how high their hopes were for a legislative revolution, it’s a pathetic record. Don’t forget that all through 2016, Republicans — none more so than Paul Ryan — said that despite the fact that their voters nominated a vulgar, infantile, corrupt buffoon to lead their party, they simply had to stand by him because they wanted the chance to pass all that conservative legislation and have it signed by a Republican president.

But now that corporations got their tax cut, it was all worth it, right?

Longtime readers know that the door slammed hard and permanently on me and the Republican Party when, after Obergefell, I learned firsthand that the Congressional Republicans — led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell — had no intention at all of trying to pass any legislation intending to protect conservative Christians and others on the religious liberty front. They had other priorities. That was when I knew beyond a doubt that the Congressional Republicans would sacrifice us for the sake of pleasing Big Business.

Almost one year ago, Ryan T. Anderson wrote about three things the Republican Congress could do to protect religious liberty: pass the Russell Amendment to the big defense budget bill, pass the Conscience Protection Act, and pass the First Amendment Defense Act. 

The Russell Amendment was stripped out of the defense bill in the Senate in 2017. So it’s off the table. But President Trump promised to sign both FADA and the CPA if Congress sent them to his desk.

So what has our Republican Congress done with these religious liberty bills?

Paul Ryan has endorsed the Conscience Protection Act. It has been sitting there in the House since January 24, 2017 — and has gone nowhere. A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate.

Rep. Raul Labrador introduced FADA into the House in the previous Congress. The bill died. Sen. Mike Lee introduced FADA in the previous Congress, where it also died. He re-introduced a slightly changed version of FADA in the Senate a month ago. It is forecast to have very little chance of passage. 

If the Democrats either house of Congress this fall, there is zero chance that either of these vital religious liberty bills will ever pass. And if we cannot get meaningful religious liberty legislation passed under these circumstances, we never will. I mean, look, the country has a Republican president who said he would sign these bills, but the Republican Congress will not send them to him. But hey, tax cuts, amirite?!

Oh, wait. This just in:

Retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) said his vote on the GOP tax law could be one of the worst of his career if estimates that it will add $1.9 trillion to deficits over a decade prove correct.

“If it ends up costing what has been laid out here, it could well be one of the worst votes I’ve made,” he said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that produced the figure.

“I hope that is not the case, I hope there’s other data to assist, whether it’s jobs or growth or whatever,” Corker added.

The Republican Party cannot govern. At least people like me can take consolation in the possibility — possibility — that the judges it has approved in this Congress will afford us some measure of protection in the years to come. Still, what a sorry lot these Congressional Republicans are. They have all the power in Washington, and don’t know what to do with it. Given how volatile US politics are now, I wouldn’t bet money on the Democrats retaking the House, not this far out. But if the Republicans hold on to it, it will not be because they deserve to.

To be fair to Paul Ryan, the failures of his party are by no means entirely his fault. As Jim Geraghty points out:

Those scoffing “good riddance” to Ryan now probably ought to look back at John Boehner and Dennis Hastert. Ryan’s younger, a better communicator, more telegenic and even more of a policy wonk than his predecessors and most of his potential successors.

It’s hard to lead the House Republicans in this time of fragmentation and dissolution. I hope whoever succeeds Ryan is better at it than he has been. Let’s say that Paul Ryan is the Bob Michel of the GOP 2018. Who is the Newt Gingrich? That’s just it: there is no Newt Gingrich. There is nobody with a political vision (idealistic or tactical), or a cohesive force. There is no there there. It’s just Trump’s personality, which could mean anything, depending on the day.

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9/11, War, & A Torn Flag

So, here we go:

Mueller’s closing in, so we’re going to confront Russia in Syria. The world-class flatterer Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman was just in Washington, and lo, a gas attack against innocent civilians takes place, and now we’re going to confront Russia in Syria. We know that Assad is capable of just about any evil, but why would he have done this, given that he and his Russian and Iranian allies have just about won the civil war? It is in the Saudi interest to draw the US into this conflict, to thwart their enemies, the Iranians.

I’m not saying that this is a false flag operation by Saudi intelligence; who could possibly know that at this point? I am saying that the US is being dragged (willingly) into a war that benefits the Saudis. And on what grounds? Humanitarian? Look at what Our Friends The Saudis™ are doing to the defenseless civilians of Yemen. Does our president, the scourge of Gas Killing Animals, say boo about that? No, he doesn’t. Something else is going on here.

Maybe Russia shouldn’t be allied with Assad, per Trump, but does the president understand that Russia has a naval base in Syria? What do we have? What possible strategic interest does the US have that would justify risking armed conflict with a rival nuclear superpower?

What would our endgame in Syria be? Who are our proxies there? We thought we had them, until we figured out that there are no such things as moderate rebels — this, after the Obama administration wasted $500 million training these so-called moderates. If we end up toppling Assad, somehow, what then? Are we really going to occupy another Middle East country and try to install a democracy there? Do we really think that Russia, owner of that naval base, is going to be okay with that?

Complete idiocy. Yet there is our president, John Bolton at his side, tweeting like a maniac. The thing is, we can have complete confidence that if Hillary Clinton were in the White House, we would probably be in the very same position today. Everybody in official Washington loves a war.

This is going to be extremely dangerous, for the obvious reasons and one that isn’t obvious. Donald Trump is the commander in chief, but he is very unpopular and polarizing. If we are going to a real war, not just lobbing missiles at people we don’t like, he is going to have to unify the country behind his leadership. You really think that’s going to happen?

Larison is a must-read in this crisis. Here’s what he had to say about Trump’s boast this morning:

Trump’s childish boasting is what we have come to expect from him, but in this case it is especially alarming as it makes a clash with Russia over Syria even more likely. The stupidity of taunting a major power is nothing compared with the stupidity of the impending illegal attack that Trump is going to order in the days ahead. Russia will take Trump’s taunt as a challenge to stand by its client in spite of the attack, and the attack itself risks killing Russian personnel that would create a new crisis with a nuclear-armed state. It bears repeating that there is nothing in Syria worth courting great power conflict over, and there certainly aren’t vital U.S. interests there to be defended. Attacking Syria has the potential to start a larger war, and the U.S. has no need to launch this attack. If Trump follows through on his foolish threats, he will be starting one of the most reckless wars of choice in our history.

The unraveling of America proceeds. Let me tell you a story. I hadn’t thought of this in years, but it occurs to me this morning. Make of it what you will. This really happened.

On the morning of September 11, 2002, I walked over to Ground Zero for the solemn observation of the anniversary. I stood on the north side of the hole, at the perimeter, waiting for the service to start. The crowd was behind a fence; none of us had access to the site itself, which was reserved for families and dignitaries. It was important, though, to be there.

Suddenly, at the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a powerful wind descended from the same direction of that plane. It was from Hurricane Gustav, which had come ashore in the Carolinas, and was rolling up the East Coast. Still, I was there, and the timing was very, very weird. It blew a fairly steady 60 mph all morning. A friend who had been watching the services live on TV said that one of the commenters called the wind “Biblical.” If you were down there in that wind, as I was, it seemed apt.

The wind was still blowing later that morning when I went into Trinity Church Wall Street for a memorial service celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At some point during the church service, we could hear a signal from adjacent Ground Zero, indicating that all the names of the dead had been read, and that the ceremony there was ending. Shortly after, the church liturgy ended, and I emerged outside to calm. The winds had stopped. I don’t know when the ceased to blow, but I can tell you it was in the relatively short time between the start and end of the church service.

If I had to bet money, I’d say that the winds stopped blowing when the last names were read at Ground Zero. It was that kind of morning.

Later in the day, I received a call from a friend I had run into at Ground Zero that morning. She was fairly freaked out, and asked me to come over at once. I made my way to her apartment. She led me into her tiny home office, and showed me a small American flag, so old and threadbare that you could see through it, framed and under glass, hanging on her wall. A tear ran through it, almost from top to bottom.

It wasn’t obvious to me what the issue was. Then she told me: she’s had that flag on the wall for years, and it was fine. It was position right across from her desk. She looked at it every day. But that morning — September 11, 2002 — while she was out in the crowd at Ground Zero, something happened to it. It had torn down the middle, even though it was sealed under glass, and nobody had come into her home.

This really did happen. I have lost contact with that friend, but I wonder what she thinks of it today. Both of us are believing Christians, and we could not help seeing it in light of the Biblical account of the tearing of the veil in the Temple when Jesus died on the Cross. That event has multiple meanings in Christian belief, and among them is a prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Temple itself, which took place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. I left my friend’s apartment wondering if the tearing of the flag — assuming that there was symbolic meaning behind it — meant that there was a withdrawal of God’s favor on the US, and that 9/11 was the beginning of our end.

Granted, I have an apocalyptic mindset, and even if I didn’t, it was very easy to think in apocalyptic terms in those days, living so close to Ground Zero. On the other hand, I was also primed to think that 9/11 was going to summon up the strength of our great nation, and goad us to assert ourselves on the world stage. The United States was at that moment the sole hyperpower on the planet. We were at the peak of our strength. We would soon be going to war in the Middle East, that was clear by then. Now, finally, we would set the world to right. I was not eager to believe in portents that cast doubt on that project. I was in those days filled with patriotic righteousness — which is why the tearing of the flag was so eerie, and unwelcome to me.

That’s what I saw on 9/11/2002. Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe that flag had come apart earlier, and my friend only noticed it on that morning. But: in light of everything that has happened since then — and that continues to happen — that torn flag seems to me like the omen I feared it was at the time.

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