Greetings from Munich. This week, I have been in Trento, in northern Italy, attending a conference about the role of Tradition in contemporary American, European, and Russian life. I was there with a group of academics from all three places. The conference was more of a workshop than a formal event. I’m still trying to get my thoughts about what I heard sorted, but I do want to present you with some preliminary insights.
To protect the anonymity of the participants, I will not identify them or attribute particular comments to particular persons. It’s not that people said anything scandalous, but rather that I wanted people to be free to say what was on their minds without having to worry about being quoted. I will honor that here. I am also hesitant to attribute this or that view to members of a particular group, because it is possible, even likely, that those within the group dissent. Please read what follows as subject to clarification or correction. I offer all of this to spark discussion here.
With that out of the way, here we go.
I noticed at the beginning a sense among many of us that the others had an unrealistic idea of what conditions were in our own home countries. For example, the Russians were eager to counter the view of American traditionalists (like me) that looks to Russia as a defender of traditional Christian moral and religious values. Some of the Russians present are religious believers, others are not, but there seems to be a general consensus that there is much less to this religious revival in Russia than sympathetic Americans think.
One Russian contended that what is being reborn in Russia is not Christian tradition but Soviet tradition that has been lightly baptized. He said that the trauma of totalitarian communist rule destroyed Russian Orthodox traditions. The only clergy who survived the persecution were those who collaborated with the Soviets.
Other Russians disagreed with this. Nevertheless, it seemed to me useful to consider in our own American context how what we call “traditional values” may not really be all that traditional. It is surely true that in some cases, we are investing a particular set of political, or cultural-political, stances with the authority of tradition. This is misleading. “Tradition” can be a useful concept for pushing through a political agenda. Some of the Russians talked about how what is being portrayed as a religious revival is actually little more than a revival of nationalism, with religious sanction.
We may argue over what “tradition” means in Russia and in various European societies, but nobody denies that traditions exist. As I rode the train north through the Alps of Italy, Austria, and Bavaria, I was struck repeatedly by the age of the built landscape. Look at that medieval church built on that outcropping. Does anybody pray in it anymore? Maybe not, but cultural memory is hard to avoid. Tradition took particular forms — artistic, architectural, social, and so forth — as it evolved in European countries.
Not so in the US. What does “tradition” mean in a country and society where the tradition is anti-traditional? America is an Enlightenment nation, which was consciously and affirmatively anti-traditional. Our dynamism as Americans comes in large part from our anti-traditional orientation, including our individualism.
This, I think, accounted for the difficulties that some of the non-American participants had grasping how quickly and radically the situation is changing in the United States. Even though all of us come from countries and societies that are in transition, Europe and Russia have more stable traditions — not necessarily religious ones. I might be wrong about this, but I intuit that this has something to do with why the Manif Pour Tous movement to preserve the forms and privileges of traditional marriages and families emerged in France but not the United States — even though the level of religiosity is much higher in the US.
One of the European participants who reads this blog said that it is hard to believe that things in the US are as dire as this blog often depicts them. Several of the Americans (other than me) affirmed that yes, they are — particularly in academia. They offered particular accounts of how discussions regarding gender and sexuality that ought to be a normal part of the educational process are now off-limits — and the professional and personal costs of violating these new, severe taboos. How do you defend any kind of tradition that conflicts with these norms when dissenting from them can mean social and professional ostracism at best, and career suicide at worst?
Moreover, this new, rigidly intolerant way of thinking is colonizing the minds of the younger generation of Americans. One professor said that his students simply cannot understand why any decent person would disagree with them on LGBT matters. This is not a matter of them thinking that the moral or religious traditionalist is wrong. It is a matter of the older view being utterly incomprehensible. It is, therefore, either wicked, morally insane, or both. In private conversation, I related the story of a theologian I know who cannot risk teaching in his Catholic university what the Catholic Church proclaims is moral truth on sexuality — not even as a topic for classroom discussion. He fears that his students will protest that he has created an “unsafe space” in the classroom, will protest to the university administration, and he will be sanctioned or fired.
The idea that a professor cannot even discuss things like marriage, family, and religious freedom as they relate to LGBT matters unless he takes the pro-LGBT line without reservation — this was hard for some of the non-Americans to comprehend.
One of the Russians expressed frustration that the most contentious issues regarding religion and tradition have to do with homosexuality. He believes that Christianity has nothing to do with homosexuality, and that Christians who insist that it does are making a big deal out of nothing important. This was a minority view among the Russian delegation, though some of those more sympathetic to Orthodox tradition said that the strong hostility to LGBT issues in Russia has a lot more to do with sheer prejudice than with theological reflection. This they rightly deplore — and they certainly expressed disgust with the cruelty and abuses that thugs are heaping upon gay Russians.
On the other hand, things have gone so far in the opposite direction in the US, and for the same reason (mindless prejudice and hatred of the Other), that it is easy for us traditionalist Americans to understand why Russians have so much hostility to the idea of expanding gay rights. And it’s easy why Russians would take the lesson from our example that expanding tolerance on LGBT issues only opens the door to radical intolerance once LGBT activists and their supporters gain the upper hand.
The question of Islam arose as well. Modern laws, in both Europe and the US, are based not on religion, but on a secular conception of rights. True, secular liberalism emerged out of Christianity, but takes a more neutral stance towards particular religions. How will European countries deal with believing Muslims among them? Believing Christians within European nations may now be a minority, but nobody expects them to disturb the civil peace. That’s not true with Muslims, obviously. Yes, yes, not all Muslims, and so forth. But no serious person in Europe today believes that they don’t have a very, very difficult problem on their hands. Besides which, how do you respect the legitimate desires of Muslim Europeans to live by their own traditions? Where do you draw the line?
Obviously we don’t have nearly this problem in the US, owing in part to the fact that we are much better at assimilating immigrants, and that we don’t have a large Muslim population. I sensed within myself, at least, a struggle to get inside the heads of Europeans regarding Islam in their civilization. As an American who strongly believes in religious freedom, my first impulse is always to defer to maximal religious expression. Yet that ideal cannot obscure the fact that Europeans face an immensely dangerous and complex problem. One question the emerges from it: How do a people whose religious traditions are diminishing in importance fare when confronted by a minority people whose devotion to religious tradition is strong?
At one point, the group talked about how hard it is to establish and preserve a modus vivendi (way of living peaceably together) in a pluralistic society. One speaker said that if one side gets too much power, it becomes impossible to do. He said that the United States is not there yet. I disagreed, saying that we are very much getting there with the clash between LGBT rights and religious liberty. The secular elites — political, business, media, entertainment — having either gone over to the progressive side, or, in the case of conservative politicians and far too many religious leaders, having chosen to avoid speaking out for fear of being called bigots — has tipped the balance. What many of my fellow cultural and religious conservatives don’t grasp is that in a short while, the balance among the people will also tip to the pro-LGBT side, given that traditional views are disproportionately concentrated among older Americans.
And then what? One of the problems I see with the stance taken by Prof. Robert George of Princeton (see this short video conversation on the Benedict Option with George and Sen. Ben Sasse) is that the to-the-culture-war-barricades stance he takes is radically insufficient. I agree with him that we have to fight as hard as we can! But what good will our freedoms do us if we have lost our own internal cultures? The Benedict Option is not an either-or, but a both-and — with greater emphasis on cultural formation, not legal and political combat. Anyway, I will write more about the George-Sasse conversation later.
Another topic: one professor brought up what he termed “the Hasidic mistake,” defined as believing that preserving authentic Jewish tradition requires dressing like 18th century shtetl-dwellers. He certainly has a point. On the other hand, it’s also the case that ideals have to be instantiated materially — in art, architecture, customs, practices, and yes, even clothing. The trick is determining which of those things are vital to keeping the tradition alive, and which are not. And that brings us back to the point that some of the Russians made at the conference’s beginning: that what constitutes authentic tradition is a matter of real and consequential dispute. An American law professor observed that in the US, the progressives are trying to redefine religious liberty as the more restrictive “freedom of worship,” and calling it consistent with American tradition, though it certainly is not.
Later, walking through the streets of Trento and talking, one of the American conferees said he was struck by how different the Russians’ problems were from ours, but also how similar. Both of us are dealing with the role of the State with regard to the life of religious believers — in the Russian case, with the State bigfooting everything, in part through political co-optation, and in the American case with the State moving towards restricting religious liberty. It occurs to me that the weakness of religious tradition in both countries as a counterforce to modernity accounts for the common crisis.
The Russians who brought up my book The Benedict Option were somewhat critical of it (constructively, I might add, which was welcome), but they all agreed that it should be translated and published in Russia, because the thesis is relevant to Russia’s own struggles. That surprised and gratified me, as did the interest the European conferees showed in the book. I finished this post on the train from Trento to Munich, where Matt and I will be staying with some Catholic fans of The Benedict Option. I look forward to hearing their ideas, and learning how we tradition-minded Christians can all work together. It has been a good week for that kind of fellowship.
President Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, three administration officials said Tuesday, opening the door for sending more American forces to a war that the Pentagon chief acknowledged the United States was “not winning.”
Mr. Mattis is believed to favor sending several thousand more American troops to strengthen the effort to advise Afghan forces as they push back against gains made by the Taliban, the Islamic State and other militant groups. But officials said he had not yet decided how many more forces to send to Afghanistan, or when to deploy them.
One United States official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said that Mr. Trump decided on Tuesday morning to grant Mr. Mattis the authority. It was the latest in a series of moves by the White House to give the Pentagon and its military commanders more latitude to deploy forces and carry out operations.
More American soldiers sent into a war we cannot win. And oh look! We’re being sucked into the Syrian civil war too. Remember when Donald Trump was the candidate for withdrawing our forces from such conflicts? That was a nice lie to believe.
Furthermore, ceding civilian control over war-making policy to the generals is a troubling sign.
Two views from the same table in Trento, where my son Matthew and I had dinner with Patrick and Inge Deneen and their kids. What you don’t see is the homemade digestif the restaurant owner brought to us. It was a kind of grappa fortified with honey, herbs, and spices — and it was delicious. We asked him where we could buy it. Nowhere, he said; he makes it himself, for his restaurant.
Later today: on to Munich! On the four-hour train ride, I’ll do my best to write a substantive post on this conference I’ve been attending.
That is Sergei Chapnin, a Russian Orthodox journalist. And that is a bottle of grappa, made here in the Trento region. And a group of us lingered after lunch, taking refuge from the oppressive heat, to drink toasts to Our Lady the Theotokos, to Russian-American friendship, and other things. (There were a lot of toasts.) Here is Sergei and Patrick Deneen:
I had decided that no, I could not let myself drink grappa after lunch, not in this heat. But my patriotic feeling overcame my scruples. I could not let down America, not in front of the Russians:
Here was lunch:
And here was dessert. The law professor in this photo said, of the gelato and berries, “Can you believe this is so good?” No, I couldn’t:
Toward the end of our grappafest, we raised a glass to American-Russian friendship. I told the Russians that growing up in the Cold War, I was sure that one day, we would have to fight them. But it did not work out that way, and that is a divine blessing.
I will write later about the conference on Tradition. But first, a siesta. I trust that you understand.
As I mentioned, I’m traveling this week in Italy and Germany with my 17-year-old son. I had a drink yesterday with a friend who is here in Trento with his 19-year-old son, who is finishing a gap year in Europe with some backpacking — this, before returning to the US to start college in the fall. We drank bright-tasting Trentino red wine and talked about the pleasures of being a young man on your own in Europe for the first time, having adventures and discovering things about this wondrous continent — and yourself. My friend’s son went on and on about how much he has gotten out of this year. He looks so tanned, happy, and full of life.
And then, tonight, I saw this, on Facebook:
Daniel Holland, 20, was a student at the University of Oklahoma. Jesse Hare, the pal with whom he had been traveling, made it to the other side. His life will never be the same.
Check out Daniel Holland’s Facebook page. He and Jesse had been having so much fun. Now this. It’s heartbreaking. May the Holy Spirit comfort those who loved him, may his soul rest in peace, and may his memory be eternal.
How about that?! It’s a Renaissance-era façade of an apartment building on the piazza in Trento, a city of 150,000 in northeastern Italy, eighty miles south of the Austrian border. It’s kind of off the tourist path, so chances are that I never would have come here if not for this conference. What a mistake that would have been. This is a wonderful little city, unlike any I’ve ever seen in Italy, because it’s Alpine.
You probably heard of the 16th century Council of Trent, where the Catholic Counter-Reformation found its fullest expression. Here is the city’s cathedral. The onion dome was a later Baroque addition:
Notice the fountain in the foreground. That’s Neptune. What on earth is an Italian city in the mountains doing commemorating the god of the Sea? Because he has a trident. The Romans called this town Tridentum — Italianized as Trento.
Here is an unusual rose window on the cathedral’s west-facing side:
You probably can’t see it clearly in this photo, but this is a medieval Wheel of Fortune. At the very top (at 12:00), there is a man holding two glasses of wine, symbolizing good fortune. But then counterclockwise, we see men descending at each “hour,” then ascending on the right side. The idea is that this is the cycle of life. No saints on this rose window, just figures of fortune.
On the wall of the adjacent castle is this coat of arms of the Prince Bishop, an office created by the Holy Roman Emperor for the administration of Trento. That’s right: the bishop was also the political ruler of the diocese. You see the crozier on the left, symbolizing episcopal power, and a sword on the right, symbolizing state power.
And finally, here’s a close up of the frescoed apartment building across the piazza — this time, with jasmine:
It is a lovely place to be, and the local wines are tasty, but I have to say, it has been miserably hot this week. Temperatures are the same as in Louisiana. Thanks for nothing, mountains!
Now this is interesting:
— Patrick Egan (@Patrick_J_Egan) June 10, 2017
Wait, I thought sexual orientation was innate–born that way, can’t be changed by education, etc. If so, why suddenly 15% young LGB in 2016? https://t.co/dLKmfJkN7U
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) June 10, 2017
Wait, so you mean not everybody is “born this way”? You mean that it’s not simply nature, but also nurture? I’m so confused.
Actually I’m not confused at all. The “truth” in this matter has always been “what works to advance the cause.”
But for those who want to grapple honestly with this issue, these data from Patrick Egan show pretty clearly that the nurturing that culture provides does make a big difference. Therefore, for communities who wish for their children to remain heterosexual, to form heterosexual marital unions, traditional families, etc., neutrality on the matter of sexuality will result in five to eight times as many people claiming homosexuality or bisexuality as would have otherwise been the case. (There have also been skyrocketing numbers of people claiming to be transgender.)
Sexuality is a lot more fluid than we think. For post-pubescent adolescents, teenagers, and young adults in their twenties, re-setting the boundaries of what is permissible resets the boundaries of what is thinkable, and for a meaningful number of them will change the way they behave.
Here’s what I mean. It must be that there are young people who experience homosexual desires as teenagers, but who do not act on them for reasons of religious belief or social custom. Later in life — in their twenties, say — their sexual desire solidifies as heterosexual, allowing them to form a stable marital bond with someone of the opposite sex, and start a family. Had they had the opportunity to experiment with homosexuality as a teenager, they might have remained confused and unstable well into adulthood.
Now, to be fair, it is also certainly true that in the past, people who did not experience sexual desire for those of the opposite sex felt compelled by custom or religious belief to marry, and who therefore formed an inherently unstable bond.
The argument (or at least a main argument) for normalizing homosexuality in general and legalizing gay marriage in particular is that it is unjust to compel people who are born with same-sex desire to live by traditional norms — norms that entail withholding from them the possibility to live as they desire. Therefore, the change is necessary as a matter of justice to the small minority.
The friend and reader of this blog who brought the Egan data to my attention writes:
I came around to supporting gay marriage in large part because of Andrew Sullivan’s argument that homosexuality is innate (in about 2 percent of the population) and it’s cruel to force people who can’t help their attractions to deny them, or to try to educate them away from those inclinations. Social conservatives said in reply, “Sexuality is more polymorphous than this; if you stop upholding a normative standard in favor of heterosexual marriage and child-rearing, kids will grow up to be far more confused. You’ll end up with far more ‘innately’ gay and bisexual kids, in other words.”
If nothing else, this seems to be another huge checkmark in the “SoCons” make pretty good predictions” column.
Exactly right. What we have now says there is virtually no sexual norm outside whatever one feels is right for them, right now. If one thinks that one would like to try out being gay, or bi, or the opposite gender, well, why not? One big problem with this, though, is: what about the kids? Social science has abundantly demonstrated that kids need stable homes in which to thrive. If issues of sexuality and gender identity remain fluid, it will be very difficult to create the kind of environment in which these young people can be formed in a healthy way.
Leave LGBT out of it for a moment. For heterosexuals, the Sexual Revolution, and the way it loosened sexual and marital norms, has left subsequent generations less stable. A professor at an Evangelical university told me a few years ago that he feared that most of his students will never be able to form stable, enduring families.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because they’ve never seen it modeled for them,” he responded.
He explained that a shocking number of the students at this Christian college come from broken family backgrounds. It’s not that they don’t want to be married and have children. It’s that they have not been given the social and psychological strengths that all of us need to hold our marriages and our families together against the scattering forces of modernity.
This should not be hard to understand. Marriage is not simply an agreement between two people who wish to formalize (and sacralize) their love for each other, but it is also a covenant between that couple and the entire community, which is expected to support them in the pilgrimage of marriage and family life. What we have been doing in the West for many decades now has been stripping individuals, couples, and their children of the social support they need to thrive. These Egan data, to me, further demonstrate how the project of emancipating sexual desire from traditional norms sets up younger people for lives of great instability.
These data also have implications for the widely held belief that sexual desire is like race: an unchosen aspect of one’s identity, for which one should not be penalized. If this were true, then ending segregation in the 1960s should have resulted in a massive increase in the number of black Americans. It did not, because Rachel Dolezal notwithstanding, there is no way to change one’s race. But the new data show that for a lot of people, it is possible to shift their identity on the basis of sexual desire.
I’m sure that most people who support full LGBT rights see no problem with this at all. If people want to experiment with same-sex relationships, gender fluidity, and so forth — hey, no problem. Individual liberty on this point is sacrosanct. OK, I get the reasoning. If you think there should be no ideal form of family or sexual expression, and that whatever one chooses is justified by the choice itself, this makes sense.
But look: traditionalists and their communities have solid data to bolster an argument against the normalization of LGBT. Greater tolerance — even celebration — in the broader society prompts latency to go active in a substantial number of people. Perhaps this confusion will resolve itself in time with these individuals, but even if so, you can’t get those years back, and you cannot undo the choices you will have made when you thought your true self was something else.
UPDATE: To be clear, I do not support forcing people who identify as gay into reparative therapy, or anything like it. And I also reaffirm my happiness that the closet is no longer a thing. What I object to is the idea that all sexual desire is equally moral. That last line is the orthodox Christian position.
UPDATE.2: Y’all who keep insisting in the comments that I believe you can “pray the gay away,” or otherwise have full control over one’s sexual desires, need to stop lying. I don’t believe that at all. Nor do I believe that one has no control at all over one’s sexual desires. I believe the articulation and direction of sexual desire emerges from some combination of nature and nurture.
A few days ago, Washington hosted “Road To Majority,” which bills itself as “the premier event” for conservative people of faith. Its sponsor is the Faith & Freedom Coalition, Religious Right macher Ralph Reed’s successor to the now-defunct Christian Coalition. The event attracted all the top Republican leaders (Trump, Pence, McConnell, K. McCarthy) except for Paul Ryan, as well as many other sympatico Congressional conservatives.
President Trump delivered a speech to the conservative Christians in which he spoke of obvious Christian priorities, like religious liberty, and some that were not so obvious, like passing a huge tax cut and getting out of the Paris climate accords. And there was this:
THE PRESIDENT: … Restoring freedom and opportunity also means repealing and replacing the disaster known as —
THE PRESIDENT: That was easy. (Laughter.) Do you see how it’s failing? Okay. So I’ve been saying 116 percent for so long — it was Arizona. So yesterday, I have a new number — 204 percent, in Alaska, increase. It’s a catastrophe. Obamacare, as one of the big insurance companies had said, is in a spiral. It’s in a death spiral. It is dead. Dead. Some of the states are losing their insurance companies. Yesterday, Ohio lost one of the big ones. And Ohio has got problems now. They all have problems — Kentucky, Tennessee. Every place I go.
But we’re dealing with obstructionists. The Democrats are obstructionists. You know what, it would be great to get along with them, but it seems to be impossible. They are obstructionists. And they have a healthcare plan that’s a disaster, called Obamacare. Again, the insurance companies are fleeing, the premiums are through the roof. The deductibles — I mean, unless you die a long, horrible, slow death, those deductibles are so high — sadly, folks, you’ll never get to use them. It is a disaster what’s going on with Obamacare. Nobody wants to talk about it. But you take a look at the premiums, how high; you take a look at those deductibles. You have nothing.
And then, of course, the mandate. Let’s pay to get out of it, okay? We’re the only one — we pay to get out of not paying. That’s how bad it is.
So Obamacare is dead. And don’t let them pin it on the Republicans, by the way. We’ve only been here for a short period of time, okay? But a good bill passed in the House. Something, I hope, great is going to come out through Mitch McConnell and the Senate. And we’re working very hard. I can tell you, we’re really working hard.
And if we had the best plan in the history of the world, we wouldn’t get one Democrat vote. Just remember that. If we had a plan that gave you the greatest healthcare ever in history, you wouldn’t get one Democrat vote because they’re obstructionists. They’re bad, right now, for the country. They’ve gone so far left that I don’t know if they can ever come back.
He went on like this. Leaving aside the question of the proper Christian stance on health care, it amazes me, really amazes me, that there are people who buy this “Democrats are obstructionists” line from Trump. The FFC termed its first meeting “Road to Majority” back when Democrats held the Senate. Well, now the GOP has both the House and the Senate, as well as the White House. The Obamacare replacement failed, and is failing, because the Republicans cannot make their majority work.
Besides which, their Obamacare replacement is overwhelmingly unpopular. A Quinnipiac poll taken three weeks ago showed only 20 percent of voters favor it.
So, when the president whose party controls both the White House and Congress stands before a Christian Right revival meeting and blames Democratic obstructionism for his party’s inability to govern; and when he does so within the context of a mission to recover the political majority that has actually been theirs since the last election, on the understanding that this will finally allow them to achieve their legislative goals — well, I wonder why so many Christians are eager to be swindled.
This false idea that Washington Babylon will be transformed into the Biblical New Jerusalem if only we will elect Republicans — and the right kind of Republicans — is one you can use to fleece Christian conservative voters endlessly. We are always and forever just one vote away from Paradise.