On Telling The Truth & Making Money
For years I have recommended Aaron Renn’s great newsletter The Masculinist, which you can subscribe to (for free!) here. I was startled this morning to see that in the new one, he talks a lot about … me. Excerpts:
I’ve studied the book of 2 Timothy, and actually wrote my own thematic commentary on it that some of you provided feedback on a while back. Thanks so much for that. I decided not to publish it due to my intent to remain in the genre of cultural commentary rather than Bible teaching.
But I do want to highlight one rather depressing passage from that book, where Paul writes (2 Tim 4:3-4), “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
I would argue that’s an apt description of the American church today.
There’s a saying, “Tell lies to people who want lies and you’ll get rich; tell the truth to people who want the truth and you’ll make a living; tell the truth to people who want lies and you’ll go broke.”
In America today, and frankly in much of the church, the desire for lies is common. That’s probably an extreme way to put it. Perhaps nobody actually sits down and says he wants to be lied to. But definitely there are many, many things we all dearly want to be true. If someone provides an even semi-plausible case for them, we’re often very likely to seize upon it. Most of us like to be flattered as well, so teachings that flatter our vanity or suggest that our desires are good are also likely to be embraced.
In some cases, money and institutional interests are at stake more than the desires of the average person. These powerfully shape how people preach or argue on many topics. As Upton Sinclair famously put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
He goes on:
People who attempt to sell the less popular idea that there might be some conflict between Christianity and culture do less well.
We can see this by looking at perhaps the most successful person selling this latter message today, Rod Dreher.
Dreher has a new book out soon called Live Not by Lies that I plan to review, either here or elsewhere. But for now, I’ll just note that Dreher has a very big audience. I can get a good sense of how big someone’s readership is by how much traffic I get on my site when he links to me. Dreher’s links generate incredible traffic. The only person who has ever sent me more traffic by linking to me is Andrew Sullivan back in his blogging heyday.
Dreher also has the ability to move markets with his recommendations. His interview with J.D. Vance about Hillbilly Elegy crashed the servers at The American Conservative and seems to have been the triggering event which sent that book rocketing to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Last fall he touted an off-Broadway play called Heroes of the Fourth Turning. There were plenty of tickets available when he did it. (I know because I bought some). But shortly after his recco the play sold out, then ended up having its run extended, and later was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. And as I have mentioned before, his recommendation is what turned this newsletter from a failure into a success.
Yet, as near as I can tell, Dreher financially appears to be, as the quip above has it, making a living. He certainly does not appear to be rich.
Well, that’s certainly true. I am doing alright, but rich? Very far from it, as anybody who sees my house can tell. Pre-Covid, I traveled a lot to Europe, but that was always on somebody else’s dime: publishers paying me to come over and promote translations of my work. Anybody can be a European traveler if they don’t have to pay for plane tickets and hotel rooms.
But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Contrast him with, say, Jonah Goldberg. Jonah Goldberg is at the center of the Conservatism, Inc. institutional world. Until recently, he was at the National Review making about $200,000/year. In addition to what they were paying him, he held (and still holds) a fellowship at AEI called the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty, which hedge fund manager Cliff Asness endowed to the tune of $2.4 million dollars just for him. After leaving the National Review, Goldberg and two collaborators raised $6 million to start their own publication called The Dispatch. He also appears to charge $10-20,000 as a speaking fee. Despite the coronavirus, he has at least two events scheduled in October. Goldberg has a sizable audience, though I doubt bigger than Dreher. But his message is sympatico with the conservative establishment class.
Dreher also used to work at the National Review, when he was writing things like Crunchy Cons. Since then, he’s been pushed towards the periphery of conservatism as his writing changed and is now working for the scrappy outsider magazine The American Conservative, founded by dissidents who opposed the Iraq War. He does not appear to hold any fellowships or affiliations at any other Conservatism, Inc. institutions. Social conservatism is very unpopular in Conservatism, Inc (far more unpopular than is generally known).
Nevertheless, plenty of social conservatives have acquired additional think tank money gigs, including Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty (at AEI), and George Weigel and Peter Wehner (at EPPC). But I don’t know of anything like that for Dreher. I also haven’t seen anything indicating that wealthy conservative donors are backing any projects of his. And Dreher’s speaking fees appear to be only half of Goldberg’s at $5-10,000, which is ridiculously low. Nobody charges less than $5000 per appearance. I suspect Dreher has far fewer paid speaking engagements than Goldberg too.
Relative to his large audience and influence at the individual level, Dreher is practically an outcast.
Why is that? Chief among the reasons has to be that Dreher is putting out a message that religious and politically conservative leaders don’t want to hear. Pope Francis himself appears to not like the Benedict Option. Most of the Evangelical commentariat seemed to puke on it too. Both the political and religious conservative donor class don’t want to hear it either, other than those few backing TAC.
Sociologist Peter Berger said, “Ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness, but rather because of their connection to very powerful institutions and interests.”
Rod Dreher’s pessimistic message about the state of the world and the church, his investigations and commentary on the Catholic abuse scandals, etc. do not serve any powerful institutional or financial interests. In fact, they are either implicit or explicit indictments of those institutions and their leaders, which failed in important ways to accomplishing their purported mission.
Fortunately for Rod, there are enough individuals who sense that all is not well to constitute a readership and a career for him. But he seems to be cut off from the kinds of institutional support that would give his ideas traction in the real world and cause Christians to start mobilizing to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Much more than money, I suspect this is what frustrates Rod – that ideas like the Benedict Option end up institutionally marginalized and largely unimplemented. (Events appears to be moving ahead at an even faster rate than Dreher’s pessimism, so perhaps he’ll become more accepted with his new book, which appears to be getting better reviews than the last one).
Read the entire thing by signing up for The Masculinist here (in this issue, Renn writes about a lot more than Your Working Boy). Renn’s punchy newsletter is unmissable for any Christian men who care about what it means to be faithful in this post-Christian culture.
I appreciate his words about me, and confess that I have never really thought about things that way. I’ve been at TAC since the summer of 2011, and have been, and am, quite happy here. I don’t make remotely the money that Renn reports that Jonah Goldberg made at NR, but TAC is a much smaller magazine (see, this is why we really do depend on donors). The best thing about being a writer for TAC is that nobody has ever told me what I could and could not write here. I cherish that freedom, especially in an era in which magazines and newspapers are becoming more timid. If you value this kind of thing too, please consider donating. TAC does not have the access to deep-pocketed donors within the conservative mainstream. Seriously, every little bit helps.
Renn is right about my speaking fee, which is $5,000, but I’ve taken less during Covidtide. I’m not represented by any agency (though that should change), so I have no idea what I’m worth as a speaker. The whole money thing embarrasses me, to be honest — to my career’s detriment, no doubt. I also have no think tank side gigs (and let me be clear: I don’t think there is a thing wrong with people like my pals Douthat and MBD, and anybody else, taking them, as long as they can maintain their distinct voices — which I’m sure they can, as neither one of those men strike me as the kind of writer willing to pull punches to please the powerful). Not sure why that is; maybe I’m just not that interesting to them, or maybe Renn is right that the messages I stand behind don’t serve the interests of powerful institutions. If it’s the latter, too bad. I’m doing fine. I am grateful that I have an excellent literary agent who has negotiated strong book advances for me, and a publisher, Sentinel, that offers fantastic support. I have nothing to complain about. If I could double my income, but lost the ability to write what I think, it wouldn’t be worth it to me.
Along those lines, I did a video interview yesterday with my friend the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony. He began the interview in an unusual way. He recalled the first time we met, back in 2010 at Oxford, and a conversation we had about religious faith (he’s a observant Jew). He said that I talked to him then about my experience of losing my Catholic faith (this happened in 2005) after investigating the Church scandal. This story, he said, had stayed with him over the past decade, and he invited me to share it again.
I did, then Yoram asked me if that experience had anything to do with Live Not By Lies. I didn’t know what to say, and surely answered badly. It was only after the interview was over that I had l’esprit d’escalier, and realized what I should have said. Yoram’s question was rather insightful, and caught me off guard.
The truth is, I did learn from that experience. Back in the summer of 2001, when I first started writing about the scandal (this was half a year before Boston broke big), the brave victim’s advocate Father Tom Doyle told me privately after an interview that he could tell that I was a serious Catholic, and that I should know that if I continued on this path of investigation, I would “go to places darker than you can imagine.” I thanked Father Tom for his warning, but told him that as a journalist, as a Catholic, and as a new father, I felt that I had no moral choice but to do this. He told me that he would support me all the way, in whatever way he could, but that I should be aware that this was going to be hard.
I had no idea what to expect. I assumed that having all the arguments for Catholicism clear in my head would be sufficient protection. It was not. I won’t elaborate on all the filth and corruption and lies upon lies that I had to wade through. We all know about it now. Most of it I was never able to write about — most notably, the fact that I knew what then-Cardinal McCarrick had done, but I could not find documents or get any of my sources to go on the record. McCarrick even had a prominent conservative (closeted) try to talk my boss at NR into taking me off the story, but to his very great credit he would not. It didn’t matter — without documents or people willing to go on the record, there was no story. Yet I knew that the Cardinal was an evil SOB. And, as we later would learn, so did the Vatican.
Well, I finally broke under all the pressure, and found myself unable to believe in the Catholic faith. It simply did not seem plausible to me anymore that my eternal salvation depended on being in relationship with the Roman see. I don’t want to argue about it here — so don’t start. It’s important, though, for all religious leaders and religious people to understand that the plausibility structure of religion is so, so important. Someone, can’t remember who, was telling me this the other day in relation to the new scandal in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Whoever it was said that it’s not seeing wicked people in churches that hurts them as much as it is seeing wicked people emerge, and to continue to thrive, unpunished by church leaders. Eventually people may find it implausible to believe what the church or religion claims for itself. Nobody has the time or the capability to fully investigate all religions. I know very little about Scientology, for example, but from what I do know, it is wholly implausible, and I can’t take it seriously.
It became like that for me with the Catholic Church. When a particular priest — Father Christopher Clay — with whom my wife and I had become friendly turned out to be a liar about his true status, something snapped in us. After four years of these unmaskings, that was the breaking point. We ceased to be able to trust any of it.
I told Yoram that we went to the Orthodox Church because as Catholics, we believed that the Orthodox had valid sacraments, but we did not intend to convert. Yet we did. But, I told him, I have tried to be a very different kind of Orthodox than I was a Catholic. I have had to own my own intellectual arrogance as a Catholic — that was on me, not the Catholic Church — and the pride I took in being Catholic, and in winning the favor of Catholic bishops and prominent figures for my loyalty to and defense of Catholic principles and the Catholic Church in my pre-scandal writing.
The scandal was a test of whether or not I cared more about standing by the truth, however painful, or defending lies for the sake of preserving comfort and status. I came through it on the right side, but also destroyed spiritually. The thing I’ve learned — and this is what I wish I had thought to tell Yoram — is that we should never, ever presume that things cannot get very bad, and that we have the strength to resist anything. If I had been able to receive Father Tom Doyle’s warning with sufficient gravity, I would have prepared myself better spiritually for that kind of combat. Around 2004, about a year and a half before I lost my Catholic faith, a friend said to me that I was so angry about the corruption that I was going to lose my ability to believe in the Catholic faith. I told them I didn’t think so, but anyway, how can a person of integrity not be yelling their head off at this filth?
Well, they were right. I do not regret one bit yelling my head off at the filth, but I do regret allowing my passions to unhorse me. Had I been better prepared spiritually, I would have handled that more responsibly. It’s not a mistake I can allow myself to make in Orthodoxy. I have also worked to stay out of Church politics, because I don’t trust myself not to let my passions run away with me. If I found out that there were children being abused, you’d better believe that I would speak out. But mostly, getting wrapped up in church politics is a dead end for me.
I am grateful for the excruciating pain of the dark night I went through from 2002-2006, only because God forced me to change. And I found Orthodox Christianity, which has been a tremendous blessing. I do regret the brokenness that brought me to Orthodoxy, and wish that my conversion had been “cleaner.” But here we are.
The point I wish I had thought to make to Yoram was this one: always stand up for the truth, and refuse to live by lies, but think hard, and prepare well, for the cost of doing so. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Preparation isn’t just a matter of thinking things through. If you do not have a strong spiritual life — and I didn’t when I went into this work, though I thought I did — then you won’t make it. I had honestly thought that I would be able to suffer persecution for my Catholic faith; I had not at all prepared for the possibility of suffering a form of it from within the Catholic faith. My hero in all this is the late Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, a priest who knew far more about the filth in the Church than I ever did, and who told the truth every chance he could. But he was unshakable in his faith. I want to be the kind of Christian he was. You should want to be too, whatever your confession.
Anyway, to go back to Aaron Renn’s piece, this is not the way to get rich. But that’s not the point, is it? I say the harsh things I say about Christian life in contemporary America — in The Benedict Option, in Live Not By Lies, and on this blog — not because it is to my financial advantage to do so, but because I believe the message is true, and important. Nothing matters more to me than the faith, and passing it on to my children, and my children’s children. We in the American church — all of us: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — are washing away like sandcastles at high tide. It is happening, and few people want to see it, because they don’t want to take responsibility for dealing with the hard realities. At the end of my life, I hope I can say that I did my part with the opportunities God gave me. What else is there?
I thank you readers who have supported my work through your donations to TAC and by buying my books. I could not do this without you. I really couldn’t. We are all in this together. And please support the work of writers like Aaron Renn, and others who say difficult but necessary things that the marketplace doesn’t necessarily reward.