Sometimes it seems to me that identity politics and the collapse of the political center are pushing us all towards a prison-gang mentality, in the sense that you may not want to join up with the gangsters of your own tribe (white, black, Latino), but you do to protect yourself from the attacks of the other tribes.
Do I want to align with the Trump Republicans? Most assuredly I do not. Yet rising militancy on the left — campuses being the vanguard — and the inability of liberal centrists to stand up to it, frightens white, male, heterosexual, religiously conservative me for the future. I look at the Democratic Party and see a party that regards people like me as American kulaks, as the class enemy to be crushed for the sake of justice and the final defeat of “white supremacy.” Yes, I’m being deliberately hyperbolic here, but that’s their basic approach. They may couch it in all kinds of arguments designed to conceal what they’re doing, but they are only deceiving themselves; it is clear to the rest of us what’s going on.
To be fair, I can easily imagine liberals today making the same kind of judgment with regard to the Democrats. They may not like the way it is moving towards identity politics, but they may feel that they have no choice but to vote Democratic to protect themselves from whatever the Trumpified Republican Party may seek to do.
This is how we get the politics of the prison gang, and a society that reflects them. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: where are the restraints that would keep left and right from moving toward the extremes? Read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s unsettling National Review piece about slippery slopes. It’s an astute analysis of where the logic of our current conflicts is taking us. It begins like this:
For conservatives who pay attention, the slippery slope isn’t a logical fallacy, but a way of life. In our gloomy predictions, we regularly understate how far society will begin kicking us down the slope once we start sliding. It would’ve been unthinkable for even the most pessimistic anti-divorce activist of half a century ago to predict that the majority of American children would be born illegitimately within a few decades. Anti-euthanasia activists never dared suggest that the Dutch would be so depraved as to begin drugging children into their graves merely because they reported depression. When Vermont was considering legislation providing for civil unions for same-sex couples, not even the sweatiest, most paranoid snake-handler imagined that florists would be financially ruined by the government for refusing to serve customers whose nuptials violated their religious scruples. Yet here we are.
And now, a few weeks after conservatives were laughed at for predicting that the desire to take down Confederate memorials would eventually turn into the desire to take down memorials to the Founding Fathers, it has happened again. The leaders of Christ Church, an Episcopal congregation in Alexandria, Va., have decided to remove two plaques honoring previous Robert E. Lee and George Washington, who both once worshiped there.
My Law of Merited Impossibility — “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it” — defines the slippery-slope process as a rhetorical scam by the left. At some point, you realize that you’re being had. There is no excuse now for conservatives to believe that the process will stop of its own accord, on the assumption that the left wants to be fair and balanced. Because the center has not held, the extremes won’t be held back.
I believe that at least some of the old-fashioned liberals who would normally stand up to this stuff are not doing so because they know it’s in their political interest not to do so — same as Republican establishmentarians who embraced Trump, however distastefully. But it’s also the case that power is draining away from them. You see it more clearly today on the right, but it’s coming soon on the left too. They’re going to end up repudiating Clintonism (and Obamaism) as thoroughly as the Republican base repudiated Bushism.
We are seeing a Reformation of American politics, and with it, the American imagination. As MBD writes in his piece, we are about to see a very public, and very ugly, demonization of the Founding Fathers, which is to say, America’s founding myth. The standard line about the Founders is that they were imperfect men — yes, some held slaves — but what they accomplished by creating a strong liberal democracy was far, far more important. That some held slaves, or at least permitted slaves to be held in the new democracy, is their tragedy, and must not be forgotten. But it must be understood within the context of their times, and the limits of the human imagination bound by custom and culture. And their accomplishments, despite their failings, must be understood as a milestone on the road to greater liberty. MBD writes:
Previously, civil-rights activists such as King reconciled white America’s devotion to the nation’s founding and their own ambition to living as equals under the law by casting the Declaration and other artifacts of the Founding as a “promissory note” whose liberties need to be justly extended to all human beings in America. And many today say that we can honor the Founders because, unlike the the Confederates, the principles they enshrined in our Founding documents could be used against the injustice of slavery and white supremacy.
It is my contention that this way of honoring the Founders will soon begin to seem dishonest to liberals. It will be seen as a concession to a recalcitrant prejudice and a political reality that is rapidly disappearing, the same way civil unions for same-sex couples are now seen.
I think he’s right about that. Iconoclastic liberals intoxicated by identity politics and the achievement of what they consider to be “social justice” are playing with dynamite. If they begin to deconstruct the Founding as illegitimate, and treat its Enlightenment-era ideals of universal human dignity as fraudulent façades for white supremacy, then they will call up demons that they cannot control (as Trump is doing, in his own way), and in this post-Christian era, will eliminate the last possible thing that could unite us as a country.
You think it can’t happen? It not only can happen, I predict it’s going to happen. A lot of us on the right thought Donald Trump’s campaign for the GOP nomination was doomed, and that it would be just a matter of time before he blew himself up. Then, when the general election campaign started with him as the nominee, we lamented that the awful Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president, because Trump would blow himself up. Then, we waited for President Trump to self-immolate through some combination of belligerency and incompetence.
None of it happened. The American people today — at least a large number of them — no longer hold the standards they once did. Trump is not the cause of this, but a symptom. If the Mueller investigation ends up finding strong evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the president, then the GOP Congress will be put to the test. If it refuses to impeach and convict him, the institution will lose all moral credibility, as will the Republican Party. But if it does impeach and convict, then tens of millions of Americans will regard it as a soft coup d’état. The process will have been constitutional, but they too might come to see the basis for the American order — the Constitution itself — as nothing but a façade to justify rule by corrupt elites.
And then what? Dangerous times we live in.
Whatever happens, can there be any doubt that we live in an Age of Reformation, one in which the old ways of understanding the world and our place in it are collapsing? This is the world into which I speak in my book The Benedict Option, though I focus on the decline into collapse of Christianity in the West. So very many Christians cannot imagine that its happening, but the numbers do not lie, nor does the analysis of how little what passes for Christianity today has to do with Christianity as it has been historically understood, even by the leaders of the Reformation.
Do you really believe that liberal democracy and the rights it guarantees are going to stand strong absent the Christian ethos out of which it was born? Enlightenment-era universalism is nothing but a secularization of Christian universalism. If the claim that “all men are created equal” has no religious sanction, then why should anybody believe it? Ultimately the monstrous injustice of American slavery was defeated by an essentially religious crusade — as was the monstrous injustice of Jim Crow (remember, the Civil Rights movement was led by black pastors).
It is difficult, even impossible, to predict where this new Reformation is going to take us. (And note well that I use the term not only to refer to religious Reformation, but political too.) Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s important story from Brazil, about how the prosperity gospel is transforming that country’s religious and political landscape, is must reading. Look:
Brazil, which has the most Catholics of any country in the world, is undergoing religious debates similar to those sparked in 1517 by a fiery German preacher named Martin Luther — over church riches and corruption, political power, and the proper way to read the Bible. By 2030, Catholics, now the religious majority in Brazil, are projected to become a religious minority.
Can you imagine that? In less than 20 years, Catholics will be a minority in the world’s most populous Catholic country. Lest Protestants rejoice, read the story: Pentecostalist prosperity preachers are also decimating mainstream Evangelicalism there. And Brazilian culture is primed for it:
Now even with a popular pope, the church is desperately trying to keep young people like 28-year-old Marina Silva, who is unemployed, from leaving the faith. The prosperity gospel’s promise of riches, however, is just one front in the competition.
Sipping orange juice in a Sao Paulo cafe before her next job interview, Silva explained that Brazilians are known for picking and choosing from different traditions in everything from food to art and music.
“We don’t have strict characteristics,” she said. “We mix things together to make them good. We are not like good little lambs.”
The US has a much different culture than Brazil, but we share the sense that we can pick and choose what to believe, because the choosing individual is sovereign. That is, we no longer have the sense that our beliefs have to cohere logically. They just have to feel right to us. Thus, prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism displacing Catholicism, a religious tradition grounded in authority, order, and the past, as well as traditional forms of Protestantism, and exalting demagogic preachers.
This is what you get when the ship becomes unmoored and begins to drift out to sea. In the US, we are certainly unmoored from our shared religious tradition, and now we are becoming unmoored from our shared political tradition. And we are catechized by a culture that valorizes emotion and radical individualism.
In this Age of Reformation, where are the restraints, aside from brute force? Where is the will to defend and reform, not destroy, the ancien régime? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Even we liberals and conservatives who do not want to accept the passionate intensity of the destroyers in our own camps may find that we have no choice, not if we want to protect ourselves. At some point, though, we are going to reach a point where we can go no further, and we have to risk all that we have to save our honor, and to stand for justice against brutality of either the left or the right. It will be much more difficult, of course, to refuse to collaborate with our own side. This is why we have to resist the prison-gang mentality taking over our politics.
The day of testing, my liberal and conservative friends, may be closer than we think. The rate of change is accelerating past the ability of anybody to control or even to understand. The energies released by the Protestant Reformation did immense damage before a new order grew out of the destruction of the old. Even the Reformers themselves could not have foreseen what they were unleashing. So it is today, I believe, with regard to our politics as well as our religion.
A storm is coming. Prepare the arks. The US, and the West, will eventually come to rest on solid ground again, but nobody can know yet what that will look like. The best we can do is to see to it that we and the things we value the most will survive the perilous journey.