A reader writes:
Priebus’ statement was sufficiently inartful to make me suspect he was intentionally ambiguous. I can’t prove that, of course, and in any case it doesn’t address the uncharitable or ignorant rankings of those on the left who have attacked him on it. They seem to forget, however, what it was like in 2008. Remember Renee Fleming singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” on The Prairie Home Companion? They left no doubt as to the messianic comparison:
In the bleak midwinter
at the Christmas feast,
a family leaves Chicago
and travels to the East,
for a public mansion
in Washington, D.C.
in a time of trouble
All across the nation
sea to shining sea,
people watch the passage
of this family.
And the loving wishes
go out to them there,
all the nation breathes
a silent, hopeful prayer.
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss this as persons who have idolized politics. But that’s not quite it. This is modern Hegelianism, which is a jealous God. It doesn’t object to the sacralization of politics, it objects to the wrong people making claims that are exclusive to the progressivist mind. It’s also why all the yattering about inclusivity would be comical if it were not tragic. But it is farcical. And it is dangerous, for it ups the ante on political life and turns it into a winner-take-all grudge match.
Elsewhere, my TAC colleague Robert VerBruggen explains why non-liberal but non-religious people like him may not have understood the Kings reference in its entirety. Excerpt:
First, a quick explanation of my background. I was raised Catholic, went to church every Sunday during some periods of my life, and attended more than a decade’s worth of what I knew as “catechism classes.” Somehow I didn’t know there was such a thing as “the catechism” when I finished those classes, though, so I guess they weren’t very good. And I suppose I dropped out rather than finishing: my senior year of high school I decided not to get confirmed, and today I’m an agnostic.
Well, let me be more generous than I was yesterday. Unlike Robert the lapsed Catholic, the first reader I quoted above is a conservative Protestant academic of real sophistication, and even he found the Priebus statement ambiguous. I concede that the innocent interpretation I gave it was less obvious than I thought. In any case, Priebus could have avoided controversy entirely by being more clear.
Secondly, though, here’s what I commented under Robert’s post:
I have a sack full of anecdotes from professors at Catholic and Evangelical colleges testifying to how ignorant their undergraduate students are about the basic concepts and vocabulary of Christianity. It’s not the fault of these students, or at least the profs aren’t blaming the students. They blame the churches, the religious education programs, and the parents. As you are demonstrably an intelligent man, I’d say that you were badly served by your Catholic religious education. In her book “The Nurture Assumption,” Judith Rich Harris talks about how all it takes is to fail to pass the tradition to a single generation for that tradition to be lost. People like me spent the past couple of days lamenting the religious ignorance and cultural illiteracy of so many people these days, and that can be true while at the same time the fault for this lying with the institutions — churches, schools, families — that failed in their duty to pass on this knowledge.
Along these lines, here’s a passage from a 2004 First Things essay by the church historian Robert Louis Wilken, one I never tire of quoting:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
Even in these post-Christian times, people like me may lament the “cultural illiteracy” of those who don’t get basic references and ways of speaking within the Christian imaginary. But indignation is probably misplaced. A friend of mine’s college-student daughter was a regular churchgoer for her entire childhood, and a leader in her parachurch youth group. Yet it wasn’t until she reached college that she realized that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead in the flesh. I suppose it’s possible that she didn’t pay close enough attention in Sunday school and so forth. But based on what I hear from many others, both Protestant and Catholic, it’s more likely that the adults responsible for her spiritual formation never taught her the basics to begin with. And if you don’t live in a culture in which these things are in the air you breathe, you may never learn them — and not for lack of intelligence, either.
Let me put it to you like this. I have struggled all my life, even to this day, to understand literary references to Greek and Roman history and mythology. This is because I was never taught it growing up, and only encountered it, if I encountered it at all, in my leisure reading. I learned later that this imaginative world was considered part of the wallpaper in the mind of educated people of earlier generations. It’s gone now, and that makes a lot of our cultural patrimony inaccessible.
We are living through a time in which the Apostle Paul, King Herod, and John the Baptist are going to become as obscure to the modern mind as Mercury, Agamemnon, and Prometheus.
Last point: some friends of mine were excited to put in the program for their (church) wedding an amazing poem they ran across on vacation in Greece. Here’s the English translation. Both raised Catholic, neither had any idea what it was, aside from a beautiful poem on the wall in Greece.