First Things And Changing Times
There has been a lot of commentary in religious conservative circles about the drama around First Things and its editor Rusty Reno. I added to the clamor with a couple of posts, including a long one yesterday about FT and the future of religious conservatism. I don’t retract anything I said, but I do regret saying it right now. Though I don’t really know Reno more than casually, it feels like I joined in a pile-on of a friend — and I say that because I have regarded First Things as a friend since I first discovered it in the early 1990s. As I conceded late yesterday, I posted in part out of anger at Reno, because he called me and many people I know cowards for wearing masks when we go out. I had been reading with mounting anger his coronavirus diaries, and something just snapped inside me. One should never post in anger (as Reno, who deleted his Twitter account, has discovered!). I want to apologize to Reno for joining the pile-on. I should have waited to say what I wanted to say, because I could have said it better.
To be honest, though, my distress is a backhanded compliment to First Things, because for so long it has been peerless among religious conservative journals. Though I am thrilled that its editors have been taking it beyond the Reaganist fusionism of the Neuhaus-Weigel era, I don’t want to see it get mired in Trumpist crankery. To lose First Things would be a terrible thing.
I have heard over the past day from a number of people — most of them names you would know — expressing their frustration with the turn First Things has taken. I have also heard from people expressing frustration with my criticism. The one thing we all agree on is that First Things matters like no other magazine in its categories matters, and has for a long time.
I’ve been thinking this morning about what an incredible institution Richard John Neuhaus built. The fact that here we are, thirty years after its launch, all agonizing in public about the magazine’s identity and future is a hell of a thing. Whatever you think of Neuhaus, he was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. I don’t think I have ever written for First Things, and only met Neuhaus in person a couple of times, but he was a true guru to many of us religious conservative Christian writers. It had a lot to do with his personality — witty, urbane, learned, ecumenical in the best way. He drew people to him — smart people, good people. Folks liked him and respected him, and beyond that, they cherished him. Bill Buckley is the only other figure in conservative journalism who had a similar effect on people, but his appeal was political. For conservatives whose orientation was more religious, Neuhaus was the man. I discovered First Things around the same time that I discovered Catholicism. I like to joke that I joined Team Neuhaus. I really thought of myself like that, though it would be years before I ever met him, or spoke to him.
I have written too many times about my regrets about that era, in particular my hero-worship of John Paul II, my unwarranted confidence in the institutional Catholic Church, and my far too cozy mixing of my religion with the priorities of the Republican Party. The trauma of those years ended with me losing my ability to believe as a Catholic, and leaving the Catholic Church, and leaving the Republican Party (though to be very clear, I remained a Christian and a political conservative). This is all my fault, but these were faults I learned by imitating Father Neuhaus, who was a hero of mine. To be clear, I’m not blaming him for my own errors; I’m just trying to sketch out why First Things meant so much to me, and still does.
I have heard from some friends who write for and help edit other Christian journals, including ones for which I’ve written. They are chagrined that I said that there is nothing to match First Things. I’m sorry, but it’s simply true. This is no comment on the quality of the articles they publish. It’s a comment about the immensity of Neuhaus’s achievement. Someone who used to work at FT — I think it was Damon Linker, but I can’t be sure — once marveled to me about the world of Father Neuhaus. So many important people — cardinals from Rome, but also theologians, intellectuals, and cultural figures from all over the Christian world — found their way to the magazine’s offices in Manhattan, and to Father Neuhaus’s dinner table. First Things was a stop on their itinerary; they all wanted to see Richard. Had First Things been anywhere else but Manhattan (with the possible exception of Washington, DC), it would not have had the prestige and influence that it did.
I was talking with a Christian journalist yesterday who said that it would serve First Things well to be out of Manhattan now. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. True, the Internet has made physical location much less important. However, in reflecting on how Neuhaus made First Things the most important magazine of its kind, I recognize that it’s not simply that being in New York, he could have cigars with the Greats when they passed through town. It’s that being in New York puts you at the white-hot core of American cultural change. I’ve often thought that a political magazine like National Review would be better off relocating from Manhattan to Dallas (while keeping a Washington bureau). I believe that First Things would lose something important if it left New York, even though New York is about as post-Christian as a major American metropolis can be. I lived in New York for five years, and though it is quite easy to be dazzled by the bright lights and thereby to lose sight of what the rest of the country is seeing, it is also true that to live in New York is to be in a position to see the future before everybody else. As the country moves more into its post-Christian era, this viewpoint might prove to be more important than it now seems, for the magazine First Things aspires to be.
And that is a magazine broadly focused on what Neuhaus called “the public square.” There is, alas, something of a Norma Desmond quality to First Things (“I am big; it’s the picture that got small”), simply because it was a magazine built for an era in which Christian intellectuals mattered to American national politics. If Richard John Neuhaus were at the peak of his powers today, he would still have been diminished by the changes in American culture and politics. He fought the culture war as well as anybody, but he — we — lost (Michael Hanby, in First Things (of course), explains the meaning of this loss.) That so many conservative Christian intellectuals still look to First Things, and not other very good publications, as the guidepost for the community is a sign of the afterglow of the Neuhaus era.
Nobody could have truly succeeded Richard John Neuhaus, because he was a singular figure. It’s the same with Bill Buckley, though Rich Lowry has done a great job shepherding National Review through the post-Buckley era. But NR has a different mission than FT. Conservatism is a protean thing. There will always be a party of the right in America, and that party will need magazines to write about it. Religious thought, especially of the conservative/traditional kind, does not mean as much to American politics and public affairs as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. I wish that were not true, but it can’t be avoided. No magazine devoted to the intersection of traditional religion and public affairs could help being diminished in this era.
Think about it: In the 1970s, labor union leaders were routinely invited on Meet The Press and other news programs. (I remember this because, using a child’s logic, I wondered why they kept inviting George Meany on TV if he was a meanie.) That rarely happens now, and it hasn’t happened in years, because organized labor doesn’t matter like it once did. Organized religion is like that too. If Cardinal Dolan appears on Meet The Press, it doesn’t mean what it meant in the 1990s, when Cardinal O’Connor did. The times have diminished the office and its authority.
The Trump ascension obviously signaled the diminishment of authority of conservative institutions, including magazines. It’s a confusing time. First Things has tried to seize the Trump moment, clumsily. I realized over the past day, thinking about this current controversy with Reno, that the fear that Reno was making the same mistake that Neuhaus and Weigel did, hitching the magazine too closely to Washington politicians and causes, has been gnawing at me for a long time. Consider, though, how difficult this challenge is facing any editor of First Things: how to be relevant to current debates in public affairs without aligning yourself too closely with a party or politician? It’s even harder when you see yourself as a player, as First Things was from 1990 until the end of the George W. Bush administration. You can’t be a player without picking a team. What if the team captain is Donald Trump? You see the problem. Well, that’s not a problem for some Christians, but the community of intellectual Christians who read and write for First Things are divided sharply in ways that we weren’t in the Neuhaus era.
Touchstone is a very fine magazine, but it is not a “player,” and has never aspired to be. Same with Mere Orthodoxy, Comment, Plough, and other excellent Christian publications whose profile isn’t as high as First Things, because Neuhaus and his times made First Things a player. The biggest player! But the game is over now.
It would be wrong to say that Christians should stop thinking and writing about politics and public affairs, especially in this time of tumult and transition. But the way we think and write about it has to be different, has to be suited to these times, not the past. Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded. But it was also his (and the magazine’s) Achilles heel, not only with the Bush administration and the Iraq War, but with the magazine’s identification with the Catholic hierarchy.
I mentioned this morning to a scholar I know, a conservative whose work has appeared in First Things, that I felt bad for being so quick to join the pile-on, though Reno deserved criticism. The scholar replied, “I kind of feel bad too, until I remember that he willingly met with people while he was infected, and then implied that people who take precautions by wearing masks are cowards.” There is that. I fear that Rusty Reno’s coronavirus diaries may one day be viewed as Father Neuhaus’s March 2002 FT piece pronouncing exoneration on Marcial Maciel and the Legion of Christ, in the face of allegations of abuse. Neuhaus wrote at the time:
I am not neutral about the Legionaries. I have spent time with Fr. Maciel, and he impresses me as a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self–discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do. They are the qualities one would expect of someone who at age twenty–one in Mexico vowed to do something great for Christ and his Church, and has been allowed to do it. In the language of the tradition, they are qualities associated with holiness; in his case a virile holiness of tenacious resolve that has been refined in the fires of frequent opposition and misunderstanding.
He said that the accusations were “gossip” and “trash.” More:
Common sense is also entered into evidence. Is it believable that, as alleged, a pathological, drug–addicted child molester could have founded a religious order in the 1940s that was approved by the Church and flourished for decades, while all the time casual sodomy and other heinous sexual abuses reigned in its houses? And this without a word of concern from thousands of parents or any claim of such wrongdoing in civil, criminal, or ecclesiastical courts? It is not believable. Is it believable that men who are now accusers, who were then adult members of the order, would have testified under oath to Fr. Maciel’s uprightness, thus lying to their highest superiors in the Holy See and refusing to mention years of abuse by a drug–addicted molester who had been removed as head of the order? It is not believable. The accusations are odious, as are the actions of those who continue to peddle them.
A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are “pure invention, without the slightest foundation.”
But as we discovered later, all of it was true! And worse! In that same long piece, Neuhaus used all his considerable powers of rhetoric to savage the characters of the late Gerald Renner and Jason Berry, the journalists who had done incredible work to expose Maciel. Now, I too was following the case against the Legionaries, and as incredible as the charges seemed, the evidence was far, far more substantive than Neuhaus lets on here. He was animated by his prejudices, and ended up defending a rotten cause, and trashing the names of good reporters who were not as deceived as he was.
The problem with Neuhaus’s piece wasn’t that he defended Maciel. It was still possible at that date to do so, with real effort. The problem was that Neuhaus wound himself up rhetorically to a very high pitch, dismissed all evidence against what he wanted to believe, and portrayed himself as a heroic defender of justice against a pair of hateful journalists who only wanted to tear down the Church. Neuhaus went far beyond reason into the realm of ideology and spitefulness. And it blew up in his face. He honestly could not believe that he could be wrong about this stuff. I know, because in the spring of 2002, I was on the receiving end of several angry phone calls from him, in which he lambasted me for not believing Catholic bishops when they told me there was nothing to these scandals. RJN was no cynic; he was a true believer.
He got away with it because he was Richard John Neuhaus, and had built up a massive amount of social capital. Still, you see where I’m going with this. Reno has spent the pandemic writing strong pieces denouncing those who have a more conventional view of the pandemic’s threat than he does, and trashing the character of those who don’t share his view. The unfortunate tweets from the other night do not stand alone. I don’t know why he did it, though by deleting those tweets and his entire Twitter account, he apparently regrets it. Good. He should. I expect that he will reflect long and hard over the meaning of the institution that it is his privilege to care for, and going forward, resists the siren-song of ideological passions. Giving voice to strong emotions and provocative opinions is the way one can become a player in Trump World; that this state of affairs existed prior to Trump has a lot to do with why Trump is president today. But it’s a temptation to which a magazine like First Things cannot surrender and still remain what it is supposed to be.
The question again is, what does it mean to be a magazine about religion in the public square in a time when religion doesn’t mean as much to people, and the public square is increasingly befouled? Is it even possible to play the game without getting as filthy as the players? Or is the contest really over, and ought traditional Christians, who have been largely eliminated from competition, to be spending more of their time and effort constructing “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness”? I know where I stand. By no means is First Things is obligated to stand with me, but I hope its editorial leadership will take serious the moral and reputational cost of aligning itself with the worst aspects, including temperamental aspects, of Trumpism.
Father Neuhaus amassed a Scrooge McDuck-like vault of institutional authority, in a time when his style of investing paid off. We’re in leaner times now, and we all have to be a lot more careful about where we put our treasure.
UPDATE:Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy has a really solid take. Excerpt:
Trump tempted us like never before. This has created a very difficult context for all religious conservatives.
The extremes of our moment show the challenge: If you sign up with the Trumpists, you’re going to be running with some mean, ugly people, such as the folks at the Federalist and some of the Claremont crowd, to say nothing of the Breitbart and OANN set. Choosing to align with them is a choice you can make, but it’s not one I’d encourage.
That said, those who have held the line on the importance of character are often not terribly interesting intellectually and seem determined to resurrect the worst form of Reaganism, which would both condemn the Republicans to irrelevance and leave millions of impoverished Americans left behind by an economy which knows only one index of health—the GDP, a measure which, unfortunately, seems to have very little correlation with the prosperity of most American workers. Last is correct in noting that building an intellectual version of Trumpism is impossible, but I don’t see why we would want an intellectual version of a discredited fusionism either.
In that context, any magazine editor has a very difficult task. Figuring out how to navigate such troubled waters is a challenge—Mere O is an extremely small operation relative to First Things and I have felt that challenge pretty intensely. I imagine the struggle is much greater if you’re at a magazine with the reputation of First Things.
UPDATE.2: For the sake of clarity, I want to say that I do not believe that “the folks at the Federalist” are “mean, ugly people.” I endorse Jake Meador’s take generally. A reader in the comments took from my posting Jake’s take that I endorsed all of it. I can see why. That’s why I’m clarifying. I think it’s generally true that if you sign up to be an all-in pro-Trumper, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. It’s also generally true that Never Trumpers are problematic too; Zombie Reaganism is nobody’s idea of the future. But I know some good people, and good writers, on both sides of that divide.
UPDATE.3:Jake Meador has a great follow-up post. Excerpt:
Given that, if Christians want to work toward Christianizing their culture—and they ought to want that—then there is a very obvious argument for trying to become a player in elite culture in the way that First Things was and likely still is.
Moreover, there is a form of virtue made possible by grandeur and largeness of scale that is not possible in the same way in smaller, more remote places. Tolkien understood this well. As much as his heart was in the Shire amongst the Hobbits, there would be no shire without Minas Tirith nor would there be many other things, not least the virtue of magnanimity, which by definition assumes a certain loftiness or immensity that the holder of the virtue is then able to share with their inferiors. My heart belongs to the Great Plains and to Nebraska and to Lincoln. But New York City is great, not in the sense in which we refer to greatness as a kind of elevated goodness, but in the sense of being grand and lofty and magnificent. If places like New York City ought to exist, and they ought to, then Christians ought to live in those places and aspire to shape them such that their grandeur might also be good. Christians are needed in New York so that it might become like Jerusalem rather than Babel.
The challenge, it seems to me, is in the way we pursue influence in such places. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about being ‘extruded’ into ministry—to be extruded is to be squeezed into a specific role apart from one’s conscious pursuit of the position. You might say that St. Ambrose was extruded into his role in the Milanese church. That is the right instinct, I think. You don’t go looking for power and prestige. You aspire to be faithful. If prestige finds you, then you allow yourself to be extruded into it and pray that God protect you from the spiritual dangers.
leave a comment
Masks And Controlling The Uncontrollable
Are face masks effective in slowing down Covid-19 transmission? The Mayo Clinic says yes:
Can face masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.
So why weren’t face masks recommended at the start of the pandemic? At that time, experts didn’t yet know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared. Nor was it known that some people have COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms. Both groups can unknowingly spread the virus to others.
These discoveries led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to do an about-face on face masks. The CDC updated its guidance to recommend widespread use of simple cloth face coverings to help prevent transmission of COVID-19 by people who have the virus but don’t know it.
A new analysis of 64 different studies finds evidence that masks make a big difference in slowing down the spread of viruses within healthcare settings. The study’s director says there is not much evidence one way or the other for mask-wearing outside of healthcare settings:
Still, he recommends that people wear masks outside. “I think common sense tells us having some kind of barrier is probably good,” he says. “It’s hard to know exactly how much it will reduce transmission. But overall it’s probably a good thing to do.”
I believe that America has to start re-opening the economy. Mask-wearing in public is a reasonable part of that process. If the public health authorities believe that wearing masks can help us to get things opened up again, what’s the problem with putting the things on when interacting with others outside the home? I hate the things, but come on, it’s not a big ask. We may not be able to say for sure that mask-wearing (in conjunction with other measures) can reduce the virus’s spread by a measurable amount, but as the doctor who headed that analysis says, it makes sense that a barrier between one’s mouth and the general public is not going to hurt, and might well help.
First Things editor Rusty Reno said in his coronavirus diary this week that he has tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. He has made an issue of going around Manhattan conspicuously not wearing a mask, because he thinks mask-wearing is what cowards do. If you interacted with Reno at some time in the past couple of months, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that he wore a mask?
If you want to end the lockdown immediately, then you will want to take any nominal precautions that will allow reopening as quickly as possible. Wearing a mask is a low-cost, high-benefit way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and hence make it possible to ease restrictions while lowering the chances of another outbreak.
There are only two possible explanations for why this might be. The first is that people are dumber than a bag of hammers.
The second is that when people tell you what they think about “reopening” and “masks,” they aren’t actually talking about the coronavirus. They’re telling a story about how they see themselves and their place in the world.
I think that people aren’t dumb. I think this is part of a constructed narrative. So does J.V. Last. But he doesn’t say what that narrative might be. I’m not sure either.
A friend in the Midwest shared with me tonight about a woman who screamed at a family for letting their children play without masks in their own back yard. He also talked about people he knows who genuinely believe that Bill Gates invented Covid-19 to destroy Trump and usher in one-world government. My friend said, of these narratives, “Both evidence desperation to gain a control over the uncontrollable.”
I think that is true. I think this is deeply true. Put that insight together with Last’s, which says these events are about people displaying how they see themselves in the world. And think about them along with a couple of lines from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she discusses aspects of pre-totalitarian societies:
- They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.
- The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.
Arendt is talking about the state of mind of people who were susceptible to totalitarianism. These were people who didn’t care about truth as truth; whatever respectable society said wasn’t true, they believed. If respectable society said you cannot or should not go out in public without a mask, then that was reason enough for them to oppose mask-wearing. And one should then speak cruelly — like, say, calling mask-wearers cowards — to show up their hypocritical humanitarianism.
It is a performance. It’s a performance about establishing a sense of normality and political dominance at the same time.
UPDATE: Reader lawbooks10 says:
To be fair, it’s not as though “respectable society” has given us ANY REASON AT ALL to trust them or their judgment in the past, oh, 30 years. I wear masks when I’m inside, not outside. But I don’t blame people who scoff at all this because we are once again being asked to “just trust” institutions and authorities who have shown over and over again that they are not trustworthy and do not have good judgment. It’s a boy crying wolf scenario. I don’t believe any of these conspiracy theories, but I’m definitely skeptical of the motivations of the media and a lot of political officials as they react to this crisis.
I hear you, but note well that, according to Arendt, this is one social development that paves the way for totalitarianism. Germans in the post-WWI, pre-Nazi era knew that their society’s institutions had led them all into the catastrophic war. This was undeniable. Yet, understandable disgust with those institutions, combined with other factors (such as mentioned above), proved deadly to the body politic. Arendt writes that the widespread collapse of faith in institutions gave an opening to would-be totalitarians — especially those that told a coherent story (even if it was a lie) about why things happened, and how they (the totalitarians) would fix it.
leave a comment
First Things & The Future Of Religious Conservatism
First Things editor Rusty Reno’s meltdown the other night on Twitter (he’s now deleted those tweets, by the way) occasioned a lot of messaging among fellow Christian conservatives in my circles, all of whom are worried about the magazine and its future. I heard from one young friend who is part of the broad circles of Millennial and Gen Z conservatives and trads on the East Coast — the kind of people who have either published in First Things, or who aspire to. He said that most of them have decided that given its editor’s embrace of Covid-19 crankishness (e.g., calling mask-wearers cowards), it is too risky to their reputations to publish in First Things. This is a terrible sign for the magazine, but the crisis of First Things is a symbol of the broader crisis of intellectual Christian conservatism attempting to engage modernity, and to participate in the public square — which is exactly why First Things was founded, and how it sees its mission. My point is that the First Things crisis — if you can call it a “crisis,” and I think you can — is not just a crisis for that magazine, but it symbolizes a broader and deeper crisis on the intellectual Christian Right.
First Things burst onto the world in 1990. Its editor-in-chief, Richard John Neuhaus, was a Catholic priest and a convert, but he had a broad and generous ecumenical vision. He and his co-founders wanted the magazine to become home to Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and Jews who were interested in the intersection of religion and public life, and who wrote from a morally and theologically conservative perspective. First Things became the most important journal of its kind, a real flagship for small-o orthodox Christian thinkers. A lot of this had to do with the charisma and editorial genius of Father Neuhaus, but it also had to do with the times. This was the era when Pope John Paul II was at the height of his powers, and even many Evangelicals looked to him as a symbol of authentic Christian witness to the world — not just in terms of piety, but because of his intellectual critiques of modernity. In the US, at least, conservative Christianity offered a coherent and muscular vision — one that often dovetailed with the priorities of the Republican Party, or so many of us believed.
It surprises people to learn that First Things was not founded as a Catholic magazine. Nor was it ever intended to be the parish newsletter of the Republican Party at prayer. But by the early 2000s, it seemed that way — and this is what led to the magazine’s troubles. Neuhaus and his collaborator George Weigel united the magazine behind George W. Bush’s Iraq War, which even John Paul II opposed. When that project failed, it damaged the magazine’s credibility immensely. Moreover, First Things had strongly allied itself with theological conservatives within the institutional Catholic Church. The abuse scandal broke big out of Boston in early 2002. Neuhaus did not handle any of this well, and was eventually humiliated by a fulsome piece he had written praising the orthodoxy of Father Marcial Maciel, who later turned out to be a figure of demonic sexual corruption.
Neuhaus died in 2009. While the magazine has continued to be the most important one of its kind for intellectually engaged religious conservatism — there are no other magazines like it whose editors’ bizarre tweets would set off such alarm — its decline in influence has more to do with the decline of religious conservatism than it does with editorial decisions made by this or that editor. If Father Neuhaus were alive today, and firing on all cylinders, the magazine would still be struggling to find its way, because all of us on the Religious Right are.
I hesitate to describe us as the “Religious Right,” because that is a phrase that has become coterminous with right-wing political Christians, lately of the Trumpy Evangelical type. Chuck Colson was a friend and partner of Neuhaus, and was a robust symbol of intellectually engaged popular conservative Evangelicalism. Under Trump, popular conservative Evangelicalism has come to be symbolized by Pastor Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who just obliterated the philosophy faculty at Liberty University,and has established a “think tank” with the right-wing activist Charlie Kirk: the Falkirk Center.
Catholicism is also a mess. The vision that inspired Neuhaus, George Weigel, and their team of thinkers in the 1980s and 1990s crashed and sank, and not just on the shoals of the abuse scandal and the Iraq War, and not just on the rocks of the progressive Francis papacy. The loss of the gay marriage issue was a crushing blow, because so much of the traditional Christian cause has been tied up in countering the Sexual Revolution. I don’t need to go into why that has been the case. You can read my “Sex After Christianity” piece from 2013 for insights, and you can read this excellent Darel Paul essay in the current issue of First Things, who explains that “queerness has conquered America because it is the distilled essence of the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture.” If you had to summarize the mission of intellectually serious conservative Christians since the 1980s (as distinct from mere political activists or pietists), it would be to create a robust opposition to the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture.
We failed. Michael Hanby, in a powerful essay published in First Things in 2015, explains why. Hanby indirectly summarizes the way First Things saw its role in fighting the therapeutic culture thus:
Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason.
Why did we fail at this? Hanby says that the triumph of the LGBT cause in American law, politics, and culture is a metaphysical defeat:
This rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.
Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.
This is indisputably true. What remains to be done is to figure out how to respond, individually and collectively, as theologically conservative Christians. The truth is, nobody really knows. I have proposed the Benedict Option, which is about holding the line within our own communities, but there are other responses. One that has found its way into the pages of First Things is Catholic integralism, the idea that there should be a closer formal relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, whose governing principles should be consonant with Catholic teaching. It’s an intellectually interesting project, but it presupposes a polity in which most people recognize the authority of the Catholic Church. In the United States, that is inconceivable, in part because Catholics are a minority in this country, but more importantly because in our time, not even most Catholics accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
More promising are efforts by Catholics like Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, J.D. Vance and others to reconcile Christianity with the new populism on the Right, which is forcing a deep rethinking of the relationship between the faith and economics. Like it or not, Donald Trump’s election has been the catalyst for this rethinking, which was long overdue on the Right. The great challenge lies in discerning and separating what is good and necessary about this reset from the problems of Trump’s character and governing style — if that is even possible, as a matter of practical politics.
First Things has struggled with this too. In my view, all intellectually honest Christians have, whether they count themselves as Never Trumpers, or whether they identify as open supporters of the president. The idea that it is possible to return to a time of High Weigelism is daft — and Michael Hanby gets to the core reasons why. But the path to the future is not at all clear.
To restate: If First Things isn’t what it was, it’s because the civic project of conservative American Christianity isn’t what it was. None of the magazines that our tribe used to rally around mean what they once did. (It’s true on the Christian Left too; the Internet has radically changed the landscape.) What does it mean to be an intellectually engaged Christian of the Right in 2020? Twenty years ago, the answers were a lot clearer.
It should also be said that from my point of view, the Christian Left is completely bankrupt. What is its point at all? It is so besotted with LGBT activism and identity politics that it is impossible to discern anything distinctly Christian about it. I mean, if it is true that far too much of the Religious Right has subordinated itself to offering theological justifications for right-wing politics, this is, if anything, more true of the Religious Left, with progressive causes. Name one thing that any significant Religious Left figure stands for that opposes secular left-wing politics. If there were a meaningful pro-life movement on the Religious Left, that would be one. Instead, one of the most famous, and perhaps the most famous, progressive Christian leaders is a middle-aged woman with fire in her loins, who left her husband and created a sex idol that she publicly awarded to Gloria Steinem. The parody writes itself.
But that’s their problem. We on the Christian Right have our own to work out. What I regret is that First Things still has a unique position of being able to offer that leadership, but is squandering it. It was a mistake for Reno to endorse Donald Trump publicly, and to thereby tie the magazine to the Trump project. I don’t object to the magazine running piece sympathetic to Trump, but it would have been far, far more prudent to have kept the magazine uncommitted. And now, in the Covid-19 crisis, the magazine has not been a place for thoughtful, challenging theological and cultural analyses of the pandemic phenomenon, but has become known for Reno’s descent into bizarro crankishness.
For a magazine like First Things, it seems to me that the most important political question is captured in the so-called French-Ahmari debate. Simply stated, that debate asks whether or not conservative Christians should busy themselves defending the liberal democratic order within post-Christianity, and carving out a niche for themselves within it, or whether they should start building alternatives to that order. It’s a complex and nuanced debate, or should be. Personally, I believe there’s no long-term hope for Christianity within this order, so I would be happy in First Things devoted itself to being the leading forum where the question of post-Christian Christian politics worked itself out. But none of that is going to happen if First Things is best known for its editor skulking around town, defiantly spitting on the sidewalk (as he said he did in an earlier diary), going to underground masses, testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies yet denouncing as cowards people who are in most respects his theological and political allies, but who have decided, in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, to wear facemasks when they go out in public.
Can any other religious journals step in to replace the role First Things seems to be abdicating? Who will fund them? Is there any constituency among the Christian philanthropic community for giving to such a magazine? Or is it all politics, and all Trumpism from here on out?
First Things remains the most important magazine of its kind, but it is losing ground fast. Whatever happens to First Things, the future of intellectual religious conservatism in America is very much up in the air. Reno’s unfortunate public meltdown only serves to highlight much deeper and wider problems on the intellectual Religious Right — problems that will probably have to get a lot worse before they get better. In Neuhaus’s time, the way forward seemed much clearer than it really was. Now, the future does not look clear at all. Finding the way forward requires particular editorial skills, but it also requires from all of us particular spiritual and intellectual disciplines and temperaments.
I welcome your comments, but here’s what I don’t want to see: potshots by unbelievers or progressives. This is not a conversation for you. If you want to write from a secular or left/liberal point of view, make your comment a constructive one, or I won’t publish it. For that matter, if you want to write from a pro-Trump, or Never Trump point of view, I strongly urge you not to throw bombs, but to make constructive comments. Let’s make this a thread worth reading.
UPDATE: To be clear — and I guess I wasn’t, judging by what I’m hearing from some of you privately — I am not pronouncing First Things’ demise. Read what I wrote: it’s still the most important magazine of its kind. It still publishes excellent pieces that you won’t find anywhere else. All of that, though, is being overshadowed by the drama around Rusty Reno’s reactions to the virus.
And, for the record, I don’t fault him or anybody else for asking hard questions about the anti-virus strategy. This is important. I do fault the strange spitefulness towards people who are his friends and allies, but who disagree with him on the question of wearing masks, and of self-isolation.
UPDATE.2: I’ve been thinking, and I wish I hadn’t written exactly this. It feels like kicking a friend. I’ve valued First Things for a very long time, and I want it to be strong, and good. I don’t know the extent to which its troubles can be isolated to editorial decisions Rusty Reno has made, or to what extent it reflects, as I’ve written here, broader and deeper problems within intellectual religious conservatism. I am sure I reacted angrily in writing this, because I took personally Reno’s accusation that mask-wearers are cowards. It was a crazy and offensive thing for him to have said, and his admission in his most recent coronavirus diary that he has tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies — this, knowing from his past diaries that he has been walking around New York during this thing intentionally without a mask, and even in one case spitting on the ground … well, that is beyond dark and weird. I’m not prepared to be called a coward because I put on a mask when I go to the grocery store, by a Christian who takes pride in his gallivanting around the hard-hit city, Covid-positive and defiantly maskless.
I do regret casting aspersions, however indirectly, on the good work done by others on the magazine’s staff, and for that I apologize.
leave a comment
Rusty Reno Melts Down
An extraordinary thing happened on Twitter tonight. I’ve captured some of it in screenshots:
I don’t know when I last saw someone that prominent not named Trump get ratio’d so severely. It is, alas, deserved. What a contemptible set of tweets. If you think masks are a bad idea to wear, fine, make that case. But to call people who wear masks cowards?! They are actually trying to protect other people from getting sick. biz
I do not understand, nor will I ever understand, why the presence of facemasks in the middle of a deadly pandemic, spread in part by spittle, that in two months has killed 80,000 Americans, is such a trigger for a certain kind of right-winger. Did you see that a prominent traditionalist Catholic lay leader compared masks to the yellow Star of David?
It’s not just conservatives, of course. In Los Angeles, a security guard at a Target store today had his arm broken in a fight with two men who refused to wear masks inside, per the company’s policy. Somehow, I doubt those two thugs were familiar with the philosophy of Edmund Burke. Still, the fact that editor of a religious and cultural magazine as distinguished as First Things would go off in public and call people who are trying to follow public health guidelines in the middle of a pandemic cowards — that is, guilty not of poor medical judgment, but guilty of one of the worst vices — is deranged. This is a polite way of pointing out something obvious:
Beyond the poor historical analogy, this is a quite a tweet from the editor of a magazine (@firstthingsmag) that advocates for “human dignity, “a religiously and morally serious culture,” “responsible global citizenship,” and “culture of personal and communal responsibility.” https://t.co/rmudOK3Zrq
— Patrick Connelly (@PLConnelly) May 13, 2020
This is a sharper way of making a similar point:
Masks are not driven by fear, but by respect for the community around us. We don’t put our finger on the trigger of a gun because we’re afraid, but because we are responsible. This isn’t hard. https://t.co/WYzX6UoQFy
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) May 13, 2020
This is an even sharper way:
We wear masks to protect others, in the event we are infected yet asymptomatic.
It is a kindness. A form of fellowship and solidarity in a time of pandemic. An act of charity towards our more vulnerable brothers and sisters.
You parade your faith, yet here forget its essence. https://t.co/LyRM9fA6CP
— Terry Moran (@TerryMoran) May 13, 2020
This is a thoroughly impolite way of doing it, but I can’t say undeserved:
Seriously, mask = cowardice is some of rankest fake macho horseshit around. It’s decadent, anti-intellectual vice signalling posing as courage — at someone else’s expense. It’s shameful posturing hackery and playing to the mob. https://t.co/Gfk6jFKxzo
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) May 13, 2020
This is really discouraging. I know Reno a bit, and I like him. I think his views on the virus, and how to behave in a time of pandemic, are deeply unsound, and said so weeks earlier. But I didn’t think he would go so far as to call people who wear masks to err on the side of not causing infection cowards. Cowards! This is something you expect from conservative talk radio, not from the editor of First Things.
Something is really, really wrong. It doesn’t make me angry; it makes me sad to see this happening. A year or so ago, I signed a statement that appeared in First Things titled “Against The Dead Consensus,” calling for a new kind of conservatism, against the old “consensus conservatism.” The statement said, in part:
But even during the Cold War, this conservatism too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy. The fetishizing of autonomy paradoxically yielded the very tyranny that consensus conservatives claim most to detest.
America’s public philosophy now puts great stock in “the right to define one’s own concept of . . . the mystery of human life,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy, the libertarian conservative par excellence, wrote while upholding the constitutional “right” to abortion. But this vast leeway to discover the meaning of existence extends to destroying the freedom and lives of others (the unborn child’s, in the case of abortion).
Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values. But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.
Reno didn’t sign it, but it did run in First Things. How can we reconcile being in favor of “communal solidarity” and against the “fetishizing of autonomy” with the mad claim that people who wear face masks with the intention of slowing the spread of this pandemic are nothing but a bunch of pus*ies?
So much for “common good conservatism,” and seeing First Things as a credible venue for it. That is one cost of what Rusty Reno has done with this quixotic campaign of his.
I’ll leave you with this: J.D. Flynn, the editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, is not a pus*y, despite the juvenile claims of Christian public intellectuals who ought to know better:
I understand people don’t want to live in fear.
We wear masks around a new virus as an act of charity, and maybe justice, to vulnerable people.
In this picture, my daughter was six rounds into chemo, so I wore a mask so she wouldn’t get sick. That’s what ppl are doing now. pic.twitter.com/CVRVqSOgkh
— JD Flynn (@jdflynn) May 13, 2020
leave a comment
Onward, Through The Covid Fog!
One quote I am fond of repeating in this space is a line from a Slovak Catholic priest, about the current situation in our culture: “Under communism, the Gospel shone a light through the darkness. Now, that light only strikes fog.”
It came to mind reading Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about how our leaders — political (federal and state), business, cultural, church, and so on — are having to make monumentally important decisions based on confusing, contradictory, and constantly-changing information about Covid-19. Some optimistic scenarios have failed to pan out, as have some pessimistic scenarios. Linker:
How could we be surprised? What we know about COVID-19 — a virus that didn’t exist six months ago — is vastly surpassed by what we don’t know. We don’t know how contagious it is. We don’t how widespread it is in the general population, which means we don’t know how fatal it is. We don’t know if or how much it will wane in warm-weather months or if it will return in a second wave later this year or next. We don’t know how many strains there are or might be. We don’t know if people become immune once they’ve been infected. We don’t know how long any immunity might last, or if it will protect against other strains that emerge. We don’t know if it will be possible to devise a vaccine to protect against it, or how effective it might be, or how long it will take to develop and disseminate one.
Read it all. This tracks with what Wyoming Doc has been saying to me privately: that this virus behaves like nothing he has ever seen. It’s unpredictable.
The problem, as Linker says, is that our leaders have to make decisions now, based on imperfect information. I get why so many people are so freaked out on either side of the issue. There is terrible pain and suffering happening right now. The economic pain is a lot more real for a lot more people than Covid, but I tell you, if this disease has touched your life, you know how vividly horrific it can be. I talked this afternoon with a New Orleans friend whose buddy was in the hospital for three weeks with the stuff, about a third of that time in ICU. He almost didn’t make it. You know somebody like that, and you know this is not an abstract threat. At the same time, the city of New Orleans has been economically devastated by this thing — and that pain is harder to measure than the effects on a particular body of this disease, but is also very real.
People are being so hard-edged about this, and wanting to believe that there is more certainty than there is, because it’s less frightening than to believe that We Just Don’t Know. Believing the worst on the health side makes the excruciating economic sacrifices we’re making worthwhile. Believing the best scenarios is a way of asserting control by saying that if it weren’t for those foolish politicians making bad decisions, everything would have been bearable — and (therefore) if we elect better politicians, we can put all this behind us.
The truth is, We Just Don’t Know. I’ve made no secret of my belief that Donald Trump and his administration have been mostly bad in this crisis, but the truth is, other countries who are not led by Donald Trump have done as poorly or worse. When you have a disease like this, which is unlike anything most of us have had to deal with in living memory, it’s hard not to make mistakes.
I mention here from time to time a study I read in 2010 — I wish I could remember the authors, or the kind of information that would help me find it — in which social scientists found that people who lived with freedom, but a lot of uncertainty, fared worse in terms of mental health measures than people who lived under oppression, but for whom life was predictable. In other words, we think that maximal freedom is optimal, but it’s not really true. Most people don’t thrive without some kind of limits, even if they’re more restrictive than they want. In our Covid situation, it would be more bearable if we had certainty that doing X for Y amount of time would defeat the virus. It’s the open-endedness, and the unpredictability, that’s eating us alive.
Future historians will find it fascinating to see how social media made us all so much less resilient in the face of this challenge. I’m hearing from so many friends that Facebook is a cesspit of spite and recrimination now, with people who are family and friends tearing into each other with unrestrained viciousness. The virus is ripping the mask off. Last August, I posted this blog entry about a new NBC/WSJ poll , and what it revealed about the American people. This excerpt is taken from the NBC News report about the poll:
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.
“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey in partnership with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”
I wrote then:
The poll finds strong pessimism about the future of the country, even though the economy is strong. Just wait till the next recession!
Well, here we are, and it’s much worse than a recession. In that same blog post, a reader pointed to these findings…
… and said:
So to sum up: we have an angry, young, rootless generation with little love for their country, no adherence to any higher moral authority, and little interest in investing in future generations.
Yep, bright days ahead for the American republic!
Look, don’t think that I’m blaming the younger generations for the anger and division over Covid-19! It’s not just them; it’s all of us. There is a story in the spaces between the green and the yellow dots on that chart. The Millennials and Generation Z did not raise themselves. How did we go from a country where most people thought it was important to love your country, to believe in God, and to have kids, to one where most adults under 40 do not? What does that say about our capacity to be resilient in this catastrophe?
Until we have more certainty about the nature of this enemy, we are going to keep making it easier for it to defeat us. The most valuable leaders we could have now are those who can figure out how to inspire resilience, and steadiness through the fog.
leave a comment
Yale-Educated Lesbian Catholic: ‘Ewww! Weirdos!’
I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming in the Weird Christians discussion: an attack from one Jamie L. Manson, a progressive termagant at National Catholic Reporter, who says:
Burton interviews Rod Dreher for the piece, suggesting that he is a founding father of the movement. In his book The Benedict Option, Dreher suggested that “Christians should abandon the culture wars and focus on living in intentional, godly communities.”
The “modernism” that Dreher rebels against are the same old realities that most Christian radical traditionalists reject: justice and equality for women and LGBTQ persons, the acknowledgment of the presence and contributions of people of color, and any suggestion that Christianity is a global church. Dreher is Euro-centric to his bones and has a well-documented race problem.
Is this the modernism that Weird Christians have grown so weary of? Burton disingenuously skirts these issues.
Instead she tries to drive the point home that many Weird Christians are so progressive they are downright Marxist! But socialism — as we’ve seen in its young, white-male dominated form in the U.S. — does not inherently disassociate anyone from racism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia. Many Catholics who pride themselves on their commitment to social justice have lots of work to do in these areas.
Burton also indicates that Weird Christians resent denominations that are diluting the “supernatural” aspects of the faith, like bodily resurrection, and they reject Episcopal and Lutheran churches that are “overly accommodationist” and “anodyne.” One Weird Christian complains the lessons he learned in Catholic school were “simplistic” and “full of dumbed-down doctrine.”
“Weird Christian,” it seems, may be a euphemism for the spiritual elite.
Every non-progressive is sexist and racist! Even the socialists are sexist and racist if they don’t agree with Jamie! I remind you that Jamie Manson is a Yale-educated partnered lesbian activist — salt of the earth — who studied under Sister Margaret Farley, a wingnut divine censured by the Vatican for writing a book that, among other things, bubbled that “many women” find “great good in self-pleasuring — perhaps especially in the discovery of their own possibilities for pleasure — something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers.”
Womyn of the people, they are. It’s … touching.
Manson writes for a newsletter esteemed by Catholics who don’t seem to like the actual Catholic Church, and its traditions and teachings. It’s strange that somebody like me, a former Catholic, almost certainly affirms more Catholic teaching on faith and morals than this Manson person. But that’s where we are.
Look, Manson’s lines about my rejecting the contributions of people of color are typical progressive blatherskite, but she is right that I am Eurocentric to my bones — if by “Eurocentric” you mean “loving the history and cultures of European nations.” I don’t see any reason to apologize for that, any more than someone (black, white, or whatever) who had a special love for African culture should apologize for being Afrocentric, or someone who felt that way about Chinese culture should feel bad for being Sinocentric. The problem would be in assuming that people outside the culture one loves, or who do not value it in the same way, or at all, have lesser moral worth as human beings. Which I emphatically do not believe. But you know how it goes: for white people like Manson, if you don’t hate your ancestors and their culture, you are a raaaaaaaacist.
You are also raaaaaaacist, and worse, if you, as a Christian, actively oppose idol-worship. Manson writes:
Reading this, I could not help but think of the Pachamama statues that were stolen from a Roman church and batted into the Tiber river during the Amazon Synod in October 2019. I was in Rome at the time and was both devastated and enraged by this act of desecration, which was not only racist and misogynist, it reasserted the neocolonial, white supremacist mentality that is at the root of the destruction of the Amazon and its native peoples.
Naturally, Manson is in a swivet over my tweet from February in which I met the guy who threw Pachamama idols into the Tiber, and expressed pleasure to have shaken his hand.
It’s always funny to see how progressives like Manson position themselves as tribunes of the people, but don’t seem to actually like those who don’t share their Ivy League graduate school view of the world. Tara Isabella Burton’s “Weird Christianity” phenomenon is a marginal thing by definition. Most American Catholics aren’t Latin mass devotees, true, but is it really the case that most US Catholics would identify with masturbating nuns and lesbian Catholic activists who prefer idol-worshiping syncretism to actual historical Catholicism? Hate to tell Manson, but her form of Christianity, if that’s what it is, is much weirder than what TIB writes about. But that’s the thing about progressives like her: they really do tell themselves that they speak for the People.
UPDATE: My Catholic TAC colleague Arthur Bloom’s remark on Manson’s column:
I’d say the phenomenon of weird young trads probably does have a lot to do with progressive lay leaders who speak and act like high school guidance counselors, which is the vision Manson evidently has for the Church
— Arthur Bloom (@j_arthur_bloom) May 12, 2020
leave a comment
Odd Church Covid-19 Divide
Law professor Mark Movsesian wonders why the congregations that have filed religious liberty lawsuits against governments barring them from meeting during Covid-19 are almost entirely Evangelicals, not Catholics or Orthodox.
He points out that you might expect otherwise, given the nature of what these rival traditions believe a church service is. Evangelicals put primacy on preaching the Word of God, which is something that can be done online — not ideally, but it can work in a pinch. Catholics and Orthodox believe that the core element of the worship service is receiving Holy Communion, which is something that can only be done in person. With this in mind, you would think Orthodox and Catholics would be leading the charge in courts to restore services. But in fact, the opposite is happening. Why? Excerpts:
It’s not clear why this should be, and the reasons are no doubt complicated, but I’ll offer a couple of possible explanations. First, Evangelical churches tend to be independent. They do not answer to hierarchies that can impose discipline on them, which means they have a certain freedom in deciding how to respond to government action. (It also means they cannot rely on hierarchies to cushion the financial impact of having to close down for a long period). Catholic and Orthodox churches are structured differently and, so far, the hierarchies have been willing to comply with restrictions on gatherings. In Brooklyn, for example, the Catholic Church has ordered a halt to all Masses; a priest who decided to celebrate Mass would no doubt hear from the local bishop. Indeed, the only case of which I am aware in which a non-Evangelical church has brought a constitutional challenge to one of these bans involves a schismatic Catholic parish in New Jersey.
Second, Evangelical culture may be more skeptical of government action, and authority more generally, than Catholic or Orthodox culture. Evangelicals are much more the heirs of the free-church tradition. In addition, especially in recent years, some Evangelicals have come to see themselves as besieged by bureaucrats who wish them no good—in this, Evangelicals sometimes have been correct—and they may see little reason to defer when those bureaucrats tell them they must stop gathering, while shopping malls can remain open. Catholics and Orthodox, by contrast, with their long histories of interconnectedness with state authority, may be less inclined to challenge the state when it says restrictions are necessary in the interests of public health—though that is not always the case.
I think there’s something to what Prof. Movsesian says. In fact, I think he’s completely correct about the hierarchical thing. If everybody in my Orthodox mission parish decided that we should take the government to court, it would go nowhere, because we would have no standing to sue on behalf of the Orthodox Church. According to our ecclesiology, that right rests with the bishop. I’ve been hearing from some Catholic friends reporting that within their congregations, there are people who are furious about the lockdown, who think it’s primarily a government power grab, and who would fight at the drop of a hat. But like us Orthodox, they have no standing in court. That, I think, primarily accounts for the lack of legal action from our churches, versus Evangelical congregations. You have to remember that all of us are Americans, formed by American popular culture. I don’t get the sense that the cultural memory of working with the state is particularly strong here, as opposed to in Europe.
What I can’t figure out, though, is whether my own personal view of the shutdown as a churchgoing Christian is particularly Orthodox, or just particular to me. This requires a bit of explanation.
For one thing, I don’t have any anxiety that the Orthodox Church is going to go away because we can’t meet on Sundays right now. The church has been here for 2000 years; it’s going to make it. I don’t mean to be complacent about our own little parish, which, as a small mission, needs everybody to pull together in a special way in this time. Still, in the long history of the Orthodox Church, which includes ages of persecution by conquering Islam, and Communism, this is barely a blip.
More to the point, Orthodox Christians are accustomed to times of deprivation, and using them for spiritual growth. It’s called fasting. In the Orthodox Church, Lent is a much bigger deal than it is in Western churches (at least in the case of Catholics, Western churches in the post-Vatican II era). The fasting requirement is strong, and the ethos of asceticism, of doing without, as an expression of penitence, is intense. In my case, I have regarded Covidtide as just such a season — an extension of Lent. As an ascetic discipline. This is why Covidtide seems not so abnormal to me as you might think. It is also the case that I don’t receive communion every week. In our church, as in most Orthodox churches (to my knowledge), the priest announces that you are expected to have fasted before communion, and to have had a recent confession — this, in preparation to receive it. Fasting before communion is not hard, but on the occasions when I haven’t been to confession in a few weeks, I don’t receive. So, going for as long as we have gone without receiving communion is painful, but again, our spiritual disciplines teach us to receive this suffering as a trial for spiritual upbuilding.
Finally, this Covid thing is showing me how much spending this past year studying the underground churches of the Soviet bloc has affected my understanding. These were people who had to figure out how to keep the faith under vastly more onerous conditions. Sometimes they couldn’t go to church. Sometimes they didn’t know if their priest or pastor was an informer (one Czech emigre I spoke with told me that growing up in Prague, he learned that a young priest he and other college students had turned to in confidence was in fact an informer; that tore him to bits). If they went to church, in many cases they had to assume that the state would know this, and their lives would be radically altered.
Yesterday, as I was going over my Live Not By Lies manuscript for the last time before turning it in officially, and marking it for footnotes, I found myself once again staggered by the faith of these heroes. Every one of them who was able to endure prison and torture — for years! — did so because they had an attitude of accepting it, and trying to see God’s will in it. For example, this short bit from my book about the incredible Silvester Krcmery, a Slovak Catholic:
“Do not be afraid and always act as you think Christ would act in your place and in a particular situation,” Father Kolakovic had taught his followers. When the secret police arrested Krcmery, he laughed, because he understood that he was being given the gift of suffering for Jesus.
In prison, Krcmery was denied a Bible, and found himself grateful that he had spent the past few years of freedom memorizing Scripture. Like other political prisoners, Krcmery endured repeated tortures. He had been trained to resist brainwashing, in the end, he relied on faith alone to guide his path. The more he surrendered in his weakness, the greater his spiritual strength.
The young doctor decided to unite his suffering with Christ’s, and to offer his pain as a gift to God, for the sake of other persecuted people. He believed that the Lord was allowing him to endure this trial for a reason – but he had to convince himself in the face of his agonies.
“Therefore I repeated again and again: ‘I am really God’s probe, God’s laboratory. I’m going through all this so I can help others, and the Church.”
Dr. Krcmery, and all these others, have been front to mind during Covidtide. I have tried to ask, of myself and of the churches, what God wants us to learn from this particular suffering. I assume, as Dr. Krcmery and the others all did, that God is allowing us to endure this trial so we can learn to rely on him more. More from my book:
In his 1996 memoir This Saved Us, Krcmery recalls that after repeated beatings, torture and interrogations, he realized that the only way he would make it through the ordeal ahead was to rely entirely on faith, not reason. He says he decided to be “like Peter, to close my eyes and throw myself into the sea.”
“In my case, it truly was to plunge into physical and spiritual uncertainty, an abyss, where only faith in God could guarantee safety,” he writes. “Material things which mankind regarded as certainties were fleeting and illusory, while faith, which the world considered to be ephemeral, was the most reliable and the most powerful of foundations.
“The more I depended on faith, the stronger I became.”
Personally, I have tried let the experiences of these brave men and women inform my response to this Covid trial. If we can’t make it through this without losing our heads, we are not going to be able to make it through actual persecution. It is possible that this attitude is too passive, and that we ought to be in court fighting. It’s possible that our churches are too tame. I don’t think so, because I don’t believe the virus is a political construct. It’s real, and the threat is real. I am eager to get our churches back open, but not at the expense of putting the weakest among our congregation at risk.
I see Covidtide as a dry run for a future time of living under persecution, when Christians aren’t allowed to meet for worship. The strategies we develop now, including the internal strategies of bearing with deprivation without falling apart, are going to be very important in the decades to come. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to go to court to push for the right to open up again. But I am saying that if that’s the only response you, as a Christian, have to this long coronavirus Lent, then you are missing a very important opportunity for necessary spiritual growth.
UPDATE: Reader Rhys Laverty, an Evangelical seminarian in England, offers a really insightful comment:
I think one element of the evangelical response is that, beholden as evangelicals are to “seeker-sensitivity”, evangelical services are often underscored by a palpable anxiety that people might stop listening. That anxiety has probably increased under lockdown.
You rightly point out that, in theory, evangelical churches should deal with online church better than other groups, because of the centrality of preaching. But preachers and service leaders are anxious at the best of times about keeping people’s attention, and that’s now a LOT harder when people are in their own homes and don’t have to worry about people shooting them a sideways glance for checking their phone. Evangelical churches have spent decades trying to make their services feel like visitors are sat in their own living rooms. Now, that’s exactly what everyone has. Why would they come back?
Such an anxiety doesn’t dog churches where the celebration of the Eucharist is central – partly because, as you say, Rome, the East, and even historic Reformed churches have a more palpable sense of enduring through the ages, due to their institutional history. Their sense of memory and identity is long and thick. Low-church evangelicals, however, rarely have a sense of history older than their pastor, oldest member, or building. For them, a sense of memory and identity is short and thin. When you’re the last in, you always live in the knowledge you might be first out.
But more liturgical churches are, I think, less bothered about being closed because what is central isn’t preaching and whether or not it’s being listened to, but the Eucharist and whether or not it’s being celebrated. In some sense, it doesn’t matter if people are there receiving it. It is happening, and that’s what matters.
leave a comment
Blue Blues, Blue Reds
Here’s a long criticism of the socialist Left by someone on the socialist Left. This author, a 32-year-old Afro-Swedish socialist named Malcom Kyeyune, is depressed over the uselessness of the Left today. If you’re not a Leftist, you might think there’s nothing in this essay for you. You would be wrong — it’s fascinating. He starts out with a sober realization:
All the details of the intervening decade are beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s fair to say that the left today is more broken and politically defunct than at any point since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, a case can be made that the crisis facing the left today is more serious than the crisis of the late 80s and early 90s. ”Left populism” as a political model has failed. Jeremy Corbyn has presided over the worst labour party showing in nearly a century. The ”Sanders moment” is over, and there’s no sequel to any of these failed left projects anywhere in sight. This decline is likely terminal and irreversible, because unlike the decline in the 90s, the left no longer has any significant working class support. In fact, with each new ”left revival” a la Corbyn, the constant bleeding of working class support only seems to accelerate. Comrade Bhaskar at Jacobin magazine touts the (in)famous AOC as the next new great presidential candidate and hope for global socialism, but anyone with an IQ somewhere north of the melting point of water – or at least, anyone who doesn’t have a paper he’s eagerly trying to sell you – knows that this is a truly desperate flight of fancy that will never come to pass, not in a million years.
Kyeyune is really mad at a certain kind of person within today’s Left. Here is the heart of his essay:
To start: as the economies in western countries have shifted over the past decades, a new sort of class of people has sprung up and grown in social and political importance. In the united states, the most common name for this class is PMCs; the professional-managerial classes. Their name is less important than their function and political trajectory. To brutally simplify things for the sake of brevity, the notable feature of many PMCs as political actors is a blend of political liberalism and cultural progressivism, merged with a political project aimed at increasingly subsidizing their own reproduction as a class, ideally by means of state transfers. The state should forgive student debt. The state should dabble in reparations. The state should hire ”ideas people” to write up reports and thinkpieces about reparations. The state should create new racial justice commissions, or just generally create more jobs that can employ people who by dint of belonging to this class feel that them taking a job at Walmart means that capitalism has failed and it’s time for a revolution. The most radical, put-upon and economically insecure parts of this class today naturally gravitate toward the left, because the left is – no matter what leftists delude themselves by saying – a fairly focused, competent and credible class project. When Corbyn came out of nowhere and became Labour party leader, it was a real grassroots movement that brought him there; a grassroots movement of students and people who either have ambition to move up the ladder or a legitimate fear of looming proletarianization, of falling down the social and economic ladder and finding themselves joining the proles.
The particular form of ”pro-worker” rhetoric these members of the PMC use mostly boils down to a sort of charity. Vote for us, and we’ll give you higher benefits and free broadband, Labour recently tried to tell the recalcitrant workers of the north. It didn’t work. This mode of ”charity” is hardly selfless – it would be a free ”gift” from these PMC activists given to their precious salt of the earth proletarians, and like all gifts it would be reliant on the goodwill and generosity of the giver. Its main function would also surely be to feather the ever growing number of nests for this class of comfortable, university-educated administrators. And when some leftists start seriously debating why ”racists” should be denied medical care from the NHS, one starts getting a sense of just how much hierarchical domination their future ”worker’s paradise” promises to deliver to the working poor.
The point here is not a moral one. After Labour lost, one exasperated member and activist despaired over how blind the workers were, how easily fooled they were by tory propaganda. ”Don’t they see how evil capitalism is? How brutal and unfair it is?”, this activist wrote: ”I have many friends with good grades who are stuck working at grocery stores, stocking shelves”. Anyone who pretends to be some sort of materialist cannot in good conscience make fun of sentiments like this; it is completely rational for someone in that position to think that ”the evils of capitalism” are somehow laid bare for the world to see when their friends are forced to stock shelves like a common peon in order to pay the rent. That the other workers at the grocery store probably find this way of thinking completely ludicrous and arrogant is obviously besides the point. Politically speaking, the fury and energy that proletarianization engenders should never be underestimated, because it causes political explosions. Jeremy Corbyn successfully challenged the political cartel that had been running Labour on the back of such a political explosion.
We should not make fun of an activist who despairs at the state of the world when good, solid middle class people with solid middle class grades can no longer achieve the middle class lifestyle they were promised. It is however a basic political truth that a worker’s movement consisting of people who are angry at the prospect social and economic ”demotion” – in other words, people who are fighting against the cruel fate of having to become workers – cannot ever succeed. Promising free broadband, or unlimited Space Communism, or some other stupid fantasy world where getting angry at having to work like a normal person is acceptable because nobody has to work won’t really change that.
Kyeyune says the truth is, Marxist analysis also applies to the Left — and that means that the PMCs and actual workers aren’t really allies. He says that if the Left wants to start winning, it should get rid of the cultural progressivism of the PMC class, and focus exclusively on economics. He’s tired of socialists losing because the middle and upper middle class young socialists actually can’t stand working people, think they’re crude and racists, and would consider having to do the kind of job that actual blue-collar workers do to be a demotion. Why would an actual worker want to ally with somebody who thinks that way about manual labor? Kyeyune writes, “Once you do away with the ballast and the social and economic neuroses of grad students and managerial aspirants, working people are actually surprisingly receptive to our message.”
Kyeyune’s prescriptions make more sense in Europe. I can’t see the base of US Democrats adopting socialism any time soon. But I do think the Democrats would stand a good chance at being a dominant national party if they would get rid of the identity politics, and focus on economics. But they can’t do it, because the elites who populate the broad party policy infrastructure are all 100 percent sold on identity politics. The Republicans could outflank the Democrats on the economic front if they would develop a muscly policy to help the working class, and care less about the ultrawealthy donors. And, if they didn’t have to run behind Donald Trump.
Kyeyune’s piece put me in mind of this powerhouse November 2019 piece by Julius Krein in the right-wing American Affairs, on “The Real Class War.” In the piece, Krein talks about how the actual working class is not in much of a position to set new paths in American politics, for various reasons. The interest in socialism and socialist-adjacent policies is a phenomenon of what Kyeyune calls the Professional-Managerial Class. Krein wrote this piece before the Democratic primaries, but the fact that Joe Biden, for all his weakness, is now going to be the Democratic nominee is a vindication of Krein’s thesis. More:
Another obstacle for left-wing upper-middle-class radicals is their own debilitating false consciousness, which easily exceeds the confusion frequently ascribed to the working class. Instead of frankly acknowledging their own professional class interests, they project their concerns onto the working class and present themselves as altruistic saviors—only to complain about a lack of working-class enthusiasm later. This blindness often prevents them from recognizing where their interests diverge from the purported beneficiaries of their projects and impedes their ability to effect any larger political realignment. It also exacerbates the temptation to double down on parts of the current paradigm—such as enlarging the NGO racket—which only strengthens the billionaires in the long term.
Krein is even harsher on the elites of the Right:
Conservative donor gatherings are somehow even more pathetic. Most of the attendees are there only because they are not smart enough to recognize that the Democratic Party offers a far more effective reputation laundering service. The rest are probably too senile to know where they are at all. There is often a special irony to these events: an uninspiring ideologue is usually on hand to repeat a decades-old speech decrying Communism—recounting the horrors experienced in countries ruled by a self-dealing, incompetent nomenklatura and marked by a decaying industrial base, crumbling infrastructure, poor education system, a demoralized populace, low confidence in public institutions, falling life expectancy, repeated foreign policy failures, a vast and arbitrary carceral system, constant surveillance, and even massive power outages in major cities. Imagine that.
The bold thinkers of Silicon Valley are at least as delusional. Mark Zuckerberg must be the only person in the world who still pretends to believe his self-serving banalities about “connecting people” through social media. Jeff Bezos publicly muses about the difficulty of finding a useful way to deploy his “financial lottery winnings,” while Amazon stations ambulances outside its warehouses to treat employees who collapse from exhaustion.
What is remarkable about today’s oligarchy is not its ruthlessness but its pettiness and purposelessness. An all-consuming megalomania might at least produce some great art as a side-effect. But this collection of mediocrities cannot even do that. Their political activities—whether pushing for a slightly lower tax rate or throwing money at a self-serving brand of faux progressivism—are too small-minded to be anything other than embarrassing. This class has no idea what to do with its wealth, much less the power that results from it. It can only withdraw and extract, socially and economically, while the political justifications for its existence melt away.
Ultimately, the question that will determine the future of American politics is whether the rest of the elite will consent to their continued proletarianization only to further enrich this pathetic oligarchy. If they do, future historians of American collapse will find something truly exceptional: capitalism without competence and feudalism without nobility.
Read it all. His point is that the future of American politics will be decided by elite competition within both parties: in a fight between the 0.1 percent, and the 10 percent.
Krein was an early intellectual supporter of Trump’s because, as he explained in this August 2017 New York Times piece, he really thought Trump had the right instincts about challenging the neoliberal economic and foreign policy consensus. He founded American Affairs as a pro-Trump intellectual magazine. But he eventually grew disgusted by Trump’s failures, and said (in the Times piece) that he regretted his vote.
The Covid-19 crisis is going to scramble our politics massively, but in the end, I believe that Krein is correct: whatever consequential changes in the direction of US politics is going to come from struggles among elites. James Davison Hunter, the sociologist, points out that all change is ultimately guided by elites and their networks. As Krein put it, the masses can vote for an outsider candidate, but that candidate can’t get anything done unless he has a network behind him, and knows how to use it. Trump doesn’t, and doesn’t know how to use what he does have. His has been a wasted presidency.
Anyway, these are some things to think about regarding the future of politics. It’s really difficult to see much to give hope or build confidence on either the Left or the Right these days. It’s not just the personalities of Biden and Trump. It’s the ideas, or lack thereof.
leave a comment
White House Masking
White House staff were told Monday they must wear a mask at all times when they enter or move around the building, after a coronavirus cluster started at the president’s home.
The directive went high up the chain – with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, an influential advisor to the president, donning a mask during a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also wore a mask, as did deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
‘Just about everybody has a face mask on,’ President Trump observed at the news conference, where the president used his own podium that he did not have to share with other officials who spoke.
So, tell me: how do those who loathe masks and love Trump reconcile this? If masks don’t have any effect at all on retarding the spread of the virus, why is everybody in the White House other than Trump (and possibly Pence) wearing a mask to work?
The Trumposphere is going to have a lot of cognitive dissonance to work through. I have every confidence that it will come through confidently. Maybe the Deep State has taken over even the White House, and the president is the only one holding out…