Slouching Towards Birmingham
A couple of my writer friends have weighed in today on the Roy Moore affair. While I generally agree with them, I want to make a couple of distinctions regarding the Benedict Option.
I’d say the siege mentality explains most of the dysfunctional group behavior these days, on left and right.
You see the siege mentality not just among evangelical Christians but also among the campus social justice warriors and the gun lobbyists, in North Korea and Iran, and in the populist movements across Europe.
The siege mentality starts with a sense of collective victimhood. It’s not just that our group has opponents. The whole “culture” or the whole world is irredeemably hostile.
From this flows a deep sense of pessimism. Things are bad now. Our enemies are growing stronger. And things are about to get worse. The world our children inherit will be horrific. The siege mentality floats on apocalyptic fear.
The odd thing is that the siege mentality feels kind of good to the people who grab on to it. It gives its proponents a straightforward way to interpret the world — the noble us versus the powerful them. It gives them a clear sense of group membership and a clear social identity. It offers a ready explanation for the bad things that happen in life.
Most of all, it gives people a narrative to express their own superiority: We may be losing, but at least we are the holy remnant. We have the innocence of victimhood. We are martyrs in a spiteful world.
I get this. It’s a fair description of a lot of people, both left and right. I think it’s what many critics of the Benedict Option think I’m trading in. (Not saying that David does; I’m just using his column to address this criticism I’ve heard from others.)
I do have a deep sense of pessimism about where the West is headed. I honestly don’t know how one cannot have that sense, even if one is not a particularly religious person. I know that is my disposition, that I’m prone to narratives of decline. Yet I believe my analysis is warranted by an objective look at the facts.
Because my religion is more important to me than anything else, I am especially concerned about the decline of Christianity in the West. I don’t know that the world our children will inherit will be “horrific,” but I am confident that it will be much harder to be a faithful orthodox (and Orthodox) Christian in it, on current trends. And I am confident too that secular liberalism — and a post-Christian secular conservatism — is going to be ever more hostile to orthodox religious believers.
Yes, it is possible to believe these things and to believe that it gives you an explanation for all the bad things that are happening to you and your kind, and that you think are going to happen. It is possible to see oneself as a “holy remnant,” a tribe of innocent victims. If you do this, you are bound to fall into a deep pit — especially if you enjoy this stuff. As a young teenager, I remember participating for a year or two in Evangelical “End Times” culture through my reading. It was, for me, exactly the way David describes the siege mentality. I got a weird thrill out of feeling that I was almost the only one in the know (because I knew exactly one other person, my best friend, who was also into End Times prophecy), and that I was going to be witness to the most dramatic years that humanity had ever seen — that is, until Jesus raptured me out.
It didn’t last. Burning out on that stuff cost me my faith for a few years, but I recovered. Whenever I write about the Benedict Option, I try hard to recall how I succumbed as a 12 and 13 year old to that siege mentality culture, and do my best to push back against it in my own mind, so I can keep my analysis as free of it as possible.
But it must be said that cultural pessimism is not always the ground of siege-mentality fanaticism. It is possible to believe that the movement of culture (economics, politics, social beliefs, technology, etc.) is leaving people like you and your kind especially vulnerable to various kinds of loss, and that to survive in the world fast coming upon us requires changing the way one lives. One is not fated to turn oneself into a fanatic, though it is absolutely a temptation to watch out for.
The way to lessen that temptation is to recognize, with Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. You have to seek humility, and practice accountability. You have to realize that there is no such thing as utopia, not this side of heaven. More on this shortly.
The destructive siege mentality David correctly identifies in the campus SJWs and the go-for-broke Roy Moore diehards, among many others, is a powerful force in our public life today. Nobody can deny it. From my perspective, though, looking at the Christian church in the US (and social conservatives more generally), there’s also a serious temptation to fail to perceive actual dangers because it doesn’t fit one’s preferred narrative. Americans are a deeply optimistic people, in part, I think, because for all our troubles, we have been blessed among the nations. We believe, I think, that somehow, God, or history, is going to pull us out of whatever pit we fall into. The myth of progress is strong with us.
To think that all pessimists — of the left, of the right, and otherwise — are guilty of false consciousness is itself a form of false consciousness. In fact, this next paragraph from Brooks expresses that:
The fact is, the siege mentality arises from overgeneralization: They are all out to get us. It shouldn’t be met with a counter-overgeneralization: Those people are all sick.
It should be met with confident pluralism. We have a shared moral culture, and some things are beyond the boundaries, like tolerating sexual harassment. But within the boundaries of our liberal polity, we’re going to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
I wish I had the confidence that “confident pluralism” would work, but I don’t, because I don’t believe we have a shared moral culture, not anymore, and I see no reason to believe that it’s going to get any better, because the forces driving our society — including technology — are pushing us further apart, and making us more hostile and suspicious. We are re-tribalizing, and that is both a symptom of liberalism’s weakness, and a driver of its decline. To me, believing that we are all headed for a more peaceful, cooperative, mutually tolerant future requires an Olympic-level leap of faith.
This was the premise that many of us who supported the Iraq War based our backing on — I mean, that the Iraqis wanted liberal democracy, and were capable of it. It was not true, and people all over the Middle East paid a heavy price for our delusion. Liberal democracy is not the natural state of man, and was only achieved in the West after a great deal of struggle and cultural evolution. We are losing our capacity to sustain it today. Donald Trump only a symptom of deep weakness in technologically advanced, secular, consumerist, pluralistic, liberal democratic culture. I agree with Brooks that in principle we have more in common than dividing us, but the common ground shrinks every day, and certainly our ability to perceive what we have in common is more and more difficult.
Take a look at this Jim VanDeHei item about political polarization — and be sure to see the Pew graphic showing how far, and how fast, we have come apart. Excerpt:
- Newt Gingrich, in the early 1990s, weaponized warfare politics in a methodical and sustained way. In tactics and rhetoric, Gingrich ushered in a good-versus-evil style that persists today.
- Fox News, created in 1996, televised and monetized this hard-edged combat politics. This created the template for MSNBC to do the same on the left, giving both sides a place to fuel and fund rage 24/7. CNN soon went all politics, all day, making governance a show in need of drama.
- Facebook and later Twitter, both products of the post-2000 Internet revolution, socialized rage and argument. Now every nut with an opinion could find fans and followers to cheer/egg him or her on. This happened as the middle in politics was officially purged from Congress.
- John McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, celebritized rage politics. Until that moment, Republicans typically picked conventional, next-in-line candidates. Palin, made for cable and social media, was the precursor to Trump.
- Facebook, starting in 2015 with command of so much of most voters’ time and attention, algorithm-ized rage. The more emotion you felt and sought, the more the news-feed machine pumped at you. With no one looking, fake news was born and metastasizing.
- Twitter + Trump, starting in 2016, habitualized and radicalized the moment-by-moment rage and reaction of politicians, voters and the media. This created more froth and more fog and resulted in a spike of people who don’t believe real news, much less the fake news pulsing through the system.
Now all of this has been institutionalized. No wonder people don’t trust, like or believe politicians — or often each other.
This six-point sketch has to do with politics, but I’m pretty confident most of these points could be modified to explain how we have become so separated in a variety of categories. I don’t think the “good vs. evil” strategy that seems general in our culture started with Newt Gingrich. What about the Bork hearings, when the Democrats practiced scorched-earth character assassination to stop a judicial nominee? I don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat chronology, but my sense is that the source of our decline into moral absolutism was the changes that came upon society in the 1960s, combined with the stark rise in emotivism from that period till now. I watched a couple of nights ago the new Netflix documentary about Joan Didion, and was reacquainted with her great book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which dwells on the culture coming apart in the late 1960s. It was all there, and boy do I wish Didion were young and out reporting on this new wave of atomization and directionlessness.
The point is that both sides do it because it works — and that it works because tectonic changes in our culture, especially driven by technology and economics, have acculturated us to it.
If our pluralism is no longer confident, it’s because everybody has a sense that the guardrails are coming off, the future is up for grabs, and those who are not like us are a threat to us — because with the state becoming ever more powerful in American life, those who control the state really might be. That, and the fact that so many people are economically insecure, and they have little reason to think that society’s elites care about their fate. In my Benedict Option book and talks, I discuss the concept of “liquid modernity,” and how it has turned humanity from pilgrims into tourists. That is to say, we have lost the idea that we are all going on a purposeful journey in the same direction, and instead consider ourselves to be individuals moving here and there as our will takes us, regarding others as strangers we just happen to run into along the way (and sometimes as threats to our being able to go where we want to go).
And look, here’s an important point, one made with pungent clarity by the political theorist Patrick Deneen in his forthcoming book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which Yale University Press has just wisely decided to offer at a much lower price ($27): we have arrived at this point because the logic of liberalism destined it.
A lot of pundits are going to be talking about this book when it appears in January, and there’s no pundit whose reaction I look forward to more than David Brooks’s. I hope he reads it.
The second piece from today that I want to talk about is David French’s piece about “the enduring appeal of creepy Christianity.”
Speaking broadly, there are two great, competing temptations that tug at the Christian Church. Both of them are based on the fear of man.
The first is the one that the theologically orthodox discuss and battle the most: the temptation to forsake Christian doctrine to seek the approval of a hostile culture. This is the old argument that the world would embrace the Church if only the Church were more like the world. It is embraced by much of Mainline Protestantism, and it’s the path to religious extinction. In the effort to appeal to the world, the Church becomes the world, and the logic for its distinct existence disappears. Thus the rapid decline of denomination after denomination that has decided to essentially merge with America’s secular culture.
The second temptation is one that attracts the theologically orthodox: the temptation to run toward a form of hyper-legalism as a firewall to protect your family from the sins of the world. Mothers and fathers are desperate for a way to guarantee that their children will grow up to love the Lord. They want to build high walls against sin, so they seek to create distinct communities that are free of the world’s filth and moral compromise.
This second temptation is pernicious. Theologically, it fundamentally denies a very uncomfortable scriptural truth: that this side of heaven we can’t eliminate uncertainty or temptation. We “see through a glass darkly.” We simply don’t have all the answers — for raising children, for sustaining a successful marriage, for thriving in our careers, or for responding to sickness and adversity.
French — who is a conservative Evangelical — discusses how that culture is particularly susceptible to leaders and schemes that promise a surefire way to escape the world’s corruption. More:
Christians — especially the most politically engaged Christians — have been so often mocked and attacked by a secular culture that despises not just the Church’s excesses but also the central messages of the Bible that we are reflexively defensive. When scandalous accusations come, we don’t want “our side” to look bad. We want Hollywood to be the home of the predators, and ours the home of the righteous. But there is no “our side.” There is only Christ’s side, and He taught us clearly that there will be good and evil within the Church. The ancient enemy attacks God’s people from without and from within. The good seed and the bad seed grow up together. There is no perfect community.
This is a very important truth, and the way David articulates it from within Evangelicalism helps me understand why so many Evangelicals have reacted strongly against the Benedict Option without really knowing what it’s about: it sounds to them like one more version ofthe false belief that we can build a surefire wall to keep out the evil world.
Let me say clearly here — because I can’t say it enough — that this is not what the Benedict Option claims. But here again, I believe there is another temptation that anti-fundamentalist conservative Christians can fall victim to: the belief that because Christian communities that try to keep out all evil are doomed to decline into fanatical legalism, therefore we should not try to stand apart from the broader culture in any way. This sometimes manifests itself in Christians telling themselves that “we have to be salt and light,” and therefore we have to be willing to live like the rest of the world. It’s very, very easy to drift into assimilationism, while rationalizing what you’re doing as evangelically faithful.
As David Brooks rightly says in his piece, we are living through a time of great transition and uncertainty. In an essay on the 1960s published in her collection titled The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that “the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies.” Didion was born in 1934, the same year as my father; they were not the Baby Boom generation. Didion made that observation in 1970, so it wasn’t then as banal as it now strikes us. It seems to me that we are living through a period as tumultuous in its way as the 1960s, though thankfully not one that (so far) features violence in the streets. This is the first time that I, born in 1967, have felt so strongly that the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies. Didion’s work has always had in it a sense of impending social collapse. I remember visiting San Francisco back in 2006, a couple of years after having read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I found it impossible to trust the blue skies and mild weather as anything but a veil masking doom. Reading that Didion book (cool journalistic accounts of the late 1960s counterculture in the Bay Area) will do that to you. If you’ve ever seen a Didion quote, it’s likely this one from The White Album:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
We have to learn to tell ourselves a different story in order to live through this time without losing ourselves. Or, to put a fine point on it for us Christians, we have to learn how to tell ourselves the old stories in a different way, if we want to hold on to them at all. The story that sustains faith in Roy Moore despite everything is a lie. There is no future to be built upon it. But that’s not the only contemporary narrative that contains within it a fatal delusion.