The Divine Marilynne Robinson
It has taken me a day or two to get around to reading Robert Long’s TAC essay on the writer Marilynne Robinson. If you haven’t seen it yet, rush right over. It’s about her liberal Christianity, and why so many conservatives love her anyway. Long discusses how Robinson is quite hostile to conservative politics. Excerpt:
Conservatives are taken aback by the bracing tone here. As Mattix contends, when Robinson turns her eye on contemporary politics, her typical nuance and generosity can fail her. In her anger at what she sees as depredation, Robinson caricatures conservatism as a bundle of jingoism, mean-spiritedness, and tribalism, dismissing out of hand the notion that Christians who are conservative espouse limited government because they believe it best secures not only liberty but also prosperity—including prosperity for the poor.
Yet the caricature, if uncharitable, is at least understandable—just consider the willingness of Republicans to cut food stamps, but not corporate welfare, from the recent farm bill. As Robinson writes in When I Was a Child, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.”
Asked about “compassionate conservatism” and whether a Christian can fulfill the duties of love while being skeptical of government redistribution, she tells TAC:
Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.
I totally respect that position, which is not to say I entirely agree with it. But see, Robinson and I could have a conversation, and work together, across political and religious lines. Robinson is undeniably a serious Christian; it is impossible to read her work and fail to get this. One reason her writing resonates so much with me is that there is so much wisdom and depth in it. What I usually associate with liberal Christianity is the Democratic Party at prayer, or a light theological gloss on the Left’s cultural politics. (Interestingly, in American Grace, Putnam & Campbell cite studies showing that liberal Christian pulpits are more politicized than conservative Christian pulpits.) That’s not Robinson. Whatever her views on economics or sexuality or cultural politics, you get the idea that she arrives at them as a result of her prior religious commitment, which cannot be reduced to a set of opinions. It should be like that for all of us, but as Putnam & Campbell discerned in their study, Americans tend to pick churches that suit their political views, not the other way around.
For me, Marilynne Robinson serves as a corrective from the leftish side of Christianity in the same way that Pope Francis does. That is, she challenges me to rethink my positions, and to go deeper into my understanding of my Christian faith and its implications for living in the world. She told Robert Long:
Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat.
That’s true and important — and it’s also something many liberal Christians need to hear.
Question for the room: if you are someone who counts yourself as a conservative or traditionalist religious believer, are there any voices from the liberals in your faith that you take seriously, and listen to? Likewise, if you are a liberal within your faith tradition, are there any conservative or traditionalist voices that speak to you, and serve to challenge you in a constructive way? If so, who are they, and what is it about them that captures your attention and respect?