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Belshazzar Feasting Inside The Beltway

Making Babylon Great Again, as depicted by Rembrandt, in a painting titled "Belshazzar's Feast" (dvdbramhall/Flickr)

Over the weekend, the Family Research Council held its annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. It is an opportunity for conservative politicians to speak to politically engaged conservative Evangelicals. Donald Trump spoke to them — the first sitting US president ever to do so. They also heard from ex-Trump White House staffers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.

From what I’ve read of the event, it further solidified the unqualified support by the Religious Right for Donald Trump and his movement.

“This is not my war,” Bannon said in his speech. “This is our war.” Cheers from the audience.

Later, he told the audience: “The most important thing is an authentic candidate. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Judge Moore — this is who you ought to vote for.”

Fascinating. Bannon advises voting not on principles, but on “authenticity,” which is an extremely slippery concept. Don’t let the word pass without pondering it in light of philosopher Charles Taylor’s insights into what he calls the Age of Authenticity. Excerpt from an interview:

spiked review: You mention the importance of aesthetic expression, and Nietzsche even argued that we should make ourselves works of art – why has the aesthetic been so central to modern ideas of selfhood?

Taylor: You can see how there’s a very deep interweaving, coming from the Romantic period, of the ethic of authenticity on the one hand, and the elevation of the aesthetic on the other. So when people began to work out the ideal of authenticity at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century, there was also a corresponding emphasis on originality in art. This was new. If you go back far enough, when people made religious icons, they were craftsmen. They had no sense of their work being original or even that it would be good if it was original. Their products weren’t supposed to be original; they were supposed to be artefacts. And this has been totally overturned during the past two centuries. We now admire art, or music, or poetry not for its craftsmanship – the extent to which it realises a template – but for its originality. So you can see the interweaving of the aesthetic with the ethic of authenticity. The seeds were there from the very beginning.
So it’s possible, if you look at ethics in the broad sense of what the good life is about, then people can say that the good life is really about this superior self-expression, of being original, rather than about what you might call morality, which is doing the right thing by other people. Indeed, for someone like Nietzsche, morality, doing right by others, gets in the way of what he sees as the real substance of the good life, which is self-realisation, becoming an Übermensch and so on. I think you can see that that’s part of the whole turn in modern culture, which promotes the aesthetic to the highest possible position.

This speech, and its rousing acceptance by the audience, reveals the extent to which Christian conservatives are entirely creatures of liquid modernity, and the system of lies that they tell themselves they oppose. What connects the sybaritic billionaire and serial liar Donald J. Trump to the fire-breathing Alabama fundamentalist Roy Moore? It’s not principles, heaven knows; it’s “authenticity.” But authentically what? Themselves? But what does that mean? Christians are supposed to judge the authentic self by the standard of Christ-likeness. That’s not what’s happening here. “Authenticity,” in this context, seems to mean “hated by the people you hate.” It is entirely aesthetic, without ethical substance. So, the political good, in the eyes of these political Christians, is about solidifying a sense of identity, and using it for the sake of gaining political power.

How is this not nihilism?

Bannon and Gorka talked of the “war” they are waging on the GOP establishment. Reflecting on his and Bannon’s exile from the White House, Gorka said, with relish: “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens, as people unfettered by being part of the U.S. government.”

This is a gathering of Christians, mind you, and this is the kind of rhetoric they’re cheering. True, it’s a political event, so one shouldn’t expect it to have the politeness of a church meeting. But this is the vision that many politically active Christians on the Right have embraced, this wrathfulness. I’m not talking about Christians who reluctantly voted for Trump last fall as the lesser evil. I’m talking about Christians who gleefully embrace the man and what he stands for. The Evangelical Christian writer and literature professor Alan Jacobs said something important about this kind of thing in his interview with Emma Green:

Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?

Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.

I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

So do I. Look, there’s a lot to be angry at, but this is a fatal trap. I lived through wrathfulness — righteous anger over the sex abuse crisis — destroying my Catholic faith, and very nearly destroying my faith in Jesus Christ, period. Wrathfulness can destroy a society. In Dante’s Purgatorio — the second book of the Divine Comedy — the pilgrim Dante encounters Marco the Lombard, a man who is having the tendency to wrathfulness purged from his soul. Dante comes from a world that has been torn apart from wrathfulness unleashed. City has turned on city, families have turned on families, the entire fabric of society in 14th century Tuscany has been shredded. The pilgrim Dante asks Marco for wisdom that he can take back to the world of the living to help them out of this particular dark wood.

As I once wrote about the meaning of this canto, Marco tells Dante that wrathfulness has blinded everyone to the truth. They came to believe that they had no control over their emotions, and gave their emotions liberty, as if it were fated. In fact, God gave us free will, and we not only have control over our emotions, but we also have responsibility for them. Says Marco:

“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,

in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”

What Marco means is that if you want to understand why the world around you is so messed up, look into your own heart. It’s not because of outside forces beyond our control. It’s primarily because of moral choices we have made. If you want to repair the world, start by changing your own heart.

But it doesn’t stop there. From my post about this canto:

But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as baabies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.

The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.

Yesterday I blogged about this in a non-Dante post. I’m talking here about new research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team, in which they examine the collapse among US Catholic Millennials of a basic understanding of Roman Catholic teaching and institutional loyalty. Like their counterparts in other churches, these young people are Catholics in name only. You may blame them for their ignorance and unbelief, and you would be right. But that’s not the whole story. The failure of Catholic institutions — families, parishes, schools — played a big role:

The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.

Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.

It’s not only the churches, obviously. But if you ask me, there is no more important failure than in the churches and in families.


Dante seems to be telling us to discipline our own hearts and make them beacons of virtue, and many around us will find their way to the path of righteousness and concord. That’s an easy message for us Americans to grasp. What is much more difficult for us to grasp is Dante’s insistence that there is a public obligation to create a habitus, through secular and sacred institutions, in which people, especially the young, are educated toward virtue. This is a bedrock traditional conservative belief, but it goes against our disposition toward conceiving of public life in individualistic and libertarian ways. Thus the moral thinness in our public life, and, increasingly, a moral thinness in private life as well. We will get what we are — and the fault for that is not in our stars, but in our individual and collective selves.

Wrath blinds us to this. Anger is a dark cloud of unknowing, and what we who are lost in it do not know are ourselves.

Our true selves. Our authentic selves — which, as I’ve said, has a particular meaning for Christians. In their wrathfulness at the left, and their eagerness to take power to punish the left, these politically engaged Christians have bound themselves and their imaginations to a cause that makes a mockery of what they profess to believe.

Back in 2009, the late Michael Spencer prophesied what he called “the coming Evangelical collapse.” Among the reasons Evangelicalism was going to collapse, said Spencer:

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap ofbelieving in a cause more than a faith.

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

To repeat Christian Smith’s warning: “We will get what we are.” Christian Science Monitor story last week  discussed the falling-away of younger Evangelicals from the faith, much of it driven by alienation from their churches’ political activism, and stance on LGBT issues. As readers know, I firmly embrace Christian orthodoxy on sexuality, and I do not believe churches can afford to compromise. More important, though, is the fact that conservative churches have by and large done a very poor job of teaching their young not only what the Bible expects of them on this front, but why it does. No wonder young Evangelicals (and Catholics) think Biblical orthodoxy looks “mean” and hard to reconcile with a loving god.

What’s happening to conservative Evangelicalism is a tragedy. These Values Voters summiteers really do seem to think they are going to vote in the Kingdom. They really do seem to believe that political warfare with the left is where the real battle is. Meanwhile, the inner strength and the public witness of the churches is falling apart. Those Christians that welcome this nationalistic, power-craving wrathfulness into their hearts — “Make Babylon Great Again” —  have traded principle for “authenticity,” and thus have become not an answer to the crisis of our time, but a part of it. Tim Alberta, reporting on the conference for Politico:

[A]nyone expecting the evangelical right to shy away from Trump world’s hardball approach to politics hasn’t been paying attention the past 18 months. Many Christian voters embraced Trump not despite his provocative style but because of it, betting on a brash street brawler to win the culture battles they had been losing for generations. And their faith has been rewarded: From abortion policy to religious liberty to judicial appointments, Trump has delivered for social conservatives more than any other constituency, making them the unlikely cornerstone of his coalition.

With political victory, however, has come the loss of moral high ground for a faithful whose church-averse champion personifies much of what their scripture condemns. It’s a trade-off plenty of conservative Christians, reeling from eight years in which they felt ostracized and demeaned by Obama, the media and popular culture, have proven eager to accept.

Bannon and Gorka are now throwing the full weight of their populist movement behind Moore in Alabama—a candidate who connects viscerally with faith voters on the basis of his objection to the physical removal of God’s presence from American life. If he wins the Senate seat, a spiritual renaissance in America is unlikely to result. But something else will: a deepening alliance between economic nationalists and social conservatives, two distinct tribes that are growing codependent in the era of Trump. As Perkins now sees it, Republicans will win elections only by merging these factions—hence his inviting Bannon and Gorka to speak.

The president is right when he says, in the context of culture wars, that the times are changing. But it’s not just about Christians pursuing the return of a bygone, pious America. It’s about what they are willing to sacrifice to get there.

We will get what we are. For Christians today, this message is the “mene, mene, tekel upharsin” — the “writing of the wall” at Belshazzar’s feast.

UPDATE: From Jane Mayer’s profile of Mike Pence in the New Yorker:

“Trump thinks Pence is great,” Bannon told me. But, according to a longtime associate, Trump also likes to “let Pence know who’s boss.” A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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