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Rome, Reformation, & Right Now

Donald Trump: American Luther? American Caesar?
trump caesar

I thought the Republican debate last night went better than expected, absent Donald Trump sucking all the air out of the room. It didn’t make me like any of the candidates any better, but it felt more like a real debate than these events have been. I did come away with these thoughts:

  • What a shame that Rand Paul hasn’t done better in this campaign.
  • Alan Keyes + Jeff Spicoli + 2 Demerols + 1 Jack & Coke = Dr. Ben Carson
  • Chris Christie will make an excellent Attorney General in the next GOP administration
  • Ted Cruz is cold, dark, calculating, intelligent, ideological to the fingertips — and therefore very troubling. I cannot shake the image of him trolling suffering Middle Eastern Christians for the sake of boosting his appeal to Evangelicals. I see him and an insult Churchill directed to a rival comes to mind: “He would make a drum out of the skin of his mother to sing his own praises.”
  • Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have learned nothing from Iraq. Nothing. All this talk about how under the leadership, the US is going to go in and bite the heads off of ISIS and suck their brains out, etc. — all of that requires going back to war in the Middle East. Is that really what they are proposing? If so, let’s hear the rationale. And Cruz’s line about how he’s going to carpet bomb the Mideast to rid it of ISIS — really? You’re going to wipe out tens of thousands of innocent people for this cause? Cruz’s lines attempting to link ISIS’s success to the material decline of the US military was outrageous — as if ISIS succeeded because the US wasn’t spending enough money on defense. But it tells us that a Cruz administration will mean a windfall for defense contractors.
  • Cruz saying that he was going to be the Second Coming of Reagan, and was going to cut taxes and get the economy moving again, so all boats can rise. It is eternally 1980 with these ideologues. They have no answer at all for our economy.
  • I believe Rubio said that in his overarching plan, we would work with Sunnis in the region to construct some sort of stable, post-ISIS political entity, and we would train anti-ISIS Syrians to fight the radicals. What world has Marco Rubio been living in? Did he not see that the US spent $500 million trying to train those anti-ISIS Syrians, and we only found four of them? Has Rubio not seen how well our attempts at state-building have gone in Iraq?

Maybe Donald Trump hurt himself after all by not showing up. I guess the caucuses will tell us. What last night’s event told me, though, is that with Cruz and Rubio, we pretty much get the same old GOP stuff, just a different election cycle.

Let’s turn to David Brooks’s column today, which focuses on a speech that the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron recently gave, about the future of Britain. In it, Cameron said (or Brooks implies that he said) that the usual Left-Right solution to this kind of thing — wealth redistribution downwards, or cutting taxes to free up the market so all boats can rise — no longer work. From his column:

Cameron called for a more social approach. He believes government can play a role in rebuilding social capital and in healing some of the traumas fueled by scarcity and family breakdown.

He laid out a broad agenda: Strengthen family bonds with shared parental leave and a tax code that rewards marriage. Widen opportunities for free marital counseling. Speed up the adoption process. Create a voucher program for parenting classes. Expand the Troubled Families program by 400,000 slots. This program spends 4,000 pounds (about $5,700) per family over three years and uses family coaches to help heal the most disrupted households.

Cameron would also create “character modules” for schools, so that there are intentional programs that teach resilience, curiosity, honesty and service. He would expand the National Citizen Service so that by 2021 60 percent of the nation’s 16-year-olds are performing national service, and meeting others from across society. He wants to create a program to recruit 25,000 mentors to work with young teenagers.

To address concentrated poverty, he would replace or revamp 100 public housing projects across the country. He would invest big sums in mental health programs and create a social impact fund to unlock millions for new drug and alcohol treatment.

It’s an agenda that covers the entire life cycle, aiming to give people the strength and social resources to stand on their own. In the U.S. we could use exactly this sort of agenda. There is an epidemic of isolation, addiction and trauma.

Read the whole thing. Brooks goes on to say that the GOP desperately needs to take this “Burkean” approach to repairing the social fabric. I think he’s right, but I also think that is not remotely adequate to the problem we face. The State can help economically, but it simply cannot do the work of culture.

The State cannot make people stop having babies out of wedlock. The State cannot make people stay married. The State cannot reweave family bonds. The State cannot make people believe in God, and order their lives accordingly. And so forth. This is not to say that there is no role for the State, of course, only that its ability to help is largely at the margins. That’s not nothing — but it’s not nearly enough.

I’ve been reading this week historian Brad Gregory’s study The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society. I had imagined it to be a somewhat polemical book that blamed the Reformation for all our modern woes. That was dumb of me. It’s a genealogy of ideas and events that led to our current condition.

It didn’t start with the Reformation. The ideas that laid the intellectual groundwork for the Reformation sprung out of Catholic theological debate two centuries earlier. The corruption of the Catholic Church, and the arrogant refusal of its leaders to heed calls to reform before it was too late, were very real and present. Luther had reason. He had the intellectual framework in place, and he had emotional cause: the utter rot within the Roman Catholic establishment.

That doesn’t make the Reformation right, of course, but one does see how it was all but inevitable. Once the break happened, it proved impossible to contain the forces unleashed. “Sola scriptura” proved an impossible standard for building a new church, because various Reformation leaders had their own ideas about what the Bible “clearly” said. The fracturing of the Reformation, and the arguments among various theological factions, were there from the beginning.

And the savagery with which Catholics and Protestants went at each other was horrifying. The Wars of Religion were catastrophic, and in Gregory’s telling, compelled exhausted Europeans to try to figure out a way to keep the peace. This required a strong state that kept religious passions in check. At the same time, the rise of science, and the blind obstinacy of the Roman church in unnecessarily holding on to Aristotelian categories for understanding the natural world, created the false belief that religion is opposed to science. And on and on, through the Enlightenment, down to the present day.

There’s a lot more to it than I’ve said here. It’s a very complex story, and certainly not one with a straight-line cause, e.g., “If not for nominalism and univocity, none of this would have happened;” “If not for the Reformation, none of this would have happened.” The point I wish to make here is that Gregory does a great job in showing how the interaction of ideas, events, and plain human folly, served to drive God out of the public square. He also makes it clear that the secular liberal narrative of uncomplicated Progress because of this is hopelessly naive. The Enlightenment tried to build a binding public ethic around Reason, but ran into the same problem that the Reformation did: who decides what counts as “reasonable”? As Gregory writes:

‘Sola ratio’ has not overcome the problem that stemmed from ‘sola scriptura,’ but rather replicated it in a secular, rationalist register. Attempts to salvage modern philosophy by claiming that it is concerned with asking questions rather than either finding or getting closer to finding answers might make sense – if one just happens to like asking questions in the same way that thirsty people just like seeking water rather than locating a drinking fountain, or indeed having any idea whether they are getting closer to one.

The point of this post — and of Gregory’s book — is certainly not to blame the Reformers. What good would that do, anyway? Nor is it to say, “The Renaissance Popes made us do it!” Again, that is pointless now. The thing to learn from this study is how ideas have consequences — and not just ideas, but ideas as they are taken up by real people in particular circumstances.

Gregory’s book makes very clear that the Reformers would have been horrified by what became of their revolution, just as the Franciscan friars Duns Scotus and William of Ockham would likely have been appalled by what their ideas — univocity and nominalism — brought about. They all meant well. One has much less sympathy for the leaders of the Roman church, who sat back enriching themselves while the faith for which they were responsible fell into radical discredit by their own corruption. Had they foreseen where all this would lead, they surely would have repented before it was too late.

Or not. As Kierkegaard says, the trouble with life is it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.

The unwinding we’re all seeing now is the cumulative effect of forces that have been gathering for a very long time. We are living through the failure of liberalism (in the classical, 19th century sense) because we have become incapable of stable self-government. We are coming apart because there is no center around which we can all rally. John Adams famously wrote

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

It is wishful thinking to believe that Christianity can, at this point, stop the forces of disintegration and dissolution moving through American society and culture. Christianity can hardly protect itself from the same (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with a nominally Christian face predominates). We are living through, and will continue to live through, the political consequences of Christianity’s demise as the guiding vision of our society, and its replacement with radical individualism. I point you to this 1989 essay in The Atlantic by political scientist Glenn Tinder, who wrote of the political meaning of Christianity. Excerpts:

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.


… The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason—a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. Here I cannot be as disarming as I hope I was in the paragraph above, for underlying my argument is the conviction that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Granted, it has sometimes played a constructive role. It has translated certain Christian values into secular terms and, in an age becoming increasingly secular, has given them political force. It is doubtful, however, that it could have created those values or that it can provide them with adequate metaphysical foundations. Hence if Christianity declines and dies in coming decades, our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril. But I recognize that if secular rationalism is far more dependent on Christianity than its protagonists realize, the converse also is in some sense true. The Enlightenment carried into action political ideals that Christians, in contravention of their own basic faith, often shamefully neglected or denied. Further, when I acknowledged that there are respectable grounds for disagreeing with my argument, I had secular rationalism particularly in mind. The foundations of political decency are an issue I wish to raise, not settle.


If the denial of the God-man has destructive logical implications, it also has dangerous emotional consequences. Dostoevsky wrote that a person “cannot live without worshipping something.” Anyone who denies God must worship an idol—which is not necessarily a wooden or metal figure. In our time we have seen ideologies, groups, and leaders receive divine honors. People proud of their critical and discerning spirit have rejected Christ and bowed down before Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or some other secular savior.

When disrespect for individuals is combined with political idolatry, the results can be atrocious. Both the logical and the emotional foundations of political decency are destroyed. Equality becomes nonsensical and breaks down under attack from one or another human god. Consider Lenin: as a Marxist, and like Marx an exponent of equality, under the pressures of revolution he denied equality in principle—except as an ultimate goal- and so systematically nullified it in practice as to become the founder of modern totalitarianism. When equality falls, universality is likely also to fall. Nationalism or some other form of collective pride becomes virulent, and war unrestrained. Liberty, too, is likely to vanish; it becomes a heavy personal and social burden when no God justifies and sanctifies the individual in spite of all personal deficiencies and failures.

The idealism of the man-god does not, of course, bring as an immediate and obvious consequence a collapse into unrestrained nihilism. We all know many people who do not believe in God and yet are decent and admirable. Western societies, as highly secularized as they are, retain many humane features. Not even tacitly has our sole governing maxim become the one Dostoevsky thought was bound to follow the denial of the God-man: “Everything is permitted.”

This may be, however, because customs and habits formed during Christian ages keep people from professing and acting on such a maxim even though it would be logical for them to do so. If that is the case, our position is precarious, for good customs and habits need spiritual grounds, and if those are lacking, they will gradually, or perhaps suddenly in some crisis, crumble.


To what extent are we now living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished? To what extent are those savings already severely depleted? Again and again we are told by advertisers, counselors, and other purveyors of popular wisdom that we have a right to buy the things we want and to live as we please. We should be prudent and farsighted, perhaps (although even those modest virtues are not greatly emphasized), but we are subject ultimately to no standard but self-interest. If nihilism is most obvious in the lives of wanton destroyers like Hitler, it is nevertheless present also in the lives of people who live purely as pleasure and convenience dictate.

And aside from intentions, there is a question concerning consequences. Even idealists whose good intentions for the human race are pure and strong are still vulnerable to fate because of the pride that causes them to act ambitiously and recklessly in history. Initiating chains of unforeseen and destructive consequences, they are often overwhelmed by results drastically at variance with their humane intentions. Modern revolutionaries have willed liberty and equality for everyone, not the terror and despotism they have actually created. Social reformers in the United States were never aiming at the great federal bureaucracy or at the pervasive dedication to entertainment and pleasure that characterizes the welfare state they brought into existence. There must always be a gap between intentions and results, but for those who forget that they are finite and morally flawed the gap may become a chasm. Not only Christians but almost everyone today feels the fear that we live under the sway of forces that we have set in motion—perhaps in the very process of industrialization, perhaps only at certain stages of that process, as in the creation of nuclear power—and that threaten our lives and are beyond our control.

There is much room for argument about these matters. But there is no greater error in the modern mind than the assumption that the God-man can be repudiated with impunity. The man-god may take his place and become the author of deeds wholly unintended and the victim of terrors starkly in contrast with the benign intentions lying at their source. The irony of sin is in this way reproduced in the irony of idealism: exalting human beings in their supposed virtues and powers, idealism undermines them. Exciting fervent expectations, it leads toward despair.

Read the whole thing.

And then read Damon Linker’s essay today about the political meaning of Donald Trump. He begins by discussing how democracies need mediating institutions to work. And those mediating institutions must have the confidence of leaders and the led. The system requires people to trust their institutions. Linker:

As this week’s events have demonstrated, the [political] gatekeeping process only works if the candidates accept Fox’s legitimacy to serve in that role [as a media gatekeeper for what is legitimate to say on the Right]. With his prodigious use of Twitter, remarkable capacity to generate publicity for himself in more traditional media outlets, and willingness to make strident demands and stick to them, Donald Trump is testing the power of this institution like no one before him. When the Republican candidate leading in every national and most state polls not only refuses to participate in a debate hosted by the most powerful media outlet on the right but actually organizes a competing event designed to undermine the legitimacy of the official debate, that’s an act of outright insubordination against the prevailing political norms and institutions of civil society.

It’s also an act that exposes how little formal power such norms and institutions ever really possess. They gain their force solely from our collective willingness to abide by them. As Rush Limbaugh pointed out in a surprisingly insightful rant on his radio show earlier this week, the system only works because when Fox says, “come take part in this debate,” the candidates respond, “Yes, please!” All it takes for the system to break down is for the frontrunner to walk away, ignore (or attack) the gatekeeper, and use other media outlets to go over its head to speak directly to the voters, circumventing (and badly undercutting) the institution in the process.

This, Linker goes on to say, is why the rise of Trump means the decay of democracy into “darker forms of government.”

He’s right about that, but with Brad Gregory’s book in mind, if Trump is a Luther figure, it’s important to keep in mind how the institutions of American life have failed, giving rise to him. Michael Brendan Dougherty says, of Trump voters:

Working-class whites are increasingly atomized and disconnected from their communities, larger networks of family, the political process, and the nation. They identify as religious, even if they are backslidden. They support the traditional family, even if they come from and create broken homes. In other words, they are people who aspire to be more like social conservatives, though they lack the material and spiritual resources to become like them.

Donald Trump’s campaign has re-exposed them, their unique problems, and their perspective to the political class. It’s been a rude experience for many in the political class. The Trump campaign has also proven, so far at least, that this class of voter will turn out for a rally for someone who truly solicits their attention. When his carnival show leaves town, there’s still plenty of work to do to rebuild this class and their communities.

This is true, but how did these people get into that miserable state? A lot of it, of course, has to do with foolish personal choices. Neither the government, nor the church, nor the school can compel a man or a woman to restrain their passions and live virtuously. But that does not get the institutions of American life off the hook.

The political class in America — notably the Republican Party, along with the Clinton Democrats — presided over the de-industrialization of America, and the financialization of the economy. The Republican Party, once the party of national security, led the nation into a ruinous Middle Eastern war, and to this day cannot admit what it did and why it was wrong. The Democratic Party and its supporters in media and academia have been on a decades-long quest to promote corrosive identity politics and to deconstruct and demonize the traditional family, as well as  the core liberal idea that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, what really matters is not the color of your skin but the content of your character.

The mass media — news and entertainment — relentlessly promote hedonism,  radical individualism, and the dissolution of any bonds not self-chosen as liberation. Where in the schools, or in colleges, or in families, or in churches, is any of this opposed? Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen wrote on Facebook last night:

My students are generally very nice, fetching, polite, good-hearted know-nothings. They are not the know-nothings of old, those ferocious if vicious defenders of a passing old order (some of whom were beat up by the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame). They simply know almost nothing, a consequence of the abysmal failure of their elders to teach them anything beyond the art of being nice, taking tests and getting ahead. To the simplest questions that I pose asking about history, myth, song, authors, great and classic books, they can offer only vacant and slightly panicked stares. They are the vanguard of the end of the Republic that we are witnessing before our eyes. They are the fruits of the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the world.

We have created a Res Idiotica – a nation devoted wholly to private things, the enforced solipsism of lives shaped without pasts and in which the future is regarded as a foreign country. If we look for whom to blame for the wreckage accumulating in our midst, we have only to look in the mirror.

Yes, that’s true. The crisis of authority and decay is by no means a top-down phenomenon. The institutions of American life — government, law, academia, religion, business, the market, the family and so forth — are in a crisis more severe than many of us have understood till now. Can they reform themselves, and regain the trust of the people? Can the people ever bring themselves to trust institutions? Well, could the Renaissance Catholic Church reform itself? Or did so many people have so much invested — literally and figuratively — in the rotting old order that they couldn’t imagine changing.

Last night, watching those Fox moderators (who mostly asked good questions) of the Republican presidential candidates, I couldn’t help thinking that the way those journalists framed the intellectual contest, and the way the politicians answered them, seemed very disconnected from what’s actually happening in America. The entire program was evidence of out-of-touch, decaying institutions. And so too was the Trump rally.

History tells us that we had better be careful with revolution, because the consequences are unpredictable. Jeffrey A. Tucker says that as disgusted as Americans are with institutions, we need to be very, very careful about the form our protest takes. Excerpt:

Some of these ideas are so extreme that, it’s true, the establishment doesn’t like them. That’s a good thing. Establishments are as Machiavelli described: stable machines that keep competitors at bay but otherwise seek to make the system work for themselves. They resist rampant populism that would lead to a pillaging of the nation that is serving them so well.

To understand Machiavelli, realize that his black beast was the cleric Savonarola, Florence’s quasi-dictator who led a mass movement of crazed pietists who pillaged and burned material possessions as a pathway to heaven. The Bonfire of the Vanities of 1487 was one result. This is exactly the kind of mania that establishments exist to keep at bay.

It is the height of political naïveté and historical ignorance to believe that anti-establishment populism and the cause of human liberty are united in the same struggle. They are not.

Savonarola, you should keep in mind, was a 15th century Dominican monk who rose to power protesting against the Church’s corruption. I visited his monastic cell in Florence, and later stood on the very site on the Piazza Signoria where he was burned at the stake. Having read his history, I understand why he was so furious. I also understand why the Florentines, having had enough of his radicalism, killed him.

We are at a particularly dangerous moment, I think. The institutions of the Establishment are in serious trouble. The family is going to pieces, the churches, generally, aren’t effective in turning this around, and the ghost of Christianity is dissipating. We don’t know our past, we aren’t thinking of our future, we don’t know where we’re going, and we don’t even know who we are. One thinks of the famous lines of Livy, writing about the dissolution of the Roman Republic and the coming of Caesarism, owing to the corruption of its people and institutions:

I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men and what the means, both in politics and war, by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded, I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch first the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.

What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings.

This is why Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, referring not to the collapse of the Roman Republic, but of Imperial Rome, guide me:

A crucial turning point in that earlier [5C] history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of 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. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.

This has been a discouraging post. More on the good I see emerging out of the ruins in the next post. We are not without hope!