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The End Of Compatibilism?

The intersection of orthodox religion and the liberal order approaches nullity

Sohrab Ahmari writes that Harvard has declared war on orthodox Christianity. He writes:

Harvard is now determined to ostracize, censor, and ultimately root out orthodox Christianity from a university that was founded to train ministers in the Puritan tradition. That is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the school’s little-noticed decision this year to suspend and defund the largest evangelical fellowship on campus.

What are the broader implications? He writes:

The move is of a piece with the wider progressive crackdown against liberty on campus. But for orthodox Christians and other people of tradition, the episode has a deeper, and darker, meaning. For several years now, orthodox Christians, Catholics especially, have wondered whether it is still possible to come to peaceable terms with the liberal state. The debate has usually been framed in terms of intellectual history and genealogy, pitting thinkers who believe that today’s PC despotism is a perversion of the liberal tradition against those who argue that illiberal liberalism of the kind on display at Harvard is, in fact, the fullest expression of the liberal idea.

The former camp—those who saw today’s liberal excess as a bug and not a feature—has been the more optimistic. The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp—those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea—were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake—or else! Say that men can give birth—or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club—or else!

The compatibilist/non-compatibilists divide has been invisible to most of the secular media, in large part because, in conventional policy and partisan terms, both sides looked like “social conservatives.” They both opposed abortion, same-sex marriage, gender ideology and so on. But the compatibilists were more or less invested in the liberal order, even though it caused them much heartache. Whereas the non-compatibilists were all post-liberal to varying degrees, meaning that they looked beyond liberalism as the horizon of Western politics. One side has been anti-systemic in its basic posture. The other has not. One side has been willing to consider alternatives to liberalism. The other side has hoped to revive the 20th-century synthesis between liberalism and Christianity.

But all that may be changing. With each fresh instance of liberal despotism, such as the one at Harvard, the compatibilists are likely to adopt a practical non-compatibilist position, even as they continue to reverence the American Founding and all the myriad material benefits of liberal order. There is a logic to this shift. The more the liberal state and liberal institutions squeeze orthodox believers, the harder it becomes to imagine liberalism returning to some prior state—to the days when liberalism not only accommodated but even encouraged traditional morality and belief. Of course, some Christian denominations welcome liberal dominance in the religious sphere and are happy to remake their faith in the image of liberalism—quite literally in the case of the two Cambridge churches. But orthodox believers won’t go along. Which means that our culture war is more likely to heat up than die down in the coming years.

Read the whole thing.

Alan Jacobs responds by saying that for years, he’s considered himself a “sad compatibilist,” which he describes like this:

I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.)

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.”

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now.

It seems to me that the answer to Jacobs’s question depends on whether or not compatibilism is viable at all anymore, even if it once was. Clearly the liberal order once had a place for Christianity, but it it worth considering whether that was because liberalism was in those days less true to itself than it is now. One of my most militantly left-wing friends believes that is certainly the case. The more truly liberal we are as a society, she holds, the less Christian we will be. I think that’s an incoherent view, but it is a position she holds firmly. She’s one of those Jacobin types who never stops to think about what comes after this or that barrier is knocked down; she’s always on to discover another minor member of the aristocracy or provincial bishop to behead for the cause of humankind’s liberation.

Anyway, as Ahmari points out, the question now facing the religiously orthodox is whether or not liberalism can be reformed to accommodate us, or whether it has declared us to be its enemy. Note well: it doesn’t matter whether or not we consider ourselves its enemy, but whether it regards us as its enemy. This is why the middle-class Christians who tell themselves that all will be well if they only present a more “winsome” face to the world are delusional. The only way the world — or at least the liberal world, which is the world of American institutions — will accept you as a Christian is if you first swear allegiance to what the liberal order has become, and cast off those Christian beliefs incompatible with it.

A relevant side note, from a young Catholic American reader teaching in China:

I live in a smaller city, the benefits of which is that I am able to see how the average Chinese person sees the world. The issue with a significant portion of Western media in China is that they are based out of the international cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong. . . .).

Something I don’t think is discussed enough is the fact that the average Chinese person and the PRC see the idea of religion as in direct contradiction to the allegiance every Chinese citizen should have to the government. I have had a devil of a time explaining to coworkers how I can be American and Roman Catholic, the idea of someone who can love their country and anything that extends outside of the state as impossible.

In my conversations with people, those who have any understanding of Christianity see it exclusively as political. The Pope is a sovereign trying to gain control over China, and Jesus is just a tool to undermine the Chinese regime. I fear the Holy See doesn’t see the real evil out here. I love the people of China, but even the staunchest supporters I know don’t attempt to defend the current trends in the government.

I think that the attitude this reader describes among the “average Chinese” is exactly the attitude that most liberals today have: that orthodox religion is in direct contradiction to the allegiance every American should have to liberalism.

True, it is illiberal for Harvard to do what it’s doing to Evangelicals — by the standards of earlier liberalism. But liberalism is not a revealed religion. It is what the power-holders in a liberal order say it is. For that matter, even revealed religions work like this too. It would have done Jews in 15th century Spain no good at all to tell them that true Christianity opposes their torture at the hands of the Inquisition, and their expulsion. That may be the case, in theory — certainly I believe it is — but actual, existing Christianity was burning Jews at the stake. If a Jew wanted to save his own life, he had better take measures to protect himself from the Church and the State, and not rely on the goodwill of the power holders, who believed that they were on a mission from God.

I think we’re in a similar situation here today. Not similar in the sense that violence is coming (though it might), but in the sense that we orthodox Christians (and Orthodox Jews, and practicing Muslims, and all those religious believers whose orthodoxy doesn’t line up with contemporary liberal dogma) are going to have to face the fact that we are living as exiles in a hostile land. We have to make the imaginative leap from compatibilism, even sad compatibilism, to incompatibilism.

For me, that means sad incompatibilism, because I don’t want to go on any crusades within this society. I don’t want liberalism to be incompatible with orthodox Christianity. I want to give people who don’t share my religious convictions as much liberty as I can to live out their own religious convictions, or lack of religious conviction. That cannot be an open-ended policy, for obvious reasons, but my point is simply that I believe a pluralistic order has to be flexible and accommodating of people’s right to be wrong. However, it doesn’t matter what I wish were true. What matters is what is true. And what is true right now is that American society, especially among the power-holding elites, is very quickly moving to a place where it sees people like us as the Enemy.

That makes me sad, but my sadness and my lamentations do nothing to prepare me and my family for what is to come.

In his column today, David Brooks writes about the failure of the anti-Trump forces (in whose ranks he counts himself). He says:

The main reason Trump won the presidency is that tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat. Trump understood the problems of large parts of America better than anyone else. He has been able to strengthen his grip on power over the past year because he has governed as he campaigned.

Until somebody comes up with a better defense strategy, Trump and Trumpism will dominate. Voters are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a president they think is basically on their side.

Don’t miss that Brooks says that millions of us “rightly” feel that our religious liberties are under threat. Just this past weekend in Philadelphia, I had a conversation with a conservative friend about the judges Trump is appointing. I don’t think Trump cares one way or the other about the law, or about religious liberty, but I don’t care about his personal disposition. What I care about is that he is appointing judges who have a greater understanding of the importance of religious liberty. Within the next decade or two, those judges are probably going to be the only line of defense left between my people and a government and a liberal society that has come to despise us. I have been dragged kicking and screaming to a “willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a president that I think is basically on our side” position, but the militancy of the left is driving me to it.

As you know, my basic response to what’s happening is The Benedict Option. Here’s what the Benedict Option is not:

  • a method of escape from marginalization and persecution
  • a political strategy to stop marginalization and persecution from coming

I do not believe it it possible to escape this, and anyway, “marginalization and persecution” aren’t even at the heart of what’s coming. The greater danger is that we and our offspring will lose their faith entirely, from having been acculturated to liquid modernity. Even if by some miracle we are able to keep our religious liberties, we still have to live in a post-Christian, indeed a growing anti-Christian, culture.

There is no political strategy to stop this from coming, because marginalization and persecution are by-products of the fundamental hostility that actual, existing liberalism has to orthodox religion. Voting for Trump may be defensible as a delaying tactic, but absent some kind of mass conversion in the broader culture, that’s all it is. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of fighting conventionally on every possible front, for as long as we can. What I do want to do is to dispel the widely-shared misconception on the Right that this battle can be won or lost in politics, or in the legal system. It is important to have the political and legal systems on our side, but it is not sufficient. In a democracy, ultimately the people will have their way — and the people are not orthodox in their Christianity, and increasingly not even Christian at all.

This is a hard fact that determines everything else for us, in thinking about how to face the future.

In Philly, at the ISI dinner in honor of The Benedict Option winning Conservative Book of the Year, someone in the audience asked me what makes me think that the state will leave us alone to tend to our own affairs within our Ben Op communities. Answer: I don’t! But that still doesn’t give us the right to surrender. We have to figure out how to be resilient and faithful under great duress — even persecution by the state. This is reality for many Christians around the world today, and I see no reason to think that Christians in the Western liberal democracies should consider ourselves permanently protected from that trial.

This issue keeps coming up in Ben Op Q&A. It emerges out of the mistaken belief that I’m advocating heading for the hills to establish compounds within which we can ride out the storm unaffected. I don’t believe that, of course, as anyone who reads The Benedict Option knows. I think it also comes out of a false choice that exists in the minds of many conservatives who sense that there is a crisis upon us, but who can’t let go of the idea that it can be turned away by politics. I understand the reluctance — seriously, I do. If I’m right about the Benedict Option, then something revolutionary has happened in American life. The things we were all taught as children about the American order are not true, or at least not as true as we once believed. The question is whether or not the American liberal order can be saved — or whether or not Americans who believe in the virtues that were once the bedrock of that order should … well, take it away, Alasdair MacIntyre:

A crucial turning point in that earlier 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.

So, the question of compatibilism, as Sohrab Ahmari puts it, grows ever more pressing. And, as Ahmari puts it in a passage that I didn’t quote above, the answer to the question depends entirely on the Left. Yesterday the Harvard Evangelicals were tolerated; today they are not. They haven’t changed; Harvard has. And not just Harvard, as each day’s news reminds us. Those Christians (and others) who have assimilated into the new order will probably be fine, because they pose no threat to it. The rest of us will be forced to choose, whether we want to or not. You, orthodox religious believer, can start to prepare for this now, or you can wait until there’s no time left, in which case … what will you do?

If you aren’t asking yourself that question now — and asking it within your congregations and communities — you are not paying attention to the signs of the times.



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