Friday, March 15, 2013, 8:00 AM
The Argentine left doesn’t like the new pope. Horacio Verbitsky, a leftist journalist and author in Argentina, responded to the election of Pope Francis with a bitter column in Página/12.
He describes former Cardinal Bergoglio as “a conservative populist,” who, like Pius XII and John Paul II, is “unwavering on questions of doctrine,” but open to the world, “and above all, to the dispossessed masses.” For Verbitsky, this fits into the standard Marxist frame of reference: the Church seducing the poor with a false solidarity. Religion as opiate of the masses.
Verbitsky ends with a warning to his fellow Argentines. Just as Pius XII worked to impede a communist victory in Italy after World War II, and then John Paul II worked to bring about the end of communism in Eastern Europe, so might the new Argentine pope use the seductive Christian rhetoric of solidarity with the poor to undermine the populist government of Argentina and restore the exploiters to power, etc.
I find the criticisms very interesting. Verbitsky knows the new Pope’s modus operandi quite well. Francis renounced the grandeur of his episcopal residence, and expressing solidarity with the common man as he rode a bus to work. (Not something Cristina Kirchner does.) But he did not do so for the sake of the revolution, at least not the Marxist revolution, but instead for the sake of the revolution of the Gospel. This, unlike free market ideologies, poses a direct threat to the modern left, which claims a monopoly interest in the poor.
Perhaps we’re about to open an interesting new chapter in the ideological story of the modern West.
Thanks to Katie Infantine for the translation of Verbitsky.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 5:46 PM
Like most of us I’m scrambling to learn more.
Here’s what I do know: Francis is a conservative Jesuit, but in some ways a revolutionary, as almost all modern Jesuits are. He’s like Benedict in the sense of not having any restorationist impulses. He recognizes that the idea of princes of the Church is an anachronism. At the same time he’s against the emerging secular consensus in the West, which includes South America. He has engaged in conflicts with Cristina Kirchner in Argentina over gay marriage and gay adoption. She punches below the belt. He knows what the Church is up against.
I worked with Jesuits for twenty years. They break the rules. So far Pope Francis is true to form. He took an unprecedented name, which is the name of the most severe critic of the papacy before Martin Luther. He bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing.
The Spiritual Exercises serve as the central and powerful basis for Jesuit formation. This mode of interior union with God’s will can have a tremendous effect, which is why Jesuits really, really believe in what they’re doing. That makes them powerful forces in the Church, for good and for ill. The Church is an incredibly immobile institution, but this fellow may effect some changes.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 1:46 PM
I want to follow up on Matthew Schmitz’s observations about the New York Times/CBS News poll of Catholics. Two cohorts jump out.
The first is made up of those who attend Mass weekly and think their faith is very important in their lives. They consistently express greater support for the current teaching and ministry of the Church. With one exception: the question of whether nuns are in touch with the needs of Catholics today. Those who attend Mass weekly were less likely to think so than those who attend monthly. The difference isn’t dramatic, but it’s telling.
Most female orders are off the rails and represent the most extreme forms of liberal Catholicism. Regular Mass-goers know that, and they aren’t as sympathetic as those who attend somewhat less frequently. Perhaps the less frequent Mass attending Catholics are more sympathetic with theological liberalism, which explains their more positive view of nuns. Their answers to other questions suggest that’s the case.
The second cohort is made up of baby boomers (45-64 years old). That’s my generation. We’re the cohort most in favor of married priests and women priests. We’re the least likely to believe the pope is infallible and least willing to let employers opt out of the contraceptive mandate for reasons of religious conscience.
To my mind it’s the dissenting impulse of the baby boomers that’s been the ongoing story in American Catholicism, as it has been in American culture. Young people today aren’t as ideologically cocksure. They have desire for tolerance that pushes them toward libertarianism, but they lack the baby boomer mentality, which is to remake the world in our own image.
The polling results suggest a picture of what parish priests face. The baby boomer generation has a lot of self-identified Catholics who are still somewhat engaged by the Church. They attend, perhaps less than weekly, but they’re part of the parish. They care about the Church. But they’re often mad at the Church. They’re the ambivalent generation—the Church has a hold on their spiritual imaginations, but they don’t like the “conservatism” of the Church hierarchy. They want to get back to the “spirit” of Vatican II.
Meanwhile, in the up-and-coming generation, the parish priest finds fewer ambivalent Catholics. We need finer-grained data (for example, a weekly mass attendance broken down by age cohort) but data dearth notwithstanding, here is my hypothesis: Many were raised with the ambivalence of their baby boomer parents, but they don’t feel the grip of the Church on their imaginations. They’ve drifted away. Those who’ve stayed (or returned) tend to be more committed. Some are warm in their affirmations of traditional views. Others, perhaps a larger cohort, have internal misgivings and doubts, but unlike the arrogant baby boomers who’ve always insisted on themselves, they accept the Church for what it is—a spiritual institution committed to supernatural truths that aren’t up for vote.
It’s this pastoral reality that foretells no strong pressure for the Church to change from the path set by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The clerical leadership of the Church is not interested in satisfying the desires of the ambivalent baby boomers who have made their lives difficult for decades, especially not when their children are either out of the picture altogether, or more inclined to affirm the Church’s present trajectory.
Saturday, March 2, 2013, 8:58 AM
After recent public accusations of sexual misconduct with seminarians, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland not only resigned as archbishop but also announced that he would not attend the conclave to elect the next pope.
I wish some of the other Cardinals would give up the privileges of their office and refrain from attending the conclave. Cardinal Mahony offers a good example. The most generous thing we can say for his work as archbishop of Los Angeles is that it involved egregious errors of judgment. I’d like to be charitable, but I’m inclined to think much worse. The same holds for Cardinal Danneels of Belgium.
Cardinal O’Brien isn’t the only precedent. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was historic, and it was not prompted by any accusations of misdeeds and misconduct. Citing his advanced age, he decided that in important ways he was becoming unable to properly discharge his responsibilities as chief pastor of the Catholic Church. He thought it was in the best interests of the Church for him to step aside, giving up his office.
In Benedict, a good and holy man whose long service to the Church is widely admired gave up the privileges of his office, and he did so in accord with his judgment about how best to serve the Church. How much more so should cardinals whose failures have brought shame on the Church do the same?
This is not an argument that the Church should be run by spotless saints. I have little doubt that cardinals must rely on the grace of God. When it comes to the hierarchy, it takes a fair bit of inner push to climb the greasy pole, which only too easily blooms into sins of pride and more. Yet God can use the twisted timber of our fallen humanity to serve his supernatural purposes. That said, it doesn’t take a wild spiritual imagination to see that it would be a good witness for our age if a few of the Church’s princes accepted the fact that the best service they could provide to the Church is to acknowledge the damage they’ve done by staying home.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013, 2:59 PM
After I posted about the implications of Scottish Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, I’ve found myself swept up into the surging currents of Rod Dreher’s blog.
Given that Rod says a great deal, there’s of course a great deal that can be said in response. But I’ll refrain. Instead, what interests me is the urgent tone of Rod’s postings on these and related matters. There’s an odd atmosphere of collapse, a kind of apocalyptic anxiety. Rod speaks of declining (collapsing!) Church attendance in Britain, which he merges with evocations and warnings about still more depravities to be uncovered. In his mind it adds up to a crisis of Catholicism akin to the traumas of the Reformation. He can’t understand why I’m not outraged, or mad, or in some way properly agitated by what he sees as the evident signs of a world-historical threat to the Christian witness.
Maybe I’m blind. Maybe I’m morally obtuse. Maybe I’m spiritually deluded. But then again maybe Christian faith and the Church have enough spiritual range, as it were, to cover bad situations like the current clerical abuse crisis, or larger trends such as secularism.
Some years ago I was talking with Muslim friends. They expressed some of Rod’s dire urgency. By their thinking, Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction of Islam to the traumatic challenges of modernity: science, secularism, pluralism, the atomizing effects of free market capitalism, the lure of sexual freedom, the pleasure-a-day seductions of consumer culture, and so forth. They were anxious, concerned, and in ways akin to Rod’s postings, fearful of collapse though self-inflicted wounds as Islam over-reacts and corrupts itself in a spirit of blind opposition and desperate negation.
I expressed sympathy. But I told them that Christianity and Judaism put failure and collapse into their founding narratives. The Israelites make a golden calf. They prostitute themselves to strange gods in every generation. In their captivity they are seduced by assimilation. The same holds for the disciples. They deny and abandon Jesus. With characteristic insight into the logic of the Old Testament and its fulfillment in Christ, St. Paul does not push these truths about our weakness and humiliation away, but draws them near: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And your point, my Muslim friends asked? Ah, I replied, Christianity and Judaism are of course threatened, debilitated, and weakened by modernity, for all the reasons you say, and more—and for all the reasons Rod Dreher says, and more. But it’s not unprecedented. On the contrary, it’s common, almost the norm. This is why Christianity and Judaism, however beaten down by the present age, need not be anxious and despairing. We need not think that the real debilitations and real wounds inflicted on the Church—and the sexual sins of the clergy to wound the church in a special way in our era, a time when sexual morality plays such a central symbolic role in Western Culture—are fatal.
So of course I agree with Rod that clerical sins should be censored and miscreants disciplined. And of course I regret that more people don’t go to church in Britain (or New York for that matter). But I can’t participate in his odd sense that somehow the Church is on the verge of collapse. No longer at the center of Western culture, no longer influential, no longer the obvious option for morally sensitive upper-middle-class people? Yes, quite possible, and in many ways already all too actual. But the collapse of the cultural dominance of Christianity is not at all the same thing as a spiritual, theological collapse. From where I sit, when it comes to the interior lives of Catholics and of the Church, things have gotten better, not worse, in the last two decades. I suppose it’s as St. Paul says: for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Monday, February 25, 2013, 7:00 PM
In a long post, Rod Dreher takes the measure of the recent resignation of Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland in the wake of charges of untoward advances on seminarians and young priests some thirty years ago.
I have no particular desire to defend the honor, innocence, or reputation of Cardinal O’Brien. But I must admit that I’m mildly exasperated by Rod’s overwrought concerns. The Cardinal is accused of making unwanted advances on seminarians, and the coded language used by the media suggests that he may have used his authority over younger men to coerce them to have sex with him.
Cardinal O’Brien’s alleged conduct is rather more like professors pressuring their graduate students to sleep with them than molesting pubescent altar boys. It’s something to be censored and punished, but surely that fact that some men do these sorts of things doesn’t throw a normal person into a state of anomic horror.
But let’s leave that aside. If the allegations are true, O’Brien behaved shamefully. Nonetheless, this statement by Dreher gave me pause:
Cardinal O’Brien had a reputation for speaking out boldly for Catholic truth about homosexuality and marriage. He was called an anti-gay bigot by his opponents in the UK. And now, if these charges against him are true, he will have been shown to have been a roaring hypocrite, and the UK Catholic witness to Christian truth will be even more diminished and despised.
Come again? I am by no means without sin. I did after all grow up in the worst of the Sixties, which was actually the Seventies. It was a time of hedonism without idealism. Now I run a magazine committed to defending the moral truths taught be Catholicism (as well as Judaism and Islam, among other religions, as well as reason itself in some instances), some of which I have myself sinned against. Am I therefore a hypocrite? Has Rod never heard of confession?
Priests should be held to a higher standard, and etc. This is very true. Moreover, Rod’s right about the diminishment of Catholic witness. The sins of those who represent high moral ideals undermine both the spokesmen and the ideals. Yet we should be aware that we live in a paradoxically moralistic age that is uniquely unforgiving of those who affirm moral truths, especially rigorous ones, but don’t live up to them. That’s very likely because we have an only attenuated sense of office. Our culture is one of celebrity, not station. Much turns on personality; little on position. And so when the man falls, we can’t remain true to the office. When priests sin, we find it hard to believe in the priesthood.
Rod connects this to the general difficulty of belief in our secular age. I don’t mean to gainsay his account of his own spiritual struggles. We all have them. But mine are different. I’ve found belief easier, not harder as I have gotten older. And this is true even as getting older has meant a deeper exposure to the corrupt nature of our humanity, including my own. And it’s true even as getting older has meant a greater awareness of the diversity of culture, the contingencies of belief, and the fragility of faith.
Maybe I’m too postmodern. Maybe some sort of corrosive inner skepticism within me is so powerful that it even undermines the reasons to doubt. (That’s not farfetched. There’s a early modern tradition that sees skepticism as ministering to rather than undermining faith. Pascal, for example.) The same goes for the the sexual abuse scandals. Yes, of course I find it all demoralizing (in every sense of the word). But maybe my knowledge of my own sinfulness is so close and vivid that I’ve become hardened and insensitive. Whatever the reason, I must admit that I never and I still don’t find the dolorous news of clerical decadence, debauchery, and debasement a threat to my faith, anymore than I found the pettiness, lassitude, and dishonesty of so many academics a reason to doubt the noble calling of a life of teaching and scholarship.
There’s more to say about this, of course, but there it is. I deplore O’Brien’s alleged transgressions, especially insofar as they made others miserable, damaged the Church, and undermined people’s faith. But I don’t find them spiritually relevant to me. Or maybe the point is that I do, and because I believe even in spite of my sinfulness, I can in spite of his as well.
Monday, February 25, 2013, 9:30 AM
There is a growing political divide between the irreligious and religious. A recent Pew study shows that those who have no religious affiliation (Nones) are the single most ideologically committed cohort of white Americans, rivaled only by Evangelical Protestants. They overwhelmingly support abortion and gay marriage. Seventy-five percent of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and they placed a decisive role in his victory in 2012.
In Ohio, Obama lost the Protestant vote by 3 percent and the Catholic vote by 11 percent. (All those numbers rise if we isolate Protestants and Catholics who say they go to church every week.) But he won the Nones, who make up 12 percent of the electorate in Ohio, by an astounding 47 pecent. He racked up similar huge advantages among the Nones in many swing states.
I think its fair to say that Obama ran a values campaign last fall that gambled that secular voters would cast the decisive votes. For the first time in American political history, the winning party deliberately attacked religion. The national convention famously struck God from the platform, only to have it restored by anxious party leaders in a comical session characterized by the kind of frivolity that comes when people recognize that it doesn’t really matter. Democratic talking points included the “war on women” and other well-crafted slogans that rallied their base, which is the cohort that has no religious affiliation. At 24 percent of all Democrat and Democratic-leaning voters the Nones have become the single largest identifiable group in the liberal coalition.
The political reality of the Nones presents the deepest threat to religious liberty. We know from history that the Constitution is a plastic, flexible document. When the most numerous and powerful constituency in the Democratic Party has no time for religion—and their adversaries are most easily identified by their commitment to religion—it’s not hard to see that they’ll try to bend it in a direction that serves their political interests.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013, 8:17 AM
“Girls”—the cable TV sitcom featuring young women recently graduated from Oberlin College who hook up, text about it, fret about it, and generally live the soft hedonism of elite culture—is Seinfeld for millennials. Some think it exemplifies the decadence of upper middle class twenty-somethings living a twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood. Others see it as empowering: women being honest about sex and relationships.
I haven’t seen the show, but it’s not hard to imagine, and it seems to me that Emily Nussbaum, writing in the current New Yorker, has it right: “For some this is bleak viewing. For others the harshest of these stories can be thrilling, because they make private pain public (and embarrassing stories funny), and also because they work as a sly how-to, on ways to thicken one’s skin.”
Thicken one’s skin. In my experience as a teacher for twenty years, I witnessed a shift in youth culture. In 1990, when I started as a professor, my students were sometimes disoriented, as college students often are—as human beings often are, and they were sometimes eager or bored or preoccupied with beer and parties. By 2010 they had largely jelled into a single cultural type: anxious proto-adults committed to acquiring armor.
Today’s young people work hard to build resumes. They lay up experiences to give themselves a competitive advantage in the ruthless meritocratic scramble for success. They’re motivated by a self-protective impulse. Don’t study what you love; study what you need to study to get a job or go to the next step in the credentialing process.
The same impulse shows itself in the pervasive irony. Of all postures, it’s the one that thickens our skin. The ironist is never caught in an emotionally vulnerable position. The irony protects us from being taken as a chump. Snark is an ironic gesture of superiority. “Whatever” builds a wall of self-protection. Social media allows us to keep our distance: Relationships are at our disposal. Cell phones make it easy to screen calls.
More than two centuries ago Rousseau saw the self-protective potential of making our private lives public. He paraded his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his sins. In so doing he dared the world to judge him. “Hah,” he said in so many words, “unlike you moralists I have the courage to speak aloud what you secretly whisper.” Rousseau knew that there are two kinds of shamelessness: one based in a life without shame, and another in a thick-skinned life that willingly exposes all shame to public view, thus showing oneself beyond the power of shame.
That’s our age, I think. We seek salvation through the thickening of our skins. The happiest person is she who feels nothing at all, or at least feels everything with enough dullness. The disenchanting incantations of our therapeutic and critical educations minister to this ideal, which is why it’s appropriate that the girls of “Girls” are from a college with as strong a ministerial heritage as Oberlin.
Monday, February 11, 2013, 11:37 AM
Today’s New York Times features an op ed by former executive editor Bill Keller. He weighs in on the religious liberty debate, especially the question of whether owners of for-profit companies can claim rights of religious liberty. It’s not the most clear-minded piece, but it raises the key questions.
The most obvious concerns Hobby Lobby and other litigants. Keller sides with those who think it obvious that the regulatory state can tell corporations what to pay for and what not to pay for, just as the government can tax and spend as it sees fit. This view fails to grasp a key distinction. There’s a difference between what the government does in taxing and spending and what the government does in using its regulatory power to force me to spend. That’s why Chief Justice Roberts redefined the individual mandate as a tax. The government has a near plenary freedom to tax. The Constitution limits the government’s power for regulate.
It’s for this reason that Keller’s moral and legal analysis doesn’t work. He says that we’re right to exempt a pacifist from military service (though in fact we allow no Constitutional right to conscientious exemption from military service), but wrong to grant him the right to withhold taxes if he objects to our war-making policies. The same holds for Hobby Lobby, he says. But that ignores the difference between taxation and regulation. Hobby Lobby isn’t being forced to pay taxes that pay for abortion-inducing drugs (that’s already happening with Medicaid payments). It’s being told to pay for private insurance policies that must pay for abortion-inducing drugs.
Keller writes: “I don’t know what the courts will say, but common sense says the contraception dispute is more like taxation than conscription.” Spoken like a true liberal. For him there’s no real distinction between government and the private economy. In many ways that’s an important issue at stake in this debate: the collapse of civic life, which includes economic relations, into the regulatory state.
There’s a second issue here. Keller mentions the Civil Rights Act, which intervened deeply into private employment decisions and many other aspects of civil life. It did so because we thought we faced a profound problem–racism–that required draconian measures. I find it remarkable that Keller thinks free access to contraceptives is analogous, which he must if he thinks the coercive measures associated with Civil Rights Act provide a useful way to think about the contraceptive mandate. Fully funded sexual freedom is equivalent to overcoming Jim Crow?
Keller closes with some observations by Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor. Laycock has been a noble defender of religious freedom, but he pretty much thinks we ought to fold our tents. “Interfering with someone else’s sex life is a pretty unpopular thing to do,” he says. Hum. Refusing to pay for insurance policies providing free contraception constitutes “interfering with someone else’s sex life”? I suppose Laycock would say voting against redefining marriage also constitutes “interference.”
We live in an age in which even sensible liberals like Doug Laycock assumes that people are oppressed unless they have full social recognition and financial resources to endorse and support their choices. And since it’s the job of the government to protect freedom, we must all be compelled to provide recognition and support. Rousseau theorized this form of totalitarian liberalism.
This is perhaps the crux of the debate about the contraceptive mandate. If Bill Keller thinks it’s imperative that conscience give way to the great social cause of free contraceptives–a non-issue if there ever was one in American public life–I can imagine he’s not terribly concerned about religious freedom when it comes to gay rights, a cause with much a much more plausible (if misguided) claim to social urgency.
This in one reason why religious leaders know we need to make a stand now.
Thursday, February 7, 2013, 4:34 PM
“Strong, oddly cautious, a bit common (how cd he not be with those parents?) but unemotional, terre à terre, tough, quick, independent, ruthless, soulless, gifted, serious, anxious to pick up whatever he can.” So wrote Isaiah Berlin to his wife after meeting John Kennedy. The letter appears in Building: Letters, 1960 – 1975 and is reprinted in the most recent issue of the New Republic. The occasion was a dinner party in Georgetown. The date was October 16, 1962, when earlier in the day McGeorge Bundy told the President that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba.
It’s all fabulous, not the Camelot myth, but the long lost world of postwar America. Fabulous, and very nearly unimaginable today. Who can imagine the President of the United States attending a private dinner party in a house in Georgetown? That’s impossible with the security envelope that now surrounds the President.
And the guests! Joseph Alsop and his wife, Phil and Kay Graham, Arthur Schlesinger, Chip Bohlen, and their wives, along with others. Journalists, publishers, and the president’s close advisors and spinmeisters talked politics and foreign policy, including apparently about the classified and explosive situation in Cuba, because Berlin knew when he wrote his letter the next day. That’s impossible today. The journalists would be tweeting to get the scoop. The spinmeisters would be working everybody 24/7 with tediously predictable talking points. Congressional hearings would be held to investigate the breach in national security.
It was a very different time. Although America had endured the slaughters of World War II and was engaged in a fundamental and potentially world-destroying Cold War with the Soviet Union, on a day-to-day basis people felt safer. And there was an Establishment that allowed very powerful people from different places in the system to have drinks, dinner, and conversation outside their official roles.
By the end of the decade much of that world had come apart, in some cases for good reason. Gain and loss. That’s history, I suppose.
Thursday, February 7, 2013, 10:46 AM
Boy Scout national headquarters in Philadelphia.
It was an ugly scene in Irving, Texas, when the Boy Scout decided on Wednesday to delay a vote on whether to end the policy of prohibiting openly gay leaders. From today’s Wall Street Journal: “In a Web conference with Scouts leaders on Wednesday afternoon, Scouts Chief Executive Wayne Brock said that proposal to end the ban came as outside forces put pressure on the Scouts to address its policy on gays.” In this context “address” means “get with the progressive program.” Merck and Intel have already withdrawn financial support.
This is one episode among countless that have and will continue to take place. The Selma analogy to the civil rights movement means that gay rights activists believe they have a moral justification for bulldozing all dissent and to force all institutions, private and public, to conform. If executives of companies like Intel aren’t entirely convinced of the cause, they are very fearful of being on the “wrong side.” And so the long march through culture continues.
First, America has a very conformist culture. It’s natural for elites to want to be on the winning side of most things—that’s necessary to remain an elite. But the degree of fear of being “outside” the magic circle of the progressive consensus bespeaks a striking sense of vulnerability and lack of independence. I find it amusing that many conservatives think America is exceptional because we’re so “free.” In a certain sense, of course, that’s true. But pyschologically? Socially? Culturally? In the building where we work at First Things a large internet company employs dozens of intelligent, interesting, and uniformly pleasant young people. I’m struck by the fact that they all dress in the same way: the urban hipster look (think Buddy Holly glasses, black jeans, and scuffed wing tip shoes with vibram soles and no socks). They’re all expressing their individuality in the same way. That’s America!
Second, postmodern progressivism has a tendency to spend social capital rather than build it. In this gay rights drama, the Boy Scouts will inevitably be weakened as an institution, because major constituencies will be mad no matter what the outcome. That’s typical, I’m afraid. The older modern progressivism was class based. It often strengthened working class institutions (trade unions, Grange societies, coops). Postmodern progressivism focuses on lifestyle liberation. It’s much closer to libertarianism than socialism. This view is gaining ground. I fear a future of hyper-individualism: everybody making claims to the right to satisfy their desires as we all scramble to get ahead in a competitive free market economy.
I plan to write more on this second point. Let me conclude, however, with this idea: postmodern progressivism is the perfect cultural match for Ayn Rand. As substantive cultural norms that define status (gender roles, marital status, parents and children, student and teacher, wise vs. foolish) diminish, we can only position ourselves with confidence in economic terms (rich vs. poor). Postmodern progressivism liquifies cultural authority. All that’s left is the authority of the market and raw political power.
To me that’s a nightmare, which is one reason I’m a cultural conservative.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013, 1:58 PM
I plan to write up a summary of where we stand on the recently released rules, or more accurately proposed partial rules, for the contraceptive mandate for the next issue of the magazine. In the meantime, I’ve found myself reflecting on the larger trends. Here is my general view.
We’re up against powerful cultural trends that threaten religious liberty. In the recent election Obama won a “values” campaign that felt it could ignore or even attack religious voters (“war on women”). This reflects fact that the fastest growing and most ideologically engaged demographic among white voters are the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation. For the most part this group resents the historic prominence and influence of religion in the public square. The Democratic Party is their political vehicle. Thus we’re seeing sustained efforts to redefine and narrow the meaning of religious liberty. This runs from theorists in the law schools (e.g., Brian Leiter, Micah Schwartzman), to legal activists, to government bureaucrats.
In our favor is a parallel trend toward libertarianism and the general view that we ought to let people do pretty much what they want. This is the “don’t tread on me” sentiment that tends to be solicitous toward claims of conscience and against political correctness. This is a dangerous ally, however, since it’s the “different strokes for different folks” sentiment that also supports gay marriage and sexual liberation in general. This libertarian sensibility may support tolerance, but it won’t encourage support for religion. On the contrary, the moralism one finds in all forms of traditional religion will be seen as a threat to our culture of expansive personal freedom
It’s going to be difficult. I think we’re heading into dhimmitude of sorts. Our culture is becoming more and more dominated by post-religious attitudes that dictate the terms of the social contract. We’ve seen that very clearly in the university where religious voices have learned to obey rules set by the secular academy. The rules are sometimes cruel (Stephen Pinker), or sometimes sympathetic as long as certain liberal dogmas are respected (Martha Nussbaum), or even permissive (faith as part of the great pluralist postmodern conversation). The culture of the secular university is now becoming the norm for society as a whole, at least in part, which is why we’re feeling the pressure.
What’s to be done? The First Amendment provides a great deal of protection. We need good lawyering to make it work for us. But dhimmitude is a state of mind as much as a legal subordination, and this we must resist. We need a bit of Karl Barth in our diet. One hundred years ago he saw the Church’s voice being subordinated to the needs of the German state and its bourgeois culture. His response: speak and think in a confident, even aggressive Christian voice.
Thursday, January 31, 2013, 10:12 AM
David Blankenhorn thinks the gay marriage debate has reached a dead end. He wants it to go in a new direction. Thus “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” a manifesto of sorts from the Institute for American Values.
Blankenhorn wants to form a coalition of the willing to renew the culture of marriage in America. I’m sympathetic, having written in the “The Future of Marriage” (January 2013) that we need to challenge the proponents of gay marriage to support the marriage part of the agenda and not just the gay part.
But I’m skeptical about the Call.
First there’s the pejorative way it describes the “current conversation” as a “at a dead end.” And the current question? It’s “Should gays marry?” So the Call is pretty clear: people like me should stop contributing to the “dead end conversation,” which means stop rejecting the notion that gays should marry. How, exactly, is that a “new conversation”? On the contrary, that’s the gay rights side of the old conversation.
Second, there’s the way in which the Call describes the “new conversation.” It’s not about, say, changing divorce laws, or introducing a pro-marriage curriculum into public education. Nor is it about criticizing high profile celebrities who flaunt marriage norms and have children out of wedlock. That would be an “agenda,” not a “conversation.”
But what’s worse, the leading topic of this “new conversation” is “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?” That’s pretty empty, because it all depends on what it means to “strengthen marriage.”
As I argued in “The Future of Marriage,” we should be willing to join forces with anyone who will do what it takes to rebuild the culture of marriage. Coalitions to achieve specific goals don’t need to agree about everything, and there’s no reason why Jonathan Rauch, a board member of the Institute for American Values and signer of the Call, can’t join with me to roll back no-fault divorce–or impose a divorce tax, as I’ve suggested in the past.
What does it mean to use the “who among us” rhetoric, without any specific proposals? What does it mean when that’s married (sorry) to a rhetoric that describes one way of strengthening marriage–the defense of traditional marriage–as taking us to a “dead end”?
As I’ve written elsewhere, gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich, paid for by the poor. Not everybody in the “new conversation” has to agree with my claim, but any serious discussion of marriage has to reckon with the antinomian symbolism of gay marriage. To rule it out as taking us to a “dead end” because it’s inconsistent with the new politically correct orthodoxy means that the “new conversation” is a limited one.
There are some defenders of marriage that are so bitter about liberalism’s insouciance about the basic building block of society that they won’t in fact join forces with anyone who supports gay marriage, even to change divorce laws for the better, or to launch an advertising campaign championing the benefits of marriage. I hope I’m not among them, but they exist.
But the plain fact of the matter is that it’s been the progressive left that has been absent from the pro-marriage cause. (To call gay marriage activism “pro-marriage” isn’t serious: it’s a gay rights project, not a pro-marriage one.) I wish David the best of luck in bringing them into his new conversation, but I’m not optimistic. The antinomian symbolism of gay marriage is accepted and affirmed, because our progressive politics is focused on personal liberation. Marriage doesn’t fit well into that politics, because it binds and limits.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 3:04 PM
A friend wrote recently. He was responding to my observations about the role of public spaces in sustaining a robust sense of solidarity.
Good architecture is a public good, he writes, and “bad architecture is regressive. There will always be bad buildings because there will always be budget constraints and mismanagement by building committees. But the boondoggles foisted on the public by celebrity architects are thoroughly inaccessible to those outside the intellectual class.
He goes on to say, “It’s not a new observation; Tom Wolfe made the case in The Painted Word years ago: ‘Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until . . . it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture . . . and came out the other side as Art Theory!’”
This is not, however, just a matter of academic absurdity and aesthetic malpractice. It has an effect on our political culture. “If you’re a lower or middle class American, you can stand in Grand Central and marvel at the technical expertise, physical sacrifice, and artistic genius that the station required. You also sense that the people responsible for such a place had both confidence and hope in the future. They also wanted to transmit something to that future, to tell us something of the natural virtues required to put up such a building.”
I think that’s quite right. Modernist and postmodernist architecture are the perfect ideological tools for isolating and demoralizing ordinary people, making society more pliable for the dominant elites who can theorize and marinate in irony.
Monday, January 28, 2013, 12:45 PM
I’m a Christian intellectual. (I hope that’s true, on both counts). I have a PhD in theology. That’s what I know best. I participate in the Christian form of life, or at least I try to. It provides me with my most basic intellectual tools. This Christian way of thinking is not inaccessible to non-Christian or secular people, but it can sometimes be hard for them to think it worth their while. That’s understandable. We all have to do triage.
Secular progressives also have theology of sorts, as well as a form of life. A friend of mine teaches at Andover and he has described it to me, which isn’t necessary since I was raised and educated at the point where progressivism overlapped with liberal religion. (Ah, for that earlier time when religious was not so nearly a synonym for conservative.) It’s in many ways a highly effective and appealing moral culture that I’m sometimes grateful for, and when I’m not I remind myself that there are aspects of traditional religious culture that I regret as well.
Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, argues that secular progressives suffer from a kind of blindness. They don’t seem to “taste” the full range of moral concerns, if you’ll permit the shift in metaphors from eyes to mouth. I wrote about it in the Public Square last year (“Our One-Eyed Friends”)
Friday, January 25, 2013, 8:00 AM
Economic or market liberalism and social liberalism both privilege the strong over the weak. Over the last one hundred years we’ve developed a system of checks and balances empower the weak and limit the strong: progressive taxation, labor laws, environmental regulation, and more. We can argue about whether we have the right policies, but aside from Randian libertarians, most agree that we need to protect the weak.
Over the last fifty years things have gone the other way when it comes to culture. The strong make war on the weak.
My friend Jim Rogers gave me an example. The old constitutional test for obscenity was to define it as material that tends “to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” The idea was to protect the morally vulnerable. That changed in Miller (1973). The Supreme Court substituted “average person” for “minds open to such immoral influences.” The test is less rigorous because, well, because we don’t want the weak to limit our freedom. We’re not going to let the moral vulnerability of the few to be a burden to the many.
Drug legalization is another obvious case of the socially liberal war on the weak. Gay marriage is a less obvious instance, but a significant one. The strong have the resources to sustain a post-traditional culture of marriage. Everybody else? Data of declining marriage among the poor and middle class suggest not. The deconstruction of what’s left of the tattered traditional culture of marriage is very likely to make things worse, unless of course the social liberals crusade for the revival of marriage as a social norms, which they show no signs of doing.
It’s an odd situation today. Progressivism today is mostly focused on social questions, not economic ones, and in doing so they’re prosecuting a war on the weak. Political correctness, LGBT rights, elaborate therapies of inclusion: these are luxury goods for the rich paid for by the poor.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013, 4:27 PM
It’s old news, but consistently ignored. In her 2011 book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, Kay Hymowitz reports basic facts about gender, income, and status. Here are some arresting statistics.
Women between 25-34 with college educations now outnumber men in their age group.
The pay for women has grown 44 percent since 1970. Pay for men during the same time period has grown 6 percent.
Single and childless women living in cities now earn 8% more than men in their age cohort.
I’m not altogether sure what these changes mean over the long term. But I’ll venture one thought. Men are in trouble, or at least the median man. (Elite men flourish in the hyper-competitive environment of global capitalism.) I’ve written in the past about how globalization hammers working class men with high school educations. Our educational system does as well. These days a great deal of emphasis is put on order and compliance, an understandable reaction to the laxity and chaos of post-sixties education. It’s an educational environment in which adolescent females excel and adolescent males don’t.
My son recently graduated from a large urban public high school with a diverse student population. The honor roll was 90% female. Shocking, and surely a sign of serious problems, though nobody seems to care.
Friday, January 11, 2013, 11:04 AM
Today Commentary Magazine’s website features my contribution to a symposium on the future of conservatism that was published in their January issue.
These reflections are part of my larger concerns about the future of American conservatism, which I elaborate on in the Public Square in the forthcoming February issue, which will be up on the web in a few days.
My basic concern is this. The Republican Party today is very ideological. It has a strong free market orientation. I like that emphasis, because free markets provide a robust civic space for people to cooperate as they undertake productive work. It’s also a vast system of communication and coordination that for all its failures (and of course there are many) outperforms command-and-control efforts, however well intended. But free markets works effectively over the long haul, while we live in the short to medium haul, which is why political interventions into economic affairs are inevitable.
Thursday, January 10, 2013, 8:00 AM
A friend’s wife recently gave birth. He reports that the New York birth certificate asks for the sex of the mother, and the sex of the father.
I was taken aback. How could the State of New York be so behind the times? Don’t the bureaucrats in Albany know what the T in LGBT stands for? How could they presume the crazy essentialism that presumed a person is either male or female?
As everyone knows, well, at least everyone who isn’t motivated by irrational prejudices or in the thrall of religious fanaticism, the form should ask for the sex or sexes of the mother, and the sex or sexes of the father.
No, wait, there’s an incipient prejudice at work in that formulation, one that presumes monogamy, which as we know is a socially constructed idea that probably reflects the power interests of men, or perhaps women, or maybe just priests. . . . Anyway, you know what I mean. Consult your local cultural theorists for details.
Therefore, the form should ask for the sex or sexes of the mother or mothers, and the sex or sexes of the father or fathers.
Get with the program New York! Be the progressive state you claim to be!
Wednesday, January 9, 2013, 11:53 AM
Since the first of the year I’ve been working to catch up. A friend had sent a useful article by Chrystia Freeland, “The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent,” and I finally got around to clicking through and reading it.
Freeland has an interesting story to tell about Venice. The city went from a vibrant, growing culture to one dominated by an oligarchy that slowly sucked the vitality of what in the late middle ages was the most wealthy and powerful city in Europe. Her concern is that the growing divide between the super-rich in America and everybody else may lead us to evolve in the same direction.
Inequality, of course, has always been with us. Freeland quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson that expresses the usual American delusions about equality. Freeland accepts Jefferson’s self-deceptions, writing, “In the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet.” Huh? Have we airbrushed chattel slavery out of our historical imaginations. Yes, today there are billionaires in New York who live according to very different rules than everybody else, but it’s hard to see how today is less egalitarian than early 19th century Virginia and the tens of thousands of men and women then in slavery.
Monday, January 7, 2013, 8:00 AM
The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an article advocating the decriminalization of drugs. Economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy argue the war on drugs has failed, and social costs of continuing with our current laws are too high. Their solution is to legalize drugs use, and eventually the drug market.
The facts seem straightforward. We spend a lot of money trying to prevent drug use ($40 billion they report). Laws against using and selling drugs put very large numbers of men in prison. Like prohibition, criminalization of drugs makes their sale very lucrative—and often dangerous, violent, and destructive of the neighborhoods where business is done. Indeed, whole countries are now convulsed by violence associated with the drug trade.
Given these facts, the argument for legalization isn’t stupid. But it’s not right.
Friday, January 4, 2013, 11:03 AM
Daniel Henninger has gone down the rabbit hole. In his column for the Wall Street Journal he inveighs against the countless ways in which the tax code is manipulated by legislators to reward this or that constituency—or donors and lobbyists, as the case may be. The whole mess has been reaffirmed in the bill that was just passed to avert going over the fiscal cliff.
All to the good. Where he goes wrong is lumping this insider game with various efforts to use the tax code to encourage socially productive behavior. He writes: “The bill has $335 billion for the child tax credit, the sort of expenditure some conservatives like. But then no complaining about the rest of it.” He goes on, “You can’t pick and choose which tax heist to join. You’re in for all of them. In time everyone’s a tax gangster.”
Only a very ideological person can fail to distinguish between a tax code designed to subsidize the extraordinary costs of being a parent—the single most important act of citizenship anyone can perform—and one that subsidizes the production of ethanol. Unfortunately, many so-called conservatives think the way he does. For them, having a child is a “lifestyle choice” among many. Why should government be in the “social engineering” business of encouraging people to have children?
Purity, yes, but at the price of anything resembling political responsibility. One of the ideological dreams of modern men and women is government without politics. The Left entertains dreams of society administered by disinterested experts. The Right dreams of a libertarian society in which everybody’s private choices, unconstrained and undistorted by government, somehow constellate to make us all richer and happier—the invisible hand at work. But neither is possible. We’ve got to live in the world of actual human beings, which means a never-ending debate about how the power of government—including and perhaps especially its taxing power—should best serve the common good. No doubt that means doing our best to prevent the perversion of the tax code to serve special interests, but it also requires discerning when the tax code must be tilted this way or that to serve the general interest.
Ask the Japanese if having children isn’t very, very important for the future of society.
Friday, December 28, 2012, 12:01 PM
Over the years I’ve come to realize that “relativism” is the wrong way to describe the way in which secular elite culture approaches moral questions. It’s obvious that all things are not permitted, which is why Pope Benedict coined the term “dictatorship of relativism.” One MUST be affirming, inclusive, and non-judgmental. We’re heavily policed, as the term “political correctness” indicates.
Furthermore, the moral norms that progressives endorse aren’t just of this sort. In America, our secular elites put a great deal of emphasis on subtle forms of moral formation. First there is the imperative of success. Getting into a good college is all-important. This cult of success requires a great deal of self-discipline, and although one often sees a work-hard/play-hard mentality, that’s more characteristic of the 1980s and 1990s than the rising generation. Today parents emphasis the need to make “healthy choices” or “responsible choices.” That may allow for hedonism, but it’s a moderate hedonism organized around the larger goal of controlling one’s destiny and being successful.
Thursday, December 27, 2012, 3:41 PM
A friend was talking to me recently. He observed that the post-election drama in Washington seems to be about more than taxes and spending. Everybody seems to feel that the stakes are high, and two visions of the future of America are being contested. “It’s really pretty amazing,” he said, “because we just had a national election. Isn’t voting supposed to settle things. Majority rule and all that.” Not that he was opposed to Republican resistance to Obama’s proposals. On the contrary, he’s a limited government guy. Still, he’s right. It says something about the political moment in which we live that elections don’t settle things the way they used to. Both sides seem to be playing a long game.
It was then that he said: “Ya know, the more you hear about the fiscal cliff, the more you realize that it’s a metafiscal cliff we’re heading toward.”
Metafiscal cliff. Perfect.
Monday, December 17, 2012, 8:00 AM
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With year’s end drawing near the editors of the Wall Street Journal‘s weekend review section asked fifty “friends” to tell us their favorite books of 2012. We hear from TV personalities, businessmen, writers, politicians, a college president, two baseball managers, three chefs, a Fed banker, actors, and journalists. Quite an eclectic list.
And quite remarkable for having no one remotely associated with religion. No pastor, not even Rick Warren. No priest or hierarch. No rabbi. No theologian. Tells us something about the editors, I suppose, which also tells us something about America at the end of 2012.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the fact that this set of fifty favorite books, which obviously serves to satisfy reader’s need for gift suggestions (chefs!), is presented with no reference to Christmas.
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