In a February speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rhapsodized about the positive potential for a stronger partnership between Russia and the European Union. On one point, however, he was negative. It concerned morality, not questions of democracy or economic policy. “I cannot disagree that common values should be used as cement when constructing a common European home,” he affirmed. “However we need to agree what they are like and who determines them.” On this issue the West cannot be trusted, because we now promote “moral relativism, propagation of all-permissiveness and hedonism, reinforcement of volitions of militant atheism, refusal of traditional values.” Moreover, “such ideas are promoted with the insistence of a messiah both inside countries and in relations with neighbors.” For those of us who would like to see liberal democratic culture take root in Russia and elsewhere, it’s frustrating that we’ve given him such a strong argument against us.
Lavrov’s exasperatingly good argument is one reason Ephraim Radner’s essay on the agony of Anglicanism is so important. He explains the way in which globalized culture wars have tempted conservative Anglicans in the West to make ill-considered, uncritical alliances. We should learn from those mistakes. When it comes to Putin and what he represents, it’s a false inference to conclude that if your enemy is my enemy, then you’re my friend.
Of the Spanish Civil War, Evelyn Waugh observed, “If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for General Franco. As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a Fascist, nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism. It is mischievous to suggest that such a choice is imminent.” Our times are different, very different, but the wisdom of his remark remains pertinent. It is mischievous to suggest that we need to choose between our decadent postmodern nihilism and various fundamentalisms or, worse, cynical uses of social conservatism of the sort Putin represents. It’s quite possiblenecessary, in factto affirm the open pluralism of a liberal democratic culture while insisting that it can thrive only insofar as we articulate a clear moral vision for public life.
A banker friend asked me if Pope Francis is “antiWall Street.” I demurred, reminding him that there’s a very good chance that the Holy Father hasn’t thought much about Wall Street. He was skeptical. (To be honest, it rarely occurs to those of us who live in New York to imagine that others aren’t thinking about us.) After protesting that I’m not in a position to know what the pope thinks, I allowed that he probably is in fact “antiWall Street.” That’s the instinct of most religious leaders.
Building a factory creates jobs and contributes to the common good. What the financial industry contributes isn’t nearly so obvious, because the efficient allocation of capital is both complex and intangible. People in New York or Hong Kong trading currency futures are holding government policy-makers accountable. That’s a very valuable social function. But who sees it? In fact, we tend to see only the grim consequences of market discipline. We’re like parents who show up at practice just as the coach is chewing out the team and making them run laps. How could he be so harsh?
The financier makes cold decisions dictated by abstract financial calculations (or guesses). Inhuman? In a certain sense, yes. But we need a degree of coldness in finance. Crony capitalism flourishes when finance loses its distance from social realities. Try to make Wall Street into a social justice agency, and we’ll get neither prosperity nor justice.
The second round of letters on the topic suggests I stirred up some passions when I ventured criticisms of back-to-nature foodie localism. I remain skeptical of food moralism and dislike its pharisaical mentality. But Fr. Cyril Hovorun’s point about our contemporary response to technology that I mentioned in the Public Squarethat we want to reclaim human spacehas helped me understand what I like about it. There’s something very right about wanting to talk to the fishmonger at the local marketplace. Or to buy tomatoes raised nearby. The global economy delivers remarkable efficiencies. Walmart is cheap. But we want more than lower-cost stuff. We want human spaces, not just efficient or wealth-producing ones.
In “Choruses from the Rock,” T. S. Eliot composed a line that captures an important dream, one prominent in the modern age. The chorus is asking why men should love the Church when “She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.” That’s not what they want to hear. Instead, “They constantly try to escape/From the darkness outside and within/By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” And dream we doof the abolition of private property that will guarantee social justice, of free and frictionless markets in which the invisible hand guides self-interest toward the common good, of a libertarian paradise in which nobody has to argue about morality, of the perfectly designed system of checks and balances, of technocratic rule guided by an adding machine dedicated to utilitarian calculations.
Sean McElwee is quite certain. In a recent article in the New Republic, “Republicans Suddenly Can’t Stop Talking About ‘Mobility’: Too Bad GOP Policies Are Undercutting It,” he points out that America suffers from relatively low social mobility (a true statement)and then insists it’s all the fault of Republicans like Paul Ryan. That’s because . . . drum roll . . . “actual data show that higher government expenditures increase upward mobility.” Apparently policy doesn’t matter. If Congress were to decree a 25-percent increase in Social Security payments to retirees, government spending would increase, and by a lot. By this line of reasoning, so would economic well-beingthough only of seniors. If we quadrupled military salaries, that would also move the needle of government spending. And it would certainly generate some serious upward mobilityfor soldiers.
But that’s not what people mean when they talk about mobility. They want opportunities to succeed by their own efforts, not politically generated windfalls. To encourage opportunity, we need empowering forms of government spending. Education is the most obvious instance. What we spend on schools isn’t redistribution; it’s an investment in kids and their futures.
On this point McElwee shows himself a culpable ideologue. Does anyone think raising teacher salaries in the New York public school system by 20 percent, by 50 percent, or even by 100 percentwithout any alteration of teacher union rules, educational policy, or administrative oversightwould lead to greater student achievement? And which political party asks for more money while blocking any changes in the status quo? When we pour more money into bad government policiesinto demonstrably failed policiesthe only people who enjoy social mobility are the ones who enjoy the patronage of our political class.
Catholics don’t divorce as often as the rest of Americans. So says a report from the Georgetown Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. As we know, divorce rates have gone up in recent decades. In the 1970s, 12 percent of Catholics who were ever married ended up divorcing. Now it’s 28 percentnot good, but significantly lower than other groups (Protestants, non-Christians, and those with no religious affiliation). Good news, of course, but there are other, less reassuring data. The number of Catholics marrying in the Church rather than on the beach or at the courthouse has fallen dramatically, and the number of annulment cases per church marriage is now at a record high. Also, fewer are getting married in the first place.
By my reading of the data, among Catholics (and Americans more generally), the culture of marriage is changing. Divorce rates stopped climbing a couple decades ago. This reflects, I think, a growing consensus that divorce is bad, if not morally or religiously, then pragmatically. It’s bad for kids. It’s often bad for those who get divorced. We all know divorced friends who imagined that freedom from their unhappy marriages would bring happinessbut it hasn’t. To a greater and greater degree, people, especially the well-to-do who set the tone for society, see marriage as the sensible, adult way to form a family unit.
At the same time, our culture of marriage has become secularized, as the significant decline of church weddings among Catholics suggests. We invest weddings with intense romantic imagery. They have become overwrought forms of personal expression. The bride and groom don’t enter into a given, fixed institution. Today, we give meaning to our marriagesour love, our commitment.
And so the cultural currents run with and against us (as is always the case). There’s a certain stigma to divorce today. A forty-something Princeton graduate wouldn’t for a moment think to express the slightest censure when a friend with two small children tells him she’s getting divorced. But I’m quite sure he would wince inwardly. At the same time, however, there’s also very little sacred meaning left in marriage, at least in the culture at large. On this point Catholics (and religious people more broadly) need to become countercultural with a vengeance, emphasizing the nuptial mystery at the center of the Bible’s vision of human destiny.
Last month I wrote about the war on the Catholic Church in Minnesota. Lawyer Jeff Anderson is one of the battlefield generals, having made his reputation (and lots of money) bringing lawsuits against the Church. Loyal First Things reader (sorry for the pleonasm) Ryan Dowhower wrote to tell me that he and his wife celebrated their tenth anniversary at Anderson’s bed and breakfast in Stillwater, Minnesota, the Rivertown Inn, not knowing the owner was the Jeff Anderson. “It’s a beautiful property,” he reports, “but once we realized who the owners werethere is a family portrait on the wall of the entrance hall and Anderson’s bad hair and awful Harry Potter glasses are unmistakablewe found it odd that the place is adorned with all kinds of stained glass and other pieces that obviously were once found in churches. There is also a huge statue of St. Michael the Archangel in the yard. I couldn’t help but think it was some kind of obscene oversized trophy case.”
Mark Joseph Stern is very concerned and not a little upset. Writing on Slate: “Last week, Michael W. Hannon published an article you haven’t read, ‘Against Heterosexuality,’ in a magazine you probably haven’t heard of, First Things. The article is lengthy and dense, and the magazine is little known outside of certain faith communities. But you should read it nowtwice over, if you have timebecause ‘Against Heterosexuality’ is one of the most alarming anti-gay polemics I have ever encountered.” Stern resorts to bloggy exaggerations, tossing in the usual accusations of homophobia. (How could he resist?) But he grasps the main thrust of Hannon’s argument. Sexual orientation is, as they say in academia, a social construction.
From this he draws the conclusion that “Hannon doesn’t believe gay people really exist” and thus “rips from LGBTQ people their dignity and humanity.” Huh? I wonder what Stern thinks of feminine and masculine gender identities? Odds are very good that, like all good progressives, he thinks they’re social constructions. Does this mean he denies the existence of men and women and intends to rip them of their dignity and humanity? No, it means he doesn’t want us to use gender identities to organize our legal system, to perpetuate them through education, or in any way treat them as normative. That’s pretty much what Hannon says about our present-day LGBTQ pieties about sexual orientation.
It’s fascinating to me the ways in which our progressive tutors want us to think criticallyexcept when they don’t. We’re urged to expose as socially constructed the realities we wrongly imagine essential and immutableexcept for the ones that we’re told aren’t. When important progressive commitments are at stake, an unacknowledged dogmatism takes over.
A group of Republican luminaries including Alan Simpson and Nancy Kassebaum have signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals to strike down laws banning same-sex marriage in Utah and Oklahoma. One line from the brief fascinates: “Marriage is strengthened and its benefits, importance to society, and the social stability of the family unit are promoted” when we allow gays and lesbians to marry. That’s an empirical claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Ironically, when announcing the brief, the group allowed that “deeply held social, cultural, and religious tenets lead sincere and fair-minded people to take the opposite view.” They then go on to say, “No matter how strongly or sincerely they are held, the law is clear that such views cannot serve as the basis for denying a certain class of people the benefits of marriage in the absence of a legitimate fact-based governmental goal.”
Ah, I get it. There’s a strict fact-based standard for those of us who oppose gay marriage, while those who support it can make pious pronouncements about the supposed boon of same-sex marriage and its wonderful contributions to the common good. Put simply, for progressives and their growing cohort of fellow travelers, marriage is what they say it is, and the benefits are what they say they are. Reality? That’s for the other side to worry about.
Ohio recently passed a law penalizing untruthful statements in political campaigns. Free speech advocates are litigating. One friend-of-the-court brief co-authored by P. J. O’Rourke defends the proper role of hyperbole, slander, and fantastical campaign promises as part of our great political heritage. “After all, where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we’d be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.” Which reminds me that I forgot to mention one of the most delicious forms of political speechsatire.
When a bishop is ordained, he receives the grace of his office, most importantly the authority to teach and lead in continuity with the apostolic witness. But ordination does not confer courage or intelligence, as a recent “Thoughts and Reflections” column by Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, reminds us. He muses about the results of the survey of views on marriage and family life in his diocese. (The survey there and elsewhere was conducted because the Vatican recently requested it be done throughout the Church.) It turns out that Catholics in Florida (like the rest of America) are profoundly influenced by our culture. While they are pro-marriage, they’re pretty much OK with contraception and cohabitation before marriage. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage? They’re eager for something more affirming and accepting. Bishop Lynch’s take-away from all this? “Our overall score as institutional Church calls for something of an overhaul of our ‘common core teachings.’”
Would someone please tell Bishop Lynch that we’ve known for a long time that age-old Catholic teaching in sexual morality doesn’t win popularity contests? And would someone also remind him that you cannot take “common core teaching” in for regular makeovers? The apostolic faith isn’t a political campaign or corporate strategy.
I happened to be reading Daniel Kelly’s recently published biography of L. Brent Bozell, Living on Fire, around the same time I attended a Manhattan Institute panel discussion on the future of conservatism. It was moderated by David Brooks and featured youngish commentators Josh Barro, Yuval Levin, Megan McArdle, Avik Roy, and Reihan Salam.
William F. Buckley’s classmate and debate partner, Bozell was once a leading youthful voice for conservatism, gaining immortality in our political history as the ghostwriter of Barry Goldwater’s surprise bestseller, The Conscience of a Conservative. Like the early National Review (on whose masthead Bozell’s name appeared during its first decade), the Goldwater book was full of bold antitheses, big ideas, and unapologetic attacks on the liberal consensus of the time. By contrast, the Manhattan Institute panelists discussing the future of conservatism were sensible wonks. They wanted to talk about public policy and the “image” of the Republican party. Early on, Megan McArdle pronounced the battle over gay marriage “over,” saying it was time for conservatives to move on. Nobody on the panel dissented, and no mention of social conservatism was made during the rest of the discussion. I left when David Brooks asked, “Who’s your favorite candidate for 2016?”
I don’t want to be unfair to the panel. We need good policies (and good candidates). But by my reckoning, the future of American conservatism depends on the future of three Fsfaith, family, and freedom. An underlying commitment to some sort of transcendent purpose of public life, as well as a commitment to family as a fundamental good, hasn’t gone away. The same goes for freedomwhich I’m using as a synonym for a distinctively American kind of patriotism. The three Fs are not “over.” They need to be restated, no doubt in a new way, but with the same vividness and passion and boldness that fifty years ago made Bozell a spokesman for conservatism’s future.
Bozell’s life was about more than politics. By the mid-1960s, he began to focus on his Catholic faith. Influenced by his experiences living in Franco’s Spain, he became frustrated with American conservatism, which he came to associate with an idolatrous Americanism and an individualistic and false view of the human person. He founded Triumph magazine as a vehicle for his vision of a distinctively Catholic social and political witness in America. Of our liberal democratic political system, he wrote: “The architects of our constitutional order built a house in which secular liberalism could live, and given the dominant urges of the age, would live. The time has come to leave that house and head for home.”
Bozell was critical of John Courtney Murray, who envisioned a Catholic renewal of liberal democratic culture: “If she is to protect herself and if she is to abide by her divine mission to teach all peoples, [the Church] must break [Murray’s] articles of Peace; she must renounce the pluralist system, she must forthrightly acknowledge that a state of war exists between herself and the American political order.” State of war: It’s a rhetoric expressing a view not altogether different from the “radical Catholicism” described by Patrick Deneen in some recent blog posts. In an article on John Courtney Murray in America magazine (“Murray’s Mistake”), another “radical Catholic,” Michael Baxter, said pretty much the same thing about John Courtney Murray.
I’m not convinced. It’s more accurate to say that factions of our society are at war with the Churchgay rights activists, radical secularistsand that, sadly, most mainstream liberals go along with them, at least for now. To reinterpret this as a fundamental conflict between Christianity and our liberal democratic political order makes two mistakes. First, it concedes too much to progressivism and liberalism, which do not hold title to our constitutional order, nor are they the sole heirs to American public life. Second, it overlooks the fact that in a different sort of political order, one without constitutional protections and democratic traditions, our adversaries would set out to crush us. Example: the political correctness that flourishes in the bureaucratic authoritarian system known as the university.
Sigh. Double sigh. In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates observe that there’s a very close relation between mortality rates for childrensomething closely tied to economic developmentand birth rates. This is a long-term trend. Starting at the end of the eighteenth century, “In France, average family size went down every decade for 150 years in a row. In Germany, women started having fewer children in the 1880s.” Quite right, and strong evidence that the number of children women want is closely connected to infant mortality, as well as general conditions of economic growth. But then comes the non sequitur. “In Southeast Asia and Latin America, average fertility dropped from six or seven children per woman to two or three in a single generation, thanks in large measure to the modern contraceptives available by the 1960s.” Thanks in large measure? What happened to the purported importance of declining infant mortality? Using them I can understand, but why do liberals believe in contraceptives?
On the evening of February 25, Daniel Siedell, presidential scholar and art historian in residence at The King’s College here in New York, gave a lecture at our office, “The Origins of Modern Art.” By his reading, impressionism and its successors should be understood as reform movements. Cézanne wished to restore to art the spiritual purpose one finds in the best Renaissance paintings. In the modern tradition, Siedell argued, the artist adopts an ascetic ideal: utter devotion to the difficult task of faithfulness to reality. For this reason, Christians should see modernism as theologically congenial.
After his presentation, Dan answered questions, which were forcefully posed. How could he imagine modernism to be religiously congenial? Isn’t classicism the proper idiom for religious art, not the outré, experimental, and often self-indulgent styles of modern art? As Dan stood his ground, I began to see his Protestantism over and against the Catholicism of most of his questioners. He favors the disruptive, personal vision of modern art because it prepares us for the far more disruptive and Wholly Other word of God.
On March 6, Peter Leithart spoke at a reception at our office celebrating the publication of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. This book, which traces the role of gratitude in public life from Homer to the present, makes an argument about the way in which our praise of God transformed ancient culture, breaking the old and rigid laws of patron benevolence and client gratitude that reinforced social hierarchies. All blessings flow from God, not the local landowner or provincial governor. Like everything Peter writes, it’s a smart and readable and insightful book. Highly recommended.
Susan Emily Jordan is a ROFTER in the Chicago area. For the uninitiated, a ROFTER is a Reader of First Things who gets together with other Readers of First Things to discuss the latest issue. (Check our website for the ROFTER group nearest you.) Fr. Edward Oakes was a regular guest at the Chicagoland ROFTER meetingsand not infrequently the author of an article being discussed. Ed became a family friend and a regular at the Jordans’ Thanksgiving dinners. She recently sent along this lovely remembrance:
“We last saw Father Oakes at a program and reception in his honor at Mundelein in early October. Several prominent theologians gave presentations on Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Father Oakes had invited family members, plus a few friends. We felt incredibly honored to be included, although it was a bit daunting to be in the same room with such truly brilliant scholars. The experience brought me back to my initial introduction to First Thingsin 2000 when I worked with the National Catholic Bioethics Center (then located in the Boston area). I was wandering through the Center’s library one day and came across the section where issues of First Things were shelved. Quite frankly, I had never heard of the journal; and my initial reaction was ‘this stuff is way above my head.’ However, in my responsibility for the Center’s fundraising and external relations efforts, I decided to take the plunge and actually read one of the issues. Gradually I got hooked and arranged for a personal subscription. When the latest issue would arrive at our home, Stephen and I would vie for first dibs.
“A few years ago, Father Oakes surprised us with a gift subscription to First Things. And, at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, he presented us with a signed copy of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. As I grappled with my sadness at the announcement that Father Oakes had died, I began to move from grieving to a sense of wonderafter a lifetime of studying, writing, and lecturing about our Blessed Lord, now our beloved Father Oakes gets to meet Him face-to-face! And just imagine those celestial discussions with Hans Urs von Balthasar!”
Speaking of ROFTER groups, Bill Stickman would like to organize one in Pittsburgh. If you’re interestedand I hope you areplease contact Bill by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we’re at it sources: Sergey Lavrov: mid.ru, February 13, 2014; Sean McElwee: newrepublic.com, February 19, 2014; Divorce: nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com, September 26, 2013; Gay denialism: slate.com, February 25, 2014; Satirical speech: cato.org, February 28, 2014; Robert Lynch: bishopsblog.dosp.org, February 7, 2014; Gates letter: gatesfoundation.org, January 2014.