♦ “The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled while giving them an excuse to denigrate people at the bottom (both white and non-white) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated,” writes Victor Tan Chen in The Atlantic (“The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy”). The problem isn’t just that successful people have more money and the working class is struggling. In what Chen calls the “extreme meritocracy,” we’ve come to define our self-worth in terms of educational and professional success, which means that we’re inclined to think of those who have not attained these things as unworthy failures. Chen analyzes all this in economic terms, focusing on job loss and the decline of private-sector unions. But he circles back to culture: “For many of the jobless workers I interviewed, religion and tradition provided a sense of community and a feeling that their lives had purpose.” Religion makes us resilient. (I would add “joyful.”)
Working-class voters who swung toward Trump are not stupid. They know that our establishment—progressive, libertarian, and ideologically free-market—is largely hostile to religion and tradition. The bottom half of society is increasingly “skeptical of the faithless, lonely, and uncertain world that the cultural left represents to them.” And “the urbane, urban values of the well-educated professional class, with its postmodern cultural relativism and its rejection of old dogmas, are not attractive alternatives to what the working class has long relied on as a source of solace.” Ol’ time religion turns out to be what we need in our postmodern era.
♦ Michael Wear is an Evangelical who worked in the Obama White House and directed the faith outreach initiative during the president’s 2012 campaign for re-election. In a recent interview he had this to say about the pro-abortion extremism of today’s liberalism: “The Democratic Party used to welcome people who didn’t support abortion into the party. We are now so far from that, it’s insane.”
♦ Mexico City recently proposed an amendment establishing a right to doctor-assisted suicide. The “right” relies on the usual progressive perversion of human dignity: “Every person has a right to self-determination and free development of personality. This fundamental human right should enable all people to fully exercise their capacities to live with dignity. The dignified life implicitly contains the right to a dignified death.” By this way of thinking, dignity means self-command and power over one’s destiny. Which of course means that those of us who are in any way dependent lack dignity.
♦ In a 2015 Vox interview, Ezra Klein asked Bernie Sanders if progressives shouldn’t favor greater immigration, “even up to the level of open borders.” Sanders retorted, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.” He went on to say, “That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States.”
♦ Asra Q. Nomani wrote something for the Washington Post that explains why she, as a Muslim, voted for Trump. She’s a former journalism professor at Georgetown and active in efforts to encourage a feminist-inspired reform of Islam, which should put her among the academic mainstream. Supporting Trump, however, is a sin against the Holy Spirit. Christine Fair, associate professor in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, took to social media with a vengeance. One tweet reads, “Your vote helped normalize Nazis in D.C. What don’t you understand, you clueless dolt?” Nomani appealed to the Georgetown administration to intervene and offer training to Fair. The university responded by affirming its commitment to free speech and expression. Fair’s Facebook response was less politic: “So again, Ms. Nomani, F–K YOU. GO TO HELL.”
Can you imagine what a student who happens to disagree with Professor Christine Fair is subjected to?
♦ Notre Dame theology professor Francesca Murphy served as Senior Fellow at First Things last year, during which time she acquired Olivier, the second most loveable dog I know (the first being Lucy, my own dog, a miniature dachshund, and David Hart’s dog, Roland, being transcendent and thus beyond all ranking). While she was walking Olivier, a handsome golden retriever, a flamboyant man in the West Village who was walking his own dog asked Francesca, “What breed is his birth mother?” Birth mother!
Pet owners can become enthusiastic—to the point of the surreal. Another example comes from an advertisement Francesca sent me. “The Distressed Dog Parent [Parent!] Support Group provides a safe, supportive environment for dog owners to express and share their challenges of caring for difficult pets. All too often, dog owners are left feeling isolated, frustrated and exhausted when coping with dog-specific issues.” Sounds very trying. But not to worry: “This group will offer an empathetic, nonjudgmental space to explore shared experiences, form new bonds and develop coping strategies.”
♦ Michael Pakaluk teaches ethics at the Catholic University of America. He recently commented on the fact that one of the crucial passages in the notorious eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia (the chapter easing the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion) was lifted without attribution from a 1995 theological article written by Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez.
Papal documents are like presidential speeches. They’re drafted and redrafted by various writers in an extended process that usually involves a lot of input from the boss. So Pakaluk doesn’t want to say there’s something wrong with Francis using Fernandez. But Fernandez is a close associate of Bergoglio’s, and in all likelihood Fernandez was citing himself without attribution when he was drafting the document for the pope. Was Fernandez trying to pass off his own voice as magisterial? Or was he just too lazy to reframe his argument in different words? This sloppiness itself certainly isn’t decisive, but reflects a larger sloppiness of thought that has mired Amoris in controversy. Is the B-team running things in Rome?
♦ Kellyanne Conway announced she plans to participate in the March for Life on January 27. Appointed by Donald Trump to a senior position as counselor to the president, Conway’s presence will mark the first time a White House official has participated in the March for Life. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn observes, “As her acceptance of a speaking slot at the March for Life indicates, on abortion Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump are doing what they have done on so many other issues: defying convention and changing the terms of the debate.”
♦ A friend who works for the New York Department of Education used her office computer to look up something on the Vatican’s website. She got this message: “Content blocked by the NYC Department of Education. Reason: This Websense category is filtered: traditional religion.” It turns out the Department of Education is ecumenical. The Chabad website is blocked, as is muslimmatters.org and Christianity Today.
♦ Some congressional Democrats boycotted Trump’s inauguration. Barnard College and Columbia University anthropology professors Paige West and J. C. Salyer wanted to join their voices. They called for “read-ins” focusing on the eleventh lecture of Michel Foucault’s 1975–76 series, “Society Must Be Defended.” West and Salyer offered a précis:
If we had to pick one quote that challenges us to think about how we conceptualize the relationship of the modern nation state to people and populations it might be where Foucault is working out the paradoxical nature of the regime of biopower, which kills, or lets die, to improve life and concludes that it is through the dividing practice of racism that the state attempts to square the circle.
When asked if they were worried that some might mock their efforts, they said, “No, of course not.”
♦ Mark Gerson, a New York businessman, has donated millions of dollars to Christian medical missions. That’s commendable generosity, but there’s more. He’s Jewish, and his wife, Erica Gerson, is a rabbi. So what gives? His old college roommate and close friend, Dr. Jon Fielder, works as a Christian medical missionary in Africa. As undergrads at Williams College, they discovered they shared a conservative outlook, and, along with another Williams undergrad, Jason Poling (now pastor of New Hope Community Church in Baltimore), they bonded during long discussions and debates. Interviewed by World magazine for a feature on Gerson, Poling reports, “We were the only ones on campus reading First Things.”
♦ It was sad news. Three years ago, Books & Culture, the go-to periodical for Evangelical intellectuals, faced severe deficits. Funds were secured and it continued under the leadership of John Wilson, a book-lover with a fine eye for prose. Last fall, however, John announced that the bimonthly review would close its doors at year’s end. November/December 2016 was the final issue.
The Times Literary Supplement provides a weekly tour d’horizon of the book world. The New York Review of Books, by contrast, is an agenda-driven enterprise that uses book reviews to stake out positions in American public life. Books & Culture was in the latter tradition, though without an ideological agenda. Its ambition was to put paid to the notion that Evangelicalism is anti-intellectual, and do so by having Evangelical writers and readers engage a wide range of cultural and social issues. John cultivates writers, and the ripe fruits of his editorial labors are regularly delicious. I read Books & Culture regularly, and often with editorial jealousy. I’ll miss it.
♦ In 2009, Notre Dame invited the newly elected Barack Obama to address her graduates at the May commencement and announced the intention to confer upon him an honorary degree. Controversy ensued, which is not surprising, given Obama’s public stance against any limitations to the abortion license. Mary Ann Glendon, who had been designated the recipient of the university’s Laetare Medal, withdrew in protest. The local bishop declined to attend. Fr. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, defended the university’s decision, saying it was a longtime tradition for Notre Dame to invite the newly elected president, adding that Notre Dame is committed to dialogue and that the university honors “all people of good will who have come to this discussion respectfully and out of deeply held conviction.” Last year, Notre Dame honored Joe Biden, someone not known for his support of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life or integrity of marriage. Again, Jenkins hymned dialogue.
Donald J. Trump is now president, and Jenkins is hedging. Which is not surprising. Academics are having a long, juvenile temper tantrum over Trump. This puts Jenkins in a tough spot. He has a history of anguished decision-making, though the Notre Dame president usually ends up deciding not to anger the liberal establishment, which in this case means finding an apparently impartial, high-minded reason for not inviting Trump. Jenkins recently floated the notion that he owes it to faculty, parents, and graduates not to allow commencement to become a distracting controversy and a “circus.” Dialogue, it seems, but only up to a point.
My suggestion to the Trump administration: Make it known that the president would like to give a commencement address explaining his change of heart on abortion and outlining why he thinks the protection of the unborn is a crucial imperative for a just society. That would make Jenkins’s decision difficult in just the right way.
♦ A friend recently wrote:
In our diocese, the Bishop and his mostly lay, highly educated bureaucracy are planning to address the demographic decline of our diocese by closing about two thirds of the parishes and reconsolidating into mega-parishes with worship-site campuses. The “campuses” that will make the cut are based on such transcendent factors as parking spaces, accessibility to main roads, age and health of the building. In other words, the diocese will pull out of the urban neighborhoods and surrounding areas and move to more practical (and affluent) “worship site campuses” in the suburbs.
One such parish is two miles from my house. We don’t belong. We belong to a traditional looking gothic revival church in an economically diverse neighborhood and send our kids to its school. Our neighboring parish, with its concrete bunker feel, amphitheater seating, florescent lighting and crushing horizontality is too comfortable, too suburban, and too willing to bend to the mores of the highly educated and largely wealthy suburbanites that live nearby. We have seriously discussed leaving the suburbs and moving into the neighborhood of our parish (after the fashion of John Senior), but that’s another story altogether.
In any event, it looks like the practicality of the modern “worship site campuses” will win the day and will be the new face of the Diocese. The Church will retreat from the neighborhoods that need it most and become comfortably suburbanized. The irony is that the name of this re-organization pogrom is called The Church Alive! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the name.
He added that The Church Alive! had an earlier fundraising component to build
a massive endowment by asking for sacrificial gifts from every parishioner in the diocese. One of the huge selling points is that while a chunk would go to the diocese, a substantial amount (40%, I seem to remember) would go to the donor’s parish. My wife and I made a substantial contribution—as did many in our parish. The diocese raised over $200,000,000.00 in pledges. Only now that we’re nearing the end of the payment of our pledges are we told that the majority of parishes will be eliminated. We had no reasonable expectation that our parish would be closed (it has healthy attendance, budgets in the black and physical plant in good repair), but rather believed that a substantial part of our contribution would be used for our parish. As a lawyer, I think that this whole scheme walks perilously close to the line of fraud.
Add wavering on doctrine, sacramental discipline, and moral issues, and “it is a very, very frustrating time to be Catholic.”
♦ We regard economic monopolies as a threat to free enterprise. We should have a similar suspicion of cultural monopolies. When cultural power becomes too concentrated, elites are often detached from everybody else. Something like that is happening in elite education. The very rich universities at the top of the hierarchy of select schools in the United States have disproportionate power, and that’s harmful to America’s social ecology. So I reiterate my idea of taxing supersized endowments. I propose a simple formula: a 2 percent excise tax on the value of endowments that exceed $200,000 per student, rising 1 percentage point for each additional $100,000 up to a 5 percent excise tax on endowments of $500,000 or more per student. The proceeds should be redistributed downward to fund community college education.
The wealth is very concentrated. Princeton has a per-student endowment of $2.5 million. Yale’s is $1.7 million per student, closely followed by Harvard and Stanford. A few others are clumped around $1 million per student. There are thirty colleges and universities with more than $500,000 per student. At least seventy-five have more than $200,000 per student. There are more than 2,500 private and public four-year institutions.
♦ I recently wrote about a visit to Wyoming Catholic College. It was after returning that I discovered Bearings and Distances, the recently published novel by WCC President Glenn Arbery. I’ve long admired Glenn’s literary criticism. He’s a superb reader of great books. But I had not known that he had ventured to pen a novel. I got a copy and, once started, I could not stop. The Faulkneresque narrative turns on many generations of interracial romances in a small town in Georgia, all of them wrapped in a secrecy that has tragic consequences. Highly recommended.
♦ File this one under very stupid headlines: “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science advisor.” Apparently, the folks at the Washington Post, which is where the headline was formulated, regard a sharp critic of political correctness (the most intellectually stultifying force in university life today) as an anti-intellectual. The syllogism seems to go like this: No intelligent person can criticize liberal pieties. Gelernter criticizes liberal pieties. Therefore, Gelernter is an anti-intellectual. That’s a valid argument, but not a sound one.
♦ Three years ago First Things launched a lecture series in Washington, D.C. Our first lecture, “The New Intolerance,” was delivered by Mary Eberstadt, published in the March 2015 issue. Yuval Levin was next: “The Perils of Religious Liberty” (February 2016). This year we thought it unwise to sponsor a Washington lecture in early November when everyone would be in an uproar over the presidential election (and, boy, were they ever enflamed last November), so we shifted to late winter. Russell Hittinger delivers the third annual lecture at 7 p.m. on March 9 at Heritage Hall on the Catholic University of America campus. His topic: The social vision of Leo XIII in the twenty-first century. Please join us.
♦ We have issued a call for applications for the Junior Fellow position at First Things. The Junior Fellowship provides a recent college graduate with the opportunity to learn the arts of public debate and publication. Applications are due on March 17. For more information, go to firstthings.com/junior-fellows.
♦ James Strohfeldt would like to form a ROFTERs group in Melbourne, Australia. If you’re down under and interested, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ As 2016 ended, we wrapped up a very successful fundraising campaign. We raised $620,000, exceeding our goal for the final three months of the year. First Things cannot survive without your donations, and I’m profoundly grateful for the generosity of so many readers.
while we’re at it sources: Victor Tan Chen: theatlantic.com, December 21, 2016. Anti-abortion Democrat: theatlantic.com, December 29, 2016. Death in Mexico City: eleconomistaamerica.com, January 5, 2017. Sanders interview: vox.com, July 28, 2015. Nomani’s Trumpism: washingtonpost.com, November 10, 2016. Fair’s backlash: washingtonpost.com, January 6, 2016. Pakaluk on Amoris Laetitia: cruxnow.com, January 15, 2017. Conway for life: wsj.com, January 16, 2017. Foucaultian read-ins: insidehighered.com, January 16, 2017. Gerson’s good works: world.wng.org, January 21, 2017. Books & Culture: cardus.ca, January 12, 2017. Obama at Notre Dame: theguardian.com, March 25, 2009. Jenkins in a bind: ndsmcobserver.com, December 2, 2016. Outsized endowments: collegeraptor.com, January 2017. Arbery’s novel: wisebloodbooks.com, June 11, 2015. Smearing Gelernter: washingtonpost.com, January 18, 2017.