SCALING UP SOLIDARITY
R. R. Reno is sympathetic to nationalism because he sees it as a reaction against disenchantment (“Return of the Strong Gods,” May). While I agree that “the banishment of love from our politics is creating the populism that presently troubles us,” it doesn’t strike me that this populism constitutes an actual resistance.
Sentimentality is a common response to cultural ills: the culture of death spawned the helicopter parent; the culture of divorce, the lavish wedding; the breakdown of authentic patriotism, nationalism. These sentimental reactions imply a longing for the good that our culture has trampled, but they do nothing to resurrect that good. If anything, they further its destruction by creating the illusion that we value our children, marriages, and country while freeing us from any actual obligations to them.
As with the sentimentality surrounding marriage and parenting, there is an industry that promotes and profits from this populist sentimentality. Notably, it is by cultivating and exacerbating the lack of solidarity between various groups of Americans that Fox News et al. peddle their populism. If Reno is right that the nation is “an important form of solidarity,” populism is something to be rejected, not tamed.
We should also ask whether the nation is the correct scale on which to seek greater solidarity. Chesterton’s books on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas imply the intriguing possibility that local places might more easily cultivate their own particularity under a broader authority than the modern nation-state. (Christendom was that broader authority in medieval Europe.) Paradoxically, Catalonia might be more herself as an independent part of the EU than as a piece of the smaller but more overbearing Spain. Perhaps Cincinnati would be more herself as a small international city than as a mid-sized American one.
R. R. Reno replies:
It is true that many populists pine for a time when there was more togetherness, more opportunity for ordinary folks, and less fragmentation, dysfunction, and dislocation. But is nostalgia as bad as Audrey Pollnow suggests? As an act of recollection, nostalgia brings before our minds elements of the past that we relish and regret are no longer available. In this way, nostalgia can empower rather than enervate. To identify what has been lost—and to desire its restoration—is often the first step toward social and political renewal.
Can a gigantic nation-state such as ours provide a suitable context for solidarity? In some senses, of course, more than 300 million people cannot enjoy the close connections that characterize local loyalties. Civic life has many layers, and is richer for it. Nevertheless, I’m always astounded by the degree to which our distinctive national culture molds us into a unified whole. Would Cincinnati be more herself if America were to dissolve into a post-national global order? I think not. Like many other places in the United States, Cincinnati’s distinctive character and charm intertwines with our nation’s history, so much so that it would be impossible to shed its Americanness without becoming an entirely different kind of place.
USES OF DIGNITY
I write in response to Samuel Moyn’s “Restraining Populism” (May). I hold no brief at all for Trump the man, and am only partly sympathetic to the cluster of impulses that pass under the name “Trumpism.” But Moyn’s piece perfectly illustrates the assumption of the left-liberal establishment that the only alternative to itself simply must be something wicked.
When Moyn warns us that populism threatens deep principles of the postwar order, namely the Catholic principle of human dignity, the false antithesis is the assumption that human dignity lies only on one side of our current political divide, and that any other choice besides conventional liberalism will compromise it. In fact liberalism is arbitrarily selective in its choice of whose dignity to champion. The workers, barely clinging to the middle class, whose life prospects are blighted by the globalized economy and by the scourge of widely available drugs; the children of no-fault divorce, whose life outcomes are predictably worsened so that their parents may pursue a gastronomic lifestyle; the unborn children extinguished in their millions by the abortion factories—all these too are bearers of the image of God and claimants of dignity. Yet all have been systematic losers under liberalism, whose prime directive is to protect the professional careers and sexual freedom of the affluent.
Liberalism cannot perpetuate itself indefinitely; for one thing, liberals have too few children. But in the short run, politics in this twilight era of liberalism presents a tragic dilemma for Catholics and other orthodox Christians. The three-way choice currently on offer in our politics—a choice among Trumpism, an establishment left-liberalism trending in a stridently progressive direction, and an establishment “conservatism” which is just the free-market variant of liberalism—features no consistently Catholic party. Any political choice is a choice to compromise human dignity one way or another.
In the last election, almost every serious Catholic I talked to felt morally torn among the available options: not to vote at all (arguably a shirking of civic obligations); to vote for a serial divorcé, groper, charlatan, and mountebank who was nonetheless able at least to see the corrosion of the socioeconomic system; or to vote for a candidate with a heroic capacity for willful blindness—to her own political mistakes, to the limitations and assumptions of her staff, to the deplorables, to the unborn. Her commitment to human dignity, like that of her party, was profoundly myopic. Moyn’s polemic against populism is equally one-eyed and one-sided.
harvard law school
It is refreshing to see Samuel Moyn recognize that the Christian commitment to human dignity is not merely a conservative political stance. In Christian Human Rights, Moyn largely ignored the deeper roots of human dignity in Christian thought. But the Christian commitment to human dignity is not, in the first instance, a political project, a strategic move, or a choice of values. It is the recognition of an ontological truth that emerges from the depths of Christian experience, from the encounter with a man in whom all of the mystery and attractiveness of reality take human flesh, and thus rouses our awareness of the value of our own humanity. For that reason, the Christian invocation of human dignity cannot merely belong to the “left” or the “right”—whatever those positions may mean at any given time. It should provoke us to critical distance from the current forms of both nationalist populism and cosmopolitan progressivism.
Moyn’s argument that Christians ought to be conscious of the ways in which contemporary right-leaning populism might undermine human dignity rests on premises that require us to be at least as wary of contemporary human rights orthodoxy. Sure, the politics of nationalistic populism can pose serious threats to the value of the human person. But let’s not be naive about the ways in which a Christian understanding of human dignity is also threatened by hyper-individualistic, materialist, and aggressively secularist ideologies, seemingly bent on deploying the power of the state to banish religion from the public square, and on exalting an idea of personal autonomy so boundless that it even embraces putting to death the most vulnerable members of our societies in the name of individual freedom. These ideologies are often asserted precisely in the name of human rights and human dignity.
Ultimately, any meaningful discussion of human rights and dignity cannot escape the underlying questions of philosophical anthropology: What does it mean to lead a flourishing life? What is freedom? In what does the value of a human being consist, and what does that demand of us? Today, we can no longer rely on superficial appeals to shared values—even ones as sacred as “human dignity”—to answer these questions. Again, this problem extends beyond right-wing populism: It is the problem of a postmodern liberalism that is incapable of sustaining and justifying its own foundational principles.
Moyn might consider warning not only religious believers about the dangers of populism, but also his progressive secular friends about the vulnerability of their liberal principles if they can offer no persuasive answers to the fundamental questions of human life and freedom.
Paolo G. Carozza
university of notre dame
south bend, indiana
Samuel Moyn replies:
The intent of “Restraining Populism” was to recount how Roman Catholics, motivated by harsh twentieth-century experiences, first embraced the rhetoric of human dignity out of all proportion with their prior record. I did not work with a full-bodied notion of dignity—whatever metaphysics partisans may wish to attach to it—not because such a notion is uninteresting, but because the concept's clearest meaning in the middle of the twentieth century was a rather thin one. It was a way for religious conservatives to remind themselves that they traffic with secular evil at their (and our) peril.
According to Adrian Vermeule’s criticism, I have ignored the fact that religious conservatives are just making the best compromises they can in the face of bad options. But that was the premise of my article. With all the empathy an outsider can muster, I respect the quandary. Nevertheless, illiberal politics led to some terrible outcomes in the years before and during (and for that matter, after) the Second World War. Compromising with the mountebanks of that age for the sake of religious morality did not work out well, even if Christians were not the main victims. Vermeule, apparently now far gone down the road of reactionary Kulturkritik, does not recognize that my main point might once have been dear to his heart: Prudently managing the risks of political compromise might require that you do not bet on a secular populist to advance your religious goals, and especially that you do not make the same mistake twice.
More open to the historical argument of my piece and the lessons of Catholic reaction the first time around, Paolo Carozza wants me to know that liberals need a lecture too. For Carozza, “human rights orthodoxy” deserves at least as much admonition as religious conservatism. I mostly agree, which is why I have spent the last decade criticizing that orthodoxy—just not in this magazine. (There is quite enough stigma placed on liberalism in these pages without my help.)
When I drafted my piece last December, I worried that religious conservatives might make compromises without adequate concern for the risks. Now I would conclude that Donald Trump has proven much less evil than incompetent. In this sense, my analogy has proven inapt, and my warning to the Christian right premature. But that does not mean that conscientious conservatives should now accept Trump and his European parallels as good candidates to advance religious values. Anyway, as Carozza rightly observes, history also teaches that conservatives do not have a lock on what those values are.
POSSESSED BY NATURE
Two cheers for Hadley Arkes (“The Moral Turn,” May). I withhold a third cheer because, unmediated by customary norms and institutions foundational to our constitutional order, natural law does not very often do the work he wants it to.
American constitutions incorporate pre-positive law, often expressly. But it is common law—reason perfected—rather than abstract reason. For example, the “property” protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments is common law property dominion with all its texture and complexity, not an abstract right derived from state-of-nature thought experiments.
The common law foundation of our constitutionalism includes natural law, but natural law is converted into rights and duties by other aspects of common law: customs, maxims, precedents, and institutions of private and public ordering, such as ownership, contracts, juries, and legislatures. Natural law seldom plays the role it does in the abortion context. Most legal and constitutional issues are what Aquinas called matters of determination, partly shaped by enduring truths but open to settlement and specification in more than one equally reasonable way. Common law jurists called these matters of indifference.
Natural law is relevant to such questions, but provides only a starting point. Additional determination is needed. And where people have promulgated an unreasonable settlement by custom, conveyance, agreement, rules of association, or legislation, that settlement is entitled to be respected as law. Of course, not all settlements can be justified by reason (primogeniture, coverture), and some are contrary to it (slavery). Common law is bounded by natural law, even as it completes and perfects it.
Adam J. MacLeod
faulkner law school
Hadley Arkes gets a lot of things right—to an extent. Judges interpreting the Constitution must be morally sensitive, able to reason aright concerning the natural law, because the Constitution sails on a sea of moral principles. Morality matters for constitutional interpretation because, and to the extent that, moral terms are themselves part of the positive law. What interests are “compelling”? What compensation is “just”? These terms are parts of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Fifth Amendment, and require moral interpretation.
As Arkes notes, Justice Holmes hoped that “every word of moral significance could be banished from the law.” He would, of course, want to amend RFRA and the Fifth Amendment. I am skeptical as a general matter of the wisdom or feasibility of Holmes’s project. But the interpreter’s task does not depend on whether Holmes’s project was well-conceived. The interpretive question is how we should proceed were Holmes to succeed or were he to fail. Moral reasoning is required by interpreters because he has failed; it would not be permitted if he were to succeed.
The Fourteenth Amendment contains moral language, too. “Citizen” in the privileges or immunities clause has a partly moral connotation: person with the same rights as similarly situated fellow citizens. Moral reasoning about which citizens are similarly situated to which others is required. Establishing this semantic fact about the clause, however, requires a lot of digging in old newspapers and the like, not just receiving first principles from a properly functioning conscience.
It is unclear how much digging Arkes thinks is necessary. His article says much about abortion and marriage in discussing Loving, Obergefell, and Roe, but nothing about the Fourteenth Amendment itself: not even which clause of the amendment—privileges or immunities, equal protection, or due process—he thinks should decide the cases. Embryological facts are, of course, relevant to the interpretation of “person” to the extent that “person” is either a biological category or a moral or metaphysical category that itself turns on biological facts. Historical work is required, however, to discern exactly what “person” expressed during Reconstruction. The lack of historical dirt under Arkes’s fingernails is therefore troubling. Attention to the historical contingencies of the positive law is essential to the proper cabining of the moral turn in constitutional interpretation.
Christopher R. Green
university of mississippi school of law
Hadley Arkes replies:
I’m grateful to Christopher Green and Adam MacLeod for their responses, but I’m not sure what they were commending in my argument. Both evidently read “The Moral Turn” through the lens of their own caricatures of natural law. Adam MacLeod is ready to resist theories drawn from “state-of-nature thought experiments,” but he will not find any of them in my essay or other writings. Both writers assumed, in different ways, that “natural law” refers to some hazy, high-minded sentiments, hovering in the sky, waiting to be invoked and brought down to bear on a case. But the natural law finds its ground in what John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton called the “axioms” of reason underlying everything we know. Those axioms, and canons of reason, are simply woven into the practical judgments we reach every day, including our judgments about what is right and wrong, just and unjust.
In that vein, James Wilson and Thomas Reid took as the first principle of our moral and legal judgment that we cast moral judgments on people only in the domain of “freedom,” where they have the power to choose a path of action and cause their own acts to happen. And so, as I’ve restated the point, we don’t hold people blameworthy or responsible for acts they were powerless to effect. That anchoring point for the law is instantly grasped by truck drivers, construction workers, and all other ordinary folk mercifully unburdened by a degree in law. Of course that principle will be applied in a wide variety of cases, each requiring imagination and practical judgment in the sifting of evidence: Was Jones really undergoing surgery when the crime was committed? Did he really lack control of himself? Our judgments will always be contingent on a reading of these empirical matters. But the one thing that is never contingent, never in doubt, is the principle itself: Once we are clear that Jones was powerless to affect the outcome, punishment would be thoroughly unwarranted. That principle will hold true under any circumstances, in all times and places.
I recall that venerable lesson to point out to Christopher Green that no new revelation about the history of the Fourteenth Amendment or other law could alter the truth of this principle of practical judgment. Moral reasoning about the natural law, or natural reasoning about morality, simply pervades our life of law, as it pervades everything else. It is not to be found only when judges pronounce judgments on the interests of the state that are “compelling,” or the level of compensation that is “just.” The principles of natural law existed prior to the Constitution, and they do their work every day, when we decline to hold people blameworthy for acts they were powerless to effect, or when we insist that the accused have a “right” to see the evidence and witnesses arrayed against them so that they might rebut them, and in so doing produce a verdict that justly avoids the punishment of the innocent.
There is something curious, and strikingly inappropriate, in Green’s comment that he found “troubling” the “lack of historical dirt under [my] fingernails.” Did he fail to notice that the whole essay revolved around the precise, gritty details provided by the lawyers for Texas in Roe v. Wade, as they drew on embryological evidence about the condition of the unborn child in the womb? The lawyers offered that rich brief in order to explain the substance of the issue that the law was addressing and to show why that law was amply justified. Yet my plunge into the historical record doesn’t count for Green. I truly fail to understand why it is less important to get under our “fingernails” the evidence on the child in the womb, as it was known forty-four years ago, than it is to busy ourselves in exploring again the historical record on the Fourteenth Amendment.
We need to remind ourselves that the need for positive law has ever been part of the classic understanding of natural law. We may understand the principle that enjoins us not to drive at speeds that put innocent life in danger, but we still need a positive law, a regulation, that translates the principle into a rule that applies to our terrain and circumstances—for example, 35 mph on this winding country road, 65 mph on a four-lane highway. And so MacLeod brings no news when he remarks that natural law may need the positive law of the Constitution in order to take effect. But he falls into a serious mistake if he takes that to mark some deficiency in natural law. The principles of natural law may be compatible with a variety of constitutions with different structures of power. And it’s critical for us to understand that structure—as in knowing who ascends to the presidency if a president dies in office, or whether a State may make its territory available as a naval base for a foreign power. But as James Wilson said, the framers were not seeking, in the Constitution, to invent new rights, but rather to acquire “a new security for the possession or recovery of those rights” that we already possessed by nature.
ONE, HOLY, DEMOCRATIC
As someone who recently decided to leave the United Methodist Church, I read Rev. Paul Stallsworth’s “A Disunited Methodist Church” (May) with interest. Stallsworth is a clergyman bound to the Book of Discipline who feels that many of his fellow clergy are pushing its boundaries, so he understandably emphasizes matters of governance. But his almost exclusive focus on difficulties presented by LGBTQ issues to the “three-branch” structure of the UMC misses the more fundamental problem. From this ignorant layman’s perspective, the UMC either does not know what it believes, or lacks the ability (the will?) to confess it clearly.
The Discipline serves as the norm and rule of the UMC; this is conveyed in the opening “Episcopal Greetings” of the 2016 edition, which states that the “Discipline defines what is expected of [the UMC’s] laity and clergy as they seek to be effective witnesses in the world as a part of the whole body of Christ.” It seems reasonable that such expectations would be founded in a clear exposition of Methodist theology, which would guide, shape, and govern the church in being “effective witnesses . . . of Christ.” Yet the Discipline is rather short on precise theological content. The sections on doctrine read like an essay on the development of Methodism in England and America, with the ostensible doctrinal standards—the Articles of Religion and Wesley’s basic rules—presented as historical documents, not normative definitions of doctrine and practice. The sections on social principles are approximately the same length as the doctrinal section, are more clearly formulated, and seem to carry more authority. The most robust doctrinal discussions in the Discipline are those of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”: the shared authority of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Yet there is no clear articulation of the proper relation of these and the extent of their individual authorities.
Ultimately, I can’t help but think that if Stallsworth and others like him are truly interested in keeping Methodism “United,” perhaps they should cease waiting for a “latter-day St. Athanasius or even a John Wesley” to lead the church, and should instead work to produce a standard, normative confession of what such latter-day men would believe. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the UMC to be governed by something like the Book of Concord or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But without a precise, shared confession of what it means to be a Methodist, what are laity and clergy supposed to be “effectively witnessing” to, and how can we expect anything other than the present chaos?
W. Matthew J. Simmons
columbia, south carolina
O thou troubler of Israel! Thanks for your (utterly Wesleyan) tell-it-like-it-is courage. I agree that Methodism’s present dilemma is due to organizationally aping the federal government. Methodism is often called “the most American church” as though that’s a compliment. It isn’t.
Your wistful hope that the bishops are the key to sorting out this mess is touching. Too bad you weren’t around to plead for robust episcopal leadership in 1900. No General Conference in the past century has missed an opportunity to smack the bishops (and the annual conferences) by substituting coercive, restrictive, top-down legislation for episcopal leadership. You castigate the bishops for being bureaucratic wimps, but really that’s all they’re permitted to be. We defanged the bishops by creating the Judicial Council (a pretend Methodist Supreme Court), and it’s been downhill ever since. Today we’re in crisis because neither side in the sexuality debate can get the votes to force its point of view on the other.
There was once a day when the church depended upon bishops to pray, deliberate, decide, and lead. Now we Methodists get the gridlock we deserve. General Conference mimics the U.N. (and is as ineffective); the Council of Bishops is impotent (and has the nerve to criticize the chaos of the Trump White House); and both groups stand around, wringing their hands and asking anxiously, “Has the Judicial Council issued a ruling yet?”
Put not thy trust in bishops! Pray that the Holy Spirit would again take an interest in United Methodism, shake our foundations, set us on fire, incinerate our Book of Discipline (except for the doctrinal sections), and reignite Wesleyan passion in us. Only God can get us out of this one.
duke divinity school
durham, north carolina
With Paul Stallsworth’s portrayal of the current division within the UMC over homosexuality I won’t quarrel. But I would note that Methodists have been divided and have divided their church in virtually every decade since arriving on this side of the Atlantic. Stallsworth introduces us as a church historically overseen by three governmental branches. But this arrangement dates only to 1939, when Methodism restructured itself in order to effect a reunification of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant churches. It achieved that unity, but did so by segregating virtually all Methodist African Americans into a national black jurisdiction.
And that 1939 unification did not bring into the new Methodist Church those from the AME, AMEZ, and CME churches—earlier testimonies to Methodist embrace of racism and slavery. Nor were the largely white anti-slavery churches, the Wesleyans and Free Methodists, embraced. Not to mention many other nineteenth-century divisions over the authority of bishops, lay representation, Methodism’s appointment system, and local congregational prerogatives. Internal divisions have haunted the Methodist movement ever since its formal organization in 1773—far more than the few that led to schism. Truth be told, the UMC divides top to bottom.
Russell E. Richey
duke divinity school
durham, north carolina
I worry that Paul Stallsworth overemphasizes the democratic character of the United Methodist Church and its executive leadership. Granted, the democratic processes and structures of the UMC are part of its North American DNA, but they are also a frequent stumbling block to understanding the church as God’s gift and creation.
One doesn’t have to believe in a centralist or papal polity to grasp the wisdom of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s admonition to many post–Vatican II Catholics who called loudly for a “democratic church.” These Catholics wanted a church that arises out of “discussion, compromise, and resolution,” a church we can “make” ourselves. Ratzinger calmly noted: “Everything that one majority decides upon can be revoked by another majority. A church based on human resolutions becomes a merely human church. It is reduced to the level of the makeable, of the obvious, of opinion.”
Constant emphasis in United Methodist circles on the church’s democratic organization works against the gift-character of the church. Our pride in our democratic identity has led us to adopt the political practices (good and bad) of American civil polity in our denominational meetings. The process of electing bishops is a case in point. Slogans of inclusion, diversity, and civil rights are everywhere confused with the Kingdom of God. Congregations too often invite people into a safe space of “open hearts, open minds, open doors” rather than the liberating discipleship of following Jesus.
Executive leadership is necessary, but it will not be sufficient for the times unless it leads Methodists to distinguish between a bland organizational “unity” and the faith once delivered to the saints, which is constitutionally embedded in the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church. Our ecclesiastical “democracy” needs to recover what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead,” that memory by which we give a “vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.”
university of dubuque theological seminary
I agree with much of what Paul Stallsworth has written about the reasons for the slow fracturing of United Methodism we see today. As an orthodox, evangelical United Methodist, I am in many ways saddened—but not surprised—by the dissolution of the tradition in which I was raised.
United Methodism began in 1968 amid the fervor of the ecumenical movement as an experiment in doctrinal pluralism. We actually codified a statement of pluralism in our 1972 Book of Discipline. Rather than establishing this new church upon the bedrock of orthodoxy and a high view of Scripture, we attempted to create a “big tent” where many different theological and moral perspectives could find a home. From its beginnings, the United Methodist Church has been beholden to the spirit of the age.
It was only a matter of time before opposing theological currents within this “big tent” reached irreconcilable conclusions. Some say that Jesus is the true way of salvation, while others claim he represents one path among many. Some are committed to the idea that human life has inherent value that limits the choices we may make regarding its beginning and end. Others hold that choice is a value that supersedes the inherent value of human life. Some believe that God established marriage between a man and a woman as the proper expression of human sexuality. Others aver that there are a variety of acceptable expressions of human sexuality outside of traditional marriage.
In each of these examples, a great deal is at stake in the decisions we make. They will have far-reaching effects and touch on innumerable aspects of our ecclesiastical life. To pretend that we can inhabit the same church with such radically different theological and moral perspectives is an exercise in denial.
David F. Watson
united theological seminary
Paul T. Stallsworth replies:
Rather than answer one by one each of the challenges posed by my correspondents, I will report what can happen when a bishop of the United Methodist Church stands up, proposes Christian truth in accordance with church doctrine (not just theological opinion), and points clergy toward church discipline.
It was 2002. A United Methodist bishop was making troubling, perhaps heretical, noises in the church. Following the critique offered by Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Florida), Bishop Marion Edwards (North Carolina) summoned his clergy to Raleigh. Hundreds of us assembled in a sanctuary. From the congregation’s pulpit, Bishop Edwards winsomely and powerfully taught the Church’s faith, with doctrine and discipline, in response to the noises. The clergy—most of whom were associated with various movements, schools, and theologies of the day—were galvanized. The truth of the Church’s faith, doctrinally presented by a bishop in the power of the Holy Spirit, compelled all of us. We were re-called to serve Jesus Christ and his Church—in the United Methodist Church. Because God willed it, a bishop renewed a part of the Church in the faith.
For this—across the entire United Methodist Church—I hope, yearn, and pray.