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The 500th anniversary of the Reformation sent me back to Luther and his debate with Erasmus. The two were among the most widely read authors in sixteenth-century Europe. In the early 1520s, they exchanged dueling treatises on free will. They raised recondite theological questions of biblical interpretation, divine foreknowledge, and God’s power, but the main topic was freedom. That’s something we need to think about in our own time, for freedom is on the wane even as talk of liberation gets louder and louder.

In just a few years, Luther’s ninety-five theses mushroomed into a fundamental debate about salvation, leading to a split with Rome that had dire ecclesiastical as well as political consequences. Erasmus, too, had been a critic of church corruption and various abuses. But as Luther’s polemics ignited controversy and rebellion, Erasmus became more and more concerned. His personality was irenic, and he preferred to satirize human failings rather than condemn them. He saw in Luther a very different tendency. The Reformer called down fire from heaven, infusing his rhetoric with God’s all-powerful truth. This roiled human affairs and undermined concord not just in the Church but in society as well.

For this reason, Erasmus decided in 1524 to publish On the Freedom of the Will. His target was a treatise Luther had written affirming “assertions,” which can be glossed as “authoritative truth-claims.” Erasmus wanted to show that Luther’s approach was simplistic. He conceded the need to be ruled by truth. He affirmed “the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures” and “the decrees of the Church.” But he added that our efforts to navigate in accord with the light of Christ involve uncertainty and ambiguity. This means we need to accord others room and scope for their own journeys. In many instances, perhaps most, what it means to serve God faithfully remains an open question. To use today’s terminology, Erasmus argued for wide scope for “discernment.”

Erasmus draws out the social significance of this dogmatic modesty. Undue claims on behalf of divine authority “may the sooner harm Christian concord than advance true religion.” It is better, therefore, to adopt a somewhat skeptical view, not one that undermines doctrine, but one that drains some of the urgency out of theological disputes. Again, to use today’s way of talking, Erasmus urges a chastened, tentative approach to truth that encourages generous, forgiving, and tolerant attitudes toward the opinions of others. True religion is not relativistic. There are divine truths that all Christians must affirm. But we should seek—in contemporary terminology—to be as nonjudgmental and inclusive as possible.

Luther titled his vigorous response On the Bondage of the Will, making plain his fundamental disagreement with Erasmus. It’s easy to get lost in the theological details of this long treatise. The main thesis, however, is clear: The Christian faith puts us under the power of God’s freedom, not our own. As Luther writes, “A man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.” Divine truths are not remote and inaccessible. They are revealed in Scripture with a directness and clarity that is clouded only by our bondage to sin. True Christianity, therefore, preaches the gospel with urgency and with the power of God. It is not dogmatic modesty that we need; it’s dogmatic boldness.

To a degree, Luther was talking past Erasmus. He knew that a great deal of the Christian life requires discernment. Not everything is covered by “assertions.” But his emphasis on dogmatic boldness cut against the spiritual logic of Erasmus’s approach. Our delight in assertions means cultivating and encouraging powerful truth-claims. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” Luther writes, “and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.” Where Erasmus fears too many beliefs held too strongly, Luther fears too few held too tepidly.

There is a reversal in social concerns as well. Erasmus emphasized free will in the Christian life in order to promote tolerance and a spirit of concord. Dogmatic modesty allows us to be less judgmental of the opinions of others. This spirit of accommodation helps prevent the Church (and society) from splintering over secondary matters. To put it in terms of liberty: We should respect the free choices of others. This freedom is not limitless. There are some authoritative truths that properly command us. But dogmatic modesty concludes that there are not many, and we can make up our own minds about most things.

Luther’s approach to freedom is fundamentally different. He emphasizes bondage to divine authority as the basis of freedom. For example, ecclesiastical authorities want to maintain institutional peace. The same can be said for secular authorities. This impulse is not malign, but peace of this sort is “worldly,” which means it requires accepting the limitations of human beings in a fallen world. In this framework, it’s very tempting to suppress or muddy truth in order to keep the system going. By contrast, “assertions”—authoritative truth-claims—stiffen our spines. The clarity of God’s Word frees us from submission to the judgments and decrees of men. As Luther puts it in an earlier treatise, On Christian Liberty, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” This is the Pauline view of freedom, a view Luther develops elsewhere. Only as slaves of Christ can we attain freedom from the “world,” which is ruled by the enslaving power of sin and death. For Luther, we should seek this all-encompassing spiritual freedom, not worldly peace or social concord.

Viewed theologically, Luther gets the better of Erasmus in this debate. In one passage, Erasmus dismisses religious ardor. Those who believe too passionately “are like young men who love a girl so immoderately that they imagine they see their beloved wherever they turn, or, a much better example, [are] like two combatants who, in the heat of a quarrel, turn whatever is at hand into a missile, whether it be a jug or a dish.” The Reformer may have been wrong about the papacy, the sacraments, and justification in Christ, but he was surely right to emphasize the passionate devotion of faith. Again and again, the Scriptures describe discipleship in terms of love’s ardor. St. Paul draws upon martial images: “Put on the whole armor of God.” One cannot give too much of one’s heart, mind, and soul to God. There should be no false modesty in faith’s ringing affirmations.

At a human level, however, Erasmus retains an appeal. Our convictions can inflame, causing us to stampede through life, doing much damage. In the first half of the twentieth century, the West was very nearly destroyed by ideological passions. After these experiences, the dogmatic modesty of Erasmus has seemed the wise approach. John Rawls may have never read Erasmus, but he promotes a similar view of liberty. His influential theory of justice encourages metaphysical modesty. A liberal society, in his view, requires as few authoritative truth-claims as possible, and those it does require should be accessible to all. Rawls argued that this modesty makes the liberal public culture more inclusive and provides wide scope for the free choices of individuals.

In the post-Christian West, we follow Rawls, which means we affirm small, cautious truths. The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal features regular columnists who tell us how brain science, psychology, and other scientific disciplines can help us cope with life’s challenges. These are counsels of adjustment, not galvanizing calls to action. This fits with our therapeutic culture. The dominant rhetoric in public life turns away from truth’s passions and toward cooler notions such as “healthy beliefs” and “affirming attitudes.” Recently, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago urged the adoption of an “adult spirituality,” a formulation meant to evoke the freedom born of dogmatic modesty rather than the presumed slavishness (and immaturity) of a more traditional spirituality. The Church needs to tone down its assertions so that people can make up their own minds about right and wrong.

Political correctness creates the optical illusion that our era is one of new orthodoxies. Political correctness polices our assertions, true, but it does so in order to prevent them from becoming strong. It seeks a paradoxically obligatory inclusiveness, which is the postmodern perversion of Erasmus’s ideal of peace. Obligatory inclusion is a trompe l’oeil orthodoxy, one that explodes all orthodoxies. Talk to young proponents of identity politics. You will find they exhibit a combination of ideological ardor and moral minimalism bordering on relativism. This seems contradictory, but it is not. They presume that the authority of truth needs to be destroyed so that society can be fully inclusive and people can be free to choose to live in whatever way they wish.

As Erasmus might have predicted, the banishment of what John Rawls called “comprehensive doctrines” (his term for “assertions”) has brought peace of a sort. There is a great deal of disgruntlement in our political culture. Yet Antifa and other radical groups exist only on the far fringes. I’ve met many young people, some in college, some early in their careers. They hold the present system in low esteem, but they play by its rules. I’m confident that investigative reporting will show that the activists currently making uproars at elite universities invariably go on to work for McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, or end up at elite law schools and other programs that further groom them for their roles in the ruling class.

And, as Erasmus promised, today’s metaphysical modesty bordering on nihilism promotes free choice. The rising generation has more freedom than any generation in human history. Our therapeutic culture and its preference for “dialogue” dissolve truth by turning it into “meaning.” Public morality has been thinned down to the negative principle of not harming others (the meaning of which changes all the time). This is accompanied by imperatives of diversity and inclusion that punish those who refuse to give preference to permission. Marriage and children? That’s a choice, not the norm. Careers are fluid and open-ended. Those who reinvent themselves in midlife are championed. Hymns are sung to creativity and innovation.

This has come at a cost, however. Metaphysical modesty and Rawlsian minimalism drain “assertions” from public life. Soul-defining truths come to be seen as public menaces, signs of an illiberal “dogmatism” at odds with the spirit of inclusion and a threat to “adult spirituality.” As Luther recognized, this may expand free choice, but it undermines freedom. The banishment of assertions from public life leaves us limp and uninspired. We have no basis on which to stand up to the principalities and powers that rule us. We must plight our troth to something higher than ourselves if we are to become capable of true freedom. Love’s bondage is the engine of liberty.

That’s happening less and less often today. When I talk to young people, I’m struck by how constrained they are in a culture that has demolished so many limits to their choices. They see great peril in their futures: acceptances denied, internships lost, jobs not offered. Last week I was talking to a talented software engineer. He’s thinking of quitting his job, worried that his company’s business model, presently quite lucrative, will soon be overtaken by rapid technological change. Prudence is a virtue. We should be attentive to worldly realities. But it struck me as sad that he felt the need to approach life in a defensive posture.

The depth and scope of today’s bondage to “the system” is extraordinary. This explains why something as bizarre as transgenderism gets widespread support from young people. The assertion that one is a woman, not a man, however misguided and self-defeating, seems like a powerful expression of freedom. To say “No!” to nature adds up to a remarkable (and unworkable) declaration of independence. We can explode the conceits of transgender ideology again and again, but the allure remains. That’s because the boldness of the assertion that a man can become a woman inspires those who have no interest in transgenderism but who want to find freedom somewhere in a world that banishes strong assertions. The explosive immodesty of cross-dressing galvanizes in an age that has banished strong truths with the false promise that doing so will guarantee freedom everywhere.

In his encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II explained how affirming truth sets us free. Asserting that there are intrinsically evil acts limits our choices. But in a deeper sense, these moral assertions provide the foundation for a culture of freedom. In a moral system in which everything depends upon circumstances or inner intentions, the resulting ambiguity favors the status quo. Without moral absolutes, we are left to our own devices, making us vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation. The principalities and powers that rule the “world” punish dissent. Given our weakness, we find ways to avoid paying a price for moral truth. At best, we retreat into an inward dissent that maintains outward conformity. At worst, we exploit the supposed ambiguities of moral truth to rationalize our compromises and capitulations.

By contrast, the clarity and force of traditional Catholic teaching about intrinsically evil acts plant the flag of rebellion. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II asserts these moral prohibitions, empowering ordinary people to take a stand. To hearken to the absolute and inviolable moral commandments of God, which are written on our hearts, does not lead to “childish spirituality.” It’s the soul of freedom. Only a man who can say, “I will not” is genuinely free. I will not “accompany” the culture of death. I will not conform to the sexual revolution. I will not deny my Lord and God. The freedom to say no—no to evil, no to lies, no to groupthink and easy self-deceptions—is the grace of moral truth. It provides us with a natural anticipation of the supernatural freedom given in God’s Word.

Although First Things has been accused of being illiberal, I sympathize with those who worry about the rise of illiberalism in the West. They are right to worry that freedom is under siege. But too often they misdiagnose the threats. We’ve had too much Erasmus of late, and too little Luther. We’re living in an age of ideological paralysis, economic determinism, and widespread social conformity, especially among those who market themselves as nonconformists. (The degree to which the “creative class” dresses, talks, and thinks in exactly the same way is remarkable.) Renewed freedom is going to require renewed assertions. We need truths boldly proposed and zealously affirmed. This will disrupt the social peace of our late modern secular culture, true, but our culture is decadent. It needs to be challenged.

Karl Barth

Ten years ago, the private letters of Karl Barth were published. They revealed what many suspected: The great Swiss theologian maintained a decades-long romance with his research assistant and theological muse, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. It was not a clandestine affair. Barth orchestrated a “triangle,” as he called it, in which Kirschbaum became a permanent part of his household for decades. This brought something less than joy to his wife, Nelly Barth. Now, Christiane Tietz has written an informative article detailing Barth and Kirschbaum’s relationship and quoting Barth’s many rationalizations (“Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today).

The letters tell a very human story. Barth is married, but he meets Charlotte, whom he comes to regard as his soul mate. She is brilliant, and they have intense theological conversations. There’s no racy talk of sex in the letters, but it’s clear the two become lovers. Barth agonizes. Charlotte agonizes. There is talk of renunciation—but, no, the “fact” of their being meant for each other cannot be denied. Barth tells his wife, Nelly, but he does not want to break up his marriage, even as he cannot give up Charlotte. So he sets up what he called eine Notgemeinschaft zu dritt, a necessary and troublesome communion of three. (Not means both necessity and affliction.) The formulation expresses the, ahem, ambiguity of the circumstances.

Reading these letters, one senses Barth’s overpowering personality. He knew adultery is a sin. He was aware that his actions imposed a great deal of suffering on his wife, but he imposed his will nevertheless. Barth was a powerful rhetorician, and he weaved self-exposing self-accusations with announcements of the human need to respect the reality of love. I was reminded yet again that in a world of fluid, flexible rules, the people who get what they want are the ones who possess the aptitude and education that allow them to manipulate concepts and talk in nuanced ways. Barth bullied his wife and some of his concerned friends with his intelligence.

Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His theological justifications for his Notgemeinschaft zu dritt should cause anyone who admires his work to cringe. He cites a “tension” between moral “order” and what “has come upon us unintentionally out of the mysterious guilty depth of the human.” Elsewhere he appeals to the tension between “the holiness of the command” and the “natural event.” There’s more than a whiff of situation ethics in this way of talking.

Later in his life, Barth wrote to a friend about his scandalous private life. He allows that “the greatest earthly blessing given to me in life” is “at the same time the strongest judgment against my earthly life.” This is classic Barth: a reversible raincoat formulation. “Thus,” he continues, “I stand before the eyes of God, without being able to escape from him one or the other way.” Apparently, it would be impossible to reject the “earthly blessing” for the sake of divine commandments, an odd and self-serving sentiment for a theologian who emphasizes the sovereignty of divine grace. Barth goes on to write:

It might be possible that it is from here that an element of experience can be found in my theology, or, to put it a better way, an element of lived life. I have been forbidden in a very concrete manner to become the legalist that under different circumstances I might have become.

This silver-lining exculpation amounts to an appeal to divine providence. God led him into persistent adultery in order to make him faithful to the gospel proclamation of salvation by grace alone!

I studied Barth extensively as an undergraduate. His theology played an important role in the awakening of my faith, and in an indirect way led me to the Catholic Church. These revelations cannot help but dim my appreciation of him. Though, in honesty, I never looked to Barth for a reliable ethical theory or moral theology. He was famously opposed to the concept of natural law. In Barth’s view, God’s revelation is wholly other. It comes as a lightning bolt that destroys any philosophical scaffolding we try to erect. There is something right about this. Barth gave powerful theological expression to the scandal of the Incarnation. This was his genius. But he was too one-sided and tended to reduce Christianity to a singular moment and a series of dialectical “tensions,” especially in his early theological writings. This way of thinking obscures the fact that Christianity is a way of life, and Christ has an ongoing body, the Church. I can see now that Barth’s one-sidedness grew, at least in part, out of a personal need to keep God from hanging around too long and making enduring, inescapable demands.

At one stage, Barth expressed exasperation with his mother’s disapproval of his self-designed approach to the difficult realities of love, sex, and marriage. (Everyone in Barth’s intimate circle knew about Charlotte.) “Why can’t his own mother trust him?” he asked. After all, he was a grown man who understood the realities of life and knew what he was doing. She replied that God’s commandments apply to everybody, including famous theologians. “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” In this matter, the mother was a better theologian than the son.

Saving Cosmopolitanism

The Mont Pelerin Society was formed after World War II to discuss ways to promote liberty in the contemporary world. It recently held a special meeting in Stockholm devoted to populism. There, Carl Ritter, a PhD researcher at Stockholm University, gave an interesting paper, “Liberalism, Populism, and the Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism.” (A summary is available on quillette.com, a “platform for free thought.”) He argues that the desirable trend toward greater global integration is being derailed by an ideological and utopian cosmopolitanism. Populism is best understood as a rebellion against this ideology, and unless leaders in the West moderate their cosmopolitan ambitions, this rebellion may succeed.

I’ve used “globalism” to describe the ideology driving the multifaceted, post-national vision that animates many. Ritter uses the term “cosmopolitan historicism.” By this he means the view that we are necessarily progressing (hence the term “historicism”) toward “a utopian borderless world where goods, ideas, and people move effortlessly past what used to be national borders, and where we’re all supposed to be primarily citizens of the world rather than of particular countries.” This way of thinking defines the goal or end of history as cosmopolitan universalism. It is inevitable—and we have a duty to promote it.

As Ritter observes, cosmopolitan historicism is not a rarified academic conceit. “A year after the Berlin Wall fell, George H. W. Bush declared to the United Nations that he envisioned ‘a world of open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds.’” Then came Bill Clinton, who argued that “globalization ‘is the economic equivalent of a force of nature.’ George W. Bush went on to celebrate this force of nature as a ‘triumph of human liberty stretching across national borders.’” Barack Obama also promoted this outlook, declaring that “given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

This view of history is accompanied by a concrete agenda, which Ritter summarizes:

The first policy is political and economic integration through international clubs such as the European Union and the World Trade Organization. The second is mass immigration, beginning to replace the nations of old with a global hybrid culture. The third is Westernization of non-Western countries. Whereas mass immigration made the West more like the Rest, liberal-democratic nation-building aimed to make the Rest more like the West.

Ritter allows that these developments, especially mass migration, have diverse causes. But the combination of “it’s inevitable” and utopian aspiration spurs them on, or at the very least dissuades political leaders from taking action to slow them down.

Fervent belief that their epoch was a cosmopolitan end of history led policymakers to ignore evidence that contradicted their simplistic faith. Instead they continued pushing ahead toward the utopia of which they dreamt, convinced that all setbacks were temporary snags.

Today’s populist rebellions in the West reject utopian cosmopolitanism. Ritter half agrees with the populists. Utopianism fuels ideological social engineering. Our societies need to change in light of new global realities, to be sure. But Ritter argues that we need “piecemeal engineering” that aims “for small-scale, evidence-based change.” This is especially true for immigration, which is at the center of political turmoil throughout the West. “Mass immigration is unpopular around the world, and if elites continue ignoring this it is likely to lead to further populist-nationalist backlashes, not cosmopolitan harmony.” We need sensible, prudent immigration policies that command wide public support. Failing to formulate such policies turns rising numbers of immigrants into a focal point of anti-liberal radicalization.

Ritter wants liberal cosmopolitanism to succeed, not fail. He recounts the successes of the American-led, post–World War II international order. These achievements are being undermined by cosmopolitan utopianism, which exercises a bewitching control over Western elites. “Discontent with cosmopolitanism now threatens to metastasize into an assault on the liberal order as such.” The discontent is legitimate and needs to be addressed, not ignored or dismissed as mere nativism. “It is a fallacy to think that the fate of humanity as a whole necessarily is best served by the dismantlement of all cultural and political boundaries.” We need a more “moderate cosmopolitanism” that can coexist with “moderate nationalism.” Ritter admits that he cannot tell us what that combination will look like in the coming decades. But we can begin by “discarding cosmopolitan historicism, with its simplistic and utopian understanding of politics.”

Ritter is right about the need to jettison cosmopolitan utopianism. I can’t count the number of times people have told me that immigration is always positive for our society. This is implausible and ignores the social-scientific data that show declines in solidarity and social trust in ethnically diverse communities. The same is true for global markets, which some tout as always for the best. This is also implausible. Rapid cultural and economic changes always have upsides and downsides. Recent elections have shown that our political leaders have ignored the downsides for too long. This amounts to political malpractice. And if our leaders continue to ignore the downsides of cosmopolitanism, not only will they shipwreck the postwar political settlement, they will discredit our liberal institutions and traditions as well.

I have a criticism of Ritter, however. He fails to see that ideological utopianism, communist, cosmopolitan, or otherwise, flourishes in the secular West because it functions as a surrogate religion. (See Matthew Rose’s “Our Secular Theodicy,” December 2017.) The moderate cosmopolitanism and moderate nationalism he hopes to see working in harmony require the influence of the biblical tradition. The Old and New Testaments express different forms of universalism, but in both cases the end of history is in God’s hands, not ours. This encourages cosmopolitan expectations, while blocking cosmopolitan projects that have a tendency to become ideological. The same goes for nationalism. It is moderated by the universalism of Judaism and Christianity.

Put simply, the best achievements of the postwar era will require a renewal of religion in public life. One expects the editor of First Things to say that. But that doesn’t make it any less true.


WHILE WE'RE AT IT


♦ In mid-November, I participated on a panel at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Our theme was the public legacy of the Reformation. My co-panelist Jennifer McNutt, a theology professor at Wheaton College, observed that we often misrepresent freedom of conscience. Luther was famously intransigent at the 1521 Diet of Worms. Legend has him saying, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” What he actually said was this: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” As McNutt pointed out, this is the witness of a bound conscience, not a free conscience, if by free we mean able to go where it wishes. We prize freedom of conscience because we respect consciences that are bound. If we design a political system, we’re wise to frame a right of conscience. For bound consciences have an extraordinary capacity to resist compulsion, and it is never wise to compel what cannot be compelled.


♦ In an assessment of the Reformation (“What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing,” Modern Age, Fall 2017), Timothy George describes the gist of Luther’s position on free will in his debate with Erasmus: “Luther depicts the human person as a horse that is ridden either by God or by the Devil. Thus the ultimate question of life is not ‘Who are you?’ but rather ‘Whose are you?’ To whom do you belong? Who is your Lord?”


♦ David Bentley Hart reviewed Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette’s defense of capital punishment, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, for Commonweal. At the outset, he states: “I am firmly convinced that no Christian who truly understands his or her faith can possibly defend the practice of capital punishment.” For more than a millennium, the Christian West has employed capital punishment with the blessing of the Church. Given that fact, Hart’s assertion seems to imply that nearly all Christians for many centuries have failed to understand their faith. Kierkegaard often gives a similar impression: Christians who came after the apostles and before him weren’t really Christian. That’s a bit too Protestant for me. In his review for First Things (“Against Capital Punishment,” December 2017), Paul Griffiths is no less sharp in his criticisms of Feser and Bessette than Hart is. But he makes a subtler claim. He argues for the development of doctrine when it comes to the morality of capital punishment. By his reckoning, the Catholic Church has reframed capital punishment in terms of her social doctrine. Our leading concept should be the common good, not retributive justice. I’m not altogether convinced by Griffiths. But it’s surely a theologically better way to argue against capital punishment. Without an argument of development, Hart risks consigning generations of Christians to a condition of spiritual benightedness.


♦ The Wall Street Journal editors chastise the proposed tax bills before Congress for making the “mistake of increasing the child tax credit.” The Journal typically favors tax cuts. But the editors don’t like tax policies that are sops to the “cultural right.” This falls into a long-standing pattern at the Wall Street Journal. The editorial page consistently inveighs against conservative social engineering. I find this odd. The Journal preaches regular sermons telling us that lowering taxes will encourage work and investment. I agree. Work and investment are crucial for the well-being of our society, and we should “engineer” the tax code to encourage that kind of behavior. Do the editors at the Journal think families are irrelevant to the health of society?


♦ Damir Marusic finds himself at odds with his fellow liberals. He hears his friends say, “It’s about our shared values. . . . Trump is attacking them. Liberal democracy is at stake. This is existential.” No fan of Trump, Marusic finds himself wanting to respond, “Democracy is just fine. . . . Liberalism, however, is slitting its own throat.” An arresting thought, and in “The End of Liberalism?,” published by the American Interest, where he serves as executive editor, Marusic develops it. He casts light on the way in which liberalism—by which he means the center-right and center-left consensus that includes George W. Bush and Barack Obama—has insulated itself from criticism and blinded itself to political realities.

 I have noticed that a kind of sickly grey hope hangs around most people’s hottest anti-Trump vitriol, lingering like stale morning breath: a hope that once everything is sorted—all the disinformation exposed, all the dossiers verified, all the tax returns audited, and all the President’s men jailed—the “adults” will wrest back control of politics, and things can get back more or less to the way they were before. Established, institutionalized parties representing well-defined and time-tested electoral coalitions will once again vie for the affections of so-called “independent” voters, whose demands define a sensible middle ground where the parties are compelled to make concessions to common sense. We will still have disagreements about important issues, my friends might say to me—issues like abortion, taxes, trade, and immigration will of course remain divisive. Banishing Trump does not mean the end of politics: after all, we remain a deeply polarized country. But the bigger frame of the debates will no longer come into question. Our values, to which Trump personally and Trumpism more broadly is such an affront, will no longer be up for debate.

 Maybe the old politics will return, though Marusic thinks it unlikely. Trump’s election is a symptom of a political change deeper than most establishment figures want to acknowledge. “What Trump has done is vastly expand the realm of what is politically possible (and permissible) in the United States. Arguably, he has done so across the existing political spectrum, not just on the Right.” Which is another way of saying that what the Great and the Good have taken for granted for the past three decades is now up for debate. Those who care about the future of the West need to enter that debate rather than pretend it’s not happening:

For someone who had previously bought into that liberal consensus, these are disorienting times, to be sure. But the truth is, democracy is not only working, it’s working quite well. Popular discontent with an overweening and increasingly ossified ideology is finding its voice across Europe, and has found a (deeply flawed) tribune in the United States. The future of liberalism depends on smart politicians getting the message loud and clear, and then working out a path forward that preserves all the elements of the philosophical tradition that are worth preserving. The shrill screeching of the high priests of the liberal clerisy is not helping things at all.

♦ Some screeching could be heard over at National Review. In the November 27, 2017 issue, Ramesh Ponnuru details what the old Marxists would have called a dangerous tendency of “deviationism” at First Things. He worries we’re heading toward “a serious turn away from free-market capitalism.” This “would also, necessarily, be a turn away from the liberalism of the American Founders.” Signs of danger: I fail to cheerlead for free markets with adequate enthusiasm; Adrian Vermeule refuses to accept liberalism’s conceit that it is the final, perfect, and all-inclusive theory of public life; and Patrick Deneen argues that our founding was not an immaculate conception. None of those lines of thought means “a serious turn away” from anything other than the outdated consensus that troubles Marusic. Questioning that consensus is the first and necessary step toward renewing it. The tendency to denounce as “illiberal” efforts to do so is a sign of how dysfunctional the consensus has become.


♦ Marusic draws upon a ten-year-old essay by Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. He saw the ways in which the post-1989 liberal consensus in Western Europe relabeled dissent in Eastern Europe as “fascist,” a move that Krastev calls the “Weimar interpretation.” Here is Krastev’s observation about the absurdity of this approach: “The streets of Budapest and Warsaw today are flooded not by ruthless paramilitary formations in search of a final solution but by restless consumers in search of a final sale.”


♦ In these pages, I’ve flogged the idea of taxing super-sized university endowments. I was delighted to discover that Congress proposed exactly such a tax in recent legislation. I wrote a web column in vigorous support (“Against Princeton”). I argued that rich elite schools in America “have failed in their self-appointed task.” Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and other prestigious universities have produced a lackluster leadership class. “For the last half-century, graduates from places like Princeton have been in charge. They have made a wreck of things—not for themselves, but for the rest of society.” These institutions have become fully owned subsidiaries of the Democratic party.

The ideological homogeneity makes liberal students smug and insular—and conservative students radical and combative. There’s no denying a simple fact: Elite universities, subsidized by gigantic endowments, have failed as civic institutions.

Further concentration of wealth and power in these institutions will only make things worse. “We need a more varied and diverse cultural landscape, one in which the native talent of our country is not so relentlessly concentrated in just a few super-rich schools and subjected to the same narrow experiences.” Taxing is a way of encouraging just that.

Taxes have consequences. Raise taxes on something, and you’ll get less of it. That’s exactly why the tax on super-sized university endowments is wise. We need less elite snobbery, condescension, and civic irresponsibility. Which means we need less elite education.

♦ A friend chastised me for what he took to be my populist anti-elitism. That’s not accurate. I’m not a simple-minded egalitarian. Every society needs a leadership class. But our fancy-pants universities have accumulated too much cultural power, and they do a lousy job training talented young people for leadership. The endowment tax is like a tax on cigarettes and liquor. We know that smoking or drinking to excess is harmful, so we try to deter it with taxation. The same is true for excessive endowments. They subsidize a dysfunctional academic culture that is smug and out-of-touch. We need elite education, by which I mean education that seeks to guide young Americans to a genuine command of our intellectual tradition. The problem is that these schools don’t provide that kind of education.


♦ I am, perhaps, naive to imagine that wider diffusion of endowment wealth and cultural power will help. Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, recently canceled a production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Good Person of Szechwan. The problems were obvious to anyone who has taken Political Correctness 101. The play was written by a German Marxist moralist and has as its main character an Asian woman. The theater department had cast white students in non-white roles. Theater department chair Elizabeth Carlin Metz endorsed the cancellation: “I believe that academia needs continually to be vigilant about shifting nuances in addressing sensitive texts.” Furthermore, “we need to acknowledge privilege in all sectors and the inherent bias that ensues. And we all need to listen.”


♦ Brandeis University also cancelled the production of a play, this one about Lenny Bruce, a comic known for his provocative style. The play turns on Ron, a Brandeis student. He listens to a Lenny Bruce performance that features the N-word, among other epithets. Ron develops his own routine in the Lenny Bruce style and then makes plans to perform it at Brandeis. The administration seeks to shut him down with threats of academic probation. I’m sure the playwright, Brandeis alum Michael Weller, is frustrated by the knavish Brandeis administration. But he’s no doubt consoled by the knowledge that the realism of his plot was vindicated.


♦ A friend sent along a sketch of Brideshead Revisited, a recasting of Evelyn Waugh’s classic in the Amoris Laetitia world.

In his second term at Oxford, Charles Ryder meets Sebastian, Lord Brideshead, only son of divorced aristocratic Catholics, who had decided to limit family size out of concern for population growth. Ryder develops an infatuation with Brideshead’s teddy bear Mauritius, finding himself in competition with the aesthete and dandy Anthony Blanche, who has gender-transitioned and presents himself as Cynthia Thorpe-Reese. When Brideshead dies the following term of complications of pneumonia Ryder comes into possession of Mauritius, but after the funeral a vindictive Cynthia seduces Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain. They run off together to Rome, where they are publicly embraced by Pius XI at a photo-op. His Holiness has no recollection of the footnote in his apostolic letter Mit lauwarmer Sorge (“With Tepid Anxiety”) in which he commended auto-eroticism as a help in battling insomnia. Ryder returns to his room to find the ambitious don Mr. Gramsass savagely violating Mauritius on his futon. Gramsass is sent to rehab in Vienna, and Ryder, under the influence of the wealthy Canadian Rex Mottram, begins collecting model trains. Curtain.

As my friend observes, when you think about it, the revised plots pretty much write themselves. Odysseus returns and finds Penelope settled in with one of the suitors “for the sake of the children.” Dante’s Paolo and Francesca get shifted to Purgatorio, where they suffer the pains of workshops on intimacy and relationship therapy. Goldilocks decides it’s Papa Bear’s bed that’s “just right.” Medea just gets over it.


♦ Some years ago, Justin Shubow introduced me to Richard Cameron, a classical architect. He had a plan to rebuild Penn Station in New York City. The original station was a neoclassical wonder designed by McKim, Mead & White. It was demolished in the early 1960s, an act of civic vandalism. In its place was built a drab modern office tower and Madison Square Garden. The train station below street level is one of the most depressing public spaces in America. At the time, I thought rebuilding Penn Station impossible. But in fact it’s quite doable and no more expensive than the postmodern confections being constructed today. And, miraculously, support is growing to do just that. Rebuild Penn Station is a project sponsored by the National Civic Arts Society. You can learn about their ambitions at rebuildpennstation.org. The project is launching an advertising campaign on New Jersey Transit commuter trains and in stations. The ads feature sketches of the magnificent original station. Commuters of the world unite!


♦ Rebuilding Penn Station is about more than restoring a lost treasure. It represents a commitment of political significance. New York is a tremendously wealthy city built upon the dynamism of private enterprise, which makes it a remarkable and exciting place. During various phases of the city’s history, that wealth and dynamism has been tied to grand schemes of public construction. These public spaces make New York a place of civic solidarity, not just private wealth. Central Park is the most obvious example. Grand Central Station is another. After Robert Moses was dethroned in the early 1960s, New York lacked public ambition, and the difficult decades of the 1970s and 1980s saw little public investment. The last two decades brought reinvestment in parks and civic spaces. Rebuilding Penn Station would add a great deal more momentum to that positive trend.


♦ I was recently asked some questions by Matteo Matzuzzi, a journalist who writes for the Rome-based Italian newspaper Il Foglio. He’s working on a long essay about the current state of the Catholic Church. Here’s one question he asked: “Why, in your opinion, does the pope face so much resistance even within the Church itself? Is it only a clash between so-called conservatives and progressives?”

My answer: Francis governs by gesture. He seems to wish to relax certain moral standards but does not redefine them, choosing instead to reframe controversial matters in terms of pastoral discretion. He refuses to respond to requests for clarification. This ambiguity leads to conflict as those with quite different visions battle for the future of the Church. This will, in all likelihood, get worse. To a striking degree, some of the old 1970s battle lines are being redrawn, and the secular and political labels of “conservative” and “progressive” are again being applied. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were able to minimize these clashes, because they were both “progressives” at the Council and yet rejected the radicalism that followed afterward. This led JPII and Benedict to formulate powerful personal syntheses of diverse trends in mid-twentieth-century Catholicism, and they had the intellectual capacity to articulate their syntheses in convincing ways. Pope Francis had no role at Vatican II, and he does not seem to have an articulate account of how the contrasting impulses of reform and continuity go together in post–Vatican II Catholicism. He’s a poet in sensibility, not a philosopher or theologian, and like many Jesuits, he makes his way intuitively, often making eclectic, even contradictory arguments in favor of the courses of action he has already decided upon. As a consequence, Francis is unlikely to articulate a synthetic, post-conciliar vision. This creates a vacuum, which is why some of the old “conservative” versus “progressive” battles of the 1970s are returning, though of course in different forms.


♦ Another question: “Do you think that Francis is designing a new ‘model of Church’ compared to that of John Paul II? A Church with other priorities and horizons?”

My answer: I’m not sure if Pope Francis is “designing” anything. His style seems improvisational, not systematic. Nevertheless, the Church will certainly change under his leadership, whether by design or not. His refusal to provide doctrinal clarity is likely to diminish somewhat the authority of the papal office. This will force the Church toward more localized expressions of orthodoxy, which may end up a positive legacy (though at the cost of diminished Catholic unity). He seems to want to involve the Church more explicitly in global issues such as climate change and migration. This may turn out to be a negative legacy. The Vatican is already too much like an NGO with incense. I want to be clear, however, that I have some sympathy for Francis. John Paul II faced a clear challenge. Communism was an enemy of the Church and an enemy of human dignity. As a consequence, JPII’s resistance to Soviet domination of his native land was at once a fundamental defense of the gospel and a defense of humanity. His public witness realized the ideals of Gaudium et Spes, which envisioned a fusion between serving Christ and serving humanity. Pope Francis is not so fortunate. The global challenges we face today are morally complex, not clear, and they do not align with threats to the Church’s ministry. More often than not, those threats, at least in the West, stem from secular ideologies endorsed by the very people Francis partners with to fight climate change, promote greater global economic equality, and resist populism. 


♦ Still another question: “How does the Pope face the secularism in the West? Is it enough to go to the peripheries to revive Christianity?”

My answer: I don’t like talk of “peripheries.” It is not a biblical term. Like a great deal of the moral-political rhetoric of our time, such as “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “marginal,” its meaning is vague and easily manipulated. For example, in the United States, a well-educated gay man who makes a good living can be recast as someone on the “peripheries.” He is described as part of a “sexual minority.” I’ve heard young conservative Catholics at secular universities speak of themselves as “marginalized.” Meanwhile, the epidemic of heroin overdose death in the United States affects less well-educated native-born Americans. These people, however, are not on the “peripheries,” at least not in the way political correctness shapes our moral imaginations today. Our tradition speaks of a preferential option for the poor—a biblical imperative of central importance in the Old and New Testaments. This is a better way of talking than vague evocations of “peripheries.” In any event, evoking the “peripheries” does not really challenge the secularism of the West. It has been talking that way for the last fifty years—the “other,” “difference,” and so forth.


♦ A ROFTERS group is forming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To join the monthly discussion of First Things articles, contact Steven Wissler (swissler@yahoo.com).

A group is also forming in Rome, Italy, under the leadership of Br. Jonathan Flemings, Legionaries of Christ. You can contact him at JFlemings@legionaries.org.


♦ In November, I sent a letter to all our subscribers. My purpose was to ask for your support. Twenty-seventeen was a terrific year for First Things. Month after month, we’ve been able to publish superb articles. We gained more than 1,000 subscribers. Firstthings.com featured timely interventions into the theological, cultural, and political controversies of our very interesting historical moment. Support from readers during our spring campaign was strong. Amid all this success, however, we continue to run uphill in sand. Putting out a magazine that’s theologically serious and culturally influential is an expensive proposition. We only survive because readers like you are so generous. I hope you will answer my request for support and make a donation to sustain and strengthen the mission of First Things

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