Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Bret Stephens recently championed the “classically liberal concept of a neutral public square.” In this issue, Matthew Schmitz examines similar assertions by George Will. These accounts characterize any substantive basis for civic life as “illiberal,” even “theocratic.” They entail a false dichotomy. The facile appeal to neutrality and dismissal of everything else as “illiberal” reflects a theoretical cast of mind, not political wisdom. Far from preserving liberty, it will shipwreck our liberal societies.

For a better approach, I recommend Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In this complex work of theology, ecclesiastical controversy, and political philosophy, the Anglican divine Richard Hooker observes that political society is remedial. The family is a natural institution that would have flourished in paradise. But the Fall set brother against brother, and ever since, the affairs of men have been convulsed by “envy, strife, contention, and violence.” Thus, schemes of “public regiment” are required. We need political communities—what Hooker calls “civil societies”—to regulate human relations disrupted by original sin.

The need for political community is universal, but the particular forms of government and systems of law are contingent. “Nature tieth not to any one, but leaveth choice as a thing arbitrary.” The English constitution differs from the American, not least by being implicit rather than written. France’s regime is not the same as ­Germany’s.

The contingency of political forms raises a fundamental question: What makes a regime legitimate? It’s easy to see why I should obey the universal dictates of morality and the revealed law of God. But why the laws of the United States? They lack the immediate authority of moral principle and divine law. It won’t do to say that I conform because I’ve checked each one and can verify that they are fitting expressions of universal truths. That’s an unrealistic undertaking. In any event, a regime promulgates laws to be obeyed, not propositions to be examined, discussed, and debated.

Liberalism, as a political theory, is distinctively modern. It seeks to resolve the contingent particularity of political life into the rigorous universality of a moral science. In this respect, liberalism is a secular echo of the theocratic dream of deriving a nation’s laws directly from divine sources. Jeremy Bentham believed that the particularity of English law needed to be brought into conformity with the principle of utility. This universal demand marked Bentham as a philoso-crat. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls makes the same demand, though the moral science he develops is more nuanced, combining Bentham with Kant. Marxism, likewise, translates politics into a supposed science, that of dialectical materialism. Each regime is legitimate insofar as it corresponds to dictates deemed universal. Bret Stephens follows the same pattern. We’re urged to be true to liberalism, the touchstone for the legitimacy of the American regime.

The judicious Hooker had a genius for reality, as opposed to cleverness with theory. He rejects the illusion that political legitimacy can be derived from universal principles and gives instead a mixed answer to the question of why we should be loyal citizens. The first part of the answer involves an argument from equity and convenience. In chapter ten of the first book of the Laws, Hooker applies the Golden Rule to the social life. We all seek our own “commodity,” by which he means our material interests and those of our families. In this pursuit, we wish to be unmolested by others, and thus we ought to acknowledge and honor in others the same wish. But we know that we tend to be partial to our own causes. We cannot resolve conflicts of interest—ours or others’—with impartiality. It is fitting, therefore, to adopt the convenience of political authority. This greater power will judge disputes. “Strifes and troubles would be endless” among fallen men, “except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon.”

Locke read Hooker and drew from this material in the Second Treatise of Government. Had Hooker stopped with this line of reasoning, we might range him among the proto-liberals. But he didn’t. As the Bible makes clear, some authorities govern by “immediate appointment of God.” Hooker has in mind more than King David and the other kings of Israel. In Romans 13:1, the Apostle Paul stipulates: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Political legitimacy arises not only from below, as it were, from the consent of the governed. It also descends from above. To some degree, all political communities appeal to sacred authority.

Hooker does not stake this view on scriptural authority alone. He adds a historical argument. In ancient times, he observes, kings were also priests, fusing temporal and sacerdotal roles. Circumstances were different in the England of his era, but Hooker recognized that his government still relied upon an element of divine “appointment.” This involved more than the English monarch’s role. The English common law is based in its long-standing usage, manifesting an antiquity perfumed with the sacred.

We can carry Hooker’s insight further. Why am I a citizen of this country, rather than of another country with different laws? We are in a real sense appointed to our stations in life. I do not choose my parents; most of us do not choose our countries. The commandment to honor father and mother has a political application, at least by analogy. We are to cultivate loyalty to our homeland, not because it exemplifies a political theory or embodies universal moral truths, but because we are its sons and daughters by a prevenient “appointment.”

Yves Simon observed, “In the world of action a thing can be significant, worthy, treasurable, without having any character of essentiality or intelligibility.” By “the world of action,” he means the realm of moral and political judgment. Those judgments can never be resolved into conclusions from moral or political theories. There remains a precious but inscrutable (and thus theoretically unjustifiable) thatness in every political regime, a thatness we rightly honor and cherish. The attempts of modern “isms”—including liberalism—to eliminate this contingency and its authority over “the world of action” ­dehumanize us.

Hooker is a more reliable guide to political life than Locke or other liberal theorists. There can be no purely liberal polity. This fact does not make liberalism irrelevant. A regime gains the regular and willing ­obedience of its citizens in and through their consent. No polity endures without the loyalty of those who constitute it. But in every existing society, we harken to an “­appointment” that infuses a particular way of life with an authority greater than the sum of our consents, more powerful than the ­authority that can be gained from philosophical ­arguments.

The combination of consent and appointment is plain to see in the American tradition. We are indebted to Locke and other liberal thinkers. They offer principled resources for testing and correcting our way of life. But the remarkable venture outlined in the Declaration of Independence appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the world” and puts its cause under “the protection of divine Providence.” The founding conventions and congresses of the United States opened with invocations. Abraham Lincoln’s famous speeches draw their power and majesty from biblical images and citations. To this day, American politicians play the role of civic priests when they recite the ritual petition, “God bless America.”

It’s easy to dismiss these invocations and appeals to the divine as the residue of an earlier, unenlightened age—or as concessions to a religious constituency. That’s mistaken. Hooker is correct: Every polity needs “divine appointment,” one or another form of sacred sources that sustain the social compact. The reason is obvious. No government has ever existed that fully and equitably serves the material and moral interests of its members. Judged by the strict principles of justice, however defined by theorists, no regime merits our full consent. Even in a modern liberal society such as our own, something must be super-added to justify our whole-hearted allegiance. This super-added element turns the social contract into a sacred covenant.

Pace Bret Stephens, the public square is never “neutral.” There is a strong element of piety in our disposition toward the Constitution, a quasi-sacred document. We speak of founding fathers, a usage that draws upon the pre-political authority of the paterfamilias, as well as the transcendent authority of our Heavenly Father. Our monuments to these men are modeled on ancient temples, affirming the fusion of king and priest, which Hooker observed, and which has not passed away but remains active in our political imagination. And insofar as we are a progressive-minded people, we invest the future with sacred significance. We believe that what we will accomplish together—greater freedom and justice for all—will redeem our loyalty to the imperfect present. President Obama was well practiced in this invocation. We take this way of talking so much for granted that we do not recognize it for what it is: a reformulation of the biblical promise of redemption. American exceptionalism rests in the conviction that achieving this future is our appointed task. And what higher power made this world-historical “appointment”?

Bret Stephens and others who champion “classical liberalism” mislead. They say that our polity must be based exclusively on liberal theory. This notion impoverishes our political culture. Many nations throughout the West are being convulsed by economic transformation, cultural disorientation, and demographic change, the United States among them. In these times, we need to restore the covenants that hold us together as a people—a task fully consistent with the principles of our founding documents and best traditions. Doing so will require a subtle language of the sacred, not a reiteration of liberal principles.

John Lukacs Remembered

In early May, John Lukacs passed away. He was a remarkable man of extraordinary talent. Though he was a native of Hungary, where he lived until early adulthood, his English prose has wit and charm. A Thread of Years, a work of historical imagination, is one of the best books I’ve read on the social history of the twentieth-century West. The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler and Five Days in London: May 1940, close studies of the turning point of World War II, are deservedly popular. Confessions of an Original Sinner is an engaging memoir. He lived long enough to write another, Last Rites. Lukacs was prolific. He has many other books, all worth reading.

His Christian sensibility gave Lukacs a keen awareness of the threat of evil and made him a defender of freedom. This gave his historical writing a dramatic quality. ­Lukacs dismissed materialist theories of history. He often argued that the opposite of what Marx thought is true: The circulation of ideas is the base of social reality; the material economy is the superstructure. As he insisted, “What marks the movements of the history of societies and peoples is not the movement of capital. It is the accumulation of opinions.” Deeper still, he says elsewhere, are the shifting tides of sentiment.

Lukacs can be enigmatic in his formulations, which often seem to verge on voluntarism and idealism untethered from the indisputable influence of concrete realities. In one place: “People do not have ideas; they choose them.” I read this and similar assertions as pedagogical provocations. Too often we are Marxist manqués, imagining that the world runs on economic principles. But the politics of interests (which are real) remains subordinate to the politics of the imagination. We can only vote for what we can imagine. Lukacs again: “‘Intolerable’ is what people no longer want to tolerate: in other words, when they begin to think or say that this or that must not be tolerated.” By this formulation Lukacs does not mean to endorse relativism. He is pointing to a deep truth about public life. Churchill was not a brilliant technocrat or military genius. His greatness came from his leadership and rhetoric. He made surrender to Hitler’s domination of Europe intolerable, unimaginable—just as it was being entertained by Lord Halifax and others during the decisive days after German armies had swept through France.

Lukacs always insisted that Nazism was a greater threat in the twentieth century than communism. The latter, he often said, was a relic of the Enlightenment, a “cast-iron piece from the junk heap of nineteenth-century ideas.” Nazism, by contrast, was modern, based on post-Darwinian ideas of life-force, power, and purifying conflict. Hitler—a lifelong obsession of Lukacs’s—“was cleverer than Marx: for a more powerful mind that is moved by hate is bound to express itself more clearly than a theorist moved by resentment.” As he pointed out, the German people, inflamed by Hitler’s imaginings, almost succeeded in conquering all of Europe. The Soviet Union never came close.

During the Cold War, Lukacs irritated conservatives with his stinging criticisms of anti-communism, which he deemed overwrought. He insisted that Soviet domination of its European satellites reflected the potency of Russian nationalism, not international Marxism. In retrospect, Lukacs was right, though he underestimated the allure of communism. He worried about blind nationalism, which is understandable. He saw in his youth how patriotic love, in itself noble, was distorted by Nazism into a brutal, powerful, dominating, destructive passion. He considered communism hardly more than a lie. Perhaps this is true of the clanking steam engine of dialectical materialism, but utopianism appeals to something noble in our breast. It is not hard to imagine that postmodern variants of Marxism will reemerge as surrogate religions for secular elites who want to escape their self-love by pledging their troth to what seem like high ideals. Many already have.

Lukacs was always grateful for his American ­citizenship, even as he cherished his Hungarian roots. As he liked to say, “Hungary is my mother; America is my wife.” He conducted a nearly seventy-year romance with the city of Philadelphia, writing a book about its famous denizens, Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900–1950. He admired the city’s stolid bourgeoisie, whose company he preferred to that of the so-called intellectuals in New York. There was no bohemian wanderlust in Lukacs. He planted himself in Chester County outside Philadelphia, living on the same plot of land for more than sixty years.

The convulsions of the twentieth century made him a “displaced person,” the label the postwar military bureaucracy slapped on those who, uprooted by German and Russian conquests, had tumbled westward. But his lifelong goal was to be “placed.” Being placed involves more than geography. His work as a scholar and writer was devoted to the twentieth century, largely its first half. These were the decades that shaped the world into which he had been born and come of age, the decades defined by the powerful forces that had cast him across the Atlantic Ocean and into the New World.

He also wrote again and again about the “end of the age”—the age he called variously the modern age, the bourgeois age, the age of science, the age of progress, and more. This, too, defined his life, for he saw himself as a loyal citizen of the old dispensation, the one that was passing away. “I am, I was, a man of the short twentieth century, a remnant reactionary, a remnant self-proclaimed bourgeois, a remnant admirer of the civilization and culture of the past five hundred years.” At the same time, he was witnessing epochal changes. Lukacs remained a participant, revisiting and revising his interpretations of our circumstances at the “end of the age.” He never stopped remembering the past in order to understand the present. In that sense, his “reactionary” opinions were always contemporary.

Over years spent reading his books, I’ve come to see that Lukacs’s historical imagination was integral to his larger quest for self-knowledge. He was forever seeking to “place” himself in the stream of events, the currents of opinion, and changes in sentiment. He did not see himself in Churchill (whom he venerated). Vanity is a far greater impediment to self-knowledge than ignorance. Rather, he saw Churchill in himself.

What does this mean? The answer takes us to Lukacs’s main thesis about history and the modern era. His younger self, a half-Jewish university student living in Budapest, was implicated in Churchill’s decisions, indeed in his very thoughts, even his sentiments, all of which constellated to stymie Hitler. The child is father of the man. Lukacs looked back to Churchill and many other facets of the first half of the twentieth century in order to understand his own life, which, like every life, cascades over the waterfall of the present. This fusion of historical inquiry and the age-old quest for self-knowledge made him an idiosyncratic historian of great depth and perception. I have relished reading him. His books are filled with observations and even phrases that seem composed to speak directly to me. Like this one, which could serve as a summation of his intellectual endeavor: “The purpose of human ­knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, or even certainty; it is understanding.”

Failed Academic Leaders

In this issue, we publish Ryszard Legutko’s account of his experience of the latest American academic innovation, the dis-invitation. Legutko is an accomplished philosopher and the author of a perceptive, nuanced critique of modern liberalism. As a member of the European Parliament representing Poland, he has direct experience of the ups and downs of post–Cold War Europe. Given the debates about liberalism that have intensified in the last two years, as well as the populism presently disrupting the political consensus throughout the West, one would think the academic leaders of Middlebury College would welcome his contributions to discussion on their campus. Instead, they caved to student activists who insisted that the mere presence of Legutko on the leafy Vermont campus would pose dire threats to the well-being of students.

This failure of academic leadership does not surprise me. For decades, elite universities have been sowing racial discord. In late April, the National Association of Scholars published a detailed report on the neo-­segregationism at Yale University. Yale is exemplary but by no means unique. The wealthier the institution, the more ­resources it pours into what amount to apartheid regimes of ­minority-only summer programs, dorms, counseling programs, and academic majors. Though at first the intent was remedial—to help retain students who struggled at selective universities—the programs have taken on lives of their own, establishing bureaucracies that have a vested interest in the divisive, denunciatory rhetoric of identity politics. These programs and the mentality behind them have created hothouses of resentment and multiplied incentives for students to intensify conflict. The louder the students scream (often egged on by sub-deans of diversity), the more resources they (and the sub-deans) receive. As an added benefit, students get the psychic satisfaction of forcing professors, deans, and college presidents to grovel at their feet.

At the same time that academia has nurtured identity politics, it has pursued a parallel project of ruthless ideological redlining. College presidents, deans, and department chairs have looked the other way, giving tacit (and in some cases explicit) approval as entire departments and programs have imposed rigorous ideological tests in academic hiring. Conservatives need not apply. As a consequence, an entire generation of progressive students has no experience with conservative ideas presented in sophisticated, thoughtful ways by faculty devoted to a shared community of inquiry. It’s not surprising, therefore, that student activists can so complacently demonize people like Legutko.

The fevered ideological homogeneity of higher education is a significant cause of today’s political polarization. Resentment-driven identity politics is a university creation that has become a force in our wider culture, as Joe Biden is discovering. This has been going on for more than thirty years. Now an entire generation of university graduates is assuming positions of civic leadership on the left, having received only affirmation of their views during their education. Worse, they learned at college that the most powerful tool in the contest of ideas is not argument but denunciation and the use of institutional power. If you can smear someone who thinks differently about the common good with accusations of racism, homophobia, and other epithets, why bother with reasons?

Reading Legutko’s account, I found the failure of ­Middlebury’s president and provost to communicate with him especially shameful. The first principle of leadership is to own up to one’s decisions, which in this case meant meeting face-to-face and explaining the decision to a fellow academic who had traveled from Europe to speak. It’s a sign of how degraded our liberal elite has become that Middlebury’s leaders were AWOL. It seems that all the grown-ups, from deans to trustees, covered their eyes and wished away the whole episode.

Today’s political polarization is being caused by our liberal elites. Again and again, they show themselves unwilling and unable to lead. Into the vacuum flow bigot-baiting grifters like Jussie Smollett, ignorant students impressed by their politically correct virtue, and social justice thugs.

The shameful treatment of Legutko was entirely predictable, given the last thirty years of academic leadership in American higher education. Like so many in our ruling class, our academic elite lack courage and a basic sense of honor. They sit atop establishment institutions as small-souled managers, not leaders.

while we’re at it

♦ Editorial wisdom from Charles Péguy: “A review only continues to have life if each issue annoys at least one-fifth of its readers. Justice lies in seeing that it is not always the same fifth.”

♦ Kurt Kaser, a farmer in Pender, Nebraska, got his leg stuck in the grain elevator intake while unloading his truck of grain. “When it first happened,” he told reporters, “I remember thinking, ‘This ain’t good. This is not good at all.’” As the machine tried to suck him into the grain elevator, he took out his pen knife and amputated his leg below the knee. The machine immediately “processed” his lower leg, and he was able to get to safety. While recovering at the hospital, he commented on the loss of his leg: “It is what it is, make the best of it is all you can do. It could have always been worse.”

♦ Members of the California State Bar are asked to describe their sexual orientation. Options given: “lesbian or gay,” “bisexual,” “heterosexual,” “pansexual,” “­asexual,” and “not listed (please specify).” The old ­dismissal of washed-up cultures that are reduced to ­counting the number of angels on the head of a pin comes to mind.

Reviewing a new book on George Orwell’s 1984, George Packer bemoans Trumpian rhetoric on the right. But he is more anguished by the Orwellian tendencies of his fellow progressives, who have shifted toward a punitive “woke” orthodoxy:

[The orthodoxy is] enforced by social pressure, nowhere more intensely than on Twitter, where the specter of being shamed or “canceled” produces conformity as much as the prospect of adding to your tribe of followers does. This pressure can be more powerful than a party or state, because it speaks in the name of the people and in the language of moral outrage, against which there is, in a way, no defense. Certain commissars with large followings patrol the precincts of social media and punish thought criminals, but most progressives assent without difficulty to the stifling consensus of the moment and the intolerance it breeds—not out of fear, but because they want to be counted on the side of justice.

This willing constriction of intellectual freedom will do lasting damage. It corrupts the ability to think clearly, and it undermines both culture and progress. Good art doesn’t come from wokeness, and social problems starved of debate can’t find real solutions.

♦ I’ve been reading François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave. Chateaubriand came of age during the French Revolution. Son of an aristocrat, he was orphaned by the historical developments of the democratic age. He had nostalgic sensibilities, but like Alexis de Tocqueville, Chateaubriand sought to understand the dramatic changes of his times rather than rage against them. He was unlike most progressives, who suffer from the limitations of vision that always affect men who move with the current of prevailing sentiment. A man out of season, Chateaubriand (like Tocqueville) saw clearly the gains and losses. Here’s an example of his marvelous literary style and cultural insight:

In the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, our imperfect civilization, our superstitious beliefs, and our strange and half-barbarous customs lent romance to all things. Characters were strong; imagination was powerful; existence was mysterious and hidden. By night, around the high walls of the cemeteries and the convents, under the deserted ramparts of the city, along the chains and ditches of the marketplaces, on the outskirts of the closed quarters, in the narrow streets without streetlamps, where thieves and murderers lay in ambush, where meetings took place by torchlight or in impenetrable darkness, it was at the risk of your head that you kept a rendezvous with some ­Héloïse. To give himself over to such chaos, a man would have to be truly in love; to violate the prevailing moral code, he would have to make great sacrifices. Not only would it be a question of facing unforeseen dangers, and braving the killing blade of the law, but also of having to conquer within himself the power of fixed habits, the authority of his family, the tyranny of domestic conventions, the opposition of his conscience, and the terrors and duties of a Christian. All these obstacles would double the energy of one’s passions.

Progressivism has made us freer to do as we please, ­unhindered by the powerful monitors of traditional ­morality. But we are therefore smaller. We’ve become monochrome, thanks to bloodless utility, cold assertions of rights, celebrity without honor, and failure without shame.

♦ Chateaubriand on the leaders of the French ­Revolution: “They sang of nature, peace, pity, beneficence, ­candor, and domestic virtues, and meanwhile these blessed ­philanthropists sent their neighbors to have their necks sliced, with extreme sensibility, for the greater happiness of the human race.”

♦ BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager. It gets the attention of publicly traded companies when it fires off strongly worded missives. A recent one from Vice President A. Matthew Vahidi left little in doubt: “I wanted to make you aware that last year we updated our US proxy voting guidelines to specify that we expect public company boards to have at least two women directors, in conjunction with other elements of diversity.” For the curious, that’s called a quota.

♦ The BlackRock quota fits with elite priorities. Apparently, one of the great causes of social justice in our time is to make rich women who are already part of the C-suite social set even richer.

♦ In early April, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issued a statement on the sexual abuse crisis. It included a criticism of post–Vatican II moral theology. The Association of German Moral Theologians issued a testy reply. Fr. ­Robert Imbelli, professor of theology emeritus at Boston College, observed that the indignation was all too predictable. It suggests the concern of a self-regulating guild intent on defending its privileges and prerogatives. Imbelli:

Though the signatories refer to themselves as “moral theologians,” their statement contains little that is recognizably “theological.” At the center of Benedict’s concerns are the distinctive theological matters of the loss of a meaningful sense of God in contemporary culture and the grievous decline in Eucharistic reverence and practice in great parts of the contemporary Church.
In stark contrast, the statement of the eminent professors, officers of an Association of Moral Theologians, contains no reference to God or to his Christ. There is absolutely no hint of normative commitment to a Eucharistic vision and practice founded in the real Presence of Jesus Christ.
Though they have the effrontery to accuse ­Joseph Ratzinger of pursuing an “escapist approach to ­theology,” they themselves fail to manifest any sense of ­theology as an ecclesial discipline governed by “the rule of faith.” Rather, the impression conveyed is that contemporary culture provides the standards of authentic living to which the Church must submit. This is not the approach of true “aggiornamento,” but of rank ­capitulation.
One need not be a “contextual” theologian, therefore, to wonder whether the Association of Moral Theologians is instead an association of professors of ethics, groping toward some understanding of the good life that State-endowed university chairs in a late-capitalist society make possible for their occupants.

♦ In our last issue, I noted, “To assert that governance involves nothing of theological import is itself a theological judgment.” I meant it in reference to debates about liberalism and secular politics, but it applies to church governance as well. Even more so.

♦ My senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, recently equated being pro-life with being racist. “I think there’s some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable.” She went on: “There is no moral equivalency when you come to racism. And I do not believe that there is a moral equivalency when it comes to changing laws that deny women reproductive freedom.” The analogy to racism is not innocent. Our civil rights law provides powerful tools to stamp out racism. By this way of thinking, uttering a pro-life sentiment amounts to creating a “hostile environment” and is thus subject to legal action. Or it means applying the Bob Jones case to institutions that affirm the sanctity of life, depriving them of tax-exempt status. I’m always struck by the lazy assumption that “conservatives” stoke tension and are the cause of polarization when, in truth, progressives are quick to issue threats. The woke university students are not renegades. They follow the lead of progressive activists and politicians.

♦ Gillibrand also implied that the pro-life cause amounts to the establishment of religion, the imposition of a religious dogma on the American people. Michael Gerson summarizes Gillibrand’s effort to read the pro-life cause out of the American tradition: “Opposing abortion, by definition, is a form of bigotry. And this bigotry comes from religion. And religion can’t be the basis for law. Therefore, in Gillibrand’s view, pro-life people are not only wrong; they are bigoted theocrats who threaten democracy.” This was the tactic the left used to drive anyone who opposed same-sex marriage out of public life. It is not surprising that Gillibrand attempts to do the same to those who oppose our abortion regime.

♦ Meanwhile, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker has signed legislation designed to make abortion even easier to obtain. The bill includes a chilling statement of what is implied by our abortion regime but rarely said out loud: “A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights.” The weak are entirely under the dominion of the powerful. Welcome to twenty-first-century liberalism.

♦ I’m shocked that black lawmakers in Illinois voted for the pro-abortion legislation. The bill says about the ­unborn child exactly what antebellum American law said about slaves. The enslaved black man was acknowledged as a human being, but he had no “independent rights,” which meant no rights at all.

♦ John Lukacs: “We are responsible both for how and what we do or say as well as for how and what we think and see (or, for what we want to think and for what we want to see).” More strongly still, we are responsible for our sentiments, the orientation and even content of our feelings. An obvious example: Over time the company we keep—something we have a choice about—shapes our sentiments. The object of spiritual discipline is soulcraft, which means shaping our deepest desires. One of the fallacies of our time is the notion that our desires are fixed and determinative of who we are.

♦ On the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 23, I visited Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Hialeah, Florida. The seminary is one of many founded by the Neocatechumenal Way, a post–Vatican II movement within the Catholic Church committed to lifelong Christian formation in accordance with the Word of God. I had been invited to speak at the seminary’s annual gala dinner that evening. An early arrival allowed me to meet with the seminarians, twenty or more men being trained to serve the mission of the Neocatechumenal Way. They expressed their appreciation for my visit. But in truth they gave me far more. It is easy to be glum about the Catholic Church these days. Their zeal for the faith reminded me that the wind bloweth where it listeth. There is a great deal of new life in the Church, and it was encouraging to feel the warm breath of the Holy Spirit in that place.

♦ Creative destruction, innovation, and dynamism: These qualities have been championed over the last generation as crucial for a vibrant economy that will benefit all Americans. In “Putting Dynamism in Its Place” (National Affairs, Spring 2019), Oren Cass exposes this promise as a false one:

The mistakes of an absolutist approach [to free-market dynamism] have been laid bare by a 40-year stagnation in median wages and even worse results for struggling segments of the population and for less-educated men in particular, the concentration of dynamism’s benefits into ever-narrowing geographic pockets, and the plainly disastrous results that unconstrained trade with China has had for millions of people and the national economy’s industrial strength. No one believes that more disruption is always good or that dynamism automatically equals prosperity, nor should they. The choice we face is therefore not between reassertion of the old orthodoxy and grappling with our challenges; it is between grappling with our challenges and abandoning the field.

♦ Cass makes a strong case against dynamism-creativity absolutism in economics. We’re afflicted by a similar absolutism in our culture, one that prizes marginality and transgression. This boundary-busting mentality does more harm to struggling Americans than do ill-advised economic policies. The shocking increase in ­self-inflicted mortality—drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol- and ­obesity-related illnesses—is a direct consequence of our fifty-year-long celebration of transgression. We have removed the moral guardrails in our society. It’s no surprise that more and more people are skidding off the road.

♦ The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that rates of suicide are at the highest levels since World War II. Among ten- to thirty-four-year-olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death. The researchers interpret this as a sign of a mental health crisis. Doubtless that’s true, but what’s driving the crisis? Lack of availability of treatment and services for the mentally ill? That can’t be an explanation, since far fewer resources were available a generation ago. The most likely explanation is that today’s dominant culture, committed to moral deregulation, is noxious and harmful.

♦ In mid-June, I participated in the Religious Freedom Annual Review, sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young Law School. During the course of the conference, a number of participants spoke of the need to affirm pluralism. Some spoke of the virtues of “deep pluralism.” In my contribution to the proceedings, I dissented. Pluralism may be a fact in America, but it is not a blessing. Insofar as we diverge on fundamental issues such as the proper end of the human person and the highest good, we are less united as a society. We can live without perfect unity. We have done so throughout our history. But we can’t endure as a nation without any unity at all. As a consequence, pluralism always needs to be moderated, not “affirmed.” This means rearticulating, as best we can, our common, shared commitments. In so doing, we should not be afraid of controversy, argument, and debate. Precisely because of pluralism, the “we” that provides the center of gravity for American society will be contentious. The contention can be daunting, even dangerous, given the power of political correctness to punish and destroy. But it’s unavoidable.

♦ I’ve heard a number of people proclaim that pluralism contributes to a vibrant democratic culture. The ­opposite is true. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled over ­multicultural regions characterized by the “deep pluralism” some champion as a great blessing. Woodrow ­Wilson, armed with the democratic principle of the self-­determination of peoples, dismantled that empire. The upshot was decades of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing, the last spasm of which took place in former Yugoslavia, a remnant of the old multicultural empire kept alive by the Cold War. The same pattern has been repeated in the Middle East. Every impulse toward popular rule in places characterized by deep pluralism is accompanied by ethnic violence.

The correlation of democracy with ethnic cleansing is predictable. When the power shifts from a remote imperial authority to local elections, the differences between ethnic groups take on explosive significance. Without civic friendship—without unity in shared ends—there is not enough social trust to reassure the losers in elections that they won’t be dispossessed, or worse, by the winners.

I don’t dispute that America is in some respects a pluralistic nation. But there are limits to pluralism, as Americans discovered during a long and bloody civil war. We’re wise to recognize those limits and work to renew the common “we.” David Brooks recently speculated that “not having a single national narrative will become our national narrative.” Perhaps, but the name of such a regime is empire, not democracy.

♦ GLAAD is a leading LGBT activist organization. It works with The Harris Poll to survey attitudes toward gay rights. Its recent report, Accelerating Acceptance 2019, shows a decline in enthusiasm for the LGBT project among Americans age eighteen to thirty-four. The survey indicates a significant uptick from 2016 to 2018 of respondents who say they are “uncomfortable” with learning that a family member is LGBT (24 to 36 percent), their doctor is LGBT (24 to 34 percent), their child’s teacher is LGBT (25 to 33 percent), and that their child receives LGBT history lessons in school (27 to 39 percent). Coming over such a short period of time, these results suggest a dramatic change. It’s hard to interpret the meaning, however. Perhaps the younger generation is tired of being horsewhipped into ritual affirmations of the LGBT agenda. Or perhaps they are exhausted by relentless pro-gay propaganda. The survey shows broad support for gay rights (holding steady in the general population at 80 percent). But it foretells a consensus that moves away from corporate-sponsored cheerleading and the Baby Boomer promise that every kind of liberation is always for the best.

♦ We are wrapping up our spring fundraising campaign. I don’t have the final numbers as we go to press. Nevertheless, I can report that the response from readers was strong. I’m very grateful for your support.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift