Suicides among Americans aged ten to twenty-four increased by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2017. The suicide rate for all ages rose by nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016. This is not an isolated trend. Life expectancy in the United States is falling, a shocking trend for a rich country. The downward slide is driven by declines in life expectancy among working-class whites. They are not dying of workplace accidents, wartime fatalities, or communicable diseases. They are dying from “deaths of despair,” as economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case put it: drug overdose, suicide, and liver disease caused by alcoholism. Significant populations in the United States are experiencing an epidemic of self-destruction as dire as the one that overtook Russia in the 1990s.
The negative trends seem likely to accelerate. A February 2019 Pew report indicates that 70 percent of teens think anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers. Around 50 percent identify alcohol and drug addiction as major problems. Worries about mental illness and self-destructive behavior among the young run through all sectors of society, not just the poor. This foretells a dark future.
There are other warning signs. Out-of-wedlock births are going up. Religious affiliation is heading downward, especially among the young. Marriage, household formation, and home ownership are also in decline among those who came of age in the last two decades. These trends cut across class lines. Magazines such as The Atlantic target educated, successful readers. They often feature stories about the difficulties of finding a mate and the fear professional women have that they will end up childless.
To a striking degree, the country itself is under attack from those who purport to lead it. The New York Times’s “1619 Project” is one of many elite-driven initiatives to instruct Americans that their country has a criminal foundation. Efforts to remove monuments to Christopher Columbus reflect the same spirit of self-negation. Multiculturalism slices society into groups defined by DNA and denies our unity as a people. Liberal pundits describe expressions of national pride as dog whistles for white nationalists. For many ordinary people, their heritage as Americans is their proudest possession. Yet they are told, again and again, that this heritage is tarnished and their patriotic pride masks racism.
Middle America has experienced stagnant wages and declining labor-force participation, along with ever-rising costs for housing and higher education. The pain is not shared, however. Income for those in the middle three income quintiles grew 28 percent between 1979 and 2014. Over the same thirty-five-year period, the top quintile of earners saw their income nearly double.
Civil society increasingly resembles a surveillance society. I recently heard Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, speak about the threats to freedom in China. During the Q&A, I asked whether our society is as different from China’s as we like to think. Are we sliding in the same direction? China has instituted a “social credit” score to control behavior. In the United States, nobody working in management for a Fortune 500 company can speak frankly of his reservations about gay marriage or transgenderism without suffering professionally. University students tell me that the first thing you learn as a freshman is Never say out loud what you are actually thinking. Twitter mobs enforce progressive orthodoxies. We have a ruthless cultural regime that minutely monitors people’s speech, even their thoughts.
And then there is foreign policy. Since 9/11, our leaders have squandered billions of dollars and thousands of American lives. They have thrown the Middle East into a condition of perpetual war, resulting in ethnic cleansing and the destruction of Christian communities that have lived and worshiped there for nearly two thousand years. All of this has yielded less than nothing for the United States.
Finally, immigration. Nobody knows how many illegal aliens reside in the United States. Some researchers say 10 million. Others say 20 million. It’s not clear that we’re allowed to know. In all likelihood, a judge will find a reason why trying to find out runs afoul of anti-discrimination law. What we do know, however, is that a combination of progressive cultural ideology, conservative economic ideology, and business interests ensured for decades that nothing effective would be done to develop a rational, legal means of controlling immigration.
Most of us admit these unpleasant facts about our society, but the people who run things—our elite—have no contrition. In fact, many are so sure of the rectitude of their intentions and the wisdom of their outlook that they continue on the same courses of action that have brought us here.
Indiana is heavily populated by people who, studies show, increasingly suffer from alcohol-related illness and other deaths of despair. And yet last year the Indiana legislature repealed a blue law prohibiting the Sunday sale of alcohol. Drug overdose deaths reach epidemic proportions, and teens identify drug addiction as a serious problem among their peers. And yet governors of states in the Northeast recently met to discuss how to coordinate the legalization of marijuana. Countless warning signs indicate that men and women are having a harder time establishing stable intimate relations. And yet public libraries host “drag queen story hours” for small children, and corporations champion a transgender ideology that very nearly criminalizes any public affirmation of the differences between men and women.
The misrule is bipartisan. In the face of the deindustrialization of the American heartland and the income inequality that is fraying our social contract, Washington’s conservative pundits, analysts, and think-tankers call for ever-freer trade and lower top tax rates. It was a Republican-dominated state government in Indiana that repealed the Sunday ban on liquor sales, no doubt proud of “getting government out of people’s private decisions.” A libertarian philosophy and knee-jerk limited-government mentality don’t just disarm the Republican party in the face of the severe problems facing the middle class, which long served as the stable center of our democratic culture. These elements of conservatism catechize a leadership class that is perversely committed to still more disintegration.
Last summer, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial inveighing against Missouri senator Josh Hawley’s use of his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee to stymie a Michigan nominee to the federal district court. The nominee, Michael Bogren, had been involved in litigation challenging a Michigan municipality’s ban of a Christian farmer from a local farmers’ market because of his refusal to affirm gay marriage. In his legal brief in support of the ban, Bogren compared the man’s beliefs to those of the KKK. Hawley drew the correct conclusion: A person willing to demonize his fellow citizens in this way should not serve on the federal bench. The Journal argued otherwise: A lawyer’s arguments on behalf of his clients do not reflect his own beliefs; Hawley was escalating the culture war; Democrats will use this precedent against conservatives when they are in power.
The episode exemplifies the misrule that is shipwrecking our country. A progressive cultural politics has undertaken a decades-long project of morally deregulating our society. Those on the left have not hesitated to use powerful legal and rhetorical tools. They bring lawsuits against florists and bakers and use anti-discrimination laws to expel ordinary people from civic life. They think nothing of denouncing us as “racists,” “bigots,” and “haters.” The supposedly mainstream press provides a constant flow of opinion essays that make these accusations with impunity.
The results of these efforts are now clear. A growing number of Americans are atomized, dispirited, and dysfunctional. But elites ignore reality, and that includes many conservatives. Progressives continue with their project of exploding moral norms, even to the point of deregulating the boundary between male and female—and then denouncing any who resist. Over the last few decades, establishment conservatism has offered some verbal resistance. But as the Wall Street Journal’s response to Hawley demonstrates, the establishment right is not willing to disrupt business-as-usual to stop the progressive juggernaut. As the Republicans who run Indiana demonstrate, that establishment is largely OK with moral deregulation, especially when industry lobbyists ask for it.
John Boehner retired from the House of Representatives and took a position on the board of a marijuana investment company. He likely had a hand in the legislation, passed in the House in September, that facilitates capital investments in the marijuana industry. The SAFE Banking Act received nearly unanimous support from Democrats and support from close to half the Republican members of the House.
Republican capitulation to the moral deregulation of our country is not the only betrayal of the common good. Dick Gephardt and some of his fellow old-line Democrats opposed NAFTA and other instruments of economic globalization. But they were already being superseded by the New Democrats, led by Wall Street darlings Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, establishment Democrats offered only rhetorical defenses of the American working class. They were as besotted with admiration for Silicon Valley “innovators” as Republicans were. The Democratic party has become the party of billionaires. Looking back, we can see that globalization, deindustrialization, middle-class wage stagnation, and income inequality—like drug-overdose death and family breakdown—were bipartisan achievements.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am innocent of this catastrophic misrule. First Things has stood against the moral deregulation of our society from the start. We are the only major conservative publication that has remained steadfast in its opposition to gay marriage and other LGBT causes. Yet many of us at First Things were cheerleaders for economic globalization after the end of the Cold War, thinking (rightly) that free trade would bring untold millions in the underdeveloped world out of grinding poverty, and assuming (wrongly) that free markets would bring democracy to China. What we did not do was count the costs for our fellow citizens whose skills were not suited to the new, globalized American economy. And some of us—I include myself—were in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and silent about the problems of illegal immigration.
It’s time to face reality. Some of our gods—whether in the conservative catechism or among progressive ideologies—have failed. The decline of faith, the ongoing holocaust of abortion, family breakdown, the broken dance between men and women, self-destructive behavior on a mass scale, diminished prospects for high school–educated Americans, punitive political correctness, a citizenry mistrustful of further foreign commitments, and popular disdain for mainstream institutions did not “just happen.” These and other dysfunctions afflicting America are the result of bad economic policies, misguided cultural priorities, elite insularity, political cowardice, and a general tendency of those who run things to substitute technocratic expertise for leadership, imagining that their exalted intelligence and great credentials amount to wisdom.
I was recently in Washington to participate in a discussion about the future of conservative media. The leading question concerned the meaning of Trump’s capture of the base of the Republican party, which exposed the weakness of what so many assumed were the solid foundations of postwar conservatism. Are we in a time of adjustment—or fundamental change? I argued for the latter. Adjustment requires an all-too-convenient self-deception. It refuses to acknowledge that the characteristic priorities (and non-priorities) of conservatism over the last few decades, however fitting they may have been a generation ago, contribute to the misrule that now threatens our nation. We cannot afford that self-deception. It’s time we express some contrition for our failures. We need to face the ruin of our times with a courage that allows us to acknowledge our errors. We need to use our freedom to forge a new consensus.
Faith in the Public Square
Mid-October saw two remarkable speeches by leading figures in the Trump administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave an address to the American Association of Christian Counselors on “Being a Christian Leader.” Attorney General William Barr spoke at Notre Dame’s Law School and de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. His remarks also addressed the central contribution religion must make to sustain a healthy body politic.
Pompeo’s address reflected his evangelical background. It featured personal testimony about his experiences at West Point, where fellow students invited him to a Bible study and he began his “walk with Christ.” With a wicked sense of humor, Pompeo recalled his experiences teaching fifth grade Sunday School with his wife, “which was a great, great lesson for my time as Secretary of State.” And he pinned the main themes of his speech—the proper disposition, way of talking, and decision-making of a Christian leader—to biblical passages.
Those of us who live among religious people can underestimate the significance of Pompeo’s speaking as a Christian in an unabashed way. For a European, however, the idea of a nation’s chief diplomat giving personal testimony and quoting the Bible is unimaginable. To a great extent, the same fear of religion in public life animates many of our elites. Pompeo noted that a secularist sentiment has taken hold in our own country. “I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work.” He was right. Outcry ensued, and within a couple of days the speech’s title was suppressed on the State Department website. “Being a Christian Leader” was replaced by “Secretary Pompeo at the American Association of Christian Counselors.”
Pompeo was spared sustained criticism because the chattering class shifted its attention to Barr's speech at Notre Dame. It made the vigorous argument, a First Things argument, that only vital religious faith among American citizens can sustain our liberal democracy. And the decline of faith—indeed, the hostility to religion, especially to Christianity, in elite circles—imperils the future of freedom in the United States.
As Barr points out, the idea that religion serves as the foundation of a free society was widely accepted by the Founders. They recognized that democratic self-government requires a self-governing citizenry imbued with enough moral discipline to avoid the misuses of freedom that destabilize society. Religious institutions are the most reliable schools of virtue, and thus are necessary for a free society. Without moral discipline, disordered passions evoke government interventions. When financiers cheat, regulations must be elaborated and extended. When parents neglect their children, government-employed social workers need to intervene. If we are to avoid tyranny, observes Barr, “social order must flow up from the people themselves—freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values.” Those “moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will—they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.”
Barr quotes Edmund Burke to drive the point home: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
This does not mean theocracy. The “Judeo-Christian moral system” rests on natural law, which can be known by all men and women of goodwill. But in practical reality, those precepts are most readily available within and most reliably inculcated by religious institutions. Against the disordered loves of fallen man, “religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good.”
But, Barr continues, religion is under attack. “I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age,” Barr says after mentioning some of the signs of social dysfunction I enumerate above. “Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.”
On this point, Barr is emphatic. Religion is not in decline due to a “maturation of humanity” or some other principle of “progress.” Rather, we are witnessing “organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” A secular orthodoxy is being imposed. “Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake—social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social-media campaigns.”
As the chief legal officer of the United States, Barr does not propose to use the power of the law to limit what secularists can say. The Constitution guarantees our right of free speech. But he makes clear his intention to prevent the law’s being used as a weapon by secularists to impose their “orthodoxy.” He pledges to defend religious freedom against government attempts to “compel religious individuals and entities to subscribe to practices, or to espouse viewpoints, that are incompatible with their religion.” In today’s culture war, that means he will work to ensure that the administrative state and the power of law will not be used to force us to affirm the sexual revolution.
He also pledges to challenge anti-religious policies “designed to starve religious schools of generally-available funds and encourag[e] students to choose secular options.” These policies, often rooted in the anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendments” adopted at the end of the nineteenth century, rely on an exaggerated anti-Establishment jurisprudence. To reverse this extremism, the Justice Department filed a brief in a case before the Supreme Court arguing that Blaine Amendments violate the First Amendment.
As anti-Establishment extremism gains power, the state-enforced naked public square threatens the free exercise of religion. Barr identifies this as another area where the Justice Department needs to push for a proper constitutional interpretation, one that is solicitous of the right of religious schools to establish their own curriculum when it clashes with the dogmas of LGBT activists.
At another meeting I recently attended in Washington, D.C., some of the panelists called for a “more disruptive conservatism,” one willing to challenge the progressive-dominated establishment. Pompeo and Barr answered that call. Both recognize that our religious vocations transcend politics. Our faith concerns interior conversion to Christ. It is not calling us to undertake a political crusade. But as Barr points out, “we cannot sit back and just hope the pendulum is going to swing back toward sanity.” Those in public office need to speak clearly and forcefully about the moral truths that are the foundation of a free society. And when the political and legal traditions of our country are hijacked by progressives, who are on a political crusade complete with dogmas and anathemas, our leaders need to fight back.
Et Cum Spiritu Tuo
I don’t know more than a few Latin words and phrases. A former Episcopalian, I take for granted the liturgy in the vernacular. I’ve never been punctilious about ritual. I can’t tell you the difference between the “Introit” and the “Gradual.” The names for clerical regalia escape me. And there is little in my theological outlook that would attract me to the old form of the Mass, often called the “Tridentine rite” because it arose out of reforms mandated by the Council of Trent. I went to the Latin Mass two or three times in years past. I was disoriented and put off. In spite of all that, I’ve been attending a Latin Mass in Manhattan for more than a year.
My initial reasons for switching to the Tridentine rite had to do with the revelations about Theodore McCarrick in the summer of 2018. I was angry, exasperated by the feckless leadership of bishops and their tolerance of moral corruption in their own ranks. But anger, however righteous and fitting in the moment, can turn into bitterness, even despair, corroding faith and undermining the spiritual life. So I knew I had to find an affirmative way to express my disgust with the status quo in the Catholic Church.
Under these circumstances, I turned to the Latin Mass. In church parlance, it is called the Extraordinary Form, as opposed to the order of the Mass established after Vatican II by Paul VI, which is called the Ordinary Form. These terms are exactly right. The Ordinary Form is the almost universal mode of worship for American Catholics, while the Extraordinary Form marks the exception. Thus, my decision to make the Tridentine rite my regular Sunday Mass was a vote of no confidence in the status quo, but not one that pushed the Church away. Going to the Extraordinary Form was a way of drawing nearer, entering into the great storehouse of the Catholic tradition.
There are Mass booklets for the Extraordinary Form that allow you to follow along with a facing-page translation. Even with this aid, it takes time to get oriented. It is not easy to know where you are in the Mass amid the cascading Latin, long silences, and sudden shifts from kneeling to standing. It took me a couple of months before I was comfortable enough to begin to appreciate what the Latin Mass has to offer.
From the outset I was romanced by the long silences. The Tridentine rite emphasizes the priest as mediator. He faces the altar, not the congregation, and he speaks many parts of the Mass in a whisper. His words are directed, on our behalf, toward God, not toward us. This dynamic of prayer—a dialogue between priest-as-representative and God—affects the worshiper in subtle ways. It encourages each individual member of the congregation to enter into his own silent conversation with the divine. This is especially true during the consecration of the elements.
The Extraordinary Form uses the old lectionary, which means that the Sunday readings differ from what the rest of the Church hears when worshiping in the Ordinary Form. The old rite also has two readings rather than three, one from the Epistles and the other from the Gospels. The Old Testament is present only in brief verses, usually from the Psalms, chanted at various points in the liturgy. The reform of the liturgy after Vatican II restored the Old Testament to its place in the Liturgy of the Word—an important and salutary change. Nevertheless, I’ve been enriched by the pairings of Scripture in the old lectionary, which tend toward resonances that are more mystical and evoke the Church Militant more often than does the new lectionary.
For example, during Lent last spring, one of the Gospel readings was Luke 11:21–22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace, but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoils.” The reading sharpened the focus of my Lenten preparations for the triumph of Christ over sin and death. Jesus is that stronger man. He is a triumphant warrior, defeating the fell powers that would hold us in thrall.
Many priests are suspicious of the Latin Mass. Some are hostile. These responses are understandable. Going to the Latin Mass requires me to decide against attending the Ordinary Form, which is of course widely available throughout New York. And because the priestly vocation comes into its most intense focus in the sacrifice of the Mass, this decision can easily be seen casting doubt on the education and formation of priests over the last fifty years.
But my experiences with the Extraordinary Form have been otherwise. The more familiar I have become with the old rite, the more I see and feel the profound continuities with the new one. The elements of the Mass are the same in both. Furthermore, my experience with the Tridentine Mass allows me to appreciate the intentions of the liturgical reformers of the twentieth century. The old rite is colder and less immediately communal. It presumes a well-catechized congregation. By contrast, the use of the vernacular, the more fulsome lectionary, and the clear articulation by the priest of all the elements of the liturgy make the Ordinary Form more effective as a means for inculcating into the faithful the basic teachings of the Church about the nature of God and the role of Christ as the sacrament of our salvation. And not just the faithful. The Extraordinary Form has an other-worldly allure that might attract unbelievers, but both the Latin language and the ritual remoteness of the rite make it difficult to hear the gospel message. By contrast, the Ordinary Form makes the gospel audible.
At the same time, by attending the Extraordinary Form on a regular basis I have learned more about what has been lost. In the Latin Mass, the priest risks tending toward the caricature of remote hierophant engaged in mysterious rites at a distant altar. In the Ordinary Form, he risks tending toward the caricature of mediocre TV host chatting with his daytime audience of distracted housewives. If forced to choose between the two perversions, I vastly prefer the former.
The Extraordinary Form may lack Old Testament readings, but it is closer to Old Testament realities than the Ordinary Form, at least as it is currently celebrated. Aside from Yom Kippur, synagogue services retain few echoes of the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. By contrast, a priest celebrating the Tridentine Mass operates according to ritual patterns that reach back to the Old Testament priesthood. The altar, however close to the congregation in physical terms, is spiritually remote. The priest engages in careful, precise ritual preparation before entering the Holy of Holies to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. All of this is present in the new Mass but attenuated by the imperative of congregational engagement.
In simple terms, the Extraordinary Form invites a more transcendent orientation in worship. There is something about the liturgy in Latin that discourages the use of childish Andrew-Lloyd-Weber-goes-to-church melodies, bad folk-inspired praise songs, and felt banners. In the Tridentine rite, the priest faces God, not the congregation, and this lends itself to an unturned countenance—not just his, but that of all engaged in worship. The solemnities of silent prayer invite contemplation. The faint whispering of the priest reminds us of the mysterious, intimate commerce between God and man made possible in Christ Jesus, a commerce into which we, too, can enter in our own stumbling, barely audible words.
Benedict XVI observed that the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms are two usages of the self-same Roman rite. This does not mean that they do not have distinct charisms, as it were. The Ordinary Form is well suited for evangelization and catechism. My own entry into the Catholic Church was greatly eased by the accessibility of the Mass in the vernacular. Its more horizontal orientation encourages a sense of Christian community, as the liturgical reformers intended. The reduced emphasis on ritual precision shifts attention to the central gospel truths announced in the readings and reiterated in a liturgy readily heard in the language of the people. All these elements enrich the Catholic Church.
The charism of the Extraordinary Form is needed as well. At a time when all the institutions of the West, including the Church, are wobbling, the antiquity of the Tridentine Mass anchors corporate worship deep in the Church’s past. The remoteness of Latin, a “dead” language, builds a spiritual wall around the Church that helps protect her from capture by the whims and fashions of the contemporary world. The vestments, incense, and ritual create another world, in which it becomes easy to see oneself entering into the precincts of the divine, a prospect at once daunting and joyful. Centuries of use have tuned the Latin Mass to a near perfect pitch. In its more elaborate forms, the orchestrated layers of music, movement, and prayer interweave into a liturgical Gesamtkunstwerk, which is why, although the Mass I now attend is thirty minutes longer than the Ordinary Form liturgy, it seems shorter.
I have not become an ardent proponent of the Extraordinary Form. It has limitations, which is why it was reformed in the last century. But I have come to think the Latin Mass can make a contribution to the Church’s renewal. In the twentieth century, influential theologians called for ressourcement, a return to the sources of our Christian faith. We need always to soak ourselves in the living water of the tradition. The Tridentine rite offers an opportunity for ressourcement. This is not an opportunity to be shunned, because Ordinary Form, too, has it limitations, as most of us know only too well. Those limitations are to be expected. We are only at the first stage of what will be an ongoing refinement and perfection of the Mass in the vernacular. And this process, so needed in order to realize the full promise of what was begun at Vatican II, can be enhanced by the example and inspiration of the Extraordinary Form.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ A friend in Washington, D.C., was scheduled for a diagnostic exam. The hospital sent a form asking for her personal information and health history. One question: Sex at birth? Answers available on the form: male, female, choose not to answer.
♦ Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey dashed off a late-night tweet: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The Chinese government swung into action, canceling broadcasts of Rockets games and threatening the NBA with a broader ban. The NBA groveled, trying to balance abject capitulation and Morey’s free speech. The whole affair reminded me of corporate America’s response to the North Carolina bill requiring men to use men’s bathrooms and women to use women’s bathrooms. That episode likewise involved anti-democratic institutions using their economic power to cow Americans, not unlike what the Chinese Communist Party does.
♦ Marlon Anderson was working as a security guard at a Madison, Wisconsin, high school. An unruly student called him a nigger. He responded by telling the student not to call him a nigger. The result of this hallway exchange: Anderson was fired. It sounds surreal. But the Madison school district has a “zero tolerance” policy for any use of racially charged epithets by employees. As the school’s principal explained, “Regardless of context or circumstance, racial slurs are not acceptable in our schools.” We know political correctness has reached absurd heights when a black security guard is fired for telling a rude teenager not to use racial epithets.
♦ Anderson was reinstated. “Circumstances matter,” his defenders asserted (and rightly so).Unfortunately, the virtue of prudence is so degraded that we can’t trust the people running our institutions to make reasonable determinations. They hide behind “principle” and hew to “policy” rather than acting like responsible leaders.
♦ I read an advance copy of Yuval Levin’s forthcoming book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Levin offers a compelling account of the central role played by institutions in forming our souls—and laments our institutions’ corruption by insiders who exploit their authority, and their degradation by self-proclaimed outsiders who use them as platforms for personal “journeys” or quests for celebrity. Levin sympathizes with the populist anger abroad in our society. But he warns that we cannot simply destroy corrupt institutions. We need to reform them. It’s a fine book, and we’ll have a review in our pages after it’s released in January.
♦ Another advance copy fell into my hands in October, this one the latest by Christopher Caldwell, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. Caldwell tells a chilling story of the civil rights movement’s transformation into an all-encompassing project of progressive social engineering backed by state power. I started on a Sunday afternoon and did not put the book down until I finished it at midnight. We all feel in our bones that political correctness perverts America’s best intentions. Caldwell illuminates how that happened. Another important book we’ll review.
♦ Douglas Farrow is among the best theological analysts of today’s political and cultural debates. I’m delighted to announce that he will be the 2020 First Things lecturer in Washington, D.C. The lecture, tentatively titled “The Secret of the Saeculum,” will be delivered on the evening of Thursday, March 5, at the Catholic University of America. Details to follow.
♦ Farrow’s 2018 book, Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology, takes a precise theological measure of contemporary ecclesiastical and cultural dysfunctions and gives satisfying answers to some of today’s disputed questions. Strongly recommended.
♦ I recently championed the British regulatory efforts to shut down underage access to Internet pornography. But I spoke too soon. Technical difficulties, as well as bureaucratic delays due to E.U. regulations, gave libertarians in England enough time to stymie the legal efforts. The Adam Smith Institute led the opposition. Their talking points: Any limitation would “infringe freedom” and “reduce access to pornography produced for sexual minorities.” So there you have it, our libertarian “friends” get another victory in their campaign for full-spectrum moral deregulation.
♦ We often hear of courageous acts of “transgression,” which at this point are tediously predictable and promoted by every cultural establishment in the land. So it was a pleasure to read Roger Kimball in the November issue of the New Criterion praising the new Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College as countercultural in the best sense. Designed by Notre Dame professor of architecture Duncan Stroik, “the chastely sumptuous, classically inflected structure occupies a prominent spot on the college’s central quad. It is, the college reports, the largest chapel built in America in seventy years. It must also be the most beautiful.” As Kimball points out, beauty these days is transgressive, especially beauty that draws on the deepest resources of the Western tradition. And to do so in order to raise a Christian chapel! At the center of an institution of higher education!
♦ Some years ago I visited Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, California. It is also graced by a Duncan Stroik–designed chapel, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. The chapel building took my breath away when I entered its cool confines on a warm California day. When I left, I was overtaken by the bitter thought of all the stupid, banal churches built over the last two generations—unnecessary desecrations of the spiritual landscape.
♦ The October issue of the New Criterion featured a lecture by Gary Morson, “Leninthink.” Morson outlines the ruthlessly utilitarian mentality Lenin encouraged: “I know of no other society, except those modeled on the one Lenin created, where schoolchildren were taught that mercy, kindness, and pity are vices.” Lenin did not terrorize in order to achieve some other end. Terror was an end in itself. It disintegrates societies, allowing them to be endlessly remade. Lenin’s system defined a crime as anything that “objectively” undermines the goals of the Communist Party, which means that someone obeying the law can be charged with “objectively” violating it. Leninthink defines truth as whatever advances the party, to the point of denying even Marxism when it gets in the way of “the cause.” It’s a disturbing account of Lenin’s highly moralistic amorality—an amorality not unlike what we find in progressive circles, which insist on the most rigorous application of the rule of law when it suits their purposes, but call for radical action and protests in the street when it does not. On the one hand, Donald Trump violates “constitutional norms”; on the other hand, we need to get rid of the Electoral College and pack the Supreme Court.
♦ We live in a suffocating environment, in which a soft but pervasive totalitarianism exerts constant pressure. For this reason, I’ve been reading memoirs of those who resisted the Nazis. I wrote in the spring about Ernst Jünger’s wartime diaries (Public Square, April 2019).
Early in the summer, I took up Theodor Haecker’s Journal in the Night. It’s not so much a journal as a commonplace book in which Haecker reflects on the philosophical and theological truths that were the basis of his inward resistance to Nazi ideology. He adopted a therapy of truth in order to survive a regime of lies.
More recently I read Joachim Fest’s Nazi-era memoir, Not I.The title comes from his father’s maxim, a distillation of Matthew 26: “Others betray you, Lord, but not I.” Fest was a child in the 1930s, and this bold statement of loyalty to Christ gave him the understanding and courage to resist.
♦ From Haecker’s Journal in the Night: “Christ also died for ‘barbarians,’ but he did not become man as a barbarian, nor did he live among them, or choose his disciples among them. The relapse of civilised nations into barbarism is moreover not possible unless they first abandon Christianity.”
♦ I’m grateful to our Roman correspondent, Xavier Rynne II, for his commentary on the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, held in Rome in October. Things went pretty much as expected. After two popes who tilted toward the tradition in order to give the Church a stance independent from worldly powers, Pope Francis tilts toward “openness” to the world. The preliminary document read as though written by a Fortune 500 human resources department in conjunction with some sympathetic university professors. As a consequence, the outcomes of the Synod were predetermined.
♦ One outcome was a call for ordaining married men in special missionary circumstances. This is sure to be used as a rationale for married clergy in the West. The argument will be that dwindling vocations to the priesthood deprive many congregations of a priest, and therefore special circumstances obtain in Germany and elsewhere, thus warranting an extension of the Amazonian precedent. We’ll see what Pope Francis has to say in the official document drawing upon the Synod that is to be published in a few months. In the meantime, I recommend rereading Patricia Snow’s essay about the powerful symbolism of clerical celibacy—and the equally powerful assault the world mounts against it (“Dismantling the Cross,” April 2015).
♦ Snow observes that though it is a matter of discipline, not core teaching, clerical celibacy arrests the imagination of the world. It is Catholicism’s most visible assertion of the reality of supernatural life. That some in the Church (almost always clerics) hunger for ordinariness and want to set aside this discipline grieves Snow:
For Catholics like myself, who at some point in their lives decamped to the Catholic Church from the lower horizon of Protestantism, these are discouraging times. It is disheartening, to say the least, to see the Church so infiltrated by the surrounding culture and so demoralized by the recent scandals that she is in danger of rejecting in her own life what is most decisively Catholic and selling for a mess of pottage her deepest mysteries and highest privileges.
♦ Hillary Clinton, in an expression of sympathy that is really contempt: “I think it’s a lot harder for the American people to know what they are supposed to believe.”
♦ On Monday, October 28, N. T. Wright delivered the 32nd annual Erasmus Lecture to a packed room at the Union League Club in New York. His theme, “Loving to Know,” challenged the conceit of “objectivity.” We exert ourselves to know only that which we desire to know, argued Wright, which means that the love of God serves as the foundation of trustworthy theological reflection and biblical exegesis, not cold indifference. We will publish the lecture in a forthcoming issue.
♦ The night before, Sunday, October 27, Maryann Corbett gave our fifth annual poetry reading. Published in the pages of First Things, her tightly drawn poems have won many prizes. It was an honor to be able to host her for a reading in New York.
First Things has a long tradition of self-starting and self-governing reading groups that meet monthly to discuss the latest issue—ROFTERS, Readers of First Things. Pastor Bob Leiste would like to start at ROFTERS group in Lawrence, Kansas. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shelby Bowden would like to start a group in central Pennsylvania (Altoona and State College area). Reach him at email@example.com.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?