The Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which incorporates sexual orientation and gender identity into Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is a victory for gay rights advocates and entrenches gender ideology into civil rights law. Many are asking about its implications for religious liberty. That’s a legitimate concern. But we should worry more about its implications for our country.
The Supreme Court has been generally favorable to religious freedom in recent years. But as Christopher Caldwell has shown, civil rights law and rhetoric have a special authority in post-1960s America, which means Bostock may undermine religious liberty.
For example, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), which accorded religious liberty to a privately held company, addressed the provision of the Affordable Care Act that compelled employers to provide access to contraception for their female employees. I doubt that the Supreme Court would have decided that the religious convictions of the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, exempt them from compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Bob Jones University v. United States (1983) remains the controlling precedent. That ruling held that the goals of the Civil Rights Act are of such central import that they can override the claims of religious freedom. Bob Jones concerned discrimination against African Americans, who are first among equals in our anti-discrimination regime. Time will tell whether the LGBT agenda can attain the same status.
Though I am unsure about how religious liberty concerns will play out, I am convinced that Bostock is a disaster for American society. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion implants lies into our civil rights law.
The first lie, implicit in the sunny public affirmations of homosexuality, tells us that there is no moral significance in the difference between men and women. This was made explicit in Obergfell v. Hodges (2015), which discovered a right to gay “marriage.”
In his majority opinion for Bostock, Gorsuch openly relies on this lie about men and women. It provides the basis for his sophistical determination that firing a person because he is gay counts as discrimination on the basis of sex. His argument runs as follows: If you fire a man because he has sex with other men, then you are doing so only because he is a man, for if he were a woman, you would not deem the sexual acts objectionable. In this reasoning, the male-female difference—its psychosocial complementarity (so important for maintaining the unity of the human race) and its fertility in sexual union (so essential for securing a future for the human race)—is accorded no import.
The second lie is more blatant. It holds that men can be women, and women can be men. Gorsuch wholeheartedly endorses this falsehood as he explains why discrimination against transgendered individuals is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The argument: If a woman “presents” as a woman, there’s no problem. But for those who do not accept transgender ideology, a man “presenting” as a woman is a problem because he’s a man and not a woman. Thus, a decision to refuse him employment, demote, or fire him turns on his sex, which is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Q.E.D.
Some Christian commentators have endorsed the outcome of Bostock even as they worry about its implications for religious freedom. They argue that people ought not to be denied employment because their sexual appetites are disordered or they have troubled sexual identities. Perhaps a capacious and tolerant society ought to take this view. I have my doubts. But of this I am certain: A legal regime based on lies cannot long endure. Men and women are not interchangeable, and sex is not something you “present.”
It’s not hard to foresee the first steps toward the tyranny of these lies. Bostock establishes a clear mandate. The vast machine of civil rights law that has evolved over the last fifty years—regulation, court-ordered redress, and threat of litigation—now can and will be used to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. One element is the “hostile work environment” concept. This doctrine holds that an employer is liable if members of the protected categories on civil rights law are subjected to a work environment that can be construed by a reasonable person as intimidating or abusive.
The hostile-work-environment doctrine will almost certainly require employers to prohibit statements that speak of homosexual acts as immoral or in any way suggest they are less than ideal. This suppression of truth-telling is, perhaps, tolerable. The workplace is not the whole of life, and our tradition of free speech may be sufficient to prevent the public square from being policed in this way. But transgenderism, unlike homosexuality, requires constant affirmation. Coworkers will have to go along with the fantasy that men can become women. I find it difficult to imagine that the hostile-work-environment doctrine will not mandate the use of “preferred pronouns” and new gender-theory terms in the workplace—a loyalty oath to transgender ideology. We will be obliged to lie again and again as a condition of employment.
We were well along on this trajectory before Gorsuch penned his majority opinion. In recent years, many corporations and most universities have implemented gay-friendly and transgender-affirming mandates. Twitter mobs and the cancel culture have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of intimidation. Professional assassinations and threats of reprisals have induced the fear that is always necessary to sustain a regime of lies. Bostock now adds the full force of our civil rights law to the LGBT project of squashing dissent from its dogmas.
I’m sure Gorsuch does not view the lies about men and women as justifications for the oppression of anyone. In all likelihood, he sees them as benevolent claims that underwrite a social order that will be more inclusive, not tyrannical. But lies always undermine the rule of law. They require not only the suppression of truth-telling, but also the forced repetition of falsehoods. For the truth, which is grounded in reality, endures on its own strength, whereas lies live only in our minds and on our lips.
This will not end well. Race-based slavery required the lie that black people are properly the slaves of white people. Half our country accepted this lie; the other half was at times complicit and at other times horrified, though most often it simply turned away and tried not to notice. But the Dred Scott decision of 1857 marked a fateful turn. It imposed the lie on the entire country, giving it the force of law and creating intolerable tensions that exploded into war. Bostock is likewise fateful. It imposes the lies of the LGBT movement on the entire country, giving them the coercive force of law. Sodomy is not slavery, and we are not on the brink of a second Civil War. But those who imagine that Bostock “solves” our debates about sex and morality are kidding themselves. We were made for truth; lies tear the fabric of society.
Theodicy and Modernity
Modernity has been a time of extraordinary advances. Yet it has also been marked by intense spiritual anguish and sustained efforts to find a “spirit” that will unlock the mysteries of the human condition, allowing us to find “solutions” to injustice, suffering, and even death. In A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-Modern Redemption, Ephraim Radner argues that this anguish and the resulting quest for a delivering “spirit” defines the modern era. The upshot is something quite different from the usual historical accounts of the rise of our secular, scientific, and progressive culture. A Profound Ignorance is not a genealogy of modernity that places the believer in a larger story of historical change and development. It is a theology of our condition, one that places modernity within the believer’s story of sin and redemption.
In the Age of Exploration, the boundaries of the known world exploded outward. Spain and Portugal sent conquering freebooters, cynical fortune-seekers, earnest missionaries, and pious conquistadors across the Atlantic and then deep into the Pacific. The contradictions were extraordinary. The first shoots of freedom poked through the soil of early-modern Europe as whole peoples were enslaved in newly won empires. This disorienting combination of promising new horizons and horrifying prospects continued. The pace of technological change quickened. Discoveries and inventions relieved man’s estate and magnified his capacity for violence. The smallpox vaccine was followed by the breech-loading rifle. After the blessing of penicillin came the atom bomb.
Radner argues that the remarkable discoveries of the modern era—geographical, moral, political, and technological—created tremendous hopes. Those hopes were again and again dashed against the hard realities of human sinfulness. If ships can sail to new regions, why can’t mankind enter into a new epoch of spiritual maturity? If we can eliminate smallpox, why can’t we stamp out injustice everywhere?
The dynamic of raised expectations and bitter disappointments generated what Radner calls “theodical pressure.” The great mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term theodicy as he developed his famous argument that we live in the best of all possible worlds, so that a belief in God’s infinite power and goodness is wholly justified in the face of evil. But in Radner’s account, theodicy in the modern era is not just an intellectual puzzle. It has become our singular civilizational project. Modernity is modern because it struggles to justify, in word and deed, our hope that somehow things will end well. These efforts can be practical, as were many utopian settlements in the New World, and they can be theoretical after the fashion of Marx’s dialectical materialism.
Drawing upon Jewish as well as Christian sources, Radner shows that traditional responses to evil, suffering, and death promise consolation, not resolution. To be “with God” or to “see Jesus” anchors the believer amid the churning turmoil of life. “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15). Suffering afflicts us, and God draws near. This “coming close” is not a “solution” to the problem of evil. Instead, God’s presence overshadows evil.
Modern pneumatology, by contrast, yearns for transformation and hungers for new beginnings. Radner calls this forward-leaning dynamic modernity’s “theodical thrust,” which identifies a “spirit” or power that presses us toward a final resolution that sets the world aright. Our duty is to align ourselves with this “spirit.”
The options are legion: class consciousness, the scientific spirit, critical thinking, the open society, the spirit of fraternity, and more. Radner sees among these approaches a common dynamic. They all seek to identify the trustworthy spirit that will renew the face of the earth. This search constitutes “modern pneumatology,” the “science of the spirit” that is the defining feature of modernity, not just intellectually, but culturally and morally as well.
As Radner recounts, the Spanish explorers who discovered Polynesia hoped to find a “terrestrial paradise” that would not fall victim to the “infernal” and “diabolical” exploitation and destruction that characterized the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Jesuit “reductions” of Paraguay operated in the same fashion, as did the many utopian communities founded in nineteenth-century America. (See Michael J. Lewis, “Paradise Possible,” August/September 2017.)
In standard accounts of modernity, a Christian utopianism evolves into various secularized ideologies. Radner does not disagree. He shows, however, that “secularization” itself is a “spirit.” Many sociologists have deemed secularization an ineluctable process, an inevitable future, one midwifed by “critical thinking,” “science,” or some other higher power. The secular age, too, yearns for fulfillment. Liberty and equality; the dictatorship of the proletariat; free and open inquiry; the Invisible Hand; diversity and inclusion—these are not particular platforms or policies. They are concepts and evocations of a purified, distilled “spirit” that, if we but abide in it, will lead us to the uplands of “progress.”
These are practical and political theodicies. Some say, “Let us support the spirit of science so that its discoveries can push back the boundaries of suffering, and even death.” Others say, “If we are united in a spirit of hope and change, we can bend the arc of history and overcome inherited injustices.” These exhortations are often matched to speculative endeavors that seek “a theory of everything.” Hegel’s philosophy of history is certainly a project of that sort, setting the template for many subsequent efforts to uncover the “logic” of human affairs. The more pedestrian approach of a technocrat such as Jeremy Bentham likewise relies on a theory of everything. His utilitarianism begins with a succinct hypothesis: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” These practical enterprises and theoretical endeavors claim to penetrate the particularity of life. They transform the world, Radner says, “into a uniform arena of experience, like a single glob of clay, awaiting its fashioning and, of course, its skillful fashioners.”
Radner takes his title from an essay by David Hume. Writing in 1742, Hume praised “the spirit of the age.” He asserts that this “spirit” has “totally banished” the older regime of “profound ignorance.” Superstition and religious obscurantism have been overcome by rational inquiry. Radner rejects this progressive account of history. He affirms our “profound ignorance,” by which he means not superstition or obscurantism, but rather the intractable limits imposed upon our thinking and doing by our opaque finitude and vulnerable embodiment. Insofar as those limits are denied, modernity wars against our humanity. Its many “spirits” seek to overcome our finitude and embodiment rather than teaching us how to live as human beings.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor offers readers a modern way of mastering modernity. He narrates the evolution of the spirit of our age with the tools of a supple historicism. It is a virtuoso performance within the immanent frame. Taylor helps us understand what it means to be a believer in the modern world, and in that sense, he places faith inside the immanent frame. As he did in his earlier account of modernity, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West, in A Profound Ignorance Radner constructs a theological stance outside modernity. We know nothing worth clinging to “save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is a kind of ignorance, for it admits how impoverished our powers of knowing are. But it is a profound ignorance, for it points the way toward saving the everydayness of our lives from the consuming modern efforts to “solve” the problem of evil. Radner’s approach does not contradict Taylor’s. We are modern men and women in the ways he describes. But A Profound Ignorance moves in the opposite direction, placing our inevitably modern lives within the theological frame.
We are finite creatures cast into a drama of suffering and death. In premodern theologies, the gifts of the Holy Spirit conform us to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, breathing divine love, inviting us to come close to the LORD. This is a theodicy of “being with,” not one of “doing for.” It follows the pattern of “accompaniment” that Pope Francis has emphasized. God wipes away our tears; he does not put an end to them, at least not as long as we live with this mortal frame.
Christianity and Judaism teach us that the greatest challenge we face is not overcoming injustice, curing disease, or putting an end to war, important as those projects may be. Our problem is more fundamental. Modernity enlarges our horizons. It affords great benefits. But the spiritual burden of our moral and spiritual impotence has intensified, and it has become increasingly difficult for us to endure our humanity. (Transgenderism is a telling sign.) Our godlike powers—scientific discoveries that enter deeply into the mysteries of the universe—make our damaged and distorted lives under the regime of sin and death very nearly unbearable.
We need to recover the priority of accompaniment and of “being with” in order to still an overdominant spirit of activism and its quest for “solutions.” Radner’s anti-modernism is not quietist, nor is it nostalgic for a bygone age. We live in a world of unimaginable possibilities (a tremendous increase in life-expectancy over the last century), as well as evils we cannot master (millions slaughtered before birth). This gives rise to disorienting contradictions, so that if we’re to do anything decent or just, we must find a solid place to stand. Under the blows of suffering and death, we need first and foremost to be supported. Natural wisdom recognizes this, which is why we offer condolences—sharing in sadness—to those who mourn. This reflects a sound instinct of friendship that gives priority to “being with.” It gains a supernatural meaning in the mission of the Holy Spirit, the ambassador of divine accompaniment. The gifts of the Holy Spirit allow us to “abide in Christ,” as the Gospel of John teaches. “In Christ” we can endure the self-wrought damage of our sinfulness and hard blows of suffering and death. Not just endure, but taste, as well, the joys of heaven, even in this vale of tears.
The Spirit of Protest
In mid-June, at a protest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, eighteen-year-old Ranay Barton expressed her fears to a New York Times reporter: “If his death doesn’t do anything, the world will fall apart.” She went on to say, “Whenever I see an innocent black man get killed, I see my brother. That could be me.” In the face of this moral horror—the specter of a consuming injustice—Barton formulated the problem of theodicy in historical, progressive terms that are distinctively modern. In a country so rich, so technologically sophisticated, so manifestly endowed with a universal mission, why are we still mired in the sins of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers?
Barton’s exhaustion and exasperation exemplify the anger and frustration evident in the protests. Some of that frustration and anger is rooted in immediate concerns about police violence. But calls for reform are mixed with a broader anguish over our moral impotence in the face of evil and injustice. “The world will fall apart”: Barton’s foreboding is spiritual, and she is not the only one who feels it. The protests have exhibited powerful religious emotions. There have been intervals of kneeling, moments of silence, calls for personal witness, and exhortations to society-wide conversion. Responses of confession and repentance from politicians and CEOs complete the scene.
Radner helps us understand how deep these spiritual emotions run and how closely tied they are to our modern sensibilities. Social media open up larger vistas, just as early modern explorers expanded the known world. Video images of a man being killed on the streets of Minneapolis ricochet across the world. Hundred of millions of people are present as witnesses. Newsreels of an earlier era and television for the last generation had a similar effect, but the effect is magnified today by the fact that these images of evil flash on the screens of our phones. This immediacy and intimacy raises the “theodical pressure,” as Radner might put it. The burden is widely felt, which is one reason why there have been marches in support of Black Lives Matter throughout the United States and in Europe.
Some protestors have particular grievances, often well-founded. But as I observed marches in New York, I decided it is most accurate to understand Black Lives Matter as a synecdoche. It’s not racism, narrowly understood, that rouses so many people to action. The motive is an undifferentiated agony. We feel at once exhausted and angry. Why are we still mired in racial inequalities? Why does the deliverance of the West from its historical entanglement with injustice remain incomplete? Why hasn’t “progress” carried us beyond these trials? Why must we live in this morally compromised condition?
We should not underestimate this theodical agony. By Radner’s reckoning, it is the motive force of modernity, spurring us toward “new beginnings,” imagined and real. This is why it feels like a revolutionary moment as statues fall and we witness Maoist struggle sessions. Utopian fevers can rage for a good while. But the “new beginnings” always fail. Their failure redoubles the agony, which eventually sparks another round of restless striving and anguished calls for “change.”
Mary Baker Eddy was an exemplar of modern pneumatology. She formulated the principles of Christian Science, which promised to identify the spiritual roots of physical ills and thus guide us toward the “spirit” that will cure us. The protests in which Ranay Barton and many others participated have discrete policy demands. But they also echo Eddy’s Christian Science. “White privilege” and “systemic racism” gain their rhetorical power from their roles in an invisible but powerful pneumatic system of oppression. To overcome this “system,” we need more than reform of policing. To combat the oppression, we’re told we need to promote diversity and inclusion, which is not primarily a program or policy, but rather a “commitment,” which is to say a counter-spirit.
The “spirit of inclusion” is evident in corporate expressions of solidarity with the protests. Amazon’s corporate office tweeted: “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Starbucks issued a similar statement, as did Wall Street banks. Some commentators wryly observed that these statements express empty sentiments. Others noted that they are preemptive public relations gestures meant to deflect criticism. But this misjudges their role. To express solidarity with the protests and echo their vocabulary is to affirm their “spirit.” It is like expressing support for “science” and “critical thinking.” These statements do not commit one to a particular position. Instead, they endorse the “arc of history.” Amazon has no position on police unions, the use of body cameras, or reparations for slavery. Instead, the company is committed to “racial justice,” a “spirit” that awaits fulfillment, not a policy platform or action plan.
Since the 1960s, protests have been part of our spiritual theater. In recent weeks, many have commended “the spirit of the protests”—or, in broadest terms, “the spirit of protest.” The aims are not that important. What matters is that the protests express young people’s desire for a better world—recovering “the spirit of the sixties,” as nostalgic Baby Boomers often like to say. This is an instance of modern pneumatology: the hope that a “spirit” will carry us forward and redeem our society from its entanglement with human finitude and sin.
There are good reasons to worry about the direction of the current protests and their “spirit.” Things of great value are likely to be destroyed in the frenzy of cultural repudiation. The enforced proclamations of loyalty to Black Lives Matter and the career assassinations of those deemed insufficiently woke have strengthened the grip of political correctness. Universities will accelerate their slide toward becoming technical schools in which mandatory ideological boot camp replaces the liberal arts.
But this phase will not go on forever. When Ranay Barton spoke to the New York Times reporter, she had been protesting for two weeks. “I’m tired,” she sighed. “We shouldn’t be facing this in 2020.” Carrying the burden of theodicy is agonizing. Rousing oneself to live in accord with the redemptive spirit animating a “movement” is exhausting. Our bodies beg for rest. And our souls hunger for home-making, even if that means making a temporary peace with our places in the finely woven web of history and its failings.
As one wag put it, the six words most antithetical to the spirit of protest are: “I gotta go to work tomorrow.” Ordinary human realities are centripetal forces. They assert themselves, as they always do, restoring us to our sin-troubled but welcome condition as finite creatures under God’s providence. Let us by all means seek justice in ways that we can. But as Radner wisely observes, there is only one way to endure a world always about to fall apart. It is taught to us in Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Robert P. George penned an initial reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into the 1964 Civil Rights Act: “The Bostock ruling (further) politicizes the judiciary and undermines the very thing courts exist to uphold: the Rule of Law.” George goes on to make a concession to a sparring partner in recent debates: The decision “will destroy what faith remains in the moral and intellectual integrity of our courts. It also vindicates Adrian Vermeule’s warning to conservatives that trying to combat the longstanding ‘progressive’ strategy of imposing a substantive moral-political agenda through the courts by appointing ‘originalist’ and ‘textualist’ judges is hopeless.”
♦ In May, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter to the Connecticut public schools. The letter addresses the policy of allowing males who claim to be females to compete in women’s sports. The Office of Civil Rights determined that this policy violated Title IX, because it “denied female student-athletes athletic benefits and opportunities, including advancing to the finals in events, higher level competitions, awards, medals, recognition, and the possibility of greater visibility to colleges and other benefits.” The Connecticut public schools argue to the contrary and hold that anti-discrimination laws require them not to discriminate against transgender students. In the aftermath of the Bostock decision, expect litigation to challenge the Education Department’s directive.
♦ In the frenzy to be more woke than the woke, the city leaders of Duluth, Minnesota, decided to drop the title “chief,” as in chief financial officer. The word comes from Latin caput, through the French word chef, but nevertheless Mayor Emily Larson urged city council members to make the change “so that we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive, intentional marginalization.” The problem seems to be that “chief” has been used to describe the heads of Native American tribes. Duluth community relations officer Alicia Kozlowski informs us that “chief” is “a racial epithet, and it turns into a microaggression.”
♦ Duluth also embarked on a redesign of the city flag. This initiative stirred charges that the rationale for the new flag was insufficiently inclusive. A way forward was found by adopting the word “Umoja, an African principle meaning unity of family, community, nation and our unique ancestries.” Will Duluth now be charged with the crime of cultural appropriation?
♦ The New York Times attempted to serve as a forum for public debate. On June 3, its editorial page ran an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that took a firm line against the civil unrest and looting that accompanied the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was a law-and-order argument that included the defense of the president’s mandate to deploy U.S. military forces, if necessary, to quell the violence. One can criticize Cotton’s position. But that’s the point of the op-ed section of a paper: to provoke thought and debate. Apparently, this is no longer acceptable. The Times staff rose up in protests of their own. A Twitter tornado sent the newspaper’s leadership to their storm cellars. Four days later, the senior editor responsible for the editorial page in which Cotton’s piece appeared, James Bennet, was forced to resign, effective immediately. The message is clear. The rising generation of leftists has no time for liberal notions such as the “marketplace of ideas.”
Sen. Cotton had sharp words about the affair:
The New York Times editorial page editor and owner defended [my column] in public statements but then they totally surrendered to a woke child mob from their own newsroom that apparently gets triggered if they’re presented with any opinion contrary to their own, as opposed to telling the woke children in the newsroom this is their workplace, not a social-justice seminar on campus.
♦ On June 2, the top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski, signed off on a headline: “Buildings Matter, Too.” It was a column about historic buildings imperiled by the frenzy of destruction that accompanied the protests. The next day Wischnowksi apologized for his “horribly wrong” decision. The day after that, thirty or so staff at the Inquirer staged a walkout protest. One reporter penned an open letter: “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. . . . We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.” By the end of the week, Wischnowski was forced to resign.
♦ On June 4, Andrew Sullivan tweeted, “Heads up: my column won’t be appearing this week.” Sullivan writes for New York magazine. Media gossip has it that Sullivan’s columns are vetted by junior editors in order to make sure they contain no “triggering” content. During a week of the protests and unrest, was one of the most prominent commentators in the country barred from writing about one of the biggest stories of the year?
♦ The cancel culture has roots in the postwar left. In 1950, there appeared a pseudo-scientific study, The Authoritarian Personality. It was coauthored by Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno and others. The book describes conservative moral and cultural outlooks as “fascist” and proposes an F-scale to identify traits, such as belief in moral authority and a traditional sexual ethic, that supposedly indicate a “pre-fascist personality.” This promiscuous use of the epithet “fascist” provides a basis for refusing to tolerate views that do not accord with progressive pieties. Although the conclusion to The Authoritarian Personality is coy, the implication is clear: Non-progressive views must be prohibited—in order to save society from the fascists.
♦ Statues are being vandalized and toppled. The assaults on images of Christopher Columbus are noteworthy, since his discovery of the New World brought Western civilization to our shores. And it’s precisely Western civilization that nurtures self-criticism, which in its perverted and entirely negative forms becomes anti-Western ideology. Thus, tearing down a statue of Christopher Columbus is paradoxically a supremely naive expression of the superiority of Western culture in its self-complimenting progressive expression.
♦ Confederate monuments pose more interesting and difficult questions. In my native Baltimore, many prominent monuments were erected in the late nineteenth century by a Confederate veterans association that had its origins in a project to translate the bodies of Marylanders who died in the Southern cause from their burial spots at Gettysburg and other battlefields to Loudon Park Cemetery. This phase of commemoration can be understood, at least in part, as an expression of the piety that men in arms naturally feel toward their leaders and fallen comrades. Subsequent statuary, however, was linked to an increasingly desperate cultural struggle in Baltimore to maintain white supremacy and segregation. (Maryland had segregated schools and Jim Crow laws through the 1950s.)
I hold the view that we should honor our civic forbearers, not just those genetically linked to us or who share our current views, but all those whom providence has given power and influence. Not everything they did was worthy. In fact, a great deal was laced with sin. And thus not every statue they commissioned should be preserved. But in general we are more likely to promote a culture of decency and respect for others if we live with rather than expunge the legacy of the past. This allows us to reflect on the achievements of those who came before us—and to learn from their failures. And insofar as the past rankles, enduring monuments to old causes we now reject trains us to be tolerant of our fellow citizens in the present day. We need to quiet our self-righteous impulse to wipe clean the slate of history.
♦ Daniel McCarthy likewise calls for discriminating judgment and regrets that there hasn’t been much in recent weeks. He writes:
The “Appomattox” statue taken down in Alexandria, Virginia was far from a gesture of defiance toward the victorious north. Not for nothing was the statue named for the court house at which the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. It showed an unarmed soldier, eyes downcast and arms crossed, his face somber—an image of manly defeat, dedicated by veterans in 1889 to their fallen brothers. The statue was striking for showing a side of America that otherwise remains hidden, a face that isn’t the face of moral triumphalism and worldly success. It was an image intended to trouble a civilization given to self-congratulation. It was a reminder that even Americans know what it is like to lose a war.
♦ During the pandemic, public health officials warned that any violations of “social distancing” would spread disease. Then thousands gathered in cities and towns across the country to protest police brutality. An open letter signed by hundreds of doctors and health professionals asserted that these protests conformed to the spirit of the lockdowns even as they violated the letter: “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” which means that the protests are “vital to the national public health.” To be clear: “This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.” And pundits wonder why the authority of expertise wanes.
♦ Oscar Wilde on the genre of the letter to the editor: “I am afraid that writing to newspapers has a deteriorating influence on style. People get violent, and abusive, and lose all sense of proportion, when they enter that curious journalistic arena in which the race is always to the noisiest.” How much more so in today’s social media. And in open letters as well.
♦ The pandemic necessitated cancelling our annual New York Intellectual Retreat, scheduled for mid-August. In consultation with our partners at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, we came up with a plan for a virtual retreat. It was held on successive evenings from June 16 through June 19.
Our Intellectual Retreats involve seminars for which assigned texts are selected according to a common theme. This year we chose Josef Pieper’s collection of essays on the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, Love. In the midst of what has been a trying spring, it was a blessing to return to Pieper, whom I had read two or three decades earlier. His treatment of fundamental truths of the faith (and natural truths about the human condition) was a balm.
♦ Another balm was the opportunity to share four evenings with a group of intelligent people, many of whom are First Things readers. As in years past, my participation in the Intellectual Retreat impressed upon me the moral seriousness and religious depth of the First Things readership. We are living in trying times. Defaced memorials, career assassinations, and morally untethered Supreme Court decisions are demoralizing. A virtual retreat lacks the full warmth of face-to-face contact. Nevertheless, my heart was gladdened by the knowledge that we may be a small band, but we’re a merry one that is anchored in life-giving truths. I’d like to thank Magdalen College president George Harne and his team of seminar leaders for making the 2020 Intellectual Retreat a success.
♦ I’d also like to thank John Rose, Stefan McDaniel, and Ramona Tausz. All have worked as First Things Junior Fellows: John Rose in the mid-2000s, Stefan McDaniel at the end of that decade, and Ramona Tausz more recently. They were part of a concluding panel discussion of our history and mission and offered helpful insights into where we’ve been and astute observations about where we’re heading. One intervention particularly struck me. We’re an intellectual community, not just a journal and website. That community is not homogeneous. There are theological differences among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as divergent views on many discrete issues. But it’s a community of trust nonetheless, one based in a shared commitment to the notion that the authority of truth, natural and revealed, is a blessing.
♦ Josef Pieper observes, “Belief has the extraordinary property of endowing the believer with knowledge that would not be available to him by the exercise of his own powers.” If we did not put faith in our teachers, we would remain largely ignorant, for there is little we can prove or know on our own. Skepticism fends off knowledge, keeping it in the limbo of “maybe”; belief receives and incorporates. In that sense, belief is the engine of intellectual ambition: It reaches forward to truths not immediately available. Faith enlarges our capacity for truth, which is why the proponents of “critical thinking” are largely mistaken. They restrict what we can know to what we can prove, and thus condemn us to a great deal of ignorance about what is true. For this reason, John Henry Newman said that if forced to choose he would rather believe anything than doubt everything, for the latter makes it impossible to unite our minds with truth.
♦ Robert Louis Wilken has been a part of First Things since its inception. He was a longtime friend of our founder, Richard John Neuhaus. After Neuhaus’s death, Robert ensured that First Things remained true to our theological mission. Religion in public life is of no consequence if it is not living and vital—the first among first things. After ten years of service as chairman of our board, Robert is stepping down. I’m grateful for his leadership, counsel, and friendship. I am happy to report he will continue to serve on the board. And I am grateful to Colin Moran for his willingness to steer this noble ship as our new board chairman.
♦ A. M. Juster has stepped down as poetry editor. He expertly applied his critical acumen to the task of selecting poetry for our pages, and he has our great gratitude for maintaining our tradition of excellence. Garrick Davis will serve as our new poetry editor. We are delighted to have him in this role.
♦ Our spring campaign is going well. First Things is only as strong as the support of our readers. If you donated in June, please accept my thanks. If you were unable to donate, please join me in my thanks. The many who give generously make this magazine and our intellectual community possible.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.