I recently met a medical student who was beginning her rotation in internal medicine. A special morning session had been set aside to discuss proper protocols for interacting with patients. The person leading the discussion came from the hospital’s office of diversity and inclusion. She emphasized that even when a person looks male or female, “it’s more complex.” The group was instructed that individuals may “present as male or female” in a physical sense, but this presentation is not definitive, and it can be very hurtful to assume otherwise.
Many have had similar experiences in diversity seminars on other topics. Representatives of “justice” and “equity” manifest a serene confidence that certitudes minted only yesterday are so self-evident that people should be “trained” in them rather than invited to discuss them. The atmosphere can be surreal, characterized by a dream-like disregard for reality and ever-changing lists of what we are prohibited from saying and what we are required to say. It can also be chilling, given the arrogant rectitude and the rush to punish dissenters. What is going on?
Eric Voegelin’s mid-twentieth-century classic, The New Science of Politics, offers insight into the Woke Revolution that is now sweeping through so much of American life. Educated in Austria, Voegelin came to the United States in the late 1930s. Like many intellectual refugees from Nazism, he sought to understand modern totalitarianism and its perverse anti-human idealism. By his reading of history, its origins are religious and metaphysical. Modern politics tends toward hyper-politicization because it is fueled by ruthless dreams of social perfection that rebel against the human condition.
Representation is one of Voegelin’s central concepts. (“Truth and Representation” was the original title of the lecture series published as The New Science of Politics.) He is not concerned with mechanisms of representative government, such as elections, parliaments, and constitutions. He uses the term in a deeper sense. No society can operate simply as a whole. Every body politic requires leaders, which means that a part decides and acts on behalf of the whole. “Representation” defines this part-whole relation. The legitimacy of power in a regime depends upon the capacity of its leading part to act in accord with—to represent—that which society as a whole regards as centrally important.
Voegelin sets aside the “old” science of politics, which thinks in terms of different types of regimes: aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, tyranny, and democracy. He rightly notes that there is no “correct” regime. The task of representation can be accomplished by a king, a royal court, a military junta, a congress, or some other configuration. When representation fails, regimes falter and collapse, as did the French monarchy in 1789 and Weimar’s liberal constitutionalism in 1933.
Voegelin specifies two imperatives of representation. The first he calls “existential.” By this term he means that the ruling part of society must serve the vital needs and interests of the whole. Leaders who will not defend their country against attack are self-evidently unrepresentative. (One reason we are experiencing populist discontent is that our leaders failed to protect the country against economic “attacks” triggered by globalization.) Yet societies seek more than survival. Each has a genius loci, a sense of specialness and historical purpose, one often embodied in its poetry, history, and language. This higher existence, too, must be defended and carried forward. (Another cause of populism is the trend of leaders to become Anywhere people—to use David Goodhart’s apt characterization—while the general populace remains Somewhere people.) As Voegelin notes, “If a government is nothing but representative in the constitutional sense, a representative ruler in the existential sense will sooner or later make an end of it; and quite possibly the new existential ruler will not be too representative in the constitutional sense.” Fortunately, we have not arrived at a post-constitutional juncture of this sort. But Voegelin’s insight needs to be pondered carefully: Legality is not the same as legitimacy.
The second imperative of representation concerns truth. Every society wishes to believe that its affairs realize fundamental truths in public life. We wish not just to live, but to live well. Here, Voegelin introduces a historical typology that plays a central role in his analysis of modern politics. In the first stage of civilization, political power is meant to configure society in accord with the cosmos. The ruler plays the role of the high god, and the laws of the land emanate from above. In this way, temporal power aims to divinize society; the body politic mirrors the divinely governed universe.
In the West, however, a new conception of truth comes to the fore, one that concerns man, not the cosmos. Voegelin stipulates that, with Plato and Aristotle, the divine ceases to be the direct measure of society and becomes the measure of the soul. Our inner lives are opened up for transcendence, and the measure of society is man in his fulfillment. In this historical phase, politics is governed by the “anthropological principle” rather than the “cosmological principle.” In the West, the anthropological principle lies behind foundational appeals to natural law and natural rights. As Americans, we are especially keen to remain true to the anthropological principle.
These principles play out in history in complex ways. By Voegelin’s reading, Rome’s politics was archaic. It remained governed by the cosmological principle. The Greek revolution in soulcraft undermined this politics. (Late Hellenistic philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism are best read as therapies for those alienated from civic life, which did not engage deep matters of the soul.) But it was Christianity that fundamentally transformed the politics of the West. The universal offer of salvation democratized the interior life that Aristotle had reserved for the high-born, thus intensifying the influence of the anthropological principle. More importantly, Christianity transferred the cosmological imperative to the Church, which alone represents the heavenly city. As Voegelin explains, this double movement secularized the political culture of the West. In Christendom, the soul-needs of citizens are answered in the religious life, not through the work of governance. Meanwhile, the Church rather than the body politic takes up the burden of representing the perfection of divine order.
“The spiritual destiny of man in the Christian sense,” Voegelin writes, echoing St. Augustine’s sharp distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, “cannot be represented on earth by the power organization of a political society; it can be represented only by the church. The sphere of power is radically de-divinized; it has become temporal.” Our desire for transcendence is not denied or stymied. Rather, it is directed toward its true object, and thus away from the political ambition to use worldly power to represent heaven on earth. The upshot is a humane political order, which Voegelin believes was realized in form, if not always in substance, during the Middle Ages.
The modern era represents not progress but regress: “The specifically modern problems of representation are connected with the re-divinization of society.” Voegelin argues that Gnosticism, the term he uses for the heretical, politicized religiosity that afflicts us, has brought sacred politics back to the West.
Ancient Gnosticism was cosmological in orientation: The world as we experience it is a pale shadow of the higher, eternal order of the cosmos, to which we must return if we are to live in the fullness of truth. Modern Gnosticism adopts a different orientation. Under the influence of Christian conceptions of human destiny, its metaphysical imagination is historicized: The eternal truth is not above; it is in the future. In its earliest forms, modern Gnosticism functioned within the Christian framework. In ancient Greek, eschaton means “last,” and this term comes into theology as the word for the last day, the eschaton, the day of the final triumph of God’s plan for humanity. Jesus urges his followers, “Be ready!” This urgency can motivate an activism of preparation, but the activism stops short of taking responsibility for ushering in history’s fulfillment. The final act remains God’s alone to perform.
As secularization takes hold and modern thinkers reject theology as the queen of the sciences, modern Gnosticism no longer defers to God’s final say. As a consequence, the imperative of representation becomes soteriological, and civic affairs are re-divinized. It is up to us to make worldly power represent the triumphant future. Voegelin’s best-known phrase captures this salvation-oriented ambition: “immanentization of the Christian eschaton.” The modern Gnostic grasps political power in order to usher in the final and complete triumph of truth, the coming of which is our duty to realize.
The utopian politics of communism represents an obvious case. Marx formulated a theory of dialectical materialism that purported to reveal the inner meaning of history. The term “Gnostic” comes from the Greek gnosis, “knowledge,” and a true-believing Marxist knows that history is heading toward the dictatorship of the proletariat, the socialization of the means of production, the end of competitive human relations, the withering away of the state, and a final, blissful condition of human freedom. In politics, the Marxist acts in light of this gnosis, representing history’s fulfillment through revolutionary activism.
Voegelin understood that Marxism was by no means the only Gnostic politics in the modern era. Our age is rife with claims about the “meaning” of history. There are left and right versions. The Enlightenment and subsequent movements preached the triumph of reason and science, democracy and freedom, and other forward-looking “powers.” Under the influence of Darwinism and late-nineteenth-century race science, political movements located the “meaning” of history in the triumph of the master race or the dominion of the creative few over the passive many. For others, the political ideal was found in bold, decisive action for its own sake.
Today, much is made of “liberation” and “inclusion.” Tellingly, those who represent these ideals describe themselves as “on the right side of history.” There have been less dramatic forms of Gnostic politics in recent decades. Some speak of the ever-expanding free movement of goods, capital, and labor as inevitable. Globalism, we are told, cannot be stopped. The same is often said of technological innovation. It is our future, whether we want it or not.
A politics committed to representing the future is given literal expression in the term progressive. The political loyalty of the progressive is explicit: “I stand for what is coming.” Voegelin regarded progressivism as the essential form of modern politics. So-called conservatives can also be Gnostic, taking a limited-government, hands-off approach that trusts in the power of the future: The dynamism of markets or the inevitable triumph of freedom will drive us toward the eschaton. (In his Second Inaugural Address, George W. Bush affirmed, “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.”) Those on the left favor activism and even violence in order to make good the promises of the future. (Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “Communists are liberals in a hurry.”)
Unless we are Voegelinians, we’re not likely to use the phrase “modern Gnosticism” in our discussions of current events. “Idealism” is the more familiar word for what Voegelin describes. In common parlance, it is meant as a compliment. An idealist is not complacently satisfied with the status quo. He is committed to a better world, and he will not accept half-measures. Voegelin shows how destructive this mentality becomes when it dominates a society. Idealism is imperial. Over time, the “idealist,” utterly confident that he is serving the truth, politicizes every aspect of life, including our inmost thoughts and deepest aspirations.
A Platonist glimpses the perfection of the True, Good, and Beautiful, but he knows that our embodied finitude bars us from taking up residence in the timeless realm of the Forms. The Augustinian Christian believes in the promise of union with God in Christ, but he knows that it is a gift he can receive only as unmerited, a gift that can be fully enjoyed only as he enters into Eternal Life. Both outlooks affirm the drama of transcendence, but they bar us from making it the measure of temporal affairs. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus warns. The idealist thinks otherwise. The “better world” he envisions is this world perfected (or so he imagines). We are not separated from the ideal by metaphysical barriers or the need for supernatural grace, which means we have no excuse for delay. Thus, the idealist often speaks a language of compassion but operates without mercy. Woke Revolutionaries preach inclusion while ruthlessly cancelling laggards who fail to keep up with their escalating demands.
But this world cannot be perfected through human action. For this reason, Voegelin notes, modern politics is rife with magical thinking: “In gnosticism the nonrecognition of reality is a matter of principle.” As Europe careened toward war in 1914, convinced that class warfare was a historical necessity, Marxists were blind to the power of nationalism. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s ideological insistence on national self-determination paved the way for the next conflagration. As Hitler rose to power, pacifists campaigned for disarmament. After the demise of the Soviet Union, end-of-history liberals insisted that capitalism would democratize China. Neo-conservatives imagined that liberal ideals of freedom were destined to conquer the Middle East. The magical thinking continues. Today, Woke Revolutionaries tell us that gender is a social construction. In the Gnostic imagination, the “ideal” is more real than reality, because the future is destined to triumph over the present.
One upshot of magical thinking is the destruction of language. The abuse of pronouns illustrates this. The use of “they” as a singular seeks to evade the reality of our primeval distinction as male or female, as do bizarre new coinages such as ze and per and Mx. The corruption affects moral terms as well. Serving the ideal of equality now requires us to treat people unequally. Overcoming racism requires us to intensify our race-consciousness and give priority to racial categorizations. Each debasement of language and moral judgment is justified by the future. We must bear the madness for now—for the sake of the better world that is just around the corner, a world characterized by perfect equality, universal inclusion, and the freedom to define our “identities” as we please. If we will but represent that future with complete and all-encompassing faithfulness, then it will become reality. This eschatological promise forbids tolerance. Only if everyone, without exception, agrees to speak of “him” as “her,” will the “he” be a “she.” No one is permitted to defend reality.
Voegelin darkly (and correctly) predicts a new barbarism. Greek philosophy and Christian proclamation opened up the soul to the inner adventure of self-discipline in accord with truth. We are called to strive toward a never achieved but always alluring perfection. By contrast, Voegelin notes, “Wherever gnostic movements spread they destroyed the truth of the open soul.” Modern idealism is political, not philosophical. Its quest for salvation is enacted in the struggle for justice here and now. As Angela Franks observes in her analysis of Foucault (“Foucault’s Principalities & Powers,” March 2021), the adventure of transcendence is reframed as a quest for power. Everything of consequence pertains to our bodies, not our souls. The most urgent dramas of our times concern allocations of wealth and other utilities, skin pigment, the freedom of women to terminate pregnancies and of men to sodomize other men, securing our health, extending our lives, and other affairs of the flesh.
Voegelin was not a reactionary. He would have recognized that these issues require political judgment. Those responsible for governance may need to remediate historical injustices. Modern democratic societies are intolerant of great disparities in wealth, and leaders may judge it wise to moderate inequalities. Abortion, feminism, open homosexuality: These are facts of life in the twenty-first-century West. As Kevin Flannery observes in this issue (“Ethics of Leadership and Ethics of Teaching”), good leadership must navigate toward the good, but do so prudently, which is to say with a keen sense of what is possible, given the world as it is.
But the idealist invariably condemns prudence. It is insufficiently “progressive.” Justice! Equality! Liberation! As we follow this path, politics is divinized, and a preoccupation with the affairs of state eclipses the old, passing-away consensus that matters of the soul are what matter most. Modern Gnosticism invariably politicizes everything. If history and its “meaning” define the terminus of transcendence, then how we organize society will determine our final judgment—the judgment of history. Thus the tyranny of political correctness. In a world dominated by “idealism,” we do a child a disservice by assigning novels or books of poetry, philosophy, and history, unless those texts somehow convey the correct political attitudes and stimulate “progressive” political passions. We must serve the future! What we do with our souls is of no consequence.
In ancient politics, the cosmological imperative was static and stabilizing. This mode of politics operated in accord with an “idea,” to be sure. The changeless world above guided the use of power here below. But it was not idealistic in the modern sense, for everyone understood that the ways of men are finite and fickle. We can live under the guidance of the gods. But we cannot live as gods.
Modern politics, by contrast, knows no limits, for it believes that its governing idea exists in the historical future. Plato’s forms, God’s commandments, natural law, and natural right may or may not exist. Metaphysics and theology are the stuff of debate. But the future, by definition, does not exist. For this reason, modern politics is imbued with loyalty to vague ideals and pseudo-principles that have no stable connection to reality. Not surprisingly, it easily becomes irrational, brutal, and inhumane. Talk of a “living Constitution” conjures the illusion of a principle; its signal achievement has been to license the slaughter of the unborn. Perhaps vestiges of an older ethos restrain activists, but over time their zeal becomes self-certifying. Thus Voegelin’s dire judgment of modernity: “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.”
The Way of Love
No one,” writes Voegelin, “is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society.” It is within our power to resist the emerging world of totalizing politics. This does not entail shirking our civic duties or denouncing politicians. Society requires governance, and politics is the art of governance. It must be done, crisis or no crisis. But Voegelin makes a convincing case that the Woke Revolution, like so many modern revolutions, manifests a spiritual disease. Since this is so, our deepest resistance must be spiritual.
The first step must be to strengthen our connection to reality. We cannot do this simply by reading science journals or learning facts. “Follow the science” is a debased political slogan, and the politicization of science is sadly well advanced. Moreover, the spirit of activism deeply infects our approach to science. In the early modern period, Francis Bacon warned against “idols of the mind.” But he also proclaimed knowledge as power; it has value insofar as we can use it to improve the human condition. This utility-oriented approach to knowledge set in motion an essentially activist conception of truth-seeking. We seek knowledge for the sake of bettering man’s estate. But according to what standards of human perfection? Those, too, must ameliorate our suffering, if we are to remain true to Bacon’s project. Thus the postmodern condition: Every dimension of life, including truth, most be mobilized toward political ends.
We cannot escape this totalizing politics by way of expertise. As N. T. Wright argued in his 2019 Erasmus Lecture (“Loving to Know”), what is needed is a preparation of the heart. Ubi amor, ibi oculus: Where love is, there is the eye. Put another way, we can only grasp and know that which we desire to see. Voegelin makes the same point: “Philosophy springs from the love of being.” In a world in which transgender ideology is imposed as “science,” we certainly can marshal arguments and evidence to the contrary. But at a deeper level, we must respond by turning to the world with a disposition of love.
This disposition is not “religious,” if by that term we mean ordered toward God, although it will be more perfect and more durable if our love aims at the highest good. Yet love is “spiritual,” for it is a disposition of the soul. Roger Scruton emphasized gratitude for the way things are as a foundation for the good life, to which he added wonder. Yes, all is not well. Yes, injustices are done and some suffer unnecessarily. But evils do not outweigh the elemental good that there is something rather than nothing. Moreover, that which exists is ornamented by human kindness, warmth, creativity, imagination, and good cheer, which are never all-triumphant, but which, even in the most difficult situations, are nevertheless real. Gratitude disposes us toward embrace. Wonder encourages us to celebrate. And love desires to know, as the biblical term for sexual union makes clear. These movements of the soul run counter to modern Gnosticism, which gives precedence to outrage, protest, and denunciation.
Yuval Levin has observed, “Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it.” This strikes me as correct, though I would make gratitude more imperative: Conservatives must begin with gratitude. We live in a time of fevered political correctness, and our society is being turned upside-down by Woke Revolutionaries. If we are not to be defeated by our anxieties or consumed by the battles we must fight—and we must not be—we will need a strong foundation in gratitude that reaches to metaphysical depths and religious heights.
The Church in Germany
The Catholic Church in Germany is methodically walking down a Synodaler Weg, a path of collective deliberation about “the question of God and the way he wants to go with people today.” A management consultant might describe the process as one of “revisioning.” The McKinsey consultancy’s promotional material provides a technocratic phrase: “sustained strategic transformation.” In proper German fashion, a bureaucratic process has been established, one populated by committees, assemblies, and fora. The latter have taken up specific themes: church governance, the priesthood, women in ministry, and “life in succeeding relationships,” a euphemism for sexual morality.
Forum 1 has produced a “Fundamental Text,” which serves as a working document for its deliberations about the reform of church governance. It recently came into my hands.
The Fundamental Text is long and wordy. But its purpose is clear: to establish a rationale for setting aside the hierarchical form of governance that, in one form or another, has obtained in the Catholic Church since the apostolic age. This historical tradition is rooted in a view that spiritual authority is properly vested in persons, and this is done paradigmatically by way of ordination into a continuous succession of bishops. The mechanisms of succession, characterizations of episcopal authority, and juridical limits have varied over the centuries, as has the relation of the authority of local bishops to the universal authority of the pope. But in this historical tradition there is a continuity in the “order of power,” to use the terms of the Fundamental Text. It flows downward from the spiritual fatherhood of the bishop.
Der Synodaler Weg seeks to overthrow governance by spiritual fathers. The Church’s “understanding and use of power must be critically examined and, if necessary, reorganized.” This examination is conducted on the assumption that “a democratic society based on the rule of law” represents the gold standard for governance. The Church must “answer to democratic achievements” in the modern era. “Her system of law and power must be recognizable as an expression of and resource for those strong positive values that form the ethos of free, democratic ways of life.” These criteria require shifting the “order of power” toward the rights-based liberalism that predominates in the West today. Questions of who decides on church policy, and even on church teaching itself, must be answered in accord with “enforceable rights of participation.” “Gender justice” should guide decisions about who can assume positions of leadership.
In the Christian tradition, legitimate spiritual authority comes from God. In low-church Protestant traditions, that legitimacy is manifest in material conformity to scriptural revelation. In Catholicism and more sacramental forms of Protestantism, material conformity to Scripture is supplemented by creedal standards and authoritative church teaching. In addition, legitimate ordination is required. Though procedures, criteria, and rituals vary, the requirement of ordination is meant to guard an unchanging, fundamental principle: Those authorized by God to govern today must in turn authorize those who will govern in the future. At its deepest level, this approach is warranted by the Incarnation, which gives God’s authority a “face,” as it were. Spiritual authority is transmitted from person to person.
Faithful to its commitment to bring the Church into conformity with the spirit of our age, the Fundamental Text adopts the secular democratic and procedural standard of legitimate authority: consent of the governed. “The Church in a liberal-democratic society cannot claim privileges and special rights that remove it from the normal control of a democratically ordered public.” By this way of thinking, legitimate spiritual authority means that “governance must always be co-determined by those who are governed.” Over the course of the document, one sees the proposal take shape. It is not simply a matter of beefing up parish councils or other advisory bodies. “Ecclesiastical decision-makers”—which is to say, bishops—“should also be elected and regularly face elections in which the powers granted to them can be confirmed or delegated to others.”
After the election of bishops, the Fundamental Text allows that it may be necessary to send the names to Rome for confirmation, as the Chinese currently do in their special arrangement with the Vatican. But the logic remains liberal-democratic rather than hierarchical and paternal. The Synodal Way insists that this logic must be followed if the Church is to have credibility in the modern West. This assertion likewise parallels the Chinese approach. The Chinese Communist party has insisted that its control over the appointment of bishops best suits the needs and traditions of Chinese culture. In both cases, a bishop’s authority comes from below, from those who elect him or from bureaucrats who appoint him, and not from above, not from councils populated or offices occupied by those set aside and consecrated to God’s service.
The Fundamental Text manifests a sad consistency. Again and again, the document announces that the German Church is impeded in its mission by its failure to affirm progressive views and attitudes:
Because [the Church] hermetically shielded the talk of the sacred from the achievements of liberal standards such as transparency, participation and control—of contemporary proven plausibility and effectiveness—and because it counteracted them in its practice to a staggering degree, this talk [of the sacred] is today socially discredited.
Put plainly, the Church has failed to recognize and conform itself to the new revelations of the modern age. The Synodal Path insists that this refusal to harken to the magisterium of secular progressivism is why attendance and observance have declined in Germany.
One can only describe the Fundamental Text as faithful . . . to the spirit of our age. It adopts the inevitable totalitarian implications of progressive outlooks that are so well described by Voegelin. The Text asserts that it will be impermissible to describe any of the participants in the Synodal Way as heretical: “We want to learn to live theological diversity in ecclesial unity.” The Text promises that the process will not compel assent. But the winner of debates is foreordained. “Blocking discourse” will not be permitted to impede “concrete decisions and reforms.” In other words, debate will be “free and open,” but theological criticisms need not be answered. The practical urgency of democratizing the Church, empowering women, and making church teaching more “open” trumps nettlesome questions about how to square these “reforms” with the apostolic tradition: “Needs for correction and reform must be answered even if a final synthesis has not yet been reached.”
Theological liberalism represents a modern attempt to soften the authority of God in order to give elbowroom to human judgment, choice, and decision. It reached its most sophisticated form in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German Protestant theology, which was characterized by subtle reflections that creatively recast the apostolic tradition in moral and subjective terms. When I was a young theology student, its best minds, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ernst Troeltsch, and Paul Tillich, taught me how to think theologically. But I came to recognize that the liberal Protestant tradition of theology was, at best, a peace treaty with the modern view of freedom as self-determination, a peace treaty that often tipped into capitulation. Sadly, German Christianity seems to have suffered severe intellectual degradation in recent decades. The Fundamental Text presents a crude, barely theological rationale for reinventing the German Catholic Church as a parliamentary democracy. This democratic institution may have spiritual interests, but its primary objective is to bring the supposedly outmoded teaching and practice of Christianity into conformity with the more advanced ideas and “best practices” of twenty-first-century progressive German culture.
The German Church has been hollowed out. The passion animating the Fundamental Text arises from loyalty to the gods of our present age: democracy, diversity, equity, and inclusion. These and other contemporary notions are rich with authority, dictating in advance what must be decided and done. Theological concepts are afterthoughts, a troublesome inheritance to be managed and marginalized.
Many assume that Rome will put a stop to the German Church’s “journey” down the Synodal Path. I do not have this confidence. Pope Francis has created an atmosphere of permission, which is why the effort in Germany got started in the first place. Moreover, the precedent in China makes clear that the Vatican is willing to concede a great deal of its governing authority to secular power. Post-Christian German culture is quite different from communist China. But whatever elected bodies the German Church creates will undoubtedly accord secular Western culture say-so over church teaching, and they are likely to do so with as much fidelity as Chinese Communist party bureaucrats show toward the very different but equally secular interests of the Chinese government.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ While reading the Fundamental Text for the Synodal Way in Germany, I was reminded of the final proposition condemned in the Syllabus of Errors: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” I’ll quibble with “can.” Although the Syllabus correctly rejects accommodation of modern “isms,” the Church is able to affirm fitting aspects of every culture and moment in history. But rejecting the “ought” is surely correct. Nothing between Christ’s ascension and his return in glory has authority over the apostolic tradition. There is no basis for the notion that the Church is obliged to accept the world’s terms.
♦ After he read the Fundamental Text, Douglas Farrow sent me citations from the 1932 platform of the German Christian movement. This church group strove to purify Protestant Christianity of its “alien” elements and coordinate it with the “vital” powers of the German people. Here are some of the platform’s affirmations, sadly echoed by Catholic efforts nearly a century later:
“We want a living People’s Church which is the expression of all the religious powers of our nation”;
“We take our stand on the platform of positive Christianity. We affirm an affirmative style of Christian faith, as appropriate to the German spirit”;
“We want an Evangelical Church which roots in the national character.”
♦ Writing for American Mind, Joshua Hochschild has penned a suggestive account of how our political misgivings have evolved over the last five years: “Once Upon a Presidency: From populist to dissident.” Well worth reading and pondering.
♦ The game plan is simple. Begin with an unobjectionable affirmation of our duty to care for the weak and vulnerable. Then use it as a hook to compel affirmations of progressive cultural politics. I saw this strategy employed in the Episcopal Church in the 1990s. Gay youth are vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and need our support, we were told. That support cannot be fully effective unless one affirms “gay identity,” which of course requires Christianity to “evolve.” As this strategy moves forward, we reach the point at which, if you are not in favor of gay marriage, you are condemned as a “hater” who is in favor of teen suicide.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop John Wester, and seven active bishops (along with three retired ones) embraced the first stage of the strategy for compelling Catholics to affirm transgender ideology. They pledged to “join with the Tyler Clementi Foundation in standing up for at-risk LGBT youth in our country.” Their statement makes the non-controversial observation that Christians are commanded to treat others with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” The statement then pivots to asserting that “all people of goodwill should help, support, and defend LGBT youth,” and it demands opposition to “any form of violence, bullying or harassment” directed against them.
It is not an oversight that these bishops refrain from stating any aspect of the Bible’s view of sexual morality or of our creation as male and female. They are not stupid. They know that, in 2021, such statements are the opposite of the “affirmative” stance that progressives deem necessary for “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” They also know that LGBT ideology exercises an iron control over public discussions, so much so that if a priest were to tell a confused young person that boys cannot become girls, the very act of truth-telling would be described as harassment and bullying. Shame on these Catholic leaders for playing the role of useful idiots—or worse. They are assisting the LGBT crusade to silence any dissent from its ideological strictures.
♦ According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide for the young (age ten to twenty-four) rose nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. Researchers puzzle over the causes of this shocking increase in self-harm. They should revisit Emile Durkheim’s classic treatment of the topic, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim saw a correlation between suicide and the moral dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization. He described the mental condition of distress as “anomic horror,” the fear that there are no settled norms ordering our lives. Notice that the rapid increase of suicide among the young corresponds to the mainstreaming of LGBT ideology, which deliberately and systematically disintegrates age-old norms about what it means to be a man or a woman—a question most of us regard as urgent and sometimes difficult as we move from childhood to adulthood. In all likelihood, this ideological assault on traditional norms (and now on nature herself) disorients young people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Thus, supposedly “sensitive” and “compassionate” attitudes may make us feel good, but they further degrade these norms among children, exacting a heavy toll.
♦ Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, has been scrubbed from Amazon.
♦ Amazon controls more than 50 percent of the retail book market. By some metrics, Amazon’s share approaches 80 percent. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was passed to prevent trusts and cartels from controlling markets. In the Gilded Age, concerns about concentrations of economic power were closely connected to concerns about the concentration of political power, as the populist, anti–Wall Street campaigns of William Jennings Bryan indicate. Today, we are facing the same problem of economic-political oligarchy. It is bad for America’s tradition of freedom if a single company has functional control over which books can be bought and read. Is now not the time to break up the concentrations of cultural power that have become over-dominant?
♦ Students at the United Nations International School (a fancy private school in New York City) launched a social media campaign against teachers and administrators they deem “racist” and “oppressors.” The denunciations were conducted anonymously on an Instagram account. Of teachers and administrators who were marched toward reputational execution, their accusers wrote: “No one is obligated to protect you from those consequences and no one is obligated to forgive you.”
♦ It goes without saying that the adults at UNIS rushed to capitulate. Executive director Dan Brenner intoned intercessions from today’s intersectional liturgy: “It is important for all facets of the UNIS community to engage in an honest dialogue on race and privilege to improve the character of our community. At UNIS, Black Lives Matter.”
♦ Marilyn Manson is Brian Warner’s stage name. His rock-star persona revolves around Satanism and perversion. A half-dozen models and actresses have accused him of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Who knew that celebrating evil was correlated with doing evil deeds?
♦ “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election” is a must-read. Molly Ball details in Time magazine the extraordinary coordination of left-wing and liberal organizations that swung into action in 2020 to “protect” the election: “It drew energy from the summer’s racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the liberal alliance. And eventually it reached across the aisle, into the world of Trump-skeptical Republicans appalled by his attacks on democracy.” At first, the goal was to secure changes in electoral laws to allow massive mail-in voting, as well as to overhaul Democratic party get-out-the-vote efforts during the pandemic. The result was “practically a revolution in how people vote,” with nearly half of the 150 million votes nationwide cast by mail. Activists (including Vanita Gupta, Biden’s nominee for Associate Attorney General) met with tech moguls to lobby for censorship of “disinformation.” Polling was conducted and fed to media. BLM organizations were repurposed to provide election-day momentum. Corporations and foundations donated tens of millions:
Their work touched every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws and helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears. They executed national public-awareness campaigns that helped Americans understand how the vote count would unfold over days or weeks, preventing Trump’s conspiracy theories and false claims of victory from getting more traction.
♦ I emailed a friend about “The Secret History.” He offered a curt response—“Xi Jinping would be proud”—and went on to say he now communicates about such things only through Signal, a messaging app that emphasizes security. Other friends have migrated to ProtonMail, an email platform known for protecting anonymity.
♦ The Middle Kingdom of Mass Surveillance recently announced new guidelines for religious organizations. The Chinese government restates its claim of control over the appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church in China. No mention is made of a role for the Holy See in the government’s latest stipulation that “Catholic bishops are approved and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference.” The Pillar (the new and essential source for investigative journalism on matters Catholic) reports that senior Catholic clerics in China do not regard the new guidelines as an alteration of the 2018 China-Vatican agreement that insiders say allows Rome to approve appointments. But the new guidelines further entrench government control in accord with the Chinese “principle of independence and self-administration of religion.” As I note in the Public Square, the German Church likewise embraces the principle of “self-administration of religion.”
♦ Peter Hammond Schwartz, writing in the New Republic:
Conversations on religious influences in American public life typically have focused on white evangelical Protestant support for Donald Trump and the Christian nationalist wing of the Republican Party. However, the rise of American conservatism is actually a 50-year saga of Catholic intellectual and theological penetration of the halls of power.
He singles out First Things (“the most intellectually serious and influential journal of the religious right”) as particularly nefarious, leading the way toward (this will shock readers) a politics informed by natural law. Schwartz collapses divergent conceptions of moral norms into “new natural law.” Though this mistake needs to be corrected, I’m happy to endorse his warnings to those on the left. Yes, we are intellectually serious, and, yes, we aim (as Richard John Neuhaus often said) to advance a religiously informed philosophy for the ordering of public life.
♦ Sadly, Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, is closing its doors. An island in the archipelago of colleges and seminaries founded by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, many named Concordia, the institution was founded 140 years ago. Like so many small private colleges, it has struggled in recent years. The pandemic seems to have forced capitulation.
♦ Writing about the tightening vice of communist control in Hong Kong, Peter Baehr reflects on two obligations we have under a dictatorship: a responsibility not to harm others and a responsibility to be honest.
In the first case, responsibility turns on restraint; on refraining from any action that fortifies the regime or weakens others subject to its domination: actions like informing on a neighbour, bearing false witness, signing a questionable document, colluding in the unjust demotion of a colleague, or opportunistically ingratiating oneself with a power-holder. A related responsibility is to provide solace to those in close proximity who are embattled and humiliated by the regime. For of the many ills caused by dictatorships, the loss of human fellowship—isolation—is among the worst. Sometimes a simple glance of encouragement, a shared joke, a hand-shake, or another courteous greeting is enough to signal to someone marked as a regime pariah that they are still valued members of a human community.
But individuals also have responsibilities to themselves under dictatorship, and these turn on a constant, ever-renewed commitment to the principles of truthfulness: interpersonal truthfulness—minimally, a refusal to repeat and spread the regime’s lies—and intrapersonal truthfulness—essentially, a refusal to lie to oneself. Remaining truthful in both senses requires something more than clarity or acumen. It requires sustained alertness and effort: the willful, deliberate exercise of human conscience to recognize and name, if only under one’s breath, and to oppose, in whatever way possible, what is evil.
Our circumstances are different, but we, too, have fallen under a dictatorship. It is dispersed rather than concentrated, soft rather than hard. The pressure comes largely from private sources. But this fact offers little protection, for the pressure is pervasive, hectoring, and punitive. And, as Christopher Caldwell notes, civil rights law, now expanded to include LGBT ideology, reinforces this dictatorship rather than protecting us from it.
♦ In “From the Defamilialization to the ‘Demotherization’ of Care Work,” sociologist Sophie Mathieu clarifies the progressive goal of gender equality: It will require the “demotherization” of child-rearing. “The demotherization process, defined as the extent to which mothers can offload caregiving responsibilities onto other family members, the state, or the market, is one important determinant of gender equality,” where equality is defined as professional attainment and wage-earning at the same level as men. This is the logic of Roe applied to family life. “Offload” is the telling word: Women are not free unless their obligations to their children can be set aside. For a powerful critique of this view of freedom, see O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.
♦ Conor Skelding reviews The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, Fredrik deBoer’s plea for a more egalitarian society, for the spring 2021 issue of American Affairs. He notices that deBoer, like so many soi-disant socialists, gravitates toward solving top-10-percent problems, not working-class ones: “Going to college for free without having to first take a stressful test, finding oneself, delaying childbirth, meeting one or more committed ‘partners’—this is socialism for Slate Plus subscribers.”
♦ Not wanting to be left behind, the Tolkien Society made “Tolkien and Diversity” the theme of its summer seminar. The call for papers suggests the following topics:
- Representation in Tolkien’s works (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, age etc.)
- Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and post-colonialism
- Adaptations of Tolkien’s works
- Diversity and representation in Tolkien academia and readership
- Identity within Tolkien’s works
- Alterity in Tolkien’s works
I can envision the paper titles: “Gollum’s Struggle for Agency: A Post-Colonial Reading of Frodo’s Hegemony,” “The Scandal of Elvish Supremacy: The Subaltern Dwarf Perspective,” “Inventing Languages: (Dis)locating Linguistic Power.”
♦ April sees the publication of The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself: Essays on Revelation, Salvation, and Evangelization in Honor of Robert P. Imbelli. As a longtime professor of theology at Boston College (now retired), Fr. Imbelli has been a strong voice for the Christological foundation of our faith. It’s wonderful to see so many First Things contributors grace the table of contents of this much-deserved Festschrift.
♦ The Festschrift for Christopher Seitz, The Identity of Israel’s God in Christian Scripture, is now available from SBL Press. Chris is one of the finest readers of the Bible I know. In addition to many books about the Old Testament, his specialty, he wrote the commentary on Colossians for the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, a series for which I serve as editor. Chris is a devoted churchman. Along with Ephraim Radner, George Sumner, and others, we were co-conspirators on behalf of the apostolic tradition back in my Episcopal Church days. I was honored to be asked to contribute an essay.
♦ Seitz remains on staff at Wycliffe College, a graduate theological school at the University of Toronto. His presence, along with Joseph Mangina and Ephraim Radner, makes Wycliffe one of the most vital theological graduate programs in North America.
♦ A reader wrote last month to tell me that she is starting a “Common Sense Movement.” Her aim is to organize twelve-person discussion groups that meet monthly to talk about philosophy, economics, and civic issues. A good idea! As Baehr notes, isolation and the loss of fellowship are debilitating in a totalitarian atmosphere. We encourage ROFTERS groups, which often give rise to lasting friendships. But First Things is not a jealous god. I wish the best for the Common Sense Movement and other initiatives. We need each other, not in abstraction, but in person.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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