Joshua Mitchell has made a strong case that religion has returned to public life. In American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, he argues that growing numbers of Americans are harried and oppressed by unaddressed guilt and shame. The recession of Christianity as the most prominent cultural power in our society deprives people of access to the mechanisms of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. As a consequence, the guilt-ridden gravitate to the more primitive mechanism of scapegoating, heaping their guilt and shame on the white, heterosexual man, who must be humiliated and purged.
I’m not entirely convinced that identity politics and other disordered conceptions of justice currently abroad in our society can be explained by scapegoating. Nevertheless, Mitchell is surely correct to focus on guilt and shame. When they are not addressed by traditional religious practice, these feelings become a terrible burden. Our therapeutic culture can help us manage guilt and shame, turning guilty acts into “mistakes” and redefining shame as a socially imposed feeling that, once understood, will relax its grip. Yet the deeply felt stain remains, agitating our souls and circulating just below the surface of society.
Sometimes guilt and shame erupt. A 2022 poll indicates a growing pessimism about the future of the human race. More than 30 percent of U.S. adults believe it is likely that a climate catastrophe will lead to the extinction of the human race. Thirteen percent say it’s very likely. This remarkable belief is even more prevalent among young people. The activist group Extinction Rebellion wants governments to declare a “climate and ecological emergency” in order to prevent what its members envision as looming mass extinction. And of course there’s Greta Thunberg, the teenage shaman.
Though the science of climate change can be debated, there exists no rational basis for thinking that the world is on the brink of catastrophe. Moreover, as Ross Douthat notes, during the 1950s there was a widespread concern about the possibility of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a doomsday scenario far more plausible than today’s climate fears. And yet that decade was not characterized by dark pessimism. Why? “Perhaps,” Douthat answers, “because 1950s America was experiencing a religious revival.” And why do today’s zealous activists and their followers embrace climate change as the Avenging Angel? Maybe, observes Douthat, this fact is related to “rapid secularization or at least de-Christianization,” a trend that has accelerated in twenty-first century America, producing “the least-churched younger adults in modern American history.”
Sounds right to me. I recently had a conversation with a young woman who graduated from New York University in 2022. She told me that she found it difficult to be motivated in her career. “What’s the point? The world is going to be destroyed by climate change.” Marriage and children? She expressed the same despairing outlook. There was no rage. She did not blame Big Oil or other imagined malefactors. With a shrug, she seemed to be saying that the looming catastrophe was fitting punishment of the human race, because human beings are the source of evil in the world.
At the May 2022 commencement of my alma mater, Haverford College, after the fully masked students (Be Safe!) had been seated, college president Wendy Raymond approached the podium. She began her address, “We recognize that we live and work on Lenape land,” and continued with an elaborate liturgy of attendant obligations. This practice is now common for progressive universities and institutions. Public events open with a “land acknowledgement,” which is appended as well to official documents. Though certainly more innocuous than fear-mongering about climate catastrophe, land acknowledgements, which are self-evidently ritual and liturgical in character, bespeak the same need to discharge guilt and shame.
The same holds for reparations. The city of Evanston, Illinois recently launched a reparations program. Sixteen black applicants for public housing were selected to receive $25,000, to be used for down payments, mortgage payments, or home repairs. A race-based program of this sort runs counter to basic principles of justice. The crimes of communism were committed under the conviction that guilt and merit are collective, not personal. But we are living in an age in which the blood of past injustices cries out from the ground. Home of Northwestern University and of well-heeled professionals who work in Chicago, Evanston has a citizenry eager to make atonement.
I don’t believe that those lobbying for reparations regard themselves as accountable for the harms done by racist policies imposed more than half a century ago. But they are human, which means that they participate in the sin of Adam, a disturbing reality that pains our souls, driving us to find peace in one or another act of penance. Because of our history, Black Americans offer prized opportunities for white Americans to discharge their guilt, the sources of which are far wider and deeper than anything outlined in the 1619 Project.
The allure of the multi-faceted and now pervasive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion enterprise, of which land acknowledgments and reparations are but a small part, rests in its promise of redemption. I suppose the religious undertones in putatively secular American public life are to be expected. Nineteenth-century European radicals were opposed to throne-and-altar conservatism, making the progressive tradition on the Continent anti-clerical. Its utopianism followed the Marxist pattern, claiming to be the deliverance of true science. By contrast, American (and, to a lesser extent, English) progressivism has its roots in liberal Protestantism. Those who lead corporate DEI training sessions are evangelists. They follow in the tradition of the Social Gospel.
Should we say, then, that religion is returning? We live in a paradoxical time. Our public culture does not manifest the calm, reason-governed debates promised by proponents of secularity such as John Rawls. The summer of 2020 saw scenes of protesters kneeling as they paid homage to St. George Floyd, in a particularly vivid manifestation of the fact that many aspects of public life are driven by religious impulses and needs rather than secular ones. Yet our draconian responses to COVID-19 during the same fateful year indicate that our society regards physical well-being as the highest good. With the embrace of lockdowns, often at the urging of religious leaders, we were willing to sacrifice transcendence for an increase in the odds of survival. Far from the return of religion, this development suggested the triumph of secularism.
Perhaps the paradox reflects a truth about the modern age. As our social imaginations are disenchanted and our lives reordered around the this-worldly goods of health, wealth, and pleasure, our hearts ache, not just with an unquenched desire for God, but perhaps more powerfully with the suppurating wounds of sin. Stripped of true religion, we cast about for substitutes, investing temporal hopes and fears with theological significance. Cabined in small worlds of technocratic management, we seek to paint our lives on the canvas of history, sometimes with dark colors of doom, at other times (or, more often than not, at the same time) with warm pastels of redemption.
First Things was founded to renew the influence of Christianity and Judaism on American public life. We need that influence now more than ever. Political life concerns the middle range of human affairs. It demands the art of governance, which distinguishes man from the lower animals, but which is not our highest end. The deeply human practice of politics cannot be reduced to the expert management of utilities, as technocracy proposes. And it is corrupted when raised to theological significance. Christianity and Judaism guard against both dangers. Without their renewed influence, I fear we will suffer a double tyranny, one that compels us to live for the sake of our animal needs, the bio-regime that Paul Kingsnorth and others resist, while those frenzied by guilt and hungry for atonement sweep us into their urgent, all-consuming projects.
In Irrevocable: The Name of God and the Unity of the Christian Bible, R. Kendall Soulen adopts as his governing premise the proposition that God’s election of the Jewish people is irrevocable. This affirmation runs counter to a great deal of the Christian tradition, which sees Christianity as superseding Judaism (thus the term supersessionism). Soulen has long argued against the traditional view, most pointedly in The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Rather than rehearsing reasons against supersessionism, however, in this book Soulen shows the theological fruitfulness of presuming God’s ongoing love for his chosen people.
The fruitfulness arises from a focus on God’s name. “The golden thread that runs through all the chapters is the attention they pay to a single word: the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered Hebrew name that is traditionally represented in English translations of the Bible in small caps as Lord.” It’s a fresh and needed emphasis, for few Christians are aware that God has a proper name. It’s revealed in the third chapter of Exodus, when Moses is given his task of leading the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. He hears God’s voice in the flames of a burning bush that is not consumed. First, God identifies himself in terms of his covenant: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is an instance of identification by relationship. Imagine a reception hosted by my wife’s law firm during which I introduce myself to her law partners as Juliana’s husband. The Bible’s regular evocation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob works the same way.
This identification does not satisfy Moses. He presses for more. What if the Israelites ask for the name of the God who has sent him? The Holy One gathers himself and pronounces, “I am who I am.” The Christian tradition has interpreted this mode of self-identification as metaphysical. God is announcing that he is the source and summit of all that is. He is the High God, the Transcendent, the One who is and cannot not be. You might say this is self-identification by role or position, as when I introduce myself as the editor of First Things.
But relation, however intimate, and role, however exalted and unique, are not proper names. So, in a remarkable pivot from the most universal (“I am who I am”) to the most particular, God gives Moses his name, the Tetragrammaton, the four-consonant Hebrew word YHVH.
The main reason most Christians are unaware of God’s name is that, unless you are reading Hebrew, you never come across these four consonants in the bible translations we use. There’s a linguistic explanation for this omission. As is the case for other Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Arabic, only consonants are written in Hebrew. The vowels are spoken when words are read aloud, of course, but in the text they are absent. This can lead to ambiguity in some circumstances. Is it “none” or “nine” (to draw on an example in English)? In the case of something as important as the sacred text of the Hebrew Bible, traditions of pronunciation were carefully guarded, and in the latter half of the first millennium the rabbinic tradition produced manuscripts with vowel markings to establish an authoritative version. But in one case they refrained. YHVH was and remains without vowel markings.
Theological convictions drove this decision. In the rabbinic tradition, the name of God is surrounded by ritual caution, and it is never pronounced. We don’t know exactly what motivated this extreme discretion. Perhaps it arose out of the fear of desecrating God’s name by misuse. (See the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.) Or perhaps the prohibition against vocalizing the name of God arouse out of religious awe that shrinks from presumptions of intimacy. (See the biblical principle: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.) Whatever the cause, by the time of Christ, YHVH had disappeared from the Jewish oral tradition, replaced by the Hebrew word Adonai (“My Lord”). The Septuagint, the influential third-century b.c. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, renders YHVH as Kyrios (Lord).
In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars hired Jews to tutor them in Hebrew so that they could read the Old Testament in its original language. This led to the discovery of the Tetragrammaton, which in turn triggered speculations about its proper pronunciation. One popular approach was to combine the vowels from Adonai (the word vocalized when Jews read the divine name in scripture) with YHVH. Thus YaHoVaH, or, as it has come down to us, Jehovah.
Modern biblical scholars take a different approach. They focus on God’s metaphysical self-identification: I am who I am. The ancient Hebrew for “to be” is haway, which in the relevant tense can be construed as yahweh. Notice how the YHVH consonants dovetail with this construction: YaHWeH. Thus, many academics pronounce the Tetragrammaton “Yahweh.” Those who insist upon this as God’s name do so because they want to underline the crucial modern historical-critical presupposition that the Old Testament concerns the tribal god venerated by the ancient Israelites who produced, in various stages of composition and redaction, the Hebrew text.
A free and easy pronunciation of “Yahweh” runs counter to Christian practice. When we recite the Sanctus, the first line of which is drawn from Isaiah 6:3, we don’t say, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Yahweh God of Hosts.” Rather, as Soulen points out, for two millennia, Christians have followed the Jewish practice of masking God’s name with “Lord” and other formulations. This is the practice of the New Testament. There are many references to the name of God (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”). But the name itself goes unsaid.
Indeed, Soulen observes that, in the New Testament, God’s name is often hidden just around the corner, as it were. This happens far more often than I had recognized previously. For example, Jesus speaks in parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field….” “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls….” Soulen helps me see that in these parables “the kingdom of heaven” is a locution that masks God’s name. It leaves unpronounced the King who reigns in heaven. With this in mind, my reading of those parables is transformed. I had always thought of the Christian as the seeker who finds the treasure (Christ) and sells all to buy it (follow him). The same held for my reading of the pearl of great price, which I took to be Christ. But this human-centered interpretation runs counter to the overall pattern of this sequence of parables in Matthew 13. It is the King who is searching for us, not we for him. And he will sell all he has, taking on the form of a servant, humbling himself, even unto death.
Soulen points out that Jesus often uses the passive voice to evoke God without naming him. The Beatitudes illustrate this practice. They begin, “Blessed are . . .” The one doing the blessing goes unmentioned. With Jesus’s pious practice in mind, we can turn to the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer with fresh eyes.
Jesus teaches us to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” I had long thought that the petition urges me to venerate God’s name. In effect, I was reading the petition in this way: “Help me, O God, to be worthy of your name.” But I now see that this interpretation is wrongheaded in the same me-centered way as my lazy reading of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. When Jesus prays hallowed be, he is pointing to God as the agent, not me. “The first petition” of the Lord’s Prayer, Soulen observes, “is an appeal to God’s own zeal on behalf of God’s name.”
This reading of the first petition accords with the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer as a whole. The rest of the petitions ask God to act. And it echoes frequent references to God’s vindication of his name in the Old Testament. The example Soulen provides comes from Ezekiel, where God enumerates the sins of Israel, but nevertheless pledges loyalty to the covenant: “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (36:22).
The Gospel of John is “metaphysical” in comparison to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But what do we mean by “metaphysical”? The Gospel of John is a narrative, not a treatise. It features no speculative arguments. Soulen’s focus on God’s name helps us see that John’s Gospel has a powerful upward thrust because of the prominence of the unspoken Tetragrammaton. To prepare his disciples for the road to Golgotha, Jesus declares, “For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name.” A voice comes from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (12:27).
The transcendent power of God’s name—its power was, and is, and is to be—echoes throughout Jesus’s High Priestly prayer in John 17. “While I was with them,” Jesus says to the Father, “I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me.” Jesus bears the all-powerful Tetragrammaton. The very same affirmation is made in the second chapter of Philippians. Upon him is bestowed the name above all names, and in the Father’s name the Son is glorified, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10–11).
This fusion of the name of Jesus with the Tetragrammaton, reinforced by the use of the surrogate word “Lord” in reference to Jesus, makes a more direct Trinitarian demand upon the Christian doctrine of God than does the Father-Son language so prominent in the Gospel of John. Soulen spells out a YHVH-driven account of God’s triune character in a richly developed chapter on the doctrine of the Trinity.
I have already digressed too extensively into biblical insights provided by attention to the unspoken YHVH in the New Testament. Let me end by echoing one of Soulen’s penetrating observations. In our affirmation of the Old Testament as God’s word, Christians must explain why the ritual laws of Israel are no longer binding upon us. Standard accounts make a distinction between the moral laws delivered to Moses that reiterate and reinforce the dictates of natural law, and the ceremonial laws concerning food, prayer, worship, and other ritual matters. The former bind the followers of Christ; the latter are fulfilled in him and no longer apply.
This is the view I have long accepted. But I now see that there’s something not quite right about it. Guided by the New Testament and Jesus’s own practice, Christians, like Jews, carefully (and rightfully) guard the name of God from misuse and defilement. This discretion is so deeply entrenched in the prayer of the Church that most Christians don’t know that God has a name. For two millennia our practice of prayer has refrained from pronouncing the divine name, relying instead on surrogates such as Lord, Father, and Almighty God. Or we pray to the Incarnate Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who bears the Tetragrammaton. In these ways, Christians have sustained at least one aspect of Jewish ritual law.
I don’t mean to assert that the two-thousand-year Christian obedience to the law concerning God’s name, unwitting but rigorous, entails adopting the entire sweep of Jewish law. Rather, as Soulen suggests, Christian discretion concerning God’s name, so deeply in accord with the Jewish approach, ought to make us wonder whether we fully understand salvation history, especially when it comes to the role of Jews after the time of Christ. Chapters 9 through 11 of Romans recount St. Paul’s meditation on the relation between Gentile belief and Jewish unbelief. It bears regular re-reading, especially a final verse that gives us guidance about how to approach that mystery: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
Mormons and Gay Marriage
In late 2022, Congress passed the ill-named Respect for Marriage Act, and President Biden signed it into law. This legislation expressly prohibits any legal definition of marriage that limits the institution of marriage to the union of a man and a woman, and it establishes a mechanism for gays and lesbians to litigate in the event that they are denied marriage licenses or their unions are not recognized as marriages. The act also outlines exemptions for private parties who for religious reasons do not wish to endorse or participate in same-sex marriages.
The outcome was expected. The Dobbs decision was a bitter setback for the left. Before the dust had settled, progressive organizations that promote the sexual revolution gathered their forces to show that they run our country by passing this legislation. What surprised me was the public support given by the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon elder Jack N. Gerard explained that the governing authority of the LDS Church took this public stand because it wished to acknowledge the reality that same-sex marriage is law in all fifty states. This is contrary to Mormon doctrine, but it’s a fact. “So what we’re trying to do is go forward protecting our religious rights while at the same time respecting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have a different view.”
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. “Respecting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters” combined with a religious liberty carve-out characterizes the “Utah Compromise,” a 2015 agreement by the LDS Church to support a gay rights bill in Utah that included assurances that religious organizations would not be affected. Official Mormon support was decisive. The bill passed and is now law.
Support for gay rights in 2015 and gay marriage in 2022 reveal that Mormonism is not interested in contending for the future of American society. The fifteen Apostles who govern the LDS Church are satisfied to concede cultural leadership to proponents of the sexual revolution, as long as their flock remains unmolested.
Again, I should not be surprised. Mormonism is a fugitive religious movement, formed in its earliest decades in a crucible of relentless persecution. Founder Joseph Smith was killed in 1844 by an anti-Mormon mob. The arduous trek to Utah was undertaken for survival’s sake, and for decades the Territory, then State of Utah was a set-apart society. This is not to say that Mormons are not good citizens. It is to say that Mormonism functions as what Ernst Troeltsch called a “sect,” concerned to preserve itself against a hostile world.
Will the Mormon approach of supporting antipathetic trends that seem destined to dominate the public square while ring-fencing the LDS Church work? Count me skeptical. Elder Gerard describes the religious liberty protections added to the Respect for Marriage Act by amendment in this way: “Support of these amendments will ensure that all religious people and institutions are respected and protected, even though they have a doctrine or practice that’s inconsistent with the law of the land.” It is not impossible to sustain a right to do that which is contrary to the law of the land, but it’s very difficult, especially when the law in question has the support of cultural elites. The Utah Compromise works in large part because the LDS Church in Utah has a great deal of political power. Its power deters the Human Rights Campaign from pressing its causes in that state. As a matter of political fact, progressive challenges to the Mormon-negotiated status quo in Utah would be defeated.
Unfortunately, Lorie Smith, the owner of 303 Creative, whose refusal to design websites for gay weddings entangled her in the anti-discrimination litigation that has made its way to the Supreme Court, is a generic Christian in Colorado, not a Mormon living in Utah. I dare say that, on the national scene, Mormons will be in Lorie Smith’s position. Outside of Utah, Mormons have very little throw weight. In what direction will a federal judge in Massachusetts lean when the Human Rights Campaign gins up a case to challenge the right of this or that religious person or institution to follow through on “a doctrine or practice that’s inconsistent with the law of the land”? Perhaps, at the end of the day, the Supreme Court will vindicate the religious liberty protections encoded in the Respect for Marriage Act. But those protections are sure to be challenged, and defending them will be an arduous and expensive undertaking.
In my estimation, LDS support for the Respect for Marriage Act was a mistake. In matters of public significance, one has options other than opposition or support. One can remain silent. This is often the best response to what is politically repugnant but inevitable. The Mormon decision to offer public support for a bill that uses today’s sacred language of anti-discrimination to establish a right that the 2015 Obergefell decision had already entrenched into our constitutional regime contributes to the growing moral and cultural legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Settled norms for male and female relations and a strong culture of marriage are important common goods. Without them, male-female relations become disordered. It is among the stated aims of the LGBTQ movement to unsettle those norms and redefine marriage, aims that have bad consequences for society as a whole, as we see today. For these reasons, public support for the Respect for Marriage Act makes the LDS Church complicit in the perversion of public morality in the United States. This complicity is inconsistent with responsible citizenship.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ The minders at Twitter recently censored a First Things tweet. We use Twitter to promote content, and did so for Jonathon Van Maren’s December 6 essay, “The New Women’s Movement.” Maren documents the feminist reaction against transgender ideology, driven by young women who were subjected to hormonal therapy and mastectomies as children. He also draws attention to women who are fighting the pornography industry, which is almost entirely unregulated. Twitter censors blocked our promotional tweet, substituting a warning: “This tweet might include sensitive content.” That’s correct. Maren’s report is shocking and painful to read. It is so because shocking and painful things are happening in our society, and they occur with the full support of our political and cultural establishment. Shame on the Twitter censors. But far and away the greater crime is the complicity, even endorsement, of the rich and powerful.
♦ Emily Oster’s title says it all: “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty.” In her Atlantic article she allows that the draconian measures were often more damaging than helpful and rarely as effective as promised. Trillions of dollars were spent. Schools were closed, and student test scores are down dramatically. Vaccines were oversold. Mental health is at an all-time low. Okay, these are bad things, but Oster is keen that we let bygones by bygones. All the mistakes were in good faith, she insists. Nobody should be blamed! I predict exactly the same line will be pushed when the transgender mania recedes and the Great and Good allow that, well, perhaps some mistakes were made, and, okay, some lives were ruined, and, fair enough, there was a Jacobin spirit of persecution of anyone who dissented—but it was all in good faith.
♦ Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. has been a great scourge of elite groupthink. He has called out the officially approved lies designed to manipulate us into complying with the elite’s determinations of what is best for us. Jenkins was relentless during the pandemic, pointing out that “stop the spread” was always an unrealistic goal, not unlike the Chinese “zero COVID” policy recently derided by journalists who only two years ago were championing similar policies in the United States. Jenkins shames the public health profession for its distortion of the facts.
And the complicity with lies extends beyond pandemic policies. In a recent column, he draws attention to the way in which, during the recent presidential campaign, the prestige media suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story. The editors of the Washington Post took at face value the statement of a group of former top intelligence officials that the laptop was a Russian ruse to influence the election. In truth, those intelligence officials lied, knowing full well that it was implausible to think the laptop was anything other than Hunter’s. Two years later, Jenkins observes that newsrooms are singularly uninterested in revisiting this episode to unpack it and explain to the American people who perpetrated this misinformation and why. Jenkins’s explanation: “So obvious was the lie that America’s biggest news organizations have to remain silent now because of their own complicity.” He goes on to quote his own comment on the story from 2020: “It ought to register with you how cravenly some of the mainstream media are trying to convince you something isn’t true that they know is true.” As we saw in the case of pandemic policies, our elite has no appetite for reconsideration, and certainly none for repentance.
♦ Harold Laski’s 1946 assessment of communist activists: They “act without moral scruples, intrigue without any sense of shame, are utterly careless of truth, sacrifice without any hesitation the means they use to the end they serve.” Are the Great and the Good in our own time any different? Laski continues, “The only rule to which the Communist gives unswerving loyalty is the rule that a success gained is a method justified.” Trump was defeated, and I’m willing to bet that the fifty-one intelligence experts who signed a group letter that conjured a Russian plot count their success sufficient to justify their lies. And I’m sure the same success in securing Trump’s defeat assuages the consciences of the reporters and editors who were complicit in the politically motivated misinformation.
♦ I very much hope that the war in Ukraine can be brought to a successful conclusion. But what if it is not, and the conflict becomes a long-term suppurating wound on Europe’s border or, worse, escalates? Our political and cultural establishment has urged unbending support for Ukraine. What if things go sour? I’m confident that the Great and the Good will insist upon amnesty: It was all in good faith. That’s the kind of leaders we have in the 2020s. They demand the credit (and reward) for any success and none of the blame for their failures.
♦ Writing in the National Review “Capital Matters” column, David L. Bahnsen takes issue with my December 2022 Public Square, “Church, State, and the Common Good.” Among his criticisms is the charge that I make a philosophical mistake.
As a basic tautology, virtue is not compulsory, and while a tight legal order to punish criminal behavior is vital for a functioning society, economists, theorists, and our founders have always been aware of the limitations of a coercive state. No amount of state power can foster love and gratitude. The unwillingness to accept this basic reality of moral philosophy—that doing good is not good when it is forced; that acts of charity are only charitable when they are voluntary—sticks to Reno’s argument throughout.
I also hold that virtue cannot be compelled, nor can love and gratitude be produced by demand. But there is a middle ground between coercion and license. As any parent knows, virtue can be encouraged, and nurturing it is a mark of good parenting. Society is not a family, but it, too, can encourage virtue.
The charitable tax deduction is an incentive to give away money. It does not “create” virtue. There are plenty of less-than-admirable motives for the wealthy to make donations. But the tax deduction tilts the slope in the direction of virtue. The same goes for gratitude. In my youth, school boards set standards for civic education that emphasized our achievements as a country. I can report that this approach encouraged me to have gratitude for the courage of those who rallied at Concord and for the wisdom of those who crafted our constitutional form of government. I’ll venture that officially mandated instruction in accord with the 1619 Project will have the opposite effect.
I could go on, but I won’t. Common sense teaches us that governmental action can do more than prohibit and require. One of the basic assumptions of Reagan-era conservatism was that marginal tax rates affect behavior. Lower capital gains taxes do not require me to start a company or invest in stocks. They do not require companies to prefer stock buybacks to dividends. There can be no doubt, however, that lower rates encourage these behaviors, and others as well. And economic incentives affect culture. I guarantee that eliminating federal income tax for couples with four or more children would increase the percentage of four-child families headed by professionals with high incomes. Perhaps such a policy is unwise. But one thing it would not be is coercive.
♦ Pierre Manent on the seductions of Whiggery:
One of the strengths of modernity [by “strengths” Manent means ideological power], of the modern mind, and of modern philosophy is that it produces the feeling that it is irreversible. At work in the modern dispensation is a sense of philosophical necessity: a demand that you believe in the newness of modernity as something that evolves inevitably out of the past and is by definition superior to it.
By my reading of the signs of the times, interest in Catholic integralism, Christian nationalism, or other political views that were only yesterday thought dead and buried stems from the desire to break modernity’s hold, to undermine its claims to inevitability, and to open space for imagining something different.
♦ St. Augustine on our temptation to be zealous for falsehoods:
People have such a love for truth that when they happen to love something else, they want it to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be proven wrong, they refuse to be shown their mistake. And so, they end up hating the truth for the sake of the object which they have come to love instead of the truth.
♦ In early December, Lifeway Research reported a baffling statistic: In 2022, 84 percent of Protestant pastors said that their churches planned to have a service on Christmas Day. More than 15 percent were closed? On the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord? Which fell on a Sunday?
♦ Thurston Davis, S.J., was the editor in chief of the flagship Jesuit publication America from 1955 to 1968. A reader passed along a passage Davis wrote as a graduate student in 1943. In “Blueprint for a College,” the young Jesuit foresaw the need for strong Catholic leaders:
The coming generation of Catholics faces a showdown, and we Jesuits should attempt to fit them for the battle of the next half-century. It will be a half-century dominated by a monster secular press, class struggle, godless universities, and tremendous technical achievements in many of the means used to form public opinion. These are but a few of the fronts on which the battle will be joined, and it will be a battle for the culture and soul of America. It will be won or lost in the newspaper, the theater, on the radio, in the labor union, the city hall, and the classroom. The Church needs leaders in these storm-centers of American life.
Prescient. And truth be told, the postwar Society of Jesus did not fail to fulfill the need for leaders to stand up against the powerful instruments of secular propaganda. Justice Antonin Scalia was Jesuit-educated in the decade immediately following Davis’s call to action. Joe Biden? He was untouched by Jesuit education. My hunch is that a list of prominent Americans who attended Jesuit high schools in the postwar era would feature a large number of public figures who fought the good fight.
♦ A number of friends contacted me to correct my mistaken identification of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as a Jesuit. The president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and grand chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences is a priest of the Diocese of Rome.
♦ Marc Sierra runs the ROFTERS group in the Detroit metro area. New members are welcome to join. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ As this issue goes to press, our year-end campaign is drawing to a close. I’m very grateful for the financial support provided by our readership. Your generosity plays an essential role in the success of First Things.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.