Trump & the End of Republicanism, Cont’d

•December 27, 2016 • Leave a Comment


In the late medieval period, the small city-states of the Italian peninsula wore each other down through warfare and internal conflict, and eventually, toward the end of the period we usually call “the Renaissance” began to be replaced by various forms of hereditary rule or to be swallowed up by larger powers.  The proud republic of Florence, so long ruled behind the scenes by the Medici family, was eventually replaced by a ducal form of government centered on that family.  It was in this context that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his infamous work The Prince, whose pages breathed the air of that earlier republicanism; Machiavelli was a convinced republican, and much of what critics vilified in Il Principe was its unrelenting focus on maintaining the independence of the state in an era of financial instability and endemic warfare.  The situation is not analogous to the situation in contemporary America any more than the often invoked comparison of the United States with the ancient Roman republic.  But Machiavelli’s analysis of what makes a ruler successful calls to mind our situation in one respect:  in both cases it took great political shocks for people to realize their institutions and political arrangements had changed, largely without their noticing until those shocks came.

In my last post, I posited the thesis that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency signals the end of a certain form of republicanism that has dominated American life since its inception, one that is obsessed with political independence.  I do not suppose that republican ideas are reducible to this overarching emphasis on independence, but it does seem to me the most salient aspect of it.  It is also the most problematic; as Alasdair McIntyre called them, human beings are “dependent, rational animals,” whose dependence is inscribed into our biological nature.  This overwhelming exaltation of independence seems to me sit rather uneasily with the tenets of Christian faith, which largely have to do with obedience, and an acceptance of one’s dependence upon God.  There are versions of republicanism that try to reconcile a robust, active view of citizenship with an acknowledgement of human limitations, many of whom emphasize, as did the old Anti-Federalists, the local, face to face nature of human community.  In contemporary America, there are still a few political philosophers and writers who advocate something like this.  But their lack of success (and adherents) is instructive; such ideas no longer seem to have much purchase outside of the small communities they represent, at least not to most of their fellow citizens, and indeed some of them don’t want a larger following.  For many of these authors, such as the journalist and author Rod Dreher, the whole idea is to create small communities that are (relatively) independent of the main currents of American society, which they see as inimical to virtue, or Christian faith, or both.  I’ll have occasion to talk more about Rod Dreher’s work in a further post, but for this blog I want to concentrate on the consequences for American Christianity of the withering of republican ideology.

As the historian Mark Noll wrote many years ago, republicanism in America was bound up from the beginning with a revivalist, quite voluntaristic form of Christianity, and that both are declining at roughly the same time is not a coincidence.  Now that the type of independence espoused by the older republicanism seems to be on the wane, so is the form of Christianity that supported it.  At least part of its decline can be traced to the way in which its detractors have managed to successfully brand American Christianity as the belief of the dependent, the weak minded.  Christianity can be seen, legitimately, as a “liberating” force, both socially and culturally speaking, as historians have noted with regard to the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century.  In that earlier version of Christian republicanism that flourish in the 19th century, the Christianity part was key, because it placed great emphasis upon the personal, moral regeneration of the individual.  Being saved meant not only would you go to heaven, but that you were in part responsible for building heaven on earth.  The parallel with being a redeemed as an individual with being redeemed as a nation was perfect, in some respects:  just as the States had been redeemed from political “slavery” to monarchical Britain and reborn as a republic, so now could individuals be freed from both sin but also from the shackles of religious and political institutions—religion as an individual or communal experiment has a long history in the U.S., as does the history of religion as a series of movements or revivals, from the pre-Revolutionary revivals of the 1740s and 50s through the birth of the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century, to the great success of Billy Graham and other postwar evangelists later in the same century.  The most explosive of these movements was the abolitionist movement, of course, the prime example of Christian ideals being used to liberate people from dependence.  Christianity was a force upholding this ideal of independence, and therefore an integral part of the country’s republicanism.

But not anymore.  Now, it is associated with debilitating psychological weakness—usually, some sort over reliance on authority, excessive dogmatism, sexual dysfunction, etc.  The great desire of the modern political progressives is to liberate as many people from as many types of dependence as possible:  not only the authority of religion, but of parental, social, even biological authority must bend its knee before the god of choice and independence.  Gender is not determined by biology, children’s beliefs cannot be “imposed” upon them by parents, and so forth.  Christianity, with its dogmatic claims and emphasis upon obedience—the way Christians refer to Jesus as the “the Lord” sounds odd and not a little suspicious to anyone who thinks of themselves as being self-consciously “modern”—can easily made to look as if it were a pathology of dependence, rather than a muscular religion of independence.

All of this means a great reorientation for the religious life of the United States, as can be seen by the dwindling political influence of Evangelical Protestantism over the past decade and a half.  This change has been taking place for some time, actually, and is still under way.  Most of that Christian republican vision described above was the work of a peculiarly American form of Protestant Christianity—the theological and social voluntarism, the emphasis on personal regeneration, the drive to “reform” society of its ills, to name only a few items.  This dynamic form of Christian faith provided much of the vitality but also the volatility of American society in the past two hundred years.  But those Protestant movements and institutions did so from a vantage point of relative social independence—from the Federal government at least (though in the early republic some churches were state supported).  But the fact that, by the end of the 19th century, as the late Richard John Neuhaus once noted, pretty much every Protestant denomination called itself “Evangelical,” also gave Protestants a sense of psychological independence as well. It is easy to assume one’s place in society if you think most people share your beliefs, which despite continuing denominational and theological differences, most Protestants did.  This began to change, however, with the split between “Fundamentalists” and the “Modernists” within Protestant bodies in the early 20th century.  By the time the 1960s rolled around, Protestant Americans could no longer even count on their shared contempt for the obvious outlier in their midst—Roman Catholics. For most of Americans, many if not all Protestants had seen Catholics as suspect because they were supposedly dependent upon the authority of the Pope, and therefore incapable of thinking for themselves in religious matters.  And thus by extension they were unfit for a Christian, republican society of the American type.  The election of a Catholic president, as well as the postwar economic boom that allowed working class Catholics to join the ranks of the middle class in large numbers put an end to this last vestige of Protestant unity.  This ceased to matter for several decades, as Evangelicals took the place of the old so-called “Protestant Establishment” as the religious element in the New Right from the late 70s through the presidency of George W. Bush, of course, but the eclipse of Evangelical political influence is an undiscovered country:  for the first time since becoming a nation, Protestants are going to be a dependent political minority in the United States.

This is and of itself is not earth shattering; there are still Catholic and Jewish Americans who can recall the old Protestant Establishment and how it utilized its superior social position against them who I doubt will shed many tears over this development.  But the fate of Evangelicals points to a larger problem for those Christians, of whatever stripe, who take their faith seriously.  In the past few years under the Obama administration, legal opinions treating traditional Christian doctrines about marriage, family and sexual mores as the moral and legal equivalent of racism have gained such traction that many religious voters swallowed their objections to Donald Trump on a personal level to help vote him into office, a phenomenon several observers noted even before the election.  I can easily understand traditional Christians of whatever sort having serious qualms about Trump; the comments that one Evangelical leaders made about Russell Moore, the Baptist leader who has been highly critical of Trump, do indicate a lack of perspective on their part.  They appear too concerned about power politics and not enough about how Christians are to practice and transmit their faith in an increasingly hostile society.  But those Evangelical and other Christian voters who voted for Trump did so for what I think are good reasons.  If republican beliefs really are no longer operative in American life, if, as appears the case, they can no longer simply assume that the legal institutions of the United States will protect their religious liberty, then Christians of a “traditional” or conservative bent (usually about doctrines concerning sex, of course) will in the future need political patrons willing to protect their right to practice their religious faith openly, as members of a dependent class of citizens.  And if I am right, Trump will not be the last politician to successfully appeal to voters who might otherwise find him otherwise so unacceptable.  Or at least, they had better hope so, because their days of living their faith unmolested are likely at an end, Trump’s election notwithstanding.  In my last post on this subject, I will come back to Trump and his possible policies towards Christians, and what Christians might do in this changed landscape where their political independence can no longer be taken for granted.


Trump & the End of Republicanism

•December 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, to say the very least, has inspired a great deal of consternation and anguish with his election to the presidency, destroying with relish standards of decorum and civility, hurling insults at virtually every person or group hitherto considered to be beyond the pale, but especially ethnic minorities—primarily, women and Hispanics.  But as Jet Heer, a writer for the New Republic, who is certainly no fan of the Donald, noted during the campaign, there is one group of people the president-elect did not target with his ubiquitous insults: people on public assistance.  Noting the difference between the “makers and takers” rhetoric of Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians, he pointed out that Trump consistently referred to people on welfare and unemployment as “down on their luck.”

One can tell a great deal about a person from the way they treat their social inferiors—or even whom one considers to be inferior in the first place.  In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the three noble lords who spend their time flirting at court mock the schoolmaster Holofernes, who indignantly replies, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” protesting the ignoble behavior of those aristocrats who would demean their inferiors, something that was considered beneath the dignity of nobility to do.  Of course, in a modern, democratic society we are not supposed to have any inferiors, politically speaking—we are all equal before the law, at least in principle.  That is partly because this equality before the law is an ideal or legal fiction to which reality does not always (or even often) correspond, but also because of the ambiguity of the word “democracy” as applied to a republic like the United States, since in no constitutional sense does the demos govern it.  In any case, it is republicanism—that body of thought stemming from ancient Roman thinkers such as Cicero and Livy, revived by Guiccardini, Machiavelli and other Italian writers in the Renaissance, developed by English and American thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries such as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, John Adams, and many others—which has truly animated American society for much of its history, rather than democracy.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson praised the yeoman farmer precisely for his self-sufficiency, and voiced a common sentiment among the Founders of the republic that “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.”  Political philosophers continue to debate the precise nature of this early modern republicanism that so influenced the Founders of the Republic, and whether or not their notions of liberty and active citizenship were truly consonant with classical republican ideals.  But there can be little doubt that a hatred of dependence—“negative liberty,” if you like—was a crucial part of this republican heritage.

Early visitors to the United States saw immediately the effects of this belief.  Alexis de Tocqueville famously described Americans as “individualists” who refused to any accept any other man’s opinion but their own, and whose servants were notorious for being difficult to employ (early in the republic, they stopped referring to their employers by the name of “master” and began using the Dutch term “boss” instead, which sounded less servile to them). But Tocqueville was hardly unique in this respect.  The English novelist Anthony Trollope visited the U.S. during the first years of the civil war (1861-2), and made a striking observation about the Irish men and women he met in America.  At home, he wrote, the Irish were much more pleasant, and, in so many words, more docile than in America.  Irish immigrants in the United States seemed to him pretentious, rude—in short, they were not willing to acknowledge him as their social superior, despite his education and status as a writer.  But he also admitted that, however less likeable they may have been, Irish Americans had more self-respect, walked with more confidence than their cousins in Britain.  This characteristic—not just the principled detestation of any sort of dependence but also a hyper-awareness of it—is part of what makes America unique.  This characteristic has other sources, to be sure, but this overwhelming valorization of independence and the concomitant vilification of dependence surely owes much to this republican ideal.

In that sense, it is also a source of the non-stop agitation that marks our public life.  No matter how stupid, ill informed, or merely puerile talk radio and cable television news programs may be, they still reflect this emphasis.  But it is not clear, however, whether republicanism is still distinguishable from other political ideologies.  One of the things that scholars of republicanism debate is whether or not it is conceptually distinct from liberalism, or whether or not liberty as independence is concerned with being independent from “arbitrary power” (to use the early modern phrase) or simply from interference of any kind.  The election of Donald Trump may signal that republicanism has finally been superseded as a distinct political philosophy in our country.  Liberalism or progressivism still values independence but largely in a personal sense, with regards to sexual freedom or matters of self-expression, as do libertarians of course; the modern conservative movement (“fusionism”) was also concerned with independence but mostly from the modern administrative state.   But Americans by now seemed to have accepted the permanent growth of the administrative state and its role in their everyday lives.  The preference for “independence” is highly selective for most political options in the U.S. (saved for those few completely consistent libertarians, bless their hearts), and is largely an exception to an otherwise changed set of attitudes towards political dependence.  The nationalism that helped elect Donald Trump also had something to do with a desire for independence, though it has more to do with economic independence—namely, the independence that much of the white working class seems to have lost over the past thirty years—and with the strident contempt for immigrants, who they think deprive them of such independence as they once had, by depriving them of jobs.  But on the whole, it is not independence but protection that seems to be the driving force behind politics today.  On the left, the clamor for more and more protections from racism, sexism, intolerance of any kind, seems to be the guiding force behind its most enthusiastic members. And Trump’s economic platform (at least in its rhetoric) was all about protections, from globalization, from immigrants, from Islamic terrorists, etc.  And protection, of course, is something powerful people offer to dependents.

My point is that those who would uphold something like Jefferson’s ideals of what a republic should be (and here I am thinking mostly of the small government conservatism of the last fifty to sixty years) have failed to persuade their fellow citizens that their republicanism provides for the vulnerable, the dependent.  That is to say, that independence should be the norm and not the exception has largely been rejected in favor of a politics of patronage and protection. For progressives, it is the federal government with its many social welfare programs that is visible evidence of their commitment to their dependents; for Trump and his supporters, it is (putatively) trade tariffs and a border wall with Mexico.  What about small-r republicans, in a classical sense?  What about the champions of small government? What tangible commitment can they make that would be as convincing?  It is hard to see what someone committed to limited government or who embraces a more classical, republican vision of society could do to persuade people on this point, since that form of republicanism presumes that there shouldn’t be any dependent citizens—that such a thing would simply be a contradiction in terms.  And it is this that has been left behind by contemporary politics.  Whether this is a good or ill development is unclear; but I believe it is the direction in which our country is heading, for better or worse.

Many writers have seen Donald Trump’s rise and election in almost apocalyptic terms, with some, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, seeing in his success the end of democracy, while others believe Trump to herald the coming of fascism to America.  Most of these predictions are hyperbolic in the extreme.  The United States has suffered from plenty of corruption and incompetence in the both distant and recent past, and its electoral politics have sometimes been marked by violence, as they occasionally were in 2016.  The idea that Donald Trump is a fascist is risible, given his notable lack of military prowess and the distinct lack of a paramilitary presence in his campaign.  Our republican institutions are likely to survive this and many more elections like it, and that is my point:  it’s perfectly possible to have republican political institutions in the absence of republican beliefs; the Roman Principate was one example of this; another would late medieval Florence under the Medici or others like it.  The United States might be headed long term towards something similar as a polity.  A President Trump or a future president might well usher in a sort of Latin American “strongman” type of governance, or at least a type more like that of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant former Prime Minister of Italy (sans the dalliance with prostitutes, one hopes).  Or perhaps already has, for this is what I think Trump’s success as a candidate demonstrates: a deep seated change of belief.  It may or may not herald the end of the republic, but it very well may portend the demise, if not of republicanism as such, then at least of a very American type of republicanism, one that for good or ill no longer appears to speak to the needs and interests of a majority of its citizens.


•July 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment



Why would the painter stay his hand

When he’d illumined the easel

With brush strokes broad of piquant light

And dark colors filled the canvass,

Leave his figures’ faces bereft

As ancient, mummified Pharaohs.


Reminders of ingratitude

Are bitter holes in my life’s hour,

For them I scan in mother’s tongue

The Creator’s pen provided.

So soft and tender tell the lines

Of greater gifts that bind my book.


Mother’s, father’s patient love gives,

And friendship’s virtues not in vain

Did my blessèd Father bestow

On this little life unworthy.

My easy brow, my hands unbled,

Are His great love’s last testament.


But one stanza he feeds with stones

That in two seeks to be one flesh:

Without this psalm or glory’s gloss

Leave’s me unknowning and unknown,

Like a pock-marked, mysterious

Mesopotamian tablet.


Haven of hopes, destroyer of dreams,

All these barren spaces in between

The ghostly marks of Holy Writ

That brand our souls; but not our strength

Can salve our woe—we crushed must wait

Till God himself shall fill them up.

Of Safe Spaces & “Sacred” Values

•May 1, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Immaculate Conception

Two separate items inspired this post:  one is the rash of stories eructating from the press these days about groups of students on campuses across the country, demanding “safe spaces” and other escapes from ideas and campus speakers they find unpleasant.  The other was a very long and interesting interview with the sociologist Jonathan Haidt, founder of the website, a site dedicated to trying to expand “viewpoint diversity” within the American world of academia.  Haidt is someone who has done rather interesting and helpful studies on the lack of “conservative” professors/views within higher education, and he recently wrote a very long and popular article in the Atlantic Monthly on why today’s students seem to react so violently to ideas they don’t like.

Haidt’s interview is well worth your time.  The interview, Tyler Cowen, is an economist at George Mason University, and he asks some rather interesting questions in the course of the interview.  And while I agreed with much of what Haidt had to say about the academy, and the reasons why students seemed so overly sensitive, and much else, I was struck by an exchange between him and Cowen toward the end of the interview, in which Cowen asked him “what the best replacement for religion in modern secular society.”  Haidt’s answer is worth quoting in full:

A few years ago I would have tried to give you an answer and say we should have some other sacred value to replace it, but given what’s happened in the last year on campuses, I’m really afraid of it, because you might think, “Humanitarianism should replace it. We should all have a religion of helping the poor, helping each other.” Now, of course, it’s really important to help the poor. It’s really important to help people who are oppressed.

But once you make it a religion, that means you are impervious to evidence. You are committed to certain religious rituals even if those rituals make things worse. For example, I’ve been studying the research on affirmative action and diversity training. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence that they make things better and there is some evidence that it makes things worse.

Now, it’s messy. I can’t say for sure that they do, but the point is, we seem to be doing things on campus that are making things worse. The activists are largely asking for things that will make things worse. Much more affirmative action, much bigger racial preferences, which will cause much bigger gaps between Asians at the top and African-Americans at the bottom. Which is going to inflame prejudice, not reduce it.

Once you make something a religion, you’re not open to evidence. You do really crazy, stupid things. What I would say is, let’s not have a replacement for religion. Let’s set things up so that there isn’t a big religion that unites us all to take on our enemies. Let’s try to return to a climate in which people find meaning and purpose in their private lives and in their smaller associations, but we don’t have a big sense of national purpose.

This was from later in the interview, but it struck me as being relevant to something Haidt said earlier in it, where he was speaking directly about the problems on college campuses today:

You have to see college campuses as being institutions that were designed or intended to be places where people come up against diverse ideas, they’re challenged, and as within the marketplace — monopoly destroys a lot of the value of the marketplace — if you have a monopoly on ideas in the intellectual marketplace, you kill the marketplace. Campuses are supposed to be places where nobody has a monopoly on ideas, but they’ve become that in the last few years.

Now what I find interesting here are a couple of things.  One is Haidt’s semi-explicit definition of religious as being obscurantist (“impervious to evidence”), and the other is his assertion that college campuses were designed to be a “marketplace” of ideas.  I say they are interesting because as to the first, as I am sure Haidt must be aware, “religion” is a rather hotly contested phenomenon, and indeed there are many scholars who insist the concept is so variable as to be no use at all.  Of course, he may just be referring to the supernatural or divine elements in a faith or religion as being the essence of it, which would make some sense.

As to the second, I’m not sure how well Haidt knows the history of the modern university, but it was not really designed to be a “marketplace” of ideas.  For those who are not aware, the modern idea of a research university (which is what I take him to be referring to) was largely a German creation:  educational reformers in early 19th century Germany like Wilhelm von Humboldt wanted to replace the older religious curriculum with what he and others called “Wissenschaft,” or learning that was systematic, and that implied the unity of all knowledge, as well as both research and teaching.  By research these reformers did not mean empirical research necessarily (though it would come to mean that, under the influence of the modern natural sciences) but what was important was that this all encompassing unity was discoverable for oneself, without having to have it handed down via tradition or authority.

Now, the goal of these reformers as well as others was not to reduce knowledge to subjective experience but to put it on a different footing.  Gone was the Christian and humanist worship of ancient/and or sacred texts (even though the German philological tradition remained quite obsessed with them thank you very much) and in was their “critical” examination, along the combing of archives for evidence–empirical research in other words. Eventually, by the end of the 19th century, this sort of emphasis  yielded the idea that, if every discipline would publish its findings in its major journal, where all educated people could read them, and the sum total of this research would preserve the unity of knowledge which the older, religiously inspired model had done but without dogmas, authority, or old books. That at least was the intention behind the modern research university as I understand it.

It’s a long story, but in the main this effort has failed spectacularly.  It has increased our depth of knowledge in virtually every field of endeavor (and spawned some new ones, including Haidt’s own discipline of sociology, which didn’t exist before the late 19th century) but the breach between the humanities and the hard sciences which had opened up in the nineteenth century has if anything widened even further.  And make no mistake, the reason why many intellectuals backed this change in the 19th century was to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge caused by the loss of the older religious view among them.  Thus the philosopher Georg Hegel could proclaim that “our Universities are our churches,” and the Harvard reformer Charles Eliot could see in his renovation of the Harvard curriculum a “liberal culture” replacing the older religious underpinnings of the university.  All of which is a long winded way of saying that Haidt’s desire to see the academy denuded of “sacred values” is at odds with the purpose of the university, in either its medieval or re-founded modern form.  Though I admire his efforts to increase intellectual diversity in the academy, I can’t say I am very sanguine that it will succeed. Openness of inquiry is a relative thing; it depends on some ideas, some beliefs being closed off from inquiry and discussion, off limits, taboo.  It is a means, and not an end. And the modern form of the university espouses a hollowed out, dumbed-down version of the singular, “sacred” value which is implied by the name “university” itself.  I doubt that will change very much any time soon, if at all.

Does Persecution “Work”?

•March 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment


Amidst all the recent flurry of news regarding ISIS, the Islamic militant group, I had occasion to read an essay by Candida Moss, an historian of early Christianity at Notre Dame, at The Daily Beast website, which argued that ISIS brutal campaign of terror will undermine its cause.  In effect, she argues, persecution of this kind doesn’t “work.”  As she puts it, “making martyrs of one’s opponents never wins the battle for hearts and minds. It only intensifies opposition, polarizes the undecided, and provokes righteous and justified anger. The North African Church father Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the Church. His prediction turned out to be correct. Martyrdom breeds not fear and obedience, but more martyrs. The only contest that ISIS have a chance of winning is the race to be the most ignominious regime in history.”

I am pondering this because I am teaching a Tudor-Stuart history course this semester, and I am preparing a lecture on ideas of conscience and martyrdom for my class, and this is a topic I would like to include in my lecture.  Persecution is much in the news these days, largely because of ISIS, and I have tried to emphasize religion in my lectures so far this semester.

One wants to agree with Moss’s sentiments; certainly, a terrorist state like ISIS might be said to have violated modern canons of judgment on persecution—and by that I mean Machiavelli’s, who said when you take over a state you should get all of your killing over with right away, because if you keep having to do it that will ruin your reputation, and make you hated.  But on the whole I think the answer to the question of whether persecution works has to be more ambivalent than Moss allows for.  In the first place, I think it depends on what you mean by persecution, and what you mean by it “working.”  Persecution just means inflicting suffering, but then suffering is largely a matter of subjective definition, isn’t it?  Of course, we could limit it to the imposition of death or excessive violence, which is what Moss was talking about, but I don’t think that necessarily covers all we mean by the term.  But more importantly, what does it mean for it to “work”? I suppose part of what Moss means by this is that one can’t establish or prove one’s religion is the true faith via such means.  I think we would be on safer grounds there:  the persecution of the Donatists never settled the issue in North Africa, for example; only the Islamic conquests of the 7th century did that.  Certainly, the Roman persecution did not bring back the old religion, and it was swamped under by Christianity following Constantine’s conversion

But if this is the case, that one cannot establish one’s religion via violent persecution, I think a good argument can be made that it “works” in another sense.  That is to say, violent persecution may not establish the “true” faith as you see it, but it can destroy, or at least permanently marginalize, false ones.  One obvious case is the Albigensian Crusade, which destroyed a Manichean religion which had its own institutions, set beliefs, and many loyal followers.  It disappeared, never to return.  (Though, alas, its Manicheanism seems never to die for some reason.) Or take the Christian persecution of paganism following the edicts of Theodosius:  one might claim that it lingered on in the countryside, but it was effectively finished as an independent force.  Better still, take the case of Catholicism in England.  Catholicism survived, barely, into the eighteenth century, and eventually would flourish again thanks to the Emancipation laws of the 1820s, with a big assist from Irish immigration.  But as an institution with a prominent place in public life, it was effectively finished.  Perhaps better still, one should take seriously the reaction of the Christians to the conversion of Constantine.  Modern historians tend to pooh pooh the Diocletian persecution (including Moss, who made her name by writing book which essentially claimed that the idea that early Christians suffered extreme persecution a myth), but Christians at the time did not agree, and praised Constantine, who was a pretty ruthless, bloodthirsty figure, to the heavens (he is a saint in many Orthodox traditions) for having saved Christianity.  I seemed to recall having read somewhere that during the ten years or so of the Diocletian persecution there only a handful of martyrs were recorded in Palestine, indicating most must have sacrificed to the gods.  I think they better understood the precariousness of their position, perhaps, than we sometimes do today.

One might add other examples to that list as well.  I am thinking of former communist countries where religion was wiped out.  I know there is something of a resurgence in places like Russia, but I’m not convinced those places are necessarily hotbeds of faith.  And for my own time period, it might well have been the case the Mary Tudor’s persecution of Protestants might well have worked to eradicate Protestantism, had she lived as long as Elizabeth.  In any case, it might just be a bit optimistic to think that persecution can never work in any sense at all, comforting though it may be.  My own study of history leads me to  a more depressing conclusion:  though it can never “establish” anything, persecution combined with other forms of power, given time, can indeed work, at least in a destructive sense.  Alas!

Alypius Minor

The Papacy of the Media

•February 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Pontiff Emeritus, Benedict XVI, gave a speech just before stepping down in 2013 in which he described how he thought the Second Vatican Council had been hijacked by what he called a “Council of the Media,” and which was the only council that anyone seemed to know about.  I was thinking about this the other day when reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University, reviewing (ostensibly) three books about Pope Francis.  Professor Duffy wrote the famous work Stripping of the Altars, on which I have written previously on this blog.  His review essay is entitled, “Who is The Pope?” and in it, he appears to call for Francis to go easy on the Curia for, as he puts it, “no pope, however charismatic, can change the church alone.”

What got to me to thinking about Benedict’s speech is that Professor Duffy wants Pope Francis to reopen the question of women’s ordination; he also said, in as many words, that John Paul II’s apostolic letter on reiterating the Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, was not sufficient to stop debate on such a question, since it didn’t take into account the sense of the faithful over time.  Duffy does not care for John Paul II very much, and routinely has accused both he and Pope Benedict in the past of “authoritarianism.”  This largely had to do with the disciplining of dissident theologians, but apparently it also has to do with the fact that Professor Duffy wants women to be priests.  He is very much wrong on this matter, and it saddens me that such a gifted historian has fallen into such an error.  But what intrigued me was his barely stated assumption that the primary purpose of the papacy was to, in his words, “change the church”–though only in a collegial, non-authoritarian way that Duffy approves of.

Many have noted how the introduction of television reshaped political life in the modern world, when it first became a constant presence in presidential elections in the US.  One of my old mentors wrote a book about how the regularity of news schedules began reshaping people’s mentalities about things like government and religion as early as the 17th century, and so it is not surprising that newer forms of technology have speeded up this process.  And what they have done, largely, is shaped people’s minds in the direction of change:   it is the duty of our leaders to make “news,” that is, to change things, to “get the country moving again,” as John F. Kennedy put it in the 1960 presidential election, the first TV campaign of modern times.  It’s a perfect phrase:  it means precisely nothing, but is all the more powerful for that reason; a president’s job is to “get the country moving again” in some positive yet vaguely defined sense, all the better to captivate people’s imaginations.

I can’t speak to the experience of Catholics in other countries, but I fear this same expectation has now become entrenched among Catholics in America.  I myself, I know, have fallen victim to it at times, the feeling that a “good” pope will somehow be able to “get the Church moving again” and correct all of its ills somehow.  And this is an ecumenical error, I believe, shared by all sorts of Catholics.  “Liberals” suppose he will ordain women and fulfill other desires of that sort; “conservative” or “neoconservative” Catholics hope he will somehow manage to baptize all those aspects of American society they that they think are “exceptional”; traditionalists hope he will restore the pre-Vatican II Church in all its splendor.   Whatever their particular design, each thinks that major changes in the Church should precede from the institutional papacy, as if that were normal and good.  This expectation is no doubt caused by the expansion of the papal bureaucracy that has taken place since the late 19th century, and the increasing tendency of popes to sound off on every “issue” under the sun is one outgrowth of this.  But it is more than this; it is  as if there is a general expectation that the pope has to be involved in every aspect of the Church’s life, even at the most local level, and I sometimes get the impression, especially under Pope Francis, that both he and most of the faithful have come to see the successor of Peter as some sort of Universal Catholic Life Coach (TM), whose primary task is to improve their self-esteem, to approve their personal projects as Catholics, whatever they happen to be.  The twenty-four hour news cycle, combined with a fairly extensive Catholic news presences on the web, no doubt is part of the reason for this.  I receive updates on my Facebook page all the time from Catholic new sources I have “liked,” much to my regret, relaying virtually every single homily and off hand remark that Pope Francis makes, as if every syllable were somehow crucial to the life of the Church at all levels, public and private, individual and communal.  All of this contributes to the impression that every single thing he says is somehow equally important, and leads to the illusion that the Pope’s authority is akin to that of the President of the Church of the Latter Day Saints–that he can basically decree anything he wants, no matter if it contradicts previously solemnly defined doctrines of what is supposed to be a divinely revealed faith.

This is a rather dangerous trend, I think, largely because it obscures what I take to be the primary charism and duty of the pope:  to say “no.”  The real purpose of the papacy as I understand it is to be a guard against developments that are incompatible with the faith.  This is not, I should add, a problem peculiar to Pope Francis but to pretty much every pontiff after Vatican II.  I am afraid that, having made the decision to try to appeal to the modern world more directly, most popes have not wanted to sound too “negative,” and wanted to emphasize the more pleasant aspects of the faith in order to make it seem more attractive to modern people.  Even Benedict XVI, who was beloved of some “traditionalist” Catholics, made the comment (I’m paraphrasing) that God’s message to us is ultimately a “Yes” and not a “No,” that Catholicism is not merely a bunch of negative rules, etc.  The problem with this idea is that it obscures the essentially negative character of papal authority, especially its infallibility (which is only granted that it might not teach error, not that it will teach any particular positive doctrine, at least as I have understood it).  Fr. Hunwicke at his splendid blog has posted some rather helpful quotations to illustrate this, which I reproduce here; one is from Vatican I, one is from John Henry Newman, and the last is from Benedict XVI:

“The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”

First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, Ch. IV, Sec. 21

“It is individuals, and not the Holy See, that have taken the initiative, and given the lead to the Catholic mind, in theological inquiry. Indeed, it is one of the reproaches urged against the Roman Church, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I really embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.”

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Sua Vita (1865), p.265

“After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything … especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. … In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith … it is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

From now on, especially during this season of Lent, I will try to remember these quotes, when I am tempted to blame the continuation of some problem in the Church on insufficient action by the papacy, and remember that if there is something that needs to be done for the sake of the Church–corporal or spiritual works of mercy, re-enchanting the liturgy, defending its teachings on controversial issues, etc.–that I can always start such rectifications by essaying them myself.  And remind others that the answer to certain questions, like the ordination of women, will always be “no.”




Alypius Minor


Breaking Bad: A Catholic Appreciation

•January 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment


I have been meaning to post on this topic for some time. My thoughts on the show will not deal with what I think is the most common take away by Catholic writers I have read about the show–namely, that Walter White is a great example of what happens when someone gives into evil. Personally, that wasn’t what drew me to the show; I don’t need TV to tell me how and why someone is capable of going from good to evil. Real life is enough for that. No, my take on the show as a Catholic is that it is part revenge fantasy, part tragedy–a fantasy of power for the “beta male” section of society, that part of society in modern America that feels like it has lost out even as it has played by the rules, and part tragedy, for the story of Walter White’s obsessions really are at heart about the denial of legitimate desires till they become poisonous and self destructive.  And that this is very much related to the problems of the Christian Church in the modern world.

The set up of the show, for those of you who are not familiar with it, concerns Walter White, a high school chemistry down on his luck.  He has one child with disabilities, and struggles to support his family from his teaching salary, so he must work nights at a carwash.  His intellect is not really appreciated by his students or his family, and his wife basically runs his life. He is a passive, submissive character, with whom it is easy to sympathize, but then things change as he finds out he has cancer, and that it is likely terminal.  Walter takes up the offer of his DEA brother in law Hank (an alpha male who looms large in the series) to go on a ride along for a drug bust, and runs into one of his former students, who is a meth cook.  From there, he decides to partner up with Jesse, his student, and from their first attempts he begins his descent from mild mannered school teacher to murderous drug lord by the  show’s end.

And that was the very essence of the show; I read somewhere that its creator, Vince Gilligan, originally pitched it to AMC executives as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” and part of the shows brilliance is that it makes this transition feel so real, so lifelike.  I am certain that my love for the show is partly due to my own experience; whether one identifies with a protagonist or not sometimes turns on this.  I am a Ph. D, not out of work but underemployed, as is Walter White when the show begins.  Working at a high school with a Ph. D in a field other than education is usually cause for embarrassment, something the show makes clear in a couple of episodes (his brother-in-law Hank  refers to him as an “underachiever” at one point, if memory serves).   On the other hand, I’m not sure how black Americans felt or fell about the show, but I’m guessing the idea of someone becoming a drug dealer is not perhaps as shocking to them as it is to a white audience.

Be that as it may, the show sets up Walter’s character beautifully in the first couple of episodes.  We see him being disrespected by two of his students, forced to work a menial second job to support his family; his son, who has a disability, is picked on.  When Walt beats the hell out of the kid who does this, we are given a preview of what Walt will eventually become, but also why I think viewers found him likeable, even after he basically becomes a murderer (which is basically in the second or third episode of the series).  Walt is the quintessential decent, middle class white guy who has worked hard and played by the rules his whole life but who still winds up on the losing end of things.  He is brilliant and learned, but is underpaid and not really respected by those around him, perhaps including his wife Skyler at the outset of the series.  Walt is, basically, a likeable loser:  one of the things I think the show does brilliantly is portray how American society, for all of its sentimentality about the “little guy,” makes rather sharp and hard divisions between “winners” (those with money, power, prestige) and “losers” (those who lack these things).  This is why I think people still liked Walt even after he basically succumbs to evil:  he is the loser who sticks it to all those people who have made his life hard or otherwise not taken him seriously (his employers, the cops, his brother-in-law, his competitor Gus Fring, even his wife.)  That’s why Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was the perfect sidekick for Walt, since he was also a loser, a talented artist who bombed out of school and became a drug dealer instead.  The only major difference is that Walt had a brush with success but pulled out of the company he had helped found, which went on to make billions.  Perhaps not having had that kind of brush with success is why, as some commentators have pointed out, Jesse was the closest thing to a moral compass in the show; he often showed remorse and a sense of conscience where Walt seemed to lose his as time went on.

Where does Catholicism come into this?  Well, in a couple of ways.  One is that when Walt begins cooking meth, you can tell right away he is not really doing this for his family, even though he repeatedly says this is the reason.  He tells Jesse that he is doing it to make money for his family, but in one scene early in the first season when Jesse asks Walt how much he needs, Walt thinks for a moment, and responds with one word:  “more.”  Walt begins with good purposes, but begins pursuing his meth cooking for other purposes:  more money, more power, and even more prestige (he wants to be known as “Heisenberg,” the best meth cook around and the guy who knocked off Fring).  What is so interesting about this to me is that these are all of the things that Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica (ST II. Q2) that we cannot substitute for our true happiness, which is only found in knowing God.  Wealth, honor, fame, pleasure, and power can never serve as our supreme happiness, and yet those are things that Walt craves.  But it bears noting that neither Thomas nor the Catholic tradition properly understood condemn those things; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pleasure, or fame.  As Thomas says, those things can be either good or evil, but the supreme good–God–can only be good.  That is why it is so dangerous to pursue those things in an excessive way.

Now, God is almost completely absent from the show, but in this case, one can see lesser goods taking precedence over the good of family, but also of respect for life, as Walt becomes more and more inured to his criminal life.  In one memorable scene, Hank is at the dinner table with Walt and his family, and said something which stuck in my memory.  Hank, who pursues “Heisenberg” throughout the series notes that this Heisenberg is supremely talented, and rues how much good he could do if he turned his talents to better purposes.  With Walt sitting there, it is a powerful scene, not only because by that point he has become a drug dealer and murderer, but because we as an audience know what Hank doesn’t:  Walt had turned his talents to good, but was not really rewarded as he felt he should be.  Now, we know Walt is wrong, but we also know that experience:  in life, good is not always rewarded as it should be.  Given every man his due is the classical definition of justice, but in this life it never works that way.  Justice is incomplete in this life.  Men and women of virtue get taken advantage of; honest politicians lose to ones who lie and flatter; talentless hacks make millions while genuine artists scrape for a living; those who are abused are ignored and scorned, while their abusers go free.  Again, Walt’s problems are not that extreme, but are all the more relatable for that reason.  Walt’s grievances are not trivial in themselves, and even as he turns into a monster we still find in him someone whom we can sympathize because they are so universal.

At least as far as American society goes.  Our is an intensely aspirational society, one which makes a lot of promises about what types of goals its citizens can achieve, but has little room in its moral imagination for those who fail to achieve theirs.  And there is a parallel here, I think, with regards Breaking Bad and Catholicism.  Just as Walt loses himself in things that can be good in themselves but are not ultimate, Catholics often lose themselves in certain goods (social justice, liturgy, the approval of others) that block our experience of the ultimate good, overselling them and underselling God.  This is all the more poignant as the Catholic Church–with its exclusive claims, enormous dogmas, and outrageous rituals–has traditionally claimed to offer not any of those things, but rather the most audacious claim of all:  to offer God himself, that whom is most desirable, most able to satisfy all those disappointed yearnings.   And not symbols, mind you, not social substitutes, as if the community of the faithful or its charitable work were somehow equated with God’s presence, nor even the most magnificent liturgy imaginable–no, not in symbols, but in his very being and essence, to possess and be possessed by Him, and to be able to do that exclusively.

Breaking Bad shows what comes of pursuing those goods–and they are goods–to their ultimate end, without any thought for the ultimate end, in a way that should stoke our anger at Walt’s crimes, but also pity, not only at the loss, but at the unnecessariness of it.  Walt pursues his own “bliss” in modern terms (Joseph Campbell’s terms!) to the end.  In the last episode of the show, when his wife threatens to scream if he reiterates, as he does throughout the show, that he committed all of his crimes for his family, Walt finally comes clean:  “I did it for myself.  I liked it.  I was good at it. And…I was alive.”  The whole peril and promise of American individualism is on display in that scene, with all of its distortion and expansion of legitimate desires for accomplishment and personal achievement into an idol of self destruction.  The only answer to this most powerful adversary I think is to show the mystery of God to those who have been disappointed in life, to the “losers” in our society’s game, to show that there is more than wealth, power, pleasure, and honor to live for, that those things can never satisfy, but only the one who made them all.  And, as Catholics, who claim to have sole possession of those mysteries, cannot offer to the suffering of this world anything less, without taking the risk that we too might “break bad” for all of eternity.




Alypius Minor

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