Diamonds in the Rough (ly Secular)

•May 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Recently, Adam de Ville over at Eastern Christian Books extolled the virtues of studying Marx and Freud as guides to understanding modern society.  He is criticizing Rod Dreher, among others, for their lack of attention to the early work of Alasdair MacIntyre, which focused in part on Marx.  I have to confess I never found Marx to be terribly illuminating or insightful.  My impression is that truly great thinkers, even if their general philosophies are wrong will still yield many particular insights in their works. This is something I haven’t found much of in Marx’s works.  Marx had one big idea, and was right on one major point–the influence of capital in modern society–but his prescriptions for the ills he diagnosed were all wildly off the mark because of his blinding adherence to deterministic materialism.  Freud, on the other hand, I think yields some valuable observations about human nature, even for Christians, though I obviously disagree with his philosophy overall.

All of which got me to thinking:  which books by atheists/secularists (defined broadly) do I think would benefit a faithful Christian?  I came up with a provisional list which does include Marx):

  1. Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion; Civilization and its Discontents
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols; The Anti-Christ
  3. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”
  4. Bertrand Russell, “The Worship of a Free Man”
  5. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization; Discipline and Punish; Power/Knowledge
  6. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History
  7. J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract
  8. Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  9. J.S. Mill, On Liberty

Most of these you would find familiar from college surveys on philosophy, or history. Freud has some interesting things to say about human psychology, which I think hold up even outside of his dreary view of human sexuality and society.  Nietzsche is probably the most profound, and important thinker on this list; I can’t recommend him highly enough. He is a dangerous critic of Christianity, because he knew it so well, but is worth listening to for that reason.  Weber is best known as the theorist of capitalism and bureaucracy, but his little essay on what the vocation of a “scientist” (an academic, basically) contains several keen insights on the nature of modern life.  Michel Foucault is worth reading, although for the layman or woman I recommend the set of interviews with him entitled Power/Knowledge, which gives a much more digestible view of his overall philosophy, but the two works above contain valuable insights about two modern institutions, the clinic and the prison.  I admit that Collingwood’s book is something of an outlier; I am a British historian by training, so that is how I know the book.  It is partly a history of history as a discipline, but I list it because of the latter part of the book where Collingwood makes observations about the modern academic discipline of history that are important for understanding modern society.  Rousseau should not need much justification, I think, though both his and Mill’s works are more important for knowledge about modern philosophies than modern society.

Anyway, that is a short list off the top of my head.   What books would you recommend? Feel free to list them in the comments.


On Closeness to God

•April 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In the German film Die Stille Grosse (The Great Silence), which filmed the monks of the Grand Chartreuse over a period of several years, the filmmakers interviewed the ancient abbot of the monastery.  Grey haired, blind, with bushy, overgrown eyebrows like an untrimmed vine that overreaches a dividing wall, the old man, in a weak voice, said that “happiness is being close God,” or words to that effect.

I am like most people easily distracted, and the stimuli that can disorient me are legion, and never ending.  Sometimes, I like to make being closer to God more complicated than it actually is; it is doing his will, and accepting our dependence upon him.  I hate being dependent upon anyone, and like most people I naturally crave the immediate satisfaction of my desires.  This is why ascetic practices, prayer, fasting, charitable works, are so necessary to a Christian life.  We cannot “taste and see that the Lord is good” until we have reset our palette, and rescued it from the dullness that comes from the desensitizing pursuit of immediate pleasures.  We must cultivate a certain sort of “taste”–a sensitivity to God and his presence–and a certain sort of insensitivity, to immediate stimuli (food, sex, etc.,) in order to come closer to God.  This is the painful labor of a Christian life; it requires faith, because we have certain knowledge that if we eat enticing food, or make love to someone, we will have a sense of immediate satisfaction from it. Whereas we have no knowledge of eternal life, only the faith that comes from God.  And yet, from our own experience we know that certain types of pleasures are more rewarding, even if less intense, because they can be properly fulfilled and completed. Our desires for food and sex are never completed, for their purpose is not to fulfill but to spur us on to those things that can–the highest and greatest being God, whom when (if) we come to enjoy him eternally, will fulfill us forever.  St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that God was “nearer to me than I am to myself,” and I pray that all who seek may draw closer to him, that they may “taste and see” the One who is able to fulfill every longing of our hearts.

The “Sith Effect” & the Religious Left

•April 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Anathematization of Nestorius

The Condemnation of Nestorius, c. 1502

A recent post at the New York Times site Fivethirtyeight contemplates the viability of the “religious left,” and makes some interesting points backed up by data on demography and trends in the negative opinions of liberal voters concerning organized religion. The headline is a bit misleading—the story acknowledges there is a religious left, but the thrust of the piece is that it  will not be a political force going forward to match the religious right. This is an interesting observation, since the current consensus  stemming from the last couple of election cycles (as far as there is one) is the likely decline and possible death of the religious right. The author makes some good points, but I wonder if he isn’t missing a key element, something I like to think of as the “Sith effect.” My impression is that a good number of liberal Christians became so as a rejection of a more conservative religious upbringing, rather than having grown up in a liberal Christian household or church. (Just as it does in the Stars Wars universe, where the Sith seem to get most of their members from former Jedi who rejected their training.) Thus if, as some trends seem to suggest, conservative congregations keep growing (or at least surviving) in defiance of a wider decline in religious belief and practice, there will continue to be a religious left, even if the author is correct in assuming demographic changes will prevent it from becoming a political force.

I’ve always wondered why some religious liberals didn’t just go the whole way, and abandon their religious faith completely, but I guess we are finally seeing the fruits of what John Henry Newman called the “halfway house” to atheism (his word for theological and religious liberalism).  Of course, unlike the Blessed Newman, the author of the article was mostly concerned with religion in a political sense—his sense of the religious left’s worth is primarily how much it helps advance progressive political goals.  This is surely a big reason why the “religious left” does not jump ship entirely from organized religion:  religious institutions are valuable for things like political organizing, distributing resources, patronage, etc., and most people whose goals are primarily political are loathe to part with such things.  But it may also have to do with the “Sith effect”:  having rejected “fundamentalism,” the new adherents to liberal congregations may feel the need to overcome the old faith too strongly to abandon the new one, especially if, as is the case in America, the old faith in question is a powerful political force standing in the way of your political goals—even more so if those political goals are the fulfillment of your most cherished religious beliefs or theological principles.  And however false or heretical those beliefs may be, they are genuine religious and theological beliefs, and not *merely* political ones.  It’s true that the next generation of liberal Christians will not feel the same pull, but then as long as there are strong “conservative” religious communities, I suspect their will always be those brought up within them who come to reject it.  The more clear, and well defined the identity is, the easier it is to define oneself against it.  And this is not a phenomenon that is limited to religion, obviously.

I have sometimes remarked to friends that I wished those people of faith who had liberal or progressive political views could separate them from their theological positions (not necessarily their religion as such, but only those theological positions that are irreformable–the indissolubility of marriage comes to mind.  But this does not seem to suit most religious liberals, though there are of course exceptions.  In any case, I don’t see the religious left going anywhere any time soon.  Though left/right, liberal/ conservative, are not immutable categories, for a dogmatic religion like Catholic Christianity, the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy pretty much has to be, and I suspect those other, binary political categories are parasitic upon it—which would explain why they are so hard to separate in practice.   And because many liberal Christians become so by a rejection of their conservative upbringing, they often arrive at their liberalism while still members of “conservative” religious bodies, and so have access to resources and networks they otherwise would not have, even if “liberal” religious institutions are in demographic decline.  The Catholic Church—not to say the papacy itself these days—is a good illustration of this.  It ought to give Christian traditionalists like myself pause to consider that the Church, though she is the mother of saints, is also the mother of heretics, too.

Trump & the End of Republicanism–Finale

•February 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment


In the first three installments of my look at the election of Donald Trump, who as of today is America’s 45th president, and how it marks the waning of the republican ideology that has sustained much of American life since the late 18th century.  In the last installment, I took at look at Rod Dreher’s idea of “the Benedict Option,” and why it might and might not be a good idea for those Christian communities seeking to preserve their heritage and beliefs from an increasingly secular society.  In this last post, I want to try my hand at predicting (egad!) what a Trump presidency might portend for the future of those types of communities, as well as for the country as a whole.

United in Division

If you recall my first post, it rested upon the idea that the essential aspect of American republican ideology was an extreme valorization of independence.  The reason I say Trump’s election marks a great shift is that politicians of both major political parties have developed a politics of dependence over the past sixty or seventy years, but the rhetorical inheritance of republican ideology–“liberty” and all that–have prevented this from being proclaimed openly.  What make Trump transformative is that he not only practices a politics of dependence–i.e., acting as a strongman on behalf of his dependents–but he proclaims it openly.  And if you doubt me, take a look at his inaugural address, which mentions “protection” repeatedly.

All of this horrifies Republican commentators such as George Will and others, but it is nothing new. It is clear that Barack Obama also acted as a patron for “dependent” clients:  in his case, minorities groups (blacks, hispanics, gays, etc.) who felt threatened by their fellow citizens.  That’s what the whole push for gay rights is really about, protection.  (I’m not saying this is necessarily based on an accurate understanding of their position in society, just that this is the actual reason for most LGBTQ policies.)  Harassing the opponents of one’s clients is part of the deal:  hence the efforts to criminalize opposition to gay rights, gay marriage, etc.  And there can be little doubt this is part of the reason so many Evangelicals voted for Trump, despite his obvious lack of religious conviction.  More to the point, this type of patron-client relationship has existed in American politics at least since the time of Martin Van Buren’s machine in New York in the 1820s, if not earlier.  What is new is not the actual practice, but the acceptance of it as a legitimate way of conducting public affairs by what appears to be a majority of American citizens. And so, in way, we are so torn by conflict not because of what divides us but because we all implicitly agree on the form our political life should take.  And this form, strictly speaking, is one which is no longer republican in a meaningful sense.

The Wages of Dependence

As I write this final post, there is a tempest brewing over the first measures of a Trump presidency–his executive order concerning refugees.  This is the type of thing that I started this blog to ignore, in order to focus on eternal verities, so I had best explain myself as to why I am addressing this whole subject now.  I am a Catholic Christian, and the most distinctive thing about this belief is that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, truly became man, and yet remained truly God.  While we are in this world, we suffer all manner of evil, and yet be at peace.   I cannot ignore what is going on around me, as much as I want to.  But I can do one thing:  as Pascal wrote, our first duty is always to think clearly, and in this case, to think clearly about how we may still focus on our eternal destiny in the midst of such turmoil.

And so, what will be the consequences of this “politics of dependence” as I have termed it, and how should a thinking person respond to it?  Well, first of all, much of what this amounts to is already present; the shit storm over the Syrian refugees is a good example of it.  For a long time, at least since the 1960s, the middle classes have been utilizing under privileged groups as proxies for their own political battles.  The whole brouhaha over the working classes during the election is a great example of this:  most of Trump’s supporters were, depending on how you define it, middle class.  And yet the problems of the white working class became a rallying cry for those who feel their middle class security threatened by economic, cultural and legal change going on around them, and have been used a symbol by the new Trumpian right to bash the left as upatriotic, unsympathetic to the plight of their fellow countrymen.  Of course, the left has been doing this for decades with black Americans, making them symbol and source of all the evils in American life.  In short, our politics depends upon rhetorically identifying a dependent group, identifying with them, and convincing enough of our fellow citizens that, unless they choose “our” policies (whoever “we” happens to be) we will suffer the fate of those dependent groups.  Again, this has been going on for quite awhile. What is different now is that much of the middle class–I define that term broadly–now feels so insecure that they fear they lose their economic or social status, and so now are willing to cede much of the actual practice of self-government to patrons who promise to protect them.

This new instability has so many sources, it would be pointless to try and enumerate them here.  They are economic, cultural, even spiritual; perhaps it is the consequence of living in a society so (in theory) committed to openness, mobility, to the idea that you can go grab what you want, obstacles be damned, that this has finally created the psychological condition where the vast majority feel as if they are able to get what they want or already have it but feel like it could be taken from them at any moment economic, legal or cultural powers beyond their control.  Whatever the case, it is clear that many believe that some sort of patronage is required to maintain the political and legal independence that was once taken for granted.  How does that affect those of us whose primary goal is eternal life?

After Republicanism

I have already discussed Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” in the last post, and I can only reiterate here what I think the fatal flaw in it is.  Dreher seems is desperate to believethat you can manage a different way of life–different culturally, morally speaking–without the political patronage of, well, people like Trump.  Trump is of course not really much of a Christian, prone to reckless behavior, and likely to involve his Christian supporters in policies that compromise their faith–again, the executive order is a good example, though I am myself am troubled more by the lack of competence in it, rather than its morality, which I think can be defended.  But I do not think the types of “traditionalist” communities Dreher and others have in mind can avoid this.  I firmly believe their way of life will be too off putting to the vast majority of Westerners to attract much of a following any time in the near or distant future, unless major changes occur in Western society almost over night, changes of a cataclysmic nature.  I do not see this happening, and thus I am guessing that such communities will be distinct minorities going forward, and hence, dependent politically and socially for their survival on political alliances.

I imagine this means something like Dr. Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society in the UK, has suggested might be the future of the Church. I suspect something like Shaw’s idea that the Western Church will have to be organized around the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy (the old Latin Mass) will be true of traditionalist communities more generally.  It will take something very specific, very concrete for them to hold together, something that will mark them out as distinctive–that, and some sort of powerful political patron.  In this sense, I suppose, I agree with Rabbi Sacks:  the future for Christians in the West will look a lot more like the fate of Jews in, say, medieval Europe, when Christian bishops or kings sometimes acting as protectors.  For  these communities now, it means dealing with people like Trump. His belligerence, recklessness, megalomania and disregard for the rule of law are a danger to all, even if Hilary Clinton and her cultural allies were a more direct threat to traditional religious believers (which they are, and still remain).  But Trump has delivered thus far, so early on in his administration, to pro-lifers and religious voters.  As long as he needs their votes, he will probably continue to do so.  Otherwise, he is a loose cannon that cannot be trusted.  But as long as he can, he will fight for his clients, and religious believers should have no illusions about the dangers or the necessity of such alliances.  It is probably true that in the long run this type of politics will contribute to a more “authoritarian” bent to our politics, although perhaps one of the more “everyday authoritarian” variety that this essay astutely recognizes.  I am not suggesting that people should go all in and become ardent Caesarists, but they should recognize that the nature of the dangers and temptations they will face under this new dispensation are different from those of the republican era which is now past.  Among these dangers will be persecution, as these traditional communities will not be able to hide behind its patrons all the time.  At other times, it may be simply being forced to do things to retain the loyalty of their political protectors that they had rather not do.  But the greatest danger  of all is that they will succumb to the anger that has driven Trump’s rise–much of this anger is justified in my opinion, but all one has to do is consider the history of the far left (especially the cultural left) in the past fifty years to see how justifiable anger can shade ever so easily into an all consuming rage that makes no distinctions between true evils that cannot be tolerated and minor grievances.  Vigilance against these and other  will be the price of preserving those beliefs, and the belief that the ultimate stakes in life are not determined by history or some sort of material determinism, but by our eternal choice between life and death.  Perhaps sometime in the distant future, our communities may regain the independence that American republicanism provided it with. Perhaps not.  But for the time being they will have to adapt to a very new, and very daunting world.

Trump & the End of Republicanism Cont’d (again)

•January 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment


A Note on Language

In my second installment on the consequences of the election of Donald Trump for republicanism, I wrote of what it might mean for the religious landscape in the United States, and sketched ever so briefly and inadequately what I took to be the history behind the relationship between Christianity and republicanism hitherto.  In this blog, I want to discuss what his election might mean in concrete terms for Christianity in the U.S., as well as what might be done to shore up its institutional independence in the face of an increasingly hostile and uncomprehending society.

But I wanted to first explain why I use the terms that I do to discuss this whole issue.  Very frequently, conservative religious or cultural commentators will bemoan the rampant belief in the unfettered “autonomy” of the individual that modernity (or modern society, or modern something or other) have unleashed, and this idea is applied as an explanation of whatever said commentator finds objectionable in contemporary life.  Now, there are of course a great many things that are objectionable about contemporary life, but I doubt that “autonomy” has anything much to do with those things, or that the word itself is an adequate descriptor of such phenomenon.  I have a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that “autonomy” is a rather airy abstraction, and though abstract thought is a necessity for serious reflection, in this case the term conveys a sense of solidity and absoluteness that is not present in daily human experience.  For “autonomy,” as I take it, means something more than mere independence; it means quite literally what the original Greek suggests, that of being a law unto one’s self—self-governing, complete and total, without any hint of external influence.  Such a thing, of course, is a fantasy:  as I indicated in the first blog on the subject, our human nature is defined by our dependence, though even that has it limits as well.  I favor the independence/dependence binary because it conveys both the ineradicable nature of dependence in human life, but also its relative nature as a feature of human society.  Dependence should not be hated so excessively nor independence prized so highly as it often tends to be in our public life, and if possible, the way we talk about such things ought to reflect that.

I know such concerns may sound pedantic, which is why I feel obliged to explain my word choices.  In my experience, both as a teacher in an academic setting and merely as someone observing modern political discussions in the media, I would say that modern political/philosophical ideas tend to be more about talk than anything else.  Since you cannot eradicate dependence and inequality from human life, most moderns seem to want either to ignore it altogether or treat any obvious instance of it as an aberration that they can easily remedy with some sort social engineering, by a gradual historical evolution that they themselves will direct and of which they represent the vanguard.  Mostly, in practice, this means enforced rules about not mentioning social dependence or inferiority of any kind—or officially redefining it so that those who are don’t feel insulted about it.  This is the origins of “civility” in the 18th century and “political correctness” in the 20th—indeed, it is a rather logical consequence of the hyper-awareness of any sort of dependence that modern life produces.  Usually anything that attaches the word “modern” to itself these days I automatically assume to be a bullshit advertising gimmick, until I have good reason to think otherwise, for that very reason: “modernity” is a partisan metaphysical and philosophical point of view, and is just as questionable as any other; its votaries’ attempts to convince me otherwise almost always amount some sort of special pleading, designed to shield a sacrosanct element of “modernity” (whatever it may be) from the criticism they so boldly direct at the beliefs (usually religious) of others.  I hope that by using more accurate terms I can at least be open to such criticism, as I know my opinions here are eminently questionable, to say the very least.


Problems With the “Benedict Option”

Religious conservatives have been concerned with the decline of a religious sensibility in the West for at least the last fifty years, if not more; philosophers as irreligious but profound as Nietzsche and Heidegger have been lamenting it in very different ways for much longer.  But no one has been as solicitous for the future of Christian community as a journalist over the past ten years as has been Rod Dreher, the writer and blogger now currently wielding his pen for the site The American Conservative.  There, he has been documenting and attempting to raise the threats to religious believers of the conservative, traditional type, and in general inveighing against the dominant cultural elites that threaten them.  Dreher has written for the National Review and other more mainstream conservative publications, but has evolved toward farther and farther in the direction of “crunchy conservatism,” a phrase which served the title of one of his books, and which denotes an environmentally friendly, communitarian, small-is-beautiful sort of philosophy on society and politics.  Over the years, he has connected all sorts of threats that he believes are related and threaten the integrity of religious communities in the U.S.:  Islamic terrorism, mass immigration, the Sexual Revolution, transhumanist and aggressive secularism, to name a few.  For the past few years he has been thinking out loud about what he calls “the Benedict Option”:  the idea that, rather than seeking to uphold the larger polity in which they live, faithful, small “o” orthodox Christians should focus on living out their faith in small communities, where they can practice the virtues and hold onto their traditions in the face of the cultural solvents threatening them on every side. In a recent blog post on mass immigration entitle “Blindly Staggering to the Precipice,” Dreher sums up the situation thus:

My sense is that it is going to get much worse before it gets better, and that those who stand a better chance of surviving the dark age upon us without losing our children and our humanity are going to be those who respond by committing themselves to solidarity through strong forms of religious community that produce strong families. This is what I mean by the Benedict Option. It’s not religious escapism; it’s a general strategy for surviving and even thriving in chaotic and tumultuous times.

Critics have charged Dreher with being unnecessarily defeatist or, as the above paragraph indicates, with being escapist—of abandoning the world to its fate while religious believers huddle together and cultivate their gardens.  Most of these criticisms miss the mark; Dreher has been quite explicit that he does not mean everyone has to enter a monastery or become Amish (though his idea does sound a bit like Dostoevsky’s notion of the “monasticization” of society, put into the mouth of the Elder Zosima in The Brother’s Karamozov).  His idea is that Christian and other religious communities need to live in a consciously different way from the rest of American and Western civilization, in order to transmit their beliefs to future generations.  This is in some ways a truism, and Dreher has been at pains to make clear he is sketching a general outline for what these communities should do, and help to start the conversation about the necessarily difficult task of hammering out specific recommendations.  To that end, he has just sent the manuscript of a book to his publisher, which will be published before the year’s end.  I eagerly look forward to reading it.

Despite my general agreement with Dreher, I have two major issues with his “Benedict Option.”  One is that, in all his discussions of the topic, you never hear the word “power” mentioned once.  That is a problem.  I say this reluctantly, because I have listened to undergrads pen the most trite and silly things in their papers over the years, the essence of which can be summed up in that idiotic phrase, “it’s all about power.”  That is a peculiarly modern pathology, to think that all that matters in human life is power.  But this error is a response I think to an equally modern one:  that all human relationships can be arranged in terms of mutuality, equality, love, without any reference to power or authority at all—in short, to a sort of utopianism which, though it has antecedents, seems to be particularly strong in modern societies.  This side of eternity, all human relationships are marked by some sort of power dynamic, and anyone who wishes to think seriously about human community must come to terms with this. Dreher has talked at length about the need for authority, solidarity, tradition, customs, etc., but nothing of how power would be structured in “Benedict Option” communities.  Will these communities be patriarchal in nature?  Will they subordinate in a fairly restrictive manner the freedoms of individual members, for the sake of solidarity and community? Perhaps these are questions Dreher will address in his book, but I do recall reading anything of them in his blog on the subject.  But until he does, his idea will be susceptible to the charge of utopianism; there is, after all, and long and even venerable tradition of building utopian communities in American history, and the “Benedict Option” will probably amount to little more than “religious escapism” if Mr. Dreher cannot articulate how workable power structures might be constructed to sustain his “BenOp” communities.

There are of course historical examples might serve as guide for such communities.  The very name “Benedict Option” derives from a famous passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue about the supposed analogy between the fall of ancient Rome and late modernity, and he is quite fond of monastic institutions (as am I).  One might also mention in this regard medieval Jewish communities, which have a long history of trying to sustain themselves amidst generally hostile societies.  (Interesting in this regard is the Erasmus Lecture given to the First Things crowd a few years ago by Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Rabbi from Britain who talked of what could be called a “Jeremiah Option” in contrast to a “Benedict Option.”)  But there is an even more apposite example from within American history itself:  the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Whatever one thinks of their theological beliefs, there can be no doubt about the organizational genius of Joseph Smith and the other founders of that body.  Scorned and persecuted for their beliefs wherever they went, Smith and Brigham Young founded a hierarchical and firmly patriarchal community which was able to not only sustain a community of thousands on the move from persecution, but to move it across thousands of miles into an arid wilderness, settle and then flourish there, all within a generation or so.  Small-o “orthodox” Christians might balk at looking to the Saints as a model, but if they are serious about preserving their traditions, they could find much worse to imitate.  My point is not that these historical examples represent ready made solutions without dangers or problems.  It is the fact they succeeded in transmitting their faith, their minority culture, in spite of internal and external struggles, fairly well.  Whatever the internal problems of communities run by rabbis, such as the Hasidim, or the Mormon church, with its entrench patriarchy, they have managed to keep their beliefs intact while keeping the wolves at bay.

And this has meant they had to deal with the governments and polities in which they lived more intimately than they would have liked.  This is the other sense in which Dreher’s project doesn’t deal with the realities of power:  his BenOp communities, in order to live the manner of life to which they have been called, will need political protectors.  Which is another way of saying, they can no longer count on being independent in the manner that perhaps we think they should be.  They will have to make hard choices in exchange for that protection, and some hard reflection will have to be done in order to do that without compromising the beliefs that they are meant to protect.

All of which leads me back to Trump, and the present moment.  The other major issue I have with Dreher’s idea is that it seems to rest too much upon the analogy of contemporary America with ancient Rome.  The differences between the late republican or late imperial eras of ancient Rome (both scenarios get thrown around a great deal, and both are wrong) and our situation that I think it is dangerous to proceed upon this analogy.  Which is why a clear appraisal of what is possible at the present moment is urgent.  And that means finding political protection from the legal, cultural and political forces that would dissolve those communities.  And that means dealing with Trump, and what his presidency might mean for the future of what is left of that Christian, republican tradition in this country.  As this post has gone on longer than I had planned, I will address this last topic with one final post.

1356 & All That

•January 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Until I read Bernard Cornwell’s novel 1356, I had never thought of using the word cliché as a verb before,  but the experience of reading that book certainly suggests it.   Set against the backdrop of the military campaigns during the Hundred Years War, culminating in the English victory at Poitiers that year, the novel tells the story of Sir Thomas of Hookton, a fictional English bowman who fights as a mercenary for his liege the Earl of Southampton in English occupied France.  Hookton is given a mission by his noble lord: find a quasi-mythical relic, the la malise, the sword that Peter used to cut off the servant’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the wicked Cardinal Bessières and his henchman, the sadistic Fr. Marchant, can acquire it and use its power to make Bessières the new Pope.

The main plot is based upon the legends that have been spun throughout the ages about the so-called “treasure of the Cathars”:  the Cathars were a heretical movement in the 12-14th centuries in Western France, and in the novel la malise had been in their possession. Hookton’s father had been one of the “seven dark Lords” charged with keeping the Cathar treasure hidden. Hookton and his wife, Genevieve, are both excommunicate: Hookton because he rescued and married Genevieve, who was to be burned at the stake for heresy.  It is not clear from the novel what heresy she condemned for, though it seems to suggest it was Catharism.  (Genevieve denies that she is a heretic in the book.)

As the forgoing summary indicates, the Good Guys are the outcasts–the heretics, the bastards (Hookton is illegitimate, and calls himself le batard–illegitimacy sounds so much more refined in French), those who question authority, etc.–while the Bad Guys are almost all people in positions of power and authority–Cardinals, priests (with one exception), noblemen, etc.  Hookton, for example, daringly tells a theologian at Montpelier that infants who die without baptism don’t go to hell (the theologian is a stuffy academic, who takes the opposite line, naturally), and, implausibly unique for a mercenary, forbids his “Hellequin” (hell fighters, the name he gives his band of merry men) from raping women.  Conversely, Father Marchant is a sadist who tortures people with a hawk that pecks their eyes out; Cardinal Bessières thinks nothing of ordering the murder of otherwise innocent people, so long as it gains him the power he seeks.  Besides this simplistic typology (orthodox=evil, heretics=good), the novel also indulges in some nationalist stereotyping as well:  there are three Scottish characters in the novel, two of them are little more than bloodthirsty killers, while the third is decent but ineffectual (he gets his head cut off in battle for trying to help his friend, Hookton).  Of the two major French characters who are not swine, Sir Roland de Verrec, a French knight so in love with chivalry that he vows to keep his chastity until he marries (on the orders of the Virgin Mary, who he saw in a vision as a child), is probably the most interesting, though he is portrayed as naive.  The other is Father Levonne, the priest in the French town which Hookton has captured, and whose church walls are decorated with the plunder that Hookton has taken from raiding his fellow Frenchmen, which apparently troubles Father Levonne not a bit.  Neither does he care much for orthodoxy; he ministers to the excommunicated Thomas and his wife, and during one of the many and frequent dialogues between two characters which have precious little to do with the story, Fr. Levonne informs Roland de Verrec that there are really two churches:  one greedy and corrupt, lusting after power, and another that is kind, and good.  This Gnostic sermon must have been intended for particularly dull readers, since the action of the story makes quite clear that, in Cornwall’s mind, the “bad church” is made up of those who blather about orthodoxy and torture people, while the “good church” is comprised of those who aren’t so uptight about what they believe, and who love kittens and fluffy bunnies.

It is a shame that the book’s characters are so relentlessly and belligerently monotone, because when Cornwell is not lecturing his readers on theology, he is quite a good storyteller.  Despite a fairly complex plot, the goals, motivations, and stakes for pretty much every character involved are clear and easy to follow.  (If you think is not an achievement, try writing a novel yourself.) And Cornwall is at his best when describing the military buildup to Poitiers and several other battles in the novel. You get both a clear and historically accurate depiction of medieval warfare but also what feels like a pretty psychologically realistic depiction of what felt like to be a soldier in those battles.  I first encountered Cornwell as the author of the “Sharpe” novels, about the leader of a corps of riflemen, on the History Channel’s presentation of the BBC’s production of some of those novels.  They were really fun adventure stories, fit for someone with a love of history and a sort of boyish love of things martial, and there is some of this in 1356.  This is apparently how Cornwell has made his career, writing historical entertainments about Anglo-Saxon England, King Arthur, the Napoleonic Wars, and other historical epochs.  And if you like a good yarn, and lots of graphic violence, this book is for you.   If you are looking for interesting, well rounded characters, I would look somewhere else.

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.


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