In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of… More
John Fea, who has (near as I can tell) coined the phrase “Court evangelical” to designate President Trump’s born-again defenders, thinks astute an observation that defenders of Confederate monuments “in Trump’s America” have a flawed understanding of the past.
It is a curious charge to make since if Fea is against “Court evangelicals,” historically speaking that makes him a “Country evangelical,” the party of English politics that most closely foreshadowed the Tea Party (and I don’t think John wants to go there):
Public debt first became a political issue in late seventeenth century Britain, when policymakers started borrowing money on a massive scale to fund expensive trading wars with France. For the first time, owners of capital became major players in the economy and in government. To help pay the debt back reliably, Parliament created a national bank and extended the tax system, which in turn created a class of bureaucrat administrators. This was a major shift for a society where political power had rested with prosperous merchants, farmers, and artisans, and where tax collection had been managed from the provinces by the landed nobility. These groups’ response was, predictably, inflamed. Rallied by the polemicist Henry St John, the first Viscount Bolingbroke, they became vociferous critics of the new arrangements, identifying themselves as the “Country Party,” in opposition to what they called the “Court Party” of London financiers and politicians, which seemed corrupt, unrepresentative, and in thrall to financial interests. The Country Party identified itself as nonpartisan, separate from the formal political organizations of the Tories and the Whigs, but tended to support the more conservative Tories.
As with much else in Trump’s version of America, the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause.
The thing is, this failure to do justice to history cuts so many ways, not only as in the case of the Court vs. Country parties of English politics, but also with those critics of Trump who might want to tar and feather him for threatening the liberal international order over which the United States has ruled for the last 65 years. Andrew Bacevich shows how history is as much Trump’s friend as his enemy:
In Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl and Hal Brands embellish the point: Trump’s strategic vision “diverges significantly from—and intentionally subverts— the bipartisan consensus underpinning U.S. foreign policy since World War II.” Failing to “subscribe to the long-held belief that ‘American exceptionalism’ and U.S. leadership are intertwined,” Trump is hostile to the “open, rule-based international economy” that his predecessors nurtured and sustained….
You get the drift. Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: these ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft. Allow Trump to scrap that tradition and you can say farewell to what Stewart Patrick refers to as “the global
community under the rule of law” that the United States has upheld for decades. But what does this heartwarming perspective exclude? We can answer that question with a single word: history.
Or, somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal-internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines,
Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere—many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process. (The “Global Order” Myth, American Conservative, May/June 2017)
Odd the way that history comes back to bite and turns people from anti-establishmentarians into boosters of obscenely yuuuugggeee institutions that have little accountability to “the people.” The Trump Effect does not get old.
I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.
Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):
civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.
But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.
The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.
See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.
Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.
Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:
But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.
Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)
That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.
But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.
H. L. Mencken explains the wonder-working power of morality:
Moralists, I respectfully submit, are not shrinking violets. They do not go “quietly about their business.” They are not avoiders of controversy. On the contrary, their eager seeking of controversy is one of their salient characters, and their gross abuse of opponents is another. The Lord’s Day Alliance and the Anti-Saloon League devote themselves almost exclusively to excoriation. Their one permanent theme is the villainy of their antagonists. And the vice crusade, for all its pious pretenses, puts nine-tenths of its faith in the policeman’s club. Its patron saints are Anthony Comstock and Tomas de Torquemada. Its central doctrine is that all men who question the efficacy of its moral bile means—for example, Brand Whitlock and Havelock Ellis–are heretics, atheists, voluptuaries and scoundrels.
Old Life took a wee vacation last week thanks to (all about) my trip to Belfast which included delightful discussions with a historian who must remain anonymous for the sake of his good name and sightseeing with an old (not as old as mmmmeeeeeeEEE) friend who also deserves protection from tawdry associations with this blog.
I had the privilege of speaking informally with folks from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those communions are not in fellowship thanks to the split in 1927 over liberalism in the PCI, a debate that has all the earmarks of the so-called fundamentalist controversy in the U.S. In fact, W. J. Grier, who studied at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, took some inspiration from conservatives in the U.S. to oppose the teaching of J. E. Davey, who taught church history and theology at Union College (in effect the seminary for Irish Presbyterians). When the trial against Davey failed, Grier led the formation of a new Presbyterian communion.
That parallel suggests that PCI is to the EPC what the PCUSA is to the OPC. But such reading of American dynamics into Ireland misses how different American Presbyterianism is. If anything, the U.S. equivalent to the PCI is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the American one that had Tim Keller speak at its GA). The PCI is more evangelical than the PCUSA and does not go out of its way to be inclusive. Whether it will ever go out of its way to discipline erroneous views is another matter.
I have no idea how to reconcile the Wikipedia chart with the church’s website about political status in Northern Ireland. But I do suspect the matter has something to do with the Regium Donum, a “royal gift” from Charles II to dissenting Protestants (outside the Church of Ireland — Anglican) to support their ministry. In fact, the royal recognition of the PCI’s moderator means that he receives invitations to affairs in London held by the British government. I suspect it also means some sort of royal representative at PCI General Assemblies the way that the Queen still sends a delegate to the Free Church of Scotland.
This difference with the USA is striking. The federal government or POTUS never sends representatives or invitations to moderators of Presbyterian communions in the U.S. Not even the Presbyterians in the “Protestant establishment,” the PCUSA, have the standing that Presbyterians do in the UK. American Presbyterians are pikers compared to Presbyterians in the British Isles.
But we American Presbyterians compensate with celebrity.
Which raises the question whether a brand like Tim Keller has more influence in national (or urban) life than a royal gift. I am asking because inquiring minds want to know.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. may have and still does support Donald Trump, but I doubt he’d let happen what Paul Griffiths, a very smart Roman Catholic scholar, is now experiencing for not submitting to sensitivity training (thanks to Rod). Griffiths’ description of the consequences of the politics of identity is a reminder that we have more to fear than Donald Trump:
These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power. They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it.
Heath and Portier-Young aren’t alone among us in showing these tendencies. The convictions that some of my colleagues hold about justice for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have led them to attempt occupation of a place of unassailably luminous moral probity. That’s a utopia, and those who seek it place themselves outside the space of reason. Once you’ve made that move, those who disagree with you inevitably seem corrupt and dangerous, better removed than argued with, while you seem to yourself beyond criticism. What you do then is discipline your opponents.
If only liberals were liberal.
I think I have the way to form a more perfect union in this place we call the USA. It is to recognize that all Americans share a sense of fear. Anxiety is what unites us in the U.S. Consider the following.
Andrew Sullivan writes respectfully about reactionary conservatism and even grants its plausibility:
Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.
If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.
And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.
I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.
The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.
The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.
But the statement does clarify what the authors believe has caused the harm: “Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”
And here I thought we were supposed to be afraid of Trump. Imagine the harm a POTUS can do. But in the United States of Fear, an academic paper poses a threat capable of generating the kind of fear that many endure with our incautious and vicious president.
The question is whether those with fears can recognize fear as a basis for personal identity. Can we go from the specific to the general and recognize fear is something that every American experiences? If so, then we may finally have a common point of reference for a shared existence. We are united in fear.
Jim Wallis goes out on a limb by dumping on white evangelicals:
The issue here is not Christians voting differently from each other. That is normal and likely healthy given the independence that people of faith should show over partisan loyalties. This is about the moral hypocrisy of white American evangelical religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. causing a crisis in the church, dividing American Christians on racial lines, and astonishing the worldwide body of Christ — the international majority of evangelical Christians who are people of color — and whose leaders keep asking many of us what in the world is going on with white American evangelicals.
That number, 81 percent, has become an international symbol that tragically now represents what white American evangelicalism stands for. It dramatically and painfully symbolizes the white ethno-nationalism that Donald Trump appeals to and continues to draw support from among white American evangelicals. It is the most revealing and hurtful metric of what I will call the racial idolatry of white American evangelical Christianity, which clearly excludes American evangelicals of color and the global majority of evangelicals. The 81 percent number ultimately signifies a betrayal of the body of Christ — which is the most racially inclusive and diverse community in the world today.
But what are white evangelicals to do when the other side, the one that thought it was on the right side of history, looks at born-again Protestants the way that Jim Wallis does? Damon Linker explains how evangelicals, to be accepted, are supposed to agree with progressives, or else receive not policy papers but denigrating insults:
As I’ve argued on previous occasions, declaring opponents unacceptable, illegitimate, and out of bounds is a perennial temptation. That’s because politics always takes place on two distinct levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set those rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.
Far more than conservatives, liberals love to rule certain positions out of bounds in this second-order sense. They do this by appealing to the courts — the branch of government that reviews, alters, and overturns the rules of the political game. They also do it in the important institutions they control within civil society — such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry. When these institutions informally decide that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable, they render it beyond the pale. As I wrote in a previous column on the subject, “Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘homophobia,’ ‘white supremacy,’ or ‘white nationalism,’ and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.”
So to keep this straight, evangelicals are hypocrites for caving on moral convictions. But liberals (and the evangelicals like Wallis who loves them) are hypocrites for caving on reasonableness. At least evangelicals are still relatively green in politics. What’s the left’s excuse?