Why Pietism and Liberalism Go Hand in Hand

Amy Julia Becker declares her independence from evangelicalism — for at least the reign of President Trump. She seems to think that evangelical stands for something on the conservative side of Christianity’s spectrum. But she now sees how political evangelicalism has become. I’m not sure if she just landed from Mars.

Here is what makes her a pietist:

I am still tempted to categorize my Christian friends with words like “liberal” or “progressive” or “orthodox” or “conservative” or “evangelical.” I am still tempted to judge the faith of other people according to my standards of who and what constitutes Christianity. But when I stop and ask how I see God’s work in their expressions of faith — when I stop and consider the expansive love of God at work in and through countless people, people like me, people who have our theology wrong plenty of the time, people who have our theology right and still behave badly, people who are bumbling around in a world of sin and are still at our core beloved by God and invited to participate in God’s work in the world — when I do that, I start to believe that we are Christians.

Imagine what Ms. Becker would do with Arius. Look at how much he loves God.

Or what about Jacob Arminius? Well, he sure seems serious about the faith.

But such displays of or criteria for genuine faith have little to do with forms. In fact, it’s not just that Christianity revolves around feelings. The people who hurt feelings, the ones who stress right doctrine, the inerrancy of the Bible, or the regulative principle of worship, they are people who care more about forms than feelings. And therefore, such conservatives are inferior kinds of Christians. Tight sphinctered. Machen’s warrior children. They lack charity.

Snowflake Christians beget snowflake nones.

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Was the NFL the Gateway Drug for Playboy?

I wonder when neurological scientists will study the effects on the brain of watching football on the Lord’s Day. Until then, these conclusions look shaky (even a tad reductionist along materialist lines — but, hey, it’s our reductionism):

We now see the effects of having it “all out there now.” We can see how the constant exposure to pornography is not just eating away at our souls but is quite literally highjacking our brains.

In 2011, Struthers wrote an article for Christian Research Journal that explains the effects of porn on the male brain.

“Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates,” he wrote. “Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does.”

Here’s a simplified explanation: Sexually explicit material triggers mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons, which are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior, contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. In the case of pornography, this mirror neuron system triggers the arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet.

“The unfortunate reality is that when he acts out (often by masturbating), this leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind him to the object he is focusing on,” Struthers wrote. “In God’s plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen. Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.” (For more on this see “9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain.”)

Imagine if neurological scientists tried to measure lust in the heart. And what about those long lasting effects of images of football players kneeling during the National Anthem on a Christian’s loyalty to the God-ordained powers?

The full story has yet to be told.

If Politics is Downstream from Culture

Is political iconoclasm downstream from recreational drugs?

Here’s why the question makes sense. If more people drank wine at lunch, would be they be less moralistic? Which is related to how much marijuana have neo-Nazis and antifa smoked to reach their adult years?

The apparent popularity of the idea that drinking at lunchtime is unacceptable tells us two things about Britain today – one is about attitudes to drinking, the other is about the way we assess or evaluate things. The first is straightforward: drinking at lunchtime is becoming more unpopular partly because of changing working habits – people work too hard, essentially – and partly because of concerns about the effects of alcohol on health and the fashionability of the healthy lifestyle.

That is not how things used to be. An academic friend of mine from Switzerland, recently retired, told me he had a glass of wine (or two) every day at lunchtime during his productive and satisfying thirty-five-year career. It’s hard to imagine any of today’s academics telling such a story in twenty or thirty years’ time. But fashions change, and maybe today’s will change too.

The second thing, though, is more insidious: the growing tendency to assess all human activity in moral terms: in terms of obligations, duties and the ideas of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, fair or unfair.

Politics is one area of life that has become deeply moralized. Most political decision-making in peaceful well-functioning democracies concerns practical questions about the allocation of resources, and the structure of social organizations. These decisions are for the most part not moral decisions, nothing to do with obligations and rights and wrongs, but the result of compromises based on what is desirable, practical and efficient. Yet people find it so attractive to think of politics – even in this plonking, practical, reliable sense – in moral terms.

In other words, can’t a cigar just be a cigar? Or an Asian-American sportscaster just a guy with a good voice and telegenic demeanor?

It should be emphasized that things in our lives can be evaluated in ways that have very little to do with morality – for example, whether things are pleasant or disgusting, delicious or bland, funny or boring, gauche or stylish, awkward or harmonious, sensible or silly – and in many ways these evaluations come more easily and naturally to us than the abstract judgements of today’s moralists. Yet the preaching tone of the moralist lurks in the speeches of politicians, on the Left and the Right – whether it is about climate change, what we eat, what art or music we enjoy, how we bring up our children, what kind of gender we identify with, etc. My point is not that these are unimportant questions – but that it is not obvious that they are moral questions. Nonetheless, our current political leaders in the UK find it alarmingly easy to adopt moralizing personae, from the honest and pure teetotal bearded vegetarian, to the stern yet fair authoritarian who knows best. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to have politicians who were not preaching to us?

Imagine if U.K. politicians had to live statues of people who executed heretics.

(thanks to one of our Southern correspondents who assures me he is not a neo-Confederate)

Mencken Could Fix Google

Conor Friedersdorf rightly faults the press for lacking perspective on the memo that resulted in a Google veep’s firing:

To shorthand his position as “anti-diversity” before the fact is still misleading.

Journalists grasp this nuance on lots of other issues.

Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of more jobs for working-class Americans. In service of that end, he has proposed canceling free-trade agreements, building a wall to keep out immigrants, and eliminating lots of environmental regulations. Critics who avow that they favor more jobs for the working class, but oppose achieving more jobs through those specific means, are not described as “anti-job,” especially when they suggest specific alternatives for job-creation. Even if their alternatives would result in fewer jobs than the Trump administration’s plans, that still wouldn’t make a writeup of their proposal “an anti-job memo.”

To object to a means of achieving x is not to be anti-x.

The failure to apply that same logic to the author of the memo is straightforwardly frustrating for those who agree with many of the views that the memo expressed. And it should also frustrate those who disagree with the author but care about social justice.

Every prominent instance of journalism that proceeds with less than normal rigor when the subject touches on social justice feeds a growing national impulse to dismiss everything published about these subjects—even important, rigorous, accurate articles. Large swathes of the public now believe the mainstream media is more concerned with stigmatizing wrong-think and being politically correct than being accurate. The political fallout from this shift has been ruinous to lots of social-justice causes—causes that would thrive in an environment in which the public accepted the facts.

The thing is, if you accept that injustice is basic to human existence in a fallen state, the pursuit of social justice is not a barrier to accurate perceptions of the world. Instead of being surprised or that Rick’s cabaret sponsors gambling in the back room,

we simply put the thought of it out of our minds, just as a wise man puts away the thought that alcohol is probably bad for his liver, or that his wife is a shade too fat. Instead of mulling over it and suffering from it, we seek contentment by pursuing the delights that are so strangely mixed with the horrors – by seeking out the soft spots and endeavoring to avoid the hard spots. Such is the intelligent habit of practical and sinful men. . . .

After all, the world is not our handiwork, and we are not responsible for what goes on in it, save within very narrow limits. Going outside them with our protests and advice tends to become contumacy to the celestial hierarchy. Do the poor suffer in the midst of plenty? Then let us thank God politely that we are not that poor. Are rogues in offices? Well, go call a policeman, thus setting rogue upon rogue. Are taxes onerous, wasteful, unjust? Then let us dodge as large a part of them as we can. Are whole regiments and army corps of our fellow creatures doomed to hell? Then let them complain to the archangels, and, if the archangels are too busy to hear them, to the nearest archbishop.

Unluckily for the man of tender mind, he is quite incapable of any such easy dismissal of the great plagues and conundrums of existence. . . . whenever he observes anything in the world that might conceivably be improved, he is commanded by God to make every effort to improve it. In brief, he is a public-spirited man, and the ideal citizen of democratic states. But Nature, it must be obvious, is opposed to democracy – and whoso goes counter to nature must expect to pay the penalty. (The Forward-Looker, ch 11 of Prejudices, Third Series, 1922)

David Robertson is What’s the Matter with Tim Keller

Amy Mantravadi wanted to know what’s the matter with Tim Keller around the same time that David Robertson decided to make Keller the test for loyalty to gospel ministry. Amy makes careful evaluations (charitable) of Keller. Robertson sneers at anyone who takes issue with Keller.

And that is the problem. Keller is merely one pastor whose foibles would be unknown to any outside his congregation if he had not allowed himself to be a poster-boy for urban, transformationalist, pastor-to-(some of)-the-intelligentsia ministry.

Lots of pastors in the Reformed world do not follow the rules of polity, liturgy, and confessional austerity. They likely face their own sets of critics whether from within the congregation or at presbytery. But these pastors do not pretend to have written the book for successful ministry or allow fans to crow about their success.

Keller, however, has become a brand and pastors like David Robertson have gladly wrapped themselves in it. In fact, when Keller says something that so patently needs qualification, Robertson is there to dare anyone who would question Keller’s devotion, wisdom, and truth.

Keller is too big to fail and defenders like Robertson made him so.

Here is what Keller said about art:

The Church needs artists because without art we cannot reach the world. The simple fact is that the imagination ‘gets you,’ even when your reason is completely against the idea of God. ‘Imagination communicates,’ as Arthur Danto says, ‘indefinable but inescapable truth.’ Those who read a book or listen to music expose themselves to that inescapable truth. There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying. We need Christian artists because we are never going to reach the world without great Christian art to go with great Christian talk.

If you are a minister devoted to the sufficiency of Scripture, maybe you qualify this a little? You put yourself in the situation — wouldn’t all that reading of Charles Taylor help you? — of Christ and the apostles and maybe remember that art did not seem to be high on the apostles agenda.

Instead, Robertson doubles down and does for Keller what so many Roman Catholic apologists do for Pope Francis — spin:

Now there is a narrower sense in which art is used – I guess the sense in which it is studied in art colleges. And if Keller was saying without painting we can’t communicate the Gospel then he would deserve the ridicule that comes his way. But do you think Keller is restricting ‘art’ to the narrower sense of painting only (or perhaps ballet?). Can’t you be a little more charitable and assume that a bible believing teacher such as Keller might actually know something about the bible, church history and evangelism? At least enough to prevent him accusing Paul and Jesus of not knowing how to proclaim the Gospel?

The truth is that Keller and the upcoming downgrade in the PCA is not the problem. He is not a heretic and his views on art are not heretical – they are basic Kuyperian Calvinism. No, it is the ugliness of some who profess the Reformed Faith, those macho keypboard warriors who think that putting the adjective effeminate in front of anything is enough to damn it; seeking their own niche and identity by dissing others who are the real heretics. Why? Because although they profess orthodox faith in Christ – it’s not enough. We must reflect the glory and beauty of Christ. To turn beauty into ashes is anti-Christ and the real heresy.

You mean, all that time in the city has not in the least influenced Keller and how he presents? You mean, Robertson has never studied the history of how Presbyterians are like frogs in the kettle and become used to the cultural temperature around them? You mean, that a minister in the Free Church cannot ever fathom how liberal Presbyterianism happens?

That’s a problem.

The Surprising Admissions Converts Make

David Mills tries to defend being casual about sin, though he rebrands it as familiarity:

In the Protestant world of my youth, nearly everything was a matter of life or death. The Evangelicals made your salvation a drama that depended on you making a decisive commitment. They loved the drama of a sobbing sinner stumbling forward at the altar call.

The mainliners didn’t sweat salvation the same way, but they made your social conscience almost as crucial. God expected you to respect picket lines, protest the war, protect the environments, eat union-grown grapes.

But the Catholics. Gosh, they didn’t seem to sweat anything. The few Catholics I knew — my college town had more Wiccans than Catholics — didn’t seem vexed by human sins, personal or social. They might like devotion and care about social causes, but they didn’t pursue them as intensely as the Protestants I knew.

Older people told me that Catholics had confession. They could axe-murder an entire middle school, go to confession, and Whoosh! they were okay. God was happy with them again. The axe murder? No big deal. Confession magically wiped the slate clean no matter what you did.

Except that the whoosh only got you as far as purgatory if you went to confession.

But now Mills sees the benefits of Rome’s lack of rigor:

After being a Catholic for a few years, I can understand why people think the Church is too casual about sin. I can be too casual about it. It’s easy to use confession as a forgiveness machine and the Mass as a medicine that cures you without your having to do anything. I know how easily you can presume on God’s love.

But that’s just the risk God chose to take when he gave us the Church and her sacraments. Our Protestant friends are not wrong in their criticism, but they miss what God Himself is doing through the Church. He flings his grace around, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel reading. He lets some fall on rocky or thorny ground, so that some will fall on fertile ground. He gives us gifts we can abuse, because he wants to give us life.

What Mills fails to add (aside from the punishment for mortal sins) is that Protestants exalt Christ. To be hard on sin is to take seriously the cross. Christ died to save sinners from the penalty of sin. That shows that God was not very casual about sin. It also means Christ didn’t die to give sinners a second chance — in purgatory.

We’re Laughing With not At You

I imagine that was Peter Sagal’s defense for this bit of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (an episode I heard while driving in New England):

SAGAL: Tom, this week, listeners also wrote in, saying we were way too mean to Mitch McConnell. What was the specific insult our listeners were upset by? Was it A, Mitch McConnell looks like a thumb with glasses…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …B, Mitch McConnell looks like a Mr. Potato Head if the potato had been mashed…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …Or C, as a young man, Mitch McConnell didn’t beat polio. It was that polio left his body because it couldn’t stand being there any more?

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BODETT: Oh.

ROBERTS: Oh.

BODETT: Oh, you know, I think he did have polio as a child. Is it that one?

SAGAL: No, it was actually a trick question…

BODETT: Oh, thank, God.

SAGAL: …Because it wasn’t any of those.

(LAUGHTER)

BURBANK: I feel like we wouldn’t be on the radio this week…

BODETT: I was going to say, you know?

BURBANK: …If it was any of those.

SAGAL: We said Mitch McConnell looks like a chinless owl.

(LAUGHTER)

BODETT: Oh, that’s right.

SAGAL: To our credit, we also didn’t say…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: No, we didn’t say these, so people had no reason to complain. We didn’t say Mitch McConnell looks like a jack-o’-lantern that was left out on the porch till March.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We certainly didn’t say that Mitch McConnell looks like someone dropped a bunch of facial features into a bowl of butterscotch pudding.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We absolutely did not say…

BODETT: And thank God.

SAGAL: …That – you know when somebody pulls out their belly skin to show you how much weight they lost? – that looks like Mitch McConnell’s face.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And we certainly never stooped to saying that Mitch McConnell’s face was bleeding badly from a face-lift.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We would never do that.

BODETT: That, that…

SAGAL: Too low even for us.

I am sure Senator McConnell chuckled right along with NPR’s quiz show host, panelists, and audience.

And to keep it fair and balanced, here is how Sagal yucked it up with Nancy Pelosi when she was Speaker of the House:

SAGAL: Let’s clarify something right off the bat. How are we to address you? What is the protocol? Speaker Pelosi, in honor of your former position? Leader Pelosi, in honor of your current one?

PELOSI: Because we’re all such good friends here, just say Nancy.

SAGAL: Just say Nancy. Nancy.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: It sounds good, though, Nancy. So we’re delighted to have you with us. We found out, and it should be obvious, given your success in politics, that you grew up in a very political family. You were raised in the business.

PELOSI: Right.

SAGAL: Your father was the mayor of Baltimore.

PELOSI: Yes, he was.

SAGAL: Right. So what was it like growing up in a political household?

PELOSI: Well, it was like campaigning, forever campaigns, all the time. There was never a time when we weren’t walking precincts or receiving volunteers at the door to pick up their brochures, their buttons, their bumper stickers, their placards that would be called lawn signs these days. And I learned how to count votes.

SAGAL: Did you really? So, like, other kids were counting blocks, you were like going “one vote, two votes.”

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: When you were a baby, were you kissing babies?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We were reading about your father’s career and your involvement with him, and we read that one of the jobs that you had working with your father was that you kept his favor file. Is that correct?

PELOSI: No, I didn’t keep it but I worked on it. That is, to say…

SAGAL: What is it exactly?

PELOSI: What it is, is that if somebody – for example, if someone came to the door and said they needed help in some way, if they needed help finding a job or something like that. The idea was, of the favor file was that when that person was on his or her feet then they would extend a helping hand to somebody else. In other words, they passed it on.

SAGAL: Really?

PELOSI: So where would you go to look for help for somebody else is someone that you had helped already.

SAGAL: Right. Or if you needed to have someone killed…

PELOSI: Again, it was a very…

SAGAL: …call upon this person.

(LAUGHTER)

PELOSI: Do I detect an ethnic slur there?

SAGAL: No, no.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I wasn’t at all thinking about that scene from “The Godfather.” I really wasn’t.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLIE PIERCE: Leader Pelosi, we have no idea who this guy is doing the interview.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So, eventually you got married, you moved with your husband to San Francisco and you got involved with politics there. You ran for office yourself. You know, when you went into politics, you did it with a splash.

Of course, you rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party in the House, and you became the Speaker of the House. You’re our first Speaker of the House we’ve ever had on the show. We have a lot of questions about that. Primarily, what is it like to sit behind the president during the State of the Union address?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is it hard to maintain a straight face?

(LAUGHTER)

PELOSI: Well, I’m glad you’re getting down to the truly important here…

SAGAL: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

PELOSI: …Speaker of the House.

SAGAL: No, really, I mean it must – because you know, like the nation is looking at the president and you are looming there over his shoulder. You could wreak havoc with the address if you wanted to, by making faces. Do you have to think about, like…

PELOSI: Well, one could.

SAGAL: Yes.

PELOSI: Well, here’s the thing…

SAGAL: Yeah.

PELOSI: …the Speaker of the House has awesome power. And so when the joint session is called and the president of the United States is welcomed in a joint session, House and Senate, it is the Speaker of the House who introduces the president. Not that that’s the power part, but it’s a manifestation…

SAGAL: That is power. You could keep him waiting. You could be standing, and he could be waiting outside. And you could be like, “So guys, what’s up?”

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: See the game last night?

PELOSI: Well, no, but, you know, but you would want to be respectful now wouldn’t you? I mean, under other circumstances you would want to be respectful…

SAGAL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I want to ask a little bit about the job. Do you ever talk to the current Speaker, John Boehner? Does he ever call you up and go “I don’t know how I’m going to get this done; these guys are being so obstreperous. What do I do, Nancy?” Does that ever happen?

PELOSI: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Really, you don’t…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: He doesn’t invite you over, back to your old office just for a get together, have a good cry, you and him and talk about problems.

PELOSI: No.

SAGAL: No, really, I mean…

PELOSI: Girls don’t cry.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: No. Well done.

(APPLAUSE)

FAITH SALIE: Nancy, I can’t believe I just called you that. Thank you.

PELOSI: Thank you, Faith. I’ll call you Faith; you call me Nancy.

SALIE: That’s a deal. I earnestly want to ask you about an issue that’s dear to my heart and I understand it’s dear to yours, which is chocolate.

PELOSI: Oh, yes.

SAGAL: We’ve read this too that this is your great vice, if you will, you’re big into chocolate.

PELOSI: I don’t consider it a vice. I consider it…

SALIE: A blessing from God.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You consider it…

PELOSI: Very dark chocolate, very dark chocolate.

SAGAL: Very dark. So tell us what you can. Tell us what you’re willing to admit of your chocolate consumption.

(LAUGHTER)

BURBANK: Let’s get down to brass tacks. How many pounds of chocolate have you eaten today?

(LAUGHTER)

BURBANK: I’ll take that as 20.

(LAUGHTER)

You tell me, which is funnier? Peter Sagal laughing his way through the week’s news or Man Getting Hit by Football?

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

In 1872 the Protestant churches in Scotland handed over all their schools to the State on the explicit condition that Scottish State Education should continue to be Christian. From that day on the Scottish Education system (unlike the American one) has officially been Christian. The Catholics, being wiser than the Protestants, didn’t trust the State and so they kept their own schools. Even within living memory most schools in Scotland would have had ‘religious’ worship, school chaplains and bible teaching. The ethos of the schools were largely Christian. But this is now virtually unrecognisable. Secular humanists/atheists have cuckoo like taken over the State education system and are now using Salami tactics (piece by piece) to dismantle the remaining parts of it – crying tolerance and equality in order not to tolerate Christianity and in order to prevent Christians from receiving the equal education that the UN Human Rights charter demands.

2k Protestants were not so gullible.

And that’s why 2kers give two cheers (sometimes three) for the separation of church and state. It is impossible for established churches to remain faithful. They will always need to do the magistrate’s bidding and reflect the attitudes of the citizenry.

Selah.

Jesuits Make Stuff Up

So you thought the evil Steve Bannon was objectionable for his ties to rad-trad Roman Catholics:

Before becoming White House chief strategist, Bannon — who is Catholic — was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.” That’s a movement associated with white nationalism.

During a visit to Rome a few years ago, Bannon struck up a friendship with the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a traditionalist who has emerged as one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.

Bannon hired Thomas Williams, an American former priest, as Breitbart’s Rome correspondent. Williams belonged to the conservative Legion of Christ, which was roiled by scandal when it was revealed its founder had been a pedophile.

Well, silly you. Turns out according to the Argentinian edition (thanks to Rorate Caeli) of La Civiltà Cattolica, “the journal considered the official voice of the Vatican, and its diplomatic department (the Secretariat of State)” — wait, the Vatican is still doing state craft? — that Bannon is really an intellectual descendant of Protestant fundamentalism:

Pastor Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) is the father of so-called “Christian reconstructionism” (or “dominionist theology”) that had a great influence on the theopolitical vision of Christian fundamentalism. This is the doctrine that feeds political organizations and networks such as the Council for National Policy and the thoughts of their exponents such as Steve Bannon, currently chief strategist at the White House and supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.

“The first thing we have to do is give a voice to our Churches,” some say. The real meaning of this type of expression is the desire for some influence in the political and parliamentary sphere and in the juridical and educational areas so that public norms can be subjected to religious morals.

Rushdoony’s doctrine maintains a theocratic necessity: submit the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism. At heart, the narrative of terror shapes the world-views of jihadists and the new crusaders and is imbibed from wells that are not too far apart. We must not forget that the theopolitics spread by Isis is based on the same cult of an apocalypse that needs to be brought about as soon as possible. So, it is not just accidental that George W. Bush was seen as a “great crusader” by Osama bin Laden.

That’s one way to gain favorable ratings with the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post. But it sure seems a stretch. Is this what has become of the Great Roman Catholic intellectual tradition? Maybe only Pretty Good?

Doh!

From the-one-step-in-one-direction-and-two-steps-in-the-other department:

Even under the terms of the 1998 deal, tobacco companies still faced potentially billions of dollars in liabilities. Taxes on cigarettes have only gone up in recent years, and rates of smoking have dropped by about ten per cent in the last ten years.

So whence the record windfall for tobacco companies in 2016?

The answer, as the WSJ points out, lies in the simple fact that tobacco sales are driven less by the “traditional laws of supply and demand” than they are by the guarantee that a large base of customers will buy the product at almost any price. When governments slap the industry with taxes, then, rather than discouraging sales, they are contributing directly to increased profits. In 2016 the average cost to buy a pack of Marlboros was about $6.31—of that only 18% went to cover manufacturing costs, with 17% going to retail markup and 42% a result of taxes. That leaves about 20% of pure profit for the companies. In addition to beefing up profits, this regulatory insulation discourages smaller manufacturers from moving up in the market, as they struggle to meet the onerous legal requirements and high cost of business.

Quite apart from the relative merits of tobacco regulation—on which opinions rightly differ—this story proves a case-study in how both the market and government attempts to control it are subject to ‘soft’ cultural factors quite beyond their control.