What’s The Matter with Los Angeles?

Thomas Frank asked what was the matter with Kansas. Why did lower-middle class whites vote for the GOP when the Republicans did little for such voters economically. The interests of Kansans economically were supposed to be much more Democrat than Republican. But conservatives in the GOP used social issues — abortion, marriage, etc. — to attract support.

Frank’s argument makes me wonder the same about the Hollywood stars who live in the greater Los Angeles area. Simply on economic grounds, why would people worth millions vote for a party that wants to raise taxes on them?

Then there is the art-makes-viewers-more-humane-and-empathetic argument. Don’t actors in Hollywood play all sorts of American character types, from people who vote for Republicans to business owners, cops (how many cop shows and movies are there?!?), angry white men, and Christian nationalists? If art is supposed to help us see how others see the world, why are Hollywood actors like Meryl Streep so clueless about how so many Americans other than movie stars live?

Not to mention that in the aftermath of Debbie Reynolds’ and Carrie Fisher’s death, the missus and I watched Meryl Streep give a very fine performance in Postcards from the Edge (foul language trigger warning). She plays a Hollywood star who is a drug addict and whose life is hardly stable? If you play that kind of character — and I imagine Hollywood has more people like this than among the rest of the millionaire demographic — do you really get on a soapbox and instruct the rest of the country about how insensitive and vicious regular Americans are (with a straight face)? Don’t you perhaps remember that Hollywood types have their own clay feet (even if outfitted in Prada)?

One last anomaly. Meryl Streep has far more in common with Donald Trump than Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz. Streep and Trump are both loaded, live lives becoming the rich and famous, cultivate celebrity, and are not overly concerned about abortion, gays, or sex outside marriage. Trump is one of Streep’s tribe.

And now the press can see how hollow and shallow Trump’s way of life is:

Trump understands one thing. In business, on TV and in conducting a presidential campaign, all that matters is making the news. He was famous and infamous, but most of all he was a media tsunami. He was not to be avoided. Fame is Donald Trump’s drug of choice. Being famous gives a person an automatic market value, a faux-virtue that comes from virtual supremacy.

Didn’t they understand that when Katy Perry and Beyonce were headlining for either Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton?

You Don’t Need an Education to be Outraged

Molly Worthen wrote a good piece at the New York Times about the way that conservatives take ideas seriously (and by implication, liberals not so much):

The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Liberals, however, can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do. These are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

One reason that liberals and progressives don’t study the past or its leading voices is that so many of the authors fail so quickly on the left’s moral grid of identity righteousness/victimhood (race, class, gender, sexual orientation). If John Stuart Mill was on the wrong side of women’s liberation or Immanuel Kant wasn’t a proponent of civil rights for blacks — a bit anachronistic, mind you — then what could they possibly teach about the plight of trannies in search of a public bathroom? It worked the same way in the world of mainline churches. Who reads Henry Sloane Coffin, William Adams Brown or their evangelical enablers like Robert Speer? These modernists or doctrinal indifferentists were on the cutting edge of reducing the conservative orientation of the PCUSA. But by the 1960s when sex, Civil Rights, and Vietnam were the topics of debate, the old contests of the 1920s had no value.

In point of fact, activism needs no serious reflection if you listen to interviews with contemporary Ivy League students like this. Sure, the Princeton University editor is respectful and intelligent in some respects. But he has no clue about the impropriety of going to college to learn while also saying that faculty need to be re-educated about race and safe spaces. If this student is representative, today’s college students, the really smart ones, can’t tell the difference between being policed in Ferguson, MO or by campus police at Princeton University. Heck, they even think that the oppression African-Americans have confronted historically is on a par with what women, gays, and trannies face.

Meanwhile, the therapeutic quality of contemporary activism should never be discounted. The idea of not hurting students’ sense of empowerment is prominent in discussions of critical race theory like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s in Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex. Where that leads was the subject of Judith Shulevitz’s New York Times piece on safe spaces discussed here.

With all the smart people running the world for the last 8 years, you might think that colleges and universities would themselves provide the sort of intellectual training for which Worthen calls. Why do you need supplemental education when you are in a four-year accredited and, in some cases, prestigious university? The reason is that universities, even the good ones, treat students like this:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Imagine that: a good novel, historical investigation, and even philosophical deliberation might lift a person out of their own set of ideas and consider those of other people. They might even experience empathy with hillbillies (or they can simply deconstruct and carry on impervious to others).

Yes, there are lots of good faculty, serious students, and great classes across the board in U.S. colleges and universities. But the limits of smarts are well on display. Can U.S. higher education self-correct? Can the Vatican? You do the math and set the odds.

You Cannot Argue with This

Nor does it redound to the great intellectual tradition.

It is Father Dwight’s conversion narrative about the Immaculate Conception. He concedes that it is not an ancient dogma and that Thomas Aquinas “didn’t believe it.” But when an overweight priest told him, “We believe in the Immaculate Conception because the pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken,” Longenecker knew his interlocutor was right.

Still, he needed to own the Immaculate Conception. Here is how he had a really, really personal relationship with Jesus:

I was traveling in Normandy in France. I wandered into Bayeaux Cathedral. As in most of the medieval cathedrals there were lots of little side chapels. I was pretty much the only person in the cathedral. I stopped in a little chapel and saw the finger bone of St Thérèse who had lived just down the road in Lisieux.

Then I stopped in another chapel and knelt to pray. I don’t know what I prayed — maybe the Rosary. I don’t know. I was caught up in prayer for some time. Then I walked out of the cathedral and the morning sun was bright and clear in the plaza outside, and I suddenly realized that I believed in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Then I also remembered who the little chapel was dedicated to in which I was praying. It was St. Bernadette — to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared and confided, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

I no longer simply understood the dogma and the logic of it, but I saw the beauty of it and the wonder of the simple girl of Nazareth becoming the second Eve. As I realized I believed in the Immaculate Conception I also suddenly became more aware, in a deeper way — a way very difficult to articulate — of the reality and historical concreteness of the incarnation itself.

Suddenly Jesus Christ — Son of God and Son of Mary — was more real than he ever was before, and I also grasped why the Church requires this belief and does not allow it to remain a pious option.

It is because the Church wants us, through the Marian dogmas, to be introduced to Christ in a more real and powerful way.

Could this be the explanation for evangelical conversions to Rome? Too little doctrine, too much experience?

Root Root Root for the Home Team

A return to Called to Communion led me to a review of Rodney Stark’s book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. Surprise, surprise, Casey Chalk finds the book valuable (even if his encouragement leans more heavily on faith than reason):

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.

Have historians engaged in excess? Sure. But pointing that out does not right the wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic Church or its followers. As Eric Smith pointed out in his blog post/review, apologists like Chalk still have some ‘splainin’ to do:

Stark’s argument in many of them can be summarized as “it wasn’t as bad as you think.” Chapter 4: The dark ages weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 5: The Crusades weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 6: The Inquisition wasn’t as bad as you think. Chapter 7: The church’s anti-science views weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 8: Slavery wasn’t as bad as you think. Even when Stark has good points to make (“dark ages” is a misleading and unhelpful category, the Inquisition wasn’t insatiably bloodthirsty always and everywhere, and the church opposed slavery at many points), the reader finds himself disagreeing with Stark, because of the questionable assumptions and poor evidence he brings to the table. He starts most chapters by building a straw man. He presents what he imagines is commonly held knowledge, and then proceeds to poke holes in the poor scarecrow. This is a compelling literary device, since it draws the reader into Stark’s indignation. “Everyone believes that the Catholic church loves slavery!” (I’m paraphrasing). “But it turns out that the Catholic church doesn’t love slavery! This is satisfying as an organizational structure, but it leaves out and excuses many instances in which the church was complicit, was turning the other way, was not keeping its hands clean. It obscures the actions of a few rogue individuals, which Stark almost always concedes while claiming that they didn’t stand for “official” church policy. This structure makes Stark read like an apologist for colonialism, slavery, violence, and ignorance–things I doubt he would claim for himself. And ultimately this book makes Stark read like an apologist for conservatism broadly construed, since somehow, the true enemy almost always seems to turn out to be liberals. (And Voltaire…Stark hates Voltaire). Examples of questionable claims could be multiplied from later chapters–Protestantism is most properly characterized by Max Weber’s work on capitalism, witches who were actually practicing magic probably had it coming, and the church was an innocent victim of the French Revolution–but this review is already too long.

All of which goes to the frequent claim made on behalf of Roman Catholicism by the apologists. It’s the oldest, most historic, church that Jesus founded. History is good! But when historical inquiry reveals aspects of church life less wholesome, then it’s the bias of historians. Is that anti-intellectual, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Protestant, anti-anti-Catholic? Whichever anti it is, it’s just as much a bias as anti-Catholicism is made out to be.

One way around the problem of church errors is to chalk them up to the limits of time and place. Did Roman Catholic officials treat Jews well in the thirteenth century? Not really, but who did? Given the possibilities of human imagination available at the time, to expect 13th-century Roman Catholics to think like moderns is anachronistic. They were creatures of their context and hard pressed to do any better.

But there’s the rub for the proponents of papal audacity. Isn’t the teaching of the magisterium about papal authority as much the creation of historical circumstance — the need for the Bishop of Rome to assert autonomy against European kings, or the collusion of European princes with the Bishop of Rome to outmaneuver a political rival — as the Fourth Lateran Council’s directives about Jews?

All the help of Aristotle’s logic or Aquinas’s scholasticism will not free Bryan and the Jasons from that riddle.

Benjamin Corey Finds His Inner Thomas Jefferson

John Piper has his problems, but Corey’s objections to the retired pastor’s calculation of sin and punishment show he’s only been reading the Jefferson Bible, the one that cut out all the troubling bits:

Piper reminds me of something I’ve long believed: the Calvinist doctrine of God is far closer to Islam than Christianity. In a Christian doctrine of God, God is restrained in what he can do– for example, he cannot lie, he cannot deny himself, etc. However, Islamic theology, it is believed Allah can do “whatever he wills” which is the same position of Calvinism– God can do whatever God wants, and we have no right to question the morality of any of these actions.

But this isn’t the traditional position of Christianity, and this is where Calvinism steps outside of our tradition and becomes closer to other religions.

Piper’s answer, as he has done on other questions such as genocide of entire people groups, reveals a fundamental flaw in Calvinism: that an all-loving God perfectly revealed in the life and character of Jesus can be the author of acts that would be unspeakably evil if done by any other agent who possessed morality and a conscience.

Obviously, Corey has not read the Old Testament:

And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3 ESV)

But maybe Corey is one of those New Testament Christians. So I wonder what he thinks when he reads Jesus saying this?

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. . . .

“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. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:16-22, 34-39 ESV)

Or does Corey think Jesus was John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers?

Rod Dreher noted recently the strange world of evangelical female celebrity and piety. In light Glennon Doyle Melton’s (whoever she is) decision to leave her husband of 14 years for a female soccer star, Dreher wondered what goes on among born-again women. According to the Chicago Tribune, Melton told her followers:

“My loves, here is the good news,” she writes. “You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! … That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are.”

To which Dreher responded:

You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! What theological codswallop. And yet, this kind of thing is celebrated by a lot of younger Evangelicals. Not even an attempt to base this in theological convictions; only self-worship.

Is this a female thing, this approach to mass Christianity, or is it general to our Christian pop culture today? Asking seriously.

Rod, read Corey. It’s an evangelical thing. Evangelicalism: blow it up.

The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

Last Minute Election Advice

Since chances for Congress electing POTUS are non-existent (for now), Old Lifers may want to take this counsel to the polls tomorrow:

Here’s the most shocking illustration of the GOP’s Supreme Court problem: in the 19 years between Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Republicans lost only one presidential race. The Court that decided Casey in 1992 included two Bush I appointees (Clarence Thomas and David Souter) and four Reagan appointees (William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Kennedy), in addition to a Ford appointee (John Paul Stevens) and a Nixon appointee (Harry Blackmun). Only one justice had been appointed by a Democrat, and that was Byron White, who’d dissented from Roe and supported overturning it.

And yet the Court upheld a constitutional right to abortion, though Roe’s seven-vote consensus for such a right was whittled down to five and several restrictions were also upheld. Three of the justices who helped keep Roe alive were consistent liberals during their time on the Court despite having been appointed by Republicans.