Spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church

Massimo Faggioli complains about Americanism among U.S. Roman Catholics (for more on why this seems odd, see this):

As the Republican Party has been radicalized in the past decade, so have more than a few bishops. During the same period, some prominent conservative intellectuals have embraced Catholicism for reasons that seem purely political. This is not a new phenomenon. It has much in common with Charles Maurras’ Action Française, a nationalist movement condemned by Pius XI in 1926. Maurras had no time for the Gospel but saw Catholicism as a useful tool for the creation of an antidemocratic social order. The new enthusiasm for an older version of Catholicism on the part of conservative intellectuals with no interest in theology also mirrors the rise of Ultramontanism in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Jesuit John O’Malley’s latest book on the theological movements that set the stage for Vatican I helps us see the many similarities between nineteenth-century Ultramontanism and early-twenty-first-century traditionalist Catholic Americanism. In both movements, the game is played mostly by journalists and other lay intellectuals whose understanding of the church is essentially political rather than spiritual.

Notice that Faggioli concedes that we have at least a “newer” version that contrasts with an “older” version of Roman Catholicism. That puts some dent in the idea that Rome is the church Jesus founded.

Even more curious is the how short the life of the newer Roman Catholicism is. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the church was traditionalist and conservative, opposed in most cases to political and intellectual developments in the modern world. Vatican 2 opened up the church’s windows to — wait for it — modernity. For a brief time, between John XXII and John Paul I — 1959 to 1978 — the church experienced a modern Roman Catholicism, one that was more open, gracious, tolerant, forgiving (at least that is how some defenders of Vatican 2 put it). Then came the conservative crack down first with John Paul II and then his successor, Benedict XVI, which ran from 1978 to 2014, a much longer run than the liberal, open phase of “newer” Roman Catholicism. Only since 2014 has the “newer” version re-emerged as the official Roman Catholicism.

That means that, if you add 19 years to 5 years, only for 24 years has “newer” Roman Catholicism been available since the close of the Council of Trent (1563).

If I were in Faggioli’s shoes, or a defender of Pope Francis, I would not throw around words like “new” and “old.” If tradition matters to Roman Catholics, Faggioli’s version of Roman Catholicism has less antiquity than Pentecostalism.

As for Rome’s spiritual as opposed to its political character, why does Pope Francis write encyclicals about markets and the environment instead of Mary and the stations of the cross?

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Is Americanism a Superstition?

Why are some Roman Catholics so willing to look at the United States as the basement of human flourishing but then turn a blind eye to the variety of cults that surround local saints and their relics? A couple years ago, a battle was raging between two saints — St. Muerte vs. St. Jude Thaddeus — that had broad support among the people (think populism):

The Vatican takes a far less rosy view of the cult, which it sees as a deeply threatening presence in the country with the world’s second-largest Catholic population. In 2013, a senior church official said worshiping Santa Muerte was a “degeneration of religion.” Three Catholic bishops in the United States also denounced the folk saint in February.

Yet despite the church’s stance, Santa Muerte is currently the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas, according to Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

“The fact that Santa Muerte is the nonjudgmental folk saint who accepts everybody regardless of their station in life, regardless of their social class and regardless of their skin color is really appealing in a country like Mexico, where the gaps between rich and poor are some of the greatest in the world,” he said.

According to Chesnut, Mexico City’s St. Hippolytus Church responded to the explosive growth of the monthly Santa Muerte rosary service in the capital by organizing a special Mass in honor of St. Jude Thaddeus on the 28th of each month. These monthly celebrations drew impressive crowds and quickly expanded to other parts of the country.

“St. Jude Thaddeus is the only Catholic saint in the world who now basically has a monthly feast day,” Chesnut said.

Typically depicted in a green cloak with a flame above his head and a wooden club in his hand, St. Jude Thaddeus was one of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles.

Much like Santa Muerte, the canonized saint’s popularity is tied to his reputation as a powerful miracle worker. For centuries, believers were wary of invoking him because of the similarity between his name and that of Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer. Yet according to tradition, the forgotten saint became a powerful intermediary, eager to assist those in need.

“Word has spread that St. Jude can help you with your most pressing problems,” said Guadalajara-based priest Fr. Juan Carlos López. “Because of that, the devotion has grown.”

Yet some church officials have expressed concern about the saint’s popularity with criminals.

“There is a dark, negative side to all of this,” said Fr. José de Jesus Aguilar, director of the radio and television service for the Mexico City Archdiocese. “St. Jude Thaddeus has also become the patron of thieves, drug traffickers and those who are doing evil. This is a contradiction. Saints cannot support those who are doing wrong.”

Obviously, a Protestant isn’t going to help Romans sort this out — way above my pay grade, though I could advise that simply going with the sainthood of all believers would cut down on the hierarchy of Christians (not populist). Also, eliminating the cult of saints rids the church of that difficult decision of distinguishing — get this — good saints from bad ones.

What is curious, though, is how church officials and Roman Catholic intellectuals have no trouble seeing the wickedness of Lockean liberalism, free market capitalism, global warming, and nationalism (in almost all forms). Even more startling is how some of these same people are willing to condemn or question the bona fides of Roman Catholics who defend the benefits of modern political and economic arrangements.

Leo Ribuffo said it best way back in 2004:

In the 19th century James Cardinal Gibbons tried to comfort Protestant America with the notion that the doctrine of papal infallibility was no more mysterious than the Supreme Court serving as the final interpreter of the Constitution. Perhaps so, but the Catholic Supreme Court, so to speak, resides in Rome rather than Washington and thus is less responsive to American opinions. Probably papal misunderstanding of the United States has been no worse than that of most European heads of government. This is not a very high standard, however. On the contrary, the papacy has often seemed to reflect European clichés about American hyperpower, mindless materialism, and a confusion of freedom with license. Certainly the Vatican seems more likely to censure a characteristic American religious syncretism—of Catholicism and democracy—than Third World religious adaptations in which Catholicism merges with voodoo or animism.

The Reformation Didn’t Work Out So Well

Like the Counter-Reformation did?

Give Casey Chalk credit. He used his conversion from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism to land a writing gig that takes him regularly to The American Conservative, Crisis, and other outlets. (He hasn’t posted at Called to Communion for two years.) Was this the career for which Jason Stellman was hoping? What some converts don’t seem to understand, which Chalk does, is that debating theology is not nearly as appealing as talking about Western civilization and societal decay. The conservative intellectual world is populated with lots of Roman Catholics who are eager to hear about the defense of the West. Chalk made that connection.

But.

The problem is that the history that converts tell, which typically sees all the flaws of modernity as bi-products of the Reformation, ignores how poorly the church to which they converted is faring.

Here’s what Chalk recently wrote about Geneva (the city):

a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.

At least Chalk concedes that Geneva “was once a spiritually vibrant city.” There may still be hope that Protestants are saved.

The question remains, though, why when Roman Catholics control an institution that may be much more manageable than a city, they have as much trouble as the Reformed church in Geneva did. Two professors at Villanova recently complained to readers of the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall — but we can’t get one in Texas!):

Last fall we were notified by the Villanova administration that new “diversity and inclusion” questions would be added to the course and teaching evaluations that students fill out each semester. In addition to the standard questions about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction, students are now being asked heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated “cultural awareness” or created an “environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”

… For many decades, Villanova’s mission as a Catholic university has been to initiate students into the life of the mind, encouraging them to seek the good, the true and the beautiful even as they are challenged beyond our walls to pursue justice and the common good in the service of “charity in truth.” The adoption of the new dogma of mandatory “diversity and inclusion” places that entire undertaking in danger. As professors dedicated to liberal education, we consider it essential to challenge our students to subject their ideas as well as the predominant opinions of our time to critical examination—however difficult and uncomfortable this may be. We urge our own university as well as other liberal-arts institutions to reject such ideological policing and recommit themselves to the principles of liberal education.

In which case, Roman Catholicism is no more a fix for modernity than Protestantism. What may matter is what you believe about Jesus. That would require Chalk to go back to Called to Communion. But who wants to read about that?

The Spirituality of the University

Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of University of Notre Dame, in a 1966 reply to criticisms for making academic excellence a goal of Roman Catholic universities:

There is certainly an enormously greater interest in social action than there was in the past. And I would say that this is not entirely a good thing. It leads to too much of a concern for action at a time when we should be laying the intellectual foundation on which this action is going to be effective. . . . It doesn’t help in the long run, I think, if students are distracted from what they can do only during their college years. (quoted in Mark Massa, Catholics and American Culture, 214)

Sexual Hangups, Reformed or Roman Catholic

Where would you be without “Calvinism” to bail you out? Michael Sean Winters blames Reformed Protestantism for U.S. Roman Catholics’ obsession with sex:

The focus on sexuality as the key indicator of Christian identity has always been one of the odd and remarkable hallmarks of Catholicism in America. Catholic cultures — Italy, Spain, France — are not known for any puritanical dispositions regarding human sexuality. But, in America, the ambient Calvinism of the religious culture combined with the Jansenistic impulses of Irish Catholicism to make a concern for sexual purity an obsession. The three Democrats discussing their faith are right to insist that any fair reading of the Gospels reveals that the Lord Jesus spent far more time urging his disciples to be generous to the poor, welcoming to the stranger, and treat people with dignity than he did discussing any sexual issues.

This is rich coming from a member of a communion which makes a common union (marriage) a sacrament, has authoritative teaching that minutely regulates legitimate sex, requires ordained officers to live celibate lives, and has bishops who need to cover up for priests who do not practice what the church preaches (actually only homilies).

The really rich aspect of Winter’s gripe with Calvinism’s mores is that Rome’s double-mindedness about sex goes way, way back, as Charlotte Allen explains:

In Peter Damian’s definition—a common one during the Middle Ages—the sin of “sodomy” encompassed “four classes of unnatural vice,” each described by him with startling explicitness and deemed more serious than the last, starting with masturbation and culminating with anal intercourse, the worst offense of all. All were forms of male homosexual activity (the other two consisted of the carnal touching of others’ private parts and intercourse between the thighs of someone of one’s own sex). Peter Damian was outraged, particularly because the superiors of clerics who committed such sins were, in effect, giving them a pass: exacting penances for monks and priests found to have committed the first three offenses but expelling from holy orders only those who had engaged in the fourth, anal intercourse.

Some of the offenders, Peter ­Damian said, had even chosen fellow homosexual offenders as their confessors so as to obtain slap-on-the-wrist treatment. “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.” He reserved his harshest condemnation for bishops who abused their underlings by engaging in homosexual acts with them: “What a vile deed, deserving a flood of bitter tears! If they who approve of these evildoers deserve to die, what condign punishment can be imagined for those who commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons?” Damian was not without pity for those sinners, however, begging them to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and reform their ways, but he asked Leo to expel from holy orders those who had committed any of the four categories of sodomy.

Scholars have debated whether homosexual activity among clerics was quite such a widespread “festering disease” during the eleventh century. It is indisputable, however, that the tenth and eleventh centuries were the most scandal-plagued that the Western Church had endured, and that the moral and sexual integrity of the clergy was at the heart of the issue. Hildebrand, the Tuscan Benedictine monk who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, had to institute the “­Gregorian Reform” movement attacking simony (the buying and selling of holy offices), lay investiture (the control of bishoprics by powerful secular lords), and gross violations of the Western Church’s longtime requirement of priestly celibacy. That rule had been in place since at least the early fourth century, but by the eleventh, priests and even bishops all over Western Europe were living openly with wives and children, often passing down their churches by inheritance to their priest-sons. Some took concubines.

How does that saying go? Those in glass houses dot dot dot

A Troubling Perspective on The Gospel Coalition (but what a lot of people have been saying)

Dane Ortland is very positive on the recent Gospel Coalition conference, especially his dad:

Really appreciated Matt Boswell’s leadership of the singing. That was one of my favorite things about the event. Don Carson on John 11 was rich indeed. Tim Keller on the new birth: typically insightful. Paul Tripp on suffering: deep wisdom. The best thing I heard all week was my dad’s talk ‘Pastor, Your Church Can Become Healthy Again.’ I wish everyone at the conference could have heard it. Searching, deepening, eye-opening, emboldening.

Scorecard results:

Carson – rich
Keller – typical
Tripp – deep
Ortland – bold

Then this:

I wonder what all of us who support TGC can do to consciously work against this great enterprise being quietly taken down by the flesh. Human nature being what it is, it seems to me virtually inevitable that an event such as this, with well-known speakers, and a big crowd, and a green room, and preachers quickly and quietly escorted around, provides a unique venue for venting the flesh, for schmoozing, for preening and parading–unless we deliberately fight against it. Left in neutral, we will slide toward worldliness; church history, the Bible, and honest self-knowledge all confirm this, unpleasant as the thought is.

Green room for celebrity preachers? Not standing in line with the hordes for donuts? Preening and parading? Sounds like the slide is already happening.

Hint: it has a lot to do with celebrity.

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

Was Calvin’s Return to Geneva in 1541 a Miracle?

How much do Protestants associate the greatest hits of their churches’ history with anything like what Roman Catholics sometimes teach and believe about the House of Loreto. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Since the fifteenth century, and possibly even earlier, the “Holy House” of Loreto has been numbered among the most famous shrines of Italy. Loreto is a small town a few miles south of Ancona and near the sea. … this building is honoured by Christians as the veritable cottage at Nazareth in which the Holy Family lived, and the Word became incarnate. … Angels conveyed this House from Palestine to the town Tersato in Illyria in the year of salvation 1291 in the pontificate of Nicholas IV. Three years later, in the beginning of the pontificate of Boniface VIII, it was carried again by the ministry of angels and placed in a wood near this hill, in the vicinity of Recanati, in the March of Ancona; where having changed its station thrice in the course of a year, at length, by the will of God, it took up its permanent position on this spot [six] hundred years ago. Ever since that time, both the extraordinary nature of the event having called forth the admiring wonder of the neighbouring people and the fame of the miracles wrought in this sanctuary having spread far and wide, this Holy House, whose walls do not rest on any foundation and yet remain solid and uninjured after so many centuries, has been held in reverence by all nations.”

Got that? The house where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth is now in Italy. No construction company performed the move. No, angels did. They moved the house not once but three — COUNT ‘EM THREE!! — times (or is it four?).

Are these miracles merely the outworking of local traditions and pious cults in southern Italy? No. Popes have approved these stories as true.

More than forty-seven popes have in various ways rendered honour to the shrine, and an immense number of Bulls and Briefs proclaim without qualification the identity of the Santa Casa di Loreto with the Holy House of Nazareth. As lately as 1894 Leo XIII, in a Brief conceding various spiritual favours for the sixth centenary of the translation of the Santa Casa to Loreto, summed up its history in these words: “The happy House of Nazareth is justly regarded and honoured as one of the most sacred monuments of the Christian Faith; and this is made clear by the many diplomas and acts, gifts and privileges accorded by Our predecessors. No sooner was it, as the annals of the Church bear witness, miraculously translated to Italy and exposed to the veneration of the faithful on the hills of Loreto than it drew to itself the fervent devotion and pious aspiration of all, and as the ages rolled on, it maintained this devotion ever ardent.”

Then the Catholic Encyclopedia’s authors go on to list the reasons for the authenticity of these miracles:

(1) The reiterated approval of the tradition by many different popes from Julius II in 1511 down to the present day. This approval was emphasized liturgically by an insertion in the Roman Martyrologium in 1669 and the concession of a proper Office and Mass in 1699, and it has been ratified by the deep veneration paid to the shrine by such holy men as St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and many other servants of God.

(2) Loreto has been for centuries the scene of numerous miraculous cures. Even the skeptical Montaigne in 1582 professed himself a believer in the reality of these (Waters, “Journal of Montaigne’s Travels”, II, 197-207).

(3) The stone on which the original walls of the Santa Casa are built and the mortar used in their construction are not such as are known in the neighbourhood of Loreto. But both stone and mortar are, it is alleged, chemically identical with the materials most commonly found in Nazareth.

(4) The Santa Casa does not rest and has never rested upon foundations sunk into the earth where it now stands. The point was formally investigated in 1751 under Benedict XIV. What was then found is therefore fully in accord with the tradition of a building transferred bodily from some more primitive site.

To their credit, the authors also acknowledge that this historical whopper of a story has not held up to scrutiny even from Roman Catholic historians:

It must be acknowledged, however, that recent historical criticism has shown that in other directions the Lauretan tradition is beset with difficulties of the gravest kind. These have been skilfully presented in the much-discussed work of Canon Chevalier, “Notre Dame de Lorette” (Paris, 1906). …The general contention of the work may be summarized under five heads: (1) From the accounts left by pilgrims and others it appears that before the time of the first translation (1291) there was no little cottage venerated at Nazareth which could correspond in any satisfactory way with the present Santa Casa at Loreto. … (2) Oriental chronicles and similar accounts of pilgrims are absolutely silent as to any change which took place in 1291. There is no word of the disappearance at Nazareth of a shrine formerly held in veneration there. … (3) There are charters and other contemporary documents which prove that a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin already existed at Loreto in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that is to say, before the epoch of the supposed translation. (4) When we eliminate certain documents commonly appealed to as early testimonies to the tradition, but demonstrably spurious, we find that no writer can be shown to have heard of the miraculous translation of the Holy House before 1472, i.e., 180 years after the event is supposed to have taken place. … (5) If the papal confirmations of the Loreto tradition are more closely scrutinized it will be perceived that not only are they relatively late (the first Bull mentioning the translation is that of Julius II in 1507), but that they are at first very guarded in expression, for Julius introduces the clause “ut pie creditur et fama est”, while they are obviously dependent upon the extravagant leaflet compiled about 1472 by Teramano.

It is clearly impossible to review here at any length the discussions to which Canon Chevalier’s book has given rise….the balance of recent Catholic opinion, as represented by the more learned Catholic periodicals, is strongly in his favour.

And yet, over one hundred years later, popes still use the site of the house to inspire the faithful and stories from journalists include explanations like this:

The Basilica of the Holy House in Loreto contains the walls of what tradition holds to be the house in which the Virgin Mary lived when the Angel Gabriel announced that she was to give birth to Jesus.

Which of course raises several questions:

1) Isn’t belief in the virgin birth hard enough? Why add a unit of angels with “Wide Load” banners attached below their wings?

2) If Popes can lead the laity astray on historical details like this, are they all that trustworthy on wayward priests, at the low end, or on what Jesus said (by way of oral tradition), at the high end?

3) But let’s not blame the hierarchy entirely. Why are Roman Catholic laity so willing to go along with such myths, legends, and fabrications?

Instances like this make plausible lines like the following from Lyman Beecher, a (trigger warning) New School Presbyterian who was not sure how Roman Catholics would do in a republic:

If [Roman Catholics] could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thralldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds. If the pope and potentates of Europe held no dominion over ecclesiastics here, we might trust to time and circumstances to mitigate their ascendance and produce assimilation. But for conscience sake and patronage, the are dependent on the powers that be across the deep, by whom they are sustained and nurtured; and receive and organize all who come, and retain all who are born, while by argument, and a Catholic education, they beguile the children of credulous unsuspecting protestants into their own communion. (Lyman Beecher, Plea for the West, 1834)

So You Don’t like Cultural Marxism, How Does Social Gospel Work Then?

Carl Trueman is not convinced that #woke Christians are cultural Marxists. That is to give them too much credit:

Christians enamored with social transformation and who bristle at any notion that the gospel is more to do with things above than things below, would do well to ask whether they’re allowing the tastes of this culture-is-always-political world to intrude inappropriately on their own theology. To deny the pre-political, to focus on institutions, to condemn anyone whose church isn’t constantly addressing the latest fad of the 24-hour news cycle as somehow sinning—that is to mimic the world’s values, the world’s practices, and the world’s cheap outrage. In fact, calling that kind of behavior cultural Marxism is to flatter it far too highly, implying a sophistication that half-baked cheap shots simply do not possess.

I’m not so sure that some of the current “social” ministry among social justice Christians is distinct from cultural Marxism. After all, Trueman’s essay concedes that Marx has won:

We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.

Heck, cultural Marxism may be simply the air we breath, even another lever in the systemic powers that oppress, a force on the order of climate change. Who can withstand that great intellectual tsunami?

But if we must abandon the charge of cultural Marxism, that’s fine. Another is just as handy and even more accurate. It is the Social Gospel. Washington Gladden was the granddaddy of social ministry and he wrote many books and essays about the Social Gospel.

Does this sound familiar?

Every department of human life – the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations – will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (Applied Christianity 1894)

If only Gladden had used the adverb, gospelly.

Historians’ Lanes and When to Change Them

John Fea declares he is not going to believe William Barr’s evaluation of the Mueller report until he sees it for himself. Why? Because John is a historian:

Why? Because Barr’s letter is a secondary source. It is his own interpretation of the complete Mueller report. I have no idea if Barr’s summary is accurate until I read the entire Mueller’s entire report. This is how historians work. We go to the source. (Of course, future historians will also need to examine Mueller’s sources as well).

At this point, we know that Barr wrote the letter. One of the first things historians do when they read a document is “source” it. In other words, we take into consideration the author of the document.

We know, for example, that Barr is the Attorney General of the United States. This gives him some degree of authority. On the other hand, Barr is a Donald Trump appointee. This should also factor-in to how we interpret the document.

Barr quotes Mueller’s report in the document, but we do not know the larger context from which he pulled the quotes. (For example, some outlets are reporting that Barr did not quote an entire sentence from the Mueller report). This is just like when pseudo-historians like David Barton quote John Adams out of context and conclude that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Again, until I can read the document and do my best to interpret for myself (perhaps with the help of the writings of experts) I do not trust it. Check back with me later.

The problem here is that Fea’s identity does not go all the way down. He regularly links to journalists‘ and op-ed writers’ pieces without ever checking the sources that these other writers used. In which case, using the Barr summary to teach a lesson about the ways historians work seems like a way to avoid revealing political loyalty.

Other times, John has seemed to do history the way moralizers moralize. That was particularly the case in a recent post by Marie Griffith about the responsibilities of scholars at a university department dedicated to the study (not advocacy) of religion and politics:

At Religion & Politics, we have repeatedly pointed out that white supremacist and anti-Muslim ideologies are being energized by the speech and actions of Trump, along with the highest levels of his administration. It is not simply that Trump is hateful or seems worrisomely unwell, as many commentators have pointed out; it’s that the form of hatred he emboldens is deadly. . . .

Observers who deplore the violence will perhaps do small but important things, like donate money to fundraising efforts for the victims’ families or vow to help Muslims in their local communities feel safe. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. Having been through things like this so many times before, many despair that anything will change.

Pursuing big goals, however, is a marathon, not a sprint; and there will be no finish line in the race to end hate in the world. If the long history of clashes, collusions, and other interactions between religion and politics teaches us anything, it’s that. Once more, we grieve; once more, we resolve to do what we can—all that we can—to quell the fires of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim bigotry that burn ferociously today.

Those are undoubtedly worthwhile goals but they sound more like the work of a humanitarian NGO than the task of the university.

Let the historical profession be historical.