The United States of Fear

I think I have the way to form a more perfect union in this place we call the USA. It is to recognize that all Americans share a sense of fear. Anxiety is what unites us in the U.S. Consider the following.

Andrew Sullivan writes respectfully about reactionary conservatism and even grants its plausibility:

Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.

If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.

And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.

Notice too that conservatives are not the only ones who are very, very afraid. It’s also feminist philosophers. But even they can’t claim privilege for their phobia:

I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.

The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.

The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.

But the statement does clarify what the authors believe has caused the harm: “Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

And here I thought we were supposed to be afraid of Trump. Imagine the harm a POTUS can do. But in the United States of Fear, an academic paper poses a threat capable of generating the kind of fear that many endure with our incautious and vicious president.

The question is whether those with fears can recognize fear as a basis for personal identity. Can we go from the specific to the general and recognize fear is something that every American experiences? If so, then we may finally have a common point of reference for a shared existence. We are united in fear.

The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

The piece on Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option in the New Yorker was remarkable on several levels. It was generally positive, respectful, and long. This was the case despite Dreher’s tendency to sound a tad hysterical about sexual irregularities and deviance. This quote by Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who has gone head to head with Rod over the years, was telling:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.”

Notice that Dreher, who is outspokenly anti-gay marriage, did not receive the chorus of criticism that Tim Keller did at Princeton Seminary even from such mainstream organs and figures as the New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan.

To be sure, the PCUSA is not the New Yorker, but at a time when the magazine has identified President Trump and his supporters as an alien force in national life, a fair piece about Dreher is not what readers would have expected.

So why does Dreher receive more acclaim than Keller? The reason could be that the former promotes a thick (as he understands it) Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that is chiefly reasonable and appeals to the mind. In other words, Dreher is appealing to a larger conception of Christianity that encompasses more of one’s identity than intellect while Keller is largely about defending the Apostles’ Creed (as he explained a while back in an interview at First Things) — or a Christian minimum. Rod is maximalist where Tim is a minimalist.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley picked up on this difference when she contrasted Dreher and Keller:

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

That fear of homogeneity and retreat also explains, by the way, while Keller is somewhat uncomfortable with going all in on Presbyterianism (from his interview at First Things):

I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

For Keller, apparently, Christianity resists taking overly specific and particular forms (think ecclesiology, liturgy, even creed). His ministry can transcend different cultures and expressions of Christianity. That comes up short against those Christians that Schaeffer identifies as wanting a more than “business-as-usual” faith.

But the Allies at Gospel Coalition back Keller over Dreher when they say they want both a Christianity that is meaty and one that is mainstream:

The Benedict Option is named for Benedict of Nursia, a 4th century monk who launched a monastic movement that preserved Western civilization. Today, writers like Rod Dreher enjoin Christian​s​ to take similar steps to “develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith.”

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

But at a time when that post-war internationalist order is under serious strain (think Brexit, Scottish Independence, Trumpian nationalism), the appeal of a rational, enlightened Christianity may have hit a wall. What Christians seem to understand is that they need a faith little more “deep-down diving and mud upbringing,” that can withstand a social order that is not congenial to their religious convictions. It is a faith that bears more resemblance to the politics of identity than to United Statesist Christianity. This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w. It recognizes that the world is more hostile than previous generations supposed and that Christians need to be more intentional about their convictions.

Why someone living in New York City, the place that cultivated the boorish Donald Trump, doesn’t see that cities (from culture to economics) may be a problem for the practice of demanding Christianity is a real mystery.

The Virtue of Being Vindictive

Morning reading left me stunned with this observation about the way Americans understand recent terrorist acts:

When Muslim Americans commit acts of terrorism, we hold ISIS and Hezbollah and “radical Islam” accountable for their actions, even if they are mentally unstable, and even if there is no direct connection between them and the groups that inspired them. We call these terrorists “self-radicalized.” It is how we see Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013; and Omar Mateen, who went on a murderous rampage at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando last June; and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 86 people and injured 434 at a celebration in Nice on Bastille Day. They did not go to a terrorist training camp, or join an organized cell, or attend an anti-Western madrassa. They learned to hate from a network of web sites and magazines and videotapes. Their madrassa was the media….

[Robert] Dear became radicalized in precisely the same way. But because the media he listened to advocated war in the name of a Christian god, and argued for an ideology considered “conservative,” he is portrayed as no one’s responsibility. In fact, as I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies. The right-wing media didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear. They brought authority and detail to a world he was convinced was tormenting him. They were his shelter and his inspiration, his only real community.

The point of Amanda Robb’s piece, coincidental that it comes in New Republic’s issue on President Obama’s legacy, seems to be that right-wing media is evil (just like the party they support). The Planned Parenthood shooter received lots of ideas from radio preachers even more obscure than Jen Hatmaker:

In those days, thanks to the Fairness Doctrine, major broadcast outlets were forbidden from running partisan content without providing equal time to opposing views. But on shortwave channels, right-wing broadcasts were proliferating. Dear tuned in as often as possible. “That’s what turned me on to the conspiracies and the Bible prophecies,” he recalled. His favorites included Brother Stair, a Pentecostal minister who has predicted the end of the world; William Cooper, who preached that aids was a man-made disease; Pete Peters, whom the Anti-Defamation League has called a “leading anti-Jewish, anti-minority, and anti-gay propagandist”; and Texe Marrs, leader of the Power of Prophecy Ministries, who claimed that the federal government committed the Oklahoma City bombing and framed Timothy McVeigh.

Dear also became fixated on small magazines devoted to right-wing conspiracies. He spent hours at Barnes & Noble poring over magazines like The Prophecy Club, The Spotlight, and Paranoia, obsessing over their brand of crackpot theorizing: how the Robert Bork confirmation battle was connected to the JFK assassination, how the World Trade Organization ran a secret “Codex Alimentarius,” how the government operated a series of Deep Underground Military Bases, how it was planning an “American Hiroshima.”

But you know, the Fairness Doctrine paved the way for Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly’s John the Bapist:

Those in the right-wing media who traffic in hate and conspiracy theories are quick to deny that they should be held responsible for the consequences of their words. After Waco, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to predict that “the second violent American revolution” was imminent. Yet two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, he published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “Why I’m Not to Blame.” After running 29 shows attacking George Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer” and saying there was “a special place in hell” for him, Bill O’Reilly dismissed any accountability for inciting the doctor’s murder: “I reported extensively on Tiller and after he was assassinated by a man named Scott Roeder, some far-left loons blamed me.”

So, if we blame ISIS for random acts of mass murder, why not the right-wing media? Possibly because POTUS and the Department of Justice and mainstream media have warned us from jumping to conclusions about Islam or Islamic organizations.

Here’s how the New York Times handled the Boston bombers’ religion:

While Dzhokhar’s adjustment seemed to be going smoothly as he reached his teens, Tamerlan’s disillusionment with their adopted country grew as he got older, as did his influence on his younger brother.

Baudy Mazaev, a Chechen friend of the Tsarnaevs, said that Tamerlan and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, “had a deep religious epiphany” involving Islam a few years before the bombing.

Initially, according to friends, Tamerlan’s new religious devotion seemed to only irritate Dzhokhar: Mr. Mazaev said that on one of his visits to the Tsarnaev house during that period, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer. After that, Mr. Mazaev said, they began avoiding the apartment.

But the family’s relationship to Islam, and one another, evolved. In February 2011, roughly when the boys’ mother embraced Islam, she separated from her husband, Anzor, a tough man trained in the law in Russia who in Cambridge was reduced to fixing cars in a parking lot. The two divorced that September, and Anzor returned to Russia; his ex-wife followed later.

Tamerlan filled the void as head of the family’s American branch. On Twitter, Dzhokhar wrote that he missed his father. Days before his citizenship ceremony — on Sept. 11, 2012 — he expressed wonder at why more people did not realize that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center “was an inside job.”

Not exactly a slam dunk link to ISIS or Hezbollah.

What about this treatment of Omar Mateen?

Other hints of a disturbed mind continued to emerge. In 2013, G4S removed Mr. Mateen from his security post at the St. Lucie County Courthouse after he had made “inflammatory comments” about being involved somehow in terrorism. Though far-fetched and even contradictory — he claimed connections to Al Qaeda, the Sunni extremist group, and ties to its near opposite, the Shiite Hezbollah — his comments were troubling enough for the county sheriff’s office to notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The bureau’s subsequent inquiry was inconclusive.

The next year, Mr. Mateen again attracted federal scrutiny, after an acquaintance from his mosque, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, carried out a suicide bombing in Syria. According to F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, federal investigators concluded that Mr. Mateen knew the bomber only casually.

The mosque’s imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, insisted that Mr. Mateen had never heard teachings at the mosque that would have radicalized him. “There is nothing that he is hearing from me to do killing, to do bloodshed, to do anything, because we never talk like that,” the imam said.

But if you can link an attack on Planned Parenthood to the media that opposed President Obama, well, why not?

And this was an issue of New Republic that celebrated the President’s decency, centrism, and dignity. According to Andrew Sullivan:

People will see the sheer caliber of this man [President Obama]. The grace and poise with which he conducted himself in unbelievably difficult circumstances; the way he withstood abuse and disrespect with extraordinary calm and goodwill. He will in his post-presidency become a symbol, maybe somebody we need more than when he was president, to remind us of what it is to be dignified in public life. Especially if this hideous monster who’s succeeding him continues to despoil the public culture.

So why exactly did the editors include a piece so out of sync with the President’s virtues? Maybe because they only want the other side to be virtuous?

A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

Once upon a time Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic. Once before that time, Sullivan was a graduate student in political theory at Harvard. He was and still is a practicing Roman Catholic. He is also of English descent and gay. Those may be reasons why he spotted way back when he was a graduate student what many contemporary converts never seem to contemplate — namely, that being American and Roman Catholic are incompatible identities. The same goes for Reformed Protestants, though you’d never know about any tension between church and nation — unless the nation is blowing it — from the every-square-inchers, the neo-Confederates, or the God-and-country Calvinists who dominate mainline and sideline Presbyterian churches. But Roman Catholicism comes to the U.S. table with different bags and Sullivan understood why thirty years ago:

There was a moment on the pope’s recent visit to Chile that still lingers in the mind. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in Santiago, Rioting broke out within a stone’s throw of the altar. And John Paul II knelt to pray. Faces were turned toward him, looked up to him to take sides; and instead he proceeded to pray. The act was moving, but more important it was ambiguous. The pope’s presence alone was to measure the extent of his commitment.

Political explanations for the pope’s behavior—the advice of local bishops, his personal experience in Poland, the dangers of encouraging violence—have been offered, but they fail to capture the drama of what was really happening in Santiago. It would be better to ask why the pope was there at all. The answer is simple: the Second Vatican Council. That event, decades distant, contains the clue to the pope’s predicament. After over 20 years, the Council’s most enduring effect has been to have removed the possibility of a complete separation between the Church and the modern world
(a separation represented perhaps most clearly by the late 19th-century papacy). For the Vatican, a political engagement with the world, a compromising commitment, is in full swing. It was such an engagement that was articulated in Santiago, where the ironies implicit in living the apostolic life in the modern world were bluntly revealed.

The Second Vatican Council was aware of the risks of opening a dialogue with the modern world, though the text of its proceedings breathes an optimism now quaintly anachronistic. In its mass of documents issues were grasped with unnerving directness. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council was the first papal document addressed not merely to the faithful, but to “all men of good will,” He reached out even to the Communist world, by drawing a distinction between the systems of belief that it represented and the men and structures that enforced these beliefs, “Besides,” he continued, “who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?”

More significant, though less noticed, was the peace that the address made with liberalism. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out at the time. It rather easily laid to rest the long-standing confrontation between natural rights and natural law, by conflating the two. John XXIII both asserted the necessity For “freedom” and attempted to make it compatible with the moral strictures with which natural law constrained us. Catholics had a natural right to freedom, but they were not entitled to use that right for any ends they chose. Catholics were not “free” to accumulate wealth without
limit, nor to exploit, nor to commit adultery, nor indeed to commit any sin. Yet the admonishing rhetoric deliberately suggested that they were still “free” in a modern and politically charged sense of that word. It was, it is, an explosive mix.

These overtures made sense within the historicism of the documents, especially Pacem in Terris. It talked of a “new order” in which “the conviction that all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity has been generally accepted.” This was an order as inevitable as it was largely unsubstantiated in the text. It presented an opportunity for the Church to assist in the creation of a universal common good by which nations could address one another. A notion of progress had entered the spirit of the Church, bound up with particular political structures and ideas. And yet at the same time the Church was to maintain an independence from them. In subsequent years that independence proved rather paradoxical. . . .

. . . it is argument, not assertion, that is needed for the discussion inaugurated by the Vatican Council. That discussion can no longer be wished away. And that discussion will go nowhere fast unless it acknowledges the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the modern world. This Weigel, the happy synthesizer, does not do. By declaring natural law to be compatible with America, by making the solution so comprehensive and so simple, by articulating a theory that will banish all the complexities, Weigel misses something essential in the fate of the modern Church: its uncertainty. History has not provided the Church with a comfortably Hegelian purpose by which everything has been, or will be, resolved. It has instead presented faith with a moral challenge, with a choice that includes both good and evil. Far from showing the inevitable triumph of natural law, modernity has
seen the destruction of even the concepts that make natural law thinkable again. Weigel’s confidence misses the depth of this crisis, and its consequence for Christianity. Modernity leaves Christians with a challenge to gamble. We do not know whether alliance or attack is the safest option. But we do know that escape, or a cozy coincidence of philosophical and political opposites, is no longer possible.

Weigel’s book represents just such an escape from the dilemma that Hanson’s book describes. The escape is certainly coherent; but its coherence is its flaw, since it transforms the risk of faith into a safe bet. In so doing, it obscures the essence of the Christian calling: to act in radical doubt, in the knowledge that any action, even the best intended, can be a manifestation of evil. This is the risk for the Catholic Church in world politics. It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

National Cliches

President Obama did it again yesterday. The law professor with the most smarts in the nation’s capital (so some think) appealed to the masses by turning Tom Brady’s victory over the NFL into a case for labor unions. As Boomer Esiason pointed out this morning, the president has it all wrong. It was the NFL players union that got Brady into all the trouble with Roger Goodell by giving the commissioner almost complete power to arbitrate player misconduct.

That reminded me of how lame the president’s praise for the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage was. In another cliche that is unbecoming a man of some intelligence, the president used the all too simple ideal of equality to congratulate the court:

Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.

This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love.

So we needed gay marriage to vindicate equality? Why not also use gay marriage to end hunger, poverty, and war? Can’t an intelligent man do better than appeal to an ideal that makes some sense to almost every 3rd-grader, an ideal that also needs serious qualification? What about equality for Caitlyn Jenner? Why can’t she become a full woman without waiting a year and having to consult with psychological and medical professionals before having her private parts changed? Where’s the equality in that? Or what about the inequality of a widower father not being allowed to marry his daughter? No peace, no justice.

In point of fact, gay marriage was not conceived way back when by Andrew Sullivan as a way to break down another barrier of injustice and oppression. It was actually intended to be pro-family and help homosexuals walk on something like a straight and narrow path. First the pro-family part of Sullivan’s original argument:

Society has good reason to extend legal advantages to heterosexuals who choose the formal sanction of marriage over simply living together. They make a deeper commitment to one another and to society; in exchange, society extends certain benefits to them. Marriage provides an anchor, if an arbitrary and weak one, in the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone. It provides a mechanism for emotional stability, economic security, and the healthy rearing of the next generation. We rig the law in its favor not because we disparage all forms of relationship other than the nuclear family, but because we recognize that not to promote marriage would be to ask too much of human virtue. In the context of the weakened family’s effect upon the poor, it might also invite social disintegration. One of the worst products of the New Right’s “family values” campaign is that its extremism and hatred of diversity has disguised this more measured and more convincing case for the importance of the marital bond.

Next, the way that marriage restrains the excesses of gay life:

Gay marriage also places more responsibilities upon gays: It says for the first time that gay relationships are not better or worse than straight relationships, and that the same is expected of them. And it’s clear and dignified. There’s a legal benefit to a clear, common symbol of commitment. There’s also a personal benefit. One of the ironies of domestic partnership is that it’s not only more complicated than marriage, it’s more demanding, requiring an elaborate statement of intent to qualify. It amounts to a substantial invasion of privacy. Why, after all, should gays be required to prove commitment before they get married in a way we would never dream of asking of straights? . . .

If these arguments sound socially conservative, that’s no accident. It’s one of the richest ironies of our society’s blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical. But gay marriage is not a radical step. It avoids the mess of domestic partnership; it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. It’s also practical. Given the fact that we already allow legal gay relationships, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage these relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?

Sure, you may not buy Sullivan’s argument and I do not. But at least he is not using the grade-school rhetoric of equality and freedom. He actually is trying to say something about the value of the institution of marriage while also attempting to find a way that the constraints and responsibilities of marriage might domesticate homosexuals. That is too high a price to pay for Christians intent on preserving marriages and one-man and one-woman.

But at least it’s a heck of a lot more interesting an idea than saying that gay marriage is just one more step in the march of freedom and equality. Does the president actually believe that? Do his speech writers?

The New Republic Is Dead. . .

Long live the New New Republic.

I remember where I was when I heard that Mike Schmidt was retiring from playing third base for the Phillies. I was in the bedroom of our Wheaton, Illinois high rise apartment. I still remember also where I was when Phil Hendrie announced he was leaving the airwaves (only to return and then leave for podcasting). I was battling a nasty cold that turned into walking pneumonia from the comfort of the Mayflower Park Hotel in downtown Seattle. More recently, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Rob da Bank was leaving BBC 1 to be an irregular stand-in at the BBC 6 Mix.

So when the New Republic blew up a month or so ago, I again experienced that feeling of being deprived of one of those aspects of personal identity that had marked (all about) me since I started graduate school in Baltimore thirty years ago (when Omar Little was crawling around in diapers). Several bloggers have commented on the events that led long-time editors and staff to abandon the Ship New Republic. Among those comments were several reflections about how important the magazine had been in forming an intellectual outlook.

I first caught wind of the change from Michael Sean Winters who may be excessively self-referential:

The New Republic is dead, or at least it is now brain dead. Yesterday, editor Frank Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier resigned as the changes undertaken by owner and Facebook zillionaire Chris Hughes became so oppressively obnoxious, Foer and Wieseltier could no longer stay. Even as I write those words this morning, it is difficult to believe. Needless to say, this is also personal for me. Frank is a friend and Leon is a very good friend.

My indebtedness to Leon is enormous. In 1993, he approached me about writing a book review for him. I did not hold an academic position: I was the manager of the café at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café. But, I had gotten to know Leon over the years, he liked the way my mind worked, and he asked me to review a biography of Jose Maria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. It was my first real foray into publishing. Leon was not an easy editor, which is one of the reasons he is a great editor. He re-worked my draft from top-to-bottom, demanded more analysis here, less verbosity there, and the end result, much improved from his editing, made it into his pages. It was, of course, a thrill to be published in the pages of the venerable TNR. Walter Lippmann had helped start TNR! All the great liberal icons of the twentieth century had been published in its pages. How many of the writers we all turn to – Chait, Hertzberg, Kinsley, Cohn, Berkowitz, Scheiber, Judis, Wolfe – had gotten their start at TNR or been introduced to a wider audience in its pages. But, the real thrill was not being associated with such luminaries. The real thrill was being published by Leon.

At National Review, Carl Eric Scott acknowledged his own intellectual debt to TNR:

A once-great institution, killed by a pair of lofo-pandering facebook-enriched millennial jerks. I here voice my gratitude to all of those who made the magazine central to my political education in the 1990s. I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for TNR.

I stopped my subscription sometime in 2008, and had stopped eagerly reading the magazine around 2005 or so. And not too long ago, when I had thought about re-subscribing, I found myself dissuaded by articles like the one that stooped to smearing Scott Walker as a racist on the basis of no evidence related to the man himself. But a couple weeks ago, when I saw the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, well, I just had to pick it up. It is worth getting, incidentally—there’s some interesting stuff about the early Herbert Croly years, an undoubtedly softened account of the conflicts between owner Marty Peretz and the more-regular liberals at TNR during the 80s through early aughts, and in any case, the issue’s now worth owning simply as a memento of a lost age.

I agree about the feel of the magazine for the last five years or so, but the 100th anniversary issue was worth the wait (even though I suspected the issue would be too self-congratulatory; the piece by Hanna Rosin on Stephen Glass was riveting).

Noah Millman (who is almost always on a roll) chimed in:

I would like to say that I’m shaken by the dramatic shake-up just announced at The New Republic, which sees Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier leaving the – well, I was going to say the magazine, but it isn’t a magazine anymore apparently, but rather a “digital media company,” whatever that is. TNR, after all, was the magazine that introduced me to public intellectual life. I read it in the school library in high school – no, actually, I devoured it. It was clever, but also serious – political, but also literary. And, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard to imagine a magazine having more influence on the shape of debate. The first iteration of my politics were substantially shaped by its sensibility.

For me TNR was liveliest when Andrew Sullivan was editor, but even running up to Andrew, the magazine was always provocative and sharp. If I am too snarky or sputten, I owe it in part to TNR where being argumentative was a virtue. Maybe Christians are not supposed to be that way. Of late, after bingeing on Portlandia, I wonder if certain sensibilities really are impossible for believers, say, coming up with a lesbian couple co-owning a feminist bookstore. If so, TNR transformed me in a less than sanctified way.

On the positive side, the so-called back of the book, the books and arts section was always worth reading in its entirety. Not only did the editor of that section, Leon Wieseltier, attract writers such as John Updike (to review painting exhibitions), or historians like Gordon Wood, or literary critics, James Wood and Louis Menand, but his coverage of the fine and popular arts and reviews of books was so well done that it made other magazines superfluous. One of the reasons I gave up on Books and Culture, for instance, was that in one year’s worth of TNR Wieseltier and company would cover twice (maybe three times) as much as Christianity Today’s venture into a publication dedicated to books.

I will continue with another year of TNR just to see what becomes of it. Chances are, though, that the glory days of TNR are behind not simply because of a change in editorial personnel but also because the entire landscape of magazine publishing has changed. In that regard, Noah Milman should have the last word:

Which brings me to the realm of culture, and the fabled back of the book. I should caveat right up front that TNR and Wieseltier did a wonderful job of covering a wide array of subjects, of finding talented young critics and promoting them, and engaging in intellectual debate across the landscape of culture and academia. But I still have two bones to pick with the encomia.

The first and easiest bone to pick is that there is a wild, robust and in many cases very high quality discussion going on right now across a multitude of outlets and covering any cultural topic you like. What is relatively absent in the internet era are two things: widely-recognized gate-keepers to curate that discussion, and any kind of revenue model to sustain it. These are not problems that Leon Wieseltier had any idea of how to solve. (Nor does anyone else – something Andrew Sullivan acknowledges in his own lament for passing of the “sugar daddies of yore.”)

I am very, very eager to find a solution to that particular problem. Here at TAC, I am a tireless advocate for more cultural coverage for its own sake. I produce a bunch of it myself on this blog, and some of it for the magazine. But I recognize that the prevailing structure of the internet makes it not only very difficult to justify from a revenue perspective, but very difficult to justify from a curatorial perspective – because it’s not clear that a magazine like TAC could achieve the status of a trusted curator of this kind of discourse even if it wanted to.

So, again, the nostalgia for Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book is, to some extent, a nostalgia for an information market structure that no longer exists rather than for something TNR was uniquely and selflessly committed to. Another way of putting this is: back when TNR was TNR, The New York Review of Books was still The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker was still The New Yorker.

We’re not in the hard-copy age any more, Toto.