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.

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.

Make America Sane

I won’t reveal how I voted. Nor can I claim to be happy about yesterday’s outcome (I married a woman who took it hard). But a piece of me thinks that a Donald Trump presidency may make it harder for certain sorts of outlooks or activities to be taken seriously.

The first is the grief counseling offered to students at U Mass Lowell:

Dear Students,

We at the Multicultural Affairs Office hope this email reaches you and you are doing ok. We know many of you stayed up waiting to hear of the election results. These are unprecedented times. The nation as well as our community is reacting in many different ways. We are reaching out to each of you because we know that this was an intense election and we are already hearing a number of reactions, feelings and emotions. This is a critical time to make sure that you, your friends, classmates, neighbors are doing ok and seeking the appropriate support especially if they need a place to process or work through what they’re feeling.

You may hear or notice reactions both immediate and in the coming weeks, some anticipated and many that may be difficult to articulate or be shared. While it may take some time to fully take in all the recent events, please also know that the OMA office is here for you. Our UMass Lowell community is here for you. Do not hesitate at all to come in or ask for support.

Today there is a Post-election self-care session from 12-4pm in Moloney. The event will include cookies, mandalas, stress reduction techniques and mindfulness activities. Counseling and Health Services will also be available. We have sent out messages through our Social Media sites as well as encouraging students to drop in all week. Above all, take good care and know that there is strength in our community that you can lean on.

Kind regards,
Office of Multicultural Affairs Staff

Do these people cower when reading accounts of the American founding for all of the self-actualized agency that colonists displayed in seeking self-determination and limited government? (Read: are they American?)

The second is Damon Linker’s description of the cosmopolitan w-w that has dominated the Obama years (thanks to Rod Dreher):

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but ‘racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia’ — is the desire to delegitimise any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic… cosmopolitan liberals presume that all particularistic forms of solidarity must be superseded by a love of humanity in general, and indeed that these particularistic attachments will be superseded by humanitarianism before long, as part of the inevitable unfolding of human progress.

For those of us 2k Protestants who have managed to hyphenate ourselves, and found ways to recognize our multiple loyalties, the notion that all attachments to what Edmund Burke called little platoons block national progress is — well — unwelcoming. It’s also dumb. Were the Students for a Democratic Society wrong to exclude Young Americans for Freedom?

I don’t think President Trump will issue executive orders for colleges students to human-up or for Orthodox Presbyterians to sponsor OPC Pride Parades. But I do sense that he will not lend the support of the White House to the touchier and more ethereal sides of American character.

From Crisis to Crisis

If Ross Douthat thinks conservative Roman Catholics are having trouble with the current magisterium, he should remember how liberal Roman Catholics felt a little more than a decade ago in the last years of John Paul II’s papacy:

Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.

Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as “orthodox” Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.

But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.

Liberal Roman Catholicism, by the way, was not necessarily about liberal theology but about adjusting ecclesiology to the modern world of liberal politics:

Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

What I wonder is why a bright guy like Peter Steinfels only sees two options — Roman Catholicism or secular liberalism. Is he so parochial — he worked for the New York Times mind you — to identify Protestantism with secular liberalism? Sure a liberal Roman Catholic has gotten over the idea that liberal Roman Catholicism is the church that Jesus founded.

Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?

R2K

An excerpt from William F. Buckley, Jr.’s interview with himself on the 1965 New York City mayoral race. Notice how little attention this observant Roman Catholic pays to religion in his outlook or to the “heresy” of radical individualism:

Q. What is it that distinguishes you from these other candidates? Why should only great big brave you consent to run on a program that would really liberate New York, while the other candidates do not?
A. Because the other candidates feel they cannot cope with the legacy of New York politics. That legacy requires the satisfaction of voting blocs, with special attention given to the voting bloc or blocs most fractious at any given election period. But to satisfy voting blocs increasingly requires dissatisfying the constituent members of those same voting blocs in their private capacities. However, since it is more dangerous to dissatisfy organized blocs of voters than individual voters—even if they happen to be members of voting blocs—political candidates in New York address their appeals to the bloc rather than to the individual.

Q. Would you mind being specific?
A. As far as New York politicians are concerned, a New Yorker is an Irishman, an Italian, or a Negro; he is a union member or a white collar worker; a welfare recipient or a city employee; a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew; a taxi driver or a taxi owner; a merchant or a policeman. The problem is to weigh the voting strength of all the categories and formulate a program that least dissatisfies the least crowded and least powerful categories: and the victory is supposed to go to the most successful bloc Benthamite in the race.

Q. What’s the matter with that?
A. What is the matter with it is that New York is reaching the point where it faces the marginal disutility of bloc satisfaction. The race to satisfy the bloc finally ends in dissatisfying even the individual members of that same bloc. If, for instance, you give taxi owners the right to limit the number of taxis available in the city, people who need taxis to get from where they are to where they want to go can’t find taxis when they most want them. If you allow truck drivers to double-park because it is convenient to them and to the merchants whose goods they are unloading, traffic is snarled and taxi drivers can’t move fast enough to make a decent living. When the traffic is snarled, people stay away from the city and the merchants lose money. If the merchants lose money they want to automate in order to save costs. If the unions don’t let them automate they leave the city. When they leave the city there are fewer people to pay taxes to city officials and to the unemployed. (The unemployed aren’t allowed to drive taxis because the taxi owners share a monopoly.) Taxes have to go up because there are fewer people to pay taxes. The unemployed grow restless, and breed children and crime. The children drop out of school because there isn’t anyone at home to tell them to go to school. Some of the children who go to school make school life intolerable for other children in school, and they leave and go to private schools. The teachers are told they mustn’t discourage the schoolchildren or they will leave the schools and commit crime and unemployment. The unions don’t want the unemployed hired because they will work for less money, or because they are Negroes and Puerto Ricans and obviously can’t lay bricks or wire buildings like white people can, so they are supposed to go off somewhere and just live, and stay out of the way. But they can’t live except in houses, and houses are built by plumbers and electricians who get eight, ten, twelve dollars an hour, which means that people can’t afford to buy houses, or rent apartments, at rates the city can afford to pay its unemployed, so the federal government has to build housing projects. But there aren’t enough housing projects, so there is overcrowding, and family life disintegrates. Some people turn to crime, others to ideology. You can’t walk from one end of New York to another without standing a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole of the United States to become like New York.

Q. What would you do, if you became Mayor of New York?
A. I would treat people as individuals. By depriving the voting blocs of their corporate advantages, I would liberate individual members of those voting blocs.

Imagine that. Treating people as individuals, not as if their identity is bound up with a religion, race, gender, or sex bloc.

Was Buckley the conservative channeling John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first Roman Catholic president, who said that as a public official he would not be beholden to his faith?

What Would Happen if the PCUSA and OPC Started Ecumenical Dialogue?

If the OPC began to enter into ecumenical discussions with the PCUSA would someone be justified in thinking that the OPC had changed its estimate of the PCUSA? And would this change indicate a shift within the OPC itself to the point that you might plausibly argue that the denomination’s teaching had changed? In other words, what would it take for the OPC to recognize the PCUSA at least as a conversation partner?

On the matter of confessional statements, the OPC would have to get around the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967. That’s enough to end the conversation.

On matters of practice and discipline, the OPC would have to overlook the ordination of women, the ordination of homosexuals, and the recognition of gay marriage. In questions about worship, the OPC would have to come to terms with a PCUSA hymnal that has some clunkers and that took the stuffing out of good hymns.

So with all these reservations, if the OPC went ahead and opened up discussions with the PCUSA, onlookers might well think that the OPC had lost its way, that the doctrine and practice that had once characterized the communion were no longer important, and that the OPC’s understanding of Reformed Protestantism had changed?

So now as folks like Ross Douthat wonder if changes surrounding sex and marriage will change not just discipline but the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, why don’t those same folks wonder about what Vatican II did in reclassifying Protestants as separated brethren? Sixteenth-century bishops only knew those outside the church as infidels, schismatics or heretics. Separated brethren did not become part of episcopal language until the 1960s. And this came at a time when the Protestant churches were liberal (at least from the perspective of communions like the OPC). Sure, they weren’t in the ballpark of going soft on homosexuality and marriage. But the Protestants the bishops had in mind were not in communions like the OPC but were in denominations like the PCUSA where Reformed orthodoxy was hardly firm.

What would allow the bishops to change that understanding of Protestantism? And isn’t this indicative of a change in doctrine — not technically in the language of the catechisms or papal documents? Doesn’t this reflect a change in the understanding of the doctrine that defined Roman Catholicism or the degree to which doctrine or liturgy matter? If folks who were once in error and whose views needed to be anathematized now look like Christians who are worthy of dialogue, hasn’t something changed?