More Cosmopolitan Than Thou

The piece is a little old now, but in the October 7, 2013 issue of The New Republic, Abbas Milani thinks out loud about what to make of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani:

The searing image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the last Iranian president–all bombast and spite–makes the details in his successor’s archival folder jump from the page. There are Hassan Rouhani’s theological writings, which approvingly name-check Western thinkers from C. Wright Mills to Samuel Huntington. There is also the image of his graduation ceremony from Glasgow Caledonian University in 1999, where he received a doctorate in law. The video shows him in a doctoral gown, but without his clerical turban or robe–a surprising concession, by the standards of the mullahs, to the norms of his hosts. . . . The contrast between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani has filled the West with cautious optimism that the new leader might lead the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program to an amiable conclusion. Indeed, the first months of Rouhani’s presidency have flashed hopeful signs of pragmatism and moderation. Rouhani proposed a Cabinet that contained defenders of the pro-democracy Green Movement. On his watch, the universities have readmitted faculty and students unfairly expelled on political grounds. Access to social media has broadened. In fact, his foreign minister used his Twitter account to wish Jews of the world a happy new year, a leap in tolerance from Ahmadinejad’s denials of the Holocaust.

When reading this, I wondered what another journalist for the magazine might do with the new president of Princeton Seminary, Craig Barnes. After all, as some have it, Calvinism is responsible for contemporary notions of American greatness, neo-conservatism, and exceptionalism and, to connect the dots, Princeton represents one of the most important and well funded institutions connected to Calvinist theology. So if a journalist wanted to understand the future of American foreign policy, he might be tempted — given all the explanatory powers of Calvinism — to do a back story on Princeton’s new president.

But of course, no one thinks Princeton has anything to do with American government. No matter how much Calvinism might explain the Religious Right or U. S. foreign policy, Craig Barnes has about as much chance of access to the White House or the State Department as I do to the trustees of Princeton Seminary. Depending on your perspective, we can thank or blame the American separation of church and state for that. Without that separation, reporters might be looking at Craig Barnes’ graduation pictures to see if he was carrying a copy of Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances with him.

Even farther off the media’s radar (sorry Peter) is Peter Leithart. But the parallels with Rouhani are intriguing and go well beyond the beard. In his recent piece on the end of Protestantism, Leithart made a plea for broad, catholic, well-adjusted, and well read Protestantism. And yet, Leithart has associations with people like the Federal Visionaries who seem to wear beards as a point of pride, talk a lot about Christendom, have big families, and he even wrote a book that defended Constantine and his policies as Christianizing the Roman Empire (which for a Old Lifer has about as much Christian plausibility as attempts to turn George Washington into an orthodox Protestant). In other words, Leithart has a past with theonomy that may still be a present, but its a kinder, gentler theonomy and goes by an ambiguous name. And yet, like Rouhani, Leithart aspires to a broader world than simply the one originally forged by Greg Bahnsen and Gary North. After all, he writes for First Things and drops the names of all sorts of writers and intellectuals in his posts, from Jane Austen to Catherine Pickstock.

As Fred Sanders noted, Leithart’s post was hard to decipher and Sanders himself is not entirely clear about the closed-minded, sectarian Protestants that we need to leave behind:

It’s very clear what he deplores. He deplores the kind of small-minded Protestant whose heroes are Luther and Calvin, and who has no other heroes in the 1500 years prior to them. He deplores the kind of knee-jerk Protestant who is locked into permanent reaction against whatever Roman Catholics do or say, and who enjoys setting up Roman strawmen (Vatican I, Catholic Encyclopedia vintage, if possible) to knock down. He deplores the kind of unimaginative Protestant who mocks patristic Bible interpretation and thinks that if the grammatical-historical mode of interpreting was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for us. He deplores the kind of amnesiac Protestant who leaps from “Bible Times” to the Reformation, thinking he has skipped over nothing but bad guys in doing so.

This is all certainly deplorable. Where shall we find men of such denominational ressentiment? Mostly in “the local Baptist or Bible church,” but also among “conservative Presbyterians.” Leithart deplores a few other things, like preaching in a suit and tie instead of vestments, and a low sacramentology, but let’s stick for a moment to the historical outline of the portrait. Leithart calls us away from that kind of small-minded, knee-jerk, unimaginative, amnesiac man of ressentiment, and conjures instead something free and fully realized. He calls it Reformational Catholicism, and builds up its portrait in bright, not to say self-congratulatory, colors, in contrast to the dark tones he has just used.

On the one hand, Leithart responds, “exactly so.” But then he adds:

Sanders reads something into the essay that’s not there when he claims that it involves “a massive act of catastrophic silencing” that creates a “new dark ages” between the Reformation and the present. No. The essay is not about historical theology; I didn’t mention confessional Protestants among the heroes of the Reformational Catholic because heirs of the Reformation already take them as heroes. In any event, the main point was not historical at all. The article (schematically) describes two contemporary forms of Protestantism. Or, more precisely, it offers a sketch of one form or feature of contemporary Protestantism, and contrasts to that a Catholic Protestantism that presently exists only in pockets and is mainly an item of hope.

Reading Leithart’s original piece with Sanders’ reaction and Leithart’s own clarification in mind, it looks like the Reformational catholicism for which Leithart is calling is really himself. After all, it exists “only in pockets” and is mainly a “hope.” Nothing wrong with hope, or even hoping against hope, but doesn’t some kind of intellectual humility (not to mention the Christian variety) kick in if you wind up thinking that the rest of the Protestant world needs to be like you? Sure. I think this all the time. But I only say it to my wife, and now much less frequently after all the grief those initial volleys received. Do I mean to imply that Leithart is narcissistic in this piece? To an extent, since I haven’t seen a reason why this is not a plausible construction. And because neither he nor Sanders actually names any of these small-minded Protestants — yes, I do fear they mean (all about) me and other Old Lifers, OF COURSE!! — their pieces do read like attempts to portray themselves as a better brand of Protestant, the way that Rouhani is to Ahmadinejad.

What good any of this posturing is actually going to do for the rest of the Protestant world is another question since in Leithart’s case, he does not appear to be a churchman who is going to General Assembly and pleading at least with his little platoon of Protestants to get with the program.

The irony of all this Protestant cosmopolitanism is that at roughly the same time that Leithart drew attention to his catholicity, his former nemesis in the PCA, the now really Roman Catholic, Jason Stellman, also announced his own effort to show a side different from the one he maintains with Jason and the Callers:

I would like take a quick break from our discussion about paradigms Protestant and Catholic in order to draw everyone’s attention to a little side project that a few friends of mine and I are just now beginning. It’s basically a small community of artists, writers, and thinkers from varying backgrounds whose aim is simply to give expression to the identity we share as misfits and malcontents in this cruel and beautiful world of ours.

From the misfits own website comes Stellman’s admission:

Our desire, then, is simply to think out loud, to vent, to muse, and to use whatever gifts of artistic expression we have to describe the identity we share as misfits and malcontents in this cruel and beautiful world. Because we know we’re not alone, and that lots of others share that identity, too.

And from the misfits’ page of “turn-ons” stuff we like comes a cast of characters that is silent about Roman Catholicism and not exactly clear on how Noam Chomsky fits with high papalism (though with 2k all harmony is possible).

Could it be, then, that Leithart really doesn’t know those small-minded Protestants? Maybe they are far more complicated — like Stellman — than his remarkably predictable (if he were a mainline Protestant who thought himself evangelical) portrayal of inferior Protestants? I mean, (all about me) I am a Machen warrior child and I like Orhan Pamuk. Does that get me any cosmopolitan street cred?