Rod Dreher quotes Mark Lilla’s new book on liberalism’s crack-up and goes after Jeffrey Lebowski (aka The Dude) and fellow authors of the Port Huron Statement:

Conservatives complain loudest about today’s campus follies, but it is really liberals who should be angry. The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.

There is a great irony in this. The supposedly bland, conventional universities of the 1950s and early ’60s incubated the most radical generation of American citizens perhaps since our founding. Young people were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. Yet once that generation took power in the universities, it proceeded to depoliticize the liberal elite, rendering its members unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.

Now, someone needs to notice how evangelicals jumped on the politics of identity bandwagon — w-w and faith goes all the way down to my toenails — and further weakened a national identity. And, get this, they did it in the name of national identity.


You Don’t Need an Education to be Outraged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Other People's Mail

This communication to the most powerful government in the world inspired me to make public one of mine to the most powerful news reporting agency on the planet:

May 18, 2005

To the editor of the New York Times:

Mark Lilla’s brief for liberal biblical religion in “Church Meets State” is odd for a couple reasons. First, he does not recognize that “liberals” such as Henry Ward Beecher and Woodrow Wilson fit precisely his category of Protestant who spiritualized the Bible and then read liberal democracy back into scripture to justify such campaigns as the Civil War and World War I. Richard F. Gamble’s recent book, The War for Righteousness (ISI Books, 2003), well documents the liberal religious origins of sanctimonious government action. Second, Lilla fails to notice that the old liberal Protestant culture warriors who defended WASP America and today’s Protestant Right both share a utilitarian understanding of religion that evaluates faith by the good it does in this world, as opposed to the world to come. Perhaps a truly conservative Christianity of Augustinian vintage might distinguish church and state better than Lilla’s liberal version.

D. G. Hart
Philadelphia, PA
215-247-7654 (h)
302-652-4600 (o)

I’m betting none of the people to whom these missives were addressed read/reads them. What the on-line readers are supposed to make of these letters is anyone’s guess.

Reformation Day This and That

First for anyone feeling too happy or nostalgic about the Reformation an excerpt from the very clever and poignant review by Mark Lilla of Brad Gregory’s new book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society:

GREGORY CHOOSES not to weave one grand narrative that tells this sorry tale. Instead he teases out six historical strands that get separate treatment: theology, philosophy, politics, morality, economics, and education. This strategy entails much redundancy, since the moral he draws in each chapter is the same. But it also reveals that he has two unconnected stories to tell about how everything went to hell.

The first story is about the historical Reformation, which is his academic specialty. Gregory does not provide even a brief history of the Catholic Middle Ages that preceded the Reformation, only a single, static, rose-tinted image of The World We Have Lost. (He also avoids the term “Catholic,” preferring instead “medieval Christianity,” which sounds more inclusive.) If not an entirely happy world, it was at least a relatively harmonious one, despite what everyone thinks. Yes, there were theological disagreements and conflicts over authority, pitting popes against monastic orders against church councils against emperors against princes. Yes, the church split into east and west, and for a time there were rival popes. And yes, mistakes were made. Heretics were roughly handled, pointless Crusades launched, Jews and Muslims expelled or worse. Still, through it all, the Catholic complexio oppositorum was held together by a unified institutionalized view of the human good. “Over the course of more than a millennium the church had gradually and unsystematically institutionalized throughout Latin Europe a comprehensive sacramental worldview based on truth claims about God’s actions in history, centered on the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” And this translated into a “shared, social life of faith, hope, love, humility, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, service, and generosity [that] simply was Christianity.” Hieronymus Bosch must have been high.

Then it happened. The Church itself was largely to blame for creating the conditions that the early Reformers complained of, and for not policing itself. The charges leveled by Luther and Calvin had merit, and theirs was originally a conservative rebellion aimed at returning the Church to its right mind. But then things got out of hand, as the intoxicating spirit of rebellion spread to the spiritual Jacobins of the radical Reformation. They are our real founding fathers, who bequeathed to us not a coherent set of moral and theological doctrines, but the corrosive pluralism that characterizes our age. The radicals denied the need for sacraments or relics, which ordinary believers believed in, handing them Bibles they were unequipped to understand. Sola scriptura, plus the idea that anyone could be filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired every radical reformer to become his own Saint Paul—and then demand that his neighbors put down their nets and follow him. Disagreements erupted, leading to war, which led to the creation of confessional states, which led to more wars. Modern liberalism was born to cope with these conflicts, which it did. But the price was high: it required the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue. The nineteenth-century Catholic Church rejected this whole package and withdrew within its walls, where intellectual life declined and dogma ossified. It thus left the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today.

. . . So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with the task of examining these orthodoxies in their own terms and judging for ourselves their presuppositions, aspirations, and effects—which is what theology and philosophy have traditionally done. But this is precisely what today’s religious romantics, like Gregory, shy away from, preferring instead to construct mytho-histories that insinuate rather than argue, and appeal to readers’ prejudices rather than their rational faculties. They become what Friedrich von Schlegel once said all historians are at heart: prophets in reverse.

Why does anyone think it worthwhile to consult such prophets? For the same reason people have always done so. We want the comfort, however cold, of thinking that we understand the present, while at the same time escaping full responsibility for the future. There is a book to be done on Western mytho-histories in relation to the times in which they were written, and the social-psychological work they accomplished in different epochs. Such a book would eventually trace how, beginning in the early nineteenth century, archaic theological narratives about the past were modernized and substituted for argument in intellectual proxy wars over the present. In the chapter on our time, it would note how techno-libertarian progressives and liberal hawks rediscovered Goodbye to All That bedtime stories that induced dreams of a radiant global democracy, while conservatives read ghost stories, then sang themselves to sleep with ancient songs about The World We Have Lost.

One wonders why Brad Gregory felt compelled to add to our stock of historical fables. He is obviously dissatisfied with the way we live now and despairs that things will only get worse. I share his dissatisfaction and, in my worst moments, his despair. But it enlightens me not at all to think that “medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing,” as if each of these were self-conscious “projects” the annual reports of which are available for consultation. Life does not work that way; history does not work that way. Nor does it help me to imagine that the peak of Western civilization was reached in the decades just before the Reformation, or to imagine that we might rejoin The Road Not Taken by taking the next exit off the autobahn, which is the vague hope this book wants to plant in readers’ minds.

Then a little Halloween humor from Russell Moore (thanks to John Fea):

An evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up for Halloween.

A conservative evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up for the church’s “Fall Festival.”

A confessional evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up as Zwingli and Bucer for “Reformation Day.”

A revivalist evangelical is a fundamentalist whose kids dress up as demons and angels for the church’s Judgment House community evangelism outreach.

An Emerging Church evangelical is a fundamentalist who has no kids, but who dresses up for Halloween anyway.

A fundamentalist is a fundamentalist whose kids hand out gospel tracts to all those mentioned above.

I’d make one change.

A confessional evangelical is one who dresses like Zwingli and Bucer but once he sees a baptismal font takes off his clothes to expose a Charles Spurgeon costume (minus the cigar).