Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

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Why History Matters

Journalists and historians can — we get it — perform moral outrage well. Consider the Times on Stephen Bannon:

[T]he defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.

The quotation comes from John Haines piece on Bannon’s appointment to the NSC in historical perspective:

While Mr. Bannon has sardonically compared himself to “Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors” (perhaps choosing to ignore how that role ended), his national security brief might better analogize to Nelson Rockefeller. As noted earlier, he succeeded C.D. Jackson as Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Planning in the Eisenhower administration. Mr. Rockefeller’s appointment was memorialized in a March 1955 memorandum to President Eisenhower from Rowland Hughes, the director of the Bureau of the Budget (later renames the “Office of Management and Budget”):

b.The appointment of Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President to provide leadership on your behalf in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding.

c.The assignment to a Special Committee chaired by Mr. Rockefeller of responsibility for coordinating the implementation of the policies contained in NSC 5505/110 and NSC 5502/1.

Mr. Rockefeller assumed a direct role in national security and intelligence operations when President Eisenhower named him chair of the Planning Coordination Group (PCG), which was subordinate to the NSC’s Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). The OCB was established by a September 1953 executive order “to provide for the integrated implementation of national security policies by the several agencies.”[26] According to a letter to Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, “At the time of the issuance of the Executive Order creating the OCB the President designated his Special Assistant for Cold War Planning as his representative on the OCB.”

President Eisenhower authorized the PCG in a 10 March 1955 letter to Mr. Rockefeller. He directed that the PCG was to be advised “in advance of major covert programs initiated by the Central Intelligence Agency;” and furthermore, that the PCG “should be the normal channel for giving policy approval for such programs as well as for securing coordination of support therefor among the Departments of State and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.” The two referenced NSC reports — NSC 5505/1 (“Exploitation of Soviet and European Satellite Vulnerabilities”) and NSC 5502/1 (“U.S. Policy Toward Russian Anti-Soviet Political Activities) — are January 1955 directives for an “active political warfare strategy” against the Soviet Union.

Mr. Rockefeller’s brief was defined in a March 1955 NSC memorandum that discussed “The Foreign Information Program and Psychological Warfare Planning.” Declaring “the principle that propaganda in both peace and war is a continuing mechanism of national policy directed toward the achievement of national aims,” the NSC charged Mr. Rockefeller to conduct:

[A] high level review of the existing arrangements in the light of NSC 59/1 and NSC 127/1 should be undertaken with a view to preparing appropriate recommendations for consideration by the National Security Council. Such a review should be undertaken with a full understanding of the existing arrangements and current plans and programs in this field, as well as the status of planning for the possibility of limited or general war.

The NSC further directed that “responsibility for making such a review and recommendations [was] assigned to Mr. Nelson Rockefeller as Special Assistant to the President:”

[T]o provide leadership in the development of increased understanding and cooperation among all peoples and in reviewing and developing methods and programs by which the various departments and agencies of the Government may effectively contribute to such cooperation and understanding. In this assignment Mr. Rockefeller should be provided with such advice and assistance as he requires from the Bureau of the Budget, the Office of Defense Mobilization and the Operations Coordinating Board as well as the responsible operating departments and agencies.

Never let real historical details get in the way of surreal moral outrage. Do notice that Bannon is not as well dressed or coiffed as the Ivy League’s own, Rockefeller.

Fake News and Phantom Legs

Lots of folks are talking about fake news and how to discern the difference between real and not-so-true reports. Amid all the discussion I can’t stop thinking about Bill Genevose. He is the brother of the deceased Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder in 1964 turned into a parable of urban life and crime:

Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese’s murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.

The NPR story about Genovese’s death goes on to make the astute point that all news comes with spin that takes truth in the direction of fake:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister’s death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness’ son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and “therefore” would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley’s anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.

The documentary that Bill Genovese made about his sister complicates the legend that this murder created. The mainstream media had a narrative and they kept telling it. It became so convincing about the indifference of Americans to crime that Bill Genovese himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the sort of social character than abandoned his sister. And what happened? On a patrol Bill stepped on a mine and lost both his legs.

Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film’s subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty’s death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he “didn’t lose [his] legs for nothing.” There’s little reason to doubt their brother’s sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for “closure” — a glib buzzword that’s overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.

Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.

Terry Mattingly is Tightening My Jaws

Mr. Mattingly’s point, as someone with journalistic credibility, is to point out how journalists get religion stories wrong. I get it. Reporters make mistakes. Worse, they have bias. But what if Mr. Mattingly gets journalists wrong?

Case in point. He pits the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s (via Crux) coverage of Pope Francis’ refusal to meet with the chief Italian bishop as an indication of the pope’s refusal to identify publicly with a pro-family, anti-gay marriage parade sponsored by the Italian episcopate. Here is a crucial passage from the Crux:

Pope Francis abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight.

Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate.

In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day.

Mattingly thinks this shows that the Times’ report — which indicated a papal slap down of pro-family Italians — was wrong.

Why isn’t the papal speech on Aug. 22 – the one stating “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and every other type of union” – relevant to the Times report that was published on Aug. 24?

Hello.

Saying something to the Vatican court is not meeting with the head Italian bishop. Nor is it an endorsement of the pro-family rally. Even Roman Catholic theologians know this:

[Pope Francis] has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics.

Sure, the theologian in question, Massimo Faggioli, is sympathetic to the Times except when Ross Douthat is the author. Still, its not as if Mattingly’s take on matters Roman Catholic is such an obvious one.

By Whose Authority?

Rod Dreher was the first (from where I sit) to break the news of a letter written by Roman Catholics who disagree with Ross Douthat (can’t call them liberal, I guess) to the New York Times to protest Douthat’s views on Roman Catholicism. In my estimation, this is hitting below the belt. You don’t mess with someone’s livelihood, which is how this feels — tattling to the teacher about an objectionable classmate. Here’s the letter:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Signatures followed by a number of historians whom I respect. They disappointed me because their scholarship had always suggested to me a breadth of outlook, not one that connoted the old days of parochial Roman Catholic history.

One of the letter’s authors, Massimo Faggioli, has his own perspective on what Roman Catholicism is. It is not John Paul II but it is Francis. (How you pick and choose among popes is anyone’s guess, since that would appear not to be a professor of theology’s paygrade):

The style of John Paul II was very different from a ‘conciliar’ style – consider, for example, the absence of episcopal collegiality in his style of governing the Church, especially in how he treated the synod of bishops and the national bishops conferences … Clearly John Paul II lacked interest in reforming structures of the Church’s central government, which in his 27-year pontificate became more centred on the person of the pope and the papal apartment and its far-from-transparent entourage.

[Francis’s] decision in October 2013 to celebrate an extraordinary synod in October 2014 and an ordinary synod in 2015 (both on the topic of family), signaled a change in the hierarchy of institutions of church government: pope, curia, episcopate. In the April 2014 message to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the synod, Francis spoke about the synod in terms of collegiality that is both ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ – with a significant shift in the use of these two adjectives referring to collegiality when compared with previous decades.

Nor is it clear why Dr. Faggioli (aside from being Italian) has any more right to his views of the papacy than Ross Douthat. Both men I believe are lay Roman Catholics, though I think the New York Times trumps St. Thomas University on the list of gatekeepers in American society. Call me a Northeast corridor snob.

One of the letter’s signers explained why she did and addressed the elitism that lurked behind the challenge to Douthat’s credenitials (or lack thereof):

I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.

So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?

This is downright baffling. Do people who teach theology and church history have no clue about journalism? Do they not know the meaning of “op-ed”? Lots of people have access to op-ed pages and have never had training in a discipline. H. L. Mencken didn’t. Walter Lippmann was not an academic. Thomas Friedman apparently only has an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies. So the New York Times is supposed to hire only Ph.D.’s as columnists? And did the letter writers and signers ever consider that the Times’ editors hired Douthat not so much for his writing on religion as his pieces on public policy, conservatism, and the Republican Party? Do Roman Catholics who oppose Douthat read anything other than his columns about Roman Catholicism? If not, how parochial.

The one element that stands out in this clash of professional authority — journalism vs. academics — is the letter’s appeal to Roman Catholicism. The way that most of the apologists have it, Rome’s authority rests not on the basis of academics or circulation and advertising but with the bishops and those whom they appoint. And yet, those who oppose Douthat make no reference to the authority of bishops, priests, and especially the pope.

If the papacy’s authority rested on “professional credentials” where would infallibility be?

But there’s hope for Douthat, not so much for the church’s apologists. It is that the church is wide and tolerant and in need of a conversation just like the United States:

Pope Francis represents the tiniest, most incremental steps toward shifts in doctrine that could have happened years ago, but he too is bombarded by vitriol from Catholics who see the church as a calcified, immobile monument.

Douthat is likely one of those Catholics who would prefer the altar to be turned around, the pews shoved back into rigid rows, women kicked out of the sanctuary and Latin Mass brought back to a country where Latin is rarely taught in schools. Or perhaps that’s what his supporters think he prefers. And they can defend that choice to see the church as incapable of evolution with vitriol, anger and rage. It doesn’t mean they should, and it doesn’t mean they’re right.

But the Catholic Church isn’t just the church of Douthat, Latin Mass traditionalists, or the theologians who signed the letter. It’s also the church of a billion people around the world, each experiencing it in different ways, each living out their faith individually and collectively. And each of those people is qualified to talk about how they live that faith, whether they do so in the op-ed column of the Times, at a potluck, in the middle of the desert, on CNN, or here on RD. It’s when either side tells the other to shut up that the problem starts.

The Pope has asked us to try to listen to one another. Maybe we can start there.

Americanism anyone?

The Big C[elebr]ity Pastor Effect

Michelle Cottle (thanks against to Michael Sean Winters) notices the effect that Pope Francis is having on political discussions in the U.S.:

In his first pastoral visit last July, the pope journeyed to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily through which more than 200,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe since 1999. Lamenting “global indifference” to the plight of migrants and refugees, Francis threw a wreath into the Mediterranean in remembrance of those who had lost their lives there.

Such acts send a powerful signal, says Kevin Appleby, head of migration policy for the USCCB. This, in turn, inspires like-minded advocates to “lead the charge” on the issue, as when a contingent of U.S. bishops traveled to Nogales on April 1 to celebrate Mass across the U.S.-Mexican border, conduct their own wreath-laying ceremony, and, while they were at it, call on Congress to quit dorking around and do something about our nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Five days later came Jeb Bush’s “act of love” moment, which Carr found “stunning,” and Appleby found encouraging. “When someone like Jeb Bush comes out and makes a comment that humanizes immigrants, I think it is in part inspired by the Holy Father,” says Appleby, who has been working on this issue with the USCCB for about 15 years. “In some ways, the Holy Father is providing some cover. Not intentionally. But for those who are sympathetic to his message, he provides cover to be more courageous and to speak about the issue from the human side.”

Conversely, the pope makes it awkward for political leaders of faith to ignore the human costs of poverty or the need for immigration reform, asserts Winters. “It’s really hard to justify, say, your opposition to immigration as coherent with your religious principles when you have the pope and the bishops out front saying otherwise.”

But how do we know that Rick Warren isn’t responsible in a much more direct way for the faith-based Republican’s opposition to Affordable Care Act than Pope Francis’ indirect influence on immigration reform? Here’s part of Warren’s social teaching looks like:

The administration argues that because Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation, the company has no religious rights under the First Amendment. In fact, the government says that exempting Hobby Lobby from paying for drugs and devices to which the Greens object would amount to an imposition of the Greens’ faith on their employees.

The first people who came to America from Europe were devout pilgrims seeking the freedom to practice their faith. That’s why the first phrase of the first sentence of the First Amendment is about freedom of religion — preceding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Why? Because if you don’t have the freedom to live and practice what you believe, the other freedoms are irrelevant. Religious liberty is America’s First Freedom.

In this case, the administration is insisting that those who form and operate a family business based on religious beliefs must disobey what they believe is God’s standard in order to obey the government’s program. The administration wants everyone to render unto Caesar not only what is Caesar’s but also what is God’s. If it wins, the first purpose on which the United States was founded would be severely damaged.

Maybe the takeaway is that the American people are receiving conflicting messages from pastors who have no more business weighing in on political and legal matters than Tim Robbins does.

Imagine how frustrating it must be when you are only a pastor in a small Scottish city and have no obvious celebrity:

I’m a vicar – or at least a clergyman – in an inner city charge. I accept that there are of course differences between being the vicar of a declining church of England in central London, and being a Presbyterian minister in a thriving church in the metropolis of Dundee! But there are also a great deal of similarities. Not least in how we as the church impact an increasingly secular society. So forgive me for pointing out a few lessons that we can learn from Rev.

So how do we judge the relative influence of pastors like Tim Keller, Rick Warren, Pope Francis, and David Robertson? Some mathematician out there has to have an equation for calculating a city’s size, antiquity, and media saturation along side a pastor’s ability to write books that ascend the New York Times’ bestseller list or how many times a pastor appears on the cover of Time. Then again, why does New York City’s newspaper carry more weight than Rome’s or Orange County’s? Does Keller have an unfair advantage?

Fair and Balanced

From our Canadian correspondent comes word of a 1926 New York Times headline that reported on one of J. Gresham Machen’s sermons about the condition of American Protestantism.

Church Teaching Scored–Professor Machen Says the World Is Full of
Quack Remedies For Sin–Calls for More Pessimism

Not many people — believers or not — find pessimism inspiring. But at Old Life pessimism is our bread and butter because, as Machen observed, Christianity is the religion of the broken heart. Maybe the sentimentalists over at the Gospel Coalition would have a better read on angry Calvinism if they understood better the depressing disposition that animates Protestants who belong to Reformed churches.

Is Tony Soprano in Hell?

That is the question that Ross Douthat uses to respond to Rob Bell’s query about whether Christians must believe that Ghandi is in hell for being Hindu (probably not the best way of putting it since the eternal destiny of any human, aside from Christ, has not been part of Protestant church dogma).

Here is part of Douthat’s reasoning:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

The entire piece is worth reading not only for its explicit point but also to show that as supposedly debased and secular as American society is, it still permits arguments like Douthat’s – at the New York Times no less. Way to go, Ross. Way to go, light of nature.

The New York Times: A Better Way?

Many conservative Presbyterians and Reformed believe – along with the idea that no neutrality exists – that secular America is intolerant of red-blooded Christianity. The current alarm over gay marriage and abortion on demand is evidence of the Reformed-sky-is-falling-world-and-life-view.

Could it be that consolation might come to these upset souls from the secularized (as opposed to hallowed) pages of the New York Times? It could if conservative Protestants would take a gander at the columns written by Ross Douthat. When the Times hired him away from the Atlantic Monthly, some conservatives worried that Douthat, a smart, Roman Catholic, and remarkably wise-for-his-age-writer, might succumb to temptation to fit with the liberal intelligentsia (as if Atlantic is Chronicles) in by soft pedaling his conservatism. But this has hardly been the case. Within the past month Douthat has posted at his Times blog (in addition to columns) a number of serious and thoughtful posts against gay marriage that conservative Protestants should well consider, both for encouragement in culture-war well doing and for learning how to make an argument with people who don’t share your faith (or any).

On August 9th, Douthat wrote in response to a post by Noah Millman who explained why he was supporting gay marriage:

What I would strongly dispute, though, is his suggestion that it’s possible to escape entirely from ideological conceptions of marriage, into a world where it’s all just people loving people, and the way we treat one another is the only thing that matters. This seems like an extremely naive view of how ideas intersect with human action, and how cultures shape behavior. Of course all ideals and ideologies are imperfect descriptions of reality, and semi-quixotic attempts to graft order onto the inherent messiness of human affairs. But you can’t escape them just by declaring that they’re “artificial,” because such artifice is itself natural to man, and inherent to culture-making and social order. Every society has its ideals and ideologies, about marriage as much as about any other institution. And the fact that wedlock was once somewhat more about property and somewhat less about love than it is today doesn’t mean that our ancestors didn’t have their own theories of marriage, and their own arguments about what the institution meant and ought to mean.

Read the Greeks and Romans; read the New Testament; read Shakespeare and The Book of Common Prayer. There was never a time when human beings weren’t building ideologies of marriage, and there was never a culture where those ideologies didn’t have an impact on how people wed and parented and loved.

This means that if the ideology that justifies defining marriage as lifelong heterosexual monogamy gets swept into history’s dustbin, we won’t suddenly be flung into a landscape where the only real things are people and the people they love. We’ll just get a different ideology of marriage in its place, one that makes a different set of assumptions and generalizations and invests the institution with a different kind of purpose. And we don’t need a judge’s ruling (though Judge Vaughn Walker’s analysis was certainly clarifying!) to know what that ideology will look like: It’s the increasingly commonplace theory that marriage exists to celebrate romantic love and provide public recognition for mutually-supportive couples, with no inherent connection of any kind to gender difference and/or procreation, and with only a rhetorical connection to the ideal of permanence.

Because Douthat is thoughtful and because he writes for the Times, lots of people pay attention to what he writes and so various bloggers and op-ed writers responded to his August 9 post. One of those came from Glenn Greenwald, who argued that whether or not the state supports heterosexual marriage, the ideal of one-man-and-one-woman marrying could still prevail without legal sanction. One example to which Grennwald appealed was racism. Nearly everyone believes racism is wrong even if the state protects the rights of racists to speak freely and associate voluntarily.

Douthat responds this way:

. . . take alcohol and cigarettes. Why are Marlboros more stigmatized than Budweisers in contemporary America? Well, in part, it’s because there’s been a government-sponsored war on tobacco for the last few decades, carried out through lawsuits and public health campaigns and smoking bans and so forth, that’s far eclipsed the more halting efforts to stigmatize alcohol consumption. Here again, public policy, rather than some deep empirical or philosophical truth about the relative harm of nicotine versus alcohol, has been a crucial factor in shaping cultural norms.

And the same is true, inevitably, of marriage law. Culture shapes law, of course: Judge Walker’s decision last week would be unimaginable without the cultural shift that’s made gay marriage seem first plausible and then necessary to many people. But law tends to turn around and shape culture right back. And this is particularly true when the law in question is constitutional law, because constitutional rights carry a distinctive legal weight and an even more distinctive cultural freight. (To take just one example, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the cultural space for making a moral critique of pornography has shrunk apace in the decades since the Supreme Court expanded First Amendment protections for pornographers, and limited the reach of obscenity laws.)

So if Anthony Kennedy follows Walker and finds that the traditional legal understanding of marriage is unconstitutional — and, by extension, that it’s irrational and bigoted to think otherwise — it’s just naive to say that this won’t have a ripple effect in the culture as a whole.

The point here is not to discuss the merits of Douthat’s arguments – though they are considerable. It is instead to take notice and see that people of faith do speak up in public secular life and do not lose their jobs for doing so, even at the New York friggin’ Times! I wonder if more of the anti-2k crowd were to take a page from Douthat the public debates over hotly contested issues would be not only more “fair and balanced” but also more people would “decide” to regard favorably (rather than as kooks) those who defend the way that Westerners have practiced the family lo these many years.