Thinking is a Many Splendored Thing

There is thinking like a historian:

we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. …

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Only once students “understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique.” Thinking historically is understanding someone else, maybe even being ready to forgive, or withhold judgment.

This could be the gospel compared to the law of thinking like a Christian. When you do that you pretty much go into righteous indignation (as in “they will know we are Christians by what we condemn”):

It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

Neither of these ways of think is political (Bill McClay on vandalism):

the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order.

Almost thirty years of integrating faith and learning and Christians still struggle with thought.

Look Ma, No Anthropology

Maybe it was Rod Dreher, but orthodox anthropology is supposed to be key to understanding the West’s contemporary ills. If you do a search for Dreher and anthropology (a word invoked often in recent reading material) you come to this:

Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is. In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals—whatever those goals might be. The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.

But from a traditional Christian perspective, the model is based on a flawed anthropology. In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity. To prepare for eternal life, we must join ourselves to Christ and strive to live in harmony with the divine will.

I’m not sure I see the fall in that description of Christian anthropology.

Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed, is also based on the idea that liberty in the West stems from a flawed anthropology:

First-wave liberals are today represented by “conservatives,” who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends but oppose most forms of biotechnological “enhancement.” Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies. Today’s political debates occur largely and almost exclusively between these two varietes of liberals. Neither side confronts the fundamentally alternative understanding of human nature and the human relationship to nature defended by the preliberal tradition.

Liberalism is thus not merely, as is often portrayed, a narrowly political project of constitutional government and juridical defense of rights. Rather, it seeks to transform all of human life and the world. (36-37)

Deneen assumes that the ancients (pagan) and Christians were on the same page, anthropologically speaking, and that Locke and Hobbes broke with that older view of human nature. But that seems like a debating technique where you hope your opponent doesn’t look too closely at Aristotle and Paul.

For that reason, Damon Linker’s recent post on the deficiencies of liberalism came as a breath of fresh air. No anthropology, just politics:

Classical liberalism is the cluster of ideas devised by a series of political philosophers who wrote between the 17th and 19th centuries: John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill, among others. Against defenders of absolute monarchy and the mercantilist economic order of the early modern period, these writers advocated a minimal, nightwatchman state founded on the consent of the governed and an economy of free trade based on private contracts freely entered into by equal individuals. This political and economic arrangement would valorize and protect individual freedom, foster a burgeoning and peaceful civil society, produce massive increases in wealth, and encourage revolutionary scientific and technological advances.

That was the theory.

In the reality of U.S. history, classical liberalism had two moments of special prominence: the era in which the federal Constitution was adopted and the subsequent early national period, and then in the decades following the Civil War. The latter period was especially significant, because it was a time of economic “takeoff” in which lightly regulated industries grew enormously, contributing to a significant leap in economic growth along with a surge in wages for many.

Linker goes on to argue that classical liberalism isn’t sufficient to address the inequalities (he calls them tyrannies) that free markets produce:

If you’re standing against a tyrannical and unjust government, classical liberalism can be a fabulously potent force for fighting it. But when confronting the myriad tyrannies and injustices promulgated by private power, it counsels only complacency and resignation. “That’s life; suck it up” — in previous, far more inegalitarian centuries, such a lesson might have been acceptable. In the modern world, it simply isn’t.

I get it. I don’t like Microsoft for all the updates forced on me and robbing me of Classic Hearts. I’m not wild about the challenges of Comcast’s customer service. But are these really tyrannies or nuisances?

Having to use a men’s bathroom is another matter.

End of Democracy


The proposition examined in the following articles is this: The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of “things of their knowledge.” Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government. The Supreme Court itself—notably in the Casey decision of 1992-has raised the alarm about the legitimacy of law in the present regime. Its proposed solution is that citizens should defer to the decisions of the Court. Our authors do not consent to that solution. The twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), expressed his anxiety: “While unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive or legislative branches of the Government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of restraint.” The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.

And now:

Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

This is where the real risks lie. It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible. Trump – and indeed Brexit – are not that. They are the bluntest of instruments, indiscriminately shaking the foundations with nothing to offer by way of support. Under these conditions, the likeliest response is for the grown-ups in the room to hunker down, waiting for the storm to pass. While they do, politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse. The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face. Fake disruption followed by institutional paralysis, and all the while the real dangers continue to mount. Ultimately, that is how democracy ends.

Back then it was shocking:

On September 26, after the Senate failed to overturn President Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer and other leaders of the religious right assembled in the antechamber of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s office. The rhetoric could not have been more fiery. As Lott looked on approvingly, Watergate felon and evangelist Charles Colson declared, ‘a nation which sanctions infanticide is no better than China, no better than Nazi Germany.’ Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, went even further. ‘It is not hyperbole to say that we are at a point at which millions of conscientious American citizens are reflecting upon whether this is a legitimate regime,’ Neuhaus said. ‘That is the solemn moment we have reached.’

Despite the apocalyptic tone of what was, after all, an open meeting convened by the most powerful Republican in Congress, the gathering in Lott’s chambers attracted little notice. But this meeting was not an isolated or aberrant event. It was a harbinger of a political development that has now reached fruition: a full-fledged war between two leading groups of conservative intellectuals over the basic question of what constitutes a moral conservatism and a moral society.”

Now, it’s sensible:

A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.

What’s the big deal? Didn’t the Hebrews and the Greeks teach us that democracy was more problem than solution?

Scottish Nation? Yes. Scottish State? No.

Have the pollsters or pastors understood the difference? Jonathan Chaplin explains it:

. . . it is obviously true that the demand for Scottish independence is substantially animated by a widespread popular identification with and affection for the ‘nation’ of Scotland. That may be the fuel in the tank, but it is not the question on the ballot paper. Voters are not being asked to express a view on the significance or esteem or destiny of ‘the Scottish nation’. Nations are elusive cultural phenomena with blurry edges: they cannot be voted for or against. States are determinate political and legal institutions that you can either bring into existence or not.

Nations are notoriously difficult to define. While they are often marked by a dominant ethnic heritage, many are increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious. Nations are thickly-textured, evolving, porous, morally ambiguous societal amalgams. While one nation may be more or less recognisable when set against another, nations lack the crucial features of centred identity and independent agency.

Strictly, then, a nation in this sense cannot possess ‘rights’ or ‘duties’ or make ‘claims’. Thus, for example, the 1842 Scottish ‘Claim of Right’ was lodged against Westminster by the Kirk not by some amorphous body called ‘the nation’. Nations do not act themselves but function as micro-climates which condition and facilitate the acting of independent agents (persons, associations, institutions, etc.). Thus, you can, consistently, maintain a high view of the integrity and importance of ‘the Scottish nation’ yet place yourself firmly in the ‘No’ camp. Equally, you can, consistently, hold a meagre view of what ‘the Scottish nation’ amounts to, but be an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ supporter. How so? The key lies in what states are for.

In opting for a new Scottish state to come into existence, ‘Yes’ supporters will be voting for a new, independent centre of political agency which is not identical to the Scottish nation.

Step Aside Beza and Locke, Say Hello to Almain and Mair

A week away gave me the chance to read another very impressive book by Francis Oakley, this time on conciliarism. I will be posting about the implications of Oakley’s argument not only for claims of papal supremacy but also for considering the relations between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. But for now, here’s an earlier argument from Quentin Skinner on the import of medieval conciliarism for resistance theory and revolution:

The study of radical politics in early modern Europe has for some time been dominated by the concept of “Calvinist theory of revolution.” I have now sought to suggest that strictly speaking no such entity exists. The revolutions of sixteenth-century Europe were, of course, largely conducted by professed Calvinists, but the theories in terms of which they sought to explain and justify their actions were not, at least in their main outlines, specifically Calvinist at all. When the Calvinist George Buchanan stated for the first time on behalf of the Reformed Churches a fully secularized and populist theory of political resistance, he was largely restating a position already attained by the Catholic John Mair in his teaching at the Sorbonne over a half a century before. Mair and his pupils had bequeathed to the era of the Reformation all the leading elements of the classic and most radical version of the early modern theory of revolution, the version most familiar to us from the closing chapters of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. It only remained for Mair’s pupil Buchanan to take over the concepts and arguments he had learnt from his scholastic teachers and press them into service on behalf of the Calvinist cause. (“The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution,” in After the Reformation, 324-25)

Striking to observe is Skinner’s account of when the scholastic conciliar ideas regained traction in Europe:

Early in the sixteenth century these legal and conciliarist ideas were revived and extended by a group of avowed followers of Ockham and Gerson at the University of Paris. The occasion for this development was provided by the fact that the French king, Louis XII, became involved in a quarrel with Pope Julius II in 1510, after the collapse of the League of Cambrai. Alarmed by Louis’ decisive victory over the Venetians in the previous year, Julius sought to repudiate the alliance he had formed with the French in 1508. Louis responded by appealing over the pope’s head to a General Council of the Church, calling at the same time on the University of Paris to confirm his claim that the Church as a body possessed a higher authority than the pope. The professors at the Sorbonne produced in reply a number of systematic works of political theory, defending the idea of popular sovereignty not only as a claim about the government of the Church, but also as a thesis about the location of political authority in the State.

Skinner notes that one of these professors was John Mair (1467-1550), under whom Buchanan and Calvin studied.

For Almain as well as Mair the point of departure in the analysis of political society is the idea of the original freedom of the people. . . . The origin of political society is thus traced to two complementary developments: the fact that God gave men the capacity to form such communities in order to remedy their sins; and the fact that men duly made use of these rational powers in order to “introduce kings” by “an act of consent on the part of the people” as a means of improving their own welfare and security. (321-22)

Rather than the papacy being a solution to the disorder of the modern world, the popes’ assertion of power in the heady days of the 13th and 14th centuries may have produced reactions that allowed republicanism and constitutionalism to eventually prevail in the West.