Wow!

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.

Doh!

The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

The piece on Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option in the New Yorker was remarkable on several levels. It was generally positive, respectful, and long. This was the case despite Dreher’s tendency to sound a tad hysterical about sexual irregularities and deviance. This quote by Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who has gone head to head with Rod over the years, was telling:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.”

Notice that Dreher, who is outspokenly anti-gay marriage, did not receive the chorus of criticism that Tim Keller did at Princeton Seminary even from such mainstream organs and figures as the New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan.

To be sure, the PCUSA is not the New Yorker, but at a time when the magazine has identified President Trump and his supporters as an alien force in national life, a fair piece about Dreher is not what readers would have expected.

So why does Dreher receive more acclaim than Keller? The reason could be that the former promotes a thick (as he understands it) Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that is chiefly reasonable and appeals to the mind. In other words, Dreher is appealing to a larger conception of Christianity that encompasses more of one’s identity than intellect while Keller is largely about defending the Apostles’ Creed (as he explained a while back in an interview at First Things) — or a Christian minimum. Rod is maximalist where Tim is a minimalist.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley picked up on this difference when she contrasted Dreher and Keller:

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

That fear of homogeneity and retreat also explains, by the way, while Keller is somewhat uncomfortable with going all in on Presbyterianism (from his interview at First Things):

I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

For Keller, apparently, Christianity resists taking overly specific and particular forms (think ecclesiology, liturgy, even creed). His ministry can transcend different cultures and expressions of Christianity. That comes up short against those Christians that Schaeffer identifies as wanting a more than “business-as-usual” faith.

But the Allies at Gospel Coalition back Keller over Dreher when they say they want both a Christianity that is meaty and one that is mainstream:

The Benedict Option is named for Benedict of Nursia, a 4th century monk who launched a monastic movement that preserved Western civilization. Today, writers like Rod Dreher enjoin Christian​s​ to take similar steps to “develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith.”

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

But at a time when that post-war internationalist order is under serious strain (think Brexit, Scottish Independence, Trumpian nationalism), the appeal of a rational, enlightened Christianity may have hit a wall. What Christians seem to understand is that they need a faith little more “deep-down diving and mud upbringing,” that can withstand a social order that is not congenial to their religious convictions. It is a faith that bears more resemblance to the politics of identity than to United Statesist Christianity. This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w. It recognizes that the world is more hostile than previous generations supposed and that Christians need to be more intentional about their convictions.

Why someone living in New York City, the place that cultivated the boorish Donald Trump, doesn’t see that cities (from culture to economics) may be a problem for the practice of demanding Christianity is a real mystery.

When You’re In the Business of Righteous Politics, It’s Hard to See the Beam in Your Own Eye

The BeeBee’s don’t seem to care for Kenneth Woodward’s complaint about the Democrats’ politics of righteousness, but the former religion editor for Newsweek and ongoing Roman Catholic makes a lot of sense. Who knew the Democrats were the Moral Majority before Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority?

The party’s alienation from the white working class began in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There, antiwar protesters and activists for a host of countercultural causes fought the police of Mayor Richard J. Daley while the nation watched on television. As President Bill Clinton later observed in the first volume of his memoirs, Vietnam was only one point of contention in what was really a wider clash between generations, social classes and moral cultures:

“The kids and their supporters saw the mayor and the cops as authoritarian, ignorant, violent bigots. The mayor and his largely blue-collar police force saw the kids as foul-mouthed, immoral, unpatriotic, soft, upper-class kids who were too spoiled to appreciate authority, too selfish to appreciate what it takes to hold a society together, too cowardly to serve in Vietnam …”

The 1968 convention marked the end of the New Deal coalition that had shouldered Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to the White House. It wasn’t that white working-class Americans turned away from the party so much as that political reformers representing the young, the newly wealthy, the suburban and the higher educated deliberately cut party ties with them. “Boss” Daley, the authoritarian Irish Catholic mayor from the blue-collar Bridgeport neighborhood, became the poster boy for all that was “bigoted” and socially regressive in neighborhood-based, white ethnic America.

The new era

Over the next four years, a commission on party structure and delegate selection, with Sen. George McGovern as chairman, introduced a series of reforms ensuring that, culturally as well as politically, the delegates to the 1972 Democratic convention would resemble the young activists who had battled the police in Chicago more than delegates who had been seated inside. The McGovern Commission, as it came to be called, established state primaries that, in effect, abolished the power of the old city and state bosses, most of whom came from white ethnic stock. The commission also established an informal quota system for state delegations to assure greater representation of racial minorities, youths and women that by 1980 became a mandate that half of every state delegation must be women.

The 1972 Democratic platform formally introduced the party’s commitment to identity politics. Rejecting “old systems of thought,” the platform summoned Democrats to “rethink and reorder the institutions of this country so that everyone — women, blacks, Spanish speaking, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, the young and the old — can participate in the decision-making process inherent in the democratic heritage to which we aspire.” There was also this: “We must restructure the social, political and economic relationships throughout the entire society in order to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth and power.” The delegates put flesh on these lofty moral commitments by adding a plank commending the forced busing of students in order to achieve racial balance in public schools. Blue-collar Boston exploded.

McGovern naively took for granted the traditional party loyalty of union leaders and the white working class. But these pillars of the New Deal collation recognized that McGovern’s creation of a new “coalition of conscience” built around opposition to the war, identity politics and a redistribution of wealth excluded some of their own conscientiously held moral convictions. McGovern went on to lose every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — and with them the party allegiance of blue-collar workers, union leaders and — what often amounted to the same voters — conservative Roman Catholics.

Jimmy Carter was not a member of McGovern’s coalition of conscience: He had his own powerful sense of moral righteousness, one he derived from his Southern Baptist heritage of personal rectitude rather than McGovern’s secularized Methodist heritage of moral uplift and social reconstruction. There was much in that mix that was admirably righteous, especially the instinct to protect racial and sexual minorities from social oppression. The problem is that pursuing righteousness by expanding individual rights at the expense of communal values often creates greater social conflict. As sociologist Robert Bellah argued in 1991, “rights language itself offers no way to evaluate competing claims.” One side wins, the other loses.

Shazzam! You mean that entering the public square with the certainty that you are pursuing holiness and your opponents are depraved is bad for The Union? You mean “I’m right and you’re wrong” is divisive? Who knew? (Actually, most married couples do.)

Every Square Inch of MmmmeeeeEEEEEEE

The politics of identity continue to haunt. Are you gay? Straight? Muslim? Man? Man trapped in a female body? Evangelical? Reformed Protestant? How’s a nation supposed to handle so many personal identities yearning to breathe free?

Ra’fat Aldajani offers this advice for Muslims:

The first objective is embracing being American. Too often we confuse being American with an erosion or rejection of our native culture and mores. It is quite the contrary. America is the land of immigrants, a melting pot of many diverse cultures and peoples, all contributing to what makes this country unique and strong.

Assimilation means developing a hybrid of what is good from our mother countries (family values, importance of education, respect for elders) and our adopted home (democracy, justice, rule of law) and engaging in every aspect of American life as Muslim Americans, rather than retreating defensively into our own culturally fenced-off communities.

Of course, the problem with assimilation is that it leads to liberal Protestantism where the nation’s social crises matter more than biblical teaching (also think PCA). If the nation tips toward equal rights for women, who are we mainline Presbyterians to deny the office of elder to women?

So the question for reconciling personal and national identity is where you put the qualifier.

If you are an American Christian, then national identity trumps religious loyalty.

If you are a Christian American, then your religious identity trumps patriotism.

And if you are simply present as Christian (or LBGT), and leave out any reference to the government whose laws you follow at least when you check out at the grocery store or drive a car, then you are a different order of person.

The difficulty we now face is that personal identity absorbs nationality. The nation must be or reflect my identity — it must be Christian, gay, or black. What we need in the era of transgenderism is to recognize that we (citizens of the U.S.) are all personal identities trapped in an American body.

Speaking of Labels

We do have an industry that supplies us with human identity — it’s called the medical profession. And it might be of help when it comes to people want to decide whether to let a sexual proclivity determine their personal identity. Here’s one blogger who rejects straight as an identity:

1. Publicly declaring that I am “straight” counts as ‘too much information.’

I’ve been asking myself what is the real point of coming out as “straight”? Is that really the kind of thing other people are really interested in? Don’t we all have a vast range of sexual impulses and attractions? Does my deeply personal effort to respond chastely to my sexual attractions really qualify as something I should share with others? To what end? Lots of questions about this—if we’re all human and all doing our best to cope with our own call to chastity, why does it matter whether anyone else knows that my particular discernment has to do with my attractions to the other sex? Rather, it would seem more conducive to personal holiness to strive to align my responses to sexual attraction by seeing a confessor or spiritual director. The parish or the general public? Not so much.

Meanwhile, Carl Trueman observes the latest example of sexual politics that desperately needs to buy a vowel:

Wesleyan University has taken the ever-expanding list of initials used to refer to sexual identities to new heights of absurdity or sensitivity, depending on one’s perspective. We are now apparently up to fifteen letters: LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM.

It is easy to laugh at such gibberish on the grounds that it is as absurd as it is self-regarding. Yet that would be a mistake. First, there is the long-established inability of such groups to laugh at themselves. Indeed, the new libertinism often makes the old Puritanism look comparatively self-effacing and gently playful. . . . Second, there are surely grounds for congratulating folks at Wesleyan on their consistent honesty in the cause of sexual liberation. Liberation, that is, of sex from any intrinsic moral significance. As Luther said to Erasmus in very different circumstances: You and you alone have placed your finger on the hinge on which everything turns.

The good thing about medicine is that a doctor’s determination of sex confirms what nature, Nature’s God, or the God of the universe (you can choose your god, not your sex) does. People come into the world either male or female, not straight, homo, confused, transgender, or even as believer or unbeliever. Sexual preferences are mere accidents of history.

Even better, the most basic human identity is still linked to the genitalia that God made:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

Do We Need a Federal Agency to Regulate Religious Identity?

I was reading this piece over the weekend on home schooling and the author struck me with her use of identifications:

From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences.

The author’s point about homeschooling may or may not have merit, but why would she not identify Rushdoony as an Armenian-American, an Orthodox Presbyterian, or a Californian? Why Calvinist? And why is John Holt only an “education theorist”? Which extends to the questions of why journalists labeled the Charlie Hebdo killers Muslim or why President Obama refuses to. Why not call them Arab-French? In other words, how do you decide what someone is? What is their primary identity? If you choose to identify someone by an adjective that your readers find odd or unappealing, haven’t you signaled to readers that they need to beware?

These questions are a further reminder that everyone carries around multiple identities. A reporter or scholar may mention one of the markers that identify someone, but it is only a part of who the person is (and perhaps a caricature). The Christian Right has not helped on this. Thanks to neo-Calvinism’s logic of every square inch, the notion that I am anything less than 100% Christian is a betrayal of Christ’s lordship. But if a reporter talks to me about Muslims in America, does it make more sense to identify me as a scholar of religion in the United States than as an elder in the OPC? And when I go to the ballot box, do I go as a Calvinist, a Phillies fan, or an American citizen? Last I checked, Calvinists in Scotland and the Netherlands can’t vote here in Michigan. Is the reason because the U.S. denies Christ’s lordship or immigration officials are wary of Calvinism? Or is it that temporal criteria like residency and citizenship trump belief and church membership? Think “duh.”

A related question is how does a scholar or journalist judge whether a subject qualifies as Calvinist, Roman Catholic, or Muslim? Who gets to determine religious identity? Is it the subject’s own judgment, as in President Obama’s account of his conversion?

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

Or do church, parish, Vatican, or imams decide whether the labels that persons self-apply are valid? David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of Obama’s account, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.” I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards would agree. And as clerk of session, I am definitely not going to trust the judgments of a broadcasting network executive about genuine faith. Heck, I wonder if networks can be Christian (remember, no corporate salvation).

And what if churches inflate their numbers? Terry Mattingly, who quoted the president’s conversion account, indicates that Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago did not record President Obama’s membership. (Are the birthers asking for Obama’s certificate of good standing?) I suspect that many churches don’t scrutinize potential members very carefully and don’t keep accurate records of members.

What is the solution? We need a government agency to keep track of religious identity and to issue religious passports. Someone wants to know if I’m a Christian, I flash my government authorized paperwork. It works for voting, health care, banking. Why not church or mosque or synagogue life?

I Am Mario Cuomo

The media attention devoted to Mario Cuomo’s death highlighted the tension in the former governor’s thought between his personal moral convictions and his responsibilities and work as an elected official. Put simply, is it possible to be personally committed to Roman Catholic morality but in public life follow a different moral standard? Here’s how Crux described it:

. . . the Catholic hierarchy was taking a decidedly more conservative turn under Pope John Paul II. Abortion was the salient issue for the US bishops, a nonnegotiable point that no Catholic pol could ignore if he wanted to stay in the good graces of the bishops, or, in the view of some, be eligible to take Communion.

Cuomo’s fellow New Yorker and Italian Catholic, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, had just made history as Walter Mondale’s running mate, and she also supported abortion rights. It was left to Cuomo to provide a Catholic intellectual defense against her many critics.

“(W)hile we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment,” Cuomo said in the landmark Notre Dame speech.

Cuomo even anticipated conservatives’ adoption of his stance when he asked if he would have to follow the bishops’ teaching on economic justice “even if I am an unrepentant supply sider?” And he pointedly quoted Michael Novak, known as the Catholic “theologian of capitalism,” who wrote: “Religious judgment and political judgment are both needed. But they are not identical.”

One could argue that John F. Kennedy articulated a version of this personal vs. public 25 years earlier.

But it is not a problem that only bedevils Roman Catholics. Protestant politicians may be personally opposed to desecrating the Lord’s Day, and if such a public figure is an officer in a Presbyterian church has even vowed to uphold Sabbatarianism, but in their public duties or owing to political calculation fail to work for Blue Laws. In fact, all believers who hold public office in a religiously diverse and tolerant society need to separate the teachings and practices of their religious communities from the norms that guide civil life. At the very least, they need to juggle the public and private unless they are willing to seek the implementation of their own faith for all of civil society

The irony is that religious right championed a view of the relationship between personal and public responsibilities that derided folks like Cuomo as either hypocritical or cynical. The irony becomes even more ironic when the religious right complains that radical Islam is incapable of making the very distinction that Cuomo defended.