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!

Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

Old Life is not the only place where the dissatisfied express their dissatisfaction. Evangelical scholars are weighing in on Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. If Barry Hankins thinks Fitzgerald neglects evangelicalism’s religious character, Randy Balmer faults her for not noticing evangelicals’ progressive politics:

FitzGerald recounts the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Con­cern in November 1973, but then progressive evangelicals drop almost entirely from the narrative until the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, the nation’s first avowed born-again president and a progressive evangelical, receives only scattered mention—far less, for example, than Phyllis Schlafly or even Herb Titus, a truly fringe figure. The chapter on George W. Bush, the nation’s second born-again president, by contrast, consumes more than a hundred pages.

FitzGerald renders the inner workings of the religious right in granular detail. We hear, for example, about James Dob­son’s tantrums and Richard Land’s partisan harangues, but only brief and belated reference to Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal or the effort of Red Letter Christians to emphasize the social teachings of Jesus. The author commendably plunges into the works of Rousas John Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, but the writings of Jim Wallis receive no comparable midrash. Shane Claiborne, a “rock star” among younger evangelicals and a radical (not progressive) evangelical, merits only a single reference.

The problem that Balmer fails to notice is that Christian progressives (evangelical or not) are in decline:

If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.

Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.

Since we live in a democracy, numbers matter? If we want an aristocracy of the few, the virtuous, the woke, fine. But that means giving up all that idealism about the equality of all people.

Don’t forget to notice also that the problem for Balmer with evangelicals is not Hankin’s complaint — that they are too political. Instead, the evangelical error is having the wrong politics. That would be an amusing exegetical show to find the Democratic (or Republican) platform in the pages of Holy Writ.

Two Kingdoms and Confessional Protestantism Look Pretty Good NOW

Stephen Prothero explains why evangelicals look even less reliable than they always have to those in confessional communions who take church governance seriously:

For decades, pundits have viewed white evangelicals as perhaps the most powerful voting block in American politics—the base of the Republican Party. Cohesive, well organized, and politically active, they crafted their identity around a shared belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and a shared commitment to supplant the moral relativism of the insurgent 1960s cultural revolution with “traditional values.” It’s a bloc that’s persisted for decades. Today, roughly a quarter of all Americans identify as evangelicals, and white evangelicals make up the majority of Republican voters in many Southern primaries. In 2012, four out of five of them preferred Romney over Obama.

White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhaps the great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.

What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Scarred by these battles, some evangelicals have withdrawn from politics, pursuing what blogger Rod Dreher has referred to as the “Benedict Option,” which focuses on fostering local Christian communities rather than taking yet another whack at the lost cause of Christianizing the nation. Others have continued to try to bend the arc of American history toward biblical values. And some of them are now denouncing Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—even as the larger flock appears poised to make him the Republican nominee.

The most outspoken of the no-Trumpers is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has repeatedly whacked Trump—a man whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord”—as a reprobate unfit for the presidency. “The gospel is more important than politics,” he warns his fellow Bible believers. You can stump for Trump or be an evangelical, he says. But you cannot do both.

But Moore’s effort to keep evangelicalism pure, in a world of increasingly polluted politics, is a lost cause. Paradoxically, that effort has actually alienated him from the modern evangelical movement itself. Moore essentially admits this: in a recent op-ed, he announced that until voting habits change, he won’t even to refer to himself as an evangelical anymore. He lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been too willing to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics . . . as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.”

Prothero is right to see the inconsistency in evangelicalism.

What he misses is the inconsistency of academics who study evangelicals. For at least thirty years students of American religion have told us that the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are — wait for it — evangelical. That’s like saying BMWs and Yugos are cars, as if the parts are interchangeable, as if they cost the same, as if the owners come from the same demographic, as if the same kinds of technology go into these automobiles.

In other words, not many of the smart people who study religion prepared Americans and even earthlings for what’s happening now. Some did.

Is This Constitutional?

The similarities between neo-Calvinist and Roman Catholic transformers continue to be remarkable (at least to all about me). Adding to the remarkableness is that the inspiration for cleaning up public life or for motivating Christians to become involved can go in either politically conservative or liberal directions. What is more, the ideas don’t need to be tied directly to confessional theology — as in matters that rise to the level of dogma.

Consider two recent examples from the Roman Catholic world. First an appeal on the left to a version of the Social Gospel that goes cosmic:

“As Catholics, we must be continue to be involved the issues of world hunger, human rights, peace building and justice promotion,” Wenski said. “This social ministry is not opposed to the ultimate spiritual and transcendent destiny of the human person. It presupposes this destiny, and is ultimately oriented toward that end.”

“This Earth is our only highway to heaven,” he said. “And we have to maintain it. As Catholics we are concerned about ecology, both natural ecology but also human ecology. In other words, we have to make sure that to the best of our abilities this highway of life is cleared of the obstacles that sin, both personal and structural, has placed in the path of those traveling on it.”

Remarking on biblical figure Job, who’s friends “blamed him for his miseries,” Wenski said that, “today, in a world of increasing inequality, as Catholics we must struggle against what Pope Francis has termed ‘the globalization of indifference,’ and we must struggle against that tendency within American society, which we see especially today in the debate over immigration reform, to blame the victim!”

Then a call (not that one) for Christian statesmen to clean up the U.S.A.:

There are currently twenty-six Catholics in the Senate, although many are Catholics in name only. The House of Representatives lists 142 members who claim to be Catholic – the greatest number in our history, and at a crucial period of moral peril. But where is their witness to natural law, religious freedom, and enduring moral truths?

Happily, several (faithful) Catholics are considering a run for the presidency. We should hope that would include both parties. What a wonderful moment it would be if our once-great country were to produce a number of great Catholic statesmen ready and able to confront the great crises, moral and civilizational, threatening our nation (and the world) today.

This post comes with a citation of the Roman Catholic Church’s catechism about the work of God’s people (which I hardly regard as dogma):

898 By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . .It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.

899 The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church: Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society.

Imagine if we heard imams in mosques telling Muslims the Islamic equivalent of these bromides. Maybe then the notion of secular society and the separation of church and state (not to mention the spirituality of the church) look a whole lot more appealing. But when Christians violate American habits of governance for Christ’s sake, it’s not only okay but great pretty good.

Meanwhile, which of the saints, whether overseers of the overseen, are worried about the teachers at church institutions that might be leading the people and the politicians astray (think Richard McBrien):

Although Fr. McBrien was often called fearless and broad-minded, he was frequently hypersensitive to criticisms of his own views. After he defended Mario Cuomo against possible ex-communication, for instance, McBrien complained about the letters he received, calling them “mean and vindictive.” Notably, though, he never used such language against politicians who took the lives of unborn children, much less theologians who provided cover for them.

The one thing most frequently said about Fr. McBrien—which he himself affirmed—was the least convincing: that he “never held back.”

In fact, he did hold back—on everything from the value of clerical celibacy, to the dangers of moral relativism, to the necessity of the Catechism, to courageous pro-life witness. He had the intelligence and gifts to take action, guided by the wisdom of the Church, but consistently let those opportunities escape him.

But why oh why do American Christians worry more about Washington, D.C. or debates at the United Nations Security Council than about faculty or pastors and priests within their own communion? Could it have anything to do with failing to heed the apostle Paul’s dualism, that distinction he makes in 2 Cor 4 between the seen and unseen things?

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.

Neutrality Beach

Anthony Esolen gives shelter and clothing to neo-Calvinists in his piece opposing neutrality in matters of public life. As we so often here, it’s impossible:

On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

From this he goes on to comment on religion in the United States under a liberal secular government:

The virtue of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not. You cannot say, “The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and to pray for His protection.” To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray, now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One should at least be honest about it.

The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

One odd aspect of this argument is that many Roman Catholics (Anthony Esolen’s religious tribe) would have appreciated a tad more neutrality from public officials for about a 170-year swath of U.S. history (1790-1960). Most American Protestants didn’t grasp the privilege they enjoyed by virtue of certain political ideas embodied in the Constitution and that the Vatican did not finally embrace until the Second Vatican Council. Protestants also enjoyed a semi-monopoly of public education, a situation that forced many bishops to sponsor parochial schools. In which case, I could well imagine that if Anthony placed himself at a different time in U.S. history he might be able to empathize with those Americans who take some comfort from a government that tries not to take a side among religions.

Related to this is empathy with state officials who are trying to decide about a nude beach. Maybe they cite chapter and verse from the Decalogue and enlist the support of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. But what if they also want the support of the large collection of journalists and engineers in town who work for National Public Radio. Maybe they use an argument against a nude-beach on the grounds supplied by a non-religious argument.

One of the problems the Religious Right has faced, in my view, is an inability to arrive at just such common rationales for what they believe. The logic of the Lordship of Christ or w-w says that all of me is religious so I need to make a religious argument. But lots of non-religious people would also favor a beach where bathers did not reveal their private parts. That this outcome seems far fetched in the case against neutrality may show how much the religion-is-all-of-me has prevailed. But why is it unlikely that many parents in the United States, even if they don’t attend a church or synagogue, would oppose a nude beach? And why is it necessarily a betrayal of my faith if I try to find a rationale for conventional Christian morality that also appeals to a non-Christian?

The bottom line I keep coming back to: if neutrality is not something we shoot for no matter how sloppy it will be, then do we need to return to the confessional state where only Protestants or Roman Catholics run things? That would certainly cut down on the pluralism of our societies and may bring a return of the ghettoization of religious dissenters. Do opponents of neutrality have a stomach for that? If not, maybe they should keep their clothes on.

The Jimmy-Carter Roots of Jerry Falwell

I have long suspected that the acrimony between left and right in U.S. politics stems not only from the Religious Right and the inevitable upping of the ante of civil matters to moral or eschatological significance, but also to the self-righteousness that accompanies the conviction (w-w alert) that one’s policy or vote is an expression of faithfulness to God. I also have long felt that Jimmy Carter exhibited the latter tendencies — self-righteousness — and was a particularly poor sport in the way he took Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. I thought then that Carter believed he had lost to a dumber and inferior man, and so was responsible for launching the Democrats’ sense of intellectual superiority. (Republicans counter with patriotic/civil religious superiority.)

It turns out that I (all about me) not have been that far off, and this from Jonathan Yardley who voted twice for Carter (thanks to John Fea):

Religion is a tricky business, never more so than when it gets mixed up with government. Although Balmer pays due respect to the argument that “religion functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power,” that “once a religious group panders after political influence, it loses its prophetic voice,” he does not convince me that Carter, either as governor of Georgia in the early 1970s or as president in the second half of that decade, really “understood that the Christian faith had flourished in the United States precisely because the government had stayed out of the religion business.”

To the contrary, Carter brought religion (religiosity, too) into the national government more directly and intensely than any president before him in the 20th century. He campaigned as a religious man, speaking repeatedly, openly and almost boastfully about his religious convictions, about the centrality of prayer to his daily life, about the joy he took in being “born again.” Balmer sees this as a redemptive response to the cynicism and venality of the Nixon years, and unquestionably there is some truth to that. But Carter made religion a campaign weapon as well as a private belief, which was not appreciably less calculating than Nixon’s disregard for the Constitution and the common decencies.

If Carter’s presidency was indeed redemptive, why is it that in the 31 / 2 decades since it ended, American politics has been plunged into one of the most bitterly partisan periods in the country’s history? Granting for the sake of argument Balmer’s apparent belief in the sincerity of Carter’s religious beliefs and his commitment to “progressive evangelism,” it remains that it was Carter who brought religion into the public arena and thus opened the way for others whose evangelical beliefs are the polar opposite of his own. Balmer would have us believe that the rise of the religious right was in large part due to the clever political manipulations of Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell and others, but it was Carter who made it possible for them to present themselves as a legitimate political opposition. If it is permissible to grant a political role to “progressive evangelism,” why is it any less legitimate to grant a similar role to those whose evangelism “emphasized free-market capitalism, paid scant attention to human rights or the plight of minorities, and asserted the importance of military might as resistance to communism”?

For the five cents that it’s worth, my own political views are far closer to Carter’s than to those who carry the banner of the religious right — I actually voted for him twice, though holding my nose the second time — and Balmer is right that there is more than a little to admire in the record of his brief presidency, but he was his own worst enemy: smug, self-righteous, sanctimonious, humorless, vindictive and exhibitionistic about his piety. He was too haughty and aloof to deal effectively with friends and foes in Congress — foreshadowing the presidency almost three decades later of Barack Obama — and he never understood how to talk to the American people, as made all too plain by his well-intentioned but tin-eared address to the nation in July 1979 about the “crisis of confidence” from which the country ostensibly was suffering.