New Year’s Eve

  1. Passed around like everyone’s favorite bong
  2. Relational and Ecclesial
  3. Religious Humanism as Subversive
  4. Heckler’s Veto Update


When James Fallows covers a story, he really covers a story. Do not take these snippets as adequate representations of Fallows’ long Atlantic story, The Tragedy of the American Military; they are the biased gleanings of a very anti-war child of the 60’s.

The most biting satirical novel to come from the Iraq-Afghanistan era, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a takedown of our empty modern “thank you for your service” rituals. It is the story of an Army squad that is badly shot up in Iraq; is brought back to be honored at halftime during a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game; while there, is slapped on the back and toasted by owner’s-box moguls and flirted with by cheerleaders, “passed around like everyone’s favorite bong,” as platoon member Billy Lynn thinks of it; and is then shipped right back to the front.

The people at the stadium feel good about what they’ve done to show their support for the troops. From the troops’ point of view, the spectacle looks different. “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need,” the narrator says of Billy Lynn’s thoughts. “That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.” Fountain’s novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2012, but it did not dent mainstream awareness enough to make anyone self-conscious about continuing the “salute to the heroes” gestures that do more for the civilian public’s self-esteem than for the troops’. As I listened to Obama that day in the airport, and remembered Ben Fountain’s book, and observed the hum of preoccupied America around me, I thought that the parts of the presidential speech few Americans were listening to were the ones historians might someday seize upon to explain the temper of our times.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.

With their distance from the military, politicians don’t talk seriously about whether the United States is directly threatened by chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, or is in fact safer than ever (as Christopher Preble and John Mueller, of the Cato Institute, have argued in a new book, A Dangerous World?). The vast majority of Americans outside the military can be triply cynical in their attitude toward it. Triply? One: “honoring” the troops but not thinking about them. Two: “caring” about defense spending but really viewing it as a bipartisan stimulus program. Three: supporting a “strong” defense but assuming that the United States is so much stronger than any rival that it’s pointless to worry whether strategy, weaponry, and leadership are right.

I also found fodder in this story for my periodic and consciously ironic “bring back the draft!” nostalgia:

If more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq.

But, of course (I remind myself), the draft would be rigged, the sons (and daughters) of Congressmen (and women) would avoid it. The real point is to make Congress, of which I undoubtedly am in contempt (my own Congressman not excepted), stop seeing the military as a pork barrel project and our troops as cannon fodder.

I highly recommend the Fallows piece. We’ll only fix the problem after we’ve seen it and made the political cost of perpetuating it higher than the cost of reform.


For countless Americans, Jesus is essentially someone to connect with on your own. While church may be important, it is essentially an accessory. If the communion of the saints has any importance, it is to facilitate each of us finding Jesus on our own. And if something else (say, moving to the country) can get the job done with equal efficacy, then the larger community of Christians becomes unnecessary and can even be an encumbrance.

[I]t is considered cool to pit the relational aspect of Christianity against the structural and ecclesiastical connotations, with the term ‘religion’ being emblematic of the latter. As you’ve probably heard people say before, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.” The only problem is that this false dilemma is about just as illogical as if someone were to claim that marriage cannot be a close relationship if it is also an institution. The love relationship of marriage depends on the integrity of marriage as an institution, just as our relationship with Jesus depends on the integrity of the religion in which that relationship is situated. This is because religion … is about more than just the individual.

(Robin Phillips)


I didn’t realize that “humanism” could be such a trigger word.

On my waiting room table there are a few issues of Image journal that I’ve finished reading but wanted neither to discard nor store. A client especially liked some of the poetry and so went to the masthead to learn more. “Center For Religious Humanism.” When ushered into my office, he interrogated me. “They don’t put man above God, do they?”

Well, no. They don’t. But they put man above ideology, and for many, that’s confusingly similar. And they

I’ll let them explain themselves:

What do I mean by religious humanism? The theologian Max Stackhouse recently provided a simple but suggestive definition. “Humanity,” Stackhouse wrote, “cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God’s revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience.”

On the face of it, the term “religious humanism” seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms — between heaven and earth. But it is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. This paradoxical meeting of these two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.

When emphasis is placed on the divine at the expense of the human (the conservative fault), Jesus becomes an ethereal authority figure who is remote from earthly life and experience. When he is thought of as merely human (the liberal error), he becomes nothing more than a superior social worker or popular guru.

The religious humanist refuses to collapse paradox in on itself. This has an important implication for how he or she approaches the world of culture. Those who make a radical opposition between faith and the world hold such a negative view of human nature that the products of culture are seen as inevitably corrupt and worthless. On the other hand, those who are eager to accommodate themselves to the dominant trends of the time baptize nearly everything, even things that may not be compatible with the dictates of the faith. But the distinctive mark of religious humanism is its willingness to adapt and transform culture, following the dictum of an early Church Father, who said that “Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.” Because religious humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God’s design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the religious humanist’s vision.

I’m unsure what sources my client had listened to, but there are plenty of discussions of “humanism” to make a conscientious Christian wince at the term, and Wikipedia’s discussion even of “religious humanism” sounds like some kind of syncretistic mish-mash, so I guess it’s timely to set the record straight, or to “out” the publishers of Image as holders of an idiosyncratic vision – a vision that’s fine by me, as I’ve read the end of the story and God wins.


It all started in 1949, when one Terminello tried to rouse the racist rabble in Chicago, and police decided that Terminello, not the anti-rabble assaulting and battering his rabble-icious auditors, were the problem. From this incident came the term “heckler’s veto.”

Fast forward:

There is growing support, including among academics and racial and religious advocacy groups, that what they define as hate speech … is simply outside the First Amendment’s protection. Law professors have concocted influential concepts like “outsider jurisprudence,” “critical race theory,” “critical feminist theory, and “storytelling” theory to define some kinds of politically incorrect speech as not speech at all, but “mechanisms of subordination.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. Senate ratified, but with several “reservations” that may have rendered it toothless for now) nominally protects free expression, but requires state parties to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination.” The Organization of the Islamic Conference has repeatedly sponsored resolutions in the U.N. Human Rights Commission against the “defamation of religion.”

(Barry Fisher, Free Speech’s Shrinking Circle of Friends, which sadly seems an apt title)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.