Culture warriors and traditores

Rod Dreher  engages David Mills and Robert P. George’s call to arms encouragement not to muster out of active duty in the culture wars. Rod’s not giving any ground in his conviction that the wars are unwinnable.

Mills and George do not mention, so far as I know, that some will not just lay down arms but will grudgingly (at first – then comes the cognitive dissonance) pledge obeisance to the new regime.

Last time we danced this dance, the Donatists were mostly from the poorer classes, the traditores from higher classes. This time it’s somewhat reversed, as Rod points out:

”Enough with the defeatism” is easy advice to give from the position of a tenured faculty member, or from the position of an unmarried young man who works for a conservative Washington think tank, or from the position of a writer for a conservative magazine. It’s a lot harder advice to take when you are like my friend the senior manager, or any of the non-tenured faculty I’ve met in my recent travels who are deeply worried about the atmosphere on their campuses.

This is a lesson that I, a crypto-Donatist, need to remember when I catch young Christian folks mouthing liberal groin pieties. Maybe they just don’t get it, but maybe they’re living too close to the margins to risk making themselves odious to those who can so readily defenestrate them.

On the larger question of whether to muster out of active duty, it bears remembering that there are (at least) two kinds of orthodox Christian conservatives:

The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley Arkes, and Robert Royal.

Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism … The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project.

Proponents of this position argue that America was well-founded and took a wrong turn in the late-19th century with the embrace of Progressivism … The task, then, is restore the basic principles of the American founding—limited government in which the social and moral mores largely arising from the familial and social sphere orient people toward well-ordered and moral lives. This position especially stresses a commitment to the pro-life position and a defense of marriage, and is generally accepting of a more laissez-faire economic position. It supports a vigorous foreign policy and embraces a close alignment between Catholicism and Americanism. It has become closely aligned with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism. Its main intellectual heroes are the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler (brilliantly profiled in the pages of TAC by Jeremy Beer). These two figures write in arcane and sometimes impenetrable prose, and their position lacks comparably visible popularizers such as Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. Its intellectual home—not surprisingly—is the less-accessible journal Communio. An occasional popularizer (though not always in strictly theological terms) has been TAC author Rod Dreher. A number of its sympathizers—less well-known—are theologians, some of whom have published in more popular outlets or accessible books, such as Michael Baxter, William T. Cavanaugh, and John Medaille. Among its rising stars include the theologian C.C. Pecknold of Catholic University and Andrew Haines, who founded its online home, Ethika Politika. From time to time I have been counted among its number.

The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism …

Because of these positions, the “radical” position—while similarly committed to the pro-life, pro-marriage teachings of the Church—is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government. It is comfortable with neither party, and holds that the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of liberalism—the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (“conservatism”—better designated as market liberalism). Because America was founded as a liberal nation, “radical” Catholicism tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe. It wavers between a defensive posture, encouraging the creation of small moral communities that exist apart from society—what Rod Dreher, following Alasdair MacIntyre, has dubbed “the Benedict Option”—and, occasionally, a more proactive posture that hopes for the conversion of the nation to a fundamentally different and truer philosophy and theology.

(Patrick Deneen, An American Catholic Showdown Worth Watching). There’s not a stupid person listed there (though Rod Dreher, a journalist and blogger, tends to be a bit excitable). I think it’s fair to say that Orthodox, especially converts, lean toward the second camp. I certainly do, though I read and often cite writers from both camps.

Current news in favor or the radical camp: My “conservative” governor, widely viewed as a potential President before the Battle of Indianapolis, recently made pilgrimage to Las Vegas to court the support of a GOP kingmaker who made his money in vice. How reliable a friend can this be?

[I]f you are interested in this critique of Christianity and culture, you absolutely must subscribe to Ken Myers’s Mars Hill Audio Journal, which is hands down the very best resource for helping intellectual Christians understand the nature of the times in which we live.

(Rod Dreher – and me)

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.