First Things Dump (with bonus track)

I’ve read the new First Things. That means the old one should be entirely up online now.

Let’s see, now …

Yup. Time for a First Things dump. (Items 5 though 8 may not yet be available if you’re not a subscriber; they’re from the current issue.)

    1. Our Carrie Nation
    2. The Metaphysical Revolution
    3. Speaking of Hysteria
    4. The Power Elite
    5. Protestant, Catholic, Jew
    6. The Americanization of ­Christianity
    7. Facing the Unborn
    8. Is the Para male or female?
    9. Bonus track


The furor over the Indiana RFRA was fueled by ­haughty, moralistic (in its postmodern iteration) propaganda. Again and again commentators waved the bloody shirt of discrimination, even though there’s no evidence that gays and lesbians are discriminated against in Indiana (or elsewhere). The outcry was purely symbolic, meant more as a display of cultural power than as a reasoned intervention into the question of the nature and scope of religious liberty. It was shock and awe.

Prohibition was the old Establishment’s greatest campaign. Rich Protestant women led the charge. They were from what used to be called “good families.” Today’s crusaders for gay rights are no longer Protestant or women, but they’re affluent—sometimes more than affluent—and from “good universities,” which is today’s surest sign of Establishment membership.

The furor in Indiana reflects a zealous moralism. Homosexual marriage must be affirmed! The slightest possibility of a spot or stain horrifies. Homophobia must be wiped out! We must have teetotalism! Tim Cook, the Apple CEO who wrote one of the first calls for national resolve to fight against Indiana’s RFRA, is today’s Carrie Nation.

But I also feel a certain optimism. Prohibition was America’s experiment in elite-imposed cultural totalitarianism. Its failure discredited the Protestant Establishment of that era. H. L. Mencken wrote that the impulse behind Prohibition was the need to satisfy a perverse moralist passion. It reflected “the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.” I’ll defend the honor of Puritanism against this charge, but the browbeat, punish, and humiliate part rings true of the overreaching, controlling impulse of the Great and the Good in America.

Today’s Establishment seems doomed to overreach as well. The male–female difference is more fundamental to the human condition than longstanding traditions of alcohol consumption. That difference will continue to assert itself, making most of us less than enthusiastic about reorganizing society so as to suppress social and legal ­recognition of the male–female difference, which is what a thorough­going regime of gay rights will require. Today’s Prohibitionists invariably describe this lack of ­enthusiasm as “homophobic,” seeing it as evidence of the need for more-extensive “reeducation.” This will collide ever more ­violently with our inborn loyalty to the male–female ­difference.

There is the further fact that Christianity is not a passing fashion. Even abstracting from the supernatural character of the Church, Christianity’s global reach and existential potency give it extraordinary staying power. There are only two forms of life in the West that survived the fall of the Roman Empire—the Church and the synagogue. Now that the university is becoming the Bureaucratic-­Academic Complex (as David Gelernter calls it), today only the Church and the synagogue have survived the capitalist and democratic revolutions that remade so much of modern life. Given this record of endurance, it bids fair that the biblical testimony about sex, family, and marriage will continue to form hearts and minds.

(R.R. Reno, Our Carrie Nation)


Courts increasingly treat with suspicion religiously motivated moral views about marriage, procreation, contraception, ­family relationships, child rearing, and education. What was once thought to be the wellspring of democratic culture—the general influence of a Judeo-Christian moral outlook—is now thought to be a persistent threat to freedom.

This change in legal presumption reflects a larger social change. Today, we’re seeing a shift in consensus, at least in the Establishment. It’s moving from Washington’s view of religion as, on the whole, good to one that sees religion as oppressive. That’s not because religion has changed. It’s because our view of freedom has. The human body has become an enemy of freedom, and because Judaism and Christianity affirm the body, we’re now seen as allies of the enemy.

There are close legal arguments to be made against this expansion of pseudo-liberty. There are moral arguments to be made in hopes of restoring a degree of sanity to Western culture. But as we make those arguments we need always to remember a fundamental truth: We have become metaphysical heretics in an era that denies the body any moral meaning. This makes us the bad guys in today’s culture wars, the enemies of postmodern freedoms, which are no longer political but personal.

(R.R. Reno, The Metaphysical Revolution – the second segment at this URL)


As long as we’re on the topic of hysteria, let’s take a look at the statement issued by San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong.

I am dismayed, if not extremely disappointed, in the recent legislation signed into law in Indiana. It is unconscionable for this great University to spend its resources in a state that attempts to legislate discrimination of any kind.

By this note, I am informing the campus community that no San Francisco State University funds from any source—general funds or auxiliary—will be used to support employee or student travel to Indiana. This action is effective today, Monday, March 30, 2015, until further notice. Any travel authorized prior to today may proceed as planned with approval of the appropriate vice president.

We are researching similar legislation reputed to be existent in other states to determine further action.

As a member of the NCAA Division II President’s Council, I will not attend a required meeting of the Council to be held in April in Indianapolis. A copy of this note is being sent to NCAA President Mark Emmert and to CSU Chancellor Timothy White.

Our commitment to social justice on this campus remains a point of pride for me. The vice presidents, deans and Academic Senate’s Executive Committee all endorse this ­action.

As I mentioned in my Public Square, the new Establishment, like the Old Establishment, is fond of its moral superiority, even to the point of grotesque mischaracterization (the RFRA “legislating discrimination”!) and preening moral grandiosity (social justice “remains a point of pride for me”). All this is weirdly combined with the serene lack of actual knowledge about life outside the charmed circle of the Great and the Good—“We are researching similar legislation reputed to be existent in other states . . .”

(R.R. Reno, While We’re At It)


The Power Elite from Patrick Deneen was also in the June issue, but I mentioned it back in May. Deneen focuses more on corporate America than the formerly WASP colleges and universities.


I’m often asked how First Things can be a conservative religious publication and yet include such a range of religious believers — Protestants can write as Protestants, Catholics as Catholics, Jews as Jews. My answer is simple: We are united in the conviction that obedience to God makes us more human. This obedience is contagious. It gives us the courage and humility and wisdom to contribute to the humanization of the world.

I hope reading First Things encourages this spirit of devotion. It’s the foundation of all we are trying to do. As Thomas Levergood recently reminded me, “Religion in public life is useless without religion in interior life.”

(R.R. Reno, Thy Will be Done)


Jenner is on his way to being a self-made woman—in a very literal sense. It’s a very American ambition and, in many ways, a conservative one, at least as conservatism is often defined in our country. Jenner himself is a Republican. This shocked Diane Sawyer, but it doesn’t surprise me. It’s easy to describe Jenner in Silicon Valley terms. He’s an identity entrepreneur. He’s committed to creative destruction, in this case of his male identity …

He also reflects a very American belief in the power of technology to solve our problems … ­Jenner’s recourse to hormone therapy and sex change surgery fits our dreams of a technological fix, supplement, and enhancement for everything. Pope Francis’s analysis of the technological mentality illuminates all of this very nicely.

Jenner’s transgenderism inspires us! He sculpted himself as an Olympic athlete. Now he’s resculpting himself as a woman. His body offers seemingly limitless possibilities. And why not? Americans dislike defeat and limits. Jenner gives us hope. Maybe we too can overcome our limitations. He has escaped the trap of his aging male body; maybe there’s a technology, pill, or procedure that can spring me from my traps.

Jenner is also a churchgoer, as a young California pastor testified in a Washington Post opinion piece. That’s another very American quality, at least as compared to Europeans, Japanese, and others. No doubt this also shocks liberals. But that’s because they have so little idea of what actually goes on in the hyper-diverse world of American Christianity …

Jenner attended a nondenominational church, and perhaps still does. There are plenty of them throughout America. Some are biblically conservative. But others are best described as charismatically therapeutic, both praising God and affirming the “Real Me.” The prosperity gospel isn’t just about wealth. It’s also about reaching your “full potential.” It’s a very American kind of Christianity. For most, that doesn’t mean hormone therapy and sex change surgery. But one of the key dogmas of this kind of Christianity is Jesus’s acceptance of us just as we are. And, hey, if someone is a woman waiting to burst forth from a man’s body, well, Jesus will accept and affirm the “Real Me.”

Wilkinson is on target when he sums up the religious meaning of the Jenner phenomenon: “Caitlyn Jenner of Malibu is a leading indicator not of the secularization of America, but of the ongoing Americanization of ­Christianity.”

(R.R. Reno, The Jenner Moment, the third segment at this URL)


No photograph can depict the inner self-direction of a growing embryo …

If we could somehow visualize facets of a still undeveloped embryo’s own future, our forward-looking intuition would become much more powerful. Here Kwame Anthony ­Appiah has made a very useful suggestion. He thinks Americans debating abortion should consider that “those dead fetuses could have been . . . their children’s friends.” Every friend is a unique individual. To see an embryo as a possible friend is thus to envision it as a human individual, even though nothing individual is yet known about him or her.

How much more transformative it could be if we could analyze an embryo’s genetic structure and conclude, “This embryo will grow up to be a petite Asian woman with considerable artistic talent.” Or better: Suppose a computer could someday produce images from her DNA and show us her likeness—even her very face—as a newborn infant, a little girl, a teenager, or an adult. Such an advance in technology might be as important as ultrasound for the pro-life movement, turning public opinion against the destruction of embryonic human beings. Real-time ultrasound images of fetal faces have already brought about more respect for prenatal life; how much greater might be the effect of faces with open eyes. Could we easily “look an embryo in the eyes” and decide to annihilate her?

This is not science fiction. The technological possibility of such images appears to be upon us. Forensic investigators are already using “DNA phenotyping” as a supplement to artists’ sketches in developing rough visual profiles of suspects, especially where no one has witnessed a crime but traces of unexpected DNA have been left behind. A recent story in the New York Timesabout the use of this technology contained examples of computer-generated faces paired with their actual counterparts. The resemblances may not be perfect, but they’re striking. Researchers are seeking to improve the accuracy of DNA-based visual profiles by adding ever more genetic variables.

(Richard Stith, Facing the Unborn)


The recently revised New York City Health Department form for parents requesting birth certificates asks the “woman giving birth” whether she is female or male. The question is obviously absurd. But why do absurdities of this sort keep popping up? And why do most people fall in line, pretending—at least in public—that they are perfectly sensible? The natural reaction is to roll our eyes: These things cannot be serious, and they will go away if we ignore them. But they do not go away, and the absurdities become more common, extreme, and compulsory.

(James Kalb, Technocracy Now)

Bonus Track

When I heard, though, that the ghouls of the Westboro Baptist Church are planning to picket the funerals of the two [Lafayette, Louisiana] women killed [at a movie theater], I thought, “Oh, oh, oh, they have NO IDEA what they’re messing with.” You do not want to do that to Cajuns. You just don’t.

If you want to see a miracle, look for the Westboro trash to escape Acadiana without getting their butts whipped. A Facebook movement has arisen down here to get volunteers to form a human shield between Westboro’s squad and mourners of the dead women. So far, they have nearly 5,000 volunteers. I seriously wouldn’t doubt that Westboro is going to find more trouble down here than they anticipate. And I seriously wouldn’t mind it if they did. Some people just have it coming to them.

(Rod Dreher)

* * * * *

“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.