Sunday 10/23/16

  1. Pride
  2. Introducing American Folk Religion
  3. No Illusions
  4. We must keep this quiet …
  5. Judging the Economy
  6. Late-term/Partial-birth
  7. The choice facing voters in November

First Things


Pride and nothing else caused an angel to fall from heaven. And so one may reasonably ask whether one may reach heaven by humility alone without the help of any other virtue.

(Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 23)

I often hear people say, “I don’t need religion to be a good person,” but rarely does anyone consider the question, “What does it mean to be a good person?” Usually the response to that question is, “I’ve never killed anyone; I don’t steal.” Well, that does not define a good person; it merely describes someone who is not extraordinarily bad. Furthermore, there are saints who have committed those sins, and not only did they not remain wicked, they became holy. So, for Christianity, to be good does not mean never to have done bad things. Rather, it means to come into union with God through repentance. We have to repent to come into union with God because “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Luke 18:19).

On the other hand, there seems to be a double standard in those who claim that to be good is simply not to do harm to others. For even among the most anti-religious of people, there is no sin that makes a person so unpopular as pride. All the time, I hear people complaining that someone is “full of himself,” or that “he thinks the sun shines out of his backside,” or something to that effect. It is odd that the very people who reject religion and claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe and do as long as you don’t hurt anybody” are the very people you always hear criticizing others for being arrogant or conceited. Since conceit is not actually doing anyone any harm, it is hard to see what the problem is. Haven’t these people let the cat out of the bag and shown that they believe in sin and virtue as much as anybody else?

(Vassilios Papavassiliou, Thirty Steps to Heaven, subtitled “The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life,” as The Ladder itself was written for monks.)

Secondary Things


I have changed my blog category “Evangelicalism” to “American Folk Religion,” and the way WordPress (my blogging platform) works, that flows through to all blogs previously categorized “Evangelicalism.” Should there actually be some benighted soul out there searching my blog by category, that would be vital news.

Why the change? First, because “Evangelicalism” is notoriously hard to nail down substantively.

The religious historian George Marsden once quipped that in the 1950s and 1960s an evangelical Christian was “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” But when Billy Graham was asked to define the term in the late 1980s, he replied, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody too.” As it turned out, even America’s most famous evangelical preacher couldn’t describe what the term meant.

Graham isn’t alone. While the word evangelical pops up in American media to describe everything from mega-churches to voting blocs, few people seem to know what an evangelical is exactly. Those who claim to know often disagree.

The disparate nature of evangelicalism makes its members difficult to define ….

(Jonathan Merritt at the Atlantic) The National Association of Evangelicals gives definition a shot, as do Christianity Today, Theopedia, Wheaton College and Newsmax.

Much of what they say is “Evangelical” is simply Christian (as they know). The true distinctions (e.g., conversionism and dispensationalism) are heretical or conceal as much as they reveal about the man (and woman) in the Evangelical pew in North America.

Anyone can call himself “Evangelical.” Nobody can authoritatively say that someone else isn’t Evangelical. The category is so uncertain and broad of boundary that to read anyone out of it comes across as an instance of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

The “man in the pew” as a caricature of the worst of breed (who for all I know is in the pew only on Easter and Christmas), more than theology or academic distinctions, has been my bête noire in my blogs dealing with “Evangelicalism.” Yet Evangelicalism — in a narrower, theological sense and at its best — is not entirely contemptible.

So my second reason is that I don’t want to give any excuse to think that I hold this very broad and amorphous thing, on which I spiritually subsisted for nearly three decades, in comprehensive contempt.

“American Folk Religion” (which I did not coin) strikes me as helpful for distinguishing the cartoonish cultural phenomenon from its defensible theological core:

  • What I have referred to as “Evangelicalism” has always been an American phenomenon.
  • Its remotest roots are America‘s revivalist, burnt-over district, Second Great Awakening.
  • Its branches are hyper-individualist, theologically incoherent, and often risible. Mars Hill Audio’s Ken Myer, one of the good-guy Evangelicals, called its core “orthopathos” (“right feeling”) rather than orthodox (“right belief” or “right worship”).
  • Only in America has Protestantism indigenously developed a wing that looks like this (elsewhere, it’s the transplant of our missionaries if it persists at all)
  • The magisterial Reformers, let alone the Church Fathers, would never recognize it as legitimate successors to the faith once delivered to the saints.
  • “Folk Religion” tacitly acknowledges the religion’s social pervasiveness and “civil religion” function in the U.S. Since American Folk Religion is so responsive to every shift of political winds, that’s not likely to change, it seems to me.

I started this item to tell you why I did what I’ve done. In the process, I teased out to my own benefit a bit myself about what’s been giving me a bellyache.

“American Folk Religion,” be it noted, is pretty close to another new category, “Free-range Christians.”  We’ll see how that plays out; I think the latter may lack the social valence of the former.

Tertiary Things


2016 should strip us of any illusions that either major party has any actual principles on sexual abuse of women. I will henceforth treat all tongue-clucking by major party politicians about sexual misconduct of political enemies as presumptively hypocritical, with a high burden of proof to overcome the presumption.

Conservative Nancy French, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse (a Protestant preacher, it appears), reflects on how this year affected her:

When the Trump videotapes broke, I watched the news and Twitter feeds of prominent evangelicals to see justice be done. But what I saw was all-too-familiar and yet somehow still shocking. “This is how men talk,” one said. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” another said another — who used to “focus on the family” and had never uttered that phrase to refer to any Democrat who ever walked the face of the earth.

It’s hard to describe the effect 2016 has had on sexual abuse survivors. I believed the men in my party when they shrugged off the constant liberal accusations of being anti-woman.

But Pope John Paul II’s words ring true: “Christ … assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man.” If that’s right, the men in my party, in my church, in my life have failed; they ask me to participate in overlooking the offense.

He didn’t do anything wrong. You caused this. You enjoyed it. You deserved it. 

Instead of those words bouncing around my head, they are bouncing around my Facebook feed, off the lips of my friends, from the screens of my phone and laptop. They are directed toward Bill Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s accusers.

Republicans who have lamented the Clintonian proclivity to malign women are now defending the same activities because … well, they idolize power or their own strategic cleverness. Trump, like the preacher [who abused me], is too important to abandon. We have become what we said we despised.

I realize now — only now after all these years — it’s all been a facade. The “religious right,” which I’ve defended my whole life, abandoned the posture of “family values” when they had the chance to gain a seat at the table.

Here’s the truth. The GOP once was alive but is now dead. It confuses me to hear the values preached from the podium but ignored in real life; it feels odd to just repurpose a political party into an extension of the trump (sic) Empire without acknowledging the values which had so recently dwelled there.

My party — which should’ve been a place of a certain set of values — now shelters an abuser. I’m thinking of this when the GOP presses against me and asks me to close my eyes just one more time.

I know to a moral certainty that some of my long-term Evangelical friends would (will? I don’t know if they read my pseudonymous blog) baselessly burst forth in rage at this — She’s not really a conservative! She’s shilling for Hillary! She’s making up this supposed abuse! — which proves French’s point.

This is not to say “it’s only sex” or that sexual morality is no fair litmus test of character. It is to insist that unless one is even-handed in application of their principles, they’re not really principles at all.


It finally hit me what all these conservatives — especially conservative Christians — defending Trump, despite more and more evidence of his propensity for sexual assault, remind me of: apologists for the Catholic Church during the abuse scandal.

We have to vote for Trump because if Hillary wins, things will be worse! they say. The enemies of the faith will have a field day.

And you know what? If Hillary wins, things will be terrible. The enemies of faith will in fact have a field day.

Yet this is the same argument I heard personally many times from fellow Catholics — including priests — during the abuse scandal. We have to keep it quiet because enemies of the Church would use that information to discredit it. It will give those who would destroy us ammunition.

Yeah, it would, and it did. But that puts us in the position of the bishop of a large diocese (now retired) who was very blunt when he met with an abuse victim, her lawyer, and the psychiatrist who was treating her (a faithful conservative Catholic, by the way). The victim had not been a child when she was abused by her priest. She was an adult who, in a sacramental confession, admitted that she had cheated on her husband. The priest used that information to blackmail her into a sexual affair. She finally had a nervous breakdown, and sought psychiatric help. Once the bishop found out about it, he sent the priest to Ireland, then met with the victim and her team.

Both this woman and her psychiatrist told me in an interview that the bishop told her that if she filed a lawsuit against the Church or went public with what happened, that he would see to it that she was ruined. Said the bishop, “I have to protect the people of God.”

I think this bishop honestly thought that’s what he was doing. He went on to be transferred to an even larger diocese. By the time he retired, his name had been all over the papers for covering up child sexual abuse in the dioceses where he had served.

(Rod Dreher)


“Gross domestic product is not the tool Catholics should use to judge the economy,” Deneen said. They should be asking, “Is the economy serving our communities? Is it strengthening our families? Is it providing for a kind of long-term consideration of the effects of our actions upon the environment and upon the world?”

(Richard Duncan, Christian thinkers call for a politics of ‘localism,’ Catholic News Service)

Pre-publication update:


Terminology: People who think partial-birth abortion should be legal sometimes sniff that “partial-birth abortion is not a medical term.” It is unclear why this should matter. It is a term defined in federal law, and its definition has not been struck down on grounds of vagueness. And as Kenneth Woodward pointed out when the New York Times refused to use the term in its reporting, to be consistent about a prohibition on non-medical terms it would also have to excise “heart attack” from its pages.

The reasons partial-birth abortions are done: Clinton made it sound as though partial-birth abortions are usually done for health reasons. This claim was frequently advanced during the early days of the debate over partial-birth abortion. It is untrue. Check out this 1997 New York Times story, or just read the opening line: “A prominent member of the abortion rights movement said today that he lied in earlier statements when he said a controversial form of late-term abortion is rare and performed primarily to save the lives or fertility of women bearing severely malformed babies.”

The frequency of partial-birth abortions and late-term abortions: NPR’s “fact check” of the debate links to a 2006 NPR story that says that partial-birth abortion, before it was banned, was performed “only” about 2,200 times a year. An NPR story specifically about last night’s abortion exchange said: “Only about 1.5 percent of abortions take place 20 weeks or later after conception. Of those, the vast majority happen before 24 weeks.” It also said that the number of partial-birth abortions “is believed to be small.”

… Describing the numbers involved as “small” is … tendentious. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that in 2011, 1.06 million abortions were performed in the U.S. Using the 1.5 percent estimate would mean that there were 15,900 abortions after the 20th week. AGI also reported (as noted here) that there were 2,200 partial-birth abortions in 2000, when it was generally legal. Are these numbers small? Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee once pointed out that if a new virus was killing 2,200 premature infants in neonatal wards each year, it would be on the evening news every week. Note also that this estimate of the number of abortions after the 20th week exceeds the number of gun deaths (excluding suicides) in the U.S. last year. Does it seem to you that the press typically treats this as a small number?

(Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review, faulting media coverage of the abortion issue after the third Presidential debate)


Of course it would be wonderful for the Clinton campaign to repudiate the content of these ugly WikiLeaks emails. All of us backward-thinking Catholics who actually believe what Scripture and the Church teach would be so very grateful.

In the meantime, a friend describes the choice facing voters in November this way: A vulgar, boorish lout and disrespecter of women, with a serious impulse control problem; or a scheming, robotic liar with a lifelong appetite for power and an entourage riddled with anti-Catholic bigots.

In a nation where “choice” is now the unofficial state religion, the menu for dinner is remarkably small.

(Archbishop Charles Chaput, H/T Wall Street Journal)

* * * * *

“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.