Groundhog Day

  1. The Protestant Deformation
  2. “Get with the program”
  3. Douthat: How Populism Fails
  4. Apocalypse Now!
  5. The philosophy of the cancer cell
  6. The first thing to come to your mind shall be …

1

The internet is wonderful for those who don’t get trapped in porn or social media echo chambers. For instance, Rod Dreher linked to a speech I had heard about but never read, James Kurth’s The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy:

All religions are unique, but Protestantism is more unique than all the others. No other religion is so critical of hierarchy and community, or of the traditions and customs that go with them. Indeed, most other religions are based upon hierarchy or community (in addition to Roman Catholicism, also Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even, to a degree, Buddhism). At its doctrinal base, however, Protestantism is anti-hierarchy and anti-community. Thus, Protestantism is a double rejection in a double sense. It is a rejection of both its experience of Roman Catholicism and its image of Pharisaic Judaism, and it is a rejection of both hierarchy and community.

The Protestant reformers sought to remove hierarchy and community so that the individual Christian believer could have a direct relationship with God. More accurately and subtly, so that the individual believer could have a relationship with God directly through the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, and so that he could receive salvation from God directly from the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

The removal of hierarchy and community, traditions and customs — of any earthly intermediaries between the individual and God — strips away, at least for the most important purposes, any local, parochial, cultural, or national characteristics of the believer. In principle, grace, faith, and salvation can be received by anyone in the world; they are truly universal or catholic, in the original sense of the latter term. The Protestant reformers saw the vast variety of cultures and nations through a universal perspective, one that was even more universal than that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestant Pluralism and Public Rhetoric

At its birth at the end of the eighteenth century, the United States was populated by a wide variety of Protestants. They were found in a wide variety of churches – ranging through Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Unitarians. And they were found on a wide spectrum of the Protestant declension ranging through its first four stages from born-again Christians to unitarians. No one church and no one stage represented a majority of the American population (or even of that part of the white male population which comprised the only persons with the right to vote).

This condition of Protestant pluralism meant that public pronouncements on religious themes that honored citizens situated in one church or stage were just as likely to offend those situated in another. This drove public officials to a religious rhetoric of the least-common, and least-offensive, denominator. This was the rhetoric of unitarianism, which was the fourth stage of the Protestant declension. Not all American Protestants could believe in the full implications of each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, but all of them could believe that God was a supreme being and that providence was divine. The adoption of this unitarian rhetoric was facilitated by the fact that some of the political elite already believed it.

In the early nineteenth century, there were periodic religious revivals among portions of the American population. These moved some Protestants back up the scale to higher stages of belief. However, this did not change the religious rhetoric in public pronouncements. The logic of religious pluralism, reinforced by the substantial numbers of Roman Catholic and even Jews immigrating to the United States in the 1840s and after, continued to drive public officials even further toward the rhetoric of the least-common and least-offensive denominator. This would be a public rhetoric that, while it would use conceptions that were congruent and congenial to the Protestant ones, would make almost no references to religion at all.

And so it goes. We have now reached the sixth and final stage:

The Sixth Stage of the Protestant Declension: Universal Human Rights and the Protestant Deformation

In the 1970s, American political and intellectual elites began to promote the notion of universal human rights as a fundamental goal of American foreign policy. This conception took the central elements of the American Creed and carried them to a logical conclusion and to a universal extent.

The ideology of expressive individualism thus reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy …

Expressive individualism — with its contempt for and protest against all hierarchies, communities, traditions, and customs — represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self. The long declension of the Protestant Reformation has reached its end point in the Protestant Deformation. The Protestant Deformation is a Protestantism without God, a reformation against all forms.

Against a formless re-formation, all sane persons must stand.

I don’t blame Trump for this; that would be even crazier than much of the stuff out there. But Protestants who still believe in Trinitarian Christianity, and the Creeds, should heed James Kurth.

2

“Get with the program or resign” is one of the most ominous things said yet by spokesmen for He Who Must Not Be Crossed.

A masterful and furious response.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For a bit more context on the State Department dissent cable, I’m joined by John Brady Kiesling. He spent two decades at the State Department and signed dissent cables during his time there. One of them was a push for intervention in Bosnia. It earned him an award for constructive dissent from the American Foreign Service Association. John Brady Kiesling, welcome to the program.

JOHN BRADY KIESLING: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: This memo criticizing President Trump’s executive order has reportedly been signed by close to a thousand State Department staff members. How unusual is that?

KIESLING: Completely unusual. It’s never happened before. I think the previous record must be around 50.

SHAPIRO: That’s quite a jump from 50 to a thousand.

KIESLING: It reflects a direct challenge to the professionalism of the State Department and to the idea that the State Department is an institution that knows what it’s doing and does it.

SHAPIRO: Explain what you mean by that.

KIESLING: Terrorism has been on the landscape for over a hundred years. The United States government has been protecting the U.S. borders for even longer than that. A system has evolved. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s pretty good. And it’s staffed by professionals who are absolutely committed to protecting their country.

Now you have basically a group of idiots who have no idea how the world works who’ve come in and said, whatever the previous administration did can’t possibly have worked; we’re going to change it basically by kicking in the teeth everyone who’s worked for a lifetime to protect the U.S.

SHAPIRO: That’s very strong language.

KIESLING: But it’s true.

SHAPIRO: The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said that dissenting State Department staff should get with the program, or they should go. What’s your reaction to that as a former diplomat?

KIESLING: He does not understand that the American Foreign Service consular service is a bunch of experts highly trained to do a very specific job that needs to be done. And they will do that job. They will follow the orders they are given. But destroying the mechanism that protects the United States because people are disloyal – that’s stupid.

SHAPIRO: You ultimately resigned from your position in protest against the Iraq war. It sounds like you followed Sean Spicer’s instruction, get with the program or go. You decided to go.

KIESLING: Exactly. In my case, I was being asked to promote the Iraq war. I could not in good conscience go out and promote that war. And so I had a moral obligation to quit, and I did.

In this case, there is no moral obligation to issue visas against the instructions from the White House. There is simply a professional obligation to let the White House know that the White House’s policy is going to hurt the United States.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump campaigned, and people voted him into office. Why shouldn’t he go through with what he promised to do? After all, diplomats around the world are not elected officials. They were not voted into power.

KIESLING: President Trump promised to make the American people safe. He needs to understand, what are the motives and mechanisms that generate terrorism? What are the ways that put dangerous people close to Americans with the tools to kill them? The State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon have been studying exactly this issue ever since the mid-1960s at least. They have learned something in the process. Before he stomps all over the system, let him find out why the system does what it does.

SHAPIRO: John Brady Kiesling is a former U.S. diplomat. Thank you for joining us.

KIESLING: Thank you for inviting me.

3

Good analysis of how populism fails:

First, populism finds its voice by pushing against the boundaries of acceptable opinion. But in the process it often embraces bigotries and extremisms that in turn color the reception of its policies …

Second, having campaigned against elites and experts and all their pomps and works, populists imagine that their zeal can carry all before it, that proceduralism and institutional knowledge are for losers and toadies and men with soft hands, and that a few guys in the White House can execute a major overhaul of a delicate system without bureaucratic patience or rhetorical finesse …

Then, finally, because populism thrives on its willingness to shatter norms, it tends to treat this chaos and blowback as a kind of vindication — a sign that it’s on the right track, that its boldness is meeting inevitable resistance from the failed orthodoxies of the past, and so on through a self-comforting litany. That makes it hard for populists to course correct, because they get stuck in a “the worse the better” loop, reassuring themselves that they’re making progress when actually they’re cratering.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, the ascent of populism also creates an unusual level of solidarity among elites, who feel moved to resist on a scale that they wouldn’t if similar policies were pursued by normal political actors.

(Ross Douthat)

4

[T]he Trump phenomenon was an apocalypse in the strict sense of the word—that is, an unveiling that revealed some startling truths about economic class and culture in America …

As the national media’s premier explainer of the Trump phenomenon, [Hillbilly Elegy author J.D.] Vance says journalists searching themselves to see how they got so much wrong should get out of their coastal bubbles, choked with the acrid, blinding smoke of confirmation bias, and spend serious, sustained time among ordinary Americans—both those who voted for Trump, and those who hate him.

“It’s remarkable how diverse even the most devotedly pro-Trump areas like my hometown can be,” says Vance, a native of Middletown, Ohio. “And the only way to really understand people is to spend time. Journalists have to get back to the qualitative side of things. Too many people are willing to draw very sweeping conclusions by parsing data and discussing the quantitative side of the equation. Anyone who really knew these areas would have appreciated that Trump had a very high floor.”

(Rod Dreher, Hillbilly Energy, a full-length article at The American Conservative) Something about me loves it when a word like “apocalypse” is used in its proper sense.

5

“Unlimited growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.” (Fr. Stephen Freeman) I thought you’d want to know.

6

David Leonhart at the New York Times is bent on revenge, encouraging Democrats to reject Neil Gorsuch:

When people hear the name “Neil Gorsuch,” as qualified as he may be, they should associate him with a constitutionally damaging power grab.

Second, Democrats should not weigh this nomination the same way that they’ve weighed previous ones. This one is different. The presumption should be that Gorsuch does not deserve confirmation, because the process that led to his nomination was illegitimate.

Call it concern trolling if you like (a term I just added to my vocabulary; H/T Doug Masson), but if his advice is heeded and if the Democrats succeed, watch out, Democrats:

My new wisdom is: “If Trump’s first choice is, unexpectedly, good, take it, because the second choice will surely be worse.”

(Sasha Volokh) That’s “worse” as in “liberals and conservatives alike should both prefer Gorsuch to other Trump-selected alternatives.”

* * * * *

“The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.