- Cet animal est tres mechant
- We don’t take religion seriously
- Evangelical generation gap
Late-stage liberalism, which calls itself “progressive,” embodies a distinctive secularized soteriology and eschatology. Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what. The uncertainty is itself the point. From the liberal standpoint, the essential thing is that the new issue provokes opposition from the forces of reaction, who may then be conquered in a public and dramatic fashion by the political mobilization of liberal forces.
The Church’s role as liberalism’s principal target and antagonist is … structurally embedded …. At the level of revolutionary politics, the Church and clergy were central targets for the rage of the philosophes and the violence of the mob. At the level of theory, Maurice Cowling showed that Mill’s putatively rational and tolerant liberalism was born out of a patricidal hatred of Christianity, and a desire that the wheel of history should turn once more, and then stop—with the Church replaced by a progressive “clerisy,” enforcing liberal commitments through state education. Both politically and theoretically, hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth.
The deep causes of this antagonism are a question for another day. Patrick Deneen believes that liberalism is best understood as a Christian heresy, a mutation of Gnosticism. Ryszard Legutko thinks that liberalism ultimately finds intolerable the inegalitarian character of Christian salvation, which is unequally distributed. These accounts are both important, but neither, in my view, fully explains why liberalism behaves as it does, and in particular why it is so obsessed with sex. Why, exactly, is it that liberalism so often triggers a celebration of the Festival by attempting to disrupt traditional norms surrounding the family and sexuality? It is no accident, I think, that in the very first celebration of the Festival, the revolutionaries deliberately desecrated the holy altar of Our Lady in Paris, one of the great sacred places of Christendom. Liberalism’s deepest enmity, it seems, is ultimately reserved for the Blessed Virgin—and thus Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12:1–9, which describe the Virgin’s implacable enemy, give us the best clue as to liberalism’s true identity. But whatever the deep causes may be, the phenomenon of hostility to the Church is unmistakable.
It is not, of course, that liberalism’s structural hostility to the Church expresses itself as constant physical persecution; it does not, so far anyway. The hostility is episodic, arising whenever the Festival must be celebrated anew, and in economically developed liberal polities typically takes the form of economic punishment, public shaming, and social sanctions for those who deviate from whatever the latest sexually inflected innovation may be. But the hostility is not less real for all that.
(Adrian Vermeule, A Christian Strategy)
It has been said more times than I can count that the Church is obsessed with sex, which being translated is cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il se defend.
[T]he quote that stood out most to me was this one by Pence’s elderly mother, who is a Catholic:
“Religion is the most important thing in our lives. But we don’t take it seriously.”
That is so perfect it almost makes me want to weep at its flawlessness. This is the kind of Christianity with which many of us grew up. We could not imagine that God wasn’t the most important thing in our lives. But only weirdos let religion interfere with how we lived. Thus, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the last stop to the faith’s oblivion. MTD is for Christians who want to live like everybody else, but who lack the courage to affirm atheism. Their children will not lack that courage, and if not their children, then certainly their grandchildren.
The Economist sends an intrepid reporter to the jungles of Wheaton, Illinois, to investigate rumors of an Evangelical generation gap:
Disgusted by Mr Trump, many younger Christians, in particular, are rethinking the nexus between politics and faith. This raises a glimpse of two much-needed renewals—of America’s democracy and of its foremost religious tradition.
To explore this, Lexington paid a visit to Wheaton College in Illinois, which illustrates some of the strengths of that tradition. One of America’s foremost Christian institutions, it was founded by abolitionists in 1860 and doubled as a stop on the Underground Railway …. [I]n the political-science class to which Lexington was welcomed, the students, 14 evangelical sophomores from across America, seemed mindful of that dual legacy.
They were contemptuous of the acquiescence, or worse, of their co-religionists to Mr Trump’s racial divisiveness. “Evangelical Christianity is supposed to be about love thy neighbour,” said Tim, a uniformed soldier from Ohio. “It gave me a sense of betrayal,” said Jessica, a Mexican-American from San Diego. “It was like our own community turned against my family.” Like Mr Graham, the students also worried that the church had become too political and too partisan. “We’ve become over-identified with a political party,” said Drew, from Pittsburgh. Only two of the students had voted for Mr Trump (though most of their parents had). Nine said they were now uneasy about being identified as evangelical.
While not obviously less prayerful than their parents, young evangelicals, semi-freed from the culture wars, are also culturally more in step with the rest of America. This is apparent in a widening generational split on gay rights. A big majority of older white evangelists oppose gay marriage; almost half of younger ones are for it. Among the students at Wheaton, ten said they were comfortable with gay marriage and only one was not.
… Another important conclusion from the election, moreover, is that they will not consider a Democratic Party that does not respect them. Where Barack Obama, in 2008 especially, launched a serious and rather successful bid for white evangelical votes, Hillary Clinton’s strategists hardly bothered with them in 2016; some framed the contest against Mr Trump as America’s “first post-Christian election”. With white evangelical numbers in decline, and the Democrats increasingly in hock to groups that consider abortion less a necessary evil than a splendid right, that high-handed attitude may endure ….
That’s a pretty small sample for generalization, but Wheaton’s kind of iconic.
One commonly used thoughtstopper that found its way onto the comment pages of this blog a few weeks ago makes a good starting place. The context was a discussion of the problems with unrestricted immigration from nonindustrial countries to industrial countries, and one of the commenters dismissed all such problems out of hand by saying “I believe in people.”
You must admit that in that context, this is a distinctly odd utterance. I suppose that the logical response would be something on the order of “Why, I believe in people too; in fact, I’ve seen them repeatedly, so I know they exist.” Respond that way to somebody who says “I believe in people,” though, and you can count on getting a baffled or irritated response from the speaker. It’s clear that this statement—though it resembles in form such utterances as “I believe in UFOs” and “I believe in Santa Claus”—does not resemble them in meaning.
Translate that utterance in terms of its actual usage, by contrast, and it works out to something like this: “I prefer to feel warm fuzzy emotions about the abstract concept ‘people’.” Translated that baldly, though, it loses its force as a thoughtstopper, since others would be perfectly within their rights to say, “Fine, but why should your preference in emotional states be the basis of public policy?”—or, worse still, “Fine, but what about the people who are losing their livelihoods and being driven into destitution because of the public policies you prefer? Why should your feelings count more than their survival?” That’s why a thoughtstopper has to embody the absurdity, contradiction, or irrelevance mentioned earlier—it serves as protective camouflage for the emotional payload.
A great many other thoughtstoppers get their results by means of the same strategy. Consider that classic example, “Love is the answer.” (This one is especially common in American popular spirituality—in my experience, both the liberal end of Christianity and the New Age movement use it relentlessly.) Again, a logical response might be “Okay, what’s the question?” If you get the bog-standard comeback—“Love is the answer to every question”—you have my permission to make fun of it. “What’s the standard excuse for staying in really dysfunctional relationships?” and “What do religious zealots inevitably talk about while they’re tying you to the stake?” are two of the obvious questions for which love is the answer; I encourage my readers to come up with examples of their own.
Since this is about clear thinking, you might be pardoned for thinking it’s Alan Jacobs, whose book on the topic released the 17th. But it’s actually John Michael Greer at Ecosophia, which I “follow” loosely and rarely quote. This time, though, he has catalogued though stoppers:
- The Vacuous Belch combines an absurd, contradictory, or irrelevant utterance with a warm cozy emotional state.
- Vacuous Shrieks replace the warm fuzzy emotional state with a cold prickly emotional state.
- A One-Way Street takes the form of a general observation, vague to the point of irrelevance, which looks like it applies to both sides of an argument but only applies to one … “Minds are like parachutes, they function only when open.”
- An Undefinition is the insistence that some issue or other can only be discussed if all participants use a label for it that predefines the outcome of the discussion, by erasing all the points that matter to people on one side of the debate.
I can’t resist one bit of expansion. When told that “minds are like parachutes” to try to coax him into a new-agey investment, he shot back “No, they’re like ovens: leave them open all the time and everything comes out half-baked.”
Speaking of Alan Jacobs, though, Rod Dreher has some thoughts on his new book and on how to think.
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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)
There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)