Politics drove me halfway to the Slough of Despond yesterday. Two examples:
- An old Evangelical friend posted about Brett Kavanaugh “let him who is without sin ….” If that weren’t bad enough, a friend of his jumped in with a litany of lurid innuendo about the accuser. I asked for citations and he snottily referred me to a QAnon YouTube (which I couldn’t find).
- Then, on the Orthodox side, a priest trolled a sensible friend of mine, trying to change the topic from the patent deficiencies of Trump to the unreliability of Bob Woodward putting flesh on the bones we all can see with our own two (no doubt lyin’) eyes.
So I’m not feeling all that swell about the political swill I have to share today, but some of it is my own reflection, which was already written (at least in draft) to clarify my thinking, so here it is.
The current Atlantic asks “Is Democracy Dying?,” by which I think it means, at least in part, is classical liberalism dying? A lot of smart people think it is, apart from the Atlantic crew. Indeed, at American Affairs, they’ve been critiquing Patrick Deneen’s eulogy to liberalism.
Adrian Vermeule was one of the critics — a churl, in his own words. He is a very bright fellow — Harvard-Law-School-Prof bright. He’s also a Catholic convert and an Integralist — a non-liberal or illiberal political theory that I’d probably mangle if I tried to describe it myself.
Wikipedia introduces it thus:
Integralism or integrism is used in the context of Catholicism to refer to an organization of the state which rejects “the separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal.” Though less commonly referred to in modern theology, integralism defines the social order of medieval Christendom and is part of the social teaching of the Catholic Church.
(Footnotes and hyperlinks omitted) Suffice that Integralism is to my right, but not so far to my right that I scorn it reflexively.
Most days, you see, I find persuasive Patrick Deneen’s theory that liberalism has shot its wad, is going away, and good riddance! Integralism’s appeal is that in an illiberal regime, I’d rather have friends in control than enemies.
So I wish I could find plausible Vermeule’s scenario of a bunch of well-formed Christian Josephs and Daniels and Mordecais and Esthers taking charge of the apparatus of the liberal state from inside and putting that apparatus to holy use.
But with Alan Jacobs (through whom I learned of Vermeule’s article — I had neglected my American Affairs subscription), I think we’ve got a good generation of Benedict-Option style Christian formation to do or else we’ll get a takeover by illiberal Christianoids (or illiberal anti-Christians).
If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.
What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.
From where I sit, that’s pretty obvious, but not everyone has my perspective. So later, in a micro.blog “conversation” (uncertain how or whether that link will work if you don’t have a micro.blog account), Jacobs responded to a sincere inquiry whether “People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education” doesn’t “describe a solid majority of U.S. elected representatives”:
… I have no doubt that such people are very sincere in their faith, but they aren’t especially well formed by it. You wouldn’t have to be all that well-versed in the Bible and Christian history to know that Jews and Christians have often suffered to the point of martyrdom because they wouldn’t worship the emperor or the gods of the State — and yet many of these professedly evangelical churches hold Make America Great Again rallies and destroy Nike shoes from the pulpit because NFL players “disrespect the flag.” Leading evangelicals say that it’s okay that Trump has done a lot of bad things because “King David was a sinner too” — without noticing that David repented of his sins, whereas Trump has said that he doesn’t repent because he doesn’t do many things wrong. So what we’re seeing here is people who have a sincere profession of faith but don’t know the basic grammar of their religion. It is the civic religion of America, rather, that they are formed by ….
And that’s why I tend to think on other days that liberalism, infirm though it may be, is the least bad option available in a fallen world, and we need to rejuvenate it.
It’s mostly the illiberal comprehensive theories liberalism keeps sneaking in the back door that give me pause, suspecting that the rhetorics of “democracy” and “liberalism” are just secular opiates of the people.
Why aren’t Western Christians better formed? Here, my imagination took flight.
Isn’t Forensic Justification — basically, that God declares us righteous without making us righteous (or even caring all that much about righteousness) — the perfect doctrine for consoling those who’ve been catechized in the ways of Babylon but want to call themselves Christian?
Liberty University is an accredited, actual institution of higher education. It’s a real place. People pay real money to go there, receive degrees bearing the school’s name, and take those degrees out into the world, proclaiming their association with it. People take out thousands of dollars in student loans for the privilege of doing that. Really … The average cost of Liberty University, after financial aid, is $24,000 a year.
Fred Clark, The Slactivist. But $24,000 is a bargain, because you get to be forever associated with “firefighter prophet” Mark Taylor, who has gone from extreme to batshit crazy. See here, here, here, here, and here. They’re associated with him because Liberty is making “The Trump Prophecy” based on him.
If I cared about Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University, I would explain “sunk costs” to them and urge them to quit digging (to mix metaphors).
There are two unfair and irrational ways to look at this allegation. One, of course, is simply to decide that because you already opposed or supported Kavanaugh, that should determine whether you think the charge is true (or useful). That’s the partisan route, and it treats individuals caught up in political fights as fungible and disposable parts.
The other is to decide that, because the allegations remind you vaguely of some charge in the past that turned out to be true, or false, or because you want accusers to generally be believed, you should just decide the same has to be true here regardless of the particular facts.
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