Cultural Liturgies

America does not have a liturgy of repentance. The days of fasting once enjoined upon us are a thing of the past. Even then, for all the prayers and fasting of Lincoln’s republic, no particular liturgy ever marked the end of slavery, much less sought to repent for its evils. To this day, many seek to justify its history.

When the Soviet Union fell, within a few short years, Russians began to create memorials and liturgies for the atrocities of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, at the killing fields of Butovo, a Church now stands as a memorial to its victims. Public liturgies are held there on a regular basis. It is one of many such memorials across the country.

Our public narrative is very thin. The Church historian, Martin Marty, once said that American Christianity was “2,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep.” When our Christian theology mimics the triumphant patriotism of our culture, nothing deeper ever begins. Depth comes with suffering. Suffering creates sorrow, and sorrow, of a godly sort, produces repentance.

We are bad at enough stuff and have a history sufficiently marked with sorrow to create fertile ground for repentance. It lacks the humility to greet it.

It is ever so much more than a game.

Fr, Stephen Freeman

I suspect that Fr. Stephen’s blog entry was spurred by Sunday’s SuperBowl LIV, with the only liturgical elements our nation knows: patriotism with a dash of remembrance. It might even have been influenced by Fr. Steven browsing the Eighth Day Books book table at the Eighth Day Symposium a bit over a week ago, on which table I’m pretty sure James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies trio was on display.

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Trump didn’t do the thing he’s accused of doing, but if he did it was fine, and in fact that’s exactly what he did, get over it, because it’s not only fine, it’s precisely what we want from a president, and can you believe that Biden did the same thing, shame on him.

Peter Sunderman

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Taking the easy way out

Soren Kierkegaard … [in]n a series of essays compiled as an Attack on Christendom, … makes a characteristically striking claim. He observes that the greatest danger to Christianity is, in fact, Christendom. This is the state-mandated and organized form of belief that parrots the spiritual dimensions of Christian teaching but is thoroughly dependent on the application of legal and social force to demand compliance. In this context, many people came to regard Christianity in thoroughly human terms …

… In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself. It was designed, in his famous phrase, to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder. And this is where I think French demonstrates far more understanding than Ahmari. Despite the latter’s ridicule, French’s efforts to change people’s mind by appealing to the individual’s need for spiritual fulfillment is hard. It involves understanding each person as a unique being whose relationship to what is of “highest concern” is mediated by a huge number of complex factors. Ahmari embracing a post-modern conservative like Trump as an answer to Christian decline is actually quite easy. It involves abandoning what makes Christianity challenging, namely the demand to always approach any conflict with love and patience. It instead looks to state authority to resolve the problem of secularism. Abandoning what makes Christianity challenging in order to win the culture war and enjoy “the spoils” means abandoning Christianity.

My purpose in writing this was to defend French against the claim that he is somehow adopting a softer or easier position than those of his rivals.

Matt McManus, Why Christians Should Oppose Sohrab Ahmari (emphasis added)

McManus, by the way, is an apostate who at least hasn’t forgotten selected parts of the faith he now substantially rejects.

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I sought to understand, but it was too hard for me, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.

(Psalm 72/73:15-17, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)

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Instrumentalizing God

For decades, I endured periodic sermons and political rants disguised as prayers. Because of who and where I was, and the few loose political affiliations I had, those sermons and rants almost all ranged from right to further right.

And because I thought God shouldn’t be instrumentalized and that prayer shouldn’t be pretext, I hated them, much as I hated “worship” that was really pep-talk-cum-pop-concert.

I’m pleased to report that who and where I am has changed, that my political affiliations are even fewer, and that it’s much better now. That’s a separate story.

I say all that to note this: A “letter to God” in the New York Times Opinion section. That letter struck me in places as being a left version of those pretextual prayers. But it’s not. Whatever its faults are, they seem outweighed by its merits, especially this week.

(Be it noted that George Yancy is not George Yancey.)

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Forsaking lunacy, again and again

I have long thought that the best critique of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is that he’s just asking Christians to actually act like Christians, and asking the Church actually to do the work of the Church. (Long? Well, the book has barely been out for a year, hard as that is to believe, but I watched it gestate on his blog.)

I also have long thought that the best defense of the Benedict Option is that Dreher’s just asking Christians to actually act like Christians, and asking the Church actually to do the work of the Church.

Dreher’s seemingly anodyne requests are important in part because too damned many professing Christians are interested in God’s minimum requirements, when His minimum requirement is, and always has been, everything. Too many Churches (I didn’t use scare quotes. You’re welcome.) are interested only in institutional survival, and will pander to the basest fads to keep the coffers full and tushies in the pews.

Maybe just-enough-to-not-go-to-hell Christianity is nothing new. If not, that would explain the emergence in so many ages of prophetic voices. Alan Jacobs makes the same substantive prophetic point as Dreher in rather unprophetically winsome garb, coming at it from a much different direction, too. I cannot improve on Jacobs, so I’ll not try. Just go read it.

But I’m persuaded that to become an idiot rather than a lunatic (and I’ve demonstrated my lunacy today by spending too much time on the ramifications of Julian Assange’s indictment), I must read Jacobs’ beloved Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, toward which I have taken the necessary first step of getting it onto my Kindle.

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Mostly religious, 9/21/18

1

Small-o orthodox Christians are up against immense power. Think of the opening lines of David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

This is liberalism. If we wish to change the water, so to speak, we have to first learn what water is, why it’s wrong, and how to be in the water, but not of it …

It’s not an either-or, but a both-and. But as Alan Jacobs says, if we’re going to have Daniels and Esthers, we have to have fathers, mothers, and communities that produce Daniels and Esthers. Notice, though, that Dante (the pilgrim) comes to Marco from a world where the formative institutions have become corrupt. Marco tells Dante that if he wants to undertake the work of reforming the corrupt institutions, he has to start with his own heart, and work outward.

It’s true for us too.

Rod Dreher.

Remember: Dreher is not using “liberalism” as an epithet for the beliefs of the Democrat party. He’s using it as a term that fits roughly 99% of us — or at least I thought it did until the 2016 election. Its opposite is not “conservative” but “illiberal.”

I don’t think I’d ever read that David Foster Wallace commencement address before. It’s well worth reading.

2

Some fellow named Richard Gaillardetz explains in The Tablet (pay wall — my summary is from an email teaser) what’s going on with Pope Francis:

Francis is determined to realise the bold, reforming vision of the second Vatican Council, and some of those closest to him are determined to stop him.

Gosh. That was easy — facile, even. It’s nice when neutral observers can help clear the mind of troublesome doubts.

3

I should say that the danger to our own social order is not that a relatively small number of people engage in same-sex acts, but that a great number of people are approaching the view that the bodily powers have no purpose but physical pleasure, and that not even marriage has any necessary connection with either the procreation of children or the union of their parents. One might say that heterosexuals are coming to accept an essentially homosexual view of sex.

J. Budziszewski, responding to a question about whether we should treat homosexual acts as an evil whose eradication nevertheless would bring even greater evil (as Augustine treated prostitution).

4

Having left Evangelicalism some 21 years ago, I’ve lost track of who’s who (with a few exeptions: Tim Keller, good; Jen Hatmaker, bad). I had heard the name “Beth Moore” but couldn’t place her.

Now Emma Green has done a profile, occasioned by Moore’s lost attendance, revenues, etc. because she thought there was something rotten about Evangelicals barely skipping a beat for Trump even when the obstacle was “grab them by the pussy.”

She still gets push-back, even from people who attend her rallies, talks or whatever they are:

“I don’t think this is the avenue for political discussions,” said Shelly, 56. “I think it should stay focused on God.”

Moore believes she is focused on God. The target of her scorn is an evangelical culture that downplays the voices and experiences of women. Her objective is not to evict Trump from the White House, but to clear the cultural rot in the house of God.

Moore has not become a liberal, or even a feminist. She’s trying to help protect the movement she has always loved but that hasn’t always loved her back—at least, not in the fullness of who she is.

(Emphasis added)

I still don’t know whether Moore is a solid teacher or a flake; that’s not within Emma Green’s scope, really.

But I do find it reasonable to view Evangelical acceptance of Trump’s misogynist (okay: maybe it’s just misanthropy or narcissism) remarks as clean clinical specimin of the mind that gave us, most recently, Bill Hybels and Paige Patterson. That mind could use some reform, no?

5

Phillipino Catholics are as zany as American Evangelicals:

Who is the world’s worst popular president? “Probably the foul-mouthed, gun-toting septuagenarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. His most recent approval rating was 88 per cent, rising to 91 per cent among the poorest Filipinos. How does he do it? By indiscriminately rubbing out supposed bad guys – and if some of them do actually turn out to be criminals, so much the better. Insulting all and sundry seems to help too. He recently had a pop at God himself, who is a ‘stupid … son of a bitch’ in the president’s considered opinion. And all that in a country that remains deeply Catholic.”

Micah Mattix, Prufrock

6

It may seem at times that I’m a Democrat because of all the scorn I heap on the Republicans. But that would be like thinking I’m an atheist because of my frequent criticisms of Evangelicalism and my fascination with lurid news out of Roman Catholicism.

I am not a Democrat. I have never been a Democrat. As long as they remain the Friends of Feticide I will never be a Democrat. My favorite old characterization of that party was that of, I believe, the late Joe Sobran: the party of “vote your vice.” Were sexual vices the only vices, that would have been true at the time he wrote it. Nowadays, I give the GOP no credit for any manner of probity, sexual or otherwise.

To he## with them both. My most formal affiliation is with the American Solidarity Party, though I expect no miracles from that quarter.

I’m so full of disgust about the state of our politics that I’m going to ignore it now. Really. I’ve done it dozens of times before. It’s easy. You’ll see.

Or not.

Religiously, I’m Orthodox.

Long observantly Christian, I stumbled into Orthodoxy 21 years or so ago. I finally told the story a few years ago, first on my own blog and then, verbatim, here. I think I could easily enough be Western Rite Orthodox (just as there is “Byzantine Rite” Roman Catholicism), but I happen to be “Eastern” Orthodox because such was (and is) the rite used in the parish through which I entered the Church. I hope to visit a Western Rite parish some day, as much of the language is familiar from 55 years of singing sacred choral music.

Frankly, my residual care about politics is mostly for “completion of our lives in peace and repentance” as one of our litanies has it — and tides have turned so suddenly that it’s clear that the United States is not exempt from the 30,000 foot view of history in Psalm 2, elaborated in the Acts of the Apostles:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One.

(Acts 4:26) They hate Him and they’ll hate us. Get over it. Better: get ready for it.

 

7

This is, or is very close to, Autumnal Equinox, but I’d be a non-trivial amount that the sky will not be as light at 7:09 today as it was at 7:09 yesterday evening, when I happened to notice it.

Update: Equator, dummy, equator. #facepalm.

 

8

Just about anyone can spark a Trump meltdown; forcing lasting reform on Nike would be a real feat.

Matt Steward, Notes on Nike.

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Politics, I’m sad to say

1

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.

 

2

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).

Jacobs:

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.

 

3

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?

 

4

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).

 

5

 

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.

Dan Maclaughlin

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Progressive clobber passages

A Facebook exchange a few years ago produced a minor epiphany.

I observed that my Facebook friend, a high school classmate at an Evangelical boarding school (who now has expressly apostasized and gone kind of New Agey and knee-jerk Left), was credulous about some leftish things, but that we both were products of the sixties. “We are so much reverse mirror images” I wrote. He replied:

I don’t consider myself to be a Christian, but I do think the philosophy [Jesus] preached is a good one. You know, peace, love and helping your fellow man. Also protest the actions of the money-changers. The Republicans who claim to be Christians have no use for that kind of nonsense. Democrats, at least, are more inclined to think in those terms.

The epiphany was that the phenomenon, which I’ve long noted, of non-Christians, or progressive Christians, trying to shame conservative Christians with cherry-picked Bible passages (“Judge not” is the Progressives’ equivalent of John 3:16) or supposed themes. The exegetical skill displayed in wielding these progressive clobber passages is distinctly inferior to that of the people who, in the obvious counterpart, oppose sodomy with their “clobber passages.”

In the present instance, “peace, love and helping your fellow man” is (to avoid my own proof-texting) at best a debatable summary of Jesus’ “philosophy,” and I distinctly recall that where the money-changers had set up business was crucial to Christ’s decisive action.

It’s odd that the Bible still has such purchase even for those who try to reject it — at least those of my generation, who knew a little about it. I suppose I’m such a malcontent that I’ll complain when kids are too illiterate even to misuse the Bible.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People Redux

Swedish schools, religious as well as secular, distinguish between “education” and “learning,” as odd as that may sound. The former is the curriculum; the latter, the time spent, for example, at recess, lunch, or social gatherings — outside the context of teaching. Religious education and practice are allowed only outside the highly regulated curriculum. Even then, any religious activity, such as school prayer or the lighting of Shabbat candles, must be voluntarily undertaken. In each case, it is up to the parents either to include their children in the activity or to opt out.

This means that there is in fact no religious education in Swedish schools — it is legal only outside the state-mandated curriculum — and so there is no religious education to outlaw. What the state would now outlaw, however, should the proposed legislation pass, is the opportunity for Christian, Muslim, and Jewish children to feel part of a group they can identify with, to learn about their religious and cultural heritage, and to partake of a value system that isn’t built on a belief in the almighty state, blessed be its name.

… As we all know, it is much easier to outlaw liberty — that has always been Sweden’s default choice — than to struggle with the questions it raises and the perils it poses.

(Annika Henroth-Rostein, Sweden Aims to Outlaw Religious Education, Which Is — Already Illegal)

“The question” here is Muslim immigrants now 10% of the Swedish population, with 11 Islamic schools segregating boys and girls. My blog title is based on this book, which is on my bought-but-not-yet-read list.

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Cold comfort

I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to find this reassuring:

The American electorate may not tolerate draconian (by U.S. standards) restrictions on guns, but it will tolerate a fair amount of surveillance. License-plate readers track our travels. Cellphone towers can triangulate our location. Face recognition is increasingly deployed in conjunction with security and traffic cameras; in China, police officers have it built into their spectacles. Not to mention the stupendous amounts of personal data we willingly hand over to businesses.

Now take all the red flags raised by Nikolas Cruz : He posted on social media pictures of himself with weapons and small animals he had apparently tortured. His fascination and exhibitionism with guns was broadcast to one and all. Teachers were warned to take action if he was seen approaching the school with a backpack; he later was expelled.

He was widely regarded as a menace. His mother, neighbors and school officials had repeatedly sought police intervention. He posted a YouTube comment under his own name in which he declared a desire to become a “professional school shooter,” one of two warnings passed on to the FBI.

Big data may not be better than psychologists at predicting who will commit a mass shooting a year or two from now, but it can help us know who might be planning one next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.

Especially since the young already conduct their social existence mostly online. Information technology is taking over our lives. It will not be uninvented. In another few years, unless you cut yourself off from the network (which will arouse its own suspicions), you will be findable in seconds. A police drone overhead will be able to focus its cameras on you or the vehicle or building in which you are to be found. Indeed, London cops caused a furor by innocently posting on Twitter the visage of a TV comedian snapped by an overhead camera looking down on the masses in Leicester Square. If it can’t already, soon this technology will be able to sound an alarm if a specific person on a list approaches a school or other sensitive site.

(Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. – paywall)

In fairness, though, this is likely to be more efficacious than the nostrums of the gun control lobby or the anodyne “thoughts and prayers” promised by Congressmen.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Why do they hate us?

What They Saw in America:
Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb

by James L. Nolan Jr.
Cambridge, 306 pages, $27.99

In the wake of 9/11, James Nolan was prompted to reflect on America to find a satisfactory answer to a simple question: “Why do they hate us?” He gives his answer by pairing the critical observations of three widely respected European writers, whose feelings toward America were at worst ambivalent, with those of Sayyid Qutb, an early leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose views were downright hostile.

Common threads in all four of his subjects’ criticisms of America lead Nolan to conclude that many traditional hallmarks of American exceptionalism—liberal democracy and individuality, free markets and free speech, pragmatism and pluralism—can be viewed as quintessentially American vices, and sources of perennial conflict with the outside world.

The problem, for Nolan, isn’t so much what these norms and institutions represent in themselves (which is very little, since most are only negations of positive values). Rather, the problem is what they leave behind once pockets of illiberal opposition, such as orthodox Christianity, fade away: little more than commodity fetishism and libido dominandi. Or so Tocqueville feared, and Qutb raged.

—Connor Grubaugh is assistant editor of First Things.

(First Things, January 2018. Paywall will disappear over the next month or so, article by article.)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.