Abuses of power

Rod Dreher revisits for the third time the Edgardo Montara case from the 19th-centry papal state that included Bologna, Italy. He quotes a Patheos column by Eve Tushnet, which quote includes this:

I am not sure I’ve seen any discussions of Catholic “postliberal” politics which acknowledge the need for any peaceful social order to accept and accommodate disharmony. If your temporal political goal is public harmony you can either a) make a lot of compromises with unbelief and sin for the sake of peace or b) impose order by force, thus creating a lot more chaos, cruelty, and sin … Any reasonably okay society will have a lot of uncriminalized sin and a lot of unpunished crime, because the things you need to do to root out and punish sin will themselves involve sinful abuses of power.

That’s a great summary of why, some 50 years ago, I supported decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults. But since I believe, now as then, that those acts are sinful, I’ve been unwilling to go further into things like protected class status.

I’m not alone in that. But the nation is moving toward suppressing as intolerable the disharmony folks like me create. Dreher:

Here’s the thing that is very hard to get progressives to understand: liberalism today is turning illiberal in a way that resembles the Papal States of Pio Nono. Many on the left don’t see it because they are caught up in the relentless logic of virtue. Let’s step away from the religion aspect for a second. Have you been watching the progressive mob savaging Margaret Atwood — Margaret Atwood! — as a traitor to feminism for having said publicly that a Canadian academic punished for sexual harassment was denied due process? The Handmaid’s Tale author was a hero to feminists yesterday, but today she’s a monster because she deviated ever so slightly from the Virtuous Position. Extremism in the pursuit of progressive virtue is no vice …

Progressive militants are thrilled to throw dissidents from their purity project on the metaphorical bonfire, torching careers and reputations for the sake of Justice. And if one protests that this or that person was treated unfairly, well, mistakes might be made, but maybe it’s time that the Enemy (males, whites, straights, religious believers, et al.) knows what it feels like to be oppressed. That’s the rationale.

I have no doubt that there are more than a few progressives who read the controversy over Edgardo Mortara’s case and are rightly appalled, but who would tomorrow cheer the State for removing a child deemed transgender by experts from the home of his Christian parents who disagree.

Well of course they would! Gender is indelible, like baptism used to be superstitiously described, and the state is obliged to raise a boy-girl as a girl, as the Papal states thought they must raise a baptized Christian as Christian. Isn’t that obvious!?

Contemporaneously, Dreher and two others forecast other suppressions that may be more imminent.

First, Alan Jacobs sees Christian colleges and universities being destroyed by loss of accreditation for resisting the Zeitgeist:

As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; … a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world.

Carl Trueman foresees trouble from Title IX and pressure to revoke tax exemption:

The specific point of conflict is likely to be (once again) Title IX legislation that prohibits sexual discrimination at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding. The law does allow an exemption for religious organizations such as colleges and seminaries, an exemption to which I shall return. What is worrying is the increasing elasticity of the legislation, which was extended under President Obama to include transgenderism. That “Dear Colleague” letter has since been rescinded, but the underlying cultural commitments that made Title IX expansions plausible remain in place.

Some colleges—for instance, Hillsdale and Grove City—stand apart from federal funding. Such places thus seem relatively safe. But are they? There is another point of vulnerability: the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States. This ruling denied tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University because of policies regarding interracial dating that were judged contrary to a compelling government policy. The text of the decision can be found here, but the key passage reads as follows:

The Government’s fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs. Petitioners’ asserted interests cannot be accommodated with that compelling governmental interest, and no less restrictive means are available to achieve the governmental interest.

However we may cheer the particular result of the Bob Jones case, the implications unfolding in today’s climate are concerning. Replace “racial” with “sexual” in the paragraph above, and the point is clear.

The usefulness of Title IX and Bob Jones for the sexual-identity revolution lies precisely in the fact that most Christians see them as sound in what they were originally meant to accomplish, even as some might cavil at their heavy-handed application in after years. In a world where the law increasingly seems to exist not to protect minority opinion but to impose the sexual or identitarian taste du jour, the uses of these laws are increasingly sinister. Yet their origins make them hard to oppose with any cultural plausibility. For this reason, the religious exemption in Title IX will, I suspect, either fall or become so attenuated as to be in practice meaningless.

Dreher in a separate blog elaborates Trueman’s point:

Trueman points out a truth that far, far too many Christians refuse to acknowledge: that the political assault on orthodox religious institutions is happening because American culture has radically changed. Fighting politically and legally are necessary, but ultimately not sufficient to save us, because we increasingly don’t have the people with us. Writes Trueman, “It is the heart that must change if arguments are to carry any weight. And only things that go that deep will avail us at this time.”

But Dreher is getting used to being ignored:

I’ve been thinking about that all weekend, and how unprepared American Christians are for it. We really do labor under the self-indulgent illusion that It Can’t Happen Here. Oh yes, it most certainly can — and it is.

(Emphasis added) How can people be so insensate? A commonly-identified culprit is secularism, but Dreher names two more:

The other day, I had an e-mail exchange with a prominent scholar who studies religion in America. It’s not part of his public profile, but he happens to be a believing Christian. He was extremely pessimistic about the situation here, given the long-term data he is seeing about how the advance of secularism, consumerism, and individualism is routing belief.

(Emphasis added)

But some of that routed belief thinks it’s still faithful. We have met the enemy and he is, if not us, at least among our ranks. We will, in due course, have those routed believers held up as the truly exemplary believers.

We need to tolerate disharmony, as I think was done with decriminalization of sodomy, but that’s not where we seem to be headed, and this time I and mine are going to be the stigmatized.

If you’re a faithful and orthodox Christian, you are, too.

* * * * *

“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Let’s get small!

Largely by coincidence, I encountered these congruent thoughts from two ecclesial Christians within a few hours on Saturday:

Liberalism … of course has robust substantive commitments, much as it might pretend otherwise. The “tradition” of liberalism, really an anti-tradition, is founded on that substantive creed … Put differently, as I have argued elsewhere, the main “tradition” of liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centred on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason.

(Adrian Vermeule, As secular liberalism attacks the Church, Catholics can’t afford to be nostalgic)

Ronald Reagan loved to quote the 1945 Johnny Mercer hit:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

We sing the songs of progress in the gospel of an ever-improving world. Today, this is the purpose that motivates almost every undertaking, both public and private. However, the cult of progress is the repudiation of grace.

“Progress,” as a word with its present meaning, only goes back to the 19th century. It describes a sort of eschatology … The 19th century notion … was that the Kingdom was something given to humanity to build. Guided by the blueprint of justice described in the Scriptures, it was for us to bring forth the Kingdom in this world as we eliminated poverty and injustice. Beyond all theory, the American Christians of the 19th century not only embraced this new idea, they believed they could already see it happening. “From sea to shining sea,” God’s grace was increasingly manifest in the unfolding destiny of the American century.

This initially Christian belief has long since shed its outward religious trappings and assumed the shape of modern secularism. However, we should not underestimate the religious nature of modernity. No religion has ever felt more certain of its correctness nor its applicability for all people everywhere and at all times than the adherents and practitioners of modern progress. Indeed, that progress assumes that all religions everywhere should quietly agree to find their place in the roll call of those who place their shoulder to the wheel in the building of a better world. Within the rules of secular progress, there is room for all.

The adherents of modernity not only feel certain of the correctness of their worldview; they believe that it should be utterly obvious to any reasonable person. Resistance is reactionary, the product of ignorance or evil intent. But from within classical Christianity, this is pure heresy, and perhaps the most dangerous threat that humanity has ever faced ….

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, I’ll Be Small for Christmas—emphasis added)

But don’t let these two concurrences that our ubiquitous liberal democracy (the liberalism of Ronald Reagan and Saul Alinsky alike) is fundamentally religious to distract from an important and personal challenge that Fr. Stephen made:

It is worth considering that our real day is almost completely populated with “small things.” Very few of us act on a global stage, or even a stage much greater than a handful of people and things. Our interactions are often repeated many times over, breeding a sort of familiarity that can numb our attention. We are enculturated into the world of “important” things. We read about important things of the past (and call it history); we are exposed to “important” things throughout the day (and call it news). We learn to have very strong opinions about things of which we know little and about people we have never met.

We have imbibed an ethic of the important – a form of valuing sentiment above all else. We are frequently told in various and sundry ways that if we care about certain things, if we like certain people and dislike others, if we understand certain facts – we are good persons. And we are good because we are part of the greater force that is making the world a better place. All of this is largely make-believe, a by-product of the false religion of modernity. For many people, it has even become the content of their Christianity.

The commandments of Christ always point towards the particular and the small. It is not that the aggregate, the “larger picture,” has no standing, but that we do not live in the “larger picture.” That picture is the product of modern practices of surveys, measurements, forecasts and statistics. The assumptions behind that practice are not those of the Christian faith. They offer (or pretend to offer) a “God’s eye-view” of the world and suggest that we can manage the world towards a desired end … All of this is a drive towards Man/Godhood.

The drive of God Himself, however, is towards the small and the particular, the “insignificant” and the forgotten. In the incarnate work of Christ, God enters our world in weakness and in a constant action of self-emptying. He identifies people by name and engages them as persons. Obviously, Christ could have raised a finger and healed every ailment in Israel in a single moment. He doesn’t. That fact alone should give us pause – for it is the very thing that we would consider “important” (it is also the sort of thing that constituted the Three Temptations in the Wilderness). Everyone would be healed, but no one would be saved. Those healed would only become sick and die later. This is also the reason that we cannot speak in universal terms about salvation. For though Christ has acted on behalf of all and for all, that action can only be manifested and realized in unique and particular ways by each.

This Divine “drive” is also the proper direction for our own lives. Our proper attention is towards the small, the immediate, the particular, and the present. Saying this creates an anxiety for many, a fear that not paying attention to the greater and the “important” will somehow make things worse. We can be sure that our attention does not make things better in the aggregate, while, most assuredly ignoring the particular things at hand is a true failure. Our spiritual life depends on the concrete and the particular – it is there that the heart is engaged and encounters God. In the “greater” matters, our sentiments are engaged rather than our hearts. You cannot love “world peace,” or “social justice.” These are vagaries that allow us to ignore peace with those around us and justice to those at hand. God does not want “noble” souls – He wants real souls, doing real things, loving real people, dying real deaths.

Follow the path of Christ and become small for Christmas.

(Emphasis added)

* * * * *

“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

France & America


France and America are countries linked at birth and have always seen in each other funhouse-mirror visions of the other, and they have used the other to try to understand themselves. Writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in the 20th wanted France to be more like America; today, Gobry argues, America is turning into France, and in the wrong ways.

(Editor’s note on each of the articles I’m about to excerpt)


As of the most recent count, the French government spends an eye-watering 57 percent of the country’s GDP every year, with the crazy taxes that go along with that. The country ranks a paltry 72nd on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, behind such free-market champions as Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

An administrative-law professor of mine once quipped, “In terms of administrative law, the French Revolution never happened.” By this, he meant that all one sees in the French law is just a long, uninterrupted power grab by the central government. The aristocracy and the Church had to go not because they were inegalitarian, but because they doled out status by birth or, what’s worse, by God, which challenged the State’s monopoly on status-conferring.

To speak generally, what a typical Frenchman wants out of life is some status granted, directly or indirectly, by the government. The government’s job, then, is to find some way to distribute status and economic rent in a way that keeps the social peace while preserving its own power and paying off the losers.

Hence civil-service laws, whereby civil servants cannot be fired and are paid by the state until death.In France, to be a bureaucrat is not a job, it is a status.Under Brussels-mandated austerity rules, French civil servants have barely had a pay raise in five years, and they have mostly taken it lying down — but everyone knows they would strike or even riot if something was done to threaten their status.

(America’s Francification, Part Deux)


If there’s one way in which America and France differ from each other, it’s in the role of religion. America famously stands out among Western nations for its religiosity, and France for its rigidly enforced secularism.

But the picture is more complicated than that. France has many religious people, andAmerica has a strongly secular contingent, which tends to occupy the country’s elite perches.The Christian sociologistPeter Berger famously quipped that if the most religious country on earth is India, and the most secular is Sweden, then America “is a nation of Indians run by Swedes.”

But the ground has begun to shift. Americans are less and less religious — or at least, less and less churched. As Ross Douthat has pointed out in his invaluable book A Nation of Heretics, Americans are not turning into Christopher Hitchens–style militant atheists; they believe in God, in spirituality, in the numinous, in numbers at least as large as ever. What they are rejecting however, is institutional forms of religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether black or white. They are therefore rejecting Christian orthodoxy, with significant cultural consequences.

In terms of politics, however, this may end up being a distinction without a difference. After all, as the secularist creed proclaims, it doesn’t matter what people believe in their hearts of hearts, so long as they leave it there.(That this creed is hypocritical, since secularists have no problem bringing their own metaphysical commitments to politics, is another matter.)

(America’s Francification, Part Trois: Secularism, emphasis added)


Paris is to France what the Boston-Washington Corridor and Silicon Valley are to America: Giant magnets that pull young brains out of the heartland:

If you’re drowning in college debt and the economic future looks bleak for all but the most successful, it becomes almost a matter of survival to jump on the meritocratic hamster wheel and run as hard as you can.

Men and women who would have become regional elites in a previous generation now all congregate around New York and Washington, playing their national games instead of enriching their local communities.

(Washington Wealth and the American Desert? Not Yet, But It’s on the Horizon)


America has a strange bipartisan blind spot. The Left’s social liberalism and the Right’s libertarian tendencies combine to make the family the great forgotten institution in American politics. Republican officeholders can talk a good game about “family values” and, sometimes, social issues related to the family, but when it comes to policies aimed at materially supporting and strengthening families, one hears crickets. But the family is the basic unit of society, and if supporting the family isn’t conservative, then that word is meaningless.

By contrast, family policy is an ancient commitment of the French political class, shared broadly across almost every political divide, for over a century, through regime changes and constitutional crises. There are quibbles around the edges, but there is broad agreement on the idea that strengthening the family is one of the pillars of government policy.

None of the objections on the right to pro-family policy hold water. The libertarian Right argues that pro-family policy is “social engineering,” but this is nonsense. The idea that tax policy, for example, should take into account only the individual as the most basic economic unit is an a priori metaphysical stance that is no more or less “social engineering” than structuring policy around the family, which after all was considered the basic economic unit for the great bulk of human history. What’s more, in practice, pro-family policy would only — though far from sufficiently — act as a pushback against the decades of effectively anti-family social engineering pursued by the Left.

Every one of the ills I’ve been writing about in this series is connected to the atomization of American society, which has been perhaps the main driver of the country’s deleterious turn over the past few years. In the face of runaway divorce and illegitimacy rates and declining birth rates, the decline of the American family is not merely one problem among many, it is a national emergency. In this context, policy tools such as marriage incentives and child tax credits are not luxuries, but bare minimums.

(America’s Francification: La Fin)

* * * * *

“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)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Channeling the Tradition

I’ve been out of blogging commission for a week because of vacation with a strangely buggy internet connection. Everything worked, albeit a bit slowly, except my WordPress blogging platform, which consistently wouldn’t let me save my work and presumably wouldn’t have let me publish, either.

It was a very eventful week in “public affairs,” but I was kind of glad for the excuse to take a break from commentary. And at least today, I’m focusing on things more eternal than urgently timely.

My traveling soundtrack with Mrs. Tipsy invariably includes Mars Hill Audio Journal, this time Volume 134, which included retired history professor Chris Armstrong, author of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis.

Excerpts, including a striking suggestion about the primary value of C.S. Lewis — a suggestion which makes a lot of things about Lewis fall into place for me:

Ken Myers: Now again, you repeatedly in this book, deal with mistaken assumptions that many Christian people have about medieval faith, and you’ve already alluded to one. And that is I’ve heard many Protestants say that before the Reformation, Christians weren’t concerned with all of life and one of the great boons of the Reformation was that, suddenly, people realized that the Gospel had consequences for all of life, and God begat Abraham Kuiper.

Chris Armstrong: Yeah, Grant Wacker said once, and I think this may have ultimately come from David Steinmetz, that ever since the Protestant Reformation broke Christendom, Protestants have been trying to figure out how to get back to that original concern for these questions, I suppose you might say, of Christ and culture. And so it’s certainly true that there was a great concern for that in the Reformation and after the Reformation, but it seems to have come not from a previous lack, but from having broken an earlier synthesis.

Chris Armstrong: … As it turns out, [C.S.] Lewis in fact was not just a professional medievalist, but what I call an intuitive Medievalist …

Ken Myer: His consciousness, if you will, was more Medieval than modern, or so it seems.

Chris Armstrong: In fact he claimed that … when in the ’50s he was made Chair of Medieval and Renaissance studies … when he said that “I am a dinosaur. I am an artifact, a creature of the past. You should use me as an example as much as a teacher.” … He uses the distinction between contemplating and enjoying something. If you contemplate something, you look directly at it in an analytical mode. If you enjoy it, you begin to look along it, like along the sunbeam, to see what it illuminates ….

Ken Myers: … Given Lewis’s popularity among Evangelicals, and particularly the popularity of the Chronicles of Narnia — but also I suppose you could include a lot of his books of apologetics — that given the popularity of this person with a pre-modern mentality, pre-modern disposition, who seems to be so affable and helpful as guide to seeing the world and understanding how we understand God, how is it that the Medieval mentality that he embodied is still regarded with such suspicion among people who otherwise might really like his work?

Chris Armstrong: I think that’s a wonderful question. What I would say is the more I read Lewis, the more I thought that his primary value is as a conduit of The Tradition. And I just don’t think that people have seen him that way often. They see him say something that deeply affects them, or that strikes them as being deeply true, and they assume … that he’s simply telling them in a clearer way what Scripture already says, and “Isn’t it good that he’s such a good rhetorician and that he helps us understand these things that are so clearly in Scripture.” What they don’t know is that what he’s doing is actually channeling The Tradition to them. They won’t read those sources, probably, most Evangelicals won’t read Athanasius’s On the Incarnation … of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. But he had read both ….

(Emphasis added)

A podcast I recently began following is Albert Mohler’s Thinking in Public. Last September, he interviewed Alan Jacobs, a regular on Mars Hill Audio Journal as well, following up on Jacobs’ Harpers article The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?

One thread of their discussion reminds me that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, insofar as it stands for building parallel consciously Christian institutions to preserve and channel the tradition, even at the price of less “public involvement,” is nothing new:

Mohler:  … I was reminded of the fact—and this was important to my response to your article—just how important Reinhold Niebuhr was in the Cold War, and the fact that his realism, in terms of prescriptions for American foreign policy, became very much appreciated by the Truman administration, also by the Eisenhower administration, and by Henry Luce who was the founder of TIME, who put Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover. But at the same time I was reminded again of how routinely Niebuhr was dismissed by the academy. I was reminded of James Conan, the President of Harvard, trying to bring him to Harvard and to no avail. This is such a mixed picture.

Jacobs: Yeah, it really is a mixed picture. In the article, there’s a point where I’m putting what I think to be the key issue, the key issue is this: for the Christian public intellectual, if there is to be such a thing, that person has got to be both audible and free. That is, if you’re going to be genuinely public, then you’ve got to be audible, you’ve got to be somewhere where people can hear you, people across the range of the culture can hear you. But you’ve also got to be free. You’ve got to be free to be able to speak out of genuine Christian conviction or else what’s the point of you? Why would you even be there if you don’t have that to say? And finding that audibility, along with the freedom, has been really problematic for a long time. And you can lose freedom, not because people are constraining you, but because you’re constraining yourself. And I think that is—you mentioned this in your response—the downfall of liberal Protestant establishment in America. And I think that that downfall happened. Now what a lot of people will say in the liberal Protestant world is that well, we lost our—people stopped listening to us, and so we became marginal. And my argument is that they stopped listening to you because you ceased to have anything distinctive to say; when you didn’t want to say anything that was distinctly or particularly Christian; when all you could really do was to say “Me too” to what the rest of the world was saying. Then why should they listen to you anymore? You became inaudible because you chose to speak in ways that were no longer particularistically, distinctively, recognizably Christian. So everybody else was already saying that stuff, who needs you? So I think they marginalized themselves in that regard. There was a certain self-marginalizing by evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics also, but for almost opposite reasons.

Mohler: … I want to ask you—because this is also something that engendered controversy in your essay—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you basically say, or imply, that evangelicals, or Christian intellectuals, a better way to put it, willingly withdrew and that it’s largely our fault that there are no Christian intellectuals in the larger public square. And let’s go back to Mannheim for a minute with the cultural production. What didn’t happen that should have? Even trying to take it on those terms, I’m up against a hard place trying to answer the question, What didn’t happen that should have?

Jacobs: Well, Dr. Mohler, I’m not sure that there was anything that should have. Here’s what I mean by that: Christians—orthodox, biblical, Nicene Christians, evangelicals, yes, but also traditionalist Catholics—found themselves in a situation where the intelligentsia and educated classes were to some degree drifting away from them. It was becoming more difficult for them to get a hearing. They became concerned, I think, to make sure that their positions didn’t get lost, that their positions were passed down to the next generation of believers. They chose to do that primarily—not exclusively by any means—but primarily by building up Christian institutions, which in the post-war years with the economic boom there was some money to do. This is an analogy, rather than example. But, Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame was able to transform Notre Dame into a research university because those poor immigrant Catholics in the pre-WWII era, who didn’t have much money to support Notre Dame, had a lot more money after the war and were able to support it. And I think you see the creation of institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals, the founding of Fuller Seminary, and then, existing institutions like Wheaton College, where I taught for 29 years, were able to develop their resources to have, for instance, smaller class sizes, more individual attention to students. They were able to hire people who were more academically ambitious. They were able to build themselves up, and strengthen themselves in such a way that they were able to pass down core Christian convictions to the next generation. But the more energy you spend doing that, the less energy is left over to be a player in the larger, broader, especially secular, culture. And, I’m not sure, I don’t think any of those people were wrong to make the choice that they made.

(Emphasis added) After carefully transcribing audio, I discovered that Dr. Mohler has provided a complete transcript at the site above linked. Help yourself.

* * * * *

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.