Wednesday, 7/20/22

You didn’t miss anything. I didn’t publish yesterday because I just didn’t have enough material. That’s likely to recur, as I’m gradually correcting my incorrigible habit of poring over news that seems especially shareable.

Polling

The survey also found that 32% of Latino Catholics said their religious faith dictates their views on abortion, compared to 73% of white evangelical Protestants.

A new survey found Latino Catholics overwhelmingly support abortion rights. Here’s why.

I would be a pollster’s nightmare, as I find so many polling questions unanswerable if not unintelligible.

Orthodox Christianity is opposed to abortion, but I was anti-abortion before I became Orthodox, and (heaven help me, for this may mean that I’m an American individualist) I would affirm that at no time in my life has my religious faith "dictated my views" on abortion.

I have difficulty getting into the mind of anyone who would listen to that polling question, note the import of "dictate," and then answer in the affirmative. Thus the question is a — what? litmus test? ink blot test? I certainly don’t see useful information coming from it.

I don’t consider myself a rebel against my Church. I don’t think it has ever said what an Orthodox political position on abortion should be, though in my parish we especially pray regularly for an end to abortion through changed hearts.

My religious faith does "dictate" some things — say, my rejection of monothelitism and monoenergism and suchlike — important Christological questions of import on which the Church’s position is longstanding and plausibly reasoned (e.g., those teachings effectively denied the full humanity of Christ by saying that He had no human will or energy). Countermanding what the Church says about such theological nuances is above my pay grade and, unlike David Bentley Hart, I’m not arrogant enough to "go there." (I was a Protestant for two-thirds of my life and don’t care to try it again.)

But abortion? Capital punishment? Euthanasia? Eugenics? I can’t help but form my own opinions on those, informed by the Church but not dictated to.

Notes from a roving raconteur

I beat myself up because I’m an old fundamentalist and self-mortification is our specialty. And I’ve been having too much fun lately, which confuses me, doing shows in red states to crowds that include a good many Republicans who voted for the landslide winner in 2020 but nonetheless were warm and receptive to me who voted for the thief. In blue states, audiences are listening to make sure you check the boxes of Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Antiracism. These are people who don’t mind that many theaters refuse to do “Our Town” because the “Our” does not acknowledge that Grover’s Corners was stolen from indigenous people. I use the possessive pronoun in singing “My country, ’tis of thee,” which audiences in red states enjoy singing with me, and also our national anthem, ignoring the fact that Francis Scott Key did own slaves.

Back in the Sixties, when I was in my twenties, we sang “We Shall Overcome” and clearly we did not overcome, we only created new hairstyles. So we pass the torch to the young, some of whom feel the word “person” shows gender bias and want to change it to perself. To which I say, “Good luck with dat.”

Garrison Keillor, national treasure.

Vignettes

There’s no apparent common theme to this two vignettes, but I thought each of them was interesting in different ways:

  • A young Hungarian academic I dined with last evening told me how jarring it was to get his master’s degree at a western European university, and to be congratulated by fellow grad students on how lucky he was to have grown up in a country that had been blessed by Marxist government. His own family had had everything taken from them by the Communists, yet these privileged nitwits could only imagine that life had been glorious under Communism. This has something to do with the fact that he’s living back in Hungary now, though he could make a lot more money working in the West. He can’t bear to deal with such ignorant people.
  • [A correspondent was one of] a bunch of very conservative Catholics who wanted to live rurally, and went out and bought land in the same area. This reader said he has been mostly grateful for having had the chance to live there and raise his kids there, but he’s not sure he would do it again if he had the chance. The reason, he said, is that he was too optimistic about how life would be there. He says he had not counted on the fact that the kind of Catholics who would make such a radical choice — strong-willed Catholics like himself, as he conceded — would find it unusually hard to get along. The reader told me that there were frequent disputes within the community over purity — not strictly sexual purity, but over whether or not it was licit to do things like let your daughters wear pants, or keep them in skirts and dresses. He said it got to be exhausting, dealing with these communal neuroses.

Rod Dreher’s Diary, Sisi, Queen Of The Magyars

Indestructible lies

… There in Boston is a monument to the man who discovered anesthesia; many people are aware, in these latter days, that that man didn’t discover it at all, but stole the discovery from another man. Is this truth mighty, and will it prevail? Ah, no, my hearers, the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years ….

Mark Twain via Alan Jacobs

When Wystan met Hannah

“I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends.”

Hannah Arendt, explaining (it seems) her refusal of a marriage proposal by the poet and friend W. H. Auden (via L. M. Sacasas). I was unaware of that episode, which rather complicates my recollection that Auden eventually gave up trying to resist his homosexuality.

Sacasas continues on other topics:

The examples I have in mind of this receding of materiality arise, not surprisingly, from the most prosaic quarters of daily life. As a bookish person, for example, I think about how the distinct material shape of the book not only encodes a text but also becomes a reservoir of my personal history. I remember where I was when I read it. Or I recall who gave it to me or to whom I have lent it. In other words, the presence of the book on a shelf recalls its contents to mind at a glance and also intertwines an assortment of memories into the backdrop of my day-to-day life. At the very least, it becomes an always available potential portal into my past. I don’t mean to be romantic about any of this. In fact, I think this is all decidedly unromantic, having to do chiefly with the meaning and significance of the stuff that daily surrounds us.

The digitized book by contrast may have its own advantages, but by being the single undifferentiated interface for every book it loses its function as a mooring for the self. It’s not that the e-reader has no materiality of its own—of course it does. Perhaps the best way of conceptualizing this is to say that the device over-consolidates the materiality of reading in a way that smooths out the texture of our experience. Consider how this pattern of over-consolidation and subsequent smoothing of the texture of material culture recurs throughout digital society. The smartphone is a good example. An array of distinct physical objects—cash, maps, analog music players, cameras, calendars, etc.—become one thing. The texture of our experience is flattened out as a result.

He’s not wrong about this (insider joke to one of my readers). Yet, because of the Readwise service, I’m developing a preferential option for eBooks. That and my shelves having filled to overflowing with regular books several times.

It’s helpful to be reminded of what’s lost, though. I hope Warren Farha of the world’s greatest brick and mortar bookstore, Eighth Day Books in Wichita, will forgive my my opinion if he’s reading this.

Awkward

Barton and WallBuilders argue that Jefferson and the Founders, outside of some exceptions, meant for the “wall of protection” to operate in one direction. It also, the group and its founder suggested, applies mostly to the federal government, not the states.

Jack Jenkins, The activist behind opposition to the separation of church and state

Well! This is awkward! I have a bad impression of David Barton, who I’ve understood as a grifter, dining out on "America is a Christian Nation."

But Barton is almost completely correct in what I first quoted. What Thomas Jefferson called a "wall of separation" was meant to protect the churches (I’d prefer "religion," though both terms have shortcomings in this context) from the state; and it was, at the time the First Amendment was ratified, intended to apply only to the federal government ("Congress shall make no law …"). Heck, Massachusetts had an established Congregational Church for 30 more years after Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and that letter was well after the Bill of Rights!

Where Barton may be wrong is in in the report that he thinks that amendment "applies" rather than "applied" mostly to the Federal Government. The First Amendment has been incorporated in the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment and thereby made applicable to the states. Thus Saith the Courts.

Thus, it seems to me, Barton may be telling half-truths to embolden crypto-theocrats by whose concepts of Christianity I have no desire to be governed — unless the alternative is the Wokeworld religion. I would almost certainly pick the Bartonites in that contest.

Like I said: awkward.

Is the tide turning?

… there is something undeniably more powerful about reading critiques of contemporary sexual morality that arise not from traditional religious spaces, but from within secular feminism and and from elite media. That’s when you know the tide might be turning.

I bring this up because in every single argument and controversy under the sun, reality gets a vote. Culture wars are ultimately won or lost not by online arguments but through their real-world consequences, and the position that leads to greater human misery tends to lose.

To connect with the issues at the start of this piece, when speaking about the wave of intolerance that’s swept the academy, philanthropy, Hollywood, and much of mainstream media, I’ve told conservative friends that they have no idea how miserable it was making most of the people in those organizations. Something had to give, and the immiserated majority is going to be intimidated by the motivated minority for only so long.

When speaking of the reality of porn-influenced consent culture, there’s a similar dynamic in play. It’s immiserating people by the millions.

David French, in an encouraging column: we seem to have hit bottom and started back up in several ways. At least that’s what French thinks.

Imagine my arse

Comments such as these convince me that John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.

I absolutely hate that song, and I was glad to learn I’m not alone.


If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.

Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here (cathartic venting) and here (the only social medium I frequent, because people there are quirky, pleasant and real). Both should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly or Reeder, should you want to make a habit of it.

Thursday, 7/14/22

A bit Snarky

Not since Jefferson dined alone

For several hours on December 18, 2020, some of the greatest legal minds of a generation gathered at the White House for a meeting that would change the course of history. Sidney Powell was there, as were onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne. Rudy Giuliani showed up, as did Mark Meadows. Shortly after it concluded, then-President Donald Trump sent a tweet.

“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” he wrote. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

The Morning Dispatch.

It’s a bit of a false note for the Dispatch to lead with such snark, but I like that false note this time.

Church and State

Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert caused a stir in late June when she denounced the separation of church and state as “junk” and proclaimed that “the church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church.” Bettering her usual performance, she was half-right.

William Galston, Lauren Boebert Is Half-Right on Church and State.

We don’t care. We don’t have to.

Is the ACLU’s Chase Strangio the weirdest, and least truthful, highly-placed person on the Left in America today?

It’s kind of "We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the ACLU."

The limits of prediction

People can’t predict how long they will be happy with recently acquired objects, how long their marriages will last, how their new jobs will turn out, yet it’s subatomic particles that they cite as “limits of prediction.” They’re ignoring a mammoth standing in front of them in favor of matter even a microscope would not allow them to see.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

Politics

Submission to whom?

As I watched Ms. Barrett fielding questions from senators [at confirmation hearings], I realized two things.

First, it is amazing how deeply this erasure cuts, how much I have subconsciously internalized that there is something defective about me as a woman because I do not share certain feminist tenets. … Second, I realized how many women I know—most who would not identify with the moniker “conservative”—share Ms. Barrett’s pro-life position and have felt chastened into civic silence and submission. … Too often, I keep my views quiet not out of tact but for the sake of my social life and career. In this, I submit not to the patriarchy but to the oppressive, mainstream feminist vision of myself and my peers and what we are worth to society.

Jane Sloan Peters, I See My Own Pro-Life Feminism in Amy Coney Barrett

Smash the political duopoly

Nothing says "Our political duopoly is rotten to the core" like Democrats spending tens of millions of dollars to support the most extreme, Trumpist, election-denying Republican primary candidates they can find.

You can help smash the duopoly.

Profiles in Poltroonry

Regardless of whether the committee proves Trump legally culpable for January 6, at least one top Trump adviser held him morally responsible for that day. After police shot and killed Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt as she attempted to breach the Capitol, Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale texted Trump operative Katrina Pierson. “This is about Trump pushing for uncertainty in our country,” Parscale—who worked on both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns—wrote, in messages provided by the Committee. “A sitting president asking for civil war. This week I felt guilty for helping him win [in 2016].”

“You did what you felt right at the time and therefore it was right,” Pierson replied.

“Yeah,” Parscale wrote. “But a woman is dead.”

“You do realize this was going to happen,” Pierson said.

“Yeah,” Parscale said. “If I was Trump and knew my rhetoric killed someone.”

“It wasn’t the rhetoric.”

“Katrina. Yes it was.”

One month later, Parscale tweeted: “Statement to Trump: ‘If they only impeached you twice, you need to run again… I’m in, are you?’”

Normal bad, not existential threat

Since it’s clear (at least for now) that Ron DeSantis is the Republican most likely to unseat Donald Trump, we’re starting to see a predictable line of pieces online. Trump is bad, but DeSantis might be worse. Trump was incompetent authoritarian. DeSantis is ruthlessly efficient. You can read versions of that argument in MSNBC, the Washington Post, MSNBC, New York Magazine, and MSNBC.

I started reading many of these pieces earlier this morning, and I finished just as today’s January 6 Committee hearing got underway. The contrast, quite frankly, was jarring. One the one hand, DeSantis’s critics were describing a politician who played by the rules to enact policies they didn’t like. On the other hand, I watched yet another account of a politician who came within one Mike Pence “yes” (to his harebrained electors scheme) to plunging America into the worst constitutional crisis since 1861.

Let me make this analysis as simple as possible. Donald Trump presents an existential threat to the continued existence of the United States as an intact republic. Our nation may not survive a second Trump term. Ron DeSantis has his flaws, but he’s absolutely within the bounds of a mainstream American politician.

David French.

I was tempted to stop there, but I read on. French is not happy with DeSantis and spells out clearly why he’s not. Progressive Democrats won’t like his analysis, though.

Introduction to the analysis:

My critique of DeSantis has less to do with Donald Trump and more to do with Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom. By that I mean that DeSantis is more like a California Democrat than he is like Donald Trump. Specifically, both DeSantis and Harris are culture warriors who are prone to fight the culture the wrong way—by deploying state power at the expense of civil liberties.

Portraits in Credulity

Can you believe that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBT? And that a whopping 44 percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year? Those stats are from a 2018 study published by the University of Chicago based on 2015 data, but I may have messed up the delivery a little. Actually, it’s that Republicans in the study reported that 38 percent of Democrats are LGBT and Democrats believe that nearly half of Republicans make a quarter-million dollars a year. In truth, 6 percent of Democrats identify as LGBT and 2 percent of Republicans earn that high a salary. Democrats, themselves, also overestimated the number of LGBT members in their own party. But out-group members were far more likely to misperceive the opposing party’s makeup.

And aside from partisanship, interest in politics was also a great predictor of who was more likely to be wrong, i.e., consuming more political news and social media made a respondent more likely to misjudge the makeup of either party. “Interest in political news will be positively correlated with beliefs about the share of partisans belonging to party-stereotypical groups,” the authors reported.

I’d suspect these biases have gotten worse since 2015. But as I keep seeing surveys about young people refusing to be friends with someone who doesn’t share their political beliefs or people who don’t understand that social media curates their feed to show them political content that is most likely to agree with and shield them from alternative viewpoints, it’s worth a reminder that there’s no substitute—not even this newsletter—for striking up a conversation in the grocery store line, calling up a potential new friend for a beer, or asking someone a question about how he views the world and actually listening to the answer. Good luck!

Sarah Isgur, Andrew Egger, and Audrey Fahlberg, The Sweep (a publication of The Dispatch, my very best media expenditure).

Turning the tables

New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently allocated $35 million to provide special assistance to abortion providers, and there is a proposal to subsidize women’s travel to New York to procure abortions. In New York City, homeless men urinate in doorways and drug addicts shoot up in public at midday. In the face of these realities, Hochul’s commitment of resources to ensure the wide availability of abortion services seems more than a little perverse. The contrasts are even starker in Illinois. As the death toll of gun violence increases on Chicago’s South Side, Governor J. B. Pritzker has called for a special legislative session to address, not the murder rate, but “reproductive rights.”

R.R. Reno.

It’s a dubious form of argument, but the temptation to turn it against those who’ve used it for 49 years is powerful. In other words, who’s obsessed with sex now?

GOP Gift-in-Kind to Stacy Abrams

What I like to do is see it and everything and stuff.

Herschel Walker, Republican nominee for Governor of Georgia, responding to a CNN reporter’s question about whether there should be new gun legislation in the wake of the Uvalde shootings. (H/T John McWhorter)

Consider his candidacy the Republican contribution to Stacy Abrams’ campaign.

Locus classicus

"I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.” “All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.


If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.

Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here (cathartic venting) and here (the only social medium I frequent, because people there are quirky, pleasant and real). Both should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly or Reeder, should you want to make a habit of it.

Imagine there’s no sovereignty

To us moderns, the secular is fundamental. Even when religion is considered a universal sociological category, we almost always first translate it into something secular, such as its function: it synthesizes diverse perspectives and experiences, it knits people together, it makes the world coherent, it assuages the fear of death, it provides legitimacy for power, it constructs social roles, and so on. In this way, we are perhaps willing to accept that every society has a religion, but only if we first reduce religion to yet another aspect of the fundamental secular, to yet another ideology or worldview.

I contend that the Middle Ages were neither religious nor secular because the religious and the secular are two features of a single construction: the modern, Western social architecture of “Church” and “State,” “private” and “public,” “individual” and “market,” and so on. The societies of the Middle Ages had a different architecture based on different assumptions and different concepts, ultimately on a different vision of the cosmos.

One of the central arguments of this book is that we should abandon the use of “religion” and “secular” “Church” and “State” understood in their modern senses in our attempts to understand the Middle Ages, in this case the thirteenth century. This is not because the terms have no meaning—in our world they have a great deal of meaning. Rather, it is because one cannot get too far along in building a thick description of the thirteenth century before concluding that everything was religious or, if one is inclined to come at it from the other direction, before concluding that everything was secular.

Peter Berger has written, “By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” The problem, however, is that institutions and symbols are recognizable as religious only from the vantage point of the secular. This means secularization might be just as legitimately understood as being the process by which sectors of society and culture were construed as religious institutions and symbols. In other words, secularization is the process through which the “religious” as we conceive of it was created. Along these lines, Brent Nongbri has accurately remarked that we call religious “anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity,” and when Charles Taylor states that the British were more religious in 1900 than ever before, we might consider him to be, in a sense, defining the term “religious.”

[T]hirteenth-century France was built as a “most Christian kingdom,” a term that the papacy frequently used in reference to it. I do not mean that the kingdom of France was a State with a Christian ideology. I mean that it was Christian, fundamentally. There was no State lurking beneath the kingdom’s religious trappings. There was no State at all, but a Christian kingdom. In this kingdom, neither the “secular” nor the “religious” existed. Neither did “sovereignty.” I do not mean that the religious was everywhere and that the secular had not yet emerged from under it. I mean they did not exist at all … The people of thirteenth-century France, however, were not trying to figure out how to build a “Sovereign State” and they were not trying to disentangle the “secular” from the “religious.” They had never heard of these things. Their world made sense, and it was a world that did not contain these concepts. This is the world that I am after.

Continue reading “Imagine there’s no sovereignty”

Damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don’t

A local megachurch (or what passes for megachurch in my fair city) built a large community center a decade or so ago. Then it built another on the other side of town. Both times, it worked with government and may have gotten (I don’t distinctly recall) some sort of government perks akin to what any other entity could have gotten for a like project (the second reclaimed a blighted site, for instance).

Both times, the bloody flag of separation of church and state got waved liberally. Both times, the church responded that this was a community center that would not be exclusive.

May 1, they didn’t exclude a hastily-convened Ted Cruz rally.

Now the bloody flag is being liberally (and knowingly) waved that the church supported Cruz by honoring its inclusive policy.

For the record:

  1. I know these people. I have no doubt that they’d have hosted hastily-convened Trump, Sanders or Clinton rallies. Those might have required them to hold their noses more tightly than hosting a Cruz rally (or maybe not), but they’d have done it.
  2. Each community center includes a fitness center. I regret that the tax-exemption of the community centers give them a slight competitive edge relative to commercial health clubs.

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Miscellany – Pope in the Dock, Justice Stevens retirement, Serin gas and the enduring Flannery O’Connor

Michael Cook notes and ruminates on what I hope is an eccentric call to try Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity in connection with the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, and then segués into other who then should be there:

  • the Secretary-General of the United Nations
  • the executive director of USA Swimming
  • Texas Governor Rick Perry

Tu quoque, the argument that because you did it too, I’m not guilty, must be the worst of all arguments. But anyone with the facts acknowledges that the Catholic Church’s problems are no worse than those of other organisations, and they are probably a good deal better. A reporter for yesterday’s issue of Newsweek had the bright idea of asking insurance companies whether the Catholic Church paid higher premiums because its employees were a greater risk. The answer was No  – and it never had. “We don’t see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another,” said an insurer. “It’s pretty even across the denominations.”

Cook then notes in moderate detail the secular intellectual defense, in the name of liberating children’s sexuality, of lowering age of consent laws – proposals that make me think “I don’t want this intellectual around any child; there’s more going on here than disinterested philanthropy.”

Putting the Pope in the dock would spark a world-wide debate about paedophilia. Why is it so difficult to police? What is there about our views on sex which encourages it? Should we wind back our hypersexualised culture?

All the indicators are that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is winding down now as the Pope and bishops get tougher and priests have clearer views on authentic Christian sexuality. But no one is preparing for the coming paedophilia crisis when the oversexed teens of 2010 are 34 and believe they should still have fun with 14-year-olds.

* * *

From the Department of Bombast at the Wall Street Journal, an inflated warning that the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens “gives President Obama a chance to lay the groundwork for a future liberal Supreme Court majority.”

Not even with this Senate will Obama slide through in an election year anyone to the left of Justice Stevens. He is, after all, “The Supreme Court … liberal standard-bearer,” as the Journal’s own subheadline has it. Others writing about Stevens’ retirement more aptly note the irony that any nominee could easily be to Stevens’ right.

Justice Stevens was particularly infuriating not only on religion cases, larding his opinions with secularist code, but on the disregard for religion in other cases. Robert Nagel summarized some of the case against Stevens in Justice Stevens’ Religion Problem. In a school voucher case:

[I]n four different places in an opinion barely five paragraphs long, Justice Stevens used the word “indoctrination” as a synonym for religious education. Stevens asserted that the voucher program was being used to pay for “the indoctrination of thousands of grammar school children.” He surmised that an educational emergency might provide a motivation for parents to “accept religious indoctrination [of their children] that they otherwise would have avoided.” He decried the fact that “the vast majority” of voucher recipients chose to receive “religious indoctrination at state expense.” And he depicted the voucher program as a governmental choice “to pay for religious indoctrination.”

As striking as it is, this use of the word “indoctrination” does not necessarily indicate hostility to religion. Like the words “sectarian” and “fundamentalist,” which have appeared with disturbing regularity in Supreme Court opinions, “indoctrinate” has a literal meaning that is not pejorative. It can, of course, mean simply to instruct or to teach. But, needless to say, like those other words, it has more sinister connotations. Given the common association of the word “indoctrinate” with totalitarian methods, there might be at least a “slight suspicion” that Justice Stevens did not use the term in its neutral sense, especially since he nowhere refers to public school indoctrination. In any event, the duty to determine whether Justice Stevens’ official positions reflect animosity to religion arose well before the voucher case.

It can be traced back as early as 1990, when the religion clause expert Douglas Laycock noted that under Stevens’ constitutional decisions religion is “subject to all the burdens of government, but entitled to few of the benefits.” Laycock charged that the apparent explanation for this combination of legal positions was hostility to religion. Laycock’s hypothesis ripened into full-blown suspicion by June 2000 when Justice Stevens took the position that the free speech rights of the Boy Scouts were not violated by a state law requiring them to employ an avowed homosexual as an assistant scoutmaster. In the course of his dissent, Stevens offered his opinion about the source of what he termed “prejudices” against homosexuality. He wrote, “Like equally atavistic opinions about certain racial groups, these roots have been nourished by sectarian doctrine.” Whatever he might have meant later by using the word “indoctrination,” there is no question what “prejudices” and “atavistic” mean. The passage is, as Michael Stokes Paulsen of the Minnesota Law School put it, a “slander, disparaging the good faith . . . of any religious worldview—such as those of [some] Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that adheres to traditional views of sexual morality.”

Even decisions that as a formal matter have little to do with religion take on a different coloration when Stevens’ apparent scorn for some religions is factored in. On February 26 of this year, for instance, eight members of the Court ruled that the federal racketeering statute (popularly known as RICO) did not apply to the efforts of the Pro-Life Action Network to shut down various abortion clinics. The rather straightforward reasoning was that, unlike the members of organized crime who are typical objects of RICO prosecutions, the antiabortion protestors did not obtain anyone else’s property for their own use. Since the crime of extortion requires that the offender obtain someone else’s property, the pro-life protests could not be prosecuted under RICO. Even pro-abortion rights advocates like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed. Only Justice Stevens dissented. He claimed that “even when an extortionist has not taken possession of the property that the victim has relinquished, she has nonetheless ‘obtained’ that property if she has used violence to force her victim to abandon it.” On the basis of this thin reed Stevens was willing to impose on protestors acting out of profound religious convictions the same draconian punishments that are ordinarily imposed on gangsters.

* * *

Over at TownHall.com and elsewhere in the world of “Movement Conservatism,” Chicken Littles are practicing precision, coordinated vapors over the inference that the U.S. will not commit nuclear genocide in response to chemical, electromagnetic or other non-nuclear attacks. For instance, the mercenary Dick Morris. As Daniel Larison puts it, “quite insane.”

* * *

Thomas Merton wrote that “when I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Though O’Connor herself would surely have scoffed at such praise, she is among a bare handful of American writers, modern or otherwise, of whom such a thing might plausibly be said.

But her reputation rests in part on a persistent misunderstanding. Unlike most of the other major American novelists of the 20th century, O’Connor wrote not as a more or less secular humanist but as a believer, a rigorously orthodox Roman Catholic. Her fiction was permeated with religious language and symbolism, and its underlying intent was in many cases specifically spiritual. Yet most of O’Connor’s early critics failed to grasp her intentions, and even now many younger readers are ignorant of the true meaning of her work.

So Terry Teachout concludes his introduction to a lengthy book review of Brad Gootch’s biography of O’Connor.

O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she explained in a 1959 letter:

“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.”

Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

(Emphasis added)

Her sympathy for do-it-yourself Christianity may be what makes her work more enduring than things like the Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith, which leavens cynicism with a touch of ambiguous sentimentality. Teachout asks whether O’Connor will endure only by being misunderstood as a satirist rather than a sympathizer writing grotesqueries. I don’t know, but her deep, pervasive Christian faith is well out of the closet for decades now, and her reputation continues to grow.