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Huckabee is, however, very good under fire - affable, not very flappable, and humane. His response to the Ephesians question was disingenuous, however. The Scripture does not tell husbands to submit to wives. It tells them to love their wives in return for their wives’ obedience. ~Andrew Sullivan

More than that, it calls on husbands to sacrifice for their wives as Christ sacrificed Himself for the Church.  If that isn’t a call to devotion, I don’t know what is.  From what little I heard, Huckabee’s answer to this truly irrelevant question was the most impressive one of the night.

Ross commented on Noah Feldman’s article on Mormonism recently, which reminded me that I had also wanted to respond to one part of it and arguments like the following:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt.

Put that way, Feldman might have a point, except that the claim of new revelation is actually the least “ridiculous” part of the story.  It is, and always has been, the content of that revelation that has drawn the most criticism, and so for the most part the majority dutifully ignores or downplays how the content of this or that religion is theologically untenable.  To do otherwise would begin us down the road to taking one set of theological claims more seriously than another, which might even (gasp!) lead us to assign different significance and measures of truth to different sets of claims.  The problem with this argument is that, for the sake of promoting toleration for minority religions, it essentially grants that every religion is just as inherently plausible as any other, which not only makes discussion of doctrine pointless, but actually impedes the possibility of religious dialogue and persuasion.  Granting this equality of religions paves the way for exactly the kind of arational sectarianism that skeptics believe is unavoidable with religion in public life.    

There is this very strange attitude about religion out there, and it is held by more than a few observant Christians as well as secular skeptics, that says that no revelation is more plausible than any other, which implies that revelation is entirely outside the realm of rational discouse and demonstration.  This is essentially fideism or a kind of neo-Barlaamism, which holds that believers should hold to their traditional faiths primarily because they are ancient–there is nothing that we can actually say rationally about a doctrine of God.  One of the reasons why this bizarre idea can gain such currency is the lack of respect people have for theology and dogma.  In our culture, if you want to dismiss someone’s position, you say that he is being dogmatic, and if you want to discredit an argument you refer to his worldview as a “theology,” preferably preceded by adjectives such as arcane. 

Such is the depth of our divorce from Christian intellectual tradition that many people do not recognise the substantive difference between an elaborately reasoned theological view and the ramblings of a science-fiction author.  Simply put, we lack discernment.  Militant atheists are at least consistent in the implications of holding such a disparaging view of revelation–for them, it is all made-up and undeserving of any respect.  Out of some misplaced sense of solidarity with other religious people against the Christopher Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world, Christians seem to feel obliged to make general defenses of generic theism or the even more amorphous category of Religion, and woe betide the bishop who attempts, as Pope Benedict did, to illustrate the implications of radically different doctrines of God.  This then forces these Christians to argue that all these things are purely a matter of faith, where faith is defined not only as something inspired and the result of God’s grace (which it is), but also as something arational, rather than understanding that it is faith rightly understood that is the highest form of rationality.  Having conceded the high ground and having bought into a functionally extreme apophaticism, the Christian finds himself at a loss to make any argument from revelation, because he has already effectively granted that speaking kataphatically is impossible.  Trying to include everyone in a big tent of ecumenical anti-secularism eventually leads to being unable to say something about God and maintain that it is actually true, when there is nothing more fundamental to preaching and evangelising than speaking the truth about God in prayer and homilies. 

This brings me, oddly enough, to the question of evolution.  Fideistic understandings of religion and materialistic philosophies that seek to exploit evolutionary biology to their advantage enjoy a symbiotic relationship, since they both thrive on promoting mutual antagonism between reason and faith.  Tell the Christian that he must either endorse evolutionary theory or accept the Bible, and he will typically take the Bible, especially if he is not grounded in an authoritative teaching tradition that tells him that this choice is a false one.  Tell the average educated secular person that revealed religion is incompatible with scientific theory, and he may very well conclude that those who continue to adhere to revealed religion must be either ignorant, insane or up to no good.  Huckabee is someone who falls into the former category, of course, and declares himself agnostic on ”how” God works in creation, which is actually a far more honest view–and one that a majority of Americans would share–than affirming evolutionary theory because you know that it is socially unacceptable in certain circles to admit that you don’t understand or accept the theory.  As Rod has said before, evolution serves as a “cultural marker,” and it is deployed as a litmus test to see whether you belong to a certain kind of educated elite.  Ironically, the cultural bias against dogmatism and theology in religion has come around and struck science by making it permissible, even admirable, to doubt statements made with certainty.  Were it not for the tendency of many religious and secular Americans to oppose reason and faith, there would be no difficulty in affirming the truth of revelation and recognising the reasonable, albeit always provisional, nature of scientific inquiry.  Obviously, approaches to faith that prize doubt and uncertainty simply reinforce the tendency towards extreme apophaticism and fideism that make it impossible for believers and non-believers  to speak intelligibly to one another (to the extent that people working in two significantly different traditions can speak to one another). 

But without digging into the theological nitty gritty here, the bottom line is that however different the theology may be, Mormon morality is very much the same manichean [bold mine-DL], good vs. evil outlook as traditional Christianity. ~Mark Hemingway

In fairness, Hemingway clarifies in an update that he doesn’t use manichean here in a way that actually refers to, well, Manichean beliefs, and he certainly isn’t the only person who uses manichean in a very loose and inaccurate way, but it is notable that he uses this word in a post that is trying to explain and contextualise a heterodox idea in Mormonism.  In the Mormons’ defense, they do not have a Manichean understanding of the universe, and neither do Christians.  Manichees believe the created order is a prison for human souls that was created by an evil principle, and understand morality as a war of spirit and matter that is significantly different from the moral theology of both Mormons and Christians.  Since Manichee is one of the most overused heresiological tropes in history, it was an unusually unfortunate choice for someone who wanted to deflect criticisms of Mormonism.

P.S.  Hemingway’s update is itself unfortunate when he refers to the “dualistic notion of good vs. evil” in Christianity.  Christianity doesn’t have a dualistic notion of good vs. evil.  In the classic patristic formulations, whether of Augustine or the Greek Fathers, evil is the negation and absence of good.  A dualistic notion of good vs. evil would be…the Manichean understanding.

For a Byzantine angle on Huckabee’s remark about Mormon beliefs (”Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”), I would note that the belief in the fraternity of Jesus and the devil has some loose similarities with the beliefs ascribed to the Bogomils, who allegedly taught something similar about Satan and Michael.  Aside from these associations, there is a more fundamental problem that this belief contradicts the understanding of Christ as the only-begotten (monogenes) Son, co-unoriginate with the Father.     

Update: In the “Huckabee is not running a sectarian campaign” file, you can add his apology to Romney for these entirely innocent remarks.

On a note more appropriate to our Advent season, I should mention that I have started reading Paul Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought.   So far, it seems an excellent study in the theological and historiographical problem of understanding the interpretation of God’s essential impassibility and His suffering in the flesh.  Gavrilyuk sets out to be the ultimate anti-Harnack, and has so far been entirely persuasive in his arguments (I am still only in chapter 3).  I recommend it to you all.

Slightly related to our modern theologically-inflected political controversies, my copy of Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres arrived today.  I haven’t looked at it before, but I’ve heard many good things about it.  The fourth century controversies are fairly intimidating in their complexity even to those of us who spend our waking hours contemplating the significance of monotheletism.  We who work on the seventh century have the luxury, so to speak, of a paucity of sources and limited prosopographical information, so we are not simply inundated with information, and the fourth century looms so large and has been the focus of so many works that it quite an undertaking to put forward another general interpretation.  I look forward to reading it during vacation this month.

We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth. ~Barack Obama 

Establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth always means rendering more to Caesar than what was originally due. ~Nick Gillespie

 It is also, from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, impossible to do and it is impious to believe that men can build the Kingdom.  Also, chiliasm has long been regarded as a dangerous heresy.  Christians are citizens of the civitas Dei, and we should live accordingly, but we cannot replace the earthly city.  Christians are called to be the leaven in the world.  They are not called to be utopians.

Here is a sentence from the introduction to the brand new Crisis of the Oikoumene:

Loyalty to the Empire that endured until the Monothelite crisis–involving a development on Monophysite Christology–prevented the [Three Chapters] schism from making a lasting mark on the African church.

Can I just tell you how troubling these lines about monotheletism are?  Every year there is some book that comes out about Orthodoxy, Christology, ecumenical councils or Byzantium and inevitably somewhere in such a book you will find a description of monotheletism like the one above.  It’s just not accurate, and yet it gets repeated on a regular basis.  I may have more to say about the book at Cliopatria in the coming weeks.  Christology buffs, stay tuned.  

Update: On the other hand, Richard Price’s chapter explaining the origins of the Three Chapters controversy is absolutely superb and definitely required reading for anyone interested in the question of the authority of Chalcedon and its supposed ‘Nestorianising’ tendencies on account of the reinstatements of Theodoret and Ibas.  I have rarely seen a scholarly treatment of this aspect of the controversy handled so carefully and thoughtfully.  Well worth the wait.

But McCain was precisely correct to say that Judeo-Christian values were a cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking that led men like Madison, Jefferson and Adams to believe in individual autonomy [bold mine-DL].

These men were critical of some aspects of Christianity. But to deny that Christian principles were a powerful force behind the founding of this nation, from the impulse to flee Europe to the justification for war to the guiding principles at the Constitutional Convention [bold mine-DL], is to deny historical reality. 

The political thinking of the Founders was profoundly shaped by Christian teaching. Pointing that out would hardly be controversial were not so many people irrationally afraid of religion in general and Christianity in particular. But as John Adams said, men “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”  ~ New Hampshire Union-Leader

That first paragraph is remarkable.  Naturally, I don’t agree.  Far more overreaching than anything McCain said, which was ridiculous mostly because it was McCain saying it, the editorial maintains that “Judeo-Christian values were a cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking.”  To which I respond: “what part of the Enlightenment do we mean?”  I have been known to refer very broadly and negatively to “the Enlightenment,” when I am really objecting principally to political and social theories of Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, and I have been reminded on a few occasions that it is worth keeping in mind the differences between Enlightenment thinkers.  Here this is especially worth doing. 

Leibniz, for example, was probably the closest to matching the image of an Aufklaerer who also respected what the editorial calls “Judeo-Christian values” (which is still pretty far removed from being “profoundly shaped by Christian teaching”), but he was an early figure and not representative of the kind of thought that influenced the Founding generation.  Algernon Sydney’s Discourse Concerning Government, which had a great influence on 18th century colonial political thought, is a weighty tome replete with references to Scripture, but it is not so much “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” as it is Whig political philosophy trying to shield itself against Filmer with the Bible.  It is difficult to say that Harrington and Bolingbroke, significant for us because of their influence on Montesqieu and the later Country tradition, were “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” beyond the reality that they belonged to Christian confessions and lived in a culture that was steeped in Christianity.  In my modern Greek history class, I could also say that Moisiodax and Korais were “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching”–profoundly influenced, that is, to run away from that teaching when it conflicted with their philosophical and political programs.  In general, wherever people have been ”profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” they have had no time for prattle about natural rights, the social contract and “individual autonomy.”  It seems right and good to me that they should respond in this way.  Understandably, Christians try to construct some preeminent place for Christianity in the story of “the Founding,” which has itself been given quasi-mystical status by nationalist historians and ideologues, because they have come to recognise that it is only through having a claim to being a key part of “the Founding” that they will be permitted to have any real role in a system dominated by Americanist/proposition nation ideology.  The problem lies not so much with attempts to baptise ”the Founding” as with the distorted and ideological treatment of the early republican period by later nationalist politicians and historians.  If Americanism and American identity itself are to be defined by political propositions, as the adherents of the proposition nation view would have it, it becomes necessary for people to interpret ”the Founding” in a such a way that their beliefs are discovered as the ultimate sources of those propositions.    

As a recent instructor of mine was fond of saying, let’s take this step by step.  It makes sense to describe America as a Christian nation in the following ways:

1) Anglo-American culture, what Russell Kirk referred to as our “British culture,” owes an enormous debt to European Christianity and is inconceivable without it.  North American colonial societies were and are derived from European and Christian civilisation and ultimately belong to that civilisation.  Christianity was a public religion and was, at the state level, an established religion in one form or another in many of the colonies, and this arrangement prevailed for many decades after independence.  Those who think they have found justification in the early republican period for their drive to push religion into the corner and isolate it from public life don’t know what they’re talking about.   

2) It is not possible to understand the evolution of America’s “language of liberty” without referring back to the 17th century religiously-charged constitutional struggles of the British Isles.  In this sense, our constitutional inheritance, which was at the heart of the War for Independence, depended on and derived from precedents that were set during a civil war that had both political and religious dimensions. 

However, the constitutional settlement that emerged out of these conflicts involved to a very large extent the complete abandonment of all political theology.  Any endorsement of ideas of “individual autonomy” would represent a significant departure from “Christian principles.”  “Judeo-Christian values,” fairly meaningless phrase that it is in this formulation, do not lead anyone to believe in individual autonomy.  On the contrary, whether in the Old Testament or the New, what we call individual autonomy is what Scripture defines as sin and pride.  Scripture is brimming with commands for social obligation, fraternity, charity, self-sacrifice and the corporate unity of the People of God.  Traditional Christian social teaching does not recognise an idea of “individual autonomy.”  Unity in the Body of Christ does not obliterate distinctions and personality, but it does preclude autonomy of any kind.  Enlightenment social theories along these lines were considered–and were–subversive because they contradicted the Christian teaching that allegedly so profoundly influenced the thought of Jefferson (!).  It should be enough that Jefferson was a great proponent of decentralism and liberty; we should not need to remake him into a crypto-theologian to appreciate his contribution to our country.  

It is correct to observe that Christian respect for the dignity and integrity of the human person and scholastic arguments on natural law paved the way for later applications of these reflections in political and legal reform.  It is true, as studies of the rhetoric of the Revolution have shown, that the use of originally religious language of covenants, which had already been introduced into political discourse during the English civil war, shaped broader popular understanding of the patriot cause more than did familiarity with Lockean contractual theory.  It is true that the broad mass of the population of the colonies was made up of professing Christians.  In this sense, the people constituted a nation of Christians.  To the extent that they still do, they may be called a Christian nation.  As Dr. Fleming said on this subject:

The United States was never a ‘Christian country’ in a confessional sense, though it was once a nation of mostly Christians.

Watch McCain pander:

I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, that’s a decision the American people would have to make, but personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.

Watch him completely abase himself:

I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.

Whenever I hear the claim that “this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles,” much less that the Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” I have to wonder what people are thinking when they say these things.  In McCain’s case, it’s easy: he’s repeating what he thinks primary voters want to hear.  Never in his entire career, so far as I know, has McCain ever held forth on America as a Christian nation.  It would never have occurred to him.  The people who champion this or related ideas have been his adversaries within the GOP. 

It is true that America derives her religious culture from European Christianity, and it is true that Americans have been overwhelmingly Christian all along.  I think this religious heritage should be defended and extolled.  It is an integral part of American cultural identity.  What I really don’t understand is the need to make up these myths that the Republic is founded on “Christian principles” or that you can somehow find this claim in the Constitution.  First of all, these myths are unnecessary.  Second, it is an example of the mistaken drive to locate national and cultural identity in our political institutions and key political texts, when those identities really must be defined in other ways if we are not going to reduce them to ciphers or subordinates part of some political creedalism.   

At APSA, Prof. Patrick Deneen had a critique of Prof. Dienstag’s Pessimism, which I have discussed many times before, and of philosophical pessimism itself.   He said:

Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.

I agree with this, or at least I almost agree.  Pessimism seems to me to be the antidote to the poison of optimism, and then memory and hope function as the proper nourishment that human nature needs to flourish.  Even if undiluted pessimism is a poison of its own, and I might grant that it is in its most extreme despair of any meaning in life, St. John of Damascus said of his heresiological work that it is necessary to make use of poisons to create antidotes. 

I have said many times that the virtue of hope has nothing to do with optimism, and Christians who routinely mistake hope for optimism are very badly confused about what hope is and what they are supposed to be hoping for in this life.  Indeed, to hope for salvation in Christ is almost the opposite of the optimist’s view.  The optimist says, “I will be saved, and I can save myself.”  The Christian says, “I may yet be saved, if it be God’s will.”  Hope and optimism are in fact antithetical, which reinforces my sense that optimism is as vicious as hope is virtuous.  Optimism is as demonic as hope is divine.

My own view is that the pessimists are as close to being right as secular philosophers are likely to be, but that in their denial even of the hope of salvation and their denial of all meaning they have missed the heart of why they are right about so many of their other observations.  They have seen clearly through the vanity of this world and the promises of those who would seek to realise some kind of salvation here below, and we would all be better off if there were more people inclined to see these promises as the hollow deceptions that they are.  However, the only possible pessimism that escapes the ultimate emptiness of this secular pessimism (the pessimists would see it not as emptiness, but as possibility) is a Christian pessimism that understands that redemption is still possible, but it is not one that can be fulfilled in this world.

A friend of mine has just given me a boatload of Armenian books and books about Armenian history and literature, including the Matyan Voghbergutyan (Book of Lamentation), often known simply as Narek after the monastery where its author, the late tenth and early eleventh century churchman Grigor Narekatsi, one of the great Armenian medieval writers, resided.  I also received a copy of the English translation.  Narekatsi’s poem is one of the greatest written works of Armenian Christian spirituality, a work of repentance and profound sorrow over sin.  Consider these lines from the second lament:

I am the forsaken tabernacle on the verge of collapse;
The broken lock on a door;
The voiced edifice soiled anew;
The forlorn fitting inheritance;
The forgotten house built by God,
As foretold by Moses, David and Jeremiah. 

Until now, I had not looked closely at the original.  I will certainly try to make some time to work on this. 

In the course of giving his devastating reply to Derbyshire’s review of his book Religion of Peace?, Robert Spencer reminds us once again of a crucial point regarding Christianity and immigration:

In reality, Christianity has no inherent connection at all with open-borders insanity and globalization. No less prominent a Christian than St. Thomas Aquinas expressed the mainstream Christian view when he said that “after his duties towards God, man owes most to his parents and his country. One’s duties towards one’s parents include one’s obligations towards one’s relatives, because these latter have sprung from [or are connected by ties of blood with] one’s parents…and the services due to one’s country have for their object all one’s fellow-countrymen and all the friends of one’s fatherland.” An open-borders globalist? Not quite.

It is telling that many of those who either cite the Gospel as the source for rejecting national loyalties and/or supporting immigration or invoke the Lord to justify the importation and exploitation of poor labourers are not themselves professing Christians.  Of course, the absurdity of justifying the exploitation of labourers in the name of Christian fraternity ought to be obvious, but we live in dark times where even the simplest things are obscured.  This quote also brings us back to the question of the relationship between Christianity and patriotism.

It has also never been clear to me where anyone came across the idea that orthodox Christianity endorses or encourages egalitarianism or rootless cosmopolitanism.  (There have been many modern Christians who have understood their religion in this way, but their egalitarian and cosmopolitan views are typically matched by their departure from orthodoxy more generally.)  The teachings in the Gospels and Epistles presuppose social hierarchy and patriarchal authority, and their authors literally cannot conceive of a world in which civic and family obligations are weak or non-existent, much less do they advocate for such a view.  If Christianity is “universal” in that it is for the salvation of all, it nonetheless does not obliterate natural loyalties and affinities to particular places and peoples.  Being willing to leave all your earthly relations for the sake of following God is a measure of the devotion the believer has and his desire to put God first–it does not abrogate his obligations to his kith and kin.  Indeed, to be a good and faithful servant, the Christian must not only show mercy to those who seek it from him, but he must also discharge his duties to those to whom he is obliged and related.  The Apostle exhorts: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Tim. 5:8) 

For more on this, I recommend Dr. Fleming’s The Morality of Everyday Life.  

Cross-posted at WWWTW

I had a response to this all worked out, but I will hold my fire this time.  Instead, I will point you all to my colleagues Paul and Zippy at WWWTW, who offer their much more even-tempered responses to recent critics.  They make the right points, and I agree with their remarks entirely.

Following on Zippy’s remarks, I would just include this one section from my unpublished post:

There is, of course, a legitimate hierarchy of loyalties that a professing Christian can and should respect.  One no less than Aquinas has laid out how natural loyalties to kindred, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens appropriately take precedence over loyalties to other, more remotely related people.  Loyalty and obligation to fellow citizens would take precedence over duties owed to foreign citizens, but the duty to treat all men justly in wartime is something owed to God.  As my colleague Zippy is a very serious Catholic (and it is this, I think, that is really what bothers his critics), he would probably have no difficulty acknowledging and affirming such an idea.

Via Pithlord, I see that Prof. Bainbridge has commented on this story about a Dutch bishop proposing that Dutch Catholic churches use the name Allah in their services “to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians.”  Pithlord is, of course, right that the concession, such as it is, is actually only a linguistic one.  Allah does mean God, or literally “the God” in Arabic.  As far as it goes, the change is fairly innocuous as a matter of literal meaning, but therefore all the more unnecessary and symbolically discouraging in that it is another example of Dutch natives accommodating and assimilating themselves to the immigrant communities rather than vice-versa.  The Islamic understanding of God is obviously quite different and opposed to that of Christians, but the bishop was not proposing introductions of Qur’anic passages, such as Ma qataau-hu wa ma salabu-hu during Communion and La taqu thaalatha during the Sanctus.  It is a trivial proposal in a way, but this makes it all the more foolish and pointless.  It is the ultimate in condescending tokenism while also managing to introduce a pointless change into the liturgical life of the bishop’s flock.  Should Anglicans begin saying Khuda Hafiz to make their Muslim neighbours feel more at home? 

It is not exactly an embrace of relativism, as Prof. Bainbridge fears, but it is fairly stupid all the same.  It is an example of the embrace of rather pointless symbolic gestures that are intended to foster ecumenical dialogue and such, but which routinely backfire and are viewed either as insults, attempts to muddy the waters or even aggressive attempts at appropriating someone else’s beliefs.  Do you suppose that a Muslim in the Netherlands will have a better view of non-Arabic-speaking Christians if they begin using the name Allah?  Would this not, in fact, inspire some resentment against those using this name to refer to the Trinity or to Christ Himself, when Muslims recognise neither the existence of the former nor the divinity of the latter?  At best, it would not achieve the intended goal, but would become one more episode in European Christianity’s own self-marginalisation.  

Update: On the other side of the world, there is apparently no small controversy over the changing usages from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz, as this older article also relates.  I had noticed that Allah Hafiz had been cropping up in more and more Bollywood movies over the past few years, but I suppose I had not realised that this reflected such significant changes in South Asian Islam.

The notion that this kind of politics has no victims, has not led to evil, has not at times led to absolute insanity (like Prohibition), and is not still a constant threat - is preposterously complacent. ~Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan is replying to Ross, who obviously never said any of the things being attributed to him in this sentence and who adds his rebuttal here.  Ross also made the best point of this exchange so far in noting that the description of Mother Theresa’s original quote as “vulgar but legitimate” displays “snobbish overtones and arm’s-length distaste for Mother Teresa (!)”. 

Since Sam Brownback, Dangerous Christianist, started all of this, perhaps he can have something to say in making certain basic but necessary points:

The separation of church and state does not mean the removal of faith from the public square.  I think you should have a robust public square that celebrates faith, that draws faith into it.

For a leader of “Christianists,” Brownback says the strangest things in this video.  Indeed, if I were someone who believed that Christianists existed and that they were infiltrating and destroying our public life with insidious references to Jesus, I would still not spend a lot of time vilifying Sam Brownback.  The original context of the quote ”All for Jesus” had Brownback making the point that it was “faith that powered her [Mother Theresa] to help millions.”  This is pretty banal and garden-variety “faith makes us better people” banter.  Presumably what Mother Theresa did falls under Sullivan’s arbitrary category of “good Christianism,” but Brownback’s reference to her statement about living for Christ is an example of the “bad Christianism.”  In Sullivan’s world, Mother Theresa could have said these words to a U.S. Senator and it was legitimate, but Brownback could not repeat them in an anecdote while running for President.  When Brownback repeats the “vulgar but legitimate” phrase, it becomes toxic.  This wouldn’t even make sense if Brownback were not one of the most reformist Catholic conservative politicians who has made prison reform, anti-poverty, “comprehensive immigration reform” and Darfur into his signature issues outside of his pro-life work.  I happen to think that his policy views and priorities here are mostly mistaken on the merits, but of all the politicians to attack with this line of criticism I can hardly think of one less appropriate than Brownback.  Sullivan seems to be channeling Marcotte.

Sullivan’s argument depends on simultaneously holding the view that introducing unduly “sectarian” religious language into political discourse (i.e., mentioning Jesus in a speech in a positive way) is a “toxin” while also holding that it is the purpose for which the Name of Christ is invoked that ultimately matters.  Thus he can speak about the “good” Christianism, which also happens to be the kind that is more in line with his general political views, and deplore the “bad” Christianism, which is not.  Sullivan does not deplore the latter because it is bringing Christianity or sectarianism or religion into politics, but because it does not interpret and practice Christianity in the way that Sullivan thinks that it should be practiced.  A liberal Christianity that does not bother itself too much with talking explicitly about Christ is acceptable in his scheme and can play a role in political reform, especially if it waters down the religious inspiration behind the reform drive and reduces it to platitudes about human rights, while any traditional Christianity that cannot conceive of speaking about moral or spiritual truths without referring to the Lord must keep out of politics.  Any attempt to rectify this arbitrary and one-sided arrangement by speaking forthrightly about Christ in a political context is supposedly an attempt to inaugurate sectarian bloodletting and to want to reenact the sack of Magdeburg.  That is Sullivan’s view, as his own words make clear.       

In a religious context, it is a vulgar but completely legitimate expression of faith. In a political context in a secular society, it is a toxin that will eventually corrode civil discourse into sectarian warfare. Which is, of course, what the Christianists want. They have the biggest sect, after all. ~Andrew Sullivan

If they existed, Christianists would be interesting people.  They would have to believe at one and the same time that they must make God’s will into the law of the land and enforce Christian doctrine throughout society and be convinced that the best instrument for this goal was the utterly secular, Mammon-serving Republican Party.  They would have to be completely fanatical and at the same time completely indifferent that their chosen vehicle of political power was basically hostile to everything they sought to achieve (which is one of the reasons why, despite decades of trying, they have achieved next to nothing).  They would have to be able to turn their fanaticism on and off with a readily available switch, which makes them rather less worrisome as the founders of the future theocratic nightmare to come.    

Sullivan’s larger point is worth keeping in mind: so long as it remains nicely separated from anything involving real life, confined to an irrelevant private sphere of “religion” that need never include venturing outside beyond the front door, religious faith is fine, albeit a bit crude for the high-minded doubt-filled pundit, but once it moves into the public sphere it is poisonous and vile.  Devotion to the Lord, once it escapes the safe environs of the closet, becomes an acid that destroys the bonds of the political community.  That is what Sullivan and other such “skeptical” conservatives believe about religion.  Religious conservatives would do well to remember this whenever they are tempted to entertain sympathy for the appeals of the “skeptics” to reason and moderation.     

Faith is a good thing, not a bad thing. ~Sen. Sam Brownback

Andrew Sullivan disagrees.

“All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus,” - Sam Brownback’s stump speech in Iowa.  And some say I exaggerate the sectarian nature of the GOP base. ~Andrew Sullivan

Since Brownback won all of 15% in an unrepresentative straw poll in a state with a fairly sizeable population of very activist evangelicals, you could argue that even if Brownback were the embodiment of the ”sectarian” and “fundamentalist” stereotype that Sullivan has laid out in his book and on his blog the significance of such supposedly fundamentalist sectaries for understanding the politics of the “GOP base” is minimal.  Against Brownback’s 15%, you have 31% who voted for a Mormon (the bete noire of the sectarians among us), almost 10% who voted for the decidedly non-sectarian, non-fundamentalist Ron Paul, 13% for Tancredo and 7% for Tommy Thompson–that’s 61% of poll voters who did not join up with the two most explicitly religious conservative candidates at Ames.  In this straw poll, it is fair to assume that the people who respond to Brownback’s rhetorical style are considerably overrepresented when compared with the party at large.  Given that Brownback is one of the least effective and weakest candidates in the field beyond his natural base of support, fundamentalist sectarianism is probably not on the verge of dominating the GOP.

Viewed another way, the quote has nothing to do with so-called ”Christianism.”  What should Brownback have said?  “Nothing for Jesus”?  “A tiny bit for Jesus, provided that it falls within the safely defined parameters of the Wall of Separation”?  “Some for Jesus, the rest for me”?  “Jesus is all right, but I am entirely secular and therefore will say nothing unduly religious during this stump speech”?  Perhaps Brownback’s remarks here, like so many things the man says, need some qualification or elaboration, but what do Christians believe except that we should, as one of the prayers in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom says, dedicate ourselves and “all our lives unto Christ our God”?  For Brownback to say this makes him as “sectarian” as any believing Christian, which is to say that he actually believes Christ’s teachings to be true and compelling.  I generally have no time for Brownback on many policy questions, but this criticism, like Sullivan’s entire categorisation of the Republicans as a “religious party,” is excessive and unfounded.  Perhaps if the GOP actually were something like a religious party, it would not, as an organisation, tolerate nearly so many atrocious policies.  On the contrary, we have something of the worst of both worlds: a thin patina of religiosity masking an agenda of corruption and violence.  This is not the fault of any “Christianism,” but the result of thoroughly secular operatives understanding how to play on the fears and hopes of conservative Christians to win their support and who then proceed to abandon everything these Christians hope to achieve in the political realm.  The proper criticism to be leveled at many Christian conservative leaders and politicians today is not so much that they are grasping or willing to compromise the Faith for power (although some may), but that they are incorrigibly gullible and willing to put their trust in princes who have no use for what Christian conservatives believe except in an election year.

In an otherwise superb piece on the (often cynical) political and lobbying battle over the Armenian genocide resolution, Michael Crowley has this unfortunate line:

Most Armenian-Americans are descended from survivors of the slaughter and grew up listening to stories about how the Turks, suspecting the Orthodox Christian Armenians of collaborating with their fellow Orthodox Christian Russians [bold mine-DL] during World War I, led their grandparents on death marches, massacred entire villages, and, in one signature tactic, nailed horseshoes to their victims’ feet.

This is almost entirely right, which makes the mistake all the more glaring.  Diasporan Armenians often do talk of nothing else when it comes to politics, and the official Turkish line is that Armenian collaboration with the Russians was the “justification” for the deportation of Armenians “away from” the front lines.  However, the main descriptive error here is obvious, or should be, since Armenian Apostolic Christians are of a different confession from the Russians and have been for a very, very long time.  Ironically, this allowed the Armenians inside Russia to enjoy relatively greater ecclesiastical independence as a non-Orthodox church than other non-Russian Orthodox churches, such as the Georgian, but that is a different matter.  The difference here is crucial because the genocide occurred against the “loyal” millet, the one Christian community that could not be directly implicated in the designs of Russian or Greek or some other Orthodox state’s foreign policy, because they were not Eastern Orthodox and were under their own religious authority that had no ties to Moscow or any other center of Orthodoxy.  There were some Armenian revolutionaries who sided against the Central Powers in the war, but they were not representative of Armenians in general, much less could the entire community be reasonably held responsible for the actions of a relative few.  This is what made the genocide that much more shocking and terrible to the Armenians–unlike the other Christian minorities, they had by and large remained loyal and law-abiding subjects.  For the ideologues of the CUP, however, one Christian minority was as much of a threat as any other.  To do full justice to the history of the genocide, it is exactly the difference between Armenian and Orthodox Christians that must be kept in mind.   

It occurs to me that I should probably be doing something else right now other than blogging (a class syllabus doesn’t write itself), but my recent criticism of Bush’s liberation theology, which joined a chorus of negative responses from Ross, Rod, David Kuo, and Sullivan, has met with some skepticism from a blogger who issues the inevitable challenge:

There’s a common theme in all these, that because the religious is much more important than the political and worldly, that the political and worldly essentially doesn’t matter and that the religious shouldn’t influence the political and worldly. I strongly disagree with this.

Taken in isolation, the quotes from Ross, David Kuo and myself might seem to match this description, but this would be to misunderstand a great deal about how we think religion and politics should intersect.   

To apply this charge against Ross and myself would have to strike anyone familiar with our published statements on religion and politics as fairly bizarre.  Where Ross and I may differ on policy prescriptions or on the degree to which religion, more specifically a traditional Christianity (Catholicism for him, Orthodoxy for me), ought to influence politics, we are essentially on the same page in believing that religion not only should have an influence but that this influence is absolutely inevitable in any society that has a large number of religious people in it.  Particularly in a regime that is supposed to be democratic, religion and religious questions will play a role in political debate, and I think Ross and I would again be in agreement that they should probably play a larger role than they do and should do so in more explicitly religious language.  Besides the theological confusion in the idea, there are three things that bother me about Bush’s liberation theology.  First, it takes an ideology and then claims that this ideology has theological roots–you cannot disagree with the assumptions of the ideology, lest you declare yourself against the promises of God!  This is clever enough, but fairly transparent.  A second, related matter is that it takes what is otherwise unremarkable liberal revolutionary dogmatism and seeks to baptise it with invocations of the Deity.  Far from having “religion” influencing politics, it subordinates religion to the role of providing justification and being a sort of moral escape hatch when things go awry.  Mr. Bush’s use of this religious language, however sincere and deeply felt it might be, manages at once to enlist the name of God in a purely secular and, as it happens, rather bad cause, and to fulfill the worst stereotype about the political danger of religion in politics (as I have said, the Iraq war is a prime exhibit not of excessive religiosity in government, but rather a decided lack of it).  It has the ring of cynicism, even if it is not intended as cynical, while somehow also giving off the whiff of zealotry, though nothing could be further from the truth than to see in Mr. Bush the religious fanatic.  There may be some fanaticism there, but it is not actually religious.  Finally, nothing could be worse for a properly robust role for religion in public life than taking Mr. Bush’s badly disordered version of it as an expression of religious influence on politics.  This liberation theology, not unlike Marxist liberation theology before it, is a perfect example of how Christians twist and distort the Faith to suit the supposed political needs of the moment.   

My impression has been that Mr. Kuo does not believe that religion, specifically Christianity, should not influence politics, but that Christians should not make political success a greater priority than the calling of the Faith (as he believed was happening with conservative Christians, the modern GOP and the current administration).  You can dispute whether or not Mr. Kuo is right about this confusion of priorities in our own time (to my mind, he is more right than not), but you should not mistake this for a desire to separate religion and politics.  Rather, the goal for him would seem to be that Christians work as a leaven in the body politic, but that they do not allow themselves to be consumed by causes that are more partisan, narrow and limited and instead retain a more balanced sense of the lines between advancing and applying Christian witness in the realm of public policy and becoming servants of the political operation through which that witness is to be carried out.  It is not an appeal to quietism and indifference to political action as such–it is, as Mr. Kuo has said many times, a call for a “fast” from politics.

Then there is this business about whether God “cares” about the state of affairs on earth.  This sets things up nicely for the defenders of elements of the liberation theology, since it implies that anyone who would reject the gnostic and chiliastic deviations of liberation theology thinks that God is indifferent to the organisation of human society and human suffering.  This is not correct.  On the contrary, the charge might readily be made that Ross and I take the claim of a God Who “cares” about such things too far and that we think He “cares” about all manner of behaviour that has been deemed off limits to scrutiny by worshipers of privacy and money and, yes, liberty.  No one has ever exactly confused either one of us for great enthusiasts for a really severe application of the “wall of separation”!  That said, it does not mean that we are going to believe fairy tales that God wants everyone to become good liberal democrats, which is the ultimate conclusion of Mr. Bush’s sort of thinking. 

There is no evidence in Scripture or tradition that this is true.  No relevant religious authority teaches such a thing.  It is an odd view indeed that identifies the longings of fallen man with divine will.  Suppose, despite evidence to the contrary, that all men do long for political freedom–do Christians normally credit every desire of fallen humanity with such a high and noble origin as the Creator Himself?  Most people in different ways desire many things they ought not to desire, at least according to the teachings of Scripture, and they do this in defiance of God’s will–we do not attribute lusts of the heart or the pride of knowledge to some ”heavenly plan.”  We recognise them as excesses and flaws.  It is at least possible that a desire for political liberty may contain the seeds of similar spiritual disorders.  Even if every man declared that he wanted political liberty, it is still conceivable that this desire derives not from inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but from another spirit entirely. 

There are circumstances in which faithful Christians can, indeed, must resist unjust, tyrannical government, as Christians are meant to defer to legitimate authority and not simply lawless power.  That is a vital distinction.  The Anglo-American idea of the right to rebel has certain medieval precedents and theological defenses.  Even so, this means that God wills that every society and government be well-ordered according to prudence, justice, charity, moderation.  To the extent that a liberal democratic government can realise these virtues or allows people to realise them, we can say that it does not stand in opposition to what God wills.  It might even be argued (though I would not necessarily argue this) that this is the regime best suited for cultivating such virtues.  Even so, it remains only one means, an instrument, to the true end that God wills, which is man’s perfection in the virtues and the cultivation of God’s likeness unto full sanctification.  However, in certain ways, such a regime can be antithetical to these virtues and stands in need of reform.  Declaring that a particular political order is ordained by God for the entire world opens the door to abuse at home (since questioning the assumptions and goals of the regime could then be taken as resistance to God’s will) and aggression abroad (since the faithful must not tolerate the thwarting of God’s will in the form of different political regimes).  As it happens, this is exactly what has issued forth from the administration for which this idea has been a motivating force. 

When Mr. Bush says that “freedom is God’s gift to mankind,” he isn’t simply praising God for a providential order in which such things as political liberty are possible (which has rather more decent precedents that do not involve Woodrow Wilson or The Battle Hymn of the Republic), but he is saying quite clearly that the development of political liberty is itself integral to God’s providential plan and that God wills that all of the world be brought into a certain political state.  Against this, there is the weight of at least 1,700-odd years of Christian theologians who rarely, if ever, ventured the view that there was any particular regime, political principle or political arrangement that was absolutely favoured by God (and in the last three hundred years, Catholics and Orthodox are still taught to believe that no single form of government has any special endorsement from on high, and that all legitimate government must be obeyed).  Those who gave it much thought routinely came down, of course, in favour of monarchy, and one could be as theologically libertarian (that is, a proponent of man’s free will) as one wished without reaching any similar conclusion that there should be guarantees against arbitrary government written into law.  The thing that may trouble any small-government Theonomists among us is the recognition that political liberty was a primarily secular accomplishment resulting from contestation between different centers of power; strong arguments can be made that it required a Christian culture for the right conceptions of person and human dignity to command broad acceptance, and that Christianity with its recognition of two kinds of authority made political liberty possible in a way that it was not in other religions, but that is a very different kind of argument. 

Within Christendom, early English and Dutch liberal ideas were aberrations and happened to coincide with what most of the Christian world would have then and still does regard as heresy.  European liberalism elsewhere largely came into existence in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Catholic Church, not least because the liberals sought to attack and undermine the authority of the Catholic Church.  These are significant stumblingblocks for any belief in a liberation theology of the kind Mr. Bush espouses.  If God wills political liberation, this means two things.  First, it means that most centuries in the history of Christendom were almost entirely filled with Christians who did not know this part of the will of God and egregiously failed to obey Him (which conveniently elevates the modern liberal Christian to a much higher status in the divine economy–this is just a coincidence, I’m sure).  The other thing that it means is that God’s will was effectively frustrated for almost the entirety of human history, and it has only been in the last two to three hundred years that His plan has made any headway at all.  God is shown to be strangely diffident about His own supposed high purposes, or else most of His servants, including almost all of those whom Catholics and Orthodox today venerate as saints, were engaged in persistent rebellion against God’s will.  Both thoughts are impious and unacceptable.  Very simply, either Mr. Bush’s understanding of divine providence is correct and the broad sweep of Christian tradition has missed something vitally important about God’s will, or Mr. Bush is wrong and the tradition right. 

In the Orthodox world, of course, not only is there virtually no tradition of thinking as Mr. Bush does, but most instances where Orthodox theologians and philosophers have started speaking in terms of freedom have come after intense periods of post-1789 Westernisation.  It is in the very modernity and newness of such talk that distinguishes it from the overwhelming witness of Christian tradition.  Against the sweep of that tradition, the liberation theologians have on their side the Declaration of Independence and the occasional passage from Algernon Sydney.  How could it be that I remain convinced that liberation theology is bunk? 

Ross gets feisty:

In fact, I think Andrew lets Bush off too easily when he says “as a very abstract theological principle, it’s hard for a fellow Christian to disagree” with the President’s contention that “a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom.” On the one hand, there’s nothing “abstract” about that particular Christian principle: The gift of freedom that Christ promises is far more real than anything else in this world, if Christian teaching on the matter is correct. On the other hand, there’s nothing that’s political about that promise, and the attempt to transform God’s promise of freedom through Jesus Christ into a this-world promise of universal democracy is the worst kind of “immanentizing the eschaton” utopian bullshit.

Naturally, I couldn’t agree with Ross’ response to these items more, and I have objected to this Bushian-Gersonian liberation theology last year and again in a different form in my column (not online) in the July 16 TAC.  It is exceedingly easy for a Christian to disagree with Mr. Bush’s “theological perspective,” especially when that perspective seems to require spreading the good news of liberty by way of airstrikes and invasions.  It is amazing how much mischief results when you try to square Christian revelation with often antithetical revolutionary principles. 

Immanentist ideologies and substitute religions stand in opposition to the Gospel.  Compared to the liberation from sin and death that Christ has accomplished, how insignificant is political liberty!  This does not mean that the latter is itself undesirable, but that it is hardly the chief priority of God’s salvific plan for man, and it is precisely for the salvation of men from sin and death and not their amelioration of their political status that God became man.  I can think of no worse kind of militant quasi-religiosity than the sort that preaches secular revolution, actively works in such a way as to worsen the situation of the militant’s own co-religionists and justifies the bloodletting that follows by saying, “Deus vult!”   

The Vatican text, which restates the controversial document Dominus Iesus issued by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2000, says the Church wants to stress the point because some Catholic theologians continue to misunderstand it. ~ABC News (via Rod)

Leave it to the press to take something very simple and almost routine and turn it into a scandal.  I suppose the potential for conflict and controversy makes for a better headline than “Vatican Says Catholic Christianity Is True…Yet Again,” but there is no real potential for that, as there is nothing new being contested. 

Was Dominus Iesus really all that “controversial”?  I have read it, and I found in it the same position towards other Christian confessions that the Catholic Church has stated quite explicitly since Vatican II, which is normally interpreted by otherwise unfriendly Vatican-watchers as a positive, “liberalising” interpretation.  This new document mostly reiterates some of the basic points and makes plain why confessions that lack apostolic succession are not, well, properly apostolic and therefore do not possess all of the proper marks that would make a church a church.  There is nothing in any of this that a non-Catholic should find at all shocking or disturbing.  If he didn’t already know that the Vatican does not believe him to be fully a part of the Church, he hasn’t been paying enough attention to care about it now.  If I did not have an interest in theology, I would say that it is almost a non-story. 

As an Orthodox Christian, I continue to be puzzled by an ecclesiology that says that the Orthodox Church at once has valid sacraments and apostolic succession, but lacks in the fullness of the truth.  This puzzlement is a case of sharply different understandings of catholicity and ecclesiology generally.  As noted here in the past, as I understand the Orthodox teaching, catholicity requires oneness of mind in doctrine, and unity requires unity of faith, bishop and Eucharist.  Catholics and Orthodox share none of these things.  How the Vatican understands the Orthodox to be in communion (but not full communion) with the Catholic Church at the present time will probably never make sense to me. 

At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design. ~Barack Obama

And at every opportunity, the Democrats and their allies have obliged by disrespecting Christian “values” and disliking traditional Christian churches, and have made a point of demonising and belittling conservative Christians because they care about, among many other things, abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design.

As if to confirm my earlier, mocking references to the similarities between the piety of Evan Almighty and Obama’s speeches, Obama also said:

But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart.

He even managed to figure that out without building a boat by hand.  It’s a miracle!

Tony Blair’s hard line on Iraq alienated three Roman Catholics who worked for him in Downing Street. All three, who were experts in foreign affairs, were deeply worried by what they saw as the rush to war in 2003, The Independent has learnt. ~The Independent

There is something strangely depressing about this news.  It is somehow less surprising that the unreflective and incurious Mr. Bush went ahead with the invasion of Iraq, when he was surrounded by either secular careerists or fellow evangelicals with no great grounding in ideas derived from the thought of the Fathers, and further encouraged by Catholic neoconservatives who provided the moral and intellectual fig leafs to assuage any doubts.  Likewise, while it seemed to be especially misguided that the then-head of the Union in Germany, Angela Merkel, backed the war despite the Vatican’s clear objections to the conflict, Merkel’s own East German Protestant background made some sense of her indifference to these objections.  There is something a bit more disturbing about Blair, who should hardly have been entirely ignorant of or completely indifferent to the words of Pope John Paul II or then-Cardinal Ratzinger on these matters given the background of his wife, the upbringing of his children and so on, and who had the advice of such skeptical Catholic foreign policy experts, nonetheless leading the way for the invasion.  It is no less disturbing that he is now apparently coming to Rome as if it were the most normal thing, while an aggressive war that he has helped to wage has been destroying the Catholic and other Christian communities of Iraq.  (There was also his endorsement of the Israeli campaign in Lebanon last year, which is another post in its own right.)  See, for instance, the fate of Fr. Ragheed Ganni and three of his deacons, who were slain in Mosul by Muslims.  Their story is described by Pat Buchanan and discussed in multiple posts by Andrea Kirk Assaf.  There you can learn more about one episode of the new Christian martyrs of Iraq.  The blood of martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church, but there is something just a little unseemly about a man who has helped to unleash the slaughter against his Christian brethren convert to a given confession when he is at least indrectly responsible for inflicting suffering and martyrdom on that confession’s members.  It would be almost as bizarre as Bill Clinton becoming Orthodox. 

Now, I’m no great religious scholar, but it doesn’t take Pope Benedict to see that the Noah story is not a charming little tale about familial love, but a terrifying lesson about our dependence on God: a warning that we are alone in the world and always at the mercy of a wrathful and demanding Lord. ~David Plotz

Just so.  Well, that and a warning not to breed with the Nephilim (who were all wiped out, I suppose, which makes it a moot point).  It is also the main scriptural counterargument against all secular and atheist whingeing (that one’s for you, Mr. Massie) in the area of theodicy.  If God willed the annihilation of all life on earth, save those in the Ark, who can take seriously complaints against God based on “bad things happening to good people”?  First of all, it throws into doubt the “good people” part of the equation, since the righteous folks were on the boat.  The story of the Flood teaches that when calamities strike the world, the world as a whole may very well deserve what it is getting and God may even have willed these things for the chastisement of man for his edification.  What’s more, that this is an expression of God’s love, not the absence of it.  This is a hard saying, but it is true.   

This is why Evan Almighty is not really an ”appalling effort to pander to religious moviegoers,” in that it isn’t pandering to religious people to get them to come see the movie, but rather tries to appeal to people already going to the movies with some minimally religious message.  It sounds like an appalling effort to milk the vague sentimental Herrgott piety of the broad middle of barely religious Americans for some money, while teaching that the “family that dwells on a large wooden boat together stays together, because it is surrounded by floodwaters.” 

Religious moviegoers of the sort Mr. Plotz is imagining are the people who went to see The Passion not in spite of the sufferings of Christ depicted therein but because of them, because they do not want to see their religion stripped of its most powerful and terrifying moments.  Those are the moments that strengthen faith.  If you want campy feel-good stories about togetherness, you can go watch The Smurfs.  Evan Almighty may bring in a lot of money, but if it does my guess is that it won’t primarily be busloads of evangelicals who put it there.  It will be people who would like to have some nice nods towards religion in their entertainment and would like a religion that doesn’t demand too much, provided that we are all really nice people who are concerned about all the little furry creatures.  As an Orthodox priest once said to us one Sunday, “We are not called to be nice.  We are called to be perfect.”  Anything that confuses niceness with perfection is, in my view, a stumblingblock to real faith.  But perhaps Mr. Plotz and I are actually in agreement about this, since he says:

If I were a believing man, movies like Evan would make me long for the days when Hollywood just ignored God.  

From all descriptions I have read, it sounds as if it is moved by the same spirit that inspires Democratic “outreach” efforts to evangelicals and has many of the same characteristics: clumsy, embarrassing and painful to watch.  Evan Almighty sounds like a movie that would satisfy a fairly mildly religious Episcopalian who thinks that if only religion could be about the love and the togetherness and the via media (always the via media) there would be no more problems, at least not with religion.  Let there be nothing severe or harsh or (Heaven forefend!) judgemental in religion–that would seem to be the shlocky religiosity to which Evan Almighty may be appealing.  Maybe that describes more Christians in this country than I would like to think.  For all our sakes, I hope not. 

I said that Linker sometimes seems to oppose both political action based on religious conviction and non-political attempts to Catholicize (or Rortyize, or whatever) the culture through proselytization and persuasion. I also said, as I’ve said many times before, that I disagree on both counts: I think that Americans should be free to proselytize privately and that they should feel comfortable using “the levers of politics” (I love how Andrew makes the democratic process sound sinister) to promote policies that spring from religious convictions. And obviously Richard John Neuhaus is interested in doing both; only an idiot would claim otherwise, and I don’t know why Andrew is mistaking me for one. ~Ross Douthat

I am not really qualified to speak about Rorty or the “burning” question (should liberals prefer Rorty or Rawls?) that initially sparked this discussion, but since I have waded into a previous Douthat-Linker exchange I will now offer, unbidden, my probably unwanted comments on this Douthat-Sullivan argument.

I think Ross is probably being too generous here, since I think he might be able to guess why Sullivan is tendentiously attributing the wrong position to him on a question touching on Neuhaus and the intersection of religion and politics.  This has nothing to do with Ross’ earlier statement.  Whenever Neuhaus is mentioned, even in passing, Sullivan’s “theocon” alarm goes off and he begins warning about the heavy yoke of dogmatism.  When someone has spent as much time as Sullivan has in constructing an elaborate web around the myth that “theocons” have helped to turn the Republicans into a “religious party” and a haven for “fundamentalists” (you know, like Bill Kristol), and the central objection he has to “theocons” is that they seek to influence policy (gasp!) according to the lights of their understanding of natural law and revelation (shriek!), no occasion is too small to restate the description of sinister plan {voice quavering with anxiety}: Christians are attempting to…participate in the political process and…direct policies in the direction of their preferences!  Who will save us from this madness? 

A large part of the trouble comes from some of the more slippery definitions that secular critics of the “theocons” use.  We find an example of this in the quote from The Theocons that Ross cites:

The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith - that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions [bold mine-DL].

Two phrases, “political rule in the name of their faith” and “the whole of social life,” do all the work here, but it is never clear what constitutes “political rule” or where privatised piety ends and social life-conforming behaviour begins.  Does political rule here simply refer to established religion, or does it mean any exercise of political influence or power by religious believers?  My impression is that Linker means the latter.  He takes arrangements that most people, religious conservatives included, accept as given (no established religion, religious pluralism and freedom of religion) and then invests this surrender of “ambition to political rule” with a much more restrictive meaning.  Once you have ceded that we should not arrest people for heresy, you must also supposedly cede the right to every other attempt to influence political life.  Once you have yielded an inch on the potentially totalising claims of religion, you are supposed to give up all claims with a social or political dimension.  If you won’t stone the adulteress, don’t bother trying to ”impose” your beliefs on anyone with respect to abortion–you threaten the liberal order if you attempt the latter, because it must inevitably lead to full-on theocracy in the end.   

In Linker’s liberalism, how much “social space” do you get?  Is it a bit like zoning regulations, where you can build up to a certain point but cannot come to close to municipal property?  What is worship?  Is it simply liturgy on Sundays and bedtime prayers, or does man’s religious obligations to God and his fellow men require something in addition to that?  Does the bare minimum of religious life require more than that?  Obviously, any remotely traditional religion requires much more.  Linker’s definition of the proper sphere for religion in a liberal order seems to suggest that most of what traditional religion requires simply in terms of religious obligations is incompatible with that order.  If I understand him correctly, it isn’t simply that religion should stay out of the public square, but that the liberalism of the public square should enter into the religious groups of the society and liberalise them as well, if only to ensure that they stay out of the public square. 

God is sovereign over all, and it is the role of Christianity, for example, to be concerned with the whole man and the whole of society, and this for Linker seems to be the major problem.  Any political role is, of course, entirely out of the question, and this would eventually proscribe even proselytising, since proselytism is simply the imposition of the “inevitably partial” and “sectarian” convictions of one religion on adherents of another partial view.  If everyone has his privatised piety sealed off from all attempts to change society, it seems to me that even conversions would be a potential source of trouble, since religious conversions will generate social change.  (Ross says that Linker rejects going this far.)   

In Linker’s privatised piety, if taken to an extreme, Christians would presumably not even live according to the tenets of their faith, because this would be an attempt to bring the whole of their lives, which take place in political society, into conformity with their sectarian convictions.  This could have troubling second and third-order effects, such as “disturbing” patriarchal notions of marriage or veritably “medieval” attitudes towards homosexuality.  It is as if revealed religion were concerned with the whole of life!  It is as if Christianity required men to commit themselves and “all their lives” to Christ God.  Clearly, this is dangerous and subversive stuff–before you know it, they might want to start talking about it in the schools! 

A less extreme form of Linkerian privatised piety would have an allowance for consenting adults to practice their religion, provided that it never went outside the home and did not interfere with the proper, “rational” upbringing of children.  You wouldn’t want to inculcate all sorts of “anti-social” attitudes into your children by teaching them regressive ideas about traditional gender roles or sexual morality.  Christopher Hitchens’ dream of a bureaucrat rescuing children from the “child abuse” of religious education is not far away here.

The suspicion of metaphysics would be more persuasive if, for another example, we imagine that religiously informed governments follow a pattern that invariably ends in some form of the Inquisition, granting civil police powers to religious authorities. ~Joseph Bottum

Mr. Bottum’s entire essay would be more persuasive if he didn’t pepper it with bizarre phrases like “the Counter-Enlightenment of the Left” and bizarre statements like the one quoted above.  The punishments meted out in “the Spanish Inquisition” were carried out by the secular arm.  Religious authorities were never vested with “civil police powers.”  The Inquisition investigated into whether people were heretics, infidels and the like, whereupon it fell to the secular authorities to carry out whatever sentences the law required for profession of heresy or apostasy, and so on.  The ecclesiastical office itself did not carry out any of the punishments that followed from these investigations.  This may seem like a minor point, but Bottum’s essay is riddled with these sorts of lazy claims. 

Even free will, however, is only one more suggestive part of death’s relation to politics. Think of all this in terms of the violence praised by a surprisingly large range of modern political theories. Why does death manifest itself—a sudden, miraculous, culture-forming power—whenever a thinker turns against the Enlightenment? What logic compels political philosophers, from the most radical right to the most radical left, to embrace murder when they renounce the poverty and weightlessness of modern culture? And why does literature show us again and again characters who imagine they can resolve the anxieties of modernity by drenching it in blood? ~Joseph Bottum

In my biased estimation, it occurs to me that a great many people were very enthusiastic about violence and killing and sacrificing human lives for the sake of goals inspired by the thought of the Enlightenment and its derivatives.  Something about “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” comes to mind.  Mr. Bottum’s question about political philosophers and murder gives the impression that there have been a great many anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment people openly calling for murder, but he does not give any examples and seems to take a number of things for granted that may not be true at all.  For instance, I suspect that he thinks fascism is opposed to the Enlightenment, when it is one of the latter’s outgrowths; he probably thinks that the liberal belief in the perfectibility of man is significantly different from the fascist and communist efforts to create a “new man.”  I am not sure that he assumes these things, but that is what I would have to guess.  His argument here is unclear, but there seems to be no other way for him to make his claim about philosophers and murder hold up unless he attributes an anti-Enlightenment position to the moral insanity of various sympathisers with what Niemeyer called ’total critique’.  Read the rest of this entry »

Later in this essay, I take up what may be the largest piece—the fact that, at a very abstract level of logic, freedom of the will is closely tied to a world with death in it: If nothing really dies, then we have no freedom of choice; if we lack significant freedom of choice, then death will prove unreal. ~Joseph Bottum

Via Ross

This sounds like pretty heady stuff, and at first it gives you the impression that this is a deep and powerful claim about the nature of existence.  Then you realise that it is utterly and in all ways wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice, because she would lose her independence and her moral authority, identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions. The Church is the advocate of justice and of the poor, precisely because she does not identify with politicians nor with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere. To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: that is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area. And lay Catholics must be aware of their responsibilities in public life; they must be present in the formation of the necessary consensus and in opposition to injustice. ~Pope Benedict XVI

In 1988, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published a collection of essays under the title of Church, Ecumenism and Politics. In it, he argued that capitalism is little better than national socialism or communism, in that all three propose false idols (prosperity, the Volk, and the state, respectively). Ratzinger said that to build a humane civilization, the West must rediscover two elements of its past: its classical Greek heritage and its common Christian identity.

From the classical era, Ratzinger wrote, Europe should rediscover objective and eternal values that stand above politics, putting limits to power. Ratzinger used the Greek term eunomia to describe this concept of the good. In that sense, one could say that Ratzinger proposed a eunomic, rather than capitalist, model of Western culture.

Over the years, Ratzinger has been close to the Communio school within Catholic theology, which stresses the need for cultures to take their point of departure from the Christian gospel rather than secular ideologies. Its primary exponents have repeatedly criticized capitalism for promoting an ethos of individualism and “survival of the fittest” that is at odds with the communitarian thrust of Catholic social teaching. ~John Allen


How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer. ~Michael Kinsley

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;     
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,     
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will                                    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Michael Kinsley can often be interesting (or is that “interesting!”?), but here his credulity undoes him.  No, these points give believers no pause, because they are not serious points.  They are the sorts of points one expects to hear from Jodie Foster’s character in Contact or a fifth grader who thinks he has discovered–for the first time ever–that there are differences between the different Gospels.  It’s a good thing we have folks like Hitchens to pick up on the loose threads, since no Christian has ever thought about any of this, but has gone about in mindless “god-worship.”  Personally, I prefer the phrase “god-worship” to religion, since it makes it very clear what cannot be included as religion.

Are these questions from Hitchens’ book, as related by Kinsley, actually at all interesting?  Are they even accurate statements about the beliefs he purports to destroy in a solvent of Hitchensian ridicule?  Well, no and no.  Leave it to an atheist to not understand the purpose of the covenant, which was not primarily ethical lesson-giving (rather obviously, murder was considered a grave sin from the time of Cain, but why worry yourself over details after having thrown back a few too many drinks?).  The covenant, represented in the giving of the Law, was the establishment of what was to be an eternal bond between God and His People.  The Law was the limit or the boundary set for those who would distinguish themselves as the chosen of God.  That is one point of the Law and the giving of the Law.  The keeping of the Law involves not murdering and not committing adultery, but the far more significant and prioritised Commandments concern the worship of the One God, reverence for His Holy Name and the rejection of idols.  Obviously, the Israelites did need to be told about these things, because they had either never known them or had forgotten them during the sojourn in Egypt.  Try to keep up, Hitchens.

Christ, of course, did die in His humanity, and the reality of His death is a point that the Gospels go to some lengths to insist upon.  Again, it is the paradox of the God-become-man dying that formed one of the great difficulties of Christian theology, but it was not some blind spot that Christians have never noticed.  Christians have come to account for it by stressing that it was in the flesh that Christ suffered and died, but it was nonetheless the Word’s own flesh that suffered and died.  Paradoxically, it can be said by traditional Christians that God died upon the Cross, but it will be said at the same time that God qua God is impassible and immortal.  It’s a complicated idea, and no doubt it causes trouble for Hitchens, but one thing it isn’t is some unaccounted for contradiction.  Hitchens’ objection isn’t new or clever or interesting; it is a sort of inverted Docetism, where he denies the reality of the Incarnation by attacking the divinity of Christ rather than the reality of the flesh.  Are African and Muslim practitioners of female gential mutilation paid-up members of the Discovery Institute?  That would be interesting if it were true, but we all know it isn’t.  When female-genital mutilators begin citing the “argument from design,” then we can start heeding something that Hitchens says.  

Why not argue against real adversaries rather than strawmen?  Why not take on the main challenge, rather than kick around the easy targets of Mormonism and Islam, as he does in the other excerpts available at Slate?  Could it be that the bold and flamboyant Hitchens cannot hack it against real opposition?

Does John Edwards include Jews in his prayers? Or Muslims? Or Hindus?  Or any other non-Christians?

He didn’t the other day. The other day, in order to commemorate those killed at Virginia Tech, Edwards led a prayer “in Christ’s name” at Ryman Auditorium, which bills itself as “Nashville’s  Premier Performance Hall.”

Edwards has a perfect right to pray publicly or privately any way he wants to. But people who are not Christians often feel left out of prayers like his. ~Roger Simon

I have to agree with Yglesias: this Politico item reaches new depths of lameness.  In fact, it has passed far beneath the mere crust of lameness and broken down into the core of absurdity, where it will fortunately be consumed by tons of satirical magma.

John Edwards is a Christian.  It seems to me that the only way that he could pray without being tagged as a pandering, overly ecumenical buffoon would be to pray “in Christ’s name.”  It has to be embarrassing for all involved to hear politicians rattle off the new trinity of inclusiveness: “The strength of America is in our churches, our synagogues and our mosques!”  Presumably a Muslim candidate, were there ever to be such a one, would open his prayer with bismillah arrahman arrahim, or perhaps a translation of the same, because that’s part of how Muslims pray.  Give me a candidate who will not reshape his prayers to fit a focus group any day (even if his decision to give a prayer was apparently done on the advice of a consultant).  Spare me the treacly preaching of a Roger Simon when he asks:

Why not include all religions in your prayers?

Because that’s obviously fake and done for political purposes?  Because virtually no one, in his regular prayers, “includes” all religions in this way?  The reasons could go on. 

No, it was secular nationalism that killed them, the pseudo-religion that exalts the Turkish nation. ~Morning’s Minion

Undoubtedly pan-Turanism and Turkish nationalism masquerading as Ottomanism were profoundly significant ideological factors in driving the genocide, and I wouldn’t even object to allowing that they were the most significant factors for the architects of the genocide.  In addition to pointing to the basic Muslim identity of the irregulars, both Turkish and Kurdish, who carried out most of the actual looting and killing, I would point to an important feature of the ideology of the CUP leadership that is very often glossed over in many traditional accounts of this group.  Taner Akcam, who will probably not be mistaken for a “right-wing culture warrior” (though I might fairly be described as such), wrote in his masterful A Shameful Act on the Islamic background to the genocide:

In addition to the general subjugation of all its subjects, the Ottoman state specifically oppressed and discriminated against non-Muslims.  Indeed, in the course of Ottoman rule, long-standing assumptions of Muslim superiority evolved into the legal and cultural attitudes that created the background for genocide.  This is not to say that the Ottoman Empire rested only on violence, but that without a grasp of the particular circumstances of the Muslim-non-Muslim relationship, we cannot understand the process that led to a decision for a “final solution” to the Armenian question….The Muslim-Christian clashes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the Armenian genocide must be considered against this background.  Accordingly, the view that relative peace prevailed prior to the emergence of nineteenth-century nationalism, [sic] is not only incorrect but also misleading. (p.19-20)

And again:

Solidarity among the empire’s Muslims, no matter what, was the psychological product of decline and disintegration coupled with the belief of being surrounded by hostile forces desiring the state’s elimination.  Thus Pan-Islamism was transformed into state ideology.

For this reason the attacks, mainly against the Armenians, had the nature of pogroms.  The state unleashed its attacks on the slightest provocation, calculating that this would bind Muslims more closely to the empire.  The Austrian ambassador to the Porte reported that Muslims were being armed and set into action against Christians, calling this a policy a “Muslim Crusade.”  From reportss of the various diplomatic missions in Istanbul and eyewitness accounts, it is clear that the massacres of 1894-96 were centrally planned. (p.44)

And again Dr. Akcam wrote:

For all their differences, these divergent currents–Ottomanism, Islamism, Turkism, and Westernism–shared one core premise: the nationalism of a dominant ethnic group, which was understood to mean the Turks. (p.49)

Elsewhere he stresses the flexibility of the CUP in stressing different aspects of their ideology according to perceived need; when it helped to speak of jihad, they spoke of jihad, and when it helped to speak in racialist terms, they spoke as racialists.  Whichever way you slice it, this was a nasty bunch.  They were motivated by a number of different senses of their rightful superiority over Armenians and other minorities, one of which in this case was Islam, albeit an Islam as mediated through a particularly Turkist filter.

Speaking of “right-wing culture warriors” and the Armenian genocide together is notable for another reason, since relatively few “right-wing culture warriors” over here have any familiarity with the genocide and even fewer care very much.  I have noticed that almost the only people who have shown any interest in what I have had to say about the genocide have been on the left or center-left.  It is not for nothing that it is the Democrats who consistently push for recognition of the genocide, if only because Armenian-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic.  Christian conservatives, who might theoretically be natural allies for the Diasporan Armenians in this area, seem to be generally uninterested in the question. 

Depressingly, any sense of solidarity with Armenian Christians that one might think Christians in this country would or ought to have is virtually non-existent.  For obvious reasons, American Jews are much more aware of the genocide and they tend to be more involved in promoting knowledge about the Armenian genocide.  Likewise, the slaughter of the Assyrians undertaken at around the same time is also largely unknown to American Christians, just as the sorry fate of today’s Assyrians is overshadowed by an unfortunate commitment to Mr. Bush’s War.  This deplorable neglect of Near Eastern Christians is repeated time and again across much of the American right.  The response tends to be one of ignorance, indifference or some mixture of the two, so I would be very interested to see more “right-wing culture warriors” at least paying some lip service to remembering the Armenian genocide.

This was good to see.

Update: It is also worth noting that today Pope Benedict shares a birthday with my mother.  Happy Birthday, Mom!

Novak’s entire career has been a series of position papers in favor of “values”–the “value” of unfettered sexual activity; the “value” of egalitarian democracy; the “value” of free-market capitalism unshackled from the Church’s social teaching.  Pope Benedict, on the other hand, is not concerned with “values” but with the concrete encounter with the Risen Christ… ~Scott Richert

Scott follows up on his excellent three-part series of articles at Taki’s webzine with this post responding to Novak’s criticism of Pope Benedict’s Urbi et Orbi address, which I also commented on earlier this week.

The idea that anti-Catholicism is a significant force in American life today is a complete canard, perpetrated by theologically and politically right-wing Roman Catholics–a minority among the Catholic laity–and aimed at anyone who stands up to the Church’s continuing attempts to impose its values on all Americans.
The people who scream “anti-Catholicism” at every opportunity use the same tactics as right-wing Jews who charge that any criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. And just as the Jewish Right attacks liberal Jews, the Catholic Right attacks liberal Catholics as well as liberal non-Catholics. ~Susan Jacoby 

Via Pro Ecclesia

I have no particular brief for the Donohues out there, but the idea that contemporary anti-Catholicism is simply the figment of right-wing Catholic imaginations is loopy.  Exhibit A, which is only the most recent, would be Amanda Marcotte and the blog left’s zealous defense of her disgusting blasphemy.  This could not have happened and been so widely tolerated and defended unless there was a well-entrenched prejudice against Christians generally and Catholics in particular.  You could argue that these progressives are unrepresentative of America as a whole (you would be, I hope, be right), but you cannot argue that they are politically irrelevant or obscure or a minor blip on the screen.  Arguably, the phenomenon we see in the Marcotte case or in the screeds written against The Passion (or past insults, such as the famous elephant dung-smeared Virgin in New York, an indecent portrayal of the Virgin Mother in a Santa Fe art exhibit a few years back, The Priest, The DaVinci Code, etc.) is not so much anti-Catholicism but hostility to traditional Christianity of all kinds.  It is possible that complaining about this prejudice can be overdone and the charge may sometimes be thrown around loosely, but those making the charge are pikers compared to those who wield the label anti-Semite if creating a tremendous climate of fear of criticising your group is the goal.  

Granted, anti-Catholicism is a lot less virulent and less widespread today than it once was, but it isn’t just concentrated among the coastal secular snobs, either.  You don’t have to go very far into conservative Protestant America before you will run into the same old anti-Catholicism that has existed as long as there have been Protestants.  Much of this is mostly ignorance, fed by popular DaVinci Code-style “history” that convinces people already biased against Catholics that they really do have secret orders of albino assassins who kill to keep the entire racket afloat, but it is all over the place.  Fewer people speak explicitly in terms of “popery” and “priestcraft” and “worshipping Mary,” and all the old nonsense, but there are plenty of Protestants in this country who believe that all of these things are deeply wrong and view the people who engage in them to be scarcely recognisable as Christians.  We may wonder why American Catholics are indifferent to their brethren in the Near East, but for Protestants the explanation is easy: for them, those people aren’t really Christians and should be targeted for missionary work just like the Orthodox or anybody else.  (Of course, if Catholics and Orthodox mean what they say, they believe the same about Protestants, but they have not typically had the unusually poor form of preying on particularly poor and miserable populations for new converts.)  Pentecostalism is booming in Latin America (as it is elsewhere in the world), and it is certainly not because the Pentecostals are saying nice, conciliatory things about the Catholic Church. 

In truth, many converts to Orthodoxy, especially those who have converted from Catholicism, make Catholic-bashing into a minor pastime, which they know will go over just fine with their Protestant or secular interlocutors who will basically nod along with the Orthodox fellow’s critique of papal supremacy–at least until he begins talking favourably about icons and the Theotokos.  Just get together the ex-Catholic, ex-Anglican crowd (there are more of these double converts than you would think) at an Orthodox gathering and watch them go!  They know more about the ins and outs of Episcopal church politics than most Episcopalians.  But that is beside the point.  There are perhaps some people who convert to Orthodoxy instead because it is sufficiently traditional, liturgical and hierarchical without having the perceived “baggage” that being Catholic carries with it in what is still a significantly Protestantised culture.  In my case, I genuinely found Orthodox theology to be more compelling on those points where the two confessions differed, but after a brief Slavophile, “the West is dying from Catholic-inspired rationalism” phase I have moved well away from defining my Orthodoxy by how upset I can make myself about, say, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  (Speaking of ignorance about Catholicism, you will not believe how many people in this country do not understand that the Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Mary and have no idea what it means–it is fairly frightening the level of ignorance about their own civilisation’s history some people have.)

All of this is by way of saying that anti-Catholicism in America is very real and it is sometimes quite vicious today.  If certain people exploit or abuse this truth for other ends (which I don’t necessarily accept, but I’m willing to entertain that it’s possible), that does not make the phenomenon less real.

How times have changed.  Today, the war in Iraq is far less justified, morally or strategically, than the Gulf War was; and yet, outside of Chronicles and Pat Buchanan, most “conservative” Catholics have supported the war unquestioningly. 


And everything I wrote above applies in spades to “conservative” American Catholic support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon last July and August. ~Scott Richert

The title of this post might well be the chilling response one might hear from some American Christians of different confessions when they are confronted with the damage their government’s policies have inflicted on their Near Eastern brethren.  The entire sad, sorry tale of general American Christian indifference to our brethren in the Near East (with a few notable exceptions) reminds me of a remark I once heard in a conversation with an H-SC alumnus, who commented on the Christian Balkan nations: “It’s like they’re not even real Christians.”  (At least he did not preface this remark, as some of the faithful might, with lectures on the justice of fire-bombing civilian populations in WWII.)  The man might be forgiven for having bought into the drumbeat of pro-Bosnian Muslim propaganda that was called “reporting” during the 1990s, since there were very few sources of information that offered a different perspective, but the readiness of American Christians to disown Christians from other parts of the world struck me as particularly depressing.  Why should it be that many of those who claim to desire the Christianisation or re-Christianisation of America so much seem unfazed at the prospect of the de-Christianisation (and consequently still greater Islamicisation) of the Holy Land and the lands where Abraham and St. Paul walked? 

The readiness of more than a few American Christians, particularly conservative Protestants and Catholics, to throw the Christians of Lebanon to the wolves of Hizbullah and the destruction of the IAF (with bombs sent to Israel by the U.S. government) was just as appalling, if rather more predictable by that point.  Obviously, I was deeply moved by the plight of the Lebanese people, especially since Lebanon has represented one of the last redoubts of Christianity in the Near East, now more than ever.  Along with Syrian Christians (who make up roughly 10% of the population), the longsuffering Copts of Egypt and the hard-pressed, shrinking Palestinian Christian population, the Christian communities of Lebanon are virtually all that remain of what was once the fully Christian Orient.  If it has not actually been part of the design of U.S. policy to destroy these communities, the ruin of many of them has been the effect.  The decline of these communities under Islamic rule was obviously very great, but the modern decline has as much to do with our interference in the region.  You might at least have thought that in a country reputed to be among the more “religious” in the world (or so we tell ourselves as a way of pretending that we are much better off than the dying Europeans) and nominally still largely Christian there would be sympathy and concern for the travails of fellow Christians rather than indifference tending towards contempt.  You would be wrong to think that. 

If the early poll numbers for Giuliani are to be believed, Emery is far from alone.  Apparently, the best way to show your pro-life credentials these days is to be willing to rain death and destruction upon the home of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East.  The blood of thousands of dead Iraqi and Lebanese civilians, it seems, can cover a multitude of aborted American babies. ~Scott Richert

“The Antichrist is the reduction of Christianity to an ideology, instead of a personal encounter with the Savior.” Any attempt to co-opt the Faith for the service of a particular ideology has about it the air of sulfur. ~Scott Richert

If you were a traditional Muslim, would you want to associate yourself with people who were constantly attacking your prophet, your holy book, your values, and your religion? ~Dinesh D’Souza

Well, obviously not.  I don’t expect them to do any such thing.  It is the neocon Islamophiles who think they can “win over” part of the Islamic world against the ”Islamofascist” part, and they are the more foolish for it.  I don’t expect Muslims of any stripe to associate with me–I wouldn’t want them to be associationists!  (Okay, that was a bad Islamic theology joke–does D’Souza even get it?)  But, then, as a Christian, I don’t want to associate myself with people who say–indeed whose scripture requires them to say–that my Saviour and God was a mere man, who deny His Resurrection (and even His Crucifixion!), mock the Holy Trinity, desecrate and destroy the sites dedicated to His glory and His holy Name, deface the sacred images of His beloved saints and His All-Holy, Most Pure and Ever-Virgin Mother and kill my co-religionists without mercy.  The people most inclined to agree with some of the moral judgements (if not the juridical punishments) of “traditional Muslims” are the very people who have no time at all for people whose entire religion is a shoddy, warmed-over version of the worst heresies and deviations from our religion.  With Islam, significant doctrinal differences really do make all the difference, not least because these differences have dramatic, immediate real-world consequences (as, indeed, does almost every significant theological difference).  I generally tend to think that agreement on “common values” is not entirely possible with people who have a completely different doctrine of God, since in some of their most basic convictions they believe something that I regard as manifest falsehood.  If they are that wrong about God, how much less will they understand about the less important things of worldly matters?  If they are actively hostile to the Church’s teaching about God and His saving economy, how in the world can I justify taking their side in any quarrel, no matter how many superficial points of agreement D’Souza can throw out there?

But the effort to marginalize, even demonize, Christian conservatives is unworthy of anyone who considers himself a member of the political movement that is trying to preserve the American tradition. ~Steven Warshawsky

Mr. Warshawsky makes many smart points, some of which I’ve touched upon in my numerous posts against skeptical and secular conservatives, and he represents part of what may be the beginning of a backlash against the hyperventilating of members of what Warshawsky calls the “atheist wing” of the movement.  The hyperventilating continues here.  Of course, in terms of total numbers, it is more like an “atheist feather” than a whole wing, but it is a useful designation as any (though it will be greeted with outrage by Sullivan, Vicar of Doubt and Defender of the Quite Possibly Untrue Faith).  Consider these sentences from near the beginning of Christopher Orlet’s piece in the New English Review:

But I, for one, am not so ready to concede that atheism is “against our reason.” Historically I have had the theologians on my side.

But this is absurd.  He hasn’t had “the theologians” on his side, historically or otherwise, since the entire enterprise of theology is the use of reason to make the ways of God known to man.  If believers assumed that reason was somehow naturally inclined to atheism, theology would never have come into existence in any religion.  It is precisely because Christian believers consider our Faith to be the most rational thing and in perfect agreement with the workings of reason that Christians took over and adapted Greek ontology, metaphysics and logic for the purposes of discoursing about the nature and works of God.  Mr. Orlet cherry-picks from Luther at his most anti-intellectual and somehow thinks he has proven his blatantly false claim, while ignoring the other two thousand years of Christian theology and philosophy.  Can the “skeptical” conservatives begin to see why their religious friends do not take their complaints very seriously?

What is one going to do with an article that begins so poorly?  I suppose we must soldier on, if only to get to the more ridiculous bits that come later.  Posing the question to Edmund Burke, whose quote about the innate quality of man’s religiosity opens the article, Mr. Orlet asks:

What then would Burke have made of his spiritual and intellectual heirs who have recently and publicly emerged from the closet of skepticism, and thereby suffered the enmity of the so-called fundies and theocons?

It is hard to say what Burke would have said, since the situation would probably have seemed very strange to him, but he might have said that it is not surprising that people so egregiously ungrateful to their ancestors and disdainful of the religious inheritance these ancestors received, added to and then passed on have been met with less than warm enthusiasm among those who believe that we have obligations to the dead and those not yet born.  This is where the Burkean conservative looks at the atheist and sees an impious fool–impious not really because he rejects God, but rather because he rejects the established customs and centuries-long traditions of his ancestors and thus cuts himself off from the contract binding past, present and future.  He separates himself from the great continuity and wisdom of the tradition, even though, as Kirk said, conservatives believe that the individual is foolish and the species wise. 

From Burke’s mildly religious perspective, he would probably marvel at these people, who are neither oppressed nor actually marginalised by anyone, complaining as if they have all suffered the fate of Giordano Bruno or Mennochio, the hero of Carlo Ginsburg’s cheese book.  Let’s be specific.  Who has “suffered the enmity of the so-called fundies and theocons”?  Mr. Orlet tells us:

We’re talking about a Who’s Who of conservative writers and pundits: Stephen Chapman, Theodore Dalrymple, John Derbyshire, Heather MacDonald, Andrew Stuttaford and James Taranto.

With the exception of James Taranto, who is obnoxious for any number of other reasons, I generally like the writing and work of all of these people.  Several of them have had articles appear in a magazine, The American Conservative, to which I have also contributed, and I am proud that TAC welcomes smart commentary from so many widely varying perspectives.  Thus Ms. Mac Donald and I have both ridiculed Mr. Bush’s vacuous “freedom is God’s gift to humanity” propaganda, but from entirely different perspectives and with somewhat different arguments.  The irony is that she does not seem to care that Mr. Bush may be simply using and exploiting Christians’ beliefs when he drags God into his awful foreign policy decisions.  Nor does she seem concerned that his conception of God is so far removed from that of traditional Christianity as to make the indictment against Mr. Bush irrelevant to her criticism of religious conservatives generally. 

When these writers make smart, well-formed arguments and present copious amounts of evidence to back up their claims, as they often will, they are among the better pundits in mainstream conservatism.  Mac Donald’s work on immigration, Chapman’s columns on civil liberties and Derbyshire’s blasts against Intelligent Design are breaths of fresh air after choking on the miasma of “nation of immigrants” pablum, panegyrics for the unitary executive and muddle-headed enthusiasm for pseudo-science that fill so much conservative commentary today.  Obviously, almost all of them are at prominent conservative or at least vaguely right-leaning journals and newspapers, where they have bigger and more prominent platforms than many a religious conservative, most of whom must be satisfied to eke out a living in the “provinces” of the movement.  It is like people living at the courts in Rome and Constantinople complaining that they lack the tremendous access to power and prestige afforded the monks at St. Sava’s in Palestine.  It is ludicrous, and I am frankly tired of hearing some of them whine about how the mean theocons have made their lives unpleasant.  I should emphasise that it has only been some of these people, as far as I know, who have complained at any great length about the perverse influence of religion on modern conservatism.  What have been the consequences?  Has anyone been fired from his or her position?  Has anyone even attempted to force them into the political or professional wilderness?  The answer to both of these questions is plainly “no.”   

But it should come as no surprise that at least some of these people have earned the enmity of “so-called fundies and theocons”!  For starters, they call their religious allies things like “fundie” and “theocon,” both of which are obviously disparaging terms intended to reduce intelligent positions with which they disagree into easily dismissed caricatures.  (Mr. Orlet has already shown that he prefers to keep his argument superficial and light as well by stating right away that he thinks theism and reason have historically always been at odds.)  Next, some will attack religious conservatives, often with great vehemence, as people who have somehow done terrible violence to the content of conservatism (as if it was religion, and not galloping ideological commitments to militaristic foreign policy and expansion of government, that had distorted or changed conservatism in recent years).  This is always a charged statement to make about any other conservatives, and it had better have something behind more than the fact that the critic is an atheist and doesn’t believe all this God-talk nonsense anyway.  It is unseemly that these skeptics and atheists have suddenly discovered their voice at the very moment when everyone and his brother seems to have a book out blaming Republican political woes and conservative disarray on the role of religious conservatives in the most dishonest campaign of scapegoating I have seen in many years.  It certainly doesn’t help when there seems to be an assumption among at least a few of the “skeptical” conservatives that their position is the natural and obvious one that conservatives ought to take, and that the connection with religion, or more specifically Christianity, is bad for conservatism.  This is not the plea of the persecuted dissident for toleration, but the demand of the ideological cadre for a takeover of the entire operation at the expense (obviously) of the religious-cons whose views they loathe so. 

The only trouble is that the religious-cons are not the wicked establishment that the heroic skeptical rebels are trying to overthrow.  Far from being a great and all-powerful force ruling over the movement, religious-cons are actually much more like the Kansan fellow behind a certain curtain who could put on an impressive show.  Much like religious conservative leaders, who enjoy boasting about their access and their influence far out of proportion to what they actually achieve in policy terms, he was able to convince people who were willing to believe in the display of power that he was much more powerful and mighty than he really was.  The heroic rebels are not so much engaged in a struggle to liberate the conservative mind as they are simply engaged in conservative fratricide as a way of pushing views they dislike even farther out to the margins than they already actually are.  It annoys the skeptical conservatives that many pundits and intellectuals pay lip service to Christianity or religious “values” as things important to the conservative movement, but what they never seem to grasp is that so much of this is nothing more than lip service.  It is weird how anyone could come away from the last six years and think that conservatism had been too much pervaded by the teachings of the Lord!

Mr. Orlet then goes on to say something that is categorically untrue:

This, and MacDonald’s earlier piece for The American Conservative, led to many loud catcalls for her excommunication from the communion of conservative Republicans.

One need only go back through the NRO archives to prove this false.  Many loud catcalls?  From whom?  How many?  How loud?  Mr. Orlet doesn’t say, and no wonder.  The response to her article was so low-volume that you could hear a door hinge squeak.  NR, ever that engine of ideological purges, bent over backwards to appease, flatter and butter-up Ms. Mac Donald.  Every criticism was prefaced by a paragraph of how much the critic liked and admired Ms. Mac Donald, and how she was just the best.  Her, I’m sorry to say, rather commonplace and predictable objections to revealed religion were treated as if they were the utterances of one of the Muses herself.  You see, there are deviationists on important things, such as the Iraq war, and they must be roundly denounced in the strongest possible way (”unpatriotic,” etc.), but those who deny the existence of God are typically sporting folks from the metropole with whom one can laugh about the mad evangelicals over cocktails.  There’s no need to turn your backs on people who reject the Creator, but those who reject the empire are clearly a bunch of lunatics. 

It’s true, most of her interlocutors there and elsewhere disagreed with her claims and her atheism (no surprises there), but far from calling for her “excommunication” many of the participants in the conversation almost seemed anxious to accelerate her on the path to conservative sainthood, so great was their praise of her.  Rather than simply ignoring her, as might be done to those whom conservatives wanted to shun and drive out, all of us from the various conservative factions engaged with her arguments; I found the arguments severely wanting, but there was never really any question in my mind of declaring her persona non grata (as if I were in any position to declare anything of the kind!).  I did question how it was possible to be a conservative while being an atheist, and I think it is a legitimate question, but when even Santayana makes it into The Conservative Mind I am inclined not to harp on the question as much as I could. 

Never has a dissident received a less stinging rebuke and correction than Ms. Mac Donald did at the hands of the First Things and National Review crowd.  This kid glove treatment is striking for what it said about the participants themselves and their perceptions of what was at stake in responding to Mac Donald: while some of her respondents are religious people, they seem to have endorsed the idea that numerous conservative pundits and intellectuals are not and they concluded that they risked alienating large numbers of these folks if they savaged Mac Donald in the way that they would denounce and belittle traditional conservatives talking about agrarianism or antiwar conservatives.  For them, Mac Donald represented a large number of their current allies, while other dissidents from consensus positions within the movement about, say, corporations or interventionism were of no consequence and could be run off without a second thought.  Going against God, or tolerating those who did, was easy; going against corporations or the foreign policy establishment would have required real conviction. 

While I opened up, figuratively speaking, with both barrels against Ms. Mac Donald’s spurious claims about the nature of modern conservatism (in which there is, she says, a “crippling” reliance on religion) and also against her atheism, I do not recall urging her anathematisation.  Indeed, if pressed I suspect Mr. Orlet will have a hard time coming up with even a handful of catcalls, loud or otherwise, calling for Ms. Mac Donald to be expelled from “respectable” (or even marginal) conservative company.  She is in no danger of any expulsion, because, as she herself has said, probably half of the pundits covertly share her views, thus proving that the core of her complaint about conservatism (i.e., it is too religious) is unfortunately based on the most superficial analysis of a few rhetorical and symbolic nods to religious voters.  The martyrology of Heather Mac Donald will have to wait for another day.

Mr. Orlet says in his closing remarks: “Conservatives have, in a sense, made a deal with the diety [sic]…”  But we know this to also be untrue, since Mike Huckabee has been languishing in the polls for weeks.

But Catholics are big on the whole hierarchy thing. ~Jonah Goldberg

It’s a right-wing shibboleth that Jesus’ phrase “judge not lest ye be judged” should be ignored, because after all it’s only an excuse people use for not doing what we (the good people, the religious in-group) know to be the right thing. ~Mike Potemra

Yes, as you can see, just as Sullivan and Sager have told us, Christianity has deeply pervaded the upper echelons of the conservative movement and suffused conservative pundits’ every thought.  What insight!  What profundity!  Ahem. 

In fairness, Goldberg was more or less defending the role of Catholic teaching authority against the burblings of Hannity, who has apparently decided that some elements of Humanae Vitae are less important to him than others and feels compelled to say as much publicly.  As Hannity sees it (see here for video), this is okay because he went to seminary and studied Latin and theology (in fact, these are excellent reasons why his public views should be scrutinised even more closely and held to an even higher standard, since he theoretically ought to know better than the average layman why he should not publicly contradict church authority).  In his fairly disrespectful exchange with one Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, Hannity manages to distinguish himself as being even more loathsome than we already thought he was.  Watch as he actually equates contraception with natural birth regulation.  For his next trick, he will equate aggressive war with self-defense.  Oh, wait, he’s already done that one. 

Perhaps the most appalling thing, besides flinging scandal in the face of a priest as a means to diminish church authority (Donatist, thy name is Hannity), is the way in which Hannity rationalises his support for contraception as being the lesser of two evils, which suggests that his lessons in moral theology at whichever seminary he allegedly attended did not take.  It is “better” to use contraception rather than have an abortion only in a purely utilitarian sort of analysis, which at once degrades the people involved and embraces an act contrary to nature by accepting that the only alternative to this is another evil.  At once, Hannity affirms his contempt for created nature, his lack of discernment and his effective denial of the realistic possibility of the cultivation of continence among non-Catholics, which seems to this non-Catholic to contradict the very idea of ius gentium

Mr. Potemra’s comment was also a strange one worth noting, since I don’t assume that it is a “right-wing shibboleth” that we ignore Dominical commands.  If there were such a shibboleth, it would need to be destroyed right now.  It also has nothing to do with whether “we” are “the good people” and it is not, in fact, what ”we” know that matters, but rather it concerns what the authoritative interpretation of Scripture shows us to be the truth, which we Christians are in turn called to declare to the world.  When conservatives object to the flippant invocation of this verse, they are objecting to people using it precisely the way in which Hannity was using it: as a shield against doctrinal and moral correction.  It is remarkable that a verse that implies that God alone is Judge–which is in its way a terrifying and humbling thing to understand–can be taken as a kind of “get out of jail free” card for sinners, when its plain meaning is entirely the opposite.  If God alone is Judge, and if He has called us to be perfect and if He has given us the Way to perfection, this makes lapses and errors even more serious than they would be otherwise.  Fortunately, God is all-merciful at the same time, but then that mercy is found in exhortation, reproach, command and chastisement.  So, too, are those entrusted with the care of God’s people called to love them just as God loves them. 

When the verse is coupled to exhortations to not be “judgemental” (which is code for accepting anything and everything), it is the people who hide behind that verse to defend their errors and lapses who abuse or ignore the actual content of the verse.  The verse’s meaning is at least twofold: it drives home the point that God is Judge, and it is not your place to judge the state of another man’s soul or his righteousness (or lack thereof), while also inculcating a sense of humility that every man should be concerned first with putting out the fire in his own house before he begins quibbling over his neighbour’s broken windows.  Distinct from all of this on the one hand is indifference to sin and error, which most of the people who invoke this verse defensively possess, and moral discernment, which is something to which all are called to practice.  Offering a brother reproof in a spirit of charity or challenging a member of your confession who openly contradicts the Faith in public is not only entirely different from passing judgement on him, but the latter in particular is aimed both at the correction and lifting up of the fellow Christian who has fallen into the ditch and at the instruction of the rest of the flock who may be tempted by the bad example set by the one who has fallen into an error.     

Pelosi’s piece [Friends of God] is like a Bush supporter making a documentary on the anti-war movement by going to rallies and interviewing geriatric Trotskyites, dudes in dirty dreadlocks carrying signs equating Israel to the Third Reich and transgendered Scientologists. ~Don Feder

So it’s basically just like 95% of pro-war commentary for the last four and a half years? 

Seriously, though, other accounts of Pelosi’s documentary give an entirely different picture than one put forward by Feder.  Take Michael Linton’s account at First Things:

Black, Hispanic, and Asian Evangelicals are also largely ignored. But Pelosi is also generous with her omissions. She makes no mention of our various financial scandals, the tendency of some of our organizations to become multigenerational family businesses, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or Ralph Reed.

Although incomplete, it’s a fair picture. Pelosi simply drives around with her camcorder and asks us questions, letting us speak for ourselves. And the portrait she assembles is put together kindly and without malice. I think her documentary is a gift. We all need to see it. It’s a gift from the Lord.

Whether or not Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary has a providential purpose, Linton goes on to say that the documentary was not made with an aim to discredit or mock:

Pelosi isn’t a liberal out to get us. Although from a branch of Catholicism that is incomprehensible to many of us (she describes herself as coming from a religious Catholic family where everyone went to Catholic school but “we were never told gay was wrong, or abortion was wrong, or evolution was wrong”), she told the Advocate, the country’s leading LGBT news outlet, that she has nothing but admiration and respect for Evangelicals [bold mine-DL]. Although part of that admiration comes from her sense of Evangelical leaders’ ability to mobilize large numbers of people for political purposes (I think she still sees us as rather like Bolshevik cells), much of her admiration comes from her growing sense of the importance of faith in her own life.

Rebecca Cusey, in her rather more negative review for National Review, wrote something similar:

Haggard aside, the documentary is as interesting for what it didn’t do as for what it did. Pelosi makes no mention of fundraising, budgets, or requests for offerings, often a method used to criticize the church. She doesn’t film anyone speaking in tongues, being “slain in the spirit,” or any of the other more charismatic expressions of evangelical belief. A gentle swaying and a few tears are as extreme as the worship gets. She asks fair, difficult questions. When the pick-up truck driving evangelist declares, “With Jesus, you’re a winner,” Pelosi asks, “Does that mean that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re a loser?” Turns out his answer is yes. She doesn’t do a lot of commentary in voice over, letting the people talk for themselves. Fair and balanced?  Perhaps not entirely, but the film gives the impression that Pelosi is genuinely puzzled by the evangelical sub-species and genuinely trying to figure it out. 

It may say something for some conservatives’ capacity for reflection and “self-awareness” that the first response of many to a documentary that shows the absurd and silly aspects of evangelical culture is to denounce it as an attack.  They might, as Linton does, note that the now-famous scene with the now-disgraced Rev. Haggard reveals something deeply wrong with certain evangelical attitudes:

Of course, Haggard wasn’t thinking. He was feeling. And he was feeling great. And so were the guys with him. And that’s the problem. We, “us,” the Evangelicals with the capital E, have become thoughtless, sensualistic braggarts. For some time, we’ve been accused of being simply thoughtless–an unfair charge (Jonathan Edwards was an evangelical after all) but a charge with some truth to it. But what doctrinal rigor we might have had has been progressively smothered by sensuality draped with arrogant irresponsibility. We don’t think; we feel. If it feels right, it’s the Lord’s working, and if it’s the Lord’s working, we can be proud of it. Pelosi lays it all out for us to see.

And again:

And then there’s Pastor Ted, who thinks (or at least thought) that one of the clearest proofs of the Lord’s blessing is a great sex life. The possibility that it might be deeply indecent for a Christian minister ever to ask a man to reveal the most intimate nature of his relationship with his wife in front of anyone else–let alone in front of a camera–is apparently not within his ken. And the idea that these men should protect their wives’ privacy and refuse to answer isn’t in their ken either. They boast about their . . . well, you fill in the blank (we’ve all been in locker rooms). It feels so great. It’s all for the Lord. High fives, everybody.

Of course, it is possible that Feder could also dismiss the members of Haggard’s church as fringe, unrepresentative types, but then we could be even more sure that he was just objecting to the documentary because the filmmaker had the wrong surname.

What is really remarkable is that Ms. Pelosi, even after having seen some of the more extraordinary and bizarre elements of evangelical culture in this country, says that she admires and respects them.  Don Feder can barely contain his contempt for the people he sees in the documentary, which tells you something about his low opinion of a lot of real evangelicals.  For instance:

Instead of fear and loathing, Pelosi uses the comically absurd to stigmatize evangelicals. Among other oddities, she presents the home-schooling family with 10 children, where the girls are identically attired in calico dresses — The Stepford Wives meets Little House On The Prairie.

For the urban pundit, I suppose Little House On The Prairie is already comically absurd.  You can tell that the problem here is not Pelosi’s depiction of evangelicals, but the reality that many evangelicals really do live very differently from the largely secularised pundit class that presumes to speak on behalf of religious conservatives on the national stage, and when these pundits encounter some of these people they run screaming in the other direction. 

Incidentally, I presume the dresses in this case are identical because, I would guess, it is easier to make similar clothes for so many children than to make a different kind for each one.  Since homeschooling families often do not have the financial means available to two-income households, they cannot afford to pamper their kids with individual styles and the latest fashions (not that they would put much stock in either of these things in any case).  Of the homeschooling mother in question, Linton wrote:

And there’s the Mennonite mother with ten children in Tennessee who speaks honestly of being frazzled by the work but still uplifted by the Lord. But in Pelosi’s film, as in our culture, those folks are being pressed to the margins by the other Evangelicals–the big churches, the big programs, the big visions.

In other words, the people Feder regards as “comically absurd” represent for Linton, an evangelical, the decent, normal evangelicals who are getting pushed to the side by the world of megachurches and celebrity pastors. 

Ms. Cusey writes later in her review:

The biggest lesson of the film is that normalcy is in the eye of the beholder. When Pelosi shows thousands of people singing “I am a friend of God,” a club of skateboarders “skating for Christ,” or even an impassioned sermon, those familiar with evangelicalism see nothing odd. However, your average New Yorker or San Franciscan, or even your suburban neighbor who has never walked through the door of a church, sees something very strange indeed.  

Perhaps it is strange, but what is remarkable about Feder’s reaction is just how bilious and hostile his response to these things is.  What would strike many evangelicals as “nothing odd” seems to him “comically absurd,” and therein he reveals that he has even less sympathy for evangelicals than the liberal daughter of the Speaker of the House. 

Call me crazy, but I’ll take the Tennessean evangelical’s assessment of the supposed attack on his kind of Christians over the disgust-filled “defense” of evangelicals penned by Feder.  With friends like Feder, evangelicals don’t need to worry about hostile liberal documentary-makers–their own “allies” hate them enough as it is.

I must be doing something right.  One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers has declared one of my recent posts, to which Sullivan linked, to be “conservative humbug.”  Unfortunately, in his haste to declare my view humbug he seems to have read in that post a claim that I did not make and don’t actually believe.  The Sullivan reader writes:

I find it difficult to stomach this kind of conservative humbug, that Modernity is anti-spiritual. Western society is the mechanism that allows groups like the Pentacostalists (and cosmos-loving atheists, and Wiccans, Buddhists, et al.) to exist. It is the ground in which they survive. What seems to irritate some conservatives is the fact that they cannot impose their will upon all of society and poison the soil which succors them. If anything, and the USA is the exemplar of this, modern Western society is besotted with spirituality. 

You cannot drive down a street in the greater Los Angeles area, a zone of the country supposedly noted for its secular ways, without encountering churches, synagogues, mosques, reading rooms, meditation centers, Scientology storefronts and other physical manifestations of the “higher” realms. Spiritual desert, bah! It’s an earthly garden of a thousand blooms.

I have had many things to say against modernity and even more against those who think there is virtue in modernism in most areas of life, but one thing I have not said and do not really hold is that “Modernity is anti-spiritual.”  Modernity is anti-traditional and possibly is inherently anti-Orthodox, but it is certainly not anti-spiritual.  I also don’t think I ever used the phrase “spiritual desert,” nor did I imply the existence of such a desert.  There is a spiritual desert in this country, but it is assuredly broken up by numerous oases.  As spiritual deserts go, it is much better than many.  Still, I defy someone to find anything remotely related to such claims in the post in question.  

What did I say?  I referred on numerous occasions to immorality and cultural decadence or, in one place, to “rampant immorality” and in another to “trashy popular culture.”  Perhaps the reader will be able to persuade me that Los Angeles (or any other major metro area) does not have more than its fair share of all these things, but I doubt it.  Perhaps the reader will disagree with what traditional Christianity would deem to be immoral, but that is an entirely different question.  What did I want to see as the remedies?  “Moral renewal” and “cultural regeneration” were my exact words.  Of course, those phrases call forth a number of questions (whose culture? what morality?), but since I took it as a given that my readers would understand that I meant the regeneration of a traditional Christian culture and a renewal of traditional Christian morality I did not go into greater detail about what I meant. 

Modernisation does not automatically equal secularisation and “de-spiritualisation” as such.  Islamic revivalist movements of the last three hundred years, Christian fundamentalist movements of at least the last one hundred years or so, Tenri-kyo and Soka Gakkai originating in 19th century Japan, the enthusiasts for Hindutva in India, Mormonism, and the ”progressive” Christianities of liberation theology and feminist theology, to take a few well-known examples, are all products of the modern age and are themselves modern.  “Modernity” is not all of one thing or all of another, but refers broadly to a mentality of self-determination and an orientation towards the self, and it also refers to a culture in which religious and political authorities have been stripped of their traditional claims to deference and obedience.  This is certainly not an exhaustive definition of an extremely complex subject.  Many modern religious movements, even those that stress quite seriously their fidelity to religious tradition, are based on the fairly anti-traditional assumption that it is acceptable to redefine, reorganise or refound a religious traditon.  In modern cultures, change and innovation often possess a predominantly positive meaning, such that even traditionalists and fundamentalists find themselves using the language of newness, dynamism, and choice, much to the annoyance of people like me.   

Obviously, critics of pluralism and ecumenism have no doubt that the modern world is beset by a rather staggering number of religious and other beliefs.  Some of these critics regard this great number of beliefs as the evidence of the inherent undesirability of pluralism, while others are content to stake their own claims in a pluralistic society.  Since I actually tend to lean towards the latter, one will be hard-pressed to find in me much of an enemy of the wide variety of religious expression in this country.  As an Orthodox Christian, I do not regard the claims of these other religions as true claims, and I think it is a crucial part of religious discourse in this country to state these oppositions and contradictions as flatly and plainly as possible.  Ecumenism offends me, for example, to the extent that it declares doctrine to be irrelevant to the proceedings and sees inherited truths as barriers to union to be removed rather than serious obligations that must be paid the proper respect.  Today being the Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is rather fitting that there is an opportunity to note the freedom afforded to the Orthodox in this country to gather for services today for the  reading of the Synodikon to remember and re-enact the condemnations of many old heresies (Demetrios of Lampe, this means you!), and to acknowledge that it is far better that the Orthodox are free to do this in a country that is overwhelmingly non-Orthodox.       

Intellectually sloppy models, in which we ignore truth and privilege some supposed underlying unity of all religious beliefs (as Romney would very much like to do), do seem to appear in the modern age with far greater frequency than in previous periods in human history.  This is not because these fundamentally ecumenist models are any more compelling than they have been in the past, but because it was not until the Enlightenment’s attempted emptying of religious doctrines of their claims to being the embodiment of absolute truths that it was even conceivable that vying religious truth-claims could be reduced to the category of opinion.  To the extent that religious doctrine and traditional religion in the modern age truly have been devalued and marginalised in social, political and cultural life, the mentality and culture of modernity are hostile to traditional religion and are very supportive of every wind of doctrine and vague “spirituality” that might work to undermine the role and the claims of our civilisation’s religion.  Modernity anti-spiritual?  Far from it.  It is all together too spiritual, like the ages of the Gnostics and Neoplatonists, and not grounded enough in an incarnate Faith.    

There is no “subtle, inclusive context” that you are missing. You openly described conservative Christians as “authoritarian bullies.” CWA makes clear on its Web page what the organization supports in terms of public policy issues. they frankly acknowledge that their positions are informed by Biblical principles, which means CWA takes its Christianity seriously. They also include a Gospel page that oulines a plan of salvation for any who want to partake. There is no linkage between particular public policy stances and spiritual salvation, other than the one you constructed, which was an illogical leap. An honest reading of CWA’s Gospel page shows this. For you to tell Times readers that CWA promises hell to people who disagree on social issues is a gross distortion of CWA’s message. ~Robert Knight

Mr. Knight writes in reply to Gary Rosen’s slap at the CWA (Concerned Women for America) in The New York Times Magazine.  (I know I read this piece earlier a while ago, but I filed it away in the back of mind as “Not very interesting Gary Rosen article,” where so very, very many Gary Rosen articles go.)  Knight wrote a column denouncing the remarks about the CWA.  Then Rosen, writing at Commentary’s blog, replied to Knight, prompting Knight’s latest response (cited above), which has made the episode a bit more interesting. 

Now why would the managing editor of Commentary, writing for the Times, take lazy pot-shots at conservative Christians?  The two periodicals are usually so effusive in their enthusiasm for Christianity, after all, that it’s a puzzle.  Ahem.   

Mr. Rosen did some real heavy lifting in this article–he dragged out Falwell and Robertson, kicked them around for a little bit before getting to the CWA, and then praised Hart, Mac Donald and Sullivan for taking on the “authoritarian bullies” in the movement.  These three have taken on the “bullies” mostly, I’m sorry to say, by whining, calling conservative Christians names and engaging in exceedingly creative reinventions of what it means to be conservative that would have struck (and does strike) many a traditional conservative as unfamiliar and antithetical to what they believe.  Two of these three (Hart and Sullivan) do not object so much to religion in politics as the religion of most conservative Christians itself (Mac Donald seems to wish it would all go away), which boils down to a Weisbergian contempt for anyone who would be so uncouth and regressive as to take seriously the teachings of his religious authorities such that he would feel compelled to oppose policies that advance and approve profound moral errors. 

Rhetorically kicking Falwell and Robertson is virtually a national pastime, including among conservative Christians.  These days if you want to raise up a “new” kind of evangelical or Christian politician, such as Rick Warren or Sam Brownback, it is apparently necessary to tear down the Falwells and Robertsons.  I have no great admiration for either man, but there is hardly any daring or insight in taking shots at them.  In the hunt of political polemics, taking aim at Falwell is like shooting a wounded deer–there is no challenge and no great achievement in doing so.  Some of us kick them to prove to someone or other that “we” are not stupid and offensive like “those people” and some of us kick them because we find their style and their allegiance to the GOP rather dreary (and they surely are), but it is the easiest thing in the world to do, because it is essentially consequence-free.  Your liberal and moderate friends will nod in agreement, and nobody else will feel troubled to rise in defense of these two.    

But insulting and evidently misleading the public about the CWA are different matters, and Mr. Knight was having none of it.  Good for him.  Of the CWA (representatives of the “culprits” of unhealthy religious fundamentalism on the right) Rosen wrote:

For a taste of their views, you can visit the Web site of Concerned Women for America (C.W.A.), which bills itself as the “nation’s largest public-policy women’s organization.” Its mission is “to protect and promote biblical values among all citizens,” the Bible being “the inerrant Word of God and the final authority on faith and practice.” As for dissenters from C.W.A.’s stand on issues like the “sanctity of human life,” a handy link to Bible passages explains “why you are a sinner and deserve punishment in Hell.” 

Clearly Rosen intends to say that the CWA declares anyone who disagrees with their positions to be damned to Hell.  Besides the obvious Christian responses (we are called not to judge and sending people to Hell is not up to us), one might note that their “concerns and goals” page shows that there is no mention of hellfire anywhere in the policy section of their website.  It is specifically and strictly in their Gospel page, as Mr. Knight said, that the CWA talk about Christian teachings on salvation.  In other words, they are spreading the good news and engaging in advocacy on public policy that, if you look at their policy page, seems to be set forth in just the sort of universally accessible, secular language that critics of Christian conservatives, including Mr. Rosen, repeatedly insist they would like to hear.  In response, Mr. Rosen has told a rather big lie that can easily be checked by anyone who takes just a few minutes to do so.

Mr. Knight had explained where Rosen erred:

Rosen’s reference comes from CWA’s Gospel page, which begins by reminding us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Nowhere does CWA state or imply that people will be sent to hell because of their views on public policy.

Rosen still didn’t seem to get it:

Clicking on these links, you quickly discover that CWA’s “Biblical principles” are exclusively concerned with winning salvation through trust in Jesus, with hellfire held out as the consequence of refusal. 

Of course, that is what Christians would be concerned with, and since Christians believe that damnation is what awaits those who are not saved it remains fairly unclear what point Mr. Rosen thinks he is making here, except that this is a Christian organisation involved in politics and that this is more or less inherently undesirable.  The implication of his statement in the article (where he begins, ”As for dissenters from C.W.A.’s stand on issues like the “sanctity of human life”…”) is that the CWA responds to disagreement on policy with threats of hellfire, for which he doesn’t seem to have real evidence, when the CWA are saying very plainly what pretty much all conservative Christians believe: there is no certainty or real hope of salvation except through Jesus Christ, the salvation of our race.  That is the belief that motivates and informs their public policy advocacy, and this is the belief that they are trying to encourage and apply to the problems they see in the world around them. 

What has gotten the CWA in trouble here is that they have spoken the truth about what the Gospel teaches about soteriology, which can only strike the “vaguely impious Republicans” among us as “authoritarian” and “bullying,” because it insists that faith in Christ, or the lack thereof, has ultimate, real meaning for the fate of all people.  To say that this perspective is not widely shared by the Commentary crowd would be to understate things dramatically.

It is possible that Rosen simply fumbled badly and became confused with all of the unfamiliar references to God and the Bible overwhelming his senses, but it seems all together more likely that he distorted and conflated what he found on their website to reinforce his attack on religious conservatives, for whom he obviously has little respect or affection.  There is nothing better for Mr. Rosen’s own “vaguely impious” brand of Republicanism than to keep the Christians in the coalition in line and marginalised, where many in the elite of the party and movement seem to prefer them to stay.    

Rosen’s shots at conservative Christians were actually by way of talking about the state of religion and politics in the country with respect to the current presidential field.  He noted at the beginning the Democratic turn towards more religious language (my favourite one so far this year is John Edwards’ reference to his “faith belief”).  He concluded:

At our present cultural moment, it is hard to think of a more edifying prospect than a campaign that will feature a running debate between churchgoing Democrats and vaguely impious Republicans. 

Mr. Rosen has heroically staked out the mushy center–let us have neither Rorty nor Dobson!  Gosh, that’s a new one.  As if those were the only alternatives besides the anti-Christianity of Sullivan, the atheism of Mac Donald or the high table disdain for superstitious country folk of Mr. Hart!  But what would we expect from the managing editor of Commentary

Consider this just another exhibit in the long-running scapegoating of religious conservatives for Republican political woes and a move to marginalise and weaken religious conservatives still more by the secular-cons who have never much cared for their Bible-toting associates.

Back to the resistance against the “authoritarian bullies” for a moment.  Certainly, Mac Donald and Sullivan are under the impression that they, as skeptical and secular conservatives, are terribly repressed, bullied and put-upon in the present-day movement.  That must be why someone at a flagship neocon journal is taking their side–because the “Christianists” have such a death grip on the movement! 

It goes without saying that this argument can and should be, I think, at least partially contested on every point: it is not necessarily obvious either exactly how America’s culture and society fits into Western civilization’s historical Christian identity or how affirming that identity will strengthen us; a presidential election is far from a plebiscitary affirmation (and would Daniel even want it to be?); and the Mormon teachings on “the apostasy” are a good deal more nuanced and in flux then might at first appear, anyway. ~Prof. Fox

Prof. Fox is a long-time reader of and friend to Eunomia, and I appreciate his thoughtful engagement with my post on anti-Mormonism, especially when that post may have been more than a little irritating to him and any other LDS readers I may have.  First, an explanation about that post.  The article I was responding to seemed to say: ”You either object to Mormon candidates out of the democratic identitarian belief that your candidate should be like you in most or all respects, or you are a bigot.”  This implies that, unless you take the “Christian majoritarian” or identitarian approach, you oppose a Mormon candidate because you actually hate Mormons.  I believe this to be profoundly untrue for the vast majority of Christians who are averse to voting for a Mormon candidate, since I find it difficult to believe that many people could work themselves up into a hatred for Mormons (who are, as a general rule, the most unhateable people you are ever likely to meet), and so I wanted to explain just what it is about a Mormon candidate that concerns me rather than my usual shtick of explaining others’ reservations.  Perhaps few will find my reasons convincing, but it seemed important to insist that there were a number of other arguments, some of them that I think are fairly reasonable, that went beyond the two options, “I prefer Christians” or “I despise Mormons.” 

We live in a mass democracy.  This is the unfortunate reality.  I wish that it were not so, and that we had something much more like the Old Republic in which the mixed constitution of our ancestors provided slightly greater balance and sanity.  A country this large should not be selecting its government this way, or rather there should be no central government for an entire country this large; it is doubtful that any polity can be this long without sinking into demagogic despotism (and some of us would say that it already has).  But for the present, a working alternative is not on offer. 

In this mass democracy, we make the election of Presidents into plebiscitary endorsements of what a certain candidate represents or at least what he claims to represent.  The Electoral College, while still legally binding, slavishly follows the mass of voters in each state.  Our debased, televised political culture makes the selection of a President absolutely into a plebiscite on the two charged symbols of the major candidates.  Part of the flaw of mass democracy in a large nation-state of semi-literate, largely historically ignorant people with no interest in civic duties is that most voters will respond to candidates viscerally and emotionally, which inevitably makes the candidates into symbols to which voters ascribe meaning.  I am, if you like, acknowledging this sorry state of affairs, of which I don’t really approve, and then arguing over what kind of symbols we should be endorsing given that our political system is a hulking mess.    

Our method of choosing chief executives undoubtedly invests presidential candidates with far too much importance (just watch as all of us, myself included, get terribly involved in tracking the peregrinations of a dozen mediocrities you would not entrust with the most basic responsibilities of the neighbourhood watch or street cleaning to get a sense of how inappropriate our fixation on these candidates is).  That does not change the reality that Americans will continue to invest such candidates with this excessive importance and will continue to attribute meaning to the victory of one or the other.  Since this is the reality, and since we should strive to work in the real world, much as we may find many of its traits obnoxious and distressing, we ought to make the best of it. 

In this case, it is something of a moot point whether or not I think the election of a Mormon President represents a vote of “no confidence” in Christian civilisation or, if you prefer, a vote that endorses the practical irrelevance of Christianity in this country, since no such President will be elected in the foreseeable future, but it seems to me to be an objection worth raising.  I will continue.

Obviously, this kind of symbolic plebiscite is an inexact and often error-riddled process in which evangelicals could confidently rally behind a man like Mr. Bush, who could talk a good game about his faith and had a life story familiar to many who have had dramatic conversion experiences, even though the man was culturally, politically and socially alien to their world and worldview.  Even though he had virtually no intention of doing anything for the causes to which they were devoted, these voters have loyally stuck by the man in no small part because he is “one of them,” which has helped Mr. Bush get away with all sorts of un-Christian mischief.  (Most of this mischief overseas, I would note, is something Gov. Romney endorses and wants to see more of, so this is hardly helping his claims to be a defender of moral “values.”)  So voting on the basis of such questions of identity is often not the smartest kind of voting with respect to getting the policies that this or that group of voters claims to want, but then it is precisely because of the secondary importance of policy in making these decisions that we wind up with identitarian voting in the first place.  Thus, Christian voters can be satisfied with extremely superficial similarities and overlook the deeper divergences of belief and even “values” that lie beneath the surface; they can empower bad representatives and base their selection on a candidate’s claims to share their faith and values.  However, this appears to be an inevitable characteristic of our mass democracy so long as a significant number of Americans remains fairly religious. 

It is worth noting that this superficiality problem is also precisely the problem with Romney and his appeal to “shared values.”  In the same breath he tells us, “My faith teaches me my values, but let’s not get hung up on any of the details of what that faith is, because my particular religion is actually irrelevant to the question.”  Frankly, if Romney were truly confident that his religion was really fundamentally in agreement with Christianity on the essentials of these “values,” he would not have to engage in this double game.  Like many a “values” dodge, be it the “Judeo-Christian” or “family” variety, the appeal to “shared values” presupposes that, for instance, people coming from a significantly different religious cultures and backgrounds will actually be able to acquire the same “values” that are nonetheless tied into and linked to a specifically religious source.  This makes them eminently flexible and changeable while also retaining the sheen of immutable truth–but this is also obviously nonsense.  It is first of all this assumption that differences of religious culture are irrelevant to the shaping of political and cultural “values” that seems quite questionable.  If your religious culture and my religious culture appear to wind up producing the same generic “values,” the odds are that we haven’t come to agreement about these “values” because our religions are terribly similar (except in Romney’s lowest common denominator way) but because we have come to these “values” by another route and have convinced ourselves that our respective religions endorse these probably thoroughly secular “values.” 

This usually involves a lot of backtracing of basically secular political ideas back to some putative or real religious source, which can somehow be done by people of any number of religious backgrounds, or it involves the attempt to pare back doctrine and worship to get to the bare bones of “values,” usually meaning morality.  Yet you would be hard-pressed to find conservative-minded moral theologians who actually think that you can somehow abstract moral reasoning from within a religious tradition to get the “value” nuggets that you can then present to people from outside that tradition as generic and obviously desirable “values” on which everyone can agree.  Even the claim that there is a natural law accessible to the reasoning of every person comes from within a religious tradition and hinges on any number of potentially contestable assumptions about the nature of reason and its relationship to revelation that remain unspoken or out of view.  This is not a scandal for people who recognise the tradition-boundedness of all things, particularly all religious things, but it makes it difficult to believe that people from what are basically radically distinct religious traditions even use the same language and references when they discuss moral or other questions.  In many cases, they do not.  That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to discuss them and even seek those areas where they may be in agreement, but it does mean that you cannot take for granted that people of various religious traditions all mean the same things when they speak in terms of generic “values.” 

The “people of faith”/”person of faith” dodge signals to someone like me that the ”values” under discussion are so nebulous as to be almost indiscernible.  Take “marriage,” for instance.  All kinds of people are “for” it in the abstract, which is fine, but we would be kidding ourselves if we claimed that different religions all value and understand marriage in the same way–that would require us to believe as well that they all understood the roles of men and women, among other things, in essentially the same way.  It may be that some religions do have appreciably similar understandings of certain things, but that is a claim that has to be demonstrated.  The appeal to “shared values” takes it as a given that no demonstration is necessary.  In this view, what you mean by morality in your tradition is automatically what I mean by it in mine, but this isn’t true and, I would have to insist, can’t be true if either the teachings of your religion or mine have any significance and importance in the real world.  Whatever we think of the other fellow’s religion, we would have to acknowledge that the teachings of our religion are meaningful and important for how we conduct ourselves–otherwise, what are we doing in this religion? 

Presumably it is precisely the conservatives in each religion who are most confident that their doctrines and forms of worship are not mere frippery or there for the sake of elaborate decoration, but rather they assume that these things are at the heart of their religion and form the basis of their understanding of everything else pertaining to the religion.  If, in the Orthodox context, for example, Orthodox doctrine and mystical theology pervade the liturgy, and liturgical action forms a key component of ethical action and if sacramental life and prayer are inextricable from the life of the virtues, it is impossible to conceive of talking about moral “values” as some sort of category that is anything but integrally linked to the teachings of the Church.  Put bluntly, when I speak of justice as an Orthodox Christian, I am also indirectly confessing the Holy Trinity as the model of perfect interrelationship of persons.  Someone’s doctrine of God is pertinent to how he, as a religious person, engages in moral reasoning and it is relevant to his understanding of reason itself, as Pope Benedict’s inclusion of Manuel II’s provocative quote in his Regensburg address suggested.  If you do not have the same doctrine of God, let’s say, or do not have the same understanding of the Word Incarnate and His relationship to the Godhead, that will affect what you have to say about other matters.  Conservatives have tended to shun theological reflection, which I regard as one of the great failures of modern conservatism, since this effectively cuts conservatives off from the living water that nurtures their entire intellectual and cultural history or its forces them to turn back to this source of cultural renewal only sparingly in the most sporadic and arbitrary ways.  Yet it seems to me that it is only through a thorough reacquaintance with that theological inheritance that conservatives can once again make coherent arguments about the nature of society, human nature and political life that are not utterly dependent on false liberal assumptions.  As a matter of cultural renewal, it also seems unlikely that any enduring Christian culture can be built up in the modern wasteland without drawing on the deep wells of patristic wisdom that we have at our disposal.  To the extent that Christian conservatives are willing to chase after a superficially appealing non-Christian candidate out of nothing more than a mix of desperation and media hype, when that candidate is cut off from those sources and the tradition they represent, they commit themselves and this country to a path that is ultimately fruitless if the building up of a Christian culture is actually what Christian conservatives desire.   

Going back again to Romney, he says that he is not a spokesman for his church, but as a public figure and someone trying to put on the mantle of religious conservative leader, that is exactly what he is trying to be, because he wants to get the credit for being a faithful member of his church without accepting any of the potential political ramifications of that membership.  He wants to say that his faith and values are integrally linked, but not so integrally linked that anyone needs to consider what his faith is.  Having wheeled his faith into view, he tells us we cannot look at it and that he is not speaking on behalf of his religion, when the core of his credibility, such as it is, as a man of good “values” is his religious faith.  He just wants to avoid the inevitable complications that bringing his religion into public discourse has, while reaping the benefits of being a “person of faith.”  Since a great many Christians take it for granted that Mormons are not Christians, how he links his faith and “values” becomes a pressing question that goes to heart of the entire matter.        

All of this ought to be troubling to Christian conservatives, especially when they take it for granted (or at least I think they do) that the origins and underpinnings of their civilisation and the roots of American order are closely bound up with our Christian inheritance and are inexplicable without constantly referring back to that inheritance.  This sometimes leads to pious absurdities where modern Christians bend over backwards to show that the fairly conventional religiosity of many of the Founding generation “proves” the Christian foundations of our polity, that is, the confederation of the United States, when this is a quite distinct and very different sort of claim from the claim of being a Christian people in culture, history and habits.  Related to this assumption, then, would be an unwillingness to speak of “Western civilization’s historical Christian identity” and a desire to speak of Christian civilisation instead. 

Prof. Fox is right to point to Mark Davis’ telling remark that “a candidate’s faith is of no consequence…unless it harbors the possibility of guiding his or her actions in a way I would disapprove of.”  Even though I read things like this all the time in articles on this topic, I confess that I cannot quite understand such a statement.  What can it mean to say that a candidate’s faith is “of no consequence”?  At some level, if a candidate’s faith compels him to worship a radically different deity, surely that is consequential.  How you understand and relate to God has a great deal to do with how you treat and relate to your fellow man; a distorted image of God will lead to flaws in your relationships with others.  Mr. Davis’ statement is so all-encompassing that one might reasonably think that his disapproval might extend to actions including the worship of a radically different deity, but we can tell from the context of his article that he has absolutely no interest in such things.  This statement is a roundabout way of saying, “I wouldn’t trust a potential jihadi, but a Mormon is pretty harmless.”  Nonetheless, it is a remarkable statement for the extremely low opinion of faith it expresses.  In this, I assume that Mr. Davis is highly unrepresentative of conservative voters. 

Given the enthusiasm of plenty of movement activists for Romney, we can already see that some of these folks prefer chasing after the superficially satisfying “values” candidate rather than looking for someone representative of the broad Christian tradition.  Whether or not many Christian conservative voters will be willing to make that same leap will tell us a great deal about just what it is these voters are interested in building.          

I’m sorry that people on the left can’t recognize bigotry when they see it. ~Brian O’Dwyer

Mr. O’Dwyer was responding to the report of another MyDD hack trying to find some way to impugn the motives of liberal Christians who criticised Marcotte’s galloping Christomachy.  O’Dwyer apparently gave money to Clinton in the past (he also held a fundraiser for Edwards!), which proves that he was simply doing HRC’s bidding.  Quoth the hack:

It’s simply impossible to believe that it was anything but his loyalty to Clinton that led O’Dwyer to join in the right-wing pile-on.

Yes, if it weren’t for their devotion to Hillary pushing them on to attack poor innocent Amanda, ethnic Catholics would have no trouble with some shrill woman blaspheming against their God in the ugliest terms.  Sure, that’s it!  Keep tearing down the religious left, lefty bloggers–you are sowing more mistrust and resentment on your own side than the “noise machine” could ever manage to do. 

Eduardo Penalver at Commonweal’s blog had a fairly mild rebuke for Marcotte when the controversy started last week.  He was then quoted by Tom Donnelly at Faithful Democrats–it is worth noting that he quoted from that post entirely without comment. 

This Faithful Democrats site seems to be an annoyance to Matt Stoller at MyDD (via Blogometer), who does not even bother to notice that Mr. Donnelly is quoting Mr. Penalver’s earlier post from dotCommonweal (yes, that is the real name of their blog).  No, the “Faithful Democrats” must be taken down a peg for citing Penalver’s perfectly reasonable observations that Marcotte’s language was over the line and went well beyond criticism or disagreement with church teachings or dogma.  (Here is Chris Bowers, also of MyDD, peddling that particularly reprehensible misrepresentation of what Marcotte wrote.)  Here’s Stoller:

So it’s cool to Jesse Lava and Faithful Democrats to debate on the terrain set by anti-semites and homophobe?  Ok then.  Now I know that Faithful Democrats put a caveat in there about how Donahue isn’t a nice guy, but that’s really irrelevant.  This is very simple.  Donahue is using religion as cover for a political attack.  The only ethical response from anyone who actually opposes bigotry is ‘Donahue should be ignored because of his record’ or some variation thereof.  So until the self-described religious left decides to stop letting bigoted and extreme right-wingers talk for them, they are no different than the religious right they pretend to oppose. 

Fine, ignore Donohue.  I certainly do.  But what about Mr. Penalver and Mr. O’Dwyer and the Catholic Democrats and liberals whose views they claim to represent?  I can think of nothing that would better satisfy Stoller’s enemies than this sort of insane attack on the religious left.  By all means, declare war on religious liberals and convince them once and for all that the political left hates them intensely, so much so that their grassroots activists would throw a huge fit at the thought of seeing one of their own punished for her expressions of anti-Christian bigotry.  Better yet, convince them that if they should ever do anything so outrageous as object to having their religion trashed by an ignorant hack, the secular lefties will declare them to be no better than “right-wingers.”  Perhaps more than a few of them will draw the inevitable conclusion that it will be better to support and work for people who do not go out of their way to insult them and their beliefs.  Perhaps then there will not be much left of the religous left, and Stoller and his sort will be able to dictate to them with ease.  Meanwhile, the political fortunes of his party will tank and the buffoonish blog left will have itself partly to blame.

Another thing—this has doubled my committment to reaching out and helping highlight when the religious left fights the right wingers who have falsely claimed to speak for all religious people. ~Amanda Marcotte

This is too good.  Sometimes it is difficult to believe that there is an actual person writing this stuff.  The woman who liked to speak of “godbags” wants to help highlight when the liberal “godbags” go up against the other “godbags.”  (Where could anyone have gotten the idea that the left was hostile to religion?)  Presumably she hopes that they kill each other off in a melee, since she obviously has nothing but contempt for the beliefs of Christians on her side.  As it happens, some of those Christians are none too pleased with her.

What does Ms. Marcotte think is the lesson of the recent controversy?  She writes:

Bill Donohue doesn’t speak for Catholics, he speaks for the right wing noise machine. You guys pointed this out, you made a stink, you refused to walk into the same stupid trap that is laid out for liberals and Democrats by the right wing noise machine and I think you made a difference.  While loyalty played into the pushback some, the real story is that we liberals are not taking this crap any longer and we’re pushing back.

Do people at Commonweal and the Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council speak for any Catholics?  Are they also part of the “right wing noise machine”?  What a dreadful gang of politically and culturally tone deaf clowns Marcotte and her chums are!  Instead of resigning as she did, which she mentions in today’s post, she should have kept mouthing off and continued to pretend that anti-Christian bigotry would not hurt her candidate’s chances with ethnic Democratic working class and middle class voters.  Edwards has aimed his appeal at organised labour and working class people, and there are still a lot of ethnic Catholic voters involved in organised labour or attracted to candidates who champion their cause.  There was a very real way that this impressive hostility to their religion on the part of the Edwards campaign could have hurt him in the primaries.

It was moving and beautifully filmed, and the subplot about the leftist revolutionaries who are so dedicated to ideology that they forget the humanity that made them leftists in the first place could probably fit into a reactionary film. ~Amanda Marcotte

I hesitate to guess what Ms. Marcotte thinks would qualify as a “reactionary film,” since hers is apparently such a hard-core leftism that she would probably find fault in the politics of Doctor Zhivago.  Speaking as an actual reactionary, I can assure Ms. Marcotte that no reactionary filmmaker would ever make the mistake of hinting that people became leftists out of a concern for other human beings.  They might become leftists out of a devotion to Humanity, perhaps, but for so many dedicated leftist revolutionaries of the past and present the old Sartre line (”l’enfer, c’est les autres“) is perfectly appropriate and true.  Of course, it probably was P.D. James’ original purpose to depict this indifference to the fate of actual people as a trait unique to people on the left.  However, it is actually a malady that afflicts all ideologues who make their cause into an idol to which they are willing to sacrifice any number of people (being an ideologue of sorts herself, Ms. Marcotte might be able to recognise the symptoms).

Not one to be chastened or humbled by the recent controversy surrounding her past blogging in connection with her new position at the Edwards campaign, Ms. Marcotte uses this review of Children of Men to unload again on Christians and our “super-patriarchal” religion:

The Christian version of the virgin birth is generally interpreted as super-patriarchal, where god is viewed as so powerful he can impregnate without befouling himself by touching a woman, and women are nothing but vessels.

So many errors, and so little time in the day to refute them.  Can Ms. Marcotte manage to be more wrong and more offensive at the same time?  I’m not sure that she can, but I expect that she will keep trying to outdo herself in the future.  Where to start…let’s start with the stunning idea that the Church’s teaching of the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ reduces the Theotokos Mary to “nothing but a vessel.”  Of course, in the scene of the Annunciation the Theotokos is far more than “a vessel”–it is her voluntary acceptance of her role that makes salvation possible, and it is because of her that God was able to become man for the sake of the whole world.  Far from being “nothing but a vessel,” she becomes second only to Christ Himself with respect to importance in the economy of salvation.  Christian iconography makes her central to the understanding of the Faith, while St. Joseph, respected and venerated as he was and still is, serves mainly in a supporting role.  As far as elevating and respecting women go, it seems to me that there could hardly be a better teaching than that of the Virgin Birth.  The theological importance of the birth being from a virgin is at least twofold: it fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah and removes all doubt about the divinity and sinlessness of Christ. 

It has essentially nothing to do with God’s power, except insofar as it tells us that God, while being omnipotent, refused to compromise the freedom of the Theotokos and left the choice to accept this awesome responsibility up to her.  I suppose there could be a religious teaching that empowers and honours a woman’s choice more than this, but it isn’t leaping to mind.  If this is what super-patriarchy looks like (where a woman’s free will is respected and she is honoured above all others), it might just make feminism entirely irrelevant. 

Update: Ben Smith, blogging at The Politico, has this latest reaction to Marcotte’s post:

Brian O’Dwyer, a New York lawyer and Irish-American leader, who attacked Edwards the first time round, just came out with a statement:

“The blogger’s continuing hostility to Catholics and other Christians, especially in the centrality of the Virgin birth, is both morally wrong and, for Senator Edwards, politically stupid. Senator Edwards was horribly flawed in refusing to see the importance of how offensive the blogger’s earlier comments were to people of faith. This latest so-called review, published after Edwards refused to fire her for earlier anti-Catholic writings, should now wake him up and lead him to finally do the right thing as his campaign tries to move forward. Bigotry of any kind should have no role in the Democratic Party, or in any presidential campaign.”

O’Dwyer, also, is hard to cast as a GOP hitman. He’s the chairman of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, the Democratic Party’s official white-ethnic grouping; close to some labor union leaders; and a leading member of a prominent New York democratic [sic] family.

Mr. O’Dwyer makes an important point.  Mocking, insulting or in any other way disrespecting the Virgin Birth of Christ–and thereby insulting and mocking both the Lord and the Theotokos–doesn’t simply offend Catholics with strong Marian devotions, but demonstrates a contempt for the Christian Faith and the core of that Faith in the Incarnation.  It is, of course, especially appalling to Christians, particularly Catholic and Orthodox Christians, who venerate and honour the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, but it is a symbolic attack on all Christians and all forms of Christianity.  What is remarkable about this is just how unsurprising all of it is to me.  Of course left-wing feminists have appallingly bigoted, anti-Christian views.  Of course they couple their pathetic commitment to freedom of religion and tolerance to the most venomous hatred for actual religious people and religious faith itself. 

The more interesting question that remains unanswered is this: why do so many ethnic Catholics, such as Mr. O’Dwyer, continue to belong to and work for a party whose activists and leaders have such a low opinion of their religion?  They could potentially be the future building blocks of a pro-life, pro-family, pro-labour populist party that could defend Christian social teaching, repudiate cultural radicalism and combat the culture of death, whether it is pushed by abortionists at home or militarists abroad.  It is not written anywhere that they must continue to support a party that favours and enables the Marcottes of the world.        

Soon, the Christianists will be recruiting ayatollahs to give them back-up in their war on Western freedom. ~Sullivan

Yes, we here in the Christianists Local, No. 38, have a meeting over at the mosque later today.  The agenda?  Sure enough: “How to destroy Western freedom.”  Sullivan sure is sharp. 

Presumably the “Christianists” include Rev. Hagee, who declared the bombing of Lebanon a “miracle of God.”  The ayatollahs–and the Christians and Muslims of Lebanon getting bombed by the “miraculous” IAF–will probably not view kindly this kind of “alliance.”  Herein lies the biggest reason why D’Souza’s idea of such an alliance between conservatives here and Muslims around the world is obviously absurd: almost to a man, the people whom Sullivan loathes and denounces as “Christianists” have an irremediably negative view of Islam, for both religious and political reasons, and would be the last ones to entertain the idiocy of making a pact with Islamic fundamentalists.  These are people who are conservative, to the extent that they are, because they are Christian and because they take Christianity to be the True Faith.  For all the reasons that Sullivan hates these people, almost all could never closely cooperate with Muslims or most other non-Christians to the degree that D’Souza is talking about.  I suspect they would sooner go to a gay discotheque than make such a deal with Muslims, which is one way to say that they would never make such a deal. 

Sullivan writes as if there were a natural unity among all those whom he calls, often erroneously, “fundamentalists,” when it has to be one of the basic traits of any actual fundamentalist to view fundamentalists from another religion as being among the worst people in the world.  Sullivan’s fear of a Christianist-ayatollah connection is the product of what some of us like to call “paranoia,” where the subject believes that contradictory and opposed forces in the world are all working together and out to get him because, under the surface, they are all really on the same side in their loathing of, in this case, the subject’s sexual habits. 

From the perspective of a real believer, for someone to embrace religious error is bad enough, but to embrace it in such a thoroughgoing and intense way strikes the believer as the height of insanity.  In some sense, a Christian believer will assume that the fundamentalists from another religion might often be the “best” representatives of their religion in that they are holding most strictly to their religion’s teachings, and he may even understand that a Hindu or Islamic fundamentalist, let’s say, is only doing what he believes his religious duty mandates.  That does not really excuse what those fundamentalists do–for example, what they do to Christians and Christian churches–but makes their actions the logical outcome of their religion, which further confirms the believer’s negative view of that religion. 

Such a believer might even have some passing respect for the commitment and devotion of such a person, before coming back to reality and realising that religious commitment and devotion are only virtuous if they are aimed at the Good, which false religions are capable of doing only imperfectly.  He will probably take the other religion’s fundamentalists at their word that they represent the pure and true form of their religion, which will only reconfirm in his mind the view that this religion is profoundly wrong.  This is why some Christians, even a few conservative Christians, are willing to cheer on Muslim apostates and “liberal Muslims” who reject both “traditional” and “radical” forms of their religion, even though they would respond in horror if the same sort of anti-traditional and subversive arguments were made by members of their own religion.   

The current concern about Romney recalls anxieties about Mormons and Catholics from the nineteenth century, when both churches evoked suspicion. Critics thought of them as “fanatics,” a stereotype applied to Catholics, Mormons, Masons, and Muslims. They feared that leaders of these groups would employ their spiritual authority over blindly loyal followers to magnify their own power. Any prophet claiming to speak for God, they reasoned, must necessarily try to impose his beliefs on everyone else. But this argument, while based on logic, was impervious to fact. The real-world actions of Mormons and Catholics, and their protestations of innocence, meant nothing. ~Prof. Richard Lyman Bushman

It may be worth noting that Prof. Bushman frequently returns to this old charge of fanaticism when discussing this issue.  It is something like the lens through which he is viewing the entire controversy over Mormonism in our presidential politics today.  It was part of one of the replies (sorry, the TNR overlords have locked up the previously free debate) that he gave to Linker during their online debate.  Linker complained that he had never used the word fanatic–while doing everything he could to hint that Mormons were all basically fanatics-in-waiting–but Prof. Bushman had him pretty well cornered.  As I noted at the time, Linker was proceeding with a pretty impeccably logical polemic that brought his negative assumptions about the political dangers of Mormonism to their logical conclusions.  The only trouble with this was that the actual history, the reality of Mormons in American politics, did not support his nicely designed polemic.  Linker was convinced that he had proven his polemical point, and the targets of the polemic were equally convinced that he could not possibly be referring to them because he could not cite a single real episode where his fears of Mormon church interference in politics had been realised.

As I wrote at the time of the debate just a little under two weeks ago:

It seems to me that it is quite one thing to note that Mormons are not Christians and for Christian voters to take that into account when judging a Mormon candidate.  It is quite another thing to conjure up rather far-reaching, implausible scenarios of Mormon domination when the historical record suggests that nothing could be further from the minds of the Mormons themselves. 

To that I would add that Prof. Bushman’s latest article is very good but ultimately ends up targeting a kind of anti-Mormon criticism that barely exists anymore.  The concern of secularists who are anxious about a Mormon President is much more basic: they don’t trust anyone who believes as divinely revealed things they regard as patently absurd.  There is virtually no reasoning with such a view, since every attempt to show reasonableness or coherence within a religious framework will simply leave such critics cold.  Yet the Weisbergs of the world do not fear rule from Salt Lake City–they fear giving power to someone who thinks that the Lamanites actually existed.  Other opposition to Mormonism is of a fairly different nature as well.  The concern of most Christian voters who are put off by Romney’s Mormonism is not that Mormons are “fanatics” as such or that they are liable to follow the orders of their church authorities with blind zeal, but that they are Mormons in the first place.  It is a concern about what kind of symbolism and identity they are willing to endorse, and whether Mormons fit within their Christian identity.  Pretty plainly, a sizeable number of Christians hold that they do not fit. 

This should not distress true-believing Mormons, as I have said in the past, since they claim to be the true successor to the Church of the Apostles and view all others as frauds.  Given such a view, it is inevitable that Christians would consider Mormon and Christian identity to be mutually exclusive, just as Mormons, if they are serious about their founding claims, must see their true “Christian” identity and our “apostate” identity to be mutually exclusive.   

And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. ~Sam Harris

If I made it my business to be a professional religion-basher, and if I thought getting my criticism of religion was right as an important way to shine the light of reason on the darkened corners of religious minds, I would at the very least get my facts straight about certain key elements of the religions I was bashing.  Christians and Muslims agree that their scriptures are authored by God in the sense that they accept that the revelation comes from God.  They do not agree that revelation came in unmediated form and that the text as set down in its complete form (which, of course, was a redacted and edited form also in the case of the Qur’an) is the uncreated Word of God.  Muslims believe this, Christians do not. 

Therein lies one of the most significant differences between the two religions, and the one that has possibly has done the most damage of the intellectual culture of the Islamic world than any other.  As I understand it, the Qur’an is not open to hermeneutics of any kind, and there is no other way to understand it except literally, where by literally I mean there is no possibility of interpreting the same text in several different senses.  That creates certain obvious problems for the possibility of reconciling revelation and other sources of truth, since multivalence in a religious text is effectively impossible without some room for interpretation.  On the other hand, Christians acknowledge, as they have acknowledged since the beginning, that Scripture is a divine revelation mediated through inspired authors and the composition of the texts is attributed to various patriarchs and apostles.  (We can set aside for the moment the high criticism’s doubts about the traditional attributions of books of the Bible.)  Terrestrial authorship, in the sense that it was understood that the Scriptures themselves were set down by men according to the revelation, is not only a possibility for Christians, but it is taken for granted and assumed to be the case. 

Muslims do not have a tradition of remembering the Composers of the Qur’an as they remember the Companions of the Prophet, because they believe that Jibril spoke the Qur’an to Muhammad and that was it.  Christians commemorate and many venerate the Evangelists and others in recognition of what can only be called terrestrial authorship of Scripture.  That they also take Scripture to be true and inerrant is not surprising, but they plainly do not rule out “the possibility of terrestrial authorship.”    

There was an awareness from the beginning that the accounts of the Gospels differed and there was also an awareness of the potential problems and contradictions in Scripture.  Because of the possibility of having multiple senses in which one could read Scripture, it became possible to interpret revelation on the assumption that God guided the Fathers and the authorities of the Church in this work of interpretation and teaching.  Undoubtedly Mr. Harris will spew forth venom at all of this as well, but for him to do that he would first have to know about it, which he evidently does not from the comments that he made.  

Andrew Sullivan, the vicar of doubt, is debating Sam Harris, ueber-atheist, in a blogalogue.  For me, this is like watching the Raiders play the Cowboys: the only thing to do is simply root for injuries and mistakes. 

Thus does the left casually open the door to the baldest sort of bigotry, a first cousin of the anti-Catholicism thought buried in 1960, or the anti-Semitism that continues to plague Europe and of course the Middle East. The not-so-deft substitution of “religious heritage” for “religion” is supposed, I guess, to protect Jews willing to abandon the outward display of their faith, but for anyone believing in the miraculous of any sort, well, those days of the great tolerance in American politics are over. ~Hugh Hewitt

Yes, Hewitt, if someone thinks that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a reason not to support his candidacy, he is practically just one step removed from joining the Klan (that would be the anti-Catholicism) or perhaps Hamas (that would be the anti-Semitism).  That’s not an absurd thing to say at all!

There is no doubt that Weisberg doesn’t like anyone who actually believes what his religion teaches and takes it seriously.  He doesn’t trust people like that.  That’s just about what you would expect from someone like him.  But do the 53% of evangelicals who say they will never consider voting for a Mormon for President listen to Jacob Weisberg?  Are their reasons the same as his?  Well, yes and no.  All of them are opposed to a Mormon presidential candidate because they believe he believes things that are plainly false.  They are judging by different standards, and where Weisberg’s test would exclude anyone who believes in claims of revealed religion as actually true theirs would effectively reject anyone who does not believe as they do in Jesus Christ.  

Incidentally, it was precisely this bias in favour of a fellow evangelical that rallied evangelicals behind Mr. Bush.  Identity politics of this sort is not exactly an attractive feature of mass democracy, but it is a central and abiding feature.  Those who actually believe that democracy is the best form of government (I certainly don’t) have absolutely no business complaining when their beloved democratic process is simply working as it always has.  After cheering on the bestowal of the great gift of “democracy” on Iraq, now it turns out that Hewitt doesn’t like this particular expression of the popular will.  Rather than face up to the potential evils of democracy that make it possible for identity politics to dominate all other considerations and shut out ostensibly qualified candidates, Hewitt cries about bigotry, yet the very nature of all democratic identitarianism involves the mobilisation and politicisation of prejudice.  All candidates in democratic elections try to show that they are ”like you” and that they represent you, and they want you to identify with them and to see them as a symbol of your hopes and aspirations.  Romney is trying to play this game in a lame, late-in-the-day attempt to prove that he is really “one of us” as far as social conservatism goes, but what his supporters don’t seem to appreciate is that a whole lot of Christian conservatives don’t think of him as ”one of us” because they cannot even accept that he is really a Christian.  If a Muslim, Jew, Sikh or Hindu, or any other non-Christian, ran for the Republican nomination, he would assuredly meet with the same icy reception.  For Hewitt to be loudly complaining about anti-Mormon prejudice, he has to pretend that most evangelicals, whose interests and “values” he often purports to defend, do not fundamentally agree with Weisberg’s rejection of the “founding whoppers” of Mormonism.  That Weisberg’s critique involves far more than that and is a general assault on the role of serious religious believers in public life is for the moment beside the point.  The point is that the problem Hewitt has with Weisberg is one that he would inevitably have to have with a huge percentage of evangelical voters.  Ultimately, Weisberg’s opposition will be neither here nor there.  If he and Damon Linker were the only ones who found Mormonism to be a problem for Romney’s candidacy, it would be irrelevant to Romney’s chances and to the rest of society.  Of course, they are not the only ones.  It is huge numbers of voters, both evangelical and otherwise, who also agree that it is a problem, indeed a dealbreaker, and it is they who will be the ones deciding the issue just as it was decided in 1928.  Unlike 1928, though, Gov. Romney will not even get the nomination.     

What Hewitt laments as bigotry would be what a reasonable observer would call the workings of the much-vaunted freedom and democracy in these here United States.  Ever notice how quickly the greatest enthusiasts for both of these modern god-words abandon their commitment to them when they become inconvenient?  Notice how Republicans are the first to start whining about intolerance when it is their ox that is being gored?  Perhaps it ought to be the case that left-liberals should practice tolerance towards all as they demand that everyone else does, but once you recognise that “tolerance” is a tool and a weapon in the hands of the left to dismantle the traditions and authorities that they despise you begin to understand that it was never a legitimate or desirable principle in the first place.  It was always a deception aimed at the exclusion of left-liberals’ enemies from power and influence in society.  It is suicidal for someone on the right to invoke it in the defense of religious conservatives or to use it as a bludgeon to shame religious conservatives into supporting his preferred candidate (Hewitt might as well have said to his conservative audience, “If you don’t vote for Romney, you are also a bigot.”).

Hewitt calls us all to solidarity with Mormons with rhetoric as treacly as anything on offer from the ADL:

Weisberg’s attack on Romney is exactly the sort of attack on other Christians and believers in the miraculous that the secular left would love to make routine. To mainstream Protestants and Mass-attending Catholics, the virtual mob against Romney because of his LDS faith may seem like someone else’s problem, but it is really another step down the road toward the naked public square. Legitimizing bigotry by refusing to condemn it invites not only its repetition, but its spread to new targets.  

In every pro-Romney article that I have read, everyone reaches for the Kennedy comparison, usually followed by a “I thought we had left all of this behind” and an inevitable, “Never again!”  Now the Niemoelleresque Hewitt warns us, “First they came for the Mormons…”  But no one is coming for them.  No one is doing anything to them.  A very few people are writing (critical) columns about Mormonism, and other people are going to withhold their vote from a Mormon candidate.  Never have “oppression” and “bigotry” been so passive and unremarkable.  But we are supposed to believe that this is the “first step” towards a naked public square.  But the public square was stripped down years ago, and it is only in the last 25-30 years that the attempt to cover it up with any sort of decent clothing has been underway.  Who forms the beating heart of the religious conservatives who most wish to “clothe” the public square in a mantle of righteousness, so to speak?  Obviously, it is the evangelicals.  Who also make up one of the most openly and intensely anti-Mormon groups in the country?  Again, evangelical Protestants.  The Christian people who are against Romney’s Mormonism are precisely the people who want a fully-dressed public square with the clothing options provided by their own tailor.  Like it or not, there are limits to what kind of generic religiosity such people want to promote in public life.  Religions that appear to these Christians to be clearly non-Christian or, at best, wildly heterodox are not going to qualify as part of the clothing of the public square.  You will not be able to scare these people with threats of galloping secularism, because they are already convinced that galloping secularism is here.  They are also probably convincced that the last thing they need to fight secularism is to support a candidate who doesn’t even believe in the same God as they do.  That is what this entire controversy is all about. 

For the actual believers we’re talking about, who are not to be confused with any vague “believers in the miraculous,” but who are people who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, are these people supposed to believe that it will be pleasing to God to elect a non-Christian?  Matched against that far more basic concern, Hewitt’s pleas for tolerance and his long-term fears of providing a precedent for future secularist intolerance (which is a rather silly thing to worry about, since they don’t need precedents, as they make up the rules as they go) appear pretty weak and pathetic.

Andrew Sullivan has another one of his tiresome “Vive La Resistance” posts, this time (indirectly) citing Ms. Mac Donald’s interview with Razib when she is at her most petulant.  For her part, like Sullivan, Ms. Mac Donald sometimes likes to target a faceless “them” who manage to embody every flaw that she perceives in religious conservatives.  First, here’s Mac Donald:

In the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

But no one assumes “conservative religious unanimity.”  Just as Sullivan fabricates his enemy, the “fundamentalists,” to match his preoccupations, Ms. Mac Donald imagines that there is such a thing as an “assumption of conservative religious unanimity,” which helps her defend the position that she is defending ”reason and realism” against superstitious yobs.  In a spirit similar to that Sullivan’s own incensed attack on “fundamentalism” and his claim that this mythical ”fundamentalism” is taking over and displacing American conservatism (which is far more ludicrous than Ms. Mac Donald’s more modest critiques), Ms. Mac Donald gives the impression that she is doggedly fighting against the overwhelming religiosity of modern conservatism.  As I have argued earlier today, this overwhelming religiosity is not nearly as great as she makes it out to be. 

I should say that if conservatism were governed by the truths of Christianity and leavened by the wisdom of the Fathers, I think it would generally be all to the benefit of conservatism.  The alternatives have always been an acquiescence in false Enlightenment liberal understandings of human nature and society or an acceptance of the Christian understanding that man is fallen (but capable of virtue) and in need of good order and the conservative wisdom that social organisation arises from inherited customs and structures and not from contract or consent.  When conservatives belittle the Enlightenment, it is normally the social and political theories of the more radical French thinkers that they are targeting, but they are in any case objecting for the most part to false understandings of the origin of society, how polities arise and function and what the rightful sources of legitimacy and authority are.  They object to a distorted understanding of the human person and a tendency of many Enlightenment thinkers to be hostile to rooted, traditional society and its numerous institutions and customs.  They do not reject scientific method, nor do they even necessarily hold an empiricist epistemology in low esteem.  The suggestion that they reject “empiricism” entirely, and the implication that most conservatives form a mass of hidebound ignoramuses who would abandon all scientific advances are both false.  

The strangest part of this charge is the connection between the Enlightenment and, for example, “the conquest of cholera,” since the major thinkers of the Enlightenment did not cure cholera and were not even close to understanding vaccination or many of the principles of public sanitation and hygiene that helped contain outbreaks.  There were still cholera epidemics in the 19th century, many of them in the filthy, overcrowded cities of the industrial era brought to us by technological progress.  In any case, what good, one might ask, did Voltaire’s contempt for Christianity do for people dying of cholera?  That is the part of the Enlightenment that we take pots shot at most of the time, so perhaps it is no wonder that Ms. Mac Donald defends it, but what does that have to do the advance of medical and technological sciences?  Is there a new psychosomatic cure for disease achieved not through prayer, but through mocking God?  Ms. Mac Donald refers to “empiricism,” whence come all these astounding fruits.  Now suppose that we find Leibniz’s “innate ideas” more compelling and more consistent with modern neuroscience than Locke’s tabula rasa?  Do we at least get credit for not rejecting Leibniz’s differential calculus?   

Ms. Mac Donald says that she finds it “depressing” that “every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment.”  But this is simply untrue.  No major conservative magazine “cheers on creationism” as such, much less do they do so “reflexively.”  I have yet to encounter a serious conservative writer or scholar who accepts the Young Earth thesis.  These people do not exist.  There are conservative people writing online who believe this, and there are even academics who believe it, but those aren’t the people Ms. Mac Donald was referring to. 

On ID, National Review has no formal position, and they certainly don’t “cheer” on creationism.  With respect to ID, they have entertained arguments from both sides, but that is hardly “cheering” anything on.  At least one of their more prominent contributors in John Derbyshire has made it his business to basically single-handedly crush Intelligent Design’s pretensions to being science.  It was not a difficult task, and he succeeded quite well.  I am as much of a Counter-Enlightenment man today as you are likely to find under the age of 30, and I have ridiculed ID’s claims to being science on several occasions.  That’s because it isn’t science.  Amusingly, two of the main proponents of this intellectual swindle are none other than the grand old man of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, and the grand dame Gertrude Himmelfarb, as Derbyshire noted last year.  As Derbyshire observed, their boosting of ID as science is entirely cynical and aimed at placating some religious conservatives.  That is hardly evidence of galloping religiosity in “every organ of conservative opinion.”  

I should note that I do not ridicule the possibility of understanding some of the claims of ID as a legitimate philosophical view on the orderliness of the universe and the implications this has for the existence of God, but that is not what ID proponents want when they push for recognition of their “theory.”  ID advocates are people who accept everything about the theory of evolution except the mythology woven around it; in place of that mythology, they would like to posit a different story, equally unproven and unproveable, for perhaps well-intentioned reasons that end up being nonetheless rather silly.  But Ms. Mac Donald might have more in common with ID proponents than she thinks, though, since they, too, enjoy playing the wounded, oppressed victim fighting against a hostile and arrogant establishment. 

As for taking pot shots at the Enlightenment, there isn’t that much of that going around these days.  More’s the pity.  I am fairly sure that I have made myself obnoxious to many movement conservatives because I go out of my way to disparage and ridicule certain assumptions of Locke and some of the more high-flown claims of the Declaration of Independence.  I take snide pot shots at the Enlightenment, but I never cheer on creationism and ID.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  Do I start by pretending that carbon dating doesn’t exist, or do I start by pretending that saying, “God did it” serves as an acceptable hypothesis?  Neither does my blog constitute much of an “organ of conservative opinion,” though I suppose it is a small one of sorts.  

Anyway, lately it has not been the case that conservatives have been too hard on the Enlightenment–many have rather become its latter-day cheerleaders as a sort of cultural one-upsmanship vis-a-vis Islam.  The Weekly Standard has not, to my knowledge, ever made a snide remark about the Enlightenment.  If they have, it would have to have been rare or fairly mildWhat about American Spectator?  We could inquire, but I am fairly confident that the only place where you might conceivably find respectful consideration of creation science is in a publication like World, and I’m probably not being fair to them when I say that.  Did American Conservative have a big “Yes, The Earth Is Only 4,004 Years Old” editorial and I missed it?  Of course not. 

This is because it is entirely possible to accept that God created everything without having to insist upon the absolute literal interpretation of every number (many of which are clearly symbolic in any case) in the Bible.  It is also possible to accept that God created all living things while also acknowledging that evolution is a plausible explanation for how living beings change over time.  It is possible to despise Voltaire as an impious fool and loathe Locke as a treacherous stockjobbing mountebank and to view their ideas with disdain without insisting that we live in caves and eat raw meat while dying of the plague.

Razib’s Q&A with Heather Mac Donald deserves an extended treatment, so, as promised Saturday, I will try to start to tackle the most interesting and vexing parts of Ms. Mac Donald’s answers.  For those interested, Razib also has a new post on response to the interview.  If time permits, I’ll make a few remarks about that one, too.  I’ll take the interview questions in order, stopping along the way to comment.  Here is the first question and part of the first answer:

1) Okay, I’ll get this out of the way.  What prompted you to “come out” as an atheist in The American Conservative earlier this year?  A friend of mine suggested that you might have become frustrated with the lack of a “reality-based” conservatism during this administration, in particular in its attitude toward immigration.  Is he going down the right track? 

I wrote The American Conservative piece out of frustration with the preening piety of conservative pundits. I attended a New York cocktail party in 2003, for example, where a prominent columnist said to the group standing around him: “We all know that what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith.” This sentiment has been repeated in print ad nauseam, along with its twin: “We all know that morality is not possible without religion.” I didn’t then have the courage to point out to the prominent columnist that quite a few conservatives and Republicans of the highest standing had no religious faith, without apparent injury to their principles or their behavior.

I can certainly understand Ms. Mac Donald’s frustration with conservative pundits’ “preening piety,” but I’d like to remind readers of a couple of things about the original article she wrote for TAC.  As I have said before, the article was part of a symposium asking what liberal and conservative and Left and Right meant, so straightaway the article’s focus on the folly of religion and its complaint that skeptical, non-religious conservatives were being somehow marginalised or culturally threatened by all of the God-talk struck this reader as odd and out of place.  However, I’m glad TAC ran the piece and provided a forum for Ms. Mac Donald to air her grievance against religion and religious conservatives, if only as a way of showing that a conservative operation full of religious conservatives was willing to entertain a variety of perspectives and to confirm that skeptical conservatives are really not the put-upon victims among conservatives that Ms. Mac Donald made them out to be.  Back then the impression one got was not that “quite a few conservatives and Republicans of high standing” had no religious faith but were nonetheless principled and decent and able to work side by side with religious conservatives, but that the religiosity overtaking conservatism was putting some sort of stranglehold on these skeptics and non-believers.  Back in August she wrote:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.   

But there was, is, no exclusion going on.  To see all of the articles and books published in the last few months blaming the woes of the GOP and conservatism on religious conservatives, one might conclude that it was the religious conservatives who ought to be worried about exclusion.  Following the publication of this article, not only did virtually everyone and his brother at NR fall all over themselves to be nice and accommodating to Ms. Mac Donald, whom they showered with so many compliments that it became embarrassing for everyone watching, but we were soon reminded of the rather large number of NROniks who were themselves either confirmed skeptics or very unorthodox sorts of Christians.  The debate was not as much between the zealous believers and the atheist, but between the moderately respectful and the intensely disrespectful. 

The large number of skeptics and unorthodox folk there is not in itself necessarily a problem for conservatives (though I think it probably depends on how unorthodox the unorthodox are willing to be), or at least it isn’t a new problem if it is one (the honour roll in The Conservative Mind is a veritable Who’s Who of skeptics, heretics and eccentrics).  Still, it goes a long way towards showing that the representatives of what it still (sigh) the flagship of “the movement” are not heavily leaning on religion to the exclusion of anybody.  Some of them aren’t doing any leaning at all, while the Catholics there are presumably believers, but they are by and large believers who tend to advance, for example, pro-life arguments in terms that reasonable skeptical conservatives could appreciate.  Indeed, this is not just the case at NR.  The pro-life movement’s own use of the rhetoric of “the right to life” should remind us that, while it is Christianity that motivates so many pro-lifers, they nonetheless retreat back to precisely the rights-centric language of Enlightenment liberalism to make their arguments for the defense of the unborn.  I certainly do not say this as a compliment to the pro-life movement, but this is the way it is.  Because these people do believe in God, they also mention God, but it is the appeal to protecting human rights that is doing all of the work in their arguments.  Perhaps this is a politically clever approach, or perhaps not, but what it isn’t is an example of conservatives “leaning heavily” on religion.  If you can’t even find such a habit among pro-lifers, where will you find it?  

To say that today’s conservative movement leans too heavily on religion, one must have a rather expansive and odd definition of what religion is.  It is possible to find extreme, actually rather isolated incidents of what we might take to be religious enthusiasm sweeping the conservative world and the GOP.  The dreadful Schiavo imbroglio might be considered such a one.  Arguably, though, that affair was the result of an absolute abstract commitment to the Right to Life that was so intense that it actually became impious and contradicted a Christian understanding of the purpose of human life, namely salvation in Christ, making it an episode of impious ideological excess.  It was a classic example of what happens when decent people are given simple ideological maxims: they go too far and commit injustice.  It is possible to see this episode, usually taken as a glaring example of religious conservatism’s supposed power within the GOP, as an episode where a galivanting, do-gooding rights-based liberalism generated hysterical overreaction among activists who pushed for government interference in the private affairs of a family.  But even if we accept that this really was a case of a religious impulse dominating the conservative movement, it is the relative rarity of these sorts of episodes that tells me that religion does not usually have too much hold on the modern conservative movement and that conservatives do not usually “lean” very heavily on the claims of revelation at all.  Rather, if anything, religion has not had enough of a hold.  As a theocrat of sorts (very different from a theocon, mind you!), I might be expected to say this.  As an inveterate critic of Andrew Sullivan and his dreadful book, I might be expected to say this.  But I say it for what I think are a couple good reasons. 

First, religion, more specifically traditional Christianity (which is almost entirely what we’re talking about when we speak of religion and conservatism in America), does not function as a crutch of the modern conservative movement, but all too often the movement uses it (or in some cases the weasel word “values”) as a rallying flag when it has run out of anything else interesting to say.  That is an important distinction.  Appeal to religion is the last resort of “the movement” and not one of its dominant aspects.  Second, for the last 25 years most mainstream conservative argument has fallen into four categories, only one of which can fairly be linked to religion, which are 1) social scientific arguments about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of government policy and/or about causes behind patterns of social behaviour; 2) arguments written in defense of Western history, culture and “values,” usually “Judeo-Christian values” (under which dubious heading the great religion of our civilisation is filed away); 3) polemics against the stupidity, hypocrisy, elitism or “real” racism of the left, the academy, the government, the media, etc.; 4) arguments about dire foreign threats that “we,” the conservatives, “get” and the daffy liberals and Europeans do not (such as Venezuela!).  You can find arguments that fit more than one of these and some that fit none, but you will be surprised to find just how few conservative essays and articles have much to say about religion, revelation or God except in the most superficial or boilerplate ways. 

Specifically religious journals, such as First Things, will obviously have a very dense concentration of arguments tied very closely to, if not completely enmeshed in, a religious worldview, but in most other journals of conservative opinion and most other conservative columns you won’t find a lot of conservative writers “leaning heavily” on religion for much of anything.  All too often, when they do feel obliged to bring it up, the arguments go something like this: “We have capitalism because of Christianity” (in other words, you should respect Christianity because it helped make us fairly wealthy as a people) or “we have liberal democracy partly because of Christian respect for the person” or “we have the separation of church and state because of Christ’s teaching” (which can be among the worst, since it is usually an argument that calls Christianity as a witness for the defense of the superiority of the secular modern West, whose superiority is affirmed precisely in its capacity for secularism and pushing religion out of public life) and so on. 

These tend to be historical arguments, and they often can have some real merit as historical arguments, but they all fall under the category of “Christianity has done you Westerners a lot of good, so maybe you should give it a break now and then.”  You know the drill, repeated ad nauseam whenever the secularist and atheists come knocking: “Christianity inspired the abolitionists!  Christianity inspired Rev. King.  See–we’re not crazy religious wackos (like the abolitionists were)!”  This is usually a plea from the lukewarm to the indifferent and potentially hostile to acknowledge that Christianity may or may not be true, but that it nonetheless has served and will continue to serve a social function and, in the context of other debates, that its involvement in political life is not necessarily harmful.  This emphasis on the social utility and functionality of religion (both of which the NROniks cited repeatedly contra Mac Donald last fall) to the exclusion and detriment of interest in revealed religion’s substantive truth-claims has become, if anything, more common since the neoconservative ascendancy began and brought with it the habits and methods of the social sciences. 

It is in the context of these arguments about the social function of “religion” that the remarks Ms. Mac Donald recounts in her opening anecdote should be understood.  For the millionth time, yes, it is possible for nonbelievers to live what most people would regard as a “moral” and upstanding life; atheists presumably can have successful marriages and they probably even love their mothers.  When people speak of the necessity of religion for the maintenance of morality, they are almost always speaking of public morality and order, and they see religion as a necessary and well-tested support for these things.  I would go further and say that it is not really possible to live a truly virtuous life without entering into union with the God who was incarnate for our sake, but the people Ms. Mac Donald met at her cocktail party were not saying this, nor would they agree with it if I presented it to them.  “That’s some kind of crazy theological argument, “they would say to me,” and that has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Specifically theological arguments do not interest many conservatives very much, and most avoid referring to them or using them if they can possibly help it.  Even for the theocons, it is natural law teaching within Western Christian theological tradition that gets most of the attention because it is presumed to be “accessible” and intelligible by anyone who can reason.  That in and of itself would be fine, but this move has been seen as absolutely necessary to even begin to draw on our Christian inheritance to make arguments about public policy or social problems to which the wider public and most conservatives would pay much heed. 

This history is not, to my mind, evidence of a heavy reliance on the truth claims of Christian revelation to advance or define conservatism.  What I have repeatedly found, much to my agitation, is a decided indifference to the actual substance of much of our Christian inheritance that goes beyond the mere “patina” of pious nonsensical mumblings about God creating all men equal (today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so we should pay our respects to the Dream, shouldn’t we?) or Mr. Bush’s idea, which is at once both silly and dangerous, that political freedom is God’s gift to man.  Unless conservatives can find some way to tie Christianity in to the goods that most of “the movement” is today in the business of promoting (i.e., capitalism and democracy), they often will not say much, or at least nothing so terribly religiously inspired that it would make a skeptic bat an eye.  When religion, and here again we almost always mean Christianity, has taken center stage in conservative arguments, it is usually as the violated plaintiff outraged by some PC diktat, revisionist history or public criticism by, well, someone like Ms. Mac Donald.  In these cases, conservatives will once again defend Christianity with old liberal appeals to freedom of religion or will mitigate claims about alleged past Christian fanaticism by saying, “Yes, Christianity used to have a terrible history, but out of its internecine conflicts the Enlightenment was born and helped to reform and fix all of the unfortunate elements.”  In other words, these folks are saying, “Look, we find a lot of Christian history to be nearly as embarrassing as you do, but you should realise that we’ve become so much more respectably milquetoast and inoffensive in the last few centuries, we now embrace classical liberalism with gusto, and we do charity work!”  Most of the ringing defenses of the West setting it over and against the Islamic world possess an undercurrent of skepticism that says, “Unlike the Muslims, we learned to stop talking our religion very seriously a long time ago, and we’re all much better off for it–but, of course, we still have the fight the godless liberals in the War on Christmas.”  When Cal Thomas started singing the praises of secular modernity after 9/11 (as if to show you that he was no religious fanatic like those people), you could take it as a given that religion, and specifically the great significance attached to Christianity even by some old Moral Majority hands like Thomas, was potentially expendable for a lot of conservatives when supposedly more important things (such as the fight against “medievalism” and for “women’s rights” and “tolerance”) were at stake.  In the end, I don’t see that much modern conservative reliance on religion.  The “movement” certainly relies on religious people to keep it running with their support, financial and otherwise, and to that end they have to say nice things about the value of religion now and again (and I assume most honestly believe these things when they say them), but do they “lean heavily” on religion “to the exclusion” of nonbelievers?  Quite simply, no, they don’t.

Heather Mac Donald talks to Razib at GNXP about atheism, conservatism and the reaction to her much-talked-about American Conservative symposium contribution.  My comments on the Mac Donald article, the ensuing online brouhaha and other Mac Donald defenses of ”skeptical” conservatism are here, herehere, herehere and here.  There’s a lot in the interview that deserves some response, but I am pressed for time today and cannot go into the interesting and annoying bits just now.  Read the whole thing, and I’ll be back next week with my take.

Update: Okay, one quick note before I get ready to go to the symphony.  Ms. Mac Donald cites, with understandable frustration, the glib invocation of American religiosity as a reason for our superiority over Europe on the one hand and the daft claim by Mr. Bush that freedom is God’s gift to humanity on the other.  The first is the sort of trite thing that professional pundits write because they know it will play well with the crowd and can be set aside here.  On the second point, she is quite right to find this sort of rhetoric not only worrisome but actually opposed to Biblical truth.  That is an important part of what I was trying to argue in my TAC article on this very topic.  How Mr. Bush’s strange and unorthodox notions of some sort of divinely mandated revolution indict all Christianity or all religion continues to elude me.  In my view, Mr. Bush’s God-talk is the thin gruel offered to religious conservatives by people steeped in a very different, fairly unholy secular ideology.  If we count the invasion of Iraq against traditional Christianity, let’s say, or take it as some proof against the existence of God, we may as well endorse atheism on the grounds that Robespierre, too, believed in a Supreme Being and he also did terrible and despicable things. That strikes me as rather silly. 

There are many good reasons to write off the specific anti-Mormon critiques of Jacob Weisberg and Damon Linker: they both appear motivated by an undue hostility to religion in political life, they seem to view strong religious conviction itself as inherently threatening to liberal democracy, they either ignore or skate over the Mormons’ historical record in their arguments and they frame their arguments in such a way that it is inescapable that anyone who genuinely believes in any kind of revelation or miracle should be viewed with scorn and suspicion, as it is only to the degree that religious people have tempered, watered down or abandoned their older religious commitments that they have become capable of receiving the full respect of these secular liberals in the political arena.  However, not a one of these good reasons appears in the less-judgemental-than-thou article by one Timothy Rutten, who takes offense at the very idea that Weisberg and Linker would put Romney’s religion under scrutiny for any reason.  It is all so very private and personal!  He writes:

Religious belief is a matter of conscience and if there is no privacy of conscience there is no separation of church and state, a principle both Slate and the New Republic claim to defend. Do the editors of those journals really want to take us back to the 1960s, when as many as one American in four said they never would vote for a Catholic or a Jew for president?

Not likely.

What both journals are doing is playing with social fire for the sake of narrow partisan advantage, hoping to knock a potentially attractive conservative candidate out of the running in much the same way that some Republican commentators desperately attempted to prod some Catholic bishop somewhere into denying Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry communion because he’s pro-choice.

That effort didn’t succeed and this one probably won’t either because an instinctively tolerant American people understands the difference between legitimate journalistic inquiry and an inquisition.

As near as I can tell, this means that in Mr. Rutten’s world we cannot refer back to any kind of religion for its tradition of philosophical and ethical reflection, cannot speak about our religion in any public forum and certainly cannot inform our political views with truths our received religious teachings tell us are of ultimate and eternal significance.  To do any of these things is to violate a “separation of church and state” imagined here not simply as a lack of a federal institutional support in favour of or against any particular creed, but as a hermetically sealed bubble affecting our entire public and political life.  If religion does not remain strictly private, the mythical “separation” will have been overthrown.  Rutten’s suggestion would not simply push religion out of the public square entirely, but would insist that it stay indoors and go pray in its closet.  The broad-minded, accommodating rule of an “instinctively tolerant” people can endure nothing more burdensome that each person tending to his own garden of conscience!  For Mr. Rutten, anything more ambitious than that probably must set us on a path to sectarian massacre.

Mr. Rutten asks rather foolishly whether Slate and TNR want to return us to the 1960s when a quarter of the population said they would never vote for a Catholic or Jew for President.  I think it is probably fair to say that they obviously don’t want any such thing, and neither does anyone else.  (Query: Is this prejudice actually a thing of the past?  Has this percentage actually declined in the last forty years, or do we simply think that it has because very few are willing to admit to anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish prejudices today?)  Linker and Weisberg might not point this out, since they both claim is their purpose not to engage in any real religious prejudice, but instead of that one quarter of the American people being against a Mormon candidate for President there is something closer to one-half at 43%.  We don’t need to “go back” to the 1960s to find broad opposition to a candidate because of his religion.  This opposition exists here and now, and it isn’t going anywhere just because the Tim Ruttens of the world don’t want to hear about it.  The 43% of Americans are the people who have already decided, as of late last year, that they would never consider voting for a Mormon presidential candidate.  Perhaps Mr. Rutten would say that it is precisely this kind of attitude that Slate and TNR shouldn’t be encouraging, and that the greater breadth of anti-Mormonism makes talking about it all the more explosive.  Would Mr. Rutten say that we should avoid talking about something because it is potentially controversial and likely to promote social conflict?  Is that really the best liberals (such as I assume Mr. Rutten is) can manage? 

When such a large percentage of the population takes such a strong stand against Mormon presidential candidates as such, it seems to me fairly plain that it is the legitimate business of journalists and pundits to discuss and debate the merits of opposition to Mormon candidates.  The specific arguments Linker and Weisberg advanced were unfortunate and largely misguided in the way they made their criticisms.  No doubt they would find my theological objections to what I consider the falsehoods and absurdities of Mormonism to be equally misguided or beside the point, but that is part of the ongoing debate.  To their credit, Mormon scholars and intellectuals have been only too happy to engage in the debate, and they are doing their religion a world of good by facing up to the challenge rather than running and hiding or crying, “Bigot!” each time someone simply starts asking questions.  It is Mormons’ squeamish would-be defenders on the center-left who cannot stand the sight of an inquiry into anyone’s religion who are hurting Mormons’ chances for being understood more than anyone else. 

Most everyone participating so far assumes that it is legitimate to debate and discuss these things.  Among those who find this discussion distasteful are such luminaries as David Gergen and now Mr. Rutten.  Christian conservatives who believe that Christianity has an important and necessary role to play in the life of the nation have a great stake in ensuring that a combination of liberals and Romney supporters do not succeed in taking Romney’s religion off the table of legitimate discussion.  It cheapens our discourse and weakens our political process to declare such things off limits.  If Americans are, in fact, “instinctively tolerant” (which may be true within reason, but is not absolutely the case), there really is no reason for anyone to run away from this debate in disgust.  

For their part, Mormons have nothing to fear from the arguments of Linker and Weisberg: these are either so far-fetched or militantly hostile to revealed religion in general that they immediately turn off a huge swath of the public.  I am sharply critical of Mormonism’s theological claims and Mormon pretensions to being Christian, but I find their critiques to be poor and unconvincing in the extreme.  Indeed, in terms of content, the reaction to both pieces has been almost uniformly negative.  The only reason anyone has spoken in defense of either of them is when a few, such as Mr. Rutten, insist that even talking about Mormonism in this way is taboo and wrong. 

Similarly, Americans have nothing to fear from Mormons if their concern has been over Linkeresque suspicions of Salt Lake City issuing decrees for the entire country through the White House.  It is precisely this kind of fear and fundamental misunderstanding of the role of religious authority in the modern world that is absurd and laughable.  The things that aren’t absurd are the legitimate questions raised about what a candidate believes.  To my mind, the real argument about Mormonism and Romney’s candidacy is really over whether Christian voters are willing to accept someone whose religion they do not accept and with which they cannot really identify.  This has virtually nothing to do with Gov. Romney’s “fitness” for office, which his much more conventional flaws as an opportunistic politician already throw into doubt, or whether Mormons are “fit” to serve in public office (they are and they do serve all over the country) and almost everything to do with whether the majority of Americans that believes that this is a Christian country (however they mean that) is prepared to elect as President someone whose religion a great many Christians regard as non-Christian. 

Whether we like it or not (I am not a big fan of the idea), the President effectively represents all of the United States and, as the conventional view would have it, personally serves as a symbol of the country and the American people.  Those whom we elect to this office must be someone with whom we can identify to some significant degree.  Viewed this way, a member of an even smaller religious minority in America, such as an Orthodox Christian or an Armenian Christian, might meet with the same opposition and suspicion because of the unfamiliarity or perceived strangeness of the customs and culture of that minority.   This anxiety about someone’s background be less important at the level of statewide office, where what the office represents is possibly less meaningful to many people.  This is why I suspect that rejoinders about the Mormonism of Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch being irrelevant to voters (in states with sizeable Mormon populations) will fall on deaf ears–these are just individual Senators, will be the reply, not the President.  More than anything else, it is the cult of the Presidency that creates such high barriers to entry for members from marginal or minority groups: the nationalist obsession with the executive as the symbol of the nation makes it that much harder to imagine having someone from a perceived strange or unfamiliar group hold this office.  The imperial cult-like mythology woven around the Presidency–which is, in its way, kookier than any religious group’s beliefs–requires that the President to some extent embody the nation.      

There is a deeper problem with Mr. Rutten’s objections to Linker and Weisberg, and it is this: there is a weird, creeping assumption that many Westerners share that strong religious belief, up to and including strong opposition to another person’s creed, precludes the possibility of social peace and a well-ordered polity.  If men believe something strongly, they must ultimately want to oppress or kill someone.  But if a huge number of Americans expresses a strong preference against ever voting for a Mormon presidential candidate, their refusal and their preference do not imply that they lack toleration for Mormons.  What it means is that they cannot, in good conscience, lend their support to people who believe things that are radically different from their own beliefs.  That is not oppression, nor is it even a harmful kind of prejudice.  It is representation, and it is how candidates elected through mass elections are chosen. 

People who believe in the virtues of pluralism and multiculturalism (I am not one of them) should be among the first to jump into the fray about this basic question that their own commitments require them to address.  In an increasingly religiously diverse country, in which several of the minority religions are growing fairly quickly and where there is a larger number of atheists and agnostics, those who think that a candidate’s religion (or lack of it) should never be held against him by voters have to come up with an argument far more powerful than, “It’s a private affair!”  In democratic politics, for good and ill, people vote for the candidates with whom they identify, and religion has been and probably always will be a factor in national politics so long as Americans remain a predominantly religious people.  Whether most of the Christian majority will ever be willing to accept as President someone from a non-Christian religion remains an open question (at present, signs point to no as far as Islam and Mormonism are concerned), but it is one that cannot be wished away or shoved back into the closet.  Mr. Rutten’s horror at the idea of discussing these things shows that he does not really believe that Americans are “instinctively tolerant,” but must be kept from discussing at any length questions about this or that religion so that “social fire” is not unleashed upon the country.  This does a disservice to the very minority religions whose interests (and rights!) liberals claim to want to protect, since it is precisely by shouting down questions and discussion that negative preconceptions about a religion are reinforced.  It will be by hiding behind the (non-existent) wall of separation that Mormons will do more harm to the reputation of their religion than anyone else, because any refusal to defend their religion with public argument–a refusal that Mr. Rutten is trying to encourage with his attempt to shame liberals into being quiet about the entire thing–will confirm the worst impressions of Mormonism as something strange, unfamiliar and cultish. 

In The Atlantic last year, Ryan Sager, author of the book “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party,” noted that Republicans were suddenly finding themselves losing elections in the Rocky Mountain states. Today Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming all have Democratic governors.  Mr. Sager attributes the sudden Democratic surge in the “Purple Mountains” to religious conservatives gaining control of the policy debate within the Republican Party. In Mr. Sager’s view, the GOP has lost the libertarian-leaning conservative voters whose politics tend to mirror the rugged individualism of those he suspects inhabit the region. ~Brendan Miniter

Put the emphasis on “suspects.”  Show me someone from the urban parts of the modern West and I will show you someone more likely to consider himself a “centrist” or an “independent” than he is likely to consider himself a ruggedly individualistic libertarian.  The trouble I have with people who talk about Republicans losing “the libertarian West” is that I am not sure they have ever been to some parts of the West, since they seem to think that people living in “the mountains” of the West are all Scots-Irish backwoodsmen just itching to shoot the revenuers and flatlanders. 

Take, for instance, the place of New Mexico (or even Colorado) in the list of current Democratic governors.  This is supposed to be some indication of Republican weakness in these states today, when a Democratic governor in New Mexico since the Depression is historically far more the norm than the exception.  It is true that since 1975 there have been two Republican governors, Carruthers and Johnson, for a total of twelve years, but there have been four Democratic governors in Apodaca, Anaya, King and Richardson for what will be a total of twenty years.  Just look at the death-grip Democrats have had on the statehouse for seventy years and you will understand that any Republican statewide victories in New Mexico are rather remarkable achievements in themselves.  (As some of us like to joke back home, with the demise of the PRI’s lock on power in Mexico, the New Mexico Democrats in our legislature are probably now the longest-ruling one-party system on earth.) The state continues to change, but it remains one of the three minority-majority states in the country and thus serves as a natural habitat of Democrats.  Of all the states on this list, the one that absolutely doesn’t need the scapegoating of religious conservatives to explain Democratic success is New Mexico. 

New Mexico is still a default Democratic state and typically goes for Republican presidential candidates only when that candidate wins nationally.  Were it not for the odd make-up of Albuquerque with its heavy core of professionals, scientists and military personnel, the GOP would get routinely trounced in every statewide election.  Perhaps ironically, it seems to be the heavy footprint of the federal government in Albuquerque that gives the Republicans a fighting chance.  How do you suppose “libertarian-leaning” candidates would do in a state that is heavily dependent on the federal government for a sizeable part of its economy?  Probably not very well at all.

This brings me a bigger problem with Mr. Sager’s entire thesis.  How can evangelicals be costing Republicans support in the mountain West unless evangelicals are increasingly prominent in local GOP politics and the Republicans there are failing?  The supposed “Southern” and “religious” character of Republican politics elsewhere should not have any obvious effect on whether people in another part of the country vote for “moderate,” pro-business, pro-Pentagon Republicans (think Heather Wilson).  In New Mexico, there are certainly evangelicals in the state GOP, but they seem to have unusually limited influence on the selection of nominees for statewide office or even for House members outside of their heavier concentration in southeastern New Mexico.  In other words, it might be true that the GOP is now struggling in this part of the country more than it was, but the supposed cause (too much religion!) seems to have nothing to do with it.

It seems almost certain that the intense evangelical culture of parts of Colorado has served as a boost to Republican prospects in the state.  This deserves closer scrutiny, but I wonder if the concern over the GOP losing the “libertarian West” (a “libertarian West” that includes Colorado Springs!) is not a bad case of alarmism based on a very few electoral defeats.  Consider that the only Colorado House losses in a very bad year were in open seats with weak Republican candidates.  Marilyn Musgrave (CO-04), whose seat was endangered late in the cycle, certainly represents the social and religious conservative wing of her party, but managed to survive and win re-election.  Beauprez ran a less than thrilling campaign, which was obviously insufficient in the year of the Democratic wave, but a lot more analysis would need to be done to determine why he lost before we can credit sweeping theories of religious conservatism dooming the party’s chances.        

Worship teams. “Worship team” is one of the worst phrases ever invented. Much less Biblical than “prayer warrior,” yet more aggressively insane-sounding when dropped into casual conversation. “Yeah, after we rehearse for the Hearts on Fire Crusade 2007 in the public middle school gym this Saturday, I’m taking the worship team to Applebees.”
In my brief Evangelical interlude as a teenager (yes, as all these stories do, it started with some wonderful young woman), I saw plenty of worship teams: skits, matching t-shirts, and surprisingly competent musicianship. ~Michael Brendan Dougherty

I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it.  It isn’t that I don’t understand the need for cooperation or sociability or community in church life.  That all makes perfect sense.  But what on earth is a “worship team” really?  I mean, I think I have even seen one in action once or twice, but I had no idea what I was looking at when I saw it.  To me it was a group of folks, undoubtedly terribly well-meaning, serious folks in their way, playing instruments and singing treacly songs about Someone Special whom I assumed must be God.  Was this worship?  I am sure that the people doing it believe this deeply. 

Perhaps where this sort of thing loses me is in all of the swaying to and fro.  In Russian churches, there is no swaying–none at all.  You typically don’t move much at all, except for making the Sign of the Cross or making prostrations.  Perhaps that seems bafflingly strange to our friends on the worship team, I don’t know, but I am fairly sure that it has rather more to do with worship than putting on a music show (even if the music is good, which this music typically is, well, not) and getting your spiritual groove on.   

To some degree, I feel like Irinaios trying to make sense of Valentinian Gnostics, and I don’t mean that at all as pejoratively as it sounds–it’s simply that this sort of thing is so extremely far removed from anything I know as worship that I am baffled by it.  As I look into the matter, I find that there are worship team guidelines and handbooks (as I suppose there would have to be) and an entire lexicon that has grown up around such “teamwork” (do you worship “frisbee style”?).  It is clear that they take all of this terribly seriously, and it is also clear that many people respond to this sort of thing.  But to what are they responding?  What exactly is going on here?  What, I ask you, is the point?  Would it make any difference if we called them not worship teams but worship bands?  If it wouldn’t, does it really make that much sense?

Normally I do not trouble to comment on the life and practices of other confessions, because I think it is generally not my place and not my business to do this, but this is one of those things where I am so astonished that I simply must intrude and ask: why?

And for that matter, why on earth does the Orthodox Patriarch believe gaining more legal liberty for the few Orthodox remaining in the former Constantinople is worth Europe’s opening the gates to massive legal Muslim immigration — especially with Western Europe so spiritually and culturally weak, and failing to reproduce itself?

What am I missing here? ~Rod Dreher

With respect to his support for Turkish EU entry, Patriarch Bartholomew is in a fairly difficult situation and presumably feels compelled by the intense political pressure on the Phanar to support what the Turkish government wants.  That does not make his position any better, but it makes it more understandable.  I don’t know whether he believes that this will really contribute to greater religious freedom for Christians.  If he does, I’m afraid this is a mistaken judgement, as the winds are blowing in a very different direction under the AK government. 

Pope Benedict’s apparent endorsement of Turkish entry is somewhat more troubling, though both are very unfortunate, because he has a certain real political independence that should allow him to continue to speak forthrightly against Turkish entry if he believes, as he once held, that Turkey is alien to the culture and faith of Europe and consequently does not belong in the EU. 

If allowed, Turkish entry will, of course, hasten the Islamicisation of Europe as Turkish migrant workers move across the Continent and begin to take up permanent residence and Turkey becomes the second largest member state with significant clout in all future decision-making.  If the Turks were admitted, you could stop worrying about Eurabia and say hello to Euturkiye.  The good news, such as it is, is that as the Vatican has become more friendly to Turkish membership a lot of the secular politicians in western Europe have become more hostile.  The only old EU-12 governments daft or short-sighted enough to support it openly seem to be the British and the Greek (the latter in stunning defiance of all public opinion).  New member states who have entered in the last dozen years or so seem to me to have always been more skeptical of the proposed entry of Turkey, but I may be misinformed on that point.

Pope Benedict XVI’s journey to Istanbul is a historic mission, in more ways than you might think. I was talking on Sunday to an Orthodox priest about Benedict’s trip, where he will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians. ~Rod Dreher

This will seem pedantic to a lot of people and possibly quite annoying to others, since it is not really on the topic of the article, but I think something does need to be said on this point.  It is just these sorts of misunderstandings that help to muddle discussion about reconciliation and cooperation between Catholics and Orthodox. 

This article is generally very good and hits just about all the right notes about Turkish mistreatment of its small Christian population and the gradual weakening of the Church in Turkey.  The call to rally together is most welcome.  But for some significant number of Orthodox readers, this opening line about the Ecumenical Patriarch is distracting, mainly because it is not really correct.  In the present lamentable state of Orthodoxy today, many local Orthodox Churches are not in communion with one another, which makes this claim about the Ecumenical Patriarch somewhat misleading in one way.  But, even if all the local Churches were in full communion with one another, this statement would still not be precisely accurate.  It is the case that, according to the old order of precedence, the Patriarch of Constantinople is the first among equals of all Orthodox bishops, and there has been a conventional habit of describing(mostly one of journalists reporting about the Orthodox Church, rather than the Orthodox saying this themselves) the Ecumenical Patriarch as being in some sense the representative of all Orthodox around the world. 

But being a representative of all Orthodox, much less our “spiritual head,” is not really the Ecumenical Patriarch’s position, and it is not really part of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church to conceive of any one bishop as “the spiritual head” of the Orthodox.  Arguments over just this sort of thing are the reason for continued disunity between Catholics and Orthodox.  Any patriarch would be a most holy, venerable, respected, and most honourable authority and successor of the Apostles, yes.  A spiritual guide, one might say, and a spiritual pastor, he certainly would be.  But not a “spiritual head” of all the Orthodox.  It has been in no small part because of the relatively weak positions of the two other ancient patriarchates in Antioch and Alexandria, and the effects of the Communist Yoke on the local Churches of Russia and eastern Europe, that the Ecumenical Patriarch had become a sort of spokesman for world Orthodoxy for much of the twentieth century.  But in all of this the Ecumenical Patriarch has not claimed, and no other Churches have granted, any role as “the spiritual head” of all Orthodox Christians. 

Not without foundation, it seems, Lee suspects a hint of gnosticism. I really need to get this book [Doors of the Sea]. ~Kevin Jones

There are traces of gnosticism in David Hart’s work, and he himself acknowledges a proclivity for gnostic views in Doors of the Sea, but I would argue that this gnosticism is not so much to be found in his distinction between nature and creation (which accords fairly well with patristic distinctions about the created order before and after the Fall). 

There are, however, other problems with Doors of the Sea.  On that book and his challenge to traditional theodicy, I had this to say last year:

Dr. Hart’s squeamishness, which is what it seems to me to be, at the thought of a wrathful God has already made any patristic account for suffering irrelevant to his argument. The thought of a wrathful God is something he is so far from acknowledging that he does not even engage the Fathers when they speak of God in this way. It is certainly a trend in modern theology, including Orthodox theology, to de-emphasise potentially embarrassing concepts in the Fathers, whether by heavily ‘contextualising’ them historically so as to deprive them of contemporary relevance or by misusing, as it seems to me, the concept of the consensus patrum to write off some patristic ideas as eccentric or idiosyncratic and therefore not authoritative. Hart’s book does not ignore the Fathers–he relies on them for a solid account of the goodness of God, creation, man and his place in the cosmos. But his brisk treatment of the subject apparently precluded testing his idea against the received wisdom of the Fathers–it is not only St. Gregory who makes the case for understanding natural calamities as chastisements, but St. Maximos who approvingly comments on a similar view from a separate Oration. What cannot be stressed enough is that God’s wrath and mercy are both expressions of His love (whom the Lord loves He chastises–Heb. 12:6), and there has never been an inherent contradiction between divine wrath and divine love.    

Some conservative Christians want to blame the anti-Gibson, anti-Christian barrage on “liberals,” but this is silly. Two of the most vicious smears have come from the neoconservative columnists William Safire and Charles Krauthammer; Gertrude Himmelfarb, wife of Irving Kristol, has made a more reasonable case against the film, though she also calls it “sadistic” (without having seen it).

Safire, however, traces the Holocaust back to Christ Himself, who laid the groundwork for violent persecution with the words “I come to bring not peace, but a sword.” Safire neglects to explain that this is a metaphor; Jesus immediately goes on to explain that His teaching will set father against son, mother against daughter, and so forth. He also says (it’s in the movie) that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

So our Lord once again proves to be “a sign of contradiction” — this time for the conservative movement. The dispute goes far deeper than politics.

Krauthammer is slightly less absurd than Safire, but more adroit in his insinuations. He blames the Catholic Church for the “blood libel” the Gospels “affixed upon the Jewish people [that] had resulted in countless Christian massacres of Jews, and prepared Europe for the ultimate massacre — six million Jews systematically murdered within six years — in the heart, alas, of a Christian continent. It is no accident,” he goes on, “that Vatican II occurred just two decades after the Holocaust, indeed in its very shadow.” [bold mine-DL] 

Gibson, he writes, has committed “a singular act of interreligious aggression,” “openly rejects the Vatican II teaching,” and “gives us the pre-Vatican II story of the villainous Jews.” The council had tried to “unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ-killers.”

Note what Krauthammer is doing here: He is turning a goodwill gesture of Vatican II into a smear of almost two millennia of Christendom. Evidently the council was summoned, “in the shadow of the Holocaust” (a word not even in currency until years after the council), for the chief purpose of “unteaching” what the Church had always taught, causing “countless” Christian slaughters of Jews. ~Joseph Sobran

Mr. Sobran’s article points out an important element in Krauthammer’s screed against The Passion that I did not stress enough in my earlier post.  To attack Gibson’s “pre-Vatican II” Catholicism, Krauthammer must necessarily indict, well, all of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and all those Christian confessions that have never made sufficiently satisfactory statements on interreligious attitudes.  Vatican II has to be made into some kind of consequence of and penance for the Holocaust, implying that all Catholics had done or believed something for which they should be repenting.  Where Krauthammer holds up evangelicals as a good example in all their Israel-supporting zeal, he seems to have no time for any other kind of Christian if such Christians were to consider The Passion as anything other than the crass anti-Semitic monstrosity that Krauthammer sees in it.  Christians are to be defended against ridicule when they are useful for other purposes, but their most important stories should otherwise be mocked and ridiculed and derided as expressions of utter hate and loathing for another people.  If that is not some kind of anti-Christian bigotry, I don’t know what you call it.  

Not even Sullivan of the low, broad Church of Doubt who sings the praises of the Gnostic “Gospels” can take Mormonism seriously as a kind of Christianity.  Granted, I wouldn’t take the judgements of the theologically illiterate too seriously, but it must mean something that even the wobbliest and least doctrinaire of Christians cannot bring himself to accept the Mormon claims to being Christian. 

He writes this in response to a reader (a self-described “atheist ex-Mormon”), who notes that one reason why Christians deny that Mormons are Christians is that Mormons have a “different view of the Trinity.”  That’s putting it rather mildly.  That’s like saying Areios, Eunomios (no relation to Eunomia!) and Sabellius had “different” views of the Trinity, when by definition their doctrines compelled them to reject anything resembling the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as Nicenes and later Orthodox Christians have understood it.  (This is why I would object to referring to the Arian controversy as a Trinitarian controversy, since one party to the controversy was incapable of acknowledging that the Trinity existed in the first place, to say nothing of how the Persons of the Trinity related to one another.)  So Mormons do not have a “different view” of the Trinity, but do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity itself and so do not confess One God in Trinity as Christians around the world have done for ages.  That is actually not a small thing, or at least it isn’t a small thing to serious Christians.  It would be much better, at least for the clarity of the argument, if Mormons were willing to defend their theology as it is and state clearly why they believe it to be true rather than play this game of “can’t we all just get along?”   

An angry Mormon NRO Reader writes to Goldberg: 

As a Mormon, I am offended by the arrogance of Evangelicals like your reader from Kansas City. Why does he refuse to let me self-identify as a Christian, (he says to “compare [Mormonism] with Christianity”. Indeed I am a member of “The Church of Jesus Christ…” Each Sunday I take upon myself the name of Christ through a sacred ordinance we call the sacrament. I pray in the name of Christ. The Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ. Again the list could go on.

Some Gnostic sects of the second century also claimed to be Christian and understood the Logos as one of a myriad Aeons who populated a complex and often baffling mythology of generations of Aeons and the hierarchy into which they were arranged.  Perhaps the Valentinians are in this respect comparable to Mormon “henotheism” with their pantheon of Jehovah, Elohim, etc. (who are, unless I am very much mistaken, considered to be distinct divinities, albeit perhaps “manifestations” of one supreme deity).  Some Vaishnavites (worshipers of Vishnu) believe that Christ was one of the latter-day incarnations of Vishnu, following the more well-known avatars Rama and Krishna, to name only two, but this obviously does not make them Christians. 

Perhaps more relevant is the example of the Arians.  Arians claimed to be Christians, indeed were coming from within the Church, but according to everything that virtually all Christians have believed for 1,600 years they were not really Christians.  That did not stop the Arians from considering themselves to be orthodox Christians, but their saying it did not, as far as anyone else was concerned, make it so.  It was also untrue, which is the rather crucial point here.  This ceases to be a contest over labels at some point and becomes very much one of clashing truth claims.  Put bluntly, many Mormon truth claims are absurd from the perspective of every Christian confession on the planet.  In short, either what they claim is true, and everyone else is a false Christian, or what the major confessions agree on (for example, that God is unoriginate, or that God is One in Trinity) shows their doctrines to be utter nonsense and proves them to be far outside the bounds not only of any one confession’s definition of orthodoxy but far outside the bounds of any recognisable Christianity.   

As Fr. Neuhaus said in his 2000 discussion of Mormonism, the most apt comparison may be with Islam.  That will sound particularly pejorative nowadays, but it is not intended to be.  It is not simply the abstemious Mormon avoidance of alcohol (and nicotine and coffee) that makes the comparison apt.  Their confident claim that the Jews and Christians (or, in their view, pseudo-Christians) distorted the “true” Scriptures is identical to the claim of the Qur’an about the Tanakh and the Gospels.  In the case of the Qur’an, this allows for Muhammad’s garbled, half-remembered stories derived from both sources to be taken as the true accounts against which the “corrupt” versions will be compared and found wanting.  I confess to not having read Joseph Smith’s “revised” Bible, so I cannot say just how much has been changed, but the presumption of changing it at all creates a significant problem for virtually all Christians.  The gentleman writes to encourage all to read the Book of Mormon “along with the Bible.”  But, of course, the question will come up: which Bible?  Theirs or ours?  Isn’t the reality of a significant difference between the two yet another example of the disconnect between their claim to be Christian and the reality that LDS are not?  The list of doctrinal errors could go on.   

No one can stop Mormons from self-identifying any way they please.  No one is trying all that hard to stop them.  But it is a bit tiresome to hear the complaints that Mormons are somehow being oppressed because the rest of us will not indulge what appears to us to be a false claim.  The hard-line Mormon view, as I understand it, is that the rest of us are not Christians, which must make it especially galling to them to have us, the pretenders, tell them that they are not really Christians.  But it shouldn’t be galling; it should be something they expect.  If Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, non-Chalcedonians, etc. and all our predecessors going back to the first century are frauds, as they hold we must be if their church is the “re-established” Church of Jesus Christ, why would it matter what we call them or whether we, the frauds, credit them with the name of Christian?  It is as if they wish to be included at our table as part of a kind of Christian big tent, when in fact they (or at least their church authorities) have no interest in any such thing.  They would like us to acknowledge their claims to being the true church, but if they believe they are right about us they must know that we, frauds that we are, will never acknowledge anything of the sort.  There is a certain integrity to this view that they are the true church, and it is one that I can understand (the Orthodox Church makes the same claim about Herself), but if you want to insist on that claim you should be prepared to find your most outlandish doctrines closely scrutinised and roundly criticised when they deviate from what virtually all Christians have accepted for at least 1,600 years.       

Some 40 couples showed up at a country club in the tiny Ohio town of Van Wert on November 11th—not boyfriend and girlfriend but fathers and their school-age daughters, several as young as 10, dressed up in glittery gowns and heels.

After the pastor finishes, fathers and daughters sign pledges to help keep the girl chaste before marriage. Daughters agree to “remain sexually pure until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband.” Then the father gives the daughter a ring, to be worn on her fourth finger until it is replaced by a wedding band. Hugs ensue, then a prayer, and then fathers and daughters take to the floor to the strains of “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”


The concept is spreading around the country. Van Wert got its ball after the pastor and his wife moved from Albuquerque, where they had run another such event. The Van Wert ball is now in its second year, and has inspired two other nearby towns to begin their own. In Colorado Springs, Lisa Wilson, the ball organiser, says she has sent information packs to groups in 21 states and four countries—New Zealand, Sweden, France and Canada. Sponsors, including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s in Van Wert, sometimes help pick up the tab for the events.

But what about the boys? Surely they bear at least half of the blame for the scourge of pre-marital sex? In Colorado Springs, Ms Wilson and her husband have created a private “manhood celebration” for their 12-year-old son. He is handed an engraved sword and urged to “grow into the weight of manhood”, which includes purity. In Van Wert, ball-goers agree that there should be an event for the boys. Which, if indoctrination of the girls works, seems a reasonable idea. Otherwise the chaste will constantly be chased. ~The Economist

American Muslim “matrimonal banquets” seem relatively normal to me by comparison.  Am I missing something, or is there something distinctly odd about having girls as young as 10 making public pledges about sex? 

Something very like what I suggest has occured in Christological dialogue, with both the Coptic Orthodox (”monotheists”) [sic] and the Assyrian Church of the East {”Nestorians”), in which, laying aside the acrimonious approaches of the past, it was seen that there had been bad faith and misunderstandings in the past, and doctrinal statements were eventually agreed upon that brought our Churches to the brink of unity. ~Daniel Nichols

The Orthodoxy post at CetT that I commented on here has generated another discussion about how papal primacy might be stated in such a way as to make it more “palatable” to the Orthodox.  In the thread of this second post, Mr. Nichols said what is quoted above as a model for restating that teaching in less acrimonious or polemical ways.  Let me say straightaway that this is precisely the kind of model that makes Orthodox Christians very anxious and causes them to start looking for the exits to the ecumenical dialogue. 

But first, a couple words on papal primacy.  For such a teaching to be made more “palatable” to the Orthodox, I think it would probably have to be a very bare-bones idea of papal primacy in which the Bishop of Rome is recognised as primus inter pares of the patriarchs of the several local churches based principally on the canonical order of the ancient patriarchates that granted Rome the first place of honour and precedence.  That would be a reasonably acceptable formulation.  Overreaching historical claims about how the other churches in the first millennium regarded Rome as the moderator and arbiter of church disputes will tend not to sit well with many.  It is just such readings of St. Cyril’s appeal to Pope Celestine’s judgement in the Nestorian controversy that have left Orthodox cold.  Going much beyond that to claims of universal jurisdiction and indeed sovereignty would not go over at all.

But the example of conciliatory Catholic dialogues with non-Chalcedonian churches (i.e., the monophysites) and the Church of the East, which have been mirrored to some degree in the case of the former on the Orthodox side, is not what I would call a felicitous one if the goal is to encourage the Orthodox in pursuing reconciliation.  (Note, however, that in even these cases they were brought only to the “brink of unity,” and not to unity itself, since the guardians of non-Chalcedonian and Assyrian traditions are no more prepared to accept the councils that condemned their predecessors than Catholics and Orthodox are prepared to acknowledge their fathers as our own.)  

It should be taken as a given that I come from an anti-ecumenist jurisdiction in the Orthodox Church, so my view will not be representative of what all Orthodox today think, but after spending a fair amount of my time thinking about Christological problems of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries I have only become more convinced than I used to be that the schisms of those centuries were not the product simply or even primarily bad faith or misunderstandings (though there may have been some of both to some degree).  I think Severos of Antioch, for example, understood perfectly well what he was saying in insisting on one nature after the Incarnation and he believed he was saying the exact same thing as St. Cyril.  He understood quite well that he was saying something very different from and opposed to the Council of Chalcedon, and this was not for lack of understanding of what the Fathers of the Council meant to say. 

For all the well-understood reasons enunciated by the Fathers of the the later ecumenical councils and afterwards, I believe he was gravely mistaken when he began speaking, for instance, of one synthetic nature of Christ.  To the extent that all non-Chalcedonian churches continue to teach such “synthetophysism,” as we might awkwardly call it, they understand the Incarnation in a significantly different way than adherents of Chalcedon do.  As for the Church of the East (as it is now irenically called), it is often said in its defense that it holds a Mopsuestian, and not a Nestorian, Christology, which to those who accept the doctrines of the Fifth Ecumenical Council is a distinction without a significant difference.  As Donald Fairbairn has convincingly shown us again in his excellent Grace and Christology in the Early Church, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorios both taught a charitology that led them to teach an eccentric and, in the eyes of the Orthodox, deficient Christology that was opposed to the consensus of the Church.  If dialogue with these churches is taken as the model for Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, I am afraid that it may be even farther off than I originally believed.  

I haven’t really dug into the relevant papal statements, but my impression is that there’s some ambiguity, perhaps purposeful, on this score. Anyway, what do y’all think? “Part of the Church” is probably not a good way to say it, but what exactly is the relationship? In? Out? Ambigously somewhere between? ~Maclin Horton

Coming at this question from the Orthodox side, I can appreciate the reasons for the confusion that seems to prevail about the status of the Orthodox in Catholic eyes.  Very simply, from what I understand about it from the encyclical, Dominus Iesus, which I previously remarked on here, and the Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church regards the Orthodox as being in some form of substantial communion that is nonetheless short of full communion.  To the Orthodox, this sounds deliberately ambiguous and also ecclesiologically meaningless.  There is koinonia and the absence of koinonia; I think it is correct that there is not really much of a sliding scale between the two, though I do not mean to rely unduly on the ideas of Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) for this understanding of communion.  Koinonia has several important basic features: unity of bishop, unity of Eucharist and unity of faith or homonoia.  Very plainly, Catholics and Orthodox lack all three of these, so it often puzzles me what it means when the Catholic Catechism says that we are in some “profound” communion with Catholics when we Orthodox do not see it at all.   

However, it is the officially approved teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, if I understand what the Catechism and papal encyclicals represent, that the Orthodox are in communion with Catholics to some considerable degree on the grounds that we are supposedly in schism but not in heresy (though some strict anti-Palamites on the Catholic side would probably disagree here).  How there can be communion without oneness of mind on basic doctrines, I cannot say, but it is really not my purpose here to get into confessional disputes here.  I want to lay out very simply the Orthodox attitude as I understand it and give my assessment of what the Catholic Church seems to hold about the status of the Orthodox.    

Of all the non-Roman Catholic hierarchical churches, the Orthodox Church seems to receive the most sympathetic treatment in Dominus Iesus and the Catechism, but it is not only the Orthodox who are considered to be in communion with the Catholic Church to some degree.  Provided that they believe in Christ and have been baptised “properly,” there is some measure of imperfect communion.  Obviously, full communion would only be attained by agreement with Catholic doctrine in “its entirety” and acceptance of the authority of Rome.  But about the Orthodox, the Catechism clearly states:

With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.” (CCC 838) 

Of course, the Orthodox virtually to a man do not see things this way at all.  From the Orthodox perspective, there are significant and, as it stands now, apparently insurmountable barriers to reunion.  Of course, with God all things are possible, but it appears improbable in the extreme that there will be any progress in this direction in this century or indeed in this millennium if both Catholics and Orthodox hold to the doctrines they currently hold.  Much does hinge on papal claims to universal jurisdiction, which are the source of so many Orthodox objections, but as much hinges on significantly different charitological (doctrine of grace), ecclesiological and theological understandings.    

For that matter, I would be genuinely surprised if most Catholics saw things as the Catechism states them, which may not be relevant to what their authorities teach but is certainly an important reality that any ecumenically-minded Catholics would have to take into serious consideration.  Ecumenically-minded Catholics have a very real problem in that most Orthodox Christians, if I may overgeneralise rather broadly, have no great interest in reunion with Rome.  If asked directly, I assume most everyone would say that they desire the unity of all who confess the Name of Christ and they would be absolutely sincere in this, but if such unity were to come at the price of giving up any part of Orthodox Tradition it would immediately be met with hostility.  Ecumenism for many Orthodox Christians has simply become an ugly and dirty word, and in its sloppy and careless formulation and practice over the years (of which the rather painful language of “two lungs” of the One Church has been a prominent example for Traditionalist Orthodox) ecumenism has been seen as an ecclesiological heresy and not only by hard-line Old Calendarists.  In what is probably absolutely infuriating to ecumenically-minded Catholics, their very efforts at outreach convince us all the more that they are in some sort of doctrinal error. 

At the present time, some Traditionalist Orthodox think that far-out crazy liberal reconciliation means having the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad join together in full communion; for some of us, as I only half-jokingly remarked to a friend of mine this weekend, ecumenism means talking in a friendly fashion to New Calendarists.  Any idea of reconciliation with Rome seems so far off, so outlandish to so many Orthodox that it would probably stun some of our Catholic friends.  Simply put, for Pope John Paul II reconciling fully with the Orthodox was something of a priority (and, on a related point, Pope Benedict has an admirably good understanding of many of the Greek Fathers that causes me to like him personally a great deal), but for the Orthodox it has never been a terribly high priority and we have tended to view such moves with suspicion born of unfortunate historical experiences with Eastern-rite and “Byzantine” Catholicism.  Few would be more glad to see the old schism healed than I, as I have many Catholic colleagues and friends (and, on my Hungarian side, Catholic ancestors), but I remain doubtful that it will be healed here below.  God willing, it shall be, but only in the fullness of the truth. 

Who are these Democrats who are insufficiently zealous in their religious outreach? Can anybody name even one? The plain fact is that every single Democrat in Congress claims to be religious, and none of them ever shows the slightest disrespect toward either Christianity or any other faith. ~Kevin Drum

But my sense is that Bush is more like Kuo, too willing to believe the best about people, too easily entranced by personal testimonies, too naive about the ways of the world. And this, I think, is a significant caveat to my earlier argument that religious conservatives aren’t to blame for the worst failures of the Bush Administration. Yes, Iraq wasn’t high up on the “theocon” agenda, but there does seem to be a sense in which Bush’s personal religious sensibility (one shared by many people on the evangelical right) has played a role in enabling our blundering and naive approach to Middle Eastern politics. Christians are supposed to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents; Bush, to judge by both his actions and his words, only seems to have the first part down. ~Ross Douthat

There might be something to this.  The anecdote of the meeting with Putin where Bush claimed to have seen the man’s soul (no mean trick!) ranks high on the list of examples where Bush has seemed almost childlike in his willingness to believe whatever someone else self-servingly tells him.  Thus Ariel Sharon became a “man of peace,” because, presumably, Sharon said that he was, and Bush took him at his word.  This may have less to do with being an evangelical and more to do with being simply an unduly trusting person, which may in turn be related to having been a rather trivial and fatuous person in his formative years.  But there has been a weird tendency when Mr. Bush would introduce a new appointee or official and would feel the need to talk about how the person has a “good heart.”  Besides sounding stupid, how on earth would he know something like that?  Because he had a sit-down and chatted about agriculture or disaster-relief policy?  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  Bush knows! 

Yet I am reluctant to go along with Ross on this one (though it is not because I am particularly fond of the rather, well, dippy, saccharine spirituality of many evangelicals–I have suffered through one Intervarsity meeting too many in my time), because it echoes too much a Sullivanesque theme that Bush’s personal religiosity–that of a “fundamentalist” freed from the blessed state of doubt that St. Andrew recommends to us–reinforces his unwillingness to consider dissenting views or his habit of being intellectually incurious.  Contra Sullivan, having absolutely firm religious convictions and an experience of conversion do not necessarily program you to be uninterested in empirical reality, and in a similar way I am unsure that evangelical piety encourages people to expect only the best in people.  Perhaps I don’t know as many evangelicals as some other folks (they are not exactly over-represented in Hyde Park), but while they may heed the counsel to be innocent as doves I am not certain that these people naively assume that everyone else is equally innocent and dovish.  While it may not be true of the Rick Warren and Joel Osteen type of evangelicalism, conservative evangelical Christianity seems to be loaded down with the assumption that the world is filled with wicked people (which is true), many of whom are out to do harm to the evangelical Christians in one way or another (which is at least partly true). 

Arguably, it might be this kind of view that has influenced the President more than anything else, since he was constantly drawn back to Hussein’s history of crimes as proof of the magnitude of the threat from Iraq (”he killed his own people!”); there was, and still is, an inability to attribute rational, self-interested motives to “the evildoers” and this tends to ratchet up the rhetoric into that of an apocalyptic confrontation.  It is possible that this derives from Bush’s religiosity, but it seems to be supported as much by the ideological assumptions of war supporters who are constantly preaching just how untrustworthy dictators are and how there can be no deals made with such governments.  The problem of the Bush administration vis-a-vis Iraq was not that it trusted in the good intentions of others too much but that it assumed the worst about everything related to Iraq even when there was little or no evidence that would suggest that the threat was anywhere near as bad as they made it out to be.  Is this a function of an evangelical mentality tied to potentially paranoid fears of persecution?  I am skeptical.  It seems much more likely that it is the product of the neoconservative morality tale in which appeasement always leads to disaster and only bold action and resolve (which, of course, means the extensive use of violence and coercion) can save the day.  Perhaps there was something in Bush the evangelical that responded favourably to this kind of hogwash, but I suspect that its role was minimal.  Only to the extent that he believed his election as President was also a kind of vocation from the Most High might we associate his stubborn, almost inexplicable paranoia about threats to the United States from the most implausible sources with his religion.  Whatever else we might say about Mr. Bush’s views, I am almost positive that he and David Kuo have a very different kind of religiosity.  If Kuo’s runs towards the mushy (it does), Bush’s runs towards the oppressively fatalistic and missionary that mixes together God (the God of universal freedom, of course) and History and American destiny in a big bowl of revolutionary activism.  He doesn’t exactly expect the best of people; he is just confident that the victorious outcome is inevitable and the details will attend to themselves. 

I know you like French restaurants, Amy, but America isn’t France, and that brand of secularism simply played no role in our constitutional order–thank heavens. ~Joseph Loconte

What sort of a rejoinder is this?  It’s like saying, “I know you like vodka, Michael Dougherty, but fortunately we don’t have a communist gulag in this country!” [Note: This is just a for-instance; I don’t actually know that Michael likes vodka–it’s an educated guess.]  I like the tart riposte as much the next guy (and perhaps more than most), but this seems oddly strained.  He goes from objecting (correctly) that no one claims that Roberts and Alito should decide cases “purely on religious teachings” and then runs to the opposite extreme and accuses Ms. Sullivan of pushing French-style truly religion-free secularism. 

Prof. Loconte spends a good part of the first half of his second installment in TNR’s Theocons: An Epic Miniseries (as I am calling it) making playful use of metaphors for Ms. Sullivan’s allegedly shoddy argumentsWe are deluged by fish in a barrel and covered by straw men, and yet several paragraphs go by and all Prof. Loconte can offer up is a strained denial of the very position he seemed to give without qualificatiion just two days ago when he wrote:

What this critique misses, however, is the deeper challenge that Bush has delivered–politically and conceptually–to an increasingly secular culture. Take the judiciary. After the Harriet Miers debacle, Bush reasserted a political doctrine that evangelicals helped to craft: There must be no religious test for public office. [bold mine-DL] He appointed two devout Catholics to the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who evidently affirm their church’s “culture of life” philosophy. Both probably believe that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Both clearly view religious institutions as sources of democratic strength. The intellectual and moral gravity of Roberts and Alito (not to mention a host of other Bush judicial appointments) could shift the legal culture in a faith-friendly direction for years to come.

Today Prof. Loconte backpedals furiously by insisting that while those crazy evangelicals and Bush agree with the “religious test” rhetoric, he does not:

Let me begin with what we agree on. We agree that it is false and offensive for conservatives to allege (as some have done) that Democratic opposition to judicial nominees–because of their abortion views–amounts, ipso facto, to religious discrimination.

False and offensive, eh?  (It may be false–why is it really offensive?)  It didn’t seem terribly false or offensive to him two days ago.  He certainly didn’t bother to offer the remark, “By the way, I find this stuff false and offensive.”  Perhaps he was originally playing, ahem, devil’s advocate for the evangelical view of this question and was not stating his view of it one way or the other.  But that was not clear and it is entirely clear why Ms. Sullivan would respond as she did when she wrote:

First of all, there was never any threat to the important political doctrine preventing a “religious test” for public office.

But perhaps most curious of all, and almost inexplicable in light of Prof. Loconte’s enthusiasm for “faith-based” programs (does it trouble anyone that “faith-based” programs sound about as true to the Faith as “fact-based” stories are to reality?) is his earlier assault on David Kuo, whom we learn is an eccentric and bitter man.  Either Mr. Kuo is right and the “compassionate conservative” scheme is mostly hot air and no substance, or he is not.  The frustrated resignation of DiIulio seems rather pertinent, but it goes unmentioned all the while.  Calling Kuo eccentric and bitter isn’t an argument, and since Loconte rests so much of his defense of the evangelical influence on Mr. Bush’s government on the success or failure of the FBI (the other FBI) it would be a body blow to his entire view if it could be shown that, in fact, the faith-based initiative has not amounted to very much and has been largely symbolic.  Throwing some money at AIDS sufferers in Africa may strike many people as commendable, but when it comes to “faith-based” things in this country those who favoured such a program have good reason to be miffed (and the religious conservatives who reject the entire idea in principle have even more reason to be miffed that such things are being done in the name of their religion!).  This is a sizeable flaw in his overall argument that Ms. Sullivan has not yet fully exploited, but she would be well-advised to drive the dagger home on this point.

Prof. Loconte’s argument actually gets weaker from here:

Are there some conservative Christians who demonize Democrats and their politics this way–in ways that you and I both find ridiculous and divisive? Sure. But to impugn Bush is to slip into the camp of the conspiracy-mongers, and to break bread with them.

Always watch for the first person to accuse his interlocutor of engaging in conspiracy theory.  (Sometimes it goes like this: “You obviously believe that the Rothschilds rule the world if you think that AIPAC has any influence in Congress!”)  That person is getting beaten in the debate and, what is more, he knows he’s getting beaten.  Sometimes this kind of argument that your opponent is a conspiratorial loon of some sort–or sympathetic to the conspiratorial loons–will be successful in confusing an audience, but it rarely holds up over the long haul.  Obviously, Mr. Bush thrives off of and his supporters encourage the demonisation of the godless and immoral Democrats.  He is as implicated in this as anyone.  That it has a significant ring of truth in many instances doesn’t hurt the efforts to demonise (it is not difficult to cast as rather godless those people who do not go to church and do not, well, believe in any sort of God whom Christians would recognise), and one might say that it is only fair that religious people dish out as fiercely as they receive from secular liberals, who can never stop prattling on about intolerant and bigoted Christians who are coming to stop people from having sex ever again (except to have lots and lots and lots of babies, which can be a problem for maintaining the coherence of the message).  That being said, Mr. Bush does not get to opt out of the responsibilty for the rhetorical style that fuels a significant part of his power base and which he certainly does nothing to discourage.  Perhaps this kind of demonisation is acceptable or even desirable, but Prof. Loconte does not attempt to make that argument.  No bloody barricades of the culture war for him.  No, Mr. Bush is above the fray and helps AIDS patients and abused women around the world.  Only praise is meet for the emperor.

Then, feeling his back rubbing up against something that seems very much like the proverbial wall, Prof. Loconte rides the theocracy conspiracy-mongers of the left for all they are worth:

While we’re at it [we weren’t at it, but why not?-DL], let’s talk about those conspiracy-mongers. Here’s an easy one: Since the events of September 11, what category of politician or public intellectual has essentially drawn a straight line from conservative Christianity to Islamic extremism? You know the answer: the liberal or progressive.

Try ingesting Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy, Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming, or just about anything from the mouth of Howard Dean, Arthur Schlesinger, or George Soros, and you get a feel for what may be playing at a Democratic National Convention near you. The stupefying irrationality of it, the rank nativism, the spiritual tone-deafness–this is what prompts my bewilderment, for it makes me wonder why the Democratic Party has been such a comfortable home to so much of it for so long.

Give Prof. Loconte points for accomplishing a bold feat: he has accused liberals of engaging in “nativist” politics in the belly of The New Republic!  This is remarkable in itself.  I have to admit that I don’t really know what this means, though I assume that it is some offhand attempt to marshal outrage at anti-Catholic bigotry in the 19th century and identify that with the criticisms coming out today.  This is not nativism, but just secularist prejudice that offends equally against Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox alike.  Prof. Loconte’s point would also be a lot stronger if Kevin Phillips were not a secular Republican who doesn’t much like evangelicals and other religious conservatives in the GOP.  Like Andrew Sullivan (who is responsible for the ghastly, the appalling, the stupid label of “Christianist”) or Ryan Sager or other prophets of fundamentalist doom appearing in the GOP, he is conventionally aligned on the right but is not terribly interested in being on the right hand of God, so to speak (and even less interested in bringing God into politics).  It is true that most of the hysterical warnings about impending theocracy have come from committed liberals and Democrats, which is obvious and which is totally and completely off the subject at hand, which is whether or not evangelicals and religious conservatives have real influence in the GOP and this administration.  Are they being played for suckers, or not?  Prof. Loconte attempted to answer this the first time around, but then after a rather vigorous hiding by Ms. Sullivan he had to make for the safer, higher ground of screeching about liberal intolerance against and paranoia about Christians, which is well-known and which tells us nothing about the influence of religious conservatives, evangelicals or Christians generally on the current administration, the GOP or even the conservative movement broadly defined. 

As if to prove Ms. Sullivan’s point that the GOP hasn’t really got very much real to offer these folks, Prof. Loconte spends three out of eleven paragraphs in today’s installment summoning the demons of the crazy liberal who despises Christianity in politics and who doesn’t seem to care much for conservative Christians, either.  These people are real; they exist in considerable numbers; they think having “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the establishment clause–what can I say?  They’re rather batty.  But they are also irrelevant to the current debate.  This conclusion, which serves as Prof. Loconte’s last word on the subject, reinforces the impression that the GOP doesn’t have much to offer, except that it is a place where religious people will be ridiculed less than in the other party and will be paid lip service but will, on the things that matter most to them, generally be shunted off to the side and ignored.  In the end, the only thing Mr. Bush or his party can say, and the only thing that Prof. Loconte can say for them is, “Flee Michelle Goldberg and the Democrats!  They are coming for your Bible!”  Conservative Christians have heard all of this too many times before, and they have also seen next to no action on the things near and dear to their hearts, so the question remains whether this political marriage is a good one and whether it has a future based in anything more than fear and loathing of the alternative.

There is another battle royale over the role of theocons and religious conservatives now available at TNR (note the irony that many of the folks at The Corner seem more inclined to fall over themselves to make nice to Heather Mac Donald and her desire to keep religion and conservatism far apart while TNR gives these questions of religious conservatism surprisingly lengthy treatment in these mini-debates), but this time it is on whether evangelicals have succeeded in influencing administration policy and whether they actually draw that much water with the GOP in practical terms.  Joseph Loconte said that, on the whole, yes, they do.  (Hat tip: Rod Dreher) Amy Sullivan is the respondent.  Ms. Sullivan starts off with a zinger:

Based on your opening thoughts here, though, I think I prefer our debates when you’re drinking red wine instead of drinking the Kool-Aid.

But then Ms. Sullivan turns to Linkeresque appeals to public reason:

What conservatives really meant was that questions about a judicial nominee’s position on abortion amount to discrimination based on religious beliefs. That is nonsense. In a pluralistic democracy, it is not sufficient for a public official to base a position purely on religious teachings; he must bring other arguments to bear that are accessible to those who do not share their tradition.

It may be nonsense to speak of “religious tests” in this instance.  This rhetoric comes from the same constitutionally-challenged bunch that thinks that President has inherent powers to do just about anything he pleases in wartime and the same people who believe that filibustering judicial nominees is actually “unconstitutional,” when filibusters are based in Senate rules and can be about anything any Senator wants. (Such judicial filibusters may be “unprecedented,” but at one point the filibuster itself was “unprecedented.”)  It is certainly the case that other people don’t have to put any stock in the ideas of officials who are guided in their deliberations by religious teachings, but I have never been clear on why such a person is obliged to put forward his views in terms that are more “accessible” to those who do not share his fundamental beliefs if that in turn means conceding some basic element of those beliefs or if it means essentially ignoring the decidedly religious nature of that person’s commitments.  The secular person does not have to put his arguments in terms that are more “accessible” to me, nor do I see any reason why he necessarily should have to do so.  Perhaps it might aid in the task of persuasion, but it is not, or ought not to be, a sine qua non of holding office or being confirmed to a position in the judiciary. 

I am curious what it actually means when someone says that an adherent of a tradition should make the tenets derived from that tradition “accessible” to those outside the tradition.  For instance, Christians assume that the claims of the Faith are already eminently reasonable and “accessible” to all because of the basic concord between reason and faith and the reasonableness of Christian moral teachings.  To tell a Christian to make those claims “accessible” to non-Christians doesn’t really mean anything to him.  Perhaps a missionary argument might be made that we ought to express these teachings in an idiom recognisable and familiar to those who are unused to more traditional language, but I don’t think that Christian conservatives can really accept as absolutely necessary the constraints of such requirements of “accessibility” when such requirements presuppose that, say, Christian moral teachings are somehow presently inaccessible to non-Christians.  They are not, and we shouldn’t feel obliged to act as if they are.   

In practice, making these claims “accessible” is usually bound up in talking in terms of rights.  Who has rights, whose rights take precedence, and so on, become the relevant basic questions, and then from there we are treated to lectures on the importance of bad interpretations of the law being taken seriously as precedent.  I started becoming skeptical of using all this “rights” talk in the abortion debate after reading Dr. Fleming’s The Morality of Everyday Life (a superb book that any smart conservative or simply any thoughtful person should have or should at least read), and I am if anything even more skeptical of it now.  Besides the enormous power that such “rights” talk and all expansions of “rights” gives to those who adjudicate disputes, which is undesirable in itself, it assumes an entire society filled with people who vie with one another for recognition of their “rights” when Christian moral teaching presupposes a society full of obligations and commitments of one to another.  To endorse the “rights” regime by speaking in its language and using its assumptions about who we are and how we relate to one another is to validate and accept the war of all against all that it ultimately implies, such that we are forced to imagine that this contestation between, for example, mother and child is somehow the normal state of affairs.  Rather than condemning ideas of autonomy and all their fruits, the Christian in public office is called to speak of the teachings of the Faith as if autonomy were the natural and proper state of human beings when it is considered to be a fundamentally unnatural and disordered state.  In other words, he is forced to accept something he believes to be untrue in order to even gain a hearing, which ultimately forces him to stop speaking. 

But leave this aside for the moment.  Ms. Sullivan digs into Bush, and does so very well:

I think Bush relies on fake problems like nonexistent religious discrimination in order to paint himself as the defender of all things religious–and, more importantly, to scare religious voters into believing it is their Christian duty to keep Democrats out of office. I’m well aware of the left’s shortcomings when it comes to taking seriously many of the concerns of religious Americans.  But Bush hasn’t made the case that he’s the better choice. [bold mine-DL] Instead, he has borne false witness against the left, in the hopes that scare tactics will keep voters from looking too closely at his actual accomplishments on their behalf.   

This is very much my way of thinking about Bush and his supposedly great religiosity.  In my less charitable moments, especially when he would say stupid things about how Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I have referred to him as the Apostate (with apologies to Damon Linker, who actually wants to be called an apostate), which is really unfair, since a great many believing but misguided Christians share this kind of vapid ecumenical outlook.  The point here is actually not whether Mr. Bush himself is a deeply religious, albeit theologically ignorant, man, which by all accounts he is, but whether he uses symbolism and rhetoric to whip religious voters into a frenzy against Democrats mainly to keep them in line and keep them from seeing that they get next to nothing out of the political bargain they are making.  Why do they keep at this charade?  She has an answer for that one, too:

If the scare tactics lose their power, Republicans will have to actually start producing policy results.

And the GOP, which is still in so many ways the GOP of the Eastern Establishment, has no interest in producing policy results or legal rulings that their religious voters really want.  Then Ms. Sullivan zeroes in on the huge blind spot in the current bargain between conservative Christians and the GOP:

What about torture? An impressive collection of religious leaders–including major evangelicals like Rick Warren and Ted Haggard–issued an unambiguous statement opposing torture earlier this year. You like to argue that liberals are trapped in moral relativism and don’t believe in right and wrong, Joe. That doesn’t seem to be the case with torture–it’s Bush who has argued that the morality of torture depends on the circumstance.  

On many, many things, I would insist that liberals are trapped in moral relativism, or have their own code of morality so deeply at odds with traditional norms that it amounts to radical disagreements about what virtue means, but this is one where a lot of conservative Christians have either gone along with the GOP line (”it’s not torture, it’s coercive interrogation!”) or have not spoken against that position.   

And while I remember my own case of war fever well enough to judge not lest I be judged, it’s still the case that conservatives who more or less staked their reputation on championing the invasion of Iraq ought to take a long, hard look in the mirror before they start claiming that the Family Research Council or Richard John Neuhaus killed the GOP’s chances in ‘06. ~Ross Douthat

Ross is entirely right that the piling on of certain rather self-interested parties, who are using the blame-the-theocon argument to explain the ills of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, is excessive and largely misguided.  I say these parties are self-interested because each one that discovers the imaginary nefarious plot of Christians to derail the GOP and conservatism into the ditch of religious extremism already loathed religious conservatives and everything they stood for.  When disaster struck, like a superstitious mob, they have turned on the people whom they already hated and pinned the blame on them regardless of the evidence that an entirely different group of people was really to blame.  Thus people from the “libertarian” wing find that religious conservatives are a mortal danger to the future of the party and the movement, which just happens to make their side look that much better and helps confirm their agenda as the only true agenda.   

To the extent that the war in Iraq is the reason for the GOP’s current misfortunes and the general distortions of conservatism in our time, religious conservatives generally bear little specific blame.  Like only too many conservatives, a lot of them went along with the war, most of them doing so in good faith, if you will, and in the mistaken view that they could trust the government, but they were by and large not the leading, public proponents of the war.  No one, except perhaps Andrew Sullivan, could confuse The Weekly Standard for an outpost of evangelical Christianity and religious “fundamentalism,” and no one would mistake The Wall Street Journal for Theocon Central.  Whatever role Christian Zionists may have played in bolstering the coalition supporting the war, their rhetorical and public contribution to the debate was admittedly minimal.  

The arguments for Iraq were made primarily by secular conservatives who were wedded to ideas of democratisation and military intervention as a means to project power and “values.”  These people included the neoconservatives and a broader base of nationalists who tended to emphasise the projection of power rather than talking about spreading American “values.”  For some, Iraq was a real threat, for others it was an easy target to demonstrate American resolve and power after 9/11 and for still others it was the world-historical tipping point that would change the Near East and the Islamic world.  The first two groups might be forgiven for making mistakes of fact and judgement, but the last group is almost impossible to take seriously or forgive for the delusions they brought into Iraq policy. 

To these would have to be added at least two people who are indeed “theocons” (to the extent that the term means anything) and are prominent theocons at that, namely George Weigel and Michael Novak.  It was Mr. Weigel who wrote the lengthy defense of pre-emption as consistent with just war theory in First Things in what I regard as that magazine’s lowest point, and it was Mr. Novak who went to the Vatican to present the government’s case for the invasion.  Fr. Neuhaus was nowhere nearly so blatant in his support for the war, but support it he did, and it could not have hurt the cause of rallying support for the invasion that three of the more prominent Catholic conservatives in America either openly advocated for it or tacitly endorsed it.  In this they were following the lead of others, but they did follow and they lent their names to the cause.  Now religious conservatives in general should not be blamed because a few prominent religious conservatives supported the invasion, and the label “theocon” is so maddeningly vague that I am still somewhat at a loss as to what people it does and does not include, so I would not be willing to pin much blame on “theocons” generally.  But there certainly were theocons, indeed some of the most recognisable theocons, who defended the invasion as a just and right cause and who were, it seems fairly clear to me, both terribly wrong and responsible for convincing a number of other religious conservatives who should have known better that the war really was just. 

As for the damage some religious conservative causes have done to the GOP, I will say this: they have not done very much damage, but what damage they have done has been memorable and highly public.  The Schiavo case was the best and really only example of something being done strictly out of deference to the religious conservative base, and it was on any number of grounds (constitutional, moral and, yes, religious) appalling and almost certain to alienate even pretty serious church-going, pro-life zealots, to say nothing of those less inclined to take pro-life arguments seriously.  It was also the most prominent example of where religious conservatives really did go rather wild and embarked on the most baffling campaign I think I have ever seen–well, at least since the Gonzales-mania on the right in 2000. 

As I have said in the past, it was my view that Congress’ intervention in this matter was a case of the GOP cynically throwing the religious voters a highly symbolic bone while otherwise starving them of any real concessions or policies that they would favour.  Then, when the religious conservatives complain (as they are now complaining) that the GOP has been ignoring them and neglecting their issues, the party will say, “What about Schiavo?  We went all the way for you people on that one!  Show some gratitude!”  This sort of symbolic gamesmanship is supposed to win support, but I think instead it showed to a lot of religious conservatives just how opportunistic and cynical the party could be. 

Thus religious conservatives received the opprobrium of much of the rest of the nation for this highly publicised stunt (which was what Congress’ intervention amounted to in the end) while reducing the pro-life case to the ridicule extremism always brings on a worthy cause.  They also ended up giving the impression that the GOP Congress took its marching orders from some mythical Religious Right HQ when nothing could be more untrue.  They made their enemies, of whom there are a great many, believe that they were a pernicious, all-powerful force driving the Republican Party, when they were in fact the stepchild of the GOP who occasionally gets the crumbs from the party table and, if he’s very, very good, a conservative Supreme Court justice who says that Roe is the established law of the land.  It is one thing to be feared and loathed for being powerful, and quite another to be much weaker and still be feared and loathed as a major player with tremendous influence.  This is why the religious conservatives can be vilified today with relative ease: because they do not really draw a lot of water in Washington or among a lot of pundits, and because they have never been very effective at punishing their political enemies.  There is almost no cost for a secular or “libertarian” conservative to belittle and blame religious conservatives for their troubles.  There is no disincentive to pinning all of the blame on these people, and it puts a lot of other people who are more responsible for the current debacle at ease.  When the city is on fire, it is much better to follow Nero’s example and blame the Christians than look to the actual causes.  Expect many more such “discoveries” of religious conservative influence after Nov. 7 when the need for a scapegoat will be even more acute. 

I have great hope that what Jesus taught was and is true. ~Andrew Sullivan

He has hope, does he?  Well, isn’t that something!  Presumably it would be too doctrinaire to say that what Jesus taught simply is true with no question of hoping involved.  I have read Sullivan’s book, and I have written up a review of it for Intercollegiate Review that I am about to send in, so I will abstain from commenting in any depth right now.  Let us just say that someone who talks of putting the Gospels or church authority “under scrutiny” has got things rather the wrong way round, when what we are called to scrutinise is nothing other than ourselves first and foremost. 

Imagine being lost in a dark wood with just a map and a flashlight, and thinking that the first order of business is to start banging the flashlight on a rock in order to break it open and see how it works and trying to read the map in the darkness without realising that you have it upside down.  That is Andrew Sullivan’s idea of a rollicking good kind of Christianity.   

Rod Dreher responds to the criticisms leveled by Mark Shea (something roughly similar to this column appeared at his blog about a week ago) about Rod’s conversion post.

Despite the evidence Kuo presents in Tempting Faith, liberals simply don’t believe him. They’ve spent so much time fear-mongering about American theocracy that a book illustrating the opposite simply makes no sense to them. In fact, the real revelation of Kuo’s book is not that the Bushies don’t care about evangelicals; it’s that liberals are too wedded to their views to capitalize on it. ~Amy Sullivan

Yes, if you’ve drunk deep at the well of Michelle Goldberg and Damon Linker, and accepted the notion that the GOP is held hostage by religious conservatives, it would be hard to acknowledge the duplicity of the party that jumps out at a fair number of religious conservatives themselves.  But it is neither convenient nor flattering to think that secular people just like themselves can fashion policies they loathe so much; no, it must be the mythical irrational, Bible-beating yahoos that they already despise who are also the source of their political defeats and the cause of the policies they oppose.  Saying, Die Christen sind unser Unglueck” is so much more appealing than confronting an adversary who is in so many ways like you and who shares many more of your fundamental values than you might be willing to admit.

To criticize the White House or even the president is to criticize, not to commit heresy. The issue people should be considering is whether idolizing politics is heresy. ~David Kuo

Mr. Kuo is quite right in this post that the hysterical, venom-filled attacks (my description) on him from conservative Christians have served largely to prove his point that they are too deeply enmeshed in their loyalty to the All-Father of the GOP (to be clear, that is also my description of the party, not his).  The ranting by some about the “suspicious timing” of the book release in particular betrays their partisanship, their generally paranoid outlook on life and their ignorance about the book business.  You have to have almost Abe Foxman-like delusions of grandeur to think that everything that happens is aimed at the defeat and humiliation of you and yours.   

Of course the publisher (Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster) released it before the election.  Can you imagine how much money they would lose if they released it after the election?  Who would be interested?  Where would they get the free publicity they are now getting?  The publisher may now make a profit, assuming that enough of the people exercised by the claims in the book actually buy the book, while they might well have had to choke on the costs of production had they released the very same book around Thanksgiving or later.  This is the kind of book that people interested in politics and elections buy, so you release it when they demand will be at its peak, the same way that you bring out your snazziest products (be they toys, movies, DVDs, etc.) just in time for Christmas.  For people who are so desperately loyal to the party of the “moneyed interest” as some of Kuo’s attackers are, some of these folks don’t seem to understand even the basic principles of marketing.    

Also, unlike Dreher, I never thought that things would be so much better on the other side of the Tiber.

I wish him the best, really. But I fear that he expects altogether too much from religion. ~Jeremy Lott

As I have mentioned to a few people recently, I have held off from commenting on Rod’s conversion post because I am pretty sure I would have nothing “interesting” to say that would also necessarily be terribly constructive (I know, I know, since when have I been concerned with being constructive?).  I still think that’s true.  However, I am not limiting myself from commenting on at least some parts of others’ responses to that post.

Aren’t there Catholics on both sides of the Tiber?  These days, there might be Muslims, if we are speaking literally, but as far as conversion metaphors go this one is the least impressive I have come across.  Going to Constantinople, okay.  Crossing the Bosphoros (which I would not recommend trying to actually do in today’s Bosphoros if you value your health), perhaps.  Even tap-dancing across the cracking ice at Lake Ladoga would be better, not to mention both more entertaining and polemical at the same time.  But if you “cross the Tiber,” religiously speaking, you haven’t gone anywhere.  

What exactly does it mean to expect “too much” from religion?  If someone expected “religion” to make him breakfast every morning, he would be expecting the wrong kind of thing, certainly, but when you consider what it is that religion, in particularly Christianity, promises it is almost impossible to expect too much from it when what is on offer is deliverance and eternal salvation.  Maybe if you expected salvation and a brand new car, you could be said to expect too much, but in all honesty I don’t know what this means.  It is possible to expect too much from religious people, and many people have done this and become disillusioned afterwards when the people they lionised proved to be all too human or when they discovered that people they trusted committed grievous errors, but to expect meaning, solace and the hope of life eternal is to expect what all Christians are called to expect.  In fact, if we expect any less, we shouldn’t expect to receive very much at all. 

When George Bush has said that America is the light of the world, that is clearly a heretical paraphrase of the true statement that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. And that statement is a heresy. And to persist in that and act upon that belief can only bring about a debacle. ~Prof. James Kurth

Voters should oust congressional Republican leaders because U.S. foreign policy is delaying the second coming of Jesus Christ, according to a evangelical Houston-based preacher. ~Religion News Service (via Beliefnet)

Well, you don’t hear that one every day!

In front of us is an opportunity. For the next twenty-four months candidates for president, congressman, senator, governor, representative, judge, county clerk, and sheriff will be seeking the Christian vote, and our money, and our energy. Every politician needs evangelicals. And like a teenage boy on a date with a beautiful girl, they will say anything and everything to get what they want.

Let’s not give it to them. Let’s tell them we are fasting from politics for a season. ~David Kuo

I have to say that this sounds like a good idea, at least in certain respects.  As a blogger and something of a political junkie, I am only too aware of the potential toll focusing on such things can take on more important priorities in life (he says as he writes on his blog about a political question).  I am not even particularly politically “active” in the sense that Mr. Kuo is talking about, but I can imagine how much more distracting and exhausting actual campaigning and regular activism would be.  Still, I am reluctant to adopt this proposal straightaway, even though I can see a great many advantages to what he proposes.  It seems almost undeniable to me that if Christians in this country put the energy they put into supporting the GOP or this or that ballot initiative or railing about liberal perfidy, they would probably accomplish more in their own communities, would build stronger families and would raise more God-fearing children.  (The story of the conservative Congressman or staffer who goes to D.C. to shore up moral values but ends up wrecking his own marriage in the process has been an all together too common one.)  But I am not certain that we can temporarily suspend our responsibilities as citizens. 

The country will not go to rack and ruin (or at least not much more than it would have anyway) if we sat out for one cycle, but whether or not there would be negative consequences does not answer the question of whether we are free to dissent, that is to sit apart, from politics all together for such a time.  And if we are free to do so, what does oblige us to enter the arena in the first place?  Now the Catholics learn from their Catechism that as “far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (CCC 1915) which comes in the context of having an obligation to work for the promotion of the common good.  To koinon agathon, a concept unfortunately derided of late by some because of its popularity as a phrase among left-liberals (which should make conservatives wonder how they ever allowed these people to hijack the concept in the first place and why there is not a robust conservative understanding of the common good widely known today), is the standard by which Catholics would judge how and when to participate in public life, and it includes the conditions that contribute the most to the fulfillment of our nature and true human flourishing.  If seems clear that if it is plausible that Christians can do more for the common good outside of party politics for a couple years than they can do in the middle of them, they not only can but ought to pursue those other activities with the same zeal with which they have pursued their political goals.  If Christians judge that they can contribute more to the common good through political action, the same obligation to act in the political realm would be there.   

But there is much wisdom to the idea that a man won’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free, as the old saying has it, and that the GOP has to earn the support of conservative Christians before they lend it their support in the future.  Letting them have a taste of what a completely demobilised, disenchanted Christian base would be like for them and what it would mean for their election prospects would bring a number of the party’s leaders to their senses, at least for a short time.  We would need to understand that this would almost certainly ruin the GOP’s chances in 2008 and guarantee a Democratic President.  The simple response to this would be: yes, and what’s your point?  What good has GOP rule been?  Certainly, conservative Christians should be a lot less forthcoming with their support unless they see the chance of some real return on what they are giving.  The parable of the wicked servant should be foremost in the minds of Christians who have been entrusted with even one talent, as I think too many Christians have taken that one talent and, instead of burying it as the wicked servant did, donated it, so to speak, to the local Republican candidate for Congress or a PAC aimed at stopping the godless liberals.  Stopping godless liberals is all well and good, but perhaps there are better ways to use what you have been given.  To ponder the question is not to betray anything.  When the Master comes to make an accounting of what we have done with what we have been given, He may look dimly on frittering away our gifts on something unworthy. 

The advantage of Kuo’s recommended “fast” seems obvious to me because I see how things are in the Orthodox Church in this country, or at least how they have been in my three years as an Orthodox convert in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.  We are, with the exception of a few concentrated areas, too small of a church in America to wield any great influence, and there are numerous jurisdictional boundaries that prevent widespread cooperation across the country, which has many disadvantages for church life but which also has the advantage of making concerted political action by a united front of American Orthodox next to impossible.  Therefore secular politics does not enter into the Church to the degree that it seems to do in other churches, and the kind of cultural warfare that evidently takes place in parish life elsewhere is largely absent.  There is no question of what is to be preached in our parishes.  It has been and will continue to be the Gospel, and homilies almost always are about the Gospel reading.  I have never heard a homily on a contemporary political issue in an Orthodox church.  The closest to something “political” I have ever seen was a moleben for the Orthodox victims at Beslan, which was an entirely appropriate commemoration of deceased Orthodox Christians.  Thus politics does not enter into the equation, and I am able to be united to fellow Orthodox who I happen to know hold sometimes radically different politically views.  It also creates the beginnings of unity in Christ that make it possible to speak intelligently and soberly to one another about these questions and, often enough, we find (especially the green and paleocon Orthodox out there) that we have much more in common politically than we would ever have supposed had we not encountered each other in church. 

I have heard it said that those who do not participate in the fasts of the Church do not participate as fully in the joy of the feast when it finally comes.  Certainly the move between the kenotic work of fasting and the fullness of the feast is a powerful one that has the greatest meaning for those who have faithfully kept the fast.  Moreover, fasting reminds us of the transitory nature of all things here below, it reminds us of the sacrifice and death of the Lord and of the call to die to ourselves, and it is through fasting that we make a few small steps in this denial of ourselves.  As a priest once told us, “Fasting is to be called into the company of the saints.”  In denying the world and the will of the flesh in ourselves through actual fasting, we become more alive to the work of the Spirit and possess more of the mind of Christ.  There is a sense in which the denial of the world represented by renouncing political activity for a time fits very well into this experience of fast and feast in the life of the Church.  Ironically, I fear that Mr. Kuo’s appeal will make the most sense to those of us, like myself, who belong to a church that is not terribly politically active in the first place.  It will unfortunately likely be met with hostility in precisely those churches where it is most needed because it comes from someone who (gasp!) once worked for Democrats in some capacity; in my view, the worst thing that can be said about Mr. Kuo’s political record is that he worked for the Bush administration, but he seems suitably aggrieved by this as well so I won’t hold it against him.     

Naturally, at NRO they are not enthusiastic about this.  Says Ponnuru on Kuo:

Kuo sometimes writes as though they’re [conservative Christians] the only kind of Christians around, which is a bad habit.

It would be a bad habit if Kuo were doing this.  But it seems clear that Kuo doesn’t claim to be addressing all Christians here, but very clearly has targeted this message to Republican-voting, conservative Christians.  The entire context of the post tells you as much.  Ponnuru says that you shouldn’t expect politics to save your marriage (no kidding! I thought that was a recommended method!), which badly misses Kuo’s point about divorce.  The point, surely, is that while evangelicals have, for example, been banging the war drums to stop gay “marriage,” no one has been doing very much that has been successful in creating more stable heterosexual marriages.  While they have been successful in many states in protecting the definition of The Institution of Marriage, real marriages continue to break down at the same rates they have done before.  Surely the real point is that this is far more socially and culturally destructive and also something that churches might well be able to do more about if they weren’t distracted with highly symbolic, oftentimes seemingly irrelevant pitched battles with radical leftists.  The more that the Faith can be understood and embraced as a living, transforming Faith rather than a battle standard in a political conflict, the better.  If I were a GOP flack, I would, of course, be very nervous that that any prominent Christian is saying things like this, because the GOP needs Christians to keep serving as useful idiots and cannon fodder, so to speak, for each election cycle.  It can’t start letting the cannon fodder think too much about whether they should even be in the army. 

Update: Poor David Kuo!  Not only is he getting all the usual grief for being part of an overarching liberal conspiracy to sap our purity of essence (I exaggerate only slightly), but because of links to his blog from Rod Dreher the Con Crunchy hyenas have descended upon his comment section.  If you need confirmation that Kuo’s proposal is an idea whose time has come, just read the comment thread that follows his post. 

David Kuo, a former deputy in the White House Office of the Faith Based Initiative, has taken it upon himself to author a book where he maintains that the Faith Based Initiative falls terribly short of it promise and that White House officials routinely mock prominent Evangelicals describing them as: “nuts, goofy and boorish.” Perhaps, Kuo should take a closer look in the mirror. ~Jason Christy

Mr. Christy’s article has the charitable title of “David Kuo: An Addition to the Axis of Evil.”  I have no particular brief for Mr. Kuo or the “faith-based initiative” idea, which I regard as a dangerous intrusion of the federal government into the work of religious charities and churches and the establishment of an unhealthy dependence of churches and charities on the state.  I am not sorry to see that it has by and large failed.  I do not consider it a proper way of bringing Christian leaven into politics, since it leavens nothing and serves mainly to expand the power of the state. 

But the way that the hacks have brought out the knives against this man for stating the merely obvious (the Bush administration exploits and uses Christian believers, whom they then disparage and belittle as fools in private) is remarkable.  The hatred directed against Mr. Kuo in the article cited above would be inexplicable if the conservative Christians who launch such attacks were seriously concerned about the dangers of political power corrupting a faithful witness to Christ; if their main good is seeing Republican power extended and preserved, the viciousness of the assault makes a little more sense.  In a bitterly ironic conclusion, Mr. Christy writes:

David Kuo forgot one important lesson: Judge not lest ye be judged.  

What a joke!  These ravenous, vicious little men invoke Our Lord when it pleases them but, when a real witness is required, they scurry out of the light while singing hymns to the All-Father that is the GOP.  You will note in Mr. Christy’s article that he nowhere effectively refutes anything that Mr. Kuo has said, but like some spinmeister notes all the money that is being spent, as if this were proof of either good policy or the administration’s good faith.

In other news, David Kuo now blogs at Beliefnet.

I have heard lots of traditional Christians discuss this issue and I have never heard anyone discuss polygamy. Maybe it’s the crowd I run with, people who’ve read a lot of religious history, but what I hear people talking about is the very nature of God in Mormon theology.

They are worried about a P word, but it’s not polygamy. It’s polytheism. (Click here for a flashback to my own interviews with top Mormon leaders on this topic.) The P word then leads to the big concept that the press is going to have to face — the E word.

That word is “exaltation,” and its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was. Thus, there are many worlds, creations or spheres that have their own gods (and the gods have many wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. ~Terry Mattingly, GetReligion

Now the fair-minded liberal, who probably has a Wiccan friend or two, will say, “So what?  Big deal!”  And there might be something to the argument that, just because you believe in a materialistic doctrine of God, hold that Jehovah was more or less a guy just like you once and accept that the lost tribes of Israel somehow made their way over to the Americas (that’s a long way from Assyria, brother), voters have no reason to think that you would be more or less competent in upholding and enforcing the laws of the land than any President at least nominally from a Christian church (note that I take it as axiomatic that Mormons are not Christians in the sense that all other prominent denominations are Christian).  They might regard your beliefs as fairly kooky, but you could at least claim that you follow an all-American religion, which might satisfy some people. 

Nonetheless, if Romney wants to play on his “values” and his “faith,” it becomes relevant and significant what his faith includes and what sort of doctrine the man holds.  When Mormons say that Jesus Christ is their Saviour, they don’t mean the same thing most everybody else does, because they don’t even have the same doctrine of God the Father.  When Mormons talk about deification, this is not a deification by grace through which you become God-like or gods by grace, but you really become a god, one among many, in a manner that seems to me fairly indistinguishable from the way ancient Greeks viewed some of their heroes as having ascended to Olympus.  If I am not mistaken, when deified you can nonetheless remain with your deified family–the family that prays together stays together…for eternity, I guess.  As I understand it, you then get to run your own planet–someone please correct me if I have this wrong.  Mormon attempts to find common ground with other Christians through the doctrine of theosis have been met with, shall we say, skepticism from the Orthodox side and bemusement from the Catholics.  Since the Protestants tend to look down their noses at any kind of deification talk, this line of argument has probably hardly improved the Mormons’ case.  

That is all very significant, and it matters to many Christian people, whether or not it “should” matter to them.  Some people believe that a candidate’s policy views, his credentials and his qualifications should be what determine support for him, and those are the only things that matter.  Maybe, though I’m not convinced.  If we were talking about a Scientologist, no one would hesitate for a second to disqualify him on the basis of his religious affiliation; if there were a chance of a Muslim becoming President, his religion would be the issue.  That is inevitable when a candidate comes from an extreme minority religion or an obscure, little-understood religion that has had, at best, mixed relations with some of the churches in America.  Maybe for wonks and political junkies policies and qualifications things will win out in the end over other considerations.  Certainly evangelicals, if they are honest, have to face up to the fact that getting ”one of their own” elected has not exactly worked out terribly well for anyone, including them.  Maybe a far-out heretic would do better.  It is hard to think how he could do worse! 

But herein lies the problem: no matter what, Romney’s religion requires voters to adopt as their own someone who believes things they will never believe in a million years, and whose every reference to God will remind them that he does not believe in the same God that they worship, the One God in Trinity, uncreated, eternal and unoriginate, but a material deity imagined by a crackpot New York con man who has about as much claim to being a true prophet as Muhammad and suffers from the disadvantage of living in an age of much more copious documentation.  For the secularist who thinks every revelation is a lot of hot air, the disagreement over the finer points will seem perplexing, but for the average Christian it is a no-brainer that there is something fundamentally less rational and less credible about Mormon theology than is the case with any rival Christian confession.  

But on the question of policies and qualifications, Romney is not obviously a winner, either.  I have not heard very much from old Mitt that makes me want to run down to the Romney ‘08 headquarters and sign up.  So far, I know that he signed into law an atrocious universal health-care bill in Massachusetts and he has engaged in megalomaniacal posturing over Khatami’s recent visit to Harvard; he has, I believe, used the hated word Islamofascist, which makes me regard him as less intelligent than I would have otherwise.  Oh, yes, he was in favour of permitting abortion before he was against it, which fills the average conservative’s heart with hope, I’m sure.  This is allegedly the theocons’ main guy?  For a vast conspiracy allegedly aimed at overthrowing the liberal order these guys really need to pick more electable candidates! 


Today the faithful celebrate the feast with joy illumined by your coming, O Mother of God.  Beholding your pure image we fervently cry to you: “Encompass us beneath the precious veil of your protection; deliver us from every form of evil by entreating Christ, your Son and our God that He may save our souls.”


Today the Virgin stands in the midst of the Church and with choirs of saints she invisibly prays to God for us. Angels and bishops worship, apostles and prophets rejoice together, since for our sake she prays to the pre-eternal God. 


We magnify thee, O all-immaculate Mother of Christ our God, and we honor thy labors and thy precious omophorion, for the holy Andrew beheld thee in the air, entreating Christ for us.

On the origin of the Feast, see here.

Presvyataya Bogoroditsa, Tya Velichaem! 

Panagia Theotokos, Soson Emas! 

Presvyataya Bogoroditsa, Spasi Nas!

The Democrats made gains across all groups in the October poll compared to the averages in previous months. But the Democratic gain (or Republican loss depending on how one looks at it) is more significant among religious whites than among the other two groups. Religious whites went from an average Democratic disadvantage of 23 points across the June through September months, to dead even in October. Less religious whites shifted only seven points across these two time periods, while the group of “all others” shifted 9 points.

A comparison of the September average to October shows a 22-point gain for the Democrats among white frequent churchgoers, a six-point gain among white less frequent churchgoers, and a 14-point gain among all others.

The comparison between religious whites and less religious whites is particularly revealing. The gap between these two groups averaged 42 points in the June through September period, and is now down to 26 points. ~Gallup

Via Andrew Sullivan

This is pretty stunning.  The Democrats have been banging the “progressive Christian” drum and talking about the importance of “faith” for the past two years, but this hadn’t moved the numbers significantly among frequent church-goers.  They have moved back and forth by a few points here and there, but never made any substantial gains.  Barack Obama could give speeches about how the Democrats needed to reconnect with “people of faith” (note to Democratic speechwriters: when you want to appeal to “people of faith,” don’t use weasel language like ”people of faith”), but nobody seemed to be listening.  They talked among themselves on their blogs and journals: “How can we trick enough Christians into voting for us with the kinds of cynical rhetorical appeals that have always worked for the Republicans?”  For some reason, this kind of talk did not inspire enthusiasm for the Democrats. 

Then came Mark Foley, the grinning pederast of Palm Beach (I’m sorry, I mean “virtual pederast”), and the bumbling GOP response to the scandal (”Uh…blame the Democrats!  No, blame the media!  No, blame the terrorists!”).  In a recent conversation I made a remark, “This Foley thing seems like some kind of divine retribution.”  Apparently the faithful saw the sign and believed that there was some sort of punishment being sent down from the Most High, because if this Gallup poll (+/-3% margin of error) is correct many of them are fleeing the GOP this cycle at a simply stunning rate in the last two months.  Between August and the first week of October the GOP dropped 15 points among “religious whites” (defined as “whites who self-report attending church weekly or almost every week”) at the same time the Dems gained 14 points, bringing them to a neck-and-neck 47%  Does anyone know of the last time something like this sort of rapid collapse happened this close to an election among one of a party’s most reliable groups of supporters?  It seems pretty unusual to me, and I have followed elections pretty closely for at least the last eight years.  So much for the great “theocratic” juggernaut that was coming to destroy us all. 

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports a poll that includes this interesting item:

When asked about recent Capitol Hill scandals involving charges of corruption and sexual improprieties, 64% said they believed those activities were the just the “tip of the iceberg,” compared with 25% who believed they were “isolated incidents.”

Whether or not it really is the “tip of the iceberg,” a sizeable majority thinks that it is, and perception is reality.  Tellingly, the “tip of the iceberg” folks included 49% of Republicans.  Tony Blankley and other Republicans who called on Hastert to resign are looking pretty smart right now; Hugh Hewitt (he of the “donate now to the RNC to fight the vast left-wing conspiracy” approach to this scandal’s politics)…well, Hugh Hewitt remains Hugh Hewitt.  After the Year of Corruption it would be hard to credit that the latest scandal does not represent a deeper disorder in Congress.  In any case, the Goppers made no real effort to stop the political bleeding; they wasted so much of their energy and attention freaking out about George Soros’ evil designs that they put almost no effort into damage control and making amends.  So confident were they that their voters would blame Foley and only Foley for the mess that they missed something important about their voters: these people aren’t stupid and they don’t follow blindly, whatever GOP elites may think about them, and they actually hold people in positions of authority responsible for their failures.

Hastert’s speech in front of a cemetery was a fitting statement on the whole mess.  He might as well have been saying, ”I come not to praise the mighty GOP, but to bury it.”  Indeed, the inept handling of the scandal has very likely buried them. 

Yes, but the secularist overreaching hasn’t actually succeeded in turning the U.S. into Europe, or anything close. If it did, though - well, Daniel accuses me of threatening Linker with an empowered, nuclear-armed Daniel Larison, but what I really meant to threaten him with was myself, the patriotic Catholic Christian who generally accepts the liberal bargain, at least as I understand it, despite having doubts about liberalism’s ultimate philosophical compatibility with my faith. If you ask me to choose between God and the liberal order, because that’s what the liberal bargain supposedly requires, I’ll choose God every time. ~Ross Douthat

I think I see where I was mistaken.  When Ross earlier warned about Linker “vindicating” Christians and secularists who believe in the opposition of the Faith and liberalism, he was saying that if the “liberal bargain” really were as narrow and limited as Linker makes it out to be Linker would have succeeded in vindicating such arguments in Ross’ eyes.  Linker would have proven these different critics of the bargain correct, forcing faithful Christians (previously friendly to what they thought the bargain was) to seek refuge elsewhere.  As interesting as the prospect of a “nuclear-armed Daniel Larison” might be (I hereby renounce the first use of such weapons, in case anyone was worried), I see that Ross’ point was simply that Linker’s conception of the “liberal bargain” could radicalise even those who are willing to embrace a more expansive definition of the bargain. 

Elsewhere, I see that Ross’ debate at TNR received some notice and some words of approbation at First Things itself.  Not surprisingly, Michael’s remarks and my posts were met with rather less enthusiasm.  Here is Neuhaus, who is referring to the posts linked in this Ross Douthat post:

Following the links from the above, you will note that some of the comments assume that my colleagues and I at First Things are trying to “baptize” the liberal tradition by equating our constitutional order with Catholic doctrine. That is far from the truth, as any thoughtful reader of First Things knows. Between God and Caesar, there are deep and perduring tensions, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory, at which point all Caesars will be dethroned.  

But neither Michael nor I have said the things attributed to us.  Not exactly.  Michael wrote:

My own view is that this attempt to baptize modern liberalism is misguided. Like Daniel Larison, I hold out American small r-republicanism up a productive political model. There is no reason, historical or theological to turn mixed constituionalism into anything more than a wise and practical political form. There is no reason to believe that modern liberalism is ordained in some special way by God. We don’t have to believe this in order to remain sane participants in civil society. But for some reason, certain Catholic neoconservatives and certain West Coast Straussians believe we do. I would say that they are promoting an ideology, not Catholic truth or (to use an ugly phrase) gospel liberalism.

Michael did refer to the baptism of liberalism, which is at least partly metaphorical.  He did not claim, and, so far as I remember, I have never exactly claimed that theocons “equate” “our constitutional order with Catholic doctrine.”  If I ever did say that, I would have been badly overstating my case.  No one, so far as I know, has talked of theocons’ engaging in any such equation of the two.  I have referred before to ”equating the “law of nature” with Catholic natural law tradition,” which seems to me to be rather different from equating our constitutional order with Catholic doctrine.  Perhaps that statement of mine could stand to be refined, and perhaps that statement is inaccurate, but it does not match with Neuhaus’ description.  At bottom, I “reject the presumption that unless one can concoct an elaborate theory of ideological compatibility between philosophy inspired by the Faith and liberal political philosophy that militates against basic truths of the Faith Christians are somehow necessarily opposed to or alienated from the political regime of their home country.”   

We do say that there is an attempt to link or associate the political liberalism of ”the Founding” with Catholic natural law teaching.  I have elsewhere observed that there is a similar attempt among the Straussians as they try to understand different conceptions of natural law as essentially one unbroken, continuous tradition in Western thought (a tradition, of course, only fully understood by the genius that was Lincoln).  But leave them aside for the moment.  With respect to the theocons’ basic project, it seems to me, we are in agreement with Ross Douthat, according to what he said in part of his response to Linker:

But, for the most part, I suspect that you believe that the attempt to link the American Founding to the Catholic natural-law tradition–which is at the heart of the “theoconservative project,” insofar as there is one [bold mine-DL]–marks a greater departure from America’s supposed secular ideal than did the God-soaked politics of, say, Bryan or King. 

Now perhaps Ross has it all wrong and is not a “thoughtful reader of First Things,” but I don’t think so.  As I would have thought my latest entries against Linker should have made clear, I am perfectly aware that theocons acknowledge “tensions” between God and Caesar (they would surely have no credibility if they did not acknowledge such “tensions”), but the “tension” between God and Caesar does not really address the question at hand.   

I object to the claim that there is some basic compatibility and harmony between Enlightenment liberal understandings of natural law and their Catholic/Christian equivalents.  As readers of Eunomia are aware, I don’t think there is any such compatibility between Enlightenment liberalism and Christianity generally because of the opposition of their basic assumptions about human nature.  I object to investing liberal rights language with the weight of theological claims, not least because theories of natural rights tend to be subversive of hierarchies and because they detract from a theocentric understanding of our existence. 

I have assumed one of the basic claims made by “theocons” is that there is such a compatibility and liberal rights language is significantly compatible with Christian ideas of justice and human dignity.  According to this view, so I have thought, Christians can embrace the liberal tradition in this country and its assumptions about man and society because that tradition is fundamentally in agreement with Christian teachings.  Stripped of its Continental anticlericalism and fanaticism, I understand the theocons to be saying, Enlightenment liberalism makes claims about natural rights that were sufficiently in agreement with the Faith that there is no cause for Christians to look askance on the liberal tradition.  Because Christians understand the transcendent origin of the rights of man, they are better-fitted to defend an order supposedly built up around those rights than others.  Furthermore, as I understand the argument, because this tradition is compatible with natural law arguments found in the Christian tradition, it is not only possible but imperative for Christians to be active in public affairs and also imperative for the liberal society to allow them to bring religion into the public square because it is not only relevant but essential to the survival of a healthy liberal order for them to do so. 

For my part, I don’t think most of the claims of substantial agreement between Christianity and liberalism hold up under scrutiny, and I don’t believe that such an agreement needs to exist for two reasons: one, we do not need to reconcile ourselves to a Lockean synthesis to defend the ancient, mixed constitution, and, two, we do not need an elaborate philosophical architecture to justify the participation of religious believers in the affairs of the commonwealth.  That is, in a summary form, how and why I object to the “theoconservative project,” which I do not believe I have ever claimed involved the equation of the constitutional order with Catholic doctrine (indeed, I am not even sure what that would mean).

Neuhaus concludes his post thus:

In the forthcoming November issue of First Things, I explain why a writer in Time is quite wrong to be worried by the fact that so many Christians in America say they are Christians first and Americans second. The right ordering of their loves and loyalties is what makes them, contra the proponents of the naked public square, better Americans.

This is noteworthy, if only because I just wrote something to very much the same effect earlier this week.

Why is it that you, like the theocons I examine and criticize in my book, seem so terrified of the American republic falling short of Christ-like perfection? Why is it not enough that the United States be a good and decent country among good and decent countries? Why is it not enough for you and other pious Christians to enjoy the freedom to worship and pray and proselytize in peace? Why, despite your own better judgment, do you so steadfastly resist seeking your salvation outside of politics? Why do you insist on identifying the fate of your soul with the fate of your country? ~Damon Linker

There were many ways Linker could have ended his debate with Ross.  He could have ended it with civility or grace or wit.  Instead he ended it with a heavy-handed, appallingly condescending lecture that does not simply question the intellectual project of theocons or Ross’ defense of religious conservative politics, but which actually presumes to say that Ross is some immanentising, chiliastic nationalist heretic.  I have my problems with the theocons, including what I consider to be their unfortunate tendency in certain cases to privilege the policy of the government over the admonitions of their bishops, but this attack crosses the line.  It’s on now, as they say. 

Ross made some pointed arguments and scored some hard hits against Linker, which must have been frustrating for his opponent, but he never stooped so low or directed his attack against the man.  It is always a sure sign of a man who has been beaten that he goes for the cheap shot at the end in a final act of retribution.  No wonder our political discourse is in such a shambles, when a reasonably intelligent, polite debate such as this one was has to end on such a dreadful note.

The first question is the most obnoxious.  I am one of the harsher critics of First Things and their general project, but accusing them of wanting to bring ”the American republic” to Christ-like perfection is absurd.  They do not expect any such perfection in this world, and whatever I think of their attitudes towards liberalism no one could really accuse them of this kind of utopianism and chiliasm, at least not in the way that Linker has here.  This is the kind of stock insult that I would expect from someone like Andrew Sullivan, forever prating on about Christianist-this and fundamentalist-that, but not from someone who claims to know something at first hand about First Things.  Obviously he cannot have read much of Ross’ work if he attributes such a ridiculous view to him. 

Also quite annoying was this line:

Why is it not enough for you and other pious Christians to enjoy the freedom to worship and pray and proselytize in peace?

But Christians are not left to pray and proselytise in peace.  They are driven from public institutions, public scenes and public venues.  They can proselytise and pray, so long as they stay in their metaphorical closets and say nothing about the affairs of the commonwealth and do not openly pray in any government building.  Relatively few Christians in the West since the Peace of the Church have ever put up with such obnoxious restrictions on and stigmas against their involvement in the life of the commonwealth.

But the worst comes at the end when he says:

Why, despite your own better judgment, do you so steadfastly resist seeking your salvation outside of politics? Why do you insist on identifying the fate of your soul with the fate of your country?

This is as grievous an insult to a serious Christian as there is.  We might as well ask why Linker has joined forces with Satan, which he would probably find quite offensive–that is approximately how offensive this question is to a faithful Christian.  There are modern political religions that offer a kind of this-worldly salvation, but no Christian conservative actually believes that he will achieve his salvation through politics.  Some Christian conservatives, including theocons, may make poor choices, bad arguments or the wrong commitments, but to say that they seek their salvation in politics is the ugliest kind of an attack on Christians that you can make.  I may have no time for their politics, but I do not presume to know that they do not earnestly seek salvation in Christ.  The fate of Ross’ soul is in God’s hands, and I don’t presume that he identifies it with the fate of his country any more than most any other sane, reasonable Christian ever has.  This accusation is not just insulting, but completely bizarre.  It has no foundation in anything Ross has said during this debate.  It has no foundation in much of anything, excerpt perhaps the perfervid imagination of Mr. Linker. 

Update: As if on cue, Andrew Sullivan cites the same quote, names it one of his “quotes of the day” and says:

Linker nails it in these few paragraphs…

So, frankly, I’m unsure what to conclude from this little debate. I will simply note how perplexing I find your own concluding remarks–about how my construal of the liberal bargain is dangerous because it might vindicate those “Christians and secularists alike” who have contended that there is a tension, sometimes requiring that a choice be made, “between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar.” Funny, I thought it was Christ himself who pointed to just such a tension at the core of the human condition. ~Damon Linker

But, of course, Ross didn’t say “tension.”  This is what he said:

…it’s also dangerous to liberalism, because it vindicates those people–Christians and secularists alike–who have always said that faith and liberalism aren’t compatible and that everyone need to choose between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar.

There’s tension and then there’s incompatibility.  A man and a woman have tension in their relationship without necessarily being perpetually at odds with each other.  Incompatibility is the state of natural opposites or even mortal enemies.  What Ross was warning against, I think, was the victory of the sort of argument that there is no common ground between the Faith and liberalism; in this argument, the two are irremediably opposed because of fundamental differences of understanding human nature, society, and, of course, the place of religion in society.  I tend to believe this.  Ross does not quite believe it, or seems to hold out hope for some common ground.  But the point is surely that Ross wants to keep alive a relationship between the two, in spite of the occasional tension, the bickering, the odd thrown vase, while Linker wants a clearly delimited arrangement in which adherents of the Faith can operate more or less freely but have little or no influence on political life.  I would prefer trial separation leading to divorce–assuming, of course, that the two were ever really joined in the first place.  What Ross was really talking about was not the Dominical teaching about the distinction between things of God and things of Caesar, or things of heaven and things of earth, but much more basically a question of whether the Faith and a liberal order premised on indidivual rights and contract theory fit together or not.  In forcing the issue, Linker threatens, so Ross suggests, to lend legitimacy to the arguments of the real reactionaries and the hard-core secularists who want the Faith and liberalism to have nothing to do with each other.  This is presumably something Linker does not want, since he already regards theocons as reactionaries and dangers to liberalism–imagine what he would say about someone like me!

This is one more tired attempt to dress up secularism as a modest defense of the idea of the Two Cities, when it is nothing of the kind.  It is manifestly a declaration of the supremacy of the City of Man in the affairs of men, and that’s all there is to it.  Attempts to encroach on the claims of the earthly City will be viewed very negatively, and it is for this reason, and I think probably this reason alone, that Linker attacks the theocons so strenuously.   

Treating the cultural revolution of the ’60s as something planned or controlled or directed by some powerful and sinister ideological force is commonplace on the right. But it is a fiction.  (Though it is a very useful fiction, since it serves as a politically beneficial rallying cry for right-wing populist discontent with various social and cultural trends.) But it distorts our understanding of what really happened in those years. The relaxation of sexual taboos, the rise of youth culture, women’s liberation, the breakdown of the authoritarian-patriarchal family structure and its replacement by more egalitarian arrangements–there have been positive and negative consequences of these and many other social-cultural changes over the past several decades. But they were not planned or controlled, certainly not politically. (Just as there was no bohemian Comintern directing the quite similar cultural revolutions that took place all over the free world at roughly the same historical moment.)  ~Damon Linker

First, let me congratulate Ross on his ability to participate in a debate at a magazine that describes the ongoing debate with the title on its main page: “Are Christians at odds with democracy?”  Not even Linker at his most theocon-paranoid would ask such a ridiculous question (the question begs more questions–which Christians are we talking about?), so it impresses me that Ross has soldiered on in an atmosphere almost uniquely unfriendly to his perspective and acquitted himself admirably.  Ross and I have a few disagreements, but in the end we both recognise rather unhinged secularism when we see it, and I’m sorry to say that Mr. Linker is a representative of just such a secularism.

Now to the Linker claim above.  Ross has made a point in the past of specifically not attributing massive social and cultural changes that reached their crescendo in the ’60s on liberal intellectuals organising a revolution guided by a single ideology.  He is not the cardboard cutout of a Christian conservative that Linker still seems to think he is.  First of all, he is clearly too smart to have fallen into the trap of believing that broad social change is ever planned.  Basic common sense and a conservative appreciation for the complexity of human societies would tell him that this is virtually impossible.  Frankly, only social engineers, progressives prominent among them, even think that social change ought to be directed or planned according to ideological guidelines, or even that it is possible.  But that does not mean that the social engineers and intellectuals are ever actually in control, or that the transformation of cultures necessarily stems from their meddling.  They tend, on the whole, to magnify or exacerbate ongoing developments for the worse, but no one serious, on the right or elsewhere, thinks that social upheaval is planned.  Surely one of the reasons why conservatives are unnerved by upheaval is that it is chaotic and disorderly, without any clear direction or organising principle.  So right away Linker is boxing Ross into a stereotype that he, more than many Christian conservatives, does not fit.  Before he even gets to the substance of his response, such as it is, he has shown a tendentious and rather condescending streak that does him no credit.  He says to Ross, “Look, my boy, you seem to think that some sinister left-wing Blofeld was compelling people to use contraceptives through his mind control devices, and I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong!”  This is supposed to be persuasive? 

That said, did an ideology of emancipation and liberation prevail in this period?  Did it or did it not encourage, legitimise and empower all of the forces of dissolution then in ascendance?  Or are we supposed to believe that, because many of these changes took place as part of the transformation of private life, the “nonpolitical” spheres of life were left untouched by the adherents of the “liberal bargain”?  Has Linker not actually tried to seal off hermetically the “liberal bargain” from any negative social and cultural consequences that might be laid at the door of left-liberal ideas?  Isn’t his recourse to the allegedly noncomprehensive liberal view, in fact, a way to duck responsibility for the negative consequences of past secularist troublemaking?

Naturally, if I were on the side of the forces of subversion I would want to insist that there was no real subversion going on.  No one was actually trying to overthrow established mores and norms.  It just sort of happened!  It’s just “change.”  This doesn’t say much of Linker’s understanding of agency in history.  But it also takes away the theocons’ claim of being defenders.  No, they are not defending against the aggression of the subversives.  They are (gasp!) reactionaries!  He says so right here:

But the theocons look far less admirable in the light of reality, which shows them to be reactionaries incapable of coming to terms with the developmental logic of societies devoted to freedom.  

Well, no.  In fairness to the theocons, whom I have given a rather hard time over the past two years, they refuse to allow freedom to be defined acccording to the tiresomely selfish and passion-soaked values of secularists, just as they elsewhere refuse to allow reason to be reduced to the most meager of instrumental faculties deprived of any higher inspiration or illumination.  Just as they refuse to let reason be reduced to its barest minimum, they refuse to let human freedom be defined according to the deficient standards of self-will and choice.  Whether their entire vision with respect to liberalism is consistent with this is another question, but once again to say that they cannot come to terms with the “developmental logic” of free societies is to reduce them to a caricature and refute the caricature.  The use of the loaded term reactionary is telling.  No one serious can call Fr. Neuhaus et al. reactionaries.  As a reactionary, I disavow their claims to reaction, and I am confident that they want nothing to do with people like me.  What is so strange about this entire debate is that Neuhaus and Co. inhabit what seems to me to be a halfway house that makes room for liberalism on certain, important conditions.  Linker wants unconditional acceptance of the liberal order as he defines it; unconditional surrender is what he desires from the theocons.  Until they offer such a surrender to his vision of the “liberal bargain”–a bargain to which they are committed just as much as he is in their way–he will cast them as the blackest of reactionaries, fundamentalists with a view to wreck our entire political system.  I might note that Linker here replicates nothing so much as a reverse image of the caricature of the conservative view of the ’60s as “ideologically driven transformation.”  He sees the rise of the Christian right as just such an “ideologically driven transformation,” he casts the theocons as the central villains of the piece and assures us that they are here to break with all precedents and overturn the existing order–which is, according to him, what we say about secular liberals of decades past.  Whether we actually say this or not is immaterial; he has already called such a view ridiculous, and so indicts himself with his own attack.

What Pew actually did over two weeks in May was ask 820 self-identifying American Christians “Do you think of yourself first as American or as Christian?” And in this case, 42% of Christians did actually answer “Christian first.” Another 48% answered “American first,” while 7% ducked and said they thought of themselves as both.

Not surprisingly, the “Christian first” response emanated disproportionately from self-identified Evangelicals, 62% of whom said “Christian first.” By contrast, the figures for other major Christian sectors were nearly reversed, with 62% of Catholics and 65% of Mainline Protestants saying “American first”.

To some, the 42% “Christian first” number will seem a shocking bit of data. It certainly seems to be a new one. As far as Pew knows and I have been able to determine, nobody ever asked the “Christian or American?” question before. Perhaps that’s because it’s divisive on the face of it, almost un-American: why should anyone have to choose between his faith and his nationality? Doesn’t the very query assume some sort of nefarious loyalty test, or hint at a fifth-column movement? And what would be the criteria for choosing? Why are you taking us down this road? ~David Van Biema, Time

Via Ross Douthat

I think I must owe Ross a drink for pointing out this hilarious article.  What a hoot!  (I also appreciate the generous link to my latest theocon post, about which I will have more another time.)  I suppose if I believed the nation was “built on the separation of church and state” as Mr. Van Biema does, I would also be somewhat distressed at these results.  Happily, I do not believe any such thing, and I am left pondering what the other 48% might be thinking when they identify as Americans first.  Goodness knows I appreciate the principle of America First when it comes policy and politics, but how is it that a properly catechised Christian (I know, that’s quite an assumption right there) would believe that his loyalty or identity is first to a land or kingdom of this world?  I can understand why there would be some residual hesitation on the part of Catholics to give priority to their Christian identity, since American Catholics have gone to quite a lot of trouble over the last century and a half to convince their neighbours that they are good Americans and have had to put up with quite a lot of criticism asserting the contrary.  But what other answer can a Christian give?  There is no question of necessarily choosing between faith and nationality–it is a question of ordering priorities in a hierarchy, in which religious commitment and faith take precedence for Christians, as you would expect.  This does not cancel out patriotism or national loyalty, and can even serve to bolster and confirm such feelings in a way that does not have to give wild-eyed nationalism or chauvinism religious justification, and it is not a case where one must choose one or the other.  The only thing divisive about any of this is the reaction to the result, in which Mr. Van Biema first takes us through a tour of similarly worded polls used to gauge Muslim sentiments (for many secular reporters, religion is religion is religion, and the content thereof is irrelevant) and then responds to a statement of the classic opposition between the Kingdom and the world with an almost self-parodying comment:

Well, that was then… But where, I asked, might a contemporary Christian’s interest diverge from an American’s?

I’m pretty sure Mr. Van Biema really didn’t get the point of the lesson, which is that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).  In that sense, you could have a fine, old Christian empire and it would still be imperative to understand that your primary loyalty as a Christian is to Christ and the Church and not to the emperor and the empire.  We are, after all, only sojourning here below.  It isn’t even necessarily a question of “interests,” though if the state intrudes upon matters of faith or becomes an abominable tyranny that would change things considerably.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Van Biema declares himself uninterested in theologically-defined “meta-citizenship.”  And he was so close to passing his meta-citizenship test!    

If you’re the arbiter of what the liberal bargain means, then I want no part of it. The American experiment has succeeded for so long precisely because it doesn’t force its citizens channel their “theological passions and certainties … out of public life and into the private sphere.” It forces them to play by a certain set of political rules, yes, which prevent those passions and certainties from creating a religious tyranny. But it doesn’t make the mistake of telling people that their deepest beliefs should be irrelevant to how they vote, or what causes they support. The kind of secularism that you’re promoting–and that Neuhaus and the rest of the “theocons” were originally reacting against–is an attempt to change those rules and impose greater restrictions on religious Americans than have heretofore existed. This isn’t just blinkered, unfair, and contrary to the actual American tradition of how religion and politics interact; it’s also dangerous to liberalism, because it vindicates those people–Christians and secularists alike–who have always said that faith and liberalism aren’t compatible and that everyone need to choose between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar. And, if you force Americans to make that choice, I’m not sure you’ll be happy with the results. ~Ross Douthat

Ross’ second installment at TNR in his theocon debate with Damon Linker, whose first installment is here, knocks down the fairly weak ripostes that Linker had offered and then proceeds to grind them into the ground.  At least for the most part.  The more I think about it, the less I am persuaded by the basic theocon claim that a liberalism that  cannot be informed by religious, and particularly Christian, ideas is in danger of failing.  I am even less persuaded that liberalism will be endangered because secularism will end up empowering those voices on both sides (like mine?) that preach hostility between the Faith and liberalism. 

If empowering people like me (and whoever my opposite number among the secularists might be) is the great danger to liberalism posed by Linker’s secularist overreaching, Linker can probably sleep soundly, since 50 years (at least) of secularist overreaching has typically empowered precisely those religious conservatives who keep insisting on what good liberals they are, how much they want to play by the rules and how important they are to liberalism’s survival.  As Ross knows, American Christians are perfectly content with the liberal order (though they will object to a thousand and one policies or legal rulings within that order), because it is the only kind they have ever known and indeed the more intensely Christian Americans are the more they (typically) invest the American system of government and political culture with quasi-religious significance.  Actual anti-liberal Christians are as rare as gold in this country, not least because so many Christians have persuaded themselves that America is a “Christian country,” and not just in a historical-cultural sense, which causes them to intellectually bend themselves into pretzels to demonstrate the religious origins of the Union.  The “Christian country” spiel is just the “proposition nation” claim for people who go to church, and is just about as substantial, but it is very effective in keeping people on board with the project. 

American Christians have seen Christianity excluded from the public square more and more each decade, and have mustered by and large limited resistance to this trend.  Who now fights for prayer in school–not a minute of silence, not “one nation under God” hokum, but actual prayer?  To ask the question is to acknowledge the extent of the defeat.  In fact, you would be fairly hard-pressed to find a religious conservative today who would lament this development in print.  Unlike Christians in fights with liberalism in Europe–which the liberals tended to lose in the early decades when they provoked the Christians about vital issues pertaining to education or social policy–American Christians are locked into some form of liberalism and, through the work of theocons, have developed an entire argument for why they are basically not only in harmony with this liberalism but are the essential protectors of it.  

They cannot mount an effective counterattack on the ravages of secularism, because they are so committed to the procedural rules of the game to which they constantly appeal in arguments with secularists, while the secularists have no scruples about altering the political and legal landscape through ever-more outrageous and preposterous readings of the law.  Each time they change the rules, religious conservatives cry foul but then set about convincing themselves that they must abide by the new rules.  If this is the backlash against secularism and liberalism, I would hate to see what accommodation looks like.  More to the point, if this is what has resulted from half a century of galloping secularism, the secularists have nothing to fear from any more serious backlash in the future.  Seen this way, the theocons are certainly not laying siege to secular America, which appears here as an entirely ludicrous claim, but might as well be opening the gates to the secularists with their half-hearted, “We’re Christians, but we love liberalism!” defense.

Ross’ final remark is a kind of appeal to the mob, in which the religious conservative warns the secularist that if he does not grant religious folks full participation under the rules of the game then the religious folks might just start listening to the Thomas Muentzers of the world and decide that they absolutely prefer Christ to the Republic (on the whole, I suspect Christians do prefer Christ to the Republic, but not to the necessary exclusion or detriment of the latter).  In other words, talking about theocons besieging secular America is crazy, alarmist talk…for the moment.  As I read this, Ross seems to be saying that the Neuhausian detente with liberalism and the involvement of religious Americans in politics more generally help to prevent a religious majority from rising up and destroying a secular liberal order, which they might otherwise do if this happy middle ground broke down.  Religious Americans are good liberals, unless you push them too far, so Linker would be advised not to do too much pushing.  That doesn’t seem likely to set the secularist at ease about the potential threat that he sees.

This seems to be an odd way to end an otherwise compelling argument.  Perhaps the spectre of a more extreme religious politics would make the mild-mannered theocons seem less terrifying and would convince Linker that it could be a lot worse than Neuhaus et al. and he could learn to live with them, “religiously informed public philosophy” and all.  Yet it is odd that Ross ends his contribution by playing on the very irrational fears of religious politics that he has spent the entire debate dismissing as, well, irrational and unfounded.          

By the way, Michael also gets into the mix this morning and makes a particularly good observation:

Linker is stumbling here as I think it is very difficult to deduce exactly what John Paul II taught on this matter - but he is right that the Church and Churchmen like Neuhaus have staked out a precarious and novel position that I’d like to call “semi-traditionalism” - if that weren’t such an awkward term. There has been an uneven tradition, embodied perhaps first by Orestes Brownson, of lashing together a form of enlightenment liberalism to Catholic natural law teaching. It should be explored in depth sometime, without Damon Linker’s “heavy breathing” or even the rhetorical demands of a debate held by the New Republic.

Cross-posted at Enchiridion Militis


Ross Douthat pens a solid challenge to Damon Linker at a debate hosted by TNR and pretty much covers all the bases you could want.  He hits Linker for the inconsistency of tone, by turns scholarly and alarmist, the book’s overreaching thesis (secular America is DOOMED!) and the nationalist (dare we call it nativist?) refrains about an “alien ideology” corrupting the national tradition.   

As one inclined to view at least certain kinds of theocracy in a good light, and perhaps as one of the “heirs” to “the old throne-and-altar European right” (personally, I prefer symphoneia as a concept to Thron und Altar, but we reactionaries have to be broad-minded about our differences) that does not care much for the Christianity-fortified liberalism of Neuhaus et al., I thought I might offer a few remarks to supplement what was generally a very satisfying and thorough thrashing of Mr. Linker. 

Worthy of mention is that a friend of Eunomia, Prof. Arben Fox, also receives favourable mention in Ross’ treatment for his remarks on Theocons.  It is in connection with Fox’s reading of the critique in Theocons, which I think offers the best explanation of what Linker is trying to accomplish in his attack on the theocons, that Ross takes the easiest route to polemical victory and makes a charge that doesn’t hold up quite as well as the rest of his contribution.  Ross searches through the Catholic polemicist’s bag of tricks and comes out with the attack that never gets old: Linker is indulging old-fashioned anti-Catholic tropes about the impossibility of good Catholics being good Americans.  He says:

But, for the most part, I suspect that you believe that the attempt to link the American Founding to the Catholic natural-law tradition–which is at the heart of the “theoconservative project,” insofar as there is one–marks a greater departure from America’s supposed secular ideal than did the God-soaked politics of, say, Bryan or King. (This is how your friend Russell Arben Fox interprets your argument, at least, in an exegesis of your thesis that’s somewhat more interesting than the thesis itself.)

If this is what you mean, I wish you had been gutsy enough to take your argument to its logical conclusion and to say outright what you repeatedly imply–namely that orthodox Catholicism is essentially incompatible with the American liberal order, and that Neuhaus (like John Courtney Murray before him) is wrong to tell his co-believers that there’s no great tension between Rome and the United States. You spend a great deal of time talking about the “authoritarian” political inclinations of Neuhaus and company and how they threaten liberalism, but your evidence is nearly always that they believe in accepting the Catholic magisterium’s religious authority on matters of faith and morals–with the implication being that, if you let the magisterium tell you what to think about birth control or the Virgin Birth, you aren’t fit for the responsibilities of democratic self-governance.

This argument–that American Catholics need to choose between the Pope and the republic–has a long pedigree in our political life, and it’s far from an absurd interpretation of the relationship, or lack thereof, between liberalism and Catholicism: It is held, for instance, by Neuhaus’s critics on the Catholic right, who accuse him of choosing the republic over Rome. So I put it to you–is this your opinion on the matter? Is the dissenting, the-Pope-can’t-tell-me-what-to-think Catholicism of Garry Wills the only form of Catholicism that’s acceptable in the American context? You accuse Neuhaus of hinting that Jews and atheists can’t be good citizens; do you think that Neuhaus, given what he believes, can be a good citizen himself?

Or put another way: As someone who believes in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches–and as someone who thinks that our laws should be just and that the ultimate source of this justice is God–can I be a good American? Is there a place for me at the table of your idealized secular state?

I said that this doesn’t hold up as well because this may be the one part of the anti-theocon attack that has some purchase.  As I have talked about before, referring to my adventures in anti-Straussian argument, the problem with the theocon claim about equating the “law of nature” with Catholic natural law tradition (and thus creating the supposed historical basis for applying Catholic theology as the leaven of American political life) is the same problem the Straussians have in pulling off a similar maneuver of stuffing Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke in a nicely-wrapped box called Natural Law: it is manifestly ahistorical and rests of the slenderest of conceptual reeds (i.e., that Catholic natural law teaching and Lockean law of nature are sufficiently similar to be roughly identical).  As everyone’s favourite champion of the gentry shows us, there is on the one hand no need to indulge elaborate natural law theories to defend the constitutional inheritance of Englishmen and on the other, by extension, no need to concoct a rather preposterous alliance of Bossuet and Locke when neither one is needed to support and defend the genius of the mixed constitution.  This does not need to scandalise faithful, patriotic Catholics (Orthodox in America will not find, and do not seek, the Byzantine origins of “the Founding,” because it is not necessary for them to find such origins), because it was largely in the twilight of the Republic (i.e, post-1861) that our political language began to be saturated so heavily with the application of Biblically-derived rhetoric that took us far from the forensic and deliberative rhetoric of the republican period.  (For those who have been paying attention, yes, this is Bradford’s critique of Lincoln, and, yes, this is a paleo critique.)  In other words, it perfectly normal for Americans to be both Christian and yet not engage in the sort of conflation of religious and political ideas that theoconservatism seems to assume was the normal and natural way of things in this country.

This is not to say that Americans wanted to be “secular” exactly, since a small cottage industry of authors has successfully shown that early republican Americans were actually often enough quite thoroughly religious churchgoers and, yes, they brought their religious scruples to bear on matters of public interest as Christians had done since time immemorial.  But they didn’t confuse having established churches or public religion with claiming that the mixed constitution was exactly ordained by God, by and large didn’t go on about God-given “rights” (with some notable and unfortunate exceptions) and did not tacitly or explicitly claim some quasi-privileged status for Christians as better citizens (Fr. Neuhaus, meet Katherine Harris).  There wasn’t just a real tension between Rome and the United States (i.e., between Catholicism and America), but between the Kingdom and the Republic.  It was ever an unhappy New England tendency to collapse the two and identify the fortunes of the Republic with the earthly glory of the Kingdom–thus such blasphemies as Battle Hymn of the Republic, or John Brown’s Body, a song only a jihadi or Bostonian could love, or the Christification of Lincoln upon his death.  It has been to the unending confusion of the American mind (and, more recently, American foreign policy) that we take seriously Winthrop’s Zionification of the nation as ”a city on a hill,” as if America were the New Israel, which is properly a role reserved solely for the Church.  Fr. Meyendorff once noted that the chief problem with the Byzantine idea of symphoneia was that it denied the fundamental opposition between the Kingdom and the world; in the end, even though the emperor was crowned by God, the Roman Empire could never fully be in harmony with the Church, but must always remain part of this world.  So, too, with American order. 

To deny the implausible claim that America was born from the substantive marriage of Christianity and Enlightenment liberalism (the marriage, if it ever did take place somewhere, was surely annulled for failure to consummate) is not to deny that full-throated, serious, orthodox Christians can and should be politically active and “good citizens,” but to reject the presumption that unless one can concoct an elaborate theory of ideological compatibility between philosophy inspired by the Faith and liberal political philosophy that militates against basic truths of the Faith Christians are somehow necessarily opposed to or alienated from the political regime of their home country.  (What never seems to trouble theocons and their friends is the rather unpleasant implications this sort of ideological compatibility model has for Catholics in countries with a much more explicitly anticlerical, anti-Christian Enlightenment political tradition or countries that have only limited experience with Christianity of a century or two.) 

In trying to concoct such a theory, it is actually Neuhaus et al. who accept the assumptions behind the anti-Catholic trope by creating an entire philosophical apparatus designed to create nothing so much as a reverse image of the anti-Catholic charge.  The thinking seems to be: “Not only are we not aliens and enemies of the American way of life, but we are the best Americans!  Not only is there not irremediable hostility between Rome and Washington, as you say–there is virtually no tension between them at all!”  This tends to do violence to the very real tensions that will inevitably exist between the Gospel and any particular political philosophy, and forces the theocon to fudge on questions pertaining to the Faith.  This seems to happen most often when the government goes to war or supports a line of policy in foreign affairs that seems patently unjust.  In the eyes of the secular Mr. Linker, theocons arguably ought to be at their most “reasonable” and accommodating with the liberal political order when they are at their most enthusiastic for the government-backed bombing of other countries, which ought to make him reconsider whether he wants to have Christians who are a little too friendly with Caesar in this perfectly secular way.  It is only when they fervently and rather ineffectively rail against the evils of the “culture of death” at home that they might frighten Linker with some of their rhetoric, but even here they have framed their objections in terms of resisting judicial usurpation of representative government, which is still not exactly the call to arms of a theocrat. 

The habits of mind necessary to construct this flimsy bridge between Christianity and American liberal political theory also tend to encourage wild swings between accommodation to the demands of the liberal political order (and, in practical terms, the government) at expense of the Gospel when the two do inevitably conflict and the zeal of the religious revolutionary who, having invested the liberal and democratic political order with the dignity of divine justice, is outraged at the aforementioned judicial usurpation of liberal representative government.  This tends to make the theocon curiously passive and accommodating to official policy when confronted by the injustices of government inflicted on other nations (because the saints must go marching on, I suppose) and almost equally intense and uncompromising when confronted by legal interpretations or policies that foster or even enshrine profoundly evil and immoral things such as abortion.  Their motto might be: “Revolution on behalf of the unborn, but not one tear of compassion and not one word of outrage for the victims of aggressive war.”  Perhaps that is a touch exaggerated, but only a touch.    

It is interesting that there are Catholics and other Christians who feel, for reasons of patriotism and full assimilation to what they consider the values of their country, the need to engage in this sleight-of-hand, but I fear that the reason why they feel this need is part of the problem with their attempt to identify an important part of their religious intellectual tradition with the political and philosophical traditions of Anglo-America, and this is the need for all citizens in good standing to agree ideologically about the nature of the “project.”  This is tied in deeply to terribly mistaken ideas about the nature of American identity, which makes being American a question of accepting propositions of political liberalism rather than any other sort of belonging or historically-constituted identity.  If this is indeed an “ideological nation,” it becomes imperative to show that you are on board with the reigning ideology; this is imperative not only to show that you belong here, but also so that you can wield influence and power.  But this is easier to do than for others, and this is a particularly unwise kind of game for conservative Christians to play, since we will never be able to identify with Enlightenment liberalism or its latter-day heirs as thoroughly or credibly as others.  By playing this game, and claiming to win it, First Things encourages exactly this sort of “ideological nation” thinking and exposes conservative Christians to further exclusion from the national narrative once it can be shown (and it is not hard to show) that Christianity (and philosophical conservatism) and Enlightenment liberalism are as compatible as water and oil. 

In its way, theoconservatism is the final expression of Catholic Americanisation, or is an example of Catholic Americanisation gone too far, and represents a latter-day form of the immigrant’s strategy to prove his belonging to the nation by talking about how much he loves freedom and democracy and insisting that he’s not like his reactionary peasant ancestors from Europe (and here, as always, I mean reactionary peasant as a compliment).  This is all well and good in one sense, but when it creates a model of accommodating the Faith to the (false) claims of liberalism about human nature and society or encourages mistaken compromises of moral principle with the liberal regime out of a misguided sense of American loyalty it does no one any good.  If Linker’s book might show some small part of the problems with this theocon model, it will not have been a complete waste.  Since it is unfortunately caught up with the much bigger progressive hobby-horse of fighting a supposedly incipient theocracy that does not exist, it will probably accomplish nothing.

This is probably not a question that occurs to very many people.  It apparently does not occur to scholars of the late Roman/Byzantine empire.  I have (finally) received my copy of Stephen Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641, which appears to be fairly thorough and very well done from what I can tell so far.  It will likely make a first-rate textbook.  But given my own preoccupations with the seventh century I went looking to see what, if anything, the book had to say about my monotheletes.  Surprisingly, even though the book ends in 641, they receive no mention whatever–not even a passing, “oh, yes, and as the empire was falling apart there were new doctrinal developments that would convulse the empire for the rest of the century…”  I didn’t expect a long discussion of the doctrine or imperial religious policy (they come on the scene only in the 630s, but then again the Muslims only appear on the scene in the 620s and merit extensive treatment), but a brief mention might have been merited.  I understand that there is only so much space in any one book and choices have to be made, which requires omitting some details, but does it make sense to cut the doctrine out of the history of early seventh century Byzantium all together? 

I have been thinking about this in connection with my dissertation quite a lot.  Monotheletism often gets short shrift from scholars for one reason or another.  Even when it is noticed, it is usually dismissed as just so much of a “political” heresy.  No other doctrine has been subjected to this kind of dismissive redunctionism for so long.  What is surprising is that the controversy over it lasted roughly as long, at least inside the empire, as the controversy over Arianism. 

Monotheletism (638-681, 711-713) was the official or quasi-official doctrine of the empire for approximately as long as some form of Arianism was in the fourth century (some form of Arianism was the religion of the Eastern emperor from 337-361 and 363-378); in exact numbers, I think you will find that it was in power slightly longer than Arianism or semi-Arianism.  At most, Arianism had existed perhaps twenty years longer by the time that other forms of it were condemned by the second ecumenical council.  Yet you cannot find a volume dedicated to monotheletism itself, nor are there terribly lengthy treatments of it in books relating to the seventh century, while studies of “the Arian controversy” and studies of fourth century patristics are overflowing with attention to the various doctrines included under the label of Arianism.  Monotheletism has gotten a raw deal, as far as being a neglected subject of history.  It is the stepchild of ancient heresies, the Cinderella of medieval religion.  What did the monotheletes ever do to us to deserve such dismissive attitudes?  I am willing to guess that there is no other heresy that has been less studied or less well understood than monotheletism, and it does tend to baffle me. 

I like these Mexicans. They go to Catholic Church; They work hard; They’re learning English and they will eventually create a new blue-collar middle class.

Yes, I do worship at the high church of GDP. But I also worship at the high church of Catholic Mass. And therefore I’m able to combine supply-side economics with the teachings of Catholic humanitarianism. ~Larry Kudlow

Kudlow is quite the humanitarian. He has not seen a war he didn’t think was good for America and, more importantly, good for the stock market. Kudlow is so very humanitarian that he welcomes the creation of an exploited underclass. I don’t know for sure where Larry the Humanitarian stands on the abuse of prisoners and torture, but I suspect he is especially humanitarian when it comes to inflicting pain on prisoners–at least as humanitarian as he has been in cheering on the devastation of whole nations. He is so painfully humanitarian (his heart, look how it bleeds!) that he sees nothing amiss in comparing a border security fence with the Berlin Wall–the one designed to keep unwanted people out, the other to keep enslaved people in–because he literally cannot understand the difference between the two. To limit the “free movement of labour” is the same as commie oppression. That is what your stereotypical pro-immigration “conservative” believes. One wonders, incidentally, if he thinks Israel’s security barrier is a new Berlin Wall–I’m going to guess that he doesn’t agree with that comparison.

Here’s the main problem I have with the rhetoric of the people who keep pointing to the Catholicism of Mexican immigrants as if that were some kind of free pass for them (besides being based on the strange and entirely unproven assumption that Mexican Catholicism is as amenable to American political and cultural values as European Catholicism could come to be over time): the people who use the Catholicism of Mexicans and other Latin Americans as the rhetorical club with which to beat restrictionists also invariably happen to be the same people who think the freedom of movement across borders, a flood of cheap labour and maximising of GDP are the things that are most important in determining immigration policy. In other words, most of the people, including the Catholics, who are thrilled to see more Catholics crossing the border illegally are typically also the people who would be thrilled to see them cross the border if they were atheists, Muslims or Shintoists, because they are making these determinations primarily on economic grounds and have clearly made economic values their priority. I bet millions of Muslim labourers wouldn’t trouble Larry one bit. After all, we know where Larry stands on hateful “Islamophobia”–he’s against it, especially when it might bar the way to glorious international trade arrangements.

It is useful to them that the labourers in question are often Catholic, whether nominal or not, but it would not matter a whit to these people what religion they practiced so long as they lent their aid to building the Temple of GDP. It is also a sentimental ploy to tap into Catholic memories about past anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant prejudice in the 19th century as a way of mobilising Catholic America against the enforcement of immigration law and the control of the borders. It is manifestly cynical for the most part, but few are bold enough to hold up their cynicism for the world to see as Kudlow is.

But at least Kudlow holds up the glaring contradiction of his two loyalties for all to see. He doesn’t even hesitate to embrace the language of “worship” to express his economic desires. I have long held Kudlow up as a kind of walking caricature of the money-obsessed conservative, but that is because he plays to the stereotype so perfectly that it is impossible not to think of him when trying to imagine what such a person would be like.

“Yes, I worship at the altar of Mammon. But I also worship at the altar of God,” the man says to us, “And therefore I’m able to combine Mammon with the teachings of Christ.” What was it that Someone Important said about two masters? It’s a bit fuzzy, but it was something about not being able to have two. So Kudlow has fortunately declared very openly which one he serves. Give him credit for being at least somewhat more forthright than all of the conservatives who say, “But I’m not a materialist! Look, I go to church!” Instead Larry preaches a new gospel: “I’m a materialist because I go to church!”


Steinfels does a decent job deflating all of the theocracy hype coming from the left, though what he has to say was said earlier and better by Ross Douthat last month.  There were real communist agents connected to progressive politics in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and there were people who really were com-symps, but the threat here was not simply the influence of a radical marginal group on American politics but the undue influence of agents of a foreign power on the domestic political life of the United States.  If there were some kind of Christian Reconstructionist Theocrat International (because Reconstructionism is just so terribly popular) that was seeking to subvert the government and spread its influence covertly, the comparison might begin to be credible.  Of course, that Theocrat International would have to be party to the deaths of millions for the moral equivalence between the two to be at all legitimate.

Goldberg ends with recommendations, some sensible, some quirky, for building a progressive movement to counter the dangerous brew of fundamentalist Christianity and belligerent nationalism. Among them is the advice that progressive should “win their neighbors over, not just beat them in court.”

That is not likely to happen without a significantly greater effort to understand those neighbors and their beliefs. At the end of her book, calling for a movement to oppose the theocrats, Goldberg runs up all the old banners of the war between secularism and religion, pitting “freedom and Enlightenment” against “stale constricting dogmas” and “holy books.” Reading those words, I question not only whether I — and a lot of people like me — belong in her ranks, but also whether she, or Kevin Phillips, or even my friend Jim Rudin, really want us. ~Peter Steinfels, The American Prospect

As I observed at the time that Goldberg’s book was coming out, her denunciation of “stale constricting dogmas” and “holy books” left little wiggle room for her program, which becomes more and more obviously not simply anti-fundamentalist but simply anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian. Goldberg truly is a child of the Enlightenment–and anyone who has read my blog over the past two years knows that this is not a compliment–in her intractable hostility to public religion in general but most especially hostility Christian public religion. In this she is at least more serious than the people who try to have it both ways, pretend that Voltaire and Bossuet, Locke and Laud, Spinoza and St. Peter can all live together under one big roof of Christian-laced liberalism. To such people there can only be one response: Ecrasez la blasphemie!

The pope and the Vatican can also do more. For the past two years, Benedict has been a no-show at interfaith gatherings in Assisi, begun 20 years ago by his predecessor, John Paul II. Last year, he issued an edict revoking the autonomy of Assisi’s Franciscan monks, a move that was seen as a reaction against the monks’ interfaith activism. On the occasion of this year’s gathering, he issued a statement about religion and peace that was read by an envoy, but his absence spoke louder than his words.

The pope also recently reassigned the Vatican’s former head of interreligious dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Arab affairs, to a diplomatic post in Egypt. According to a report in The Times by Ian Fisher, the move was interpreted by some church experts as reflecting Benedict’s skepticism of dialogue with Muslims. As his unfortunate comments show, the pope needs high-level experts on Islam to help guide him. ~The New York Times

Via Rod Dreher

Rod calls the editorial “ignorant and objectionable,” which is probably too generous, and does a good job demolishing the better part of it point by point.  Rod points out the excesses that went on at the ecumenical love-fests at Assisi, which should surely make even the most dedicated ecumenist blush with shame.  Rather than go into my usual refrain about Why Ecumenism Doesn’t Work, I would like to mention briefly an episode from the career of Francis of Assisi that his latter-day brethren have either forgotten all together or choose not to remember.  This was the moment in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade at the siege of Damietta, which was the main Ayyubid fortress protecting the approaches to Cairo and preventing the Crusaders from advancing inland, when Francis came and challenged the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt to a trial by fire in an attempt to convince him of the truth of Christianity.  Francis’ intentions were pacific (he desired to remove the need for violence between the two sides), but his conviction in the rightness of the Faith was no less powerful for all that. 

It does Francis of Assisi dishonour to associate his birthplace with the sort of ecumenism that makes no such attempt at evangelisation and gives the impression that the legacy of Francis is one of compromising the Faith or cruelly pretending that those who stumble in the darkness of religious error should be allowed to remain in the ditches into which they have fallen.  Francis was far too noble and compassionate a Christian to have endorsed anything of that kind, and those who bear his name today do him a disservice when they engage in dialogue with a “zeal not according to knowledge.” (Rom. 10:2)  Pope Benedict was right to avoid these meetings in the past, and he has been right to discipline the Franciscans for these excesses.  That The New York Times finds value in such meetings is almost a guarantee that they ought not to take place.

He puts the word “conscience” in quote-marks:

The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. [My italics.]

This is no typo. Ratzinger has long disowned the notion of an individual conscience as we have long understood it in the West, as I explain at greater length in my forthcoming book. His view is that if your conscience goes against anything that the Pope says at any time, then it isn’t really your conscience. It’s a false conscience in a mirror of the Communist idea of “false consciousness”. Your real conscience, Benedict insists, is always in agreement with the Pope. ~Andrew Sullivan

Wow.  This is the kind of thing I would expect from thirteen year-olds who think willfulness and disobedience against their parents are the same thing as freedom.  That is, I would expect it from kids who are too young and immature to know and discern any better.  Where to begin….

Let’s start with what Pope Benedict said.  He referred to subjective “conscience,” so it makes sense that it would be put in scare quotes to make it clear that Benedict understands–properly–that real conscience is not subjective.  It is not some little personal voice in your head telling you what you personally find wrong, but serves as a witness to both the natural law inscribed in human nature and creation and the moral law revealed by God.  St. Maximos described this natural law in Ambigua 19 (translation by Louth):

Whence in both cases I think it necessarily follows that anyone who wishes may live an upright and blameless life with God, whether through scriptural understanding of the Spirit, or through the natural contemplation of reality in accordance with the Spirit.  So the two laws–both the natural law and the written law–are of equal honour and teach the same things; neither is greater or less than the other, which shows, as is right, that the lover of perfect wisdom may become the one who desires wisdom perfectly. 

Of more obviously direct application is Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, in which he described, among other things, the activity of conscience and its expression of natural and moral law.  For this reason, conscience is not an expression of subjective experience or subjective thought, but that faculty in man that recognises moral truth established by God:

This applies equally to the judgements of moral conscience, which Sacred Scripture considers capable of being objectively true.

Confusion about the nature of the truth, or a view that regards truth as subjective, will consequently distort the understanding of what conscience is and what it does: 

In the Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, I wrote that many of the problems of the contemporary world stem from a crisis of truth. I noted that “once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its prime reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth different from the truth of others”.

So a proper understanding of conscience would not tend towards an “individualist ethic,” and so would not have anything to do with subjective ”conscience.”  We then properly use our faculty of conscience, as we do our reason, as a way of understanding and applying the truths that have been revealed to us:

Yet the Gospel and the Apostolic writings still set forth both general principles of Christian conduct and specific teachings and precepts. In order to apply these to the particular circumstances of individual and communal life, Christians must be able fully to engage their conscience and the power of their reason.

Thus Pope Benedict has drawn out the connections between individualism in reasoning generally and in moral reasoning more specifically.  Both privilege the self, both stress subjectivity, and both ignore the objective nature of intellectual and moral truth. 

The Catholic Catechism then states even more clearly what a good conscience involves:

A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time “from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.”

The more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by objective standards of moral conduct.  (CCC 1794)

Just as a proper use of reason is one illumined by faith, so it is with conscience.  Good conscience involves the submission to objective standards, and, of course, it is God Who has set down these standards and willed them for our improvement in the life of virtue leading to salvation in Christ. 

This is extremely close to an understanding that is the common inheritance of both Catholics and Orthodox, received from St. Maximos, who taught that subjective choice (gnome), deliberation and the choosing will (gnomikon thelima) itself were products of the Fall (and therefore did not exist in the Incarnate Word), whereas natural human will and human freedom in their proper forms always acted in accordance with the will of God.  Though I do not recall having seen references specifically to conscience in the works or studies of St. Maximos that I have read, it seems perfectly clear that obedience to divine will is what would show good moral judgement for St. Maximos.  Decisions cease to be a product of unnatural choice and more and more a product of free will, which naturally wills what God wills as it becomes purified of the effects of sin.  Free obedience is the true “freedom of morality,” and subjective choice and conscience are those things that keep us bound by the bonds of sin, autonomy and separation from God.

So when Sullivan prattles on about how “we” have long understood individual conscience in a certain way, by “we” he cannot actually mean Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  Indeed, I think he cannot be referring to most Christians over the centuries, but specifically in the tradition in which Pope Benedict is working Sullivan cannot be more horrendously wrong (as usual) when he suggests that it is somehow Pope Benedict who has departed from some proper consensus about the nature of conscience or when he implies that conscience truly should be understood as something subjective.  There would be almost nothing more abhorrent than this complete perversion of the meaning of what conscience is, which is right judgement in accordance truth and justice, which is to be in accord with God Himself.   

It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. ~Christopher Hitchens, Slate

I should have remarked on this yesterday, but actually thought it so weak that it was not even worth criticising.  But then it occurred to me that there are people who think “clever” references to the Reformation are the perfect way to undermine a Catholic authority’s arguments, because, you know, the Reformation did so much ”good” for the world and the Catholic Church was against it, which obviously proves that Catholics can never have anything to say about reform in any context ever again.  So there.  This is a tactic perfected by irresponsible teenagers who try to justify their disobedience and stupidity by pointing to their dad’s fondness for strong drink: “Sure I drove the car through the living room, but you…drink…liquor!”

The weakness and irrelevance of Hitchens’ point here are made most clear when you consider the content of the rest of the speech to which Hitchens was trying to respond.  In that speech, Pope Benedict made it very clear that a terrible distortion of the relation between reason and faith, and the first example of the process of “de-Hellenisation” that he was speaking about, was a result of the Reformation:

De-Hellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system.

The principle of “sola scriptura,” on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

So there is a real question whether Pope Benedict could, ecumenical understanding notwithstanding, really approve of the effects of the Protestant Reformation to which Hitchens makes his predictable reference.  But, you might ask, what other reformation was there?  Hitchens also would have to be ignorant of the fact that reformatio was a word that had been used in the context of the monastic and spiritual renewal movements of the twelfth century (and made known to modern audiences in the late Giles Constable’s The Reformation of the Twelfth Century–an excellent book that serves as a fine introduction to the spirituality and social context behind the founding of religious orders such as the Cistercians) and had long had meaning for Latin Christians in the context of spiritual renewal.  It was on this tradition that the Reformers themselves were drawing, though obviously the authorities in Rome did not agree with either the spirit or the content of much of what they proposed for their reforms.  This did not mean that there was no effort at reform on the Catholic side before Luther, but simply that the Reformed churches do not have some kind of monopoly on the use of that language and it is not hypocritical or contradictory, as Hitchens suggests, for Catholics to speak in terms of reformation since the word was, if you like, theirs before it was anyone else’s.  Obviously the Catholic Reformation itself tends to obviate this objection anyway.  

When then-Cardinal Ratzinger or anyone else says that Islam is not capable of a ”Reformation,” they mean something far more serious than what many moderns take this to mean.  This is not a claim that Islam cannot ultimately become a religion that eventually after a century of internecine warfare embraces the principle of freedom of conscience–that much is obvious–but that Islam does not even have the theological-philosophical apparatus for self-criticism because of the very fundamental assumptions of all Muslims about the uncreated and perfect nature of the scripture they use as their authority and the untouchable paragon of virtue into which Islamic tradition has made Muhammad.  This obviously has little to do with things like practical abuses of power and privilege such as simony and questionable theology in the form of the sale of indulgences; this has to do with the very nature of the religion, its proper form, which reform and revival cannot make any better because the foundation is so lacking in the necessary essential qualities.  

What is perhaps more annoying about this remark is that it suggests that Hitchens buys into the old progressive narrative (since he is a progressive, I guess he would!) that the Reformation was some Great Leap Forward for human freedom and individual rights, which must be one of those things that Whig Protestants told themselves at night to make them feel better about the anti-Catholic massacres they committed.  In fact, the Reformation at its best and in the minds of its advocates was a deeply conservative, even reactionary, opposition to what some of the Reformers saw as excessive reliance on philosophy and humanism.  If the Islamic world were to undergo a Reformation (and who says that it hasn’t undergone the closest thing to it with the various Islamic revivalist movements of the last 300 years?) of this sort, it would actually have to become even more rigid, inflexible and doctrinaire in its emphasis on scriptural literalism and moral purity. 

If, as some have suggested, the Reformation was the attempt to apply the rigour of the monastic ethic to the laity, an Islamic Reformation would not make Islam more liberal, more open to “modernity” and all the things that people who talk about Islamic Reformations want to see, but would likely make it more hostile to all of these things.  Protestants did retain some respect for reason and philosophy, because they derived this respect from the common tradition that had incorporated the best elements of Hellenism into Christian thought, whereas Islam on the whole does not benefit from this tradition.  While it has become something of a commonplace in recent days among some defenders of the Pope to say that Pope Benedict was harder on the Protestants (who have, as of yet, failed to bomb or burn down any Catholic churches in response–what can they be waiting for?) than on the Muslims, even in his remarks on the Reformation he could just as well have been saying to the Muslims: “As mistaken as the Reformation was in separating faith and reason as much as it did, the Protestants at least have a fighting chance, because they still partake from the same tradition that we do; Islam doesn’t even have that going for it.  You should look into why that is.” 

Still, Benedict went about this noble business in a very imprudent way. The statement he quoted—that everything new Mohammed brought was “evil and inhuman”—is simply untrue and so obviously hurtful that it will prevent anything else the pope might say from getting a hearing. Given the predictable reactions in the Muslim world, it is patently counterproductive to try to make the legitimate point that Muslims have sometimes used violence to spread their faith by quoting, even without endorsing, the untrue and much more sweeping statement that everything peculiar to Islam is “evil and inhuman.” If Benedict wishes to call Muslims to account for wrongful acts, current and historical, committed by Muslims against Christians, well and good, but he ought not do so by grossly overstating the case in an obviously provocative way that he himself does not believe and then apologize in stages for having done so. ~Robert Miller, First Things

If the quote is so obviously untrue, why did Pope Benedict need to specifically repudiate it in the course of the speech?  Would he not assume that everyone could see that it was false?  If it is true–and I have reason to agree with this view–then why would Pope Benedict not have included it in his speech?  Even if Pope Benedict does not believe it to be true, and he has stated that he does not believe it to be true, it could still be true.  If it were true, but still hurtful, would we want to suppress it?  Here’s the thing: what did Muhammad introduce?  What was new to his religion?  It was the combination of a fierce monotheism mixed with the call to struggle violently on behalf of the one transcendent deity.  From a Christian perspective, how was Manuel II’s description of these things wrong and “simply untrue”? 

Mohammedanism was a heresy:  that is the essential point to grasp before going any further.  It began as a hersey, not as a new religion.  It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy.  It was a perversion of Christian doctrine.  Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemprary with its rise saw it for what it was—not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.  It differed from most (not from all) heresies in this, that it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church.  The chief heresiarch, Mohammed himself, was not, like most hersiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine to begin with.  He sprang from pagans.  But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified.  It was the great Catholic world—on the frontiers of which he lived, whose influence was all around him and whose territories he had known by travel—which inspired his convictions.  He came of, and mixed with, the degraded idolaters of the Arabian wilderness, the conquest of which had never seemed worth the Romans’ while… ~Hilaire Belloc (via John Derbyshire)

It is not only the case that St. John of Damascus listed Islam as the 100th heresy in his De haeresibus.  St. Anastasios of Sinai in some of the first patristic references to Islam described Islam principally in terms of its Christological errors–which he likened to Nestorianism–and blamed the rise of Islam on (who else?) the monophysites, because their extreme heresy had, as Anatasios saw it, forced the Arabs who came into contact with them to adopt the equal and opposite heresy.  This is probably not exactly the case, though I believe it is generally accepted that Muhammad learned what little he knew of Christianity from a Nestorian monk whom he met along the caravan routes north.  In any case, Islamic objections to Christianity are those of any anti-Trinitarian heresy mixed with Arian denial of Christ’s divinity and Nestorian contempt for the Mother of God.  I doubt that Islam derives directly from any of these in any measurable way, but it is not entirely ridiculous to think that the domination of Yemen by the monophysite Ethiopians could have influenced how Arabs in that region perceived Christianity and influenced them in such a way that pushed them towards an intense hostility to the idea that Christ was God.  Naturally, Podhoretz ignores the potential relevance of Belloc’s observation to the discussion of the nature of Islam and satisfies himself with an anecdote reminding us that (surprise!) Belloc didn’t like Jews (gosh, nobody knew that!).  Of course, it is not entirely clear to me why Derbyshire thought to bring this up, but it is an idea that is neither far-fetched nor without basis in the Christian tradition of anti-Islamic polemics.

Now, you do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion. To take Islam’s own favorite self-pitying example: It was the Catholic crusaders who sacked and burned Christian Byzantium on their way to Palestine—and that was only after they had methodically set about the Jews, so the Muslim world was actually only the third victim of this barbarity. (Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades is the best source here.) ~Christopher Hitchens, Slate

Well, in fact, established Christianity and violently coercive Christianity are not the same thing, as I have been reiterating again and again and again.  There have been periods in Christian history where there has been violent coercion by the state against heretics.  But Christians’ first recourse has historically typically not been to violent persecution or to warfare.  Certainly if we are comparing the records of the Byzantines in particular with the record of Islam, the contrast becomes even more remarkable.  So we can dismiss Hitchens on that point.  Next we might note that Hitchens cannot even get his facts straight–the purported ultimate target of the Fourth Crusade was supposed to be Egypt, not Palestine, just as the ill-fated Fifth Crusade would be as a way of knocking out the Ayyubid support structure that kept the Crusader States pinned to their narrow strips of Levantine territory. 

And as much as I respect the late Sir Steven Runciman and enjoy his works enormously (and I have heard tell that he converted to Orthodoxy at the end of his life), Hitchens might try something more modern than Crusades histories that are half a century old and out of date.  Sir Steven was a great friend to Byzantium and a great protector of her reputation; he did a good deal to revive interest in and respect for Byzantium as a worthy subject of study and as an admirable civilisation, for which all Byzantinists should be grateful, but his own love for Byzantium tended to make him an extremely harsh and sometimes unbalanced critic of the western Europeans who were the main actors of the drama.  He famously referred to the sack of Constantinople in 1204 as the greatest “crime against humanity” ever, which is flattering to the Constantinopolitans but hardly accurate.  Michael Angold has written a book on the Fourth Crusade offering a radical corrective view of this assuredly exaggerated judgement of the Crusade.  For the best general Crusades historians, look to Riley-Smith or Madden, who have done great work attempting to understand the phenomenon of the Crusades rather than sit in judgement over it.

Seems to me that the Byzantine emperors, including the Palaeologan line from the thirteenth century, persecuted religious minorities, including Jews, Manichaeans and dissident Christians, during centuries in which the Islamic world showed relative tolerance. I’ve read the texts of anathemas that virtually everyone in some parts of the Empire was obliged to pronounce publicly in the sixth century: “I renounce Mani, Buddha his teacher,” etc. On pain of death, basically. There was no division between church and state. Many Byzantine Jews welcomed the initial Muslim Arab advances, providing relief from Christian persecution.  ~Gary Leupp, Counterpunch

The claim about church and state is just hideously wrong.  You cannot be more wrong about Byzantium than to say “there was no division between church and state.”  Of course there was a division–the division was consciously maintained at several key moments in Byzantine history, particularly when there were heretical emperors on the throne; the role of emperors in the Church was strictly circumscribed and defined by precedents and canons; there was an entire (slightly idealistic) theory of symphoneia composed in the prologue of the Epanagoge, a ninth-century law code of Basil I that elaborated a similar division of labour outlined in Justinian’s Sixth Novella.  Anyone with a vague familiarity with late Byzantine history knows just how controversial and divisive attempts to dictate church policy for the sake of political expediency were, and how they ultimately always failed because the Church retained its sense of independence and its conviction that the bishops, not the emperor, defined doctrine and governed the affairs of the Church.  The intolerant aspects of Byzantine Orthodoxy also served as a guard against state control of the Church.  Of course the emperor had influence and could briefly, but ultimately futilely, exert power over the Church, but to say something as simplistic and risible as “there was no division between church and state” is to prove that you have no business talking about the subject in question.  And if “there was no division between church and state,” what on earth was the situation in the Islamic world, where the supreme secular authority and the supreme religious authority during the Caliphates was the same person

Many Byzantine Jews also welcomed the Persian invasions of the early seventh century and even allegedly helped in the sack of Jerusalem in 614, so I’m not sure why Prof. Leupp wants to bring this up as a particular example of Byzantine Christian flaws.  (It cannot be a promising sign for the quality of education at Tufts University that Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion.)  Yes, there was legal discrimination against heretics and non-Christians, just as there were legal codes prescribing inferior status for non-Muslims in Islamic lands.  In those lands there was no “tolerance,” relative or otherwise, but simply the toleration that said for all intents and purposes ”we will probably not attack and kill you–probably.”  There were exceptional cases in Byzantium of violent punishment, forcible coercion and execution, but these were very rare in Byzantine history.  For every emperor you can find that engaged in such things, I can show you five who didn’t do any such thing and a considerable number of Church Fathers who explicitly condemned such things.  For every anathema against Manichees you can show me, I’ll show you the martyrs of Gaza or the neo-martyrs of the Turkokrateia or any of the nameless thousands butchered under the green flag. 

There was nothing comparable in all of Byzantine history to the ninth-century anti-Mu’tazilite Islamic inquisition in the court of Baghdad under Ma’mun, try as some might to make the trial of John Italos into a great attack on all things rational.  Presumably the Mu’tazilites did not appreciate just how tolerant their persecutors were.  What is more, Italos was condemned for excessive Hellenism, which means reliance on pagan philosophy to the detriment of revelation in this context, not the use of reason applied to Scripture all together–the Mu’tazilites were condemned and persecuted because they dared to say that the Qur’an was created and that man had free will.  They were the first–and last–Islamic rationalists, the last, great hope, so to speak, of every apologist for the good side of Islam–and they were crushed, never to be seen again.  The contrary positions–that the Qur’an was eternal and man does not really have free will, but all things are done by Allah–became normative and all but universally accepted.  The fate of the Mu’tazilah alone confirms what Pope Benedict was saying about relationship of Islam and reason.  I would like to assume that Prof. Leupp is simply painfully ignorant about all of this, because otherwise he would be something of a gross liar. 

There are no Byzantine Christian groups comparable to such “tolerant” folk as the Almohads and Almoravids, who showed just how ”tolerant” Islam could be with their spate of brutal persecutions.  The “relative tolerance” of the Aghlabids led to the decay and disappearance of North African Christianity, which had barely hung on into the 11th century before going extinct.  The fate of Anatolian Christianity at the hands of Turkomen raiders needs no introduction.  In more recent times (i.e., the 1920s), Kurdish Muslims showed their “relative tolerance” towards the Assyrian communities of Iraq by slaughtering them.  One looks largely in vain for similar treatment meted out to Muslim populations by Christian authorities and peoples.  The Zoroastrians received similarly “tolerant” treatment in Iran, and the Muslim raiders and conquerors of India were not all together model spokesmen for religious tolerance, to put it mildly.  When the Il-Khanids converted to Islam under Gazan Khan, the former protection extended to Nestorians in Iran diminished rapidly.  Indeed, the record of toleration under the Muslim Mongol states compares very poorly with that of their more barbarous, pagan predecessors–because the pagan Mongols didn’t care whether anyone else worshipped Tengri, but Muslim Mongols took a dim view of those who did not submit to Allah.  In fairness, rulers such as Timur killed all kinds of people, but his devastations of Armenia and Georgia were particularly severe.   

The “Golden Age” mythology of Islam, which seems to be the extent of Mr. Leupp’s knowledge base, rests on a very few moments in Islamic history in a very few places: Abbasid Baghdad, Umayyad Cordoba, Mughal Delhi.  Take these away and the picture gets unbelievably bleak.  Where dhimmis were treated “well,” they were second-class people just as heretics had been under the Byzantines, and where they were not treated well they were outside the protection of the law and subject to violence and harrassment when the government didn’t actively engage in mass murder (Caliph al’Hakim is representative of the latter).  There is nothing remotely similar on the Byzantine side in the treatment of Muslims in the reconquered territory in Syria to the Fatimid treatment of Christians in their domains.  People who blithely refer to the “tolerance” of Islam relative to Byzantium either know nothing about Byzantium and Islam or simply shill for Islam because it serves other purposes.  

Almost all dissidents in the great Christological controversies suffered exile or loss of the opportunity to serve in the civil service and military; bishops were deposed, priests defrocked, but only an ignoramus would imply that the penalties for Manicheanism extended to the empire’s treatment of all heretics.  Manicheans were the only heretics for whom the death penalty was mandatory, because it was held that they were a particularly destructive heresy that seemed to reject any and all earthly authorities.  Manichees were treated similarly in the Sasanian Empire as well as the Roman and was the case long before there were ever Christians on the throne of Constantinople.  Maybe that doesn’t make it any better, but everyone despised the Manichees wherever they went because they were seen as a menace to public order. 

Anyone who was a heretic and wanted to become a communicating member of the Orthodox Church had to denounce all sorts of errors and affirm others.  There were typically no death penalties for heretics in Byzantium, and anyone who tries to give a different impression doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 

Manichees were considered a special category of subversive.  They were also largely extinct in most places by the time of the sixth century.  Different sects in later medieval Byzantine history would be identified sometimes with the Manichees as a way of aligning them with the most hateful thing imaginable, and polemicists loved to apply the title Manichean to people whom they particularly disliked as a way of insulting them, but Manichees as such had all but disappeared.  No one would have been punished for refusing to renounce Mani because no one was following Mani.  Denouncing Manicheanism in the sixth century was largely a sort of moral and spiritual stand, akin to denouncing fascism today–very few are actually in favour of reviving fascism, but to listen to the way we obsess about fascist-this and fascist-that you would think it was still a live issue.  It is a way of declaring that you are committed to the right things.

Manuel I Komnenos was in some ways an atypical Byzantine ruler, but he took the interesting step of forcing a controversy over the ritual of renouncing Islam that shows one aspect of the difference between the Byzantine Christian and the Muslim.  Manuel was definitely on shaky theological ground for obvious reasons, but he supported a move to change the renunciation of Islam so that converts to Christianity would only have to reject Muhammad and not Muhammad’s God.  There was a willingness, however rare, at the highest levels in Byzantium to acknowledge that Muslims worshipped the same God but followed a false prophet, while there was not and could never have really been a similar willingness on the other side.  There are many things modern people could learn from a serious study of the careers of Manuel I and Manuel II, among others, but that would require knowing something about Byzantium.  Or you can spout tired cliches about Orientalism and the “tolerance” of Islam and think that you have demonstrated something other than your own ignorance.  

Vatican officials had earlier sought to placate spreading Muslim anger by saying Benedict held Islam in high esteem and stressed that the central thrust of his speech was to condemn the use of any religious motivation for violence, whatever the religion. ~The Guardian

Actually, I had thought the central thrust of the speech was that God is rational by nature and nothing irrational pleases Him.  This is why most Christians have entirely put away the bloody and irrational sacrifices of old for the rational sacrifice of the Eucharist.  This is why I never cease to find it difficult to understand why someone who believes this would hold in high esteem a religion that denies the divinity of Christ, Who was Reason Incarnate, when such a denial is not only what the early and medieval Fathers would have regarded as a mark of insanity (the proverbial “madness of Areios”) but is itself a denial of the personal union of humanity in the Person of the Logos Himself.  Denying Christ’s divinity is, from a Christian perspective, denying the substantial joining of humanity to Reason and denying the possibility of the perfection of our own reason.  Presumably Pope Benedict does not hold Arianism in high esteem, so what can it mean to say that he holds Islam in “high esteem”?  Did Elijah hold the prophets of Baal in high esteem?   

These sorts of statements remind me why I am always so skeptical of ecumenism–to carry on a “dialogue,” you are compelled for the sake of dialogue to say things you cannot possibly believe and make statements praising other religions that you cannot really mean, which in turn does violence to the truth and reduces said dialogue to something of a sham.  Such a “dialogue” cannot produce anything except pro forma expressions of goodwill, which are ultimately empty and amount to saying nothing more than, “I am going to show the world what a reasonable, tolerant fellow I am–why, look, I have even said something nice about the Hindus!”  There are two kinds of ecumenists: those who really think that there are many equally valid paths to truth (these people typically are not terribly keen on taking any of the paths very far, since deep down they can sense that there is no point) and those who think that giving the appearance of ecumenical goodwill helps with public relations.  In other words, I don’t think there are really any good reasons to be an ecumenist.  If there are sincere ecumenists who nonetheless believe that their religion alone possesses the fullness of truth, I would very much like to know how they reconcile the two ideas.  It is, of course, possible to have a conversation with people who hold radically different religious beliefs, but it will usually be a short conversation, especially when each time you draw attention to what you consider the flaws in their religion they believe themselves justified in threatening you with death.  Most Christian ecumenist dialogue does not draw attention to the flaws, intellectual and moral, of other religions, presumably because all historical religions have some sort of flaws on account of the flawed people involved, which is why Pope Benedict’s speech seemed promising as a starting point for , among other things, discussing seriously the role of reason in Islam and the place of violent jihad in Islamic theology and history.  His speech did not really make any concessions, or at least it was not obvious to me that it did, but now it would seem that the Vatican has made the biggest concession of them all: Islam is worthy of high esteem.  Manuel II and, for that matter, St. John of Damascus would not have understood why.    

As I see the entire Islamic world going rather mad over Pope Benedict’s largely, but not entirely, inoffensive speech (incidentally, I do not hear the laments of a lot of Lutherans berating him for laying charges of de-Hellenisation at their door), I see a number of other defenses of the speech that claim Pope Benedict did not endorse Manuel II’s view.  So did he endorse Manuel II’s views?  Well, yes and no. 

It seems very clear that he endorsed and took as his basic theme Manuel’s statement:  “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God.”  In other words, he took what was best from the speech and, if one wants to see this as an ecumenical speech, personally left aside the more combative bits about Muhammad introducing nothing but evil and inhuman things.  (I can see how that might be irritating, but then I would ask what exactly Muhammad did bring that was not either of these things.)  He did not state his agreement with the whole of Manuel’s dialogue, but merely called it “interesting.”  He did not explicitly reiterate the charges against Muhammad and Islam, but it seems clear that if he regarded the Persian interlocutor’s view as representative of Islamic theology (and he would have strong reasons to do so from within Islamic history and theology–the outcome of the debate in the 9th century between determinists and ‘libertarians’ already points us towards this conclusion without reference to Ibn Hazn) he clearly recounted the episode as a way of remarking on an important difference between the rival conceptions of God.  The comparison clearly works to the disadvantage of Islam, which is not Pope Benedict’s fault, but the fault of Islam’s own faulty conception of God.  Logos here carries the same multivalent sense that it has always carried for Christian apologists, confessing that wherever there is reason, there is the Word, Who is Christ.  Again, this draws a contrast with Islam, in which the Qur’an is the eternal word of Allah.  Once again, this is not a flattering comparison for Islam. 

By not making a text itself into something eternal, but reserving eternity to God the Word, Christian exegesis was able to make use of words (logoi) and Christian rhetoric was able to make use of speech (logos) in flexible and dynamic ways that permitted the interaction with classical texts and classical rhetoric on the assumption that anything reasonable, true or beautiful in them was a mark of the divinely created order, created through the Word.  Permitting this application of reason to Scripture then permitted a wide range of reasoning about doctrine (within reason, of course) that necessitated and generated an interest in classical philosophy that was at the mainstream of church life, while the same philosophy could only be embraced deeply by Muslim scholars if they were willing to court condemnation.  I have seen it said that classic Islamic scholars made significant use of Greek technical treatises in mathematics, astronomy and other natural sciences, but tended to avoid all those aspects of philosophy that touched on human affairs, assuming that there was nothing needful or edifying in them and assuming that Allah had already delivered the complete answer through revelation.  Where Athens was meaningful and important (because philosophical inquiry was itself seen as a fruit of God the Word), but subordinate to Jerusalem, Athens was merely occasionally useful to Mecca and ultimately of little significance.  Between the spirit of inquiry urged on by the life-creating Word and this frequently technical application of reason there is a wide chasm.  

Fundamentally, a religion that expanded through conquest had less need to reconcile the heritage of Athens with revelation, as there was no need for persuasion and thus no audience deeply committed to the heritage of Athens to be convinced in the first place.  But in the Christian tradition once the link was definitively made between the pursuits of reason and the Word of God, a certain degree of inquiry itself became a religious calling.  Thus what became commonplace and normative in Christianity was an outlier or a flash in the pan in Islam.  Against this Muslims may riot all their like, but it is the legacy of their religion and their history.       

Yet I cringed when reading Benedict’s speech, and not jut because of its laughable recounting of 15th century Christianity’s embrace of reason and tolerance. ~Alkyan Velshi

One thing Ledeen did get right was that Mr. Velshi curiously managed to get the century of Manuel II’s dialogue wrong.  But there is a more basic problem here: the same snide, irritating disdain for the claims of some Christians to a legacy of non-coercion and toleration presumably on account of a remedial acquaintance with the Wars of Religion or some other such events.  It was a long-standing Byzantine tradition to refrain from compulsion and violent coercion in religion, and it is notable in the history of the Byzantine empire–which was officially Christian for nearly 1,100 years–how few heretics were ever killed for their heterodoxy or forcibly converted and how often these measures were opposed in the strongest terms by the Church.  There are exceptional cases: the forcible conversion of Jews and violent repression of monophysites under Heraclius; the persecution of the Montanists under Leo III; executions of a few Paulicians and Athinganoi under Michael I; executions of some Bogomils under Alexios I.  There were inter-confessional persecutions, most of which took the form of sending people into exile or deposing them from their sees.  It might be of interest to note that one of the worst periods of violent persecution in these internal church disputes was under Michael VIII, who sought to enforce church union with Rome.  On the whole, the “laughable recounting” of Byzantine reasonableness and tolerance was by and large accurate.  Of course no self-respecting religion in the 14th century would have pretended that people are entitled to hold any beliefs they pleased without penalty, but there was a remarkable commitment to refrain from compulsion and coercion in Byzantium.  It is one of the things about Byzantium that modern people could view with some appreciation…assuming they knew anything about it, which Mr. Velshi clearly does not. 

The main subject is the Greek roots—as in Socrates, who he quotes—of Catholic thought.  Reason is the basis of human understanding and behavior, it is not just a matter of faith.  The dialogue between the Emperor and the Persian highlights this theme.   God is comprehensible to us, and God rejects violence as a basis for spreading religion.  Benedict quotes the Koran to the effect that compulsion in the service of religion is not legitimate, even as he insists that Mohammed later endorsed the use of jihad. ~Michael Ledeen

Actually, the subject is not really the Greek roots of Catholic or even more broadly Christian thought (though it presupposes such roots) but the rationality of God–and thus the unacceptability of having recourse to bloodshed and force in matters of faith–which Pope Benedict argues is not simply a Greek idea but a true statement about the nature of God which Muslims do not accept.  The speech did not say that “reason is the basis” for human understanding and behaviour, or at least not in such crude terms, but that faith is rational and any kind of violent faith that contradicts God’s basic rationality must also be untrue.  It seems to me that Pope Benedict quoted the Qur’anic citation “there is no compulsion in religion”–from an early phase of Muhammad’s career–as a way of anticipating and cancelling out this most standard of misleading rebuttals.  As he said:

In the seventh conversation (”diálesis” — controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. 

If my reading is right, Pope Benedict was being very clear that he views the verse “there is no compulsion in religion” as one conditioned by the early stages of Muhammad’s career, when it was advantageous to him and his early followers to preach toleration.  When the shoe was on the other foot, and the whip was in the other hand, attitudes towards violence and coercion shift.  He does not say this explicitly in the speech, but you do get the sense that he wants to show that this earlier verse–cited by every apologist and excuse-maker out there–has limited significance for understanding the Islamic conception of God, which he is using as a foil for fleshing out the Christian understanding of God’s rationality.  In other words, I think Pope Benedict effectively neutralises and dismisses this claim of a lack of compulsion in Islam and juxtaposes it with Islamic warfare and jihad to emphasise the disjunction between the two.  It does not really concede that Islam regards compulsion as illegitimate, as Ledeen claims, but that it was considered illegitimate when it served Muhammad’s turn; later, it could be and was used, as was the sword.  Those who don’t believe it can refer to the story of the martyrs of Gaza.  Obviously, if such compulsion and violence had not ever been used, there would have been little occasion for Manuel II to bring it up in a dialogue.     

Of course, the main point of the example from the dialogue was to emphasise the importance of understanding God as rational–a man who believes God is rational should not deliberately act against reason in the belief that he is thereby serving God; a man who thinks of God as capricious, arbitrary, bound by nothing, in essence merely despotic, is not bound by any such constraint, as there is nothing in God’s own nature that demands the rationality of faith.  There is merely obedience to a divine will, which, as the citations claim, can change if Allah so chooses.  All this had nothing immediately to do with the “comprehensibility” of God, as Ledeen suggests, which is technically a distinct question and one complicated by the matter of God’s infinity and the poverty of language and concepts to describe Him, but with God being rational and indeed being Reason Himself.

For a portrait of an influential and provocative public intellectual, The Theocons has some curious omissions. Linker describes Neuhaus as “a handsome and charismatic man who delights in public attention,” eliciting great loyalty and even affection from his followers. Yet the nature of this charisma is never explained. Occasionally we get a glimpse of Neuhaus and his cronies, cigars and brandy snifters in hand, reacting with “blind rage” to this or that liberal deprecation. But the man’s personality remains opaque; he comes across more as an inexhaustible engine of argument than a flesh-and-blood person. Furthermore, if it is true that Neuhaus’s “ultimate goal is nothing less than the end of secular politics in America,” why did Linker go to work for him in the first place? Not knowing what made Linker enlist in what he now regards as a dangerously authoritarian movement raises serious questions about his forthrightness and credibility. Yet The Theocons never offers an explanation of his change of mind and heart. ~Paul Baumann, The Washington Monthly

Via Ross Douthat

When Linker’s book first came out and back around the time the Year of Books Denouncing American Theocracy had begun, I was struck by the bitterness and intensity of Linker’s rage against Neuhaus and First Things in the New Republic article he wrote that summarised the main argument of his book.  The intense bitterness seemed all the more inexplicable given that Linker had been editor of the magazine.  There are people, including those on the right and including myself, who often disagree strongly with Neuhaus who nonetheless cannot summon up quite this much fury against him or the magazine.  It is a pity that Linker did not attempt to explain how some personal dispute had “revealed” to him the nature of Neuhaus’ theocratic master-plan, since that would at least explain where this mania came from.  I think something very personal must have set him off in this direction, as almost nothing else explains the extreme rhetoric of Linker’s attack. 

It would not have been the first time that some personal or professional falling out had precipitated criticism of the old boss.  This is especially true among academics and intellectuals, who feel obliged to dress up their petty personal disagreements (you didn’t give my wife a job, you gave my book a bad review, etc.) in the fancy dress of profound theoretical clashes (you want to destroy the American way of life, you despise truth itself, etc.), and the more “public” an intellectual is the more necessary it is to make the costume in which you dress your personal grievances really elaborate, colourful and Mardi Gras-esque with all of the grotesquerie, zaniness and exaggeration that this implies.  It is not enough that your boss treated you poorly or failed to appreciate your work to your satisfaction–his intellectual project must be dark and dangerous, too!  That makes your petty inconveniences and suffering part of a narrative of resistance to the Dark Side, which is much more appealing for someone who thinks highly of himself and feels aggrieved by workplace setbacks.  It is probably because of this sort of thinking that we wind up with the apparent excessive rhetoric and melodramatic conclusions of Linker’s work.

There is certainly nothing in the record of Neuhaus or First Things that would lead me to believe that they are preparing the doom of secular America.  Indeed, one of my long-standing criticisms of the entire First Things approach to the public square has been that they not only have no intention of eliminating secularism from America (or anything of the kind) but seem all together too interested in justifying participation in the debate just to be part of it and simply having a seat at the table so that they are less willing to take the kinds of strongly conservative positions on the social and moral ills that they really need to take to mobilise Christian opinion in America.  They are at root accommodationists with secularism (and also, at heart, they are really progressives of one sort or another), because I believe their guiding vision has been one that sees a basic harmony between the taproot of modern secularism–Enlightenment liberalism–and Christianity where there is no such real harmony.  As with the heresy of ecumenism (and it assuredly a heresy in its present forms), the revealed truth will have to give way to make this unholy alliance work, and so I think First Things‘ approach contains as much danger to a faithful, socially and politically involved Christianity as it does to secularism.  If Neuhaus and First Things are the center of the future American theocratic movement, they are decidedly odd theocrats; one might even say that they give theocrats a bad name. 

Needless to say, I also don’t think much of their long-standing and ongoing alliance with some of the figures who have crafted neoconservative positions on foreign policy, and if anyone wanted definitive proof that these are not theocrats-in-waiting it would have to be the magazine’s engagement with what the new editor, Mr. Bottum, called the “new fusionism,” which is an alliance dedicated to being basically pro-life at home (against abortion, euthanasia, etc.) and pro-death overseas (in favour of every war you can think of).  Just as the old fusionism between “libertarians,” generic anticommunists and “traditionalists” worked to the distinct disadvantage of the traditionalists in most respects, the secular and foreign policy-oriented side of the “new fusionist” alliance proposes, and the religious side disposes, getting virtually nothing of what it hoped to gain from the bargain.  What is the logic of this alliance in the first place?  It’s all about being dreadfully, seriously moral (or at least talking about morality with a dreadfully serious demeanour)–that’s what makes invading Iraq and protecting the unborn so clearly related.  What worries me more about First Things is not that it is a vessel for the coming theocracy (the idea really is risible), but that it is an all together too willing cheerleader for interventionism and has shown itself willing to anoint the most appalling policies abroad with the chrism of Christian justice (while running interference against the actual authorities of Christian churches who have opposed the very same ventures).  

Which brings me back to Linker.  As Baumann notes:

Again and again Linker lapses into the worst rhetorical excesses of the theocons he is trying to discredit. Baptized into the apocalyptic world of the theocons not long ago, he has returned to warn us that at Neuhaus’s direction the Republican Party is leading the nation into “the arms of absolute ecclesiastical authority.” Apparently, evangelicals provide the foot soldiers and Catholics the intellectual generals in the theocon battle plan. Linker’s worries that the theocons want to put an end to religious pluralism in America sound paranoid. First Things, after all, remains an “ecumenical” journal. Presumably Neuhaus would like his many conservative Protestant and Jewish friends to follow him to Rome, but he would not compel them to do so even if he could. Detecting The Grand Inquisitor behind every Roman collar is an old and ugly canard.

To see any kind of Inquisitor here would be very difficult, and if you did it would sooner be the cynical socialist Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s imagination rather than any of the actual Inquisitors of history.  In the wake of consistent anti-Vatican criticism from First Things editors and contributors on questions of war in Iraq and Lebanon, which does not even take into consideration any other areas where contributors and editors may have voiced dissent against Vatican or American bishops’ statements, Linker’s claim that Neuhaus and his colleagues desire the establishment of ”absolute ecclesiastical authority”–regardless of whether it would be possible to realise–strikes me as so obviously untrue that it is remarkable that anyone would publish, much less read, his book.

But if Baumann eviscerates the credibility of Linker’s claims, he concludes with a note that seems intended to leave you with a worse impression of Neuhaus than Linker has offered:

If, as Linker suggests, Neuhaus has a prophet’s uncompromising temperament, it is the temperament of a prophet strongly drawn to the stark and simple truth of getting and keeping power. Neuhaus has made a number of surprising but very canny conversions in his lifetime. If I were a betting man, I’d pay careful attention to where he is headed. For better or worse, the nation (or a slim electoral majority, at any rate) is usually not far behind, led by a cohort of voters who also happen to be religious believers. It would be a welcome miracle if liberals could get there first, with a plausible appeal to some of those same voters. 

This ends up leaving you with the impression of Neuhaus not as an impatient prophet preaching for the downfall of the present order so much as a cynical operator who sees which way the wind is blowing and gets to the front of the line for the latest trend.  As much as I disagree with Neuhaus and First Things, I think this is as extreme and untenable a claim as any that Linker makes.

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur — this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

“Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God,” said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university. ~Pope Benedict XVI

In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point — itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself — which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason,” I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (”diálesis” — controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (”syn logo”) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….”

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? ~Pope Benedict XVI

This is an excellent address, which manages to briefly involve my favourite subject (Byzantine history) with a very timely and necessary understanding of the different conceptions of the nature of God in Islam and Christianity.  Allah’s complete transcendence and freedom from every definition or category, which would include reason and goodness, is of a different kind from traditional Christian apophatic theology, which accepts God’s absolute transcendence but does not therefore rule out all positive statements about Him.  If Allah is not bound by his word, and can arbitrarily reverse himself, he is himself inconstant and neither always good nor reasonable by nature; in the end he is supremely powerful, but has no need to abide by his own justice.  (As Pope Benedict himself points out later, this dangerous emphasis on God’s freedom does appear in the Christian world with Duns Scotus and, I would hasten to add, Ockham, so bear that in mind when next you consider the relevance of the dangers of Ockhamism.)  

But the difference between the two conceptions of God is not something that would require you to dig up Manuel II’s dialogue or be familiar with the intricacies of Islamic theology.  The crucial difference is that for Christianity, as expressed through the categories of Greek language and Hellenistic philosophy, God is His own Word, which is Reason (Logos), Who is His co-essential Son and eternally One with Him from before the ages, whereas Allah’s word is the eternal Qur’an, which has no obvious or necessary relationship to reason, and which he could nonetheless repudiate at any time if he so chose.  Put more dramatically, Christians believe that God gave His own Reason for our sakes that we might become like Him, while Muslims believe that they ought to obey and submit to the will of Allah even if he were to command them to do the most unreasonable things.  As the suppression of the Muta’zila shows, this obedience even extends to the diminution of man’s own use of reason in understanding God.   

One could imagine a perspective in which nothing in particular was reliable, in this world, but which the world as a whole was comprehensible.  Such a view might mimic many of the effects of pessimism without really embracing it.  Augustine, for example, could be viewed in this way.  Indeed, many Augustinians are today called “Christian pessimists.”  They consider that this world is fundamentally disordered, that it will always contain evil, and cannot be set right, except, perhaps, by God at the Last Judgment.  Nonetheless, this terrible world can be viewed from elsewhere–its existence is part of a larger cosmology that also includes the heavenly city.  Although particular evils cannot be fathomed, the phenomenon of evil as a whole can be understood.  It shall be understood when one leaves the city of man for the city of God, either in this life, or the next.  Thus Augustine mimics (indeed foreshadows) many of the conclusions of pessimism–but always with the escape hatch of another world, where the effects of time are not felt. ~Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit

It is fair to say that I have been taking a strong interest in Dienstag’s study of pessimism because I hold such Christian pessimist premises.  In the final analysis, as far as these pessimists themselves would be concerned, I am not a thoroughgoing pessimist, because I retain the hope of salvation in Christ.  Obviously there is a certain unbridgeable difference here, but there are also many fascinating points of contact in a shared ascetic detachment and, if not exactly a contemptus mundi (pessimists would not have contempt for the world, but simply take it for what it is), an understanding that nothing lasts in this world. 

But, even if pessimists see Christian pessimists as mimics, both together share much in their recognition of the world as it is.  Even if pessimists see their Christian counterparts as retaining an “escape hatch” in God and the Kingdom not of this world, both share the conviction that man’s predicament is not soluble–at least not by human agency.  For the pessimists, man’s predicament is not to be solved at all, but accepted and borne; for the Christians, the predicament is solved only in Christ, but the structures of life in the world must still be borne all the same.  

A key difference between the pre-modern and modern man, as Chantal Delsol proposed in Icarus Fallen, is that modern man sees problems to be solved, but pre-modern man sees burdens to be borne.  The pessimist, though no less a child of modernity than the optimist, shares far more with this pre-modern mentality (and with a Christian understanding of suffering) than he does with his fellow moderns. 

Most issues can either be painted as very glorious or very repulsive, depending on the wielder of the brush. I think the role and place of women is just such an issue. It is too easy to either view women as equal in role to men, thus brushing over the glorious distinctions God has given the two sexes, or conversely to harp on the servitude of women and their need to keep a “proper place” in society. The male writer of the Forbes article did not do either, but there was still no beauty in his painting of a woman’s role, no esteem for her position. She was a statistic who shouldn’t compete with men. Period.

The Bible paints a different picture, though. Women have a different role than men. Woman is created to be his helpmeet, walking beside him hand in hand through life. Marriage is a union, a binding of two lives that the two might work together more effectively than apart. In that beautiful union, woman does take the role that is often deemed “demeaning.” She is a guard of the home, a nurturer of children. She takes the home as her sphere of influence gladly, not because it is statistically better but because she belongs there. She was created for a special purpose. She is not free household staff, but a cherished wife and a mother. And yes, she is an obedient wife. ~Susan Garrison

Such are the sensible words of Ms. Garrison, who blogs here, responding to the deficiencies in Mr. Noer’s original Forbes article and making her very succinct summary stressing the importance of complementarity in Christian marriage and emphasising the honourable and vital role of women as laid down in Scripture.  Readers should look at the entire post to determine whether the young lady is, as Mr. Suderman offensively averred, either “backwards” or a “lunatic.”  I believe that readers will find a moderate, intelligent woman who seeks to live out her obligations before God in a manner well-pleasing to Him.     

Processional icon of the Koimesis. 85Х55, 2002 


In giving birth, you preserved your virginity!
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death!


Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos,
Who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions.
For being the Mother of Life,
She was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!

The Pew religion poll has many interesting items related to religion, politics and public life, but the item that strikes me as most remarkable (though it is probably not a new phenomenon) is the percentage of Protestants and Catholics that does not believe in the Second Coming: 17% of all Protestants and 30% of all Catholics don’t buy it.  One wonders what they think is going to happen.  One also wonders what it is they think they’re doing as Christians if they have no hope of the general resurrection.  Of course, the Protestant numbers are hugely affected by the mainline churches (only 60% of mainline Protestants believe in the Second Coming), while the white evangelical (95%) and black Protestant (92%) numbers are a lot closer to what I would expect them to be.  Silly me, I would expect the numbers to be somewhere around 99%.  Part of this is undoubtedly related to how the people in question view the authority of Scripture with “literalists” being more likely to believe it than others, but I would guess that another part of it must be the neglect of regularly confessing a creed that contains the promise of Christ’s return or, if such a creed is regularly recited, there is no sense that making that public confession is anything other than a rote or perfunctory obligation that has no meaning.  It would have been interesting if the researchers had asked whether the people being interviewed routinely confessed a creed and what creed it was that they confessed.  There should probably be some significant correlation between knowing and reciting a creed and believing in what the creed says 


He will likely evaluate the claims for God’s existence based on objective evidence. And here I have to revert to the question of why very bad things happen to good people, a topic which must be infinitely tedious to believers, because I find Novak’s arguments for God’s love more conclusory than evidentiary. ~Heather Mac Donald

The topic is “infinitely tedious” because it is something very like a non-issue.  It is not just a non-issue for believers, but for anyone who gives the claims of Christian theology serious weight and consideration.  Some theologians beat their breasts and lament about human suffering before they get around to offering an explanation for why these things happen–or rather, why they are permitted to happen in a cosmos ruled by an omnipotent and just God–though I think this is often to avoid appearing callous rather than to add anything to our understanding.   

Whether a rationalist finds the Christian answer credible or not depends very much on whether he (or, in this case, she) believes that sin, which is to say disordered desire and flawed will, exists in the world.  Rationalist conservatives ought to be inclined to acknowledge that such a thing does exist, since they root their acceptance of conservatism in their own empirical judgement that man is fallible and incapable of perfecting himself through changes in his material environment.  If they acknowledge the reality of sin, conservative tradition points them inevitably to the Christian understanding of ancestral sin as the explanation for where this flaw in man came from.  We are not here talking about generic theism or generic proofs of God’s existence, but a specific argument against Christianity on account of an inability to reconcile a good God with evil in the world.  Pardon me if I sound obnoxious, but this is one of the easiest to answer in specifically Christian terms. 

“Bad things happen to good people,” as the saying goes, because of the existence of sin in the world–not necessarily because of those individuals’ sins (and everyone has at least a few) but because of the disorder and corruption that have entered into the world through sin–and sin exists because God has given man free will and man, as Scripture tells us, fell of old in pursuing a life of autonomy that turned him away from God and disrupted the communion between God and man. 

As man the microcosm went, so went all of creation into the violence and death that pervade what we typically generically call “nature.”  So long as man remains at all free to will the Good or turn away from it, so long as it remains within his power and energy to enter into communion with God or drift away into autonomy, the possibility (and unfortunately very often the reality) of evil remains.  Because of the fallen state of the entire world, man will also suffer violence from the natural world.  I would hasten to add that, pace Orthodox theologian David Hart, this is not always merely permitted by God, but sometimes willed by Him as a chastisement of the wicked and a chastening of those whom He loves.  This idea generally horrifies atheists, because they seem to regard it as a kind of sadism rather than seeing it, like permitting the existence of death, as the charitable limitation of evil.  But this is the Christian’s Biblical answer to the tiresome question. 

As Dostoevsky said (and I’m paraphrasing), evil exists because freedom exists.  We could no more be completely preserved from the fruits of sin–the bad things happening to good people–that we could be coercively saved against our own will.  This is one reason why Christianity preaches salvation from this predicament in Jesus Christ.

St. Gregory Palamas once said, The Logos became flesh, and the flesh became Logos.  Taken out of the context of Orthodox Tradition and the finely balanced doctrine of Christ held by the Orthodox Church, this statement might seem shocking or even heretical, but it is because St. Gregory’s formulation was closely tied to the entirety of Church Tradition that this radical statement of the reality of deification expresses the profound paradox of the truth of the Incarnation.  The statement is strongly Cyrilline in its inspiration, recognising that, as Donald Fairbairn has acknowledged in his important book Grace and Christology in the Early Church, Cyrilline Christology implies that Christ’s own humanity has received the adopted divine sonship that the Son naturally possesses: Christ’s humanity is His deified humanity and, what is more, His deified humanity is made equally the adopted son of God by grace that the Son is by nature. 

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that in Orthodoxy in particular the significance of John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, stands out as a defining feature of all subsequent Orthodox theology.  This is not to deny the importance of the prologue to the Gospel of St. John to other confessions; it is, of course, fundamental to all Christian confessions in its statement of Christ’s divinity and the cosmic dimension of the Incarnation.  However, it is in the strong embrace of the idea of theosis in the Greek tradition that Orthodoxy finds it particular expression.  It is not an exaggeration to say that essentially every controversy of any significance in the Orthodox world before 1453 was a controversy over the nature or possibility of deification, which is to say the nature or possibility of God’s Redemption of mankind and the reception of His saving grace. 

If God became man that men might become gods, in the famous statement reiterated by St. Athanasios (following a long tradition stemming back to St. Clement of Alexandria), the reality of God’s becoming man and the integrity of His remaining fully God were essential to the entire rationale for the Incarnation itself.  If the paradoxical mystery of the Incarnation was to make any sense, it must retain the possibility of the deification of men for which the Word undertook to take human flesh and a rational soul.  Central to this is the reciprocal relationship of the two transformations: the changeless becoming of God taking the form of a servant, obedient unto death, yea, even death on a cross and the transfiguration of created flesh into illumined and deified flesh raised by grace to the level of divinity according to energy. 

As the Orthodox on the Traditional Church Calendar marked the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord this past weekend, which our New Calendar Orthodox bretren marked two weeks ago, we were reminded of the meaning of the Psalmist’s declaration that You are gods (Ps. 82:6) and shown the way to our fully restored state of purified, illumined and deified human nature shining with the uncreated light of Mt. Tabor.  This is the purpose for which every man has been created; this is the reality of our salvation realised before us in the living witnesses of the saints and martyrs who have received the perfection of harmonious synergeia between their wills and the will of God; this is the transformation of flesh by grace confirmed in the icons of Our Lord, His Mother and the holy saints and prophets; this is the participation in the Life of God made possible through partaking of the Holy Sacraments.  God became man that men might become gods–this is as essential to the truth of the Faith as believing on the reality of the Resurrection, for they are in fact one and the same thing.  Without Resurrection, deification is impossible, and without the possibility of deification the Resurrection of Christ was in vain for the salvation of our race.      

As Jonah’s reader points out, our concepts of limited representational government stem far more from the Greco-Roman tradition than they do from the Old Testament. ~Heather Mac Donald

The Greek and Roman political traditions do have some direct bearing on the formation of the political ideas and ideals of modern European man (and, as Bradford argued, the Roman inheritance was deeply important for leaders of the War of Independence and the Framers), but it is telling that the societies where our tradition of “limited representative government” comes from were those least touched by these traditions until arguably the 16th and 17th centuries.  For that matter, the rise of the Cortes, French parlements, the Imperial Diet and Parliament in England was not related to some great nostalgic revival of senatorial practises or a longing for the good old days on the Areopagus, but arose from the pragmatic needs of government in medieval Europe. 

Medieval Christians remembered Rome, and none more so than the Byzantines, who maintained (with quite a lot of justification) that their polity was the Roman Empire, but wherever the practise and memory of imperial Rome was strongest you see constant challenges to the sort of consultative and decentralised government in the Cortes and the Diet or the complete absence of any such institutions.  The Roman tradition that medieval Christians remembered was that of the empire; the Republic would enjoy its revival as a model in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

In Byzantium, where the Greco-Roman tradition was joined with a thoroughgoing Christian worldview, you typically see small-scale consultative government apparatuses appearing only late in the empire in the time of the Comnenians during the revival of the Byzantine city, and there is never any question of the emperor needing to consult with anyone.  In England, we see the rise of Parliament as an adjunct to a strong central monarchy that nonetheless required consent to raise new revenues to wage the endless campaigns of the Plantaganets, and it is only during the the seventeenth century crisis over the King’s wars and the raising of revenue that we first see serious claims for the supremacy of Parliament and the practical application of entertaining fiction that sovereignty rests with “the people.” 

In any case, it is mainly in the seventeenth century that we see the reconfirmations of the chartered rights that our ancestors inherited and defended, pointing the way back down the winding road of specifically English legal and constitutional precedent.  There was a political application of covenant theology that expressed political compacts in terms of covenantal relationships, and this sort of language continued to be used in the colonies at the time of the rebellion, so it is fair to say that Christianity was not irrelevant to the development of representative government but it was something that was added on to an existing constitutional scheme and did nothing in particular to create that scheme.    

This constitutional tradition and even the liberalism that went along with its later stages are worthy of consideration insofar as they are our patrimony.  We are who we are in part because of these things, and that is worth acknowledging and respecting, but it does not require us to stop thinking about the truth of their claims and assumptions, especially when they seem to stand in conflict with much more essential aspects of our inheritance. 

But what frequently puzzles me about these sorts of arguments is why anyone, Christian or non-Christian, should care to defend or approve of Christianity because it helped pave the way in some sense for these political developments rather than because it is the heart of our civilisation, the source of all our meaningful cultural accomplishments and, well, the True Faith.  It may be interesting to note how certain forms of Christianity facilitated the rise of this kind of government in a very few countries, whence it has since spread, but surely it is relevant that in most Christian societies this form of government has arisen through the efforts of people starkly opposed to Christian tradition and Christian authorities.   

Liberal revolutions in Protestant countries, and I am principally thinking of England, have typically taken on a less overtly, simply anti-Christian colour, because there is much less in the way of institutional and social Christianity that impedes the liberal political vision and because historically the revolutions often take on a confessional tinge of defending “the true protestant religion,” as Sydney put it, against the innovations of crypto- and not-so-crypto-Catholics. Protestant Roundheads and Whigs could always take out their revolutionary hostility on High Church Anglicans and Catholics, rather than focus it on Christianity as a whole.  In every Catholic and Orthodox country where liberalism has arrived its rise has been much more hard-fought and adversarial because the churches in these countries have typically been opposed to liberal ideas–more readily recognising them as being basically incompatible with Christian teaching in many respects–and because liberals have viewed both the institutional and social roles of the churches as barriers to the different kinds of emancipation they want to usher in. 

Today this previous opposition to liberalism among the Catholics and Orthodox is supposed to be embarrassing to their modern brethren (as if Bossuet is more embarrassing than Voltaire), but I am increasingly of the opinion that many of these Christians did well not to fall for the siren song of liberalism.  Therefore I am also frequently puzzled by the need of some Christians to justify their religion in the strangest terms, as if to try to make people who are otherwise indifferent or hostile to the Faith appreciative that, but for Christianity, they would not be able to vote!  This is, of course, not really true, and the contortions into which some people must put themselves to make the arguments at one and the same time for orthodox Christianity and the role of Christianity in spurring on liberalism (even though the Christianity of political liberals through the ages has not always been exactly orthodox) are really quite remarkable. 

Christianity has been supremely important in shaping the mores, culture, literature, music, art, architecture and much of the philosophy of our civilisation, and if we need to dwell on the material culture that Christianity has inspired there are far more interesting things than liberalism and representative government to talk about.  I suppose I can understand that Christians wish to show that they are part of contemporary society in some way, and that Christianity is “relevant” to the modern discourse about freedom and rights and all the rest, but I am not sure I really understand what they hope to gain from this–except the occasional acknowledgement of Christianity’s historical importance from people who otherwise pay no attention to the Gospel.  There is an obsession with liberalism among certain Christians, captured rather well in the unfortunate expression of Mr. Bush that “freedom is God’s gift to humanity,” that does not seem to make very much sense, and in their arguments claiming Christian and divine origins for liberal notions they are really doing a disservice to all of the beautiful and remarkable fruits of Christian civilisation that are more important and which will outlast the airy abstractions of freedom and equality.

Heather [Mac Donald] writes: “I simply don’t know what to make of…the president claim[ing] that freedom is God’s gift to humanity.” Oh, come on. Bush is offering here a conscious echo of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, Bush is harkening back to the foundational document of the United States, the political source of our universalist conviction. That’s what to make of it.  ~John Podhoretz

I suppose people who wrongly think that the Declaration is the “foundational document of the United States” (the ratified Constitution established the Union and to that extent “founded” the United States) will also put incredibly great store by the platitudes in its first two paragraphs.  But I have to say that I am more with Ms. Mac Donald and the skeptics when they express puzzlement at the strange formulations of Mr. Bush.  This is not because I am skeptical about God’s role in history, as they are, but because I am skeptical that God has given ”freedom”–except in the most important ways of the Redemption and Resurrection–to all mankind.  Indeed, moral freedom as it is frequently defined today in terms of self-will and choice is fundamentally the opposite of the free will that God created in man.  According to St. Maximos, our free, natural will freely wills the Good and obeys God; our choosing will (gnomikon thelima) is simply man’s fallen indecision and hesitation about willing the Good.    

It is reasonable to see the blessings of liberty as God’s gift to any particular people who enjoy those blessings, and it makes sense for free people to give thanks to God for those blessings, much as they would give thanks for any of the other myriad blessings that God gives to a peaceful, bountiful nation, but it does not make sense to assume that this liberty is therefore automatically or necessarily given to all men, that specifically political ”freedom is God’s gift to humanity”–when it clearly is not.  This is to make the truly significant and meaningful deliverance that God has given us through His Son only one part of the deliverance.  If we believe Mr. Bush, God also has a sort of program of earthly liberation.  It is an attempt to immanentise the spiritual liberty of Christians as political liberty, while at the same time stripping this liberty of any association with revelation.  It is a modern gnostic error.  Though the statement is brief, it is also strangely reminiscent of liberation theology in which the Gospel serves as a means of legitimising social and political revolution.  As well as being Mr. Bush’s ideology, this phrase is a rhetorical gimmick to baptise revolution with the appearance of holiness and to keep conservative religious Americans from raising objections to the fundamentally revolutionary and liberal nature of Mr. Bush’s entire enterprise.  If we judge by looking at who still supports his foreign policy, the gimmick seems to be working.    

It is also correct to say that because God made man in His image and likeness that man is free in a way relatively like unto God’s freedom, but this means that man is autexousion, and has free natural will, and not that God invests man with any “rights” with respect to political constitutions.  Perhaps Mr. Bush is thinking of the Declaration when he makes his far-fetched, enthusiastic claim, but just as there is no reason to put great store by those “self-evident truths” (which were not at all evident to generation upon generation of Christians) there is no reason to put much store by Mr. Bush’s odd, quasi-heretical view. 

The more basic difficulty that skeptics and believers alike have to have with Mr. Bush’s formulation is a difficulty that crops up again and again as conservatives keep trying to make the dysfunctional marriage of Enlightenment social and political philosophy and Christianity work through increasingly strained and incredible rhetoric.  Mr. Bush’s God of Freedom in the end has little more to do with the living God of Scripture, the One God in Trinity, than does Robespierre’s Supreme Being or the clockwork god of the Deists.  One wonders, of course, whether Mr. Bush really believes that Muslims also worship this same God as he has claimed in the past about the common worship of Muslims and Christians (”different routes to the Almighty,” indeed!). 


You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God, showing your Disciples as much of your glory as they could hold. Let your eternal light shine also upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Mother of God. O Giver of Light, glory to You. 


On the mountain You were transfigured, O Christ our God, and your Disciples saw as much of your glory as they could hold, so that when they should see You crucified, they would know that You suffered willingly, and would proclaim to the world that You are truly the Splendor of the Father.

The Mac Donald blog fest goes on, prompting this remarkable statement from Wesley Smith at First Things:

Regarding Michael Novak’s post about Heather Mac Donald’s discomfort with talk of God: I too have grappled intellectually with how to analyze crucial concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, in a society that seems so pluralistic morally that it frequently appears not to be a true society at all. Yet, if we look carefully, we can discern a common frame of reference underlying many of these arguments. Indeed, amid the cacophony of competing voices—whether Christian, Jewish, secularist, atheist, or none of the above—I find it encouraging that all sides in most cultural controversies at least give lip service to the belief in universal human equality.

Why is it encouraging that all sides in most controversies pay lip service to something that isn’t true?  Would it be encouraging if all sides in the debate on evolution paid lip service to the fantastical Young Earth theory?  Would it be encouraging if all sides in Egyptology paid lip service to the belief that the pyramids were landing platforms for alien spaceships?  I ask because I regard “universal human equality” to be approximately as accurate an assessment of the human condition as those other claims are accurate assessments of the respective truths in each area of inquiry.  All of them are pleasant or amusing ideas (entire sci-fi universes have been constructed around the latter), and none of them seems to have any empirical basis in reality.  As near as anyone can tell in real life, universal equality doesn’t exist, the earth really is several billion years old, and the pyramids were built by people for the Pharaohs as monumental tombs.  The first and third claims have something else in common: those who believe in each one also believe that sinister, oppressive institutions have at one time or other hidden “the truth” from the people. 

I know, I know, Mr. Smith would not have made the statement if he didn’t believe “universal human equality” actually existed.  Some will say, “Surely you believe in the equality of man!”  Alas, no. 

It is interesting that this comes as part of an ongoing response to Heather Mac Donald’s article in defense of the “skeptical” (read non-religious, non-believing) conservative’s claim to being a real conservative.  Of course, no one had really denied the skeptical conservatives their place, though I did suggest that conservatism and full-on materialist atheism don’t really make a lot of sense together, but the basic argument was that skeptical conservatives come to their conservatism through a solid grounding in experience and empirical evidence and that they can reach basically conservative conclusions on all sorts of things from politics to morality to culture largely by means of their own critical and rational thinking.  Supposing this is true, why would a skeptical conservative be inclined to accept something like “universal human equality” and pay lip service to it?  What reason would a secular or atheistic conservative have to believe this?  Indeed, since it is one of the basic principles in the conservative tradition that such equality is not real, why would any kind of conservative be so inclined? 

To the extent that there is any truth to the idea of the equality of man it would be based in a metaphysical and spiritual claim, because it is plainly false if we are to judge by any other standard.  (It is important to remember that, as Bradford and Tonsor have told us, metaphysical or spiritual equality has no necessary connection to questions of any other kind of equality.)  I have never been entirely clear where the idea of spiritual equality itself came from. 

In all seriousness, it does not, to the best of my knowledge, appear in the early Fathers–or rather it is not even a question that much exercised the Fathers.  The Gospel may invert or subvert conventional worldly hierarchies, but the belief in some sort of hierarchy is always present, particularly from the Apostle onwards. 

In patristic theology, questions of equality arose in relation to the status of the Son in relation to the Father, and later the Holy Spirit in relation to both.  Because of their common essence, they are co-equally God.  The assumption here was that those that share the same nature possess an equality in that nature, which means that all those who share in human nature are all equally human.  It does necessarily follow that all individual human beings are therefore equal, except to say redundantly that they are all human.  Arguably, our two prelapsarian ancestors possessed the fullness of created nature, which was diminished in the Fall, and the Redemption has provided the possibility of recovering the fullness of our true nature, which suggests that the only spiritual and fully natural equality of man that exists is one realised by grace among the deified.  Otherwise, all that can be said with certainty is that all men are under sin and in the need of God’s grace–I submit that it is in this, and in nothing else, that fallen men are equal.        

Someone will object and say, “But the point of this other post was not so much about equality itself, but how people should treat one another, whether or not everyone is entitled to the same protections and dignity.”  That is what the rest of the post was about, and I am getting to it.  Mr. Smith discusses a number of moral questions, most of them related to the protection of life, and frames them in terms of equality.  Now, as a matter of description, I believe he is correct that most people do argue about these controversies in terms of equality and equal rights, but this is not something that I find “encouraging.” 

For example, what can it mean to say that an unborn child is equal to his mother and has equal rights?  Does it mean that she treats her unborn child with respect and dignity only to the degree that he is equal with her?  Clearly, the child loses in any such approach.  That would suggest that we ought to treat those weaker, more defenseless and more dependent with less respect and dignity than we would those who are more our equals.  This is clearly an unjust and cruel way to treat the weakest and most vulnerable people in a society. 

So perhaps someone will invoke a metaphysical right–the child has the same rights as anybody else.  Yet all of this rights talk presupposes the child’s autonomy in a way that seems hard to credit; the child, particularly the unborn child, is not autonomous in any meaningful sense and will not be for many years.  Rather, why do we not recognise the stark inequality in such cases and acknowledge that justice and charity require of us to treat the weakest and most vulnerable with the same respect and dignity that we would if they were our equals?  Indeed, if men treat their equals with equal dignity, that is to be expected, so where is the virtue and merit in this?  Rather, does it not follow from the teachings of the Gospel that we are to treat those who are not our equals with the respect and dignity that we would give our equals?  For if human equality were true, charity would become superfluous. 

I have made some satisfactory progress in my other writing, and I see that the Morality Clarity Brigades are on their usual tour of Pope-bashing, so I am returning rather soon to write a lengthy post.  What horrible thing did the Pope say this time that would draw down the ire of the wise men of First Things?  First, Pope Benedict said the following:

We do want to appeal to all Christians and to all those who feel touched by the words of the Holy See, to help mobilize all the forces that recognize how war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars.

Oh, no, he said something against War!  Quick, we have to put a stop to this!  Now, as I read my copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and, yes, as an informed Orthodox Christian, I do have one) on war, it says:

The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life.  Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. (CCC, 2307-2308)

Notice how it doesn’t make nifty provisos that excuse the “good” wars from these ”evils and injustices”?  Notice how it doesn’t engage in all the moral shilly-shallying of war supporters?  Following these sections are those sections that list those circumstances under which war may be legitimately waged as a means of defense.  Now what did the Pope say that contradicts the statements cited above?  What possible objection could anyone have to a bishop counselling peace and condemning war as evil?  Well, of course, you already know what objections the usual suspects will have.  Here, first, is Robert Miller with his anti-pacifist-cum-Holocaust red herring:

I find it difficult to understand how the pope says this. Along with many others, I often invoke the Second World War as the paradigm example of a just war, of a case where morality not only permitted but required the use of armed force in order to combat evil. But here Benedict, expressly mentioning the world wars, says that they brought no good to anyone. No good to Elie Wiesel, and all the other prisoners liberated from Buchenwald? No good to the peoples of France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and others saved from Nazi domination? No good to the Poles and other Slavs, destined to slavery to support the Third Reich? No good to the young Joseph Ratzinger, who, freed from service in the Wehrmacht, was able to enter seminary, study theology, become a priest and a professor, and live to become pope?


As it stands, this statement from Benedict is unsupportable. All serious people know that war is a terrible reality to be avoided whenever possible, and Benedict should certainly say this. But he is also a great theologian, well able to make moral distinctions. He ought not make statements that can so easily be understood as endorsing a dangerously naive pacifism that is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition.

Of course, conceiving of WWII as a “paradigm” of just war doesn’t really start you out on the right foot, but let us suppose that it is.  I feel compelled to ask why certain Christians constantly feel obliged to find fault with exhortations to peace or why they must see in the clear expression of the fundamental moral truth that “war is the worst solution for all sides” some kind of potential endorsement of “naive pacifism.”  Surely one of the evils of the world is that men are only too happy to resort to the use of arms and only too willing to shed blood and find all sorts of convenient reasons why they have done so–none more so than the old playground excuse of “he started it!” 

The great problem of our time is not Pope Benedict stating the obvious truth–which should be all the more obvious in the wake of the tragedies of Lebanon and Iraq–that war is the last resort because it is “the worst solution” and those who treat it as a last resort acknowledge as much.  The great spiritual problem, the great danger to which people who live in powerful nations are most prone, is the belief that war is good.  Not justified by certain circumstances, not necessary and unavoidable in certain cases, but good and the bringer of good

For someone who wants to take the Pope to task for a failure to make moral distinctions, Mr. Miller’s objection is unfortunate.  Of course the deliverance of innocent victims from brutality and violent death was good.  Of course the restoration of peace was good.  You have to really want to find a flaw in Pope Benedict’s position to assume that he does not know this or meant to ignore these things.  Surely the point of the statement was to emphasise that, on the whole, war truly profits no one because of the evils and injustices inherent in it.  If see WWI and WWII as one gigantic orgy of violence, we see an entire train of events starting in 1914 and leading to incalculable human loss and misery stemming from the belief that war is not the worst solution but, for many of the belligerents, the most expedient and the best.  How many tens of millions had to die for the “good” Mr. Miller describes?  How many hundreds of thousands of innocents were indifferently slaughtered in pursuit of that “good” by the Allies alone?  War may be a means to limit evil, and is therefore justified under strict definitions (which, strictly speaking, WWII did not meet) but it does not accomplish anything good.  Pope Benedict is telling us that we cannot valorise war itself, that war is always “the worst solution,” and we cannot make it into anything better than that. 

Deliverance from the excesses of war and the good things that come after the cessation of war are the products of ceasing hostilities and resuming peaceful, civilised life.  Why is there such a need, at First Things and elsewhere, to pretend that the problem of our age is not a tendency to go to war too quickly and rashly and without just cause and to wage war excessively, but a tendency to refrain from it when we are obliged to fight for our community and our people?  Why is it that some Christians think that the just war tradition is not a high standard of justice to be rigorously applied to the use of force but a loophole that means, “war is OK for Christians”? 

Three years into a war of aggression in Iraq, a week after the devastation of Lebanon, are some people really so inured to war that the simple truth that it is “the worst solution” and brings no good to anyone sounds offensive and contrary to Christianity?  Because it does bring no good to anyone, and we should not pretend otherwise.  By resisting aggression or redressing injustices, it may restore peace and create the circumstances in which men can pursue and cultivate the Good, but it does not do anything good in itself. 

Even the victors suffer spiritual and moral costs, particularly in total war where charity and justice are not to be found, and heretofore decent men are sometimes called to do reprehensible things.  War is evil.  It is something that is a necessary evil in certain cases, but evil nonetheless.  We ignore or minimise this truth at our own peril.  Indeed, some Christians in this country must seriously consider why they have been only too happy to go along blithely with every and any war of the last few years and whether that is really in keeping with their moral tradition.  For starters, they might hold off from belittling a prominent Christian authority when he says something that, by the standards of official Catholic doctrine and more generally by the common witness of Christianity, seems not only undeniable but essential for our present moment.         

Van Dyck’s Portrait of Charles I

If I had to think of one thing that prevented our War of Independence from degenerating into something like the dictatorship of the Commonwealth, I think it would have to be that our ancestors were never in a position to execute their King and were never forced to take that final, dreadful step of the revolutionary that so deeply tainted and marred the English, French and Russian Revolutions.  We could dismiss George III–we did not need to eliminate him.  In simply detaching ourselves from the monarchy, our rebellion remained identified with what our ancestors were fighting to preserve rather than institutions we were seeking to overthrow and destroy–though we were, of course, seeking to throw out the monarchy and its ministers–and so retained a basic sanity, a sense of limits and a respect for law that the Commonwealth, the Assembly and the Bolsheviks either never had or were unable to acquire after the shedding of royal blood.  It is interesting to note that Charles I was canonised by the Church of England after the Restoration for his refusal to reject the episcopacy, and Tsar-Martyr Nikolai is now venerated as a saint along with his family, the Holy Royal Martyrs, for their witness to the Faith at the time of their brutal execution by the Bolsheviks. 

This idea of a martyr-king typically strikes low church folks as obscene and tends to offend the more liberally inclined, even among the Orthodox, but it is something that all hierarchical churches seem to be able to understand and accept (the Catholics have St. Louis and pre-Conquest England had Edward the Confessor) in the conviction that the title Defensor Fidei or its equivalent means just what it says and is not a piece of grandiloquent fluff.  The martyr-king is the highest realisation of the role of Defensor Fidei, which makes his murderers by implication just about the epitome of apostasy and infidelity.  

But there is something that seems missing in the context, and I think this is a reason that some are having a hard time taking what is being said from the Vatican with the seriousness it deserves. For whatever reason, only part of the big picture is being painted - there are reasons  for the violence and terrorism that stand in oppoosition to the Gospel on every level.

So when people struggle with this, I think what they are saying is this: This is not a doctrinal issue, but we know we should still be taking the Pope seriously on this, and we want to. He has a perspective none of us as individuals have, and in his attention to global, rather than nationalistic, priorities, he teaches and challenges us. But in the statements, we don’t hear the foundations of the weight of the present threats and conflicts addressed, some of which concerns fundamental human rights of freedom and justice. So how can we receive this as a prudential judgment we should take seriously if we don’t hear all of the elements of the situation addressed? ~Amy Welborn

Via Rod Dreher

Now I am not a Catholic, so perhaps that disqualifies me from saying something about this, but what I have found striking about Pope Benedict XVI’s response to the war in Lebanon is his sense of equanimity and justice.  Like Benedict XV, I think it is fair to say that the current Pope has worked to “preserve complete impartiality in relation to all the belligerents, as is appropriate to him who is the common father and who loves all his children with equal affection.”  In this approach that eschews taking sides, I think it is also fair to say that the current Pope has worked ”to endeavour constantly to do all the most possible good, without personal exceptions and without national or religious distinctions, a duty which the universal law of charity, as well as the supreme spiritual charge entrusted to Us by Christ, dictates to Us.”  As I read over Benedict XV’s statement, he is certainly making many recommendations for how to resolve particular problems (the authority of the Pope was, at least in some countries, still something fairly potent even during the insanity of the Great War),  but I see none of the deep structural or causal analysis of why the war happened in the first place that Ms. Welborn seems to be looking for.  I suspect that the modern Vatican is reluctant to make specific proposals, because even when it ventures to speak on questions of war and peace in any way its statements are frequently dismissed as ultimately irrelevant (it is up to the “prudential judgement of the magistrate!”).  More than that I suspect it is doubly reluctant to weigh in on theorising about the causes of violence in the way that Ms. Welborn seems to want.  From a Christian perspective, the causes of violence are always in the corruption of human will and intention away from the goods proper to his nature–everything else is ultimately secondary and incidental–and the remedy for this disordered will is the proper mix of charity and justice.  It is the bishop’s task to exhort and teach what the Gospel tells us, particularly with respect to mercy and charity in circumstances such as these, and from what I have seen this is what Pope Benedict has done.  He has held both parties accountable because both are accountable, and he has excused the crimes of neither side.  He has summoned them to make peace, and they have, predictably enough, ignored him.  If we expect Pope Benedict to speak in terms of the narrative that we use to describe events in the Near East, or expect him to categorise the problem in the terms to which we are accustomed, we are likely to be repeatedly disappointed.  At bottom, people dissatisfied with Pope Benedict’s stance on this war seem to want him to take sides in some small way, and I do not believe he believes himself free to do that and I expect that he would believe such an approach would be unwise and possibly detrimental to the establishment of peace.  That is my speculation on why the Vatican has not been more forthcoming in its criticism of the role of Islam in all of this and why the response may seem lacking. 

Over at NRO, Victor Davis Hanson once again indulges in the neocon obsession over the 1930’s, in a column titled “The Brink of Madness.” (Hanson may want to save that title for the next collection of his columns.) But this time, he also swings at some targets that no one at National Review would have attacked in the magazine’s heyday. He compares the “rise of fascism” in Spain to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, ignoring the fact that Franco fought to save Catholic Spain from Communist butchery, kept Spain neutral in World War II, and was later an American ally in the Cold War, facts well known to an earlier generation of National Review writers. Indeed, James Burnham’s successor as NR’s foreign affairs columnist was Brian Crozier, a biographer of Franco and an unabashed admirer.

Even more amazingly, he criticizes the “fantasies” of “Pope Pius,” writing that it is “baffling to consider that such men ever had any influence.” The great historian does not tell us which Pope Pius he is criticizing, Pius XI, who authored the anti-Nazi encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” and told Belgian pilgrims in 1938 that “it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism,” or Pius XII, who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust and who so enraged the Nazis that there were plans to kidnap him. In any event, either Pius is a giant in comparison to all the neocon pygmies such as Hanson, and the truly baffling thing is why anyone listens to the counsel of those who thought that Iraq would be a “cakewalk,” that American troops there would be welcomed as liberators, and that the example of Iraq would create a pro-American democratic movement throughout the Middle East. ~Tom Piatak, Cultural Revolutions Online (Chronicles)

Tom might also add that any real student of 20th century history would know that Franco’s regime had only a smattering of the syndicalist Falangists and that Franco consistently limited their influence and power in the regime.  Besides the Falangists, there were no fascist elements worth mentioning in the Franco regime, which was distinctly Catholic, conservative and authoritarian in nature, as Stanley Payne has set down in great detail in his History of Fascism and The Franco Regime.  Proper students of fascism are aware of the significant difference between conservative authoritarian regimes and genuine fascist regimes.  Inded, the careless, flippant (dare we say ignorant?) use of the term fascist by those on the neocon “right” not only betrays their debt to the tired harangues of Marxists but also their inability to categorise any political system they reject in terms that do not refer to 1930s-40s Germany and Italy.  Once again the sadly limited historical perspective of the neocons is on display.

The article also fails to mention that, while Syria has the appearance of a democracy, the Sunni-dominated country is essentially an authoritarian regime and it would be quite difficult for a Christian, or anyone for that matter, to speak freely on religion without risking the wrath of the majority. This type of conditioning has been going on for hundreds of years. ~Daniel Pulliam, GetReligion

Mr. Pulliam objects to Reuters’ coverage in this story.  First of all, while it is important to keep the context of Baathist Party rule in mind, as an explicitly secular state that has been historically hostile to Islamic fundamentalism it affords the Christians of Syria rather more latitude in their ability to practice their religion and to speak candidly about it.  The Christians in Syria are decidedly not living under Islamic law, do not pay the jiziya or suffer from the sorts of restrictions that they would if, say, they lived in certain parts of “liberated” Iraq. 

Then there is the “context” of Syrian Christians being Arabs, who are reasonably more likely to sympathise with fellow Arabs, especially when there are Christians among them, when these people appear to them to be (and indeed are) under attack.  Since Christians in Lebanon, including no less than Gen. Aoun, are taking an increasingly pro-Hizbullah stance, why is it that incredible to believe that Christians in Syria are taking the same view?  Why the need to attribute it to Islamic intimidation?  There may be such intimidation on a private level, but Mr. Pulliam’s criticism assumes that this, together with anachronistic ideas about Islamic law, must be the main explanation for the sympathy being shown Nasrallah.  Arguably, the article could have provided more context to give a more complete picture of the situation, but there is nothing terribly lacking in the coverage itself, which is obviously a collection of anecdotal accounts.  There is no reason to lend this report undue importance if a reporter has managed to find a handful of Christians in Syria who say extraordinarily complimentary things about Nasrallah, but why should it surprise us that Christians are saying complimentary things about a man whom 80% of Lebanese Christians now support

The theme of the story was how the war on Lebanon was forging solidarity across sectarian and religious lines, citing Christian sympathy for Nasrallah and Hizbullah as an example of this trend.  Furthermore, the historical context of the rise of Arab nationalism, which was an ideology virtually invented by Syrian and Lebanese Christians as a means of transcending sectarianism, might tell us something about why Christians in the Near East feel particularly strong affinities to pan-Arab claims and the causes of other Arabs, even when they are not Christian.  Even though Arab nationalism has failed across the region, there is a tradition among the local Christians to think in these terms. 

Then there is the problem with the phrase “Sunni-dominated country.”  First of all, it does not explain very much if the thing to be explained is Christian sympathy for a Shi’ite militia.  It is a majority Sunni country, but it is precisely not Sunni-dominated, because the entire elite of the country comes from a branch of Shi’ism.  If the country were Sunni dominated, and we assume that this is very relevant to determining how Syrian Christians view the fighting in Lebanon, are they more or less likely to sympathise with Hizbullah?  The relevant point, surely, is that the government is dominated by a branch of Shi’ites, the Alawites, which makes more sense of Damascus’ connections to Hizbullah and Tehran. 

The fact that the government is a sponsor of the group in question would probably have far more influence on what Syrian Christians think than any anachronistic recourse to an explanation according to jiziya and the official second-class status that Christians endure in non-secular Islamic countries.  That being said, we rule out Christian sympathy for Hizbullah and the cause of all Lebanon at peril of making outlandishly incorrect statements like those contained in Mr. Pulliam’s post.  I should think an outfit like GetReligion would take more care to make sure that they themselves “get” what they are talking about before they find fault with other journalists for their errors or otherwise poor coverage of a religion-related topic.   

IMAGE: Destruction at Lebanese marina

Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
Fishing boats lie wrecked Friday at the port of the southern Beirut suburb of Ouzai, Lebanon, after an Israeli airstrike. About 300 boats were destroyed. Why Israeli forces targeted the boats is unknown.
[DL: Well, these fishing boats will certainly never harm anyone ever again.  What their owners are supposed to do to make a living once the war ends is anybody’s guess.] 
It seems to show that there is an expansion of the air war on the part of the Israelis into the northern part of the nation. What is catching some people off guard is that the targets of these attacks are traditionally Christian areas.
Those were always thought to be safe and out of harm’s way from the Israeli airstrikes because they don’t support Hezbollah. But, it just so happens that the Christian areas are in the same neighborhoods as a number of bridges that are a vital part of the infrastructure of Lebanon.
Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud is claiming that Israel is waging a war of starvation — that by shutting off what was a major supply route for relief aid to come in, that now things will really get desperate in Lebanon. ~Martin Savidge, NBC News

GetReligion is one of those blogs that I don’t often, well, “get.”  According to their statement of purpose, the folks at GetReligion seem intent on discussing how religion is reported and supplementing and/or correcting that reporting when it goes off the rails (as it often does).  Mr. Mattingly describes it thus:

And that is what we hope to do with this blog. It is an experiment by [Doug] LeBlanc and myself and, we hope, our journalist friends and new readers. We want to slow down and try to pinpoint and name some of these ghosts.

But I don’t want to sound like we see this as a strictly negative operation. There are many fine writers out there — some believe the number is rising — who are doing an amazing job of taking religion news into the mainstream pages of news, entertainment, business and even sports. We want to highlight the good as well as raise some questions about coverage that we believe has some holes in it.

Well, I suppose.  There is certainly a rich feast out there for anyone who sets himself the task of assessing the misrepresentations of religion (or the failure to represent it at all); one could camp out, so to speak, in front of Andrew Sullivan’s blog and have your quota of ridiculous, ill-informed media reports on a smattering of topics pertaining to religion before lunch.  I won’t go into GR’s apparent assumptions about balance (journalism should be balanced) and objectivity (it exists) just now, since that would take me far afield from my present point, which is simply to ask this: what in the world E.J. Dionne’s tap-dancing on what he imagines to be the grave of “the Right” has to do with the stated purpose of their blog?  Where are the “ghosts” in this bit of hum-drum punditry?  Anyone? Read the rest of this entry »

An Israeli airstrike Friday hit dozens of farm workers loading vegetables near the Lebanon-Syria border, killing 28, the workers’ foreman and a Lebanese official said. At the same time, Hezbollah renewed attacks on northern Israel, killing two civilians with a barrage of 120 rockets.

Israel expanded its assault on Lebanon by launching its first major attack on the Christian heartland north of Beirut and severing the last significant road link to Syria. ~MSNBC

Glad to know that Israel is taking care of the serious threats from foreign produce and Lebanese Christians. 

Within the general crisis there are also fears about the future of the country’s Christian community. Some suggest that up to 70 per cent of the Christians that are still left in Lebanon is ready to leave as soon as Beirut airport reopens.

According to Mgr Bechara Rai, Maronite bishop of Jbeil, it is a real crisis for Lebanese Christians. If the “New Middle East” project that some have envisaged is implemented it may be too late for Christians.

The concern though is not limited to Lebanon but touches Christians across the Middle East. Pope John Paul II himself said that “the Christian presence in Lebanon is a necessary condition for the presence of Christians in the Middle East”. ~AsiaNews

Via The Western Confucian

More importantly, if there is a mass exodus of Christians from Lebanon, that country will be even more in thrall to Hizbullah and even more under the influence of Hizbullah’s patrons.  If it results in the exodus of a significant part of the Christian population and the relative empowerment of Hizbullah, it is the very definition of a counterproductive military campaign.  If Hizbullah’s becoming stronger was what the supporters of this campaign wanted to stop from happening, they couldn’t have chosen more poorly.  If Christians in this country had wanted to find a more effective means of uprooting the Christian communities of the Near East, they could not have done better than to endorse the Israeli offensive in its entirety.  Without a relatively strong Christian presence in Lebanon, as the quote from John Paul II suggests, the further marginalisation of Christians throughout the region will proceed even more rapidly (and democratisation will only hasten their complete marginalisation).

In the latest TAC, Heather Mac Donald of City Journal fame writes not so much on the issue topic of liberal/conservative and Left/Right terminology, but takes up an intramural fight between “skeptical” and religious conservatives.  The problem is that the religious folks are hurting conservative arguments with an excessive reliance on religious claims:

The presumption of religious belief–not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it–does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth.  But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith.  And a lot of us do not have such faith–nor do we need it to be conservative.

Of course, it’s true that people of conservative temperament need not have any religion, and it’s also true that conservatism has never strictly been tied to a particular set of religious claims.  As a modern and post-Revolutionary phenomenon, conservatives have often eschewed or transcended confessional labels.  The good, old days of the Holy Alliance were wonderfully ecumenical and not tied to any particular orthodoxy.  Some even say that one of the chief characteristics of conservatism is that it is a kind of social and political thought that need not have much to do with orthodoxy, and a brief glance over The Conservative Mind would seem to confirm that with a parade of a number of theologically latitudinarian and non-religious gentlemen (Paul Elmer More and Santayana being the ones that leap to mind immediately).  Bolingbroke was a forerunner of the skeptical conservative, and Humean skepticism is sometimes considered a source of British conservative thought.  It has been to my own dismay that the general acquaintance of most high conservative thought with the substance of theology has been limited at best, and it is partly for that reason that I proposed reimagining conservatism in terms of the patristic thought of our Christian tradition.   

But the typical conservative assumption that man is fallible and not perfectible by human means is tied inextricably to the Christian understanding of the Fall.  The skeptical man will say that this is not necessarily so, and that any fool can see that man is fallible without recourse to a doctrine of ancestral sin.  But that doctrine is the only thing that makes sense of the predicament of man that preserves the possibility of true meaning.  With the Fall, there is also Redemption.  With mere fallibility, there is no remedy and so, ultimately, no hope in this world or the next.  Further, the detachment of conservative thought from the Christian roots that nourished it in the first place is both a losing proposition and an abandonment of a sizeable part of the patrimony we have received from our fathers.  Put simply, without a theological vision (and our tradition points us towards the theological vision of our civilisation’s Faith) conservatives have no meaningful vision of the good life and can only cavil and harumph at liberal, meliorist plans on the grounds of their impracticability rather than for their fundamental spiritual error and hubris.  Without such a vision of consecrated order, ordained by God, conservatism becomes obsessed entirely with what is immanent and cannot form any coherent statements about who man is or what his purpose is supposed to be.

Now if it seems reasonable that religion and conservatism do naturally go together in certain important respects that are unavoidable (which is not to completely identify the two or assume that they are equally important), what of the claim that religious conservatives are dominating the scene and that the “conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies”?  Where is it doing this?  I sought in vain for examples elsewhere in the short article, but found only dime-store theodicy. 

The brief ID-as-science fad is fizzling out, as far as I can tell, and not before time, and on matters of policy I am not aware of any place where arguments are being advanced with especially heavy reliance on religious claims.  Not that I would find it at all troubling or worrisome if this were happening, but I don’t see it happening.  There was the unfortunate Schiavo business, which did not see a strict skeptical vs. religious fight so much as it saw fight between enthusiasts and realists of various stripes. 

From the tone of the article, I get the impression that this is not so much a complaint about any particular reliance on religion in argument (which is not markedly greater today among conservatives, and may have actually diminished) as it is a complaint about rhetoric and cultural attitudes within the movement: secular conservatives feel ostracised or left out of the club because they don’t believe.  No one is showing secular conservatives the door, and no one is dismissing their arguments (John Derbyshire typically has better arguments on almost every subject than the entire editorial staff at First Things put together), so I am curious what has elicited this defense of a position that was not, so far as I was aware, under any pressure.   

If there wasn’t enough love to go around, here is a Protestant blogger who goes rather easy on Gibson.  You see, he’s Catholic, which means that he’s automatically an anti-Semite, so this fellow was not surprised by the outburst in the least.  Here is a taste of the ludicrous anti-Catholic bigotry on display:

Gibson, as a devout Roman Catholic, proved that the heart of Roman Catholicism has always been anti-Semite: something that honest historians and theologians know but nonetheless decline to say so thereby contributing to the Roman Church’s deception. 

Yes, the “honest” historians and theologians know all about it (that doesn’t make this guy sound like a conspiracy nut, no, not at all).  Actually, he’s got us dead to rights: the Jesuits make all history graduate students sign a pledge to lie on behalf of the Pope.  I have my Papist certificate of approval hanging on my wall. 

This is the sort of trash I expect from the Goldhagens of the world, not from Christians of any confession.  Good grief, I would have thought nonsense like this would have vanished by now.   

Rod Dreher notes a John O’Sullivan column from two years ago, when The Passion first came out, making a point similar to the one I made in response to Jimmy Akin’s complaints about the “nuanced,” sympathetic Pilate and allegedly uncomplicated and unsympathetic Caiaphas.  O’Sullivan also adds this important point about how moderns’ own preoccupations and prejudices (shocking, I know) shape their viewing of the film:

Yet there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue—or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.

The secular moderns, for whom “faith is the path of least resistance” (from Woody Allen’s Match Point), or the Christians of the Obama/Sullivan school, for whom doubt is the key to faith, see Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate as sympathetic because they are sympathetic to someone who does not know what truth is (and perhaps are not interesting in finding out!).  I will say more.  They find the depiction of Caiaphas and the other chief priests offensive and, therefore, probably anti-Semitic (what else could it be?) because they abhor religious certainty and the religious persecution that sometimes accompanies it, and so they assume that Gibson must especially hate Caiaphas and all his kind because they find themselves hating these characters when he shows them violently affirming their religious convictions.  They know that they are not really allowed to feel hatred for these characters, so it must be Gibson’s anti-Semitic visual trickery that has made them do it.  A stretch?  Maybe, but no more preposterous than the idea that telling the Passion story in all its essentials with few significant additions is either a subtle or overt attack on all Jews.  The movie does make one claim that, in certain circles, is truly unforgiveable: that Jesus truly was, and is, God and the Christ promised of old to Israel.  That is very simply the foundation of the Christian Faith, and it is this that really offends those who become so exercised about the alleged anti-Semitism in the film, because that claim carries with it certain negative implications about the claims of every other religion.  I think what a lot of the critics really hate about the movie, but which they are not foolish enough to say out loud, is not that it supposedly portrays Jewish characters in classically anti-Semitic ways (I remain entirely unconvinced on this score), but that it portrays the Gospel as true.  

Faced with this, like Pilate, many modern men feel uneasy and are obliged to find some excuse to wash their hands of the matter and put the burden of his discomfort on someone else under whatever pretext they can find.  Like Pilate, they ask, Quid est veritas?, and, when offered an answer, cannot stand  to hear it.      

But no, the film ignores all of this, and it does so in favor of one thing and one thing only: physical suffering. The film is not merely marked by graphic depictions of physical pain, it is entirely and purely about it. This is not to say that its depictions are too intense, too gory, or excessive in the way that so many have claimed; instead, I would argue that its violence is too much because it squashes all else. The film has little to no story arc, little in the way of dramatic tension, and precious little insight beyond its insistence that this was indeed the most grueling bit of physical punishment ever put on a man. No story, no characters, just a cinematic sledgehammer built of out bloody flesh.

I see this not merely as a flaw from an artistic perspective, but also from a spiritual perspective. As a Christian, I obviously consider Christ’s death and resurrection the central event of human history, and it would be one thing if the film were actually about those two events and why they matter: But again, it cares little for theological or historical significance, at least when there’s more blood to be spilled. Gibson’s, erm, passion is for pain and pain alone.

More importantly, I would argue that the primary element–or at least the most common one–of most believers’ Christianity is not Christ’s pain, or even his death—but their individual relationship with the Son of God. By ignoring all but Jesus’ physical suffering, Gibson didn’t just give us a dramatically worthless character, he gave us a hollow, non-relational—but good’n bloody as hell!—Lord. ~Peter Suderman

I understand this objection, and as I suggested in an earlier post there are Orthodox arguments against the tremendous emphasis on physical suffering that The Passion has, but then these are the same arguments that the Orthodox would have against entire sections of Catholic spirituality from stigmata to the flagellants of medieval Europe, the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna with its emphasis on the imitation of Christ and the Penitentes of Chimayo in New Mexico with their reenactments of the Crucifixion (up until relatively recently they reenacted it with real nails and everything–talk about imitatio Christi!). 

Because Gibson is unabashedly making a Passion play, where the passio is central to narrative and the peculiar spirituality of mortification and suffering that arose in the Latin west, it is inevitable that suffering is dominant.  The title tells us what is coming, though we may not realise what it entails.  Now, I am willing to find fault with the movie’s theology, but I can do so only because I don’t agree with the soteriology of the tradition to which Gibson belongs.  Anselm’s idea of the Atonement imposes a kind of necessity on God that does not mesh with Orthodox patristic thought, but nonetheless Anselm’s conception is the one from which all Western Christians more or less derive their own understanding.  Once you conceive of the sins of man as a debt to paid, rather than a debt cancelled, the penalty to be exacted will be great, and if you emphasise Christ’s suffering as the means of making good that debt He will suffer tremendously to fulfill the demands of justice.  Understood this way, the immense violence done to the God-man reflects the artist’s conception of the profundity of the sins of men.  This is, of course, not at all fascistic, as some loopier critics said at the time, but powerfully kenotic and a great example of the profound condescension and humiliation that God undertook for our sake.

If seen from inside that tradition, it is hard to see how Gibson could have made a substantially different movie.  The bloodshed is copious, and can tend to overwhelm the audience, I agree, and was probably excessive even by the standards of his tradition, but it is far more intelligible in light of a tradition that celebrates a feast of Corpus Christi and venerates the Sacred Heart.  No one would pretend that this is not a robustly Catholic film, regardless of the large crowds of Protestants who lined up to see it, and when this is granted what seems bizarre to many viewers of the film will seem far less so.

Mr. Suderman makes a pretty debatable claim when he says:

More importantly, I would argue that the primary element–or at least the most common one–of most believers’ Christianity is not Christ’s pain, or even his death—but their individual relationship with the Son of God.

Of course, Mr. Suderman has a point here.  Most people do not typically meditate on Christ’s Passion or relate specifically to these events, except perhaps around Eastertide, but it is without a doubt the crucial turning point in salvation history that fulfills exactly the kind of personal communion and relationship with Christ and makes that relationship not just some spiritual buddy system but unites us to His death and thus to His Resurrection, whence comes our very salvation.  If the movie is to have the integrity of conveying the message of the Gospel that Christ suffered and died for our sins, it had to focus on the redemptive suffering and death of Christ rather than making Him into an interesting fellow with Whom we can relate.

This leads me to one of my two larger complaints about the film, which is that it just doesn’t work as a standalone movie, separate from all the Biblical context most of its supporters bring to it. (Too many of the film’s boosters argue from this perspective, treating the movie as, essentially, an addendum to years of Bible-reading and Sunday school. Considering that it is a mass-market film for a popular audience, this seems absurd. Also, the fact that it’s not, you know, canon.) The villains, Jew and Roman, are all bug-eyed caricatures, sneering, cackling manifestations of unhinged evil. To call them flat characters is an understatement; they are not people at all, just whooping, stereotyped manifestations of mad rage.

Worse, Jesus—the central figure in Western civilization for two thousand years—is similarly lacking in depth. We get a few flashbacks, and a few pivotal scenes are dramatized, but the film offers us nothing about Jesus as a dramatic character, as history’s only sinless man, as the sovereign Lord of man and son of God. Surely Jesus, of all the people who ever lived, should be a gripping, infinitely compelling onscreen character. ~ Peter Suderman

Mr. Suderman’s first point is a good one.  I cannot say how The Passion would appear to someone with only a limited or non-existent acquaintance with the Gospels, and it might be that the movie only really works for people who already come to it with more familiarity with Scripture.  That said, the story of Christ’s Passion is perhaps one of the most famous in our civilisation, references to it abound in our cultural history and you would have to be something of a complete cultural illiterate to have no requisite background for understanding the film and the entire backstory of Christ’s life to that point.  We might as well say that an adaptation of Henry V cannot stand on its own because no one any longer knows anything about the Hundred Years’ War.  As a portrait of Christian theology, The Passion’s reach may be limited to those with eyes to see, but as a work of dramatic storytelling I am unsure why it needs significant introduction.  Besides, everything you need to understand about the characters and their motivations is revealed in the course of the film: the Passion narrative sums up and recapitulates what was most important in Christ’s ministry.

The charge that the “villains, Jew and Roman, are all bug-eyed caricatures, sneering, cackling manifestations of unhinged evil” seems less compelling, when you consider that Pilate, his wife, the soldier Abenader, the centurion at the Cross and Caiaphas are certainly better developed and better played than this.  There is at least some complexity in each of them.  Satan certainly sneers, but also provides an embodiment of evil that goes beyond the predictable way of showing the Prince of Darkness.  The villains who fit Mr. Suderman’s description here are the soldiers who scourge and beat Christ, who fill the roles of brutal henchmen; we do not typically hold it against a film that its brutal henchmen are flat, superficial characters–they are henchmen!  Perhaps this is a deficiency of film-making, but it is one no different from every other film in which there are henchmen.  The other villains, though perhaps not as multi-layered and conflicted as we post-moderns like our villains, are not quite so shallow as all that. 

Portraying the character of Christ has always been problematic, which is typically why artists have not attempted to delve too deeply, lest they wander off either into Nestorian errors out of a need to portray a human that they, as artists, can understand and describe or simply jump off the deep end like a Kazantzakis.  It is true that Christ should be the deepest character one can imagine, since He is the God-man, but it is quite one thing for this to be theoretically true and quite another for an artist to attempt to describe the mental state, interior life or motivations of the Word Incarnate.  Right away, I think Mr. Suderman will see the problem with his objection: no orthodox Christian could, short of Kazantzakian or Nestorian blasphemy, or would attempt to flesh out a character for God the Word.  Gibson makes brief efforts to inject moments from ordinary life into the film, but this is not the same thing.  So, I suppose what I am saying is that Mr. Suderman is right to a certain extent that The Passion’s Christ lacks depth, but it could not have been done any other way and still remain faithful to the common orthodoxy of all major Christian confessions.  The artist must be true to his material, and in this case that required Gibson to allow the words spoken by the Word to speak for themselves; he could not significantly embellish or elaborate on them without doing violence to his subject. 

As for its anti-Semitism, let me clarify. Jew-hatred is not its primary purpose, nor even a dominant one. The film doesn’t make a point to lash out at Jews, but, I think, it does manage to caricature them when it has an opportunity. The anti-Semitism is not overt—it’s not what the film’s about—but the simplistic, cartoony stereotypes of sniveling, power-hungry, money-obsessed Jews it gives us certainly smack of classic anti-Semite portrayals of Jews. It’s not so much what we see them do; rather, it’s how we see them do it. ~Peter Suderman

I appreciate Mr. Suderman’s thorough response to my earlier post, and I would like to thank him for elaborating in some greater detail on both why he sees anti-Semitism in the movie and why he regarded it as an artistic failure.  His technical critiques of the problems with the storytelling and the characters are interesting, and I would like to come back to them in a different post.  But let me try once more to persuade Mr. Suderman that there not an iota of anti-Semitism in The Passion of the ChristRead the rest of this entry »

The Mel Gibson business has been good business for those keen on policing thought.  There is actually something very odd about the modern, post-Christian need to root out things like “prejudice.”  What is it, after all, that they are trying to root out?  The human habit to draw general conclusions from specific experiences, or the equally human habit of bearing grudges?  They may as well lobotomise us all, for that is what it will take to get rid of these habits–provided that we do not seek a greater spiritual sanity in revealed religion. 

It is not in this case a question of changing anyone’s behaviour, because, barring his momentary outburst, Gibson has been a perfectly respectable citizen whose main offense has been to tread on the toes of ridiculous people.  It is not really done to prevent those inclined to act violently from taking out their prejudice on someone else, since these are precisely the sorts of people who are uninterested in avoiding the stigmas of polite society anyway.  Stigmatising the prejudiced seems to be done to maintain a weird kind of non-religious spiritual or ideological purity.  It is, in the woolly language of cultural studies, “boundary maintenance,” defining your identity and setting down what you consider to be legitimate and acceptable: it is something you do to others to make a statement about yourself. Read the rest of this entry »

This context makes Gibson’s current unprovoked explosion of crude and appalling anti-Semitic sentiments all the more shocking. ~Michael Medved

It is also a defining moment for American Christianism. Christianists protected, promoted, lionized and harbored this Jew-hater. And they need to be held account for it in a terribly dangerous time. ~Andrew Sullivan

Prompted by the salsa-dancing Michael Brendan Dougherty and encouraged by the Big Lebowski-watching Chris Roach, I am wading into the morass of commentary on Gibson himself after having gone over the reasons why the charges of anti-Semitism against his film are nonsense.  Medved’s otherwise predictable column does make one very interesting point: Gibson had never exhibited, so far as anyone knows, attitudes or behaviour anything like this before now.  All of which tends to suggest that there is something else going on here rather than the expression of deep-seated prejudice, unless we are supposed to believe that he managed to conceal his attitudes for his entire life from public scrutiny. 

It would hardly surprise me if the white-hot hatred of him and his movie in the American Jewish community had not given him a bad attitude about the individuals who came after him that gradually grew into a general resentment.  I remember a comment he made to WorldNetDaily once that if he had not removed the potentially inflammatory language, His blood be on us and on our children (Matt. 27:25), he feared for his safety:

I wanted it in. My brother said I was wimping out if I didn’t include it. But, man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house. They’d come to kill me. 

Perhaps that was hyperbole (though given the poisoned atmosphere around the run-up to the movie, maybe it wasn’t that hyperbolic), perhaps it was an attempt to increase controversy and interest in the movie, or perhaps that was an expression of the level of hostility being aimed at him personally about which we in the public know (or remember) far less.  Men tend to take a dim view of being threatened like that, and there’s no telling how much that experience embittered him.  Considering the abominable, despicable prejudice against Christians and Christianity that has always been driving the war against The Passion and Gibson, it is not surprising, though it is unfortunate, that Gibson might respond to his critics’ vitriol and hate in equal measure.  However, Christ commands us to forgive and pray for our enemies, not answer their slights with our own.

That being said, Sullivan’s never-ending quest to disparage all Christians who actually practice some form of normative Christianity, and who believe the Faith has something to do with real life outside of the realm of opposing torture on your blog, has just managed to reach a new low.  Now the Christianists, always subverting the American way of life, must be held to account for harbouring a ”Jew-hater.”  Should Sullivan then be held to account for being a hater of most other Christians?  For that matter, when will we be drumming all the Christian-haters out of the media, academia and government?  I realise it might create a brief personnel crisis, but I think we should take a stand against bigotry.  Or would that be a little too even-handed and fair? 

But I’ll have to disagree with Matt when he praises Gibson’s The Passion. While that movie was undeniably visionary and one of the few films that can truly be called “uncompromising,” I found it problematic, troubling, and outright off-putting on any number of levels, not the least of which was its anti-Semitism. But none of this has much to do with Gibson or his personal views. The movie didn’t work because the movie didn’t work, and Gibson’s propensity for loathsome remarks doesn’t change the work one way or another. ~Peter Suderman

It seems to me that there are two solid grounds for objecting to The Passion of the Christ: the first is that it is poorly executed as a piece of film-making, which I find very difficult to credit; the second, and more important, is one often voiced by my friends at church that its entire understanding of salvation and the Augustinian-cum-Anselmian view of our predicament and the Atonement is badly skewed and awry (a secondary Orthodox objection is to the carnal portrayal of the God-man and the movie’s ability to imprint the memory of an actor’s face as the image of Christ).  The first honestly baffles me.  The picture is moving without being saccharine (no mean feat, that), and it is compelling without leaving you with the sense that you have been cheated or manipulated.  If it is “problematic, troubling, and outright off-putting on any number of levels,” as Mr. Suderman says, I would be interested to know where the flaws are.  Perhaps I am not a good judge of quality films, but to date no film or cultural critic has made a compelling argument that did not end up coming back to queasiness about the “fascistic” violence or discomfort at the portrayal of the Jewish authorities.  Some have made reasonable arguments in the name of realism that the sheer amount of violence inflicted was over the top, but I regard this as the main flaw that strains credulity.  But, however much I had to suspend disbelief at some points, the film was never “off-putting.”  The interweaving of the Last Supper and the Sacrifice on the Cross, with its obvious liturgical and Eucharistic significance, was done as artfully as anything I have seen.     

Objecting to its non-existent anti-Semitism is annoying to me for reasons I have stated on a couple of occasions, but which I will sum up again with a few different points: by the standard that judges Gibson’s film to be anti-Semitic, the Passion Gospel readings in particular and most patristic commentary on those readings for the first eighteen or nineteen centuries of Christian history would have to be deemed (anachronistically and hyperbolically) anti-Semitic.  Indeed, The Passion would have to be judged less anti-Semitic than the Gospels, because of certain concessions Gibson made to the hysterical critics during the editing process (famously, he cut out the line from Matthew, His blood be on us and on our children, because of fears that it would stir up violent feelings).  Not only would I not grant this, but I don’t believe 90% of Passion critics are willing to make that leap, either.  Many would like to have it both ways: the Gospels are lovely and timeless, provided that we don’t pay too much attention to detail, which might cause a certain discomfort, so it is much easier to transfer all of their discomfort with what the Gospels say to Gibson’s film.  It has now become an even more ripe for this sort of transferrence because of Gibson’s, er, faux pas

Early Christianity was born in the midst of a Jewish world and became what it was in no small part by defining itself in opposition to the Jewish authorities around them and the Law they upheld.  Christians were increasingly met with scorn, derision and persecution, and the Johannine tradition with its strong roots in and around Jerusalem particularly reflects the hostility between the two increasingly estranged communities.  From that day on it became a common way of understanding the “royal road” of Christianity as rejecting the errors of Judaism and Hellenism alike; from the time of the Pharisee convert Paul, Jew and Greek became standard representatives of the errors into which Christians could fall if they were careless.  To tell the story of Christ without this antagonism with none other than the Jewish authorities would be to tell the story with half the narrative cut out.   

The Passion tells the story that the Gospels tell, adding scarcely any details not found there (except, admittedly, for a lengthy elaboration of the scourging and the Via Dolorosa and the inclusion of the story of St. Veronica), which is not to the sanitised eyes of modern men an all together pretty story.  It is the story of lawless men inciting mobs to near-riot to bring about the death of an innocent Man who, as the story goes, understood their religion better than they did because He was, and is, its Author.  It is the story of men who, when offered their Saviour or a murderer, cried in ignorance, Give us Barrabas!  It is the story of every man’s proclivity to follow the father of lies rather than to embrace the Truth, acted out in all its brutality and physicality, which in turn also underscores the reality of the truth that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us

It is a story of petty human jealousy and pride grasping at what belongs to God and resenting God’s salvation when it comes, to which all flesh is heir, and the failure of the custodians of the patrimony to step aside when the Heir arrived.  It is the story of men, who should have been faithful stewards, acting as hirelings.  It is the universal story of man’s betrayal of God, told in the most striking way: the turning away of most of the leaders of God’s own Chosen People from His Son.  It is the story of men’s ignorance of their own degraded state and their lashing out at the very Saviour Who has come to heal them: Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.  

If these are some of the central, important truths about the degraded, postlapsarian state of man according to Christian teaching, the film showed us these truths in a powerful way.  If the film convincingly showed Christ’s Suffering, Death and Resurrection as the means to redeeming fallen man, it succeeded in dramatically telling its story.  I do not believe anyone can say that it failed in these respects.  The theological objections to the manner in which Christ redeemed us, or the rationale why God became man, over which some Orthodox exercise themselves with respect to this picture, are valid objections, but I simply find the carping about the film’s artistic quality or its supposed prejudice entirely unconvincing. 

Today, even more than when the film came out amid general furore and uproar, I find the attribution of anti-Semitism to The Passion more insulting than I did then, because it is all together so much easier today to assume that Gibson has left little dabs of anti-Semitism in the film because he has supposedly been “outed” (like Dostoevsky, for what it’s worth, Gibson still maintains that he is not an anti-Semite).  It was a little bit risky for secular conservatives, neoconservatives and liberals to jump on that Christ-hating bandwagon (which is, I’m sorry, largely what it was) two years ago.  Today, there will hardly be room for all the people who want to climb onto the anti-Passion fad.  All the more reason to insist on just how wrong this accusation of anti-Semitism in The Passion really is.             

At the same time, it’s hard to deny that Gibson’s depiction of the Jewish religious leadership runs uncomfortably close to the tropes of classic anti-Semitism. I wouldn’t have wanted, mind you, to see a movie that acceded to the foolish notion that the only morally legitimate way to tell the crucifixion story is to pretend that the chief priests didn’t have any role in it at all. But even so, there were a number of places in the movie where Gibson played up the Shylockish aspects of the priestly characters, and it’s hard to imagine that his artistic decisions in this regard were unrelated to his private feelings about Jews. ~ Ross Douthat

When people say things like “classic tropes anti-Semitism,” do they have any clear idea what this means?  Most of the time, “anti-Semitic” tropes include anything from negative portrayals of Jewish characters in scripture or art (see The Four Gospels, The Passion) to specific combinations of conspiracy-mongering and attributions of certain vicious characteristics.  Since reading heresiology is a significant part of what I do in my research, I feel confident in saying that there are no “classic tropes of anti-Semitism” as such, but simply classic tropes of prejudice, resentment and conspiratorial thinking into which everyone falls from time to time or, in the case of the anti-Christian and anti-theocracy watchdogs, all the time. 

Anyone who has closely read or studied the Gospel of St. John will recognise that the entire depiction of Caiaphas and the other chief priests is drawn from no other source than the Gospels, among which the Johannine Gospel would figure prominently in shaping these portrayals.  If you think that Gibson has made Caiaphas and the others into Shylockian characters, you will perforce have to claim the same about the Evangelist and Theologian John (more than a few have).  Where ridiculous critics (either of the Gospels or of The Passion) go astray is much the same place that the looney fringes go astray: they take a polemical portrayal of religious adversaries not simply as the truth, which is quite one thing, but go farther and believe that this portrayal is decisive for defining the character of all people of that sect or religion forever.  Rather than seeing the tragedy of the prophecy being fulfilled that He came to His own and His own received Him not, and understanding this in the context of salvation history, the semi-literate see in this story either an indictment of the eternal anti-Semitism of Christianity or proof of the eternal perfidy of all Jews everywhere. 

The curious thing is that these two buffoonish crowds (the professional Christian-haters and anti-Semites) resemble one another to a surprisingly high degree: both are obsessed with the enemy’s control of the media or art that controls the minds of the people, both see the enemy’s hand in everything that ever goes wrong in the world, and both are incapable of serious discernment.  The former are people who would probably see The Possessed as an anti-Semitic political fable, even though there is not a Jew to be found in it, because they know what Dostoevsky really thought about Jewish people (despite all of his passionate and credible objections to the contrary), and they will probably find those “classic tropes of anti-Semitism” in Apocalypto, too, no matter how hard it will be to find them among the Maya.    

It will not surprise CC readers that I side with Robert [Miller] in this matter, and note that it would have been unthinkable for the pontiff to have called on both sides to stand down when the Turks stood on the outskirts of Vienna, ready to take the Christian city for Islam. ~Rod Dreher

Rod refers here to a disagreement between Robert Miller and Frederica Matthewes-Green at First Things over Pope Benedict’s call for an immediate cease-fire.  I appreciated Matushka Frederica’s appropriate recognition of the inversion of worldly values that we, as Christians, are called to embrace and live.  It was a timely reminder, and stated something that everyone involved in the debate about this campaign sometimes loses sight of: that the Way of the Cross is not one of glory, honour or power, but of humiliation, suffering and kenotic love.  The Cross militates against any zeal for Macht. 

I was less impressed by the predictable anti-Vatican refrain of yet another First Things contributor on a question of war and peace made in the name of prudential judgement.  Invariably, whenever the Vatican pronounces on a question of war, someone at First Things will start shouting, “Prudential judgement of the magistrate!”  Which has tended to become, unfortunately, little more than a loophole to get out of having to provide serious moral justification for the use of force, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.  The bottom line is always this: bishops can’t really say much about these things, because they don’t know enough and aren’t in the position to make the decision, so they really ought to just keep their mouths shut, unless it is to offer benedictions for the invasion. 

Strictly speaking, it is not the concern of Pope Benedict or indeed of any other hierarch whether a cease-fire seems to benefit one belligerent more than another: their concern is to preach the Gospel and teach in Christ’s name, and this will extend to calling for an end to hostilities, particularly for the sake of sparing noncombatants the horrors of war.  This is a question of Christian charity towards our fellow men, which is the preeminent virtue and the second greatest commandment.  If Rome had had some means to convince Suleyman to stop attacking Vienna simply by calling for peace, I believe the Pope would have done so, since the Christians were the ones who were hard-pressed in that siege and in need of relief.  But, then, Vienna was a Christian city under attack and in danger of falling, which might have made it seem more important to Rome, not a non-Christian state bombarding and displacing Christian and Muslim populations alike.  Moreover, if the Vatican views the current attack on Lebanon as unjustified, why would Pope Benedict time his call for a cease-fire in such a way as to benefit a campaign that he does not believe is justified?  I believe Pope Benedict is on very solid moral ground in refusing to endorse either side and calling for an end to hostilities.  If that position seems wrong to some of us, the problem probably does not rest with Pope Benedict.

Andrea Kirk Assaf has a couple other posts worth looking at: she cites an article from Christianity Today by the dean of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Martin Accad, who makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the people of Lebanon and does not accept the easy justifications of any party to the conflict.  She also notes the Maronite bishops’ call for peace.

This blindness on the part of “conservative” American Catholics is partly ignorance; even many of those who have heard the words Melkite and Maronite have no particular interest in trying to learn anything about either rite, must less trying to grapple with the history of these Christian populations or even being bothered to find out who lives where or how they worship.

More importantly, though, it reflects a growing political reality. Since at least the Six-Day War, the presence of Christians in the Middle East has been a sign of contradiction that has stood in the way of American and Israeli attempts to reduce the broad conflict in the Middle East to the dualism of Judaism/Israel versus Islam/Arabs. The inconvenient reality of Middle Eastern Christianity has been a stumbling block to remaking the Middle East in a particular ideological image.

I started to write the “irreducible” (instead of “inconvenient”) “reality of Middle Eastern Christianity,” but, unfortunately, it is not so. By acting as if they were dealing only with Muslims, both the United States and Israel have changed the demographic reality in the Middle East. Palestinian Christians have left in droves. Much of the Maronite population is now in the United States. The Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq have, as Wayne Allensworth predicted before the war, largely fled the country. ~Scott Richert

I appreciate Scott’s comments, and I share his frustration with most Americans’ general ignorance of or indifference to Near Eastern Christian brethren of all confessions (for what it’s worth, there are also some Protestants in Lebanon, the fruit of the largely forgotten humanitarian and evangelical work of American missionaries in the Near East across the old domains of the Ottoman Empire).  I would also like to join him in pointing out the blog of Andrea Kirk Assaf, Russell Kirk’s daughter and a Catholic currently living in Italy, who is married to a man from Lebanon.  She has been blogging extensively on the situation in Lebanon, the Vatican response to the crisis and ongoing Vatican efforts to mediate the conflict.  Today she reports on the Israeli bombing of a Catholic radio station, and has a long post on the bombing at Qana.  Thank goodness that Israel is not targeting civilian sites, is not attacking all of Lebanon and is only going after Hizbullah. 

There has long been scant attention paid to the extremely delicate and dangerous  situation Arab and other Near Eastern Christians face, even in the officially secular states where they live and where they are supposed to be (and often, though not always, are) protected by law.  What is striking about the Western interventions of the last 16 years is how disastrous they have been for the region’s Christians.  It might be worth considering that the two major interventions in the Near East in my lifetime have been under GOP Presidents, and it has typically been their constituents who have, more than anyone else, endorsed these reckless and wrongheaded policies; many of these constituents are the same people who believe that we either live in or should live in a Christian nation.  But these folks should consider that if they want to have a Christian nation, or at least help create a nation that takes its Christian Faith seriously, they cannot really continue to endorse a party that embraces a foreign policy that has such serious anti-Christian effects (to say nothing for the moment of goals).  For that matter, any party that has people who are effectively apologists for Chechen terrorism among its prominent members is a party with which no self-respecting Christian should associate if he can possibly help it.   

Not only are these Christians, as Scott has said, the ”forgotten victims” of these conflicts, but the indifference with which Western governments greet the destruction or radical diminution of their communities is equalled only by the cynical, “humanitarian” crocodile tears that the same governments and their apologists shed for the ethnic and sectarian victims of governments they have chosen to eliminate.  If the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians are driven from Iraq en masse to scratch out a living in another country, that’s a tough break (stuff happens, after all), but for 15 years there has never been a cessation of lamenting the longsuffering Kurds, with whom we in the West have nothing in common except a similar linguistic structure.  There has been an ongoing disproportionate response of a different kind to the suffering of Near Eastern Christians: the rule seems to be that the more they are like us Americans (in their Christianity), the less interested “we” are in their fate, while you can’t turn around in this country but find a Christian who cares deeply for the fate of Israel or, even more incredibly, Darfur.  Roger Scruton recently coined the term oikophobia to express the idea of fearing and loathing that which is your own (as opposed to xenophobia), so we are either seeing an outpouring of oikophobia with respect to our Christian brethren, a startling demonstration of American ignorance, or a widespread admission that “we” are not really like the Christians of the Near East but apparently have more in common with their persecutors with whom we unwittingly or knowingly align ourselves.   

I do not dare assume that Mr. Bush has a significant working knowledge of the region he has proposed to transform into a beacon of human progress (this is the man who reportedly needed to have the whole Kurd-Sunni-Shi’a business in Iraq explained to him as late as the winter of ‘02-’03 and who was surprised to find black folks in Brazil), so I do not assume that he knows about the Christians of the Near East in any detail and has simply decided they are unimportant or expendable.  What some of his advisers know and think about Christians in the Near East may be a very different story (I do not think any secular neocons care a whit for what has happened to these people).  Still, it is ironic in the extreme that this administration has been conventionally (albeit mostly wrongly, in my view) associated with a strong emphasis on Christianity and the interests of evangelical Christians and yet has presided over the displacement of so many Christians and the cleansing of Muslim countries of sizeable sections of their Christian populations and has undertaken policies that have hastened this cleansing.  There was a time when a President of the United States would take particular interest in the suffering of Bulgarians and Armenians being massacred in the Ottoman Empire and would make it an issue of international concern; there was a time when Western peoples viewed with horror Kurdish atrocities against the Assyrians of Iraq, who suffered grievously during the last round of liberating Iraq.  Now, if there is an awareness of these suffering people, there is an unprecedented indifference to their fate and their fears of Islamic oppression combined with a weird activist concern for other victims of Islamic frenzy.  Everyone and his brother on the blogging right seems to belong to the Save Darfur Coalition, but when did you ever even hear of a Save Middle East Christians Coalition? 

Why this ignorance of or contempt for people who are more “our own” than the myriad nations our government is supposedly intent upon freeing and democratising?  Is this a function of secularism having taken such root in the culture that Christians are afraid or embarrassed to speak out for co-religionists on explicit grounds of Christian solidarity?  Is this some strange leftover animus among the Protestant majority towards other confessions, an expression of an old prejudice that these people aren’t really Christians at all?  I know there are some American Christians who take an active interest in the suffering and persecution of Christians around the world, including in the Near East, but why are they such a distinct and small minority?        

The nadir may have come in February 2003, during the agitation before the invasion of Iraq, when Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister, was brought to Italy to be feted at St. Francis’s church in Assisi and treated to an audience with John Paul II in Rome. But you can see the same impulse in the Vatican’s current secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who announced on Vatican Radio last week: “As it has done in the past, the Holy See condemns the terrorist attacks of one side as well as the military reprisals of the other. In fact, the right to defense of a state is not exempt from respect for the norms of international law, especially as regards the safeguarding of civilian populations. In particular, the Holy See now deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation.”

The moral equivalence between terrorism and the response to terrorism was troubling–and, indeed, Sodano was indulging in more than moral equivalence, for he singled out the Israelis for blame “in particular.” The problem Israel faces is precisely that Lebanon is not “a free and sovereign nation,” but a weak and captive nation, unable to assert its sovereignty over areas dominated by a terrorist organization. ~Joseph Bottum, The Weekly Standard

Via Rod Dreher

I do enjoy how flexible international law can be for some people.  Apparently, “free and sovereign nation” is not a legal definition that invokes protections of the U.N. Charter, making aggressive war against it illegal, but a matter of perspective.  Apparently obligations under international law to safeguard civilian populations are all relative.  Isn’t it also convenient that the terrorist guerrilla movement of Hizbullah, now being held up as the reason to circumvent the protections Lebanon is owed under international law, is a direct product of the original, illegal invasion of Lebanon 24 years ago?  To strip a neighbour of his rights, the trick is to invade his territory once, stir up a violent resistance movement and then use that movement’s continued existence as a pretext to invade the territory again.  

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