A Question

A question

The Green New Deal is ridiculous. But the idea that elected officials ought to authentically legislate their worldview is not ridiculous. In fact, it’s the only way a democratic republic can function. Socialist progressives seem to understand this. Pro-life Republicans do not. Question: Which of those movements do you think, right now, is more likely to carry out the implications of their beliefs first?

Honestly, is there any doubt?

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On Bothsidesism

A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

American political culture has a nasty way of inspiring all of us to take something that is true and use or apply it in a way that makes it false. “All lives matter” is a great example. The sentence is 100% true; it is invoked almost exclusively for the purpose of rebuking someone who just said that a specific kind of life (black, immigrant, unborn, etc.) matters. Another good example is Whataboutism: The act of immediately responding to any fair critique with an example of how your opponent, or his tribe, have also failed in this category. Example: “It’s absolutely wrong for a President to talk about women or the disabled in such a derogatory way.” “What about Bill Clinton?!?!”

Bothsidesism is another example. It bears a close relationship to Whataboutism but is its own species. Bothsidesism is what you do when someone points out that a particular party or tribe is guilty of something. Rather than pushing back against the accusation, you simply remind the person making the observation that “Both sides do this,” and present an example of comparable sin committed by either a) the party/tribe generally thought to be the polar opposite of the party/tribe being accused, or b) the party/tribe that you think the person making the observation represents.

This sounds a lot like Whataboutism, but there’s an important difference. Whataboutism is an accusation of moral hypocrisy that implies the original observation is meaningless or the first speaker is inauthentic. Bothsidesism, on the other hand, is not a direct charge of hypocrisy, but rather an attempt to change the subject. “Both sides do this” is often code for, “Now instead of talking about each other, let’s talk about how awful everything is.” Whereas Whataboutism challenges the moral authority of the original point, Bothsidesism challenges whether there’s any moral authority to be had at all.

Complicating all this is the fact that neither Whatboutism nor Bothsidesism are really fallacies. It does matter, for example, that the same media institutions bemoaning toxic masculinity stood up for Bill Clinton and shamed his accusers. It does matter that, while the Democratic Party sanctions the killing of the unborn, the Republican Party has also adopted language and policies about minorities, immigrants, and others that dehumanizes and obscures the sanctity of life. These are fair points, and they have to be reckoned with if our understanding of culture is going to rise above the level of AM radio.

Last night I tweeted (I know, I know):

Isn’t it weird how abortion on demand at 30+ weeks is “complex,” “intimate,” and “hard to talk about without dividing people,” while single-payer healthcare and a wall are “matters of justice” and “the Jesus way”?

I think most readers knew that my point was about left-leaning evangelicals, many of whose prolific Trump-era political tweeting has taken an intermission since the state of New York approved a ghoulish abortion law, and the governor of Virginia offered some similarly ghoulish thoughts about which born infants can be killed. It’s an observation I’ve made many times; there’s a weird overlap between the folks who go straight to the Old Testament to explain why a certain immigration policy is wrong and the folks who seem totally unable to articulate an argument against letting live-born infants die on a medical table. It’s an overlap that has the stench of identity politics and the “age of lumping” all over it.

A friend responded to this tweet by reminding me that “Both sides do this,” by which he meant that the Republican Party and the Trump administration have sanctioned the cruel separation of families and other odious, anti-Christian policies. He’s 100% correct. Both parties are, right now, imago Dei-denying, family-subverting parties. A pox on all our houses.

And yet: Both sides are manifestly not equally OK with infanticide. That’s the point. My tweet was not intended at all to flatter the GOP. It was intended to point out a lethal confusion in many evangelical writers, several of whom have rich book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and influential platforms. It’s the confusion that cannot see a moral urgency to the willful, state-sanctioned killing of a perfectly recognizable tiny human. It’s the confusion that looks at abortion and sees only a “divisive wedge issue” that Christians should “get beyond,” but looks at single payer healthcare and a border wall and sees a clear biblical mandate to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. It’s not that the latter conviction is wrong; it’s that the former conviction is so very very wrong that, yes, it colors everything that comes after it. A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

The problem with Bothsidesism is that it assumes a moral equivalency that doesn’t exist. What matters most is not that both tribes get equally dinged. What matters most is that human life, born or unborn, white or black or brown, healthy or disabled or young or old, is respected as the crowning jewel of a sovereign Creator’s work. However such life is disrespected, it is always a tragedy; but the authorized killing of innocent human life is the worst tragedy of all because it cannot be remedied. It is permanent, forever, and irreconcilable until the resurrection. Bothsidesism is correct to point out faults in both political ideologies, but it’s wrong when it’s invoked to obscure degrees of seriousness in our faults. Without being conscious of those degrees, we cannot hope to remedy injustice.

Bothsidesism feels good in the moment because it feels like taking a wider view of things. But a wider view isn’t always helpful if what you need to see is right in front of you. The bigger failure of evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries wasn’t that they didn’t have a fully realized, magisterial doctrine of human dignity and the political sphere. It was that they either supported or ignored lynching, slavery, and disenfranchisement. They ignored what was right in front of them.

As do we.

Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

Andrew Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny. But his Christianity is too beholden to modern gods.

In his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge sees a young boy and girl, whose monstrous, “wolfish” appearance terrifies him. The ghost explains that the boy and girl are Ignorance and Want, and without transformation of society’s attitude toward the poor, they will be doomed to a desperate fate. “Have they no refuge or resource,” asks Scrooge. The ghost then quotes Ebenezer’s own words from the opening chapter back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The ghost vanishes, and Scrooge is left alone, condemned and exposed.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who gets a rare mercy: A chance to see himself and the world as both truly are. The story is an evergreen classic precisely because it narrates a fundamental human experience of understanding. For we creatures who look in a glass darkly, to see the true end of our ideas and actions is a kind of personal eschaton. Mostly, we expect to be justified, and are shocked when we aren’t.

I wonder if some ghosts have been haunting Andrew Sullivan lately. His latest essay on the way Americans have replaced religion with politics reads like someone trying very hard to see the world as it really is, but lamentably turning his eyes to the wrong place at the most crucial times. While reading it, I wanted to join the Ghost of Christmas Present and scream at Sullivan, “O Man! Look here!” The problem for Sullivan is that I would be pointing at him.

Sullivan laments the thinning out of organized religion in American life. “We are a meaning-seeking species,” he writes, and meaning cannot come from material wealth or scientific conquest. In lieu of the meaning-bestowing propositions and practices of Christianity, Sullivan fears that Americans are juicing their sense of transcendence out of politics and tribalism. This could be thought of, Sullivan argues, as the conclusion of (classical) liberalism-for-liberalism’s-sake:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

That’s an outstanding final sentence, and gets to the heart, I think, of how American life has transformed in the past 30 years. The postwar solidarity that was the unseen casket next to George H.W. Bush’s this past week was a solidarity bought and paid for, in a real sense, by American Christianity. Cultural Christianity is a major problem for believers who take the euangelion literally and not just liturgically, but it does bestow certain benefits. What Sullivan rightly fears is the emerging anti-solidarity generation, an American era without shared religious experiences or thought-forms, that transfers the metaphors of sin, judgment, and salvation from the spiritual to the social. There’s good reason to be afraid of that era, and writers like Sullivan, Marilynne Robinson, and Jordan Peterson are not speaking to the whirlwind when they warn us that politically conscious secularism may be costing us something we won’t be able to get back.

But Sullivan’s prophetic mantle is a bit too see-through. Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny, even as he’s spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods. For years Sullivan was one of the most influential and impassioned advocates of legal same-sex marriage, and his “conservative case” for radically redefining matrimony drew extensively on his progressive Catholic sensibilities. During the George W. Bush administration Sullivan eviscerated traditional evangelicals over their stance on LGBT issues, even coining the term “Christianist” to evoke Islamic extremism when describing Christians to the right of him.

Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.

What Sullivan calls for in his essay is a Christianity that can bestow meaning, revelation, and identity across any political experience. Every believer should want this too! We American Christians are far too given to letting social and political categories set the agenda for the church. But as in the parable of the sower, merely wanting the message to implant and bear fruit isn’t enough. The problem for modern Westerners is that even our desire for transcendence outside politics is lethally dosed with our own desire for theological autonomy. We want Christ to tell our political opponents to find their identity in Him rather than their ideas, but we want Christ to tell us, “You guys have it right. You’re good.” We want to crack the whip at the fundamentalists changing money (and ballots) in the temple, but resist the “legalism” that scowls at our ethically-sourced porn. We want, in other words, the risen Christ to shape our deepest desires, but to retain the final say as to what those desires actually are.

Sullivan’s lifelong advocacy for same-sex marriage represents a lifelong resistance to the unanimous teaching of the Christian church and the overwhelming judgment of the Scriptures. What kind of culture-shaping transcendence can really come from a faith that has been so gutted? Asking for Christianity to be exalted over politics may not be a request Sullivan is ready to have fulfilled. The same is true for many of us, left and right, fundamentalist and woke. The vacant pews of mainline Protestantism testify to how the human heart responds to the separation of theological authenticity from authority, just like vacant worldviews of many American evangelical leaders.

Just like Scrooge, our fate depends much on how well we see. Sullivan sees an American public square fraying at the edges and hollowed out at the center. Many of us see the same thing. But what he doesn’t see is the lordship-shaped cavity in the heart of American Christian churches. The idol of politics is too strong to yield to the idol of self-determination. For Sullivan’s sake and ours, I wish he would reconsider his own role in the gutting of American Christianity, and turn to a solution more ancient, and more spiritual, than ever before.

Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

Christian, vote angry, but do not punish the unborn in your anger.

This week a lot of Americans, including Christians, will be voting angry. Much of that anger will be righteous and just. There is much to mourn about our national politics, much injustice to grieve, and much moral disqualification to disgust us. For that reason, I’ve seen some friends of mine post how eager they will be to get to the polls and throw a vote in the direction opposite of the White House. I get it. They’re fed up and tired.

Here’s a plea, though: Don’t punish the unborn with your angry vote. Don’t punish them by forgetting them in your zeal to see the current administration checked and the ruling party disarmed. Don’t give the abortion industry what it craves: The erstwhile support of those who know better but feel pinched into the craven dichotomies of American politics.

I’m torn about being “a single issue voter.” On the one hand, abortion is not the only injustice that matters, and we’ve seen for the past 3 years how an opportunistic political movement can manipulate pro-life convictions. Pitting the lives of unborn children against, say, the lives of unarmed black men or the lives of the unemployed poor is a depraved dualism. To the degree that single-issue pro-life politics has reinforced this dualism, it should be ashamed of itself.

On the other hand, is there a more tired, more dishonest note in our political discourse than tone-policing the pro-life movement? I fear that some well-meaning pro-lifers have inadvertently sold out their convictions by accepting the moral equivalency pushed on them by both the pro-choice left and the economic right. We are supposed to take for granted that Trump’s election has de-legitimized the pro-life movement. We are not supposed to ask the unborn children rescued at crisis pregnancy centers if they agree.

Cutting through the fog, we see two obvious truths. One, the pro-life movement has been appropriated by politicians and activists who do not share its core convictions and who are happy to use the post-Roe divisions in American society for their own ethno-nationalist gains. Two, we still have in the United States a major political party that is devoted, hand over heart, to the easy and unchecked killing of tiny people for virtually any reason whatsoever. I can’t see any way for pro-life Christians to change these truths in 2018. We are dealt a loathsome hand. But that doesn’t mean there is no wisdom to apply.

Two years ago, many evangelicals said that they were unable to vote for either major party presidential candidate. I don’t see anything that’s happened in the past two years to change this logic, at least at a party level. There may be a pro-life argument for voting for a radically pro-choice party in a given election, but I’m not sure what that argument is. Some will say that voting along abortion lines is a non-starter since neither national party is authentically pro-life. This may very well be true (in fact, I suspect it is), but it’s a little bit like saying there’s no point in being a racial justice voter since neither party is sufficiently invested in equity and reconciliation. If you think the latter logic fails while the former logic works, you should ask yourself why you think that.

In my personal view, the Christians who are able to stand on the most consistent, most cohesive political theology are the ones who refrained from picking the lesser of two evils in 2016 and will continue to decline doing so in 2018. Unborn children will almost certainly still be at the mercy of Roe v. Wade long after the White House has been flipped.

There will be a day very, very soon when the resilient American republic will repudiate (at least for a moment) what’s happened to its national politics and some semblance of sanity will return. But until an immoral judicial fiat from 1973 is reversed, there will be millions of little, defenseless, utterly vulnerable Americans who reap no benefit from that. And there will remain an entire political machine that actively works to keep it that way. How effective that political machine’s work will be depends, in part, on how many Trump-weary Christians sigh, concede the point, and elect that machine’s favored candidates. My hope is that Christians would reject this dilemma entirely, and assert the radical un-sortableness of their kingdom citizenship.

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

“Other evils there are that may come, for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

 

Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

No hashtag—and no Supreme Court seat—is worth ignoring the truth

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.

Death By Minutia

So many things that we modern people add to our lives are utterly trivial. This is a spiritual AND political problem.

There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing. 

This is bleak stuff from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who, as an atheist, rejected any transcendent meaning to life or death. The best a sentient being can hope for, Russell argued, was “triviality for a moment.” Had professor Russell lived to see the age of cable news and social media, he probably would have been even more convinced of this. If you’re looking for a powerful argument for this kind of gloomy nihilism, you could do worse than the amount of triviality that drives our cultural consciousness. How difficult is it to hold forth that life is not meaningless when so much of what we give our attention is?

Trivialities shape the modern, Western soul. Our weeks and years are busier than ever and yet many report deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Technology has streamlined our work and curated our relationships, engineering existence for maximum efficiency, while depression, anxiety, and loneliness seem to be the most reliable fruits. Why is this? At least partially it is because a lopsided share of the things that we moderns add to our lives does not matter. They produce exhaustion but not meaning. Even many of the things that trigger outrage and righteous indignation are utterly insignificant. Politically, pscyhologically, and even spiritually, minutia is killing us.

Consider a pair of helpful illustrations from the recent news cycle. The New York Times hired a technology writer named Sarah Jeong for their editorial page. Not long afterwards, several Twitter users, including many conservative journalists, had unearthed a lot of Jeong’s old Tweets in which she quite plainly expresses contempt and dislike for white people, especially white men. Almost faster than you could read all the screenshots, a small library of thinkpieces was published from both ideological sides of the American blogosphere. Left publications like Vox and The New Republic defended Jeong and her Tweets as misrepresented victims of a racist, right-wing smear campaigns. On the other hand, others wrote that Jeong’s Tweets were clearly racist and the Left’s defense of her hire by the Times was gross hypocrisy from the social justice movement.

This type of thing is almost totally irresistible to people like me, who invest time and energy in the online world of ideas. I got sucked in. I knew it was dumb, meaningless, and a waste of time, but the neural reward patterns were too much to overcome. I found myself reading thinkpieces that enraged me, scanning Twitter accounts for something to either vindicate my opinions or further anger me, and imagining all the various evils that this episode revealed about my ideological opposites. It was a thrilling exercise. I felt alive and in the know, already planning to write something that would head off the conversation among the friends I just knew must be having tons of private conversations about this Trending Topic. I went to bed full of righteous invective and eager to meet the next morning with my weapon: my “take.”

I woke up the next morning embarrassed and frustrated that I had wasted last night.  Sarah Jeong has no influence in my life, wherever she works. I had no idea who she was until I suddenly had strong opinions about her (and if I’m being honest, I didn’t really know anything about her even afterwards). An evening’s worth of attention and angst had been spilled over some journalist’s handful of 180-character sentences. I had absolutely nothing to show for my absorption, except for another ride on social media’s outrage-go-round. Worst of all, I knew I had deepened my dependance on outrage to get me thinking. Awful.

Mine is a common experience. Twitter thrives on addicting its users to triviality. Its engineers and programmers know, and in some cases admit, that the platform relies on negative emotion to drive up clicks. Stories like Sarah Jeong’s are an analytics counter’s dream come true: A polarizing trending topic that whips up strong tribal emotions but offers little offline substance. The drama is wholly contained within the frenetic subculture of social media and blogs. Sermonizing and demonizing is fine even if nobody is talking about the issue this time next week, because the point is not meaningful discourse, but per-click ad revenue. Everybody wins, except your brain.

Of course, not everything that trends on social media is trivial. Twitter at its most useful is a hub of informed conversation that offers an invaluable view into the people and places that make up the news. Consider the recent revelations of widespread abuse cover-up in the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. While the bare legal facts are available in any traditional media outlet, reading the comments, prayers, and (yes) arguments of Catholics who are reckoning with these horrors gives me an insight into how real people are thinking about and responding to these stories, not to mention a fresh empathy and even a sense of Christian burden-sharing. That’s far beyond the capability of any journalistic institution.

But in order for this positive effect to be monetized, it has to be inexorably dependent on minutia. My Twitter feed must, by industrial necessity, offer me three doses of triviality for every one dose of significance. Even if I’m zeroed in on following the conversation and developments of the sex abuse scandals, Kanye West’s politics, or the latest protest at Starbucks, or the inchoate rants of some Reddit men’s rights activist (and the equally inchoate “clapbacks” to the same) are all pushed in my face. Truly meaningful words are buried like fossils in the sediment of minutia. This is the way Silicon Valley wants it, because it’s minutia, not meaning, that cheaply and efficiently captivates my attention.

A prime example of how meaning and minutia are purposefully conflated, to the benefit of tech like Twitter,  is Donald Trump recent insult of basketball superstar LeBron James and journalist Don Lemon. The President of the United States denigrated both James and Lemon’s intelligence before saying “I like Mike” (millennials: that’s Michael Jordan). Soon enough all those hot takes on journalism and racism swapped out “Jeong” and “New York Times” for “Trump” and “LeBron James.” The most pressing question for America became what Trump “really” meant.

Whether the President of the United States says something racist is a very legitimate question. But does this tweet really impart any new knowledge, shed any unseen light, or help us further clarify the stakes of our current political moment? I doubt it. Yet judging by Twitter, you would think this was the most important event since the election. Outrage has a way of creating the illusion of significance, and Trump understands this better than many of his opponents. As Ezra Klein notes, Trump is president in part because his team learned how to take advantage of the self-interested dysfunctions of the American media. Were we as a culture not so energized by meaningless nonsense, we wouldn’t need to care what a New York real estate baron thinks about an athlete. Now we are forced to care, a just punishment for our misplaced care then.

Social media is not the first technology to weaponize trivia. Neil Postman eviscerated television’s effect on Americans’ ability to process information in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and his critique has been both applied to social media and cited as an example of how every generation has their Luddites. But social media, especially Twitter, is different than television in important ways. It is more mobile, more personal, and its neural rewards are more alluring. Postman warned that TV makes us empty-headed and passive. But at its worst, Twitter can make us empty-headed and passive while we think we are actually being smart and courageous. Trivialities are dangerous to the degree that we cannot actually tell them for what they are. In our age, it’s not the silly vacuity of TV that gets pride of place in our cultural imagination, but the silly vacuity of hashtags and screenshots. Television is just television. Twitter is resistance.

Confusing minutia for meaning is a surefire path toward mental and emotional burnout at best, and an existential transformation into the very things we despise at worst. Fortunately, there are off-ramps. The best way to fight this burnout is to unplug and log off, redirecting your best energies away from the ephemera of online controversies and toward analog life. Because of the neurological boost social media offers, being conscious of its effects is the first, hardest, and most important step toward resisting them. These intentional acts are likely to arouse a sense of condemnation, either from ourselves or others, for not being as “in the know” as we once felt compelled to be. But this is precisely the social media illusion: that being “in the know” about petty, trivial, insignificant trends and conversations is no different than being in the know about anything else. All it takes is a few days away from the black hole of Twitter controversies to recalibrate the mind and realize just how small and unreal they are.

This isn’t just therapeutic, either. Small, organic self-government depends on the capability of citizens to know what’s happening right in front of them. Being smothered by minutia—especially minutia that privileges the comings and goings of remote, celebrity personalities—is a good way to miss the issues and debates that really matter. Your day on Twitter is far more likely to give you a comprehensive education about an over-the-top student protest at a college you’ve only heard about once in your life than about the people and issues in your county school board. For millions of Americans coming into voting age right now, the age of distraction is the only one they know. Minutia overload is normal, maybe even desirable. Reversing this trend is integral to stopping the dangerous political and cultural trend to conceptualize “America” as the handful of economically vogue cities and a smattering of famous rich people. How different would our own national politics be, how different would the White House be, if we weren’t so enamored with glitzy meaninglessness?

Our spirits always eventually mirror what we behold. Putting outrage-ridden triviality in front of our faces throughout the week, throughout the month, and throughout the year is not a neutral hobby. It’s a spiritual practice that makes us less able to feel the beauty of transcendent realities more deeply and less willing to make the effort to do so. If Bertrand Russell was right about existence’s only being “triviality for a moment, then nothing,” let us eat, tweet, and be merry, for tomorrow we and all the people we dislike die. If he was wrong, and more specifically, if all of human history is actually heading to a particular place and a particular Person in the light of whose glory and grace the trivial things of earth will grow strangely dim, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Don’t Argue Like Those Who Have No Hope

Christians seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as unbelievers. This is tragic.

“Mansplain.” “Feminazi.” “Social Justice Warrior.” “Colonizer.” This is the argumentative vocabulary of the world, which has no hope of ultimate reconciliation, atonement, or New Creation. These are words designed to make people feel chained to an errant identity and undeserving of serious attention and care. They’re precisely the lingo we should expect from those whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

What’s surprising is hearing them on the lips of those who do have that hope.

Even before I write these words, I know that many Christians will be revving up their “whataboutisms” to show me how much of a hypocrite I am. Don’t I know how condescending males can be toward the opposite sex? Haven’t I read the latest ridiculous diatribe from a leading feminist? Don’t I believe in justice? What about, what about, what about.

This kind of thinking is like a carousel. It will just go around and around and never reach an exit. We can signal our political ideals, compare and contrast each group’s relative suffering and indignity, and drag out sordid examples of the opposing tribe’s worst instincts all day long (especially on Twitter). There will never not be evidence against them and evidence against us. Trying to arrive at truly transcendent truth by playing tribal politics is like trying to drive an SUV through the ocean.

But this is the only way many unbelievers know how to think. In a secularizing culture where it is increasingly possible to go through one’s entire educational career without hearing one inkling about God, nobody should be shocked at the size of our political golden calves. We are “incurably religious” people being herded away from religion and toward social micro-identities. If we won’t love God, we shall love ideology. If we won’t hate Satan, we shall hate immigrants or straight white men.

Thus is the experience of many in America. But what about in the church?

The spirit of the age has found partnership with too many of us believers when it comes to how we talk about those with whom we disagree. I used to think the Bible college dorm-room debates over Calvinism represented the low point of evangelical discourse. Then I got a Twitter account. Then Donald Trump was elected president. For my money, the problem is not just that Christians aren’t nice enough toward one another. The problem is that we seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as the media moguls who stand to make a pretty penny from the coarsening of American public life. There is a continuity not only between what evangelicals and what unbelievers say, but between what captivates our attention and stokes our emotions. This is tragic.

Here’s an example. In a widely praised evangelical book about race published last year, I find the following line: “White privilege means that even if you’re the unluckiest white person born in the United States, you were still born into a fortunate race.” Now, the assertion on its face is questionable. But ask yourself this—what would the relational dynamics be like in a congregation that was preaching and teaching and structuring their benevolence ministries according to the dictum that even the poorest, most vulnerable white members were inherently better off (and thus, in less need of help) than their minority brothers and sisters? What would be the state of unity and gospel fellowship be in a local church that was committed to pigeonholing an entire ethnicity in their congregation as permanently “privileged”?

I’m certainly not interested in castigating any and all efforts to recognize the racist practices of American history as “cultural Marxism” (another dog whistle of a noun that should disappear from the mouths of serious Christians), nor am I veering toward a vanilla call for “unity” that is really code for “Stop talking about my brothers and sisters in Jesus whose experiences make me politically uncomfortable.” What I am suggesting is that too many evangelicals seem comfortable simply transposing the ideas and taxonomies of secular society into the community of faith.

But the gospel is too violent on our intuitions for that to succeed. We can’t simply baptize the excesses of intersectionality in order to correct the God-and-country Republicanism that led to a morally bankrupt Religious Right. The identitarian, truth-diminishing, Bible-ignoring lingo that some evangelicals have tried to program into Christian conversation is a sign that we’re trying, and failing, to do just that.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul has the audacity to suggest that there is a wrong way for Christians to grieve the death of their loved ones. This sounds unconscionably insensitive to modern ears. But Paul’s intrusion on our emotional lives is a glorious one: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, there is a way to grieve that acknowledges that one day a risen Jesus Christ will call all the dead out of their graves and death itself will be conquered forever. So, Paul says, don’t just grieve. Grieve like that!

To which I would add: there is a way to speak to one another and debate one another and learn from one another that acknowledges that some day we will all know as we are known, and we will all be one in an endless mutuality of love. So don’t argue like those who have no such hope.


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Contempt Is Not a Cure: C.S. Lewis on Owning the Elites

Why C.S. Lewis would have rebuked a common conservative attitude as the work of the devil.

It’s become common on the Right to hear people talk about “the elites” in a very peculiar way. Not only are the elites people we must loathe and refuse to imitate, but they are inverse moral examples. What they do and believe is the opposite of what we ought to do and believe. If a particular idea or behavior or line of reasoning is one that is used by an “elite,” that fact alone is an argument against it. Large swaths of contemporary conservatives seem to organize their entire political and ethical life around the goal of sticking a finger in the eyes of elites.

I think C.S. Lewis would have some strong things to say about this. Listen to the way he describes the sin of pride as being less bad in the stage of vanity (caring too much what others think of us) and much worse in the state of contempt. Lewis’s description of contempt in Mere Christianity suits the conservative attitude toward “elites” almost perfectly:

The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.

Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals—or my artistic conscience—or the traditions of my family—or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

Of course, contempt is what many working class Americans believe the elite feel toward them, and they’re often right. Lewis was not naive about class. He was deeply skeptical especially about the intellectual establishment of his time, believing it to largely be (especially in university) a morally and spiritually bankrupt “inner ring.” Lewis understood the power that wealthy, influential people wield over the lives of others, and he challenged this power as forcefully as any Christian writer I’ve read.

Nonetheless, Lewis eschewed the kind of reverse identity-formation that soaks through much Western life. Note how Lewis includes “the traditions of my family” as a motivation for contempt. Even “blue-collar” goods like family tradition and community sensibility can be co-opted as license to resent. Whereas the popular notion is that being looked down upon by someone with wealth and privilege is an infinitely worse evil than our resentment of them, Lewis thinks (correctly) that pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Our place in the social strata does not determine how well our souls can tolerate the devil’s work.

Contempt is not a cure. Conservative Christians who love “owning” the elites, and who are willing to sacrifice their moral compass in order to do so, should remember that.

There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

The reversal of Roe is not less of a mandate for Christians merely because of Donald Trump

The news that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy will retire next month has immediately conjured up images of a pro-life judge’s taking his place and becoming the crucial fifth piece to strike down Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 affirmation of a universal right to abortion. For pro-life activists and observers, this is a historic opportunity to challenge the bloodiest injustice in America for the past 50 years. While overturning Roe would not itself criminalize abortion, it would blow away the barrier against state-based laws and almost certainly result in at least 20 states outlawing abortion in most circumstances. All it takes is five justices to intervene on behalf of the lives of millions of unborn Americans. It is very close.

It is close because Donald Trump won an astonishing election the same year that Justice Antonin Scalia astonishingly died, denying the Democratic Party an opportunity to solidify Roe via President Hillary Clinton. It is close because then-candidate Trump said onstage during a presidential debate that he would seek to overturn Roe if given the opportunity to appoint justices. It is because of the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, a relationship crafted by the men on our dollars and coins, that this opportunity has come. And it is also because of Donald Trump.

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

In our current age, we are given to making value judgments by association. Because Donald Trump is a man of vice whose administration has pursued some cruel policies (and whose rhetoric tends to exult in such cruelty), some evangelicals will struggle with feeling joy at this vacant Court seat. “I’m personally pro-life,” they might say, “but I just don’t trust Trump, and I don’t like it that people who voted for him seem happy about this.” Thus, they might try to reason themselves into the belief that Roe ought not be overturned, that a pro-life justice ought not be appointed, all because Donald Trump ought not be president and evangelicals ought not be feeling victorious right now.

The frustration is understandable, but the logic is not. Evangelicals don’t have to set aside their convictions about race, immigrants, women, or the Religious Right in order to perceive a moral mandate when it comes to abortion. There is no Christian case against overturning Roe. None.

Once upon what seems now like a lifetime ago, pro-life evangelicals were united in horror and imprecatory prayer at the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood released by the Center for Medical Progress. Those videos have been legally prosecuted and forgotten, but they have not been unmade. There are many of us who vividly remember where we were when we watched a physician “harvest” the tiny anatomy of an aborted boy (yes, “it’s a boy”), or when we listened to Planned Parenthood reps talk about the money and humor in the trafficking of babies. While these videos were being released, there was no question amongst most evangelicals whether abortion was a cause worth engaging at the highest possible level. There was no Donald Trump and no morally compromised Religious Right to complicate things.

Three years later, the producers of those videos are fighting litigation, and many of us who watched and cried and prayed are fighting ourselves. The illusion of virtue in our tribe was dismantled by 2016, by #MeToo, by the children of refugees in prison-like holding cells. It has been terrible. But evangelicals cannot allow the hypocrisy of their elders to blind them to the innocence of their infants. It is not remotely unreasonable or incoherent to stand as far away as possible from the rot of God and country Republicanism while charging alongside it against Roe v. Wade. In fact, it is the only option we have.

In a now-deleted tweet, a prominent progressive evangelical writer said though she was “convictionally pro-life” (those slippery adverbs!), she could not support the overturning of Roe v Wade due to all the “effects” it would have. After deleting the tweet, she said that Twitter was obviously not the right place to talk about abortion. Nothing more than a 2 minute perusal of her Twitter account reveals dozens of impassioned threads about everything from gun control to immigration to policing. This sort of double dealing has become rampant among younger, socially conscious evangelicals in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While abortion is a “complex conversation” that requires nuance instead of activism, the issues that the Republican Party morally fails on are apparently no-brainers.

I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from apathy about unborn babies or rank partisanship. I think it mostly comes from fear—fear of becoming the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of tribe. Again, the fear is understandable, but the rationalization seen above is not. To act as if morally upright Christians cannot support President Trump’s appointment of a justice who would tip the scales against Roe is to prioritize political consistency and tribal identity over human life itself. It is the literal opposite of a Christ-honoring public theology.

Martin Luther King famously said that laws could not make white people love black people, but they could keep white people from lynching black people. In other words, a law that doesn’t address the deepest problems but still preserves life is a worthy law. Evangelicals who say that overturning Roe would not destroy back alley abortions need to ponder the truth in King’s statement. The possibility that a law will be broken and that people will suffer is not an argument against a moral law. It’s an argument against us sinful people.  The overturning of Roe would allow states to codify the sanctity of unborn life, and laws do teach. We may not be able to change hearts, but we can shape them as they grow…but only if they’re allowed to beat.

Roe v. Wade is a legal catastrophe. It is Constitutional soothsaying. It’s a decision based on discredited scientific claims and cartoon philosophy. Worst of all, it has been the death sentence of over 60 million Americans. Worrying about whether its reversal will register as a win for a president who is unworthy of it is not a competing interest to its destruction. This should not, must not, and cannot be a “white Republican Christian” issue. It’s everyone’s issue. There is no Christian case for keeping Roe. None.

Civility, Privilege, and the Public Square

Civility isn’t merely a way to protect the powerful and privileged. It’s the normal burden common people must bear.

A few years ago I was working in the marketing department of a regional mortgage lender. My office was staffed predominantly with progressive Catholics, and my desire for most of my time there was to find a different job as quickly as possible, so it didn’t take long to learn the benefits of tuning out political and ethical conversations.

One day, though, our graphic designer and I were chatting, and somehow the subject turned to parenting (he was a father of two; I was soon to be married at this point). His exact phrasing escapes my memory, but the essence of his comment—which I am positive he did not expect any resistance to—was that spanking, all spanking, was definitely child abuse.

I raised my eyebrows slightly and said, trying my best for an air of impersonal objectivity, that my problem with hearing those kinds of comments was that my parents had spanked me growing up. Hence, to tell me that spanking is always child abuse is to directly accuse my Mom and Dad of being unrepentant abusers. He looked at me as if I had just whipped out and shown him a heretofore secret Ph.D. in ethics. He mumbled something about not having thought about that before, and went back to his office. The topic never came up again.

This story has come back to mind in recent days as the conversation in my corner of the blogosphere/Twitterverse has turned to civility, and the lack thereof in our contemporary public square. Several writers, including many conservatives, have bemoaned how uncivil our cultural discourse has become, seen especially in Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ being refused service as a Virginia restaurant. While some on the Left agree, many have criticized calls for civility as a tone-deaf response to genuine political and social evil.

At Vox, Nicole Hemmer points out that conservatives once accused Martin Luther King Jr. of incivility, which makes their contemporary concerns suspect. The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn is more explicit, arguing that civility is a red herring where this president is concerned: “Sorry, no, I won’t suffer lectures about civility from members of a party led by a swaggering, unrepentant bully.”

In other words, whereas conservatives like myself think the loss of civility in American life is worth mourning and trying to correct right now, #TheResistance quadrant of young, socially active Americans is more interested in being effective opponents of (in their view) wicked authority.

Hemmer’s piece seems especially representative of a line of thinking that I’m seeing among anti-Trump friends and colleagues. She writes that calls for civility and consensus “have historically worked to protect the powerful and sustain the status quo,” which is another way of saying what CNN’s Symone Sanders said: “The folks calling for civility [toward Sarah Huckabee Sanders] might need to check their privilege.” In other words, all this hand wringing we see about the loss of good faith in American culture is really a pretense for annoyance that historically marginalized voices now have the microphone. Civility is privilege.

This is a revealing argument. Not only does it illustrate some of the slipperiness of privilege language (some of the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people you meet are the most kind), it shows just how rootless and social media-centered our conception of public good is.

The notion that civility protects the privileged is true on Twitter and false everywhere else. On the contrary, the vast majority of Americans work every day under a vast and powerful architecture of enforced civility called Human Resources. Refusing to cooperate with a coworker because she voted for a politician you dislike is, for most of us, a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Most Americans do not have the job, the social capital, or the personal network to empower them to live revolutionary attitudes toward the people and institutions they personally oppose. Instead, we live and work and play with written and unwritten codes of neighborliness and cooperation. Disregarding these codes is a serious risk, and though whether the power of such codes is a good or bad thing is debatable, their existence is not.

There are few things that exhibit a person’s privilege more than their eager willingness to offend and alienate others. There is a reason that some of the more destructive and noxious exhibitions of incivility have come from campus protests. College students at elite universities, living off their parents’ tuition payments, have very little to lose. Likewise, the media economy has created an elite class of “professional sayers,” whose remuneration depends on getting clicks and shares and who, consequently, have wide latitude to say whatever they want to whomever they want as long as their sponsors see traffic. Their heated rhetoric and angry othering are not challenges to privilege, but blatant expressions of it.

If I had expressed offense at my coworker’s statement and informed my boss that I refused to work with him, my boss would have given me an ultimatum, not him. This doesn’t mean that my coworker was somehow privileged. It means that the normal social contract demands a certain level of coexistence and good faith, and that those who want/need the benefits of public life—employment, community, even health—must be willing to live a certain way.

Now, some will read that last sentence and immediately remember Justice Kennedy’s ominous phrase “the cost of citizenship.” Let me stop you right there. Ideological conformity is not the cost of citizenship, nor is violation of one’s conscience. Civility is not the cost of citizenship but the expression of it. While being rude and uncharitable and mean spirited does not make one less of an American (in fact, it might make them the most powerful American), it does make one less of a person.

This is what is missing in our contemporary political culture: a definition of virtue that goes beyond policy initiatives and speaks to personal formation. The debate around civility will go nowhere fruitful as long as it is framed as a question of political effectiveness. Civility matters because political effectiveness is not the most important thing in the world. Far from this being a “privileged” point of view, it’s an attitude that most un-privileged in our society, who tend simultaneously to be the most religious, often understand well. Civility doesn’t seem useful to an economically privileged upper middle class that treats politics as a de facto religion. For those who don’t see politics this way, the “usefulness” of civility is not the point. Love of neighbor, especially as an outflow of love for God, is the point.

Our public square is in bad shape right now. Incivility is not the only problem, but it is a problem. The only solution is to rethink our entire moral framework and arrive at a fundamentally different conclusion about the purpose of living and working with people not like us. Until that happens, civility will continue to be a burden that the common people bear, while envying the media class that can afford to merely talk about it.


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