My Latte, Your Chicken Sandwich, and Our Neighbors

The idol of politics must come down if we are to love our neighbors

Starbucks donates money to many causes with which I, a conservative Christian, strongly disagree. It supports Planned Parenthood. It supports various LGBT initiatives, the majority of which involve definitions of marriage and human flourishing that are incompatible with my faith. Based on public comments from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s highly unlikely someone with my religious and political convictions could ascend high up their corporate ladder. I could probably become a barista, maybe even a manager (if I played my HR cards just right). But if words mean anything, I could not represent the company at a significant level.

None of this has convinced me to stop buying coffee there. Why not? Don’t I care about where my money goes? Yes, I do. But a public marketplace is populated by people, people who have free consciences and who will, in many cases, oppose my deepest beliefs. Making opposing beliefs the basis for severing a marketplace relationship only makes sense if the purpose of a marketplace is to match people with others just like them. But that’s not the point of a marketplace. None less than the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers to have a free and open conscience about purchasing meat sold to them in a pagan storefront. Either Paul didn’t care about idolatry (he did), he didn’t think conscience mattered at all (he did), or else, he is working from a vision of civic life that is deeper than simply making sure Christians only do business with other Christians. It’s a vision that is deeply theological: The people of God do not belong outside the world, but in the world, representing a kingdom not of the world that will nonetheless come to the world.

What I’m beginning to realize is that religious architecture for seeing the world is crucial for having a functional vision of the public square. Americans who don’t have this theology increasingly fail to grasp any compelling reason why people with opposing political or religious views should interact at all.

Writing at Huffington Post, Noah Michelson rails against Chick-Fil-A, specifically decrying his fellow LGBT Americans who continue to patronize the restaurant. The problem is that CFA is owned by conservative evangelical Christians who have traditional beliefs about sexuality. Further, the owners give money to organizations that share these religious beliefs. For Michelson, CFA’s corporate partnership with traditionally evangelical organizations makes them unacceptable for right-thinking people:

Yeah, I know, I know ― it sucks that we can’t have waffle fries. But you know what sucks even more? Not having equal rights and contributing to the profits of a company that wants to ensure you never do because it believes you’re fundamentally disordered or unnatural or sinful or some delightful combination of all three.

Am I saying Chick-fil-A and everyone who works for it is evil? Of course not. The corporation has done a lot of good and even donated food to volunteers giving blood in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre (though, ironically, most gay men weren’t allowed to participate in that charitable effort).  But none of its generosity changes the fact that the chain has taken and continues to take an anti-queer stance and still donates large sums of money to anti-queer groups.

Note the careful wording. Michelson says that LGBT Americans ought not buy food from a company that “believes you’re fundamentally…sinful.” The problem for Michelson is not political activism or lobbyists. It’s the worldview of Chick-Fil-A’s ownership, which believes that homosexual sex is sinful. It’s their theology that makes them boycott-able to decent Americans.

It’s important to see that this is essentially an argument against people who disagree with each other interacting in the public marketplace. Buying a chicken sandwich is hardly a political donation, and the religious beliefs of CFA’s ownership does not mean that when Michelson enters the restaurant, he’s going to encounter direct hostility (he acknowledges as much). Since a fast-food transaction is impersonal, what’s the problem here? The problem is that Michelson doesn’t want to have anything to do with people who believe he is a sinner—and there’s no reason to think this standard begins and ends with owners of fast food chains.

How does this mentality lead us anywhere but a radically dysfunctional public square? It doesn’t, but for those who lack a vision of human dignity and human fate—for those without a transcendent moral framework of human relationships—political purity must play the role of divine judgment. “Come out from among them and be separate” isn’t just a parochial mantra; it’s human nature, an expression of our incurably religious sense of ourselves.

I pay for my Starbucks latte (too much) and drink it as an evangelical Christian because I do not believe that Starbucks’ political and social views have the last word. Like a Corinthian, I eat what’s sold in the market because I reject the idols that “blessed” my purchase. The idol of politics is a strong cult, and refusing to bow down puts one at risk of attack from many of the faithful, both Left and Right. But the idol must come down if we are to love our neighbors.

Jesus plainly taught that neighbor-love means nothing if by “neighbor” you always mean people whom you like and who like you. Neighbor-love according to Jesus is love of enemies, even enemies that would not hire you or buy your coffee or nuggets or vote for you. Neighbor love goes beyond political categorization…and that’s why only those who have a category beyond politics can love like this.

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The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The league has a right to make its own rules, but this was a missed opportunity to model a healthy public square.

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

The Copycat Problem

Media outlets must change how they cover school shootings and glamorize the shooters.

I agree with National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke that the mass shooting problem in the US is also a copycat problem:

The shooter in Parkland was obsessed with the massacre at Columbine, as was the shooter in Newtown. More often than not, this is the case — even when shooters or would-be shooters do not manage to carry out their attacks as planned. Typically, the Columbine obsession takes the form of giving a would-be shooter the idea, and/or setting a bodycount target for him to “beat” (if this sounds like hyperbole, read this chilling account). Occasionally, though, it drips down into his tactics. From the early reports, that seems to have been the case here. It seems that the shooter wore a trench coat, and made pipe bombs, which he spread around the school. Now where would he have got an idea like that?

What empowers the copycat problem? Well, you could say that all school shooters share similar sociopathies. That might be true as far as it goes, but there a lot of disturbed, violent people in the world, and a lot of variety in how their commit crimes. The trench coated, bomb-planting, angry-loner profile for school shooters is too much of a template to think it’s all just coincidentally shared neuroses. Obviously there’s a deliberate attempt to imitate among these angry young men. And how do they get the information to imitate?

I guess some people might think talking about media coverage is a way for a conservative like me to avoid talking about gun control. It’s not. IN the very little space I’ve given to writing about the topic, I’ve expressed interest in unhitching conservatism from NRA-esque dis-regulation, and chided my fellow evangelicals for reading the Constitution well in its First amendment but poorly in its Second. I’m not a gun homer. I skew to the right on this issue because of intuition and tribal alignments, but that doesn’t mean the Republican Party’s platform is gospel. I’m all for talking about guns.

The problem I see is that everyone’s fine talking about guns, but practically no one wants to talk about why, literally hours after the deaths of 10 people, cable news outlets are promoting (yes, promoting) the alleged murderer’s Facebook profile, interviewing his classmates and friends, pasting his name atop the internet, and doing in-depth psychological profiles of his clothing and music. Let’s face it: This stuff is either a celebritization or else it’s a form of pornography, a soft-core concoction of tantalizing details and insinuations that titillate the imagination. Either way, this is a carb-rich media diet for desperate and violent men.

Young people in America want fame. According to one statistician who asked them, many young people want fame more than they want success, meaning, or even family. Social media is a billion dollar enterprise not least because it is a kind of parallel society in which opportunities for fame are legion compared to offline life. Is it really hard to imagine the mental process by which a lonely, rejected, isolated teenager would determine that the best thing he could do for his life would be to become infamous? Audition for American Idol and you probably won’t make it. Try to get into pro sports, and the odds aren’t good. But if you murder people in the right way—sensationally—your chances of fame skyrocket. There are tons of obscure good guys. Everyone knows the monster.

Cooke seems resigned to the fact that media will continue to print names, faces, GPAs, and hobbies of mass shooters. Maybe he’s right. But if that’s the case, we need to have the self-awareness to admit that the celebritization of mass murders continues ultimately because we want it too, because we are too satisfied to really consider alternatives, and because our assumptions about the information we are owed are 100% as consumeristic as the NRA’s messaging. We say we need to address Hollywood’s love affair with guns; by saying so we betray that we really do understand the formative effects of seeing violence lit up on our screens.

The staunch refusal to consider any change of protocol when it comes to coverage of school shootings is a morally outrageous hypocrisy. If universal background checks are possible, so are rules about photos. If bans on magazines and bump stocks are possible, so are laws against revealing intimate details of a shooter’s personal life. If how we think about gun violence is worth changing, then so is how we cover gun violence.

Anything less is a failure.

Jordan Peterson and the Internet Anticulture

Jordan Peterson is assaulting nihilism from within and challenging secularism from the inside.

If you’re trying to understand the worldview and appeal of bestselling author/psychologist Jordan Peterson from an erudite, Christian perspective, you can’t do better than the work of Alastair Roberts. Roberts’ lengthy essays on Peterson, his new book, and the reasons for his sudden prominence are exceptional, and I commend them to you.

I read 12 Rules For Life shortly after it was published. My own interpretation of Peterson’s project is that it is first and foremost a response to nihilism. Peterson isn’t interested in making Christians or conservatives out of his readers. He is, on the other hand, committed to demolishing the post-structuralist moral lethargy of contemporary progressivism. That this goal has been widely conflated with Christian evangelism or right-wing signaling says far more about our wider culture than it does about Peterson himself. Christians who are overeager to appropriate Peterson as a deep cover operative for the gospel are unwittingly conceding secularism’s power to move the goalposts. No orthodox, Bible-bound and tradition-rooted believer can resonated fully with Peterson’s psycho-parabolic interpretations of the faith.

You can’t sum up Peterson’s growing platform merely by pointing to his rejection of progressivism. There are lots of conservatives out there, including many intellectuals. So why does Peterson’s influence seem disporportionate compared to others who are likewise thinking and writing and speaking against the same trends and ideologies?

How Jordan Peterson Conquered the Internet

The key to that question is, I think, to look where Peterson’s platform came from: The internet. Peterson’s ideas and lectures have been streamed via YouTube and other platforms for several years now. In the preface to 12 Rules, Peterson recounts that the content of the book was first iterated by him in an online app called Quora, a crowdsourcing Q & A platform on which Peterson’s ideas about psychology, parenting, marriage, gender, and motivation found an eager audience. His popular TED Talks have continually heightened his online profile, and even mediocre-quality video recordings of his 200-level courses boast hundreds of thousands of views. In other words, Jordan Peterson is internet famous.

If Peterson were a Florida-based talk radio host, almost nothing he says in his lectures or in 12 Rules for Life would be noteworthy. If he were a fellow at, say, the Heritage Foundation, or a National Review columnist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone singling him out in a positive way. Peterson’s notability rather comes from two complementary facts about him: He is an online commodity, but he doesn’t talk like he is. He is a figure of “internet culture” whose ideas and language cut across that culture. He has a prophetic and energizing appeal, in other words, to people who are exhausted from living under the anticulture of the internet.

In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes “anticulture” as what is left behind when radical individualism subsumes cultural norms and shared understandings. Because the language of autonomous personal rights is inherently at odds with the language of community and culture, the implementation of those rights—especially by a central state—demands the destruction of existing culture. Because human beings cannot live together without culture, however, there must be something to take its place. The only culture that is compatible with radical liberal individualism is anticulture. It is the culture of nothing, made by no one in particular, for no particular reason. The norms and values of anticulture can be summed up in only one idea: People are free to be and do whatever they like, and you cannot question this.

It may sound strange to talk of the Internet as if it has a culture, but it does. Online life has particular rhythms and languages that people who spend time online must learn in order to properly assimilate. Two very different but equally helpful examples of what happens when someone fails to assimilate into online culture are former governor Mike Huckabee and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Huckabee and Tyson are accomplished men who command a lot of respect from their respective ideological tribes. Neither of them, though, seem able to use Twitter well. Huckabee’s attempts at humor are groan-worthy, too on-the-nose, and come off extremely self-important. Likewise Tyson shows a painful lack of self-awareness as he earnestly and pedantically explains (among many other things) why Star Wars is not scientific.

Online Anticulture

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. The internet has a culture, a culture that can be detected most clearly when people run afoul of it. On closer inspection, however, the culture of the internet is much more akin to Deneen’s anticulture than a flourishing community of norms and mutual understandings. For one thing,  digital technology depersonalizes individuals by removing their physical presence and compressing their identities into things that can be easily exchanged in online society—things like personal narratives, or ideologies, or subculture, or even victim status. Because people in the online community can only know one another through these markers that the technology enables and the individuals permit, the internet’s social “rules of engagement” —its culture—are overwhelmingly deferential and censorious. There is nothing in online living to parallel the complexities and challenges of, say, cross-ethnic interaction offline, where proximity and physical presence often disarm stereotypes and biases  and reveal shared elements of culture.

Instead, the anticulture of the internet often leaves no alternatives to either immediate deference and validation of someone else’s identity—their narrative—or else outraged dominance of the other. Those who choose the latter strategy are rightly denounced as trolls and are identifies as outside the civilized space of online community. That means that the first option, instinctive deference and authentication of mutually contradicting narratives, is the only one for people who want to be liked and respected online.

The essential feature of online life is that it fosters a curated homogeneity. In a 2014 essay for the MIT Technology Review, Manuel Castells described, positively, the community of social media as a community of radical individuality:

Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space…

The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.

This “real virtuality” is nothing less than an alternative epistemological and social structure that powerfully shapes how we think and how we interact with one another. The real virtuality has a defined anticulture, expressed through social media’s outrage mobs and ironic detachment from moral earnestness through enforced expressive individualism.

Jordan Peterson’s messaging clashes violently against this anticulture, and the conflict is all the more compelling because Peterson is an active member of the virtual community. Where the internet anticulture downplays the disciplines of routine life, Peterson says “If you want to find meaning, clean your room.” Where the internet anticulture either pornifies women or depersonalizes gender into meaningless social categories, Peterson posits metaphysical, even mystical differences between the sexes. Where the internet anticulture eschews religion as a symbol of the regressive, Peterson offers an explanation for all of human history that is rooted in God. To the millions of people who consume the anticulture of the internet for hours every day, Peterson’s ideas sound either astonishingly violent or revolutionarily liberating. The fact that they are actually neither goes missed because of the context from which Peterson is speaking. He is assaulting nihilism from the inside and questioning secularism from within.

Conclusion

We do not yet fully understand the sociological ramifications of online communities. Social media and smartphone technology have undone the normal architectures of human experience much faster than most could have predicted. For Millennials especially, the experience of growing up with the internet is one that has not yet borne all its fruit. Our nieces and nephews have grown up not only with the internet but with mobile omni-connectivity. What does this mean for us as people?

Peterson’s growing platform may be a clue. It’s possible that in the coming years the anticulture of the internet will be combined with the market power of a few elite tech companies that use algorithms to actually create community thinking. Curation will empower more homogeneity, more virtue signaling, and more resistance to people and institutions that cut across the anticulture. This resistance will, like all cultural resistances do, inspire more fringe interest in dissenting voices. As many commenters have pointed out, Peterson’s worldview is not a culture warring one. He is received as a culture warrior not because his ideas are extreme but because his audience is. If online connectivity keeps consuming all aspects of public life, this dynamic will only intensify.

For now, it is enough to say that Jordan Peterson is successful at this moment because he is offering real help to those disillusioned with the anticulture of the internet. Christians should take note, and realize that even in places where resistance to the gospel seems most entrenched, the field is ripe for harvest.

Against Child Missionaries

Why it is profoundly wrong to look to children to become leaders of our culture

In conservative evangelicalism, the phrase “salt and light” can often be used as a magic elixir. Summon it at the appropriate time, and suddenly none of your parenting decisions can be questioned. Are the folks at church wondering why you let your 13 year old watch any sitcom or film they want? “I just want them to be able to be salt and light when talking about pop culture.” Feeling guilty over sending your 6 year old to the gender-bending local public school? “They will be salt and light there.” Needing to explain at Bible study why your teenage daughter is dating a future Hugh Hefner wannabe? “She can be salt and light to him!”

The reality is that many conservative Christians have a deeply flawed view of their own children. They see them as potential deep cover agents for the kingdom, carrying their unwavering beliefs and values into the nooks and crannies of culture where adults can’t fit. The temptation to think of children as just miniature versions of adults—with all the fortitude and none of the career concern—is overwhelming for many, not least because it often works. It’s one thing for a 35 year old to go door to door in the neighborhood with gospel testimony. That’s just religion. If a 7 year old does it, though…well, that’s impressive.

It turns out that the same dynamics work in secular politics too. Look no further than the eager appropriation of children as the foremost agents of critical social change. They march for their lives, prophesying with adolescent lips against the NRA and Republican Party. They likewise “lead the way” on the latest gender theory novelties. If you want the biggest media outlets to respond to your political cause, the best way to ensure it is if you have some kids you can put out in front. If a 35 year old demands gun control legislation or affirms the liquidity of his sexuality, he’s just an activist. If an elementary student does the same, she is a “generation:” nothing less than salt and light.

Child missionaries, sacred and secular alike, are a powerful force in our society. In a recent post, Alan Jacobs references Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s as documentary proof of just how far our cultural factions can go in using children as culture warriors. Beck’s book documents the hysteria and disinformation surrounding day cares and preschools in the Reagan years and the widespread manipulation of children by well-meaning (and perhaps otherwise) adults into giving false testimonies of abuse and perversion. “The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed,” Jacobs writes. “And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.”

In fact, that kind of manipulation often goes unpunished. Why? Because of the extraordinarily sensitive and volatile nature of contradicting the words of earnest-sounding children. In most cases it is simply unacceptable to contradict or argue with another person’s child when they are sincerely telling you what they think. To do so, even with great care, is tantamount to assaulting their self-esteem, erasing their sense of identity, and bullying. Of course, in most conceivable situations, the benefits of engaging a child in this kind of serious debate (unless you are a tutor) are negligible. So most clever adults learn how useful weasel words can be for escaping this situation (‘That’s very interesting, dear. I’m sure you’re right”) without having to look forward to a far more uncomfortable confrontation with an affronted parent. Predictably, many adults have now caught on to how powerfully they can leverage this dynamic in favor of their pet ideologies.

As much as I’d like to pretend that secular progressives are worse than I in the weaponizing of children, I cannot do that. Because I grew up in evangelical culture, I’ve seen the true depth and skill with which Christians can turn their children into missionaries (figuratively and literally). Don’t misunderstand me. Believers have a clear mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This includes catechesis and practical discipleship. Any Christian home that is being faithful to Christ in this will feature young children who express their spiritual formation publicly. But the proper relationship between spiritual formation and public expression is one of predominantly quiet, intimate faithfulness, not of spectacle or parental expectations of super-spirituality.

For years now I have quietly cringed when I see small children at pro-life rallies holding up placards and handing out literature. I get it! The pro-life movement is about children after all. It’s indeed powerful to see young, smiling faces in a moment of advocacy for life itself. But I cringe because I sense that something is fundamentally off. I want my children’s generation of pro-life advocacy to be shaped first and foremost not be public protests or political mobilization but by the gentle joys of viewing human life the way that God does. Experiencing those joys and learning that vision takes time, and time is what children need far more than roles of leadership.

Likewise, I don’t want to commission my children to be “salt and light” in ways that demand spiritual resources that they haven’t formed yet. This is, I think, what leaves the poor taste in one’s mouth when seeing children march for gun control. Many of these kids bear no weight of responsibility toward people who are utterly dependent on them for safety and provision. Of course they don’t, they’re children! The marching youth cannot fathom the complex issues of self, family, and country-defense that make up the historical foundation of the Second Amendment. They shouldn’t be expected to, because such comprehension is adult in nature, and it is a moral abomination—the spiritual logic of Roe v Wade— to desire a democracy made up of only politically savvy citizens without the naïve and foolish children. Asking our children to become our sociopolitical guardians is the same as telling them we wish they didn’t have to exist.

It is a great hypocrisy that we as a culture decry child labor but glorify child activism. It is a greater hypocrisy that often the people of the Way do no better. Remember that to the disciples, Jesus promised the opportunity to become fishers of men. What did he say to the children? “Let them come to me.” Children belong at the feet of Jesus, not full-time out in the boats.

The Politics of Impurity

Do Christians still believe that private immorality has public consequences?

I see at least three political implications for the allegations involving the President and a pornographic actress.

1. If true, the President has demonstrated (again) a capacity and an ambivalence for breaking his promises.

2. If true, the President has demonstrated a willingness to use the financial and human resources at his disposal in order to cover up his tracks and purchase the cover of silence.

3. If true, then the United States currently has, at the top of its power structures and the most important place of cultural influence, a celebratory monument to pornography.

These are deeply political realities, not just personal moral failures.

Throughout 2016 I found it stunning to hear evangelicals do something I”d never heard them do before: Draw a hard line between the social and the personal. Growing up in evangelicalism, I’d heard hundreds of arguments against Darwinism, materialism, atheism, pornography, abortion, and adultery that explicitly connected the personal to the social. An individual commitment to secular materialism shaped how you thought about other human beings. An individual indulgence in adultery tore at the fabric of your community. Evangelicals usually take it for granted that private morality has public consequence. Two years ago, though, that formula found an exception. To what end?

Let’s briefly contemplate implication #3 above. Because of these allegations, which are eminently credible, the news cycle has been meshing the office of the President with the pornography industry. Anybody who wants to both walk in sexual purity and learn what is going on with the executive branch nowadays is going to get an education they don’t want. This is what political philosophers call the “teaching function of the law.” The president, who in many ways metaphorically represents American law, is teaching the country about adultery, pornography, and hush money through his behavior. This is the textbook definition of “normalization.” You cannot normalize anything more powerfully than a president can.

The only way to insist that this is simply not as important as political party lines is to argue that sexual morality isn’t political. Such a sentiment would be a repudiation of everything that Christians have believed since, well, ever. If one’s political calculus shows that right now is the one and only utterly unique moment in human history where Christians should do an unprecedented about-face on these issues, there’s really nothing more to be said (other than, “Repent!”). If, on the other hand, we still want the hold the line on the public implications of sexual virtue, we have to make grim judgments on our current situation.

Some might respond that all this is nice but pointless two years after a political campaign. But that’s the point. Two years after evangelicals had their intramural disagreements about voting, millions of 4th year old boys and girls are learning civics with the help of Stormy Daniels. Is it “pointless” to talk about the moral effects this kind of normalization will have on a generation that is already teetering on the edge of sexual oblivion? Is it “pointless” to talk about this in the midst of an evangelical #ChurchToo crisis?

Is it pointless, or just uncomfortable?

Give to Liberalism What Is Liberalism’s, and to God What Is God’s

Patrick Deneen’s new book “Why Liberalism Failed”

Commenting on Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, columnist Ross Douthat once remarked: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong.” This sentiment works equally well, I think, for Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deenen’s core argument in his widely discussed book is that classical liberalism, the Enlightenment-spawned, Founding Father-adopted political philosophy of inalienable rights and self-determination, has been destroyed from the inside. The problem for the West is not ultimately that we don’t have enough liberal freedoms; it is that such freedoms have instead enslaved us to the self-destructive march of modernism and economic determinism. “Liberalism has failed,” Deneen writes, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”

A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. It success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.

The Case Against Liberalism

Deneen’s case against classical liberalism could be summarized as an appeal to the moral disintegration of 3 “s” words: Self, society, and the state.

Self: Classical liberalism’s emphasis (from John Locke) on the autonomy of the individual and the absolute right to determine oneself through social contract has resulted in an incoherent and immoral worldview of the self. Rather than seeing ourselves as created for a virtuous purpose, and defining the good life in terms of our alignment with that transcendent reason, we define happiness almost exclusively in terms of self-expression. “The most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism,” writes Deneen, “is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.”

Society: The cultural effects of this worldview of voluntarism have been widespread inequality and mutual hostilities. Social bonds, once upon a time inexorably tied to one’s geographic place, have been disintegrated through “upward mobility” and the inalienable right of people to change anything they want, whenever they want. Believing in a God-given right to make of one’s life whatever one desires is the same as believing that both parents and unborn descendants don’t really count (unless, of course, you want them to count!). Thus the philosophical link between individuals and groups is destroyed, culture becomes anticulture, and society is fragmented beyond recognition.

The State: Deneen writes that classical liberalism requires an ever-more powerful central state to enforce its “freedoms.” Though conservatives and progressives may argue about words and means, Deneen believes that the modern Right and the modern Left are equally committed to this kind of statism. Each political philosophy “can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual and tot he use of natural science, aided by the state, as a primary means for achieving practical liberation from nature’s limitations. Thus statism and individualism grow together while local institutions and respect for natural limits diminish.”

All in all, the portrait Deneen paints is of a sociopolitical worldview that exchanges permanence for libertarian freedom, close community for universal rights, and, ultimately, transcendent meaning for self-authentication.

Regardless of anything else about Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen’s grim diagnosis of Western society seems inarguably true. We don’t need to look very deep or very far to see the evidence. Americans are deeply polarized and alienated from one another, and many of the institutions that served as cultural touchstones in the past—especially religious institutions—are fraying. The horrific opioid epidemic epitomizes the despair and isolation of capitalism’s losers. Economic inequality and resentment are widespread, and both were major factors in the election of Donald Trump and in the resurgence of an angry, nativist populism all around the world. At the same time, government institutions take children away from their parents seemingly at whim, and religious citizens—even nuns!—are taken to court and stripped of their livelihood for their antiquated beliefs. It would be difficult indeed to overstate the dysfunctions facing our country. We can easily say that Deneen is right as to the what, even if he’s wrong as to the how.

Christians and Liberalism

Deneen is a conservative Catholic, and there are unmistakably religious elements to his argument. However, Why Liberalism Failed is a book of political philosophy, not of religion. He does not, for example, ground his case against liberalism in Scripture but in premodern classical thought. While this is an observation and certainly not a criticism, the absence of a robustly theological framework in Deneen’s book leaves much work to evangelical readers in working out the implications of the gospel for anti-liberalism.

One major question that Why Liberalism Failed leaves largely untouched is how we should think of the legacy of religious freedom. It’s only fair to point out that widespread religious liberty, especially for religious minorities, was not a feature of most premodern societies, and certainly was not a feature of the Greco-Roman cultures on which Deneen bases much of his appreciation for pre-modernity. Deneen rightly points out that Christianity exercised a positive influence on Western society in terms of human dignity and the image of God. But this observation doesn’t resolve the tension, since even Christendom eventually expressed itself violently against foreign peoples and beliefs. Deneen’s argument, recall, is not that classic liberalism needs to be more faithfully adhered to or more consistently applied, but that its sins and destructive consequences are endemic to it.

In order to make a case for religious liberty for religious minorities within an anti-liberal framework, Deneen must either a) qualify his argument to say that most, but not all characteristics of liberalism have destructive effects, or b) argue that such religious liberty is not really a feature of liberalism at all, thus we can have it without having liberalism.  The trouble with option B is, as I’ve alluded to, coming up with historical examples of non-liberal societies where religious minorities are safe and protected. The trouble with option A is that this is clearly not what Deneen says.

Is religious liberty really that important for a Christian political philosophy? I would argue it is. For one thing, a healthy separation of church and state (not to be confused with the quarantine of church from state) preserves the possibility of ecclesiological integrity in the church. A state church cannot require evidences of regeneration as a basis for church membership anymore than the US government can require a high IQ for voting rights. Both a state-enforced church and voting rights have the same legal basis: Political citizenship. The problem with a state-enforced church is that the theological basis of membership is not political but spiritual. The church is the community of the people of God, and that identity cannot be mediated through political ends.

The best way to preserve the integrity of the church’s membership is to not tie it to a political system. And the best way to avoid tying it to a political system is through a political culture of religious liberty. What Christian anti-liberal thinkers must articulate is how a pre or anti-liberal society can promote this kind of religious liberty.

Some Christians who are enthusiastically behind the anti-liberal project have suggested that it is (or will be) impossible to be simultaneously for classical liberalism and Christian virtue. While there is some truth in that, I would caution against relocating the source of Christian virtue. Rolling back the nihilism of modernity is a necessary project because Christian faith and practice repudiate it. But sociopolitical structures do not in themselves produce Christian virtue. Not even Christian cultures can by themselves do this, a lesson we’ve learned from watching evangelical “values voters” bend over backwards to dole out indulgences to presidents. The most authentic Christian virtue comes from the regenerated soul, the imagination and heart that are resurrected through faith and empowered by the Spirit. Whether this kind of virtue can live on in a liberal age is a foregone conclusion. It not only can, but it will.

Why Liberalism Failed is a valuable book, eloquently written and thoroughly clearsighted about the way that cultures and traditions can shape us. It is indeed time for Americans to question whether our basic assumptions about rights and community are actually undermining both. And Christians also need to examine ourselves, to see whether we are bringing to the public square a vision for human flourishing that is rooted in an absolute right to self-determination, or in the beauty and harmony of life under our wise Creator, King, and Redeemer, who, unlike liberalism, can never fail us.

Ruth Marcus and the Logic of Abortion

Arguing for Down Syndrome elective abortion is not about libertarian freedom. It’s about reshaping society.

In her March 9 op-ed on aborting unborn infants with Down Syndrome, Ruth Marcus writes that her argument is against government coercion. On the contrary, her argument is actually for it. To argue that people that should have the right to decide whether or not to kill a baby based on its mental health is, ultimately, to argue that they should be compelled to do so. I’m sure Marcus would resist this characterization, but she would do so on illogical and incoherent grounds.

Marcus’s case for allowing elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies appears libertarian at first. She writes:

I respect — I admire — families that knowingly welcome a baby with Down syndrome into their lives. Certainly, to be a parent is to take the risks that accompany parenting; you love your child for who she is, not what you want her to be.

But accepting that essential truth is different from compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.

In other words, what Marcus opposes are not the families who choose to let their Down Syndrome diagnosed children live, but the proposed laws that would restrict families to that option alone. This is a standard defense of abortion choice from a classically liberal perspective. Likewise, Marcus’s comments about the “intellectual capacity” and “life choices” of Down Syndrome children follow a common pro-choice logic. If you know (according to this view) the unborn baby will have a difficult life, abortion is a reasonable measure to prevent a child from suffering. Not one shred of this argument is unique to Marcus. It is a textbook presentation of the Planned Parenthood worldview.

What makes Marcus’s argument galling to many readers is her naked devaluation of children with Down Syndrome. Yes, this is morally offensive, but it’s also extraordinarily clarifying. Marcus’s argument against these laws entails an explicit argument against Down Syndrome itself. In her final paragraph, Marcus appears to concede that her position on Down Syndrome elective abortion may be a slippery slope:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Elective abortion for children who are short or nearsighted would indeed be “creepy,” she writes (note the unwillingness to use a moral adjective). But elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies is not creepy. Why not? Because shortness or nearsightedness is not as bad as Down Syndrome. The case for elective abortion of Down infants is, as Marcus has already shared, that their lives are difficult and their minds impaired. That’s not the case with babies who need glasses or can’t reach very high. They may be inconvenienced in some ways, but the family who receives a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is facing life with a child who will suffer, and whose needs may impose great burdens on their family and society.

This is not an argument about choice. It’s an argument about certain kinds of children. And it’s an argument that spews forth not from moral relativism or libertarian absolutism, but from a deep seated conviction that the death of the wrong kinds of children can improve our economics and culture.

Margaret Sanger’s abortion worldview was not about maximal liberality, but about shaping the demographics of society so as to eliminate people that hinder it. Likewise, contemporary activists such as Katha Politt are admirably shedding the euphemistic pretenses of “safe, legal, and rare” to boldly proclaim that abortion is not a regrettable, sad thing, but a positive social good. The pro-choice movement has achieved legal victories through appeals to privacy and self-rule, but its DNA is far more complex than that. Ruth Marcus’s piece leaves unsaid what is nevertheless an undeniable implication of her argument: The world would be better off without children with Down Syndrome. Fleeting hat tips to the freedom of families to decide otherwise fail to disguise this.

The question that ought to be put to Marcus is not, “How can you say these awful things,” but, “Accepting that your logic is true, why should the government allow babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome to be born?” If she replies that it is wrong for politicans to make this decision, the follow up question should be why it was right for politicians decide in 1973 that some unborn weren’t human, but it’s not right for politicians now to declare that some are? Why is her private moral math about why she would abort a child with Down Syndrome good enough to be protected by law, but the moral math of millions of other families who receive and love and care for their children not good enough for that?

“Can” has a weird way of becoming “ought.” It is impossible to defend elective abortion of Down Syndrome infants the way Marcus does without ceding the notion that parents have a moral responsibility not to let themselves or these babies suffer through existence. The legacy of abortion choice is a legacy not of endless libertarian freedom, but of a vision for a better world through death.

Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

Poverty, Dreher, and Story

Rod Dreher, a writer for whom I have a lot of admiration and respect, nevertheless has a tendency to overstate things, especially when those things pertain to his lived experience. Likewise, he has an unfortunate tendency to assume the worst intentions of people who push back against the conclusions he draws from his experiences. Those two flaws—which I shamefacedly confess to sharing—were on full display in the minor kerfuffle over this post. I won’t recap the mud-throwing, but suffice to say that I think Rod’s critics are right in their substantive critiques (Jemar Tisby’s, in particular), and that this whole episode might have been avoided by pondering for a few minutes longer the wisdom of defending transparently bigoted remarks by a transparently bigoted politician.

But there’s another contour to this thing that’s worth a very brief reflection. Part of what Rod was getting at in his original piece was that political correctness often runs counter to what people actually experience. This is a familiar beat to Rod, and it would be a mistake for people to assume that Rod has a vested emotional interest in punching down on poor people. If I’m reading him correctly, I think what Rod resents is the deliberate turning away from reality in favor of sentiments that play well with people who have no (literal and figurative) skin in the game. I think there’s something to say about that, and in an era of actual “reeducation” by our culture makers, the effects of Rightspeak are worth contemplation.

But I think what I’ve come away sensing is that Rod, and plenty of others, have not given enough contemplation. Instead, they’ve intuitively normalized their own experience of poor communities and downtrodden cultures into an argument. Rod’s desire to look for truth through experience is further confirmed when one considers the letters that he’s publishing as responses, as well as some responses to the responses. I think the best course of action is not only to reconsider tropes and stereotypes about the poor, but also to ask sharp questions of our tendency to equate experiences with an argument.

A lot of people have had a negative encounter with poor people or communities. And many of them choose to reason from their negative encounters to much bigger ideas about the moral quality of those in poverty. The problem with this is that one’s experiences are not worthy of such intellectual power. Yes, our experiences matter, and they can powerfully shape us, body and soul. But it doesn’t take much imagination how reasoning from experience is an awfully selective and unfair enterprise. If your only experience of poor Americans is being accosted by panhandlers, you’re likely going to reason from that experience that poor people are poor because they’d rather stand on the side of a highway off-ramp than find a job. Is the problem then that you haven’t had more experiences with poor people? Perhaps! But even if additional, more positive experiences broaden your horizon, continually over-relying on your experiences to inform you about the world will simply manifest itself in some other wrong, prejudiced, or naive way.

We see this everywhere right now. People who experienced judgement in a church might start a blog in which their experience of a relatively small number of people is extrapolated into huge, sweeping ideas about Christianity or the church. People who experience unexpected illness or health might intuit such experiences to big, specious notions about what is healthy and unhealthy (how do you think the essential oils business runs?). The point is not to discount our experiences entirely. We couldn’t do that even if we tried! The point is that piecing together our experiences and coming to a true knowledge of anything requires more than just gathering as many experiential narratives as we can.

The truth about American poverty lies far beyond the possibility of my experience, because it is indelibly rooted in history and ideas. I cannot visit the south side of Chicago for a weekend and come away with authoritative knowledge about poverty or urban policy. Nor can I justly conclude that a friend, associate, or Uber driver’s testimony is warrant enough for me to be dogmatic about an issue. My experiences and the truth are not coterminous.

I’m convinced that if Christians are going to coherently carry their witness to Christ and him crucified into future generations, we have to insist on this fact. I know Rod agrees with me, because I’ve read him long enough to know he does. I hope that he’ll apply this principle as liberally to issues of poverty and race as he does to modernism and confession.