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.

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Why Do Liberals Love Harry Potter?

My favorite read of the day is this article on understanding why progressives, especially millennials in the Obama to post-Obama era, are so in love with using the Harry Potter stories as metaphors for America’s current cultural moment. The author has an interesting theory, one that I (mostly) agree with: American liberals love Harry Potter because of Hogwarts. To be specific, they love the idea that schools are reliable bastions of legitimate authority.

Excerpt:

High school movies of the 80s were obsessed with the illegitimacy of schools’ authority; Matthew Broderick hacks into his high school’s computer in both Ferris Bueller and Wargames, to make a mockery of the so-called permanent record, and John Hughes’s movies in general are always focused on the improvisatory genius of children and adolescents and the dull brutish obsessions of school personnel…

This is a remarkable contrast with the Harry Potter films, which (partly due to the superfluity of British acting talent available to the various directors) often make Dumbledore and the various Hogwarts teachers far grander and more impressive than the teenage protagonists…

From an outside perspective, Harry Potter is a funny fantasy for liberals to cohere around. Going off to centuries-old boarding school where your mum and dad were Head Boy and Head Girl, where tolerance and broadmindedness consists of admitting that  lower-class Muggles can occasionally have the same genetically-mediated gifts as the gentry, where the greatest possible action for a woman is to let herself be slain so her son can grow up to revenge himself on her killer…all sounds more reactionary than progressive. But if contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and non-profits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself, the obsession with Harry Potter makes a lot more sense.

This is an interesting take, and I think the author rightly connects the romanticism of Hogwarts to the self-perception of the educated, technocratic progressive class. Hogwarts is attractive to liberals not mainly because they desire the world it depicts, but because they sincerely believe the world it depicts is the one that they (via the university) have created. The contrast the author draws between the cruel, dimwitted authority figures of the 80s high school comedies and the near saintlike teachers at Hogwarts is perceptive. Cynicism toward established authority was once considered a liberal rejection of conservative social order. Now, reverence toward the academy–and those who work it–is non-negotiable.

But I have another theory. In John Granger’s indispensable book How Harry Cast His Spell, Granger persuasively demonstrates how Rowling’s Harry Potter novels appropriate the most important narrative traditions of Western history. The 7 books tell a unified hero story that deliberately evokes Western mythology (I’m using that word to mean both fairy tales and historical narratives, such as Scripture, that become significant literary developments in Western thought). The gospel, the Odyssey, Camelot–these and more myths are the narrative mold around which the Potter stories are formed.

As the author of the blog notes, much about the Harry Potter series seems conservative. Harry Potter is culturally conservative in ways that don’t seem to bother liberal presuppositions. Voldemort and his followers are enemies of diversity–that much is clear. But it’s also true that Hogwarts is not exactly a factory of self-determination. Everyone gets sorted into houses–notably, students can desire a particular house, but they do not determine it–and these houses impose a preexisting shape of life onto the students. This doesn’t seem to upset the modern progressive reader, perhaps because in the course of the story, the students who most stridently do their own thing end up consistently being the biggest heroes. What gets lost in the glorification of the Boy Who Lived is the fact that he lived because of the actions of another (his mother!!), and that his heroic journey is empowered not by self-authentication, but by the wisdom and traditional forms of his mentors (Dumbledore chiefly).

So why do liberals love Harry Potter? I think it may be because Harry Potter is a reminder, however dim, of what a world that ennobles human aspiration without the shadow of the sexual revolution would look like. The American Left is deeply mired in its own self-destructive contradictions. Its aspiration for a truly self-authenticated existence is eviscerated by its insistence on cutting the legs out from under community and tradition. Rowling’s tale is a of a world where this tradeoff is unnecessary.  What’s true of Hogwarts is true of Harry Potter as a whole: This is a place where people and choices matter, where you really can be a hero–just not alone.

The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Social Media Isn’t News

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

Actor Bradley Cooper was just another celebrity face in the crowd at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, but many Republicans on social media took vocal exception to the “American Sniper” star’s attendance.

Shortly after Cooper was caught on camera sitting in the audience next to model girlfriend Irina Shayk, conservative Twitter and Facebook users began to flood the platforms with calls for his boycott.

“I have a list of celebrities that support Socialism I refuse to spend another $ on,” said one Twitter user. “Add this one. Boycott them all.”

“Bradley Cooper at DNC?!” exclaimed another. “Guess I’ve seen my last Bradley Cooper movie.”

The apparent reason for the ire directed at Cooper stems from his portrayal of decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the 2014 Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper.”

This is not news. It’s something that a handful of random people on the internet said.

I follow many conservatives on social media. I haven’t seen one of them complain about Bradley Cooper’s attending the DNC. I had no idea Cooper attended until this story. I actually had no idea that anyone assumed he was a Republican until this story. So what? A few random people online are unable to differentiate celebrities from the roles that they play. If journalists want to cover this, fine, but that doesn’t make it news.

Perhaps the entire point of articles like this one is to have evidence to say that group X is ridiculous and bad and you probably shouldn’t support them. Conservative websites do these exact kinds of stories too. “You won’t BELIEVE what Libs are DEMANDING now!” Click the link, and you’ll read tweets or see screenshots from 4 or 5 people you’ve never heard of, who have probably fewer than 1,000 followers combined.

It’s human nature to want to hear more examples, no matter how ridiculous, of why you’re right and They are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold journalism accountable a bit. It’s positively ridiculous to turn the stray tweets or Facebook posts of a few people into a national political story. It’s also more than a bit dishonest–if a reader who doesn’t have any social media reads daily pieces like this that supposedly document what “Republicans (or Democrats) on social media” are saying, then their instinctive reaction will be, “Well I don’t want any part of that.” When it turns out, 99% of other people don’t either.

Social media isn’t news.

 

An Abortion Facade In Shambles

4300051986_78d3cb0140_bThis morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the state of Texas acted unconstitutionally when it passed restrictions on state abortion clinics, holding them to higher infrastructure and administrative standards. It’s a victory for the abortion lobby, certainly. But can it really be considered a victory for women, or health, or democracy?

No, it cannot. And that is perhaps one of the clearest realities coming into focus with the contemporary abortion movement: Increasingly, its legal and political triumphs depend on making women and families more vulnerable to exploitation and making communities more at the mercy of corporations and lobbyists. There was a time, not that long ago, that the country’s foremost abortion rights advocates preached about “safe, legal, and rare.” But for decades “safe” and “rare” have been ruthlessly assaulted, both in rhetoric and policy. The Court’s decision, mainstream media silence and equivocation about Kermit Gosnell, and the Planned Parenthood video sting have exposed an industry utterly apathetic, at best, about safety and abortion alternatives.

It turns out, as I’ve said before, that “safe, legal, and rare” was mostly a smokescreen that obscured the real moral argument that has always been at the foundation of abortion rights philosophy. “‘Safe, legal, and rare’ was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all,” I wrote back in March. “But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare?”

The logical answer is, of course, that we shouldn’t. And that is the self-awareness that many in the pro-choice movement seem to (slowly) be showing. A few hours after the Supreme Court handed down their ruling, the official Twitter account for The Daily Show–the show that made Jon Stewart famous and regrettably institutionalized the role of the comedian commentator–signaled their Sexual Revolutionary virtue loud and clear:

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In order for this to be funny, you have to first think that abortion is funny, and then, more literally, the idea of impregnating a woman merely for the purpose of later aborting. Hilarious, right? This is the kind of humor that the pro-choice camp of the 1990s would urgently disavow, on the grounds that it trivializes the moral and and emotional weight of choice. But in 2016, this joke is actually mainstream. Why? Because the abortion lobby has begun to accept its own logic. There is nothing to grieve or be silent about here. The Court merely affirmed the right of adults to get rid of tiny little Nothings that make life more difficult. Move along.

It’s easy to dismiss a tasteless Tweet. It’s not as easy to dismiss the entire legislative and moral ethos from which it springs. The pro-choice Left’s extremism has attacked every imaginable human resource for in controlling and preventing abortions, except for birth control, a substance so precious that apparently even nuns must agree. Earlier this year in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, the new Republican governor, discovered that a new Planned Parenthood clinic had been offering abortions without the required licensing. Apparently, this unlicensed operation was carried out with the approval of Bevin’s Democratic predecessor. When the clinic temporarily halted services, the abortion lobby in Kentucky and elsewhere lashed out at Bevin for endangering women. Catch that: The governor who caught the medical provider operating without a license is the one who is putting people at risk.

Pro-lifers have said for decades that the debate over abortion is not a debate about choice or liberty, but about what it means to be human person. That is the debate the pro-choice side has athletically avoided having. One of the provisions of Texas HB 2, the bill whose clinic standards were thrown out by the Court, was a comprehensive ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Interestingly, the suit brought against Texas did not challenge that provision, and most commentators think that was because the plaintiffs did not expect to win such a challenge. A 20 week ban on abortions, after all, makes compelling political sense, given what modern technology has revealed about human life at that stage.

Punting on the question of personhood and instead creating enemies for Roe v Wade to knock down has indeed been the pro-choice Left’s playbook for quite a while. But how long can it last? How long can a movement that has for so long been drenched in pretense sustain itself? How long until we get the national conversation that we need, the one about the person we see, so clearly, on the ultrasound?

If the nervous laughter of The Daily Show and Planned Parenthood is any indication, it could be coming sooner than we think.

 

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The Lost Art of Disagreement

Toward the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were estranged. Years of political tensions, ideological disagreements, personal rivalries and perhaps bit of misunderstanding had all but snuffed out one of the great friendships in American political history. But one day, Adams’ physician and fellow Revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, suggested that his aging patient write to Mr. Jefferson, ceasing decades of silence. For reasons still not entirely clear, Adams did write, and the result was the beginning of what historian and Adams biographer David McCullough descibes as “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history.”

The Adams-Jefferson letters are remarkable, but not because of their powerful rhetoric or political genius. Rather, the private conversation of the second and third presidents’ reveals a profound respect and affection for one another, even as the two patriots were decidedly in opposition on many issues. These letters did not settle such disputes; they were never intended to. To their dying day (both Adams and Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826) the men argued and debated everything from religion to revolution. But their respect and good faith in each other was rekindled, never to wane again.

Adams and Jefferson exemplified the art of disagreement. We would do well to contemplate their example, for it seems that contemporary American culture is rapidly forfeiting this art.

Consider the recent grandstanding from a gaggle of American governors, who have issued “non-essential travel bans” to North Carolina. The reason? Voters in the Tar Heel state recently moved to preemptively prevent litigation from creating mixed-sex, public restrooms. This is apparently enough to warrant a rhetorical persona non grata from state executives who disagree.

Our sexual politics have become so intensely value-laden that every movement away from legal and cultural orthodoxy triggers ostracism and shaming. The prevailing notion seems to be that transgressions against very novel doctrines of gender ideology and sexual psychology should be subjected, not to debate and persuasion, but to punishment. Our public square is shrinking to exclude all who question majority thought.

The loss of good faith in public dialogue isn’t exclusive to one side of the aisle. Crank conservatism has found a patriarch in the 2016 Republican frontrunner, whose relentless personal attacks on any and all who challenge him are exposing a deep and systematic animus in right-wing politics. You don’t even have to explore what he says about immigrants and minorities to see this; a look at how he treats journalists and even party cohorts is jarring enough.

Politicians often love to mention how “divided” the country is, and how it Just Wasn’t Like This when the party opposite was in power. This may be a reliable talking point for stump speeches, but there’s no small amount of partisan opportunism in it either. “Bringing the country together” is admittedly often a shorthand for eliminating as much as possible the idea that the opposing party was on to something.

Yet as dubious as the motivations behind this rhetoric may be, there’s an important element of truth here. The ritual of honest, principled disagreement between people who respect one another and mutually assume the best intentions has done an astonishing disappearing act in much of our culture. Instead, our religious and political dialogue is either unhinged and bitter, passive aggressive and condescending, or else completely neutered to the point of meaninglessness.

We shouldn’t assume that politicians are the worst offenders. The digital age has fostered such online animus and abuse amongst ordinary Americans that many digital journals and newspapers have responded by disabling on-site commenting, considered just a few years ago a dynamic way of promoting publications and driving conversation. Abusive online behavior is epidemic, as is the “shame culture” of social media.

Trolling is relatively straightforward, but not all evidence for the lost art of civil discourse is so obvious. The inability to disagree well in American culture often takes a more passive aggressive form. Consider the trends now at work across university campuses, what sociologists have dubbed the “coddling of the American mind.” The appearance of expectations of college administrators to protect students from ideas they dislike or literature they find uncomfortable is a less unhinged but not less serious manifestation of an intellectual paralysis when it comes to disagreement. Students now demand “safe spaces” from institutions that were created for the explicit purpose of not providing such things. Whereas the university has traditionally been considered a place where learners are confronted with realities and then expected to make sense of them, contemporaries insist that schools accommodate the expectations and worldview of the students—provided, of course, that the students’ belief systems are congruent with secular forms of progressivism.

Principled, civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view, to understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions can nonetheless arrive at an opposite conclusion. Adams and Jefferson never reconciled many of their political opinions, but they were able to throw aside the cynicism and suspicions of evil intent that had crept into their friendship.

It’s this willingness to accept the possibility of disagreement between two parties that both intend good that seems lost in much of our culture. The effect is double-sided: Many conversations that deserve nuance and good faith never happen, and demagogues who actually merit censure sound more “authentic.”

Both of these trends, the virulent nastiness and passive coddling, might seem to be restricted to a very select portions of American culture. But the popularity of bullish, epithet-laden political campaigns suggests that they signal a much wider cultural malady. Efforts at self-justification that emphasize “honesty” and glow about “telling it like it is” are merely shibboleths. They mask the decay of an important ethic: The willingness to accept one’s own fallibility and live in light of it.

The art of disagreement is crucial not just to our own personal lives but to the health of the public square. If we cultivate suspicion and conspiracy theories instead of good faith, we will eventually crave those attributes in our leaders. On the other hand, if we practice the public virtues of courage, conviction, and kindness, our ideological differences will help us sharpen our own thinking as learn from–and try to convince–one another.

Honest, empathetic disagreement may not make for exciting talk radio or high cable ratings, but it is essential both for civic liberty and Christian mission. Persuasion is, after all, harder and less titillating than bombast, but without it, our heralding of both spiritual and political truth is undermined. We must not stray irretrievably far from the spirit of Adams and Jefferson. To do so would be to lose much more than an election.

My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

Liberalism, Then and Now

We go now to Houston, Texas, where a referendum on a piece of anti-discrimination legislation resulted in the bill’s being defeated nearly 2-1 to by voters. The law, dubbed “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), was written to create broad sweeping mandates for all businesses, housing, and public accommodations pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation. Under the law, for example, a business or a school could not prohibit a transgendered woman (born biologically male but identifying as female) from entering a women’s restroom.

The law’s critics complained–quite reasonably– that such a far-reaching act would 1) undermine the conscience rights of business owners and other individuals who had objections to such practices and 2) potentially create vulnerable situations that could be exploited by predators, particularly when it came to younger children in schools. The first concern was pretty blatantly justified last October when the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, subpoenaed sermons and other communiqué from local clergy who had criticized the law. Parker was sharply rebuked in many corners for the audacious move (she soon backed off), and in hindsight, one could probably infer the controversy played a significant role in solidifying opposition to the mayor’s bill.

But that’s not a satisfying explanation to editorial board of The New York Times. In a blistering, furiously angry editorial, the Times condemned Houston’s voters as “haters” and warned that “the bigots are destined to lose,” further predicting that the politicians opposed to the bill, including governor Greg Abbot, would be “remembered as latter-day Jim Crow elders.” Other progressive publications echoed the Times sentiments (though none that I saw achieved the theocratic sanctimony that the Times did).

Now what’s fascinating about all of this is that we are seeing, clearer than ever before, the kind of intense internal transformation that has happened inside American progressivism. It’s no small thing for The New York Times to call a plurality of Houston’s voters bigots and modern day segregationists if the city were refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples. But nothing like that is happening. Instead, the Times calls down fire from heaven because the city doesn’t see the benefit of a far-reaching, dubiously enforced bill that potentially eliminates any and all meaningful public distinctions between the sexes; not to mention that nearly identical laws elsewhere have been used to strip florists and bakers of their businesses.

Houston’s ERO clearly legislated a specific, very progressive sexual morality, a morality that goes far above and beyond the United States’ admitted leftward pilgrimage on issues like homosexuality and same-sex marriage. There are many liberally-minded people in the country, friendly to the idea that a man or a woman should be able to marry whomever they desire, who nonetheless balk at the idea that restrooms and public showers should take no opinion on a patron’s genitalia.

The failure of the current generation of liberals to recognize the existence and validity of this middle ground is a remarkable shift for American progressivism. It’s remarkable because it is precisely the opposite of the argument that the architects of Obergefell, like Andrew Sullivan, pioneered. Sullivan’s “conservative case for gay marriage” was not predicated on the idea that gender is ultimately an issue of self-determination and that culture must acquisese or become oppressive. Rather, Sullivan’s case was the opposite: People are born with affection and desire for people of the opposite sex or their own sex, and in either case, marriage is a stabilizing, socially constructive outlet for that desire in a way that promotes the family unit.

Now of course, I didn’t and don’t find Sullivan’s conservative case for same-sex marriage compelling. But its truthfulness is beside the point. The point is that we are hardly a decade separated from an articulation of liberal sexual ideology that assumed the very concepts of cultural permanence and cross-political values that today’s progressives decry.

To put it another way: In the span of two presidential terms, liberalism has been transformed from a fight to widen the margins of culture to a fight to close them up. It’s particularly sobering to see the transformation in light of what justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion of Lawrence vs Texas, the landmark 2003 case that ruled state sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Kennedy’s words are remarkable:

The condemnation [of homosexual behavior] has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code…”

The question for today’s liberals is simple: Does Justice Kennedy’s articulation of liberty for all apply to those outside the Obergefell/ERO arc of history, or does it not? Are people who believe things about marriage, sexuality, and gender that President Barack Obama said only five years ago he believed entitled to meaningful public protection from current majoritarian values, or are they not? When Lawrence and Texas have switched places in the courtroom, what happens?

It’s difficult to see what the long term result of this radical evolution of American liberalism will be. There’s evidence of solidarity and strength, and the leftward leaps of the Democratic Party have helped smoothen liberalism’s ride. On the other hand, the debacle that seems to be unfolding on the campuses of American universities suggests that this new progressivism has some self-destructive tendencies. It may be that in the quest to finally stamp out the remnant opposition to the Sexual Revolution, liberalism will end up biting the hands that feed it.