Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

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

 

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Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Southern Baptist Blind Spots

This is precarious time for Baptists. My concern is that too few seem willing to admit it.

It’s been a spring to forget for Southern Baptists.

It was only a few weeks ago that Baptists were wrapping their minds around Frank Page’s retirement-turned-disgraced resignation and his confession of unspecified (but presumably sexual) moral failure. In recent days the attention has turned toward Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson, one of the most elder statesmen of the convention. His old but recently unearthed comments about divorce and domestic abuse are deeply troubling, and nothing about Patterson’s public statement makes them better.

While it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to infer from Patterson’s remarks that Southern Baptists as a whole share his views about abuse and divorce (in my lifelong experience of SBC culture, many Southern Baptists are functionally more liberal in their views of divorce than other evangelicals), the comments matter, especially since their original context concerns pastoral counseling within a local church. It would be one thing (though still troubling) if Patterson had said that he would pray for an abused spouse to stay in the marriage as long as possible. To actually tell abused women in the church, as a pastor, to bear it prayerfully is a violent reminder that our theology matters, and the consequences of getting it wrong are often higher for everyday churchgoers than for pastors and leaders.

Patterson’s dispiriting remarks top off a dispiriting two years for Southern Baptists like me. In 2016 the denomination was eating at itself over Donald Trump. Russell Moore nearly lost his job over his criticisms of the then-candidate (interestingly, both Page and Patterson were quoted as being critical of Moore and supportive of Trump). The SBC’s tone-deafness toward their churches’ communities was further displayed by the embarrassing flop at the 2017 convention over a proposed resolution to condemn white supremacy. The resolution passed eventually, but only after Moore had rallied young Baptists to the voting floor, showing far more concern for the future of the denomination than the denomination had shown for him.

The last two years for the Southern Baptist Convention raise serious questions about the denomination’s ability to overcome cultural blind spots and political partisanship. The politics of the average SBC voter are not even the key problem here. The key problem is rather the institutional structure of the denomination and its internal politics of say-nothing, do-nothing, that keep un-Christian and un-biblical attitudes coddled within its walls. Whether we’re talking about white supremacy, or Calvinism, or divorce and domestic abuse, the elephant in the SBC room won’t go away on its own. Moral failure and horrifying pastoral counsel from SBC leaders are clues that something needs to change, and that the change that needs to happen cannot happen at the leisurely, step-on-no-toes pace that Baptists seem to value above everything else.

Moore’s saga two years ago illustrates much of what I’m talking about. Moore was hired by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s trustee board in part because he represented a break from the culture-warring political tribalism that his predecessor was known for. Despite the fact that Moore was and is completely orthodox and effusively Baptist in his theology, many Southern Baptists, including several with influence and power, cannot get comfortable with an ERLC head who doesn’t see the agency as an outpost of the Republican Party.

Ideally, younger Southern Baptists could effect change in the denomination by being patient, by participating in the life of the institution and by working within the existing structures to change minds and build new things. The problem staring at the SBC right now is that there is no good reason to think this will happen before those in current positions of power over large churches and denominational agencies simply use their power to keep this from happening. This is precisely what happened to Moore two years ago. As Moore was busy keeping Baptists consistent on their Clinton-era mantra that character matters and reminding us that God cares about sexual immorality and hateful words toward our neighbors, many of the big “B” Baptists—such as Jack Graham—were busy trying to remove Moore. It was a bitter season for Southern Baptists, and one that sends a discouraging message to young Baptists who identify with Moore’s gospel-centered agenda. One wonders if that was the whole point.

I realize that many will probably dismiss this perspective as “divisive.” Why do people like me keep talking about Trump and Martin Luther King, Jr., when what we really need to be talking about is sharing the gospel with the nations?

I’m sympathetic to this objection. It would indeed be nice if we could all focus on sharing the gospel. But there’s the rub. Before one shares the gospel one has to settle two things: What is the gospel and what does it mean to share it? Southern Baptists right now are deeply confused on both. For many in our denomination, the gospel is the good news of how you can walk down an aisle and “make a decision for Christ” at 9 years old and be permanently and unquestionably a member of the church and of the decent folk around town. Consequently, “sharing the gospel” means for many Southern Baptists nothing more than door-to-door tract sharing with the friendly people in the nice part of town. If by any chance a young black woman wants to talk about Jesus AND racial justice, or if a young seminarian wants to talk about Jesus AND historic theology, or if a group of people in the church want to talk about Jesus AND overcoming political divisions in the name of Christ…well, that’s a bridge too far, and those people just need to talk about Jesus.

This is a precarious time for Baptists. My deepest concern right now is that too few seem willing to admit this. It’s time we did. For Jesus’s sake.

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?

7 Thoughts From the News Cycle

I will probably elaborate on some of these points in future posts. For now, I offer 7 stray observations on the last few weeks of American culture:

1) American manhood is in crisis. Men in our society lack religious affiliation, communal bonds, and healthy role models. As far as I can tell, sports, mass media, and pornography are the most important influences on most American men.

2) Evangelicalism is wholly unprepared to speak to the sexual abuse epidemic. This is not mainly because of complementarianism or lack of prophetic voice on sexual ethics. It’s mainly because evangelical culture tends to ape American political culture.

3) American conservatism is probably unfixable. Once you’ve defended Roy Moore but excoriated Bill Clinton, you’ve crossed the Rubicon of integrity. Pro-life, religious public thought will have to come from a newer movement.

4) Social media’s echo chambers, outrage cycle, and shame mechanisms will have severe psychological consequences for millennials in the years to come.

5) What Russell Moore called the “Sexual revolution’s refugee crisis” is real, and it is filled with an astonishing number of broken, victimized women.

6) It turns out both Hollywood and the Bible Belt participate in the same moral hypocrisy. It’s almost as if the mere presence of church buildings does not bestow honor.

7) Politics is a god who demands the bloodiest sacrifices for the shortest, cheapest blessings.

How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

How Christians Hate

One thing I am continually appalled at is how many professing Christians I know seem to think the following line of thinking is OK:

“When I look at the people who dislike President Trump, that makes me like him all the more.”

I want us to get honest for a minute about what this sentence really means, and I think we can get there if we simply change the context.

Imagine that you, a Christian, have a 16-year old child. Despite your best efforts, this 16 year old of yours hated Christianity, hated the Bible, and hated the church with a passion. Their animosity toward the things of God breaks your heart on a daily basis. You pray continually for their repentance. And you cling to God in faith, trusting in His promises, despite all the temptation you feel to compromise for the sake of growing closer to your child.

Now imagine that one Sunday after church, a fellow member approaches you. As you talk, the conversation turns to your wayward child. Burden, pain, and desire fill your soul as you think about this person you love who has taken a wrong turn. But then, completely out of the blue, this fellow church member utters this: “You know, when I think about the fact that someone like your kid hates the gospel and hates the church so much, heh, it makes me love both even more!”

Question: What do you think this fellow church member has just said about your child? Have they said they are praying every day for their restoration? Or have they just admitted to you that their personal hatred for your child expresses itself in a kind of gleeful satisfaction that rejoices in their lostness, and congratulates itself for not being that kind of worthless person?

Could you carry on this conversation after such a remark? If right now you’re thinking, “No,” then you have sensed, possibly even beyond an intellectual level, what it means for a person to be so controlled by a sense of self-righteousness that they admit that people who disagree with them are useful only for validating it. Not only is it astonishingly illogical for a person to gain validation of their worldview from the kind of people who oppose it (because one can be an obnoxious person and still be right), it is profoundly inhumane. We wouldn’t, as this thought experiment demonstrates, want to hear people we love talked about in such a way. Why do we talk about our political opponents like that?

The answers to that question, I’m afraid, just get more uncomfortable.

A Future of Snark, Not Ideas

Last week I saw several friends and fellow bloggers talking about this post, which, in bullet form, lays out a fairly scathing case against Twitter as a social media platform. The majority reaction to the post was that it was mostly hyperbole, mixed with an occasional insight and an occasional moronic statement. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I have to laugh at the way social media culture virtually never fails to justify the harshest critiques of itself.

Case in point. Apparently the Twitter cool kids thought David Brooks’s column today was pretty dumb. It was allegedly so dumb, in fact, that it merited enough scorn, ironic memes, and sarcasm to appear on Twitter’s utterly unfortunate “Trending” sidebar. Why was it so dumb? Well, apparently Brooks’s mid-column anecdote about taking a less educated, less urbane friend to a hip sandwich shop was just, ya know, lolz. Mind you: Actually finding folks among the Snarktariat who could explain why this was such a groan-inducing paragraph is pretty difficult. No one seems to want to say the punchline out loud. Instead, Brooks’s paragraph got parodied, jeered, and turned into a kind of self-referential inside joke among twenty and thirtysomething content managers and social media journalists. If you spend enough time of day immersed in the timelines of the kind of boys and girls who really want to edit Buzzfeed one day, you didn’t so much get the joke as kind of absorbed it. This is what the Right People find funny today. Ha ha.

Why did I find this annoying? Well, as I’ve written before, I think the ascendancy of snark to become the reigning lingua franca of the internet is a bad thing, a trend that our already fraying public square can ill afford. But there’s another reason. While the Twitterers were obsessing over a single paragraph and turning it into a monument of sophisticated political signaling, Brooks’s observations about the increasingly fanatical caste system among educated urban progressives came alive. Read:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.

Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.

The only people who could read this and dismiss it with snark are people who perceive–correctly–that Brooks is talking about them. It doesn’t take long at all to realize that the most important political divide in this country is not between Republicans and Democrats, Christians and secularists, or even whites and minorities. The most important divide is between those who care that places like Owensboro, Kentucky exist and those who don’t. You can theorize about the reasons behind the working class/higher ed class gap all you want, whether you blame income inequality, geopolitical snobbery, the media, etc etc. The reasons are secondary. What matters is this: Election 2016 went the way it did because the overwhelming majority of people who have been groomed to run the country fundamentally misunderstand it, and most of them do not care if that’s true.

Of course, maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly conservative who hates his fellow millennials and is sticking up for columnists who remind me of my Dad. Could be. But consider the perspective of someone who cannot be confused for yours truly. Freddie has been making this point in his own corner of progressivism for years now, but I don’t know if he’s ever made it as clearly and forcefully as he has right here:

I am increasingly convinced that a mass defunding of public higher education is coming to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented scale. People enjoy telling me that this has already occurred, as if I am not sufficiently informed about higher education to know that state support of our public universities has declined precipitously. But things can always get worse, much worse. And given the endless controversies on college campuses of conservative speakers getting shut out and conservative students feeling silenced, and given how little the average academic seems to care about appealing to the conservative half of this country, the PR work is being done for the enemies of public education by those within the institutions themselves…

Meanwhile, in my very large network of professional academics, almost no one recognizes any threat at all. Many, I can say with great confidence, would reply to the poll above with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the support of Republicans. There’s little attempt to grapple with the simple, pragmatic realities of political power and how it threatens vulnerable institutions whose funding is in doubt. That’s because there is no professional or social incentive in the academy to think strategically or to understand that there is a world beyond campus. Instead, all of the incentives point towards constantly affirming one’s position in the moral aristocracy that the academy has imagined itself as. The less one spends on concerns about how the university and its subsidiary departments function in our broader society, the greater one’s performed fealty to the presumed righteousness of the communal values. I cannot imagine a professional culture less equipped to deal with a crisis than that of academics in the humanities and social sciences and the current threats of today. The Iron Law of Institutions defines the modern university, and what moves someone up the professional ranks within a given field is precisely the type of studied indifference to any concerns that originate outside of the campus walls.

Have you ever read a paragraph that describes social media culture more accurately than that one? It’s almost as if the same impulses that try to create this utterly inwardly obsessed, virtue signaling ethos on college campuses do the same thing online and in the city. Culturally, those who are being invested with the training, money, and influence to exert real power over American politics are learning how to think via memes, ironic jokes, and most importantly, identity markers. Debate? That’s just marginalizing and erasure. Exchanging ideas? That’s an assault. Freedom of speech and religion? Pure euphemism for bigotry and injustice.

And this dynamic endures challenges and resists constructive change because it draws strength from social ladders and club pledges that threaten to cut off community to those who don’t go along with it. That’s exactly Brooks’s point. Whether you think Brooks is mostly right or mostly wrong about economics, politics, culture, whatever, is completely beside the issue. The issue is that Brooks has correctly identified what’s driving the intellectual formation of the “educated” American adult. It’s not reasonableness or transcendent values or even ideological commitments. It’s the fear of alienation, the fear of being anathematized by a secular, fundamentalist, sociopolitical religion whose shaming scaffolds would make Nathaniel Hawthorne blink.

Freddie is right to be concerned about the future of public higher ed. But I don’t think its problems lie with GOP de-funding. I think the far more likely fate for so many community schools and teachers is that eventually, people raised to be on the right side of history at all costs will discover they don’t need student loans, lectures, or textbooks to do it. My fear is that schools will look more like Mizzou–crushed under the weight of a nihilistic pedagogy that bears the fruit of an unteachable activist class, incubated from all attempts at reason or restraint by an impenetrable code of coolness.

Thus, we circle back to Posner and his 20 theses about Twitter. He may be underselling the value of social media in a breathless information age. And I’m sure there are good uses for Twitter that he doesn’t grant. But I do have to wonder if the neurological rewards of being in the in-group–the Retweet, the Like, the Follow–are subtly warning us about the future. If life in 10 years looks more like Twitter than it does now, it won’t be a good thing, no matter how many people get the joke.