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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Has Trump De-Legitimized the Pro-Life Movement?

My answer in First Things: No.

Excerpt:

Warnings about the optics of Trump as a leader of religious conservatives aren’t totally misguided. Trump’s pro-life politics almost certainly arise from convention and convenience, rather than conviction. His rhetoric is incompatible with a holistically Christian worldview, and there may be some political blowback to the pro-life agenda in the midterms and 2020 elections. But the notion that the pro-life movement can be identified with Trump or the Republican Party is specious. It bespeaks a political and moral math that seems to apply to abortion and nothing else. That some think one politician can singlehandedly delegitimize the pro-life cause is evidence of Screwtape’s success in fogging up the abortion debate with propaganda.

Read the whole thing here.

There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

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

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

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

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civility, Privilege, and the Public Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


photo credit (licensed under CC 2.0)

Why “I’m Not a Fundamentalist” Isn’t Enough

We can either really learn the lessons of the Religious Right, or we can repeat the errors of the past on a different side.

Let me briefly describe a trend I see in the post-Trump evangelical world.

Having been liberated from the Boomer delusion that Christianity equals right-wing politics, many of us younger evangelicals are trying to right the ship when it comes what we believe really matters to God. We sense that our parents often answered this question in a moralistic, nationalistic, individualistic, and materialistic way. Naturally, we want to fix this in our own lives. So we start to question our theological, political, and social assumptions, and carefully examine them for any trace of these toxins.

In the process of doing this, we adjust our intuitions at a very granular level. We don’t recoil from non-virgins. We don’t immediately fly into refutation mode when we find out our fellow church member is a registered Democrat. We don’t act like prudes when it comes to profanity. On the other hand, we do speak up when someone cracks a racist joke. We do register our concern when someone talks as if the Christian life can be reduced to a white wedding a nuclear family. We call out unkindness or stinginess.

All the while we are conscious of this shift between evangelical generations. We are trying to be more like Jesus and less like talk radio. We are trying to be Christians more than conservatives. We explain ourselves by pointing out that the gospel has been subject to cultural captivity, and that many in our theological family tree have been guilty of propping up ideas, institutions, and systems that looked more like political action committees or country clubs than like the church. We disown the “culture war” of previous generations and insist that the kingdom of Christ does not depend on whether you only see PG-13 movies. We are more hospitable and empathetic with non-Christians, we emphasize shared imago Dei far more than opposing worldviews, and we don’t let Christian subcultures or legalistic codes dictate who or how we love.

In this process, though, the pendulum swings all the way in the opposite direction. In our new consciousness, we tend to err on the side of deference when it comes to ethics that threaten to put us at odds with our neighbors. Open arms become shrugs. We become very quick to call out we think of as right-wing sin, like racism, and we convince ourselves that to do this effectively we need to take a break from talking about divorce. We start to find more in common with unbelievers who share our loathing of the Republican party than with other Christians who perhaps don’t. We identify ourselves mostly as “Not fundamentalists” rather than as Bible-believers. We agree to disagree about nudity and sex onscreen but join Twitter shame threads against people who don’t tip well.

I don’t think this is the balance Jesus would have us know.

I worry often that young, post-Trump evangelicals are not really learning the lessons of the Religious Right, but merely substituting one error for another. Can we really say that this dynamic offers a correction to the culture warrior mentality that we want so dearly to leave behind? Or is the threat now that we will simply accept the economy of culture war but switch sides, always punching Right and toward the local church as a way of apologizing for our tribe and making sure people know, in the words of Michael Corleone, “That’s my family. It’s not me.”

It’s not enough to say that the Bible transcends our politics and cultural divides. We have to believe it, and we have to believe that it applies just as equally for “authentic” 30 year olds working the Tinder scene in Brooklyn as it does for our grandparents who sit in front of Fox News every evening bemoaning the world. Becoming the opposite of a fundamentalist is a very low bar to clear for Christians. I know in our culture right now believers feel that not being a fundamentalist is the most important thing they can do if want more than the Religious Right for their church. But that’s not true. The trouble with pendulums is that anybody can reach up and grab them. They are not immovable, as Paul commanded the Corinthians to be. They are not like a tree planted by the water, as the Psalmist said of the one who meditated on the Word day and night. A pendulum does nothing but swing. Surely, beloved, that’s not what we are called to.

Aren’t we called to holiness? Aren’t we called to flee from both body-crushing racism and body-dishonoring immorality? Aren’t we called to guard our lips from both unkindness and vulgarity? Aren’t we called away from both legalism and antinomianism, from both fear of the world and love of the world?

I think so. I think what it takes is an open Bible and an open church. This year I have, by the grace of God, been more consistent in my yearly Bible reading plan than ever before. I have noticed so many things in Scripture that I hadn’t noticed in a lifetime of being raised in the church. Every time I think that a cultural sin of evangelicals might be chalked up to biblical silence on something, the Bible smacks me in the face with a verse or narrative that I just never gave time to in 30 years of living in evangelicalism. The problem is not a deficiency of Scripture but a deficiency of my reading it.

The whole Bible really does speak to the whole Christian life. Regaining the lost balance that I fear we’re losing takes the whole Bible, and it takes willingness to live spiritually alongside other believers who may be erring on the opposite side of us. Generational sins stay generational sins, I suspect, because generations don’t talk to each other, don’t repent to each other, and don’t worship together. I get nervous every time I walk into a church and it’s 90% people under 40 or 90% people over 40. Don’t we have much to learn from each other? Isn’t one of the most pernicious lies that Screwtape passed on to Wormwood the lie that no other time was as special and pressing as this one? How else are we going to disarm generational myths except generationally?

I hope and pray I’ll be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I believe Christ is happy to see the emerging generation of evangelicals refuse to fall into the same patterns of sin as what we saw before us. But there are patterns ahead of us too that beckon us to fall in just as our parents were beckoned. We don’t have to.

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.