Conservative Culture Warriors Are Trying Figure Out How to Operate in our Current Moment

What do conservative, pro-Trump media pundits do when faced with a crisis that calls them to use their platforms to serve the common good? What happens when one’s entire brand is built on disparaging enemies? In a time of public crisis, how does one maintain a loyal audience of people who need culture warriors to give them a consistent diet of red meat?

Eric Metaxas has apparently figured out how to do it:


Or maybe you can retweet Ann Coulter propagating a story that has been thoroughly debunked:

Metaxas 3

And then there is conservative radio host Todd Starnes:

And here is Trump’s wonder-boy, Charlie Kirk. Have I mentioned that he is also the co-director of a “think tank” at Liberty University?

First, a word about this whole “China virus” controversy.  There are many Americans–especially Chinese-Americans–who are offended by people calling COVID-19 the “China Virus.” So why do we continue to call it that? It now seems like Metaxas, Starnes, and Kirk (and Trump)–all self-identified white Christians–are defending this description of the coronavirus (and others like it) precisely because they want to throw more salt in the wounds of those who are offended by it. Why else would they continue to insist on calling it the “China virus?”

A word to my fellow evangelicals: please stop denying the fact that our gospel witness in this world is damaged.

Yes, the First Amendment gives us free speech. But how does your right to exercise such speech help us in our current crisis? At what point do we curb our obsession with “rights” in order to serve the common good? Save the fight over political correctness for another day. Wage your political battles another day. Why go down these roads at a time like this?

Let’s remember that these media personalities have a brand that is only successful when it instills outrage and anger in their followers. It’s sad to see their inability to produce any other kind of content in these troubled times. It’s almost as if they do not know how to operate in our current moment without stoking the flames.

“Promote the General Welfare”


We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Over at The Washington Post, historian J.M. Opal reflects on this often overlooked phrase in the preamble to the United States Constitution and suggests that its application might provide a way forward.

Here is a taste of his piece “How the Constitution can help reclaim government for all of us“:

The impeachment process calls our attention to the Founders’ fear of government gone wrong. As we start a new year, we remember all their warnings and safeguards against unscrupulous men in high places.

Perhaps their wisdom from 1787 will help us turn the page on Donald Trump in 2020. To fully recover from his abusive reign, however, we’ll also need to recall our pro-government traditions, starting with the pledge in the Constitution’s preamble to “promote the general Welfare.”

This clause has deep roots in European statecraft, according to which the sovereign took care of his subjects in return for their fealty. In the 18th century, the general welfare, or salus populi, took on the more positive spirit of the Enlightenment. The goal of human society was not just survival but also happiness, the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel noted in 1758, and so governments should positively promote “a true and solid felicity” within their countries.

Promoting the general welfare could mean building roads or schools with tax money. It might encourage ingenuity through patents and copyrights or foster public health with quarantines and regulations. And it sometimes required the public to overrule the selfish “rights” of careless or ruthless individuals.

Far from rejecting this tradition, the American revolutionaries gave it a more democratic cast. As Pennsylvania’s new constitution of 1776 put it, governments were made for the “common benefit” of the people, “and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men.” In a republic, the population-at-large rather than any nobility or priesthood was the privileged order — the group deserving of the government’s care. Vermont used similar language the next year, in the modern world’s first constitution prohibiting slavery.

Read the rest here.

Should Religious Liberty Be “The Most Important Public Issue?”

Dr. Alan Jacobs

Some say it should be, but Baylor University English professor Alan Jacobs is not so sure.  Here is a taste of his recent blog post:

Stretch your mind and imagine a POTUS who supports religious liberty but who also pursues reckless, thoughtless, and inconsistent policies both domestically and abroad. Imagine that he is cruel to the helpless, treacherous to longstanding allies, cozy with authoritarian regimes, incapable of sticking with a plan, prone to judge everyone he meets strictly by their willingness to praise and defer to him. Imagine that he is colossally ignorant of domestic and foreign realities alike and yet convinced of his matchless wisdom. 

You might, first, ask whether such a President is a reliable ally of religious freedom. Would he work to guarantee liberty of conscience for those who on religious grounds criticized his own policies? Don’t make me laugh.  

But let’s say he can be counted on. Even so, should religious believers care about their own well-being above that of their neighbors? If, per argumentum, our religious liberty comes at the cost of great suffering for others, is that a deal we should make? Should we place our good ahead of the common good? 

Read the rest here.

Historian: A Lack of Trust in Social Institutions, Social Structures, and Each Other Leads to More Lethal Violence


Randolph Roth teaches history and sociology at The Ohio State University.  Over at the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail (originally published at The Washington Post), he offers a glimpse of his recent research on social trust and violence.

Here is a taste:

When we lose faith in our government and political leaders, when we lack a sense of kinship with others, when we feel we just can’t get a fair shake, it affects the confidence with which we go about our lives. Small disagreements, indignities and disappointments that we might otherwise brush off may enrage us — generating hostile, defensive and predatory emotions — and, in some cases, give way to violence.

This may be rooted in our biology. Primate studies have shown that apes and monkeys secrete more of the hormones that cause or facilitate aggression, and less of the hormones that deter aggression, when their tribes experience political instability, faction fighting and struggles for dominance.

People who suffer from dangerous forms of mental illness, who have experienced severe reversals in their lives or who have suicidal thoughts are most vulnerable when these feelings course through society, as Adam Lankford describes in “The Myth of Martyrdom.” They are more likely to lash out, as we have seen in case after case of mass murder.

Some mass killers have written manifestos. Yet the relationship between trust and homicide is seldom so explicit. Everyday murderers don’t stop to cite distrust of government or their fellow citizens as a reason they killed. Few homicides are motivated directly by political conflict or political feelings, anyway. But the link between trust in government and homicide rates is evident everywhere, across centuries.

In England, for instance, 60,000 voting rights demonstrators gathered in Manchester in 1819 to demand the right to elect their own representatives in Parliament. They were viciously attacked by militiamen on horseback wielding sabers. Eleven people were killed outright; countless others were wounded. The homicide rate in England and Wales doubled over the next five years, and it remained high throughout the years of agitation for voting rights. But when the Second Reform Act passed in 1867, enfranchising propertyless household heads in urban areas, the homicide rate fell suddenly by half; and when the Third Reform Act passed in 1884, enfranchising propertyless household heads in rural areas, the rate fell suddenly by half again. Empowerment, inclusion and faith in government mattered.

The same patterns appear throughout American history. Homicide rates (which reflect violence between unrelated adults and do not include domestic violence or war casualties) dropped dramatically after the Revolution, as the new nation developed institutions in which people could put their faith and as Americans developed a sense of patriotism and belonging.

By the early 19th century, although murder remained more common on the contested frontiers and in the slave-holding South, the North and the mountainous regions of the South — from Appalachia to the Ozarks — had some of the lowest homicide rates in the world. (About 3 per 100,000 persons per year, which is low even by today’s standards and considering their lack of modern medicine.) That changed when reverence for political leaders declined in the wake of the Mexican War and homicide rates doubled or tripled — 15 years before the Civil War and Reconstruction made things worse.

Read the rest here.

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Yet Another Interview with Mark Lilla

lillaSean Illing interviews Lilla at Vox.  He asks some tough questions.  (Not familiar with the whole Lilla/identity liberalism conversation?  Get caught up here).

A taste:

Sean Illing: I’ve argued that all politics is identity politics insofar as politics involves the assertion of values in the public sphere. If you grant that values are bound up with identity, it’s not clear to me how you circumnavigate this problem.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias made a similar point in his response to your piece, which is that politics is not — and has never been — a public policy seminar. People have identities, and they’re mobilized around those identities. And so, as Yglesias wrote, “there is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Mark Lilla: To begin with, identity can be used to mobilize people for political action — that’s for sure. But political action is something else. I certainly agree that someone’s identity may affect their political views. Again, though, democratic politics is about persuasion. It’s not about self-expression.

However you come to your values or positions, you become political the moment you enter the arena trying to persuade other people of your values. If you have a certain value and you attach to that a whole picture of your identity, and then ask the other person not only to accept your position but to accept your account of your identity, you’re setting the bar very high for political agreement.

If I can convince someone with a very different identity, or someone who doesn’t accept my account of my identity, to agree about certain principles, I can then walk that person down from a principle to a particular case.

I think that this is a very good point.  As many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am a Christian and I teach mostly Christian students at Messiah College.  Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has a language all its own.  That language is spoken in church and it is often spoken on campus at Messiah.  In most cases, this language stems from my students’ belief in the Bible or the authority of the Christian church.  So when they argue with one another they make appeals to this language.  They may quote the Bible as part of their argument or appeal to a Christian theologian in the past or present.  (Frankly, I wish they did more of this!).  This is because they have a shared identity–a common religious language.

But sometimes the language they speak in their churches or in their dorms at Messiah College may not be suitable for public discourse with people who are outside this identity group.  I want my students to develop a public voice–one that allows them to speak in the public square with people who do not share their identity.  For some of my evangelical students, this might mean learning how to engage with people from other Christian traditions–such as Catholics–who do not share their particular view of Christianity. This might mean trying to figure out what aspects of the Christian faith–and there are many–that they share with Catholics.  It means finding common ground.

The same might be said about their engagement with people of different faiths or no faith at all.  I do not want my students to enter public discourse using the language of their evangelical identity.  They are not going to persuade people who are not Christians by citing Bible verses or appealing to the Judeo-Christian God.  Again, if they care about moving the conversation forward and working for the good of the whole they must find some common ground. In other words, they cannot lead with their particular identity–whether it be a religious, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or political identity–when not everyone in the conversation shares that identity.  It seems to me that the act of participating in a democratic society requires this.

Here is another part of the interview:

Sean Illing: Can you explain that last point by way of an example? What would that process look like in practice?

Mark Lilla: Here’s an example of the kind of argument you’d make: Black motorists are being targeted and mistreated by American police officers — we know this. If my principle here is equal protection under the law, and I want to convince someone who doesn’t know black people or doesn’t particularly care about the black experience, if I want to persuade that person to get engaged and care about this issue, I can do one of two things. I can get that person to agree to the principle of equal protection under the law, and then I can walk them down to saying that black motorists, as citizens, deserve to be protected.

If, on the other hand, I try to persuade that person of a certain picture of the black experience today and the injustices of the country, or what it’s like to be black or how I define myself as black, I’ve made my job much harder and increased the odds, fairly or not, that they’ll reject my message.

So I think identity politics mixes the work of social reform, which has to do with recognition and incorporation and diversity, with the work of political action, which requires political speech that encourages people to agree with you.

And one more excerpt:

Sean Illing: Another concern I’ve heard on the left, and this was articulated nicely by Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, is that you’ve conflated the illiberal excesses of the “social justice warriors” with race and gender politics as such, and these are not the same things.

Do you take this point at all?

Mark Lilla: I want to distinguish political discourse from general cultural discourse. In general cultural discourse, there’s a lot to be said about race and gender, and talking about it has led to extraordinarily positive changes. Making these arguments is critical to mobilizing people, and I didn’t say that in my article.

But when it comes to seizing power, that will not win you a single election. It will not pass through the spam filter of Fox News. Appealing to principle is our best chance of passing through the right-wing media filter.

Read the entire interview here.

The President of the American Enterprise Institute: Pope Francis Wants Your Soul!

One might expect the president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to critique the message that Pope Francis delivered last month during his visit to the United States.  The AEI, after all, is in the business of promoting free enterprise and the Pope did not have too many positive things to say about globalization from the steps of Independence Hall.  Though Francis did not mention the word “capitalism” during his visit to the United States, he has been critical of it in the past.  

This morning I was reading some of Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and came across this section:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

And this:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

Arthur Brooks

But today at The New York Times Arthur Brooks, the president of the AEI, wrote an excellent op-ed piece celebrating Francis’s “subversive message,” supporting his defense of the poor, and embracing his criticism of materialism.  For Brooks, Francis’s message of unity is ultimately a spiritual message. As he puts it at the end of the piece, “he is in a hunt for the whole human soul.”

Here is a taste:

Look back a generation (or two or three) in our families, and we are almost all just riffraff with one direction to go: up. Americans tell with pride the stories of their parents and grandparents who — thanks to democracy and free enterprise — were able to work their way up out of poverty. The secret to American unity thus is not just giving alms to the poor. It is to remember that we are the poor.

As the pope surely understands, these facts are what make the Catholic Church in the United States unique. In Europe, the church was historically an institution of the powerful. In America, by contrast, the Catholic Church was established as the church of the outsiders. Throughout our history it has been the poorest of the immigrant groups — the Irish, Italians and Latin Americans — who represented the face of American Catholicism. Excluded from power in their countries, the poor opted to build their lives and churches here.

As our nation expanded and prospered, the Catholic Church became a source of social unity. Indeed, Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and was cited by Pope Francis before Congress, was attracted by the fact that the church in America was full “of all nationalities, of all classes, but most of all they were the poor.”

For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.

Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.

Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”

Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.

Many people around the world have found themselves attracted to the pope’s warm message of unity. And well they should be — unity is in short supply in our unhappy world today. But Francis is asking for more than a mass chorus of “Kumbaya.” He is in the hunt for the whole human soul.