Syndicate Symposium: “Sins and Virtues in American Public Life”

Over at “Syndicate,” Dartmouth religion professor Jeremy Sabella has put together a symposium on the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is titled “Sins & Virtues in American Public Life.”

New posts will appear on Tuesday and Fridays. Writers in this series include Bharat Ranganathan, Daniel Schultz, Chris Jones, Vincent Lloyd, Stanley Hauerwas, Jamie Pitts, Jennifer Knapp, Christian Sabella, David Cloutier, Robin Lovin, Jon Kara Shields, MT Davila, Aaron Scott, Colleen Wessell-McCoy, Scott Paeth, Randall Balmer, M. Shawn Copeland, and Briallen Hopper.

My piece on the theological virtue of faith and American public life will appear on November 3, 2020.

The series began last week and will run through November 13, 2020. Here is a taste of Sabella’s introduction:

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: something is rotten in the state of our union.

We see it in our toppled monuments and overcrowded hospitals, feel it in the clouds of tear gas and welts from rubber bullets, hear it in the chants of protest slogans and the shouting at town halls. Yet we struggle to articulate what, exactly, has gone wrong.

The language we typically deploy to name political problems—the system is broken, our government is gridlocked—analogizes society to a massive machine, priming us to seek machine solutions to its dysfunctions. In a machine, if we identify the broken part, the blown fuse, the errant line of code, we can get it up and running good as new. By implication, if we can replace the defective parts of our social machinery—elect the right commander-in-chief, nominate the right Supreme Court justice, redraw gerrymandered districts—we can restore society to functionality. Both political parties have made such changes to great fanfare. Yet as a society we remain as broken and gridlocked as ever. Put simply, the changes aren’t working.

By evoking the breakdown of organic matter, Shakespeare’s language of rot points to an older understanding of society: not as a machine, but as a kind of organism. This biological imagery captures acute social crisis in ways that machine imagery does not. Machines break down and get fixed; organisms get sick, and with the right measures, can heal. But once the organism starts to rot—once the gangrene sets in—drastic measures are required to keep it from dying. Biological imagery clarifies what our moment requires: not another targeted, one-time intervention, but rather, full-scale transformation.

Which is where this symposium comes in. The reflections featured draw on the moral language of sin and virtue to describe contemporary social problems. This language presupposes the ancient image of society as a body politic. Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, for instance, describes the senate of the Roman republic as the stomach of the body politic, which digests nutrients and distributes them to the rest of the members. Similarly, Paul the Apostle uses bodily imagery to describe the relationship of individual Christians to the Christian community as a whole: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Both sources depict society, not as a machine composed of discrete parts, but as a body of interconnected parts that fall ill and heal as a single unit. And the language used to shape the morality of individuals can help diagnose and mend the body politic.

As they faced waves of famine, pandemic, and political unrest, medieval thinkers developed and refined the categories of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Four Cardinal Virtues, and the Three Theological Virtues. In tandem they comprise a kind of toolbox for the care of souls, where the sins diagnose types of spiritual illness and the virtues identify states of spiritual health. This symposium deploys this toolbox to cultivate a comprehensive view of what ails our own body politic and how to nurse it back to health. Each contributor has been tasked with choosing one of the sins or virtues to answer the same basic question: What does sin/virtue x look like in American public life?

Read the rest here.

Trump’s Cowardice

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Donald Trump likes to praise his allies for their courage and attack his enemies for their supposed lack of courage:

His allies also like to call him courageous:

Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, once called the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic a “profile of courage.” His HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, said something similar.

Trump also likes to tweet quotes about courage:

Here is historian Heather Cox Richardson at her blog “Letters from an American“:

An A. P. story then offered a doozy of a paragraph: “As cities burned night after night and images of violence dominated television coverage, Trump’s advisers discussed the prospect of an Oval Office address in an attempt to ease tensions. The notion was quickly scrapped for lack of policy proposals and the president’s own seeming disinterest in delivering a message of unity.”

That Trump hid in the White House while he was urging others to violence captures his personality, but it undercuts his carefully crafted image as a man of courage. The leak of this story is itself astonishing: we should not know how a president is being protected, and that Trump is bullying to project an image of being a tough guy while he is actually hiding is a big story, especially since presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was out in the streets talking to protesters today. And to admit that Trump has no policy proposals and has no interest in delivering a message of unity…. Wow.

Read the entire piece here.

As those who follow this blog closely know, I have been reading Joseph Pieper, the 20th-century German moral philosopher. Here is a taste of his 1964 essay, “On the Christian Image of Man”:

The concept of “courage” does not equate with the notion of aggressive fearlessness at any price. There exists indeed a kind of fearlessness that is the direct opposite of courage.

Pieper goes on:

Fortitude, Augustine says in The City of God, is a testimony to the existence of evil–by which he means that fortitude is necessary because, in the world, evil is powerful, is even at times a superior force. In view of this, to be brave can be taken to mean that something must be risked whenever the obviously weak offers resistance to evil. And nobody who wishes to be a good human being, and who is unwilling to commit an injustice, can avoid this risk.

When Trump condemns the evil of the rioters, he is doing a good thing. But there is no risk involved. Everyone condemns looting and destruction. What he said and did yesterday in the Rose Garden and at St. John’s Church was not a courageous act. But condemning systemic racism and working to promote policies that might remedy this social problem would, for Trump, be a courageous act because it would alienate him from much of his political base. Trump, according to Pieper’s definition of courage, is not a “good human being.”

And this:

…we are more apt to perceive and honor the hero in the figure of conqueror than in one who merely suffers. And since fortitude means precisely to endure “wounds” incurred on behalf of justice (from loss or reputation or well-being to imprisonment or bodily harm), we are really looking, when we contemplate someone who has manifested this virtue, at the antithesis of the “conqueror.” Such a person does not vanquish, he sacrifices.”

Or this:

Thus fortitude is, according to its very nature, not the virtue of the stronger but instead that of the seemingly vanquished. Accordingly, it can almost be said that we are dealing with a falsehood in the prevailing notion of the “hero,” which veils and perverts the essential qualities of genuine fortitude. It should be remembered that in the eyes of the ancients the decisive criterion for fortitude consisted primarily in steadfastness and not in attacking.

Trump is the anti-hero. He is coward.

C.S. Lewis: “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”

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Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY

Here is conservative writer David French on Al Mohler’s recent decision to support Donald Trump:

Look, I know that for now I’ve lost the character argument. It’s well-established that a great number of white Evangelicals didn’t truly believe the words they wrote, endorsed, and argued in 1998 and for 18 years until the 2016 election. Oh sure, they thought they believed those words. If someone challenged their convictions with a lie detector test, they would have passed with flying colors…

When C.S. Lewis said “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of very virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” he was speaking an important truth. We may think we possess an array of virtues and beliefs, but we don’t really know who we are or what we believe until those virtues and beliefs are put to the test. There is many a man who goes to war thinking himself brave, until the bullets fly. There is many a man who thinks himself faithful to his wife, until the flirtation starts.

There were many men who thought character counted, until a commitment to character contained a real political cost. But that’s the obvious point. I’ve made it countless times before today. White Evangelicals, however, have shrugged it off. “Binary choice,” they say. “Lesser of two evils,” they say—even though those concepts appeared nowhere in the grand moral announcements of the past.

Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character (though a surprising number are still remarkably unaware of his flaws). That much is clear. But the story now grows darker still. As they’ve abandoned political character tests, they’re also rejecting any meaningful concern for presidential competence. 

Listen to Mohler’s announcement, and you’ll hear a narrow political philosophy—one that’s limited to evaluating a party platform on a few, discrete issues. It’s nothing more than a policy checklist. He speaks of religious freedom, LGBT issues, and abortion. 

Yet as the pandemic vividly illustrates (and as 9/11 also highlighted in recent years past), the job of the president extends well beyond the culture war. Indeed, there are times when a president is so bad at other material aspects of his job that he becomes a malignant force in American life, regardless of his positions on white Evangelicals’ highest political priorities. 

The role of the people of God in political life is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discrete subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”

Read the entire piece at The Dispatch.