Linker: Evangelicals are “Dreaming Small”

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

American evangelicals, according to Damon Linker at The Week, are on the defensive.  Here is a taste of his piece “The Dwindling Ambition of the Religious Right“:

The conservative evangelical Protestants who have long been the foot soldiers of the religious right may be thrilled with President Trump’s judicial appointments (and so willing to overlook his mountain of personal moral failings), but that excitement has nothing to do with ambitions to take back the country in the name of traditional moral values. On the contrary, evangelicals and their conservative Catholic allies today engage in politics from the position of a defensive crouch, anxiously hoping sympathetic judges will protect them from bullying at the hands of an administrative state empowered by anti-discrimination law to stamp out various forms of religiously grounded “bigotry.”

To see the change, ask yourself when you can last recall hearing a major figure on the religious right propose a major reform of American public life. (And no, restrictions on abortion don’t count, because supporting the placement of limits on abortion-on-demand doesn’t require affirming traditional religious views; one need only believe in the existence of human rights and recognize that a fetus on a sonogram is a human being.) Since Bush’s failure to reverse the rapid advance of gay marriage in the United States, the religious right has been playing defense and even entertaining withdrawal from active engagement in politics at the national level.

 

Read the rest here.  This is what happens when evangelicals are motivated less by hope than by fear.

 

Evangelicals Support Trump Out of Fear and Weakness

Trump-thinking-900

Damon Linker nails it in his column at The Week.

Here is a taste:

No informed evangelical today seriously hopes for a reversal of same-sex marriage. (Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision affirming a right to same-sex marriage were overturned, public opinion would by this point strongly support legalizing the institution through democratic means.) What they do hope for is protection from persecution for their religiously based views of sexual morality. That can be done most effectively by the appointment of judges who are friendly to religious freedom and the reining in of the power of executive branch bureaucracies to apply anti-discrimination law to every corner of American life. The Trump administration has been doing a lot of both. And evangelicals are understandably elated about it.

Those who loathe and fear the religious right should keep all of this in mind when they mock evangelicals for their cynical political maneuvering. The willingness of evangelicals to embrace Trump is a function not of their strength but of their weakness. It may not look that way from the outside, with an increasingly Trumpified Republican Party exercising so much control in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet evangelicals are right to recognize that people like them have by now long since decisively lost the culture and the political support of the bulk of the American electorate.

The moral majority has shrunk to become a moral minority surrounded by a sea of secularism. For all the talk of the president serving as God’s instrument in the 2016 election, most evangelicals understand very well that he’s an emissary from the wider secular world. But that makes his willingness to serve as their strong man and protector all the more remarkable — and all the more an occasion for gratitude and loyalty.

Read the rest here.

Linker: The United States Has Become “a madhouse, a freak-show circus…”

Donald_Trump_Signs_The_Pledge_25

And Donald Trump is “its ringleader, but the rest of us gamely play along….”

Here is a taste of Linker’s column at The Week:

Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats.

few noble souls strive valiantly (and in all likelihood futilely) to keep alive a more vibrant, genuinely public-spirited, and positive vision of political engagement that places the common good of the country as a whole ahead of the good of its tribal parts. But such efforts push against powerful counter-trends that threaten to turn what remains of the political center into a vacuum characterized mainly by its disgust for partisans of every stripe.

“A pox on both your houses” might not be a viable politics. But it’s a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.

Read the rest here.

 

Will a Post-Religious World Be an Improvement?

Church

Writing at The Week, Damon Linker is not so sure.

Here is a taste of his reflection on some recent polling data suggesting Christianity is in decline in America:

Liberals tend to assume that those who have left religious traditions and institutions behind will end up being … secular liberals, which is to say paragons (in their own eyes) of liberal tolerance and moral virtue. But not only is this belied by the occasionally harsh anti-religious fervor of many secular liberal pundits and public officials. It’s also contradicted by the rise of the post-religious right.

There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump’s strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.

Ross DouthatPeter Beinart, and The Week’s own Pascal-Emmanuel Gobryhave all noted the ominous emergence of a post-religious right, and have made the point that the left’s most vociferous critics of the old religious right (of which I was once one) may well end up ruing the decline and fall of their former opponents.

A post-religious America will be very different from the country we’ve known up until quite recently. Not all (or even many) of the changes will be improvements.

Read the entire piece here.

A Form of Populism I Can Believe In

Springsteen Obama

Damon Linker nails it in his regular column at The Week.

Here is a taste:

The global elite think they’re sitting pretty. How wrong they are.

Democrats keep telling themselves that Hillary Clinton “really” won the 2016 election (or would have, had it not been for interference by Vladimir Putin and James Comey). Republicans keep patting themselves on the back about how much power they now wield at all levels of government. And centrists throughout the West are breathing a sigh of relief about Emmanuel Macron’s likely victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election on May 7.

You can almost hear the sentiments echoing down the corridors of (political and economic) power on both sides of the Atlantic: “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s fine. No need for serious soul searching or changes of direction. Sure, populism’s a nuisance. But we’re keeping it at bay. We just need to stay the course, fiddle around the edges a little bit, and certainly not give an inch to the racists and xenophobes who keep making trouble. We know how the world works, and we can handle the necessary fine tuning of the meritocracy. We got this.”

And why wouldn’t they think this way? They are themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the global meritocracy — and that very fact serves to validate its worth. They live in or near urban centers that are booming with jobs in tech, finance, media, and other fields that draw on the expertise they acquired in their educations at the greatest universities in the world. They work hard and are rewarded with high salaries, frequent travel, nice cars, and cutting-edge gadgets. It’s fun, anxious, thrilling — an intoxicating mix of brutal asceticism and ecstatic hedonism.

The problem is that growing numbers of people — here in America, in the U.K., in France, and beyond — don’t see it like this at all. Or rather, they only see it from the outside, a position from which it looks very different. What they see is a system that is fundamentally unjust, rigged, and shot through with corruption and self-dealing.

They see Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo, taking home a cool $186 million in stock (on top of many millions in additional salary and bonuses) for five years of “largely unsuccessful” work.

They see Henrique De Castro, who worked briefly for Meyer at Yahoo, pulling $109 million in compensation for a disastrous 15 months on the job.

They see Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly getting fired from Fox News for sexually harassing a parade of women over the years — and taking home tens of millions of dollars each in severance.

They see former Democratic President Barack Obama sharing a $65 million book advance with his wife, earning $400,000 for a single speech scheduled to be delivered in the fall at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, and gallivanting around the globe with David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono.

In Washington, they see a president who promised to act as the people’s voice appointing a long list of millionaires and billionaires to top positions. They see the White House and Congress struggling to pass a health-care bill that will leave millions more without insurance coverage at a time when a majority of Americans and a plurality of Republicans favor a single-payer system that would cover all. They see a president proposing to drastically cut corporate and individual taxes (including the elimination of inheritance taxes, which will benefit only the richest of the rich) when polls show that the top frustration with the tax system is that corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair share. They see a unified push to cut government programs at a moment when polls show a growing share of the public prefers bigger government.

And yes, I am willing to criticize Springsteen and Obama here.

At the same time, the populist critique of the global elite must be an educated critique. Such a critique is no excuse for ignorance or a fundamental misunderstanding of the kinds of questions raised by the humanities about how to live together in a democratic society.  Give Archie Bunker a book–preferably a history book! 🙂

The Benedict Option and Christian “Persecution” in America

baptistpersecutionvirginia01

Baptists were persecuted in colonial Virginia

Are American Christians being persecuted for their faith?  I am not sure persecution is the right word.  No one is coming into the homes of Christians with weapons threatening to kill them if they do not publicly denounce their faith.

But if this was happening, wouldn’t it be a good thing?

Didn’t Jesus say “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).

The other day, while lecturing on seventeenth-century Quakers and the deaths they suffered as martyrs for their faith, I recalled my old friend Tim. Back in the day Tim and I used to exchange letters.  Rather than end his letters with the standard “Sincerely Yours” or “Warmly,” he would often write “May You Suffer and Die for Christ, Tim.” My Christian students got a good laugh when I told them about Tim, but I wonder how many of them took such a call to martyrdom seriously.

I should also say that claims of persecution by American Christians make them look foolish and petty in light of the real persecution Christians are suffering around the world.

But I digress.

It seems everywhere I look online these days someone is debating whether or not American Christians are experiencing persecution (or perhaps discrimination) for their beliefs. Over at Commonweal, Julia Marley suggests that the “evangelical martyr complex” was partially fueled by the 1995 D.C. Talk song “Jesus Freak.” More on this below.

But most of the discussion on this front has stemmed from Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Some of you may recall that we blogged about this book a couple of weeks ago and tried to find common ground between “The Benedict Option” and what law professor John Inazu has called “Confident Pluralism.”

Recently Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith thought it was necessary to criticize Dreher’s book from the pages of the website of The Washington Post.  (I am still a bit confused as to why Smith would turn to the Washington Post to debate how Christians should live in a secular world. But in an era of social media where everyone is privy to intramural debates among Christians I guess it doesn’t really  matter).  Smith’s points about Christians living in fear are well taken.  I have made a similar argument in the context of the evangelical support of Donald Trump’s refugee policy.  But Smith’s suggestion that he was trusting in “a savior who rose from the dead” (and by implication Dreher was not) seemed a bit over-the-top.

Dreher was particularly upset by the way Smith, who Dreher claims was an early supporter of the “Benedict Option,” apparently changed his mind about the book when writing for his Washington Post audience.  Dreher responded with a post at his blog titled “The Benedict Arnold Option.” (This is not the first time Smith’s assault on a Christian writer has led to a strong push-back. The Smith-Dreher exchange reminds me a little bit of Smith’s scuffle in 2010 with Baylor philosopher Frank Beckwith).

Meanwhile, Darryl Hart offers some historical context.  Evangelicals, he argues, have felt marginalized in American culture for over a century.  This is why, for example, they founded faith-based “Christian colleges” like Calvin College to protect them from the secularizing tendencies of the outside world and to instill them with a “Christian world view.” (In the process he reminds Smith of the location from which he writes).  As Hart notes: “As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago.” Hart is right. At the turn of the 20th century when evangelicals were ousted from the denominations, and by extension the culture, they turned inward and founded a host of institutions that we now often describe as the “evangelical subculture.” Joel Carpenter wrote about this in Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism and a couple of oft-cited articles.  Was this development something akin to a “Benedict Option?”

This leads me to best review of The Benedict Option I have read so far.  It comes from Damon Linker at The Week.  While Hart argues that the persecution complex in American evangelicalism began over a century ago, Linker takes an even longer view.  He wonders if there was ever a moment when Christianity was powerful enough to hold sway over American life:

Yet it’s worth asking whether Christianity as both Neuhaus and Dreher understand it ever exercised rule in quite the way they imagine it did. Certainly it did in Puritan New England, and in certain regions of the country during the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and early 19th century. And clearly American civil religion, partly derived from Puritanism and reinvigorated countless times by various religious and cultural influences down through the centuries, has always had a broadly Protestant and deistic character.

But was this default Christianity anything like the doctrinally, liturgically, and morally rigorous forms of worship and belief that Dreher advocates? I don’t think so. Yes, rates of church attendance were higher in the past, but those rates fluctuated quite a bit from time to time and place to place. And in many of those times and places, the forms of worship were decidedly low-church, with tent revivals, renegade preachers, and faith healers barnstorming the country, while in most white churches the message broadcast from pulpits either explicitly endorsed a racist status quo or passed over it in silence.

But Linker’s approach is more nuanced than this.  He differs slightly from those like Julia Marley who suggest that the sense of persecution felt by evangelicals is built on a false understanding of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire and the belief that the United States is a Christian nation.  Linker argues that there have been significant changes in the culture–particularly in the area of sexual morality– that might justify evangelical concern.  He writes:

Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.

That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.

If traditional sexual morality is an absolutely necessary component in an authentic Christian life, then America may well be the post-Christian nation Dreher insists it is, with devout Christians reduced to the status of exiles within it and facing the prospect of outright persecution in the workplace and elsewhere. (Dreher’s book discusses some of these persecutory possibilities, and he regularly highlights and ponders them in considerable detail on his blog at The American Conservative.)

Dreher’s concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren’t delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements. That has inspired many religious conservatives (and a few liberals, like myself) to demand new laws to strengthen the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, specifically to clarify that the “free exercise” clause is not limited to what takes place within the walls of a church.

I appreciate Linker’s approach here because it acknowledges what I and others believe are real threats to religious liberty that should not be dismissed. At the same time, it affirms a lot of my own historical work on the problematic assertion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Linker concludes:

What if Dreher and other conservative Christians could know that they would not be forced to bake cakes or provide other services for same-sex weddings, that religious colleges would not be forced to permit same-sex cohabitation, and that employees would not be fired or otherwise penalized for holding traditional views about sexuality? Would that render the Benedict Option unnecessary?

I doubt Dreher would think so — because Christians would still find themselves living in a country in which a range of authorities within civil society constantly convey the message that same-sex marriage is good and opposing it is bigotry, in which pornography is ubiquitous, and in which gender is increasingly treated as a human construct entirely disconnected from nature, marriage, procreation, and a divinely authored order of things.

But why is that such a problem? Don’t Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims, who hold analogous views about sex, manage to live and thrive in the United States, despite its sexual turmoil and lasciviousness? Indeed they do. But they are and have always been tiny minorities in America — which means that, in the decisive respect, they already practice something like the Benedict Option. They don’t need to be taught how to preserve themselves in the face of constant counter-religious temptations.

Perhaps that consideration partially explains why Dreher sometimes seems to hype the persecution that conservative Christians already confront or will soon face — as a kind of shock therapy for the complacent, as if to say: “We’re no longer in charge here! If we don’t start protecting and preserving ourselves soon, there won’t be anything left to protect or preserve!”

Read Linker’s entire piece here.

Is the Culture War Really Over?

frist-debate

The culture war is over, the liberals won, and the victory was so decisive that the Republican nominee for president doesn’t even try to deny it. He just talks about other things, and hardly anyone (least of all the very voters who once demanded that presidential aspirants demonstrate fealty to the religious right) notices or cares.

So says Damon Linker in a piece at the Week.

He concludes:

Trump called the religious right’s bluff, and no Republican running for president will again feel the need to make an appeal to the dwindling number of conservative religious voters.

None of which means that the issues wrapped up with the religious culture war have gone away entirely. Worries about an ongoing or looming assault on religious freedom persist among many social conservatives. And abortion remains a highly potent issue at the state level, with legislatures across the South and Midwest moving to restrict abortion rights (and the courts often blocking their efforts).

But at the national level — especially when it comes to presidential politics — the culture war is well and truly over.

Read the entire piece here.

Is the culture war over? I don’t think so.  Linker is certainly correct about the lack of religion in the Clinton-Trump race.  But let’s remember two things.

First, the Christian Right is still out there.  They are getting older, but they will be a significant factor in American politics for several more presidential elections.  Many are Trump supporters for decidedly religious reasons.  They believe Trump will deliver the Supreme Court.  They also have a long memories.  The Clintons were polarizing figures in the 1990s.  The Bill Clinton impeachment and Monica Lewinsky affair galvanized the Christian Right.  Those conservative evangelicals who remember the 1990s will follow their religious conscience and refuse to vote for Clinton.

Second, the Christian Right remains a strong force in the GOP.  In the 2016 primary season the Christian Right vote was divided between Cruz, Rubio, Carson and, to some degree, Kasich, Bush, Huckabee, and Santorum.  If all of the Christian Right voters rallied around one candidate Trump would have been defeated.

So let’s not write the culture wars off too quickly.  The cultural warriors will be back again.

Damon Linker on How to Save Liberal Arts Education

Damon Linker thinks that the humanities and liberal arts will survive, but not with the “prestige and power they acquired in the post-war university.  The structural trends working against the humanities are just too strong.”

These structural trends include:

1.  The rise of STEM and the demand for practical skills in our capitalist economy.

2.  The cultural radicalism of the humanities as they are taught at American universities.  Linker writes: “Do you really want to take yet another class devoted to exploring the myriad ways that sexism, racism, and homophobia suffuse the literature of Western Civilization?”

Linker concludes that the liberal arts and the humanities should be studied because they teach us how to live.

Here is Linker’s podcast at The Week:

Linker references this lecture from Mark Lilla at Columbia:

Is Barack Obama Professor in Chief?

This stuff on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast seems to be having a very long shelf life.  (I will be publishing a version of my earlier blog post at another website. It should be out soon–stay tuned).

Now Damon Linker has weighed in over at The Week.  Here is a taste of his piece: “The Problem with Barack Obama Playing the Professor in Chief.”

The problem with the president’s comments isn’t that they were wrong. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have powerfully argued, they were indisputably correct.

The problem is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and not its professor in chief. It isn’t the president’s role to stand apart from and above the nation he leads, issuing supposedly even-handed, dispassionate, scholarly, objective, or prophetic moral judgments about the sins of America and Western civilization. This is especially true when those judgments are rendered in the context of a comparison with the butchers of ISIS — a bloodthirsty Islamist syndicate the president has accurately described as a “network of death” and pledged to destroy by force of arms.  

What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.

Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how this group of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.

Now this certainly overstates the difference between the two realms. In the real world, they overlap in all kinds of ways — and it is one of the great achievements of liberal government to have tamed some of the narrow-minded excesses of politics by more strictly applying moral criteria to the political realm than was common for much of human history before the modern period.

If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.

Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?…

A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact. When the president speaks as he did at the Prayer Breakfast, he sounds like a man who believes that executing his own sometimes ruthless policies is too narrow-minded, too partial — a word, too political — for a man as worldly and cosmopolitan as he.

I can’t argue with most of what Linker says here.  I think he is right. Most Americans want a president of decisive action, not a president-moral philosopher.  But let’s go back to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  Why do so many of us celebrate this speech.  Lincoln was being a president-theologian in that speech and it has gone down as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American president.  It seems that Americans want both–strong executive action to defend the interests of the United States and someone who can root such executive action in a robust moral philosophy.  Perhaps the problem with Obama is that his moral philosophy is too indecisive, complex, and nuances when compared to the way his predecessor, George W. Bush, employed his  moral philosophy.

Just some preliminary thoughts here.  I need to think about this some more.