Court Evangelicals Tony Perkins and Eric Metaxas Talk About Their Court Evangelicalism

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4 Court Evangelicals:  Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas

On July 5, 2019, court evangelical Tony “Mulligan” Perkins of the Family Research Council  hosted court evangelical and author Eric Metaxas on his “Washington Watch” radio program.  The conversation was devoted to Metaxas’s 2016 book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog are aware that this book is riddled with historical problems, many of which I wrote about in a series of posts when the book was published.

Listen to the Perkins-Metaxas conversation here.

Here are some comments:

2:00ff:  Metaxas, citing Christian author Os Guinness, suggests that the founders believed that virtue was essential to a republic and that people could not be virtuous without “faith.”  There are some problems with this formulation.  The founders did believe that virtue was essential to a healthy republic.  Virtue was a political term.  The virtuous person–usually a man–was someone who sacrificed his own interests for the greater good of the republic.  With this definition, it seems as if there would be a lot of present-day Americans–including socialists–who might have a claim on this kind of eighteenth-century political virtue.  In fact, one of our best historians of American socialism, Nick Salvatore, has argued that socialists like Eugene Debs drew heavily upon this tradition of republic virtue.

Moreover, as I argued in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, many founding fathers, including Ben Franklin (who uttered the saying in the title of Metaxas’s book), believed that Christianity or religion was not the only source of this kind of virtue.

2:45ff:  I don’t know of any “progressive” or person of “the Left” who is invoking the French Revolution these days.  (I am willing to be proven wrong on this).  Metaxas describes the French Revolution in terms of bloodbaths, anarchy, madness, egalitarianism, socialism, and the general lack of freedom.  Later in the interview Metaxas says that fear was not a factor in the evangelical turn toward Donald Trump.  As I argued in Believe Me, fear-mongers often build on false or exaggerated claims.  Isn’t this what Metaxas is doing here?  Perkins and Metaxas want to keep everyone scared so they pull the lever for Trump in 2020 and continue to man the ramparts of the culture wars.

4:50ff:  Metaxas says that we have been given a “sacred charge, a holy charge by God” to preserve the United States of America.  Here Metaxas equates the fate of America with the will of God as if the United States is some kind of new Israel.  He also says that if the Christian church does its job in the United States, “freedom will flourish.”

Is this true?  Is the role of the church to promote political freedom?

Metaxas confuses the mission of the Christian church with American freedom.  He fails to recognize that if the church does its work in the world, Christians will realize that their American freedoms are limited by a higher calling.  For example, if the church is doing its work fewer Christians will “pursue happiness” in terms of materialistic consumption. Fewer Christians will commit adultery or file for divorce.  The number of abortions will be reduced.  Hate speech will decline.  The number of people viewing pornography will be reduced.  The right to be gluttonous, greedy, slothful, and envious will decline. The right to own vehicles that destroy the environment will be curbed.  Of course all of these things–materialism, consumerism, adultery, divorce, hate speech, pornography, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, the ownership of a big SUV– are legal and protected under our freedoms as Americans. They are also contrary to Christian teaching. Americans are “free” to hate their neighbor and their enemies.  But if you claim to be a follower of Jesus you are not free to do these things.  So if the church is doing its work in world, Christians should become less, not more, “free” in the American sense of the word.

9:40ff:  Perkins implies that those evangelicals  who do not support Donald Trump do not “think,” “pray,” or “act.” (For the record this anti-Trump evangelical does try to think, pray, and act).  Metaxas says that those who oppose the POTUS are “prideful” and “myopic.”

I’ve noticed that when Metaxas is talking with critics such as Kristin Powers and Jonathan Merritt he backpedals and issues calls for civility.  But when he is on the air with a fellow court evangelicals like Perkins, he returns to his 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed mode of calling out the judgement of God on anti-Trumpers.

10:35ff:  Metaxas says: “we are at a tipping point in America…we could go back to the 1750s where we no longer have American style freedom.”  This is more fear-mongering.  It reminds me of when Ted Cruz said that if Clinton won in 2016 the government would start erasing crosses and stars of David from tombstones.  Metaxas also fails to realize that his conservative approach to the world looks very much like the British freedoms all the American colonists enjoyed in 1750.

11:30ff:  Metaxas brings up David French’s article on fear and notes that the piece attacks him by name.  Read this and this.

11:50ff: Metaxas defends Richard Nixon. He claims that George McGovern wanted to “take us down a socialist road.”  The last time I checked, McGovern was not a socialist. Here Metaxas implies that Nixon may have indeed committed a crime in office, but at least he wasn’t a big-government liberal.

12:00ff:  Metaxas compares those evangelicals who do not “get their hands dirty” voting for Trump to those who did not stand up to Hitler.  (Of course Hillary Clinton is the “Hitler” figure here–a comparison Metaxas has made before).

12:30ff:  Throughout this interview, Metaxas sloppily (although I don’t think he believes it is sloppy) mixes Christian faith and American ideals.  He talks about the blood of Jesus dying for sinners and in the very same sentence references the “minute men” in the American Revolution dying for “freedom” and the un-“biblical” Loyalists.  This is not unlike the way in which many 18th-century patriotic ministers interpreted Galatians 5:1 to mean freedom from British tyranny instead of freedom “in Christ.”  (I discuss this old American evangelical bad habit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

If we want a quick introduction to Metaxas and his thinking, listen to this interview.

Trump Will Give a Speech Tomorrow Night. It Will Probably be Based on Lies and Other Assorted Falsehoods

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Donald Trump will be speaking to the nation tomorrow night about the government shutdown and his border wall.

Trump will probably say that immigrants are coming across the border and trying to kill American citizens.  Yes, there have been people killed at the hands of undocumented immigrants.  This is a tragedy and the loss of a human life should never be taken lightly.

But, as I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trumpthe chance that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 10.9 million per year. One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch fire.  Yet Trump has managed to convince some Americans that Mexican immigrants are imminent threats to their safety.  This is the foundation of his immigration policy and his commitment to the border wall.  And one could argue that the wall is at the heart of his political brand.  It is based on fear.

If Trump wants to build a domestic policy around protecting the lives of everyday Americans, he should be spending billions on cancer research, heart disease research, diabetes research, the opiod crisis, Alzheimer’s research, safer systems of transportation, and suicide prevention. These are the largest causes of death in the United States.  Or how about spending money on long-term issues that will save lives–the protection of the environment, the reduction of the number of abortions in the United States, and affordable health care?

Do we need border security?  Yes.  Do we have an immigration problem that needs to be fixed?  Yes.  But if Trump really wants to keep more Americans alive he can spend that 5 billion in more fruitful ways.

More specifically, Trump will probably appeal to the so-called “4000 known or suspected terrorists” coming into our country illegally.  On Sunday, Chris Wallace debunked this claim in dramatic fashion before a national audience:

By the way, Chris Wallace works for Fox News.

Trump may try to declare a “National Emergency” based on this false information.  He will also accuse the Democrats in Congress that they do not care about the safety of our country.  But there is no national emergency.  I recently heard CNN Phil Mudd wonder when the last time a President of the United States had to go before the American people to persuade them that we were in the midst of a national emergency?  Aren’t national emergencies pretty obvious?  And don’t they usually get bipartisan support?  Maybe some of my presidential historian friends can help me with that one.

And finally, Trump may say that most of the American people support his decision to shut-down the government in order to get a wall.  This is another lie.  One recent poll found that 78% of Americans approve of some kind of compromise on border security.

Trump recently told the press that he “can relate” to the hundreds of thousands of people who are not receiving paychecks because of the government shut down. Really?  He added: “I’m sure the people who are on the receiving end will make adjustments; they always do.” I’ve seen this before.  Trump seems to be making some kind 18th-century appeal to political virtue. In other words, he believes the federal workers will be willing to give up some of their own self-interest (in this case their paychecks) in order to support a greater good (security through a border wall).  The Founding Fathers tried appeals to virtue in the 1770s and 1780s and they did not work very well.  They do not seem to be working very well today either.

Trump Nixed Plans for an Official White House Statement Praising John McCain

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The Washington Post reports:

President Trump nixed issuing a statement that praised the heroism and life of Sen. John McCain, telling senior aides he preferred to issue a tweet before posting one Saturday night that did not include any kind words for the late Arizona Republican.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero,” according to current and former White House aides, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The original statement was drafted before McCain died Saturday, and Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the president, the aides said. 

But Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising McCain’s life was not released. 

“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Trump posted Saturday evening shortly after McCain’s death was announced.  

Sanders declined to comment Sunday afternoon. 

“It’s atrocious,” Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team and a longtime Republican strategist, said of Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death. “At a time like this, you would expect more of an American president when you’re talking about the passing of a true American hero.”

Read the piece here.

This is yet another example of the kind of Trump narcissism I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Donald Trump is incapable of stepping outside of self-interested politics, even for a moment, to praise or thank a man who devoted his entire life to the service of his country.  He is incapable of laying aside political vendettas or understanding his presidency as part of a larger national story–a story that includes war heroes and public servants with whom he disagrees.  This kind of behavior, our founding fathers warned, that will destroy a republic.  Or to put in their terms, Trump is unable to practice virtue.

Remembering John McCain

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McCain with Jerry Falwell

Here are some things I remember about John McCain (1936-2018).

The “Straight Talk Express” was a breath of fresh-air in 2000.  McCain was strongly critical of the Christian Right approach to politics.  He blasted George W. Bush for visiting Bob Jones University before the South Carolina primary.   During the campaign he said, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore.  Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”  At one point he called Jerry Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.

In 2008, McCain did a flip-flop on the Christian Right. (I wrote about it here). He knew he needed its support if he was going to defeat Barack Obama.  McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University on 2006.  He said that the United States Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  (I wrote about this in the introduction to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).  He took the endorsement of Christian Zionist John Hagee and then rejected it after Hagee made an anti-Semitic remark.  He started using the phrase “City Upon a Hill.”  And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

During the 2008 primary season, the sponsors of the “Compassion Forum” at Messiah College invited McCain to come to campus to talk about his faith and its relationship to politics. The event took place several days before the Pennsylvania primary.  CNN covered the event and it was hosted by Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown.  McCain declined the invitation.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton accepted the invitation.  I will always be disappointed that McCain did not make this a bipartisan event.  I spent a lot of time that night in the press “spin room” explaining to reporters that McCain was invited, but chose not to attend.  (Later he would attend a similar forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

I will remember his “thumbs down” on the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I still watch this video with amazement and study all the reactions of his fellow Senators

I will remember this and I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.  When civility and respect for the dignity of political rivals is disregarded, the moral fabric of a democratic society is weakened.  What McCain did at that town hall meeting in 2008 was virtuous.

Rest in Peace

Trump, Porn, and the Coarsening of Culture

 

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Rihad, Saudi Arabia,

Trump and his wife.  He allegedly cheated on her with a porn star

I have spent a lot of time at this blog challenging the idea, popular among conservative evangelicals, that we should elect candidates who promise to “restore” or “return” America to its supposedly Judeo-Christian roots.  I have been critical of politicians and others who want to “reclaim” a Christian golden age that may never existed in the first place.  Trump’s phrase “Make America Great Again” is extremely problematic, both from a historical perspective and an ethical perspective.  We can’t go back.  We may not want to go back.

Yet I sometimes find myself in agreement with conservative Christian cultural warriors when they talk about the coarsening of America culture.  I am thinking, for example, about the kinds of public discourse, violence, and sex that we tolerate on our television screens.  The bar for what is acceptable behavior in public has lowered significantly in recent decades.  Our kids are exposed to unhealthy images–on television, at the theater, at school, on their computers and phones, and on their video games– at a much earlier age than I was.  I don’t think I am engaging in nostalgia here.  Anyone who has watched the culture develop over the course of the last couple of decades cannot miss this.  Even if you disagree with my use of words and phrases such as “unhealthy” or “acceptable behavior” or “coarsening” to describe these changes, you would still have to admit that things on this front have changed over time.  In my view, they have declined over time.

Let’s take pornography.  I think a lot of people, whether religious or not, would agree that porn has a negative effect on American culture.  I am guessing that one does not have to be an evangelical Christian to conclude that pornography degrades women, destroys families, teaches young people (who are watching it in increasing numbers via the Internet) an unhealthy view of sex, and leads men to throw away their money.

As if it wasn’t already easy enough to become addicted to porn, we now have a President of the United States who is in a legal battle over an adulterous affair he had with a porn star.  Stormy Daniels is everywhere.  Last weekend CNN reporters covered her stripping at a Florida men’s club.  I imagine that her free porn videos online are going viral. I am sure Stormy has been a great boon for the industry.  Like it or not, she is now part of the political mainstream.  A porn star may have found her way onto the pages of American history textbooks.

I think there might be lessons here for two groups of people.

First, and perhaps most obvious, are the court evangelicals.  Frankly, I was appalled when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, tweeted:

Stormy Daniels, a porn star, is “irrelevant?”  Trump’s playboy lifestyle and strong connections to the porn industry have made a porn star a household name in America.  I am sure Jeffress has counseled people who are addicted to porn.  I am sure he knows about families that have been torn apart because of porn.  I am sure he knows about men who have squandered away their savings or ran up massive credit card debt on Internet porn sites.  How could a pastor say that Stormy Daniels is irrelevant?

I ask the same question of the other court evangelicals, especially Tony Perkins, the champion of “family values” who gave Trump a “mulligan” on his affair with Stormy Daniels.  Is Perkins’s vision so narrow that he does not see the consequences of Trump’s sin on the culture at large?  I thought guys like Perkins wanted to clean-up the culture, not give a pass to a guy who brought a porn star into the center of public life.

But I also have a word here for all of my secular friends who think that evangelicals are obsessed with sex.  Many secular liberals, especially folks on college campuses, will be quick to condemn Trump’s relationship with a porn star.  I am glad to see that they have managed to find their moral footing on this issue.  But where have they been before Stormy Daniels came on the scene?  Why aren’t they working with evangelicals to curb pornography?  Is there common ground here?  It seems that only the most extreme libertarian can look the other way when they encounter the negative effects that pornography has had on our social institutions.  Rarely does one hear a college professor talk about the coarsening of our culture.  Perhaps they do not want to be labeled Puritans or Fundamentalists.

Maybe it is time to talk once again about virtue–the kind of common morality that the founding fathers believed essential to the preservation of a healthy republic.  Whatever you think about the founders, their flaws, and their failure to live-up to many of their ideals, they did believe that the survival of a nation was impossible without at least some kind of moral core.  It is hard to play the identity politics card on this one.  The negative effects of porn impact people of all races and classes and both genders.

American citizens will have robust debates over issues such as abortion or the nature of marriage, but I hope that they can find common moral ground on something like pornography.

The fight against pornography was once a Christian Right issue. But if reform is going to happen on this front it will now need to be led by religious and non-religious anti-Trumpers.  The court evangelicals have lost all moral authority to speak on this issue.  The next time I hear a pro-Trump evangelical leader condemn porn I will respond this way.

When Nathanael Greene’s Family Played Cards

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In 1774 the Continental Congress told Americans to avoid card playing:

We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reminds us that not all Americans followed Congress’s orders.

Here is a taste:

On 29 January 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher from the Continental camp on Prospect Hill about a family crisis—his wife’s friends had played cards in front of their stepmother.

The general wrote: “I am extream sorry that Mr [John] Gooch and Nancy Varnum affronted Mother at my House with Cards. Surely Mrs [Catherine] Greene could not be present. She must have known better. It was insult that I would not have sufferd the best friend I had in the World to have offerd to her.”

Read the rest here.

Quotes of the Day

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Federalist 57The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society, and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whist they continue to hold their public trust.

Federalist 68Talents for low intrigue, and the  little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of the President of the United States.”  It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

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My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

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Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Ben Sasse’s New Book

SASSEI need to read it.

After I read Emma Green’s review of Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult I was struck by two things:

First, I am eager to see how Sasse’s understanding of a virtuous republic differs from the Obama vision of a virtuous republic.  Obama did not use the term “virtue” that often, but his appeals to self-sacrifice for the good of the country certainly drew heavily from the founding fathers’ understanding of the term.  I have argued this multiple times, including here.

Second, it looks like the Nebraska Senator’s call for a republic of virtue draws deeply from the wells of American history, political philosophy, theology, and ethics.  (One might expect this from a Yale Ph.D in American history).  It sounds like it is a much more thoughtful and intellectually respectable argument than the one put out last year by evangelical culture warrior and radio host Eric Metaxas.

Here is a taste of Green’s review:

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for American’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.

Read the entire review here.

 

Donald Trump and the Liberal Arts: A Guest Post

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The liberal arts teaches judgement informed by virtue, wisdom and prudence.  Donald Trump seems to possess none of these character traits.  This guest post comes from Matthew Boedy, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the Department of English at the University of North Georgia.  –JF

President-elect Donald Trump more than once has told us how smart he is. He has also touted his education, specifically his University of Pennsylvania bachelor’s degree in economics.

Penn’s Wharton School offers a B.S. in economics with a caveat that it does not have “traditional” majors, but concentrations that are defined by four upper-level courses in one area. It’s unclear if this was what Trump faced in the late 60s, when he attended.

Most importantly, Wharton also makes it clear its degree is not a liberal arts degree. Wharton notes to its prospective students the main difference between its degree and a BA: “When you are deciding on where to go to college, you should ask yourself whether you want to focus on the theory of economics (BA) or the application of economics and business knowledge (BS).”

The theory/application divide is an old canard, and sadly, to see it used by one of the most prestigious business school in the world is sad. That said, Wharton’s BS degree is somewhat of a typical liberal arts degree, with a diverse course load. Wharton notes that more than “30% of the classes you need to graduate must be taken outside of Wharton…” But Wharton notes in its undergraduate catalogue that “studying economics in a liberal arts program” is “very different” than getting the BS at Wharton. The latter is focused “on solutions” not theories primarily. It adds that the diverse course load – that “studying business within social, political, and historical context” – “makes you a better agent of change.” This is the best argument for a liberal arts degree that I can make.

Let’s assume for a moment that Trump has a “liberal arts” degree. How it is performed or promoted is important. He promotes incessantly the central aspect of a liberal arts degree, long its hallmark: a formation of judgment, the use of intelligence on a range of issues. But it is also important to note that the traditional judgment acquired through such a degree is not the same as Trump’s version.

It is not merely that Trump’s repeated phrase “I alone can fix it” is authoritarian; it is a twisted exaggeration of this central discipline instilled by a liberal arts degree. What makes Trump’s line twisted is that he has removed from his liberal arts training the central controlling element: the virtuous, wise, or prudent judgment.

If we are going to defend the liberal arts from its usual critics – and the Wharton School here will stand in for many – and their rhetoric of useless, jobless liberal arts graduates roaming the streets with only theories and not solutions to the world’s problems, we must do it by touting this type of judgment. And not without irony, this judgment is the very thing needed to answer and respond to – to stand up against – Trump, the demagogue.

That is why it is important to contrast the judgment claimed by Trump and the one offered by a traditional liberal arts degree. Undergraduate degrees such as History, English, and the rest are based on two central features – a specific techne of the discipline and the ethos created by that discipline. These two terms are based in one of the original humanities, rhetoric. The first term can be defined as skills, or craft. We learn how to think like a historian or think historically, for example. This is why a broad course load is important. Thinking like a historian includes the broad contextual study Wharton argues is taught to its students. This balance between a particular discipline and its application over a broad range of contexts is one definition of not only the humanities but being human. We are more fully human when we think in these ways. Organizing, schematizing, or in general prioritizing complexity is one result of a liberal arts degree. And this is in part the kind of judgment Trump assures us he has. He is not a stupid person, cunning even.

What is missing is ethos. This is another Greek term that can be defined as character. And it is important to note ethos is based on a collection of virtues. Like the broad context of study, these virtues appear across the educational spectrum and humanize us.

In many ways, the central virtue though is judgment. But it is not intended to be a cunning or divisive judgment, a way to move amid issues for personal gain, a “gut instinct” for reading people and moments for deals. It is what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” This wisdom is to be used toward a more just society, a freer one.

The liberal arts offers this judgment based on centuries worth of human thought, progress, regressions, and religious ideals. It offers then a tradition through which to assess our own judgment. This tradition is non-existent in Trump. It is not that he does not read or read widely, it is that he has taken his education as a formation of self, a self now above and beyond education. He is, like, a smart guy. Indeed. Like smart. He touts a judgment akin to the one offered by liberal arts. But it is only “like” it – cunningly similar enough to allow him to twist ethos into a call for authoritarianism. Liberal arts offers the kind of judgment one needs to be a true change agent, one that can offer solutions to the issues we face. Liberal arts is a public good, not a private, divisive education.

Yes, A Liberal Arts Degree is “Worth It”

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Today I met with a group of prospective students who are interested in studying history at Messiah College.  Whenever I do these presentations, especially in these economic times, I need to remind students and their parents that an investment in a liberal arts education is “worth it.”

I am glad that people like John Macais, a philosophy professor at St. Gregory’s University of Shawnee, Oklahoma, have my back.  Macais does not make an economic argument for a liberal arts education (i.e., you can get a job with this degree).  Instead, he makes the case that a liberal arts education is “worth it” because it can make you a more virtuous person.  This is an argument that should have a special appeal to students interested in pursuing study at a church-related school.

Here is a taste of his recent piece “Why a Liberal Arts Degree is Worth It” at Aleteia:

But the liberal arts in fact have plenty to offer us — in this Jubilee Year, I would like to suggest that Liberal Arts are an important tool precisely for cultivating the virtue of mercy.

How so? Well, mercy, as Aquinas explains, is the virtue whereby we are able to recognize another’s pain and feel it as our own. He calls it a “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book Dependent Rational Animals, echoes Aquinas in explaining that “to understand another’s distress as our own is to recognize that other as neighbor.” [Emphasis mine] So if I am a merciful man, then I see each individual as my neighbor, deserving of sympathy when suffering, regardless of his relationship to me. This is precisely the lesson of the Good Samaritan of the Gospel.

Being an English major or a music major can contribute mightily to these facets of mercy as explained by Aquinas and MacIntyre. How? Well, the liberal arts are those branches of study and research ordered, not to some practical end, e.g. healing a broken bone or building computers, but to the attainment of truth for its own sake. These studies are, quite strictly, “pointless.” They seek to discover the truth about reality simply to know it, because knowing the truth is what – beyond the balanced ledgers and the innovative codes written for our technologies — we are ultimately made for.

In the liberal arts, a central question concerns the nature of the human person. What is a human being, what are its powers, and what separates human persons from animals and plants? Philosophy and theology take a more universal scope, while literature, poetry, and the arts seek to concretize these systematic views of the human person. These arts, when correctly pursued, allow us to recognize the common nature that each and every human being possesses. Regardless of race, sex, religion, or economic status, all human beings seek after the same ultimate good.

Therefore, liberal arts help us recognize our shared humanity. They help us to understand who we are as persons, and to detect the things that cause our nature distress. They help us to take it a step further, not merely recognizing the suffering of others, but also understanding that the suffering person in fact has a relationship to us, regardless of who he is. The arts burnish empathy, which in turn drives action to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

Read the entire piece here.

Alan Taylor Channels Gordon Wood

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By now many of you have probably read a review of Alan Taylor‘s new synthesis of the American Revolution.  (We will be featuring Taylor in an upcoming edition of the Author’s Corner.  Stay tuned).

Writing in The New York Times, Gordon Wood described Taylor’s work this way:

A major legacy of the Revolution, he concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?

And here is Eric Herschthal at Slate:

Taylor…gives a central role to women, blacks, and Native Americans in determining the war’s fate. The wives and daughters of Patriot soldiers took over the shops, farms, and slave plantations of those who left to fight. For the first time in their lives, white women became public participants in politics, organizing boycotts and participating in street protests.

Indeed, Taylor’s new book is not your traditional Whig history of the American Revolution.  If the reviews I read are correct, Taylor gives due attention to women, blacks, frontier settlers, and Native Americans, making these groups important actors in the story.  (I discussed, and praised, Taylor’s similar approach to the colonial period in Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  Since I have not yet read American Revolutions, I don’t know how Taylor covers the so-called “founding fathers.”  I am guessing that few reviewers, especially historians of a progressive bent, will say much about his treatment of these white men.

But for those who have not yet read the book, I think we get a glimpse of how Taylor treats the founders’ ideas from his recent piece at the American Scholar titled “The Virtue of an Education Voter.”

A lot of folks on my social media feeds are criticizing Gordon Wood’s review of the book (perhaps rightly so–Wood writes with his usual crankiness), but in this American Scholar piece Taylor sounds a lot like Wood in The Creation of the American Republic.  Taylor focuses on the role that “virtue” and the common good played in the founders’ thinking, particularly as it relates to their belief in an educated citizenry.  Like Wood, Taylor argues that this kind of self-sacrificial virtue was important to the founders.

But Taylor also writes prescriptively about the founders’ belief in the importance of virtue.   In other words, he suggests that the founders were correct when they called for a virtuous republic built upon an educated citizenry.  He tries to resuscitate these civic humanist arguments and employ them in our current debates over the funding of education.

Perhaps there is more Gordon Wood in Taylor’s book than some reviewers would like to admit.

Here is a taste of Taylor’s essay:

We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.

During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.

Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.


As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.

Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.

Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.

We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Read the entire piece here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 2

MetaxasYesterday we started a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

One of the main themes of If You Can Keep It is the founding fathers’ belief that a republic is only sustainable when the people of the republic are virtuous. Metaxas is correct in pointing this out.  The founders of the United States were students of history.  They knew that Western Civilization offered very few examples of successful or long-lasting republics. They also knew that republics only worked when people were willing, at times, to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the republic.  “Virtue” was the name that they, and the ancients whose books they read, gave to this kind of self-sacrifice. Modern-day historians have also called it “republicanism” or “civic humanism.”

Metaxas believes the founders were correct when they said that a thriving republic needs virtuous people.  He joins the large chorus–a chorus that can be traced back to the 1780s–of concerned citizens who worry that the country’s failure to act virtuously is undermining the republic.  Metaxas thus challenges his readers to pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make “the business of the republic” their business.(p.4)

Though I am not sure he or his followers will appreciate the comparison, Metaxas is tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency.  This is not the message of “Make America Great Again” or the libertarian/Tea Party message of individual freedom without duty, but rather a message deeply rooted in a commitment to virtue and the common good.

But unlike Obama, Metaxas’s vision of a virtuous republic is almost entirely connected to religious belief and, if one reads carefully enough, to Biblical Christianity.  On p. 62, Metaxas asks “What would make someone behave virtuously?”  He concludes: “the answer–both practically speaking and theoretically–must be religion.”  Granted, there are many Americans, like Metaxas, who believe that virtue is impossible without religion, but the founding fathers did not fall into this camp.  Metaxas’s understanding of the founders’ view of virtue is problematic for several reasons.

First, the founders did believe that religious people made good citizens because they knew how to sacrifice their own interests for something greater, namely their god. But the founders did not believe that religion, or particularly Christianity, was the only source of virtue.  Metaxas is wrong when he says that “virtue and morality divorced from religion was unthinkable” to the founders (p.60).  Most of the founders, including John Witherspoon, the evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who was the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, believed that virtue could stem from the conscience or the “moral sense.”  Granted, many of them–whether Christian, Deist, or something in-between–believed that the conscience or moral sense was instilled in human beings by God, but they did not believe that a religious experience, the practice of a a specific faith, or the imbibing of particular religious doctrines was necessary to live a virtuous life.  (I have argued this in two of my books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and The Rural Enlightenment in Early America and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

On p.66. Metaxas states that the “religion” that the founders thought was inseparable to a virtuous republic was not the religion of the “clockmaker God of Deist imagination,” but the religion of the Bible. (He quotes the Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster on the importance of the Bible in creating citizens). Metaxas implies that “Deism” was not a religion that the founders thought could contribute to a virtuous republic because it did not adhere to the teachings of the Bible. But while Deists did not believe that the Bible was inspired, they did believe that the ethical teachings of the Bible could serve as a guide–one of several–to a virtuous life.  In other words, Deism was certainly one of the so-called “religious” beliefs that the founders believed could contribute to the greater good of the republic.

Second, Metaxas argues that religion was essential to the success of the republic because it brought “order” to liberty.  This was indeed a widely held view among many founders, especially those, such as John Adams and his Federalist friends, who wrote state constitutions (see the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution for example) that maintained religious establishments or state churches for the purpose of preserving moral order. Liberty was not licentiousness.  A self-governing people needed to be reminded of the limits of their freedoms.

But while religion (and one gets the impression that whenever Metaxas refers to “religion” he really means Christianity) was one way to curb the dangers of liberty, it was not the only way.  Again, one could look to the conscience, the moral sense, or cultural habits to bring order to one’s life and curb the passions associated with liberty.  (On p. 56 Metaxas notes that Ben Franklin turned to these things as a means of bringing moral order to his life).  One could even argue that the United States Constitution, with its system of balanced government designed to keep the passions that come with liberty in check, was a means of accomplishing this task.  As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a strong central government (as opposed to the weak Articles of Confederation) was necessary to keep the factionalism and rampant self-interest of the wild 1780s under control.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it is actually important in light of Metaxas’s use of the founders to make his case for the revitalization of the American republic today.  The claim that the founders believed Christianity to be the only (or even the primary) source of virtue in the republic is not an accurate one.  Yet Metaxas runs with this idea and uses it to diagnose what he perceives to be our current malaise.  In other words, he argues, we need to return to the founders’ idea that the republic will only survive if we become a nation of Christians again.  On this point, Metaxas is not far removed from the views of GOP activist David Barton and his call to “return” America to its Christian roots.  To be fair, Metaxas rarely says that we need to return to “Christianity” per se (he prefers the term “religion”), but I am guessing that most of his largely evangelical and conservative readers will miss this distinction.  Does Metaxas believe that Islam, for example, can also serve as a source of republican virtue?  I don’t know.

In the end, Metaxas may be correct.  Perhaps only God can solve whatever problems we face in this country.  But his appeal to history to make this point does not work.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to remember that when the founders wrote about the role that religion might play in strengthening the republic they were writing as statesmen charged with building a nation, not as theologians or ministers charged with the responsibility of advancing the Kingdom of God.  For the founders, religion served as a means toward a very secular end.  If religion would help the republic to thrive, then they were willing to promote it. Whenever the founders wrote about religion in their work as nation-builders they wrote about it in this context.  Their goal was not to use the United States to advance the cause of God, but to use religion to advance the cause of the state.  I am guessing that some Christians may find this problematic.

More to come…

David Brooks: Born Again?

Columbia Journalism Review is running a great piece of long-form journalism by Danny Funt, a “Delacorte Fellow” at Columbia Journalism School. The topic is David Brooks.

Funt  portrays Brooks as a New York Times columnist searching for spiritual and moral answers to life’s big questions. 

Here is a taste of his piece “The Transformation of David Brooks”:

DAVID BROOKS WAS STRUGGLING WITH SIN. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting. “He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”
Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.  
He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.
Brooks recounted that guidance to me at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, in between his regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour. He’s held those gigs for nearly two decades, and though he claims not to be bored with politics, his mind can seem elsewhere. When Brooks arrived that day at the bustling NPR headquarters in Washington, there was much to sort out. It was the day after the school shooting in Oregon, and the host wanted to know whether a gun crackdown was foreseeable. Would there be a contested race to replace John Boehner as Speaker? Did the Vatican really arrange the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages? E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist who is Brooks’ liberal counterpart on NPR, provided a bubbly stream of punditry. Brooks was almost listless. On air, his hot takes lacked spark.  
Within minutes of arriving, he’d bagged a book from a give-away shelf,The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan’s posthumous bestseller about starting over. “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness,” he explained.
That topic might justifiably be on his mind. Just that week, he’d flown alone to a Gordon College event in Boston, Hope College in Western Michigan, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia to promote his book. He takes the train alone to Yale most weeks to teach, and lives alone (he’s recently divorced) in an apartment near the National Cathedral, a 10-minute drive from the Times DC bureau. His office, on a hallway some call “Murderers’ Row” but which he dubbed “The Hall of Big Egos,” is between Maureen Dowd’s and Thomas Friedman’s, but there isn’t much water-cooler banter among Op-ed staff.
Brooks, 54, also now occupies a lonely journalistic space. When he began using his column several years ago to philosophize about personal morality, he says, “I felt like I was wandering off the map into weird territory.” Where to, exactly, remains mystifying. Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in hisTimes column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” There is at least marginal evidence that this is changing. His book, published in April, spent 22 weeks on the Times best-seller list.
For Brooks, studying sin (and other moral categories) has been transformational. His political views have shifted before, quite publicly, but this is closer to an intellectual rebirth. Whether it is also a religious one, he won’t say.  
On his book tour over the summer, Brooks committed to a mission for the rest of his career: to restore comfortable, competent dialogue about what makes a virtuous life. If that is truly an area of cultural illiteracy, then journalists have neglected it. Like Brooks, their values have been out of order.

Brooks’s search for meaning reminds me a lot of Eric Miller’s portrayal of Christopher Lasch in Hope in a Scattering Time.  Both men had intellectual conversions. 

Lasch became disgusted with liberalism and the idea of “progress” that defines modern life.  In order to find purpose in his life he turned toward historically conservative values such as place, limits, family, community, virtue, and something akin to sin.  Lasch may have been close to embracing Christianity, but, as Miller argues, he never quite got there.

Brooks’s intellectual conversion seems similar.  He has been speaking at a lot of Christian colleges lately.  He hangs out with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is trying to make connections between his conservative ideals and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.

Is a conversion experience in Brooks’s future?  Has it happened already? Read Funt’s piece and decide for yourself.

Gun Culture and Rights Culture

Greg Weiner, a political science professor at Assumption College and author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, believes that the only way to curb gun violence is to curb the “rights culture” that defines American public life.  He argues that our obsession with rights “isolates the individual from considerations of the common good decided upon by deliberate majorities.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Front Porch Republic:

Advocates of gun control, most of them on the political left, are justifiably pointing to the excesses of rights talk today.  But Newtown provides an opportunity for bipartisan reflection on the false absolutism and hyper-individualism of the rights culture. In this matter, liberals are not innocent.  It is the left that, for near to a century, pioneered the tactic of pressing claims of rights—understood as exemptions for the individual from the authority of the community—in the courts, short-circuiting the slow but sure political processes that require engagement with one’s neighbors and consideration of their views.  “We talk a lot around here about voting on rights,” said Rachel Maddow on an MSNBC broadcast.  “Basically, rights are rights because you are born to them; you don’t vote on rights.”

But there is a right to own guns, and it is difficult to see how it can be limited without voting on it.  The problem with the absolutist line is that it assumes politics has no role to play in determining what all rights have: namely, boundaries.  The framers of the Constitution recognized only one absolute right: the sacred liberty of conscience, and that only because it resided in an internal realm and was therefore literally impossible to regulate.  All other rights—from speech to guns—had public repercussions and were consequently subject to public limitation.

Elsewhere in the piece, Wiener mentions abortion rights:

Thus when the citizens of the District of Columbia decided their city would be safer if it banned handguns, the Supreme Court—in the case of D.C. v. Heller—told them they could not.  One need not resolve the wisdom of such a policy to see the revolution worked by the judiciary trumping the deliberate sense of a community in resolving the boundaries of rights. The resort to the courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act resulted from the same mentality.

But so does the use of the judiciary to overturn majorities on abortion or any number of other priorities prized by the left. That is not by any means to equate those issues with what happened in Newtown.  It is, however, to say there is an inescapable linkage in the absolutism surrounding rights that characterizes both sides.

Each claims its priorities are exempt from the judgment of the community.  Each is quicker to turn to the courts than to democratic persuasion.  Each claims its rights are absolute, without boundary, isolated from regulation, indifferent to the opinions of one’s neighbors.  Each amounts to a claim to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants, regardless of what others want.  And each is part of a culture of rights that, every bit as much as a culture of guns, must change if another Newtown is to be deterred.

So here is the question I am grappling with after reading this piece: What is the difference between the conservative defense of the right to own any kind of gun and the liberal defense of a woman’s right to an abortion? Guns have the potential to end lives.  Abortion does end lives.