Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture
A small group of young Christians who have spent several years working out what our faith looks like in public.We host thoughtful and gracious conversations about Christianity’s shape in the public square.Classical, conservative discourse on all issues of faith, culture and politics.
I made my way to the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington D.C. for the National Conservatism Conference Sunday evening with some trepidation, unsure what to expect, and feeling wildly out of place among what seemed like a crowd of thinktank wonks, DC insiders, and journalists. I went because I lived nearby, appreciated old-school conservatism, and because if Yoram Hazony puts on a conference and says you should go to it, you should probably go. I figured there would be some intellectual stimulation, some annoying jeremiads, and a few interesting conversations in the coffee hours.
What I was not prepared for was the emotional intensity of the 52 hours that lay ahead: the rhetorical fervor and fierce conviction of so many of the lectures; the standing ovations and uncontrollable waves of applause; the buzz of excitement in the hallways, the sense of camaraderie among strangers; the palpable joy and hope that began to steal across the faces of many of the 500 attendees as the conference wore on; the ringing crescendo of Sen. Josh Hawley’s closing keynote. Although I like to think of myself as a hardened cynic, my wife has me pegged as a hopeless romantic, so perhaps the conference simply offered just the right brew of logos, ethos, and pathos to summon forth my inner Don Quixote.
But something real, and something genuinely exciting, I am convinced, was afoot this week at this geeky but well-dressed gathering, where college students, rabbis, venture capitalists, and leading conservative intellectuals mingled freely and sought to map a blueprint for national renewal.
By late Monday morning, I had a disorienting realization, which I share with some sheepishness: for the first time in my adult life, I was hopeful about the future of our nation. That will inevitably sound corny or trite, but understand: although I have poured myself into the project of retrieving resources for bold and faithful Christian citizenship for the past ten years, although I have outwardly pooh-poohed counsels of despair and helmed an organization committed to renewing Christian public witness, rather than retreating behind ecclesiastical strongholds, when I’ve been honest with myself, I’ve always said with Boromir, “It is long since we had any hope.”
I suspected that we were entering the twilight years of the American republic, that my children would grow up into a world much darker, more solitary, nastier, and more brutish than I had, and my task was simply to (to quote another favorite Tolkienism) “fight the long defeat” with as much boldness and faithfulness as possible—and build, if perhaps, networks of knowledge and friendship that could survive the dark days ahead.
This pessimism was only in part due to the aggressive crusade against nature and reason that has infected progressivism in the West, and the weakness, corruption, and amnesia in the church. It was also because it seemed clear to me that America lacked—and perhaps had long lacked—a genuine conservative movement in any historically meaningful sense.
What we had instead was an unstable coalition of belligerent American exceptionalism, reactionary nostalgia, and laissez-faire individualism that promised more markets as the cure for all our ills. And the last of these—the worst and least conservative—tended to be the dominant element in this toxic brew. American conservatism lacked both the conservative temperament (a cautious, historically-informed, yet flexible empiricism) and any real vision of what it was interested in conserving.
Trumpism may have shattered the unstable synthesis of fusion conservatism, but I had little hope it offered a path forward. It seemed little more than an inarticulate gesture of angry protest, a giant middle finger aimed at the status quo, and its spokesman was too base and blustering of a figure to rekindle any conservatism that could convincingly speak the language of morality.
But at the National Conservatism Conference this week, I realized for the first time that whatever the virtues and vices of Trumpism, the election of Trump in 2016 had had the effect of a violent earthquake—reducing the previous political categories and expectations to rubble and leaving the field incredibly open to build and think something new. Of course, in such a landscape, gangs are prone to roam and loot, extremism is apt to breed, and our worst impulses can be given free rein. There is no guarantee that anything genuinely constructive can come out of such rubble. But this week at least gave me hope in the possibility.
Although a bewildering diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and agendas was represented at the conference, it was possible to isolate at least seven unifying commitments, at least among the core presenters: three things to be repudiated, and four to be embraced.
Repudiating White Nationalism
The first and most encouraging repudiation was of white nationalism, which many critics have been eager to lump together with Hazony’s movement. But Hazony and many other presenters were emphatic: any hint of racism must be excluded from national conservatism. David Brog, the president of the new Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the conference, was unequivocal in his opening speech: “If anyone here thinks that national identity depends on race or the color of someone’s skin, there is the door—please walk out through it!”
They may not have been entirely successful in this attempted exclusion; I am told that a couple of presenters in a breakout session on immigration (which I did not attend) veered dangerously close to racially-charged categories, but the overall tone was unambiguous. Indeed, one of the best lectures—in the session on identity politics—was delivered by former civil rights activist Bob Woodson.
Moreover, in the plenary session lecture on immigration, “Nationalism as an Antidote to Racism,” Paulina Neuding offered a persuasive account of how we can defend prudent restrictions on immigration in service of the authentic good of immigration. In brief, she argued that for immigration to achieve its desired purpose, both for the immigrant and for the host country, it must remain genuinely im-migration, rather than merely migration.
That is to say, host countries must protect and maintain the national identities, values, and institutions that made them desirable havens for would-be immigrants to seek in the first place. If they repudiate their own nationalities and welcome an overwhelming number of migrants, as many European countries have done, they simply create the conditions for tribalism, as new cultural and religious identity groups crowd into a state that lacks a unified culture of its own. Neuding offered a very compelling sketch of how this process had played out in Sweden in recent decades, leading to a sharp rise in sectional violence throughout Sweden’s formerly almost crime-free cities.
The second repudiation, which seemed to echo through almost every session, was a repudiation of libertarianism. The laissez-faire economics which so-called conservatives have long embraced in their zeal to defend individual liberty, it was charged, has become a social and cultural solvent eroding communities, families, mores, and morals every bit as effectively as progressive projects like the Sexual Revolution or identity politics.
Individual liberty was absolutely a good worth protecting, but not the only good, or the only liberty, that demanded political protection. Indeed, it was recognized, libertarian policies have failed to protect even this one freedom, instead paving the way for the growth of corporate behemoths that trample communities and enslave individuals to highly profitable addictions.
The devastating national opioid epidemic was a dark theme that surfaced over and over during the conference, particularly in fiery lectures by Mary Eberstadt and J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy), providing a paradigm example of why we must commit ourselves to a political philosophy that privileges human beings over markets. “For too long we conservatives have outsourced our brains to libertarians; we’re just starting to wake up and think again,” remarked one leading conservative public intellectual to me during a coffee break.
This awakening meant a new willingness to cash in a-priorist economic dogmas in favor of a hard look at empirical realities, the experience of other nations, and even the economic insights of “the other side” on things like free trade, industrial development, and regulation. Markets, the participants seemed finally ready to recognize, are politically framed and structured, not mere forces of nature, and it is up to us to formulate policies that structure them well, for genuinely conservative ends.
Perhaps the most comprehensive rethink along these lines was proposed by Julius Krein in a tour de force of raw intellectual horsepower, “A Strategy for National Development.” “Markets are not some jealous god we have to make sacrifices to,” he proclaimed, “and it’s time we acknowledge that.”
But the most memorable session of the conference was probably the Monday night public debate between Oren Cass (author of The Once and Future Worker) and Richard Reinsch on the resolution “America Should Adopt an Industrial Policy.” Although excellent arguments were put forward on both sides, Cass’s affirmative ultimately carried the day, 99 to 51—this was not your father’s conservatism. The crucial moment in the debate came in during the section for speeches from the floor, when J.D. Vance came up to the microphone and said:
“Near where I live in Silicon Valley, there are neuroscientists paid by Facebook who are hard at work developing horrible apps to addict your children’s brains. Just down the road, there are neuroscientists paid by the National Institutes of Health who are working just as hard on finding cures for dementia. The first group earns about twice as much as the second group. In my mind, this debate is over the question, ‘Are we OK with that? And if we’re not, is this a political problem that demands a political solution?”
Repudiating Identity Politics
The third repudiation was a rejection of identity politics, and all of its works, and all of its pomp—an absolute refusal to bow to demands of political correctness that have been exposed as wildly incoherent, self-contradictory, and insatiable. This, of course, is nothing new for American conservatism, but what impressed me about this conference was the clarity, confidence, and sobriety with which this rejection was articulated.
OK, not always sobriety—Tucker Carlson’s keynote was anything but sober. But the point is that there was almost nothing shrill or defensive about this gathering’s response to the ever-expanding demands of cultural progressivism. Rather, it had the air of a group that had at last seen through incoherence and hypocrisy confronting it, and that refused to be cowed, shamed, or goaded into anger or intolerance. Our war, it was solemnly announced, was not with “the Left” in some vague ubiquitous sense, nor with the American people, nor with those who were different from us. It was with those who sought to make the construction and recognition of personal identities into the defining fact of our politics.
The richest diagnosis of identity politics was offered in a lecture by Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, “Identity Politics and the Stain of Inheritance,” that was almost sermonic in its solemnity. Conservatism, argued Mitchell, is based above all on the inescapability and goodness of inheritance; the nation is grounded in natio, birth. We come into the world gifted and burdened by the inheritance of family, faith, community, culture, and nation. This inheritance is always both gift and burden, since it is always stained with the guilt of the past, with original sin and the manifold and gross sins which our families, faiths, communities, cultures, and nations have added thereto. Without a means of atonement for the transgressions we inherit and perpetuate, argued Mitchell, the burden and stain of inheritance quickly becomes unbearable. America’s Protestant faith, for all its foibles, long sustained a plausible mechanism for such atonement—the priceless blood of Christ.
When mainline Protestantism began to collapse in the 1960s, it left a vacuum, a lingering Protestant religiosity and guilt that no longer knew where to find atonement. The only solution was the effort to erase inheritance through the construction of new identities, and the merciless scapegoating of the perceived guardians of the guilty inheritance, preeminently straight white males. But, argued Mitchell, since the new expiation rites of identity politics know only human sacrifices, wrath can never truly be quenched or guilt expunged. “Today we are searching for worldly solutions to man’s uncleanliness,” he declared, and only by acknowledging a redemption beyond humanity can we re-learn that the transgressions of the past are no argument against hope for the future.
If National Conservatism was to be anchored in a repudiation of racism, libertarianism, and identity politics, what then was its positive agenda—what are its common objects of love? Four, I think, can be singled out: religious heritage, national heritage, nature and natural limits, and our fellow citizens.
Affirming Our Religious Heritage
The first may not seem like anything particularly new. After all, it is the “Religious Right,” and long has been, right? To be sure, but the religiosity of the American Right has for some time now generated much more heat than light, and demonstrated little continuity with or interest in the religious wellsprings of historic conservatism. It has been almost all slogan and little substance. Perhaps only time will tell if the same proves true of this national conservative awakening, and certainly many of the conference’s speakers and attendees lacked either sincere religious faith or significant knowledge of the Jewish or Christian traditions.
But the framing of the conference was deeply religious by design. It opened with a stirring invocation by Scott Redd, President of RTS-DC (Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, insisted on finding a Protestant minister for the invocation, Protestantism being the soil in which national conservatism had historically grown), and it closed with a memorable impromptu sermon on Genesis 11 and 12 by Yoram Hazony, who read the text aloud in Hebrew before translating and expounding. The national traditions of the West were Christian in their substance, and the principles of national conservative politics were grounded in the Bible, and so any meaningful conservative movement in the West needs to retrieve at the very least the intellectual legacy and moral imaginary of Abrahamic faith—and many present would have gone further than that.
National heritage too has been a standard rallying-cry of conservatism, but national conservatism represents an attempt to reconstruct conservative political philosophy more fully around this concept, rather than leaving it as an awkward misfit in a creed of economic growth and individual responsibility. Determined to recover a richer anthropology than conservatives have had to offer for several decades, the participants sought to remind us that human beings do not think, feel, or function chiefly as individuals, but as parts of an extended self that encompasses family, friends, church, community, forefathers, and even fellow citizens.
Any conservatism worth its name must be one that seeks to conserve the conditions necessary for the goods of these communities to flourish. A political philosophy that seeks to maximize incomes and choices for individuals will rarely achieve even individual flourishing, because the multiplication of money at the expense of meaning and belonging is experienced as loss rather than gain. This meaning and belonging is anchored at the local level, but can and should extend to a national scale through the extension of bonds of civic friendship, the participation in rituals of national culture, and the renewed appreciation for the great men and women who have shaped our nation. We need not hide from our nation’s failures and sins, but we should not deny its triumphs and virtues either.
The emphasis on a return to nature and natural limits was particularly exciting and refreshing, given my own interest in the retrieval of Protestant natural law. In the Monday morning session, Chris Demuth declared that the core issue in American society and politics today was the rejection of natural constraint, the “revolt against reality.”
From this standpoint, national conservatism can critique both the out-of-control anti-natural sexual politics of the Left, the unmoored individualism of the Right’s homo economicus, and the imperialistic globalist consensus of many of our political elites. It is no coincidence that free-traders, LGBTQ activists, and pro-immigration crusaders all react viscerally against the idea of boundaries as sources of evil. We must return to the idea that boundaries and limits are good, that discrimination (in the sense of distinguishing between things really different from one another) is good, and that the good of persons, places, and communities is achieved by helping them learn to flourish in their unique modes within their distinctive limits.
Finally, the National Conservatism Conference called for a positive agenda anchored in a love for our fellow citizens. As David Brog said in the opening session, “a renewed patriotism would be a great start but it is not enough; we need to love our fellow citizens.” This was perhaps the most exciting and refreshing aspect of the whole event. Something as plain and old-fashioned as love of neighbor has been notoriously absent from our national political discourse for some time.
In an era of violent political polarization, partisans on both Left and Right seem convinced that the achievement of their policies is much more important than love of one another. Certainly, not all the speakers at the conference sounded this theme as much as others; a few came across as more combative, mocking, and arrogant, as many on the Right do today. And of course I have mentioned already the implacable hostility to identity politics.
But the striking thing was how singular this reprobation was; one listened in vain for global denunciations of anything hinting of “Leftism,” or raucous efforts to “own the libs.” There seemed to be a real sense that if progressives could set aside their weaponized identity politics and stop demonizing Christians and conservatives, the speakers at the conference were ready and willing to do business with them and to problem-solve together, particularly on the economic issues that used to be the main line of division between the parties.
Moreover, there was a clear effort to insist that our war was with the elites who claim to represent oppressed minority groups in our country, not with the oppressed minority groups themselves. A clear message of the conference was: “If you want to change the direction of this country, get out of the bubble of DC and NYC and the universities, find people who are hurting, befriend them, and then get to work on their behalf.”
Now, what is this “getting to work on their behalf” supposed to look like? That might sound inspirational, but it is also much too vague to constitute a political program. And indeed, many onlookers and some participants groused about the wide diversity of viewpoints represented among the speakers. But to my mind, this was a feature, rather than a bug, of the conference.
As I mentioned in several conversations between sessions, it felt to me a lot like how Thomas Kuhn describes a “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A key point to Kuhn’s analysis is that a new scientific theory is not a new set of answers to all of the questions; far from it. Rather, it is a new problem-solving framework, born out of the conviction that the old framework had accumulated too many problems that were simply unsolvable within its terms, too many anomalies that it couldn’t begin to account for. Just so this week.
Participants in the conference seemed to share a sense that the old libertarian-tinged conservative framework had broken down under the weight of too many anomalies and contradictions, and that it was time to adopt a new theory. The concrete results of this new experimental framework remained to be seen, and for now, there was a wide freedom of different emphases and approaches that could be accommodated within its loose coalition.
Most participants at the conference seemed shockingly OK with this. They knew they didn’t all agree about a bunch of things, but that was alright; they knew there was a lot of work yet to be done in mapping out policies, but they were ready to get started on it. I spoke to a number of folks who still identified as much more libertarian-leaning, but they took the libertarian-bashing of some of the speakers in stride and humbly acknowledged the need to start asking new questions.
That said, there were several tensions which—if unresolved—could yet derail this nascent coalition. I will just highlight two here, so as not to further transgress the reader’s patience.
First and most significantly, what do we mean by this term “nationalism”? As I noted in my recent review of Hazony’s book, it is quite often understood as a hawkish assertion of national self-interest and national prerogatives on the world stage, whether against international institutions or against global rivals. Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish this kind of nationalism from imperial ambitions in some cases, as has been the case for the nationalism of so-called “neo-conservatives.” Hazony clearly disclaims this, insisting that to defend nationalism is to defend the good of the international order of independent national states, and the goodness of particular national traditions as worthy of sustaining and as conducive to the happiness and freedoms of citizens. Indeed, in the opening keynote, Peter Thiel argued that “American exceptionalism” is inimical to authentic nationalism.
A thoughtful nationalism recognizes that the US is one nation among many, with its own strengths and weaknesses, its own success stories and failures, and that securing its own national interest means learning from the successes and failures of other nations. American exceptionalism blinds us to these concrete realities by proclaiming the incomparability of America and its virtues.
All well and good, and most seemed to agree with this on some level, but there was still plenty of room for tension here between an essentially outward-looking and an essentially inward-looking nationalism. Is our nationalism primarily a matter of promoting the goods of the various communities and traditions that make up the fabric of our national life? Or is it a matter of asserting our national ego vigorously against our rivals, so as to ensure we maintain our pride of place among the nations of the world?
I was not present for Ambassador John Bolton’s keynote, but he naturally sounded a hawkish note, as did several other speakers and questions from the audience..
If you visit the Hotel du Lac, an inexplicably French-named bed and breakfast catering to German and British on the shores of Lake Garda, in Italy, you will likely see some of the hotel’s collection of decorative inter-war travel posters, interspersed with the proprietor’s family’s wartime memorabilia. There is one from the 15th International Congress of Students in Venice: late summer, 1933: in high Brutalist style.
The gondolas all look like warships. Mantua, upstairs, is a fortress, shadow-cast. Ferrara is impregnable. The nostalgic effect normally produced by old-timey travel paraphernalia — the sense that if you could have only visited, only taken a room with a view, you’d have understood something so much more transcendent about the place than if you jostled your way past Influencers now — is tempered by the sense that these places don’t want you there to begin with.
These are not places you would have wanted to show up to with a Baedeker in tow. They are places you would want — secretly or overtly — to conquer you in battle.
In modern Twitter parlance: step on my throat, daddy.
There are few places in the world that break the aesthetic dichotomy of nostalgia and futurism so completely as the western bank of Lake Garda. Garda is, after all, home to the town of Salò: briefly the de facto wartime capital of Mussolini’s 1943-4 Italian Social Republic, a last-ditch attempt to rebuild fascist Italy in the face of both Allied and German invasion.
Before that, though, it was home to the Italian poet-prophet-celebrity-statesman-Nietzschean-libertine Gabriele D’Annunzio, who retired to the area after (take a deep breath) his ultimately failed post-WWI effort to conquer the ethnically Italian, formerly-Habsburg Adriatic port city of Fiume (now Rijeka) and transform it into a decadent, occultist, ubermensch-led corporatist dictatorship complete with nightly fireworks and poetry readings.
(“They are not fascists,” an Italian friend told me, mournfully, of Garda’s residents, many of whom remain in thrall to one or both statesmen. “They are…nostalgists.”)
The Garda shore is marked by the legacy of these two men—and of their fascination with primordial masculine power, and with the erotic nature of what we might call brutal atavism: a philosophy (it might more accurately be termed an aesthetic) both of regression and of acceleration. It never manages to internally reconcile its futurism and its nostalgia — as an aesthetic, it never has to.
Rather, it evokes in its viewers a double sense: the pangs of loss, of Sehnsucht—that longing for a country one has never known—with the sadomasochistic stirrings of our Todestrieb, our death-drive. We ache as lovers do for the current world’s destruction, because the world we live in now cannot measure up to the one that must have existed: sometime, somewhere. It’s at once mournful and starkly, undeniably, sexy.
This is to say: brutal atavism is a love not for a particular past—which is to say, an embodied past full of human beings, who lived in real cities, who breathed real air and ate real food—but rather one that is primordial, archetypical. It is a past of gods and heroes, chiseled and idealized. It is at once masculine and too mechanized to be fully gendered. It at once looks backwards to pre-civilizational domination, and forward to the age of robotic strength. It begins and ends with apocalypse: making it, like D’Annunzio’s symbol for Fiume (which appears on his Fiume flag): the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.
The futurist poet F.T. Marinetti—who would later become a resident in the short-lived D’Annunzian Fiume—captures the high-octane intensity of brutal atavism best in his 1908 Futurist Manifesto. Excoriating scleretoric “museums, cemeteries” of Italy in favor of the beating pulse of the new:
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
In D’Annunzio’s Fiume—which lasted just fifteen months, from September of 1919 to Christmas of 1920—this kind of brutal atavism was as close as you could come to a civil religion. The city’s new battle cry “Eia, eia, eia! Alala!“—which later reverberated through those Mussolini’s brownshirts—was taken from that of Achilles in The Iliad.
The Futurist novelist Mario Carli, writing two years after the city’s downfall, called D’Annunzio’s Fiume,
“an island of wonders that was to travel the oceans, taking its shining light to the continents drowning in the darkness of brutal capitalist speculation…this group of enlightened men, fanatics, mystic forerunners, managed to conjure up that atmosphere of passion for the future and poetic rebellion against the old faiths and ancient formulas that has been given the name of fiumanism.”
D’Annunzio’s army wore black uniforms with the skull and bones insignia of pirates (the design was later copied by the SS). The Fiume constitution demanded that poetry and folk singing be taught in schools, and that concert halls be built in every eventual province.
D’Annunzio’s Garda home, too, reflects that same brutal atavism. It is at once a temple to D’Annunzio’s automatic cult of personality and a visual representative of brutal atavism’s heady contrasts (D’Annunzio paid for the whole thing, as it happens, with money offered by his admirer, Benito Mussolini, who was effectively paying the poet off to stay firmly out of politics). The main house—the “priory,” a converted nineteenth-century villa—heavily influenced by the aesthetics D’Annunzio’s fin de siècle decadent phase, is a nostalgic labyrinth of candles and organs and brocade: a Zweig novella made flesh.
In one of the Vittoriale’s many ornately-decorated rooms, dedicated to syncretic religious symbolism, D’Annunzio combines Buddhist statues, Christian icons, the steering wheel of a speedboat, and the ouroboros-bearing flag of his failed Fiume effort. (Above the door, D’Annunzio’s conviction that as there are only five fingers, there are only five sins—he famously gave greed and lust a pass). Next door, in the heart of the estate’s garden, the bow of a gargantuan multi-story WWI battleship—the Puglia—another of Mussolini’s offerings. Up the hill: D’Annunzio’s own thoroughly brutalist mausoleum: pure, phallic stone, or else a raised middle finger.
the author flexing at the grave of Gabriele D’Annunzio
I would be lying if I did not find my visit to Garda—and my visit to the Vittoriale—discomfortingly intoxicating. D’Annunzian élan is both aesthetically appealing and erotically alluring. It’s transgressive—punk rock, you might even say—and mournful. It is designed to appeal to many of the circuits that fire so naturally in my brain: the same circuits that underpin my hunger for God. It fulfills my hunger for story, for poetry (I do, after all, have MORE POETRY!!! tattooed on my left arm), for meaning, for myth. It stokes my anger with the world as it is, promises that I can tear down the mediocrity and bourgeois nihilism I see in a secular, hyper-capitalist culture in which I do not feel at home. Brutal atavism feels good.
Brutal atavism—after all—re-enchants the world.
It is easy to forget, at times, that it does so by worshipping strength, war, domination—at once masculine biological primacy and its transubstantiation into post-corporeal machinism. It worships death—death inflicted, or death suffered—at both the beginning and the end of history: the primordial void that is, at least, preferable to an embodied and contingent and highly particular world.
Its broad and broad-shouldered archetypes are not models for humanity as a whole. At most, they are the self-defeating self-deification of the would-be übermensch: and the death of the rest of us. Brutal atavism — for all its talk of blood and sweat — is profoundly anti-corporeal. It worships the Titans we cannot become, and death as the only honorable alternative to our mortality. It twists our erotic hunger for God to a sadomasochistic need for a boot to the face.
Or, as Marinetti put it: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”
Brutal atavism worships, in other words, other gods.
The most obvious inheritors of brutal atavism, of course, are political fascists. In his 1932 manifesto The Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini celebrated its potential as a new religion: a re-enchantment of a mediocre civilization.
Fascism sees in the world, not only those superficial, material aspects in which man appears as an individual, standing by himself, self-centered, subject to natural law, which instinctively urges him toward a life of selfish momentary pleasure; it…but the nation and the country; individuals and generations bound together by a moral law, with common traditions and a mission which suppressing the instinct for life closed in a brief circle of pleasure, builds up a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.
But we can see the appeal of brutal atavism, more broadly, in reactionary pockets of the Internet disillusioned with the same thing D’Annunzio and his followers were (rightly) disillusioned with: a world that seems devoid of enchantment, that must be torn down or destroyed to make enchantment possible. Men’s rights activists, paleo lifters, the alt-right, scions of Frog Twitter like the notorious Bronze Age Pervert (whose self-help book, Bronze Age Mindset, reads like Nietzsche as put through a lolcats generator:
We are heated by a sun which has sired a champion of a thousand hour meditation under it, within his dominion there is revelation. Energy and vitality, the spinning chariot wheel, the burning metabolic body sculpture. The steamy tropical cycles of incomprehensible beauty and death.
It is to be expected. Brutal atavists share with Christians, after all, the conviction that the modern world—particularly, the unenchanted modern world—is fundamentally broken, fundamentally in need of reformulating. Like Christians, these brutal atavists envision a return to an Eden: a place where the Venn diagram of Nature and Civilization is a circle. They envision a wholesale re-boot of humanity.
For Christians, this lure is tempting: it seems a ticket to an enchanted world. It seems a ticket back to Eden.
But of course, such tickets are too good to be true.
As much as I love the works of D’Annunzio-the-poet, as much as I viscerally respond to the aesthetics of D’Annunzio-the-showman, as much as I want, deeply, to read every piece of history ever written about D’Annunzio-the-Duce (and I think anyone who wants to truly understand 2019 should start by doing so), as a Christian I cannot accept the brutal atavism of D’Annunzio-the-prophet.
As Christians, after all, we cannot hold to the primordial. Our God—our incarnate, crucified, resurrected, God—does not belong to the cataclysm-before-history, nor solely to the cataclysm-after.
Our God acts in history, in flesh-and-blood, in weakness, in contingency, in particularity. He is to be found not in the chisels of Grecian statuary but in skin and breath and—through the Eucharist—in food. His story is not a valorization of death but of its defeat: a historic resurrection that, in its absurdity, stops the world from spinning. The pagan cycles of birth and death, construction and destruction, are upended. Death is not the beginning, nor is it the end—and so it is not our god.
The world does not need an extrinsic re-enchantment—an apocalyptic sweeping of fire and blood—because it is already enchanted: the Incarnation has assured us of that. What it means to be human, in the image of God, is sacred, because once the primordial Logos became flesh. The apocalypse—the sense of things hidden—reveals a Kingdom of God that is earthly, that is resurrected, that beyond death. Christ is not merely present in a general way in the big and glorious ideas we associate with Enchantment, the archetypes of myth, but also in the quotidian and, yes, the apparently mediocre, whom the hidden mysteries show us to be worthy of our attentiveness, of our love. Christ—as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it—“plays in ten thousand/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
We may well wish to return to Eden. Our nostalgia remains with us—a Sehnsucht for that undiscovered country, like the fantastic Polynesia wistfully envisioned by midcentury tiki bars. We may experience a pang when witnessing that longing—whether it’s on a wall in Gargnano, or in a poem by Hopkins.
And we can well rage against those elements of the modern world—which is to say, the world since the Fall—that separate us from that homecoming. We can indeed revolt, as that brutal atavist Julius Evola, did, against the modern world. We can work to change it; we can look forward to its redemption.
But we cannot destroy the thisness of our world to get there.
Eden will not be reconquered with fire and blood, or with gondolas that look like warships. What we are promised, in the Kingdom of God, is not binary—the Petersonian narrative of order defeating chaos, of Marduk defeating Tiamat, of masculine imposing order on the feminine—but the creative subversion of the both/and.
The coming Christ is at once a warrior against evil and a sacrificial lamb; he is at once the true order that reveals the narrative meaningfulness of our existence and the fecund chaos that tears down false binaries and earthly hierarchy. He is carpenter and king. He is not a faceless Jungian or Campbellian hero, a simple and digestible archetype, but a man of one particular place and time and death, and also God who comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. He sits at the right hand of the father; he dies upon the cross.
When the heavens and earth are melted away, the Kingdom of God will be disclosed. Destruction is not the final goal—a hopeless abyss that is, to our atavists, the only alternative to a life that cannot be but mediocre, but an interstitial step towards a new creation: towards presence.
It is an apocalypse not simply in the aesthetic, violent sense of cataclysm. It is also an unveiling: a revelation of things hidden. The goal, after all, of all good poetry.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election victory in February of this year was in many ways a surprise. His first term’s report card included a failing economy, rising violence, higher unemployment, and almost no progress in tackling corruption and lawlessness. This legacy from his first term now presents a series of major challenges for his second.
There are structural challenges – electoral fraud, corruption, and the erosion of the rule-of-law. Then there are issues as a result of Mr Buhari’s own policies – his toleration of violence and barbarity against Christians, and his pursuit of anti-investor policies. Throughout his term as President, Mr Buhari pursued policies that created immense instability throughout the country. This must now change – for the betterment of the people of Nigeria, but also for the strategic interests of the United States. Nigeria is a crucial ally in an unstable region.
The recent general election itself is an example of what needs to change. The contest was marred by obvious and widespread corruption as well as voter intimidation and continual outbursts of violence. More than 600 people were killed in election-related violence between the start of campaigning in November and Election Day in February. The unlawful pre-election sacking of Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, drew regional and international condemnation. It was as transparent an attempt as you will see to rig the playing field. This was followed by what was likely widespread vote rigging and voter intimidation carried out by Mr. Buhari’s allies, which have tarnished the reputation of a nation that many had hoped would become one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous democracies.
Further complicating an already fraught situation is the fact that, under Buhari’s government, the rule of law in Nigeria has continued to decay. A report recently released by the European Commission ranked Nigeria 12th on a list of 23 countries with the weakest anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing regimes in the world. The dirty money highlighted by the report, currently being allowed by the Buhari government to cycle throughout Nigerian society, serves as fuel for the country’s systemic problems of terrorism, corruption, and religious persecution.
This erosion of the rule of law has practical consequences. Much-needed private investment is stalling, as existing investors find they cannot trust the government to protect their rights and potential new investors are scared from entering the country. This is not surprising: would-be investors need look no further than the recent cautionary tales of P&ID and MTN. Both debacles of the first order, caused, almost entirely, by the incompetence and malfeasance by the Nigerian Government, they serve to illustrate the dangers Nigeria’s corruption and chaos pose to potential investors.
In the case of P&ID, the Nigerian government entered into a legally binding agreement with the company for the extraction and processing of hydrocarbons that would have brought low-cost electrical power to the Nigerian grid (almost half of Nigerians currently lack a regular power supply). The project would have resulted in benefits and profits both for P&ID’s investors as well as the Nigerian populace as a whole. But the government reneged. After Nigeria failed to uphold the contract, a neutral London-based third party arbitration tribunal awarded a $6.6 billion dollars award for lost earnings to P&ID. Characteristically and unsurprisingly, Buhari’s government has refused to honor the arbitrator’s decision.
MTN, a South African based telecommunications company, likewise found itself on the wrong end of the Nigerian government’s duplicity and bad faith when it was sucked into a bizarre controversy with the Nigerian central bank. The bank demanded the company repatriate $8.1 billion dollars of its own money to Nigeria on the flimsy pretext that it had incorrectly filled out the proper forms to transfer the funds, a debacle which served as further evidence to support the increasingly obvious fact that Nigeria has become a risky environment in which to do business.
Two concrete examples of different projects – in telecoms and in energy – that could benefit Nigeria’s people, and the economy, had government incompetence and corruption not stood in the way. In these areas, President Buhari is clearly part of the problem. But this is by no means the most dramatic example: the treatment of Christians in Nigeria is, rightly, an international scandal.
Nigeria’s Middle Belt Region, in particular, has seen a relentless campaign of violence against its Christian residents by Fulani tribesmen, nearly all of whom are Muslims. President Buhari, who is himself a member of the Fulani tribe, has done little to protect his Christian fellow citizens. The government stands idly by while entire villages are burned and ransacked. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians have been killed in this violence in the past 12 months alone.
What can be done? The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended since 2009 that Nigeria be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has also spoken out on the issue. At a conference in 2017 Vice President Mike Pence listed Nigeria as a country which saw the regular persecution of Christians within its borders. Nigerian native at the Center for Innovative Governance in Washington, Tamara Winter has urged in the pages of the Washington Examiner, to make a start by listing Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern.”
The U.S. Administration can, and should do more than simply impose a new definition. The sale of Super Tucano fighters to Nigeria is important for President Buhari’s regime and for his domestic image. Perhaps it is time for the Trump Administration to ask what is more important: our deeply-held principles of religious freedom and protection of Christians, or a one-time contract for a few planes? We have the ability to help those Christians; we have leverage over the Buhari Government. Now is the time to use it.
The actions of the Nigerian government, from the chaos and violence it oversaw during its general election, to the soft-pedaling of violence against Christians, as well as its backhanded and duplicitous business dealings have demonstrated the danger of engaging with it in good faith. Thus, in spite of Nigeria’s place as Africa’s most populous democracy, and its vast wealth of natural resources, the re-election of Mr Buhari does not inspire confidence. Unfortunately, due in large part to the actions and inactions of the Buhari Presidency’s first term, Nigeria has become a hostile and dangerous country for investors, be they public or private, to live or do business. President Buhari has the power to put it right: but it will require American pressure. The rule of law, respect for courts, freedom of religious worship, and protection of Christians: these are fundamental values. We cannot, and must not, set them aside.
June has been dubbed “Pride Month,” a new holy festival in our cultural calendar. Just in time for the season, logos of powerful, influential corporations have changed their logos to rainbow hues. Pop idol Taylor Swift dropped a new song and video castigating opponents of sexual immorality, particularly of the LGBT+ variety. In a strange twist of history, one of the richest women in the world lampoons the heartland demographic that fueled the rise of her former country career, portraying them as toothless inbred hayseeds, toting signs reminiscent of the fringe Westboro Baptist congregation.
This is all a stunning reminder that we American Christians live in a post-Obergefell world, and all without the energetic pushback we have come to see from the pro-life movement’s effort to roll back Roe v. Wade. The rich, powerful, and popular are against traditional Christian morality on this one. And it is no surprise that American Christians that hold to a biblical ethic are feeling anxious.
The desperation has been apparent for quite some time. Both sides of the debate have carried on an acrimonious, decades-long culture war. Now, the Supreme Court has made its decision (for now), and workaday Christians now find themselves facing not only social ostracism but also real peril to their livelihoods in the form of lawsuits and corporate progressivism. The corporate culture has been there for a while now. But it seems to be ever more visible and threatening now, especially with the push to construe opposition to sexual immorality as being in the same category as racism (which generally leads to job or business loss).
So now what? Where do Christians go from here? How do we maintain faithfulness to the doctrine and practice of the faith “once delivered to the saints” in such an adversarial cultural context, especially when our means of provision seem to be threatened by indefinitely-deferred promotions, firings, suing, and social isolation? These pressures either fuel ungodly vitriol or encourage fatal compromises. I think we saw more of the former in the years leading up to Obergefell (think the Proposition 8 fight) and much more of the latter since the SCOTUS decision.
But we ought not lose our collective mind. It is possible to live and even thrive as a faithful Christian, even in antagonistic environments. And the United States is far from a totalitarian dictatorship, despite the apocalyptic tone one finds in campaign letters and fund-raising emails.
The Church has grown and overcome much more adverse circumstances. However, it is up to us to think about how we go about that. Immobilization in fear and hopeless despair are unwarranted and even imprudent. We must exercise discipline, get a hold of ourselves, and soberly consider how we can walk with Christ wisely and faithfully in a post-Obergefell United States.
As a pastor, I want congregants to have some sort of strategy and mindset as we face such a context together. I do not think there are any cookie-cutter, catch-all answers that will satisfy every context in which the members of the Church will find themselves. On the other hand, I think there are a few wise guiding principles we ought to consider that are derived from the Scriptures and the voice of the Church. These are by no means exhaustive, but I would like to see faithful Christians thinking, discussing, and enacting them for the benefit of Christ’s Kingdom.
In a certain sense, our current “post-Obergefell moment” presents an opportunity to take stock of ourselves as American Christians. With such an important battle for sexual morality lost, now is a time to turn our focus and attention to things matters of holiness afflicting the Church. In being so focused on the homosexuality issue and the political fights that took place in legislatures and court rooms, I fear many Christians have ignored other pressing matters of holiness that are just as deleterious to the Church and to the nation at large.
This is not to say that we should retreat from prudent political activity; it is just to say that I think our house is burning, and yet many American Christians are still distracted by the typical outrage-inducing headlines that tend to be focused on outward threats (including ex-evangelicals leaving the reservation).
Oddly, one of the first things I would like to see in a group accused of intolerance is yet more intolerance amongst themselves…against evil. The Church ought not tolerate abusers. We are currently reaping the whirlwind for our past failures here. In Catholic and evangelical Protestant contexts alike, we have seen the perpetrators extended great mercy and permissive toleration, all while the victims are left crying out for righteous judgment. Congregations and denominations that emphasize and remain firm on sexual morality fail to maintain it, they sometimes even enable it, and they are made a laughingstock (and worse) in the eyes of the public.
The Lord hates abuse. The Scriptures are clear on that issue. It would be fitting for Churches to be some of the hardest institutions for predators to infiltrate, but the opposite seems to be the case. Ironically, the people in America most likely to affirm that men are desperately sinful are some of the least likely to act like that is the case in the context of their shared life.
Christians can be incredibly naïve about manipulators and naturally inclined to give second chances in ways that are foolish and inappropriate. Others are simply enablers, especially when a leader is particularly charismatic and able to fill their churches with attendees and members. In such instances, big numbers function like an addictive drug or idol: many victims must be sacrificed. Tremendous foolishness and evil result, all with the effect of harming the innocent and making mockery of God and His Word.
There is an abuse problem in America’s institutions. Has this always been the case? One shudders at the thought of the correct answer being “yes.” Regardless, now is a time for the Church to unite against and drive it out, as best she can. That entails discipline of her own members, wise and clear policies on the matter, and cooperation with the magistrate, who wields not the sword in vain.
There are plenty of other trends, activities, and institutions opposing Christian morality on other fronts as well. Although the LGBT+ agenda steals all of the attention, so many other matters relating to Christian holiness are deeply affecting the American church. For example, any American Christian whose head has not been in the sand for the past two decades understands that the Church is utterly and completely rife with the consumption of hardcore internet pornography, used as an accelerant for masturbation.
While traditional Protestants are doing better on this front than many other sectors of the country, there is obviously a tremendous epidemic of lust that has swept through our congregations. Tragically, some congregations seem to have given up on fighting this menace, even when pastors are addicted to the stuff. Thankfully, others are pushing back with vigor (here is one such example that I came across recently).
However, even more Christians, it seems, have become indiscriminate in their consumption of entertainment. The US rendition of House of Cards and Game of Thrones both come to mind as “acceptable” forms of entertainment that contain pornographic elements to them (not to mention graphic violence—something few Christians ever seem to be worried about anymore in filmsThe American Church is becoming a morally coarsened and calloused one, given to ever-greater permissiveness and promiscuity, and I think pornography has a lot to do with that.
Other issues of holiness are often left completely unaddressed. If one is lucky enough to find an American congregation that takes catechesis seriously, he may find that even these fine assemblies do not provide much guidance on these sticky issues, much less confront them with calls to penance and the threat of church discipline. Divorce and (now) cohabitation are given a blind eye.
Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, do not know when a civil divorce could be justified, how civil divorces ought to be seen by the Church, or whether such past decisions have any bearing on the legitimacy of remarriage. Most Christians seem to have no moral principles to guide and govern them through circumstances and acts that can have devastating affects on themselves, their children, and their wider community.
Most Christians are also flying blind with regard to other important sexual matters. The moral peril of artificial contraception as a means of birth control within matrimony is rarely if ever discussed. The world’s narrative and creed on this matter is generally accepted wholesale and without reservation. While this has been the most pressing issue regarding the severing of procreation from sex, nowadays we face even more challenges thanks to newer, more available technologies.
For instance, most laymen and many clergymen are completely unprepared to confront the immorality of IVF and surrogacy. Whereas contraception tries to have sexual union without procreation, IVF tries to have procreation without sexual union. While the desires and urges at play in the case of IVF seem more ennobling and less promiscuous than those at work in contraception, the same creational principles are violated and, more disturbingly, both sins make children out to be a consumer product.
What does all this have to do with Obergefell? Although we could connect it to a wider slide in our culture, I think it is wise to realize that many of these matters do not have direct connections to the SCOTUS decision and its fallout. And that is precisely the point. Parachurch organizations, political lobbying arms, culturally-engaged ministries, and so many other institutions that wield influence in the Protestant world have been so completely focused on the LGBT+ conflict that they lost sight of other pressing concerns.
Because homosexuality, transgenderism, and similar issues were so controversial and shocked so many average Christians, they were used as incitement and rallying cries in the culture war, all while other new threats (like IVF) and past defeats (like no-fault divorce laws) wrought their own harm within the Church and the wider United States.
We need to be tackling these issues in various forms and fashions, whether in the Sunday School forum or from the pulpit. We must do so not just because of optics and consistency that will be winsome to up-and-coming young Christians. Showing that we are not simply homophobic despisers is always a plus. Having a fulsome Christian sexual ethic that is enforced consistently across the board in our ecclesiastical contexts makes our teaching on LGBT issues credible to up-and-coming generations. But the main motivating factor for us to pursue sexual holiness corporately is because it pleases the Lord. So let us not waste our Obergefell; let us recommit ourselves to holiness.
This is an old maxim from the days of chivalry: might for right. In this case, I have economic might in mind. I beseech those in the Church who are talented and enterprising: consider bulking up to provide shelter to the brethren. A good example of this is Chick-Fil-A.
One of the reasons traditional Christians congregate there is because it is a safe place for them, and not because of the CCM muzak being pumped out of the overhead speakers. Part of it has to do with family-friendly customer service. More it has to do with not being at risk of being publicly shamed for Christian beliefs in such a space, nor being affronted by an ideologically charged product (“Gay Whopper,” anyone?). Perhaps greatest of all, though, is the fact that traditional Christians know they can get and keep a job there. Chick-Fil-A hires traditional Christians (including young ones just starting out in the world) and is successful enough to ensure that such employees will be able to provide for themselves for some time. Plus, Sundays are always off, giving time for rest and assembled worship in church.
The benefits, of course, are conditional. For one, the corporate culture must be maintained—being a private rather than public company certainly helps on that front. Hopefully, the Cathy family and other stewards of such productive property never kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Another condition is that they have got to be the best, or at least one of the best. If the restaurants started serving sub-standard chicken or neglecting good customer service, they will fail. The company already has powerful cultural and political opposition. It overcomes a lot of that by having a loyal customer base that has been won and maintained over the years. If there is a lesson here for future Christian entrepreneurs, this is it: be the best. I think plenty of traditional Christians have already taken on this attitude. First generation homeschoolers and those from ambitious classical Christian schools like Patrick Henry College and New Saint Andrews (which draw heavily from the homeschooling community) should be familiar with this pressure. Being “a Christian version of…” is not going to cut it.
This is not to say that enterprising Christians should not pursue old stand-bys: the trades, contracting, real estate, farming, and more. The goal, as Pastor Chris Wiley says in his excellent little book Man of the House, is to acquire productive property. Such property is rarely fluid or mobile. It makes one “gain weight.” But that can be a good thing—ever seen a welterweight try to take on a heavy?
This is part of what it means to be strong for others. Owning productive property is more risky: businesses can fail, crops can die, tools can be lost in the fire, skills can be incapacitated by injury or illness. Liabilities and responsibilities abound. But with ownership comes liberty. This is why political concerns still matter. Lawsuits against Christian bakers, photographers, and more will have a big effect on other Christian business owners. But many decisions on this front have been encouraging, making self-employment and ownership of productive property a desirable alternative to laboring for a progressive institution.
If a person does not own productive property, he is almost assuredly working for someone who does—including those massive international corporations with the rainbow insignias. Otherwise, he is likely dependent upon the state in some form or fashion, which also leaves one vulnerable. The strategic goal should be for Christians to become less beholden and servile to the large institutions—states and corporations—that are flying the rainbow flag. The tactics to achieve that end will vary.
However, across the board, this is likely going to involve making households productive again. No longer will households be simply centers of recreation, which is where we find ourselves today thanks to the Industrial Revolution and other shifts. The homeplace will once again be the workplace, and that will be a good thing. When survival depends on a well-functioning household, I think many intramural debates in Christian circles about the New Testament Haustafeln will evaporate. It is likely the dynamics around divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, “gender roles,” feminism, child-bearing, and so forth will also change. I mention child-bearing and feminism because productive households put children in the “assets” category rather than the “liabilities.”
That drastically changes how a people perceives mothering and “success,” which are often put at odds with one another thanks to corporate careers being perceived as the ideal for contributing productively to society. Christopher Wiley has done a great service in pointing these facts out to American Christians. I would hazard that this is an approach that fits within the broader goals of the more popular “Benedict Option” conversation that American Christians are having at the moment.
Obviously, this is risk-filled, difficult work. And not every Christian will have the opportunities or means to achieve such a goal. However, those of us that have the opportunity (particularly young people starting out in life) ought to seek to establish a productive household.
From that place of strength—particularly if the productive property is some sort of company—Christians can hire their fellow believers to assure that they, too, can provide for themselves and their families. Jeremiah 29 should provide some biblical precedent and expand our imaginations. If the Exiles could succeed in empires as antagonistic as Babylon and Persia (Daniel and his friends, Mordecai, and Esther being the most notable examples), then certainly we can succeed in our altered cultural landscape.
At the heart of the previous section and this one is this: no one is going to starve. Plenty of vitriol in Christian reactions to the LGBT+ agenda has been fueled by disgust for homosexual and transsexual promiscuity and its effect on our families, communities, nation, and world. But there is also a desperation apparent in the rhetoric and activism that springs from a fear for survival, both materially in terms of livelihood and spiritually in terms of the Church’s continued existence in the United States. I would like to tackle the former fear first: no one is going to starve.
American Christians, in connection to the global church, must minister to one another, even as members face economic difficulties and disasters due to standing by their Christian moral convictions. They must be the sort of people that will not let their own go without food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities because of their testimony to Christ and His Gospel. If things continue on their current trajectory in the United States (and that is a big “if,” for history if full of surprises), the individualism and isolation that has become so typical of the American Church is going to come to an end due to necessity.
No longer will traditional Christians be spiritual consumers. That luxury will be granted only to those who compromise. For traditional Christians, the only way to survive will entail real ministry, with tangibly sacrificial care for one another. This is what God commands of His people, anyway. But our disobedience will no longer be sustainable. Otherwise, it will be a matter of each of us (alone) against the world, which is not only unsustainable but also unbiblical.
In all this, Christians must remember they seek peace—the peace of God over and above all. If standing by the laws and ways He has given us puts us at war with the world, then so be it. The prophets were resoundingly clear in teaching that peace with God, manifested in faithfulness to Him and His ways was one of the most important priorities for the Lord’s covenant people. He is able to smite the army of Sennacherib and to protect His children in the fiery furnace.
Such a God should spark confidence and trust which confronts the anxieties that afflict us today. I think that sort of confidence—that God takes care of His people, particularly in their love for one another—will have a beneficial effect on our rhetoric, perspectives, and outreach, even toward those that are purported to be “the enemy.” But we know our real opposition is not made up of flesh and blood. I think such pedestrian matters of personal and corporate holiness, durable productivity, and sacrificial ministration have cosmic significance, and they will have a mighty effect in the United States if the Christians there pursue them with vigor.
Barton Gingerich graduated in 2011 from Patrick Henry College with a B.A. in History. He serves as a priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, Virginia, and previously served on the staff of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
As a teenager at my parents’ small-town church, I heard men in business suits express relief that they made it out of the farm where they grew up. “I got out,” they would say. The implication: I moved up.
I don’t begrudge them that they found farming not to their liking. I believe in following one’s calling—my own father left the family farm to pursue his vocation as a teacher and theatre director. But I did find disquieting the implication that the work of farming wasn’t just not for them, but beneath them.
This was my introduction to the common paradigm that seems to undergird our societal thinking: that white-collar work is superior to blue-collar work, that farmwork and manual trades are beneath our dignity. We may wax sentimental about the small farm, but the disciplines of farming and housework are still treated as drudgery. Such things are for those we deem lower than us. This has guided mainstream political policy as well: if a few communities are destroyed and people’s livelihoods disrupted for the sake of (government and business-determined) higher profitability and efficiency, that’s a sacrifice rural and small-town Americans will have to make for the sake of businesses those rural people will never know.
My own college’s stated mission was to produce movers and shakers in the top levels of American meritocracy, in the strategic institutions of corporate business, government, and Broadway. But amidst the hustle of New York, I found myself thinking more and more about my grandpa’s farm in the Midwest. What, I wondered, had rural northern Minnesota to do with Manhattan? What had my family’s farm to do with Wall Street? (Even Wall Street brokers need to eat.) Wasn’t the world run by these black and grey suits that I passed by on my way to classes every day? Wasn’t the world run by the great technological systems that these suited folks served?
Many of my fellow undergraduates—and, it seems, most of the policy makers and business leaders in America—were believers in the free market and in the resourcefulness of the human mind to solve any straits we find ourselves in—world hunger, nutritional deficits, health epidemics—through better technology. But this presumably unlimited resourcefulness of the human mind assumes unlimited capital with which to better the world. There seemed to be an unvoiced assumption that, if natural resources—water, topsoil—are unable to provide the raw material with which to create the technology to save us from ourselves, then we’ll simply be forced to create that technology ex nihilo—or else, as popular culture suggests, we’ll just use the resources from other planets once we’ve depleted this one.
To me this faith in technology and markets, or as Wendell Berry puts it, the “industrial formula: Science + Technology + Political Will,” seemed groundless, but I didn’t know how to articulate that doubt. I suspected, however, that the way of living practiced by my grandfather—a formidably industrious and entrepreneurial farmer keenly aware of human and natural limits—and his farming neighbors, had something to do with my intuition. And reading Berry—his essays, stories, and poems—compounded my skepticism.
The Work of the Humanists
Alan Jacobs’s 2018 book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis traces the thought and writings of five Christian intellectuals—Simone Weil, Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot—who, in the midst of the crisis of civilization that was World War II, and just when an Allied victory seemed imminent, sought to outline a plan to “win the peace.” The Nazi threat was more than one of belligerent force: it attacked the moral foundation of liberal democracies, and the challenge, these five saw, was of winning not only by greater might, but by a greater civilization: what, after all, they asked, separates us from the Nazis? Moral superiority was in question, especially when violent superiority was devastatingly exhibited at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Each of the five Christian (mostly) humanists focused on education: the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation of persons: thus T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, Weil’s essays on education, Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads, and Auden’s lectures. Jacobs’s unsettling conclusion is that all five thinkers were at least a century too late. Despite the great power and prescience of their work, none could prevent the cementing of the technological society, in which we have lived for the past hundred years.
In the last pages, Jacobs considers the work of Jacques Ellul, who described our regime as one of la technique: “Technique has become the dominant factor in the Western world…. Technique now constitutes a fabric of its own, replacing nature. Technique is the complex and complete milieu in which human beings must live….” Perhaps this is the reason that our culture has seen fit to keep retelling the story of the “Greatest Generation” again and again, and yet again: it is a story we tell ourselves to distract us from what came next, from the moral failings of the peace. The Dark Lord became a clear evil with which to seek no rapprochement. He was defeated. But then Saruman’s “mind of metal and wheels” ascended. And technique is so established that we cannot imagine another way to be than within a technocratic, impersonal (even impersonalist) society. As Tolkien himself would imply in a 1958 speech in Rotterdam, Sauron was defeated, but Saruman took his place.
In the meantime, Jacobs’ humanists were not the only ones confronting this challenge. While Weil was furiously writing, Maritain was involved in rescue activities, and Auden was teaching in New York, the Bruderhof, a pacifist Anabaptist group, sailed from England to Paraguay. They began farming a new land, endeavoring to cultivate a Christ-like community from the ground up. While intellectuals raged in debate and soldiers fell in the front lines, the Bruderhof were cutting down jungles, digging wells, taming cattle, pumping water, and ploughing virgin fields.
Farmers Amongst the Yellow Vests
Michel Houellebecq’s Sérotonine arrived during the winter of the discontented yellow vests—and, more particularly, amid the growing farmer suicide crisis in France. Nearly two years earlier, on August 2017, Paméla Rougerie reported in the New York Times of a “quiet epidemic of suicide” among French farmers depressed by rising financial pressures: lower milk and meat prices seemed to be connected to the EU’s ending of quotas for dairy farmers in 2015. “The most recent statistics,” Rougherie reported, “show that 985 farmers killed themselves from 2007 to 2011—a suicide rate 22 percent higher than that of the general population.” In 2016 the Santé Publique France survey reported that, in 2010–2011, “the mortality rate of French farmers’ suicide is 20% higher than that of the general population and 30% only for the dairy cattle farmers.”
Set in rural Normandy, Houellebecq’s novel features a middle-aged agronomist protagonist who witnesses the showdown between local farmers caught in a cycle of despair, pinioned by agribusiness on one side and EU policies on the other. One scene describes an industrial chicken farm: “300,000 or so inmates, plucked and emaciated, struggled to live among the decomposing cadavers of their fellow chickens.” As Foreign Policy’s Robert Garetsk notes, it is hard not to notice a parallel between the chickens and their caretakers.
Houellebecq, though he studied agronomy before becoming a novelist and poet, is no Wendell Berry. And yet there is a strange meeting between these two very different novelists: each writes about people displaced by the regime of La Technique.
On Being Caretakers
In a 1974 speech, Berry argued that food was a “cultural, not a technological, product,” and that excellence, not efficiency, is the preserver of abundance. “To pursue quantity alone,” he said in his measured Kentucky accent, “is to destroy those disciplines in the producers that are the only assurance of quantity.” The culture—the families, songs, stories, relationships, home economies, and country—of a place is what preserves the possibility of producing food from that place for years to come. Pursuing the farms of the future, Berry warned, brings real damage to the present.
But the problem of stewardship is inextricable from a powerful cultural prejudice against small towns, farms, and rural communities—and their people. A set of potent clichés supports the reign of the industrial mindset: farming is a dead-end job; smart people are too “smart” to farm; farmwork is merely drudgery; former farmers have been “‘liberated’ from their narrow, depressing lives.” The idea of “moving up in the world” in a rural community always means leaving home. The hard truth is that, no matter how compellingly one may present the case for agrarianism, this prejudice works so powerfully that air-tight arguments for the necessity of small-scale agriculture come to nothing.
“We were meant to be pioneers, not caretakers,” sneers Matthew McConaughey’s character in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in a concise summary of the industrial attitude. Wendell Berry counters that we are precisely meant to be caretakers: Work the garden, and keep it. But instead, we chafe at the work—slow, hands-on, laborious—required to sustain the garden. It’s easier to use up what we’ve been given, toss away our poisoned homes, and move West—or to another planet—to start the cycle again.
Why is our tendency not instead to overvalue the manual trades, husbandry, forestry, gardening? Why do we not rather hallow the work that is most foundational, original, and necessary? Tilling the dirt, bearing and caring for children, harvesting and preparing food—without these there is no business, no books, no prayer. There is no Augustine, no Shakespeare, no cathedrals, no banks, no schools, no churches, without topsoil.
We aren’t all called to be farmers. But we are all called to keep the Garden. Farming has historically been judged a lowly occupation, and our new technical, industrial age has only exacerbated our contempt. Why? If working the land was one of the first God-given commandments to the first human beings, why our disdain for work that provides basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter? Why do we so often treat care of the earth and the production of life’s necessities—food, clothing, and shelter—effectively as subhuman endeavors, things we do only because we haven’t yet transcended the need to live in a body?
I confess bewilderment when those who claim to believe in the God of the Garden are sniffy toward those who would voluntarily work with their hands or on the land, in the forest, on a farm. Too many Christians are quick to distance themselves from the Amish and amateur agrarians (to whom it is oft pointed out that they would not want to go back to a world without high-quality medical care, as if rotting teeth and distended bellies were an essential component of the agrarian life). It is clear that destitution is manual labor itself is deemed something we ought be rescued from. Escaping from manual labor, Berry writes, “is a large component of ‘the American Dream.’”
But as my grandfather would say, “Who will do the work?”
“We romanticize what we have first despised.”
In his essay collection, The Gift of Good Land (1981), Berry wrote that he had “seen enough good farmers and good farms, and a sufficient variety of both, to convince me beyond doubt that an ecologically and culturally responsible agriculture is possible.” But he noted two remaining impediments to the success of such an agriculture: the “low public standing” of “the discipline of farming,” and the rapidly diminishing number of living farmers to pass on their tradition. Contempt for farmers remains the rule, despite romanticization of the small farm. “It is the rule, I think,” wrote Berry, “that we often romanticize what we have first despised.”
Debbie Weingarten, reporting on the high rate of American farmer suicides in the Guardian, echoes Berry’s musings: after vegetable farming in Arizona, she took to journalism, “to explore our country’s fervent celebration of the agrarian, and yet how, despite the fact that we so desperately need farmers for our survival, we often forget about their wellbeing.” During the 1980s Midwest farm crisis, farmer suicide hotlines were established and helped prevent many suicides, but despite the rise of farm-to-table and farmers’ markets around the country, there remains a deep divide between rural communities and the rest of America. Today the suicide rate of farmers in America has increased. And the interdependent relationship of culture and agriculture ensures that addressing today’s crisis demands much harder work than any farmer suicide hotline can address.
Despite the weary work of defending the small farmer in a technocratic age that nevertheless depends on the work of that same farmer, Berry has persisted, in the nearly forty years since The Unsettling, to speak for those who care for fields and forest, and for those communities built around the disciplines of farming and forestry. In his latest collection, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, he contrasts what he calls the “industrial” mindset and the agrarian mindset. The industrial way of thinking is concerned with efficiency to the exclusion of nearly every other value. Really the industrial mindset is hardly distinguishable from the technocratic mind, or rather with Ellul’s technique, which “does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end,” but is rather “the characteristic mode of thought of the twentieth century,” which depends on commitment to two essentials: efficiency and objectivity. Writes Jacobs in The Year of Our Lord 1943: “If a person cares about values other than efficiency and objectivity, and therefore fails to flourish under the sovereignty of technique—as happens to many people—then the regime has means of dealing with her: technical means, of course.”
The subjective, as the N.I.C.E.’s Filostrato (from Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength) might say, is messy, unhygienic. It is only the quantitative that technocracy can deal with: the qualitative is either “transformed” or “annihilated.” And, indeed, the industrial mindset does not seek to understand or to work with nature: it seeks to remake it (the nature of soil as well as of humans) or, if that doesn’t work, eliminate it.
The Scouring of the West
When World War II ended, nothing could be as it was. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it must be emphasized, is not an allegory for the Second World War, but, given that war’s lingering effects, it is no slight to its author to say that it is a work with great relevance and applicability to our own time. We may read “The Scouring of the Shire” as a realistic portrayal of the challenges of winning the peace: life can never be the same after a great calamity like a world war, and thus the relevance of this anticlimactic chapter applies to any postbellum community in any point in time. But for us, who are still trying to reckon with the regime in which we live, it is particularly pertinent, even damning for those of us without hobbit-like courage to rebuild and replant, who instead assimilated to the technocratic, global regime of which the United Nations was a harbinger. And so we continue to retroactively condemn Nazi and fascist sympathizers and distance ourselves from any who smell the least like them. But no talk will cover up the fact that we are still “men without chests.” The world excoriated in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man remains with us:
You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.” In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
One could add: We laugh at chivalry and are shocked to find predators in our midst. We make men without virtue and expect them to be honorable and self-controlled. We destroy rural communities (for the sake of efficiency) and insult people who work with their hands or with the soil, who are worth more dead than alive, and bid them feed the world.
Auden, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Eliot may have been “too late” to stop technique from its ascendance in the West. And yet, despite the lateness of the hour, Berry’s Mad Farmer would have us “Practice resurrection.” In this world, “winning the peace” may not be possible, given that history is, in Tolkien’s words, a “long defeat.” But Samwise Gamgee would still have us plant new trees.
Dark Age Ahead
Dead towns and dispossessed people—“jobless, homeless, hopeless, and unhealthy”—are not a harbinger of progress. In her “gloomy” and “hopeful” book Dark Age Ahead, the great urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote, “Some who are fortunate enough to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed.” Indeed, such people are often viewed as backwards, those who dare stand in the way of progress in the name of hearth and home. Jacobs and her “bunch of mothers” could oppose Robert Moses’s new highway system because they knew their neighbors and loved their place. But here is Jacobs’s warning: while the community exists, people “understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost.”
Both Berry’s and Jane Jacobs’ work have at their root a desire to live well in the home which, for the time being, has been given us. After all, it is this world in which we are placed; there is no other in which to practice being at home. It’s a large world, but we are happily limited by the place we are in. This means that those who love their homes, like Berry and Jacobs, do not have the leisure to not think about the particularities of their place, or not get to know the land, the creatures, and the people—let’s call them neighbors—around them.
Labor as Embodied Creatures
If we were merely mind, then perhaps manual labor would be something to be liberated from. But I suspect that we, embodied creatures who are not simply mind, who take pleasure in a well-cooked meal or the satisfaction of splitting wood by hand, are blessed to work the garden. The curse is that we must toil as well: there will be frost, and famine, and sin. But the work itself is good.
For my own part, the local and particular love I owe my husband, my children, my neighbors, and the land where I live, bids me to rebuild bonds that were once economically necessary, but now must be more intentionally cultivated. I can take responsibility for the place where I am. I can trade eggs for music lessons with my neighbor. I can take my children to the farms where their food comes from. I can tell them stories about their great-grandfather, and my dad can teach them the names of the plants he grew up with. I can take them on visits to my uncle’s farm, but I can also take them to the farms just outside of our own town. I can teach them to see all the good we’ve been given in this life, and how to practice the disciplines of love.
It’s not an easy world. It was never meant to be. We’re simpletons if we think “the simple life” is free from worry, sin, and disaster, if we think that reading a Wendell Berry novel prepares us to skip into a way of life that takes generations to build. Rather, we must take responsibility for what we’ve been given.
One of my dad’s brothers left the farm in Minnesota and began a farm of his own in Central America. Musing on his fifty-plus years of farm life, he said, “A land cannot be blessed unless people learn its rhythms. And I have seen that it takes more than one generation to learn these and a conscientious generation to pass them on.” He would think of one of his friends, a subsistence farmer who has since passed away. “I still remember the last time I saw him. He was standing next to the year’s harvest of corn. A pile out on the ground of corn in the husk, maybe fifty bushels. But he knew it should be enough to feed his family and a few chickens until next year, and he was content. We stood there and looked at the corn and he was content, knew he was, and told me he felt he could die that way. And he did.”
Resurrection, not defeat, is ultimate. And practicing resurrection can begin with returning to the soil, where the death of the seed yields life.
Christians love pop culture these days. But the subset of Christians who love pop culture the most is pastors, writers, and academics. Pop culture as a mode of “engagement”; pop culture as a means of “reaching” this or that group; pop culture as a way of “relating” to students: all these and more are celebrated and commended and practiced in churches, classrooms, and websites every day.
“Finding the gospel in [pop culture artifact X]” is a ubiquitous and representative genre. Christians love pop culture, and Christians with an audience want fellow Christians to love pop culture.
Why is that? Why should Christians like, love, or “engage with” pop culture?
I don’t think there are very many, or perhaps any, good answers to that question.
Now, sociologically and empirically, we can surely posit some reasons for the lovefest. Christians, especially conservative Christians, especially conservative evangelical Christians, have tended to be socially and culturally disreputable, either isolated or self-exiled from dominant norms, media, and elite artistic production.
When that has taken the form of anxious parents “protecting” their children from, say, Disney or Hollywood, it could assume unhealthy forms. Moreover, once such children grow up—or, perhaps, move up in terms of class—they may discover that, as it happens, The Lion King and Return of the Jedi and even some R-rated movies aren’t so bad after all.
More broadly, knowledge of pop culture is the lingua franca of upwardly mobile bourgeois-aspirational twenty- and thirty-somethings working white collar jobs in big cities (not to mention college, the gateway to such a destination). I remember a long car ride I once took with three academic colleagues, one of whom had not seen a single “relevant” or popular film or TV show from the previous decade. The result? He basically sat out the conversation for hours at a stretch. What did he have to contribute, after all? And what else was there to talk about?
But such explanations are just that: explanations. They are not reasons for why Christians (or anyone) ought to be enthusiastic consumers of pop culture, much less evangelists for it. And rather than flail around for half-baked arguments in support of that view, let me posit the contrary: there are no good reasons. The boring fact is that Christians like pop culture for the same reasons everyone else does—it’s convenient, undemanding, diverting, entertaining, and socially rewarded—and Christians with an audience either (1) rationalize that fact with high-minded justifications, (2) invest that activity with meaning it lacks (but “must” have to warrant the time Christians give to it), or (3) instrumentalize it toward other, non-trivial ends.
Options 1 and 2 are dead ends. Option 3 is well-intended but, nine times out of ten, also a dead end.
The truth is that, for every hour that you do not spend watching Netflix, your life will be improved, and you will have the opportunity to do something better with that time. (I’m generalizing: if, instead of watching Netflix, you break one of the 10 commandments, then you will have done something worse with your time.)
Reading, cooking, gardening, playing a board game, building something with your hands, chatting with a neighbor, grabbing coffee with a friend, serving in a food pantry, learning a language, cleaning, sleeping, journaling, praying, sitting on your porch, resting, catching up with your spouse or housemate: every one of these things would be a qualitative improvement on streaming a show or movie (much less scrolling infinitely on Instagram or Twitter).
There is no argument for spending time online or “engaging” pop culture as a better activity for Christians with time on their hands than these or other activities. Netflix is always worse for your soul—and your mind, and your heart, and your body—than the alternative.
Now, does that mean you should never, ever stream a show? No, although this is usually too quick an escape route for those who would evade the force of the claim. (“Jesus, I know you said turn the other cheek, but could you, quickly though in detail, provide conditions for my justifiably harming or even taking the life of another human being?”) My argument here is not against the liceity of ever streaming a show or otherwise engaging pop culture; it is against the ostensibly positive reasons in favor of its being a good thing Christians ought to do, indeed, ought to care about doing, with eagerness and energy. Because that is a silly thing to believe, and the silliness should be obvious.
I had been meaning to write something like this the last year or two, but a recent exchange between Matthew Lee Anderson, in his newsletter, and his readers, including Brett McCracken, prompted me to finally get these thoughts down. The short version is that Matt suggests people delete their Netflix accounts, and people think that goes too far. (To be clear: Whenever anyone anywhere at any time suggests that people delete their [anything digital/online/social media], I agree reflexively.) The present post isn’t meant as an intervention in that conversation so much as a parallel, complementary reflection.
Any and all libertarian (in the sense of a philosophy of the will’s freedom) Christian accounts of pop culture, Netflix, social media, etc., fail at just this point, because they view individuals as choosers who operate neutrally with options arrayed before them, one of which in our day happens to be flipping Netflix on (or not) and “deciding” to watch a meaty, substantive Film instead of binging bite-size candy-bar TV. But that is not an accurate depiction of the situation. Netflix—and here again I’m using Netflix as a stand-in for all digital and social media today—is a principality and a power, as is the enormous flat-screen television set, situated like a beloved household god in every living room in every home across the country. It calls for attention. It demands your love. It wants you. And its desire for you elicits desire in you for it.
It is, therefore, a power to be resisted, at least for Christians. Such resistance requires ascesis. And ascesis means discipline, denial, and sometimes extreme measures. It might mean you suffer boredom and lethargy on a given evening. It might mean you have to read a book, or use your hands. It might even mean you won’t catch the quippy allusions in a shallow conversation at work. So be it.
A final word, or postscript, speaking as a teacher. I have too many colleagues (across the university and in other institutions) who have effectively admitted defeat in the long war between 20-year olds’ habits and the habits of the classroom, and who thus not only employ various forms of visual media in class (assuming students cannot learn without them) but actively encourage and solicit students’ use of and engagement with social and digital media and streaming entertainment in assignments outside class. Granting that there are appropriate forms of this (for example, in a course on Christianity and culture, one of my assignments is a film critique), I am thinking of more extreme versions of this defeatism.
What I mean is the notion that “this generation” simply cannot be expected to read a book cover to cover, or that the book must be pitched at a 9th-grade level, or that assignments “ought” to “engage” other forms of digital media, because “this is the world we live in.” Education must be entertaining, lest the students not be educated at all. But as Neil Postman has taught us, when education is made to be entertaining, students do not learn while also happening to be entertained. They learn that learning itself must always be fun. And when it isn’t, that must be a failure of some kind.
Our students do not need us to encourage their Netflix and Twitter and other digital habits. They need us to help them unlearn them, so far as is possible within the limits afforded us. Acceptance is not realism, in the classroom any more than in our own lives. Acceptance is acquiescence and retreat. For Christians, at least, that is not an option.
Brad East is Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and Anglican Theological Review.
His essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Plough Quarterly, and more. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture, set to be published this summer with Oxford University Press, and his book The Doctrine of Scripture is forthcoming in the Cascade Companions series.
Hunting is either a discipline or a confused slaughter. Walking home this morning I thought first, not of hunting, but of my usual route along the road. I was also thinking about writing a paper on Johannes Kepler and emerging science. Then I saw the path leading out of my way, a path I had seen nearly every day but had not taken before. Winter was over, this grassy path was greening, but flanking tall thin trees and branches still had that barren look. I was not then considering or observing them closely.
Before long the trees had closed behind me, the path had split in two, its main track dipping into mire, and a drier offshoot, curving away out of sight. Soon it was lost altogether so I picked my way while considering that it was turkey hunting season, that I had heard shots in these woods every day this week, and that a few years before a man had been found innocent of manslaughter in a hunting accident because he had seen a deer where there was no deer.
The Polish-born British mathematician Jacob Bronowski insists there are “no atomic facts.” If “[i]n the language of science, every fact is a field,” perhaps every fact is also a forest “—a crisscross of implications, those that lead to it and those that lead from it” (Bronowski 52). The forest, with its great promise of fecundity, was in some ways like the fertile mind of Johannes Kepler hidden amid the devastating experience and surroundings during the Thirty Years’ War.
I had been mentally stewing the elements of my reading for a paper on differences between rational and non-rational progressions, using prescribed texts, including Bronowski’s. And, because of this forest I found myself in, I was asking questions about the court’s judgment on the hunting accident. However, from the moment we first heard it, the judge’s ruling seemed to many irrational.
A young mother, while hanging clothes on the line in her yard, and wearing white mittens because there was a chill in the air, was shot dead by a hunter who, watching through tangles, thought that her hands in their movement were the “flag” of a leaping whitetail deer. The case had been argued around the definition of the word “saw.” Because the defendant “thought” therefore it was adjudicated that he actually saw. Although there were arguments and attempts at qualification, this was taken rationally as a concrete fact. Again for emphasis, according to reports, the ruling was based upon what the man “saw,” not “thought he saw.”
Irrational. Worse even than provisional, about which Wendell Berry says, in his Standing by Words,
We may know that we are forming a conclusion on the basis of provisional or insufficient knowledge — that is a part of what we understand is the tragedy of our condition. But we must act, nevertheless, on the basis of final conclusions, because we know that actions, occurring in time, are irrevocable.
The path had disappeared and I was picking my way through a close land of hummocks bristling with trees, thick with what Mainers call puckerbrush, strewn with the detritus of trees ground down by the skidder during logging. Away and above me on either side, firm bulks of fir-covered ridges shouldered above the narrow valley. Were these great solid boundaries like the crystalline “solids” holding the planets in their orbits (so concrete to the medieval mind of Kepler)—or were they analogous to the true elliptical orbits of his first law?
It was now the time of ticks and there were little swamps here and there to be stepped in or avoided if I wanted to find my way out of the hodgepodge of decay surrounding me. I was working from analogy, likenesses, part of the process of both detached and passionate thought. Our winter had ground down and the forest was scattered with all the dead leavings of its natural life, but now I had begun to think of A.N. Whitehead’s counter-agency pushing forth new delicate green life on old stiff twigs, pushing off their old dead leaves. I thought, Here are the thickets of thought out of which observation emerges. Here are the old dead ideas that Kepler’s speculative reason had to work from along with his inherited data.
There is reciprocity between all these dead things and that burgeoning freshness of counter-agency, what A.N. Whitehead called appetition, rendering each impotent without the other. A seed (the multitude of acorns, pine cones, maple seeds, strewing the chaotic woods) is essentially dead without that counter-agency or appetition, a natural craving for life cracking it open, destroying in the process, and transforming its destruction into new life. Was I seeing the dogmatism mentioned in Whitehead as nurturing mulch for the emerging dynamo of humanism’s speculative reason? According to Kepler’s chaotic, humbling, painful, mistaken, yet exhilarating and ultimately mathematically precise process of discovery, I was. His passionate fixed obsession with the spherical solids was at once both obscurantism and the appetition of his true discoveries: his “precise, verifiable statements about universal relations governing particular phenomenon, expressed in mathematical terms.”
My paper would both discuss and demonstrate the differences between the two perspectives, synthesizing and harnessing their reciprocity to my instructor’s directive. To quote Donald Lewis, “I am not insisting that a reflective, analytic approach to mystery is the only valid one. [. . .] Thought and its order perpetually approaches its object, but never possesses it.” There is always that mysterious force we haven’t yet understood, holding it at a distance. Is it provisional to shoot because you want the moving bit of white you are seeing to be a deer? Is it rational to base court judgments upon such a wish? Knowing, as we do, that we can’t see the future or the unforeseen consequences of our acts, isn’t it, rather, rational to base our actions upon what is presently known, and our judgments upon what was actually done?
Again Wendell Berry: There “are times, according to the only reliable ethics we have, when one is required to tell the truth, whatever the urgings of purpose, audience, and situation. Ethics requires this because, in the [. . .] practical realities of our lives, the truth is safer than falsehood.” (See also his discussion of the language, used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in deliberation of what to tell the surrounding community after the Three Mile Island disaster.)
Bronowski did well to be affected by what he saw at Nagasaki, and bring it to bear with regard to science and to human values. He mooted if the catastrophe there, and its blame, could be laid at the threshold of science. Yet ultimately he decided that “science has humanized our values” and that “the scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments. [. . .] Our conduct as states clings to a code of self-interest which science, like humanity, has long left behind” (Bronowski 70). And again he says, “Science has nothing to be ashamed of in the ruins of Nagasaki. The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human imaginative values which science has evolved” (73).
This claim is irrational.
Hunting with a gun is either a discipline or a confused slaughter. The hunter must know whether he or she is wishfully “seeing” the deer or actually seeing the deer. Legally, in Maine, it is not permissible to shoot a doe without a permit, or a male deer with a certain size rack; a button buck is not legal. When one cannot see what one is looking for in the thickets, in the forest, in the field, one must at least see what one is looking at. You’ve got an atom bomb in your arsenal and you’re looking for a target on which to use it, but you notice that your enemy is now hurling kamikaze— only boys who know how to take off in machines without landing gear. So what are you looking at? You are now looking at the Japanese nation groping around on its knees. Words may be coming from its mouth sounding like words of war, white hands in mittens may be hanging clothes upon a line looking like the white tail of a deer, but what are we really seeing?
Today gunpowder is used only in black powder hunting and for show in military reenactments. Bronowski chose to contrast the dropping of the atom bomb with the Thirty Years’ War, ultimately absolving science of responsibility in both. But “science has humanized our values”: It was the church, state, the “authorities,” who did this. Certainly, in the past, there was slaughter with the sword, with the longbow, the crossbow, the slingshot, burnings, etc; the designing, making, forging, tempering of these weapons was a part of the methodology and speculation of both ancient and medieval emergent science/technology. Cannon and gunpowder played a big role during Kepler’s struggles (1618-48).
First used in warfare circa CE 1000, science made gunpowder possible. Galileo sold rights to his telescope for a thousand scudi a year, the makers of telescopes—and other instruments—selling for military, exploratory, and mercantile purposes. It seems that science is either a handmaiden of the values or the morality of the day. (Values here being commercialism and fascination or allure.) It is not as Bronowski said elsewhere in the book: that “[w]hat a scientist does is compounded of two interests: the interest of his time and his own interest. [. . .] The need of the age gives its shape to scientific progress as a whole.” But is need the right word?
For greater accuracy and to couple better with the criterion of “interest,” substitute “spirit” for “need.” Neither science nor humanity have left behind coding of self-interest. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” quoted the Indian deity: “Now I am become death.” Scientists may or may not surmise an interconnected potentiality of their discoveries, which their appetition may unleash upon a world bound by this code of self-interest. Oppenheimer excused consequences because working toward “the sweet spot” was their proper business.
Both Bronowski and Whitehead show our dogma of progress, through which the counter-agency must surge, as it did with Kepler, to birth what Galileo called “Truth,” (while the latter was scrupulously guarding discoveries with games and puzzles in his correspondence). The community of science has abhorred religion’s pitiless dogmatism and persecution of a previous age upon the new Truth of Science. But humanism is still considering that “ ‘[t]he first rift in this darkness is the Copernican doctrine’; as if a new hypothesis in astronomy would naturally make a man stop hitting his daughter about the head.” Kepler himself, with his tragically brutal childhood, his beautiful elliptical orbits, and his dogmatically fixed idea of the five solids, would have thought our dogma of progress a peculiar claim. And, “The Truth,” is always cited but we have other, more important, things to consider.
According to Whitehead obscurantism is the common sense to which we resort in order to keep our society orderly: associations of professionals and society at large. By “common sense” he means that with which we seek to preserve whatever ground lately gained for our current authorized truth. “What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay.” scientists today would not consider Galileo’s obscurantism with regard to Kepler’s laws common sense.
Kepler himself would forget the truth of the planetary laws, from time to time, in small part because they were embarrassing given the culture of his time. (It was Newton who, after Kepler’s death, unearthed for the world these beautiful laws of the motions of the planets out of the welter of Kepler’s written words. Koestler showed that Galileo’s obscurantism was not morally neutral but based on self-interest. But Johannes Kepler was buoyant, generous, truthful (upholding the facts), rational and irrational. Today his obscurantism would not even be called common sense. He clung to the Pythagorean solids and his beloved geometric harmonies, held in tension with his science. The whole tale of these laws is rife with obscurantism, even from Tycho Brahe, with his dense bedrock of largely untapped data, his assorted hoarded instruments, his grasping son-in-law, etc., of which only the bedrock of data might be described as morally neutral.
If morality wants to use something it may use obscurantism, and I am wishing that obscurant common sense had come into play when it was decided that splitting the atom might be of interest. What was Koestler’s “healthy problem crying lustily for an answer” (86) during WW II?—the circumvention of land invasion with its predicted loss of American life. But was this the precise problem in the minds of scientists when they began?
I am wishing that obscurantism would bring all its force to bear upon the issue of cloning. But it has been and is of Interest to the Age—and to science, both speculative and methodological—so the dogmatism of common sense must not be permitted to interfere. So far, sense has prevailed in gene-editing, the mutations of which can distort future generations in ways we know little about and cannot control. We’re having open dialogue about this now and this dialogue is seen as a good thing, but if we are so discussing it, it is already too late. The unthinkable is thinking itself into being.
“The world today is made, it is powered by science; and for any man to abdicate an interest in science is to walk with open arms towards slavery,” said Bronkowski. He was then lecturing and writing these essays in the mid-50s as science was, unthinkingly, developing incipient technology for digital enslavement. When the human spirit is reduced to naturalism’s desires, appetition, aided by its handmaiden profitability, will prevail. Today the Authority we must not sin against is consumerism. An indication of its authority is our empty solely rhetorical rebellion against it. Yet witness its appeal in the lobbies of Congress; and from the mouth of a former president of the United States following destruction of the World Trade Towers: Buy.
In the margin of my paper my professor will write that this is because “we haven’t figured out how to not have an economy based upon expansion.” My retort will be that we had one: It was based upon small local industry, the communal, what was necessary to our needs, repairable and reusable.
In conceptualizing my paper I’ve taken the following quotation as my example: “The scientist or the artist takes two facts or experiences which are separate; he finds in them a likeness which had not been seen before; and he creates a unity by showing the likeness.” In writing this piece I’ve tried to do this in creative illustration of the idea.
All his adult days, in the superstitious Middle Ages trending into what would be called an age of rationalism, Kepler was seeing the Pythagorean solids, his fixed idea, the inspiration of his intellectual life. Even while working laboriously through Tycho Brahe’s data and allowing the truth of the elliptical orbits to emerge, this was what he came back to, this seeing of something that was not there.
The passion of his appetition was misplaced, but the foundation of solar science survived his devotion to the Pythagorean solids. We can only be grateful that these solids, so tightly gripped in his medieval hands, were not as a loaded gun in the hands of an ignorant hunter unable to recognize with patience what it is exactly that he is looking at. But, now in this time, when it is so important that we do see, science has gone beyond gunpowder. If only it were now, and with true seeing, that our emotional purpose, our counter-agency, were common sense.
S. Dorman is author of Maine Metaphor and Fantastic Travelogue: Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis Talk Things over in The Hereafter. She blogs occasionally at Superversive Inklings.
Mere weeks have passed since the burning of the cathedral in Paris. All of us, each for their own reasons, were gripped by the flames that engulfed Notre Dame. Few recent events seem to have been saturated with as much aching symbolism as that day was, and from it came an outpouring of grief and a grasping for beauty.
It almost felt though that the fury with which all of our eyes were transfixed could not be sustained, that it was bound to subside, and with that, our gaze would alight on some other thing. And so, most of us have promptly forgotten; this far removed from the fire, it feels awkward to read or write an essay on something so in-between. If it is not safely in the deep past or belligerently in the present it must be avoided, after all.
Yet through the haze of this learned forgetfulness also emerges the opportunity for a profound type of rebellion. Now we are called to the persistent and holy act of remembrance.
In his important and prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman anticipates this moment, as well as the larger system of discourse from which it takes its shape. In the aptly named chapter “Now . . . This,” he identifies the pervasive dismantling of context that the logic of “electronic media” imposes upon our public conversations. Nothing arises from its natural relationship to that which came before, or that which will follow—it is all an endless stream of abstracted spectacles.
‘Now . . . this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now . . . this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.
For Postman, to inhabit technological spaces whose ruling logic is a disjointed cacophony is to become subservient to its forms, to be remade into its likeness. This truth is formulated in the book’s opening chapter “The Medium is the Metaphor,” where he argues that the mediums our culture chooses to traffic in profoundly shape our thoughts and habits in turn. Speaking of the aim of the book, he says:
It is an argument that fixes its attention on the forms of human conversation, and postulates that how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
Here is far more than the tired critique of social media to which we are all accustomed of late. It is instead the recognition of our media’s magnetism towards an unmoored existence—and not merely social dynamics, but the pervasive rootlessness that comes to define every aspect of our lives. The deepest reaches of our imaginations and loves become inevitably fractured by the corrosion of these forms, not just our dinner parties.
And tragically, the rules of engagement within a medium supersede any attempts to rebel, no matter how noble the effort. Try as we may, we cannot leverage within them the kind of sustained reflection that a cathedral requires. The moment we land upon something truly substantial (say, the near loss of an old and holy building), it is immediately swept from under us.
There is yet another reason why we have forgotten the wounded cathedral, and it is one which offers up to us the potential for real hope.
Simply put, our memory fails us so soon because very few of us call Paris home, and very few of us are daily confronted with the gnawing absence of its former grandeur. So it slips from our minds, because frankly there are more immediate things assailing us at every turn. This is not a luxury afforded the people of France. They are, and will be for quite some time, engaged in an effort to rebuild and restore.
Embedded within this recognition we find the response which Postman’s diagnosis demands of us. We recall that Notre Dame the building belongs distinctly to Paris, that it is a gathering place for Catholic worshippers in a particular setting. To the people of France we entrust the task of its restoration, and turn instead to the thousands of Notre Dames that can be found within our own cities and towns. They are not all cathedrals, nor are they all as old—yet each one, in its own noble way, stands in revolt against the gleeful transience of our age.
To these places of history and worship we must return in earnest, to let their old stones and stained glass work upon our souls. They serve as the mediums, to use the language of Postman, which impart to us again the power of remembrance. They are saturated in context, in the memory of the places to which they belong. And in a beautiful symbiosis, by dwelling within them we regain the means of faithfully preserving them forward into the future.
This is admittedly far from a sweeping movement to storm the cultural barricades. It is rather the simple admonition to find the havens of history and religious tradition, and along with one’s neighbor to commit themselves to its cultivation. It is the quiet work of stalwart individuals and tight-knit families and devoted communities. A simple vocation, yet a far more radical one than may appear at first glance.
As we seek the wisdom required to knit these habits into our lives once more, Tolkien’s masterful tale of Middle Earth offers us a picture of this humble resolve. Accompanying Frodo and Sam on their agonizing journey, one is struck by the disparity upon which the survival of all that is good in the world depends. The schemes of great lords, the fates of massive armies, a final protection of innocence and beauty—all these ultimately turn upon the faithfulness of two small hobbits.
With this tale, Tolkien awakens us to something profoundly true about the nature of our own task today: that no matter how small our part, each of us has been entrusted with these places of beauty, to play a mighty role in their storied existence.
Returning to inhabit them in this bewildered and forgetful age, we may discover that remembrance is the only true revolt.
You didn’t have to be a close follower of contemporary political theory to know that Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism was going to be the equivalent of shooting a paintball into a hornet’s nest. Here was a book with something to make nearly everyone mad—or nearly everyone with influence among the American intelligentsia, at any rate. Hazony lost no time in throwing the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives under the bus for their imperialist dreams of global market hegemony or global American hegemony.
The cosmopolitan rights-and-diversity discourse of progressivism was anathematized as yet another imperial project by the brazen particularism of Hazony’s moral and political vision. And as for the Roman Catholic intellectuals who for the last couple decades have stood at the vanguard of morally robust American conservatism, Hazony reminded them that their imperialist DNA runs as deep as anyone’s.
In place of all these imperialisms, Hazony called for the renewal of nationalism, and specifically a nationalism rooted in the soil of the Hebrew Bible and magisterial Protestantism. Indeed, it is difficult to remember the last time any offered such a full-throated defense of Protestant political theory; certainly I cannot recall any Protestant public intellectual half so willing to speak up on behalf of this legacy as Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, has been.
Sure enough, Hazony’s book has been turning heads left and right, provoking a firestorm of criticism from many quarters but also generating a wave of enthusiasm among conservatives starved for authentic political philosophy. ISI awarded Hazony’s book the honor of 2019 Conservative Book of the Year, and, building on its success, Hazony has helped organize a new paleo-conservative thinktank, the Edmund Burke Foundation, and a major gathering in DC scheduled for mid-July, the National Conservatism Conference.
Although The Virtue of Nationalism offers a much-needed blast of fresh perspective to our stale political debates, and an impassioned restatement of discarded but once commonplace conservative principles, it also leaves several important questions unanswered. Sadly, much of the discussion surrounding the book thus far has failed to advance the conversation, since many readers seem more ready to judge the book by its title than by its arguments. “Nationalism” is a dirty word nowadays, so surely anyone professing to praise its virtues does not deserve much of a hearing.
But what does Hazony mean by “nationalism”?
“Nationalism” vs. “Imperialism”
Hazony pointedly refuses to use nationalism in its common popular sense of “excessive patriotism,” or “dedication to advancing the interests of one’s own nation at the expense of others.” It seems safe to say that Hazony’s usage does not fit any of the seven definitions of “nationalism” offered on Dictionary.com.
Of course, some might say that Hazony can hardly complain about being misunderstood if he insists on using the word in such an idiosyncratic way. However, he could not be much more clear and emphatic than he is, defining the term crisply on page 3 as “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” Clearly, Hazony does value patriotism, and thinks that statesmen should appropriately prioritize the interests of their own people, but he is not so naïve as to imagine that such pursuit of self-interest will automatically generate peace and harmony.
Rather, Hazony’s nationalism is a principled standpoint that seeks to maximize national self-determination and independence, which means of course that it must be vigilant against the efforts of individual powerful nations to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors and the rest of the world. Such projects of national self-aggrandizement are not properly speaking nationalistic in Hazony’s sense of the word, but on the contrary imperialistic. Thus Hazony’s many critics who accuse him of failing to recognize that nationalism has historically bred imperialism are simply failing to attend to his stipulated definitions.
Of course, imperialism, for Hazony, takes many forms. In general it is any project “which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” Thus Hitler’s ambitions for a globally dominant Third Reich built on German ethnicity, Soviet Russia’s ambitions for a world state founded on communism, and the medieval Catholic Church’s policy of a Christendom under the See of Peter were all imperial projects. But so—more controversially and more interestingly—are the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and similar international institutions, in Hazony’s argument. For many readers, this is where Hazony loses them. How can one possibly say that a voluntary multilateral international organization committed to the establishment and upholding of international law is in the same category as Rome or the Hapsburgs or Napoleonic France?
Of course, to ask the question is to at least partially answer it—although we are liable to equate “imperialism” with self-serving domination, many if not most great historic empires consciously saw themselves as the guardians of peace and international order, and many of them rested largely on semi-voluntary relations among their constituent nations. Good intentions, commitment to the rule of law, and even elements of consent do not necessarily exonerate a regime from the charge of imperialism.
In fact, if we dig deeper into Hazony’s argument, we can see why it is that these modern forms of “imperialism,” which he writes chiefly to discredit, are in some ways worse than many older versions. At first glance, Hazony’s preference for nationalism can seem somewhat arbitrary—why should a principled standpoint committed to a plural world order necessarily trump one committed to a unitary order? For Hazony, the crucial difference is one of epistemology, as becomes evident in the way that Immanuel Kant pops up again and again as the bete noire of imperialism. Imperialist political orders, Hazony argues, are at their most pernicious when they arise out of an abstract a priori rationalism that seeks to grasp the good for man as such, that claims to tell us what human nature, in its ideal form, should be, rather than taking its start in men and cultures as they are.
Whether it is the homo sapiens of the Enlightenment or the homo economicus or homo arbitrans of the post-WWII liberal order, Hazony sees these visions as fatally flawed by their inattention to the stubborn pluriformity of human social reality, and the complex loves, hopes, and fears that guide peoples in their search for the political good. Imperialism replaces the rule of old traditions and local customs with formalistic procedures devised by distant bureaucrats. In insisting on a thoroughgoing anthropological and political empiricism, Hazony calls conservatism back to its long-neglected Burkean roots.
The Role of Mutual Loyalties
Among the empirical data that Hazony charges liberal theory with neglecting is the fundamental role of “mutual loyalties.” Suggesting in chapter VIII that modern political thought has been overly preoccupied with the procedural and constitutional questions that belong to what he calls “the philosophy of government,” he proposes to instead turn our attention back to the much more fundamental questions involved in a “philosophy of political order,” questions such as: “What allows a community to be sufficiently cohesive to be ordered as a state? Is the state formed when independent individuals consent to living under government, or through the unification of previously existing cohesive communities?”
In so doing, Hazony wants to shift our attention from questions about the conditions of legitimacy for a political order, which have dominated Western debates since Locke, to the conditions for sustaining a political order, the conditions that ensure that individuals see themselves as part of a larger unit and are willing to see its good as their good, its triumphs as their triumphs, its freedom as their freedom.
Most fundamental among these conditions is the idea of “mutual loyalties.” Using the model of a family and a business as contrasting types, Hazony highlights the extent to which modern political philosophy has come to treat the relations of political order as fundamentally like those of a business: “governed primarily on the basis of the individual’s assessments as to what will enhance his physical welfare and protect and increase his property, and by his ongoing consent to the terms of an agreement with others for the joint attainment of these purposes” (83).
In fact, however, a closer look at both the historical foundations of most political orders, as well as the conditions that enable states to continue to flourish, reveals relations more like those of a family: bonds of mutual loyalty anchored, indeed, by an initial act of mutual consent, but sustained through thick and thin by a sense of mutual belonging, mutual indebtedness, and mutual duty to “pass on to another generation an inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by our parents and their ancestors” (85). Whereas the former model encourages us to ask at every moment whether the arrangement is serving our interests, and to cut loose if it ceases to, the latter model encourages us “to stand true in the face of adversity, to refuse the urge to start everything anew” (88).
Put another way, Hazony grants the first premise of liberal political thought—“that the human individual is by nature fiercely concerned to ensure the integrity of his or her own self”—but he then immediately undercuts it by asking how, in reality, people think of their “selves.” In a powerful stretch of argument that spans the critical chapter IX of the book, Hazony invites us to consider the manifold ways in which individuals learn (from earliest childhood) to think of things outside of themselves as extensions of their “self”—family, close friends, clan, tribe. “What we see across the range of human activities and institutions, then, is that the self of the individual is by nature flexible in its extent, and is constantly being enlarged so that persons and things we might have supposed would be outside of him and alien to him are in fact regarded as if they were part of himself” (64-65).
Hazony calls this extension of the self to include another loyalty, and when it goes in two directions, it is mutual loyalty, “which allows these two individuals to regard themselves as a single entity.” Arguing that this process of psychological extension undergirds every kind of durably successful human social order, Hazony insists that this, and not the contractarianism of liberal politics, must be seen as the real basis for cities, nations, and states.
Offering a richly illuminating account of how these bonds can be progressively extended to larger social organisms, Hazony nevertheless notes that there is an upper limit. It is not really possible to see oneself as a citizen of the world, united by bonds of mutual loyalty to all of humanity, because the bonds are forged and sustained above all by the experiences of adversity and triumph, that is, of struggle and success against outside threats or rivals. Unless and until we meet a race of Martians or face a threat against which the human species must stand as one, a one-world political order will never be able to feel like a form of self-government, as national state orders can, because there will be no authentically imagined people that it represents (69).
Now, it is important to grasp what Hazony is and is not arguing with his account of the foundations of political order. Although there are elements of genealogy in this account—that is, an attempt to narrate how national states have arisen out of the anarchic order of tribes and clans—it is much more an account of “foundations” in the sense of that which undergirds and upholds rather than in these sense of origins.
Hazony is much too good of a political theorist to think that actual history is the decisive consideration in political identity; rather, it is imagination. He freely grants that few larger states have emerged in the idealized way of families voluntarily banding together into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into nations; usually, there is some element of conquest involved (81). But conquests rarely prove durable if they do not succeed in offering a compelling narrative of real shared identity, history, and traditions that can ground the extension of mutual loyalties.
As insightful and illuminating all of this is, we are liable to have a few stubborn questions about it, especially as Christians and as Americans.
Is vs. Ought: Is Nationalism Moral?
It is one thing to observe that people form tight bonds of mutual loyalties that enable them to endure great adversity and build enduring nations and institutions. It is another thing to turn this is into an ought and to baptize this sort of ethno-nationalism with the conclusion that this is God’s will for the nations. Hazony offers intriguing readings of the Old Testament that offer biblical support for his vision of independent, self-governing nations with distinct traditions, customs, and even varied apprehensions of the good, and to some extent, we might fortify this reading with texts and themes from the New Testament as well (e.g., Rev. 21:24-26). But Scripture, and especially the New Testament, also offer us a vision of the universal reign of Christ and of the universal family of the Church, which forges bonds of mutual loyalty that cut sharply across ethnic and national lines. To be sure, neither Christ’s reign nor the body of the Church may take unitary institutional form this side of the eschaton (contra Roman Catholic political theology), but they do issue moral imperatives that must restrain the pretensions of competing national projects and ethnic identities.
As Oliver O’Donovan has noted, the project of international law arose out of a specifically Christian recognition that nations cannot simply be free to pursue their own interests or visions of the good when these trample on universal norms of justice or basic human dignity. And however many points Hazony may score against the notions of “rights,” “justice” and “dignity” as they have run amok in the liberal internationalism of the past couple generations, the instincts behind international law cannot be wholly ignored.
This is the fundamental concern voiced by Myles Werntz, one of Hazony’s more perceptive critics. In a review article called “The Arrogance of Ethno-nationalism,” Werntz charges Hazony with seeking “a cultural hegemony which becomes impervious to outside intervention,” or, in biblical terms, “idolatry.”
A closer reading of Hazony’s book ought to lay many such worries to rest. First of all, it should be clear that Hazony’s nationalism is in no way an endorsement of racism. The peoplehood that underlies a successful national state rests on many different factors, of which ethnic or racial identity is but one, and a highly fluid one. Just as important are factors such as shared language, religion, customs, history, and shared triumph in adversity (pp. 100-101). Through different combinations of these factors, very different people groups can be successfully knit into one over the course of time. Second, although insisting that a successful state will encapsulate and advance the customs and values of its most dominant people group, Hazony does not give carte blanche for the dominant group to oppress minority tribes or religions.
On the contrary, he argues that as a matter of historical record, well-constructed national states are actually generally better able to offer robust protections for minorities, and that failure to do so will destabilize the national state system and may even provide just grounds for external intervention (see especially pp. 183-84).
One might dispute his empirical claims here, but he is not obviously not deaf to the concern. And we must also understand that Hazony is a sober realist: the question is not which political order will offer perfect protection and equality to minorities, but which will most often and most durably offer the best protection—none will do so perfectly. Nor is carving out a separate national state for every minority a viable solution, because extending the principle of self-determination too far will result in a proliferation of weak unstable states closer to the semi-anarchist order of “tribalism” than authentic nationalism. Hazony’s nuanced discussion of these competing considerations on pp. 180-84 is, I believe, his attempt to offer principles for adjudicating the thorny Palestinian question. More generally, though, these points highlight an important feature of his account that Werntz largely ignores: “the moral minimum for good government.”
Indeed, whether because of the title or some other reason, most of attention given to The Virtue of Nationalism has largely focused on Hazony’s defense of the right of national self-determination. But this is only one-half of what Hazony champions as the “Protestant Construction of the West,” which involved two foundational principles drawn from the Old Testament. The first principle, says Hazony, is “The moral minimum required for legitimate government”—the natural law principles, summarized in the Decalogue, that provided “the minimum requirements for a life of personal freedom and dignity for all. A government incapable of maintaining this moral minimum was one that had failed in its most basic obligations to the well-being of its people” (24). Hazony goes on to say that “the idea that there are natural standards of legitimacy higher than the dictates of any particular government means that nations cannot rightly do whatever they please. They are always subject to judgment by God and man, and this necessarily makes government conditional” (26).
He recognizes that this assertion of universal moral norms—enforceable it would seem not merely by God but by human authority—stands in tension with the right of national self-determination, but he believes that this proved a helpful and creative tension in the development of the modern West. Similarly, as already noted, Hazony’s nationalism is not merely an every-nation-for-itself free-for-all, but seeks to provide a principled framework for responsible statesmen and diplomats to use in seeking to maximize the opportunities for just and stable self-government to be exercised by peoples around the world. In other words, the freedom of nations must still be normed by an objective conception of the good, one which might occasionally authorize external intervention; Hazony’s stance is not isolationist.
Still, Werntz has a point inasmuch as Hazony spends very little space articulating how natural law or international law can and should serve to restrain immoral positive laws of individual nations or protect minority groups against oppression. Much more certainly needs to be said on this question, although I believe there are certainly resources for answering it in the tradition that Hazony is chiefly mining (the Anglo-American conservatism that runs through figures such as Richard Hooker, John Selden, Edmund Burke, and James Wilson).
The Case of America
However, Werntz also notes in passing another concern that should loom large from the American standpoint: is Hazony’s account of national identity actually consistent with how the United States of America has developed and understood itself?
Hazony offers an account of America as a collection of “tribes” with relatively similar history, ethnic background, customs, and religions, who through union against common threats forged a national identity (albeit one with intense internal strains that flared up at the American Civil War and highlighted incoherencies in its compromise constitution. Such a narrative fits well with Hazony’s larger theory, but not with America’s self-understanding.
As Bill Galston pointed out at a debate with Hazony last fall hosted by the Hudson Institute, America at the very least claims to be distinctive in world-history by virtue of founding its mutual loyalties on allegiance to a document and a set of principles, and on this basis has taken pride in its ability to assimilate other very different “tribes” (Irish Catholics, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans) on an equal footing.
Hazony actually anticipates this objection in chapter XVI, “The Myth of the Neutral State.” He notes that it does appear possible for a constitutional state to replace a concrete loyalty to the tribe with an abstract loyalty to a text, but only “if one were to press the public respect for the constitution in the direction of a genuinely religious awe” (157). Even so, however, this respect is perpetuated and internalized by each successive generation not by the mere force of rational compulsion (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) but rather through “the framework of family, tribal, and national traditions in which the individual learns to revere and hold sacred certain things and not others” (158). In other words, our chief loyalty is still toward communities that we can feel as extensions of ourselves, and these communities have trained us to revere certain American political documents and principles—but once those communities collapse, and we no longer feel reason to defer to their values, so will our commitment to “the American experiment.”
Moreover, Hazony insists, it is one thing to wax lyrical about America as a multiculturalist “melting pot,” but the fact remains that at least until very recently, the “dominant tribe” has remained “an English-speaking nation whose constitutional and religious traditions were originally rooted in the Bible, Protestantism, republicanism, and the common law of England”; over time, “new tribes have been adopted into this same American nation” but not to the extent of undermining its identity as a nation in Hazony’s sense.
Should America become a majority-minority nation, or—more decisively—should it lose its confidence in the culture and traditions that have actually sustained our political order over two and a half centuries, our abstract ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy would quickly cease to have motivating force to maintain a viable political identity or set of mutual loyalties. Which, come to think of it, sounds an awful lot like a diagnosis of our present condition.
A book as rich and wide-ranging as Hazony’s, and a conversation as important as it has provoked, demands much fuller discussion than I have had space for here. There are numerous important unanswered questions with which Hazony leaves us—how to balance the demands of mutual loyalties and structures of legitimacy, how to balance the interests of cultural continuity and justice for minorities, how to balance the penultimacy of national identity with the ultimacy of Christian identity, how to understand the unique case of America in the story of nations, and—above all—how much Hazony’s project depends on a religious foundation of magisterial Protestantism that is now a nearly spent force in the West. However, if the marks of good theory are conceptual simplicity, intuitive fit, wide explanatory force, and the power to make sound predictions about how agents act in the real world, then Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism deserves acclaim as a memorable—and remarkably timely—work of political theory.
Human moral growth is partially measured by a human being’s desire to live in the truth. This involves accepting the truth about ourselves – or put negatively – refusing to avoid unsavory realities about our own lives. The same could be said of human communities who seek to live toward a common good. If human communities avoid confronting the truth about themselves, they will (to that extent) internalize their own sickness. Such disease will ultimately kill their capacity to achieve and enjoy even the penultimate goods that they have turned into an idol. Moreover, the avoidance of a moral self-encounter will inevitably mean that we scapegoat and project our obvious vices onto others.
The “Agenda” of “the Left”
There has been a significant amount of commentary about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s tweets concerning the recent tragedy in Sri Lanka. It was observed that they used the term “Easter worshippers” rather than “Christians” to describe the victims of the attack.
This, it has also been correctly noted, stands in sharp contrast to their rhetoric, and the rhetoric of the left in general, when the victims of such attacks are Muslims, homosexuals, or any other minority group. Moreover, many have noted that whatever we call “the left” will tend to speak quite explicitly of Christianity when Christians are the perpetrators of the attack, but are correspondingly silent when other minorities (Muslims) are the attackers. The conclusion drawn from this is that the left is anti-Christian, and will stop at nothing to put Christianity in a bad light, and to put everything non-Christian in a good light. This is the “agenda” of the left, usually depicted as a tactic in relation to larger strategy of the left’s allegedly neo-Marxist endgame.
I think it can be granted that there is some plausibility to this narrative, however convenient or inconvenient it is for those assessing it. But we cannot speak of the left as possessing a singular collective psyche. In fact, all of the above actions can (and should) be more accurately assessed as proceeding from a rather different set of principles.
It is not that the first account is wrong. It is that it is very likely not the only narrative that plausibly explains this modus operandi. And if we are to be truthful, we need to recognize that, however convenient or inconvenient for us, the left is entirely capable of its own complications and cobelligerencies, and therefore of being read in a more charitable light (at least in part) on this score.
How so? It is important to note that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are liberal Christians. And whatever eye rolls and groans that description of those two might elicit from conservative evangelicals, it is nevertheless a simple fact of reality that liberal varieties of Christianity remain parasitical on some of the vestiges of true faith. We might rightly note that this stops short of what the Reformed tradition would call “saving faith,” but our doctrine of common grace permits us to note the manner in which the word of God, even when mixed with foreign elements, nevertheless has power to shape and orient souls on its own immediate and compelling merits.
What’s the point here? We should take liberal religion seriously as a sociological and psychological shaper of human action. Moreover, we should take seriously the extent to which it can (perhaps accidentally) have a restraining effect on sin as the smallest vestiges of God’s word remain in its teachings and communal expectations.
What might these vestiges be? The rhetoric of the left is full of language concerning the stranger, hospitality, admitting our own cultural sins, being charitable towards groups who might be at risk by our characterizations, etc. And it is of course the case that there are plenty of times when this rhetoric should not be taken seriously.
But it is equally true that there are times when it should. And I suspect that this is one of those times. Here’s why. The strategy described above could just as easily be explained in terms of a secularized Christian ethic of hospitality, charity toward others, and brutal honesty with one’s own sins.
Corresponding to this might be the charitable disregard of of the sins of others, especially when over-emphasizing them puts those communities at significant risk in a way that we (in this view, at least) are not put at risk when our sins are emphasized. Precisely because “Christian” is “us,” we should name our own sins. And precisely because “Muslim” and “homosexual” is not the status quo, we should be cautious about cultivating a scapegoat for the majority. That is to say, we should name and deal with the sins of our own house, and we should be loose-handed and forgetful about the sins of our neighbors.
Three qualifications are immediately in order:
Again, this behavior could also be explained by the more cynical reading, and the truth is probably that it is explained by both.
This charitable reading does not equate to agreement with the political prudence of such a strategy. It might be that this is a well-motivated but unwise way of handing our problems.
None of the above need exist at the level of individual motivation. It is very possibly exists at the level of “moral instinct” rather than conscious motivation. This instinct, as well, is not an individual thing, but a moral posture that has been shaped by a community of practitioners and rhetorical emphases. Very possibly, Clinton and Obama are simply appropriated by inherited emphases from the Civil Rights movement as inflected in their particular ecclesiastical homes.
The Problem of Self-Avoidance and Projection
But so far, what I have claimed is not particularly illuminating. Two possible interpretations of single actions. We can all be more charitable. Great. The way of truth, however, cannot permit us to stop here.
The love of truth, and the willingness to know the truth about ourselves (to be exposed before it), forces us to ask why we tend toward the first interpretation in the first place. If we grant that the second interpretation is possible or plausible, then our tendency toward the first interpretation is not just a miscalculation, but a projection. And if a projection, it is a projection of ourselves. And that is an uncomfortable truth.
It is, as it turns out, we (conservative Christians invested in the culture wars) who are often ill-willed, often delight in the downfall of our enemies, often feel smug self-love when we imagine our enemies as some great moral inverse of ourselves. Of course, this is not always true of persons on the right and the same could be said for plenty of the persons on the left.
But the fault lines of ill-will do not exist between us and our ideological “other,” but rather in the mysterious chasm of our deceptive hearts (Jer. 17:9). Truth exposes us, and forces us to confront the fact that we (all to often) do not love our enemies. And we need to recognize that anger, resentment, pure will, etc – often masquerades itself (and even strategically hides itself) in the safe haven of rational argument. I would be surprised if anyone actually denied this. One need only know what it is like to be in a fight with one’s spouse to know how this works.
And the example I just used (of marriage) is an important one. Imagine what marriage would look like if we took this posture toward our spouses. In point of fact, we know what this looks like. In a culture where many marriages end in divorce, where there is more marriage counseling and less self-humility and awareness than we would expect in an age allegedly obsessed with the self, we seem rather to live in an age of self-projection and avoidance. We are all experts at carefully crafting scapegoats in order to avoid our own selves.
To put this in the worst way possible, we refuse to see God in others. But the participation of our apparent enemies in the good transcends boundaries of ideology and even self-presentation or understanding. That our neighbors are agents of God’s dominion on this earth is a more fundamental truth about them than that they are fallen, that they believe certain things, or even their own understanding of themselves.
Moreover, that they are our neighbors in fact, rather than our enemies in theory, is a more fundamental truth about them (and by implication, about us!) than our own projections. And these fundamental truths constantly break through the cracks of these additional layers of identity – with the same mixture of purity and distortion that we can easily observe in ourselves.
The marital metaphor could be extended to account for larger aspects of our collective behavior. One of the problems with our ideological fault lines is that, when we’re losing the cultural argument or cultural influence, we (in our frustration) tend toward retreat. Because these are not seen as our neighbors, but rather our enemies, we sulk off into our own enclaves of mutually affirming teammates and justify a dhimmitude that is as much self-imposed as forced by the other. Once again, this is similar to the husband who retreats from the resolution of marital tension in self-pity rather than seeks to resolve the tension in love.
The Healing of Self-Confrontation
One obvious response to my argument is that there must be limits to such charitable readings. And because we all know how this rhetorical line of inquiry ends, we can skip to the inevitable question: What about the Nazis? Would I argue that we should read them charitably? No. It is true that there are limits to the judgment of charity.
But, first, the identification of those limits should itself be evaluated in charity and wisdom – rather than in willful cynicism that is closed to seeing God or to being surprised in the other.
But secondly, and more importantly, the Nazis also serve as a warning about refusing to confront ourselves within the culture wars – the deathly end of being willing, little by little, to live in, speak, and project lies for the sake of some “common good.” The Nazis did nothing that we are not all capable of doing. That is a truth we must confront.
Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that one considers the Nazis completely “other” that they avoid what incubates in their own heart. Contrariwise, it is precisely by observing how normal German people committed such heinous acts that we are given pause about our own capacities.
This confrontation with truth is painful for us, but it is good and healing, and it is only in this painful confrontation that we are ready for the grace that gives us the dignity and strength to be the kind of Christian leaders that we ought to be, to reign and have dominion in a way that brings that life of Christ to bear on this world. Though much could be said about this, I can only suggest briefly what this might look like. And as the comparison with illicit husbandry was useful above, so the consideration of good husbandry illuminates us here:
As those who are called to lead their homes are instructed to live with their spouse in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7), so we are to live with our neighbors writ large in an understanding way. And it can be very difficult to perform this task well – even (perhaps especially) in cases where the spouse is virtuous.
Truly negotiating and crafting life with any human in a way that does not instrumentalize them (i.e. where power serves rather than crushes) is a challenge. But the urgency of listening and understanding (lest we abuse) is put into refrain by the fact that we are unimaginably finite, limited in our perspective, and in the case of marriage at least, co-navigating this world with someone who is a whole “world” unto themselves.
Figuring out how to lead in that co-navigation process takes a lot of wisdom. Sometimes one’s spouse, for instance, expresses a frustration or a grievance in a torrent of words and arguments that can technically be “refuted” on paper, and unwise husbands often think they have “dealt with the problem” if they have answered all their wife’s arguments in an explicit way.
What is missed here is that most people’s grievances often exceeds their own self-understanding, not to mention their ability to express it articulately. In the same way, we should not dismiss the collective anger, or frustration, or anxiety of the left (or any particular group) in terms of its own self-understanding and discourse. Rather, we should seek to know the problem behind the problem. In my experience, literature and film are sometimes better media to get at this than discursive analysis.
Christian leaders should be at the forefront of our efforts to understand the complexity of our injustices and the difficulty of our proffered solutions. If the popular nomenclature of the academy is unhelpful in this regard, our task must be to come up with something better rather than merely falling back upon the “status quo” of dismissive and reductionist platitudes that make us the most comfortable. Again, nobody takes the husband seriously who merely “refuted his wife’s arguments” but leaves her feeling uncared for. The good husband helps her find the words.
The connection between marriage and the shaping of culture can be captured in the old term “husbandry,” which can describe our activities in the home as well as outside of it in the world. In learning to cooperate and negotiate in the intimate space of a home, we are trained to overcome the postlapsarian enmity that exists between man and woman.
It is from this space that we have the vantage point to negotiate and understand our neighbors as well. Culture wars outside of the home, with neighbors that are as non-negotiably themselves as our own family members, will not be solved by different tools (writ large) than make a healthy home of flourishing individuals. Cultures are no more rendered healthy by the mere possession of power than homes. If one does not manifestly and truly have the good of their neighbors at heart, they are but noisy gongs living in smug avoidance of their own inner darkness.
As the above comparison would suggest, we need not preclude the confrontation of one’s neighbor’s sins anymore than we preclude a similar confrontation between spouses on occasion. But as in the home, a good husband, a good “cultivator,” deals with their own heart first, is charitable toward the actions of their wife, seeks to put them in the best light, and only when it is manifestly in the wife’s interest and for their good do they lovingly help them see themselves for the sake of themselves (and vice versa).
In culture as in marriage, our tendency in the midst of frustration and fear is to conceive of our closest neighbor as our closest enemy. But also in culture as in marriage, the antidote to this is (in addition to dealing with ourselves first) to be open to surprise. Despite their sins and problems, people are surprising. Cultures are surprising. And it is precisely to the extent that we refuse to consider this that we refuse to see the truth about God, about ourselves, and about our neighbor. It is to live in a lie masquerading as truth. As C.S. Lewis once wrote,
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
It is important to reiterate, precisely because it is possible that this be read as some attack on the right as opposed to the left, that I am precisely attempting to avoid describing the above behaviors along ideological fault lines.
Certainly the left has its own version of this as well (the projection of a totalitarian tendency on the right – ironically mirroring its own behavior). But, as the recent debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek demonstrated, there are persons of good will on both sides. There are those who seek to live in the truth , and those driven by pure will, on both sides. Moreover, both tendencies exist in our own souls. We need God’s own good-will and mercy to love and to live in the truth. And only then can we speak it with true power and poise.
Only then will we win arguments not merely by outwitting our opponents, but by the kind of good-will that disintegrates enmity and offers instead the intimacy by means of which real negotiation is made possible. If it has been overused and invoked in all sorts of ways that miss the point, the words “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” still come from the mouth of our Savior. It would be a great shame if those who bore the name of Christ were worse at this than their “enemies.”
And let it be noted that this scary possibility has precedent in the New Testament – where those who were ethically and theologically “closest” to Christ were the objects of His greater denunciations than those who were (on paper) “further away.” To invoke another biblical truism, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” May it be that our hearts are never far from His. God help us.