Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for the ‘The Wrong Question’ Category

Taking Religion Seriously

leave a comment »

As part of a series of videos from The Atlantic titled “Unpresidented”, Emma Green, who is a staff writer, presents “Why Don’t Democrats Take Religion Seriously.” She analyzes the support given to Donald Trump by Christian voters and recounts the statistics showing the increasing number of Democrats who self-describe as not religious.

Green uses a video clip where Charlie Cook said, in a 2016 interview, that “The Democratic Party has become a secular party.” She illustrates her argument with the famous incident from 2008 where Barack Obama put his foot in it, saying “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This would work better if Democrat attitudes toward religion were a simple marketing decision, where they could just stop alienating traditionally religious voters. In fact, the issue is more complicated than that.

The people who are in control of the Democratic Party agenda self-identify as Progressives, and I am going to identify them as such. As we shall see, across all the changes from the Progressive Era through the New Deal to the social justice initiatives of today, there is a fundamental thread that connects them.

Green touched on the difference between Progressives and all Democrats when she cited the statistic that about a third of the Democratic grass-roots opposes abortion, but very few of the national leadership does. The national leadership is Progressive, but not all of the Democratic voters are.

Green also identifies Rev. William Barber II as an inheritor of a Christian spiritual tradition that traces back through Martin Luther King (and, indeed, abolitionists such as Garrison and Phillips), advocating a political viewpoint that is informed by Christian teaching and tradition. However, she notes that he is outside the Democratic Party elite.

For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951).

Whether or not they acknowledge it as such, Progressives already have a religion. They do not worship a supernatural deity. They do not endorse a book claiming to contain revealed truth about that deity. They do not believe that someone can miraculously change water into wine. But these are incidental features; the essential ingredient is faith, and Progressives have that in abundance.

By definition, faith is not open to persuasion. It cannot be proven false. If a believer can be talked out of her faith, it can’t have been very deeply rooted to begin with.

We can compare Christianity and Progressivism, thinking theologically about both of them:

Christianity Progressivism
Focus of faith and worship God The People
Creation Is good
Humanity is given dominion as stewards of creation.
Is good
Humanity is nothing special
Sin I put my will before the will of God I put my will before the General Will, the Public Interest
Judgement You get your reward in Heaven We must make matters right here and now
Redemption Acceptance of Jesus as savior Acceptance of the General Will
Is intrusive? No, you have free will Yes, the power of the state must be used to coerce right behavior from the unbelievers
Grace An unmerited gift of God Earned by right thinking
As a believer, you cannot deserve Grace The results of your efforts
Human nature Conflicted: good and evil contend within and for the soul of every person All good; evil is external to the person
“Love and do as you will”
Cardinal virtues Temperance
Prudence
Fortitude
Justice
Tolerance
Compassion
Guilt
Social Justice
Sacraments Baptism
Holy Eucharist
(Roman Catholics have five others)
Environmentalism
Multi-culturalism
Community service
Self-criticism
Prophets from before the common era Moses
Elijah
Isaiah
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Auguste Comte
Karl Marx
Bearers of wisdom in the common era Paul, born Saul of Tarsus
John Chrysostom
Augustine of Hippo
Theodor W. Adorno
John Rawls
Michel Foucault
Salvation is Individual Collective
Eschatology Jesus shall return to judge the living and the dead; his kingdom shall have no end Social progress shall reveal the truth, allowing us to transcend politics; history will end

A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Christians obtain sacraments by ritual actions. Progressives obtain sacraments by ritual promotion of beliefs.

Progressives do not believe that five thousand persons can be fed from five loaves and two fishes, but Christians do not believe that the entire world can be fed without honest effort by all persons.

Even though many Progressives have turned their backs on technological progress or economic progress, their faith in social progress is central. They believe that history will prove them out, justifying their beliefs and repudiating those of the people who disagree with them. They like to say that those who disagree with them are “on the wrong side of history.” For this reason, I find they are properly identified as Progressives.

A faith in The People also requires a priestly class to interpret the inexpressible will of The People. Just walking up to actual people and asking them what they want appears to be both unreliable and unsatisfactory. One needs special abilities to discern between the public interest and one’s own special interest, much the same way that not everyone can discern between the Will of God and their own wills.

There are, to be sure, persons who are both Christian and Progressive. They are serving two masters; if they think otherwise, they have another think coming. The People are also a jealous god, demanding that the faithful have no gods outranking The People. The two beliefs of human nature and the two concepts of spiritual authority are wholly incompatible.

In the late 1800s there was the Social Gospel movement. Leaders of this movement called for social redemption of the entire community, giving this priority over redemption of individual believers. As John Taylor summarized it, “The Social Gospel adherents considered it to be their mission to fulfill, in this life, the New Testament’s call to bring about the perfect Kingdom of God.” One Social Gospel leader, Charles Sheldon, introduced the question, “What would Jesus do?”

The problem for the Social Gospelers was that, if the goal is to achieve social salvation on earth, God is at a disadvantage compared to the State. As noted above, God is not intrusive; the State has the means to be very intrusive, marshaling its police power to coerce desired behaviors. Thus, for those whose goal was to be the reform of society along these moral lines, the State was a much surer bet than God. Instead of sitting around praying for change, you can seize power and make people obey. In this way, the Social Gospel served as a gateway ideology, leading many persons to a point where they would switch their faith to The People and the power that sits at the right hand of The People, the State. This is entirely consistent with Comte’s three-stage theory of societal development, and John Dewey is a notable example of a person who followed this path.

The so-called mainline Protestant churches tried to square the circle, to endorse Progressive agenda items while remaining Christian. These churches include the Episcopalians, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) — distinct from the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church — and the United Church of Christ. As Lyman Stone wrote for Vox.com, they “focus more political efforts toward Christian social relief rather than Christian moral teachings.” And they are losing membership, while eyeing with envy the full parking lot at the evangelical church down the road.

So, while Green calls upon Progressives to make peace with those faithful to traditional, deity-centered religions, they really have no room to do so. Progressives have a religion to which they are strongly committed. I argue that Progressives do have moral beliefs, just that those do not sit well alongside Christian moral beliefs. It is unfair to accuse Progressives of not having moral beliefs; they think their beliefs are fully moral. Their ideas of what people deserve, whom ought to be helped in society and on what terms are rooted in their faith. Their beliefs about justice, equity and a good life are informed by their faith every bit as much as the parallel beliefs of Christians and Jews are informed by theirs.

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. … For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)
— Mark Tushnet, “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism“. Balkinization, 6 May 2016.

(To be fair to Tushnet, he did recognize at the end of his essay, “Of course all bets are off if Donald Trump becomes President.”)

The normative pull Tushnet cites is the moral basis of his beliefs, founded in his faith and those who believe along with him. The only element of hubris in his argument is his assertion that the issues are already settled (and his history would have you believe we adopted the Morgenthau Plan). I sincerely doubt he would say that he is having a hard time talking about morality. He has a simple moral message: We’re right; they’re wrong. Come to think of it, James Carville wrote a book with that title in 1996.

The foundation in faith is what makes the issue really matter. My disagreement with Green’s analysis is not an idle point of theory — and give her proper credit: her essay is a great starting point. We need to understand the religious nature and righteous characteristics of Progressive faith in order to really understand how much trouble we as a society are in.

I do not want to reduce this discussion to the idea that, If Progressives would just shape up and get with our faith, we wouldn’t have all these problems. That has already been said; meanwhile Progressives are saying similar things about others, including me. There is no room to persuade people. How does one be heard if one says, I know your faith calls you to do A, B and C, but you really need to compromise on B and C to get A? No group of faithful believers has ever been receptive to this kind of message. If you truly believed, would you want to back down and settle for half a loaf because someone is arguing with you? Militant faith demands that you go out and get it all, or die in the attempt. Anything less is moral degeneracy and faithlessness. There are souls out there depending on you.

Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea, and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry, toil, and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
— Oliver Cromwell

This is how you get a holy war, like those that consumed Europe after the Reformation. When Mary I had Protestants burned or John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned, they thought they were following the only moral course of action. The various dissenters were putting their wills before the will of God. They would lead everyone astray if they were allowed to do so. Such behavior cannot stand, especially if we are ever going to get to Jerusalem. You are necessitated to break them.

What we have here is a holy war in the making. At this time, we cannot say how hard is the road ahead. We sense that it will be hard going indeed, and we sensibly fear it. But we cannot turn from it. It is a road we must travel to get to our destination.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address”, 1860

Advertisements

Did Donald Trump Obstruct Justice?

leave a comment »

We had a fun argument earlier this week on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Dershowitz over whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice by his conduct toward former FBI director James Comey. You can see it here (4:43).

Toobin claimed that Trump obstructed justice:

  • That the alleged request by Trump to Comey to lay off investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn would have constituted obstruction of justice;
  • That Trump’s firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.

Dershowitz disagreed. He argued that Trump had the constitutional options to order Comey directly to cease investigating Flynn or even to grant Flynn an executive pardon. Dershowitz cited the example of Caspar Weinberger, who had served as Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and who had been indicted by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1992, accusing Weinberger of perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra Affair. President George H. W. Bush pardoned Weinberger before these charges could be tried.

Dershowitz did not argue that Trump should get a free pass, just that his behavior was within his authority under the Constitution and did not constitute a crime. During the interview, Dershowitz said, “Impeachment is political. There is no judicial review of impeachment. You can impeach a president for jaywalking.”

I have to agree with Dershowitz, not just because of his reputation as a constitutional law scholar. Where does the FBI appear on the constitutional org chart? It is within the Justice Department, part of the Executive branch. The FBI is not an independent agency — does anybody really want it to be? (Anybody remember J. Edgar Hoover?)

As such, the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president, who has the constitutional authority to dismiss the director for any reason, or no reason at all. This is not to say that there will be no political consequences for the president. Lyndon Johnson wanted to dismiss Hoover, but drew back from the political consequences [see Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 529]. Trump went ahead and fired Comey, and he can live with the political consequences of having done so.

Abuse of political power is a perfectly good reason to impeach a president. Congress also has less extreme options at its disposal, such as cutting funding for the president’s programs and either refusing or delaying consideration of the president’s legislative agenda.

Criminalizing political behavior you don’t like is a bad road to go down. It would represent another step toward being a banana republic with no bananas.

In this case, it is political spinelessness that causes people to seek some artificial objective standard — never mind that it is not applicable. If you don’t like the man’s politics, come out and say so. Seek political means to counteract them.

And if you’re in journalism, and you are concerned that you can’t object to someone’s politics and still appear unbiased, you’re absolutely right. You have to choose your course and live with the consequences no less than a politician has to.

Written by srojak

June 10, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Man Up!

leave a comment »

Through most of human history, wealth creation meant finding a new gold mine. It was a negative sum world; the way to get ahead was to step on other people. You can’t look at that world through the same lens you would view everyday life in 2016 Corporate America.

There was no concept of wealth creation at the time of the New Testament. When you read that the apostle Matthew was a tax collector, do not think of him as a Roman IRS agent. The Romans had introduced tax farming in 123 BC to increase the efficiency of collecting revenue. The Romans would auction off the exclusive right to collect taxes in a territory. The winner of the auction had to front the money to Rome, and then would go collect the taxes, plus some. Being a tax collector, officially known as a publicanus, could be very lucrative, because you could increase the amount you collected and the proceeds were all yours. Being a publicanus was an opportunity to make yourself rich at the expense of your neighbors.

A Roman provincial magistrate was not paid a salary. The position was an opportunity for a rich man to become very rich through means that we who live in the Anglo-Saxon political tradition now consider corrupt: peddling influence, shaking down merchants and extracting tribute. The real plums of the Empire in the time of Augustus were Egypt and Spain. Judea, with its troublesome population, was no prize; Pilate must have been viewed by his Roman contemporaries as distinctly minor league to have been sent there. On his arrival, Pilate promptly brought Jerusalem to near revolt through his actions that Judeans considered defilement of the holy city.

What was a real man in a world like this? In most places and times, a real man was distinctly predatory, taking care of himself and his own at the expense of anyone who came across him. Such a person is not typically going to have what we might call a modern view of the poor, women or anyone who is different.

Skip forward about one thousand years and move to Normandy. Game of Thrones depicts medieval conditions much more accurately than any of the mid-twentieth century movies. Norman barons are about 2-3 generations removed from Viking raiders. In 911, the King of France bought off the most powerful of these and made him Duke of Normandy. In return the Duke promised to convert to Christianity, recognize the King of France as his liege lord and, above all, stop raiding all over France.

The Duke then made his subordinate commanders into barons, and barons grow highly skilled knights who exist to fight for the Duke. What do they do all day besides practice their swordsmanship? The barons are a contentious lot, constantly looking to expand their holdings at the expense of their neighbors. They send their knights out to fight. The knights may fight the knights of the baron across the river, but that could get them killed. An even better way is to slaughter the other baron’s defenseless peasants. There could be opportunities for fun activities like pillage and rape. Modern history shows that a man who comes of age in such an environment and has it reinforced by his peer group can develop a taste for this.

Well-behaved knights would mostly keep off the peasants belonging to their baron, at least if there was anyone watching. It was always open season on peasants belonging to other lords. Conditions were so lawless that Pope Urban II decided this taste for violence needed another outlet. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, he proclaimed:

You oppressors of orphans, you robbers of widows, you homicides, you blasphemers, you plunderers of others’ rights … if you want to take counsel for your souls you must either cast off as quickly as possible the belt of this sort of knighthood or go forward boldly as knights of Christ, hurrying swiftly to defend the Eastern Church.

Let’s see, the choices are: stop picking on defenseless peasants or go to the Holy Land and pick on defenseless people there while gaining glory as knights of Christ. Is this an IQ test? All together now: God wills it!

All across the world, in places as geographically and culturally separate as Europe and Japan, the ideal man — the gentleman or the samurai — was a man who does not engage in productive work. He can fight, he can contemplate, he can live a life of leisure. He can obtain a government office and tell other people what to do. It is unthinkable for a noble man to produce.

Four etchings from The Great Miseries of War, by Jacques Callot, 1633. Possibly the first instance ever of anti-war art.

Four etchings from The Great Miseries of War, by Jacques Callot, 1633. Possibly the first instance ever of anti-war art.

Slide forward to the Thirty Years’ War. Another golden opportunity for men who like that sort of thing to kill other people in the name of God, although any pretext would have worked. Some areas in Germany required almost a hundred years just to get back to a 1600 standard of living. The good news is that people started to get sick of it and take measures to prevent it. Our First Amendment clause forbidding Congress from establishing a state religion is a direct result of the European wars of religion over the previous 250 years.

The point is that predatory behavior has been the prevailing standard of what a proper man is for most of human history. In many places, it still is.

To look at the boys fighting for the Islamic State or Boko Haram and ask why they are doing that is, really, the wrong question. The right questions are:

  • Why do we have other definitions of being an honorable man?
  • How did we get these definitions?
  • How do we defend ourselves against cultures who cannot respect our definitions?

The idea of an honorable man being a man who works, creates wealth and is not a predator is a Western creation. It is only in the West, over the last three hundred years, that this alternate definition of proper manhood has begun to take root. It is a necessary predecessor for the wealth we enjoy, since without it the wealth of productive people would continue to be dissipated by the predatory faster than it can be accumulated. This, not Western exploitation, is why people with predatory ideals of manhood live in dirt.

In any culture that I can think of, the farmers and artisans were the social inferiors of the warriors. The warriors do not feed themselves; they take from the farmers and artisans. It’s a permanent protection racket.

Was it a painful process to get past this and become a productive society? Yes, it was. Are we at the zenith of our development? By no means. Did we have episodes of backsliding? We sure did. Are we completely free of predatory behavior? No, but we have a culture that directs it in productive ways. “I can build a bigger iron bridge than you” is a position that leads to better lives for entire nations. “I can put an iron broadsword through your guts” does not.

We now have a substantial problem, because we have entire generations who have no idea what advantages they have from Western Civilization and no idea why it is even worth defending. We need to figure it out as a people, fast.

Written by srojak

June 26, 2016 at 4:27 pm