Race and “the velocity of history”

Rebecca:

I hope you don’t mind if I take a small detour from questions of Christianity and politics to talk for a few moments about race.

This should be easy, eh?

As it happens, I’m currently reading “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson. It feels like a companion text to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-lauded “Between the World and Me,” except that earlier book — ultimately — was a conversation among black folks about being black folks, one that whites might get a chance to listen in on. Dyson’s book, as the subtitle suggests, is aimed squarely at us whites, a relentlessly hectoring “What the HELL are you going to do about this injustice!?!?” tome born of anger and love and faith.

Anyway, here’s a passage I read tonight and I want to share it with you.

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

I’d like to talk about the “velocity of history” a bit.

Back when I was working in Philly, I played a part in committing what I can only characterize as a “racial error.” (That’s too cloying; put it more clearly: I fucked up.) I helped arrange a magazine cover featuring students at a local elementary school — and neglected to make sure any black students were in the picture.

The response was angry and loud. And I was … well, I was a lot of things. I had written within recent months about “white privilege,” but even my familiarity with the concept wasn’t enough to make me aware enough of my own blind spots.

Goddammit.

I learned a lot of lessons from the affair, all of them painful. But one of the chief among them was this: When you commit a racial fuckup, that racial fuckup doesn’t exist in isolation. It bears the weight of every racial fuckup, microaggression, injustice and moral outrage that has accumulated in this country since, oh, 1620. (In the case of my particular error, it also bore the weight of my publication’s own history of getting race wrong.) It has its own mass and gravity, and once you’ve entered its orbit — well, prepare yourself.

Even writing about it a couple of years later is scary, because I’m afraid that somebody will read these words and think to themselves I think the moral of my story is: “Oh, poor white me.” That’s not the moral here. I fucked up. People were hurt by it, by my choices. I don’t get to un-own it or make it better by going on the defensive. Let me be clear on that point.

I became somewhat more sympathetic to conservatives who get angry, though, when you bring up race. They’re not the ones who perpetuated slavery or Jim Crow, after all, and they don’t like being implicated in our Great National Sin — they refuse to accept the burden.

But my sympathy — for them, for myself — doesn’t extend that far, and here’s why: White people are able to refuse to accept that burden. Black folks? Not so much. We see it in the vast wealth disparity between whites and blacks. We see it when the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is treated as evidence of racism instead of a pushback against racism. We see it when police apply methods to minority neighborhoods that whites would never allow for themselves. We see it when mainstream conservatives eagerly consume “scientific” proof for white superiority. While we who are white try desperately to unburden themselves,  and often believe we have succeeded, the truth is that for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of,” Dyson writes. I can’t deny it. I don’t even really know what to do with it, except to acknowledge it, to keep acknowledging it, to try and be better than that — and know, from the clear evidence, that sometimes I am not.

I talk about the weight of history. Dyson talks about velocity. You know what mass times velocity is, don’t you?

Momentum.

— Joel

Out of Religion, Deeper into Bigotry

Conservative churches bear responsibility for rising bigotry.

“For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade,” writes Peter Beinart in The Atlantic. “It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” is a fantastic, comprehensive, terrifying examination of how religion and politics are splintering. The most worrisome part isn’t that Black Lives Matter activists aren’t using the Christian model of MLK (one many see as catering to white notions of respectability, a position a bit ahistorical, but who can blame them in the time of a whitewashed King?). It’s that conservative whites are leaving conservative Christianity, which taught, at least officially, that, in God, “there is no Jew nor Gentile”–in other words, that, before God, all people are equal.

When white progressive Christians leave Christianity, it’s often because even the most progressive form of the faith is too conservative. (“Ding, ding! Unitarian Universalism! Last stop before ‘religious none‘!”) When white conservatives leave their faith, they don’t become more liberal. Argues Beinart, “They become intolerant in different ways.” White conservative Christian defectors are more racist, more Islamphobic, and more xenophobic than their peers who stay in church–but less homophobic (which may tell you about how much homophobia gets preached and taught in churches).

Beinart isn’t arguing causation; it could be that dropping out of church makes you more of a bigot, or it could be that bigots are more likely to drop out of church. But what is clear is that conservative churches are missing an opportunity to help white people overcome bigotry.

In fact, churches are likely contributing to the problem. Beinart doesn’t go this far, so I want to be clear that this is my argument, not his. Beinart draws his supporting data mostly from quantitative research on church attendance and political views (which makes sense as he’s a political scientist). My work is qualitative and draws from texts (sermons, Sunday school curricula, radio broadcasts, blogs, etc.) produced by religious believers and leaders.

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.

First, it’s not true. This means that attempts to make it true require telling lies about our history, including erasing the many non-Christians who participated in the nation’s founding,and pretending that native genocide and the slave trade were somehow “Christian.” Second, this claim shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our form of government, which has no place for religion in it.

Above, a video promoting David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s tour of Washington DC, which explores America’s “Christian heritage.”

When churches repeat this lie–for example, peddling the work of pseudo-historian David Barton or booking his “Christian heritage” tours of Washington DC–they are really saying We are willing to lie to insert ourselves into a place of importance.  They are also saying, This is country is ours, not yours. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that America is a falling nation. 

Few Christians go so far as to say that we’re doomed (though Westboro Baptists ran godhatesamerica.com for years; it highlighted all the reasons why God hates the USA), but many Religious Right fundraising newsletters are filled with the claim that we’re just on the brink of losing God’s blessing. That threat is used to inspire participation in all kinds of foolishness–from engagement in the “War on Christmas” to blind support for Israel. In Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, Kathryn Gin Lum traces out much of the history of the declension narrative (We need a volume II, Redemption to the Present). The good news is that this history is long–we’ve apparently been angering God since the start, but he’s not destroyed us yet.

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Above, a billboard includes the first part of Proverbs 14:34: Righteousness Exalts a Nation. The second part of the verse stresses that “sin is a reproach to all people.” The lower part of the billboard encourages voters to “Vote Biblical Values.” In the middle, there is an image of a colonial-era American flag and a Minuteman, implying that the US was founded as a Christian nation and was exalted before God because of Christians’ righteousness. 

When churches teach that America is falling apart, that our nation is dying or already doomed, and that the only way to save it is to diminish the rights of others, they are really saying, It’s non-Christians’ fault that the nation is a mess. 

Conservative churches support bigotry when they claim that Christianity should be given special honor by our government. 

Fifty years after mandatory faculty-led prayer was removed from public schools, conservative Christians still feel the sting of being told that they aren’t special–at least in terms of public support for their faith. Their resentment at being denied their rightful place (see “founded as a Christian nation” above) in our culture and politics is a constant source of humiliation–and motivation for ridiculous efforts to force Christianity on everyone. The great Baptist tradition of keeping the government out of one’s religion has long been set aside by the Religious Right. When churches teach that Christianity should be given special honor, they are really saying, People unlike us should be treated worse than us. 

These messages form the core of conservative churches’ teachings about the place of Christianity in the US. Evidence to the contrary–like the fact that church attendance was pretty low throughout most of US history or that our premarital sex rate has always been pretty high or that the pledge didn’t always include Under God and that our money didn’t always include In God We Trustdoesn’t mean much when folks are committed to seeing themselves as very special and underappreciated.  When these churches say that they are welcoming, what they mean is that they welcome people like them. It’s not hypocritical for them to say that non-Christians don’t belong because they don’t believe that non-Christians founded the nation, help the nation, or deserve to be in the nation.

When these messages are combined with the many failures of the US church today–its derision of working class and the working poor, its judgments about gender that rob poor men and women both of their dignity, its failure to support the reality of families–the result is that many white conservatives leave, and they leave genuinely hurting. Maybe they believe in God or maybe not, but it’s not clear that he or religion has done much to improve their lives.

But they keep believing some of the messages they’ve heard at church (and that are reinforced in messages they from their narrow selection of rightwing news sources and their conspiracy-minded political leaders): This country is mine, not yours.  It’s your fault that this country is a mess. If people like me dominated, it wouldn’t look like this. You deserve less than me. You are a danger to this nation. 

Conservative churches bear responsibility not just for the departure of former believers but for where they end up next–and for how that endangers everyone.

 

Yes, Rod Dreher, Irrelevant Christians Should Go Away

My pendulum doesn’t swing quite as far as Joel’s when it comes to Rod Dreher. I am grateful for his work on Catholic child sex abuse. I can’t imagine the anguish of leaving his beloved Catholic church in light of that, but I admire him deeply for following his conscience. And I’m appreciative of his honesty about his regret for supporting the Iraq War. I think we need to give everyone (ourselves included) ample space to turn around when we’ve made a mistake.

But Dreher has done a lot of damage, too–especially in collapsing gay priests and pedophile priests, a move often used by those who scapegoat gay men for the child rape scandals that have rocked the Catholic church worldwide in their effort to defend the church’s cover-ups. And his worry that LGBT acceptance will be the end of Christianity is so overwrought that you have to wonder if it’s not the the result of some kind of spiritual or psychological wound, not just a gross, ahistorical statement. (The argument for Indian genocide or the enslavement of Africans was a much bigger affront to faith.) I wish Dreher could see how child sex abuse, misogyny, and anti-LGBT sentiment are related. Both rely on patriarchy, secrecy, and shame. I wish Dreher, who has shown himself to be a “big picture” thinker in many ways, could see that bigger picture.  Obviously, he’s not a pedophile priest, but his anti-LGBT statements and commitment to repressive gender norms also endanger children.

So when Dreher threatens to head to a monastery, I’m not sure I’d miss him.

Image result for meteoraAbove, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Meteora. Six active convents or monasteries, plus now-emptied ones, rest like eyries upon gigantic rock formations. It’s one of my favorite places. Dreher looks to the monastic tradition as a model for retreating from the world, to “embed ourselves in stable communities of faith,” in order to deepen spiritual faith. 

I’ve just finished The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation published by Sentinel, Penguin’s right-of-center imprint, and Dreher’s argument is pretty clear: we are in “post-Christian Dark Ages,” and the only way for Christians to keep their faith is to withdraw. He doesn’t call for them to head to actual monasteries but to create stronger Christian “villages”–for example, by homeschooling and living within walking distance of others of faith. The goal is twofold: to strengthen individuals’ faith and also to allow Christianity to survive (and maybe one day reappear triumphant, as it did after the Dark Ages).

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To the left, an image of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the western monastic tradition. 

Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby have developed a model for understanding religious groups’ orientation to the world: world conquerors, transformers, creators, and renouncers, patterns influenced by structure, chance, and choice. Dreher is calling for Christians to choose to renounce the world.

I’m empathetic to Dreher’s position, to an extent. As a native of rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I grew up isolated both physically and culturally. I headed off to a small liberal arts college in the rural mountains of Pennsylvania, a college with historic ties to religion in a region filled with churches and religious believers. In the lead up to Y2K, the land around me was being turned into bunkers–a really extreme Benedict option. I’ve taught in similar places. I currently live in Utah, where the LDS history of retreat and empire building continue to inform politics and faith. And I’ve loved living in religious and ethnic enclaves. When I taught at Hesston College, a small Mennonite college in Kansas, I drove past a half dozen Mennonite churches on the way to work. Each morning, I dropped off my child at the Mennonite childcare center and preschool that was located inside the Mennonite nursing home that was on the same block as my Mennonite college. Each afternoon, I returned to find my Mennonite baby being rocked by old Mennonite ladies who volunteered in the center. My child could have lived much of his life–infancy through pre-K, college, then retirement–on that single block.  My membership is in a church that started as an intentional community with a common purse. This kind of life can be lovely and also stifling.

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Above, “The Cliffs,” a place for retreat and mediation above within walking distance of Juniata College, my alma mater. The Juniata River runs through the valley below.

The Amish might be die Stille im Lande, but American Mennonites have generally been a rural, quiet people too, disengaged from politics, doubtful about the ability of government to get good results, and focused on their spiritual citizenship. The result has been a privileged ignorance about how the overwhelming whiteness of American Mennonites has benefited from institutional racism–like the Homestead Act, which allowed for cheap rural Midwestern settlement after the indigenous people of the region had been removed.

The Mennonite focus on rural life and retreat hasn’t always been our story, though. Early Mennonites were urban radicals, rabblerousers  who, in rejecting both Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation, were also rejecting the government and demanding radical change in politics. Though much reporting on Mennonite political engagement is about the shock of discovering that Mennonites are politically engaged, engagement, not just retreat, is part of our history. We haven’t always been–and many of us still aren’t–world renouncers.

World renouncers are relatively rare in Christianity–and for good reasons. First, isolation to a religious community has to be something you are called to; it can’t be something you impose on someone else–even one’s one children. What is faith if it’s not worked out? And how can it be worked out if it’s given or demanded by one’s parents or community? How strong is a faith that is never tried? How useful is it?

Those drawn to retreat won’t survive it if they are choosing it out of fear of the world, as Dreher seems to. A faith that can’t survive a pluralistic society won’t survive a purified one, either.

Dreher is quite right in his insistence (the real gift in this book) that “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.” And there are times when we must exit the world in order to wrestle with and renew that faith. But these are moments–maybe some moments every day, maybe shorter or longer uninterrupted periods of retreat. For most of us, our calling (and our challenge) is to learn to think and,more importantly, to do our faith in the world where we already are.

Those who retreat in order to save Christianity, as if it is some priceless artwork to be hidden from the Nazis, already have little faith. If your Christianity can’t weather the world, it’s not worth much. If it doesn’t speak to the needs of this present world–the only one we can serve–then the world doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t deserve to survive.

 

The Little Faith of Erick Erickson

In his effort to support a revision of the budget to shift even more money from the poor and oppressed to the wealthy and powerful, Erick Erickson, who, despite claiming to read the New Testament in Greek (according to a tweet on March 17), invoked Matthew 25 to justify a limited government. It’s an overt attack on those who would say that Christians have a duty to care for the vulnerable and the poor by arguing that, in fact, Jesus meant the Christian vulnerable and poor, not the poor in general.

EE tweet

Erickson’s tweet is pretty sloppy. First, there were no Christians during Jesus’ time. There were a few people who consistently followed Jesus around and supported his work, and Jesus did speak about them, but he didn’t talk about them as Christians. The term wasn’t used until after his death; the author of Acts says that the term was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26). In fact, Jesus himself wasn’t called “the Christ” in the gospels, though he was anointed (the meaning of the word) with both oil and the Holy Spirit according to the gospels.

But let’s read Erickson generously–after all, he had just 144 characters–and say that he meant that Jesus was talking to his followers at the time and also looking ahead to after his resurrection, when he knew that those who would become Christians would be in need of help. We have lots of advice to these people from Paul, whose talent was in forming and supporting new churches–greet each other with a kiss, honor each other’s talents, work together in unity. We get some advice from other New Testament writers–don’t chatter pointlessly in church, pull your weight in the community as you are able, bear with each other. We do get some advice that Jesus clearly gives only for his disciples: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Erickson is asking a bigger question than one narrowly addressed by Matthew 25. It could be that the Matthew 25 passage he’s referring to does address only Christian-Christian relationships, though it may be more accurate to read the text, even in this light, as talking about “the teacher and those who are taught,” regardless of whether “the taught” are Christians.

The larger question is how particular or universal Christian charity should be. While the “least of these” passage could be read narrowly–that is, to be applied just to Christians–so many of Jesus’ other words and actions show mercy and generosity toward “non-Christians” (or Jesus’ non-followers) that it’s hard to justify through Christianity the draconian budget choices Erickson is defending. Maybe Jesus is talking about fellow Christians or even only fellow Christians when he instructs listeners to feed the hungry and care for the sick, but that doesn’t undermine his call to “love thy enemies”–which includes walking an extra mile with them and giving them your coat. He performed miracles for those with faith as well as for those without it.

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Above, Domenico Fetti’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Jesus answers the question “Who is my neighbor?”  with the story of a Jew injured by robbers who is ignored by other Jews. Finally, a Samaritan, a man from a despised group, picks up up, tends his wounds, sits him upon his own animal (as in the scene above, where the Samaritan is hoisting the injured man on his donkey), and takes him to a nearby inn, making an open-ended promise to pay for his care at whatever cost.  The passage says that Jesus took up the question because a man (not named, but perhaps Erick Erickson?), “wanting to justify himself,” wanted to reduce his obligations only to those within his religious circle.  Jesus says no to that foolishness. 

Oh, and the cruel, oppressive government, which exploits the poor to the benefit of the rich–it’s always the bad guy in the New Testament. It’s not bad because it’s European-style socialism. It’s bad because it takes from the poor to give to the wealthy and demands allegiance that belongs to God.

Jesus characterizes the tribalism that Erickson is calling for as the most basic of responses. It’s an instinct to care for our own. That’s a standard even unbelievers can meet. It’s not hard to love those who love you–even sinners can do that, Jesus tells his followers. We don’t need to make much effort to tighten our ranks, support our own kind, and ignore the suffering of those unlike us; it’s when we act counter to our own selfish interests to care for the one unlike us that we demonstrate that we are worthy of being told to “go and do likewise.” In fact, it’s the only way to “be perfect like your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

Ultimately, Erickson is asking Christians to be afraid–that we won’t have enough to care for ourselves, each other, and non-Christians. He entices us to feel resentful–after all, what if those non-Christians I feed, clothe, or shelter end up being unworthy of my effort? What if they take advantage of me? What if I end up poor and they end up rich because I gave them so much? This ungrateful thinking asks us to forget that all we have is God’s and to doubt God’s providential care for us.

And there is another way that Erickson is wrong: Christian generosity to non-Christians doesn’t threaten Christianity; it grows it. 

Erick Erickson’s Low Standards

Joel, you are quite kind to engage Erick Erickson as if he had something of theological substance to offer.

Erickson whined this week that people who aren’t Christians and “don’t believe in Jesus” shouldn’t criticize politically conservative Christians for cutting funding to Meals on Wheels–as if it’s wrong for non-Christians to note Christian hypocrisy.

If Erickson cared about Christianity, he would be begging non-Christians to call Christians out for being hypocrites so that Christians would act with more integrity. Religious believers’ hypocrisy is a major reason why so many are turned off from religion. It was actually a major theme of Jesus’ teaching: to take the plank out of your own eye rather than pointing out the splinter in someone else’s. If non-believers are willing to call Christians out for their failures, Erickson should thank God  that they are still paying attention and still expect Christians to act like Jesus.

And, as you keenly point out, “If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?” Why should the rest of us have to honor the Bible and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” if conservative Christians aren’t going to even bother caring for widows and orphans in a way that actually cares for widows and orphans?

Above, an image from a charismatic church service in Illinois, with men on one side of the church and women on the other. Churches were overwhelmed by needs from congregants and were often unable to care for even members, leaving those outside of churches even more vulnerable. This 1939 photo was by Arthur Rothstein, who captures many such images of rural life during the Depression. It is housed in the Library of Congress. 

The Trump budget that Erickson is defending illustrates an old argument between Christian conservatives, who say that it’s churches and voluntary organizations that should provide welfare services (because it’s not “compassionate” to make people pay for services they don’t directly benefit from), and Christian progressives who say that Christianity demands that we collectively care for the poor via the government. Conservatives are all about being “subject to governing authorities” but a lot more hesitant about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s when they think that Caesar is redistributing wealth downward.

Christian conservatives are wrong in their argument because, though religious organizations do tremendously valuable work in caring for the needy, they can’t do it alone; the need is simply too great. Alison Collis Greene’s fantastic No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta shows us what happened when churches couldn’t meet the need of the people. And some jobs–protecting the environment, discovering cures for diseases, creating a public transportation system–are well beyond the scope of a church and can only be accomplished by the government. And conservative Christians are hypocritical in their argument that Christianity shouldn’t be invoked when it’s part of an argument for social welfare but should be invoked when supporting war or prayer in public school and opposing gay rights and abortion. Which is it–we obey authorities and pay up or resist them?

Conservative Christians like to point out that progressive Christians are hypocrites for invoking religion in defense of immigrants, refugees, and the environment and rejecting religious arguments against feminism or mandatory public displays of religiosity. This, though, is a false equivalency: progressive arguments rooted in Biblical mandates to care for the vulnerable (hungry elders, hungry children, the sick, the imprisoned) support policies and programs (Meals on Wheels, free and reduced lunch, the ACA, prison reform) that are also supported by social science. I think the fact that my religious beliefs work in reality is a pretty good sign that they’re good beliefs–you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree, after all. Conservative Christian budget ideas… well, they yield bad fruit.

Above, an Orthodox depiction of Jesus cursing a fig tree that had no figs on it. To be fair, it wasn’t fig season. But when Jesus wants figs, you better produce! 

Mick Mulvaney lies: we know which programs work and how and why, and we have good ideas about how they can work better. In contrast, conservative Christian arguments for government intervention are far more often supported by religion alone. (I’m going to carve out a big exception here for abortion, which I think can be opposed on grounds that aren’t religious.) There is no reason to argue that we should “put God back in school” or prevent same-sex couples from getting married except for religion.

But, if I’m taking Erickson as a sincere believer, there is an even bigger problem with Erickson’s argument: instead of humbly asking how conservative Christians can better live out the first and second greatest commandments–to love God and to love their neighbor–he implies that non-Christians must be less Christ-like than Christians simply because they are non-Christians.

Who cares if they are? Shouldn’t Christians act more Christ-like than non-Christians? If believing in Jesus doesn’t produce Christ-like Christians, what is the point of believing? Why believe if it doesn’t matter? Erickson sets a pretty low standard here. Many non-Christians have considered their experiences with Erickson and his co-religionists and have reached their own conclusions, as the continued decline in religious believers suggests.

 

What can non-Christians tell Christians like Erick Erickson about Christianity?

President Trump’s budget came out Thursday, with big increases to military spending and big cuts to pretty much all other discretionary spending. Lots of people raised a big stink, to which conservative Erick Erickson responded:

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So. Can Christians learn anything about Christianity from non-Christians?

I’d like to think so. Certainly, we can read the Bible as well as any Christian can, and if we who are atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Muslim can read those words, look at how Christians behave, and draw some conclusions about the sincerity or authenticity of that faith.

We can read, for example, Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

…and expect Christians to act accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty to argue about, I guess, regarding the “how” we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Does that have to be a government program?

But understand: American Christians bring their religiously based moral understandings to bear on a whole bunch of government policy — especially as regards reproductive rights, but also a whole bunch of other stuff. If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?

Rod Dreher takes his ball and goes home

Rebecca:

I’d like to talk a bit about Rod Dreher.

Do you know of him? He’s now a writer at The American Conservative, but I’ve been following his career for years — back when he was a Catholic pursuing the Catholic abuse story at a time when doing so was still a difficult thing to do (his angst was so great that he converted to the Eastern Orthodox church) and back when he was one of the first conservatives to break with the movement over the Iraq War. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had an affinity for conservatives willing to stand apart from movement orthodoxy, and he fits the bill.

But it’s complicated.

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

There aren’t many writers who produce this kind of reaction with me, but there you go.

I mention him because he’s got a new book out, “The Benedict Option,” that’s probably worth our notice. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read his blog over the years as he developed the ideas in the book, so I think I can fairly sum up the core idea.

  • American Christians no longer dominate American society like they used to — see the rise, and widespread acceptance of, gay marriage.
  • As a result, the religious liberty of American Christians is threatened — one small example being the whole wedding cakes issue — which, in turn, threatens their ability to freely live out their religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the survival of authentic faith in America.
  • So it’s time to start limiting participation in the broader culture, to cloister up into small Christian communities that limit interaction with and influence from the outside world, in order to be able to continue to live authentically Christian lives.  

Damon Linker distills Dreher down to this:

This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.

And here’s Dreher giving his elevator pitch during an interview:

It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.

And here’s one more good summary of the arguments involved. Also, Dreher’s Christianity Today cover story

Given that this is Dreher, I’m of two minds how to react.

I kicked off our conversation by asking, essentially, if Christianity was essentially a tribal exercise or a spiritual undertaking. Dreher’s answer to this seems to be: “Yes.” By which I mean: It seems that Christianity is for societal ordering, until it’s no longer in that position, after which it’s time to turn inward and focus on our souls.

Dreher, to be fair, would probably contest that characterization, and counter with the the idea that America being ordered along Christian lines has given individuals the room they need to focus on their souls — and that the shifts in society require an intentionality on the soul-cultivation front that maybe wasn’t quite as pressing.

Either way, here’s what’s frustrating: Society is no longer ordered to Dreher’s liking. So he’s taking his ball and going home. My instinct isn’t to like this.

On the other hand, there’s scriptural and traditional basis for Christians walking away from situations they consider unwelcoming. Here’s Matthew 10:

11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on. 12As you enter the house, greet its occupants. 13If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

And what’s more: You and I are heir to and participants in the Mennonite tradition — a tradition that includes a lot of fleeing and cloistering. The Mennonites I grew up with in Central Kansas told their story as such: They started out in Germany, fled from there to Russia when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism, then from Russia to America when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism there. The older Mennonites where I grew up spoke a  “low German” dialect that signified some of this history. (They were still using it in worship services well into the 1950s.) Maybe I’m not in a good position to critique Dreher’s own sensibilities here.

So maybe my problem here with Dreher is that he sees gay liberation as a zero-sum game: If they get full rights, then conservative Christians will end up oppressed. I don’t like that idea very much at all.

Still waiting for my copy of the book, which may provoke more discussion yet.

— Joel