Here is a Christian leader gushing over his access to power. Lord, have mercy! Sorry “ultimate selfie” is not with #45!
Yuval Levin writes wise, thoughtful, and accessible books. His previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, was terrific. And as I said in its review, it is not just for “political junkies.”
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism can stand on its own, but I would recommend reading The Great Debate as well.
The Fractured Republic is refreshing. Levin is a conservative, but that does not keep him from correcting his conservative kin, especially on fueling an expressive individualism that is just as toxic as those on the Left. Levin believes that conservatives who appreciate the importance of “mediating institutions” like families, communities, and religious groups, is where promise for a better political climate moving forward resides.
Levin rightly sees both conservatives and liberals falling prey to nostalgia, a longing for a bygone era where things were so much better than the present. Both sides need to disabuse themselves of nostalgia in order to see their way forward in making wise decisions in a culture that is different from the past.
Scholars are rarely prophets and prophets are rarely scholars. I was reminded of this in reading the much debated, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.
Rod Dreher, journalist and outspoken Christian, is decidedly on the prophetic side of the scholar-prophet spectrum. This, however, does not mean that he is incapable of helping us better understand the far-reaching and practical ramifications of something as arcane as nominalism.
We must say right out of the blocks that Dreher’s book is not a jeremiad screed to head for the hills. Rather, Dreher advocates for “exile in place.” The preposition is key. We are to cultivate faithfulness with other like-minded folks not simply to hunker down in our religious enclaves. We should form these counter-cultural communities to strengthen our capacity to engage, not escape, our world. This is a clarion call by a gifted writer to let the church be the church.
I have my disagreements with some of Dreher’s analysis and antidotes. With respect to the former, Dreher is insufficiently aware of what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola Scriptura. As Keith Mathison memorably puts it, sola Scpritura does not mean solo Scriptura. Among other things, leaning on the thesis in Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation made for a potted history. Dreher would have been greatly helped if he had availed himself of the work of either Mathison or D.H. Williams, especially his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer of Suspicious Protestants.
As to antidotes, I don’t share Dreher’s sweeping denunciation of public schools. For the record, our two sons attended Christian schools, had a few years of homeschooling, and went to public high schools. All three have their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, public schools can be a mess. I saw incompetent teachers and weak administrators, but I also saw bogus rules, unprincipled administrators and mean teachers at the Christian school. My experience, it needs to be noted, was both as a parent and a part-time teacher.
Dreher is rightly concerned about the corrosive effects of “moralistic, therapeutic, Deism.” I share his concerns. I also share Dreher’s conviction that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” As many have said, the church seems the most vital (and prophetic) when it works from the margins of power. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Dreher’s book is a good reminder of that reality.
The modern notion of “politics” is much narrower than the ancient one. The modern idea thinks mainly of things like voting, lobbying for favorite causes, and those who govern.
Levin shows us in his terrific book that there is much more to politics. For example, one’s understanding of human nature and history dramatically affect how one understands political change. So-called progressives and so-called conservatives are given much to think about in this fine work.
Since I am late to the party in reviewing this book, let me close with one massive implication that came to me in reading this book and it deals with Christian theology. For those of us Christians who gladly hold to more conservative or orthodox (small o) theology, there is something terribly important we can learn from Edmund Burke. Burke believed that the best of tradition is true, but to convince more radical types like Paine, it was crucial to also show the beauty of tradition. If I were to grade us conservative Christians on how well we do in showing the beauty of truth, I would give us a very low grade. Carefully crafted doctrine is essential, but it needs to shine forth as beautiful.
You can purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Debate-Edmund-Burke-Thomas/dp/0465050972
I’ve read several good books about President Jackson. None have been duds. All of them taught me fascinating and important things about Jackson.
Jon Meacham combines some of my favorite features for biography: wonderful wordsmithing, lucid prose, an eye for the salient details, and a nose for smelling out the proper drama.
If you are looking for a terrific biography of Jackson, this is the place I would recommend.
See my review right below this post:
The short answer to my subject line is “yes.” The longer, but still short answer of “yes” resides in this tract for our times. I heard someone say that On Tyranny reminded them of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, a short, but powerful rallying cry for all Americans. The comparison seems apt.
Before you write off the author as some conspiratorial loon, keep in mind that Snyder is an eminent scholar of Eastern European studies. And it is the study of Eastern Europe that gives credibility to this work. Most importantly, is the fact that Eastern Europeans appreciate that things can go terribly wrong. Believing that a “new day in America” means “an even better day” is naive and shows that we are ignorant of history. Many of us, including our Western European friends, were stunned by the election of Donald Trump. Eastern Europeans weren’t.
I have two quibbles with On Tyranny. Neither are that significant. In the book and in a few lectures I’ve heard, Professor Snyder uses “the end of history” without defining it. Some of us are very familiar with the idea popularized by Francis Fukuyama, but others could be helped by some unpacking of the idea. My other minor reservation revolves around a sentence that closes out Professor Snyder’s third action step. Here’s the sentence: “We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions.” I think it is safe to say we are already being tested, but not having elections in 2018? That strikes me, even as a pretty grizzled “no Trumpster” as incautious.
Like I say those are quibbles. I am glad to see this book getting such a wide hearing.
The word “pagan” is used in various ways. There are popular and scholarly definitions. Here, we get one that makes sense to me from Andrew Sullivan (HT: John Fea’s Blog, The Way of Improvement):
Trump is not an atheist, confident yet humble in the search for a God-free morality. He is not an agnostic, genuinely doubtful as to the meaning of existence but always open to revelation should it arrive. He is not even a wayward Christian, as he sometimes claims to be, beset by doubt and failing to live up to ideals he nonetheless holds. The ideals he holds are, in fact, the antithesis of Christianity — and his life proves it. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is pre-religious. He is a pagan. He makes much more sense as a character in Game of Thrones, a medieval world bereft of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, than as a president of a modern, Western country.
Every pillar of Trump’s essential character is a cardinal sin for Christians: lust, gluttony, greed, envy, anger, and pride. We are all guilty of these, of course, but there is in Trump a centrality to them, a shame-free celebration of them, that is close to unique in the history of the American presidency. I will never understand how more than half of white Catholics could vote for such a man, or how the leadership of the church could be so terribly silent when such a monster stalks the earth.
I am more convinced than ever that Christian support for Trump is a collosal mistake. What ever happened to invoking the founding fathers like Madison on the indispensability of character in our politicians?
Even in an era of marriage diversity, it remains the most unlikely match: President Trump and his loyal evangelical base. In the compulsively transgressive, foul-mouthed, loser-disdaining, mammon-worshiping billionaire, conservative Christians “have found their dream president,” according to Jerry Falwell Jr.
It is a miracle, of sorts.
In a recent analysis, the Pew Research Center found that more than three-fourths of white evangelical Christians approve of Trump’s job performance, most of them “strongly.” With these evangelicals comprising about a quarter of the electorate, their support is the life jacket preventing Trump from slipping into unrecoverable political depths.
The essence of Trump’s appeal to conservative Christians can be found in his otherwise anodyne commencement speech at Liberty University. “Being an outsider is fine,” Trump said. “Embrace the label.” And then he promised: “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith.” Trump presented evangelicals as a group of besieged outsiders, in need of a defender.
This sense of grievance and cultural dispossession — the common ground between The Donald and the faithful — runs deep in evangelical Christian history. Evangelicalism emerged from the periodic mass revivals that have burned across America for 300 years. While defining this version of Christianity is notoriously difficult, it involves (at least) a personal decision to accept God’s grace through faith in Christ and a commitment to live — haltingly, imperfectly — according to his example.
In the 19th century, evangelicals (particularly of the Northern variety) took leadership in abolitionism and other movements of social reform. But as a modernism based on secular scientific and cultural assumptions took control of institution after institution, evangelicals often found themselves dismissed as anti-intellectual rubes.
The trend culminated at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which evolution and H.L. Mencken were pitted against creation and William Jennings Bryan (whom Mencken called “a tin pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards”). Never mind that Mencken was racist, anti-Semitic and an advocate of eugenics and that Bryan was the compassionate progenitor of the New Deal. Fundamentalists (a designation adopted by many evangelicals) lost the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, even in their own minds.
After a period of political dormancy — which included discrediting slumber during the civil rights movement — evangelicals returned to defend Christian schools against regulation during the Carter administration. To defend against Supreme Court decisions that put tight limits on school prayer and removed state limits on abortion. To defend against regulatory assaults on religious institutions. Nathan Glazer once termed this a “defensive offensive” — a kind of aggrieved reaction to the perceived aggressions of modernity.
Those who might be understandably confused by the current state of evangelicalism should understand a few things:
First, evangelicals don’t have a body of social teaching equivalent, say, to Catholic social doctrine. Catholics are taught, in essence, that if you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, you also have to support greater access to health care and oppose the dehumanization of migrants. And vice versa. There is a doctrinal whole that requires a broad and consistent view of social justice. Evangelicals have nothing of the sort. Their agenda often seems indistinguishable from the political movement that currently defends and deploys them, be it Reaganism or Trumpism.
Second, evangelicalism is racially and ethnically homogeneous, which leaves certain views and assumptions unchallenged. The American Catholic Church, in contrast, is one-third Hispanic, which changes the church’s perception of immigrants and their struggles. (Successful evangelical churches in urban areas are now experiencing the same diversity and broadening their social concern.)
Third, without really knowing it, Trump has presented a secular version of evangelical eschatology. When the candidate talked of an America on the brink of destruction, which could be saved only by returning to the certainties of the past, it perfectly fit the evangelical narrative of moral and national decline. Trump speaks the language of decadence and renewal (while exemplifying just one of them).
In the Trump era, evangelicals have gotten a conservative Supreme Court justice for their pains — which is significant. And they have gotten a leader who shows contempt for those who hold them in contempt — which is emotionally satisfying.
The cost? Evangelicals have become loyal to a leader of shockingly low character. They have associated their faith with exclusion and bias. They have become another Washington interest group, striving for advantage rather than seeking the common good. And a movement that should be known for grace is now known for its seething resentments.