Writing in The Guardian, Eric Beinhocker offers a stirring commentary on the current global climate strike, which is led by Greta Thunberg and thousands of other young people across the world. His basic point: it’s not that the kids are alright; it’s that the kids are morally right.
The climate emergency is not a technical challenge that awaits resolution through gee-whizz science. Nor is it a political and economic concern that can reasonably be set alongside comparable concerns, then approached according to a “cost-benefit” analysis. The climate emergency is of such magnitude that it requires an unapologetic and unequivocal moral response – one analogous to the fight against slavery in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Beinhocker is blunt: “When something is a moral wrong, particularly a deep, systemic moral wrong, we don’t wait around debating the optimal path or policy; we stop it.” Just as the only apt response to the enslavement of millions of human beings was the abolition of the slave trade and the criminalization of slaveholding, so the only apt response to the climate emergency must be the abolition of carbon.
The importance of this position is obvious. In the face of a grave moral wrong, don’t equivocate. It is not those who sought to “humanize” the slave trade that deserve praise; it is those who insisted that it be abolished without delay. Likewise with respect to the climate emergency.
It is of course true that specific, difficult decisions will need to be made down the line. One can hardly suppose that getting to “net-zero” can be achieved without risking the intensification of other patterns of injustice and suffering. Reinhold Niebuhr is right: “power cannot be wielded without guilt,” even when that power derives – as I hope it will – from the righteous anger of the young. But Niebuhr’s counsel does not absolve us, and must not distract us, from the basic challenge of rightly ordering our moral priorities. It is better to incur the guilt of wielding power on behalf of the preservation of God’s creation than to incur the guilt of irrevocable neglect.
“God’s creation”: there’s the rub. It is notable that Beinhocker’s piece manages to disaggregate entirely the moral and the religious. (That’s the case with its predecessor, too). At no point does he acknowledge that religious convictions inspired many who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and that religious convictions have steeled other “mass social movements” for change. The moral and the theological seem to run on separate tracks, and there is no sign of convergence.
An oversight? Not necessarily. One cannot require an author to invoke religious ideas or use religious language in support of this or that cause. Indeed, if you’re writing in left-leaning dailies like The Guardian, which often carries articles hostile to religious commitments and institutions, there are strategic reasons for avoidance. That might even be the case for a number of western European countries. If religiously-inflected rhetoric doesn’t get people to treat the climate crisis as a moral issue, leave it be. Time is short.
But the issue still presses. I’m doubtful that a position that disaggregates morality and religiosity is going to have much traction in non-European countries. In the United States it might even prove counterproductive. Mass social movements have tended to succeed here because the moral and religious registers are fused, then brought to bear on diverse civil and political spheres. (If you doubt this, just recall the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Neither make much sense if you remove religion from the equation).
Yes, it well may be that the rise of the “nones” complicates matters. Likewise the nationalistic turn of much white US evangelicalism (which, while it props up a morally shallow president, will likely outlast him). But these shifts hardly suggest that the United States is heading towards a time in which religious commitment will become unimportant. What they signal is that established idioms of religious speech are under a new kind of pressure; and that those who are able to develop new religious idioms will have the opportunity to galvanize public opinion.
Those of us fascinated by the role of religion in public life and committed to radical action in face of the climate crisis therefore find ourselves in an intriguing position. The climate emergency as a moral issue? Absolutely. But when it comes to getting millions of people in the USA to share the passion of a Greta Thunberg or an Isha Clarke – and, of course, the passion of brave kids, out on the streets today – then we need to find a way to make our religious language a moral language, and to make our moral language a religious language.
Paul Dafydd Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project.
Photo credit: Stephen Smith via Flickr
The Religious Left has returned! And just in the nick of time, too. The country was on the brink of being remembered forever as the place that protected its borders by separating families and caging children. But the Religious Left has re-emerged to rescue a broken nation from itself.
Or at least that is one popular narrative currently in circulation. Presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, and Pete Buttigieg have been most commonly associated with the reported “rise” of the Religious Left due to their (somewhat idiosyncratic) Bible references in various debates and interviews. A recent piece by ethicist Laura Alexander explores the history of a related phenomenon, the “Christian Left,” and its contemporary revival. Despite the piece’s admirable clarity, some of its claims reinforce some less-than-helpful heuristics for understanding the role and purpose of the Religious Left in American public life today.
In particular, drawing attention to the “rise” of such a left is not necessarily an ahistoric move. Nor does it “erase the resistance of religious communities of color.” If anything, it reminds us that there have in fact always been religious liberals in American religious history, and simply calls our attention to what is distinct about the “Religious Left” of the recent past. If we think the recent rise of liberal religious activity is merely ahistoric, then we ironically risk overlooking its historic importance. Getting the history right also helps clarify what the Religious Left, in its current form, must do moving forward, which is to relentlessly focus on messaging. This is largely the case because conservatives have been refining their messaging strategy for decades, and now religious liberals need to get in the game if they want to recapture the White House.
Consider messaging about immigration, one of the defining issues of our time. Over the past half century, conservatives have been able to generate political and electoral momentum on the issue of immigration for one simple reason: the migrant is not universally understood as deserving of care and public funds as an expression of empathy. It is the mission of the Religious Left, at least in theory, to combat such a distorted moral vision in both word and deed.
The biblical text is certainly an ally in this regard, but those who identify with the Religious Left need to think more broadly and systematically about how best to make its arguments to the American people. If the prophetic calls truth into public as justice, then the political obliterates justice and truth in the name of political power in the public square.
Again, conservatives have understood this axiom far better than liberals in postwar America. As a result, they’ve taken advantage of the latest technological developments in the fields of advertising, marketing, and political strategy in the pursuit of power. For example, it was the expert application of direct mail to electoral campaigning in the 1970s that fundamentally remade American public life in a way that is still being felt to this day.
Given the volume of think pieces the Religious Left has generated and continues to generate (including my forthcoming book), the problem facing those who study it is not that its members have been silent or inactive, but that its proponents and academicians need to clarify their purpose in composing such works in the first place.
Which brings us back to Alexander’s piece. As I noted above, Alexander claims that any account of the Religious Left’s “rise” is ahistoric. Such accounts lack historical awareness, she argues, because they do not appreciate past instances of religious activism, particularly by people of color. But the “rise” narrative needn’t be interpreted this way. If certain kinds of religious activism have been overlooked, which seems undeniable, then those who write of the resurgent Religious Left can use this historical obfuscation to 1) encourage further archival and intellectual investigation into the wellspring of liberal religious thought going back to the colonial period, and 2) explore how that thought and its moral implications can be applied to addressing our polarized present. In other words, such an instance of collective amnesia can be used to good effect. Religious liberals should take the time to examine their respective histories in order to re-embolden their commitment to developing persuasive visions of the public good as understood from a progressive point of view.
And when the Religious Left looks to the past to orient its future, it will notice something else: while there have always been religious liberals of different sorts, the notion of a “Religious Left” has a much more recent history. If anything, the notion of a “Religious Left” only makes sense in the same context that produced its more popular cousin: the Christian Right. As such, the turn of phrase is less a moral compass, or symbol of national salvation, and more of a journalistic artifact leftover from the culture wars of the 1970s.
If religious liberals want to change the narrative about them in the public square, then they are going to have to do it themselves. The utility of the moniker “The Religious Left” may in fact be the best place to start, but not for the reasons that we’re thinking. How will the Religious Left message the value of bodily justice to a population drunk on social media? How will its leaders gather supporters together? And on what organizational grounds?
As Alexander rightly contends, our present moment of moral outrage may certainly push communities of faith to reconsider what it means to be Christian. But more importantly, it should push progressive Christians to consider exactly what it means to be progressive in a moment of racial and economic precarity, and how they can act on this refined self-understanding.
If a moment is to present itself to those on the left to act in the name of compassion for the stranger, then that time has come. What remains to be seen is just how that truth speaks to justice in a world fundamentally set against itself in the name of electoral gain.
Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor at Monmouth University in History and Anthropology, and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University in Religious Studies. His first book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left, will be published by Columbia University Press in November 2019.
Charles Mathewes, co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project, has recently started a blog entitled “We Are the Times,” offering running commentary on news stories, think pieces, and books related to religion, politics, and culture. Below is one of his recent pieces. Moving forward, in partnership with “We Are the Times,” we will regularly feature Prof. Mathewes work here on The Square.
Photo credit: slack12 via Flickr
No idea is more fundamental to the American religious ethos than the separation of Church and State. But to the movement known as Catholic integralism, one expression of our larger postliberal moment, no idea is more repugnant. Catholic integralists such as legal scholar Adrien Vermeule, the philosopher Thomas Pink, and other contributors to the conservative Catholic journal First Things insist on a public role for religion and indeed special privileges for it in the eyes of the law. They maintain that their convictions, founded as they are in biblical truth and natural law, cannot simply be ranked as one viewpoint among others.
Some postliberals sympathetic to the movement, such as Matthew Brendan Dougherty of National Review, defend integralism on humanist grounds, attempting to link the integralist worldview to that corpus of virtue the founders claimed was necessary to a free republic. But integralist hopes for a privileged place in the public sphere make any claim to the republican tradition tenuous. They much more closely resemble 19th century Ultramontanes, particularly of the French variety. The Ultramontanes favored the absolute supremacy of the pope over national authorities, thus deadlocking Catholicism and liberalism in a zero-sum game for political survival.
Lay activists also led the 19th century Ultramontane movement, most notably the French polemicist, Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), editor of the conservative Catholic newspaper, L’Univers. Veuillot did not respect the separation of the political and the religious under the constitutional July monarchy of King Louis Philippe. He raged daily against the tyranny of legal indifferentism towards the one true faith. Leading a movement that was “lay, proletarian, and Roman,” this self-taught son of a cooper brilliantly marshaled the resentment of the French lower clergy against the clerical elite of the French Church, which he described as spinelessly kowtowing to their liberal puppet-masters. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Veuillot and other 19th century malcontents looked “beyond the mountains” (hence ultramontane) to Rome and the papacy as the necessary counterweight to the bourgeois democracies then overturning the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Together they longed for the imagined theocratic ideal of the Middle Ages, with its ranked society of mutually beneficial orders.
There is a family resemblance between the old world of L’Univers and the new one of First Things, where Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of the New York Post, recently published a manifesto entitled “Against the Dead Consensus.” Signed by a number of postliberal intellectuals and activists, that text, with its critique of global capitalism, led to a major crack-up on the right, pitting libertarians against a coalition of conservative religious actors. The signatories insist that though the alliance of liberalism and conservatism was necessary to win the Cold War, the destructive forces of free market economics are now too flagrant to ignore. In a subsequent First Things piece entitled “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari takes aim at the civil discourse of National Review writer David French whose purportedly naïve belief in rational argumentation is panned as an inadequately muscular response to this (knives out?) stage of the culture war.
One might expect that the inspiration to abandon civility in politics for more drastic action would result from a proportionately momentous event: Catholics being jailed for their beliefs, or silenced in the press, for example. It turns out that the jumping off point for Ahmari’s bellicose turn, at least in what concerns his critique of French, was a drag queen story hour held at a public library in Sacramento, California. Ahmari’s disproportionate response to a seemingly innocuous event should raise a number of red flags in even the most casual reader of history. In that piece, he issues a somewhat sinister call for a “re-ordering” of society to “the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” He speaks about defeating his “enemies,” a “politics of war and enmity,” and a righteous commitment to “enforc[ing] our order and our orthodoxy.” If civil discourse is not the means by which to do that, Ahmari lets it be inferred that violence is at least on the table.
Veuillot was ruthlessly effective in humiliating opponents willing to work within the liberal system. Ahmari does not have Veuillot’s polemical verve. Even his takedown of French, conceding French’s amiability and grace, is Frenchian in its restraint. “It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French.” Veuillot’s tongue did not speak of the “guileless public mien” of his opponents, but rather eviscerated those David Frenches of the day who dared to do business with the liberal order rather than rejecting it out hand. But the difference between the two figures is that Veuillot could rely on the pope, whereas even if the integralists wanted to restore the temporal power of the Papal States, they could hardly rely on Pope “Who Am I to Judge?” Francis to carry out their agenda.
The truth is that, despite their hostility to free trade, integralists do long for a lost American consensus. Their aristocratic critique of capitalism defends the interests of working people not on grounds of equality but out of paternalist nostalgia for an organic society of orders. They look back to a time when a patrician WASP elite dominated high finance and culture, a Catholic civil service controlled city politics in the northeast, and women safeguarded the moral integrity of the home and its children. It was a time when gay men married “beards,” and gay women lived with their “roommates” in “Boston marriages,” and everybody accepted that African-Americans made up the permanent underclass. In those days, cultural norms were self-enforced under the sign of “community standards,” but now that that the ordered society of pre-1960s America has come undone, the type of blue laws or decency codes that the Catholic right longs for are destined to die in the courts. Or are they?
The place of Catholicism within a republic is the central question that American Catholics have been litigating since the founding. In 18th century America, the Catholicism of John Carroll and John England was remarkable for its capacity to reinvent the faith of feudal Europe. Its defense of religious freedom and conscience rights made American Catholicism uniquely adaptable to the liberal order. Liberalism allowed American Catholicism to thrive not because the liberal framework is an ideology but because it is primarily a legal mechanism designed to prevent competing religious actors from killing each other.
The “siege mentality” of a subsequent Catholic generation rejected this republican brand of Catholicism, leading many American Protestants to suspect that Catholics accepted democratic norms out of convenience rather than conviction. The integralist movement revives these justified fears and threatens to reduce Catholic Americans to a stereotype they labored heroically to reject. As to its impact on conservative politics, to quote Charles C.W. Cooke, “the one way to create division on the right is to start talking as though you want to impose a Catholic monarchy.”
Maxwell Pingeon is a PhD student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia specializing in civil religion in France and North America.
Sohrab Ahmari will face David French in a debate tonight (Sept. 5th) at Catholic University of America. The debate is from 6 to 7 PM, and will be moderated by Ross Douthat. The event is free to the public, but for those unable to attend in person, the event will be live-streamed.