Religious Maturity by Charles Mathewes

A good small Sunday sermon for you can be found in this nice piece.

Complexity, maturity, reality. In an ideal situation, they do emerge, at least loosely associated with one another. And this piece makes a nice case that it is true in religion as well:

“I’m talking about people like me, who ditched our childhood faiths in disgust, considering ourselves “too smart” for religion. I would argue that we’re not part of the solution here—we’re part of the problem, since we are abandoning our traditions to those who would distort them for their own small purposes and absolving ourselves of responsibility for the results.

We would never do such a thing in a secular context. If someone told us that they found their sixth-grade science or history classes to be dull and overly simplistic, and thus entirely stopped learning about those subjects, we would be appalled. But that is precisely what many of us do with religion, including plenty who continue to show up at our places of worship and go through the motions. We’ve rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version.”

There’s a famous story of Felix Frankfurter and Reinhold Niebuhr, that after Niebuhr delivered a sermon that Frankfurter heard, FF came up to him and shook his hand and said, “Reinie, may a believing unbeliever thank you for your sermon?” Niebhur quickly replied: “May an unbelieving believer thank you for appreciating it?” Complexity is not (or not simply) about ambiguity, and ambivalence; it is also about humility, and mercy, and not fundamentally about forgiving yourself, but apprehending some forgiveness in the structure of the cosmos. Among many other things. Almost all of which I have yet to apprehend.

Note: this is not a jeremiad against people who have not found themselves resonating in religious traditions. It is a jeremiad against people who imagine that religion is what they understood when they were eight, or eighteen.

Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. This piece is cross-posted on Mathewes personal blog, We Are The Times.

The Climate Emergency and the Rhetoric of Protest by Paul Dafydd Jones

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

Focus on the Message: How the Religious Left Can Reclaim the Public Square by L. Benjamin Rolsky

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.

We Are the Times – A New Blog by Charles Mathewes

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

Conservativism, Racism and the “1619 Project”

An interesting idea is voiced in this piece by Michael Gerson, though I do not think he fully names it.

Because I think I know better (forgive me), I will name it; I will call it “aspirational patriotism.” It’s not quite Habermas’s “constitutional patriotism,” which is a kind of abstract commitment to an abstract law. Instead, what I mean by “aspirational patriotism” is one that begins in the affections, with hope and an immediate swerve into ambivalence.

I like this effort. I think I want to support it. But I worry that my aspirations to aspirational patriotism may allow me to get away with something that I shouldn’t get away with. I’m not convinced of this worry—but it worries me. Let me explain.

Gerson’s depiction of patriotism is, it seems to me, seizing a vast expanse of middle ground. There don’t seem to me (I haven’t done a rigorous search) to be many people trying to articulate this kind of patriotism. And an aspirational patriotism of this sort seems good. It seems like something of the sort that Orwell asked, that Baldwin claimed, that Niebuhr professed. These are good names for me, so you know that I like this.

However, I worry that Gerson’s account may well undersell the depth of the evil, and the centrality of our collective complicity in it, to the constitution (if not the Constitution) of the United States. He may give us a footstool from which to aspire, when we need to realize we’re actually in a pit. He frames his account in these terms:

“The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.”

It’s possible I think to reply: it’s not simply that individuals were hypocritical, but rather that large parts of the community as a whole were built on the terrible sincerity of white supremacy. (In a way, the distinction is between being a “society with slaves” and a “slave society,” which I’ll talk about in another post; though I want to focus on the proper center of gravity and it’s not the slaves but the masters who make this distinctive–more on that below.) Now, there are two things here to say: one about the particular shape of the problem–which is not “racism” per se–and the other about the constitutional nature of the problem. Let me take them in turn.

First. I think—stay with me here—that the problem is not “racism” but white supremacy. The distinction may sound, well, academic to you. But I think it captures something important. As I understand it, America’s white supremacy certainly manifests itself primarily to us in terms of slavery and slavery’s racist legacies to our world, which include not just racial disparity but our ongoing racism. To borrow and modify Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s not just that “race is a child of racism,” it’s also that “racism is a child of slavery.” People did not begin from a racist ideology and then go out to enslave people already targeted in their racism; rather, racism developed as a justification of the slavery itself, as Barbara Fields pointed out in a fine piece many years ago.

But the functioning of white supremacy was not only to enslave some people; it was to ethnically cleanse others. The native peoples whose land was conquered, and whom we killed or drove off or imprisoned on “Reservations,” were victims of this. (I use “we” here after some consideration; the “we” who are here now, of all races, might not have participated actively in this, but we certainly benefit from the violence, and so we are collectively responsible, even if we are not (to borrow a post-World War II distinction) collectively guilty.) The idea of America was from the beginning a “settler colonialist” idea, and there is not a single square foot of this land that was not land that someone else thought of as – perhaps not their property, for such conceptions of territoriality came with the white settlers, at least to a degree, at least part of the time – just as much theirs as anyone else’s. The “United States” is in part constituted by the act of explaining to those people that they are mistaken, and that that land is the territory of the United States, before it is their own. And this was not done regretfully, or shamefacedly, or as an accident, or in a fit of absence of mind; this was, more or less, the plan all along. The continent was effectively uninhabited, and to be settled. We would settle it. Those who were here—very few, very primitive, we told ourselves—were just to be brushed aside. We did not destroy the natives in order to save them; we destroyed them in order to settle their land. This was not incidental; this was the whole point of “our” coming.

Second. If I am right that this eliminationist colonialism is not incidental to the settler endeavor, is this incidental to the United States’s own existence? It seems harder to make that case when you reframe the issue as so fundamental, and the United States as so essentially a “settler colonialist” endeavor. What if these sins are not simply superficial or accidental facts about us, but in some deep way part of the DNA of the United States? I am not sure. I am not sure what to say about this.

I do know that I am attracted—perhaps dangerously charmed—by Lincoln’s understanding of what the American Civil War was about in his Second Inaugural Address. There he framed the problem as “American Slavery,” and thus implicated all in the collective responsibility for its coming; and there he framed the Civil War as God’s judgment on the nation as a whole.

I am not trying to be hard on Gerson. I think this project is a worthy one. It is worthy in itself, if we are to find a way to believe in the United States (and I think there are good reasons to want to find such a way, though I won’t offer those reasons here), and it is worthy for conservatives today, because eventually there will have to be a decent conservativism in this country, and there isn’t really much of one now. Nor is there anyone else, it seems to me, though again I can easily be wrong, trying very hard to elaborate one.

(As an example of this, see the other recent attempt to imagine one, which I’ve found in Ross Douthat’s recent proposal.  Douthat doesn’t even seem to realize, or even articulate, the depth of the problem he faces. He tries to imagine a non-racist right, but the most ambitious thing he asks is that there be “a recovery of influence and moral ambition by the Republican Party’s religious conservatives”what’s sad about this is that is just what Gerson (and his erstwhile colleague Pete Wehner) are proposing—and, from all the polling data we have, getting nowhere at achieving. In the end Douthat just sort of throws up his hands, allowing that “[t]his list of requirements is not small, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt they will be met.” Yes; yes, I think that’s true. Then he goes on to say, as his clinching argument (sic!), that “meeting the requirements doesn’t seem obviously less plausible than the world imagined by some fervent Trumpists.” The problem he has is visible right there. In arguing for your view, if you say it’s more plausible than that of “fervent Trumpists,” I think you’re setting the bar a little too low for yourself.)

Anyway, my point wasn’t to beat up on Douthat. I think his talents are misspent in direct political writing—I think he’s got a lot more to say on the cultural side, and maybe on religion. (Or maybe I just find him more thought-provoking there.) My main point was to suggest that Gerson is trying to get at something deep.

What I guess I fear is that he’s only about to crest one range of mountains, to find another range behind that. Mountains beyond mountains. It is a good journey, a worthwhile journey. I want to travel it with him, in my own Democrat, progressive, but no less American way. But as nation, we are only setting out, I fear.

Photo credit: slack12 via Flickr

Ultramontanism Without the Pope by Maxwell Pingeon

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.

Evan Sandsmark on the European Refugee Crisis for the Sacred & Profane Podcast

Religion and Its Publics’ own Evan Sandsmark recently reported a story for Sacred & Profane, a new podcast produced by the Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab at the University of Virginia. This episode explores the “problem of democracy” through the story of an Iraqi refugee seeking asylum in Austria.

Click here to listen to the full episode.