How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.

How Seriously Should You Take College Students?

I distinctly remember walking into my professor’s office and gently shutting the door. I had some questions for my teacher about some things he had been saying, some other things that I had been reading, and why a lot of what I was learning from the classroom didn’t make sense to me. What the conversation was about I only vaguely recall. What’s still clear to me is the sense of intellectual exploration that I felt, as an older, wiser, and available man whom I admired talked me through the things that weighed on me in that season of life.

That office visit was several years ago. Many of those questions no longer trouble me. Some of the things I thought were so compelling to me at 20 are laughable now, and some things I thought ludicrous or unnecessary I have since built my life on. The professor probably knew it would turn out like that. He listened to me, yes. But he also spoke to me. I was a valuable student in his eyes, but I was not a fellow expert. He took my questions seriously but my answers less so. I know I’m better for it.

“The coddling of the American mind” has had its own news cycle for the past few weeks. Student protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, and elsewhere have occupied both headlines and presidents’ offices. Some of the student “uprisings” have published lists of “Demands,” promising continued disruptions if the demands are not immediately and unequivocally met.

Some of these demands are, undoubtedly, more reasonable than others. Some of what is going on the campuses of these schools is probably more grounded in reality and understandable frustrations than what some commentators have granted, as Ross Douthat has pointed out.

But as a whole, the hashtag activism and social media blitzkrieg that we’ve seen in the past three weeks seems to be predicated on a nonsensical and, in fact, dangerous idea: That college students should, at every meaningful turn, be taken quite seriously. Not only is this a misguided and irresponsible notion, it’s actually an acid to the intellectual lives of the very students that it purports to take so seriously.

For most American collegians, higher education begins somewhere between 17 and 20. Many students begin their college career closer to matriculation than to the legal drinking age (one of the more irrelevant laws on campus, I know). For most of America’s university students, college is more than an extension of their education or a prerequisite to their professional life: It is a causeway into independent adulthood.

The university years are not meant to be some sort of final, inarguable designator of maturity and insight. Actually, the opposite is true: The traditional university model is set up to offer its young students a rich field in which intellectual exploration and formation can flourish. Professors do not think of their job as being sparring partners for equally qualified, equally mature thinkers. Rather, professors relish the opportunity to mold intellects and affections, to train students to become the kind of learner and the kind of person that goes on to live a valuable life.

The phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in their definitive Atlantic piece is dangerous to many things, including free speech, college diversity, and academic freedom. But I would submit that it is most dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students who are being coddled and satiated. By empowering 21 year olds to think of the university as a place where their felt needs should and will be treasured, parents and progressive academic administrators are communicating to these students that the most important aspects of their intellectual growth have happened already.

The incidents described in such detail by Haidt and Lukianoff depict a generation of Americans who arrive at American colleges already totally confirmed in the worldview they have developed as teens. Rather than being open to correction and vulnerable to the social risks that real diversity naturally brings, these students take what is surely a small amount of information–perhaps one emotive course on colonialism, or a powerful freshman gender studies seminar–and dictate the culture that must, per justice, emerge on campus. Not only does such a phenomenon cede the higher ground of education from the classroom to the ambient culture (including social media), it betrays the students it seeks to help by telling them a lie: That they have already discovered the real truth of their studies, and that their preexisting notions of justice and equality ought not, at this point, be challenged. What’s happening to the students is no longer education, but ordination.

Taking college students so seriously directly harms young adults in many ways, but two stand out. First, students who are coddled into thinking their intellectual formation is final and unquestionable are unlikely to see much value in studying the thinkers of the past. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is a threat that we see more and more in our culture. Fewer college students graduate with serious appreciation for the work of generations older than Marx. More and more young professionals are not conversant with a stunning percentage of Western literature, political science, and theology. The value of old books and old thinkers is that, when we take them seriously, they explode our suspicion that we are utterly unique in our beliefs, habits, vices, and virtues. When we’re “protected” from those whose beliefs we think we’ve progressed past, we attribute to ourselves a fraudulent intellectual novelty.

The second harmful effect of taking college students too seriously is that it communicates a false idea of what life is like. College students, because they are by nature immature and more emotive, believe that good intentions, humor, passion, and just a little bit of knowledge  are what really matter in life. But this is only because the college campus is, like the high school locker room, a closed universe that doesn’t really reflect the necessary habits of mind and soul that make for success outside parental watchfulness. Habits like diligence can fall by the wayside with the allure of student loans and curved grade scales. Virtues like patience and self-control erode in the context of responsibility-free weekends. The point is that the world of college should not be confused for the world of adult life. When students are treated not like students but like fully formed philosophers and activists, this reality is missed.

Should you take college students seriously? Yes, you should. I’m glad my professor took my questions seriously. His patience and empathy helped me feel welcome, yes, but more than that, it helped me feel that this one particular season of intellectual uneasiness wasn’t permanent. Instead of telling me I should form a Facebook group or offering to include my thoughts in his next lecture, my professor responded to my searching with his own learning and experience. That’s what I treasured, and still treasure, about my college education, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t taken so seriously that I missed it.

Jennifer Lawrence Should Read the Books That Made Her Rich

Hollywood A-lister and my fellow Louisville, Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t think much of Rowan County clerk Kim Davis. Actually, that might be overstatement. J-Law has, according to her cover-story interview with Vogue, zero tolerance for Mrs. Davis’ name:

The day I am at Lawrence’s house also happens to be the day after the infamous county clerk Kim Davis gets out of jail, where she had been sent for defying a court order requiring her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lawrence brings it up, calling her that “lady who makes me embarrassed to be from Kentucky.” Kim Davis? “Don’t even say her name in this house,” she shoots back, and then goes into a rant about “all those people holding their crucifixes, which may as well be pitchforks, thinking they’re fighting the good fight. I grew up in Kentucky. I know how they are.”

I’m sorry that Lawrence is embarrassed to be from Kentucky, but I’m afraid her tremblingly angry commentary here will do little to win Kentuckians to her side. Her screed reeks of classism and ideological bigotry, not to mention a fair amount of unintentionally hilarious self-righteousness (“Don’t even say her name” is right up there with Starbucks red cup hysteria on the FacePalm scale).

And I’m not sure why J-Law is so particularly embarrassed by Kim Davis. After all, it was her entire home state that voted to pass its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was also her whole home state that just overwhelmingly elected a pro-religious liberty governor. It sounds to me like Ms. Lawrence’s beef is really not with a Kentucky clerk but with Kentucky.

Of course, it’s Lawrence’s right to be embarrassed by Kentucky and hateful towards those who disagree with her. That’s what liberty is about. J-Law should actually be more familiar with those themes than most actresses right now, seeing as she just wrapped up her fourth and final adaptation of The Hunger Games series. The Hunger Games is, of course, a fictional series about a dystopian future in which a totalitarian central government (the Capitol) exercises absolute authority over its citizens, keeping them in subjection through starvation and gladiatorial rituals. It’s nowhere close to the sublime power of Orwell, but for young adult literature, The Hunger Games actually portrays a fairly compelling–and nightmarish–vision of a future without liberty.

Perhaps Lawrence thinks that liberty should be conditioned so as never to transgress cultural consensus. Perhaps she thinks  Kentuckians who believe in traditional marriage should enjoy freedom of conscience only so long as that freedom does not offend the cultural consensus or disturb the quiet conformity of the public square. But if that’s what Lawerence really does believe, she should take some time out of her career to re-read carefully the books that have made her a millionaire.

The Hunger Games is a frightening narrative of people held in captivity to the elite brokers of power in culture (specifically, I might add, power over the media). Interestingly, the Capitol’s dictator, President Snow, forbids any mention of the rebel protagonist Katniss Everdeen in his empire. The world of the Capitol is a tightly controlled world of uniformity and unquestionable government authority.

There are many Americans at this moment who are facing tremendous cultural and legal pressure to jettison their religious beliefs, pressure that, in some cases, has driven businesses and families out of the public square. Meanwhile publications like the New York Times openly refer to them as “bigots” and modern-day segregationists. Is there any question who, in this scenario, are the truly powerful elites, demanding conformity, and who are the separatists insisting on liberty?

Of course, our current situation is nothing like the post-apocalyptic nightmare depicted in The Hunger Games, just as the West was not actually learning to love Big Brother in 1984. But that’s not the point. The point is that sometimes we need shocking images and warnings to remind us how precious freedoms like freedom of religion are. When they are taken away, even fictitiously, the world that results is nothing but horror.

I’m not sure what it is about exercising one’s sincerely held beliefs that is so offensive and embarrassing to Lawrence. But it sure sounds like the Katniss Everdeen we see on the screen bears little resemblance to the conformity-craving actress who wears her costumes and says her lines.

Liberalism, Then and Now

We go now to Houston, Texas, where a referendum on a piece of anti-discrimination legislation resulted in the bill’s being defeated nearly 2-1 to by voters. The law, dubbed “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), was written to create broad sweeping mandates for all businesses, housing, and public accommodations pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation. Under the law, for example, a business or a school could not prohibit a transgendered woman (born biologically male but identifying as female) from entering a women’s restroom.

The law’s critics complained–quite reasonably– that such a far-reaching act would 1) undermine the conscience rights of business owners and other individuals who had objections to such practices and 2) potentially create vulnerable situations that could be exploited by predators, particularly when it came to younger children in schools. The first concern was pretty blatantly justified last October when the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, subpoenaed sermons and other communiqué from local clergy who had criticized the law. Parker was sharply rebuked in many corners for the audacious move (she soon backed off), and in hindsight, one could probably infer the controversy played a significant role in solidifying opposition to the mayor’s bill.

But that’s not a satisfying explanation to editorial board of The New York Times. In a blistering, furiously angry editorial, the Times condemned Houston’s voters as “haters” and warned that “the bigots are destined to lose,” further predicting that the politicians opposed to the bill, including governor Greg Abbot, would be “remembered as latter-day Jim Crow elders.” Other progressive publications echoed the Times sentiments (though none that I saw achieved the theocratic sanctimony that the Times did).

Now what’s fascinating about all of this is that we are seeing, clearer than ever before, the kind of intense internal transformation that has happened inside American progressivism. It’s no small thing for The New York Times to call a plurality of Houston’s voters bigots and modern day segregationists if the city were refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples. But nothing like that is happening. Instead, the Times calls down fire from heaven because the city doesn’t see the benefit of a far-reaching, dubiously enforced bill that potentially eliminates any and all meaningful public distinctions between the sexes; not to mention that nearly identical laws elsewhere have been used to strip florists and bakers of their businesses.

Houston’s ERO clearly legislated a specific, very progressive sexual morality, a morality that goes far above and beyond the United States’ admitted leftward pilgrimage on issues like homosexuality and same-sex marriage. There are many liberally-minded people in the country, friendly to the idea that a man or a woman should be able to marry whomever they desire, who nonetheless balk at the idea that restrooms and public showers should take no opinion on a patron’s genitalia.

The failure of the current generation of liberals to recognize the existence and validity of this middle ground is a remarkable shift for American progressivism. It’s remarkable because it is precisely the opposite of the argument that the architects of Obergefell, like Andrew Sullivan, pioneered. Sullivan’s “conservative case for gay marriage” was not predicated on the idea that gender is ultimately an issue of self-determination and that culture must acquisese or become oppressive. Rather, Sullivan’s case was the opposite: People are born with affection and desire for people of the opposite sex or their own sex, and in either case, marriage is a stabilizing, socially constructive outlet for that desire in a way that promotes the family unit.

Now of course, I didn’t and don’t find Sullivan’s conservative case for same-sex marriage compelling. But its truthfulness is beside the point. The point is that we are hardly a decade separated from an articulation of liberal sexual ideology that assumed the very concepts of cultural permanence and cross-political values that today’s progressives decry.

To put it another way: In the span of two presidential terms, liberalism has been transformed from a fight to widen the margins of culture to a fight to close them up. It’s particularly sobering to see the transformation in light of what justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion of Lawrence vs Texas, the landmark 2003 case that ruled state sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Kennedy’s words are remarkable:

The condemnation [of homosexual behavior] has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code…”

The question for today’s liberals is simple: Does Justice Kennedy’s articulation of liberty for all apply to those outside the Obergefell/ERO arc of history, or does it not? Are people who believe things about marriage, sexuality, and gender that President Barack Obama said only five years ago he believed entitled to meaningful public protection from current majoritarian values, or are they not? When Lawrence and Texas have switched places in the courtroom, what happens?

It’s difficult to see what the long term result of this radical evolution of American liberalism will be. There’s evidence of solidarity and strength, and the leftward leaps of the Democratic Party have helped smoothen liberalism’s ride. On the other hand, the debacle that seems to be unfolding on the campuses of American universities suggests that this new progressivism has some self-destructive tendencies. It may be that in the quest to finally stamp out the remnant opposition to the Sexual Revolution, liberalism will end up biting the hands that feed it.

American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.

Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.

It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.

Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.

I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.

This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.

It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.

So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism?  First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.

Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.

In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.

Gird Your Slander Like a Man

At the inglorious Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern writes that Mets slugger Daniel Murphy cost his team the World Series–and that’s a good thing. You see, the problem with Murphy is that he’s a really, really bad person. Why? Because he still believes things that the Christian religion teaches! (Oh the humanity!)

You know where Stern is going with this already, don’t you? He decries Murphy as “perhaps the most explicitly and unabashedly anti-gay figure in major league sports today,” and here’s all the evidence you need for that claim:

Earlier this year, Murphy unloaded his thoughts about Billy Bean, an openly gay retired player and Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion:

“I disagree with his lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”

Let’s stop right here and clarify something important. If you think that quotation from Daniel Murphy is an example of hate speech, then, by the rules of logic, you believe that Christianity is inherently hateful. Full stop. If what Murphy said in that quotation is bigotry, then Christianity itself is an act of bigotry. There’s no way around this.

What Murphy said isn’t just representative of the 2,000+ year testimony of the religion that he claims, it is such a basic, such a non-incisive commentary that it could have been spoken by the overwhelming majority of all religious people around the world. That leaves me with a simple question for Stern: When you go on, as you do in the article, to blame Murphy’s beliefs for the suicides and abuse of LGBT teenagers, why don’t you take ownership of your belief that religion itself causes gay teenagers to die? What is stopping you from finishing that thought? Is there really honor in suggesting that such a simple statement of religious conviction about sexuality is violence-fomenting hate speech, but not actually attacking the source of the hate? I don’t think so.

What you have in this piece is a classic example of shoot-then-run journalism. Stern is more than willing to implicate Murphy and people like him in the deaths of LGBT youths, but he’s not willing to give an intellectually cogent explanation as to why they’re implicated. He asks his readers to embrace the idea that Murphy is a bigot who has merited the wrath of the Sexual Revolution’s gods, but without the courage to articulate why that is. He has an explanation, of course–Christianity (and most religion) is hatefulness incarnate–but articulating that explanation would merely expose his own prejudice. There’s an appalling unwillingness here to own one’s own beliefs, to pursue a meaningful case against the very people in whose disappointments and sadness you openly rejoice.

If you’re going to accuse someone of hate, but you can’t bring yourself to implicate the greater worldview realities at work, then you’re not an advocate for justice or a warrior for equality. You’re just a coward.