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Politics Disguised as Science: When to Doubt a Scientific ‘Consensus’

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.


Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd.

This week’s March for Science is odd. Marches are usually held to defend something that’s in peril. Does anyone really think big science is in danger? The mere fact that the March was scheduled for Earth Day betrays what the event is really about: politics. The organizers admitted as much early on, though they’re now busy trying to cover the event in sciencey camouflage.

If past is prologue, expect to hear a lot about the supposed “consensus” on catastrophic climate change this week. The purpose of this claim is to shut up skeptical non-scientists.

How should non-scientists respond when told about this consensus? We can’t all study climate science. But since politics often masquerades as science, we need a way to tell one from the other.

“Consensus,” according to Merriam-Webster, means both “general agreement” and “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” That sums up the problem. Is this consensus based on solid evidence and sound logic, or social pressure and groupthink?

When can you doubt a consensus? Your best bet is to look at the process that produced, defends and transmits the supposed consensus.

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are prone to herd instincts. Many false ideas once enjoyed consensus. Indeed, the “power of the paradigm” often blinds scientists to alternatives to their view. Question the paradigm, and some respond with anger.

We shouldn’t, of course, forget the other side of the coin. There are cranks and conspiracy theorists. No matter how well founded a scientific consensus, there’s someone who thinks it’s all hokum. Sometimes these folks turn out to be right. But often, they’re just cranks whose counsel is best ignored.

So how do we distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom? And how do we tell crankish imperviousness to evidence from legitimate skepticism?” Do we have to trust whatever we’re told is based on a scientific consensus unless we can study the science ourselves? When can you doubt a consensus? When should you doubt it?

Your best bet is to look at the process that produced, defends and transmits the supposed consensus. I don’t know of any complete list of signs of suspicion. But here’s a checklist to decide when you can, even should, doubt a scientific “consensus,” whatever the subject. One of these signs may be enough to give pause. If they start to pile up, then it’s wise to be leery.

(1) When different claims get bundled together

Usually, in scientific disputes, there’s more than one claim at issue. With global warming, there’s the claim that our planet, on average, is getting warmer. There’s also the claim that we are the main cause of it, that it’s going to be catastrophic, and that we must transform civilization to deal with it. These are all different claims based on different evidence.

Evidence for warming, for instance, isn’t evidence for the cause of that warming. All the polar bears could drown, the glaciers melt, the sea levels rise 20 feet and Newfoundland become a popular place to tan: That wouldn’t tell us a thing about what caused the warming. This is a matter of logic, not scientific evidence. The effect is not the same as the cause.

There’s a lot more agreement about (1) a modest warming trend since about 1850 than there is about (2) the cause of that trend. There’s even less agreement about (3) the dangers of that trend, or of (4) what to do about it. But these four claims are often bundled together. So, if you doubt one, you’re labeled a climate change “skeptic” or “denier.” That’s dishonest. When well-established claims are tied with other, more controversial claims, and the entire bundle is labeled “consensus,” you have reason for doubt.

(2) When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate

Personal attacks are common in any dispute. It’s easier to insult than to the follow the thread of an argument. And just because someone makes an ad hominem argument, it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is wrong. But when the personal attacks are the first out of the gate, don your skeptic’s cap and look more closely at the data.

When it comes to climate change, ad hominems are everywhere. They’re even smuggled into the way the debate is described. The common label “denier” is one example. This label is supposed to call to mind the charge of columnist Ellen Goodman: “I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers.”

There’s an old legal proverb: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have neither, attack the witness. When proponents of a scientific consensus lead with an attack on the witness, rather than on the arguments and evidence, be suspicious.

(3) When scientists are pressured to toe the party line

The famous Lysenko affair in the former Soviet Union is example of politics trumping good science. But it’s not the only way politics can override science. There’s also a conspiracy of agreement, in which assumptions and interests combine to give the appearance of objectivity where none exists. This is even more forceful than a literal conspiracy enforced by a dictator. Why? Because it looks like the agreement reflects a fair and independent weighing of the evidence.

Tenure, job promotions, government grants, media accolades, social respectability, Wikipedia entries, and vanity can do what gulags do, only more subtly. Alexis de Tocqueville warned of this almost two centuries ago. The power of the majority in American society, he wrote, could erect “formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” He could have been writing about climate science.

Indeed, the quickest way for scientists to put their careers at risk is to raise even modest questions about climate doom (see here, here and here). Scientists are under pressure to toe the party line on climate change and receive many benefits for doing so. That’s another reason for suspicion.

(4) When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish

Though it has its limits, the peer-review process is meant to provide checks and balances. At its best, it helps weed out bad and misleading work, and make scientific research more objective. But when the same few people review and approve each other’s work, you get conflicts of interest. This weakens the case for the supposed consensus. It becomes, instead, another reason for doubt. Those who follow the climate debate have known for years about the cliquish nature of publishing and peer review in climate science (see here for example).

(5) When dissenters are excluded from the peer-reviewed journals not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but to marginalize them.

Besides mere cliquishness, the “peer review” process in climate science has, in some cases, been subverted to prevent dissenters from being published. Again, those who follow the debate have known about these problems for years. But the Climategate debacle in 2009 revealed some of the gory details for the broader public. And again, this gives the lay public a reason to doubt the consensus.

(6) When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented

We’ve been told for years that the peer-reviewed literature is unanimous in its support for human-induced climate change. In Science, Naomi Oreskes even produced a “study” of the literature supposedly showing “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

In fact, there are plenty of dissenting papers in the literature. This is despite mounting evidence that the peer-review deck was stacked against them. The 2009 Climategate scandal underscored this: The climate scientists at the center of the controversy complained in their emails about dissenting papers that survived the peer-review booby traps they put in place. They even fantasized about torpedoing a climate science journal that dared to publish a dissenting article.

(7) When consensus is declared before it even exists

A well-rooted scientific consensus, like a mature oak, needs time to grow. Scientists have to do research, publish articles, read about other research, and repeat experiments (where possible). They need to reveal their data and methods, have open debates, evaluate arguments, look at the trends, and so forth, before they can come to agreement. When scientists rush to declare a consensus — when they claim a consensus that has yet to form — this should give everyone pause.

In 1992, former Vice President Al Gore reassured his listeners, “Only an insignificant fraction of scientists deny the global warming crisis. The time for debate is over. The science is settled.” In the real 1992, however, Gallup “reported that 53% of scientists actively involved in global climate research did not believe global warming had occurred; 30% weren’t sure; and only 17% believed global warming had begun. Even a Greenpeace poll showed 47% of climatologists didn’t think a runaway greenhouse effect was imminent; only 36% thought it possible and a mere 13% thought it probable.”

Seventeen years later, in 2009, Gore revised his own fake history. He claimed that the debate over human-induced climate change had raged until as late as 1999, but now there was true consensus. Of course, 2009 is when Climategate broke, reminding us that what had smelled funny was indeed rotten.

(8) When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus

It makes sense that chemists over time may come to agree about the results of some chemical reaction, since they can repeat the results over and over in their own labs. They’re easy to test. But much of climate science is not like that. The evidence is scattered and hard to track. It’s often indirect, imbedded in history and laden with theory. You can’t rerun past climate to test it. And the headline-grabbing claims of climate scientists are based on complex computer models that don’t match reality. These models get their input, not from the data, but from the scientists who interpret the data. This isn’t the sort of evidence that can provide the basis for a well-founded consensus. In fact, if there really were a consensus on the many claims around climate science, that would be suspicious. Thus, the claim of consensus is a bit suspect as well.

(9) When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution

In Newsweek’s April 28, 1975, issue, science editor Peter Gwynne claimed that “scientists are almost unanimous” that global cooling was underway. Now we are told, “Scientists say global warming will lead to the extinction of plant and animal species, the flooding of coastal areas from rising seas, more extreme weather, more drought and diseases spreading more widely.” “Scientists say” is ambiguous. You should wonder: “Which ones?”

Other times this vague company of scientists becomes “SCIENCE.” As when we’re told “what science says is required to avoid catastrophic climate change.” “Science says” is a weasely claim. “Science,” after all, is an abstract noun. It can’t speak. Whenever you see these phrases used to imply a consensus, it should trigger your baloney detector.

(10) When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies

Imagine hundreds of world leaders and NGOS, science groups, and UN functionaries gathered for a meeting. It’s heralded as the most important conference since World War II, in which “the future of the world is being decided.” These officials seem to agree that institutions of “global governance” need to be set up to reorder the world economy and restrict energy use. Large numbers of them applaud wildly when socialist dictators denounce capitalism. Strange activism surrounds the gathering. And we are told by our president that all of this is based, not on fiction, but on science — that is, a scientific consensus that our greenhouse gas emissions are leading to climate catastrophe.

We don’t have to imagine that scenario, of course. It happened at the UN climate meeting in Copenhagen, in December 2009. It happened again in Paris, in December 2015. Expect something at least as zany at the March for Science.

Now, none of this disproves climate doom. But it does describe a setting in which truth need not appear. And at the least, when policy effects are so profound, the evidence should be rock solid. “Extraordinary claims,” the late Carl Sagan often said, “require extraordinary evidence.” When the megaphones of consensus insist that there’s no time, that we have to move, MOVE, MOVE!, you have a right to be wary.

(11) When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as fairly as possible

Do I really need to elaborate on this point?

(12) When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus

A consensus should be based on solid evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on climate change may be enough to justify suspicion.

To adapt that old legal rule, when you’ve got solid scientific evidence on your side, you argue the evidence. When you’ve got great arguments, you make the arguments. When you don’t have solid evidence or great arguments, you claim consensus.

Adapted from THE AMERICAN. This piece has been updated since its original publication.

By Jay Richards and published on April 19, 2017 in The Stream and can be found here.



The Miracle of Science

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Splice Today by my old philosophy professor Dr. Crispin Sartwell from back in my Penn State days which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.


Can it save us from itself?

“Science” is a good thing for traumatized progressives to march for, allowing them to express their commitment simultaneously to truth itself and to the epistemic and cash-money hierarchy recognized by their kind. There were no anti-science counter-demonstrations, partly because almost everyone recognizes science as having a kind of overwhelming credibility; no one explicitly opposes it in general, even if they haven’t quite accepted human-caused climate change. Many purport to think of it as the only source of truth.

“How did America rise up from a backwoods country to be one of the greatest nations the world has ever known?” asks Neil de Grasse Tyson in a video which he describes as containing “the most important words I have ever spoken.” It’s technology, man, which he folds effortlessly into science. As the video unspools, it shows an inspiring montage of extreme carbon-emitting activities: rockets rising into the sky, steam power from coal plants, cities aglow with incandescent light. All that’s missing is the mushroom cloud… of science!

Indeed, even on Tyson’s conception, science has had some really terrifying results, such as industrial agriculture and ever-new generations of weaponry. According to his view, science is now the only hope for ameliorating the conditions it has itself ushered in. As to how science stands today in relation to the objective truth, I wouldn’t assume that this time around the results will stand up permanently or the effects wind up being benign. Every time they tell you what’s true, take it seriously and cock a skeptical eyebrow. Any other attitude is not compatible with science.

Tyson says that, in the 21st century, people other than himself “have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not.” The question is easy for people like Tyson: “science” is what is true, denying it or even quibbling with some particular result, is a sign not only that you probably didn’t do that well on the SAT’s, but that you’re irrational and evil. And since few of us are in a position to check the results of any particular research project, we must accept the deliverances of science on authority. For Tyson, the distinction between what’s true and what’s not is identical to the distinction between what people like him agree on and what they agree against. If someone “doesn’t believe in science,” they’re questioning his authority and that of his ilk.

This dogmatism is incompatible with science’s own self-understanding as producing provisional, challengeable knowledge. And it’s incompatible with the history of science. Think for just a moment what you would’ve been accepting if you had “accepted science” 50 years ago: what you would’ve believed about the nature of the universe (for example, that it’s in a steady state, rather than expanding), or about what food or pharmaceuticals could be safely consumed. What you’re urged today to accept without question as a badge of your goodness and rationality and your social status will quite likely be revised tomorrow. That’s what is good about science, actually.

But science was presented in those marches not only as consisting of thousands of specific assertions you’re called upon to accept, but as a token of identity. A defense of science is a defense, among other things, of academic institutions as being arbiters of knowledge and ignorance. More to the point, academics and scientists feel their funding to be under threat by the Trump administration.

I don’t think the “science wars” are wars about truth. They’re wars about class, identity, and the shape of history. The real avatars of the science march were Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ms. Frizzle, the cartoon teacher from The Magic School Bus. These figures, along with Sesame Street and Barney, helped shape the consciousness of, let’s say, middle-class white American kids. Nye and Frizzle spent half their time instructing and the other half enthusing about the wonders of science itself. Now they’re figures of preternatural power, battling the forces of ignorance in the streets.

It strikes me that it’d behoove us to do whatever the scientists tell us to do. They have access to biological, chemical, and nuclear agents, which they developed themselves, and the expertise to weaponize them. Watch these people bring down the Internet, if they want, or seize control of the grid. Perhaps we have focused too much on the threat of radical Islamism, and too little on the threat of rigorous scientism.

Originally published on April 24, 2017 and can be found here.

Tactical Retreat: The Bequest

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Tactical Retreat‘s latest sketch is entitled “The Bequest” can be viewed below.

Tactical Retreat: Frequent Flyer

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Tactical Retreat‘s latest sketch is entitled “Frequent Flyer” can be viewed below.

Tactical Retreat: Guilty Pleasures

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Tactical Retreat‘s latest sketch is entitled “Guilty Pleasures” can be viewed below.

Putting nature on the rack

This is from edwardfeser.blogspot.com which you can find here.  This blog is written by Edward Feser who is a Christian philosopher who I have been recently introduced to who I think provides effective clear, sobering, and direct responses to the advance of secular culture.


What was it that distinguished the modern scientific method inaugurated by Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Co. from the science of the medievals?  One common answer is that the moderns required empirical evidence, whereas the medievals contented themselves with appeals to the authority of Aristotle.  The famous story about Galileo’s Scholastic critics’ refusing to look through his telescope is supposed to illustrate this difference in attitudes.


The problem with this answer, of course, is that it is false.  For one thing, the telescope story is (like so many other things everyone “knows” about the Scholastics and about the Galileo affair) a legend.  For another, part of the reason Galileo’s position was resisted was precisely because there were a number of respects in which it appeared to conflict with the empirical evidence.  (For example, the Copernican theory predicted that Venus should sometimes appear six times larger than it does at other times, but at first the empirical evidence seemed not to confirm this, until telescopes were developed which could detect the difference; the predicted stellar parallax did not receive empirical confirmation for a long time; and so forth.)

Then there is the fact that the medievals were simply by no means hostile to the idea that empirical evidence is the foundation of knowledge; on the contrary, it was a standard Scholastic slogan that “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses.”  Indeed, Bacon regarded his Scholastic predecessors as if anything too quick to believe the evidence of the senses.  The first of the “Idols of the Mind” that he famously critiques, namely the “Idols of the Tribe,” included a tendency to take the deliverances of sensory experience for granted.  The senses could, in Bacon’s view, too readily be deceived, and needed to be corrected by carefully controlling the conditions of observation and developing scientific instruments.  And in general, the early moderns regarded much of what the senses tell us about the natural world — such as what they tell us about secondary qualities like color and temperature — to be false.
So, it is simply not the case that the difference between the medievals and the early moderns was that the latter were more inclined to trust empirical evidence.  On the contrary, there is a sense in which that is precisely the reverse of the truth.


Where empirical evidence is concerned, the real difference might, to oversimplify, be put as follows.  Both the medievals and the early moderns regarded sensory experience as a crucial witness to the truth about the natural world.  But whereas the medievals regarded it as a more or less friendly witness, the moderns regarded it as a more or less hostile witness.  You can, from both sorts of witness, derive the truth.  But the methods will be different.


Hence, a friendly witness can more or less be asked directly for the information you want.  That doesn’t mean he might not sometimes need to be prodded to answer.  Even if he is honest, he might be shy, or reluctant to divulge something embarrassing, or just not very articulate.  It also doesn’t mean that everything he says can be taken at face value.  He may be forgetful, or confused, or just mistaken now and again.  A hostile witness, by contrast, though he has the information you want, cannot with confidence be asked directly.  Even if he is articulate, has a crystal clear memory, etc., he may simply refuse to answer, or may persistently beat around the bush, or may flat-out lie, seriously and repeatedly.  Thus, he may have to be tricked into giving you the information you want, like the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men.  Or you may be tempted to threaten or beat it out of him, like one of the cops in L.A. Confidential would.  So, you might say that whereas the medieval Aristotelian scientist has a conversation with nature, the early modern Baconian scientist waterboards nature.  Hence the notorious Baconian talk about putting nature to the rack, torturing her for her secrets, etc.


Of course, this is melodramatic.  And to be fair, Bacon himself seems not to have put things quite the way commonly attributed to him (i.e. the stuff about torture and the rack).  All the same, the medievals and moderns do disagree about the degree to which the world of ordinary experience and the world that science reveals — what Wilfrid Sellars called “the manifest image” and “the scientific image” — correspond.  For the Aristotelian, philosophy and science are largely in harmony with common sense and ordinary experience.  To be sure, they get at much deeper levels of reality, and they correct common sense and ordinary experience around the edges, but they don’t overthrow common sense and ordinary experience wholesale.  For the moderns, by contrast, philosophy and science are likely radically to conflict with common sense and ordinary experience, and may indeed end up overthrowing them wholesale.


(This is not a difference concerning whether to accept the results of modern science, by the way.  It is a difference about how to interpret those results.  For example, it is a difference over whether to regard modern science as giving us a correct but merely partial description of nature — a description which needs to be supplemented by and embedded within an Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature — or whether to regard modern science instead as an exhaustive description of nature, and a complete metaphysics in its own right.)


The early moderns’ attitude of treating nature as a hostile witness — of thinking that the truth about nature is largely contrary to what ordinary experience would indicate — is one of the sources of the modern tendency to suppose that “things are never what they seem,” that traditional ideas are typically mere prejudices, that authorities and official stories of every kind need to be “unmasked,” and so forth.  Michael Levin has called this the “skim milk fallacy,” and I’ve often noted some of its social and moral consequences (e.g. here, here and here).  But these are merely byproducts of a much deeper metaphysical and epistemological revolution.

This evangelical leader gave the most important speech about the religious right in the age of Trump

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Week which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.

Donald Trump is a master of humiliation. Mostly he humiliates himself, but he has also humiliated countless people and entities over the course of his life and presidential campaign. If you had to draw up a list, near the top would have to be the religious right.

To say that some of the religious right’s top leaders have beclowned themselves by embracing Donald Trump is an understatement. It’s hard to know even where to begin. Donald Trump practices almost every kind of immorality forbidden by the Bible — and brags about it. He claims to be a Christian, but seems to know nothing about Christianity or show any interest in it. He has said several times that he has never asked God for forgiveness for anything, even though asking God for forgiveness is just about the most basic qualifier of a Christian. Oh, and Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president of the United States.

And yet this is the man many on the religious right embrace — even though it has previously denounced political figures as beyond the pale for lesser slights. To say that this is intellectual and moral bankruptcy is an understatement.

Enter Russell Moore. He may not (yet?) be a household name like a Jerry Falwell Jr., but he is an important man in the religious right. He’s the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In other word, he’s the “Mr. Politics” of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., one that is evangelical, conservative, and largely based in the Bible Belt. If anything qualifies as a leader of the religious right, this is it.

This week, Moore was invited to give the Erasmus Lecture, a prominent lecture given by the intellectual Christian magazine First Things (a previous honoree was a clergyman named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, better known today as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). And boy, is it a doozy. Moore basically called out the religious right — and particularly his own section of the religious right, conservative, white evangelical Protestantism — for all the flaws that are so glaring to those outside it.

Moore’s speech begins by recounting a spiritual crisis he underwent as a teenager. He had been brought up as an evangelical in the heart of the Bible Belt. But as he grew older he became disenchanted by the hypocrisy and vacuousness that was already apparent then (as it is apparent, in various forms and guises, in every religious community, as Jesus himself pointed out relentlessly), whether it took the form of “voter guides” that seemed eerily to parrot Republican National Committee talking points, except with Bible proof texts attached, or pastors denouncing adultery from the pulpit while honoring benefactors who were notorious adulterers, or literalistic interpretations of Biblical prophecies, always applied to the political controversies of the day. Providentially, Moore found his way to a deeper, more grounded form of Christianity, instead of drifting away from the faith as so many in a similar situation have. But that experience certainly forms the backdrop of his speech.

Moore then goes on to zing the religious right for its hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. While disagreeing with them, he respects those Christians who are disgusted by Trump, but will hold their nose and pull the lever for him as the lesser of two evils. But, he goes on to note, many religious right leaders have not made that argument, but instead embraced Donald Trump and found excuses for his pandering to white nationalism or bragging about assaulting women. He points out that the same crowd — indeed, in some cases, the very same people or institutions — was calling for figures like Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani to resign over their own infidelities, because a basic moral standard has to be upheld for public figures. They’re the ones who made the argument that political office requires not just having the right positions on issues of public policy, but also meeting a certain threshold of moral character. Yet here we are.

In the most searing line of the speech, Moore concludes: “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

He also points out that this sort of behavior is killing the religious right. He didn’t put it that starkly, but it’s pretty clear that everyone outside the echo chamber can see what phonies they are.

But there’s a bigger problem for the religious right, as Moore notes, which is that on most issues, mainstream American society has moved away from conservative Christianity. The old-line religious right could talk of a “Moral Majority” because it was true that on a set of basic moral issues, most Americans, while not Bible-thumping evangelicals or Aquinas-quoting traditional Catholics, were closer to traditional Christian views than to the progressive left. Which, if your basic duty as a religion is to evangelize people, makes it all the more important to (again, saying essentially the same thing as Moore in less guarded language) not look like money-grubbing, power-hungry, hypocritical sycophants and nincompoops.

The religious right now stands bankrupt. The question is, to pursue the bankruptcy metaphor further, is it a chapter 7 bankruptcy or a chapter 11? Do we shut the whole thing down, or is it possible to come out of the other side healthier, after some painful — no doubt very painful — restructuring?

“What’s at stake here is not just credibility, it’s also the question of whether religious conservatives even want a future,” Moore says.

Moore sees rays of hope for the religious right nonetheless. He points out that, contrary to many predictions, the young have not deserted conservative Christianity. Young people are “packing into orthodox and confessional universities and seminaries” and planting churches left and right, Moore notes. And while those young people may care more than their elders about traditionally progressive issues like racial or environmental justice, it is by no means because they have become liberal. In most cases, they are just as conservative, both theologically and morally, as their forebears.

What’s more, while American millennials have drifted very far from Christianity in many respects, they are “conservative” in others. The millennial generation is no less pro-life than the previous generation. Importantly, tantalizingly, it is also much more anti-divorce than the previous generation, as being the one that lived through the divorce waves of previous generations.

“The evangelicals who are the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Not because they’re liberal, but because they want to keep a priority on the Gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose,” Moore says. This is a sign of weariness with the excesses of the religious right, but also a sign of hope, if it is not pushed too far in the opposite direction.

There’s another thing that the young generation understands, Moore says. Today, many in the religious right and the Bible Belt understand “evangelical Christianity” to mean white evangelical Christianity. But the future of the church is global. In evangelicalism, as well as Catholicism for that matter, the energy in the church is global. By becoming enmeshed with, if not white identity politics per se, then certainly the white culture of the Bible Belt, the religious right has cut itself off from a key source of vitality within Christianity, and has overlooked — if not been downright hostile to — causes that should matter to Christians like racial justice and reconciliation.

So, there are seeds of hope, perhaps. What’s the way out?

In perhaps the most important phrase of the speech, Moore says: “One of the assumptions of some in the old religious right is that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically.”

Most Christians simply don’t know what they believe and why, and that is killing Christianity. Jacob Lupfer, a scholar of American Christianity, has noticed that within evangelical Christianity, the pro- versus anti-Trump split has come down along lines that are not so much political, or even theological per se, but confessional. “Generic evangelicals or cultural/nominal Protestants go for Trump. Confessional evangelicals are theologically primed to resist him.” By confessional, he means those believers, churches, and institutions that stress preaching and adhering to specific historic Christian creeds. (This also probably explains why Mormons and Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have also tended to be outliers in their rejection of Trump.)

Moore is not calling for a retreat of Christians from politics. The Christian faith calls on believers to regard themselves as strangers in a strange land, and citizens of Heaven first and Earth second, but that “second” matters. They need to serve their fellow men, including through public service and advocacy. Political organizing is good, Moore exclaims at one point. What’s more, it’s not just that Christians need politics, it’s that America needs conservative Christians. As Trump shows, without conservative Christianity, the right will not simply go away, as some progressives might hope, it will become more like the ethno-nationalistic populist right of Europe, and more Nietzchean, Moore warns, rightly in my view.

But for Christians to stop shaming themselves in the public square, let alone start playing a constructive role, they must first become more grounded in their own faith. Christians are supposed to believe in divine providence, so I can only say: from Moore’s mouth to God’s ears.

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and originally published on October 27, 2016 in The Week and can be found here.

Trump and Hillary, models of fallen human nature

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one Aleteia which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.


Their go-to responses to wrongdoing is deflection and dissimulation rather than repentance

Like many of you I was upset, though unsurprised, by the recently released tape in which Donald Trump brags about sexually assaulting women. However, what scandalized me more was to see how many Christians jumped to defend and downplay Trump’s behavior.

When I expressed dismay on social media about Donald Trump’s behavior, I was accused of being a Hillary supporter and of being indifferent to the pro-life cause. One man called me a “turncoat,” and another person told me I was a “fake nun.” I was told that I needed an exorcism and one man assured me that I would be responsible for Christians being thrown into gulags. And this reaction was tame compared to the response others received.

When Christians look away from any form of evil rather than prophetically calling human nature to a higher ideal we water down the Gospel message. This becomes all the more important in this election because we have two candidates whose behavior often exemplifies precisely what Christians are called to reject. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are mirrors of our own sin and just how far our fallen nature, our culture, and our country can fall. (Please note, I am not presuming to judge our presidential candidates’ moral state before God, who alone knows our conscience, but simply assessing their objective actions).

In the beginning, Adam blamed both Eve and God when he ate the forbidden fruit: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree” (3:12).

Eve similarly protested: “The snake tricked me, so I ate it” (3:13).

Both our presidential candidates have proven that their go-to response to wrongdoing is deflection and dissimulation rather than repentance. However, Trump and Clinton’s behavior often goes beyond the rationalizations of Adam and Eve and straight to the deliberate deception of the serpent. Hillary Clinton lies in a deliberate way when it seems politically convenient (the email debacle involved lie after calculated lie). Donald Trump’s denials, on the other hand, seem more frequent and instinctual rather than logical. He denies obvious, provable facts on national television without blinking an eye. And his “apologies” inevitably end with excuses and deflections.

When God heard Adam and Eve’s excuses and saw their lack of repentance, he expelled them from the Garden of Eden.

God cautioned Eve of the effects of original sin, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16).

Donald Trump’s life exemplifies this domination, abuse of power, and objectification of women that God warned Eve would happen. Trump has left his wives not once but twice. He’s boasted about his adulterous affairs. He has made multiple comments sexualizing underage girls, including his own daughter. And throughout his entire campaign, when the stakes are highest, Trump seems unable to avoid ridiculing, bullying, and making sexist comments about women. Donald Trump’s ongoing behavior concretely illustrates the way some fallen men treat women.

In the same way, Hillary Clinton exemplifies the fallen woman in her rejection of the feminine genius. As Hillary herself admits, she comes across as cold rather than warm and empathetic. This, no doubt, is related to her attempt to make it in a man’s world. But walling oneself off comes at a cost to both feminine authenticity and one’s moral worldview. Her turning away from the feminine genius further expresses itself in her unreserved support for abortion (a convenient solution for men who live a lifestyle similar to Donald Trump). Hillary also denigrates the feminine vocation to motherhood (which is not just biological) when she argues that babies can be aborted up to minutes before they are delivered. And she excuses fallen masculinity when she lauds the women who accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault while attacking the women who accused her husband.

When Adam and Eve sinned for the first time, their behavior immediately became selfish because their lives ceased to be centered on God.

Hillary and Trump typify behavior that seems centered on the wrong things, especially when it comes to money and power. For example, both run “charity” foundations that seem to do little more than serve their own respective interests. Trump has used his foundation to bribe public officials and to buy a huge 6-foot tall portrait of himself. In fact, Trump did not give a penny of his own money away through the foundation over a five-year period. Likewise, when Hillary was Secretary of State, Bill Clinton’s speaking fees doubled and in some cases tripled, causing many to suspect quid pro quo. Of the 154 people who met with Hillary when she was Secretary of State, at least 85 donated to the Clinton Foundation. It is against the law for foreigners to donate to political campaigns in the United States, yet Hillary accepted foreign donations for the Clinton Foundation from multiple foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia.  Just as troubling, are the leaked emails from the Clinton campaign mocking Catholics.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s questionable behavior and ethics is painfully evident. They both should have been unequivocally rejected as presidential candidates. Tragically, our country is so divided that we cannot unite behind even this obvious fact. Instead, people continue to cling to candidates who represent a ghost of their worldviews. Some people excuse or ignore their preferred candidate’s serious faults, and selectively become enraged when the other candidate does wrong.

But Christians are called to another kind of behavior. We are called to step outside of political situations and to view them within the trajectory of salvation history. We are called to be prophets, to name evil when we see it, and not just when it is the evil of the party opposite to the one we endorse. Unfortunately, like Adam and Eve, many of us instead defend and deflect for our respective candidate. We are fallen human beings and it is easy to lose hope in the radical message of the Gospel. We forget that human nature is called to something more through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. We have lowered the bar so low only a snake can slither through.

When this election is over, no matter who becomes president, we will enter an era of great difficulty for our country. My hope is that Christians will spend more time praying for our new president’s conversion than criticizing him or her. And I hope we will have learned the following lessons: We will never find salvation in a political party and we should be apologists and uncritical cheerleaders for no one but Jesus Christ.

By Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble and originally published on October 18, 2016 and can be seen here.

Vox, derp, and the intellectual stagnation of the left

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one The Week which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  Be edified.


Several long winters ago, when President Obama was thunderously elected amid Messianic fervor, and much of the right was in the throes of apoplectic confusion, some liberal writers warned of a phenomenon among right-wing intellectuals, which they called “epistemic closure.” The charge was that conservative thinkers had lost the ability to process the idea that the world of 2008 was not the world of the Reagan Era, and more generally to consider new ideas or, really, reality. The word “derp” entered our lexicon to mock forehead-slappingly stupid statements, defined by the liberal blogger Noah Smith as “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.”

Liberal writers overstated the phenomenon at the time, and there was always a bit of shadow-boxing and concern-trolling there. But they did have a point. Still, even as they were making that point, the smartest writers on the right were already rising to the occasion. A flurry of innovative young writers like Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Tim Carney, and Avik Roy put out fresh, 21st-century ideas on everything from tax reform to health care to social mobility to poverty to curtailing the power of Big Business. Many of these ideas are now compiled in a seminal new book. And many of these ideas have been adopted by the most prominent GOP politicians and presidential candidates. Only with the right leader will the GOP truly embrace what’s been called reform conservatism, but it’s clear that the GOP is becoming the party of ideas again.

Meanwhile, two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it’s so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.

One of the most striking examples of this epistemic closure among liberal writers are their forays into “explanatory journalism.” The idea that many people might like clear, smart explanations of what’s going on in the news certainly has merit. But the tricky thing with “explaining” the news is that in order to do so fairly, you have to be able to do the mental exercise of detaching your ideological priors from just factually explaining what is going on. Of course, as nonliberal readers of the press have long been well aware, this has always been a problem for most journalists. And yet, the most prominent “explanatory journalism” venture has been strikingly bad at actually explaining things in a nonbiased way.

I am, of course, talking about Vox, the hot new venture of liberal wonkblogger extraordinaire Ezra Klein. It was already a bad sign that his starting lineup was mostly made up of ideological liberals. And a couple months in, it’s clear that much of what passes for “explanation” on Vox is really partisan commentary in question-and-answer disguise.

And the troubling thing is, I don’t think the people at Vox are even aware that that’s what they’re doing.

Consider this selection of Voxplainers on ObamaCare. “Millions of Americans are paying less for ObamaCare than cable“; “The best evidence we have that ObamaCare is working“; “Kathleen Sebelius is resigning because ObamaCare has won“; “The right can’t admit that ObamaCare is working.” (The URL slug on the last one: ObamaCare Derangement Syndrome.) Hmmm..

Or take another, related topic: Single-payer health care. What are the arguments for or against single payer? That’s a complex topic! Thankfully Vox‘s Sarah Kliff, former health policy reporter at The Washington Post and a noted progressive, is here to explain. Her post on the topic — which purports to list the arguments against single-payer — does not mention the fact that cancer survival rates and other positive health outcomes are significantly higher in non-single-payer countries than in single-payer countries. It seems relevant. The point is not whether or not single payer is wrong, or that the cancer survival rate point is decisive. The point is that a prominent, talented liberal writer on health policy, asked to make an objective list of arguments against single payer, cannot do justice to the job.

Or take the alleged loss by the IRS — which imposes onerous archiving requirements on all large companies — of certain important emails related to the agency’s targeting of conservative political groups. It certainly looks bad for the IRS. But it’s really conservatives’ fault, says Vox: The IRS scandal shows the IRS needs a bigger budget. Never mind the fact that the IRS already has a $2.4 billion IT budget and countless companies are able to archive emails with much smaller budgets, or that the IRS had a contract with an email backup company. Never mind that the argument for a higher budget is based on the notion that IRS applications rose dramatically before the scandal, which is, um, not true, even according to the liberal website Politifact. Again, the point isn’t to litigate the IRS issue. The point is that Vox often looks more like a right-wing caricature of what a partisan media outlet dressed up as an explainer site would look like, rather than an actual explainer site.

There is no doubt that Klein and Vox are earnest. They are not engaged in some vast conspiracy to deceive the American public and surreptitiously plant liberal ideas in Americans’ brains. Instead, Vox just contains a disturbing amount of, well, derp. (It’s great at sports explainers, though!)

Another symbol of growing epistemic closure on the left is The New Republic, which, under new ownership, has gone from being an idiosyncratic magazine critiquing liberalism almost as often as endorsing it to becoming a liberal mouthpiece, and now has decided to get into the explanatory journalism game. The name of their new vertical? “QED.” The jokes write themselves.

Increasingly, liberal writers have been drinking their own Kool-Aid. They really believe they are the “reality-based community.” When they talk about conservatives they respect, they qualify their praise with “The smart conservative so and so…” — with such “he’s one of the good ones” asterisks betraying the wholly unwarranted assumption on the left that the vast majority of conservatives are crazy, stupid, or both.

And yet, liberals themselves are very rarely capable of passing an Ideological Turing Test. They believe not only that an honest evaluation of the world lines up with their worldview (everyone does, to some extent), but have also forgotten how to differentiate between the honest evaluations and their worldview, or that doing so is even possible, or that their worldview is based on very idiosyncratic moral priors.

Back when epistemic closure was more salient a problem on the right, the liberal writers who pointed it out were mostly genuinely concerned: A healthy polity needs a healthy intellect on both sides of the aisle. The left needs an intellectually vigorous right, and vice versa — so get your act together.

By: Pascal Emmanuel Gobry and originally published in The Week and can be found here.

The Problem with Conservativism

A couple of weeks ago I posted “The Problem with Liberalism” as published First Things (see here).  Here is the companion piece to that article, “The Problem with Conservativism,” below; be edified!


My first conservative experience was in second grade, when I learned America the Beautiful. Verses one and two were merely baffling: I could not picture waves of grain, I could not believe that mountains were purple, and I could not form an association between liberty and pilgrim’s feet. But the third verse broke me like glass and made me an idolater. O beautiful for patriot’s dream, that sees beyond the years, we warbled; thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears. Somehow the song called forth in my childish heart an answering music that I had never heard in church. I seemed to hear the whine of gulls and the murmur of the sea before a white throne; I was afflicted with a sense of the Fall and a longing for the City whose light is the Glory of God. But I misidentified the City. The song sent me questing for Columbia, not the New Jerusalem. I was told to seek in the ideal futurity of my nation what cannot be made by hands.

What then is a Christian to make of conservatism? The danger, it would seem, is not in conserving, for anyone may have a vocation to care for precious things, but in conservative ideology, which sets forth a picture of these things at variance with the faith. The same is true of liberalism. From time to time Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living in a different vision. For our allies’ sake as well as our own, it behooves us to remember the difference. We do not need another Social Gospel—just the Gospel.

In a previous essay, “The Problem With Liberalism” (FT, March), I described liberalism as a bundle of acute moral errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions. Conservatism may be described as another such bundle. The parallel is not perfect, for American culture is balanced at the top of a liberal ridge and is only now considering the descent. Because conservative moral errors have had less time to work among the powers and principalities, we cannot always discern their political consequences. But we can anticipate their fruits by their roots. The moral errors of conservatism are just as grave as those of its liberal opponents.

A minor difficulty in setting forth these errors is the ambiguity of the term “conservatism.” Conservatives come in many different kinds, and their mistakes are equally heterogeneous. I should like to stress, therefore, that not every conservative commits every one of the errors that I describe in the following pages. But there is a common theme. Each kind of conservative opposes the contemporary government-driven variety of social reformism in the name of some cherished thing which he finds that it endangers. One speaks of virtue, another of wealth, another of the peace of his home and the quiet of his street—but although these pearls are of very different luster, none wishes his to be thrown before swine. So it is that conservatives are often able to make common cause, putting all their pearls in a single casket.

The first moral error of political conservatism is civil religionism. According to this notion America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration; according to Christianity America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more.

Our civil religion seems to have developed in four stages. The first stage was the Massachusetts Bay colony. Although the Puritans accepted the orthodox view of the Church as the New Israel, they also viewed it as corrupt. The Church’s role of City Upon a Hill had therefore passed to themselves—to the uncorrupted remnant of the faithful, fled to North American shores. Like the Israelites, they viewed themselves as having entered into a special covenant with God to be His people. The same blessings and curses, however, were appended to their covenant as to the one at Sinai; therefore, warned Governor John Winthrop, should the settlers embrace the present world and prosecute their carnal intentions, “the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us [and] be revenged of such a perjured people.”

The second stage was the colonies just before the Revolution. Increasing unity among the settlers had given rise to a national sense of covenant with God, but the shared experience of English harassment aroused suspicion that the covenant had been breached. Isaiah’s warnings to Israel were invoked by way of explanation: “How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.” Preachers like Samuel Langdon declared that if only the people would turn from their sins, God would remit their punishment, purge the nation of wrongdoers, restore a righteous government—and deal with the English.

The third stage was in the early and middle republic. God was still understood as the underwriter of American aspirations, but as the content of these aspirations became more and more nationalistic it also became less and less Christian. It appeared that God cared at least as much about putting down the South and taking over the West as He did about making His people holy; patriotic songwriters like Samuel Francis Smith used expressions like “freedom’s holy light,” but they meant democracy, not freedom from sin.

The fourth stage was the late republic. By this time American culture had become not just indifferent to Christianity, but hostile to it. Conservatives still wanted to believe that the nation was specially favored by God, but the idea of seeking His will and suffering His chastening had been completely lost. President Eisenhower remarked that what the country needed was a religious foundation, but that he didn’t care what it was. President Reagan applied the image of the City Upon a Hill not to the remnant of the Church in America, but to America as such—its mission not to bear witness to the gospel, but to spread the bits and pieces of its secular ideology.

The mistake in all these stages is confusing America with Zion. She is not the inheritor of the covenant, not the receiver of the promises, not the witness to the nations. It may well be that all nations have callings of sorts—specific purposes which God in His providence assigns them. But no nation can presume to take God under its wing. However we may love her, dote upon her, and regret her, the Lord our God can do without the United States.

The second moral error of political conservatism is instrumentalism. According to this notion faith should be used for the ends of the state; according to Christianity believers should certainly be good citizens, but faith is not a tool. To be sure, the pedigree of instrumentalism is not purely conservative; it has followers on the left as well as the right. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, wanted the state to invent a civil religion to his order and then make use of it. Its articles would be proposed “not exactly as religious dogmas” but as “sentiments of sociability without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Most instrumentalists, however, are not so fastidious. They are willing to make a tool of whatever religion comes to hand, whether civil, traditional, or revealed. Religious conservatives who pine for the days when jurists called America “a Christian country” and recognized Christianity as “the law of the land” are deeply in error if they think such statements expressed belief; what they expressed was instrumentalism. In those days the religion that came to hand was Christianity (or at least its counterfeit in civil religion), and the speakers were interested primarily in how it could be used. The eminent nineteenth-century jurist Thomas Cooley admitted as much. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, controversial author of America a Christian Country, was only slightly less explicit.

Viewed from this perspective, the contrast between the jurisprudence of yesterday and today is not nearly as sharp as religious conservatives make it out to be. Although language describing Christianity as the law of the land has disappeared from our cases, judges and legislators are just as interested in the social utility of the faith as they were before—and just as indifferent to its truth. Consider for example the 1984 Supreme Court case Lynch v. Donelly, which concerned whether a Christmastime nativity display could be financed by a municipal government. Members of the Court likened erecting a creche to adopting “In God We Trust” as the national motto and opening judicial sessions with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” By the comparison, they meant three things.

These acts and declarations have nothing to do with religion. They do not “endorse” the faith, but merely “acknowledge” it, said Justice O’Connor. Indeed they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content,” said Justice Brennan. Otherwise, they said, they would be establishments of religion, which are forbidden.

On the other hand, they are socially indispensable. They are “uniquely” suited to serve “wholly” secular purposes (Brennan) which could not reasonably be served in any other way (O’Connor). These purposes include “solemnizing public occasions” (Brennan and O’Connor), “expressing confidence in the future and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society” (O’Connor), and “inspiring commitment to meet some national challenge in a manner that simply could not be fully served if government were limited to purely nonreligious phrases” (Brennan). The last of these purposes is especially interesting—in plain language, it means getting people to do something they would refuse to do otherwise.

In fact, they are a noble lie. Obviously, if the mottoes and creches and so forth had really lost all their religious content they would be completely useless for achieving any purposes whatsoever, secular or otherwise. Our rulers feel free to use them because they have lost religious meaning for them; they work, however, because they retain this meaning for the masses.

The third moral error of political conservatism is moralism. According to this notion God’s grace needs the help of the state; Christianity merely asks the state to get out of the way. We might say that while instrumentalism wants to make faith a tool of politics, moralism wants to make politics a tool of faith; on this reading, what instrumentalism is to secular conservatives, moralism is to religious conservatives. Surprisingly, though, many religious conservatives seem unable to tell the difference. Whether someone says “We need prayer in schools to make the children holy” or “We need prayer in schools to make the country strong,” it sounds to them the same.

Now I am not going to complain that moralism “imposes” a faith on people who do not share it. In the sense at issue, even secularists impose a faith on others”they merely impose a different faith. Every law reflects some moral idea, every moral idea reflects some fundamental commitment, and every fundamental commitment is religious”it proposes a god. Everything in the universe comes to a point. For moralism, therefore, the important distinction is not between religion and secularism, but between faiths that do and faiths that do not demand the civil enforcement of all their moral precepts.

To the question “Should the civil law enforce the precepts of the faith?” the biblical answer is, “Some yes, but some no; which ones do you mean?” The New Testament contains literally hundreds of precepts. However, Christianity is not a legislative religion. While the Bible recognizes the Torah as a divinely revealed code for the ruling of Israel before the coming of Messiah, it does not include a divinely revealed code for the ruling of the gentiles afterward. To be sure, the Bible limits the kinds of laws that Christians can accept from their governments, for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). However, it does not prescribe specific laws that they must demand from them.

It is not even true that all of God’s commands limit the kinds of laws that Christians can accept. To see this, contrast two such precepts: (1) I am prohibited from deliberately shedding innocent blood; (2) I am prohibited from divorcing a faithful spouse. Both precepts are absolute in their application to me, but that is not the issue. If we are speaking of governmental enforcement, then we are speaking of their application to others. The former precept should require very little watering down in the public square, for even nonbelievers are expected to understand the wrong of murder. That is why I may be confident in condemning the legalization of abortion. But the latter precept requires a good deal of watering down in the public square, for before the coming of Christ not even believers were expected to understand the true nature of marriage. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard,” said Jesus, “but it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8). No doubt the Pharisees to whom He was speaking were scandalized by the idea that their civil law did not reflect God’s standards fully. They must have been even more offended by the suggestion that it was not intended to. Among religious conservatives this suggestion is still a scandal, but it does not come from liberals; it comes from the Master.

Christians, then, may certainly commend a law as good or condemn it as evil. They may declare it consistent or inconsistent with the faith. But not even a good law may be simply identified with the faith; Christians must not speak of a tax code, marriage ordinance, or welfare policy as Christian no matter how much, or even how rightly, they desire its enactment or preservation. That predicate has been preempted by the law of God. The civil law will be Christian—if it still exists at all—only when Christ himself has returned to rule: not when a coalition of religious conservatives has got itself elected.

The fourth moral error of political conservatism is Caesarism. According to this notion the laws of man are higher than the laws of God; according to Christianity the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. With this error we have come back to secular conservatives. The peculiar thing about American Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God, in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects.

George Reynolds, a Mormon living in Utah Territory, was charged during the 1870s with the crime of bigamy. In his defense he argued that the law was an unconstitutional infringement of his free exercise of religion. Accepting his appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed. Although it said all sorts of interesting things about why free exercise of religion is good (and why polygamy is wrong—for instance because it leads to a patriarchal rather than republican principle of authority in government), the heart of the rebuttal was a simple distinction between opinions and actions. Appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state,” it held that what people believe is the business of the church, but that what they do is the business of the state. Therefore, the First Amendment does not mean that people may act as their religion requires, but only that they may think as their religion requires; free exercise of religion makes no difference whatsoever to the scope of state power over conduct.

Still favored by many conservatives, this doctrine has startling implications. It means, for instance, that in throwing Christians to the lions for refusing to worship Caesar, the Romans did nothing to infringe the free exercise of Christianity; after all, while being devoured, the martyrs were still at liberty to believe that Caesar was only a man.

A century later, in cases involving other religious groups, the Court conceded the point. Announcing its discovery that faith and conduct cannot be isolated in “logic-tight compartments,” it now decreed that “only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion.” But this was too much for judicial conservatives, and the experiment was ended in 1992. Writing for the Court in Employment Division v. Smith (II), Justice Scalia appealed to the notion that the issue in free exercise cases is not whether the state’s motives are “compelling,” but whether they are “neutral.” A law that does not expressly single out a particular sect may burden any religious practice to any degree, so long as this burden is “merely the incidental effect” of the law and not its “object.” In other words, repression is fine so long as it is absentminded. Pastoral care and counselling could not be forbidden as such but could be forbidden as an incidental effect of regulations for the licensing of mental health practitioners; the sacrament of baptism could not be forbidden as such but could be forbidden as an incidental effect of regulations for bathing in public places. To be sure, since the recent action of the Court, Congress has reinstated the compelling-interest doctrine, lauding its deed as a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” But surely this is overstatement. After all, even under the compelling-interest doctrine, claims to the free exercise of religion can be swept aside whenever the state thinks its reasons are good enough. So much we would have had without a First Amendment.

As our own times have made clear, even releasing nerve gas in public places can be an exercise of religion. Perhaps the blame for our troubles lies with the Framers, for refusing to distinguish the kinds of religion whose exercise should be free from the kinds of religion whose exercise should not. But, foolishly thinking ignorance a friend of conscience, we have followed their lead. Afraid to judge among religions, we put them all beneath our feet; pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of equal liberty, we tumble headlong into Caesarism.

The fifth moral error of political conservatism is traditionalism. According to this notion what has been done is what should be done; Christianity, however, though it cherishes the unchanging truths of faith, insists that any merely human custom may have to be repented. “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” writes Koheleth, “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). “Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye not know it?” answers God (Isaiah 43:19).

An illustration of the mischiefs of traditionalism may be found in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the supposed right to take the lives of one’s unborn children. By inventing the right in the first place, the Court had shattered tradition; no such use of lethal violence by private individuals had ever been sanctioned in common law. But Roe v. Wade had stood for twenty years. As far as the Court is concerned, that makes it a new tradition”and as such, unassailable. Amazingly, the Court upheld Roe even while admitting that it might have been decided incorrectly. “We are satisfied,” says the majority, “that the immediate question is not the soundness of Roe’s resolution of the issue, but the precedential force that must be accorded the ruling.”

Just how does an unsound precedent have force? The answer, says the Court, is that “for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized their intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail . . . . An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty.” To put the idea more simply, sex has been separated from responsibility for resulting children for so long that to change the rules on people now would be unfair. Therefore, never mind whether what was done was right; what matters is that it was done.

Moral errors gain their plausibility from the truths that they distort. It is certainly true that precedents, traditions, and customs should not be needlessly disturbed; the gain in goodness from a particular change must always be balanced against the harm of change as such. But this truth applies to the choice between a good law and a still better one, not to the choice between a good law and an evil one. The question to ask about moral evil is not whether we have got used to it, but whether it can be stopped.

The sixth moral error of political conservatism is neutralism. This may come as a surprise, because neutralism also comes in a liberal variety. Whereas the liberal sort of neutralist exclaims, “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” the conservative sort cries merely, “Leave me alone.” In essence, conservative neutralism is the notion that because everyone ought to mind his own business, moral and religious judgments should be avoided. By contrast, while agreeing that one ought to mind his own business‚St. Paul warns three times against busybodies—Christianity holds that moral and religious judgments can never be avoided. They must be straight and true before people can even agree as to what their business is.

Not everyone reaches neutralism by the same route, but conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott follows a well-worn path in deriving it from traditionalism. Conservatives, he says, seek activities whose enjoyment springs “not from the success of the enterprise, but from the familiarity of the engagement.” What makes this disposition intelligible in politics is “the observation of our current manner of living” together with the belief that laws are “instruments enabling people to pursue activities of their own choice with minimum frustration.” But to say this is to reject the view that laws are “plans for imposing substantive activities”; therefore, he holds, conservatism has “nothing to do” with morals or religion.

Of course the conclusion does not follow, and if it were really true then conservatives could make no decisions at all. Rather than being indifferent to questions of good and evil, Oakeshott himself maintains the good of minimizing frustration, and rather than holding no opinion about religion, he holds the opinion that it is better to be ignorant of truth than to be pestered about it. For example he says that people of conservative disposition “might even be prepared to suffer a legally established ecclesiastical order,” but “it would not be because they believed it to represent some unassailable religious truth, but merely because it restrained the indecent competition of sects and (as Hume said) moderated ‘the plague of a too diligent clergy.’” The difficulty is plain: If not by his own moral and religious standards, then how does Oakeshott know that competition is indecent and diligence a plague? Why not condemn complacency and sloth instead?

Not even rules designed to tell what counts as pestering can work in a neutral way. Always we must add others to make them work—and what we add makes a difference to the outcome. Christianity recognizes this. For example, consider the principles of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty. Each targets the problem of knowing where the business of one party ends and the business of another begins. Subsidiarity, a precept of Catholic social thought, holds that greater and higher social institutions like the state exist just to help lesser and subordinate ones like the family. Therefore, to destroy the lesser institutions, absorb them, or take away their proper functions is “gravely wrong” and a “disturbance of right order.” Sphere subsidiarity is more prominent in Protestant social thought. Ordering social institutions horizontally instead of vertically, it says that each has its own domain, its own authority, and its own ruling norm, for instance love in the case of the family and public justice in the case of the state. Therefore, each should be protected from interference by the others.

Both rules are meant to deal with meddling, but applying either one requires a vast amount of other knowledge, which one must get from somewhere else”just what the neutralist would like to think unnecessary. To test my college students I used to ask, “To which institution would a subsidiarist give the task of instructing children in sexual mores”state or family?” Almost all replied, “The state.” Families need help, they argued, because they do a poor job in this area: They rarely teach children about contraception, sexual preferences, or the many other things which young moderns need to know. I was astonished. Couldn’t my students tell the difference between helping the family and absorbing its functions? On reflection their answer was not astonishing at all. They shared neither Christian presuppositions about what sex is for nor Christian presuppositions about how a family works; why then should they have reached Christian conclusions in applying Christian social principles?

There is nothing exceptional about the principles of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty; no definition of meddling or intrusion can work in a neutral way. Particular moral and religious understandings are always presupposed, and changing them changes the way our definitions work. It follows that forbidding moral judgments will not keep busybodies out of other people’s hair. Somehow they must learn the meanings of “other,” “people’s,” and “hair.”

The seventh moral error of political conservatism is mammonism. According to this notion wealth is the object of commonwealth, and its continual increase even better; according to Christianity wealth is a snare, and its continual increase even worse. Mammonism is what the Big Tent that some political analysts urge for the Republican Party is all about: ditch the social issues, but hold onto the capitals gains tax reduction. To keep your liberty you have to keep your money.

Christians, of course, are not the only ones to have criticized mammonism. Warnings against the love of wealth were a staple even of ancient pagan conservatism. The idea was that virtue makes republics prosper, but prosperity leads to love of wealth, love of wealth leads to loss of virtue, and loss of virtue makes republics fall. Thus if you want your republic to endure, you will do well to seek a site unfavorable to great prosperity—not too warm, not too fertile, not too close to the trading routes. That our secular conservatives disagree with their ancient counterparts will strike no one as a new idea. Odder is the ease with which modern Christians make their peace with mammonism.

An extreme example is found in the late-nineteenth-century Baptist preacher Russell Conwell, who maintained that to make money is the same thing as to preach the Christian gospel. However that may be, to preach his own gospel was certainly the same thing as to make money. So eager were people to hear his oft-repeated Acres of Diamonds speech that he is said to have earned, over a period of years, perhaps six million dollars from speakers’ fees alone. Though peanuts by the standards of modern televangelists, at the time that was real money. An inventory of Conwell’s more astonishing claims would include at least the following: (1) It is your Christian duty to get rich, and ownership of possessions makes you a better person; (2) The overwhelming majority of rich people are morally upright, and that is exactly why they are rich; (3) It is wrong to be poor, and God does not approve of poor people. That Jesus explicitly contradicts each of these claims (Matthew 6:19–21, Matthew 19:23–24, Luke 6:20) leaves Conwell cold.

A more temperate but still objectionable form of mammonism is found in Toward the Future, a “lay letter” published in 1984 by a committee of prominent Catholic conservatives. Jesus told the story of a master who entrusts his servants with the care of his money while he is traveling to a distant place to receive a kingship. Upon his return, he finds that one servant has buried his share while the other two have made investments. The timid servant he scolds and dismisses, but the bold ones he praises and rewards with yet greater responsibilities. Traditionally the Church has understood this parable to mean that just as a king in this world expects his agents to take risks, not burying his money but investing it to earn a return, so God expects his people to take risks, not burying their gifts but using them to build up the Kingdom of Heaven. By contrast, the lay letter understands it to mean simply that God expects his people to invest their money to earn a return. “Preserving capital is not enough,” the authors teach; “it must be made to grow.” The use of gifts for the sake of the Kingdom becomes the growth of wealth for the sake of wealth.

To be sure, the lay letter’s defense of enterprise is not altogether wrong. Material things are not intrinsically evil, it is not a sin to engage in honest business, and, despite its dubious motivational underpinnings, the capitalist type of economy may well be superior to the alternatives. Indeed the cooperative sort of socialism seems to ignore the circumstance of the Fall, and the compulsory sort cannot even be established without the sin of theft. In a fallen world, much can also be said for the “invisible hand” of the market, by which independent individuals, even though selfish, bring about a social good which was no part of their intention. But even Adam Smith recognizes that the invisible hand does not work unless laborers and businessmen submit themselves to the restraints of justice, and that an interest in wealth alone will not induce them to do so. After all, if winning is all that matters, why keep the competition going at all? Why not use one’s wealth to wring special privileges from the government and so become more wealthy still? Capitalism depends on a moral spirit which it cannot supply and may even weaken; it is, in the most exact of senses, a parasite on the faith. But a Christian parasite is not by that fact Christian.

The eighth moral error of political conservatism is meritism. According to this notion I should do unto others as they deserve. With the addition of mammonism, matters become even simpler, for then those who need help are by definition undeserving, while those in a position to help are by definition deserving. That meritism is not a Christian doctrine comes as a surprise to many people. Large numbers think the meritist motto “God helps those who help themselves” is a quotation from the Bible. What the New Testament actually teaches is that in what we need most, we are helpless; the grace of God is an undeserved gift. According to Christianity I should do unto others not as they deserve, but as they need.

Aristotle taught that vices tend to come in pairs, because one can miss a mark either by way of excess or by way of deficiency—by going too far or by failing to go far enough. That is certainly the case here, for the conservative mistake of meritism stands opposite to the liberal mistake of propitiationism—doing unto others as they want. In fact the commonest way to fall into either mistake is by sheer recoil from the other. The reason is easy to see: We tend to think of justice and mercy as antithetical, so that to practice either I must slight the other. By this line of reasoning the conservative emphasis on desert is a preference for justice, while the liberal emphasis on desire is a preference for mercy. By contrast, in the Christian account of things justice and mercy are corollaries that must be united. They are united in the Atonement because God neither waived the just penalty for our sins nor inflicted it on us, but took it upon Himself. This staggering gift also teaches what the unity of justice and mercy requires: sacrifice. If to us justice and mercy seem irreconcilable, the reason is probably that we are loath to pay the price of their reconciliation; we are afraid of sacrifice and shrink from the way of the Cross.

What does the contrast between meritism and charity look like in ordinary human relationships? Consider the governmental policy of paying women cash prizes for bearing children out of wedlock. Liberals want to continue the policy because they cannot tell need from desire. Meritists propose ending it because the subsidies are undeserved. Although a Christian may accept the cutoff, he cannot accept it for the reason given. All of us at all times need and receive many things that we do not deserve. The problem with the subsidies is that they are not what is needed. They so completely split behavior from its natural consequences that they infantilize their supposed beneficiaries; to infantilize them is to debase them, and no one needs to be debased.

Very well, says the meritist to the Christian, but we both support a cutoff. The rationales differ, but so what? That makes no difference in practice, does it? But it does. After achieving the cutoff, the meritist thinks his work is done, but the Christian thinks his work has only begun. He must now find another way to offer help; and he had better be prepared to pay the price. For a portrait of that price, don’t think of a bureaucrat, think of Mother Teresa.

We have considered what Christians are to make of political conservatism. It might also be asked what political conservatives are to make of Christians. I am afraid that the more faithful we are to our identity in Christ, the less reliable they will find us even as occasional allies; and we must be honest with them. The Christian thinker Michael Novak wrote in his 1969 book A Theology for Radical Politics that because God is the source of all truth and good, whatever is true and good is Christian. At that time finding truth and goodness on the left, he therefore baptized the left. Like many Christians of the time, what he forgot was that in order to identify the true and the good, one must have a standard. “Every explanation of the meaning of human existence,” said Reinhold Niebuhr, “must avail itself of some principle of explanation which cannot be explained. Every estimate of values involves some criterion of value which cannot be arrived at empirically.” By the time he wrote Confessions of a Catholic, fourteen years later, Novak had arrived at the same insight. As he explained, his former self had erred in taking his principle of explanation and criterion of value from a worldly faction instead of the community of faith. The “reference group” of Christian activists like himself had somehow become “others on the left”; it should have been others in the Lord.

To repeat the error would be a shame, for the reference group of Christians can no more be others on the right than others on the left. Citizenship is an obligation of the faith, therefore the Christian will not abstain from the politics of the nation-state. But his primary mode of politics must always be witness. It is a good and necessary thing to change the welfare laws, but better yet to go out and feed the poor. It is a good and necessary thing to ban abortion, but better yet to sustain young women and their babies by taking them into the fellowship of faith. This is the way the kingdom of God is built.

It is not by the world that the world is moved—yet how it pulls. Ah, God, help us let go of the heights and the depths, the thrones and dominions, the powers and principalities; to be not conservatives, nor yet liberals, but simply Christians. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

By J. Budziszewski and originally published in First Things in April 1996 and can be found here.


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