Hope and American Culture


Last week I published a decidedly mixed review of Joseph Bottum’s new book at the Public Discourse, and Bottum has now responded. He says I’m a McCarthyite and an unwitting conduit of anti-Catholic bigotry because I blamed him for failing to apply the Christian virtue of hope to contemporary American culture.

The editors of the Public Discourse have offered to let me write a full-length reply to Bottum, but the effort would be superfluous. As I wrote in my original review, Bottum himself has already provided, in his wonderful chapter on the life of John Paul II, a response to his failure to apply hope to the culture better than anything I could have written. His account of John Paul’s life demonstrates why Christian hope cannot be hyper-spiritualized – separated from our participation in our culture, including its political life as well as all the rest of culture – in the way that Bottum seems to desire. The origin of our hope is in the eternal life that only Christians possess, but if that hope is true, it must have implications for the life of culture. Christopher Brooks, a pastor in Detroit – where they know a thing or two about daunting cultural challenges – has said that if you don’t think your culture can change, your real position is “Jesus can transform people, but not in this ZIP code.” Nuts to that.

Bottum wants to have his cake and eat it, too. In this response, he writes as though his book had only said there was no hope for American politics. But the book was quite clear from beginning to end that Bottum saw no path forward for American culture as a whole, not just for the political section of American culture. If he is now recanting that view, wonderful – but let him say so clearly.

Most amazingly, Bottum tries to transform me into an advocate of the culture war. That is really funny, given that I’ve spent years resisting the culture war mentality. I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble with some of my friends for arguing that Christians need to greatly increase their investment in non-political modes of cultural participation. But I do insist that human beings are created to be political creatures and Christian hope therefore has application for politics – and I’ve gotten in trouble with some of my other friends for saying that!

As C.S. Lewis said, if the Lilliputians think me a giant and the Brobdingnagians think me a dwarf, perhaps my stature is not after all so remarkable.

Love Is Our King

Marcher with flag

Today Canon and Culture carries my article on the need to “de-institutionalize enmity,” entitled “Love Is Our King.” Readers who have complained to me about the alleged naivete of this might want to have a look. I’m not naïve about evil; for ten years I’ve tangled with teacher unions – people who make their living by destroying children’s lives. For supporting school choice, I’ve been portrayed as a white supremacist who wants to bring back Jim Crow. Guess what? You have to love them anyway.

And one of the hardest parts about loving your enemies is maintaining the judgment of charity. You have to believe that they’re as good as the evidence allows you to believe they are. I appreciate Joe Carter drawing our attention to this, but let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that everyone who stands against us does so out of hate.

In the C&C article, among other things, I share a little more than I have in the past about the close friend who permanently cut me off after I became a Christian:

The point is that there was nothing about either me or her that forced us into this position. I have asked myself time and again whether I said or did something that could have come across like it was me rejecting her as a person, rather than me changing my mind about how people in general should live their lives (which was the kind of thing we’d always disagreed about before). But I honestly don’t think there was. Nor do I think she, on her end, lacked the emotional strength to stand up for herself in an honest way—as if my withdrawing approval for this aspect of her life was such a crushing blow that she had to tell herself I was a bigot to avoid facing it.

No, this happened because of deep structures in our culture. All day, every day, she had been immersed in a culture (especially in the subcultures to which she belonged) where it is simply assumed that there is no such thing as honest disagreement about this issue. There is only hatred, period. And on my part, I lacked the wisdom to anticipate this problem and take steps to preempt it.

If you’re out there, drop me a line and let’s talk about how we can not hate each other.

We can share this country.

I Had A Dream–but I should have dreamt BIGGER

Well, hello, there!

I did not plan to write about pop culture for my first entry on Hang Together. After all, the run of posts on Frozen has been making me wish my wife and I had gone to that rather chilly drive-in double-header that she mentioned a while back, and who wants to break in on a good pop-culture review in progress? Besides, I still have that post about today’s “preachy” moment with my students to write, and that other one about teaching students about the role of shame in deliberative democracy, and–but every day brings a new topic, and sooner or later one must simply write.

So, today, it’s about a piece of pop culture that was startlingly insightful, though quite possibly by accident. Submitted for your approval: Season 6, Episode 19 of the ABC series Castle, titled “The Greater Good,” in which Castle and Beckett (joined by Beckett’s police superior Gates and Gates’s sister, a hotshot prosecutor) confront a rogue ADA with the evidence of her misdeeds. The murder victim had been victimized first by the prosecutor, who planted drug evidence on him so her office could coerce him into “wearing a wire” and informing on his boss, a suspected white-collar criminal. When the rogue ADA discovered that her victim had informed his boss about the investigation, taken a huge bribe, and left the country, she murdered him and tried to frame his boss. All very average TV mystery plotting, fairly well executed.

The kicker, though, is the way our murder victim left the telltale message. He was wired, you see. And before he left his recording device at the rogue ADA’s “dead drop” (all very cloak-and-dagger), he recorded one final message.

You can listen for yourself on ABC or Hulu, if you care to. (The scene is 37 minutes in on the Hulu version, if you don’t prefer to watch the whole episode now.)

Our victim says to his persecutors, in my paraphrase, “I came to America because I believed in the American Dream. I worked hard for people I knew might be corrupt because I believed. And when you, the U.S. government, planted evidence on me, to force me to turn on them, what was I supposed to believe in?” So he took the payday and went home (we find later that half of his payoff went to rebuild his hometown).

Do you see what I see in that speech? I see someone who weighed American civic religion and found it wanting.

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JFTW in Credo


The good folks at Credo Magazine have published an interview with me on my new book (why yes, it is on sale now at fine bookstores, thanks for asking).

Readers of HT may find this of particular interest – click over to read the rest of my answer:

I found your discussion of religious freedom quite fascinating. What are the blessings and problems of this arrangement? Can religious freedom be consistently upheld without the majority influence of the Christian tradition?

The greatest blessing is the space it creates for virtue and conscience. I think most people have forgotten that it’s very rare in human history to have a culture where people are expected to shape their lives according to an understanding of what is right. In most civilizations historically, 98% of the population was simply told how to live, and that leaves no space for people to be moral creatures. One challenge this creates is that religion and even morality can come to seem optional. Another is the fragmentation of our moral language – if you and I have different religions, we may still agree that murder and theft are wrong, but we’re likely to disagree about what actions should count as murder or theft. It becomes very challenging to hold a society together without returning to the old way of just having the elites at the top simply tell everyone how to live. Can we uphold religious freedom over time if Christianity remains a minority view? …

By far my favorite question was on the opportunities and challenges of economic growth. This is an issue on which I have no strong views whatsoever:

In the Old Testament, God warns his chosen nation that they are going to get rich and it’s going to tempt them to evil – but the reason he gives this warning is because it is his intention to bless them with fabulous wealth! Israel becomes wealthy in the promised land, we are told over and over again, because it was given the law of God and it learned virtuous behavior. So does that mean God is responsible for Israel’s sin, because he taught them virtue and made them wealthy? Do we think God was just kidding when he wrote the Proverbs? The command to do honest work that creates wealth and increases the well-being of our households and communities is repeated in the New Testament. We have to avoid a prosperity gospel that says faith creates wealth by some automatic process, but at the same time, we have to avoid saying that God doesn’t care if people starve to death or die of polio. And unfortunately, the prevailing current in Christian intellectual life these days is very anti-growth. I guess I’m just not as smart as the people who take that view, because unlike them, I simply don’t know how to love my neighbor while hoping that my neighbor loses his job. In general and on the whole, virtuous behavior tends to create wealth and health for most people. God is in favor of that.

Quip of the Decade

Well played

Via email, Micah Watson shares his response to my article on Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age. As I noted earlier this morning, Bottum relates a story about the time a young Karol Wojtyla spent days chiseling an enormous frozen-solid pile of human excrement out of an abandoned seminary building in January 1945. In my review I take up this story as a metaphor for the church’s current cultural predicament.

Quoth Micah: “Holy crap!”

I believe I just saw my dream of devising the wittiest bon mot of the decade flushed right down the tubes. Touche!