Imagination Redeemed on TGC

Empty movie theater

Today, TGC carries my review of Gene Veith and Matthew Ristuccia’s book Imagination Redeemed. I loved the book:

Imagination was given to us so we could love each other. Imagination Redeemed showed me something I had never realized: practically every aspect of neighbor love involves imagination. We cannot do to others what we would have them do to us without first imagining what we would have them do to us. Or if we wish to obey God’s command to respect the “image of God” in all human beings, we must have a well-developed and disciplined power of grasping images. What is that but imagination? Paul commands us to bear one another’s burdens and consider the interests of others; how do we know what others’ burdens and interests are, except by using imagination to place ourselves in their shoes?

I did register one objection:

In several places, they talk as though imagination were not just coordinate with reason and will, but superior to them…If reason is subordinate to imagination rather than coordinate with it, there can be no valid reason to insist it’s right to follow a vision of the true God and wrong to follow a vision of false gods, or none. Veith and Ristuccia back up their claim by pointing out that companies spend millions on advertising that appeals to the imagination, but those same companies also spend millions on lawyers, lobbyists, spokespeople, and others whose job is to appeal to reason. We don’t want to jump out of the frying pan of Cartesian rationalism into the fire of Nietzschean relativism.

But that’s a minor flaw. It’s a wonderful little book. Check it out.


Religious Freedom Requires Rights


Last month I gave a talk at the Evangelical Theological Society in which I defended the idea of human rights – not sham Rawlsian rights but real rights, grounded in objective claims about truth, justice and the nature of the human person. That is, rights as correlative to duties – I have a right to religious freedom because (and only because) I have a duty to worship God sincerely rather than insincerely.

I found that I was almost (not quite) the only supporter of rights in the room. I’ve been thinking about the discussion ever since, and I keep coming back to the following thought, which I think shows in a pretty solid way that religious freedom (by which I mean not mere toleration but a real openness to social pluralism) requires rights.

If more than one religion is present in the body politic, it seems to me there are only two options. One is to anoint one religion – either formally or informally – as the official religion of the body politic. Interestingly, this kind of politics is not only demanded by Christians who advocate the Christendom social model; it is also presupposed in reverse by Christians who advocate that the church ought to withdraw from the world’s political order (both the shallow, resentful types who want to withdraw because they lost the culture war, and the more profoundly world-hating fundamentalists of the Stanley Hauerwas variety). Whereas our Christendom friends want Christianity as the official religion of the body politic, the advocates of withdrawal want a non-Christian religion to be the official religion of the body politic. Of course they don’t “want” this in the sense that they agree it would not be so in an ideal world. But they do “want” it in the sense that they will adamantly oppose any effort to do anything against it here and now.

But suppose we don’t want one religion anointed as the official religion of the body politic? If so, we are going to need what Peter Berger calls (in his new book, which you should go read right now) a “formula of peace” – some sort of publicly acknowledged arrangement that regulates the social frontier between religions. The First Amendment is one example of such a formula, though an admittedly imperfect one.

And a publicly acknowledged formula of peace – any publicly acknowledged formula of peace, but I think especially one for regulating the social frontier between religions – implies rights. It must presuppose natural rights and it must create positive rights.

It must presuppose natural rights in the sense used by George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, when he said that oppression of the Jews was not just unloving and bad policy but violated Jews’ natural rights. Without such a presupposition, the publicly acknowledged formula of peace has no moral basis that does not itself presuppose the truth of one religion. And the formula of peace between religions cannot presuppose the truth of one religion, or else it would be just a disguised (and therefore dishonest) way of anointing one religion to rule.

And it must create positive rights in the sense used by, say, Hobby Lobby when it claims to have a First Amendment right not to finance abortion drugs. Almost the only function of a publicly acknowledged formula of peace is to create such rights. We have the First Amendment precisely so Hobby Lobby (and the rest of us, of course, speaking on Hobby Lobby’s behalf) can shove a copy of the First Amendment in the president’s face and say, “wait a minute! You can’t just run roughshod over people and treat them like dirt! People have rights!”

I’d welcome any and all thoughts on this line of reasoning, but it seems pretty solid to me.

The Rape System


Today TPD carries my article on the campus rape debate: “Not Just a Rape Culture: The University’s Rape System.” I argue that our increasing tendency to think about all social problems through the lens of “culture,” while it can be the right approach in many contexts, can also be counterproductive, and has become extremely so in the case of campus rape. In particular, our talk about “culture” often represents a flight from politics. We chant that “politics is downstream from culture.” As a result, we miss the fact that politics is part of culture, and some of our cultural problems are political problems that require political solutions.

Let’s set aside for a moment our debates over “rape culture.” The transfer of responsibility for rape cases from police to universities, coupled with the universities’ fear of bad publicity and (even more) their fear of angering the Greek organizations that build their donation and student recruitment bases, has resulted in the creation of what I call in my article a “rape system” – a system, protected by a powerful coalition of forces, whose effect is to protect rapists and ensure they will not be prosecuted.

Once we think in terms of a “rape system,” we can move beyond fruitless debates over “culture” and develop tangible plans to do something. In my article I propose that the prosecutors’ office recruit someone with experience taking on organized crime to lead the creation of a special unit dedicated to handling rape cases. Such a latter-day Eliot Ness would have the credibility to change the political dynamic, putting the rape system on the defensive.

This solution is “cultural” in the sense that it is less about money and power than it is about credibility and plausibility. The goal is to make the dean with the frightened young woman in his office feel a sense of duty to urge her to go to the police; today, thanks to the structure of the rape system, he is more likely to feel a sense of duty not to do so. But this cultural solution is a political solution, in that it uses political action as the primary arena for reform. Law and justice are in this sense as “cultural” as arts and entertainment.

Russell George is an Honorable Man


Above left: A man who has earned the prefix on his nameplate

I had what might or might not be considered an unusual thought when I first read this Journal story, posted on Thanksgiving Day, about how the supposedly “lost” IRS emails have been found after all. Up to now, the scandal has been that 1) the records were destroyed even though the law says they must not be, and 2) the man allegedly brought in to clean up the mess at the IRS withheld his knowledge that the emails were missing from Congress. Now it turns out that our rulers are so cynical, they apparently never even felt the need to destroy the emails. The emails were sitting there all the time, silently awaiting an honorable man who would come forward and state that they existed.

My thought upon reading this was: How delightful that the Treasury Department’s inspector general, Russell George, actually came forward with the emails! All the incentives are against it. He does not even seem to be receiving the public honor he is due for his act. He had, more or less, no reason in the world to announce the emails had been found – except that it was the right thing to do.

Let the record reflect that Russell George is an honorable man.

If this country does turn around, this is the kind of person who will do it. Woe to us if we allow our cynicism to blind us to the continued existence of such people, for that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Gimli declines to request a gift, Galadriel cries out: “Hear all ye Elves! Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious!” It was a very great thing to say, and in its own way, a greater gift than the one Gimli finally named and received from her.

Image HT

“Then the Law’s Crazy”

Dirty Harry

I’m no lawyer, but I find very plausible William Galston’s argument in today’s Journal that the New-Deal-era Administrative Procedure Act purports to delegate to the executive branch sufficient authority for Obama to amnesty five million illegal immigrants – even granting them rights that legal immigrants don’t have.

As the title on Galston’s article says, “The Law Is With Obama on Immigration.”

To which I respond with the words of the noted legal philosopher Dirty Harry: “Then the law’s crazy.”

The out-of-control delegation of unaccountable authority to the administrative state is not a defense; it is the problem here.

I’d like to see high levels of legal immigration, but the rule of law is more important. Permitting high immigration legally says we are self-confident and hopeful, and view human beings as an asset rather than a liability. But it only says that if we permit it legally. On the other hand, permitting a large and regularized gap to exist between what the law says and what we actually do says we are cynical and selfish bastards. After that, it almost doesn’t matter how much immigration we permit. Whatever immigration level we allow, high or low, we will have set that level as the result of a cruelly selfish calculation of our own benefit. And, of course, any gap between what the law says and what we actually do is always a standing invitation to all forms of public and private corruption – bribes, slavery, you name it.

I’ll go out on a limb and say I’d accept a law setting any legal immigration level, even zero, if in exchange I could believe that the law would be enforced.