Saturday, March 18, 2017

revisiting the "Deadlock of American civic religions" ide, Americans de-churching from the institutional church doesn't mean for a moment they'll be rejecting the red or blue state civic religions

True diversity means true disagreement. Political correctness exists at public institutions, but it doesn’t dominate them. A friend of mine who went to Columbia and Yale now teaches at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “When you meet someone at Hunter,” she told me, “you can’t assume they see the world the same way you do.” That’s about as pithy an expression of the problem at selective private colleges as I can imagine. When you meet someone at Columbia or Yale or Scripps or Whitman or any of scores of other institutions, you absolutely can assume they see the world the same way you do. And anyone who threatens to disrupt that cozy situation must be disinvited, reeducated, or silenced. It’s no surprise that the large majority of high-profile PC absurdities take place at elite private schools like Emory or Oberlin or Northwestern.

That same safe assumption, about the points of view of everyone around you, does not pervade selective private campuses alone, of course. It is equally the case among the liberal elite: at the Manhattan dinner party, the Silicon Valley startup, the Seattle coffee shop, the Brookline PTA. (That it is also the case in other realms of society, non-liberal and/or non-elite, is true. It is also no excuse, especially not for people who consider themselves so enlightened.) This is not an accident. Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.

Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”

And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.

Over at Slate there's a piece called "There's Nothing Wrong with Stamping Out Bigoted Speech."

Trumpism’s present control of that machinery, as even the harshest critics of political correctness on campus must concede, offers more than a conjectural threat to liberalism’s animating principles, including the belief in the equality of all people before the law and in the eyes of others. But those principles, in truth, have always been threatened. Liberalism comes equipped with a very large self-destruct button. Under liberalism in its purest form, you are permitted to promote bigotry, to argue that certain kinds of people—black people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, women—should be seen as inferior or dangerous. You are free, even, to advocate for their mistreatment and oppression. This is part of the right to free speech and expression. This is also the open back door that Trump walked through, with the forces of a resurgent white nationalism close behind.

The notion that speech could be sensibly regulated was the central idea of one of the conservative movement’s ur-texts. God and Man at Yale, authored by the then 25-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., is little more than an extended plea for speech restrictions on campus. “Question: What is the 1) ethical, 2) philosophical, or 3) epistemological argument for requiring continued tolerance of ideas whose discrediting it is the purpose of education to effect,” Buckley asked. “What ethical code (in the Bible? in Plato? Kant? Hume?) requires ‘honest respect’ for any divergent conviction?”

These are sound questions, as much as a campus liberal today might find fault with the targets of his ire. Yale for Buckley was, among other things, insufficiently religious. Members of the faculty, he alleged, had been using “pernicious techniques to undermine the tenets of Christianity.” These “pernicious techniques” included the deployment of one-liners like, “All I can tell about heaven is that it must be awfully crowded there!” This is perhaps one of the earliest documented instances of students being triggered by a professor.


That is an interesting irony, as stated ... although maybe it's just a little too pat an observation for the internet. :) 

I can't help being ever so slightly pedantic at this point, because liberalism may be distinct from what is sometimes called the libertarian theory of the press.  To say that liberalism inherently invited Trump, so to speak, to emerge may not be a premise that all liberals agree with, or even all conservatives.  If we're a bit more careful and propose that one particular aspect of the liberal tradition, the libertarian view of the press, made Trump's candidacy in the age of mass media more viable than the mainstream press imagined was possible that statement's much easier to agree with.  Because for a liberal to propose that liberalism led to Trump might almost seem like an argument against liberalism, which just seems impossible to take as what's really been proposed by an author at Slate.

It might be apt to say that Buckley was concerned that a particular range of religious beliefs seemed unwelcome at Yale.  Given that we "probably" know Buckley has been associated with political conservativism we might venture to propose that Buckley's religion was not merely a variant of Catholicism but perhaps also a variant of civic religion.  The intellectual truce that may have been brokered ... or the temporary intellectual ceasefire that happened in the wake of the Thirty Years War may never have entirely ended. 

It might seem like an epiphany to Andrew Sullivan that the collegiate scene has a kind of civic religion that he calls "intersectionality".  It's not much of a surprise to me, but then I've spent the better part of a decade documenting the life and death of an explicitly religious movement here in the Puget Sound area.  I doubt intersectionality is a religion of any kind but it "might" be a relatively observable manifestation of a kind of civic religion.  For those unfamiliar with progressive/left criticisms of libertarian views it's possible to get condemned as a champion of neoliberalism and economic inequality in spite of being for marriage equality and any number of blue state causes that religiously conservative people oppose. 

If Sullivan were to propose a problem with intersectionality it shouldn't be that it's a kind of religion, it should be something more like this--intersectionality may be a concession that at this point it's not enough to simply self-identify as someone in an oppressed or repressed demographic simply on the basis of a single category.  That may have been more easily done in the past when implicit and explicit discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexuality or skin color was considered more socially acceptable to demonstrate in public.  It no doubt still happens.  Reading reports of as pike in hate crimes or hate speech in Oregon was a glum reminder that people who don't know the white supremacist history of the founding of the state need a primer.  The Pacific Northwest has plenty of racism in it in spite of the true blue electoral patterns.  If Sullivan wanted to make a case that there's a problem with intersetionality he could have proposed that the kinds of college students who embrace intersectionality may not fully understand that this ideological move permits them a way to differentiate themselves from a mainstream collegiate culture. 

William Deresiewicz, quoted earlier, wrote:  "... The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar. ..."

But as I've been musing over the last year or so, what this can also serve to do is to exonerate college students from regarding themselves as dormant or latent participants in the ruling castes of the West. 

Intersectionality could be the kind of manifestation of a faux-progressive civic religion in which a woman of color like BeyoncĂ© can be "below" a white married man who works in a call center for a giant corporation and has family roots in a genteel city somewhere.  Even if at the moment intersectionality may be an attempt to represent the ways that people can be outside the establishment now if such a thought-form persists in academia it could be mutated into a new set of criteria for membership in the elite.  It's not as though elites in the past had any real trouble assimilating diversity into the elite systems.  Orientalism was a thing in 19th century music and early2 0th century music, for instance.  The kinds of college students who can talk about intersectionality and privilege have the privilege of being able to do so.  If someone turned ou tto be the disabled child of a mixed race marriage who tends toward moderately conservative Christian views because Christianity was a common thread across a couple of family lines the trouble with intersectionality as the left and right seem to be seeing it is that the Christian part would be a knock against the disabled mixed race kid part. 

The thing I've been wondering about with these civic religions is that the red state and blue state civic religions are not necessarily Christianity in any orthodox or historic form.  There's no shortage of people who vote red and blue and self-identify as Christian who will insist otherwise but there's a long-form piece by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic lately on what the increasingly unchurched American populace may be up to these days.

... Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

One of Beinart's more in-passing comments is that within what's getting known as the alt-right there's more signs of secularism or even revived paganism.  This is something I've sometimes come across when I've tried to get some reading in on what's described as the alt right.  There are those who regard preserving the roots of, say, English society as not only needing to embrace traditional blood and soil stuff but to do so in ways that embrace the pre-Christian English culture, to try to recover even past millennia of nominal or sincere Christian piety the vestiges of a more purely pagan English past.  As noted before at this blog the trouble with identity politics is that people of color can walk this path whether the color they are labeled as is black, brown, red or white.  That's kind of a problem in as much as if one form of essentialist ethnic/racial narrative is a kind of hate speech why aren't the others?  They could ALL be inherently racialist and racist at their core, after all.  Liberalism in some key respects is parasitically dependent on a Judeo-Christian ethos and praxis.  The risk of a fully secularized discourse is that the respective mythologies of the ethnic groups who can't see eye to eye won't have any mediating shared narrative or history.  If science itself can be viewed as in the thrall of whatever companies are willing to pay for whatever results they want (let's not forget that the crises in the social sciences haven't exactly gone away)

The Civil Rights movement, as Beinart's article noted, was able to rely on a shared Christian understanding of the human condition. 


Black Lives Matter activists sometimes accuse the black Church of sexism, homophobia, and complacency in the face of racial injustice. For instance, Patrisse Cullors, one of the movement’s founders, grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but says she became alienated by the fact that the elders were “all men.” In a move that faintly echoes the way some in the alt-right have traded Christianity for religious traditions rooted in pagan Europe, Cullors has embraced the Nigerian religion of Ifa. To be sure, her motivations are diametrically opposed to the alt-right’s. Cullors wants a spiritual foundation on which to challenge white, male supremacy; the pagans of the alt-right are looking for a spiritual basis on which to fortify it. But both are seeking religions rooted in racial ancestry and disengaging from Christianity—which, although profoundly implicated in America’s apartheid history, has provided some common vocabulary across the color line. [emphasis added]

How effective is identifying Christianity with white male patriarchal power going to be in two generations if the alt right continues to have an ascendancy through which it also embraces an explicitly neo-pagan or anti-Christian civic religion?  It's easy to scapegoat white evangelicals for having voted for Trump as if gerrymandering and other political moves made by the GOP didn't play a cumulative role in Trump gaining the Oval Office.  The trouble with the scapegoating could be, besides the simple issue of the scapegoating itself, that it may turn out that the kinds of people who decided to back Trump may not be as evangelical as sometimes advertised.  Lest this seem like a case of no true Scotsman, in the somewhat unusual case of coming across Trump voters in the Puget Sound they have cropped up in what, per Beinart's article, could be desdribed as dechurched or nominally evangelical types. 

One of Jesus' parables was about the Good Samaritan and provided a sharp teaching on how you don't get to decide who your neighbor isn't.  It's possible to be formally diametrically opposed to the alt right while embracing a religious path that could be exemplified by some of the alt right, that salvation is for those who have the same skin color you do. 

More from Beinart's piece:

Black Lives Matter activists may be justified in spurning an insufficiently militant Church. But when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.

In his book Twilight of the Elites, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes divides American politics between “institutionalists,” who believe in preserving and adapting the political and economic system, and “insurrectionists,” who believe it’s rotten to the core. The 2016 election represents an extraordinary shift in power from the former to the latter. The loss of manufacturing jobs has made Americans more insurrectionist. So have the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and a black president’s inability to stop the police from killing unarmed African Americans. And so has disengagement from organized religion.

Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum. [emphasis added]

Of course it will be even more convulsive and zero-sum.  If there is no resurrection of the dead and this material life is all we will ever know then the more people realize what a zero-sum game is at stake in the human condition the more those who have will have to justify why they deserve it (and most likely do so in the West on the basis of liberal education as credentialing) and the more those who don't have will find it impossible to accept the prestige system as it is.   When this pie is all there is it becomes all the more pressing why your slice of the pie is as big or as small as it is and whether or not, so far as you can tell, you've been given a piece of the pie at all.  Why wouldn't things get more convulsive and zero-sum if we all accept as given that nobody exists on purpose, that  everybody's going to die, and that there's no grander over-arching purpose to what we call life than whatever we manage to get ahold of while we live it? 


Cal P said...

I think Carl Schmitt is right when he says politics is, always, about who is the friend and who is the foe. War is politics by other means, ala Clausewitz, so politics is, fundamentally, agonistic. Dumb secularists who have a fantasy of a Star Trek like future are actually expecting the end of politics, not its apotheosis. When politics becomes government and administration, you've banished the political. Hence, American politics at the end of the 19th were pretty tame, unless you were a labor activist or an Indian.

Anyway, the shift towards tribalism and pagan gods is interesting to me. Not to make a hysterical comparison, but it reminds me of the German Christianity of the Nazis. Here more traditional issues, whether to the alt-right or progressives, emerge out of existing forms. Christianity will become the means for a Evola-esque Paganism to emerge among the alt-right and a ancestor-resistance spirituality for the Progressives (try reading religious history books from the past 10-15 years). The brutality of politics will increase as diverse factions, with their household gods, will see the possibility of gaining power. No longer is a single elite class dominant, one household that passes around the purple. Now, establishment factions have more or less declared war on each other. Trump is not really a populist (even if he used populist tactics), he's one faction trying to take another. In ancient Greece this was called 'stasis',gridlock, which meant Civil War.

I do wonder, in addition, about the colleges above whether this also is a case of refusing to open the can lest the worms burst out. What is the point of education? The old idea of a liberal education was to breed citizen-statesmen who would be able to steer the nation. What's the point of an English degree, or really any Humanities or Social Science degree (even some of the more abstract sciences, like Math), if there is no elite tradition that must be guarded and carried. We forget most educational sites were religious, and that's because most senses of education were religious, whether Pagan, Christian, or otherwise. I don't buy the idea behind a liberal education, but I'm not sure what the future is. I teach history, but I hope to teach from Christian convictions. This is where, perhaps, Dreher's Benedict Option would make some sense. I don't know, it's an anarchic confusion that most people just don't want to get into. It might raise some very uneasy questions.


chris e said...

"If there is no resurrection of the dead and this material life is all we will ever know then the more people realize what a zero-sum game is at stake in the human condition the more those who have will have to justify why they deserve it (and most likely do so in the West on the basis of liberal education as credentialing) and the more those who don't have will find it impossible to accept the prestige system as it is."

On the other hand, even if material life is not 'all we will ever know', in the particular case of Christianity it might make for a healthier religion in the longer term if it exists in that environment.

After all, there'll be no mileage in using civic-Christianity as a tool to bolster ideology.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

possibly, chris e, though the likelihood of ideology going away is pretty much zero. Still, perhaps advantages that may accrue to amillenial or historic premillennial eschatologies is that they have room for living with the practical possibility that we have to live as though Jesus is never coming back in our century. Americans seem set on eschatological views in which the onus is on them to save both America and the world, though. :(

Cal P, to go by some of the riffs I've seen in left and right partisans, being able to define what the academic canon is seems to be the reward. If the canon can't be changed it can be modified or reinterpreted. In a way the left/liberal scene has more incentive to stay involved in the canon whether to uphold it and reinterpret it or reject it than the right may have. People on the right may defend an abstraction of a "useless" canon (per Scruton and his posse) but in the US the pragmatic streak seems to suggest that people who lean right will be way more into STEM and disdain a canon of humanities right up to the point that someone on the left proposes the Bard was a cisgender English imperialist. :)