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The Enlightenment as parasitic on Christianity

17 Jan

I’ve lectured on American politics for several  years now.  It is always a delight to expose students to an understanding of Western civilization that they are utterly ignorant of, probably won’t hear even in many political science classes, and yet one that is utterly historical (for a taste, see my blog posts here, here, here , here, here and here).  The usual narrative is that liberal democracy, modern science, human rights, universal education, treatment of women, disestablishment of religion, are all byproducts of an enormous rescue mission spearheaded by brave secular intellectuals working and writing during a period collectively known as the Enlightenment.  Until that time, the mythology goes, the world was thrown into a religious dark age… and then there was light, and the light was the light of Reason and Reason was the light to men and Reason dwelt among us and so on.  But historians of  the history ideas know better.  From modern science to liberal democracy to separation of church and state, the values that Westerners cherish find their root firmly in Christian soil.  Brian Mattson has a blog post about this here:

I’ve been known to ascribe the supremacy of the Western world in just about every disciplinary metric to the Judeo-Christian worldview, or “Christendom,” for short. Whether it is law and justice, human dignity and value, science and technology, I maintain that the astonishing success of the Western experiment is due to distinctively Christian values.

I do not intend to prove this assertion in a blog post. Volumes would be required and, thankfully, volumes have been written. Well, that’s a link to at least one, anyway. There are many others.

But I do want to address a common objection to this point of view. Any time I’ve writtenan article along these lines, I hear this objection. I notice that Carl Trueman met this objection in a recent debate with an atheist.

It is this: Isn’t the success of Western values, science, and technology due to the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, rather than Christendom?

It is a powerful objection on the surface. I don’t think there is any real question that, for example, the Founding Fathers of the United States were to a significant degree influenced by the Enlightenment. It is John Locke, after all, to whom we owe our allegiance to the specific language of “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” The rise of rationalism and empiricism would seem on its face a serious “fly in the ointment” to my point of view.

So what about that? Is Western supremacy due to Enlightenment rationalism?

Only if you’re content to read things off the surface and assume the conventional myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” instead of digging deeper. The “rather than” assumes a radical ideological disjunction between Christendom and the Enlightenment, the former representing darkness, the latter representing light. I do, actually, think there is an antithesis between the two; but there are some important commonalities often overlooked. Here are some questions leading to my answer.

Why is it that when I read Rene Descartes, the father of Enlightenment philosophy, his first item of business after establishing his methodological skepticism is to prove rationally the existence of God? Why did he think that was important?

Why is it that when I read Immanuel Kant’s Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reasonhe is so intent on retaining beliefs like human immortality and “God” as an ethical limiting concept? Why was it important for Kant to retain these Christian beliefs and incorporate them, albeit on purely rational grounds, into his philosophy?

Why is it that John Locke sought to establish on purely rational bases, time and again, distinctively Judeo-Christian ideas? It is silly to think his views on, say, private property, sprang fully formed ex nihilo  from his brain. There was already some conviction, born of the Western Legal Tradition and the 6th Commandment, inscribed on his “tabula rasa.

Why did Hegel build his Idealism around an aberrant doctrine of the Trinity? Why Christian categories at all?

My simple answer to these questions, and surely much more remains to be explored, is that these Enlightenment philosophers did not want to jettison wholesale what Christendom bequeathed to them. They loved the rule of law, human dignity and freedom (leaving aside the significant asterisk of *slavery), and scientific dominion over creation. There is no question that they wanted to jack up Christendom’s house and pour a new foundation. “Reason” would be the concrete rather than revelation, of course.

But regardless of whether their new foundation was sound in the end (still today a matter of great debate), to me the significant observation is that, in the main, they wanted very much to retain the house.

The Enlightenment is thus a parasitic movement. On many important philosophical questions it pursues the exact same ends as the worldview it allegedly rejects (how else do you explain Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God or Kant’s arguments for immortality?). But it tries to get there by another route.

This means the house, as it exists, belongs to Christendom. The Enlightenment is a movement of squatters. And the efforts of the squatters to dig a new foundation are irrelevant, at the end of the day, because on so many of the important topics people care about (natural law, scientific discovery, individual freedom and dignity) they were still trying to reproduce Christendom’s house. They wanted all the benefits of the Judeo-Christian legacy without all the “revelation” stuff. But that fact alone is more telling than any arguments I could actually produce for all the “revelation” stuff.

The success of the Western experiment is due to Christendom, and to those seeking to reproduce, in many ways, Christendom in the laboratory called “Pure Reason.” It is not a “rather than” sort of question, after all. Maybe they wanted a Christendom without Christ. No doubt many of them did.

But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The Battle for Marriage in Ireland

17 Jan

From Ireland’s Iona Institute:

The French debate surrounding gay rights may be more reasonable and tolerant than our own

15 Jan

Lessons From France, by Robert Oscar Lopez (clip):

France offers activists an example of a country that can question gay rhetoric without engaging in the violent homophobia one sees in the repressive laws of Putin’s Russia. Those who feel no ill will toward LGBT people, but who believe that there is something special about male-female relationships—marriages—especially because of their role in rearing children, must watch closely what unfurls. Edged by Spain and Portugal to its south and Belgium and the Netherlands to its northeast, France is surrounded by countries that have redefined marriage and treated gay parenting with indifference. Yet France is mounting an opposition.

As reported in the Guardian, France’s northern neighbor, the United Kingdom, is under increasing pressure to redefine marriages, with polls indicating that now 62 percent of British voters support the idea. With so many of France’s peer nations marching to the beat of “marriage for all,” most would have expected the French to say “à chacun son goût” to such issues, and go back to minding their own business.

Instead, the French have hit the streets in what can only be called a tidal wave. News about the various alliances forming against the redefinition of marriage and same-sex adoption emerges in snippets at lightning speed. Much of it is not translated into English. To help Americans learn what is happening, I have put up this website offering quick translations.

Yesterday, January 13, occurred the much-anticipated “manif pour tous” or “march for all,” pitted against the pro-same-sex marriage movement called “marriage for all.” Buses and trains from all over France carried hundreds of thousands to Paris to demand a referendum.

While a bill is scheduled for a vote in Parliament on January 29, an alliance of religious, secularist, straight, gay, rightist, leftist, and non-partisan sources has amassed to halt the bill’s passage.

The three most prominent spokespeople are unlikely characters: “Frigide Barjot,” a bleached-blonde comedienne famous for hanging out with male strippers at the Banana Café, and author of “Confessions of a BranchéeCatholic”; Xavier Bongibault, a young gay atheist in Paris who fights against the “deep homophobia” of the LGBT movement, believing it disgraces gays to assume that they cannot have political views “except according to their sexual urges”; and Laurence Tcheng, a disaffected leftist who voted for President François Hollande but disdains the way that the same-sex marriage bill is being forced through Parliament.

I highly recommend the whole article (shows how one can debate gay marriage, gay adoption, even if gay, without resorting to name calling).  The simple, obvious, highly ignored, rational distinction between the a person’s right TO children vs the rights OF children would help matters in the states.

The Louie Giglio saga and America’s New Moral McCarthyism

11 Jan

According to the Obama Inauguration Committee, they made a mistake when they asked Louie Giglio, an evangelical Christian, to give the benediction at the Presidential Inauguration ceremony.  They failed to discover early enough that nearly 20 years ago, he preached a sermon in which he quoted the scriptural passage saying that homosexuals (and other kinds of sinners given over to particular kinds of sins) will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  The public square has no place for such individuals in this age, they said.  They’ll need to look elsewhere for someone who fits the new cultural profile of hope and change, I suppose.  I do have one question.  For the speakers that are featured at the inauguration, can we presume that they have never made public statements criticizing evangelical, Catholic, or Mormon doctrines about sexuality or anything else?  I assume they’ve not since expressed disapproval of a religious viewpoint is clearly religious bigotry, intolerant, and we can’t have that, now can we?

From Dr. Al Mohler:

The fact that Giglio was actually disinvited was made clear in a statement from Addie Whisenant of the Presidential Inaugural Committee:

“We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection, and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this inaugural. Pastor Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part because of his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.”

That statement is, in effect, an embarrassed apology for having invited Louie Giglio in the first place. Whisenant’s statement apologizes for the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s failure to make certain that their selection had never, at any time, for any reason, believed that homosexuality is less than a perfectly acceptable lifestyle. The committee then promised to repent and learn from their failure, committing to select a replacement who would “reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance.”

The imbroglio over Louie Giglio is the clearest evidence of the new Moral McCarthyism of our sexually “tolerant” age. During the infamous McCarthy hearings, witnesses would be asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

In the version now to be employed by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the question will be: “Are you now or have you ever been one who believes that homosexuality (or bisexuality, or transsexualism, etc.) is anything less than morally acceptable and worthy of celebration?”

Full post from Mohler

Ain’t nobody’s business but theirs, right? On America’s decline in marriage

11 Jan

From The Economist (clip):

If marriage affected only the two people who choose (or not) to wed, it would be easier to ignore falling marriage rates. But with them come rising out-of-wedlock birth rates. In 2010, 40.8% of all births were to unmarried mothers. Among Hispanics that figure was 53%, and among blacks 73%. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, called for emergency federal intervention to aid in “the establishment of a stable Negro family structure”, and justified it in part by an out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks of 23.6%—half what it is today.

With illegitimate births come single-parent homes, in which 35% of all American children lived in 2011. Children brought up in such homes fare worse than children raised by married parents over a range of academic and emotional outcomes, from adolescent delinquency to dropping out of school. The poverty rate among single-parent, female-headed families is over five times that of married, two-parent families. Nearly 71% of poor families lack married parents. And children brought up in poverty tend to be poor themselves.

Full article


Natural Law and Natural Revelation, a conversation between J. Budziszewski and Doug Wilson

10 Jan

J. Budziszewski, Professor at the University of Texas, talks Natural Law (something Calvinists are sometimes squeamish about) and Natural Revelation (something Calvinists have no problems with) with Doug Wilson (a Calvinist).  J. Bud (tired of being troubled with his last name) is a Roman Catholic, but truly a friend to reformed evangelicals (he’s written a book commending some evangelical political thinkers).  Here’s the conversation:

One doesn’t have to be perfectly virtuous to see society’s need for public virtue and it’s parent, religion

8 Jan

All of the founding fathers (and in this case, I do quite literally mean ALL) agreed on at least one thing regarding religion.  It was an “indispensable support” (Washington’s phrase) for the survival of the American republic.  Self-government is an experiment, they said.  Men running their own affairs, local communities, churches, individuals, families, left relatively alone, can work for the common good if public virtue was applauded and if personal virtue was relished, cultivated, transmitted from one generation to the next.  The principle parent of virtue is, they reasoned, religion and so they wanted religion to be widespread, taken seriously, and publicly promoted.  Ironically, the greatest skeptics of Christianity at the time was found among the founding fathers and yet the most articulate defenders of the necessity and public role of religion was the same group.  They knew that Christians weren’t perfect (several denied the basic tenets of Christian doctrine).  But that didn’t prevent them from advocating it as a public good for society.  In the same vein, Dr. Walter Russell Mead reminds us why even atheists most likely should (and would) regret getting what they wish for (clip):

For some, like the group of atheists who rented billboards a couple of years ago to denounce all religions as scams, if a sudden silence were to fall over all the pulpits in the world, it would be very good news.  But before too much time passed, even the most violent atheists would begin to notice that something was wrong.

Society really does depend on the imperfect virtue of its members.  Self restraint and moral behavior, even only realized in part, really are the foundations of liberty.  If too many people do the wrong things too many times, nothing can protect us from the consequences.

The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be.  If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger.  If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force — and give them more authority under less restraint.

Yet at the same time the state becomes stronger, it loses control of itself.  When the moral tone of a people declines, bureaucrats and the police are not exempt from the decay of morals.  Perhaps a stratum of high minded elites and civil servants can keep up a moral tone that is significantly higher than the declining standard around them, but lesser officials and the police will reflect the society around them. They will steal; they will abuse their authority; they will manipulate the processes of the state to serve themselves and their favored clients.  The courts become corrupt; the security services link up with the crime syndicates.  Night falls.

This is not some abstract fear; history and the world today are full of places where the collapse of moral values blights daily life and undermines the prospects for development.  I’ve been to many countries where nobody trusts the courts, the police, the politicians or the journalists.  None of these countries are nice places to be, and more than anyone else it is the poor — those who most need the state and most need justice — who suffer the accumulated consequences of the moral failures of their society.

Sadly, people do not spontaneously choose to behave like angels.  Virtue has to be cultivated and developed.  Young people have to be persuaded, cajoled, admonished and above all inspired to seek wisdom, self control, a life of service and all the other virtues that are necessary for our civil lives as well as for the fullest development of our true selves.  Older people have to be reminded of their ideals, encouraged to live up to them and to continue fighting the good fight through the long years of adulthood and on into the twilight.

For some people, reason, commonsense and a strong innate moral constitution makes it possible to live a decent and useful life without the comforts and restraints of religion.  But for many more, only the feelings of awe, gratitude and fear occasioned by the awareness of a Creator can give them the strength and will to set out on the earnest and difficult road of struggle on the path to a moral life.  More, that inner sense needs to be refreshed: people need to hear the message expressed in compelling terms, and they need to hear it again and again through a lifetime.

All this can only happen if a lot of people who are still fighting their own private moral battles stand up on their hind legs in public and praise those virtues that they have not fully attained.  The recovering alcoholic has to tell the newcomer that there is hope for a better future — even if nobody knows better than a recovering alcoholic how easy it is to take that beckoning drink.  The pastor has to encourage couples in the congregation to strive to fulfill the ideal of a faithful marriage even if his or her own marriage hasn’t been spotless. The intellectual, struggling with questions and doubts about the meaning of faith, must share the best case for faith with a wider audience along with those honest struggles — or no one will benefit from a lifetime of study and reflection.

Does this mean that I’m arguing for a world of morality based on systematic hypocrisy?  GK Chesterton’s father, I once read, never went to church himself but always carried a Prayer Book on Sundays to set a good example for the lower orders.  Would we be any better off if we added hypocrisy to the lengthening list of our social sins?

It’s not that bad.  There is a line, I think, that separates the posturing hypocrite from the honest (but flawed) advocate for morals and faith.  There is a difference between the honest advocacy of hope and the self-glorification of a moral poseur — even if nobody in this business has completely clean hands.

Full article here

Is opposition to same-sex marriage an improper attempt to impose a Christian sacrament on Caesar’s empire?

8 Jan

Though this post is very brief, it is one of the most clear and full explanations of why Christians as Christians might care about same-sex marriage and what the Christian position most probably should be.  Very helpful.  I’m going to post the full entry from Anglican Theologian William Witt back in 2008:

There has been a discussion at [another message board] about the movement among Christians and other groups in California — including Hindus and Muslims — to organization in opposition to same-sex marriage. At least one individual who claims to be an orthodox Christian is opposed to this because it means Christians are “manipulating Caesar to force Christian sacraments on the empire. . . . Conservative christianity cannot be salt and light by means of Caesar’s sword.”

 This is my response.

In the history of Christian social thought, there have been at least the following models of the relation between church and state:

1) Separatist–the model of radical Anabaptism. The most vivid contemporary example might be the Amish, who, as much as possible, live separately from the rest of the culture, do not participate in politics, do not bear arms, live in their own communities.

2) Government as corrective of sin–Augustinian/Lutheran. In a fallen world, the primary responsibility of government is to punish evildoers and provide a safe space for the Church to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Luther’s “two swords” analogy illustrates the distinction. There are some things the state does that the church does not do, and vice versa. The state enforces law and executes punishment on criminals; the church does not.

3) Promotion of the Common Good–Thomist/Aristotelian/Hooker’s Anglicanism. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God created human beings to be social animals. For humans to live together, there needs to be government to enable cooperation to promote human flourishing. The state not only punishes wrong-doers, but also takes positive steps to enhance human community and preserve the orders of creation. For example, anyone who uses the internet or drives an automobile on public streets is benefiting from a state that takes positive measures to promote the common good.

4) Transformationist–Calvinist. Inasmuch as possible, the state should work to transform society to promote Christian values, and anticipate the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is a prime example. As I was watching the speeches at the Democratic convention last night, and I heard Ted Kennedy preach “Health care is a right, not a privilege!,” I was aware of just how much this Calvinist vision is alive in American culture.

5) Catholic subsidiarity/Reformed sphere sovereignty. (David Koyzis discusses this in his <em>Political Visions and Illusions</em> (InterVarsity, 2003)). There are numerous groups and cultures within a given society–churches, government, businesses, voluntary organizations, clubs, guilds, schools, etc. Each has its own realm of integrity and problems happen when groups trespass their bounds. The realms of the family or the schools, for example, are not the realms of either the state or the church; they have a genuine integrity of their own that both state and church need to respect.

6) Secularist separatism. Religion is a private matter of individuals and voluntary organizations. The realm of government is the realm of the public. The government should respect the right of religions to keep their own rules within their private environs, but the churches have no right to impose their private morality on the state or culture as a whole, and, if necessary, the state can pass laws that affect public matters that private voluntary organizations like churches must respect. So, for example, a Christian wedding photographer can be fined for refusing to photograph same-sex blessings. Catholic adoption agencies cannot discriminate against unmarried or gay couples.

There are, of course, other models.


Of the above six models, only 1) and 6) would suggest that the church has no business pushing against same-sex marriage. In any society of which Christians are citizens, Christians have the same privilege and duty to act in the public square as do other citizens.<more/>My own leanings are toward models 3) and 5). I would argue that heterosexual marriage is neither a creation of the state nor of the church, but is an ordinance of creation that pre-existed both. From a theological view, Genesis 1 and 2 is decisive. From an anthropological and historical view, it is clear that the heterosexual family predates not only government, but also cities and cultures. It was the heterosexual family that enabled cities, cultures, and eventually governments to be formed.

If the purpose of the government is to promote the common good, then the government has a moral obligation to promote the prospering of the heterosexual family, and to discourage cultural movements that would harm it. At the same time, because the family is a separate sphere, the government has to respect its freedom in that sphere. The government, for example, has no right to create a new definition of family by blessing same-sex unions. That is a violation of the family’s sphere of sovereignty. Because there needs to be some kind of coordination for human cooperation to take place, and there needs to both positive and negative enforcement of activities that benefit or harm the family, the government (by default) can establish laws to regulate such things as legal age of marriage, regulations of divorce, whether or not polygamy is permitted, compulsory childhood education, specific penalties for such specific violations of marital good as incest, domestic abuse, sexual predation, etc.

Similarly, the church also has the right to decide within its own sphere what are the requirements of Christian marriage, but the church neither creates marriage, nor has the right to change it. The church can forbid divorce to its members, specify who can or cannot be married within a church, but cannot bless things that would violate the very definition of marriage, e.g., same-sex unions.

Insofar as Christians are citizens, they certainly have not only the right, but the obligation to promote legislation that helps the family to flourish, and to resist legislation that harms it.

To complain that such legislation is coercive is to miss the point that all legislation is coercive. If the government passes a law that says I must drive on the right side of the street, I am interfering with the freedom of those of British ancestry who might prefer to drive on the left side of the street, but I am also preventing the deaths that would inevitably result if everyone was allowed the freedom to simply drive on whatever side of the street they preferred. Those who cannot have their sexual relationships blessed by the church or the state certainly have restrictions on their freedom to do what they wish, but this is true not only of same-sex couples, but of all whose sexual activity falls outside the norms of what it properly means to be family–certain consanguinous relationships, underage relationships, polygamy, etc.

Link to original

Calvinism and Political Theory

7 Jan

Passed along from the Cosmic Eye (Nelson Kloosterman’s blog), this is from the very fine book by H. Henry Meeter called The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (1939; in its 6th edition):

In adopting the Bible as his foundation in political science, the Calvinist takes a position which is rather unique. Most other systems do not attempt to base their views on the Bible. As their authority in affairs of state they will appeal, not to the Bible, but to some such ground as the will of the masses, or the individual sentiment of justice, or natural rights; or they will make of the state an autonomous body, which can decide what it will—always some human ground. This does not imply that adherents of such political systems will always object to your having religious views. Some who are atheists will object to it as the Soviet government is doing. Others are quite willing to allow religious opinions, but they maintain that these religious views should be private matters and should not be injected into politics. Others will go even further and allow religion to color certain political activities, such as the opening of political gatherings with prayer or occasional reference to God in speeches. But when it comes to the drafting of political views, they maintain that the Bible may not be the criterion. In politics, human opinions and human theories must decide. The Calvinist goes back to God. The will of God is determinative for the views which he must hold concerning the state.

How are we to understand the statement that the Bible is the Calvinist’s foundation in politics? Does the Calvinist expect the Bible to provide him with a political platform? It would be folly to expect such a thing. A political party in the United States changes its platform every four years. Despite such frequent changes it is a difficult matter to draft a platform which will satisfy all sections of the country. How then could anyone reasonably expect the Bible to supply a platform which would hold good for all ages and all classes? In fact, the Bible does not even offer us any organized political system which we can use. It does not even offer us a unified theological system. There is a more or less developed political plan presented in the Bible, the so-called Mosaic theocracy, that civil-ceremonial system found in the first five books of the Bible. But that system, according to the very words of Calvin, was made for other times and other conditions and does not hold good for today. In fact, the Calvinist does not believe that there is one hard and fast system of government which the Bible advocates. The Bible does not declare that the government must be a monarchy, or an aristocracy, or a democracy  The Bible offers eternal principles which should underlie and control all political systems. These principles never grow old, but like all principles they are eternal, changeless, and pertinent for all times and all conditions. When once one has mastered these principles, then one can build systems and construct platforms to meet existing conditions, and can critically analyze them to judge whether or not they are sound.

“Higher” education that is reduced to learning useful job skills, may be education but it’s not higher

5 Jan

Ironically, both a dominant Marxist and Capitalistic society can reduce men to worker ants fit for nothing more than service to the state, self-interest, or profit for others.  From Peter Lawler in the Imaginative Conservative (excerpt):

Tocqueville hurt our feelings by adding that there’s no higher education in America. Our first impulse is to say that’s not true: Many or most twenty-year olds in our country are in college, and we call college higher education—just read The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By higher education Tocqueville meant reading the great books of our tradition in their original languages and being accomplished in the high culture of art and music and so forth—the higher education of, say, Thomas Jefferson. He also meant being on the cutting edge of theoretical science—particularly theoretical physics—which Jefferson also surely was.

Tocqueville didn’t mean reading textbooks, taking multiple-choice tests, doing problem-identification group projects, absorbing PowerPoint presentations, being edified by self-helpy TED talks, or for getting squishy credit for internships or being civically engaged or picking up technical or entrepreneurial skills through random life experiences.

You have to admit: From Tocqueville’s point of view, there might be less higher education in America than ever. Fewer than 10 percent of students are majoring in the traditional liberal arts or theoretical science. Fewer and fewer of our colleges brand themselves liberal arts colleges, and some that still do aren’t really mostly liberal arts colleges anymore.

Not only that: Our general education programs—the education we believe all college students should share in common—have shrunk in size and been emptied of real content.

What remains of genuinely higher education is America is under relentless attack from a middle-class point of view. If education is unproductive—if it doesn’t make a contribution to working effectively or making money or being healthy, comfortable, or safe—it’s worthless, a waste of valuable time.

To control or not to control guns. That’s NOT the question. The Elephant in the Room at Newtown

2 Jan

To control or not to control guns.  That’s NOT the question.

From Russel Nieli:

Though both sides in this [guns] dispute have something sensible to say, they’ve missed an elephant in the room either because of willful blindness to anything politically incorrect or because of a lack of real-world experience. I speak of the problems associated with divorce, family breakup, father absence, and the enormous burdens placed on a single mom who must rear a troubled male child alone.

Adam Lanza was not normal. He suffered from morbid shyness and an inability to connect with his student peers and anyone else—a cold, withdrawn, hollow shell of a person to his classmates, an Asperger’s patient to professional psychologists. Even under the best of circumstances—with a loving, caring, two-parent family consisting of a husband and wife who complemented each other’s strengths and worked together as a team—raising someone like Adam Lanza would be a real challenge.

One can’t say how he might have turned out under different circumstances, but statistics show that having divorced parents, as Lanza did, plus a father who moves out of the household, remarries, and has little contact with his son for long stretches of time, is not the ideal formula for successful childrearing. Yet what sociologists call “family structure issues” were rarely discussed in the media, not even on conservative talk radio where one might have expected them to have a preeminent place. Most Americans, it seems, have so many divorced or single-parent neighbors, friends, and relatives (if they are not themselves divorced or living as single parents) that discussing family structure is simply too painful and too sensitive to be taken up in any honest or candid manner.

Read the whole thing

Letter from a Traditional Conservative

21 Dec

From Professor James Matthew Wilson from The Front Porch Republic:

You are right that most people do not know of what they speak when they deploy the two major terms of our political lexicon; as those terms are used, they have no permanent content, but rather serve as euphemisms for Republican or Democrat.  But a few things are worth establishing to correct this evisceration of meaning.

 Contemporary American-style conservatism and liberalism are merely two faces of that intelligible beast, (Eighteenth Century) Classical Liberalism.  Its vision says the substantive unit or entity in politics is strictly the individual, and the freedom of the individual is the primary good after which society and government seek.  Since, therefore, the term “society” indicates nothing more than a numerical aggregate of the individuals in a given area, then the only purpose of government must be to defend the potentially infinite number of “private” interests of these loosely gathered individual freedom-maximizers.

 American-style liberals and conservatives simply emphasize two distinct elements intrinsic to this vision: one insists that the “right” to unlimited wealth accumulation follows naturally from the freedom of the individual and that this right is only expressible if certain other freedoms are limited so that the literal place of the market can be stable and reliable (and therefore a relatively predictable place in which wealth — the value of a dollar — can be relied upon); the other insists that the individual’s freedom consists primarily in self-fashioning and that the self can only enjoy this free play — its individuality — if it can know that society is stable, ”equal,” and reliable enough that the products of the individual’s free play (the self made by the pure, autonomous will of the individual) will not have any material consequences.  The apparent differences in these positions arise specifically because their different advocates assume, but do not discuss, the first principle of individual equal freedom and attend only to particular questions in isolation from each other.  The advocate of “free markets” applies his first principle to certain questions and these prompt him to withhold its application in others; the same must be said for the “civil libertarian.”  Were either to apply his first principle in equal measure to everything, he would appear not merely as a libertarian but as a libertine anarchist — a libidinous monster convinced that the mad must be set free from the asylum, the murderer from his prison, and the self from the cage of society.

 Neither of these visions is “conservative” in any true sense.  They are both simply expressions of the basic tenets of bourgeois classical liberalism.  Generally, when someone says, “I’m conservative on some issues and liberal on others,” what he really means is that he is just a more consistent classical liberal than American-style conservatives and liberals, i.e. he has traced out more fully the consequences of the individual as the sole entity in politics and the individual’s protected freedom as its end.

 The Bush and Obama administrations have proven this model consistent in spades.  For, if the individual is the sole entity in society, he will always feel weak, relatively powerless, isolated, and alienated from the means to secure the future for himself.  Therefore, the liberal individual will trust no one but the State to secure his freedom, for only the State is large enough to do such a thing, and only the State is “real” enough to do it, since the liberal individual sees any other kind of supra-individual entity as an illegitimate one whose exercise of authority will always appear to him as oppression (e.g. the authority of a church, of a social class, of a sex, of an elite association or club, and finally even of the family).  The most liberal phrase of indignation is always, “What gives so-and-so the right to tell me what to do?!”  As such, it only makes sense that the “weak individuals” with interests in business would seek (as they have regularly since the Nineteenth Century) to harness the state to advance their unlimited wealth production and accumulation.  And, in an inevitable reaction, the “weak individuals” whose sense of freedom is bound up more in the free play of consumption and self-fashioning now turn to ask the State for the securing of their material equality and the administered stabilization of every aspect of their lives (except those few little places where “self-fashioning” needs to be most free, i.e. on the level of taste, consumer goods, and sterile copulation).

Read the rest here

You can give a boy a doll, but you can’t make him play with it

20 Dec

The logistical and ethical problems with trying to make toys gender-neutral

From Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic:

Is it discriminatory and degrading for toy catalogs to show girls playing with tea sets and boys with Nerf guns? A Swedish regulatory group says yes. The Reklamombudsmannen (RO) has reprimanded Top-Toy, a licensee of Toys”R”Us and one of the largest toy companies in Northern Europe, for its “outdated” advertisements and has pressured it to mend its “narrow-minded” ways. After receiving “training and guidance” from RO equity experts, Top-Toy introduced gender neutrality in its 2012 Christmas catalogue. The catalog shows little boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with guns and gory action figures. As its marketing director explains, “For several years, we have found that the gender debate has grown so strong in the Swedish market that we have had to adjust.”
Swedes can be remarkably thorough in their pursuit of gender parity. A few years ago, a feminist political party proposed a law requiring men to sit while urinating—less messy and more equal. In 2004, the leader of the Sweden’s Left Party Feminist Council, Gudrun Schyman,proposed a “man tax”—a special tariff to be levied on men to pay for all the violence and mayhem wrought by their sex. In April 2012, following the celebration of International Women’s Day, the Swedes formally introduced the genderless pronoun “hen” to be used in place of he and she (han and hon).

Egalia, a new state-sponsored pre-school in Stockholm, is dedicated to the total obliteration of the male and female distinction. There are no boys and girls at Egalia—just “friends” and “buddies.” Classic fairy tales like Cinderellaand Snow White have been replaced by tales of two male giraffes who parent abandoned crocodile eggs. The Swedish Green Party would like Egalia to be the norm: It has suggested placing gender watchdogs in all of the nation’s preschools. “Egalia gives [children] a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be,” says one excited teacher. (It is probably necessary to add that this is not an Orwellian satire or a right-wing fantasy: This school actually exists.)

The problem with Egalia and gender-neutral toy catalogs is that boys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: “Boys and girls are different.”

Read the rest


The postmillennial, transformational, moralistic, incorrect brand of Woodrow Wilson’s “Calvinism”

19 Dec

Good post by Matthew Tuininga, correcting an otherwise good article on Woodrow Wilson and Calvinism and reminding us that Woodrow Wilson’s moralistic foreign policy was driven not by orthodox Calvinism or even the political theology of Calvin (or Machen or even Kuyper) but by a distortion of it popular among mainline clergy at the time.  A clip:

Wilson, however, saw the political developments of his time as advancing world redemption in a way that Kuyper did not. The Federal Council of Churches echoed this in 1912 by stating that Wilson’s presidential campaign had communicated that “our social order must be fashioned after the Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus Christ.” Such an intense connection between the gospel and politics was far more stark and problematic than Kuyper’s own rhetoric suggested. Kuyper tended to speak of politics as informed by a Christian worldview, but nevertheless as a function of God’s creation ordinances and common grace, distinct from Christ’s kingdom.

To be sure, Wilson self-consciously sought to follow a Calvinist political theology of transformation. As Curry puts it:

Wilson taught his students that John Calvin was the “great reforming Christian statesman.” Summarizing Calvin’s impact on Wilson, Magee argues that Wilson’s understanding of the Christian statesman mandated the reconstruction of “his own society in covenantal patterns,” along the lines of Calvin’s Geneva. For Wilson, therefore, participation in politics was not an option, but a “necessary . . . outcome of this Calvinist faith.”

This is all true enough. But what neither Curry nor Magee clarify is that Wilson’s reading of Calvin was clearly shaped by the dominant post-millennialism of Wilson’s day, which tended to interpret the great reformer through the lens of social gospel transformationalism. Calvin always identified Christ’s kingdom with the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of the church. Because of his distinction between the spiritual and political kingdoms, Calvin never spoke about politics in terms of the advance of the kingdom of God, except insofar as magistrates were responsible to protect and establish the true church.

So when Curry writes that Wilson had no sense of Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic distinction between “moral man and immoral society” (a distinction by which Niebuhr sought to preserve realism about the level of righteousness that is achievable in institutions and large groups of human beings in complex circumstances), he tells us far more about Wilson than he does about Calvin (let alone Machen or Kuyper). Calvin was a stark realist when it came to his understanding of politics, as well as the progress of peace and justice in this world. He constantly emphasized that the life of the church would always be a life under the cross, until Christ’s return.

Read the rest

When I say gun-control, you say prayer-in-school. Ready?

17 Dec

After a season of mourning, Americans are asking what can be done about this massacre.  But are we discussing real solutions or symbolic gestures in the wake of Newton?  I doubt that an original intent analysis of the 2nd amendment would invalidate laws that ban assault weapons.  I also doubt that such a law would do much to prevent massacres like the Newton tragedy.  I don’t doubt that such a law would make most Americans feel better.  Likewise, I doubt that an original intent analysis of the establishment clause of the 1st amendment would invalidate laws allowing non-sectarian vague deistic prayers in public schools.  I also doubt that allowing them would do much to prevent the Newton tragedy.  I don’t doubt that such prayers will make most people feel better.  It seems that after horrors like this, everyone latches on to their favorite political scapegoat in order to cope and to explain what seems inexplicable to most people.  In many ways, these reactions further indicate how political we have all become, assuming without thinking that all problems have political solutions.  My fear is that our collective attention turns to quick political “solutions” (gun-control or prayer in schools) that are more symbolic than substantive in nature, and then we end up missing the opportunity to address the more complex but real root cultural causes of evil like this, such as the disintegration of families, absentee fatherhood, indifference to the existence of a Holy God, worship of violence at an early age, the “Abolition of Man” (C.S. Lewis), and embrace of moral relativism.  But it’s far easier to just, pass a law.

If abortion is normalized as the absolute right of women, then the rationale for enforcing child support unravels

17 Dec

Penn Law Professor Amy Wax takes on Christine Overall (excerpt):

In keeping with the dominant discourse, Overall accepts almost without argument that reproduction belongs firmly in the realm of “rights,” both positive and negative. In general, and with carefully defined exceptions, people should be able to refuse to have children, and should not be prevented from having them. Few in the Western world, whatever their political stripe, would today question these fundamental precepts.

What is more problematic is her treatment of the hard cases that strain the principle. She gives long and careful consideration to disagreements between biological parents over whether to continue a pregnancy and allow a child to be born. Taking a distinctly feminist tack, and consistent with current law that views abortion as a right that is individual, fundamental, and virtually absolute, she insists the mother’s prerogative always trumps the father’s. The father can never prevent the mother from obtaining an abortion or insist that she have one.

She recognizes that this asymmetry can curtail a man’s capacity to become a parent or refuse that option, and so it potentially limits his reproductive “rights,” but she justifies this incursion by pointing to men’s need to enlist a women’s body and thus her consent and cooperation. This natural necessity, she believes, more than justifies limiting a man’s right to become a parent or not.

Tellingly, however, she then argues that the biological father should be charged with full financial responsibility for any child that his sex partner chooses to have, regardless of the man’s personal resources and desires. She insists that “what the man cannot do, with moral justification, is to make an individual, unilateral decision during the pregnancy to reject all responsibility for the infant.”

Overall’s approach to this particular conflict is emblematic of her method generally. Too often she treats reproductive dilemmas as abstract analytic puzzles, dissociated from the broader institutional, cultural, and historical contexts in which they are embedded. She has little or nothing to say about the elaborate norms and institutions that have evolved over time to negotiate the dilemmas she identifies. She virtually ignores the role these structures play in guiding behavior and in potentially moderating or avoiding some of the ethical conflicts she describes. Marital status and sexuality, she repeatedly claims, are irrelevant and ethically inert categories with no bearing on reproductive decision-making.

So, although she argues from “basic principles” that fathers must support their children, she is oblivious to the fact that, despite the recent expansion of efforts to enforce that obligation, the numbers of children actually receiving material, personal, and financial support from their biological fathers has steadily declined. She never considers the possibility that a complex system of incentives and customs might advance salutary goals more effectively than edicts grounded in the logic of rights and the force of law.

She seems unaware that channeling people’s behavior through imperfect and sometimes arbitrary conventions that assign intelligible and reciprocal responsibilities, burdens, and benefits might best minimize the evils she seeks to avoid. The most important convention is, of course, marriage. It is indeed an astonishing shortcoming of this book that the word “marriage” is almost entirely absent—it does not even appear in the index.

Traditionally, marriage carried implicit premises and promises. “Only if you marry me and stand by me can you count on me to bear and help raise your children.” Charles Murray once suggested that marriage should form the sole channel through which men’s rights and responsibilities toward women and children are recognized. Women and their offspring could not call upon unmarried fathers to support them, and unmarried men would have no power over or access to their children without the mother’s consent. This draconian suggestion certainly comes at some cost to innocents, but its logic is a bracing reminder that an individualistic and rights-based approach too often gives short shrift to the social systems that promote virtuous behavior.

In sum, by reducing the problem of men’s and women’s desire for children to the abstract analytical puzzle of “rights in conflict,” the author blinds herself to the evolved institutions, especially marriage, in which the varied interests and priorities of men and women were balanced and brokered. Perhaps there is no substitute for the practical infrastructure that allowed ordinary people to navigate the shoals of sexual choice. Without those structures, analytical paralysis quickly takes over.

Read all of it here

Opposition to gay-marriage is ultimately just hate, right?

14 Dec

In a society where justice is nearly always defined uncritically as fairness or in terms of equality rather than rightness or in terms of intrinsic purpose, I find that supporters of traditional marriage oppose gay-marriage but they can’t explain why.  Moreover, “movement conservatives” have a particularly difficult time with defending traditional marriage because they have elsewhere taken up the language of individualism, personal liberty, anti-government sloganeering, and other libertarian themes (though a case can be made that redefining marriage leads to bigger government).  This effectively muzzles them more often than not when asked to defend government involvement in defining marriage in a way that excludes or discriminates.  And let’s be clear, restricting gay marriage does discriminate, does exclude.  The question is whether such discrimination and exclusion can be justified given some other common good, as we do when we discriminate against polygamists or legally prefer traditional marriages and discriminate against “open marriages” or divorcees or single-parents in adoption decisions.  Kevin DeYoung has a brief but helpful blog post explaining to ordinary people why defending tradtiional marriage against other sexual unions is a reasonable position and hardly neanderthal.

Here’s a clip:

We must consider why the state has, for all these years, bothered to recognize marriage in the first place. What’s the big deal? Why not let people have whatever relationships they choose and call it whatever they want? Why go to the trouble of sanctioning a specific relationship and giving it a unique legal standing? The reason is because the state has an interest in promoting the familial arrangement which has a mother and a father raising the children that came from their union. The state has been in the marriage business for the common good and for the well-being of the society it is supposed to protect. Kids do better with a mom and a dad. Communities do better when husbands and wives stay together. Hundreds of studies confirm both of these statements (though we all can think of individual exceptions I’m sure). Gay marriage assumes that marriage is re-definable and the moving parts replaceable.

By recognizing gay unions as marriage, just like the husband-wife relationship we’ve always called marriage, the state is engaging in (or at least codifying) a massive re-engineering of our social life. It assumes the indistinguishability of gender in parenting, the relative unimportance of procreation in marriage, and the near infinite flexibility as to what sorts of structures and habits lead to human flourishing.

The rest

Government or private charity? The debate behind the debate over reducing the tax deduction for charitable contributions

14 Dec

For the recipients of generosity, the health of civil society, and the American experiment in self-government, reducing the charitable giving deduction, something both Republicans and the Obama administration are considering, should bother conservatives and Christians far more than raising the top marginal income tax rate. If it doesn’t, that says a lot. A difference in public philosophy over the extent to which government services should compete with or even replace private charity in society would be a far more meaningful discussion than tweaking tax brackets, IMO.

From the Washington Post:

In a series of recent meetings and calls, top White House aides have pressed nonprofit groups to line up behind the president’s plan for reducing the federal deficit and averting the year-end “fiscal cliff,” according to people familiar with the talks.

In part, the White House is seeking to win the support of nonprofit groups for Obama’s central demand that income tax rates rise for upper-end taxpayers. There are early signs that several charities, whose boards often include the wealthy, are willing to endorse this change.

But the White House is also looking to limit the charitable deduction for high-income earners, and that has prompted frustration and resistance, with leaders of major nonprofit organizations, such as the United Way, the American Red Cross and Lutheran Services in America, closing ranks in opposing any change to the deduction.

What we can’t not know: the sordid tale of the Fantasy Slut League

13 Dec

A group of high school boys in California created a competitive club in which members “scored” points by having sex with as many girls as possible.  They called themselves the Fantasy Slut League.  What does such a story tell us about Natural Law Theory?  It would seem to challenge, at first blush, the notion that there is a body of law, higher law, immutable binding universal moral law, divine law, that all men (even high school boys) know in their heart of hearts.  A body of law that “we can’t not know” no matter how hard we may try to suppress it (Romans 1).  But does this story challenge or confirm the Natural Law thesis?

From Carson Holloway:

What we have in California, then, is a case of young people taught by a corrupt adult culture that sex is fun and nothing but fun; that it is a source of physical pleasure unconnected to anything serious or beautiful. Nothing in their souls seems to have rebelled against this teaching, and we cannot help but fear that this is because there never was anything in their souls capable of judging such a teaching to be wrong.

But before we conclude sadly that the natural law must be written only on some hearts and not all, we might reflect that traces of it can be seen even in circumstances far more depraved than those found at this California high school.

Why, after all, does the master speak of his slave as an inferior kind of being? Is it not in order to trick his own conscience, which he has brutalized but not destroyed, and which still knows that it cannot be just to hold a human being as an article of property? Why does the Nazi refer to Jews and his other victims as parasites or vermin, as a kind of disease that must be exterminated for the sake of social cleanliness, if not because he knows that it is wrong to kill human beings who are not personally guilty of any crime?

These considerations let us revisit this story in search of some hint that the natural law lives in the minds of these youth. We find it staring us right in the face. It is in the very name they chose for their undertaking: “The Fantasy Slut League.” Slut. The use of that ugly word in this wretched context points to the natural law. Its derogatory connotation suggests that in choosing it, these boys knew, on some level, that there was something wrong in their pursuit.

Traditional adherents of natural law think that the meaning of sex is not exhausted by the pleasure it brings, but that this pleasure is linked to serious powers and noble responsibilities. By its nature, by our nature, sex is meant to be an expression of a loving and permanent commitment between a man and a woman. More than that, it is meant to achieve not only the good of uniting the couple but also of bringing new life into existence, which the couple will cherish and nurture. From this view, we debase sex—we debase ourselves—when we treat it as a game or an entertainment.

The word “slut” indirectly expresses this traditional view. It is a term of derision. It suggests contempt for the woman who treats sex, and herself, so carelessly. It suggests that she lacks self-respect and deserves no respect from others. The connection between sexual licentiousness and contempt for women is certainly not unique to the boys in that high school. The culture of promiscuity is nowhere celebrated more than in certain kinds of rap music, and no other kind of music is so saturated in contempt for the women that it views as nothing more than sexual playthings.

Considering the word “slut” in this way—as a paradoxically hopeful sign that people do have natural knowledge of the true purposes of sex—is in no way to embrace its abusive and discriminatory meaning. The word is abusive because it suggests disdain for, rather than a desire to help, sexually promiscuous women, whose lifestyle isn’t always a matter of informed choice but often a matter of coercion or the sad consequence of poor parental guidance. The word is discriminatory because it is ordinarily applied only to women and not men. But a moment’s reflection shows this distinction to be unjust and unreasonable.

The story of the “Fantasy Slut League” is sordid and sad, and might tempt some to despair about our culture and the natural law. On careful consideration, though, it also offers evidence of the natural law and hence some hope for the future of our culture. There is no denying that the very fact of the league shows we inhabit a culture that has gone far down the wrong path. At the same time, however, the organizers’ label for their league shows that the materials by which one might try to renovate the culture—human nature, human reason, the natural law—still exist in the minds that the culture has misshaped.

Read the full article from The Public Discourse

Politics flows downstream from culture, so what’s a traditional conservative to do?

12 Dec

From Bruce Frohen:

In a previous post I argued something I believe most traditional conservatives understand in their bones: we will not “take back” our culture and way of life, or even preserve room within which to lead lives of decency and virtue, through any grand political effort to construct a national political coalition. The assumptions and very characters of too many Americans have been twisted too much for too long by our increasingly secular, individualist culture and our administrative and welfare state. Americans, as a people, no longer have sufficient character to govern themselves as citizens of a free and virtuous republic. 

What, then, is a traditional conservative to do?
I’ve remarked many times that the good thing about a predicament like ours, in which we have been routed for decades in every sphere, is that there is no end of choices of where to begin working for improvement. It is vitally important, however, that we begin by getting our priorities in order.

To take yet another analytic step back (a process made necessary, I think, by just how far off the proper path we as a people have stumbled), setting the right priorities requires adopting the proper perspective.
It would be easy for me to say, at this point, that the proper perspective is that of eternity. The human person is meant for eternity, so all that matters, finally, is the state of our souls. And it would be wrong for me to say that this is too easy an answer, for one who takes such a position as seriously as it deserves. But not all of us are called to enter a cloistered life and the rest of us must face the fact that, for both good and ill, our surroundings affect our characters. 
Though not of this world, we must live in this world, working in it, raising our children in it, and even worshipping in it. What is more, the permanent goods themselves—truth, beauty, and virtue, for example—exist for us in concrete objects, institutions, and practices. As one cannot know beauty save through, for example, an inspired, well-crafted work of art, one cannot know virtue save through the examples of good men and women who show their character through concrete acts of bravery, magnanimity, or charity.
No grand structure, no Great Society, can teach our children (or us) how to lead decent lives, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Even books and the utterly essential moral imagination they feed and inspire can do nothing to prevent formation of misshapen, abnormal characters if the reader has no living, breathing, human parents, teachers, and mentors on whose conduct to model his own. 
It’s not just pedagogically necessary to have face-to-face relationships, it’s absolutely necessary for us to be happy that we share our lives with other people. And we won’t be able to do this, won’t even be able to live with others in peace, unless and until we are bound together by custom and tradition. Even with strangers it is a custom (rooted, to be sure, in natural law) of respect and charity or magnanimity that prevents the war of all against all; not all cultures are or have been good about dealing with strangers. Families, churches, and other associations are all the more dependent on traditions in ordering their common lives because the relationships within them are closer and more important.

Read the rest here

What does conservative prudence require of Republicans today?

12 Dec

From Peter Wehner in Commentary Magazine:

Assume for the sake of the argument that this debate has been engaged and adjudicated by the public–and the public prefers the liberal solution (raising taxes on the “rich” in the name of “fairness”). Does the conservative movement, in order to maintain its strength and appeal, make peace with the public’s view? Or attempt to change it? And if so, how?

These questions are too large to tackle in a single post. I simply want to highlight a temptation all of us in politics face, which is to assume that because we hold a certain view, a majority of the public does, too. Those who hold this mindset usually fall back on an explanation that goes something like this: Republican politicians simply didn’t make sufficiently forceful and articulate arguments. If they had, the public would flock to our side since, after all, the arguments are all on our side.

The people who take comfort in this explanation usually reside in the “we have a communications problem” school. They lament the fact that we don’t have another Ronald Reagan to articulate conservatism and if we did, all would be right with the world once more.

I’m partially sympathetic to this view, since it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of quality candidates in advancing an intellectual cause. At the same time, it’s unwise to pin one’s hopes on producing, election after election, a candidate who possesses a once-in-a-lifetime set of skills. And Reagan himself, by 1980, had made peace with major elements of the New Deal (something he had not done in 1964).

As for the here and now: I’m actually conflicted as to what strategy Republicans ought to adopt in their battle with the president over the fiscal cliff, since I believe there are real downsides to capitulating on raising taxes on the top income earners. But however this issue resolves itself, conservatives should be careful not to assume that the problems we face are merely (or mostly) rhetorical.

It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are under-taxed. If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs. It may be that we have to reframe the issue. Or it may be that we have to accept that waging the fight on this ground is injurious to the larger conservative cause. This is a discussion conservatives need to have in a calm, empirical way, resisting the impulse (on all sides) to either purge or impugn motivations — and to bear in mind that if conservatives give in to Obama’s demands, it may be a mistake but it wouldn’t be a violation of a high principle. Deciding on whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, or somewhere in between, is a prudential, not  quasi-theological, argument.

A final, related point: Conservatives have to be alert to shifting circumstances. Today we face challenges – including wage stagnation, lack of social mobility, globalization, income inequality, fracturing families, and an entitlement crisis — that are in some respects quite different, or at least more acute, than the ones we faced in 1980, when the threats we faced included soaring interest rates, high inflation, and a top marginal rate of 70 percent. This doesn’t mean that the arguments about tax rates and the size of government are passé. But it does mean conservatism has to take into account a realistic assessment of the sentiments of the public – not in order to bow before them, but to be better able to shape them.

This is not, as some might suggest, an argument to abandon conservatism. It’s rather an argument to revivify it.


Introducing Burkean Conservatism: Between liberty and tradition

12 Dec

Excellent essay on Burkean conservatism by Professor Peter Berkowitz at the Hoover Institution on Burke’s concept of ordered or rational liberty, the place of tradition in maintaining the preconditions for liberty and self-government, the republican virtue of prudence and political moderation in the public square, and how Burke is relevant for today’s political discourse.


Feuding among american conservatives for the title True Conservative is nothing new. Ever since conservatism in America crystallized as a recognizable school in the 1950s, more than a few limited-government conservatives, or libertarians as they have come to be called, and more than a few social conservatives — and their forebears, traditionalist conservatives — have wanted to flee from or banish the other. To be sure, the passion for purity in politics is perennial. But the tension between liberty and tradition inscribed in modern conservatism has exacerbated the stress and strain in the contending conservative camps. Fortunately, a lesson of political moderation is also inscribed in the modern conservative tradition, and nowhere more durably or compellingly than at its beginning.

Moderating the tension between liberty, or doing as you please, and tradition, or doing as has been done in the past, is a hallmark of the speeches and writings of 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. While the conservative spirit is enduring and while some have always been more amply endowed with the inclination to preserve inherited ways and others more moved by the impulse to improve or supersede them, the distinctively modern form of conservatism emerged with Burke’s 1790 polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Writing as a friend of liberty and enlightenment, Burke eloquently exposed the brutality of the revolutionaries’ determination, inspired by a perverse understanding of liberty and enlightenment, to transform political life by upending and sweeping away tradition, custom, and the inherited moral order. Burke’s conservatism operates within the broad contours of the larger liberal tradition and embraces much of the spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It is distinguished by its determination to moderate the tendencies toward excess that mark both liberty and reason.

Burke’s devotion to “a spirit of rational liberty”1 drives the great reform efforts of his political career: conciliation with America, toleration for Ireland’s Catholics, and protection of the interests and rights of the people of India. But even if we had only the Reflections, he would still deserve to be counted among our preeminent teachers concerning the balance of principles that favors liberty.

The causes to which Burke dedicated himself, and the well-wrought arguments he summoned in their behalf, teach that the paramount political task is to defend liberty. They also illustrate that while the purpose of politics is not to perfect man, securing the rights shared equally by all depends on tradition, religion, and community cultivating the virtues that fit citizens for freedom. And they clarify how the rival interests, multiplicity of groups and associations, and competing conceptions of happiness that characterize free societies make accommodation, balance, and calibration indispensable to the conservative mission. Burke’s storied career demonstrates that political moderation is not only consistent with but essential to vindicating the principles of liberty.


The crux of the matter was that the revolutionaries’ novel doctrine demanded more than a change of government; it required “a total revolution,” one that would break from and cast aside established beliefs, practices, and institutions.

In contrast, Burke championed “a manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Liberty well understood, he argued, recognizes the power of self-interest but emphasizes self-restraint. It values calculation, planning, and ambitious state undertakings but attaches great significance to the steady development over centuries of sentiments, manners, and morals. Such liberty depends on a science of government — of constructing, conserving, and reforming the state — that involves “a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions.” It recognizes that “the little platoon we belong to in society” — family, religious community, village or town — is the original source of “public affections” and furnishes the schools in which we develop “a love to our country and to mankind.” It rejects theoreticians’ and intellectuals’ definition of “the rights of men,” which legitimate license without limits. Instead, liberty well understood affirms “the real rights of men,” grounded in the advantages for which civil society was formed, including the right to live under the rule of law; to own and acquire property and to pass it on to one’s children; and generally to live with one’s family as one sees fit provided one does not trespass on the rights of others. The primary aim of government, which Burke characterized as “a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants,”  is to secure these rights. Just where the exercise of freedom passes over into a violation of another’s rights and how best to use one’s freedom to live well could only be determined by prudent reflection on tradition and custom, because they embodied the nation’s accumulated wisdom concerning the organization and conduct of human affairs.

Prudence, Burke famously observed, is “the god of this lower world.”2 It carefully considers circumstances, which “give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect,” and which “render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”3 Prudence serves political moderation by mediating between principle and practice. It guides the reconciliation of liberty with the requirements of tradition, order, and virtue by taking the measure of all and, to the extent possible in the fluid and murky world of politics, issuing in judgments and actions that give each its due.

According to Burke, the French revolutionaries were immoderate in the extreme. By overthrowing monarchy and religion, they aimed to achieve emancipation from not merely a specific tradition or custom but the very authority of tradition and custom. Their goal, unreasonable in the extreme, was to establish an empire built on abstract reason alone. Prudent application of principle to circumstance would be unnecessary. Instead, they would mold circumstances to comply with pure reason’s demands. Marching under the banner of “the rights of man,” they set out to deduce the structure of a society of free and equal citizens without regard to the beliefs and practices, the passions and interests, the attachments and associations that fashion character and form conduct. Rather than counting on education grounded in history, literature, and the sciences to discipline and elevate a recalcitrant human nature, the revolutionaries sought to remake human nature and society to fit reason’s supposed revelations about citizens’ true wants and needs, rights, and obligations. The realization of the revolutionaries’ ambitions, Burke immediately discerned, would depend on the ruthless resort to violence. Anticipating not only Robespierre and the Reign of Terror but 20th-century totalitarianism, Burke presciently argued that the determination to use the power of the state to create a new humanity would bring about the dehumanization of man.

The quarrel between Burke and the French revolutionaries comes down not to whether liberty is good or is even the leading purpose of politics — Burke thought it was both — but to the material and moral conditions and the political institutions most conducive to securing, preserving, and extending it. The French revolutionaries put their faith in government’s ability to set the people free by developing institutions that satisfy citizens’ sensibilities by aggressively transforming them. In contrast, Burke emphasized the moral and political benefits that flow to liberty from the time-tested beliefs, practices, and institutions beyond government’s immediate purview that structure social life and cultivate manners and morals. The progressive side of the liberal tradition, the roots of which extend back to the French Revolution, tends to view traditional understandings of order and virtue as obstacles to freedom. In contrast, the conservative side of the liberal tradition, in the spirit of Burke, sees in them pillars of freedom and seeks to conserve the nongovernmental institutions — the family, religious faith, the voluntary associations of civil society — that sustain them.


Burke was no reactionary, dogmatically clinging to the old and rejecting the new. He observed in the Reflections that because circumstances are constantly changing, “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Of course, the change in question must be prudent, wisely adapting enduring principles to the ordinary vicissitudes of politics. In extraordinary times, states must adjust to substantial shifts in circumstances, sentiment, and practice.

Prudent change depends on combining and reconciling “the two principles of conservation and correction.” The balancing of a conserving that is mindful of the need to correct and a correcting that proceeds with an eye to what deserves to be conserved is, in a free society, not an unwelcome political necessity. Such prudence is inseparable from respect for tradition and custom, because tradition and custom typically present not a clear-cut path but a “choice of inheritance.” Since the right choice about tradition must be freely and reasonably made, and since the reasonable use of freedom depends on the virtues nourished by tradition, liberty and tradition are mutually dependent.  This mutual dependence provides an opening to moderate the claims of liberty and tradition which, in a free society, frequently pull in opposing directions. To justly moderate, or harmonize, the competing claims of liberty and tradition, one must respect necessity without thoughtlessly acquiescing to what only appears necessary, and compromise in behalf of principle rather than compromise principle. Political moderation should not be confused with the absence of strong passion. It requires restraining the desire to vindicate immediately and completely a single principle and instead working to vindicate the whole family of rival and worthy principles on which the conservation and correction of liberty depends. As Burke’s career as a reformer vividly demonstrates, political moderation is propelled by a passion to strike the most reasonable balance among worthy but incomplete ends for the sake of liberty. Political moderation is a crucial part of the government of the self on which self-government in a free society depends.


The need in free societies to combine and reconcile the principles of conservation and correction imposes formidable demands on the people and on office holders. To be sure, under government of all sorts, policy and law must constantly be adjusted, balanced, and calibrated in light of changing circumstances. But liberty guarantees that circumstances will always be changing, and in fact liberty tends to accelerate the pace of change. One manifestation of the larger challenge is the famous tension between conservatism and capitalism: Capitalism’s constant quest for newer and better products and techniques of production to achieve ever greater profits, and the affluence and luxury that free markets bring, demote tradition, disrupt order, and weaken the virtues of mind and character — such as self-restraint, industriousness, and thrift — that support free markets and free political institutions.

The larger challenge is rooted in the passions. Liberty excites the human love of novelty — for how can I be free if I must submit to the same old routines? And it goads the human love of dominion — for how can I be free if others defy my will? By simultaneously encouraging an aversion to authority and a desire for mastery, freedom also tends to provoke a backlash against freedom. The result in free societies is the generation of extreme and conflicting types: radicals who seek to extend government’s rule over others in the name of equality while freeing themselves from rules, and reactionaries who strive to reinstate traditional forms of authority, not only on themselves but on the rest of society. Liberty unrestrained and undisciplined fosters immoderation. Consequently, a government devoted to conserving and correcting freedom will require particular prudence in the art of balancing, or political moderation.11

The virtue of political moderation is often mistaken for a compromise with virtue, a softening of belief, a diluting of passion, a weakening of will, even an outright vice. But those are examples not of political moderation but of the failure to achieve it. Moderation in politics is not a retreat from the fullness of life but an embrace of it. Political moderation is called into action by the awareness of the variety of enduring moral and political principles; the substantial limits on what we can know and how effectively and justly we can act; the range of legitimate individual interests; the multiplicity of valuable human undertakings and ends; and the quest to discern a common good in light of which we can make moral distinctions and establish political priorities.12 Political moderation underlies self-government understood as the individual’s mastery of his own conduct and understood as a free people’s rule over itself.

Nevertheless, the virtue of political moderation will always serve as an inviting target for demagogues who seek to exploit the passion for purity in politics. In the Reflections, Burke warned that one who supports “a scheme of liberty soberly limited” is likely to be accused of lacking “fidelity to his cause.” The purists’ attack on the appeal to reason and the exercise of restraint in behalf of freedom will not end there:

Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, — until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

Because of the perennial need to stand firmly against the common slander that political moderation is a feeble disguise for weak-kneed betrayal of principle, political moderation is inseparable from political courage.

Since Burke’s devotion to political moderation was hardly evident to all observers in his time and would have been disputed by many, he was compelled to clarify his beliefs about it. In the final paragraph of the Reflections, written25 years after he was first elected to Parliament and four years before his retirement, Burke declared that he had been one “almost the whole of whose public exertion has been a struggle for the liberty of others.” Aware that his attack on the French Revolution gave rise to the appearance of inconsistency, he made sense of the seeming contradictions by explaining the underlying reality. Invoking a classical image, he characterized his words and actions as those of a statesman

who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end — and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

To conserve liberty at a time when the French revolutionaries made extravagant claims on its behalf, Burke fervently championed the claims of tradition, order, and virtue. And when his countrymen failed to grasp its imperatives in their affairs abroad in America, Ireland, and India, he passionately urged reforms that enlarged liberty’s sphere.

The conservative side of the larger liberal tradition displays variations on the political moderation contained in Burke’s insistence on the importance of combining and reconciling the principles of conservation and correction. In1776 in The Wealth of Nations, Burke’s contemporary Adam Smith examined the mutual dependence of economic life and virtue. Smith saw that the market economy, which brought prosperity and nourished political liberty, both rewarded moral virtues — rationality, industry, ingenuity, and self-discipline — and corrupted workers’ character by condemning them to monotonous labor. He therefore insisted on the need for government to take action by, for example, providing education for workers and limiting the workplace demands imposed on them by manufacturers. InDemocracy in America, the first volume of which appeared in 1835 and the second in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in the modern era democracy had become necessary and just and that while it fostered a certain simplicity and straightforwardness in manners it also encouraged selfishness, envy, immediate gratification, and lazy acceptance of state authority. To secure liberty, which he believed essential for a well-lived life, it would be necessary to preserve within democracy those nongovernmental institutions — family, religious faith, and civic associations of many sorts — that counteracted democracy’s deleterious tendencies. Family, faith, and civic associations taught moral virtue, connected individuals to higher purposes, and broadened their appreciation of their self-interest to include their debts to forebears, bonds to fellow citizens, and obligations to future generations. John Stuart Mill, an admirer of Tocqueville whose voluminous writings feature conspicuously conservative and progressive dimensions, made the case in 1859 in On Liberty that liberty served “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” At the same time, he distinguished between the use and abuse of freedom; defended a rigorous education continuing through university and combining science and humanities to equip individuals for freedom’s opportunities and demands; and favored political institutions that, while grounded in the consent of the governed, were designed to improve the likelihood that elections would bring individuals of outstanding moral and intellectual virtue to public office.

If a liberal in the large sense is one who believes that the aim of politics is to secure liberty, then Smith, Tocqueville, and Mill are, like Burke, exemplary members of the liberal tradition. Because of their common appreciation that free societies expose individuals to influences that corrode moral and political order and enervate the virtues on which liberty depends, they belong on the conservative side of the liberal tradition. Because of their shared understanding that limits must be imposed on government to protect individual liberty, but that those limits must not sap the energy or impair the authority government needs to secure liberty, their account of self-government emphasizes striking a balance between competing and essential principles. Their political moderation is a reflection of their passion for freedom and their reasoned understanding of the complex conditions that sustain it. The Federalist, the masterpiece of American political thought, embraces the conservative brand of liberal self-government they epitomize and constitutionalizes it.

The Three Laws of Social Programs

11 Dec

From Charles Murray:

Several people have tagged me and Losing Ground since Nicholas Kristoff’s column on Fridayabout the ways that social programs can backfire. It was a praiseworthy column—all of us on both sides of the political spectrum should be as ready as Kristoff to acknowledge problems with our beliefs. But it also offers an opportunity to recall the three laws of social programs in Losing Ground, because the backfires are not idiosyncratic. They occur everywhere and always for inherent reasons.

1. The Law of Imperfect Selection. Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons.

This law accounts for the reason that programs like Food Stamps and the Supplemental Security Income program constantly expand. Whenever the people who administer the programs run into a case of a genuinely needy person who has been excluded under a current rule, they tend to redefine the rule or otherwise alter the program’s administration to be more inclusive, which in turn brings more people who don’t need the social transfer under its umbrella.

2. The Law of Unintended Rewards. Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.

Kristoff referenced the increased net value of being illiterate because of the “intellectual disability” payment of $698 per month that leads parents to withdraw their children from literacy classes. But the same thing is true of every payment of any kind that requires people to demonstrate that they have a problem before they qualify for the payment. It is not a defect in program design. It is inescapable whenever you give rewards for having a problem.

3. The Law of Net Harm. The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.

This is not as obvious as the first two laws, but just as inexorable. My favorite chapter of Losing Ground is a thought experiment about a government program that uses financial rewards to reduce smoking. If the rewards are small, nothing will change. If they are large enough to induce a significant number of people to quit smoking, the program will inevitably lead to more people who take up smoking in the first place and the net number of inveterate smokers.

Fewer and fewer people are old enough to remember, but once upon a time almost all children were born to married couples and almost all young men were physically able to work and knew how to show up on time and work hard. Then, in the mid-1960s, before globalization, before manufacturing jobs disappeared, while working-class wages were still going up, we decided that compassion should be bureaucratized. The three laws of social programs explain a lot of what has happened to the working class since then.

Can the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriage without legislating morality from the bench?

10 Dec

The Supreme Court will hear to cases together on the issue of same-sex marriage.  First, they will hear a challenge to Prop 8 in California, which makes same-sex marriage illegal through popular referendum.  Second, they will hear a challenge to DOMA, which defines marriage for federal law as heterosexual and also permits states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage contracts made in other states.  It would seem that come June of next year, the Court will either permit states to restrict same-sex marriage on a state by state basis if they choose to do so (narrow ruling) or it will require that states recognize same-sex marriages as valid across the board (broader ruling).  Among the issues at stake here is the question of whether Supreme Court justices can, should, or will engage in extensive extra-constitutional moral reasoning in deciding these cases.  For those who believe the legislating morality is properly the domain of the legislative branches and not the courts, this would be problematic.  Is it avoidable?  Yes, says Professor Adam Macloud:

one cannot determine how marriage ought to be defined in law without first addressing the question of what marriage is. Therefore, there is no morally neutral ground upon which to decide which relationships should be called marriages.

Nevertheless, there remains a way for the Court to resolve the narrower legal issues presented to it without foreclosing public deliberations on the more profound philosophical questions about marriage. A recent decision out of the United States District Court in Hawaii, in the case Jackson v. Abercrombie, suggests a way for the Supreme Court to move forward without (further) undermining its prestige and integrity. If the Supreme Court is looking for morally neutral ground upon which to stand, it could do no better than to read this decision carefully.

Like California, Hawaiians struck a considered compromise on the marriage question. Hawaii extends to same-sex couples who enter into civil unions all of the rights and privileges of marriage, and reserves the term “marriage” for one-man-one-woman unions. For this reason, the challenge to Hawaii’s laws, like a similar challenge arising out of Nevada and the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 that the Supreme Court is preparing to hear, threatens to lure the judicial branch onto dangerous ground. The courts cannot require these states to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages on the ground that same-sex couples are entitled to the benefits, protections, rights, and responsibilities of marriage; these states have already extended those entitlements to same-sex couples. The only remaining basis for judicial action on behalf of same-sex couples is a ruling that the intimate commitment of a same-sex couple is a marriage. That ruling would codify in the fundamental law of the land in the moral beliefs of judges.

Read the rest here

Traditional families tend to produce better students academically; the state has to do something about that injustice

7 Dec

So says the President of France Francois Hollande.  What’s to be done?  Well, applying a justice as fairness doctrine (see my blog post on this), level the playing field by eliminating homework (non-traditional families don’t do that well) and expand school hours (to mitigate against the positive gains gleaned from traditional homes).  You see, it’s pretty simple.  If justice means fairness, as John Rawls has argued, then no child should be disadvantaged because of circumstances beyond their control (being born to non-traditional families).  So, from behind a veil of ignorance where no one knows if they will or will not be born to such a family, we should construct a society where it wouldn’t matter.  That is, we should construct a society where the state, the great leveler, compensates for any of these disadvantages by increasingly replacing them as the premier social institution.  Sometimes that will be done by helping the less advantaged (helping them catch up); other times that will be done by slowing the more advantaged down.  If good parenting is highly beneficial and causing inequality in society, then we’ll just relieve parents of much of that responsibility and shift that burden to the state so that everyone is treated fairly.  Of course, if justice is rightness, then parenting properly belongs only to parents and is something intrinsically unique by design and purpose such that the state can never be the substitute for the family.  A government’s response to inequalities is not, in that framework, dealt with by undermining the family but by adopting public policy which encourages greater traditional family health, autonomy, stability, and formation.

Islam vs Islamism, a crucial difference we neglect at our own peril

6 Dec

From Clifford May in the National Review (excerpt; full article here):

A Koret Foundation Senior Fellow at Stanford University, Tibi describes himself as an “Arab-Muslim pro-democracy theorist and practitioner.” Raised in Damascus, he has “studied Islam and its civilization for four decades, working in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa.” His research has led him to this simple and stark conclusion: “Islamism is a totalitarian ideology.” And just as there cannot be “democratic totalitarianism,” so there cannot be “democratic Islamism.”

Brennan and other American and European officials are wrong, Tibi says, to fear that “fighting Islamism is tantamount to declaring all of Islam a violent enemy.” As for the Obama administration’s insistence that “the enemy is specifically, and only, al-Qaeda,” that, Tibi writes, “is far too reductive.”

Tibi also faults Noah Feldman, the young scholar who advised the Bush administration, and who insisted, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that sharia, Islamic law, can be viewed as “Islamic constitutionalism.” Feldman failed to grasp the significance of the “Islamist claim to supremacy (siyadat al-Islam),” the conviction that Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are inferior and that their inferiority should be reflected under the law and by government institutions.

Tibi makes this important distinction: All jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are jihadists. In other words, not all Islamists are committed to violence, including terrorism, as the preferred means to achieve their goals. He asks: “Can we trust Islamists who forgo violence to participate in good faith within a pluralistic, democratic system?” He answers: “I believe we cannot.”

Chief among Islamist goals, Tibi writes, is al-hall al Islami, “the Islamic solution, a kind of magic answer for all of the problems — global and local, socio-economic or value-related — in the crisis-ridden world of Islam.” Islamists ignore the fact that such governance has been implemented, for example, in Iran for over more than 30 years, in Afghanistan under the Taliban, in Gaza under Hamas, and in Sudan. It has never delivered development, freedom, human rights, or democracy. As for Turkey, Tibi sees it as “not yet an Islamist state” but heading in that direction.

Tibi makes some arguments with which I’d quarrel. For example, he views Saudi religious/political doctrines as a “variety of Salafism (orthodox, traditional Islam) not Islamism.” I would counter that Salafism is a variant of Islamism, albeit one based not on the writings of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, but on nostalgia for the glory days of the seventh century.

Nevertheless, the debate Tibi is attempting to initiate is necessary — and long overdue. During the Cold War there was a field of study known as Sovietology. It was taught in our most elite universities with strong U.S. government support.

Why isn’t Islamology — not Islamic theology, or “Muslim-Christian understanding,” or “Islamic thought” — a discipline today? For one, Tibi observes, because to “protect themselves against criticism, Islamists have invented the formula of ‘Islamophobia’ to defame their critics.” (How did Stalin not come up with Sovietophobia or Russophobia?) And of course if such slander fails to intimidate, there are other ways to shut people up: Tibi has “survived attempts on my life by jihadists.”

A second reason for the absence of Islamology: The U.S. government cannot back the study of an ideology it stubbornly insists does not exist. Finally, those who do fund anything to do with Islam on campus — for example, the Gulf petro-princes who have given tens of millions of dollars to Georgetown and Harvard — have a different agenda, one that does not include free and serious inquiry. We ignore what they are doing — and what Tibi is telling us — at great peril.

Let’s replace the educational monopoly with educational pluralism

6 Dec

Highly informative, outstanding, practical essay on the history, philosophy, and alternatives to public education in America.  Read it, from Ashley Rogers Berner (First Things).  Excerpts:

Public education means different things in different countries. In the United States, it means government-funded and government-delivered schooling—schooling that is supposedly ideologically neutral but in fact reflects a progressive tradition strongly committed to beliefs and to an educational philosophy rejected by many Americans. Not surprisingly, we now fight a great deal about public education. Other democracies fight about education, too, but less divisively, because for them, “public education” means educational pluralism: government support for diverse institutions that reflect a wide variety of beliefs and commitments.

One hundred and fifty years ago, America’s elites, faced with waves of (mostly Catholic, ethnic, and poor) immigrants, concluded that only state-enforced uniformity could effectively make one people out of many. Once bitterly contested on grounds of religious liberty, this belief in the uniform common school, and its ability to create citizens out of disparate groups, is now so embedded in our consciousness that we cannot imagine public education otherwise. 

Because the secularist view has dominated American public education since the mid-twentieth century, many Americans reflexively confuse “secularity” with “neutrality.” Some religious groups have responded by creating parallel educational institutions.

Other liberal democracies took a different view. Beginning in the nineteenth century, most Western countries established centralized standards and funding that supported a variety of institutions with diverse philosophies of education, religious and cultural commitments, and student populations.

Recent American educational innovation—charter schools, vouchers, cyber-education, Teach for America—are encouraging educational diversity, but they can only go so far. Lasting, structural change requires reframing “public education” to mean publicly funded or publicly supported, not exclusively publicly delivered, education. This in turn requires a different political philosophy, a turn to a model of education based on civil society rather than state control.

The first difference to be addressed is that over the question: What is education for? Educational theorists have advocated education for citizenship, for survival, for vocation, for social adjustment, for self-expression, for social reform, and for spiritual development—to name a few of the goals they have offered over the last century. Although these emphases are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in practice one tends to dominate others.

Educational leaders in the early republic thought education existed to equalize opportunity and to form wise citizens by popularizing an aristocratic, humanistic curriculum. Social Darwinists in the late-nineteenth century contended that education should “fit children to life” in industrial society, not guide them towards eternal questions. 

Following Rousseau, romantic progressives preferred (and still prefer) education for self-expression, and they saw themselves as drawing out the child’s innate nature, not imparting wisdom or information. Radicals from the 1920s on legitimated education only insofar as it involved “revolutionary praxis.” On the other side, character-education advocates assert the primacy of the traditional virtues as the first order of the classroom.

Even if Americans agreed about the purposes of education, however, the ways we think about the nature of the child and the role of teachers lead to other difficult differences. Two conflicts over these questions have had particular force in American education: the first between the traditionalist and the progressive, the second between the religionist and the secularist. Both conflicts began early in the last century and continue today as strongly as ever.

Traditionalists view the child as the recipient of knowledge that introduces him into the great human conversation and opens doors to the widest possible life opportunities. They are likely to support a core curriculum taught in chronological order, high academic standards for all students, and subject rather than education degrees for teachers. Progressives, in contrast, view the child as the creator of knowledge, not the recipient of information deemed important by others. They shy away from the traditional curriculum in favor of studies that attempt to foster social development or creative expression. They believe that a more open-ended classroom trains students to think critically in a way that traditional education does not.

Secularists view the child primarily as an autonomous individual who must, therefore, be entirely uncoerced in decisions as personal as religious belief. Although an educational secularist may be religious himself, he fears the possibility of religious indoctrination and therefore believes the teacher’s role is to train the child’s emotions and intellect while remaining completely agnostic about religious faith. Religious people assert that children are spiritual as well as intellectual and emotional beings and that omitting questions of belief is itself indoctrination of another kind. 

Progressive approaches have dominated colleges of education and school districts since the 1920s. The current debate over academic standards needs to be seen in this light: Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.

Educational pluralism offers a way out of these conflicts—over what education is for, who the child is, and what role teachers and schools should play—since it refuses to privilege one view over another. Instead of progressive and traditionalist educators competing for ideological dominance, they can populate and influence schools that want their particular approach. Instead of pretending to be ideologically neutral, public schooling could offer parents a variety of choices that reflect their beliefs and their children’s pedagogical needs. In short, educational pluralism opens up this conversation in a way that purported neutrality and uniformity cannot.

Educational pluralism is not only more honest about the formational nature of education and the deep differences between pedagogical approaches, but the political philosophy that supports it and the institutions it generates are more democratic than our present system.

Read the rest here


On fertility rates and cultural decline

4 Dec

A helpful corrective to Ross Douthat’s and Matt Yglesias’s commentary in American fertility and what it means for society from Samuel Goldman:

Matt Yglesias finds something to like and something to dislike in Ross Douthat’s recentcolumn. Douthat observes that a robust birthrate is among America’s greatest economic advantages and bemoans its recent stagnation. He proposes polices that make it easier and cheaper to raise more kids. At the same time, Douthat acknowledges the limits of politics in achieving that goal:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Yglesias agrees with Douthat’s government-friendly prescription, but rejects his conservative diagnosis. According to Yglesias:

It’d be a much better country if social conservatives would stop writing things like that second paragraph and focus instead on [the policy proposals] in the first paragraph. France and Sweden, rather sensibly, have decided that the continued existence of French and Swedish society are matters of public importance and that this offers a particular reason to invest funds in supporting middle class families. In Sweden, for example, about 0.8 percent of GDP is spent on subsidized parental leave. That’s be the equivalent of a $120 billion a year program in the United States. But I think it would be money well spent. The French government’s level of investment in bolstering the welfare of newborn babies and new mothers is the stuff of legend and fiscal cost aside sometimes veers into the weird, but again these policy levers—more than condemning the “decadence” of people responding to the situation that actually exists—are how you give appropriate weight to the importance of childrearing without trying to micromanage people’s lives.

Yglesias’ objection is both typical and telling. It’s typical because it reflects the neo-liberal assumption that economic incentives are the major determinant of behavior. It’s telling because it ignores evidence that this just isn’t true.

Yglesias is right about the subsidies that France and Sweden lavish on middle-class families. But he doesn’t mention evidence that, by themselves, they haven’t had dramatic success in promoting fertility.

According to UN statistics, France averaged 1.89 births per woman between 2005 and 2010. That’s below the rate necessary for replacement and 137th in the world. Sweden averaged 1.8 births per woman. That was good for 151st place. Both figures are somewhat better than other prosperous European countries, such as Germany. But they’re well below the United States, which had a fertility rate of 2.05 births per woman during this period.

Projections for 2012 suggest that France’s fertility rate may improve considerably to 2.08 births per woman. Sweden’s fertility rate, on the other hand, is projected to drop to 1.67. Fertility in the United States on other hand, is expected to remain essentially flat.

These numbers suggest that changing incentives is insufficient to promote larger families.      Fertility in France and Sweden might be even lower without generous subsidies. Yet those policies haven’t exactly created a baby boom. And Americans continue to reproduce at a relatively high rate even in the absence of generous social policy.

Although it may not be politically helpful to say so, Douthat is mostly right about the underlying reason for these trends. Quite apart from economic incentives, the sexual revolution fundamentally altered the normative order of Western societies.

But Douthat’s wrong to give present comfort such a dominant role in this structure. The master value of the modern West isn’t enjoyment, but personal autonomy. And it’s hard to pursue your own goals in your own way when encumbered by offspring, particularly in the numbers necessary to population growth.

If they are to have even limited success, then, policies intended to remedy declining birthrates must accept this change. In other words, they can and should aim to make it easier for people who want families to have and raise children.

But there’s not much government can do to encourage people who regard children as a burden to produce them. Only a major cultural change could do that. In this respect, the demographic future of Western societies may depend on the fate of their religious traditions much more than on their tax codes. I’m not holding my breath for neo-liberals to acknowledge that.

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The worldview roots of “The Happiness Gap” between conservatives and liberals

3 Dec you thought that television accurately portrays reality, then you would believe that liberals are happy and conservatives are angry.  For instance, in addition to being a racist and bigot, the token conservative in the show “The New Normal”  (played by Ellen Barkin) is also miserable.  The problem with this common narrative from Hollywood is that, well, it isn’t true.

From Arthur Brooks:

WHO is happier about life — liberals or conservatives? The answer might seem straightforward. After all, there is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking. And it was the candidate Barack Obama in 2008 who infamously labeled blue-collar voters “bitter,” as they “cling to guns or religion.” Obviously, liberals must be happier, right?

Wrong. Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.

Dr. Harvey Mansfield speaks about American conservatism, the “European party,” political science, and more

1 Dec

From the Wall Street Journal:

‘We have now an American political party and a European one. Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans. But it doesn’t matter because that’s what they’re voting for. They’re voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency.”

Few have thought as hard, or as much, about how democracies can preserve individual liberty and national virtue as the eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield. When it comes to assessing the state of the American experiment in self-government today, his diagnosis is grim, and he has never been one to mince words.

Mr. Mansfield sat for an interview on Thursday at the Harvard Faculty Club. This year marks his 50th as a teacher at the university. It isn’t easy being the most visible conservative intellectual at an institution that has drifted ever further to the left for a half-century. “I live in a one-party state and very much more so a one-party university,” says the 80-year-old professor with a sigh. “It’s disgusting. I get along very well because everybody thinks the fact that I’m here means the things I say about Harvard can’t be true. I am a kind of pet—a pet dissenter.”

Partly his isolation on campus has to do with the nature of Mr. Mansfield’s scholarship. At a time when his colleagues are obsessed with trendy quantitative methods and even trendier “identity studies,” Mr. Mansfield holds steadfast to an older tradition that looks to the Western canon as the best guide to human affairs. For him, Greek philosophy and the works of thinkers such as Machiavelli and Tocqueville aren’t historical curiosities; Mr. Mansfield sees writers grappling heroically with political and moral problems that are timeless and universally relevant.

“All modern social science deals with perceptions,” he says, “but that is a misnomer because it neglects to distinguish between perceptions and misperceptions.”

Zina Saunders

Consider voting. “You can count voters and votes,” Mr. Mansfield says. “And political science does that a lot, and that’s very useful because votes are in fact countable. One counts for one. But if we get serious about what it means to vote, we immediately go to the notion of an informed voter. And if you get serious about that, you go all the way to voting as a wise choice. That would be a true voter. The others are all lesser voters, or even not voting at all. They’re just indicating a belief, or a whim, but not making a wise choice. That’s probably because they’re not wise.”

Read the rest here

Thanksgiving founded amid controversy

22 Nov

From Melanie Kirkpatrick in the WSJ:

It is hard to imagine America’s favorite holiday as a source of political controversy. But that was the case in 1789, the year of our first Thanksgiving as a nation.

The controversy began on Sept. 25 in New York City, then the seat of government. The inaugural session of the first Congress was about to recess when Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey rose to introduce a resolution. He asked the House to create a joint committee with the Senate to “wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

The congressman made special reference to the Constitution, which had been ratified by the requisite two-thirds of the states in 1788. A day of public thanksgiving, he believed, would allow Americans to express gratitude to God for the “opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”

Boudinot’s resolution sparked a vigorous debate. Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected on the grounds that a Thanksgiving was too European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.”

Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, also of South Carolina, raised two further objections. “Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” he asked. “If a day of thanksgiving must take place,” he said, “let it be done by the authority of the several States.”

Read the rest here

What role, if any, should Sharia law play in American civil law?

21 Nov

Emory Law Professor and expert on Law and Religion writes an interesting piece defending a rather unaccommodating position in the pages of Christianity Today.  Here’s a clip:

A constitutional battle over Muslim family law has begun. In November 2010, Oklahoma voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning the use of Muslim Shari’ah and other international laws in its state courts. This was a direct rejoinder to other Western nations allowing Muslim citizens to enforce Muslim marriage contracts in state courts and to resolve family law issues before Shari’ah tribunals without state interference. Oklahoma’s citizens wanted none of it, and they voted to ban the use of Shari’ah altogether. Twelve other states are discussing comparable measures.

In January 2012, however, a federal appeals court upheld a lower federal court injunction of Oklahoma’s amendment. Singling out a specific religious law for special prohibition, the court of appeals concluded, violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause and unjustifiably injured Oklahoma’s Muslim citizens. This leaves Oklahoma courts with a stark choice: allow Muslims to use Shari’ah to govern internal religious affairs and the private lives of voluntary members, or equally prohibit all religious groups from exercising comparable authority through organs of internal mediation, ecclesiastical discipline, and canon law.

Oklahoma can likely escape this choice by crafting a more neutrally-phrased constitutional amendment. But deft legal drafting will not end the matter. As American Muslims grow stronger and anti-Muslim sentiment in America goes deeper, constitutional and cultural battles over Muslim laws and tribunals will likely escalate.

Many Shari’ah advocates reject America’s sexual revolution of the past half century, built on cultural and constitutional ideals of sexual privacy, equality, and autonomy. They reject the easy-in/easy-out system of American family law that has brought ruin to so many women and children. They reject America’s legal protections for nonmarital sex, sodomy, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Distrusting the modern liberal state’s capacity to reform its laws of sexuality, marriage, and family life, Shari’ah advocates want out.

They have two main objectives: to give Muslims the right to opt out of the state’s liberal family law into their own religious community’s morally rigorous system; and to give Muslim religious officials the right to operate that system for voluntary members without undue state interference or review.

Some advocates want separate Muslim arbitration tribunals that operate alongside the state; others want independent Shari’ah courts akin to those of Native American tribes or those of modern-day India. Some are pressing for gradual, piecemeal accommodations of Muslim family law, fearing the dominance of one form of Shari’ah over another. Others want more rapid wholesale change in pursuit of what they call “family law pluralism.” But the bottom line is the same: to allow Muslim communities eventually to become more of a law unto themselves in the governance of marriage and family life. For the past decade, law journals, blogs, and conferences have been full of sophisticated papers pressing this case. Readers can get a good sampling of these arguments in two superb new edited volumes: Shari’a in the West (Oxford University Press) and Marriage and Divorce in a Multicultural Context (Cambridge University Press).

The three most prominent arguments for the use of Shari’ah family norms and procedures in America (and the rest of the West) are based on religious freedom, political liberalism, and nondiscrimination. Though each argument seems plausible on the surface, they are all, to my mind, fundamentally flawed.

Here’s the rest

Elsewhere, Matthew Schmitz departs from Witte’s position over at First Things.  He writes:

Witte argues that we shouldn’t make special accommodations to Sharia that go outside current constitutional and legal freedoms. Fair enough. But how is this an argument for passing legislation that actually restricts freedoms to make religious contracts currently enjoyed by all Americans? If a marriage contract doesn’t run afoul of our laws or our Constitution, what does it matter whether or not it references Sharia? Should it be ruled out? If so, what about an otherwise identical contract that doesn’t reference reference Sharia? Witte’s argument is, at its best, an argument for inaction—not for the measures passed by states like Oklahoma and Kansas.

Witte makes a further curious argument, saying that we should be less accommodating of Muslim religious liberty claims than those of Jews and Christians because they’re relative newcomers to the Western scene:

 The current accommodations made to the alternative legal systems of Christians, Jews, first peoples, and others in the West were not born overnight. They came only after centuries of sometimes hard and cruel experience, with gradual adjustments and accommodations on both sides.

Witte offers a useful reminder that every political settlement arises from a specific historical situation and not just from the implementation of abstract principles. This is true and important.

Yet one of the features of our historical inheritance is that we see a value in applying basic standards of equality and fairness that do not make reference to otherwise arbitrary measures—like, say, how much a group was or was not persecuted in the past. By Witte’s standards, we ought to be especially skeptical of religious freedom claims made by American Protestants, the long-time guardians of America’s de facto establishment. Or perhaps we should be most skeptical of claims made by Catholics, on account of their centuries of religious dominance? Hazing is not a democratic principle, and if it were, Muslims would be well on their way to passing.

Witte’s basic error, like those of other advocates, is to mistake for a debate about the nature of Sharia what is really a debate about the nature of American law. Our constitutional system is not broken and in need of fixing. The appearance of Muslims in America has not suddenly made it possible for citizens to enter into contracts that are otherwise unallowable. The question is: Will we extend the same protections—no more, no less—to American Muslims that we extend to others? If we seek to protect American constitutionalism and guard against illiberal excesses, our answer ought to be a resounding yes. And our response to anti-Sharia measures should be an equally loud “no.”

This issue will continue to emerge as a kind of paradox where the constitution’s protection for religious liberty might be used by some to foment views and practices that potentially undermine the constitutional order itself.  Stay tuned.

NOTE: According to Pew Surveys, American Muslims (unlike many of their European counterparts) appear far less interested in implementing Sharia law.  That’s true of them in general, though younger Muslims are warmer to the idea.

The natural marriage between economic and social conservatives

16 Nov

Good article, something I’ve said less well for a while.  The question of whether anyone cares anymore is another matter.

From Dr. Robert George:

On November 6, Democrats and liberals had a good election night; Republicans and conservatives had a bad one. These things happen. It’s certainly true that the Republican Party and its candidates made some serious mistakes and could have done a number of things better than they did; but it would be tragic—and foolish—for the Party or the conservative movement to abandon its principles. Those principles are true and good. They are the principles on which our nation was founded, and their restoration and defense is vital to its future. Contrary to the claims of the Democratic Party and the cultural-political left, they have not been repudiated by the American people.

Still, all-too-predictably the recriminations have been flying back and forth between different elements in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Many economic conservatives claim that the Republicans lost the presidential contest and took a drubbing in the battle to win a majority in the United States Senate because of the strong pro-life and pro-marriage stands of the party’s platform and candidates. Their mantra is “time for a truce” (i.e., surrender) on social issues.

Some social conservatives lay blame for the Republican defeat on those whose pro-market and small government convictions and rhetoric allegedly lead working class people and other voters to believe that the party and its candidates are only concerned to protect the economic privileges of the rich and don’t care about ordinary people.

Here’s the summary at the end, but the whole article is worth reading:

Advocates of the market economy, and supporters of marriage and the family, have common opponents in hard-left socialism, the entitlement mentality, and the statist ideologies that provide their intellectual underpinnings. But the marriage of advocates of limited government and economic freedom, on the one hand, and the supporters of marriage and the family, on the other, is not, and must not be regarded as, a mere marriage of convenience.

The reason they have common enemies is that they have common principles: namely, respect for the human person, which grounds our commitment to individual liberty and the right to economic freedom and other essential civil liberties; belief in personal responsibility, which is a pre-condition of the possibility and moral desirability of individual liberty in any domain; recognition of subsidiarity as the basis for effective but truly limited government and for the integrity of the institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the centralized power of the state; respect for the rule of law; and recognition of the vital role played by the family and by religious institutions that support the character-forming functions of the family in the flourishing of any decent and dynamic society.

Congressman Paul Ryan has put the matter well:


A “libertarian” who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A “social issues” conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice. They stem from the same root . . . . They complement and complete each other. A prosperous moral community is a prerequisite for a just and ordered society and the idea that either side of this current divide can exist independently is a mirage.


The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage. These institutions will, in the end, stand or fall together. Contemporary statist ideologues have contempt for both of these institutions, and they fully understand the connection between them. We who believe in the market and in the family should see the connection no less clearly.

Full text

What is a just policy? One that is fair or one that is right?

14 Nov

In his very fine TED talk, Political Philosopher Michael Sandel introduces us to this debate which has been going on for thousands of years.  Consider his example: if I come across a stash of flutes, who among us should get the best one?  What would be a just policy there?  If you say, well, the person who plays the flute the best.  Then you (along with Aristotle) believe that the just policy or outcome is the right one, that is, the one which best promotes the essential purpose or nature of the activity (flutes are intended to be played well).  Of course, if you believe that justice is fairness, then the just policy is one that is not concerned with any alleged nature or essence or purpose of an activity (flute playing).  The only concern is whether the policy is fair, treats people equally.  So, you might favor a first-come first-serve approach, lottery, or a policy where no on gets the good flute.  The point is, no one should be discriminated against when it comes to who gets the best flute (all have an equal chance).

Many public policies can and should be looked at using this sort of moral reasoning.  To be sure, justice as fairness gives the appearance of moral neutrality and indifference, a non-judgmental process.  In our culture, where we have bought in to the canard that you can’t legislate morality, justice as fairness just seems to be the sensible, simple, and least messy approach.  But justice as rightness doesn’t mean that there is never any concern with what is fair.  If there is nothing in the nature or essence or purpose of a thing that would justify discrimination (legislating a moral preference), then just go with the fairer approach.  That is, a law that treats behaviors or activities or choices fairly without doing violence to the nature or right purpose of a thing, is best.  But some situations, going with the fair approach, I would argue, is problematic.  I’m glad, for instance, that Solomon (1 Kings 3) didn’t ultimately apply a justice as fairness principle to the two mothers fighting over custody of a baby (he first pretended to recommend that they split the baby into halves and each mother gets one).  If each gets half the baby, no one could say the policy was unfair.  It certainly would have been simpler and quicker than an arduous process of moral reasoning.  The state (Solomon) could have taken the morally neutral position.  But would it have been right?  The mother who cried out on behalf of the child realized that this may be a fair judgment, but it’s not just.  It is the natural, even sacred right, nature, purpose, of an innocent child to live, to grow, to love and be loved.

So, it doesn’t bother me that a political society refuses to be morally indifferent, neutral, non-judgmental, fair, even-handed between people’s sexual choices.  No society has ever been, precisely because the the consequences of sexual choices and family arrangements have serious consequences for the society as a whole.  In adoption or child custody cases, I wouldn’t want a judge, social worker, child welfare service to be morally indifferent, neutral, fair, or indiscriminate between family and sexual arrangements featuring an in-tact married couple, married swingers, unmarried cohabitors, serially divorced couple, or singles.  I would hope that moral reasoning would be applied, however messy, and public policy would ultimately reflect what is the right thing to do given what is the essential nature and purpose of a family and sacred rights of a child.  I don’t want the judge to do the fair thing (refuse to judge their lifestyles by using a lottery).  I want the judge to do the right thing (determine what is the purpose and ideal nature of a family and inherent rights of a child and then award the child based on that moral reasoning).

Some policy disputes can be understood better if we recognize that this fundamental disagreement is at work behind the scenes.  For instance, same-sex marriage (to which Sandel himself briefly alludes) is such an issue.  There are those who say that it’s simply a matter of treating people fairly or equally.  Justice as fairness, that is.  Well, not so, if there is an inherent nature or purpose to marriage that is properly appreciated in public policy.  If there is, and if society depends on it for its own sake, then we must figure out if being fair or equal to all-comers will do violence to the nature and purpose of marriage itself and the society that depends upon its success.  If there is no essence to marriage or if there is no serious social consequences attached to it, then fairness may be the most reasonable and simple policy solution and we can dispense with the difficulties of moral reasoning, no matter what the individual prejudices of people happen to be.   Incidentally, failing to grasp this may lead one to be blind to fundamental differences between same-sex and interracial marriage as as a matter of policy debate.  The question for those who use the justice as rightness approach is this: which (if either does) disturbs the essential nature and purpose of marriage in socially consequential ways?  If inter-racial marriage does not, then fair treatment between interracial and intra-racial couples is warranted in legal marriage.  Nothing is being upset that is of serious social concern.  But just because one arrangement passes the test of justice as rightness doesn’t mean that all will.

Moral reasoning is a harry process, it won’t always go well, it will sometimes go wrong, it won’t make everyone happy, and not all who engage in it will agree at the end.  But the simplistic unthinking alternative — just be fair — is both morally lazy and socially foolish.

The death of movement conservatism, an opportunity for philosophical conservatives?

13 Nov

Interesting article in the New Republic on the future of the conservative movement in wake of movement conservatism’s death.

From Sam Tanenhous:

IN THE TUMULTUOUS history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement’s first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then “condemned” by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movement’s first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right’s next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the “draft Goldwater” campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the insurgent challenge by Goldwater’s heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan’s crusade positioned him to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative “revolution” that remade our politics over the next quarter-century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory.

Today, the situation is much bleaker. After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal “elites.” That these precepts should have found their final, hapless defender in John McCain, who had resisted them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the GOP.

More telling than Barack Obama’s victory is the consensus, steadily building since Election Day, that the nation has sunk—or been plunged—into its darkest economic passage since the Great Depression. And, as Obama pushes boldly ahead, apparently with public support, the right is struggling to reclaim its authority as the voice of opposition. The contrast with 1993, when the last Democratic president took office, is instructive. Like Obama, Bill Clinton was elected in hard economic times and, like him, promised a stimulus program, only to see his modest proposal ($19.5 billion) stripped almost bare by the Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, even though Democrats had handily won the White House and Senate Republicans formed nearly as small a minority as they do today. The difference was that the Republicans—disciplined, committed, self-assured—held the ideological advantage, which Dole leveraged through repeated use of the filibuster. Today, such a stratagem seems unthinkable. There is instead almost universal agreement—reinforced by the penitential testimony of Alan Greenspan and, more recently, by grudgingly conciliatory Republicans—that the most plausible economic rescue will involve massive government intervention, quite possibly on the scale of the New Deal/Fair Deal of the 1930s and ‘40s and perhaps even the New Frontier/Great Society of the 1960s. All this suggests that movement doctrine has not only been defeated but discredited.

Yet, even as the right begins to regroup, it is not clear that its leaders have absorbed the full implications of their defeat. They readily concede that the Democrats are in charge and, in Obama, have a leader of rare political skills. Many on the right also admit that the specific failures of the outgoing administration were legion. But what of the verdict issued on movement conservatism itself?

Read the rest

Sharing a common table, but not a common bed. Replacing a culture war footing with hospitality

10 Nov

From Dr. Mark Mitchell int he Front Porch Republic:

 In two recent pieces, I argued that 1) the language of “culture war” is not helpful and should be discarded, and 2) that to the extent that liberalism is rooted in a denial of limits, it is anti-culture, for culture is, at the very least, a set of established norms that include prohibitions as well as prescriptions. In short, to weaponize culture is to destroy culture, and to attempt to forge a culture that denies limits is incoherent conceptually and disastrous socially.

So where does that leave us? I want to suggest that we need rethink the meaning of cultural engagement. “Engaging” culture in the idiom of warfare has not produced much in the way of results. Yet at the same time, those who want to preserve historic norms regarding marriage, sexuality, and even life and death are understandably reticent to simply abandon the field to those who seek to undermine or destroy those norms.

To rethink the possibilities, we might find help in a most unlikely place: a late second century letter from an otherwise unknown author named Mathetes to an equally obscure recipient named Diognetus. The letter is an apologetic of sorts, a kind of primer on what set the new Christian sect apart from the pagan religions of the time as well as from Judaism. In a section dedicated to describing the manners of the Christians, Mathetes remarks that “they marry, as do all [others]; they beget children but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.” If we unpack these lines, I think we can find a plausible alternative to the culture war, an alternative that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other men and women of good will can employ as a means of engaging the culture creatively and winsomely.

The phrase I want to focus on is this: they have a common table, but not a common bed.” Of course, the author is describing the lifestyle of the early Christian community, who were known for sharing meals with each other. They were also known for the limits they recognized: they were exclusive sexually even as they were promiscuous in their hospitality.

The emphasis here is the practice of hospitality (with obvious limits), and I want to suggest that hospitality is a radical alternative to both the language and practice of culture wars.

In the ancient Greek world, as in some cultures today, hospitality is a central concern. To practice hospitality to strangers is considered a duty demanded by virtue. The author of the book of Hebrews goes even further when he writes: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” To practice hospitality is to open one’s home and thereby one’s concern to others. It is to shake off the narrow and narrowing confines of self-interest and attempt to love one’s neighbors, which, according to Christ, is the second great commandment after loving God.

When we share a common table, we necessarily cease, at least for a time, from contending against each other as our attention turns toward rejuvenating our physical bodies. We can lay aside differences as we join in one of the most basic of human activities. As we share food and drink, our common humanity is starkly revealed. Good food and good drink facilitate, nay almost demand, conversation, and conversing over a shared meal is a means by which differing ideas are mellowed by the common activity undertaken by all. Hospitality breeds friendship, and friends often disagree, but disagreements between friends are of an entirely different nature than disagreements between avowed enemies.

But hospitality is not merely the sharing of meals. Consider, for instance, how the seemingly intractable abortion debate changes when we consider it through the eyes of hospitality. Abortion is a striking instance of inhospitableness, for who could be more in need of hospitable care than an unborn child? A hospitable culture cares for the weakest and the most frail. A hospitable culture, in the context of abortion, is a culture of adoption. The abortion issue looks different when adoption is the obvious choice for a woman who is pregnant and unable to care for her child. What if churches, synagogues, mosques, and civic organizations made adoption a priority? What if laws were passed to make adoption simpler and less expensive? What if churches had funds to help pay for adoptions by families in their congregations who couldn’t afford the fees? What if, in addition to weekly attendance numbers and financial statements, church bulletins or bulletin boards featured the number of adoptions sponsored by the church? What if every pro-life family adopted a child in need of a home or financially helped another family do so? In what way would these acts of hospitality change the culture?

To be sure, abortions wouldn’t end. But people on both the left and the right—those who are ardently pro-life as well as those who are pro-choice—can agree that decreasing the number of abortions is a good thing and that fostering a culture of adoption is one way to accomplish this end. While hospitality will not solve every problem (neither will any policy, program, or party), a culture of hospitality will address a variety of issues—care for the infirm, the elderly, and the poor, for example—in creative ways that are simply overlooked or ignored by those who are focused primarily on public policy, court decisions, and protests. One solution looks primarily to the political arena for redress; the other, like the Good Samaritan, takes the wounded traveler and cares for him. Do you want to change the culture? Practice hospitality.

Classical conservatism in the wake

10 Nov

Good article from Dr. Jeffrey Polet (Political Philosopher) gauging the status of conservatism as a political philosopher in the coming years.  Why has it declined?

Let it be said that there is no longer any politically relevant conservative voice in America. The conservative movement has been thoroughly ghettoized. The only party that paid rhetorical lip service to conservatives put forward a presidential candidate that caused conservatives of various stripes to hold their nose when voting. The other party is openly hostile to conservatives. The American voters have now twice put in office a profoundly unserious but highly ambitious man. When approaching a fiscal and cultural cliff, Americans responded by hitting the accelerator.

There are at least three causes for conservatism’s decline. The first is the replacement of constitutionalism with German (read: Hegelian) state theory. The constitutional regime is a complex mechanistic order predicated upon the division of sovereignty, and suspicion concerning human nature. Actually, suspicion isn’t quite the right word. Most writers were rather convinced that human beings, especially those interested in power, couldn’t be trusted and would constantly work toward aggrandizement. Convinced of the imperfectability of human beings, but also of the character forming properties of associative life, the originating principles of American political life sought to preserve, for better or for worse, the kaleidoscopic variety of American life.

Conservatives prefer voluntary variation to enforced collectivization, even if such variation can be off-putting or rife with problems. Collectivization destroys the liberty, sense of cooperation, governmental responsiveness, and immediate dependency we associate with local governance. Conservatives accept the fact the Constitution creates awkward clumsiness in politics, seeking balance among competing groups, interests, and places as perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

Red about the other reasons here

Is the Libertarian Party a mistake, even for Libertarians?

8 Nov

From Professor Randy Barnett:

In 1972, the Libertarian Party nominated University of Southern California philosophy Prof. John Hospers as its first presidential candidate and ran Tonie Nathan for vice president. When Roger MacBride, a Virginia Republican elector pledged to Richard Nixon, voted instead for Hospers-Nathan, he cast the first electoral vote in American history for a woman. The Libertarian Party was off and running. In 1976, it nominated the renegade elector as its presidential candidate.

As a young libertarian, I was very enthusiastic about the formation of the Libertarian Party. I proudly cast my vote for Roger MacBride for president. I attended the 1975 national convention in New York that nominated him. But, while I am as libertarian today as I was then, I have come to believe that the Libertarian Party was a mistake.

The reason is simple. Unlike a parliamentary system in which governments are formed by coalitions of large and small parties, our electoral system is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all one in which a winning presidential candidate just needs to get more than 50% of the vote. This means each contending “major” party is itself a coalition that needs to assemble enough diverse voting groups within it to get to 51%. Hence the need to appeal to the so-called moderates and independents rather than the more “extreme” elements within.

To the extent that a third party is successful, it will drain votes from the coalition party to which it is closest and help elect the coalition party that is further removed from its interests. The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.

Read the rest here


My random thoughts on tonight’s election results…

6 Nov

Random comments:

1. Christians who have been hardcore Republicans, perhaps it’s time for you to begin stressing your heavenly citizenship a good bit more (Phi. 3:20). It will make you deal with this without panicking or getting depressed, and it will make you a more effective and faithful witness for Christ’s Kingdom in the present age.

2. I can’t think of a louder voice against conservatism than the one we have heard tonight from the American voter (for good or for ill). As George Will said, “if Republicans can’t win in this environment, they need to get out of politics and try something else.” The country is changing.  And for those who still insist we are a center-right country, well that doesn’t mean much of the center moves too.

3. The co-belligerency project between Evangelicals and Catholics appears to be seriously one-sided and/or seriously ineffective. It may be ineffective because it no longer appears that there are enough religious conservatives to really change the election outcome nationally.  Second, it seems to be one-sided as well.  In other words, what religion and politics scholars have observed among Catholics in previous elections, that Catholic voters are not significantly driven by Catholicism but rather by other conventional factors, appears to be a seemingly enduring reality, especially given the heightened stress on Catholic issues this election cycle. Of course, we’ll have to wait on survey data analysis of Catholics to confirm that suspicion.  In the future, perhaps the co-belligerency project should focus more on building a defensive alliance for the sake of mutual protection and less on building a base of political power in the GOP.  UPDATE NO 2: Exit results show that Catholics went 52-45% for Obama tonight.

4. GOP, pick your poison. You can double-down, excite your base and suffer defeat at the hands of demographic changes. Or you can move to the center, turn your back on conservatives and evangelicals on most social issues, embrace Latinos and immigration, and persistently lose the only place where you currently find enthusiasm in your party.

5. Evangelicals will need to come to grips with the fact that Billy Graham is no longer our national cultural icon.  Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are.  They will need to stop speaking about “taking our country back” and start learning to operate like so many other evangelicals in the world, as a minority religion primarily concerned with carrying on the business of Christ’s church unmolested by state interference. They will need to stop denying the separation of church and state doctrine and firmly embrace it, as they historically did, in order to shelter the church from government intrusion. Love your neighbor in the earthly city, as salt and light, promoting the Moral Law of God common to all men, but give up on the misguided dream and political mission to transform America into a Christian nation.  Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What’s a Kuyperian to do with Natural Law?

6 Nov

Interview with Dr. Nelson Kloosterman from the Reformed Forum:


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