One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard in response to my essay in Harper’s is that it’s self-refuting: If a Christian intellectual is writing for such a prominent magazine then the problem Jacobs seeks to identify is either non-existent or minor. To that I have two answers, one short and one longish:
Short: A handful of swallows do not a summer make.
Longish: What was Jacobs allowed to write, as a Christian, about in Harper’s? Answer: Christians. I could have written about other things for the magazine — and indeed I have, at least for the website. (That was originally going to be a piece for the magazine, but it got bumped.) But I was not writing there in Christian terms. And in general I think that’s how it goes: consider, for instance, my friend Ross Douthat, who is welcome to write (even in the New York Times!) as a Christian, as long as he is writing about the Pope or the church more generally. When he writes about politics he’s expected to write as a conservative. I don’t say that he keeps always to his pigeonholes; but usually he does, and I suspect that that’s an unspoken condition of his employment. The notion that the intellectual resources of Christianity might be useful in reflecting on politics — or technology, or the arts, or engineering, or war, or climate change — and useful not only to Christians but to everyone — that’s a long-lost notion indeed. We generally assume that on any given issue of social import there might be a socialist take, or a feminist take, or a take rooted in the experience of a particular ethnic identity, that we’d benefit from hearing; but a Christian take? Not typically one of the options. There are no prominent Christian intellectuals addressing whatever happens to concern the body politic in a distinctively Christian way and for a general audience.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Stanley Fish commented (a passage I cite in my article): “If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers.” A good warning, and the history of Christianity is littered with examples of Christians editing out the prophetic elements of their faith in order to meet the etiquette of various tables of power. But it’s also true that only those who have a seat at the table can hope to shape, gently and patiently, its etiquette.
So it seems to me that Christians can either look for ways to get back to that table or accept their exile from it and make the best of the possibilities that exile affords. (Learning to be dissidents rather than intellectuals.) But the claim that Christians really are comfortably seated at liberalism’s table seems to be an unsustainable one.