Tag: HTT

motivated reasoning, part gazillion

If I had to name only one thing I have learned in my many years of making arguments, it would be this: You cannot convince people of anything that they sense it’s in their interest not to know. I thought about this often as I was reading Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone story about American evangelicals’ love of Trump

One such moment came when Morris related a conversation with her family: 

“Do you think because Jesus is coming soon that the environment doesn’t matter?” I eventually ask.

“Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”

“But according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true.”

“All we can do is love them.”

“No, we can cut back on carbon emissions. There are a lot of things we can do.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be here.”

Maybe the first thing I want to say here is “according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true” is not a great reply. Morris could have pointed out that the Bible itself says no one knows when Jesus will return, and that the Earth will be renewed and restored, and that in Genesis we are given stewardship over all Creation, a responsibility never to be taken away. She could — I’m getting carried away here, I know — she could have given her aunt N. T. Wright’s essay “Jesus Is Coming — Plant a Tree!” 

But setting all that aside for now: It is very much in the interest of Morris’s aunt, and in the interest of millions and millions of other people, not to know that we are, through our economic choices, bringing ruin to the planet that we’re supposed to be the stewards of. And so she doesn’t know. Like so many others, she makes a point of not knowing. 

But I think the problem of motivated not-knowing isn’t found only on the conservative evangelical side of things. Here’s one passage from Morris’s essay that seems to be drawing a lot of attention: 

“The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says [Greg] Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”

In that second sentence, the clause “In Trump’s America” is a problem. What does it mean? In one sense, the entire nation is “Trump’s America” right now, whether we like it or not; but maybe Morris means something like “Americans who enthusiastically support Trump,” or “the parts of the country that are strongly supportive of Trump.” Impossible to tell. Thornbury didn’t use the phrase, but presumably he said something that led into his line about “religious liberty” as code for something else. 

So the passage is unclear, but I’d like to know what Thornbury means. I’ve written a good deal about the importance of religious freedom on this blog and elsewhere — just see the tag at the bottom of this post — so does that mean that I am using that topic as “code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage”? If so: explain that to me, please.  

Maybe there’s something that Greg Thornbury and Alex Morris have an interest in not knowing: that even if millions of white Americans abuse the concept of religious liberty, religious liberty could nevertheless be in some danger. Indeed, I think this is one of the key points that progressive Christians make a point of not seeing, because if they did see it then they might sometimes have to come to the defense of people (especially evangelicals) they don’t want to be associated with. They know that as long as they denounce white supremacy and homophobia, and endorse (or at least remain silent about) abortion, they won’t run afoul of the progressive consensus. Why put their status at risk by defending willfully-blind bigots? 

One answer might be: Maybe the cultural consensus won’t always be in your favor. Almost a decade ago I warned conservative Christians that if they sought to deny religious expression to Muslims they might someday find the shoe on the other foot, and in the obviously hypocritical position of demanding rights for themselves that they tried to prevent others from exercising. (Update: they didn’t listen.) Perhaps progressives believe that that could never happen to them, that, even if they lose the White House from time to time, they can never find themselves out of cultural power and in need of powerful people to come to the defense of their rights. Well … Isn’t it pretty to think so? 

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I’m in an odd place with regard to all this: As a person who thinks we’re ruining the planet; who has consistently condemned the Trump administration and its enablers, especially the Christian ones; who believes that white supremacy is demonic; but who is also strongly and I hope consistently pro-life, I find that I am publishable but not employable in the circles my progressive friends inhabit. Funny old world.) 

One of the most (unintentionally) comical articles I’ve read in recent weeks is this Ian Millhiser piece at Vox. Millhiser is in a kind of moral agony over the forthcoming Supreme Court case of Tanzin v. Tanvir

Muhammad Tanvir, the plaintiff at the heart of the case, and this first story is likely to inspire a great deal of sympathy among liberals. Tanvir says he was approached by two FBI agents who asked him “whether he had anything he ‘could share’ with the FBI about the American Muslim community.” After Tanvir told the agents that he did not wish to become an informant, those agents allegedly threatened him with deportation and placed him on the “No Fly List.”

Because of this treatment, Tanvir also claims that he was unable to fly to see his ailing mother in Pakistan, and that he had to quit a job as a long-haul trucker because he could no longer fly home to New York after a one-way delivery.

The core issue in Tanvir’s lawsuit is whether he may sue these FBI agents for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law protecting religious liberty.

Why is Millhiser in such a state about this case? Because, while he is deeply sympathetic to Tanvir’s plight, “If the Supreme Court holds that such lawsuits are permitted under RFRA, the biggest winner is unlikely to be religious minorities like Tanvir. Rather, the biggest winner is likely to be the Christian right.” Oh shit! What a calamity! How can I ensure that people I approve of get religious-freedom rights while people I don’t approve of are denied them?? 

In the coming years, I predict, there will be a clear answer to this dilemma from the left, including the progressive Christian left: Sorry, Mr. Tanvir. Sucks to be you. Liberal proceduralism is so, so dead

genealogists wanted

Much of my written work has focused on stepping back from whatever it is people in my field — or people more generally — happen to be discussing or debating at any given moment, stepping back in order to ask: Why are we talking about this? How did our discursive frame happen to take this form? How would things look different if we made different assumptions, or if our institutioms were constituted differently so as to prompt different ways of speaking or different speech genres?

Looking back, far back, I’m inclined to think that one of my most formative intellectual experiences happened when, in grad school, I read Foucault’s great essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” That didn’t make a Foucauldian of me, really, but it did give me a permanent habit of thinking genealogically. And I’m grateful for having developed that habit. It has been useful to me and sometimes, I think, even to a few others.

That essay is often seen to mark Foucault’s transition from an intellectual archaeologist — someone obssessed in classic 19th-century style with tracing an idea or a phenomenon back to its archē, its origin or source, its Ursprung or Quelle — to the more skeptical character of the genealogist, who sees belief that an Origin can be found as a romantic delusion and is interested instead in tracing all the ramifications over time of thought and practice.

The average thinker will always be an archaeologist, I think, because the average thinker mainly wants someone to blame for whatever he or she laments. (This is why, as I often comment the intellectual vacuity of generational thinking has such lasting appeal.) But what if you want to understand? Then you’ll have to work harder.

It seems to me that we especially need more genealogists of our current political order.

There’s a very good chance that next November Americans going to the polls to vote for President will be asked to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I am less interested in which of those I should choose — in fact I won’t choose either — than in how the hell we got that choice. Or look at the U.K., whose major political parties are led by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, two people manifestly unqualified to lead anything. How did that happen? If we don’t know how we came to this pass, can we find our way to a better one? 

the command to be reconciled

One of the chief themes of my book How to Think is the vital importance of characterizing the arguments of those you disagree fairly — ideally, in terms that they themselves would recognize as valid. It’s good for them and it’s good for you: it strengthens your intellectual muscles to contend, as my buddy Robin Sloan has put it, not with straw men but rather with steel men

 

⚠️ Warning: Intra-Anglican disputes ahead! ⚠️

 

I thought about all this recently as I was reading Alex Wilgus’s response to a post by Hannah King arguing that the various Anglican bodies now at odds with one another should begin to seek reconciliation. Here’s how Wilgus characterizes King’s argument: 

Rev. King has decided that the 14 year distance between the schism of ‘04 opens an opportunity for Anglicans on both sides to reunite in some way around a desire for friendship, or at least a shared dislike of division. She seems to favor gatherings that heal by giving people the opportunity to “lament” publicly. 

So Wilgus would have us believe that King’s post is motivated by a mere “desire for friendship” or a “dislike of division” — as though it were an inclination or preference. But if you read King’s post you’ll find something very different: 

As Americans, this politics of polarization is in our bones. We sort and divide and sensationalize without even realizing there is another way. One only needs to follow the news for a few days to realize that our respective political parties no longer speak to each other; instead, they speak about each other. Yet as Christians, as those who adhere to a different polis — one not of this world — we must search and pray for another way. Even if it seems mysterious or impossible to us, we can ask God, for whom all things are possible. We can pray for the prophetic imagination to participate with him in the healing of his Church. 

And: 

I believe God called me to be a priest in the ACNA. But that doesn’t mean I disparage the Episcopal Church. I am less interested in who is “right” and who is “wrong” than I am in where God is asking us to go from here. None of us has the road map for this; but we do know the Guide. He has given himself to us fully and freely. Indeed, his body was broken for us — and it remains broken while his Church is broken. He has absorbed our separation in his own flesh, holding us together at his expense. As we feed on him and follow him, nourished by his very life, may we find ourselves put back together: reconciled to God and each other, one Body on earth and in Heaven. 

So it’s clear that King is not indulging a preference, but rather asking what obedience to a Lord who prays that we will be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21), and is at work reconciling all things to himself (Col. 1:20), might look like in this case. I’d like to see someone respond to a steel version of King’s argument, not one of straw.  

King says that she need not disparage the Episcopal Church. Wilgus thinks he must do exactly that, because “the very existence of the ACNA contradicts the ministry of TEC,” and insists moreover that the choice faced by Anglican clergy is strictly binary: “We as clergy are still presented the same choice as those who went before us, to lead our flocks into worship in Spirit and Truth, or to fall back into old habits of approving of sin and error.” Would that it were so simple. It is, alas, perfectly possible to avoid some habits of sin and error while plunging headfirst into others, including, possibly, the habit of taking satisfaction in our divisions rather than prayerfully seeking to overcome them. Hannah King says that “It would be naïve to suggest that such activity is a simple road to reunification; but it would be jaded to deny that it could be a starting point.” Alex Wilgus’s post sounds jaded to me. 

I should declare an interest here. There is a faithful and flourishing ACNA parish here in Waco, Christ Church, which I attended for a while. I still miss the people there, clergy and laypeople alike, but the fact of the matter is that Christ Church is very much Anglo-Catholic and I am very much not. So I now attend a faithful and flourishing Episcopal parish, St. Alban’s. The primary reason both churches are growing is simply this: they preach the same Gospel. And that ought to count for something. That ought to be a starting point, as Hannah King says, in our prayers for reunion, for oneness, and (yes) lamentation over our current severances. And I pray every day for that oneness, because I believe that the very same Lord preached in both of those churches is the one before whom, ultimately, every knee will bow, and whose Lordship every tongue will confess.