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.

Quick addendum to my previous post: As much as I am convinced that hegemonic liberalism will never be fair to even vaguely traditionalist religious believers, I’m not convinced that I personally would be any better off in Ahmari’s Utopia of Enforced Orthodoxy. I joked to a friend today that I’ve been able to get my hands on the initial sketches by the staff of First Things for the social order they’ll impose when they take over and enforce [their] orthodoxy and it looks like this: 

Senatores: Catholics
Equites: Orthodox
Plebs: atheists
Proletarii: Protestants

At least I think I’m joking. I’m truly not sure whether hegemonic liberalism or Orthodox Utopia would be more likely to let me keep my children. But hegemonic liberalism is happening now and Ahmari’s vision (like that of the Catholic integralists, if there’s a difference) hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell. 

fair play to you

I’m getting a good bit of email today, most of it saying, in cleaned-up language: How dare you accuse us on the left of not playing fair, you Trump-supporting jerk?? (Maybe try entering “Trump” in the search box on this site?) Here’s why I say what I said, courtesy of my colleague Frank Beckwith

For the political liberal, the government should not only restrain its hand on matters of moral controversy, it should in some cases go out of its way to offer exemptions to generally applicable laws to idiosyncratic sects for the sake of civic peace (e.g. conscientious exemption statutes, Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sherbert v. Verner). But for the hegemonic liberal, the role of the state is to make men moral, as he understands morality. It is to scrupulously enforce “social justice” by direct coercion of the actions, speech, and private associations of those who remain unconvinced of the wisdom of the left side of the culture war. So, for example, the Little Sisters of the Poor must assist in providing contraception contrary to their Church’s teachings, a Christian baker must use her talents to help celebrate what she believes is a faux liturgical event or face crippling fines, and a religious college may have to set aside its moral theology or be singled out for special retribution by the government. 

(Go to the original to read the whole thing and get the links.) (Also read other posts on this site tagged “religious freedom.”) And that trend has continued. Conscience exemptions ain’t what they used to be — about that there is surely no disagreement. The dispute is simply whether that’s good or bad. For many on the secular left — for, as far as I can tell, the significant majority, though numbers on this are hard to come by —, the elimination of religious-conscience protections is a wholly good thing. But it’s indubitable that the goalposts have moved dramatically in the past decade — remember, in 2008 few Democratic voters were bothered that Barack Obama didn’t support same-sex marriage — so that religious commitments that were legally acceptable (if socially disapproved) from time out of mind have very quickly become altogether forbidden. For the (declining) “political liberal” fairness towards religious conscience was a virtue; for the (ascendent) “hegemonic liberal” it’s a vice. 

There’s a conversation on these matters that I’ve had a number of times, and it goes something like this:

Me: I’m concerned about the erosion of support on the left for religious liberty.

They: That’s a disgraceful calumny, we are passionately devoted to religious liberty.

Me: Only when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the religious beliefs involved.

They: Another disgusting lie!

Me: So what do you think about that Masterpiece Cakeshop guy?

They: What a bigot! I hope the law comes down on him like a ton of bricks.

Me: But he says he’s acting out of his long-held religious convictions.

They: I despise it when people use religion to cover for their bigotry.

Me: So it’s like I said, you only support religious liberty when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the beliefs involved — the ones you think are not bigoted.

They: Bigotry and religion are not the same thing! Religion is about a person’s relationship with whatever God they happen to believe in, it’s not about passing judgment on their neighbors.

Me: So having claimed the right to define what bigotry is, you’re now defining what religion is?

They: Look, you can go ahead and defend bigotry if you want to, but thank goodness there are laws against that in this country.

I’ve been trying to remember what these conversations remind me of and I finally figured it out. It’s this:

“And you can’t get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves’s idea is sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”

“But you aren’t a male newt.”

“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.”

“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”

“She would, if she were a female newt.”

“But she isn’t a female newt.”

“No, but suppose she was.”

“Well, if she was, you wouldn’t be in love with her.”

“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”

A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.

Ahmari revisited

This morning I have a post up at the Atlantic website on the scuffle Sohrab Amari kicked off with his recent attacks on David French. I want to add some cars to that train in the form of two sets of questions, and then a caboose.

First, though, I want to emphasize something that I said in passing in that post: that I basically share Ahmari’s view that the liberal order has become the Bad Liberalism — “tyrannical liberalism” — Neuhaus feared, and I agree that proceduralism is dying, is mostly dead maybe. Here’s one post, on matters closely related to the ones I’m dealing with today; and here’s the logic of Bad Liberalism in brief summary; and here’s a moment in which I grow nostalgic for a Proceduralism Lost. My critique does not concern Ahmari’s diagnosis, but rather some elements of his prescription. So, on to the questions.

First: Ahmari’s essay isn’t just a critique of David French – it contains a positive program as well:

Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

And when you recognize your moral duty, you will realize that your job is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

Nothing about this is clear.

  • Who are the “we” implied in “our order and our orthodoxy”? Social conservatives? Religious social conservatives? Christian social conservatives? Catholic social conservatives? What about Muslim social conservatives? What about faithful Catholics who aren’t social conservatives? Who, in short, gets access to the control room?
  • Who is “the enemy”? This would be determined, I guess, by how you answer the questions above, but I wonder if David French — and any other Christian who defends the liberal social order — belongs to the enemy. (Probably not? Probably French is just an unreliable ally, like Mussolini to Hitler?)
  • How, specifically, would “we” “enforce our orthodoxy”? Would atheists be denied citizenship, or have their civil rights abridged in some way? And by what means would this enforcement be achieved? “Weakening or destroying their institutions” presumably means, for instance, something more dramatic than, say, removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood — so, maybe, finding legal means to punish systemically left-wing companies like those in Hollywood and Silicon Valley? But even that doesn’t seem nearly enough….

Unpacking that last bullet point: I’m going to assume that Ahmari is not counting on an angelic army to descend and impose the reordering of the public square to the Highest Good; I’m also going to assume that he’s not advocating a coup by the American armed forces. I think that leaves winning a great many elections and winning them by large majorities. (I mean, reordering the public square to the Highest Good is not something that could possibly be accomplished without amendments to the Constitution.) And that leads me to my …

Second question: If you believe that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives” arising from the dominance of a tyrannical liberalism, and you want to defeat those enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their (trans) women, how, exactly, do you further that goal by attacking … David French? What precisely is the strategic benefit of that? If you’re Ahmari, don’t you need people like French on your side? Or do you think you’re such a massive movement that you can do without people like French? Or do you think that French will be abashed by the incisiveness of your attack, your mockery of “Pastor French,” and will come over to your side, ultimately meekly submitting to the claims of the Catholic Magisterium? Or do you think that other people will read your attack and think “Wow, just look at how Ahmari dealt with that pathetic loser French, I want to be on his side”? Seriously: How’s this supposed to work?


And now the caboose — something I said in my essay that I want to re-emphasize here. I noted earlier that I largely agree with Ahmari that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives.” But I dissent from his claim that Christians should let the urgency of the situation determine their behavior. (“It is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of [French’s] that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”) If David French is right that civility and decency are commanded to Christians, then they are always commanded to us. We don’t get to set aside the commandments of God when we find them “unsuitable” to the demands of the present moment. That way tyranny lies, and a tyranny that clothes itself in (misdirected) obedience.

In these contexts, and especially when I am feeling discouraged about the course of events, I often think of a passage from the Lord of the Rings, the moment when Eomer of Rohan meets Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas. Eomer:

‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’


P.S. For a further exposition of the two liberalisms that Father Neuhaus discussed — “political liberalism” and “hegemonic liberalism” — see this essay by my friend and colleague Frank Beckwith.

the deviant’s tale

From this article by Kathleen McAuliffe:

Using a far cruder tool for measuring sensitivity to disgust — basically a standardized questionnaire that asks subjects how they would feel about, say, touching a toilet seat in a public restroom or seeing maggots crawling on a piece of meat — numerous studies have found that high levels of sensitivity to disgust tend to go hand in hand with a “conservative ethos.” That ethos is defined by characteristics such as traditionalism, religiosity, support for authority and hierarchy, sexual conservatism, and distrust of outsiders.

Now, imagine that the article had said this:

Using a far cruder tool for measuring sensitivity to disgust — basically a standardized questionnaire that asks subjects how they would feel about, say, touching a toilet seat in a public restroom or seeing maggots crawling on a piece of meat — numerous studies have found that low levels of sensitivity to disgust tend to go hand in hand with a “liberal ethos.” That ethos is defined by characteristics such as a dislike of tradition, low religiosity, a lack of support for authority and hierarchy, sexual exploration, and trust of outsiders.

Can’t really imagine it being written that way, can you?

In social science and popular writing about social science, liberal views are always the norm and conservative views are always deviations from that norm, deviations in need of explanation. Liberal views don’t need to be explained — after all, they’re so obviously correct.

dare to make a Daniel

In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:

Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.

Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.

This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.

But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire: “First, get a million dollars….” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?

What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West — all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them. 

Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.” 

liberalism and democracy

This is very shrewd and thought-provoking from Adrian Vermeule:

Liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.

In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.