Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Hopeful Family

Californian community activist Allen Hernandez, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus on his left arm and the Mayan god Kukulkan (Quetzalcoatl in Aztec) on the right, via Religion News.

Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic envoy to 42nd Street, has an interesting thought about the relation between religion and the current condition of the progressive movement in the US ("The Religious Roots of a New Progressive Era"), with a big hole in it just the right shape for me to crawl through, starting with a famous evasive remark from the 1952 presidential campaign:
“Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith,” Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, “and I don’t care what it is.”
Which is really nothing more than a hilariously Ikish way of recapitulating John Adams's wonderful explanation, in a letter to Jefferson of June 1813, of what he had meant in 1798 by telling the Massachusetts Militia that "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people"—

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien [Protestants who don't believe anything]." Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.

Could my Answer be understood, by any candid Reader or Hearer, to recommend, to all the others, the general Principles, Institutions or Systems of Education of the Roman Catholicks? Or those of the Quakers? Or those of the Presbyterians? Or those of the Menonists? Or those of the Methodists? or those of the Moravians? Or those of the Universalists? or those of the Philosophers? No.

The general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

Not the particular principles of Papists or Quakers, Moravians or French philosophes, in other words, but the moral and religious foundations all Christians had in common, including Catholics and Calvinists, Mennonites and Arians, and atheists too, considered as a type of Christian, which I think is a very correct call (what God did Anglo-American atheists of 1798 disbelieve in, if not a Christian one?), and he might as well have counted Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and anybody else with a respect for books, affection for neighbors, and interest in self-examination, because what he was really talking about was a religiosity worn so lightly and generously that it wouldn't interfere in one's ability to collaborate with anybody of a different tradition from one's own, the same as his own Unitarianism (denying the divinity of Jesus) and Jefferson's deism.

Ross, anyhow, tends to think that Eisenhower was wrong in expecting a coexisting plurality of views, and sees instead a long struggle in which a single tradition had dominated for a couple of centuries:
if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the bones of the house that all Americans inhabited, then the Protestant Mainline was a combination interior decorator, building inspector, homeowners’ association and zoning committee. Any question that the liberal order didn’t answer, across most of our history, was answered by Protestant consensus or litigated by intra-Protestant debate. (What were the limits of religious liberty? Should society regulate sex, and how? Should society regulate alcohol consumption, and how? What values should be taught in schools and universities?) And when the Mainline couldn’t come to an agreement, as in the long theological dispute over slavery and racial equality — well, then part of the house burned down and had to be repeatedly reconstructed.
There's a big fudge there, in slipping from the concept of the Mainline to the "intra-Protestant debate" between mainline congregations and enthusiasts of one sort and another, Great Awakening evangelicals, radical Quakers, and the ignoring of external alliances. The political fight to abolish slavery was originated by Quakers and Methodistical dissenters eventually joined by the most Mainline of Northern churches, not to mention the contribution of the intermittent rebellions of enslaved black Christians and non-Christians, while the Southern white churches Mainline and evangelical alike opposed them; the fight to prohibit alcohol was run by Evangelicals to the joint opposition of the Mainline and the burgeoning Catholic immigrant community. 

I also don't think there was any theoretical debate about whether society should regulate sex for most of American history, as state laws against adultery and sodomy retained from the colonial period were taken for granted, if not always enforced. And I think it's very weird to talk about a federal government interest in "what values should be taught in schools and universities" before the Cold War 1950s and revolutionary 1960s revealed the existence of conflict on campus (as the GI Bill introduced a lot more social diversity).
all that belongs to the past, because in the decades after Eisenhower, the Mainline suddenly collapsed — declining numerically and losing overt influence in all the institutions, elite and local alike, that it once animated and defined. What took its place, in the upper echelons on the meritocracy, was an assumption that liberalism didn’t need a religious ghost in its machine, that you could just have a liberal culture instead of a Protestant culture, and all the important questions could be worked out through reasoned arguments that required no theological priors, no Bible-bothering, no authority higher than the Supreme Court or capital-S Science.
This was a naïve view, and to the extent it was actually operationalized it generated an arid, soulless liberalism, a meritocracy short on wisdom and memory, animated by unhappy status-seeking and aspiring only to its own perpetuation.
But there have also been attempts to replace the Mainline, to infuse a different deeply felt religious faith into the architecture of American society. The first was the alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals, the ecumenical “religious right” that rose with Ronald Reagan and peaked with George W. Bush. 
Which failed, Ross says, because the "elite" didn't jump on the wagon, and the African American and Latin churches didn't either, because of the "legacy of racism". LOL, only a legacy? And because the Bush presidency was a disaster. Capital-S Science and arid, soulless liberalism were able to hold on, or else there wasn't anything at all, or maybe the ghost of the Mainline stayed on in a caretaker role, he's not too clear on the details, but now, it seems, he's noticed that something different has been happening:
But I may have underestimated a different religious tribe — the direct heirs of the Protestant Mainline, the “post-Protestant” subjects of Joseph Bottum’s “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America”,a book I commend to anyone interested in understanding what is happening to liberalism right now.
Bottum makes two points of particular relevance to our moment. First, he argues that the Mainline moral sensibility has survived even as Mainline metaphysical belief has ebbed, and that you can draw a clear line from the Social Gospel of the late 19th century to the preoccupations of social justice movements today.
Where the same process he just described in purely negative terms as the collapse of Mainline Protestantism is presented as an evolution, the ascendancy of the "Protestans qui ne croyent rien" or let's call them Protestants without metaphysics (a category to which Adams and Jefferson both belonged) to a philosophical position that isn't soulless at all, just socially oriented. I don't think he notices that he's done that, or that he's effectively replaced his own hypothesis, but you can't walk by the West End Collegiate Church, the West Side home of New Amsterdam's oldest denomination (whose Fifth Avenue church was where the Scottish immigrant Mary Ann Trump used to drag her family on Sundays when Donald was a boy), up from Calvinism and decorated with BLACK LIVES MATTER and PROTECT TRANS KIDS banners, without getting an idea of the magnitude of what has taken place.

And the socialization of liberal religion in America isn't just a Protestant phenomenon either, by any means, a convergence of the streams of Methodism, Quakerism, and Unitarianism that has come to include Episcopalians and Presbyterians and the United Churches of Christ. It's Jewish too, and Catholic, much as Ross might dislike it, with the church's care for undocumented immigrants on top of the old Catholic Worker spirit. And guess what?

When you examine the internal discussions among conservative Muslim leaders or pundits in America today, they don’t come across as concocting some “Protocols of the Elders of Mecca.” Instead of cheering for any creeping Shariah, they seem worried about a creeping liberalism within American Islam.

Read Mikaeel Ahmed Smith, for example. He’s an imam in Virginia who has titled an internet article “A Spiritual Disease in American Muslims, Making Them Gods Above God.” His criticism targets a new genre of Muslim bloggers and writers who he says “challenge or outright reject the traditionally normative Islamic view on social issues and Muslim life.” These young people care less about traditional religious texts, the imam warns, because of “a rejection of any authority other than one’s own intellect.”

(Mustafa Akyol at The Times, noting that the phenomenon has reached government, with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib offering enthusiastic support for LGBTQ rights alongside the rest of the social-religion menu.)

In fact it begins to look like the kind of mosaic of faith Adams marveled at in the early Republic, a theological crazy quilt united by common "general principles" of Christianity that have little or nothing to do with God. What else could principles of Christianity deal with? The same objects as Judaism and Islam: justice rolling down like water, freedom ("because we were slaves in Egypt"), and loving your neighbor. Of course to Douthat these aren't religious concepts at all, not compared to vitally important problems like the possibility that a divorcée with a second husband might be allowed to take Communion, but hear me out.

It also looks like a diversity mosaic of the classic type. That Chicago church Barack Obama was so bitterly criticized for attending in the 2008 campaign for its emphasis on social justice over theodicy, Trinity United Church of Christ, belonged to the same trend as West End Collegiate, and so did the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to which Dr. King was called in 1954. César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a follower of liberation theology, and Brown Christian churches with a liberation theology impetus are still a thing, some Catholic and some evangelical. Douthat wants to divide the "left" into an arid and soulless older generation and a woke, religiously driven younger one, but the Catholic impulse of Joe Biden's call to public service (see coverage in the Jesuit magazine America) is no less clear than the one that inspires Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (which she has written about in the same magazine), though both back abortion and LGBTQ rights and thus put themselves beyond Douthat's personal pale.

And like Adams's picture, this vision of political Christianity has plenty of room for atheists and philosophes.

Douthat thinks his idea is about a white elite group (in "intimate relationship" with the establishment) 
If they succeed where the religious right failed, it will be because post-Protestantism enjoys an intimate relationship with the American establishment rather than representing an insurgency of outsider groups, because centrist failures and Trumpian moral squalor removed rivals from its path, and because its moral message is better suited to what younger Americans already believe.
but it turns out to be about a broad-based multiracial movement and an inevitable majority (today's "younger Americans" are tomorrow's everybody), incorporating and empowering outsider groups, bringing liberals and radicals into a single hopeful family, religious or "spiritual" in that easygoing fashion that Adams and Obama would equally recognize and approve, or just interested in social justice—what David Brooks would call a "civic religion", if he could see it, which he can't. I don't think Douthat is capable of seeing the contradiction either, because he really doesn't get democracy, but it's going to be a good thing.

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