The Problem of Moralism, Politics and Art

These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

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Past the Tipping Point

When we are confronted with a reality grim, horrible, painful, our tendency is to avoid it, to pursue the hopeful, the possible, the therapeutic. Out of compassion, we do well to allow a little of that to those suffering, that the wrenching blow that has been suffered might be better absorbed. I will not decry those who wish to hold on to optimistic dreams. But let’s face it, last night’s election outcome is very bad news. It is hard not to be apocalyptic about it.

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On Tea Parties and Such

Full disclosure: I’ve not attended any of these “tea parties” (as the Santelli-rant-derived designation goes), and in terms of my voter registration, I’m independent, pretty much most of the time fed up with either of the primary parties which are represented on my various ballots. I was a sporadic voter out of college, but have voted in every general election since 2000, and the non-presidential cycles, and almost every primary since 2006. Beyond that, my political philosophy does not align neatly with any one party or candidate, so most of the time it’s a matter of prioritizing my priorities.

I have, however, kept an eye, via the media, on the tea party movement as it’s starting to be called–especially when punditry critical of it has to resort to sexually vulgar terms to refer to it, sort of like third grade boys repeating a new obscenity endlessly and feeling giddily cool about it. I’m not claiming to understand the tea party movement, but clearly the pundits critical of it either do understand it and fear it, or just simply and ignorantly fear it–and therefore dismiss it with vulgarities.

I think the tea party movement could well be among the most powerful political movements seen in America in a long time. I saw could, because I believe it presently is at a critical juncture. The strength of the movement is, quite frankly, in its decentralization. This seems oxymoronic, but, in fact, if the movement begins to be more organized, especially if it comes under a single leader, whether Gov Palin or whomever, its message will become diffused and weak, because it will be co-opted by forces which are antithetical to its existence. The conventional wisdom would seem to offer that to achieve power, the tea partiers must organize and centralize, then win in the general election nationally (and statewide wherever possible). I think this is exactly opposite of what should happen. The tea party movement should work itself into local leadership primarily, and from there move to “bigger” offices. Yes, the federal and state governments have huge impact on our lives–and that, in my view (fueled by Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity) is the problem–but it’s the county that has my everyday purchases jacked up to 10%. It’s the local school board that impacts the education of our children, and so forth. I believe the genius of the tea party movement is its decentralization. By building a decentralized local foundation, it is less susceptible of toppling when national or state leaders lose elections.

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More Orthodox Than Thou (A Protestant Convert to Orthodoxy Rant)

At the risk of engaging the passions–not a good thing to do at any time, let alone Great and Holy Lent–I want to take on this notion going around the Protestant-convert-to-Orthodoxy blogosphere in which Protestant converts to Orthodoxy are criticizing fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy about things such converts are doing that just aren’t Orthodox enough. Oh, and by the way, I’m a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy. The ironies abound.

My rant, er, post, is occasioned by, but not limited to, the recent criticisms of the Orthodox Study Bible. But we might as well bring in the criticisms of Ancient Faith Radio, Conciliar Press, and other Orthodox entities fueled by a lot of Protestant convert energies. I am, quite frankly, reeeeeaaaaallllyyy tired of the crap, er debate. I suppose I should expect such crap, er, debates, during Great and Holy Lent since this is the time of year when we Protestant converts to Orthodoxy lose our ever-lovin’ minds and succumb to our inner Protestant critical spirit.

You Protestant converts to Orthodoxy remember those days, right? When we tried to determine whether some other Protestant evangelifundamentaneoorthodox was “really” saved? You know: “when you asked Jesus into your heart, did you really, really mean it, or did you hold a little bit back?” Or when we judged people in terms of their music style. “Oh, that church isn’t very evangelistic or mission-minded. They’re still using outdated hymns.” Or when we judged fellow Christians’ maturity as to whether they were serious Bible readers (i.e., used a wooden English translation like the NASB), or were still “milk-drinkers” (i.e., used a free paraphrase like “The Message”). Or, worse–whether they used one of those heretical gender-equivalent translations.

Oh, the good ol’ days.

But I guesss the good ol’ days are still with us Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, because we’ve simply baptized our critical spirits with our newly acquired Orthodoxy and continue to criticize our fellow (former) Protestant brothers and sisters over form instead of substance. I wonder whether those critics of these “too Protestant” endeavors of the OSB, AFR and Conciliar Press have been Orthodox long enough to really ascertain if the alleged “Protestant forms” of these works are, in fact, prohibitive of substantial Orthodoxy. Forgive me for my impertinence, but I’ve been taught that the substance of Orthodoxy is prayer, fasting, almsgiving, worship at the Liturgy, confession and participation in the Sacraments. But I’ve been taught this by a priest and other clergy who are Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, so maybe I’m imbibing too much Protestant form and not enough Orthodox substance.

And by the way, can my fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy please point out to me just when and where this Golden Age of Orthodox Ethos actually existed? It can’t be nineteenth century Russia, because all the icons are too three-dimensional and “Roman.” It can’t be the Byzantine Empire because of all those heretical Emperors manipulating Church Councils and promulgating iconoclasm and monophysitism. It can’t be any of those smaller so-called “Orthodox countries” because surely they were filled with caesoropapism? And goodness knows it has never been North America!

So, maybe this Golden Age of Orthodox Ethos is one of those Protestant convert to Orthodoxy myths. Sort of like the Protestant myth that the founding fathers of America were all evangelical Christians and intended America to be a Christian nation (oops! erastianism!).


Can I ask all my fellow Protestant converts to Orthodoxy who are spending inordinate amounts of online time criticizing other Protextant converts to Orthodoxy to stow it? None of us have been Orthodox long enough to be allowed to have an Orthodox opinion about anything. (I’m sure there’s an Ecumenical Council somewhere that has a canon for just this sort of thing.) Shut up and pray is probably good advice for us all.

Happy Lent, everyone.

Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

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Progressive Politics, Chiliasm and the Kingdom

Via Tripp, comes a post on Utopia, progressive politics and the Kingdom.

The angst exhibited in the post is fairly typical of what one finds among those evangelicals who are anxious to remain faithful to their core Gospel convictions, but, for varying motivations, want to embrace a more socially activist way of living. And that’s a problem.

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The Roe Effect: A Sociopolitical Hypothesis

Way back when (which is to say, about a year or more ago), Opinion Journal, the online editorial presence of WSJ, hypothesized on the effect of legalized abortion on the political arena. Using statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and their own political research, they theorized that abortion is killing potential liberal voters. Larry Eastland builds on that hypothesis in The Empty Cradle Will Rock:

More than 40 million legal abortions have been performed and documented in the 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion legal. The debate remains focused on the legality and morality of abortion. What’s largely ignored is a factual analysis of the political consequences of 40 million abortions. Consider:

There were 12,274,368 in the Voting Age Population of 205,815,000 missing from the 2000 presidential election, because of abortions from 1973-82.

In this year’s election, there will be 18,336,576 in the Voting Age Population missing because of abortions between 1972 and 1986.

In the 2008 election, 24,408,960 in the Voting Age Population will be missing because of abortions between 1973-90.

These numbers will not change. They are based on individual choices made–aggregated nationally–as long as 30 years ago. Look inside these numbers at where the political impact is felt most. Do Democrats realize that millions of Missing Voters–due to the abortion policies they advocate–gave George W. Bush the margin of victory in 2000?

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The Law Always, Necessarily and Inescapably Legislates Morality

[Note: the date stamp on this post has been changed from the original, so as to keep it on the main page and further enable the argument that has been taking place in the comments.]

There’s one thing we separate in our public consciousness here in the U. S. (and industrialized West more generally): the law and morality. We bristle at the suggestion that someone or some group “legislate their morality” on us. The law is simply a conventional code, in many peoples minds, that is agreed upon through the terms of a representative democracy, containing many items we can change, omit, and revise at the demonstrated will of the people and/or their elected representatives. A legal code is merely a convention for getting along.

This understanding, however, is sheer fantasy.

The law is not mere convention–though clearly there are conventional aspects to the law. The law is much more powerful than that, as Plato, Aristotle and many important thinkers have recognized throughout history. No, in point of fact, the law is a paedegogus, a tutor, instructing us in morality, inculcating in us notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice.

So the current understanding in the U. S. of the separation of Church and State is both philosophically unsound, and, ultimately, unworkable. And as the culture wars continue to flame, this is becoming more and more obvious.

We’ll start first with Aristotle:
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On the Separation of Church and State

My parish priest, Fr. Patrick Reardon, makes some important points with regard to the First Amendment and freedom of the press and of the free exercise of religion:

It is important to examine carefully the precise wording of this very precisely worded affirmation. It does not say that religion and the press shall be prohibited from bringing political influence and power to bear on Congress. It says, rather, that Congress must not bring political influence and power to bear on religion and the press. In not the slightest respect does the First Amendment restrict the influence and activities of religion and the press with respect to the political life of the nation. The restrictions in this amendment are laid entirely on the government, none of them on religion and the press.

In order to appreciate this distinction, we may consider how the First Amendment commonly applies–and has always applied–to the press. Everyone expects the press to be actively involved in political life. No one is surprised when newspapers, radio stations, and television networks comment at length on political activity. We hear no complaints that a constitutional principle has been violated when a city newspaper or a local television channel espouses a particular political cause or endorses a particular political candidate. On the contrary, this is exactly what we envisage as healthy to the political process. We welcome the interference of the press into political matters. This is the state of affairs that the First Amendment was painstakingly written to preserve. Those responsible for the crafting of that amendment were convinced that a vigorous and vocal press is beneficial to the life of the nation.

The prohibition that restricts Congress from interfering with the press has never been regarded as some kind of “wall of separation” between government and the press. We do not expect to find on the editorial page of The Chicago Tribune a statement that says, for example, “Although we ourselves personally approve a woman’s right to choose, we refrain from pushing the point in these pages, lest we appear to be imposing our own moral persuasion on the normal workings of the courts and the legislature. The traditional wall of separation between Press and State must be maintained at all peril.” Likewise, we would be more than slightly miffed if The Weekly Standard were to declare, “No standard is more serious than the separation of government and the press. Therefore, we think it inappropriate for us to interject our own views into the political process and impose our morality on others. We are willing to admit, however, strictly in our private and personal capacity, that our own view of ‘gay marriage’ is something other than completely favorable.” We never expect statements like that from the press.

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Ronald Reagan: Farewell Address

Excerpts from Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address:

This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together eight years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I’ve been saving for a long time.

It’s been the honor of my life to be your president. So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve. . . .

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