Protestantism and the Benedict Option

The following is less a long-form essay and more a series of semi-connected thoughts concerning the Benedict Option and American Protestantism. I’ve broken them down with headers in hopes of making it easier for readers to pick out which parts are of greatest concern to them.

So far much of the conversation about the Benedict Option has been amongst American Catholics and Orthodox. Part of this, no doubt, is because the very name “Benedict Option” is drawing on traditions of monasticism that are far more at home in Rome and Constantinople than in the various Protestant traditions.

That said, the problems that the BenOp is trying to address will concern all small-o orthodox Christians and so Protestants must have a way of thinking about this and talking about that is plausible for Protestant believers. (Indeed, it’s worth noting that many of the businesses currently tied up in legal battles appear to be run by Protestants.)

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On substitutionary atonement and disgraced politicians

Why do disgraced, scandal-plagued politicians like Mark Sanford keep making comebacks?

In one of the great skewerings of both the Washington political establishment and modern language, George Carlin destroyed politicians–here you should think of Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner–who are caught in a major scandal, but don’t see why that should disqualify them from future “public service.”

“And we know [he must be guilty] because the next thing we hear from him is, ‘I just want to put this thing behind me and get on with my life.’ That’s an expression we hear a lot these days from people in all walks of life. Usually the person in question has committed some unspeakable act: ‘Yes, it’s true that I strangled my wife, shot the triplets, set fire to the house, and sold my young son to an old man on the train… but now I just want to put this thing behind me and get on with my life.’ That’s the problem in this country… too many people getting on with their lives. I think what we really need more of is ritual suicide. Never mind the big press conferences, get the big knife out of the drawer.”

It’s hard not to consider Carlin’s now decade old remarks given the ubiquity of the second chance politician in the contemporary United States. Recently the shameless adulterer Mark Sanford was reelected by a cowardly batch of South Carolina Republicans who sold their morals for a seat in the House. More recent still, the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner who famously sent pictures of his genitals to multiple young women is looking a strong candidate for mayor of our nation’s largest city. We can also mention David Petraeus, who recovered from an ongoing affair with his biographer to rise to a top position at a major Wall Street investment firm. And there’s also the disgraced former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who both plagiarized and fabricated quotations in a recent book and is now, only a year later, shopping a new book to publishers. Continue reading

The Meaning of the 2012 Election

Last night’s election is going to be dissected for a long time to come.  Gay marriage passed at the ballot box for the first time, marijuana was legalized in two states, and Republicans generally got it handed to them.  Mitt Romney gave some brief, but very classy remarks in defeat, while President Obama managed to remind us of one major reason why he’s a political force to begin with.  His speech was one of the best I’ve heard from him, and maybe one of the most eloquent in recent memory, period.

I’ll have a few thoughts later on disagreement in politics over at Q, which I encourage you to read.  But I wanted to add a few hasty reflections that didn’t quite fit there about the meaning of last night’s elections.

How bad was this for social conservatives? 

Conservatives have been arguing for quite some time that they had more marriage support than polls and media coverage indicated, and they pointed to the polls to do it.  That narrative is now dead.  Whatever else we make of gay marriage, it seems clear that (along with marijuana use) it is slowly becoming the law of the land.

That means that there’s going to be on socially conservative voters to switch our public positions because they don’t get enough votes.  And I understand why.  But the paradox is that we just nominated a man who many people distrusted for being  politically unprincipled (his principles elsewhere having been clearly demonstrated to be admirable) and socially moderate, and look how that went.  A Republican party that shifts on an issue like marriage to pick up votes will win no more trust from the electorate than it had before.  Trust is formed when politicians are able to make their case effectively and cheerfully, and from a strong sense of conviction.  The failure of the political leadership to do that on social conservative issues is more a problem than the issues themselves.

One more point on this:  we’ve heard plenty about the demise of the Religious Right and the subsequent end of the culture wars.  I’m not sure about the former yet—I’d have to look at exit poll breakdowns to see how young evangelicals voted—but the latter turns out to be utterly false.  Ross Douthat pointed out the President’s social issues strategy very early on, only unlike before it went the President’s way.  Social issues became more important, not less, and conservatives now face the very real possibility that their core concerns no longer resonate with the majority of people in this country.  Nor will they, I suspect, going forward either.  See Matthew Schmitz for more, whose points I agree with wholeheartedly.

The Demographic Base

'Obama Victory Party at Jeff's House' photo (c) 2008, Joel Washing - license: is going to be a lot of talk about how Republicans need to reach the Hispanic community.  That’s true, but again, how they do so is massively important.  And here, they should learn from how they “reached” the socially conservative community.  It is possible to shift the rhetoric and make the appeals in such a way that a community’s core concerns and issues are listened to, but not understood or properly integrated into a platform.  Social conservatives went along with that, and have remained on the edges of the Republican party leadership for it.  For all the successes, social conservative candidates have been pretty atrocious—and almost universally rejected by the party leadership.  And now that social conservative issues (marriage) is on the outs, they’re about to be told to take a back seat again.

That sort of outreach is little more than pandering—and I don’t think it will work with Hispanics, who already have a comfortable home (evangelicals, remember, were somewhat adrift before Reagan).  And ironically, if social issues took on a greater importance, it might help Republicans with Hispanics.  They are much more inclined, for instance, to make abortion illegal than the black community is.  In other words, the outreach to Hispanics cannot be outreach at all.  It must be an authentic, serious attempt to listen and think through conservative issues with Hispanic voters.

One other point:  it’s interesting how single people overwhelmingly voted for Obama.  I don’t quite know what to make of that.  One possibility is that the reason has more to do with youth than with singleness.  However, it is also possible that a weakening marriage culture gives the case for Republican issues less resonance.  It’s hard to be the party that thinks family is the foundation of liberty when people aren’t having them.  That has given my conservative friends hope—it’s common for me to hear that when they marry and settle down, they’ll eventually learn.  However, they’ll have much longer to get comfortable with their outlook and political affiliations, which makes me doubt that fact a lot.

Questioning the Conservative Silo

The real soul-searching that should happen is in the conservative punditry world.  I saw countless tweets and updates that proved, in retrospect, astonishingly optimistic.  The war against the polls turned out to be utterly, ridiculously wrong.  Erick Erickson at Redstate defended the polls and was pilloried for it.  But now that it’s all shaken out, it turns out that the objecting and questioning was nothing more than false consolations.  The fact is, conservatives have spent a lot of their media time talking to their own.  I’m generally a fan of some parts of talk radio—I like Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager, for instance, though I don’t listen much anymore.  But the silo is really a problem, as if anything conservatives need to learn better how to make their case when people don’t agree.

A Final Thought

Four years ago, I proposed a cheerful conservatism.  I haven’t always been the best representative of that, but it’s an ideal to which I’d like to aspire.   It’s not going to be an easy season for social conservatives, especially for those who are younger.  The pressures from the most natural party for us, from our peers, and from the media to switch and soften positions are going to be very strong.  And as people no longer share or understand our first principles, our ability to make our case in public is going to be much harder.

But none of this is reason for discouragement.  Or if it is, it is also a reason for hope, that virtue which Chesterton aptly said arises when the situation is hopeless.  Or take this bit from Tolkien, which was going around the social networks last night:

‎”I am a Christian…so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

It’s hard to find a posture that is more fitting.  We need not worry about being the party out of power.  If anything, we should get used to it.  The challenge is becoming the sort of people whose witness endures beyond our own generation, and making the sort of case in public that can have an impact long after we are dead.  We need, Alan Jacobs said recently, a modern day Augustine.  I have often thought the same thing.  But it was not at the height of Roman glory that Augustine wrote, but its decline.  Just as it was at the beginning of the decline that Plato and Aristotle wrote.  The victories in this life will be few.  But that means that our efforts must not be aimed toward them, but toward that—and Him—which will outlast our political orders and outlast us all.

Five Reasons I’m Voting for Mitt Romney

My vote won’t matter at all in California, but I sent in my ballot last week anyway, voting for Mitt Romney. Am I super excited about everything Romney stands for? Not at all. I’m uncomfortable with his Mormon faith, regret that he supports drone strikes & the use of torture, and absolutely wince when he says things like “America is the hope of the earth.”

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m also not one of those people who thinks Obama is an unqualified disaster of a president. I like a lot of things about him and had high hopes for his presidency four years ago. I think he’s a good guy, a family man, and not the villain the Ann Coulter Fox News crazies would label him.

But for this moment in America, I think it’s wise to switch course and give Romney a chance. Here are a few of my personal reasons for voting for him:

Abortion. I’m pro-life and this will always be a deal-breaker for me. Fighting for the “reproductive right” to destroy a living being will always be sickening to me, and I’ve been particularly sickened this year with the Democrats’ tactic of equating the pro-life cause with some sort of “war against women.” That’s just silly and makes disturbing light of the real issue: the war on unborn children, which takes more than 1.2 million lives a year in America.

The Economy: I have real concerns about the U.S. economy, both in its current state and its long-term viability. And so much else depends on a solid, growing economy: national security, the effectiveness of our foreign policy, our education system, the plight of the poor, and so on. The federal government is addicted to accumulating debt and spending money that isn’t there. On the track of spending and debt-accumulation we’re currently on, the world my children will inherit will look something like the landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Dire. I have hopes that Mitt Romney’s business-savvy and focus on private-sector growth and job creation will prove much more effective for America’s economic recovery and long-term fiscal stability.

Religious Liberty.  Continue reading

Julia’s Monochromatic Life: A Guest post by Ryan Messmore

Editor’s note:  Ryan is a good friend of mine and a fellow Oliver O’Donovan aficionado.  He was kind enough to take on the now infamous “Life of Julia” from President Obama. 

Last week President Obama’s campaign website premiered “The Life of Julia,” a slideshow in which a fictional everywoman character benefits from a government program at every stage of life.

Each slide contains a retro-chic illustration of Julia against a pastel-hued background, but the slideshow lacks the full color of a human life.

Julia’s story focuses almost entirely on government policies and programs.  In its own slideshow, “A Better Life for Julia,” The Heritage Foundation illustrates why these policies and programs are problematic and suggests how a better life for Julia is possible.

But the problem with the slideshow lies not only with the policies.  The fictional account of Julia’s life shows an underlying way of viewing the world that is as revealing as it is troubling.

According to this worldview, only two primary characters appear on the stage of life: individuals and government.  The relationships and institutions of civil society that animate life and promote flourishing remain hidden to the audience.

We don’t see Julia surrounded by any kind of faith community.  We don’t see her volunteering at a ministry, nor do we see her encounter a crisis during which fellow church members bring over dinner or help out with transportation needs.

We don’t see Julia married.  At age 31 “Julia decides to have a child,” but with whom?  There is no mention of a husband.  Better not tell Julia that raising a child outside of marriage increases his likelihood of child poverty six-fold.

We don’t see Julia calling upon her friends for help, and—other than being on her parents’ health insurance—there is no mention of a relationship with parents, siblings or other relatives.

We don’t see Julia donating time at the local Habitat for Humanity.  We don’t see her asking her neighbors to watch her kids while she and her (non-existent?) husband go for a date night. We don’t see her approaching co-workers or local businesses to raise funds for her son’s band trip.

The only institution Julia seems to rely on is government.

In short, Julia’s life is monochromatic.  Despite the different pastel backgrounds, everything in the slideshow appears in shades of government dependence.

The worldview that seeps through the slides of this campaign tool is that, for a full and happy life, all we need is a government that gives us more and more.

But experience teaches us that this simply isn’t true.  There is a rich palette of other relationships and social organizations that give color to life.  Marriage, family, neighborhood, church, and local non-profits may not appear in Obama’s narrative, but millions of Americans turn to and rely on these institutions every day for a myriad of needs.

America’s policies and policymakers should stand up for women throughout their lives.  That starts with viewing women as more than isolated Julias and appreciating the many valuable institutions and relationships present in each phase of their lives.

A more accurate worldview is needed to improve upon the shallow, monochromatic lens of the Obama campaign and enable us to see Julia—and all Americans—in living color.

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil., is a Research Fellow in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.


On Boycotts, Komen, and Political Hope

Alan Noble over at Christ and Pop Culture takes on conservatives for how they went about the Komen controversy:

Christian activism tends to take two forms, political and economic. The basic method in both cases is the same, though: we work for justice and goodness by using our votes and/or dollars to influence those in power. This is, after all, the way our country, with its free market democracy, works.

While I don’t want to argue that we should totally abandon political action or dismiss money’s influence, I do think that the Komen situation reveals the dangerous nature of attempts to force positive change through coercion. This kind of change is fickle and passing. If we can force Komen to change their policies with our boycott, then what is to stop another, bigger boycott from forcing them to change back? As we have seen with Komen, the answer is “nothing.” Whether it is through votes or dollars, coercing someone to accept our position is nihilistic: it suggests that real change — change of heart and mind — is impossible, or unlikely, and so the safest bet is to make it profitable to adopt our beliefs.

The alternative they mention of sending checks to institutions we’d rather have is one I endorse unhesitatingly.  Find the good, praise it, and then pass the plate on its behalf.  They note that it’s a strategy that fits with its cousin “boycotting,” but it ought to be the louder, more dominant approach.  All well and good, that.

But here’s where I want to quibble:  this “changing hearts and minds” business has simply got to go.  Let us make a pact, Mere-O readers, and promise to do jumping jacks every time we use it during the 2012 political season.  You know, for fitness’s sake.  And for our own.

Changing “hearts and minds”  is well and good, but it’s a mistake to suggest that other forms of change are any less real. Hearts and minds exist in a web of institutions, and if you can reshape the playing field you can change the game.  It may take a generation or two to unwind and work its way through the hearts and minds of those who have come along later, but what you lose in speed you gain in staying power.

And contra Alan, I am skeptical that anyone really believes pressuring Komen is a genuine strategy for changing hearts and minds.  The goal, I think, is rather different:  keep money away from Planned Parenthood so as to erode their ability to provide abortions.  De-nickle and dime the organization to death, as it were, or until they limit themselves to providing genuine health services to women who need it.  And the little human bodies whose lives are at stake are enough reason, I think, to simply send a note and ask folks to forget funding them this time around.

Let me be clear that the long path toward unwinding Planned Parenthood will require patient, thoughtful, rigorous dialectics to persuade those who disagree that the problem is really there.  But in the meantime, ringing up a neighbor to remind them that their money would be better spent on a crisis pregnancy centers than on Planned Parenthood is not an act of political nihilism at all.   It is an act of hope, and even of charity, and one small brick in the countercultural wall that the fellows over at Christ and Pop Culture and we at Mere-O all want.

Accommodation, Contraception, and Religious Freedom

Let’s pick up where we left off last week, shall we?

On Friday, President Obama addressed the nation and announced a compromise on the question of mandatory contraception.  In short, women who work at religious institutions will still be able to get free contraception, but their employers won’t have to pay for it.  That will be pawned off to the insurance company instead.

The details are still hazy, which is precisely where we’re often reminded the devil likes to hide.   As Sarah Kliff points out, the simple fact that contraception might be “revenue neutral” for an insurance company doesn’t mean it will be free.

The conservative concern at this point is twofold:  on the one hand, costs will get transferred back to religious employers, making this “accommodation” a cheap parlour trick that changes nothing.  On the other hand, the insurance policy that such organizations purchase will still cover contraception, and the pure fact that someone else is paying for them doesn’t mitigate the objection that the organization still has to purchase coverage that it objects to.

This latter view was put forward by a whole host of conservative scholars, including a few folks who I view as intellectual heroes and others I consider friends:

It is no answer to respond that the religious employers are not “paying” for this aspect of the insurance coverage. For one thing, it is unrealistic to suggest that insurance companies will not pass the costs of these additional services on to the purchasers. More importantly, abortion drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives are a necessary feature of the policy purchased by the religious institution or believing individual. They will only be made available to those who are insured under such policy, by virtue of the terms of the policy.

It is morally obtuse for the administration to suggest (as it does) that this is a meaningful accommodation of religious liberty because the insurance company will be the one to inform the employee that she is entitled to the embryo-destroying “five day after pill” pursuant to the insurance contract purchased by the religious employer. It does not matter who explains the terms of the policy purchased by the religiously affiliated or observant employer. What matters is what services the policy covers.


I’ll admit I find the idea that insurance companies will hand out contraception and other abortaficients because they happen to be revenue neutral rather far-fetched.

I’m trying to find a silver lining in all this, but my cynical side thinks that the haziness of the modification is simply by design.  Do enough magic tricks and hope that everyone simmers down long enough for the next crises to take over and cause us all to forget this one.  And that may just happen (though the strong reaction by Robby George et al. suggests that it will not).

But is there something that I’m missing from the above?  Is there some reason to think that this is actually a genuinely substantive change in policy?


The Christian Post and Sojourners

Apologies for returning to this theme yet again, but this is what happens when discussions occur and I have words to say.

At any rate, The Christian Post took a gander at Mere-O today and provided  a reasonably accurate overview of my position on the matter.  One quibble, though, with my friend Tim King’s statement:

However, [Anderson] warns that Christians must express this belief with caution.

“When speaking against the homelessness of young people who are at risk because of their sexual orientation, Christians must do so on grounds that do not rest upon and reinforce the problematic presuppositions that sometimes stand beneath the advocacy work,” Anderson cautioned.

Those problematic presuppositions would include any belief that the Bible, God, His son Jesus or the Christian Church sanction either homosexuality or gay marriage.

[Tim] King says he believes that Christians can stand up for the rights and protections of homosexual men, women and teens without compromising the Bible.

“I don’t think there is any contradiction with the Bible to say people deserve equal protection under the law. I think that is very consistent with our understanding of each individual being created in the image of God.”

This is framed as disagreeing with my position on the matter, and it’s easy to see why.  I’ve no interest in filling the dance card around this issue, so let me simply point out that “equal protection under the law” is indeed what all Christians can and should defend.  Tim and I can stand on the same ground and proclaim that message.

Where we differ, though, is which rights gays and lesbian couples should have, and hence what “equal protection” actually means.  No reason to hash that out here, of course.  We’ve done it before and will doubtlessly try again.  But just to point out that the quote is in the context of young people who are homeless, a problem that both Tim and I would agree is wrong, and would (I suspect) agree for the same reasons.

I have other thoughts on this and might make other attempts at clarification at some point as well, if there’s interest.  The distinctions I’m trying to draw are relatively fine, but that’s largely because I think the issue is extraordinarily complex.  These are, after all, people and their lives that we are discussing and interacting with, not even “communities” or “demographics.”

Sojourners and the Controversy that Will Not Go Away

Sojourners, the leading organization of the evangelical left, can’t seem to escape the controversy that erupted in March when it rejected an advertisement from Believe out Loud, an organization trying to “significantly increase the number of local churches and denominations that are fully-inclusive of LGBT individuals, both in practice and policy.”

The ad that is ostensibly in question is a relatively innocuous affirmation of hospitality toward a lesbian couple with a child.

“Ostensibly” is the key word, though, because unless Sojourners is lying on their website, they didn’t reject the video at all.

But they did turn down email and online advertisements aimed at getting people to “Join the Campaign” and directing people to the Believe Out Loud website. Sojourners’ argues the advertisement was designed to get people to ascribe to Believe Out Loud’s mission of full inclusion for gays and lesbians into the practices of the church (including, clearly, marriage and ordination), a stance that they are noncommittal on and have determined is outside their core issues of poverty, race, and social justice.

Yet the ongoing confusion over the events has enabled Believe Out Loud and a host of other writers within the gay community to unfairly portray Sojourners as hostile to gays and lesbians because of their alleged skittishness at the video’s contents.  In Sojourner’s defense, though, at the time of the controversy they embedded the video on their blog and Communications Director Tim King suggested that it makes a statement that “needs to be heard in more churches.”

GLAAD-SojournersNow Sojourners has accepted a print advertisement from GLAAD calling attention to the problem of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth, and has determined to run a series of blog posts on the issue as well.  Ross Murray, Director of Religion, Faith, and Values for GLADD described the moves as “wonderful steps forward for Sojourner’s Magazine,” while Daniel Villereal at Queerty suggested that Sojourners has “seen the light.”

Yet Joseph Ward, III, the Director of Communications for Believe Out Loud, wasn’t satisfied:

The rejected Believe Out Loud ad explicitly encouraged Christians to be welcoming of LGBT persons in their churches. The accepted homelessness ad is only tangentially related to the church.

No one is going to confuse me for a progressive Christian, which makes me an outsider to this conversation.

But as something of a vocal conservative who cares about preserving a civil and hopefully even charitable public dialogue about matters in the public interest, Believe Out Loud’s misrepresentation of Sojourner’s decision troubles me.  By conflating “welcome” with “affirmation” and implying that Sojourners is suspicious of both, Believe Out Loud’s rhetorical stance ends any discussion before it begins, rendering conservative readings of Scripture intrinsically unwelcoming and inevitably pushing them to the margins.

This, I submit, is bad for everyone.  If nothing else, it engenders a defensive posture among the very people that Believe Out Loud is (ostensibly) trying to reach with their message of inclusion.  I recognize that social movements of the sort they are trying to bring about are rarely attained through persuading the differently minded.  But the church is not a social movement like any other.  It is a community that bears witness to the love of Christ.  And as I point out in Earthen Vessels, how we discuss these issues within our community bears witness to that love as much as the conclusions we come to does.

I originally voiced support for Sojourners on precisely these grounds, and would reiterate that support, albeit with some qualifications.  In searching for common ground within the domain of common grace, we Christians might find ourselves allied with the most surprising of allies.  And speaking out against homeless young people who are gay or lesbian is one such realm.

Yet at the same time, it is nearly impossible to neatly isolate issues from each other (as Sojourners is no doubt being reminded of).  When speaking against the homelessness of young people who are at risk because of their sexual orientation, Christians must do so on grounds that do not rest upon and reinforce the problematic presuppositions that sometimes stand beneath the advocacy work.  We speak out precisely because they are fully humans, made in the image of God, and who are meant to be welcome within the unconditional love of the family–regardless of their sexual orientation.

Whether GLAAD’s advertisement meets that standard is, to me, an open question.  It was consciously submitted as a test case and so came loaded with political presuppositions, and has been heralded as an incremental step toward gaining Sojourner’s support for full equality.  Both the motivation of the ad and the response are unfortunate, as they potentially reduce the issue under discussion to the question of whether they move the chains in the political football game of gay marriage.  And GLAAD’s explicitly stated intention to pressure Sojourners to work on other issues that are more narrowly defined along sexual-orientation lines means that the challenge of avoiding an explicit statement on gay marriage, one way or the other, is only going to get more difficult.

Such is, however, the closed discussion world in which we live and which Sojourners is trying to navigate.  Decisions like this one are hedged in by a broader discourse that makes moderate positions nearly impossible. And that is why, despite my reservations, I respect the line Sojourners is trying to take.  It may not be ultimately be tenable, and they will doubtlessly have their critics from every side, but in the meantime their struggle keeps open the possibility of a position on homosexuality that is welcoming without sanctioning within the church.  And for that, this conservative is grateful.