The Politics of Tolkien

247842722_086d2515f8_zIn a recent interview with Rolling Stone George RR Martin had this to say about the differences between his work and that of JRR Tolkien.

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”

To some degree, Martin’s point is well-taken. For all the detail of his worlds, Tolkien doesn’t often wade into the more prosaic details that some find so interesting. (Although I do suspect the rise of the wonk probably exacerbates this issue–few eras have been more obsessed with prosaic detail than our own.)

That said, I think he sells Tolkien a bit short as well. It’s actually not as hard to deduce Tolkien’s politics as is sometimes said. To take one example, consider Aragorn’s decree about the Shire after the Ring has been destroyed. He decrees that the Shire will be kept for the Hobbits alone, with no “Big People” being allowed in. In fact, Tolkien points out in one of the appendices that Aragorn himself never entered the Shire again after making that decree. That suggests that Tolkien believed a just king is a king who respects the way of life of other places and, as much as he can, attempts to protect it from outside forces, including himself.

Continue reading

email

Conscience and Conservatives: What role should it play in public debate?

We’ve all been whipped into a frenzy over Rush Limbaugh’s idiotic insults of a Georgetown law student, a controversy I have been fastidiously trying to ignore.  Errors often compound faster than interest, and responding to one outlandish statement with apoplexy and outrage only feeds the belly of the coarsening entertainment beast.

And after all, there is a substantive discussion still to be had about such matters, right?  Given that we cannot trust others to it, we shall have to have one ourselves.

Consider, for instance, the conservative introspection over whether they too quickly adopted a view of “conscience” that would inevitably come back around against them.  As my friend Katie Geleris writes at the splendid Humane Pursuits:

By using this argument, conservatives have conceded that the moral duty to protect life and not destroy it obligates only those who accept that responsibility, not every person. Even if this argument succeeds, conservatives will merely have defended subjective, privatized religion—so-called “conscience”—of an acceptably tame modern variety, rather than a worldview that is objectively true and universally binding.

Conservatives should not content themselves with fighting for a larger religious exemption that protects their “right to free exercise” if the government is still able to eschew any notion of its duty toward the good of the society it governs. Freedom of conscience—religious liberty—is an instrumental good, not an end in itself nor a natural right. Appeals to fictional fundamental rights will only take conservatives so far; what will they do the next time such an issue arises?

Katie leans on a particular story of “rights” that ties their emergence to Hobbes and Locke.  A common enough tale, but probably not accurate.  Annabelle Brett blurs the lines between the modern rights tradition and its scholastic forbearers, and her case is a good one.  Rights may be a “fiction” (though I am also skeptical of that), but they are not quite so “modern” as we often think.

Set aside, though, the historical question.  There’s an interesting concern here about the degradation of “conscience” as a category of moral reflection and how it might get all turned about against conservatives in the future.  The worry is a real one, and similar to the concerns about the term I register early on in this little book.   Whatever else we say about “conscience,” it needs to be tied down well lest it go adrift.

Of course, as Nathaniel Peters points out response to Patrick Deneen’s similar remarks, the argument from “conscience” on behalf of liberty is a sort of stop-gap measure.  As he puts it:

Religious liberty strives to protect a minimum standard: The government cannot coerce a person to perform an action that his conscience deems wrong on religious grounds. It shields the private exercise of religion not to keep the exercise of religion private, but rather as a necessary prerequisite for making it public.

“Religion” here is the contested category, of course, and I don’t think we should grant religious institutions a carte blanche freedom to do whatever they want in the name of their religion.  The hypothetical pagan society that makes a go at reintroducing human sacrifice is wrong, politically and religiously, and the government has the right and duty to say so.

But that is, of course, different than our current scenario.  Here the government is not merely recognizing a wrong that has been committed and judging accordingly:  they are compelling religious institutions to act against their consciences.  And in such cases, the argument from conscience takes on a new validity.

Recognizing the principle of “conscience” is one way in which government’s acknowledge that their citizens can be and often are held to a deeper moral code than that which is inscribed in the laws of the land.  It does not specify the nature of this moral code, nor should we think that the government’s deference should be paid to only religious variations.  But in establishing a sphere of liberty beyond its coercive authority, a government opens its laws to the possibility of revision in light of better clarity about the contents of the moral law.

To put it another way, the argument from “conscience” is a modest one.  But modest arguments demand modesty in return.  The government’s refusal to infringe upon the conscience of its citizens could be an artificial freedom that only pretends to be neutral.  Or it could be that the government has a sense of its own limitations, and that the nature of the goodness by which it must judge harms unfolds slowly throughout the social structures that it has authority over.

 

The Rachel Held Evans Conversation: Why I am a Conservative

Rachel Held Evans’ readers ask all kinds of hard questions.  As in really hard questions.

There’s are thoughts on several topics there that may be unfamiliar to Mere-O readers, as the Iraq War comes up, the meaning of “pro-life” gets kicked around, and…..well, read for yourself:

What’s more, I don’t think wealth inequality is unjust per se.  Bill Gates deserves a whole lot more money than I do, given the sorts of things we’ve built respectively and the role they’ve played in the world.  The disparity in our resources isn’t unjust.  Instead, injustice occurs if people are disenfranchised and not allowed to participate in the political process.  We should have real concerns (and I do) about that, and we should be concerned about how wealthy people use political power to create “hedges” around themselves and their businesses so that they keep wealth.  But those critiques should be made carefully (I forget who first pointed it out, but we should remember that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party had the same objection to “crony capitalism”).

Thanks to Rachel and her readers for the really invigorating discussion.  I thoroughly enjoy Q&A, probably more than any other format I speak or write in.  So the opportunity really was a joy.

And if you are coming from Rachel’s and didn’t get your question answered, drop it in the comments below and I’ll get to it as soon as possible .

Mere-O @ Acton U

I’m currently in Grand Rapids, Michigan attending the Acton Institute’s “Acton University”—an annual four-day conference focused, broadly, around two topics: Religion and Liberty. Acton is often pegged as a free-market think-tank, but after two days of discussion, it is evident that any discussion of economic theory within Acton is first and foremost a discussion grounded in a robust Christian anthropology.

Acton University gathers a wide demographic of people from across the world and across the great traditions of Christendom and immerses them in a cross-section of lectures taught by a stellar grouping of world-class scholars on issues ranging from Christian political theology, anthropology, economics, and their effect on virtuous Christian citizenship.

For myself, yesterday’s schedule consisted of four fundamental courses:

  • -       Christian Anthropology
  • -       Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government
  • -       Economic Ways of Thinking
  • -       Scriptural Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society

It is popular to remark how “the church” lacks serious theological reflection—as if that generalization itself is even fair. If the people gathered at Acton are any indication of the layman’s interest in complex theological matters, vague broadsides against “the church” fall flat. The 625 individuals at the conference, it is apparent, have chosen to attend this conference for a purpose. As a result, the intellectual seriousness and gravity of the issues at hand presents a palpable sobriety within the conference rooms. It’s not “the Christian worldview” that’s in crisis for Acton participants, but justice, goodness, liberty, and freedom. Participants recognize that healthy civilization and liberty is at stake and that Christianity has long stood as the greatest catalyst for economic and political liberty.

I have been particularly struck by the ecumenical nature of the conference and the respectful tone offered by the different traditions (Protestant, Reformed, Orthodox). The presence of all three traditions leaves me hopeful that the body of Christ is still intensely interested in the different lands we inhabit. No one has expressed a tinge of lament, but a careful optimism that the Church is indeed resurgent and triumphant, even when statistics in Western Europe and America tell of the opposite.

Father Sirico kicked-off the event on Tuesday evening with a keynote address on the importance of establishing a proper basis for the week’s activities: Failing to address the identity and essence of man, Father Sirico stated, will result in a failure of offering any meaningful prescriptions on how to advance an understanding of liberty chastened by a proper morality. Is man autonomous? Is man material? Can man transcend himself? Does man inhabit his body? All these questions and others like them depend on getting man’s essential nature correct. There’ll be further reflection on my time at Acton, but for now, I will end my remarks by saying how refreshing it is to involve one’s self in discussions about economics and statecraft that begins not with addressing debt and deficits or political parties, but with theology.

Theology matters.

 

Political Correctness…, I mean Religious Correctness

[This post is lengthy; be forewarned]

As I expected would happen, the readers of Mere-O have responded both with class, sensitivity, and elegance to my original post, in which I provoked conversation about the Mosque Controversy in New York City. In this post, I want to offer a perspective that I’ve been giving thought to on this issue. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts, disagreements, etc. But, of course, let’s be civil.

What are the fundamental issues sparking this contentious debate?

1) Religious Freedom/Religious Liberty. Proponents for building the Mosque believe the Constitution protects any religion’s right to build anywhere without government prohibition.

2) Progress. Proponents also believe that building a mosque on such sensitive and sacred ground as Ground Zero allows for peaceful bridge-building; that is, in allowing a Mosque to be built, we’ll overcome our apparent (and latent) prejudices against Muslims and become better acquainted with a moderate, and supposedly peaceful form of Islam. In all, this position claims that America will better appreciate its own religious heritage by being in tune with it.

3) Respect and Decency. Opponents of the Mosque believe that building such a towering and imposing edifice is in blatant disrespect to the victims and families of 9/11. In this camp, religious liberty advocates still uphold the right to build a Mosque but calls on the Mosque’s builders to delicately consider whether America has been appropriately healed from a disastrous attack perpetrated by a particularly virulent strand of Islam or, in a different vein, whether Islam has fully satisfied the demands of Americans who wish that peaceful Muslims would unequivocally denounce the form of Islam which precipitated 9/11.

4) Conflict over Values. Opponents of the Mosque see much deeper elements brewing under the surface: a political show-of-arms. Islam is a religion ripe with political symbolism, indeed, Islam is a political ideology. According to this breed, the towering nature of the proposed Mosque is the equivalent of engaging in political symbolism, the Mosque representing the totalizing tendency of Islam to usurp the authority of its indigenous habitat, wherever that may be. At a more deeper, fundamental issue, is the debate between Islamic and Western values. Westerners, of course, believing that Islamic nation-states represent some of the most authoritarian, restrictive states in the world simultaneously standing in stark contrast to the liberties upheld by Western democracies. Consider Andrew McCarthy’s words from National Review:

The Ground Zero mosque project is not about religious tolerance. We permit thousands of mosques in our country, and Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology that has some spiritual elements, but strives for authoritarian control of every aspect of human life — social, political, and economic. The Ground Zero mosque project is a stealth step in the “Grand Jihad,” the term used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its confederates for what they describe as a “civilizational” battle to destroy the U.S. and the West from within, by sabotage.

Now, I don’t believe McCarthy is channeling the conspiracist mindset of Glenn Beck to say what he says. In fact, I tend to agree. And moreover, McCarthy is writing from the most respected mouth-piece of American conservatism, ensuring that the majority of conservatives feel at least some similar attitude.When viewed properly, as one commenter noted, the supposed overlap of religious liberty and Western values cracks. The issue becomes one of upholding Western values, not arbitrarily denouncing a religion because we disagree with its religious concepts.

Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to include a few excellent quotes from the readers of Mere-O who so generously discussed this issue in the comment thread.

From Sean Rice:

In seeking the welfare of our city, we should seek to bring it in line with the good principles of God’s Word, and should recognize that our current setting is not a perfect place and is deserving of criticism and needing of change; this prevents us from exalting our culture and falling into tribalism.

From Dave Strunk:

Two principles overlap in concentric circles: religious liberty and Western Christian values [...] The fact that Muslims want to practice Sharia law in parts of the West is a utilization of our own principles against us (I’m going beyond the WTC debate for a second). We want freedom of speech and religion, and so naively allow Sharia law to be practiced in some places (i.e., in some parts of the UK). BUT, Sharia law doesn’t want freedom of speech and religion, and so doesn’t allow it. Whether we call these a clash of Islamic and Christian values, or Islamic and Western values, doesn’t make much of a difference. In one way or another, Islam is clashing with common sense human rights everywhere, and it ought to be stopped in whatever avenue is possible.

Bravo to the readers of Mere-O. If I may generalize, based upon the comments section of my post, it looks as though the readers of Mere-O are in opposition to the Mosque being built on the grounds of a perceived conflict over values.

Now, if you’ll permit me, I’ll throw in my two cents. This has never been an issue of religious liberty. Heck, I’m a Baptist. It’s in my blood to permit anyone of any creed the freedom to worship. So, while I too am in opposition of the Mosque being built, I would defend it on principle on the basis of a purely pragmatic, Constitutional right.

Perhaps, though, the Constitutional aspect of this debate ought to be enlarged by placing the safeguards of the Constitution next to the intent of Islam. When done, revealed in the outcome is the instability of the Constitution to protect itself from staving off attack by the very means it seeks to uphold. What am I saying? I’m saying we’ve caught ourselves in a mess.

Yet, the pragmatic, constitutional concern I harbor does not override much deeper political concerns I have over the building of this Mosque. One, as columnists for the Weekly Standard and National Review have pointed out, the funding for the Mosque is suspect. There are links that the builders of the Mosque have both political and monetary backing from radical strands within Islam. But, on another level, I freely admit that I hold the motives surrounding the building of this Mosque in tension: It is no surprise that history has often been wedged between the values of imposing empires.

How ought Americans see Islamic encroachment? First, we must beg for transparency on the financing and connections associated with the Mosque. Secondly, we must ardently denounce the attempts by some extremists in Western European countries to enforce Sharia law within the confines of the European nation-state. The presence of such law is a direct attack on a nation’s sovereignty and its own rule of law.

We must ask, though, how ought American Christians respond to Islamic encroachment? As we’re instructed to do in Scripture: Love our neighbor. It is important to recognize that the perceived enemy of the State is not the enemy of the Christian. Yes, the Christian recognizes the authority of the state to distribute justice equitably, but the Christian also recognizes that the State is ordered to protect itself and its citizens. The bulk of this debate lies with the State and Christians portending despair ought to look upward. If there is any regret to be expressed in the building of this Mosque, it is in the sadness wrought by seeing individuals being eternally deceived by following a false god. The towering symbol of this particular Mosque communicates the commitments of its adherents. A large Mosque means a larger following—translating into a larger net effect of individuals separated from Christ.

On one level, the pain of this debate is great, for it provokes sacred first principles upon which our nation was founded. Americans, for the first time, are experiencing the birthing pains of a nation dedicated to religious liberty. But, for Christians, the pains of seeing individuals deceived ought to provoke even sharper pains of anguish.

Individuals still wishing to address the tumult surrounding the building of the mosque in terms simply of religious freedom have fallen prey to the limits of political discourse. Individuals keen to the inner-chamber of the debate now recognize that this has nothing to do with religion, per se. Individuals opposing the construction of the mosque recognize the political significance and symbolism of such a towering architecture. A Mosque no less threatens individuals within Western countries as does Islam, with its proclivity toward cultural monism and totalitarian regimes.

As critics are sure to denounce the opponents of the Mosque as nativists and bigots, it is the Mosque’s proponents who I believe represent a naive and elusive commitment to religious pluralism. This type of politick inevitably relativizes the uniqueness and virtue of civilizations by simultaneously trying to uphold neutrality towards all others. And some socio-religious implications are not only impossible to be neutral towards, but must be opposed for the sake of safety.

To be for something, the State may need to be against something. But, this may result in forming an opinion unfavorable to the culture at large. Such is the burden experienced by those willing to value the virtues of a free nation. With time, if Islam can prove itself a catalyst towards Democratic freedom, then its case will have been naturally made in the public square. Until then, it has a lot of work to do in distancing itself from Islamic extremism. Peaceful Islam, if it exists, must pay for the sins of a few.

I’ll end with a quote from Craig Carter, who states the terms far more ably than I:

If they [Moderate Muslims] are not willing to admit forthrightly that 9/11 was caused by a group of young Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, claiming to be inspired by centuries of Islamic aggression against the infidels – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to apologize for the atrocity committed against America by members of their own religion and in the name of that religion, regardless of how misguided they may be regarded as having been, – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to meet with representatives of the victims families and listen to their suggestions of how the design of the building could incorporate a suitable memorial to the victims, a clear repudiation of the ideology that motivated the attackers and a commitment to American principles of separation of church and state and liberal democracy – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

Why not? Because if they wish to be at war with the West, the West should treat them as enemies. Religious toleration ends where murder begins. St. Augustine could have told us that.

Arguing with George William Curtis

I’d never heard of George William Curtis before this past Saturday. A quote of his popped up on my friend’s facebook wall, in what I assume to be a strange way of pepping himself up for the US/Ghana World Cup match. Apparently, Curtis – a contemporary of Emerson’s who shared his transcendentalist beliefs and New England roots – once wrote, “A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” It strikes me that this quote goes a long way in explaining how America sees itself – and by extension how we see physical things like bodies and land.

Central to American identity are the abstract values – to reference Foucault again – of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Unlike most other nations, which are defined by the “land, mountains, rivers and woods” that Curtis dismisses so glibly, Americans have always tended to identify ourselves with “principles,” as Curtis terms them. Historically, of course, it makes sense. We couldn’t really identify with the land in the way Europeans did because then we might have to face the ugly reality that we stole all of it, which doesn’t do much for our self-image as benevolent, freedom-loving individuals. Besides, it’s hard to cobble together an identity based on physical features when your population consists of immigrants from all over the world. We couldn’t identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context. So in the end, Americans had no choice but to rely on abstract values as their chief identifiers – it’s all that was left to us.

But is it possible that in this use of the abstract as primary identifier we have the seeds for both the raping of the land and the devaluing of our bodies? Within this view of the world, who you really are is something abstract. The importance of the physical is merely incidental, like the box that a gift comes in. The box may be necessary, but it’s importance is derived completely from what lies within. Further, is it possible that abstraction as identity leads to a completely arbitrary, impermanent, and malleable sense of the self? Consider the radical shifts in American culture in the past 100 years – isn’t that just a natural consequence of defining yourself with something intangible? Just look at the word “freedom” and how it’s used by different groups. It’s no surprise that America is polarized and politically dissonant, what else can you expect when everyone is free to define the source of our identity?

To put it most starkly, perhaps our current land crisis (and all it entails – the destruction of food culture, of ecosystems, the bland generalized cultures that result from a lack of commitment to a particular land) and our body crisis (and all it entails – a devaluing of sexuality seen in various forms of the sex trade, the marginalization of the family as creator and incubator of culture, the depression and eating disorders resulting from body image concerns) are simply the natural consequence of America’s abstraction-as-identity philosophy?

I’ll turn it over to the Mere O readers here, what do y’all think? How has America’s tendency to view itself based more on principle than on land shaped the way we view our land? And what about our bodies? Is our view of the body shaped by this same tendency?

Faction and Revolt: Kyrgyzstan in Light of American Foundations

Kyrgyzstan is in revolt but it is unclear what the revolt will accomplish.  The opposition parties are demanding democracy and equality, fed up with the cronyism of current President, Kurmanbek Bakiev and convinced that the government is working to undermine their rights and silence their dissenting voices.  These claims, however, sound remarkably similar to those of the Tulip Revolution in 2005, which put the current president in power and sent his predecessor into exile on charges of authoritarianism and granting favors and power to close associates and family members.  While the details triggering the revolts differ, the disenfranchisement of the Kyrgyz populace in the face of unyielding government is the thread that ties the two together.

From where I sit, approximately fifteen miles north of the capital city, Bishkek, and the location of today’s riots, it is quiet.  The stability and tranquility I am experiencing at the U.S. air base just miles from the scene of an armed mob attacking the presidential offices is, in many ways, due to the manner in which American government has dealt with factionalism among its citizens and endeavored to deal fairly with the various grievances of the people.

The brilliance of the American Constitution is often seen in contrast with various dark alternatives, alternatives that come into existence due to a faulty analysis of the source of strife within a Union.  James Madison, one author of a number of the Federalist Papers published in support of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, placed his finger on the issue that must be addressed by any proponent of a popular government:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. Continue reading

Observations and Questions Regarding “Munich”

Steven Speilburg didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year with his wonderful film, Munich, but this latest in his series of tragedies is assuredly a personal best.For those who have not seen it, I give it a qualified recommendation, due to the highly disturbing graphic violence and the uncompromising depiction of the lives of professional killers.

For those who have, I am curious to hear your thoughts, to share a few of mine, and a few questions that stuck out to me as I watched the film for the second time.

Continue reading