Joseph Bottum is back to singing the “re-enchantment” song, suggesting that conservatives ought give up “preaching social ethics” because it’s “boring and it’s doomed”:
Forget the culture-wars crap. It was a fight worth having, back in the day when there was enough Christendom left to be worth defending. But such as American Christendom was, the collapse of the Mainline has brought it to an end. Start, instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.
He then added this in response to Rick Garnett, an excellent Catholic pro-life lawyer who offered his own response:
Forgive me then, Rick, if I continue to propose that ordinary prayer and everyday awareness of the reality of God are more likely to find willing ears—if I preach the metaphysics of Christianity rather than the law-and-policy-betrayed social ethics of tattered old Christendom.
There’s a whiff of false dichotomy there in Bottum’s approach to these things, which Garnett picks up on as well, and an artificial universality that inevitably accompanies sweeping prolegomena of this sort. We might all say “yes” to re-enchantment, but mysticism won’t make it very far in a courtroom. It may be that legal changes are a rear-guard action, an attempt to stitch together a fraying social fabric and hence unlikely to hold forever. Bottum’s right that laws are neither permanent nor the dominant forces shaping culture.
But then it’s a mistake to say that the law and social questions are somehow divorced or separate from the possibility of re-enchantment, too, the way that Bottum seems to imply when he suggests that we ought pursue re-enchantment first. The legal disputes about marriage have actually presented conservatives with their best opportunity in decades to help people get clear on intractable beauty and goodness of marital bonds.
Bottum would have us not speak of the legal case until we “preach the word of God in trees and rivers. But why not instead preach that word within the meaning of marriage, since that’s what people are interested in sorting out these days? The arguments in the courtroom may have to be boring. But it seems that an enchanted imagination might see something more in the public controversies that ensue than simply a dispute about the law. Such controversies may be providential summons to our society to rediscover the nature of a lost goodness. The enchanted strains of the beauty of the world may be drowned out by the culture wars. But it’s not clear why we would want to chastise the clamoring insistence that there is something important here, about this thing that drives our public debates. We ought to have more public chattering about these things, more dialogue and disputation, even if it seems repetitive and boring. If our “social ethics” does not contain the mysteries it needs to transform the hearts, then we ought keep pressing inward. We were made for more, after all, and all who seek….find.
Which is to say, it is true that conservatives haven’t been particularly aesthetically minded in their public pursuits. But to steal from another writer who knew a thing or two about an enchanted cosmos himself, if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.
But that line expresses the heroic mysticism of those who advocate for traditional marriage or the pro-life causes, despite them having very little odds of “success.” The very sort of enchantment that Bottum wants such advocates already embody, even if they so with less flair than Bottum or I might want. We ought pursue re-enchantment. But that won’t tell us whether any particular law is just or not. A government has only one option to preserve its legitimacy, and a society only one option if it is to discover enchantment by any means other than total disintegration: we must pursue justice without heed for the long-term consequences of our actions, consequences which we cannot control, much less reliably foresee given the massively complex set of factors at work in any situation.
Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a “seat at the table” of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles. It is precisely because we do not know the future and that we are not responsible for those who assail us that we can promote unpopular goods without concern for their “effectiveness” or “utility.” Few outlooks are so opposed to Bottum’s “enchantment” project than that of consequentialism, it too can sneak into our consciousness through rather poetic means. Maintaining a hopeful belligerence and willingness in the face of seemingly impossible conditions may be a short path toward cultural marginalization; but it’s just that sort of mystical disinterestedness in pragmatism that I think Bottum wants. It is a belligerent affirmation that these things are worth doing for their own sake, even if we go about doing them badly. Conservative Christians might be tempted to remind themselves that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and so be of good heart. But I doubt the martyrs themselves were interested in that when they climbed up on the pyre: they were on the side of the right and were about to meet God, and what else matters? To steal again, we ought to love effectiveness like life and drink our failures like wine.
Conservative Christians need the poetic imagination of Bottum and others; but we need to enfold it into our public argumentation about these contested questions, to see these things poetically while also considering them legislatively and legally. Social ethics need not be sterile, and a strong dose of poetry may open up ways of putting things that the philosophers had not yet considered. But we ought not forget that poetic, heroic lives are where enchantment properly begins. And in the face of injustice, those who spend their lives advocating for the laws, making philosophical arguments, and doing the dry, boring work of social ethics are not engaged in a lesser task than those poets who remind us of the beauty and goodness of the world we live within. Nor is it a less urgent task. For we are all called to courageously and cheerfully say how the world is, in the grammars where God has placed us, with the sort of radical disinterest in our own work’s success that turns us to ask that it would be founded in prayer.