Sunday, November 15, 2020

There is No Necessary Connection Between Conservatism and Profit

The conservative parties in all the developed world have become the great protectors of profit-making against all forms of regulation and compassionate limitation.

Yet there is nothing inherently conservative about profit seeking.  Quite the contrary - the profit motive is what makes capitalism so destructive of all traditional structures and relations, however creative that destruction might be.

The closest connection I see between conservatism and profit-seeking is the dour realism of (Calvinist-inflected) Adam Smith.  Smith knew that profit seeking is based on the vice of avarice.  He believed there was a way, though, to harness this individual vice into being a source of public good.  However, to keep profit seeking within safe bounds, the market needs to be constantly controlled by the state and tempered by the virtues produced in civil society.

Unfettered profit-seeking is not conservative; it is the enemy of conserving the known and the good.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Contrary to Rush Limbaugh, the Academy Does Not Teach That America is Irredeemable

There are a handful of academics who say America is irredeemable. There are a handful of fanatics on the other side who say America is a savior nation (as Limbaugh does) -- a position I, as a church elder, regard as open heresy. 

The vast majority of academics are engaged in the search for truth about their topic, whatever that topic is and wherever the search for truth takes them. As teachers, we necessarily have to address the simplistic ideas that students bring with them. Some things they believe are outright myths. Teaching them that American history contains bad things as well as good ones is an essential aspect of good teaching and good truth-seeking. Some students (and quite a few non-students, like Limbaugh) resist having their idols questioned. This leads some academics to use very forceful language to insist that the bad things really did happen. I still get students who were taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. There are still students who are taught that racism ended in the '60s. 

I know as a sociologist that is it very hard for most people to grasp the idea of social structures. We tend to reduce all social phenomena to individuals intending their individual action. This makes teaching challenging. But pointing out that bad things did happen, are still happening, and have left a structural residue which continues to have effects beyond what any individual intends, is not the same as teaching that America is irredeemable. 

Limbaugh, who makes his money from sensationalized fear mongering, probably does know better (he has admitted as much in his several divorce proceedings), but it would interfere with his business model to admit it to his "dittoheads."

[This was written in response to a friend asking about a specific Rush Limbaugh show from October 13, 2020, but repeats a theme he has expressed often.]

Saturday, October 03, 2020

To Have a Scientific Mind


To become a scientist, to have a scientific turn of mind, is to become the kind of person whose mind can be changed by facts.

Perhaps the only kind.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What Really Trickles Down

Wealth gets hoarded.

Ideas trickle down.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Hersh's Politics is for Power is a Serious Indictment of Political Hobbyism

Eitan Hersh is a political science professor.  Like me, he is surrounded by people who follow and talk politics incessantly.

Yet also, like me, he became dissatisfied with just talking about it.

Worse, he noticed that when you are trying to organize a practical action to actually get candidates elected and bills passed, the people most informed about national politics are often no help. 

Moreover, they can talk national polls, but don't really know anything about the politics of their own community -- where their involvement could make a real difference.

Hersh has concluded that this intense involvement in following political news is best understood as a hobby -- on the same order as fishing or model railroading or Star Trek cosplay.  And that is fine as a leisure pursuit.

But political hobbyism misleads us into thinking that it contributes to the actual aim of politics: to gain power in order to make things better for citizens.

I feel the indictment in Hersh's stories.  I am moved to take more practical political action.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Tim Keller's Reason for God is Solid Apologetics for Individual Christians

Tim Keller, pastor of the PCA Church of the Redeemer in New York City, is a fine apologist in the C. S. Lewis tradition.  His The Reason for God is very good "mere Christianity" for sophisticated critics.

When I read Christian apologetics, I often find the author can give a solid account of how a Christian should relate to God and other individuals.

As a Christian sociologist, though, I am also looking to see what insight the author can give about how Christians should make and inhabit social structures.  In other words, I want more than Christian morality -- I want an account of Christian social ethics.

Ethics is the real weakness of the evangelical side of the church.  It is great on "changed lives," but throws up its hands at the architecture of "changed institutions."

In the individualistic traditions of Protestantism -- Baptists and all of their cousins -- this focus only on individuals is built into their DNA.

For the Catholic branch, and the magisterial Reformation strands, of Christianity, though, this neglect is a real weakness.  And of all the magisterial Reformation families -- Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican -- the Reformed have the most to offer to Protestant social ethics.

Which is why it is disappointing to see so learned and thoughtful a Presbyterian thinker as Tim Keller whiff on Christian ethics.  He says at the end of the book that Jesus will come back to redeem the whole world.

But what Christians are meant to do with our social structures in the meantime is left hanging.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Dreher Wants to Quit the World Over Sex

Reading Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

The issue that makes him give up on the world -- even more than consumerism, materialism, or abortion -- is the gay agenda.  This includes normalizing transgender people.  Also porn.

I appreciate that there are always challenges to living a fully committed Christian life, as Benedictine monks try to do.  And even for serious lay Christians, the world is full of challenges.  But I just don't see coexisting with gay people as the same as the Dark Ages.

Probing a bit deeper, I appreciated Dreher's praise of marriage and marriage-supporting communities.  I was therefore surprised that he entirely skirted the vexed issue of patriarchy, male headship, complementarity, or even any discussion of gender roles in the one-man, one-woman family. 

I think if he is going to sell people on a benedictine withdrawal into little Christian communities, he needs to settle whether that includes giving up on gender equality.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Douthat is Right That Half-Baked Christianities are a Bigger Threat Than Irreligion

In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat puts his finger on four kinds of heresies that have rushed into the vacuum created by the retreat of the old Protestant Establishment. These heresies are recognizably kinds of Christianity, but embrace only one side of a classic paradox or tension.

• Alternative gospels, from the highbrow Gnostic Gospels to the lowbrow Da Vinci Code.
• Prosperity gospel, from Michael Novak's sanctification of capitalism to Joel Osteen's hucksterism.
• Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (the term is from sociologist Christian Smith) - think Eat, Pray, Love or Deepak Chopra.
• Nationalism, both messianic and apocalyptic.

In each case, the proponents have grasped half of a good thing, but miss the tempering wisdom of the mean between extremes.

The last heresy is the one most in my interest.  He says the great social movements do have a vision of improving the nation, but tempered with realism about sin.  Moreover, when they worked, these movements drew from both parties.  What Douthat thinks is unique about this moment is that there are messianic and apocalyptic strands in both the Republican and the Democratic Parties. 

Douthat notes that religious leaders tend to think unbelief is the great danger.  I have long thought that human beings are a believing species, because we want to understand why our existence is meaningful.  This means that when confidence in the great religions ebbs with a portion of the population, what they turn to is not stark unbelief and nihilism.  Instead, every kind of paganism rushes in. 

The heresies that Douthat notes are actually partly signs of life for the church -- they try to draw on the great patrimony of the world religions, especially the biblical strand.  That they do so in an unbalanced way is the common error of all humanity, as Aristotelian philosophy always reminds us.  But their hearts are, I think, pointing in the right direction.

Douthat says that each decline of faith in American history thus far has been followed by a resurgence of a chastened but vibrant renewal. He sees some possibilities of that renewal now.  I think I am more constitutionally optimistic than he is, so I see his hope and raise it.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Prothero's Culture Wars Argument Would Be Stronger if Race Were Central

(I am catching up on some religion and politics books that had been on my list for some time.)

Stephen Prothero, in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even if they Lose Elections) reviews previous culture wars in American history.  He defines culture wars as “angry public disputes that are simultaneously moral and religious and address the meaning of America.”

I think he is entirely right that we have always had culture wars, and probably always will.  We are not more polarized now than we were in past culture conflicts.  And some of those fights, against Catholics and Mormons, were more violent than what we have today.

His thesis is really interesting:
Conservatives start culture wars when the imagined past they think they are losing is already lost.  Liberals fight back, and eventually win.
Then the new, more inclusive culture becomes normal, the base for the next imagined past.

One big issue he slides past, though, is race.  He wants to separate race and culture, though he knows that the two are highly intertwined.  In particular, he skips over the Civil War and early Jim Crow. I think this is more wrong than right -- the struggle over the cultural meaning of race and white supremacy is a cultural and religious issue.

Moreover, if he had treated the race fight as the same kind of culture war as the more obviously religious conflicts, his final section on "contemporary culture wars" would be stronger.

His thesis is that conservatives start culture wars.  He says that the conservative narrative explaining the current culture war is that the liberals started it by "taking prayer out of schools" and legalizing abortion.  Not so, says Prothero -- if you look at the actual chronology of what mobilized the Religious Right, it was the threat to the tax exemption of the "segregation academies" that they created in response to school integration.  Race came first; abortion and "family values" were added later.

Prothero frames the core narrative of American cultural struggles as expanding liberty, with liberals including more groups over the resistance of more restrictive conservatives.

I think a stronger way of seeing this same history of struggle is over the equal humanity of different "races" as they were imagined by the competing religious cultures of the day.  The opposition to the Irish and the Jews was as racialized a fight as the suppression of black people was, and as today's opposition to Mexicans and Muslims is.