The Future of Nonconformity

Like other realms, American intellectual life has been marked by a series of exclusions. The oldest and vastest was the exclusion of people of color from the commanding institutions of our culture.

Today, there’s the exclusion of conservatives from academic life. Then there’s the exclusion of working-class voices from mainstream media. Our profession didn’t used to be all coastal yuppies, but now it mostly is. Then there’s the marginalization of those with radical critiques — from say, the Marxist left and the theological right.

Intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left.

Conservatives were told their voices didn’t matter, and many reacted in a childish way that seemed to justify that exclusion. A corrosive spirit of resentment and victimhood spread across the American right — an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a moral superiority complex.

For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. Right-wing talk radio is the endless repetition of familiar mantras to reassure listeners that they are all on the same team. Thinking was for conquest: Those liberals think they’re better than us, but we own the libs.

Thinking itself became suspect. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts. A president who dispenses with the pen inevitably takes up the club.

Intellectual segregation has been bad for the left, too. It produced insularity. Progressives are often blindsided by reality — blindsided that Trump won the presidency; blindsided that Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The second consequence is fragility. When you make politics the core of your religious identity, and you shield yourself from heresy, then any glimpse of that heresy is going to provoke an extreme emotional reaction. The third consequence is conformity. Writers are now expected to write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group. Predictability is the point.

In some ways the left has become even more conformist than the right. The liberal New Republic has less viewpoint diversity than the conservative National Review — a reversal of historical patterns. Christopher Hitchens was one of the great essayists in America. He would be unemployable today because there was no set of priors he wasn’t willing to offend.

Now the boundaries of exclusion are shifting again. What we erroneously call “cancel culture” is an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well. Hence the attacks on, say, Steven Pinker and Andrew Sullivan.

This is not just an elite or rare phenomenon. Sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share things they believe, according to a poll for the Cato Institute. A majority of staunch progressives say they feel free to share their political views, but majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives are afraid to.

Happily, there’s a growing rebellion against groupthink and exclusion. A Politico poll found that 49 percent of Americans say the cancel culture has a negative impact on society and only 27 say it has a positive impact. This month Yascha Mounk started Persuasion, an online community to celebrate viewpoint diversity and it already has more than 25,000 subscribers.

After being pushed out from New York magazine, Sullivan established his own newsletter, The Weekly Dish, on Substack, a platform that makes it easy for readers to pay writers for their work. He now has 60,000 subscribers, instantly making his venture financially viable.

Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber basesThe Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.

The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.

It’s possible that the debate now going on stupidly on Twitter can migrate to newsletters. It’s possible that writers will bundle, with established writers promoting promising ones. It’s possible that those of us at the great remaining mainstream outlets will be enmeshed in conversations that are more freewheeling and thoughtful.

Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.

 

What is a Post-Jesus Christian?

 

Post-Jesus Christians are “Christians” who have decided to postpone following Jesus’s teaching until Jesus returns and ushers in 1000 years of peace.

Post-Jesus Christians hold that Jesus’s teachings do not need to be followed in our present era if they are a hindrance to obtaining the power they fear they need to help usher in the Kingdom of God.

Post-Jesus Christians (privately) hold that Jesus’s teachings are a nice thing to follow when dealing with the in-group of their fellow PJCs but may be disregarded when dealing with non-PJC neighbors.

Prophecy: What God Can Do For You

Post-Jesus Christians talk a lot about about prophecy, and unlike the Biblical Prophets, when they do, they punch down, rather than up:

You will know them by their fruit, because they only have one key message – God is going to “enlarge your tent” and “expand your influence“, he’s going to “give you great favor” and “bless you mightily”.

Later Craig Greenfield writes:

In Biblical times, there were two types of prophets.

  1. Firstly, there were those who feasted at the King’s table because they had been co-opted to speak well of evil leaders (1 Kings 18:19). They were always bringing these smarmy words of favor and influence and prosperity to the king. And the king lapped it up. Like a sucka.
  2. Secondly, there were those who were exiled to the caves, or beheaded (like John the Baptist) because they spoke out about the injustice or immorality of their leaders (1 Kings 18:4). The king didn’t like them very much. He tried to have them knee-capped.

An Inversion of Ben Franklin’s Morality

While many Post-Jesus Christians appeal to a historical “Christian Nation” , Post-Jesus Christians appear to be an inversion of founding father Ben Franklin, who in historian John Fea’s description, wanted to discard Jesus’s Divinity but retain and celebrate his ethical teachings.

Examples:

So what does this look like in practice?

Below are public quotations from prominent Court Evangelicals.  These quotations are less extreme that I would expect to hear in private.  A friend of mine speaks to supporters in private.  He reports that they would (privately) celebrate the stuffing of election ballots in favor of their preferred candidate as a righteous act.

1) Court Evangelical: Anti-Sermon on the Mount


John Fea wrote about a conversation he had with Rob Schenck  for the “Schenck Talks Bonhoeffer” podcast @ 19:27.  Here’s a quote from Schenck talking about a conversation he had with a prominent evangelical at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service:

I must tell you something of a confession here. I was present at the Trump Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral — not the smaller one held  at  Saint John’s Episcopal church across from the white house, but the one following the inauguration at the National Cathedral and I saw one of the notable Evangelicals that you’ve named in in our conversation. One of them, I won’t say which and we had it short exchange and I, I suggested to him that we needed to recalibrate our moral compass and that one way to do that might be to return to The Sermon on the Mount as a reference point. And he very quickly barked back at me. “We don’t have time for that. We have serious work to do.”

2) Jerry Falwell Jr:  Anti-Turn the other cheek

John Fea writes:

We have blogged about Liberty University’s Falkirk Center before.  The more I learn about this center the more I am convinced that it does not represent the teachings of Christianity.   Recently someone on Twitter pointed out this paragraph in the Falkirk Center mission statement:

Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation. Bold, unapologetic action and initiative is needed, which is why we just launched the Falkirk Center, a think tank dedicated to restoring and defending American ideals and Judeo-Christian values in all aspects of life.

John Fea’s Update:

Several smart people have suggested that I may have misread Liberty University’s statement.  They have said that the Falkirk Center was not denying that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individuals.  Instead, the Falkirk Center is saying that we should not “abdicate” (the key word here) our responsibilities to engage on the “culture battlefield.”

I think this is a fair criticism, and I indeed may have misread the statement.  For that I am sorry.  But I don’t think I want to back away too strongly from what I wrote above.  While several have correctly pointed out that Liberty University is not saying Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” is “insufficient” for individual Christians, the Falkirk Center does seem to be suggesting that it is “insufficient” for culture engagement.

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Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 7: The Evil of America First

“America First” brings both political weakness and moral hazard. The last episode was about America’s new weakness in the world. This one is about how “America First” leads Americans to turn against one another.

Kushner’s immigration plan is a version of a discriminatory effort from more than a century ago

It’s a stretch to place the names of Jared Kushner and Henry Cabot Lodge in the same sentence; it’s difficult even to imagine that Lodge, the aristocratic Massachusetts senator who dominated the nation’s immigration debate from the 1890s into the 1920s, would give Kushner the time of day. But Kushner’s new immigration plan, aimed at reducing immigration from specific nations through the virtual elimination of what he and others have disparaged as “chain migration,” and the simultaneous valorization of the highly educated, is simply a version of a blatantly discriminatory effort Lodge initiated more than a century ago.

A man of uncommon refinement and even greater arrogance, Lodge was a Harvard PhD., the erudite author of more than a dozen books and, in many ways, the archetype of the Boston Brahmin of a century ago. His friend Thomas B. Reed, speaker of the House in the closing years of the 19th century, said Lodge arose from “thin soil, highly cultivated.” Lodge himself celebrated his fellow Brahmins for “their intense belief in themselves, their race, and their traditions.” His idea of the west, said another colleague, was Pittsfield, Mass. Look at John Singer Sargent’s remarkable likeness of the young Lodge that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You almost feel you are despoiling him by your very presence.

As well you might have been, if you were Italian, or Greek, or a Russian Jew or from any of the other national groups he had in mind in 1895, when he rose on the Senate floor to introduce the first restrictive immigration bill aimed at Eastern and Southern Europeans. The widening streams of emigres pouring out of the impoverished lands between the Baltic and the Mediterranean had broadened to flood stage, and Lodge determined that the best way to keep them out was to make them submit to a literacy test.

Aware of the scant educational opportunities in most of these countries, he told his fellow senators that his bill “will bear most heavily upon the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Asiatics, and very lightly, or not at all, upon English-speaking emigrants.” And, he argued, why should it be otherwise? “The races most affected” by his test, he explained, were those “with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and are alien to the great body of the people of the United States.”

Lodge’s talk was a hit. His closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt — at the time the New York City police commissioner — called it “an A-1 speech,” which pleased Lodge greatly. He was probably even more delighted with the reaction of the “Russian-Nihilistic Club” of Chicago, which burned him in effigy.

Eagerly endorsing the House version of the bill, Lodge’s Massachusetts colleague Rep. Elijah A. Morse declared himself delighted to see that it would exclude “undesirable immigration” from “southern Europe, from Russia, from Italy, and from Greece” — people, he said, who brought to the United States little else than “an alimentary canal and an appetite.”

Lodge’s literacy test bill passed with ease. But on President Grover Cleveland’s very last day in office, he struck it down with a veto, and there were not enough votes in the Senate to override.

Over the next 20 years, Lodge and his colleagues tried again and again, introducing a version of the literacy test into nearly every Congress. Three times it was approved by both chambers; three times it was struck down by veto. Only with anti-European fervor spiking on the brink of World War I, and new theories of “racial eugenics” shaping public debate, was it finally enacted over President Woodrow Wilson’s second veto, in 1917.

But for the anti-immigrationists, the new law was too little too late, and rendered ineffective by a shapely irony: Its two-decade presence on the congressional front burner had encouraged the education of the very people he wished to keep out. The Immigration Restriction League executive committee reported the baleful news that the Italian government was “spending millions on their schools in the last few months in view of the pending bill.” An IRL official wrote, “It is probable that primary schools will be presently established in many parts of Europe,” and consequently the newly enacted literacy test “is likely to diminish in value as a means of restriction as time goes on.”

A few years later, the xenophobes finally got what they wanted when Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which didn’t mess with half-measures: It slashed immigration by means of brutal quotas aimed at precisely those countries Lodge had singled out nearly three decades earlier. Where once more than 220,000 Italians arrived each year, the number was reduced by the new quota to fewer than 6,500. In 1921, the lands comprising most of the former Russian Empire had sent nearly 190,000 emigrants to the United States; the 1924 law accommodated exactly 7,346.

For the next 41 years, this brutally exclusionary act remained in place, shaping the composition of the nation, and dooming thousands — if not millions — to deprivation and death. When it was finally revoked by Congress in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the new law on Liberty Island, in the shadow of the great statue that had been designed to welcome the unwanted. Had he chosen to give a history of what the 1924 act had been intended to do, Johnson might have invoked the words that Cleveland used in his veto message back in 1897: The literacy test,Cleveland had said, was “the pretext for exclusion.”

I don’t think Lodge would have disagreed, nor, if he’s being honest with himself, would Kushner. A plan that sets up “educational standards” as the primary benchmark for immigration isn’t likely to certify too many people fleeing from, say, Honduras or Yemen. Reeling in the numbers of immigrants granted priority to reunite with family members already here will similarly disadvantage much of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Jared Kushner — and Stephen Miller and President Trump — likely know very little about Henry Cabot Lodge. But he would be proud of them.

The Unnamable One (Richard Rohr)

The only people that Jesus seemed to exclude were precisely those who refused to know they were ordinary sinners like everyone else. The only thing he excluded was exclusion itself.

Think about what this means for everything we sense and know about God. After the Incarnation of Jesus, we could more easily imagine a give-and-take God, a relational God, a forgiving God. Revelations of Christ—the union of matter and spirit, human and divine—were already seen and honored in the deities of Native religions, the Atman of Hinduism, the teachings of Buddhism, and the Prophets of Judaism.

Christians had a very good model and messenger in Jesus, but many non-Christians actually came to the “banquet” more easily, as Jesus often says in his parables of the resented and resisted banquet (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:7-24), where “the wedding hall was filled with guests, both good and bad alike” (Matthew 22:10). What are we to do with such divine irresponsibility and largesse?

Why would a God worthy of the name God not care about all of the children? (Read Wisdom 11:23–12:2 for a humdinger of a Scripture in this regard.) Does God really have favorites among God’s children? What an unhappy family that would create—and indeed, it has created. The inclusion of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian canon ought to have served as a structural and definitive statement about Christianity’s movement toward radical inclusivity. How did we miss that?

Remember what God said to Moses: “I AM Who I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God is clearly not tied to a name, nor does God seem to want us to tie the Divinity to any one name. This is why, in Judaism, God’s statement to Moses became the unspeakable and unnamable God. We must practice profound humility in regard to God, who gives us not a name, but pure presence—no handle that could allow us to think we “know” who God is or have him or her as our private possession.

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire, or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to power and arrogance. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years. His reputation has been held captive by culture, nationalism, and much of Christianity’s white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview. Up to now, we have not been carrying history too well, because “there stood among us one we did not recognize . . . one who came after me, because he existed before me” (John 1:26, 30). He came with darker skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.

Beginner’s Mind (Richard Rohr)

I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.

Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.

Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.

Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.

If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—

  1. love,
  2. joy,
  3. peace,
  4. patience,
  5. kindness,
  6. goodness,
  7. trustfulness,
  8. gentleness, and
  9. self-control

(Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.

As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like

  1. morose delight,
  2. feelings of superiority,
  3. self-satisfaction,
  4. arrogant dualistic certitude,
  5. desire for revenge,
  6. need for victory, or
  7. a spirit of dismissal or exclusion,

you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.

Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed:

  1. economic,
  2. religious, and
  3. political.

Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.

A Bigger, Inclusive Table

Jesus’ most consistent social action was eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. A great number of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms take place while he’s entering or leaving a house for a meal. In the process he redefines power and the kingdom of God. Jesus shows us that spiritual power is primarily exercised outside the structure of temple and synagogue.

As Christianity developed, the Church moved from Jesus’ meal with open table fellowship to its continuance in the relatively safe ritual meal we call the Eucharist. Unfortunately, that ritual itself came to redefine social reality in a negative way, in terms of worthiness and unworthiness—the opposite of Jesus’ intention! Even if we deny that our intention is to define membership, it is clearly the practical message people hear today. It is strange and inconsistent that sins of marriage and sexuality seem to be the only ones that exclude people from the table when other sins like greed and hatefulness are more of a public scandal.

Notice how Jesus is accused by his contemporaries. By one side, he’s criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, for example); by the other side, he’s judged for eating too much (Luke 7:34) or with the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50, 11: 37-54, 14:1). He ate with both sides. He ate with lepers (Mark 14:3), he received a woman with a bad reputation at a men’s dinner (Luke 7:36-37), and he even invited himself over to a “sinner’s” house (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table.

During Jesus’ time, religious law was being interpreted almost exclusively through the Book of Leviticus, particularly chapters 17-24, the Law of Holiness. Jesus critiques his own tradition. He refuses to interpret the Mosaic law in terms of inclusion/exclusion, the symbolic self-identification of Judaism as the righteous, pure, elite group. Jesus continually interprets the Law of Holiness in terms of the God whom he has met—and that God is always compassion and mercy.