A Christian Vision of Social Justice

Social change can be pursued with mercy and hope.

Like a lot of people, I’ve tried to envision a way to promote social change that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the unworthy. I’m groping for a social justice movement, in other words, that would be anti-oppression and without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.

I tried to write a column describing what that might look like — and failed. It wasn’t clear in my head.

But this week I interviewed Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College and a contributing writer for New York Times Opinion. He described a distinctly Christian vision of social justice I found riveting and a little strange (in a good way) and important for everybody to hear, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever.

This vision begins with respect for the equal dignity of each person. It is based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. We may be unjustly divided in a zillion ways, but a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.

The Christian social justice vision also emphasizes the importance of memory. The Bible is filled with stories of marginalization and transformation, which we continue to live out. Exodus is the complicated history of how a fractious people comes together to form a nation.

Today, many Americans are trying to tell the true history of our people, a tale that doesn’t whitewash the shameful themes in our narrative nor downplay the painful but uneven progressrealist but not despairing.

McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.

The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.

A struggle against a sin is not the work of a week or a year, since sin keeps popping back up. But this vision has led to some of the most significant social justice victories in history: William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and the Confessing Church’s struggle against Nazism. And, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

From Frederick Douglass and Howard Thurman to Martin Luther King Jr. on down, the Christian social justice movement has relentlessly exposed evil by forcing it face to face with Christological good. The marches, the sit-ins, the nonviolence. “You can’t get to just ends with unjust means,” McCaulley told me. “The ethic of Jesus is as important as the ends of liberation.”

He pointed me to the argument Thurman made in “Jesus and the Disinherited,” that hatred is a great motivator, but it burns down more than the object of its ire. You can feel rage but there has to be something on the other side of anger.

That is the ethic of self-emptying loveneither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin. The Christian approach to power is to tell those with power to give it up for the sake of those who lack. There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us.

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote. “We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.”

McCaulley emphasizes that forgiveness — like the kind offered by the congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., and family members after parishioners were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist — is not a stand-alone thing. It has to come with justice and change: “Why is Black forgiveness required again and again? Why is forgiveness heard but the demand for justice ignored?”

But this vision does not put anybody outside the sphere of possible redemption. “If you tell us you are trying to change, we will come alongside you,” McCaulley says. “When the church is at its best it opens up to the possibility of change, to begin again.”

New life is always possible, for the person and the nation. This is the final way the Christian social justice vision is distinct. When some people talk about social justice it sounds as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence. We all have to armor up for an endless war.

But, as McCaulley writes in his book “Reading While Black,” “the Old and New Testaments have a message of salvation, liberation and reconciliation.”

On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.

The Doctor Versus the Denier

Anthony Fauci’s at the pool, but Donald Trump’s in deep.

Never mind Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

You want to see a real can’t-look-away train wreck of a relationship? Look to the nation’s capital, where a messy falling out is chronicled everywhere from the tabloids to a glossy fashion magazine, replete with a photo shoot by a swimming pool.

The saga has enough betrayal, backstabbing, recrimination, indignation and ostracization to impress Edith Wharton.

The press breathlessly covers how much time has passed since the pair last spoke, whether they’re headed for splitsville, and if they can ever agree on what’s best for the children.

It was always bound to be tempestuous because they are the ultimate odd couple, the doctor and the president.

  • One is a champion of truth and facts. The other is a master of deceit and denial.
  • One is highly disciplined, working 18-hour days. The other can’t be bothered to do his homework and golfs instead.
  • One is driven by science and the public good. The other is a public menace, driven by greed and ego.
  • One is a Washington institution. The other was sent here to destroy Washington institutions.
  • One is incorruptible. The other corrupts.
  • One is apolitical. The other politicizes everything he touches — toilets, windows, beans and, most fatally, masks.

After a fractious week, when the former reality-show star in the White House retweeted a former game-show host saying that we shouldn’t trust doctors about Covid-19, Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci are gritting their teeth.

What’s so scary is that the bumpy course of their relationship has life-or-death consequences for Americans.

Who could even dream up a scenario where a president and a White House drop oppo research on the esteemed scientist charged with keeping us safe in a worsening pandemic?

The administration acted like Peter Navarro, Trump’s wacko-bird trade adviser, had gone rogue when he assailed Dr. Fauci for being Dr. Wrong, in a USA Today op-ed. But does anyone believe that? And if he did, would he still have his job?

No doubt it was a case of Trump murmuring: Will no one rid me of this meddlesome infectious disease specialist?

Republicans on Capitol Hill privately confessed they were baffled by the whole thing, saying they couldn’t understand why Trump would undermine Fauci, especially now with the virus resurgent. They think it’s not only hurting Trump’s re-election chances, but theirs, too.

As though it couldn’t get more absurd, Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Friday that she thinks it would help Trump’s poll numbers for him to start giving public briefings on the virus again — even though that exercise went off the rails when the president began suggesting people inject themselves with bleach.

How did we get to a situation in our country where the public health official most known for honesty and hard work is most vilified for it?” marvels Michael Specter, a science writer for The New Yorker who began covering Fauci during the AIDs crisis. “And as Team Trump trashes him, the numbers keep horrifyingly proving him right.”

When Dr. Fauci began treating AIDs patients, nearly every one of them died. “It was the darkest time of my life,” he told Specter. In an open letter, Larry Kramer called Fauci a “murderer.”

Then, as Specter writes, he started listening to activists and made a rare admission: His approach wasn’t working. He threw his caution to the winds and became a public-health activist. Through rigorous research and commitment to clinical studies, the death rate from AIDs has plummeted over the years.

Now Fauci struggles to drive the data bus as the White House throws nails under his tires. It seems emblematic of a deeper, existential problem: America has lost its can-do spirit. We were always Bugs Bunny, faster, smarter, more wily than everybody else. Now we’re Slugs Bunny.

Can our country be any more pathetic than this: The Georgia governor suing the Atlanta mayor and City Council to block their mandate for city residents to wear masks?

Trump promised the A team, but he has surrounded himself with losers and kiss-ups and second-raters. Just your basic Ayn Rand nightmare.

Certainly, Dr. Fauci has had to adjust some of his early positions as he learned about this confounding virus. (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” John Maynard Keynes wisely observed.)

Medicine is not an exact art,” Jerome Groopman, the best-selling author and professor at Harvard Medical School, put it. “There’s lots of uncertainty, always evolving information, much room for doubt. The most dangerous people are the ones who speak with total authority and no room for error.”

Sound like someone you know?

Medical schools,” Dr. Groopman continued, “have curricula now to teach students the imperative of admitting when something went wrong, taking responsibility, and committing to righting it.”

Some are saying the 79-year-old Dr. Fauci should say to hell with it and quit. But we need his voice of reason in this nuthouse of a White House.

Despite Dr. Fauci’s best efforts to stay apolitical, he has been sucked into the demented political kaleidoscope through which we view everything now. Consider the shoot by his pool, photographed by Frankie Alduino, for a digital cover story by Norah O’Donnell for InStyle magazine.

From the left, the picture represented an unflappable hero, exhausted and desperately in need of some R & R, chilling poolside, not letting the White House’s slime campaign get him down or silence him. And on the right, some saw a liberal media darling, high on his own supply in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “While America burns, Fauci does fashion mag photo shoots,” tweeted Sean Davis, co-founder of the right-wing website The Federalist.

It’s no coincidence that the QAnon-adjacent cultists on the right began circulating a new conspiracy theory in the fever swamps of Facebook that Dr. Fauci’s wife of three and a half decades, a bioethicist, is Ghislane Maxwell’s sister. (Do I need to tell you she isn’t?)

Worryingly, new polls show that the smear from Trumpworld may be starting to stick; fewer Republicans trust the doctor now than in the spring.

Forget Mueller, Sessions, Comey, Canada, his niece, Mika Brzezinski. Of the many quarrels, scrapes and scraps Trump has instigated in his time in office, surely this will be remembered not only as the most needless and perverse, but as the most dangerous.

As Dr. Fauci told The Atlantic, it’s “a bit bizarre.”

More than a bit, actually.

Is the Trump Cult a Death Cult?


This week, President Donald Trump began asserting that the United States would once again be “open for business” by Easter, on April 12. He provided no scientific or medical justification for that timeline, which Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force has emphasized is “flexible.” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the president’s continuing refusal to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously.

Reporter: You hope to have the country re-open by Easter, you said earlier you would like to see churches packed, who suggested Easter?

Donald J. Trump: I just thought it was a beautiful time. I’d love to see it come even sooner, but I just think it’d be a beautiful timeline.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan, coming to you from my home near Washington D.C. And very much still social distancing perhaps to President Trump’s great disappointment.

Adam Serwer: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.

MH: That’s my guest today, the brilliant chronicler of the Trump era, Atlantic writer Adam Serwer.

And yes, to be clear, Trump and his Fox News media echo chamber want to ‘reopen the economy’ by Easter and perhaps kill hundreds of thousands of people in the process. But why? Why would anyone in a position of such power defy the medical experts and risk so many innocent American lives? What goes on inside that deranged orange head of his?

On Sunday night, Fox News host Steve Hilton, who I’m embarrassed to say is a fellow British immigrant, he said this on his show:

Steve Hilton: Our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces whipping up fear over this virus, they can afford an indefinite shutdown. Working Americans can’t. They’ll be crushed by it. You know that famous phrase, “the cure is worse than the disease?” That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it’s just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.

MH: Hours later, Donald Trump was repeating that line “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF” in all capitals on Twitter. And like the man-child that he is, having just discovered a new rhetorical toy to play with, Trump’s been repeating it ad nauseum ever since.

DJT: I said, you know, I don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem itself. The problem being obviously the problem… We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem… It’s like this cure is worse than the problem… That’s why I talk about the cure being worse than the problem. We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.

MH: So too have his advisers. In fact, it was a perfect Fox News feedback loop – as Trump adviser Larry Kudlow, who’s been wrong about almost everything related to the US economy over the past two decades – he went on Fox and said:

Larry Kudlow: The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease.

MH: By Wednesday, the president had made it clear – he wants social distancing and self quarantining and working from home, he wants it all over as soon as possible. Because he wants the US economy back up and running. Those vulnerable old people, those immuno-compromised folks, they can look after themselves. They’ll be fine. In fact, every time you think this president can’t say anything crazier on the subject of the coronavirus, he outdoes himself – here’s what he said to Fox News on Tuesday:

DJT: Easter’s a very special day for me and I see it sort of in that timeline that I’m thinking about. And I say wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches, you know the churches aren’t allowed essentially to have much of a congregation there and most of them, I watched on Sunday, online. And it was terrific, by the way, but online is never going to be like being there. So I think Easter Sunday and you’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.

MH: Let’s be clear how mad this is – the idea of not just reopening the economy so soon but having packed churches anytime soon. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Almost every other country is trying to lockdown their population, keep them from going out, keep them away from gathering in big groups. This is not a left-wing or anti Trump conspiracy. Trump’s closest allies, British prime minister Boris Johnson and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, both of them this week announced a lockdown of their respective countries. Modi is trying to prevent a billion Indians from leaving their homes over the next three weeks in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

And yet this same week, Trump is saying he wants the few and belated restrictions that some US states put in place lifted. He wants the U.S. economy to go back to ‘normal,’ whatever that is, and he also wants packed churches, despite the fact that a study by scientists and doctors at Imperial College in the UK found that if this virus was left to spread, with no restrictions in place, it would lead to around 2.2 million deaths in America by the end of the summer.

2.2 million deaths, think about that. Trump, the president hailed by white evangelicals as a saviour of Christianity, could be the president who not only kills liberals, if that’s what they want, but also decimates the churchgoing population in this country. So why do it? Why go against the advice of his own top scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who want to keep social distancing in place?

I have three reasons.

Number 1: corporate greed. There’s the Wall Street/big business crew who don’t want anything to get in the way of their obscene, never-ending profits and bonuses and share buybacks, certainly not a pesky little pandemic. This week you had Gary Cohn, former COO at Goldman Sachs, former Trump economic adviser saying “it’s time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on”. His fellow former Goldman Sachs boss, Lloyd Blankfein, a Democrat, tweeted: “Within a very few weeks let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.” Yeah, it’ll be fine.

Fox News hosts weighed in too:

Ed Henry: Now, every life matters and you don’t want to minimize any of them but when the mortality rate is that low, what is the balance? What would be your advice to the president if say he’s trying to make this decision this coming weekend ahead of the expiration of the 15 days to slow the spread?

MH: “Every life matters…but -” There really shouldn’t be a but after the words “every life matters.” Remember: this is supposed to be the pro-life party! But: The market is God. What the market wants, the market gets, even if you have to make human sacrifices at the altar of that market God.

So number 1, there’s the market-driven, profit-obsessed angle.

Number 2: there’s the personal greed, there’s Trump’s own personal bottom line. This is a president who wants to make money out of the White House, not lose money from it. As investigative reporter David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post tweeted this week, six out of seven of Trump’s biggest-name, biggest-revenue-generating resorts and golf clubs are closed right now. He obviously wants them back open again, and by the way, he also refuses to say whether he’ll accept or decline federal government bailout money for his own businesses:

Reporter: Do you expect your family company to seek government assistance if it’s eligible?

DJT: I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have, I have hotels. Everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected so it’s one of those things.

MH: But, number 3, perhaps above all else, Trump wants to get re-elected and he can’t get re-elected if the economy is in the middle of a Great Depression; if unemployment, as some predict, hits 30% and growth falls by 50%. He knows he can’t. His entire re-election strategy was to point to both a booming jobs market and a booming stock market as evidence of his presidential success. So let’s be clear: this is a president who is willing to sacrifice potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of American lives in order to get himself a second term for a presidency which by the way he never really wanted in the first place.

What’s so frustrating though is that according to the polls, 6 out of 10 Americans approve of his handling of the crisis. Approve. I want to cry. I want to scream. What is wrong with them? Now, of course, part of that is just a rallying-around-the-flag-in-a-time-of-national-crisis phenomenon, a rallying-around-of-institutions – the presidency chief among them. As economist Stephanie Kelton pointed out in this show last week. And it’ll dissipate. That aspect of it will. Lest we forget, after 9/11, George W Bush had approval ratings of above 90% but he still left office as the one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history. Now, of course Bush is popular again because he’s NOT Trump – and because Michelle Obama and Ellen have a soft spot for him. And because he paints. But I digress.

Trump has the whole ‘patriotism in a time of crisis’ thing going for him, but he also has benefited from the fact that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, was missing in action for much of last week and and when he turned up this week, I am sorry to say, he was typically wooden, underwhelming and uninspiring, especially for the moment we’re in:

Joe Biden: President Trump and Mitch McConnell are trying to put a corporate bailout ahead of millions of families. You know, it’s families. It’s simply wrong.

MH: And Trump has benefited because the Congressional Democratic leadership has not been radical enough – yes they’ve pushed back against Senate Republican attempts to give the Trump administration a half a trillion dollar corporate slush fund. Yes, they’ve pushed back against any kind of bailout for big corporations that allows share buybacks or bonuses for bosses. Yes, they’ve demanded some extra protections and income for workers, especially in the form of a boosted unemployment insurance payment, which is good… but overall their response is still very tame, given the scale and scope of this unprecedented economic crisis, given the severity and extent of the human suffering. I mean, if you want to see how far the Democrats still really need to go, just think about what other Western countries are doing to try and prevent this turning into another Great Depression.

  • France has a put a moratorium on all rent and utility payments.
  • Italy and Spain have done the same with mortgages.
  • Denmark has promised to cover 75% of salaries for businesses that don’t lay off their employees. And in the
  • Netherlands, they’re paying up to 90% of wages for companies hit hardest by the pandemic.

Why can’t the United States do any of this? Why are we now being told that the choice, the false choice, is only between saving the economy and fighting the virus? Why in the U.S., the richest country in the history of the world, which every couple of years seems to find a trillion or so dollars down the back of a couch in order to pay for the new invasion of some poor brown country or another, why can’t the U.S. do any of this? Why aren’t Democrats calling for a much bigger role for the government, in terms of bailing out people, not just corporations? Why aren’t they calling for much bigger checks for ordinary people, delivered not just as a one-off payment, but every month, going forward, until this crisis is over as Bernie Sanders and AOC and others have called for?

You know, a week or two ago, when the coronavirus pandemic started to really to take its toll here in the U.S., I thought for a moment, maybe this is the Donald Rumsfeld “unknown unknown” that finally knocks Trump off his pedestal, the crisis that causes him to lose the forthcoming presidential election. Now, I’m not so sure.

He still, after all, has his cult behind him, and what we’ve discovered in recent days, is that it’s not just a loyal cult, it’s a death cult. It is! Listen to devout Trumpist, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, speaking on – where else – Fox News this week:

Dan Patrick: Tucker, no one reached out to me and said as a senior citizen are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren. And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me, I have six grandchildren, that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children.

MH: Grandpa’s gotta die for the grandkids to enjoy eating out again. Sorry. Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who led the bureau’s investigation into Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11, watched that clip of Patrick and tweeted, and I quote: “I’ve dealt with suicidal cults before. I encountered people who are willing to die for their faith, ideology, race, etc. But, I never encountered anyone who is willing to die for someone else’s 401k. This is a whole new level of craziness,” he tweeted.

Indeed it is. And so to talk more about this new level of craziness to try and make sense of, and deconstruct, this weird political terrain, and to try and understand the sheer insanity of the Trump posture on the coronavirus pandemic in particular, I’m joined by perhaps the chronicler of the Trump era, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who is the author of such brilliant and memorable essays as “The Nationalist’s Delusion”, “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots” and, of course, the must-read that is “The Cruelty Is the Point.”

He joins me now from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Adam, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

Adam Serwer: Thank you for having me.

MH: You wrote in the Atlantic, Adam that after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health while Trump has seen it as a public relations problem, explain what you mean by that.

AS: Well, you can see from the moment that Trump was first asked about the coronavirus publicly on CNBC in late January, he said, you know, “China’s handling it, it’s fine”. And he repeated that line of “it’s fine” even when Americans started becoming infected. He said, you know, the cases are gonna be down to zero in a couple of days, you know, we were over 500 deaths in the United States. He simply thought that this was another issue, that if he repeated whatever his, you know, whatever message that he had settled on, if he just repeated his talking points over and over, he would be able to overwhelm whatever else anybody was saying about it which is a strategy that has honestly worked for him many times before. It may even work here, who knows? Even though the bodies are starting to pile up. But what’s certainly true is that it has not solved the problem, which is that the United States is being hit by a deadly pandemic, and hospitals are being overwhelmed and people are dying.

MH: But as you say, it may even work here. That’s the big kind of political question in all of this separate to the scientific and public health question because it has worked before. And Bill Gates talked this week about, you know, a pile of bodies in the corner. Are you saying that even with that pile of bodies, God forbid in the corner as the death toll is mounting day after day, that he can still get away with it? You think that his blustering through like he did in this “Fox News townhall” this week that might work politically?

AS: I mean, I think that there is a large segment of the electorate that rationalizes, ignores or denies anything, any negative information associated with Trump that they see as incongruent with Trump as they see him. And so it’s really you know, it’s really a question of, you know, to what extent these people still have the ability to sway a national election. But the truth is also that in the absence of you know, for the most part the Democrats have been really absent from this debate over whether or not Trump has properly handled their coronavirus pandemic. And so Trump has been on TV every night and there is getting edited down into local news clips to where he sounds coherent and responsible. Despite the way he actually handled this which is by ignoring his own advisers and treaties to prepare for a serious possible outbreak here in the United States.

MH: And despite the fact that when you don’t edit him down to bite sized chunks for evening news, he’s mad and rambling.

AS: Right, he sounds rambling, he says things that aren’t true. He says things like, you know, I don’t want to let infected Americans off a cruise ship because I don’t want the number of infected to go up in the United States as though that was the main issue. But you know, to the extent that the Democrats have absented themselves from the political debate over this issue, you can see Americans who are, you know, even Democrats are starting to approve of the way that Trump is handling this, which is honestly given the way that he’s handled it, which was waiting until it became an undeniable problem to do anything about it is actually insane.

MH: So I want to talk to you about the Trump base that you rightly said rationalizes his behavior, but I also want to talk about the Democrats. But let’s just stick with the Thanos-like figure that we have running the government right now, given what you know about Trump and how he behaves, were you surprised to hear the President say what he said on Tuesday that he wanted the economy up and running again, open again in time for Easter, and, “packed churches?” Did that surprise you? Shock you?

AS: No, it doesn’t because I mean, the only thing that has ever motivated Trump is what’s good for Trump. And to the extent that the whole country doesn’t see that it’s because of a propaganda apparatus that surrounds him that has built up a cult of personality that is, you know, to some extent, impervious to outside intervention. You know, so for him to say, you know, he did not take this seriously until the stock market started crashing which threatened his political prospects. And so now, you know, he sees an economic downturn as a result of these social distancing strategies which are meant to contain a pandemic, and he’s saying, well, we need to get the economy running again no matter what it costs. The problem with that, obviously, is that when people start dying again, the economy is going to slow down anyway. So there isn’t a choice here. I mean, obviously, eventually, we have to like, eventually, when the epidemic is contained, we need to ease people back into you know, something resembling a normal life, but you can’t do that if a deadly disease is still ravaging everything. People aren’t going to go to restaurants, they’re not going to send their kids to school. They’re not gonna go out and buy cars and iPhones or whatever.

MH: Yes, you’re right. It’s stating the obvious that if hundreds of thousands of people die, which is what epidemiologists say will happen, if these restrictions are lifted the know the economy can’t continue as normal if millions of members of the workforce are dropping dead and overwhelming hospitals. Just going back to your propaganda machine point you wrote in The Atlantic about this sort of toxic symbiosis that exists between the President and his right wing media echo chamber, especially Fox News, which both amplify his false statements about the virus, but also provide him with crazy fodder to repeat you know, this line this week about the cure is can’t be worse than the disease which you just lifted from Fox. You also mentioned an Arkansas pastor who was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” Have we ever seen a public political party media response to a pandemic like this before, just so loaded and so, so filled with kind of partisan meaning and baggage?

AS: Well, I’m not a historian of infectious diseases, so I can’t answer that. But I can say that, you know, the behavior of Fox News has been really extraordinary here. Because what they did was when the President was downplaying the epidemic, Fox News was downplaying the epidemic. And when the President decided that he needed to sort of take charge and show everybody he was doing his job, Fox News, talked about how heroic the President was being. And now that, you know, the President is worried about his re-election, Fox News is encouraging him to think about opening up the economy again, which is, I mean, it’s not even clear to me what that entails except exposing people to potential infection.

MH: But which of them Adam is the dog and which of them is the tail?

AS: I don’t think – It’s not actually clear. I mean, I don’t think that’s actually fair because in one sense, Trump looks at Fox is a kind of like pipeline to his base. And also Fox sees Trump as an important asset for their political project. So, they sort of mutually stand each other up. Fox defends the president no matter what he does, and when they think he’s, and you can see this sometimes on Fox, when people on Fox think of President is getting himself in danger as you know, Fox News host Tucker Carlson did earlier this month, he tried to convince the president that actually the epidemic was a serious thing, and he should start taking it seriously. But until then, you know, Fox News was endangering its own audience by telling them that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.

And what’s fascinating about that, is that Fox imagines itself as a corrective to the mainstream media, which supposedly lies to you all the time for political reasons. But what we have here is Fox which, you know, internally, they were saying we need to take precautions to worry about this epidemic, but they were broadcasting the message that there was nothing to worry about. And that’s because their role is to protect the president and make sure that conservative base sees them as infallible. It’s not to actually inform the conservative base about information that is vital to their well being. In fact, when they had the opportunity to do that what they did was endanger them by lying to them about how serious this was.

MH: So you’ve followed this presidency closely. You’ve written extensively about Trump. Do you believe his handling of this crisis is a product of ignorance, of his sheer dumbness, of his conspiratorial anti-scientific mindset? Or is he just a sociopath who knows what he’s doing could kill millions of people, but he just doesn’t care because he firmly believes his reelection is more important to the world than social distancing or saving American lives?

AS: I think the most simplest thing to understand about Trump is he thinks that everything is about him. So he will always look out for number one. The federal government there is to do what he wants. Even the governors of states who are begging him for aid have to be nice to Mr. Trump if they want to get it. So you know, the sort of authoritarian cult of personality that has been built up around him sees the same thing. Trump is basically the nation to them. So, Trump cannot betray the nation. He can’t betray the public trust because he is all of those things. He is those things manifested. So there’s nothing that he can do that is actually selfish, whatever acts that might be selfish in another context by another chief executive, by another human being are not selfish because Trump is the country and therefore he is serving the country. So when Trump is pursuing his own self interest, no matter the human cost, even when it’s a pursuit that exposes Americans to a deadly disease because he doesn’t feel like dealing with it until the stock market crashes, he is still serving the country loyally because after all, to serve Trump loyally is to serve the country loyally. And this is a sort of very dangerous political mentality, and one that unfortunately, the country is going to be dealing with the consequences of for a very long time.

MH: And it’s not just a dangerous political reality and tendency, but also the public health aspects here are bizarre because in China which is a dictatorship, they actually used the authoritarian powers some would argue, to shut down things in a way a democracy can’t and therefore contain the infection, contain the pandemic. Here in the U.S., the authoritarianism that we have in the White House is actually hampering the response to this crisis because instead of people going out and locking down the country, the authoritarianism is manifesting itself in public health officials, scientists standing up in public and lavishing praise on Trump, because they know that’s the only way he’ll even vaguely entertain what they have to say. So you have respected members of the scientific establishment, public officials beginning each and every statement in front of a camera by praising Trump.

AS: So I want to push back on this a little bit because the Chinese government did actually suppress the understanding of the disease. They said that it wasn’t transmissible between humans, they silenced a doctor who was saying this was a very serious problem.

MH: They have a lot to answer for.

AS: And when that doctor died, there was a huge, you know, one of the biggest public outcries we’ve seen in China because of you know, he had been trying to inform the public about the deadliness of this disease. So the thing about authoritarian figures is that they will always pursue the path that they think is necessary for their political survival. And in terms of public benefit, you know, the public will only benefit as long as the interests of the authoritarian figure align with the public interest. So as long as those two things are not aligned, in other words, as long as Trump thought that he could bluster his way through the disease in the early months of this year by saying, “Oh, it’s not a big deal, it’s gonna go away,” he was doing that. And now that, you know, it’s obviously a serious problem, he’s pursuing his own self interest and you know, signing a stimulus package that’s going to, you know, try to cushion the impact of this on the economy. But he’s actually still only pursuing his own self interest in the same way that China was.

MH: Do you think and I hate to ask this question, because I’ll probably feel like a naive fool as I say the word but I’m gonna say it anyways, do you think this is the moment that the Republican party or at least some congressional Republicans dare to split with him? There’s been reporting from Politico that fear is stalking the corridors of Capitol Hill as people are getting infected. Even GOP Congresswoman Liz Cheney, daughter of the ghoulish Dick, normally loyal Trumpist was tweeting this week that now is not the time to end social distancing or reopen the economy. Now is the time to fight the pandemic. If you have Republicans, who, unlike the base, actually realize that their lives are at stake. Do you think this might be a moment they think, “You know what? We need to push back against Donald Trump. He’s risking our lives and our family’s lives”?

AS: No, I do not. And I’ll tell you why because if you look at those statements, do you notice that they exempt the president from, the criticism is implied, it’s implicit, the only thing that will break Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and the cult of personality that surrounds him is political defeat.

MH: And we don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to come back to political defeat and whether it’s happening or not. Just in terms of the grip on the party, then just sticking with your point. There is this irony that when people like Dan Patrick, of your state of Texas and Glenn Beck even say stuff like “Well, we’re old and we’re willing to die for our economy to survive,” which has become a weird right-wing talking point this week –

AS: When they say they’re willing to die for the economy, what they really mean is they’re willing to let you die for the economy. That’s what they mean.

MH: Of course, because Glenn Beck wasn’t the guy who went to volunteer to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan even as he kind of praised all that nonsense. But when they say stuff like that, and when Trump says he wants to see packed churches in a couple of weeks time, old people and evangelicals in churches are basically the Trump base. They’re risking killing off their own base, aren’t they?

AS: I mean, look, if you’re asking me whether I think that Trump actually cares about the well being of these people, or whether Fox or whether conservative media actually cares about these people’s well being, the answer is no. But I think, you know, the issue here is that they are appealing to a sentiment that I think is actually quite widespread and that people should not dismiss which is that it is very scary to be out of work. It is very scary to wonder whether you’re going to be able to pay the rent on your apartment, get food for your family, you know whether you’re gonna be able to pay your bills, your student loans, this is very scary. This is a very scary moment. So when a used car salesman comes up to you and says we can just reopen the economy and it’s going to be fine. It is tempting to say, okay, hopefully this guy is telling the truth, hopefully he’s right because this is a very scary situation that I’m in. And what that means, to me that makes this all the more despicable because everybody knows what the danger is here to thousands, if not possibly millions of people all over the country based on some of the most pessimistic epidemiological assessments. You know, people really are scared and they really want to hear that this is going to be over soon.

MH: But here’s where I would slightly push back against you and say you’re being a little bit too generous is that the people who really are scared aren’t necessarily all of the people we’ve being hearing this week.

AS: No, I think that’s right.

MH: I think there’s a definite issue for the left. And we discussed this last week on the show with AOC and with Stephanie Kelton, which has come up with an actual solution to stop the bleeding now, a big economic plan that actually helps people. The choice is not between let people die and save the economy. You can save the economy and prevent people from dying, as European countries seem to be doing slowly.

AS: That’s exactly right. And you can’t actually save the economy by letting people die. You can’t actually save the economy that way.

MH: So coming back to the let people die, that seems to just be some kind of weird, you know, macho Trumpist, you know, push back against basically conventional science and, and the libs.

AS: There is a tremendous temptation for people on Twitter who are never going to have to put their actions to their words to act like tough guys. It happens all the time. It’s extraordinarily stupid.

MH: So on that basis, let me ask you this question: We’ve always known that Trump is in charge of a cult, or at least some of us, as you and I have pointed that out before. Do you think it’s now fair to call the Trump cult a death cult?

AS: I mean, I don’t know whether I would put that label on it. But I can say that the rationalizations that I’m seeing on social media with regards to either the death toll in New York, or the human cost of simply, you know, ending social distancing before we have the epidemic under control is absolutely sociopathic. It is cruel, it is wrong, and it’s disgusting.

MH: And it’s not just disgusting. It’s totally hypocritical because these are the same people Glenn Beck, who went crazy in 2009 over so-called death panels that were involved in Obamacare, and now we have the president of the Unites States a Republican, literally implementing the idea of death panels, saying some people need to die for the rest of us to get what we want economically. And the whole cult aspect is fascinating because the writer Ed Solomon tweeted this week, and I quote, “It’s happening. Trump is now literally killing people on Fifth Avenue.” And he was right, his followers don’t care.

AS: I mean, look, there are doctors who are having to make horrible decisions about who’s gonna be put on a ventilator and who’s not. You know, this is scary stuff. And it’s really extraordinary for a bunch of big guys who essentially shitpost on Twitter for a living, to go out and talk about the great sacrifice they’re willing to make. They’re doing nothing, absolutely nothing. And it’s a disgrace that they think of themselves as offering something to the country, some great sacrifice while there are people working, medical workers working 12 and 14-15 hour shifts, trying to keep human beings alive and have to, you know, in an epidemic that they initially said wasn’t a big deal.

MH: I want to read you a quote from journalist Tom Kludt. On Twitter this week, he said, “We’re days away from calls for social distancing being met with a series of cry laughing emojis and conservatives gathering in large groups to trigger the libs.” He’s right, isn’t he? The Republicans, the right have successfully made a pandemic and medical advice on how to handle a pandemic into part of the culture wars.

AS: Well, look, the writer Jonathan Katz, who’s covered a lot of disasters, you know, the way he put it is that we’re not actually in the disaster yet. So despite the fact that we’ve you know, we’ve reached hundreds of deaths already, it’s actually going to get worse this week. And so, you know, I’m not going to make any predictions about what’s going to happen or to what extent this is going to become a culture war issue. But I think that, at the moment, part of the right’s reaction to this is a callous disregard for the lives of people in cities like New York, whom they consider lesser than them. You know, because it’s happening in blue areas. It’s not a big deal. Well, look, it’s a disease. It does not discriminate based on political affiliation. It’s going to come for other areas of the country, too. And it’s not going to be funny when it does. It’s going to be terrible.

MH: Yep. And Louisiana has already had to declare an emergency as it’s spreading there. We have Rand Paul testing positive and behaving irresponsibly wandering around the halls of the Senate while he was waiting for his test results. How worried are you, Adam, about the poll that came out this week showing almost 50% approval rating for Trump and 60% approval for his handling of the crisis which of course defies reality in many ways? Is that just a patriotic rallying around the flag? Because 60% approval means Democrats are saying he’s handling the crisis well.

AS: I’m not a polling expert. But what I would say is that I think it reflects two things. One is that there is a rally effect. And when you look at the polls of George W. Bush after 9/11, this is actually a pretty small rally effect, if that’s what’s happening. The other thing is, like I said earlier, the Democrats have essentially ceded the political conversation to the president. So it’s not a surprise that people who are only hearing one side of the story, you know, think that side is right.

MH: Why do you think that is? Why do you think the Democrats have ceded it?

AS: I don’t know. I mean, this is a story for someone who’s in Washington on Capitol Hill, who’s talking to these people who can explain what’s going on. I mean, I think they would probably say, “Well, look, we’re trying to save the country right now. You know, unlike Trump, we actually have to do our jobs. We can’t just go on TV every day and do nothing.”

MH: Well, they could go on TV every day, if they wanted to. They could hold a simultaneous press conference saying everything he just said is a lie.

AS: They could put someone on TV every day. You know, and who knows, maybe they will after this deal is done and after they’ve managed to secure some form of aid for the people who are going to be suffering because of this. But I think you know what you’re saying, like, I don’t want to trivialize politics. Politics is how societies make collective decisions. It is not, you know, to say that, oh, we’re not going to play politics, what you’re really saying is that you’re going to take yourself out of that process of making decisions. It’s not really an option. You know, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the future holds. I think, you know, things are going to get worse before they get better. And I think that the president has obviously done an awful job. And that’s going to become apparent when you compare the impact of the pandemic in the United States compared to other countries, whether or not that affects his political fortunes, I have no idea. You know, I’m not going to make any predictions about that.

MH: The problem with the comparison with other countries, of course is by the time we have it, it may well be too late. And I’m glad you made the point about politics because it really drives me up the wall when people say, let’s not politicize this, it’s not a time for politics, especially when liberals and centrist say this. Because if you’re distributing hundreds of billions of taxpayer money, billions of dollars and you have to choose between whether it goes to corporations or to real people, that is a political decision, that cannot be un-politicized. And I just find it bizarre when people who should know better say this. Just before we finish, you mentioned the Democrats. We saw the return of Joe Biden this week, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the front runner. He gave a speech from his home. He did a bunch of TV interviews, in some of which he made some good strong points about what to do next. And then some of which he failed to complete simple sentences and coughed into his hands. Do you have faith that Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump in November, especially after or in the midst of this crisis?

AS: I don’t have any political prognostications to make about Biden. I mean, look, I’ve been very critical of Joe Biden and very critical of his past record. I do think that you know, the primary showed that he has more of a political strength with sort of average Democrats than I think a lot of people in the press anticipated, whether or not that makes you happy or it makes you sad, it’s obviously true. I think the question really is, is does that strength persist in a general election with Donald Trump? And does it work to neutralize the ideal geographic distribution of his support and the electoral college? And I don’t think we know the answer.

MH: Just before you go, Adam, there was a very powerful tweet you did last week that really got to me. I shared it with friends and family of mine on WhatsApp and text. I just want to read it out to our listeners, as we end our conversation. You wrote, “Adults can’t visit their parents. Parents can’t visit their adult children. And if they could, they couldn’t even embrace each other. I don’t know how many, but some of us hugged our loved ones for the last time, and we don’t know it yet,” is what you wrote. When I read that, it really got to me because I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. And my parents, I’m in the United States, my parents, elderly parents are abroad. I have no idea when I’m next going to see them, praying that I see them soon. I’m sure many people listening to this show. What do you think people are going through? When you wrote that tweet, what were you thinking? What were you going through? What do you think people are going through right now when it comes to that very fundamental issue of human relationships?

AS: I think I think it’s just crushing. I mean, I miss my parents. My parents are old enough to be in the risk group. So you know, they were actually supposed to come visit before air travel shut down, and I didn’t get to see them. And I think you know, and I was looking on Instagram and a friend who lives in the same city as their parents, their parents came over, but they had to, they couldn’t touch each other. They had to stay far away from each other. While they were able to see each other they weren’t even able to embrace and it just made me think about, you know, the extent to which, you know, we’re all like, we cannot do this. This epidemic has deprived us of one of the simplest, like simplest human comforts that have helped sustain people in the worst times in the history of humanity, which is the embrace of our loved ones. And it is just extremely tragic and sad. And it also makes me extremely angry about how this government has handled, you know, what it saw coming way in advance long enough to prepare for it and it did not.

MH: Me too, Adam, which is why I wanted to get you on the show today. Thank you so much for taking time out. Stay safe, my friend, talk soon.

AS: Thank you for having me.

MH: Thanks, Adam.

AS: Take care.

MH: That was Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic. Check out his pieces for them, they’re always, always brilliant and insightful. Adam says that Trump and Fox don’t actually care about the people in their base who could die from this disease and from believing that it isn’t a threat and doesn’t require social distancing and other precautionary measures. The thing is – how do you get through to a cult, a death cult? And how do you stop them from endangering all the rest of us too? It’s one of the biggest questions of our time and one we’ll continue to examine and explore here on Deconstructed.

[Music interlude.]

MH: But for now, that’s our show. Stay safe and indoors, if you can.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

See you next week.

American Paganism

It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.

Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.

Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public squareRod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.

Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularismis actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.

Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”

This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it

  1. rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
  2. Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.

In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion. 

Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.

More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.

Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.

Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.

But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.

Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”

The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.

The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”

For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”

Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.

To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.

A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.

First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.

Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.

Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”

The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as

  • unrestrained capitalist greed; as
  • authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
  • callous environmental degradation; as a
  • superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
  • petty “sanctimonious nationalism.” 

In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.

The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.

But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”

Schmitz’s analyses from April and August of 2016 really must be considered at length, given where they were published. Take this representative passage:

At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his ­fellow men.

And here’s another:

In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.

By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”

If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The  Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.

But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today. 

Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?

This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.

We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.

But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.

This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”