Liberalism is Unstable

Liberalism is architecturally unstable. It is a massive edifice that has been slowly, intentionally, and, by design, built without concern for its foundation. It has been built on the assumption that a stable, prosperous, and free society can allow “incentives to do the work of morals”—and that assumption is wrong.

Brian Dijkema on economist Samuel Bowles (and also channeling Michael Sandel)

Serious people are saying this, not just Christian zealots.

Patrick Deneen appears to be saying it, in a book I need to read. And his title, at least, says that liberalism has already failed, not that it is unstable.

My favorite essay on the theme of the emptiness and foundationlessness of liberalism, my favorite essay of any kind and for all time, is Stanley Fish’s “Why We Can’t All Just Get Along” (First Things, Feb. 1996).

Alan Jacobs on How to Think

Jacobs’ new book, How to Think, is great. This is great:

I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to others or to themselves, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. Not to mention, when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say “she really thinks for herself” when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z. Similarly, people in my line of work always say that we want to promote “critical thinking”—but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.

When we believe something to be true, we tend also to see the very process of arriving at it as clear and objective, and therefore the kind of thing we can achieve on our own; when we hold that a given notion is false, we ascribe belief in it to some unfortunate wrong turning, usually taken because an inquirer was led astray, like Hansel and Gretel being tempted into the oven by a wicked witch. And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.

Buy the book. You should.

Three SCOTUS Quotes Christians Need to Keep Handy

In the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy, arguing for the majority, promised that

religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons.

But the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, saw things differently in his dissent. He issued a warning:

Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of today’s decision is the extent to which the majority feels compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate. The majority offers a cursory assurance that it does not intend to disparage people who, as a matter of conscience, cannot accept same-sex marriage.  . . . That disclaimer is hard to square with the very next sentence, in which the majority explains that “the necessary consequence” of laws codifying the traditional definition of marriage is to “demea[n] or stigmatiz[e]” same-sex couples. . . . By the majority’s account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history—in particular, the tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States’ enduring definition of marriage—have acted to “lock . . . out,” “disparage,” “disrespect and subordinate,” and inflict “[d]ignitary wounds” upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. . . . These apparent assaults on the character of fair minded people will have an effect, in society and in court. . . . It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority’s ‘better informed understanding’ as bigoted.”

Justice Samuel Alito said, similarly, that the Obergefell decision would

be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African–Americans and women. . . . The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. . . .

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

I would like to add that Christians should not be bigots. Or hypocrites. If we oppose someone else’s sin, of any kind, we’d better oppose our own. And we’d better oppose that sin for reasons beyond the merely political or tribal. Let’s show that we are fair-minded—in other words, that we love our neighbors enough to listen and understand before speaking. That love may defuse some of their holy rage against us. Blessed are the peacemakers.

But as always, there is more than one ditch available. It isn’t bigoted to disagree, or to call sin sin. We’ve got to be willing to take the cultural catcalls, and worse, and stand firmly on revealed truth. Our love will not defuse all their rage. There is a grand battle going on between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. We’re not exempt from its slings and arrows, even if they sometimes feel outrageous.

(HT and edited quotes: Randall Smith in Public Discourse)

Wow. Just Wow.

Wow—from an evangelical literary review that looks promising:

I’m wondering if perhaps “fundies” have advantage in our emerging justice culture that others don’t have. Fundies grew up knowing that what they watched and where they went had moral importance. Fundies understand from an early age that entertainment is never just entertainment, and that mindlessly consuming anything is probably mindlessly consuming something bad. Fundies are well acquainted with putting moral demands on the world around them. They are usually scorned viciously for it. But doesn’t it feel like the fundies were ahead of the curve? I mean, when you live in a post-CTE, post-Weinstein, post-Nassar, post-Woody Allen era, might not the fundies have a lesson to teach about what life is like when you realize you can’t think deeply and enjoy heedlessly at the same time?

Just wow.

This supports what I’ve been saying to both of the people who will listen: American Protestant Christian fundamentalism, for all its faults, has something to offer to the body of Christ—and we who have been shaped by it ought, if possible, to strengthen what remains so we can keep giving those things. (What many fundamentalists don’t seem to recognize is that other Christian groups also have important things to offer to the body of Christ, too. But that’s another topic for another day.) I am abidingly thankful for the unshakeable impulse fundamentalism gave me, an impulse to check the Parental Advisories on a movie before I watch it. It’s been many years since I watched a movie for which the “sexual content” section on Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online went beyond a line or two. My wife can tell you that this has meant many, many movie nights spent in a fruitless search with many rejected candidates. Many “movie” nights end with our watching an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show (and we just skipped one of those, too).

I’m not holy because of the things I don’t do. Asceticism ≠ holiness. But I certainly wouldn’t be holy, wouldn’t be obeying the principles of God’s word, if I trained my conscience to accept ignoring Eph 5:3 in my entertainment choices:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.

It’s possible for Christians to deny the good gifts of God in culture by withdrawing from legitimate pleasures in entertainment media. But me and Andy Crouch don’t see that problem very often. It’s also possible for fundamentalism to become legalism, for personal standards to be applied Pharisaically to others, for us to practice our righteousness before men instead of before God, for us to claim biblical support for “standards” that we made up. Caveat lector.

But it’s also possible to so privatize the application of Scripture that I’m unwilling to call a spade a spade, particularly when that spade is practically nude and parading around for the world’s viewing pleasure and yet Matthew 5:27–30 is still in my Bible I just checked. I’m abidingly thankful for the power fundamentalism instilled in me to truly not care when the cool kids were all watching something I knew I shouldn’t enjoy. When people are being entertained by sins Jesus died to eradicate, I don’t fear vicious social scorn or the charge of legalism nearly as much as I fear the Lord. (I say this before God in good conscience, sadly aware of the times when I have failed.) This is my fundamentalist heritage.

Is a “Purity Culture” Necessarily Bad?

I haven’t read the book this CT article summarizes, a book about dating on Christian college campuses, so I am making no comment on it other than that it looks wildly interesting and, surely, hits close to home. Dating culture on evangelical campuses—well, one in particular—consumed my life for basically ten years. I felt a bit jaded by that culture by the time I escaped the dating world (in a Subaru Outback with trailing cans). But I never could bring myself to blame anyone. After all, I won. No, I triumphed. When my family care physician asked me last week if I was ever depressed, I couldn’t help bursting out in a big smile and saying, “I’m happy!” The wife I found at that Christian college is the most important (human) reason for that fact.

There was one paragraph in the article that leapt out at me—because I fear it’s becoming the stock thing to say, and I think it comes perilously close to cant. The strategy in this argument du jour has reached the sloganeering stage—and here’s the slogan: “purity culture.” This “purity culture” is always bad; there’s always a sneer bubbling just under its transparent surface.

 It’s not the ideal of sexual purity, per se, that causes these challenges, but purity culture, a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments that presents perfection as the sole ideal. Students reported to [author Dana] Malone that sex talk on campus, in public forums, doesn’t reach the level of authenticity or honesty that they need. The purity imperative means that students sometimes misrepresent their sexual pasts to friends and partners, and this leaves them uncertain about the place of physical attraction in an intimate relationship moving toward marriage. Women suffer shame and guilt not just around sexual sin but around the sheer fact of living in a body.

Here’s what I wonder: is it possible to have a labeled, self-conscious group (such as “evangelicalism”) which holds an ideal (such as sexual purity) without a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments developing around it? Every group does this with its dearly held values, right? It’s a necessary factor of group-formation and maintenance. There can be no group cohesion unless people are both manning the barricades and doing some measure of internal policing. Patriots fans don’t let Eagles fans into their clubs, and they don’t permit one another to wear Eagles jerseys, either.

Maybe I’ve only succeeded in making “purity culture” sound even more unappealing than the above quotation. So let me put it in terminology that should feel more positive to my readers: we in the church have a duty borne of love to restore brothers in sin, to provoke one another to love and good works, to exhort one another while it’s called “today.” Even when we’re doing something as simple as singing, what we’re supposed to be doing is “teaching” and “admonishing” one another. Sin is a big deal, and that fact is supposed to become part of our culture of interactions within the church.

And let me make it personal: without the purity culture surrounding me in my Christian environs as a young man, I think I would not have just told my doctor I was happy. Christ forgives, yes. And so can people. Love can overlook, love can bear all things. But sin still has consequences. The promiscuous guy in Proverbs gets “to the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” What if I’d gotten a girl pregnant at 21—what would I be doing today? What would my place be in my Christian community? Would I have a wife and beautiful children? I just don’t know. I’m glad I had social pressure on me not to get into that state. I’m glad there was a sense of shame attached, culturally, to the sexual and relationship sins I was tempted to commit. I’m glad that a structure of first written and then informal expectations was placed around me regarding dating at my Christian college. In my case, they helped me make about the smoothest possible transition a rather immature redhead could make from adolescence to adulthood. I felt that they accurately reflected the Bible’s clarity about sexual sin and freed me to read my Bible and attain that clarity in my own conscience. (Please read Kenneth Woodward’s sage comments on this topic.) All of child-rearing is scaffolding toward a free-standing state. I’m not embarrassed to say that I needed such scaffolding past high school.

To be clear, I did things I’m not proud of during those ten years, things for which I have repented to God and to others. I sinned. But “purity culture” rallied around me, taking my sins seriously but believing ardently in the power of God’s grace to restore broken people—like every single member of the purity culture knew himself and herself to be, or was at least supposed to. I had a good—not perfect, not ideal, but good—experience in the very center of a strong, conservative purity culture.

I’m also not at all sure I would have liked sexual authenticity and honesty all around me during my college years. Some struggles with sin are properly kept discreet. I’m genuinely glad I didn’t even know about certain sexual deviancies until I was a grad student reading about them as part of my job at my Christian college library. Christian “purity culture” kept me from hearing the kinds of specific confessions from other guys that would themselves have become temptations for me.

I do need to get around, however, to some positives I see in the anti-purity-culture sloganeering. I do see some. Because when love and grace and God’s sovereignty and his Spirit and clear Bible get leached out of a purity culture, the culture can become imperious or Pharisaical. It can start to give the impression that sexual attraction is not a necessary part of marriage, when the Song of Songs rather says the opposite at book length. I’m sure it can put students in the awkward spot of feeling like they have to lie about their past sexual sin in order to preserve their friendships or campus leadership positions. I am no expert here (my wife kind of is), but I do tend to think that there ought to be a safe place for Christian college students to get pastoral counsel about what they’ve done in their sexual lives without necessarily having to risk their spot on the school newspaper staff. I have been told that my alma mater has worked to disentangle discipline from counseling. That’s out of my league, but it sounds right to me.

And there’s this comment from the article that rings more or less true:

Purity culture also creates a push toward marriage as a redemptive state that can “erase” sexual sins in a relationship.

I can’t say I saw much of this in my experience or in others’, but now that I see it named, I recognize the idea as one that floated around—and did go at least once through my own head. I can’t say the purity culture around me in college accepted it or promoted it, but I can see how that culture might have failed sufficiently to counter it.

But then the article resorts again to cant, to platitudes about how bad platitudes are:

Students described to Malone how they value traditional Christian morality but also want tensions and difficulties to be acknowledged and discussed on campus with informed, authentic dialogue, not platitudes or pat answers.

And I wonder: particularly in a mixed group of college students, how could this ever happen? Sex is so personal. Where is authentic but careful dialogue going to occur except in private settings? And how could it happen among a group which includes sheltered kids and not-so-sheltered kids? Dialogues “on campus” sound like faculty-led dialogues—which necessarily include many different students. Who isn’t going to aim for the least offense in a setting like that?

“Purity culture” is not inherently bad. A given Christian college campus, a given Christian church, a given group of Christian friends may have come to mix some bad ideas and values into their purity culture, but please don’t ever let my own children—or myself—fall into a group of Christians in which no such culture exists at all. I expect the Bible to have effects not just on individuals but on group dynamics, on shared norms of practice and virtue, on whether dads in a particular church feel encouraged to be involved in their children’s (particularly their daughters’) dating lives or are embarrassed to do so. As Jonathan Leeman so wisely pointed out when talking about other kinds of gender norms, we’re in the realm of “wisdom” here, not direct biblical command. But I sniff a little Western expressive individualism in the antipathy toward “purity culture,” and I’m not giving in to the bashfest. I needed that culture, and I will work to maintain and purify (!) it for the good of the children, teens, and college students I love.

I do think I know what the author of the article (and the book?) means in complaining about complete sexual purity as a “sole ideal”: I think she means that people who truly have repented from their sexual sins can come to feel that they are damaged goods who can’t have the truly happy marriages everybody else is promised. But there really is one sole ideal: sexual purity before (and after!) marriage. And we can’t give that up, because it’s in the Bible.

But one way to keep purity culture from becoming brittle and loveless and therefore harmful is to recognize that 1) not one of us has met the ideal, even men and women who never touched a member of the opposite sex until their wedding day. It is possible to be closer to the ideal and possible to be farther away from it; but it is not possible, I believe, to meet it unless you’re Jesus. We’re all damaged goods. And 2) none of us is guaranteed a happy marriage, no matter how close we’ve come to the ideal evangelical path toward it. There is an element of the laborers in the vineyard here: no one will get less than their due, but some in God’s gracious economy—he’s not a tame lion—will get more. Generally speaking, staying away from the forbidden woman (or man) of Proverbs is a better path to a good marriage, but God is allowed to call Hoseas to marry Gomers, and he’s allowed to cleanse and restore promiscuous people. “Such were some of you.”

Maybe I just need to read the book profiled in CT—again, I am not commenting directly on it, just on the article. But I’ve been thinking a lot about “purity culture” since Josh Harris’ readers were invited to write about their experience with his dating books a few years back. I thought someone ought to come out and defend it at least a little on an obscure blog where no harm can be done.