Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Sentences and Movements

Explaining what you mean is a virtue.

“Black Lives Matter” is a sentence. It is also a movement, and Al Mohler’s exhortation for conservative evangelicals to endorse the sentence without supporting the movement makes intuitive sense. But in a way, I think the fact that this has to be pointed out at all is a sign of how dire the status of public discourse has become. We gloss over it because we are far more interested in seeing where a person lands on a predetermined theological-political grid, but I would love to hear more honest talk about how in the world we got to a place  where a sentence can mean a movement: thus, a spectacle whereby saying a sentence marries a person to a set of ideas and hesitating over the ideas means it would be better if a person didn’t say the sentence. This seems disastrous to me. It suggests the impossibility of basic ideals and the blurring of all fundamental observations into activism.

Every Christian ought to joyfully, aggressively assert that black lives matter. Every American to whom the Declaration of Independence is more than prop ought to joyfully and aggressively celebrate the fulfillment of its ideals in the unfolding of justice toward African-Americans. I’m sure there’s a distressing number of American Christians who cannot reconcile themselves to either of these very basic statements. Racism is real and it is an heirloom. To those people we can issue an invitation to repentance, and until such repentance we must work and pray that their presence and influence in churches and government will be proactively marginalized.

I am also sure that there is a large number of American Christians (I think it’s larger than the aforementioned group, though I could be wrong) who endorse those basic sentences but cannot reconcile themselves to the lump of political and theological commitments they think those sentences conceal. It’s this group that I’m interested in, because they are indeed in a tough spot. They’re not in a tough spot because the importance of black lives or of police justice is hopelessly complex—they’re not—but because the extreme polarization of language in our society makes even knowing what all you’re saying very difficult.

Take the issue of defunding police departments. It turns out that “defund” actually may or not mean defund. So if I say I don’t agree with defunding police departments, what I could be telling you is that I don’t agree with abolishing local police BUT I DO think police unions ought to be busted up and qualified immunity scrapped. Or maybe I’m telling you I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the current status quo. The point is this: There’s absolutely no way for you to know what I mean by “I don’t agree with defunding the police” until you ask me what I mean, but there’s no motivation for you to ask me what I mean if there’s an ambient cultural sense that sentences mean movements. “Don’t defund the police” turns into “black lives don’t matter” in the same way that “black lives matter” turns into “defund the police.” If principles are being asked to provide cover for practices, people leery of the practices will appear leery of the principles.

The catastrophic consequences of this for talking about race are obvious. But there are other versions, too.

Take gender and the church. What do you think is being said when you hear something like, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women”? Your answer to that question will almost certainly depend on which movement you think is represented by the statement. If you put aside movements and just deal with the sentence, there could be a lot of truth in that basic statement. We could say pastors ought not cavort together in Facebook groups to demean female authors they dislike. We could say that evangelical men ought not look at pornography and corrupt their ability to love and respect and learn from their sisters in Christ. Those are examples that could generate a lot of unity around a statement like that. But as you probably know, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women” could represent a huge variety of meta-propositional ideas. It could mean evangelicals need to start ordaining women to be pastors. Blurring a sentence into a movement could mean that disagreeing with female ordination cashes out as resentment of any suggestion that women could be mistreated in an evangelical culture.

Is it any wonder that the art of persuasion feels impossible right now? People can be plain ole’ disagreeable, but there’s simply no way to carry productive dialogue when sentences don’t mean themselves. It creates disunity before people even talk to each other. It tilts the balance of social power toward those with the loudest voices instead of the clearest. It gives cover to racists and sexists and heretics, because it’s always the enemies who benefit the most from low-visibility.

And of course, all this is going on in a technological age in which basic reading is compromised by constant distraction, attention to communal responses (e.g., what’s my tribe saying about this?), and a crippling level of self-marketing and brand consciousness. Asking people what they mean takes up valuable characters and is not SEO-savvy.

Clear thinking is possible. But you have to want it more than other things: clout, self-affirmation, expediency, confirmation bias, etc. That’s how it often goes with virtue. There are lots of chances to cultivate it. The biggest hurdle is deciding you want to.

Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore

On the Theological Backchannel

We’re not the same people offline as we are online. That’s why we’re online in the first place.

If you’ve never read Freddie DeBoer’s essay “Of Course, There’s the Backchannel,” read it right now. Particularly if you’re somewhat interested in the disorienting culture of social media, the essay is a fascinating reflection on the lengths that modern people go to, especially politically conscious people, to craft an online identity that may be totally at odds with who they are offline. If you’ve never experienced this in yourself or in someone else, you probably will before too long. Read the essay all the way to the amazing ending.

I’ve thought about Freddie’s story quite a bit since reading the essay a couple years ago. I don’t know that we fully appreciate just how powerfully life on the internet affects how we feel and think about everything. Because it is largely self-contained and requires no physicality or length of time to mediate it, online conversation often becomes its “own” thing. I don’t know that anyone who uses words online regularly is exactly the same person online as offline; there are probably deeply rooted psychological and epistemological reasons why the technology itself splits personalities. But I do know that some people’s online/offline personas are more different than others, and similarly, there are topics of theology, or ethics, life issues, etc., that seem to yield a lot of this kind of digital double-takes.

What I mean is that there are certain issues, certain “conversations” that go a lot differently in the world of digital publishing, social media, blogging, etc, than they do while you’re, say, talking to people in small group or at work or over coffee. It’s as if the ecosystem of online writing rewards a particular way of talking about things that people pick up on, yet often don’t fully (or at all) translate into personal terms. If you ask a question on Twitter or in a column, you’ll get one answer. If you ask in your living room, you’ll get a different answer.. from the same people!

Again, this is all personal observation. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what’s going on here. I’m not throwing down a #take about any particular person and/or group. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Let me offer a couple examples:

Example #1: Singleness

If your primary exposure to the thoughts of single-but-wanting-marriage 20 and 30somethings is online magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, you probably think that most single people in evangelical churches today really want married people to stop trying to pair them up; to not see them as “single” people, i.e., people with a “need” that should be met; and to give them more responsibility and ministry opportunities. In other words, the evangelical online perspective is, “Stop looking at my singleness, and start thinking of me and acting toward me like I don’t have a personal gap that needs to be filled.”

What I’ve noticed though is that almost all of the single 20 and 30somethings that I’ve talked to in the past few years, the same time frame in which I’ve seen the above narrative really catch fire in magazines and blogs, are quite upfront about their desire to be married. In community groups they talk about the struggle of seeing friends married off through the years. They admit loneliness and seem to perk up when someone says, “Hey I might know somebody.” They’re active in ministry. They do resist the bias against single people that can creep into evangelical churches, but they don’t resent the leadership of the church being overwhelmingly married folks. That’s what they want for themselves. It’s not that they’re deficient people, it’s that they have a desire that is unmet; they’re OK with people they trust and love knowing this, and praying and encouraging accordingly.

Example #2: Masculinity

If you make the mistake of Googling the phrase “biblical masculinity,” there’s no telling when your loved ones will discover your corpse, with forehead gashed through blunt force trauma of hitting yourself with your computer monitor. Consider two common, competing #takes in the Christian online world about masculinity. The first take is the “alpha male” crowd, the guys who say you’re not a real man if you don’t spit craft beer at the libs. They’re all about how “Big Eva” has emasculated Christian men. There’s a weird compulsion in this crowd to make everything about being a man, as if one could forget he’s a man and in that moment would cease to be one. The second take is the sophisticated, urbane, literary take on masculinity, which is that it basically doesn’t exist and that any guy who is concerned about becoming a Christian man is furthering the patriarchy and is probably just cosplaying John Wayne on his way to vote for Trump.

These two groups dominate online conversation about manhood. Yet are they actually representative of the guys who come to your church on Sunday morning? Of course not. And what you find out is that the lives and marriages and parenting of some of the guys who have the “edgiest” things to say about masculinity online are not all that edgy. The wife of the dude who chirps about the emasculation of evangelicalism from his blog works two jobs so that he can do his Masters degree full-time. The “masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy” guy soon acknowledges that he needs more resources about parenting boys. I’ve seen first-hand this disconnect between what tribes people sort themselves into and the actual lives they lead. Don’t hear me saying that gender roles are an unimportant issue. What I am saying is that the real-life dynamics of love, marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship are not very Tweetable.

Online Identity

The above are examples of the theological backchannel. They are genres of evangelical writing where the most prominent kinds of perspectives seem weirdly at odds with what you see offline. In DeBoer’s original piece, he uses the political/journalistic backchannel mainly as evidence that people are scared of sharing what they truly believe, since their membership in certain in-groups (which may be a lucrative membership career-wise) depends on their having the right opinions. I’ve seen a similar thing at work in the theological backchannel, particularly with how often and gleefully the genetic fallacy is deployed to show why person in tribe X is wrong about issue Y, because people in tribe X are always wrong. In the world of ideas the universe is partitioned neatly between people who are right and people who are wrong, and often the writing that follows simply seeks to establish more “turf” for all the players.

But there is an identity aspect to it as well. I think we’re just now beginning to realize that for the emerging adult generation, the internet is not simply an activity, it’s a mode of existence. That’s why we’re getting so exhausted by it. There’s no hobby that drains you like online life because online life isn’t a hobby, it’s an ecosystem in which everyone is actively trying to construct a new habitus. We’re not the same people offline that we are online. That’s the whole reason we’re online in the first place. The question then is not “Why is there a backchannel?” The question is, as time and connectivity and epistemology continue to transform, which one is actually the backchannel—online or off?

The Hot Potato

Invoking relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep doing it?

One of the ideas that Douglas Murray comes back to time and again in The Madness of Crowds is the backward relationship within contemporary progressivism between confidence and evidence. When it comes to identity politics, Murray points out that lack of scientific or biological or mathematical data is not a problem for many activists. They simply ignore it; or, they pit experience and felt needs against cold, inhumane information, and ask audiences which of these is more likely to keep people oppressed. In the emerging social justice culture the level of certainty always exceeds the amount of rational justification. This is why people can lose their livelihoods or even be criminally prosecuted for believing in something that no serious consensus disputes—the categories of male and female, for example.

Certainty is a strange thing. In a religiously postmodern era it is fashionable to cast certainty as the enemy. Aren’t all we just giving our best guess? Yet as postmodernism gives way to the kind of New Morality that Murray documents in his book, one wonders whether the death of certainty hasn’t been greatly exaggerated. From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look people are capable of living without it. Even the most irreligious groups need an unshakeable framework that imputes meaning into their lives and beliefs. For many who’ve been shaped by western higher education, that framework is social justice.

Yet even the critics of social justice mania cannot cleanly critique certainty. For one thing, almost every opponent of outrage mobs and shout down chants believes with certainty that free speech is an absolute good. At the very least they believe with certainty that people ought to be able to hold unpopular ideas and a job at the same time. Now those open-minded philosophers who extol doubt and portray the life well lived as one of never knowing what’s above are in a real pickle: If certainty is the enemy, then we can’t be certain that those who wield certainty to suppress their opponents are certainly wrong.

I thought about this after listening to a “deconversion” narrative by podcasting duo Rhett and Link. Alisa Childers also listened to it and she put the issue well:

After poking holes in Christianity, Rhett offered no plausible alternative to explain reality. When he jumped the Christian ship, he didn’t jump into another boat, but into a “sea of uncertainty.” His Christianity has been replaced with what he calls “openness and curiosity.” He describes how liberating it’s been to let go of the “appetite for certainty.” To the careful observer, it’s evident that Rhett has traded in one worldview for another: Christianity for postmodernity, with all its skepticism, denial of absolutes, and relativism.

Except it’s not actually relativism, right? As Rhett rattles off the list of scientific discoveries he made that his childhood Christianity could not explain, he didn’t sound very relativist. He didn’t sound like a true patron of uncertainty. The scientific research he had read was not vulnerable in the presence of “openness.” Despite the plaintive word picture of a person exchanging rigid dogma for a peaceful, relaxing float on the river of discovery, what’s actually happened is that Rhett is certain of something he wasn’t certain of before: That Christianity isn’t true. The buzzwords of openness and curiosity obscure the reality of a door slamming shut.

What’s most interesting to me is not how often people decide that the religion they were raised in is not true. It’s how often people sand over their definitive religious or ideological transformations with language about “openness” and “curiosity.” It reminds me very much of transgender activists on a college campus, screaming “Who are you to judge” while they campaign to get an administrator fired and harass his or her family. The nod to relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep offering it?

My only theory is that in the current intellectual climate, the best way to bring someone over to your side is not to try to convince them they’re wrong, but convince them they’re irrelevant. “Look, I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying I’m open and curious and you’re not.” Who wants to hear that? Ours is the era not of debates and arguments but of epistemological hot potato: whoever carries the baggage of certainty for too long loses. Here’s how you win: Say you’re not sure, then act as if you are. You’ll avoid the existential crisis of having no center, and best of all, you’ll seal yourself off from almost any critique. Define yourself as open, and everybody else gets closed automatically.

Yeah, But What if the ‘Elites’ Are Right?

Mark Galli and the editorial leadership of Christianity Today believe that Donald Trump should be removed from office. Carl Trueman writes that this is a perfectly defensible position, but takes serious issue with Galli’s notion that Christian faithfulness entails it. I too worry that Galli’s editorial took the wrong angle, emphasizing the constitutional case against Trump and implying that consistent, Bible-believing Christians can come to consensus on that issue. That seems to me to be a category error, as if we can know from Scripture whether the president of Ukraine was pressured into a political favor. If that’s genuinely what Galli meant, it’s a bad take.

Yet is it what he meant? I doubt it. The last sentence of Trueman’s response bothers me: “Lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.” I certainly agree. But why does Donald Trump somehow stand-in for all Christian populism? Must the demerits against his character, his behavior, and his qualifications trickle down and apply to any and all who are disaffected by America’s two-party administration?  I can’t see any reason why they should.

Galli writes: “That [the President] should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” This isn’t how I would have worded it. But Trueman’s complaint that this line accuses “every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be,” both misses and undersells the point. It misses the context of this line, which is Galli’s citation of CT’s editorializing against Bill Clinton in the 1990s, at which time the magazine also declared the elected president of the US as morally unfit for his office. This is a strange track record of consistency if Galli and CT are simply intellectual elites, unmoved by the plights of the Christian working class (more on that in a minute).

But I think this response (which has come from many more people) also undersells something Galli’s editorial understands. It’s not enough to say that there are understandable reasons to vote for Trump, and so no one can dogmatically claim that doing so is a sin. Trueman points out that many evangelical Trump voters despise infidelity and coarseness, yet felt as if their political alternative was worse. But is this reasoning not also subject to moral evaluation? Is the existence of Planned Parenthood and GLAAD really a biblically and ethically sufficient justification for endorsing—hesitantly or not, joyfully or not—this president? Galli has an answer to this question: No. Perhaps that’s the wrong answer, but it is an answer.

What’s not an answer is to double back on #NeverTrump evangelicals, label them elites, and declare the conversation pointless. I wish so much that evangelicals would fully resist the allure of identity politics, especially the versions that seem to be popular in our conservative theological circles. Substitute the word “white” for “elite” in much evangelical political discourse, and you would end up with lengthy essays that would be logically indistinguishable from those of the wokest SJWs.

Whether Galli and the staff at CT are elites has absolutely no bearing on whether they’re right about this president and the morality of supporting him. The argument fails for the same reason the common pro-choice canard about pro-life’s being “out of touch” with the physical and social trauma of unplanned pregnancy fails. I completely accept the fact that I, a white, middle-class, nuclear-family raised male, cannot sufficiently empathize with a poor, disadvantaged, unwed mother, just as I accept that the editor in chief of a large Christian magazine cannot sufficiently empathize with my rural, pastoring, Trump-supporting relatives. A failure to empathize is not synonymous with a failure to speak truth. Babies are still babies, and low character is still low character—regardless who’s elite and who’s not.

And in any case, are we so sure there’s not something to be said for being at least a little out of touch with populist conservatism? Just last night I was visiting my grandmother. The television was muted but tuned into Fox News, where the chyron read, “SOME ON THE LEFT SAY LITTLE WOMEN IS TOO WHITE.” From what I could gather host Mark Levin had rounded up a couple of obnoxious Tweets from “the Left” and, wham, a segment was born. I found myself wondering what it would be like to consume this kind of “news” hour after hour, day after day. I think I’d be a rather angry person, though I suspect I’d be unable to name the people I was mad at. If you ask me, that’s the kind of thing that can perpetuate a divide, too.

Josh Hawley and the Need for Tech Stigma

Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.

In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus.  Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.”  Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”

David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”

***

It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.

But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?

French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.

Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes.  Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.

***

But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.

What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections).  While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.

In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:

In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.

Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.

Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.

We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.

Second Amendments and First Commandments

When it comes to gun control issues, one thing that’s occurred to me is how I wish conservatives had the same kind of relationship with the Second Amendment as they do with the First.

Here’s what I mean. With regard to pornography, conservative Christians are unafraid to challenge the supremacy of “free speech.” Court opinion over the last half-century has decisively stood with the porn industry, declaring that most attempts to curtail or check it fall under the condemnation of the First Amendment. What’s fascinating to me is that social conservatives have not responded to this thinking by arguing that there is no conflict between free speech and laws against porn. On the contrary, they’ve typically argued that  “free speech” in the First Amendment is not an absolute, self-interpreting idea, and that there is an ontological and ethical dissimilarity between porn and the speech that the Constitution envisions.

In other words, in the debate over pornography and public well-being, social conservatives have responded to procedural arguments (about the First Amendment) with moral arguments that reframe, in response to a cultural crisis, our basic assumptions.

Now, I don’t have any pet policy on guns. I didn’t grow up around them and I didn’t grow up hostile to them either. Gun control is one of the issues on which I am genuinely indecisive. What I’m noticing nowadays is how the conservative relationship to the First Amendment is unlike its relationship to the Second Amendment.

When it comes to bearing arms, many conservatives are both unflaggingly literal and relentlessly pragmatic. “Bearing arms” is given a maximally broad meaning, and on the other side, this broad meaning creates a hopelessly deep and complex situation for anybody who’d want to, say, regulate ownership of certain kinds of weapons. This is the opposite of what social conservatives do in the porn debate. When talking about smut and the First Amendment, conservatives bring a moral evaluation of the problem into the debate and insist that our understanding of the Framers’ intent be modified by this evaluation. When talking about the Second Amendment, conservatives simply say that the words themselves are impenetrable.

I think this double standard is unfortunate on a couple fronts. First, progressives are understandably cynical when conservatives appeal to moral counterarguments to jurisprudence on certain issues (porn, pro-life, etc), yet condemn this approach on guns. Second, conservatives have found themselves without a robust moral political vision of weapons and self-defense, which means that the debate over guns has fallen almost entirely among predetermined tribal camps (thus, social conservatives are at the mercy of the Republican Party, which, let’s just say, struggles to represent the conservative worldview).

Worst of all, this mentality has left conservative Christians without a prophetic moral vision on guns, which means that many evangelicals have simply mined the libertarian camp for talking points, not realizing the fundamentally sub-Christian commitments that often attend them. The recent interest in some quadrants of progressive evangelicalism in Christian pacifism serves, among other things, as a rebuke to the unfortunate alliance between evangelicalism and the GOP platform. If Christian witness can revolutionize our vision for what “free speech” means, it ought to at least have a chance to do the same for our firearms.

The consensus in much evangelicalism around Second Amendment absolutism is not a point of doctrinal orthodoxy. You will search in vain for a biblical text or historic tradition that teaches that Christians have a providential right to own guns (just as you won’t find a providential right to a free press or democratic elections). This of course doesn’t solve the issue, but it should certainly temper the dogmatism with which quite a few American evangelicals seem to think about it. If the thought of being unable to own assault rifles creates more anxiety in a Christian imagination than, say, the thought of a white supremacist terrorizing a black church during a midweek Bible study, we would do well to ask what is most shaping that imagination. Love can be misdirected.

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”