On Conservative Flattery

Aaron Renn is a sharp thinker and unusually clear and engaging writer. That’s why I was surprised by the recent edition of his Masculinist newsletter, titled “Flattery will get you everywhere.” In it, the normally insightful Renn stumbles over a variety of tropes and fallacies en route to making a bewilderingly bad-faith argument about American conservatism.

Renn makes his main point clear enough: some conservatives are content to feed their readers lies, because they are well-paid to do so. Other conservatives try to feed their readers the unvarnished truth, and, well, the best these writers can hope for is to pay the bills. The first type of conservative (the type that feeds lies) is exemplified by Jonah Goldberg, who in Renn’s view stands in for the “conservative establishment class.” Goldberg, Renn asserts, appears to be wealthy, in-demand, and propped up.

On the other side is The American Conservative columnist and author Rod Dreher. Despite a huge online audience, well-received books, and a powerful message, Renn says that Dreher is not nearly living as comfortably or as popularly as Goldberg. Why not? Renn answers:

…Dreher is putting out a message that religious and politically conservative leaders don’t want to hear. Pope Francis himself appears to not like the Benedict Option. Most of the Evangelical commentariat seemed to puke on it too. Both the political and religious conservative donor class don’t want to hear it either, other than those few backing TAC…

[Rod] seems to be cut off from the kinds of institutional support that would give his ideas traction in the real world and cause Christians to start mobilizing to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Much more than money, I suspect this is what frustrates Rod – that ideas like the Benedict Option end up institutionally marginalized and largely unimplemented.

Concluding, Renn brings the lesson home for his readers:

So, if you read a book or blog post, or listen to a sermon or podcast, and think that the argument it’s making is full of more holes than Swiss cheese, before writing a multi-part detailed refutation of it, ask yourself a couple of questions: 1. Whose position is flattering the intended audience or telling them what they want to hear, his or mine? 2. Whose position best aligns with significant institutional and financial interests, his or mine? If the other person’s work is strongly telling the audience what it wants to hear and/or serving powerful institutional and financial interests, then any factual or logical refutation is likely to be ineffective against it.

As the kids say nowadays, there’s a lot going on here. It’s worth thinking through the different claims specifically. But before I do that, I think it’s only fair to ask: Would Renn want someone like me to evaluate his arguments by the standard he advocates here? If I did that, what I would probably say is that Renn is himself compromised by the opportunities and rewards this kind of argument brings him. After all, shortly after this newsletter went live, Dreher himself featured it on his blog, something that—by Renn’s own admission—will drive thousands of readers to Renn’s newsletter, likely resulting in hundreds of new subscribers, followers, and supporters.

Renn has over 20,000 followers on Twitter. I have a little over 3,000. Renn has thousands of people who read him regularly, including influential folks like Rod. I have a very small cabal of readers, and a typical week for my blog is a few hundred hits. I doubt Rod Dreher knows who I am.

Is it reasonable, then, for me to conclude that Renn is offering this assessment of conservatism simply to curry favor with influential friends like Rod? Is it epistemologically just for me to infer that the reason Rod links to Renn instead of, say, me, is that Renn flatters him and I do not? Of course not. For me to think and especially argue this would not only be ridiculous, it would be a cynical intellectual move. It would be an especially petty kind of Bulverism. So in the end, Renn’s counsel about how to engage someone you disagree with fails obviously and immediately if you apply it back at him.

But what about his larger observations about conservatism and truth-telling? First, I think Renn is right about the difference between a conservative establishment and writers like Rod. I suspect Rod’s arguments in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies resonate more with audiences who bring deeply religious sentiment, and big ticket Republican conservatism has largely stopped pretending to listen to religious conservatives.

On the other hand, Renn, like most other writers I’ve seen in the past few years, seems to be confusing what floats to the top of the conservative media lake with what is truly powerful and influential in right-of-center life. Dreher may indeed be toward the margins of the professional conservative media class, but on the other hand, Donald Trump is president of the United States, and the President achieved his power in some part by parlaying a narrative about American Christianity that is far more Dreher than Goldberg.

It’s not at all obvious to me that Dreher’s Christ-against-culture messaging is ignored by conservative elites because it is too uncomfortably correct. For one thing, there is no more powerful conservative institution in the US than Fox News, and Fox is quite obviously more interested in stuff like the war on Christmas than foreign policy. It’s more likely that writers like Goldberg and David French (who has likewise been a target for criticism from Trump-sympathetic social conservatives) simply do not believe Dreher’s approach is the most helpful or more realistic one. I’m very sympathetic to the Benedict Option and to Rod’s concerns about public schools, but there are times when Rod simply loses me: as when, for example, he gives far more attention to the inner workings of woke media institutions than to issues like police brutality.

These are all topics that conservatives should be discussing and debating freely. That’s why it’s disheartening to see someone like Renn posturing as if this is a black-and-white issue, made complicated not by facts but by mercenary people. Renn is right that flattery can be a powerful intellectual aphrodisiac, but he’s wrong to suggest that only certain people are vulnerable. Donald Trump’s successful capture of a huge swath of “character matters” evangelicalism is proof positive that political adultery is not merely National Review’s besetting sin. And if suggesting otherwise gets your newsletter linked by one of the most highly trafficked blogs in the US, I think that just goes to prove the point.

The Only Topic More Controversial Than Religion or Politics

Bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a compelling case that callout culture—the punitive spirit of shutting down people’s lives and institution over their allegedly bad political views—is primarily a parenting issue. Viewing people who disagree with you as your existential enemies is, they argue, an unintended but real consequence of systematically being shielded from things you don’t like, and this dynamic begins very early. Modern parents believe their children are fragile, so they intervene early and often in their kids’ lives in order to ensure not just genuine safety but feelings of safety. But this has blowback because, as Haidt and Lukianoff argue, humans are not fragile, they are anti-fragile: confronting challenges makes human will and courage stronger, and avoiding those uncomfortable moments makes us worse, not better.

When I reviewed the book back in 2018 I chose this theme as the angle of my review. I’m glad I did that. Not everything in The Coddling has aged equally well, but the idea that parenting is at the root of much of our political and cultural dysfunction is more convincing than ever. As long as I’ve tried to understand callout culture in terms of politics or worldview, I’ve run into the same logical conundrum: How can people who believe their opponents should be destroyed not see how this belief could equally apply to them?

But what I’ve realized is that this question is based on a false premise. It assumes callout culture comes from conviction and belief, but it doesn’t. It comes from fear, and people who are controlled by fear don’t care about future ramifications. They only care about eliminating the threat. A child who hits another child for touching his toy doesn’t naturally think,”If I do this, I might want to touch his toy and he might hit me back.” That’s mature, future-oriented thinking. A child thinks, “He’s going to take my toy, that’s my toy!” Nothing else exists except the threat and the need to get rid of it.

We are all dependent on parenting to wean us off of immature thinking. The world we are looking at right now, however, is in large degree a reflection of a major shift in parenting. Recently I saw an Instagram post published by a mother who was upset at a well-known children’s book. The main character fell of his bike and said, “But I was brave and didn’t cry.” The Instagram mom objected to this dialogue and took a permanent marker to the page, where she crossed it out and wrote instead: “So I cried because I was sad.” Her point, as she explained in the post, was that children must be told their emotions are valid and expressing them honestly is always right.

Even if I couldn’t articulate it, I knew when I read that post that this was a different kind of parenting than I had experienced. Not crying even after getting hurt would have been seen in my home as admirable (though crying was certainly allowed and cared for). Emotional authenticity had its place, but it was not a virtue to be aspired to in lieu of, say, being brave or holding your temper. From this mom’s tone of prophetic righteousness I could tell this was not merely a different method but a different value system. She crossed out the book’s original dialogue because it was morally wrong to her.    For her, guarding her children from the suggestion that sometimes it is best to not express what you’re feeling is guarding them from harm.

A lot of people struggle with this kind of analysis. It comes off as generational snobbery, attacking those entitled millennials or clueless Gen Z’ers. I agree that it often sounds that way, and I also agree that generational stereotypes, even ones that seem legitimate, hurt and obscure far more than they help and illuminate. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make these observations, which seem really important, without sounding like a scold.

Worse, I think the role that parenting plays in the shaping of public discourse means bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think. Polarization is a problem, yes. Sensationalistic, partisan media is a problem, for sure. But the reason these conversations bottom out is that what’s really being exposed are deeply personal intuitions that we protect because of what—or who— criticism of them implicates. If our definition of “justice” is actually ill-formed, if our treatment of those who disagree is actually cruel and regressive—then we have to confront some deeply uncomfortable possibilities about how we and our children are being oriented to the world around us. Parenting is perhaps the only topic in the world more heated than religion and politics. If you doubt that, go read Facebook. You’ll see.

The Copycat Problem

Media outlets must change how they cover school shootings and glamorize the shooters.

I agree with National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke that the mass shooting problem in the US is also a copycat problem:

The shooter in Parkland was obsessed with the massacre at Columbine, as was the shooter in Newtown. More often than not, this is the case — even when shooters or would-be shooters do not manage to carry out their attacks as planned. Typically, the Columbine obsession takes the form of giving a would-be shooter the idea, and/or setting a bodycount target for him to “beat” (if this sounds like hyperbole, read this chilling account). Occasionally, though, it drips down into his tactics. From the early reports, that seems to have been the case here. It seems that the shooter wore a trench coat, and made pipe bombs, which he spread around the school. Now where would he have got an idea like that?

What empowers the copycat problem? Well, you could say that all school shooters share similar sociopathies. That might be true as far as it goes, but there a lot of disturbed, violent people in the world, and a lot of variety in how their commit crimes. The trench coated, bomb-planting, angry-loner profile for school shooters is too much of a template to think it’s all just coincidentally shared neuroses. Obviously there’s a deliberate attempt to imitate among these angry young men. And how do they get the information to imitate?

I guess some people might think talking about media coverage is a way for a conservative like me to avoid talking about gun control. It’s not. IN the very little space I’ve given to writing about the topic, I’ve expressed interest in unhitching conservatism from NRA-esque dis-regulation, and chided my fellow evangelicals for reading the Constitution well in its First amendment but poorly in its Second. I’m not a gun homer. I skew to the right on this issue because of intuition and tribal alignments, but that doesn’t mean the Republican Party’s platform is gospel. I’m all for talking about guns.

The problem I see is that everyone’s fine talking about guns, but practically no one wants to talk about why, literally hours after the deaths of 10 people, cable news outlets are promoting (yes, promoting) the alleged murderer’s Facebook profile, interviewing his classmates and friends, pasting his name atop the internet, and doing in-depth psychological profiles of his clothing and music. Let’s face it: This stuff is either a celebritization or else it’s a form of pornography, a soft-core concoction of tantalizing details and insinuations that titillate the imagination. Either way, this is a carb-rich media diet for desperate and violent men.

Young people in America want fame. According to one statistician who asked them, many young people want fame more than they want success, meaning, or even family. Social media is a billion dollar enterprise not least because it is a kind of parallel society in which opportunities for fame are legion compared to offline life. Is it really hard to imagine the mental process by which a lonely, rejected, isolated teenager would determine that the best thing he could do for his life would be to become infamous? Audition for American Idol and you probably won’t make it. Try to get into pro sports, and the odds aren’t good. But if you murder people in the right way—sensationally—your chances of fame skyrocket. There are tons of obscure good guys. Everyone knows the monster.

Cooke seems resigned to the fact that media will continue to print names, faces, GPAs, and hobbies of mass shooters. Maybe he’s right. But if that’s the case, we need to have the self-awareness to admit that the celebritization of mass murders continues ultimately because we want it too, because we are too satisfied to really consider alternatives, and because our assumptions about the information we are owed are 100% as consumeristic as the NRA’s messaging. We say we need to address Hollywood’s love affair with guns; by saying so we betray that we really do understand the formative effects of seeing violence lit up on our screens.

The staunch refusal to consider any change of protocol when it comes to coverage of school shootings is a morally outrageous hypocrisy. If universal background checks are possible, so are rules about photos. If bans on magazines and bump stocks are possible, so are laws against revealing intimate details of a shooter’s personal life. If how we think about gun violence is worth changing, then so is how we cover gun violence.

Anything less is a failure.

Gotta Trust Somebody

My intention with my last post was to make a very small, but very important point. Discernment is not cynicism, and cynicism is not discernment. What passes for critical thinking is often nothing more than a defense mechanism, wired specifically to keep presuppositions from coming into contact with pushback, disappointment, or worst of all, contrary reality. And there aren’t many better examples of this defense mechanism than the obsession that many of my fellow conservatives have with media bias.

Note carefully that I said “obsession.” Bias in media is real (as I said previously, and have talked about at length before, and will probably write about again). To pretend that most of the powerful journalism and entertainment businesses in this country are not steered by progressives is simply to ignore what couldn’t be plainer. But the idea I tried to get at in my last blog was that, while media bias is real, it is real in the same way and to the same extent that personal bias is also real. So then the issue is not whether we should ride every biased editor and reporter out of town on a rail, but whether we can muster the intellectual effort it requires to discern truth over and against ideology, both out there and amongst ourselves.

The problem for all of us is simple: You gotta trust somebody. No human being can function as their own all self-sufficient filter, accumulate all the necessary information on every possible topic, and be able to process all facts and nuances quickly and perfectly in order to render utterly reliable knowledge hour by hour, day by day. English has a word for that; it’s called omniscience, and if Christianity teaches anything, it teaches that there is only One omniscient person, and we aren’t Him. Every single person, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional, religious and irreligious, rich and poor, rural and urban, cosmopolitan and localist–everybody has rely on something or somebody else to know what they need to know. To make suspicion and distrust toward established, respected, and accountable sources of information your default orientation is to either put yourself at the mercy of other sources of information–which are probably just as biased and ideological as the sources you eschew, but biased in a direction you’re more OK with–or, even worse, it’s to make intuition and assumption your primary means of knowledge.

Now, usually at this point a fellow conservative will interject with something like this: “You just don’t understand how agenda-driven the media is. Your idealism is admirable, but you just don’t get that those papers and those anchors are giving you only what they think can push you toward their assumptions.” I’ll concede that I probably have insufficient grasp of the ideological power plays at work in American media. Point given. But what if I responded: So what? Let’s assume you’re right that every CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, etc etc, news feature is commissioned, written, edited, and disseminated by progressives who sincerely hope I will inch further to the left after reading their coverage. So what? Do their eschatological hopes for people like me actually determine whether the information they present is valid or not?

Here’s where it gets interesting. If the answer to that last question is, “Yes,” then it seems to me that conservatives have adopted a kind of philosophical identity politics. Liberals make liberal news, because they’re liberals. I don’t know for sure, but I could have sworn conservatives were suspicious of worldviews that reduced individuals to the sum total of their sociological groupings. For me, it seems incoherent to insist on a politics that sees and values individuals within classes and systems, rather than the classes and systems merely by themselves, and then turn around and insist that the “left-wing media” means I don’t have to know anything about that NYT reporter or that CNN anchor before I dismiss them as ideologues. Something doesn’t add up.

You’ve gotta trust somebody. Free market economics are far from perfect, but one thing to admire about the way America works is that even biased, slanted, ideological news outlets have to compete against each other for public trust, have to keep each other accountable, and have to abide by certain norms and incentives. To dismiss an entire arm of intellectual credentialism is to lose a lot of faith in the free market, really quickly. You’ve gotta trust somebody, and it can’t just be you.

Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.

“Scare-quoting” Religious Liberty

Mississippi passes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill.

Mississippi Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Into Law.

Mississippi Senate Passes Sweeping ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill.

All three of those headlines have two things in common. First, they all put scare quotes around the phrase ‘religious liberty,’ the ostensible purpose of which is to introduce doubt or skepticism that the law in question is really about religious freedom. Second, all of these headlines are from news dispatches, and not op-eds. In other words, what you’re looking at is reporting rather than editorializing.

Now, it could be that these publications feel they are sidestepping the debate over the legislation, and merely reporting the words used by one side and the accusations of the other. Those in favor of preventing the state from suing bakers and florists whose religion prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding say it’s all about religious freedom; those who want such coercion say “religious freedom” is code for discrimination. So why not just report what everyone thinks by using words in quotes?

The problem here, in my view, is a conflation between a point of order and a point of debate.

In parliamentary procedure, a member can raise a “point of order” at any time. Often a member seeking to do so will be recognized by the Speaker in the middle of a debate or other discussion. The point of order is by definition intrusive. A member raising it is telling the Speaker and the House that something needs to be fixed, not about what is being said but about the process itself.

The easiest way to get a scowl from a Speaker is to claim you have a point of order, but then, once recognized, to talk about a point of debate. For example: Imagine a governmental group you are part of is debating the merits of the income tax. A person next to you, not recognized heretofore by the Speaker, raises his hand and says “Point of Order!” The Speaker then turns to your neighbor and recognizes them to raise a point of order, an issue with the way the debate or the session is proceeding.

But then, after being recognized for a point of order, your neighbor says: “Yes, Mr. Speaker, I have a point of order. Mr. Jones is simply incorrect about the amount of revenue that can gained by the state through a progressive income tax. He’s not using the best numbers and the members of this House should be aware of that.” At this point, a Speaker who knows Parliamentary procedure would stop your neighbor and (gently, hopefully) rebuke him for raising a point of order when what he really had to say was a point of debate. It’s inappropriate–and more than a tad dishonest–to claim to have a point of order, and then raise a point of debate.

The scare-quoting of religious liberty is like this. For a newsroom to put religious liberty in scare-quotes in reporting is to raise a point of order when what really is being said is a point of debate. Regardless of whether you think the supporters of HB 1523 are honest people, the bill is written as a religious liberty bill; it calls itself a religious liberty bill; and it was signed by a governor who has said that a religious liberty bill is what he was signing. It is a religious liberty bill, as a matter of record. No argument as to the deceitfulness of its advocates can change that.

Now I do find interesting some of the arguments being raised to the contrary. It seems that many of the same people who have argued that same-sex marriage, by virtue of Obergefell, is now unfixable legal reality, are now saying that not even the passing of law by a legislature can do the same for HB 1523. In other words, the argument seems to only cut one way. It’s wrong, we are told, to say same-sex “marriage” in a post-Obergefell world, because, well, same-sex marriage became real and that’s that. For supporters of same-sex marriage, the force of law scrubs the quotation marks off of “marriage,” but not off of “religious liberty.”

That’s why I don’t think we should passively accept the scare-quoting of religious liberty. Whether or not you think that HB 1523 is about discrimination is a point of debate. But the law says religious liberty, the legislature that passed it says religious liberty, and the voters who elected the legislature say religious liberty. You might say they’re wrong, but that’s a point of debate, not a point of order. The public record is what it is, and the debates should be clearly demarcated from that. Putting quotes in the headlines obscures record from rhetoric, and that’s precisely the opposite of what we need from our journalists.

The Lost Art of Disagreement

Toward the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were estranged. Years of political tensions, ideological disagreements, personal rivalries and perhaps bit of misunderstanding had all but snuffed out one of the great friendships in American political history. But one day, Adams’ physician and fellow Revolutionary, Benjamin Rush, suggested that his aging patient write to Mr. Jefferson, ceasing decades of silence. For reasons still not entirely clear, Adams did write, and the result was the beginning of what historian and Adams biographer David McCullough descibes as “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history.”

The Adams-Jefferson letters are remarkable, but not because of their powerful rhetoric or political genius. Rather, the private conversation of the second and third presidents’ reveals a profound respect and affection for one another, even as the two patriots were decidedly in opposition on many issues. These letters did not settle such disputes; they were never intended to. To their dying day (both Adams and Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826) the men argued and debated everything from religion to revolution. But their respect and good faith in each other was rekindled, never to wane again.

Adams and Jefferson exemplified the art of disagreement. We would do well to contemplate their example, for it seems that contemporary American culture is rapidly forfeiting this art.

Consider the recent grandstanding from a gaggle of American governors, who have issued “non-essential travel bans” to North Carolina. The reason? Voters in the Tar Heel state recently moved to preemptively prevent litigation from creating mixed-sex, public restrooms. This is apparently enough to warrant a rhetorical persona non grata from state executives who disagree.

Our sexual politics have become so intensely value-laden that every movement away from legal and cultural orthodoxy triggers ostracism and shaming. The prevailing notion seems to be that transgressions against very novel doctrines of gender ideology and sexual psychology should be subjected, not to debate and persuasion, but to punishment. Our public square is shrinking to exclude all who question majority thought.

The loss of good faith in public dialogue isn’t exclusive to one side of the aisle. Crank conservatism has found a patriarch in the 2016 Republican frontrunner, whose relentless personal attacks on any and all who challenge him are exposing a deep and systematic animus in right-wing politics. You don’t even have to explore what he says about immigrants and minorities to see this; a look at how he treats journalists and even party cohorts is jarring enough.

Politicians often love to mention how “divided” the country is, and how it Just Wasn’t Like This when the party opposite was in power. This may be a reliable talking point for stump speeches, but there’s no small amount of partisan opportunism in it either. “Bringing the country together” is admittedly often a shorthand for eliminating as much as possible the idea that the opposing party was on to something.

Yet as dubious as the motivations behind this rhetoric may be, there’s an important element of truth here. The ritual of honest, principled disagreement between people who respect one another and mutually assume the best intentions has done an astonishing disappearing act in much of our culture. Instead, our religious and political dialogue is either unhinged and bitter, passive aggressive and condescending, or else completely neutered to the point of meaninglessness.

We shouldn’t assume that politicians are the worst offenders. The digital age has fostered such online animus and abuse amongst ordinary Americans that many digital journals and newspapers have responded by disabling on-site commenting, considered just a few years ago a dynamic way of promoting publications and driving conversation. Abusive online behavior is epidemic, as is the “shame culture” of social media.

Trolling is relatively straightforward, but not all evidence for the lost art of civil discourse is so obvious. The inability to disagree well in American culture often takes a more passive aggressive form. Consider the trends now at work across university campuses, what sociologists have dubbed the “coddling of the American mind.” The appearance of expectations of college administrators to protect students from ideas they dislike or literature they find uncomfortable is a less unhinged but not less serious manifestation of an intellectual paralysis when it comes to disagreement. Students now demand “safe spaces” from institutions that were created for the explicit purpose of not providing such things. Whereas the university has traditionally been considered a place where learners are confronted with realities and then expected to make sense of them, contemporaries insist that schools accommodate the expectations and worldview of the students—provided, of course, that the students’ belief systems are congruent with secular forms of progressivism.

Principled, civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view, to understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions can nonetheless arrive at an opposite conclusion. Adams and Jefferson never reconciled many of their political opinions, but they were able to throw aside the cynicism and suspicions of evil intent that had crept into their friendship.

It’s this willingness to accept the possibility of disagreement between two parties that both intend good that seems lost in much of our culture. The effect is double-sided: Many conversations that deserve nuance and good faith never happen, and demagogues who actually merit censure sound more “authentic.”

Both of these trends, the virulent nastiness and passive coddling, might seem to be restricted to a very select portions of American culture. But the popularity of bullish, epithet-laden political campaigns suggests that they signal a much wider cultural malady. Efforts at self-justification that emphasize “honesty” and glow about “telling it like it is” are merely shibboleths. They mask the decay of an important ethic: The willingness to accept one’s own fallibility and live in light of it.

The art of disagreement is crucial not just to our own personal lives but to the health of the public square. If we cultivate suspicion and conspiracy theories instead of good faith, we will eventually crave those attributes in our leaders. On the other hand, if we practice the public virtues of courage, conviction, and kindness, our ideological differences will help us sharpen our own thinking as learn from–and try to convince–one another.

Honest, empathetic disagreement may not make for exciting talk radio or high cable ratings, but it is essential both for civic liberty and Christian mission. Persuasion is, after all, harder and less titillating than bombast, but without it, our heralding of both spiritual and political truth is undermined. We must not stray irretrievably far from the spirit of Adams and Jefferson. To do so would be to lose much more than an election.