Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Freedom and therapeutic deism

Damon Linker recently argued that orthodox Christianity is “unsuitable” for American pluralism. He argued that the “anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant” approach of
moralistic-therapeutic deism should replace what remains of public Christianity. Its vague exhortations to Niceness and Self-esteem are supposedly more fitting for a society in which some people “feel like second-class citizens for failing to conform to traditionalist Catholic-Christian moral teaching.”

How insipid it is, to rewrite excuses for licentiousness in the rhetoric of class warfare and victimization.

Linker's advocacy of a flimsy moralistic-therapeutic deism can attract many critiques. But few would be better than Ross Douthat's post Theology Has Consequences:
The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law.

But let's say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.

One bright spot of the winter of 2009 was the announcement that Douthat would take William Kristol's place on the New York Times editorial page. This young pro-life Catholic who is independent in his conservatism has already gone far.

Austin Bramwell, a longtime critic of “movement conservatism,” honed in on the advantages possessed by a conservative like Douthat who can move and speak and write in liberal circles:

Take [Douthat's] various opinions on church-state issues. I don’t think Ross would deny that you could glean most of them by reading past issues of First Things. But mainstream liberals don’t read First Things; they read The Atlantic. Ideas that might seem old hat in the former became a revelation in the pages of the latter.

Bramwell's comments about the contents of First Things being a “revelation” to the liberal mainstream help explain how Damon Linker could publish a book depicting Rev. Richard John Neuhaus as a menacing theocrat.

It's worth recording Linker's February dustup in which he accused thinkers like Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher of adhering to a conservatism that “...demands an almost total overthrow of the status quo in favor of an alternative reality in which American citizens reject the ideal of individual autonomy, admire the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint, live financially within their means, and embrace a foreign policy driven by a narrowly defined national interest.”

Linker disdained the critiques of a “culture of choice” and in a jaw dropping move, described the objects of his criticism as enabling of clerical sexual abusers like Fr. Marciel Maciel. Excepting John Schwenkler, the main respondents to Linker generally ignored this below-the-belt swing-and-miss and zeroed in on his more substantive attacks.

Patrick Deneen said the criticisms to which Linker objected in fact
...speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority - how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? - but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

Deneen noted that the expansion of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of a public power which “orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of.”

(This trend is observed in certain libertarian arguments defending Supreme Court decisions which struck down morals legislation. These lovers of liberty trade local control and self-government for the court's centralizing imposition of permissiveness.)

To Deneen, Linker responded with a strange focus on fornication. After an outburst of anti-clericalism, he describes the “paleocon” ideal as “a society in which liberty has been redefined as obedience. And that can hardly be described as a liberal society.”

Linker concentrates on obedience to man, long caricatured as “mindless.” But it's clear that solicitousness towards the natural world or conformity to human nature are also threats to his vision of liberalism. This only reinforces the conservative critique holding that Linker's “culture of choice” is blind to reality, or rather brackets reality so that it may be conceived of and manipulated in terms of human will.

This culture is not fertile ground for the maintenance of the foundations of liberty.

Nearing the end of the disputants' exchanges, Ross Douthat warned that Linker risks confirming conservatives' enduring suspicions of the liberal order: “That it claims to create a political framework that's studiously neutral between competing modes of thought and life, but when push comes to shove it wants to impose liberalism all the way down.”

To his credit, Linker backed down, saying he has concluded that
the connections I made in the original item were overdrawn, and that I made things even worse in the second post. Ideas and arguments can take on a logic of their own, and I foolishly followed the logic of mine into a position several steps more radical than one I really want to defend.

He attributed his writings' fault-ridden extremism to his newness to the blogging medium. Fair enough. Not everyone has been rambling on-line since the days of FidoNet and Prodigy.

Yet, two months later, his endorsement of moralistic therapeutic deism echoes his novice effort. In praising the rise of individualistic, low-commitment religious or social mores, Linker avoids the difficult questions about the nature and sustainability of freedom's cultural roots.


Kamilla said...


Funny you should use the term "theocon". I quite like it and had a conversation just last week with someone who deliberately uses it as well, despite its origin as a term of insult.


Jack Whelan said...

---Ross Douthat warned that Linker risks confirming conservatives' enduring suspicions of the liberal order: “That it claims to create a political framework that's studiously neutral between competing modes of thought and life, but when push comes to shove it wants to impose liberalism all the way down.” ---

Shouldn't a distinction be made between what is appropriate in the political sphere and what in the cultural sphere? Doesn't it make sense that a kind of neutral lingua franca, viz., secular rights language, be adopted by everyone so that there is common ground there to work out what is best for the common good.

In the cultural sphere people are free to make deeper commitments to a more rigorous orthodoxy and make their arguments to any who would listen as to its truth claims. But isn't it obvious that that kind of argument does not belong in the political sphere? Orthodox Christians may indeed have the deepest, most truthful understanding about the nature of what is most deeply real, but isn't it clear that such ideas cannot be legislated in the political sphere, that they must instead persuade in the cultural sphere?

If the argument is that theocons or relgious conservatives need to push back against aggressive secularists, as the Douthat quote seems to indicate, isn't that a cultural task and not a political one?

Rights and the basic commitment to human dignity are things all men and women of good will accept as shared ground. They are not in themselves sufficient to live a life of depth, but they are sufficient for getting along in the political sphere. We live deeply in the cultural sphere, and the mistake is to conflate its concerns with the concerns proper to the political sphere. So why can't theocons accept a kind of Ophraism as sufficient for getting along in the political sphere? Is it so bad, really?

I'm not saying that there is no overlap between spheres or that religious conservatives should not fight in the political sphere for issues they believe will benefit the common good, but that they must accept that they do it in a pluralistic society which secularist rights language defines the common ground.

Are theocons so insecure about their beliefs and commitments and so faithless about the ubiquity of grace and the Holy Spirit and the fidelity of God to those who love him that they cannot be most deeply themselves when with one another in their faith communities, and then translate their concerns into secularese when they enter the political sphere? I just don't understand what the underlying problem is here that drives the theocon agenda. If you have a moment please explain.