The skies are partly cloudy and temperatures comfortably in the 70s as the sun sets on Gallatin, Tennessee, on a Monday evening in late April. In other words, perfect baseball weather.
Accordingly, Brent High is doing what he does most often on nights like this: watching kids play, in this case the local Lipscomb Academy middle-grade squad. High is an alumnus of the private, Christian institution and even used to call play-by-play for the team’s games, in addition to driving the creation of Lipscomb’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter 22 years ago. And he has never wavered in his belief that sports and spirituality soar on the same plane. It’s a mindset that also makes him uniquely qualified to assess whether the culture and doctrine of Christianity has become increasingly influential in American baseball, including at the major-league level.
“I think the last five years, maybe going back 10, a lot of the most successful on-the-field athletes have been outspoken [about their Christian faith],” High observes. “It’s almost become not only comfortable, but maybe even encouraged for the guys that do have the platform to use it.”
High might have a little something to do with that. The Nashville native and father of two is reasonably famous in his own backyard and beyond as a co-founder of Third Coast Sports, which aims to spread the message of Christ by partnering with sports teams and entertainers and staging popular Faith Night events at Major League Baseball venues.
“For a guy like me, who does have the heart for it, in addition to understanding the business side, that’s a double win,” he exclaims of any symbiosis between MLB and the Christian church. “Not only do I have a happy team and happy sponsors, but the ministry side of why we exist is being activated when guys like Charlie Blackmon for the Colorado Rockies gets up there and boldly proclaims his faith right after he’s gone 3-4 in the game with a homer and a double.”
Starting in the mid-2000s, Third Coast began partnering with MLB clubs including the Rockies, Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals on what would grow into Faith Nights. They were essentially a scaling up of grassroots promotions High conceived of while serving as VP of Sales for Milwaukee Brewers AAA affiliate Nashville Sounds between 2003-’05. The events — typically occurring inside a team’s stadium after the conclusion of a game — are equal parts outdoor megachurch service (often featuring testimony from home-team players, such as the aforementioned Blackmon, along with John Smoltz and Lance Berkman, to name a few) and Christian rock concert. And they have translated to big business over the past decade-plus for MLB.
“You’ve gotta put yourself in the shoes of these executives at these teams we partner with,” says High. “They care about one thing: butts in the seats. If they can have realtor night, scout night, little-league night — if it can move ticket sales, they’ll host it.”
Third Coast and MLB’s partnership is an emphatic confirmation of what High describes: that Major League Baseball, more than any other major American professional sport, has mirrored the mainstreaming of evangelical Christian influence in particular on our culture at large. (High prefers to eschew labels, saying he simply follows “The Way.”)
Throughout MLB’s 150-year history, there have been stars who practiced the gospel as religiously as their on-field fundamentals. New York Giants legend Christy Mathewson is still hailed among the similarly pious as “The Christian Gentleman.” Longtime Dominican-born player/manager Felipe Alou (whose brothers, Matty and Jesús, and son, Moises, were also successful major-leaguers) famously converted from Catholicism to an evangelical strain of Christianity. And the list goes on. But none of them had social media.
That’s why in early 2018, Eastern Illinois University Political Science professor Dr. Ryan P. Burge conducted an analysis of players’ Twitter accounts across MLB, the NBA and NFL, finding that nearly eight percent of subscribed MLB players referenced a New Testament passage in their bio, fully double the percentage of NFL players and more than sevenfold that of NBAers. And that eight percent (a number that increases when expanding to broader allusions to Christ himself) isn’t exactly a compilation of mid-level roster guys with nothing to lose by laying their faith on the line. Perennial All-Stars and bright-up-and-comers alike ranging from Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter to Trevor Story, Ben Zobrist, Scooter Gennett and Steven Matz all ostensibly use their public platform to evangelize. Which is their want and Constitutional (some might say God-given) right. But is this marriage of missions — winning and wooing potential religious converts — anathema to the wider, secular appeal of baseball, or more problematically, alienating to non-believers?
“Baseball, historically, has acted as a secular religion in the United States more than any other sport, almost a sacred space,” argues Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and host of the Edge of Sports podcast. Back in 2006-’07, Zirin contributed a series of Nation columns regarding the Colorado Rockies organization’s fairly unabashed Christian ethos. He was wary of the team’s mixing sports and spirituality then, and is equally uneasy about how evangelical value share seeped into the game since. “It’s cliché,” he continues, “but [baseball]’s acted as the great sports-as-melting pot, a place where people come in as specific ethnicities and emerge as heroes, from Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Roberto Clemente. It always has had an air of equity, and when you start imposing Christian dogma on this space, there’s something about it that rings more tinny, false and dangerous than other sports.”
As it turns out, turn-of-the-20th-century Protestant leaders might have agreed with Zirin. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concept of Muscular Christianity — essentially, a social construct within the church focused on raising generations of strong and athletic men — took root in Protestant communities, coalescing into an organized movement via the YMCA. But it was not especially concerned with placing its young disciples on a track for professional acclaim.
“The difference between the Muscular Christianity of the late 1800s and the Muscular Christianity of today is I don’t see that social gospel component,” says Clifford Putney, author of Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920 and current associate professor of history at Bentley University. As that earlier iteration of Muscular Christianity fell out of favor post-WWI, Muscular Christianity evolved into a resource for coping with material success among athletes rather than a manual for how to be righteous without it. “Today, the [Christian] players are very concerned about maintaining equilibrium amidst their stardom,” adds Putney, “so it’s a very therapeutic thing.”
And in the latter half of the 20th century, it was also a locker-room taboo. Rob Maaddi, author of Baseball Faith: 52 MLB Stars Reflect on Their Faith and host of ESPN-syndicated Christian sports-talk radio show Faith on the Field, recalls being stunned by an anecdote from his inaugural guest, Philadelphia Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
“He brought something to my attention I had never realized,” explains Maaddi. “In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s when he played, Christian ball players in the clubhouse were considered sissies. The perception was if you’re a believer, you may be weaker or someone teammates can’t count on it.”
Schmidt was not alone in his day. The late Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter was likewise notoriously ostracized for his Christian lifestyle while a member of the rowdy New York Mets teams of the mid-1980s. But over the ensuing two decades, baseball weathered the steroid-era crisis and lockouts and a general erosion of its fanbase’s good faith (no pun intended). Optically, it made sense to put a spotlight on players who might be lower-wattage than Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa but embodied a familiar, understated decency that would comfort purists.
At the same time, groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action — ostensibly more robust variations on the YMCA’s Muscular Christianity of yore — were proliferating in pockets of the country where evangelical and other churches of salvation were prominent, mainlining pastoral practices into ball fields and locker rooms. While MLB was losing ground to the NFL and NBA in urban areas, it had tapped into a well of talent as well-versed in conversion to Christ as they were technique for shagging flies.
“There are a lot of organizations that are even founded as Christian-based travel baseball-organizations that are gonna be about more than just teaching baseball,” says High, who highlights Cross Hit Sports Academy and Make A Difference Baseball Academy as examples. “Some of these teams that are playing at the highest level and ranked in the top three, five, seven teams in the country at their age level, they’re making [Christianity] part of what they teach and do. When you’re talking about the South, the South is traditionally more of a Christian population where baseball is played. Just look at the top 25 rankings right now in the NCAA.”
Taylor Rogers, a faithful Christian who was a minor-league pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization from 2009-2013 and is currently an Advisory Board Member for his local Austin, Texas, chapter of MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, doesn’t view all this as an insidious conspiracy. But he does reflect that at the most formative stages, MLB has backed itself into something of a self-fulfilling corner.
“You look at the guys my age and a little older who had success at the collegiate level and then the professional level, and the rise of select travel teams [and] individual lessons kind of created a gap in the game where people who were excelling and had access to those programs were moneyed Caucasian people for the most part, and I think it became a very suburban sport. And that happens to be, demographically, largely white evangelical Christian. You start catching all your fish in one pond, and all those fish start to look alike.”
Rogers is quick with the caveat that programs like RBI are, in his view, having their desired effect and planting the seeds for future diversity. (And in fairness, Albert Pujols, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Aaron Judge are among those who identify as devoutly Christian but don’t fit the white-guy mold; additionally, per statistics provided by MLB for this story, 41 percent of active Opening Day players were non-white.) The reason that should matter to any baseball fan, no matter their religious affiliation, is it could help repopulate the league with more dynamic personalities. Even if you’re ambivalent about the implications of MLB being in bed with megachurches, most onlookers can agree that the game might benefit from some swagger to even out all the aw-shucks humility in press conferences and media scrums. Only one — one! — MLB player (Bryce Harper, who is Mormon) made the cut in ESPN’s World Fame 100 index of the planet’s most transcendent athletes for 2019. It’s a conundrum that’s bigger than whatever eggs MLB might have in the Christian church’s basket.
“You look at Trevor Story, Matt Carpenter, guys like that, and there may be a little bit of a humble, act-like-you’ve-been-here-before mentality,” offers Maaddi. But on the whole, he asserts that, “I don’t know that has to do with faith as it is the baseball culture. Showmanship in football and basketball is different. You’ve got guys trash-talking in the trenches, and when they score a touchdown or get a sack, they celebrate. In baseball, they’ve always had the unwritten rules where if you show up a pitcher, expect to be plunked, or go in with your spikes high and there might be a fight there. I think it has to do with trying to break down years and years of these codes that Major League Baseball has followed. I don’t know how long it will take.”
Baseball’s slow march toward loosening up and diversifying — whether or not those two things are mutually exclusive — is a work in progress. But in the interim, Third Coast founder High points enthusiastically to that great catalyst for parity: the open market. Beyond acknowledging the bottom-line good sense of MLB going all in for Faith Nights and letting the Christian kids play, he puts some onus on competitors and communities from other sects to seize similar opportunities for preaching and profit. “From the business standpoint, go try to convince a Major League Baseball executive to have a Muslim Night or Jewish Night or Satanic Night or whatever,” High advises. “It’s all about how many congregations are within a five-hour radius of my stadium that I can actively market to with the expectation that I’m going to move enough tickets to make it worth my while.”
High alludes to the roughly 2,000 Christian churches within said range of Nashville, where he originated his Faith Nights with the Sounds. By comparison, a comprehensive 2002 report tallied the number of active Jewish synagogues in the entire country at that time as under 4,000. A separate 2010 report concluded that, as of the turn of the aughts, there were narrowly more than 2,000 Muslim mosques across the U.S. The Church of Satan, of course, does not operate individual chapters or facilities as a fundamental tenet of its beliefs.
MLB does not provide data on religious demographics, but according to Jewish Baseball News, there are less than 10 active Jewish players. And so far, there has only been one Muslim player in MLB history, and he is now retired. It’s hard to see how they’d collectively help foment a fervor on par with Faith Nights, but easy to imagine where fans who celebrate varying faiths — or none at all — might, to Zirin’s point, feel a sense of remove when their team’s standout hitter motions to the heavens after a come-from-behind win and then sticks around to spread the gospel. For that matter, some Christians might as well.
“I’m troubled as a Christian by the whole, ‘I prayed and my batting average went up five points’ kind of thing,” says Shaun Casey, Director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and former U.S. State Department Special Representative. “There is a sense sometimes that Christianity gets marketed as a solution to all your life’s problems. I have a number of Muslim friends. I never picked up a whiff of, ‘Allah helps me in my field, Allah helps me in my hitting.’ I think there is a stream across American Christianity [of], ‘Yeah, Jesus helps my batting average.’ I just think that’s a bad version of what Christianity’s really about.”
MLB does, to its credit, try and cover as many bases (pun intended this time) as possible by sanctioning league-wide “Heritage Nights” celebrating Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, African-American and other cultural blocs that complement its recent PR blitz touting unprecedented diversity. For example, the San Francisco Giants’ annual Jewish Heritage Night occurs in partnership with Chabad SF and the Jewish Community Federation and is highlighted by a pregame parking-lot party and limited-edition merch, with partial ticket proceeds set aside for the city’s overall homeless population.
This scans as slightly divergent in scope and charitable intent from, say, the Kansas City Royals’ July 27 Faith and Family Night (the “and Family” addendum is often affixed to avoid appearances of faith-based exclusivity), which is sponsored by Hobby Lobby, the for-profit craft-store chain that adheres to Christian values and was a successful co-plaintiff in a Supreme Court case asserting its right to abstain from providing employees with compulsory contraceptive coverage. The Royals’ site advertises that “players and/or executives” will speechify during the event, which will take place after the game inside the team’s 37,000-plus-capacity stadium and close out with a performance from Christian-music superstar Matthew West.
For some, the idea that MLB offers any kind of level playing field in the pursuit of inclusive representation is hard to swallow, and underscores Zirin’s opinion that the league can’t have it both ways. “I think it is a false equivalency,” says Tom Krattenmaker, a USA Today columnist, author of Onward Christian Athletes and communications director at Yale Divinity School, of likening Heritage Nights to Family Nights. “They’re very different in terms of scale, but also in the degree to which the team is facilitating an evangelism experience. It’s a gray area. They’ll always be able to say nobody’s forced to listen.”
Krattenmaker draws parallels between the swelling evangelical footprint within MLB and evangelicals’ growing influence on societal mores, despite their relative minority status within the total Christian consortium. As recently as last year, the total number of Americans who identify as evangelical was at 15 percent, down eight percent from 2008. Yet in the 2016 presidential election, they accounted for more than a quarter of all votes cast in the nation. If evangelicals’ political motivation was to preserve a particular idyll of American life resistant to modern demographic shifts, MLB’s M.O. might be to sanctify itself as the now-and-forever Eden for pro-sports Puritans.
High assures that’s far from the truth, and that when Third Coast approaches individual organizations about Faith Nights, they often “deal with a lot of hard-headed people” skeptical of the promotion, a leeriness that abates, he says, “when they make half a million dollars.”
Rogers, the former Giants minor-league pitcher and present RBI Austin Advisory Board member, reiterates that MLB rosters represent “an incredibly diverse group of people as a whole.” Still, he recognizes that a conspicuous slice of star players wears its Christianity on its jersey sleeves, and furthermore that “it’s not only accepted but smiled upon to be a good, wholesome, baseball-playing Christian.”
As much as anything, it’s symptomatic of baseball’s prolonged existential crisis. Does the game — and its function as the engine of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise — risk demystifying its quaint, national-pastime appeal as a concession to modernity, or get lapped as it upholds a peculiarly devout status quo?
For now, Rogers places his bets on the latter. “There’s safety in [MLB] putting out that image, just like [how] in basketball, there’s safety in being kind of a bombastic personality,” he explains. “A lot more people who yearn for Mayberry still watch baseball. Baseball has to become more interesting. It needs people to shed a light on diversity in the game. It needs people to market the diversity in the game. Tell me why a guy like Mookie Betts, with a name like Mookie who’s an absolute stud, how can you not make that guy a household name? It basically does the work for you.”
In his estimation, the disconnect between MLB and millions of would-be followers can be overcome with old-fashioned agnostic ballyhoo. “Twenty-five years ago, when I was idolizing Frank ‘The Big Hurt’ Thomas or Randy ‘The Big Unit’ [Johnson] or Nolan Ryan and The Ryan Express, these people were cartoon characters, larger than life,” he says. “The stories are there. The diversity is there. If you want to see baseball with a pulse, go to Latin America. And yet, here we are, playing it like gentlemen. That’s just the image we’ve created for baseball, and I think it’s a shame.”
First, Samuel J. Abrams:
Over the past weeks, I published two articles which argued that the American Dream is not only alive and well for the overwhelming majority of Americans, but that the meaning of the Dream has evolved; it is not about material success, but about individual choice and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.
While many appreciated the optimistic findings, quite a few emails and letters were sent my way questioning the finding that Americans value individualism over financial success. So, I will provide historical context to the Dream that challenges conventional presuppositions along with data from our recent AEI survey to support my claim.
American literature professor Sarah Churchwell, in her new history of the American Dream, argues that, at its conception, the Dream had little to do with wealth but was “a dream of equality, justice, and democracy for the nation.” Churchwell offers that the Dream evolved through successive generations and lost its meaning during the Cold War. She adds that it “became an argument for a consumer capitalist version of democracy. Our ideas about the “American Dream” froze in the 1950s. Today, it doesn’t occur to anybody that it could mean anything else.” This materialistic view of the Dream seems to be dominant in public discourse today and is maintained by many such as Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, who recently stated that the Dream was, “the faith that anyone could move from rags to riches — with enough guts and gumption, hard work and nose to the grindstone.”
There are, however, broader interpretations of the Dream which promote education, social mobility and the pursuit of opportunity. Moreover, there are interpretations that promote individualism such as that of noted artist Maya Lin who stated that, “To me, the American Dream is being able to follow your own personal calling. To be able to do what you want to do is incredible freedom.” JamesAdams, a writer who coined the term “American Dream”, felt similarly. In 1931, he argued, “the dream, has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”
Our AEI survey intended to unpack the antecedents behind the Dream and did so by presenting a large national sample of Americans with eight distinct factors that could be considered components of the Dream. Participants were asked to rate the importance of each factor in accordance with their personal opinions on the American Dream. Included in the list were choices such as “to become wealthy,” “to have a better quality of life than your parents” as well as “to have a good family life” and “to have freedom of choice in how to live one’s life.”
The aggregate results tell a very strong story: family life and freedom to live one’s life are the highest valued components by far with 83% and 85% of Americans asserting that they are essential to the realization of the Dream. In contrast, only 16% believe that becoming wealthy is essential. Additionally, less than half of participants answered that having a successful career and having a better quality of life than one’s parents are essential to the Dream.
When the survey is broken down by race and ethnicity, freedom of choice in how to live one’s life is the highest rated answer with all groups stating at levels of 80% or more that this factor is fundamental. The least important factor is wealth; 9% of whites and 29% of blacks and Hispanics state that wealth accumulation is critical to the Dream. Further, family and individual choice are the highest rated across all surveyed races and ethnicities. Similarly, when broken down by income, freedom to live one’s life as one chooses is again the most important factor; with a selection rate of 80% for those earning under $35K per year and nearly 90% for those who earn over $100k.
After a thorough examination of the data, it is clear that the public conceptualization of the American Dream stresses individuality and community over material pursuits. This is a non-trivial finding and would explain why data from our AEI survey revealed 82% of Americans believe they are on their way to, or have already achieved the American Dream, while only 18% believe that the Dream is out of reach.
Americans truly value their individualism and their community life, and the post-Cold War conception that achieving the American Dream is inextricably linked to wealth accumulation is erroneous. Americans realize that when they wake up in the morning, they can make choices about how to live and engage with the world; many of these choices do not require bringing wealth into the conversation.
One doesn’t become an adult by graduating from school, or getting a high-paying job, or becoming a parent. Adulthood is really about fulfilling responsibilities. Which brings up, of all things, Star Trek Discovery, in the view of James Aaron Brown:
If Aristotle was correct when he said life imitates art, then “Star Trek: Discovery’s” Captain Christopher Pike is an opportunity for the science fiction genre to reshape the American narrative on masculinity.
Pike inspires his people to “be bold, be brave, be courageous.” In contradiction, sitcom television and college campuses influence Americans to believe that men are solely misogynistic buffoons. In fact, men are so incompetent, they stand over their barbecue grills watching their sons fight with each other as some form of weird ritual. How did we ever reach some sense of civilization over the past 5,000 years with men at the helm?
We are only a few months into 2019, and already the 2020 presidential election season is well underway. Each week, it seems that more candidates are entering the race, especially in the Democratic field. And as the country cycles through its political flavors of the week, social media has become overrun by passionate posts that read more like stump speeches in support of a given candidate.
Nearly every single person has an opinion about who this country should be supporting. And nearly every single one of them believes that their lives will be significantly better, or worse, based on who occupies the White House. But this gives politicians far too much power.
In order to truly better our lives, we need to rely less on political talking heads and more on ourselves. Only then can we begin to make a bigger difference and change the world.
Politicians Can’t Save You
Every four years, it is the same old song-and-dance as Americans make a pastime of rooting for political candidates in the same way they root for their favorite sports teams. Instead of merely holding the position of a civil servant, modern-day politicians have stepped into a celebrity role in which their brand speaks louder than their actual voting records. Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders, for example, have the “cool” factor, which attracts young people willing to drop everything and campaign despite not fully understanding their stances.
These cults of personality are dangerous and they elevate politicians to an undeserved status. The more we place politicians on pedestals and believe that they can personally make our lives better, the more we relinquish our own sense of personal responsibility. And to be perfectly clear, that is the only way we can hope to better our own lives, or anyone else’s for that matter.
If anyone has any doubt of this, ask yourself if the health care system in the post-Obama world is really any better than before he came to office?
We’ve all heard the promises political candidates make when it comes to improving the lives of their constituents: Andrew Yang is going to help the little guy get ahead by providing a universal basic income. Bernie Sanders is going to be the first person in history to make socialism work and create true and lasting equality. And Elizabeth Warren is going to personally save every woman from misogyny by becoming the first female president. These are, of course, no different from the promises we have heard in the past.
Donald Trump was going to save the American middle-class and the businesses sector. Barack Obama was going to save our health care system. And, at the risk of sounding repetitive, Hillary Clinton was going to save us from misogyny and create seamless gender equality by becoming the first female president. But when the ballots have been cast and all is said and done, few people’s lives are dramatically impacted based on who sits in the oval office. And most of the problems that existed before the four-year term begins will exist afterward.
If anyone has any doubt of this, ask yourself if the health care system in the post-Obama world is really any better than before he came to office. It goes without saying that the “if you like your plan you can keep your plan” promise went out the window as soon as the realities of Obamacare made themselves known. Oh, and insurance policy premiums also skyrocketed.
Likewise, it would be equally false to believe that Trump somehow managed to save our health care by undoing all the damage caused by the Affordable Care Act with the snap of his fingers. And if you do believe this to be true, ask yourself: why were so many people shocked to find they still had to pay the individual mandate penalty on their taxes this year?
A politician cannot save us, not in the policy realm or our personal lives. But as individuals, we have nearly unlimited power to do this for ourselves.
Additionally, no matter how many promises have been made to completely withdraw the troops from Afghanistan over the years, we still hear of American military casualties occurring in regions we should no longer be occupying. Even the recent tax cuts that were supposed to help all of us were not as impactful as we had once thought they would be. While corporate tax rates were slashed—and this is a good thing—individuals saw only small decreases when it came to their own tax rates. (And a small percentage saw their taxes go up.)
From a policy front, our lives change very little depending on who is the president. But there is a deeper issue here than one of just policy. In fact, it’s almost as if we view politicians as our personal saviors.
In Utah, when Mitt Romney was a 2012 Presidential candidate, many Utahns referred to him as the “white knight,” who had come to save our country and our Constitution. While this is the extreme of the cult of personality worship, it highlights the seriousness of the problem. The “white knight” reference implies that we need someone to come save us instead of realizing that we are capable of saving ourselves.
A politician cannot save us, not in the policy realm or our personal lives. But as individuals, we have nearly unlimited power to do this for ourselves.
We’ve Got to Save Ourselves
Objectivist and renowned American psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden cautions against waiting on someone else to come rescue you from your problems. In his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden writes:
No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better.
At first glance, this might seem like a bleak statement. But in these words rests the immense personal power we need to transform our lives. No politician can save you, just like no parent or friend can save you. If you really want to fix your life and be a tool for change on a grander scale, you’re going to have to learn how to save yourself.
As a young person in my 20s, my life revolved around getting Ron Paul elected. In my humble opinion, I still believe he would have been the best president this country has ever known, but that doesn’t negate the fact that in pursuit of getting him elected, I stopped trying to work on myself and improve my own life.
During that 2012 campaign season, I stopped talking to family and friends who disagreed with me, I routinely made excuses as to why I didn’t have to be kind to someone who supported another candidate, and I abandoned all self-improvement endeavors in pursuit of getting Dr. Paul elected. At the time, I truly believed a Paul presidency would fix all my problems.
Instead of starting small and fixing whatever I could in my own personal sphere, I looked to someone in Washington to rescue me. I made the mistake of abandoning everything right in front of me. My four-year relationship was on track to escalate to an engagement, but my preoccupation with the campaign resulted in a nasty breakup instead. Additionally, lifelong friendships deteriorated because I couldn’t seem to see past our political differences. And when it came to my family, I stopped attending Sunday dinners and holidays because I didn’t have time for anything that wasn’t centered around my political pursuits. Additionally, my own health was beginning to deteriorate because I couldn’t find the time to sleep well or eat properly.
And when the election season was over, and my dreams of a President Paul had not come to fruition, I was left with the harsh realization that my personal life was a complete mess. I had tried so hard to change things in Washington—something I truly had very little control over— that I completely neglected to fix what I could control. I did not realize at the time that I was capable of saving myself.
During an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson spoke of the importance of fixing your own life before you try to take on bigger tasks. He said:
…don’t be fixing up the economy, 18-year-olds. You don’t know anything about the economy. It’s a massive complex machine beyond anyone’s understanding and you mess with that your peril. So can you even clean up your own room? No. Well you think about that. You should think about that, because if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?
In my quest to elect Dr. Paul, my proverbial room had grown chaotically messy. And instead of doing what I could to fix it, I was out campaigning, attempting to tell other people what to do when I truthfully did not even know how to handle my own life. As Peterson also says,
My sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward, because you build your competence that way.
But in truth justice was, as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself.
During that campaign season, I had ample opportunities to take small steps in rescuing myself, but I never did. Instead, I thought that I could bypass saving myself in pursuit of something greater. But this is not possible. You cannot run without first learning how to walk, and in order to be capable of great change, you have to first fix yourself. This doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, you can start small by cleaning your room, or even begin by simply organizing one small corner of your room. Eventually, as Peterson says, you can take on bigger tasks.
…and then maybe you’ll learn enough by doing that so that you can fix up your family a little bit, and then having done that, you’ll have enough character so that when you try to operate in the world, at your job, or maybe in the broader social spheres, that you’ll be a force for good instead of harm…
Imagine what you could do if you got your own life in order? This seems like a small step, but maybe by cleaning your room and getting your own life together you could start a business and create jobs for others. Or maybe you could be a more effective activist if you first did all you could to work on yourself before petitioning for larger change.
If you want to live in a world where women have more opportunities, don’t elect another woman to office; become the female who is bringing that change to pass in her everyday life. We make the grave mistake of assuming politicians are qualified to save us. But how many political candidates have actually made the effort to “clean up their own room” before attempting to save the country? The answer is probably very few.
All You Can Do Is Start With Yourself
We would each do well to remind ourselves that an election season will not make or break us as individuals. Unless you are willing to take the steps needed to clean your room and be your own savior, you cannot expect someone else to do it for you. So instead of arguing back and forth on social media in favor of this or that candidate, do something that will help you change your own life and, thus, better prepare you to make bigger changes.
As Confucius says:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.
No one is coming to help you, so you might as well stop waiting and start fixing your own life today.
Erick Erickson ignited a religious controversy when he Tweeted this about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg:
I mean if Buttigieg thinks evangelicals should be supporting him instead of Trump, he fundamentally does not understand the roots of Christianity. But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.
As you can imagine, that got Episcopalians rather upset, as well as liberals. (Do I repeat myself? I reserve the right to return to that thought.)
Erickson had more to say about Buttigieg:
Pete Buttigieg keeps trying to play a Christian on television and it goes badly for him again.
Buttigieg recently said of Donald Trump, “It is hard to look at his actions and believe they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.” On Meet the Press [April 14], Chuck Todd asked Buttigieg about that.
Buttigieg said he thought evangelicals backing President Trump were hypocritical because when he goes to church he hears about taking care of widows, the poor, and refugees, but Trump does not do that. Buttigieg went on to draw a distinction. In his professional conduct, Trump does not take care of widows and refugees as scripture commands and Buttigieg is right on this. Then Buttigieg continues that in Trump’s personal life as well he falls short of Christian behavior (he is right on that part too, by the way, but then we are all sinners). You can see the full, unedited exchange here.
Interestingly, Buttigieg goes on to note that evangelicals are too focused on sexual ethics these days. He seems to be arguing that they need to drop that aspect of their faith, as he has. Then comes the pivot exposing Buttigieg’s own hypocrisy.
Buttigieg thinks the President is not really behaving as one who believes in God because, as President, Donald Trump is not taking care of the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the refugees. Chuck Todd asks Buttigieg about his position on abortion and Buttigieg’s response is that abortion is a moral issue and we cannot legislate morality. …
This is why progressive Christianity is so corrupt and flawed. As much as Buttigieg makes a valid critique on the President’s behavior and evangelicals excusing that behavior, Buttigieg wants to reject the inconvenient parts of faith he does not like. He is a gay man who got married; he does not think homosexuality is a sin despite express statements in scripture, and he thinks abortion is a moral issue and we cannot legislate our morality. Buttigieg wants to use the social obligations as Christians against the President, but wants to avoid any implication on the personal obligations of Christians in terms of clear Biblical sexual ethics and how we are to live our lives applying our faith even for “the least of these.”
He wants to have it both ways and in reality is showing he is no better a Christian than Donald Trump. What is particularly damning here is that Buttigieg claims to be governed by some moral code and he claims he will lead as a more moral President than Trump. At the same time, he claims we cannot do exactly what he is proposing.
Everyone has a moral code and we all conduct our actions by our moral code. Buttigieg just wants a pass on his moral code, which is all about not taking inconvenient stands on parts of scripture that might make his life a bit uncomfortable. He will wield it against the President and abdicate when it comes to himself.
Frankly, Buttigieg makes a valid criticism of evangelicals who give the President a pass on his bad behavior. It actually is a valid criticism. There are too many evangelicals unwilling to call the President to account for his failures to repent, his doubling down on bad behavior, etc.
Buttigieg, however, is not making the point that Christians should vote for Democrats. He is making the case that they should stay home. Therein lies the rub. He does not think anyone should legislate their morality, so why should anyone vote their morality?
Ultimately, however, Christians can be Americans and Christians. They must put their faith first, which is something Buttigieg himself is unwilling to do except when it is convenient. Given the choices of a bunch of terribly flawed candidates, it really is understandable that Christians are willing to side with the one who will protect their right to exercise their religion in their daily lives rather than the ones who offer platitudes with persecution.
Lastly, note how quickly Buttigieg dismisses the science. He knows he cannot argue on that point so he refuses to even accept it as part of the debate. That is what trips him up. The science amplifies the moral case against Buttigieg’s position. Undoubtedly, however, Buttigieg will make the moral case for accepting transgenderism and demand we legislate on it. It’s just the children he is okay discarding. The same God that commands we take care of the widows, the poor, and the refugees, commands us to take care of children too.
It’s hardly news that a lot of conservative Evangelical leaders sneer contemptuously at anyone practicing any other form of Christianity as inauthentically Christian. But they are usually a bit circumspect about presuming to judge the faith of other believers in a public way.
Not the famously voluble and extremely self-confident conservative commentator Erick Erickson. I once dubbed him Pope Erick for his presumption in denying that any true Christian could possibly fail to understand that homosexuality is condemned for all eternity. So it’s no surprise that Erickson is now taking up the cudgel against Pete Buttigieg for being outspokenly gay and Christian. …
Thus Erickson dismisses a Christian tradition dating back to the 16th century, and in its apostolic succession and creeds, much longer than that. But it’s part and parcel of an extended temper tantrum that Erickson and his colleagues at the Resurgent have been pitching over the ignominy of Buttigieg calling himself Christian. …
To be clear here, Erickson is not simply asserting that he believes Buttigieg’s interpretation of Christianity is in error (though as the tragedy of church history illustrates, this kind of sectarian disputation often involves un-Christian attitudes), but is judging Buttigieg’s faith (hence the headline “Pete Buttigieg Shows Why Progressive Christianity Is a Hypocritical Farce”) as inauthentic on grounds that it makes no sense from the perspective of his own sectarian biblical-literalist viewpoint. Erkickson believes it’s clear that Christianity is incompatible with homosexuality and legalized abortion. Millions of people who go to Christian churches regularly and pray and try to follow Christ don’t agree. Yet he dares demean their faith as a “farce.”
I occasionally succumb to the temptation to turn these accusations around 180 degrees:
Whatever else you want to say about the Christian Right, many of its leaders are definitely very secular. Their idea of a “Christian Culture” appears based less on the Bible than on the way things used to be in the United States of America the day before yesterday, before uppity minorities and women and unions and “losers” spoiled the capitalist patriarchal paradise God set up as the model of human behavior via the Founders. Pouring holy water over this very worldly vision or fishing around in the Bible for sanctions for it doesn’t make it any less secular. So please, Pope Erick, leave Jesus Christ out of this and just admit you think it’d be a more pleasant world without gay people.
But while my suspicions about the worldliness of the Christian right generally may be accurate, I recant any efforts to deny the authenticity of any individual’s faith. I used to have some rural relatives who refused to acknowledge daylight savings time because standard time was “God’s time.” That’s precisely the kind of confusion between religion and secular traditionalism that I think many conservative Evangelicals tend to nourish. But I don’t doubt my country cousins’ deeply felt desire to do God’s will. So I won’t try to peer into Erick Erickson’s soul and judge his faith. It’s very unlikely he’d ever reciprocate that token of respect and humility. That’s just a cross that progressive Christians must bear.
Carol Kuruvilla of the Huffington Post (which apparently reports about religion — who knew?) adds:
Evangelical Christians have long seen themselves as the standard-bearers for faith and family values in American politics. Buttigieg, a gay Christian, is directly challenging that, driving some evangelical leaders to try to paint his faith as an inauthentic expression of Christianity.
Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham and a supporter of President Donald Trump, criticized the faith of the South Bend, Indiana, mayor ― and progressive Christianity as a whole ― on Twitter and Facebook Thursday.
“We don’t define sin, God does in His Word,” tweeted Graham, who has long maintained that queer love is a sin. “Using new terms like ‘Progressive Christianity’ & ‘Christian Left’ may sound appealing, but God’s laws don’t change. I believe what the Bible says is truth.”
I’m sure regular readers will be shocked — shocked! — to find out that everyone is wrong. I read Erickson as sarcastically saying that Episcopalians are not Christians. (Perhaps Erickson was thinking of bishop-turned-heretic John Spong, but if he wanted to refer to Spong he should have referred to Spong.)
Kilgore and Kuruvilla, and everyone else they quote approvingly, and for that matter Erickson are all wrong for trying to push only (their favored) part of Christianity. Being Christian fundamentally means you believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, died for our sins, and was resurrected into Heaven three days after his death by crucifixion.
That’s not it, though. Jesus Christ’s second commandment, remember, is to love your neighbor. That means the individual Christian should work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and so on. Not government, not churches, not any other group — you as a Christian. Christians are also expected to attempt to avoid sin (“Go and sin no more“) and conduct themselves appropriately. Buttigieg seems to not respect the teachings of the Bible on sexual morality, and I suppose that’s up to him and God. It is not up to him, however, to say that others who are Christians are wrong about parts of the Bible and traditional Christian teaching that Buttigieg appears to not agree with or like.
The concept of cafeteria Christianity is not unusual, but that doesn’t make it correct Christianity. Everett Piper:
South Bend, Indiana, mayor and 2020 presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, recently took to the national stage to attack Vice President Mike Pence and, by association, tens of millions of America’s orthodox Christians.
“My [homosexual] marriage ” said Mr. Buttigieg, “has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God If being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far above my pay grade. That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand, that if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
This is not an isolated rhetorical cheap shot. Earlier this year, Mr. Buttigieg said, “Who would think that this Uber-Evangelical Christian would go down in history as the midwife of the porn star presidency? If he were here you would think he’s a nice guy to your face, but he’s also just fanatical. How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in the scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?”
Mr. Buttigieg’s ridicule of the vice president’s religious convictions has persisted, in spite of the fact that Mr. Pence has done nothing but show grace and respect at every turn. “I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard,” said Mr. Pence. “I see him as a dedicated public servant and patriot.” There is no record of Mr. Pence ever insulting Mr. Buttigieg or returning his mockery with similar derision. Mr. Pence has shown remarkable restraint and nothing but civility and a generous spirit of true tolerance.
While our vice president may find it politically imprudent to respond to such provocations, some of us see less reason to remain so circumspect. Presumptuous as it might be to offer a response on behalf of our vice president, I am going to venture a try.
Mr. Buttigieg, has it ever occurred to you, that the “Mike Pences of the world” don’t have a problem with “who you are,” but rather we just disagree with what you do? We believe human identity is much more than the sum total of someone’s sexual inclinations. In fact, the “creator” whom you so boldly reference makes this pretty clear.
There is no place in His entire biblical narrative where He defines us by our desires. All of us, however, are known by our choices. We are made in His image, we have moral awareness and moral culpability. We can and should choose to not do some things we may be inclined to do. God help us if we don’t. One’s appetite for porn, polyamory, and any other heterosexual or homosexual act does not define you. Your decision as to whether or not you satiate such an appetite does.
You see, Mr. Mayor, this is a matter of your proclivities, not your personhood. What you don’t seem to understand is that when it comes to your personal peccadillos, most all of the “Mike Pences of the world” really don’t want to know. Your sexual appetites are your business. The thing about obedient and faithful Christians is this; we consider someone else’s private life to be just that — Private. Please stop telling us what kind of sex you like. We don’t want to know. If you want us to stay out of your bedroom, please shut the door. Stop opening it up and forcing us to applaud and celebrate.
Before I close, Mr. Buttigieg, I have to point out one more thing. Surely you are aware you just implicitly admitted you agree with all of us “Mike Pences of the world” and you, too, think sexual behavior is, indeed, a moral issue? Otherwise, why include your derogatory remarks about porn stars and those who engage in their services? Why do you disparage them? By your own logic, isn’t “your quarrel, sir, with their creator” and not them? How is it that you blame others for their sexual behavior but you hold yourself guiltless before your own sex tribunal and morality police?
Oh, I can hear your reply before you even open your mouth, Mr. Buttigieg. It is as predictable as the sunrise. “You’re missing the point” you say. “This is not about sex. It is about marriage.” Well, aside from the transparent incongruity of this claim, let’s cut to the chase and close with this: What gives you the right to redefine a sacrament of the church? You don’t get to make up your own Christianity. You also don’t get to make up your own Jesus, and in case you missed it, He is explicitly clear on His definition of marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
No, our quarrel really isn’t with your creator, sir. Our quarrel is with you.
Jesus Christ. That name means many things to many people. Some call him Lord and Savior, some a good man and wise teacher, and others a radical rebel. …
A good place to start when talking about Christ the Rebel is noting the fact that the reason the Jewish teachers of the law didn’t like Jesus in the first place is that they saw him as a threat to their political power. We can see many examples this throughout the gospels, such as his healing of the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:1-7, or Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath to eat in Matthew 12:1-9, which enraged the Pharisees because they viewed it a violation of the law of Moses.
Jesus also clearly advocated for a limit on government authority as he noted in his encounter with the Pharisees in which they questioned him about taxes. They tried to trap him into giving an answer which would make the people listening angry and thereby lose his credibility with his followers. He responded to this with the famous phrase “give to Caesar, what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”. Now, some people would say here that Jesus was advocating for taxes, but it is clear that when you look at the conversation which takes place in Matthew 22, that he is very clearly placing a limit to the authority of government.
Libertarians should also be able to appreciate the fact that Christ believed in the superiority of private charity over a welfare state. In fact, you will not find a single place in the Bible or the words of Jesus that supports the existence of a welfare state. Instead, you will find commands that followers of Jesus take care of the poor like the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21and the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-10. You will also find when James wrote his letter to believers, he says in verse 27 of chapter one that real faith is demonstrated by taking care of the poor, the widows and the orphans.
Libertarians will also find in the words of Jesus that he was a man of peace and not an advocate for an unjust war. Although Jesus was definitely not a pacifist by any means, he was a peaceful man and not a warmonger. I mentioned earlier that the Jewish religious leaders who made the case that Jesus should be crucified did so because they saw him as a threat to their power.
It should also be mentioned that the reason many Jews rejected him as the Messiah (and still do today) is because they believed the Messiah would be a political revolutionary who would lead a revolt that would overthrow Roman rule and set up a Jewish State. We can see that Jesus repeatedly advocated for peaceful actions as much as possible healing the sick, feeding the hungry and loving those that were most despised in society at the time. Christ frequently said to be kind and loving in your actions with others. We can see this in his instructions in Matthew 5:38-40 to “turn the other cheek” and his blessing to the peacemakers in Matthew 5:9.
I love how Ron Paul spoke of his faith in Christ. When he was once asked about it he said, “I get to my God through Christ. Christ to me is a man of peace he is for peace; he is not for war. He doesn’t justify preemptive declared war. I strongly believe there is a Christian doctrine of just war and I believe this nation has drifted from that. No matter what the rationales are we have drifted from that and it’s very, very, dangerous and I see in many ways to be unchristian. To justify what we do in the name in the name of Christianity I think is very dangerous and not part of what Christianity is all about. Christ came here for spiritual reasons, not secular war and boundaries and geography and yet we are now dedicating so much of our aggressive activity in the name of God, but God, He is the Prince of Peace. That is what I see through my God and through Christ. I vote for peace.”
Lovers of liberty can also appreciate the fact that although Christ was a man of peace, he realized there were times in which his followers may have to use force in the form of self-defense. As Jesus told the 12 disciples in Luke 22:35-38 before his crucifixion took place, “35 And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” 36 And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS’; for that which refers to Me has its [fulfillment.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (NASB)
Jesus later tells his disciple Peter, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” after he cuts off the ear of one of the Roman guards who arrested Jesus to take him to be crucified. I have always seen this not as a complete prohibition of violence altogether, but instead that the only justifiable means of violence is in defense of an individual’s life.
Declarations of hope that Notre-Dame can be resurrected have been much in evidence this Holy Week. Such is the lesson of Easter: that life can come from death. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, that other great emblem of Paris, Notre-Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Notre-Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past.
Last summer, one of the world’s best-known scientists, a man as celebrated for his polemics against religion as for his writings on evolutionary biology, sat in another cathedral, Winchester, in the United Kingdom, listening to the bells peal. ‘So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar”,’ Richard Dawkins tweeted. ‘Or is that just my cultural upbringing?’ A preference for church bells over the sound of Muslims praising God does not just emerge by magic. Dawkins — agnostic, secularist and humanist that he is — absolutely has the instincts of someone brought up in a Christian civilization.
Perhaps, then, the debt of the contemporary West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many — believers and non-believers alike — might presume.
Today, as the flood-tide of western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind. Free-thinkers who mock the very idea of a god as a sky fairy, an imaginary friend, still hold to taboos and morals that palpably derive from Christianity. In 2002, in Amsterdam, the World Humanist Congress affirmed ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. Yet this — despite humanists’ stated ambition to provide ‘an alternative to dogmatic religion’ — was nothing if not itself a statement of belief. The humanist assumption that atheism and a concern for human life go together was just that: an assumption. What basis — other than mere sentimentality — was there to argue for it? Perhaps, as the humanist manifesto declared, through ‘the application of the methods of science’. Yet this was barely any less of a myth than the biblical story that God had created humanity in his own image. It is not truth that science offers moralists, but a mirror. Racists identify it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism — ‘that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others’ — finds no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in the past, and specifically in the story of how a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire emerged to become — as the great Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has put it — ‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world’.
The Easter story lies at the heart of this narrative. Crucifixion, in the opinion of Roman intellectuals, was not a punishment just like any other. It was one peculiarly suited to slaves. To be hung naked, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds, ‘long in agony’, as the philosopher Seneca put it, ‘swelling with ugly weals on shoulder and chest’, was the very worst of fates. Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. Certainly, few cared to think about it in any detail. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest power on earth, was what counted — not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.
The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few procedural descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. Nevertheless, amid the general silence, there is one major exception which proves the rule. Four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. These accounts are to be found, of course, in the New Testament. There is no reason to doubt their essentials. Even the most skeptical historians have tended to accept them. In the words of one of the most distinguished, Geza Vermes, ‘The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him.’
Altogether more controversial, of course, are the stories of what happened next. That women, going to the tomb, found the entrance stone rolled away. That Jesus, over the course of the next 40 days, appeared to his followers, not as a ghost or a reanimated corpse, but resurrected into a new and glorious form. That he ascended into heaven, and was destined to come again. Time would see him hailed, not just as a man, but as a god. By enduring the most agonizing fate imaginable, he had conquered death itself. ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…’
The utter strangeness of all this, for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. Divinity, however, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself. Even Christians, in the early years of the cult, might flinch at staring the manner of Jesus’s death full in the face. They were as wise to the connotations of crucifixion as anyone. Paul, the most successful and influential of early missionaries, readily described Christ’s execution as a ‘scandal’. The shame of it was long felt. Only centuries after the death of Jesus did his crucifixion at last start to emerge as an acceptable theme for artists. By 400 ad the cross was ceasing to be viewed as something shameful. Banned as a punishment decades earlier by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, crucifixion had come to serve the Roman people as an emblem of triumph over sin and death. An artist, carving the scene out of ivory, might represent Jesus in the skimpy loincloth of an athlete. Far from looking broken, he would be shown as no less muscled, no less ripped than any of the ancient gods.
We are the heirs to a later, much more unsettling way of portraying Christ’s crucifixion. The Jesus painted or sculpted by medieval artists, twisted, bloody, dying, was a victim of torture such as his original executioners would have recognized. The response to the spectacle, though, was far removed from the mingled revulsion and disdain that had typified that of the ancients to crucifixion. Christians in the Middle Ages, when they looked upon an image of their Lord upon the cross, upon the nails smashed through the tendons and bone of his feet, upon the arms stretched so tightly as to appear torn from their sockets, upon the slump of his thorn-crowned head on to his chest, did not feel contempt, but rather compassion, and pity, and fear. That the Son of God, born of a woman, and sentenced to the death of a slave, had perished unrecognized by his judges, was a reflection fit to give pause to even the haughtiest monarch. This awareness could not help but lodge in the consciousness of medieval Christians a visceral and momentous suspicion: that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ. ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’
Christianity had revealed to the world a momentous truth: that to be a victim might be a source of strength. No one in modern times saw this more clearly than the religion’s most brilliant and unsparing critic. Because of Christianity, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘the measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul’. The commanding heights of western culture may now be occupied by people who dismiss Christianity as superstition; but their instincts and assumptions remain no less Christian for that. If God is indeed dead, then his shadow, immense and dreadful, continues to flicker even as his corpse lies cold. The risen Christ cannot be eluded simply by refusing to believe in him. That the persecuted and disadvantaged have claims upon the privileged — widely taken for granted though it may be today across the West — is not remotely a self-evident truth. Condemnations of Christianity as patriarchal or repressive or hegemonic derive from a framework of values that is itself nothing if not Christian.
Familiarity with the Easter story has desensitized us to what both Paul and Nietzsche, in their very different ways, instinctively recognized in it: a scandal. The cross, that ancient tool of imperial power, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of a transfiguration in the affairs of humanity as profound and far-reaching as any in history. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ It is the audacity of it — the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe — that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth.
Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead upon an implement of torture.
The other day Ben Shapiro offered what should have been an utterly banal statement about the fire at Notre Dame:
Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.
Now, I have no problem with quibbles (and neither does Ben) from Catholics who point out that Notre Dame was a monument to the glory of God and what Catholics believe to be the One True Church as delineated in the Nicene Creed. But, I doubt any of those Catholics took offense at what Ben said. And if they did, they should probably lighten up. I’d also point out that Cathedrals were the space programs of their day (“The Knights Templar were the first Space Force”: Discuss). Cities and nations constantly competed to see who could build the tallest Cathedral — which is why most are built on the tallest ground available. The idea was both theological and political. Theologically, the idea was to get as close to God as possible. Politically, it was a desire for, well, national greatness.
Anyway, what I have a huge problem with is the bonfire of asininity that ignited from people who think “Western civilization” is a term reserved solely for the alt-right and other bigots (David French addressed the point well here). In a piece about Ben’s excellent book on Western civilization — I’ll reserve my quibbles for later — The Economist labeled him an “alt-right sage” and a “pop idol of the alt right.” To The Economist’s credit, they retracted and apologized. But the immediate assumption that praise for, or pride in, Western civilization is a species of bigotry and racism is a perfect example of the sort of civilizational suicide I describe in my own book on the subject.
So adamantine is this absurdity that some Shapiro haters actually assume he’s not actually saying he thinks the West is superior, only “tacitly” suggesting it.
Ben might as well be standing in the center of Times Square waving a giant foam finger that reads “Western Civ #1” on it. But the idea is so offensive to some people they think he wouldn’t dare say it outright.
What’s So Great about Western Civilization?
I’ve covered much of this at length — book length but also in this G-File — elsewhere. So I’ll go in a slightly different direction.
Forget calling it Western civilization for a moment. Instead think of a kind of party platform with a bunch of planks:
- Support for human rights
- Belief in the rule of law
- Dedication to democracy
- Free speech
- Freedom of conscience
- Admiration for science and the scientific method
- Curiosity about other cultures
- Property rights
- Tolerance or celebration of technological and/or cultural innovation
I’ll be generous and stipulate that 90 percent of the people who are offended by pride in Western civilization actually believe — or think they believe — in most or all of these things. They just have a problem connecting the dots, so I’ll try.
Where do they think most of these ideas come from? Where were they most successfully put into action? What civilization today or in some bygone era manifests these values more? Chinese civilization? Islamic civilization? Aztec? African? Indian? Persian? Turkish?
I’m not trying to belittle any of those cultures, nor deny their contributions to human history. I’m not even trying to argue – here, at least — that Western civilization is objectively superior in some scientific or God’s-eye-view sense. As with the debates over nationalism, there’s no arguing — and no reason to argue — with a French patriot about whether or not America is “better” than France. I would think less of a Spaniard who didn’t love Spain more than he or she loves France. It’s like arguing whose family is better, we love what is ours. As Bill Buckley liked to say, De gustibus non est disputandum.
But the weird thing is that many of the people who are outraged by benign nationalism or the benign pan-nationalism that is pride in Western civilization take no umbrage when someone from Iran or China says they think their civilization is best. This of course is a manifestation of the ancient cult of identitarianism, which the best traditions of the West have battled internally at great cost for thousands of years. Saying Western civilization is great hurts the feelings of some people invested in some other source of identity. And it hurts the feelings of some Westerners because they think it’s a sign of enlightenment to get offended on other people’s behalf or to denigrate the society that gave them their soap box.
The irony is that the willingness to entertain the possibility that some other culture has something important to offer or say to us is actually one of the hallmarks of Western civilization (and the condescension with which many Americans treat other cultures is also a more regrettable side of Western culture). We “borrow” stuff from other cultures constantly, starting with Christianity itself.
This is particularly true of America, which is why our menus read like the requested meal plans from a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. This profound lack of self-awareness manifests itself most acutely among progressives who wear their Europe-envy on their sleeves. Oh, they’re so much more civilized over there. Well, what civilization do you think “over there” is part of?
Western civilization is a work in progress because that’s what civilization means. If you want a Cliff’s Notes version of what my book was about it’s simply this: Every generation, humans start from scratch. As Hannah Arendt said, every generation Western civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” As babies we come into the world with the same programming as Viking, Hun or caveman babies. These barbarians need to be civilized and that’s a job primarily done by families, which is why the days are long and the years are short. We teach barbarians how to be citizens in the broadest sense of the word, through formal education, religious teaching, social norms and the modeling of proper behavior. In other words, we assimilate people into a culture.
As Alan Wolfe writes in his discussion of Immanuel Kant:
As cultivating a field yields a better product, the arts and sciences cultivate us by improving the quality of who we are. No wonder, then, that when we look for a term that expresses the way we improve upon nature, we use “culture,” which has the same root as “cultivate.” And civilization—expressed in German not only as Zivilisation but also as Kultur — far from corrupting our soul, makes it possible for us to bring good out of evil.
The way you sustain and improve upon a culture is by fostering a sense of gratitude for what is best about it. You celebrate the good in your story while putting the bad in the correct context. Conservatism is gratitude, and as I noted on Fox the other night, one of the most compelling things in reaction the fire of Notre Dame was seeing how many people recognized their own ingratitude for this jewel of their own civilization. The Church was in peril because the French took it for granted. But, like that feeling one gets deep in the soul when a loved one in peril, millions were overcome with a sense of what they might lose. And now France is devoting itself to restoring what was almost lost.
Has Western civilization made mistakes? Sure (cue the Monty Python skit about Rome). Terrible things have been done in its name, a statement one can make about every civilization that has ever existed. But to say that the mistakes define us more than the accomplishments is suicidally stupid. And if you subscribe to those planks I mentioned above, I’d like to suggest that telling people they’re bigots for taking pride in the civilization that brought them forth better than any other is like taking a sledgehammer to the soapbox you’re standing on.
And to do it in the name of virtue tweeting is one of the purer forms of asininity.
Today is, depending on the Christian church, Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper before Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.
This weekend concludes Lent, during which Christians are supposed to ponder our sinful natures. The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member (though I sometimes wonder why given the actions of the national church and some of its bishops), often uses its Rite I for Lenten Masses, which uses “thee” and “thou” that wasn’t contemporary even last century.
(Aside: More presidents have been Episcopalians than members of any other religion, including most recently George H.W. Bush. The two things I have in common with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is that he too was an Episcopalian, and he was the senior warden of his church, St. James in Hyde Park, N.Y., as I have been and am now. FDR was senior warden even when he was president, which makes one wonder how many Vestry meetings he attended, or perhaps he attended via radio from the White House.)
I have yet to hear this version of the Confession of Sin in an Episcopal church, even during Lent:
… We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Both of the two Episcopal churches of which I was a member used language that differs little from the more contemporary Rite II:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.
The currently most famous Episcopalian is Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and for some reason one of the herd of Democratic presidential candidates. Independent of his sexuality, he, like nearly every current presidential candidate (including the Democrats not as famous as Comrade Bernie Sanders), claim to support socialism.
Any of those socialists who are practicing Jews or Christians are promoting sin. Jesus Christ, recall, was a devout Jew, and all of Christianity comes from Judaism. Whether your description comes from Exodus or Deuteronomy, two of the 10 Commandments are to not steal and to not covet.
Everyone who lies about socialism (for instance, denying its death toll of upwards of 100 million among the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, or claiming that socialism hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been done correctly) commits a third sin, lying. (A recent letter to the editor in southwest Wisconsin newspapers claimed there was little difference between socialism and Christianity. Fortunately a Catholic priest corrected her manifold errors in a later letter.)
The Quran agrees:
- The thief, male or female, you shall mark their hands as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as an example from GOD. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise.
- … incur GOD’s condemnation upon him, if he was lying.
- Do not withhold any testimony by concealing what you had witnessed. Anyone who withholds a testimony is sinful at heart.
- You shall regard the parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor, the related neighbor, the unrelated neighbor, the close associate, the traveling alien, and your servants.
One thing liberal Christians fail to grasp about the Gospel is that everything Jesus Christ tells us Christians to do — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, showing strangers hospitality, visiting prisoners — is an individual responsibility. Jesus didn’t tell churches to do those things, and He didn’t tell the Roman government to do those things; He told us Christians to do those things.
I got into a brief social media argument — I’ll pause briefly to allow readers to get over the shock of that — when someone (potentially a former Facebook Friend) posted about Tiger Woods’ winning last weekend’s Masters golf tournament, and how wonderful it was that Woods overcame his addiction to painkillers and his back problems. To that I asked if Woods had un-done his dalliances with women to which he wasn’t married after his marriage. The writer really didn’t care for that, and she really didn’t care for my next statement that our society might be less screwed up if we were more judgmental of each other and each other’s wrong actions. (She also didn’t care for my opposition to worshiping athletes — in addition to celebrities and politicians, though I didn’t mention them — and also accused me of being priggish and probably thought I suffer from excessive self-regard. I know my sins and flaws.)
Anyone who points out bad behavior of others may be reminded of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery whose stoning is thwarted by Jesus’ suggesting that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. What you hardly ever hear is what He said at the end of that incident: “Go and sin no more.” Even if no longer sinning is impossible for us fatally flawed humans, that does suggest we should at least make a sincere effort to avoid that specific sin and sinning generally. You see that decreasingly often in our sinful, permanently flawed world, and I bet you haven’t heard that in church any time in your recent memory. And yet it applies in our world even after the Resurrection. Jesus Christ didn’t die for our sins so we could go on blithely sinning without consequences.
This being a world full of people who suffer from excessive self-regard who don’t like to be reminded of their sinful nature, that might explain decreasing attendance in church. But our failure to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” well explains our world continuing to spiral into a toilet. Don’t like that statement? Well, as Jesus Christ said, a prophet is without honor in his own house.
Nine-hundred years of heritage and beauty were left in smoldering ashes [Monday] after a fire consumed the once-great Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Back in college, and before I converted to Catholicism, I had the great fortune of visiting the Cathedral. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough. As a typical college kid, I went in and looked around, but I did not savor the moment. No, it was just one of several things planned for the day before I was free to drink wine with my buddies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
I had always hoped to revisit the Cathedral. I knew I failed to properly appreciate her beauty, grandeur, and heritage the first time. That opportunity is now lost as rebuilding will probably take the remainder of my life — and it won’t be the same.
We men of the West have come to take our civilization for granted. We believe in perpetual progress and continuous revolution in pursuit of the perfection of man. We see little need for appreciation of the past or defending our traditions and principles. Rather, always onward, always forward.
Much as I foolishly did at Notre Dame, we fail to appreciate what we have and what is required to maintain it. We assume that it will always be there, despite our neglect.
Construction on Notre Dame was begun by Pope Alexander III in 1163. It took nearly 200 years to build with completion occurring in 1345 under the reign of King Philip VI of France and Pope Clement VI. Notre Dame survived countless wars, plagues, and revolutions, always there as a reminder of the Christian Faith that served as the foundation of France and Western Civilization.
But now she is a burned-out relic, much like the Christian Faith in France and most of the West. In 2017, La Croix published the results of a study commissioned by the Bayard Group that reported only 5% of French Catholics attend Mass regularly. Once the great defender of Christianity, France is now a secular state. Her leaders and her people have lost the Faith.
In America, too, it looks like we are following in the path of France. According to a study released just last week, “No Religion” is the largest identity-group for Americans, with 23.1% of respondents claiming that title. Catholics have fallen to only 23% of the population and evangelicals are at 22.5%.
The question before us, and one that we will likely see answered in our lifetimes, is whether or not Western Civilization can survive without its foundational beliefs.
In pondering this question, I am reminded of Whitaker Chambers’ Letter to My Children:
Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies…
…It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history.
… Few men are so dull that they do not know that the crisis exists and that it threatens their lives at every point. It is popular to call it a social crisis. It is in fact a total crisis – religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, economic. It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world.
The beauty of Notre Dame was inspired not by materialism or consumerism or Socialism, but by the desire to erect something that celebrated the eternal. For nearly 200 years, men toiled and sweat to build something that few would ever see completed. Who among us now has such Faith and dedication?
There are some out there. We either join them to confront the burning crisis before us, or, sadly, we will have to rebuild on the ruins.
Four years ago, in the midst of the Obama presidency, I published a book called “The Road to Character.” American culture seemed to be in decent shape and my focus was on how individuals can deepen their inner lives. This week, in the midst of the Trump presidency, I’ve got another book, “The Second Mountain.” It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.
The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.
The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.
No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.
We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.
To this ray of sunshine, Robert Samuelson responds:
As a rule, I rarely respond directly to other columnists. Many columnists do the same. It’s a good rule because, if abandoned, it would make commentary even more personal and shrill. But sometimes rules need to be broken. This is, I think, one of those times.
So, David, let me respectfully suggest: Lighten up.
To be sure, most of your insights are true. But they’re also utopian. You argue that we’ve lost our moral compass and have surrendered to delusional beliefs that rationalize a cultural emptiness. You seem disappointed that we haven’t arrived in some Garden of Eden paradise where almost everyone is happy, fulfilled, responsible and respected. I yearn for this as well, but I have reconciled myself to the inevitability of imperfection.
Our job as journalists is not simply to point out untruths, injustices and societal problems. It is also to illuminate the inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions of our national condition. It is, in short, to be realistic, especially when being realistic is politically and intellectually unpopular — as it is now.
We have a culture of complaint, where nothing works, selfishness is rampant, disillusion is widespread and hatred — practiced across the political spectrum — is common. There is no virtue in feeding this frenzy of pessimism, just because it fits the temper of the times. We need to recognize the limits of our condition. Many legitimate problems can’t be solved, and some problems aren’t worth solving.
It is also worth acknowledging that things could be worse. Most Americans who want jobs have them; we are not engaged in a major war; millions of households are doing the difficult work of balancing the duties of child-rearing with the rigors of their job schedules. The Trump presidency has turned up the heat on public and private discourse without (yet) leading to a breakdown of debate. Crudely, the nation’s institutions seem to be working.
David, here are a few comments on the “lies” that you describe as polluting today’s American dream:
● Ambition is America’s blessing and curse. It is a blessing because it encourages people to try new things, to stretch their abilities and to see how much more they can achieve. It fosters a vibrant economy, even if the most ambitious people are often unattractive as human beings. That’s the curse. Great ambition often causes great character flaws. Obsessed with their projects and themselves, people mistreat co-workers and family. They’re creatures of their ambitions, which can be both frustrating and fulfilling.
● Happiness is not a practical goal of public policy, even if governments sometimes reduce or eliminate some conditions that make people unhappy or miserable. But if some sources disappear, others may arise. There are too many factors (personality, religion, schools, luck, parents — or lack thereof — and much more) that determine outcomes. Pursuing happiness should remain, mostly, a personal responsibility. Making it a public responsibility would ensure failure.
●The meritocracy — frequently criticized — is not nearly so sinister as it’s portrayed. Of course, it creates stress among its members. They’re constantly being measured and prodded to do better, or to lose out to the students, workers and athletes next door. But the meritocracy’s principles, even if sometimes violated, are the right ones to govern our institutions. We want people who know what they’re doing; competition is not a bad way to make the selections. What are the alternatives? Would we be better off if social connections, race or political affiliation assumed a larger role?
Finally, there’s the matter of work. Everyone complains about it, but without it, most of us would die of boredom. Learning new stuff, the essence of journalism, is inherently rewarding, and, David, you and I are paid to do it. The virtues outweigh the vices.
So, let’s keep perspective. We don’t live in an ideal world and never will. But things could be worse, maybe quite a bit worse. Let’s try to avoid that.
A columnist of the 1990s — I’m thinking P.J. O’Rourke or Dave Barry, but I can’t find this quote attributed to either — once wrote that he had been managed by others for years and was therefore trying to avoid being managed.
This comes to mind in reading Arthur Brooks:
I always thought people liked me. I make friends easily and am at about the 99th percentile in extroversion.
But when I first moved to the American Enterprise Institute as president in 2009, I often felt a distinct distance from my colleagues. As I approached the lunch table, I’d see my colleagues laughing and telling stories, but when I sat down, they would look down at their plates. I started to take it personally.
But then I read the work of Princeton University’s Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics although he is a psychologist, and my relational isolation suddenly began to make sense. Kahneman’s work reveals a hard truth: Tyrannical or not, people don’t enjoy being around leaders all that much. In a well-known study, Kahneman and several colleagues looked at sources of unhappiness in our ordinary lives. They found that the No. 1 unhappiness-provoking activity in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss. Leaders who think their employees look forward to seeing them are basically fooling themselves. Many leaders want to be the exception to this; few are. Why? Because most people find it stressful to be bossed.
Most of us in leadership roles make an uneasy peace with this truth. I, for example, started eating lunch at my desk. Tyrants, on the other hand, embrace it fully. The canonical text for despotic leaders is Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic The Prince, in which he famously advised, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” By process of elimination, since you cannot be loved and still be the boss, go ahead and be feared.
People who follow Machiavelli’s advice are what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “coercive leaders” in his seminal Harvard Business Review article, “ Leadership That Gets Results.” In his research, he studied the leadership styles of nearly 4,000 CEOs. The most hated? “Coercive leadership.” The coercive leader, Goleman wrote, creates “a reign of terror, bullying and demeaning his executives, roaring his displeasure at the slightest misstep.”
That doesn’t sound like a leader most people would be eager to follow, but it does sound like a lot of current leaders and the general tenor of our political discourse. From television to social media to everyday politics at the highest level, we see powerful people belittling, maligning, and mocking those with lower status. Citizens, colleagues, and opponents are all routinely insulted and shamed in a system that rewards the loudest voices and most audacious claims.
Is this what we really want? After all, we vote for our politicians and tune in voluntarily to the media. Obviously, we’ve selected coercive leaders. Why?
Goleman’s work explains this choice. Divisive, coercive political leaders, in Goleman’s telling, can be appealing during times of national despair, when voters want to change the status quo. If people are convinced a crisis is being ignored, a coercive leader might be just what they want, at least for a little while. Goleman describes one such executive who was brought in to save a food company that was hemorrhaging money. “His first act was to have the executive conference room demolished. To him, the room, with its long marble table that looked like ‘the deck of the Starship Enterprise,’ symbolized the tradition-bound formality that was paralyzing the company.” The demolition was cheered by the rank and file, because it sent a message that the failing culture had to change.
Sound familiar? It should, because the motif of shaking up the system, if only to send a message, has dominated our politics and media since the run-up to the 2016 election. From populist politicians, including everyone from the president to his democratic socialist adversaries to angry pundits, leading figures on the Right and Left have spoken to broad swaths of the population that see themselves as having been given a bad deal, or worse, deprived of the sense of dignity that comes from meaningful work and community life. With wages stagnant for the middle class in the decade after the 2008 financial crisis, suicides and opioid-related deaths soaring to record numbers and labor force participation among prime-age men in decline, Americans had been looking for a leader who would rescue them from an economy of despair, even if it meant rupturing the system.
A crisis explains the emergence of coercive leaders, in business and politics. As Goleman notes, this can be both appealing and even somewhat effective in the short run if for no other reason than that coercive leaders put an abrupt end to what people consider an unacceptable status quo. For an organization in free fall, this is not a small victory. In the long run, however, coercive leadership can end badly, in scandal or ignominious defeat.
Coercive behavior often destroys morale and leaves people alienated. As psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Larissa Tiedens have found, tendencies toward blame and anger exhibited by coercive leaders escalate “in a recursive loop” and have “especially deleterious effects in interpersonal and intergroup relations.”
Under coercive leadership, people often turn on each other and don’t trust their colleagues or neighbors. People in power scapegoat and vilify others in order to maintain their positions. If you don’t reject this as a follower, you imply assent. That creates in-groups and out-groups among followers, which foments distrust and animosity. This certainly characterizes the current political moment in America, where 1 in 6 have ruptured a relationship over politics, doesn’t it?
Can leaders who want a better ideological culture address the needs for dignity and opportunity without the costs of coercive leadership? The answer is yes, and it takes us back once again to Goleman’s research on leaders. Specifically, we need what he calls ” authoritative leadership,” not to be confused with authoritarian leadership. These are far and away the most effective leaders.
Authoritative leaders in a company, according to Goleman, are visionaries who set a course for an institution and inspire each member to take responsibility for getting to the final destination. While coercive leaders drive people away by belittling and blaming, authoritative leaders garner their support by offering encouragement and trust. They foster a culture that affirms each team member’s importance to the work being done, and in doing so convince individuals to invest deeply in the long-term prosperity of the organization.
Authoritative leadership is not just advantageous in business. It can be used in any setting, including public life. If our goal is to reclaim the sense of dignity that has been attenuated for so many Americans, it’s not enough to smash a conference table and excoriate the establishment. What we require is a new vision from authoritative leaders for the purpose of our economy and public policy. By articulating a clear aim of restoring human dignity and expanding opportunity, authoritative leaders can create space for Americans to solve the pressing challenges the country faces.
Authoritative leaders are not peacemakers, however. They know we need disagreement to improve policy in all domains, from social safety net reform to a revamping of America’s education system. Sometimes, disagreement leads to a conflict of values, but for authoritative leaders, that’s all right. Their goal is not that we all get along. In fact, they typically instigate vigorous debates and challenge people in uncomfortable ways.
Maybe you’re thinking there’s no appetite in America for authoritative public leadership, at least not any more. Perhaps the last few years have beaten you down so much that you have become pessimistic or hopeless and concluded that our new state of political nature is something like what Thomas Hobbes described as what life would be if left up to nothing but our own devices: “nasty, brutish, and short.”
I disagree. I look at a lot of public opinion data in my job, including a survey from the nonprofit More in Common showing that 93 percent of Americans dislike how divided we have become as a country. I believe America is ready for unifying, authoritative, visionary leadership at all levels. Authoritative leadership gives us what we crave more than revenge, and more even than pure victory. At the level of deep moral values, authoritative leadership helps us connect with our fellow citizens, even those we disagree with on political matters.
How do we uncover and feed this hunger for more authoritative leadership in our nation today? For clues, we can look to our recent history. In the 1950s and 1960s, America was deeply divided over race relations. Conventional politicians believed white America was not willing to fight for civil rights for black Americans. Civil rights legislation in Congress stalled. Divisive, coercive leaders fed a political demand for segregation and resisted change.
But from a time dominated by coercive leaders emerged one of the greatest authoritative leaders in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He envisioned what escaped the eyes, and even imaginations, of many other leaders of his time: an America insistent on the common humanity and the right to dignity, of all people, no matter their race. He saw that, deep down, Americans wanted their country to live up to the promise of the nation’s founding, and would work to that end if only a leader would inspire them to do so.
King offered a unifying vision for the future. Standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall, he declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
His message touched the hearts not just of those gathered on the National Mall, but of millions of Americans who had not yet been part of the civil rights cause and would be motivated by his example. Of course, America did not change overnight. King was broadly unpopular at the outset of the civil rights movement, and in fact, in the year of his assassination, he faced a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent. But what made King such a profoundly effective leader was that he saw — indeed, created — a mainstream hunger for civil rights that people didn’t even know they had.
Going further back, authoritative public leadership was the secret to America’s founding. In the 1760s, many colonists were unhappy with King George III. They hated the tea tax and the Stamp Act. But they didn’t know they wanted to create a new country. I was amused to learn that my direct ancestor, John Brooks, was married in Boston on July 4, 1776. There is absolutely no evidence he was agitating in any way for the birth of a republic.
It wasn’t until a group of visionary leaders, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, claimed we could make a new kind of nation that the independence movement began. They articulated a revolutionary vision of self-government, and they inspired their fellow men and women to take up together the cause of life, liberty, and, most radically, the pursuit of happiness.
These examples demonstrate that the most lasting moral victories are propelled by authoritative leaders, not those who belittle, coerce, or polarize. When we land upon hard times, it is only natural to look for a coercive leader, one who will identify the enemy, shake up the status quo, and fight using any means necessary, dirty or clean.
However, if we want to build a better country, we need leaders who exemplify the authoritative style. This does not mean we need leaders who agree on all questions of policy. Far from it. But what America does need is leaders who are capable of building a shared moral consensus of pushing opportunity to those who need it the most and facilitating meaningful disagreement about how to achieve that shared aim, all while treating all Americans with love and respect.
The solution doesn’t only begin with national figures in politics and culture. It also starts with each of us. We can be everyday authoritative leaders, whether at home, around the watercooler at work, or in our neighborhoods. We can exhibit the kind of leadership we wish to see from our country’s public figures. And as we practice authoritative leadership in our own lives, we will find ourselves better prepared to weather the storms we face as individuals and as a nation.
As for me, I’ve learned a lot over my decade at the helm of the American Enterprise Institute. Machiavelli’s question of whether it is better to be feared than loved turns out to be an irrelevant one, because great leadership isn’t about how people feel about the leader. Rather, it is about whether they are inspired to work for their shared cause and serve each other. I never get tired of working for that, even if I wind up eating lunch by myself.