Category Archives: Culture

Where is True Political Virtue in Our Extreme Times, Pt. 2

As noted previously, virtue is never on the extremes, but in the middle. Surveying our current political malaise from the standpoint of more than two millennia of rich development of the art of politics in the West, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that both those among us who mock the concerns of the ordinary citizen and those who readily cry for the citizens to rise up and revolt represent the two vicious extremes, not the virtue.

The one persistently courts tyrannical distortion of civics by confusing self-aggrandizement with governance.1 The other persistently courts bestial civic dissolution by confusing licentiousness with liberty.2

The one constantly reacts to the never-ending condition of Modernity – crisis! – by invoking what C.S. Lewis called the perversity of governance by “omnipotent moral busybodies.” The other constantly reacts to such self-righteous virtue-signalling by viciously assaulting the very logic of order itself, putting in its place a poisonous and society-destroying obsession with equality that refuses to acknowledge one of the most fundamental created realities of all, hierarchy and its attendant duty for inferiors to honor and submit to their superiors.

The one substitutes the maintenance of elite personal privilege for the pursuit of public statecraft, heeding the Siren song of civic salvation by administrative bloat. The other blunt-mindedly redefines political liberty as absolute equality, avoiding destruction in the maw of the Charybdis of homogenizing Statism by instead steering the body politic to the jaws of the Scylla of pluralistic glutting of individual desire.3

At the root of all these contrasts is one fundamental and lamentable fact: the very vocabulary of politics, so thoroughly and carefully developed in the sources of our own American tradition, has suffered catastrophic loss in our times. So many of us spend our days doing little other than talking incessantly and with great passion about something we call “politics.” Yet too few of us have any notion at all that we just flat don’t even have most of the words that our ancestors had, and so we can’t even begin to meaningfully conceptualize, let alone navigate, the wide realms of reality that those words marked out.4

Where, then, is true political virtue to be found in our extreme times?

Given the fundamental impatience of character that frequently issues forth in the unreflective “Take action, NOW!” mentality of we Americans, true political virtue isn’t going to be found in defiant rebel yells or taking to the airwaves and streets to let Them know in no uncertain terms that, NO!, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!5

True political virtue isn’t going to be found in populist theological-preachy rabble-rousing that makes nearly every currently disputed issue a matter of analogizing from the Apostles facing down the Sanhedrin and declaring, “We have to obey God rather than men!”6

True political virtue isn’t going to be found in being “too busy” to read a real political book or two7 drawn from the actual sources that our American Founders knew by heart and regularly consulted while writing out the treatises that gave birth to our liberty, yet somehow having tons of time to engage in faux-political Farcebook-ing and Tweet-bombing in imitation of media personalities who do little more than stoke our egos with their intemperate diatribes about their own smartness and everyone else’s stupidity. (Thus do we unvirtuously replace serious political thinking with mere populist passion-raving.)

Where, then, is true political virtue to be found in our extreme times?

I suggest – perhaps too radically – that we can only begin to make a stab at finding true political virtue by first coming to agree with thinkers as diversely-unified as Solomon and Socrates that true wisdom comes only to those who come to admit that they don’t actually know what they think they know. For it is only by first distrusting much of what immediately appears on the surface level of our consciousnesses that we’ll be in a position to see what’s underneath those “obvious” things.

Think of the hordes of passersby in Proverbs: they’re in too big an all-fired hurry to listen to some lady crazily talking about sitting down (!) and listening (!) to elders (!) and practicing moderation of desire (!) and carefulness (!) of speech and action. The lures of quick, obvious gain promised by the sweet-talking, sexy deceivers are so much more relevant, not to mention so much more easily attained.8

I suggest – perhaps too radically – that we can only grow in finding true political virtue by applying the fundamental conviction that we don’t know what we think we know by making the intentional choice to engage with others with whom we disagree in two seemingly counterintuitive ways. On the one hand, we should engage them as if they actually are fellow image-bearers of God deserving of some type of genuine respect from us. On the other hand, we should engage them as if there might be some nuggets of truth in what they say if we are only patient enough to listen and winnow and refine.9

What if we actually believed our own theology, that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and so could see others as having pretty much the same problems we have, only taking different routes to try to alleviate them? 10 This attitude would not entail coming to agree with their politics or economics or religion or anything else. It would only entail coming to be less quick to praise Ourselves for having superior insights while being too quick to demean Them for not. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if such isn’t a violation of the spirit of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:7 that whatever good we have is the result of grace, thus short-circuiting all boasting.

Lastly (for now) I suggest that true political virtue in our extreme times might only be found by making a commitment to being more aware of the fact I’ve mentioned multiple times – that as a people, our American character is just fundamentally stamped with impatience, intemperance, and the imprudence that frequently follows from the first two.

I’ll add here, drawing not just from older writers like de Tocqueville, but newer ones like Orwell (1984) and Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), that we Americans are absolutely enraptured by a “cult of ignorance.” By this I mean a vicious and sinful disdain for – and sometime fanatical avoidance of – the very capacity of discursive, reasoned thought with which God has gifted us and which most fundamentally separates us from the animals.11

In this connection, I’ve liberally sprinkled throughout the posts of this short series references to classical books and themes. Frequently I hear about how invoking these sorts of sources shows that I’m “arrogant”, that I think I’m “better” than others who haven’t read such sources. Fewer charges could be further from the truth. And probably the best way to refute the emotionalism of that charge would be for those who like to make it against others to spend some time pondering Captain Beatty’s speech to Montag in Fahrenheit 451 about why, in this dystopian near-future, books were outlawed in the West and came to be the target of mandatory burning.12 It might help, too, after reading Beatty’s speech, to follow the downward spiral of Montag’s wife, Mildred, sitting hour after hour plugged into her “family” in a room paneled by flatscreen TVs and what we today call an “always on” Internet connection.

The true “arrogance,” in other words, isn’t something necessarily associated with booklearning, but which, rather, might just arise and grow out of control in fertile ground that isn’t sown with the seeds that alone provide the proper food of the mind – knowledge.

To close – the three practical paths I’ve outlined above – (1) seeking wisdom by admitting that we don’t know what we think we know, (2) looking for truth in the words of our opponents rather than only falsehoods, and (3) becoming more self-aware of our American character flaws, might help us in these troubled times of extremism everywhere to seek instead real political virtue rather than its many, and far more persuasively-articulated, imitations.

It will be a difficult path, no lie. But virtue never is easy, even though it’s always in the end far more worth it than vice.

  1. Speaking classically, a paradigm example here would be the Athenian democracy’s treatment of Socrates at his trial, for which see Plato’s Apology. []
  2. A paradigm example here would be the Cyclops in Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, a talking brute who, like today’s “Libertarians,” wants to set his own standards for everything and cares not at all for any attempt to externally moderate his personal whims. []
  3. By the way, I make no apologies for my multiple references to Homer, chiefly The Odyssey, throughout these posts – that ancient worthy is one of the profoundest political thinkers ever, yet in our “conservative” American circles one of the least heeded. []
  4. I’m always thinking here of the popular tendency to speak and act as if economics only has two categories, “Capitalism” and “Socialism,” as if politics only has two categories, “Conservative” and “Liberal,” and as if the overarching framework in which all these things are to be discussed only has two categories, “Truth” and “Lies.” The simplistic childishness of conversation that ensues among us all – I include myself! – simply because our vocabulary is desperately impoverished seems impossible to repair. []
  5. Pretending to be making a respectable conservative political statement by “humorously” invoking some of the worst poster children for 1980s teenager-rebellion is a real example, by the way, foisted on the Internet some months ago by the president of an independent Christian Liberal Arts college. []
  6. The radically diseased form of the doctrine of conscience that lies behind this hyper-spiritual sort of demagoguery needs thorough treatment of its own and needs to proceed through patient textual analysis of sources as diverse as Sophocles’ Antigone, Augustine’s Confessions, Aquinas’ Summa Theologia, and Luther’s Freedom of a Christian. []
  7. Plutarch’s Lives, anyone? Aristotle’s Politics? Cicero’s On Duties? We live in a time of unprecedented access to all these things. For the mere price of your monthly Internet connection, you can pretty literally commune with the Wisdom of the Ages any time you like. Except in the most extreme of personal circumstances, I doubt that there really is a good excuse not to. []
  8. Fascinatingly, this imagery of self-control vs. seduction isn’t just biblical: the Greek writer Xenophon tells us the same truth in his story of Hercules at the Crossroads. []
  9. To my shame, I must admit I have seldom been good at this difficult activity myself. For I, too, am an impatient, intemperate, imprudent American who too easily surrenders to the “Take action, NOW!” mentality of the very air I breathe with all the rest of you, my fellow citizens. Yet frequent failure is no disproof of principle, let alone an excuse to cease trying. []
  10. The notion at the root of our common view of “politics,” that there is a good and noble Us who is always Versus a bad and ignoble Them, and that politics consists of always trying to avoid being overpowered by Them by ourselves overpowering Them first, is just horrifically diseased, a reflection of disordered and shrunken souls that generate disordered and shrunken concepts of the world, ourselves, and others. In reality, we’re all in the same boat. None of us actually want what is bad, and we all seek the good. The problem is that we’re all usually too blind to see the latter and so too frequently seize upon the former. []
  11. I’ve started expounding this in the first episode of my new podcast, Classically Practical. []
  12. Regrettably, I cannot locate the speech itself online, so getting at it will require getting the book itself! []

Where is True Political Virtue in Our Extreme Times, Pt. 1

There’s no two ways about it – we live in a time of intense political upheaval. Extremes everywhere dominate words and deeds, and yet are too frequently taken as just the heart and soul of the reasonable and moderate.1

The political professionals (as our distorted system labels them) who inhabit the offices regularly mock the concerns of ordinary citizens. Those, in turn, driven often more by passion and party prejudice than by sound principle and prudence, jump to fiery denunciations of tyranny and dark hints of the approaching necessity of revolution.

Ecclesiocratic theologians and populist pastors dump gasoline on the fire by thundering that nearly every issue on the table is a profound matter of personal conscience and the duty to obey God rather than men by demonstrating a higher loyalty to Church than to Stat(ism).

Yes, extremes everywhere dominate words and deeds. What is the person who is concerned about both real threats to liberty and the duty to preserve tangible social order to think and do? Virtue never exists on the outsides of the spectrum, on the extremes, but is always in the middle of them. Both those who callously mock the position of the ordinary citizen and those who intemperately stoke the flames of revolution are, in a word, vicious rather than virtuous.

Where, then, is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

Alexis de Tocqueville, a keen French observer of the society and culture of early America, put his finger on something crucial for we living 200-plus years later. There is something about the American character, qua American, that is just impatient and imprudent because it is always more interested first in immediate, effectual action by individuals than in making careful distinctions in a slower, more reasoned process of corporate deliberation that might require significant delay. We are a people too hasty to really think, too quick to move just for the sake of movement, too sure of ourselves to engage in much self-reflection when it turns out we were wrong.2

How very interesting, then, that we imagine our deliberatively unprepared, pragmatically unreflective selves to be totally competent identifiers of Tyranny, paragon defenders of Liberty, and all around Good People who just simply don’t deserve the way that dastardly They across the aisle are treating us. (And how dare they!)

Assuming I haven’t lost you already – because as de Tocqueville might have put it, that philosophy gadfly is precisely the thing we Americans won’t abide for long (isn’t there a quick spray can of stuff to take care of such annoyances so we can get back to what really matters?), let’s look at that question: where is is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

Let’s start with a second, more clearly stated iteration of a very important truism I noted above: our governing class these days truly is by and large full of fools whose words and deeds seem always calculated only to manipulate surface appearances in order to maintain their tenuous grasp on the levers of power by which they perpetually interfere with our lives.

As citizens, we have many legitimate reasons to distrust our office-holders. As a class, they generally know very little about the very art they were elected to practice, politics. As a class, they generally confuse that noble thing with a mere Machiavellian power-quest that results more in the aggrandizement of their own vice-ridden lifestyles than in the virtue-promoting activities of true governance.

Who hasn’t heard them mouth hallowed words like “the American people want…” while being almost totally (if not totally) out of touch with those very people? In a butchery of Lincoln’s famous words, “Government of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged” almost seems too nice a way to put the philosophy by which our leaders seem utterly captivated.

Who hasn’t heard them refer to the American Founders and their fantastically rich documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, while demonstrating that they’ve apparently never given such tomes more than a cursory speed-read (if even that)?

Who hasn’t heard them talk about “following the science” in the midst of an unprecedented health danger while consistently proving that their understanding of the history and nature and limitations of science has never advanced much beyond Middle School-level survey classes taken merely to get good grades on a report card?

Who is unaware that they frequently govern by mere executive decree rather than by the careful interchange of balance of powers in which one group makes the laws, another executes them, and another deals with high-level matters of difficult, prudential interpretation? (And let’s not forget that too frequently said executive decrees seem fascinatingly only to apply to the citizens, not also to those making them in the first place.)

But if it’s that bad on the end of those holding the power, it’s worse still on our level as citizens.

For the mass media personalities who provide us with our debased equivalent of the Greek tragic stage by fanning the flames of our populist fears and offering cathartic mantras for us to repeat about “Libs” and “Socialists” and “tyranny” and so on, do get at something true and needful: given the ideals upon which our government was originally based (and to which the sophists behind the desks of power make frequent merely rhetorical nods), our grievances are often both proper and truly due at least serious attempts at redress.

The conundrum is that these “political” entertainers (if we’re honest , remembering such glowing examples as Rush Limbaugh, who didn’t try to hide it at all, we’ll realize that’s what they actually are) say many true things, but they say them in a false way that only contributes to the almost overboiling pot of civic and social unrest. Rather than pointing us back to the sources of our own governing tradition, they urge us to listen every day to their own intemperate rantings and to let their own personal words on some Burning Crisis of the Moment be the spur to immediate action NOW.

Weirdly, it isn’t just the Office Holders who are like Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith – “The power you give me, I will lay down once this crisis is averted!” Weirdly, it’s also those who promise us they are on our side and will deliver us from the tyrants (who are constantly found everywhere!) who themselves talk just like the tyrants, manipulating surface appearances to gain our loyalty (and advertisting dollars). And all this is because, again as Tocqueville might have said today, we Americans are fixated on battling external tyranny because we’re already bound up in chains of our own making that we love and won’t abide anyone else trying to remove.

Having gone on for a while now (dangerously courting the even further impatience that the tl;dr culture of the Internet has ruthlessly imposed on our already impatient American character), I’ve yet to engage the question I’ve posed a couple of times now: where is is true political virtue amidst the dominating extremes of our time?

As this is a large topic of it’s own, I’ll save it for a second post.

  1. As I write these, the world is two years into the great Covid-19 crisis, which has, probably more than anything else in our times, brought into intense focus some of the frighteningly fragile and systemic problems of the Modern variety of the intersections of ethics, politics, economics, and religion. A major thing happening at this moment is the apparently rapacious overreaches of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, against an apparently mostly peaceful citizen protest of his regime’s policies against Covid. []
  2. These actual words are mine; for the words of de Tocqueville himself on which I base mine, See Democracy in America, Bk. II, Ch. 1. []

Toxic Equality

Of late as a teacher of the classics of Western culture, I have begun to encounter students of varying ages who love to talk about the purported difference between “equality” and “equity.” The former concept, which has served our iteration of Western Culture for centuries now as a convenient place-holder for Grand Ideals that we know we don’t meet but that we are committed to always pursue, just isn’t enough anymore. Not for the rising generation raised on Be-Whatever-You-Want-to-Be films, feel good moralistic injunctions, angsty music, and the thought-eroding rat-race that is social media. Equality is no longer enough: now we desperately need Equity!

Equity. Once upon a time in the West this concept functioned as a way to recognize that there are times in a society when the formal, institutionalized standards of order, especially law, simply fail to encompass and justly manage particular types of circumstances (often crisis ones). Used in this sense, equity is a perfectly fine word, and a very needful concept in the toolbox of political philosophers (not necessarily the same thing as politicians) who get called upon to deal with the endlessly changing complexity of human life under the sun.

As I’ve tried to cross examine the words I’ve heard on this topic of “equity,” what has emerged is that the latter refers to a fairly radical concept of what used to be called “equality of outcomes.” What I’ve heard most often articulated by students in the grip of this new ideology of equity is the example of three people trying to look over a fence, but the three of them are of different heights so two of them have to be provided with special stools to allow them to see over the fence. Observe:

Newspeak (2021-style)

And that is why, as I have witnessed the arguments made, the classics need to be torn down as examples of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and whatever-other-ism is currently in fashion in academia.

For the classics are in a sense not premised on the idea that everyone can “see over the fence” in an absolutely “equal” way. The classics are based on the idea of natural distinctions and natural hierarchies that arise from them, which allows for much fruitful talk about qualities such as a spectrum running from non-excellence to mid-range to real excellence.

But to even talk this way, it seems, is “unequitable” when read from today’s standpoint of absolutely radicalized democracy. This illegitimate extension of democratic ideals often presents itself as being rooted in each person’s “lived experience” that no one else can understand since they don’t have the same kind, but only their own.1

And this is why it’s critical for those who hold this cynical, destructive view of culture to focus entirely on “historically marginalized voices” and to avoid at all costs ever “invalidating” anyone’s view. (Well, that is, except for the views of those who don’t hold to any of this silly stuff. Such people as that may be – must be! – reverse marginalized because their voices don’t actually have anything meaningful to contribute, since they’ve already spent thousands of years “oppressing” everyone else.)

I’m not entirely sure how to spell it all out, but it seems to be part of a broader cultural “Romantic” phenomenon, rejecting not just what is perceived as a cold, inhumane rationalism, but also a whole cluster of appropriations / receptions that are said to have led to enormous “inequity” of valuation. Look closely at the following modification of the above graphic to see where it all leads:

You see the point, I’m sure. Liberation.2 First, good old-fashioned equality, which measures everyone by an objective standard (here, a fence that is an objective part of everyone’s experience), comes to be seen as mere Sameness – and that is insufficiently respectful of diversity. In terms of the pictured baseball game, important questions are just simply not asked – questions such as “Why is the fence there? Is it part of the game itself?” and “Why are the three spectators outside the fence rather than in proper seating?” and “Why are we assuming its morally wrong for two shorter (er, differently-abled) people to be unable to see over a fence because their bodies haven’t grown sufficiently?”

Inquiring minds want to know, but then, the whole point of this emotion-producing graphic is precisely not to encourage inquiry. Inquiry is dangerous because it might expose the flaws in the analogy – and that will never do, for it would cause the loss of the (self)righteousness of the whole criticism.

Ah, but in comes Equity, which addresses the disgusting unfairness of the fact that somebody dared to build a fence over which not everyone without exception could see – so Equity solves the problem by providing “accommodations” for the “marginalized.” Everything is now ever-so much more fair because now everyone without exception can see over the fence! Justice at last!3

Well, no, not really. Even making it possible for everyone without exception to see over the fence just isn’t enough, for the mere fact that THE WALL is still there requires further justice-work to be accomplished.4 The only thing left to do, obviously, is to take down the fence itself, removing that which even made the original disparity of perception inherent in naturally differing heights seem like the blameworthy prejudice of some thoughtless construction manager.

So, then, Liberation is the real goal of today’s ideology of Equity. It all sounds very good, very proper, very respectful of diversity. But imagine that teachers are avidly propagating this ideology and that students are avidly learning it – and applying it in their school settings. Hear their incensed words: This is my art! You can’t judge it! Music Theory is ridiculous! Why can’t I just randomly play whatever notes I want, since it’s Who I Am? This literature book is boring! And you can’t tell me my opinion is wrong!

Of course this is all totally absurd if one understands education to be the process of one person, a master in a given Art, handing down to someone else not just their own personal experiences and opinions, but that Art itself, a definable discipline that has standards demarcating inferiority from mediocrity from excellence. To take the “fence” down around the baseball field is to decree that there is no boundary to how far the ball is allowed to travel – thus fundamentally altering the game of baseball (and also probably endangering those standing at the outermost periphery). But to take the “fence” down in an educational program is to demolish the very standards by which the Arts involved are being taught.

In other words, the educational quest for Equity, if not fought tooth-and-nail, will destroy education itself.

This stuff is so crazily toxic that I have decided just now to dub it “Toxic Equality.” 5 Toxic Equality, far from instantiating a real sense of respect for the amazing diversity God has built into the world, especially into His human image-bearers, represents the total destruction not just of rationality, but of the very ability to communicate with other people and thereby to define and seek a common good.

If we don’t fight this way of thinking tooth-and-nail, especially as it tries to make inroads through pop-culture into the hearts of young Christians, it will likely spell the end of real excellence in cultural activity for generations to come.

  1. For an excellent review of why this radicalized sort of democracy is illegitimate, see this piece by C.S. Lewis. []
  2. Another version of this graphic I’ve seen labels the third box “Justice” – which is very telling. []
  3. We’ll ignore for now the fact that the scenario on the right is, like the one on the Left, still a type of Sameness, because logic can’t be allowed to intrude overmuch into an emotion-inducing meme. []
  4. Again, we will deliberately ignore the fact that in the third box, “Liberation,” as in the first two, there exists a basic Sameness, for calling attention to this fact might show that the entire basis of the criticism lacks coherence. []
  5. Apologies if I didn’t actually make that phrase up; as far as I know it’s original to me – just part of my “lived experience!” []

A Plea for “Politics As Unusual”

As we are rapidly nearing the opening phase of our next quadrennial verbal civil war (a.k.a., “the most important election of our lifetime – again”), I want to preempt the fighting with a few general considerations:

1) As image-bearers of a speaking God, we are speakers and our relations with others necessarily take the form of speaking. But a key difference between animal noises and human speech is that the latter is able to communicate complex ideas and needs that often require a much more sophisticated mode of judgment than animals are capable of.

This judgment is rendered by the mind – but not just any mind. To make sophisticated judgments about complex ideas and needs, a mind must be formed such that its thoughts are disciplined, ordered, and aimed at truth, not merely winning. It is unfortunate that “politics” in our modern context deeply confuses winning with truth, but Christians of all people ought to know that the two are not always conjoined.

Sum: Political speech deals with complex ideas and practices; uncareful speech based on
poorly-ordered thoughts is little better than animal noises.

2) As image-bearers of a God who is Himself a fellowship of equals, we are never just individuals, but are always part of a community. Thus, our thoughts and actions ought never to be based primarily on our individual concerns.

The purpose of speech between humans is to navigate the tossing sea of complex ideas and needs with a view to preserving the whole ship, not just our own personal lives or the limited number of other lives with whom we feel most comfortable dealing. In other words, though this seems quite counter-intuitive, politics is about more than party loyalty. It may turn out that preserving the ship requires going this way and not that way, but someone who does not understand, or who has no patience with, the art of navigation has no business contributing his “two cents” to a discussion about how to preserve the ship. Mere factional chattering on social media is not “political” talk at all, and is just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Sum: Political speech is about the common good, not just the good of our own circle of interests. Political speech ought to be based on the belief that one’s party has the best vision of the common good, not on the belief that The Other Party must be destroyed.

3) Passion is inherently immoderate and unstable. Animals are passionate about what they want, and it is this that makes us talk about “nature red in tooth and claw.” But human beings, being speakers of complex ideas and needs, should never be only passionate about what they want. Human speech about important matters must never be merely a mode of communicating human passions, for politics, the art of living together in a society, is never solely about passions. We are not undirected Darwinian animals involved in a “second place is the first loser” struggle for survival; we are, in Aristotle’s words, political animals aiming at much more than mere survival. Someone who does not understand this difference, or who thinks and acts as if political is a mere synonym for passionate ought not to speak at all in a public forum, for such speaking is little better than the inarticulate grunting of a beast.

4) Fourth, we all need to seriously and soberly consider the question: What precisely is social about “social media”? Any one of us may say anything we like with any degree of feeling in our own living rooms, but a social media platform is not a private living room – not even because it tells you that space you are writing on is “your wall.” Actually, it’s Facebook’s wall, and we all gave up our right to “free speech” (considered as an absolute lack of external restrictions) when we agreed to Facebook’s often restrictive terms of service. Facebook is Zuckerberg’s mega-sized, mega-crowded living room, not one’s own living room, so no, oneself doesn’t get to say absolutely anything anytime. It would be worth spending some time pondering what the real meaning of “social” is, including that seemingly outmoded ideal known as “social graces.” Remember that we are not made to be like grunting animals, and our passions shouldn’t be the arbiter of our words. If others are (acting like) grunting animals in a political discussion, what is gained by we ourselves joining them in that base activity?

5) Lastly, and most importantly, though it sounds like a cliché to say it, no matter who gets into office and what policies they implement, God is the one on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted by any man or woman. We Christians today have a rather large blind spot in terms of having only recently seen very radical cultural reversals that make us unthinkingly pine after “the good old days” when (as we inaccurately style it) the “Judaeo-Christian worldview” ran everything.

After 1600 years of mostly Christian cultural hegemony, it just doesn’t feel right to us that we should suddenly be on the radical defensive, and that “the Christian Nation” par excellence should be going the way of the dinosaur. We must vote to Save Christian America! We must fight tooth-and-nail to turn back the tide! We must fight for Truth, Justice, and the Biblical-American Way!”

Well, maybe. Political quietism shouldn’t be acceptable to us, because even the Jews in captivity prayed for the peace of the city and longed to return home, and the Apostle Paul often invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to not be treated in a certain way simply because he announced unpopular religious ideas. There is a legitimate place for political activism rooted in our religious convictions, and we dare not simply lay down our swords and die.

But the City of God only ever overlaps earthly cultural and political realities, never identifying itself with any. We may fight to the last metaphorical drop of our blood and still lose the political battle. Things may get very uncomfortable for us if that happens. But it has happened before, and the Gospel prevailed in the end. What impressed most thoughtful Romans in the time of the martyrs was less what the Christians said, but how they died. Nobody could die like a Christian could, and the more of them who died, the more the Gospel worked its way like leaven through the Empire.

We shouldn’t want our nation to wither and die in a whirlwind of secularist tyranny and idiocy. We can and should fight as we are able and as God moves us. But we mustn’t ever confuse the fortunes of America with the fortunes of the City of God. It sounds like a cliché, but as I watch the Christian political landscape take a predictably factional, tribal, largely passion-driven shape every four years, I don’t think it is. Like everyone else who has ever lived, we Christians are a forgetful people, prone ever to misreading the knowable past and present, and so to immoderately fearing the unknowable future.