R.R. Reno on the Future of Conservatism

This month’s Commentary Magazine includes a forum about the future of conservatism.  Fifty-two prominent conservatives opine on the best path forward for American conservatism in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.  As editor Elliott Abrams notes in his introduction, that future might not always seem bright.  “Some conservatives,” Abrams argues, “seem almost to frolic in their pessimism.”

In his short offering, R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative journal First Things, argues that conservatism must avoid a single-minded focus on free-marketism.  More important, Reno believes, will be a focus on moral values.  Since the 1960s, Reno writes, America’s “cultural revolution” has undermined its traditional values.  These days, according to Reno, “Round-the-clock irony and cynicism make old-fashioned values like working hard, paying your debts, and keeping your word seem, well, old-fashioned and even foolish.”

The solution, in Reno’s vision, is a conservatism that focuses on morals and culture.  Reno insists,

“Unless we reinforce and support clear norms for adulthood–marriage, family, work, community involvement, patriotic loyalty–then the disoriented middle of the middle, no matter how economically self-sufficient, will become increasingly dependent on bureaucratic and therapeutic support and guidance, which means more government.”

What does all this have to do with schooling and education?  Everything.  Though Reno does not make this connection explicitly, his call for a renewed morality serves as a pithy articulation of the educational ideology of many American conservatives since at least the 1920s.  After all, if conservatives hope to “reinforce and support clear norms for adulthood,” as Reno hopes, one obvious way to do this will be—has always been—to insist on clear moral standards in American schools.

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Quantum Physics and the Need for God

Here’s one we missed until Anna Williams of First Things brought it to our attention: Stephen M. Barr, physicist at the University of Delaware, examines the argument that quantum mechanics suggests a reality beyond the material world.

Barr walks readers through the argument that quantum mechanics makes more sense if we include a notion of transcendent mind.  Here is his conclusion:

“The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

“If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.  It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?”

One of the favorite scientific arguments of many intellectuals in Fundamentalist America is that their faith does not contradict the discoveries of true science.  From evolution to abortion, many conservatives will insist from time to time that science will eventually catch up with their religiously motivated beliefs.  Many, like Robert George recently, note that false science, like that of eugenics, has historically captured the fidelity of mainstream scientists for a time.  George insisted that the arrogance of mainstream science often mistakes its own fashions for abiding truths.  In the 1920s and 1930s, George argued,

“Affluent, sophisticated, “right-minded” people were all on board with the eugenics program. It, too, seemed like a juggernaut. Only those retrograde Catholics, joined by some other backward religious folk, resisted; and the thought was that the back of their resistance would soon be broken by the sheer rationality of the eugenics idea. The eugenicists were certain that their adversaries were on “the wrong side of history.” The full acceptance of eugenics was “inevitable.” But, of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way.”

The false science of eugenics and its temporary dominance among mainstream scientists has also long been a favorite theme of creationists.  For example, as David Dewitt argued on the Answers in Genesis blog, eugenics was simply the “dark side of evolution.”

The long-standing hope of many conservatives is that science will eventually come around.  Outsiders often accuse conservatives, especially creationists, of being anti-science.  But a better term might be “anti-professoriate.”  Many conservatives cling–sometimes with increasing desperation–to the hope that mainstram science will someday recover from the long night of materialism.  Arguments such as Professor Barr’s provide fuel for this long siege.

In the News: To Wed or To Bed? Blankenhorn and the Gay-Marriage Debates

What is a family?  What is sex?  What role should government and church play in defining these issues?

For the last generation, these questions have become trench mortars in America’s continuing culture wars.  Recently, a leading anti-gay-marriage voice switched sides.  Writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, David Blankenhorn declared, “I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call ‘culture wars.'”  Yet Blankenhorn has played his role as culture warrior.  Most famously, as leader of the Institute for American Values and author of 2007’s The Future of Marriage, Blankenhorn testified in favor of California’s 2010 Proposition 8.  This measure, like similar measures in states across the nation, defined marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.

Why did Blankenhorn change his position?  In sum, as he explains in his op-ed piece, he had hoped a defense of traditional marriage would protect the rights of children.  Instead, the cultural wind has shifted.  The issue has become one of equity and fairness for homosexuals.  As such, Blankenhorn hopes to move the discussion about gay marriage toward one that focuses on the rights of children and the responsibilities of parenting.

Defenders of traditional marriage have not taken Blankenhorn’s defection lightly.  At Public Discourse, Maggie Gallagher articulates her reasons for disagreeing with Blankenhorn’s change of heart.  Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and a former colleague of Blankenhorn, insists that Blankenhorn goes too far in abandoning first principles about marriage.  “Marriage,” Gallagher argues,

“is the union of male and female, the way society tries to give a child the gift of his own mother and father in one family union. Gay marriage is part of the process of deinstitutionalizing marriage, removing it from a tight matrix of social norms designed to get this good for children; it is part of a larger process of reformulating marriage as a product of choice oriented toward the private goods of the people who choose it.”

At First Things, Matthew Schmitz takes Blankenhorn to task for ignoring the larger implications of the marriage debates.  Not only must gay marriage itself be fought against, Schmitz argues, but the fight must be kept up in order to maintain the rights of religious believers across the board.  After all, Schmitz insists, “As soon as we stop contending for the natural truth of marriage in the public square, certain people will try to strip us of the right to proclaim it anywhere.”

Similarly, Douglas Farrow accuses Blankenhorn of simply having lost his nerve.  “Regrettably,” Farrow notes,

“David has sought relief in a position that provides none. No one of sound mind supposes that same-sex marriage is being sought in order to bring sexual discipline to the homosexual culture (or the culture at large), or to enhance the institution of marriage and parenting. Whether it makes our stomachs churn or not, we must face the truth about the struggle that is under way and understand (as I have argued elsewhere) that no peace is to be had by capitulation.”

In all these debates, the culture-war divide in our understandings about marriage and sexuality becomes vividly clear.  As Blankenhorn notes in his op-ed piece, for many gay marriage supporters, the issue is simply one of human rights, of civil rights.  From this perspective, opponents of gay marriage look like nothing other than bigots and reactionaries, viciously clinging to outdated traditions in order to shore up untenable cultural vestiges.  For opponents of gay marriage, marriage is the bedrock of proper society.  Discussions about changing the nature of the marriage institution are harmful in themselves.  Furthermore, any erosion of traditional marriage will serve as the camel’s nose, spearheading the eventual abandonment of all sexual mores and traditional social bonds.  For historically minded conservatives, these frights are not mere fantasies.  Rather, the dissolution of traditional family and sexual norms has been the first step in the crumbling of every human civilization.  The fight against gay marriage, from this perspective, is nothing less than a fight for moral value itself.

With such a stark cultural divide, a public reversal from a leader such as Blankenhorn is truly remarkable.  He may say he has lost his stomach for culture-war battles, but I’m guessing Blankenhorn’s change of position will make him even more of a symbolic figure of great importance in these continuing marriage controversies.

The Bible in America: What Is the Bible For?

The questions we’ve been wrestling with for the past few weeks here at ILYBYGTH concern the nature, function, and meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America.

As I’ve admitted, I do not get it.  But I make no claim to be a Bible believer, at least not in the sense most conservative Christians mean.  I do know that if we hope to understand life in Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the ways Fundamentalist America understands the idea of “the Bible.”  Many of the non-Fundamentalists and anti-Fundamentalists I meet assume that reliance on the Bible as a source of morality and knowledge must imply a certain closedmindedness.  For many folks outside the boundaries of Fundamentalist America, the two sides in America’s rumbling culture wars are precisely that: on one side are openminded intellects who rely on Science and Reason; on the other side are militant Fundamentalists who depend on Scripture and Tradition.

If we want to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to probe beyond those political stereotypes.  Yesterday, Peter Leithart shared some thoughts on the use and meanings of the Bible on First Things.  My hunch is that Dr. Leithart would reject the label “fundamentalist.”  Nevertheless, his exposition What is the Bible For? will help outsiders understand what the Bible can be for in Fundamentalist America.

As Leithart agrees,

The Bible rarely lives up to our ordinary standards of practicality. Page after page is given over to genealogical lists of obscure people whose only role is to be a human bridge between famous ancestors and notorious descendants. A third of Exodus is nothing but verbal blueprints for building the tabernacle and the first quarter of Leviticus contains detailed regulations concerning sacrifice. Two lengthy chapters of Leviticus diagnose the varieties of skin disease that cause impurity. It seems so tedious, and even when the Bible holds our interest, it doesn’t seem very useful. Stories of plagues, exodus, and wars of utter destruction make for juicy reading, but how do they help one become virtuous? Why can’t the Bible be more relevant?

Both the problem and the solution, Leithart articulates, come not from the text but from the reader.  To understand the Bible, in his telling, we need to look at it as more than a old book:

Scripture is ethical paedeia, not an ethics manual. All Scripture is practical because God breathed all of it to form people, both individuals and community. God tells stories to stock our memory with a common moral past that projects his people into the future. God’s word expands our imagination to grasp more of what’s really there and to envision what might be there in the future. The Bible is useful because it opens our eyes, and because it’s highly impractical to walk through life with our eyes closed.

The Bible in America: A Graphic

Thanks to Jared Fanning and Mark Misulia of First Things, we have a new graphic to consider.  As we’ve argued before, the Bible sells.  Though we don’t want to jump too quickly to conclusions about what that means, it seems evident that the Bible matters to Americans.  Anyone who hopes to understand Fundamentalist America needs to understand the unique and important role of the Bible in American history and culture.