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The new fundamentalism

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“A true racial reckoning includes, interrogates and eventually extinguishes all systems of oppression. That includes capitalism. That includes patriarchy. It’s not carpet cleansing. It’s carpet bombing.”

Damon Young, CNN

The New Fundamentalism

David French has noted that we’re living in a time of new fundamentalism. This is not a Christian, but rather a secular, fundamentalism.

One of the halmarks of fundamentalism is the inability to compromise. For the fundamentalist, everything is non-negotiable.

That’s because the fundamentalist is reacting to something that she perceives as a corrupt, erroneous, or morally compromised system.

Life in the real world, however, requires the ability to make compromises and to settle for better over the best.

A totalizing system

There are strains of this new absolutism emerging in what’s being called “antiracism.” Personally, I find it deeply troublesome.

This new totalizing belief system appears to be committed to equity or equality across every known identity marker or category. Intersectionality provides a way of multiplying injustice by every box one can tick in a litany of identities.

As Andrew Sullivan notes,

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.”

In our brave new world it is “better” to be a black trans woman than a white heterosexual one. This is because the intersectionality formula allows us to mulptiply blackness by trans woman-ness and get a result that shows “deeply marginalized.”

This belief is profoundly religious in nature. Sullivan continues,

“It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.”

I already have a religious belief system, thanks for asking.

Black Lives Matter

I’ve said publicly that black lives matter. That’s true. But I’m convinced that the way forward, at least for Christians, is through another belief system–the Christian gospel.

It’s not through some racial reckoning that involves a hodge-podge of dialectic, self-examination, conversion, and all the other mantras that today’s diversity consultants parrot.

Why should I go to church?

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The changing face of worship attendance

Barna reports that one in three practicing Christians has stoppped attending digital worship at any church during the current epidemic.

The report divides COVID-era Christians into at least three categories: (1) those who attend their own church worship service digitally, (2) those who attend another church’s worship service digitally, and (3) those who no longer attend any church worship service digitally.

Each of these three categories represents a third of those surveyed.

What should we make of the fact that one-third of those surveye have stopped attending church digitally?

First, let’s not overreact. It’s possible that some are not attending digital worship services because they are present physically. America is a large country and parts of the country are more open than others. Some churches have reamined open much of the time; others have been closed.

Second, some Christians may be choosing to worship as a family rather than being spectators at a digital event. Churches vary in their ability to produce digital worship services. Some have elected to continue worshipping in exactly the same way as prior to this epidemic. Others, my own church included, have chosen to pare down our service to around half-an-hour. Watching a digital service is a very different experience from being physically present in a sanctuary. As a result, some people are adapting to it better than others.

Third, I have no doubt that some people are simply not practicing their faith in the midst of this pandemic. Their beliefs may have changed little, but they are not engaging in the disciplines and practices that mark the Christian life.

While worship is a means of grace. It is also true that not watching a worship service online doesn’t mean our faith is questionnable. The chief means is the Word of God.

If you’ve got access to a Bible (physically or mentally) then you have the resources to survive for a period without gathered worship and without the Lord’s Supper.

Note the qualification: for a time. Gathered worship and the sacraments are very important parts of the Christian life. And we neglect them at our peril. Let me make clear, however, that there are those among the body of Christ who must forego these benefits owing to their health.

I’m convinced that, as a minister, it’s my duty–as well as the session’s–to minister to the spiritual needs of these brothers and sisters during this extraordinary time.

Online worship isn’t ideal. And I’m concerned that its easy for sessions and ministers to believe that by producing a digital service they done all they need do to care for the souls of those in their membership. In reality, we need to do more and we need to do it as a team.

Leadership lessons

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The longer I’ve found myself in leadership the more I’ve found myself using aphorisms or saying to communicate important lessons or principles. Many are from other sources, some are my own (those without a source).

“Cooperation happens at the speed of trust.” James N. Mattis

“Idiots rarely lack confidence.”

“Character is fate.” – Heraclitus

‘People are asking/saying’ is a tool used by cowards to avoid direct conversation.

“The impediment to the action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

Hear! Hear!

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A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at letters@harpers.org

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Kerri Greenidge, historian
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur
, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Maschek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

An untenable life

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Our society has been living on a knife’s edge. COVID-19 is making that arrangement untenable.

The great recession of 2007 was an opportunity for many of us to recognize–perhaps for the first time in a generation–that our economic way of life is precarious at best. In that moment, the bursting of the mortgage-backed securities bubble threatened to wipe out the economy. Unemployment soared. Government printed money and threw it at industries in an effort to keep the lights on and the show going.

We recovered. We didn’t learn.

Now we face a plague that has rocked our nation. It has caused the economy to slow and unemployment to reach a level rivalled only by that of the Great Depression.

More than one hundred thousand Americans (132,000) have died. There have been close to three million diagnosed cases in the United States and more than 11 million worldwide.

My state, Illinois, has only recently emerged from lockdown and now permits gatherings of fewer than fifty with social-distancing observed. States further south have been pretty much wide open. Infection rates are increasing there.

This poses the very real possibility of moving back into greater lockdown. Unemployment will rise again. Churches will remain empty of worshippers. Office buildings will be replaced by living rooms and dining room tables.

In the midst of this, parents will be attempting to care for their children while also holding down full-time jobs. Employers will pat themselves on the back for allowing distance work while employees will struggle with the heavy load of working, keeping house, teaching school, and practicing their faith in 1,500 square feet.

This is our indefinite future. And this in the middle of the apparent breakdown of any cohesive narrative of national identity and the fragmentation of religious belief from practice.

These are dark times. And the future remains uncertain.