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The church sees rot everywhere but in itself

“Tintern Abbey and Elegant Figures,” by Samuel Colman, 1780-1845

Conservative minds are obsessed with institutional decay. They can’t stop writing books about it. To the conservative mind, change is an existential threat, as though the Dark Ages were a utopia that we must return to.

Do you remember William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous quote? “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”

Consider Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. Or consider another book that is regarded as a classic among conservatives, Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. I have not read these books (nor am I going to).

The church knows that people are leaving it, particularly young people. The American church knows that, in Europe, secularization is decades ahead of secularization in America. Church people see where it’s going. Though there are those in the church who can reconcile religion with social change, most church people cannot. Those with conservative minds cannot conceive of the possibility that the church itself might be a two-thousand-year-old problem that society is finally beginning to solve — by ditching the church. Instead, the Manichean mind (which can only see the church as good), believes that the decline of the church reflects (and is actually caused by) a surge in the wickedness of the world. They believe that they are in a culture war, and that they are losing. Their panic and their desperation is leading to debate among the faithful about the church giving its blessing to ugly tactics to try to stop the losses. The tactics aren’t new, but the blessing would be.

It is shocking to observe that it isn’t just Trump voters in flyover country who are in on this. It’s also theologians and Christian intellectuals.

The Atlantic is alerting us to what’s going on with a piece published this week, What a Clash Between Conservatives Reveals. Alan Jacobs, the author of the Atlantic piece, is drawing our attention to an article published last month in First Things, “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life.” The article is by Sohrab Ahmari, a converted Catholic of Iranian descent. Ahmari writes:

Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.

I believe this translates to: Christians should make use of incivility and indecency if that’s what it takes to “enforce our order and our orthodoxy.” If I’m reading it correctly, then isn’t that the evangelical rationale for seeing Donald Trump as having been sent by God?

As Jacobs makes clear in the Atlantic, not all conservative Christians agree with Ahmari. Still, it seems to be taken for granted by all conservative Christians that we of the “secular left” are not “playing fair in the culture wars.” This unfairness from the secular left is never explained.

In any case, a mind that believes that it has not just the right, but a duty, to enforce its notions of order and orthodoxy on the rest of us — whether with or without civility and decency — is a mind that is too primitive for a discussion about fairness. A mind like Sohrab Ahmari’s can believe that he’s defending the church. But what he’s really doing is driving the better people away, hastening the rot.

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