Postmodern conservatism

First Things, the magazine, has a fascinating article on conservative champion Russell Kirk, who would have turned 90 on October 19. Excerpt:

The problem Kirk faced, along with most conservatives, was that the Enlightenment, with its universalizing equality, secularism, and blinkered rationality, was already destroying traditional Western culture. How can a tradition be preserved if it is already dissolving into what theorist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity?”

Kirk’s answer was twofold. First, he uncovered (some would say, “created”) a counter-tradition, one that rested not on the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the ideological fervor of the French Revolution, or the modern vogue for limitless “rights.” Rather, it began with Edmund Burke’s defense of the lived experience of Britain as a bulwark of liberty and the protection of rights. Moreover, Kirk claimed that this tradition connected Britain and America, and included such varied figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson and Benjamin Disraeli, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, John Adams and W.H. Mallock. . . .

As early as the 1950s, he had become convinced that liberalism would exhaust itself because it could not inspire and sustain what he called the “moral imagination.” For conservatives to buy into its premises would seal their defeat. Something else would replace liberalism eventually, and Kirk offered a richly imaginative vision of conservatism that could survive liberal modernity’s collapse. One element of that vision was a revived respect for religious faith.

As early as 1982, in an essay for National Review, Kirk suggested that “the Post-Modern imagination stands ready to be captured. And the seemingly novel ideas and sentiments and modes [of postmodernism] may turn out, after all, to be received truths and institutions, well known to surviving conservatives.” He went so far as to state that he thought that it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.” (One of the earliest uses of the word postmodern was by the conservative Episcopalian cleric Bernard Iddings Bell, in a book of that title published in 1926; not surprisingly, Bell was an early influence on Kirk.)

Kirk had little patience for the trendy radicalism and sometimes simply nonsensical expressions of postmodern hacks. Nonetheless, he saw in postmodernism a chance to escape the strictures of liberalism and reconnect with the older, pre-Enlightenment tradition of the West. This approach has its weaknesses–Kirk, for example, too often simply assumed the existence of historical continuity, and perhaps did not sufficiently confront the corrosive effects of liberalism on the kinds of social forces he believed could sustain tradition. Nevertheless, his work stands as a stark alternative to a much bleaker postmodern future.

This is not the same as “postmodernISM,” of course, just a different way of taking advantage of the collapse of modernism. I fear though that we are on the verge of something beyond postmodernism, a new age of aggressive certainty in a completely different direction.

Christianity in Europe

I just got back from North Carolina, where I gave one of the annual Luther Lectures that several churches there organize. The topic was Vocation, and John Pless, David Adams, and Detlev Schultz were also on the docket. The latter is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne who is from Germany. Also coming down for the event were some seminary students from Finland, one a pastor working on his S.T.M. and another a soon-to-be pastor who will be ordained in Kenya.

Both are part of the mission initiated by Bishop Obare of Kenya designed to bring confessional Lutheranism back to Scandinavian nations plagued by an ultra-liberal state church. Dr. Schultz also said that Christianity is alive and well in Germany. (In a Bible class on Sunday, he told about some remarkable things the Ft. Wayne seminary is doing for missions, both in educating foreign students and in sending seminary professors to teach overseas to teach native pastors–work involving Latvia, Russia, Finland, Kenya, Madagascar, India, Indonesia, and Brazil.) Anyway, I came away from all of these conversations convinced that God is NOT finished with Europe.

This accords with this article that I came across, which also suggests some of the problems that evangelists must deal with. From Europeans More Religious than Assumed, Survey Suggests|

Three-fourths of all Europeans (74 percent) in the countries surveyed are religious, with one-fourth (25 percent) considered highly religious, according to German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor study.

Only 23 percent of Europeans are non-religious. . . .

Based on comparable data from seven European countries – Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Switzerland – religion is strongest in Italy (89 percent) and Poland (87 percent) – both heavily Roman Catholic countries – and weakest in secular France (54 percent).

The problem is, they don’t go to church much–especially Protestants–and they are highly compartmentalized:

In Europe, Roman Catholics are more likely to be devout than Protestants, with 42 percent of Catholics saying they attend church compared to only 15 percent of Protestants.

And unlike in America, Europeans say that religion has little influence over their political views and sexuality. Many Europeans expressed that they separate their conduct and attitudes in these two areas from their religious beliefs.

More than half (58 percent) of Europeans say that their religious convictions have no influence or little influence on their political views, while nearly half (48 percent) say religion does not much affect their sexuality.

The emerging religion

Now there are votive candles that one can burn as a prayer to Saint Obama:

Obama votive candle

I’m not saying Barack Obama intends this, but I think many Americans are actually devising a new religion around him as their savior. It’s a secular kind of salvation, yes, but that is all many people can conceive of. Nevertheless, this hope for salvation demands their faith, their adoration, and their service.

In earlier posts on this topic, some of you thought the people who say “Obama is my Jesus” and the like must be joking. I don’t think they are. I’m sure the readers of this blog who support Obama do so for his policies and because they are looking for some kind of alternative to the current administration. But he has supporters who have little idea of his policies who zealously are putting their faith in HIM.

This is natural, by the way, a tendency found in nearly all cultures throughout history, to think of their rulers as divine. When Obama gets elected, we may see again the figure of the divinized ruler. I don’t intend this as a political point, but as an observation about the reversion to a cultural paganism that can rush into a theological void.

The American Dream

In our search for silver linings to the economic clouds, consider Michele Catalano’s argument that our financial woes may return us to a nobler version of the storied “American dream.”

Although the term was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, who defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” it really was, for the most part, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years, the dream has changed accordingly, defined by what we think will bring us happiness. However, it has not changed in a good way.

Long ago, the American Dream was one of simplicity. The proverbial white-picket-fence dream was made of both tangibles and intangibles; everyone wanted a home of their own for their family and a steady job that would provide not only the house, but for the comfort, safety, and well-being of their family. That’s what the dream was about. Prosperity was found not in the money you made or the things you owned, but the feeling of well-being that came with providing a comfortable life for your family. If you owned the land you lived on and your kids were healthy and your wife was able to put a hot meal on the table at dinner time, life was good. You were living the American Dream. Maybe you could even buy a car to take the family on a beach vacation.

In recent years, not only has the concept of the American Dream changed, but so has the attitude toward achieving that dream. . . .

It looks like, for a lot of people, somewhere along the line the American Dream morphed into the American Rich and Famous Lifestyle Fantasy. They have traded the intangible stuff our forefathers’ dreams were made of for unabashed materialism. Gone are the dreams of the white picket fence, two adorable children, a cute little dog, and a station wagon. Now they dream of McMansions with Lincoln Expeditions in the four-car garage, right next to the ATVs and Jet Skis. They dream of perfect children who go to the most elite schools and wear designer clothing, and they want purebred dogs that come with pedigree papers. For a lot of Americans, that’s where the dream lies: in large-screen televisions and private schools, in built-in swimming pools and first-class plane tickets.

How the bailout has made things worse

Yale economist Jonathan Macey shows how the government bailout plan has contributed to the panic on Wall Street and to the crisis in the finance sector. The Treasury’s quick action immediately undercut all confidence in the free market and then put measures into effect that would prevent the free market from exercising its usual corrective mechanisms. From The Government Is Contributing to the Panic –

By the time the bailout package was passed, market sentiment had darkened to mirror the government’s own pessimism about the ability of markets to play a salutary role in repairing the fractured capital market. The notion that the government rather than the private sector can create a market for distressed bank assets seems particularly misguided.

The solutions being implemented also send the message that resources devoted to risk management are wasted. All of these plans reward the financial institutions that acted like lemmings by chasing the mortgage-related debt bubble rather than rewarding the financial institutions that exercised restraint and risk avoidance and independent thought and action. This unfortunate “heads Wall Street Wins, tails America loses” economic policy is wholly inconsistent with the principles of personal and corporate responsibility that are essential to a functional free market.

Firms like Merrill Lynch that took decisive steps to deal with their problems now look like suckers, as do banks that watched their leverage ratios and paid diligently into a deposit insurance program that offers protection on a far smaller scale than their investment banking rivals are getting for nothing. . . .

The Bear Stearns bailout, the restrictions on short-selling and the government’s new $700 billion commitment to buy toxic mortgage-based assets all share the same fundamental flaw: They prevent the market from imposing discipline on banks guilty of massive over-leveraging and excessive risk-taking. Moreover, they punish prudent managers who invested conservatively, kept their companies’ debt at reasonable levels and worked hard to raise new capital when necessary. The SEC’s attack on short-selling punishes savvy traders who invested resources and effort in identifying companies with too much debt and unrealistically valued assets.

Letting markets work is messy and costly. Nevertheless, the only sensible way to deal with the current crisis is to force the companies who created the mess to bear at least some of the costs of their mistakes. Most of all, if the markets are to get back on track our regulators must put an immediate stop to their current practice of publicly demonizing the markets and work to restore confidence in the system.

Atheist evangelism

British atheists are launching a campaign to put ads on buses. They will read
“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

It strikes me as odd that atheists think believing in God is a cause of worrying and not enjoying life. It supports my impression that many atheists are running away from God because of their guilt. They reject God so that they do not have to feel guilty, there being no one to judge them. That view of the God they do not believe in is sad, a reaction against a legalistic, law-only view of religion. They probably find it incomprehensible that belief in God–whom Christians see as gracious, forgiving, Incarnate, and redeeming–actually enables people to stop worrying and to enjoy their lives.

(I was in London recently and was struck by the advertisements for Islam on those buses. I guess those are the choices that the British see: Atheism or Islam.)

(Also, Michael the Little Boot, I don’t include you in the generalization about atheists above. I recall that you said that you wished you could believe. I also respect the atheists like Camus and Sartre who face up to the implications of their disbelief, recognizing that if God does not exist, then our own existence becomes meaningless. They would find that blithe poster-talk–there’s no God so now you can stop worrying and enjoy life–to be laughably contemptible, missing the very point even of honest atheism.)