The Godbeat: Cry for a renewed emphasis on the liberal arts

Let’s flash back for a moment to the press coverage of the dramatic fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. I want to start with a topic that is pretty far from the obvious religion-news angles (covered here by our own Jim Davis and at The Federalist by GetReligion alum M.Z. Hemingway) and then work my way back in that direction. So hang in there with me.

We will start with political theory, by looking at a passionate Forbes essay posted by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, which ran under the headline, “It’s Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education.” He noted that David Brat, the man who shocked the world by defeating Cantor, is a self-avowed, practicing academic and scholar — which means that he has left a paper trail about his beliefs and worldview. Thus, Gobry notes:

In one piece of writing, Brat refers to the government as having “a monopoly on the use of force.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted, several journalists — all of them covering politics, all of them working for reputed institutions like the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal, all of them presumably college-educated — pounced on his use of the phrase as a portent of dangerous extremism.

Stop me if you see what’s wrong with this picture — please.

What’s wrong with this picture, America, is that the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes. (Cooke, maybe because he went to college in the UK, knows this.)

So how did this laugh-to-keep-from-crying error of omission take place? This brings us to that often twisted term “liberal arts.”

Gobry — God bless him — is actually talking about the liberal arts, as defined in traditional higher education.

Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe — a.k.a. science — but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

And in this case:

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.

Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.

And what does that have to do with mainstream religion-news coverage?

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Should the press blame Catholic teachers for its ignorance?

One common complaint we hear from readers is that reporters, when caught messing up some key point of Roman Catholic doctrine, will claim that they are right because they were “raised Catholic” or “went to Catholic school.”

Frequently this response to messing up a story is made in private correspondence. But related to the BuzzFeed discovery of St. Augustine’s teachings we discussed on Sunday (“Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.“), I saw a great example in public. It’s worth looking at.

A full day after reporter Joel Gehrke gently corrected Andrew Kaczynski’s story premise, Kaczynski simply retweeted it out and doubled down on how right he was. Check it out via this fancy new Storify tool I’m using:

Isn’t that great? I mean, the condescension of that “my friend” line is just delicious in light of how many people are trying to tell Kaczynski about original sin — one of the more basic teachings of traditional Christianity.

It’s one thing to be ignorant of basic Christianity. It’s another thing to condescendingly rebuke the person correcting you because of your education.

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Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.

On Friday, Angus Dwyer wrote on Twitter:

You’ll never guess what uncontroversial Christian doctrine this Republican candidate and/or office-holder believes!

Yes, friends, it’s that time of month again, when political reporters discover Christian doctrine and write BuzzFeed-style pieces about how outrageous said doctrine is! This weekend’s example comes, conveniently enough, from BuzzFeed’s own Andrew Kaczynski:

Virginia Republican Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson candidate said birth defects are caused by sin.

The headline and subhed:

Va. Republican Lt. Governor Candidate Said Birth Defects Were Caused By Sin 

“It is the principle of sin, rebellion against God and His truth which has brought about birth defects and other destructive natural occurrences.”

Is St. Augustine running for the Republican nomination to be Lt. Governor of Virginia? Because he wrote about this idea a long time ago! As reporter Joel Gehrke gently replied to Mr. Kaczynski:

Don’t most Christians think that the world would be perfect if not for sin?

Kaczynski then appealed to his 12 years of Catholic education to say he had never heard of such a notion. Gehrke provided links to Augustine.

It turns out all sorts of Christians teach and confess that evil is not the result of a loving God but, rather, sin. Just randomly from the Google, for instance, I found this passage on an Antiochian Orthodox Church web site explaining Holy Unction:

Sickness is the weakness of the body as a result of the sin of the world. Sickness is not the punishment from God of personal sinful behavior, per se. We all share in the consequences of sin in this world.

I hope no Orthodox Christians think about running for political office! BuzzFeed is on it!

I’m not saying Christian teaching on sin, sickness and death is easy for an uninformed person to understand. It’s not. It’s a topic that has been a challenge for Christians since Jesus first told questioners that a man’s birth defect was not the result of his sin or his parents, as had been held. He goes on to heal the defect and give everyone a larger lesson about everyone being born blind and defected.

I imagine that when some reporters read the Republican candidate’s words, they just assume the worst or even just assume that he was saying, contra what Jesus taught while performing miracles, that birth defects were caused by the personal sins of the involved parties. I haven’t read Jackson’s book, but you certainly would need far more than the passage quoted by BuzzFeed to accuse him of straying so far from traditional Christian teaching.

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