The Bloom Briefing 8: Enlightenment Values; Christianity and the Resistance; Photos of White Nationalism
Welcome to to the eighth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week I explore the need for a commitment to Enlightenment values, the role of Christianity in the Resistance, and the power of a series of photos of White Nationalism.
Living Lives of Meaning in the Resistance
As the Resistance moves into its seventh week, we are confronting the reality of a long, arduous fight. Understandably, people want help making sense of such a world. David Brooks and Timothy Egan both wrote about that particular quest this week.
Brooks is at his best—and his worst—when he explains the rise of Trump as a challenge to the approximately four-hundred-year intellectual trajectory of the Enlightenment.
“Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate. They think wisdom and virtue are found in the instincts of the plain people, deep in the mystical core of the nation’s or race’s group consciousness.
Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in the purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech.
These movements are hostile to rules-based systems, multilateral organizations, the messy compromises of democratic politics and what Steve Bannon calls the “administrative state.” They prefer the direct rule by one strongman who is the embodiment of the will of the people.”
The best of Brooks puts the current situation in light of the ideas that have brought us to this point. He wonders, “if there is a group of leaders who will… even realize that it is this fundamental thing that is now under attack.”
The worst of David Brooks is that he doesn’t help us do the thing that he believes is necessary. We must commit ourselves to the Enlightenment’s values. I agree. Now what? We’re only given an assessment of Lincoln, defender of the Enlightenment, which lauds his “charity, reason, and patience.”
It’s easy to commit oneself to broad concepts like charity, reason, and patience, but what does it mean to be committed to such concepts?
For many, religion is the point from which that answer emanates. At its best, religion takes abstract principles and makes them concrete. It helps individuals understand what acts they can effectuate to embody their commitment to these principles.
It might seem odd to tie the defense or embodiment of Enlightenment values to religion. After all, the Enlightenment emerged in large part in opposition to religion. Major Enlightenment figures (Voltaire, Rousseau, Galileo, Copernicus) were made to flee the religious authorities of various different locations.
The irony, of course, is that despite the Enlightenment’s aversion to the inherited knowledge of religion, the Enlightenment never found a set of institutions to effectively teach its values. Because the Enlightenment is generally hostile to inherited knowledge (Brooks would point to Edmund Burke as an Enlightenment thinker not hostile to inherited knowledge), it never worked to create institutions to perpetuate those values. Religious institutions remain the only institutions that teach values.
Given the decline of religion in American public life then, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Brooks should exhibit concern about whether or not any group will emerge to defend Enlightenment values. “Is anyone committed to these values anymore?” is a legitimate question. The right, which just revealed itself to be totally valueless (it supported Trump), clearly isn’t. And the left seems to display only a tenuous commitment to Enlightenment values. (It does better with science, knowledge, and tolerance than it does with prudence, moderation, and charitability towards those who disagree.)
Perhaps if Brooks had read Egan’s article he’d have more faith that a commitment to leading meaningful, values-driven lives is not a lost cause. In contrast to Brooks, who sees Trump has something of a harbinger for the decline of Enlightenment values, Egan sees Trump as triggering something of a renaissance for Enlightenment values.
“It’s early, but we may be experiencing a great awakening for the humane values that are under siege by a dark-side presidency. People are going inward, to find something bigger than Trump, and outward, to limit the damage he inflicts on the country.”
The precipitating event for Egan’s article was an attempt to attend a ‘Search for Meaning’ festival at Seattle College “in the heart of seriously secular Seattle.” Unfortunately for Egan, but fortunately for America, all of the keynote events were sold out. He couldn’t get in.
From my conversations with those who count themselves among the Resistance, I hear a similar desire for what among a less secular group of people might be called spiritual guidance. A few weeks ago, I wrote “On the Ethics and Morals of Resistance,” to try and answer some questions about our responsibilities to others in Resistance, but this is only a brief guide to specific situations.
The work of living our values is an ongoing Sisyphean task. The most important thing we can do is to ask ourselves regularly whether or not the choices we make about how to live our lives embody the values we hold. For many, attendance at religious services is a means of accomplishing that reflection. For those of us who are not religious, that reflection must come in other forms: reading literature and philosophy, conversing with others about our embodiment of values, carving out time in our lives for reflection on what we have read and done, or joining secular groups that are committed to similar principles.
For the Resistance to be successful, it will take all of us living our values to a greater degree than ever before. We must put in place mechanisms to ensure that we do so.
Viva la Resistance!
What is the Role of Christianity in the Resistance?
It will likely not have escaped most people’s attention that Christians, on average, voted for Trump. When Hispanic and African American Christians are removed from the equation, support for Trump goes up markedly. White Christians, in other words, overwhelming voted for (and continue to support) Trump.
Curiously, this preference for Trump is correlated with more frequent church attendance. The more frequently a person attends church, the more likely they are to have voted for Trump. This adds particular importance to churches, as they are (see above) one of the only institutions communicating values to Trump supporters.
Clinton, of course, won all of the non-Christian categories of voters. Jews, Muslims, “others,” and “nones” all voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. There have already been any number of stories about Jews and Muslims fundraising for and defending each other as vandalism and acts of hate have been directed at both groups by bigots emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. The question is what role Christian houses of worship will play.
The good news is that a number of churches (as well as synagogues and mosques) have stepped up. They are promising to harbor undocumented workers fearing deportation, as well as helping them get across the border to Canada if necessary. Importantly, like their antecedents in the first half of the 19th century participating in the Underground Railroad, these houses of worship are willing to take illegal measures to safeguard the lives of immigrants threatened by Trump’s ICE units.
Of course, these efforts are concentrated in states that voted for Clinton. Nonetheless, the movement has the potential to be incredibly valuable, especially if it can convince other religious folks in more conservative states of the Christianness of helping people make better lives for themselves here. The question is whether parishes follow their parishioners’ politics or vice versa.
The good news is that some white Christians are thinking more seriously about their faith. ESPN anchor Tony Reali penned a thoughtful essay in the Washington Post this week about how wearing ash on national television felt different this year than in year’s past. Like the Jesuit tradition in which he was raised, he ends with more questions than answers. Such a thoughtful approach to the role of Christianity in American public life under Trump is a necessary start.
White Christians who voted for Trump have the opportunity to show that they didn’t vote for deportations of parents dropping their kids off at school, that they didn’t vote for the indiscriminate “show me your papers” on domestic flights, that they didn’t vote for differential screening of U.S. citizens based on religion at immigration points. But until they, their figureheads, or their representatives start organizing against the most morally repugnant aspects of the Trump administration, we must take them at their vote. We must assume that this is what they wanted. The responsibility must fall to other Christians to explain to them how un-Christian such a worldview is.
Photos of White Nationalism in America
In case you thought the rise of hate groups was overblown (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary), The New Republic has published a series of photographs by Johnny Milano, who has been working to photograph White Nationalism in the United States for the better part of the last five years. The photos are striking and reveal the extent to which White Nationalism is woven into the fabric of its adherents’ everyday lives. The ordinariness of it all is what’s so terrifying.
These photos align nicely with an article published a few months ago by Mother Jones about how Trump had fomented and facilitated the rise of right-wing extremism. While that article was written before the election, Trump has already discussed reducing the focus on the radical right of White Nationalism since he arrived in office.
Just last month, Trump moved to focus counter-terrorism efforts exclusively against Muslims, despite the fact that, since September 11, right-wing terrorists (who tend to claim to act in the name of Christianity) have killed more people in the U.S. than terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam.
At a time when the threat of violence from White Nationalists has never been higher, Trump has instructed the government to not call that violence terrorism and to refocus counter-terrorism efforts away from this population. Such a move will not make us safer. Look at the photos.
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