In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Mark Haas’ article about polarization, and then cover the use of religion in Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with yet another episode of Marksism, with fellow Mark(c)s and fellow editors, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. We’re discussing this week transcendence as an antidote to American polarization, focusing on the article that we published by Presbyterian cleric and academic Mark Haas. And also, we’ll take a look at civil religion as exemplified at the presidential inauguration in Washington DC this week. But Mark and Mark, your thoughts on transcendence as an antidote to polarization? The author quotes our patron saint Reinhold Niebuhr several times, who pointed out that the highest pinnacles of humanity are still far below the heights that God himself can offer and that the demand for perfect justice almost always ends with even greater injustice. So, obvious points from the Providence Christian realist perspective, but much needed points and especially helpful, at least this author argues, in terms of combating the extremes of polarization which often are undergirded by extreme self-certainty, and extreme self-righteousness, and appropriating powers to one’s own self in one’s own beliefs, that should only be allowed for God himself. And Marc LiVecche, what are your thoughts?
LiVecche: Exactly that. There is an incredible amount of, as you say, hubris. I’m happy to say there’s profoundly prideful claims almost to an omniscience that obviously human beings do not possess that you see on both extremes of the ideological spectrum. And it’s profoundly dangerous for anybody to believe that they absolutely have in possession the solution to everything or anything, really. Niebuhr’s council of humility, modesty of purpose, those are deeply Christian realist aspirations. We must not believe that we can eliminate evil in our time, for instance. All while we acknowledge that we can eliminate certain evils in our time. And then we should go about the business of trying to do that. The 20th century is full of all sorts of illustrations, or the horrors and the hells on earth that happen when people aspire to bring about the conditions of the eschatology. When we think that we can be the solution to everything, whether it’s a Christian who thinks that we are the answer to our own prayer or it’s an idealogue who thinks that they can redefine the world order through the application of their own power. Humility of purpose, modesty of aspiration.
Tooley: Mark Melton, is transcendence the answer to extreme polarization in American politics and culture today?
Melton: That’s a good question. I think it was an interesting piece that I mentioned in my newsletter that came out earlier today, but I think it’s definitely a possibility. I think Niebuhr says a lot of interesting things on this in his articles that we published last year that came from 1945. He talks about the pride of victors and this idea that all evil is in your opponent. And he supports talking about Nazi Germany in that moment, and in this piece, it’s talking about Abraham Lincoln and how he kind of had a similar humility when it came to dealing with the South and dealing with slaveholders at the end of the Civil War. And so, there’s a lot there that we can learn from. And I do think that it seems that this idea that all the evil can be in your opponent can come from this myth of progress, that we can improve ourselves to a point that we can eliminate all the problems in the world. And if you do have that view, then it’s possible to if you just eliminate your opponent, then you can just implement your own policy. But yeah, this humility should force people to realize that it’s just not possible. I remember years ago I was on a mission trip and in this area, people were, for whatever reason, kind of shorter. And so, there was a phrase amongst the people, “don’t measure your height from your foot to your head, but from your head to the sky.” And the idea was just this humility of it doesn’t matter how tall you are, you’re still shorter than me. I have eyes of God. And so, yeah, those are just some of my thoughts when I was reading this piece. And I think it’s a pretty good one that I think is an evergreen piece that we can come back to year after year. Tooley: Marc LiVecche, regarding civil religion, we just discussed that I had a Twitter exchange in which my sparring partner believed that religion should not have been openly present at the presidential inauguration because religion is a divisive force, a polarizing force, and instead, secular themes of unity should have been advocated. But my responses, along the lines of what we just discussed in terms of transcendence as an antidote to polarization, is that in many ways, we need a deeper and richer religious understanding of the limitations of humanity and American politics. That only by understanding those limitations can we deescalate from the brain, so to speak, and that the civil religion that was on in full force during the inauguration with the prayers by a Catholic priest, by a black Methodist preacher, and also a special service at St. Matthews Catholic Cathedral in Washington, DC. It’s been said that there was more civil religion at this inauguration, more than any other since President Eisenhower. I think that’s good news, and that these themes were about justice, and humanity, and all of us being created equally in the image of God. without those kinds of reassurances, what other recourse do we have to preserve our democracy? So, LiVecche, what do you think?
LiVecche: Well, what are the resources? Yeah, one of the resources we do not have is a resort to secularity. I know in this moment I wish I was significantly older than I am, because what I’m about to say would have more weight, but in all my years upon this earth, I have never run into anything like a secular language. There is no secularism in this sense. The idea that we can speak with religiously neutral viewpoints is absurd. We are deeply religious people. We will worship something. If it’s not the divine, then it’s something. Our best efforts of secularity are full of our own religious viewpoints. So, first of all, that’s just foolish. But secondly, sure. I think, especially in light of the article on transcendence, this notion that we are insufficient is desperately important. And on display at the inauguration was at least a gesture or a nod toward that sense that might be, people can call it empty, people can call it just sort of ritualistic or whatever. But it plays a function, and I think a part of the function is a kind of recalibration to remember that as we move forward together, we need help. Everybody asks those religious questions, even this guy that you were in the tiff with. People are going to ask: who am I, where did I come from, what went wrong, who’s going to resolve this? From the great existentialists, or non-existentialist in the case of Albert Camus, they can’t get away with it. They know this. And so, religion provides us at least a place for us to come together to share in a sense of the transcendent, if not the transcendent itself. And at the inauguration, I mean, it was so in one sense. Garth Brooks singing “Amazing Grace,” the black poet laureate singing and performing an extraordinary poem, which gestures to scripture in a sense of shared purpose, it’s essentially at least a nod toward who we are. It strikes me as shocking that there are some among us who are so fragile as to be deeply offended and threatened by Garth Brooks and “Amazing Grace.”
Tooley: I know you’re easily shocked, Marc LiVecche.
Tooley: Mark Melton, would you propose banishing “Amazing Grace” from any future inaugurations lest anyone be offended?
Melton: Of course not. I think it’s kind of a bizarre complaint. In my eyes, I mean, these people are genuinely faithful. I think it’s reasonable to bring your faith into the public square, and I think what would concern me is a situation like we’ve seen in Russia. Years ago, there was this big parade for Putin, and I can’t remember which, if it was one of his inaugurations or something along those lines or just a military parade, but there was a general who was known for being a Muslim who basically when they came to one of the cathedrals, he turned and did something for no apparent reason. And so, something like that would obviously I think be a problem, but just bringing your faith into the public square, as long as it’s genuine, is perfectly fine.
Tooley: I think there are some, I don’t think, I know there are conservative and traditional Christians who object to civil religion because ostensibly it’s vacuous. But to cite the power and justice and mercy of God, those are tremendously deep and rich principles in and of themselves. And because you’re not including specifically the Christian plan of salvation, that in no way negates the other important messaging that comes through civil religion, don’t you think?
LiVecche: Yeah, absolutely.
Melton: I would also add to that that Alan Dowd had an article about a prayer that FDR gave during D-Day, this incredibly horrific moment, where I forget how many thousands died that day, but it seems incredibly appropriate to have a prayer. I mean, most Americans, most people are going to have some belief in a God. So, yeah, those are very I think reasonable moments and gestures.
Tooley: And in conclusion, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, as we enter this new era after a very tumultuous and unpleasant 2020, are you hopeful for better times ahead? Will America pull back from the brink and once again look to the power of transcendence as an antidote to extreme divisions? LiVecche?
LiVecche: There’s always a brink to fall into, right? Horses have two sides you can fall off of. We’re not going to fall off a particular side under the Biden Administration, but it’s entirely possible we fall off the other side. Am I hopeful? I said it last week, if we want to get through this, we will. It’s day three. The world hasn’t ended yet. We’ll see. He started off with two great things. He started off with a prayer at his inauguration, he went to Arlington and he laid a wreath. He did two things that I strongly and warmly support. And that doubles the number of things that I thought he was going to do that I would support on day one. I am not looking for Biden to be a solution to Trump. I’m not particularly excited about the coming four years, but we’ll see.
Tooley: And perhaps the country has a life and vitality that is outside of the presidency, so we don’t necessarily attach cosmic importance to the current administration or any administration?
LiVecche: Correct. I mean, I think we should participate in political life. Everybody who reads Providence knows that we advocate for this, but sure, this is a recalibration that we can stop looking for political messiahs. That would be great.
Tooley: Mark Melton, are you still looking for a political messiah?
Melton: Now I think that’s obviously not going to be the solution. So, we’ve got to calibrate so that we have a realistic idea of what government can accomplish and also what the federal government can accomplish. I think a lot of these things, we learned over the past years that a lot of the decisions that happen at local and state governments are going to have immense impacts on our lives, and so we should probably spend less time worrying or focusing on the federal government, read a little bit of your local newspaper, or maybe even find out if there’s a local newspaper in your area. And so, there’s one other point I was going to make, but I can’t quite remember it now, so I’ll just end it on that.
LiVecche: You’re going to say you’re going to run for political office yourself at the local level, and we can support your endeavor, right?
Melton: We’ll start at HOA and see how it goes. Probably not.
Tooley: And Mark Melton, you depend completely on Facebook notifications as your own source of information, don’t you?
Melton: I think there’s a huge, I was actually thinking about this earlier, there’s a huge problem where we get most of our news from free media. And when we do that, we are not consuming a product, we are the product that advertisers are trying to get to. And so, subscribing to an actual newspaper would be a good step. And yeah, then I think our views get so skewed by sensational headlines or sensational tweets and whatnot, and a lot of the news might just not be that interesting. But it’s incredibly important to us that what happens at the local city council may be kind of boring to sit through, but I think if we’re going to care about our neighbors, we need to understand what’s going on in that situation.
LiVecche: So, if that’s the case, and I think that is the case, I think that’s a brilliant insight from our managing editor. Perhaps Providence should do a service, led by our managing editor, in which we recommend six to ten good news sources that allow one to read across the spectrum to be able to increase our moral perceptions and empathy for the other side, what is it that they’re thinking, what’s important to them, right. Because we’ve got to not just read a good newspaper, we’ve got to read several of them. So, what are those good news sources out there that folks, other than Providence, that folks can rely on to find good analysis of breaking news, but also the perennial more evergreen issues of our and every age. We should put that list together.
Tooley: Mark Melton, I will look forward to it from you. Next week?
LiVecche: I want to see it.
Tooley: Gentlemen, thank you for another scintillating episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye bye.