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Does the Left Need Christianity?

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_SamaritanI was intrigued by a recent article in Dissent Magazine by Elizabeth Bruenig maintaining that the Left needs religion. She argues:

“Christianity, in other words, is no more destined for a cozy relationship with neoliberal, free-market politics than any other ideology, and perhaps less so, given its longstanding interest in the poor. The fact that Christianity is reflexively associated with conservatism in the United States is not so much an accident of history as it is a concerted effort on the part of vested, moneyed interests. Still, making a bad match for American conservatism doesn’t necessarily mean that Christian thought is overly inclined to a pure, secular leftism: indeed, there will always be tensions between Christian doctrine and the tendencies of left political action when it comes to social issues like the family, sexuality, and fertility. The values of an orthodox Christian leftist in these matters will undoubtedly differ from those of a secular leftist. But there are two reasons why Christians should remain an important left contingent, and a valuable resource for the left. First, because the kind of mass politics necessary to achieve left goals will rely in part on reaching the world’s approximately 2 billion Christians. Second, because Christianity can help challenge reigning neoliberal views on property, poverty, and the role of government.”

This is by no means a novel argument; Christians and their ideas have continually influenced left-wing movements for centuries. Yet, as Western civilization has increasingly turned to secularism and discarded its Christian worldview, one has to ask how vital it is for any left-wing movement to appropriate religious language to achieve its aims?

My relationship with Christianity is complicated. I found my inner conservative stirring after the birth of my daughter and opted to have her baptized into the Catholic Church, even when the theological foundation of Christianity is one that still feels foreign and distant to me. I have looked from time to time for meaning in the church, but have always left without any evocative spiritual connection. Perhaps I was born a skeptic and will die one as well.

Yet even I can recognize the positive role a religious leader can have in pushing their flock towards left-wing aims. The Pope’s comments about inequality and capitalism have been much more impactful than a lefty economist’s might have been simply because his comments resonate with Christian morals and principles. The Pope’s comments force free market minded Christians to address the divide between their political and theological positions, and possibly move some of the flock in left-leaning directions.

I don’t subscribe to the religious teachings of the church, but I see something positive in the church as a communal institution. When I attend mass, the arguments delivered from the pulpit fall on deaf ears, but the serenity of the room captivates me. It is a sad reflection that the halls of the cathedral are one of the few places that haven’t been encroached upon by consumer culture. Nearly every other public and private space has been subjugated by consumerism. We are continually asked to contemplate a future purchase, or measure our current standing by the financial state of conjectural others via advertisements and marketing. I see these encroachments as a subtle yet subversive bending of the public psyche.

Consumer society may be more efficient and individualistic, but it also divides us in profound ways. Yong Nam-Pak describes the effect consumerism has on our social layers as a whole:

Capitalist consumer society divides people into economic classes according to their economic wealth and marginalizes the economically less privileged people as “others.” Thus, distinct social strata and divisions exist; people are not melted into one class in society.

I find this position to be generally true, but it is a larger problem than I am willing to address here. I would like to discuss how consumer culture makes it difficult to maintain higher moral standards when it comes to pay and working conditions. An author going by the name “Whig” at the Adam Smith Institute writes:

A consumerist economy would be one where resources are allocated to those who value them most and who are prepared to make the greatest sacrifices to acquire them. It would also be one in which the general good would be able to triumph over the particular interests of whichever groups manage to capture governmental power.

I take umbrage with the idea that the “general good” is maintained through said political model. There is much to criticize (and celebrate) in regards to consumer economies, but where the Left may employ religion is in its ability to generate a meta-narrative to unite a larger group of people. In our contemporary consumer culture, communities become increasingly self-segregated with amplified fragmentation of society around an association with specific consumer goods. On a certain level, this is understandable and forgivable. An individual who spends their time rock climbing and mountain biking will have consumer preferences different from those who prefer video games and comic books. This consumer signaling may also act as a way to meet others who share a common hobby or lifestyle, and such activity existed before mass consumer culture arose.

This fragmentation of society within consumerism has an adverse effect on the ability of a people to organically share a specific set of standards related to labor and undermines the communal process used to affirm specific norms and values for the society as a whole. Writing on the subject of political consumerism, Mads P. Sorenson wrote a paper entitled Liberal Democratic Society and Political Consumerism – A Problematic Combination. In it, he explains:

“On the whole, everyone also prefers to have an influence on the conditions under which they live. The problem with political consumerism in this context is therefore that here equal standards precisely do not exist. It is the individual political consumer or group of consumers who absolutely decide what applies and what does not. Everyone else has no direct influence on the standards introduced. They are precisely introduced without public interference, without prior discussion, and they should not be legitimized afterwards in respect to the public….an arbitrarity in standards and regulations is manifest. One company is punished for having used child labor, another is not. One company is rewarded for paying extraordinary regard to the environment, another is not. One company holds itself within the limits of the law but is punished – another breaks the law but is rewarded.” (p.66-67)

Clearly, the state sets rules for acceptable business practices, but, since each sub-community of consumers has its own moral framework and view on what is acceptable for a company to do to produce the products they consume, to maintain universal moral standards and principles becomes difficult. The state sets a low bar for worker pay and rights (a minimum wage for example), but these laws operate more as a bottom floor for social tolerance, not as a desirable end we have for neighbors in our community.

I hold a controversial position on the subject of common narratives that libertarians and liberals may find problematic. I believe that the tragedy of our contemporary society is the death of any meaningful meta-narratives that bind a community or people. Not only has Christianity faded in its communal importance, but in terms of political power, ideologies like socialism are ghosts of their former selves. What makes us a community or nation other than our proximity? What responsibility do I have to my neighbor if larger social ideals do not bind us together?

As much as I wish an alternative were present, Christianity in the West is likely the best bet at helping build a larger meta-narrative around labor and pay. We are seeing the result of the death of any unifying communal theory in our society today, with individualism and consumerism marching in tandem through civilization. With the death of socialism as a viable, revolutionary alternative to the state of the world, the Left must embrace Christianity. The Left without a unifying theory of justice that can extend beyond its existing adherents is one lost on a post-modern sea without the language to unite its crew.

(Image: The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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132 thoughts on “Does the Left Need Christianity?

  1. I feel like the entire history of Christianity is people arguing over the true meaning of the words of Christ. There seems to long history of various things which could be called prosperity gospels. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages did have the Franciscans with their vows of poverty but it also aligned itself with the rich nobles and royalty and told the poor to accept their lot in life and hope for reward in the next. Calvinism has a strain of seeing worldly success as a sign of God’s Grace. This is hardly unique to American history.

    I am not what one would call a spiritual person in any sense of the word from vague hippie stuff to serious religious acesticism or even clearly upper-middle class people trying to embrace the spirituality of Eastern religion while basically being consumerist. Adam Smith does sort of have a point about consumerism because it does put a fight in people. I feel the Bruenig’s of the world would just have the poor accept their lot in life.

    I think that the current state of income and wealth inequality is a really big problem. I also think that the current state of real wages not rising for the vast majority of Americans is a really big problem. Yet a lot of people on the farther left just have this vague spirituality and utopianism which seems completely disconnected from reality. Some thoughts:

    1. Consumerism and material goods make life more pleasant. Life is generally hard in many ways and has always been hard. There is something to the argument that consumer goods like Ipods, Ipads, Video Game Systems, microbrews, restaurants, etc. do make life more pleasant and fun. As someone who is extremely doubtful about the existence of an afterlife, I would like to make life on this earth more pleasant for as many as possible. If consumerism does that so be it.

    2. I have never really heard people argue what consumerism should be replaced with. Plenty of rants against consumerism but the anti-consumerist side seems to struggle with the politics of incompleteness. Their arguments seem to be 1. Get rid of consumerism plus 2. ??? equals 3. Utopia!!!! I am not sure that works.

    3. There are finite resources. How does the anti-consumerist handle the concept of desirable real estate. Do the San Francisco-Bay Area and NYC become uninhabitable?

    4. Saying Christianity is the best at building a beta-narrative goes against multi-culturalism. The whole point of liberalism is to argue that there is not a “good life” but there such things as “good lives” and every individual has a right to pursue their own version of the good life as long as they cause no intentional harm to others. Building a beta-narrative on Christianity excludes those who will never be Christian by birth and/or choice and it goes against the freedoms of religion and consciousness.

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    • The Left had a long struggle with consumerism because of their antipathy towards the bourgeois. Socialism in its more material forms is about making the fruits of the means of production more widely available by collective ownership in theory. The problem with this to a lot of Leftists is that it makes the bourgeois life more wildly available to the working class and that’s bad because the bourgeois suck and socialism will get corrupted. So you have a bunch of intellectuals trying to figure out how to make the working class, the poor, and the dispossessed better off materially without infecting them with bourgeois culture in anyway. This is not possible and you get a rage against consumerism without any viable replacement.

      The more spiritually inclined leftist can imagine a world of people living simple lives of great spiritual contemplation like a giant Tibet. Most people don’t want this. Secular leftists are left with a contradiction.

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    • We say we’re fans of “multi-culturalism” but we’re not, not really. There are a handful of things that would make us say “oh, sorry… you need to leave that behind in your backwards country. If you want to live with us, you need to assimilate.”

      We want Epcot-level multi-culturalism. We want your songs, your festivals (the fun ones, not the fasting ones), your movies, your outfits, your restaurants, and your literature… but we don’t want your patriarchy, your homophobia, your sexual hangups, your cousin marriage, or your weird food taboos outside of your own house.

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      • This is exactly correct. When many Americans talk about anyone becoming an American, they really mean that individual has given up their old culture and adopted the liberal/consumer culture of the US.

        A lot of the debates happening on campuses are dealing with this issue remotely, and its one of the reasons those protests are contentious. Ethnic activists of all stripes are actually demanding a “real” multiculturalism in America that doesn’t gel with the “assimilation to a single culture” many uphold as goal of citizenship.

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        • If you want high-trust/high-collaboration, you’re going to require a monoculture that intrudes into a lot of areas. (Not all… but a lot of them.)

          In practice, this will require not only assimilation of new members but, in addition to that, treatments of letting one’s freak flag fly will be frowned upon. They create distrust as they communicate “I’m not like you people AND I DON’T WANT TO BE.”

          This is not, in itself, bad or wrong or evil.

          It is, however, incompatible with high-trust/high-collaboration

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            • Interesting. I like the idea of strong institutions and social inclusivity being the foundation of high trust but I wonder where the boundaries of letting one’s freak flag fly would be… I imagine that Australia has a lot of elbow room for that sort of thing…

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          • Correct. I don’t want to dance around the more intrusive society I am advocating for. I find many American conservatives talk liberty and free markets out of one side of their mouth, but actually want a culture that is not governed by such principles. I think being frank about the means to achieve the society I envision is important, and likely means people will be less “free” as we define it in America.

            In some ways, I am reconciling the fact that I was in some out-there political and cultural movements in my youth (communist parties for some time, anarchist groupings as well, and the hardcore/metal scene was home). That was important to my growth as a young man; how do you allow for some of that very thing and still have a more unified culture? Maybe you can’t.

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            • It’s…not conservatives that Jaybird is talking about, here.

              Like, I can point to a meta-narrative that says “human wasteful consumption is a threat to the ability of Earth to sustain life, and it’s an expression of moral virtue to not consume animal products”. That’s not really associated with a conservative political tendency.

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      • Lee has made this point before and he is probably right.

        City folks especially New Yorkers have a reputation for being unfriendly. Outsiders don’t realize that this is basically detente because you have different groups with very different core ideas living in close proximity.

        Singapore seems to put a lot of time and effort into forging and maintaining a Singaporean identity.

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        • Not so much “unfriendly” as maintaining a very strict sense of boundaries, sort of thing?

          This fits neatly with my idea that “privacy” is a social fiction. That is, it’s something we all agree to pretend is real so that we can function in a high-density society.

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        • But Singapore’s attempt to make a uniquely Singaporean identity is kinda sorta ridiculous (in its partial? ineffectuality). There is an organic identity, and this organic identity is partly bound up with certain obsessive personality traits (kiasu-ism), a local dialect (Singlish) and xenophobia (which is really amazing in its lack of self awareness when most Singaporeans are first or second generation migrants) that the government is uncomfortable with. Back when I worked as a professional fundraiser, I met a woman (of Indian ethnicity) who wanted to ensure that I was born a Singaporean and not a recent migrant from India before she talked to me.

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        • When I was a customer service agent taking inbound calls from NYC I found that the people were by my own metrics, reasonably friendly and normal. That’s talking to near 40-70 folks per day.

          There may be a fraction of subculture like that, but it didn’t manifest in most phone communications.

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    • A lot to address here , thanks for the good questions.

      Point 1-2: I really don’t have an answer for this. I sat on this essay for a little bit, trying to come to a conclusion about what it was I was offering as an alternative. I also recognize that there is some hypocrisy from my end when it comes to criticizing consumerism. I have a house with records and a TV and clothing…I surely do not live a monk-like life free of consumer wants. I also know they make my life more pleasurable, and it would probably be difficult to transition to a pre-consumer mentality/economy.

      On that note, I find it entertaining when I read alt-Right types who criticize consumer culture and want to return society to a more “primitive” form of social arrangement where people are “truly living” by catching their own food, working the land, living in small communities free of our lazy modern world. While that idealized vision of life before modernity sounds romantic, I am reminded that a vast number of people died painful deaths from things like tooth decay. Thus, I am still looking for an alternative path to our current modern one that doesn’t entail idealized primitivism or abject totalitarianism via the state.

      In short, I don’t know the answer.

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      • I’ve said it before but the far-right and far-left have a good deal in common with their distrust and hate of consumerism and modern society. The end goal has a different look, Tolkien’s shire for the Right and a hippie commune for the left.

        But lots of people will die before these Utopias can be created.

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      • There are multiple things wrong with this fantasy besides the parts you mentioned. Before modernity, most people were not self-reliant badasses who farmed, fished, or hunted their own food. They were hunkered down in a defensive communalism for simple survival. They were also more trade dependent than people thought. Most people are not equipped to be frontiers people.

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        • Lee, pray tell how these ‘pre-modern’ people engaged in production huddled in a commune?

          Functionally the production entities of the frontier require/d most people to disperse to whatever tasks they needed to accomplish. Even in the modern era in the state that I live there are many people who go to locations were they will not see another person for the entire day. Sometimes several days.

          This myth that there were few to no individuals out gathering wood, water, hunting, foraging and trapping for long hours alone is a urban modernist construct.

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            • I’d also say that the frontier experience was very “modern” in that it was tied to market networks from the beginning (if we date the beginning of the American “frontier” from the settlements at Jamestown).

              But I do think Joe Sal has a point, if I understand him. Even before the “frontier,” a lot of market dynamics were at work throughout the world. And to some extent, some such dynamics were at work from long before.

              At the same time, and you can correct me if I’m misinterpreting you, , but the communalism you’re talking about isn’t the idyllic, “everyone’s an equal and loves each other” communalism, but more of a desperate local autarkism, perhaps presided over by a lord or lord’s envoy who has ready instruments of violence to enforce compliance.

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              • The frontier experience in the Americas was also enabled by a vast administrative apparatus and modern technology.

                Your right, the communalism I’m talking about is more of a desperate local autarky where people huddled together for defense against the outside world and to make ends meet. There may or may not be a lord or lord’s envoy involved. The isolated homestead is not the common rural experience as I understand even if space is available like in Russia. When American farmers were setting up somewhat isolated homesteads, Italian farmers were living in big fortified villages and walking to their fields.

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          • And how many of you fellas ever foraged, farmed, gathered wood, hunted or hauled water for any distance?

            Not as in a experience of reading it in a book. As in pounds and tons of task complete in a frontier-ish environment?

            I ask this not as a measure of belittlement, but to see if you have the understanding of what it is like to live considerable distance from urban areas, and have experienced the isolation of performing primitive tasks out in the middle of nowhere.

            I can’t understand this thought of how individualism is non-existent when in desolate locations, that’s the defining norm.

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              • Kim
                I think you mentioned before coming from a small town. Did you spend a lot of time doing those tasks alone?

                One of the few endearing qualifications I look for ‘rugged-rural’ is if you have snuffed several hundred yards of prairie fire with a shovel. Extra points if you’ve done more than a half mile.

                I think Damon mentioned battling one.

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                • Nah, the only thing small about my town was my high school (graduating classes of 60 people!).

                  I’ve done them all alone, but haven’t had to rely on doing it for survival (except for that one cabin). And I’ve never done much near prairie, not much call in Pennsylvania.

                  A friend of mine (at age 12!) found someone frozen to death while hiking.

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                  • k-3rd grade had just 2, (thankfully she was easy on the eyes).

                    They closed that school and bused us to a nearby school, so the combined total of the two towns were 11 at my graduation, and that was a big class.

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            • Not quite. The actual history of Western expansion required huge amounts of support from the Federal Government including the land-transfers (in exchange for working the land for X years), the U.S. forts along the way that allowed people to move Westward, roads, highways, canals, etc.

              Yes there were people who spent long times in solitude but more people decided to stay East than go West and I don’t think it is quite as solo as many like to imagine.

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              • With variations on how you use “the West”. That title has been bestowed on, at one time or another, everything from Kentucky/Ohio to the Pacific Coast. From the Great Plains west, the land transfers to the railroads were much more important historically than the Homestead Act transfers. Some of the peculiar patterns of those grants (as shown on this map of public versus private lands in a portion of Oregon) continue to cause problems in today’s West.

                The Mountain West was much more about resource extraction than agriculture. As a result, the area west of the Great Plains is, and always has been, much less rural than the American mythos portrays. IIRC, the Census Bureau’s Northeast and Western regions are within a point or two of having the same percentage of non-rural population. Both are much less rural — measured in terms of where the population lives — than the rest of the country.

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              • Saul, part of the reason I enjoy this place is that folks like you are so different from where I am from. I’m not say you are an other, or outside of ‘my people’. I include you in the vastness of what I would call my people.

                In doing so I would question what you are bringing to the table here, not so much as a “Your Wrong!”, but more from a “that doesn’t look very accurate” position.

                I mean the usefulness of a fort to a wagon drops of quickly with distance, after about 40 miles, a fort may as well be on another planet.

                Someone a hundred years from now could make the statement, “if it wasn’t for the NSA the entire agriculture industry in the US would have collapsed in 2015!” and be adamant about that belief.

                Along those lines, I will probably file this as something that mostly intellectuals and academics believe.

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        • I also crack up at alt-Right primitivist types who seem to think that in this state of nature or primitive society, they would be king. Something tells me anyone spending even a moment online probably won’t rule in said environment.

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        • The Unabomber was an anarcho-primitivist, right? Like John Zerzan? I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure the NRx’ers are more like neo-monarchists. They definitely don’t want to roll back the technological aspects of modernity, the way the primitivists do.

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          • I don’t think the primitives will win the day in the context that so many are correctly dismissive. Where the traction will occur is in technology that enables owner-operators to run more efficiently than corporate entities. The manufacturing corporate enterprises have been able to outpace the operators with constant tech breakthroughs but eventually the stagnation created by the imbalance will provide opportunity for the operators.

            The sign that the disruptive nature of the effect is working is when the state tries to regulate operators with regulations that are obviously used to maintain corporate monopolies.

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    • The answers seem so simple, I am truly amazed that you would be unaware of them.
      So, here goes:

      The Education of Saul (Take 1)

      1. Consumerism and material goods make life more pleasant.
      The appropriate inquiry here is: “Under what conditions?”

      As someone who is extremely doubtful about the existence of an afterlife, I would like to make life on this earth more pleasant for as many as possible.

      There is no evidence that the dead observe any manner of religion.
      Religion is for the living. Thus, any religion which fails to take into consideration the Here and Now is deficient in some manner.

      If consumerism does that so be it.

      Again, the appropriate inquiry is: “Under what conditions?”
      And I will return to that inquiry after I tie up some loose threads.

      2. I have never really heard people argue what consumerism should be replaced with. Plenty of rants against consumerism but the anti-consumerist side seems to struggle with the politics of incompleteness.

      Close, but it’s missing a few elements.

      3. There are finite resources.

      This is an inconsequential concern.

      4. Saying Christianity is the best at building a beta-narrative goes against multi-culturalism.

      I think you’re missing the point here; in that Christianity is actually a place-holder dependent on the predominate culture, and is sure to be replaced with other things in other cultures.

      Under what conditions does consumerism and material goods make life more pleasant?
      Humans are social animals. (That’s Marcus Aurelius, actually. I thought I would use a pagan stoic to defend Christianity, and I just pause here to let you in on that.) Consumerism and material goods make life more pleasant when they: a) serve a social purpose, or b) fill a void for lack of social purpose.

      Seriously, I planned a big, long exposition here, but I just noticed the time.
      I’ll get back with you later. (That would be “Take 2.”)
      Sorry to disappoint.

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      • Sorry about that, Degraw, but I wasn’t really feeling all that social today.
        Maybe tomorrow.

        Hopefully, you have yet to achieve enlightenment by that time; else it’s really going to take the wind out of my sails.

        Really, I was just about to start sounding like a fruity liberal when I had to roll.
        Saved by the bell, as it were.

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  2. I really need to think over this post to give it the consideration it deserves. It really is a good post. But I have some fears about meta-narratives because they seem grounded on exclusion or proselytizing, or both. Maybe not necessarily, but in practice most of the ones I can think of seem to.

    Sometimes the exclusion is defensive, as, say, when a certain group of people is marginalized or “othered” and needs to develop resources to support its members. Sometimes the proselytizers hold a sincere vision for helping others and are not aggressive about shoving their beliefs down others’ throats. But sometimes the exclusionism or proselytizing can be harmful.

    I guess my main ambivalence is not so much a meta-narrative per se, but attaching that meta-narrative to the coercive power of the state. At the same time, the reason it’s “ambivalence” and not “opposition” is that I have a hard time imagining state power formulated without recourse to some meta-narrative and that I think it’s possible for a meta-narrative to constrain, channel, or otherwise limit the use of that coercion. So maybe it is a good thing.

    I have a lot of ambivalence about using Christianity for such a meta-narrative. I suppose we can debate what Christianity “truly” is, but it’s not unheard of to say that it’s otherworldly. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. To attach it to state activity (and to be clear, I’m not sure that Roland is necessarily suggesting we take it that far….there’s a lot that can be done without relying on the state) is to make it something non-Christian. Or arguably to make it so (I’m not the final arbiter on what is and is not “truly” Christian).

    None of this refutes Roland’s point. Maybe we do need a meta-narrative. Maybe we all implicitly have one on some level anyway and it’s better to be explicit about it and make it more inclusive than less. And I haven’t even begun to address Roland’s argument about consumerism.

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    • Good points . There is a lot to address here before work starts, but I have been thinking a great deal about this point you mentioned:

      “I guess my main ambivalence is not so much a meta-narrative per se, but attaching that meta-narrative to the coercive power of the state.”

      Perhaps this shows signs of a waining faith in liberalism as a social/governing principle, as I am starting to think having a state with more authority of these meta narratives might very well be necessary. Having said that, I am very aware of how that has generally played out throughout history, with the glaring examples being totalitarian states where the government crushes any form of dissent in the name of “community.” Thus, I am increasingly studying how social democratic states achieved goals similar to what I am purporting through less coercive methods. However, when one looks closely at Scandinavian states, a great deal of communal homogeny was enforced socially (something liberals in America who claim to support said systems often avoid discussing). These states were far less individualistic and “free” when applying the American definition of the term, and not just in the way the state owned/controlled parts of the economy.

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      • About social democracy in the Scandinavian states, you might want to read the relevant sections of Tony Judt’s history of post-WWII Europe, Postwar. Not only was there a great deal of coercion in enforcing community homogeneity, but there was also some untwoard developments, like experiments in forced sterilization.

        To be clear, such examples do not necessarily support my point or invalidate yours. I’m not sure we can actually get away from meta-narratives. Even a “live and let live” liberalism has a meta-narrative, and that meta-narrative can evolve in ways that are oppressive, although as a (neo-)liberal, my hope is that the oppressiveness can be held in check by holding the oppressive apparatuses (the state, but not only the state) in check.

        Anyway, thanks for addressing my comments.

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  3. Sure the left needs Christianity. It also needs Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Rastafarianism, Atheism, Pastafarianism and many other ism’s to balance things out.

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  4. Marxism used to provide this meta-narrative but that narrative lost it’s effectiveness in 1989. Christianity can’t really pick up the slack because it is not universalist. If your not a Christian, it feels alienating. Many Leftists are either secular, associate Christianity with reactionary thought, or are trying to reach out towards non-Christians like Muslims.

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  5. Great post. I agree with much of what you say about consumerism. It may provide creature comforts that make life more pleasurable, but as an organizing social ethos “buy more stuff” comes up short of providing any kind of compelling argument for common goals or common cause. It’s deeply individualistic. Our corporate elite is happy to promote the kind of fracturing a consumerist society creates because it produces a more potential markets and a more docile work force. It also produces a lot of debt slavesas people struggle to meet the consumerist expectations of a society saturated in advertising.

    Still, as Saul asks, what are the alternatives? This is a question I’ve struggled with on and off over the years (decades to be precise). It’s also a question that’s been around for a while, at least since the 1930s when the architects of the Great Books program suggested that an education for all that involved reading and discussion of those books as a means of providing the common cultural background necessary to understand American values and provide a common vocabulary with which to debate political and social issues.

    So, I can appreciate the value of a meta-narrative as well as the need for a sense of being part of something that transcends one’s individual lifetime, whether one believes in an afterlife or not. I’m just not sure that in a profoundly secular age, where more and more people are moving away from religion, that Christianity will fit the bill. Likewise, I don’t see any secular alternatives. Also, I fear that meta-narratives have a tendency to become totalitarian. Hitler provided a mets-narrative, as did Stalin. I don’t doubt that a bastardized form of Islam offers the terrorists of ISIS with their own meta-narrative. So, the question becomes how to provide that kind of unifying narrative without ostracizing those who don’t accept it.

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    • But as is discussed below, we are steeped in and surrounded by a metanarrative that we rarely bother to see, much less question.

      We rely on these narratives to construct our society in its most fundamental ways, and confer an unquestionable authority on them.

      As with things like freedom of speech, a fear of overly tight boundaries is warranted. But to propose that there be none at all is untenable.

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      • I’m not sure what your point is as I’m not proposing that there be no boundaries, but suggesting that trying too hard to enforce a meta-narrative often leads in totalitarian directions. As suggested below, meta-narratives are often organic and largely unrecognized.

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    • So, the question becomes how to provide that kind of unifying narrative without ostracizing those who don’t accept it.

      Are we okay with offering carrots to those who accept it and denying them to those who don’t?

      Not talking about sticks, mind. Just carrots.

      If we are willing to say that withholding benefits, social, economic, or otherwise, is “cruel” (or something), then… what’s left?

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      • Don’t all societies offer carrots to incentivize what they consider good behavior? It’s not as if our society isn’t extremely conformist in a lot of ways, despite the high valuation we place on individualism. Try exerting your individualism too stridently within a corporate culture.

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        • Indeed they do!

          Try exerting your individualism too stridently within a corporate culture.

          Is this something that ought to be changed or is it something that ought to be shrugged off as “the way it is” or is it something that ought to be celebrated or what?

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          • Mostly shrugged off for being the way it is. If you choose to enter a corporate culture, you agree to play by its rules, as long as they’re legal.

            There’s always a price to be paid for being a rebel, but I’d prefer to live in a society where that price doesn’t involve being shipped off to the gulag or facing the inquisition. Thus, I place a high value on free speech despite my attraction to the notion of close-knit community. For example, I’m Jewish but I wouldn’t want to live in an ultra-Orthodox community because, whatever security and cohesiveness it might provide and whatever beauty and comfort its rituals might offer, its constraints on the rights of women are too great.

            Roland’s notion that Christianity might provide a meta-narrative for the left leaves me cold for similar reasons. Whose Christianity are we talking about? An orthodox, ritualistic variety or a more touchy-feely liberal variety? Given all the various denominations, does Christianity even offer a meta-narrative anymore except of the most watered-down variety?

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            • Well, our Christianity today would be indistinguishable from heresy (if not atheism!) a few hundred years ago. (John Calvin was involved in at least one “heretic” getting the death penalty, after all.)

              And our Christianity in the US is fairly different from Christianity in Europe… do they even have megachurches in Europe? Compare walking into an Orthodox (or even a Catholic) Church to walking into New Life/Lord’s Vineyard/God’s Victory. The former feels like an old religion from an old tradition and the latter is entry-level happyfuntimes.

              As such, I want to say that the American variant of Christianity is an evolution of the narrative of America that acts as a bit of a brake/drag. It’s Conservative in the sense that it makes the changes that its 30ish-somethings want to make AND THEN IT WANTS TO FREEZE STUFF THERE FOREVER.

              The same way that Morat, I think, says that he is a radical who hopes that he will die a conservative.

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        • “Don’t all societies offer carrots to incentivize what they consider good behavior?”

          The question is, of course, what’s a carrot and what’s a Basic Duty Of Society To Provide. Are birth-control pills a carrot? Because you can achieve the same goal with condoms (or, to bring it back around to religion, through abstinence.)

          (I am aware that there are uses for hormone therapy other than contraceptive, and that is not the issue under discussion here.)

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          • Interesting question, given that I don’t think that “society” writ large has much of a basic duty to provide anything. Societies make choices. For example, I don’t think that we have a “right” to healthcare or, even more fundamentally, the “right” to an education. As a society, we decide through political and other institutions what kind of social goods we think the government should provide.

            I’m not sure I’ve answered your question. Birth control could be a carrot, but given our society generally awards women who defer childbirth until they at least graduate college with greater economic opportunities, I’m not sure that free birth control, in and of itself is the carrot, or the means of ensuring a young woman is able to go after it in the first place.

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          • You actually *can’t* achieve the same goals with condoms and hormonal birth control, even if you’re *only* talking about birth control.

            1) Hormonal birth control is less failure prone than condoms.
            2) Hormonal birth control works even in the case of rape.
            3) Hormonal birth control can be taken in secret.

            That said, birth control is not provided as any sort of ‘carrot’, as far as I know. Birth control is provided as part of insurance because it is cheaper than pregnancy.

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            • Those are all very good reasons to consider hormonal birth control a carrot, versus the default free condoms.

              This conversation is taking place in a context; keep in mind Jaybird’s question that started this thread.

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  6. Politically, Christianity is not particularly “right”. It was more than happy to join in the fight against the exceptionally anti-Christian USSR which, domestically, put it against people who called themselves leftists (who didn’t understand that the USSR wasn’t really Marxist at all) and so this narrative was created that Christianity was on the right because, of course, it opposed people that the narrative said were on the left.

    Even though they weren’t.

    But Christianity has a lot of useful social tools that people who are authentically and legitimately on the left should really adopt (and shouldn’t mock).

    The idea that we all have responsibilities to each other, the idea that we are all brothers, the idea that we should hesitate to judge harshly (even as we acknowledge that there are some things that need to be). “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is something that would work. (Instead of the way that it’s used as a preamble to hating the sinner.)

    If we want a high-trust (or even higher), if we want high-collaboration (or higher), we need a way to make people invest themselves in the whole “paying for it themselves” part of society above and beyond the merely agreeing that this is something that would be nice if other people did.

    Christianity (and post-Reformation Western theology in general) does a lot of heavy lifting for that.

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  7. “This fragmentation of society within consumerism has an adverse effect on the ability of a people to organically share a specific set of standards related to labor and undermines the communal process used to affirm specific norms and values for the society as a whole.”

    It seems to me that this statement proves too much. If consumerism is bad for this reason, what about religious pluralism? Or philosophical inquiry more generally? Don’t they also stand condemned?

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  8. I think it is worthwhile noting that a lot of people on the left do use Christianity in FB memes and such to taunt right-wing Christians.

    I have seen this for years and it is on uptick now because of Paris and the refugee crisis. A lot of the memes make explicit reference to the story of Jesus’ birth. There was also a dig on how right-wing Christians could support total bans on abortion but not see the humanity in refugees.

    My suspicion is that we are all human and it is a very human thing to take your identity and beliefs and just bang all aspects together until they mash up. So the liberal taunts of right-wing Christians using New Testament stories and quotes will amount to nothing.

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  9. I think the idea of a shared narrative is spot on.
    Of course the can and should be fears of how tightly or loosely wound that narrative may be applied.

    But as before I note that “we”, collectively have absolutely no trouble in coercive enforcing a single uncontestable narrative about the things most sacred to the consumer society like property and contract.

    The narrative of justice of Christianity can more easily coexist with the other Abraham faiths, or even Hinduism and Buddhism that it can with the secular faith of individualism.

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    • The narrative of justice of Christianity can more easily coexist with the other Abraham faiths, or even Hinduism and Buddhism that it can with the secular faith of individualism.

      I’m not sure of this. Consumerism/secularism/individualism provides a sort of cushion between Christian and Hindu ways of being. Some aspects of larger consumerist/individualist societies look a lot like Christianity lite (for example, the so-called secular civil marriage ceremony is a lot more like the Christian marriage ceremony than the Hindu one. The iconoclasm of secular society is a mere exaggeration of the same in protestant culture.

      What consumer culture does however is at least give me some space to be a Hindu. It is better that I have the social space to be Hindu as a sort of consumption choice (or set thereof) than no legitimate social space at all as would be the case in a more thoroughly Christianised culture.

      I think it is not obvious to people who have been thoroughly inured to secular culture how Christian it still is. Moreover, unless you really pay attention, you won’t see how these Christian bits require some compromise or adjustment from those who come from radically different traditions. But more importantly, people who complain about individualism and consumerism fail to see the space that such individualism and consumerism positively affords them space to live non-consumerist lives. For example, the existence of a Veshti belt would not have been possible without consumerist culture (and it certainly saved me from embarrassment during my wedding). Consumerist culture is what makes rangoli decorative pieces commercially available. And that saved my mother much back breaking labour on my wedding day. Such complainers only see particular ways in which community oriented lives are more difficult. It is only a lowest common denominator culture exemplified by consumerism and individualism which maximins the distribution of cultural space people have to pursue their own non-consumerist non-individualist conceptions of the good.

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      • You make a very good point about how deep woven into our secular culture the Christian narrative is, and my POV is more an intuition mingled with my hope.

        I am currently reading a lot of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who writes a lot about the interconnectedness of faith, and how one can observe the similarities especially in the more mystical, non dualistic aspects.

        The syncretism that I am envisioning requires a major leap for doctrinaire Christians, in that it requires us to de-emphasise the exclusive interpretation and welcome other faiths as fellow travelers.

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  10. What this post fails to consider is the extent to which Enlightenment or Modernity is itself a “meta-narrative” and a child of Christianity or of Protestant Christianity – a “daughter faith” or re-translation, or daughter of the Son of God – rather than a negation. The author attending mass and “believing” in community, but “disbelieving” in communion, or baptizing his child into what he apparently believes to be absurdity, nicely captures this never-to-be-completed movement: He still believes enough in “the word” to require its banishment from his mind, while hoping to retain every practical meaning he can associate with it. We are far enough along in the history of “post-Christian” culture that those more Christian than the Christians, in their minds anyway, will stand up and denounce the nominally faithful for their faithlessness and blasphemy anywhere you care to look, but especially up and down the left side of the internet, where those well-educated enough to be perfectly ignorant invoke the perfectly nameless on behalf of justice and each other, imagining they are the first to do so.

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      • That’s….some interesting stuff coming from you, when actually parsed out and the random crazy bits ignored. (You think the *left* is neo-Platonic? More than Christianity or Western society in general, I mean? I’d love to hear *that* explained, I’ve literally never heard that before. I googled ‘neo-Platonism left’ and got one insane rambling forum post somewhere, and that was it.)

        But, anyway, back to point: If the left is essentially Christianity without God, what, *exactly*, is the right?

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        • Or, wait, do you mean that left-wing *Christians* tend more to neo-Platonism than right-wing Christians, which is something that seems *possible*, if something I’d like to see proven with actual facts.

          Or were you saying, as I originally thought, that the left as a political philosophy is neo-Platonic, because I can’t even figure out how that is supposed to be true.

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      • What has struck me more than a few times is how the “SJW” left has a new set of stringently redefined blasphemy laws. The recent spate of incidents seem to me to be more characterized by blasphemous transgressions than actual transgressions. This is catching the (old) left slightly off guard. Neo-platonic indeed.

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    • Good point in regards to modernity as meta-narrative. Modernity having bread socialism/communism/consumerism/liberalism/fascism, I recognize that there is more than a single strand within the modernist movement. And in fact, all of those strands are meta narratives in their own right. Some are simply better than others (in my mind, socialism being the most desirable).

      If we accept your argument that the Left doesn’t need Christianity because it is in essence alike, then my proposition for a new society in contrast to consumerism is not as radical. It comes down to undermining the elements of those other modern narratives that are destructive to communal bonds (i.e. consumerism). But I do think a more specific ideological (or perhaps theological) focus is necessary and needs to be articulated more forcefully if the Left can achieve its aims. Since the movement and language behind socialism is nearly dead, we must borrow from other narratives to achieve these aims (Christianity in this case).

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      • I dearly hope you’re completely wrong that ‘Christianity’ is necessary for the Left to achieve its aims. For I suspect that if the Left succeeds, the kind of Christianity which will emerge will be utterly antithetical to the aims of the Left.

        These days, secular states seem to me to be not nearly as good as religious ones at getting the young’uns fired up for their cause. And that’s great. The alternative is religious leaders to start talking about Onward Christian Soldiers, and then they going to be dropping the “as” from the next line and we’re going to be off for actual war.

        Iraq III — this time it’s really a Crusade. Alternatively, the Prince of Peace wants You to vote Socialist.

        Which of these tag lines is more likely to have traction in the US? Where, in the US, are religious organizations that take a pro-Left point of view growing?

        Maybe the policies of the Left were once explicitly derived from a social-justice version of Christianity. So? Planned Parenthood was started by eugenicists. (And Lincoln was a Republican.) Sometimes movements exceed and even transform the vision of their founders.

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      • There’s “need” in the sense of experiencing the lack of something essential to subsistence, and there’s “need” in an instrumental sense: I need “x” in order to get “y.” I think you’re shifting from the former to the latter when you re-state my argument.

        So, in short, I’m skeptical about your project or its prospects – although I’m not sure what you mean by “the Left’s aims.” World revolution? Revolution in one country? Getting undergraduates to abide by speech codes?

        As for the overthrow of consumerism – setting aside questions about the consumption of anti-consumption that might get overly personal – I don’t know why we should presume that a politically directed authentic renovation of “society” on a national or civilizational level is desirable if possible at all, much less against the expressed and constantly re-expressed choices of the vast majority of people – who don’t presume or set out to prove that there’s anything necessarily contradictory between believing on the one hand in the One within, more powerful than he who is living in the world, and on the other hand enjoying the living daylights out of a new 6-burner backyard gas grill, or this week’s movie, or today’s dessert.

        Maybe we have to resist speaking loosely about “society” in this specific context, since the mass “society,” if that’s even the right word for it, is quite possibly – or probably – or certainly – a different entity than other kinds of society. Maybe the overthrow of consumerism can’t be achieved at any level higher than a family or group of families except by general catastrophe.

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  11. It must look quite nice, from the outside, to imagine a unifying force that subsumes individuality into a for-the-greater-good mass movement. Something that gets rid of all that pesky individual thought and Just Makes People Work Together. You don’t have to worry about soothing every gripe, settling every grudge, dealing with all the philosophical equivalents of gluten-free diets and peanut allergies. Just git’r dun, mas’allah, yakuzo.

    *******

    Of course, you may be looking in the wrong direction for your unifying force. I’ll quote Hoffman: “Mass movements can exist without a God, but never without a Devil”.

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    • That is a freaking amazing quotation from Hoffman.

      Take God out of Christianity and you get some variant of Progressivism (and even the attendant so-called “SJWs”).

      It was when someone pointed out to me that if you take Satan out of Satanism then you get some variant of Libertarianism that my mind was blown.

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      • Actually, the paragraph immediately prior seems particularly appropriate:

        Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass. Heine suggests that what Christian love cannot do is effected by a common hatred.

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  12. Jaybird: It was when someone pointed out to me that if you take Satan out of Satanism then you get some variant of Libertarianism that my mind was blown.

    That’s much less interesting than you might think. The modern Church of Satan has never actually been about literal devil worship. It’s a vaguely libertarian materialist philosophy that uses Satan as an allegory.

    That is, it shouldn’t be surprising that a libertarianish philosophy plus Satan minus Satan equals a libertarianish philosophy.

    I’m hedging because I don’t know much about the specifics and don’t want to give the impression that I endorse any particular position of theirs.

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  13. “Does the Left Need Christianity?” No. The Left does, however, need Christians.

    I answer No because these days there’s really no such thing as “Christianity”. The nice polite Episcopalian version that I was raised with has virtually nothing in common with (for example) Rod Dreher’s view of what Christianity is and is not. Morally therapeutic deism or MTD is apparently what I learned. True Christianity, at least per RD, requires belief in an angry god who is deeply concerned by homosexuality and pre-marital sex.

    I note that there is a new article on Slate today noting that belief in creationism is dropping dramatically among young people, and concurrently the number of ‘nones’ is rising dramatically. So it appears that the social stigma of not having faith is dropping, and it also appears that significant numbers of people are starting to question the truth claims made by certain branches of Christianity.

    (I’m likely imposing my own preferences and biases on the data. After attending a parochial high school I discovered that the OT and NT had just become stories, with no more truth than Santa Claus. God killed himself to absolve me of sin? No thanks.)

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    • “Does the Left Need Christianity?” No. The Left does, however, need Christians.

      Heh. That was the comment I was about to post.

      I answer No because these days there’s really no such thing as “Christianity”. The nice polite Episcopalian version that I was raised with has virtually nothing in common with (for example) Rod Dreher’s view of what Christianity is and is not. Morally therapeutic deism or MTD is apparently what I learned. True Christianity, at least per RD, requires belief in an angry god who is deeply concerned by homosexuality and pre-marital sex.

      The left, or, rather, liberalism, can only operate within certain versions of societies. There are a lot of implicit assumptions built into the Western world that are *sorta* due to Christianity, but mostly due to the Enlightenment. (I feel like bringing the word ‘narrative’ in here simply because other people are using it. I shall resist the urge.)

      This is not exclusive to the left. But those assumptions are not going away any time soon.

      These assumptions have almost nothing to do with the ‘current’ intersection of Christianity and politics, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how when you mix politics and religions, you end up with politics that is willing to destroy religions to achieve political goals, and religions that are willing to destroy politics to achieve religious goals, and the end result is that they are both totally screwed over by each other.

      Fun fact: Southern Baptists had no real problem with abortion right after Roe v. Wade. It was on the behalf of a conservative activist that it was turned into a wedge issue in 1979. Same thing happened with homosexuality.

      Why are young people leaving the church? Well, a good portion of it are one or both of those things! Congratulations, conservatives, you have been working tirelessly for 3 decades to *destroy the church*, by having it paint *itself* as an intolerant sexist institution. Good job!

      Likewise, now that part of the church have been convinced of The Truth by the right, and convinced the government should do something about it, they’re, uh, not putting up with those issues being ignored, like had been done for decades. And they’re willing to tear the Republican party apart to make them not ignore them.

      So it appears that the social stigma of not having faith is dropping, and it also appears that significant numbers of people are starting to question the truth claims made by certain branches of Christianity.

      Which is what happens when people keep repeating the phrase ‘literal truth’ all the time in association with the Bible, thus totally destroying faith when the (quite obvious fictional) creation myths and whatnot are disproved.

      Fundamentalism: Always working very very hard to destroy itself.

      There’s probably some metaphor about flexible vs. inflexible sticks, and what happens when you bend them, but, frankly, all this talking is cutting into my Fallouting, so peace out.

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  15. The quoted excerpt of Brueing is wrong in nearly every single sentence, imo.

    – “Longstanding interest in the poor” would be interested in a system that has lifted more of them out of poverty than anything else, i.e. ‘neo-liberalism’ as defined for the purpose of this exercise

    – the modern Christian Right *is* an accident of history. If Marx and Lenin didn’t have such hangups on religion, the USSR wouldn’t have been so militantly atheist, and the cold war overton window would have been in a different place. Plus the other have of the genesis of the late 20th century Christian right is the grand switch of exurban Southerners from Democrats to Republicans. Which is because of racism, not moneyed interests.

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    • the modern Christian Right *is* an accident of history. If Marx and Lenin didn’t have such hangups on religion, the USSR wouldn’t have been so militantly atheist, and the cold war overton window would have been in a different place.

      Plus the other have of the genesis of the late 20th century Christian right is the grand switch of exurban Southerners from Democrats to Republicans. Which is because of racism, not moneyed interests.

      Here is how I understand it: The cold war placed religion as opposite communism, at basically the same time that racist mostly-Southerners want to continue segregation and found ‘religious schools’ a handy tool for that, so started yammering about ‘religious freedom’ and ‘smaller government’ when ‘states rights’ started to falter.

      The next thing that happened: By the early 80s, when it became clear that communism wasn’t quite, or at least not anymore, the gigantic threat it was portrayed as and, in fact, could barely feed its own people, the next step was to take some of that religion and see if it could suck in *non*-racists with ‘social issues’, aka, framing the opposition to abortion as religious, when it really hadn’t before, or had only been seen as a Catholic issue. (Opposition to homosexuality was the other way around…they didn’t *add* opposition, they just didn’t remove opposition as everyone became more accepting of it. The lack of response to AIDS by Reagan is an interesting story in itself…I shudder to think what would have happened if homosexuality had *already* become a wedge issue at that point.)

      You know, people always assume it’s the left careening from cause to cause, but pretty much everything on the left proceeds in a straight line from fighting racism and sexism. It’s possible to argue that the left goes too far, but even the farthest point with people talking about cultural appropriation cause Japanese people let someone try on a kimono, or people saying they’re genderfluid, or whatever you think the farthest point is and if it’s too far, but it *is* continuing the straight line of anti-racism and anti-sexism.

      Whereas the right is just *all over the place*. It became small government right after it became clear that people wished to use the government to help poor people, it found religion when that was handy, it decided to go with racism for a bit, then decided that was a bad idea. It’s just…wow. Anywhere it can find voters.

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      • It became small government right after it became clear that people wished to use the government to help poor people,

        That goes back to the New Deal, which was incredibly popular in the South, since things like rural electrification specifically helped there. It became small government right after it became clear that people wished to use the government to help non-white people.

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        • That goes back to the New Deal, which was incredibly popular in the South, since things like rural electrification specifically helped there.

          Yeah, and this is the confusing point. There really have been multiple reasons that the Republicans have favored ‘small government’, and that opposition has left and then come back.

          If we go back to, for example, Coolidge, he’s gotten a bit of a reputation for being the original ‘small Federal government’ guy, but the 20s were a vastly different time, the states *actually were* already doing those things that the Federal government didn’t do. By the time of, say, Nixon, that idea on the right had mostly gone away.

          Reaganism is more a deliberate recreation, or, really, more of a facade (Because, uh, Republicans don’t actually shrink the size of the government.) of that original ‘small government’ thought than the original. (There’s an interesting chart that shows the major social programs out there, and who they were expanded up. It’s not actually that fair, because before Reagan, no one really *expected* Republicans to not expand things.)

          It became small government right after it became clear that people wished to use the government to help non-white people.

          Yeah.

          The South was solidly Democratic when Democratic meant unions fighting for better wages, when it meant the government helping poor white communities that had never had anything, etc.

          And then MLK Jr. sorta glued that to fighting racism. The Democrats went along with that. The South didn’t.

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          • Besides coal miners, Southern workers tended to one of the hardest in the United States to unionize and this was long before than went Republican before the First World War. It went against their image as independent men in charge of their own destiny. Mill workers in South Carolina, Georgia, and other places saw unions as something foreign or worse Northern.

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          • There’s a tweet from Roos Douthat currently on the sidebar:

            Wallace supporters weren’t ideological conservatives. They were racist big-government southerners and crime-beset white ethnics in north.

            That is, Wallace supporters were the same people who voted for Reagan and Bush, except that in Douthat’s fantasy about highly principled conservatives, that’s somehow different.

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  16. Roland, have you read James Livingston (“Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution,” “Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy,” and “Against Thrift,” for example). He’s an almost incomprehensible and sometimes unreadable writer, but he seems to make an argument in favor of consumer culture as something “the Left” should embrace. I’m not sure I agree with (or even understand) him, but it might be worth looking him over. (To me, “Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy” is the easiest to understand. I couldn’t read more than a few pages of “Cultural Revolution” and haven’t really read “Against Thrift.”)

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