“Politics today is for the rough, the confrontational, and the unapologetic. It is not comfortable unless we lie to ourselves about where it is and where it is going. Instead, American Christians inhabit the position where their foes are animated by beliefs consistent with an apocryphal quote from Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”
That’s from Ben Domenech’s terrific newsletter The Transom
. He’s responding to the emerging discussion among conservatives about what sort of politics is necessary for this hour: a politics that affirms the need for civility and decency, or one that embraces the kind of realpolitik
that is increasingly en vogue.
On Ben’s understanding, those who are urging politeness and good behavior are wrong, as they fail to recognize the reality of a progressivism that now treats conservative ideas themselves as a form of violence. They might be happy, yes, but they forget to be warriors. Such Politeness Conservatives are captivated by the belief that our political foes would “abide by certain rules and expectations that went out the window decades before.” That belief has a “sweet naivety and optimism,” which is “unburdened by awareness of the cultural Hindenburg we all currently inhabit.”
It’s a withering critique, and not entirely wrong. Many conservative commentators standing athwart the Hot Trumpian Winds around us do have a rather saccharine quality; they (we) pronounce the need for such virtues, and are reduced to schoolmarms tut-tutting the bullies who are clearly running the show. At some point, something like real rhetorical force is necessary: one needs to know when and how to deploy the full range of critiques and attacks (potentially including a good ad hominem) in order to carry the day. The children of this world are shrewder than the sons of light, I remember someone saying once. (It was Jesus, in case you’ve forgotten.) That’s true in management, and it may be true in politics as well.
And yet, what if the willingness to abide by certain norms is not in fact founded upon a belief that our foes will do likewise? What if we affirmed and upheld those norms of civility and decency knowing full well that we were about to be steamrolled? (The question is not so different, really, then whether conservatives should seek to cut a deal on religious liberty like Fairness for All.) It seems imprudent, yes; it’s hard to win a culture war if one is knowingly walking into one’s own grave. But what if what Domenech calls naivety and optimism is instead the most sober-eyed realism possible, but one that is animated by a hope that few people within our current commentariat have tasted?
That sounds like either an endorsement of folly, or its own counsel of despair. But I think it not need be either. Limitations are the grounds for creativity: what we say “no” to determines what our possibilities are before us. I am not poet enough to know what new forms of public action might arise from saying “no” to the kind of degrading public discourse practiced by large swaths of the progressive left and by the conservative right. I’d like to believe the emergence of a sophisticated satirist (we have none that I can think of) would do more than the sort of bullying approach that Domenech wants conservatives to learn from the left. If not that, saying “no” to such Trumpian predilections should animate its own form of energetic action on behalf of the right—whatever those are. Perhaps you can tell me.
At the heart of that energetic action must be the clear proclamation of the antithesis to the spirit of our age which predominates, the naming of those forces which would destroy conservatives. I find it fascinating that Domenech is now interested in a politics which is willing to toss away the guise of ‘respectability’ for the sake of defeating our foes. When we were still deliberating about whether to make gay marriage the law of the land, Domenech signed on to an amicus curiae as a conservative who endorsed the change. Had the Supreme Court not done that, of course, the landscape for religious liberty would look very different than it does today—as many, many people observed leading up to the case. But while Domenech now critiques those elite for wanting to destroy everything that American Christians hold dear, he himself decided to join with them over and against an extraordinarily long and difficult campaign by those very Christians to forestall the very situation we are now in. If conservatives embrace Domenech’s approach—as perhaps they should—I hope they do so with an integrity and consistency that acknowledges that our own past failures have allowed this to happen. Such a recognition should temper whatever rhetoric we do employ.
Nor is any of this, I think, a counsel of despair—at least to the Christian. The Christian knows whereof we come, and to whence we are going. We know the fragility of the world, and are not seized by the kind of anxious fretfulness that arises when the foundations seem to crumble from beneath us. We know within that fight that we can do no evil that good may come, that it is the meek who inherit the earth, that in quiet and confidence are our strength, that there is no announcement more shattering than that God forgives those who would destroy us, that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall indeed be very well. We know this, and we know that our attempt at civility and peace and other tremendous and powerful virtues that have been utterly denuded by an empty age shall probably come to nothing—but that in holding on to them, we shall come into glory. We live in hope, a hope in which we are saved. There no virtue more realistic, and no virtue so desperately needed.