Posted outside my office door is an old cartoon. A bearded professor wearing sandals and carrying a backpack leads a group of wide-eyed undergrads into a land labeled “utopia.” As they merrily march along, they pass an exodus of escaping humanity, fleeing an ash-strewn landscape amid scattered bodies and smoldering ruins. “Isn’t this great?” the beaming professor asks. “We’re almost there!”
I thought of that scene when I read a shocking op-ed piece in the Washington Post by James K.A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College. He is known among Dutch-Reformed Calvinists and certain evangelical circles. Its unfairness, its choice of mockery over substantive criticism, its nasty accusations, and its naïveté really troubled me. Even then, I might have walked away, but its unwarranted derisiveness toward three good men who have really stood for their Christian faith, who have been put through the crucible (especially Anthony Esolen at Providence College), and—most of all—the wide audience the article seems to have fetched, prompts a response.
I’m sure Smith will want to deny this, but his article constitutes a hit-piece on behalf of the secular left, aimed at three new books by Esolen, Rod Dreher, and Archbishop Charles Chaput. Merely for opposing the redefinition of marriage alone, these men will be viewed by progressives as some sort of laughable, lamentable trio of “right-wingers,” even as Chaput has been a lifelong Democrat and was Pope Francis’s front-man when Francis visited the United States. The appearance of the article in the Washington Post, hardly an organ of esteem toward evangelicals, makes the affront worse. The liberals at the Post no doubt hope that Smith has provided a nifty take-down of these unsavory foes.
Here’s the issue at hand, which prompted the books by Esolen, Dreher, and Chaput: Our culture, and America as a whole, is headed to hell in the proverbial handbasket. Maybe it’s reversible, maybe not, but there’s no denying the current state and dramatic drift. This is so indisputably self-evident that I need not give a single example to this audience to demonstrate the point. We at Crisis know it all-too-well and chronicle it daily. Sticking with same-sex “marriage” as an example: Which of the countless incidents of faithful Christians being sued, boycotted, picketed, harassed, demonized, dehumanized, bullied, fined, jailed, shut down, and generally destroyed for, oh, simply begging not to be forced to bake a cake or provide flowers or snap photos for a “gay” wedding ceremony should I bring up? Where to start?
Could there be a more observable reality?
Of course, if you’re a progressive, you find this situation not bad at all. This is heaven, I suppose.
As to Professor Smith, not only is this hell-in-a-handbasket reality not obvious, but those who should be countered (actually, made fun of) are those pointing it out, often at great professional and personal risk.
The title of Smith’s piece speaks for itself, “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope.” He then hoists as exhibits Esolen, Dreher, and Chaput. Smith writes:
When did Christians start stealing scripts from home security commercials?
We’re all familiar with the canned tropes of the alarm system advertisement: the female resident alone in a darkened house; the ominous threat lurking outside with a crowbar; the horror-flick music rising to a crescendo as the intruder approaches the door—but then repelled by the sight of the ADT sign in the window. Whew! Crisis averted. […]
The home security industry trades on a combination of fear and idylls. In fact, they depend on swelling the idyllic in order to heighten the fear. The more you have to lose, the more you feel the threat.
A spate of recent books from Christian leaders and intellectuals seem to have stolen this script, swelling the jeremiad shelf. We might describe this as “the new alarmism.”
In Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land, it is a character named “Obergefell” from the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage that lurks outside the door in a black knit cap. Do you know where your children are?
In Out of the Ashes, Providence College professor Anthony Esolen reaches back beyond the home security commercial to replay the end-of-civilization script. […]
And in his much-anticipated book, The Benedict Option, blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse. […]
If you’re not part of the alarmist choir, reading these books will sometimes feel like watching video smuggled out of secret meetings in underground bunkers.
Smith went on, alternately castigating and scoffing at these men for their “new alarmism,” their “bitterness and resentment,” their “narrow fixation of fear,” their “nonsense.” And in perhaps the most offensive passage of the piece, Smith cruelly raises the specter of racism:
When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.
This is outrageous—a reckless and unfounded accusation for which Smith should publicly apologize.
Above all, Smith’s mockery of the three authors is as uncharitable as his unwillingness to take them seriously or devote time to their presentations—as evident by the Post offering Smith no more than 800 words as a platform for intelligent discussion on three major current works in contemporary Christian-cultural thought. (For the polar opposite, see Patrick Deneen in First Things, where Deneen expended thousands of words thoughtfully reviewing these three books/writers.)
These three authors see in our culture nothing short of a collapse of a basic grasp of human nature, an aggressive repudiation of human essentials that every Western culture has innately understood since at least the time of Christ, an unthreading of the moral fabric that has held America together since its inception. They discern an undeniable unraveling and rewriting of institutions as utterly elemental as marriage, family, sexuality, and even our very gender, which they view as absolutes ordained by the laws of nature and nature’s God. More so, they have stuck out their necks in saying so.
These men have chosen the hard road in daring to stand for the teachings of their faiths, as opposed to their brothers and sisters on the Religious Left who do the easy thing by genuflecting to the dominant culture’s zeitgeist, who cravenly submit to the militant secularists who—in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity,” of course—destroy people they disagree with. With Obergefell on their side, leftists coerce those who dare dissent with appeals to religious freedom and conscience.
And yet, Dr. Smith portrays these men as hysterics, as alarmists, as dividers, as stokers of fear. They are peddlers of doom, looking to cash-in, presumably, on the new bunker-mentality industry. They’re the bad guys.
As for those in the Christian world who call them out, well, they are the agents of hope and change. They sound the siren of optimism, to the cheers of the human-nature redefiners and fundamental transformers on the left.
Of course, the Washington Post, a longtime secular-liberal newspaper, could care less about Esolen and Dreher and Chaput and their arcane traditions that stem from outdated and outmoded faiths. Secular liberals only care that these three men are against redefining marriage, period. The secular progressive’s gaze is fixed upon the waist, not the soul. Happiness comes not from sanctification of the soul but gratification of sex organs. The Post couldn’t ask for anything better than a Christian writer, especially one from a Christian college (which any modern progressive would thus, ipso facto, dub a “fundamentalist” and “conservative” institution), to fire off a piece against these three men.
As readers here know, Esolen and Dreher and Chaput are not alarmists. They are realists. They suffer the agony of so many of us who daily watch a great nation and the wider West commit cultural-moral suicide.
But if they are realists, and not alarmists, then what is Smith? Or, what is the viewpoint that Smith is representing among Christians of his mentality?
They would be deniers—deniers of the obvious. Anyone who cannot concede the rapid de-Christianization, the angry rejection of Western civilization, of Christendom, of basic Judeo-Christian values, of a shared moral compass, in our culture is in denial.
I’m reminded of a classic account from Malcolm Muggeridge, the renowned British intellectual who left atheism for Christianity amid his own long road of toil. Muggeridge once joined a group of Western progressives who were given managed tours of the Soviet Union. Muggeridge marveled at how the progressives not only didn’t recognize the ruin around them but, quite the contrary, seemed to relish the scene. Bewildered by the gullibility of his leftist friends, he recorded:
They are unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure till I die as a blessed memory the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns, listening with unshakable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides. […]
There were earnest advocates of the humane killing of cattle who looked up at the massive headquarters of the OGPU with tears of gratitude in their eyes, earnest advocates of proportional representation who eagerly assented when the necessity of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was explained to them, earnest clergymen who walked reverently through anti-God museums and reverently turned the pages of atheistic literature, earnest pacifists who watched delightedly tanks rattle across Red Square … earnest town-planning specialists who stood outside overcrowded ramshackle tenements and muttered: “If only we had something like this in England!”
Muggeridge was mystified by the naiveté. Their “almost unbelievable credulity,” he wrote, “astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.”
They were universally “progressives,” said Muggeridge, “resolved to believe anything they were told.” They were “all upholders of progressive causes and members of progressive organizations,” ecstatic about playing a part in this “drama of the twentieth century. Ready at any moment to rush on to stage, cheering and gesticulating.”
All of which brings me back to the cartoon I mentioned at the start of this piece. The tone and attitude expressed by Professor Smith goes beyond the cartoonish professor’s hopeful steps toward a false utopia. If the cartoon were to be updated for Smith’s case, the professor would be laughing at those exiting the scene. He would look around the ashes and proclaim little to fear. The buffoons in Smith’s world would be those warning him not to stroll in. They would be the alarmists, worthy of sarcasm. And that’s a pretty alarming perspective.