Mystical flirtation and the decline of civilization

Civilizations do not crumble in a moment, an hour, or because of an event of one day. Like all decaying things it is a process, in this case driven by the gradual and cumulative effects of mankind’s compromise with the mystery of evil.

It is said that on the 9th of August, 378,  on hearing the news that the barbarous, invading Goths had defeated and overthrown the Roman legions in the battle of Adrianople, leaving the body of the Emperor Valens mutilated on the battlefield,  St. Jerome dropped his pen in despair and abandoned the chronicles in which he was recording the history of mankind from earliest times.

That was then. This is now.

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a short collection of reflective journalism published in 1979. In it she chronicles and observes events in the late sixties and early seventies. Most of what she writes is set against the background of life in California, the vortex around which the helter skelter world of those years revolved. Its title of course suggests that iconic Beatles album of the same non-name. It constitutes a kind of snapshot of that time, in many ways with darker shades than our rose-tinted nostalgia bestows on it.

Popular imagination deludes itself in thinking this hectic and dreamy era was a liberating one. Didion’s ironic observations, written as it unfolded, lay bare much of that illusion.

Her essays reflect the character of the Sixties, hopeful but hopelessly and dangerously naïve. The cultural climate which we saw forming before our eyes in that decade, and the handful of years in the decade that followed, was anything but a harbinger of peace and love for western civilization. Didion, in this book and in her other collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, chronicles the highs and lows of the hopes and follies of those years. From them we can trace a line of descent to the ills and woes of the early 21st century.

Didion writes about the moment when the culture of death, which now has the official stamp of practically every state jurisdiction within what we call the  Civilized Western World slouched out of the Californian desert on August 9, 1969, like the Beast of the Apocalypse. Allowing for calendar reforms, an interesting coincidence of dates in 378 and 1969?

She writes of how people in Los Angles, looking back, believed that the Sixties ended on that date. The tensions which people felt ended; the jitters they were experiencing morphed into some kind of equilibrium – now there seemed to be some explanation of what was going on. But that didn’t help. Things in fact got worse.

That day might not look like more than a symbol for the levels to which our race has sunk in the decades which followed. It can serve as such. But it is more. The forces – diabolical but also driven by hedonistic and corrupt multiple visions of what mankind is – behind that act were also the forces which were being let loose in a benighted military operation in South-East Asia. They were also the forces being let loose at home by the dark, dark reasoning of the American Supreme Court judgment in the case of Roe Vs Wade. That judgment in effect falsely elevated the pursuit of pleasure, the cult of individualism and crass materialism, to the level of a compassionate principle. It has resulted in a blind acceptance of a totally false vision of what human compassion and true freedom are, leading us deeper and deeper into confusion with each decade that passes.

Didion described what those times and that day in August 1969 was like for her – how it was so ordinary and yet strange, how it ended in a nightmare.

“We put Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan) on the record player, and Suzanne (Leonard Cohen). We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, (where she, her husband and their little girl, lived at the time). I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town.

“There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’— this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far’, and that many people were doing it – was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.

“On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed.

“I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

The Cielo Drive murders orchestrated by Charles Manson were a symptom of a wider malaise which had gripped the culture of a generation. This malaise is our sad inheritance from that time.

Another essay in the book illustrates more of this effect. She describes the cult following by young adolescents of the Hell’s Angels movies of the time – where pillage, rape and murder were presented for purposes of entertainment and excitement. Human life was routinely expendable. Didion clearly shows what was at its heart. Her words are full of apprehension about the future.

In a later decade an iconic pop star was to take the name of Manson, much as a Christian or Muslim might take the names of the saints who populate their faiths’ histories. A meaningless gesture? No.

In yet another essay, on the Women’s Movement, she touches on other effects which have flowed from the “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”.

The Women’s Movement for her was essentially Marxist, redefining as it did human nature in purely materialistic terms. While on its popular surface it might just look like a reworking of romanticism, it was anything but romantic. Many movements rife with erroneous readings of our human nature do have an up-side. They point to real problems and injustices and move us to correction. This, however does not negate the inherent dangers in their errors. Of the feminism of this movement, she writes:

“Something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being “stereotyped” in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.”

Or, might we add, forever childless? A “woman’s role” had nothing to do with what “real women” are, want or need. It was all a construction imposed on them. It was the work of their enemy.

 “The transient stab of dread and loss which accompanies menstruation simply never happens: we only thought it happened, because a male chauvinist psychiatrist told us so. No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told she should.”

Feminism, in this reading, was turning the male per se into the enemy – or at best, the heartless manipulator – of his life partner, the female. Out of all this came ultimately the denial and attempted obliteration of the real natural distinctions between male and female which we see all around us today.

Didion foresaw this:

“All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.

“One was only told it, and now one is to be reprogrammed, fixed up, rendered again as inviolate and unstained as the ”modern” little girls in the Tampax advertisements.”

The aftershocks and echoes of the event of August 9, 1969, no more than the events of September 9, 2011, or May 25, 2018, when Ireland went the way of Roe Vs. Wade, continue to reverberate around our world – be it in massacres in school classrooms, mosques, Christian churches or synagogues.

The Roman Empire and the civilization which it had embodied struggled on in a decaying state for a another couple of centuries after Adrianople. To St. Jerome the butchered body of Valens was but a powerful symbol of the terrifying truth that a millennium-old civilization was in terminal decline. In those centuries after 378, however, a new light was already shining. That Light, picking up the remnants of that dying culture, cleansed them and revitalised them. Eventually a new civilization emerged, which we now know as the Christian civilization of the High Middle Ages.

If we accept the butchery of August 9, 1969, as a symbol of the sad decline of our own brilliantly scientific and technological – but artistically, philosophically and morally decadent era – to where can we look for a light to lead us out of this darkness? Where else but to that self-same regenerative power which led our forefathers out of their desert?

What then is the lesson we might glean from observing our record of folly and evil? It is that we should call evil what it is and that we resist the temptation to indulge in “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”. Christians recognize a Revelation which assists them in this battle. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us wisely:

“Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”

Edmund Burke may or may not have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Nevertheless, the idea is right. It is certainly true that unless common sense and decent humanity, both of which are highlighted in Joan Didion’s writing in these times, gets a chance to express itself in this world, and unless more of us pay attention to the timeless truths about ourselves, we are destined to continue down this vortex in which human lives are distorted and destroyed in multiple ways.

Religious freedom – an eternal conflict?

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The long and winding road that leads to the double doors of religious tolerance and the tolerance of religious freedom will, it seems, never disappear. The history of mankind shows us this, as does the daily news of our own time.

Stephanie Slade, managing editor at Reason magazine and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, has written a long, – very long – powerful and sobering essay in the Jesuit-edited America Magazine, reflecting on the battles for religious freedom in the United States. No summary can do justice to the historical analysis which she offers us and all we can do here is highlight some of the evidence she puts before us to support her overall contention: the fight for religious liberty is never going to end. We’d better get used to it.

But it is not just an American story. It is a story which unfolds daily in almost every country in the world in one way or another – sometimes in the form of mild hostility, sometimes leading to martyrdom and unthinkable cruelty. Slade’s focus is on America and on the more institutional forms of intolerance and denial of freedom of conscience. Those of us in other jurisdictions within the democratic tradition can easily extrapolate from her analysis and see the parallels in our own public squares.

Populism is the bête noir on everyone’s political horizon just now. New Criterion, the heavyweight journal of ideas, has just published the seventh in a series of essays on the phenomenon and how it may be threatening to tear apart the trusted and tried political institutions through which we try to organise a civilised society. Populist movements across the democratic world no longer seem to trust those institutions.

But who is populist and who is not? One of the suggestions implicit in the historical picture presented to us by Slade is that populism, from both left and right, has being playing fast and loose with our politics and laws for a long time. Our fundamental freedoms, and especially our freedom of conscience and religion, have been suffering at the hands of populism for centuries.

Sometimes it changes sides and it cries stop, in defence of a freedom denied to “the other side”. The United States may now have experienced one such moment. Slade recounts a conversation on CNN.

“I feel the country was founded on Christian principles,” Sandra Long, an 80-year-old resident of Mahanoy City, Pa., and a lifelong Democrat, told CNN before the election. “And now, if our ministers don’t marry a gay couple or refuse to marry a gay couple, they can be arrested and taken to jail.”

Long was mistaken. Despite the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage two years ago, ministers are not required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. But the perception that they might soon be—and that the government is continually encroaching on the ability of houses of worship and even individual Americans to live out their beliefs—seems to be widespread. Moreover, it likely played a role in the decision of many voters, such as Ms. Long, to support now-President Trump last November.

Megan McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote in December, “When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of ‘convert or die,’ you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.”

The Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt, in her recent book It’s Dangerous to Believe, called this “the new intolerance” and said that what many believers “feel to the marrow these days is fear.”

“There is no doubt,” Slade says, “the concern is widespread. If the government can force family-run businesses to provide services for gay weddings and Catholic sisters to facilitate access to birth control, people are asking ‘what might be next?’ Could laws be on the way that criminalize traditional beliefs about sex and marriage? Or punish churches for excluding gay men and women from ministerial positions? Or, as Sandra Long assumed was already the case, compel houses of worship to host and solemnize same-sex weddings?”

The political left is of course quick to assure believers that their rights are safe. After all, they say, the First Amendment protects the freedom to believe whatever you want, and any attempt to constrain that freedom would surely be invalidated by the courts.” Really?

McArdle, doesn’t buy the response from the left which, she says, “has (mostly) been that this is so much whining, clinging to a victimhood belied by Christians’ social power and majority status. No one, they have been assured, wants to touch their freedom to worship, but when they enter the commercial realm, they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws, whatever their private beliefs.”

Mozilla’s founder, Brendan Eich, donated to an anti-gay-marriage campaign and was kicked out of his own company.

Slade is certainly unconvinced by this assurance. She quotes Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who is an expert on issues of religious freedom. While Laycock thinks there is too much alarm about the issue he did acknowledge that the line is moving all the time. Even those pushing the line admit this openly. During arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s lawyer whether a college could have its tax-exempt status revoked because it upholds traditional marriage. “It’s certainly going to be an issue,” the solicitor general replied. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”

But Slade shows us that the war is not a new one.

Ninety years before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, another group of Catholic sisters appeared before the highest court in the land.

This time it was the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. An Oregon law passed by voters, at the behest of the anti-Catholic Scottish Rite Masons, required all children to attend public schools. “The effect of this law will be, if upheld by the courts, to close every private school in the State,” The New York Times reported. “That was its purpose, openly avowed in public discussions preceding the election.”

The measure had the enthusiastic support not just of the state’s majority-Protestant electorate but also of the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in the Pacific Northwest. “We are against the Catholic machine which controls our nation,” explained “Kleagle Carter,” according to a book about the Oregon chapter of the Klan. It is a refrain being heard repeatedly in Ireland just now. “Dear Catholic Church, get out of our wombs,” one histrionic headline screamed at Catholics last week. But that’s another story.

The Oregon story had a happy ending: The Supreme Court justices unanimously struck down the statute.

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That does not reassure Slade because other violations of religious liberty did not have such a happy ending. More than 30 states have on their books to this day some form of legal prohibition on public dollars going to religious institutions. They are known as Blaine amendments, after the House Speaker James G. Blaine.

As with the Oregon private school ban, all accounts suggest that the Blaine amendments were motivated by deep animus toward Catholics. “They were passed in a series of outbursts of anti-Catholicism, there’s no doubt about the history,” Professor Laycock says. State-level “baby Blaines,” as some now call them, remain in force.

As bad as anti-Catholic sentiment has been at points in America’s past, however, it is nothing compared to the vitriol directed at smaller religious groups over the years. Just consider what the Mormons have had to suffer.

Justices Alito, Thomas and John Roberts noted in their dissenting opinion on one court challenge, ominously wrote, “those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern”.  Slade says that it is hard to escape the conclusion that strong forces hostile to traditional belief are on the march.

If a form of populism is not driving much of what Slade describes, what is? The glib phrases being bandied around about conservatives being on “the wrong side of history” betray a populism as sinister as anything on the right. It is not rational argument. Slade asks us to look at the history of the Supreme Court to see how much more than measured legal judgement is at play here.

If a study of Supreme Court history makes one thing clear, it is that there is no fixed line differentiating the kinds of laws that are acceptable under the First Amendment from the kinds that go too far. Where lawmakers and the courts come down on contested questions is often influenced by what a majority of Americans seem to favour.

None of the experts I talked to thought the Supreme Court literally keeps an eye on poll numbers as it hands down decisions. But they all agreed that as fallible humans, even the most upstanding jurists will be affected by the cultural zeitgeist.

Gay marriage is among the most vivid illustrations of that. For decades, public support for legal recognition of same-sex unions was a minority position. Between May 2011 and May 2012, according to Gallup, the numbers flipped. On May 9, 2012, President Obama suddenly announced that his views had “evolved” and he was now in favour of same-sex marriage. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court ruled the federal Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Two years after that, it struck down all state-wide bans on same-sex unions.

Within hours of the Obergefell decision, people began suggesting the precedent should be extended even further. Fredrik DeBoer wrote an article for Politico titled “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy.” Similarly, in 2013, Jillian Keenan had argued at Slate that “Legalized polygamy…would actually help protect, empower, and strengthen women, children, and families.” If marrying whomever you want is a fundamental right, they wondered, shouldn’t the same be true of taking multiple spouses?

So what does Slade suggest we conclude from all this history?

She wants us to accept that institutional protections are only as strong as the underlying culture. If people are willing to see a minority group’s rights disregarded, neither the courts nor the Constitution is an airtight safeguard against abuse. But if the majority is unwilling to see liberties infringed, those in positions of authority are likely to take notice. Like it or not, popular culture has been in the driving seat for decades and conservative thinking has been in the back seat.

Slade reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. “It might have been truer if he had said it can be bent, assuming enough people are willing to do the hard work of persuasion. In other words, if what counts as ‘religious freedom’ is eternally in dispute, it matters who shows up to the debate.”