In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

As liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God?

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

The poor and marginalized suffer the worst consequences of our rapacious ecological exploitation while reaping the least benefit

There are many facets to this vulnerability, but one of the most troubling, I think, is the way that the poor and marginalized suffer the worst consequences of our rapacious ecological exploitation while reaping the least benefit. In fact, while Deneen’s book repeatedly warns of the environmental consequences that follow from liberated individuals using powerful technologies to satisfy their desires, only one speaker addressed this problem. Hope College professor Steven McMullen noted that liberal market forces directly led to the drastic consolidation of hog farms, with great environmental, ethical, and human costs. But the systemic injustices outlined in books like Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor were, for the most part, simply ignored. Perhaps a system organized around “the pursuit of happiness”—or, in John Locke’s terms “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like”—is intrinsically destructive of the Creation upon which all human societies depend.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was in his keynote that Deneen referred to Locke’s claim that the liberal state “holds out the promise of ‘indolency of the body,’” a promise that is inherently at odds with the Christian gospel. While I expected Deneen to summarize aspects of his book, he instead presented a new—though certainly related—argument: the relationship between state and church in America has always been rigged in favor of the state. Or, as his subtitle suggests, religious liberty in America has always been a myth.

Deneen narrates three waves or settlements in the history of church and state. The first is the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment. Most of the colonies, like European states at the time, had an established church, but for a variety of practical and theoretical reasons, the authors of the constitution decided to not recognize an established church. While this certainly had benefits for the church, it also implicitly signaled that the state’s power precedes the church’s; the church should be grateful for the generous room afforded it by the state.1

The second wave Deneen terms civil religion. Beginning with nineteenth-century assertions of a divinely ordained Manifest Destiny, the church increasingly sanctioned and blessed the liberal state. It acted as a chaplain to the state, helping to form its members into good liberal agents. Deneen points to John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency as a key moment in this history, where Kennedy in essence declared himself an American first and a Catholic second. And in an example that could have come straight out of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series, Deneen described the patriotic excess on display before Notre Dame football games; this Catholic school bends over backwards to demonstrate its fealty to the American, liberal project, thereby contributing to the formation of good liberal selves.

The third wave, which is still gaining momentum, is secularist true belief. The liberal state has now become a church, and it ruthlessly roots out heretics and polices orthodoxy. Liberalism, as Deneen puts it, is “a creed demanding adherence.” And it aspires to become a global faith, seeking to convert recalcitrant holdouts in backward nations.

Deneen’s conclusion was that “Christians ought not to feel too much at home in any nation.”

Deneen’s argument, then, is that under all three configurations, the liberal state has been the lead partner, so the declining power of the American church’s prophetic witness should not be a surprise. When Deneen was asked about the Christian roots of the Civil Rights movement, he acknowledged the prophetic tradition from which Martin Luther King Jr. drew, but he also noted that King was deeply concerned about American materialism and militarism weakening the integrity of faith traditions. Deneen’s conclusion was that “Christians ought not to feel too much at home in any nation.”

When Jamie Smith gave his keynote the following day, he began by noting that he agreed with much of Deneen’s argument regarding the deformative effects of liberalism. He also said that ten years ago he could not have imagined himself giving a lecture in defense of liberalism (he describes the development of his thinking on these matters at the beginning of Awaiting the King).

Smith critiqued Deneen’s argument as a kind of “medieval nostalgia,” which he called “Wendell Berry on steroids.”

Smith began his critique of Deneen’s book by noting that Deneen’s pathology of liberalism takes the form of a genealogy, and that Deneen’s genealogy of liberalism lays the blame at the feet of Protestants. He critiqued Deneen’s argument as a kind of “medieval nostalgia,” which he called “Wendell Berry on steroids.” What this nostalgia fails to recognize is that liberalism did indeed free marginalized and oppressed people. Those who critique liberalism, Smith argued, can do so because they have only watched others be liberated rather than experiencing this liberation for themselves.

Smith’s alternative genealogy of liberalism depends upon his distinction between liberalism as a polity and liberalism as an ethos. Early modern liberalism was a social architecture that did, albeit unevenly, liberate individuals from unjust institutions and social structures. This liberalism was, in significant ways, a Christian, Protestant achievement, and Christians should continue to celebrate it. Late modern liberalism, however, has become a cultural ethos of autonomism, and the unchecked self has come to be seen as the highest good. It is this liberalism that Christians should challenge while striving to rebuild the fraying political architecture of early liberalism.

Smith then offered a second narrative of liberalism. While his first story sees liberalism as the fruit of Christianity, his second story sees liberalism as Christianity’s penance (it’s not clear to me how Smith’s reconciles these two stories; they seem significantly different). Smith suggested that Deneen’s critique is an attempt to change the rules of the game only because Christians lost the game. Drawing on Ephraim Radner, Smith claimed that liberalism was needed because the medieval church failed to use its political power redemptively and justly, and liberalism has become our cultural ethos because Christians failed to convert subsequent generations (in part because the church’s witness has continued to be weakened by its divisions).

Smith’s genealogy of liberalism may itself be guilty of the nostalgia of which he accuses Deneen.

Smith admirably strives to defend a constrained liberalism, arguing that “Christian liberalism is the fruit of prudence”; it is a way of faithfully inhabiting the “messy permixtum of the saeculum.” But it seems to me that Smith’s genealogy of liberalism may itself be guilty of the nostalgia of which he accuses Deneen. While he claims Deneen is nostalgic for a medieval order (which I don’t think can be substantiated from Deneen’s book), Smith seems nostalgic for a particular historical moment when America (or the West) had a liberal polity and a more Christian ethos. Yet Smith’s own work on the formative power of social architecture and cultural liturgies suggests that this is a precarious and unsustainable arrangement.

Indeed, Deneen’s question to Smith after his talk addressed this problem: if liberalism is not inherently corrosive of faithful Christian commitments, then what went wrong? Why did liberalism become an ethos? (And if Catholics are predisposed to critique liberalism, why do many Protestants (like Wendell Berry) join the critique of liberalism while many Catholics adopt a stance very similar to Smith’s?) Smith replied that it’s hard to pin down contingent historical causes, and that he wishes it were possible to run a control society and see how Christian liberalism might play out differently in different circumstances. This is probably the weakest link in Smith’s genealogy, and I hope to see him develop it further.

The freedom that liberalism offers isn’t free, and its costs are accruing in ever-mounting ecological and financial debts.

If Deneen were an integralist, then Smith’s critique of his project as nostalgic would be more valid. Deneen is not an integralist, however, and as a Protestant myself, neither am I. But if we are going to rebuild our political and civil society in a more just, sustainable fashion, we’re going to have to do so on a much more modest, humble scale. Liberalism was experienced as a real good in an age whose technology and infrastructure made local communities and economies more or less a necessity. But fueled by modern technologies that consume millennia of sunlight in one generation, a polity built to allow autonomous individuals to pursue happiness is simply not sustainable. The freedom that liberalism offers isn’t free, and its costs are accruing in ever-mounting ecological and financial debts.

What solutions might be possible? In his book, Deneen refuses to offer a post-liberal ideology, instead calling for “practices that foster new forms of culture, household economies, and polis life” (183). While most presenters at the conference contested various understandings of liberalism, several suggested possibilities for living faithfully among the ruins of late modern liberalism. Justin Barnard, a professor at Union University, drew on the work of Matthew Crawford to commend cultivating a craft within a living tradition as one way to embody the goodness of illiberal forms of life. The excellence of such crafts might bear witness to the beauty that fidelity and submission to a tradition make possible. Kristen Johnson pointed to radical hospitality as one way to break down the private, liberal understanding of the home; if our households are marked by interdependency and hospitality, we can belong more faithfully to our neighbors and places. These are, of course, the kinds of practical, local efforts that the Front Porch Republic celebrates.

I also wonder if it is possible to discern a suggestive possibility in Jamie Smith’s recent announcement that he is leaving Comment to serve as the editor of Image. It seems that Smith is shifting his own focus: rather than rebuilding a (liberal) social architecture in a more Christian fashion, Image seeks to use what remains of this architecture to proclaim a beautiful, compelling vision of Christian faith. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive endeavors. And as Alan Jacobs helpfully reminds us, the body of Christ has many members. Perhaps the diversity of the American church is not a disease in need of an ideological cure, but a blessing to be grateful for as we strive to faithfully await the King in these uncertain times.

    1. Interestingly, one of the thinkers Smith musters to support his historical narrative of liberalism as a fruit of the church agrees with Deneen that the First Amendement separation of church and state cedes too much authority to the state. As O’Donovan claims, “Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived.” (The Desire of the Nations 246, quoted in Awaiting the King 102 n 19). I haven’t seen Smith unpack this tension, though, and I’m not sure what his stance is on this thread of American religious history.
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  1. Thanks very much for this write-up, Jeff! This is a conference I would have enjoyed attending immensely, I think, particularly because I desperately want to see Patrick’s thesis stretched out and engaged with. His book is filled with brilliant arguments, but as I wrote before, I found Patrick’s particular genealogy of the rise of liberalism’s elites lacking, because it fails to take seriously (or really even mention) those other sets of ideas that historically did, and philosophically could, arguably balance, modify, or enrich liberalism’s overwhelming focus on individual rights, interests, and pleasures. Republicanism or populism, for example–and given the mention of Martin Luther King, Jr., how about various forms of democratic socialism or Christian democracy as well? Patrick provides a brief nod to progressive ideas in his book, but if Smith wishes for “a control society” to test whether liberalism’s liberationary ethos actually must logically, historically, have the sort of consumptive, exploitive, undemocratic consequences seen in America today, why not look at the various “liberal socialist” societies of western Europe MLK spoke highly of, where there has been much more popular willingness to accept both economic limits and environmental realities? Maybe it really is the case that liberalism will always and everywhere consume and dominate every rival idea–but unless that argument can be explained that to me by laying out a more comprehensive intellectual genealogy, show why America’s republican, populist, and progressive moments turned out the way they did, I suspect I will find myself thinking more like Smith (or, more seriously, Charles Taylor) than Deneen. Revealing the historical roots and indicting the contemporary reach and bad consequences of the liberal ideology is necessary and important, and Patrick’s book does that extremely well, but neither of those things is the same thing as showing the philosophical inevitability of its “failure,” I think.

    • Russell, if you haven’t done so yet, you may want to take a look at Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. While it doesn’t make exactly the same arguments as Deneen’s book, some of the genealogies of the various ideas run parallel, and Gregory’s book, being more of an academic historical tome, is loaded with documentation.

    • Also, James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism is well worth a read. Don’t be put off by the shirt-waving title, by the way, as Kalb is using “tyranny” in its more technical sense.

  2. You can’t square that circle. Either traditional community leaders — rich males — get to make decisions for everyone else in accordance with their preferences and the traditions you love so much survive, or women, black people, and gays get to make our own decisions and those traditions die. To use your boy Berry as an example, his most famous essay is the one in which he described forcing his wife to do miserable, unpaid, and unacknowledged drudgery on outdated equipment for no more reward that his occasional smile at her. She got no public acknowledgment and probably no choice in whether she did that slave-work or not. His self-defense when feminists naturally told him he was an idiot was to discuss topsoil loss. He never addressed our actual point, which was that he forced his wife to do something horrible for no visible reward. He should have paid her a salary and, if her contributions to his works were more than trivial, given her half the copyright. He reinforces this in his novels were good women are all self-abnegating uneducated doormats with no sex drive and evil women snare men with our educated or sexual wiles. Mostly women are absent from his works, as are all sexual minorities and black people.

    I realize you’re concerned about the effects of industrial capitalism on the environment. So am I, as is anyone who pays any attention. You refuse, however, to accept that for anyone other than white males, industrial capitalism and urbanization has been a godsend. Traditional life for women was nasty, brutish, and very short, usually ending in agony during childbirth. You’re both men and would be exempt from almost all of the horrors of the life you would impose on my half of the human race. Given a choice between the life of a traditional woman and the elimination of every tradition on Earth, I must choose the second option. Anomie is better than ignorance.

      • Her name isn’t on the books and she doesn’t have an enforceable contract for royalties. Without a legal right to the money he gets from those books, every word of praise he has for3 her is just bullshit. She’s still his inferior and no amount of crap shoveled by his fans changes that.

        • Check the copyright to Hannah Coulter, then bear down. Your head might pop out of that dark smelly place you keep it in. People who know the Berrys personally are prepared to tell you what a moron you are–once your ears are in the region of sunlight and fresh air and can actually take in articulate sounds.

          Others less charitable, and I’m fast becoming one of them, might invite you to go perform a sex act on yourself–since, apparently, no one else will.

        • Didn’t read the interview with her, did ya? Typical progressive — don’t let the truth get in the way of your narrative, okay?

          • Yes, I read it. He left her at a farm with two todders so he could go teach. She’s adapted herself well enough, but he still sounds like an overbearing ass who browbeat his wife into immurring herself in Nowhere, KY. Further, she rejects feminism meaning she’s okay with domineering husbands and weak, helpless wives. (I never, ever believe family members who talk about what a strong women any housewife is. She lived the life women have been forced to live since the beginning of agriculture. That’s hardly revolutionary.)

            So he gave her half of one book. Was that before or after he’d been shamed into it by Harper’s reader who objected to a husband tyrannizing his wife? They still have a marriage in which he’s the significant partner and she’s support staff. Maybe someday, when exactly half of all marriages between men and women put HER career first, I won’t find that objectionable. Now, the existence of such marriages undermines all the women have done to be treated like adult human beings instead of bipedal catttle.

    • Karen, how can you be so sure that Tanya Berry is being tyrannized? Have you sat down and had a coffee with her? Have you looked her in the eye as she related a life full of “miserable, unpaid, and unacknowledged drudgery”? How do you *know* that she has merely “adapted herself” to a way of life that she has not in fact freely chosen?

      Clearly the rhythms by which Mrs. Berry lives her life are utterly alien to yours. You plainly can’t accept or understand that. And because you are so invested in an ideology that is challenged by Mrs. Berry’s way of life, you have no choice but to attack it by portraying her as nothing more than a “weak, helpless” wife who has been “browbeat into immuring herself” by an “overbearing ass”.

      Unfortunately, your response is all too typical of the combatants on all sides of the ongoing culture wars. Rather than try to understand why some people sincerely wish to lead lives that repudiate our own cherished values, too many of us prefer to turn them into caricatures beneath our contempt. That only makes things worse.

      Which is too bad. There’s still plenty to be said about women being genuinely oppressed by their husbands or partners. But all you have achieved with your vitriol is to be dismissed as a “typical progressive”.

      And do you truly believe that “anomie is better than ignorance”? Sounds like nihilism to me. Both are evils that any reasonably healthy society will do everything it can to eliminate.

  3. Thanks for this, Jeff! I was curious about how the conference played out, and the anecdote about your daughter made me laugh out loud.

  4. @Karen, I don’t know, I found raising kids pleasant. It was quite difficult work, but I wouldn’t value public acclaim or the accumulation of wealth above time spent raising kids. To my mind, that’s missing the point of life. However, I know quite a few people who see raising kids as an overwhelming burden, and for whom public acclaim of some sort is quite important for their well-being. So, lots of company there.

    There was a deluge not too long ago in the Hawaiian Islands, maybe last year, a few feet of rain over the course of a day or two, and in one of the many new stories I saw a quote by a professor at UH- I think it was in part “we have built and scaled our communties for a climate that no longer exists” and I think not only our communities, but our society and economy. And I can’t really contemplate some sort of reconstruction of community in a post Christian society, the sort of task Deneen indicates, absent a consideration of what I think will be forced upon us as we adapt the scale of our communities to the changing climate. That these things are in conjunction.

    What seems to be lacking, to me, are attempts to conceptualize what this might look like and that’s it I have to tend to the chickens. Welcome the day. Appreciate the post, sounded like an interesting conference.

    • You are male. You could chose to raise kids or not. The world you all seem to idolize never gave women any choices. Either be a man’s domestic slave or have no family at all. He NEVER EVER defers to her. He might, but is never required or ever really encouraged to do so, consider her feelings. In traditional marriages she is cattle and rather less valued.

      Show me that you want a world where women are encouraged to learn and use that learning and are given as much acclaim as men are for using it, and where women have exactly half the public authority and power that men do, and we can talk.

      • Look who’s back, everyone: it’s Karen One-Note. All mouth and no ears. Insider to the Berry household and economy. Intimate observer. Peace! She is here to instruct us on what she has extensive first-hand experience of.

        • I’ll find another subject when you all recognize that agrarianism usually implies feudalism. Quit being stupidly sentimental about the social structure before the Civil War and address the problem with that system. Find a family structure that gives women exactly the same amount of power that men have., and that gives everyone else exactly the same level of power that whites have. Berry never even once acknowledges that farm wives were powerless and that women in general have no power in this world, and that powerlessness means worthlessness.

          • “Berry never even once acknowledges that farm wives were powerless and that women in general have no power in this world, and that powerlessness means worthlessness.”

            Probably because he’s not in the business of acknowledging things that aren’t so. For that we’ve got Dr. Karen One-Note, who was trained to be a champion of women by being an embarrassment to them (when she’s not affecting to be an expert on writers she’s made no study of).

            But here’s an honest question: what trick did Karen One-Note turn at the Sanitarium for Bat-Shit Crazies to get the internet access denied to all the other mental patients?

          • Olivia, you really like baseless insults. I repeatedly ask for evidence that any of you actually believe women deserve power and the responses I get are either no or something like ‘power doesn’t matter.’ It bloody well does matter when you don’t have it and can never get.

            Berry’s view of women would have been considered reactionary and oppressive in 1850. He wants a world where most people live by subsistance agriculture, without acknowleding exactly what that life meant, even though there is ample evidence available from the time when most people actually were peasant farmers. Women suffered horribly. Do you want that? Do you want to die in childbirth at age 22, without even the ability to read because reading would give you ideas above your station? Show men where Berry differs from every other advocate for men tyrannizing women and everyone lower on the social ladder? Prove to me he’s not just one more reactionary?

  5. Speaking of the First Amendment and the lack of a national established church, Deneen is summarized: “While this certainly had benefits for the church, it also implicitly signaled that the state’s power precedes the church’s; the church should be grateful for the generous room afforded it by the state.”

    This seems like a very weak argument. All of the Bill of Rights were intended to protect pre-existing rights, not grant them positively. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments were added to clarify this point, to satisfy objections that the Bill of Rights would be seen as what we would now call legal positivism.

    So, how can Deneen’s argument not apply to all the other rights in the Bill of Rights, where the argument is demonstrably false? We are not grateful for the government granting us due process, trial by jury, the right to keep and bear arms, etc., because those rights were not granted, but recognized. Are you grateful for the generous room granted to you by the state in these matters? Or did the state simply recognize that the rights of Englishmen continued?

    Permitting state churches in each former colony was also a continuation of the English tradition, in which it was thought that religious liberty could be made compatible with state churches, while not having a national church was a recognition of the value of a federal system and its diversity of state churches (and absence of state churches in many states). Not having a national church was not the granting of a new right.

  6. Sorry Olivia. We are trying a revolutionary new treatment for Histrionic Personality Disorder, and it is still in the beta testing phase. Essentially, we use a mixture of Dow chemical waste and nano technology to make an inordinate amount of money convincing clients they are improving by rewiring the brain.

    In the case of subject 20036B-Q, otherwise calling herself “Karen”, we’ve seen facisnating side effects including irradiated stools, high pitched sonic barks, and, most amazingly, the ability to access the Internet by means of telepathic wave. Our IT department is baffled, and reports every attempt to broach the subject’s firewall is met with a massive short to the electrical grid, and what can best be described as a quasi-demonic chanting, “Wendall Berry must die.”

    Unfortunately, an unknown element who simply identifies as, “Darth Snark”, obsconded with the list of safe words implemented during the initial phases of subject 20036B-Q’s treatment. Further attempts to implement new barriers to the subject’s irratic outbursts have proven fruitless and vain. We fear for our safety, and have resorted to reactionary measures to essentially, “recork”, this bottle. Apparently misplaced commas and use of the “they” identifier draw out Darth Snark, and it is our hope we can retrieve the safeword list to put an end to this madness.

    We are going to try singing Christmas Carols to see if that works. We will keep the public posted.

    • While you’re at it, mention _Citizenship Papers_, p. 121: “At this point, I want to say point blank what I hope is already clear: Though agrarianism proposes that everybody has agrarian responsibilities, it does not propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities.”

      Also _What Are People For?_, p. 183: “Why any woman would refuse, properly, to take the marital vow of obedience … ”

      Ah, you know what, tell Karen One-Note–sorry, subject 20036B-Q–to read the books herself (there are over fifty) and stop asking others to do her work for her. But please emphasize that doing so will be dangerously close to real scholarship and that real scholarship is hazardous to feminist assumptions, particularly the reduction of everything to issues of power. Subject 20036B-Q One-Note might even have to stop impugning the character of a good man and imputing to him opinions he does not hold.

      • So could you give a straight answer: do you believe women should have the same rights and power in the world men have? Yes or no? (And I mean by “have” the same power men have right at this minute, not what you think anyone should have in whatever fantasy world you want to impose on the rest of us.)

        • As you can see, subject 20036B-Q has gained the upper hand at our facility. For a brief moment, in the middle of the night, we were able to suppress some of the subject’s access to the Internet by using a scented candle. A small team of young scientists in our “R and D” department created a scent that mimics a trailer park methamphetamine laboratory. While our facility now carries the stench of scorched feline urine for hours following the last use of the candle, we are pleased with the results.

          Unfortunately the candle’s sedative effects only last so long, and so we attempted to create a new companion mind for subject 20036B-Q from an abyss of 1’s and 0’s. We have named this artificial companion the OMG-WTF-1000. We recently theorized a word famine might actually starve subject 20036B-Q into the reading of actual books, and possibly utilize some real scholarship. Perhaps the OMG-WTF-1000 possesses the gifts to satisfy all of subject 20036B-Q’s moral Berry outrage. Writing the wrongs from our careless broaches of nature proves no easy task. Yet, we have hope.

          We will have a candle light vigil for the poor souls who sang 20036B-Q “Silent Night..” Please bring something with a cinnamon-apple scent.

          • Yeah, you’re a real comedian. The entireity of that quote you gave above is “Why would any woman who would refuse, properly, to take the marital vow of obedience (on the ground, presumably, that subservience to a mere human being is beneath human dignity) then regard as ‘liberating’ a job that puts her under the authority of a boss (man or woman) whose authority specifically requires and expects obedience?”

            Explain to me how that shows Berry to be anything other than an advocate for traditional hierarchical marriage?

  7. Also, why didn’t you put the rest of that obedience quote? This one: “Why would any woman who would refuse, properly, to take the marital vow of obedience (on the ground, presumably, that subservience to a mere human being is beneath human dignity) then regard as ‘liberating’ a job that puts her under the authority of a boss (man or woman) whose authority specifically requires and expects obedience?”

    That is very far from the sentiments of a man who believes women have the same rights as men do. It is nothing more than a pretentious restatement of Chesterton’s idiot quip about women leaving home to be typists, because typists have bosses for eight hours a day but still get paid they are somehow less free than housewives whose husbands have the right to control every single minute of every single day forever, and who have no money of their own at all. Berry wants women to have to grovel to their husbands for the right to eat and live indoors, just like Chesterton and all social conservatives, but is too bloody cowardly to say so.

    • Wow. WOW. Bat-shit crazy doesn’t begin to describe this.

      Dr. Fanny, if you’re out there, I recommend the King Solomon approach: Answer not a fool according to her folly, lest thou also be like unto her. And palliative care only. DNR. The brain of Karen One-Note is circling the drain.

      • You and “Dr. Fanny” like insults but are incapable of answering a straightforward question. Let me repeat it:

        Who gets to make the decision for each person in a traditional society? What happens to those whom the traditions deny the ability to change roles? What happens when those doomed to doing the shit work don’t want to do shit work anymore?

        • This loon is indefatigable! It’s like the fight scene in the first Rocky movie!

          Except less artful.

          Okay, Karen One-Note. The answer is you. You get to decide. And everything must pass through the one tiny little interstice of your private interpretive net. Because a capacious mind is apparently measured by how small it is.

          You can also do the shit work, beginning with the shit work of putting up with you. And when you’re prepared to change roles–with, say, someone who isn’t a one-noter–I’m pretty sure no one will deny you the chance, though we’ll doubt your ability, having seen no evidence of any.

          If singing on one note were an Olympic sport, you’d be on the cover of the Wheaties box. Like Caitlyn Jenner–speaking of changing roles.

          • Olivia, she already makes all of the decisions, as well as you. Truthfully, all of the contributors to this site, and commentators, make all of the decisions. If I were to use the logic of knowing everyone on FPR the way Karen intimately knows the Berry family, I assume they all make over $34,000 a year in a world where the global median salary is $1,225 a year. Asserting we all make the decisions suddenly becomes an easy task.
            Karen will never admit to being a part of making decisions, or equal in power to a white male, as this admittance would suggest she were no longer powerless, but instead, in a position of power. By seeing this, she sheds her mantle of oppression, and recognizes herself as the oppressor. Karen will not stand for this, as it would mean she were a capitalist, and enjoys the trappings of a capitalist western society.

            I say we leave her alone. Communists struggle to make it very far in this culture. I say we leave Karen (or subject something-something) with her reaching thoughts through the inter-webs from the comfort of her parent’s basement. I am sure they have a nice remodeled cellar, so, it is probably like having your own apartment.

            I’m sorry, I shouldn’t throw insults.

            It’s probably like having your own flat.

  8. I, for the life of me, can’t understand why anyone, male or female, would want to understand relationships – be they friendship or marriage – exclusively in terms of “rights” and “power.” I’m not saying that because I’m a male and I have all the power, although I suspect that will be the charge leveled against me, which has the advantage of being unanswerable. I’m saying it’s irrelevant. My wife and I never raised the issue of our “rights claims” viz a viz one another, nor discussed how we were going to balance power, in our marital vows for the simple reason that such matters don’t matter. If you want to make power and rights claims the things that matter most in life, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a dark one.

    Karen’s questions are a little along the lines of Kristin du Mez beginning her presentation by stating that her approach to reading a book is to ask “where are the women”? This is a particularly crabbed hermeneutic, and turns learning, relationships, and conversation into a narcissistic exercise. It’s a point of view that swallows itself whole. But mostly it’s just boring, because the conclusion is determined in the question.

    Do I believe women should have the same rights and power that men have? I think that’s the wrong question. Politically sure, but a family is not a polity. I resist this politicization of every aspect of our lives. Part of what makes Deneen’s book important is that he demonstrates that it’s the wrong question, which is partly why I suspect some of the critics at the conference got so worked up about it. If they acknowledged they were operating off faulty premises they’d have to rethink their whole approach to things. Indolence of the mind is every bit as bad as indolence of the body.

    • You are correct in one sense: the only reason you can have this opinion is that you’ll never be on the powerless end because you’re male. If you and your wife don’t argue about rights it’s almost certain because she doesn’t actually have any. Did you ever move to accommodate her career? Did you ever defer to her about any decisions other than groceries? Does she have the absolute and unquestioned right to spend time on her hobbies or creative interests and during that time will you do the laundry and cooking? Or, as is the overwhelming more common version, has she simply been absorbed into your likes, dislikes, and opinions? Any interests she has have to wait until all the housework is done because you won’t do anything for her, unless you can claim it’s a giant favor and guilt her into conceding something important later?

      You dismiss this as ‘the politicization of everything,’ as though millenia of political decisions haven’t forced women into a cramped domestic role, and taught us to defer to men even when it hurts, even when it’s actual, physical pain. Berry exalts particularly self-effacing doormats in his fiction and ignores all those centuries of agrarian habits teaching women that we’re inferior to men. Your repetitions that you, personally, do not regard women as inferior are so many wastes of oxygen. Until women occupy public decision-making positions in our precise percentage of the population, and until no male would ever assume that his jobs, his opinions, his desires are more important that his wife’s, every domestic decision is mostly about power.

      • Yawn. As I said: predictable.

        If we “don’t argue about rights it’s because she doesn’t have any” may very well be the stupidest thing ever said on this website. If she didn’t have any, I’m pretty sure we’d be arguing about it. You’re arguing about it all the time and claim to have none.

          • Since you already know the correct answers, it follows that you also know the right questions. So how about you stop demanding answers, explanations, and questions from everyone else and just provide them yourself? That would simplify things a lot in one obvious way.

            Another way it would simplify things is that it would drain the complexity and nuance from them.

            One of the benefits of singing on only one note is that you’re less likely to sing off-key. A drawback is that it makes for some really dull music. The word “monotonous” comes to mind.

            But by all means keep passing yourself off as an expert on the lives of people you don’t know. That combination of Self-Assured and Clueless is really useful for public discourse.

          • That depends on the circumstances. But if “who has the power?” was the right question, I’d actively seek it, zealously guard it, and ruthlessly exercise it. That wouldn’t be a marriage in any intelligible sense.

  9. Good points, Russell. Better points, Karen.

    “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies”

    I am supposed to seriously consider the work of an author who does not know the difference between “dent” and “dint”? Or, more accurately, one author quoting another author, neither of whom knows the difference, nor has either of them employed copyeditors anywhere in the great chain of production who, themselves, can tell the difference. Apparently the dint of understanding has passed by all of them, without making a dent in consciousness.

    I’m faintly amused that in 2018 Prof. Dr. Deneen is making what passes for a mint (thankfully, his publisher’s copyeditors, presuming the existence of such, are not her to mangle that into either “ment” or “meant”) on a book claiming to explain why liberalism failed. A decade before he ever showed up at Georgetown, I was in classes on post-liberal philosophy. Perhaps it had already failed by then, and Prof. Dr. Deneen is only just now getting around to writing it up? Maybe the failure is of a more recent vintage, or maybe that failure is yet to come, so as to provide opportunity for future books and conferences. Perhaps liberalism is Schrödinger’s philosophy, forever held in superposition. Or maybe it’s just waiting for someone who, by dint of hard work, can make a dent in the conundra.

    I see some praise above for “the goodness of illiberal forms of life” and “the beauty that fidelity and submission to a tradition make possible.” Which version do y’all want to plump for: Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, or maybe going all the way with Xi’s China? Are you so confident that you will be part of the oligarchy that you’re willing to throw away all of the protection that liberal governance under the rule of law offers? Or do you just want to submit?

    No, no, forget that last. I’m in Berlin these days; I’ve lived in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich and Budapest. I know that lots of people want to submit. If I have wandered in among a bunch of them, I’d prefer not to know.

    • “Better points, Karen.”


      “A decade before he ever showed up at Georgetown, I was in classes on post-liberal philosophy. Perhaps it had already failed by then, and Prof. Dr. Deneen is only just now getting around to writing it up?”

      Earlier critiques of liberalism had the tendency to come from either the Marxist or the PoMo direction, which gave certain self-styled “conservatives” the freedom to dismiss them. (Or so they thought). The newer critiques of liberalism coming from the right, broadly understood, include criticism of “classical liberalism,” which is something that one seldom came across prior to the past dozen years or so.

      “I see some praise above for ‘the goodness of illiberal forms of life’ and ‘the beauty that fidelity and submission to a tradition make possible.’ Which version do y’all want to plump for: Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, or maybe going all the way with Xi’s China?”

      False dichotomize much? Anyways, liberalism does not seem to be doing a particularly great job of preventing oligarchy, unless you’re daft enough to believe that the current corporate state Leviathan doesn’t qualify. Then again, you do apparently think Karen Anti-Berry has “good points.”

      • So, in your world, who gets to make decisions? And don’t deflect the question. Tell me who gets to decide what the rest of us get to do with our lives? Name the perrson who makes decisions?

        • Your question, despite the pretense of specificity and directness, is far too broad and vague to answer. It should be obvious that the identity of the “person who makes decisions” is not static, but rather can vary widely from situation to situation.

          • Rob. She’s all mouth and no ears. Do something productive. Go and catch a falling star.
            Hold a moonbeam in your hand. Consult Sisyphus if you have to.

          • The correct answer was ‘the person most affected by the result.’ Why is this not obvious to you?

            You and Berry are fond of praising “traditions” without thinking about who the traditions affect and whether all those people like the effects or not and how those traditions got there in the first place.

          • Let us allow the fine people on the board of review for the DSM make some decisions.
            Today we should examine the criteria for Histrionic Personality Disorder exhibited in subject 20036B-Q:
            Shallow, changeable emotions
            Assumed intimacy with others
            Hypersensitivity to criticism
            Manipulative behavior
            Disproportionate emotional reactions
            A compulsive desire for attention
            Suggestible and easily influenced
            All attempts to reconcile our treatments have failed. Grab a moonbeam and take the next starship off-planet.
            Yours in science,
            Dr. Fanny

          • “Rob. She’s all mouth and no ears. Do something productive. Go and catch a falling star.
            Hold a moonbeam in your hand. Consult Sisyphus if you have to.”

            Sorry. I keep holding out hope for a tiny little lick of common sense from the world’s most minuscule tongue to make even a nanosecond-long appearance, but alas!

    • “thankfully, his publisher’s copyeditors, presuming the existence of such, are not her to mangle that into either “ment” or “meant””

      Oops. Motes, beams, etc.

  10. I absolutely refuse to get sucked into this discussion, but whatever the historical or philosophical or literary merit’s of Doug comment, his line “the dint of understanding has passed by all of them, without making a dent in consciousness” comment made me laugh out loud, so thank you, sir.

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