Friday, April 26, 2024

The 1960s In a New (and Loving) Key


Historian and Pulitzer-Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin has been around and producing great books since I was in grad school. Her latest is a bit different and somewhat special. In An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s (Simon and Schuster, 2024) she is still doing history, but within the context and through the unique lens of her marriage to "Camelot" veteran Richard Goodwin, her husband of 42 years. The book takes the form of a recollection of the written memories in archival boxes of her and her husband's personal and political experiences, primarily during the eventful decade of the 1960s, with some reflections on their earlier pre-political lives and the post-political trajectory of their married life together.

Richard "Dick" Goodwin (1931-2018) liked the portrayal of him in the movie Quiz Show: "I'm he moral center of the story. I'm portrayed but a young good-looking guy. And I get to sum it all up with the last line, 'I thought we were going to get television. The truth is, television is going to get us'." (That would prove prescience in many respects.)

Yet, already while interviewing contestants in the late 1950s Quiz Show scandal, Dick Goodwin was already heading toward his life-defining work as an aide and speechwriter first for John F. Kennedy, then for his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and then, after having been so much a part of the start of the Great Society, leaving he White House and becoming an anti-war activist and an aide and speechwriter first for Eugene McCarthy, and then for Robert F. Kennedy (and then McCarthy again). 

Most of the book is about Goodwin's work with those four men and his role in helping shape the liberal accomplishments and the eventually catastrophic liberal losses of the 1960s. For those of us who lived through that tumultuous time (and may have our own complicated memories to unpack), Goodwin's recollections recall the aspirations and disappointments with which we are so familiar and with which we are still living today. They also fill in the historical record with interesting personal anecdotes that personalize the story and highlight how that history was very much neither happenstance nor the working out of inexorable historical forces, but the unique intersection of distinctive personalities with the needs of a society in the grip of generational and cultural change. 

Even remembering the intense emotions of the era and the negative polarization its politics produced, one cannot fail to be struck by the intensity of Goodwin's involvement first in the New Frontier and then in the politics of producing the Great Society. The latter was rooted in the conviction that "Johnson's domestic agenda spoke directly to our daily lives," but was followed so soon by what his wife would call his "spiteful, personal vendetta against Johnson." Indeed, so much of the story of the 60s as recalled here can be categorized as a sad story of spiteful personal vendettas - most notably RFK and Kennedy loyalists spiteful personal vendetta against LBJ, but also the hostility between the McCarthy and Kennedy wings of the anti-war Democrats. Not only did those personal vendettas damage the people involved and undo the aspirations of the Great Society, but they set the stage for the more negative and destructive political dysfunction of subsequent decades.

Doris Kearns Goodwin met her husband in the 1970s, in the afterglow of the 60s and Goodwin's era of influence. Younger than he, she had participated in the earlier events of the 1960s at what might be called the street level. But her service as a White House Fellow and the friendship she formed with President Johnson became her ticket to academic renown, with her first book Lyndon Johnson's and the American Dream. From there she would go on to write acclaimed books about Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt. It is interesting to observe how her academic engagement with those heroic figures and her personal engagement with Johnson helped steer her toward a more balanced perspective on the 60s.

It is the fashion nowadays to compare our problematic present not to the 1960s but to the mid-19th-century run-up to the Civil War. Drawing on her knowledge of Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls how the young Lincoln "was troubled by the mood of the country, a tendency to substitute passion for judgment, to engage in mob action in disregard of laws." Lincoln worried that the "living history" of the revolutionary era "was fading, along with the founding generation itself." For Goodwin, "Lincoln's words took on a powerful resonance," as she realized that "some sixty years after the changes and. upheavals of the Sixties have begun to fade, been half-forgotten or become misunderstood," this project might add their voices "to the task of restoring a "living history' of that decade, allowing us to see what opportunities were seized, what mistakes were made, what chances were lost, and what light might be cast on our own fractured time."

One of the particular beauties of this book is how it integrates the personal with the political and the past with the present. It is an account of a married couple in their old age (he in his 80s, she in her 70s) reflecting back on the history they had originally lived separately and in which both played active parts. It is an amazing insight into how we all may remember our past in old age and be nourished even now by those memories, both positive and negative. It reminds us of the vision of history-shaping public service and the animating power of a life lived in public service. And, of course, it is an even moire poignant reminder of the pre-eminence of love in life, of the primary importance of marriage and family, even within a life blessed by opportunities for historically significant political participation.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Jesus and the Powers


N.T. Wright, a retired Bishop of the Church of England, is an eminent and well-known scripture scholar and theologian. In this latest book, Jesus and the Poers: Christian Political Wirness in a Age of Totalitarian Terror and and Dysfunctional Democracies (2024), he and his co-author, Australian theologian Michael Bird, seek to address in straightforward, non-technical language the perennial question of the Christian commitment to politics and government, a question that has acquired increased salience in a post-Christendom world, in which the once widely acclaimed alternative of liberal democracy has become increasingly problematic. Indeed, for these authors, this presetn decade may "be the most precarious and perilous time in human history since the 1930s."

The authors stress something that many modern progressives insouciantly seem to be increasingly eager to forget, namely that both the Latin West and the Greek East were and have continued to be "shaped by a Christian vision of God's love for the world and the place of Christian virtues in societies where few restraints on evil and exploitation existed." This is an inescapable historical fact, but it is also much more than that. It is of the very nature of Jesus' kingdom, which, while completely unlike the kingdoms of this world, "is still for this world, for the benefit and blessing of this world, for the redemption and rescue of this world."

The theological claim is that "the Creator intends his world to be run through obedient human beings." God, the authors insist, "intends that humans should share in running his world, and should be held accountable." Thus, "because we believe that Jesus is King and his kingly power is operative among us," Christians "cannot retreat to the attic of spiritual affairs, not when there is a gospel to proclaim and ahurting world crying out for healing and hope."

In this post-Christendom context, the author's preference is clearly for a form of liberal democracy, a form of political arrangement which seems to have lost a lot of its former luster and appears increasingly threatened. The authors aregue that "in a world with a human propensity for evil, greed and injustice, liberal democracy stands as the least worst option for human governance." It is, they stress, "neither a necessary not a sufficient conditon for a just society, but it can be an enabling condition for a just society."

In a world in which no political axiom can any longer be taken for granted, the authors offer a valuable religious argument for invigorating liberal democracy. This is especially timely when the ideas that have underpinned liberal democracies find themselves challenged not just by populist authoritarianism but by explicitly religious versions such as messianic imperialism (e.g, Russia) and a revived Catholic integralism.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Wonders Never Cease

This weekend, I have been attending a conference on overcoming toxic political polarization, "Bridging the Divide, Seeking Reconciliation," organized by the Paulist Fathers. Perhaps that is what is disposing me to be more charitable to someone I would normally be less inclined say a kind word about, namely the present (perhaps temporary) Speaker of the House, MAGA right-winger Mike Johnson. But the main reason must be that, for whatever reason or reasons, the Speaker suddenly seems to be sounding like an old-fashioned politician, like (dare I say?) a 20th-century "Reagan Republican." Perhaps the Speaker's rediscovery of reality reflects, as some pundits have suggested, the fact that he now has access to high-level Intelligence about the international situation. Whatever the reason, having weirdly and pointlessly delayed needed aid to Ukraine for months since President Biden requested it. the Speaker now endorses such aid and is taking the necessary steps to move that aid forward through the absurd and arcane procedures of the House. To advance the legislation to its final (hopefully successful) outcome, the Speaker has needed - and has received - the votes of  Democrats in the House.

In our ailing, if not terminally ill, political culture, this may be one of the rare occasions when democracy wins, when the will of the majority of elected representatives (reflecting a majority in the country at large) get to pass something necessary and good, despite the usually successful obstruction by a minority of the members. Adjusting the gender to the present House membership, this has up until now been a clear case of what Woodrow Wilson lamented in 1917, when he spoke of "A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, [who] have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

Of course, in this case, today's "little group of willful men" and women primarily represent the isolationist and self-serving opinion of one person, the MAGA Republican former (and would-be future) President Donald Trump. There has, alas, always been an isolationist tendency in American culture. There have always been Americans who, for whatever reason, fall for destructive rhetoric like Trump's persistent complaint that our European allies have not spent enough of their money on Ukraine and that, therefore, the U.S. is being taken advantage of. 

So democracy wins also - and maybe even more importantly - in Ukraine, where that beleaguered country may yet be able to hold back the advancing forces of imperialist Russian tyranny. A Ukrainian collapse would move the front-line for civilization's defense dangerously to the border of Poland, to the very border of NATO.

Back to America, it still remains to be seen what this may portend for congressional ability to function, as it was once intended to function, now in these waning months of this present congressional term.

That said, it is good for the country that Democrats are rewarding the Speaker for his rediscovery of reality and his unexpectedly responsible behavior. The prophet Ezekiel famously said: if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Whether the Speaker still keeps his gavel despite the MAGA minority's inevitable fulminations and motions to vacate the Chair, still remains to be seen. At the moment, however, this seems like a win for democratic governance at home and democratic survival in Ukraine. That deserves to be celebrated - as does the surprising Speaker of the House himself.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Orestes Brownson


"Heartily, deeply did I ever reciprocate Dr. Brownson's affection, and the long and eventful years have but strengthened more and more my love for him and my admiration for his genius - convictions and emotions which have drawn from me in these articles my feeble attempt to estimate his providential mission and to introduce my countrymen to the study of his works" [Isaac Hecker, "Dr. Brownson and Catholicity," Catholic World, 46, (1887), p. 235].

Largely forgotten among contemporary American Catholics, but someone whoi deserves to be remembered and appreciated even still, Orestes Brownson was born in 1803 and died on this date in 1876. He had already established himself as a leading American intellectual, a philosopher, and a social theorist, as well as Unitarian clergyman, well before his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1844, after which he became perhaps the most prominent lay Catholic voice in the United States Church. He contributed to the Transcendentalist critique of Unitarian empiricism, articulating an alternative idealist philosophical perspective that would continue to inform his mature thought as a Catholic. Although he would later vote for Lincoln, Brownson began as a Jacksonian Democrat, with genuinely radical social and economic theories Both religiously and politically, Brownson was an important early influence on the young Isaac Hecker (1819-1888). At the end of his life, Hecker remained supportive of Brownson's earlier social and political ideas. "The ominous outlook of popular politics at the present moment plainly shows that legislation such as we then proposed, and such as was then within he easy reach of State and national authority would have forestalled difficulties whose settlement at this day threatens a dangerous disturbance of pubic order." ["Dr. Brownson and the Workingman's Party Fifty Years Ago," Catholic World, 45, (1887), pp. 207-208.]

Concerning Brownson's religious conversion to Catholicism, Hecker in that same article [p. 207] wrote "it was a glory and a triumph for the Catholic Church to obtain the conversion of such a man and to hold that free soul in most contented allegiance till the hour of death."

The youthful and then life-long friendship between Brownson and Hecker was of great significance for both of them in their respective spiritual journeys and, by extension, for the 19th-century American Catholic Church. Brownson met the Hecker Brothers in New York City in 1841 and quickly became a kind of mentor to the young Isaac Hecker, eventually steering him to Brook Farm, the contemporary communal experiment Brownson valued most highly.  The younger and less well educated of the two, Hecker at the outset of their friendship was definitely a disciple of Brownson. As Brownson's biographer has highlighted, however, "the disciple had something to teach the master, and Brownson knew it. Reading his correspondence with Hecker during this period gives one the impression that it was Hecker who brought the personal to the fore in Brownson. Brownson was drawn to that which he criticized in Hecker and knew, instinctively, that Hecker possessed something that he did not. Brownson was attracted to the difference.” [Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 138.]

Indeed, Isaac Hecker's first book, Questions of the Soul, written as a Redemptorist missionary priest in 1855, which attempted to demonstrate the positive aspects of Catholicism as the response to the deepest questions and desires of the human soul, seemed to liberate Brownson from his immediate post-conversion commitment to a more polemical approach to apologetics. To quote Carey again: Brownson’s review of Hecker’s book “demonstrated a thoroughly positive assessment of Hecker’s achievement, and an acknowledgment that his own previous polemical style of apologetics was neither effective nor what the times demanded. … Hecker’s book clearly awakened Brownson to the defects in his own previous approach.”

Brownson's writings during that period represented an attempt to craft a genuinely Catholic conception of politics and society, in contrast to the perennial tendency to accommodate to American reality by treating politics as largely autonomous. That concern perdured as a priority for Brownson, who in October 1870 wrote: “Even our Republic goes the way of all the earth, and our Catholic population hardly seem aware of their mission as Catholics. Outside of the Sanctuary they are hardly distinguishable in their social and political action from non-Catholics.” 

Ultimately, he understood that mission as being "to Catholicize America, not Americanize Catholicity.” On the other hand, his intense ultramontanism did not turn into integralism. Rather, he understood that European political conservatism was likely a losing cause with which the Church should not be identified. In particular, Brownson recognized that those who supported the absolute continuation of the Papal States against Italian national aspirations, which were inexorably leading to the unification of Italy, were wrongly identifying a particular political goal with the Church’s fundamental interests. 

Both Brownson and Hecker had been influenced by the 19th-century German Catholic theologian Johann Adam Moehler (1796-1838) who had emphasized the Church as the continuation of Christ's incarnation in a visible structure. Both believed that neither Calvinism, Unitarianism, nor Transcendentalism could appeal long-term to the more moderate American mentality, although of the two Brownson was more sensitive to the demographic realities of American Protestantism  and demonstrated a far greater appreciation of non-New England-based religion (e.g., Evangelicalism and Methodism) than Hecker did.

Although Hecker and Brownson began to diverge somewhat in their views in their later years, they remained friends, and Hecker never ceased to admire Brownson's accomplishments. Hecker considered Brownson's primary work of political theory, The American Republic (1865), to be "the greatest work yet written in America on general politics." ["Dr. Brownson in Boston," Catholic World, 45 (1887), p. 466.]

A decade after Brownson's death, Hecker expressed his support for a movement to erect a monument to Brownson in New York's Central Park, but added: "The best monument to Dr. Brownson's greatness is his works. ... They ought to be in every American library of any character." ["Dr. Brownson and the Workingman's Party Fifty Years Ago," Catholic World, 45, (1887), p. 200.]

Photo: Orestes Brownson, Portrait by G.P.A. Healy, 1863. 

A bust of Brownson was in fact commissioned in the 1890s by the Catholic Club of New York for its building on Central Park South. When that building was demolished, Brownson's bust was moved to Riverside Drive and 104th Street. In the 1930s, however, it was overturned by vandals and put in storage. In 1941 Father Robert Gannon, SJ, the President for Fordham University (1936-1949), acquired the bust from the Parks Department for its placement on the Fordham campus in the Bronx, where it remains atop a high granite pedestal. (Brownson was awarded Fordham's first honorary degree in 1856.).

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Witnesses of These Things


We set out to find His friends to tell them.
We went to Jerusalem to tell them;
and with joy we told them, “We have seen the Lord!”
And as we were speaking there, He stood among us, blessed us, said to us,
“Now my peace I leave with you.” We saw Him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened, and we knew He was alive!


Some of the old-timers here may recognize those lines from the second verse of the hymn, In the Breaking of the Bread,* which we used to sing here at Saint Paul’s every Easter season. It recalls some of the highlights from Emmaus to Pentecost, among them the event recounted in today's Gospel, as the Risen Lord revealed himself to his disciples and transformed them into his Church.


Typically, in these gospel stories of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while this is certainly the same Jesus the disciples had followed in life and who had died on the Cross, something about him is now different. Hence, the startlement and terror before the dramatic moment when Jesus is fully recognized.


Jesus’ resurrection was a real event (every bit as real as his crucifixion), but one which no one witnessed first-hand. What was witnessed initially was an empty tomb – a necessary condition for the resurrection to be true, but insufficient evidence in itself. Something more had to happen, and something more did happen – a series of encounters which captured the novelty and uniqueness of the resurrection,  encounters with the glorified body of the Risen Christ in which the Risen Lord demonstrated to his disciples that he was the same Jesus who had lived and died (hence the wounds in his hands and his feet), fully alive now in a unexpectedly new and wonderful way. 

Unlike hallucinations or mystical experiences, these were authentic encounters with someone who had lived and died but was now beyond the reach of death, embodied in a completely new way.


The events described in today’s Gospel took place on that same eventful Sunday in Jerusalem, to which the two disciples had rushed back from their exciting encounter with the Risen Lord in the breaking of bread. Perhaps this was the same room where some of them had so recently eaten the Last Supper and where an already growing group of them would gather again after the ascension to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. Since apostolic times (long before it ever became a day off from work), Sunday has been the special day, the irreplaceably privileged day, when Christians assemble in churches to encounter Christ, the Risen Lord, present in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.


To repeat the same news over and over again is one way to bear witness to its importance. To hear the proclamation of the resurrection, over and over, during these Easter Sundays strengthens our faith by the witness of others’ faith. That is why one of the most noticeable features that distinguishes Easter in our Catholic liturgical calendar is the daily reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Through our journey through the book of Acts, we identify ourselves with that first generation of Christians in their experience of the Risen Christ, becoming like them a community which witnesses to the presence and action of the Risen Lord in his Church, a community which expresses its new life in its worship.


And, so, we celebrate Easter not for one day or one week but for seven weeks, during which we relive the experience of those first Christians, transformed forever by the presence and power of the Risen Lord, experienced in the here and now in his word and sacraments. We see how eager they were to share that experience with everyone around them – an eagerness we need to learn from, for each of us is being propelled by the power of the Easter story to trust in its power to transform the world. 

Some of you here may also remember how the hymn which I began with concludes.


We ran out into the street to tell them,
everyone that we could meet, to tell them,
“God has raised Him up and we have seen the Lord!”
We took bread as He had done and then we blessed it, broke it, offered it.
In the breaking of the bread, we saw Him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened.
There within our midst was Jesus, and we knew He was alive.
In the breaking of the bread, He is here with us again,
and we know He is alive.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, April 14, 2024.

* Hymn by Michael Ward, © 1989.


Friday, April 12, 2024

Civil War (The Movie)


The actual American Civil War officially began on this date in 1861, with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Most of us have grown up with casual cultural assumptions about American democracy's exceptionalism that have made it easy for us to normalize such conflicts in failed or failing states elsewhere but have made it comparably difficult for us to imagine that another such conflict could ever again occur in the United States. We instinctively assume that our stable political culture (and our antiquated constitution) could somehow protect us from intensifying democratic failure. Yet the fact that a real civil war did actually happen here once before should, however, disabuse us of such complacency. 

Coincidentally, British filmmaker Alex Garland's new film Civil War opens in theaters this week. Civil War, which premiered at South by Southwest last month, is set in a frightening, sometime future, failed-state U.S., as experienced on screen by a group of journalists covering the conflict (for Reuters) as civil war and seemingly random violence tear an increasingly dystopian U.S. apart. We seem intended to experience the conflict through the morally constricted world of journalism. The journalists in the film seem like otherwise normal people. However, one might suggest that, with civilization literally collapsing all around them, there might be more important priorities than getting a story and taking good pictures, but that seems somehow to elude them. Or perhaps it doesn't, for they too are not immune from war's personal toll.

Early on, we experience the confusion of a socially devastated New York, although the city's infrastructure - or at least its skyline (necessary one supposes for on-screen recognition) - still seems somewhat intact. As in some real 20th-century wars, the journalists are based in a still somewhat functioning hotel, from which they set out with professional determination to Washington, DC. The conflict has apparently been underway for some unspecified amount of time, long enough to do obvious damage. Along the way, there are several dangerous encounters, but exactly with whom is not always quite clear. There are also amazing pockets of normalcy. Indeed, we are casually informed that the two female photojournalists have parents living complacently on farms in Missouri and Colorado respectively. And Canadian money is willingly accepted, which suggests that things may still be just fine north of the border. Meanwhile, the journalists eventually reach what appears to be the military frontline in Charlottesville VA, as the rebels prepare to advance on Washington, DC. 

It remains unclear what the actual originating causes of the conflict were, when or why the war started, or even exactly who started it. The film's emphasis is more on the ever-increasing violence, which is the consequence of political collapse. For context, however, we do discover that, what remains of the federal government (led by a suggestively somewhat Trump-like, authoritarian third-term president, who has disbanded the FBI) is apparently at war with two breakaway states, California and Texas, the so-called "Western Forces." So there is both seemingly random (domestic terrorist?) violence all along the way, and then there is a full-scale military force ready to do battle against whatever is left of the United States. Shaken by what they have experienced and by their personal losses, but with a certain journalistic insouciance, the press crew attaches itself to the Western Forces for the final assault on the White House. (One of the traditional arguments against the possibility of an old-fashioned "civil war" happening again in the U.S. was that the federal government has such an overwhelming monopoly of military power. Yet, one of the unexplained oddities of this film is the almost complete absence of massive military power on the federal side and the impressive display of massive military hardware in the part of the secessionists!)

Most people probably find the idea of a California-Texas alliance somewhat implausible, as indeed most Americans must find the idea of an actual armed conflict or "civil war" among Americans itself implausible. But the film seems to want to take us sufficiently out of our immediate present in order to capture the character of a potentially looming American breakup, without necessarily identifying too closely or clearly with contemporary political divisions. The allegory is there for all to see, but general enough to be appreciated beyond the narrow confines of our contemporary tribal affiliations. The through-line, if you will, that connects our present epidemic of extreme polarization and the America depicted in the film may not be any particular political positions or ideologies as much as what seems to be the extreme mutual desire of each side to obliterate the other, the phenomenon known as "negative polarization."

The allegory works, however, precisely because it is just plausible enough. Underlying the dramatic depictions of a violent, failed state is the specter of actual American democracy's real potential for failure, as it appears to follow the classical trajectory into dysfunctional tyranny. "One of the most striking facts about the political world of the third millennium," Sheldon Wolin observed twenty years ago, "is the near universal acclaim accorded democracy" and democracy's novel status as "a transhistorical and universal value." [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded ed. (2004) p. 585]. Obviously, modern democracy is not the same as the earlier democracies consistently condemned and feared by classical and early modern political theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to the American founders. Yet, it resembles its ancient namesake enough to suffer from similar disabilities, despite our era's distorted image of democracy's possibilities and liabilities, with the result that those ancient and early modern warnings remain relevant even in the third millennium.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Forever Elsewhere


"We are forever elsewhere," wrote MIT Professor Sherry Turtle in 2015 about our new life with smartphones. She is quoted approvingly by Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his latest book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (NY: Penguin Random House, 2024). According to Haidt, "a profound transformation of human consciousness and relationships" occurred between 2010 and 2015. This was "the birth of the phone-based childhood" and it marked "the definitive end of the play-baed childhood."

Haidt is hardly alone in lamenting these developments. Even the Holy See has joined the growing chorus of concern. In the newly released Declaration Dignitas Infinita, issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith just this week, we read: "Although the advancement of digital technologies may offer many possibilities for promoting human dignity, it also increasingly tends toward the creation of a world in which exploitation, exclusion, and violence grow," and "the more that opportunities for making connections grow in this realm, the more people find themsleve isolated and impoverished in interpersonal relationships" [DI, 61].

Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) and co-author with Greg Lukianoff of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018). His current book continues themes explored in the latter book.

Haidt highlights two components of the current crisis. The first was the end of the play-based childhood which has been characteristic of human beings for most of our history, right up until the end of the 20th century, when society suddenly started overprotecting children from he normal stresses of growing up. Traditional childhood was all about "the kinds of experiences humans evolved for and that they must that have in abundance to become socially functional adults." These include "the social skills necessary for life in a democratic society, including self-governance, joint decision making, and accepting the outcome when you. lose a contest." The recent move toward trying to raise children "in a bubble of satisfaction, protected from frustration, consequences, and negative emotions" Haidt argues, "may be blocking the development of competence, self-control, frustration tolerance, and emotional self-management." What'd Haidt calls "the 1990s turn to paranoid parenting" was facilitated, he contends, by what British sociologist Frank Furredi has called "the breakdown of adult solidarity." By now, we are well familiar with this critique of a social tendency and direction which preceded the smartphone and the phone-based world we now live in.

The second component of the current crisis, Haidt suggests, is that while overprotecting children and young people from the challenges of the real world, we have lately under-protected them from "the Wild Wes too the virtual world, where threats to children abounded." Among the harms he identifies are social isolation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. Again, unless one has willfully failed to observe what has been happening, none of this is surprising news. 

Haidt also highlights the specific but different harms being done to girls and to boys. His data demonstrate that girls are more adversely affected by social comparison and perfectionism a suffer more from relational aggression than boys. Meanwhile, "the rise of safetyism in the 1980s and 1990s hit boys harder than girls," while boys' increasing involvement with multiplayer video games in the 2000s and then with smartphones in the 2010s "pulled boys decisively away from face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder interaction." This is contributing to the ongoing "friendship recession" among men. "In the 1990s, only 3% of American men reported having no close friends. By 2021, that number had risen fivefold to 15%."

Haidt calls Emile Durkheim "the most profound thinker about the nature of society,"and reflects Durkheim's concern about anomie, "an absence of stable and widely shared norms and rules."  Following Durkheim, Haidt highlights how "the strongest and most satisfying communities come into being when something lifts people out of the lower level so that they h av powerful collective experiences. ... People who live only in networks, rather than communities, are less likely to thrive."

So, now, we know what we have been doing wrong. What, if anything can be done about it to correct it? Schools, from elementary through high school level, Haidt argues, "should go phone-free to improve not only mental health but academic outcomes as well." Outside of school, children should again experience real-world freedom. He favors the movement for "Reasonable Childhood Independence" Laws, but he believes schools have a special part to play in this. "Re-normalizing childhood independence requires collective action, and collective action is most easily facilitated by local schools. Parents, of course, are also primary players in this process, and Haidt provides detailed recommendations for changed parental behavior. In sum, his "four foundational reforms" are:

1. No smartphones before high school
2. No social media before age 16
3. Phone-free schools
4. Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.

Haidt concludes that what he calls "the Great Rewiring of Childhood, from play-based to phone-based, has been a catastrophic failure" and that it is "time to end the experiment" and "bring our children home."

Monday, April 8, 2024

Total Eclipse

Historians have long been fond of eclipses, especially since historical references to ancient eclipses sometimes enable other ancient events to be dated more precisely than would otherwise be possible. One of the earliest known solar eclipses was in 1375 B.C. and was recorded in the ancient city of Ugarit, in what is now Syria. In earlier times, eclipses were often interpreted as signs or omens of some contemporary calamity. They have also been known to alter behavior. Thus, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that an eclipse that occurred during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in 585 B.C. caused the two armies to stop fighting and make peace. Wouldn’t it be something if today’s eclipse had that kind of effect on any of the conflicts currently tearing our world apart! 

Like the many who are traveling near and far today to experience the awesome wonder of the eclipse, we are all pilgrims seeking the light revealed amid the dark shadows of our day-to-day divisions and conflicts. 

In August 2017, together with many other "eclipse pilgrims," I was privileged to view the total eclipse of the sun from our observation point at Saint Joseph the Worker Church in Madisonville, TN, a manageable drive from Knoxville. The photo above was one of many I took that memorable day.

How I wish I could repeat that experience today! Alas, the path of totality is too far west of here to make that feasible. I do hope that as many as possible will be able to avail themselves of the opportunity to see this most amazing natural show (and that the weather will cooperate). May their experience be safe and as inspiring as previous eclipses have been for others. For myself, however, I must content myself with memories and reflections from that last total solar eclipse.

Blow the trumpet at the new moon, said the psalmist (Psalm 81:3). In Tennessee in August 2017t, he Moon blew her own trumpet, as she put on a show of shows, covering up the Sun in an amazing spectacle of light and shadow. Since Knoxville was just outside the path of totality, the four of us drove down to the southernmost parish in our deanery, which was scheduled to be more than two minutes in Totality. From there, we were able to view the eclipse in all its amazing grandeur. Needles to say, we were not alone. We left in mid-morning, hoping to avoid getting snarled in traffic and successfully got to the city of Madisonville around 11:00, which left us plenty of time to get some lunch in a crowded roadside restaurant with some of the other "eclipse pilgrims" who were swelling the town's population on that so memorable day. 

Then on to the local church, where we met up with others we knew and others who had come from as far off as Mexico and Queens, NY, to experience this awesome spectacle. Children were playing games. People were cooking food in the parking lot and picnicking on the grass. It was a real party atmosphere. Everyone was friendly and hospitable, inviting others to share their food. After making a proper visit to the church itself upon arrival, I periodically retreated to that air-conditioned building to sit down and cool off while we waited and to reflect upon what we were witnessing.

The first part of the eclipse went on for over an hour. The Moon bit more and more into the Sun, which itself as a result came more and more to resemble a kind of crescent moon! The effect of wearing the special eclipse glasses was startling! Unlike wearing sunglasses, for example, when wearing the special eclipse glasses you could see nothing at all, total darkness - except for the sun, which looked like a small yellow disk, getting progressive smaller as the hour passed. If you didn't know what you were looking at, you might think you were looking at the night sky during one of the partial phases of a harvest moon.

Towards the end of the Moon's apparent conquest of the Sun, you could feel the difference in the atmosphere, as the air got just a little bit cooler and the sky started to get darker. You could see it in the images of the crescent sun reflected in shadow in patterns on the ground. Soon it seemed like an eerie twilight. One could hear the animals reacting accordingly, as if imagining thatd it must suddenly be sunset.

And then it was dark! Two or three stars appeared in the sky, as the sun was completely covered and its hot corona suddenly shone all around the dark disk of the Moon. People cheered. People prayed. 

And then it was suddenly light again. No sooner did the Moon's movement reveal a small sliver of the Sun (on the other side this time), then normal light started to return. I suppose the poor animals were completely confused, as well they might be. We, however, who understood what we had seen and experienced could only express our joyful admiration: 

Sun and Moon, bless the Lord! (Daniel 3:62)

Friday, April 5, 2024

“It is the Lord!”


Modern pilgrims in Israel quickly sense the contrast between the dry desert of Judea (where Jerusalem is) and the relatively lush, green of Galilee (where today’s Gospel story is set). Renewed annually by winter’s life-giving rains, the land around the large lake the Gospel calls the Sea of Tiberias (more commonly called the Sea of Galilee) is at its greenest in spring. It had been from those familiar shores that Jesus had originally called his disciples to follow him. And now they’d come home – back to what they knew best. They went fishing. 

But this was to be no normal fishing expedition!

There’s a little church on the shore that marks the supposed site of this event. In front of the altar is a rock, traditionally venerated as the stone on which the risen Lord served his disciples a breakfast of bread and fish. Just a short walk away is another church, marking the site where Jesus had (not so long before) fed 5000+ people with five loaves and a few fish. Presumably, the disciples would have well remembered that earlier meal. And, surely, we should as well, as we also assemble here at the table lovingly set for us by the risen Lord himself, here in this church, where, as surely as on that distant lakeshore, he feeds us with food we would never have gotten on our own. 

Typically, in these gospel stories of the risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples, there is the sense that, while it eventually becomes clear that this is the same Jesus the disciples had followed in life and who had died on the Cross, something about him is now different. Hence, the dramatic moment when Jesus is recognized for certain, as when the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

But recognizing the risen Christ is not the end of the story but the beginning of a new life, a new life lived in a community of love. We learn that love by following the risen Lord. So, even before being formally invested with his special mission, Peter leads the way, dressing up for the occasion, jumping into the sea and swimming to Jesus ahead of the others. As his role requires, Peter here is already leading his flock, leading here by example. His example illustrates for the rest of us what it means, first, to recognize the risen Lord and, then, actually to follow him.

Homily for Friday within the Octave of Easter, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, April 5, 2024.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Illiberal America (The Book)

At this critical juncture in American history, NYU Professor of History Steven Hahn has taken his readers on a much needed tour of U.S. history's "illiberal" side in Illiberal America: A History (W.W. Norton, 2024). In the process, he effectively undermines what was then still largely the consensus view when I was a student, the view most famously associated with Louis Hartz and his 1955 classic, The Liberal Tradition in America. Hahn "asks readers to suspend their assumptions about the long and enduring American liberal tradition and instead recognize illiberal currents that flowed across the Atlantic and took hold well before what we would call liberalism ever appeared." He aims to show "how our present-day reckoning with the rise of a militant and illiberal set of movements has lengthy and constantly ramifying roots."

Contrary to the traditional Hartz thesis, Hahn recalls the neo-feudal, hierarchical, and pseudo-aristocratic aspects of early English settlements in North America and the colonial order which ensued. "The social relations that marked the turn of the eighteenth century, and continued for long thereafter, can far better be understood as a spectrum of dependencies along which 'free labor,' in a form familiar to us, was at the far end."

In the course of his reinterpretation of American history, Hahn calls our attention to the long tradition of anti-Catholicism, "how anti-Catholic and anti-aristocratic sensibilities could feed off one another." He highlights. links between anti-federalism and "the Christian evangelism of the Great Awakening." In anti-federalism, he discerns a persistent theme which we can certainly recognize today - "a special appeal to those who recognized power in personal and familial terms, saw themselves as members of communities bounded by ethnicity, culture, and faith, were wary of outsiders and distant legal and political institutions, and imagine proper government as closely aligned with them and protective of their 'manners, sentiments, and interests'." 

Hahn, here has decentralized the theoretically more dominant liberal tradition, highlighting instead the surprising range of alternative political currents that have characterized our country, not necessarily at first in reaction to liberalism but even prior to liberalism as a redeployment of other and older ideas and institutions, embodying them in all sorts of deeply rooted American ideas and practices ranging from slavery and Jim Crow, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, Nativism (in particular anti-Catholicism), and such complex phenomena as the early 20th-century Progressive Movement with its interest in eugenics and its anti-democratic cult of expertise. These same currents have clearly resurfaced again in our current political polarization in the aftermath of the backlash against Obama's election that led us to where we are now. Ultimately it usually has come down to some exclusivist attempt to limit participation in the political process, thus foreclosing the possibilities participation uniquely provides, a process we see the increasingly authoritarian elements in our electoral politics currently engaged in.

"History," Hahn concludes, "is a burden and an inspiration. It is buried deep within each of us, and hovers over the worlds that have been made and the future for which many now struggle."

Monday, April 1, 2024

Trump's Bible

It has everything (both religion and patriotism) that Republicans pretend to believe in  - all in one book! 

Easter is traditionally a time when secular media make some more (or increasingly less) serious forays into the world of American religion. This year, candidate Trump beat them to it by unveiling his new bible for sale (at the outrageous price of $59.99 for a book one can purchase much more cheaply, or even easily access for free). "Happy Holy Week," the great grifter is supposed to have said. "Let's make America pray again."

It is a truism at this point that Trump (who has been quoted as saying his favorite bible verse is "an eye for an eye") is no longer the transactional deal dubiously embraced by so-called conservative Christians in 2016, but is now the central character and dominant figure at the center of a pernicious personality cult that calls itself "Christian." In this perverse melding of religion and white nationalism, this dangerous conjoining of religion and the pursuit of political power, to be a "Christian" has little or nothing to do with church or community or with faith, hope, and charity but has become effectively post-Christian, even referred to by some as the "post-Religious Right" (replacing the older "Religious Right").

Famously, Saint John's Passion Account (proclaimed liturgically on Good Friday) highlights the distinctiveness of Christ's kingship as utterly unlike any experience of worldly power. In contrast to Christ's Good Friday testimony before Pilate, Christ the King is instead being sacrilegiously transformed into an avatar of Christian nationalism and a blasphemous cult of America-worship. For his part, Trump has successfully tapped into the fantasies of religious persecution indulged in by many Evangelicals and some conservative Catholics and a consequent desire for a fighter ( a "Cyrus" figure), who personifies aggressive behaviors that perhaps many others would wish they could get away with themselves.

Were we still able to be shocked by anything Trump says, we would surely be shocked by his scandalous self-identification with Jesus. Trump may want to be identified with the Lamb of God, but as Maureen Dowd noted on Easter Sunday, "rather than a sacrificial lamb, he is the Golden Calf, the false god worshipped by Israelites when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments." ["Donald Trump, Blasphemous Bible Thumper, The NY Times, March 31, 2024].