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Weekly Digest: Faith No More
The decline of religion is bound up in the loss of a way of life.
Welcome to my weekly digest for September 1, 2023, with the best articles from around the web and a roundup of my recent writings and appearances.
Greetings from Cincinnati, where I’m in town to speak at the County Before Country conference. It was a busy travel week for me as I was speaking up in Grand Rapids earlier in the week.
Faith No More
The Financial Times ran a great cover story in its weekend edition Life and Arts section on the decline of the church of Scotland. I will liberally excerpt as the FT has a hard paywall.
This article is notable in how it shows that the decline of the Church of Scotland is part of the overall loss of a particular way of life in Scottish towns. It’s not just about people losing their religion.
None of my Anstruther family, local tradespeople for generations, had been fishermen, but lived from their work: my grandfather, an engineering craftsman, made part of our living by mending the boats’ diesel engines. My mother, a beautician, made the other part, busiest when the women from the oilskin factory clamoured for a facial before the men came back at the weekend.
Those of us who left to discover how mathematics and Shakespeare would help us through life often didn’t come back, except to visit, usually briefly, to show off what success we had, explain away the lack of it — then off again. Yet in the decades away, a profound shift had taken place, unseen even as I looked — until, recently, I was taught by old friends to look harder.
The beauty remains, indeed has been renewed; but two great losses had taken place. These are of adhesion to a church that has provided moral guidance for half a millennium; and of community, which had been brought together by a common work and social ethic. I was aware I had, carelessly, absorbed these losses long since: only now aware that they were depletions, unable to recover either.
This is loss means that the Church of Scotland cannot sustain its footprint of churches, meaning many will be closed and their historic architecture endangered as well.
The people have largely withdrawn, and now the Kirk — as it’s always called — is itself withdrawing. Its finances are stretched, new ministers are scarce, congregations scarcer. It has neither archbishop nor pope: these were consigned to the devil centuries ago. Instead, in offices in Edinburgh’s New Town, a web of committees has decreed a deep cut in the Kirk’s churches in Scotland, presently numbering between 4,000 and 5,000.
I talked to Fiona Smith, a minister who was appointed last year as principal clerk to the General Assembly of the Kirk. Various figures for the required cuts have appeared, in part because parishes are still coming to terms with the need for cuts of some sort, and arguing with the central administration. Smith says only that “you can’t escape the fact that numbers are down and the congregations are mainly elderly. Too many churches. We must look to the resources God has given us.” But, she added, “I don’t find the numbers today disheartening. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbours.”
The author John Lloyd contrasts this with growth in some evangelical congregations. Unlike a US newspaper would, he gives a fairly positive portrayal of these congregations.
Learning that the evangelical flame burnt brightly in the north, I went to Inverness to meet two young men, blazing separate but parallel trails to Jesus. Innes Macsween, in his early thirties, forthright and hearty, is “planting” — as evangelicals say — a church in the Free Church tradition in Tornagrain, a new development near Inverness airport: he claims 60 or more already come to his services.
“Things began to change in the churches — especially in the north. People began to ask — what is God’s authority? What is his rescue mission? The Enlightenment tells us that the absolute authority is our mind, our reason. But faith has a higher authority.”
He is more brusque about the faltering Kirk than Michelson. “Being nice only gets you so far. You need to go back to the resurrection. See First Corinthians 15.” (Corinthians, based on letters written by Christ’s disciple Paul, reads: “If Christ is not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”)
“Resurrection is a fact, we must see it as historical, true. On Genesis there can be debate. But if the resurrection is not true, then Christians are to be pitied.”
The author here and elsewhere shows a familiarity with Christianity. Note that he picks out the correct reference from 1 Corinthians 15. Lloyd clearly wants us to pick up that he’s more attuned to Christianity than your average reporter. And as you can see, he allows evangelical pastors to present key elements of the gospel as well, such as the resurrection of Christ.
The only time he really dings them is when they deserve it, such as for corny song lyrics like “God’s love is big / God’s love is great / God’s love is fab / And he’s my mate.” Even here he provides a defense, saying:
This does not have the beauty of, say, the 18th-century hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: yet it’s sung lustily. However fine the hymn, little is more desolate than its singing by a handful of embarrassed congregants in an echoing church.
Yet something tells me Lloyd is not so sanguine about the long term prospects for these evangelical congregations.
He concluded by recapitulating the loss of a way of life, of which the decline of the church is but a symptom.
In the last decades of the 20th century, Anstruther’s oilskin factory closed, as did the Smith and Hutton yard, which fashioned wooden-hulled boats up to 90ft long: remarkable craftsmanship. Its space is now taken by the Scottish Fisheries Museum — a fine collection, its presence testifying to the ending of the real thing. I asked Ronnie Hughes, a former skipper I know, how he would describe the contemporary culture of the place. “Tourism,” he said. “Cafés.”
In “Abide with Me”, another much favoured hymn, a line reads — “Change and decay in all around I see.” The boroughs of East Fife are changing, at their very roots, yet hardly decay: Pittenweem’s Shore Street has been smartened up, as has Anstruther’s Castle Street, where the homes are mostly second ones.
But the loss of a culture that was shared, with the loss of a moral centre of faith to which most became seemingly indifferent, is a local iteration of a western transformation. It may yet be preparing a bill of sorts, for the heedless consumption of a community’s pillars.
This article is an example of why the Financial Times is the world’s best English language newspaper today, even though it is a business-focused publication. For global coverage, your only other alternatives is the Economist. And while the FT takes an unapologetically global neoliberalist stance, its journalism is far less tainted by ideology than most. (The Wall Street Journal is the best newspaper in the US for similar reasons). Unfortunately, it’s very expensive, and the print edition is all but impossible to obtain in the US outside of a handful of cities.
Carl Trueman wrote a recent piece for First Things (the other FT) on a similar theme, on the loss of church and pub. It came out shortly after the FT article above, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had sent it to him and it served as an inspiration piece.
No Enemies to the Left
French political activist René Renoult is credited with inventing the rule “pas d’ennemis à gauche” - no enemies to the left. This is an ethic that is said to animate left wing politics down to the present day. The left, it is said, embraces its radicals - or at least doesn’t denounce or fight with them. While those on the right are over-eager to purge anyone just slightly to the right of themselves.
There’s certainly something to this. You hardly ever see a mainstream Democrat politician denouncing Antifa violence, for example. In part this is because of the media. When some crazy guy who owns a MAGA hat does something anywhere in America, the media is much more likely to stick a microphone in the face of every Republican official they can find demanding that he disavow or denounce said crazy. This is much less likely to happen to Democrats (though does happen from time to time).
But this general distinction has been taken too far in right wing analysis. It is not actually true that everyone on the left operates under the no enemies to the left principle. There are significant divisions within the American left, and any number of people in the center-left are de facto at war with more progressive elements. One example is Matthew Yglesias. His recent newsletter on the two kinds of progressives, what he labels “moralists” and “pragmatists” is an example. He writes:
“You can compromise on what level of taxation we should have,” she says. “You can compromise on things like, you know, how much aid we should give to foreign nations.” By contrast, “the problem is when we’re talking about whether an entire group of human beings in the country who are American citizens should be eradicated. There is no compromise position there. We can’t compromise on whether Black Americans should be treated equally as white Americans.”
And to be clear, Mason isn’t talking about a hypothetical situation where an extremist party gains critical mass and it’s impossible to compromise with them.
That’s her characterization of the present-day Republican Party’s stance on transgender rights and racial equality. Zimmer has occasionally tweeted unkind things about me in ways that I’ve found somewhat puzzling, and this episode helped me understand where he’s coming from. Because this idea they are articulating — that there is a set of identity-linked issues that are beyond the scope of normal political give and take — strikes me as truly the most fundamental divide in progressive politics today. A divide so important that it transcends disagreements about everything else, precisely because the claim being made on the Zimmer/Mason side of the line is that the imperative for a principled stand on these topics trumps all other considerations.
To put my cards on the table, I think Mason has this wrong. [bold emphasis added]
This is far from the first time Yglesias has voiced such sentiments. He is regularly brutalized on twitter by the far left over his stance that Democrats should advance their agenda incrementally via “popularist” approach that focuses on things that are popular without ladling them up with fringe left ideas that are very unpopular.
He’s far from the only person on the left who is willing to treat people to his left as political enemies. The “no enemies to the left principle” I think does help illuminate some differences between left and right, but applied in a facile way it ignores the reality of how Democratic politics actually operates.
Best of the Web
Christine Emba: The Ideal Man Exists
Zvi Mowshowitz: This Is Why You Are Single - A very long roundup of dating related statistic and analysis. The #1 reason why so many people are still single? They aren’t looking.
Jake Meador: What integrity can’t do - A mixed review of Russell Moore’s new book.
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New Content and Media Mentions
This Christianity Today article by Mike Cosper takes issue with my three worlds framework. I think the average person very much gets it that something radically changed in the social environment of America in the last decade. What those who have pushed back on my model haven’t done is provided any compelling alternative explanation of that change. Cosper is very much in that category.
This week on the podcast, Sohrab Ahmari joined me to discuss his new book Tyranny, Inc: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty - and What To Do About It.
Paid subscribers can read the transcript.
Also this week I engaged with a new proposal by Jake Meador on whether or not mainline Protestantism can be rebuilt.
Post-Script: The Attraction of Mormonism
The great writer Walter Kirn penned a piece for the New Republic back in 2012 on his experience as a Mormon. He later abandoned his faith, but has very kind and insightful things to say about it.
Last winter, I sat drinking coffee in my living room, watching Mitt Romney speak on television after narrowly winning the Michigan primary. The speech was standard Republican stuff, all about shrinking the federal government and restoring American greatness, but I wasn’t concentrating on Romney’s rhetoric. I was examining his face, his manner, and trying—if such a thing is possible—to peer into his soul. I was trying to see the Mormon in him.
My motives were personal, not political. I’d never been a good Mormon, as you’ll soon learn (indeed, I’m not a Mormon at all these days), but the talk of religion spurred by Romney’s run had aroused in me feelings of surprising intensity. Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment, particularly when they made mention of “magic underwear” and other supposedly spooky, cultish aspects of Mormon doctrine and theology. On the other hand, legitimate reminders of the Church hierarchy’s decisive support for Proposition 8, the California gay marriage ban, disgusted me. Deeper, trickier emotions surfaced whenever I came across the media’s favorite visual emblem of the faith: a young male missionary in a shirt and tie with a black plastic name-badge pinned to his vest pocket. The image suggested that Mormons were squares and robots, a naïve, brainwashed army of the out-of-touch. That hurt a bit. It also tugged me back to a sad, frightened moment in my youth when these figures of fun were all my family had.
As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament. He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright. When a writer for The New York Times, Charles Blow, urged Romney to “stick that in your magic underwear!” I half hoped that Romney would lose his banker’s cool and tell the bigoted anti-Mormon twits to stick something else somewhere else, until it hurt. I further hoped he’d sit his critics down and thoughtfully explain that Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences.
In a way I remembered from my teenage years, my housemates did everything in groups, with friends from their Santa Monica “singles ward.” They hit the beach for all-night bonfire parties and convoyed off to a giant monthly flea market held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. At least once a week, they threw a backyard cookout: burgers and chicken, rolls, potato salad, lettuce salad, Jell-O salad, ice cream. When everybody finished eating, we’d gather inside the main house’s soaring living room to watch that week’s episode of Sophie’s talent show or one of the bloody, hard-boiled action movies that Bobby couldn’t get enough of. The mood was casual and disheveled, reminding me of a fifth-grade sleepover. I was faintly aware of crushes within the group, of certain young men who had eyes for certain young women, but there was no withdrawing into pairs. Everyone paid attention to everyone else.
I’d forgotten that social life could be so easy. I’d forgotten that things most Americans do alone, ordinary things, like watching television or listening to music or sweeping a floor, could also be done in numbers, pleasantly. One night, I sat on the floor next to a kid, muscled and tall, rectangularly handsome, who turned out to be a quarterback for UCLA. I learned this from Kim; he’d never bothered to mention it. Too absorbed in the goofy talent show, too busy barbecuing chicken breasts or squirting Hershey’s Syrup on bowls of ice cream, assembly-line style, while someone else stuck spoons in them. At Beverly Zion, that’s how it worked: pitch in, help out, cooperate, cooperate. Divide the labor, pool the fruits. This reflexive communalism went way back in Mormonism and underlay a frontier economic system known as “The United Order.” It had also inspired the early Mormons’ symbol of themselves, the beehive. In Brigham Young’s Utah, where speculative self-enrichment was explicitly discouraged (along with the mining and trading of precious metals, which Young decried as a barren, corrupting enterprise), the direction of the pursuit of happiness was toward the advancement of the common good.
It dawned on me that the purpose of Beverly Zion was not to seal out Hollywood at all, but to provide a setting for the enjoyment of a mutualistic way of life familiar from childhood homes and churches. [emphasis added]
Click through to read the whole thing.
Cover image credit: Jim Bain, CC BY-SA 2.0
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