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Newsletter #58: Loyalty Is the Coin of the Realm
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The Centrality of Loyalty
Rod Dreher’s most annoying character trait is also his most admirable: his loyalty to his friends.
If you’ve read Rod’s blog then you know that he almost never speaks ill of a friend. Even when he criticizes their positions, he’s always careful to limit it to that and explicitly affirm his continued friendship with them. He recently said, “I don’t care what your politics are — I will never abandon a friend. But many people don’t live by that standard.” When writing about his friends, he’ll sometimes go so far as to say that he won’t even let commenters make negative statements about their character.
For those of us who think some of Rod’s friends are sometimes less than stellar people, this can be exasperating. But he’s actually got it quite right. People should be loyal to their friends, something that was understood by basically everybody until quite recently. It says something that Dreher is one of the few people who actually still lives it out.
Historically, disloyalty has been considered one of the single greatest sins or crimes a person could commit. In Dante’s Inferno, the ninth circle of hell is reserved for those guilty of treachery. Matthew 26:24 says, “The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” The very name Judas has become part of our vocabulary indicating a traitor, along with other disgraced names like quisling (the last name of an actual person). There’s a reason Benedict Arnold may be the most infamous name in American history or why the only line most people can quote from Julius Caesar is, “Et tu, Brute?”
Notions of loyalty and treason seem to be something primal and deeply part of human nature. The 47 ronin of Japan were loyal to their master even after his death, earning a place in the history books. Unions understand that the scab is the lowest form of life. The mafia has its code of omertà. Even children know that selling out their group – tattling on one of the boys for example – is wrong. Sexual infidelity is one of the few pieces of traditional Christian sexual morality that still has broad currency in society, precisely because it is a violation of the duty of loyalty as seen in the most popular word for it: cheating. We even recognize a violation of loyalty in the way we look askance at someone who can’t stop putting down an ex-girlfriend, or who publicly badmouths a former employer, church, etc.
So primal is our response to treachery that people have even described sin in terms of treason rather than the reverse. One of the quotes attributed to Jonathan Edwards, for example, is, “The smallest sin is an act of Cosmic Treason against a Holy God.”
The very fact that treason is universally considered the most hideous of crimes is to reveal its status as odious under natural law. As Protestant thinker Richard Hooker wrote, “The general and perpetual voice of mankind is as the judgment of God Himself, since what all men at all times have come to believe must have been taught to them by Nature, and since God is Nature’s author, her voice is merely His instrument.”
Western Civilization itself emerged in the Middle Ages in part out of oaths of loyalty and reciprocal obligation that formed the basis of the feudal system. Of this one neoreactionary writer said:
In the period between Pseudo-Dionysius’s Hierarchia [6th century] and the breakdown of feudalism during the 14th Century, the concept of Fides (faith, fidelity) served as the contextual framework through which Latin Christians interpreted their social, political, and religious relationships…Fides must be understood as Faith in the broadest sense of the word: not just religious belief, but also faithfulness, holding faith with others, acting in good faith, keeping faith. The ideal of the medieval fighting man was “Semper Fidelis,” an ideal to which only a handful of modern institutions still remain faithful.
This exchange of oaths and the expectation that everyone would hold faith with those oaths sustained all feudal political relationships. The very word felony refers to the act of breaking one’s oaths to society. Those who cannot be trusted, for the medieval thinker, must be relegated to the lowest, most menial rank in society, and many legal codes of the period attest to this principle. Also, for the medieval thinker, faith is a unitary concept spanning the religious and social spheres. To be faithless in secular affairs is to be faithless in religious ones.
He goes on to show how the society based on relationships of fidelity (loyalty) was replaced by one of relationships of contract, to our detriment. Contracts are products of consent. Consent can be withdrawn. And violations of contracts incur merely financial penalties not moral sanction. He says:
The modern system of contractual consent over faithful friendship ensures that obligation is only met at the minimum possible level. It creates incentive to defect in prisoner dilemmas, especially if a clever lawyer can find an “out” in the contract. It leads to a perverse motivation to absolve oneself of obligation by twisting and abusing the terms of the agreements publicly made.
The society of contract itself is also a product of Western thought. The “social contract” basis of government is the most famous example of it. I’m not the expert on this but the society of contract may have started emerging in the 12th century concurrently with the development of the modern concept of the individual. But regardless, the idea of contract and withdrawable consent has now devoured every human relationship. That’s why divorce is both available and no big deal today. Even churches too often are looking for a way to find a clever “out” of the marriage contract (e.g., unprovable claims of “emotional abuse”). Other than perhaps parents and their minor children, it is essentially impossible for us to even conceive of relationships of genuine fidelity rather than contract.
As we see, the duty of loyalty, fidelity in one’s relations is a broad one. This is again present in Dante, whose ninth circle was divided into four zones reflecting different kinds of betrayal, of family, of country, of guests, of masters.
Treachery is likewise not compartmentalized. Disloyalty in one area frequently indicates disloyalty or corruption in another. For example, one of the best ways to gain insight into the character of Donald Trump is by looking at how disloyal he is. Not only is he disloyal, he frequently exploits the trust of those closest to him.
When building the Trump Tower in Chicago, Trump gave special “friends and family” pricing to members of his team who wanted to buy a unit in the building. Then he rescinded their contracts and demanded they pay more money later. It appears he may have given away these deals in order to get presales he could use to obtain construction financing, then gouged them for more money after he got his loan. Similarly, his administration hired relatively few of his actual campaign supporters, particularly those who had backed him during the primary. Instead, the Trump admin was staffed with large numbers of “Never Trumpers” and those who had disparaged him during the campaign. And, after encouraging people to protest the 2020 election results, he then declined to pardon protestors arrested in the wake of 1/6 even as he has continued claiming he was the rightful victor after leaving office. You are actually better off being Donald Trump’s enemy than his “friend,” as 1/6 protestors found out to their chagrin.
Trump’s disloyalty tells us something profound about his character. People who demonstrate material disloyal behavior in any part of their lives are those who fundamentally can’t be trusted in anything.
There Is No Community Without Solidarity
Historically, people understood that without loyalty in relationships, nothing could be accomplished. The slogan of the French Revolution was liberté, egalité, fraternité. We typically translate that liberty (or freedom), equality, and fraternity. We talk incessantly about freedom and equality, but almost never about fraternity. In fact, the word fraternity (or even the alternative, brotherhood) in English has very little valence, and probably conjures images of the movie Animal House more than anything substantive.
I looked the word fraternité up in French dictionaries. It has the sense of friendship or good will, and solidarity. Whatever the defects of the French Revolution, they understood that society couldn’t be just about freedom and equality. There also had to be solidarity. Of course, they failed, because a large-scale brotherhood of humanity just doesn’t work. But at least they were trying to find a replacement for that network of reciprocal loyalties that constituted pre-modern Europe and which had become deformed at the time of the revolution. They knew they needed a glue to hold their society together.
Similarly, Benjamin Franklin supposedly said (maybe apocryphally) of the American Revolution, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” The motto of the commonwealth of Kentucky is, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
But what can’t work outside of times of crisis (such as war) at the level of the nation, can happen and be powerful at smaller levels. Trade unionists have always understood this. That’s one reason so many of them have fraternité in their very name. For example, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It’s why the Polish trade unionists called themselves Solidarity. Unions know that absolute solidarity is key to their cause, and thus to cross the picket line is to become no longer a friend but an enemy. The scab is a mortal threat.
A band of brothers who stick together is a powerful thing. A group of people who are disloyal to each other will probably never accomplish anything great. In the absence of solidarity, community becomes fragile or even impossible.
Treating Vice as Virtue
Oddly, Christians today speak of loyalty in almost entirely negative terms. A frequent basis of criticism, for example, is that someone is being “tribal”, or putting loyalty to their team or group ahead of other considerations. Tribalism is endlessly bemoaned. Some will even speak of those who betray their friends or in-group in positive terms, saying that they are being “prophetic.” (I will address the matter of these so-called “prophets” below).
Loyalty, in this instance, is viewed as a sin not a virtue. Or at least loyalty is only conditionally virtuous. We should be loyal only when we think the other person’s behavior is above reproach. If the other person has sinned, made an error in judgment (in our opinion anyway), or sometimes merely behaved in a gauche manner, then our duty is actually to be disloyal to them and publicly condemn or disavow them or disassociate ourselves from them in some way. This can even be praised as godly.
The ideal Christian, in this system, seems to be someone who prizes personal purity and public reputation over the reality of faithful relationship with other fallen humans. This person floats above the messy realities of prudentially engaging in politics, preferring to deplore the behavior of “both sides” in seeking to preserve his “moral witness” in society. If this means denouncing or breaking with other Christians with whom he is associated (even if just in the public mind) when those people fall short of his lofty standards, so be it, even if it means turning the world over to the people actively hostile to the faith. Not being part of a tribe, or sometimes even a nation is a point of pride to him.
This worldview is not only bizarre, but reflects a completely mistaken view of our society. The truth is that both in our society and in the church, there’s far too little loyalty, not too much. For example, I mentioned in my previous newsletter the case of the head of the local library system in my town who was unjustly forced out after being accused of “running a plantation.” Not a single civic leader publicly defended her, even though many of them are her longtime personal friends and colleagues. Loyalty level: zero.
This lack of loyalty is increasingly characteristic of our society. We notably see it in the business world. Milton Friedman famously published an essay arguing that the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits. We now see every day how supposedly American businessmen have zero loyalty to our country and its people.
We’ve also seen a rise in perfidious behavior by Christian leaders. Consider Russell Moore, former head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has made multiple public statements suggesting that other Christians, including many of his fellow SBC members, were in reality not saved. For example, his First Things Erasmus lecture was titled “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” Note the double-sense of the word “saved.” But at least this was in a Christian forum. He also did similar things in a secular forum. He wrote in the New York Times, a publication that’s not exactly friendly to Christianity or Christian values, “A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock. The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again.’” The implication is that white (supposed) Christians who vote for Trump may be in danger of eternal damnation. Keep in mind, when writing this he was writing as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm. He was the paid representative of the very people he was trashing. And he disparaged them and questioned their salvation in the New York Times of all places.
Later, when leaving his role as the head of the SBC’s policy arm – possibly because he was pushed out – he engaged in various machinations that I won’t detail here that inflicted damage on the denomination on the way out the door. And then he took a job as minister in residence at a non-SBC church that actually baptizes infants. In other words, he’s on the pastoral staff at a church that repudiates – that is, from the perspective of a Southern Baptist, betrays – one of the biggest theological distinctives of being a Baptist. He’s like a Southern Baptist Prince Harry.
Moore’s behavior is objectively treacherous. We don’t need to be able to see into his heart in order to be justified in heuristically concluding that he is bad news. He has revealed himself not as a friend, but an enemy to the vast bulk of American evangelicals, 80% of whom voted for Trump.
This sort of behavior has become all too commonplace. The New York Times and Washington Post have figured out that any number of Christian leaders so value having a byline in their publication that they can get them to attack other Christian leaders publicly in order to get it.
Moore’s beliefs may well be genuine. I assume they are. That’s not the issue. In light of them, he should have resigned from his position as head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission back in 2015 because he could no longer in good conscience do his job in representing the denomination and its members. Maybe there is a proper place for him to severely criticize his own people, but the New York Times is not the venue. Maybe he could have realized that op-ed was a mistake in that and repented. Everybody both sins and makes mistakes. But his future actions have been consistent with the same perfidious pattern, suggesting deeper matters of character and beliefs are at work. Moore is hardly alone in these kinds of actions.
Guiding Principle: Don’t Criticize the In-Group in the Out-Group’s Publications
Christians need to rediscover the virtue and necessity of loyalty. Over the last several years I laid out some of my guiding principles in what I’m doing with the Masculinist project: live not by lies, build up don’t just tear town, have skin in the game, don’t use rhetoric that is technically accurate but designed to deceive. Another one I will mention today is not to use secular forums and their value systems to attack other Christians.
One thing you’ll note is that I almost never say critical things about previous employers, or about churches I’ve attended. I strive to be entirely positive with regards to them. In fact, I’m very vague about where I’ve gone to church because I don’t want them getting blowback on account of what I write. This newsletter is not a church ministry, and no church I’ve attended has ever invested in what I’m doing so I want to keep them out of it as much as I can.
I also used to work for a conservative think tank. And because of that I always try to be cognizant of using left leaning publications to criticize conservatives from the perspective of the left. I don’t even consider myself a conservative. I like to say I’m half progressive, half reactionary. But I still try to be careful about what and where I write. Because publications like the New York Times love to leverage institutionally affiliated conservative voices to echo their (the Times’) talking points.
Here’s a real life example. Indiana’s Republican state legislature passed a law to preempt a tenant protection ordinance in Indianapolis passed in response to a newspaper exposé of slum conditions in the city’s rental housing. I thought that was morally unconscionable and frankly am still outraged about it. I have no political influence here, but one thing I do have is the ability to generate big negative national press for the state. I thought about leveraging every media connection I have to damage their reputation over this. But I didn’t do it, even though I have very few political obligations or debts in the state. Indiana is where I’m from but played no material role in creating my success. I did write a piece for a state and local government trade publication about this legal matter. It leans left, so maybe I shouldn’t have even really done that. But it’s a niche publication. I avoided major media. I chose to write my detailed criticism of Indiana’s Republican leadership in the conservative policy journal American Affairs (to be published online on Nov. 20th).
I have written some critical things about the church’s teachings on gender in publications like the Federalist. That is a secular political publication, but one that’s conservative and Christian friendly and edited by a solid Lutheran. Is it possibly I’ve said and done things I shouldn’t have? Sure. But if so I need to take stock, and make sure I don’t repeat those errors going forward.
I’d propose a simple, easily actionable guiding principle for all people who are publicly known as Christian leaders: don’t criticize other Christians in the secular media if you can avoid it, and certainly do not criticize them from the secular value system of the publication in question.
Or, more broadly, don’t criticize the in-group in the out-group’s forums.
Find Your Band of Brothers
Next, find a band of brothers joined in the bonds of fidelity. This can’t happen at the level of the country. It can’t happen at the level of Christianity, or American Catholicism, or evangelicalism. Maybe it even can’t really happen at the level of a church anymore.
But somewhere you need to find a group of men, maybe very small to start with, that are united in bonds of loyalty. It may well be that you discover one of them betrays you. But until that happens, you can at least stay loyal to him. As our neoreactionary writer pointed out, warrior bands of men were one of the key sources of the Western idea of loyalty:
The political bonds of Western-style medieval societies grew out of the folkish warband, which explicitly rested in these ties. The Anglo-Saxon rincman, the warrior who served and in exchange received a ring from the dryhten as a symbol of his oath and trust, is a person whose essential relationship is based on this notion of faith, namely that he hold faith with his hlaford (loaf-giver, lord) and his lord hold faith with him.
The relationship between lord and man was intensely personal and deeply felt, as we see in the historical accounts of men piling up their bodies in an attempt to rescue the corpse of their fallen leader. The notion that one’s oath and reputation is so important that dozens of men should willingly and gladly die to prevent the dead body of their beloved lord from being dishonored by the enemy is almost foreign to the degenerate modern mind. Where scripture says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13) few moderns outside of men who have seen actual combat actually understand the significance of this kind of social bond.
Unless you are actually in the military, you are not part of a war band. I shouldn’t have to say this but I will: stay far, far away from anything remotely resembling a “militia” type group or anyone who talks about political violence. But you do need to find a group of loyal men who stand with each other in some common purpose or community. I think this kind of lost loyalty is one reason Rod Dreher was so attracted to monasticism as his model for the Benedict Option. Monks in a monastery still live out the old reality of faithful friendship.
Before people start going crazy saying “What about X?” of course you need to hold them accountable. If you find out somebody is a child molester, call the police. If your employer is defrauding a client, blow the whistle. Loyalty to a criminal organization is not virtuous. But what I see is that people get so caught up in the rare exception cases, that it rises to the level of, in effect, denying the rule. Exceptions really are exceptional.
What we constantly see instead, though, is pressure to disavow or distance yourself from various people. Anybody encouraging you to do something like that, or to be less tribal, etc. is, at the end of the day, trying to undermine you. Because loyalty is the coin of the realm, and people who encourage disloyalty are attempting to debase that currency and collapse your social economy. Maybe sometimes that’s not their intended goal. But it is the practical outworking of that line of thinking.
And keep in mind, there is no common good without common loyalty. If you want to have durable marriages, more overall social solidarity, stronger churches, etc., there has to be loyalty and fidelity in general. There is not even friendship, whether in the Aristotelian sense or even the ordinary one, without loyalty. A cord of three strands is not easily broken – unless two of the three strands disavow the other because he liked a Mean Tweet by a Bad Man and other Christians demand that they do so after the New York Times complained about it. People who can’t affirm a general duty of loyalty and faithfulness have forfeited their right to complain about lack of solidarity in social relations and societal institutions.
Many people of late have been looking at what was lost with the transition to modern industrial or post-industrial society and seeking to restore some aspects of that. Recent attempts to find a way to recreate the functional household are an example. But beyond the household there are many forms of virtue that have been so lost to our society that we are often not even aware of them. Loyalty, fidelity in relations is one of those. Just as we can’t and shouldn’t want to roll back the clock to pre-industrial homestead farms, there’s no return to a feudal society in its original sense. But finding some way to recapture some level of genuine loyalty is critical to recreating and sustaining any form of healthy society.
On Modern Day Prophets
Today, speaking genuinely prophetically means violating the conventional wisdom in ways that come with severe social or career penalties. People who are willing to do that are usually those who have quirky personalities at best or are even damaged or morally compromised individuals. Or, at a minimum, they have to be willing to endure being stigmatized as a bad person. This makes them easy to criticize and ignore.
Consider people like Pat Buchannan speaking prophetically, correctly in retrospect, against the war in Iraq. They were, of course, accused of disloyalty, of being “unpatriotic” as the National Review put it, and successfully exiled from mainstream conservatism. (Of course, this was not genuine treachery as it was a legitimate domestic policy debate in advance of war). The Bush apparatchiks who promoted this war based on falsehoods have done well for themselves, often landing plum gigs at places like the Atlantic or Washington Post. The critics like Buchanan are mostly still treated as pariahs.
In the Christian world today, people praised by some as prophets typically seem well-adjusted, even over-socialized, and rarely suffer these kinds of consequences. Russell Moore remains very popular, for example. Even if he were pushed out of the ERLC (which may or may not be the case), he landed a prime gig at Christianity Today, is on staff at a high-profile church in Nashville, is hosted on podcasts by David Axelrod, etc.
If you really wanted to look at people speaking prophetically in the Christian world, you’d have to look at “watch bloggers” and the like. For example, the people who started the Elephant Debt blog critiquing James Macdonald, or Warren Throckmorton pursuing Mark Driscoll like Ahab his whale. These folks tend to be unique to say the least, and often engage in questionable behavior. Throckmorton’s years long obsession with Driscoll (which is still ongoing) has been relentlessly negative and exhibits a clear lack of charity, for example. Nevertheless, these people have often been quite right in their critiques and well ahead of the mainstream in catching on to the truth about the people they criticized. Yet nobody calls them prophets.
A better explanation of the supposed “prophets” is that they are actually people engaging in factional or party warfare within their denominations, institutions, etc. Rather than a genuine prophetic statement, these are attacks against internal opponents. For example, there are any number of Christians very active on the anti-abuse beat that are quick to be express online outrage about instances of it. But none of the ones I follow had a word to say when it was reported that ministries of Raphael Warnock’s church mishandled abuse there. Most of them were likewise silent when the New York Times reported that Matt Chandler’s church mishandled abuse. This isn’t to say those people don’t care about abuse at all. I’m sure they do. But their response to abuse is shaped by political considerations, and primarily wielded against political enemies within the church. They certainly aren’t prophets in the biblical sense, given the selectivity of their outrage. This is actually somewhat exculpating for them, as it may indicate they actually are loyal to the subset of people genuinely on their team.
I was going to hold my tongue on this, but I just can’t. I think this is terrible. Just terrible. I just can’t fathom anyone with such a complete lack of honor as to betray confidence. I don’t care if it’s friend or foe, I was raised to keep faith.
– From a leaked email by a member of a secret Christian email list describing a previous email leak