All One Thing or All the Other

An American flag flies outside a church in Queens, N.Y. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Good Friday reminds us that the red–blue divide in our politics is a proxy for a larger confrontation over the religious character of the nation.

‘Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” So said Wallace Stanley Sayre of Columbia University way back in the early 1950s — another reminder that the cultural conditions for the decay and debasement of the 1960s began to bubble up in the immediate post-war era and were not the result of a contagion imported into the United States with the Beatles. Democratic culture in the United States ensures that the middle classes adopt the worst habits of the upper classes, and, having subjected the national political discourse to the manners of the faculty lounge, Americans now are not quite sure how to handle themselves when the stakes are something other than low.

Here is a question for you: When you consider the outrage theater on social media and on cable news, when you hear Americans who claim to believe that the culture that made a millionaire of Pooh Shiesty operates as a white-supremacist conspiracy or that American politics is dominated by a secret cabal set into motion by Antonio Gramsci a century ago, when you encounter people who claim with absolute metaphysical certitude that mentioning the fact that a certain famous Justin Bieber impersonator used to be called Ellen is in some ineffable way a literal act of violence, when you talk with people who insist that either “patriarchy” or “cultural Marxism” or capital or “cosmopolitan globalism” lurks secretly in every dark corner, that one of these or some other fresh new phlogiston of the moment explains everything . . . do you not think, as I do, that in reality something else is going on?

Perhaps it seems to you, as it seems to me, that these conversations are not really about what everybody is pretending they are about. Instead, they result from the fact that we feel compelled to seek out ever more ludicrous ways (Intersectionalism! Integralism! Nationalism!) to reconfigure the high-stakes questions as low-stakes questions, as though we could miniaturize the moral universe in the form of a dispute about pronoun etiquette or aluminum tariffs or dissident bakers in Colorado.

The high-stakes questions don’t go away simply because we ignore them.

There is a certain kind of debunking mind that relishes “exposing” things that generally well-educated people already know, especially when those things have to do with Christianity, which was until the day before yesterday the main current in Western thought. You know the type: Ho, ho! Don’t you know that Christmas is a barely dressed-up Saturnalia and that St. Brigid was a Celtic goddess before she was a Christian saint? Ever notice that after church on Easter so many of those Bible-believing Christians conduct an ancient pagan fertility ceremony involving sacred rabbits and egg-worship? Etc. I suppose that sort of thing is disturbing to a certain kind of Christian — the easily disturbed kind — but most people understand that the story of human history is that we move around, and bump into and rub off on one another in the process. Of course the early Christians borrowed from the Romans. And the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, the Greeks from the Egyptians, the Egyptians from the Nubians and the Syrians, and so on back into the darkest shadows of antiquity. In the case of Christianity, it would have been more remarkable if a religion born in the Roman Empire hadn’t borne the imprint of Roman culture.

But what those same debunkers so often fail to appreciate is that the secular West and the post-Christian world have been busily reinventing the same rites and rituals that have been with us since the beginning of human civilization, often in the shape of barely disguised repurposing of familiar Christian forms. E.g.: Both Christian conversions and gender conversions are characterized by “confirmations” that are part of an extended social ritual in which a person often chooses a special name and leaves behind the old identity while being presented to the community under the new identity. Saint Paul insisted that the old man must die so that the new one might live in salvation, and his epigones go so far as to observe a taboo against even mentioning the old man (“deadnaming”). The social and the religious overlap: Victorian debutantes were “coming out” a long time before Lil Nas X did. (And surely his was the least-surprising coming-out of a pop singer since Rob Halford’s.) Adopting distinctive dietary restrictions was a common form of spiritual observance long before American progressives declared war on gluten and animal products. Donald Trump was not the first guy to put on a ceremonial red hat and declare himself God’s man on the ground. Ritual genital mutilation as a rite of passage did not begin at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health.

From veganism to pronoun magic, these quasi-religious phenomena represent quests for meaning and understanding in new forms. If people in our time urgently feel the necessity to seek out new forms of meaning and understanding, it is because they have lost touch with the old ones. And if the new ones have produced despair and chaos rather than fulfillment and order, we might consider what there is to be learned from that.

Today is Good Friday. No one is really sure why we call it good. It may be from good in its fading sense of pious or holy (“the good friar,” “good tidings” at Christmas), or it may be a corruption of the German phrase Gottes Freitag, or “God’s Friday.” Given the brutality of the events commemorated on Good Friday, calling it “good” feels a little strange to the modern ear. The old Anglo-Saxons called the Friday before Easter “Long Friday,” as do the modern Danes (Langfredag) and Swedes (Långfredagen). And though Long Friday observances are solemn and often uncomfortable, they may not be long enough. We could stand to spend a little longer meditating on the events in question, in which the stakes are very high, indeed — the highest, in fact: As Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his great, brief Death on a Friday Afternoon, if what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then that, and none of our contemporary alternatives, is the truth about everything.

The high-stakes game is different from the more common one, because love is different from niceness and because truth is different from “my truth.” The point of understanding the real stakes of the game is not to improve our manners or even our public morality, much less to reform the state of our political affairs and our democratic discourse. All of those improvements may be worthy and desirable, and they may follow naturally from that understanding, but they are only subordinate ends. The truth is not the truth because it makes us better citizens — the truth is the truth because it is the truth. And the truth of Good Friday is this: The Cross is not the end of the story, but there is no way to the Resurrection except through it. If that is your starting point, then there are still many directions you can go from there, but all your possible paths lead back to the same place. It is a world that has a center.

Quoting from the Gospel according to Mark, Abraham Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” The question that plagued Lincoln was settled — in blood — at Gettysburg and immediately thereafter. But this house remains divided, and the real divide — the high-stakes divide — is not red vs. blue. Red vs. blue is only a proxy for a larger, comprehensive confrontation that is in its minor aspects political and cultural and in its major aspect spiritual — which is to say, religious. (Let us never hear again from those delusional souls who proclaim themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Of course you follow a religion, even if it is a hokey and low-rent one of which you are not consciously aware. Everybody sees it except you.) And though I do not expect exceptionless uniformity of opinion among individuals, I think Lincoln had it about right: This country will become, to some predominating degree, all one thing or all the other.

Good Friday points the way toward one possibility. The signposts pointing the way to the other possibility are everywhere around you to be seen.


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