The Tuesday

Religion

God’s Little Lobbyists

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Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, politics, and culture, along with some stuff about the initiation rites of Anatolian mother-goddess cults that I wisely edited out but promise to put into a book soon. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” follow this link.

Evangelize the People

Soon after he came to power, Adolf Hitler was asked whether he intended to nationalize German industry. Hitler answered that there was no need for that. “I shall nationalize the people,” he declared.

“Which is what he did,” wrote the great historian John Lukacs, “alas, quite successfully.” Those who would try to press our society in a different and better direction — who would drag it, kicking and screaming, against its natural inclinations — have the opposite mission: not to nationalize the people, but to evangelize them. There is no avoiding the squabbles of procedural democracy, but even the most expert and ruthless squabbling is doomed to failure unless it is yoked to a real change in the minds of the American people. (The minds, not the hearts — this is a question of political thinking, not one of religious sentiment.) That is, I think, the pattern of action for American Christians who wish to be engaged with politics as Christians. But let’s not move on from Hitler and his politics just yet.

A certain kind of glamour hangs on such monsters as Hitler. It is the same glamour that hangs on many saints and saviors. One sometimes hears a version of it from Christian apologists who take a Case for Christ-style preponderance-of-evidence approach to the Gospel: “Jesus must have performed miracles and been raised from the dead — how else to explain the devotion to this otherwise obscure exorcist from the Galilean backwaters?” But these Christians are not persuaded by shows of devotion that the emperor of Japan is the descendent of a sun goddess, that Haile Selassie was God Incarnate, or even that Idi Amin was “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular,” to say nothing of the uncrowned king of Scotland, though many of Amin’s subjects and sycophants would have sworn to it.

It is a myth that L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology as a bet with Kurt Vonnegut, but in even the relatively short span of American history we have seen new religions invented ex nihilo, faiths for which men were willing to kill and die. And by creating a cult that masqueraded as a political party — a socialist workers’ party — Adolf Hitler convinced what was arguably Europe’s most intellectually and culturally advanced country to stage a kind of national mass-suicide beyond the wildest imaginings of Jim Jones.

To make or to remake a people — toward heroic ends or monstrous ones — is a display of tremendous power, and that kind of power attracts not only admiration but worship. And religious iconography tends to repeat itself: It is not for nothing that (among many other similarities) Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, and George Washington each was said to have revealed his true nature in an encounter involving a sacred tree, one of the most ancient religious symbols, or that each was purified by a period of suffering in the wilderness. Nor is it an accident that coins invested with a special meaning figure prominently in both religious and political mythologies. In the case of George Washington, the winter at Valley Forge is an event that actually happened, while the cherry-tree story was a fable (probably a spontaneously generated folk tale rather than a propagandistic fabrication) amplified by the ever-entrepreneurial Parson Weems. The legend about Washington’s throwing a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River took a few different forms before it fossilized into its final version. But both the fact and the fiction fit easily into a longstanding mythological template.

The pagan character of German politics in the 1930s was clear to many observers and widely remarked upon at the time. The pagan character of American politics (and society) in our time is less plain to modern Americans, partly owing to the decay of our religious education. Of course, it is always easier to see the cultishness of the other side as cultishness.

None of this is exactly new, and we see familiar patterns of myth and legend, of rebirth and deliverance, in our own time: The Nazis had their Horst Wessel, and the January 6 maniacs have their Ashli Babbitt, who has assumed Kate Steinle’s role in their martyrology. Their spiritual and political leader, Donald Trump, succeeded in working a radical change not in the entire people but in a non-trivial share of zealots and converts, who are growing even more clabbered and paranoid, rather than less, as the days pass. And a fair number of those born-again cultists profess an altogether different religion on Sundays, even if many of them have effectively ceased to believe in any higher power than that of the president as anything more than a matter of rhetoric and tradition. I am reminded often of Ezra Pound’s sneer that the “Catholic Church went out of business when its hierarchy ceased to believe its own dogma.” That’s an exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of something that is true.

The footprint of Trumpism in American Christianity, particularly among those we clumsily and vaguely characterize as “Evangelical,” is large and persistent. It is powered in part by genuine political disagreement, in part by cultural anxiety, and in part by a large and rapacious commercial apparatus that converts Americans’ fears into fortunes 30 pieces of silver at a time. (This makes more sense if you think of cable news, political radio, and social media as in effect one complex and recursive system of self-moronization.) And it grows in its opportunistic way because American Christians still, after all these years, have not quite figured out how to engage with politics without either drifting into some unholy compound of state-idolatry and theocracy or degrading the church to the position of just another special-interest group among many, a half-assed Chamber of Commerce for the faithful — God’s little lobbyists. Because they have been convinced that we live in especially critical times and that the other side is irredeemably evil and on the verge — always and forever on the verge — of achieving irresistible power, they are all too eager to subordinate eternal concerns to short-term political mandates, proclaiming themselves practical and hard-headed men of worldly experience.

This is a particularly acute institutional problem for Evangelicals, because they do not have the Catholic Church’s history of wielding real political power, and — perhaps more importantly — because they do not have its hierarchy. The Catholic Church discovered many centuries ago that if an organization is going to cultivate princely power, then it had better have some princes. The pope can meet any head of state — including heads of officially atheist states — as a peer, and in most cases something more than that. Lesser princes of the church have sufficient status and prestige (purely secular qualities but necessary ones) and, in some cases, enough plain political clout to meet any legislator and most heads of state eye-to-eye. But without a hierarchy of that sort, American Evangelical leaders most often come to wide influence only as political pundits or operatives (Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed), or as a familiar species of self-help guru (Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes). A very few, such as Tim Keller, achieve some intellectual influence as clergymen, but that is a bit of a high-wire act: Almost invariably, they end up politically neutered by a too-scrupulous bipartisanship or else are spiritually evacuated by factionalism and the unclean hurly-burly of democratic action in the real world.

What should the relationship between church life and political life look like?

Imagine some extraordinarily effective and charismatic Christian minister who traveled the country, preaching and teaching, changing lives everywhere. Now, imagine that minister has a very attractive young assistant. Should the two of them travel alone together without their spouses? Share a hotel room? Of course not. Even if they were two people of unimpeachable personal probity, it would be a mistake, and maybe something worse than a mistake, to put them to the test. Putting them to that test would be wrong even if they passed it, thereby confirming their trustworthiness. (Some Christians will be familiar with the phrase “sin and the occasion of sin.”) Thrift might argue for one hotel room, but prudence would argue for two — even if as a matter of pure practical calculation, the ministry would reach more people if travel costs were reduced. Everyone understands that, because almost everyone has at least some passing familiarity with the underlying issue. (That is why Bill Clinton’s sexual misdeeds produced a national convulsion but Hillary Rodham Clinton’s cattle-futures shenanigans are all but forgotten: Most people don’t really understand futures trading, but most people know something about sex — even Ayn Rand devotees have heard something about it.) If that seems as obvious to you as it does to me, then think about this: One night in a hotel room with someone who probably shouldn’t be there is not one-one-thousandth as dangerous to the missionary soul as a long-term flirtation with political power, the seductive and corrupting pull of which exceeds in intensity and outlasts by many years the minor compulsions of the flesh. I cannot say how many men and women I have known who were apparently immune to the usual array of petty vices but were ensorcelled and enslaved by a fleeting encounter with political power. This kind of Christian activism has the effect of profaning what is holy rather than infusing grace and spiritual discipline into practical affairs.

This is a Christian nation!” our friends insist. But, of course, it is no such thing. If it were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The state of our country at this moment does not represent something that has been done to us, in spite of the populists’ victimhood politics. A Christian nation would know its own mind and have some idea of its own soul.

The United States is a Christian nation in the same sense that King Henry VIII was a Christian statesman: No doubt there was much that needed reform in the 16th-century church, but King Henry’s nationalism and his dynastic ambitions propelled his reformism, not the other way around — the kingdom that is not of this world is, in skilled hands, plastic enough to be retrofitted onto the politics of any kingdom you like.

To evangelize the people is to go to the democratic source and to set our sights on something more vital and more enduring than the penny-ante politics that currently dominates so much of our imagination. This is not a pie-in-the-sky project: It is the only secure road to real change in the long term. Think of it this way: President Trump appointed some excellent judges to the federal bench, and I expect that will have some desirable effect on abortion jurisprudence — but a culture in which the normal thing to do is to pay off the porn star with whom you were having an affair in order to avoid a confrontation with your third wife and grease the skids for your presidential campaign is a culture that is going to have abortion, whether there is one Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court or nine. And a Christian politics that demands the excommunication of Joe Biden after having elevated Donald Trump to the status of Fidei Defensor is unserious as either a Christian enterprise or as a political one. The only thing it is any good for is making money.

Some of our practical-minded and hard-headed men of worldly affairs may sniff at that, but if they showed us anything between 2017 and 2021, it is that they do not know what to do with real power when they have it. The cynic might be forgiven for concluding that they didn’t know what to do with real power because they have never thought much about it, having been so preoccupied for so many years with the pursuit of power for its own sake that they forgot what they had wanted it for, if indeed they ever knew.

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

An evangelized people will be able to make an answer to that question. A people that has been merely indoctrinated, propagandized, or nationalized will not.

Words About Words

Because Charlie has been on vacation (if you’re wondering where your new MD&E is) I haven’t had my weekly gun-nut talk, so I’m going to inflict a little bit on you. I have knowledge in here [points agitatedly at cranium] that I need to get out there [points at you].

One of my funny little obsessions is where measurements come from. The metric system is full of fun ones: a gram, for example, is one cubic centimeter of water at 4 degrees centigrade; the original definition of a meter was the “length of a pendulum with a half-period of one second,” which was later changed to the distance traveled by light moving in a vacuum for 1/299,792,458 of a second, for obvious practical reasons.

Firearms come in calibers, millimeters, and gauges. The last of these is the most amusingly medieval.

As some of you know, a shotgun gets bigger and more powerful as the gauge number declines: a 20-gauge shotgun is smaller than a 12-gauge, which is smaller than an eight-gauge, etc. Before we had the technical ability to define our measurements by things such as the speed of light or the weight of a volume of water at a specific temperature, we had to rely on less refined means. Shotgun gauges are defined this way: The gauge of a shotgun is the number of lead balls the same diameter as the gun’s bore that it would take to weigh one pound. So a shotgun with a bore the size of a one-pound ball of lead would be a one-gauge, though you won’t see one of those in your local sporting-goods store. A 20-gauge is smaller than a 12-gauge because it would take 20 balls the size of the bore rather than twelve to weigh a pound. The convention flips when the gauge is larger than one. If you’ve ever read about the French firing “four-pound guns” at their enemies in the Napoleonic wars, they’re talking about cannons that push out a four-pound ball.

But a .410 shotgun is, for historical reasons, described as a caliber rather than a gauge. A firearms caliber is the size of the bore expressed in decimalized fractions of an inch or in millimeters. So a firearm with a quarter-inch bore is a .25-caliber, a half-inch bore is a .50-caliber, etc. This leads to some confusion, because it doesn’t actually tell you anything about the weight or the speed of the projectile leaving the firearm. A .223 rifle is a lot more than three-thousandths more powerful than a .22 rifle, just as a 7mm rifle is a lot more powerful than a 9mm handgun. A .38 and a .380 are different, even though the decimals are exactly equivalent.

(By the way, you normally only say or write “caliber” with the imperial units: a .45-caliber handgun, but a 9mm handgun, not a 9mm-caliber handgun. But: “What caliber?” “Nine millimeter.”)

A good deal of this is marketing: A .500-caliber revolver could be described as a .50 caliber or a .5 caliber — because that’s how decimals work! — but “five hundred” sounds a lot more awesome. Similarly, I have a rifle that is stamped as being chambered for the .275 Rigby round, but I have never in my life seen a box of ammunition labeled .275 Rigby, which is identical to the cartridge known as the 7mm Mauser or 7×57. The backstory there is that the Rigby rifle company had had good luck selling its English buyers hunting rifles chambered in 7mm Mauser, which was a common European military caliber. But in the Second Boer War, a lot of Englishmen got shot to pieces with a lot of 7mm Mauser ammunition, and appetite for the cartridge — along with most anything bearing the name “Mauser,” for that matter — declined sharply in England. So the Rigby people, still having rifles to move, converted that metric caliber into an imperial one and called it the .275 Rigby (though every box of that ammunition I have ever seen is labeled 7×57 Mauser).

I suppose that makes the .275 Rigby the “freedom fries” of the ammunition world.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Some of you wrote in to question my use of “cut the mustard.” Tsk-tsk, you would-be correctors wrote, don’t you know this is a barbaric bastardization of the military term “cut the muster”? I got four or five notes like that.

The thing is, it isn’t true.

There’s no real evidence that “cut the muster” ever was an expression of any kind — and, of course, it doesn’t make any literal sense.

That being said, it’s not entirely clear where “cut the mustard” comes from. We have similar uses of “cut” and cut-adjacent words — to make the cut, to be a cut above, to be able to hack it, etc. So “cut” in the sense of “qualify” or “satisfy requirements” is there.

But what about mustard?

The OED says that in 19th-century American slang, mustard meant “something which adds piquancy or zest,” and, by extension, “that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.” We have some funny and unexpected equivalents, as in the way a certain excretory profanity is used both to mean the best and the worst of something: His old car is a piece of sh** vs. That new Aventador is the sh**.

So, to cut the mustard is to meet or exceed the standard, according to this line of thinking, to be up to snuff, to make the cut, to . . . pass muster or, as it was once written, to pass the musters.

As for cut the mustard, as I have written before: Good enough for O. Henry, good enough for me.

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Recommended

Nobody hits all the time, and almost nobody misses all the time. I spent some time beating on Garry Wills last week, but his Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment is a singularly fascinating book. If you are interested in the apotheosis of the American presidency, this is a hard book to beat.

In Closing

Godspeed to the Cubans taking on their island’s brutal dictatorship. Maybe a few of our American socialists, who are always going on about their being democratic socialists, could lend a hand — or at least an encouraging word? No?

No?

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