Thursday, 18 May 2017

R. R. Reno: "Transgender debate is one step too far for progressives"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with R. R. Reno, of First Things. Please not that this interview was done on March 30th, which must be taken into account regarding answers about President Trump and the Suprem Court nomination, for example. The news story, in Portuguese, can be read here.

Esta é uma transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista com R. R. Reno, editor da First Things. A entrevista foi feita no dia 30 de Março, o que deve ser tido em conta no que diz respeito a temas como a presidência Trump e a nomeação para o Supremo Tribunal, por exemplo. A reportagem pode ser lida aqui.

What is it you are here to talk about?
It is my view that the post-war era is ending, culturally and politically and what I am going to talk about tonight is not the political side of things, but what I call a spiritual, metaphysical diagnosis of the populism that seems to be abroad in Europe and the United States, so that we can orient ourselves, not just as Christians but also generally as engaged citizens, into the social realities that we face.

First Things was founded in 1990 with the intention of influencing the public square. Since then the magazine and website has become a reference in its field, but considering all that has changed in American society… Do you feel First Things has failed in its overall goal?
The journal was founded in order to fill a vacuum. Our American elites had been, for most of the XXth Century - at least for the first half of the XXth Century - very deeply influenced by liberal protestant thinking. While one can critique liberal Protestantism theologically, it still meant that our political culture was influenced in a pretty deep way by an engagement with Christianity.

That began to diminish after the 1960's, and the idea was to start the magazine to renew the strength of the religious voice at a very high intellectual level, that would engage culturally. Have we failed? It’s always difficult, because it is a counterfactual... What if we had not been around? Would American society be even more secularized than it currently is? But I do agree that the trend has been, among our leadership class, towards what I would think of as a policy economic thinking about political culture, and not a philosophical/theological way of thinking about political culture.

But it is my view, and this is what my lecture will be about tonight, that the narrow, almost anti-metaphysical approach to politics is not humanly satisfying, and so it may be coming to an end.

This is connected to the theory in one of your more recent books, “Ressurecting the idea of a Christian Society”. Is that still possible in America, for example?
I think we have a Christian society in America, I think you have Christian societies over here in Europe. The ancient Romans would have let people drown in the Mediterranean, but contemporary Europe is courting very challenging social and political issues, with respect to migrants, precisely because of the fact that Christianity is still in the DNA of the West. So the question is: How can we reactivate that DNA, in a way that could renew our societies and make them more vital and more engaged and able to meet the challenges that we currently face? So my book is not an argument that we are going to go back to the way things were two, three or four generations ago, but instead that a vibrant Christian minority can revitalize the Christian influence and be a leaven in contemporary society. So as I say, Christianity is part of the DNA of the West. It doesn't take much, actually, to reactivate that DNA.

Yet being part of the DNA of the West, we see many secularists bending over backwards to deny that it is. Is that a danger?
They say it’s not because they want a different kind of future. It’s a kind of a compliment to the power of an idea that it gets repudiated with vigor. You ignore things that have no influence on the future. Because you don't have to worry about them. No one is worried about feudalism because this is not a living possibility. But secular progressives denounce the possibility of a Christian society because it is a real possibility.

The term “Culture wars” has become famous in America, but is the time for a culture war mentality over?
You can't paper over deep and profound differences in the view of human flourishing in a society. The American culture wars are not a function of random and unprovoked aggression; they reflect a deep division in our society about what it means to be a human person.

The constant being on the defensive, and the hostile language in the debates, is that something that can be toned down, would it be possible to find middle ground?
It seems to me that the sexual revolution, which is really the focal point in the United States of almost all of these cultural debates, they all, in some way, have something to do with the sexual revolution, it’s really about whether or not our bodies have moral meaning and so something like transgenderism, or doctor assisted suicide are both denials that bodies have moral meaning, and that we give them meaning through our choices and through our will. This is fundamentally at odds with the Christian doctrine of creation.

I think you can obviously approach these differences in a spirit of charity, and certainly calmly, and without vitriolic angry language, but you can't deny this deep difference about arguably one of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

For a while, with victories in state referenda, it seemed like the gay marriage debate might be going well, but since then it crashed and burned… Is it a lost cause?
Yes and no... The victories were narrower and narrower, and the trend was going against those of us who though that it was really crucial to preserve traditional ideas in marriage. So I think it’s right to say that there is no one political party or figure that is out in the United States arguing to roll back gay marriage. This is different from the pro-life cause, because it is more difficult to speak about what is at stake. Whereas the question of the sanctity of life, with abortion or doctor assisted suicide, it is so clear... But what is the harm of gay marriage? It is very difficult to articulate in a soundbite, first of all.

Second of all, there are people now who are married, so what are you going to do if you go back to a traditional understanding of marriage? So it is a much more complicated issue.

I think the imperative in the United States is for people like me and other conservatives to try to discern how to reinvigorate the culture of marriage, because it is in trouble in the United States, and especially in trouble with people at the bottom of the social scale, who are marrying with greater and greater infrequency. These are people whose lives are already very at risk, so the security and the stability that marriage provides are really even more important for them, and paradoxically the well-educated and well-to-do have reconsolidated around a very strong culture of marriage, so we have an unequal society in America, not just economically, but also culturally, where marriage is something that is increasingly inaccessible to the poor and something that is readily accessible to the well-to-do

And now the transgender debate… What are your expectations?
I think this is a bridge to far for the sexual liberation crowd. Also, it clarifies what is at stake, because it is not about sex, it's about our bodies. And I think that frames things differently, politically. It looks like it’s probably a loser at the polls for progressives, in a way that gay marriage wasn't. One can never predict the future about these things, but it could be that this turns out to be something that the public... Americans are very tolerant and they don't want to tell people what to do, but they also don't want to be told that their children have to use the bathrooms that are being used by somebody of the opposite sex, and that seems to actually strike a chord. I've talked to a lot of my friends who are liberals and progressives who roll their eyes over this issue. They were quite sincere and ardent about how it was morally necessary to affirm gay unions, but on this one, not so much.

In the midst of all this there are several issues regarding religious freedom. Is religious freedom under threat?
I always counseled my friends in the USA to not become too hysterical about threats to religious freedom. Under the Obama Administration there most certainly were threats to religious freedom, but they were on the margins, but we were not anywhere near a situation where the state was going to dictate what could and could not be said from the pulpit, so I think some of the core protections of religious freedom in the US are quite solid. But it is on the margins, about whether or not can do the corporal works of mercy, in the public square, in accord with their beliefs. That is where the adoption agencies, and medical care especially, where reach on these hot button issues of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and things like that, where we are facing problems, and also in the areas of education, where we are facing problems.

With the Trump administration it seems extremely unlikely that this administration is going to press the progressive causes in these areas, so I think the pressure is off in the short term.

Moving on to the current political landscape, many Catholics opposed Trump from the beginning, but you were not among them and then you endorsed him in October. How do you evaluate his presidency so far?
It’s a mixed bag. Many of my friends who did sign that letter against Trump I think had legitimate worries about his competency to actually govern. And this administration is one that is quite chaotic in many respects, on one hand.

On the other hand those of us who thought – and I am among them – that we were on an unsustainable trajectory, and that we had to get on a different track, I think that Trump's election and this current administration has put the cultural political future of America up for grabs. And it has disrupted the trajectory that we were on. And that has happened. And as I mentioned, in the area of religious freedom, the results could be quite favorable to the churches, and in the pro-life cause there is reason to hope for progress, within the constraints of our culture in the United States.

So I think the jury is out on this administration. My hope is that Trump will break down what I think is an undue ideological commitment to free markets on the Republican Party's side, so we can have a kind of conservatism in America that seeks limited government, space for civil society, but doesn't make a God of free-market ideology. I am hoping we can do that, and I am gratified that the health care bill failed, because I don't think we should revise our current health care system without clearly expanding the scope of coverage, rather than limiting the scope of coverage. And he has expressed a desire, certainly a commitment to defending the American social safety net, against arguments that it has to limited or privatized.

So I think those are good things. We need to break down, in the United States, a narrow ideological competition between free-market republicanism and a politic of a culturally progressive democratic party. It would be healthy to get away from that, and that would help minimize the divisive effect of the culture wars as well.

Neil Gorsuch
Do you believe Gorsuch will become a Supreme Court judge? And how important is that?
Certainly! He sailed through the confirmation hearings. Democrats may resist him, in which case the republicans will pick a procedural vote to get rid of the filibuster option, so we would have to have a revolution for him not to become a Supreme Court justice.

The real question is the next one. There are some very elderly people on the United States Supreme Court and the ones who are elderly are the liberal ones, so there is a good chance that he will appoint another Supreme Court justice over the course of the next four years, and that will be a real battle, because that is going to wind up changing the ideological complexion of the court. Gorsuch can go through. The democrats won't like it, they are going to grand-stand for their voters, and supporters, but in the end they'll say “ok we'll just have to swallow this one” and the next one they'll go all out.

First Things has published, among others has published some harsh criticism of Pope Francis, namely around the Amoris Laetitia debate. What is your assessment of the papacy, four years in?
I think the Papacy is a study in paradoxes. I think the Holy Father is a man who runs on very powerful intuition, rather than systematic thought, and so he can say contradictory things. He can strongly denounce the way our culture in the West is undermining the difference between men and women, and then turn around and really urge a pastoral approach to difficult questions and reject a legalistic approach, and then you are left wondering ok, so, how do I respond to this matter of transgenderism for instance? He doesn't give you very clear guidance. So I think the jury is out on the Papacy. I do think that the Papacy, the confusions that flow from the Vatican, in all fairness, reflect the unsettled mind of the Church that was masked by the towering intellectual and spiritual leadership of John Paul II and Benedict the XVI.

Underneath their leadership, though, was a Church that since the Second Vatican Council has not achieved any real clarity about its own relation to the contemporary world. So here we have a man who has many gifts, but he doesn't have the same dominating intellectual personality that Wojtyla and Ratzinger had. So the inner confusion of the Church is much more visible to us.

So I tend to think that this Papacy, I'm not happy about it, I don't like the confusion that it creates, I think he sends mixed messages. I have lots of reasons to criticize Pope Francis, but at the end of the day I am inclined to think that a lot of what I don't like is really the much broader Church, and I participate in many of those confusions. I am not sure I could provide, myself, any clear way forward.

But I do think that with this Papacy we are at the end of the Vatican II generation. He'll be the last Pope for whom the defining experience was the experience of living through the transformations of the Church, and living through the transformations as an experience of a new possibility, a new vitality, a new openness. The next generation of Popes will have come of age amidst all the confusion and I think that people who worry about the Cardinals he is appointing, and the kind of people... That's not as relevant as this generational issue.

Would you have become a Catholic, do you think, today?
When I entered the Catholic Church I had been teaching at a Jesuit University for 14 years. I knew exactly what I was getting into. I had no illusions about the Catholic Church. It was also in the midst of the clerical abuse crisis in the United States, I was perfectly aware of the possibility of faithless priests, criminally negligent bishops...

The Catholic Church for me... I did not choose the Catholic Church, I lost confidence in the form of Protestantism that I was practicing, I felt kind of abandoned and I put myself up for adoption in the Catholic Church. I didn't think it had any qualities that particularly recommended itself to me, other than the fact that it is the prime substance of Christianity in the Western world, and if one wants a Christian intellectual in the West in the XXI Century, one has to take one's stand in the Catholic Church, with all of its problems, all its warts, all of its failures.

And it is interesting that many of my Evangelical protestant friends see Catholicism as, in many ways, their anchor as well. Admittedly from afar, but nevertheless they look to the Catholic Church for ballast in the ship of the Church, in its many forms as it tries to navigate these difficult seas in this late modern moment that we are living in.

You were of course a very active member of the Episcopal Church in the United States...
That was my mistake...

From that standpoint, with that inside knowledge, how do you see the future of the Anglican Communion at the moment?
I don't think about the future of the Anglican Communion.

I met with a very close friend of mine, sort of my “rabbi” in that sense of the term, an Episcopal minister, and he gave me the best counsel: You are leaving the Episcopal Church, leaving Anglicanism, you should not put your fingers back in these messes and try to involve yourself. And I have really just not let myself...

Part of the spiritual damage that I was doing to myself was bitter angry engagement in the Church politics of Anglicanism, and to revisit that would only be to allow myself to be tempted back into these spiritual vices that I was allowing myself to cultivate as an Anglican, and that was really the reason that I left.

So I have no thoughts about Anglicanism, other than a really deep appreciation for the foundation it provided me in the faith. Anglicanism has many really great riches. One of my friends who is a priest in the diocese of New York, where I live, is a former Episcopalian, was asked, when he became Catholic and then a Catholic Priest, what he missed most about Anglicanism, and he said “The liturgy in English”.

You publish countless authors, some more famous than others. Are there any rising stars, people we should keep our eyes on?
That's a great question, and I am terrible at names.

I find the work of Michael Hanby, who is a youngish theologian at the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and the Family at the Catholic University of America, to have a really powerful theological interpretation of modernity. We have published him on a number of occasions; I'm very excited about his work.

I wish I could get my friend William Cavenaugh to write. He has written some for the magazine, but to write more. But he and I disagree about politics too much. But I think Bill also is an important voice about how to be the Church in the late modern era.

We cover theology, but we also cover culture and politics, although politics at a remove, and I am a big fan of Elizabeth Corey who really can speak about the way our contemporary culture undermines domestic life. Being a parent, being a spouse, the way different patterns of life, our traditional ways are less and less accessible to us and she gives a very winsome defense of those traditional patterns of life.

And finally it comes to politics and culture there is a young writer in Washington D.C. named Matthew Walther, and Walther is... He's the Tom Wolf of his generation, which is a pretty high compliment. He is a writer's writer, and I'll publish anything he writes.

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