Earlier this week, I was planning on writing an article about Max Weber’s tripartite classification of authority, a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few months. But as it turned out, yesterday and today have brought enough interesting news in and of themselves to justify me in taking a break from higher-order political philosophy. So here, without further ado, are my comments on some of the more colorful goings-on in present-day American life.
This Sunday, a black man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The police were trying to arrest him when he bolted towards his car, opened the door, and reached for something, and the officers, suspecting quite reasonably that he might draw a weapon, opened fire.
In a reasonable world, what happened to Blake would be recognized as a very different animal from what happened to George Floyd – after all, Blake appeared to be reaching for his gun; he wasn’t just laying on the ground for seven minutes with an officer on his neck. Besides, he didn’t even die. But we don’t live in a reasonable world, the Jacob Blake riots started up that very night, and when the sun rose the next morning, several of Kenosha’s businesses lay in ashes.
The Democratic Governor’s response to the shooting was to tweet: “Tonight, Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times, in broad daylight, in Kenosha, Wisconsin…. while we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.”
Insisting that the shooting must have been motivated by racism, and using phrases like “mercilessly killed” right after admitting that you don’t know the details, isn’t what you do if you’re trying to inspire confidence in law and justice. But Governor Tony Evers isn’t trying to inspire confidence in anything; he’s egging the rioters on because he is a skilled politician and, as far as he’s concerned, the rioters are on his team.
Also, Governor Evers has exactly zero chance of having his own home or business burned or looted.
As I’ve said before, in the present crisis, the forces of law and order are pushovers. People like Evers are acting all nonchalant about the violence because they, personally, have nothing to lose by acting all nonchalant about the violence. The same is true for Republican politicians. While Republicans are on the opposite team and must therefore tweet support for the police instead of the rioters, they have been equally useless when it comes to actually enforcing the law.
A lot of people on the Republican side of things are talking about how this is a preview of what we’ll see more of in Joe Biden’s America, and then drawing the conclusion that the riots will drive more voters over to Trump, just like the riots of 1968 helped turnout for Nixon. Me? I don’t buy it. This time around, the law-and-order candidate is the incumbent, not the challenger, so the events in Kenosha or Chicago or Washington or wherever are an indictment of his own pusillanimity, not that of the other party.
Well, it isn’t exactly news anymore to say that constant race riots are becoming the new normal for the poor and working classes on the ground in America’s cities. If, on the other hand, you want to take a look at the goings-on among liberalism’s intellectual elite – i.e. the people who live full-time in cloud cuckoo land – then a recent Huffington Post headline provides a pretty good source of amusement.
The headline reads: “I Have A White Boyfriend. Does That Make Me Any Less Black?” The irony is that right next to the headline is a picture of the author, and it’s pretty obvious that she herself is at least three-quarters white. If her present misgivings about race-mixing strike you as something very akin to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, well then, you’re not alone.
Then there is the fiasco at Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., just got the boot after the details came out on a bizarre sex scandal which began clear back in 2012, when the then-49-year-old Falwell realized that he really liked watching a youth of 20, whom he had first met as a swimming pool attendant at a hotel, have sex with his wife. The relationship continued, supported by lavish gifts from Falwell to Pool Boy, for six or seven years.
Then, sometime earlier this month, Pool Boy decided to blab about the affair to Reuters. While the journalists had to take him at his word about the physical portion of the relationship, he was able to show screenshots of nude FaceTime meetings to prove that something out of the ordinary was going on with the trio. And thus ended Falwell’s career.
Within the conservative movement, this is a big, big deal, as Falwell’s university has long been a consistent hotbed of Republican activism. It’s where Ted Cruz announced his presidential campaign way back in March of 2015 (does anybody remember March of 2015?) and Falwell’s surprise endorsement of Trump instead of Cruz early the next year was one of the big moments of the primaries. (Michael Cohen – basically, Trump’s Better-Call-Saul type lawyer – has hinted that Falwell’s flip-flop was the result of blackmail).
After the election, Liberty University’s biggest Trump fans followed up on their victory by making a movie about how President Trump was fulfilling biblical prophecy, and the university later won notoriety for being the only campus in America that didn’t shut down this spring, when the (then newer and deadlier) Coronavirus arrived from China. (When I said that the variations in how different people and institutions deal with covid are mostly a political shibboleth, I wasn’t condemning just one side).
Before I go on about the role of sex scandals among the religious right, I think it is worth noting that Liberty University offers courses in which some of its undergrads are taught a version of science tailored for compatibility with the idea that the Earth is six thousand years old. Needless to say, the administration’s embrace of the young-earther meme hasn’t exactly earned their institution a respected place within the scientific community at large.
(Sidebar: I am not going to follow the media norm of referring to this belief system as “Creationism,” with no additional adjectives applied. The word “creationist” does not deserve the baggage that has been loaded onto it; as far as I’m concerned, if you believe that, once upon a time, God or the angels or whoever created one cell, then you are a creationist. Since the spontaneous generation of life from inert matter is something which, according to all known science, never happens, this view of things deserves more respect than it's presently getting).
Now I happen to be one of those people who think that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable. Religion in general – even a religion which claims that mankind is God’s special creation and has a unique place in the cosmos – doesn't really need to depend on a disbelief in the idea that all life forms developed gradually from a common ancestor. After all, it has been a staple of religious thought for thousands of years to view seemingly-random natural processes as steps in the unfolding of some sort of divine plan.
Rather, the theory of evolution is only a bugbear to a specific kind of religion: the kind in which a worshiper's relationship to his or her God is mediated through the authority of a collection of infallible sacred texts. Since people have been worshiping the Gods for much longer than they’ve known how to write, this is by no means a universal element of human religion.
But because infallible authorities of one form or another have featured strongly in the dominant religions of the Middle East and Europe for the last two millennia, it is easy for westerners to think that all religions are like this. And it is easy for scientifically-minded westerners to dismiss all religion as a relic of a mankind's benighted and irrational past.
Now, the infallible-authority worldview happens to be fairly workable in a society where detailed knowledge of the world is more limited - that is, one in which people of all sects aren't constantly being bombarded with reasons to distrust their respective religious authorities. Indeed, during the halcyon days of Christian civilization, the greatest minds were all able to work productively within this intellectual framework.
These included theologians like Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, poets like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton, and great artists like Michelangelo and Johann Sebastian Bach. There were also scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, who made the foundational discoveries of physics while devoting just as much time to unraveling the mysteries of biblical chronology. Newton eventually came to believe that the Earth had been created in 3998 BC, and that the end of the world would come no earlier than AD 2060.
But the intellectual revolution which began with men like Newton would eventually lead to vast improvements in the quality and scope of human knowledge. The discoveries of geologists and paleontologists made it clear that the Earth was much older than the Israelite elders who wrote Genesis had thought. Archaeologists and linguists developed reliable methods of tracking the origins and migrations of ancient peoples, and their results weren’t compatible with the idea that all the world’s inhabitants were descended from a single family who survived a global flood in the third or fourth millennium BC.
And new methods of textual criticism eventually led most scholars to agree that the Hebrew Bible was compiled from multiple original sources, whose authors often disagreed with one another on questions of serious historical and theological importance.
Nowadays, there are still plenty of religious groups which insist that all of this information can’t possibly matter, and that all that's really going on is that God's people are enduring a test of their faith: will they accept the authority of holy writ in preference to all human wisdom? But the religions that do this pay a price: the loss of their brightest and most inquisitive young minds.
Now a cynic might just say that it's obvious that when this happens, only the stupid people will remain, and that that’s who Jerry Falwell & Co. drew on to fill their university. This conclusion is wrong. Stupidity in itself is almost never common enough to be an adequate explanation for a social phenomenon. After all, the average person is not stupid, the average person is of average intelligence.
What you’re left with, after the best minds have been driven away, is a very few people who are genuinely dumber then a box of rocks, and a much larger number who are simply willing to overlook any information that makes them uncomfortable.
And when your movement is filled with people who approach life with that attitude, then it’s no wonder that you are going to suffer from all sorts of messy scandals. There were probably lots of people at Liberty University who were aware of the signs that Jerry Falwell was a pervert, but because this knowledge made them uncomfortable, they found ways to overlook it.
The same goes for the Baylor rape scandal a few years ago. If the notion that one of your football players raped somebody and might deserve to be in jail rather than on the playing field makes you feel queasy, then your first response will likely be to just look the other way. It is, after all, what you’re already doing with all those carbon-dated artifacts and genetic clade diagrams.
Now, I know that it isn’t fair to act like these sorts of scandals are mainly found among Evangelical Christians. They aren’t, though the element of hypocrisy does make them more noticeable there. The Catholics, for that matter, have a similar situation; Catholics are generally more realistic about evolution than Evangelicals, but they compensate for their limited view of biblical authority by placing way too much trust in church tradition and hierarchy, a strategy which opens up its own can of worms.
And, of course, sex scandals happen all the time throughout secular society. They are run-of-the-mill in Hollywood, and they find fertile ground in enclaves of extreme leftism where sex between men and boys is ignored or celebrated because membership in the LGBT community puts the men involved above criticism.
Each of these subcultures is acting in accordance with slightly different motivating forces when it decides to stage a cover-up rather than coming clean. But when dealing with Evangelicals, I think it would be naïve to overlook the role of the anti-empiricist, believe-whatever’s-comfortable ethos which a man or woman must cultivate in order to be a young-earther.
I think that the same thing is going on with the anti-abortion movement’s willingness to be duped by both Republican politicians and its own leaders into thinking that it’s winning when it isn’t. President Reagan and the two Bushes appointed, between them, four pro-abortion Supreme Court justices, beginning with Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. Despite private doubts about these judges’ ideology, neither the National Right-to-Life Committee, nor any similar organization, has ever gone forward and publicly opposed a Republican Supreme Court nomination.
After all, admitting that the Republican party was deprioritizing the abortion issue would have meant admitting that pro-life activists were further from victory than they wanted to believe. The upshot of this excessive optimism is that, to this day, the majority of said activists keep on deploying the same failed methods: polite protests that don’t put political pressure on anybody, and unqualified support for the Republican Party no matter how many times that party betrays them.
I have found it interesting to note that the two Christian bloggers whom I read most often, Matt Walsh and Rod Dreher, are pessimists about abortion and make no secret of their belief that the pro-life movement is being used and discarded by the Republican establishment. They are also very outspoken about the child sex abuse scandals that bubble up from time to time in the Catholic church. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both Walsh and Dreher believe in evolution.
But within the broader religious right, such level-headed realism is hard to come by. The sorts of people who looked the other way during the Baylor and Falwell scandals comprise the bulk of the movement. This is almost inevitable when so many conservative Christians are raised to think that loyalty to God is a matter of giving the right answer when the Big Guy asks: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” And when you think that way about your relationship with Deity, it’s kind of inevitable that the same attitude will spill over into your relationships with other human beings, too.
Well, that is about all that I have to say today about the riots in Wisconsin, the Jerry Falwell scandal, and the problems with belonging to a religion that asks you to hide under a rug whenever science enters the room. I will get to Max Weber some other time.