Coffee, Kristin, Courage

Or, how I'm spending this warm Sunday afternoon

A friend here in Baton Rouge told me that this new coffee shop, called Coffee Joy, is quite good. The owner is a Turkish immigrant, a man who really knows his coffee. I came over this afternoon with my laptop and a novel. I can affirm that the coffee is marvelous. So nice to have a new place to go.

I’m going to dive back into Kristin Lavransdatter after I write this post, but boy, let me tell you, Kristin is sorely trying my patience. In the chapter I read last night, her constant worrying, nagging, and accusing ended up alienating her husband profoundly. She told him that her late father was a better man than he. It’s true — Lavrans was close to a saint, and Erlend is a man of inconstant character — but what a hateful thing to say! Kristin’s anxieties are understandable, but to see her sabotage her marriage like this is crushing.

Yet earlier in the story, Erlend made a hateful remark like that to his brother in law Simon Darre, who had been nothing but good to him. The force of that blow reverberated deeply. One of the most captivating things about this novel is its portrait of how people hurt each other without meaning to. This is how we are. If you’ve lived long enough, you will recognize yourself and the people you know and love in this narrative. What a gift it is to have been given, through the Christian faith, the command to be humble and admit wrongdoing, and the command to show mercy and forgiveness to the humble. If we didn’t have that, how could we live together? In fact, we can’t, which is why there is so much social disintegration around us.

At my talk yesterday, I ran into an old friend who works at the Louisiana state legislature. I asked him how things were there. “Bad,” he said. “Everybody hates everybody else. The Ds and the Rs, nothing but hate. They can’t work together. It’s terrible.”

We have created a culture in which mercy and humility are seen as signs of weakness, even vice, and the victory goes to those who hate more purely. This will not end well.

This afternoon I spent an hour on a Zoom seminar with Bari Weiss, late of The New York Times, and Natan Sharansky, the famed Soviet Jewish activist sent to prison for advocating for the rights of Soviet Jewry. We were talking about living in truth, and what it means for today. Here’s a screenshot I took of Sharansky:

It’s hard for me to convey how strange and wonderful it is to share a platform with Natan Sharansky. In my 1970s childhood, I was a news obsessive, and I remember very well seeing Sharansky on television back then (he was known as Anatoly Sharansky), on the national news as he pled the cause of his people — the refuseniks, Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel — against Brezhnev, the Bolshevik Pharaoh. Here’s a short video about Sharansky’s struggle. He spent nine years in the gulag, and was the first political prisoner freed by Gorbachev. When he arrived in Israel, he changed his first name to Natan.

I’m going to write on my TAC blog about Sharansky’s critique of cancel culture and the rise of what I call “soft totalitarianism” in the West. He is very worried about it. He said any culture in which people are afraid to say what they believe to be true is one in danger of slipping into totalitarianism. On our call — which was webcast to a worldwide audience — Bari Weiss observed a couple of times, in a friendly way, how strange it is that she, a political liberal and an out lesbian, finds herself on the same side of things as Rod Dreher, but that’s where we are. My friend Andrew Sullivan and I fought hard online about religion and sexuality back in the first decade of this century, and he remains much more liberal than I am. But there is no daylight between us on the defense of First Amendment freedoms. Same with Bari and me.

When I was in Prague a couple of years ago, talking to Kamila Bendova about the human rights activism of her and her late husband, we spoke about the unlikely coalition of the Bendas (right-wing Catholics) with the motley crew of leftist liberals in the Charter 77 movement, including Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became the first president of free Czechoslovakia. Kamila told me that there were so few people back then who were willing to stand up for human rights, free speech, and democracy, that nobody who was willing to take that risk could afford to be fussy about their friendships. The important thing was to recognize the courage of one’s allies, and to stand together.

As I explained on the Zoom call, I knew that Bari and I could be friends and allies when I read her resignation letter from The New York Times opinion page. As a professional journalist of over 30 years, I can tell you that nobody quits The New York Times. It is the pinnacle of the profession, and Bari Weiss had reached it at a shockingly young age. But she told them to go to hell because she couldn’t stand the culture of lynch-mob leftism within the newspaper, and the way her fellow liberals were capitulating to it. To make that kind of sacrifice — leaving the Times for an uncertain future — is an act of courage and principle. I wrote her to tell her so, and how proud I was of her. And so we became allies.

You find that moral courage does not follow ideological or religious lines. On the Zoom call, I told a story about how I learned this lesson at the start of the Catholic abuse scandal, in early 2002, when the story broke big out of Boston. I spoke at a Catholic journalism conference in Washington, and argued that Catholic journalists had a responsibility as Catholics to tell the truth about what was happening in the Church.

At that same conference, though, a Catholic priest who was publisher of a major Catholic newspaper congratulated himself for running a paper that was not going to descend to the gutter to write about such filth. Imagine that: a newspaper publisher who thinks of himself as morally virtuous for having no curiosity about certain truths. A well-known Catholic journalist accused me publicly of airing the Church’s dirty laundry to advance my career in the secular world. I respected him greatly before that statement, but after it, I knew the kind of man he was.

I would learn over the coming years that some of the conservative Catholics I considered solid would prove to have feet of clay, and some of the liberal Catholics whose theological views I disregarded nevertheless distinguished themselves as truth-tellers. Of course there were brave conservatives too (I think of the Catholic journalist Philip Lawler, in particular), and cowardly liberals who were eager to downplay or ignore the sins and crimes of their favored priests and bishops.

A well-known and courageous left-wing Catholic journalist once told me that the thing you could not talk about among his tribe was the role of homosexual networks in perpetrating systemic sexual abuse. One man who was willing to talk about it was Richard Sipe, a former monk and himself a liberal Catholic, who studied clerical sexual abuse as an academic, and who had no patience for comforting lies. But there were almost no Sipes back then.

The point I wish to make is that the scandal was an apocalypse in that it unveiled the orientation each Catholic and each Catholic journalist had towards truth.

The two prominent Catholic journalists I mentioned earlier — the ones at the 2002 conference — were unwilling to accept facts and narratives that countered the narrative by which they lived their lives. In particular, they could not accept that the institutional Catholic Church could be guilty of such sins and crimes. They would not admit into their consciousness the possibility that it was. There were a lot of people like that, especially among the laity.

(Lest you think that I’m getting on my self-righteous high horse, let me admit that at the very same time I was being brave (in 2002) about searching for truth in the Catholic Church, I was succumbing to lies about the Iraq War — because, as I later had to recognize, I wanted vengeance on the Arab Muslim world for 9/11. I am haunted by concern over what evils I am blind to right now… .)

Anyway, I think that today, most of the media and institutional gatekeepers are like those two leading Catholic journalists in 2002: so committed to a certain narrative that helps them make sense of the world that not only can they not accept facts that stand to falsify it, but they also congratulate themselves for their incuriosity, and consider their willingness to persecute truth-tellers among them to be a sign of virtue and commitment.

I can’t repeat often enough the words of Polish dissident poet Czeslaw Milosz, here trying to convince American readers that if they think people fall for Communism only because they are afraid to oppose it, they are wrong:

“There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”

The craving for harmony and happiness allowed those two Catholic journalists to take a disreputable and cowardly stand in 2002. The craving for harmony and happiness drives liberal gatekeepers at the Times and elsewhere to abandon liberal principles and surrender to cancel culture. In the end, we can better understand why the illiberal left does what it does if we think of them as religious zealots, not political actors.

A reader of this newsletter in France e-mailed about Saturday’s edition, in which I wrote about an Evangelical man whose adult children have left the church in anger and disgust over MAGA politicization. He is a Frenchman and a Christian who lived for many years in Red America before retiring back to his homeland:

I wanted to comment about my experience with a certain strand of white, middle class American evangelicals that your narrative struck a chord with...namely, the often proud, arrogant, Bible-and-gun-toting element that’s all show and tell “God and Country 🇺🇸“ and to hell with the rest of the world... “Oh, you’re from France?! They sure got a lot of Muslims over there, huh?!”

Truth to tell, it’s not all hyperbole, as my personal  experiences have shown. I know this portrait isn’t an accurate reflection of the entire faith culture of the USA. But, it’s still significant and indeed troubling to me. As an outsider (Western European Catholic) looking in, it was a kind of frightful revelation lacking in dignity, sanctity,  humility, love and truth. Sorry, but I’m 99.9% certain they all voted for Trump.

You will know them by their fruit...

Besides all the bumper stickers and vanity plates espousing how blessed they are, Jesus Saves, etc., the mega-Church preacher, a slick sales-like pitching marketer of prosperity with his Rolex watch, expensive suit and 740 Li BMW parked in its own special spot, I was in shock and could only  wonder, where was Jesus in all of this?!

The Christ I know and love rode a donkey, would not touch an AR 15 and most likely was not a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon looking movie star, but a Jew born in a manger...

It made me sick inside, Rod, to realise that this is Christianity for many Americans....perhaps for that poor daughter you spoke of. Yes, she’s young, vulnerable and indeed misinformed. She and many like her need our prayers and not our condemnation. The young across this troubled planet and time in history need Christ more than ever.

A reader points out that the beautiful new iconostasis at our mission church in Baton Rouge is featured in a commentary in Orthodox Arts Journal. The writer is the artist who created it, Andrew Gould. Our church, St. Matthew’s, is a mission that meets in rented space. We aren’t big enough yet to afford a church of our own, but thanks to a kind donor, we were able to commission a real iconostasis, which Gould created and we recently installed. Here’s what it looks like:

Gould quotes our pastor:

The reaction from people has been dramatic. The servers take their responsibilities more seriously. The faithful are awed by the icons. Mission life can be difficult – we talk about the beauty of our worship but often the most basic elements (icons, iconostasis, lampadas, etc.) are not beautiful.  Most of my parishioners are converts and have not had much exposure to other Orthodox churches. So for many of them, the iconostasis and icons are the first “real” ones they have seen not in pictures. I have noticed we treat the space more like a church – we are quieter, we move less, we talk less, we anticipate more.

I think this is true. The iconostasis creates such an atmosphere of reverence, even awe.

By the way, I hear every now and then from readers of mine who live in the Baton Rouge area that they would like to visit our parish to experience Orthodox worship. We love visitors, but during Covidtide, we limit the number of people who can come. For example, I haven’t been able to go to worship the past two weeks because the list filled up early, and I can’t remember to sign up. Anyway, here’s the sign-up sheet.

After 17 days, we have 3,244 recipients of this newsletter now. Thank you for your interest. I’ve received a few responses to my request for advice on whether or not I should turn on the comments. Everyone who wrote says no, they don’t want comments. The general sense is that a comments section would make this place yet one more online space of contention. Honestly, I hadn’t expected that, but maybe I should have when thinking about how nice it is for me, as the writer, not to have to worry about approving comments. I had not realized what a daily beatdown it is to monitor comments on my TAC blog, and to deal with the constant negativity of some people. I’ve taken to kicking some commenters off my blog, not because of a particular violation of my rules, but because I simply wearied of their endless bitching. What kind of person reads a blog whose perspective they hate, and takes the trouble to complain all the time, but never, ever, not once to say something positive? Realizing that you don’t actually have to live with that was freeing. I truly value hearing from people who disagree with me, and who want to challenge me, but only if they do it in good faith.

Please do continue writing in (roddreher — at — substack -- dot — com), and I will post your letters from time to time. I will not use anybody’s name unless you ask me to. If you don’t want me to post anything from your e-mail, please be sure to say so.