Bostock and Wile Coyote

The most important thing to know about Bostock is that it demonstrates the pillars of Western society no longer have anything anchoring them to reality. When your way of interpreting the world isn’t tied to a real, concrete revelation that explains reality, then you slowly drift away from the shore into madness.

Think of revelation as the eyeglasses that allow you to see the world and understand it. Now, think of the shoreline as reality. Then, think of that line holding your boat fast to the dock as the lifeline that connects you to reality.

In the West, we have cut the line and smashed the eyeglasses. We’re drifting away from the shore. At first, our boat bobbed aimlessly pretty close to the dock. That went on for several decades. But, we’ve now edged ever further away and the current has us. The dock is gone. The shoreline is gone.

We’re in the open sea. We’re done.

That’s what Bostock shows us. This Court decision is that last speck of land fading from sight as the horizon flattens into nothingness. It’s when we realize that this is really happening. We really are alone.

Let me explain.

You’ll recall, from the last article, that Bostock’s attorney at oral arguments made the case that Title VII includes discrimination “because of … sexual orientation” because Clayton County, by terminating Bostock allegedly because he was a homosexual, was penalizing him for not fulfilling stereotypes about what it means to be a man.

Justice Ginsburg knows the framers of Title VII did not understand “sex” to include “sexual orientation.”

Ms. Karlan -Ms. Karlan, how do you answer the argument that back in 1964, this could not have been in Congress’s mind because in –in many states male same-sex relations was a criminal offense; the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a –a mental illness?

Transcript of oral arguments; 6:13-19

Bostock’s attorney, Pamela Karlan (“Attorney Karlan”), pivoted to precedent; particularly Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (see the last article for context). The Court has already expanded “sex” to include sexual harassment. It’s also expanded it to include discrimination for failure to live up to stereotypes about sex (Oral arguments; 6:20 – 7:10). This is what happened to Bostock, Attorney Kaplan says.

She goes further, too. She declares:

Title VII was intended to make sure that men were not disadvantaged relative to women and women were not disadvantaged relative to men.

Oral arguments; 7:21-24

She frames it this way on purpose. Now, quick as you please, she makes application to her client:

And when you tell two employees who come in, both of whom tell you they married their partner Bill last weekend, when you fire the male employee who married Bill and you give the female employee who married Bill a couple of days off so she can celebrate the joyous event, that’s discrimination because of sex.

Oral arguments, 7:25 – 8:6

Attorney Karlan wants to make Bostock about stereotypes. As I mentioned in the previous article, her argument goes like this:

  1. Men must only have sex with women.
  2. But, Bostock wants to have sex with men.
  3. This means Bostock fails to act like a man.
  4. Clayton County fired Bostock because he wasn’t acting like a man.
  5. So, Clayton County discriminated against Bostock because of sex; because he wasn’t acting as the County felt a man should act.

She’s only asking the Court, she claims, to make one more analogous extension of principle to read “sexual orientation” into “sex” in Title VII. However, as I explained in the previous article, words have meanings and discrimination “because of … sex” and “because of … sexual orientation” are completely different things.

But, even if we grant Attorney Karlan’s argument, we’re immediately confronted with a problem. With several problems:

  1. Who decides what a “stereotype” is?
  2. Who decides what is socially acceptable and what isn’t?
  3. And, if you don’t acknowledge an authority, a standard, a revelation that stands above our society, above our own personal preferences and opinions, then how can you possibly answer this question?

Attorney Karlan can’t answer that question. The Court asks her repeatedly. She can’t muster a coherent answer. She retreats to social customs. For example, people call her “Ms.” and assume her gender, “[b]ut that’s not discriminatory because neither of us has been subjected to a disadvantage,” (Oral arguments, 12:23-24). The key, she asserts, is that the victim must suffer an “injury,” (Oral arguments, 13:2-5).

But, who gets to determine whether an “injury” occurred? By whose standard? By the victim’s? Or, is there something objective, something concrete, something tangible that tells us what an “injury” is, so we don’t drown in subjectivism and hurt feelings?

Justice Gorsuch sees the conundrum, and asks her about it (Oral arguments, 13:12-15). Attorney Karlan again fails to answer. She explains, by way of example, that people “know” what is normal and what isn’t:

MS. KARLAN: So there’s no categorical rule about these. For example, the fact that all of the men sitting at counsel table knew that they had to wear ties today and I was free not to didn’t cause an injury. On the other hand, even the dissenters in the Second Circuit said, if the Court said women who come to argue should argue in Hooters outfits and the men should wear —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: — No —

MS. KARLAN: — ties —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: — we’re not – we’re not — I mean —

MS. KARLAN: I know.

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —we can talk absurd examples —

MS. KARLAN: No, but I can —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —or we can talk real world examples.

Oral arguments, 13:16 – 14:9

Justice Gorsuch, who appears exasperated at this point by Attorney Karlan’s deliberately absurd strawman, gets to right to it:

JUSTICE GORSUCH: All right. What I’m –what I’m suggesting, counsel, is that there are male and female bathrooms, there are dress codes that are otherwise innocuous, right, most –most people would find them innocuous.

But the affected communities will not. And they will find harm. And how does your test deal with that one way or the other? That’s what I’m asking you to address, if you’d like to.

Oral arguments, 15:4-13. Emphasis added.

He gets it. How does Attorney Karlan avoid subjectivism? Where is the concrete test for “injury” in order to determine whether discrimination happened? Without it, you just have one person saying another person hurt his feelings! And, by what standard can we say, “No, that’s not good enough?”

Attorney Karlan has no answer. To be fair, no answer is possible.

MS. KARLAN: Yes. My test says that you have treated the people differently because of sex, which is what we are asking you to hold here. When you treat a gay man who wants to date a woman differently than a man –woman who wants to date a woman, that –that’s discrimination.

Oral arguments, 15:14-20

Yes, but who says the discrimination happened? How do you figure out whether what the stereotype is and whether the victim was fired for not living up to it? Is there some book, manual or pamphlet; some something that tells us what men and women are? What “sex” is?

Karlan then retreats behind the “reasonable person” concept and founders on the reef under Justice Gorsuch’s questions:

MS. KARLAN: Then you get to what I’ve said, which is you have to ask whether a reasonable person under these circumstances would be injured by the imposition of the particular sex-specific world. So when the Chief Justice calls me Ms., I am not injured. When I go to a –when I —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: You are not, but another —

MS. KARLAN: It –it —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: —person might be —

MS. KARLAN: Right. And the question —

JUSTICE GORSUCH: Are they reasonable or not? And –and I’m –I’m –I’m just -I’m wondering, how do you decide those cases?

MS. KARLAN: An idiosyncratic preference does not void an otherwise valid dress code or bathroom rule.

Oral arguments, 15:21 – 16:13

This is amazing. She doesn’t see it. Do you see it? Read it again.

How do you determine whether a “reasonable person” would be injured by the actions of the employer? By whose standard? What’s reasonable to one person might be pretty unreasonable to another. Attorney Karlan waves her hands and claims an “idiosyncratic preference” has no merit.

Again, who determine what that is? Society? 50 years ago transgenderism was more than idiosyncratic; it was perverse. Is this the route we ought to go? Whatever culture says is “good” is good? And, when culture changes than the laws need to change, too?

Attorney Karlan fares no better when Justice Sotomyor asks the same questions. I’ll quote the exchange in whole because it’s worth it:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: But you’re begging Justice Gorsuch’s question. We were following up on the same thing —

MS. KARLAN: I truly am not trying to —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —which is —

MS. KARLAN: —beg the question.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —how do we differentiate the two? What is the legal test that you propose to say this is discrimination because of sex, as you said, calling you one thing and your friend another is discriminatory, but it’s okay because there’s no harm. So what’s the test we apply to, say, when it is harm and when it isn’t?

MS. KARLAN: Let –let me try to be clear.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Let’s be —

MS. KARLAN: It’s not discrimination to call me Ms. Karlan and to call Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris. It is –it is because of sex that we were treated differently.

But as this Court has made it clear several times, discrimination consists in an injury that the law is prepared to recognize. And generally across all statutes, this isn’t a Title VII, and this is why I’m really not begging the question here, the Court has said de minimis effects are exempted from statutes presumptively. So if this Court thinks or if another court —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So why —

MS. KARLAN: —thinks —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: —is a dress code for Hooters that requires all women to wear a scantily –a scant dress, is that discriminatory?

MS. KARLAN: Yes, it is.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Is it discriminatory for the woman who just doesn’t want to wear it because it’s demeaning?

MS. KARLAN: Yes, it is.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So how about, is it discriminatory for the restaurant not to hire a transgender man who wants to wear the uniform?

MS. KARLAN: Well, you’re going to get —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: The scant uniform.

MS. KARLAN: I –I mean, I do want to get to the question of sexual orientation

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: No, no, no —

MS. KARLAN: –here, but I understand –I understand.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: But I think what you’re alluding is, and I still haven’t heard —

MS. KARLAN: Yeah.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: — the explanation, which is the question of how do we tell what’s actionable and not?

MS. KARLAN: Well, if —

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: At what –when does that discrimination become an issue?

Oral arguments, 17:15 – 20:2.

The line has been cut. The eyeglasses smashed. The boat has drifted away, been caught by the current, and has lost sight of land. Now that we’re adrift, we have nothing holding us to reality.

What is that objective standard, that anchor, that line holding us fast to the dock of reality? It’s God’s revelation to us, in the form of the Christian scriptures. Suffice it to say that morality can and will be legislated. Always has and always will be. Why else do you think it’s against the law to murder someone? The only question is which morality, and its claim for authority in our lives and in society. But, that’s an article for another time. For now, I leave you with this article outlining the Christian mission to this secular age.

In the next article, we’ll examine Justice Gorsuch’s opinion.

Bostock’s bad blunders …

Read the series so far.

As we consider the oral arguments, let’s reset and consider what Bostock is all about. It’s always refreshing to set aside the rhetoric, the passion and the partisanship and just look at the text of the statute. It clarifies things. Makes them simple.

Note: I’m not concerned with the conventions of American legal interpretation. I’m writing as a sane layperson who has spent his life in law enforcement and investigations, in criminal and civil contexts in both Federal and State government.

The point at issue is whether Clayton County, by allegedly firing Bostock because he was a homosexual, violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So, the very first thing is to look at what the statute says. Here’s what it says:

EMPLOYER PRACTICES It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

42 USC 2000e-2(A)

That’s it. It all comes down to that. Remember this.

The linchpin of Bostock’s argument is that you can’t separate discrimination “because of … sex” from discrimination “because of … sexual orientation.” Of course, the phrase “sexual orientation” is not in the text. Bostock argues that we must read it into “sex.”

In a previous post, I explained how to understand what, exactly, the phrase “discrimination because of sexual orientation” means. You may think you understand. After all, doesn’t everybody?

No. We can’t assume anything. We must define our terms. This is the way it works with these things. Interestingly, Bostock doesn’t try to define the phrase. Not in the petition. Not during the oral arguments. The phrase just exists as this … thing. I’m not sure whether this is deliberate. I’m surprised Clayton County didn’t define it either. I think it would have helped. Neither did the Solicitor General on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department, in support of Clayton County.

So, here is a reasonable way to understand “discrimination because of sexual orientation:”

Cobbling together the relevant OED definitions for “sex,” “orientation” and “discriminate,” we can construct an objective definition for “discrimination because of sexual orientation” as something like this:

treating a person in an unfair or prejudicial manner (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4) because of his emotional attitude and appetite with respect to sexual partners (see OED; s.v. “orientation,” n., 3).

This is a fair and conclusive definition of the concept at issue in Bostock, whose case hinges (in large part) on proving that discrimination “because of … sex” (i.e. being male or female; OED, s.v. “sex,” n., 1a, 2) is analogous to discrimination “because of … emotional attitude with respect to sexual partners.”

Words have semantic domains or broad ranges of meaning. The right meaning of a word depends on context. Some may attempt to interpret “discriminate” in Bostock’s context as something innocuous, perhaps merely to differentiate or distinguish (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 1). This will not do. The context for Title VII is to treat a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, which is why I selected the definition I did (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4).

Now, we get down to it. Bostock argues:

When a employer fires a male employee for dating men but does not fire female employees who date men, he violates Title VII. The employer has, in the words of Section 703(a), discriminated against the man because he treats that man worse than women who want to do the same thing. And that discrimination is because of sex, again in the words of Section 703(a), because the adverse employment action is based on the male employee’s failure to conform to a particular expectation about how men should behave; namely, that men should be attracted only to women and not to men.

Oral Arguments, 4:13-25. Emphasis added.

This is the argument:

  1. Men must only have sex with women.
  2. But, Bostock wants to have sex with men.
  3. This means Bostock fails to act like a man.
  4. Clayton County fired Bostock because he wasn’t acting like a man.
  5. So, Clayton County discriminated against Bostock because of sex; because he wasn’t acting as the County felt a man should act.

Bostock hangs its hat on the precedent in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), in which a woman claimed she was denied a partnership at a law firm because she didn’t act like a prototypical woman. Specifically, one superior advised the woman in Price that, if she wanted to improve her chances to make partner:

Hopkins should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sex stereotyping was discrimination “because of … sex” under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act:

Discrimination against an employee on the basis of sex stereotyping–that is, a person’s nonconformity to social or other expectations of that person’s gender–constitutes impermissible sex discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the same way, Bostock argues, his termination was also because of his failure to conform to societal expectations about his gender; specifically, that as a man he must only have sex with women. As a homosexual, he obviously does not comply with this “stereotype” and was thus discriminated against by Clayton County when it fired him:

when a man is discriminated against for being gay, he is discriminated against for not conforming to an expectation about how men should behave.

Oral Arguments, 5:20-23

There is much more, and I’ll cover it in the next article. But, this is the essence of the argument. There are several problems here.

Different words. Discrimination “because of … biological sex” (OED, s.v. “sex,” n., 1a, 2) is not the same thing as discrimination “because of … emotional attitude with respect to sexual partners” (see OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4; s.v. “orientation,” n., 3). They are completely different. The words don’t lie. They mean something. In this case, they mean different things.

Different concepts. It’s true that both scenarios involve a gendered individual. But, discrimination “because of … sex” happens because of a biological status (OED, s.v. “sex,” n., 1a). It is to treat someone in an unjust and prejudicial manner (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4) because of the nature of his reproductive functions. Orientation, however, is about one’s emotional attitude and feelings with respect to sexual partners (OED; s.v. “orientation,” n., 3). These are completely different concepts.

Must prove intent. If it’s a violation to discriminate “because of … sex,” then someone must prove intent. What does “because of” mean? It means that the discrimination happened because of biological sex. There may well be other factors at play. But, in some form or fashion, the termination must have happened because of sex. Bostock’s case should not have been considered unless he could prove specific intent “because of … sex” in Clayton County’s termination. It doesn’t matter that it’s hard to prove which one happened; if anything even “happened” at all. That’s why the burden of proof is on the accuser. If Bostock wishes to tie the two together, he must prove they’re the same thing. They’re not. This leads us to the next problem.

No standing. In order for this case to have any merit, Bostock must prove the following:

  1. That a discrimination occurred. If the word “discriminate” is not defined by the statute, Bostock should have used an authoritative lexicon such as OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4 to define his terms.
  2. That Clayton County committed this discrimination.
  3. That Clayton County committed this discrimination against Bostock because of his sexual orientation.
  4. That “sexual orientation” is reasonably analogous to the term “sex.” Again, if the statute did not define these terms, Bostock should have used the OED (or another authoritative lexicon) to define these terms and show they’re analogous.

If Bostock had proven these elements, he could have plausibly demonstrated that Clayton County violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

None of this happened. At best, Bostock attempted to argue #4. He did this badly and superficially. It’s difficult to understand why this case ever arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court. The attorney who argued Bostock’s case during oral arguments, Pamela Karlen, betrayed a superficial understanding of the issue in response to probing questions from the Court during oral arguments. We will turn to that in the next article.

I’ve made these arguments in a rather detached, clinical way. I haven’t even brought reality, as defined by the Christian scriptures, into this discussion. I’ll do that once I finish the series. For now, it’s enough to see the bankruptcy of Bostock’s argument.

Against Christian nationalism

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, one article deals with Christian nationalism by surveying three books on the phenomenon. The article offers up about as good a summary of the plague of Christian nationalism in America that I’ve yet seen:

… a movement committed to preserving its own privilege and power, favoring the interests of native-born white people over immigrants and ethnic minorities, and using legal authority to impose a Christianized moral order.

The article explains:

In the mid-2000s, it was fashionable among journalists and academics to worry that America was on the verge of becoming a theocracy. Conservative white evangelicals had fueled the election of George W. Bush and helped turn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ into a box-office smash. They seemed poised for renewed political and cultural dominance. And so books and articles poured forth warnings about the peculiar dangers of “Dominionism,” “Christian Reconstructionism,” and various other movements conspiring to impose Christian beliefs on an unsuspecting populace.

This narrative came crashing down with the election of Barack Obama. Almost overnight, fears of America descending into a theocracy evaporated. Pundits began forecasting the death of the Religious Right, and the same evangelicals who had helped propel Bush to power spent the next eight years playing defense. More and more, they saw themselves not as ascendant governing partners but as targets of a crusading secularism.

And then Donald Trump broke everything. His surprising election, enabled in part by white evangelical support, reawakened fears that religious conservatives would mobilize underneath a theocratic banner. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a fundamentalist dystopia where women are forced to breed, enjoyed a second life repurposed as a Trump-era cautionary tale (and a hit Netflix series).

Yet the idea of America descending into a genuine theocracy lacked the same surface plausibility it had during the Bush years. Though white evangelicals enthusiastically carried Trump into the White House, his lack of personal piety made him an unlikely candidate to preside over a thoroughly Christianized commonwealth. Nor, by and large, did his evangelical supporters mistake him for a godly statesman. Rather than King David, Trump was Cyrus, the pagan Persian emperor who, after conquering Babylon, allowed the Israelite captives to resettle in their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Still, with Trump in office, the political fortunes of religious conservatives appeared to improve. This set the stage for a new journalistic and academic preoccupation: uncovering why white evangelicals flocked so fervently to Trump. The books and articles that typify this genre still feature concerns about conservative Christians manipulating the levers of power. But with the specter of full-dress theocracy having dimmed—and with Trump styling himself more as a champion of American greatness than a vindicator of the faith—attention has shifted to a distinct but overlapping phenomenon: Christian nationalism.

There is a generational shift in conservative Christianity. Older Christians, who lived through the heyday of the Religious Right, Jerry Falwell, Sr., James Dobson and the Moral Majority, are often confused about why younger Christians (including younger pastors) don’t echo the Christian nationalism that arguably had its last meaningful victory in the second election of George W. Bush. Some argue that Christian nationalism had its most grotesque perversion of principle in the election of Donald J. Trump.

Russel Moore explained some of this generational shift in his 2015 book Onward:

The typical younger pastor is less partisan than his predecessor, less likely to speak from the pulpit about “mobilizing” voters and “reclaiming Judeo-Christian values” through political action and economic boycotts. This is not because he is evolving leftward. It is because he wants to keep Christianity Christian. As a matter of fact, the center of evangelical Christianity today is, theologically speaking, well to the right of the old Religious Right.

It’s true that the typical younger pastor of a growing urban or suburban church doesn’t look like his cuff-linked or golf-shirted forefather. But that doesn’t mean he’s a liberal. He might have tattoos, yes, but they aren’t of Che Guevara. They’re of Hebrew passages from Deuteronomy.

His congregation’s statement of faith isn’t the generic sloganeering of the last generations’ doctrinally oozy consumerist evangelical movements, but is likely a lengthy manifesto with points and subpoints and footnotes rooted in one of the great theological traditions of the historic church …

He is pro-life and pro-marriage, although he is likely to speak of issues like homosexuality in theological and pastoral terms rather than in rhetoric warning of “the gay agenda.” Unlike the typical Bible Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of evangelical church has strict membership requirements, both in terms of what it takes to enter the believing community and what it takes to say there. There aren’t likely to be four-year-olds baptized after repeating sinner’s prayers in a backyard Bible club, and the unrepentant often face what their parents never seemed to notice in their red-and-black-lettered Bibles: excommunication. If this is liberalism, let’s have more of it.”

Onward by Russell Moore; Kindle Location 363-377.

Amen to all that.

Good advice from a guy who oughta know

William Still was pastor of the same church in Scotland for 52 years. He died in 1997. He wrote a little book titled The Work of the Pastor. In it, he wrote the following:

Make sure you are called to the ministry, because the world gets worse and worse, and if ever there was a day when an evangelical minister could become a conventional member of society and fulfil a merely social role or occupy an official status, it is not today.

In which land is the church not in a real missionary situation as pilgrims and strangers in an alien, enslaved world? Even places with a rich evangelical heritage can take nothing for granted. When the superficially evangelistic community exhausts the solid biblical capital it has inherited from its forefathers, what is there to fall back upon?

There is more likelihood that it will become increasingly worldly in ostensible attempts to maintain communication with the lost world than that it will be willing to be led back to a solid biblical diet by ministers called of God to give it what it needs and not what it wants.

You need to be called of God to stick out from a complacent, alien community like a sore thumb. Nor will you need to try to stick out. Just be faithful, and God will arrange it, and you will be the talk of the community, however self-effacing you try to be.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 1164.

He also says this, which many American ministers who grotesquely marry a peculiar civil religion to the Word of God need to heed:

Because of the nationalisation of the church under Constantine, and the institutionalisation of it subsequently, she has failed to see that as a remnant church, gathering and building up a hidden Kingdom in an ever alien world, she is always in a missionary situation. The hope of the Christianisation of the state, or even the Christianisation of a complete community, is vain.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 801.

Hoping in nothing

David Brooks has an opinion piece out this morning in the New York Times. It’s an excellent summary of the confluence of multiple crises hitting all at once.

There are five gigantic changes happening in America right now. The first is that we are losing the fight against Covid-19. Our behavior doesn’t have anything to do with the reality around us. We just got tired so we’re giving up.

Second, all Americans, but especially white Americans, are undergoing a rapid education on the burdens African-Americans carry every day. This education is continuing, but already public opinion is shifting with astonishing speed.

Third, we’re in the middle of a political realignment. The American public is vehemently rejecting Donald Trump’s Republican Party. The most telling sign is that the party has even given up on itself, a personality cult whose cult leader is over.

Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.

Fifth, we could be on the verge of a prolonged economic depression. State and household budgets are in meltdown, some businesses are failing and many others are on the brink, the continuing health emergency will mean economic activity cannot fully resume.

Very good. I’ve been casting about, trying to sum up everything that’s been happening over the past few months. This about covers it all.

And yet … this article is also very sad. Like all who don’t know Christ, Brooks finds hope in an illusion. For him, it’s better government through the promises of Joe Biden:

Dealing with these problems is going to take government. It’s going to take actual lawmaking, actual budgeting, complex compromises — all the boring, dogged work of government that is more C-SPAN than Instagram.

I know a lot of people aren’t excited about him, but I thank God that Joe Biden is going to be nominated by the Democratic Party.

How sad. I don’t mean that in a nasty, social media sort of way. In that context, comments like this usually mean, “what an IDIOT!” That’s not what I mean.

I actually mean that this is sad; as in depressing. This is what Brooks looks to for a solution. It’s sad not because Brooks’ hope is in Joe Biden. It’s sad because this kind of naive hope is all you have when your framework for reality is anchored in the slime of transient things.

What’s your framework for understanding reality? For understanding this world and yourself? How do you make sense of (1) origins and (2) suffering, (3) what’s your hope to fix you and the world, (4) how will that actually happen, and (5) how will everything end? See my article about why these questions matter now, more than ever, here.

How sad it is if you look at the madness in the world and find hope in a politician. The Church’s job is to explain reality to the world; to explain things as they are to a people who’ve become deluded by the spirit of this mad age. The Christian faith and message has answers for each of the ills Brooks so ably summarizes in his article. It has better answers than faith in Joe Biden. It also has much, much better answers than faith in Donald Trump.

Thank God for that.

Explaining reality to the world

Something crystallized for me the past few days, as I read Bostock v. Clayton county. I realized that one of the Church’s missions in the modern West is to explain reality to the world. To explain how things really are. To explain what it means to be a man or a woman. To explain the weight subjective feelings should have in how you make moral value judgments. To explain how you determine “who you are.”

These things used to be taken for granted. Os Guinness has written that the West is a “cut-flower” civilization, in the sense that it’s like a withering flower ripped from the Christian worldview, slowly dying in a vase on the countertop.

No longer.

Now, the West is a dead flower civilization. Now, the Church must be the institution that stands in the gap, shakes it head sadly, and patiently and winsomely explains the facts of reality to a very confused world.

This is really an update on the old “battle of the worldviews” paradigm. The concept is the same, but the “worldview” framework isn’t quite good enough. It doesn’t capture the urgency of the Church’s task. We aren’t simply arguing for competing ways of looking at the world. We aren’t saying,

Look here! We have different ways of looking at the world, and the Christian way is better! Let me tell you why …”

It’s worse than that. It’s more urgent that that. We have to actually explain this world to the world. We have to exegete reality. We have to interpret reality for unbelievers, and pray the Spirit will thus unveil their own madness. It’s come to this, because the false religion of narcissistic humanism is not playing with a full deck.

How to do it?

Our evangelism needs to be better than rote, scripted gospel presentations. That’s been obvious for a while. It needs to engage ideas at the level of basic reality. This skeleton for this framework will look something like this:

  • Origins. How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we?
  • Suffering. What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other?
  • Hope. Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
  • Rescue. How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
  • The end. How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?

If you’ve read anything on worldview analysis, there isn’t anything new here. I deliberately “secularized” the categories to be more generic. But, they follow the typical Christian framework of creation, fall, promise, redemption, restoration.

How do the scriptures show God making this happen? I wrote about this a few months ago. Basically, you see God unveiling His plan through the bible’s covenants. There are five covenants. You can think of the first four as individual mile markers leading the bible reader to Jesus of Nazareth, who brings peace. It goes like this:

  • Covenant of Preservation. This covenant (Gen 8-9) didn’t solve the sin problem, but God preserved the world so He could solve it through His Son
  • Covenant with His people. God chose the Jewish people to be the vehicle for this new and permanent solution (Gen 12, 15, 17). Jesus is the descendant from Abraham who will bless people from all over the world and form a new family.  
  • Covenant of holy living. God told His people how to hold the fort, love Him, live holy lives, and maintain relationship with Him through the priests and the sacrificial system until the new solution arrives (Exodus 19:5-8; Old Covenant law). They failed; that’s why Jesus came to fulfill the terms of that covenant by being perfect for His people.
  • Covenant of the king. God chose a dynasty to represent Him, love Him, and lead people to do the same. Jesus is that king, descended as a man from David.
  • Covenant of peace. Because of His perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection, Jesus atones for the sins of all His people. He’ll remake us and remake this world. He’s gathering a family. The wicked will be punished. The righteous will be rewarded. There will be perfect, final covenant of peace (Heb 8).

This is the general framework Christians must use.

  • The first list is the framework for reality. It explains the most basic questions of life. It’s the well from which faithful Christian thinkers and philosophers (like Solomon) have explained reality to this world (think Ecclesiastes).
  • The second list is the story of reality. It’s how God has worked this out. It’s the saga of Him making good on all His promises. It tells us where we’re going and where we’ve been.

How to do it?

This is the difficult part. This is why I recently lamented that I felt inadequate to the task. The Church will never be able to explain reality to the world if it doesn’t understand how people in the world think. In missions contexts, missionaries are taught to study and understand the target culture so they can minister to the people. Well, the West is a missions field for the Church. It needs to understand the West.

This will be very hard.

It’ll be hard because the Church in the West, particularly its pastors, are not prepared to really understand the culture. It’s so easy to silo ourselves off in our preferred echo chambers. We rely on social media memes instead of critical thinking. We outsource the heavy lifting to our celebrity thinkers of choice (Christian or otherwise), and parrot what they say. As a culture, we have largely lost the ability to research, study and understand anything meaningful in a deep way.

So, what should the Church do? It must engage the false religion of what I now call narcissistic humanism. It must understand narcissistic humanism’s framework for reality, then attack it.

  • Origins
  • Suffering
  • Hope
  • Rescue
  • The end

How does narcissistic humanism answer these questions? Why are their answers wrong?

I’m afraid the Church will react through a prism of politics, or naivete, or anti-intellectualism. The Church can’t answer these unless it studies. And, I fear too many in the Western Church aren’t ready or able to study these issues. We think reading Wikipedia, watching our favorite partisan pundits on television, watching YouTube videos, or reading popular authors is “research.”

God help us.

The riots, the protests and the calls for justice tie directly to the framework categories of suffering, hope and rescue. If you understand the reality construct of narcissistic humanism, then you can engage with the gospel. With the truth.

It doesn’t matter that the criminal setting police cars on fire hasn’t read anything about Reconstruction. It doesn’t matter that the protester in the soon-to-be defunct Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has never read any academic work on critical race theory, and has never heard of Robin DiAngelo.

It does matter that there be people in the Church who understand the world better than the world understands itself.

The challenges

There are several, some of which I’ve already mentioned. I’ll recap a bit and toss in a few new ones:

Know thine enemy

Pastors must find some way to understand the world and its framework for reality. One way I’m doing this is to take introductory sociology texts as foundations, then read some select specialist literature from the world’s perspective. The discussions on the theories and causes of social inequality in my two texts (here and here) are very fascinating.

You quickly realize that this is a matter of dueling realities. These sociology texts are part of the “reality mold” into which community college students are poured by our world. Once you understand how this religion of narcissistic humanism sees reality, you can fit the point at issue into the generic framework for reality (see above) and then you’ll have a roadmap.

The Church and her people can only be physicians of the soul, diagnosing terminal illnesses, if it understands the patient. You don’t have to do it my way, of course. But, you do have to do it.

Pastors need to really know theology

This isn’t anything new, but it’s important. You can’t really understand the framework for reality without it. And, that means you can’t explain the story of reality then, either.

Pastors really need to know how to study

Forget partisan sources. Don’t let your favorite teachers interpret the world for you. Read the primary sources. Want to know about intersectionality? Read about it from academics who believe it. Read basic sociology texts.

It isn’t hard. Community college students read these texts. Your 19 year old is reading these books. You can, too.

Grab a pen, take some notes, and begin to understand the culture to which you minister. You’re doing it for Christ. You’re doing it so you can be a better ambassador.

It’s all happening too fast

Who is equal to the task? It feels as though the world has gone mad, all at once. The task is daunting, but it can be manageable if we (1) identify the abstract point at issue (e.g. the Black Lives Matter [“BLM”] issue is about justice and sin, etc.), then (2) fit it into the generic framework for reality template we discussed earlier (the BLM matter fits into suffering, hope and rescue), and (3) begin to take apart the false framework for reality with the Truth, from scripture.

Pastors are wimps

Yes, it’s true. Let’s acknowledge that it’s hard to swim against the cultural tide consistently and faithfully. Let’s acknowledge that it’s tempting to sand the rough edges off the gospel. Let’s then commit to not doing it, and to being held accountable if we start doing it.

Explain the world to the Church

If pastors don’t do it, Tucker Carlson will. This means topical sermons. It means connecting current events to the scriptures. Not with stupid prophesies or conspiracy theories. I mean a sermon on Revelation 17-18, with modern culture playing the role of the prostitute. And, we all know how that ends (Rev 19:19-21). I mean a sermon about identity, focusing on 1 Peter 2:9-11.

Pastors need to re-orient themselves to a missions mindset, which means really understanding the culture so they can attack it with the Truth. Are local churches ready for the shift in mindset that’s necessary? Are seminaries?

I don’t know.

I fear many Christians (especially ministers) aren’t equipped to understand the issues sweeping our culture. I fear we’re so captured by our culture that we’re unable to stand outside of it, as strangers and exiles from a better country, and explain reality to the folks in Vanity Fair.

Ministry for the future, in the West, will be more challenging than ever.

The woman and the pastor

I just read Revelation 12-18 this afternoon, and the identity of the woman in Revelation 17-18 suddenly makes so much more sense in light of the West’s complete moral collapse. Bostock v. Clayton County is the final domino in a chain that has made me now fully realize the scope of the task for faithful pastors in the 21st century.

I knew it before, but I didn’t know it before.

The Church no longer has any common point of cultural contact left with the world. When the Church speaks the mystery of the faith to outsiders, it now speaks a foreign and hateful language. This means the Church’s job is not simply to explain the Christian faith to the world. It is that, but it’s more than that.

The Church’s task, more than ever, is now to explain and interpret reality to the world. God’s reality. This will take educated, well-read ministers who understand history in a deep and meaningful way.

  • Not in a social media meme kinda way.
  • Not in a “I watch Tucker on Fox, and he’s right!” kinda way.
  • Not in a “Watch Ben Shapiro DESTROY the libs” kinda way.

I mean real history. Real engagement with big ideas and big thinkers. A real sense of human history, and mistakes of the past. We’ll need pastors who understand culture. Who pay attention to what’s happening in the world and can interpret it for the Church and for the world. I’m actually thinking a graduate degree in liberal studies/humanities may be more important than a PhD.

Carl Trueman wrote just this morning:

If Christians do not understand the wider context, then they will continue to underestimate the true depth of the cultural problem, be perplexed at the speed of apparent change, and be disturbed by new developments. And that will make it very hard to navigate this world as both good citizens and good stewards of the gospel.

Who is equal to this task? My goodness, who can be equal to this task? When I read the transcript of oral arguments from Bostock, I feel overwhelmed. What tortured combination of forces have combined to produce the kind of moral confusion and rebellion against God that we see in those pages? It’s too much. No one person is equipped to interpret this kind of madness for the Church.

I am more well-read than many pastors. That may be hubris, but I suspect not. I am overwhelmed by the task. I feel unequal to it. There’s so much!

The woman in Revelation 17-18 represents man in community apart from God. Like a chameleon, she’s taken many different forms over the years. But, she is organized society without God. In the West, she’s secular humanism. But, I know even as I write this that it’s not quite right. It’s a religion of sorts, but one I have trouble getting my arms around. It seems to combine a narcissism unique to this digital age, abysmal ignorance of just about everything, a “God as divine butler” theology among professing Christians, critical race theory, intersectionality, and hatred of God … all combined into one toxic casserole. I don’t know what to call it.

This is why I feel overwhelmed. I almost wish I were not so bookish, so I’d be content with memes on social media and wouldn’t appreciate the depth of the challenges that lay ahead. I do know, however, that the Lord destroys the woman in Revelation 18, and returns triumphantly in the next chapter. That’s nice!

May God help the Church in the 21st century in the West; especially its elders. Especially me.

Bostock and the meaning of words

Read the series so far.

I have now read both the petition from Bostock and the response from Clayton County. I have not yet read the transcript of the oral arguments or the Court decision itself because I am working my way through these documents in chronological order.

The sum of the two arguments is this:

  • Bostock argues “sex” in Title VII should include “orientation” because (1) lower courts are split, and (2) you cannot consider a person’s orientation without considering his “sex.”
  • Clayton County replies that (1) lengthy precedent says “sex” does not include orientation, (2) “sex” on its face did not mean orientation in 1964 so it cannot mean it now, (3) Bostock should solve this issue via legislation, (4) his petition is a “thinly veiled” ploy to have the Court legislate because Congress will not change Title VII to include “orientation,” and (5) the entire case is pointless because the county terminated Bostock for issues unrelated to his orientation and claims it has documents to prove it.

The most important thing to do is define terms. What does “sex” mean? What does it really mean? What does “sexual orientation” mean? What about “discriminate?” We all think we know what they mean, but what do they really mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) is the definitive, most authoritative lexicon in the English-speaking world. You need a subscription to access it. I have one. Heh …

Cobbling together the relevant OED definitions for “sex,” “orientation” and “discriminate,” we can construct an objective definition for “discrimination because of sexual orientation” as something like this:

treating a person in an unfair or prejudicial manner (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4) because of his emotional attitude and appetite with respect to sexual partners (see OED; s.v. “orientation,” n., 3).

This is a fair and conclusive definition of the concept at issue in Bostock, whose case hinges (in large part) on proving that discrimination “because of … sex” (i.e. being male or female; OED, s.v. “sex,” n., 1a, 2) is analogous to discrimination “because of … emotional attitude with respect to sexual partners.”

Words have semantic domains or broad ranges of meaning. The right meaning of a word depends on context. Some may attempt to interpret “discriminate” in Bostock’s context as something innocuous, perhaps merely to differentiate or distinguish (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 1). This will not do. The context for Title VII is to treat a person or group in an unjust or prejudicial manner, which is why I selected the definition I did (OED, s.v. “discriminate,” v., 4).

Bostock does not attempt to define “sex,” “orientation” or “discriminate.” Instead, he argues that discrimination because of orientation is as “reasonably comparable [an] evil” as discrimination because of sex, and Title VII should be interpreted broadly to include the entire spectrum of “sex-based discrimination.” This argument really hinges on definitions of words. Given that, I hope the bankruptcy of this position is becoming clear, if it ever was in doubt. “Sex” is about biology, but “sexual orientation” is about emotional attitude, belief and appetites regarding sexual partners.

You may disagree. But, you have no basis other than juvenile emotion upon which to stand. Define your words, and you define the very meaning of language. Cite your lexicon of choice to argue for different definitions of the terms at issue. I shall wait.

You can’t do it. That should mean something.

I am now starting the transcript of oral arguments …

St. Augustine the Prophet

In one particular section from City of God (2:19-20), St. Augustine issues a savage takedown on Roman society and culture that could literally be written about the West in 2020:

Here, then, is this Roman republic, “which has changed little by little from the fair and virtuous city it was, and has become utterly wicked and dissolute.” It is not I who am the first to say this, but their own authors, from whom we learned it for a fee, and who wrote it long before the coming of Christ.

Augustine laments the moral chaos of the Roman world in the late 4th century. It’s a tale of virtue gone sour; of encroaching degeneracy that poisoned an empire – much like the One Ring infected the creature Gollum little by little.

You see how, before the coming of Christ, and after the destruction of Carthage, “the primitive manners, instead of undergoing insensible alteration, as hitherto they had done, were swept away as by a torrent; and how depraved by luxury and avarice the youth were.”

It was the youth who bothered Augustine.

Let them now, on their part, read to us any laws given by their gods to the Roman people, and directed against luxury and avarice. And would that they had only been silent on the subjects of chastity and modesty, and had not demanded from the people indecent and shameful practices, to which they lent a pernicious patronage by their so-called divinity. Let them read our commandments in the Prophets, Gospels, Acts of the Apostles or Epistles; let them peruse the large number of precepts against avarice and luxury which are everywhere read to the congregations that meet for this purpose, and which strike the ear, not with the uncertain sound of a philosophical discussion, but with the thunder of God’s own oracle pealing from the clouds.

There is great divide between these two worldviews. One trumpets and pleasure at any cost. The other offers moral guardrails as a revelation from the one true God.

And yet they do not impute to their gods the luxury and avarice, the cruel and dissolute manners, that had rendered the republic utterly wicked and corrupt, even before the coming of Christ; but whatever affliction their pride and effeminacy have exposed them to in these latter days, they furiously impute to our religion.

If the kings of the earth and all their subjects, if all princes and judges of the earth, if young men and maidens, old and young, every age, and both sexes; if they whom the Baptist addressed, the publicans and the soldiers, were all together to hearken to and observe the precepts of the Christian religion regarding a just and virtuous life, then should the republic adorn the whole earth with its own felicity, and attain in life everlasting to the pinnacle of kingly glory.

But because this man listens and that man scoffs, and most are enamored of the blandishments of vice rather than the wholesome severity of virtue, the people of Christ, whatever be their condition—whether they be kings, princes, judges, soldiers, or provincials, rich or poor, bond or free, male or female—are enjoined to endure this earthly republic, wicked and dissolute as it is, that so they may by this endurance win for themselves an eminent place in that most holy and august assembly of angels and republic of heaven, in which the will of God is the law.

He continues, and the parallels to the West in 2020 are stronger than ever here:

But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious.

Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us?

This is our concern:

that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes.

Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride.

Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure.

Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden.

Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects.

Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear.

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person.

If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him.

Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use.

Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate.

Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.

Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind.

What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive?

If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus.

History really does repeat itself. We see the West rotting from within, like an apple gone bad, and we see our own culture in Augustine’s lament.

Already Gone?

Roger Olson is a moderate evangelical Baptist scholar who teaches at Baylor. He recently wrote a sweet retrospective on how church was when he was a kid. Here are some excerpts, with a few comments.

They were conservative, evangelical, moderately Pentecostal, and strict. They were, like many American evangelical churches then, “high demand.” Members were expected to believe and live a certain way and that way was separated from all worldliness. That way also included placing church at the center of one’s life only after family. Or, to put it another way, church was one’s extended family—even more than one’s extended biological family. And placing church at the center of one’s life was the main way of placing God at the center of one’s life—a distinction but not much difference.

What a sweet description. Your congregation as your extended family! This warms my heart.

He continues:

We eschewed all “worldliness” which included anything and everything that was conceivably sexually arousing.

What great advice. This can always descend into legalism, and there are movements that have ended up here. But, isn’t the principle so … right? Speaking for myself, I have no problem watching Bruce Willis slowly picking off terrorists at Nakatomi Plaza, but I would never watch any film with sex in it. You could argue this is a big inconsistency, and you’re probably right. But, for me, I’m not tempted to grab a pistol and stalk terrorists through a skyscraper if I watch Die Hard. But I, and any other man, cannot say the same about watching a film with sex.

Olson went on:

We had televisions in our homes but what was watched was carefully monitored and at church, anyway, talk about secular television shows was rarely heard. The same went for sports; our people could participate in some sports (especially the church softball league) but talking about sports at church was frowned on. So what did we talk about at church? What God was doing in the world, on the mission field, among us, in our lives. Conversation centered around Jesus who was talked about as a personal but invisible presence in our homes, with us at school and work, and in the church.

Yes, yes and yes. This could seem idealic and a bit utopian. But, it doesn’t have to be.

But, and here is a difference from similar churches today (if there are any), we did NOT celebrate America except for freedom of worship. We were not nationalists. In fact, when I was a child we were pacifists, but the Korean War was changing that. There was no talk of politics in the church. Sometimes my parents talked about politics at home, but mostly with regard to which parties and which candidates would protect our freedom of worship.

This is a distinction all evangelical churches in America should think about. Partisan politics is a poison, and it doesn’t belong in the pews. I have written reviews on two books recently that touch on this issue, and I’ll likely post them here in the near future.

So, what I want to know is this. What ever happened to that form of religious life? It seems to be gone forever—except in Latin America, Africa and Asia! My students from those continents and regions describe their churches as much like the ones I grew up in as a child and youth. Intense. Supernatural. Passionate about Jesus. The church as their extended family. Church discipline. Separation from worldliness. Where does that exist in America today outside of “Amish country?”

These are good questions. I’m not yet sure if the whole package Olson describes is (1) a model for a healthy church, or (2) a nostalgic yearning for a slice of mid-century Christian Americana that will never come back. Probably both.

But, you can’t deny that there are so many good things in Olson’s article. So many healthy things. So much that ought to warm our souls and make us look to our own congregations with a kind-hearted, reforming gaze. So much to inspire us, not with a hyper-critical eye, but with a vision of how to perhaps make a good thing better.

You should read Olson’s entire piece. It’s good stuff.