To the students of Patrick Henry College:
When I heard your Faith & Reason Lecture was happening on Friday, I was taken back fondly to the first years of that tradition, when I earnestly struggled to follow the complex arguments of Dr. Bates and Dr. Mitchell, two of our great professors. Another year the lecture was given by the Catholic philosopher Robert George, whom I now disagree with on most things, but whose intellect and rigor I continue to respect. All of those lectures were at the limit of my comprehension at the time; they engaged the deepest questions of Western thought, and pushed me to read more closely and understand more fully.
What you heard this past Friday was something different. I hardly know what to say about it, except that, like a number of others, I was disturbed and saddened that PHC would endorse views like these in such a prominent forum. To say it was beneath the standards of charity, evidence, and logical rigor students at PHC should expect from their professors would be an understatement. But beyond its weaknesses as a piece of argumentation, it had darker moral undertones that should be emphasized and rebutted. Anyone committed to the Christian virtues of love, charity, forgiveness, and justice should be deeply suspicious of such a hostile condemnation of the voices of people who have been subjected to violence and discrimination in our society, and of those who have worked courageously and democratically to protect them.
I don’t know any of you personally, but I know you’re probably something like I was a few short years ago. I hope that’s enough of an opening through which I might address you and you might be able to hear.
(If you didn’t hear or read Dr. Baskerville’s lecture, I strongly encourage to do so before proceeding.)
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The topic of the lecture was ideology, but it is immediately apparent that its intent is not to deal with any conception of ideology that could be defended in a serious academic environment. In fact, Dr. Baskerville never even gives a definition of ideology; he simply remarks that one particular feature “of the ideological mind is that it seeks to make everything ideological … and to portray all of public life as a clash of ideologies” (3, my emphasis). This is little more than a tautology. Similarly, his claim that ideology is a modern invention is wildly controversial to say the least. But the course of the lecture reveals that a solid definition and rigorous historical perspective isn’t important: Dr. Baskerville’s vague concept of “ideology” is only meant to stand for the destructive, illegitimate politics he wishes to condemn. Real politics are what happened in Ancient Greece and the American colonial period; ideology, on the other hand, encompasses the radical illusions of the 20th century that created all the evils PHC was founded to counteract.
Ideologies are portrayed in dark terms: “they always entail grievances, and they thrive on resentment—grievances that must be redressed by wielding government power” (5). But oddly, only political orientations that conservative Christians generally oppose can be ideologies. Those ideologies find “enemies” on which to “fixate”: “the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, Jews, the Christian West, or Dead White Males” (6-7). Christianity is magically exempt from ideology because it “offers a theology of forgiveness” (5). This is an astounding claim: if Christianity cannot be ideological, then how do we explain the ideology of right-wing evangelical Christianity, which happens to fit Dr. Baskerville’s specifications precisely? With its resentment for abstract enemies like secularists, liberal elites, feminists, the gay agenda, the liberal media, etc? With its vast network of organizations built to stoke resentment of those enemies? What does evangelical conservatism—the soul of Patrick Henry College—want if not to mobilize hostility against these enemies in order to take back political power?
Considering that the bulk of the lecture is devoted to alarmism about abstract enemies, the irony of its framing is impossible to overstate: an essay against ideology that is an ideological screed par excellence. It’s a pastiche of random facts (and a few brazen falsehoods) woven into a grand narrative designed to provoke you to political action. To untangle every single knot of its logic would require thousands of words; I have faith that, if PHC students are as sharp as I knew them to be, they will have no trouble identifying the contortions that take the lecture from its opening pages to a jeremiad against an impressive list of conservative Christianity’s perceived enemies.
Starting on about page 8, the lecture begins setting up a binary between “freedom” and “sexual license.” On the side of the first is supposed to be you (“freedom”), and on the second the “soft ideology” of sexual liberation. The way Dr. Baskerville will portray it, children, families, men, and heterosexuals are all being made pawns in this ideology’s quest for power (9). The ideology of sexual liberation has taken so much ground in this war that a dramatic confrontation is imminent—it is “on a direct collision course with the Christian faith” (11). The current stages of this confrontation are well known: military chaplains, religious business owners with conscience objections, etc.
For the sake of space, I will stop following the argument’s progression for several pages, and instead simply point out some of the outrageous claims made:
“We know that the feminists had intimate associations with the Bolsheviks and before them with the Jacobins. And homosexual activists have played an integral role in the rise of Fascist politics, including Nazism” (10). There were indeed female activists involved in the French Revolution, whose efforts to establish equality for women were mostly unsuccessful. But what exactly is being claimed here? That the involvement of female activists automatically discredits a historical movement? What are we to think, then, of the American prohibition and abolitionist movements, which were marked by strong participation from feminist activists? The second claim about Nazi homosexuals is a canard born out of 1930s anti-Nazi propaganda and discredited long ago by serious scholarship. It is still advocated by a few fringe right-wing propagandists, including the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer. But any half-serious scholar should know better, and its appearance in a prominent lecture at a serious institution of higher learning is a disgrace.
“The blending of sexual liberation with political ideology is starkly seen in open-ended sex ‘education’ programs. Many observe this has now reached the point of exposing children to government-authorized pornography” (12). Age-appropriate sex education is not explicit or pornographic by any standard. Who are these “many”? Why are they so difficult to locate? If there is even one example of a teacher using government-approved pornographic material for sex education, Dr. Baskerville is the first to hear about it.
“Virtually the entire domestic budget of every government from Italy to Missouri is justified by problems proceeding from single-parent homes and connected forms of family dissolution. This is why the Wall Street Journal and others have attributed the financial crisis entirely to the welfare state” (12, emphasis mine). It’s no secret that the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like the welfare state, but even they aren’t crazy enough blame it for the financial crisis. The financial crisis was caused by a subprime mortgage bubble, exacerbated by rampant Wall Street lawbreaking and deception. It simply has nothing to do with the welfare state, and I challenge Dr. Baskerville to produce even one article from a serious newspaper claiming that the welfare state was “entirely responsible” for the financial crisis.
“Sexualisation is also rapidly transforming our armed forces into a gargantuan welfare state whose generous benefits, intended for real families, act as a magnet for single mothers and homosexuals with sexually transmitted diseases” (14, emphasis mine). There is no evidence that the military is increasingly “sexualized” or that either single mothers or homosexuals with STDs are more interested in military service than before. Military health screenings are frequent and rigorous, and servicemembers rarely lose any duty time because of STDs. The claim about gays seems to be based on the baseless assertions of a retired military officer with no particular expertise on the subject. Also, what the hell is a “real” family? Do those in your student body who have lost parents and now only have a single mother or father—are they not “real”? Those whose parents have been through divorce—are they, too, fake families? And what exactly is wrong with a single mother, perhaps who has few other economic prospects, putting her life on the line for her country in order to support her child?
Beginning on page 15 is the most serious and disturbing part of this lecture. Pay close attention to the language used in the next few pages; let the analogies sink in. The section focuses on “new gender crimes and new forms of criminality based on sexual relations.” It immediately opens with a comparison between “the women’s movement” and … the gulag. The estimated death toll for that Soviet system of forced labor camps is somewhere around 1.5 million; that is what your London School of Economics-educated professor of government just compared to a nonviolent movement for democratic political representation. (At the bottom of the same page, you’ll find another labeling of feminism as “home-grown Stalinism.” Democratic political activism = millions murdered.)
On the next page there’s a list. What is being claimed here is that entire new genres of crimes have been invented in order to repress “heterodox political beliefs” (i.e., yours). Dr. Baskerville makes a perfunctory wave of the hand toward “real sex crimes,” but believes those can all be blamed on the Sexual Revolution (16). The much more important matter is the categories of “new crimes” that were created and expanded to repress your political beliefs: “rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, child abuse, bullying, and stalking.” Notice that he has carefully defined each of these to presume the cynical dishonesty of the accuser and the wronged innocence of the accused. “Rape,” then, is not forced sexual intercouse, but only a woman’s false accusation of violation. These new crimes were created not to protect women, who are widely and indisputably victims of sexual violence, but so that sexual liberationists can control males with conservative views. Now, keep paying attention to the language as you read this summary of what’s just been argued:
Radical ideology has thus transformed our government into a matriarchal leviathan that operates like a massive, bureaucratic version of … Potiphar’s wife. We have not eliminated a “gender stereotype,” as we were promised; we have merely politicized it—in this case that of the temptress, the seductress who lures men into a “honeytrap” by offers of pleasure before springing a trap that today can mean decades in prison. (18, emphasis mine)
This is not simply a metaphorical description of an out-of-control federal government: it’s a deep, revealing expression of an underlying worldview. This worldview always presumes the innocence of the strong and powerful and the cynical corruption anyone who dares challenge their moral authority. You must ask yourself, deeply and seriously: what kind of worldview conceives women as nothing more than tools of the devil, seducing men at the behest of the oppressive powers that want to control them? That political and judicial protections our society has set up to combat sexual violence are also nothing more than weapons in this plot?
Let’s get real. Girls have been raped while attending Patrick Henry College: girls who I sat next to in class, by men who I sat next to in class. Other women I know were at different times mercilessly harassed, stalked and frightened—all on the campus of Patrick Henry College. Often it was the “nice boys” no one in a million years would imagine could do something like that until they saw it with their own eyes. You may not know it, but women and children you know—perhaps even in your own family—have experienced unspeakable things behind closed doors. Were all of them tempters and temptresses, working at the behest of the “matriarchal leviathan”? With no need whatsoever for judicial categories like “rape” and “sexual harassment” and “child abuse”? Just pawns in the ideology of sexual liberation, being used to attack the good, godly men who mistreated them? Dr. Baskerville may respond that he’s “not talking about real rape” or “not talking about real child abuse,” but his words reveal that he is much more concerned with protecting the accused than protecting the violated, thus casting a shadow of prejudicial doubt over all such accusations.
Throughout the final pages of his lecture, Dr. Baskerville fixates on imaginary manipulations of the justice system to dismiss legal protections for those who are raped, harassed and abused. The “innocent” (accused abusers) are “railroaded into prison” for “sex crimes” (his scare quotes) that couldn’t possibly exist (21). Dr. Baskerville’s worldview leaves no room for the possibility that abuse could be real or should be prosecuted, which is alarming enough. But these factual claims are also utterly and demonstrably false. It remains very difficult to get a rape conviction in American courts, even with strong evidence and witnesses. According to government statistics, sexual assault has declined by 60 percent in the past decade. Fewer people than ever are incarcerated for the categories of crimes he suggests are driving the mass imprisonment of innocent men. So who exactly are these innocent men? Has Dr. Baskerville simply invented them? What kind of hysterical suspicion of women would lead someone to claim such a thing?
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The very first Faith and Reason lecture was in 2005, when I was a sophomore. It would become something many of us would always remember for an accidental reason: it was one of the catalysts for the departure of many of our favorite professors, an event that irrevocably changed the course of PHC.
The lecture was given by Dr. Todd Bates, who taught my freshman theology class, and focused mostly on Augustine’s theory of knowledge. (It was about an actual philosopher—imagine that.) But before it was even presented, it started a controversy: then-president Farris objected that it carried on for 24 pages about a philosopher who was “in hell” and never mentioned the Bible. (Not making this up: you can read all about it here.) Somehow Dr. Bates managed not to resign on the spot, and gave a modified version of the lecture that, if I recall, included more scripture references to pacify Farris.
I don’t know if the PHC leadership vetted Dr. Baskerville’s lecture this year, but it’s difficult to imagine that they didn’t. So consider what met with the censors’ approval this time: not a single reference to any major thinker in Western history, and only couple of marginal, throwaway nods to scripture. In their place were numerous factually dubious assertions, including arguments borrowed from discredited propagandists and fringe special interest groups. Even more assertions have no citation at all, but almost certainly came from marginal right-wing internet publications (the kind you’re warned about in your freshman Research and Writing class not to trust.)
It’s pretty clear, then, what the specifications for your central keynote address of the semester at PHC are. Celebrated Christian philosophers are suspect and must be “balanced” with Bible verses. But sketchy, unsourced and flat-out false declarations invite no censure, and require no such balance.
So you are left with some crucial questions. Is this the kind of school you want to attend? If not, what are you going to about it?
- Robin Herbert on Rorty, Heidegger, and The New Republic: A Counter-Example
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- David Sessions on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
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