More interesting was the discussion of Christianity in domestic politics. Schiltz raised the question of the “Benedict option” as a response for traditionalist Christians who believe that they have lost the culture war and that American society is set irreversibly on a secularizing course that is hostile to religion. This was Douthat’s cue. Here was the only time he stuttered—because the topic touched a very sensitive nerve. Douthat is a convert of a familiar type, the kind who seems drawn to Catholicism as an antidote to civilizational decline and the loss of normative authority. This is a classically conservative trope, and I would contrast it with conversion stories like those of Edith Stein and Erik Peterson (Newman, on the other hand, had more than a touch of the unnerved conservative). Douthat sees the obvious decline of mainline Protestantism and is acutely sensitive to the same dynamic playing out in Catholicism, in which Christian accommodation to modernity (always selectively defined) ends up in the dissolution of Christianity. I call this the Dying of the Light syndrome, after James Burtchaell’s book of that title. The late Richard John Neuhaus endlessly pulled this alarm.
West refused to concede the premise that Christianity was somehow unable to engage with the modern world precisely in its supposed secularity. He showed no fear that the Gospel could somehow lose its savor, its power. If that appeared to happen, the conclusion could only be that the Gospel had been misunderstood by its supposed guardians. When asked by Douthat about the relative decline of the black churches as forces for social change, West conceded that formal Christianity was nowhere near as visible in current protest as it had been in the 1950s and ’60s, but he insisted that there was real spirituality at work nonetheless. He may be right.
The really charged topic was race. Black Lives Matter has been a vigorous and disruptive presence in the Twin Cities for some time now. Last summer’s fatal shooting of an African-American man named Philando Castile by a St. Anthony Village policeman during a routine traffic stop became instant national news thanks to his partner’s video posting of the shooting as it occurred. So the presence of a firebrand black spokesman like Cornel West was sure to draw a crowd. This was not lost on the Murphy Institute, but even they may have been surprised when twelve hundred people registered to attend. As a result, a whole lot of people showed up who would normally never set foot on our campus, which has a mostly deserved reputation as a white, Republican, suburban enclave in the middle of the city. It was gratifying to see such diversity. Judging from the applause and laughter, support for the two speakers was fairly evenly divided.
Douthat had the tougher challenge here, because (at least in front of a campus audience) the burden of moral opprobrium is necessarily and rightly on the side of those who are the political voice of the white majority. And it’s not controversial to say that the heart of the modern GOP is the one-time Democratic segregationist Solid South. Douthat handled it well. He resisted West’s effort to link all racisms together in a rainbow coalition, insisting that the legacy of chattel slavery on American blacks is a qualitatively different burden from what Latin American immigrants face. Even indigenous peoples were defeated in war and to that extent disarmed as an actual threat—unlike the embedded fear of the slave-owning class of a slave rebellion. That fear has never gone away and troubles white attitudes on race to this day. He refused to let the term “colonialism” be used promiscuously and thereby vitiate our ability to make necessary distinctions (West was unconvinced). Douthat also criticized the current purge of historical memory in the fights over buildings and monuments. It is wholly understandable why Yale might want to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from a university building. But why demolish statues and such, especially in the South, where their existence reinforces the memory of a history that we can’t afford to forget? On the condition, that is, that the history of oppression that was forgotten gets its due commemoration.
In an unwitting link to the two earlier presentations I’ve described above, Douthat exhorted us to pay attention first of all to the empirical facts around us, and not to be swept up in the sometimes artificial anxiety induced by immersion in the world of the internet. Yes, we are in the middle of a difficult time, and yes, the Trump administration poses unique threats to our democratic institutions. But we have known worse times in our history, and hysteria and despair are both traps to be avoided. To make the point, he pulled his smartphone out of his pocket. Timothy Radcliffe would have approved.
I wish I could end there, with a huge, diverse, and richly entertained audience applauding the bravura performance of our guests. But as if to remind us how weird the times are, in the very course of this invigorating event, the university’s Public Safety had to send out an official alert that “an accidental gunshot” had occurred in a nearby dormitory, that one person had been accidently but not seriously wounded (in fact the injury required surgery), and that no threat was posed to the rest of the community. St. Thomas is a weapons-free campus—this is Minnesota, not Texas or Florida—and the university and the St. Paul police are investigating. Regardless of what the full story turns out to be, the very existence of a gun in a dormitory is a horrifying contradiction of a university’s reason for being and a bizarre counterpoint to the free, honest, charitable, informed, and passionate public discussions that this past week of campus events so beautifully represented.