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A Response to Kevin O’Brien

May 8, 2012

I appear to have hit a nerve with the remarks I made about Dale Ahlquist in the lengthy prelude to my review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion.  The purpose of the book review was not to bash Ahlquist so much as to praise Douthat for his strenuous engagement with modernity.  Nevertheless, a link from the American Chesterton Society Facebook page stating that I am a “dishonest blogger” who says “dishonest things about Dale Ahlquist” has won me scores of hostile readers.

Certainly, I welcome debate as to the legacy of GK Chesterton.  What concerns me is the way in which my critics elevate tribalism–which as a rule imputes ill-will and moral failing to ideological opponents–over reasoned inquiry.  As I remarked in a combox discussion with Kevin O’Brien:

It would be dishonest for me to knowingly make false claims about Dale Ahlquist. If I have misrepresented Ahlquist, I have not done so willfully; I gladly accept correction as to my factual assertions. What I was trying to do in the post is contrast two distinctive ways of presenting Chesterton to new audiences: that of Ahlquist and that of Ross Douthat. This seems to me a legitimate matter for debate.

The distinction between dishonesty and wrongheadedness is, I think, an important one. To call someone “dishonest” is to direct attention away from the question at hand and toward the motives and moral character of that person.  It is a mode of argumentation that, I’m afraid, has become all too common on all sides of our political and theological debates these days.

Thus far, O’Brien has been a respectful and charitable debating foe. Still, his comments on my post this morning deflect attention away from my critique of Ahlquist, instead raising questions as to my tribal identity:

The only background you need is that this blogger likes Chesterton, but tries to square that with his admiration for and defense of Obama, contraception, Andrew Sullivan and Buddhism.

One of the key points I tried to make in the book review was that liking Chesterton need not entail agreeing with him in all instances. In that context, O’Brien’s list seems exceedingly arbitrary, like saying “this man says he likes Abe Lincoln, but then tries to square that with his admiration for Newt Gingrich, Ezra Klein, line dancing, and Judaism.”

If O’Brien means to imply that I am not a political or theological conservative, I plead guilty as charged. If he means to imply that I am therefore beyond the pale of Catholicism, I respectfully disagree. Let me clarify my position on each of the “heresies” O’Brien cites. My defense of Obama does not entail a defense of the Culture of Death. For the record, I am not pro-choice and do not support stem cell research or euthanasia. Nor do I assume that politically conservative Catholics necessarily support militarism, torture, the death penalty, or unbridled capitalism. Voting is a matter of prudential judgment. As for contraception and homosexuality, I do not dissent from Church teaching. What I assert is that all of the arguments I have come across in defense of Church teaching are exceedingly weak. I am obedient but deeply agnostic on these matters, which are admittedly a great source of difficulty for me. Third, it is true that I read and admire greatly Andrew Sullivan’s blog; how, exactly, is that a problem? Finally, I think Catholics can learn a lot from Buddhism but reject syncretism. Having studied Buddhism extensively, I find Chesterton to be a very unreliable guide to the religion.

If all of that somehow disqualifies me from tribal membership among orthodox Chestertonians, so be it. But I hope it doesn’t exclude me from rigorous, but respectful debate.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 12:03 pm

    Innocent, forgive me for sounding tribal.

    If you read my own blog, you’ll see that I am always railing against that very thing. In fact, over 18 months ago I was posting about how dangerous it was that the conservatives were trying to co-opt Chesterton and use him for their own agendas. You have hit upon a real phenomenon here; my only gripes with you were two:

    1. That you misrepresented Dale Ahlquist

    2. I caught a whiff of what smelled like you making an apology for the mistakes of the liberals by blaming everyone but them for their not liking Chesterton

    Now, Sullivan is a good writer and says some important things regarding the Catholic Church from a sociological point of view. But he is famous for his dissent on “Humanae Vitae”, or at least famous for blaming that for driving Catholics out of the Church.

    So admiring him and claiming (as it appears you have) that the burden in the HHS debate rests on the bishops to show how opposing contraception does not harm women (!), as well as your being mad at Dale for emphasizing Chesterton’s positions on things that rile liberals (opposition to perversion, support for the family, etc.) paints an odd picture of you and your intentions.

    However, as to Catholic teachings you affirm but feel less than enthusiastic about, I admire you for assenting to things that give you pause. That show a true excercise of faith and obedience.

    For example, I think you are right that little has been done to explain why contraception is wrong. Most opponents of contraception make a big philosophical error, which is why I myself struggled with this teaching after my conversion and reception into the Church. In fact, I’ll blog on that today.

    To conclude: my intention is not to be tribal. You and I both agree that conservatives and liberals get a lot of things wrong and go especially wrong when they look no further than the banners they carry. But your analogy is not quite right. A better analogy is this: if a man were to say, “I like Abraham Lincoln, but I think the North should have lost the War, Booth was misunderstood and the Thirteenth Ammendment was a joke,” well that would at the very least give one pause.

    Liking Chesterton and being enthusiastic for dissenters and Buddhism and liberals (in this day and age) gives one pause. But please make your case here or at my blog. You are a fine writer and, I think, an excellent Chestertonian in the making.

    I especially think that you should make a case for your hesitations over Catholic teachings you don’t feel comfortable with – because (take this from one who’s struggled as you have) an excellent rational case can be made for the entire seamless garment, even if that case is not typically being made. In this case, knock and it shall be answered.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    May 8, 2012 12:27 pm

    Kevin, I can see how our exchange might have given you the impression that I take my cues on religion from Andrew Sullivan. And I can certainly see why you would deem that problematic from a Chestertonian perspective.

    Part of the problem with being a controversialist is that it is impossible to state all of one’s views all at once. A critique of EWTN’s reductive social conservatism need not entail support for abortion or euthanasia. A critique of certain articulations of Church teaching on sexual morality need not entail a rejection of those teachings. And so on.

    The example you give from my post on the HHS ruling is a perfect example of how this problem plays out. I did a whole series on the HHS ruling and my overall position is that the Church’s right to refuse to cover contraception in insurance plans is *not* as many Catholics, including prominent members of the hierarchy, contend, strictly a matter of religious liberty. For debates about liberty always also involve debates about truth, a position that on other occasions Chestertonians and prelates alike have endorsed. I don’t think Mormons should be legally allowed to practice polygamy or that pagans should be allowed to practice human sacrifice. Somewhere, there has to be a line.

    The point I was making in the quote you took out of context is that a coherent defense of their opposition to the HHS ruling would require the bishops to demonstrate that they have not crossed the not unreasonable line drawn by their opponents: which is that, “in the political arena,” Catholic teaching must be shown not to undermine a basic respect for women. In other words, a Catholic must show that her or his position on the HHS Ruling is not on par with that of a Muslim who claims that obedience to Allah requires an occasional wife-beating. As a Catholic, I think this can be demonstrated. Easily.

    I appreciate your willingness to engage with me on this blog. And I very much welcome debate over contraception and homosexuality on future occasions. Nothing would please me me more — and I mean this in all sincerity — than to see clearly the errors in my thinking on these matters.

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