Just in time for Holy Week, Cornel West and Ross Douthat came together to remind us to return to the Way of the Cross.
West and Douthat met this last Friday on Minnesota’s University of St Thomas campus. The event was originally inspired by a line from one of Douthat’s columns at The New York Times. Contrasting secular liberalism with left-leaning Christianity, he wrote, “And I would far rather debate politics with Cornel West or the editors of Commonweal than with a liberalism that thinks it can impose meaning on a cosmos whose sound and fury signifies nothing on its own.”
The university’s Murphy Institute decided that this would be a conversation worth watching, so they issued invitations. It was indeed worth watching.
Douthat And West Share A Common Ground: Their Faith
It would be difficult to script a more genial conversation between representatives of the political left and right. Charging headlong into the hard questions, West and Douthat discussed capitalism, white supremacy, traditional sexual morals and more. Neither man at any point lost his poise or sense of humor. In the end, the audience was left wondering: Is there a way to recreate this dynamic elsewhere in America? Why were these two able to venture where so many others have feared to tread?
There is an obvious answer: West and Douthat can understand each other because they are both Jesus freaks. That is to say, their perspectives are shaped in significant ways by a serious Christian commitment. West may be a heterodox Protestant and Douthat an orthodox Roman Catholic, but they still share a deep reverence for the God who became man, as well as for the Christian intellectual tradition. Though current affairs provided the immediate fodder for this discussion, there was a very real sense in which faith transcended politics, enabling some meeting of minds.
The philosophers in the audience appreciated West’s decree that universities ought to dedicate themselves to “soulcraft” and the inculcation of the cardinal and theological virtues. He and Douthat both share an evident concern for the moral and spiritual shallowness that can easily be the fruit of a technocratic consumer culture. West suggested at one point that it was really unsurprising to him that conservative Christians, raised in such an environment, would be ready to abandon so many of their ostensible principles in rallying behind Trump. (“Harsh but fair” said his interlocutor, with a wry smile.) How much fruit can we expect to bring forth from the stony soil of materialistic modernity?
This Is How to Address Sticky Public Questions
Consumerism may not be the only problem, of course. Douthat, for his part, pressed West to consider whether his brand of left-leaning Christianity might also bear considerable blame, both for nurturing the technocratic mindset in embryo, and for blithely unleashing destructive sexual appetites that have exacerbated the cultural damage. What, in short, does West think about sex?
West’s reply (referencing Martin Buber and authentic sexual intimacy) would surely be unsatisfying to many conservative Christians. (It didn’t satisfy this one.) Nevertheless, the contrast with the sneering, secularist left was palpable. Broadly speaking, West seems to understand the concern. He did not insist that traditional moralists are all narrow-minded homophobes. Watching this exchange, it was easy to wish that the left had a few more (or more influential) Cornel Wests.
As Christian intellectuals, West and Douthat could probe these sticky questions with some degree of mutual understanding. From the standpoint of shared faith, it becomes possible to ask: which aspects of this tradition need to be reinforced or re-emphasized, and which can safely be let go? Disagreement did not immediately need to be attributed to narrow-minded prejudice or shameless self-seeking.
Douthat And West On Supremacy and Resentment
Some of the richest exchanges of the evening concerned America’s racial politics. Moderator Elizabeth Schiltz opened the topic by asking West about his involvement with social justice campaigns, especially Black Lives Matter. The most interesting exchanges, however, may have occurred at the end of the night, when audience members asked several polemical questions about racial justice, white supremacy, and whether blacks should be ashamed even to call themselves “Americans.”
Both commentators were impressive in this segment. West, a lifelong racial-justice activist, was sympathetic without sounding bitter or inflammatory. Douthat, for his part, managed to give these questions serious and respectful answers, without appearing to apologize for being a Harvard-educated white male. In our charged racial climate, this in itself was an achievement on all sides.
From that unusual starting-place, a fruitful conversation did start to emerge. The pair discussed the extent to which anti-black racism in America can helpfully be compared to other types of racial prejudice that may arise here or in Europe. They debated how best to make peace with the past without condoning its evils. West especially returned again and again in this segment to uplifting Christian themes: redemption, love, forgiveness. This is not at all the kind of rhetoric that we currently hear from black critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Could This Help Us Discuss Race On A National Stage?
Might this be taken as a model for how to have a reasonable discourse on race? In truth, both men conceded certain things that others in their respective political camps would be loathe to offer. Douthat is willing to discuss ways in which living racial minorities are still disadvantaged by racism or its after-effects. This is certainly a contrast to many on the right, who pour enormous energy into proving that today’s minorities are only ever disadvantaged by their own mistakes and those of the political left. A recent column suggests that he is willing at least to discuss whether reparations would be a helpful measure for moving beyond our present racial standoff.
West gave some ground too, however. Unlike many of his racial-activist brethren, he seems willing to contextualize America’s racial history against the backdrop of a Christian appreciation that mankind is fallen but also redeemed. Racism is real, and terrible, but for West it doesn’t seem to be the sort of foundational, cosmic phenomenon that we can never hope to address. That could be a very important concession in today’s racial climate, where many seem so attached to their resentment that it’s hard to imagine them ever being willing to let go.
How We Can Seek A Racial Détente
This conversational space merits further exploration. In our polarized climate, it’s remarkably difficult to establish even this basic premise: Perhaps Americans have made significant progress in overcoming our ugly racial history, and yet still have some work left to do.
Once an overtly and unapologetically racist nation, America has reached a point where most of its citizens seem to agree that skin color and ancestry should not be barriers to achievement or social inclusion. That’s a huge achievement. Still, egregious injustice (on the scale of slavery and segregation) tends to leave cultural “scars”, which may not heal in just a few short decades. Conservatives are too reluctant sometimes to countenance that possibility.
That suspicion, however, is often motivated by the left’s crass use of racial resentment as a potent political tool, which for them is at once electorally advantageous, psychologically gratifying, and culturally destructive. Why should conservatives cooperate with a social agenda that liberals seem so happy to exploit for their own ends? Why especially should they do this when the left’s cultural crusade seems to have no end in sight?
Suppose we could broker a deal between right and left, to this effect: Conservatives will stop insisting that the racial justice campaign be put to rest immediately, if liberals will agree that it needs to happen eventually, and within a reasonable space of time. That might seem a vague and vacuous bit of common ground. Friday night’s debate, however, made it seem that even this could represent a great leap forward from the spaces for our ongoing “conversation about race”.
What This Suggests About America’s Christian Future
How should we feel about this stirring conversation between two Christian intellectuals, in a nation that seems to be moving away from its Christian roots? Should we be hopeful (because fruitful exchange, under the right circumstances, still seems possible), or wistful (because the foundation that made it possible seems to be crumbling as well)? Although much remains unclear, there does seem to be a lesson here about the road ahead for Americans, and especially American Christians.
For a number of reasons, West would strike many conservative Christians as a friend not worth having. A florid and slightly kooky figure, he seems to be on the wrong side of all the controversies that most matter to us. Isn’t it more an embarrassment than a gift to have such a person self-identify as a Christian?
Perhaps not. After all, we needn’t give up on orthodoxy just to converse with those who don’t share it. In the end, don’t Christians have everything to gain if we can demonstrate that our broader tradition still has the resources that America needs to forge a path forward?
Separated by a quarter century (West was born in 1953, Douthat in 1979) and a massive political gulf, these two men still seemed able to bridge a political gulf that threatens to tear our nation apart. Are they the only people in America who could accomplish such a feat? Perhaps we should trouble ourselves to find out.