Yoram Hazony On Making America Devout Again
The natcon philosopher wants religion at the center of our national identity.
Yoram Hazony is a philosopher, Bible scholar, and political theorist. He founded the Shalem Center, a research institute in Israel, and he’s currently president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and serves as chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation in DC. The author of many books, including The Virtue of Nationalism, his most recent is Conservatism: A Rediscovery. He is one of the most compelling writers in the “post-liberalism” camp on the right. I think you’ll find I challenged him on everything.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on how wokeness is a threat to civic religion, and how Trump can be a tool to reclaim Christianity — pop over to our YouTube page.
Other topics: woke neo-Marxism, the creative tension of the Constitution, Reaganism, Netanyahu, and thinkers including Burke, Hume and Jefferson.
Speaking of big thinkers, we just transcribed our episode with Francis Fukuyama, who discussed the various threats to liberal democracy. Here’s a snippet where he talks about the “men without chests”:
Back to the post-liberals, a listener dissents over the Dish platforming them lately:
I respectfully believe you are too kind to reactionary populism, regardless of which side of the pond it happens to sprout. That’s because reactionary populism rests on an illusion that distant bureaucrats are robbing real Americans, Brits, Hungarians, Poles and Brazilians of their personal freedoms and authentic national identities. This is not true. As a long-time resident of Chicago, I gladly trade parts of my parochial identity and Land of Lincoln pride for the benefit of belonging to a common market of 49 other states. No amount of populist fiction over the “Deep State” can offset the intrinsic value of this federalist bargain.
Also, the performance of the British economy since Brexit suggests more and more Brits are coming to realize that their bargain with the EU may have been worth it. The Labor Party should say: rejoin before it’s too late!
I doubt very much that there would be support in the US for a union with, say, Canada and Mexico, with no internal borders, a single currency (not the dollar) and a Supreme Court based in Ottawa. But I don’t disagree about some of the delusions of those who want to return to the kind of sovereignty states may have had before the Great War. The question is one of balance — and I tend to think that globalism over-reached in ways that may imperil our democracies. Which is why I believe engaging with reactionary thought.
This next listener appreciates the Dish “engaging liberally with non-liberalism”:
Thank you for all your amazing podcasts and articles. I’ve been subscribed for several months, and these are the highlight of my week. I was particularly struck by your conversation with Sohrab Ahmari and the sheer blindness of the man.
Here is a guy that, as a youth, is 100% convinced that Nietzsche is right. He then enjoys a little bit of professional success and becomes convinced that everyone in the world ought to live under the same democratic liberal order, so he supports these hideous wars. Then he encounters Catholicism, it works for him temperamentally, and now he’s arguing that everyone in the world should live under the tenets of Catholicism: no drag queens, no trans people.
His basic problem is that he fails to recognize other people have legitimate moral agency too. The minute he discovers “the truth,” he will use coercion and force — wars, indecency laws, etc. — to simply impose it on everyone else. He’s thus jumping from fanaticism to fanaticism. Each time he’s convinced that he’s got the truth, then he changes his mind. And while he recognizes the right to change his own mind, he denies that same right to others. Others are merely the recipients of his intellectual and moral thinking.
Which, frankly, is the problem with religious systems as a whole. They rarely invite genuine reflection and grappling. Prophets, sages, gurus, and theologians “figure it out for you,” and your choice is to accept it or not. As a practicing (Orthodox) Christian, I have struggled with this a lot — and I’ve always wondered how you deal with it in your own faith. How do you tap into a well-developed — and valuable — tradition as a free agent without this devolving into picking-and-choosing to the extent that you're in that tradition superficially at best?
PS: You have lately suggested to people to “get out of their heads,” especially if they are intellectually inclined. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend Never on Sunday (Cannes Festival winner, 1960). You might find it speaks to your point. It’s a celebration of lived experience, everyday joy, and it’s a real feel-good movie.
I wouldn’t be so hard on Sohrab. I may have ended up where he is if I had not engaged with a different kind of conservatism in my 20s and came to peace with modernity, with all its flaws. What I find frustrating with the theocon right is their inability to realize that our pluralist modern world is here for good — unless it is replaced by woke or anti-woke authoritarianism. The goal for me is to stabilize liberal democracy, adjusting it to face new challenges, which is why reactionary thought matters, because it helps point you to the critical fault-lines.
Hitchens was a huge hero of mine when I was a high schooler in the late-2000s. I was brought up in an intensely Catholic, Irish-Italian family, and his irreverent wit and uncompromising style were catnip to a rebellious, intellectual teenager's sensibilities. I listened to his debates with religious folks like Al Sharpton and Ann Widdecombe, and his triumphs seemed so effortless. He succeeded in demolishing the (rather juvenile and unsophisticated) form of Catholicism that I believed in during my childhood and early adolescence: God as a leader of a sort of “divine North Korea,” as Hitch memorably framed it.
Though he succeeded in persuading me against the provincial form of religiosity, I could never go all the way and call myself an atheist. Similarly to what I’ve heard you describe in your conversations and writings, it never struck me as feasible that there was no form of transcendence that is implicated both in morality and in the genesis of the universe. I called myself agnostic, but, deep-down, I still believed in something greater. I just said that I don’t know what it is, and neither does anyone else.
Things changed in my late-20s, when a close friend of mine — a Catholic priest and sort-of father figure to me — passed away from cancer in his mid-50s. He was a man of letters, self-confident in his own compassionate, open-hearted version of Catholicism, but he never forced his views on others. When I was 19 years old and preparing to tell my ultra-conservative parents I was gay, he kindly facilitated my discernment as to whether this was what I was truly feeling, and the logistics of how to tell my mom and dad and make sure that I had a backup plan in case things did not go well.
When Fr. Robert passed, I took it hard. To my great surprise, I found that the only thing that could comfort me was listening to Catholic hymns I heard at Mass as a boy: “On Eagle's Wings,” “Be Not Afraid,” and “We Remember.” I canceled a Labor Day trip to Montreal with friends from college so I could return to my hometown for his funeral, where, I was honored to learn, I was chosen by him to be one of his pallbearers, along with another young gay man he had helped through discerning his orientation and coming out to his family.
Following the funeral, further unavoidable changes in my thinking and life persuaded me that my former, thoroughgoing secular worldview left much to be desired. After having worked in software sales for four years and enjoyed considerable success at it, following Robert’s funeral, all I could think about was becoming a counselor to help other people in a similar fashion to how he had helped me and so many others. It really felt like it would take more “blind faith” to believe that this fixation was not the intervention of forces greater than myself (which I’m convinced was Robert, and, more powerfully, the God that he devoted his life to serving).
My heart was convinced that the events of this world are influenced by forces greater than random chance, but my head needed to give it permission to follow that train of thought. I did some research to answer the question: “Who was the greatest Christian debater that Christopher Hitchens ever faced?” I was surprised (and excited) to learn that this question actually has a rather definitive answer: William Lane Craig.
I don’t agree with Craig on everything, by any means. He is far too fundamentalist for my taste. For one, he’s much less warm and welcoming to gay Christians like myself than Fr. Robert had been, and he excuses some things in the Bible that I don’t think need to be excused in the 21st century. My feelings on the Bible remain complicated — it is a complex and multi-various collection of writings, not all of which I view as equally important. The Gospels remain the foundation of my faith, and the rest of it should be read with grains of salt.
But on the argument between the theist vs. atheist explanation for why the universe (and human life) operate the way that they do, I’ve not found anyone more persuasive than Craig. I was stunned to find that Hitch was utterly flummoxed in their debate, even out of his league. Watching the debate made me wonder why I had never tried to find Hitch’s confrontation with his greatest interlocutor when I had been a teenager so eager to run into his arms. Maybe, deep-down, I was more interested in rebellion than I was in an open-minded search for truth.
I continue to regard Hitch as an extremely charming, funny, and erudite champion of his beliefs. God knows — if Hitch will forgive that expression — we could use him right now in the fight against Trumpism and wokism. But, in hindsight, his war on theism strikes me as a manifestation of an arrested adolescence.
Perhaps it’s just my current work as a psychotherapist getting the better of me, but if I had to take a guess, I think Hitch had a hard time making peace with how wrong he had been in his youthful Marxist proclivities. His hard turn towards neocon-adjacent geopolitical views demonstrates a consistent yearning for some grand struggle. I think he was frustrated to have lived in the more peaceful late-20th and early-21st century rather than the 19th, where his preferred struggles against the last vestiges of the Middle Ages were far more pressing.
By throwing the lion’s share of his intellectual firepower behind the atheist struggle, I think Hitch was re-affirming the one last thing from his Marxist youth he could still persuade himself wasn’t wrong: the debunking of God. I think he was instead continuing an old Marxist tradition: eloquently expressing the very real problems with old institutions like capitalism and the Church, but failing spectacularly at coming up with anything remotely workable to replace said institutions.
Thank you for your much-needed contributions to our discourse, Andrew! I look forward eagerly to your Friday articles and podcasts each week. For what it’s worth, you’re also a hero from my adolescence who continues to hold up over time (even when I disagree with you over circumcision and foreign policy).
P.S. Have you seen the new gay romcom Bros? Interested in your thoughts! It’s a little woke for my taste, but I actually loved it despite myself. Would be interested to hear your take.
I thought it was very funny in a handful of places — a hilarious four-way, for example — but pretty much in a way that would only be accessible to gays like me. And it was Hallmark-level in its plot and character sketches. But fun.
As for my reader’s thoughts on Hitch, I find myself in agreement. But that doesn’t mean I would have wanted him to be anything other than himself. On faith, he was as dazzling as he was unpersuasive.
Another reader recommends a different sort of gay cinema:
I listen to your Dishcast weekly. I paid attention when you described your problems with rugby in school. I was the same way, except my father made me do American high-school football for three years, which I was not motivated for and wasn’t very good at. I hated all sports, except for swimming and water skiing.
Below is a trailer from a UK production, available on Netflix, called Heartstopper. It’s about an unathletic gay boy at an all-boys day school who falls in love with a rugby boy, who recruits him for the rugby team and coaches him. I’ve only watched the first episode but already, it reminded me of your experience, except for its different trajectory. It’s a romantic, light-comedy, coming-of-age story:
Since I didn’t have television like this when I was growing up, I kind of enjoyed it. You may want to check it out when you have nothing else to do.
I will now. Here’s one reader who won’t be watching either film:
You recently wrote:
It’s also sadly clear that many on the post-liberal right remain disgusted by homosexuality. When Viktor Orbán gave a speech at CPAC, it was his blast at gay marriage that won particular applause. The Texas GOP’s new platform calls homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.
Regarding the first sentence, I find myself guilty of finding homosexuality disgusting. It disgusts me the way watching an innocent person get chopped to pieces might, or the smell of maggots might.
At the same time, I am not going to insist (or vote for) on laws that ban homosexuality. How you pursue happiness is your business. You aren’t actually chopping anyone to pieces, and the other person is presumably consenting. I even understand the logic of allowing same-sex couples to enjoy the privileges of marriage, since many couples take on the traditional roles that husbands and wives do, with one taking on the traditional male role, and the other the traditional female role.
Still, I don’t want to support anything else that promotes the behavior I find so disgusting. None of my straight male friends wants to watch any of that either. However, lately there is rarely a TV program or some other event where you aren’t bombarded with the promotion of homosexual acts. I canceled a Paramount+ subscription because they decided they would put a gay dating site commercial on a show I was watching. An executive of Disney just admitted that she is trying to get gays into every show possible. So, if there is a bit of a backlash, perhaps you can understand.
A few weeks ago, you said (or implied) that people who comprise 4-5% of the population are abnormal. So, is the Texas GOP wrong, and you right?
You want to know the real reason people who opposed gay marriage oppose(d) it? They didn’t want it becoming normalized, because the behavior behind it disgusts people. They hid behind the excuse of not redefining marriage because they didn’t want to say what was really on their minds. Because I am sure if you were to publish some contents of this letter, I’d be branded a bigot and whatever else. And who wants to be seen as a bigot or something worse?
More importantly, why unnecessarily antagonize your neighbor for behavior not revealed to you? I’m sure I’ve met and worked with plenty of gay people in my life whom I suspected were gay, but I never asked nor confirmed because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things how they get their jollies. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize a good working or other relationship by being openly vocal against homosexual acts, just as I wouldn’t want to talk bad about British people or gypsies, as you never know when someone you like and/or respect may have some connection to them.
Glad to have aired that. I’d say a couple of things. The first is that being gay really isn’t just about sex. It’s about love, family, and life as well. We don’t see a straight couple with kids and instantly imagine them copulating. So why do so with a gay couple?
The second thing is that I don’t think disgust — the word my reader uses — can be conflated with bigotry, because it is experienced largely as involuntary. Straight men seem to be more disgusted by the idea of anal sex than women — perhaps because the idea of being penetrated is so alien from their experience. I don’t blame people for these instinctual revulsions. I do blame them for using them to abhor a whole group of people.
Many gay men, by the way, have a similar disgust when it comes to female sexual anatomy. It’s as deep an instinct as homosexuality itself. Again: nothing to be done about it — except if it’s used it to be a misogynist or to reduce a whole human being to a mere sexual organ.
Next up, some suggested reading:
I thought your conversation with Richard Reeves was simply outstanding — not just the subject matter, but your exchange was elevated and engaging. You were both on your game. You two made my long commute short.
I have not read Reeves’ book, but the material seems little different than George Gilder’s Men and Marriage from 40+ years ago. You’ve had several recent podcasts where you touch on the issue of men and boys, but no reference to Gilder. When I read his book in college, I was blown away and thought he raised issues that would have long-term impact for American families. The book obviously was prescient and it is still ignored. I know there was controversial material in the book that many find offensive, but that shouldn’t cloud an honest review of what he got right.
Here’s some suggested listening from a historian of Greece and Rome:
After your May 2016 article “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny” caused a flurry of public debate, some academic historians weighed in to dismiss your argument. As an ancient historian myself, I found your case compelling and their “rebuttals” weak and unconvincing. However, I was still a PhD student at the time and had neither the time nor the platform to weigh in on the matter myself. Now I have both, so I rekindled the debate you started. In the latest episode of my podcast, I discuss your article, the academic response it received, and why we should in fact take the warnings you highlighted very seriously.
Take a listen. I’m still struck by how accurate Plato was in describing the pathologies of late-democracy. Another listener recommends a theme for a future pod:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about theology, Christian in particular, and how woefully inadequate it seems as an account of the universe and humankind’s place in it. The recent images from the Webb telescope brought this home, and there was one image that showed five galaxies seemingly clumped together (with two of them “colliding”) — though of course we know they are unthinkably far apart, as well as far from our own.
So here’s my point: has theology ever caught up with any of this? Or with what we know today about human origins? It seems to me that, no, it’s still stuck in an essentially Ptolemaic vision in which there’s a “world” — basically just Earth, plus some pretty lights in the sky — that was designed essentially as a stage-set for the human story, which is the only important story in the universe. Nobody but a few Young Earth Creationist cranks says this anymore, but most of us still think it.
Most Christian churches, for instance, still officially teach that “death came into the world” as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Really? So, the first humans did not have ancestors who had already died? What’s that stuff I pump into my gas tank, then — not the residual biomass of plants and animals that lived and died millions of years before any human beings even existed?
What do concepts like “God,” “original sin,” “atonement” and the like mean in light of what we now know — that whole galaxies existed once and disappeared before Earth was even formed; that Earth existed for billions of years before it harbored any life at all; that there are probably trillions of planets out there on which sentient life might have developed (whether it did or not), etc.
So I’d love to hear a conversation with someone who is trying to rethink theology in light of modern knowledge. This can’t be Neil deGrasse Tyson, as good as he may be, and it can’t be a conventional theologian who just adds on a dollop of Carl Sagan-like awestruckness at the wonders of the “billions and billions” of stars and planets. In fact I don’t know what the person’s message would sound like, or who he or she might be, if there even is somebody out there doing this.
Maybe there isn’t, and Christian theologians have just defaulted on these kinds of questions. If that’s the case, I’d like to hear one of them explain and try to defend that glaring failure. When are we going to get a Christianity that talks about the world as we actually know it to be?
My great delinquency in the past several years has been to postpone writing a book on exactly that kind of theme — a reimagination of Christianity that integrates what we now know to be true about nature and the universe. Natural selection is, for me, the key question. What does that say about God and our place in eternity?
Lastly, on the topic of Christianists, a reader articulates an approach of engagement rather than condemnation:
So what is really happening here, with Herschel Walker’s supporters? How did we get to this place where so many Republican voters perceive Democrats, liberals, and everyone outside of their Christianist tribe as evil? These voters perceive the outside world as an existential threat to their way of life. The problem is, I think they are right.
No, not because of trans-hour at the library, or Wokeism, or a million other internet memes that make them freak out. They are right because the developed world really has changed, in ways that make obsolete their traditions based on patriarchy, and on unquestioning devotion to Christian myths. They know this, and we know this. So what can we do?
We have to understand how truly terrifying this truth is to these people and be patient with them, and try to help them along the path to greater enlightenment. We should not fight them, mock them, or belittle them. Their world is vanishing. We should have sympathy for them, and wherever we can, try to find common ground.
For example, I think many of those people have seen their families devastated by the pernicious effects of the internet — whether it be porn, gaming or social media — or devastated by the new horrendous drugs (fentanyl, etc.). We should partner with them, and try to embrace some of their ideas. The new world is a scary place for all of us, and we should be working together to soften its blows. The Left should not let itself be perceived as the cause of, and cheerleader for, the truly toxic world we are entering.