A Radical Flips His Whig, or Observations on a Perpetual Convert

wig

Father Dwight Longenecker really has got it made. He’d be the first to tell you just how much of a crazy ride it’s been, and how much he’s grown over the years. From his humble beginnings as a brainwashed fundamentalist Evangelical to reaching the Billy Corgan-level Roman Catholic blogger-star status he has today, it seems like that his conversion story is the gift that won’t stop giving. Considering just how often he mentions it on his various blogs, it’s also clear that Fr. Dwight is really quite simply in awe of this path he’s trod, and wants very much to share with you this awe he feels (helpfully distributed into no less than five different testimonials! Get ’em while they’re hot!). I mean, Evangelical Dwight probably only had one conversion story, whereas OS Fr. Dwight 2.1 has conversion stories. Yep. That’s right – plural. Apparently the Roman Catholic church is so much more superior to other denominations that even your testimonials get an upgrade, like Papal bull hormones spurting through a syringe into your spiritual bloodstream.

But just in case you couldn’t get enough Fr. Dwight from his numerous bios and testimonials, he also has several books he’s authored for sale on his website, many of which are tailored for the aspiring Roman Catholic convert in all of us. He’s even got a nifty little Screwtape Letters knock-off series for those of us who just don’t find C. S. Lewis, ya know, Christiany enough. While reading Fr. Dwight’s contributions to Christian culture, one is reminded of  the comedy sketch from the show Portlandia where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein depict Etsy-esque crafty-types who can’t resist “putting a bird” on everything – except, in Fr. Dwight’s case, instead of a bird, it’s a Papal Seal.

Now, before you assume that the main point of this article is to deride Fr. Dwight for using his conversion to Roman Catholicism for financial gain, I must clarify. There’s really nothing wrong with wanting to make a buck. Plus, if your Patheos-hosted blog will even let you put your Pay-Pal information right on your front page, I’m not going to belittle you for scooping up some dough to keep your five blogs running. As Fr. Dwight will make very clear, he’s a sucker for tradition, and the Roman Catholic church has a very deep and long-standing tradition of using their religion to make some dough. Some of Rome’s most famous  adherents were known for this kind of wheeling and dealing, for the Seat of Pete’s sake!

No doubt Fr. Dwight would have all matter of corrections to my understanding of various features of Roman Catholicism (especially the indulgences thing. That seems to be a sore subject among the Roman Catholic Apologetics crowd.). Indeed, one of Fr. Dwight’s favorite features on his blog are his corrective posts on various “misconceptions” regarding the Roman Catholic church,  realized, more often than not, in the well-respected and venerable style of the listicle – which, as we all know, is basically crack for the soundbyte-hungry Millennials in our society. The sheer volume of posts from Fr. Dwight in which he goes to the mattresses to clarify and defend his church from the babbling and ignorant hordes of Protestants is no less than astounding. On more than one occasion, one can find Fr. Dwight on his blog roaring into the abyss about how if Protestants would just open their hearts to the Truth, they would see that that truth can only be found in Rome. And Fr. Dwight, open-hearted and clear-eyed as he is, is able to use that Truth to defend the church at all costs, trampling over Protestantism like a slightly less muscular Catherine de’ Medici.

Interesting, then, that Fr. Dwight, despite all his braying about Truth, and his insistence that all non-Roman Catholics deal fairly with Roman Catholic issues, seems liberated from any sort of historical integrity when it comes to his own assessments of non-Roman faith or society.

A Quick Prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Conversion Fervor

But first, a side note: The Feral Yawp is not trying to end some age-old theological rivalry between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism with one post. In fact, this response to Fr. Dwight is really not theological at all – it’s historical. We war-dogs at the Feral Yawp really just want to see people be accurate and fair in their judgments – especially when it comes to history. We take issue with anyone who engages in ludicrous and hysterical works of historical arson – Fr. Dwight just happens to be a particularly deplorable pyromaniac.

Perhaps this makes me of a more “Protestant” mindset, but generally, when writing about history, I tend to be quite careful as to whether or not what I am writing is factually sound. While I sympathize when historians, amateur or professional, make factual mistakes – no one is perfect, right? – I do find it especially telling when certain individuals seem obligated to avoid facts at any cost. Historical facts, in all honesty, are rather inconvenient for the apologist. When one’s primary goal is to make some sort of sweeping judgement regarding society, a rival theology or philosophy, or about the world as a whole, historical facts are more of a hindrance than a help. History is, of course, quite messy. If history is messy, however, one is confronted with the unsettling fact that one cannot write articles like Fr. Dwight’s and still remain factual or true. Indeed, one needn’t go any farther than one  of Fr. Dwight’s latest screeds against Protestantism and, namely, the Reformation, subtly entitled “The Reformation: The Mother of All Revolutions?”, to see just how much he has managed to transcend the Protestant drivel of his past – namely, historical facts. Side note: for those unacquainted with Fr. Dwight and his ilk, revolution is inherently evil. Perhaps they prefer more traditional forms of regime change, like military coups. They must have gotten that from Papa Frank. (For more on Papa Frank, go here, or here to explore Fr. Dwight’s devotion for the Holy Father.)

The irony of Fr. Dwight’s disdain for Protestantism, however, becomes readily apparent when one takes a hard look at his articles, especially articles like “The Reformation: The Mother of All Revolutions?”. The first noticeable deficiency one can find in Fr. Dwight’s article is utter dearth of any citations that support his claims. For instance, he begins the first paragraph of his screed with a passage that is utterly jaw-dropping in its presumptuousness and lack of nuance. Fr. Dwight says: “Henry VIII’s stripping of the altars was not only a monumental act of iconoclastic vandalism, but the cultural revolution brought about by his break with Rome—which included the dissolution of the monasteries and his daughter Elizabeth’s reign of terror—was a precursor of the horrors of the French Revolution or Mao’s cultural revolution in China centuries later.” And again, a few paragraphs later:

The Protestant Revolution set a precedent. It provided a spiritual justification for something that had hitherto been anathema: rebellion and armed revolution. For the first time it was a noble and courageous thing to rebel against the established powers. The Protestant Revolution cast rebels as brave pioneers, prophetic voices, and banner-bearing crusaders for the common man. The Protestant Revolution established a new normal: the social dynamic of progress through conflict. Friedrich Hegel would summarize it in the age of revolution, with his famous dialectic: thesis, antithesis and resolution, and Karl Marx glorified it as the class struggle. Hence, the way forward would always be through revolution.

Upon reading this, one is instantly curious where Fr. Dwight found documentation of Luther and Calvin’s socialist tracts and glorification of outlaws. Certainly, these hidden documents would shed great light on Luther’s anti-rebellion treatise, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, or on either Luther or Calvin’s numerous pieces on the importance of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms – a mainstay of both Protestant traditions, and extremely anti-rebellion and pro-established power. To both reformers, Christians must submit to the worldly powers of the state, insofar as those powers do not encroach on a Christian’s ability to worship God rightly. Even if such encroachment was to occur, it would be difficult to validate the idea that either Luther or Calvin would sanction armed rebellion. To suggest that either reformer was anti- or pro-revolution is to slip into the self-same anachronism that Fr. Dwight so clumsily laps up. The idea of “revolution” did not exist in Luther or Calvin’s time, and to suggest they were proto-revolutionaries would be akin to me saying that Pope Sergius III, because he had a penchant for bedding prostitutes, having orgies, and blaspheming the Christian God, was a proto-Hugh Hefner. Drawing a connection between the Reformation and the Maoist Revolution in China is as absurd as it is unprovable.  Just because, in someone’s subjective view, two events are even slightly similar (what that similarity between the Reformation and Mao could be, I haven’t a clue. Mao comes from an Eastern tradition far removed from Western thought, despite the socialist trappings), does not make them, in reality, related. One imagines, while reading his piece, Fr. Dwight as some sort of giant toddler at a daycare, sifting a enormous bin of colored blocks. After hours of labored study, he finally finds two blocks that are the same color. Lifting both red blocks up above his head, he gleefully bellows at the teacher regarding his monumental discovery. In this case, one can only pat his bald head and be thankful this is the extent of his gormless endeavors. The blocks are the same color, but what of it? What does it prove? Nothing. But to Fr. Dwight, it means everything. Every one of his arguments hinge on the red blocks and how red they are.

While it’s not immediately clear how either of these bloated, citation-less, sanctimonious paragraphs display the irony of Fr. Dwight’s anti-Protestantism, it does show just how tenuous and reductionist they are. But even more astounding is how Fr. Dwight, as much as he splutters and works himself into a lather each time he talks about Protestantism, engages in some rather “Protestant” behavior himself, especially in regards to his history. Ironically, the type of history Fr. Dwight does is associated with none other than English Protestantism, and, even more deliciously, revolutionary activity.

When in Rome, Do as the Parlimentarians Do

In his magisterial 1931 monograph, The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield takes to task the underlying historical metanarrative set up by those in British politics who embraced Whig values and beliefs. Butterfield’s opponents, the Whig historians, viewed British history from a very well-groomed and curated position – that their preferred form of government was the direct product of years of progress, and that all of history was “marching forward” towards an inevitable outcome (that is, towards either victory or defeat) Furthermore, history, in the Whigs’ view, was replete with various characters that took on heroic and villainous roles, and held views exactly (read: anachronistically) like us moderns. For example, a beloved 17th century Whig statesman’s words were to be ripped from the context of his time and forcibly applied to the present day, all to act as “proof” for the Whig legacy.

So what does this have to do with our friend, Fr. Dwight? If one looks at Fr. Dwight’s profile picture on Twitter or on his blog, Standing on My Head, it’s really no wonder that he would, even subconsciously, be attracted to a political philosophy called “Whiggism.” His follicular short-comings aside, it’s clear that Fr. Dwight wasn’t able to purge all of his old Protestantism when he swam the Tiber, so to speak. In fact, it seems like he engages in Whiggish history with abandon, almost more blatantly and immoderately than his Protestant forefathers. Read, for instance, this passage from Butterfield:

 

The whig historian stands on the summit of the twentieth century, and organized his scheme of history from the point of view of his own day; and he is a subtle man to overturn from his mountain-top where he can fortify himself with plausible argument. He can say that events take on their due proportions when observed through the lapse of time. He can say that events must be judged by their ultimate issues, which, since we can trace them no farther, we must at least follow down to the present. He can say that it is only in relation to the twentieth century that one happening or another in the past has relevance or significance for us. He can use all the arguments that are so handy to men when discussion is dragged into the market place and philosophy is dethroned by common sense; so that it is no simple matter to demonstrate how the whig historian, from his mountaintop, sees the course of history only inverted and aslant. (12)

What Butterfield describes seems rather similar to Fr. Dwight’s own  citation-less pontificating from his own digital mountain-top. Instead of studying history within its contexts, its unintended consequences, Fr. Dwight judges evens “by their ultimate issues.” Thus, Protestantism leads to the Maoist purges, because of Fr. Dwight’s reductionist reading of what issues truly matter. He, like the Whig historian, views all things from the lofty perch of the Modern Age, lord of all he sees. Context and nuance are acceptable collateral damage for Fr. Dwight’s agenda. Butterfield continues:

The fallacy lies in the fact that if the historian working on the sixteenth century keeps the twentieth century in his mind, he makes direct reference across all the intervening period between Luther or the Popes and the world of our own day. And this immediate juxtaposition of past and present, though it makes everything easy and makes some inferences perilously obvious, is bound to lead to an over-simplification of the relations between events and a complete misapprehension of the relations between past and present. (12)

Sound familiar? Remember Fr. Dwight drawing a direct link from the Reformers to 20th century atrocities? Butterfield talks of this approach being “easy,” which is absolutely true – it is easy to pick up one’s red blocks and crow about their superficial relationship. Fr. Dwight’s red-block analysis results not only in deeply reductionist history, but also dishonest and misleading results. The only way for us to justify why Fr. Dwight would so blindly engage in such flawed and absurd history is if we a) assume he’s an idiot, or b) assume that to him the history itself doesn’t matter – only the conclusions matter. Sounds, oddly enough, like a view with which a certain Chairman might have some sympathy. As a side note, the Whigs were involved in a little thing called the Glorious Revolution, which, despite its lack of bloodshed, still doesn’t seem like something that Fr. D would be a fan of. Odd, then, his intellectual kinship with these types. Indeed, while Butterfield is, in fact, striking against the overwhelmingly Protestant Whigs, poor Fr. Dwight, ex-Protestant, is caught in the cross-fire. Strange that this would happen to a man who seems bent on showing how Protestantism is the root of all modern evil. Ignorance, it seems, makes strange bed-fellows.

The Perils of Over-Indulgence

With that said, Fr. Dwight does not express much (if any) integrity as an historian in the article quoted above, nor in many of his other exercises in reductio ad absurdum on his various blogs. He does not fail in his pursuit simply because his conclusions were wrong, but because he began his crusade against the Reformation with bad faith, and with bad historical training. He betrays a kind of 21st century arrogance to assume that he can view history and trace its winding paths to the present with the deftness of a god. He exhibits what Mark Lilla, in his brilliant review of Brad Gregory’s  The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Blame it on the Reformation,” refers to as “whiggism for depressives.” I would continue, but I’ll let the venerable Master Butterfield set the last nail: “The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. It is the essence of what we mean by the word “unhistorical”” (21).

In the end, Fr. Dwight may have a blog empire and a sizable following of bitter ex-Evangelical Roman converts, but he doesn’t have much in the way of historical grounding. To quote the effervescent Agnes Repplier (a Roman Catholic, no less!) in her delightful essay, “Living in History“: “I used to think that ignorance of history meant only a lack of cultivation and a loss of pleasure. Now I am sure that such ignorance impairs our judgment by impairing our understanding, by depriving us of standards or the power of contrast, and the right to estimate” (579). Having eschewed historical truth for reductionist metahistory, all he has left are trite words on his blog and a chip on his shoulder from a past from which he clearly cannot move on. One imagines history anthropomorphized as a beautiful woman, sighing, drawing away from Fr. Dwight’s desperate embrace. As she looks into Fr. Dwight’s pale, teary eyes, she, History, fickle woman that she is, flashes a mischievous smile and says to the hapless radical: “I’m sorry, Dwight. It’s not me, it’s you.”

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