The Culture War and the Catholic Church

So much #losing.

Put it on your calendar: I’ll be on Thursday Night Bulwark this week, joined by Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, and my best friend, Sarah Longwell.

You know who won’t be on the show? Ben Wittes.

I’m just saying . . .

1. The Catholic Thing

Yesterday EWTN did a fawning interview with Marjorie Taylor Greene. In it, they presented and echoed—totally credulously—her claim that the only reason Democrats have attacked her is because she is pro-life and that the campaign against her has been a form of “spiritual warfare.”


For non-Catholics, EWTN is—or at least was until 2016—a Catholic cable-access network that caters to nice little old ladies whose names are some combination of Mary, Catherine, Elizabeth, and/or Margaret.

Pre-2016, the stereotypical EWTN experience was a sweet 80-year-old woman named Mary Margaret, sitting on her sofa in Verona, New Jersey, watching a replay of St. John Paul the Great celebrating Mass during his 1995 visit to Newark. Mary Margaret would be sipping at a cup of tea—probably Constant Comment—and smiling, thinking about how exciting it had been and contemplating how much more the pope’s words meant to her now that she was older and wiser. She’d think a lot of God and Jesus and the Eucharist.

But then 2016 came and EWTN went all-in on Donald Trump and the idea that they were out to get you. And that was just the start.

Here’s another data-point from “orthodox” American Catholicism:

“CM” is a website called Church Militant.

As my man Andrew Egger observed:

So let’s talk about this.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the culture war has broken the Catholic Church in America.

Now, in fairness to the culture war, it had help. During the ‘70s the Church lost its mind in the other direction, throwing in with guitar and tambourine theology. For the last 50 (or 60, or 70) years the American Church has hidden and excused—when not aiding and abetting—abusers within its ranks. There has been a great deal of financial scandal. And this isn’t ancient history. It’s still going on, right now.

So, you know, not a great run for my team.

But this new stuff? Going to war on behalf of the consensus worst human being to ever hold the American presidency? Freaking out about the waist size of models? Lionizing conspiracy theorists who aren’t even Catholic?

I think it’s actually more dangerous to Catholicism, in the long run, than even the abuse coverups.

We have this weird fixation on using the American political system as a lens through which to evaluate every situation in life. Is this sports league blue, or red? Is that book on our side, or their side?

That’s not a healthy way to exist in the world. But it’s downright dangerous to use that lens for Christianity.

The radical love of the Gospel simply doesn’t fit into our political construct. To take just one example: Try squaring the theology behind the ethic of the innate dignity of every human life with both abortion and immigration policies.

But instead of embracing the idea that they’re politically homeless, a big chunk of American Catholics who fancy themselves orthodox are subjugating the Catholic part to the American part.

This should not be a surprise, by the way. Because in the long history of nationalism, religious identity almost always winds up getting swallowed by the nationalist ethos. See St. Thomas More. See the Italian People’s Party. See the Weimar Republic. See the Troubles in Ireland.

The experience of watching conservative Catholics lose their minds has been disorienting for me. For my entire adult life I was usually pretty far over on the traditional side of the Church, going to the Latin Mass and grumbling about Gather.

Then one day I look up and the world has shifted so that the “traditional” Catholic cohort is largely—not entirely, but in very large part—made up of people who hate women, love QAnon, and are more interested in owning the libs than feeding the hungry or clothing the naked.

I suspect that conservative Catholics would answer that they were forced into this posture because of the way the secular, modern, relativistic world has persecuted them.

But I don’t buy that. Is modern America more hostile to religious belief than it was 50 or 100 years ago? Absolutely. But by historical standards, this hostility barely registers as an inconvenience. Catholics aren’t being crucified, or fed to the lions, or rounded up and arrested, or having their churches infiltrated by agents of the state.

The difference is that where Catholics in other contexts have viewed their oppression through the lens of Christ’s suffering, the American Church views its situation through the lens of grievance politics.

Nothing good can come of this, either for the Church or America.

Normally this newsletter is only for members of Bulwark+, but every once in a while we open it up for everyone. Come with us and help build the political space America deserves.

Join Bulwark+

2. Typography and Watches

Ever start reading a piece and think to yourself, “Holy motherforking shirtballs—she literally wrote this for me”?

Because that’s what’s going here:

The piece is mostly about the creation of a new font at Hermès. Here’s Liz Stinson telling the story:

Working with Hermès' team, Apeloig designed a set of numerals that appear bisected with a razor-sharp knife. The rounded edge of the "2" hovers above the angled tail; a hairline break separates the two thin circles of the "8". It's a whisper of a font, with letterforms chiseled down to their bare minimum. "I was very measured in my approach," Apeloig says, "slowly reducing the shapes of each number to achieve a feeling of lightness." Apeloig drew each number by hand and was careful to imbue the shapes with Hermès' visual language, which he describes as sober, modern, and timeless. "I built in constraints, limiting the number of shapes—circles, triangles, curves, dashes—that I could use to create the numbers," he explains. "Each is drawn using a continuous line in which small cuts are made. Not only do the cuts draw the eye, but they reduce each number to its elemental parts and they make silence visible."

The irony is that I absolutely hate what Apeloig came up with. It’s like the love child of an Art Deco movie theater and an Ikea kitchen table.

But I appreciate the effort because here is something I never realized before this moment:

In reality, only a small and decreasing number of watchmakers go to the trouble of creating custom lettering for their dials. More often, watch brands use off-the-rack fonts that are squished and squeezed onto the dial's limited real estate. Patek Philippe, for example, has used ITC American Typewriter and Arial on its high-end watches. French brand Bell & Ross deploys the playful 1980 typeface Isonorm for the numerals on many of its timepieces. Rolex uses a slightly modified version of Garamond for its logo. And Audemars Piguet has replaced the custom lettering on its watches with a stretched version of Times Roman.

That watchmakers use typefaces originally created for word processing, signage, and newspapers highlights a central paradox of watch design: These tiny machines hide their most elegant solutions under layers of complexity, while one of the most visible components – typography – is often an afterthought. . . .

"The choices that have been made are so anarchic," says Jonathan Hoefler, designer of famed fonts like Gotham and Mercury. "And you then find things like a $65,000 watch with the same typeface used for a jet ski or a sports drink."

Crazy, right?

But there are reasons!

The text on a dial is printed via tampography, a process during which enamel is transferred from an engraved silicone pad to a convex watch face. Tampography is more complicated and less precise than, say, digital printing on a flat piece of paper, which means the letters require certain structural tweaks to ensure they are legible on a small and demanding canvas.

Add that to the fact that manufacturing dials is an art with few practitioners. That the space constraints are near universal: The average dial ranges from 30 mm to 44 mm in diameter. That they’re displaying mostly the same characters: Arabic numerals 1 through 12, one of a few commons words, such a “automatic.”

And when you look at the fonts that contemporary designers have come up with when they’ve set out to create a new font for a watch and they are . . . not great. Clearly change for the sake of change.

There’s a lesson in here, and one that you can extrapolate out to some degree: Just because a practice seems hidebound doesn’t mean that it hasn’t already been optimized.

Not everything under the sun can be improved.

3. Book Magic

How can you not read an essay about buying a dead magician’s library? Here’s Walter Kirn:

On my way out, I noticed a shelf of books. I traced an index finger along the spines, tilting my head to read their titles. Most of the volumes were from the 1970s and their topics struck me as eccentric. Casino gambling. Theater and acting. Hypnosis. Salesmanship. Psychic phenomena. One book was called The Power of Exploitation. I picked it up and opened it and read. It was a sort of manual or guidebook for aspiring psychological bullies, based on the rationale that in this world you either use people or get used by them. The tricks ranged from starting rumors to making threats and were based on alleged case studies of real people: Darryl V’s Six Rules for Perfecting Razor-Edged Fear Skill, Roberta T’s Subtle Climb to Power. I could have used such a book in junior high school but I wasn’t convinced that its gambits would help me now. Still, I tucked it under my arm, along with Noted Witnesses for Psychic Phenomenon, a collection of testimonies to the uncanny from scores of exalted historical figures including Socrates, Martin Luther, and Susan B. Anthony.

I wasn’t finished. I spied another bookshelf tucked away in a corner and raided it too. Remembering People, a warped old paperback by Harry Lorayne, “the Muhammad Ali of the Memory Business,” taught a method for matching names and faces, an aptitude that I have never possessed and may never possess if the world keeps wearing masks. (Idaho didn’t require them, as it happened, which let me relax and linger in the shop.) Also intriguing to me was Linking Rings, the true story of William W. Durbin, a nationally famous stage illusionist who’d served as a senior official in FDR’s Treasury Department. Durbin, who’d performed on stage as “The Past Master of the Black Art,” was placed in charge, quite fittingly, of the Treasury’s bond desk. In the middle of the Great Depression he’d turned sheets of paper into money — perfect! How had his story never become a movie?  . . .

When the shop’s lady owner rang up my oddball purchases, which came to less than forty dollars, she revealed their creepy secret.

“These books all belonged to Jeff Busby, a top magician whose prop shop was in the old warehouse behind the store. They’ve been here forever. His widow sold them to me. If you want to find more, I’ll make you a nice deal.”

“A dead magician’s library?” I said. I said it because of how strange it felt to say it, a series of words that I might speak only once in life.

“Yes. Does that interest you?”

Read the whole thing.