Paying Attention?

Michael Metzger

Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begin tomorrow. Few Americans will pay close attention. Fewer still will pay attention to the larger story.

Supreme Court nominee hearings have become more show than substance. Republicans will “coach up” Kavanaugh to stay on message. Democrats will play a game of gotcha.

Can’t blame folks for not paying attention to this. But there’s a larger story playing out here. British Parliamentarian Lord Moulton described it at the Authors’ Club in London in 1912. His impromptu speech was later titled “Law And Manners.”

Moulton described what makes for flourishing societies. Imagine a society as a horizontal oval with three competing domains. On one end is “Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” That’s politics. On the opposite end is Free Choice. This is the right of individuals to be free to choose.

But Moulton felt “the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization,” is measured by the extent of the middle domain, what he called, “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” The wider this domain, the more a nation flourishes. Moulton warned that the side domains of choice and politics seek to encroach on the middle, shrinking it to irrelevance.

This is happening right before our eyes—in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Yet few see it. Few are paying attention. Few even know what proper attention looks like. Simone Weil did. The French philosopher who came to Christ late in life wrote that paying attention is seeing sacramentally. It is seeing how the entirety of life is sacred for God is present in the entirety of creation.[1]

If you’re an evangelical (I am), seeing sacramentally is not our strong suit. Our tradition has stressed the absence of God in some (or much) of the world. God is in the sacred (e.g., Christian schools) but not in secular things (e.g., public schools). This is why we tend to pay attention to life through the two outer domains—free choice or politics. As they encroach on the middle domain, they become idols. Two books will tell us why.

The first is Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California, 1996) by Robert Bellah and his team of researchers. The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “habits of the heart” as a metaphor for cultures. As he toured America in the early 1800s, he noted American culture was becoming individualistic. The outer domain of individual choice was enlarging to individualism, which is idolatry. Bellah’s research revealed that the American faith tradition most deeply infected by individualism is evangelicalism. Tim Keller had made the same observation.

Individualism causes Christians to not pay attention to confirmation hearings. The hearings are secular. God is absent. The hearings have little impact on my life.

The second book is To Change The World (Oxford University Press, 2010) by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. The book has three parts. In part two, Hunter describes a shift in American society that began in the 1930s. Many Americans became politicized, which is also idolatry for it overexpands the domain of Law and politics. Many evangelicals became politicized.

Politicization causes Christians to pay the wrong kind of attention to the hearings. They see God as absent from the other party. Our candidate must win.

All this confirms how American culture is demonstrably left-brained.[2] The two hemispheres simply represent two ways we pay attention to the world. One is not better than the other. The left is narrowly focused on individual things. The right is broadly vigilant, big picture. When they work collaboratively, we respect liberty and law. We see how individualism and politicization are idols encroaching on the middle domain. We recognize how expanding “Obedience to the Unenforceable” makes for human flourishing. This is the larger story playing out this week in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But we’d have to pay attention to see it.


[1] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (HarperPerennial, 1950)



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  1. It might be interesting to consider how “obedience to the unenforceable” inter-plays with individualism and the popular but absurd saying of a couple of decades ago, “You can’t legislate morality.”

  2. Thank you! I have struggled for years trying to “define” what Moulton defined as “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” I see this most on our roads. I love to drive, to take road trips. Well, not so much any more as courtesy and consideration for other drivers (the unenforceable) has given way to “I have a divine right to drive in any way that is best for me!” I see it also in the oft repeated phrase, “It is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” This gave me a framework to better understand the world around me. Thanks.

  3. Mike, The horizontal oval with three competing domains is a concept you taught me a while back, maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It has stuck with me and I use it all the time – first time I used it I gave you credit, but you know what happens after that…. In any case, it has helped me, and others, see beyond the perceived fine line between “What’s legal?” and “Will I get caught?” and think into the simple concept of “What’s RIGHT?”
    When politicians get caught up in ethics scandals there are usually cries for tightening of ethics laws, much to my chagrin, as I think, “Maybe we should just elect people who are ‘Obedient to the Unenforceable.'”

  4. Brad: What? You don’t give me credit anymore? I’m never giving you any help ever again.

    Kidding. You’re right about electing those who demonstrate obedience to the unenforceable. Heck, even resurrecting Moulton’s phrase would be a step in the right direction.

  5. This brings to mind one of Wendell Berry’s essays in “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essay” where he makes the detailed and convincing case that it is only families, churches, and local communities that can pass on successfully everything that’s contained in this “obedience to the unenforceable”, including sexual ethics. He shows how both the State and the powers that be in business have deliberately obliterated local communities for their own agendas, leaving only the “public” and the “private”, which are both incapable, by their very nature, of retaining or passing on this middle sphere. Unless local communities thrive, reviving this middle sphere that is essential for any free or even human society to survive, let alone thrive, is impossible.

  6. Mike, I just don’t see your make-up of the oval at all. It is as if you suppose that “Positive Law” is divinely given and that some individual rights are never subject to an obedience to the unenforceable. We are poor law makers and poor individuals – we run amuck in both. For example, to whatever extent enforcement of law is accompanied by mercy or harsher judgment (proper or improper) is evidence that law making and enforcement is individualistic and a matter of obedience or disobedience to the unenforceable. Above, you take away de Tocqueville’s positive emphases on individualism, but nevermind the French, it is scripture (and not the French) that describes us as individuals and therefore the entire oval amounts to a choice of obedience or disobedience to the unenforceable: to love of one another. There is no law and no individual choice that is not subject to an individual’s review of whether there ought to be (or ought not to be) action chosen.

  7. “A Christian is an
    utterly free man, lord
    of all, subject to none.
    A Christian is an
    utterly dutiful man,
    servant of all, subject
    to all.”
    ~ Martin Luther

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