Does the world need another Methodist church?


I assume anyone who cares already knows what went down at last month’s special general conference of the United Methodist Church. (Here’s a pretty lucid rundown of the events and some possible implications.)

LGBTQ-affirming Methodists have been made painfully aware that they just don’t have the numbers to change church policy, and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. This is partly because the UMC comprises churches from around the world, and many of the growing churches are in countries where more conservative views of homosexuality at the norm. It was a coalition of traditionalist Americans and delegates from conservative jurisdictions outside the U.S. that secured the victory of the so-called traditional plan.

One outcome of all this is the very real possibility of a denominational split. Affirming Methodists aren’t about to quietly accept the punitive traditional plan (although how much of it will survive an upcoming review by the church’s judicial council is unclear). But a return to the trench warfare of the last several years can hardly seem appealing to many people, especially when the prospects of change seem so remote. This is why the idea of a split has been floated publicly by progressives, and even some more centrist-leaning Methodists. In my own Methodist congregation, this has been a lively topic of discussion during the past few weeks.

One question I have about this, though, is: Does the world really need another Methodist denomination? Or, to put it somewhat differently, what would the raison d’être of such a church be? I don’t mean this to be a rhetorical question–I think it’s a question we sincerely need to ask ourselves before going forward with any new denominational structure.

The UMC is the result of a merger in 1968 between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist Church had evolved (with additional mergers along the way) from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which itself emerged from the First Great Awakening during the latter half of the 18th century. And of course all Methodists trace their lineage back to John Wesley and the revival movement he led in the England. (Although his actions created considerable tension with the established church, Wesley himself, along with his brother Charles, remained a life-long Anglican.)

Theologically, the UMC is kind of a grab-bag: It has evangelicals, liberals, and plain vanilla mainline Protestants. There are certain Methodist “distinctives”: e.g., an emphasis on God’s prevenient grace, “social holiness,” and “connectionalism.” But there’s not a “Methodist theology” that members or clergy are expected to subscribe to. Methodist churches also reflect a wide range of worship styles: from informal and low-church to the relatively formal and liturgical. Politically, members of the denomination are about as split between Republicans and Democrats as the country as a whole. Given this somewhat fuzzy identity, it’s not obvious what would set a hypothetical new progressive Methodist church apart from other liberal mainline denominations like the UCC or the Episcopal Church. 

It’s important not to dismiss the fact that there are many lifelong Methodists in our churches who have no desire to be anything other than Methodist. As someone with pretty shallow Methodist roots, I try to be sensitive to this. But Methodism as originally conceived by John Wesley was a response to specific circumstances: the pro-forma piety of the established church and the fact that the gospel message wasn’t reaching some of those who needed it most, particularly the poor. Are there circumstances in our world today that call for a uniquely Methodist response? What would a new Methodist church offer that people couldn’t find elsewhere? Does Methodism per se still have an important role to play in the world and if so does it need to be embodied in a separate denomination? There may be good affirmative responses to these questions, but they seem like the kinds of question we should be asking before adding one more denomination to the alphabet soup of American Protestantism.


Supernatural mind: C.S. Lewis’s Miracles revisited

C.S. Lewis In A Field

I first read C.S. Lewis’s Miracles about 25 years ago, and it was pretty important in what eventually turned out to be my return to Christian faith, over a decade after I had abandoned belief in God when I was a teenager. It helped me see that Christianity–and not just a watered-down, “modernist” version–might actually be true.

Re-reading it recently I was struck once again by Lewis’s insistence that “reason,” by which he means our faculty for logical argument, as well as for apprehending moral truth, must be “supernatural,” at least relatively speaking. That is, if our reasoning is determined by natural laws of cause and effect (the great, interlocking system of nature, as he puts it), then what justification do we have for thinking that it provides a path to truth? Only if our thinking can, at least sometimes, operate according to the laws of logic rather than the laws of cause and effect can we trust our ability to apprehend truth. Human minds–or at least this part of them–must originate outside the natural world. This is the key argument Lewis makes to show that naturalism is untenable (and a pivotal part of his argument that miracles are at least possible).

However, Lewis’s rather stark version of dualism won’t sit well with everyone. On his view, human spirits (i.e., the part of us capable of abstract thought and moral reasoning) are “inserted” as it were at various points in the natural wold, rather than being fully integrated parts of that world. That’s his point after all–if they were fully part of the natural world we would have no grounds for trust in our reasoning capabilities. But this seems a bit inelegant and ad hoc. Wouldn’t it be better to have an account that showed human minds were fully a part of nature but didn’t undermine the trustworthiness of reason? Even from a theistic perspective, wouldn’t it be more fitting and elegant to say that God created a universe that was capable of producing reasoning creatures from within?

These considerations are at least part of the motivation for various forms of “non-reductive” materialism or “emergentism” that have become popular among some Christian theologians and philosophers. On this kind of view, mind and consciousness develop from material organisms once they attain a certain level of complexity, but once they do, these emergent minds achieve a degree of independence.* For example, non-reductive materialists and “emergentists” maintain that causality between the mental and the physical goes both ways: our thoughts and decisions really affect the way things go, and this is not reducible to or fully explicable in terms of their physical substratum. If I get up from my desk and walk across the street to the local coffee shop, this action has to be explained (at least in part) by the contents of my thoughts. The mental has a genuine (if partial) causal independence and operates according to its own laws and principles. Another way of making the point is to say that purposive actions–doing things for a reason–are an inelminable feature of reality.

This type of view is attractive because it allows us to see human beings as part of the natural world without sacrificing the reality and efficacy of consciousness (as so-called “reductive” or “eliminative” forms of materialism do). From a Christian point of view, it seems to offer a more holistic account of the human person which is (so it is claimed) more consistent with the way human beings are portrayed in the Bible. This contrasts with forms of dualism that characterize the soul as wholly distinct from, or even trapped in, the body–a position sometimes associated (not entirely fairly) with Plato and Descartes. It also can seem more consonant with the resurrection of the body as the main focus of our hope for life after death.

This account isn’t without its own problems though. One is that it’s not obvious that the notion of an “emergent mind” is any clearer than full-blown dualism. It’s very hard to show how mind and consciousness could “emerge” from a particular arrangement of matter since the properties of matter and mind seem so different. This is, after all, one of the main motivations for both dualism and non-reductive materialism: thoughts have properties–they’re non-spatial, essentially private, are about something–that matter doesn’t, so they can’t be the same thing.

It’s true that there are examples of new properties that seem to “emerge” from a particular organization of matter (e.g., the liquidity of water is not a property of hydrogen or oxygen molecules, but rather comes into existence when they are brought into a particular relation); but there aren’t other obvious examples of a non-physical property or capability emerging from the physical. This raises the question of whether “emergence” is a solution to the problem or just another way of stating it.

There are many varieties of dualism and materialism, as well as other views like “dual-aspect monism,” and I haven’t kept up with recent philosophy of mind (not to mention other relevant fields like neuroscience!) enough to have a strong view about which one’s right (if any). I do think there are good arguments that mind and consciousness can’t be reduced to or simply identified with physical events, even though there’s obviously a strong correlation between them. What I’m less certain of is whether this means we have “souls” that are somehow independently created substances or whether our minds are functions or products of our brains and bodies that nevertheless posses a certain degree of independence.

I still think Lewis’s argument is convincing against a strict, reductive form of naturalism. If our minds really are nothing but brain events operating according to the inexorable laws of cause and effect, then it is hard to see how we could trust them as tools for acquiring true beliefs or maintain that we (sometimes) act for reasons rather than because of blind causality. But it may be that this insight can be accommodated by a more generous form of physicalism or non-dualism.

This might seem to undermine Lewis’s argument for theism and miracles, but a modified version of the case is possible. The fact that our universe is of the sort that can give rise to rational beings capable of moral choice could be taken to indicate that our cosmos is the result of a purposive mind. Because they are irreducible features of the world, mind, purpose and values, it could be argued, are clues to the character of the universe as a whole. They needn’t be seen as interruptions into the normal course of nature to be suggestive of nature’s origin–and of its potential openness to divine action.


*Lewis focused the parts of the human mind responsible for abstract reasoning (e.g., logical inference) and the apprehension of moral truth. He allowed that the “lower” parts of our minds (sensations, emotions, etc.) were fully natural. Other philosophers and theologians focus more on the problem of consciousness itself and its irreducibility to the physical. However, one thing all parties would agree to I think is that our minds have a certain causal independence: i.e., what we think or decide can make a difference to the course of events in a way that isn’t entirely determined by or a by-product of physical causes.

Is animal rights the next great progressive cause?


This article at the New Republic argues that we’re about to see an overdue reckoning on the left with the issue of animal rights. The reasons are that many of the issues that newly energized progressive activists are focusing on–e.g., climate change, labor rights–intersect in major ways with animal agriculture. Moreover, the left’s emphasis on expanding the circle of moral concern to include marginalized groups should naturally extend to non-human animals.

I have to say I’m a bit skeptical. Partly because I can remember the last time animal rights had a “moment.” Back in the mid-to-late aughts the question of how we treat the animals we consume for food was getting a lot of attention. Major authors like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Peter Singer, and Jonathan Safran Foer wrote books about industrial agriculture and the toll it takes on farmed animals, and they all advocated more plant-based diets. The Humane Society was aggressively pushing reforms that would ameliorate some of the worst abuses of factory farming. The burgeoning “foodie” and “locavore” movements led urban hipsters to seek humane and sustainable alternatives to factory-farmed meat and other animal products.

And yet, more than a decade later, Americans were consuming more meat than ever (not to mention the rest of the world). Now, maybe a greater percentage of this meat is coming from sustainable and/or humanely raised animals. But even the most optimistic advocates of alternative forms of agriculture concede that a truly humane and sustainable system would require a significant reduction in the sheer amount of meat we consume. There’s simply no way to produce the same quantity of meat without packing animals into factory farms. All told, it’s hard to argue that our last big public debate about animal rights did much to slow, much less reverse, the trends here.

Emily Atkin, the author of the TNR piece, suggests one thing that might make this time different:

A more sweeping analytical framework has lately emerged on the left to diagnose a host of ills that are interconnected: The problem, a growing chorus of environmentalists now suggest, might be capitalism itself. Central to this emerging critique is the interpretation of the environmental exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants as a direct outgrowth of unregulated capitalism. Appalling labor conditions, the destruction of the environment in search of profit, a callous disregard toward marginalized communities, the reliance on an unseen underclass to keep the whole bloody machinery running—these are all, in the anticapitalist wing of environmentalism, indelible hallmarks of both the agriculture industry and a rampant market economy.

However, saying that we’ll be able to address animal suffering just as soon as we abolish capitalism doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of optimism. Leave aside the fact that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, the actual prospects for turning America socialist seem pretty remote. (Granted that “socialism” seems to cover a lot of conceptual territory these days.) More basically, as long as the economy is organized exclusively for human needs and wants, animals will still get short shrift. Just as the “socialist” economies of the 20th century were as bad for the environment as capitalism (or worse), there’s no guarantee that a hypothetical 21st-century socialism would take into account the interests of non-human animals unless it’s explicitly designed to do so.

This isn’t to say that reformers should ignore chances for the kinds of systemic change Atkin highlights. And I certainly think that appropriate measures to fight climate change, for instance, would probably necessitate major agricultural reform. But some kind of moral paradigm shift is still probably necessary to motivate reforms toward treating animals justly. As a data point, consider the backlash (and subsequent back-pedaling) when conservatives started screaming that AOC’s “Green New Deal” would take away their hamburgers.

Of course, it’s also reasonable to be skeptical that any such widespread moral paradigm shift is imminent. The vast majority of us seem perfectly able to go on consuming animal products while being blissfully unaware (or guiltily half-aware) of the moral and ecological costs. While many people support, or at least pay lip service to, reforms to the way farmed animals are treated, I haven’t seen much evidence that they (we) are willing to make significant sacrifices for it. In fairness, a lot of people are just trying to make ends meet and have a lot of other things to worry about. Animal rights can easily seem like a concern for the already privileged. It’s not terribly surprising that most people aren’t willing to make this a priority.

If there’s any cause for optimism here, it’s that we appear to be on the verge of developing meat alternatives that could satisfy even the blood-thirstiest carnivore. The vegan “Beyond Burger” reputedly looks, cooks, tastes and even “bleeds” like red meat. There’s also the “clean meat” movement to “grow” meat in labs from small amounts of animal cells. In theory at least, this meat would be indistinguishable from the genuine article. While we might long for a moral or political revolution, these technological innovations may provide the best shot at scaling back, or even eliminating animal agriculture altogether.

The official, way-too-early ATR 2020 Democratic primary straw poll

going liberal

The first votes in the 2020 Democratic primary won’t be cast until (God help us) almost a year from now, but as far as media coverage is concerned the campaign is already in full swing. As of today, there are 12 announced candidates (Sen. Cory Booker, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, former Maryland representative John Delany, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Washington governor Jay Inslee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “spiritual author” Marianne Williamson, and businessman Andrew Yang); 2 all-but-announced candidates (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have formed “exploratory committees” but haven’t formally announced); and 10 people “considering a run” (including high-profile likely candidates like former VP Joe Biden and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke).

I can’t honestly say I have firm opinions about most of these folks, but as of right now, there are some I like more than others.

The good:

Policy-wise, I’m probably most aligned with Elizabeth Warren: I find her account of the structural failures of the U.S. economic system and how it’s rigged against average people pretty compelling. She’s a champion of the little guy against concentrated economic power and has shown time and again that she’s not afraid to stand up to entrenched interests. Though her policy prescriptions overlap a lot with Sanders’, Warren’s approach is more in line with traditional American ideas about the relationship between the state and the market. Warren also seems to have the technocratic know-how to get things done, while still being able to communicate her ideas to ordinary people. For me she hits a sweet spot between incrementalist liberalism and doctrinaire leftism. Like a lot of people, I’m a little worried about what the whole DNA test episode says about her judgment and skills as a candidate, but I’m definitely rooting for her to overcome that misstep and run a viable campaign.

Kamala Harris is in many ways the ideal 21st century Democratic candidate, at least on paper. She’s an experienced, successful woman of color from the most populous state in the Union. She’s young—but not too young. She seems to appeal to many different factions within the party. She’s charismatic, connects easily with people, and has a facility with inclusive, inspirational rhetoric (not unlike a certain recent president). All of this makes her a pretty ideal rebuke to Trump. And yet this “all things to all people” quality can make it difficult to pin down exactly where she stands on some issues. Her waffling about the role for private insurers after endorsing Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan is a case in point. I think there are multiple defensible positions on that question, but her floundering for a consistent answer suggested that she hadn’t really thought about it all that much. This gives the impression that she’s adopted some of her positions out of convenience rather than conviction. She’s clearly a progressive, but also seems fairly willing to trim her sails, which makes her seem somewhat less “authentic” than Warren and Sanders (even though asking for “authenticity” from politicians is a bit of a mug’s game). I’m still very much open to voting for her in the primary, but I’d like to see her more convincingly articulate her vision for the country and why she’s the right person for the job at this moment in our history.

Speaking of Mr. Democratic Socialism himself, I’m probably more favorably disposed toward Bernie Sanders than I was in 2016. If that election showed us anything, it’s that a cautious, hew-to-the-center campaign is no guarantee of success. Sanders deserves a lot of credit for the new energy flowing into the Democratic party from the left (even if he remains somewhat aloof from the party itself, to the annoyance of some party stalwarts). Along with Warren, Sanders has one of the clearest and most compelling accounts of what ails the country, along with proposed solutions that are proportionate to the scope of the problems. He’s also done more to flesh out his foreign policy vision—a notable blind spot from 2016—and it’s in pretty close alignment with my own views. I’m still somewhat skeptical that Sanders would really be an effective executive, and there’s the not-insignificant matter of his age. Plus, he tends to be dismissive of issues related to representation and identity, and his “political revolution” seems more like wishful thinking than a plausible account of how he’ll get his ambitious platform passed. But I’m not ready to kick him off my short list just yet.

Jay Inslee isn’t someone I see going all the way, but he deserves kudos for launching a campaign that explicitly centers climate change as the most important issue facing the country. If he does nothing else but force the other candidates to talk about this more, he’s done the country a service.

The maybes:

Cory Booker has a certain energy and intelligence, and I can see why people like him. But he also comes across (to me anyway) as very calculated in a lot of his public positioning. His shift from charter-school-loving friend of Wall Street to lefty firebrand isn’t super convincing. On the other hand, he would be the first vegan president!

Amy Klobuchar is interesting in that she’s running explicitly as a convinced centrist (at least relatively) in a field of candidates tripping over each other to prove their progressive bona fides. She’s definitely more centrist than I would prefer, but she also seems smart and tough (albeit maybe too tough, based on reports about Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff). As one of the few candidates hailing from a purple state, she can also make a pretty good electability argument. I’d like to learn more about/hear more from her.

Kirsten Gillibrand—former Blue Dog and a booster of the financial industry–is also running rather unconvincingly as a born-again progressive. That said, her commitment to fighting sexual assault and the fact that she’s very explicitly running a feminist campaign that centers the concerns of women are admirable and important.

I honestly don’t feel like I know enough about Castro, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Williamson, Yang, or Buttigieg to have a firm opinion about them one way or another. But I’m open to learning more.

The meh:

I like Joe Biden in the same way that many Americans do: as the affable if somewhat gaffe-prone uncle of the Democratic Party. And few people would gainsay his loyal service as Barack Obama’s VP or his compelling personal and family history. But Biden also had a long senatorial career that carries a lot of baggage putting him out of step with the contemporary Democratic party. This includes support for “tough on crime” policies, his treatment of Anita Hill, a long history of pro-bank policies, his votes for DOMA and the Iraq war, etc. Biden, like many veteran pols, can claim to have “evolved” on certain issues, but it’s hard to see the appeal of someone who’s constantly having to explain away his past positions. And like Bernie, he’s an old white guy at a time when the party’s energy is increasingly coming from women–particularly women of color. Some have suggested that Biden is either uniquely electable or uniquely able to tamp down our current partisan rancor. But the evidence for either of these propositions is pretty thin. He seems like someone who’s moment has passed, in more ways than one.

Tulsi Gabbard’s opposition to military interventionism (something I generally agree with) has a tendency to slide into outright apologetics for foreign dictators like Bashar al-Assad.

Beto O’Rourke’s record as a rather undistinguished congressman who narrowly lost an election to Ted Cruz doesn’t exactly strike me as presidential material.

Like I said, it’s really too soon to be forming strong attachments here: Some of these candidates will fizzle out early, and there will be further winnowing as the campaign proceeds. It’s possible, even likely, that by the time I get to vote in the Maryland primary at the end of April 2020 it’ll already be effectively over. Overall, it strikes me as a pretty strong field and I’d be happy to vote for most of these people in the general election. And lack of enthusiasm on my part isn’t even a deal-breaker here–I will vote for literally whoever the Dems nominate, up to and including the reanimated corpse of Grover Cleveland.

Some good theology & religion books I read in 2018


Someday–maybe next year, who knows?–I’ll get better about tracking the books I read. Heaven knows I read a bunch of stuff this year that has already slipped into the misty recesses of memory. But until I get my act together, I thought I’d note some books in theology and religion that stuck with me for various reasons:

  • Keith Ward, The Christian Idea of God (I blogged about it here.)
  • Amy Plantinga Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time (more here)
  • Ben Dueholm, Sacred Signposts (more here)
  • Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross
  • Kira Schlesinger, Pro-Choice and Christian
  • Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power 
  • Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (technically a biography, but rich with theological significance)
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

While I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, these were all books that made me think more deeply about various aspects of the Christian faith–the doctrine of God (Ward, Johnson), the mission of the church (Plantinga Pauw, Dueholm, Marsh), the nature of salvation (Johnson, Schmiechen) and ethics (Johnson, Schlesinger, Marsh).

Julian is, of course, in a category all her own. Not only did I re-read her Revelations, but I got to lead a discussion of her work at my church back in February, which was well received if I do say so myself. I currently have Denys Turner’s book on Julian on my shelf, which I’m hoping to get to sometime in the new year. And I may even remember something about it by next December.



Church for earthlings

keep-calm-its-ordinary-time-600x675Ecclesiology–or the doctrine of the church–is, for my money, one of the duller areas of Christian theology. And when it doesn’t engage in excessive navel-gazing and hair-splitting, it can be a source of ugly Christian triumphalism. In recent theology, the “ecclesial turn” has often upheld “the church” as the cure-all for everything that supposedly ails the modern world: excessive individualism, consumerism, hedonism, capitalism run amok, violence, racism, etc.

This almost invariably results in an overly idealized picture of the church as an entity that is somehow immune from the sin and messiness of the world (and generally requires ignoring large swaths of Christian history). As the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde once wrote, “the constant temptation of the church is always to transgress, to overstep, the eschatological limit, to set itself up as a kind of ‘eschatological vestibule,’ . . . perhaps even as a sacrament itself, a diachronic extension of the incarnation in time. When that occurs, there is a blurring of the eschatological limit, a tendency to vest its purely human offices with sacramental, indeed divine, sanction” (A More Radical Gospel, p. 186).

Reformed theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw’s recent book Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology, offers a refreshing alternative to this eschatological inflation of the church. “Ordinary time” here has a double significance–it refers both to the parts of the church year between the great feasts where we focus on day-by-day growth in our discipleship and to living in the midst of the “ordinary” hum-drum activities of daily life. The church doesn’t exist outside of ordinary life, in some special sacred space; it exists in the flow of ordinary life and in the time between the Resurrection of Jesus and God’s consummation of all things, when it is “not yet clear what we shall become.”

“Wisdom ecclesiology” reflects Plantinga Pauw’s reliance on the wisdom books of the Bible (particularly Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, and the Psalms) to highlight God’s creative ordering of the world and the church’s status as a creature, with all that implies about its finitude and potential for sin.

This focus on creation allows Plantinga Pauw to zoom out to see how ultimately small the church is within the grand sweep of creation. Our ever-increasing awareness of the unimaginably vast scale of creation, both in time in space, should–but largely hasn’t–result in a “Copernican revolution” in theology’s understanding of God’s purposes. It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the church is the center of God’s purpose for the universe when there are manifold other human communities and countless other living species on our planet alone (which is itself an infinitesimally small part of creation).

Plantinga Pauw develops this theme in a trinitarian key, showing how Christians can live in the world, while recognizing that our ultimate destiny is beyond it, in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Jesus identifies fully with human life, while also being the one “in whom all things hold together.” This provides the basis for a creation-centered cosmic Christology that nonetheless is attuned to the fleshly details of everyday life. And the Spirit empowers us to live in the world rather than fleeing it, embracing the longing, giving, suffering and rejoicing that characterize the rhythms of human life and of the church calendar. We do this as finite creatures, living in a particular time and place, not as those with a God’s-eye view of creation’s purpose.

A “wisdom ecclesiology” is about living wisely as earthlings–creatures with a limited allotment in space and time, seeking to care for those whom God has placed in front of us and for this planet we share with God’s other beloved creatures. The church doesn’t have a privileged vantage point from which it can run the world; neither is it a realm of purity where Christians can escape from the world. It is one created community among many, shaped by social, economic, political and cultural forces. But it is called to join with others in caring for God’s creation, witnessing to the self-giving love of God revealed in Israel’s story and preeminently in Jesus.

ADDENDUM: I just wanted to add that Plantinga Pauw’s book pairs well with Ben Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts, another excellent recent book on the role of the church in our contemporary context. As Dueholm shows, the practices of the church are constituted by “brutally ordinary things” that can become, through the power of the Spirit, sites of God’s grace, even in the absence of some churchly master plan for saving the world.

The socialism question


In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lively argument going on about the rise of “democratic socialism” within (or adjacent to) the Democratic Party. Obviously, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries is ground zero for this discussion, but we’ve seen a general shift, even among otherwise mainstream Dem pols, toward “socialist” policies like Medicare for All and free college. Most recently, the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fully paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America, unseated veteran Democratic congressman Joe Crowley, leading to a wave of fist pumping or hand-wringing (depending on your ideological leanings) about the specter of socialism haunting the Democratic Party.

Some more traditional liberals have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s (and her like-minded comrades’) platform doesn’t look a lot like socialism as traditionally understood. Rather, it resembles an updated version of mid-20th-century liberalism: a program aimed at taming the excesses of capitalism instead of transcending it. (In Europe this program typically goes by the name of social democracy: a generous welfare state, regulated markets, etc.) Leftists have responded that over the last several decades mainstream liberalism, by embracing deregulation, deficit fetishism and privatization, has moved so far to the right that those further to the left needed a label to distinguish themselves from this desiccated form of liberalism.

Now, I’m hardly the pope of socialism (I wouldn’t even consider myself a member of the church), but it seems obvious to me that “socialism” is an attractive label in part because it evokes the desire for a dramatic alternative to the status quo. This isn’t just something that appeals to young people, but young people are perhaps better positioned than certain tut-tutting pundits to perceive the shortcomings of the American approach to capitalism. Many people coming of age after the Great Recession have dimmer economic prospects than their parents, are saddled with massive student debt and struggle to find good-paying jobs that include benefits you need for a decent life (like health insurance). There’s also the minor detail that they may be inheriting a planet on its way to being rendered uninhabitable by human civilization in its current form.

While the Trump administration and the current Republican congress are exacerbating these problems, they predate the Trump era. Obama-era policies may have ameliorated some of the grosser effects of these trends, but they haven’t reversed them. It’s not surprising that many Millennials like Ocasio-Cortez consider “liberalism”—meaning the type of policies associated with the Clinton and Obama years–woefully inadequate to our present situation. That may be unfair to the Clinton and Obama administrations, who were at least to some extent constrained by the hands they were dealt and would’ve liked to do more, but whoever said politics was fair?

The Democratic Party will probably remain a broad center-left coalition of leftists, mainstream liberals and even moderates for the foreseeable future (and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing). But it’s clear that much of the energy and excitement is coming from the further-left end of the spectrum. And a big part of that excitement has to do with the promotion of big, bold ideas that offer the promise of a tangibly better life for lots of people. Some of these are ideas recently thought impossible within the confines of our post-Cold War/post-Reagan consensus. But one lesson that the rise of Trump should’ve taught us is that–for better or worse–the boundaries of what’s “possible” are wider than we previously imagined.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth clarifying that there does seem to be a genuine diversity of opinion among democratic socialists (and Democratic Socialists) about their ideal society. Some do envision the abolition of capitalism as we know it, whereas others seem more focused on concrete policies (like Medicare for All) that would take certain essential goods out of the market nexus. In other words, “socialism” isn’t just a radical-sounding label for an old-fashioned liberal program (at least not in all cases). There does seem to be a fair bit of slipperiness in current usage, though that may not be entirely a bad thing. It might be more useful for “socialism” to point to a broad set of values rather than a detailed blueprint for a post-capitalist utopia.