The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate. Rod Dreher, author of the truly outstanding book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” wrote an essay in Time in which he argued that it was time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they could keep “the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.”
He continued: “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”
Most Christian commentary has opted for another strategy: fight on. Several contributors to a symposium in the journal First Things about the court’s Obergefell decision last week called the ruling the Roe v. Wade of marriage. It must be resisted and resisted again. Robert P. George, probably the most brilliant social conservative theorist in the country, argued that just as Lincoln persistently rejected the Dred Scott decision, so “we must reject and resist an egregious act of judicial usurpation.”
Brooks says that most conservatives he’s read since Friday’s Obergefell decision are vowing to continue fighting the culture war. As a self-described “friend and admirer” of social conservatives — and I should say that David is a valued friend of mine, and I am indeed an admirer of his — though not one of us, Brooks suggests doing a different thing.
Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.
We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.
Two thoughts occur to me.
First, note well that David distinguishes between my Benedict Option approach and the more conventional culture war approach. Continuing the “war” metaphor, I am recommending a strategy for resisting, enduring and thriving under the reality of occupation. This is not what Robbie George et alia are endorsing. I think mine is more realistic, and stands the greater chance of success. Ultimately, I think, we agree on moral truth, but strongly differ on how best to live that out and to advocate for it under present conditions.
Second, and of much more importance, is that I don’t believe my friend David understands the inseparable connection between Christian sexual morality and the familial and social instability David rightly decries. Family and social breakdown is inextricably linked to the abandonment of Christian sexual ideals — specifically, the idea that sexual passion should be limited to expression within the bounds of marriage. Chastity — which is not “no sex,” but rather the right ordering of the God-given sexual instinct — is a Christian virtue. It is not the most important Christian virtue, but it is not one that can be discarded, either.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, explains this kind of thing well. This link takes you to a long excerpt (be sure to read down to the section on Christian sexual morality, especially the part in which he points out that you can be perfectly chaste and still go to hell if you have a cold heart). This earlier, broader discussion, applies here:
Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.
You may have noticed that modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two. When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.
What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.
But I do not think we can stop there either. We are now getting to the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behaviour. And it would seem, at first sight, very sensible to stop before we got there, and just carry on with those parts of morality that all sensible people agree about. But can we? Remember that religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the right sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set. For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business. But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not? Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.
Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse -so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be. And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.
It seems, then, that if we are to think about morality, we must think of all three departments: relations between man and man: things inside each man: and relations between man and the power that made him. We can all cooperate in the first one. Disagreements begin with the second and become serious with the third. It is in dealing with the third that the main differences between Christian and non-Christian morality come out. For the rest of this book I am going to assume the Christian point of view, and look at the whole picture as it will be if Christianity is true.
Christianity, properly understood, takes a more holistic view of the human person. David rightly causes us to think of how few conservative Christians consider the role that economics and economic policy plays in breaking apart families and communities. But liberals, Christian and otherwise, fail to appreciate the extent to which abandoning sexual restraint results in broken families and broken societies. “Different beliefs about the universe lead to different behavior,” Lewis writes. The Sexual Revolution teaches something different about sex, the body, desire, and identity. Christianity opposes it — and Christian chastity cannot be isolated from the overall Christian conception of what the body is and who we are as incarnated eternal beings.
The point is, there is no way for Christians to undertake the task of nurturing stable families, as David correctly wishes for, without making the teaching of Christian chastity part of the mission. This is the one thing the world cannot accept — and in fact, finds a form of madness, indeed of bigotry.
I’m writing this moments after finishing a seminar discussion of Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, which is about lust as a distorted version of love. Because Francesca and Paolo construed lust as love, their sin led to violence — Paolo’s brother, discovering that his brother and his wife were sleeping together, killed them both — including the breaking of the family, and to the damnation of them all. Lust is one of the least bad of all sins in Dante’s conception … but it is enough to earn hell all the same.
The romanticization of sexual love is no new thing. But it continues to seduce us and to confuse us, and, along with economic individualism, has become on of the two dominant ideologies of our civilization. This bad idea has consequences. The destruction of the family and the sundering of social bonds are among them.
UPDATE: Patrick Deneen responds thus on his Facebook page:
Much of this column by David Brooks resonates. He is absolutely correct that the wider culture has changed, and rather radically, and that Christians have generally been unprepared and inept in responding to those changes. And he is absolutely correct to note the echoing hollowness of that culture, and the deep need for meaning, purpose, aspiration beyond hedonism, consumption, irony, detachment and – yes – loneliness.
But his analysis seems to miss the mark to this extent – in my view, it’s not Christians who have been perpetuating the “culture war” over sexuality (I know many will disagree, but hear me out). The origins of the “war” was arguably launched by Roe v. Wade, which was, for the Christian, less about sexual morality than protecting the life of the unborn. It was a human rights battle, not a battle over sexual propriety (though, of course, there were implications there as well). But in recent years, from whence has the aggression come? Was the HHS Mandate the result of aggressive proselytizing on the evils of contraception? Was the SSM battle engaged by the mainstream of religious believers premised on the view that homosexuals were the equivalent of racists (I would simply point to leading voices like Robert Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson who have been models of civility, attempting to offer reasoned argument in the face of accusations of bigotry)? Have Christians threatened to wipe out the livelihood of rural pizza makers who didn’t conform to their views, or even launched boycotts against the likes of Apple, etc.? Or, we might even ask, when is the last time someone heard a sermon about sexual morality from the pew?
Brooks is correct that Christians need to repair their own house. And I think this impulse accounts for much of the attraction for many to Rod Dreher‘s “Benedict Option” – less as a reaction of “taking our ball home” than the realization that we have a lot of work to do on our own house. But what Brooks simply neglects to talk about is that Christians are not going to be allowed to depart from the battlefield. Once the atomic weapon of “bigotry” has been used, you can’t just contain the radiation. Christians will be occupied for years yet to come defending their institutions – not because that’s what they want to do, but because they will be forced to. I wish that the sides could stand down now – truly I do – but I simply think the logic is inexorable. I hope and wish I am wrong. But I fear I am right.
I am certain Deneen is right, and this is another reason for the Benedict Option: to build in the resilience within ourselves and our communities to hang on to the truth when the going gets very rough.