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Culture Wars: Where Are We Now?

James Davison Hunter on the inevitable progressive victory
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The Wall Street Journal‘s Jason Willick interviews sociologist James Davison Hunter, coiner of the term “culture wars,” about where we are today. The article is behind the Journal‘s paywall, but I’ll excerpt parts here.

This paragraph is as good a definition as any of what I mean by “small-o orthodox Christianity”:

On one side is a traditionalist vision that holds truth to be “rooted in an authority outside of the self,” Mr. Hunter says, be it Nature or “the Bible, the Magisteria [he meant “Magisterium,” the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church — RD], the Torah.” Thus this view’s emphasis on maintaining “continuities with the truths of the past.” On the other side is a “post-Enlightenment” vision that rejects “transcendent and authoritative traditions.” In the progressive view, “freedom is predominant”—especially freedom for groups seen as oppressed by tradition.

Hunter says what inspired his 1991 book exploring the culture wars was noticing that the dividing lines around key issues did not fall between churches and religions, but within them. This is why, for example, orthodox Catholics and conservative Evangelicals found themselves on the same side so often in the public square. More:

Many of the cultural skirmishes Mr. Hunter started writing about in the 1990s remain at the center of politics, including abortion, campus speech codes, multiculturalism, and religion’s place in public life. And as he warned they might, the disputes have grown more vituperative—“through Clinton hatred, through Bush hatred, through Obama hatred” and through “every Supreme Court opening.”

That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

Amen to that. When people complain about the culture wars as a phony conflict ginned up by their opponents, it almost always means that they wish their opponents would just shut up and agree with them. Liberal Thomas Frank’s book What’s The Matter With Kansas? wondered why it was that ordinary Kansans voted for Republicans and against their perceived economic interest. His thesis was that they were being baited by fake culture war issues. This is only true if you believe that economics ought to matter more than culture, and/or if you believe that there are no good-faith reasons to hold conservative views on culture war issues. Frankly, whether they are on the left or the right, I admire someone whose cultural values matter more to them than material advantage.

In this interview, Hunter says that conservatives may have a culture war advantage in government, but have badly lost elsewhere. To use a Marxist term, liberals control the major means of cultural production (the news and entertainment industries, the academy, etc.).

Because liberals control “the credentialing institutions of our society,” he says, those who want to get to a middle or upper middle class life are going to have to kowtow to liberal culture — a culture that likes to think of itself as open, but which is as closed as any other. Hunter: “So the Harvard Law School prides itself on its diversity, but it’s a diversity in which basically everyone views the world the exact same way.”

Here’s the key insight: Hunter believes that the total dominance progressives have in the culture-making institutions of our society means that their vision is going to win in the long run. One last bit from the Journal piece:

Yet he doubts that reason and science are any better suited than fundamentalist religion to provide a stable basis for morality, even if the West continues to secularize. One challenge of the Enlightenment he says, is that “reason gave us the power to doubt and to question everything, including reason itself.” That “throws us back upon our own subjectivity. . . . You have your truth, I have mine.”

This is important for a couple of reasons.

First, the victory of progressives in the culture war will not bring peace, because it cannot bring peace. Religious and moral conservatives may well be sidelined in defeat, but that only means that the culture war will rage on other fronts. As Hunter avers, there is no way to settle these issues absent a shared source of cultural authority. Don’t forget Ross Douthat’s warning: if you don’t like the Religious Right, wait until you see the Post-Religious Right.

Second, it’s important that conservatives understand that because politics is downstream from culture, we are going to lose in politics, eventually. You only have to look at the polls on what Millennials believe — and don’t believe — to see that. And if orthodox Christian beliefs are a barrier to full participation in the middle and upper middle class, then a lot of people are going to cast them aside.

We conservative Christians ought to be preparing ourselves and our children for this eventuality. When being a Christian costs us something in terms of social access, professional success, and economic prosperity, then we are going to see far fewer Christians. If there are far fewer Christians, the plausibility of the Christian faith is going to be much less. This is going to have a substantial impact on the ability of Christian parents to pass the faith along to their children. Whether we consciously retreat from the public square or not, we are going to be moved out. 

And we are going to be moved out because a lot of the younger generation of Christians is going to be doing the pushing. As Daniel Cox pointed out:

Nearly half (48 percent) of white evangelical Protestants under 30 say that their church should adjust traditional beliefs and practices or adopt modern beliefs and practices.

As for young Catholics, huge numbers of them are leaving the church entirely, and those who remain disagree with their church strongly on issues where church teaching conflicts with the Sexual Revolution.

This is the world we are in now, and the world shortly to come, as I argue in The Benedict Option. A lot of Christians living inside Christian bubbles don’t want to see it. Here’s an extreme, but popular, example. Recently I became aware of the “Trump prophecy,” something that a Florida firefighter said God told him in 2011. There’s a feature film about it coming out this fall, produced in part with Liberty University. Below is the alleged prophecy:

Full Text of Mark Taylor’s April 28, 2011 Trump Prophecy:

“The Spirit of God says I’ve chosen this man Donald Trump for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America, for I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America. America will be respected once again as the most powerful, prosperous nation on Earth other than Israel. The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged. The Spirit of God says the enemy will quake and shake, and fear this man I have anointed. They will even quake and shake when he announces he is running for President. It will be like the shot heard across the world. Then you will say what shall we do now? This man knows all our tricks and schemes. We’ve been robbing America for decades. What should we do to stop this? The Spirit says, ha, no one shall stop this that I have started, for the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now. For I will use this man to reap the harvest that the United States has sown for and plunder from the enemy what he has stolen, and return it back sevenfold to the United States. The enemy will say, ‘Israel, Israel, what about Israel?’ Israel will be protected by America once again. The Spirit says yes, America will once again stand hand in hand with Israel and the two shall be as one, for the ties between Israel and America will be stronger than ever and Israel will flourish like never before. The Spirit of God says I will protect America and Israel, for this next President will be a man of his word. When he speaks the world will listen and know that there is something greater in him than all the others before him. This man’s word is his bond and the world and America will know this, and the enemy will fear this, for this man will be fearless. The Spirit says when the financial harvest begins so shall the parallel in the spiritual for America. The Spirit of God says in this next election they will spend billions to keep this president out. It will be like money down the toilet. Let them waste their money, for where it comes from is being used by evil forces at work, but they will not succeed. This next election will be a clean sweep for the man that I have chosen. They will say things about this man, the enemy, but it will not affect him and they will say it rolls off of him like a duck. For even as the feathers of a duck protect it, so shall my feathers protect this next president. Even mainstream news media will be captivated by this man and the abilities that I gift to him and they will even begin to agree with him, says the Spirit.”

The self-deceiving triumphalist fantasy here — Donald Trump as secular savior and sower of the seeds of Christian revival — is gobsmacking. That so many Christians are eager to believe this is a sign of how desperate our position has become. According to this prophecy, having voted for Trump, America will be great again, rich again, powerful again, and will experience a spiritual revival.

It is easier for a lot of Christians to believe this Big Rock Candy #MAGA nonsense, this dream of restoration, than it is to prepare themselves and their children for the realities of life in exile.

James Davison Hunter published a book back in 2010, To Change The World, in which he considers how Christians can live faithfully in a post-Christian world. The book was quite good in its diagnosis of the problem, but failed to provide any clear prescription. This is understandable; it’s very hard to figure out how to do this. The point is, though, that we had better get serious, real fast, about trying.

UPDATE: Reader Michael GC:

I came across this quote from James Davison Hunter the other day in an article discussing the ramifications of the pending Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision, and found it so notable that I saved it:

“The capacity of a social group or movement to make its particular preferences and practices seem natural is the key to its control; these particularities become standard throughout society while shrouded in a cloak of neutrality.”

The key to its control. The standard of marriage is now such that two men wanting a wedding cake is so natural that why would anyone in their right mind even pause to think twice about it? Just make the cake and shut up! What’s wrong with you anyway?

For us donkeys on this Animal Farm who are stubborn about relinquishing their memories to fall for the favored lie of the moment, time for decision will be upon us. Do we say what we know and lose status or play along for our livelihood and our children’s well-being? There is another option, the Benedict one. It has to be; otherwise, even when we win, we’ll lose. Consider the Boy Scouts of America (now just Scouts, BSA). They won their case legally but surrendered to the culture, regardless.



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