In Defense Of Doomsayers
Over the weekend, the moderately conservative Evangelical Pete Wehner published a column in The New York Times in which he admonished “Christian doomsayers” for their anxious pessimism. I’m sure readers of The New York Times were pleased to have a conservative Evangelical tell them that they don’t have to pay serious attention to the anxieties of the Religious Right, because those people are bonkers. But Pete Wehner is a serious, thoughtful Christian, and his column is worth taking seriously. Excerpts:
After all, they insist, Mr. Trump may be personally immoral, but he is also a viciously effective street fighter for their cause. He is also the only person preventing a takeover of America by the Democratic Party and progressives — and that, they insist, would produce a moral calamity nearly unmatched in American history.
The view that Mr. Trump is all that stands between America and a moral cataclysm was encapsulated by Eric Metaxas, an influential evangelical author and radio talk-show host, who said in 2016, “The only time we faced an existential struggle like this was in the Civil War and in the Revolution when the nation began.” He added, “We are on the verge of losing it as we could have lost it in the Civil War.”
This wasn’t just election-year rhetoric. Last year, Mr. Metaxas told the journalist Jon Ward that while he did not mean to compare Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler, “Christians who think the Church in America might have survived a Hillary Clinton presidency are something like the devout Christian Germans who seriously and prayerfully thought it un-Christian to be involved in opposing Hitler because to do so would have dirtied their hands with politics.”
Sohrab Ahmari — a convert to Catholicism who is both the op-ed editor of The New York Post and a contributor to the religious magazine First Things — was so outraged that drag queens were reading stories to children at a library in Sacramento that he has relegated civility to a secondary virtue while turning against modernity and classical liberalism.
Mr. Ahmari and those who share his worldview believe our traditions and way of life are under assault by an aggressive, ruthless adversary and that liberalism is a huge part of the problem.
Why are Christians so freaked out? asks Wehner. Abortion rates are down. So is teen alcoholism, sex, and drug use. Violent crime rates are way down. Sure, we have some serious problems, he says, but
To my fellow Christians, then, a friendly reminder from a conservative who shares many of your concerns: We are not living in Nero’s Rome. In world history, there are very few nations that have been as accommodating to Christianity as the United States is today; and America is hardly on the edge of a moral abyss.
One of the things I have been most struck by in my conversations with Christian conservatives is how moral concern has given way to moral panic. It distorts their perceptions about the very real progress that has been made while causing feelings of deep insecurity and fear, despite “fear not” being one of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible.
Many Christians have become invested in a dark narrative. As a friend of mine puts it: “They seem to have some kind of psychological craving for apocalyptic fear. I wonder if walking it back is even possible.”
Full disclosure: Eric Metaxas and Sohrab Ahmari are friends of mine. I don’t agree with them on all things — I’ve publicly criticized Eric for what I consider to be his excessive Trumpism — but they’re both good men, in my view. I don’t know Pete Wehner well, and I certainly disagree with him on some things, but I’ve always found him to be a generous, gracious man. I like all three of these guys. But I think Wehner is mostly wrong here, and here’s why.
First, I do agree with him that some on the Christian Right are prone to extremist thinking and language about the state of the world (just as some on the secular Left are). And Wehner is right to point out that on some key social metrics, society is improving. Christians who don’t recognize that risk making themselves look silly.
But you can’t say that having achieved a stable bourgeois social order is the same thing as having achieved Christian aims. I am grateful that abortion rates have gone down, that violent crime is down, etc., but did Jesus not say that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world, but lose his soul? Secular, post-Christian Scandinavia is probably the most peaceful, orderly, bourgeois place on earth — and it is largely godless. If you think religion is only about establishing social order, then you’ve got no problem with that. But if you believe what the Bible actually says about Christianity, then a prosperous social order is no sign of holiness. You can die peaceably in your bed at your McMansion and still go to hell, while the poor man on the other side of town, who lives in a violent neighborhood, whose daughter has two kids out of wedlock, and who struggles with alcoholism, may well go to heaven, because he had the humility to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We should celebrate good news on the social front. However, please note that the abortion rate is going down because we’re living through a fertility collapse, and the downturn in teens having sex is probably not because they’ve been remoralized, but because young men are satisfying their sexual urges with porn and masturbation. Plus, family formation is in decline, and there’s this opioid addiction crisis, and the “deaths from despair” skyrocketing among the white working class.
I also believe that the world looks a lot less threatening to Christians who have accepted the normalization of LGBT within Christianity, as Pete Wehner has, than it does to we who hold to orthodoxy. [UPDATE: I was under the impression that Wehner had done this, but I don’t know for sure, so I withdraw the statement. I may be recalling simply that he is in favor of gay marriage as a legal matter, but not necessarily as something for Christians. — RD] And though I don’t believe we are at a Nero/Hitler moment in our history, nor do I believe Donald Trump is the savior of Christian orthodoxy, it is nevertheless true that the liberal cultural and political Establishment in this country is hostile to Christian orthodoxy on LGBT matters, and seeks to marginalize and punish Christian dissenters. The GOP Establishment is not as gung-ho as the Democratic Establishment, but it has little stomach to fight for the religious liberty of dissenting Christians. The big-money donors to the Republican Party are on the side of gay rights. While some Evangelical leaders have gone way, way over the top with their Trump enthusiasm, it is an inconvenient truth that the short-fingered vulgarian from Queens, who has given no evidence of being a Christian in anything but name only, is the only major Republican figure who seems willing to side with us deplorable Bible-thumpers on these matters.
I devoutly wish it were otherwise, but that’s a call that national GOP leaders made before Trump came onto the scene. I remind you that in the autumn of 2015, three months after Obergefell, I was personally told in a Capitol Hill meeting that Republicans had no plans — zero — for religious liberty legislation to try to give some kind of protection to dissenting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.
Anyway, my point is simply this: the external social order is not necessarily a sign of spiritual health. I am one of those Christian doomsayers, as you know — The Benedict Option — who is probably more pessimistic than the Christians Wehner criticizes in his piece. Ahmari and Metaxas, after all, still have confidence that a political solution to the crisis is possible. I don’t, not really. To be clear, I believe that small-o orthodox Christians should stay involved in the political process both to work for the common good and to work specifically to fight for religious liberty, to protect our own communities, I believe that politics are at the moment nothing but a delaying action. That’s not nothing — they can give us time to prepare, and besides, as the progressive legal analyst Ian Millhiser says apocalyptically, the Trump effect on the federal courts is big and long-lasting. Over the next couple of decades, I believe that conservative federal judges are going to pretty much be the only serious line of defense dissident Christians have in the government.
The real reason to be apocalyptic is something that most conservative Christians don’t yet see, and refuse to acknowledge: the collapse of Christian faith in the lands of the West. I’m not going to give you the links here; regular readers have seen them often in this space. Most recently, Pew reported that the Millennials are the first generation in US history in which a majority say they have no particular religious affiliation. Absent some sort of religious revival, this is the new normal. Yesterday I spoke by phone with a plugged-in Evangelical leader who is around my age (I’m 52), and he told me that the faith landscape among churchgoing Evangelical youth in his children’s generation (Generation Z) is a blasted heath when it comes to doctrine, Scripture, and anything substantive. They have been raised in a youth group culture that has made the Christian faith entirely relational and emotivist. They have no real anchor in anything deeper than their feelings. It’s an extremely unstable situation. Mind you, these are young people who are still in church; they’re heavily Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. It’s the same thing with Catholic youth, as Notre Dame researcher Christian Smith has demonstrated.
They are either going to abandon Christianity when the post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, culture pushes them hard enough — and it’s not going to take much — or, lacking any binding source of authority outside their personal interpretation of Scripture and/or their tradition, they’re going to turn Christianity into something unrecognizable by any historic measure of orthodoxy.
This is the real apocalypse. It may or may not be the end of THE world, but it is absolutely the end of A world.
Moreover, the loss of Christianity, and its core idea of human identity and dignity, is going to be keenly felt this century as science and technology make possible all kinds of extreme manipulations of human beings. Wehner talks about how much worse things were in the past regarding slavery and racial discrimination and cruelty, despite the far more robust presence of Christianity in our society. He’s right to some extent: Christianity did not stop those evils. But Christians did! Slavery has been present in many human societies around the world for thousands of years. The anti-slavery movement began in Britain in the latter part of the 18th century, and spread to America. Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood points out that slavery existed in many places around the world “without substantial criticism,” until a small number of Anglo-American Protestants began speaking out against it. They did so on Christian grounds. The great anthem of the Union Army as it marched into battle to end slavery was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — a song that rendered the Civil War into a holy crusade.
Of course they went into battle against Christians who believed slavery was either God-ordained, or at least that God didn’t have a big problem with it. The point here is that abolitionism depended on the Christian belief that all men are created in the God’s image. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was led by black pastors, whose rhetoric was soaked in Biblical teaching, language, and imagery. It is impossible to imagine any future crusade for social or moral reform in this country being carried out in the same way. We have lost the faith that made the rhetoric of Dr. King and others so powerful. Some of us alive today have enough cultural memory to feel what we have lost. The younger among us do not.
There has never been, nor will there ever be, any utopias in this life. The church and the world will always need to be reformed. But having lost our religion, how will we know when we need to be reformed? How will we know how what we are doing wrong, and how to do right? If it’s all relative, we are well and truly lost. We have nothing but popular passion. This is not going to go well for any of us, Christian and otherwise. There are whole communities in the US that have lived through several generations without the nuclear family. Cultural memory of intact families has dissolved. How are those people supposed to pull themselves out of their crisis, if they have no means by which to measure the depth of their descent?
That’s the kind of doom that’s facing Christians today. And no politician can stop it, because that’s not what politicians do. I don’t fault Christians for being concerned — greatly concerned — about the social and political order, nor do I fault them for wanting to do something about it. But I do fault them — I fault us — for not looking first into the deep decay of Christian thought and practice within our own church communities and families, and taking up the crusade to rebuild the church as a bulwark, a lighthouse, and an ark.
Dark days are upon us, and they’re going to get darker. I don’t see how even a liberal-ish Christian can regard the collapse of the faith within the younger generations of Americans and be sanguine about it. “Be not afraid” is wise counsel, but not if it is deployed as a means of convincing Christians to sit quietly while the floodwaters are rising to the doorstep, and to do anything about it, because surely things will come right again if we could only keep quite still and wait.