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Hard To Be A Tory Boy

Ed West, author of 'Tory Boy' (Source)

I thoroughly enjoyed English journalist Ed West’s essay about growing up Tory, and how he settled into voting for the Conservative Party not because he loves it, but because it’s the only protection on offer from the monster raving loonies of Labour. His story is not my story, but it rhymes. I bet there are a lot of you who, like me, vote GOP with no enthusiasm; it’s only that the alternative is far worse. West says that even though the Tory party has won most of the elections in his lifetime, they have done little to nothing to stop Britain’s slide into progressivism — and in some cases even advanced it.

West says that the Tories face a generational wipeout:

The cohorts born after about 1975 and especially after 1990 tend to hold a range of views that will make it hard for the Tory Party to win their support, without abandoning their values to the point of meaninglessness. On most of the key identity issues, such as racial diversity, immigration, sexuality and gender, and (increasingly) our treatment of animals, there is a generational shift that dwarves anything seen before.

The causes are varied; the globalised digital economy and the rise of English has weakened nation-states; the decline of religion has made utilitarian arguments about bodily autonomy impossible to resist; increased urbanisation makes people more liberal; progressivism financially suits the ruling class in a way it never did previously, and because politics is much to do with status, others imitate them.

Such a generational shift has only happened twice before in European history; during the Reformation, and in the period when Christianity itself replaced polytheism. Just as with progressives in our own time, in the fourth century Christians had started off as a small, cranky minority, but had come to dominate the education system; they won because they were popular among the young, and especially young women, and were concentrated in cities where they could control institutions.

West says that the same thing is happening today: all of society’s institutions are controlled by the Left. More:

The problem is not just with institutional control; the most important comparison with the last days of Rome is in the control of taboos. Whoever owns society’s taboos comes to win, and Christians just believed with greater force that to blaspheme their God was an offence against public morals, while the polytheists had stopped caring to defend theirs. And the ancient world impiety was often viewed as a worse crime than murder.

Today it is progressives who own taboos, and those who offend the sacred ideas of race and sexual identity face the terror of being charged with impiety (or “cancelled”, to use the secular term). And if you don’t control society’s taboos, it doesn’t really matter how many elections you win — you won’t shape the future.

Read it all. 

Once again, let me urge readers interested in the historical comparison, and urge you in the strongest possible terms, to get a copy of historian Edward J. Watts’sThe Final Pagan Generation. It’s the story of the last generation of Roman elites born before Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the year 315. It might as well be the story of the Baby Boomers in American life: the last generation born when America was still identifiably Christian, before the great 1960s shift. In Watts’s account, the pagan elites of the fourth century did not see the civilizational shift coming. Nearly everything remained in place — pagan temples remained open, for example — but everything changed, because Roman civilization had lost the old religion. People just didn’t believe anymore.

Granted, the shift of imperial government into Christian hands played a very significant role here. Still, a tectonic civilizational shift like that — a culture abandoning the religion it had held for many centuries — does not happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen because the government said so. Christianity rushed into a void created by the breakdown of the old religion. Similarly, something is waiting to rush in to fill the void left by the breakdown of Christianity in the West. This accounts for wokeness. When God is dead in the hearts and minds of modern people, politics becomes deified.

The things Ed West points to in his column are why I wrote The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. I have been seized by a sense of mission to prepare the Church in the West to continue its life under adverse conditions — even persecution. Watts points out that members of the final pagan generation in Rome suffered from a failure of imagination: they simply could not imagine that the religion that had served Rome from time out of mind could expire. Reading Watts’s book is to think of Christian leaders (and Christian followers) today who are still living as if the faith will be here forever.

It won’t. Some form of religion will be here — even if it’s deified politics, as in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — because man is a religious creature who has to live with some connection to transcendence, even if he denies transcendence. But absent a miracle, it won’t be Christianity. The young have been raised in a world — and conditioned by institutions and popular culture — in which traditional Christianity at best makes little sense, and at worst seems bigoted. Here, from The Benedict Option, is what two prominent sociologists of religion found starting twenty years ago (!):

Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudo-religion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). MTD has five basic tenets:

• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better, but were still far from historic Biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying Biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”

MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness, and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.

As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, published in 2009, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18 to 23 year olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only forty percent of young Christians surveyed by Smith’s team said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are Biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms, but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

How does Christianity thrive in a world in which people believe that the point of life is to enjoy it, and to keep yourself from being tied down so that you can’t enjoy it? It doesn’t — at least not without hollowing itself out to the point of denying its core.

There are young people who are not satisfied with this. We are seeing them showing up now at our little Orthodox mission parish in Baton Rouge. All of them say, in one way or another, that they are looking for a faith that is rock-solid, and that is not going to change with the times. These people may never have read any of my books, but they are my audience. To live for Christ in the world now coming into being is going to require a dying to self the likes of which relatively few people in the West have had to do in the entire Christian era. But this is where we are. We didn’t choose to be born into the world at this time, but we have to do the best we can to be faithful within it.

As West says, the future belongs to who controls the taboos. Biblical Christianity is increasingly taboo in the West. It’s just getting started. This morning some folks on Twitter are making fun of this ridiculous Vox essay in which a self-described “queer, genderqueer atheist” whines because a new horror movie is not sufficiently mean to Christians, making the Exvangelical author feel unsafe. It should be widely mocked, this stupid piece of writing, with its grotesque anti-Christian bigotry. But keep in mind that Vox is a voice of the liberal elites, especially the young liberal elites. Reading the essay, I thought of something that the pseudonymous Ivy League law professor “Kingsfield” told me years ago: that the future of religious liberty in the US is in grave doubt because fewer and fewer people in legal elite circles believes in God, and has any experience of what it is like to be a religious believer. It is alien to them. It makes no sense. Therefore, according to Kingsfield, we can expect in the future judicial rulings that are hostile to religious belief and practice, simply because it strikes judges that religion is irrational and even hostile to socially positive values. Kingsfield stressed that the institutions that produce the nation’s senior jurists are filled with people who think atheism is normative.

Most Americans disagree, but religious believers do not control elite institutions. Regarding the future of the American republic, 15 million fervent Southern Baptists (for example) have less influence than the combined faculties of the Ivy League law schools. If young people want to join the elites, they will need to internalize elite taboos. I would love to see the Republican Party fighting back effectively against woke taboos, but in the end, I fear that it will capitulate, because the culture in which young Americans have been formed is all about instilling woke taboos. This is why I keep saying that we are not going to vote ourselves out of this crisis. We Christians had better learn how to adapt. Millennials and Generation Z are leaving religion, and probably aren’t coming back. They’re not becoming atheists, but rather are adopting DIY religion — a bricolage of a little this, a little that. The idea that a person can make it up as they go along, and that truth is entirely subjective, means the death of normative Christianity, even if the bricolage people identify as Christian. 

As with the Tory party in the UK, the Republicans here might manage to hold onto power simply by positioning themselves as less crazy than the Democrats. But their move leftward on cultural issues will be unstoppable, absent a rebirth of orthodox Christianity, or some other unforeseen event that shatters the worldview of Americans born after 1975. We Christians can hope and pray for that to happen … but unless we’re fools, we had better plan for a Dark Age.

By the way, read Ed West’s excellent memoir, Tory Boy: Memoirs of the Last Conservative, about growing up conservative in Britain. Here’s how it starts. American conservatives of a certain age will relate:

I’ve been meaning for a while to interview Ed West about this book. Need to get on it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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