As recently as two years ago I was a very outspoken agnostic liberal. I hope I wasn’t as obnoxious as the SJWs are today but maybe I was, in retrospect. I did a lot of sneering.
I’d become a liberal as a young man in the city (Pittsburgh), living on my own making a pittance as a newspaper reporter and working nights as a waiter. Some months I had trouble paying the electric bill, even though I’d go 3 or 4 weeks straight without a day off. And I distinctly remember covering one of those “yellow ribbon” rallies for the first Gulf War, where one speaker got up on stage and basically said that if you don’t support the war, you’re hurting the troops. In effect, they were dying for your freedom, so you should refrain from exercising too much freedom of speech.
And there really was a sneering coming from the ascendent religious right at the time. A holier-than-thou attitude, that they were somehow superior citizens, superior Americans, as a result of their faith, which obviously made them more moral than the rest of us. I detested that attitude.
Call these signposts ore mile markers on my way to liberalism.
But in more recent years, there have been many signposts on my way back to conservatism, signposts that I didn’t really recognize as such at first, though I do now.
The first came when my wife was pregnant with our youngest son, in 2009. At six months, a routine ultrasound turned up something that looked like a significant deformity; it appeared as if his spinal cord was split around a piece of bone in his back, then “tethered” to another piece of bone. On the basis of this we went for more testing a major metro children’s hospital; the worst-case scenario was that he might not walk and could have neurological damage.
One of the doctors we saw, an orthopedist, I think, said something along the lines of – “Well, you’ll be having an abortion then.” Not so much a question, but a statement; virtually all middle-class parents in our situation get an abortion.
I was offended, even angry. I’d always been pro-choice, but all I could think at that moment was, this isn’t some clump of cells, this isn’t some mere deformity – this is my son. And I wondered who could or would abort in that situation.
For as it turned out, the initial scans were wrong. More intensive testing revealed our son simply had a curvature of the spine, scoliosis, and at age 6 he’s happy and fine.
The whole situation rocked my view on abortion.
Then gay marriage. I argued strenuously in favor of it, saying – and believing – that if families are the essential building block of society, why would we want to prohibit people who love one another from making a legal commitment to one another? But shortly after the court rules, I saw this article in the Daily Beast which in effect admitted that gay marriage had been a Trojan horse all along:
According to a 2013 study, about half of gay marriages surveyed (admittedly, the study was conducted in San Francisco) were not strictly monogamous.
This fact is well-known in the gay community—indeed, we assume it’s more like three-quarters. But it’s been fascinating to see how my straight friends react to it. Some feel they’ve been duped: They were fighting for marriage equality, not marriage redefinition. Others feel downright envious, as if gays are getting a better deal, one that wouldn’t work for straight couples. …
What would happen if gay non-monogamy—and I’ll include writer Dan Savage’s “monogamish” model, which involves extramarital sex once a year or so—actually starts to spread to straight people? Would open marriages, ’70s swinger parties, and perhaps even another era’s “arrangements” and “understandings” become more prevalent? Is non-monogamy one of the things same-sex marriage can teach straight ones, along with egalitarian chores and matching towel sets?
And what about those post-racial and post-gender millennials? What happens when a queer-identified, mostly-heterosexual woman with plenty of LGBT friends gets married? Do we really think that because she is “from Venus,” she will be interested in a heteronormative, sex-negative, patriarchal system of partnership?
The title of the piece was “Were conservative Christians right about gay marriage all along?” And the writer’s answer is clearly “yes” – in your face, all you people who thought the issue was about equality.
I did indeed feel duped – and angry. It was another signpost on the road to conservatism.
Then social justice warriors became a thing. I saw my liberal Facebook friends trying to outdo one another with their virtue signaling. Long-time white friends posting about how all white people need to check their privilege and examine their souls, because all of us were guilty of the sin of racism on some level, and we must atone for it.
Give me a break. This wasn’t just a signpost, it was the exit sign.
But, it occurred to me they were preaching – this is the new fundamentalism; they sneer, they flaunt a smarmy self-proclaimed sense of moral superiority just as the fundamentalists of the Bush era did. I detested it then – and I detest it now.
And it occurred to me at some point that as a 23-year married father of three, I have far, far more in common with religious conservatives than I realized. It benefits my kids to live in neighborhoods amongst people who value stable family relationships as we do, who teach their kids prudence and self-control and the value of deferred gratification. It benefits my kids to believe in something greater than themselves and their own pleasure.
The one place I haven’t gotten to is belief itself. I can’t shake my agnosticism. But I have come to realize how bad an idea it is for my agnosticism to be an organizing force in society, because frankly it isn’t that. The ethos of “do whatever you like” means no community consensus. Radical individuality destroys any sense of shared purpose.
Liberalism as it’s currently practiced yields only divisiveness and moral preening. And like your writer, I want something better for my kids – and for myself.
There are more like this. I chose this one because I put myself in the place of that man, looking at my six year old son, realizing that this boy wouldn’t exist if he lived by the ethic of prominent liberals like Lena “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had” Dunham.
I received this follow-up e-mail from the California woman, who writes:
I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments and prayers(!). Wow. Thank you all for making me feel much less alone.
To briefly address two points that have come up in the comments:
Yes, it’s true – days after the election, I was on Art.com looking for some tasteful “flag art” for the living room. The idea was to surround it with photos of family, some of whom immigrated to the U.S., as if to say: “We are proud and grateful to be Americans! Our multi-ethnic family story is an American story.” This may seem a bit much, but after January 20 a lot of folks I know will be officially “embarrassed to be American.” (I’ve seen this movie before, which played from 2000-2008.) So yeah, we may be getting a flag.
Getting off Facebook – Great idea, as election-year Facebook has caused me a lot of distress. I have culled my friend list and aggressively unfollowed people in an effort to spare myself. Still, it’s a morbidly fascinating window into what the people around me really think. Friendly, pleasant people say things on FB that make you realize they’re actually not that nice, but part of a self-righteous virtual mob who would despise you if they knew you better. So in a strange way, Facebook has hastened my setting out on a new and better path.
I was planning to write her privately today, but fate — in the form of having to spend all afternoon dealing with the insurance company and the body shop — intervened. One thing I intended to say is to caution her not to replace one set of closed-minded, self-righteous people with another. Not all secular liberals are like the nasty people she’s running away from, and not all Christian conservatives are kind and generous. I think it’s very hard for many liberals to imagine that more than a few of the people who share their views are as awful as the California woman says she experiences. Believe me, they are. For example, over the years, in e-mails and comments from conservative professors on college campuses, I’ve heard the worst.
On the other hand, in places where conservatives — including Christian conservatives — gather in large numbers, you can find the same kind of self-righteous and intolerance. Not everywhere! Just as not all college campuses are hives of nasty liberals, neither are all conservative churches similarly awful. This ought to be obvious, but it still needs saying. You have to be careful and discerning. Your new community is bound to disappoint you at some point. The wisest way to approach them is the same way J.R.R. Tolkien told his son to think of women: not as “guiding stars” but as “companions in shipwreck.”
Unsurprisingly, the reader’s letter prompted some defensive responses by liberal readers who feel unfairly disparaged. Rather than get sidetracked on a tit-for-tat over who’s more repulsive, strident liberals or strident conservatives, it’s more interesting to consider this philosophical point in the California reader’s letter.
This may be obvious to you, but secular liberalism does seem empty in some way, despite all the things my educated, middle-class tribe has to be grateful for. If that’s what’s been handed down to me, I want more, especially for my precious kids. I’m trying.
I’m interested in that “in some way.” What do you think that “way” is? It’s the absence of a strong sense of transcendent meaning, of purpose, and of stable order outside of the self’s desires. At some point, you may ask yourself, “What’s this all for, anyway?” The answer of secular liberalism is that it’s not “for” anything, other than what you want it to be for. It’s for expanding personal autonomy. Is that really enough, though? What is all that freedom for? Does it have to be for anything?
Yes. There is something about human nature that craves meaning and transcendence. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Dante, in the Inferno, introduces us to a cast of characters who all made gods of their passions. Kierkegaard considered the “aesthetic” mode of life — in which the Self dedicates itself only to fulfilling desire — to be shallow and unsatisfying. And it is.
Kierkegaard also taught that the “ethical” mode of life — following the rules and being a conformist — to be superior to the purely aesthetic, because it at least put duty to others and to some moral code outside of oneself above a life lived by ungoverned passions. But this too was unsatisfying. There is something inside of us that can’t find satisfaction in merely following the rules, however reasonable and socially beneficial those rules may be.
The California reader looks at her tribe and sees them living in both the aesthetic and ethical modes (because few of us are purely aesthetic or purely ethical), and she feels despair — defined by Kierkegaard as the self experiencing the tension between the finite and the infinite. In more ordinary language, she’s thinking, “Is this all there is? To be like these people, conforming to their standards, finding a purpose for life in acquiring goods, experiences, and status, and in hating the ‘right’ people? Is that the good life?”
No, it’s not the good life. It’s not even a good life. Kierkegaard is right, Dante is right, and Augustine is right: our hearts are restless until the rest in God.
But here’s the thing: you can be a professing conservative Christian and be just as lost as the secular liberals that sent that reader running away. Ask Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who recently explained what caused his own crisis of faith as a young man:
The cultural Christianity around me seemed increasingly artificial and cynical and even violent. I saw some Christians who preached against profanity use jarring racial epithets. I saw a cultural Christianity that preached hellfire and brimstone about sexual immorality and cultural decadence. And yet, in the church where the major tither was having an affair everyone in the community knew about, there he was, in our neighbor congregation’s “special music” time, singing “If It Wasn’t for That Lighthouse, Where Would This Ship Be?” I saw a cultural Christianity with preachers who often gained audiences, locally in church meetings or globally on television, by saying crazy and buffoonish things, simply to stir up the base and to gain attention from the world, whether that was claiming to know why God sent hurricanes and terrorist attacks or claiming that American founders, one of whom possibly impregnated his own human slaves and literally cut the New Testament apart, were orthodox, Evangelical Christians who, like us, stood up for traditional family values.
I saw a cultural Christianity cut off from the deep theology of the Bible and enamored with books and audio and sermon series tying current events to Bible prophecy—supermarket scanners as the mark of the Beast, Gog and Magog as the Soviet Union or, later, Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda or the Islamic State as direct fulfillments of Bible prophecy. When these prophecies were not fulfilled, these teachers never retreated in shame. They waited to claim a new word from God and sold more products, whether books or emergency preparation kits for the Y2K global shutdown and the resulting dark age the Bible clearly told us would happen.
And then there were the voter guides. A religious right activist group from Washington placed them in our church’s vestibule, outlining the Christian position on issues. Even as a teenager, I could recognize that the issues just happened to be the same as the talking points of the Republican National Committee. With many of these issues, there did seem to be a clear Christian position—on the abortion of unborn children, for instance, and on the need to stabilize families. But why was there a “Christian” position on congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, and the line item veto? Why was there no word on racial justice and unity for those of us in the historical shadow of Jim Crow?
I was left with the increasingly cynical feeling—an existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world—that Christianity was just a means to an end. My faith was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience. I was ready to escape—and I did. But I didn’t flee the way so many have, through the back door of the Church into secularism. I found a wardrobe in a spare room that delivered me from the Bible Belt back to where I started, to the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
An existential threat to my entire sense of myself and the world … that Christianity was just a means to an end. This, from a young man immersed in a conservative Christian world. Mind you, Moore has elsewhere written about the deep love and gratitude he has for the gifts his congregation gave him as a child. The point is that a truly Christian life is not about baptizing conformity with worldly customs (e.g, being Southern white middle class Christians at prayer, or north Californian white middle class Christians at prayer), but entering on a pilgrimage towards unity with God, and experiencing Him in transformative ways in our daily lives. We might be blessed by a numinous encounter with God, but the ordinary way for people to encounter Him is through created things — mostly through people, each of whom bears His image, however disfigured.
This post is becoming more theological than I intended, so I’ll stop here. What I want to say is that we have to be careful not to make false idols of causes, of the church, of people, or of anything else. Only God is God; all creation only reflects Him (in some places more than others) and points back to Him. My hope and prayer for the California reader would be that she be grateful for her new church community, certainly, but that she realize that they are all fellow companions in shipwreck, pilgrims on the way — and only that, no more or no less.