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Conservatives At The Maginot Line

A Maginot Line bunker. Conservative churches today are the culture war equivalent (Alainolympus/Getty Images)

Ezra Klein has an interesting piece up about what he rightly calls “the post-Christian culture wars.” Here’s how it begins:

Republicans control the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. They have 27 governorships and governing trifectas in 21 states. But many conservatives — particularly Christian conservatives — believe they’re being routed in the war that matters most: the post-Christian culture war. They see a diverse, secular left winning the future and preparing to eviscerate both Christian practice and traditional mores. And they see themselves as woefully unprepared to respond with the ruthlessness that the moment requires.

Enter Donald Trump. Whatever Trump’s moral failings, he’s a street fighter suited for an era of political combat. Christian conservatives believe — rightly or wrongly — that they’ve been held back by their sense of righteousness, grace, and gentility, with disastrous results. Trump operates without restraint. He is the enemy they believe the secular deserve, and perhaps unfortunately, the champion they need. Understanding this dynamic is crucial to understanding the psychology that attracts establishment Republicans to Trump, and convinces them that his offense is their best defense.

I think this is a mostly accurate description of how many conservative Christians see it, but not all Christian conservatives. Personally, I reject the “ruthlessness” idea. Some Christians do see it that way, but in my case, I would leave it at “woefully unprepared to respond,” period. Maybe we’re just arguing over semantics here — a liberal’s idea of “ruthlessness” might simply be a conservative’s idea of meeting a challenge with appropriate and reasonable force — but I have never liked the “at least he fights” defense of Trump from my fellow conservative Christians. Aside from that being a rationalization for behavior they would never accept from people they’ve invited into their own homes, it’s also true that Trump’s “fighting” is mostly performative. What has he actually achieved on the social conservative front that we wouldn’t have gotten from ordinary Republicans? I think of Trump as mostly theatrical in his “fighting.” He’s a “fighter” for an age when people think that pissing off their opponents, especially on social media, is somehow advancing the cause.

If Donald Trump were a skilled political fighter, he would be Viktor Orban: hated by the Left, but effective. For better or for worse, he’s not. Still, he’s all Christians like me have. I know for a fact that in 2015, the Republican Party had no plans at all for religious liberty legislation to give even the flimsiest shield for religious conservatives in the wake of Obergefell. I know because I asked them, and was told that they didn’t. I wrote about this in The Benedict Option. Mind you, aside from appointing Federalist Society-selected judges — for which I’m grateful, but which any GOP president would have done — I don’t really see that Trump has substantively advocated our cause. Still, as I’ve been writing here for a while, the fact that Trump doesn’t actively despise us, and want to surrender the religious liberty cause to the Left, really does matter. After Trump goes, whether it’s in 2021 or 2025, I expect the Republican Party to fall all over itself to appease liberals on LGBT matters, no doubt for the same reasons that Chick-fil-A capitulated from a position of strength.

Anyway, all of this is very familiar to this blog’s readers. I do encourage you to read Klein’s entire piece,because he points out data showing that conservative Christians really do have reason to be panicked. Our numbers are declining, both relatively and absolutely, and the younger generation is particularly alienated. We’re all familiar with this point:

The irony of all this is that Christian conservatives are likely hastening the future they most fear. In our conversation, Jones told me about a 2006 survey of 16- to 29-year-olds by the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, that asked 16- to 29-year-olds for their top three associations with present-day Christianity. Being “antigay” was first, with 91 percent, followed by “judgmental,” with 87 percent, and “hypocritical,” with 85 percent. Christianity, the Barna Group concluded, has “a branding problem.”

It seems unlikely that that branding problem will be fixed by a tighter alliance with Trump, who polls at 31 percent among millennials and 29 percent among Generation Z. If young people are abandoning Christianity because it seems intolerant, judgmental, and hypocritical — well, intolerant, judgmental, and hypocritical is the core of Trump’s personal brand.

Sure, I get that. I’m sure the numbers are even worse for Christians than they were in the 2006 survey. Here’s the thing: leaving aside the doctrinal question (that is, for Christianity to liberalize on homosexuality would require a massive betrayal of its teaching), doing so doesn’t actually help you bring young people to church. All US churches are declining, but the liberal ones are declining the fastest. I have a theory for why this is, but it’s enough to point out that liberalizing on sexual matters as part of a strategy to end decline does not work.

The truth is, America is becoming more secular, with the young especially having little to no interest in institutional religion. That’s bad news for both liberal and conservative churches — but conservative churches will have to endure the spite of the public, and, almost certainly at some point in the years to come, will feel the heavy hand of the state come against them for their unpopular social and moral teachings.

Here’s the point: Christian conservatives who feel panicked and besieged aren’t imagining the threat! The threat is real. In his piece, Klein quotes Rich Lowry, originally a Never Trumper, saying that Trump is bad on some things, good on others, but at the end of the day, it comes down to him or one of the Democrats, who opposes conservatives on everything.

However you get around to supporting Trump — whether you do so enthusiastically, or have to be dragged kicking and screaming, or somewhere in the middle — most conservatives are going to find themselves there, because they are afraid of the Democrats. I didn’t like Bill Clinton, but I didn’t feel that his presidency would be a serious threat to people like me. Same deal if Al Gore had won. I actually liked Barack Obama, and wanted to vote for him, but couldn’t because of abortion. Still, I wasn’t afraid of him.

But sometime after 2011, our politics changed. Social Justice Warriors, in substance and style, began their rise. And the falling-away of the young from Christianity — a trend that began in 1991-92 — became much more pronounced. So,, we find ourselves in a situation whose dynamics bring to mind the relationship of Syria’s Christian communities to the Assad regime. They may not like him or approve of the way he conducts his leadership, but they know that should he go, those who replace him will show them no mercy.

Klein writes:

This form of Flight 93ism is more widespread on the right than liberals recognize, and it both authentically motivates some establishment Republicans to enthusiastically embrace Trump, and creates coalitional dynamics by which other Republicans feel they have no choice but to defend Trump against the left. Some protect Trump on the merits, others protect Trump as a form of anti-anti-Trumpism, and others protect Trump as a way of protecting their future careers. But all of them protect Trump as a way of protecting themselves, and a future they feel slipping away.

I am probably the most gloomy of the pundits who take these positions. I really don’t believe that politics can save us from the collapse of Christianity. The best politics can do is hold open a space for us to run our institutions and educate our kids. It might be able to protect us in some ways, as with professional licensing, to prevent discrimination. I certainly hope that the post-Trump GOP does this, but I don’t put trust in them. I am grateful for David French-style legal activism to work the First Amendment for all its worth, and I see the value in it, even if Team Ahmari may not. But I don’t think it will be sufficient in the long run. I don’t see a workable Sohrab Ahmari style plan for fighting, but I’m eager to listen to strategists, and do what they say if it seems like it might be effective and morally sound. So far, I don’t see any plans, but at least Ahmari understands that returning to a Republican politics as usual is only going to amount to negotiating the terms of our total surrender. My dim hope is that Republicans will hold the White House and Senate long enough to get as many conservative judges as possible onto the bench — at SCOTUS and throughout the federal judiciary — before the inevitable progressive deluge.

The thing is, the timidity of conservative Christians is a big part of it too. As I wrote earlier today, gay activists in a Michigan parish are trying to get the priest kicked out because he refused communion to an openly gay lesbian who is married to a woman. The activists have no problem going public, even on television, with their demands. But none of the supporters of the priest in the parish dared to show their face on camera. I get that — they don’t want to be identified as “haters”. But that cowardice has a lot to do with why conservatives are losing this fight, and will lose this fight. If we have nothing to be ashamed of, then why do we act like it? Why do we conservatives expect leaders — priests, politicians, and whatnot — to take controversial, costly public stands when we won’t do it ourselves?

Nevertheless, if liberals like Klein really want to understand why many Christian conservatives are in permanent “Flight 93” mode, they should ask themselves why it is that Catholics in that parish are afraid to take a public stand in support of their priest. What is it about the nature of progressive activism these days that intimidates Christian conservatives? The answer is that ordinary Christian conservatives know that LGBT-backing progressives will attempt to destroy them personally and professionally for dissenting from the party line. From a strictly Machiavellian point of view, progressives have achieved results through these intimidating tactics. But they should not pretend that there’s no rational explanation for Flight 93ism.

Finally, I know that there is genuine befuddlement among liberals about why conservative Christians make such a big deal about LGBT. I have seen almost no effort at all, certainly not by the media, to understand why this is such a big deal theologically for conservative Christians. I am often reminded of a conversation I had back in the mid-2000s with a Dallas Morning News colleague, over our paper’s coverage of gay rights. I was complaining about its overwhelmingly pro-LGBT bias, and how there was no sense of balance to the coverage, and little if any attempt to explain why social and religious conservatives hold the beliefs that we do. My colleague said, quite sincerely, “If we were covering the Civil Rights movement, do you think we would owe equal time to the Ku Klux Klan?”

This colleague wasn’t trolling me. He honestly believed that to oppose gay marriage was to be the contemporary equivalent of a Klansman. I didn’t poll the newsroom, of course, but I would have bet back then that that view was common there. You can certainly see it in the way the Michigan reporter on the priest controversy there frames the story (he begins by saying that parish was at the forefront of racial integration in the 1960s, but now it’s taking a step backwards on inclusion).

For the record, and briefly, the main theological reasons conservative Christians find homosexuality to be sinful have to do with 1) Scripture’s clear and unambiguous prohibition of it, and 2) more deeply, the impossibility of reconciling homosexuality with Biblical anthropology, and what the Bible teaches about the meaning of sex. Obviously there is a lot more to it than this, but these are at the core of the objections. We small-o orthodox Christians do not believe we are at liberty to deny these teachings, even if the world expects us to, and even if it would make our lives a lot easier in contemporary America if we yielded on them.

It is certainly the case that the battle was lost when the churches failed to catechize and form their flocks about how Christianity cannot be reconciled with the Sexual Revolution. Gay marriage was such a successful campaign because it built on what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. That said, having lost the culture war on this, if we orthodox Christians were to change our beliefs on sexuality to suit the world’s view, we would be surrendering things we cannot afford to surrender. The sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff predicted in the 1960s that Christianity would not likely survive in a society that normalizes sexual permissiveness, as ours was at the time starting to do. To cite my “Sex After Christianity” essay from 2013:

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

As the theologian Carl Trueman wrote earlier this year in a terrific essay on Rieff, we Christians who oppose the LGBT movement (and the Sexual Revolution of which it is a part) are not even having the same kind of argument that liberals think we are. Trueman writes about Rieff’s “three worlds” categorization:

In Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff offers a historical scheme for categorizing cultures in light of these basic insights. Rieff calls these First, Second, and Third World cultures. First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.

Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.

Third Worlds are characterized by their repudiation of any sacred order. There is nothing in a Third World beyond this world by which culture can be justified. The implications of this are, according to Rieff, comprehensive and catastrophic. First, because of their rejection of a sacred order, Third World cultures face an unprecedented challenge: that of justifying themselves on the basis of themselves. No culture in history, Rieff notes, has ever done this successfully. It is a fool’s errand that ends in cultural collapse:

No culture in history has sustained itself merely as a culture, however attractive and authoritative. Cultures are dependent on their predicative sacred orders and break into mere residues whenever their predicates are broken. That is the main reason why our late second cultures and early thirds are increasingly unstable.

The Sexual Revolution was, in Rieff’s midcentury view, a more consequential revolution than the Bolshevik one — an observation that both the collapse of Communism and the collapse of the sexually complementary model of marriage after at least two millennia has vindicated. The normalization of LGBT, which is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution’s premises, means the overthrow of sacred Christian order. That’s what’s at stake here. Christians who think they can have gay marriage and retain Christianity over time are lying to themselves in the same way that Christians who thought, and who do think, that they can reconcile the faith with the Sexual Revolution are lying to themselves (as are Christian leaders who think that they can reverse the decline in their churches by capitulating to the Sexual Revolution). Sex is an inextricable part of the cosmic order within Christian thought, and therefore of the social order. Have most ordinary Christians thought through it this deeply? Of course not. But that does not mean that their instincts are wrong.

Second, we orthodox Christians have to make a big deal of this because the culture has made such a big deal of it. I mean, for pity’s sake, a Catholic priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, phoned an out lesbian, married judge and gay activists and told her not to present herself for communion — and that story leads the late local news! And it’s conservatives who are making too big a deal about this? The refusal of some conservative Christians to affirm — not just to tolerate, but to affirm — the LGBT agenda is considered today to be intolerable. Liberals tell themselves that we conservative church people are making too big a deal over something relatively inconsequential, but in fact it is they who have made affirming homosexuality the Holy of Holies. No Christian churches, charities, or schools are coming under intense legal, political, and cultural attack over standing up for traditional Christian teaching against greed, wrath, and other vices. It is only because they hold their ground on vices that the post-Christian world has turned into a virtue.

A reader the other day came up with a clever formulation regarding the doublespeak LGBT activists to over pronouns. He calls it “Schrödinger’s Pronoun,” a reference to the famous Schrödinger’s cat case in quantum theory. In the cat example, you don’t know if a cat in a box is alive or dead until you open the box and observe it, and, under the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, the cat’s life or death doesn’t resolve itself until it is observed. Schrödinger used this admittedly absurd example to illustrate how in quantum theory, light is both a particle and a wave until it is observed, and it became one or the other. The point of Schrödinger’s Pronoun is that among LGBT activists, their demands are either trivial, and ought to be met without fuss, or they are the most important thing in the world, and satisfying them is of enormous cultural importance. It all depends on which characterization advances the goal.

Liberals don’t understand the Schrödinger’s Pronoun aspect of their LGBT advocacy. In the Michigan Catholic case, they are demanding that the parish priest symbolically overturn Catholic teaching on homosexuality, marriage, and the meaning of the Eucharist. That’s a pretty big ask. But they’re presenting it as if it were simply a matter of courtesy and compassion.

If, like me, you’ve been watching the cultural politics (and politics politics) of the LGBT issue over the past 20 years, you know that Schrödinger’s Pronoun is standard operating procedure for activists. The essential uncertainty of what is going to happen next, given that LGBT activists control all the cultural high ground, and whether or not Christians will be publicly demonized for their beliefs, causes fear. Perhaps older Christian conservatives observe that this twenty-year campaign to demonize traditional Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality has conquered the minds of their children, who now see their parents and grandparents as haters, simply for believing what has always been taught and believed by the churches. They have seen how the broader culture has poisoned the minds of the young against the faith and the older generations that hold the faith. Perhaps they have absorbed the lesson that liberals will stop at nothing to destroy any form of the Christian faith that refuses to give them what they want with regard to gay rights, sexuality in general, and, to a lesser extent, abortion.

Perhaps, as I told Ezra Klein in a podcast interview (which he quotes in his piece), conservative Christians understand that we have lost the culture war, but the Left is determined to keep dropping bombs on us, just to see the rubble bounce and humiliate us.

That being the case, it should come as no surprise at all that there are quite a few conservative, traditional Christians who hold to a Flight 93 view on politics. What else are we supposed to do? Lie down and die? Trump might be crazy, but that doesn’t mean that supporting him is insane.

The pity of it is that the real power is cultural power, and that is all on the Left. Eventually our politics will reflect that. The best we conservatives can hope for is to create legal barriers to the attacks on our institutions. Survival is the prime directive now. Laying the cultural groundwork for a renaissance is going to take a lot of time, patience, and discipline. (This is the Benedict Option.) Conservative Christians who, in this post-Christian culture war, put most of their faith in politics, are like French generals who believed that the Maginot Line would stop the Germans.

UPDATE: Just a note to the regular liberal commenters, to say that I will not be approving your knee-jerk trolling, not on this post. If you have any substantive criticism or commentary, I welcome it. But you can save your efforts if all you have to say is “bigots!” or “whatabout…”.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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