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Resisting The Anti-Culture

Carl Trueman asks:

Is the culture war over? Or, to use less martial language, is Christian cultural engagement at an end? At the risk of depriving a rapidly shrinking handful of old-school Republicans and countless trendy Christian blog pundits of their reason to exist, I believe the answer is yes. It is over. For to engage a culture there must first be a culture to engage. And, as the ever-incisive Anthony Esolen has pointed out on numerous occasions we no longer have a culture. What we really have is an anti-culture.


Let’s face it: We now live in a world where refusing a man the right to expose himself in a woman’s toilet is enough to risk your city losing the right to host a football game. Even to suggest there might be a debate to be had about such a thing is enough to render one liable to accusations of irrational hatred and dismissal as a benighted bigot. Culture did not bring that about. Anti-culture did—the wholesale repudiation of the past and its institutions and interdicts, and a Devil-may-care attitude to the future. The anti-culture warriors of this present age have very long, very strong arms and—unfortunately for the coming generations—very short sight. Just think of the Talibanic fury recently released on university campuses against any vestige of the past which does not conform to the exacting morality of the present.

Christians need to wake up to this. We have no culture to engage, let alone transform. It is thus time to drop the hip rhetoric of cultural engagement and transformation that comforts us that we are part of some non-existent dialogue and that grants the world of our opponents a dignity which it simply does not deserve.

He says he’s not sure that the Benedict Option is the answer (because it’s still a work in progress), but says that one of its founding principles — that there is no longer any real relationship between Christian teaching and Western culture — precisely because there is no such thing as a culture of the West anymore.

How can Trueman say that? He’s working from sociologist Philip Rieff’s definition of culture. For Rieff, any culture is defined by its “thou shalt nots” — that is, the things it forbids. This tells the people within a certain culture what is sacred and what is taboo. Culture is “a pattern of moral demands, a range of standard self-expectations about what we may and may not do, in the face of infinite possibilities.” Different cultures have different standards of inhibition and release (all cultures must permit, however rarely, some form of release), but within particular cultures, those who are members of it know what is permitted and what is not without having to think about it all that much.

But now, says Rieff, we live in an “anti-culture” — that is, under a cultural system that cannot do what cultures are supposed to do: say what is forbidden. Modern Western culture is built on transgressing boundaries, on forbidding to forbid.

The center cannot hold because there is no center to be held.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice informed the state of North Carolina that HB2 violates federal civil rights law:

U.S. Justice Department officials repudiated North Carolina’s House Bill 2 on Wednesday, telling Gov. Pat McCrory that the law violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act and Title IX – a finding that could jeopardize billions in federal education funding.

The department gave state officials until Monday to respond “by confirming that the State will not comply with or implement HB2.”


Speaking to business leaders Wednesday night, McCrory called the letter “something we’ve never seen regarding Washington overreach in my lifetime.”

“This is no longer just a N.C. issue. This impacts every state, every university and almost every employee in the United States of America,” he said. “All those will have to comply with new definitions of requirements by the federal government regarding restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities in both the private and public sector.”

From the NYT:

The state measure, House Bill 2, known as HB2, was signed into law in March and says the bathroom a person uses is determined by his or her biological gender at birth. That requirement “is facially discriminatory against transgender employees” because it treats them differently from other employees, Ms. Gupta wrote.

Think about this: if your state does not allow biological men who assert that they are women to use the women’s room if they choose to, your state stands to lose all federal education monies, by order of this despicable national government. Gov. McCrory is right: this is no longer a North Carolina issue. And to think there are some people who still insist that this is only about bathrooms.

The violation, the unspeakable arrogance. Holding schoolchildren hostage to this perverse generation’s ideal of civil rights. Five years ago if you had said such an edict would come down from Washington, most people would not have believed it. Yet here we are.

Today the federal government says that states cannot forbid men from using the women’s room, and vice versa. Tomorrow it will mandate this in the public schools. And it will by no means stop there, not with this bunch, and certainly not with Hillary Clinton in the White House. It’s going to be one damn thing after another.

We no longer have a culture. We have chaos. And the people will accept it, because we have exchanged the culture we had for chaos, and we call it freedom.

I have never been the kind of conservative who thought of my government as a threat to me, my family, my faith, and my culture. That’s over.

It’s time to prepare for some very dark days. Those who still have a culture within them and their families and communities had better start digging in.

A reader writes:

In contemplating the political events of the last 24 hours and their implications, especially for evangelical Christians, I was drawn back to Philip Rieff’s work, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” I am not interested in Donald Trump the individual.  I am however, very interested in what makes Mr. Trump carry such symbolic weight for so many of my fellow citizens. I have no intention of antagonizing individual Trump supporters, nor of debating the relative merits of Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton; except to suggest that they are two sides to the same coin.

In assessing the nature of that “coin” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has put it well, “… the therapeutic sensibility [has replaced] justice with personal liberation – defined as pursuit of impulse, thus distorting politics by making people either overly political, aiming only at exertion of self interest through power, or apolitical, leaving the polity devoid of a binding public philosophy. In the absence of transcendent principle, … like the push for civil rights for African Americans…, all of social life, from the private to the political, becomes a sphere for self interested manipulation.” Clinton and Trump are merely different manifestations of this therapeutic culture, in which we are all at least partially complicit.

Cultures endure when their institutions embody common understandings of the good, that are all the more powerful for being implicit. There are perpetuated by certain forms of life in community, that have the power to bind and shape us far beyond mere argument. In this sense it is not the words of a written constitution written on paper, but the sentiments of an unwritten constitution written on the heart that matter most. The ascendance of the Clinton/Trump Hydra is prima facie evidence of the deformation of that unwritten constitution, and the emergence of an anti-culture.

The signs of the nature of this anti-culture are manifest in many places, but with Trump in view it may be useful to consider reality television as one particularly clear example. As Rieff himself put it:

“In the emergent culture, a wider range of people will have ‘spiritual concerns’ and engage in ‘spiritual’ pursuit … There will be more theater, not less, and no Puritan will denounce the stage and draw its curtains. On the contrary, I expect that modern society will mount psychodramas far more frequently than its ancestors mounted miracle plays, with patient-analysts acting out their inner lives, after which they could extemporize the final act as interpretation, We shall even institutionalize in the hospital-theater the Verfremdungseffekt [alienation as theatrical device], with the therapeutic triumphantly enacting his own discovered will.”

The ascent of Trump, from cartoon robber-barren, to reality TV patient-analyst, to political icon triumphantly enacting his own discovered will, seems to somehow mark a parallel descent toward a cultural breaking point.  To quote Rieff again on cultures that have reached this late stage:

“Its jurisdiction contracts; it demands less, permits more. Bread and circuses become confused with right and duty. Spectacle becomes a functional substitute for sacrament. Massive regressions occur, with large sections of the population returning to levels of destructive aggression historically accessible to it. At times of impending transition to a new moral order, symbolic forms and their institutional objectifications change their relative weight in that order. Competing symbolisms gather support in competing elites; they jostle each other for priority of place as the organizers of the next phase in the psycho-historical process.”

In a culture where our most basic symbols no longer signify, questions like, will “Obama Care” be repealed, what will trade and immigration policy look like, or even who will sit on the Supreme Court, are all matters of secondary concern. Something much more deeply pressing is before us – the fundamental decadence of our cultural moment is now dramatically apparent. As men like Jacques Barzun and C.E.M. Joad have well expressed, cultural decadence is best understood as a loss of unitive purpose. In an atmosphere of cultural drift, the core function of culture, to act in tandem with the state as a temporal remedy against the human inclination to devour one another, is called into question.

As Augustine understood, neither culture nor the state are redemptive, and so the weakening or even collapse of one or both can work no ultimate harm. But still, life in a diabolic culture and disordered state entails real physical and spiritual suffering both for ourselves and for our neighbors. Our obligation to seek the good of the City where God has placed us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, means that these effects can not be ignored.

The question of how best to go about loving our City and our neighbor is a vexing one. Of course we can only give what we have, and having lost touch with the deeper wisdom of our own traditions we evangelical Christians are unable to offer a distinctive voice within the Trump culture. Beset by moralistic therapeutic deism, our moral imaginations have atrophied.  A Jeremiah 6:16 ethic might serve as a remedy here: “Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” There is no more critical task that the re-catechizing of the faithful along these lines. But for this to occur, institutions with the means and authority to catechize must be protected from mounting legal and cultural threats that now beset them.

While Jeremiah 6:16 is inspiring, those who know their Bibles well will know that I cheated, quoting the verse only in part. As spoken by the Prophet it concludes, “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” And of course this is the way with men always and everywhere. We are broken and disordered, not inclined to choose aright; or as a wise man once told me, “dead men always choose death.” We must pray to be made alive so that we may choose life.

Whether Trump wins or loses, the Trump culture is ascendant. Whether in the person of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we will get the President we deserve. The question is what next. Anyone who thinks that politics provides the primary answer to that question, is missing the larger reality. And so to close with Rieff once again,

“Remissive motifs other than sexual have dominated earlier phases of the psycho-historical process, expressing the ideological breakup of great communities, but always at the same time preparing the ground for fresh internalizations of control. But the modern cultural revolution has built into itself a unique prophylaxis: it is deliberately not in the name of any new order of communal purpose that is taking place. On the contrary, this revolution is being fought for a permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands, in a world which can guarantee a plenitude produced without reference to the rigid maintenance of any particular interdictory (and counter-interdictory) system. This autonomy has been achieved by Western man from common and compelling mobilizations of motive. Stabilizing the present polytheism of values, there is the historic de- conversion experience of the therapeutic, proposing an infinity of means transformed into their own ends.

Interdictory systems are still deeply rooted within us, of course. A cultural revolution does not occur as a discernible event, or as a plurality of events, nor does it occur swiftly within a few years, as does a political revolution; only afterwards, when the revolution itself has been incorporated into the new system of controls, do such mythic condensations of cultural chance occur.”

Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be our next president. And we deserve them. As I say: Prepare. 

UPDATE: A reader sends this essay by Sam Gerrans, a Russian Muslim, and says, “A Russian Muslim understands what’s going on in our culture better than we do.” Yes. Excerpt:

Those familiar with the Hegelian dialectic will recognize the familiar ingredients – thesis and antithesis – as the set-up for the inevitable synthesis. What that synthesis will be, I can’t say, other than it will have nothing to do with what normal men and women normally want.

What I am sure of is that both the progressives and Sharia-touting Islamists are unwitting pawns in bringing that end about – and that both will continue to be useful to that small clique which decides social policy and declares war on those who wish to have sane, generative, enduring families.

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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