One common rhetorical reflex of progressives is the idea that conservatives, and only conservatives, wage culture war. What they mean — whether they realize it or not — is that conservatives have the nerve to say “no” to whatever progressives propose today. If conservatives wage culture war, it is usually (but not always) a defensive one.
Samuel James takes issue with David Brooks’s idea that because social conservatives have lost the culture war over the Sexual Revolution, they ought to make peace with this fact and change their focus. Brooks wrote in a post-Obergefell column last summer:
Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.
Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.
We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.
The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.
Those are beautiful words, meant sincerely. David is one of the most irenic and good-hearted people I know.
Here’s why he’s wrong, according to Samuel James:
I wrote shortly after this op-ed appeared that, though its appeal to a holistic kind of conservatism was well-intended, it ultimately presented a false choice. Conservatism in its very essence–especially religious conservatism–is about how to preserve good things from humanity’s inherent sinfulness. Because human sin and selfishness cannot be confined only to politics or sex, it’s impossible to cede the ground of human flourishing in one area in order to gain it another. Human nature just doesn’t work like that, thus, conservatism cannot either.
I had no way of knowing how well the Obama administration would prove my point.
James talks about how the administration, through its Title IX overreach, is forcing a radical view down the throats of the entire nation, with no debate. Even Michael Wear, who worked for the Obama White House as its faith outreach coordinator, was shocked:
It is astounding how quickly this is moving without an actual national conversation on the issue. https://t.co/CQjNuovE3Y
— Michael Wear (@MichaelRWear) May 13, 2016
Brooks urges conservatives to spend their time on the “fragmentation of society” rather than the definition of marriage and family, but he misses the fact that such fragmentation begins with wrong ideas about those very things.
It is of course possible to believe in traditional things and yet live a broken, fragmented life. That’s why the partisan elements of the culture war are so deceptive. But this doesn’t mean that such belief is inconsequential or a mute partner to more “practical” life. What we call the “culture war” matters not just in the voting booth but in our daily perception of the world around us, a fact that the Obama administration clearly understands.
Of course James is right. I’ve been working this afternoon on finishing the Politics chapter of my forthcoming Benedict Option book, and I’ve been thinking about the distinction Aristotle made between a good citizen and a good man. Ideally, there is no distinction, but as utopia is impossible, we cannot live up to that ideal. The best we can hope for is to maintain a tolerable, peaceable distance between the two categories, always striving to make the public square more virtuous. But for Christians, our liberal democracy has made that gap into a chasm. It’s not only about sex, but sex is at the heart of it.
If you want my longer take on it, read my essay “Sex After Christianity”. In short, what we think about sex and sexuality goes much, much deeper than our opinion of body parts, geography, and pleasant friction. In his own post-Obergefell essay last year, Prof. Dale Kuehne prophetically anticipated this year’s developments, and explained why it matters:
By the time [Obergefell] came, the same-sex marriage debate was no longer about sex and had very little to do with marriage. Rather it was anchored in a redefinition of human identity itself. In the new world order, it is the individual, not biology or God, who determines identity. We are now “selves” of an increasing number of varieties and we are decreasingly male or female in a biologically meaningful sense. One day soon people will cease to use “same-sex” as adjectives for marriage. Every marriage will be the same: Selves who take vows. Two selves. Perhaps even three selves or more.
Moreover, “selves” won’t be limited to human relationships. Professor Sherry Turkle from MIT has written of the question of marriage to a robot. Marriage with animals is tomorrow as well, because it is already today in some places.
Accordingly, tomorrow’s political headlines will be of two variants. One variant are headlines that announce the expansion of the rights of transgender people as well as those whose identity goes beyond gender. Transgender is the next civil rights movement. The second set of headlines will concern the issue of religious freedom for churches and religious institutions whose views on traditionally-accepted morality are deemed discriminatory to “selves.”
What you think about sex ultimately has to do with what you think constitutes human identity. This is not something that any orthodox Christian can compromise on. Brooks writes, to Christians:
Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex.
This has about it a whiff of “just burn the pinch of incense to Caesar, and get on with the rest of living out your wonderful faith.” For one thing, the Bible — both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament — makes a big deal about sexual morality, and that, as Quaker Sarah Ruden has shown in her fantastic, must-read book, one of the big attractions of early Christianity to the poor in the Greco-Roman world was how it gave them and their bodies dignity, and rescued them from the sexual degradation and exploitation foisted upon them by the ruling classes. But for another, deeper reason, the meaning of the human person, in the Christian worldview, is inextricably bound with sex and sexuality.
All Christian churches are in decline, but there is a good reason why the churches that embrace the Sexual Revolution are dying much faster. Sexually progressive Christianity is at best the last stop before apostasy. Maintaining Biblical sexual morality is non-negotiable for orthodox Christians — who, it must be conceded, have done a generally terrible job of countering the culture’s hedonistic catechism on this front. And, as James points out, the “culture war” touches every part of our lives.
Here are two examples from today. In the first, I was talking with a friend in Baton Rouge this morning about the Title IX thing. My friend said he went to a funeral in a small town south of Baton Rouge the other day, and was shocked to see that the funeral home had taped homemade signs over the men’s and women’s bathroom doors. The signs read: “UNISEX”.
“In Gonzales, Louisiana!” said my friend, still shocked. I was shocked too. Nobody is making them do this at a funeral home in Gonzales. They’re breathing it in the cultural air.
Another example is two comments by readers on the “NYC Hits Peak Gender Idiocy” post. The first is from reader Gerbby:
A lot of readers here seem to think Rod exaggerating on the trans issue. As a millennial who recently left liberalism, I assure you, he is not. I too used to think that transgender identity was caused by some rare medical condition.
An important piece of the puzzle is that the number of people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria has skyrocketed. I don’t think there are any official numbers for the United States, but in Britain it has gone up 900% in the past 5 years. (source:http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-35532491 )
It is hard for me to see this as anything but a cultural phenomenon. Alienated young people believe that changing their gender presentation will solve their loneliness and depression. Being part of the transgender community gives people a sense of purpose and belonging that is lacking for most of us in secular society.
There are transgender people who are also alarmed by the rapid increase in transitioners, and are wondering themselves what role social media and culture is playing in this trend. But the way the demographics work out, they are far in the minority.
The second is by reader PLJ, in response to above:
Gerbby, you’re on to something. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon watching my daughter navigate from junior high to high school.
There’s nothing quite like having your 12-year-old come home from school and start ticking off which of her classmates are “bi”. I told my daughter it was statistically impossible for there to be that many bisexual students in her class, and that for most girls (and they all were girls), 7th grade was entirely too early to make pronouncements on their sexuality. In return I got a lot of babble about gender being fluid and non-binary.
I called a friend with another 7th-grader and asked her what the hell was going on. “Where have you been?” she laughed. “At least a third of the girls are calling themselves ‘bi’”. Man, did I loathe that 7th-grade year.
Adolescents want to feel unique and special without having to accomplish or earn anything unique and special. It’s just that stage of life. Now, thanks to SJW megaphones like Tumblr, they can declare themselves any one of a growing array of gender identities and BOOM! They’re unique and special. Moreover, they’re victimized, which really takes the unique and special to a whole ‘nother level.
The culture celebrates victims simply for existing as victims. Even our schools partake in it. Every year, my kids’ school hosts a Challenge Day program — six hours in the gym with 100+ of your classmates with no breaks. Six hours of “exercises” designed to “break down facades” and get students to reveal their “true selves”. Adults asking kids if they — or anyone they know — has ever been the victim of racism, homophobia, abuse. Adults handing twelve-year-olds a microphone and asking them to complete the sentence: “If you really knew me, you’d know that I . . . ” Disclose pain and victimization to a gym-ful of your peers? You get a gym-ful of applause. What a great lesson for the most narcissistic generation yet.
We didn’t allow our kids to participate. In a class of nearly 400, our kids were the only 2 to opt out. They sat in the library all day. The bus ride home had a few sobbing girls, but they couldn’t talk about Challenge Day — that would break the “trust”. Nope. Nothing creepy there.
Now, I’m not suggesting things like Tumblr or Challenge Day are going to actually cause transgenderism. I believe it’s a medical condition and I believe you’re born with it. But I do believe the culture at large and as it stands is going to encourage more lost and unmoored individuals to declare themselves transgendered, transracial, trans-species, or whatever type of “trans” will confer the attention and uniqueness that comes with victim status.
These people are destroying lives with bad ideas. And they must be fought. Again: I agree with Brooks that we orthodox Christians have almost entirely lost the culture war regarding the Sexual Revolution. But we cannot afford to become collaborators. To continue the war metaphor, we have no choice but to form a resistance to the Occupation, if only to save our own children and grandchildren from this insanity.