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View From The Culture War Trenches

An iconic image in America's war of religion (CBS News screenshot)

Michael Brendan Dougherty has written one of the best pieces of political and cultural analysis that I’ve seen in a while. It’s a short essay called “Trump Is Incidental To The Culture War,” and it’s well worth a read. In it, he offers a theory for why Democratic presidential candidates aren’t reaching rightward to try to peel off voters from Trump, as they have successfully done against Republicans in past elections. In fact, as MBD points out, they’re either pushing harder to the Left, or at least holding to strongly left culture-war positions. For example, I personally know Catholic conservatives who are interested in Bernie Sanders’s economics, but who won’t consider him because he’s so militantly pro-abortion. Me, in the past I’ve been drawn to Elizabeth Warren’s hard line on corporate misconduct, but after this stunt (recalled by MBD), there’s absolutely no way I could take a chance on her with my vote:

In a televised forum, Elizabeth Warren was asked what she’d tell a hypothetical supporter who said, “Senator, I’m old-fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.” (This self-description would apply to a significant plurality of Americans and a significant percentage of African-American Democrats.) Warren said “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy” — as if women were already uniformly supportive of same-sex marriage — and added, “I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that . . . assuming you can find one.’”

The crowd lapped up Warren’s expression of contempt, which was far from unique within the crowded field of presidential contenders: Before he dropped out, Beto O’Rourke said that he believed in stripping tax-exempt status from churches that don’t celebrate same-sex unions.

The line you often here in the comments threads of this blog rings very true: “I may not love Trump, but at least he doesn’t hate me.”

The truth, says MBD, is that the Left is just as dug in on its culture war positions as the Right is. And this is how things look from the right-wing trenches:

In the last decade, conservative Christians have become used to such rhetoric and seen the real-life consequences of its growing popularity. They’ve seen individuals such as Brendan Eich, a true innovator in his field, fired as CEO of Mozilla not because he ever discriminated against anyone, but because others argued that his own Christian convictions, manifested in a political donation to the Proposition 8 campaign in California, made him unfit to oversee their work and made them feel unsafe. They’ve seen mayors who are part of the Democratic mainstream argue for economic blockades of corporations such as Chick-Fil-A for the supposedly dastardly sin of donating to the Salvation Army. They’ve seen hospice nuns dragged through the courts because they want to hire and compensate people in a way that doesn’t make them participants in what their faith teaches is a mortal sin. They’ve seen religious schools dragged into national controversies for hiring and firing teachers in line with their faith. They suspect that legislation such as the Equality Act would make them potentially liable as employers and would revise Title VII litigation to make themselves a legal risk as employees.

In each case, the Left dismisses these complaints as special pleading or whining. It’s just signing a piece of paper, they say to the nuns. It’s just the lack of market access in a town. It’s just anger whipped up by the media. Free speech has consequences, and if you don’t like the laws, just find another profession in which you can follow your religious scruples. None of this can reassure people who know from history that Thomas More was executed for not signing a piece of paper related to state business, that penal laws once restricted Catholics and Presbyterians from access to town markets and certain professions, and that monasteries were burned down because of sensational journalism.

That’s it. That’s it right there. We conservative Christians, we know that the Left’s promises are worthless. I’ve you’ve been paying attention for the past 20 years, you know that the Left’s behavior in the culture war is governed by the Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

Please, read it all. MBD’s core conclusion is that Trump doesn’t really matter in the culture war. Both sides are driven most by fear of each other. I think that is correct.

I can’t speak for all conservative Christians, of course, but to me, conservative Christian support for Trump comes from a place of weakness, not strength. Our side has steadily lost ground in the culture, and within cultural institutions — and the rate of retreat under fire is picking up speed. What does the cultural Right have, other than Trump? He’s not nothing — he’s appointing a large number of federal judges, which will be the last line of defense for conservatives as the Congress and the presidency moves to the cultural Left in the years and decades to come. The thing is, the only real threat those judges will pose to the Left is slowing it down in getting what it wants. Neither a judge, nor a president, nor a legislature, can command people to believe things they don’t believe.

Hear me loud and clear: I understand why the Left fears Trump in power. What is a mystery to me is why they don’t see how thoroughly they’ve conquered this culture — and, eventually, will have conquered its politics. As a religious conservative, if it were possible to trade the presidency for the cultural power the Left has, I would take that deal without thinking twice. As I explained here, power to force one of the most successful corporations in America — Chick-fil-A — to violate its brand and change corporate policy out of the “shame” of having donated a little money to the Salvation Army, of all groups — man, that is some real power. It’s malevolent, but it’s real, and it’s going to dominate American life for the foreseeable future. Some religious conservatives rally around Trump because they really believe the rhetoric that comes out of their own mouths about how he’s the best president Evangelicals have ever had, and suchlike. But others, whatever they say in public, know the truth in private: that absent some unforeseen event, Trump is the last thing holding back the forces of the Left in this culture from doing exactly what Michael Brendan Dougherty, above, says they’re going to do: punish religious believers and their institutions as hard as they can manage. We know this from history. We know from recent history, too, that the Jacobin spirit is alive and well.

I hesitate to make this comparison, because it’s genuinely a matter of life and death for the Christians of Syria, but the principle is the same. But here goes: Why do you think the Christian minority in Syria supports Bashar Assad so strongly? Is it because the admire his character, or his political vision? No. It’s because they know that as bad as he is, if Assad were gone, Islamic radicals would slaughter them all, and reduce their churches and monasteries to rubble. They have seen what ISIS did to the Christians of the territories they conquered in Iraq. They can’t take a chance. Do you think the Syrian Christians love Assad, and approve of everything he does? Do you think Assad loves them? Come on. For both Assad and the Syrian Christians, their relationship is primarily transactional.

As I said, we American Christians do not face that. I only bring up that extreme, real-life example, to make the logic of how we reason about our much less dire situation clear. As MBD says, bringing up actual instances, we know what the Left in power wants to do to our liberties and our institutions, if they have the chance. Once we lose them, it’s going to be hard to get them back, if it’s even possible. This is not a theoretical matter. We have seen it happen, right in front of our eyes. It is hard, at this point, to gaslight us, to tell us that we have nothing to worry about, when we quite obviously do. For pity’s sake, we saw what happened to the Covington Catholic boys! We don’t have to love or approve of Trump, or believe that he loves and approves of us. It is enough that he doesn’t despise us, and consider us enemies to be trampled over in the name of social justice.

I wrote The Benedict Option to wake up my fellow small-o orthodox Christians to the reality we face in this post-Christian culture, and to strongly encourage them to start working now to prepare our families and our communities for the dark days ahead. I did not anticipate the Trump victory, but in any case, the best we can hope from it is to give ourselves a few more years to prepare. If you haven’t read it yet, please consider doing so. You may well be pleased by the Trump presidency, but you should also not fool yourself into believing that Trump has turned this culture around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that; it’s not in the power of this or any political leader to do so. At best, he has held some of these forces at bay, but we should also recognize that he has caused many of those who spited conservative Christianity in the beginning to hate Christianity even more. And to be fair, I get that. If you regarded Christians as hypocrites to begin with, seeing them rally to Trump confirms what you believed, and intensifies it.

But none of that changes the fact that the threat facing conservative Christians is real. If they put down their political weapons and throw themselves on the mercy of their conquerors, it is not going to go any better for them (for us). Some Christians may decide that despite this, it is the right thing to do — more honorable than allying with the barbarian king Trump. I can understand that, and don’t condemn those who make that decision. It is one that I might make myself. But neither should they condemn Christians who make a tragic decision to give Trump their vote, out of well-informed, well-grounded fear of the Left in power. That is a decision I too might make next November.

I think that both Left and Right can agree that the fact that we have come to this point in American politics and society is a sign of profound decadence — that is, of the decay of the body politic. We are a culturally divided country, and each side fears and loathes the other. I can’t see how this ends well. And here’s the thing Christians should understand: the faith is in collapse among the younger generations. If the Left prevails, the core of the anti-Left resistance in the America of the near future will not be among conservative Christians. There won’t be enough of us remaining to make a significant difference. It is going to coalesce along lines of racial identity — “Back to blood,” as the title of Tom Wolfe’s final novel had it — because the Left has made a god of identity politics. Without a healthy sense of nationalism to unite this disparate country, and without a shared religion, it stand to reason that race is the only thing left. This is what I mean when I keep saying that the identity-politics Left is summoning up demons that it can’t control. Christians won’t be able to control them either. We are going to be marginalized, and faced with having to hold our own churches together, and keeping ourselves — white, black, Latino, and Asian believers — from descending into race hatred.

Earlier this week, I got a message from an East Coast journalist, someone I’ve never met, whose name most of you would know. He was commenting on some of the things I’ve been writing — most recently, my piece about the parallels between our time and place, and late imperial Russia. My correspondent said that he’s not one for woo-woo religious stuff, but “I can feel the demonic energy in this country right now, from all sides. There will be violence.”

You feel it too, don’t you? That growing sense of apocalypticism is a sign of the times. Pay attention.

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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