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Drowning Cultural Conservatism

Conservatives are all but defenseless against liquid modernity's left-liberal flood

From time to time in this space, a fellow religious conservative will attempt to cheer us all up by claiming that our tribe is more fecund, and will outbreed secular liberals. It’s a nice thought, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s true. In Italy, in 2016, a sociologist released a study showing that of the (small number) of Italian Catholics who considered themselves to be “convinced and active believers,” only 22 percent of those families reported having children who were also convinced and active believers.” As other studies of religious practice have found, having parents who are convinced and active believers is one key factor in whether or not young people practice the faith into their own adulthood, but it is no guarantee.

Daniel McCarthy writes about the total domination of left-liberals in cultural and culture-forming institutions, and what this means for the future of conservatives. Examining the dynamics of US culture and politics, McCarthy says that political victories for a Trumpist GOP masks the collapse of social and cultural conservatism. Excerpt:

The trouble with this, for Republicans and cultural conservatives both, is that even success at the ballot box will not check the consolidation of left-wing social power. The opinion elite, educators and the media, shape the environment in which business takes place, and in which business people themselves are formed. Cultural conservatives can home school, they can send their children to Hillsdale or Christendom or Grove City College — but where will they work when they graduate? Even pizza companies must follow the unwritten laws laid down by the opinion police. The insider left, in its new form, has strategies to win at the cultural, economic, and political levels, each of which reinforces the others. The right can barely hold its own in politics and is without any cultural leverage over economics. The Tea Party and Trump succeeded at least in channeling the great popular anger at the new insider left, but the deplorable Americans on whom they’ve relied are scheduled for extinction by opioids and economic euthanasia.

Conservatives can’t wish their plight away — they can only take a stand on the ground they already occupy in politics, while they turn their minds to nexus of cultural and economic power that is their greatest challenge today.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough to my conservative readers: read the whole thing. 

The Benedict Option has now been translated and published in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Portuguese. It will soon be published in Croatian and Korean. The book has sold fewer raw copies in Europe than in the US, where it was a bestseller, but from my calculations, has done much better proportionally with European Christians than it has with American Christians. Why is that?

McCarthy’s column explains it, pretty much. So many conservative American Christians have not yet come to terms with demographic reality. They still believe that because Donald Trump is president and the Republican Party is doing well politically, that they (we) have meaningful cultural power. European Christians don’t have the luxury of this illusion, and haven’t had for some time. They understand clearly that the future of the Christian faith depends on recognizing reality and acting on facts, not sentimentality.

(In Italy this past September, I had a Baby Boomer approach me on my book tour and say that he counts himself as a liberal Catholic. But as a high school religion teacher, he knows how desperate the situation is regarding passing the faith down to the young, and he’s therefore happy to see The Benedict Option in Italian. “Something has to change,” he told me.)

It has to. It really does. We are facing a secular liberal culture that is overwhelming in its power. When I say “overwhelming,” I don’t mean that it will intentionally try to steamroll over conservative church people. It doesn’t have to; it is eroding us from within.

In The Benedict Option, I talk about how conservative Christians have to stay involved at some level in conventional partisan politics, if only to fight for religious liberty. Taking the long view, our best hope politically lies with a judiciary that has a strong view of the First Amendment. That would only guarantee us relative freedom within which to work; it guarantees nothing about transmitting the faith on to the next generation.

St. John’s law professor Mark Movsesian, whose scholarship focuses on religious liberty, has a forthcoming paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, examining how the nation’s cultural and political polarization is likely to affect religious liberty jurisprudence in years to come. You can read the entire paper here. 


Masterpiece Cakeshop is nonetheless important for what it reveals about deeper cultural and political trends, all related, that will affect the future course of the law. Two cultural trends are important: religious polarization and an expanding concept of equality.

Over the past two decades, American religion has become polarized between two groups, the Nones, who reject organized religion as authoritarian and hypocritical, especially with respect to sexuality, and the Traditionally Religious, who continue to adhere to organized religion and to traditional religious teachings, especially with respect to sexuality. Each group views the other’s values as threatening and incomprehensible. Neither is going away, and neither seems in a mind to compromise—including in commercial life.

This religious polarization has figured very prominently in the public’s response to Masterpiece Cakeshop and controversies like it.

Masterpiece Cakeshop also reflects a second cultural trend, one that Alexis de Tocqueville—whose work runs like a red thread through our story—saw long ago: an expanding notion of equality. Increasing numbers of Americans endorse a capacious concept of equality—“equality as sameness”—that treats social distinctions, especially religious distinctions, as arbitrary and unimportant.

Asserting the importance of religious boundaries, as [Christian baker] Jack Phillips did, seems unreasonable to increasing numbers of our fellow citizens. Asserting such boundaries strikes them—as it did Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, and at least some of the Colorado commissioners—as deeply insulting, an affront to human dignity. The fact that so many of the actors in Masterpiece Cakeshop could not credit Jack Phillips’s assertions of good faith explains much of what happened in the case, and much of what is likely to happen in future cases.

Finally, Masterpiece Cakeshop reflects an important political trend: the steady growth of an activist state committed to the idea of equality as sameness. At both the federal and state level, administrative agencies work to promote equality in all areas of life. Their actions increasingly impinge on the Traditionally Religious, who face an expanding set of rules and policies, backed by serious sanctions, which promote new understandings of equality, particularly with respect to sex and gender. The actions of the Colorado Civil

Movsesian stresses that his paper is analytical; that he is not taking a position on which side should prevail in future disputes. Nevertheless, he predicts that it will become more and more difficult to settle these cases, and as a result, judicial confirmation battles will grow ever nastier.

Movsesian says the rise of the Nones, who reject institutional religion (though not necessarily spirituality) is key to this conflict. Why? Several reasons. Among them:

Second, the Rise of the Nones seems to be associated with the Sexual Revolution, especially with changing views on homosexuality. According to the 2014 Pew report, a solid majority of Americans, about 62%, now say that society should accept homosexuality.

Among Nones, however, the percentage is strikingly high—83%. Here again, Millennials are key. Young adults are driving the changing social consensus on homosexuality, including among Nones. Millennials generally have more positive views of homosexuality than older Americans, and nearly 90% of Millennial Nones say that society should accept homosexuality. The Pew report thus offers support for what sociologists have been saying for years: young Nones dislike organized religion because they associate it with traditional, negative views about homosexuality, and because they believe organized religion’s rejection of homosexuality masks hypocrisy about sexual sins generally.

Note well: normalizing homosexuality is not causing this, exactly, but normalizing homosexuality does require institutionalizing the Sexual Revolution, which negates what traditional Christianity teaches about sexual morality. People who think they can have Christianity and the Sexual Revolution are surrendering Christianity, whether they realize it or not.

And this:

Finally, the Rise of the Nones in the twenty-first century may reflect the gradual, but inevitable, working-out of the inner logic of liberalism, America’s dominant political ideology. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville wrote that escaping the hold of habit, family, and tradition were among the principal features of the American mindset. More recently, Patrick Deneen has observed that liberalism has always opposed received
authority, which it views as arbitrary and accidental, in favor of individual autonomy and choice. Loosening the bonds of family, community, and religion is necessary, liberalism teaches, in order to release the full potential of human beings. Liberalism encourages the person to think of himself “primarily a free chooser” with respect to “all relationships, institutions, and beliefs.” Over time, the ethos of choice extends to more and more subjects. It is no surprise, then, in a society where liberalism dominates, that many people eventually come to see choice as extending to religious institutions and beliefs, along with all the others.

This is America today. Expanding social and cultural egalitarianism is our future. Movsesian says that the Traditionally Religious aren’t going away, but they will also not be able to count on what has been a constant in American culture: a general sympathy for traditional religion, even among people who don’t practice it. For their part (says the professor), Trads aren’t going to be able to compromise their beliefs on sexuality, because they understand them to be “necessary for human dignity.”

Movsesian makes the Tocquevillian point that for Americans, equality is the core commitment. They may say them believe in diversity, but ultimately, for Americans, equality equals sameness. He gives this striking example from his own teaching:

If I may offer a personal anecdote, I recently posed a hypothetical case in my law-and-religion class. Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew, I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate.”

In posing this hypothetical, I was trying to show the students these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no legal right to decline services in this situation, they told me: the florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. I pressed them. Didn’t they see that genuine religious diversity requires respect for difference, that difference implies boundaries, and that boundaries necessarily exclude? Couldn’t a member of a minority religion believe, in good faith, that her community faced assimilation and decline to run her business in a way that promoted it? Wasn’t that a concern worthy of respect? No, they told me. The florist in my hypothetical case should have no right to turn away the interfaith couple.

I have thought about the students’ reaction, and it seems to me that it results from the students’ sense that it is wrong to draw religious distinctions that exclude others and injure their dignity, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist did in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students. The florist was violating the equality-as-sameness principle, and my students simply did not think her concerns justified her in doing so.

As a Traditional Religious person, that is frightening to me. These egalitarians could not grasp the point of view of the Orthodox Jew, much less make room for it.

There’s so much interesting stuff in the Movsesian paper, and it’s written in clear prose, unlike so much legal writing. Please read the whole thing. Note especially the section about how the expanded role of the administrative state works against cultural and religious conservatives. Movsesian concludes by talking about how the law really doesn’t provide a clear way forward through the coming conflicts. The “compelling interest” test — in which the government must have a “compelling interest” in violating religious liberty — is not much of a guidepost, because it depends on a particular understanding of the Good. The professor writes:

In a society in which we cannot agree on what is good, how can we agree on what is a compelling interest?

As MacIntyre might have said, “We will not have Aristotle; we will therefore get Nietzsche.”

So, to return to the point of this post: not only are we Trads losing ground, the culture in which we are embedded both actively and passively trains young people to reject their religion.

What are you doing to build resistance to secular liberal hegemony within your children, your family, your congregation? If you don’t think The Benedict Option is the best plan, then please, let’s hear your strategy. I’m serious. I’ve got skin in this game. I’ve got kids. Read the book, take what’s good in it, and improve on it. Let the rest of us know what you think. The one thing that cultural and religious conservatives absolutely cannot do is continue to drift. That drift is only in one direction in this culture: towards de facto atheism.

European Christians understand this. American Christians will too — but only after massive losses, I fear.

UPDATE: You know what’s a great way to get me to send your comment to the trash bin? Be one of the liberal commenters here who responds with some restatement of “The conservatives brought this on themselves” or “The conservatives are hypocrites because of blabbity blah blah gays blah blah blah Islam.” Some of you, that’s all you ever say when a post like this goes up. Look, I welcome critical engagement, but if all you can do is jerk your knee in the way we have read a thousand million times here, save yourself the trouble or, even better, actually think for a minute or two, and say something fresh and interesting.




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