In Defense Of Evangelical Cultural Pessimism
One of the most striking aspects of modern Evangelical political thinking is its projection of inevitable decline, as if the present trends of secularization and increasing religious intolerance represent the first stages of an irreversible slide. The result is a fearful defensive crouch in the face of challenges to religious liberty that are serious but not grave and workplace discrimination that is troublesome but not crippling.
Another way to frame the challenge is that in parts of American society — especially in higher education and Silicon Valley — it’s not easy to be a traditional, orthodox Christian any longer. You’ll face threats to your liberty, to your career, and to your social standing. There’s a real (and often justified) concern that publicly stating the most basic tenets of your faith could result in suffering very real personal and professional costs.
Let’s put aside the question of support for Donald Trump for a moment. He’s not going to dominate American politics forever. He may not even dominate it two years from now. American Evangelicals — especially the conservative Evangelicals who feel most culturally embattled — face questions that will define their public posture potentially for generations.
French goes on to talk about how black Americans — and the black church — kept faith with America, and the American promise, even though for centuries they suffered under tyranny incomparably worse than that faced by white Evangelicals. If they had faith in America despite that, says French, what kind of excuse do white Evangelicals have for political despair? He goes on:
American Evangelicals approach our nation’s cultural conflicts from a position of far superior cultural, economic, political, and legal power than any marginalized community in American history. In that circumstance, to discard classical liberalism is to discard the very instruments and ideals that are most effective at guaranteeing your continued freedom and blocking the designs of those enemies who most fervently seek your demise.
But the fundamental lesson is even more profound. If men and women have the opportunity to speak and possess the courage to tell the truth, they have hope that they can transform a nation. What was true for black Americans (including the black American church) in the most dire of circumstances is still true for contemporary Christians in far less trying times.
Read the whole thing. French points out that as a lawyer, he has worked in the bluest of Blue America, and has found it uncomfortable and challenging, but nothing like what black Americans faced back in the day. If they didn’t despair (he says), why should we?
It’s an important point. When I get wallow in the slough of despond over these issues, I often think of Amos Pierce, the father of the actor Wendell Pierce. He is a World War II veteran. From his memoir, Wendell talks about the WW2 campaign to encourage black Americans to support the war effort (this, though half the country was living under apartheid):
Black newspapers around the country took up the cause and carried its banner throughout the war years. Of course the promise of the Double V Campaign was only half fulfilled. America won the war for democracy abroad, but refused to embrace it and prosecute it at home. Yet African Americans did not give up hope. They still believed in America, and wanted white Americans to believe in her too. The same faith in this nation’s promise would animate the civil rights movement. In 1957, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would give a Christmas sermon in which he paid respect to the Double V Campaign, using the same rhetoric that would ultimately prevail in the war for the hearts and minds of America and its future:
Do to us what you will and we will still love you . . . . Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
In Dr. King’s soaring words, I can hear the testimony of my family. Burn our cars to teach us a lesson, nearly lynch our men for loving your women, piss on our children in church, steal our money and our right to vote, throw our broken bodies into an unmarked plantation grave, send us to a foreign land to fight and die for you, but deny us the medals we earned sacrificing for this nation—and we will not stop loving America. But we will win our freedom with a victory against the enemies—from within.
This was not sentimentality for my father. This was reality. I’ll never forget the lesson he taught me as a boy, the night he took me to a boxing match at the Municipal Auditorium. Daddy hates cigarette smoking, but he wanted to see the fights, so he sat miserably with my brother and me in the uppermost part of the bleachers, surrounded by a billowing cloud of smoke, waiting for the matches to begin. This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.
That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”
“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.
“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”
Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.
That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your fucking teeth.”
The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.
Like my father, my uncle L. H. Edwards fought for the American flag—his war was Vietnam—and came home to face discrimination as well. Uncle L.H. was a far angrier and a politically more extreme man than my father, but no matter how mad he was at what America had done to him and his people, his faith in America’s ideals and his loyalty to that flag did not waver. Like his son Louis says, “My father might have put on a dashiki, but he was going to wear it while he waved that flag.”
“You have to understand, my father was an officer,” Louis says. “He was so proud of that. He believed that there was no military in this world greater than the U.S. military, and you had better speak to him with respect because of it. He might have sung the black national anthem, but he wasn’t going to fly the flag of any African country, or any other nation but our own.”
The United States of America awarded Amos Pierce medals for his service in the Pacific theater … but a racist clerk handling his discharge denied him the medals. He never told his sons, in part because he didn’t want them to hate America. More from The Wind In The Reeds:
Those brave black soldiers, Amos Pierce and L.H. Edwards, taught me about true patriotism. This land was their land, too. It was made for them, same as everybody else. They never forgot it, and they weren’t going to let their fellow Americans forget it. Their patriotism said, “America is a great country, but we’re going to keep fighting to make it greater.”
In 2009, I did my small part in this long struggle to make our country a more perfect union when I contacted WWL-TV reporter Bill Capo in New Orleans and asked him to help me get Daddy his medals. I couldn’t let that injustice stand, not after all Amos Pierce had done for me and for his country. I explained what happened and Bill started looking into it. He contacted U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a fellow New Orleanian, who put her staff to work researching the issue.
What they found is that Corporal Pierce had not been awarded two medals, as he believed, but rather six of them. There was a Bronze Service Star, an Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal, a World War II Victory medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, and a Good Conduct medal, along with an honorable service lapel pin.
Working with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, we arranged a special ceremony on Armed Forces Day, 2009, to present my father, then eighty-four, with his country’s thanks and honors. True, they were half a century late, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.
Major General Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard spoke warmly of my father, telling the audience that we must never forget the debt of gratitude we owe to the Greatest Generation. Museum board president Gordon “Nick” Mueller added, “We would not have won World War II without the African Americans, the Native Americans, the Hispanics, the Japanese Americans.”
My brother Ron rose to speak, fighting back tears. He told the audience that our father “truly believed in the American dream, and he bought into it. And when he would tell us that we could do anything, he wasn’t just spouting words, he meant it.” (Ron said later that the event was surreal for him. “Here I was in the presence of a real-life American war hero, and it was my father—and I had no idea about it.”)
When my turn came to speak, I was as emotional as Ron was. My heart was bursting with love and pride in Daddy and all his comrades in arms. “It’s a great honor to stand here today,” I said. “But it’s not just for us. It is for all the men and women who couldn’t live to see this honor, and receive the honors they received, but still had love and faith for this great nation.”
Tee stood with us, at Daddy’s side. I hoped that my oldest brother, Stacey, who had died of heart disease a decade earlier, could in some way share that moment of triumph with our family.
Then it was time to give Daddy his medals. His face beaming, Daddy made his way with his walker to the stage. I stood at his side, holding the six medals in my hand, while Ron pinned them on the left breast of Daddy’s pin-striped suit. Tee looked on, cradling the box the medals came in.
Later on, his chest laden with colorful ribbons and bronze medals, Daddy told WWL-TV that he felt like General MacArthur. For us, it was enough that he was U.S. Army Corporal Amos Pierce, Jr., war hero. His family had always known it, but now the whole world did. America had finally lived up to the promises it made to a young black man who crossed the ocean and walked through fire and thunder for her. America had finally kept faith with an old black man who, despite everything, had taught his sons to believe in this great nation.
Whenever I hear people say, “So many people died for our freedom,” I say yes, you’re right—but I’m not thinking of battlefields alone. I’m also thinking of bayous and creeks and rivers where so many African Americans died, or endured the murders of their beloved husbands, sons, and fathers, at the hands of their fellow Americans who would never answer for their crimes in a court of law. And I’m thinking of the busy city streets and the lonesome country roads where so many black folk risked their lives—and in some cases, gave their lives—for the cause of liberty and justice for all Americans. There is blood on the ballot box, and it is the blood of black soldiers who fought for America—whether or not they ever wore the uniform.
They loved the country that persecuted them and treated them like the enemy. To me, that is a vision of supreme patriotism. It’s like my father always said to my brothers and me, every time we would see a triumph of American ideals: “See, that’s why I fought for that flag!”
Amos Pierce never stopped fighting for that flag, and never stopped loving it, either. On the day he finally received his medals, he said nothing at the formal ceremony, but at the gala afterward, he decided that he wanted to offer a few words to the crowd.
He hobbled over to the microphone and, despite his hearing loss, spoke with ringing clarity.
“I want you all to remember those who didn’t come back, I want to dedicate this night to them,” he said. “So many who fought didn’t even have a chance to live their lives. I was given that chance, as difficult as my life has been.”
Daddy thanked the audience for the honor, saying he was not bitter for having been denied the medals for so long. He was simply grateful to have them now.
“We’ve come so far as a country,” he continued. “I’ve realized now a lot of what we were fighting for.”
And then he paused. It took all of his strength to stand as erect as possible at the podium. He saluted crisply, and said, “God bless America.”
That’s when I lost it. For someone not to be debilitated by pain and anger and embarrassment after all he had been through; who fought for this country when this country didn’t love him and wouldn’t fight for him; to come back from war and still have to fight for the right to vote and the right to go into any establishment he wanted to—that made me think of the vow he made to me as a child: “No matter what, son, I will never abandon you.”
I have never known a greater man than that old soldier on the night he received his due.
Buy the book, read the whole thing. It’s an incredible story about a great American family. It’s also a story about America.
Now, with this knowledge, and with the moral courage of men like Amos Pierce there for us all to see, how do conservative white Christians (not just Evangelicals) justify pessimism?
Let me offer a counter-argument to French, even as I fully credit the point he’s making. Losing relative political and cultural power is not the same thing as oppression, and it’s important for white conservative Christians to do the hard work of discerning that difference.
David French is a lifelong Evangelical; he knows the Evangelical mind. I am not, nor ever have been an Evangelical, so I can’t speak for the Evangelical mindset. I can only say why I’m pessimistic about the future of Christians in this country in ways that might have been hard for black Americans of Amos Pierce’s generation to be about themselves. I’m going to say at the start that I’m not comparing the struggle (such as it is) of white conservative Christians today and in the years to come with what black Americans standing up to Jim Crow went through. I agree with French that it was far worse than anything we face now, or are likely to face in the next few years.
That said, I believe that conditions are meaningfully different, in a way that diminishes optimism. Here’s why.
The black Civil Rights generation were riding the crest of a massive social wave, carrying the country in their direction. Racial progress was not inevitable; nothing is inevitable, because history is not predetermined. But the tectonic dislocations in American life resulting from the war opened up space for black Americans and their demands for justice to be heard. Granted, this could be a misreading of the past from the perspective of the future. Did King and his cohort know in 1958 that they were going to overturn American apartheid within a few short years? Of course they didn’t. Still, given the overall movement of the culture at mid-century, and the confident liberalism of the dominant political culture, I think there was solid reason to be hopeful.
A big part of that hope was the reality that America was still a Christian country. That is, it was still a nation that paid respect to Christian values. The rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement is saturated with Biblical language, and not just because it was led by black preachers. That language made sense to Americans at mid-century, because most of us back then walked around with the Biblical narrative as our common culture. King (and others) challenged white American Christians — especially in the South — to live out their professed Christian faith. His famous letter from a Birmingham jail was written to the local white clergymen, chastising and challenging them to be faithful to the Gospel when it came to justice for black children of God.
We are a far less Christian country today, and if not post-Christian, then rapidly heading there. This, I think, is a distinction that makes a big difference re: French’s argument. You can’t cease to be black; you can cease to be Christian, or at least meaningfully Christian. We all know very well the statistics on how Millennials and Generation Z are leaving the faith.
One of the great frustrations I have with my own people (conservative Christians) is that we think political power is the most important thing to have. If we’re losing it — and we are — then we panic. Political power is important, no doubt about it, but over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen the Religious Right wax and wane, and it has become clear to me that religious conservatives made a fundamental error in believing that political power was the most important thing to acquire (as distinct from an important thing to acquire). I’ve written about this many times, so I won’t go into it at length again here. The gist of my point is found in something I sent to a Christian professor friend yesterday. I told him that little makes me angrier than listening to middle-class conservative churchgoing Christians raise a fist to shake at the libs, while with the other hand giving their children smartphones, and participating uncritically in mass culture.
There is very little countercultural in conservative American Christianity as it is actually lived. If conservative Christians today despair over our marginalization, and coming persecution, then we might think self-critically about how we allowed ourselves to be assimilated into the culture that has now turned on us.
The point I’m getting at is that while conservative Christian leaders see the loss of political power as a prelude to a wider persecution — and, contra French, they are right to! — the far greater reason for concern is that our children are losing the faith. That is, we have failed to pass it on to them. Scripture says a man can gain the whole world, but if he loses his soul, he loses everything. Similarly, we conservative Christians can gain all the political power there is to gain, but if we fail to pass on the faith to the next generations, everything will turn to dust in our hands. That is happening now.
Come to think of it, the limits of political power can be observed in what’s happened to black Americans since the great Civil Rights victories of the 1960s. In 1965, eight percent of black births occurred outside of wedlock. Today, 72 percent do. The role broken families play in the intergenerational persistence of poverty is well-documented. To be sure, we now have a sizable black middle class, thanks to politics tearing down racist barriers to black economic advancement. And the collapse of the black family is not the only reason so many black Americans remain mired in poverty. (For example, globalism sending American manufacturing jobs overseas hurt all working-class Americans, but hit blacks hardest.) The point is that achieving political power may be necessary for achieving progress in material wealth and stability — for black Americans, it certainly was — but it is not sufficient.
I wonder what King and his team would have thought in 1958 if an angel had come down from heaven, told them all that they would achieve in terms of destroying the legal infrastructure of segregation, but also give them statistics on the black community’s struggles in 2019. I have no doubt that they would have pressed on with their cause, which was righteous. But don’t you think that they would have been taken aback by the failure of so many in the generations that followed to take advantage of what they won through their sacrifices?
Similarly, I think it is very important that American Christians vote for political leaders who will defend religious liberty — most importantly, the right to operate our schools and other institutions according to our own beliefs. But none of that will matter if we don’t use those liberties to educate and form our children in the faith. I swear, if Christians would spend even half the time, effort, and money concerning themselves with this rather than with politics, I’d be more optimistic about the future.
(Shorter Rod Dreher: “Y’all Christians stop despairing about the loss of political power; there are far more important reasons to despair!”)
But seriously, this is a thing. My intuition tells me that white Christian fear of losing political power is a manifestation of a deeper anxiety over the waning in our culture of the Christian faith itself — and that this is dread that many Christians can’t bear to recognize. I wonder too if David French has taken full measure of this fact.
We live in a culture that is post-Christian in the sense that the Biblical narrative is no longer central to the story we tell ourselves about us. In his research on the faith lives of young US Christians, sociologist Christian Smith found data that ought to terrify Christian leaders far more than the vagaries of Washington politics. I wrote about them here, in The Benedict Option:
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
All that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life. This is the gospel taught by mainstream American culture. It is a very powerful message. If this is what people — even young people identifying as Christians — really believe, then on what basis can we realistically hope to turn this culture around? True, God can do anything, but remember: King and the Civil Rights leaders appealed to widely shared American values, values rooted in Biblical teaching. They appealed to a people that still believed that the Bible was authoritative, however poorly those people lived out the Bible’s teachings. That’s over now. All the deepest currents in our society — particularly the economic and technological ones — are carrying us farther away from a basis upon which conservative Christians could appeal to other Americans for respect and sympathy.
It is also undeniable that progressive culture sees traditional Christianity as little other than anti-gay and anti-abortion, both of which are profoundly offensive to beliefs cherished by progressives. In the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights struggle, the commanding heights of American culture were held by people who rejected Southern segregation. True, many were reluctant to take them on, but King and his team forced them to see that peaceful coexistence was no longer tenable. It seems to me that those who hold the commanding heights of American culture regard conservative Christians with similar contempt — and it is the generation rising to power who are compelling them to act on those beliefs.
Let me end with this. I posit the Benedict Option as the only realistic hope for traditional Christians to endure the darkness to come. People who haven’t read the book often assume that I’m talking about enduring a future persecution. That is part of it, but only a small part. By far the greater part of it is not about enduring persecution, but rather enduring the slow-motion collapse of the faith, along the lines of what happened to traditional Roman paganism in the 4th and 5th centuries. To be clear, St. Benedict and his monastic order arose out of the collapse of the Roman state and infrastructure of civilization (economic, technological, etc.); they held things together through a time of serious chaos and deprivation, and moved within a culture that was either lightly Christian or, as in the rural areas where they planted their monasteries, pre-Christian. They witnessed to a culture that had yet to become Christian, or where at best Christianity was a rising new religion.
Today, in the 21st century, we in the West have lived through the historical experience of Christianity. Though I am a Christian believer, as a cultural diagnosis, I affirm that Nietzsche was right: God is dead to the West; we are now living through the implications of that reality. The kind of witness that Christians offer takes place within that historical context. This is why the Benedict Option can only have limited correspondence with the actual, historical early Benedictines. Whatever survival strategies we Christians today adopt will have to be worked out within this cultural reality. And, crucially, they will have to be worked out in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful culture of disintegration.
Liberalism is an artifact of an Enlightenment culture whose fundamental bases are directly challenged by this culture of disintegration. That Enlightenment culture was, at its moral core, a secularization of Christian teachings. We are now engaged in a drama to see if liberalism — the most durable political expression of the Enlightenment — can survive the severing of its religious roots.
So, whether the pessimistic white Evangelical leaders know it or not, they are fighting a very different kind of war than the black Civil Rights leaders fought. The Civil Rights leaders fought on a battlefield whose borders were defined by that Enlightenment culture and what remained of its Christian framework. They had every reason to be optimistic. Traditional Christians today, in our post-Christian society, do not. I genuinely respect David French, who has fought hard in courtrooms for religious liberty. I don’t understand his optimism, though. The Civil Rights leaders fought for human rights; today, in our decadent culture, we can’t even agree on what the human person is.
Notice I say “optimism,” not “hope” — for Christians, hope is not the same as optimism. The martyrs were hopeful. Ignatius of Antioch, in his 2nd century letters written on his way to Rome for martyrdom, was hopeful, not optimistic. I am hopeful, but I am not optimistic. Because I am hopeful but not optimistic, I believe that even as Christians fight in the political arena to protect our liberties, we should also prepare for a long period of suffering. The chief form of suffering is not going to come from the state, or other persecutors, but from the dissolution of the faith via internal demoralization and loss of a sense of purpose. That is not something from which the black church of the Civil Rights era suffered, nor is it something that the early Church in the pre-Christian Roman empire suffered. But we have it today, and to the extent that Christian leaders are preoccupied with political power and status, they are failing to address the greatest challenge to the future of the faith in the West.
And: to the extent that any of us Christians believe that more of what we’ve been doing is the answer to this challenge (e.g., more programs, more therapeutic sermons, more entertaining worship, etc.), we are dramatically failing to understand the crisis. A young person, black or white, could look to the Civil Rights movement leadership in the 1960s and see men who, despite their flaws, were willing to suffer and die for their cause. Can you think of any Christian leaders today who would be willing to do that? Can you think of any Christian followers who would? Insofar as we regard our faith as the comfortable middle class at prayer, we are a bigger danger to ourselves than secular liberals are.
I’ll leave you with this: if you want to read more about why I think French’s optimism is unwarranted, read Michael Hanby’s terrific 2014 piece about the loss of the basis for civic Christianity. Excerpts:
What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency.
Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason, the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.
Martin Luther King and his people fought and defeated dragons. The identify of the enemy was clear back then, the swords they used to fight him were sure, and they had powerful allies. We Christians today don’t even understand the nature of the enemy, and the struggle upon us. That’s the difference.