Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Should We Fight the Culture War?

Yes, but fight it intelligently. You don't have to risk dying on every hill in a losing war

David Mills, following Robby George, says it’s not time to take the Benedict Option yet. Excerpts:

But retreat even now seems to me wrong. Robby George certainly thinks so. He insists that issues like same-sex marriage can still be contested in the public square and public arguments can still be made with some hope of success. (In this he’s joined by the irrepressible and irreplaceable Ryan T. Anderson, now the public face of the defense of marriage.)

In the Facebook exchange, he rejected the intellectual genealogy, but noted that the people who think America misdirected from the start are still his allies and comrades. But (this is my take) allies and comrades who’d left the front lines to read books in the library and argue causes and effects in the coffee shop. “My point is simply this,” Robby wrote,

If you are pro-life and pro-marriage (whatever you think about “the Enlightenment’s” responsibility for our current plight), get yourself into the fight. You are needed. Enough with the defeatism. Stand up for the child in the womb. Bear witness to marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. Take the personal and professional risks that come with bearing witness. Meet the sacrifices it demands. No excuses.


He was responding to two tendencies, I think: 1) that of some conservatives to retreat into analysis, and particularly historical genealogy, when faced with a cultural and political challenge; and 2) that of some of them to find the problem in a force that can’t be resisted, like the Enlightenment roots of the American founding, which justifies disengagement from a battle we can’t win. He calls this defeatism.

I’m not so hopeful as Robby. He has greater faith than I do in the American people and the force of public reason.

Of course I agree, but here’s the thing: I also entirely agree with David here:

And for a fourth, we can prepare the retreat at the same time we play for the win. Preparing the retreat is mainly doing what we ought to be doing already, but doing it better, pushed into action by the threat that we might not be able to do it at all. Each of us praying more, giving more, moving deeper into the Tradition, strengthening our parishes, making our families and our parishes into communities that draw the wounded, marginalized, and lost — this we can do while writing letters to congressmen, supporting the good guys running for office, marching in protests, posting Facebook messages, and speaking in public and with our friends for the unborn child and for marriage, and for all in need.

Read the whole thing. What David says in this final paragraph is exactly what I think we should be doing. I have to say this over and over, because people don’t want to believe it, but here’s what the Benedict Option is not:

1) a counsel to run for the hills and to build a fortress where the outside world cannot get in; or

2) advice to quit fighting entirely, and to abandon the battlefield

I believe that we cannot give up the fight, if only to delay the inevitable to give us time enough to prepare ourselves and our institutions for the long resistance. In oral arguments before the Supreme Court yesterday, the administration’s lawyer admitted that religious institutions may lose their tax-exempt status over same-sex marriage. We will all be Bob Jones University very soon. From the WaPo:

During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito compared the case to that of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university in South Carolina. The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 the school was not entitled to a tax-exempt status if it barred interracial marriage.

Here is an exchange between Alito and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., arguing for the same-sex couples on behalf of the Obama administration.

Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a 10 university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?

General Verrilli:  You know, ­­I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is­­ it is going to be an issue.

Many schools, charities, and other religious institutions operate on a very close budgetary margin. They will not survive this. For years now, whenever someone asks the pseudo-question, “How is gay marriage going to affect me?” (which they mean as a statement saying that it will not affect them at all), people like me have pointed to the loss of tax-exempt status for religious institutions as an inevitable consequence. The media have not wanted to look at this, because it doesn’t suit the narrative. But it is true. A professor who teaches in an Evangelical college told me the other day that none of his students can imagine how constitutionalized gay marriage might affect them — this, even though it stands to deeply damage, even close, some of the schools and institutions they care about. If homosexuality = race, though, how on earth are our institutions not Bob Jones University, under the law?

Anyway, we will be fighting this out for years in the courts, and it will be nasty, and expensive, but we have no choice. And we are likely to lose, but the delays will give the wiser among us time to construct new strategies and institutional arrangements that will allow for the continuation of a communal life of fidelity in this anti-Christian culture. I suggest tithing to the Becket Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom. We need them more than ever.


I think the Neuhausian idea that we orthodox Christians and other social conservatives can still turn this thing around is mistaken, and a real distraction from the non-legal, non-political work we need to be doing within our own families and communities. I know of no one more courageous in public life today around this issue than Ryan T. Anderson. He is bearing witness bravely, brilliantly, and with a generosity of spirit that you can’t help but admire. And it’s doing very little good. It’s doing very little good not because of any deficit of intellect, articulation, or charisma on Ryan’s behalf; it’s doing very little good because Americans today do not want to hear what he has to say. It does not make sense to them. Nota bene: I think Ryan is right, and people who think his argument depends on the authority of the Bible are people who either have not read it, or want to justify avoiding reading it (it’s What Is Marriage?, a short, concise book he wrote with Robby George and Sherif Girgis, making the natural law argument for traditional marriage).

It doesn’t matter. It’s all “bigotry” to the mob. I respect Robby George’s fighting spirit, but there are already people losing their livelihoods over this issue. I know public advocates whose homes and property have been attacked for their stances, and whose children have been harassed. A senior manager I know at a major corporation is a devout Catholic, and has so far tried to keep his head down when human resources comes around asking employees to declare themselves “allies” of LGBTs. If he’s backed into a corner, he will not deny his faith, which is what he thinks amounts to. He knows he will likely lose his job. He has a wife and a large family to support.  “Enough with the defeatism” is easy advice to give from the position of a tenured faculty member, or from the position of an unmarried young man who works for a conservative Washington think tank, or from the position of a writer for a conservative magazine. It’s a lot harder advice to take when you are like my friend the senior manager, or any of the non-tenured faculty I’ve met in my recent travels who are deeply worried about the atmosphere on their campuses.

I hope those men and women will stand up and be counted if the time comes. Their voices are needed. I think it is unconscionable that any pastor, priests, or bishop of a church that does not accept homosexuality remains silent in the face of the threat facing the church collectively now. Now is the time to find your voice, because there are so many in your congregation(s) who stand to lose far more than you do by being identified as orthodox. I hope that every orthodox Christian — Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox — is now thinking hard about where the line is in their current job or position, and how silent they can be before violating their conscience. The day is coming, and coming soon, when you will have to choose.

For all that, I do not blame ordinary people, people who are not as privileged as Robby George, Ryan Anderson, and I, for not wanting to rush out and volunteer to die on every hill, especially when this is a cause we are going to lose in the short run. Because we are, not because our politics are ineffective, or we lack ardor, but because the battle is not ultimately one of political strategy or firm will; it’s one of ideas. Allow me to quote at length from a lecture Ken Myers delivered at Eastern University two years back. Ken e-mailed it to me yesterday, and I excerpt it with his permission:

In a 1995 interview Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offered a distinctive vision of the Church as a counterculture for the common good:

Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world — that let God in. . . . [I]f society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice. . . . The Church of tomorrow . . . will be a Church of minority.

The “counter” in counterculture sounds, as I’ve suggested, a prophetically constructive note. It is a necessary note because of the disorder of the modern West, and I think any effort to define and embody a counterculture for the common good has to work to understand the nature of that disorder. In a chapter called “The redemption of society,” in his book The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan observes that many thinkers from diverse intellectual disciplines and philosophical or theological points of view have converged on a critique of “modernity.” They disagree about many finer points and some larger ones, but they all agree that the social and cultural phenomena of our times need to be understood as “part of a greater historical totality — one which they date variously, but always in centuries rather than in decades. What makes life in the late modern period different — its high level of technologisation, its sexual permissiveness, its voluntarisations of birth and death, its concept of politics as economic management — can all be traced back to seed-thoughts that were present at the beginning of the modern era, and are aspects of a necessitating web of mutual implication.” O’Donovan goes on to develop that metaphor of seed-thoughts, which he believes is essential to understanding our historical moment. The flowering of an idea, he writes, “comes when it assumes a structural role that determines what else may be thought.” The consequences of ideas take shape over centuries, and they structure social life and cultural experience through formal and informal institutions, and thereby create well-worn channels that guide our thinking and intuiting.

One theologian whose work in chronicling the genealogy of modernity has been a benefit to me and many others is the late Colin Gunton. In his book, The One, the Three, and the Many, Gunton examines the seed-thoughts that have resulted in patterns of disengagement and displacement in modern culture. Human beings are disengaged from Creation, Gunton argues, and God is displaced from His relationship with Creation by various philosophical assumptions and conclusions, and by the subsequent social, political, and economic institutions that grew from those seed-thoughts.


It would be nice to believe that our neighbors were receptive to conversations about the common good, and that they would then think better of us, and so be more receptive to the Gospel. But I think that, once our neighbors understood what Christians mean by the common good, they would be even less interested in conversing than if we talked about abortion or same-sex marriage. We would move from pitched battles over particular issues on to even more pitched battles about fundamental and entirely irreconcilable disagreements concerning which no practical compromise is possible. I applaud enthusiastically the introduction of the idea of the common good into the life of Christian witness. But I think we should be committed to it even when we discover that it doesn’t help evangelism or the public impression of theologically conservative Christians. If we are too preoccupied with superficial winsomeness — with being more winsome than I think Jesus was — we will be tempted to secularize and shrink our theory and practice concerning the common good.

Eagerly pursuing the common good is an essential calling for believers, but I have no reason to think it will help us be more well-liked. It may well, in fact, produce what Stanley Hauerwas calls the right kind of enemies. In his essay, “Preaching as though We Had Enemies,” Hauerwas says that making the right sort of enemies is the whole point of Christianity. In that essay, Hauerwas observes that “liberal versions of Christianity, which can be both theologically and politically conservative, assume that what it means to be Christian qua Christian is to have no enemies peculiar to being Christian.” This is assumed despite the promise of Jesus that in this world we will have tribulation. Most of us do not go to church, Hauerwas writes, “because we are seeking a safe haven from our enemies; we go to church to be assured we have no enemies.”

Actively, systematically, and consistently promoting the common good will produce enemies and possibly invite persecution in modern America because our society is deeply committed to the premise that we should share no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common. The American understanding of freedom — an understanding shared by many professing Christians — was articulated by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This so-called “mystery passage” has received a lot of mockery from conservatives of various stripes, but I think it is profoundly accurate statement of the flowering of a seed-thought central to the character of modern culture. This radical privatizing of all metaphysical commitment is not the tyrannical expression of an elitist court, but the precious conviction of a majority of Americans. This is a country where it’s not uncommon to hear someone say something like “I believe Jesus is Lord — but that’s just my personal opinion.” Sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in American Mythos, reports on a study he conducted in which 58% of the public agreed that “Christianity is the best way to understand God,” but only 25% said it was best for everybody.

The orthodoxy of all liberal democracies requires that religious convictions — or any beliefs that even appear religious — be segregated from private life. Religious convictions cannot be regarded as having public consequence. As John Milbank has noted, “in principle, a state can adopt any ideology it chooses, except a religious one.” And yet, a Christian understanding of human flourishing and the common good must be founded on the affirmation of our creation by God.


Every person is called to pursue goods which transcend the person and his or her choices. Some Protestants will be more familiar with a statement with a similar thrust: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Maritain says that ignoring the supernatural ends of human personhood is a sin against the common good. But according to the structures of modernity that determine “what may be thought” (as Oliver O’Donovan put it), this is not an assertion one can make in public. This muzzling of metaphysical claims typical of liberal societies is why a commitment to the common good properly understood will put us in conflict with deeply held commitments of our neighbors, specifically why we will be seen as a great threat to their understanding of human liberty and dignity. By the standards of a nonmodern understanding (either Christian or pagan) of what is good for human beings as such, we must conclude and somehow bear witness to the fact that the conventional modern understanding of liberty and dignity and of the human is not good for the common good.

By making it clear that the common good cannot be reconciled with the modern understanding of freedom, a commitment to the common good raises the stakes of public disagreement and potentially escalates cultural conflict. One hopes that the commitment to the common good that is emerging among evangelicals will sustain enough love for our neighbors so that we can risk being hated for challenging them about this. There will be some non-Christians who could side with a Christian understanding as Maritain and many others put it forth. There are likely to be many more Christians — on Right and Left — who reject the historic Christian understanding of freedom and who will want to see the common good watered down to a utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number.” If that happens, evangelicals will continue the pattern recognized by Tocqueville by which expressions of American Christianity merely serve an essentially secular, civil religion.


The most important way we can be a counterculture serving the common good is not through influencing government policies but through re-forming the moral and metaphysical imaginations of our contemporaries. One reason I insist that there never really was a culture war was because the same people who spent 30 years fighting to get more Republicans in office were embracing and nurturing a modern understanding of freedom within their own churches. I’m referring to the remarkable tendency to re-position the church as a consumer good, evident in such phrases as “market-driven church.” The acquiescence to the models of therapy and commodification by churches eager to retain market share has been criticized for its watering down of theology. But the greater damage has been the way that the spirit of church marketing and the careless acceptance of commercial paradigms for ministry have made it that much harder to confront the modern understanding of freedom as the unobstructed power of choice, and of dignity as rooted in complete autonomy. Not only does this cultural capitulation hamper efforts at discipleship; it makes it impossible for Christians to recognize how the commodification of culture — the market model applied to all of human experience — is a dehumanizing enemy of the common good. If individuals are encouraged to understand themselves as sovereign consumers regarding everything, any impediment to free choosing becomes intolerable. David Bentley Hart has written that “We have come to believe — more or less unreflectively — that the will necessarily becomes more free the more it is emancipated from whatever constraints it suffers.”

By contrast, premodern Christians and pagans believed that, as Hart summarizes,

true freedom . . . is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is. An absolutely ‘negative liberty’ — the absence of any religious, cultural, or social restrictions upon the exercise of the will — may often seem desirable (at least for oneself) but ultimately offers only the ‘freedom’ of chaos, of formless potential. This is enough, admittedly, if one’s highest model of life is protoplasm; but if one suspects that, as rational beings, we are called to a somewhat more elevated moral existence than that, one must begin to ask which impulses within us should be suppressed, both by ourselves and by the cultural rules that we all must share.

Hart is instructing us here that since the common good serves the transcendent good beyond itself, since the common good nurtures true human flourishing, the recognition of limits and the acceptance of communal disciplines are necessary.

Hart connects the premodern understanding of freedom with the role of society in discipling, training, educating, and forming its members:

Precisely through accepting freely the constraints of a larger social and moral tradition and community, one gives shape to a character that can endure from moment to moment, rather than dissolving in each instant into whichever new inclination of appetite or curiosity rises up within one. One ceases to be governed by caprice, or to be the slave of one’s own liberty.

This understanding of freedom, however, requires not only the belief that we possess an actual nature, which must flourish to be free, but a belief in the transcendent Good towards which that nature is oriented. This Christians, Jews, and virtuous pagans have always understood: that which can endure in us is sustained by that which lies beyond us, in the eternity of its own plenitude. To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.

And so, Hart concludes,

a society is just precisely to the degree that it makes true freedom possible; to do this it must leave certain areas of moral existence to govern themselves, but it must also in many cases seek to defeat the most vicious aspects of fallen nature, and to aid as far as possible in the elevation in each soul of right reason over mere appetite and impulse — which necessarily involves denying certain persons the things they want most. A just social order, that is to say, would be one devoted to what might be called a “pedagogy of the Good,” and would recognize that there can be no simple partition between the polity of the soul and the polity of the people, and that there is in fact a reciprocal spiritual relation — a harmony — between them. When appetite seizes the reins of the soul or the city, it drives the chariot toward ruin; so it is the very art of sound governance to seek to perfect the intricate and delicate choreography of moral and legal custom that will best promote the sway of reverent reason in city and soul alike. 

I would like to say “read the whole thing,” as usual, but this long lecture is not available online, as far as I know. But if you are interested in this critique of Christianity and culture, you absolutely must subscribe to Ken Myers’s Mars Hill Audio Journal, which is hands down the very best resource for helping intellectual Christians understand the nature of the times in which we live.

The problem I see is that for Neuhausian culture warriors like George, the problem is chiefly a political and legal one. Fine, but we keep losing those skirmishes. Withdrawing strategically from the battlefront is not the same as surrender. The battlefront goes from out there to in here — that is, to within the communities we need to focus on as we thicken our practices and tell our stories. There is work to be done, work of the sort that we really haven’t had to do. Going to coffeehouses and reading books to understand the lay of the land may be more important in the end than another appearance on afternoon cable news, or another speech, or lecture, what have you. There are a number of ways to fight the culture war. Fight, yes, absolutely — but not every warrior draws a sword.

OK, I’ve given you a lot to read. I’m going to be driving all day to Dallas. 7pm tonight at the Barnes & Noble over by North Park Mall. I’ll be there taking Dante.

UPDATE: And I should add that Christians have an additional challenge in fighting back: we have to do so without hating those who hate us. If we succumb to hatred for them, we lose the greater battle, and betray Christ, because even those who make of themselves our enemies are made in the image of God, and bear in some way the light of Christ. That is a hard teaching, but nobody said the Way would be easy.