The Most Dangerous Post-Election Lie
That's a photo above of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the gulag. Watch the video here. It's important.
I got in late last night from several great days in London, meeting wonderful people, and feeling in the most important respects recharged. I have had perhaps the worst year of my life (I'm talking about the divorce), but at the same time, it was reaffirmed for me in London that I am inordinately blessed by the friends I have. In London, I gave a talk about Live Not By Lies -- the lessons we Christians should learn from the suffering underground churches under Communism, that can be applied to our own situation. One of the main three lessons is the absolute importance of creating and sustaining small groups. Over and over, in my reporting for the book, I heard from dissidents who remained behind to live and struggle under Communism, that they could not have gotten through with their faith intact if it hadn't been for small groups. The underground Slovak Catholic bishop (later cardinal) Jan Chrysostom Korec, told his followers that the state could take everything they have away from them, but the one thing the state must not be allowed to take away is their small groups of the faithful. These last few days in London, making new friends and renewing old friendships, helped me to understand this at a deep level. If you have others who love you, and whom you love, standing with you in the storm, you can endure anything. If it was true for those having to live under hard totalitarianism, how much more true must it be with us? I was making my coffee this morning, and a revised version of a well-known Auden line appeared in my mind: You will love your broken neighbor/With your broken heart.
On the flight back to Budapest, I was trying to sort out the meaning of this election day we just had. It seems clear to me that it likely would have been a Red Wave had Donald Trump not been a factor. He did a lot of good for the conservatives in 2016, but now, he is an enormous liability. True MAGA fans can't accept it, but the truth is, there are a decisive number of Americans who would vote Republican, and will even vote for Trumpist policies, but won't vote for Trump, or Trump-adjacent candidates. This is not hard to understand. Trump's statements since election day reveal once again what we have always known about his character: that he is a reckless, vain man who doesn't want to do anything other than create a cult of personality around himself.
Aaron Renn, the Calvinist public intellectual best known today for his "three worlds of Evangelicalism" model, writes of the striking repudiation of pro-life advocacy in this election:
This is just more evidence that we live in what I called the negative world. Conservative Christians need to understand that the majority of the public simply does not agree with their social positions. This is one reason that the culture war approach is obsolete. This is going to be a painful adjustment for a lot of people who are used to thinking of themselves as a “moral majority.”
He goes on:
I think this election shows that the MAGA movement in America is out of gas. Paul Gottfried once said that conservatism was basically a journalism project. That is, it was mostly a collection of op-ed writers, not serious academics, policy people, or a real political movement.
Similarly, one way to describe MAGA is as a social media influencer movement. It’s been long on e-celebrities and rhetoricians, short on serious, competent people who can produce results. The most MAGA/Trumpy candidates in this election underperformed in competitive races. JD Vance won his Senate race in Ohio, for example, but badly trailed the performance of Republican Ron DeWine in his gubernatorial campaign.
DeSantis is an interesting case study in post-MAGA politics. He recognized the unpopularity of the consensus status quo. And he took strong actions against that consensus that were publicly popular while largely avoiding ones that were not. For example, child transgenderization is not popular. On the other hand, most people want abortion to be legal. So he only signed a 15-week abortion ban, which seems in line with public opinion.
In retrospect, he was also the best performing governor of any major state leader during the pandemic. I believe Florida’s death rates were in the middle of the pack. But his decision to mostly keep the schools open is now the conventional wisdom about what should have been done everywhere. And by keeping business largely open as well, he positioned Florida to profit enormously from the shifting landscape. Big time venture capital and high finance - even the very progressive, ESG promoting BlackRock - have streamed into South Florida. This took enormous courage, and DeSantis was vilified by the media for two years over it. Even today they refuse to give him credit even when adopting his positions.
He also seems to have handled the recent hurricane relatively well. And although it is perhaps not something he personally did, Florida seems to have the gold standard for running elections, with its results available very quickly. That’s a big change from 2000. So he appears competent.
DeSantis lacks the natural charisma of many politicians. It’s not clear how he or his approach will play outside of Florida. But he’s shown that an aggressive Republicanism that stakes out popular post-MAGA positions, and which demonstrates courageous leadership and the competent ability to actually get things done can be not just popular but extremely popular. This demonstrates the divergent fortunes of traditional religious conservatism and a possible post-Christian, post-MAGA Republican Party.
Aaron published this on his Substack newsletter, which he's got a this-week-only special subscription offer extant. I strongly suggest that you subscribe, even if you're not a Protestant. Aaron is really smart, and he's not afraid to tell hard truths to his fellow Christian conservatives.
Note that he points out that religious conservatism's interests and that of the "post-Christian, post-MAGA Republican Party" diverge. This is something that is very hard for older Christians to grasp -- I mean, the idea that politics are not the solution. Don't misread me (I mean, everybody misreads me, but I'm going to make another plea here): It's not an either/or. It's not either "throw yourself completely into politics" or "head for the hills." There are no hills to head to. We are stuck in this thing whether we want to be or not. Christians (and other traditionalists) have to do the best we can within political possibility, while AT THE SAME TIME preparing ourselves and our communities for dark and difficult days ahead. We have no choice. I was telling somebody in London that I find it so much more rewarding to be among younger (under 50) Christians in Europe and the UK talking about this stuff, because they live in more advanced post-Christian societies, and can see very clearly how hard it is, and is going to be. Americans are not quite there yet. We American Christians would do very well to engage British and European Christians who are serious about the faith (I'm not talking about people like the liberal Catholics who are now busy trying to revolutionize the Catholic Church in the name of synodality and accompaniment), to benefit from their counsel.
For me, the trans issue, even more than abortion, is the bellwether issue of our time for Christians. As far as I know, Wes Yang is not a believer, or even a conservative, but he has been a passionate opponent of the transing of America. His Twitter account features stories from detransitioners about how they were lied to and manipulated. He tweeted this after the election:
I'm where he is. This campaign to alienate young people from their bodies, to mutilate them chemically and surgically, and to deceive and sideline parents, is one of the most evil things I have ever seen. And yet, few people seem to care. The GOP certainly doesn't care. People like Chris Rufo and Matt Walsh have done more to roll this evil back than any GOP politician, with the exception of Ron DeSantis and now, the governor and legislators in Tennessee, where Walsh lives. It is mind-blowing to me that Republicans have not made an issue of this -- not because it will help them win votes, but because it is just so damn evil. But then, how many pastors are making an issue of it? How many pastors are explaining to their congregations why it's bad, and how parents and their kids can resist it? How many people in the pews want to hear it? This is what it means to be a post-Christian country. This is what it means to have bought the modern story that the material world, especially the human body, is meaningless matter upon which we can impose our will, without limits. Again, so many Christians have bought into this story, and know so little about the faith that they don't understand what they are doing. An Evangelical pastor friend of mine texted me yesterday to say that he had spoken to a group of about 60 Evangelical college students at a big Southern university, and was shocked to find that none of them knew much of anything about the Bible, or the faith. They were blank slates. They didn't choose to be that way: this is what their parents and grandparents did to them. We Christians -- in part because we put too much faith in politics -- have created a generation of men (and women) without chests, and we wonder why they consent to becoming men and women without breasts and balls.
You think Pope Francis's "synodal" church, a church of "inclusivity" and "accompaniment" is going to form Catholics capable of resisting? Read this column by Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican priest, now Catholic. He saw what this kind of talk did to his former church, and he's now sounding the alarm. Excerpt:
[I]n the world of Anglicanism, an essential part of the leftist sociological take-over of the church was almost always accompanied by the promise that the Holy Spirit was very much part of the project. It turned out, at the end of the process that the progressives had in fact mistaken the spirit of the age for the Holy Spirit. Having seen the ploy used once to such divisive and destructive effect, the ex-Anglicans are hoping to share their experience of the danger this constitutes to the integrity of the Church.
The problem seems to stem from the fact that the Synodal Way has adopted a theological world view of a particular kind. In the arena of historic spirituality we might distinguish a variety of different aspects of the ecclesial community; clergy and lay, religious and secular; obedient and disobedient; faithful and unfaithful; observant and nominal; ethical and amoral; pietists and activists, etc
But the Synodal Way has, if you are a supporter, configured (or if you are a critic, rigged) the conversation in advance by imposing the categories of “excluded” and “included”. These are intended to be variants of those who have power and those who have none. A perspective more faithful to the traditions of the Church would express more interest in the categories of those who did or did not have faith rather than those who did or did not have power.
We have been moved out of the arena of Christian spirituality into that of Marxist power-play. The Synodal Way has become a study in “alienation”. We are back to the world of identity politics where the group you belong to takes precedence over your personal virtue (or lack of it). If you are marginalised, alienated, excluded, then this is a conversation for you.
It's happening to Catholics right now. In my own church, the Orthodox Church, there are moves among certain theologians and activists to make the same thing happen. Recently I spoke to a Russian Orthodox young believer, who told me that the sad truth is that Russia is not really a Christian country. He said that in twenty years, gender ideology and all the rest will be powerfully present among a younger generation of Russians who have been catechized by Western pop culture. He told me -- as did Polish Catholics of his generation -- that there is nothing more powerful in forming the moral imagination of the young than Western pop culture. The senior Catholic leadership is playing right into this. As far as I can tell, many Orthodox leaders prefer to be mute and uncomprehending. Even a Nigerian Anglican bishop, speaking at a Benedict Option conference in Massachusetts a couple of years ago, said that Africa needs Benedict Option thinking, because -- surprise! -- Western pop culture, distributed via global social media networks, are colonizing the minds of Africa's young.
This morning, a friend texted me this remarkable post-election thread by someone I don't know. It begins like this:
He points out in the thread that Generation Z is totally in the pockets of the Democrats, which has been clear for a very long time. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann wrote earlier this year that surveys show a majority of Americans under 30 favor what he calls "cultural socialism" -- that is, an illiberal leftism that rejects traditional liberties (free speech, freedom of religion, and so forth) when the exercise of those liberties stands to offend sacred victim groups. I was at a small conference this past spring in which Kaufmann said that if conservatives don't prioritize fighting the culture war, they soon won't be allowed to say what they think and practice their faith as they please, because a democratic majority won't tolerate it.
I go back to the ignorant young Christian blank-slatists that my Southern pastor friend confronted recently. These young people are superficially Christian, but they know next to nothing about their faith. They are not going to make it -- and this is something the Boomers, and older Xers, did to them. But they are also now adults, and are responsible for themselves going forward. In London, I met a young woman who is not a conservative, but who has been red-pilled towards Christianity by the insanity of the sexual revolution. She is not a Christian either, but she is very close to converting, because the church -- the real church, not this woke simulacrum -- is an oasis of sanity. A UK Christian friend of that generation -- Millennials -- told me that you would be surprised how many of them who were raised with no religion at all are being drawn to Christ because the alternative is chaos.
In fact, as a Christian, I heartily recommend Louise Perry's (totally secular) book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. She got to where orthodox Christian belief is not as a religious person, but as a feminist who has been appalled by what the Sex Rev has done to women, children, and the most vulnerable among us. I bought a copy for my teenage daughter, so she can see that the things her parents taught her about the meaning of the body, and the meaning of sex and marriage, is not just something churchy.
As I write in The Benedict Option, and as I wrote in this 2013 TAC essay "Sex After Christianity," sex is a very, very big deal regarding the social order. Philip Rieff, the secular Jewish sociologist and social critic, wrote in 1966 that the Christian sexual ethic was what made the early church so distinct, and the abandoning of it in modern times as an ideal is going to lead to the dissolution of the churches, though (he said) Christian leaders can't see it. Well, it's now written in fire in the heavens. In that TAC piece (which didn't even mention transgenderism, because at the time, it was a relatively minor phenomenon):
Twenty years ago, new president Bill Clinton stepped on a political landmine when he tried to fulfill a campaign promise to permit gay soldiers to serve openly. Same-sex marriage barely registered as a political cause; the country was then three years away from the Defense of Marriage Act and four years from comedian Ellen DeGeneres’s prime-time coming out.
Then came what historians will one day recall as a cultural revolution. Now we’re entering the endgame of the struggle over gay rights and the meaning of homosexuality. Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court of public opinion. It is commonly believed that the only reason to oppose same-sex marriage is rank bigotry or for religious reasons, neither of which—the argument goes—has any place in determining laws or public standards.
The magnitude of the defeat suffered by moral traditionalists will become ever clearer as older Americans pass from the scene. Poll after poll shows that for the young, homosexuality is normal and gay marriage is no big deal—except, of course, if one opposes it, in which case one has the approximate moral status of a segregationist in the late 1960s.
All this is, in fact, a much bigger deal than most people on both sides realize, and for a reason that eludes even ardent opponents of gay rights. Back in 1993, a cover story in The Nation identified the gay-rights cause as the summit and keystone of the culture war:
All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
They were right, and though the word “cosmology” may strike readers as philosophically grandiose, its use now appears downright prophetic. The struggle for the rights of “a small and despised sexual minority” would not have succeeded if the old Christian cosmology had held: put bluntly, the gay-rights cause has succeeded precisely because the Christian cosmology has dissipated in the mind of the West.
Same-sex marriage strikes the decisive blow against the old order. The Nation’s triumphalist rhetoric from two decades ago is not overripe; the radicals appreciated what was at stake far better than did many—especially bourgeois apologists for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon. Gay marriage will indeed change America forever, in ways that are only now becoming visible. For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture. It already is doing exactly that.
Trans simply advances the argument to its natural conclusion. If there are any Christian readers who labor under the illusion that repealing Obergefell is possible, or would be effective if it happened, should reflect on the fact that absent Roe, very many Americans want abortion to be legal and liberally available. Similarly, if Obergefell were somehow overturned, it would take a day and a half for every state in America to write same-sex marriage into law. We are not the country we used to be. We are post-Christian, and the fact that most Americans still identify as Christian (something that is not true with Gen Z) only testifies to the superficiality and shallowness of the faith.
Which brings us to The Benedict Option. It's five years old now, and since 2020, I have heard from a number of Christians who tell me they used to think I was an alarmist, but no longer do now. To me, the most vivid sign of the post-Christian times is what Wes Yang sees: that this monstrous experiment is being run on America's young people, directed and executed by a network of the most powerful people in American society, and there has been very little resistance. All power to the Matt Walshes and Chris Rufos of the world! They are doing tremendously important work, and I support them 100 percent. We have to fight this stuff politically, as hard as we can. I think there are victories to be had.
But those victories will be transient absent a radical change in the culture. The future is not fated. We are free to choose life, or death. People's minds and hearts can be changed, and cultures can be saved. Yet the churches today are mostly impotent. They either don't recognize the reality of Negative World, or don't want to face facts and change strategies. Unlike under Soviet communism, we do not have bishops and priests imprisoned or bullied into silence by threats of prison. It's worse: religious leaders are surrendering their courage without being compelled to do so. Therefore, my message to believers is: do not wait to be led! It's probably not going to happen. Educate yourselves, and start forming these small communities of faith, and networks of communities, so you can have a fighting chance of raising your kids in the faith, and enduring what's to come. I talk about this in both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. We do not have to sit passively by while this wave of darkness and chaos passes over us! There are things we can do, and do together. I think once again about the pastor I spoke to a couple of years ago, who told me he wouldn't talk about gender ideology to his congregation because he didn't want to be divisive, and introduce "politics" into the church. That man is going to have to answer to God one day for why he left his flock undefended. If you are part of a church whose clerical leadership is aware and courageous and engaged, give thanks to God! But if not, either find one that is, or build a small Ben Op/LNBL community within the congregation.
In The Benedict Option, I highlight the Tipi Loschi, a big community of orthodox Catholics who all go to ordinary parishes in their Italian city, but who created this community years ago because they knew that they weren't being fed the substantive Catholic faith by the parishes, and they knew that their children needed more if they were going to remain Christian in this post-Christian world. Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, St. Benedict's birthplace, introduced me to that community, and told me that any Christian family that expected to make it through the coming storm would have to embed themselves in this kind of community.
The hour is late. What are you going to do? I know this is hard. I completely failed in Louisiana to do anything like this. I understand the reasons why it failed in my case, but that does not put me off the idea, which is sound. I'm here in Budapest now, and I have to figure out what I can do within the limits of my place and local culture. What else is there? We are not without friends! I'm on a spiritual high now because of all the solid Christians I met in England, men and women who see the challenges in front of us, and who want to face them with hope and courage, together. I am their ally! They are mine! We need to find each other. We need to practice together the Slovak Catholic underground church founder Father Kolakovic's strategy: See, Judge, Act.
There is no escaping the suffering ahead. Indeed, the consistent testimony of those who were part of the underground church in Soviet times is that the survival of the faith depends on the ability and willingness of individual Christians to suffer well. Our mission is to endure what is coming with faith, hope, courage, and love, and to offer our church communities as arks that fish shipwrecked people from the flood of liquid modernity. If you have dismissed the Benedict Option before, I urge you to rethink it, and to get busy being a creative minority, while there is still time. As I tell audiences today, we are in a Kolakovic Moment in the West. Father Tomislav Kolakovic arrived in Bratislava in 1943, escaping the Nazis. He told Catholic students in his classes that the Germans were going to lose the war, thank God, but that the Soviets were going to rule their country after the war was over -- and that the first thing they were going to do was persecute the Church. He got busy building small groups of resistance -- groups that prayed together, studied together, deliberated together, and acted together to strengthen the bonds of faith between people, to make them more resilient. The Catholic bishops of Slovakia didn't want to hear it. They told him he was being alarmist. That did not stop Father Kolakovic -- and thank God for it, because when the Iron Curtain decisively fell over Czechoslovakia in 1948, everything happened exactly like he said it would. The Kolakovic network formed the backbone of the underground church.
We Christians are free today, like the Catholics of Slovakia were in the mid-1940s. Our freedom is not going to last forever, any more than theirs did. We can see what's coming. We must see what's coming. And we don't dare allow ourselves to believe that politics alone will save us, or that Christianity as usual -- comfort, winsomeness, conformity, and politics (left or right) as a vessel for our passion -- will suffice. Even as we stay politically engaged, if only to protect our religious liberty, we have a sacred responsibility to get off our backsides and See, Judge, and Act. I deeply believe that every single one of us will be held accountable by God for what we did, and did not, do. It won't be enough to blame bishops or priests or pastors. We all have radical responsibility in this -- to ourselves, to our children, to our neighbors, and to God. All of us. Me. You. What are we going to do with the time and the liberty that God has generously given us before the real test begins?
The most dangerous lie that American conservative Christians can live by today is the comforting thought that everything is going to be fine again, if we just keep doing what we're doing now, and sit back and wait.
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By the way, if you buy a copy of Live Not By Lies now -- it's just out in paperback -- here is a link to a free, downloadable study guide to help your group see, judge, and act.
UPDATE: Forgot to say that I had a disturbing conversation with a couple of Christians in London about how they are seeing among American Christians of the Right a turn towards actual fascism as a response to despair, and to the "cultural socialism" of the Left. This is a huge warning sign. If you don't think Christians can be seduced by fascism, watch Malick's film A Hidden Life, about the life and death of the Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a martyr to the Nazis. Everybody in that man's Austrian Catholic village was a churchgoing Catholic. But only Franz and his family resisted when Nazism showed up. Everybody else capitulated. There's an important lesson in his story. It's confusing these days, when the Left calls any interest in tradition, family, and national sovereignty "fascism." Nevertheless, fascism is a real thing, an anti-Christian thing, and if we Christians don't give ourselves, our kids, and our communities a meaningful, authentically Christian alternative to it, we are going to lose our people to it.
UPDATE.2: To make certain I am not misunderstood, let me reiterate: Political action is urgent and necessary! The point I'm trying to emphasize here is that politics alone are not enough, and not even close to enough. Don't be fooled. We have the politics that we have today because we have the culture that we do. We have the culture that we do in large part because the church has gone AWOL as a meaningful force in the lives of individuals.