Category: Essays

The Spirit of the Age

First Things announced their student essay contest winners today. (Congratulations to the winners!) Given the state of religious conservatism in America, I am not surprised the editors selected entries with an optimistic quality.

My own submission answered prompt #3, based on an R. R. Reno article (partially behind a paywall) encouraging religious conservatives to avoid defeatism in the face of secular opposition:

3. I have argued that “the Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will become more appealing as the weaknesses of the secular project become apparent.”

This was my response:


The Spirit of the Age

There are serious weaknesses in the progressive project. But capitalizing on them will be no easy task.

On a variety of important metrics, the deleterious effects of progressivism are felt far and wide. People today, especially the young, are significantly less content than in the past, when belief in God dominated public consciousness. On relationships, where progressive ideals of sexual liberation have made great advances, commentators openly discuss the emptiness of hook-up culture, the ruinous effects of divorce, and the withering expectations, particularly of women, inherent in cohabitation. On college campuses, professors lament the chilling effects of Title IX litigation on free speech and the infantilization of students with the rise of trigger warnings.

Even the progressive faith in technocratic solutions has, at least in some quarters, been tempered with the sober realization that humanity does not regularly use the power of innovation to better others. It turns out that the deliverances of big data are insufficient to curb the excesses of human vice. Slick apps are no antidote to the self-serving culture of corporate-political alliances. The Internet, which has revolutionized the exchange of information, has exposed the darkest corners of society and given free rein to trolls and their unconscionable programs of online harassment. The human condition cannot be changed by mere technological progress.

The disappointments of secularism are particularly acute in the realm of popular social media. In a culture that looks for salvation in self-marketing and the approval of peers, Facebook and Twitter have magnified the emptiness of a society ordered around self-expression. The promise of connecting with like-minded groups or distant family has not led to more satisfying relationships. Instead participants have experienced the sociological phenomenon of “Facebook-envy,” where users become depressed as they compare their boring private lives to their (online) friends’ endless stream of personal achievements and finely curated vacation albums.

As with any moral order built on the radical autonomy of the individual, discontent with progressivism was inevitable. While hardly every social ill is the result of progressive culture, many social ills (and, perhaps more importantly, the inability to emotionally cope with them) are the result of taking the materialistic project of self-actualization to its logical conclusions. We are observing, not always at a safe distance, the institutionalization of incurvatus in se—the inward turn of society to its own desires and away from transcendent norms. Where public virtue once treated individual desire with suspicion, it is now openly celebrated by a culture that commands Millennials to celebrate themselves, follow their dreams, and deny themselves no material pleasure. As traditionalists, we know this to be false. Lasting fulfillment can only be found in shared community practices that promote the good of the family, the neighborhood and broader society.

Some social conservatives see these weaknesses as a strategic opening. Yet despite the great sense of frustration with the current social order, society continues its inward turn. We are reminded by our cultural gatekeepers that the answers to life are found within, rather than above. And if we find satisfaction in the pursuit of our dreams and ambitions an elusive target, society offers to numb the pain through a panoply of materialistic medicines—untethered sex, addictive drugs, excessive alcohol, and endless television. There has been no indication of broader public interest in the sort of Christian values that would alleviate this self-inflicted suffering. We would do well to reflect on this.

It takes a certain set of (disputable) anthropological assumptions to believe that exposing the philosophical deficiencies of the progressive project will be a sufficient ground to return Judeo-Christian values to a place of cultural prominence. Contrary to earlier models, modern sociology has shown, fairly decisively, that rational deliberation is not the primary means by which people make decisions about the world. We are the product first of our family and then of our friends; socialization is the core driver of ideology, and narratives of desire, rather than abstract reason, play the most important role in determining the range of plausible belief structures.

The greatest difficulty for social conservatives is that the secular elite, along with an ever-increasing share of society, have dispensed almost entirely with traditional religion. While some of this is due to ignorance, many progressives have read the Bible and understand the sort of moral order social conservatives wish to impose on American public life. They simply reject it as false. When asked their position on the existence of God or his role in public life, staunch secularists will confidently assert that they have “no need of that hypothesis.” The less strident are hardly better, for they still seriously doubt the possibility of divine knowledge. The range of plausible belief structures lies somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, while religious claims are treated as dubious, or simply disgusting.  In the philosophical battle that has raged since the Enlightenment, secular progressives now occupy the epistemological high ground.

Any strategy social conservatives might implement in their quest to regain cultural dominance involves drawing, at least implicitly, but often directly, on the answer to a question no one is asking: what hath the LORD said? The vertical inquiry, once dominant for much of Western history, has been replaced by horizontal concerns. The modern educated American may dabble in Yoga or the spiritualism of Buddhism, but she has otherwise committed to a new, secular moral order, an inverse asceticism which grounds purpose and ethics in the innate solidarity of the human race. Belief in God now occupies a contested space, no longer a reliable guide to public policy.

More critical is the power of the progressive narrative, in which social conservatives feature as the villain. Traditional religionists are power-hungry oppressors who cause immense suffering for racial and sexual minorities, often while engaging in the very practices they condemn as immoral. We might complain that this narrative is grounded more in preference than fact, but that does not matter to a movement convinced of its inherent righteousness. Anything a villain says is suspect: who would give Mr. Wickham or Professor Moriarty a fair hearing? Regaining the public trust will require the narrative of an entire generation to be overturned. That is asking for nothing less than a conversion. Some may believe this is possible, but let us recognize it for what it is: a hope, rather than a viable political strategy.

As the progressive narrative has entrenched itself, the governing moral vision of America has become something we might call broadly libertarian. The individual refrain echoes out, in the words of that hollow poem, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” On most other social questions, the rules are simple: avoid harm and, when necessary, obtain consent. We may (rightly) indicate the weaknesses of this pluralistic vision—the idea that what one does in private has no meaningful effect on the public good is demonstrably false and the cause of much real and lasting harm—but intellectual efforts on this front have had virtually no effect on the relentless leftward march of public culture. The elites have affected their desired change: as recent polling has revealed, Americans, especially the young, are ever more accepting of physician-assisted suicide, sex outside of marriage, having and raising children outside of marriage, human cloning, and even polygamy. These moral shifts are the natural outworking of a socially libertarian view of the world, a view that seems unburdened by the backward, probably bigoted, concerns of otherwise discredited religious institutions.

And so the banner of progressivism continues to conquer new territory. The recent Vanity Fair cover, which blazons the physical transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner, has been met with almost universal acclaim in popular media. Culturally, the range of acceptable responses to Jenner’s life choices is narrow: you must either praise her (and certainly with the right pronoun) or keep any mild reservations you might have to yourself until such a time as you are able to unreservedly join the parade of sexual autonomy. Those who would dare openly criticize, rather than celebrate, Caitlyn’s decision will quickly find themselves ostracized from polite society, if they were not the sort of backward clod who was already in exile. This should be considered another defeat—if the current rearguard actions we are fighting can even be called a war—for the cause of social conservatism, one like the refusal of large corporations to back mild religious freedom bills. What would have been seen as a lamentable state of confusion in a previous generation is now championed as a brave example for all who suffer from gender dysphoria.

Only a few areas of culture have consistently fought against the progressive moral ethic, and it is instructive to consider the way in which these battles have been conducted. Most notable is the counter-cultural movement known as “GamerGate,” an ideological conflict primarily over whether game developers and consumers must pay deference to (sometimes radical) notions of progressive feminism in computer and video game design. Although most of gamer culture seems to have rejected the neo-puritanism of progressive media critics, these critics are seen as no different from earlier conservatives who attempted to ban violent video games. The conflict may be best described as a division between authoritarian left and libertarian left. Even though the libertarian elements of the movement are able to identify many of the shortcomings of progressivism, dissatisfaction with this moral order has not led to any sort of tolerance, let alone embrace, of traditional social values. Most in the movement have diagnosed social conservatives and moral progressives as two symptoms of the same authoritarian disease.

Given the direction of the country, traditionally minded Christians should not overplay their hand: marginal success on the abortion front is not to be confused with some sort of return to Judeo-Christian values. The same radical individualism that drives the now overwhelming support for same-sex marriage is likely the only ground on which to make further gains for the pro-life cause in the public sphere. It is not a sense of Christian or Jewish moral duty that compels the secular pro-life impulse, but rather as technology reveals the unborn to be more like our global tribe than not, society may wonder why we do not give these individuals the same chance at self-fulfillment that we enjoy. Yet this is hardly a stable beachhead. As we have seen with the willingness of mothers to abort most children with Down syndrome, Americans will discreetly end a life if it threatens to interfere with their own radical autonomy or violate some vague sense of what counts as a life worth living.

These trends have implications for fiscal conservatives as well. If radical individualism becomes the highest, most popular societal good, we will continue to see voters look to the state for aid beyond the provision of basic needs. And as conservatives become less religious, we may see a drop in charitable giving comparable to non-religious liberals, which will only reinforce cycles of poverty and intensify the cry of the poor for government relief. If radical individualism continues to supplant traditional mores, it may not be enough for business conservatives and economic libertarians to hope that “common sense” fiscal and pocketbook appeals will be sufficient to prevent the rise of an ever more powerful, intrusive state.

It is not hard to understand recent calls for Christians to prepare orthodox communities for the defensive task of preserving the beliefs and practices of traditional Christianity. While society turns inward and pushes orthodox expressions of Christianity out, we must resist another sort of inward turn. While not entailed by the Benedict Option, there will be a temptation to withdraw from public life and retreat to religious communities of shared practice. Such a retreat would result in little to no outward reach and a set of public values expressed primarily at the voting booth, if at all.

As they prepare the Benedict Option, it would be wise for traditional Christians to consider living out the narrative of Christian self-sacrifice in more publicly visible ways. While there are many opportunities here, perhaps some of the most powerful will be in those places most forgotten by society.

To take a personal example, I once attended a church in New York City that ministered to AIDS victims. While the church had an orthodox view of sexuality, the credibility of the church came not from its public pronouncements on the subject (which were rare and often veiled) but arose from concrete actions of service to suffering members of a group historically marginalized for its sexual choices. Another area where we can make significant inroads is care for the elderly. Millions of people waste away in nursing homes each year, forgotten by a society that valorizes youth.

If social conservatives hope to have any chance of regaining cultural hegemony without relying on propaganda or deceit, it must begin with a rehabilitation of its public image. This will not occur through public relations stunts, but a generational commitment to serving the poor and marginalized with little expectation of reward. We should not withdraw from politics, nor should we temper our message, but we should certainly not expect a society suspicious of traditional Christianity to embrace Judeo-Christian values until trust in social conservatism is regained. The destructive project of exposing the progressive myth for what it is—a great lie that will end in tragedy—is a necessary but insufficient condition for regaining the public square.

But we are merely gesturing at possibilities. Does the American church have moral credibility anywhere these days? The great emptying of Catholic and mainline churches is ominous. Only Evangelical churches are retaining members, which may be more a function of glossy presentation than robust belief; as the cancer of Moral Therapeutic Deism continues to rot the Evangelical movement, we may see a rupture of believers paralleling that of other Christian groups.

Can social conservatives win? All things are possible. Yet there is little indication the miasma of our secular age is abating. It continues to obscure the lux aeterna, driving Americans ever inward. It atrophies the public sense of the divine, undermining any attempt to reinstate a Christian conception of the good. All signs suggest our epistemological and moral horizons are darkening. As it comes ever more into conflict with traditional Christianity, the American Spirit of polite indifference is morphing into one of disdain, even animosity.

As Christ said of another indomitable spirit, “This kind only comes out through prayer.”