Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Culture War and Surrender

Someone recently recommended this David Brooks column in the New York Times as the “correct true Christian response” to the ongoing culture war.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Wikipedia refers to Brooks as a “non-observant” Jew and “conservative political and cultural commentator” — in other words, not exactly a leading spokesman for the Christian faith. Having read his op-eds on occasion, I was pretty sure what I’d be in for.

Still, my morbid curiosity won out, as it often does. Brooks starts with the obvious: the decline of Christianity in the United States, the decreasing percentage of the electorate made up of evangelical voters, millennial disinterest in institutional religion, etc., etc.

Short version: “Christians, you’re losing”.

Some Sage Social Justice Counsel

With that in mind, David Brooks offers us the following advice:
“Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.

Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.”
The “different culture war” to which Mr. Brooks refers may be summed up this way:
“The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.”

This culture war is more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority. It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private.”

The Whole “Good Works” Thing

Can’t argue with good works. The New Testament certainly doesn’t. The Lord Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”. Peter says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”.

But there is a problem with making social justice our primary focus and that is this: Christians are already doing good works, and doing them large-scale. In fact, we have always done so.

The blog Christian Good In Society devotes itself to link after link providing evidence of this, from the assertion that the church is the largest single provider of healthcare and education in the world to the allegation that Christian principles formed the basis for the 1948 UN declaration of human rights to links to the Christian history of modern social work, children’s rights, women’s rights, orphanages and care for the elderly.

Where good works are concerned, Christians are right out there getting it done. Still. No other religious or non-religious group is even close.

Transforming the Broader Culture

There has been much appreciation expressed by the beneficiaries of Christian social efforts over the years in fulfillment of the words of the Lord and the apostles. That said, there is always much more to be done and no cause to pat ourselves on the back or applaud our own efforts.

There remains, however, the inescapable fact that all the hard work of Christians over the centuries has never permanently transformed the broader culture, even if it has briefly made life more palatable for millions. On that basis alone, I have to question whether Mr. Brooks is offering Christians a useful alternative. Basically he’s saying, “Do what isn’t working now, just do a whole lot more of it”.

Or maybe if our good works do not present to the world our “defining face”, what we really need is better marketing.

Kidding. The aim of Christian living and testimony is not to transform the popular culture, Mr. Brooks. If that is our primary goal, we will be sorely disappointed.

Resistance is Futile

The more disturbing aspect of Mr. Brooks’ piece is that it counsels Christians to soft pedal our public stand against worldly wickedness, whether it be the decline of the family or more trendy current social issues such as gay marriage. He says, essentially, “Stop resisting”:
“Consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.”
The problem with taking this tack is that the social problems Brooks would like Christians to concentrate on helping to solve are direct consequences of the sexual revolution he wishes we would all shut up about. He sees no apparent connection between “[un]stable families”, “homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce”, kids living in “stressed and fluid living arrangements”, “a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms” and the sexual revolution that he would like Christians to ignore. And yet for anyone with an attention span of more than a decade, the causal link is inescapable.

“Help clean the mess up,” he counsels us, “but whatever you do don’t point out what caused the problem in the first place, or you might alienate people and make the church appear irrelevant”.

The Crime of Having an Opinion

What exactly is the crime of the Christian with a concern for the culture? What makes his stance so repulsive? That he votes in favour of the least appalling political option in a climate where all political options skew Left? That she makes her opinion known when asked for it by a reporter pointing a microphone in her face? Really?

The only crime of which most opinionated Christians are guilty is the crime of insufficiently celebrating overt sin. Of failing to endorse the behaviours of which the world is proud. Of hesitantly suggesting that there might be a better way than murdering one’s children in the womb.

These are hardly the days of the Crusades or the Inquisition, folks.

Personally, I have no confidence that the present North American culture war is winnable. It was never supposed to be. The Lord’s instructions to us on the subject of good works are not a mandate to the Christian to remodel the present, fallen world. Rather, they are a reminder that we, following the example of the Lord himself, are to be careful never to give the world a legitimate cause to blaspheme as the Jews did when they taught the world the Law of Moses while regularly breaking it. We cannot stop the world speaking ill of Christians and of Christ, but we can certainly avoid making ourselves easy targets.

I have never been a culture warrior, and I am unlikely to pick up the sword anytime soon. But what I will not do under any circumstances is tell my brothers and sisters in Christ who have taken a stand out of personal conviction to lay down their arms in the interest of making Christianity more palatable to the masses.

That way lies irrelevance, at very least.


  1. I think the Christian teaching on Equality and Tolerance (only recently hijacked) has produced significant fruit in the Western world. In other non Judeo-Christian cultures, these values are not really expressed to the height they are in Christian based ones.
    Also, Human Rights are very much Christian. Even non-Christians accept this. Karl Marx said so, a few Muslim nations refused to sign the UN Charter based on that and even atheists such as Jurgen Habermas concede it.
    Human Rights without their base in,"everyone is created equal and in the image of God" would be vastly diluted. If we had a culture influenced by the thought, "we randomly evolved and are in the image of apes" then we don't have to use our imagination to see a culture that does not value life to the same level (abortion, euthanasia etc).
    If we have a culture that believes marriage is sacred and a commitment for life as the Bible teaches then we have a stable bedrock for children and society. If we throw out God and think marriage is about our feelings and our own fulfillment and God is not in the mix, then we see more divorce, broken homes, hurt kids.
    Christian thought has vastly influenced Western society for the good, much more than we realise.

    1. Quite right. You'll find that any rationale for human rights traces its origin to John Locke, and that John Locke demonstrated the necessity of them purely on the basis of the individual's accountability to God at the Final Judgment. If a person doesn't believe in the Judgment, then he or she has no basis for asserting human rights, even if he or she happens to like/want/believe in them.

      Human rights are a thoroughly Christian concept, for that reason. Absent individual accountability to God, any belief in them collapses as soon as the first skeptic asks, "Why?"