Saturday, October 1, 2016

On refusing to surrender in the culture war

Damon Linker, a columnist at The Week, is an odd duck ideologically. If you read a few of his pieces, you get the sense that conservatism has considerable appeal for him, but he's one of these guys who feels compelled to resist the urge to fully embrace it. It's as if he's afraid the wackier outposts around conservatism's fringes would somehow taint his integrity.

Funny, it's not something I or most conservatives worry about.

But his main reason for opposing Donald Trump - a position I'm inclined to share - is admirable, and is rooted in conservatism as commonly defined:

  . . . there is at least one respect in which Trump and his movement could never be considered conservative. This is the aspect of conservatism that has persisted down through the decades and the centuries from Edmund Burke to Reagan and beyond. It's this aspect of conservatism that appealed greatly to me as a young man, and that still maintains a grip on my soul to this day, long after I began voting for Democrats and defending (most of) their policies. It's also what contributes to Trump's persistent difficulties with Mormons — the most consistently and authentically conservative voting bloc in the country.

This is the conservatism of forms and formality, order, modesty, nobility, moral rectitude, private and public honor, and steadfast adherence to standards of right conduct and traditional restraints. Trumpist populism, with its roots in the sleaziest side of tabloid culture, including the world of reality TV in which Trump honed his public persona, could never be mistaken for conservative in this rarified sense.

To get a sense for why, let me share my experience at a dinner of conservative writers and intellectuals in 1999, shortly after Bill Clinton managed to survive the first presidential impeachment in over 130 years. There was genuine sorrow in the room, mainly about what Clinton had done to debase the office of the presidency. Everyone sitting around the table worried about young people, in many cases their own children, growing up in a world in which the married president of the United States had engaged in such sordid acts with a much-younger intern in the Oval Office and lied about it under oath — and in which all of the scummy details had been publicized for all to hear and know. It was a moment, they thought, of national disgrace.

My response to these laments was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, as the imperfect conservative I was even then, I thought the reactions overwrought. I never supported the impeachment, and I didn’t feel the same weight of despair about the outcome. I was mainly relieved that the effort to remove Clinton from office had failed.

But I nonetheless admired and respected the moral seriousness of my dinner companions. They believed in high standards, strove to live up to them in their own lives, and felt genuine disgust and dejection when they witnessed their country’s noblest institutions degraded by ignoble behavior.

That, for me, will always be the core of conservatism. 
In another recent column, he was clearly striving for that oh-so-objective-I'm-just-callin'-'em-as'I-see-'em  stance as he proclaimed the culture wars over:

Once Ronald Reagan won the White House and the modern-day Republican electoral coalition coalesced, with millions of evangelical Protestant voters (who as recently as 1976 had thrown their support to Democrat Jimmy Carter) joining the GOP, the issues and rhetoric surrounding cultural questions had shifted in the direction of traditional morality and religiosity. The cultural war had become a battle against the sexual revolution waged in the name of faith.
Abortion rights were of foremost importance, but other issues also galvanized the ascendant religious right, including the rise of divorce and illegitimacy, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, the growing prevalence of pornography and an openly sexualized popular culture, the specter of cloning and stem-cell research, and, last but not least, the growing privatization of religious faith and thoroughgoing secularization of American public life.
That's the culture war that was completely absent from Monday night's debate. There are several overlapping reasons for its demise:
  • As with vast, expensive military campaigns for democratization, the culture war was discredited by its association with the ineptitude of George W. Bush's presidency.
  • The increasing secularization of the electorate, especially among millennials, has meant that fewer and fewer voters are animated by the issues that drove an older generation to the polls.
  • The rout in the fight against same-sex marriage has been so decisive that even many who remain nominally committed to the religious right's agenda feel thoroughly demoralized and dejected.
  • Donald Trump's stunning electoral success has demonstrated to all not only that a thrice-married philanderer who displays no religious piety whatsoever can win the GOP nomination, but also that he can then receive the support of roughly 94 percent of white evangelical Republicans in the general election.
Trump called the religious right's bluff, and no Republican running for president will again feel the need to make an appeal to the dwindling number of conservative religious voters.

None of which means that the issues wrapped up with the religious culture war have gone away entirely. Worries about an ongoing or looming assault on religious freedom persist among many social conservatives. And abortion remains a highly potent issue at the state level, with legislatures across the South and Midwest moving to restrict abortion rights (and the courts often blocking their efforts).
But at the national level — especially when it comes to presidential politics — the culture war is well and truly over. 
Maybe he feels he's doing those of us who have been waging it a courtesy, that we need the bracing cold splash of bluntly conveyed reality so we can proceed on a factual basis.

Is he right?

The sewer that is our current cultural environment would pretty uniformly substantiate it.

Such a resignation-based conclusion was surely a main motivator for Rod Dreher to write his new book, which is due to come out in March. 

From the Amazon page description:

The light of the Christian faith is flickering out all over the West, and only the willfully blind refuse to see it. From the outside, American churches are beset by challenges to religious liberty in a rapidly secularizing culture. From the inside, they are being hollowed out by the departure of young people and a watered-down pseudo-spirituality. Political solutions have failed, as the triumph of gay marriage and the self-destruction of the Republican Party indicate, and the future of religious freedom has never been in greater doubt. The center is not holding. The West, cut off from its Christian roots, is falling into a new Dark Age.

The bad news is that the roots of religious decline run deeper than most Americans realize. The good news is that the blueprint for a time-tested Christian response to this decline is older still. In The Benedict Option, Dreher calls on traditional Christians to learn from the example of St. Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk who turned from the chaos and decadence of the collapsing Roman Empire, and found a new way to live out the faith in community. For five difficult centuries, Benedict's monks kept the faith alive through the Dark Ages, and prepared the way for the rebirth of civilization. What do ordinary 21st century Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox -- have to learn from the teaching and example of this great spiritual father? That they must read the signs of the times, abandon hope for a political solution to our civilization's problems, and turn their attention to creating resilient spiritual centers that can survive the coming storm. Whatever their Christian tradition, they must draw on the secrets of Benedictine wisdom to build up the local church, create countercultural schools based on the classical tradition, rebuild family life, thicken communal bonds, and develop survival strategies for doctors, teachers, and others on the front lines of persecution.

Now is a time of testing, when believers will learn the difference between shallow optimism and Christian hope. However dark the shadow falling over the West, the light of Christianity need not flicker out. It will not be easy, but Christians who are brave enough to face the religious decline, reject trendy solutions, and return to ancient traditions will find the strength not only to survive, but to thrive joyfully in the post-Christian West. The Benedict Option shows believers how to build the resistance and resilience to face a hostile modern world with the confidence and fervor of the early church. Christians face a time of choosing, with the fate of Christianity in Western civilization hanging in the balance. In this powerful challenge to the complacency of contemporary Christianity, Dreher shows why those in all churches who fail to take the Benedict Option aren't going to make it.
This has appeal to me, but also brings up an uneasiness I posted about the other day: where is the line of clear demarcation beyond which people of faith are indulging in escapism? It's true that we are to be in the world but not of it, but on the other hand, we are called to go and make disciples of all nations.

Then there is the basic undeniable sadness that many people in our society, at least those above a certain age, feel for the loss of the whole idea of the cultivation of virtues like honor, modesty, humility, wisdom, industriousness and valor. Without them, there is no real art. No sense of romance. There's not even any real humor or levity. Just the buzzsaw of indoctrination and hedonism, coming right for our brains.

Clearly, the most important thing to do in this moment is to pray.

Still, something in me is not ready to concur with Linker.

It may be very, very late in the day, but I still see a sliver of light on the horizon.


  1. The gospel of John: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.