If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to circle back around to Emma Green’s review of Rod’s book while also linking it to Katelyn Beaty’s review of the same published earlier this week in the Washington Post. The point that both Green and Beaty camp out on for a decent portion of their review is that it is odd to argue for some sort of strategic withdrawal by orthodox Christians in the aftermath of President Trump’s election victory. Here is Katelyn:
Conservative Christians in America are enjoying fresh winds of political favor. In his first month in office, President Trump upheld his promise to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice. Last week, his administration rescinded former guidelines allowing transgender students to use the public school bathrooms of their choice. And evangelical leaders report having direct access to the Oval Office. For all his clear foibles, Trump seems to be heeding concerns that drew much white evangelical and Catholic support during the 2016 election.
So it’s an interesting time for conservative Christians — traditional Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Protestants — to consider withdrawing from American public life.
And here is Emma:
Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.
And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.
Before I get to my point, I want to drag in one more piece which will seem unrelated at first, but hopefully the relevance will become clear by the end of the piece. Here is Denny Burk commenting earlier this week on Disney having a gay character in the forthcoming live-action Beauty and the Beast:
Even though I’m not surprised by this, I am disappointed by it. My own children were delighted by the live-action Cinderella that came out in 2015. It was really well done. For that reason, we have been looking forward with great anticipation for another well-done production. But if these reports are true, we won’t be seeing this one.
The reason is very simple. I am not going to let a movie studio communicate to my children that sexual immorality is “normal and natural.” This movie will no doubt be packaged in a narrative and a production value designed to capture their imaginations, but it will do so in a way that conceals a false and destructive message. To let them see this material would go against everything that I am trying to teach them about the good, the beautiful, and the true. If these reports are accurate, this movie would powerfully subvert that effort.
What struck me when I read Denny’s piece is the same thing that strikes me almost every time I read something by anyone associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: These people think we’re still living in the 1990s–or at least that’s how they talk. Denny, as he typically does, is talking like a 90s-era culture warrior. And I think part of the reason he is doing that is related to the reason Katelyn and Emma begin their reviews of Rod’s book in nearly identical ways: Everyone is giving presidential politics far too much credence in how they analyze and discuss our current cultural moment.1
For Katelyn and Emma the move is “Your guy just won the presidency, why are you so scared?” For Denny the move is, “We just got a president friendly to our cause so clearly our approach is working. Let’s double down.” Both seem to me to be badly wrong-headed.
There’s two ways of making this point, one of which is more high-level and theoretical and one of which is more straightforward nose-counting. Let’s start with the latter: Since the election of President Clinton in 1992, the Republicans have won the popular vote for the presidency once. That came in 2004 when President Bush, the sitting president and buoyed by high approval ratings in the aftermath of 9/11, defeated the extremely weak Democratic nominee, then Sen. John Kerry, by three million popular votes.
To be sure, the GOP has won three general elections in that time via the electoral college. That still has them one behind the Democrats, but as far as determining who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania, that’s all that matters. But while focusing on the issue in that way might be good politics, it’s bad cultural criticism.
President Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote by the same margin that Sen. Kerry—possibly an even weaker candidate than Sec. Clinton—lost to President Bush. When that happened to the Democratic Party it set off crisis talks that led to a search for new leadership and ultimately a young unknown senator from Illinois ascending to the presidency. The GOP… well, they haven’t done that. Of course, to be fair to them, their objective is winning elections and the GOP is very good at that. They’re extremely bad at shaping culture, but that isn’t really their concern. But it should be the concern of every Christian cultural critic.
So let’s talk about this past presidential election: How did Trump win the election if he lost the popular vote by such a large and unprecedented margin? Well, he owes his victory to about 80,000 people scattered across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who gave him 46 electoral votes from battleground states where he was not expected to win, 46 votes which account for his final margin of victory. Put another way, a group of people small enough to comfortably fit inside Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium won the election for Trump.
Given that fact, it’s very difficult to argue that President Trump’s win is suggestive of a broad, sustainable coalition of support that can consistently win presidential elections. While there is little to be gained from speculation, it is worth remembering what was said before the election: Both candidates were so unpopular that it is almost certainly the case that the only possible nominee that either of them could have beaten was the other. A Democratic nominee with less baggage (and a better strategy for campaigning in the rust belt) almost certainly wins this election. Given Trump’s margins, it wouldn’t have taken much to change the result.
The Republican control of congress doesn’t vindicate the belief in Christian supremacy or culture war success either. The GOP has an extremely narrow majority in the Senate and benefits from extreme gerrymandering in the House such that it would take a truly catastrophic set of results to get the Democrats even within a few votes of a majority.
All that our current partisan political situation tells us is that the GOP is very good at winning elections because they understand how to work within the system: Focus on the electoral college in the presidential race. Gerrymander districts in the House. Throw in some efforts to disenfranchise reliably Democratic voters. Voila: electoral success. But the GOP’s success in this narrow but significant arena tells us very little about the state of play in mainstream American culture right now.
This brings us to the more high-level way of critiquing an excessive reliance on electoral politics as a method of understanding culture. What Rod is critiquing in his book is a way of thinking about human individuals and societies whose roots go back much further than the last 10-20 years. Ultimately what Rod is doing is attempting to critique modern liberalism, at minimum, and quite possibly classical liberalism as well—I’m not sure what he’d say to that, but it is certainly a question his writing invites. At minimum, he’s critiquing a system of thought that was familiar to C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and J. Gresham Machen, all of whom were writing between the 1930s and 1950s.
In that sense, this review by Elizabeth Bruenig is a much more useful interrogation of Rod’s book. Bruenig raises the same point about Christians having more political power than Rod suggests, but she doesn’t camp out on it.
Rather, she begins by noting the fundamental conflict Rod has with liberalism, a point that Emma only briefly notes in her review, and then critiques Rod’s call for a political withdrawal using the terms and categories that Rod himself embraces as an orthodox Christian:
That feeling of obligation has pre-modern roots; it isn’t common to all liberal subjects, who likely feel that if they want to withdraw from politics, it’s their right. Dreher doesn’t put his recommendation in terms of rights, but neither does he explain what a Christian citizen’s obligations must be. If Augustine is to be believed, the authority of civil governments to enforce laws comes from God Himself, with the goal of establishing some earthly peace and a measure of justice. In that case, it would appear that Christians, whose sense of peace and justice is formed by Christian virtues rather than liberalism, should be especially obligated to attempt to shape laws to reflect what is truly just. Withdrawal may have been a permissible option when citizens had little to no say in the laws of their governments, but we do, and a pretense of powerlessness registers as a flimsy excuse not to exercise it.
Here is as good a point as any to end this admittedly rambly post: The crisis before the church today is not primarily political in nature. It has political manifestations, and many of the most important ones show up in our homes and neighborhoods rather than Washington. It does show up in Washington, of course, but that isn’t necessarily important.
The crisis, such as it is, is primarily anthropological, moral, and metaphysical. What is man? What is the good? What is the good life? What is god? These are the primary questions behind the Ben Op project. Our inability to arrive at shared answers or workable ways of living together in the midst of our disagreements about those answers is the real crisis that the BenOp is meant to address.
Given that, we would do well to develop lines of persuasion that are shaped less by the immediate political context of our current moment and more by the far deeper and more pervasive problems that explain the immediate political context.