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 Last week, his administration rescinded former guidelines allowing transgender students to use the public school bathrooms of their choice.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.

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  1. I may be reading too much into Denny’s post and basing my read of his post on my conversations with other 90s-style culture warriors. If I’m totally wrong on Denny, I’ll happily correct the post. See my comment to Chris Blackstone below.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • chrisblackstone

    Jake, I came away from Dennys’ article with a MUCH different take than you did, obviously. I didn’t see anything in it expecting increased cultural “juice” from Trump’s election. I did see in it a lament of the need to retcon treasured entertainment to fit the current cultural focus. What in his article gave you the impression he sees Trump as any help to “the cause”?

    • I’m reading b/w the lines, admittedly, but my long-term observation w/ Denny and the CBMW folks is “90s-style culture warrior” and anecdotally most of the 90s-style culture warriors I know have seen Trump as cause to double-down on the rhetoric. I’ll update the language to reflect that better.

      • hoosier_bob

        I agree with your reading of Burk and others associated with CBMW. I don’t see them as proffering a serious argument on any of the issues on which they regularly opine. It strikes me that they’re just repeating the 1990s talking points that a certain number of aging Baby Boomers want to hear. I keep waiting for CBMW to sponsor a Promise Keepers reunion tour.

  • Minor correction: Obama gave the keynote at the DNC in 2004. There was no convention in 2006.

    That said, I agree 100% that Rod Dreher has been mis-read by the first two readers. On Dreher’s blog, he’s almost breathless about being misunderstood when his interlocutors focus on one chapter in his book (the political). For those who have read James Davison Hunter (or MacIntyre, for that matter), Rod’s assumptions about the cracks in the American-classical-liberalism-order will be easy to swallow. Rod is moving on from Hunter to answer the question even better: what should faithful presence look like? A piece of his answer is strategic withdrawal.

    It’s amazing that there are so many cultural commentators- evangelicals especially!- who still do not see that politics is largely downstream from culture. For instance, not even Trump is debating same-sex marriage any more, and you’ll never hear a Republican bring up no-fault divorce laws. The examples in American life of the inexorable decline of shared assumptions of virtue are nearly endless.

    • hoosier_bob

      The analogy to Hunter’s “faithful presence” makes sense.

      That said, Dreher does seem to harbor a disproportionately irrational aversion to same-sex marriage. His obsession with this issue hurts his case for the BenOp. Maybe it’s just a generational divide. But, despite holding to socially conservative values, I have a hard time getting excited about withholding civil marriage licenses from same-sex couples. For the life of me, I can’t see how civil same-sex marriage has even one iota of an impact on my life.

      That makes me wonder whether Dreher is merely trying to work out what “faithful presence” looks like. He also seems to want a culture in which conservative Christian mores prevail, and where those who violate those mores face some kind of civil or criminal sanction. As a libertarian and a pluralist, I have a hard time embracing that.

      • SPH

        There is no mystery why Dreher and other orthodox Christians are so concerned with SSm, etc:
        From Dreher’s post today:

        “People ask me all the time why social and religious conservatives spend so much time focusing on LGBT issues. The answer is: because we are forced to by the militancy of the broader culture. No democratic Western governments are trying to shut down the free speech of Christians, or take away their schools’ accreditation, who proclaim Biblical teaching on poverty, or anything else. Only this issue.”

        • hoosier_bob

          I guess the mystery lies in why Dreher chooses to spout such nonsense. Most people can easily through what Dreher says, and recognize that it’s just a cheap excuse to justify efforts to continue denying legal equality to non-heterosexual people. Dreher is entitled to say what he wants; the rest of us are entitled to point out that it has zero grounding in reality.

          • SPH

            Must be really hard for you to tolerate even respectful disagreement. You mischaracterize Dreher, apparently willingly.

  • Melody

    So much yes.

    I haven’t read the book or the articles mentioned, but way too many Christians are acting as if it’s the 1990s and that to win culture we need to keep doing the things that failed to win it when the 90s actually were going on.

    I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve been planning on seeing Beauty and the Beast with a friend and her little girl. I don’t know what my friend will decide about seeing it – I rather expect we’ll still go, her 3 year old won’t understand after all. But, I have thought to myself, that if it were my own kids, well, what good would it do to keep them from seeing it? It’s all around them. I hate that it’s being put in everything now, but it is. I can only imagine I would and will do what my parents did when a same-sex relationship happened on Star Trek: Next Generation – we talked about it.

    • z

      Of course, it’s perfectly fine for a women to fall in love with a bison…

  • Ben Carmack

    Mr. Meador is clearly wrong about Denny Burk, as anyone who reads Denny knows well.

    Southern Seminary warmly invited Rod Dreher to speak on their campus about his Benedict Option recently. Denny Burk promoted this event on his blog. He wanted readers to come hear Dreher speak. That isn’t to say that Denny agrees with the Benedict Option at all points, but he’s certainly no enemy of Dreher’s.

    As a cultural warrior, Denny is a self-described reluctant culture warrior. He has written and spoken about his younger years in seminary as a proudly a-political Gospel-only sort of fellow. Then he read about one of his heroes, John Piper, being imprisoned for his abortion activism, and he realized that standing for God’s truth required some sort of embodiment, a willingness to stand for justice in the public square and face the consequences. He realized his a-political, Gospel reductionism was not faithful, and he was inspired to greater faithfulness. This is what motivates Denny’s political activism on behalf of the unborn, as well as on the issues of biblical manhood and womanhood.

    Denny Burk has also consistently been NeverTrump, never wavering in that commitment until the bitter end. I understand that many other prominent men in the SBC stood with Denny in that conviction, and they all took heat for it. Denny’s opposition to Trump and what he stands for was quite vocal, and it continues: Denny has wisely warned his evangelical readers that Trump is not on their side in the culture wars.

    I’m not accusing Mr. Meador of intentionally mis-representing Denny Burk. I make my comments as a correction to the record.

    Finally, a word about Mr. Meador’s precious turn of phrase: 90s culture warrior. I’m not sure what logical fallacy this would be called, but I do know it is a fallacy. One does not disagree with a point of view by assigning it a date stamp. If Mr. Meador wishes to disagree with Denny Burk about where Burk is wrong on matters of cultural engagement, it would be more helpful to offer arguments to that end, rather than cute, fallacious turns of phrase.

    • hoosier_bob

      I suspect that he means that Burk basically parrots a message indicative of the “muscular Christianity” of the 1990s, a la John Eldridge, Promise Keepers, and the like. Never mind that Burk’s tendency to equate post-War social constructions of “heterosexuality” with godliness only gives further credence to what he claims to oppose.

  • The search for Christian supremacy says too much. It says that the winning the culture war has replaced the Great Commission.