Note from Jake: This series was first published four years ago by Matthew Lee Anderson in the months leading up to the 2012 election. I had tentative plans to do a similar series this year, particularly after Michelle Obama’s opening-night speech at the DNC highlighted the enormous gap between the Democrats’ ability to give a positive vision of American and the GOP’s ability to do the same. But as I reviewed these posts by Matt, I decided that what he is saying here still basically applies. Indeed, if anything these posts should be read even more closely today in the aftermath of the Trump nomination. So over the next four days, we’ll be republishing Matt’s series of four theses on social conservatism.
At the recent Values Voter Summit, I was fortunate to join a few friends on a panel discussing the gap between social conservatism’s current incarnation and the generation of young people who have grown up at its edges and are increasingly dissatisfied by it.*
I won’t rehash what I said there. But I do want to add a few theses that social conservatives might consider, ideas that are doubtlessly controversial and which I am not working through in my own mind and so not necessarily committed to. I’m inquiring here, not asserting. Which means this week, I’m going to write four posts about all this and leave Friday for (more) discussion.
Strap in: This could get interesting.
Is it time for traditionalists to plant or harvest?
There is a time to sow and a time to reap. My first thesis is that social conservatives are entering a time for sowing new cultural seeds rather than reaping their cultural fruits. As folks have recently pointed out, you can’t fight a culture war if you haven’t got a culture. And by and large, social conservatives haven’t got much in that department to pass along to the children. What they do have has been cobbled together by imitating mainstream America and borrowing from Nashville. The net effect is that social conservatives are trying, desperately, to reap legal fruit despite neglecting the difficult work of sowing and nurturing cultural seeds.
Now, it is possible that this sort of dichotomy is a false one. A cultural movement need not necessarily choose between sowing and reaping, between the work of engendering a culture and working for the laws that the culture produces. And as a dear friend suggested, having children can radically reorient us toward short-term bandaids, if only because parents are by disposition intensely protective.
However, if there is such a thing as cultural flourishing and decline, then we need to carefully discriminate where we are in those seasons and allocate our time and resources accordingly. To do otherwise would be rather imprudent, no? That means redirecting attention, efforts, and (yes) funding away from the particularly urgent political concerns toward seemingly frivolous long term cultural efforts. By way of hypothesis, I suspect it is easy for Christians to raise money for either political causes at home or missions and social-justice causes overseas. But a library, conservatory, or an art studio—institutions that will form the backbone of any permanent culture?
The Unconservative Rhetoric of Conservatism
At its worst, social conservatism’s fundraising rhetoric depends upon deeply unconservative premises: “Unless we act right now because this election is the most important of our lifetime, then we’ll all end up ruined.” It is true that in history there are decisive moments, moments where inaction means ruin. Shouting appeasement on the eve of World War 2, rather than building up the arsenal, turns out to be an almost completely destructive miscalculation of the moment. But by and large, the short-term urgency to motivate action has more in common with the hastiness of a revolutionary atmosphere than the glacial plodding of those committed to seeing the first things take root in their society.
But therein lies an important question, doesn’t it? Who is to say which cultural season we are in, whether it is springtime in America or whether we have entered into winter? And here I must confess, along with everyone else, that like all matters of discernment the matter is less certain than we might like. My intuition is that we are somewhere in the winter and need to be preparing the fields for springtime. But I do know that by opening that question and deliberating about it, seriously and honestly, social conservatives might even find new and better approaches to their own political activity.
It may be the case that some people read this and think that I am suggesting something like “withdrawal” from the culture wars, that I am advocating a position of defeat and appeasement for those who are hostile to Christianity. Not in the least. If anyone wishes to question my commitment to, say, Christian moral teaching on abortion and homosexuality, feel free. I’m always in need of a good laugh.
But we ought to seriously consider the terms in which the critique is offered and think hard about whether we really want to endorse them. Yes, warfare goes both directions. But it goes. both. directions. Which means that a war is over when one side quits fighting. The side that quits fighting only “loses” if they, you know, actually lose. For someone to pick up their ball and go home when they are ahead is unheard of, but whose to say that hostilities should end only when one side triumphs? What if one side made “victory” problematic for themselves and focused on other activities? The war (if it is one) would keep going unilaterally and the cost might be high. The other side would doubtlessly declare it a “win,” but then again, within our current media environment, even if social conservatives were to “win” they would still end up losing. And the only way to win a game where the rules are such that you necessarily lose is to play a different game.
*Yes, the Religious Right is getting older. No, the “millennial Christians” haven’t demonstrated much interest in following them. Yes, this is all overly familiar territory to us around Mere-O.