Unequally Woked

Matthew Schmitz asks a compelling question: How do opponents of progressive fundamentalism thwart its assaults on free speech and common sense? He suggests the best hope is for opponents to unite across religious and philosophical lines. Conservative evangelicals, for example, can join common cause with atheistic professors who likewise reject transgender ideology. While religious and irreligious cannot reconcile their supernatural beliefs, they can form political and cultural alliances based on common enemies within “woke” orthodoxy. Matthew writes:

Despite their differences, an alliance could form between “trads” and the true “nones” who reject religion but may well see it as less of a threat than the growth of woke government power. Trads have all-encompassing beliefs that offend liberal and secular sensibilities. But they affirm the reality of biological differences between the sexes. They believe that your deeds and beliefs are more important than your race. Even when they reject the political formulations of liberalism, most still believe in the virtue of liberality and tolerance. Because they believe in the fallenness of man, they uphold the possibility of forgiveness. Like the “nones,” most “trads” are not utopians. Unlike the woke, they can tolerate those with fundamentally different beliefs. Trads and nones will never agree, but they can ally.

What Matthew says should happen is something I have already seen happening over the last four years within my slice of evangelicalism. Last year I wrote an essay for The Gospel Coalition on the secular backlash to progressive liberalism, and I spoke sympathetically of writers such as Andrew Sullivan, Camile Paglia, and Jonathan Haidt. None of them identify as Christians, and two identify as LGBT, but all have criticized transgender ideology and radical political correctness. Ten years ago Andrew Sullivan was waging a rhetorical war on evangelicals, coining the term “Christianist” (a portmanteau of Christian and Islamist) to describe any and all believers who opposed same-sex marriage. Today Sullivan arguably has more fans within conservative Christianity than in mainstream journalism. As Schmitz says, this speaks to the perception shared between religious conservatives and secular liberals that progressive ideology is a kind of false civic religion.

I think this perception is mostly right. Growing up adjacent to Christian fundamentalism has proven valuable in this regard, as I’ve recognized many of the same cultural practices within progressivism that I saw in performative, legalistic churches. Secular folks are no more enchanted with the fundamentalism of progressive identity politics than they are with the religious kind. And of course, conservative evangelicals see clear problems with woke ideology’s mafia-like enforcement of sexual nihilism. It makes sense that the two groups would find common cause against feeling forced to obey an illegitimate moral regime.

But there are some questions that nag me about the idea of some kind of alliance between the non-woke religious and irreligious.

1) What kind of alliance is possible between secularists and believers, and to what end?

Co-belligerency is certainly possible between people of different worldviews, but co-belligerency is not intransitive. It requires a mutual object. Catholics and evangelicals can fight against abortion together with the endgame being a reversal of Roe v Wade and new laws that protect the unborn. But progressive fundamentalism is more slippery than that. Secularists and Christians can agree about the importance of free speech with regard to gender identity, but many of the “trads,” including Schmitz himself, would advocate broad bans on pornography. It’s not clear to me that free speech is corporeal enough to be a point of alliance between people whose view of human flourishing is grounded in absolute moral norms, and those who are fundamentally libertarian. Both groups can agree to oppose woke ideology, but eventually you have to answer the question, “Ok, so what instead?”

Schmitz rightly notes that defending free speech alone isn’t a viable alternative to the transcendent claims of progressivism. He’s correct that “resisting a crusading creed like wokeism will require more than insisting on freedom of thought and speech. It will require defending a different and sounder set of ideas, a social consensus that is non-utopian.” That truth is itself a reason why I’m skeptical about a viable alliance between believers and secularists. The alliance Schmitz is interested in would have to carefully avoid the foundational conflicts between worldviews of revelation and those of libertarian free-thinking. I’m not convinced such avoidance is possible, much less desirable. An alliance that doesn’t cash out to a positive cultural and political vision does not seem like an alliance that can build in the places it tears down.

2) Do Christians and secularists really agree about the problem? 

I doubt this very much. Schmitz writes, “Liberals who stress the provisional nature of knowledge, resist all-encompassing political claims, and seek space for public error and disagreement, have grounds for agreement with Jews, Christians, and others who believe that men are sinful and fallen.” This is true, but incomplete. All men are indeed sinful and fallen, but a Reformed Protestantism holds that this fallenness has noetic and social effects. For Christians with traditional Protestant theology, the main problem with wokeism is not that it it makes sweeping moral judgments that implicate us, but that its judgments are incorrect and its implications fail. 

Schmitz is right to note that the most radical proponents of progressivism seem to deny any real possibility of forgiveness or humility. Here’s a very strong example of where historic Christianity can engage culture from ahead. In the years ahead believers have a chance to teach and model a good news that the secular world actively disowns: the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another. It’s not at all apparent to me that atheists and agnostics can herald this kind of good news. More likely, the metaphysical and eschatological commitments of secularism likewise deny the possibility of atonement and new life. Presentism is the besetting sin of wokeism and secularism alike.

3) Should believers feel more solidarity with the unbelieving anti-woke than they do inside a diverse church? 

This last point is perhaps the most urgent one. I am absolutely convinced that American Christians are destroying the power and witness of their testimony through their sociopolitical intuitions. Many evangelicals in particular talk, write, and preach as if they have more meaningful things in common with politically conservative non-Christians than with, for example, black Christians who vote differently. When black Protestants testify by the hundreds about their frightening encounters with police, too many evangelicals weigh this testimony against the punditry of people like Ben Shapiro. But with whom do white evangelicals actually have more in common? With whom will they spend eternity? With whom are they brothers and sisters? 

The New Testament does not pretend that all true Christians agree about everything. But if the gospel means anything at all, it means that people united to Christ by faith are united to each other in a way that they are not united to anyone outside of Christ. The weightlessness of this truth in much Christian culture is a sign of weakness and error, not strength and orthodoxy. 

Here’s a simple plea. Before we Christians form alliances with secularists who confirm our politics, let’s build our churches around the historic creeds and confessions. Let’s weigh the doctrines of Scripture properly. When believers who have different approaches to the city of man can experience and feel a deep sense of unity around Christ and his kingdom, and when this unity so shapes us that we cannot but prefer one another, then we can and ought to think about joining cause with unbelievers against destructive and utopian civic religion. 

Gotta Serve Somebody

When a friend sent me the link to this essay by a progressive bookstore employee, whose aching moral dilemma is whether to sell a book he disagrees with politically, my response was simple. I said, “American progressive culture has become mid-1990s homeschool chain email culture.” Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical, homeschool niche, I am quite familiar with the idea that there are certain ideas, expressed in certain books, movies, or rock albums, that people who want to keep their heart pure should just not entertain. This kind of avoidance ethic doesn’t feel strange to me. It feels nostalgic. If this blogger were talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets instead of Hillbilly Elegy, if he had used all the same anathemas and descriptions and moral superlatives but applied them to Hogwarts instead of Vance, I would know his story immediately.

What this tormented bookseller has so helpfully demonstrated in his piece is that you can take a man out of church, but you can’t take church out of a man. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor. For what feels like a huge slice of American culture, that heir is politics. God is dead, long live politics. This writer talks of Hillbilly Elegy not as if it were a piece of cultural criticism he dislikes, but as if it were a work of heresy that his very soul might be compromised by selling. I feel for him. I know the thought process he’s going through, because it’s the same thought process that prevented from me taking that high school job at the local video rental store, knowing there’d customers who wanted the films from the “back room.”

For this fellow’s moral dilemma, the attempts by New Atheists to find ethical guidance in biology are, as he probably secretly knows by now, ridiculous. Believing that our numinous sensations are neurological responses to biochemical reactions makes for some punchy Facebook memes, but it doesn’t help in a moment of true moral crisis. Human beings are built to believe. The question is not whether they will believe, but what they will believe if not God. For some, especially in our temples of higher education, to Believe means to be intersectional, to be committed body and spirit to a Tao of tolerance. For others, to Believe means to Look Inward, to Eat, Pray, and, to Love (at least, love those who aren’t bigots!).

The subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy–which is a book you should read–says, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Some smart people in our world say those words could just as easily apply to religion. Laugh these people out of the bookstore. Religious fervor is doing just fine. As Dylan said, “You gotta serve Somebody,” not talking about the customer.

Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.