Rod Dreher has written a graciously long response to my post from last week on his notion of the Benedict Option, which he begins by arguing that I mischaracterized. Dreher says that his idea—that Christians should retreat, if not withdraw, from mainstream cultural arena and focus inward on strengthening their own communities—is not a response to the victory of gay rights, but rather to the “logic of liberalism” that is “destroying Orthodox Christianity.” This illustrates, even better than my own characterization, the point I was trying to make at the end of my admittedly confused rumination on the subject, so perhaps I will take up Dreher’s clarification as an opportunity to develop my thoughts on the ways the Christian right has splintered in the last half-decade or so.
Dreher agrees (I think) with my overall point that the victory of gay rights is an extension of the American individualistic ethos explicit at the nation’s founding; thus, in a certain way, it is an “inevitable” development. (Of the “logic of liberalism,” you might say.) But Dreher points out that, while this may be the case, most conservative Christians have been blind to the true nature of American culture:
But here’s the thing: this [the fact that gay rights is a natural extension of American individualism—DS] is news to nearly all American Christians. They have not thought through the deep logic of our cultural situation because they have never had to do so. General Christian principles were the framework within which we all moved and thought. The fact of post-Christian America has not occurred to most orthodox Christians. The quick acceptance of same-sex marriage revealed something about American culture that has shocked many Christians, who now must reflect, in a way their ancestors never had to, on the relationship they as people of faith have to their own country, and its ideals. This is what is so radical about the current moment, from an orthodox Christian point of view. (emphasis in original)
In the few days since I wrote my original post, I read Andrew Hartman’s new book on the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America, which argues that the culture wars of the late 1970s through the 1990s were in some ways a belated chance for “normative” America to come to terms with the transformations of the 1960s. This is important background for understanding the way Dreher and others are thinking at the moment; really, I think we can see the rise of a “New Integrism” among conservative Christians in the U.S. as one particular response to the end of the culture wars, or the failure of the first iteration of the Christian right.
If we think of what Hartman calls “normative America” in the 1950s, it exemplified what Dreher means by “General Christian principles” being “the framework within which we all moved and thought.” What Dreher and other social conservatives tend to naturalize and de-historicize as “general Christian principles” is actually a historically specific mélange of cultural attitudes, most notably an individualist success ethic, bourgeois sexual morality, and American nationalism. Hartman characterizes it this way:
Normative Americans lived according to stringent sexual expectations: sex, whether for procreation or recreation, was contained within the parameters of heterosexual marriage. Normative Americans behaved in ways consistent with strict gender roles: within the confines of marriage, men worked outside the home and women cared for children inside it. Normative Americans believed their nation was the best in human history: those aspects of American history that shined an unfavorable light on the nation, such as slavery, were ignored or explained away as aberrations. Normative Americans often assumed the nation’s Christian heritage illuminated its unique character: the United States of America really was a “city on a hill.” (p. 5)
When the Christian right awakened in the late 1970s, it was on the assumption that the ideals of normative America were still claimed by a majority of Americans (hence the “moral majority” rhetoric). But in Hartman’s argument, that majority no longer held even in the 1960s, and would continue to evaporate in the 1980s and 1990s—ironically, partially as a result of the triumph of conservative economic ideas that accelerated the remaking of the traditional family by making the old vision of the single patriarchal breadwinner inaccessible to vast numbers Americans who were slipping downward out of the middle class. So on the sexual issues, the culture wars were really a period of contestation that helped normative Americans interpret, position themselves toward, and even accept the changes of the 1960s—to come to terms with the fact that the country they imagined no longer existed.
The interesting question here is to what degree conservative Christians put into question that normative vision of Christian America with its exemplary grounding in something like “general Christian principles,” even if they acknowledged that the country had turned irrevocably down a disastrous path. I would say that the realization that the culture wars failed has only very recently produced a radical rethinking of the essence of America as it had been understood by the Christian right. As recently as the Bush years, the Christian right was still operating as if it spoke for the moral majority and assuming the nation had a (conservative) Christian essence that would serve as a powerful flag around which to rally the troops. These illusions finally began to crumble only after the elections of 2008 and 2012, after which many social conservatives openly admitted defeat, especially on gay rights, and the current obsession with “religious freedom” crystallized.
This is why I think Dreher is right to identify the gay rights victory as a turning point for social conservatives, if more of an epiphenomenal than a substantive one: it was the moment that the possibility of a “post-Christian America”—what the culture wars were fought to prevent—became real to them. But even though Dreher now understands this as the probably-inevitable outgrowth of American ideals, he still wants to claim a special “radicalness” for this moment of change. My original post tried to contest this claim, and say that this perception of crisis is actually a measure of how radical some conservative Christians intellectuals themselves have become in response to the realization that the logic of American history has perhaps always been against robustly metaphysical, anti-progressive religion (i.e., European Catholicism).
For example, it is possible not to view the final collapse of the Christian-nation myth and the triumph of gay rights as a unique threat to conservative Christianity; in fact, I’d say rather few of them view it this way. Even before 2008, some (admittedly more liberal) evangelicals had begun to reject the Christian right model, to question Christian-nation mythology, and to dethrone sexuality as the totemic core of their faith. Certain elements of “emergent” Christianity became the new, post-culture wars centrist mainstream, which has de-emphasized politics and doesn’t see it as a big deal that America isn’t—and maybe never was—a Christian nation. I still think, as I speculated a few years ago, that for the most part, Americans who are committed to the traditionalist sexual ethic will absorb the gay rights challenge; they will ignore it, self-separate from it, or slowly and quietly change their minds as they realize it doesn’t affect them much. Gay marriage will be just like divorce, pornography, consumerism, or whatever other disagreeable facts of American culture that conservative Christians have to live with. For the most part the compromise will be painless, and the fact of gay people and gay marriage will stop registering as something that uniquely offends the Christian conscience, even if it is never truly accepted. This is how American Christianity, even conservative Christianity, tends to work: it is in tension with the progressive individualist ethos of the country, but tends to stay relatively in sync with it over the long haul.
Now, I doubt that Rod Dreher, a smart and well-read guy, ever believed the more crass versions of the Christian-nation myth. But he is explicitly describing a re-negotiation of his relationship with America’s ideals: “The quick acceptance of same-sex marriage revealed something about American culture that has shocked many Christians, who now must reflect, in a way their ancestors never had to, on the relationship they as people of faith have to their own country, and its ideals.” For the New Integrists, this re-negotiation takes a different route than what is probably the more common reactions, i.e., resigned apathy, or the sense that Christians shouldn’t be so concerned about politics anyway. Like the others, they greet the end of the Christian-nation myth as, in Russell Moore’s words, a “good riddance.” But the next step is not to make peace with mainstream culture, but to oppose it more radically. This is not a surprise for intellectual types like Dreher who had already gone a considerable distance toward rejecting American Christianity by joining the Orthodox Church. But it is something new in that it is a shift from America as the horizon of imagined conservation to a longer view of the collapse of American “Christianism” as part of a European historical trajectory. This has resulted in a small but noticeable turn toward a kind of religious intransigence mostly alien to America, visible in trends as disparate as the return of longe-durée decline narratives that reject modernity as a whole, flirtations with the idea of monastic community, interest in medieval philosophy, statement-making rejection of birth control, etc.
We might be tempted to say that the fracture between New Integrists and other Christians is over sexuality: the others are slowly following American (and Western) culture in dissociating sexuality from the core of religious and social organization, while the New Integrists are looking ever-further back into pre-modern history for ways to make sexual traditionalism plausible, and to insist on its centrality to social order. But it’s probably more charitable to say that it is one of many possible responses to a widely shared sense that the world is out of control, and that we have to think—and live—radically outside familiar options if we’re going to save ourselves. In that broadest sense, its intuitions are not so different from my own. Thus I empathize with it, even if I wish it had an explanation of what will happen to the great majority of the world that would be excluded from its narrow vision of salvation.
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