David Brooks has some surprising advice for social conservatives: Fight the culture war. No, not culture war oriented around sexuality. The other culture war.
Brooks admits he’s to the left of most social conservatives. Yet he describes himself as a “friend and admirer,” and offers us a different course from either Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option or Robert George’s principled rejection and resistance. Brooks’s advice is to put aside the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution. It’s alienated large swaths of the American people, been a “communications disaster,” and is, in the near term, “destined to lose.” Instead, Brooks suggests we should seek to “reweave the sinews of society,” which are stressed and frayed by loss of social capital, fluid living arrangements, and the formlessness of modern society. We could be examples of commitment, offering a spiritual vocabulary that enables people to distinguish right from wrong, and we could do so without changing our positions on sex.
I take Brooks at his word when he calls himself a friend and admirer of social conservatives. I believe his advice is sincerely offered, and for that I’m sincerely grateful. What’s more, I’m grateful because it provides an opportunity to (yet again) answer what is a pretty common mindset among moderate and left-leaning people of faith.
Social Conservatives Are Not the Culture War Aggressors
For starters, I’d question which side in the culture war is obsessed with sex. I know the conventional wisdom pegs that to social conservatives. But Brooks would do well to remember who exactly has been the aggressor in the culture war on almost every front. Who has been on a fifty-plus-year march through our institutions, uprooting foundations, fraying social fabric, and stressing the bonds of community that link generations together? The Moral Majority of the 1980s was simply a bunch of religious folk waking up to the fact that the sexual revolutionaries were halfway through their march and picking up steam. It was fundamentally a defensive action, and has been ever since.
What’s more, to argue that social conservatives have “reduced” a rich, complex, and beautiful faith to a public obsession with sex assumes that social conservatives have deliberately chosen this fight. But we don’t get to pick the times in which we live. We don’t get to pick the battles we’re forced to fight. There are millions of Christians who are profoundly uninterested in the culture war. Yet they are increasingly aware that the culture war is interested in them. Florists, bakers, even CEO’s are discovering that, as conservative commentator Erick Erickson regularly says, “You will be made to care.”
When corporations pressure states to modify or reject religious-liberty protections, when Internet mobs seek to run rural pizza joints out of business for thought crimes, when “objective” news organizations publicly pick sides in these cultural debates, you’ll forgive us for questioning just who exactly is obsessed here.
The Sexual Revolution Is the Source of the Culture Wars
As for Brooks’s concrete recommendations, many of us believe that preserving the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental ways to “reweave the sinews of society” (as Brooks himself notes). Social bonds have been strained and frayed by what, exactly? Isn’t the sexual revolution one of the main culprits (aided and abetted by presumptuous Supreme Court decisions that insist on removing these debates from the democratic process, with Roe and Obergefell at the top of the list)?
The stressed and fluid living arrangements that afflict millions of kids—aren’t those owing to rampant promiscuity, the decline of marriage (especially among the poor), and the epidemic of fatherlessness (subsidized by Uncle Sam)? In other words, aren’t those components of the sexual revolution that social conservatives have been seeking (however futilely) to resist? Even Brooks himself appears confused at this point. After reading his article, I’m left to wonder whether Brooks wants us to resist the “barbaric” sexual environment our young people swim in, or whether he wants us to do something else.
No doubt Brooks would want to distinguish between the push for same-sex marriage and the other more “obvious” problems plaguing us—unwed mothers, children having children, father hunger, and the rest. But we social conservatives, and especially those of us who are Christians, recognize deep connections among these issues, many of them having to do with what sex is for, what marriage is for, indeed what people are for. As with knit sweaters and Berber carpet, you can’t unweave it a little bit. Once you start pulling, the fabric keeps unraveling.
Big Government Smothers Civil Society
Which brings me to Brooks’s alternative vision for the “public face” of social conservatism. Let me take his suggestions one at a time.
Brooks encourages us to be “the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families.” Great idea. How about we send eager young college students into public schools to mentor underprivileged students? Oh, right. Because some people are apparently less enamored by our vocabulary that distinguishes right from wrong, and they’re willing to throw underprivileged kids under the bus to teach us a lesson. Or perhaps we could start some soup kitchens to feed the hungry? Oh, right: “Countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.” After all, if a hungry man gets fed, and coercive taxation didn’t pay for it, was it really compassion?
Brooks encourages us to be “the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse.” We’d love to. But maybe instead of admonishing social conservatives to change course, Brooks could direct some attention to the government of New York City, which is presently seeking to run those “community institutions” (we call them churches) out of NYC public schools.
Brooks encourages us to be “the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other.” Great topic for discussion. But are we allowed to connect the dots between joblessness and the sexual revolution, and how both flow from our spiritual poverty?
Brooks encourages us to be “the people who converse with us about the transcendent in every day life.” We’d love to talk about the transcendent. However, every time we do, we’re accused of seeking to impose our views on other people. Heck, we don’t even have to speak. If we even seek to live according to our beliefs about the transcendent God who created and governs the world and is redeeming it through Jesus, we’re told we’re forcing our beliefs on other people.
If Brooks wants more discussion of the transcendent, perhaps he could spare some words for the totalitarianism of the social-justice warriors and progressive activists who think florists who live according to their consciences are imposing theocratic rule on the United States. However, I suspect that if he did, he would discover, as Kirsten Powers has, that the Left’s train has no intention of slowing down.
Pursuing Media Approval Is a Terrible Strategy
Of course, Brooks knows social conservatives are already doing many of these things. He simply wants us to do them more “purposefully in public,” as opposed to continuing to do them in private where no one sees. Again, there are multiple problems here. The first, as my friend Matthew Lee Anderson noted on Twitter, is that Brooks conflates “doing good deeds in private” with “doing good deeds outside of the media spotlight.” As the fellow once said, these things aren’t being done in a corner. Heck, sometimes they’re even noticed by columnists from The New York Times!
But when the media has chosen sides in our culture war, when they are partisans in a societal struggle, it’s no surprise they put the spotlight on social conservatives’ opposition to gay “marriage” and child killing, rather than our efforts to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or comfort the hurting. Perhaps our “communications disaster” is not merely owing to fumble-mouthed Southern Baptists, but to an adversarial media that likes to work some propaganda.
But for social conservatives, and especially Christians, there’s a deeper problem with Brooks’s proposed course change and publicity campaign. It sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing Jesus told us not to do. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). We’ll leave the public moral preening to our ascendant sexual Pharisees, who stand on “the right side of history” in their rainbow phylacteries, patting each other on the back on the way to the next award ceremony (Matthew 23:4-7). We’d prefer, as much as possible, to do our good deeds in secret, without trumpets and fanfare, where only our Father in heaven can see.
Here’s a Better Suggestion for Christian Underdogs
Finally, I appreciate that Brooks cares enough about social conservatives to give us advice. But perhaps our call in the present moment is not mainly to persuade, but simply to bear witness, to testify to the truth in the face of hardened opposition. It wouldn’t be the first time God has called his servants to do so. Jeremiah was told he would speak God’s word to a stiff-necked people and they would not listen. God sent Ezekiel to a rebellious house, a people with “a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (Ezekiel 3:8) and he equipped his prophet with a face as hard as the people’s.
Of course, we hope and pray that bold witness leads to changed minds and transformed hearts. After all, sometimes what people need most is to encounter something as hard as their hearts. “Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that shatters the rock?” (Jeremiah 23:29). But, as Christians, we must be more concerned with faithfulness to God than fruitfulness in the world, not because fruitfulness doesn’t matter, but because faithfulness is the only path to it.
That’s why, as for me and my house, we’ll politely decline Brooks’s advice and stand with Dreher and George. Dreher’s Benedict Option recognizes that judgment begins with the household of God. We can’t export what we don’t have. Therefore, the crying need of the hour is for us to put our own house in order, to strengthen and steel ourselves with soft hearts and hard heads, repenting of our own sexual foolishness and complicity in the cultural upheaval we find ourselves in, then seeking to be shaped and formed by the Word of God, training our own minds and the imaginations of our children to run in biblical ruts so that we stop acting as the incubator for generational unfaithfulness in the church.
George’s call to joyful resistance and his model for it is also right. The civil-rights movement was animated by a courageous faith and stood boldly against the hostility and evil of their own day. What’s more, when the early Christians were told to stop pointing out the sins of cultural leaders, their response was to pray for boldness and to keep speaking. “We must obey God rather than men.” And when the heat was turned up and the slanders came hot and heavy, God multiplied boldness and used opposition to his plan to accomplish his plan.
So we may be losing the “old” culture war. We may soon be treated as “social pariahs,” our schools losing accreditation, our churches losing tax-exempt status, and the sphere of religious liberty shrinking until we’re only allowed to think religious thoughts behind our eyes and between our ears (and then only one day per week). But we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again. I’ve been reading my Bible, and from what I can tell, God loves cliffhangers, last-minute saves, and eucatastrophes. After all, when they had the Lord surrounded on one particular Friday, he had them right where he wanted them.