Religion & Liberty Online

The New Culture Warriors

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Is there anything new under the sun when it comes to fighting the woke agenda and clearing space in the public square for religion? Not really. But there could be, if we stop thinking of it as a war.

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How can principled conservatives reunite a fractured coalition? The ties that once bound the various parties on the right have frayed and, in some cases, snapped. The authors of Fight the Good Fight: How an Alliance of Faith and Reason Can Win the Culture Wars answer this question and offer a set of approaches and values they claim can form a winning coalition. They also offer compelling cases for each of the distinct aspects of society they explore, including limited government, protection for people of faith, and a commitment to traditional ethics.

The odd thing about this book, however, is that at first it sounds as if the authors, Jay Richards and James Robinson, are proposing a new framework to explore these questions and forge a path forward. They call us into “the good fight.” But then they use the same theoretical framework employed by the culture warriors in the Moral Majority of the second half 20th century (had to throw that in to make you feel old). The main difference is the set of events and trends against which they are reacting, especially debates about gender and sexuality in schools and workplaces. Neither do they address alternate frameworks that have already been proposed. They off-handedly reject the “squeamish” conservatives who “preach “norms,” “civility,” and “faithful presence.” But they provide no in-depth engagement with their ideas. No mention of exclusionary models such as the Benedict Option or the Culture Care proposed by artists like Makoto Fujimura. I am not claiming that one of these paradigms necessarily holds the answer, only that alternative frameworks are still up for discussion.

My objections to this book are not merely that it has good chapters in the wrong jacket, although I was tempted to read it in that way. Aggressive rhetoric is more or less palatable to some in the coalition, and I count myself in the latter taste bracket. But the problem is how the “jacket” changes the end goal of the project. In chapter 1, Richards and Robison frame the debate:

We’re not “politicizing culture” and inflaming the culture war by calling believers to join the political fray. The left has already politicized everything. As National Review’s Jim Geraghty has said, “Everything is the culture war now.” The question is, are we going to get real about fighting back? Are we going to devise and follow our own offensive strategy so we’re not always on defense? If so, then let’s get serious not just about winning elections but also retaking lost territory when we do so. Otherwise, we’re just dragging out our inevitable surrender.

When you define the whole conservative project as “winning,” then certain other things follow. War has casualties, clear losers, battles, and ultimately winner occupation. This creates real problems for governance, when one party leverages its power to punish opponents and reward friends. What is the goal of governance when you have to deal with the losers eventually? In addition, how do you bring skeptical moderates into a project framed as a binary war?

This approach fails to learn the right lessons from the first culture war. By any metric, religious conservatives have lost. Though Roe has been repealed, public support for abortion is strong. Civil marriage no longer matches any theologically orthodox persuasion. Divorce rates are high and marriage rates are low. Rates of religious practice continue to fall. I could go on. These trends grew to their present form largely during the time the culture wars were most active. Richards and Robinson flip the classic politics as downstream of culture to argue that laws also influence culture. A valid point, but the can kicked down the road is an answer to the question: What influences both? If winning is defined by instantiating these principles into law, then it must be matched by individual character. Otherwise good laws will be repealed faster than they came. The authors frame the project as a reaction against woke ideology, primarily the debates in our public education system over gender and sexuality. But they leave out the necessary analysis of Christendom’s approach to the public sphere in the past, and the results. What will be different this time? There is certainly momentum, but to what end?

The culture wars were “lost” by the next generation, who were unwilling or unable to carry the flag. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of televangelist culture warrior Jerry Falwell, claimed in a notorious interview that “because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not.” His moral fall was not because some progressive mafia took him down in a bloody war, but because he was interested in other things—namely, money, power, and sex. The real war was not just culture but character.

Character cannot be ignored in the conservative project. Those who aim to govern must have a solid foundation so their actions do not become evil. In the Aristotelian sense, they must have a practice of right action that will compel them to act uprightly in higher-stakes situations. Over and again, leaders who claim to check every box of social conservatism end up being totally devoid of character. Every Christian denomination is plagued at some level with abuse allegations.

At the level of family, the question of character is paramount. Perhaps the best counterpoint to prevailing progressive ideology is not the war for power but families and communities that will act as an alternate center of gravity for their kids. This is not so children can be “arrows” in their quiver against the left, but so they can lead happy, productive lives with families of their own. At risk of mixing metaphors, the problem in the current race for cultural continuity is the constantly dropped batons.

How we define winning and by what terms can create a more compassionate governance. As an example, take the movement of pregnancy care centers throughout the U.S. “Winning” for these centers means caring for mothers and children and giving them the resources they need. Many of these centers explicitly stay out of the debate about legal abortion. They let other organizations focus on that. Perhaps these two approaches are complementary, but they allow for a broader framing of what it means to uphold individual freedom and provide a higher quality of life. This is not a war against mother or child but the task of earnestly protecting both. The authors don’t disagree with this approach when they argue that “adoption, pregnancy resource centers, and homes for poor and homeless mothers are all part of the solution.” But this issue especially shows that something is sorely missing from the culture war framework. So while I am sympathetic to the authors’ project and agree that reason and faith must both be prominent in a flourishing society, I worry that the latest game plan for culture warring will fail to gain traction for the same reason the last one failed. To move forward, conservatives must cast a vision that is beyond mere winners and losers.

Ironically, part of this way forward is tacitly expressed in the book but not developed through the various topic areas. How does natural law, revealed by reason and the nature of the world, influence our lawmaking? If natural law, as St. Paul attests, is “clearly seen,” then this would imply a way of bringing more people along in this project. The orientation toward the good is a compelling framework. I would have loved to have seen the authors explore the natural law instead of the culture war in this book. A compelling positive vision of the world would do more good in uniting a coalition than a project of drawing up battle lines and steeling for combat.

Noah Gould

Noah C. Gould is the Alumni & Student Programs manager at the Acton Institute and a contributor for Young Voices. His writings on economics, business, and culture have appeared in outlets such as National Review, Detroit News, and Newsweek. He is a graduate of Grove City College. Follow him on X @NoahCGould1.