Political passivity has long been a charge leveled against Christianity, primarily by the politically hyperactive left. If God controls everything and decrees arrangements as they are, and if he dispenses ultimate justice only in the afterlife, what is the point in mobilizing politically to right the wrongs of this world? Just endure your fate quietly, and you will get your reward. Rebel, and God will send you to hell. Romans 13 is taken as the locus classicus: “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
Not only is such a view of Christianity simplistic and contrary to historical fact; it may be the diametrical opposite of a critical truth. It is arguable that Christian faith is responsible for the uniquely active concept of citizenship that originated in the Western world. Indeed, it has been argued plausibly that some strains of Protestant Christianity created the previously unknown concept of political radicalism.
Ironically, given the left’s conventional wisdom concerning Christian passivity, this was the argument of the most provocative historical work ever produced by the New Left, Michael Walzer’s, The Revolution of the Saints (1965). Rejecting standard Marxist historiography Walzer self-consciously used the emerging militancy of his own time to argue that “the origins of radical politics” lay not in the republicanism of the eighteenth century but in the radical religion of the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries—an era historians of revolution had dismissed precisely (and arbitrarily) because it was religious. The first great modern revolution was not Jacobin but Puritan.
The book’s reception was revealing. Other leftists were perplexed. Subjecting radicalism itself to critical scrutiny and suggesting that the left’s own pedigree could be traced back to religious zealots was ironically threatening to those too intoxicated with their own righteousness to consider themselves the products of history.
But it was conservatives that really failed to realize the potential of the argument, for reasons involving the right’s territoriality over religion combined with its own commitment to political passivity.
If Christians really did create radical politics, they may have created a monster that now threatens to devour them. Radicalism has undergone many transformations from its Puritan origins: to republican, nationalist, socialist, anarchist, Communist, Islamist. Today we are seeing a new form no one predicted, though it tagged along in the shadows of almost all these earlier episodes before emerging in recent years to claim its own day in the sun: sexual.
As with other new ideological arrivals, the result is confusion. The new radicals easily subvert our archaic defenses, because they are Maginot Lines constructed against the ideologies of yesteryear. We are still kicking the dead dogs of socialism and communism, while the radicals have moved on to feminism and homosexualism.
Amid the disorientation, one tempting response, familiar from previous episodes of ideological innovation, is to withdraw from politics altogether and retreat into the very political passivity that the left has assigned to Christians. For years now, the standard conservative response has been to depict the Sexual Revolution as a “culture war,” prompting a similarly apolitical response. It is true that sexual radicalism is often so personal in its impact, and its penetration into private life is so subtle and pervasive, that its political dimension escapes detection. Ironically, it was a political scientist, the late James Q. Wilson, who, when faced with one of the most destructive successes of the sexual left (marriage erosion), succumbed to the paralysis by throwing up his hands in despair. “If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture,” he wrote, “you will realize that there is very little one can do.”
“Politics offers little help in this spiritual crisis,” writes Rod Dreher. Yet he acknowledges that the spiritual crisis is precipitated by a political agenda, specifically the one now raging over “sex, marriage, and the family,” and that specifically “the rise of gay rights has provoked an intense interest in the Ben Op among conservative Christians.” So the appropriate response to a political campaign instituted by political pressure groups is to run from the fight. “What is needed is the Benedict Option … to embrace exile from mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.” The popularity of this suggestion clearly proceeds from its potential to rationalize what many church leaders and others seem disposed to do anyway, which might be summarized as almost nothing.
It is not that apolitical responses cannot achieve anything. But the notion that this is an appropriate substitute to political engagement against what is, after all, an obviously political challenge is to renounce the thrust of the church’s mission since at least the Renaissance if not before, which has been toward engagement with public life, including political life.
But even before that, the defining moments in the Western Church have occurred when exceptional churchmen stood up and told the political authorities in no uncertain terms when they had exceeded or abused their authority or encroached on the turf of God and his Church: Ambrose of Milan, Stanislaus of Szczepanów, Thomas Becket, John Fisher, Cardinal Mindszenty, Richard Wurmbrand, John Paul II, Martin Luther King. And most of these faced as much resistance from the inaction of their fellow Christians as they did from the secular tyrannies. King complained regularly about the “do-nothingism” of the churches.
We are clearly at such a moment. At multiple points, the Sexual Revolution involves the encroachment of the state on the law of God and authority of the churches, as well as on individual rights like freedom of expression and association and due process of law. This is a moment when the demands of religious freedom can be invoked to defend the freedom of all. Instead, like Moses, we look for any excuse to wiggle out of it.
Dreher recognizes that religious freedom at least (if not connected civil liberties) cannot be defended without directly challenging state power. But this is the tip of the iceberg; to suggest that it can prevail without confronting the larger threat is myopic.
Even battlegrounds like marriage are unavoidably political because they involve a turf war between church and state and a usurpation of the church’s authority by the state. Few have bothered to analyze and delineate the elusive question of the respective authority of church and state over marriage, but it can and must be understood.
For the state is now assuming monopoly control over marriage and with it the family and, indeed, the entire private sphere of life. This threatens everyone’s freedom, not just that of Christians. And it involves much more than same-sex “marriage.” It is the job of Christians (and Jews and anyone who takes prophets like Elijah and Nathan as models) to stand up and point this out—indeed, shout it out, like the prophets did and to assume moral leadership on behalf of the entire society. Instead we have already retreated (without needing justification from St. Benedict) into narrow, relatively petty matters that really concern no one but us, by allowing the radicals to frame the debate in limited terms like same-sex “marriage.” (Emboldened by our instinct for self-preservation, they have moved on to #MeToo, where Christians have ironically been reduced to their own “me too” response but otherwise contribute nothing to the conversation.)
The state’s usurpation of authority over family and private life is much larger and began much sooner than the LGBT issues. It may be another, ironic legacy of the Protestant Reformation, when (by my reading) the state assumed jurisdiction over marriage, though if so it took five centuries for the logic to fully work itself out, when, in the 1970s, the state claimed the power not to consecrate marriage contracts but, at its pleasure, to tear them up.
All these usurpations involving marriage, the family, sexuality (for example, the single-parent homes that intimidated Wilson and still intimidate Christian advocates into silence), and the fallout for religious and civic freedom—all these result from specific government policies that are unsound for other reasons, and all can be rectified with straightforward measures. All we lack is the political will.
This is precisely what Dreher wants to deprive us of. One comment is particularly revealing. As a gesture to active civic engagement, we are advised that “We have to fight! If you aren’t donating to The Becket Fund and/or the Alliance Defending Freedom, please consider it. And please let your elected representatives know what you think.” This represents a very debased conception of citizenship. But more, it illustrates another feature of our passivity: the temptation to what the late Kenneth Minogue called “legal salvationism”—reducing political questions to judicial cases and then farming out our citizenship to lawyers. I have worked with the Becket Fund and work regularly with ADF, and I have great admiration for their efforts. But paying professionals to do our citizenship for us is no substitute for mobilizing the network of organizations that already exist purpose-built for engaging civil society, for serving as an alternative polity to the state and one with superior moral authority, and for facing down the state when it encroaches or exceeds its own. They are called churches. They are also the traditional guardians of sexual morality, and yet as sexual license rationalizes government aggrandizement—giving the churches multiple grounds to speak—they are silent. Starting with the divorce courts and now extending to high politics, the legal industry has simply occupied the ground they vacated.
Instead we must be warned, “If you are a Christian who is not prepared to be despised and exiled from elite social and professional circles over your faith, then your faith won’t be strong enough to withstand what’s here, and what’s to come. This is a hard truth, but one you had better confront now.”
So we should start making other arrangements apparently. I assumed that being despised and worse came with the territory. That is what Jesus clearly warns (Matt. 10:16-22), though Dreher seems surprised by it. This is why so many prefer the Gospel according to Groucho: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
Am I suggesting a return to the militancy of the Puritans and their politicization of the Gospel? This is hardly necessary, though an obsession with apolitical purity, as if any government measure is ipso facto off-limits to challenge by churches, has already proved debilitating.
Dreher invokes the “antipolitical politics” of Communist-era dissidents like Vaclav Havel, which was a renunciation not of politics itself but of ideological politics. This is indeed both biblical and proven effective. It is the politics of Daniel and the Hebrew women, but also of Gandhi and King, of Mindszenty and Wurmbrand. But this route means not withdrawal but
high-profile campaigns like (to pursue his secular example) 2000 Words, Charter ’77, and Civic Forum, that actively provoke the authorities into lashing out—precisely what Christians will not do now. The costs will be greater than simply being despised and exiled, as each of these men discovered.
This indeed undermined the previous ideology. Communism turned out to be a huge political ponzi scheme that collapsed remarkably quickly once people found the costs of defection less lethal than previously. I cannot promise that sexual ideology will collapse with equal speed, because the chain is still “empowering” more recruits and punishing more counter-revolutionaries. I can say that the radicals’ injustices have made many enemies across a wide range of opinion, and that their juggernaut seems unstoppable only because of the fear and divisions and moral narcissism that inhibit their opponents from cooperating.
Now Dreher and others write in apocalyptic terms about how the same trend will bring about “The Coming Collapse of Christian Colleges,” and #MeToo extends methods pioneered on the campuses to the larger politics, where they occupy the front pages. Here too, while secular academic intellectuals are actively politicized, Christian ones are passively withdrawn. With their own institutions supposedly in existential peril, an organization called Christians in Political Science can find hardly a scholar who is bothered to research sexual politics with any depth or detachment, make sense of it for the rest of us, or suggest how we might respond to it. See no evil, hear no evil…?
(Photo credit: Anderson Mancini / Wikimedia)