Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented that conservative Christians are losing the culture war. Brooks suggested that conservative Christians shift focus and “nurture stable families.” But Brooks is wrong; the culture war isn’t over. Conservatives are stuck in a war they can’t win.
A May Pew Research report found that since 2007, the number of Americans who describe themselves as Christian has declined from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. There was a 6.7 percent increase in “unaffiliated” – atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Pew noted that as the unaffiliated group has grown the members have described themselves “in increasingly secular terms.”
David Brooks seized upon the Pew finding and the SCOTUS decision in favor of same-sex marriage (Obergfell v. Hodges) to conclude: “Christianity is in decline in the United States… American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social issues.”
Brooks ignores the reality that the beliefs of American Christians cover a wide spectrum. There are conservative Christians, mostly evangelicals, who believe the bible is literally true and are strongly influenced by the Old Testament. (Brooks refers to this sector of the Christian community as “orthodox” but the correct description is “conservative.”) These Christians subscribe to a patriarchic family model (the “strict father” model using the terms of University of California professor George Lakoff) and therefore are against same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception.
There are also liberal Christians who are represented in a variety of denominations: United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, Evangelical Lutherans, United Methodists, Quakers, and others. They do not believe the bible is literally true and are most influenced by the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Most of these Christians do not support the patriarchic family model (they believe in Lakoff’s “nurturant parent” model) and therefore support same-sex marriage, abortion (in some circumstances), and contraception.
David Brooks also ignores recent political history. During the Reagan era, a key pillar of Republican strategy was to recruit southerners (in particular) and conservative white voters (in general) by embracing the culture wars. Reagan decried the so-called Democratic assault on what he termed “traditional family values” which are synonymous with what professor Lakoff describes as the “strict father” family model. Republicans accused Democrats of embracing “sixties values” including promiscuity and “abortion on demand.”
Since the seventies, the Republican culture war has warned of the destruction of the traditional family by a Democratic-inspired culture of permissiveness that encourages women to step out of the strictures of the patriarchy and supports equality for homosexuals.
And, David Brooks is wrong when he concludes that because “American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social Issues.” the culture war is over. The GOP may have lost a battle (or in the case of Obergfell v. Hodges, an entire campaign) but it is disingenuous to assert that this aspect of the GOP electoral strategy has tanked. Social conservatives have too much invested in the culture war both politically and emotionally.
The culture war is about defense of the patriarchy. It’s unlikely that socially conservative Republicans will stop defending the strict father family model anytime soon. The GOP war on women will continue. And, sadly, the Obergfell v. Hodges decision will make it easier for homosexuals to marry but not to gain employment or the amenities of a dignified life.
Finally, David Brooks errs when he describes the proponents of the culture war as orthodox Christians. They may be orthodox but they aren’t Christians. They are members of a sect, “American Calvinism.” Their Calvinist theology borrows several notions from the sixteenth century French theologian: the Bible is infallible; the “law” is driven by the Ten Commandments, rather than the teachings of Jesus; humans are totally depraved; and God has predestined who will be saved.
Brooks’ “orthodox Christians” are intolerant and uncharitable. They embrace capitalism at all costs.
Jesus’ first commandment was to love God. But his other teachings are about loving those around us. His second commandment was “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus amplified this in his Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
And, of course, Jesus disdained worldly possessions: “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
If David Brooks was correct and the culture war is over then it’s clear what his “orthodox Christians” should do next. Not “nurture stable families;” that’s pablum. If conservative Christians are serious about following the teachings of Jesus then they should join with liberal Christians, and all people of good will, and launch a new war on poverty. That would be a bona fide culture war.