The Debt Confessionalists Owe to Modernists

And we never said “thanks.”

Carl Trueman makes an observation that requires qualification:

And that perhaps is the real problem many Christians have with the current anti-Christian culture. It is not that they really object to vile insults, mischaracterizations of opponents, hashtag wielding mobs, and the use of corporate economic power and the politicization of the judiciary as a means to subvert constitutional rights and democratic process. It is that they no longer have the influence over the culture which embodies such things.

I read that and wondered when I or my people ever had cultural influence and power. I know, I am white and that’s supposed to come with privilege. But my fundamentalist parents never taught me how to act at my seat at the culturally privileged table (they went to Bob Jones, don’t you know). They reared me to think I was on the outside looking in. The same goes for my current communion, the OPC. I’m not sure when Orthodox Presbyterians ever had cultural reach or political influence. They certainly had big mouths and might complain about those in control. But they lived out the Benedict Option before it became trendy — that is, they retreated from the mainstream cultural institutions in order to pass on the faith.

What conservatives and confessionalists miss, however, is the benefits we enjoyed from mainline Protestants running things. Until roughly 1970 sectarian Protestants could count on American culture generally to be congenial to their faith and life. Public schools did not directly undermine faith, television might go blue but it was generally tame (think Leave it to Beaver), and institutions like the Boy Scouts, for as bad as their civil religion was, were still wholesome in a civilly righteous way. Expectations for public morality prevailed — illegitimate children, divorce, coarse language, and pornography were bad, respect for authority and participating in the nation’s ways were good. Every culture has to have a code, right?

But then the mainline became #woke about sex, race, gender, and U.S. foreign policy. In a word, it turned skeptical if not hostile to wholesome America and regarded the nation’s virtues as smokescreens for colonialism, imperialism, and bigotry. Once that outlook trickled down to public and private institutions, confessional Protestants had to think twice about whether the surrounding culture would impede what families and churches were trying to pass on to their kids. The point is not that pre-1970s America was actively Christian or genuinely wholesome. But it was a place that did not directly (unless you were a #woke neo-Calvinist) undermine shared expectations about families, sex, marriage, personal responsibility, and respect for authority.

In which case, the problem isn’t losing cultural influence or control, as Trueman has it. It’s a problem that no one seems to want to be a gatekeeper anymore, except when it is convenient.

7 thoughts on “The Debt Confessionalists Owe to Modernists

  1. It is interesting… isn’t it, that an entire class of people voluntarily gave up their power? Wealthy northeastern Protestants seem to have simply vanished without a trace. When they have shown up in the past 25 years (the Bush family for example), they’ve tried disguising their patrician roots.

    Reminds me a bit of the Taylor Nichols character in Metropolitan who obsessively worried over the inevitable failures awaiting him and the other UHB’s. It’s as if this class (and the mainline churches they congregated in) became guilty of shaping culture. How and why this happened… I’m not quite sure.


  2. Thank you! My mainline parents were converted via evangelicals, and had to come to terms with being associated with–egads–fundamentalist… regarded with every bit as much suspicion as those negroes. Both lived on the wrong side of the cultural ‘tracks’ in the 70s to differing degrees.


  3. PAH, here’s my theory. The modernists so heavily invested in modern cultural advance that when they had to accept they were wrong about sex, race, gender, and U.S. superiority, they had nowhere to go but vanish.


  4. Letme, you might want to hurry up. You won’t find many modernists under the age of 90. And don’t bother thanking the kids… they won’t understand.

    DGH, I remember being in Fosdick’s archival Collection, and there’s a section about his support of contraception. Fosdick thought contraception was great for married couples because it showed promise for reducing the problem of overpopulation (not a concern for Americans). One of the letters in this section was from someone who opposed contraception on the grounds that it led (or a prediction that it would lead) to increased promiscuity and would hurt marriage in the long run. Fosdick replied something to the tune of “you’re being silly… I oppose contraception use for non-married couples, and every other rational American will see it that way as well”.

    It was initially surprising to me that Fosdick could be so naive. I don’t doubt that he was sincere in his opposition to rising sexual promiscuity (he railed against it often). Then again, naïveté and modernism fit hand and glove when one is always looking to the “better angels of our nature”.


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