Wow!

Rod Dreher quotes Mark Lilla’s new book on liberalism’s crack-up and goes after Jeffrey Lebowski (aka The Dude) and fellow authors of the Port Huron Statement:

Conservatives complain loudest about today’s campus follies, but it is really liberals who should be angry. The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.

There is a great irony in this. The supposedly bland, conventional universities of the 1950s and early ’60s incubated the most radical generation of American citizens perhaps since our founding. Young people were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. Yet once that generation took power in the universities, it proceeded to depoliticize the liberal elite, rendering its members unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.

Now, someone needs to notice how evangelicals jumped on the politics of identity bandwagon — w-w and faith goes all the way down to my toenails — and further weakened a national identity. And, get this, they did it in the name of national identity.

Doh!

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Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

Old Life is not the only place where the dissatisfied express their dissatisfaction. Evangelical scholars are weighing in on Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. If Barry Hankins thinks Fitzgerald neglects evangelicalism’s religious character, Randy Balmer faults her for not noticing evangelicals’ progressive politics:

FitzGerald recounts the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Con­cern in November 1973, but then progressive evangelicals drop almost entirely from the narrative until the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, the nation’s first avowed born-again president and a progressive evangelical, receives only scattered mention—far less, for example, than Phyllis Schlafly or even Herb Titus, a truly fringe figure. The chapter on George W. Bush, the nation’s second born-again president, by contrast, consumes more than a hundred pages.

FitzGerald renders the inner workings of the religious right in granular detail. We hear, for example, about James Dob­son’s tantrums and Richard Land’s partisan harangues, but only brief and belated reference to Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal or the effort of Red Letter Christians to emphasize the social teachings of Jesus. The author commendably plunges into the works of Rousas John Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, but the writings of Jim Wallis receive no comparable midrash. Shane Claiborne, a “rock star” among younger evangelicals and a radical (not progressive) evangelical, merits only a single reference.

The problem that Balmer fails to notice is that Christian progressives (evangelical or not) are in decline:

If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.

Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.

Since we live in a democracy, numbers matter? If we want an aristocracy of the few, the virtuous, the woke, fine. But that means giving up all that idealism about the equality of all people.

Don’t forget to notice also that the problem for Balmer with evangelicals is not Hankin’s complaint — that they are too political. Instead, the evangelical error is having the wrong politics. That would be an amusing exegetical show to find the Democratic (or Republican) platform in the pages of Holy Writ.

Two Kingdoms and Confessional Protestantism Look Pretty Good NOW

Stephen Prothero explains why evangelicals look even less reliable than they always have to those in confessional communions who take church governance seriously:

For decades, pundits have viewed white evangelicals as perhaps the most powerful voting block in American politics—the base of the Republican Party. Cohesive, well organized, and politically active, they crafted their identity around a shared belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and a shared commitment to supplant the moral relativism of the insurgent 1960s cultural revolution with “traditional values.” It’s a bloc that’s persisted for decades. Today, roughly a quarter of all Americans identify as evangelicals, and white evangelicals make up the majority of Republican voters in many Southern primaries. In 2012, four out of five of them preferred Romney over Obama.

White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhaps the great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.

What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Scarred by these battles, some evangelicals have withdrawn from politics, pursuing what blogger Rod Dreher has referred to as the “Benedict Option,” which focuses on fostering local Christian communities rather than taking yet another whack at the lost cause of Christianizing the nation. Others have continued to try to bend the arc of American history toward biblical values. And some of them are now denouncing Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—even as the larger flock appears poised to make him the Republican nominee.

The most outspoken of the no-Trumpers is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has repeatedly whacked Trump—a man whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord”—as a reprobate unfit for the presidency. “The gospel is more important than politics,” he warns his fellow Bible believers. You can stump for Trump or be an evangelical, he says. But you cannot do both.

But Moore’s effort to keep evangelicalism pure, in a world of increasingly polluted politics, is a lost cause. Paradoxically, that effort has actually alienated him from the modern evangelical movement itself. Moore essentially admits this: in a recent op-ed, he announced that until voting habits change, he won’t even to refer to himself as an evangelical anymore. He lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been too willing to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics . . . as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.”

Prothero is right to see the inconsistency in evangelicalism.

What he misses is the inconsistency of academics who study evangelicals. For at least thirty years students of American religion have told us that the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are — wait for it — evangelical. That’s like saying BMWs and Yugos are cars, as if the parts are interchangeable, as if they cost the same, as if the owners come from the same demographic, as if the same kinds of technology go into these automobiles.

In other words, not many of the smart people who study religion prepared Americans and even earthlings for what’s happening now. Some did.

Is This Constitutional?

The similarities between neo-Calvinist and Roman Catholic transformers continue to be remarkable (at least to all about me). Adding to the remarkableness is that the inspiration for cleaning up public life or for motivating Christians to become involved can go in either politically conservative or liberal directions. What is more, the ideas don’t need to be tied directly to confessional theology — as in matters that rise to the level of dogma.

Consider two recent examples from the Roman Catholic world. First an appeal on the left to a version of the Social Gospel that goes cosmic:

“As Catholics, we must be continue to be involved the issues of world hunger, human rights, peace building and justice promotion,” Wenski said. “This social ministry is not opposed to the ultimate spiritual and transcendent destiny of the human person. It presupposes this destiny, and is ultimately oriented toward that end.”

“This Earth is our only highway to heaven,” he said. “And we have to maintain it. As Catholics we are concerned about ecology, both natural ecology but also human ecology. In other words, we have to make sure that to the best of our abilities this highway of life is cleared of the obstacles that sin, both personal and structural, has placed in the path of those traveling on it.”

Remarking on biblical figure Job, who’s friends “blamed him for his miseries,” Wenski said that, “today, in a world of increasing inequality, as Catholics we must struggle against what Pope Francis has termed ‘the globalization of indifference,’ and we must struggle against that tendency within American society, which we see especially today in the debate over immigration reform, to blame the victim!”

Then a call (not that one) for Christian statesmen to clean up the U.S.A.:

There are currently twenty-six Catholics in the Senate, although many are Catholics in name only. The House of Representatives lists 142 members who claim to be Catholic – the greatest number in our history, and at a crucial period of moral peril. But where is their witness to natural law, religious freedom, and enduring moral truths?

Happily, several (faithful) Catholics are considering a run for the presidency. We should hope that would include both parties. What a wonderful moment it would be if our once-great country were to produce a number of great Catholic statesmen ready and able to confront the great crises, moral and civilizational, threatening our nation (and the world) today.

This post comes with a citation of the Roman Catholic Church’s catechism about the work of God’s people (which I hardly regard as dogma):

898 By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . .It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.

899 The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church: Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society.

Imagine if we heard imams in mosques telling Muslims the Islamic equivalent of these bromides. Maybe then the notion of secular society and the separation of church and state (not to mention the spirituality of the church) look a whole lot more appealing. But when Christians violate American habits of governance for Christ’s sake, it’s not only okay but great pretty good.

Meanwhile, which of the saints, whether overseers of the overseen, are worried about the teachers at church institutions that might be leading the people and the politicians astray (think Richard McBrien):

Although Fr. McBrien was often called fearless and broad-minded, he was frequently hypersensitive to criticisms of his own views. After he defended Mario Cuomo against possible ex-communication, for instance, McBrien complained about the letters he received, calling them “mean and vindictive.” Notably, though, he never used such language against politicians who took the lives of unborn children, much less theologians who provided cover for them.

The one thing most frequently said about Fr. McBrien—which he himself affirmed—was the least convincing: that he “never held back.”

In fact, he did hold back—on everything from the value of clerical celibacy, to the dangers of moral relativism, to the necessity of the Catechism, to courageous pro-life witness. He had the intelligence and gifts to take action, guided by the wisdom of the Church, but consistently let those opportunities escape him.

But why oh why do American Christians worry more about Washington, D.C. or debates at the United Nations Security Council than about faculty or pastors and priests within their own communion? Could it have anything to do with failing to heed the apostle Paul’s dualism, that distinction he makes in 2 Cor 4 between the seen and unseen things?

I Am Mario Cuomo

The media attention devoted to Mario Cuomo’s death highlighted the tension in the former governor’s thought between his personal moral convictions and his responsibilities and work as an elected official. Put simply, is it possible to be personally committed to Roman Catholic morality but in public life follow a different moral standard? Here’s how Crux described it:

. . . the Catholic hierarchy was taking a decidedly more conservative turn under Pope John Paul II. Abortion was the salient issue for the US bishops, a nonnegotiable point that no Catholic pol could ignore if he wanted to stay in the good graces of the bishops, or, in the view of some, be eligible to take Communion.

Cuomo’s fellow New Yorker and Italian Catholic, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, had just made history as Walter Mondale’s running mate, and she also supported abortion rights. It was left to Cuomo to provide a Catholic intellectual defense against her many critics.

“(W)hile we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment,” Cuomo said in the landmark Notre Dame speech.

Cuomo even anticipated conservatives’ adoption of his stance when he asked if he would have to follow the bishops’ teaching on economic justice “even if I am an unrepentant supply sider?” And he pointedly quoted Michael Novak, known as the Catholic “theologian of capitalism,” who wrote: “Religious judgment and political judgment are both needed. But they are not identical.”

One could argue that John F. Kennedy articulated a version of this personal vs. public 25 years earlier.

But it is not a problem that only bedevils Roman Catholics. Protestant politicians may be personally opposed to desecrating the Lord’s Day, and if such a public figure is an officer in a Presbyterian church has even vowed to uphold Sabbatarianism, but in their public duties or owing to political calculation fail to work for Blue Laws. In fact, all believers who hold public office in a religiously diverse and tolerant society need to separate the teachings and practices of their religious communities from the norms that guide civil life. At the very least, they need to juggle the public and private unless they are willing to seek the implementation of their own faith for all of civil society

The irony is that religious right championed a view of the relationship between personal and public responsibilities that derided folks like Cuomo as either hypocritical or cynical. The irony becomes even more ironic when the religious right complains that radical Islam is incapable of making the very distinction that Cuomo defended.

Neutrality Beach

Anthony Esolen gives shelter and clothing to neo-Calvinists in his piece opposing neutrality in matters of public life. As we so often here, it’s impossible:

On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, “We want to do this, and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live and let live, that’s our motto.”

But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot say, “I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a beach,” because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.

From this he goes on to comment on religion in the United States under a liberal secular government:

The virtue of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not. You cannot say, “The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and to pray for His protection.” To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray, now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One should at least be honest about it.

The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.

One odd aspect of this argument is that many Roman Catholics (Anthony Esolen’s religious tribe) would have appreciated a tad more neutrality from public officials for about a 170-year swath of U.S. history (1790-1960). Most American Protestants didn’t grasp the privilege they enjoyed by virtue of certain political ideas embodied in the Constitution and that the Vatican did not finally embrace until the Second Vatican Council. Protestants also enjoyed a semi-monopoly of public education, a situation that forced many bishops to sponsor parochial schools. In which case, I could well imagine that if Anthony placed himself at a different time in U.S. history he might be able to empathize with those Americans who take some comfort from a government that tries not to take a side among religions.

Related to this is empathy with state officials who are trying to decide about a nude beach. Maybe they cite chapter and verse from the Decalogue and enlist the support of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. But what if they also want the support of the large collection of journalists and engineers in town who work for National Public Radio. Maybe they use an argument against a nude-beach on the grounds supplied by a non-religious argument.

One of the problems the Religious Right has faced, in my view, is an inability to arrive at just such common rationales for what they believe. The logic of the Lordship of Christ or w-w says that all of me is religious so I need to make a religious argument. But lots of non-religious people would also favor a beach where bathers did not reveal their private parts. That this outcome seems far fetched in the case against neutrality may show how much the religion-is-all-of-me has prevailed. But why is it unlikely that many parents in the United States, even if they don’t attend a church or synagogue, would oppose a nude beach? And why is it necessarily a betrayal of my faith if I try to find a rationale for conventional Christian morality that also appeals to a non-Christian?

The bottom line I keep coming back to: if neutrality is not something we shoot for no matter how sloppy it will be, then do we need to return to the confessional state where only Protestants or Roman Catholics run things? That would certainly cut down on the pluralism of our societies and may bring a return of the ghettoization of religious dissenters. Do opponents of neutrality have a stomach for that? If not, maybe they should keep their clothes on.

The Jimmy-Carter Roots of Jerry Falwell

I have long suspected that the acrimony between left and right in U.S. politics stems not only from the Religious Right and the inevitable upping of the ante of civil matters to moral or eschatological significance, but also to the self-righteousness that accompanies the conviction (w-w alert) that one’s policy or vote is an expression of faithfulness to God. I also have long felt that Jimmy Carter exhibited the latter tendencies — self-righteousness — and was a particularly poor sport in the way he took Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. I thought then that Carter believed he had lost to a dumber and inferior man, and so was responsible for launching the Democrats’ sense of intellectual superiority. (Republicans counter with patriotic/civil religious superiority.)

It turns out that I (all about me) not have been that far off, and this from Jonathan Yardley who voted twice for Carter (thanks to John Fea):

Religion is a tricky business, never more so than when it gets mixed up with government. Although Balmer pays due respect to the argument that “religion functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power,” that “once a religious group panders after political influence, it loses its prophetic voice,” he does not convince me that Carter, either as governor of Georgia in the early 1970s or as president in the second half of that decade, really “understood that the Christian faith had flourished in the United States precisely because the government had stayed out of the religion business.”

To the contrary, Carter brought religion (religiosity, too) into the national government more directly and intensely than any president before him in the 20th century. He campaigned as a religious man, speaking repeatedly, openly and almost boastfully about his religious convictions, about the centrality of prayer to his daily life, about the joy he took in being “born again.” Balmer sees this as a redemptive response to the cynicism and venality of the Nixon years, and unquestionably there is some truth to that. But Carter made religion a campaign weapon as well as a private belief, which was not appreciably less calculating than Nixon’s disregard for the Constitution and the common decencies.

If Carter’s presidency was indeed redemptive, why is it that in the 31 / 2 decades since it ended, American politics has been plunged into one of the most bitterly partisan periods in the country’s history? Granting for the sake of argument Balmer’s apparent belief in the sincerity of Carter’s religious beliefs and his commitment to “progressive evangelism,” it remains that it was Carter who brought religion into the public arena and thus opened the way for others whose evangelical beliefs are the polar opposite of his own. Balmer would have us believe that the rise of the religious right was in large part due to the clever political manipulations of Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell and others, but it was Carter who made it possible for them to present themselves as a legitimate political opposition. If it is permissible to grant a political role to “progressive evangelism,” why is it any less legitimate to grant a similar role to those whose evangelism “emphasized free-market capitalism, paid scant attention to human rights or the plight of minorities, and asserted the importance of military might as resistance to communism”?

For the five cents that it’s worth, my own political views are far closer to Carter’s than to those who carry the banner of the religious right — I actually voted for him twice, though holding my nose the second time — and Balmer is right that there is more than a little to admire in the record of his brief presidency, but he was his own worst enemy: smug, self-righteous, sanctimonious, humorless, vindictive and exhibitionistic about his piety. He was too haughty and aloof to deal effectively with friends and foes in Congress — foreshadowing the presidency almost three decades later of Barack Obama — and he never understood how to talk to the American people, as made all too plain by his well-intentioned but tin-eared address to the nation in July 1979 about the “crisis of confidence” from which the country ostensibly was suffering.

At Least Jesus Gets A Week

You don’t even give up politics for Lent?

I’m not feeling politics right now.

We’ve got wars and rumors of wars over a large swath of the world. Pro life people are battling killer legislation in Colorado and corporate raiders are raiding the public treasury everywhere and in every way they can. There are runaway bishops to write about, as well as a stand up bishops who are trying to fight the fight.

We’ve got cowards, brave people and martyrs.

There is no end to the politics I could write about.

But I’m not feeling it.

What I am feeling is a deep, aching hunger for the balm of Gilead, the peace that passes all understanding, the comfort of the everlasting arms.

It’s Holy Week, and I want Jesus. . . .

Politics is one of our pitiful attempts to transcend our fallen state. But, given our fallen state, politics always becomes corrupted by our venalities and cowardices. I’ve written about the cowardly acts of men in high places quite a bit these past two weeks. The truth is, I have more than a passing acquaintance with the weaknesses of princes.

But nothing I have known can touch the combination of cowardice and cold-blooded corruption that led to the final sacrifice of the last Passover Lamb.

We need to bow down before the cross this week. It is, as Scripture says, the Lord’s Passover. It is the door opening on the way out. The cross is the price of our sins. It is the Lord’s ultimate Passover by which we are saved from the absolute and final death that we deserve.

If you become a confesssional Protestant and you get Jesus fifty-two weeks a year.

When Neo-Calvinism Started to Stop Making Sense

Mark Edwards, Spring Arbor University, has touched a nerve among historians who profess some version of Protestantism by commenting on the new book, Confessing History, edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller and suggesting that the Conference on Faith and History is the intellectual arm of the Religious Right. The historians involved in this discussion don’t mind Edwards reservations about Christian history but are not wild about associations between talk of doing Christian history and the project of evangelical politics (can you blame them?). Edwards explains (courtesy of John Fea):

To me, it concerned the larger issue of “integration of faith and learning” which seemed to underlay CFH at least at that time. For many historians, integrationist language is ALWAYS theocratic code and thus, to them, relative to the Religious Right.

This strikes me as eminently sensible since if you are going to invoke the Lordship of Christ (a Kuyperian trope that informed the Conference on Faith and History from its earliest days) when it comes to academic life, why not also appeal to Christ’s Lordship over the state (as the Religious Right has done in a variety of idioms)? In fact, I began to suspect the weakness of neo-Calvinism when I wrote a piece about the history of the Conference on Faith and History for History and the Christian Historian. I detected that objections to secular scholarship were not far removed from arguments against secular politics. Here is an excerpte:

Apart from the Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation, what meaning or purpose can a Christian see in history? And how have Christians historically been able to see this purpose in history? The answer is from some special and authoritative revelatory power, whether it be Scripture or the Magisterium. This means that a Christian historian wanting to understand God’s purposes in the French Revolution or the rise and fall of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) needs some special revelation – unless, of course, Christian historians all have become charismatics and now receive a word of knowledge whenever they sit down at the computer.

The kind of Christian historical agnosticism advocated here even extends to events like the First Great Awakening, the incident that sparked the debate between [Harry] Stout and [Iain] Murray. The latter thinks that Whitefield’s efforts on behalf of the colonial revivals were the work of God. From Murray’s perspective Whitefield’s revivals benefitted the church, both through the spread of sound theology and through the conversion of vast numbers. But how does Murray know that the Great Awakening was the work of God? Did God tell him? His answer would no doubt be that Whitefield’s work conformed to the teaching of Scripture and that mass conversions were a confirmation of God’s blessing. But this is not the only Christian perspective on Whitefield’s revivals. Roman Catholics would no doubt take a different view. So too would those within the Protestant fold, such as confessional Lutherans and Reformed. Furthermore, is God only at work in history when things go well, when saints are added to his church? Or does the doctrine of providence teach that God is also at work in the revivals that Murray questions, such as those crusades associated with Charles Finney and countless other not-so-Calvinistic evangelists? In fact, the doctrine of providence teaches that God is at work in everything, both good and not so good. But to determine what God intended by a particular event is another matter altogether. In other words, without the special revelation God gave to the apostles and through the risen Christ, twentieth-century Christians, just like the early church, cannot know the meaning from God’s perspective of any historical event, even the crucifixion.

This strong assertion brings us back to the question of whether such a thing as Christian history really exists. Are Christian historians better able to discern the hand of God in history than non-Christians? Are their criteria of evaluation any different even from that of an elder in a local church who has to judge whether or not the person meeting with the session is making a credible profession of faith? And if Christians cannot see into the soul of someone else to tell definitively whether God has intervened, are Christian historians any better able to do so with political, economic or cultural events?

In the end, Christian history is nice work if you can get it. It would be marvelous if, because of faith or regeneration, Christian historians were able to divine what God was up to in all subjects of research and teaching. But Christian theology says we cannot discern God’s hand in that way. It also reminds us that we need to trust that God is in control of human history even if we cannot always see that control, that God providentially orders and governs human affairs to protect his children. No matter how much the historical profession says that history moves from antiquity to modernity, the Bible tells Christians, whether historians or not, that the real direction of history is from the first to the last Adam. Only with a sense of history that culminates in Christ and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth will we finally have a Christian history. The problem for CFH members is that of trying to connect the meta-narrative of redemption to the narratives of the United States, ethnic groups, or western civilization, stories all of which are fascinating and part of God’s providence, but that may distract from the grander history of salvation.

From agnosticism about the workings of history, it was relatively easy work to get to agnosticism about political arrangements and candidates, sometimes called A Secular Faith.

Don't Blame Secularism; Blame the GOP

Conservatives (religious and cultural) addicted to the notion that ideas have consequences are tempted to interpret the current trend toward the acceptance of gay marriage as the outworking of secularization and its moral relativism. This assessment seems to go with the philosophical cast of mind that afflicts both neo-Calvinists and Roman Catholic apologists, both of whom have found each other (as they did in 19th-century Netherlands) as allies in the contemporary “culture wars” against secularism.

But Daniel McCarthy’s piece in the current issue of the American Conservative lends support to my suspicion that the shift toward support for gay marriage has much less to do with marriage or tolerance than with a rejection of the Religious Right. Gay marriage is a perfect rejoinder to “family values.” Let’s see how firm your commitment to marriage is when gays want to become families. This was a move the Religious Right did not see coming. Whether the domestication of homosexuality, which used to thrive on being anti-bourgeois and counter-cultural, will last in its “family values” form is another matter. (Could it be that Jerry Falwell really did get the better of Andrew Sullivan by prompting gay advocates to follow Christian conventions of domesticity?)

Dan McCarthy extends this intuitive sense to compare the consequences of the Vietnam War for Democrats and the Iraq War for Republicans.

The root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war—Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP. This may sound implausible: every political scientist knows that Americans don’t care about foreign policy; certainly they don’t vote based on it. But foreign policy is not just about foreign policy: it’s also about culture.

That the “culture war”—as well as the “War on Drugs”—assumed its present shape in the wake of the Vietnam conflict is no accident. Vietnam polarized, realigned, and radicalized cultural factions. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, Republicans in Congress were still more likely than Democrats to support civil rights legislation. Attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality did not clearly divide left from right: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and even William F. Buckley favored liberalizing abortion laws in the early 1960s, while as late as 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Thomas Eagleton were antiabortion. Few mainstream figures in either party supported gay rights, but it was clear enough from their social circles that right-wingers such as Reagan, Goldwater, and Buckley were not about to launch any witch-hunts.

Nor were attitudes toward drugs a mark of partisan distinction: Clare Booth Luce was an early evangelist for LSD. She urged her husband, Time proprietor Henry Luce, to try it, and he “did much more to popularize acid than Timothy Leary,” in Abbie Hoffman’s opinion. Buckley, of course, was a longtime supporter of marijuana decriminalization.

One could find many more right-wingers who took the opposite views—but one could find just as many Democrats who did as well. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution had supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle.

And in the early ’60s, Democrats still had a reputation for military prowess. Their party had led the country against Nazi Germany, and while Republicans blamed them for losing China to Communism, John F. Kennedy gained more traction against Richard Nixon in 1960 when he accused the Eisenhower administration of letting a (fictitious) “Missile Gap” open up with the Soviet Union. Republicans certainly weren’t the only party considered competent to handle foreign affairs.

That changed with Vietnam. President Johnson seemed to have started a war he couldn’t win or even end. It split his party and transformed the American left: until then, labor muscle and social-democratic brains were the left’s principal organs. They tended to support the war and oppose the cultural upheavals that coincided with it—positions diametrically opposite those of the student movement and nascent New Left.

McCarthy goes on to argue that the culture wars are simply hangovers from the Vietnam era and only make sense to baby boomers.

The “culture war” that Pat Buchanan spoke of at the 1992 Republican convention was, among other things, a symptom of Vietnam syndrome: a chance to right the wrongs of the 1960s and 1970s, if not in the rice paddies of Indochina then in the hearts and minds of Americans, turning back the clock to a more wholesome time before the war and its cultural coattails.

For younger voter cohorts, this couldn’t make sense. They were a postwar generation, culturally as well as militarily, and the idea of winning back what had been lost in the wars of the 1960s was emotionally incomprehensible. These voters lacked the psychological backdrop that pulled the Boomers toward the GOP after Vietnam. And over the next 20 years, as talk radio and Fox News continued to pitch the Republican message to Boomer ears, Americans born after 1975 simply tuned out.

This is why President Obama may be the real successor (for Democrats) to Ronald Reagan:

While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future—in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq—however reluctantly—and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Obama is winning the culture war because that war continues to be fought by the right in the terms of the Vietnam era. That mistake, coupled with the natural credit a leader gets from keeping the country out of quagmires, gives the president’s party a tremendous advantage among the rising generation. (Sixty percent of voters under 30 supported Obama in 2012, as did 52 percent of those age 30–44.) And older conservatives, seeing that generation’s disdain for the culture war, are apt to write them off completely. If you’re not outraged by same-sex marriage, how can you be any kind of conservative?

But the reason even young conservatives aren’t interested in those kinds of battles is that they’re fighting others closer to home. Americans born after 1975 have grown up in an environment in which, Todd Gitlin admits, “only the most sentimental ex-hippie could fail to recognize the prices paid on the road to the new freedom: the booming teenage pregnancy rate; the dread diseases that accompanied the surge in promiscuity; the damage done by drugs; the undermining of family commitment…”

Young adults who have come from home backgrounds marked by divorce, or from intact families that nonetheless never sat down at a dinner table, want to form stronger bonds than their parents did. Boomers who view post-Boomer attitudes toward sex in light of a “revolution” are doing it wrong. It was the Boomers, or at least a key cohort among them, who believed in free love as a salvific concept. Young American have grown up with promiscuity and knowledge of drugs, aren’t panicked about these things, but don’t see them as possessing redemptive significance either. Even most young progressives do not believe in personal “liberation” of the sort that was at the core of the ’60s left—just as no one today believes in the kind of “liberation” once associated with Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.

The Republican Party may not be able to escape its McGovern phase, even if Democrats screw up (as they will) and we briefly get a Republican Carter. . . .

Ross Douthat agrees largely with McCarthy’s interpretation:

In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren’t culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration’s blunders — the missing W.M.D., the botched occupation — have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.

Of all the Iraq war’s consequences for our politics, it’s this narrative that may be the war’s most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.

Sometimes it makes more sense to look at what actually happened than at what people think.