In part 1, I explored how our current cultural and political moment offers opportunities for developing new coalitions. There are exiles from the Left and the Right who show a common interest in developing a parallel polis of sorts, where communities of humane scale can form and thrive, independently from ideological a prioris that put people into camps of good and evil, yet don’t align with actual objective reality. The concept of the parallel polis is not a mentality of retreat or quietism, but is, as Rod Dreher explains, “about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society” (94). Here in part 2, I’d like to explore further the prospects and perils of bridge-building.
The Prospects of Bridge-Building
While Christian conservatives and secular classical liberals may be an unlikely pairing, both groups can agree on the importance of fact-based objective reality. We can find common ground with those who view the world as an objective reality with inherent meaning, in which humans are situated as embodied, contingent beings. I will call this group realists. This would be in distinction from those who view the world as a conglomeration of relative and constructed meanings, subjectively experienced by autonomous, self-determining beings. I will call this group constructivists.
Constructivists posit that knowledge of the world and the self is subjectively constructed by the individual. This is the philosophy underlying the education system, gender ideology, critical race theory, and the ever-expanding conglomeration of identity categories. Within this system, gender is a self-chosen constructed identity with no correlation to actual biology. Similarly, one’s “lived experience” forms the basis of personal knowledge construction, inaccessible to other groups or individuals who haven’t constructed the same knowledge, thus cutting off meaningful dialogue with one another in a near-gnostic fashion. As Carl Trueman so eloquently explains in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, our understanding of the self has become internal and therapeutic, something constructed by our own will, not a given of reality.
Realist responses to the claims of constructivism are being proffered by exiles from the Left and the Right. Both groups point to the facts of reality, biology, the objective nature of truth, and the scientific basis of our universal humanity, showing that Realist alliances are possible. I think the co-authors of Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, provide a credible glimpse of what that might look like in the marketplace of ideas. Pluckrose is editor of Areo Magazine, whose contributors “are intellectually, professionally and ideologically diverse and include liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians, atheists and religious believers.” Lindsay similarly has built an impressive online resource at New Discourses which he hopes provides a “home for the politically homeless…where dialogue is possible and encouraged, regardless of differences in politics.” Lindsay, who has also published a book defending his atheism, has presented alongside Christian ministers, and was recently on Al Mohler’s Thinking in Public. Both Pluckrose and Lindsay seem to grasp the free exchange of ideas, and aren’t afraid to share the stage with anyone.
The possibilities created by non-traditional media like Substack are also intriguing. David French argues that Substack represents “a cross-section of right- and left-wing dissidents” who share a “commitment to America’s liberal values, including its commitment to free speech.” The subscription model does carry risks of deepening the echo chambers that already exist, but it also shows the opportunities that are expanding outside legacy media, and the ability to survive and even monetize one’s being canceled by running an end-around the machinery of mainstream media.
The Perils of Bridge-Building
Along with the promises of bridge-building, come potential pitfalls. Surely there would be significant differences between a Christian and secular parallel polis, and working together on certain matters would be counterproductive because of competing core worldview foundations. In our attempts to defend objectivity and rationality as universal human tools, Christians must do more than just push for a return to modernity. Christianity offers something different from modern liberalism, the postmodern wokeism of the far-Left, or the political religion of the far-Right.
It seems that many exiles from the Left place too much stock in secular liberalism as a panacea, overlooking its role in some of the very problems they claim it solves. In Cynical Theories, for example, Pluckrose and Lindsay state, “the solution is liberalism, both political…and in terms of [scientific] knowledge production” (265). But science is not as objective as secular liberals claim—something we should remember from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As Ramin Skibba more recently put it, “scientists…like to see themselves as objectively exploring the world, above the political fray. But such views of scientific neutrality are naive, as study findings, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work.” Blatant examples of this are found in the legacy of scientific racism and the proliferation of racial injustice based on the Darwinian paradigm.
The principles of liberalism, broadly understood, have brought about much good in the world. But as Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism itself is unsustainable without the underlying ordered limits of faith, family, and community. Liberalism, even with all its benefits, has placed the liberated individual at the center, which catalyzed the chain reaction towards the very identity ideologies we are seeing today. Liberalism, Deneen explains, with its origins in Enlightenment thought, re-conceptualized “liberty as…the greatest possible freedom from external constraints.” This is different from the pre-Enlightenment conception of liberty as “the condition of self-governance…requiring an extensive habituation in virtue…[and] constraints upon individual choice” (xiii). Liberalism ushered out the old ideal of an ordered, self-giving self, interconnected to others in vocational webs of mutual support according to God’s purposive design. In its place came the new ideal of a liberated, self-determining self, free from duties and responsibilities towards others, with unbounded choice and no structures external to the self to frame meaningful action in the world. With autonomy absolutized as a principle for everything, with no reference to objective truth or the Divine, we have a field ripe for the constructed identity categories so prevalent today—in part courtesy of liberalism’s view of the individual.
Secular liberalism also claims too much credit for significant strides towards justice, overlooking the underlying narratives that were at work behind the scenes inspiring and sustaining actual social change. Take for example the ending of chattel slavery and the central role of Christians who, Emily Morales explains, “fueled abolitionist movements throughout Europe and the U.S.” Or consider the overtly religious language and message of many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Many human rights advancements that get attributed to secular liberalism were deals brokered on borrowed Christian capital.
When secular liberals and conservative Christians critique the extremes of the far-Left and the far-Right, we find opportunity for creating new coalitions and perhaps even parallel institutions. We might be further along on this path than we realize. A parallel educational polis is already at work with the increase in homeschooling, the rapid growth of classical education, colleges that strive for independence from government bureaucracy by refusing federal funding, and vast online resources that remain independent from the woke agenda. Organizations like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy also provide glimmers of hope. So too, a parallel economic polis—with humanely-scaled, community-centered and family-centered productivity—might be more possible now than ever before, with the disruptions and adjustments caused by COVID-19.
The path is certainly daunting, but it has been forged in many times and places before, as Dreher so ably shows by recounting stories of Cold War dissidents in Live Not by Lies. No matter what the future exactly holds, the core principles of community, faith, and family that make the parallel polis function are vital habits for human flourishing in any time and place. Patrick Deneen seems to agree: “one of the great tasks we have as Christians or as secular people who are concerned about our current condition, is to build forms of culture from the ground up and to live a kind of counter-anti-culture. That is to say be against the current anti-culture by building a culture with and through families and communities, churches, and so forth.” Building culture and community requires all the help we can muster and necessitates the crossing of traditional divides. Yes, even secular liberals of the “exiled Left” have something to teach us about how to live not by lies. Some of them have suffered for truth more than most Christians have.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette Magazine, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.