Previously, I argued that American “woke” and “red-pill” tribes mirror one another’s motions. If the polls can be trusted, it would appear that an unusual percentage of our fellow countrymen are electing for one of the two main parties in November. And if the polls cannot be trusted, few would contest the myriad of subtle ways in which the national “mood” seems tense. With alarming acceleration, even so-called “moderates” (or more idiosyncratic proponents of a “third way” approach) are hitching their wagon to one of the main teams both politically and culturally. In many cases, this is merely pragmatic – rooted in a reading of things that figures one side must ultimately win, and that one outcome is clearly less horrible than the other. In other cases, however, there is a principled critique of the moderation impulse itself. Too easily rooted in cowardice without regard to consequences, the “moderate man” is increasingly the object of suspicion. In 2020 especially, it is thought that to take this posture is simply to fail to read the times, and is inevitably (even if unwittingly) to still help one team or another. Dr. King’s famous line about evil succeeding precisely when good men do nothing resonates comprehensively in our moment. It seems time to choose a side.
For those of us who came of age in the 90s, there is no recollection of a time when the culture wars were not seamlessly fused with the grand coalition that we now call the “Religious Right.” This marriage has been the subject of ceaseless commentary, and its many children give mixed reviews. For the faction who are a bit disgruntled by their parental generation’s peculiar fusion of politics and religion, there is a tendency to pendulum swing or to seek out a “third way.” The former is rarely the path toward wisdom. The latter often appears to be so, but it is easy to miss that precisely to the extent that it is “disgruntled,” it will ultimately be driven by the momentum of that same pendulum.
One can see this in the failure of many therapies offered to post-culture-war kids in the aughts. Brian McLaren assured us that we could be theologically orthodox and culturally liberal. His critics would soon have the last laugh, though, since in his case one of these thoroughly won over the other. Still, there are exceptions to this trend. Over the last decade especially, it has been commonplace to see someone with impeccable theological credentials give a political hot-take that would have scandalized most evangelicals in the 90s.
A more common (apparently) “third way,” then, has simply been to decide that Christians shouldn’t divide over politics, since our unity in Christ presumably trumps all our other identities and loyalties. A political article at The Gospel Coalition, for instance, is more likely to be about how evangelicals ought to get along, and give one another an enormous amount of latitude in making independent political judgments. Pastors are frequently encouraged to cultivate peace during election season. This way of thinking is quite resistant to any insistence that it is the prophetic duty of the institutional church to speak prescriptively and specifically into the realm of concrete political judgments.
Critics of the latter approach point out that those who claim neutrality very often “reveal their true colours” when push comes to shove. Even if they reduce all to prudence, what direction does that collective prudence often go by instinct? Some accuse that they tend to “punch right” rather than left when speaking about political or cultural matters. They tend to respond to their own marginalization with a sense of deference (treating all ridiculous charges against their various identities as “opportunities to learn,” etc). And even if they never come out and say that we should support the reigning political regime, everything they do (even if they remain theoretically orthodox) is calibrated to mark them “safe for progressive civilization.” That is, intentionally or not, this class of Christians reconcile themselves to the culture by signaling their acceptance of marginalization, and their lack of intention to do anything about this beyond prophetic (albeit of a domesticated variety) speech. For the critics, this profound miscalculation ignores the probability that the dominant regime will not tolerate even their increasingly privatized and toothless religion much longer, though it is happy to employ them as useful pawns of evangelical pacification in the meantime.
A rather cynical read, one might retort, but not a totally implausible one, especially when a person “comes off” as driven by the desire to avoid some primal embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is scandalously incurious to suppose any political or cultural tendency is sustained by a singular motivation. The aforementioned critic is liable to argue that diverse motivations don’t matter so long as the outcome is predictable and singular. If one side inevitably will and must win, then it is foolish to suppose that one can avoid helping one side or another (whether by intention or accident). And yet, this is only a compelling way to frame the matter for those who sincerely prefer the victory of a particular “side,” or who think that ideological entrenchment is the cause (rather than at least partially a symptom) of our fracture.
What would an alternative account even look like? Some secular versions of what we might call “reconcilers” highlight the role of modern communications technologies and life-patterns that shape the way that we do modern politics. While emphasizing different things, Jonathan Haidt, Shoshana Zuboff, and others have argued that many of our divisions have to do with rapid changes in human communication over the last century. Haidt makes much of the fact that politicians in D.C. are no longer required to live in D.C. and raise their families next to one another. More colloquially, most political “discourse” in our time takes place over social media, with all of its predictable dynamics. And if this were not enough, Zuboff has shown how the architects of Silicon Valley have initiated an era of targeted advertisement (including political news) that is governed entirely by algorithms whose “goals” often stand in tension with the common good. Recent political polarization is a result of the fact that we have lived in a virtual echo chamber for the last decade – and in a country that had already been trending this way for a generation.
These kinds of explanations of our central fracture, nevertheless, do not automatically generate any particular cultural or political solution. Some believe that there are “technical” solutions (the possibility of programming the algorithms to cultivate human goods). “But,” so one retort goes, “who gets to decide which vision of the common ‘good’ gets put into the algorithms?” Some are more skeptical, then, and believe that our society is increasingly unsustainable. They predict various future clashes, and judge that the “time to persuade” has basically passed. This can come in a resigned or a jolly form. The “household” project of folks like C.R. Wiley might be read as the latter. The logic of this peculiar rejection of woke capitalism is that Christians ought to be mostly about the positive project of recovering the central role of the household in society. If a civilization is foolish enough to enable its own implosion, at least the Christians were busy building something that will be a refuge in the aftermath. This need not imply wholesale abandonment of responsible voting, but it places its cultural “chips” outside any political basket as such. There can be a tendency in this school of thought, nevertheless, to convert a positive project into a reactive one – seeing the ideal “intentional community of households” as an escape-hatch from modernity. If this peculiar way is to speak with plausible authority, it will have to be able to illuminate a realistic life within the realistic limitations of an ordinary suburban family (or simply become another “lifestyle” in an already flooded evangelical market of such).
Even without precise agreement on the solution, however, many “third-way” groups identify a common enemy. The contemporary assault on free speech (and the corresponding phenomenon of “cancel culture”), they argue, constitutes the dividing line across which persons on the right and left can unite against those on their own team. On this reading, both right and left should be on the look-out for censorship and the suppression of dissent. The real battle is between those who want to live in a society where all can agree to disagree as co-sovereigns of a single nation committed to perpetual negotiation, and one that refuses continued negotiation and has rather entered into the realm of demand and coercion. The radical left and right, not surprisingly, interpret these persons as gatekeepers vying for their old status. To the left, they appear to be the “good cop” face of the oppressor class. To the right, they appear to be simply the least menacing face of what remains a technocratic reign of experts.
Perhaps more than any other, however, Jordan Peterson cannot quite be dismissed by this critique. And this is due in no small part to the fact that his own defense of free speech is primarily philosophical rather than pragmatic. Peterson, a psychologist, developed his own approach to culture when studying the manner in which ordinary people could come to participate in some of the 20th century’s greatest crimes. For Peterson, the sane man must recognize the capacity for great evil in one’s self, and one of the necessary paths toward sanity is simply to refuse to lie. Ideology inevitably requires one to do so. And while many identify Peterson with the right in Canada, he argues that modern civilization actually “needs” a left to avoid its own tendency to tyranny. Moreover, Peterson’s concern with the woke movement is not merely a Marxist revolution, but actually the awakening of very dark forces on the right. Peterson’s critique of the left has tended to be about its “radical” contingent, especially in its soft totalitarian relationship to the human tongue. The moment one tries to control the tongue, for Peterson, one will inevitably be pressured to lie – and this is a movement toward death. The truth can only be uttered by humans against a great capacity to lie. And yet the way toward sanity remains the free grasp and internalization of the truth.
If the Peterson phenomenon is evidence of anything, it is evidence that persuasion of some kind is possible, and that it cannot include less than powerful positive ideas. Many have witnessed both right-leaning and left-leaning friends express chastening at the tutelage of Peterson. Nevertheless, while presenting a certain kind of “third-way” reading of the times, Peterson’s ideas do not persuade all (and skew right in their impact). Some of this has to do with Peterson’s reading of our moment, where leftist “cancel culture” is judged to be public enemy number one for the contemporary West.
It is clear that third ways depend upon distinctive readings of our overall situation. To insist upon any “way forward” that does not require choosing any cultural or political side, therefore, it is necessary to have some interpretation of our cultural moment. In the next installment, then, I will argue that late modernity should be read as the thorough re-negotiation of traditional cultural customs (including beliefs). Said differently, modernity is the disintegration of old ways, and the construction of new. This does not mean old ways cannot still exist, but that now they must be chosen (which changes our relation to them). And that they are chosen undergirds the particular prominence that truth must play in any way forward. But the way of truth requires a will to truth, and this inevitably runs up against the human tendency to self-deception. It is precisely in this that the way of Christ is necessary, for He is the Light of the world who exposes the full extent of our self-deception. In a final installment, then, I will claim that the kingship of Christ has public political significance in its crafting of persons who agitate for the light, that they might be healed and become agents of the world’s healing.
Read part I.
Read part III.
Read part IV.