Why Conservatives Don’t Really Have Morals and Liberals Don’t Really Care About Justice

Most culture war issues boil down to being about either sexual ethics or economic justice.

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The trending paradigm on the Left is to push for more acceptance of a widening range of sexual practices—indeed, to frame the non-acceptance of those sexual practices as human rights violations on the order of violent fascism. On this view, the most just world would be the one in which everyone can have sex with whomever they choose regardless of the sex, gender, marital status of the two partners, or, indeed, of whether there are more than two of them.

At the same time they clamor for economic justice, whether its from the more moderate standpoint of liberalism, which wants to see more government instituted economic programs, or from a more radical standpoint, which wants to deconstruct “capitalism” altogether.

Meanwhile conservatives are fighting for “family values,” and want to see the sexual ethics of by-gone years legislated in hopes of curbing the cultural onslaught of proliferating sexual identities and the erosion of marriage-based sexuality as the norm.

And these same people trying to shore up the boundaries of sexual expression want to tear down the boundaries of “regulation” in the marketplace. In fact, they want to tear down the boundary between the market and the rest of life. Anything can be improved by “privatizing” it, even things that until recently hadn’t been considered commodities, like war, police protection, and schools.   In their view, the most just world would be the one in which everything is a business, and everyone can carry out trade as they see fit, without any interference or moral guidance from the state or its regulatory bodies.

Of course, when I frame it that way (a way which admittedly lacks a lot of nuance and doesn’t mention all the folks opting for “magenta” over blue or red), it’s easy to see a kind of inconsistency in both ideological bents. That frame will also help us see what the two have in common, but let me hold off on that for a minute.     

Both of these views of the world have a lacuna, a blindspot that keeps them from really attaining the more just and equitable world they say they want to attain.

The thing they both fail to see is this: Structural injustices and immoral expressions of sexuality are deeply connected to each other. In fact, they have a cause-effect relationship that runs in both directions.

Economic and power injustices create conditions in which people are more likely to choose or be forced into sexual/family brokenness. E.g., poor woman are more likely to get abortions, men who don’t have access to work with fair wages are less likely to stay committed to their families—and women are less likely to marry such men in the first place. There seems to be a strong correlation, between income and a couple’s ability to stay married. (And I would say, just observationally, that divorced couples with significant income also have the ability to mitigate some of the negative consequences of divorce, e.g. they can maintain two economically-viable households, so their children can still see both parents). Anyone who’s wanted to go on a date with their spouse but couldn’t afford a babysitter understands there’s a connection between economics and family stability.

Conversely, sexual immorality tends to perpetuate or exacerbate circumstances that keep people in poverty or limit their life choices. E.g. children raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college and more likely to do drugs, promiscuous young people are more likely to have children they are not financially or emotionally prepared to raise, women who procure abortions are more likely to commit suicide or inflict self-harm, etc. It could also be said that sexual transgressions visit upon children the same kinds of injustices that structural/economic injustices do at a micro-level. E.i., a child’s rights to live, be raised by her own parents, have to strong sense of self/identity, etc. are violated by abortion, adultery, divorce, etc.

So, from this vantage point, both sides are building up with one hand and tearing down with the other—their just doing it with the opposite hands.

What’s behind this counterproductive behavior? The thing they both lack is a genuine understanding of human dignity, because both begin with woefully incomplete understandings of the human person.

The Left’s anthropology is probably best crystalized in the thought of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s primary concern was with analyzing the abuse of power, and particularly how political and societal structures impose power on the body. Foucault was explicitly critical of humanist philosophies and the notion that there is any such thing as “human nature.” By undercutting humanist notions that there is a universal human nature that forms the basis of human dignity, Foucault effectively reduces human relationships to the operation of power and human beings to bodies—bodies which are sites of the exercise of power and the experience of oppression. Foucault’s influence on the radical Left is can be seen in their inability to move their discourse beyond discussions of power and the body.

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The Right’s anthropology is typified by the likes of Ayn Rand. For Rand, the human person is viewed as an autonomous individual agent, who acts ethically when she acts on her own behalf. Because people are just living organisms, their fundamental goal is to continue to live; therefore, their primary moral obligation is self-preservation. Rand believed that the greatest good would be achieved by everybody acting in this way. Her influence on the Right is still pervasive, and apparent in the starry-eyed insistence that the Market will cure all ills—so long as we don’t impose any crazy “restraints” on it, like minimum wage, child labor laws, or universal healthcare. Because the Market, after all, is just the playing field where everyone is allowed to act in her own self interest. (My Christian readers should read this by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig on how ragingly un-Christian Rand’s thought is).

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The problem (well, one of the problems) with both of these anthropologies is that they are unrealistically individualistic. For Foucault, the human being is a body imposing power on others or being imposed on by them. For Rand, the human is a living organism trying to stay alive. Neither recognizes that the fundamental reality that humans are not just individuals but members of families. Humans are conceived and birthed and raised by parents and nurtured into adulthood by families. This is not accidental to, but constitutive of our humanity. It is not peripheral to how we make economic or sexual choices. 

Another way of saying this is that neither the anthropology of the Right or the Left has space for the category of love. The fundamental truth that humans are agents of love, who live in families and communities constituted by love, and make choices and decision based on love does not factor into the ideological grid of either side.

Try bringing the word “love” into a discussion of economic policy in a group of conservatives or a debate about race and oppression in a group of leftists and watch the blank stares you are met with. For folks operating under the influence of these ideological systems it literally cannot compute.

But it has to. Because it’s reality.

I don’t know know how or if love can become a category in our political discourse in the US, but I can’t imagine how we can actually make some progress toward a just and moral society until it does.

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Jesus “Che” Christ: On the Limits of Countercultural Christianity

Your revolution is limited, bent, needs work

It’s more than hemp bracelets and a Che Guevara T-shirt.

—Mars Ill, “You Can’t Stop”

In 2007 the leftist political magazine In These Times featured a cover story entitled “Preaching Revolution” about a new generation of Christians that secular leftists “need to know.” On the cover: the iconic silhouetted image of Che Guevara made over with a crown of thorns. Jesus as Che. The story, which focussed heavily on Rob Bell (then at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI) discussed how the rhetoric of revolution and radicalism was out of vogue at the time with the secular left since it was viewed as too extreme to be practical, and meanwhile, ironically, that same rhetoric was gaining traction with this new generation of evangelical Christians.

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The evangelical credentials of Rob Bell have since been called into question (and I imagine even at the time he would’ve been uncomfortable with the label himself), but that’s beside the point. What the article got right, and what continues to be true, is that there is tremendous appeal—especially among Christians who are younger than, say, 50—to the idea that Christianity is radical, countercultural, and revolutionary. (In fact, a quick internet search reveals that there are lots of churches literally named Revolution).

In the seven years since, this trend has shown no sign of abating. Countercultural Christianity is here to stay, at least for a generation or two. 

Now at times, the language of radicalism is just being (what I’m sure the secular left would consider) co-opted. That is, it’s nothing more than marketing. In the US at least, there is a great deal of marketing value to the language of revolution and counterculture. It can sell computers. It can sell tacos. It can also sell churches.

Even politically moderate and conservative Christians have adopted it. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, is fond of the phrase he coined that Christians should be “a counterculture for the common good.” But, even further to right, the idea of being “radical for Jesus” or “resisting the culture” fits perfectly with fundamentalist theologies of cultural separatism and the persecution complex of more civically-engaged politically conservative Christians. It is not at all unusual to hear words like “revolution” or phrases like “radically living out the gospel” on the lips of the Mark Driscolls of the world.   

At other times, the ethos of radicalism runs a little bit deeper than a sexy spray-on gloss. Take, for example, folks like Shane Claiborne who have successfully brought some of the elements of Christian anarchism and radical Anabaptist theology (e.g., voluntary poverty, solidarity with the poor, abstaining from governmental politics) into more mainstream expressions of Christianity. Then there is Jim Wallace, advocating for a politically-engaged but nonpartisan Christian leftism. There are a number of popular biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann, who have emphasized the anti-imperial message running through both the Old and New Testaments—and exerted a great deal of influence on preachers in the US and UK. Or, at the more academic level, there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians like John Milbank are in serious dialogue with leftist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek.

The ideas and praxes of this second group are not always compatible, but they have in common a sense that a more faithful Christianity will be a more countercultural one. They employ language like “contrast community,” “counter-polis,” “resident aliens” and “peculiar people” to describe what the church should be. And they see their role as a prophetic one calling Christians to be more radical, more willing to look different.

My guess is that someone who came into my church on any given Sunday would count me as one of this new generation that is preaching revolution. Admittedly, I read and listen to and like a lot of the folks in that previous paragraph. I am also, admittedly, prone to framing Christian discipleship as countercultural. However, I think that the Christianity-as-counterculture move has its limits. And they are significant enough that they’re worth thinking about.

The first is the potential the rhetoric of counterculture has to backfire. It’s intended goal is to get Christians to be more radical. That is, to be willing, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, to live differently than the pagan world around them. But, in the post-cultural-revolution US, we Americans have a completely inverted relationship with conformity and rebellion, wherein our first impulse (collectively as a culture) is nonconformity or rebellion. I.e., we live in the complex and somewhat paradoxical situation in which rebellion is conformity to our cultural norms. Our culture is counterculture.

In such a situation, the “countercultural” Christian can have her cake and eat it too. That is, I can identify as radical and feel that I’m being countercultural while adopting views and practices that are actually embraced and celebrated by the culture around me. This can happen on a very superficial level (“I’m so rad ‘cause I have tattoos and listen to punk rock”) or on a deeper level (“Look at me counterculturally supporting gay marriage!”).

Nothing is inherently wrong with having one’s cake and eating it too, but, if genuinely radical discipleship is the goal, this situation is most definitely NOT shaping people to do that. When push comes to shove and actual nonconformity/rebellion/willingness to be persecuted and hated by the world is called for, I’m almost certain my tattoos will not have prepared me for it. If anything, those of us in this situation are atrophying our capacity for genuine resistance by stroking our own egos. The kid who buys the “WALMART SUCKS” T-shirt at Hot Topic is engaging in praxis that is shaping him to be a consumer, not praxis that is shaping him to resist consumerism. The pride with which he wears the shirt only makes it worse.

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Case in point, the struggle that avowedly countercultural Christians increasingly have with fully embracing the (actually) radical sexual ethic of historic Christianity. The article mentioned above quoted Jim Wallace as saying of young, revolutionary Christians “[they are] breaking away from the Right in droves – but they will never be captured by the left. They’re going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that.” Seven years later, these words ring hollow. Many of the revolutionaries have indeed been “captured by the left” on sexual ethics, and very few are “challenging the left” on these issues. (Though see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a refreshing example).

The second concern I have is that, depending on one’s social context and historical moment, Christianity isn’t always countercultural. There are always some points at which the values of the dominant order overlap with the values of the kingdom of God. But it seems that we countercultural Christians are conditioned to be opposed to, or at least suspicious of, anything “conservative” or “mainstream.” The danger in this is not merely that it sets us up for knee-jerk thinking, that it shapes us into haters who are automatically against whatever we perceive is part of the regnant order. The greater danger beyond that, it seems that folks for whom the countercultural-ness of the Christian faith is its central appeal are prone to choose being countercultural over being Christian when the two come into conflict.

Sometimes the way this plays out is that people allow a political ideology to shape their views more than the faith and then do a lot of biblical or theological gymnastics to maintain their ideologically-shaped views are Christian. But I also know folks who eventually left the faith altogether because other, more radical lifestyles/worldviews were more appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be part of a revolution. I’m not ready to let go of the language of counterculture just yet. In fact, I think it’s a pretty necessary lens for viewing the Christian faith. But those of us for whom it’s our favorite lens need to do some careful thinking about how we use it, to make sure we’re using it to clarify, and not distort, what it means to be faithful to the kingdom.