The latest instance of a federal judge striking down a state ban on “gay marriage” (a bit like striking down a ban on square circles, but set that aside for the moment) has social conservatives reeling again, with many of them wondering what happened to our culture.
Leftists in Western Europe, following the lead of Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci, famously called for “a long march through the institutions” of Western Civilization. The left answered the call, entering and reshaping everything from popular media and the public schools to the ivory tower and the courts. Meanwhile, many conservatives, whose DNA should have them taking the long view of history and the future, have focused a disproportionate amount of their political energies no further than the next presidential election, high court decision, or bill on the Hill. We have been blindsided by a run of defeats in the federal courts because we were first outflanked.
One might suppose that this difference in strategic emphasis — short-term vs. long-term — has something to do with our differing eschatologies. The radical left aims to “immanentize the eschaton,” as Eric Voegelin put it, to build a heaven on earth. Their politics are their religion. Most conservatives already have a religion, and while orthodox Christians believe in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, we don’t imagine it can be reached by human cleverness. We are aliens and strangers in this world, exiles in search of a better country that will never crumble.
But beside this emphasis on the long view (infinitely long, you could say) is the Christian tradition’s repeated call to concern ourselves with the welfare of the city.
Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark has documented how Christianity spread rapidly through the Roman Empire in part because Christians did so much good for the cities they lived in. Later, Christendom invented the institutions of the hospital, the university, and branch banking, along with the printing press, the scientific method and a host of labor saving devices, leading to the first broad middle class in human history.
Inspiring stuff, and yet somewhere along the way, many Christians began to neglect what we might call the middle game — not eternal salvation (the long game), and not the next election (the short game), but the plodding work of entering and leavening the institutions of society.
The reasons are varied, and there are, of course, numerous exceptions. But for some, a tendency toward short-term political thinking has everything to do with a one-sided theology: humans are sinful and the world is going to burn, the thinking goes; better push for short-term wins, hunker down with my little tribe of believers, and stock the family bunker with plenty of Gatorade and Beanee Weenees for the day our American Babylon unravels and the line of zombies comes threading from the gates.
Raised in a culture dominated by the secular left, many of us have unconsciously absorbed the belief that in the not too distant future religious faith will inevitably recede, the leviathan state will inevitably swell, and our grandchildren join hands in some brave dystopian future and chant “We love Big Brother” while wearing truly unfortunate polyester unitards.
Some speak of a “post-Christian culture.” I was at a meeting recently where Richard Land, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, challenged us to talk instead about our living in a “pre-Christian culture.” That may sound quixotic, but only because we’ve been breathing in the presuppositions of the secular left. The early Christians, living in a far more pagan culture than ours, eventually won it for Christianity. Closer to our time, there were Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries that dramatically swelled the ranks of practicing Christians in England and America.
Even today, despite recent declines, the rate of church attendance in the United States remains significantly higher than it was throughout much of the 19th century. Meanwhile, a wave of Christian conversions is sweeping over the developing world on a scale without precedent.
We need to remember that theists aren’t the ones with a deterministic worldview. Determinism is the ball and chain of philosophical materialists. Jews, Christians and other theists are the party of freedom, not freedom understood as the mere absence of any obstruction to our impulses, not the liberty of the stone rolling unobstructed down a hill, but the liberty of free creatures made in the image of a free Creator. The American Founders understood this: we are endowed with the right and capacity for liberty, something granted to us not by a fickle state but by our Creator.
It’s right to look to our eternal souls, but this shouldn’t be separated from Jeremiah’s prophetic call to “seek the welfare of the city” and to “pray to the Lord on its behalf.” If we had been we had been doing more to nurture the institutions that sustain freedom and human flourishing over the past three or four generations, we might not have yet another federal judge imagining that the state has the right to fundamentally redefine the pre-political institution of marriage.
Even ancient Athens, with its worldly philosophers and easy acceptance of homosexual relationships, understood what marriage is: an institution older than the state, a formal union between a man and a woman, rooted in biology and natural law. The inherent dignity and freedom of every human being is similarly rooted in the nature of man — whether gay or straight, male or female, born or unborn.
The danger runs deeper than the possibility that we will lose sight of this or that permanent truth about the nature and destiny of man. The gravest danger is that we will cease to believe there even are permanent truths about the nature and destiny of man.
The next mid-term election is important; the next presidential election, perhaps more important still. But more significant than either is whether lovers of liberty return in large numbers to the long-term work of nurturing the institutions and organs of liberty, such that in a generation America still considers it a self-evident truth that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights by something higher and older than Big Brother.
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