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The Problems with Cultural Christianity

(Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal/AP)

“In this respect, it is not a defense of Christianity but its final undoing: the subordination of eternal God to the human, all too human need for reactionary political order and tribalistic identity.”


“The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, not heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism—no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. There is nothing that so insidiously displaces the majestic as cordiality.”

– Søren Kierkegaard

Post-modern, neoliberal societies have been defined by tremendous instability. Demographic change, geographic shifts to urbanization, the decline of rural communities, and partisan media have all generated a sense that everything sacred and solid is vanishing into thin air. For many traditionally marginalized groups, this created new opportunities to agitate for social change and inclusion. Women, LGBTQ individuals, and ethnic minorities rallied to advance their interests and often succeeded in gaining unprecedented levels of recognition in liberal law. However, at the same time, neoliberal societies became defined by tremendous economic inequality and job precarity, with power and wealth flowing to the top percentile—all while it became tremendously clear that political elites increasingly spoke for Wall Street rather than the demos. By the time the twinned recessions of 2008 and 2020 followed each other with quick succession, it had become clear that this particular logic of economic governance had run its course and would take a great many of the egalitarian and democratic reforms of the Great Society era with it.

One of the most unusual features of our post-modern culture has been the emergence of reactionary movements that unreflectively mirror the characteristics of their progressive counterparts. What I have called post-modern conservatism is the product of a late neoliberal environment, where the traditional sources of self and social identity that many people relied upon were corroded by these profound socio-political, economic, and technological transformations. While this corrosion produced emancipatory opportunities for many, conservative personalities responded with anxiety and even apocalyptic dread that the culture was slipping away from them. But the response was rarely to interrogate the deeper structural reasons post-modern cultures emerged (figures like Patrick Deneen being a notable exception). Instead, 21st century post-modern conservatism became defined by the very culture it sought to reject. It embraced a fixation on identity and epistemic skepticism that accompanied an agonistic politics, which saw the whole world as a conflict between a valiant “us” and a dangerous and destabilizing “them.”

Post-Modern Conservatism and Cultural Christianity

Post-modern conservatism is characterized, first and foremost, by its commitment to destabilizing the traditional identities whose authority has been undermined over the past few decades. As Wendy Brown observed in her great 2019 book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, the sense of anomic identity destabilization expressed by Trumpists, Viktor Orbán, and others is driven by a feeling of resentment from the once-powerful towards the disadvantaged seeking to establish a more egalitarian social order. Post-modern conservatives interpret this as the powerless cutting into their rightful place in the hierarchy, which, in turn, undermines the stability of their identity and status. Post-modern conservatives define their identity as belonging to groups who once possessed tremendous clout in society but which have been undermined over the decades by an antagonistic cabal of liberal and progressive “elites.” These so-called elites are allied with disadvantaged and unwanted groups, such as the women’s movement, immigrants, refugees, LGTBQ individuals, and occasionally racial and ethnic minorities. Post-modern conservatives attach themselves to authoritarian personalities who promise to restore their identities to their rightful place in the social hierarchy, while undermining and eliminating the enemies of the post-modern conservative.

Affiliated with this is an exceptionally odd approach to epistemology. Post-modern conservatives are strategic skeptics. They are willing to appropriate the skeptical rhetoric of left-wing identity politics movements when attacking universalistic ideas opposed to their values. This draws on a deep history in conservative thought, where figures from Edmund Burke to Joseph de Maistre on to Michael Oakeshott and Robert Bork attacked Enlightenment reason, rationalism, and scientism for its association with liberal and progressive values. However, post-modern conservatives will drop their skepticism when it comes to the justifications for their own values, instead appealing to the importance of fidelity and faith to even the most rigid dogmas.

One of the strangest expressions of this has been the emergence of so-called “cultural Christianity” as a movement to restore a sense of homogeneity and existential meaning to the world. Douglas Murray has mused on the importance of maintaining cultural Christendom as a bastion against the oh so threatening hordes of Islam. Various conservative intellectuals have published defenses of it. Even Richard Spencer has gotten in on the action. These figures join others on the Right in expressing commitment to faith traditions—not because they personally believe in their ontotheological claims but instead because it is necessary for the sake of stabilizing the shared sense of a conservative identity under siege. The ultimate truth or falsity—not to mention the individual and authentic convictions of faux believers—are inconsequential. Perhaps no one expressed this general outlook more succinctly than Yoram Hazony (himself an Orthodox Jew) in his 2019 essay “Conservative Rationalism has Failed”:

“The same kind of question arises with respect to the commitments of conservatives in their personal lives. Consider the custom of setting aside a sabbath day and going to church (or to synagogue). I often speak to young men and women who say they are excited about ‘conservatism.’ Yet when the sabbath comes around, they have not the slightest intention of keeping the sabbath as their ancestors did for two or three thousand years, but happily tell me that they are headed for the mountains or the beach, or staying home ‘to finish up something for work.’ No doubt, many of these are atheists or agnostics, and this is perhaps not their own fault. But this absolves them of nothing. If they were conservatives, they would not simply shrug their shoulders and go off to the beach, saying, ‘Oh well, too bad I’m an atheist.’ A conservative says in his heart. My entire country is suffering terribly from having cut off its traditions at the roots. What can I do to revive these traditions, to make myself a more conservative person, to give honor to the ideas and way of life of my ancestors who brought me here (or of the nation that adopted me)? And is it not, perhaps, my own fault too that I know nothing of God, having given up the search for the wisdom and understanding of my ancestors as an adolescent? Perhaps it is my own fault, after all, if I seek to exercise my freedom by going to the seashore on the seventh day, rather than setting it aside as my ancestors did, as a day for reconnecting myself to the traditions of my nation and its God.”

The language here is telling. A person’s actual beliefs about the existence or not of God is subordinated to the fact that he or she is a “conservative.” The truest commitments of one’s heart must be to one’s country and its traditions, and religious fidelity flows from that to the nation’s God. The challenges of authentic faith in God become uncritical faith in our traditions and ways of doing things.

Conclusion: the Vulgarity of Cultural Christianity

In his great short book Dynamics of Faith published in 1956, the German theologian Paul Tillich observed that God exists beyond being—as what is of “ultimate concern” to each individual. It is important since what we take to be of ultimate concern will define us. The problem of cultural Christianity lies in how it venerates the very worldly and fragile traditions of flawed nations and communities, making them what is of ultimate concern. It then dignifies them with the trappings of religiosity without genuine conviction. In this respect, it is not a defense of Christianity but its final undoing: the subordination of eternal God to the human, all too human need for reactionary political order and tribalistic identity. It completes the transition Søren Kierkegaard warned of when he described a Christendom where authenticity of faith was lost: a society where millions bowed to the cross for their country and its traditions, while feeling no love for anything of transcendent concern. A genuine Christianity would not fixate on preserving and spreading practices with the intention of making belief easier for the sake of the nation, Christendom, or Western civilization. Instead, it would insist that many are called but few take up the path with all the genuine spiritual dangers posed. As Kierkegaard enjoined, the point of authentic Christianity is not to cheapen faith by making the way to God easier. It is to make the way harder.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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