Newsletter #66: In Praise of the Private Good
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Living as a Moral Minority
It’s popular today to talk about the “common good” or the “public good.” But one of the implications of the shift to the negative world is that Christians need to start becoming much more concerned about their private good – the good of their own families, churches, and communities.
To summarize my article on the topic, America had always been something of a Christian, specifically Protestant nation, and was indeed dominated by a “WASP” establishment up until the 1960s. The status of Christianity then went into a long decline that we can divide into three phases or worlds: the positive (1964-1994), neutral (1994-2014), and negative (2014-today) worlds. The names refer to how society viewed Christianity, at first still positively, then as a social neutral, now negatively. Especially in elite domains of society, being known as a Christian reduces your status. Christianity and its moral framework are now viewed as a threat to the new public order and morality.
The question then is how Christians should live in the negative world. To date, most evangelicals have been doubling down on strategies developed during the positive and neutral worlds (culture war, seeker sensitivity, and cultural engagement). This is causing deformation of those strategies, and intra-evangelical realignment. (The Catholic church has its own internal dynamics). New approaches for the negative world are needed.
The paradigmatic culture war organization of the positive world was Moral Majority. The very name speaks to a time when it was at least plausible to claim that Christians represented a majority of the country. Today, that would be ludicrous. Christians are now, as it were, a “moral minority,” even if a sizable one.
One of the implications of being a minority group is that Christians have to begin thinking and acting like a minority group.
Dominant majority groups seldom have to worry too much about how to institutionally sustain their community because the mainstream institutions of society are designed in a manner that is consistent with and even reinforces their values.
Consider the public schools, for example. In the past, these schools not only taught subjects that the majority found of value, but did so in the ways and with the kinds of authority structures they preferred. You may know that they once included prayer. They also inculcated Anglo-American values like fair play, sportsmanship, honesty, etc., ones sometimes not even shared with many Continental countries – certainly not in Southern Italy where my family came from. (See my retrospective on E. Digby Baltzell). Or think about the historic Protestant Christian orientation of the Boy Scouts, for example.
America’s earliest and most prestigious colleges were also explicitly Protestant in nature, established to train ministers. Even by the mid-20th century, they still embodied many of those values as they then existed among the liberal Protestant WASP establishment (something the Catholic William F. Buckley failed to recognize when he wrote God and Man at Yale).
Up through the 1950s, the major institutions of American society – government, the military, universities, business – were interlinked culturally and institutionally with elite American Protestantism. Hence there was no conflict between being a Christian, of a Protestant variety at any rate, and being a business executive, government official, non-profit leader, etc. Those institutions were not only positive towards Christianity, but embedded the values and preferences of the American Protestant majority. To be sure, some of these were cultural not merely religious, but clearly religious values were included. (And the idea that there can be a non-culturally embedded religious belief system is ridiculous).
The experience of minority groups is generally very different. They have to self-consciously focus on sustaining their culture and community life, including by creating their own bespoke institutions to serve their community, as well as creating specific practices that demarcate and sustain community life. They also have to specifically steward their own community well-being, and mobilize to advocate on its behalf.
We see this most clearly in the case of black Americans, who were completely excluded from many mainstream institutions and hence were forced, of necessity, to create their own. To be sure, many of these were copies of white organizations, such as the black oriented Prince Hall Masonic lodges, but many of them embodied their own black cultural preferences and practices. We see this in historically black churches, which have their own robust traditions, worship practices, etc. Hence “Black Protestant” is typically one of the major religious divisions in social science surveys. Blacks also had to mobilize politically to advocate for their interests and their inclusion into the mainstream of society.
We see similar things in many other ethnic or religious minorities, and even alternative lifestyle groups. Hispanics have their own chambers of commerce, for example, even when Hispanic owned businesses join the regular chamber. They focus on business ownership, and thus a degree of economic autonomy and wealth creation for their people. In Chicago, Hispanics have fighting for a greater share of aldermanic and other political seats during redistricting to reflect their greater population share (leading to conflict with blacks, who don’t want to lose seats). They have their own ethnic festivals and promote their ethnic symbols. In Chicago’s Humboldt Park, for example, large Puerto Rican flag arches serve as prominent gateway symbols on Division St.
Minority groups want their people included in TV shows, commercials, etc. They fight over names of public facilities, over statues. Some hoist their own flag even more prominently than the American one. They want seats on boards of directors. The build cultural centers and hold weekend language classes for the children and grandchildren of immigrants. They have their own religious buildings or schools. The list goes on.
None of this necessarily indicates that the minority group in question is hostile to mainstream society (though in some cases they are). But even where very positive towards mainstream society, they understand that they need to sustain their own community, values, and traditions.
The Disappearance of the Anglo-Protestant Mainstream
This difference between the historic Anglo-Protestant mainstream and the institutions of ethnic society can be summed up this famous clip from the film The Good Shepherd. The WASP Matt Damon, when asked what his people had in contrast to the proprietary cultural possessions of minority groups, says, “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.” (Note: This clip contains the n-word).
That’s certainly not true today. Christian moral values have been de facto evicted from major social institutions. Even organizations historically based around a Protestant or generic Christian background like the Boy Scouts are pedaling as hard as they can in the opposite direction from that. Protestants, certainly evangelicals, increasingly hold few top positions in important institutions. For example, there’s only one Protestant of any variety on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, a convert from Catholicism to Episcopalianism. There are no white evangelicals in Joe Biden’s initial cabinet. The Washington Post says that he appointed mostly Catholics and Jews, with the only two Protestants being black. As I previously documented, even movement conservatism has few Protestant heads of major institutions, and the ones who are Protestants are Episcopalians who tend to avoid public discussion of their religious affiliation. Few elite colleges are run by Protestants. There are still plenty of Protestant CEOs and politicians, but even here the share seems to be in decline. We read about, for example, the rise of South Asian CEOs, few of whom are of Christian origin. To the extent that there’s continued Protestant strength at the topmost levels of these elite institutions today, it may well be in good measure due to the present-day focus on black inclusion.
Stewarding the Strength of Our Own Community
In a world where Protestants don’t “own” the country, don’t run the major institutions (and sometimes barely have a seat at the table), and whose values are now in official disfavor and being evicted from social institutions, the old model of thinking and acting like a majority needs to be jettisoned.
Christians, especially evangelicals, need to learn to act like a minority and spend much more time and effort focused on sustaining their own communities and beliefs.
That doesn’t mean abandoning evangelism, becoming hostile or hateful towards other groups, or not caring about the country or the common good. But it does mean the strength of evangelical communities need to be tended in the same way other minority groups have had to tend to their own communities. And they no longer need to view themselves as bearing the same level of responsibility for mainstream institutions as they previously did.
What this will look like is something that will need to be developed over time. There are a number of factors that set the case of today’s American Christians apart from other groups. For one thing, though no longer a majority, they are still arguably a plurality and constitute a large block of people. This makes them unlike, say, Jews, who are a very small minority. Thus the lessons that can be drawn from studying niche minorities are limited.
Also, Christians in America are themselves highly diverse. There are sectarian divisions – Catholic vs. Protestant and the like, as well as denominational differences within Protestantism. There are also racial differences. For Christian racial minority groups, race rather than religion may be more salient to their thinking. Other minority groups also have internal divisions that are frequently not visible or thought about by outsiders. They sometimes operate separately, other times together. We should expect the same among American Christians, except that given their aggregate size, subcommunities probably have the necessary scale to operate relatively autonomously.
The situation today is also different vs. the past in that there is no clear majority group. Though there is still a racially white majority, it is so internally divided as to not constitute a coherent group. Progressive whites and Trumpist whites view themselves as bitter enemies, not a common community. And within a couple of decades, even the totality of the white population will be a minority of the country.
Elite society today is dominated by a managerial class that is not ethnic or religious but ideological and economic in character. This is in essence a minority group that controls the country, one that’s capable of co-opting the most able members of other groups. Additionally, America is a post-Christian, or post-Protestant nation, which creates a sort of allergic reaction to anything particularly Christian in institutions. As many have noted, this makes it different from a country that was never Christian to begin with.
I think one good model to study is early to mid-20th century Catholicism. There were a sizable number of Catholics in the country. Their flavor of Christianity was disfavored. They had to sustain their communities and beliefs, as well as take on other functions like immigrant onboarding. It’s true that the ethnic nature of these communities bound them together in ways mere Catholicism may not have. Catholicism has long been ethnically partitioned. Yet we see that Catholics came together to support the Irish John F. Kennedy in running for President.
Catholics built their own churches, their own schools, their own universities. They held catechism classes for their youth and created their own social organizations like the Knights of Columbus. They long held to practices like abstaining from meat on Fridays that set them apart from the rest of the country. They had distinct visible symbols like rosaries or crucifixes.
Catholic universities are particularly of interest. Today, most Protestant colleges have only a vestigial connection to their faith or denomination, if that. Those that have a strong religious dimension, like most evangelical “Christian colleges,” are chosen primarily on account of the religious content, not academic. While Catholic colleges like Notre Dame may not adhere to Catholic orthodoxy in a large number of respects, they still operate both as real mainstream universities, and also as ones where the Catholic identity remains central. Additionally, these institutions provide a home base for many identifiably Catholic intellectuals, giving them a national prominence few Protestants can muster. This includes people like Amy Coney Barrett, Patrick Deneen, Duncan Stroik, and others. Even genuine Protestant intellectuals like Joshua Mitchell sometimes end up based at Catholic universities. Clearly, they figured something out that Protestants didn’t here, and it probably comes from a history of being excluded from the mainline American institutions. Protestant relied on those mainstream institutions like the Ivy League to be the home of their top intellectuals. As the establishment and mainline denominations collapsed, and Protestantism has been evicted from those institutions, this has left a void yet to be filled. (Though not specifically Protestant, what Larry Arnn has been doing at Hillsdale is an attempt to fill this gap).
This legacy of having been a minority faith is one reason Catholicism has been much internally stronger than evangelicalism in the US, despite its many challenges. Whether they can sustain it is an open question as the Catholic Church is a deeply troubled institution. But they at least have something to sustain.
The Mormons are another good example to study. Their religion, seen from the mainstream Christian position as a heretical sect, had to sustain itself independently. After a long period of persecution, the Mormons became in a sense more American than the average Protestant American. One reason Utah is such a successful state is that it still embodies these retro Protestant values. The Mormons embraced mainstream institutions like the public schools and Boy Scouts, while maintaining their own sectarian ones to sustain their faith. But as the nation shifts, the Mormons are also shifting, perhaps in ways Christians might judge good and bad depending on their perspectives. The Mormons are withdrawing from the Boy Scouts in order to create their own youth organization, for example. The nominal reason is the globalization of Mormonism and need to provide a common global experience. But it’s clear they also don’t like the direction the Boy Scouts are heading. It will be informative to watch the Mormons in coming years.
Ideas for Strengthening Evangelical Communities
What might some of these new inwardly focused initiatives look like for evangelicals?
Some of these are already taking shape. One is education. There’s been an explosion of evangelical Christian schools of various types, as well as huge growth in homeschooling. Evangelicals recognized that the public education system was not only not educating kids all that well, and not only no longer reflected their values, but increasingly was inculcating beliefs actively at odds with their values. Today, public schools are even beginning to promote elements of outright evil. No surprise evangelicals have been checking out. And it’s not just them. Even top-rated districts in growing suburbs are losing students – multiple suburbs where I live had unexpected enrollment shortfalls – including from not especially religious homes. Even many normie non-religious folks are checking out, as, in the absence of the values that created and sustained them, our institutions degrade.
The common good type crowd, as well as many on the political left, can argue that the abandonment of public schools by evangelicals is bad, wrong, hurts poor kids, etc. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of children whose futures are being harmed by poorly performing public schools. And the withdrawal of people of means from the public schools hurts those institutions. But evangelicals are under no obligations to send their kids there, or feel guilty about not doing so. Evangelicals don’t run the public schools and their beliefs are treated as illegitimate in the public schools. Thus they are not responsible for the public schools.
Back in the 1950s, one could argue that Protestants had a responsibility for the public schools institutionally. As a minority that’s no longer in charge, that’s no longer the case. Now, if an evangelical happens to find himself in a position to make public schools better, by all means do so. But there aren’t many in that position. Realistically, even an evangelical superintendent or principal would have limited power to make changes on account of a thicket of rules, laws, and judicial rulings. At other levels, we can perhaps see a potential for impact. The Catholic governor Ron DeSantis, by forcing Florida’s schools to largely stay open during the pandemic despite being incredibly vilified for it, did an enormous amount of good for low-income students in his state. If you have an opportunity do so something like that, do it. By all means promote the common good when there’s an opportunity.
But being a minority means that fundamentally you are no longer responsible for the mainstream institutions of society. They are the responsibility of the people running this country. And their problems are a reflection of the ideas and the character of those people. As their values are bad and their character too often low, no surprise these institutions don’t perform well, and trust in them is collapsing. Instead, helping others such as poor children will happen in different ways, such as through running tutoring ministries at churches, providing scholarships for low-income kids to Christians schools, opening new Christian schools in low-income areas, etc. These are all things which are in fact happening.
The number one change that needs to be made here is psychological. It’s to adopt the minority mindset, and start acting like a minority. This won’t be easy or popular. It will result in a lot of gaslighting designed to make you think it’s illegitimate to do that. It’s no surprise to me that Christian rhetoric around the “common good” has come to the fore as evangelicals have started organically adjusting to a minority position. Functionally, it works to keep them invested in the system, and not tend to their own community specifically. (Something that, by the way, the people promoting this way of thinking would never demand of other minority groups). If evangelicals start acting like the minority that they are, they will be called “Christian nationalists”, “white nationalists,” or even “white Christian nationalists.” But we have to be able to overcome hostility from people who don’t have our well-being (or the nation’s well-being) in mind, especially when we haven’t done anything wrong.
When you are a minority, you need to think and act like a minority. If you can’t do that, you’re screwed.
Beyond schooling, another example might be refactoring how church is done. Alastair Roberts stirred up some Twitter controversy when he said evangelical sermons should be shorter. (He’s right about that). He also proposed a new structure to Sunday services, tweeting:
Imagine how much churches would change if: 1. Weekly Sunday gatherings were expected to include a shared meal, catechetical instruction, communal prayer and sharing, etc., with the formal liturgy (and the—10-15 minute—sermon within it) taking less than a third of the time.
I’m not sure what motivated this proposal, but it’s a good way to think for a minority group that needs to strengthen its own community. Some type of enhanced catechesis will be needed, for example. When I was a kid, Sunday School did some of this. But my impression is that Sunday School today ain’t what it used to be. It’s no secret that a lot of kids come out of 18 years growing up in an evangelical church believing in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with little substantive knowledge of the Bible or theology.
But it’s not just catechesis that will be necessary. It’s also counter-catechesis. We have to explain what society at large believes and why we don’t believe that. Again, this is something minorities have long had to do. I’m no expert on Jewish childrearing, but at some point they have to explain to their kids what Christmas is and why they don’t celebrate it. We’re going to have to do a lot more of that. Also in Alastair’s proposal, we see much more communal life together in terms of shared meals, and communal prayer.
There are many, many other aspects of life that will need to be rethought. Again, evangelicals (and to some extent Catholics) have relied on the mainstream institutions of society, assuming that at a minimum they were neutral ground. That’s no longer the case. When institutions become more hostile, you can’t rely on them. This means a greater focus on acquiring ownership and autonomy, including in the commercial spaces, something I discussed in newsletter #43 on “owned space.”
Again, what’s necessary to adopt here is change in mentality that recognizes a change in circumstances. A lot of evangelical thought about the nature of church is rooted in an assumption of a Christian normative society. For example, consider the early 20th century English theologian William Temple’s quip that, “The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of people who are not yet members.” This is one you still hear today. The Anglican Church in North America has a diocese called “A Church for the Sake of Others.”
But you can’t give somebody something you don’t have yourself. To me, the Benedict Option was nothing if not an answer to that challenge. If we don’t have strong communities rooted in the faith once for all delivered to the saints, we have nothing to offer other people. Tending to community strength as a minority group in a negative world is a precondition to effective and genuine service to others. (Also, the church is much more than just a ministry to the unconverted).
We see this approach clearly in the New Testament, where the early church was a minority faith. They honored the government, but did not view themselves as responsible for the institutions of the Roman imperium. They focused much more on how life was to be lived inside the church than outside of it (cf 1 Cor 5:13, “those who are outside, God judges”). Paul said to “do good to all men, but especially to the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). In his missionary journeys Paul took up a collection specifically for the church in Jerusalem. A big part of the focus of the apostles was correcting false teaching within the church, and a number of the epistles were written specifically for this purpose. Another big focus area was unity within the church. There was an external mission, but the health of the church itself was given a high priority as well.
This vision of acting like a minority is not a defeatist one. There’s no reason to believe that American Christians can’t thrive as a minority group. Many other minorities have survived, and sometimes even flourished, despite being a much smaller share of the population, and often while facing far worse hostility than any American evangelical is likely to ever face.
It’s also not inevitable that Christianity fades away to nothing. There’s still a large Christian population in Egypt, for example, over 1000 years after the Islamic conquest. There have also been multiple great awakenings before in America. And many social movements have swept the nation from very inauspicious beginnings. America may indeed be once again be Christianized, but for now, the church must respond to the reality that it has been de-Christianized.
Again, don’t hate other people. Don’t stop trying to serve people around you in need. Keeping seeking the welfare of the city to the extent that you can. If you think you have an opportunity to actually change an institution to promote the common good, do it. But in the meantime, don’t forget that your own family, your own church, your own community needs to be fortified to survive and thrive as a minority that is not particularly well regarded by the people running the show in this country.
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Regarding Political Conservatism
I’d like to conclude with a word about political conservatism. Unlike evangelicalism or even Christianity in general, right-wing politics still commands a broad, and in some cases arguably a majority audience. Republicans will continue to be able to win elections and gain control of governments.
But as I’ve noted before, the conservative elite has never been evangelical, and even social conservatism as understood today is actually not that popular in elite conservative circles. For example, my impression is that most conservative elites would like to see abortion be “safe, legal, and rare.” The only reason the GOP has held firm on abortion (and gun rights) is because the grass roots held their feet to the fire in ways it has not been able to do on other issues.
Although evangelicals remain the most important voting constituency of the GOP, they aren’t the proverbial deciders. Donald Trump was hardly a Christian conservative as traditionally understood. Emerging youth constituencies such as the dissident right or “barstool conservatives” are majority non-Christian and oppose Christian values. Many of the self-identified evangelicals who supported Trump were non-church attenders.
There’s been an association in the public mind between Republican politics and Christianity. That was never really fully true, and certainly is not true today. The electoral prospects for Republicans, which are quite good in many ways, should not blind us to the reality of where Christianity stands within society and even the GOP constituency, which is more concerned about cultural and economic issues than religious or moral ones.
Evangelicals and Christians generally can and maybe should continue to mobilize politically within the Republican Party. There are only two parties after all. But they should certainly renegotiate the bad deal they’ve had with it to date. Hopefully now that Roe vs. Wade has been overturned, they can press for more than simply a promise to appoint good judges.
That the believers constitute a separate community distinguishable from the common culture is amply evident in Paul’s insistence that the rules of conduct he has laid down apply to the church, not to outsiders. The result is that church members can be disciplined, but obviously not the outsiders. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Here, then, the apostle is mandating (legislating?) conduct that is differentiable from what is mandated for or expected of other Roman citizens. However much Paul might reprobate the sins of his age, it is no immediate concern of his to pass legislation that would modify those sins. His focus is on the life, faith, and morality of the Christian community, a part of — but highly differentiable from — the larger culture.
- D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited