Mapping the Current Cultural Conflict

It’s about money, sex, and race.

Since Reagan, financiers and conservative evangelicals have been semi-functional allies under the umbrella of the Republican party. Each had their own specific needs that GOP could deliver because it combined both money and people power. The evangelicals became the foot soldiers for getting out the vote, not unlike how the Chicago Machine operated for the Democratic party.  Through manipulating cultural anxieties about sex and race, they motivated those concerned first with order and security, in spite of the rhetoric of liberty often applied.

Financiers got the better end of the stick. They tend to live in liberal states, so are sheltered from the encroachment of social conservatism. Their daughters can get abortions, and they send their kids to schools that teach evolution. Social conservatives, however, have little to show for their efforts: Abortion remains legal, gays now marry, and the protective sheen of white America seems to be losing is sure foothold. Yet, the monied class is doing far better than they could have anticipated.

Conservative evangelicals sought politics on the cheap. For there are ways to reduce abortion and to strengthen families, but they are expensive on the front end. Further, opposing abortion or gay rights requires little sacrifice on behalf of its most rigorous adherents. It’s easy to prohibit rules for other people; it’s harder to spread resources that would make having children or sustaining families viable.  Prohibiting the bad is less expensive, and less effective, than incentivizing the good. It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn.

Conservative evangelicals have ignored how economic freedom, or capitalism itself, corrodes the bonds of social obligation that undergird traditional social mores. The market allows people opt out of the restrictions that chafe our desires, and the “work ethic” that conservatives and capitalists claim to share, conceal the vices beatified by the financial class. In short, Wall Street conned Main Street. Admittedly there are limits, for eventually economic freedom threatens to diminish the heart of all exchange, the virtues associated with faith, especially trust.

This might explain why Trump has done well, much to the chagrin of those who espoused the traditional alliance of the monied and the faithful. He offers the most necessary, satisfactory crumbs about opposing abortion and believing in Christianity. But his populist economic rhetoric especially appeals to those who don’t know much about church but have lost ground in our modern economy, the ones who enjoy the wisdom that reality TV offers.

There is, however, another value both share, even if it is tenuous: a taxonomy of values associated with masculinity: protecting one’s family; bringing home the bacon; toughness; liking guns, hot chicks, and winning.

I have no truck for or against any of these, but the posturing is tiresome.

This gendered moment may explain why two most powerful non-governmental organizations that epitomize our current cultural conflict are the NRA and Planned Parenthood. The venn diagram between them is not necessarily opposed – both overlap when defending themselves with the rhetoric of liberty.

But one embodies the current state of masculinity, with all its fear and pride, its contempt for the weak and vulnerable. It fears the loss of distinctiveness between men and women, the roles that many have invested their own meaning. The other lives, however, in the reality of women, seeking first to gather and care for bodies.  If George Lakoff is right about orienting political metaphors, the NRA embodies the strict father, and Planned Parenthood embodies the nurturing parent.

Let us not ignore race, which casts its shadow everywhere. It remains the primary reason why economic populism has never gathered the popularity that it might have. Race divides both liberalism and conservatism. The universalist tendency, which simultaneously justifies both economic progress and yet conceals bigotry’s stubborn hold on institutions, loses its force at the specific needs of identity politics.

Some liberals dislike economic nationalism because it doesn’t specify the needs of African-American populations and repair the perpetual theft of black labor and wealth. Conservatives, on the other hand, see that any universal state intervention helps the undeserving and lazy. Each side reinforces the other, inhibiting any sort of economic solution from having traction. Thus why Bernie Sanders New Deal proposals are unappealing for many black activists, and mocked by conservative ones.

Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. The equality implicit in the Christian tradition brings an intensification, a focus, upon the diminishment of the weak and powerless. Perhaps the ferocity of our current witness may signify progress. It may be that an economically populist Trump illustrates the unveiling of the Republican party’s sophisticated deception of the white working class. Black Lives Matter signifies the untenability of governments based on the receipts of poor people.

In either case, let us not be overwhelmed by the theater that is constantly before us. Let us continue to do our work locally, to build bridges rather than walls, to love one another as best as we are able. I believe that it is the third sector that has a the primary role to solve our most direct problems. It is our work, finally, that matters most.

The Debate

Admittedly, I was listening while on my way to go salsa dancing. The theater has become somewhat predictable.

Like Bernie, I’m sympathetic to the impulses of the FDR and progressive wings of the political party (either Democratic or Republican). I also don’t think he is a socialist, in spite of what he calls himself. Not in the traditional definition of the word.

And whenever someone calls Hilary a witch or a bitch, I immediately find myself a bit sympathetic to her. Most of the critiques about who she is can be explained in a couple ways.

  1. Like most politicians, she compromised
  2. She understands power
  3. Just because she takes your money, doesn’t mean she loves you
  4. A politician can change their mind
  5. Just because she knows Kissinger, doesn’t mean he’s her guru
  6. 2003 was old news
  7. She’s not Bill, also

As someone who doesn’t buy the politics of the transcendent (even when Obama ran) and is instinctively wary of the rhetoric of revolution, I find most of her critics to be smart intellectuals who don’t understand the work of politics: groups of gangs who take action. This does not let her off the hook; but then who themselves has clean hands. For as we will begin to see, even Sanders has made some choices that the puritans might find troublesome.

That said, I’m unconvinced that Sanders would be ineffective as president. I think he enjoys politics and might galvanize a broader coalition in the country to better organize. That said, organizing is hard work that takes a lot more tenacity than people understand. It requires the spiritual discipline to work through disappointment and failure, and the wisdom to live with messy decisions.




The Christian Century highlights an article by William Willimon, Why Leaders are a Pain.

One of the challenges within any institution is the work of aligning people to do the work. Pastoral care, the work of caregiving, becomes the priest’s central role. But there are some unintended consequences: taking on the emotional weight of a parish often leads to burnout and ill health. To be sure, all clergy are called to be kind and should have the skill to be tenaciously present with those around them. But it is through the sacramental life where we must primarily enter this work. We cannot be psychotherapists, nor is the burdens of others always our own.

At tension with the view of pastor as primary caregiver is the old community organizer’s adage: never do for people what they can do for themselves. Instead, the pastor’s role within the church is to help align parishioners to do the work of that specific church. They have the role of offering feedback to a parish, challenging them, creating tension that requires action.

The church gets stuck. Our familiar codewords – “evangelism,” “stewardship,” etc become a fairly insular language that inhibit us from engaging and transforming the world.  Instead of being satisfied with such vocabulary, priests are called to train people to do the work of listening, collaborating, and acting. This requires people change how they think church should be. It will always require reorganizing.

The skills of institution building require learning. The Anglican and Benedictine tradition, if taken seriously, are deeply congruent with these skills. And they are necessary in a world where individuals feel their power truncated. On one hand our technology makes it seem like we have the world literally at our finger tips. But our inability to work together to build strong foundations demonstrates what power we have lost.

It’s easy for congregations and clergy to be satisfied. But when we have done the simple task of sitting down with each other and listen to what makes us passionate; when we have gone into the world to discover where we are dissatisfied, then we may know where the spirit is leading us. It’s difficult work, because it means acknowledging that we are dissatisfied.

But the reward may be great.