While the last couple of years have been unsettling to all sorts of Americans, conservative Christian intellectuals like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have had an especially tough time. Just as they were beginning to adjust to the idea they had lost the “culture wars” and needed to reassess their apparently barren marriage with the Republican Party, along came Donald Trump, a politician who split their ranks decisively. Most old-school culture warriors fished right into the Trump phenomenon, even as more discerning souls like Douthat and Southern Baptist political spokesman Russell Moore strenuously objected. In the end, the man that Douthat calls a “sybarite and heathen” (using the terms not as an insult but as a precise description) won a higher percentage of conservative evangelical voters than actual conservative Christians like George W. Bush ever won. As a result, those who wondered if it was time for a retreat from a triumphant secular culture of the left are now wondering if a triumphant secular culture of the right is worth fleeing as well.
That possibility is the subject of a new Douthat column that exhibits a signal lack of self-confidence.
This reversal of fortune [represented by Trump’s election as president] provides the unexpected backdrop for several new books from conservative Christian writers, all written back when liberalism’s cultural-political progress seemed more inevitable (that is, last year). They include Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” and the Providence College English professor Anthony Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.” The most talked-about title is Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” (blurbed, the alert reader will note, by Russell Moore), whose arresting title references the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, and whose countercultural themes have been percolating for some time in Dreher’s prolific blogging.
So, wonders Douthat, is the unexpected ascendancy of a Republican president backed by so many other conservative Christians grounds for reassessing the earlier call for withdrawal from secular causes, or the very opposite? It is certainly hard to ignore the change in national leadership and act like “the left” is still in charge:
I can understand why progressive Christians dealing with the reality of President Trump would find the persecution narrative of their conservative co-believers less than persuasive at the present time …
In the end Douthat argues for an intensification of religious life across the board as an appropriate response to an ambiguous situation, and again reaches out to progressive Christians:
I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.
Coming from a writer who not long ago wrote an entire book arguing that the abandonment of traditional orthodox tenets on cultural matters like sex had doomed progressive Christians to irrelevancy and decline, this is quite an admission. But it’s another sign of the terrible self-doubts generated by Jerry Falwell Jr.’s man in the White House:
Thanks to Trump’s unlikely rise, religious conservatism has temporarily regained influence that its younger leaders and thinkers assumed was all but lost. But at a price — the price of being bound to an unstable and semi-competent form of right-wing nationalism, and suspended over the abyss by the not precisely Godlike hands of Donald Trump.
A chilling thought indeed for the Lenten season.