Here’s a solid critique of contemporary cultural conservatism, by the British writer Mary Harrington. She is a conservative herself, I gather, bbut is not impressed by the Christianized conservatism of some populist leaders and movements. She gets at the heart of the matter when she said that we can’t agree on the source of political authority.
This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left? Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.
Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.
Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.
Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist “Christian democracy” and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.
But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.
That “even an atheist is a Christian” phrase refers to something an Orban-supporting bishop said about Europe: that even atheists are cultural Christians, in the sense that they live within a culture built on Christian foundations, even if they don’t actually believe in God.
I understand that bishop’s sentiment, and I don’t think I would be as hard on him as Morrison. It’s the same sentiment behind the historian (and unbeliever) Tom Holland’s discovery that many of the things he values the most about our civilization are the gifts of the Christian religion. He wrote:
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
As a believer, I wince at the bishop’s advocacy of cultural Christianity, but let’s recognize that it’s not an empty concept. A liberal nonbeliever will have a far easier and happier time living in the lands that were once Christian than in, say, the lands that are Islamic. This is not an accident. And it is not a bad thing for people to be aware of that, and to wish to protect those things that Christianity brought — most especially the liberties of the Christian churches to be themselves. We are going to be a worse place once Christianity has completely faded from the public consciousness. I recognize that there is a potential blessing in this, because it will purify the Church. But a Russian Orthodox priest last year told me that we Americans shouldn’t be so blasé about what it may mean to lose Christianity as a public ethos. Christianity in Russia has not recovered from the Bolshevik persecution. I often meet Americans, Orthodox and otherwise, who rave about the rebirth of Christianity in Russia. It is certainly something to be celebrated, and to thank God for, but only a very small percentage of Russians go to church. The recovery of Christianity in Russia is going to be the work of generations, maybe even centuries, if it happens at all.
From a strictly theological point of view, cultural Christianity is as hollow as Harrington says. But from a political point of view, I think we believers should not be as quick to dismiss it. I think often about a phrase I heard attributed to Orban: “I can give you things, but I can’t give you meaning.” He was talking about the limits of politics, and that people who expect politics to provide ultimate meaning are doomed to disappointment. It may be the case that Orban, a believing Protestant, would like to impose concrete obligations upon his people, but he is also a democratically elected leader. Is it really fair to expect him, or any democratically elected Christian leader, to govern an unbelieving and unwilling populace by imposing laws and policies that they do not and will not support?
It’s natural too that Christians would define themselves against the outgroup, especially when they are a minority within a pluralistic culture. Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, European Christians had no reason to think of the political order as other than Christian. You only began to see parties like the “Christian Democrats” when it became possible to organize as a political party against the Christian ethos. I get that it can be problematic from a theological perspective to define oneself by what one is not than what one is — though Orthodox Christianity has long experience with apophatic theology (that is, a theological approach that defines God by what He is not.) Apophatic theology doesn’t easily apply to political categories, but I did want to bring it up to say that it is not unheard of for Christians to think in this way. Generally, I agree with Morrison that we have to be really careful when people say that being Christian is being “not Muslim,” for example — even though that it undeniably true.
If this sounds muddled to you, it’s because, well, it is. I’m trying to think through what Morrison is saying. I have an instinctive aversion to a Christianity that is merely cultural, because I take the claims of the Christian faith seriously. On the other hand, I try to resist the weird idea that any cultural expression of Christianity, or Christian cultural framework, is somehow a betrayal of Christianity. As the church historian Robert Louis Wilken has written, the Church was and is a culture, because that is how the theological ideas and transcendent realities to which the religion points are mediated to us mortals.
So: a Christian culture is necessary for the Christian religion to thrive, but it is not the same thing as the Christian religion. Those who confuse the two will end up losing both the Christian religion and the Christian culture.