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How the Secular Revolt Against Liberalism Can Awaken People to Reality

In a comedy sketch by the British duo Mitchell and Webb, a couple of Nazi soldiers taking a respite from trench warfare suddenly become self-reflective. They begin to notice that something feels off about their role in the war; the skull and bones on their uniforms are unsettling. Some of the things they’ve heard from the higher-ups bother them. Finally, one looks grave and asks his fellow soldier quietly: “Are we the baddies?”

The bit is funny, not only because it’s unexpected, but because there’s something oddly satisfying about watching someone wake up to reality. There is an important cultural moment right now that illustrates this point. Many religious and political conservatives are watching with fascination (and gratitude) as a small but vocal and credentialed group of secular thinkers challenge major progressive orthodoxies of the day. The spectacle of anti-liberalism liberals, headlined by writers and educators who are themselves far from conservative Christianity, has added a wrinkle to conventional “worldview” categories. They’re liberal “whistleblowers” against the unreality and tyranny of contemporary liberal culture.

More than anything, though, the secular revolt against liberalism is a movement toward questions of human nature, the givenness of reality, and the foundation for public and personal flourishing. If Christians can listen carefully and wisely to this fractious moment, we’ll hear the trappings of secularism start to peel off the consciences of many, and an unspoken invitation for something—or Someone—to fill their desire for truth, justice, and mercy.

Anti-Liberalism Liberals

Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor turned millionaire author and YouTube sensation, is a kind of philosophical whistleblower. Instead of spilling classified documents about the government, Peterson has blown the whistle on a more formidable target: progressivism. Not that Peterson is a conservative in the classical sense; he is mythological but not religious, a devotee of anti-clerical iconoclasts like Carl Jung and George Orwell. He supports same-sex marriage. In any other era, Peterson would be sorted in a large category of psychoanalysis-wielding, liberalism-assuming secular commentators. But because he finds himself on the wrong side of progressive history on issues like deconstructionist feminism, transgender laws, free speech, and the virtues of capitalism, Peterson is at odds with the elite academic left. He represents a secular revolt against the bastions of secularism.

Peterson’s critiques of the modern American university and his therapeutic appeals to religion and transcendent morality are often dismissed by his critics as the conservative, millennial-shaming perspective of a privileged white male. Camille Paglia, though, is not so easily ignored. Paglia is a lifelong feminist scholar, who self-identifies as transgender and was a “radical” of the 1960s. So why has she lately been quoted approvingly by complementarian evangelicals and conservatives? Paglia, like Peterson, has gone turncoat against the campus liberalism that shaped her.

In particular, Paglia unflinchingly decries and mocks what she believes to be contemporary feminism’s flight from biological realism. Paglia sees progressivism’s denial of meaningful biological differences between men and women as a dishonest posture meant to appease activists and foster political ends rather than wise and truthful scholarship. In her most recent collection of essays, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, Paglia derides the reality-ignoring, speech-policing left with withering essays that eschew everything from deconstructionist literary theory to laws against “misgendering.” For her impieties against intersectional orthodoxy, Paglia now faces passionate opposition on the campus of the very institution at which she has tenure.

While Peterson is first and foremost a psychologist whose political positions are somewhat incidental, Paglia explicitly takes aim at her colleagues’ social and political hegemony. Again, it’s not that Paglia disagrees with their secular framework. She’s a sexual revolution enthusiast, fond of pornography and abortion. What Paglia challenges is progressive ideology’s suppression of givenness, biology, and historical norms, and its use of speech codes and legislation to enforce that suppression on dissidents (like herself). Where campus feminists see only rape culture, Paglia sees eons of male sacrifice for the survival of women and children. Where Obergefell champions see homosexuality as innate and finds queer subtexts in 1 Samuel and Jane Austen, Paglia sees anti-intellectualism and pandering. Perhaps most significantly, where modern progressives see opportunities to protect self-esteem and cherished beliefs, Paglia sees a ruthlessly censorious, anti-democratic orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy is an important word, because the most intense protest from the emerging liberal anti-progressivism—and the point at which Peterson and Paglia most agree with each other—is that modern liberalism, particularly that which descends down from college campuses, has abandoned its rationalistic, “free thinking” spirit and become an alternative fundamentalism. For a long time, progressivism contrasted against conservatism most clearly over the primacy of the individual and the ultimate importance of actualizing individual rights, over and against the religious/right-wing consensus of preserving moral structures that transcend individuality. It’s why the cultural and political Left has owned mantras such as “Think for yourself” and “My body, my choice.”

But now the gatekeepers of that same progressivism have shifted toward a program of building and preserving their own secular versions of moral structures that transcend individuality. Free thinking stops where transgender theory begins. Thou shalt not take the name of intersectional diversity in vain.

The new liberal orthodoxy has spawned an impressive cast of heretics. Andrew Sullivan became one of the most important journalists of his generation through tireless advocacy of LGBT causes, including same-sex marriage, and made a lucrative career out of leveraging his gay Catholicism against the “Christianist” (his trademark portmanteau of “Christian” and “Islamist”) conservatives. Not too long ago Sullivan was one of the fiercest critics of traditionalist thought in the area of sexuality. You would never guess that from his forthright condemnation of transgender activists and the heaps of scorn such writing has earned him from many former admirers.

Then there is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist based at New York University. Haidt’s work in moral psychology, especially his two books The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff), has fiercely critiqued the identity-driven, “fragile” ethos of contemporary progressivism. Haidt is not religious and identifies as a political liberal; yet his advocacy for better protection of free speech, as well as his appeal to emphasize the insights of ethics and science rather than ideology, have sorted him (perhaps to his regret) alongside figures such as Paglia, Peterson, and Sullivan.

Natural Affinity

It’s obvious why many evangelicals resonate with these critics of liberalism. Christians see givenness and objective reality throughout the whole fabric of existence, since the Bible begins with the assumption that “In the beginning, God created” (Gen. 1:1). Thus believers are right to be highly skeptical of any public rhetoric that undermines the embodied givenness of the world or denies the real moral agency of human beings, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or amount of social privilege.

The religious tone of this new progressive spirit should not surprise us. Augustine wrote that the human heart is restless for God, Bob Dylan sang that “You gotta serve somebody,” and David Foster Wallace observed, “Everybody worships.” It’s not a question of whether we will believe in a transcendent something or Someone, it’s a question of what that something or Someone will be. In an era in which many are comfortable relegating questions of religion to the sphere of “opinion” and “Whatever works for you,” the secular religion of politics reveals our innate need to discover the truth and impress that truth onto others. Secular progressives identify this truth as intersectionality, but Christians believe the ultimate truth is the gospel.

Substituting political consciousness for spiritual practice is a recipe for personal and social disaster, a reality that the anti-liberals seem to be hovering over. Peterson’s enormous public profile owes much to his perception (and willingness to say) that secular students, particularly males, are lost and dissatisfied with life. Relatedly, Paglia chastises universities for avoiding robust education in religious traditions and warns that this shortcoming will cripple our culture’s self-understanding. When life is reduced to the economic or sociopolitical, and the transcendent is actively suppressed, these writers argue we can expect severe polarization, social resentments, and disillusionment among the many who feel their deepest needs being unmet or even ridiculed. That’s precisely what many see today.

Though it’s easy for evangelicals to cheer these talking points, the church is, in a real sense, inheriting its own wind. Conservative Christianity in particular has been exposed as often baptizing unregenerate social structures simply because they were traditional or American. As Patrick Deneen writes in How Liberalism Failed, the triumph of classical liberalism in the West was a pyrrhic victory: maximal personal liberty and self-determination were won at the cost of the things that give life and society the deepest meaning. Repeated failures to speak prophetically to the fault lines in classical liberalism have left confessional Protestants on their heels, dependent on partisanship and reactionary ideology to represent them to the public square.

Conservative Christianity in particular has been exposed as often baptizing unregenerate social structures simply because they were traditional or American.

On this point evangelicals and the anti-liberals are really in the same boat. Paglia and Peterson often come across as if they want to challenge the foundations of liberal society, but, like the Pharisees, are afraid of the questions such a query might pose to them. Defense of biological norms and the value of religion to Western civilization notwithstanding, none of these writers goes further to explore the fundamental disputes between religion and secular liberalism (indeed, most of these critics go out of their way to avoid giving the impression they could ever do this). Consequently they end up framing the problem as procedural rather than philosophical. Because these dissenters from progressive orthodoxies have not (yet) challenged the base truth claims of liberalism, they can only throw away the rotten fruit, not pull up the root.

Livable Alternative

Gospel-believing Christians understandably feel some solidarity with these secular anti-liberals. But there’s a dangerous temptation here. Allowing ourselves to be sorted with secular critics of PC culture can be a sort of trap, a way of marginalizing the unique testimony of the gospel in deference to tribal instincts. Nothing in Scripture suggests that being willing to offend elite cultural gatekeepers is necessarily a sign of courage or even truthfulness, especially if such willingness to offend comes wrapped up with influence or political power. Christian love comes with built-in dilemmas about speaking the truth in love; mainstream political discourse can’t be outraged enough.

Also, though the PC critics are right to sound the alarm about the worship of identity politics and activism, there is an important sense in which these trends are more sympathetic to Christian imagination than not. The intensity of “wokeness” in students, for example, is nothing if not a stirring rebuke to empty-headed platitudes about how heavy doctrines and difficult conversations alienate people and should be avoided. What if the resurgent interest in justice among American young people is, at least partially, a testimony to consumer culture’s inability to satisfy moral and spiritual desire? A robustly Christian critique of progressivism cannot merely scoff at fragile millennials without giving them a satisfying, livable alternative. Articulating that alternative may mean withdrawing from the mud-slinging of most Right vs. Left discourse, gratifying to the flesh as it may be, and building something of eternal value instead.

The challenge facing Christians in a secular age isn’t merely to push back against ideological enemies, but to, as Flannery O’Connor put it, push back against the age itself. Camille Paglia is right that modern sexual politics is rife with nonsense and delusion about human nature. But she cannot (for now, anyway) recognize that this nonsense descends from her own, from her generation’s embrace of absolute personal autonomy over and against revealed creational norms. Andrew Sullivan refuses to see how his throwing off the restraint of historic orthodoxy is part of the gnawing spiritual hunger now feasting on cancel culture. Jordan Peterson, the most traditionalist-friendly of the bunch, can’t bring himself to accept the historical truth of the risen Jesus Christ, and thus shortchanges his eager audience of the transformation they most need. In their failures lie a gospel opportunity.

The whole gospel for the whole of life to the whole world is a true social revolution—authentic conversion without coercion, justice in the already and the not-yet, and identity that dignifies and unites rather than enslaves and divides. If nothing else, the tensions within American liberalism are hunger pains for this kind of life-giving message. The only question is whether those pains will be met, and by whom.

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