America’s Cultural, Political and Theological Divides from a Christian Worldview
I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’re going to talk about why America seems to be moving in one and in only one cultural direction. We’re going to talk about why America seems to be so deeply divided and what that division tells us. And we’re also going to look at why America is increasingly divided on the question of abortion and what that tells us about ourselves and our country.
IS THE LEFT WINNING? WHY AMERICA SEEMS TO BE MOVING IN ONLY ONE CULTURAL DIRECTION
In trying to understand America today, we are looking at a country, we are looking at a culture, a civilization that requires some very careful thinking, and at least a part of this is something that requires a certain historical distance. That historical distance is hard to get when every day we are barraged by a series of headlines and events and elections and decisions and all the things that tend to happen around us that accentuate the urgent at the expense of getting a bit of perspective. David Gelernter is a professor at Yale University. He is a computer scientist. He’s also another of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. Even as he teaches at Yale, he was also the inventor of life streams, which is now understood to have been the first social network online. He was also, we need to note, not merely as an historical footnote one of those targeted by the uni-bombers several years ago.
He recently wrote about America raising a very important historical point. He says that the right – that is the conservative side in America’s cultural divide,
“has never made one significant move against the liberal culture machine.”
What’s he talking about here? David Gelernter is a very serious man. And he’s looking at the American moral landscape, and he’s looking at the reality and saying conservatives may talk about electoral wins, they may talk about appointments and nominations and laws, they may talk about certain areas of the culture that still continue in a certain cultural and moral conservatism, but he says when you look at the big picture and you look over the last generation, conservatives haven’t really won anything in terms of the big battles the liberals continue to win them all. He concludes his article by saying this,
“The left wrapped up the culture war two generations ago. Throughout my own adult lifetime, the right has never made one significant move against the liberal culture machine.”
Now I want to ask a basic question. Is he right? I think the answer is yes. But that’s not the only question. The question would have to be not only has the cultural right won any victories over the cultural left in terms of recent American history, the question would also have to be what victories would the cultural left have won if there had been no activity and no engagement by the cultural right. But looking at David Gelernter’s point, there’s a very important judgment that’s embedded here. And that judgment is that conservatives never actually win victories. Now the earliest conservative thinkers would have said that’s exactly right. There are never any ultimate victories, and this is deeply rooted in a Christian worldview. The ultimate victory comes only with the kingdom of Christ. Until then, there’s a continuation of battle after battle after battle.
Now in the political sphere that comes down to the fact that when you win for example a legislative victory, well, don’t celebrate it too much because there will be a new Senate, there will be a new Congress, there will be new voters, and the situation can change rather rapidly. That doesn’t mean that a legislative victory isn’t important. It just means that it isn’t ultimate and no legislative victory is destined to last. When there’s a budget battle, many people looking at it, especially driven by interest in the cable news networks and all the rest, they will either lament or celebrate a budget as adopted by the Congress and say well the battle is won. No it isn’t. The battle for the budget is going to come up next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. And one of the major moral attributes of Congress is as they say to kick the can down the road to defer action in terms of anything painful into the distant future when someone else will have to face the electorate and the math.
But looking at David Gelernter’s point, there’s something else here that’s really important, and that is that over the last generation, you might say going back to the 1960s especially and going forward, the left has had an onward march that is more spectacularly successful than even many liberals in the culture might recognize. And that’s because the most fundamental bases of the culture, the most fundamental ways of thinking, have shifted so remarkably. It’s not just the so-called liberation movements that have included the liberation of sex and the liberation of gender and the liberation of well you can name it, but it’s also the fact that people are now living in a moral world that is barely recognizable from the moral world that existed in the 1950s and the 1960s. Are there gains in that? Well certainly massive corrections were needed of the moral worldview of America in the mid-20th century, especially on issues of race and the quality.
But when it comes to many other issues, well just consider what’s happened to marriage and what’s happened to the family. The breakdown of marriage and the family has had devastating consequences. One of the interesting things going on right now is that the left and the right in America are increasingly united on a certain set of facts. Those facts having to do with the breakdown of marriage and the family and its consequences, especially for children. But it’s just a very interesting point that David Gelernter makes. The point being that the right may win battles but it seems always to lose the war.
And that’s a fairly modern thing. Because if you’re looking back at the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries, even the early 20th century, it would have not have been at all clear that this would be the story of the last half of the 20th century and what we know of the 21st century. That tells us that something very significant changed. Something seismic shifted in terms of how Americans look at the world, look at truth, look at morality and understand themselves. And that’s very, very true. That’s exactly what has happened. Failing to take that into account is to fail to understand that those who are behind this very liberal movement in the society are the people who now generally populate almost exclusively the tenured ranks of American universities, who populate the senior board rooms of most corporations, who populate the centers of cultural production. It’s no accident that it is that way. The left had a very long strategy, and that means that this is going to be a very long struggle. But it also means that at any given moment we’re not going to know who might have won the battle. We will know eventually who has won the war.
WHAT DOES A DIVIDED AMERICA TELL US ABOUT DISAPPEARING POLITICAL AND THEOLOGICAL CENTERS?
But next dealing with that deep divide in America, a divide that’s at the level of worldview. It’s not just on politics and morality. It’s an even deeper level divide. We understand that. A recent interview that appeared in the Wall Street Journal is very important. It’s with Allen Guelzo who is the professor of civil war era studies and the director of that program at Gettysburg College. He is a major American historian. I’m glad to say he’s also someone I’ve had a conversation with my program Thinking in Public. In this interview article James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Guelzo makes an astounding, but I think arguable claim and that is that America’s now more divided than at any point in its history with the singular exception of the Civil War. That’s a pretty sobering assessment. But as he says in this interview,
“today’s divisions are worse than those of any time in American history except the 1850s and ’60s. Today,” he said, “‘there are a lot of unhappy personalities, and there are divisions of cultural values.”
He goes on to say that there have been divides throughout American history and the divides have loomed larger and smaller. And he’s right to point to the Civil War, the 1850s and 1860s is the time of the deepest moral divide in the United States, but it is very chastening to consider the fact that here you have a major American historian saying that right now appears to be the time when Americans are more divided than at any time other than the Civil War.
In terms of the disappearance of a moral or political center, he points to the fact that there has also been a shift in identity. As Taranto says Guelzo’s,
“argument is that Republicans think of themselves as Americans first, whereas today Democratic localism takes the form of subnational identity politics.”
In Guelzo’s words,
“A sense of belonging to an American nation is much more attenuated. Do you identify yourself as being a woman, transgender, black, Latino—you go down the list—or do you identify yourself as an American?”
Professor Guelzo said,
“That has actually now become an issue. This would have been unthinkable two generations ago.”
Now that’s really, really important. It tells us a great deal about our country. It tells us that there are many who do not identify themselves first and foremost as Americans. That’s not their identity, but rather their identity is in some subset that might or might not have anything to do with being an American at all. Now what’s really insightful in that is the fact that a political center requires that sense of shared identity. That’s what creates the center. The center is representative of people who say before I’m a Democrat before I’m a Republican I’m an American. We’re all Americans one way or another. We’re going to solve this problem. We’re going to see this through. That is what produces a political center. This ought to cause Christians to ponder a moment if the disappearance of the center is one of the major facets of America today, then how did that happen? And it appears to have happened precisely because there are other identities, political and moral identities, or as in the case of those listed by Professor Guelzo gender and racial and ethnic identities that simply trump everything else.
Now that raises a huge question. If indeed all of those identities trump the identity of being an American, where does that leave us as a country? And of course as Americans ponder this with deep ramifications for what it would mean for our country. Even as this does give us a pretty intellectually satisfying explanation for the disappearance of the political center. It also points to the great challenges faced by the church of the Lord Jesus Christ because we understand that our first and primary identity isn’t American it’s as a follower of Christ. We also understand that we are here in the United States those who are Americans and we understand that that is a part of our identity, even as the apostle Paul was very proud to say that he was a citizen of the Roman Empire and to claim the rights and responsibilities of one who was a citizen of Rome. But it is the primary citizenship in heaven in the city of God that defines who we are as Christians, and it points to one of the great challenges the church faces even as it is faced in its own way by our nation.
It’s not just the political center that has disappeared. In some ways it is theological center that has disappeared as well. And that shouldn’t really surprise as we think about what’s at stake theologically on questions concerning the gospel, the exclusivity the gospel, the identity of Christ, the authority and inspiration of Scripture. These are issues in which over the past decades we have seen the disappearance of an artificial theological center. We’re left with the understanding that theology really matters, and of course it also ultimately matters that we are faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our identity is first and foremost in him. There are other identities, but one of the great struggles for America is going to be understanding how to exist with the disappearance of the political center and with competing identities. And for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s going to come down to this: how can the church demonstrate what it means to live with those identities but not marked only by those identities, rather than having the primary identity of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Finally even as we’re thinking about these divides in the United States and what they tell us and how we ought to think about these things, one of the points made by Professor Guelzo in that interview article with the Wall Street Journal is that even the issue of abortion has not become the kind of focal issue that the Civil War represented with the issue of slavery. And of course that’s historically very important. He goes on to say that as much opposition as there was to the Roe v. Wade decision, it at least didn’t lead to a civil war in terms of a sectional division in battles. But here’s what I think might be missing in that analysis. One of the things that did create the Civil War, an actual fighting war, was that sectionalism. You had America divided North and South over this question. It’s complicated, but it still comes down to a map and that made that kind of fighting war with the secession of states and the claim of the Confederacy at least plausible in terms of an explanation for why the Civil War came about.
PARTISAN DIVIDE GROWS WHEN IT COMES TO ABORTION, BUT IT’S MUCH MORE THAN A PARTISAN ISSUE
But when it comes to the issue of Roe v. Wade, I think Professor Guelzo may have underestimated the reality, and that’s because it isn’t simply defined sectionally. And thus it has never really led to that kind of fighting war and we should be very thankful, by the way, that it hasn’t led to that kind of conflict at that level. But we should also recognize that at the moral level it’s as deep a conflict as we can imagine. It’s becoming constitutive of the identity of Americans politically. And that’s to say that a recent report coming from the Pew Research Center indicates that if you know what someone believes about abortion you can almost absolutely predict where they stand politically in terms of identification as either Democrat or Republican. This recent report released in July by the Pew Research Center tells us that on abortion the persistent divides and within the two parties have grown only more clear in terms of contrasts. And the contrast is extreme.
The numbers here tell the story, and they’re very easy to understand in the pew data. The vast majority of Republicans here 65% hold to a virtually absolutist position against abortion. And on the other hand, the vast majority of Democrats here 75% hold to a virtually absolutist position for abortion. Not only that, but the percentages are increasing between the two parties – that is the percentage of affirmation of these issues and the distinction and distance between the two parties. This has become very, very clear in the 1980s, 90s, and now all the way into the early decades of the 21st century.
But even as you take a closer look at the data coming here from the Pew Research Center, it’s clear that there is something deeper than abortion, even as important as the sanctity of human life is, as central as it is to our moral concerns into the Christian worldview, it is that Christian worldview that is prior to the understanding of abortion. And that’s why looking at this data, one of most interesting things is that even if it’s very easy to predict if one is pro-life, that one is a republican, if one is pro-abortion, one is Democratic, it’s also very clear, perhaps even more clear, we’re talking here at least seven out of 10, it’s very clear that if one is pro-life, there’s a very good chance that that person identifies as a Protestant evangelical.
I can understand why the Pew Research Center wants to ask this question primarily in partisan terms, but for Christians, that’s never enough. As we know, there’s always, always something deeper than just that partisan identification.