The meek will still inherit the earth
The marginalization of orthodox religion is forging its cultural relevance for the coming age
How did the LGBT movement, in 40 years, go from a group of people that revolted the average American to a political and cultural juggernaut that wields unprecedented influence and power? It seems almost miraculous but the answer is simple: They were oppressed.
Lesbians and Gays were pushed to the edge of the culture, they were forced together by suffering (especially through AIDS), and they built a subculture that increasingly filled the gaps in our stagnant popular culture. It wasn’t the corporate sponsorship of pride parades but the lack of corporate sponsorship that gave them credibility. It wasn’t their fragility but strength and humor in the face of death. They spoke with a winsome, heterodox voice about love with the gravitas that comes from suffering to a bored generation that had known nothing but comfort and therapeutic psychobabble. And they conquered the world. By trying to defeat them, our culture assured their victory.
The same forces are starting to work in orthodox religion.
Michael Malice’s book “The New Right” is a fascinating read—less so for his documenting the troubling eccentricities and outright racism of the alt-right—but for his observations as to how cultural evolution and innovation happens. Like it or not, Pepe the Frog, is a cultural icon that is presently more powerful than the pride flag, precisely because it winds up the adults in the same way that the pride flag did 30 years ago. Pepe is authentic in the way that a pride flag isn’t because Pepe has no Fortune 500 sponsorship.
Authentic culture is forged in exile.
That doesn’t mean every exiled group will rise to cultural dominance: I don’t think furries will one day be a bourgeois sexual identity any more than I think the alt-right will wield real political power. Both are too ridiculous and, while their culture is original, it is also ugly and, frankly, stupid. Pepe the Frog is the perfect avatar for the alt-right: striking and ugly. A subculture that repulses rather than inspires will not be adopted by the masses. This is where the LGBT movement succeeded where other subcultures remained in exile: “Love Wins” and “Love is Love”. These slogans are banal but they’re also speaking to the noblest parts of our humanity: love. These slogans were the permission that Americans needed to import the LGBT movement into the mainstream and promote it to the halls of power.
So what about religion?
Forced together in a fight for survival
Let me give a personal anecdote: about eight years ago my favorite thing to write was bitter screeds against Evangelicalism. Five years ago, I got off on poking fundamentalist Lutherans in the eye for being too conservative on some of my pet doctrines (inside baseball if there ever was such a thing). Pointing out the warts in American religion is no hard task. (H. L. Mencken perfected this art almost a century ago with more wit and humor than I could ever aspire to.) The real struggle is to bring something remotely original to the table. But I’ve given up trying. Today the only thing I care about is preserving and perpetuating religion in America: Evangelical, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian—we’ll pick up our arguments later. The last five years have scared me straight. I don’t care if you think the earth is six thousand years old, I’ve got your back.
Another anecdotal observation: Evangelicals and Catholics don’t seem as suspicious of each other any more. When I was growing up as an Evangelical, it was a given that Catholics were not real Christians. It was a common tick of my evangelical pastors to end an argument with “but that’s what the Catholics believe”. Guffaws all round. Case closed. But that animosity and suspicion seem to be vanishing by the day.
Last anecdotal observation: Christians are starting to care about the religious rights of Muslims. I was listening to a conversation between Al Mohler and Rod Dreher the other day (a Southern Baptist and Eastern Orthodox being chummy, a miracle in of itself) where they were arguing how important it was for Christians to fight for the religious freedoms of Muslims. As someone who came of age in Bush’s War on Terror era, where every Christian in my circles wanted the Muslims deported, I could hardly believe my ears.
There is growing recognition among serious religious people that we need to put aside our differences to fight for our survival. For the first time in memory, religious people of all stripes are being pushed to the margins. And it’s forcing us to band together. There’s a growing understanding that if we want to preserve our unique religious beliefs, we must protect all unique religious beliefs.
Forced together, to fight for their survival. Yeah, it sounds like the premise for a cheesy 90s action movie. But that’s what happened to lesbians and gays in the 70s and it’s what’s happening with religious people in America today.
I am cautiously optimistic about the future of religion in the west. Religion in my youth was marked by kitsch, hype, and buckets of hypocrisy. But now Jesus doesn’t sell like he used to so the grifters have moved on to Gay Pride and Social Justice. Frankly, it’s cleaning house. There will be no Gen-Z version of Pat Robertson because there’s no money in that game anymore. The people who are with us are here because they really believe. That changes the air in the room quite a bit.
Today good art, criticism, and philosophy is appearing in religious circles coming from sincere adherents. You won’t hear about it. But it’s happening. While the rest of the culture is descending into a form of hysterical secular puritanism, chanting political mantras, I am seeing green shoots of authentic culture appear among the religious, precisely because they are moving into cultural exile. Religion is more authentic and vital today than it ever has been in my memory. And it’s just getting started.
Finally, religion is relevant to humans in a way that no other alt-culture is. The ultimate flaw at the heart of the LGBT movement is that our sexuality is important but it’s not as central as the activists would have you think it is. Gay pride is a poor substitute for religious ecstasy. Love between mates is a faint shadow of the love between creature and creator. When we banished religion we thought we were exercising a demon but we were actually killing our soul. We are increasingly forlorn creatures, driven insane by unreality and a hunger for authenticity.
Love will win. But real love—not on our terms or our rules. When religious love will return to our culture is anyone’s guess, but, when it does, it will be welcomed like a hero. Church bells will ring and we’ll sing hymns like anthems.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up by their arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.