Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Is It Really *That* Bad?

June 18, 2019
Is It Really *That* Bad?
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol April 2, 2019 in Washington (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

To read the conservative traditionalists, America really is the rotting dumpster fire of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches. Children are exploited at every turn. Pornography is inescapable. The family is slowly being eradicated. Christianity is in retreat. Our lives are fragmented and isolated, and we are destined to die sad and alone. But is it really that bad?

Undeniably the culture really is bad in some ways. There are television shows and movies I would never let my kids watch. There are even commercials that kids probably shouldn’t see. I would not take my kids to drag queen storytime. My wife and I passed on Game of Thrones, largely for reasons of piety, though we’ve enjoyed our share of visually intense serialized television. I’m even enough of a prude that I try to distract my boys—10 and 5—when we pass the window displays at Victoria’s Secret on our way to Trader Joe’s. They’ve got the rest of their lives to count boobs, maybe one day as a First Things intern. And Lord knows those posters of perfect supermodels aren’t the body images I want my daughter to internalize.

We also keep electronics out of our kids’ hands, limiting video games to an hour or so a week, usually at the public library. No phones, no tablets, no texting. YouTube usage is limited to an occasional movie trailer at Dad’s discretion. We even have a house phone that our daughter uses to call her grandparents. Our family life is no Benedict Option; it’s not even the life described in Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult, though we try to keep outside influences at bay.

I’m sure we succeed in some respects and fail in others. And of those that get through, some—maybe even most—are likely to prove harmless over time. We know we can’t stop everything. We’re just trying to shorten the odds and intentionally help shape and mould the imaginations of our children rather than outsourcing that job to American corporate culture.

All of which is the long way of saying that traditionalists get some things right about cultural libertinism. Yes, it can be problematic. Yes, it has to be actively managed. And yes, elites typically have the resources to mitigate the harm this sort of libertinism can create for kids. You get a lot of second chances when you live in a pricey zip code with two parents who make a lot of money. If you live in urban Philadelphia or rural Alabama, you’re living and working without much of a safety net.

The traditionalists are also correct that our present age is unlike previous ages. Lust and greed have been with man since the very beginning, but it’s only in the last decade that you could simultaneously watch pornography and gamble on football using your iPhone while sitting in the privacy of one’s office.

Which brings us to Senator Josh Hawley, and his recent essay in Christianity Today. Ostensibly a refutation of an ancient Christian heresy, the essay falls back on tired tropes about American elitism: How society and policy are both geared to benefit our elitist class at the expense of the hapless middle. Perhaps you’ve heard this before. The way Hawley puts it, it reads like a watered-down Tucker Carlson monologue, but without the charm.

When he’s not talking about class warfare, Hawley argues that we now live in a Pelagian age where the cult of self-improvement podcasts resembles the ancient heresy that man can fully perfect his lot. This is a serious point, and Hawley isn’t wrong, exactly. But he misses something important: that the modern culture of self-improvement is a means of helping non-elites learn and develop the bourgeois values necessary for achieving and maintaining success in our complex world. Which is to say, it isn’t all bad. This culture takes on a variety of forms, from the self-help megachurches that deemphasize human sin to the TED talks of Brene Brown. Contra Hawley, I’d argue that, if anything, the need for this culture of self-improvement represents a failure of elites to inculcate bourgeois values and norms in the rest of society.

But let’s delve more deeply into Pelagianism. Hawley is right to condemn Pelagius, as should all Christians for the rest of history. But he misses a crucial point derived from the teachings of Augustine: Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism remain problems for the Christian church in that they try to posit salvation as internal, as opposed to the external, work of Christ.

Hawley argues that an anti-Pelagian stance carries with it political and cultural implications. This is true to the degree that any truth claim will eventually bleed over into other realms of life, but the case as Hawley makes it is a serious confusion of what Augustine identified as the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. The senator is right to condemn Pelagius and to identify some of his spirit in our own age, but the central problem with Pelagius was spiritual, not philosophical. Self-help cannot erase the stain of sin, but a healthy dose goes a long way toward ordering your life in a more productive and rational manner.

The deeper problem with Hawley’s understanding of Pelagius, though, is how he extends it to the world of politics. Hawley is right that Pelagius misunderstood the Cross, not because Pelagius and his fellow travellers were elitist but because the Cross is proof that, for Christians, human effort is never fully sufficient to overcome sin. Hawley is right to cite Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the contrast between the wisdom of the Cross and the foolishness of the world. This is a theme that any reader of the Bible ought to recognize: the tendency of God to use the unexpected and seemingly unimportant to accomplish His purpose in the world.

But Hawley carries this to a deeply problematic place when he argues that the political and cultural consequences of this theology are that it is “the common man or woman, not the elite, but the everyday person who moves the destinies of the world.”

Aside from being ahistorical nonsense, this is a distinction that plays upon bitterness, resentment, and envy. To return to the Scripture, the penetrating power of the Gospel is that we are all “elite” brothers and sisters, loved by God and in deep need of humility. And we are also all wayward sons and daughters yearning for God’s grace. Hawley ignores this and then, to compound his error, offers political privilege to the common man based on his own romanticized view of America’s past.

And romanticized it is. Hawley goes after the free market in ways that call to mind passages from Marx that also romanticized an older view of the home and family—as though the pre-market family was the epitome of health and harmony. Hawley and other traditionalists would have us believe that prior to some nebulous point in our nation’s economic history, our homes, communities, and politics were rightly ordered and that by recalibrating our current policies, we can return to that idyllic moment.

But conservatives should recognize this impulse for what it is: well-intended foolishness. Of course there are elements of our past worth preserving and even resurrecting. Yet our view of the past should be informed by the same Hayekian spirit that should inform our view of the future: that our knowledge, even of the past, is limited and that we should be highly skeptical of any attempt to create a particular model of government and society. When Hawley argues for an economic program that prioritizes the “vast middle” over the “narrow elite,” he fails to articulate what such a program would actually achieve or, more importantly, how it would achieve it.

His current fixation on social media offers a hint at his thinking. Instead of empowering individuals, families, and communities to make better, wiser choices, Hawley believes that he and his fellow senators are equipped to make the best choices for them.

Funny how elitism always comes full circle.

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.