Yesterday, I had a very enlightening conversation with a friend that resulted in a new insight for me as a Christian educator in modern America: I am in a losing battle.
The conversation began with my recommendation of Christopher Caldwell’s excellent article, “The Roots of Our Partisan Divide” (Imprimis, February 2020). Caldwell claims America is perhaps more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. The two sides—Democrats and Republicans—split in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights legislation of that era created in effect a “second constitution,” with new laws and new agencies for enforcing anti-discrimination and diversity. As soon as people realized the effectiveness of aligning with the black victims of the South, these new laws and new agencies became effective means of undercutting any opposition to the new coalition of intersectionality (a sociological term for a new cross-section of culture that cuts across the old divisions). The Southern blacks were soon joined by all “people of color” and by women with non-traditional values and by those in the gay rights movement. According to Caldwell, this “second constitution” has all the marks of a theocracy acting on a principle of moral reform—people are unjustly suffering, so it is acceptable to apply emergency measures that violate the Constitution of 1787 and override local governments. This is what happened to the South during the 1960s with national approval, and this is what is institutionalized today across the country. As a result, the country is polarized into two parties, with the Democrats associating the resistance with the bigotry of Jim Crow, and the Republicans associating the heavy-handedness of progressive legislation with fascist totalitarianism. “The bigots versus the totalitarians,” summarizes Caldwell, “that’s our current party system.”
This depiction of the partisan divide is true, I believe, but here is Caldwell’s bold pronouncement: The Democrats have already won. “Their party won the 1960s,” he concludes. “They gained money, power, and prestige. The GOP is the party of the people who lost these things.”
From reading I have done on American history, I think Caldwell’s assessment is sound. If America has had two cultural stories that dominated the past—first, the God story during colonial New England, and then, the Nation story during the long century from the early republic to the 1960s—then the current era is marked by the sovereign Self. So laments Columbian University professor Andrew Delbanco in his jeremiad The Real American Dream. It was during the 1960s, Delbanco claims, that Americans quit working together for a common dream, and split into the New Left and the New Right. While I disagree with Delbanco’s postmodernism and his claim that Americans have lost faith in “the interventionist state as a source of hope”—for if that were the case, why the fierce rancor over who holds the reins of power?—his historical periodization resonates with me. In the 1960s, both sides began to justify a personal disengagement with the poor, with the Left leaving that responsibility to the government’s Great Society and the Right finding fault in the individuals, not the institutions. Moreover, in the mid-60s, Martin Luther King, Jr. shifted from his earlier advocacy of a common Americanness to his later echo of Malcolm X’s call for blacks to fend for themselves. Lost to everyone was a commonly-held American dream.
Similarly, Eric Foner, another Columbian professor in the humanities, asks of the 1960s’ surprising coalition of the white New Left with the black movement: “What persuaded large numbers of white children of affluence that they were ‘unfree’?” Certainly, the unpopular Vietnam War contributed significantly to the unrest, a point made by both Caldwell and Foner, but even deeper, the New Left redefined “the meaning of freedom” as a radical individualism. “To millions of young people,” concludes Foner, “personal liberation represented a spirit of creative experimentation, a search for a way of life in which friendship and pleasure eclipsed the single-minded pursuit of accumulation and consumption.” This licentious, unintended side effect of consumerism is haunting in light of the prophet Ezekiel’s diagnosis of inhospitality as the cultural cause behind Sodom’s homosexuality (Ezekiel 16:49-50). As Russell Kirk and other conservatives have noted, there is an inextricable link between leisure and decadence.
Although Caldwell did not venture beyond Civil Rights legislation and agencies, his conclusion finds confirmation in the recent history of the Supreme Court. Having perhaps inadvertently prepared the way in the early 1960s for a cultural transformation through the removal of prayer and Bible reading from the public schools—our nation’s official means of cultural advancement—the Supreme Court then constitutionalized the New Left’s radically-individualistic definition of freedom through the court’s own system of precedence. Not only did Roe v. Wade (1973) famously proclaim a constitutional right to privacy, the later confirmation of abortion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) proclaimed: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This insular, highly-subjective, and privatized definition of freedom was later explicitly repeated in the anti-sodomy decision of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which is turn prepared the way for the national legalization of same-sex “marriage” in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). It is this court precedence that truly substantiates Caldwell’s claim that the New Left has created a second and rival constitution.
Now, as a Christian and as an American, I view this scenario with grave concern. Unbridled lust always brings cultural decay and death. It is just a matter of time before “lust has conceived [and] gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:15; cf. 2 Peter 1:4). Sixty million unborn babies are the tragic testimony to that truth. Therefore, the temptation to lust must be resisted, both personally and culturally. So, what shall we do?
At first impulse, upon rehearsing this scenario with my friend, I was consoled by my active involvement in the education of youth, especially at the high school level. In contrast to the reactive measures of politics—measures which have value, but can only enforce one step above the culture’s standard of morality—education provides the opportunity to be proactive, to influence the culture itself through its rising generation. How happy I am to be a teacher! It was at this point that my friend burst my bubble.
He reminded me of this national fact. In contrast to the Civil War, where the party lines divided geographically, today’s party lines divide generationally. Although there is a geographic component today between the cities and what one analyst has ironically called the “out-state,” that division is not geographically concentrated enough to cause a sectional split. However, the cities control the media and the universities, and these means largely control our young people. In fact, the very means of education that brought me personal comfort are actually the handwriting on the wall for the conservative party. Apart from a miracle, the complete, cultural dominance of the New Left politically is only a matter of time. Literally. Nothing remains for the Left now but to wait. When the rising generation gains cultural control, the victory will be complete. It will have won through a war of attrition.
As a Christian educator, what should I do? Should I give way to anger, envious that the wicked have gained the ascendency of cultural power? The opening verses of Psalm 37 oppose this angry fretting, because such anger eventually leads to more evildoing. The meek, who wait on the Lord, will eventually inherit the earth—something reiterated by our Lord in the Beatitudes (cf. Psalm 37:9, 11; Matthew 5:5). As a premillennialist, I recognize that this inheritance will not come about through any form of cultural transformation—not through the revivalistic vision of Jonathan Edwards or the theonomic vision of postmillennial educators. The inheritance will come to Christians the same way it came to Christ Himself, through death and resurrection. In fact, the Bible teaches me that the world’s culture is destined to an antichrist regime similar to Nazi Germany, and it does me no more good to rebuke this sovereign purpose of God than it did Peter to rebuke Christ about the inevitability of the cross. Such defiance is ultimately diabolical.
Given this ultimate cultural defeat, should I give up all effort in education? By analogy, just because a patient will someday die, should a doctor give up all means of recovery in the present? Certainly not. Nor should a Christian educator give up hope that God may grant a temporary improvement in cultural health. In fact, as with Lazarus, God may grant an untimely death to a culture and then resurrect it surprisingly in the current age, long before the worldwide era of the Antichrist. We may actually have witnessed such a revival to English culture in the days of Whitefield and Wesley, a revival that helped to keep England from the radicalism of the French Revolution, and then helped to end the slave trade and finally slavery itself in the British Empire without the necessity of a bloody Civil War. Therefore, I educate in hope, and speak to the culture as Jesus did to Lazarus, commanding a dead man to do something. The culture may be dead, but as Carl Henry taught me in his seminal essay of 1947, God’s word has always commanded the dead to rise (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
Still, even if God does not grant a resurrection to American culture (and we cannot plan on miracles unless there is a specific promise), there is always value in Christian education. Just as doing our work heartily to the Lord brings pleasure to His heart and fame to His name, despite the inevitability of vanity, so also every day of Christian education is an infinitely valuable day of worship. As Abraham lived in a tent but always built an altar, so I strive as a Christian educator to build an altar to Christ every day I teach. He is worthy of my praise, no matter if I die with this dying culture. And He is worthy of my students’ praise as well. Ultimately, if simply one student is saved through the classroom—and I have witnessed this happening—there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over a whole culture that needs no repentance (cf. Luke 15:7). And if gaining the whole world cannot compensate for the loss of a soul, then how can I discount this one soul gained despite the loss of an entire culture to Satan (cf. Matthew 16:26)? But even if a soul is not saved, I resist evangelistic head-counting and find joy in even the most trivial acts of service dedicated to the glory of the Infinite God. This perspective alone brings a revolution of purpose and makes every school day significant to those who love the Lord!
Now, let me bring both strands together—namely, the persistent and imminent possibility of cultural resurrection along with the eternal value of daily worship. The opening scenes of Luke demonstrate how God does not separate the individual prayers of His people from His larger historical purposes of redemption. He is the God who answers the prayer of an elderly barren couple, perhaps long after they had ceased to pray for a child due to the death of a womb, and in answering their prayer, He simultaneously inaugurated a global redemption. Could it be, just as the educator Jan Amos Comenius did not live to see the answer to his prayers in the Moravian revivals of a century later, that God in Christ will answer the prayers of current Christian educators like me a century or two from now, when not only I myself has returned to dust, but the even the present folly of rebellion has finally met the recalcitrance of reality? And then, unexpectedly, God may grant revival, a resurrection to this barren culture. Perhaps, He may even use as a means of revival the verbal witness left behind by Christian educators, who in essays like this or in sayings lodged in living memory plant the seeds of cultural revival, no matter the length of delay until germination begins. Rather than pessimistic, I am filled with hope. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a Christian educator.
May God grant such a revival of hope among those of us involved in Christian education! We have not placed our hope in the reactive though valuable measures of politics, but in the powerful nature of His word to give life, a word that politicians may also use if they become so bold. We have not placed our hope in a false analysis of the current culture, as if the conservatives may be winning or may yet win. We believe the cultural battle is lost, but the true war will ultimately be won. And even in the meantime, although the culture is dead, we believe that resurrection is always possible. Yes, I am educating in a losing battle, but I am educating in great hope, thanks to Jesus Christ.
Sources: Christopher Caldwell, “The Roots of Our Partisan Divide,” Imprimis 49 (February 2020): 1-7; Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999) 97, 110; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 287-94.