The Immutable Truth vs. Relevance

by Jonah Goldberg

In last Friday’s G-File, I talked about how conservatives need to be more engaged in adapting to the changing culture. As with most such “news”letters, I hardly tried to make an exhaustive argument. Maybe that was a mistake, given the topic. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail from folks worried I’m going wobbly. For instance, from a reader:

Hello, Jonah.  You made a very troubling comment in your essay on the evolution of social mores vs “political correctness”.  You stated that “Christianity (like other religions) still needs to adapt to changing times and the evolving expectations of the people.”  The sound I heard when I read this was that of WFB rolling over in his grave.  Christianity does not “evolve” to meet “changing needs”.  That concept could serve as a first-rate definition of moral relativism.

The word of God is immutable; its interpretation is subject to discussion but not to denial.  Nancy Pelosi can pretend she’s a good Catholic. but every time she takes communion she is lying to her Lord, whose words clearly prohibit abortion.  Would you have Christianity “adapt” to the idiotic demands of Sandra Fluke and Planned Parenthood, simply to make Christians seem more “reasonable” to progressives? 

And while we’re on this topic, the “moral cocoon” of family and community that you seem to decry actually worked pretty damned well.  It did not create a black community devoid of family structure and riddled with amoral, murderous young men.  It did not destroy and denigrate the dignity of work so as to encourage the inertia-prone to live their lives on someone else’s dime.  That “cocoon”, especially its Christian component, was the driving force that propelled legal equality for black Americans to the forefront, over the kicking and screaming of the left.  One could argue that it was that societal environment that bred individuals who understood that one must work for a living and thus earn respect, not simply demand it (or sue until you get it).  And it most assuredly did not create the kind of smug uptalking children that The Regime hires as its spokespeople. 

One can (and must) make a strong argument for tolerance: of other ideas, of other faiths when sincerely held, of other peoples’ legitimate property rights.  And one must put pressure on the extremists who brandish their Bibles and Qu’rans like vials of anthrax.  But to ask religions to “adapt to the evolving expectations of the people”?  What if the people are simply wrong?  The tyranny of democracy was understood by the founders: They founded this nation on standards, supported those with the framework of law, and drew clear limits, in order to ensure the survival of the American experiment. 

I think this starts off as a reasonable misunderstanding and veers off into an unreasonable tirade against arguments I didn’t make. For instance, I don’t “decry” the moral cocoon of the family. And anyone who has read me over the years shouldn’t expect that I would. I’d also like to think that longtime readers wouldn’t take my comments as an exhortation to surrender to the likes of Sandra Fluke.

The reader asks, What if the people are wrong? Well, it depends what they’re wrong about, of course. 

The heart of the misunderstanding here is a confusion over categories. In the case of religion, I’m totally with this reader, and many others, when it comes to the proposition that fundamental theological doctrine can’t be thrown overboard just to be popular (or really, for any other reason). Although, determining what amounts to fundamental theological doctrine for faiths I do not share isn’t part of my job description. Still, as a general proposition there are differences between doctrine and custom.  I’m not Catholic but I sympathize with those who miss the Latin Mass. But no eternal Truth was cast aside with the change to giving the Mass in the vernacular. Similarly, in many neighborhoods in New York, the Irish and Italians have gone to the suburbs. In response, churches in those neighborhoods are now offering services in Spanish, Vietnamese etc. This may cause some pangs of nostalgia, but nothing sacred or eternal has been defenestrated as far as I can tell. Rather, the Church is doing what it deems necessary to bring people to the Truth.

But let’s move away from religion. My point was about conservatism, specifically with regard to culture. The simple fact is that due to changing demographics, technology, economics etc., people live differently today than they did in the past. The growth of single-parent families, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the returns on education, the wholesale entry of women into the workforce: These are just a handful of monumentally significant forces that have unsettled traditional social and cultural arrangements. By no means should that mean we abandon principles of limited government, free markets, or the importance of family. But it may require changing how we talk about such things. (Picking up on my point about the Catholic Church, I see nothing wrong with conservatives making the case for conservatism in Spanish wherever and whenever it may be effective.) It may also require thinking more creatively about the policies we propose for improving peoples’ lives (Marco Rubio offered a good example of how to do that just this morning on NPR.) It also might require developing new arguments and cultural institutions that connect with people who don’t already agree with us. As I keep saying, conservatives need to recommit themselves to persuading people not already on our side rather than simply telling our own troops what they always want to hear. 

Liberals have responded to changing cultural and social trends with more government programs, embarrassingly stupid stuff like “The Life of Julia,” ridiculous rhetoric about the “war on women,” knee-jerk cries of “racism” at every turn and a whole suite of intellectual and entertainment efforts based on the assumption that America has mostly been a bad country. I think this stuff leaves most normal people cold. Surely conservatives can come up with something better? And if we can’t, we might as well pack it in now. 

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