Normally, when you’re twelve and your dad has taken you to the video-game store, you can barely contain your thrill. But one day many years ago I found myself in that situation and felt anything but delighted. I was selling, not buying. My parents had become concerned about some themes in a certain game, which was one of my favorites and a massive hit with what seemed like all of my friends. Nevertheless, my parents judged that they didn’t want their preteen son exposed to words and ideas that subverted (in their view) a Christian understanding of life and death. I sadly handed the store employee my copy, and to this day I remember my dad intensifying my embarrassment by explaining his theological concerns to the man behind the register, who was polite, as I recall, but almost certainly confused.
Even in my disappointment and sadness at losing the game, I did respect, in my own way, the logic of my parents’ decision. Not everything that was fun was good for me, and not everything that can be enjoyed should be. The lesson was applied consistently in my home and stays with me still. To see all one’s actions, even the enjoyment of a seemingly inconsequential video game, through an ethical lens is normal for Christians and many other religious folks.
This avoidance ethic is often synonymous with conservative religion, especially Evangelical Christianity. Growing up in the Southern Baptist Convention, I saw passionate boycotts of Disney, Harry Potter, HBO, Abercrombie and Fitch, and many other totems of American popular culture. I grew up accustomed to not knowing the references and inside jokes made by friends who watched the latest comedies and sitcoms. Many times the reasons for avoiding popular culture were coherent and good, sometimes (as in the case of Harry Potter) paranoid. Some who were also raised this way now label it as vicious and oppressive, but I never have. The tension between living in the world and being of the world gives authenticity and wakefulness to spiritual life. Now it looks like some secular fellow Millennials are beginning to agree.
The contemporary social-justice movement among younger Millennials and Gen Z also embraces an avoidance ethic. Not long ago I read an article about how younger audiences had reevaluated the ’90s sitcom Friends. I’ve been told that Friends is one of the best and most beloved TV shows of all time. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen an episode, owing to my family’s near-total avoidance of it and countless other sitcoms. (Other shows I’ve never seen: Roseanne, The Simpsons, Scrubs.) We declined most of these programs on the basis of their suggestive sexual content, glorification of family dysfunction, and contempt for religious truth and mores. Of the complaints I’ve read about Friends from socially conscious, politically progressive writers, not one includes mention of any of the problems that I see with it. Rather, they zero in on impious depictions of racial minorities or on cavalier attitudes toward sexual harassment and misogyny.
What fascinates me about these critiques is not their content but how they are made. Reading them almost transports me back home, handing in the video game or movie that my Evangelical parents have deemed inappropriate to my spiritual formation. These socially conscious Millennials are going through, at 22, something I experienced at five: the realization that not everything that’s fun is good for you. “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22), because after that it just gets harder later.
The emerging Millennial interest in “justice” creates a fascinating dynamic for close observers of American culture. Moral relativism, the deconstruction of all objective-truth claims, was sold as the inevitable future just a generation ago. Not only has relativism failed to conquer our cultural landscape. It has been routed by something close to its opposite: a rigid moral absolutism that launches business boycotts and Twitter shame storms as efficiently as any fundamentalism out there. Elite college campuses today bear more than a passing resemblance to the Evangelical colleges they hold in contempt. The main difference is that students enrolling in a religious school are told in advance what they’re getting.
Take “trigger warnings.” Sometimes it feels that professors who go out of their way to accommodate the scruples of undergraduates have culturally appropriated my fundamentalist childhood. “Guard your heart” is, after all, a command frequently issued in the Bible, and it is a way of life for Evangelicals in a world that presses hedonism and consumerism on us with disclaimers — “It’s just a movie.” While many conservatives see in the trigger warning a pathetic mechanism for protecting the feelings of “snowflakes,” I see something different: a secularized, justice-rather-than-religion version of piety.
For American universities, this similarity goes beyond the classroom. In their brilliant book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt document the extreme measures that many colleges take to enforce progressive orthodoxies. “If you look at a college student handbook today,” they write, “you’ll find policies affecting many other aspects of students’ lives, including what they can post on social media, what they can say in the dormitories to one another, and what they can do off campus — including what organizations they can join.” The authors are referring to secular schools, both private and public, but they could just as easily be describing schools such as Liberty University, or Cedarville, or Wheaton College, or Bob Jones University. The rules and regulations of Christian colleges and universities cause no serious scandal, because most reasonable people accept that schools founded on religious principles will operate under specific ethical standards and guidelines. What is surprising is that the very colleges that explicitly reject any metaphysical or religious orientation — the schools that are militantly secular — are doing the same.
The same dynamic is happening in pop culture. As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I almost never heard any progressive or non-Christian make a moral case against a film or actor. Critics lauded such movies as American Beauty even as we grumpy fundies were aghast at its deviant themes and explicit sexuality. Fast-forward to 2019: The Me Too movement has chewed up Kevin Spacey, his movie, and his Best Actor Oscar and spit them all out. There’s an air (or pretense?) of spiritual enlightenment in contemporary pop culture. It’s in the sacramental language about inclusivity, in the hounding of sinners and heretics such as Kevin Hart and Henry Cavill, in the somber gender homily of a razor-company commercial.
If 2019 were all you knew of American pop culture, you’d never guess that some of the same institutions now lecturing on the need for more female leadership had financial interests in the porn industry just a few years ago. You’d never guess that “shock comedy” was a hugely lucrative business until very recently, with its bluest punchlines often coming at the expense not of sensitive liberal consciences but of Christians and conservatives. And you’d certainly be surprised to hear the marketing departments that sold their products by associating them with sex now bemoan toxic masculinity.
The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.
The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?
The crucial difference, of course, is that Christians and many other religious conservatives have a coherent theological narrative. Because we retain the language of sin and guilt, we have the categories necessary to confront cultural decadence with more than outrage. The militant, shame-them-out-of-existence character of much social-justice activism is a frustrated attempt to articulate truths that students indoctrinated in secularism feel intuitively but deny intellectually. Wilfred McClay explains this as the result of suppressing, through secular education, the idea of real moral guilt:
The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making — a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.
Evangelical Christians have an understanding that secular, culture-policing social-justice activists can only mimic — an understanding that the world is a guilty place and that truth, goodness, and beauty must be striven for instead of assumed. The gospel of Christianity offers new life through repentance and spiritual rebirth. There is no such gospel in the worldviews of secular students; the best that can be strived for in them is tribal purity.
This is why most conservative responses to social-justice culture frustrate me. Far too often my fellow conservatives are content to ridicule the students’ scruples, to laugh at their woke reconsideration of pop culture, and to portray them as spoiled would-be culture warriors. What I see, though, is that those students and I share a kind of language, a worldview that puts us, though far apart in matters of theology and politics, quite close in a desire for moral wakefulness. The acrimony between our polarized tribes is a tragic roadblock to what could be a spectacularly fruitful conversation. Rather than settle for stereotypes, religious conservatives and secular social-justice activists could reflect on a few points.
First, both sides can be skeptical toward the widespread notion that religious unbelief is objective, scientific, and libertarian and that religion is biased, superstitious, and puritanical. The woke collegian is not less moralistic than his Evangelical peer. If anything, they are equally moralistic but in different directions. For example, my secular Millennial friend may ridicule my belief that sex is reserved for marriage, while at the same advocating “affirmative consent” policies that put a significant moral burden on sexual encounters. Behind our different political positions lies a shared sense that a neo-Darwinian sexual marketplace is unjust and that it falls to communities to enforce norms that reduce victimization and lead to flourishing.
Second, the respective weaknesses of insular fundamentalism and prosecutorial campus culture should motivate us to recover a language of virtue in the public square. Most people agree that American culture is deeply polarized and that our divisions seem much larger than our unities. This is partially due to the ascendance of politics as America’s “new” religion, a terrible trend to which conservative Christians as well as unbelievers succumb. When politics becomes religion, the need to cultivate virtue takes a backseat to the need to win. This explains why “values voters” twist themselves into knots to baptize immoral behavior by “their” political champion. It also explains why the progressive movement is buckling under its toxic culture of excommunication, shaming, and in-fighting.
Similarly, a lack of accountability in leadership has wrecked many an Evangelical movement, and an obsession with political power has soured Evangelicalism’s gospel message. Socially conscious Millennials should realize that social activism and sensitivity to intersectionality are no vaccine against the susceptibility to be abusive, selfish, or corrupt (not to mention anti-Semitic).
The heart of the matter is that we are incurably religious. “Everyone worships,” David Foster Wallace remarked. “The only choice we get is what to worship.” Worship, affiliation, devotion, and personal piety are not the exclusive property of religious people. They are written on the human heart. Growing up in a Christian home in a rapidly secularizing world, I knew, along with the rest of my family, that no part of the Bible was more controversial than Genesis. What neither Bill Nye nor Ken Ham says about the trustworthiness and literal truth of the Creation story ever had any bearing on the verse that stood out above all others for me: Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
We’re all created in the divine image. We’re all created for God, regardless of the “God” we choose. We’re all religious.