To understand our moment, we need to move beyond the left-right spectrum
In this essay, a version of which the author presented last month at the annual Lee Symposium at Lee University, Jay Green proposes a framework to help us make sense of the shifts in ideological identities—and even instincts—that have so convulsed our recent history. On the subsequent three Mondays we will feature critical responses to Green’s proposal.
The essay was updated on 29 November.
The past seven years have witnessed a sea change in American public life. Old, reliable assumptions about public values, behaviors, and coalitions have crumbled; new rules for public engagement are taking hold. I have spent a lot of time trying to orient myself within this brave new world. Which way is up? Who is on whose side? What values animate the American public? Are we really moving toward a new civil war? And what does it mean to be a public Christian?
Donald Trump has obviously been the principal battering ram to our old frameworks and the chief arsonist of the rulebook we once used to make sense of them. Trump received significant assistance from the blistering forces of COVID-19, the fallout of George Floyd’s murder, and the ubiquitous presence of social media. What once functioned as sturdy alliances, shared beliefs, and presumed common ground among friends and fellow travelers—left and right—crashed and burned in a cloud of anger, confusion, and distrust.
The various ways Christians have experienced and responded to these new realities constitute a sizeable proportion of content published on this site. Month by month churches are dividing, families are fracturing, and longstanding bonds of faith are unraveling. This essay is my attempt to sketch the significantly altered shape of Christian public discourse that is emerging.
Our current morass is often cast in the familiar frame of the “culture wars.” In 1991 James Davison Hunter used the term to capture the ways America had divided into two discernible groups fighting one another over specific “hot button” issues—guns, homosexuality, abortion, church/state separation, and so on. Tracing its roots back to the late 1960s, Hunter noted that the “struggle to define America” turned our politics into mortal combat over values and national priorities. The binary poles we use to describe this battle have become all too familiar: Liberal vs. Conservative. Right vs. Left. Traditional vs. Progressive. Insider vs. Outsider. Red vs. Blue. Religious vs. Secular. Elite vs. Populist. Rural vs. Urban. Woke vs. Deplorable.
While it’s true that we’re living amid intensive cultural conflict, these binaries are starting to feel a bit creaky, especially in today’s ever more complex environment. “Left” and “Right” do not have self-explanatory or stable meanings. The old labels tend to obscure at least as much as they reveal. The terminology is handy in a fight as long we aren’t asked to define exactly what we mean by them. But especially during the past seven years some of the most acrimonious disagreements among Christians about public life go well beyond the issues identified by Hunter in the 1990s. Our public fights have become far more than basic disagreements over “issues.”
I’d like to sketch the outlines of a more dynamic picture of what I see as the current status of our discursive climate as Christians in America. I will do so by using a simple 2 x 2 matrix that not only charts conflicting public goals but also enables us to recognize a diverging set of strategies designed to achieve those goals. While the new picture that emerges offers us four distinct typologies, we must remember that each axis measures lower-to-greater tendencies. We should therefore try to plot ideas, people, and institutions using the spatial dynamics of the chart, rather than reducing everyone to one particular “type.” I hope this chart, while far from perfect, might give us a more sophisticated way of talking about differences of perspective and priority among Christians debating one another in public, and more clarity on what we mean when we seek to gauge our differences.
I am using the x-axis to represent the predominant, competing goals of Christians in American public life, while the y-axis charts the means or tactics proposed by Christians to fulfill their respective visions of public life. (I will admit that using this method of describing public discourse probably bestows a greater patina of “Science” on my analysis than it deserves; I will also admit that I haven’t used an x- or y-axis to talk about anything since the 11th grade. I count this as a personal triumph!)
The X-Axis: The Struggle Over Ends
Let’s start with a careful review of the x-axis. The x-axis provides a conventional picture of how we’re used to talking about differences of opinion in relation to the American culture wars. It reflects relatively well-known features of Christian public engagement imperfectly represented by the familiar polarities. Those we might plot on one side or another on the x-axis will not agree on every point, but I hope you can see some general patterns and common values on each side that reflect what we see when Christians articulate their vision for public engagement.
On the right end of the spectrum we find varied yearnings for something like a thick Christian Civilization, the advocates of which I will call Civilizationists: those whose Christian social goals are set with an eye toward aligning national priorities with the principles of a historic “Judeo-Christian heritage.” They often express certainty that the United States was founded either as a Christian nation or at least with fidelity to clear Christian ideals. By that they mean that there is an original and “true” Christ-centered American civilization that needs to be rediscovered, reenergized, and preserved. The underlying, normative values of this American civilization are endangered by threats from many directions. Civilizationists engage the public sphere to advance and defend those priorities.
Civilizationists express profound regret at the current state of America and the countless ways contemporary society has abandoned its founding commitments. This once proud country, they believe, has descended into decadence, self-indulgence, and radical experimentation. We have lost our way. The slaughter of the unborn, skyrocketing divorce rates, children born out of wedlock, sexual debauchery, and gender confusion coupled with reckless federal spending, lawlessness in our cities, and out-of-control illegal immigration: All conspire to turn America into a place we barely recognize. Some might call it “American carnage”! The key cultural institutions of American society—those needed to protect and preserve our civilizational ideals—have been “hijacked” by “elites,” “radical leftists,” and various agents of the “deep state”: higher education, journalism, public schools, and the federal government itself. The project of Christian engagement is one of renewing American civilization by revitalizing these institutions to make them align with the vital projects of Christian virtue.
On the left side of the x-axis sits an alternate set of concerned Christians giving voice to a different vision of America: one marked by a growing realization of personal freedom and social equality, a diverse American family eager to welcome all who wish to join in wide-ranging “pursuits of happiness.” The advocates of this social vision I will call Emancipationists. Emancipationists are disturbed by Christians who presume that the nation is rightfully “theirs.” Efforts to enforce Christian civilization, they argue, have undermined the promise of American democracy, resulting in oppression, exclusion, systemic injustice, and social marginalization. (Christian Emancipationists are sometimes accused of “self-hatred” by Civilizationists). A just (and therefore truly Christian) social order is one fueled by social equality, blind justice, and the personal freedom to choose different paths, lifestyles, and cultural traditions.
Social and structural hurdles planted in America’s past have functioned as barriers to human flourishing for the poor, for women, for racial and ethnic minorities, and for LGBTQ Americans, all historically disadvantaged and systematically marginalized. Emancipationist Christians celebrate the long-term trajectories of expanding civil rights and liberties. Christian faithfulness looks like thoughtful activism on behalf of “the least of these.” It is a way to fulfill the mission of Jesus and his pursuit of real liberation and harmony among all people.
And so, as we stand back and give it a look, the x-axis presents us with a familiar portrait of Christian engagement in public life. If this were the sum of our analysis, we might reasonably conclude that polarization in our present age is simply another round of the same old culture wars made uglier due to Twitter. And, of course, Trump. While there is some truth to this assessment, the x-axis tells only part of the story. The greatest tensions emerging in American life—especially those we see among Christians—are not what we’ve charted on the x-axis. For a greater understanding of those, we need to see what is happening along the y-axis.
The Y-Axis: The Struggle Over Means
If the x-axis describes the goals or ends of Christian public engagement (Civilizationist vs. Emancipationist), the y-axis gives us a picture of the means utilized or proposed for reaching those social goals. What tactics should be employed to achieve our civilizational or emancipationist visions? I believe the greatest conflicts we’ve seen over the past decade revolve around this question, and it has generated far more disagreements within the respective camps on either side of the x-axis than it has between them. All are tied to current attitudes toward the principles and practices of liberal democracy.
The y-axis tracks Christians engaged in public discourse according to their principled commitments to liberalism, noting that as we move from bottom to top we can trace a growing willingness to ignore liberal procedures in favor of doing “whatever it takes” to defeat their cultural “enemies,” and so achieve the desired visions of American society. At the bottom of the y-axis we find Christians who maintain essential, non-negotiable commitments to the liberal tradition: civil discourse, open inquiry, free speech, tolerance of difference, the illuminating power of dissent, and the hope of reform through persuasion and compromise. At the top of the y-axis we find ever-increasing skepticism toward traditional liberal ideals: little respect for free and open inquiry, open contempt for diverging from the “correct view,” and a rigid expectation of ideological conformity. A rising tide of authoritarian tactics found on both sides of the x-axis has deepened our cultural divide.
“Whatever it takes” is a fitting shorthand for those who gravitate towards the top of the y-axis (on both sides). I will call them Maximalists: Those on both sides of the x-axis are committed to doing “whatever it takes” to advance their vision of society and, more importantly, put a stop to those who threaten it. To gain power. And to keep it.
Few Maximalists formally reject the principles of liberal democracy outright. (Some do.) They argue, however, that the world we’re living in calls for stronger medicine. Liberalism may have been nice in generations past, when our adversaries were reasonable and we all recognized one another as decent Americans who happened to disagree with one another on this issue or that. But for Maximalists, that time is long past. For Civilizationists, threats posed by radicals on the left have dramatically altered the circumstance. For Emancipationists, threats posed by radicals on the right have done the same. Crucially, Maximalists of both sorts believe the rules of liberal democracy simply no longer apply. They have gradually come to justify their principled and tactical abandonment of procedural liberalism because their opponents did so first. For them, liberalism is thought of as a form of “politeness” that the other side doesn’t deserve and that our side simply can’t afford.
“Liberalism has failed,” they commonly claim. And we must therefore “fight illiberalism with illiberalism.” Some go so far as to liken the liberal procedures of fairness, free speech, and due process to “weakness.” Liberalism is the slackened line that got us into this mess in the first place. We’ve been bringing knives to a gunfight—and we’re fools if we continue to do so! “You’ll never take back our country with weakness!” If liberalism ever worked, its time is now past. We can no longer afford such niceties.
The “whatever it takes” impulse that defines the Maximalist disposition is expressed as an intense, even delirious need to gain political power and then employ the levers of the state to advance its vision of society and destroy its enemies. They do not regard the institutions of the state as deliberative spaces for the exercise of liberal procedures. The state itself is an instrument that should be deployed for advancing its cultural goals.
That leaves us with the bottom of the y-axis, where we find members of both Civilizational and Emancipatory camps who envision the pursuit of their goals only within the frames of the traditional liberal order. Because they are decidedly unwilling to do “whatever it takes” to achieve their goals, I label those in this group Minimalists. The chief difference between Minimalists and Maximalists is that the former do not conceive of liberalism as a tactic or as a strategy. Liberalism is a fundamentally core value that must be integrated as part of the social vision; liberalism is a basic tenet of Christianity itself. Liberalism isn’t simply a means. It is also a goal. There are still deep and profound differences between Emancipationists and Civilizationists on the lower section of the y-axis in the ways each respectively describes their hopes and dreams for the American social order. But the gulf between them seems far smaller when their common commitment to the enduring principles of liberal democracy is taken as an essential feature. At the very least, they find it easier to continue thinking of one another as Americans.
So that completes our 2×2 chart, leaving us four distinct groups operating within the discourse of American public intellectual life. And Christian public intellectuals have played a major—even defining—role within each group. Let’s briefly look at each one and identify some of the major voices and publications that fit under each of these banners.
The Institutional Landscape: Minimalists
The first two groups I’d like to discuss are the Civilizational Minimalists and the Emancipatory Minimalists. Both affirm the values as described above but seek to do so within the frame of traditional liberalism. While their views might have once seemed far from one another, they increasingly find common ground over their basic commitments to liberality and freedom.
Civilizational Minimalists see the goal of Christian engagement in public life as supporting policies that will allow the nation to develop its underlying Christian values within the framework of the liberal constitutional system. These are what we once called “social conservatives” who believe in personal freedom, small government, free markets, and traditional values. Civilizational Minimalists are not pursuing a large and aggressive government with its thumb on the scales for Christians. To do so would undermine the very character of Christian civilization! A properly functioning liberal order that passes just laws and promotes freedom will nurture and promote the flourishing of traditional institutions that will indirectly lead to a virtuous Christian civilization. These are the convictions of Catholic scholars like Robert George and Ryan T. Anderson, evangelical pastors like Kevin DeYoung, and writers such as Andrew Walker, Marvin Olasky, Ross Douthat, and Carl Trueman. Organizations that reflect the ethos of Civilizational Minimalists include the Acton Institute, whose mission is “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles,” the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which works “to apply the riches of the Judeo-Christian tradition to contemporary questions of law, culture, and politics, in pursuit of America’s continued civic and cultural renewal,” and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which calls itself a group of “Christians working to reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings, strengthen and reform its role in public life, protect religious freedom, and renew democracy at home and abroad.” Online sites such as Mere Orthodoxy and The Gospel Coalition, when they speak to public concerns, are apt also to fit into this framework.
Civilizational Minimalists are generally opposed to Trump and Trumpism, with its amorality and its reckless attitudes toward the law and other institutions of liberalism. (A few would call themselves “Never Trumpers.”) But I have found that they rarely speak forcefully against Trumpism. A great many of them likely “held their noses” and supported him both in 2016 and 2020. (For most of them, Trump’s “Big Lie” was a bridge too far.) For them, the greatest threat to American society emerges not from the radical right but from the radical left. So great are the threats on the left that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish their rhetoric from their Maximalist counterparts.
Emancipatory Minimalists hold comparable views, though with decidedly different emphases. They believe that the goal of Christian action in public life is to preserve the freedom and equality of every person regardless of race, ethnicity, religious persuasion, or gender. They believe the liberal order (free speech, free markets, individual rights) is the best way to ensure civil rights and liberties. They presume that America is (and should be) comprised of a rich tapestry of cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. Like Civilizational Minimalists, these Christians believe the liberal order is what gives space for the exercise of religious freedom to thrive in America. “Faith flourishes in freedom,” but such freedom must be extended to all. The liberal order will allow for things that Christians may personally find objectionable, but this is the price of living in a diverse and free society. Emancipatory Minimalists prize tolerance more highly than their Civilizational counterparts. While not all Emancipatory Minimalists are libertarian, this impulse is strong among them. The convictions of Emancipatory Mimimalists are probably better captured by what James Skillen once called “principled pluralism” and what James Davison Hunter recommended as a “faithful presence” strategy.
A key and representative Christian public intellectual working within this framework is Pastor Timothy Keller, whose Redeemer Presbyterian Church launched in New York City during the late 1980s found ways to value and celebrate the substantial cultural differences represented in the city. Being “salt and light” for Keller has always meant cultivating an openness to neighbors in conversation and shared interests. He has modeled a sophisticated engagement with art, ideas, and social concern in the face of intense (sometimes hostile) expressions of cultural opposition. Other notable voices within this frame include David French, Russell Moore, John Fea, Tish Harrison Warren, John Inazu, Paul Miller, and Karen Swallow Prior. The magazine Christianity Today has become a relatively consistent advocate of these views, though not everyone published there would reflect these sentiments.
Such figures and institutions differ from Civilizational Minimalists, in part, because they look at the pluralistic nature of American society as an undisputed fact that isn’t going to change. They do not anticipate a return of the nation to its Christian roots but fully embrace the permanent diversity reflected in the population, and tend to see this pluralism, on the whole, as a positive rather than a negative feature of our society. They also differ from their Civilizational counterparts in seeing the biggest threat to the nation coming from the right rather than the left. They offer substantial criticism of excesses on the left but believe that emergent threats from among fellow Christians who support Maximalist strategies on the right as far more serious. Emancipatory Minimalists are uniformly opposed to Trumpist politics, and grieve especially over the ways Trumpism has seized control of Christian churches.
The Institutional Landscape: Maximalists
The greatest innovation to American political discourse in recent years has come from the gathering strength of the two Maximalist traditions, left and right. Maximalists are “mad as hell, and [they’re] not going to take it anymore!” They are in the mood to break things. They view America as on the precipice. It is easy to see the two groups as polar opposites; and, of course, in important ways they are. In a more basic respect, the point of this whole analysis is to demonstrate how much they have in common.
Emancipatory Maximalists are known most widely by their critics as the Woke. Their convictions seem rooted in many of the features of traditional liberalism, with its emphasis on civil liberties, personal rights, and cultural diversity. But they have largely abandoned the procedural niceties of liberalism in exchange for a hardened vision of identity politics; think Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ advocacy, and radical feminism. They emphasize America’s long history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, but see these impulses not as poisonous forces that have thrived despite Christianity and the liberal order, but as implicit dimensions of American life because of Christianity and the liberal order—or, at least, because of the white patriarchal version of Christianity that they think has long characterized American evangelicalism. Liberalism is tainted by the many ways it always privileged cisgender male, straight, white, Christian nationalist priorities. “Nothing,” they claim, “has changed since the days of Jim Crow.” Emancipatory Maximalists exercise a religious fervor intent on rooting out racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. They aren’t keen on “persuading” their opponents. They wish instead to use coercive power to produce conformity to an unyielding dogma that regulates speech, artistic representation, and institutional policy. Speech that doesn’t conform to these concerns is “harm,” and “Silence is violence.” We must pursue “whatever it takes” to cleanse society of the “evils” that have been visited upon “the marginalized.” Such endangered communities will not be “safe” until every part of society has been brought into conformity with these goals.
Emancipatory Maximalists have gone after “religious carveouts” that allow churches, Christian schools, and other religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Anne Applebaum calls them the “new Puritans,” intent on zealously policing American institutions to bring them into conformity with the contemporary dogmas of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” They carry themselves with a sure-footed confidence in the rightness of their views, and feel certain of their moral high ground because of their principled efforts on behalf of—and identification with—the “marginalized.” These dogmas reign throughout higher education, corporate America, legacy journalism, and popular entertainment. The age of Trump, immigration restriction, the MeToo movement, the Charlottesville demonstrations, and the George Floyd’s murder have all emboldened and hardened the resolve of Emancipatory Maximalists in their fight for justice on behalf of BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ communities. “We all need to be as loud and as angry as the people who want to declare that there are types of people that God can’t love,” remarked Meghan Rohrer, the first transgender bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. “People are literally dying because of it.”
Emancipatory Maximalists are especially concentrated among Millennials and Gen Z, many of whom see this as the fight of their generations. They have made headlines in recent years for shouting down and “de-platforming” campus speakers whose views do not hue closely enough to the canons of contemporary race and gender orthodoxy. A great multitude among them has abandoned Christianity, viewing it as wholly complicit with white supremacy, homophobia, and anti-trans ideologies. Nevertheless, various versions of “progressive” Christianity have aligned themselves with these cultural orthodoxies and are easy to find among mainline Protestant churches and seminaries. Operating within politically aligned rainbow-flag-waving Christian organizations and churches is tolerable for some, while others are “deconstructing” their faith or moving away from it all together.
Christian writers aligned with Emancipatory Maximalists tend to write withering reviews of historic Christian alliances with retrograde social and political movements. Some see the entangling alliances as a corruption of Christian faith, while others see the historic nature of the faith itself as implicitly problematic. Nearly all mainline Protestant leaders operate within this Emancipatory Maximalist zone, and there are thus too many to enumerate. Publications that regularly feature Christian writing in this tradition include Sojourners and Red Letter Christians, among others,
And finally, the Civilizational Maximalists: those who believe that Christians involved in public life must do “whatever it takes” to turn American society into a thick civilization marked by Christian virtue—or at least to assure that Christian Civilizationists are the ones calling the shots. Like the Emancipatory Maximalists, they have lost faith in the value of liberal procedures and principles. If Emancipatory Maximalists consider liberalism a historic harbor of white privilege and exploitative capitalism, Civilizational Maximalists consider it to be a weak and inherently compromised system that opened the door to radical ideologies that are undermining the institutions and structures of civilization. Liberalism is the effete, refined preserve of cultural elitists and radical activists who are not only detached from “real America” but are real America’s natural enemies. This isn’t a time for “discussion,” “listening,” or “winsomeness.” This is a time for fighting! Barbarians are at the gate and we must gird our loins for battle.
Trumpism aroused a giant in the American heartland, angered and then empowered to put things aright. But before the social order can be restored the strongholds of the enemy need to be dismantled. This sentiment goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of Trump: His swagger, his masculine bravado, and his disregard for “the rules” are key to his appeal. Fighting against radical Wokeism requires this kind of brute force, righteous anger, and brazen tactics. Civilizational Maximalists often express an almost primal rage at what they view as runaway leftist radicals who have stolen their country, trampled their values, and now threaten the future of their children. Originally coined as a category of criticism, Civilizational Maximalists have increasingly come to embrace the label “Christian Nationalist.” Not only do they affirm that America was founded on Christian principles, they believe that the levers of the state should be exercised in favor of Christian initiatives to restore local support of Christian communities that can be unleashed to rebuild Christian civilization from the ground up. They likewise believe that the power of the state should forcefully suppress the enemies of Christian virtue (i.e., Wokeism), who will otherwise fill local communities with “critical race theory” and pro-LGBTQ propaganda.
Not all Trump-supporting evangelicals and Catholics align with Civilizational Maximalism, but the number of those pressing into this camp continues to grow. And the January 6 insurrection, far from weakening the march toward illiberalism, only increased its appeal. Figures like Charlie Kirk (and his Turning Point USA), Dinesh D’Souza, Eric Metaxas, and Jenna Ellis are among the most shameless Christian promoters of both Trump and every pro-Trump conspiracy theory designed to whip the faithful into a lather of fear and rage. But there is also here a class of more sophisticated writers who align with Maximalist principles: Rod Dreher, R. R. Reno, Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and other Christian writers who regularly contribute to publications like First Things, The Federalist, The Daily Caller, and The Daily Wire. They write to expose the extreme positions of the left, while pressing their case for liberalism’s inadequacy and the need for a more robust civilizational strategy. The latter group has led the way in looking to the authoritarian president of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, as a model Christian leader.
Civilizational Maximalists have been recently drawn to the movement of “National Conservativism,” with its muscular and illiberal interpretation of conservative values. Though founded and led by an orthodox Jewish Israeli-American, Yoram Hazony, its conferences have provided a space for a full-throated expression of Christian nationalism. Recently featured speakers include William Wolfe, Albert Mohler, Megan Basham, and many others. Additional outspoken writers who explore these themes with increasing urgency include Voddie Baucham, John MacArthur, Owen Strachan, and Douglas Wilson, to name only a few.
Thus concludes my attempt to sketch a new roadmap for navigating Christian public discourse in America in the age of Trump. I confess that my discussion is long on description and short on analysis. I’ve also done a good deal more lumping than splitting, a tendency that my training in history warns against. But I hope my outline provides a starting point for discussing some of the strengths and weaknesses that exist in the public witness of American Christians at this moment in history.
I’ve made no special effort to conceal my personal priorities in this essay. I consider myself an Emancipatory Minimalist (with various Civilizational sympathies). I believe that upholding the liberal tradition is essential for the survival of our civic order and the best safeguard for human flourishing for all people. But Maximalists in the United States and around the world are winning the day. The authoritarian impulse on the left and the right is real, it is serious, and it threatens the institutions and our democracy. If there is a center in American public life, I’m not sure how much longer it can hold.
I believe that Christians in America must rediscover and reaffirm our philosophical, moral, and institutional commitments to the liberal tradition. While imperfect, its rules and principles provide the greatest safeguard for justice, civil liberty, and social harmony that human civilization has yet discovered. As believers, our commitment to liberalism also enables us to conform our public practices to the most elemental features of Christian theology. Ideas such as universal human dignity, openness to outsiders, liberty of conscience, the rule of law, and unalienable rights are deeply rooted in the ancient wisdom of the Old and New Testaments. And when we defend these hallmarks of the liberal tradition, we are upholding some of the most treasured features of our faith.
I don’t think there has been a time in my life when the need to secure and reenergize the liberal tradition has been greater. I pray that all who care about a faithful Christian presence in our civic order can awaken and devote themselves to defending it.
Jay Green is Professor of History at Covenant College. His books include Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions and Confessing History: Explorations of Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (edited with John Fea and Eric Miller). He is Managing Editor of Current.