Mark Bauerlein’s post on the rhetoric of anti-discrimination points clearly to the problem which traditionalists face: In a world where ethics is aesthetics, the language of victimhood has become a subjective concept which is a potent weapon in the hands of the powerful.
There is, however, a further problem which Bauerlein does not note: The rhetoric to which he points is also the same as that for which Christians typically reach in pastoral situations. Indeed, on the issue of sexuality, there is considerable overlap between the language of pastoral compassion and the language of political correctness. This fact is of great and sinister significance.
It presents a number of unique challenges to Christians and elicits a number of responses. First, as with City Church in San Francisco, there are those who use this linguistic coincidence as a means of shifting their own ethical stance under a veneer of consistent Christian fidelity. Of course, what they do in such circumstances is detach pastoral language from its traditional connections to notions of virtue and thereby reduce it to that of passion. That is the game played by the secular world. While Christian theologians have typically regarded a concept such as love as both a passion and a virtue, modern secular society has collapsed the two into each other and made the latter dependent for its meaning upon the former. Love is now really nothing more than a passion. To put it more generally, passions are virtues. When this move is made, the whole vocabulary of moral discourse concerning love and other virtues may look the same as it has always done but conceptually it has been fundamentally transformed into something very different. It is subjective and rooted in emotional responses, responses which are easy to manufacture in our aesthetic age through the instruments of pop culture.
Second, when it comes to matters such as the politics of the LGBTQQ etc. lobby, the public relations departments of various Christian institutions will no doubt latch on to the common language of love, safety, and victimhood as a means of indicating sorrow for past crimes and failures, both real and imaginary. In doing so, they will hope that use of a common vocabulary indicates the existence of potential common ground whereby public conflict might be averted. I suspect Christian liberal arts colleges and universities will be particularly prone to this. They need to navigate the difficult passage between a typically conservative donor and parent constituency and the more radical demands of both students and government agencies.
This hope for common ground and co-existence is sadly misplaced. There is the fact noted above that the language of political correctness and the language of pastoral Christianity overlap only at the level of phonetics. Conceptually, they are built on different notions of virtue. It is also clear that this strategy underestimates the ambitions of the identity politicians. Common ground with an opponent is only of real interest to those who are on the losing side. The PC lobbyists are increasingly in control of the political and legal environment and will thus see the linguistic games of the Christian establishment for what they are: Signs of fatal weakness. Ultimately, they will present such institutions with a straightforward choice: Abandon the common language or adopt the common concepts.
Third, pastors have a huge pedagogical problem before them. As the language of traditional Christian pastoral concern is taken from us and turned on its head, we are left with no language with which to articulate our care. As love becomes merely a passion, as safety becomes merely a term for never being contradicted, as victimhood and oppression are turned into subjective categories rooted in emotional psychology, the very language by which we understand virtues, well-being, and concern becomes not a tool for care but a barrier preventing us from caring.
As bleak as is the situation which Bauerlein describes, I suspect the reality is even more depressing.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.