Carl Trueman is right when he posts this morning that the inevitable collapse of the sexual revolution need not be followed by “a conservative victory.” As he says, “the fact that the sexual revolution is doomed does not mean that it will give way to older, more traditional patterns.” And he is right to draw our attention to Jeremy Neill's troubling appropriation of Marx in arguing that conservative victory is “inevitable.” But he is wrong to offer - as he seems to do - mere resignation to indefinite misery and evil as the only alternative. There are other possibilities. The trick is to notice the meanings of the words “conservative,” “traditional,” and especially “victory.”
It is worth asking what else might occur if a conservative/traditional resurgence does not occur. Carl does not specify what he thinks is the alternative to indefinite extension of the sexual revolution (which cannot occur) or a “conservative victory” returning us to “older, more traditional patterns” (which he and I doubt will occur). He cannot mean simply that after the sexual revolution is over, the old order will be in ruins, for Neill need not deny this. Neill's thesis that a return to conservative/traditional order is inevitable does not imply that the road back to that order will be simple, quick, or easy.
(This is one more way in which Neill's approach resembles that of Marx, who promised his followers that the road to utopia would be long and bloody. Neill speaks very lightly about how every society has always imposed restrictions on sexual behavior, but does not raise the question of where those restrictions come from sociologically. The attempt to impose moral restrictions by force upon a society whose people do not find the restrictions plausible and legitimate is an enterpise with a track record at least as dismal as that of the sexual revolution, and whose ultimate outcome is as certain. But people who think of themselves as the agents of History's “inevitable” unfolding have always had difficulty seeing the limits of state power.)
Carl's allusion to the fall of Rome may provide a hint. He may anticipate the emergence of a stable and settled pagan order, one with strict restrictions on our behavior (hence it would not be simply a continuation of the sexual revolution) but not the conservative, traditional restrictions Neill is hoping for.
Ancient Greece and Rome had a stable and settled public order that restrained sexuality - one that formally recognized slavery, concubinage, and widespread prostitution of both the cultic and commercial varieties. The sumptuary dress regulations in the earliest extant Greek laws include exemptions for women who are “acknowledged prostitutes.” At its heart, this order rested upon a distinction between respectable upper classes and dehumanized lower classes; the upper-class women were protected from exploitation, while the lower-class women were systematically enslaved and exploited to serve the “needs” (for so they were thought to be) of the men. Given our increasing return to the ancient commercialization of sex and our increasing division into more and more distinct upper and lower classes, with sexual dysfunctionality a key mark of the lower classes, there is no reason to think something like the pagan institutions could not return.
No society can live long without public order, including in matters of sex; but it is equally true that no pagan society could live long with the kind of order we would call conservative and traditional. And here we come to the meaning of “conservative,” “traditional,” and “victory.”
I am a conservative and I value tradition, but I do not think either of those can be the real basis of social order. For half a millennium, in the English-speaking world to be a “conservative” has meant to join oneself to one of the two factions that constitute society; our social orders have striven to do justice both to our dependence on the past and to the possiblities of the future, and to be a conservative is to think that, in one's own cultural moment, the balance is swaying too far toward the latter. But both poles are needed, and conservatism is a truncated basis for social order.
As for tradition, we cannot order our lives without it, but it too has never been sufficient for social order - particularly since the Reformation, which rendered all appeals to “tradition” permanently controversial. Religious freedom is flatly incompatible with treating tradition as a source of public authority. If tradition is the basis on which we resolve our public disputes, then disputes between traditions are irresolvable.
All this is to say that neither “conservatism” nor “tradition” is what we're most interested in. What we really want is justice, mercy and love of neighbor. And those things can be built in ways that are not “conservative” or “traditional.” After the collapse of the sexual revolution, the world will have been remade. Carl is right that there will not be much hope for justice, mercy and love of neighbor if achieving those goals depends upon the reconstruction of an older, pre-sexual-revolution social world. But why must that be the case?
Wherever people are people, human beings made in the image of God, there is hope for justice, mercy and love of neighbor.
There can be no victory in a culture war. It is intrinsically impossible. The concept of winning a culture war is inherently meaningless and the aspiration to achieve it is counterproductive. Culture is constituted by those things we take for granted as a shared possession; when we fight over things, those things cease to be “culture.” We must work instead for a new creation, a new resolve to share this country and live in peace together, to inherit together the shared possession of religious liberty and thus to find a way for pagans and Christians to share a social order. It has been done before - we Americans are ourselves the inheritors of that accomplishment - and it can be done again. God doesn't owe us success, but we owe him our best effort.