Last month, David Brooks published a column titled “The Next Culture War.” In it, he offers public-relations advice for Christians in the post-Obergefell era—an era when fewer people identify as Christians, and when laws and mores are moving farther away from basic Christian values.
Brooks warns contemporary Christians that when we try to engage in public life, we are perceived as prosecuting a “culture war,” one that has “alienated large parts of three generations” of Americans, turning “a rich, complex, and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex.”
He recommends that we rebrand ourselves by working with the underprivileged, trying to repair a society that is “atomized, unforgiving, and inhospitable.” If we want to regain social relevance, he says, we should stick to ministry and put away political action for a while.
While I appreciate his concern, I think that Brooks misunderstands our circumstances. In the first place, Christians already are, as we always have been, among the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal live in solidarity with the poor in the Bronx, Newark, and Albuquerque. In Denver, the young lay missionaries of Christ in the City do the same. Elsewhere, so do Catholic Worker houses, ecumenical L'Arche communities, and the “new monastic” communities of young urban evangelicals. And many Christian families aspire to charity, and dedicate significant resources to that end.
Most Christians would prefer that our faith be identified principally with the good work our churches do for those in need—those who are impoverished financially, and those who suffer from the spiritual poverties of materialism, consumerism, despair, and the feelings of exclusion emphasized by Pope Francis. Christians know that God did not become incarnate in order to found political parties.
But we do not always have a choice in how others view us. The prophetic vocation of Christians requires us to bear witness to the truth, not to maintain our good standing in society. A Christian cannot choose not to speak on behalf of the poor, the immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and the family. A Christian cannot be silent when our society presumes to redefine marriage at children's expense. A Christian is obliged to decry the slaughter of the unborn child, and the parceling of his body parts for profit. Some may judge our plain testimony “mean-spirited” and “divisive.” But Scripture forewarned us that no prophet would be loved in his own country.
Our prophetic vocation becomes especially important in a democracy. As citizens, we have a duty to discern the common good, and to promote it by bringing our best judgments into the public square and the voting booth. To this end, we draw on the common stock of wisdom available to all people of goodwill, and on the truths entrusted to us in revelation. “Whether they heed or resist,” says the Lord to Ezekiel, “they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” And if they do not know, it is because we have betrayed our Christian vocation, and our civic duty.
Culture war” is a tendentious phrase. It presupposes—what Brooks supposes—that the religious combatants are the hawks. History suggests otherwise. Christian conservatives did not write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, which intensified hostility toward religious voices in the public square. Nor did Christian conservatives roil the country by redefining marriage or mandating the provision of contraceptives by employers. Like most Christians, I am uninterested in the culture war for its own sake. But my faith obliges me to contend on behalf of justice.
The social ills Brooks suggests we address are worsened by the aggressions of our opponents; they cannot be combatted if we lay down our arms. Brooks correctly observes that “[m]any young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms.” Christians wish to minister to these kids—by teaching them the norms about men and women, about sex and marriage, that have brought decency to the lives of ordinary people for millennia. But when we attempt this, we face legal and financial peril. How can we minister, as Brooks says we should, when our charitable organizations will be censured or defunded if we don't conform to the current orthodoxies on sex, gender, and marriage?
Brooks does make one important point. He says that Christians need to be “more . . . Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell.” I agree. Very often, Christians engage the culture with truth on their side, but lack the inspirational transcendental of beauty, and the disposition of charity. Very often, we appear headstrong, arrogant, and intransigent.
Would that all Christians were known first for their charity, their humility, and the integrity of their lives! But our advocacy for justice must be tireless, as Dorothy Day's was. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order?” Day once asked. “Not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery.”
Our libertine regime wields whips and shackles. Christians must minister with compassion and mercy to those it has enslaved. We must show solidarity, not wage a war, with the victims of the sexual revolution. But we must also be the saints who will do away with this new slavery.
J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer who lives and works in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter