This is the first instalment of a two-part discussion regrading Christian responses to the left and right. See part 2 here.

How is it that we orthodox Christians find ourselves so much at odds with our culture over issues of personal meaning and human flourishing? 

It is, I contend, imperative that Christians do their best to understand the times in which we live. Since our calling as the disciples of Christ is to understand our own besetting temptations so that we might be more faithful, and also bear witness to Christ before the world, we must do our best to be watchful and wise, so that we might discern what is best. We must observe the times through the lens of the gospel, naturally—allowing the themes of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation to shape how we look. But looking in this way also means looking carefully, with due diligence to be accurate and insightful. 

It has become something of a standard reading to see the greatest threat to the gospel as coming from the progressive left … but this misses the wider context.

In the last few years, conservative Christians have wrestled with various social trends that have alarmed us—especially over matters of sexuality and identity. We have been thrown off balance by the persistence of these trends and by the depth of feeling behind them. They have scored undoubted successes in legislative and bureaucratic terms—to the extent that you can now have your birth certificate changed to indicate your preferred gender rather than your assigned one. And there is not much tolerance for dissent. 

As Steve McAlpine says, we are now ‘the bad guys.’ 

So, it has become something of a standard reading (at least among conservative Christians) to see the greatest threat to the gospel as coming from the progressive left—‘Cultural Marxism’, if you will. And there is a grain of truth here: 

  • There are some thinkers on the intellectual left who are deeply influenced by Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School. 
  • There are strange things happening in the humanities departments at our universities. 
  • Modern teenagers really do accept as doctrine the contention that you can be a woman trapped in a man’s body—and that it is oppressive to say otherwise. 
  • Some of the law-making in the state of Victoria has been bizarre. 

There is, then, a movement on the progressive left that has made some inroads into our wider culture. And that movement has cast the institutional church as an opponent—hypocritical and devious at best.

This year I’ve been part of two reading groups looking at historian Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which is in many respects a stimulating and insightful read. Trueman is very careful not to use the ‘Cultural Marxism’ term, notably, but he retells the classic narrative which it is purported to describe: what we are now seeing at work in our culture is a melange of Marx and Freud, with a dash of Rousseau and Hugh Hefner thrown in for good measure. 

But this is also a selective piece of story-telling. It could hardly be anything else, of course—and as a good historian, he freely admits the fact. But Trueman’s own perspective—the conservative Christian one—is part of the story too.[1] 

The problem I’m getting at here is that there is a general tendency to place Christianity on one side of the current cultural struggle. But this misses the wider context of what is going on for people in our culture including us Christians

The one-sided approach imagines culture as an opponent against which we are to fight. But culture is more like the sea in which we—including those of us in the church—are immersed. We aren’t fighting it; we are swimming in it. The ‘new left’ is only one movement within contemporary culture. Has it ‘triumphed’, as Trueman suggests? In some quarters, perhaps. But it is still the case that conservative governments rule in the UK and Australia, and that avowed Christians hold powerful positions within these governments. The new left is mirrored by the emergence of the new right. I have never known a right-wing populism as prevalent and powerful as it is today (I was born in 1970). The old political divisions, which used to be roughly class-based, have become far more complex, with new categories of gender and race to add to the mix. Working class white males are no longer voting for the parties of the left. The educated inner-city intelligentsia combine free market capitalism with social progressivism. They want a green economy, but with lower taxes. In the UK, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn presented to the nation an old socialist option, arguably closer to Marxism than any Labour Party since WWII, and was completely slaughtered at the ballot box. Furthermore, the same-sex marriage campaign in Australia was won not by radical queer theorists who want to deconstruct society including the family but by those who wanted entry into the ordinary vision of family values and prosperous suburban living—not by those who want to march down Oxford Street in feathers and a G-string but by the gay couple who want to live next door to you in your boring suburban cul-de-sac.

Enlisting the Christian community for battle in a culture war is a trap.

Enlisting the Christian community for battle in a culture war (which is an interesting metaphor) in which the enemies are supposedly easy to spot is a trap. It imagines our society being taken over by drag queens, radical gender theorists and Victorian ALP Premiers holus bolus—and that that is the greatest threat to the gospel in the contemporary world. 

But of course sin is much more pervasive than that. It also turns up in the lives of hard-working traditional mums and dads who love their kids and yet refuse to honour God or give thanks to him (Rom 1:21). It reveals itself in prosperity that celebrates the good life but hardens its heart against the poor (James 5:1-6). It manifests in ordinary lives of ‘eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage,’ (Luke 17:27)

Being told you are at war raises the sense of anxiety in a community. It becomes an invitation to fight, when fighting may be exactly the wrong strategy for living well in these times. Wars, after all, are won or lost at great cost.

What Christians need from an analysis of our culture then is not an ‘us vs them’ mindset. Culture does not break down so easily. What we need are concepts—or a set of concepts—that are capable of containing and explaining tendencies within a culture that might appear to be contradictory. 

One such analysis comes from Tara Isabella Burton in her recent book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Burton sees three new religious movements at work at the moment—none of which represent orthodox Christianity. 

  1. The social justice/woke movement (sometimes described as ‘cultural Marxism’). 
  2. The techno-rationalist movement, more centrist, but with a faith in technological utopian solutions. You can see this with popular scientific thinkers like Eric Weinstein, Deborah Soh, and Sam Harris, who are scathingly critical of the social justice/woke crowd—but certainly not friendly towards traditional religion either. 
  3. The third movement is what Burton calls the ‘atavistic’ movement of the right—made notorious by the storming of the Capitol in early 2021 after the failure of Donald Trump to be re-elected as President. This movement is broad enough to contain someone as relatively urbane as Jordan Peterson, but also figures who are far to the right of him and far less reputable.

There are many shades within these categories. But they are all post-institutional, post-Christian, this-worldly faiths. 

There are many shades within these categories. But they are all post-institutional, post-Christian, this-worldly faiths. 

The first is often militantly opposed to Christianity and sees it as the enemy, as does the second (which sees all traditional religions as idiotic). The third tries to make allies with a form of cultural Christianity but is more stoic (see Peterson) or nihilistic. Many Christians, feeling shut out from the mainstream, are finding the invitation to collaborate with the atavists irresistible. 

The truth, however, is more complicated. All Christians should: 

  1. … long for justice; 
  2. … have a positive view of reason, science and technology and;
  3. … sympathise with stoic values such as self-control and self-denial. 

But crucially, Christianity must not be reduced to any of these three. Making an alliance with one over the others is a fraught business indeed—a temptation which offers us the world if only we will bend the knee. 

The advantage of Burton’s analysis is that it is three-cornered, not two; and that it describes the options in religious terms. If you only have two ‘sides’, you are pressured to choose one over the other. If you have three, you can see the limitations of all of them and see how Christianity stands with and against them all. The three categories also allow us to see how the left (in particular) is not monolithic. 

To Burton’s schema, I want to add my own. Burton concentrates still on what people believe as shaping what they long for and how they behave. I think we need to go even behind the beliefs that people express to describe the way in which human beings are invited to make meaning for themselves or understand their own significance.

So what I want to do is to sketch an alternative scheme for understanding our times, which I will offer in part two of this essay.

  [1] I notice that in interviews Trueman has said that the church, too, is implicated in the sexual revolution and in the notion of the expressive self. That is certainly the case: modern evangelical Christianity is far more culturally embedded than it thinks it is – both a product and a major contributor to our current cultural norms. See Revolution of the Self | Carl R. Trueman and Ramona Tausz | First Things