by Seth Nightengale
“I just thought… I just thought that might be sacred,” lamented John Kelly from the White House briefing room. It seems a sentiment shared by many in our time. In the time from Christmas to Easter particularly, Christians cannot help but hear his words with sympathy. Many are aging in a country that seems to offer them little more than an echo of what their fathers died to protect. Many of our nation’s citizens are quite reviled by our urban consultant-class, hence our cultural lexicon’s adoption of “deplorable” with its current connotation. In exactly the way this term was issued–casually and without thought–and in the way it was adopted by its subjects, it is a perfect example of what it means to be outside of mainstream consensus. Whether one is a confessing “deplorable” or not, it is true that Christian values–in a common culture of libertinism and secularism–are now out of place. Traditional Christianity is now, and increasingly will be, counter-cultural. So how do we live now, when the Overton window has shifted so far that what was mainstream ten years ago is now radical, if not unthinkable?
Our nation’s first colonists were Puritans intent on establishing a rigorous theocracy, yet there is little of their legacy left in our culture today. We praise millionaires for kneeling during the national anthem and conceptualize the family, the community, and the soul as superfluous, antiquated matters of personal taste. We often fail to live up to our reputation as loud, brash, arrogant people. Instead, we’ve assumed the hollow identity of the apologist. Kelly, in the midst of our perpetual media alarm, refers to a time when “a lot of things were sacred.” While he was correct in thinking that this country is much different from the one he grew up in, we shouldn’t go so far as to say that nothing is sacred. We still have quite a few golden calves.
Christians can feel this change. Christian people, publications, and podcasts decry the state of our modern culture, yet we seem markedly absent from it. Where are the ministers admonishing us for our degrading and objectifying modern sexual ethics? Where are our people decrying the disproportionate burden placed on women by a society which conceptualizes child-rearing as a part-time occupation and marriage as a quaint option? Christians grew so accustomed to our values being the dominant culture that we never noticed as the culture broke with and then became our values. Perhaps Christians should disagree with Kelly in part, but not entirely. We share in his sentiment. It is not the case that nothing is sacred, but rather that we no longer have the privilege of providing the definition.
French Reformed theologian John Calvin says in The Institutes of the Christian Religion that the heart of fallen man is an idol factory . Even when we claim we do not, we worship. Considering the slow march of secularization and the ongoing decline in church membership, perhaps we should keep this in mind. Whether it be money, ourselves, or political figures, we have an innate proclivity to. It is not, as some claim, that we in the modern age have stopped worshiping, or stopped believing. Rather, we have made an idol out of unbelief. As the English Philosopher Roger Scruton says, we are a culture of “repudiation.” Libertinism and the sanctity of the individual’s will seem to be our only tools for building a shared community, and they are proving increasingly insufficient.
Despite their loss of prominence in the cultural narrative, this is an opportunity for Christians. Although Western society may reject the Christian teachings that nourished and grew alongside it, the great irony is that it deeply needs us. Belonging with one another requires a certain ethos of humility and sacrifice. These sacrifices occur every day–they may be speeding tickets, taxes, or dress codes. Sometimes they are as great as the spending of one’s life on a battlefield, but most are not monumental. Nor do they always stand the test of cold reason. After all, doesn’t it make more sense to work on Christmas? Why don’t men wear dresses? Why do we drive on the right side of the road rather than the left? With humility, we can grow to accept and even appreciate these constraints as they colour our communal lives, yet remain a mystery in their origin, justification, or utility. In the mundane moments of life, we can find the joy in community and belonging. Our friends and our children do not need us only in moments of existential crisis. We are needed every day. In the state, in the voluntary association, and in the family, we are called to action if we truly care about the futures of those we love.
Now more than ever, our values are falling out of relevance. In their stead, we have little more to live on than provocation. The modern descendants of what we used to honestly call “good” and “beautiful”: art and music, are now little more than sensational. They are hollowed shells of repetition and kitsch. We watch the same superhero movie five different times and listen to the same four chords for hours every day, and we love it. We look to entertainment to discover what will be questioned next- what now do we deconstruct? Which single-word chorus will be stuck in my head for two weeks? Which of our values is now considered silly, if not overtly bigoted? It is on this cultural plane that we Christians have deeply lost, only because we have given it up. Even now–in the face of what we know to be wrong–we fall into the trap of telling ourselves “well, it’s not really that important.” We cede miles inch by inch, shrugging our shoulders and rationalizing our cowardice the whole time.
It is difficult to say that our cultural defeat is the fault of our own irresolution, but like many things it is difficult in that it means the brokenness comes from within ourselves. For too long, we have relished in saying “yeah, but I’m not like, that kind of Christian.” While the commentariat may gain clicks and ad revenue by opining on our depraved culture, we are not simply waiting on the right opinion column to go viral and reason the culture into virtue. The culture (our politics, our music, our art) will change when we stop enabling its depravity. It requires that we prefer uprightness to the world’s praise. We all know the fear of speaking out, of being open about our beliefs and values. We all know the dread of being known as prudish, if not bigoted.
If we as Christians truly believe in Christ, we have nothing to lose in opposition to a depraved world. We are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4 ESV). Our inheritance is not worldly praise, success, or fame. Our inheritance is kept in heaven. The stakes for Christians in our age, thankfully, are relatively low compared to our ancestors, but perhaps it will require that we sacrifice something akin to a job opportunity. A petty sacrifice, one could say, for all of the world in gain. If we believe, if we want to provide a moral future for our children, our institutions, and our people, we will lose the apathy we once had the luxury of enjoying when we were in the driver’s seat.
One of the most popular children’s stories in the Christian tradition is that of Daniel. Thrown to the lions for making petition to his God, Daniel was delivered. However we certainly cannot say the same for Christ, nor his martyrs thrown to lions and persecuted in the years following his death. Christ is clear: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19 ESV). Perhaps now, like children in church pews, we should wonder about the strength of our faith if it is put to the test. Thankfully our resolve in the modern age is not a matter of life and death, but if we cannot bear a few snarky tweets, concede a career opportunity, or commit our time to our God, we certainly do not have a faith that goes into the lion’s den.
Seth Nightengale is a student at the University of Oklahoma.
 Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed February 20, 2018. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf?url=.
Translated by Henry Beveridge, Esq.
 Scruton, Roger, interview by Peter Robinson, Uncommon Knowledge. February 27th, 2017