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Does cancel culture exist?

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March 9, 2021

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a mother who was asking about how to deal with an overly worrying teenage son. Was he worried about the pandemic? I asked. No. Was he worried about getting, or keeping, a girlfriend? No. What’s next after high school? No. Hell? No. She said he was worried about being canceled. 

This young man had seen stories on YouTube about people being “canceled” for saying offensive things and he was afraid that he might one day say something and be kicked out of school or fired from a job. Exploring a little further, I found that this adolescent isn’t someone saying, or even thinking, offensive or controversial things. He’s not worried about saying something intentionally awful, but instead is worried he might say something he has seen or heard somewhere and doesn’t know everything that those things mean. 

Part of the trouble here is a young man just sort of prone to worrying about all sorts of things. Next week he’ll be worried about something else (I can relate; I was like that too). But part of it is because so much conversation on social media and cable news is about “cancel culture.” 

There are legitimately serious matters to be resolved, as Ross Douthat notes in his column this week, citing, for instance, Amazon’s ill-considered refusal to sell Ryan Anderson’s books. These are not helped though by memes suggesting that “Dr. Seuss has been outlawed” because Theodore Geisel’s heir, who owns the copyright, has decided they don’t want to keep publishing—and profiting from—books with offensive stereotypes against Asian-Americans and others. We can have a rigorous debate about whether the line was drawn in the right place there, without implying that the government—or even “the culture”—is, in that case, forcing the decision. 

I don’t want Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin banned, but I also wouldn’t want denounced as “cancel culture” a decision by, say, a Whitaker Chambers to stop publishing his old tracts from the days when he was a Communist or a Christian deciding that books of spells he wrote back in his pre-conversion Wiccan days don’t represent him anymore. Freedom of speech means both that the government and coercive groups shouldn’t force people into silence over unpopular speech. But it also means that people have the freedom for people not to publish their own works when they don’t believe what those works say anymore. 

Much of the conversation about “cancel culture” is incoherent because it is cynical—trying to score points rather than to have reasoned debate. We allbelieve that certain people should lose their places of trust as a result of what they have said or done. 

To go back to our Bill Cosby/Ravi Zacharias analogy from a few weeks ago, should Bill Cosby continue to be celebrated as “America’s Dad” after numerous and very credible charges of rape? If you stop giving Ravi Zacharias books to your unbelieving friends, after hearing the similar charges against him, have you “canceled” him? No. In both cases, you can’t trust them. To award a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to Cosby, now, would be to suggest that these charges are less important than Cosby’s talent. To tell your skeptical neighbor to read Zacharias’ arguments for the existence of God, while waving away these serious allegations as besides the point, might well communicate that you think rational argument is more important than lived discipleship. 

That’s not about “cancelling,” and it’s not even just about accountability. It’s about instead the basic principles behind the Scriptures’ requirement that a pastor be “beyond  reproach” and “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:2, 7). Credibility requires trust. 

It’s a little surreal for me to hear the same people who told me we should boycott businesses that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” railing against “cancel culture.”  That said, just because people demagogue “cancel culture” sometimes does not mean that it does not exist—anymore than the fact that the falsity of the “satanic ritual abuse” panic of the 1980s does not mean that the devil doesn’t exist. 

Cancel culture exists, and it is not limited to the Left or the Right, but shows up across the spectrum. As Jonah Goldberg argues, one of the things fueling cancel culture is “the way social media convinces people that their ‘side’ is indisputably right about everything to the point where your tribe becomes a kind of transcendent corpus mysticum.” 

“What I mean is that, in a populist age, your group isn’t just better; it’s sacred,” Goldberg writes. “In such an environment, being ‘wrong’ isn’t just wrong in some factual or analytical sense. It’s sacrilegious. Being wrong—even in the most theoretical sense—at, say, the New York Times or (if you read my email) Fox News is an outrageous form of desecration, like when Napoleon’s army used conquered churches for stables.” 

“Social media fuels this dynamic, because social media provides the virtual comfort of the mob,” he concludes. 

I think this is right. This is why when U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) writes a New York Times op-ed on military troops to stop riots in Portland or Seattle, the response from some on the Left is not to argue that he is wrong but to denounce the editors for allowing the piece to be argued at all. This is why when Jordan Peterson or Charles Murray arrive on campus, the impulse of some progressive activist groups is not to publish point-by-point rebuttals of these views but to demand that they not be heard at all. 

And it’s why when J.K. Rowling argues against transgender ideology, many activists don’t want to simply present an alternative view but to burn Harry Potter books (thus 1990s conservative evangelical culture and 2020s sexual revolutionary culture converge in their common fear and loathing of Hogwarts; who says we can’t transcend the culture wars?). 

And, as David French points out, the same impulse happens on the Right with conservative institutions attempting to purge everyone who won’t pledge total allegiance to certain political celebrities. Look at the censure motions constantly at work against Members of Congress or even against governors and secretaries of state who simply did their constitutional duties to certify elections. I’ve heard that sometimes similar things happen even to some evangelicals, though I will have to look into that further. 

None of this is entirely new, but it is an exhausting and counter-productive culture. Again, the problem is not that all viewpoints must be allowed everywhere. I do not want to outlaw the speech of people I disagree with—say abortion-rights activists—but if someone were to argue for “My Body, My Choice” at a crisis pregnancy center I support, I would stop supporting it. I don’t want to silence prosperity gospel Pentecostals, but if Kenneth Copeland preaches at my church, they’re going to hear from me—and not in an anonymous (or “confidential”) letter. 

It’s not “cancel culture” when people rightly refuse to celebrate or memorialize immoral ideas.  If it were up to me, I would take down the garish Nathan Bedford Forrest statue down the street from my house—while still insisting that my children learn who he was in school so they will know how to recognize that sort of demagogic violent racism when they see it. I would do the same if there were a Margaret Sanger or Woody Allen statue in the same place. 

The dangerous forms of “cancel culture,” though, happen when standards are contradictory and inconsistent, or when immoral or dangerous ideas are censured but with no means for someone holding them to change his or her mind. The latter is mostly because, in this sort of ideological environment, no one is really expected to have a change of mind or heart on anything and in any direction. That’s why there’s so little real argument about ideas, but instead only attempts to humiliate and marginalize. 

Again—some ideas and people and groups should be marginalized. The Ku Klux Klan should not be conducting bake sales at the local public library. But when almost every contrary viewpoint is treated with the same amount of censure and marginalization, we no longer have the resources to marginalize (culturally, not legally) viewpoints except on the basis of who has the most power at the moment—and that means, ultimately, not at all. 

The primary danger of a toxic form of “cancel culture” is that persuasion is replaced by coercion. Across the board, we stop offering reasons and arguments and seek instead only to quash the other side. That doesn’t actually lead to consensus, but to resentment and injustice. That’s the reason (among many others) I oppose neighborhoods that are majority Christian seeking to zone or protest out of existence mosques or Latter-day Saints temples or Buddhist study centers. I am an evangelical Christian—which means that people cannot be regulated into union with Christ. That must come about by grace through faith, which means that I want to go into all the world making disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), not to go into all the world forcing people to pretend that they are Christians. The transformation of the mind and heart comes about through the persuasive appeal to the conscience, not through manipulation or bullying (2 Cor. 4:2; 5:11). 

Ultimately freedom of speech is not just what’s right, but also, it turns out, what works

That’s why all of us—wherever we are on the political or religious spectrum—should learn to say “Here’s why I disagree” a lot more and “I’m going to have you fired” or “I’m going to have you arrested” or “I’d like to speak to the manager” a lot less. 

Creeds, confessions, and party planning committees

On the mid-2000s-era (and now in perpetual reruns) sitcom The Office, Pam Halpert described the Dunder-Mifflin workplace’s Party Planning Committee: “At its worst, it was a toxic, political club used to make others feel miserable and left out. At its best, it planned parties.” 

Some people think that way about the use of creeds and confessions in a church context, that they are just some form of Christian “cancel culture.” And sometimes they are. In some contexts, creeds and confessions are an ever-narrowing list of how to exclude more and more fellow orthodox Christians. One can see that in churches that attempt to weed out everyone who disagrees with them on the meaning of the millennium in Revelation 20, the interpretation of “days” in Genesis 1, the timing of “the Rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4, or the cessation, or lack thereof, of “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12, and so on. Some even would seek conformity on what translations all those texts are read in in the first place. 

But that’s not what creeds or confessions are intended to do. They are not meant to be disconnected from the life and worship of the church—perhaps the greatest Christological creed, Philippians 2, is probably a hymn. And they are not meant to coerce or to enforce power, but to prevent such from happening. 

After all, in the Galatian church, the false teachers were the ones exerting the power of their majority in a way that kept the Gentile believers away from the gospel, thus contradicting the gospel itself. They were imposing demands on people that were not given by Jesus—and, in fact, directly contrary to him.

If Paul had not defined these teachers as outside the apostolic gospel—as “anathema”—the basis of the church would not have been the Word of God but the ethnic identity of the majority at the time. Paul wrote of these heretical power-brokers: “to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). The creedal boundaries were not about quashing freedom, but about preventing those who wished to replace freedom in Christ Jesus with slavery to them (Gal. 2:4-5). 

In the same way, Paul to Timothy opposed those false teachers who, with their counter-apostolic gospel, sought to prey on the people in order to exploit them (2 Tim. 3:1-9), just as Jesus himself had warned (Matt. 24:9-12). 

At the same time, Paul—as did Jesus himself and the other apostles—was quick to differentiate between those things “of first importance,” received from Jesus himself (1 Cor. 15:3-8) and those things on which Christians could disagree without expecting others to be in necessary agreement (Rom. 14). Confusing these matters would lead to disaster. A “Christian” who does not believe in the resurrection is not a Christian; a Christian who imposes on others his views on festivals or new moons or Sabbaths is not Christlike (Col. 2:16-19). 

Creeds and confessions, at their best, anchor Christians to the larger Body of Christ, even when outlining the specific aspects of a church’s distinctive beliefs as conserving some aspect of the church’s witness for the rest of the Body. Without a statement of what is essential, a church ends up not without a creed but with an unwritten and constantly altering creed. Not only is unity hard to maintain, so is legitimate diversity. At its best, a creed or confession affirms not only what the rightful boundaries are but also where diversity should be protected. 

We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth—but we might disagree on how the timing of the creation lines up with what’s called the “Big Bang.” We believe that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead—but we might disagree on what the meaning of the Millennium is in Revelation 20 or what the timing of “the Rapture” is in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life—but we might disagree on whether all the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians are still operative. We believe the Bible has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter—but we might disagree on how to see typologies of Christ in some of the Psalms or whether the King James Version is or isn’t the best English translation. 

More specific denominational or congregational statements are meant to eliminate constant arguments over areas where that group has consensus. A Presbyterian church can’t have a debate every Wednesday night about whether they should submit to bishops. A Baptist church can’t have a debate every Wednesday night about whether they should fill up a baptistery or buy a font. A Quaker church can’t have a debate every Wednesday night about whether they should be meeting on a Wednesday night, or if they should be talking if they do. 

Where there is no creed or confession at all, we end up with a lack of trust. Should I join your Sunday school class or try to evangelize you? Is Vacation Bible School this year going to entail goat sacrifices? When I give to missionaries are they going to agree with us about who Jesus is? When done well, those creeds and confessions build trust and unity. But it is almost as important what those creeds and confessions don’t say as what they do. 

We know where we can bear with one another, and disagree, precisely because we know where we agree—what it means to be a Christian, creedally defined, and what it means to be in consensus on mission, confessionally articulated. 

Where creeds and confessions are too vague (or non-existent), what fills the void is often either mission-deadening ambiguity or arbitrary doctrinal innovations based on what group cares the most about their specific obsession of the moment. To be, in the apostle’s words, “tossed about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14) can happen by those who wave away essential truth (“Christ has not been raised”) or by those who impose as essential truths what Jesus has not made so (“You must be circumcised to follow Christ”). 

Do creeds and confessions fully protect the church? Not at all. There are churches that long ago drifted from orthodox Christianity who nonetheless recite every week historic creeds that they do not believe. Without life, truth is of no help. Do defined creeds and confessions keep people from coercing non-essential ideologies on one another? No. There will always be those who will not be satisfied until—like some see the Constitution—one finds in an emanation from a penumbra in a confession of faith their view of supralapsarianism or the future of ethnic Israel or what candidates a “real Christian” has to support and so on. The Galatian sorts of adding to the gospel aren’t a result of written creeds and confessions but instead by unwritten creeds and confessions—based on fear of some enthusiastic interest group or because there’s a “real creed” behind the creed that just hasn’t been written down yet. 

Like the Law, when used properly, creeds are good when used lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8). When creeds and confessions are withered away—or are super-sized beyond Scripture, we end up not with the faith once for all delivered to the saints but an open Microsoft Word document that is constantly changing with random speculations. That’s not a creed; that’s CreedThoughts

At their best, the doctrinal definitions of creeds and confessions help create community and mission. At their worst, they become a Party Planning Committee. 

This originally appeared in Dr. Moore’s newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the Year. … Read More