By / Jan 14

I was sitting in Panera when I received a text message from a friend and colleague: “Roger Scruton has died.” I was with my family and a widow from our church, holding back tears until I could get in the car. A man that changed so many things about my world has now passed away. Sir Roger Scruton, British philosopher statesman, passed away Sunday morning after a battle with cancer. 

I drove home with my kids in the back and Jason Isbell on the speakers. Ironically, his song with The 400 Unit “The Last of My Kind” was playing. While the song is about small-town folk and fears of the city, I couldn’t help but realize the man who just died may indeed be the last of his kind. He wrote on everything from political philosophy to aesthetics to current events, and he did so with a sharp wit, a careful eye, and brilliant prose. Even if you disagreed with him—as I often did—you nevertheless appreciated how he put his thoughts together. 

I have read nearly everything Scruton has written. I wanted to write my dissertation on his thought, particularly his conservatism and aesthetics. He shaped my view of the world as much as anyone else alive, and his passing is a great loss. He was a giant intellect and the best embodiment of conservatism I know. In writing this tribute, I thought of four areas where Scruton’s influence shines brightest, though it was hard to choose only four.

1. Conservatism

My first taste of the broader tradition was through Scruton. In The Meaning of Conservatism, I came to know and understand that what I imbibed for so long was not conservatism, but a modern amalgamation of ideologies and “isms” that had forgotten their first love. Conservatism is an invitation to view politics from a broader lens than a mere legislative and political processes. Instead, it is a disposition, a posture one takes toward critical concepts that are often discussed but rarely defined. When it is disentangled from a clear ontology, it becomes ugly and vapid. Scruton was well-read and a perfect guide for providing accessibility to a wide audience. He was immersed in the tradition, thus able to synthesize and distinguish between rival conservatism(s) of the day. He saw the lay of the land and instructed me on where to walk, who else to trust, and what to reject. I saw conservatism is more than a political project. Indeed, that’s the least interesting part of it.

Conservatism offers solutions to discontents of culture. Whether it is an absolutizing of the market on the far-right or the distortion of proper sentiments by groups such as the alt-right, the conservative tradition holds the mantle of belief that conservatism is at first a disposition before it is a political or economic program. It conserves the best of what we’ve had and rejects notions of progress separated from the good, true, and beauty of the past. Scruton taught me a conservative was first and foremost a lover (as did Augustine), to see the good in even the worst of scenarios, and change requires taking the worst of the present and making the best of it. 

2. Beauty

More than any other topic, Scruton taught me to love and appreciate beauty. I first read Beauty as a grad student while taking a seminar in aesthetics. I grew up in a small, rural town and never really understood the aesthetic impulse or those that seemed to have it more than I did. And while I didn’t care much for the arts, when I read this book it opened my eyes to the world. 

Rage and resentment may build movements, but they cannot sustain a people, much less secure necessary political goods. Scruton taught me patience speaks a better word.

“Beauty is vanishing from the world,” Scruton writes, “because we live as though it did not matter.” I finally realized just how much of my existence has been shaped by beauty—and the failure to appreciate it. I realized this desire for beauty is not circumstantial. It cannot be explained merely by the places you were nurtured or the things you like. It is not just “in the eye of the beholder.” Rather, it is embedded in you and in the cosmos. We were made to hear this song of the created order. It declares its presence in the voice of a beautiful chorus and whispers with vibrant colors that streak the sky at sunset. Beauty speaks. 

Scruton showed me I cannot live without beauty. I am currently writing a book on beauty, and I’ve dedicated this work to him. I was hoping to send a copy to him in order to show my affection and that his lifelong work to help the world see and appreciate beauty has changed at least one life: mine. Few things in my Christian life have steadied my faith and quieted my doubts like beauty. 

3. Patience

In an age of rage and change, The necessity of the latter requires that one considers how such change occurs and how fast. I learned from Scruton that the conservative understands that political change will occur, and it indeed it must. But in addition, those societal and political changes require stability. The conservative may champion progress, but such movement must be guided by prudence. Progress for the sake of progress, or progress that merely mirrors contemporary social norms is wrong. Progress requires patience. He writes in the beginning of How to Be a Conservative

“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of life which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.” 

To do something and do it well requires the necessity of slowing down. Patient reflection and consideration of alternative views, concepts, and perspectives requires the recognition that time is not wasted, but rather you are being shaped by this slow process. In other words, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, we are investing in the millennium. We are planting sequoias.

There is no question that we live in what some might describe as an age of rage. Both culturally and politically, the impulse is toward expressing resentment first and searching for solutions only after the rage has subsided. If left to continue, there will be much said but little settled. Scruton taught me that a patient spirit speaks to the current climate by suggesting the way forward is to understand the past. Rage and resentment may build movements, but they cannot sustain a people, much less secure necessary political goods. Scruton taught me patience speaks a better word. 

4. Home

Scruton taught me a new word: oikophilia, or a love of home. Modern political philosophies, influenced as they are by autonomy and individuality, can often force a person to become essentially homeless. By “homeless” we do not mean a literal homelessness. Instead, it is describing an existential relationship between the individual and the broader social networks at play. Scruton showed me we are social beings from particular places and particular spaces. We have a membership and history. We love our homes because they are, in some sense, reflections of us and what we love. This is good and right and stimulates a sense of shared obligation and love of home. Scruton taught me that okiphilia attaches humanity to creation around them. We are embedded in the created order because, well, this is our home. 

From this understanding, he showed me conservatives should and indeed must care for the environment around us. What we may term “creation care” is, in fact, a deeply conservative value. Instead of employing the apocalyptic zeitgeist today, how much more compelling would it be to say that conservatives care for nature because it is the spaces and places wherein we are situated in the broader created order? Or, to put a finer point on it, we care for the natural world because it is the shared space we all inhabit. Oikiophillia “tells us to love, and not to use, to respect and not to exploit. It invites us to look on things in our ‘homespace’ as we look on persons, not as means only, but as ends in themselves.” (253). Rather than somehow standing above nature in domination, it reorients us to see that it is ours to care for. We love our home because ours is a common world; it is our Father’s world.


I must admit it is hard to write words of appreciation for someone with whom you’ve never conversed. I had an opportunity to meet Scruton when he was in the United States a few years ago. I was unable to attend, hoping one day I would be able to meet him and express how deeply indebted I am to his writings. I’ll never get that chance. But his imprint on my life will stay forever. 

The last thing Scruton wrote, right before Christmas 2019, was a reflection on the year that had passed. The final words he ever wrote in public were embodiments of his life and writing: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” My gratitude to him cannot be fully expressed in words. I’ve done my best here, but they pale in comparison to what he has done for me. My Christian faith is stronger because of him. I am a better human being because of Scruton. 


By / Sep 19

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review. Some of her most recent publications at National Review include “Donald Wuerl, the Church’s Most Oblivious Cleric,” “Abortion-Rights Groups Smear Kavanaugh and Undermine Judicial Neutrality,” and “Catholics Deserve Answers, Not Church Politics.” She also serves as a co-host with David French of the Ordered Liberty Podcast.

She was previously a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism with the National Review Institute and is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She is a current resident of New York City.

By / Apr 18

They are born after 1980. They don’t know much about Thatcher, but they do know about Bieber. They take “selfies.” Much discussed, oft-misunderstood, they are the Millennials.

A December 2013 poll of this much-fretted-over demographic offered fresh light on their political views. Harvard University’s Institute of Politics conducted the poll and found that 35 percent of Millennials approve of Democratic congressmen and just 19 percent of Republican congressmen.

This data leads to rumination both sociological and theological. How, exactly, will Millennial Christians—in a jaded generation but not of it—engage with politics, with the public square? The way Millennials answer this question will play a vital role in the public prospects of Christianity in America and the West.

A hard night’s day: Public Christianity after the Moral Majority

With apologies to the Beatles, the last thirty years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the “Moral Majority” left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and justly confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant “big gospel” movement of the last decade (like the New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority and its ilk, adopting an “apolitical” or relatively indifferent political stance.

This is a partly helpful and partly unhelpful response to their heritage. It is helpful because it means that many young church planters and pastors and thinkers will avoid reducing the faith to a policy position. They will focus on making friendships with people not like them and living a “missional” way-of-life. The church will be the listening church, a spiritual body of believers that gathers to hear the lion of the Scripture roar from His Word each week.

This response is unhelpful because young Christian leaders might forget that the church must also be the speaking church. Many Millennial leaders understand the dire need for evangelization of lost friends, but fewer grasp the importance of public square witness. Few of us Millennials will emulate the Moral Majority at its apex, but we also must recognize that, in their imperfect way, various figures of this group spoke courageously on behalf of the unborn, the natural family, and the moral fabric of their nation. There was real bravery, and real sacrifice, in this witness. It came at a real cost in a culture and society that now reads any attempt, however noble, to intervene in others’ lives as hostile and injurious.

Unlike the Moral Majority, many Millennials are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics. Let me get down and dirty here: If your only significant act of public square proclamation is a sneering disavowal of Jerry Falwell, you’re doing it wrong. A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce, and Colson cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality. Neither can it accept the velvet muzzle its opponents offer. It cannot dance like a celebrity cha-chaing his way back to the C-list when a confused church member asks for guidance on cultural questions of grave import.

It must speak. It must offer a new social witness.

Not only this, but that: four paths toward a new social witness

How, though? How can younger evangelicals who have no inclination to start a PAC or accost people on the sidewalk while holding impressively weathered clipboards engage in public square witness? Let me suggest four broad ways forward.

First, young Christians can recover a sense of social agency. I find a striking paradox in the mind of many Millennial Christians today. We love Bonhoeffer, and we thrill to Wilberforce’s daring and spectacularly successful efforts. When it comes to our own moment, though, we feel beaten down. The culture seems so big and bad and scary and foreordained, and so we toggle back to Facebook and retreat to our Bon Iver playlist. Something’s not clicking here. Millennial Christians need to recover a sense of agency in the culture. Almighty God is our benefactor, and He’s got way more power than any billionaire the New Yorker might profile in 8,000 skeptical words.

I have utterly no idea what the future of America and the West looks like. Things in general are not promising, to be sure. Much seems to be slipping away from us in our day. But I resist a narrative of our culture suffused with gloom and written in stone. In the face of some jaw-dropping defeats, we also are seeing some enlivening gains, especially in the pro-life realm. God is unstoppable, and of the reign of His kingdom there is no end. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Second, young Christians can speak up for truth on behalf of flourishing. Part of what has pushed some Millennials away from being the speaking church is that we have not always heard our leaders make the biblical connection between rightness and health, truth and flourishing. But what is true is always what is best. We need to make this elegant connection on moral matters.

Millennials have an opportunity today to speak on matters of sexuality and gender, for example, from the perspective of both rightness and health. It is wrong to change God’s super-intelligent design for the family, for example. But we also must make clear that altering the family will not lead to human flourishing. Let this message ring out from a thousand missional pulpits (or elevated coffee tables, as it were).

Third, young Christians can count their lives and reputations as nothing. Millennial believers are cursed by a desire to be popular. We want friends, virtual and actual. We don’t want to be tagged with the epithet greater than that which cannot be known: awkward.

I understand this desire. It’s no good thing to be hated for its own sake. But we must not forget the long, bloody and glorious tradition of courageous Christian public witness. It starts with Moses holding court in a pagan Egyptian throne room, extends to Daniel praying in public and thereby facing down a horde of Persian courtiers eager to see him torn limb from limb, jumps to the grisly martyrdom of John the Baptist for offering a short course in public ethics, and peaks with Christ before Caesar, sacrificial and triumphant in death (Exod. 5-11; Dan. 6; Matt. 14; 27). However nimble and winsome we young evangelicals must be, we also must shake the heavens with our prayers for courage, the courage to speak even in the face of persecution so that evil and death might lose and righteousness and neighbor-love might win.

Fourth, young Christians must play hardball when necessary. In practical terms, this means not only engaging the culture when a particularly momentous vote or decision is at hand, but in the many smaller events that lead to the historic ones. Our new social witness must be marked both by love and by an appropriate evangelical Realpolitik. Not every issue is created equal. But we must not consent to a death by a thousand cultural cuts, either.

Millennials have extensive and often-overlooked biblical precedent for this kind of action. We can cite Joseph acting shrewdly as an administrator of the state for the goodness of his people, Esther using her queenly position to advocate for the salvation of the Jews from genocide (working closely with Mordecai), and the Apostle Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship as just a few biblical examples of the kind of gracious hardball we can play in the public square (Gen. 41-47; Esth. 2-10; Acts 22-26).


Few of us can predict what the future of America will be. Whether poll numbers on social questions rise or fall among youngsters, I am not most concerned with data. I am most concerned with the church and its future. Extraordinary and altogether necessary attention has been paid to our identity as the listening church. More attention needs to be devoted to our tricky, historically problematic, but hugely important identity as the speaking church. May we do so in coming days, speaking love and truth, never giving up, never abandoning our neighbor, never falling silent.

By / Apr 11

Many young people are leaving Evangelical churches. Statistics vary, but there is general consensus that large numbers of post-high school age Evangelical youth shed the faith of their fathers and mothers upon beginning their college years.

The reasons given are multiple. They include such things as over-identification of older Evangelicals as angry Right-wingers who disdain homosexuals and are skeptical of global warming; a subculture that is unwelcoming to the young and secular; Christianity’s claim of exclusivity as to truth and salvation; and the general superficiality of the preaching and teaching.

Summing up much of this line of thinking, Carol Howard Merritt writes, “There are three major reasons that a younger generation is leaving Evangelicalism: pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics”

Yet this analysis, so neat and damning (and, for critics of Evangelicalism, rewardingly severe), seems woefully incomplete.

First, the idea that younger Evangelicals are jettisoning their youthful faith could well be overstated. University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright, author of Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the young and Evangelical Protestantism:

Evangelicalism increased among all age groups from 1972 through the early 1990s, and it has decreased in all groups since then. The differences exist in rates of change, namely it’s dropped among young people faster than older people. It’s worth noting, however that the biggest drop of faith in young people happened in the 1990s, and that current levels are about the same as the early 1970s. 

Still, this doesn’t alleviate the fact that a noticeable number of younger Evangelicals are departing from the pews in which they were raised. Let’s also agree that the verbal and political excesses of some Evangelical conservative leaders have been off-putting and that personal friendships with gay men and lesbians make younger believers alert to real and perceived insults by believers of homosexuals.

But is the (supposed) ecclesiastical exodus of collegiate and post-collegiate Evangelicals really as simple as disgust with the excesses of political conservatism, discomfort with Christianity’s claim of exclusivity regarding the path to salvation, a desire to “live green,” and simply get along in an adverse society?

I propose several other reasons why some young people are leaving their Evangelical heritage. They are these:

Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant. Desperate contemporaneity has become the coin of the age as Evangelicals make gasping efforts to draw in the disaffected. We preach on methods of achieving various kinds of success (with one or two Bible verses thrown in) instead of the books and themes of Scripture. We have become what Michael Patton calls “the entertainment driven church.” After awhile, manic superficiality in the name of “relevance” induces cynicism, and rightfully so. As described by Alan Jamieson, “the institutional church” has become “irrelevant or unhelpful … for so many reflective and intelligent believers today” (quoted in Julia Duin, Quitting Church, p. 175).

“We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as ‘cool’ to our kids,” writes Marc Yoder. “It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.”

This plunge into irrelevance through “relevance at any cost” is the fruit of a tepid theology and only further weakens the orthodox spine. This theological weakness is augmented by something we find decidedly uncomfortable raising: the sin of Eden, also known as pride. As an anonymous contributor to “Juicy Ecumenism” has written caustically:

A lot of people come up to me at conferences, to which, as a very successful hipster-progressive post-evangelical blogger, I have been invited to speak, asking me how they, too, can make a name for themselves as a voice for the disaffected semi-faithful … The trick of post-evangelical blogging is to take the issue du jour, be it gay marriage, birth control, gun control, abortion, or assisted suicide, and re-interpret it as a fundamental and authentic challenge to the assumptions of the suburban evangelicalism which for you represents the sum total of Christian belief and experience. 

As King’s College President Gregory Alan Thornbury writes, “If we cannot reconcile our theology with the sturdy basis for biblical Christianity that framed evangelicalism and once made it great, we will find ourselves and our children cut loose from our tradition” (Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, p. 208). This result must be unacceptable to those born of the Spirit.

Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

Many people sitting in the pews of theologically orthodox Protestant churches would have difficulty offering a simple explanation of the Trinity and why understanding the Triune nature of God is important. They have neither been taught these things nor had explained to them why they are critical to Christian living.

In 2000, the British pastor Phil Newton wrote, “The issue in preaching is proclaiming faithfully, accurately, and clearly the Word of God, so that the truth of the Word penetrates the mind to affect the heart, rather than the cleverness of the preacher impressing the hearers. At the core of all a preacher does is to dig deeply into the given text of Scripture, seeking to understand it grammatically, historically, and doctrinally.” In the intervening years, too few have heeded his exhortation.

Instead, Evangelicals too often have followed the counsel of Screwtape, writing of Jesus to the junior demon Wormwood: “We (must) distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher … all great moralists are sent (by God), not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes.”

As David F. Wells has written, “the Church is going to have to become more authentic morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life. If the Gospel means so little to the Church, if it changes so little, why then should unbelievers believe it?” (Losing Our Virtue, p.180).

Wells and others have written extensively on these themes and their observations and exhortations are compelling. However, here I will quote from an email my colleague Carrie Russell (herself a “millennial”) sent me recently:

As a whole we’ve stopped preaching the Gospel, sin and death, redemption and the pursuit of holiness. We just water it down more and more till it becomes practically irrelevant … We’ve cheapened grace, by refusing to pursue holiness, a natural result of fearing the controlling legalism monster. The same kind of preaching that brought about the great awakenings of the past is needed today: the truth of sin, death, and redemption. We’re losing kids in good part because we’ve hidden from them the truth they really need.

Amen. Neither Packer nor Piper could say it better. Marc Yoder concludes:

… most of our churches are sending youth into the world embarrassingly ignorant of our faith. How could we not? We’ve jettisoned catechesis, sold them on “deeds not creeds” and encouraged them to start the quest to find “God’s plan for their life”. Yes, I know your church has a “What we believe” page, but is that actually being taught and reinforced from the pulpit? I’ve met evangelical church leaders (“Pastors”) who didn’t know the difference between justification and sanctification. I’ve met megachurch board members who didn’t understand the atonement. When we chose leaders based upon their ability to draw and lead rather than to accurately teach the faith? Well, we don’t teach the faith. 

Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality. Too often, we have proclaimed only what we are against and failed to explain the goodness of sexual expression (and sexual chastity) as designed by God. Instead, too much of the time Evangelicals (a) seem embarrassed by the Bible’s definitive teaching about human sexuality; (b) are ignorant of why the Bible teaches what it does on sexuality and sexual intimacy (this involves serious thinking and intellectual wrestling, something younger Evangelicals often are better at than their teachers); (c) are afraid that people will be put-off by gracious but uncompromisingly truthful teaching concerning Christian faith and sex; and (d) evade what have become culturally hard truths because we are afraid of being accused of being bigots, haters, homophobes, clueless, etc.

In a recent letter to columnist Rod Dreher, a self-identified “ex-Evangelical,” a young man writes that he was never taught the theological bases of his tradition’s opposition to homosexuality. As he puts it,

In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.

When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. 

How eloquent, how correct, and how sad.

It’s hard to talk about the Bible’s vision of human sexuality, because it involves challenging the assumptions of the post-modern many and affirming the exclusivity of intimacy reserved for one man-one woman marriage. To many ears these assertions sound immediately anachronistic, and many of those who make (or should be making) the case for them are themselves too untaught or un-thoughtful to articulate them well.

We must recover the clear vision articulated by Andreas Kostenberger, editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Seminary:

… the Bible makes clear that, at the root, marriage and the family are not human conventions based merely on a temporary consensus and time-honored tradition. Instead, Scripture teaches that family was God’s idea and that marriage is a divine, not merely human, institution. The implication of this truth is significant indeed, for this means that humans are not free to renegotiate or redefine marriage and the family in any way they choose but that they are called to preserve and respect what has been divinely instituted. This is in keeping with Jesus’ words, uttered when his contemporaries asked him about the permissibility of divorce: “What therefore God has joined together let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).”

The subjective and highly personal nature of some Evangelical churches fails to satisfy the deep longings of many young men and women.

In many youth-focused churches, Jesus is portrayed as more like a sympathetic friend than a holy and transforming Redeemer. This is understandable, given how many young people come from broken homes and need a foundation of reassurance, security, and love before their walks with God can deepen. Yet as understandable as it might be, such a presentation of Jesus, at least if sustained, is too one-dimensional to meet the needs of the spiritually emaciated and intellectually curious. An active mind and a healing heart want more than repetitive, doleful, and emotionally cathartic “praise songs.”

Adding to this problem is the tyranny of urgent need: If a parishioner has a son is addicted to drugs, what she needs immediate help, sound counsel from the Word of God and the application of biblical truth to her situation. A harried pastor might find little time for deep study and reflection in an era of moral collapse.

Yet this underscores both the need for strong seminary training and also reasonable boundaries that will constrain the onslaught of the “right now” to enable pastors and other Christian leaders to have the time they need to study, ponder, and pray about deep issues. Additionally, many pastors and Christian teachers have been too schooled in Rogerian counseling to be able to bring a healing, if sometimes hard, word from God to such situations, and, these leaders often lack grounding in biblical moral philosophy and Scriptural teachings about such issues as substance abuse and human sexuality.

To paraphrase Lincoln, the assumptions of the quiet past (e.g., most kids growing up with a mom and a dad; sex outside of marriage viewed as always wrong, etc.) are insufficient for the stormy present.

Additionally, our “fun” activities can become an idol and, to maturing younger believers a hindrance. Pizza parties for our youth are fun and healthy, but must be seen not as ends in themselves but as a means to draw students into grace-and-truth filled discussions about what they believe, what the Bible says, and why. As Marc Yoder writes, “If church is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life in community you don’t need a crucified Jesus for that.”

Public education and popular culture encourage relativism and sentimentality as the highest goods; truth is seen as non-existent or at least unknowable. “Our national character stinks to high heaven,” wrote Walker Percy in The Moviegoer, “but we are kinder than ever.” We have substituted emotion for truth, affirmation for integrity, niceness for virtue, and consensual opinion for rationality.

“Moral relativism has had a pervasive influence in our culture, especially on the American educational system,” write Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. “In fact, relativism has been officially incorporated in the education curriculum, known as values clarification” (Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, pp.74, 75).

Our schools and our media discourage belief in truth as permanent and discernible, in consequence of which calling something morally “wrong” is seen as offensive, even obstreperous. We rationalize our incapacity to call certain things good and others evil, and we breed the “men without chests” warned of by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. University of Virginia professor Vigen Guroian writes,

… we fall back on the excuse that we are respecting our children’s freedom by permitting them to determine right from wrong and to choose for themselves clear goals of moral living. But this is the paean of a false freedom that pays misdirected tribute to a deeply flawed notion of individual autonomy … Our society is embracing an anti-human trinity of pragmatism, subjectivism, and cultural relativism that denies the existence of a moral sense or a moral law. (Tending the Heart of Virtue, p.4)

Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable. As a result, many don’t want to follow biblical moral teachings on sexual and recreational activities. When younger Evangelicals are told that such things as pre-marital sex and recreational use of mild hallucinogenic drugs are wrong, many bridle: It sound pretentious to say something is wrong and unfairly limiting to their efforts toward self-discovery (translation: I really want to sleep with my boy-/girl-friend; who are you to tell me not to?). Here’s one example:

Brittany, a 24-year-old veterinary technician, is an example of the newly disaffected (Evangelical youth). In high school, she attended a conservative Episcopal church in northern Virginia. She enrolled in college thinking of herself as a conservative and not wanting to have sex until she was married. Her views changed when she met her boyfriend. She began to question the theology of her home church on a number of social issues. 

This young woman’s theological views of human sexual morality changed when she wanted to sleep with her boyfriend; perhaps exacerbated by peer pressure and loneliness, her theological transformation was grounded less in conviction than rationalization. Note, too, that she began questioning biblical teaching not just on this but on “a number of social issues.” Autonomous desire spars with unbending and limiting truth: which one wins in a culture of self-exaltation?

The Barna Group** augments the portrait through compelling statistical data;

With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twenty-something Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” 

Similarly, personal relationships are difficult to trump: Friendships with people who live “according to the flesh” are hard to integrate with a firm stance for truth. Co-workers, friends, and family members who cohabit, are openly homosexual, and avow atheism or agnosticism are real people with the same hopes and enjoyments and struggles as any sexually pure young Evangelical. Upon getting to know them, a lot of younger believers are a bit shaken – how can I oppose someone I have come to love? How can I say “no” to a person who earnestly believes what he does is morally right?

This is where, as noted above, the necessity of the foundation of truth becomes indispensable. Truth teaches that is ungracious to be personally insulting, but unloving to affirm a behavior or a habit that is wrong and destructive. Unemboldened by such conviction and themselves often deeply wounded, many young people find it much more appealing (and often easier) simply to affirm that which does not immediately harm them or self-apparently harm those engaged in it.

Truth divides. This is discomfiting, but unavoidable. If a friend you love rejects you because you take a moral stand contrary to her beliefs or behavior, that hurts. No one ever wants to damage or lose a cherished relationship.

But Jesus, the most gracious Man and truest Friend Who ever lived, was rejected and crucified. We are called to be like Him, even at the cost of relationships.

This never justifies crude, abusive, or boorish behavior, but we are left without excuse regarding our obligation to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to those we care about deeply, even if doing jeopardizes their friendship.

Finally, broken marriages that fail to model Christ to their children. While data are mixed on the percentage of divorce within professing Evangelical families are mixed, it is beyond dispute that millions of young people raised as Evangelicals have also been raised in homes without one of their biological or adoptive parents.

My colleagues Pat Fagan and Henry Potrykus have documented the effects of divorce on the economy, but as Fagan notes separately, the human toll is exhaustive and tragic:

(Divorce) frequently leads to the development of destructive conflict management methods, diminished social competence, the early loss of virginity, diminished sense of masculinity or femininity, more trouble with dating, more cohabitation, greater likelihood of divorce, higher expectations of divorce later in life, and a decreased desire to have children … (Divorce) diminishes the frequency of worship of God and recourse to Him in prayer; diminishes children’s learning capacity and educational attainment; reduces household income and deeply cuts individual earning capacity; significantly increases crime, abuse and neglect, drug use, and the costs of compensating government services; weakens children’s health and longevity; and increases behavioral, emotional, and psychiatric risks, including even suicide.

It is not difficult to imagine how such wounds are deepened when a child is told that there is a God Who loves him and cares tenderly for him and then witnesses his parents rejecting each other. Little wonder that jaded young people looking for love and acceptance will seek them in such troubling places as the back seat of a car or a deserted classroom.

In summary, many younger Evangelicals who leave “the faith once delivered” do so for reasons well beyond the “pernicious sexism, religious intolerance, and conservative politics” noted earlier.

As Evangelical leaders pray about and discuss ways of winning younger men and women to Christ and also ways of keeping many who have come to know Him in fellowship with Him and His church. Our ministries are diluted and rendered, ultimately, powerless, when we fail to proclaim the whole counsel of God, when we cater to listeners’ feelings more than their needs, and when self-loathing becomes more prevalent than holy confidence.

A “famished and fainting race,” in Carl Henry’s memorable and compassionate phrase, deserves more, as does the Lord Who calls us to draw men and women to Himself.

** The author appreciates the many contributions of George Barna and his research team over the years, but encourages discernment when it comes to accepting all the conclusions they propound.

By / Dec 5

(These remarks were delivered by Andrew Walker on the topic of “Christianity and Conservatism in the Public Square” during an event at Vanderbilt University.)

I recall a friend, a prominent conservative, who told me that he became a Christian as a result of attending pro-life events and interacting with the pro-life community. Prior to this his political worldview had been one of stalwart conservatism.

We’re more accustomed to hearing the opposite, that a person’s evangelical or Catholic faith led him or her into the pro-life fold.

My friend wondered why the pro-life movement was predominantly faith-based, because, for him, the right to life—and the need to protect the most vulnerable among us—was a self-evident truth grounded in a soul’s right to exist. “Thou shall not murder” was not just a principle carved into stone by Moses; for my friend, it was also a natural truth that served as a fundamental tenet for a well-functioning public order.

This fundamental question of Natural Law—that life should be respected—would ultimately lead him to ask whether there was a Supreme Law-Giver. The idea of Divine Truth unsettled his conscience, convincing him that the visceral concern he had for unborn life must spring from an eternal source. Soon after that he converted to Christianity, obviously for reasons of atonement given by Christ, but partly because he resonated so deeply with Christianity’s scriptural and historic teaching on human dignity.

This friend’s story displays a fundamental relation between conservatism and Christianity: The two traditions have a resonating, shared anthropology, which, when speaking about deciphering worldviews, is a paramount doctrine upon which to have agreement. Both traditions believe that man is not a machine; that in the act of creating us, God creates us for certain ends that result in human happiness.

Both traditions teach that humanity is “fallen,” or “imperfectible,” or “finite.” Where modern liberalism suggests that our nature and bodies are instruments of the will capable of being re-created, both Christianity and conservatism teach a view of humanity that is, according to Thomas Sowell, “constrained.” Both traditions acknowledge and celebrate limits. Christianity and conservatism both reject body-self dualisms found in contemporary ideologies, believing instead that the individual is not mere material, but also possesses a soul.

Contrast this with the world we now live in, a world described by Jennifer Roback Morse in Public Discourse as one that “promises health and happiness through science. Science is supposed to deliver human control over the constraints of nature. This, in turn, will make us happy, since the free exercise of our will is supposed to be the key to human happiness.”

In contrast, Christianity and conservatism alike have been suspicious of the unconstrained will; knowing that the untrammelled pursuit of “progress,” untethered from moral norms, has resulted in moral atrocity and human misery. The forward march of liberalism has resulted in a conception of human freedom coupled with policies that leave an unintended path of human wreckage in their wake.

While the classical tradition—which many contend is a precursor to the conservative tradition—has held that man is a political animal, Christianity complements this tradition by suggesting something further: That man is also a distinctly moral creature.

To be a creature is to admit that we are all created beings distinct from our Creator. To be moral suggests that there exists an enduring moral order to which humanity is obligated to align itself—not for the sake of mere alignment itself—but that such alignment produces human flourishing.

As a Christian, the language of “rights” so often spoken of by conservatives is what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “borrowed capital”—concepts derived from Christianity that secular political philosophies accommodate in order to give meaning to governance. For individuals like Schaeffer or C.S. Lewis, if there were no God, there could still be observable rights or wrongs—but these rights and wrongs would be a result of emotive observations, suspended in air and created by what Oliver O’Donovan calls “a vacuum of authority.”

However, to be a political animal is not to stand in contradiction to being a moral creature; it simply expands the concept by suggesting that how we order our lives—and we’re all ordering our lives whether we know it—is an action accountable to God.

It is no surprise that some of conservatism’s greatest thinkers have been Christians: men and women such as Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, Robert P. George, Dorothy Sayers, Jean Bethke Elshtain—individuals like my friend Ryan Anderson. Even Russell Kirk, perhaps the greatest proponent of traditionalist conservatism, converted to Christianity later in life. And it was he who offered these words: “The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”

The reverse is also true, some of Christianity’s most astute thinkers have likewise been conservatives—from Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Allan Carlson, to Albert Mohler; men like my boss, Russell Moore.

But to say that much of conservatism has been Christian is not to say that all of conservatism is Christian. Some conservatives were Enlightenment Deists—many of our founders, for example—who spoke of owing their lives to “Divine Providence.”

I say that to say this: There is not to my knowledge a strong tradition of atheist conservatives.

The best of the conservative tradition recognizes that our political lives cannot be lived merely in the penultimate; and the best of the Christian tradition recognizes that a worldview shaped by the ultimate should inform and shape life in the penultimate; that each tradition demands and advocates for human excellence and moral order in the midst of inhabiting bodies, souls and minds that are disordered and fallen.

My personal worldview flows downstream from my faith, a Christianity that demands the recognition of human dignity and the priority of the family, met with a conservatism that shares this worldview and puts these Permanent Things into action by promoting and defending them.