by David Koyzis and Mike Wagenman
David, for about last the last fifty years, fault lines in North American culture have been growing in concerning ways and this has come to a “tipping point” in the last few weeks with the transition in the US presidency. You’ve done some superb work in helping Christians (and others) understand the sources for this cultural divide. Can you briefly summarize the historical forces that have brought us to the present moment?
Sure, Mike. It’s a complicated story, but there are a few broad trends that have fuelled the current polarization. First, the cultural ferment in the 1960s brought about a certain division in North America and the western world in general. In my Political Visions and Illusions, I call this the choice-enhancement state, the latest stage in the centuries-long development of liberalism. While the early liberals favoured a minimal state leaving a wide space for individual freedom, today’s liberals champion an interventionist state to secure a maximum number of choices for the liberated individual. The state refrains from judging the rightness or wrongness of choices, but when so much liberation leads to negative consequences, proponents call on the state to compensate for the cumulative effects of so many bad choices. In the United States, the Democratic Party is onside of the choice-enhancement state, while Republicans, far from breaking with liberalism, simply want to turn the clock back to an earlier form of liberalism.
Second, after the pivotal presidential election of 1968, the two major parties in the United States reformed their internal candidate selection process, ostensibly making it more democratic. I won’t go into detail here, but in ridding themselves of the old “smoke-filled rooms,” in which elected leaders within the parties would screen prospective candidates before presenting them to the public, they eliminated a crucial first step in the vetting process. Now the nomination process has become little more than a beauty contest, enabling a man who likely would never make it past an initial interview to work for the Central Intelligence Agency being in a position to declassify sensitive documents.
Third, when the Federal Communications Commission abolished the old Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it opened the way to a highly tendentious form of talk radio filling the airwaves. Under the Doctrine, broadcasters were required to provide airtime to opposing viewpoints, and this helped to maintain a more measured tone to political debate. The democratization of information sources has contributed further to this polarization. Through the internet we now have access to more information than we can possibly make good use of. We tend to read those sources with which we already agree, which makes for considerable imbalance in our understanding of the world around us.
Finally, North America has simply become more secularized over the past six decades. The rise of the so-called “nones,” that is, of those who claim no religion in public opinion polls, has tipped a large portion of the culture away from traditional faith. In this respect, we are seeing the sort of division that plagued the French people after the 1789 Revolution.
So, from what you’ve said, David, the moment we find ourselves in has been a long time in the making. It’s very multi-layered and complicated. That can be discouraging because it can lead people to feeling stuck with no way out. And when people feel backed into a corner they don’t often respond calmly or peacefully, so the violence we’re seeing seems to make sense. On the other hand, what I find encouraging is that you trace how our present situation has been “constructed.” It has been built over time by human agents. It hasn’t just fallen out of the sky in a momentary flash – and certainly not with divine sanction. This long view helps us not give into the rhetoric of the most recent US election being “stolen” or the only option truly being left is violent revolution. So, as we look at the current cultural divide, we can have hope because the cultural dividing lines – and the various “camps” which have been built up to fight each other – can be reformed, rebuilt, or even unbuilt (I hesitate to the use the word “deconstructed” because it has negative connotations for many because of its use in postmodern philosophy). This, then, leads to another important question: why have Christians in particular failed to recognize these “principalities and powers” at work in our midst? Why are North American Christians so content – eager, even, sometimes – to lean into these culture wars?
I want to be very careful here, because the concerns of culture warriors can be too quickly dismissed. There are definitely things worth fighting for. The late liberalism of the choice-enhancement state has pushed individualism very far indeed, often at the expense of foundational institutions without which a people cannot thrive. Liberals in general prefer to reconfigure these as mere voluntary associations, little different from a chess club or flower arranging society. One can leave a voluntary association easily and move on to something else with little lasting effect on others. The same cannot be said of the institutional church, state, marriage, and family, which in large measure exist apart from our wills as individuals. A lot of the backlash we are seeing now comes out of a rather inchoate sense that those positioning themselves on the left are contributing to the erosion of such institutions. The response may be ill-considered and unwise, but the concerns are real.
Of course, once people become aware of the idols their opponents are following, they are often blind to the idols in their own hearts. This is why, in my book, I try very hard not to point fingers. My chief mission is to get readers to examine themselves and their own convictions relative to political life. This is something that, say, Reinhold Niebuhr understood better than some contemporary Christians, who too easily divide the world into children of light and children of darkness without seeing the wilfulness in their own hearts.
I wonder then what you would say to the Christian who wonders (maybe even despairs in their wondering) where to start. It seems that you’re saying the place to start is with a serious reflection on our own loyalties and commitments. But we’re also social creatures who have historical and cultural responsibility. The complication here is that the problem is complex and Christian reflections on how to respond to the challenges are diverse and varied. I know one of my own concerns is that how we as Christians engage in the public sphere is itself a form of our Christian witness. We communicate what we believe about ultimate reality by how we speak and act in public. Is there anything you might suggest that could serve as a rallying point for the diverse Christian community today in North America, even with all our diversity and division?
I don’t think it’s a matter of where to start exactly. We’re already in motion, and we need to keep doing what God has given us to do. Each of us exercises multiple authoritative offices relevant to the different communities of which we are part. But we shouldn’t think of ourselves as living these out as mere individuals, which is what we are tempted to do in a society shaped by a liberal worldview. Given that our highest allegiance in this life is to the kingdom of God, we need to be aware that everything we do we do as ministers of that kingdom. This has implications for public life and for our political communities, whether local, state/provincial, or federal. We can vote in elections when called upon to do so, but I don’t believe voting by itself can sum up our responsibilities as citizens. Many of us find voting a deeply unpleasant duty, given the choices which we are presented.
I would love to see Christians and other likeminded citizens mobilize to launch a public justice movement. What would it look like? Unlike liberals and socialists, it would unequivocally affirm the institutions and communities of what collectively is often called civil society. Rather than attempt to have government solve every problem, it would recognize that a healthy society requires a variety of communal formations to function according to their respective callings. Businesses take seriously their stewardship of the limited resources of the earth. Families nurture the next generation and care for the aged. Schools educate children and youth. Churches gather people together to worship God and serve their neighbours. Labour unions protect workers in the workplace. Political parties formulate policy agendas seeking public justice and the common interest. You get the idea. Government would be less about solving problems and more about maintaining the legal space for a variety of agents—both individual and communal—to do what they do best.
But unlike conservatives, a public justice movement would not be about simply sticking with the old ways. Conservatism as such offers no real positive way forward; it simply applies the brakes on others’ initiatives. A public justice movement would embrace measured reforms when these are needed. A place to start, it seems to me, is with electoral reform. If elections were more about representation and less about winning and losing, some of the divisiveness we’ve seen, especially in the United States, might be lessened. It wouldn’t solve problems, but it might provide the means by which to address them more effectively. And that would potentially benefit everyone, whatever their ultimate beliefs.
David T. Koyzis holds a PhD in government and international studies from the University of Notre Dame. He is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada and is author of two books, Political Visions and Illusions (2019) and We Answer to Another (2014).
Mike Wagenman holds a PhD in systematic and philosophical theology from the University of Bristol (UK). He is chaplain to Western University and teaches theology at Huron University College and New Testament at Redeemer University. His most recent book is The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper (2020).