This is an opinion column
In the polarization of the American culture wars, we spend a lot of time telling one another what we’re against. One need look no further than the final day of the Alabama legislative session and the emotional debate over transgender-related bills to know this. But I believe that in the ideological sets in which I live and move– conservative politics and evangelical Christianity–we have more long-term success persuading people and shaping the culture if we can also tell them what we’re for.
Many of the cultural positions of conservative politics are rooted in the Christian faith. A theologically conservative interpretation of the Bible (the interpretation most evangelicals adhere to) says “no” to what modern culture demands: personal autonomy with few limits. Our understanding of the scriptures dictates some behavioral guardrails that Christians believe beneficial to the individual and the collective whole.
The logic goes like this: We are created by a wise and loving God. As our creator, he knows what we need to flourish. Likewise, he knows what will ultimately hurt us. God gives us certain boundaries for living in the Bible out of love for us.
Gluttony? Feels good at the moment, but it has terrible consequences. Libertine sexual relations? Fun today, but it causes all sorts of heartache for you and others down the line. These are just two of a million examples.
It’s not that God gets a kick out of saying “no.” Think of a parent watching a toddler. The parent doesn’t relish the task of warning the toddler to avoid touching the hot stove. (It’s a lot of work. Toddlers are ignorant and relentless.) But the parent–possessing wisdom the toddler lacks about how hot stoves and delicate skin don’t get along–keeps saying no and holding the toddler back, out of love.
The toddler cries because he just wants to touch what is shiny and interesting and can’t imagine why his adult overlord denies him that pleasure. You don’t know what you don’t know.
So conservatives take Biblical wisdom about the value and dignity of human life, and we apply that to abortion law out of love for our neighbors, both born and unborn. We take biblical wisdom about gender and sexuality and attempt to foster cultural norms that affirm those. To those who want to touch the stove and touch it now, these “nos” feel arbitrary.
In my own efforts toward wise living, I’ve found that when someone (or the Bible) gives me a line in the sand that I don’t enjoy living behind, I can better embrace it if I can conceptualize the benefit.
Don’t just tell me that gossip is off the table. Talk to me about how self-discipline in my conversations will lead to better relationships over time and fewer regrets about words spoken.
Don’t just tell me that drunkenness is sinful. Talk to me about how God designed my body to thrive in moderation and how I will be healthier and avoid all kinds of risks if I honor that.
You can also apply this principle to our most hotly contested, emotionally-charged issues. We need to spend more time casting a vision of God’s good design for human life and the peace found within it.
Progressives assert that accepting all choices as equal is the only compassionate response; they say the conflict experienced when desiring that which is not allowed brings too much psychological pain. They tell us that normalizing all inclinations, orientations, and self-identifications is the road to better mental health. But in the decades since the sexual revolution, America’s mental health has taken a nosedive, despite increased personal freedom and more people than ever before having access to mental health treatment.
Our permissiveness has not made us happier. We are not healthier. We just keep moving the guardrails of the human experience further and further from the centerline, assuming that more liberty will do the trick. All evidence is to the contrary.
Does living within traditional/conservative norms ensure lives free from pain and inner conflict? Absolutely not. But our anything-goes ethos is rife with bad outcomes, which bring their own brands of despair.
We can’t pass enough laws to heal our culture. That’s what conservatives must get our heads around. The bills we pass today to prevent Americans from indulging themselves to death stop the bleeding for a moment but will be undone in a few years if we can’t convince the younger generation that God’s way works better. Our children–even those raised in Christian households–are inundated daily with a narrative that celebrates all choices as equal and condemns limitations as hateful oppression. They need to hear from us what living according to traditional Judeo-Christian values offers them, not just the progressive hysteria about what these values ask them to give up.
We must get better at telling America what we’re for, starting in our own homes.