Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

The Long, Withdrawing Roar

From Culture Wars to Culture Clashes.

Philip S. Gorski

Left to right: Mike Lindell, Facebook; Paula White, Facebook; Eric Metaxas, Chris Kleponis/Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo; Leo Bozell, U.S. Department of Justice; Jerry Falwell Jr., White House Photo/Alamy Stock Photo; background, James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991); THR illustration.

Imagine the history of America’s modern culture wars as a photomontage. In the first frame are two images: one of Billy Graham preaching to a spellbound crowd at Dodger Stadium, the other of the evangelist standing beside President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. In the second frame are two images of Jerry Falwell: preaching at his Lynchburg, Virginia, megachurch in the first, and campaigning for Ronald Reagan on behalf of the Moral Majority in the second. In the third diptych, the sons and heirs of Graham and Falwell, Franklin and Jerry Jr., are making separate appearances on Fox News to endorse Donald Trump. Final frame: a picture of Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, summoning angels from Africa to protect Trump, and another of radio host and pro-Trump pundit Eric Metaxas sucker-punching a left-wing protester on the streets of Washington, DC, after attending Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House.

That is the evangelical part of the photomontage. There is a Catholic story, too. It could be told as a sort of twentieth-century Buddenbrooks, featuring a collage of three photos. The first shows that other “sage of Omaha,” Leo Brent Bozell, founder of the Bozell marketing agency. In the second, his Yale-educated son, L. Brent Jr., is posing with his wife, Patricia Buckley, and father-in-law, William F. Buckley. Bozell Jr. is holding up a copy of Triumph, the conservative Catholic magazine he founded. The last photo captures the great-grandson, Leo IV, inside the Senate chamber, which he helped storm on January 6, 2021.

The closing shot in our photomontage would juxtapose two images. On the left, the so-called Brooks Brothers riot, when conservatively clad Republican operatives under the leadership of James Baker III “stormed” the offices of the Miami-Dade election supervisors’ offices in late November 2000, bringing the tallying of ballots in the disputed state of Florida to a halt. On the right, the so-called Capitol riot of January 2021, and its media figurehead, the “QAnon Shaman,” horned helmet in hand, leading a Christian prayer from the Senate dais.

Taken together, these images illustrate a series of interlocking changes in religion, society, and politics in the United States over the last half century, a transition from culture wars to culture clashes, or, to continue the military metaphor, from regular to irregular forms of cultural and political combat. The changes in the rules of engagement go together with and are driven by changes in the profiles of the combatants.

How can we explain this remarkable evolution?

In what has become a voluminous literature on the “religious right” and the “new right” more generally, one can distinguish three schools of thought. One focuses on the role of business interests that used cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion to distract working-class Americans from their material interest in higher wages and better social insurance. Call it the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” school, in honor of Thomas Frank’s best-selling book of the same name. Another focuses on the actions of political elites who used social conservatism and racial dog-whistles to draw “Reagan Democrats” and Southern whites into the Republican fold. Call it the “white flight” school. A third school focuses on the role of value conflict between conservatives and progressives in sparking the clash. Call it the “culture wars” thesis, in honor of the book in which James Davison Hunter first theorized it.11xThomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991); Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Each of these accounts has its merits. None of them tells the full story. Big business did get its tax cuts under Trump. It also got a trade war with China, a mismanaged pandemic, and mass protests on a scale not seen since the late 1960s. None of this is “good for business.” The Chamber of Commerce was not amused. The Republican Party did get its judges under Trump. In exchange, it got the QAnon Caucus, lost control of the other two branches of government, and is now in the midst of a civil war between a rump “establishment” and a MAGA insurgency. This is not what Mitch McConnell, now Senate minority leader, was bargaining for.

As for Trump-supporting evangelical conservatives, they got to “own the libs” and “say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” But their official leadership lost its prized “access” to the White House to Pentecostals and prosperity preachers. Their pro-Trump Catholic “cobelligerents” fared no better, despite their public prostrations. Meanwhile, the moral credibility and religious witness of white evangelicals were seriously damaged by their unwavering allegiance to a man utterly devoid of the “personal character” they once claimed to value so much. Billy Graham surely would not be happy.

So how did the culture wars that began in the 1970s devolve into the culture clashes of the present era? The best answer might come from an outsider: the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.22xHelpful introductions to Bourdieu’s thought include Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc J.D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

The Concentration of Cultural Capital

Much has been said and written about the increasing concentration of economic capital in American society and throughout the world. Disruption, financialization, globalization, automation—these are the reasons most often advanced for the growth of socioeconomic inequality. Less often remarked upon, at least in left-leaning academic analyses, is a corresponding concentration of cultural capital, Bourdieu’s most famous concept, in social and geographical space.

The term has two meanings in Bourdieu’s work: educational credentials and “legitimate” tastes. In meritocratic social orders such as ours, credentials are like capital.33xOn the malaises of meritocracy, see Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (New York, NY: Penguin, 2019), and Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Obtaining them requires a material “investment” of time and money, as well as a psychic investment in the “game” of education. Possessing credentials typically yields “returns” over time: material returns in earnings and wealth, but also psychic returns of honor and recognition. Similarly, in postaristocratic social orders such as our own, where birth no longer determines class, having the “right” tastes is both an indicator and a generator of social status and mobility (though taste itself is usually inherited, as part of one’s childhood socialization).

But cultural capital is not only more concentrated in the social space of the meritocracy; it is also more concentrated in geographic space. Educated elites and cultural institutions used to be distributed more evenly across the American landscape. The smart kids went to the state university and returned to their hometowns to be doctors and lawyers, and serve on church boards and city councils. Small cities and towns in the middle of the country had their own newspapers and radio stations, their own restaurants and shops, even their own orchestras and theaters. But today’s meritocrats flock to the metropoles, where they produce culture for export to the periphery.

The acquisition of cultural capital is, of course, connected with economic capital. The latter can be used to obtain the former, and vice versa. This is most obviously true in the case of academic credentials. Private schooling, professional coaching for standardized tests, unpaid internships—these are just a few of the mechanisms elite parents use to transmit a cultural inheritance to their offspring. Wealth is also crucial to the cultivation of taste. Affluent parents can make sure their children have “extracurricular activities” as opposed to “after-school jobs.” And educated parents can make sure their children pursue the “right” activities. Little wonder that the growth of economic inequality in America has gone hand in hand with a decline in social mobility, or that 30–40 percent of Ivy League undergraduates hail from the top 1 percent economically. The circulation of elites has given way to their reproduction. Nor did the Trump administration fully disrupt this process, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. True, President Trump’s cabinet did include a kakistocratic faction culled from the bottom feeders of the Beltway, but it also included a sizable number of Ivy League and military academy graduates.

The populist backlash that culminated in the Trump presidency had many sources, of course, and white racism and the far-right media ecosystem were surely among them. But so was the giant sucking sound in the country’s midsection that resulted from the concentration of cultural capital in the metropolitan meritocracy.


The Devaluation of Religious Capital

There was a time in American history, until around 1900, when religious capital, acquired through religious socialization and training and manifested in religious knowledge and piety, was actually the dominant species of cultural capital. Most of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious universities were originally religious institutions; many of the nation’s best and brightest became pastors and theologians. Most of the books, magazines, and pamphlets published in the United States were religious in nature. Many were even written by clergymen. Denominational hierarchies corresponded closely to social hierarchies. To be received into the Episcopal Church was to have arrived. WASP piety defined legitimate taste.

All this began to change in the late nineteenth century.44xChristian Smith, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003). More and more secular universities devoted to scientific research were established. Christianity and the classics were pushed to the margins of the curriculum to make way for humanistic and scientific subjects. Would-be clergy made way for aspiring managers and engineers. Divinity schools were—quite literally—moved from the center of campus to the periphery. Bohemian enclaves of secular intellectuals and educated professionals began to emerge in New York and elsewhere. Expertise gradually replaced character as the goal of education and the criterion for leadership. In short, a new form of secular cultural capital was in the ascendant.

The gradual devaluation of religious capital took the form of several interrelated processes. One was the rise of liberal Protestantism. By successively embracing evolution, science, and technocracy and embedding them in a postmillennial vision of social progress and reform, liberal Protestant theologians effectively enriched their old religious capital with the new secular capital. But as the religious historian David Hollinger sagely observed, liberal Protestantism would prove to be a “commodious halfway house” on the road to secular progressivism.55xDavid A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 46. And by the 1970s, many liberal Protestants had reached the end of the journey and taken the off-ramp.

Evangelicals, however, produced their own forms of cultural capital, and during the middle decades of the twentieth century, fundamentalists and evangelicals built a subculture that paralleled and even began to rival that of the mainstream.66xThe seminal text on this process remains Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997). They had their own colleges and universities, their own publishing houses and media outlets, their own tchotchkes and musicians. The largest evangelical “ministries” were in fact sprawling business empires with multimillion-dollar market valuations. In this way, evangelical capital could be used to generate economic capital. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the new religious capitalism was that it functioned not through forced expropriation but through voluntary self-expropriation: “Please dial now!”

The new evangelical capital could also be exchanged for political capital. Jerry Falwell had shown the way. But it was Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign that really blazed the trail. Where Falwell had sought “political access” in order to promote policies, Reed and Robertson sought political power for its own sake.

Meanwhile, as the number of educated evangelicals in the “halls of power”—in business, media, and government—increased, so too did the local value of evangelical capital.77xD. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007). Still, outside these circles, the exchange rate for evangelical capital was never favorable. The value of a degree from Wheaton College, the “evangelical Harvard,” did not yet equal that of a degree from the secular Harvard. Nor does it now.

The steady devaluation of religious capital and the infusion of economic and political capital brought about a gradual shift in the locus of religious authority. The shift can be readily seen in the history of the Grahams and Falwells. Both families’ patriarchs were theologically trained and denominationally ordained clergy whose reputations were largely based on preaching and publishing. In this, they resembled the evangelical revivalists of the nineteenth century, such as Charles Grandison Finney and Dwight L. Moody, or, for that matter, liberal clergy such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Bushnell. Not so their sons. Franklin Graham is a mediocre homilist whose official title is “CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.” Falwell Jr., meanwhile, is not even ordained; he often describes himself as a “real-estate developer.”

The shift becomes clearer still when we turn to Paula White and Eric Metaxas. White’s formal education ended with high school. Metaxas graduated from Yale, but with a degree in English. Their authority is not based on official positions within denominational organizations or formal training in Christian theology. Nor is it based on religious capital in any meaningful sense. Rather, it derives from business success, media savvy, political connections, and a “personal brand.” Their influence is the culmination of a broader trend in which religious authority increasingly draws from nonreligious sources: money, celebrity, and access.

Who Rules the Religious Field?

The second major concept in Bourdieu’s toolbox is his notion of the “social field.” He explains it through two analogies: the magnetic field and the playing field. Like magnetic forces, social forces are not visible to the naked eye. We know them from their observable effects: Individuals who enter a social field are sorted into a structured array of positions. The resulting pattern typically has two axes. The vertical axis of hierarchy is defined by the quantity of capital in one’s possession. The horizontal axis of orthodoxy is defined by the mix of capitals one holds, with cultural capital to the left and economic capital to the right.

Like the social field, Bourdieu’s second analogy, the playing field, has boundaries, rules, teams, and players. By stepping onto the field, one tacitly accepts the rules. The teams compete with one another, and so do the players. Just as the rules of soccer and football differ, so, too, do the rules of “serious games” such as academia and business. Like someone riding a stationary bicycle attached to an electric lamp and reading a book by its pedaling-generated light, the players in such games generate the magnetic forces that sustain and shape the field.

In some respects, says Bourdieu, social fields are “structurally invariant.” They are always characterized by hierarchy and orthodoxy. Some players are more powerful than others. Some teams set the rules that others must play by. In other regards, however, field structures can be highly variable. For example, some fields are highly self-regulated, or autonomous, while others are more susceptible to external pressure, or heteronomous. The boundaries of an autonomous field are clearly marked and well protected; those of a heteronomous one are lightly patrolled and easily breached. In autonomous fields, dominant insiders make and enforce the rules; in heteronomous ones, outsiders can break and alter the rules. The modern professions such as law and medicine are paradigmatic examples of autonomous fields.

The religious field in the United States has never possessed as much autonomy as the modern professions. During the colonial era, the availability of “free” land made it impossible to bound the religious field as a whole or to impose binding rules on everyone. “Heretics” could be expelled from the local “game,” but they could always start new “games” of their own. The Puritans banished Roger Williams; he responded by founding Rhode Island. It was a pattern repeated again and again in the centuries that followed. The US Constitution simply codified this state of affairs. The separation of church and state combined with the fact of religious pluralism meant that the boundaries of the religious field were not clearly drawn or well policed. Nor could they be. To be sure, individual congregations and denominations could and did establish their own communal rules and boundaries. But upstart preachers and movements had no difficulty penetrating the religious field. Nor do they today. Whence the ongoing invasions and insurrections known as the “Great Awakenings.”

What is perhaps distinctive about the present day is the unprecedented penetration of the religious field by conservative media. In a recent interview, legal scholar and commentator David French observed that most conservative white evangelicals spend far more time listening to right-wing radio and television “hosts” than to their own pastors.88xDavid French and Ruth Graham, “Divided We Fall,” Faith Angle (podcast), January 25, 2021, https://faithangle.podbean.com/e/david-french-and-ruth-graham-divided-we-fall/. On Twitter, one ex-evangelical wryly observed that Rush Limbaugh had a far greater impact on his understanding of Christianity than, say, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In a comparative ethnography of evangelical churches in Canada and the United States, sociologist Lydia Bean discovered that the most important conduit for conservative politics was not sermons from the pulpit by the pastor but monologues over coffee by influential parishioners—monologues, moreover, that tended to echo talking points from conservative media.99xLydia Bean, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

There are at least two other reasons for the vulnerability of the religious field to invasion and colonization. One is the decline of liberal Protestantism in both numbers and authority. Secular progressives often criticize the political instrumentalization of white evangelicalism, but they are unable to do so in Christian terms. Hence, their critiques tend to fall flat. Another reason is the racial segregation of American evangelicalism. Black evangelicals can and do criticize white evangelical politics in properly theological terms. But they do so from the outside. And they meet with massive resistance, as evidenced by the current debate about critical race theory within the Southern Baptist Convention. The debate divides along stark racial (and generational) lines, with older white theologians such as Mohler rejecting the arguments of younger black theologians such as Jemar Tisby.

How do we know that the religious field is heteronomous? Because it is continually invaded by “outsiders” who are often able to impose their own rules. Some of these outsiders are unschooled clergy like Paula White who claim a “prophetic call” to the ministry. Others are political activists such as Charlie Kirk who make no claim to a clerical vocation and seek to impose political litmus tests on their evangelical followers. Little wonder, then, that the political preferences of white evangelicals have become so completely aligned with the Republican Party platform, to a degree that is true of no other religious group in America, whether on the left or the right.

Nor is the invasion by Republican operatives the only source of heteronomy. The religious field in the United States is increasingly permeated by economistic language and practice. Pastors model themselves after CEOs. Congregations hire “church growth consultants.” Megachurches are laid out like shopping malls. “Church plants” are often just the local franchise of a national chain. Christian financial advisor Dave Ramsey’s podcasts probably exert a greater influence on the economic theology of many white evangelicals than Jesus’s counsel in Matthew 5:42 to “give to him who begs from you.”

Many conservative evangelicals speak derisively of “the culture” as if it were something external to “the church.” In truth, the evangelical movement, as they understand it, is increasingly indistinguishable from American culture, or, more precisely, from certain racial and regional variants of it. Complaints about “attacks on the church” are often just veiled complaints about attacks on “the culture,” or, rather, a culture, or the declining hegemony of that culture.

Which leads, in turn, to rearguard defenses.

The Formation of the “Warrior” Habitus

The third component of Bourdieu’s conceptual triumvirate is his notion of the “habitus.” Like cultural capital and the social field, it has two components: embodied dispositions and conceptual schemas. Anticipating more recent findings in the cognitive sciences, Bourdieu long endorsed the seventeenth-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz’s view that roughly three quarters of our thoughts and decisions occur outside the theater of consciousness. Our actions are more often the result of dispositions than of deliberations, dispositions that arise out of “the body” rather than “the mind,” at least as that distinction is conventionally understood. Similarly, in line with cognitive linguists, Bourdieu argues that we experience and evaluate the world through binary codes and narrative frames—what he calls “principles of vision and di-vision”—rather than through “facts” or “arguments” in the philosophical sense. The habitus is formed through socialization and reinforced by social experience. It is, in a sense, an internalized form of social structure that mirrors and legitimates our location in social space.

There has long been a tension between the Christian habitus and the masculine habitus. This is one reason why women have always been overrepresented in the pews, if not the pulpits. It is also why devout men, including clergy, have often been accused of being overly feminine. One common strategy for alleviating this tension is to Christianize martial virtues, and even to martialize Christ himself. There are two main textual means to this general end. One is to invoke the warrior-heroes of the Old Testament, such as David or Samson. Another is to cite the military metaphors of the New Testament, such as Paul’s call, in Ephesians 6:11, to “put on the whole armor of God.” Another common strategy for alleviating the tension is to interpret military conflict through an eschatological lens. The two frames that are usually employed are the “conquest of the Promised Land” and “the battle of Christ and Anti-Christ.” These frames have proven their utility again and again, from the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages through the European colonization of the New World to America’s War on Terror. Today, conservative white Christians deploy these conceptualizations against their liberal “enemies.”

Yet old as it is, there is still something new and distinctly American about the warrior ethos that has taken hold in some segments of the MAGA-supporting Christian right. One thing that is new, if not distinctly American, is the political messianism of the Trump cult. Eric Metaxas, for example, has publicly avowed his willingness to die for Trump—not for Christ, for Trump. Can anyone imagine Billy Graham girding his loins to die for Nixon? On the contrary, Graham was so chastened by the Watergate scandal that he maintained a certain distance from partisan politics ever after.

Nor is this specific to Metaxas. Many of the self-identified Christians who heard him speak before the January 6 insurrection were more than willing to mix it up. One thing that is both new and distinctly American is the mélange of symbolism from Christian Scripture and the Marvel Universe, the Christian warrior qua superhero qua Trump. It is one of the more visible manifestations of the cultural captivity of Trumpian Christianity—or, more broadly, of white Christian nationalism.

A third thing that is not new but is distinctly American is the individuation of the present-day culture warrior. There is a long tradition of irregular warfare in the United States that has been somewhat obscured from popular memory by the uniformed military and set-piece battles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but which has nonetheless been preserved in popular culture in cinematic figures such as the action-movie character Jason Bourne and the onscreen persona cultivated by John Wayne.1010xJohn Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008). The would-be irregular militias and lone warriors who stormed the Capitol were the physical embodiment of all these trends.

In this regard, it is telling that the old discourse of a “culture war” has now given way to a new discourse of “fighting.” In our cultural imaginations, “wars” are collective affairs fought by faceless “soldiers.” “Fights” on the other hand, take place between individual men.

The Slow Disintegration of “Little Platoons”

Beginning with the creation of the Moral Majority and the election of Ronald Reagan, conservative white evangelicals mobilized around a series of parachurch political organizations led by ordained Protestant clergymen, drew clear battlelines around certain moral concerns (i.e., abortion and gay marriage) for which they could produce theological warrants, and engaged in an electoral tug of war with a ragtag team of Democrats. Like the trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I, it was a battle fought over feet and inches and determined by logistics and supply lines as much as heroism and bravery. Yesterday’s culture war has now been replaced by disparate cultural clashes. Trench warfare has given way to “spiritual warfare” and the Moral Majority to the “Jericho March.” “Family values” was followed by “owning the libs.” Logistics devolved into “prophecy” and supply lines to cosplay. Religious leaders are drawn from the world of broadcast media instead of evangelical seminaries.

The comic-book costumes and hyperbolic rhetoric of the culture clashers has led some observers to dismiss their actions as “performative.” This is a very serious mistake, as we all learned on January 6, 2021. Donning a costume can be a form of play. But play can be serious. And slipping on a costume can also be a way of sloughing off moral restraint. Just ask the Ku Klux Klan. Hyperbole can likewise be a form of humor. But it can be a means of dehumanization. Acts of symbolic violence can lay the groundwork for acts of physical violence. The dichotomy between performativity and power is false. In politics, performance is constitutive of power.1111xIsaac Ariail Reed, Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

How can we explain this shift from culture wars to culture clashes? Extant accounts fall short. The new politics of culture clashes is not in the interest of established economic, political, or religious elites. Nor is it rooted in affirmative values or concrete policies. Culture skirmishers do not have a positive agenda, apart from “winning.” They are against things, not for things.

Culture skirmishing can be partly understood as a backlash against the cultural power of the metropolitan meritocracy. The hyperconcentration of so much cultural capital in a few cultural capitals has had the same effect on the cultural life of smaller communities in the American heartland as the hyperconcentration of economic capital has had on their economic life. It has hollowed it out. Metropolitan meritocrats gladly point their fingers at the economic elites but are often reluctant to acknowledge the role they themselves have played in the expropriation process.

This is not the whole story. The devaluation of religious capital also plays a role. It had two main causes: the exit of highly educated liberal Protestants from the religious field (and their cultural capital with them) and the diminished exchange value of the new currency (evangelical capital) within the cultural and economic fields. This devaluation of theological education and denominational offices led some religious entrepreneurs to pursue more hybrid strategies of capital accumulation: a radio show instead of a divinity degree, church growth instead of church office, real estate instead of the revival circuit, political access instead of spiritual inspiration, and so on. Of course, celebrity pastors are as old a tradition as the Great Awakenings in the United States. What is new is the lack of serious competition from “settled clergy” and the degree to which celebrity is based on success in business, party politics, and media as opposed to prominence in preaching, pastoring, and church politics. One result of these shifts has been a trend in which power has moved away from the likes of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to people like Paula White and Eric Metaxas, a change that was accelerated by the Trump presidency. Another result is the increasing heteronomy of the religious sphere, which is to say, the growing influence of nonreligious values such as wealth, health, and well-being, and of theological alchemists who try to recast these attributes as “biblical,” “traditional,” or “orthodox.” Those who would defend “the church” against “the culture” seem not to realize that they have not only lost the battle but joined the other side.

Which is one more reason why “fighting” has more and more become an end in itself. But not the only one. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez shows at length in her widely read book, Jesus and John Wayne, the Protestant ethic and the warrior spirit have long had an elective affinity in the United States.1212xKristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2020). But why the seeming resurgence of the warrior ethos in recent years? Observers on both the left and the right tend to attribute it to the growing power of women in American society. They are not wrong to draw this conclusion. But the recent resurgence also has to do with declining wage and marriage rates. Work and family have long been the arenas in which male aggression and competitiveness could be sublimated into respectable forms of masculine achievement and honor. Increasingly, these arenas, too, are dominated by successful members of the metropolitan meritocracy. Additionally, this martial resurgence has to do with the slow disintegration of the “little platoons” in religious and civic life that once imposed discipline and order in local communities. Which, in turn, explains the longing in some quarters for a Big Man to re-establish order in their stead.

There are no easy remedies for these multifarious ills, only hard ones. Religious leaders need to retreat from politics and re-establish their authority over the religious field. They should focus on building the Kingdom instead of “changing the culture”—because “the culture” has already colonized their kingdom. Political leaders need to retreat from culture wars and focus on the common good. They should spend more time on governance and less on grievance. And members of the metropolitan meritocracy should own up to the role they and their elite institutions and attitudes have played in creating the very ills they bemoan. They should spend more time on real community building and less on scolding the insufficiently “woke.”

No easy remedies, to be sure.