Caldwell, ID. Though more a default posture than an explicit commitment, Front Porch Republic has tended to fight culture wars battles by not constantly fighting culture wars battles. In other words, we have tried to keep our focus on commending works of lasting merit and the habits and customs of people seeking to live in neighborly peace rather than condemning the myriad examples of foolishness and sin that distort our world. We have attracted writers and readers who desire to preserve goods and build bridges first. Some of us, I suspect, would acknowledge that the culture wars must still be fought, but we are glad to help preserve a small corner of the internet dedicated to other goods. Others are more truly culture wars pacifists. Personally: I used to be a culture wars pacifist given how staged, manipulative, banal, and demeaning many such debates are. I’m now more willing to engage, but with what I would describe as just war limits. I’m trying to avoid panic and the collateral damage that flows from scorched earth total war, and to play the long game with hopeful expectation.
Carl Trueman has helped me understand these tense debates with more clarity. His recent bestselling books trace the roots of several deeply entrenched beliefs about human nature and our world that have led us into bewildering territory, and he concludes both books with a look back into the hopeful endurance of the ancient church and a call to faithful Christian work in local churches in the present. He has also sparked fruitful discussion here at FPR and among my friends and colleagues at The Ambrose School, where we have been reading his work together. Several of these questions flow out of our recent conversations about his book.
Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, a contributing editor for First Things, and the author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and its briefer companion volume, Strange New World. He is also one of the speakers at the upcoming Front Porch Republic Conference at Grove City College.
Stewart: How did your scholarly work on the Reformation shape this book? What historical rhymes between your work on the Reformation and your work on the present were most striking to you?
Trueman: There are two clear points of contact. First, there is my approach. This is one that engages in a type of intellectual history that builds a narrative in terms of historical explanation rather than dogmatic evaluation. I am always first and foremost interested in how and why certain ideas emerged than in whether they are true or false, useful or harmful. Thus, I tend to avoid contemporary polemic, at least as a methodological concern, when engaging in historical work. Second, there is the issue of the nature of authority. I have not thus far attempted to connect the Rousseau trajectory with the Reformation but clearly both connect as responses to the collapse of church authority.
Stewart: Both of your recent books trace international and national scale cultural changes, yet your most direct proposal for fighting these changes is, refreshingly, grounded in the good work done by local churches. That’s a solution most FPR readers would welcome. How have others responded to your call to focus more on the good work done in local churches?
Trueman: The general response has been positive. Most people I have spoken to know that the wider cultural context is beyond their power to reshape. To focus on the local is thus both liberating, as it removes an impossibly heavy burden, and realistic. We can all see how we can make a difference in the place where we actually live.
Stewart: My dad was too busy being a man to be worried about his masculinity, and likewise for my mom with respect to her femininity. Following their lead, I would rather that masculinity and femininity be caught more often than taught. My position is that Christians would do well to focus more on training young people in the Fruits of the Spirit, the virtues, valuable disciplines and trades, etc. Too much talk seems to result in anxiously performative, cartoonish versions of masculinity and femininity more than the mature and healthy versions. A friend has reminded me that many children do not have good role models like my parents. Has the caught more than taught moment passed?
Trueman: I hope it has not passed. Given the importance of intuition to our most important relationships, it is hard to see how, say, being a parent can be taught without some element of it being caught. Love, responsibility, moral virtue, sacrifice—these are not techniques, after all. But it is clear that we need to think of new ways by which the ‘caught not taught’ principle might be manifested. Opening our homes for hospitality, having friendships with those of different generations, being part of communities such as church—all need to play their part.
Stewart: It is obvious to anyone who has survived to adulthood without being imprisoned that we are all plagued on occasion with intense desires that must be resisted. Even if we do not take the next step in recognizing that these desires themselves can be sinful, and thus not just resisted but mortified, we still know that we need to resist them. Many people can do so in all kinds of contexts, with sports being perhaps the most obvious example of a widespread social activity that demands us to discipline our desires in order to succeed. Why is it so hard for us to extend the basic common sense of just about every human endeavor to sexual desire, which, as you write, is limited in our mainstream public discourse only by the thin category of consent?
Trueman: Freud is surely onto something here. Sexual desires are among the most powerful things we experience as human beings. Literature is replete with examples of sex as the most creative and destructive of human drives—from The Iliad to the latest beach novel. I think we like sex, we like our desires, and we don’t like to be told we need to restrain them.
Stewart: You are among a minority of public intellectuals who have eschewed Twitter. Like you (if I assume correctly), I think just about everyone would be better off quitting social media and spending less time online. It seems like this position is more common than it was even a few years ago. Yet we still live in a world profoundly shaped by digital platforms and technologies, and individual choices to forego them do not shield us from their far-reaching effects. Is our society’s greater awareness of the damages wrought by our digital world a sign of a widespread reevaluation, or will these digital worlds continue to be prized as a means of realizing the malleable, performative self we have come to idealize?
Trueman: There are hopeful signs. The lukewarm reception of the Metaverse is encouraging—also the fact that online teaching was regarded (at least by myself and my students) as a mediocre alternative to the real-time physical classroom. But social media is with us to stay. I personally avoid it because it would consume time I could spend on other things and because the bile it often involves would paralyze me. But for many it is the means by which they can produce the performative self that makes them feel significant. Indeed, for some, I fear, it is their ‘self’ and thus critical to their existence.
Stewart: You are working at the level of climate in your recent books. To discuss some more recent weather—do you think cultural conservatives should be speaking more publicly and often about how much money is at stake in debates over transgenderism? It might be worth asking the cui bono question more often. Who benefits from an ideology that tells young people that they need expensive, debilitating, and multi-stage surgeries, as well as lifelong medication, to be themselves? Can we fight battles against the influence of these powerful people while still showing compassion to those who are facing genuine struggles in a complex moment?
Trueman: It is interesting that in Europe, with government health systems, there is now some pushback against the excesses of the trans movement, especially with regard to hormonal and surgical procedures for minors. My suspicion is that that could well be connected to how the pharmaceutical industry is funded in such places. In the U.S., there is too much money at stake for such companies. They do not care about the bogus science that drives the issue nor the countless lives they are destroying. That needs to be exposed. And we need to be speaking and writing to that effect.
But we do need always to make a distinction between the political and financial interests who exploit the trans issue and the many individual lives being destroyed by it. I say ‘No quarter!’ for the former while stressing the need for immense compassion towards the latter.
Stewart: Sometimes I catch myself thirty minutes into reading the same old clickbait articles on culture war clashes over identity, wondering where the time went. In these moments, I’ve wondered if I’m just getting worked up over identity issues because they are relatively easy to understand. It’s much more difficult for me to read about foreign policy, for example, so I pretend I’m being productive by checking in on the culture wars when I’m really just procrastinating. You’ve offered a more complex interpretation of the deeper currents that have created our new social imaginary. Granted those deeper changes that take more work to understand, do you think there’s anything to the theory that we just fight about identity all the time because it’s accessible to most of us? Are we headed for a competency collapse because we have too long ignored issues that require more discipline to investigate?
Trueman: Perhaps. But I suspect it is more likely the result of the immediacy of identity issues for most people. Foreign policy is important but it does not manifest itself in the DEI policies at people’s places of employment. It doesn’t give open access to boys to use the girls’ restroom at the local high school. It doesn’t infringe on parental right in the way that the sexual revolution does. Will that lead to a crisis in competency on other issues? Well, only if ordinary people in the past were generally competent in those other areas. Which I doubt.
Stewart: What advice do you have for teachers and parents who advise young people on their professional futures? Do you think teachers and parents should advise students to aspire to callings, professions, and careers with enough cultural influence to change the social imaginary you describe in your books, or do you think this is so comprehensive and destructive that they should focus more on building alternative institutions? On a related note, where would you place yourself in relation to the classic Christ and culture categories of H. Richard Niebuhr?
Trueman: Be a contributing member of the place where you find yourself. If you find yourself writing for the NYT or elected to congress, then use that platform for good. If you run a lawn mowing company in your small rural town, use that platform for good.
Do we need alternative institutions? Perhaps the time will come when yes, we need a parallel, almost underground, education system—akin to the ones Roger Scruton and Jacques Derrida both served in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era. But we are also inextricably bound to the institutions of society as it is constituted—we have bank loans, we buy electricity from the grid, etc. We have to live effectively in the world as we find it.
As to Niebuhr, I’ve never really bothered much with his categories. Life is too complicated for neat categories like that. Most, if not all of us, are eclectic in practice.
Stewart: How have you come to think about your own role in the culture wars?
Trueman: I want to be persuasive. And merely screaming at opponents is not an effective way of being so. Is it a war? Yes, in terms of the destruction we are seeing being pushed by ideologues on both the far left and the far right. But persuading the non-extremists of a better way requires thoughtful engagement, not mortar shells and carpet bombing.
Stewart: You seem to be working within the negative world framework (to borrow from Aaron Renn), but unlike some others who have made the shift to working in the negative world, you are not as hostile to those who worked in the neutral world framework, or who still try to work in that mode. Would you say that you are a neutral world Christian mugged by negative world reality, to pun on the old description of the neoconservatives? What can be rescued from the neutral world frameworks that developed? Is faithful presence possible? What bridge-building efforts remain?
Trueman: I’d refer to an earlier answer. Life is complicated, we all exist in different context where different degrees of conflict and opposition exist. These models might be useful as heuristic devices for explaining certain pathologies of our current moment but I fear that allowing them to become the driving force of strategy or policy could prove problematic. Is faithful presence possible? Yes, but not in the relatively low-cost manner of previous generations. Can we build bridges? Well, that’s already being done in co-belligerence with, say, some feminists regarding the trans issue. One size or one simple framework simply won’t fit all. And as for me, I do my best to take as good faith actors those Christians who see the world differently. That seems an appropriate and charitable stance.
Stewart: Thank you for taking time for this interview, and for your charitable clarity in our confusing times.
Photo of No Man’s Land in Verdun, France. Credit.