The culture war is suddenly going well for conservatives. Ron DeSantis stripped Disney of some of the woke corporation’s privileges in Florida. Elon Musk is taking over Twitter. Roe v. Wade appears doomed. And a backlash against Critical Race Theory in schools and transsexuals in women’s sports looks set to benefit Republicans mightily in November’s midterm elections.
These are crucial battles. But they are not the war. The war is between race and sexuality on one side and traditional religion on the other. At any rate, those are the great causes with which the cultural left and right tend to identify.
The progress of the war is seen in the retreat of Christianity and the advance of racial and sexual agendas on all fronts. Every battlefield in American life reports the same results. Faith has become less conspicuous throughout popular culture, while racial and sexual identities have proliferated. Corporations advertise their allegiance to Black Lives Matter and the rainbow flag, while the maximum extent of Christian recognition is if a December social gathering is called a “Christmas party.”
The most striking proof that race and sexuality have triumphed over religion is found in the churches themselves. Female clergy, openly gay priests and bishops, and same-sex marriages are widely accepted within the Protestant mainline. Younger evangelicals are increasingly progressive in their sexual attitudes. Most Catholics disregard the Church’s teachings about contraception — and the day may soon come when divorced and remarried Catholics are welcome to partake of the Eucharist. While the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians declines, the number who identify as LGBTQ rises.
Christians were once at the forefront of the civil rights movement. But there is no Revd Martin Luther King, Revd Jesse Jackson — or even Revd Al Sharpton — at the fore of BLM. The Christian role in racial politics has diminished, even as the role of race within the Christian conscience has expanded. Some churches have more BLM signs than parishioners. And last year the Catholic University of America’s law school showcased a painting of Christ in which the Messiah bore an unmistakable resemblance to George Floyd. BLM has little need for Christianity, but many Christians are eager for the imprimatur of the new faith.
Why? Floyd provides the answer. He is a modern martyr.
The left wins the culture war through the blood of sacrifice. The racial turmoil that has plagued our country for the past decade has its origins in a series of well-publicized martyrdoms, from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd. Each victim gives urgency and power to street protests, demands for policy change — from defunding the police to de facto decriminalization of shoplifting, fare evasion and more serious offenses — and an overall narrative of white evil and black oppression: systemic racism.
Martyrdom drives the sexual revolution as well, at least beyond its initial hedonistic impulse. With the AIDS crisis, homosexuals became victims who gave their lives for love, a testimony too powerful for popular prejudice or biblical morality to gainsay. Was the murder of Matthew Shepard a hate crime or a result of drug-related robbery? Whatever the facts, the significance of his death lay in the way the media and gay-rights advocates presented it.
The trans cause has its martyrdom stories and statistics as well, some involving murder, others suicide — for which blame is laid not upon mental illness but on transphobic society. Transsexuals are not common enough for accounts of dying for their identity to be quite as pervasive as the stories of gay men’s and women’s suffering that moved America’s hearts over the last thirty years. But take note of the language of violence and lethal injustice that characterize the campaign for greater respectability.
The right’s side on the culture war has comparatively few martyrs. Religious liberties are violated by progressives, but no one dies for them anymore. The death toll from ordinary street crime is appalling, but for it to register as martyrdom requires a close connection to a higher cause. To die merely as a human being, not as a special, morally jeopardized class of person, is not enough. The one exception illustrates the rule: conservatives are poised to win the war over Roe because the unborn are a special class of martyrs for the right to life. But if Roe falls, progressives will make new martyrs out of any woman who dies from an outlawed procedure. Such victims cleared the way for Roe in the first place.
The Roman Empire lost its culture war against Christianity because the Christians welcomed martyrdom. Offered the chance to escape with their lives for only the slightest concession to the emperor’s divinity — a pinch of incense at his altar — Christians instead asked for death. This behavior was so extreme, so unreasonable, how could anyone not talk about it? And the more people talked, the more they heard Christ’s name, learned of his sacrifice, and converted — leaving the Romans to make more martyrs and so more Christians.
Conservative Christians remember these sacrifices. But memory is not as powerful as a fresh image. George Floyd is on CNN, while Christ is not.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.