The story was a familiar one - they would be princesses. The society cultivated three Chinese sisters through a complex set of demands and rituals all prescribed by tradition. Their society carefully refined them to serve as representatives of the people, incarnations of the country. In the end their kingdom demanded that they submit their individualities to its needs – marry three foreign princes to secure a treaty. The storybook plot suffered a fatal flaw.
Disney, the great post-modern bard, chose the story and crafted the plot to create a convention that it could artistically abrogate. As the story developed, the characters’ dialogue and attitudes progressively reveal a discreetly oppressive system. Tradition had become an imperialistic power put in place by narrow minded leaders intent on perpetuating their own conservative views of human society. The audience becomes disgusted with the power of the heroines’ social experiences which coerce them to deny their own individual desires. The plot comes to a crisis when the princesses fall in love with common military guards thereby devastating the international treaty. Rather than assume the role marked out for them by their people’s traditions, they decides to “be themselves.” In the movie’s apogee, the princesses turn for help to their escort, Mulan, who helps them break off the planned weddings. She comes to the conclusion that the would-be princesses should not have to marry men they do not love. Her military escort chides Mulan for disobeying the Emperor’s orders. “You place your feelings above everything. Duty, obligation, tradition, it all means nothing to you.” This line of reasoning had tremendous power: the entire nation needs Mulan to support the Emperor’s orders by encouraging the three women to marry their designated suitors; society’s traditional demands must supersede their preferences. Disney writes into Mulan’s response a concise expression of a postmodern worldview that has come to dominate American culture. Mulan indignantly retorts, “It (duty, obligation and tradition) mean everything to me. My heart tells me my duty and I follow it.”
A superficial reading of the quote, “my heart tells me my duty,” reveals a contradiction – following the proclivities of one’s heart cannot be considered a duty. A deeper reading however reveals a worldview which has come to dominate American culture. Disney’s Mulan played the role of Sybil rather than that of a servant of the Wei Dynasty. Her words prophesied the future of the culture war roiling the nation’s universities, media outlets, and entertainment institutions. Over the subsequent fifteen years intellectuals, bearing a resemblance to Mulan’s striking moral individualism, won that war. They now dominate the mediating institutions which powerfully influence public opinion. Cultural critics have come to describe the new status quo with the term postmodern but in so doing have neglected to realize that its proponents do so as an ethical program meant to destroy an imperialistic elite for the sake of humanity.
II. The Secular New Left wins the Culture War
America is just emerging from this decade’s long culture war. Since the 1960’s American intellectuals and culture makers have determined to reposition the nation on a secular footing. Through movies, laws, court decisions, music, and literature, thinkers have intentionally knit a new cultural fabric with which to hold American life together. Christianity, once the basis for the nation’s culture, is now seen as a bigoted, narrow-minded worldview which has corrupted American society. In response many intellectual elites champion a secular worldview which they believe will undergird a more just and fair society.
It is quickly becoming apparent that following a decades’ long culture war the secularists have successfully gained control of the public square(1). Although Christians still play prominent roles in society, the secularists have become the culture makers, dominating the news, entertainment, courts, schools, and even many churches (liberal Protestants would resist the use of the word secular but they think in secular patterns.) The public now takes for granted a general secular worldview that prizes politically correct language and tolerance of diverse lifestyles. Although many continue to resist the new state of affairs, Americans are embracing a secular worldview at an accelerated rate. The development of secularism in American thought sheds light not only on the nature of this culture war but also on the peace that will follow it.
The culture war dates back to the heavy fighting which engulfed American society in the years after World War II. Although one can trace the first points of conflict back to the rise of Pragmatism at the turn of the 20th century, the heaviest fighting began in the 1950’s. During the early years of the Cold War American intellectuals decided that Judeo-Christian(2) traditions posed the greatest danger to America’s, and even the world’s, progress. They learned from two global wars that worldviews wield a power far greater than modern weapons.
For the emerging secular elite, the tragedies of World War II revealed the horrific dangers not primarily of weapons but of worldviews. The guns and explosives which tore Europe to pieces only represented the final expression of a more insidious evil. Behind the cataclysm of the 1930’s and 40’s, toxic worldviews inspired average citizens to hate people merely for being different. Suffering under Mussolini’s nationalistic regime, Italian dissident Antonio Gramsci revealed the poisonous root of this evil: people who claim to stand for moral absolutes subvert culture for their own uncompromising ambitions. Gramsci argues that “ideologies are the form” which direct “material forces.” Therefore a given social group exerts control as a means of “domination and as intellectual and moral leadership.” Once in control cultural elites ostracize, or worse annihilate those who fail to comply with those moral standards.(3) As Gramsci saw it, Nazi and Italian Fascist hegemony served as the true cause of World War II’s horrors. After the smoke of the terrible war cleared, American intellectuals came to believe that their nation suffered the imperialistic dominance of a hegemonic power even older than fascism: Judeo- Christian values.
Although America’s “intellectual and moral leaders” had not yet cordoned atheists off into urban ghettos, their conservative ideals and moral absolutes played leading roles in such dramas as segregation, xenophobic reactions to immigration, sexual repression, and capitalistic exploitation.(4) By enforcing moral absolutes people who advanced America’s conservative culture created a society in which compliant people enjoy prosperity, freedom, and self- fulfillment. Deviants who resist the moral absolutes, such as feminists, atheists, homosexuals, and even freedom minded blacks, suffered both political and economic disenfranchisement. Worse than causing social injustice, secularists of the 1950’s worried that Judeo-Christian hegemony represented the first stage of an oppression that would one day lead to war. To save America from Europe’s fate intellectuals set out to undermine the Judeo-Christian ideals which had influenced America since the settling of New England in the seventeenth century. Objectivity itself became the boogey man which the new secular elite determined to destroy. According to Francois Lyotard, these cultural warriors cultivated an “incredulity toward metanarratives.”(5) Truth, they argued, would be determined by the social consequences of any idea and consensus; the objective claims of the Judeo-Christian worldview proved oppressive and therefore wrong.
Between 1950 and 1970 a new generation of intellectuals developed a worldview at odds with the nation’s traditional way of looking at the world. They laid the groundwork for Mulan to reject Confucian tradition, a not so covert rejection of America’s Judeo-Christian culture. The Beatniks launched a Cultural Revolution through art. Jack Kerouac found himself on the road and wrote a book describing how he assiduously avoided the structures of America’s traditional society. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Borroughs experimented with new art forms, sexual experiences, and psychotropic drugs to shatter the general population’s conformity to traditional values, worldview, and lifestyles. In 1953 Alfred Kinsey shocked American society with a study claiming that women yearned for more satisfying sexual lives showing that the nation’s traditional relationships were incomplete, or worse, destructive to human fulfillment. Cultural dissidents made a significant impact but failed to transform their haphazard criticisms of America’s traditional society into a working theory. C. Wright Mills, professor of sociology at Columbia University between 1946 and 1962, did what the Beatniks could not – he outlined a secular system of thought.
Historians of American culture have called C. Wright Mills the father of the New Left.(6) Mills analyzed American society finding in its very structures an embedded inequality and injustice. Social structure, rather than a system, expresses an oppressive system that undermines what he called “biography,” that is, the individual’s self-determination.(7) Mills provided a well- crafted theoretical framework which young thinkers could grasp and then put to work deconstructing the traditional infrastructures which Americans had built to teach virtue. A new group of intellectuals declared war on all structure including the Marxism they learned from their professors.(8) They called themselves the New Left and came to speak for a generation of college students. In 1962 Tom Hayden, then a student at Michigan University and president of the Students for a Democratic Society, penned something of a manifesto for the New Left movement called the Port Huron Statement. Hayden called on his generation to commit to a revolution that would unwind the traditional structures of American culture. “A new left,” he claimed, “must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.”
New Left ideas garnered ever wider support in the universities which incubated a new generation of cultural leaders dedicated to remaking the nation’s values. They marched in lock step with one of its most compelling leaders Herbert Marcuse. To advance the New Left against Judeo-Christian hegemony Herbert Marcuse, professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, provided what would become the prevailing strategy in the culture war: repressive tolerance. For Marcuse America would only evolve past its old corrupt traditions when the weak rise up to oppress the powerful by destroying conventional morality. Following Marcuse’s strategies and New Left ideas, cultural warriors enlisted a wide range of arguments, intellectuals, and tactics to dilute Christian influence. The movement had profound success supporting the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s but it also indiscriminately attacked nearly all the traditions upon which the nation had been built.
The cutting edge criticisms of America’s traditional values meant little to the general public until the end of the 1960’s. In order to make their point about Christian hegemony secular elites used the metaphor of imperialism: a powerful minority influencing culture to exercise dominance over the majority. More than any other event, the Vietnam War, specifically the military (Tet Offensive) and moral (My Lai) failures of 1968, made the New Left message relevant. The war itself became a parable of America’s inherent flaws: a first world power (leaders of traditional culture) fought a modern mechanized war (economic sophistication of capitalistic wealth) with a pre-modern tribal people (the American poor). American leaders supposedly instigated a war in Vietnam to stop communists (atheists and libertines) in order to protect democracy (America’s Christian heritage). Like the Vietcong who subversively undercut the American military force, cultural renegades assaulted the institutions that imperialistically dominated American culture. Marriage, once the fundamental building block of western politics and society, became an oppressive weapon used to instantiate gender inequality. Sexuality, once an act of pleasure in service of committed love, became an open act of rebellion against moral repression. Pregnancy, once the hallowed beginnings of human life, became a medical condition which a woman could cure in order to break shackles associated with parenthood. The work ethic, once considered a person’s self-sacrificial service to society and family, became a psychology of exploitation remedied by entitlement. The secular left uprooted every footing of Judeo-Christian culture in an effort to create what it hoped would become a society of free, equal, self-fulfilled individuals.
Destroying the traditional moral structures latent in America’s economics, culture, and society meant changing the minds of the general public. In order to convince the public New Left Secularists fought to control the mediating institutions of American culture. For the New Left Secularists(9) of the 1960’s, America’s Judeo-Christian elites had created a culture based on absolutes. Mediating institutions such as schools, media, entertainment, churches, and news outlets reinforced Judeo-Christian morals helping to create a broad consensus regarding right and wrong. Secularists joined the culture war in battles fought to gain control of institutions which would give them unobstructed access to public opinion. By the 1960’s a new generation of intellectuals began using television, radio, and print media to translate the secular elites’ views in ways that would transform public opinion. Using humor in shows like Will and Grace they showed the harmlessness of gay relationships. News reporters from multiple outlets uncovered the psychological harm of intolerance. Public school curricula taught children that homosexual families are normal and only those who engage in sexual experimentation find happiness. The Supreme Court argued that aborting a fetus is a matter of sexual privacy. Liberal churches redefined grace to mean the acceptance of any and every lifestyle choice. Secularists affected a cultural revolution through their control of mediating institutions, setting off dramatic shifts in public opinion.
Secularists, now with streaming access to American society, focused on changing the way that its people defined the words “right” and “wrong.” Psychological health and self-fulfillment, the secularists argued, only result from freely practicing one’s chosen lifestyle without facing intolerant judgment. In order to make this point, New Left Secularists came to argue that society should not teach people right and wrong but rather it should provide a public space in which people can experiment with their identities without suffering criticism. According to Charles Blow, syndicated writer for the New York Times, even the free market must be secularized – “a nondiscriminatory zone in which your personal beliefs are checked at the register, and each customer is treated equally.”(10) In other words, whereas traditional American culture assumed that social life pressured people to obey certain moral norms, the new culture abandons all moral absolutes. Life in the public square now means leaving individuals to choose lifestyles without restraint.
Strategies of Culture War
The secularists concentrated on American colleges in order to train graduates who would wrest control of mediating structures from the tyrannical grip of social conservatives. For years the universities became the military schools which trained cultural warriors. Graduates inspired by the radical lessons they learned took jobs in the mediating institutions during the convulsive decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They intentionally made television programs that showed the virtue of lifestyles which defied Christian moral standards. The news media turned its cameras to parts of American society intent on blaming human suffering on traditional structures and mores. Politicians used legislation and regulation to change the nation’s discourse on a range of social, economic, and moral issues to dramatically change the way the nation functioned.
Seeking to control mediating institutions, secularists focused their efforts on grade schools. Public schools had the potential to effect a massive shift in public opinion. As John Dewey had seen it in 1916, “every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse. The school has the duty of omitting such things from the environment which it supplies, and thereby doing what it can to counteract their influence in the ordinary social environment.”(11) In a sense the secularists wanted the public schools to play the same role in the twentieth century that churches played in the early nineteenth century: institutions tasked with making people fit to live in society.
Unable to free schools from conservative state legislatures and town councils, secularists turned to the court system to free public education from the influence of Judeo-Christian traditions. Beginning as early as 1947 the Federal Supreme Court began defining schools as environments meant to be free from the judgmental religious views. It deemed that secularism was open and neutral, and it viewed Christianity as dangerously exclusionary and idealistic. The Supreme Court championed the secular paradigm making schools the front lines of the culture war. Although the Supreme Court abjured when it decided that transportation should be given to religious schools, it quickly changed its collective mind. In McCullom v. Board of Education (1948) the Court decided that public schools must not provide space for religion. Public schools must protect secularism in an effort to create an environment free of moral absolutes.
From the first cultural shudders unleashed by the Beatniks, to the secularization of the America school system, the New Left has effectively won the cultural war it launched. Christians no longer control the country’s mediating institutions and so have become the vanquished. Unfortunately, not only have Christians lost the war they do not understand the terms of their defeat. They believe that New Left Secularism, a synonym for postmodernism, is a virulent strain of relativism. It seems that music, media, and print art must always break rules to be considered avant gard. Secularists cheer and support the most deviant and vile of sexual lifestyle choices. Postmodern culture tolerates a youth culture that despises self-discipline, work, and compliance. These strategic rejections of traditional morals, however, do not represent an amoral relativism but rather tactical assaults on the hegemonic control of a moral elite. They encourage people to engage in licentious lifestyles to defeat the fascists. In March 2015 Elizabeth Ashack, an economist at the US Department of Labor tweeted, “people in red states vote for Nazis to govern, and then call themselves Christian, it will not end well for them.”
Evangelical Christians must understand the nature of New Left postmodern thought. Christians have known enough to fight back but most often have directed their assaults at the wrong targets. They describe the enemy as relativists or as illogical. Postmodernism is not an amoral cultural moment, rather it is a commitment to a single moral absolute: free individuals from the imperialism of tradition. Mulan committed her entire family to the “duties of her heart” and so has become a champion. Christians have the only Gospel that frees humanity from the bondage of sin. The challenge for American Christians will be to find viable ways of translating their worldview into cultural terms that contribute to human flourishing.
1. The public square is a very important concept in post-war America. It refers to the spaces in which all people can safely experiment with their own way of life, unmolested by moral criticism.
2. The term Judeo-Christian refers to a worldview inspired by Jewish and Christian traditions. Whereas the term “Christian” refers to a person with theological convictions, “Judeo-Christian” means a loyalty to moral absolutes which reflect Jewish and Christian traditions.
3. Gramsci, Antonio, and David Forgacs. 1988. An Antonio Gramsci reader: selected writings, 1916-1935. New York: Schocken Books., 199-200, 249-250.
4. Ibid., see chapter IX. Gramsci claims that “the new type of man demanded by the rationalization of production and work cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it too has been
rationalized.” (282) American capitalism is itself hegemonic, dictating sexual behavior to serve the demands of an elite empowered by production.
5. Lyotard, Jean-François, and Geoff Bennington. 2010. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press., xxiv.
6. For one of the best discussions of the New Left, read, Diggins, John P. 1973. The American Left in the Twentieth Century. New York [etc.]: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
7. Mills, Charles Wright, and Todd Gitlin. 2000. The sociological imagination. New-York: Oxford University Press., 12. Mills states that individual life is in post World War II culture divorced from “the larger institutions within which... (a person’s) life is enacted, and which on occasion bear upon it more greviously than do the intimate environments of childhood.”
8. This is a very short list of all the intellectuals who intentionally sought to undermine America’s traditional Christian worldview. We should not underestimate the influence of Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey assaulted Christian notions of sexual morality. In addition, Mao tse Tung had a tremendous impact on 1960’s intellectuals. These can be added to a long list of New Left Secular thinkers including: Norman Mailer, Malcom X, Che Guevara, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Saul Alinsky, Timothy Leary, Gloria Steinem, Katherine Millett, and many others. Richard Rorty, the late philosopher at Stanford University, was maybe the most important Secular philosophers of the twentieth century. See: Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press and 1999. Philosophy and social hope. New York: Penguin Books.
9. Given the iconoclastic character of the New Left and the anti-Christian tone of secularism, I feel that the two belong to the same movement in twenty-first century America. It would not have been fair to combine these two terms in the 1970’s or even 1980’s but the two have formed such a powerful alliance that they are now inseparable.
10. Charles M. Blow, “Religious Freedom vs Individual Equality,” New York Times, (New York, NY), April 1, 2015.
11. Dewey, John. 1922. Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan., 24.