In yesterday’s essay, I sketched the rise of a new normative kind of selfhood in the West, that of “psychological man.” I also suggested that understanding this development is an important element in understanding the times in which we live, because it lies behind so many of the seemingly disparate developments which are transforming our society, from sexual ethics to current concerns about racism. In today’s essay, I want to focus my argument on how this development is reshaping our cultural values: first, it has shifted attention to the use of language as central in discussion of oppression; and second, it is transforming traditional social virtues into political vices.
To return to my grandfather whom I mentioned in yesterday’s essay: for him oppression was a matter of not being able to find work, of not being paid a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work, of not being able to provide for his family. For today’s psychological self, oppression is a far broader concept with far less tangible, stable content. Oppression involves making people feel bad about themselves, less than fully human, or preventing them from being outwardly that which they are inwardly. In practice, this means that much of what is now considered oppression is linguistic in character. Words become all-important because words are speech-acts by which we acknowledge or deny the identity of another. We all intuitively understand this: to use a racial slur is not to describe someone but to denigrate them, to do something to them, to put them in their place. Words are, to use the hyperbolic jargon of our cultural moment, instruments of violence because injury is conceptualized in psychological terms. This is why speech codes are now so important. Even the accidental use of an inappropriate pronoun can be seen as an assault on someone’s person because it is seen as a denial of their identity.
Policing language thus becomes central to a society constituted by psychological selves. The net result of this is that matters once considered basic social goods such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion become problematic. They may have been virtues to the American Founders, but today they are rapidly coming to be seen as vices. Where the psychological self is normative, speech becomes violence and freedom of speech thus a license for violence. This in turn creates the strangest of situations: a society built on the notion of radical individual autonomy where the policing of language by the authorities becomes a vital part of the social contract. Individual freedom perversely comes to require political authoritarianism.
When we turn to religious freedom, the situation is even more conflicted than with freedom of speech. The specific nature of the revolution of the self, that which has placed sexual identity at the center, effects a transformation of the understanding of sex. It ceases to be what human beings do and becomes what they are. From a Christian perspective, this is politically dramatic because it takes behavior that Christianity regards as illegitimate and makes it an identity society regards as legitimate and therefore requires all its citizens to recognize for the common good. To object to homosexuality thus ceases to be merely to object to certain sexual practices or proclivities; it becomes the denial of the selfhood of another, an act of political violence.
This places Christianity (and indeed religious conservatism in general) in an invidious position. The moral imagination of contemporary society has moved private desires and behaviors that Christianity has traditionally anathematized to the center of public identity and civic belonging. A Christian may well say to a gay person that they disapprove of sex outside of marriage just as they disapprove of homosexuality and cannot therefore be guilty of homophobia. But in the discourse of a society that assumes the self as psychological, what the gay person hears is a denial of his very identity. To object to sex before marriage is to object to an illegitimate expression of a legitimate identity. To object to homosexual sex is to deny a gay person’s very sense of self. That makes Christianity not simply implausible but downright morally offensive, even politically seditious, because it seems to threaten the common good. To maintain Christian teaching on sex and marriage is to engage in speech-acts that are considered violent and damaging to self-identity and therefore to society in general.
This is why mere tolerance of LGBTQ+ identities was never going to be sufficient. Tolerance implies at best legal indifference but allows space for moral disapproval. It therefore still grants legitimacy to precisely the kind of speech-acts that psychologized identities see as violence. It also connects closely to recent claims with regard to race that “silence is violence.” Identities grounded in a psychologized self need to be actively affirmed, whether that is by positively acknowledging their legitimacy or by explicitly speaking out against behavior that denies it. Mere tolerance of an identity requires neither. And that makes the maintenance of Christian sexual morality an act of social immorality according to the tastes of the modern moral imagination.
This, of course, puts pressure on religious freedom. Religious freedom has never been an unconditioned, absolute right: one could not, for example, sacrifice one’s daughter to Moloch and claim that such behavior is protected under the Constitution. It has always been qualified in relation to other rights and freedoms. Now, as the central moral teachings of, say, Christianity become identified with acts of psychological violence and harm, we can expect religious freedom to become far more restricted. The recent kerfuffle surrounding Amy Coney Barrett’s competence to serve on the Supreme Court connects to this. And, while the recent Bostock ruling was presented as a very narrow decision focused on the workplace, it is built on the notion of psychologically constructed identity and effectively establishes that point by legal precedent. Once the rights of a transgender person as a transgender person are recognized in a legal ruling such as Bostock, the idea that this will not have clear implications for other areas of life is politically naïve and philosophically nonsensical.
So is there anything that might provide a unified framework for understanding the current angry fragmentation and instability that our society appears to be experiencing? I would argue that it is partly this: a psychologized notion of selfhood, that places inner needs, desires, feelings, and convictions at the core of its notion of human purpose, inevitably tends towards social fragmentation. Where the self is psychologically conceived, there are potentially as many ends as there are people; traditional external institutions cease to have any decisive power over who we think we are or what we share in common with others. Old frameworks for meaning—the nation, the family, religion—cease to be plausible as soon as they fail to fulfill the hopes and dreams of any given individual or group.
At a time when these institutions are under intense strain from other pressures—the nation-state from globalization, the family from a myriad of economic and legal forces, and religion from internal corruption and external moral pressure of the kind described above—they are incapable of meeting the felt needs of the psychological self. Even history, focused as it so often is on precisely these institutions, can no longer offer a unifying narrative strong enough to overcome the fragmentation to which psychological identity, with its therapeutic imperatives, tilts. Hence the rise of new identities and new narratives of freedom and belonging that in practice threaten the old social consensus—LGBTQ+ activism, renewed ethnic and racial stridency, etc. Cultural amnesia and cultural iconoclasm become the cultural defaults.
How to Respond
Given all this, how should Christians respond? First, we need to acknowledge the depth and nature of the problem we face. A preoccupation with the symptoms—be they gay marriage, polyamory, transgenderism, the rise of pornography in mainstream culture, political correctness, cancel culture, critical race theory, or whatever—will not take us to the heart of the problem. Each of these things is really a symptom of the much deeper cultural pathologies, one primary element of which is the notion of the psychological self that consequently psychologizes the concepts of oppression and liberation. We cannot engage the contemporary state of the Western world on the basis of assumptions that no longer apply. The idea, for example, that the sexual revolution is simply a matter of the expansion of what society considers to be acceptable sexual behavior is to miss the fact that it is actually about a transformation of what it means to be a human being—a transformation that undergirds everything from Supreme Court arguments on civil rights legislation to justifications for abortion offered in Ivy League seminars to the collapse of free speech on college campuses. The needs of this hour are not so much that of explaining the church to the world. First, we need to explain the world to the church.
This catechetical reversal is necessary because of a second point. The temptation among conservatives—perhaps especially religious conservatives—is to look at the wider pathologies of our culture and move instinctively to the prayer of the pharisee in the temple: “We thank you Lord that we are not like other men.” Yet that approach is insufficient, not just because of its innate self-righteousness but also because it indicates that we have not grasped the depth of the problem. The transformation of the self in western culture is not something that affects an externalized “them” as opposed to “us.” Every one of us is an expressive individualist now. So comprehensive is the revolution that we are all affected by it and all are at some level complicit.
At the heart of the psychological, expressive self is the notion that we choose our identities. And that is even true of the religious. There is a sense in which we now choose our religions as others might choose their gender or sexuality. My ancestors of six hundred years ago enjoyed no such choice. They would have been baptized, married, and buried in the same church, something they would have considered as natural and inevitable as the daily dawning of the sun. Today, even cradle Catholics have to make a choice to remain practicing Catholics as they grow up simply because there are now many other religious—and non-religious—options available. Indeed, it is surely ironic that they even have to choose what kind of Catholic they will be, given the diversity that exists even with their own church. All Christians are sectarians now. In making this observation, I confess to having no immediate solution to offer. I am merely underlining the need for self-examination and humility when dealing with others in our cultural moment.
The third point is that we should not underestimate the depth of the changes we are witnessing. The tendency to blame the advent of cancel culture and challenges to free speech on a rising generation of hypersensitive “snowflakes” can blind us to the fact that the framework for these things is historically deep-rooted and culturally comprehensive. Today we are not seeing a superficial blip or a momentary aberration in American culture, but a transformation of the public sphere that is really the outworking of the transformation of the self that I described above. Enabled by novel tools such as the internet and social media, the rising generation is simply the latest and most immediately influential iteration of expressive individualism and psychologized identity.
But it is also the most significant because its tastes represent a conscious and intentional break with the very values that fostered it in the first place. The rise of modern expressive individualism is intimately connected to concepts such as freedom of speech and religion, but these things are far less plausible as social virtues now. The intuitions of the rising generation do not default to the standard liberal orthodoxies in these matters. Cancel culture is unlikely to be automatically anathema to generations raised to think of identity as psychological and therefore of freedom of speech and religion as enabling acts of linguistic violence. As fewer people consider religion important in their own lives, fewer people will care about religious freedom. And to those who are dependent on the rising generation to vote them into office—which includes, of course, candidates of all political affiliations—the robust defense of traditional freedoms is therefore likely to be less and less of a political priority.
This means that we will be living in a day of small things for some time to come. The modern self is the result of a long and comprehensive revolution; it cannot be supplanted until an equally comprehensive revolution comes to take its place, and that will likely take many generations if it happens at all. In the meantime, Christians need to have modest goals, especially Christians involved in the public square. A world where orthodox Christianity is considered not just implausible but also immoral is a world that we will need to navigate in a manner perhaps not seen since the second century. Then, Christianity was a little-understood minority cult, suspected of entertaining values and patterns of behavior deemed subversive of the wider social good. Of course, we all know how that story developed. Sporadic local and later a few pan-imperial persecutions of the church gave way in the fourth century to the toleration and then the official adoption of Christianity as the religion of Rome. Historians and theologians debate to this day whether this final move was on balance good or bad for the church. That is not my interest here. My point is simply this: the church has been in a similar situation before and has not only survived but ultimately thrived.
And how, humanly speaking, did she do this? By all accounts it was by being faithful members of the church community and loyal subjects of the state, to the extent that loyalty to Christ and loyalty to Caesar were compatible. At times it was not possible to be both, and those were times of persecution. But it was not culture war so much as fidelity to the Christian community and, only when necessary, dissent from the decrees of Caesar that characterized her life and made her strong. She became attractive by being faithful to her message. It is my belief that only by modeling true community, oriented toward the transcendent, can the church show a rapidly destabilizing world of expressive individuals that there is something greater, more solid, and more lasting than the immediate satisfaction of personal desires.
This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at Faith & Law in Washington, DC.