In Search of an American Counterculture in 2015

What does counterculture look like? The term was coined at a time when the Judeo-Christian worldview held sway over American institutions. Much of the culture still operated on moral assumptions drawn from the Bible. Family, marriage, the boundaries of gender and sexuality looked a lot like a church dance. Even our foreign policy had religious tinges. But during the 1960s various youth groups challenged the sexual, racial, and community norms of their parents. Images of long hair, street protest, sexual experimentation and mystical meditation came to symbolize resistance to entrenched authority. The Judeo-Christian cultural framework began to give way.

But during the decades that followed, the counter and the culture switched places. With the levers of media, entertainment and academia in its hands, the old counterculture has now become "the Man." Christianity finds itself on the other end of the power equation. It's like the young adult who is told what to do his whole life but then leaves for college and won't listen to his parents anymore. Mom and Dad don't know if they should begrudge their son or get back in his good graces.

The unfolding of the 1960s reached its maturity in today's broad social acceptance of gay relationships. Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June, conservative Christians have been reeling. They all agree that the thread of this ruling will weave itself into our legal and cultural fabric in adverse ways.

But they're not yet sure how to respond. The following schools of thought have emerged as counterculture options:

The Benedict Option has received the most ink and stirred the most debate. Initiated by Orthodox author Rod Dreher, this approach harkens back to the last days of the Roman Empire when St. Benedict fled the social chaos and formed communities of believers far away in the woods. Dreher sees a similar disintegration happening today that requires new types of communities to pick up the pieces and rebuild the moral life of civilization. It's a recognition of what's possible in a country that "is not ours anymore," not necessarily a call for separatism. "Let's stay involved in the outside world," he says, "but let's also do a strategic retreat."

The Wilberforce Option moves in the opposite direction. Its architects -- Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, both political analysts and evangelicals -- call for a "relentless defense of human dignity in the course of human events." Named after William Wilberforce, the British politician who ended the slave trade, this approach urges engagement in society's problems, not avoidance of them. By defending the weak in "an increasingly utilitarian society," comforting the needy, and aiding victims of the sexual revolution, Christians will stand for healing instead of judgement. The diminishment of the Christian sexual ethic, they argue, does not "mark the end of Christian social responsibilities."

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is not buying the "Moral Majority" approach to politics so prevalent in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. His approach has no name, but the heart of Christian life, he maintains, lies not in political ascendance, or even in the robust cultural influence that Gerson and Wehner envision. Moore cares less about societal relevance than he does about building a separate kingdom of Christ. "Maybe God is interested right now not so much in getting America in line with the Church as God is interested in getting the Church out of step with America."

Then there's the camp of legal resistance. A group of scholars, led by Catholic intellectual Robert George, recently issued a letter calling on federal and state officeholders to reject the Supreme Court's "edict" on same-sex marriage and to recognize "the authority of states to define marriage." They're not ready to concede the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage to the ash heap of history. Such calls of conscience treat law as the teacher and validator of public morality. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also fits in this category. His new book We Cannot Be Silent charges head on at the new cultural hegemony. He warns fellow Christians not to "revise our sexual morality and the definition of marriage to avoid costly and controversial confrontations with the culture at large."

A new Pew study (again) says the country is becoming less religious, but the surrounding secular society can be a friend if these countercultures learn to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Sincere religious conviction need not harm anyone. The American impulse toward pluralism lives on; different religions, worldviews and moral sensibilities can and do coexist. If the players respect the rules then all the teams can ply their moral persuasion side by side. Real power does not accrue to the loudest or strongest. Moral high ground often slides down to the underdog.

Majorities don't critique. That's the job of a minority. Majorities may establish, impose, even dictate, but not critique. They cannot see the faults in the ground they stand on because too many feet obstruct the view. The strongest voices of moral conscience -- Socrates, Jeremiah, Jesus, Tyndale, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- derived their strength from an outnumbered position. Smallness sharpens clarity, and clarity sharpens voice. In the churn of competing visions, society would do well to consider this biblical paraphrase: Be not forgetful to entertain countercultures, for thereby some have entertained visionaries unawares.

Christians appreciate paradox, and they may not find one more bittersweet than losing power to gain it. So instead of mourning this loss of cultural dominance, perhaps they should embrace their new minority status.

Nathan Nielson is a graduate of St. John’s College and lives near Salt Lake City, Utah.

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