IT CAN appear that the progressive steamroller is unstoppable. Traditional Christians resign ourselves to doing little more than clinging grimly to our beliefs whilst the world changes around us. This is to forget history and the nature of the ongoing culture war.
Today’s culture war is a spiritual war. Paul reminds us, ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world’ Ephesians 6:12.
Why are progressives so intent on controlling the public square? It takes considerable effort to hunt for the only Christian B&B or Christian baker for miles around in order to be offended. Once offended, there are court cases dragging on, sometimes for years. This takes determination of a high order.
Nobody could seriously contend that a few scattered Christian traditionalists are preventing progressives from living as they choose. It is hard to explain why the foot soldiers of the activist Left should be so zealous in their determination to silence a handful of traditional Christians.
It is an old story repeated throughout the last two millennia. Today’s ‘tolerant’ progressives cannot tolerate the existence of Christianity for the same reason their pagan predecessors couldn’t tolerate Christianity in the Roman Empire.
What made Christians so threatening to the pagan Romans? Christians tended to live law-abiding, peaceful lives, intent on raising their families and getting on with their work. They were honest, sober citizens who were prepared to submit to the authority of non-Christian rulers. Yet they met with sometimes deadly hostility.
The pagans saw that Christians in the Roman Empire were, as we are today, radicals. Their willingness to comply with the law came to an abrupt end when it came to accepting pagan deities.
Pagans were flexible about incorporating newly encountered gods and mythologies into one multi-cultural mosaic. However, when it came to theology and morals Christians were unyielding. They insisted on the exclusive divine sovereignty of their own God. Christian morality seemed bizarrely demanding to the free-wheeling, anything-goes Romans, but the Christians insisted on biblical standards.
Sometimes there was toleration of Christians. At other times, however, the choice Christians faced was simple: get with the civic programme of the pagan community or be driven underground or die.
In the face of this the Christians never mounted a coup, did not attempt to undermine the authorities, but nevertheless eventually triumphed. Without harbouring seditious political ambitions, the Christian radicals changed the cultural norms. The pagans’ gods were torn down, their temples emptied.
Today is yet another instalment in the attempt to exile Christianity from the public square. In 1939 T S Eliot, looking at the Europe of his time, saw the 20th century as shaped by a struggle between Christianity and paganism. The conflict continues in the 21st century.
The real cultural struggle is not between secularism and Christianity but between two types of religious view. Progressives would mostly deny it but they are today’s pagans. Today’s culture war against Christianity marks the return of a pagan religious conception and worldview.
Where Christians follow a transcendent God, pagans shape their worldview on the immanent. Today’s highly materialistic secular humanists, like the pagans of old, embrace this world with eagerness and find there the standards by which they live. If homosexual penguins are found, they proclaim homosexuality ‘natural’ and to be celebrated.
This focus on the vital importance of the immanent shapes much of the progressive social agenda. Progressive broad-mindedness hits the buffers when it encounters its ancient Christian rival. Progressive cosmopolitanism, like its Roman forebear, has its limits.
There are increasing demands for ‘safe spaces’ which are free of upsetting or challenging ideas. This usually means silencing Judeo-Christian ideas. Christians are justified in observing that this is a rather intolerant brand of tolerance.
For progressives, following an immanent belief system, one’s immediate identity assumes vital importance. This becomes a life-shaping focus, giving rise to the fierceness, sometimes violent bitterness, of identity politics.
Like the ancient pagans, today’s progressives are enormously concerned, almost to the point of obsession, with sex. Christian traditionalists are frequently written off as intolerant bigots simply for maintaining Judeo-Christian sexual mores.
An orthodox Christian holding to traditional Christian teaching with regard to sexual mores can expect condemnation from the tolerant progressive. Tim Farron was hounded from leadership of the Liberal Democrats because he failed enthusiastically to endorse the homosexual lifestyle.
When the present is what matters, outward symbols such as statues become important. History has to be cleansed and made safe for today; the past with its complexity has to be torn down. The desire to begin afresh with Year One has been the hallmark of the neo-pagan from the French Revolution onward.
Like their predecessors, today’s progressives pride themselves on their tolerance. Yet they rush to take drastic action to outlaw the microaggressions Christians supposedly commit by retaining longstanding moral views.
The pagans of ancient Rome engaged in the same debates. They fought about statues and imagery, the proper use of public funds and appropriate religious requirements for teachers and public servants.
There is deep tension between the social vision of today’s progressive neo-pagans and traditional Christianity. That is why, in the eyes of many progressives, Christians must be converted, or else marginalised to the point where we can pose no real threat.
Progressives have made remarkable progress in changing social norms within just a few decades. Yet the supposedly inevitable progressive success is questionable. It is doubtful whether neo-pagans are truly equipped to vanquish their Christian opponents. Pagan morality, intent on the moment and without a consistent benchmark, lacks coherent direction and ultimately will fail.
Some Christians give up the struggle as lost and concentrate on maintaining their own faith. But true believers are resistant. Throughout history we have managed to triumph from what appeared to be positions of much greater weakness.