A review of How to Win the Culture War. By Peter Kreeft.
InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Peter Kreeft is a respected philosophy professor at Boston College. He has written many influential books, and is in many ways a Catholic version of C.S. Lewis. That is, he is an indefatigable apologist for the Christian faith in an increasingly hostile and secular environment.
In his newest book, Kreeft engages in a forceful, almost emotional, assault on the cultural decline everywhere apparent in the West. In many ways this is a more popular and polemic approach than is found in his previous books. However, given the urgency and importance of the matter, he may be right to use such an approach.
He wastes no time in laying out his brief. We are at war, he argues. The soul of the West is being fought over, and it doesn’t look good for our side. But knowing that we are at war is the first prerequisite for winning it. As such, we need to enter into a wartime consciousness, and get our priorities right. We need to give up our trivial pursuits and get involved in this life or death struggle.
Of course Kreeft realises that this is not just a battle against flesh and blood (or governments and cultures). It is ultimately a spiritual battle, and the most effective weapon is saints – believers who have decided to represent Christ fully in a dark and ungodly age. And saints always go into the “moral ghettos”, be they Moses or Christ. “Saints are society’s white corpuscles, society’s saviors” he says. “If nobody wants to crucify you, you’re not doing your job. Or else your job isn’t his work.”
Thus the fight is ultimately about which will prevail: secularism or faith. Kreeft argues that secularism is a doomed philosophy, and that no secular society has survived for more than 72 years (the former USSR being our best test case to date). Indeed, Western societies seem to have contracted “moral AIDS”. We are self-destructing quickly, and the only hope is to reclaim a spiritual and moral vision for the West.
While the battle is ultimately spiritual, it does manifest itself in society and culture. And secular ideas and values are penetrating the West with horrific results. Cultural and intellectual poison is steadily destroying our culture. As Kreeft remarks, the most powerful forces in the West today are not church and state but Hollywood and Harvard. Popular culture and academia have been setting the agenda, while the faithful have been marginalised.
But it is time to reclaim lost territory, argues Kreeft. And forget about those who argue we are just trying to turn back the clock: “You can turn a clock back, both literally and figuratively. And you’d better, if the clock is keeping bad time.”
We need to re-proclaim values and absolutes in a society that despises both. And we need to go even further, and reclaim conscience. Relativism, the new tolerance, the sexual revolution, and moral apathy have all combined to kill conscience.
And this can only lead to worse consequences. As Charles Colson has shown, the only two means we have to prevent community from sliding into chaos are cops and conscience. And when conscience is destroyed, that leaves only cops to stem the tide. A police state becomes the inevitable outcome. Thus our moral relativism is leading us in a dangerous direction.
Many defenders of democracy have noted this tension. For a democracy to work properly, a strong moral populace is needed. Yet a democracy tends to produce moral permissiveness, undermining its very foundations. Thus less conscience results in more cops, leading to the end of democracy.
This is the dilemma or paradox of democracy. And history offers us many examples of how this works out in a society. The longest-lasting societies have been the most moralistic, be they Jewish, Confucian, Islamic or Roman. Our recent secular societies however appear to be rather short-lived, whether fascist or Marxist.
The sexual revolution is perhaps the most important component of cultural decline. Kreeft argues that we cannot win the culture war unless we win the sex war, because “sex is the effective religion of our culture”. This includes the whole array of battle fronts: pornography, homosexuality, easy divorce and abortion.
And to the extent that the church has also compromised in these areas, the culture war will be even more difficult to fight. Yet fight we must. We are called, not to live an easy life, but to take up our cross and follow our Master. The battle can be won, but only if we take our calling seriously and get involved. This book is a timely reminder to do just that.