The Cultural Contradictions Of Enforced Orthodoxy

Feb 11th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In last week’s Issues in Perspective, I quoted conservative author Rod Dreher:  “. . . The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.  This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. . . . The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.”  Our 21st century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. “Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order . . .  A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.”

The disintegration of our moral order is a descent into darkness.  Nearly a generation ago, the social theorist Christopher Lasch argued that acknowledgment of this darkness is precisely what is missing.  “Having no awareness of evil, the once-born type of religious experience cannot stand up to adversity,” Lasch wrote. “It offers sustenance only so long as it does not encounter ‘poisonous humiliations.’”  In other words, as Jesus shows us in John 9:41, the problem lies not with the blind person crying out for sight but with those who won’t even acknowledge their blindness: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” [ESV]

I have chosen three poignant examples of our culture’s descent into darkness.  Each manifests an abandonment of common sense and the moral order.  Each manifests an enforced orthodoxy, void of freedom of speech, expression and conscience.

  • First concerns a statue of John Witherspoon at Princeton University.  George Will writes that “Since 2001, a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the Presbyterian minister recruited from Scotland to be the then-college’s president, has adorned a plaza adjacent to Firestone Library. Now the woke, who subordinate everything to ‘social justice’ as they imagine it, demand its removal because he owned two slaves and did not advocate immediate abolition. As Princeton’s president, this ‘animated son of liberty’ (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) ensured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon.  Kevin DeYoung, now serving as a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, wrote his 2019 doctoral dissertation on Witherspoon. DeYoung’s judgment is that Witherspoon believed three things about slavery, two of them true: Slavery was wrong, immediate emancipation was impossible, but America’s moral evolution would extinguish it within two generations.  DeYoung explains, without drawing conclusions from, three facts: In Scotland, Witherspoon baptized a runaway slave claimed by a member of Witherspoon’s church. At Princeton, Witherspoon tutored free Blacks. And Witherspoon’s will listed two slaves ‘until they are 28.’ He had proposed a New Jersey law to free slaves at that age who were born after the law’s passage.   Today’s disparagement of Witherspoon is more than just another example of ‘presentism—judging the past through the lens of the present. It illustrates how the woke become a suffocating, controlling minority.”


“Princeton’s Committee on Naming has been holding ‘listening sessions’ to ascertain what Princetonians think about the statue. But who is speaking? Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that ‘the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views’ on ‘highly politicized issues,’ which nowadays most issues become . . . PFS notes that the anti-Witherspoon cohort says Princeton is a ‘home,’ therefore everyone should be protected from feeling ‘less at home’ because of, say, unhappy thoughts occasioned by a statue. But a university is not a ‘home.’ A university’s raison d’être, unlike a family’s, is civil but robust and unsettling questionings and disagreements.”


Will also poses this revealing question:  “Looking ahead, can Princeton continue honoring distinguished graduate school alumni with the James Madison Medal, named for someone who owned many more than two slaves? If the woke get Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington banished from Nassau Hall, perhaps their moral squint will turn to Harvey Firestone, whose tire company’s labor policies on Liberian rubber plantations, and perhaps elsewhere, might make the woke feel ‘unsafe’ when passing between the Witherspoon statue and Firestone Library. How many Princeton names will survive one-sided ‘listening sessions’ about the human imperfections that disturb persons who cherish their capacity for being disturbed?  Princeton has become ‘a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted.’”


  • Second, consider the tragic case of Damar Hamlin and the instantaneous explosion of prayer for him.  Throughout America, the conviction that prayer is improper at big-time sporting events is widespread in our woke culture.  But, in early January, nine minutes into the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Bills safety, Damar Hamlin, was tackled and then collapsed; we now know that his heart had stopped.  Emergency medical staff administered CPR and the game was suspended.  Amazingly and instantly, people, players, coaches began to gather in a circle and pray!  A commentator on ESPN openly prayed on the air.  Bengal fans made placards “Pray for Buffalo #3Hamlin.”  Fans from both teams gathered outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to collectively pray for Hamlin.  As Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal comments, “Any legal or cultural prohibitions attaching to sporting-event prayers were, for the moment, rescinded.  Players knelt, many plainly in prayer.  Commentators, rightly sensing the need to go beyond conventional references to ‘thoughts’ spoke repeatedly of ‘prayers’ . . . Suddenly prayer—the ancient activity of speaking to God in the belief that he can hear and respond—was everywhere.”


The woke culture of enforced orthodoxy was set aside.  It was natural, beautiful and uplifting to see so many praying.  Swaim appropriately quotes Malcolm Muggeridge:  “Somehow I have always had an inner and unaccountable conviction that any religious expression of truth, however bizarre or uncouth, is more sufficing than any secular one, however elegant and intellectually brilliant.”  That evening in Cincinnati the silliness of woke secularism and enforced orthodoxy was set aside—and that was refreshing!

  • Finally, the American Historical Association (AHA) epitomizes the woke penchant for enforced orthodoxy.  Last August, James H. Sweet, the AHA president published an article in which he argued that much of the profession was captivated by a “presentism” that manifests “historical erasures and narrow politics.”  The result was a firestorm of protest and condemnation of Sweet.  He was charged with attempting to delegitimize new research on topics including race and gender; many even charged him with racism.  Forty-eight hours after the essay’s release, Sweet, ostracized and humiliated, posted a statement of regret for his essay. The four-paragraph message concluded: “I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”


David Frum of The Atlantic magazine recently interviewed Sweet.  “Reflecting on the tumult, Sweet was most worried about a weakening commitment in the academy to the cherished ideal and methods of the historical profession. ‘There is a move among some of my colleagues to expand the definition of scholarship, to change the way we assess scholarship,’ he told me. ‘I worry there will be a move to de-emphasize the single-author manuscript: the book. Instead, anything that uses the historian’s craft or skills could count as scholarship. The most radical version might even include tweets, or at least blogs or essays online. How do you determine, then, what is political and what is scholarly?’  If academic historians succeed in convincing Americans that history is properly a tool for a political purpose, they will be starting a fight they will not win. Subjugating history to politics has inherent risks, he told me, noting that ‘the approaches of the hard right are not dissimilar to the way the profession is lurching or creeping today.’ The people who hold power inside the academy may feel insulated from the rest of society, but they are subject to the much greater power that can be wielded outside the academy. Sweet’s attempt to erect a firewall to protect the academy from politics and power pushes against the dominant trend in history generally, and in African and African-diaspora history in particular. In the 21st century, many involved in academic history in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe have rejected ideals of detachment in favor of a passionate new engagement. They have undertaken a new mission: to confront the societies around them with a record of their faults and crimes.”

“Sweet used a play on words—‘Is History History?’—for the title of his complacency-shaking essay. But he was asking not whether history is finished, done with, but Is history still history? Is it continuing to do what history is supposed to do? Or is it being annexed for other purposes, ideological rather than historical ones? These are uncomfortable but important questions. If it is not the job of the president of the American Historical Association to confront those questions, then whose is it?”

See Russell Moore, Moore to the Point Newsletter (12 January 2023); George Will in the Washington Post (6 January 2023); Barton Swaim in the Wall Street Journal (6 January 2023); and David Frum, “The New History Wars” in The Atlantic (30 October 2022).

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