Culture Friday: Year in Review

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, December 27th, 2019.  Glad to have you along for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

As we look back at the big culture stories of 2019, it’s hard to think of a better word to encapsulate them than stark. The clashes of worldview in our society seem to be reaching ever-deafening proportions. 

We heard big tech debating whether it should suppress political speech. We watched Catholic teenagers vilified by the largest media megaphones in the world. We saw parents fighting to prevent drag queen story hours at their local libraries. 

And that doesn’t begin to address the many legal battles over life and religious liberty issues.

All of it suggests Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground in a shared culture.

John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, joins us now for Culture Friday.

John, good morning, and as this is the last Culture Friday before 2020, I’ll add Happy New Year!

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Thanks, Megan. And Happy New Year to you!

BASHAM: So, John, as I was preparing for our discussion today, I came across a speech Attorney General William Barr gave at Notre Dame in October. 

I’d like to play a brief excerpt.

AUDIO: Today we face something different that may mean that we cannot count on the pendulum swinging back.

First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication.

As I look back at so many of the topics we’ve covered in this segment in the past year, this seems like a pretty accurate summary of the conflict at the heart of many of them. 

So I’d like to start by asking you to give us a sort of cultural year-in-review. What were some of the most significant stories to you and did they play into Barr’s thesis?

STONESTREET: Well, absolutely. I don’t think it’s unique to this year, but I think we’ve absolutely seen significant stories that show the clash of worldviews at the heart of the American experiment. I mean, look, there’s a difference between disagreeing on the surface but agreeing on fundamental questions of what it means to be an American, what right and wrong is, what it means to be human, things like that. It’s a completely different thing when we’re disagreeing at the most fundamental levels. 

Obviously all of the stories surrounding sexuality and the conflict between sexuality and religious liberty fall into this category. And those are significant because those touch both cultural, corporate, political interests—whether we’re talking about the ongoing struggle of someone like Barronelle Stutzman or we’re talking about just kind of everyday questions. 

I mean, we ended the year with a string of people who apparently aren’t woke enough and they included Martina Navratilova, J.K. Rowling, and, of all people, the first gay candidate for president, Pete Buttigieg. 

But, obviously, at the heart of where we’re at are kind of fundamental visions for America. And we might think they’re between Republican and Democrat, but we’re kind of playing with categories here that don’t even get to the heart of where the issues lie. 

So, for example, whether government’s going to drive us in this direction or that direction is a completely different conversation than the extra-governmental institutions that we have seen increasingly diminish this year. And it’s certainly been on a downward trajectory. But the loss of civil society, the loss of institutions of local governance, the loss of the ability to have strong communities. This is the most significant thing that’s happened, and so now we’re debating issues on a federal/national level, including issues that shouldn’t be debated on that level. And so I think that’s a real loss of a vision of what America has long been about. And we’re kind of seeing that come to a head as well.

BASHAM: You know, it kind of feels, too, like you’re seeing corporations and the political world completely supplant communities, churches, faith communities as the arbiters of what’s moral. And I feel like so many of the stories we saw this year from Chick-fil-A to Hallmark to all of these things kind of play into—we now have different people, different groups dictating what a moral society looks like.

STONESTREET: Oh, yeah. Sure. And that’s been going on for awhile. But the entrance into the corporate space is we’ve kind of seen that on a new level in 2019. I mean, you just mentioned kind of the major stories, but you know 2014 was the first time when we saw, for example, corporations kind of jump on the side of the LGBT rights in particular, and that kind of created a whole new momentum of that movement because it gave them a sense of power, and now you kind of fast-forward five years later and it’s not just some corporations taking sides, now corporations are forced to take a side. Or to pay a very dear price for it. And we did see it at a new level in 2019.

BASHAM: Well, you know, to ask sort of a really big question, then, one of the things William Barr also mentioned in that speech was in the past we sort of trusted the pendulum to swing back, but that maybe there are forces at work this time that suggest that may not happen. That we don’t have a reason we should just assume that we’re going to reach a point of excess and people are going to pull back and say this is too much. But I don’t know about that. I feel like maybe I have started to see some people in 2019 who you might expect to be more sympathetic to a progressive or ever leftward march going, wait a minute, this is too much. Like comedians. 

So what do you think? Do you feel like you saw anything of a pendulum shift maybe back in 2019?

STONESTREET: Oh, yeah, I mean, I think for example we just came out of so many years where the left was using the state to run things and the right was trying to engage at a more local, at least even a local government level, but even beyond that. Just kind of a more localized level. And that actually reversed. 

And so now with the right in power, the left resorted to kind of state-level politics, community-level politics, and kind of local community. I kind of joked when you kind of saw the run of pro-abortion legislation on the state level is when did the left become states-rights people? Right? I mean, but this is how it happens. So I think you saw that pendulum take place there as well. 

On the sexual issues, I do think particularly the transgender issue is pushing individuals even who are sympathetic to LGBT causes to a level of discomfort. And that was one of the developments of 2019, where the real conflict between the L and the G and the T, I think, became obvious. 

And it became obvious at least on a couple levels. One is just kind of the refusal to stand with each other on causes, and then, secondly, I mean, the L and the G advance their cause with a “born this way” narrative and a “stay out of our bedroom” narrative. The T is advancing on the exact opposite. I was born this way and I have to change. And, by the way, let’s have drag queen story hour. So, in other words, it’s no longer “stay out of my bedroom,” it’s “allow me into your home.”

And so of course, one of the questions is that the advances that we’ve seen, for example, in the judiciary and with religious liberty and with, you know, reversal of policies having to do with Title IX and Title VII—these are all political things, but if the culture doesn’t catch up with them, then they’re only going to last as long as the next election cycle. Which, as we all know, is next year.

BASHAM: Well, and you mentioned the J.K. Rowling and that really surprised me that someone who’s been so vocal on leftist causes and friendly to the LGBT movement, that she’s suddenly come under fire. And you go, maybe feels like as we’re moving into the new year that anybody can come under fire, then. 

So what kind of stories are you keeping your eye out for? What sort of trends in 2020?

STONESTREET: You know, I’m not sure it’s going to be anything different as much as it’s going to be kind of more of the same, and we know it’s going to hit a new fever pitch having to do with the election season because, again, some of these fundamental disagreements about the nature of reality, the nature of the human person, the nature of morality—all of these things are being seen and battled, you know, at the political level. I mean, there’s obviously kind of a shot across the bow from Mark Galli and Christianity Today at the end of 2019, what’s going to be interesting is whether the divide that we have seen outside of the church is really going to become so pronounced inside of the church. 

There’s a real issue happening right now where both being for Trump and being against Trump are being pitched as whether you’re for Jesus or against Jesus. These are really dangerous waters to get into. And we’re seeing it on both sides.

I mean, at one level we certainly have the pro-Trumpers who want us to believe a version of the president that doesn’t seem to fit the facts in terms of his personal character. On the other hand, there’s those who are never-Trumpers who often will say—and they’ll say to me personally and they have—we understand those who can kind of hold their nose and vote for the president. But I’m really talking about the whole-hearted advocates. 

And then pieces like this CT piece don’t really leave room for people who are struggling in that arena, basically say we’ve got to withdraw support despite the realities that are actually on the ground when it comes to the political process. 

So I think it’s put everybody in a very compromising position and I appreciated Erick Erickson’s words in reaction to that, which is I’m waiting for 2024. And I kind of feel that way, honestly, because I don’t think there’s a way forward other than just to muddle the way forward. And it’s going to be messy and it’s going to be difficult. But, you know, here we are.

BASHAM: John Stonestreet is the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. 

John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Megan.

(Photo/Tribune Photo, Robert Franklin)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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