Making Peace in the Culture Wars
A couple days ago, I got an article in my inbox taking issue with David French. Despite my deep interest in political principles, I don't think I'd ever heard of David French. I've now learned that he is a lawyer and conservative commentator who was urged to run against Donald Trump in 2016, but ultimately declined.
Lately, Mr. French has come under attack from a certain brand of social conservatives, led by Sohrab Ahmari, an editor of the New York Post, the Catholic Herald and First Things. Mr. French's failing: that he is committed to civility and decency toward those with whom he disagrees. He believes in a pluralistic society where "people of diametrically opposed belief systems can live and work side by side so long as they treat each other with dignity and respect." Specifically, his response to the holding of Drag Queen Story Hours in public libraries in about 50 US cities is,
"...you can’t define victory as the exclusion of your enemies from the public square. There are going to be Drag Queen Story Hours. They’re going to happen. And, by the way, the fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.”
Mr. Ahmari says that doesn't work. Politics is "war and enmity" and conservative Christians need to understand, as progressives do, "that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions." He says, "There is no polite, David French-ian third way through the cultural civil war.” He recommends setting aside "civility and decency" until after we've overthrown "the libertine and the pagan." Then "we should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy." He would have socially conservative senators call an inquiry and fight to get "demonic" events like Drag Queen Story Hour banned from public libraries.
This whole controversy is particularly interesting to me because I've spent the week studying what Alma 43-44 teach about war, including a culture war. Here's what I've learned:
First of all, I think it's important to recognize that, at this point in history (year 18 of the Reign of the Judges) there was an element of culture war in the conflict between the Nephites and the Zoramites/Lamanites.
Its initial cause was the undauntedness of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites in sheltering the poor of the Zoramites who had been exiled from their own city for accepting the gospel. This offended Zoram so much that he first sent a message to Jershon, ordering them to cast out the exiled poor or else. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehites ignored his message and ministered to his outcasts, even giving them land for their inheritance, the Zoramites allied with the Lamanites and prepared for war.
Their goals were two-fold: to subject the Nephites (including the Anti-Nephi-Lehites) to bondage (Alma 43:29) and to overthrow their religion (Alma 43:10; 44:2).
Both of these objectives were anathema to the inspired leaders of the Nephites. Every hope they had for temporal happiness was anchored in their faith. They actively trusted in the Lord's covenant to prosper them in the land so long as they were faithful to Him, understanding that captivity and destruction would be the consequence of abandoning Him (Jarom 1:9-10, Alma 44:4). As for their political liberty, they saw it not just as a gift but as a stewardship from God that it was their duty to defend (Alma 43:4-7). They felt a divine call to "stand fast in that liberty wherewith God [had] made them free" (Alma 61:21; see also Mosiah 23:13; Alma 58:40).
The enemy army spent a period of probably months (at the end of 17 ROJ) preparing to come against the Nephites. What the Nephites did and did not do during that period is, I think, instructive.
They relocated the Anti-Nephi-Lehites into the center of Nephite lands. The enemy army was preparing to stage their invasion from Antionum, the city that neighboured the land of Jershon, which belonged to the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. But they couldn't remain there because they had taken an inspired oath not to shed blood, even in self-defense. Had they remained where they were, they would likely have been massacred. So the Nephites invited them into more secure space, where they contributed to the war effort by raising provisions for the armies that stood between them and those who wanted to destroy them.
They possibly anointed a new, inspired leader. We don't know for certain when Moroni was made chief captain. We do know that Zoram (father of Lehi and Aha) led the army in 11 ROJ (See Alma 16). There was another major battle in 15 ROJ (See Alma 28) with no mention of new leadership. So, I'm guessing that Moroni has been chief captain for less than three years.
Moroni outfitted his soldiers with defensive armour. This was a new strategy which would take their enemies by surprise (Alma 43:19-21).
They did NOT take the battle to their enemy. Instead, they stood in holy places, that is, land that was consecrated by its owner to the service of God.
Here are the parallels that occur to me, as a preparation for cultural warfare:
I need to practice particular care for the vulnerable. That includes, not only the youth, but others with especial needs, like recent converts, members of racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ members and friends, divorcees and the never-married, children from broken homes, and so forth. I need to reach out to those who might feel like they are on the margins of the Church and help surround them with protective love and care.
I need to especially heed the council of current prophets. I have a personal witness that Ezra Taft Benson was a prophet. I was there when he called on us to prepare to defend the US Constitution against secret combinations intent on destroying liberty. It was one of the defining moments of my life. And I have also had a witness the Russel M. Nelson is a prophet of God today. My obedience to Pres. Benson's past counsel needs to be informed by the current counsel of President Nelson and his counsellors.
As a society, I think we need better armour than we've ever had. It used to be that we could rely on a multitude of cultural norms to channel people's behaviour into compliance with commandments they didn't always understand. Now, those norms are not necessarily normal. That necessitates becoming armoured with personal testimony and a deep understanding of why the commandments matter. We need to be anchored in the love of God and in allegiance to eternal principles that causes the law to be written on our hearts. The hope to wear and share such armour is a big part of the reason I blog.
I need to stand in holy places and not try to defeat the enemy in their territory. There is no need to go on the offensive. To do so is to risk losing that connection with God that grounds me and allows my home to be a bulwark against a rising tide of evil.
The analogy doesn't end there. Going back to the year 18 ROJ, when the enemy army eventually invaded Jershon, they were so shocked at the preparation of the Nephites that they didn't dare attack. Instead, they retreated into the cover of the wilderness and took a round-about journey toward the land of Manti, thinking to make a surprise attack there. But Moroni both sent scouts to follow them and dispatched a messenger to the prophet, asking where he should go now to defend his people. Alma petitioned the Lord for direction and sent back a message, revealing the enemy's plan.
Moroni then did something remarkable. He considered his enemy's motives (to destroy and take captive the Nephites) and examined his own people's motives (to preserve their lands, liberty and church). Then he decided that it was appropriate to employ a strategem and set up an ambush (Alma 43:29-31).
Then, when his enemy was surrounded and Moroni saw their terror, he commanded his armies to stop shedding their blood and offered terms for peace.
He did not command them to quit being Lamanites and go join the Anti-Nephi-Lehites. He only demanded their weapons of war and a covenant of peace. When their leader, Zarahemnah, surrendered his sword, cimeter and bow, but refused the covenant, Moroni gave him back his weapons and said, "Behold, we will end the conflict...as the Lord liveth, ye shall not depart except ye depart with an oath that ye will not return again against us to war" (Alma 44:10-11).
It was at about that point that a significant section of Zarahemnah's army quit. They handed over their weapons and made a covenant to leave the Nephites in peace. Then the fighting resumed until Zarahemnah, seeing "that they were all about to be destroyed, cried mightily unto Moroni, promising that he would covenant and also his people" to never again come to war against the Nephites. Moroni once again commanded his soldiers to stop fighting and allowed the Lamanites to depart in peace.
Now, what I take away:
First is that I need to heed the President Dallin H. Oaks' counsel in last April General Conference, which was to prioritize the constitutional principles of "liberty and self-government" and to "exercise our influence civilly and peacefully within the framework of our constitutions and applicable laws. On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify."
Second, I need to watch my own motives carefully. My efforts need to directed toward maintaining political liberty and freedom of conscience, not toward dominating anybody else.
Third, if my motives are right, God will guide my action toward success. It is appropriate to defend with determination and cunning that liberty wherewith God has made us free. But the moment we have the upper hand, we need to invite an end to hostilities and seek to establish peace. If an enemy continues to seek to subject us, we continue to defend. But the moment they are willing to let us be, our job is to seek peace in a context that honours their right to liberty and self-government as well as our own.
In conclusion, I think Moroni and David French agree: the culture war is not something we can or should win by seeking to dominate. It is something we seek to end by carving out personal enclaves of righteousness and making space for peace with neighbours whose belief systems are diametrically opposed to our own.
What ideas do you have for preparing for and conducting battle, when battle we must, consistent with the spirit of Moroni?