Some Things Are Worth Preserving: Thoughts on Conservatism, Culture, and Strippers

The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here

Roger Scruton has a column this week in The New York Times. The philosopher and author of the great little book How to Be Conservative outlines some of the ways that President Trump has broken with the conservative tradition, but I don’t want to talk about Trump. I think he’s only a symptom of a larger break with tradition that has happened within our culture. Scruton writes:

Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.

This is really important to the conversations that are taking place not only in politics but broadly in our culture. So many of the complex social issues that divide us – abortion, gay marriage, gender issues, etc. – get categorized as partisan fights, and we lose sight of the deeper issues that are at stake. Namely, the roots of our cultural traditions, many of which in the west were formed as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The existence of traditional values around education, religion, marriage and family act as a kind of ballast for society, like ballast on a wave-tossed ship. This isn’t to say things don’t get knocked around sometimes, leaving a mess to clean up, and this most certainly isn’t to say that the tradition got everything right. Far from it. But in our rush to correct some of those values – such as the West’s awful history around race (see: slavery, anti-semitism, etcetera) – we have allowed many others to erode. (I should add that even on race, the problem wasn’t conservatism as a value, but on the conservation of the wrong tradition. The Biblical witness was what should have been formative to Western culture – that there is no Greek or Jew or Barbarian or Scythian in Christ, but we are all one new man. Imagine how different Western history would be if that value prevailed as Christianity spread, along with the idea that every human being has inherent dignity because they’re made in the image of God. But I digress.)
The Problem with Progress
For a variety of reasons, the value of “progress” has become, to many, the ultimate value and the ideological lens through which they see the world. All progress is good progress. Culture is Darwinian and whatever new iteration arises must naturally be an improvement upon whatever came before it. This is where conservatism has a key role to play. It prophetically calls into question the notions of progress that mark many social movements today. Hannah Arendt once talked about culture by pointing out the word’s connection to agriculture – culture is something that has its own momentum and organic ability to grow and change, but it needs caretaking and cultivation. That idea – cultivation – stands behind the name of my podcast. I see my guests as people who are in various ways caretakers of culture, either shaping it in new and positive ways, or guarding the garden from weeds, storms, and pests. This metaphor also helps us to see how culture-making and culture-care are core to our identity as creatures made in the image of God. As the folks in Roman Candle put it, “Eden was a garden, you know?”
It’s my hope that in the midst of our wild cultural moment, Christians can untangle themselves from the arguments that are purely about partisanship and personalities and find themselves guided by the values that our tradition offer us: human dignity, chastity both in and out of marriage, sacrifice, generosity, neighborliness, and more. If we’re going to identify as conservatives, let’s not do so because of who we listen to on AM Radio, which news channel we like, or which political family we hate. Let’s do so because we fundamentally believe there are some things in our culture’s traditions that are worth conserving.
Radical Culture Care
 Take my guest for this week: Rachelle Starr. Rachelle is the founder of Scarlet Hope ministries, where she works to bring the gospel to women in the sex industry. As radical as her work is – and if you listen to her story, you’ll see – the values that stand behind it are decidedly conservative. The sex industry wears the mask of sexual liberty but actively works to undermine important cultural institutions like marriage and family. It also undermines the essential concept of human dignity, treating women like objects and indulging men’s most primitive urges. By working against the industry, Scarlet Hope makes space for marriages and families to flourish and restores dignity to the women whose lives are transformed.
It also highlights how difficult and gritty the work of culture-care is. If you want to bring healing and restoration in the world, you sometimes have to go to difficult places. Jesus said we’re salt and light. Salt wasn’t just a condiment in his context: it was a preservative. You put it in places that might spoil. And of course, light gets sent into the darkness. For Rachelle, that meant walking into a strip club one Thursday night and asking permission to be a good neighbor to the strippers who worked there. The club owner said yes, and amazing things have been happening ever since.
Work like hers is healing and restoring. She is leaving the cities where Scarlet Hope works better than she found them, and that, I hope, is something we can all say about our work and presence in the world.