I’m reading a fantastic book, A Time to Build by Yuval Levin, a thoughtful conservative leader. Levin’s thesis in this book, written in 2018, is that we are no longer a society of institutions but of individuals. This has served, for me, as a kind of secular companion to The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman.
Levin urges conservatives to be thinking well about institutions, including their reformation and renewal. He also urges us to build new institutions. I think this is a timely message, especially after a year of COVID, roiling tensions and political violence on the left and right.
Too often our politics is one of mere deconstruction. Our advocacy is less about building coalitions of support to advance human flourishing or to advocate for a vulnerable people group but is instead a kind of performative activism. This is why often the fights we see play out in the public square are less between opposing ideas but between people who, on a political Venn diagram, actually agree with each other. Building something takes hard work and ingenuity and patience. But online purity tests, launched with memes and snark, are easy.
Today, our politics, our “speaking out” is not really advancing any ideas or meaningful change, but is a kind of narcissistic hero creation. We get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in every interaction. This is why we justify canceling and meanness. We see ourselves as the righteous ones and those who even marginally disagree, as the evil hordes we are called by God to battle. We don’t actually want to get things done, we just want to be seen as a righteous prophet or hero. It’s performance art masquerading as action.
There is a better way to do activism. We live in a time requiring courage. Holding fast to Christian ethics and biblical orthodoxy will take spines of steel. But bravery isn’t measured in lazy dunks and self-righteous put-downs but in the patient and slow building of movements and institutions that can last.
I think of the Greatest Generation, the ones who stormed the beaches of Normandy against fascism. When those who survived World War II came home, what did they do? They built stuff. Many of the legacy institutions we take for granted, including many of the evangelical organizations that are today being stretched and stressed, were built by people with courage and vision.
There is a pervasive anti-institutional vibe in this age. Much of the skepticism is earned as almost every single institution in American life has let us down in recent decades. The temptation can be to adopt a kind of nihilist approach that only seeks to tear down and expose. Sometimes that work needs to happen. But something has to be built in its place. Levin writes: “We need to inhabit these institutions, love them, and reform them to help make them more lovely to others as well.”
He’s right. The easy thing to do is launch missives on social media. The hard and patient work of building takes time and resources and energy. It involves conversations and friendships and money. It requires humility, the kind that resists the temptation to self-worship and hero creation.
But if you are tired up of just being mad all day online and wondering why nothing changes, perhaps it’s time to do some real work, some real activism, some real building.
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Daniel Darling is the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and served for six years as VP of Communications for the ERLC. You can find more from Dan at DanielDarling.com.