It is clear to many Western Christians that there is a well-timed, strategic, cultural war being waged against the very foundations of Western civilization. However, it is not as clear to many of them that their enemies are positioned not only on the left, but also on the right. Admittedly, the idea is hard to accept, especially when those on the right are professing Christians of high stature. Yet this is what has been taking place for many years, and is now doing so at an accelerated pace, in a much more nuanced manner. Sadly, truths derived from general and special revelation that serve as the basis of Western civilization are now being targeted by conservative Christians as the cause of the West’s decline.
Whereas those familiar with the subject consistently trace identity politics in general, and sexual identity politics in particular, to the works of postmodern philosophers utilizing key concepts derived from anti-Enlightenment thinkers like Karl Marx, G.W.F. Hegel, and Jean- Jacques Rousseau, popular Christian conservatives have begun to blame classical liberalism for the West’s decline. These conservatives have taken to arguing that identity politics has not sprung from Marx and his predecessors and successors, but from Enlightenment thinkers who placed too much emphasis on man as individual, rational, and autonomous. For them, individualism is primarily at fault as it tended to undermine man’s moral obligations to others, consequently resulting in the fragmentation of society and the dissolution of its institutions. Laissez-fare capitalism (i.e. capitalism) is also thought to have expedited the fragmentation of society via individualism by playing to the individual’s self-interest and not the “common good.”
Among Christians, the foregoing analysis of the West’s decline has been propagated most consistently, perhaps, by Carl R. Trueman. In his past cultural commentary and academic writing over the span of several decades, Trueman has made the same arguments laid out above. 1 More recently, Trueman has been in the spotlight for his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. In it, he claims to be giving a genealogy of the “modern self,” and doing so in order to help Christians have a better understanding of our current age’s obsession with identity in general, and sexual identity in particular. To the reader unfamiliar with Trueman’s past writing, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self may seem to present a compelling case. However, one need only examine Trueman’s writing from over a decade ago to see that his book is reiterating the same arguments mentioned above, arguments he has been making for over two decades.
The problems with Trueman’s book are manifold, but in particular it is his identification of individualism as the root cause of woke identity politics, as well as his “Christian” solution to individualism that are most problematic. This is because his “Christian” solution is neither Christian nor a solution to the West’s cultural demise, but is the same Hegelian, Marxian, Postmodern, and Roussuean philosophy of the left dressed in church clothes. Just as one cannot fight fire with fire, one cannot fight Hegel with Hegel. Unfortunately, however, that is precisely what many Christians are trying to do. Thus, while the left and the right appear to be in conflict over essentials, they are, in fact, united by a common social anthropology and political philosophy that is ultimately derived from the same sources.
Given the popularity and influence of Trueman’s book, as well as its potential to subvert the good intentions of its anti-woke readers by presenting them with a false problem (namely, individualism) and urging them to implement a false solution (namely, an anthropology and a political philosophy rooted in the thinking of the right’s actual opponents, e.g. Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Foucault), in what follows I will give considerable attention to The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. However, I will also refer to other popular Christian authors who are presenting the same ideas as solutions to the West’s decline, and only making the situation worse for all Westerners in the process.
I. Decentering the Individual
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl R. Trueman argues that the rise, development, and success of identity politics is due to “expressive individualism,” the belief or conviction “that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” 2 More specifically, he attributes the rapid growth of the transgender movement to this “notion of selfhood that places self-expression and individual psychological well-being at the heart of what it means to be human.” 3 A focus on one’s individual well-being is thought by Trueman to be the fruit of the Enlightenment’s movement away from a premodern view of reality as hierarchically ordered, communally oriented (toward the “common good”), and in which the individual’s identity is not autonomously realized or constructed, but socially, economically, and historically constructed. René Descartes’ centering of the individual, according to Trueman, seems to be where this begins. He writes —
…the assault on hierarchies was not simply the result of changing technological and economic conditions. Intellectual developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also proved lethal to old hierarchical ways of thinking. For example, while the epistemology of Descartes might not at first glance appear to have great political significance, it effectively moved the individual knowing subject to the center. And this move surely found its most eloquent psychological expression in the work of Rousseau, for whom society and culture were the problems, the things that corrupted the individual and prevented him from being truly authentic.
Rousseau’s key ideas were picked up and reinforced by the subsequent Romantics: the individual is at his most authentic before he is shaped (and corrupted) by the need to conform to social conventions. Thus, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, identity turns inward, a move that is fundamentally antihierarchical in its implications. 4
What Trueman is referring to when he speaks of “the epistemology of Descartes” is the French Enlightenment philosopher’s belief that knowledge must be founded on an indubitable first principle expressed by Descartes as “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I am thinking, therefore I am.” This thinking individual came to be known as the Cartesian cogito, the individual who has an indubitable foundation for knowledge, namely the truth that he exists. Untethered from magisterial authorities in his search for knowledge, the Cartesian cogito is an individual, rational, and, before men, autonomous knower. And it is this way of thinking of oneself, in Trueman’s estimation, that begins to push Western Civilization down a treacherous path of liberating oneself from all external authorities.
Yet the postmodern philosophy which gave birth to LGBTQ studies, and the LGBTQ activist cultures inspired by such studies, is clearly anti-Cartesian, implying (and in some cases outright announcing), as Frederic Jameson puts it, “a thoroughgoing rejection of the Cartesian…cogito.” 5 Indeed, one need only read the works of Michel Foucault — identified by many as one of the key thinkers to give rise to LGBTQ studies and activism — to see that the West’s “psychological turn” was one of the first targets of LGBTQ theorists. As Steven Best and Douglas Kellner explain —
[Foucault] began his academic career as a philosopher…Becoming intolerant of the abstractness of this discipline and its naive truth claims, Foucault turned to psychology and psychopathology as alternative forms of study and observed psychiatric practice in French mental hospitals during the early 1950s…These studies led to his first two books on the theme of mental illness and began his lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between knowledge and power. 6
For Foucault, the psychological turn was predicated upon the Enlightenment notion of the individual, rational, autonomous Self which he thought to be the byproduct of the Cartesian cogito. Foucault attacked the Cartesian cogito, the inner-self with an essence and a “true” core, viewing it as a concept created and utilized by those in power to exclude, marginalize, oppress, and control those without power. As Mark Olssen explains —
For Foucault, the emergence of liberal individualism at the onset of modernity involved a bifurcation of individual from community, the care of the self from knowledge of the self, or ethics from reason (Descartes, Kant). Its social effects were to undermine community and promote individualizing forms of power. 7
It was not the Cartesian cogito but Foucault’s attack on it that lies at the root of LGBTQ studies. Thus, seeing as Foucault’s criticism of the Cartesian cogito and individualism plays such an important role in the creation and development of LGBTQ studies, it should strike the reader as odd that Trueman begins his criticism of the “modern” self with an attack on the Cartesian cogito that reflects the thinking of Foucault. If Trueman and Foucault only shared this criticism of the Cartesian cogito, one could perhaps view it as a strange coincidence. However, this is not the only place where their ideas overlap. For both men, the self/subject cannot be understood in an ahistorical manner, but can only be understood as the product of historical, economic, and societal forces operating through various institutions (e.g. the family, the State, the Church). For both men, one’s identity is formed by dialogical/dialectical engagement with others mediated by the aforementioned social institutions. And for both men, the Enlightenment’s centering of the Cartesian cogito has led to a belief in individualism that has had disastrous socio-political consequences which can only be rectified by decentering the individual.
What is more, while Trueman identifies the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as individualistic, scholars have traditionally maintained that Rousseau was, in fact, a collectivist. Why does Trueman seemingly invert Rousseau’s thinking? It may be because Rousseau’s thinking is, in fact, closer to Trueman’s than he may want to admit. Like Trueman and Foucault, Rousseau believed that social ills could be ameliorated by decentering the individual and centering the collective in society. As Bradley J. Birzer explains —
To attenuate the chaos inevitable in a state of nature, Rousseau claimed, men must “act in concert,” solidifying into a collective whole. A social compact, then, improperly implemented, will collectivize without freeing. “To find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force and by the means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before,” serves as the central paradox for a social compact. As a solution, Rousseau continued, man must break ties with all subsidiarity associations and subdivisions—that is, from his spouse, his children, his school, his business, his faith, his fraternal order, etc.—becoming fully a citizen of the whole.
In other words, the only association that will function properly, is the association of the whole, each man utterly equal to every other man before the group as a whole. A true social compact must demand “the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community.” If so constructed, he claimed, “each gives himself entirely, the condition is equal for all, and since the condition is equal for all, no one has any interest in making it burdensome to the rest.” 8
Brian Dotts concisely and accurately explains this as well, writing —
To Rousseau, the Enlightenment simply created new forms of tyranny and diminished Man’s natural instinct toward compassion. …Rousseau appears to reject the atomistic individualism and the self-interest that it underscored by both Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau viewed individuals as interdependent and the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality undermined the natural equality of human beings. 9
This raises the unavoidable question: If Trueman is giving a critical genealogy of the “modern self,” why do his positive statements echo the very ideas underpinning LGBTQ studies and activism?
II.The Dialogical Self and The Politics of Recognition
Trueman has been greatly influenced by the philosopher Charles Taylor in thinking that the individual self is the product of dialogical exchanges mediated by social institutions. In this view, the individual’s identity arises from a process of mutual recognition between himself and others in society. What Trueman is here relaying is Taylor’s concept of the “politics of recognition,” a concept derived from the German philosopher G.W.F Hegel, as a corrective to
classical liberalism’s emphasis on the individual, rational, autonomous self. For Trueman, Hegel’s thinking presents a helpful corrective to the corrosive philosophical individualism inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This helps us understand why Trueman’s thinking about the self and politics overlaps with that of Michel Foucault: They share a common source in Hegel.
The irony of this, however, is that the politics of recognition which Trueman proposes as a corrective to Western individualism is not only in step with the thinking of Foucault and Hegel, it is derived from none other than Rousseau. As Arthur Ripstein explains —
Hegels political thought owes two of its themes to Rousseau. The first is recognition, the idea that politics is crucially about membership, and the need that each of us has to be recognized by others. For both Rousseau and Hegel, such concepts as freedom, coercion, and equality are to be understood in terms of recognition. The second is that whatever social problems recognition might generate, they can only be solved by further socialization. 10
Rousseau’s anthropology and political philosophy are anti-individualistic, playing a foundational role in Hegel’s thinking on the same issues, and are carried through Marx’s philosophy into the thinking of postmodernist Michel Foucault, whose genealogical criticism of Cartesian cogito as individualistic, rational, and autonomous is of central importance in LGBTQ studies and activism.
Thus, along with the very thinkers and groups responsible for the creation and propagation of sexual identity politics, Trueman argues that individualism is “at the heart of the chaos and fragmentation which seems to characterize modern society,” 11 further arguing in favor of a view of the self as dialogical and, ipso facto, a participant in Hegel’s politics of recognition. Trueman is clear about this, writing —
…selfhood is a dialogue, even a dialectic, between selfconsciousnesses. I may intuitively think of myself as defining who I am but in fact my identity, or sense of selfhood, is the result of my interaction with my environment, specifically with other self-consciousnesses. This process Hegel characterizes as “recognition.” This is not recognition in the simple, commonsense manner in which a friend might call to me across the street as she recognizes my face. Rather, it is a more significant sense whereby I am ascribed legitimacy and value by another and, therefore, in relation to that other. 12
For Trueman, “Hegel’s notion of recognition…exposes the falsity of our intuitive sense that each of us is sovereign over our own selfhood.” 13 Hegel’s concepts of dialogical/dialectical selfhood and the “politics of recognition” are a good place to start critiquing individualism and Western civilization, Trueman thinks, but are insufficient because they fail to resolve the contradiction between freedom, on the one hand, and belonging, on the other. He writes —
Hegel poses the problem of selfhood nicely; but the modernity to which he contributes assumes a basic antithesis between the concept of freedom and the concept of belonging that can only be resolved by one or both being modified (sacrificed to?) by the other. 14
The solution, he further remarks, is only found in the “Christian” idea that “…freedom is found in belonging, and that belonging is found in freedom.” 15
By identifying his proposed solution as a “Christian” idea, Trueman grants moral legitimacy to a claim that has more in common with Big Brother’s assertion that “Slavery is freedom” 16 than it does with anything even remotely biblical. What is more he thereby bridges Protestantism to Hegel, Roman Catholic social teaching, and the World Economic Forum.
1 See Diaz III, Hiram R. “A False Equation: Examining “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [Pt.2]”, Logia, April 11, 2022, https://logia.substack.com/p/a-false-equation?s=w; and “The Communitarian Option: Examining “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”, Logia, May 15, 2022, https://logia.substack.com/p/the-communitarian-option.
2 Expressive individualism.
3 The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 336.
4 ibid., 65. (emphasis added)
5 The Prison-House of Language:A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 134-135.
6 Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, Douglas Kellner’s Faculty Page at UCLA, https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/pomo/ch2.html. (emphasis added)
7 “Michel Foucault as “Thin” Communitarian: Difference, Community, Democracy”, in Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies (Nov:2002), 512.
8 “Rousseau’s Collectivism”, The Imaginative Conservative, June 3, 2020, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/01/jean-jacques-rousseau-collectivism-bradley-birzer.html. (emphasis added)
9 Investigating Critical and Contemporary Issues in Education, University of Georgia, https://open.online.uga.edu/critical-contemporary- education/chapter/chapter-5-enlightenment-philosophy-jean-jacques-rousseau/. (emphasis added)
10 “Universal and General Wills: Hegel and Rousseau”, in Political Theory, Vol. 22, No. 3 (1994), 447. (emphasis added)
11 “The Apocalypse of the Modern Self”, Humanum, Issue 1 (2021), https://humanumreview.com/articles/the-apocalypse-of-the-modern-self.
12 ibid. (emphasis added)
14 ibid. (emphasis added)
15 ibid. (emphasis added)
16 “Big Brother” is another name for the totalitarian state in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984. Note the similarities between Trueman’s “Christian” idea and the following words from Orwell’s character O’Brian toward the end of 1984.
“It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: ‘Freedom is Slavery’. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone free the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all−powerful and immortal.” –Orwell, George. 1984, (New York: Penguin, 1977), 264. (emphasis added)