A non-prophetic prediction: within 20 years there will be significant rapprochement between evangelical Christians and proponents of biological evolution. Why? The “paleo” school of nutrition (representative thinkers: Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, and Art de Vany) and their cousins at the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Evangelical Christians will become more willing to listen to the arguments of biological evolution because they are already sympathetic to traditional ways of living. Conservative Christians tend to distrust modern medicine, cook their own food, have lots of kids, and generally be, well, conservative. They also distrust government (and most people who would like to run the lives of others – including the church, of course!), want to educate their own children, and like weapons. They hate government redistribution, but they are personally very generous to the poor and to causes they believe in. They are frugal with their money and goods, and leery of new technology. They prefer the dirty countryside to city life. Many eschew birth control. In short there is a (right, in my view) bias toward old ways of living and doing things.

Paleo people (and there are a number of different major and minor characters in this group) may become more sympathetic to conservative Christianity for similar reasons. Along with the functional fitness crowd (especially the wonderful cult of Crossfit), they reject the sewn-up, dysfunctional doctrines of late-20th century nutrition: high carb, processed foods; avoidance of fat, trusting science to make a better cookie. They hunt elk with spears (or at least sympathize with the idea), soak their grains (if they eat any), eat organs whenever possible. There is a huge libertarian contingent here (including the founder of Crossfit, Greg Glassman) – they are more libertarian than liberal, but more liberal than conservative. They sneer when the state tells them how to live (or at least eat), knowing that the US government is a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto and Tyson Foods. From what I have seen they are less willing than many of their generation(s) to toe any line politically. Their comfort with gay marriage is more the result of a “who cares?” attitude than of thought-out viewpoints on marriage and human rights.

See where I’m going with this? Paleo people have a credible scientific approach that many conservative Christians lack (there are just not a lot of Christians in the hard sciences today). But believing Christians have two things that paleo people cannot possibly find in their ideology. First, they have a more complete sense of the social dimension of traditional life. We don’t just eat and exercise traditionally; we live traditionally. We understand that marriage is an institution forged over thousands and thousands of years of human existence, and can’t be redefined “just cuz” we think it would be nice for gay people to be married if they want. We are pro-sex and pro-baby – so pro-baby that we can’t stand abortion, at all. We recognize gender differences as innate (although not ultimate) – and so we have a strong preference for “traditional” roles in monogamous marriage. But the second thing we have that paleo people don’t is a place from which to critique traditions.

This may take a little explaining. I suppose you could look at liberal and conservative attitudes through the lens of the parable of the two sons. The younger son in the parable is the liberal. He is an individualist, selfish through and through, willing to insult and break his father’s heart in pursuit of the life he wants to live. He believes that he is best off without the constraints of traditional society (family in this case): free to reinvent life as it suits him. The older son is a conservative: he is pro-family – but interestingly doesn’t love his father any more than little brother did. He wants an intact social system (“that I might celebrate with my friends”) and he wants the goods granted by a strong community.

What is Jesus’ attitude toward these – which does he vote for? Neither: both sons need to repent by the end of the parable! The younger of his self-centeredness, the older of his tribalism. The gospel of Jesus Christ is an offer of salvation to fragmented, individualist, modern people – and it is an offer of salvation to hellish, repressive traditional communities where religion is used as a cudgel to keep people in their place. If the only alternatives are liberalism and conservatism, we’re in a tie: they’re both bad. As Jonathan Haidt discusses in his book The Righteous Mind secular people tend to be self-centered, while religious people tend to be tribal. The secular person believes that there is nothing worth dying (or killing) for; the religious person believes his/her own group is worth dying (or killing for). But if we understand the gospel we will live not for ourselves, and not for our tribe alone, but for the good of the world. Why? Because Jesus Christ gave himself for the life of the world.

In short, then, the Christian gospel provides a place from which to appreciate but also critique traditionalism and modernism, conservatism and liberalism. With conservatives it denies that human nature is open to total reinvention, or that human community is optional or even very malleable. But with liberals it denies that human community is itself the highest good or the highest authority. The Christian loves his community (family, church, city, circle of friends, etc.) but is ready to disobey the will of his community when love (of God and of the community itself, which may be making a terrible errors as a group) demands it. So historically, the adoption of Christian ethics has meant the affirmation of some traditional institutions but also modification and amelioration: marriage stays, but it’s monogamous and lifelong, and celibacy is a respectable option. Slavery might stay (it usually dies in Christian-dominant societies) but slaves must be regarded as humans, not “animate tools” (Aristotle). Meanwhile other institutions and practices (such as pederasty) are either stamped out or forced into the shadows.

With paleo people we sense that older ways of living and using our bodies are often wiser than new ones, but unlike paleo people we recognize that that wisdom extends to social structures as well as nutrition, exercise and ergonomics. Eating grass-fed meat, lifting free weights, and wearing zero-drop shoes will lead to health and happiness: how much more honoring elders or confining sexual love to lifelong marriage?

But there is an elephant in the room, and that is the ongoing creation/evolution debate. I am not planting a flag anywhere, but I will simply observe that the current unwillingness of conservative Christians to discuss this is going to break down. Arguably that is already happening, but I think it is going to accelerate. I have simply run across too many Christians unselfconsciously cooking and eating “paleo” and “primal” food, wearing Vibram FiveFingers, and otherwise tacitly agreeing with an evolutionary perspective on the body and health, to think that the conversation isn’t going to erupt.

Final thought: an important advantage of having this conversation, rather than avoiding it: it provides an opportunity to talk about something modern liberal society has managed to nearly forget (notably in the current debates over marriage): that there is such a thing as human nature. Cognitive psychologists and evolutionary physiologists recognize something that average Westerners, nurtured to think they can literally be and do whatever they fancy, do not: what we are physically and mentally is robust and difficult to change; when we try to live in defiance of our inherited nature, we suffer.

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