The Moral Outrage Game

James Lindsey and the Culture War

Yoram Hazony carefully and thoughtfully interpreted a recent tweet thread of James Lindsay’s often erratic and vitriolic Twitter feuds with conservative Christians. Hazony points out that Lindsay is convinced that politically engaged, conservative Christians are walking into a trap set for them by the progressive Left. The content of the discourse is instructive for what it reveals about the general character of our regime and the specific strategy being employed against conservative Christians.

Lindsay believes that Christian nationalists are being goaded by the left through increasingly graphic transgressions against Christian sensibilities and pieties by the transgender wing of the LGBTQ+ coalition. The Left’s goal, presumably, is to use symbols and scenes that conservative Christians find morally disturbing in order to activate moral outrage in them that might override their better judgment and lead them to do acts of violence that would justify broad repercussions against the whole Christian Right.

Lindsay is wrong to suggest that the best response is to retreat into a fairytale land of classical liberal moral neutrality. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thesis because moral outrage is indeed a powerful force embedded in human nature when that nature is operating well. Micah Meadowcroft made this point recently at The American Conservative, when commenting on the LA Dodgers’ decision to honor and platform the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which is a group of drag queens who get a rise out of mocking traditional Christian symbols, at a ball game dedicated to Pride Month. Meadowcroft writes, “Some things are disgusting, and we should cherish and protect our capacity for disgust.” This point merits a discussion about the nature and role of moral outrage.

The left is morally outraged that Christians consider homosexuality a sin, labeling Christian opposition homophobia. Similarly, Christians are outraged by blatant, public, I dare say, proud, displays of sexual perversion. Obscenity laws are meant to police and protect the moral outrage of the majority of citizens, and the way these laws are enforced reveals exactly what is considered morally acceptable and legitimately morally outrageous.

Okay, so Left and Right differ on what is morally outrageous. What of it? Should not the laws be indifferent with regard to who is internally offended by a particular crime? So long as everyone is treated fairly under the laws, it shouldn’t matter how people feel about a given crime, right? So we have been told.

Consider, though, two recent examples that demonstrate whose moral outrage actually governs the interpretation of the law and that consequently reveals something of the nature of the regime.

First, the female trans-activist who committed a mass shooting at Covenant Christian School in Tennessee. She should’ve been condemned outright and her victims mourned because of how outrageous her crime was. But no. In the days following the mass murder, all we heard was sympathy for the trans “community” and concern over their safety. In other words, the moral outrage of Christians who sympathized with the victims of the school was seen as a potential source of danger to trans persons all over the country: the moral outrage of the offender that led her to commit an egregious crime was the legitimate moral outrage because of recent legislation to limit transgender child mutilation in Tennessee, and the moral outrage of the victims was illegitimate to the regime.

Second, consider Jordan Neely, the homeless New York subway “entrepreneur” and “artist” whose death after being restrained by Daniel Penny sparked moral outrage all over the country recently. Neely appeared mentally unstable and potentially violent after threatening several subway riders, and his threats provoked, moral outrage in Daniel Penny and a few other passengers. This moral outrage mixed with courage led Penny to put himself at physical risk to restrain Neely, and yet his courageous action was found to be morally outrageous by the dominant powers in New York, leading to his arrest.

It appears that our most bitter political divisions are over what we all truly should consider morally outrageous. This fact helps reveal the artificiality of the political posture of late-stage liberalism: we can’t help but feel morally outraged by the breaking of certain laws because they touch on loyalties that transcend the laws. This fact explains why the laws seem to be interpreted unevenly, especially in the court of public opinion. We long for laws to be interpreted in accordance with that ultimate standard we reverence above all, be it Christianity or a progressive view of equity across race, sex, and class.

Back to Hazony’s point about Lindsay: it is true that politically engaged Christians are being goaded by unprecedented acts of public obscenity, the whole purpose of which is to confuse the young and outrage the mature. The goal is to pervert the children into accepting as morally outrageous their parents’ convictions and to encourage the mature to invite ostracism and cancellation, that is, political impotency.

How is one who has protected his healthy sense of disgust and moral outrage and even cultivated within himself the virtue of courage supposed to act when goaded this way? As Doug Wilson has suggested, “don’t take the bait” by letting your outrage outstrip prudence, but don’t let them neuter your moral outrage either. Rather, channel it into strategic action. 

Highlight outrageous acts to your community who will be outraged by it, protect your own, strengthen yourself and your position, both online and in person, individually and collectively, push back against those self-proclaimed Christian thought-leaders who preach that letting the trannies trans your kids is what Jesus calls us to suffer as Christians, and strive to understand more what our times require. Understand the moral outrage game, and play to win.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Clifford Humphrey

Clifford Humphrey holds a doctorate in political science from the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is a 2024 Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow. He is on X at @cphumphrey.