Cultural Insurgency

The importance of winning at the moral level of cultural conflict

A few years ago in online right circles, paleoconservative military writer William Lind’s idea of 4th Generation War got big. I picked up a copy of his 4th Generation Warfare Handbook and thought it was very interesting.

Lind’s 4th Generation War is essentially an insurgency conflict, between a major military power and guerrilla type entities. These are asymmetric, with the major military power in theory having vastly superior firepower. However, the insurgents frequently win, as happened in Afghanistan, for example.

Lind wrote his handbook from the standpoint of advising a power like the United States on how to deal with insurgencies in countries like Iraq. It’s purely about traditional military affairs. But there’s a lot of applicability to non-violent, non-military confrontations in civil society as well. This was why it got popular. This month I want to review some of the key concepts.

The attempted application to cultural matters is my own, and not comprehensive. So please don’t blame Lind if I get it wrong.

The Legitimacy of the State

There are a number of critical elements of 4th Generation War. The first is understanding that 4th Generation War takes place against the backdrop of the decline of the legitimacy of the state:

At the heart of this phenomenon, Fourth Generation war, lies not a military evolution but a political, social, and moral revolution: a crisis of legitimacy of the state. All over the world, citizens of states are transferring their primary allegiance away from the state to other entities: to tribes, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, ideologies, and “causes.” Many people who will no longer fight for their state are willing to fight for their new primary loyalty.

It’s no secret that this isn’t just limited to war wracked developing world nations. In the advanced world too, including the United States, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in trust in institutions, in government, in America itself. On the right, many people now use the word “regime” to describe core US institutions. Some people have even become fans of Vladimir Putin. On the left, many openly decry the US constitution or aspects of our constitutional system. Others want to “defund the police.” Some think the threat of climate change – their cause – trumps any other consideration. We are observing things such as a decline in military enlistment that clearly show less commitment to America and its government.

If the problem is the decline of the legitimacy of the state, then part of the solution must be strengthening its legitimacy. We see that President Nayib Bukele has done this in El Salvador. While I always caution that there’s much we don’t know about what’s going on there, the consensus seems to be that he restored the state’s monopoly on violence by vanquishing the country’s gangs. Holding a monopoly on violence is a core part of state legitimacy. Bukele himself is enormously popular, but most likely trust in the Salvandoran state itself is also at an all time high.

Thinking more broadly, if we run an institution, then it is critical to actively manage for the legitimacy of and trust in that institution. I wrote an entire chapter in my book Life in the Negative World about this. For churches and evangelical institutions, we need to ensure our institutions are trustworthy, competent, and have missional integrity. This is especially true in an age when there’s declining trust in institutions.

I want to especially highlight competence, because it’s an area that’s sorely lacking in our country today. For example, I just read an article that a light rail project in Maryland is now $4 billion over budget. Not competent. Door plugs blowing out of Boeing planes in flight. Not competent. The US and its allies are producing fewer artillery shells than Russia, which has only 3% of our combined GDP. Not competent.

Lind himself notes the importance of competence, writing:

The main organs of the state’s government and the civilians who head and run them must be competent. They must do what states exist to do, above all providing order: safety of persons and property. They must make things work: the police, the courts, the schools, the country’s infrastructure, and increasingly its economy as well (having accepted major economic responsibilities, the legitimacy of a state now depends in part on how well it manages the economy). Corruption cannot be so far-reaching as to destroy the state’s ability to do its duties, nor to the point where it is a public scandal.

Again, while Lind is talking about governments, I think the relationship between competence and legitimacy extends to other institutions as well.

For institutions that we run or identify with, it’s definitely worth asking whether our actions are strengthening or weakening its legitimacy. Sometimes it’s not obvious what the answer is.

But too often, people take actions to gain a short term victory over an opponent which in the longer term delegitimizes their own institution or our governance system as a whole.

Both US political parties do this, but since most critical institutions in the US are left dominated, a decline in institutional trust and legitimacy hurts the left more than the right in the long run.

On the other side, if you are hostile to a particular institution, you want to weaken its legitimacy. In general, most critics already have that as a goal.

Asymmetric Conflict

4th Generation Wars are also asymmetric conflicts.

Think about the war in Ukraine. This is a symmetrical conflict and what we normally think about as war. Two conventional armies are deployed around a front. Both sides have manpower and matériel. They are blasting away at each other.

A war like Afghanistan was completely different. This was an asymmetric conflict between conventional armed forces and an insurgent group, each using completely different tactics.

The key to an asymmetric conflict is that what works for one side may not work for the other. They require very different approaches.

We can apply this in a political context as well. We tend to view politics as a symmetrical contest. The Democrats line their coalition up on one side. The Republicans line up on the other. Both raise money, run ads, have digital databases, run get out the vote efforts, engage in spin, etc. And they do battle on Election Day.

But while that may be true in certain political domains, it’s not true in general. Almost all of the major powerful and culture shaping institutions of society are dominated by the left. This includes the universities, the media, major foundations and non-governmental organizations, the federal bureaucracy, and even major corporations and the military to some extent. The one truly powerful institution conservatives control, for now at least, and it’s an important one, is the US Supreme Court. The other institutions conservatives control — alternative media like talk radio, state elected office, churches — are subaltern. They are lower in prestige, power, and wealth.

This is hardly a symmetric power situation. Also, the right and left have different characters that affects how they can operate.

As a result, these two groups often need to employ asymmetric tactics. I noted this before in terms of the differences between left and right when it comes to institutional capture.

One of the most effective conservative political tactics I’ve seen in my lifetime responds to this asymmetry. It is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s busing of migrants to large, progressive cities that declared themselves sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. This turned the border issue into a national problem, not just one for Texas and other border states (and the other places where the federal government itself was distributing migrants). It forced those big cities to have skin the game.

Failure to understand the asymmetric reality of modern America can get people in real trouble. For examples, people on the left can tear down statues, riot, block highways, occupy or even firebomb government buildings, and other such things — and typically get away with it. Few of them are prosecuted, and of those who are, they often get sweetheart plea deals. In fact, many of them actually are able to riot with impunity, then sue a progressive controlled city government for having their civil rights violated by the police and get paid a nice cash settlement by sympathetic city officials.

Obviously, if you are on the right this won’t happen to you. People who participated in January 6 found this out the hard way.

Be smart out there.

In a specifically religious context, I’m not sure how to apply the idea of asymmetry, but there are probably many cases.

The Moral Level of War

One of Lind’s key insights is that in 4th Generation War, victory is often not a product of winning military battles, but winning at what Col. John Boyd called moral level of war:

Colonel Boyd identified these three new levels as the physical, the mental, and the moral levels…This leads to the central dilemma of Fourth Generation war: what works for you on the physical (and sometimes mental) level often works against you at the moral level. It is therefore very easy to win all the tactical engagements in a Fourth Generation conflict yet still lose the war. [emphasis added]

This was the American experience in Afghanistan.

It’s important to note what is meant by the moral level of war here. It’s not just about good vs. evil, although there’s an element of that. It’s perhaps more importantly about winning hearts and minds. It’s about winning in the court of public opinion, or earning the support of the civilian population. It’s also about morale, or which side is more motivated to keep fighting the longest.

To drive home this point that the moral level of war isn’t just about who is good and who is bad, Lind uses the provocative example of Osama Bin Laden:

The practice of a successful Fourth Generation entity, al-Qaeda, offers an interesting contrast. Osama bin Laden, who came from a wealthy family, lived for years in an Afghan cave. In part, this was for security. But bin Laden’s choice also reflected a keen understanding of the power of the moral level of war. By sharing the hardships and dangers of his followers, Osama bin Laden drew a sharp contrast at the moral level with the leaders of local states, and also with senior officers in most state armies.

The criticality of the moral level of war can actually work to the advantage of the weaker party due to the asymmetric nature of these conflicts. Lind says:

The weaker force has the moral high ground because it is so weak. No one likes bullies using their physical superiority in order to win at anything, and unless we are extremely careful in how we apply our physical combat power, we soon come across as a bully, i.e. Goliath….In the 3,000 years that the story of David and Goliath has been told, how many listeners have identified with Goliath?

Weakness can be a source of strength when it comes to winning at the moral level of war.

When the US massacres a bunch of kids with a drone – which has happened way more than any of us would want to admit – it loses at the moral level of war. When America props up corrupt leaders in client states like Afghanistan, or has its own troops and client government officials living well in a green zone type area at the same time the average citizen is enduring severe hardship in the countryside, it loses at the moral level of war. Powerful militaries and governments lose moral authority when they commit atrocities or engage in disproportionate actions or responses. Or show disregard, disrespect, or even contempt for the people or the law.

Insurgents can lose in this manner too, if they behave barbarically. This seems to have been part of what happened to ISIS.

This idea of winning moral authority or winning at the moral level of war applies in domains well outside of military conflict. The desert fathers or people like Francis of Assisi who renounced all their worldly goods acquired immense moral authority by doing so, for example.

Think about what non-violent movement leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to accomplish against much more powerful incumbent regimes. Now, many elite institutions actually supported King and the civil rights movement, so they weren’t entirely a culturally insurgent movement. But King shows a real focus on winning at the moral level. He understood that civil rights could not be obtained through violence, and the use of violence would simply discredit his movement. By being non-violent, and enduring violence and injustice inflicted on them, civic rights protestors bolstered their movement at the moral level of cultural war. (You’ll note that leftist protestors today often try to bait the police into taking action against them for this very reason).

I always say that I categorically reject political and social violence – and urge others to do the same. Like honesty, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best policy.

There are multiple questions to consider here: How do you strengthen you side’s moral legitimacy? How do you weaken the other side’s moral legitimacy? How do you keep your side’s morale high? How do you weaken the other side’s morale? And so on.

I want to focus today on how conservatives raise their own standing. The question to ask yourself here is how what you are doing affects your progress in winning at the moral level in society at large, with the normal people in America. This is a long term not a short term program.

By normal people, I mean the average center-left to center-right people in the middle of the socio-political bell curve. Most people are not hard core wokesters nor are they conservative culture warriors. They aren’t super-engaged in politics or religious disputes. They mostly just want to live their lives in peace. But they do notice when crazy things start happening, which is one reason a lot of them have, for example, started saying, “What the heck is up with my kid’s school?!” Normal people are what somebody once called “grill Americans.” They just want to be left alone to grill burgers in their backyard in the suburbs and watch the NFL.

Conservatives often engage in behaviors that hurt them at the moral level because they turn off these kinds of normal people. One example is open carry. We’re not in the Old West anymore. People walking around with AR-15s across their chest in America, which some people do, does not resonate with the average person. That’s the image we associate with developing world countries like Lebanon. It also signals violence, which is not what we want.

This is an area where evangelicals especially need to take note. Evangelicals often focus on having the morally correct view according to the Bible. That’s important, obviously.

But do evangelicals tend to behave in ways that make them more popular or less popular with normal people? Often it’s the latter. While sometimes that’s for valid reasons, too often it’s for bad ones. Way too often, for whatever reason, conservatives of all types love to play the heel role.

As one example, Atlantic reporter Tim Alberta’s father was an evangelical pastor. In 2019, his father died and he traveled back to Michigan to attend the funeral at his dad’s megachurch. A significant number of people at the event came up and started berating him over the critical things he’d written about Donald Trump. Some even used his Trump writings to question his faith. This was at his father’s funeral, where, as he put it, “Dad was in a box a hundred feet away.”

Alberta told that story in his new bestselling book. How do you think the normal people of America are going to react when they read that? They are going to rightly think the behavior of those conservative evangelicals was appalling – because doing something so crass is inexcusable. It causes evangelicals to lose at the moral level. This sort of low class or classless behavior happens way too much, among both religious and political conservatives.

You have to be asking yourself, “What would normal people think of this?” Sometimes, you have no choice but to say or do things they don’t like. But in most cases, there’s an opportunity to think about how to win at the moral level.

Don’t repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good. Focus on mortifying the sin in our own lives, becoming above reproach in our own behavior. Repair our own sexual economy in the church, building healthy, productive households. Be a source of good works. Be competent. Run our own institutions well. Be willing to cheerfully endure hardship.

Things like this help win at the moral level. They do this in part because they create a congruent way of life. As Lind put it:

This brings us to the bottom line for winning at the moral level: Your words and your actions must be consistent. We deliberately have not talked about Psychological Operations (PsyOps) in this handbook, because in Fourth Generation war, everything you do is a PsyOp – whether you want it to be or not.

A challenge here is that a large number of people claim the evangelical label but their lives resemble the Jerry Springer Show. Rep. Lauren Boebert is a good example. There’s really no way to police this at the overall level of “evangelical,” alas. But we can certainly think about it in terms of our own local community.

Also think about where you can get involved to help make your community better in tangible ways. Yes, do traditional ministry like helping the poor or serving at the county jail. But also think about how you could help volunteer to staff the county fair that’s struggling. Or get involved in the Lion’s Club. Or run for local office and actually do something tangible like help get an old brownfield site fixed. Demonstrate skill, competence, and become the new source of moral authority and betterment in your community.  Show people that if you were in charge, things would get materially better for them.

Tim Keller used to say that Christians need to be “famous for helping the poor.” In that case, even if some people didn’t like you, they’d wonder what their neighborhood or city would do if you weren’t there. I’m not sure that’s actually a good example today because much of secular society believes the poor should be helped by the government, not churches or other civil society organizations. So churches successfully helping the poor actually offends them in that it undermines the case for an expanded government safety net or “socialism” (whatever that means to them).

But the idea of making sure people see your good works and way of life (Matt 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12) not just your political positions is important. This is what Julian the Apostate complained about when he wrote, “Why do we not observe that it is their [Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [rejection of the Roman gods]?”

Today it’s not likely to be care for people’s graves. But certainly there are analogues to that.

You know who’s done this well? The Mormons. They have healthy, high functioning communities that model an attractive life (which we see from the fact that a big share of top mommy influencers are Mormon). They typically laugh it off when people make fun of them, or at least don’t let it get obviously under their skin too much. Most people can’t even tell you what they believe, but they have been growing at a time when religion is declining in America. I’m not saying they are perfect by any means, certainly not in their theology, but there are things to learn here.

By the way, what I’m talking about here is very different from what we see from some elite-adjacent “Never Trump” evangelicals. They are employing rhetoric (not deeds or a way of life) to bash conservative evangelicals in order to curry favor with secular elites (not ordinary Americans).

The truth is, sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. That’s ok. In fact, if everybody likes you, you are probably doing something wrong.

Also, there are certainly other models besides Lind’s for thinking about how to win in a cultural conflict. Nassim Taleb’s idea of the intolerant minority getting their way is another one.

Nonetheless it is important to be thinking how to win at the moral level of cultural conflict in the longer term. It’s an important lever.

Cultural Insurgency

There’s a lot more I could say about Lind’s book. I will be posting a follow-up on how to think about institutional legitimacy.

But I want to close with what I think is one of the best aspects of the 4th Generation War idea. It matches the evangelical temperament.

What do I mean by that? As just one example, evangelicals are prone to apocalyptic thinking. I’ve always argued against this. But they aren’t likely to listen to me about that. The apocalyptic mindset is deeply ingrained in a large swath of the evangelical world.

I could say that in the Negative World, the culture war is mostly a loser issue when it comes to social, if not cultural conservative issues. And that in the short term, less focus (not none, but less) should be put on that and more on how we live our lives in our own communities. But people aren’t likely to listen to that either.

Or, I could say that the hour is even darker than we’ve thought. With secular left capture of major institutions, we need to be digging in for a long term non-violent “cultural insurgency” in which we focus on asymmetric tactics and winning at the moral level of cultural war. Which is another way to put it, but which I think matches the evangelical temperament better.

Originally published at and reproduced here with permission.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This

Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn is Cofounder and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. He also writes on cultural topics at Renn was previously an urban policy researcher, writer, and consultant. He was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research for five years. His work has been featured in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

5 thoughts on “Cultural Insurgency

  1. I feel like we’ve all done our fair share of reaching across the aisle. In fact, the most impactful changes in the last decade have come from the right eschewing conventional decorum and embracing bombast. Being willing to say the outrageous thing that is true is what “normal” people are craving. The people want boldness, not half-hearted niceties.

  2. One of the first things I thought of after reading Renn’s article is the relationship between one’s ends and one’s means. Regardless of where one’s ideology is between conservative, liberal, and left, no person of principle should accept the ends justifies the means. And Renn is a person of principle as seen in his rejection of that belief. I think that it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said something to the effect that one’s ends cannot exceed one’s means. But right there is where the conversation usually ends on the relationship between one’s ends and one’s means.

    There are, however, two other scenarios to consider regarding the relationship between one’s ends and one’s means. One scenario was followed by both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. That scenario was that their ends were equal to their means. As both promoted and practiced nonviolent protest methods where both external and internal violence, the latter of which referred to directing verbal insults and abuse at one’s opponents and harboring hatred and bitterness toward them, were avoided and discouraged. And their ends focused on promoting freedom, independence, and equality for people who had been marginalized at the time.

    Certainly when we consider people like Gandhi and King, we consider how virtuous both their means and ends were. But have we thought about when the means exceed the ends. This is something for us religiously conservative Christians to think about when engaged in the current culture wars. That is because the desired ends of those fellow religiously conservative Christians engaged in the current culture wars are not the same ends that Gandhi and King worked for: freedom, independence, and equality. In fact, it is the gaining of equality that has triggered the conservative resurgence in continuing the culture wars.

    What has many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians up in arms about the culture is that the wrong people have been obtaining equality. Who are those wrong people? If we look at what triggered Dreher’s promotion of the Benedict Option, the answer is rather obvious: the emergence of those in the LGBT community from the margins of society. Many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians feel compelled to object to the LGBT community being treated as equals. That is because for them to be treated as equals, society must accept them and their lifestyles as being nonthreatening and normal. And many of my fellow believers in Christ object to that by rhetorically asking how can the practice of such serious sins as those practiced by the LGBT community be regarded as normal and therefore not posing a threat to society. After all, look at how homosexuality is consistently condemned in the Scriptures.

    And yet, look at how worshiping idols and false gods are condemned by the Scriptures as well. Should we then also abolish the Establishment Clause of The Constitution? After all, how can a practice of worshiping idols and false gods be allowed when it is so wrong? And how can we regard those in society who practice something so strongly condemned by the Scriptures as being normal in society?

    One way to determine if the means exceed the ends in the current conservative approach to fighting the culture wars, or in Renn’s venacular, restoring trust in America’s institutions, is to check the Scriptures, specifically the New Testament, to see if there are any examples of the Apostles seeking the same ends as today’s religiously conservative Christians are seeking. Another way to judge whether the means is exceeding the ends is to examine history to see what were the results of establishing similar ends. Here we can go to Christendom to see what fruit it bore. That is because many of the ends being sought today by Christians seeking to change culture were ends sought for by reached during Christendom. And realize that some of the results that came from the ends of Christendom were 2 World Wars, imperialism, colonialism, inquisitions by both Protestants and those with the Roman Church, religious wars, ethnic cleansings, sexism, racism, slavery, other forms of exploiting labor, along with other various forms of social injustices. In addition, we could count Critical Theory and Post Modernism as being the reactionary children of Christendom.

    Renn states the ends he wants to see reached by Christians who use worthwhile means to reestablish the legitimacy of our institutions when he quotes Lind:

    They must do what states exist to do, above all providing order: safety of persons and property.

    Note what states are not required to provide that the Left has been working to ensure: freedom, independence, and equality. And here we need to note that without equality, our freedoms and rights become nothing more than mere privileges. One must wonder then whether the means that Renn rightfully says should be used to achieve his desired ends will be the same means needed to maintain those ends.

    One final thing needs to be mentioned here. History teaches us that popular support, or the lack thereof, of an institution is not an infallible judge of the legitimacy of a given institution or leader.

      1. Ryan,
        Because people like you respond. If you had no interest in my comments, you would not respond. If you thought no one is interested in my comments, you would not respond the way you do.

        I don’t like the adversarial relationship here. I prefer that we talk with each other about the the issues brought upon the article and what we think about the individual points each person brings up.

  3. Mr. Renn’s piece has a vibe: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I heartily agree with the previous commenter Dylan. The notion that conservative American Christians have brought their misery on themselves has been repeated ceaselessly for the past few decades. Yet many of their deep concerns, formerly dismissed as “apocalyptic,” have now become reality. Still, the chiding of the religious dissidents by their own intelligentsia continues undaunted. It reminds me of another pop culture reference: it’s like flogging a horse, that if not dead, is at this point in mortal danger of expiring.

    Renn asserts that we must base our strategy on the sensitivities of “grill Americans,” a hypothetical detached middle. It’s only fair that his analysis and advice be similarly tempered. How might it sound to his target audience? I think he might write with more awareness if he considered that.

    What if too many in the “grill” demographic end up so complacent and self-absorbed that they ignore the Left-wing totalitarian moment until it comes for them and then it’s too late? There are limitations to basing our strategy on their reactions or lack thereof.

    The swipe at open-carry advocates as forgetful that the Old West is past again sounds detached. Yes, it’s not the Old West. It’s much worse. Shouldn’t people exercise their rights instead of waiting for the ugliness to consume their communities? Open-carry is a reasonable response to a society that eschews law and order. Renn has some good thoughts but it also matters if Renn’s readers know he knows what time it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *