Conservative Cancel Culture

Further Reflections on the PCA’s General Assembly Polarization Panel

The stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America has announced that the seminar entitled “Supporting Your Pastor and Church Leaders in a Polarized Political Year,” planned for this summer’s General Assembly (GA), will not go forward after all. The seminar had been particularly controversial due to the inclusion of David French, who, at the very least, is a  polarizing figure within the PCA. Despite the claims of some that, for example, only “a small slice of the Internet has gone berserk” there was widespread opposition to the seminar across the entire denomination. A very large number of ruling and teaching elders, as well as members, sent their concerns to the stated clerk. Two entire Presbyteries (Tennessee Valley and Southwest Florida), in fact, wrote letters urging the cancellation of the seminar.

Many who are upset with the panel being cancelled have labelled this as an instance of conservative cancel culture, a “caving to a mob mentality,” and have said that the decision of the assembly gives “in to the wrath of very online voices.” It is easy to understand why this claim would be made, because it adds the taint of hypocrisy to the whole affair. After all, conservatives were the ones years ago sounding the warning about cancel culture. If one can make the charge of cancel culture stick, then conservatives can be made out to be the something like the new Antifa, shouting their opponents into silence, rather than calmly, respectfully, and logically engaging with their ideas.

What happened with the GA panel is not, however, an instance of cancel culture. To see how this is the case, we need a definition of cancel culture. Universities serve as a good case study to provide such a definition. The early instances that led to the creation of the label “cancel culture” had two primary characteristics. The first feature of cancel culture was that it took place in an environment in which a very expansive approach to freedom of speech and expression were (at least ostensibly) promoted and protected. Leftists in the universities were free (in reality) to invite their own speakers to their own events, as were conservatives (in theory, but increasingly not in fact). Regardless, freedom of expression of a multitude of views was officially promulgated.

The second feature of cancel culture was the cancellation itself. A conservative organization—such as the Young Republicans Club—would invite a speaker to address them. Leftists, on learning that said speaker would be at their university, would inevitably slur that speaker as racist, sexist, homophobic, and the like. They would also attempt to have the university ban the speaker, and would engage in various tactics to prevent the speaker from addressing the group that had issued the invitation, from shouting speakers down, to threatening violence, to actually engaging in violence. More often than not, skittish university administrators, whether out of ideological alignment with leftist agitators or simple risk-aversion and cowardice, would order the conservative organization to cancel the speaking engagement.

Given that organizations had their own invited speakers cancelled, and that supposed free speech zones were being turned into their opposite, cancel culture was a phenomenon genuinely to be lamented. It was (and remains) an unfair arrangement that harms only one segment of America’s political spectrum. One can see, then, why it could be rhetorically powerful to label the decision not to go forward with the polarization panel at the PCA’s GA as “conservative cancel culture.” All the negative associations of past cancelations would adhere to the PCA’s decision. This, however, simply cannot withstand scrutiny. The reason for this is simple: the GA of the PCA is not a free-speech zone. It is the highest church court in the PCA. The focus of its deliberations is the glory of God, the well-being of the saints, and the evangelization of the world. These deliberations must seek to conform themselves wholly to God’s word as the only rule of Christian faith and practice. The GA is not an open-ended exploration of possible paths to knowledge.

Now, one might object that panels at the GA are different. They are not a part of the official deliberations of the church. While true, they certainly should not be opposed to the work of the body in its deliberative capacity. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a panel at GA on helping pastors feel supported in a politically polarized time (admittedly a strange way to frame the issue) is totally legitimate. What would be necessary for such a panel to be fair and judicious? The obvious answer is that it would need to represent all sides of an issue and grant all sides the freedom to speak openly on it. This does not appear to be the case with regard to the original makeup of the panel. This is why I argued that the original panel was likely to be detrimental to the peace and purity of the PCA. As everyone knows, politics is an exceedingly fraught topic at the moment. Having panel members who hold extremely strong public positions against one candidate for the Presidency without panel members with equally vigorous support for that Presidential candidate all but ensures that the panel would have been ideologically lopsided. It would, therefore, contribute more heat than light to the discussion, assuming such discussions are even fitting for GA, which is itself questionable.

For two reasons, then, the decision to cancel the panel is not an instance of conservative cancel culture. First, the composition of the polarization panel cannot be said to represent the full spectrum of views on how PCA members should approach political polarization. As such, the panel’s cancelation is not an instance of a group being preventing from bringing in a speaker or speakers they desired to hear. The widespread, negative reaction throughout the PCA shows this to be the case. Secondly, as already mentioned, GA is not an ideologically neutral free-speech zone. It is a deliberative church body tasked with deciding matters according to the truth of God’s word. The large number of PCA ruling and teaching elders who voiced objections to David French’s place on the panel in particular were seeking to discharge their ecclesiastical duties faithfully in preventing something they perceived would lead to an exacerbation, not an amelioration, of disharmony in the church. For these reasons, then, I am happy to see that the Stated Clerk, in consultation with the GA’s Administrative Committee, has cancelled the panel. It is a wise and judicious decision.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

4 thoughts on “Conservative Cancel Culture

  1. Dunson wants to defend the cancelation, which he was in favor of, of a panel discussion involving David French by distinguishing when cancel culture occurs in universities from the apparent cancel culture action of the PCA canceling this event in the upcoming PCA GA. The distinction Dunson claims to exist is that unlike universities, the PCA GA is not a free speech zone. Here, Dunson employs all-or-nothing thinking in making that distinction.

    However, rather than seeing the PCA GA as not being a free speech zone at all, the PCA GA should be seen as a limited free speech zone. The speech there should be limited by the scope of the concerns and beliefs of its members in good standing. Noting that French was a member in good standing when he was driven out of his own PCA church by the hostility of his fellow members, and that there are churches in the PCA that actually share many of his views, the question becomes whether the cancelation of the panel because of French is an example of cancel culture within a PCA context and environment. It seems that context is sometimes neglected in our analyses.

    Something else that should be addressed is the subject of polarization. All too often when we deem someone or something, like an event, as being polarizing, we are making a negative comment about that person or thing. Isn’t it possible that sometimes a person or thing that is deemed to be polarizing is like hot water to a tea bag. The hot water doesn’t put the color into the tea bag, it draws it out. The same can be said of some people or things that we claim are polarizing. They are not dividing us; they are simply making apparent the divisions that are already there. And thus, to cancel an event that would draw those already existing divisions out, rather than to let those divisions continue to simmer, is to increase the chances that something will trigger their the abrupt eruption. That sudden eruption is often more damaging than addressing those division before they have been given too much time to grow and intensify.

  2. Whatever you want to call it, it’s incredibly embarrassing that you can’t tolerate simply hearing the throughts of a fellow believer whose political views you dislike.

    A truly shameful display and a depressing sign of unity in Christ being replaced by unity in politics.

    1. Daniel:

      David French represents a polarized extreme on this continuum between ideological cosmopolitanism, which believes in nothing except the tenets of a coercive cult of Toleration, and the notion that a cultural and sociopolitical jurisdiction have a right and a need to hold certain understandings and values, without which, that society experiences entropy (i.e., Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman Empire).

      Whether one agrees with French or not, one, who represents a polar extreme within a PCA context, is not an appropriate person to head such a panel, which speaks to this existing extreme polarization. French is, indeed, a pole, although he may know it not.

      Consider his rant on the NYT. What does the racism that he has faced in past have to do with the present cancelation? Moreover, considering the social platform and greater influence he has over a small denomination which is, currently, in internal exile from the Commanding Heights of society, he is abusing his relative rhetorical power and, indeed, demonstrating how much of a polarizer that he truly is, as well as a bully.

      When is it appropriate for a self-identifying Christian to wash our dirty linen in public to be adjudged by non-believers (1 Cor 6:1-8)? It is not as if sexual abuse is being hidden or excused; merely that this seeming narcissist has lost a speaking engagement?

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