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On Culture War, Doug Wilson, and the Moscow Mood

November 27, 2023

“Each of the great world civilizations,” Christopher Dawson wrote in his classic work from the 1940s on Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, “has been faced with the problem of reconciling the aggressive ethos of the warrior with the moral ideals of a universal religion. But in none of them has the tension been so vital and intense as in medieval Christendom and nowhere have the results been more important for the history of culture.” At the heart of Dawson’s provocative thesis is the insistence that Western European culture was the coming together of two cultures, two social traditions, and two spiritual worlds. The cultural formation of Europe combined “the war society of the barbarian kingdom with its cult of heroism and aggression,” leavened by “the peace society of the Christian Church with its ideals of asceticism and renunciation and its high theological culture.” 

Arguably, the Crusades expressed the best and the worst of this synthesis. There were times when the fusion of warrior-heroism and Christian virtue produced something noble and exemplary during the centuries-long effort to reclaim the Holy Land. And there were times when the fusion failed and produced something ugly and lamentable. But even the failures teach us about the aspirational ideals of Christendom. We cannot understand the rise of Western culture without the religious unity imposed by the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, and likewise, we cannot understand the flourishing of Christendom unless we understand that it grew up out of the soil of warrior kings and barbarian kingdoms.

Dawson’s thesis, though concerned with the rise of Western culture in the Middle Ages, is instructive for our own age. For many of us, it looks as if Western culture has been overrun—whether by Muslim immigration in Europe, critical theory in our universities, sexual degradation in our popular culture, violence in our streets, or plain old anti-Western vitriol in the hearts of many Westerners who have no idea how much more miserable the world would be if their deluded wishes came true. If this is the world we live in—or even something generally headed in this fearful direction—the question we in the Christian West are wrestling with (or should be wrestling with) is what to do now.

The Appeal of the Moscow Mood

Which brings me to the reason you are likely reading this article in the first place, and that is the name “Doug Wilson” in the title. “So, what do you think about Doug Wilson?” is a question I’ve been asked many times during my years in pastoral ministry. I’d say the questioners have been pretty evenly split between “I’m asking because I really like him,” “I’m asking because I hope you don’t like him,” and “I’m asking because I’m not sure what to think.” Even now, I’d rather not be writing this piece because (1) it takes a lot of time, (2) I’m not looking to get into a long, drawn-out debate with Wilson or his followers, and (3) I know a lot of good Christians who have been helped by Wilson and by the people and institutions in his orbit. I’m answering the question now in hopes that I might help those who appreciate some of what Wilson says but also feel like something isn’t quite right.

By any measure, one has to marvel at the literary, digital, and institutional output that has come out of Moscow, Idaho in the past several decades. While some internet cranks are wannabees trying to make a name for themselves by trying to tear down what others have built up, Wilson is to be commended for establishing an ecosystem of schools, churches, media offerings, and publishing ventures. For a scholarly and fair assessment of what Wilson has tried to do in Moscow, I recommend Crawford Gribben’s excellent book Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Wilson also deserves credit for being unafraid to take unpopular positions. True, he often seems to enjoy stating his unpopular positions in the most unpopular ways (more on that later), but no one is going to accuse Wilson of being a spineless Evangellyfish. He offers the world and the church an angular, muscular, forthright Christianity in an age of compromise and defection. On top of that, Wilson has a family that loves him and loves Christ.

Moreover, Wilson understands that opposition to Christ—his word, his gospel, and his Lordship—is not to be taken lightly. Many Christians are witnessing the disintegration of our Western world, and the Christian consensus that used to hold sway, and they are thinking to themselves, “This is terrible. I can’t believe this is happening.” To the Christians with these concerns—and I count myself among them—Doug Wilson says, “Yes, it is really bad, and let’s do something about it.”

I’m convinced the appeal of Moscow is visceral more than intellectual. That’s not meant to be a knock on the smart people in Moscow or attracted to Moscow. It is to say, however, that people are not mainly moving to Idaho because they now understand Revelation 20 in a different way, or because they did a deep word study on ta ethne in the Great Commission, or even because of a well-thought-out political philosophy of Christian Nationalism. Those things matter to Wilson and his followers, but I believe postmillennialism and Christian Nationalism are lagging indicators, not leading indicators. That is, people come to those particular intellectual convictions because they were first attracted to the cultural aesthetic and the political posture that Wilson so skillfully embodies. In short, people are moving to Moscow—whether literally or spiritually—because of a mood. It’s a mood that says, “We are not giving up, and we are not giving in. We can do better than negotiate the terms of our surrender. The infidels have taken over our Christian laws, our Christian heritage, and our Christian lands, and we are coming to take them back.”

Where the Mood Misfires

And yet, for all that is understandable and sometimes commendable about the Moscow mood, there are also serious problems. In my criticisms that follow I’m not going to focus on historical or theological disagreements I may have with Wilson. I won’t be touching on Federal Vision, or paedocommunion, or his views on the antebellum South, or his arguments for Christian Nationalism, or his particular brand of postmillennialism. My concerns are not so much with one or two conclusions that Christians may reach if Wilson becomes their intellectual mentor. My bigger concern is with the long-term spiritual effects of admiring and imitating the Moscow mood. For the mood that attracts people to Moscow is too often incompatible with Christian virtue, inconsiderate of other Christians, and ultimately inconsistent with the stated aims of Wilson’s Christendom project. 

Rather than expounding these claims in abstract terms, let’s look at a couple of concrete examples.

Five years ago, Doug Wilson and Canon Press started something they call No Quarter November (NQN). The idea is that during November, in addition to giving away free resources, Wilson and his crew will show no mercy (give no quarter) to their enemies. Each year, in advance of NQN, Wilson puts out a promotional video. They always involve a good deal of fire and more than a little sarcasm. 

The 2023 NQN video ends with a Clint Eastwood-style closeup of Wilson puffing a massive cigar, strapping on a giant flamethrower, and setting ablaze an assortment of Disney characters and media logos. Here’s what Wilson says in the first half of the video:

Welcome back to No Quarter November. 

For eleven months out of the year, I'm notoriously timid—as cautious and polite as a Southern Baptist raising funds for the ERLC. But the month of November is a time for taking no prisoners and for granting “no quarter.” If you think of my blog as a shotgun, this is the month when I saw off all my typical careful qualifications and blast away with a double-barreled shorty.

Everything we do this month will be focused on one singular goal. We want to help you apocalypse-proof your family. 

But why should you listen to me about such things? Well, when it comes to culture war and culture building, we've been at this for half a century now—much longer than such things have been cool to talk about in the green room at G3. 

Like my parents taught me: a strong family isn't possible without quick, full, and honest confession of sin, without any wussy excuse making. And especially now, it's just as important not to confess and repent of things that aren't really sins, because lying is bad and so is being a wuss.

You really should watch the four-minute video if you haven’t already. Notice several things about the mood.

First, it strikes a tone that is deliberately sarcastic and just a little bit naughty. No one really thinks Wilson is timid and cautious the rest of the year. That’s the sarcasm. The naughty part is that Wilson uses the words “wussy” and “wuss”—adolescent slang for someone weak and effeminate. These are words most Christian parents don’t allow their kids to use, since the terms probably originated as a combination of “wimp” and another word I won’t mention.

Second, the video takes cheap shots at other Christians. Wilson’s sarcastic bite is not first directed toward the wicked, the hardhearted, or the forces of evil in our world. He takes a swipe at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and at the G3 Conference. Both are conservative Baptist groups—groups, we might add, that would be on the same side as Wilson in almost every important cultural battle. It’s fine if Wilson wants to disagree with these groups; they’ve disagreed with him at times. But Wilson doesn’t mention them in the video in order to make a serious argument. He uses them for a punchline. If you like Wilson you are supposed to think “Oh no, he didn’t?! That’s hilarious.” And if you like the ERLC or G3, you are supposed to be triggered, because if Moscow can watch their opponents get triggered, that is also funny. When serious criticism is leveled at Moscow, the response often includes a smattering of mockery and memes. This isn’t Wilson using his famous “serrated edge” to make a prophetic point against a godless culture. This is intentionally making fun of other Christians for a quick chuckle.

Third, the point of NQN is explicitly about culture warring and culture building. Rightly understood, it is good to do both these things. But it is instructive to see that Wilson’s stated aim is to “help you apocalypse-proof your home.” I think it’s safe to say this is what Wilson aims to do not just in November (in an intensified fashion), but during the other eleven months of the year, and in Wilson’s mind preparing for the apocalypse means doing battle against the forces of leftism in our world. Wilson’s public persona is largely about commenting on the culture, pushing back on the culture, lampooning the culture, and getting Christians ready for the coming cultural collapse.

Fourth, the video is squarely focused on Wilson himself. On one level, this is not surprising. Christian institutions and organizations often use their founder, president, or leading voice as the “face” of the ministry. But the focus here is not on Wilson as the conduit of biblical teaching and doctrinal truth, or even as the instrument of helpful cultural analysis. The focus is on Wilson himself—Wilson as rebel, Wilson as gunslinger, Wilson as taboo-breaking cigar smoker, Wilson as the courageous hero we need in a crazy world like ours. No Quarter November is selling a carefully cultivated personality and image—Wilson’s personality and Wilson’s image.

Like most well-produced pieces of entertainment, the NQN video is not trying to make a syllogistic argument. The video excels at putting off a vibe. And what is that vibe? It’s a vibe that communicates, “Join us if you want to get into a shootout with the culture, join us if you want to poke fun at all the limp-wristed Christians out there, join us if you want to be like Doug Wilson in trolling other people and setting things on fire.” 

Wilson’s approach depends on a fundamentally oppositional framework. The Moscow mood provides a non-stop adversarial stance toward the world and toward other Christians who are deemed (or caricatured to be) too afraid to “tell it like it is.” Moscow cannot become the American Redoubt for conservative Christians if it is too similar to other places, with basically the same kinds of churches, schools, and institutions found in hundreds of other cities. Differentiation is key, and this can only be sustained by a mood of antagonism and sharp antithesis. In keeping with the spirit of the age, Wilson shares the rhetorical instinct that has come to dominate our politics and political punditry: a negative partisanship that builds a following by exposing the impurity of the other side, even if sometimes the other “side” shares almost all of your own positions. The strategy is not to link arms with other networks, but to punch hard and punch often, all the while forging an unbreakable loyalty to the one who is perceived as the Outsider-Disruptor. And that means always meme-ing his critics, always tweaking his opponents, and never (that I’ve seen) cultivating a broken-hearted and courageous contrition for the remaining sinfulness in our own hearts (Ps. 51:17).

Setting Things on Fire as the World Burns

We can look at the 2021 NQN video for a second example. Here’s what Wilson says:

Welcome to No Quarter November. 

My name is Douglas Wilson. I'm glad you decided to join us. Now, some people want to know what is it about November that makes us want to burn things? What's with that?

[Wilson takes a swig from a bottle of liquor] There’s a little libation for those evangelicals who think I ought not to be drinking stuff like that. 

The reason, the reason we're doing this is not that we think that there's a moral obligation that we have to be incendiary, because we don't have a moral obligation to be incendiary. What we're saying is that the world has mysteriously, for some bizarre reason, become flammable. 

So the world is flammable. Everything catches fire these days. All you have to do is say something like “white babies” or something like “men shouldn't have sex with unstable women”—things that would have gone past without comment in a saner time. But we don't live in a sane time. 

We're not incendiary people here at Canon Press. We are ordinary people, normal people in a flammable time. And that explains why things burn in November. . . . If it seems like everything’s gone nuts, if it seems like the world's on fire, just keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, just stay with whatever your plans were. Keep doing what you ought to be doing. Stay at your post. Ignore the world.

The video is vintage Wilson—excellent production value, savvy, clever, and playful, yet cutting, edgy, and provocative. This video from 2021 has the same vibe as the current video from 2023, so I won’t repeat the same points. But let me make one further observation.

Wilson says that at Canon Press they don’t try to set things on fire. The world is flammable, the video intones, and they are just trying to mind their own business. This is demonstrably not true. In most of the videos, Wilson gleefully and triumphantly sets things on fire. No Quarter November is about everything except minding their own business. Why else do we see Wilson conspicuously drinking hard liquor and smoking a cigar? Wilson knows what he’s doing. He’s picking a fight and tweaking other Christians just because he can. He telegraphs this intent with his comment about “a little libation” for those tee-totaling evangelicals.

The supposed point of the 2021 video is that we should ignore the world, tell the truth, and let the world explode if it wants to. But that’s not what the video communicates in effect, nor what NQN, or the focus of Wilson’s whole ministry, is trying to accomplish. No Quarter November does not give us a month of posts on the loveliness of Christ, or the power of prayer, or the finer points of Reformed soteriology, or the wonders of the cross, or the total trustworthiness of the Bible, or the holiness of God, or the glorious intricacies of trinitarian theology. The month is largely about speaking into a host of hot-button cultural issues. Yes, the world is extremely flammable these days. But Wilson also enjoys striking a match. When he makes references to “white babies” or not having sex “with unstable women,” he is not trying to douse the cultural fire around us. He is trying to fan the flames, and usually with a swagger and a self-parading gleefulness. Later he will come back with nuance and qualification once the conflagration—much to his delight—is already out of control. Wilson excels at the motte and bailey approach: make an outrageous statement that fires up the internet, and then when pressed, retreat to a milder version of the same statement, all without ever giving up the original statement.

Wilson instructs the viewer that “if it seems like the world is on fire, just keep doing what you’re doing.” But that’s not what Wilson’s brand is about. His videos are visually and thematically about setting things on fire. They are about poking people in the eye. I’m all for cultural engagement, even for some culture warring rightly understood. But Wilson’s online persona is not about introducing Reformed creeds and confessions, or about explaining the books of the Bible, or about global mission to the uttermost parts of the earth, or about liturgy, preaching, prayer, and the ordinary means of grace. I’m sure Wilson cares about all those things, but that’s not what No Quarter November and his self-promotional trailers are selling. By and large, it’s not what the other eleven months of videos and tweets and memes and blog posts are selling either. Wilson may be a happy warrior, but it is easier to spot his happiness in the war itself than in the things he claims to be fighting for. We could do with fewer witticisms front and center, and more conspicuous delighting in the sweetness of fellowship with Christ and exulting in the love of God our Savior. And if Wilson and Canon Press believe that their bread and butter really is about all the things I listed a few sentences ago—creeds, confessions, the Bible, missions, the ordinary means of grace—I’d love to see them devote an entire month (hey, why not a whole year) to just those things, without any snark, without any sarcasm, and without any trolling of other Christians. 

We must never forget that no matter how important Western civilization may be, we are still sojourners and exiles in the world (1 Pet. 2:11). The most important fight is the fight for faith, not the fight for Christendom. The Christian life must be shaped by the theology of the cross, however much we might prefer an ever-present theology of glory. That means blessing through persecution, strength through weakness, and life through death. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). If we want God to be unashamed to be called our God, our desire must be for a better country, that is, a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16).

The Mood Is the Message

I don’t doubt that many Christians are helped by the resources put out by Wilson and Canon Press. I have many friends who love Wilson’s stuff on the family, the church, and classical Christian education. I often agree with what Wilson says—especially in what he critiques about our present age. I may not agree with what Wilson means by Christendom or Christian Nationalism, but I too would like to see more Christian influence in our land and a return to many of the ideas and ideals that have made Western Civilization truly great. If you are a mature, grounded Christian in a good church, with a good sense of discernment, you can find a number of helpful things from the world of Moscow.

But there’s a difference between snacking on Moscow once you are already full of good Christian discipleship and feasting on Moscow for three square meals a day. I fear that much of the appeal of Moscow is an appeal to what is worldly in us. As we’ve seen, the mood is often irreverent, rebellious, and full of devil-may-care playground taunts. That doesn’t make us better Christians. 

The well-worn critique of the seeker-sensitive movement is apt for the Moscow mood as well: What you win them with is what you win them to. And with so many of Wilson’s videos and blogs, what he’s winning an audience with is a spirit of derision, cavalier repartee, and the drinking down of liberal tears. Pugnacity and jocularity are not the occasional and unfortunate by-products of the brand; they are the brand.

Even more troubling is Wilson’s deliberate decision to use uncouth (at best) and sinful (at worst) language, especially language of a sexual nature. His own denomination has criticized his unnecessarily provocative language, including the use of phrases like “small breasted biddies” and “lumberjack dykes.” At other times he’s used (without the asterisks I’ve inserted) words like d*ck, c*ck, c*nt, a**, b**bs (also here, here, here, and here), t*ts, b*tch (also here and here), gaytards, fa**ot, fudgepackers [for male sex], and circle jerks [a term I had to look up, but I wish I hadn’t]. To my knowledge, Wilson has not expressed regret or repentance for this language; to the contrary, he has often defended its use.

Were I to use these words in public (or in private) I would be quickly confronted by my elders and likely brought before my presbytery for questioning. If I persisted, I would probably be deposed as a minister. And rightly so, for such language constitutes filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking (Eph. 5:4). Which of the Puritans, or Southern Presbyterians for that matter, would have dared to speak this way? What candidate coming forward for ordination could get away with writing in this way? What parent would be thrilled if their daughter’s new boyfriend sprinkled his vocabulary with words like these? If such “prophetic” language is justified for the minister when he is attacking a godless culture, is the language therefore appropriate in the pulpit? According to Wilson’s logic, I don’t see why not. And should we hope to see more pastors employ these terms? Would that be a step toward the saving of Christendom, for Christian ministers to talk more frequently about b**bs and t*ts? In his influential thirteenth-century manual on the training of knights, Ramon Llull insisted that “Courtesy and Chivalry belong together, for baseness and uncouth words are contrary to Chivalry.”

Wilson has frequently compared PCA study committees to a “stacked. . . blonde in a tight dress” (also here and here). Once he wrote that a committee was “as stacked as Dolly Parton after her new implants.” There is no excuse for this language. To be sure, the prophet Ezekiel could use extreme language in extreme situations to show the ugliness of extreme wickedness. Likening a study committee of a confessionally Reformed denomination to Dolly Parton’s anatomy is none of these things. It’s juvenile, sensuous, and entirely without biblical warrant. This isn’t using graphic language to highlight the horror of sin; it’s a bawdy way to make fun of a group of orthodox churchmen with whom Wilson disagrees. Wilson likes to emphasize that if Christ is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Yes and Amen. But “all” means our hearts, our minds, and our typing fingers.

So much of what Wilson produces online strikes me as showmanship. It’s like that famous quip from James Denney that is impossible to make ourselves look clever while also proclaiming that Christ is mighty to save. If Rick Warren did videos like NQN—granted, they would have a much different vibe—the same people that love Wilson’s gimmicks would almost certainly lampoon a hyped-up, dressed-up Rick Warren close-up as self-serving cringe. At the time of this writing, you can purchase from Canon Press a limited edition No Quarter November flag for $59.99 and an NQN Special Reserve Edition Flamethrower for $1,943.

Like Doug Wilson, I love P.G. Wodehouse. His witty use of the English language is without equal. Wodehouse wrote like a trapeze artist engaged in verbal flips and death-defying metaphors—and somehow, he always stuck the landing. I can see how Wilson takes his cues from Wodehouse. Except that with Wodehouse, there was nothing at stake. He was a humorist first and foremost. The point was to dazzle with his words, while poking gentle fun at aristocratic England. But Wilson wants us to believe that the stakes could not be higher. The barbarians have breached the castle wall. The Western world is crumbling. We are engaged in a war. The apocalypse is drawing nigh. 

At the same time, Wilson’s online persona is almost always Wodehousian fun and games. So, in one video, where New Saint Andrews (Wilson’s college) tries to make an important point about the wickedness of contemporary culture, the narrator interjects with a mocking, “Hey, Wokey McWokeface.” It’s not being the “tone police” to say that this kind of insult is silly, unnecessary, and ultimately undermines the seriousness of the issue they are trying to address. Which is it—are we in the trenches against the enemy, or hosting our own late night talk show? Ironically, for all that Wilson says and writes about manhood, his online tone is often juvenile. Petty insults and childish putdowns do not display the manly virtue of magnanimity—the loftiness of spirit that enables one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness, and to display a noble generosity. 

A More Excellent Way

I’m a fan of good satire. John Witherspoon used it to great effect against eighteenth-century Moderates in the Church of Scotland. Sarcasm can be a holy weapon in the Lord’s army (see Elijah on Mount Carmel). But sarcasm and satire by the minister are best used sparingly and against those whose hearts are set against the truth. But Wilson makes fun of those who could be allies and loves to troll people who disagree with him. It’s as if all the world is a meme war to be won, and no publicity is bad publicity so long as people are paying attention to Wilson and Canon Press. I suppose I’ve taken the bait by writing this essay.

One of the sad realities is that Wilson could set a different mood—still full of Chestertonian mirth, but focused on better things and in a better way. After Rachel Held Evans—the progressive Christian writer and scathing critic of Wilson—sadly passed away at only 37 years old, Wilson wrote a moving article full of sympathy and grace. He showed genuine pastoral sensitivity, without giving away an inch of theological ground.

Wilson knows how to strike that tone—wise, gracious, resolute, and (dare I say) winsome. One can only conclude that he prefers to write in a different way. Wilson could keep all the good stuff on classical Christian education, all the helpful material on family formation, all the countercultural advice on being old school men and women. He could explain the Bible. He could highlight heroes from church history. He could blog about the Great Books. He could work to maximize what he shares in common with other conservative Christian leaders and networks. Christians could be drawn to Wilson because he shows them more of Christ rather than more of Christendom. That’s one viable approach.

But he would have to dial back—way back—the sarcasm. He would have to decrease so that Christ can increase. He would have to press pause on the perpetual pot-stirring. He would have to cultivate a depth of intellectual exploration that is more lasting, and ultimately more helpful, than a surface-level spray into the controversy du jour. He would have to refrain from keeping his pointer finger permanently extended in search of eyes to poke. He could try to be an evangelical statesman or lean into his role as a seasoned mentor to younger Christians—especially men who don’t need permission to be brawlers, as much as they need a godly role model to emulate and a spiritual father to correct their youthful excesses. He could use the eighth decade of his life to devote his considerable writing talents to persuading unbelievers to consider Christianity, to passing on the Reformed faith, and to offering a deep, penetrating cultural analysis. I believe he could do all this if he wanted to.

Or he can pepper his writing with naughty words, play with blowtorches, and make fun of Southern Baptists. That’s the other option. It will be hard to take both approaches at the same time.

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