Salvo 04.30.2024 7 minutes

The Priority of Love

Family on porch after dinner at twilight

Loving everyone equally means loving no one in particular.

Backpacks and expensive laptops are left on the tables at a bustling coffee shop when people need to temporarily leave their seat for a refill. The likelihood that their items run off is slim.

This is part of the cultural norms that govern Lubbock, Texas. While the sight of Lubbock might suggest there’s nothing extraordinary going on, visitors find a homogenous, Christian culture among the people there.

The first structure eliciting any feeling of beauty upon arriving in town is the giant, windowed obelisk of First Baptist Church of Lubbock. Its towering, angular column juts into the sky. Though the buildings of Texas Tech University have their own beauty, they’re not as conspicuous as First Baptist. In fact, at one point, Lubbock featured the highest number of churches per capita in the United States. No wonder the locality is saturated with Christian culture.

You cannot escape the Bible when you visit a spot in town. There will always be someone reading Scripture in public. In all the coffee shops Bibles are open somewhere in the New Testament—likely John’s Gospel or Ephesians—and conversations flow. To visitors this may seem fanatical, but to the people of Lubbock it’s just the way things are.

Businesses that deviate from this culture suffer. One coffee shop that hosted a “drag queen story time” was recently forced to beg for customers on Facebook. Apparently, they were unable to capture enough support and were forced to shut down. This while other coffee shops are slammed with Bible-readers and latte drinkers on weekends.

Indeed, the coffee shops adhering to Lubbockite culture cannot afford to close on Sunday. Personally, I wish all the coffee shops would close on The Lord’s Day, but they generate so much revenue they prefer otherwise. No one’s perfect, I guess.

These norms even percolate down to Lubbock’s social sphere. It’s socially risky to announce you’re an atheist in Lubbockite social groups lest you desire to alienate yourself from most peers.

At Texas Tech University, student ministry tables outnumber the local secular clubs’ tables 1 to 4. At most universities, students wear salmon-colored shirts with Greek letters on them. In Lubbock those shirts are replaced by clothing from student-led ministries. Secular students even wear the shirts because they’re given out for free. It’s not weird to walk around campus wearing a Jesus T-shirt—it would probably be weird if you didn’t.

Even if many of Lubbock’s citizens are nominal Christians, Christianity still orients the city toward a higher good. For example, in April 2021 the town rallied to end abortion in the county by passing an ordinance that decrees Lubbock a sanctuary city for the unborn. Over 60 percent voted in favor of the ordinance. It protects the unborn to a higher degree than Governor Abbott’s Heartbeat Bill, too. Lubbock went as far as to completely outlaw the procedure. The town had waited quite a while for such an ordinance to receive votes. Locals jumped at the opportunity.

There are towns like this all across America. They reserve their own lingos, common pastimes, celebrations, weekend activities, and all phenomena that form a common experience. Like Lubbock, their citizens have a special love for their locality and labor for one another in a special way. Their love is prioritized; thus townsmen strive to preserve their shared culture, likeness, and ethic.

This runs counter to the liberal notion that one ought to love everyone equally, which is unfortunately the reigning public ethic in America as a whole.

Though there’s lots of blame to go around, perhaps most of the fault for the spreading of egalitarianism lies with modern evangelicals. Most, however, are unaware that the Christian tradition has never affirmed a universally equal love, a result of Christians accepting the post-World War II sociopolitical consensus wholesale. The average evangelical will instead likely hold the common positions held by Turning Point USA pundits, missing what has undergirded Christianity for over two millennia.

Writing on how Christians should prioritize their natural and immediate loves in light of the universal love for humanity, Stephen Wolfe has noted, “Since those who share a culture are similar people, and since cultural similarity is necessary for the common good, I argue that the natural inclination to dwell among similar people is good and necessary. Grace does not destroy or ‘critique’ it.”

The term “natural” here encompasses all the affections, inclinations, and anthropological elements we observe in the created order. “Grace” is the favor of God, not an essence or substance but rather the gradual and effectual move toward fulfilling moral oughtness.

The easiest way to explain this is religious conversion. When someone is converted, that act of grace does not destroy the natural things in the subject—that is, their personality, closeness with relatives, or tendencies—but perfects them. Those natural things are not destroyed but made more holy. Relationships provide another helpful example. One’s relationship with a spouse is not destroyed by grace (moving toward the good) but is refined.

We all feel a special love for people whom we share our living experience with—this is natural—and this is not opposed, abrogated, or destroyed by grace.

Stripping away the theological language, you could say that the natural prioritization of love is not opposed to moral goodness. It doesn’t follow that moving toward the good kills this natural love per se. A perverse prioritization of love can turn into tribalism, but the urge of prioritization is not evil in and of itself or in its essence.

Today we tend to shy away from this truth, either for fear of suffering the typical cocktail of leftist insults or because we honestly believe everyone should be loved equally. This thinking stems from the assumption that prioritizing love—not loving everyone the same—is opposed to the good. But therein lies the issue. Prioritizing love is paramount to bringing about the good within one’s culture in time and space. Loving thy far neighbor does not diminish loving thy close neighbor.

Our modern abandonment of the priority of love nourishes the black mold growing in the walls of modern politics, whose fruits are spineless legislators and actors that kowtow to leftism.

Groups of people are justified in conserving anything, however, only if their love is prioritized.

Conservation itself posits that certain things ought to be conserved. Those things that ought to be conserved are especially loved and are placed higher than other things. The question then stands: What are the things that warrant a higher love? That is found in nature: family, your culture, your locality, and your people. A prioritization of love is nested in the natural affections, which is nested a second time in common experience.

Consider what an unnatural approach may look like. That would mean all opportunities to bring about common goods are equal because everyone is deserving of the same love. The potential “goodness” is not bound by time, space, geography, culture, or language. In this model one ought to labor for good just as much in one place as in another place.

Unnaturally, Lubbockites would be under the same moral responsibility to bring about the demise of abortion in Clovis, New Mexico (Clovis recently abolished abortion in 2022, an effort led by local Christians at Grace Covenant Reformed Church) as in their hometown. Clovis is 100 miles away. But this would not matter. Sure, they wouldn’t be able to vote on an ordinance, but they would have to labor all the same to satisfy the moral obligation in this unnatural model. But this seems unreasonable. It is impossible to love everyone equally because we cannot labor for (and inflict) everyone equally. We’re spatiotemporally bound.

The necessary consequences are, it seems, that one ought to labor for one’s family, people, and community. It is this kind of conservatism that is ordered according to reality. It plays out meaningfully in time and space because it discriminates rightly.

Leftism—and I would include a conservatism that does not integrate a priority of love—is a blob of pluralism that results in mass degeneration because nothing is prioritized. Leftism is fantastic, because it does not comport with reality and expects humans to love like unlimited beings—to love as if they were gods themselves.

The great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas offers help:

On the contrary, one’s obligation to love a person is proportionate to the gravity of the sin one commits in acting against that love. Now it is a more grievous sin to act against the love of certain neighbors, than against the love of others. Hence the commandment, “He that curseth his father or mother, dying let him die,” which does not apply to those who cursed others than the above. Therefore we ought to love some neighbors more than others.

He adds:

They held that the order of love is to be understood as applying to outward favors, which we ought to confer on those who are connected with us in preference to those who are unconnected, and not to the inward affection, which ought to be given equally to all including our enemies…. But this is unreasonable. For the affection of charity, which is the inclination of grace, is not less orderly than the natural appetite, which is the inclination of nature, for both inclinations flow from Divine wisdom…. We must, therefore, say that, even as regards the affection we ought to love one neighbor more than another. The reason is that, since the principle of love is God, and the person who loves, it must be that the affection of love increases in proportion to the nearness to one or the other of those principles.

Aquinas had it right. If we cannot love everyone equally, and if we cannot affect everyone equally, we must cherish above all the people who share our experiences, which are confined within spatiotemporal bounds that we cannot change.

The Protestant giant John Calvin agrees. Calvin argued that the closer the relationship someone has with another, the more frequent the “offices of kindness” ought to be. Calvin supported this by drawing from nature itself: “For the condition of humanity requires that there be more duties in common between those who are more nearly connected by the ties of the relationship, or friendship, or neighborhood.”

In the theologian’s eyes, prioritizing the closer relationships is no offense to God. In fact, such prioritization is morally impelled. Calvin grounds this idea in God’s providential working in human history and the limits of the human condition. Equality of love likely never entered the man’s mind.

If we do not recover the priority of love, our country’s slide into liberalism will continue. When nothing is given a special love, there is really no love at all, and nothing is worth conserving.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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