The Priority of Love

Priority of Love
The Merrill Hotel in Lubbock, Texas, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University Digital Collections.

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

There isn’t much to see as you drive south on I-27 out of Amarillo. After 20 miles or so you will see a few stone spires peeking out of Palo Duro State Park, which is the only sight more amusing than the impressive (but common) tumbleweeds you encounter on the drive. Then, as you continue southward the landscape will change to your east. That’s Caprock Canyon. It’s the last interesting sight for the remainder of your trip into Lubbock, TX. There is only cotton and dirt until you hit the north flank of the city.

The first structure eliciting any feeling of beauty upon arrival is the giant, windowed obelisk of First Baptist Church of Lubbock. A towering, angular column that juts into the sky. The buildings of Texas Tech University have their own beauty as well, but they’re covered among themselves in a way, and not as conspicuous as First Baptist. The church is hard to miss. Saving a few other churches it’s the only building in town that really grabs your attention. A pretty Methodist church is West of First Baptist, but it’s downtown, and often forgotten.

While the sight of Lubbock might suggest there’s nothing extraordinary going on, visitors quickly find a homogenous, Christian culture and ethic perfused among the people. In all the coffee shops there are Bibles open to the New Testament—likely John’s gospel or Ephesians—and conversations flow. Backpacks and expensive laptops are left at tables when people need to temporarily leave their seat. The likelihood that items run off is slim. Car keys are even used to indicate a seat or table is occupied by a coffee drinker.

You cannot escape the Bibles when you visit a spot in town. There will always be someone there with one open. To visitors this may seem fanatical, but to the people of Lubbock it’s just the way things are. More common experiences that connect the town’s people are dust-storms called “haboobs,” Texas Tech football, and for the college students, worship nights at The Wesley or Church on the Rock. The annual Christmas lights show on campus and the large, circular bush on Indiana Avenue that the property owners dress-up for holidays are also pillars in the Lubbock experience.

The cultural norm of Lubbock rules the city with an iron fist. Businesses who deviate 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 is 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, and the dissenting c-no-offee shop could not afford to stay open. For good. 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 the student ministry tables outnumber the local secular club’s 1-4. 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 with a Jesus shirt—it would probably be weird if you did not. In fact, at one point, Lubbock reserved the highest number of churches per capita in the  United States. No wonder the locality is saturated with Christian culture.

Even if many of Lubbock’s citizens are nominal Christians, Christianity still orientates 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% voted in favor of the ordinance. The ordinance protects the unborn to a higher degree than 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 peppered all across America. They reserve their own lingos, common past times, 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. The special love Lubbockites have for one another was made manifest when they voted to end abortion in their city and collaboratively rescinded their business from the leftist coffee shop.

Modern conservatism has lost this priority of love and has instead bought into the liberal notion that one ought to love everyone equally. However, perhaps much fault can be levied onto popular evangelicalism. Most evangelicals are unaware the Christian tradition has never affirmed a universally equal love, a result of Christianity purchasing the post-World War II sociopolitical consensus wholescale. The average evangelical will likely hold the common conservative positions also held by Turning Point USA pundits, but they are missing what has undergirded their conservatism for centuries: priority of love. 

Stephen Wolfe’s book The Case for Christian Nationalism has caused somewhat of a resurgence of this tenet. The book has caused intragroup dust-ups among Christians and conservatives alike. Questions have been raised over how one should prioritize their natural and immediate loves in light of the universal love for humanity. Many evangelicals will have a guttural response when you reject that everyone should be loved equally. Many conservatives will follow suit.

As a Lubbockite, I will echo Wolfe:

“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 “nature” here encompasses all the natural affections, inclinations, and anthropological elements we observe in the created order. “Grace” here is the “favor” of God, not an essence or substance, but rather the gradual and effectual “move” towards 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 but “perfects” them. Natural things being their personality, closeness with relatives, tendencies, etc. 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 towards good) but is refined.

Thus, we all feel a special love for people that 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.

But today’s conservatism and evangelicalism shy away from this truth either in fear of suffering the typical cocktail of leftist insults, or, more sinister, because they 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.

“If the conservatism of today does not recover the priority of love it will continue to slide into liberalism. When nothing is given a special love, there is really no love at all and nothing is worth conserving. At least leftism today is consistent in that it spreads its decadence equally and everywhere. Conservatism today just does it more inconspicuously. But modern conservatism need not be this way; accepting our humanity is the way forward.”

But therein lies the issue. Prioritizing love is paramount to bringing about good within one’s culture in time and space. Lubbockites did not physically travel to other localities to pursue the end of abortion. One can desire (even ought to desire and hope for) that far off places would not abort unborn babies (a love that stems from the connection of humanity), but a priority of love inevitably exists. 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 the modern conservative movement, whose fruits are spineless legislators and actors that kowtow to leftism. Groups of people are only justified in conserving anything 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 the people they can the most. 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.

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 follows with: “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 people according to those limitations. Those are the people who share our similarity of experience which our spatiotemporal bounds are literally mapped onto.

The Protestant giant John Calvin agrees. Calvin, who unfortunately many modern evangelicals are not aware of, would argue that the closer the relationship someone has with another the more frequent the “offices of kindness” ought to be. Calvin supports 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, and, even, such prioritization is morally impelled. Calvin grounds this idea in God’s providential working in human history and the human condition in Institutes of the Christian Religion, his magnum opus. Equality of love likely never entered the man’s mind.

If the conservatism of today does not recover the priority of love it will continue to slide into liberalism. When nothing is given a special love, there is really no love at all and nothing is worth conserving. At least leftism today is consistent in that it spreads its decadence equally and everywhere. Conservatism today just does it more inconspicuously. But modern conservatism need not be this way; accepting our humanity is the way forward.


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