(This article was first published in the Public Discourse on 11/12/14, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute.)

Untethered to an “establishment” and or a “mainstream” that needs to be placated, today’s conservative students can experiment freely with impolitic ideas—perhaps more closely approaching the truth in the process.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Family Institute—a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—joined with theIntercollegiate Studies Institute to host the first annual Pennsylvania Conference on Faith and Society in Pittsburgh. The event brought together several dozen students and speakers to discuss this year’s theme: the challenges facing religious liberty in America today.

It was only five years ago that I was one of the students who would have attended a conference like this one, yet so much has changed in that time. The fate of the same-sex marriage movement was far from certain when I was an undergrad. After all, Proposition 8 was passed in California during my junior year. The idea that religious liberty might soon be under widespread threat was whispered about (the closing of Catholic Charities of Boston adoption services was notable, but made little noise outside conservative circles), but this was before Obamacare and the HHS Mandate. The threats were still more theoretical than real.

It is neither hyperbolic nor myopic to say that the attendees at the Pennsylvania Conference are about to inherit a world very different from the one I entered upon leaving campus in the summer of 2010. And yet this gathering was one of the most hopeful events I’ve been a part of for quite some time. I came away from the weekend under the very strong impression that being in the intellectual and cultural wilderness is going to have a very positive effect on this generation of Christian intellectuals and activists.

Complacency Banished

It would be easy to caricature a gathering like this as a silly confab of young dead-end traditionalists wistfully conjuring the good old days none is old enough to have known, despairingly commiserating about the present state of the culture, or, perhaps most pathetic of all, guilelessly plotting political strategies that are doomed to failure. This is the caricature that our ideological opponents want to instill about young people who dare to undermine their narratives of progress: that they are not just wrong, but ridiculous.

This was, however, a conference of clear-eyed realists—joyful, hopeful realists, but realists nonetheless. These students know they are members of an out-group, both on most of their campuses and in society as a whole. But rather than a cause for despair, this fact is for them a cause for invigoration.

There was a time when religious students in America—especially Protestant Christians—could be intellectually complacent. Challenges to the proper understanding of sexuality, the family, and the human person have always existed, but it wasn’t all that long ago that the threat they posed to the prevailing (Christian) cultural orthodoxy was minimal. A century ago, Shaw and Russell might have been all the rage on campus, but a Christian could safely ignore them and exit campus into a culture that more or less sustained traditional religious belief.

Complacency is no longer an option—and these students know it. This was apparent both in their engagement with the intellectual material presented, and in their interest in taking practical steps to change our culture.

Surprisingly, I could see this most clearly in those students hailing from institutions, such as the conservative Grove City College and the seriously Catholic Franciscan University of Steubenville, where complacency, at least on campus, is an option. On these campuses, the opinion of students and faculty is more or less uniformly in favor of conservative positions on life, marriage, and religious liberty.

And yet, both in private conversations and public discussions, Grovers and Friars indicated that they understood the dangers of the complacency bred by such on-campus homogeneity. Students from both institutions expressed an interest in bringing excellent progressive speakers to their campuses in order to debate issues such as religious liberty—if only to jostle the security of their peers’ unchallenged opinions. They know that someday soon they will be released into a world that will seek to undermine the controversial beliefs that are currently sheltered by a friendly campus; those with shallow foundations will tumble first.

Embracing Exile

But this interest in intellectual exploration is more than just pragmatic. These students know that the concept of religious liberty is losing its resonance with our culture. More importantly, they know there are no easy answers. The pathology that is warping our cultural appreciation for marriage and the family, for instance, cannot be isolated just to those particular areas of concern. Excising the metastasis will require more than a single efficient swipe of the scalpel.

It was incredibly interesting, then, that the intellectual flashpoint of the conference was not our disputes with contemporary American liberalism, but the proper place of a classical liberal—John Stuart Mill—in discerning the way forward.

Ryan Anderson seems to have lit the fuse in an aside during his opening keynote remarks admonishing the attendees to defend, not to attack, America’s classical liberal institutions. The next morning, Professor Christopher Tollefsen of the University of South Carolina raised the specter of Mill, arguing that his harm principle could be an effective starting point in considering issues such as abortion. Over lunch, though, Professor Michael Federici of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, went out of his way during the question-and-answer session to evict Mill from the canon of thinkers with whom we should be friendly—a move which was followed by libertarian John Elliot of ISI, who dragged Mill right back in.

But J.S. Mill, it seems to me, was a stand-in for a larger dispute about the nature and truth of the classical liberal account of politics and of the human person, and the place of this account in the American founding. This thread that ran through the conference was tied neatly by Professor James Matthew Wilson of Villanova University in his closing lecture. Wilson advanced his own theory of classical liberalism, distinguishing and defending the “constitutionalist” school from the “rationalist” school of liberal thought. It was a fitting end to the weekend: the proposing of a way forward within the liberal tradition that might answer the concerns of those suspicious of the apparent fruits of that tradition.

I bring all this up not in an attempt to solve the delicate and complex problem of liberalism’s place in our past, present, and future, but to demonstrate that young orthodox Christians are thinking deeply and broadly about the state of a culture that seems to have gone far off the rails. At every point, students asked perceptive and challenging questions. They did not limit themselves to conventional analyses and conventional solutions.

This is the benefit of exile: Untethered to an “establishment” or a “mainstream” that needs to be placated, these students can experiment freely with impolitic ideas—perhaps more closely approaching the truth in the process. Some of the most memorable questions asked by students encouraged the speakers to go further, to make bolder claims, to use more radical language.

For example: I distinctly remember a young woman gently asking Wilson if we should abandon the language of “happiness” as telos and instead speak directly of the Beatific Vision. In a world where people, especially young people, are yearning for love but struggling to find it, she wondered, perhaps we ought to appeal directly to the source of love Himself. I bring this up, again, not to endorse the sentiment, but to demonstrate that the tenor of the room was one more concerned with discovering and proclaiming truth than pursuing a compromise with secularism.

Working for Renewal

This is not to say that the conference attendees were indifferent to practical solutions. (Even that young woman’s question implied that the proposed approach might be effective as well as truthful.) On the contrary, much time was devoted to discussions of effective strategies for defending religious liberty on campus and beyond. This material attracted just as much engagement from the students as the academic talks. They are not ready to retreat to the catacombs just yet.

These students understand that they have a role to play in restoring a proper understanding of religious liberty, and that that role cannot be played from their dressing room trailer. They must, in the various roles to which they are called, be on the stage. They needn’t all play the same role; indeed, they mustn’t. Some will be working for intellectual renewal in academia. Others will be in the public square. Still others will make a difference in less formal ways in their families and local communities.

What the Pennsylvania Conference demonstrated was something like the posture toward renewal suggested by C.C. Pecknold in his First Things essay, “The Dominican Option.” I saw young people willing to embrace their outsider status by thinking and even living in unconventional ways—but desiring to do so, as far as possible, within our contemporary culture. And it is precisely that unconventionality that is an essential aspect of encouraging and working for renewal. We must be signs of contradiction, and the students I met that weekend are excited to fulfill that duty.

These students understand implicitly that the culture will not be impressed by groveling for temporary compromises with secularism. They may disagree, and will continue to disagree, about strategy (and about what exactly constitutes groveling), but this is merely a reflection of the diversity of any cultural movement. The following may be the most idealistic claim in this entire essay, but here it is: Working out those differences in good faith ought to be a healthy exercise.

And so, in the wake of the Pennsylvania Conference, I am hopeful. I don’t naïvely expect the young people I met that weekend to emerge from college and turn around our culture overnight. Rather, I’m hopeful that being the counterculture suits us, and that young people are not just prepared for the challenges and opportunities that come with this position, but are eager to face them. And I’m hopeful that more events like this one will occur, bringing together young people into the social, professional, and intellectual communities that will be the primordial matter from which a new culture is formed.

Brandon McGinley is the field director of the Western region for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.