What’s wrong with the world, Chesterton famously wrote, is that no one asks what is right. R.R. Reno, a gifted theologian and social commentator (and editor of First Things), does not suffer from that disease. His new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, digs deep into our current troubles.
Reno begins with warnings about what Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have all come to champion: the “American Dream.” That dream has lately grown more purely economic (consumerism and status), and less about self-evident truths and God-given rights. Our economic and cultural elites have benefitted enormously from globalization and a vague multiculturalism. The rest of the country – as the current presidential campaign is making clear – not so much. And the widening gap between rich and poor is economic, of course, but also moral, social, and religious.
Reno turns to two highly regarded studies for some basic explanations: Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. Putnam (a moderate liberal) and Murray (libertarian/conservative) come to essentially the same conclusions about what promotes social health. Reno, who has greater sophistication about ethical and religious questions, takes their insights several steps further. Of Putnam, for example, whom he otherwise appreciates, he notes, “[Putnam] sees institutions like marriage, family, neighborliness, and education as good because they are useful for achieving ‘success,’ not as goods in themselves.”
Reno adopts Fishtown (Murray’s name for where the working-class now live) and Belmont (his name for elite, meritocratic areas) for his own purposes. The abandonment of the Christian ethic – especially on marriage and family – has harmed adults and children in Belmont. But their relative wealth and position in a globalized society allow them to manage the fallout. In Fishtown, the breakdown of the family and – even more – the assault on the very values and understandings that keep fragile families and communities together, has been catastrophic.
Some of Fishtown’s problems stem from shifts in the global economy. After World War II, American workers were in a unique position: with Europe, Russia, Japan destroyed, we had virtual monopolies in several industries, especially manufacturing. As other nations recovered, however, and especially since globalization, Americans are competing with workers in developing nations, which has flattened earnings and sometimes eliminated jobs – in Fishtown. Belmont is doing just fine.
Economics aside, Fishtown has taken a big social hit. As Reno puts it, the deregulation of culture is more consequential than the deregulation of markets: “Today’s progressivism is waging war on the weak.” While the Belmont elites preach “non-judgmentalism,” tolerance, and multiculturalism – Fishtown perishes.
In Belmont, they follow swaths of the older Christian code. Divorce is much less prevalent, as is drug use, single-parent families, crime, and out-of-wedlock births. Their bizarre enthusiasm for “liberation” – from Christianity, authority, family, heterosexuality, even from nature in the new “transgender” regime – however, which makes many in Belmont self-satisfied about their openness and liberality, hits Fishtown especially hard. The loss of social markers and a supportive culture exacerbates its problems. Untethered individualism does not free people with basic educations and job skills and shaky marriages to develop their own meanings of life. Quite the contrary. They need encouragement and community.
Reno turns the table on the usual formula: “A preferential option for the poor demands ‘judgmentalism,’ which is to say the courage to speak forthrightly about right and wrong.” The elite ethos is, instead, a preferential option for the rich.
Though civil society is where this should be worked out, government and politics also come into it, of course. Government has grown – tyrannically – where civil institutions like the family shrink. Reno warns about the obvious danger of looking to politics to solve all problems, and the need to limit government, from below, by bolstering civil society institutions, and from above by recognizing that there are truths and goods higher than politics.
We can take heart from this, he says. Governments, cultures, whole civilizations come and go. As will America. Christianity and Judaism, churches and synagogues have survived for millennia, as have the Scriptures. As has the freedom of the children of God. In his chapter “Seek Higher Things,” Reno explains how the ancient Hebrew notion of herut – of having God’s law engraved on our hearts – is “true freedom,” a freedom richer and ultimately more liberating.
So despite the rise of groups like the “Nones” (20 percent say “none” when asked their religion) and our bizarre elites, there’s hope because there’s concrete strength in faith. There are still tens of millions of real Christians whose faith is connected to vast networks of real communities. By contrast, the new non-judgmental and multicultural ethic, he believes, though it controls the commanding heights of the culture for now, possesses “hollow strength.”
Christians have been at the heart all the reform movements in America: abolitionism, the Social Gospel, civil rights, progressivism, even anti-Communism during the Cold War. It’s not impossible that their countercultural witness today may show many who will never become Christian themselves that the shift in our social mores is not liberation.
But it’s a long shot. Reno writes of creating a “national culture not dominated by Christians but leavened by them.” A worthy goal, and it’s worked, partly, in the past. Christian Democracy in Europe and globally, created parties and programs “of Christian inspiration.” These, by their nature, were never very robust, but they kept Western Europe from going Communist after World War II.
They did not, however, succeed against a subtler opponent: the secularism and nihilism in Europe. Perhaps America will prove to be an exception in this as in so much else.
The physicist Stephen Hawking once asked a question about his own brilliant theories: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” It’s a problem for many intellectual efforts, especially those aimed at social reform: what will bring these truths to life?
The obvious answer: the fire of the Holy Spirit. If anyone is paying attention.