R.R. “Rusty” Reno (left) is the editor of First Things and an influential commentator on religion in American public life. He has written an interesting and provocative new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Regnery 2016), in which he argues for reviving Christianity’s role in American society. The book doesn’t call for a theocracy, but a return to Christian ideas and commitments which, Reno says, can prevent a slide into greater social dysfunction. The book considers, among other things, the proper definition of freedom, the absence of the transcendent in contemporary culture, and America’ s growing economic and social inequality.
In the latest edition in our Conversations series, I ask Rusty some questions about his new book. Among other things, we discuss whether a Christian society is compatible with contemporary notions of pluralism, how Christianity might promote a more secure understanding of freedom and lessen the gap in social capital between rich and poor, and why Reno thinks President Obama personifies our new “post-Protestant WASP elite.”
Rusty, what inspired you to write this book?
Reno: Over the last few years I’ve become convinced that our Christian witness in public life has become too crimped, too focused on hot button issues. Defending innocent life remains vitally important, of course. We need to affirm truths about men, women, sex, and marriage, truths that are now taboos! Religious liberty is also crucial. But important as these issues may be, we’ve got to think more deeply about what’s at stake.
This sent me back to T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, lectures he gave in 1939 when Europe faced a dramatic cultural crisis. Nazism, Fascism, and Communism were ascendant. Many thought liberal democratic culture had no future. Eliot’s contribution—and this clarified my thinking—was to see that the crisis of Western civilization was spiritual. Fascism and Communism were pagan, organizing society around the gods of Nation, Race, Power, History, the Proletariat, and so forth. The answer could not be a liberalism understood as neutrality or tolerance. A Neutral Society, as he put it, could not stand on its own. A Pagan Society could only be countered by a Christian Society, not because Christianity is the only religion capable of sustaining justice and decency, but because Christianity has been the source of the West’s liberalism.
To my mind that remains true. Our paganism is soft and small, not hard and grandiose. We worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. But it’s a cruel paganism and in the book I detail the ways in which it’s especially hard on the poor and vulnerable. I want readers to see that a concern about traditional morality isn’t “moralistic.” It reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable—a crucial biblical imperative.
In the book, you advocate recovering Christian influence in American culture—restoring a Christian society. Yet you recognize that your goals of increased solidarity, return to more limited government, and a renewed sense of the transcendent are consistent with other sorts of societies as well. Why not advocate the goals themselves, rather than a particular faith? Does the answer have to do with the historic role Christianity has in American society?
Reno: It is true that we could have a Jewish society that embodied many of the qualities I advocate. Perhaps a Muslim or Buddhist society would as well, though I’m less sure. I even imagine that a Neoplatonic Society or Stoic Society would have at least some of the qualities I argue for in the book. But the fact of the matter is that Christianity has been and remains the overwhelmingly predominant “community of transcendence” in the West. Thus, if we want to escape the idols of health, wealth, and pleasure, it’s going to require the resurrection of the idea of a Christian society.
Your question raises the further point of whether we can isolate spiritual-cultural values from living “communities of transcendence.” Why not promote solidarity, argue for limited government, and offer opportunities for high culture that transcend the materialism of our age? It’s my conviction that this won’t work. It’s mere exhortation. Ideas don’t transform societies. Convictions lived out in community are what animate a culture.
I’m all for a cultural “coalition of the willing,” and so I’d be delighted if people took up the themes of my book in isolation from my Christian convictions. But I don’t think America will alter its pagan trajectory unless the churches get their acts together.
You call for “a national culture not dominated by Christians but leavened by them.” Could you say a little more about this? Isn’t there a danger that, in a Christian society, the voices of non-Christians would be excluded and their communities disvalued? Is a Christian society consistent with pluralism?
Reno: One of the great promises of secular progressivism is “inclusion.” The notion of diversity gets a great deal of play. But in actual fact our society today is far more policed than it has ever been, not just in the literal sense of cops on the street, but through groupthink and political correctness. So it seems that secular progressivism preaches pluralism but practices a kind of mono-cultural approach to public life.
The reason for the paradox is simple, I think. Without a transcendent orientation, secular progressivism makes a god of politics. Christianity, by contrast, recognizes that politics, while important, is not ultimate. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” St. Augustine distinguished between the City of God and the city of man. For this reason, a Christian society can accommodate pluralism in a way that a supposedly neutral secularism can’t. The social consensus in a Christian society need not be final, as it were. It can be penultimate, and thus more open. Compare that with our current climate. The Obama administration seems unable to countenance any dissent from the sexual revolution. Everybody must participate in gay weddings! Everybody must participate in the contraceptive culture!
Finally, I’d like to say a word about Judaism, Islam, and other religions in contemporary America. For the last century the biggest threat to a Jewish parent trying to pass down his religion to his children has not been Christianity. It has been secularism. For every Jew who has been converted to Christianity there have been thousands upon thousands who have assimilated into our secular, materialist culture. For any believing Jew, the danger is conversion to the pagan religion of health, wealth, and pleasure, not Christianity. Reflective Jews and Muslims recognize this. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been quite explicit: a renewal of Christianity in the West would go a long way toward helping Jews sustain their own religious communities against the pagan idolatry of our time.
Much of your book is a reflection on the proper meaning of freedom. You say that “American culture is stuck in any number of dead ends, many of them falsely labeled as roads to freedom.” What do you mean by this? What is false about the consensus view of freedom in American culture today, namely, freedom as the ability to define one’s identity and meaning for oneself, without hindrance from obstacles like religion and tradition?
Reno: Americans are increasingly confused. Freedom means being able to live in accord with one’s deepest convictions. What we forget is that this freedom is paradoxical. Its strength grows as we become more and more obedient to the truths we hold to be sacred. St. Paul recognized this paradox: obedience to God’s Word is the freedom for which Christ set us free.
Today, however, we think that freedom means deciding what is and is not true—for me. But this makes us vulnerable, not free, because it means that my freedom is only as secure as my…freedom. Which turns out to be weak indeed. Thus the calls for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” The more freedom is severed by service to truth, the more fragile is becomes, and the more we turn to government (and other institutions) to protect us and “guarantee” our freedom.
I hope this isn’t too obscure. Let me put it another way. The New Hampshire motto goes back to the Revolutionary War: Live free, or die. We’re only fully free when we’re willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our convictions. I dare say nobody is willing to be a martyr for self-defined meaning. That makes no sense. Why give you life for truths you know to be self-generated? By contrast, if we have a transcendent orientation, we’re invested in something greater than ourselves.
At the end of the day, a culture of freedom depends on the courage of the few to stand up to the powerful forces that claim to control our futures. Our constitutional rights are only as strong as our courage to claim them, as the Civil Rights movement demonstrated. We’ve lost sight of this. Enslaved to the postmodern idols of health, wealth, and hedonism, our talk about freedom these days seems empty to me. Yes, our society has deconstructed and dismantled the public authority of religion and tradition. We’re now encouraged to confect our own “meaning” for life. But the upshot is not greater freedom but instead greater subjugation to the postmodern idols. I dare say the lesbian student at Harvard today is far more constrained by economic anxieties that I was when I was an undergraduate. She’s also likely to carefully monitor her food, not smoke, and otherwise obey the god of health.
I’ve gone on too long, I’m afraid, but the point is central to my book. Freedom grows with obedience to truths greater than ourselves. A Christian society makes that clear, which is why it’s the most likely context for a flourishing culture of freedom.
We have become accustomed to critiques of American economic inequality. You write that there is also a cultural inequality in America: elites have lots of cultural and social capital, and the poor very little. In fact, you write, this inequality results from the elites’ embrace of moral permissiveness, which favors the powerful and causes the weak great harm. Could you say a little more about this?
Reno: Precisely because we worship the postmodern idols of health, wealth, and pleasure, we’re unable to speak about moral and spiritual poverty. The fact that our public debates can only speak of income inequality or disparate health outcomes or other purely material disparities is a sign that we’re a pagan society, not a Christian one. These material inequalities are important, but more important still are the social and moral inequalities: divergent rates of marriage, illegitimacy, crime, social dysfunction, and interpersonal conflict.
Charles Murray details this growing moral inequality in Coming Apart, a book that was very important in the development of my own thinking on this. Equally important has been the Catholic tradition, which consistently identifies a spiritual and moral dimension of poverty.
My point in the book is that many of our problems in America today stem from the demoralization (in every sense) of the poor, near-poor, and struggling middle class. Elite culture promotes a non-judgmentalism and moral relativism that makes life flexible for the well-to-do. Meanwhile, it strips away the moral guardrails crucial for the not-so-fortunate. We see this clearly in the rise in illegitimacy, not just in the black community but among less-educated whites. We’re catechized by progressives to affirm “nontraditional families” while the foundation of a dignified life for adults and stable context for children collapses among those in the bottom half of society.
As I’ve said in many contexts, “Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that is being paid for by the poor.” The New York Times signals its virtue by featuring notices of this-or-that successful attorney, executive, or software engineer marrying a person of the same sex. Elites get to compliment themselves for being “inclusive.” Meanwhile, marriage continues to decline for everyone not fortunate enough to be in the charmed circle of high achievers from upper-middle-class backgrounds.
At some point we need to wake up. Progressive moralists are waging a war on the weak. The damage is painfully obvious.
You write that one very important way the powerful in America could help the weak is by adopting a more judgmental attitude. That’s definitely a counter-cultural message! What, exactly, do you mean? Could you give an example? What about the Christian admonition to avoid judging others?
Reno: The most successful inner city schools are easy to identify. They’re the ones that have dress codes, strict discipline, and high standards. Some require parents to sign contracts that obligate them to check up on their kids and even to volunteer at the school. The same goes for prison programs. Strict standards clearly enunciated—and believed and followed by those doing the enforcing—get people going in the right direction. This does not make them docile and submissive. It helps them achieve self-discipline and self-possession.
We live in a pluralistic society. I don’t advocate imposing a set menu of moral standards. But I’m more and more convinced that we need to call out the progressive ideal of self-created meaning. It’s a luxury for the rich (who by the way don’t actually live in accord with the ideal). As a society we can endorse a broad, open-ended moral realism. This may mean accepting pluralism in education, allowing different communities to provide morally rigorous formation for children. It will also mean tolerating disagreements about moral truth. But at least we can dislodge the nonjudgmentalists from their position of smug moral superiority.
Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” What he warns us against is the tendency to imagine that we are immune from the corrupting power of sin, allowing us to judge from above, as it were. The implication is not to downplay moral standards. That quote comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a very strict and demanding part of the Bible! So I’d say that we’re to see a Christian society as a community of mutual exhortation rather than condemning judgment—and rather than relativistic nonjudgmentalism.
I thought that your observations on the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan were quite powerful. You note the memorial lacks any suggestion of transcendent meaning, including any American symbolism. This rejection of the transcendent, you say, reflects our lack of solidarity as a people, which you view as a serious problem. Could you say a little more about this?
Reno: When I went to the 9/11 Memorial I found myself asking this question: What was the meaning of the death of my friends in the Twin Towers? At best, the Memorial says that their deaths are meaningful insofar as I, their friend, give them meaning. But this is absurd. Even a schoolchild knows that the Al Quaeda terrorists were attacking the United States, a reality that transcends me and my friends. They killed my friends in order to terrorize and ultimately defeat America.
What all that means, ultimately, is beyond explanation. The affairs of men are complex and mysterious. But my point is that our lives are bound up with greater loyalties. No public meanings are merely personal.
This, in turn, led me to ask, Why no national symbolism? The answer led me to speculate darkly about our emerging technocratic empire. Our elites are fiercely loyal to their idols: health, wealth, and pleasure. They want to be unhindered by higher loves, which is why they downplay patriotism, often criticizing it as “nationalistic.”
The danger here is two-fold. The first concerns our unity as a people. The gods of health, wealth, and pleasure atomize rather than unify. They appeal to self-interest, not self-sacrifice. One of the jobs of good leaders is to remind us of the inner sources of our solidarity—our shared loves and loyalties. The 9/11 Memorial fails to do that.
The second danger concerns democratic accountability. At the end of the day we don’t assess proposed policies. We ask ourselves if our leaders are “with us.” Here again the postmodern gods of health, wealth, and pleasure undermine a sense of a transcendent good that we share. This makes our elite leadership less accountable to ordinary people.
Loyalty is a powerful emotion. It can become disordered. We all know what that meant in Germany in the 1930s. But this is true of everything that draws us outside ourselves. Romantic love can be mad. Religious fervor can become misguided. After visiting the 9/11 Memorial, however, I was impressed by the dangers of a public culture that positively discourages higher loyalties. Without them we’re isolated, atomized, and disempowered.
You write that the traditional leadership class in America, the WASP elite that once ran the country’s great institutions, has been replaced by a new, “post-Protestant WASP elite,” which you identify largely with the Nones. The alliance between these two groups, you write, drives the culture wars. Could you explain this phenomenon? And why do you believe that the leadership status of this new elite is actually quite vulnerable?
Reno: When I was very young, our elites were largely men of Northern European descent, often called WASPs, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. For a long time I accepted the standard account of post-Sixties America. It held that the WASPs were superseded by a diverse, meritocratic elite. Recently, however, I’ve seen that’s not quite true. Ethnically, yes, our elites are no longer almost entirely males of Northern European descent. But WASP institutions and WASP culture are now more powerful than ever.
In the book I give the example of Barack Obama. He was educated at a WASP private school in Hawaii. He went to Claremont, another WASP school, then to Columbia and Harvard. In fact, his White House is full of Ivy Leaguers. Compare this to Lyndon Johnson, who though white was very much a product of Texas Hill Country, not elite WASP culture. Or Thurgood Marshall, a very talented man whose education and personal formation was shaped by rigid racial discrimination.
Basically, today’s meritocracy constitutes an elite almost entirely defined by their education at WASP institutions. Today’s progressivism is moralistic, smug, and superior—just like the old WASP culture. It does not permit dissent and rejects all challenges to its superiority as illegitimate—again, just like the old WASP culture. The Protestantism has dropped out, which is why I call them post-Protestant WASPs. But our elite culture is otherwise strikingly continuous, or perhaps even more concentrated to only those anointed by WASP institutions.
How did this happen? That’s a complicated story. But it seems obvious to me that WASP institutions such as Harvard and Yale are more powerful today than ever before. In the future will there ever be a Supreme Court Justice who did not graduate from Harvard or Yale?
I’m perhaps overly optimistic to see our post-Protestant WASPs as vulnerable, though the Trump-Sanders disruption of their dominance of the two major parties suggest they’re not as strong as we imagine. Like any elite, they are insular, smug, and complacent. They also have unique weaknesses. The ideology of diversity blinds them to their striking homogeneity. This is why both political parties were blindsided by populist challenges to their leaderships. They’re also ignorant of their own cultural heritage, since the very possibility of a post-Protestant WASP culture depended on the illusion that the old, exclusive, and hereditary elite was being replaced by a diverse, meritocratic one that transcends cultural particularity.
I’m of two minds about the future. On the one hand, the old America, dominated by hereditary WASPs effected a remarkable transition that was able to coopt talented individuals from once marginalized groups. That’s a stunning achievement that testifies to the strength of post-Protestant WASP culture. One the other hand, the self-deceptions that characterize post-Protestant WASP culture (deceptions about merit, about diversity, and about obligations to the country as a whole) are debilitating.
What have you found the most interesting reaction to your book?
Reno: Almost everyone who interviews me about the book expresses pessimism. Isn’t Christianity in decline? Isn’t secularism irreversible? People are rather shocked by the sheer presumption of the book—resurrecting a Christian society!
I think this reaction gives too much credit to worldly power. It also underestimates the fragility of our present cultural regime. Consider the places in our society where there’s a great deal of unhappiness. Universities are afflicted by student protests and an epidemic of sexual assault. Urban schools are failing. Police and black Americans are at odds. Fears about Islamic terrorism have increased.
It’s important to remember than these are not elements of society dominated by Christianity. Evangelical pastors in Texas do not run our universities. Catholic bishops do not have responsibility for failing public schools. Consider, further, that polling data show plunging confidence in establishment institutions. This is happening precisely as Christianity has been pushed to the margins of public life. Again, no sane person can say our problems today stem from too much Christian influence.
Our society is troubled, perhaps very troubled. In this context, it’s not Christianity that’s being discredited but instead the secular progressivism that is ascendant. The future may not see great revivals of faith. But it may witness a new interest in restoring a bit of Christian leaven to our public culture.