In 1939, as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering in Europe, famed modernist-poet-turned-Anglo-Catholic, T.S. Eliot, penned an essay entitled “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which he lays out a vision of a Christian society over and against the powerful totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism. Eliot, however, is careful to say that he is less interested in producing anti-communist or anti-fascist arguments than he is in examining “the more profound differences between pagan and Christian society.” Still, for Eliot, only a society that recognizes God can have any means by which to resist—and indeed, any justification for resisting—the worst excesses of paganism. As he famously declares: “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
Today, the Stalin and Hitler regimes are now long since relegated to the dustbin of history, but the conflict between neo-paganism and Christianity continues in the West. Indeed, in the seventy-seven years since Eliot’s essay was written, the conflict has greatly intensified, and Christianity once again finds itself in retreat, though this time from a very different adversary. Rather than totalitarian ideologies of the communist or fascist sort—“comprehensive doctrines,” in Rawlsian terms, complete with their own internal systems of truth—Christianity is now faced with a new ideology whose overarching ethic consists in what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.” The primary behavioral expectation of this dictatorship is “non-judgmentalism”: that is, refusing to pass judgment on the lifestyle choices of others.
It is this paradigm that R.R. Reno, editor of the influential journal First Things and former theology professor, seeks to challenge in his new book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. A clear allusion to Eliot’s earlier work, Dr. Reno seeks to revisit and update Eliot’s conception, though in a less abstract manner.
The choice we face today, Reno argues, is the same as that of Eliot’s day: “Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” But the nature of that dichotomy looks very different today than it did then. As Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the preface to the Old Regime and the Revolution, a danger of democratic societies is that “the ruling passions become a desire for wealth at all cost, a taste for business, a love of gain, and a liking for comfort and material pleasures,” as the result of a tendency for democratic citizens “to wrap themselves up in a narrow individuality in which public virtue is stifled.” What we suffer from now cannot be remedied by appeals to increased individual liberty as it could in the face of mass political movements—or “political religions” as Eric Voegelin called them—like communism and fascism. This is because the ailment is not one of too little individualism, but too much: What we lack in modern America is solidarity.
Nor can appeals to “American values” be effective because the trajectory of modern American culture is essentially a reductio ad absurdum on a certain understanding of “American values” (think of President Obama’s refrain of “that’s not who we are,” when defending his policies against those less inclined to go along). The “expressive individualism” understanding of the American founding documents that is expressed most poignantly in the jurisprudence of Anthony Kennedy—especially the notorious passage from the famous 1994 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”—has remade “American principles” in a mold that is unrecognizable to many.
Furthermore, Dr. Reno points out that, ironically perhaps, even a certain type of anti-Americanism is rooted in a kind of hyper-Americanism:
If my destiny is not determined by my social class or race or religion or even my body (the focus of the sexual revolution), why should it be determined by my culture? If we prize the dream of freedom above all else, the most American thing to do is to renounce the authority of Western culture! Anti-Americanism is thus a kind of hyper-Americanism, something I fear most American conservatives fail to recognize. A repudiation of America strikes a blow for still greater freedom. If we take America down a notch or two, we disenchant the inherited social norms that control us, giving ourselves psychological space to live according to whatever values we prefer. If we think this way, being anti-patriotic is the highest and most noble way to be patriotic.
This may not be a comprehensive accounting for all the reasons we find anti-Americanism in American political discourse—Marxists or Islamic jihadists might have other reasons, for example—but it is instructive. Without the counterweight of Christian transcendence, there is little to check the movement toward the ideological extreme, even to the point of absurdity. Revitalizing the idea of a Christian society then becomes necessary to love even our particular city of man. Like Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, whose ostensible love for the abstraction “humanity” causes him to reject the given world, American secularism rebelliously rejects its given world after judging it unworthy of its abstraction of “freedom.”
The book is organized around what Dr. Reno sees as the five essential components of a Christian society: defending the weak, raising up the poor, promoting solidarity, limiting government, and seeking higher things—in other words, a vision of society rooted in Catholic philosophical anthropology and social teaching. This vision, he argues, stands in opposition to the idols of “postmodern materialism:” health, wealth, and pleasure. When these become the highest things on offer, they then “provide the ideals for [the] elite: he who is slimmest, richest, and drinks the best wine in the most luxurious private jet wins!” And, those who cannot compete in the pursuit of these “highest things” for whatever reason are simply left behind. Even more perversely, he argues, the reduction of human flourishing to being given “choices” allows these elites to guiltlessly dismiss those who are left behind in this brave new world as deserving their lot because, after all, they made their choice.
There is more than a tinge of old-school leftist suspicion of global capital in Dr. Reno’s analysis, despite its general disposition toward the religious right. And this is as it should be. Cosmopolitan corporatism has given rise to “global elites” who harbor little sympathy for traditional societies of whatever form—and least of all Christian societies. Utilizing leftist critiques to understand how power structures operate to subvert traditional societies is a task that Christian and conservative scholars should take up as corporate power increasingly shows itself to be hostile to Christian and conservative understandings of the human person and of human flourishing, both at home and abroad.
Dr. Reno is quick to point out that his vision does not entail a goal of establishing Christianity, but is rather about providing space and legitimacy for Christians to “speak up in the public square as Christians.” This becomes increasingly important as the fruit of post-Christian right-wing ressentiment begins to manifest itself in the dark recesses of the so-called “Alt-Right” in the United States, and in the rise of nationalist right-wing movements in Europe. These movements are solidarity movements, but of a distinctly post-Christian hue. Finding a renewed Christian form of solidarity may be the only way to counterbalance the growing dichotomy between, on one hand, secular, corporatist, technocratic, “non-judgmental,” globalism and, on the other, secular ethnonationalism. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently put it: “Ten years ago, liberals pined for a post-religious right, a different culture war. Be careful what you wish for.”
Ultimately, as the title indicates, the book represents a call for the resurrection of an idea which has been all but forgotten. The dichotomy that has developed is causing a great amount of dissatisfaction with the status quo, on both the left and the right. This dissatisfaction indicates that there is an opportunity for the articulation of a renewed vision of a just and humane society that promotes human flourishing for everyone. As Dr. Reno states, “a relatively small number of Christians can inspire and reinvigorate the public imaginations of the disoriented majority.”
Rarely has this renewal been more needful than in our particular political moment. Political order as we know it may fall away, but the eternal truths embedded in Christianity will endure, and it is only through re-infusing the political order with these truths and reconnecting it to its transcendent sources that the renewal for which we hope can be achieved.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.