Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Thomas Ascik as he considers three recent books that address the prospects for Christianity in modern American culture. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
In Mere Christianity (1952), the published version of his radio talks delivered in the early 1940’s, C. S. Lewis asserted that “the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore cannot be expected to live Christian lives.” In the Idea of a Christian Society (1939), American-born Englishman T. S. Eliot, said that “the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one. In Peace of Soul (1949), American Catholic priest, Fulton J. Sheen, soon to be a bishop, spoke of “the revolt of the modern world” against “the memory of 1900 years of Christian culture.”
So, where are we seventy years later? What is the status of Christianity in the United States today? Can there be such a thing as Christian society or culture? Are Americans more or less Christian than seventy years ago? Within the last year, three well-known authors have attempted to deal with the issues of American society and Christian society. In his Out of the Ashes, Rebuilding American Culture (2017), English professor, author, and ubiquitous commentator Anthony Esolen has taken a cultural and artistic/humanistic approach. Charles J. Chaput, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, emphasizes a rebirth of Christian faith and practice in his Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (2017). First Things editor R.R. Reno has taken a primarily political approach in his Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (2016).
Professor Esolen, not one to mince words, emphasizes the near annihilation of Western and Christian civilization. He takes most of his proofs and examples from literature and the arts. He says that the Western world, once dominant worldwide, has sunken “from within” into “lethargy, indifference, and stupor.” Beauty, of supreme importance to society as well as to the individual, has disappeared from education and society. He argues that the modern world’s “has destroyed almost as many forms of art” as previous centuries invented. Art, culture, and education have not only been politicized, they have been taken over, by government (“Jabba the State”) and by the Supreme Court (“the Court Royal”).
Bishop Chaput admits that there is little reason for optimism in this now “strange land,” but he holds that hope is greater than optimism. He writes for “everyday Catholics” who know something is wrong “but don’t understand why, or what to do about it.” He states that a new vision of America has emerged that “sees no need for Christianity” and “in many cases… views our faith as an obstacle to its ambitions.” He notes that America, a blend of the biblical and the Enlightenment, has always been an idealistic country. Protestantism has been both the former unofficial national religion and also one of the basic sources of American individualism. But now, an “antidote to the isolation and radical individualism of modern democratic life” is needed. Although Catholics were formerly discriminated against, Catholics and Protestants have shared “the same basic faith” and “same moral vocabulary.” He wants to set out the things that today “Christians should not bear, should not believe, should not endure in civic life.”
With his idea of “resurrecting Christian society,” Mr. Reno has penned the only directly political book. He does not advocate the formal establishment of Christianity, nor a political program or movement, much less a political party, but a change in political perspective that would establish a country compatible with Christianity and, indeed, essentially based on Christian charity of a sort. He is deeply influenced by Charles Murray’s landmark 2012 book Coming Apart, in which Dr. Murray described the huge cultural, social, and economic divide between upper middle-class white America and white working-class Americans. That book also established the fundamental point that it is not just black families that are broken. And it may have indirectly predicted the working-class basis of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
Dr. Reno takes that point and goes the next step by proposing to make “defending the weak” and “raising up the poor” not just a project of Christian charity but also of public policy. He castigates secular progressives whom those he calls “post-Protestant WASP’s,” the contemporary replacement for the old American (and actually Protestant) WASP elites who dominated this country for its first one hundred and fifty years or so. Next, he argues that government should be limited because, for example, “if government can redefine marriage, it can redefine everything else in private life.” Mentioning the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, he promotes not just local government but more basically, local institutions, of which marriage and religion are by far the most important. Finally, Dr. Reno says that the country must seek “higher things,” that is, true freedom based on obedience to Christ rather than the contemporary freedom built on quicksand. And, essentially, American Christians must go about “deepening our own faith.
So in light of the authors’ noting of the “ashes” of the “strange land” of “post-Christian America,” what do they say about the effect on certain institutions and associate issues?
A comprehensive critique of American education at all levels is the main focus of Dr. Esolen, a man firmly in the Western liberal-arts tradition. Citing the now-regular line of anti-intellectual and anti-speech university incidents staged by students—aided and abetted by faculty and administrators—he concludes that “the very possibility of higher education” is coming “to an abrupt halt.” Exceptions are a handful of both Catholic and Christian liberal-arts colleges. But higher education, by comparison, is actually the good news in education. As for elementary and secondary schools, the teachers there have “diseased” moral sensibilities; “they are not fit to teach your children the multiplication tables.” Two things are wrong in the schools, according to Dr. Esolen: “Everything our children don’t learn there and everything they do.” Christian educators are not exempt; many of them are “no better educated than anyone else in the Christian humanities” and art. Young people are starved for beauty, Dr. Esolen argues, and we can wonder whether they may have ever experienced it.
Bishop Chaput, who oversees a large Catholic school system, notes that most Catholic school children attend public schools and “only 3 percent of Hispanic Catholic children attend Catholic schools,” with the consequence that ”the freedom and ability of Catholic families “to raise their children according to Christian beliefs is also, in everyday practice, becoming more difficult.” But Bishop Chaput does not approach the subject with the passions of Dr. Esolen, and he takes a somewhat distant approach, letting various sources he cites make the more stinging comments. He makes no plea for Catholics to attend Catholic schools, no argument that his own Catholic schools offer an alternative, and gives no details about what a Catholic or Christian education would look like.
As part of his plan to resurrect Christian society, Dr. Reno has almost nothing to say about education and children.
All three authors could have engaged in a more extended reflection about the “education” provided by the mass media on the minds and sentiments of children, including the children of Christians. In The Nicomachean Ethics (1104), Aristotle holds that true education is concerned with training children “from infancy” to feel pleasure and pain “at the right things.” Likewise, he states that in order to study ethics—that is, “fine and just things”—and politics, a person must be already habituated to ethical behavior from an early age. For a person first learns ethical behavior by acting ethically, not by studying ethics. In the Abolition of Man (1947), C. S. Lewis, echoing Aristotle, states that no mere intellectual consideration of virtue “will enable a man to be virtuous.” For without “trained emotions,” the intellect cannot rule “the belly,” that is, the appetites. This conclusion caused Lewis to come up with one of the most sweeping, and arguably nonclassical, conclusions in all his writings: that “emotions organized by trained habits into stable sentiments” are the very definition of man. In our intellects, we are spirit; in our appetites, we are animal. The middle between those two is man. Taking that away is the veritable abolition of man, according to Lewis. So, whoever has access to the sentiments of children makes all the difference in the world.
What do the three authors say about American families? Bishop Chaput says that the family, not the Church, is “the main transmitter of religious convictions.” Today, marriage and family “no longer precede and limit the state,” and in its same-sex marriage decisions, the Supreme Court, “changed the meaning of family.” He recommends Christianity as the solution to the crisis in the American family. “Plenty of data,” he says, shows that Americans who actively practice their religious faith “have more stable marriages and families.”
Interestingly, the bishop cites research that shows that American family life, because of American individualism, can be worse off than European, especially for children. While Europeans have abandoned marriage, their co-habitation arrangements tend to be more stable, their partners less frequent, than Americans. This situation has been well documented in social science, but it rarely comes up in public discussion. Bishop Chaput continues with a frank and bracing opinion about the “the reluctance to focus on family breakdown” in social and political discourse. Because “we’ve reached a critical mass of broken families,” he wonders whether we can publicly discuss family breakdown “for fear of hurting the collaterally damaged innocent or aggravating the guilt of culpable parties.” Almost any gathering includes “at least one person,” he says, who “has been wounded by family turmoil.”
Focusing on the differences between men and women and between fatherhood and motherhood, Dr. Esolen goes into an extensive analysis of the contemporary American family. He argues that girls become women more easily than boys become men, and, thus, the redefinition of masculinity and the compromising of formerly boy-oriented institutions like the Boy Scouts has been catastrophic. As a summary of “the way of the world” in modern times, he points out that the Industrial Revolution took the father out of the house and feminism took the woman out of the house.
Dr. Reno, reflecting his socio-political emphasis, calls the family “the most effective limitation on government power.” He argues that the family is the first place where we learn “political life in a fallen world.” For there, we first encounter, experience, and learn harmony, solidarity, and commonality as opposed to the “temporary aggregation of self-interested individuals.” But with marriage “now a creature of the courts,” and of government in general, marriage ceases to be an antidote to secular society: “If government can define marriage and parenthood as it sees fit, the personal becomes the political, which is one of the definitions of tyranny.” Dr. Reno also notes the historical change in family life from its association with the extended family to the situation today where so many “nuclear” families are on their own.
The sexual revolution
Over the past sixty years, is it possible that the sexual revolution has been the most fundamental, the most architectonic factor in American life, society, culture–and yes, even politics–and yes, even religion?
On the sexual revolution, Bishop Chaput notes that “people who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family” are now regarded in the media as the “equivalent of racists and bigots.” He points out that pornography is a major factor in divorce, infidelity, and broken families, but he does not conclude therefore that it should be more regulated. The birth-control pill has been as influential as Darwin; when it was introduced in the 1960’s, the bishop reminds us, it was “marketed as an aid to marriage and families.” The sexual revolution, “the new intolerance,” is now totalitarian. And since sex is “profoundly connected to human identity,” the homosexual rights movement demands “vindication” and will not settle for “mere tolerance or acceptance.” Indeed, Bishop Chaput could have directly quoted (Catholic) Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, to the effect that laws based on natural marriage “disrespect and subordinate” those who are “gays and lesbians,” and his statement for the majority in the prior Windsor case: that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to the “dignity and status” of marriage, and laws that “disparage and injure” them must then fall. This can be seen as another proof of his point concerning the sensitivity about discussing family breakdown. For, like Dr. Reno, Bishop Chaput is demonstrating that the personal is now the political.
Dr. Esolen says that the “three poisoned god” today is the “self, sex, and the state.” When Pope Paul VI predicted in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) that women would become the sexual playthings of men, he failed to predict “that plenty of women would ape the worst vices of their brothers and use men as playthings in return.” Some people thought that it would be open season on girls, but “nobody foresaw that it would be open season on boys, confusing them and corrupting them in their never-sure sense of developing masculinity.” To Dr. Esolen, no further discussion is needed: Christians must simply “repudiate the whole sexual revolution. All of it. No keepsakes, no exceptions.”
The sexual revolution is not a major theme of Dr. Reno, though he does not hesitate to compare it to the French Revolution in that the American sexual revolution “has likewise made full use of the powers of the state, along with relentless social stigmatization, to destroy the public power of traditional moral norms.” And with his book-long emphasis on the social divide between the well-off cultural elites and the working class, he remarks that “it’s also absurd to deny that the sexual revolution has exploded the social norms that once brought order and decency to the personal and family lives of working-class people.”
Partial reprieve by the Trump Administration?
As for the major governmental threats to Christianity, has the election of Donald Trump removed one of the most important? Although all three authors analyze the moral, social, and legal implications of same-sex marriage and refer to the Supreme Court’s decisions on that subject, none of them tell the story of the larger campaign of the Obama Administration, certain to have been continued by a Hillary Clinton Administration, against religious liberty. In President Obama’s second term, the Supreme Court turned back three major attempts by his administration to restrict religious liberty. In the most important of those case, Hosanna Tabor (2012), the Court unanimously held that the federal government could not have its say about employment of a minister by a Lutheran church and its school. And in the Hobby Lobby (2014) decision and the remand of the Little Sisters of the Poor case (2016), the Court effectively ruled that the federal government must allow Christian people to live their faith all the time, not just on Sunday morning. We are just emerging from an era in which the President of the United States and the federal government, with the support of the allied media and academia, did not hesitate at all to persecute an organization that calls itself the “Little Sisters of the Poor.”
In breathtaking contrast, President Trump openly campaigned on a promise to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices, and in appointing the apparent constitutionalist Neil Gorsuch, he has fulfilled that promise. What is more, in February, the Trump-appointed Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, took the heart out of one of the Obama administration’s multiple transgender offensives, the notorious Gloucester County v. GG “bathroom case,” by withdrawing the federal government’s brief, which had the effect of sending the case back to the appeals court with the directive to reconsider its pro-transgender decision. It seems that we can also expect a Trump Department of Justice fix in the pending federal case, Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, in which the Obama Administration attempted to force two explicitly Christian medical organizations to provide “gender transition surgery” and abortion.
Who will win the mind?
Among other current ideas, “transhumanism” is being proposed. But has modern man already been transformed by technology and the modern state? The governance and the structure of the formerly most “private” of associations, the family and the church, is now public and political. But is mass media, a completely new historical phenomenon, the real distinctive aspect of our lives? No one – and no children – can escape the withering omnipresence of the mass media in all its forms. On a daily basis, we cannot avoid ideas and images that normal Christians of the past would have never thought to allow in their homes, their daily lives, and most importantly into their consciousness.
Dr. Esolen asks us to “consider the conversation of human beings before the advent of mass media.” He says that town criers could not “spread lies continually and from one end of the nation to another,” but mass media can. Bishop Chaput points to “mass media emotional conditioning” and social media’s “massive and almost instantaneous ability to bring the pressure to conform on any selected target.” In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell noted that not only does thought corrupt language but also “language corrupts thought.” In our time, substitute for “language:” the swirl of demi-ideas, sensations, stimulations, and images pressed upon on us by mass media. The authors considered herein could have said more on how the “language” of the mass media works its corruption on our minds.
What is to be done?
None of the three authors proposes any dramatic social, public, or church actions. None have “battle plans” or proposals for any institutional programs or innovations. None outline any comprehensive “defensive” strategy. None advocate or endorse anything like the Benedict Option proposed by Rod Dreher. In fact, Bishop Chaput and Dr. Reno—indirectly—make it clear that they are opposed to the Benedict Option. All three authors regret the atrophy of the status and influence of local organizations, with Dr. Esolen and Bishop Chaput referring extensively to Tocqueville on the subject.
Dr. Esolen makes three recommendations. The first is to make a decision that “the central government’s arrogation of power is illegitimate.” And that includes “the edicts of the Court Royal.” In a not-too-clear distinction, Dr. Esolen says that we have to comply with those edicts but should not obey them; that is, we must not take them “into [our] mind and heart.” We should take advantage of the opportunities to undermine them. Teach Paradise Lost, for instance, in schools as a kind of back-door way of teaching religion. Second, he says that we need to work on all liberties “which the Court Royal has not gotten around to encroaching upon.” We should establish clubs and organizations that the “Court Royal” has not yet touched. Third, we should try to revive social life on our own. By that he means that every time it comes up or is asserted that “freedom of religion” is confined to “freedom of worship,” pastors and laymen should themselves take every opportunity to stage public gatherings, processions, and other events, to make religion visible and public.
Bishop Chaput closes by observing that the Catholic Church “of tomorrow won’t look like the Church of today, much less of memory.” He explicitly admits that he has no new programs, projects, or plans to put forth. None of those are essential, he insists. The only essential thing is for individual Catholics to become saints. He asks the world to consider the possibility of its redemption by Christ and the idea of freedom for the Church. It is not practical for Christians to retreat to “the safety of some modern version of a cave in the hills” because the world will come after us, and because God calls us to “be the soul of the world.” Catholics should be counter-cultural by creating places “where Catholic culture can flourish and be handed down.” Build small communities in conjunction with Catholic parishes and schools. But the fundamental crisis of our time, the bihsop concludes, is a crisis of faith. And “the biggest failure of so many people of my (baby boomer) generation, including parents, teachers, and leaders in the Church, has been our failure to pass along our faith in a compelling way to the generation now taking our place.” Half of Catholic teens, Bishop Chaput points out, have left the church by age thirty.
Dr. Reno argues that the “end of Christendom” in America “has not meant the end of Christianity” and that there are still “plenty of Christians in America.” His ending is likewise without specific plans, projects, or programs. Without giving any details, he says that a “religious counterculture” has emerged in America. But it is not negative and does not seek “to become the next establishment”; rather, with a spiritual outlook prior to a political one, it seeks only to influence society. In keeping with his dominant theme of concern for others, he says that “we owe our neighbors” to put on the “armor of God” but “we need to discipline our public witness” by civility. Christians must be serpent-like in their politics but cannot avoid the duty and necessity of standing up for truth whatever its unpopularity. Since “we have our eyes on higher things,” we can afford to be generous and even hospitable in debating our opponents.
Taken together, these three works by Drs. Esolen and Reno and Bishop Chaput comprise a compendium of trenchant social and cultural criticism. Unfortunately, however, none of the three advocates any profound changes in the daily living arrangements of American Christians. Thus, the Christian reader is left to wonder: What is to be done?
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2017.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: the featured image is “Going to Church” (1853) by George Henry Durrie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.