No, this is not a brief for theocracy. But it is a riveting plea for the revival of a Christendom that has recently collapsed on American soil.
The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, invokes T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society” (1939) as the inspiration for his theological critique of American society, but his concerns diverge from Eliot’s. Reno makes no case for an established national church, a monarchy or an aristocratic elite. His tract urges American Christians to emphasize certain traditional ethical principles as an antidote to the nation’s current moral decadence and to stress without apology the explicitly religious source of these principles.
Reno’s portrait of contemporary American society is bold and grim. Like many leftist critics, he perceives U.S. society as descending into two polarized classes buffered by a shrinking and economically sinking middle class. The top 1 percent now enjoys an annual income of over $400,000 (a doubling in inflation-adjusted dollars over 50 years), while the lower half has remained stagnant. The economic elite live in a cosseted world of gated neighborhoods, private schools and private police forces, where they perfect their tan, their waistline and their curricula vitae. The economically stagnant drift from one low-paying job to another as they succumb to an unprecedented battery of addictions.
For Reno, income inequality is only a symptom of a deeper moral crisis. Using the (rather unhelpful) term “nonjudgmentalism” rather than the more familiar “moral relativism,” Reno condemns a society where it is forbidden to forbid. In a culture where free-market principles have run amok in the moral field, every excess in word and deed is tolerated in the name of the freedom of self-expression. Moral rules on chastity, honesty and decent speech are abandoned as oppressive. Even the human body becomes a piece of plastic matter alterable by personal choice. Gender, determined only yesterday by chromosomes, is now a design project dependent on individual desire. But human nature is not impressed by our dime-store libertarianism. Following the lead of the social scientists Robert Putnam, Charles Murray and Mary Douglas, Reno dissects the cultural consequences of the abandonment of universal ethical principles, especially in the area of family life.
The moral gap here between social classes is even more glaring than the income gap. For all their bohemian libertarianism, the upper-income elite are married (85 percent), rarely divorced (10 percent), rarely have illegitimate children and are churchgoing (50 percent). Whatever they may say and however they may vote, they know that to maintain one’s health, income and social status, there are certain ways one must act or not act.
The less affluent working class has not escaped the sexual revolution so blithely. Only 40 percent of these middle-aged adults are married in a sea of cohabitation. There are high rates of divorce (35 percent), out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households. For the children born into this unstable environment, the social consequences in terms of crime, addiction, unemployment and educational achievement are devastating.
Rather than enhancing personal freedom, our new “bobo” (bourgeois/bohemian) ethos has only enhanced the coercive power of the state. In his finest chapter, “Limit Government,” Reno analyzes the dissolution of key intermediate bodies, those social organisms that act as a buffer between an individual and the state, which the recession of traditional norms effects. Relatively intact in 1960, the family finds itself pulverized by no-fault divorce, unstable cohabitation, surrogacy parenthood and endless redefinitions of its very essence. The church, relegated to a purely private affair and warned not be judgmental, is reduced to a shadowy therapeutic existence. Into the vacuum created by this collapse, the state rushes with new coercive powers. The neutral secular state is an illusion. Nuns who refuse to provide material cooperation for the provision of abortifacients they consider immoral, says Reno, and caterers who decline to provide services for same-sex weddings are branded as criminals.
For Reno, Christianity must reassume the role of social-ethical animation it played until recently in American society. Gathered in worship, the church not only promotes the broad moral norms society needs to survive; it fosters the virtues necessary for individuals and society as a whole to live in dignity and mutual charity. It reminds America of what it once knew: that the rights it holds dear are created by “Nature’s God,” and not by the state or majority opinion.
Reno’s powerful summons for American Christians to exercise “courageous judgmentalism” suffers from several weaknesses. First, he offers an overly benign portrait of America before the 1970s meltdown. His treatment of patriotism is typical: “Patriotism, a habit of devotion or piety, encourages loyalty, disposing us to be selfless in service to the nation, willing to sacrifice our self-interest for the sake of our shared inheritance.” But as perceptive critics like Alexis de Tocqueville have argued, the American political project has suffered a danger from its inception. The cult of liberty easily turns into license and irresponsibility. Our current descent into moral chaos is only a new chapter in the longstanding national tendency to decouple freedom from truth, duty and the common good. Our “shared inheritance” includes slavery and the massacre of Native Americans as well as our devotion to civil liberties.
Reno’s portrait of religion also runs the risk of social utilitarianism. Religious practice certainly increases personal honesty and strengthens marital stability, but is that the point? Dynamic religious communities foster civic virtue and generosity toward the poor, but is that their raison d’être? A longstanding Enlightenment project has tried to save Christianity by reducing it to a moral code: plenty of rules and virtues but little of the miraculous or the mysterious. Despite a chapter on transcendence, Reno’s stirring apology for Christian society could benefit from a more theocentric focus.