Scribbles, &c.

Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society

I have just finished reading R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, and will probably be chewing on its thesis for some time to come. Something has gone deeply, fundamentally askew in American society, but it wasn’t until I read through his assessment of meritocracy replacing the democratic in fits and starts that things began to snap into place.

Those who look to place his book into quick service of either liberal or conservative viewpoints are likely to be disappointed. Progressive liberalism may take the lion’s share of space, but conservative libertarianism turns out to be not too far removed - both share the same telos: man as the measure of all things, utility, and radical plasticity.

Both claim large portions of the one-percenter crowd, and both fall disproportionately hard on the lower and middle classes.

A careful, humane argument is laid out for Christians remaining as active leavening in society, rather than withdrawing from the public square. Whether this is a meant as a rebuttal of the so-called Benedict Option remains to be seen, though I’d be willing to bet that the sort of intentionally orthodox Christian communities described in Rod Dreher’s writings could serve as exactly the sort of leaven, salt, and light that Reno describes (and Christ demands).

The haves: one-percenters who have the social capital, wealth, and opportunities to navigate and prosper in an increasingly rootless, global economy. The have-nots: everyone else, trying to live out the American dream of general prosperity and self-fulfillment. Compare the middle-class jobs of our parent’s generation to those of today - many have benefited from worldwide productivity and falling prices of goods and services. No one can seriously argue against the technical progress the world has seen. This progress, though, seems to have come at a substantial price, a bill that is being presented over the course of a couple of generations.

Cultural values that have generally worked to preserve the fundament of society have eroded away, even while they’re still practiced at the upper end of the spectrum. To take but one example: however much lip service is given to the fluidity of family structure in popular culture, in one-percent-world, very few children are born out of wedlock. As another case: educational level is the strongest predictor of professed religious belief. The highly-educated, credentialed professionals most likely to be successful in today’s meritocracy are also the most likely to be found in a pew on Sunday.

And for everyone else? Once the family as an atomic unit of society has eroded away, so too do the social networks - the social capital - that provided the sort of safety net that is largely taken for granted at the top end. In the absence of this network of networks, the void is quickly filled by state programs of one form or another, and so the cycle continues.

As he’s admitted in a recent First Things podcast, some of the arguments are complex, but I think they’re cogently laid out and while there might be a temptation to despair, Reno rightfully reminds us that as Christians we are called to try, not succeed. Our ultimate end is not to be found anywhere on this side of the veil of death. There may come a time when America is no more, but the Gospel is for all eternity. In no way does this require withdrawal. There is work to be done - the works of mercy would be a good place to start. Challenging every new thing with the question and how does this affect the poor? would be next, provided we can see through specious justifications for the status quo.

Reno’s book has me thinking about Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, a different sort of polemic written for a different time. Guardini’s book deeply informed Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si - indeed, Guardini is cited frequently throughout the entire document. It’s a relatively short book, and one I will probably be revisiting shortly. T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, which served as something of an inspiration will probably also get a look.

In any case, two thumbs up for R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, for whatever my thumbs are worth.