May 16, 2017
t is now a commonplace among policy experts and social scientists that our country is in crisis, one caused by the steady deterioration of cultural customs and norms that once defined American life. This crisis has divided conservatives: some hope for a return to our traditions; others embrace the new age of extreme individualism and lack of common customs.
First Things editor R.R. Reno sides with those traditionalists who believe we can return to our past by resurrecting that which made us great. But he does not believe we possess the capability of resurrection within ourselves. Rather, his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, argues that we must look to something above us for direction. Modern promises of untethered freedom leave us with no guide to life beyond our own desires and powers. Our continual struggle to maximize freedom, thinks Reno, paradoxically subjects us to the worst kind of tyranny.
Reno presents a history of our current crisis, starting in the 1960s, to illustrate freedom’s descent into tyranny. As individual liberties have expanded, we've lost customs that once bound us together. Previously vibrant communities have broken down in the face of our relentless drive toward autonomous individualism. Those communities that gave us the support and love necessary for human flourishing having all but vanished, we find ourselves today in a fragmented society.
The false ideal of autonomous individualism has come to dominate realms once regulated by custom: sexuality and gender, drug use, marriage (and sex outside of marriage), contraception and abortion, and suicide and mortality. Reno wonders when people, in the name of individual rights, will begin to question whether they are bound by death. He needn’t speculate: Silicon Valley zillionaires are already treating immortality as the next problem our cleverness will solve.
While many celebrate our age of individual choice, few have noticed the effect of the massive cultural upheaval necessary to produce it. That upheaval has: left the weak in America weaker, and the poor poorer; torn the fabric of American society and nearly destroyed our solidarity; produced a massive growth in government; and left Americans scrambling for meaning in a world where our teachers and elites insist that there is no meaning beyond individual desire.
To take one example, Reno cites Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012) regarding the fact that 85% of Americans in the top quintile of the income distribution are married. This top fifth has seen essentially no decline in marriage rates since the 1960s. But, for America’s bottom 30%, the furthering of individual autonomy has decimated marriage: less than half its members are now married.
The upper classes have undermined traditions and societal institutions while living very differently from the moral dictates they’ve offered their lower-class compatriots. They refuse to preach what they practice, in Murray’s phrase. The moral deregulation pushed by elites the past 60 years has been nothing less than class warfare against the most vulnerable.
Reno's description of this new class warfare is one of many poignant sections in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. He addresses indications of societal fracture without offering suggestions for furthering individual opportunity. Instead, he offers imperatives: defend the weak, raise up the poor, promote solidarity, limit government, seek higher things. This form of “religious” command speaks to the individual without presuming the individual and his freedom are self-sufficient.
Reno believes our “post-Protestant WASP culture is failing, that it promises freedom, but delivers tyranny.” Resurrecting does not contain specific policy proposals. Instead, Reno reminds his readers of the great good of a healthy society, offering as it does our best chance to fulfill that deepest human longing, the desire to love and be loved. He provides a vision of a coherent society that would adopt policy measures guided by Christian principles of charity and justice. Can such principles once again direct and inspire the majority of Americans? While it seems doubtful, Reno's articulation of these principles in dire times is cause for hope.