Published within months of each other, three books share the belief that traditional Christians are a moral minority.
Typical excellence from First Things, though this a sobering article, more than an encouraging one. Yet it is important to know where we stand, to be fully aware of the scope of the task ahead of us. And the task is large! Complex, as well. As this article notes,
“Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray. Compared with recovering the basic requirements of virtuous civilization — healthy communities, flourishing family life, sound education, a deep reservoir of cultural memory and practice, and formative religious faith — remaking the Supreme Court is a cinch. Philosophers who have described culture as the first requirement of a healthy civilization, from Plato to Burke to Tocqueville, have generally believed that the most one can consciously strive to achieve is preservation of a healthy culture, should one be fortunate enough to possess one. Once a culture is corrupted from within, however, they saw little hope of reversing its decay.”
Deneen further notes that despite some successes for political conservatives, over the last 30 to 40 years, the culture has changed, and not in a traditional direction: “For nearly thirty years, conservatives have triumphed politically amid a catastrophic breakdown of social and cultural norms, especially those that foster an ethic of self-sacrifice, commonweal, and practices that inculcate duty, discipline, respect, civility, and obedience.” In other words, the cultural corruption, the decay, is already deep-seated.
With regard to the recent Presidential election, Deneen points out that “Calls for restoration of family values were nowhere to be heard among the cheering throngs at the rallies held for a serial adulterer and crude showman.” And indeed, while I view him as preferable to the alternative, I am under no illusions as to the limitations of the man himself! Christian leaders and ordinary voters viewed Trump, Deneen notes, “not as the champion of a renewed Christian America, but as someone who could hold at bay a ruling class that is openly hostile to Christianity.”
Nor is this hostility limited to the ruling class alone: secularism is on the rise among ordinary Americans as well, and “nones” – those who list “none of the above” as their religious affiliation – now make up 23% of adults in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, which also points out that fully a third of those say they do not believe in God at all. And while atheists continue to insist that one can possess a firm moral compass in the absence of religious faith, actual results don’t seem to bear that out for most people, most of the time. I suspect that George Washington had a much more clear-eyed and clear-headed grasp on human nature when he asserted that
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
In the social and civic sphere, Deneen notes that
“Measures of community strength, volunteerism, neighborliness, and civil society [have] declined [over the last 30-40 years]. Family breakdown increased, especially among the economically disadvantaged of all races. Divorce rates skyrocketed, and though they later leveled off for the wealthy, they remain high, especially for the poor. At the same time, rates of marriage have declined, and American birth rates have begun to resemble those of an aging and childless Europe. A holocaust of unborn children continues unabated.
“Findings by both conservative and liberal social scientists such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam show an extraordinary erosion of social norms and expectations — familial, educational, legal, and professional — especially among those who make up the working class of America. Social mobility has become a taunt rather than a real possibility for many Americans, replaced by a self-perpetuating new aristocracy that congregates in the wealthiest urban areas of the country. Trust in all the main institutions of American society — both public and private — has declined, as has trust of citizens toward each other.”
While not mentioned by name in the above, volunteerism has also suffered a decline. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, only fractionally under one in four Americans (24.9%) volunteered at least once in 2015, a new 10-year low. While it is anecdotal, I have seen in my own local area a dramatic decline in the number of church and fire-hall suppers offered, and those that remain have often changed from the traditional “family-style” method of serving to the less labor-intensive “cafeteria” or “buffet” style. When I’ve inquired, I have been told that they simply aren’t getting the volunteers they need to keep going. Just one example, but a telling one.
So the question becomes, where do we go from here? If there is no longer – or at least, it is no longer possible to confidently count upon the existence of – a “moral majority” of good, decent, right-thinking Americans, if individual moral autonomy and the presumed right, as well as freedom, to do, say, and be whatever brings one personal gratification (except, of course, to be self-consciously and obviously conservative and traditional), have taken over from discipline, moral and social responsibility, and civic and religious duty – if, to be perhaps brutally frank, depravity, decadence, and degeneracy have replace the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as the “transcendental values” du jour – then what are those of us who still value our traditional spiritual, moral, and cultural heritage to do?
As Deneen puts it,
“The long-standing conservative narrative held that America is fundamentally decent but that those decencies are being eroded by an elite that subscribes to non-American, and even anti-American, values. The simultaneous political success of conservatism and ruination of American culture has made this view untenable. Now, a more radical possibility is opening up. Traditional Christians now wonder if a just and righteous society must be built in opposition to a national creed that has led inexorably to libertinism.”
Or, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre in “After Virtue,”
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St. Benedict.
What, then, should Christians do, “now that they can no longer ‘shore up the imperium,’ and, indeed, now that the imperium is hostile to the Christian faith”…? “How are Christians to live now that their efforts cannot be understood to be synonymous with electoral politics or even continuous with the basic commitments of the American regime?” These are not easy questions to answer, and for many of us – who have a great love and reverence for traditional American institutions – they are even heart-wrenching. But they are questions which must be asked, and wrestled with, as we move inexorably into an uncertain future. As Deneen poignantly asks,
“If our condition is comparable to that of Christians after the sack of Rome, it comes with an intervening millennium and a half of Christian civilization. In Augustine’s time, Christians did not have any expectation, much less memory, of Christendom. The builders of the monasteries were innocent of Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare; Bach and Mozart and Handel; Michelangelo, Raphael, and El Greco.
“What can it possibly mean to build (or rebuild) “a new culture” in the ruins of what was arguably the greatest culture ever to have existed? If it could be eviscerated during the eight years of the Obama presidency, or the fifty years since the 1960s, or even the 230 years since the American founding, what chance do today’s pilgrims possibly have? Those who would create an alternative culture don’t create on a blank canvas, but with full knowledge of what has been lost, surrounded by the decayed ruins of their rightful inheritance.”
The Anglo-Saxons, a comparatively “primitive” (I used that term advisedly) and tribal people coming into the crumbling remnants of the Roman civilization that had preceded them in Britain – replete with amphitheaters, fora, aqueducts, stone-paved roads, etc. – called these accomplishments “the works of giants.” So we nowadays, in our decaying cultural state, might consider the works of those who have come before us: not the skyscrapers and “McMansions,” but the works of culture delineated above.
We are surrounded by the decaying edifices of not physical, but intellectual and cultural giants. And unlike the Saxons, we know – or some of us do – exactly what we have lost, and mourn it. What, then, will we do? Will we, like the Anglo-Saxons, mine the crumbling remains of a glorious past to build hovels and pigsties, or will we seek to rebuild something echoing, at least, the grandeur of what was, and is, but is being lost?
That is the question which is before us, a question to which I have no definitive answer (although clearly, building communities of support is a vital part of the puzzle – this is no time for “rugged individualism”). But it is a question with which all of us who value our social, cultural, moral, and religious heritage must wrestle, as we move forward. The three authors mentioned in Deneen’s essay, and discussed in more detail in part III of it, have each provided at least a partial and tentative answer, filtered through their individual perspectives; and I encourage you to explore them.
Also worthwhile are Deneen’s concluding comments on the polis, Alexis de Toqueville, and his accurate observation that “‘Politics will not save us,’ Dreher concludes… but in the absence of a good polity, it’s unlikely a healthy culture can be cultivated and sustained.” Mere withdrawal from the world is not, ultimately, a solution!
Christianity is inevitably political. If Christians are to eschew Washington, D.C., as a lost cause, they should not imagine they can just build familial monasteries. Instead, we need to focus on our town and city halls, our neighborhood associations, seeking to foster the kinds of communities where our children can—and will—roam the fields again. At some scale, however small, the moral minority must become a majority again. Deneen further notes, again accurately, that
“Christianity is inevitably political. If Christians are to eschew Washington, D.C., as a lost cause, they should not imagine they can just build familial monasteries. Instead, we need to focus on our town and city halls, our neighborhood associations, seeking to foster the kinds of communities where our children can — and will — roam the fields again. At some scale, however small, the moral minority must become a majority again.”
Amen! Indeed. I agree completely! But the issue of how we are to build or rebuild a new, or renewed, culture amidst the ruins of the old remains a sobering, even daunting, question; it is a large and daunting task which is before us. And how we respond will determine how generations yet to come will view us… and indeed, the identity and circumstances of those generations themselves. My God grant us both clarity of vision, and steadfastness of purpose, for the task!