Resurrecting The Idea Of A Christian Society (R. R. Reno)

Already before I began writing this review, I was worn out reading books with a similar theme, that  of Christian renewal, including Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land.  I was already going to retire and turn to reading biographies for a while.  It is not, of course, Reno’s fault that this is the final book I read in the chain.  I have tried to ensure that my being worn out does not color my perception of the book.  Nonetheless, I was disappointed in this book.  While what it says has value, and Reno’s heart is in the right place, his book is largely derivative and superficial, and it omits, for all practical purposes, any real plan for achieving the goal of its title.

Or perhaps not, for that stated goal is pretty limited.  This book, after all, is not called Resurrecting the Christian Society.  It is titled Resurrecting THE IDEA OF a Christian Society.  This is a much more limited goal—but a much less worthwhile one.  While this goal is certainly not ignoble, it is not adequate.  For the idea actually is perfectly alive.  As with most ideas, there is no reason the idea of a Christian society cannot live forever—at least in dusty libraries or the minds of antiquarians.  I am sure this is not what Reno has in mind, but this focus on ideas, rather than action, is a conceptual block that pervades the book (and most books of its kind).  As Richard Weaver said, ideas have consequences, true, but there is no mechanism by which ideas necessarily lead to consequences.  Every idea needs someone, or some tight, focused group, to form those ideas into those consequences, to breathe dynamic life into the dry bones of a mere idea.  So, perhaps, Reno succeeds in the goal of resurrecting an idea—but that goal, of itself, is of very limited value.

We will get to my prescription for a cure.  First, the book itself.  Reno’s writing is clear, precise, and to the point.  It’s not flashy (in fact, it’s borderline dull).  He sets his framework by summarizing T.S. Eliot’s book, The Idea of a Christian Society, written in 1939 (from which his own title comes, obviously, but I do not think Reno makes the parallels that would have made the borrowing a good idea).  Reno notes that Eliot “took a formal approach, trying to outline the social structures necessary for Christianity to provide a foundational reference.”  Eliot focused on education, community and internal individual renewal.  By “formal,” Reno really means “abstract,” in contrast to his own “more concrete approach, tailored to the unique circumstances of twenty-first-century America.”  As we’ll see, though, Reno’s approach is just as abstract, if not more so.

Leaving Eliot totally behind (he is not mentioned after page four, which as I say makes the title choice of this book less than inspired), Reno outlines his primary goal and the means to achieve it.  That goal is “the need to restore genuine freedom,” by which he means not the unlimited, ever-expanding freedom that is part of “liberal democracy,” or more generally of the Enlightenment project as it has developed in the modern era, but the ordered freedom that all pre-Enlightenment thinkers regarded as essential to full humanity.  (One could argue that there is a middle ground, such as Yuval Levin’s mid-20th Century “expressive individualism”—but Reno does not seem to admit much middle ground here.)  Accompanying real freedom, the prime goal, is the related goal to restore “natural goods that one finds in many cultures”—namely, “solidarity, limited government, and a sense of the transcendent.”

How is ordered freedom to be restored?  By “speaking up in the public square as Christians.”  And to do this we should not “sell the public potency of Christianity short.”  Reno believes that “a relatively small number of Christians can inspire and reinvigorate the public imaginations of the disoriented majority.”  Why Reno thinks this can be done is not clear—it seems to me that a small number of Christians has been very vocal for decades, and very ignored by the culture at large.  What is more, “disoriented” is a weak euphemism for what is actually somewhere between a fundamental conflict of visions and a combat with outright evil.  And, finally, this is a weak Christian brew.  Ordered freedom is a concept that originated long before Christianity, and Reno himself notes that many of the “natural goods” he aims to achieve can be found in “many cultures,” by which he explicitly includes non-Christian ones.  Therefore, why speaking up “as Christians” is necessary to restore ordered freedom is not clear.  We could easily, in theory, obtain a non-Christian society with ordered freedom, that would nonetheless, like the Classical world, be very unpleasant because it lacked the Christian elements we treat as essential to any society, but are not in fact essential, or present, in many societies throughout history and today.

In any case, Reno correctly begins by reviewing the American view of freedom, or, rather, “our metaphysical dream of freedom”—that is, false freedom.  It is false, of course, because true freedom, ultimately, requires that we serve something other than, and greater than, ourselves.  Put succinctly, in all classical philosophical thought, prior to the Enlightenment, virtue, and liberty, is the opposite of “living as one likes.”   But “living as one likes” is the crux of the American dream.  If no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, why, ultimately, should any aspect of any person be fixed or limited?  If there is no metaphysical content to nature, why cannot nature simply be overruled in any given case?  What is nature but a set of irrational, or non-rational, restrictions?  And, as many others have pointed out, this worship of false freedom necessarily leads to denial of objective morality and increasing power being given to the government, both to fill the gap as mediating institutions that limit people’s autonomy decay or are destroyed, and in order to suppress any person, institution, or custom that dares suggest that unfettered freedom should be limited in any way—tyranny in the service of freedom.  “We must deploy the coercive power of government to promote freedom; we must limit freedom for the sake of freedom.”  Reno is very clear that “These liberation projects are consistent with the American dream.”  Not the stereotypical dream of economic gain, but of freedom.  And where we are should not be a surprise.  “Unchecked by loyalty to God, nature, and custom, the American dream of freedom cannot help but become militant.”  Authority, that necessary touchstone of a well-ordered society for all philosophers prior to the modern era, in America, has always lived on borrowed time, and that time has run out.

Having set his framework, the next five chapters, the bulk of the book, cover specific areas in which Reno sees that work can and must be done to resurrect the idea of a Christian society (although, again, the focus is not so much on Christianity, but on a society better than the one we have now, which is not the same thing).  Reno begins, in “Defend The Weak,” by pointing why harm results from unfettered freedom as a philosophical matter, as well as a matter of human nature, and for empirical proof he relies heavily on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  Reno’s basic point is that large segments of our society have fallen into the gutter, economically and spiritually, and are staying there, face down (although he certainly doesn’t use that metaphor).  A major cause of this fall is the decay of any standards, which used to both guide and give meaning to those who live in the less wealthy, less secure, less comfortable zones of society.  But our ruling classes, those who live on the comfortable side of society (Murray’s fictional, statistical town of “Belmont”), hold up “nonjudgmentalism” as a high moral good.  The focus is on each person’s freedom, meaning he must have free choice in all matters, except to limit the freedom of another, and that implies that no other person’s choices can be limited, insofar as they are moral choices.  Thus, by our elites, smoking can be discouraged, because of its health effects and because it has no moral component, but having children out of wedlock cannot, since no moral choice can be discouraged, regardless of its demonstrated bad consequences.  As Murray enumerates in great detail, this works out pretty well for Belmont, and disastrously for everyone else.

Nonjudgmentalism, of course, is another form of denial of any kind of universal, or even local, authority.  It is everywhere, not just in structures of social control, but even in required verbal imprecision where precision may imply judgment, as in “illegitimate child.”  And the effect of this freedom, this abandoning of authority, is to harm the weak, the socially marginalized and bewildered, who in fact need, and have always needed, the true freedom brought by clear rules, based on human nature and reflecting reality.  Liquid modernity is only good for those who can take advantage of it.

The next chapter, “Raise Up The Poor,” reinforces this point, or more accurately repeats it without adding much.  While he is careful not to “discount the hardship of material poverty,” Reno expands the “preferential option for the poor” to include ending nonjudgmentalism—we should “restore a public culture of moral and social discipline, a discipline Belmont people need to endorse if they’re to exercise cultural leadership for the sake of the common good rather than their own.”  We need, instead, “courageous judgmentalism.”  Here Reno leans heavily on the sociologist Robert Putnam, although he admits that Putnam’s writings, unlike Murray’s, are not as directly supportive of his views.  Roughly, those in and from dysfunctional families suffer and decline, and that dysfunction is the direct result of failing to hold the poorer members of society to the standards to which they used to be held—both by themselves and by their social superiors (though Reno does not use that latter term).

“Promote Solidarity,” the chapter following, is best read as a simultaneous attack on the related ideologies of neoliberalism and libertarianism.  Man is a social being, Reno implies, and not only does the atomism of unlimited individual choice lead to destruction, so does the atomism of overly individuated lives.  While “diversity” is a cant word full of falsehood, one of what Richard Weaver aptly named “god terms,” “words or phrases that evoke, often thoughtlessly, what are taken to be [by every society] its supreme goods,” it still contains a seed of truth.  The diversity of merely having some neighbors of different social classes, different skin colors, or different religions is silly.  Such diversity binds nobody and adds nothing concrete to society.  Rather, what is desirable is solidarity, which can contain but far supersedes mechanical diversity.

Solidarity is “a condition of sustained personal interaction and reciprocal obligations combined with an internal sense of belonging.”  Solidarity may be blocked or harmed by evils like actual racial discrimination, but it is not enhanced by pretending that mere difference has some inherent value.  “Solidarity stems from our free assent to unity in the service of a common end.”  And solidarity is not the end of either neoliberals or libertarians.  Reno does not use the term “neoliberal,” but that is what he means by “today’s technocratic elite . . . . [who prefer] post-religious, post-patriotic individuals defined solely by the pursuit of private self-interest . . . [who are]  more easily managed than those united in a common purpose.  They are easier to dominate than those willing and able to make sacrifices for the sake of a transcendent loyalty.”  He does use the term libertarians, recognizing that Hayek was not wrong to fight centralized government, but he was wrong to imply that was all was needed for the good society.  “Freedom can be threatened by centralized planning, but it is also diminished when we have no solid ground on which to stand.”

The last core chapter, “Limit Government,” is less a call for smaller government and more a familiar call for the restoration of intermediary institutions, which have withered as government has grown, and a subsidiarity that revolves largely around religion and religious institutions, in opposition to unnatural federal government mandates such as gay “marriage.”  Again, nothing wrong here, but nothing really new (although Reno notes presciently, pre-Trump, that “without a capacity for self-government encouraged by participation in local affairs, even the most potent eruptions of populism are likely to fail.”).

Reno closes the book with two more chapters.  The first, “Seek Higher Things,” counsels a rejection of both Social Darwinism and Epicurean materialism, both of which reject the idea that there are higher truths to serve—namely, they reject the unique Christian focus on love, which leads to commitment to others (and to God).  This is the closest the book comes to an explicitly Christian emphasis, to the exclusion of other thought.  The second, “The Possibility of a Christian Society,” addresses the obvious question of whether this is all a pipe dream (to which most people today would reflexively say “yes”).  Reno makes the not uncommon, but very Pollyannaish, argument that statistically there may be fewer active Christians, but that many who said in the past they were Christian did so on cultural grounds, and the number of believing, practicing Christians is much the same.  He argues that according to a University of Virginia study, roughly 20% of American families are “Faithful”—i.e., orthodox Christians.  They are now the cultural periphery, rather than the establishment.  Reno says his “book is essentially an argument that [the establishment] is failing, that it promises freedom, but delivers tyranny,” and therefore the “establishment is vulnerable, very vulnerable.”

But vulnerable to what?  Reno’s answer is, vaguely, “a religious counterculture,” of speaking the truth with charity and hospitality, presumably generated by the 20% who are Faithful.  This is not satisfying.  And it is symptomatic of this genre of books on Christian societal renewal—they are mostly long on history and melancholy, and short on mechanisms for reforging the future in fire and iron, metaphorical or otherwise.  Even the best of the lot, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which is chock full of specific and practical recommendations, as well as having the clearest analysis, does not offer a clear path from small, but vibrant, Christian communities to macro societal renewal.  Such a course may make the ground more fertile, but it does not plant the ground itself.

It seems to me that what all of these “Christian renewal” writers fail to identify is an actual mechanism by which a Christian society, rather than its mere idea, can be resurrected.  That is, they describe the characteristics of such a society, and how it would differ from today’s society, but they do not say how to get from here to there.  And getting from here to there is everything.

So what would the mechanics of a real Christian renewal look like, and how would it be accomplished?  That’s a large topic, but its basic outlines are simple.  All renewals, in the sense of upheavals followed by a new normal, are created by the confluence of multiple things that come together at precisely the right moment.  If we focus on modern societies that have gone through such a process, whether based in actual religion (the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Great Awakening) or pseudo-religion (late 18th and early 19th Century France; 20th Century Europe more than once), we see what they have in common is, indeed, preceding “disorientation” in multiple manifestations, but they also have a catalyst, gathering the threads together and creating rapid, lasting, organized change where before there was merely stuttering incoherence.  In human terms, what that usually means is a leader, along the lines of, as Churchill described him, the “incandescent” Lenin.  No Lenin, no 20th Century Russia, and a very different 20th Century.  No Jonathan Edwards, no Great Awakening.  Similarly, no Person Yet To Be Determined, no Christian renewal, regardless of how much time is spent talking about the need for that renewal.

That’s not to say Lenin was admirable.  Lenin looked like Satan and the resemblance was fitting.  But his was a pseudo-religion, and we can presume that our Person Yet To Be Determined is a practicing and believing Christian, whose goal is actual Christian renewal.  And thus what Christian renewal needs is both a commitment to renewal by a non-trivial number of Christians and this man of destiny.  Maybe he is like St. Ignatius, or St. Francis, or a Christian version of (the fictional) Paul Atreides—a man who seizes the time and molds it to the service of a new religious idea, which here is simply an old idea made new.  We cannot predict this, any aspect of it, and it is a fool’s game to try, for such men are only visible in hindsight, limned by the arclight of their deeds.  Like the Corsican corporal, or the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation (yes, I have a thing for science fiction), they erupt from nowhere, defying predictability, seemingly called forth from the earth, as if from sown dragon’s teeth.  And, of course, this path is fraught with dangers, including the very real risk of false prophets, for those who seek prophets are easily deluded by con men.  But if there is to be a Christian renewal, this is the only path.  None of this is to denigrate Reno’s call for more Christian participation in the public square; or Dreher’s call for the Benedict Option, for keeping the faith alive and passing it on; or Chaput’s call for hope and Christian demonstration.  All these things are essential, but none will come to full fruit without a spark to set it alight, and it is that for which Christians should stay cautiously alert, for a year or for an age.


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