The title of Rusty Reno’s new book will sound to some like an outlandish reactionary gambit in light of the United States’ recent political turmoil. Some—both cheerleaders and critics— will mistakenly hear it as a nostalgic plea for the recovery of “Christian America.” Others will dismiss it as a last gasp of a “Christian Right” that refuses to let go of power. Still others will disregard it as a fool’s errand hoping to turn back the clock on secularization.
All of them would be wrong, I think.
Reno, of course, is alluding to T.S. Eliot’s essay that also proposed “the idea of a Christian society.” What Reno shares with Eliot is primarily a diagnosis: both point out the empty shrine that stands behind the curtain of contemporary liberal societies. Both see the insatiable drive for autonomy as the last sacred ideal in a world where a vague liberalism is the only creed. The progressive erosion of traditional mores, norms, and taboos all happens under the banner of “liberation,” the watchword of the cult of self-expression. As an example, Reno focuses on the new malleability of gender as an attempt to be liberated from nature itself. “Nothing determines our destiny, not even our biology,” goes the mantra. “Our futures must be ours alone to make,” as Reno summarizes it before encapsulating the implication: “If we really can live in a way free from our maleness and femaleness, then the horizon of our freedom is almost limitless.” But unsurprisingly, he has his doubts about such revolutionary idealism that treats human nature as a blank slate: “A unisex culture might be logical,” he notes, “but it’s also unnatural and therefore more difficult to achieve.”
If “progressivism now seeks freedom from human nature itself,” Reno points out, then we “need to understand that these developments have sprung from the American dream of freedom.” If Christian conservatives in the United States are worried about a coming reign of terror, they can’t restrict blame to the infamous 60s. Autonomism is the fruit of seeds planted in the Revolution. And to his credit, Reno sees within this dream an inherent risk. “Anti-Americanism,” Reno rightly points out, “is a kind of hyper- Americanism.” The multicultural ideals that lament the looming constraints of American values and interests are another form of the revolutionary overthrow of constraints that gave birth to America. This is why we eat our own.
Yet Reno doesn’t recognize how the Right has played out a similar libertarian trajectory. While the Left has amplified the liberationist project with respect to social mores and traditional morality, the Right has undertaken its own revolutionary demolishment of constraints on capitalism, industry, and the economic habits that shaped earlier expressions of market practices. It’s precisely when the Right effectively sacralized the free market that it also turned it into an idol and fetishized “freedom” in a different form. Reno rightly notes that poverty isn’t just a matter of economic lack but moral disempowerment. “Today,” he emphasizes, “those who care about the teachings of Jesus must reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: its deepest and most destructive effects, its most serious deprivations, are not economic but moral. Many people below the poverty line have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and other goodies of our consumer society. In a rich nation like ours, even if you’re at the bottom, you still have a lot of stuff. But life is nevertheless impoverished” because the ways of life that fostered wholeness—marriage and family, church and guild—have been trumped by the atomizing forces of consumption. To be poor today isn’t to lack air conditioning, but to lack dignity, agency, power. His analysis, however, tends to underestimate how much the so-called conservative package of supply-side, small-government economics has also contributed to this moral impoverishment. The villain who gets the most stage time in this book is the swelling state not the unbridled market. (Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic is more willing to name this corrosion from the “right,” so to speak.)
It shouldn’t be surprising that Eliot’s and Reno’s constructive proposals for a “Christian society” differ somewhat given Eliot’s English establishment Anglicanism and Reno’s American Catholicism. There is no wistful nostalgia for Italian city-states here, or the kind of Romantic pining for the Anglican shire that can sometimes characterize similar British projects. Reno is not simply manning the ramparts of the religious Right or looking to secure the rights of Christians in a move of in-group selfinterest. Rather, he frames this as a concern for the common good, and even more specifically as a concern for the vulnerable. The prospect of a “Christian society” isn’t just for Christians, but for the “least of these.” “Today’s progressivism is waging a war on the weak,” Reno says. “Putting an end to that war is the most important social justice issue of our time.” In this respect, there’s also not much that is terribly original here either. Anyone who’s been reading Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, Jody Bottum, Yuval Levin, or Bradford Wilcox will find Reno’s book to be a journalistic summation of their recent contributions.
I was hoping the original contribution that Reno, a theologian, would bring to this conversation would be an argument for a robust role for the church in society. But Reno seems more interested in Christianity than the church, more concerned with Christian social thought than congregations. It’s telling that Reno’s proposal is to resurrect the idea of Christian society. Indeed, there is a kind of intellectualism about Reno’s project: the social renewal he imagines stems from the ideas and arguments that Christians can and ought to contribute to our public discourse—as if the resuscitation of solidarity and the common good would be the conclusion to a national argument. Thus Reno regularly calls for Christians to “speak up” for the necessity of “restoring our voices as Christian citizens.” While he should be commended for encouraging Christians to speak into public discourse from the specificity of their Christian convictions, the problems that Reno diagnoses will not be solved with ideas. North American society hasn’t been argued into its egoism; we haven’t embraced the cult of independence because we were convinced by Lockean apologetics. Our autonomism is caught more than it is taught. What we have here is not a logos problem but an ethos deficiency. And you can’t fix that with the right ideas or argument.
What we’re witnessing is the erosion of habitus, the cultural scaffolding that sustained healthy, meaningful, even prosperous lives in the past. It’s not just that society needs to be convinced by Christian ideas; it needs to be upheld and supported by the habits we used to learn in the church.
This is where Reno’s endeavour might find a surprising assist in the work of Matthew Crawford, and specifically his notion of “cultural jigs.” In The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford names exactly what Reno laments: “The left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives. This created a vacuum of cultural authority that has been filled, with attentional landscapes that get installed by whatever ‘choice architect’ brings the most energy to the task—usually because it sees the profit potential.”
In fact, Crawford shares with Reno a particular concern that the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable. As Crawford puts it, “The combined effect of these liberating and deregulating efforts of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.” Similarly, Reno observes that in our “pursuit of post-conventional freedoms we have destroyed the old systems of positional control, leaving adrift the poorly educated and those who lack the skills to navigate the post-conventional seas.”
But in that case, surely the solution isn’t to ask the poor and poorly educated to master another set of “Christian” ideas as a solution. That doesn’t mean Christian contributions to policy formation are unimportant; it simply means that even more important are communities of practice that invite people to live in ways that bring health and life because their patterns run with the grain of the universe. Admittedly, this likely demands a renewal of the church and a realization of the extent to which we’ve given ourselves over to the cult of autonomy and self-expression. (If your congregation is worried about “authenticity,” it might be too late.)
Reno provides an example of this, even if he never avails himself of Crawford’s language of “jigs.”
As an example of an ill-considered imposition of the personal, enhanced code on the working class, [anthropologist Mary] Douglas cited the decision of the English Catholic bishops in the 1960s to lift the requirement of abstaining from meat on Fridays in favor of a discipline personally chosen by each of the faithful. For Irish Catholics in England, Friday abstinence had been an important identity marker, buttressing their sense of cultural integrity in a historically inhospitable Protestant society. The progressive elites of the church, seeking a more “modern” and “intentional” form of Catholicism, heedlessly undermined the system of social control that suited working-class Catholics and gave their lives dignity.
As Crawford might describe it, the bishops demolished a cultural jig. A formative discipline that fostered virtues and character was displaced from the surrounding social architecture and moved inward, to an individual choice, a matter of executive function. While that might sound like “liberation” to those who have much of the rest of their world managed for them, for those who inhabit spaces already tenuous, having one more thing to think about is almost a certain way to assure it is abandoned. Now consider the effects of demolishing other cultural jigs through no-fault divorce, easy credit, and even the demonization of any social stigma. As the “ecology of attention” (Crawford) becomes more and more taxed, we become more and more like the carpenter who measures every single stud for the wall: mistakes are bound to happen.
But what does a “Christian” intervention look like in such a society? To be sure, we need to argue for a different understanding of freedom, make a case for more humane policy, and bear witness to the insights of revelation in the marketplace of ideas. But concurrently, and perhaps even more fundamentally, we need to contribute to the rebuilding of our social architecture, which means tangibly rebuilding the jigs that liberate us from independence. It will look like churches and synagogues and mosques becoming formational centres that rejig the “ecology of attention” for their members in such a way that they start to get attention from (and give attention to) their neighbours. It will look like Christian communities ramping up expectations about fidelity and thrift, teaching parents how to have authority and CEOs how to care about more than the bottom line. Indeed, this endeavour might also depend on the scandal of evangelism and mission, expanding the circle of those who live with the jigs of the Spirit given to us in the sacraments and disciplines of the body of Christ.
As Reno himself notes in conclusion, this might not be as ludicrous as it sounds. “Establishments always seem impregnable,” he cautions, “but we shouldn’t overestimate the strength of the post-Protestant WASP culture” that has migrated to become the PC orthodoxies of the “liberating” elite. (Reno surely owes a begrudged footnote to Bottum’s Anxious Age on this point.) On Reno’s account, post-Protestant WASP culture is failing: it “promises freedom, but delivers tyranny.” The cracks are showing in this seemingly dominant, secularist regime that likes to believe it has history on its side: “what looks like an invincible establishment is vulnerable, very vulnerable,” Reno suggests.
While some lament the onslaught of progressivism and are ready to follow Benedict to the compound in Norcia, Reno rightly sees an opportunity to shape a wider public, not just resist being shaped by it. “Soulcraft is more important than statecraft,” he reminds us. “Our ambition is not to become the next establishment but to influence, directly and indirectly, the moral and spiritual outlook of the current one, turning it in directions that promote the wellbeing of everyone.” As such, “we owe our neighbors, Christian or not, a faithful witness to the truth, even if it provokes controversy.” But let’s not fall into the error of imagining this as merely a contest of ideas. “To build a civilization of love” that Reno rightly calls for is equally—and even more importantly— about building communities of Christian practice that provide the scaffolding, the jigs, that relieve both the malaise and the burden of unfettered freedom, showing our neighbours how to live in the grooves of creaturely flourishing. The society we save might be our own.