“Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” — Matthew 25:45
R.R. Reno is, of course, the estimable successor to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus as the editor of First Things. He has brought his own insightful voice to the center of that journal while maintaining the rich intellectual content established under Fr. Neuhaus’s influential reign. Reno’s essays in First Things have been working out, with an uncommon lucidity, an understanding of the crisis in morality and our political order. In his impressive new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Reno develops these ideas and provides a sustained investigation into the Christian role in American political life in a way that invariably instructs and often inspires.
Invoking T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society, a collection of lectures that was published in 1939 during the civilizational crisis of totalitarianism, Reno asks the same basic question that Eliot posed: “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” The world has changed vastly since Eliot wrote, but the essential question remains.
“The leitmotif,” Reno writes, “throughout these pages is the need to restore genuine freedom.” That restoration requires an accurate diagnosis of what our problems are. It is here that Reno clears away the confusion that mars political understanding for all but especially for Christians and puts his finger precisely on the matter: “Today’s progressivism is waging a war on the weak. Putting an end to that war is the most important social justice issue of our time.”
Before pushing out into the deep of his analysis, Reno states his animating premise: “A society encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained.” But he also quick to add a critical qualification: “This does not mean ‘establishing’ Christianity but speaking up in the public square as Christians.” Or as he phrases later in the book: “I can only describe the idea of a Christian society, a national culture not dominated by Christians but leavened by them.”
The nub of Reno’s critique—and this understanding is what makes him an indispensable commentator—is succinctly stated: “No social crisis of our time is more profound than this disregard—to the point of disdain—for the moral needs of the vulnerable. Official ideologies of ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ and ‘nonjudgmentalism’ are not oriented toward the ‘marginal.’ They serve high achievers, the meritocrats, the comfortable people who have the social and financial capital to navigate this moral deregulation and protect themselves from its dangerous consequences. The progressive cultural politics on the march today is at odds with the Bible’s fundamental social principle: ‘Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked’ (Psalm 82:4).”
Reno draws extensively on Charles Murray’s debate-defining 2012 study Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. He uses Murray’s striking contrast between Fishtown, a white working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, and Belmont, a fictional upper-class community in the affluent Boston suburbs. The latter’s moral progressivism has served them well enough but brought moral catastrophe to the residents of Fishtown. Here, Reno is very effective in illustrating the grim consequences when morality “trickles down,” for “what trickles down from lifestyle freedom is dysfunction, disorder, and disarray.” Reno is trenchant in advancing examples of this devastation:
The campaign to legalize doctor-assisted suicide promotes death with ‘dignity.’ It’s a rich man’s luxury, a soft landing for the high achiever who’s been the pilot of his own life. Someone who’s used to getting his way feels entitled to determine the circumstances of his death. It seems a benevolent extension of freedom. Who is harmed? But cultural change affects everyone, and there are costs paid by others. Between 2005 and 2015, suicide among adults age thirty-five to sixty-four increased nearly 30 percent. Oregon, the first state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, saw the greatest increase – a 50 percent rise from 1999 to 2010. Trickle-down culture can be deadly.
Moral libertarianism is a doctrine that by and large benefits the powerful, and its proponents are oblivious to—and in some cases coldly indifferent to—how a deconstructed moral order harms the struggling denizens of Fishtown, as Reno sets out with a deft rhetorical touch:
Can we begin to count the academic feminists who demand ever-greater freedom from sex roles? Whose freedom does this serve? Certainly not the men and women of Fishtown. The present concern for transgender rights amounts to a mass hysteria. Normally sane liberals seem unable to resist demands that boys who identify as girls be permitted to use female locker rooms. Again, whose freedom does this serve? Certainly not the men and women of Fishtown. And what about new reproductive freedoms? Surrogacy? Sperm banks? These are the preoccupations of the One Percent. The same goes for the new freedom for men to marry men, and women to marry women, or for people to end their lives, or for women to terminate their pregnancies. Today’s culture warriors on the left trumpet their commitment to justice, but they lord it over the weak, redefining our public culture in countless ways, claiming to serve the marginalized but always empowering those adept at post-conventional enhanced codes – which is to say, themselves.
With this context defined, Reno then outlines how we can move toward a Christian society. In his discussion on the impoverished, he rightly invokes the preferential option for the poor. Reno persuasively advances the case for the assertion of moral standards as integral to the doctrine. (“A preferential option for the poor demands ‘judgmentalism,’ which is to say, the courage to speak forthrightly about right and wrong.”) He also pushes aside the numbing obsession with diversity in favor of a vastly sturdier and socially more beneficial goal of solidarity. (“A Christian society recognizes the importance of solidarity. . . . To love our neighbor we need to love our neighborhood.”)
Reno’s chapter on limiting government is suffused with good sense drawn right from the heart of Catholic social doctrine. The principle of subsidiarity is central to this view, and Reno concentrates on the essential role of mediating institutions. Their absence creates a void that is filled with the dramatic expansion of government in everyday lives of the poor. “Progressives think that troubled cities like Baltimore suffer from too little investment in social programs and urban redevelopment,” Reno contends. “But poor neighborhoods in Baltimore are dysfunctional because there are no functional local institutions. Even the churches, once the backbone of poor black communities, are weakened. The institutions with which the poor interact are almost entirely governmental – public schools, health and welfare agencies, and, of course, the police, the courts, and the prison system.” This is an obvious truth; there is no plainer sign of the cowardice of our political class that it is so rarely spoken.
Reno argues that government is best limited both from below and from above. From below, government is checked by a vital culture of marriage: “Without the guardrails of a strong culture of marriage, the interventions of social workers, welfare officials, and police officers provide regulation and support. Political power replaces moral authority.”
Christianity provides the real challenge to government power from above. Christians are required to bring their faith into the public square, and to the extent that they do Caesar is—or at least his worst impulses are—cabined. But there are two competing views of religious freedom before us today, one that welcomes Christianity into the public square and the other that emphatically does not. The left endorses a private view of religious freedom: believers enjoy liberty within their churches to believe what they want and pray as they wish, but that liberty extends no further than the church door and certainly not in any consequential way into the public square. By contrast, for Christians this liberty must include a place, protected in law, in the public square. Reno notes that Jesus “commands us to seek out our neighbor and serve him.” To the extent that Christians are in the public square working out this command, the reach of government is limited.
The American public square grows less and less hospitable to Christian claims by the day. Nevertheless, Christians are called to engage the great questions of our time, particularly those involving our most vulnerable citizens. Reno’s short but very potent book provides the intellectual framework for how that mandate ought to be understood.
Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
by R.R. Reno
Regnery Faith, Washington, DC
Hardcover, 215 pages