In today’s America, as in other countries like it, people of faith are facing a question of critical importance: How should they respond to a dominant secular culture that’s not just hostile to their beliefs but bent on forcing them to conform to its values and, not incidentally, winning the allegiance of their children?
Fresh attention to this question has lately been stimulated by the publication of three much-discussed books: Strangers in a Strange Land by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia (Henry Holt), The Benedict Option by conservative writer Rod Dreher (Sentinel), and Out of the Ashes by Providence College professor Anthony Esolen (Regnery).
In fact, the problem has been waiting to explode for years.
As far back as 1870 ornery Orestes Brownson, the leading American Catholic public intellectual of the 19th century, grumbled prophetically: “Instead of regarding the Church as having advantages here [in America] which she has nowhere else… . I think the Church has never encountered a social & political order so hostile to her.”
Time passed, and as change set in, other farsighted individuals began to share Brownson’s dark vision. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., saw the problem taking shape in his 1960 classic We Hold These Truths. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre dissected it at length in his seminal volume After Virtue, first published in 1981. Since then others, the present writer among them, have discussed it many times.
Now, it seems, recognition of the problem has become all but unavoidable. Hence the note of urgency in the Chaput, Dreher, and Esolen books. Particularly alarming has been the fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision which came as a belated wakeup call alerting people of faith to the precariousness of their situation.
It’s not just that in Obergefell the court redefined marriage while legalizing same-sex marriage. Even worse, a majority of Americans appeared to welcome the arrival of gay marriage, even as the secular state demonstrated its determination to quash dissent, starting with wedding cake bakers and florists but in time likely moving on to the rest of us.
Next on the agenda are transgender rights, now being promoted by media like the New York Times and Washington Post with the same ideological fervor they brought to selling gay marriage before Obergefell.
All this is happening, furthermore, at a time when religious practice and church affiliation are in decline in America. As of last September, 23% of U.S. adults called themselves atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” in religious terms, double the number in the 1980s..
Confronted with this state of affairs, religious Americans have limited options. One of these is cultural assimilation: abandoning the fight and adopting the secular world view. Large numbers of Catholics, to speak only of them, have done that and others are moving in the same direction. That unhappily includes very many young people.
The positive options are overlapping and must be pursued simultaneously. Continuing to fight the culture war is one, since this is a war that must be fought as a matter or principle. Creating a new subculture grounded in religious values and organized around faith-based institutions is another, and this already can be seen happening here and there. The third option is to make the new subculture a source and setting for a serious effort to form the faithful for the evangelization of secular culture by the witness of their lives.
Archbishop Chaput writes; “That work belongs to all of us equally: clergy, laity, and religious.” So it does. It’s the Christian vocation.