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The (Ever More) Naked Public Square

The eminent sociologist Peter Berger looks at some recent legal cases in the US and Europe involving Christianity and Christians, and notices something:

In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule.

This is an important point. We are told, endlessly, that the increasing marginalization of religion in public life is simply a matter of the state taking a neutral position with regard toward religion. It only appears this way if you believe in the separation of church and life — that is, that religion is strictly a private matter.

Berger again:

An aggressive secularism seems to be on the march in all these cases. It seems more at home in Europe, which is far more secularized than America. Even in the United Kingdom, it seems, the drums of the French Revolution still reverberate. But how is one to explain this sort of secularism in the United States? The “nones”—that is, those who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation by pollsters—are a very mixed lot. One theme that comes through is disappointment with organized religion. There is an anti-Christian edge to this, since Christian churches continue to be the major religious institutions in this country. Disappointment then, or disillusion—but why the aggressive hostility? There is yet another theme that comes through in the survey data: An identification of churches (and that means mainly Christian ones) with intolerance and repression. I think that this is significant.

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

It will not surprise you that I believe Berger is not only correct, but that his observation is highly significant. Philip Rieff, of course, saw it all coming back at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. (Incidentally, the best Mars Hill Audio Journal ever, in my view, was Volume 82, which explored Rieff’s views.) George Scialabba has a concise critical introduction to Rieff’s views in the Boston Review. Excerpt:

Human possibilities are limitless; about this he seemed to agree with Freud’s liberationist successors. But what excited them terrified him—and, he claimed, everyone else, at least before the triumph of the therapeutic ethos. Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist—his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions—the primal self is “in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness” and must be mastered by “unalterable authority.” For if “everything could be expressed by everyone identically,” then “nothing would remain to be expressed individually.” Hence the “irreducible and supreme activity of culture” is to “prevent the expression of everything,” thereby precluding “the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.”

For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.

But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate. Rieff’s second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), raised the alarm about their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” A society without hierarchy, whose members “cannot conceive any salvation other than amplitude in living itself,” must end in moral squalor, chaos, anomie, and universal boredom.

The problem with all this, as Scialabba identifies, is that Rieff, who was an unbeliever, never says how this necessary authority is to be identified and accepted. Nobody believes in a god because it is good for them, or good for society. If they do, they will believe in that god only to the extent that he or she reflects their own desires. A god that ratifies your own sentiments and sanctifies your own desires is no god at all, but a divine butler. This god certainly has no power to bind and instruct.

A Christian god who overturns 2,000 years of clear, coherent moral instruction about sexual conduct to embrace a radically anti-Christian ideal of sex and sexuality is not a god who has power to bind and instruct. He is a false god, in my view, and any church that throws over the God of the Bible for the god of this age is apostate. It’s not that Christians have consistently obeyed Biblical teaching about sex and sexuality; obviously we haven’t. It’s rather that there was, until the latter half of the last century, widespread general agreement about the standard to which we were all called. That’s gone now, and we are now living through, and will continue for some time to live through, a time of culling, in which we see which churches are collaborationist, and which ones will resist.

Berger is quite right that we will not soon see a reversal in the new sexual culture. He is also right that the battle lines over religious liberty are drawn on the front lines of the Sexual Revolution.

But Walter Russell Mead says progressives aren’t necessarily achieving the victories they think they are, and that their revolution won’t neatly push traditional Christianity out of the public square as much as it will turn the public square into a legal free-for-all. Excerpt:

Where we disagree with Berger, then, is that the conflict over public morality isn’t a cage match between a unified Christian body and a unified secular movement. Society is becoming so diverse that any civil law on marriage will coincide with fewer people’s beliefs about what the law should be. This breakdown of cultural consensus is going to haunt American jurisprudence and political discourse for the foreseeable future.

But Berger is right that traditional Christian teachings on sex are, rightly or wrongly, driving hostility to Christianity.

Again, the important thing for traditional Christians and other Abrahamic traditionalists to know is that this isn’t going to be turned around anytime soon, and in fact will get much worse before it gets better. The wise will retreat to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other communities in which the moral life as we understand it can be lived and preserved across the generations through the present Dark Age.

[Note from Rod: Remember, readers, that once again I will be tied up in a recording studio all day, working on the audiobook version of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. I will be able to approve comments on my lunch break, and then again after I return home this evening. Please be patient. — RD]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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