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The End of American Civic Christianity

A First Things colloquium takes measure of America's emerging post-Christian social and legal order

Nearly a year ago, Patrick Deneen published an important essay here in TAC, saying that the only really important discussion in American Catholicism today is between the John Courtney Murray-style Catholics (e.g., Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel) and the more radical Catholics (e.g., David Schindler). That inspired a First Things magazine symposium last fall, in which I participated. Here’s the main paper, from Michael Hanby. If you read nothing else in this post, read the Hanby paper. Excerpts:

There are important debates about how and why the liberal order has attained this dangerous, all-encompassing absolutism. Patrick Deneen evokes its main contours in his American Conservative article “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” He describes a debate between “radical” Catholicism and “neoconservative” Catholicism. The neoconservative Catholic often draws attention to a progressive fall from classical liberalism, while the radical Catholic sees our current crisis as the outworking of liberalism’s deepest premises. Not surprisingly, therefore, the radical Catholic thinks it necessary to engage liberal order in a fundamental, ontological critique, while the neoconservative Catholic settles for a moral, sociological, legal, or political approach. He thinks energies are best spent recalling America to its founding principles, in hopes of preserving the dwindling space of freedom for Christians in the public square. The radical Catholic is more likely to counsel preparing for the day when filing another lawsuit is no longer enough. The same contrasts play out among Protestants, largely along the same lines.

This is a debate worth having, for it addresses fundamental questions about the structure of being, the nature of human beings, and the relations between nature and grace, faith and reason, and the political and ecclesial orders. I am inclined toward the “radical Catholic” side of this debate, convinced that unless and until we engage in a thorough reassessment of the metaphysical and crypto-theological conceits of liberalism, we will find ourselves coopted by it, unwittingly serving its project even as we bemoan and increasingly are afflicted by its excesses.

Hanby says the outworking of the sexual revolution in American life is more radical than many suppose:

This rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-­defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.

Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.

This is not to say that Christians should disengage or retreat, the usual misinterpretation of the so-called Benedict Option. There is no ground to retreat to, for the liberal order claims unlimited jurisdiction and permits no outside. We do not have the option of choosing our place within it if we wish to remain Christian. We cannot avoid the fact that this new philosophy, once it is fully instantiated, will in all likelihood deprive Christians of effective participation in the public square.Hobby Lobby notwithstanding, appeals to religious liberty, conceived as the freedom to put one’s idiosyncratic beliefs into practice with minimal state interference, are not likely to fare well over the long haul as these beliefs come to seem still more idiosyncratic, as religious practice comes into conflict with more “fundamental” rights, and as the state’s mediation of familial relations becomes ever more intrusive. And attempts to restore religious freedom to its proper philosophical place, as something like the sine qua non of freedom itself, presuppose just the view of human nature and reason that our post-Christian liberalism rejects from the outset.

To say that the civic project of American Christianity is at an end is not to say that it will simply cease, however. There will no doubt be those who continue to fight on, like Japanese holdouts after the Second World War, unaware that the war is over. And they should carry on in some fashion, doomed though the civic project may be. Religious freedom is worth defending after all, even in its flawed liberal sense, and Hobby Lobby shows us that it is still possible to win some battles while losing the war. Moreover, if liberalism is indeed absolute, so that there is no longer any outside, then a contest of rights is really the only ground on which liberal public reason will permit itself to be publicly engaged.

Hanby endorses some aspects of the Benedict Option:

Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.

This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.

A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.

Read the whole thing. In response, here’s a case for the Benedict Option, taken from my paper. Excerpt:

As Smith told an audience at Princeton Theological Seminary,it is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

Some of us will live to see the day when orthodox Christians will be considered exotic antiques at best—I think of the benign indifference with which many Europeans regard Christianity today—and threats to decency at worst, potentially harmful individuals who must be driven out of public life. In either case, Hanby is correct: The civic project of American Christianity has come to an end, for how can we produce Christian civic life when we are not producing authentic Christians?

This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-­century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited.

Put bluntly, given the dynamics of our rapidly changing culture, I believe it will be increasingly difficult to be a good Christian and a good American. It is far more important to me to preserve the faith than to preserve liberal democracy and the American order. Ideally, there should not be a contradiction, but again, the realities of post-Christian America challenge our outdated ideals.

In our time, the Benedict Option does not offer a formula (at least not yet), but it does call for a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in the ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization, and tasked with preserving the living faith through the coming Dark Ages.

In some instances, Benedict-Option Christians may seek to found new neighborhoods centered on communal worship. I think of the traditionalist Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, or of the Orthodox community around St. John Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Contrary to the claims of Benedict-Option critics, neither community is utopian and separatist, shunning the outside world.

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture. These must be institutions that fulfill Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that you have to push back as hard against the world as the world pushes against you.

George Weigel’s response to Hanby says we are now living in what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.” Excerpt:


First, as I argued at some length in Evangelical Catholicism, the Church must discipline its public witness by resisting the temptation to comment on virtually every contested issue of public policy and by focusing primary attention on two key issues: the life issues and religious freedom. These are the points of maximum confrontation with the dictatorship of relativism; vigorously and doggedly contesting for life and for religious freedom in full can reopen the necessary public conversation about the moral and cultural bases of democratic order. And in that conversation, America could be reminded that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain habits of the mind and heart, to make the machinery of democracy work so that the net result is human flourishing, not human degradation. Advances on those fronts just might, as well, reopen the public conversation about the nature of freedom, offering opportunities to challenge the debasement of freedom into willfulness (license) and reconnecting freedom to the true and the good.

Second, as we press ahead on these priority issues, however, the leadership of the Church (which is not confined to those in holy orders) must also begin to prepare the people of the Church for the real possibility of a season of persecution. This means “equipping the saints” to be twenty-first-century apologists who can (pace Pope Francis) offer compassionate aid to the walking wounded of postmodern society, explain the truths about the human person that the Church believes are essential to a truly human political community, and, if necessary, hold fast to Gospel-based Christian moral convictions even if that means professional or economic distress. It is still possible, at the moment, to play good defense here, both in terms of public policy and in legally defending Church-based institutions from the assault of the dictatorship of relativism. But while playing good defense (and going on offense on the priority issues noted above), the Church must also be prepared to cut the tether to government funding when that funding requires compromise on (or abandonment of) core truths about the human person; to create parallel and self-funded educational, health-care, and social-service agencies and institutions where conscientious Christian professionals can exercise their vocations for the benefit of all and where the recipients of those services can be assured of their safety (physical and moral); and to support, in various ways, those believers who come directly into the line of fire of the dictatorship of relativism.

Read the whole thing.

Russ Hittinger was at that symposium, and after listening to all of us talk, said something I found especially insightful. He found that the older people around the table — those 50 and older, say — who had been raised with Murrayism still seemed to believe that the public order could be saved, despite the direness of the moment. Those younger people — including Catholic scholars — had a more radical view of what could be saved, and what could not. To put it more bluntly than it probably should be, if the question is, “Can you be both a good Christian, and a good American?”, the answer is increasingly looking like no, you cannot.

The unified view, as I recall, was that we are no longer living in normal times for American Christians, and they (we) had better wake up and understand which way the wind is blowing, and adjust.