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In Defense of Cultural Christianity

As liberalism falters, the vestigial religious practices of post-Christian cultures could become functional parts of Christian politics once again.

A European politician, known to cohabit with his girlfriend out of wedlock, triumphantly waves a rosary at a political rally. Another European leader, who presides over a deeply secularized post-Communist society, uses state funds to restore churches and religious orders dispossessed by the former regime, though he pointedly disagrees with the pope on some issues. Still another European politico champions Christianity as the foundation of her nation’s identity; she recently remarried. Across the Atlantic, an American politician waves a copy of the Good Book outside a church targeted by race rioters, but he can’t say to whom the Bible belongs when pressed, and in the past, he has drawn guffaws for quoting “Two Corinthians.”

We are alluding, of course, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, France’s Marion Maréchal, and America’s Donald Trump. None is exactly popular among trans-Atlantic liberals. But even many U.S. conservatives are suspicious of how these and other populist figures relate their politics to the Christian faith. Salvini’s rosary beads, Orbán’s and Maréchal’s talk of Christian identity, and Trump’s literal Bible-thumping raise the specter of cultural Christianity—of religion supposedly divested of the element of faith, deployed to secular ends.

Cultural Christianity, according to this line of thinking, is insincere and hypocritical, tawdry and chauvinistic. Amid liberalism’s intensifying aggressions against Christianity, critics on the left and right insist that the faith must not be dragged into the political arena. They would sooner have the faithful retreat into the catacombs than “politicize” Church teachings.

The critics’ charges are false, their claims utterly alien to the great commission of historic Christianity. Intending to safeguard the purity of sincere faith, they in fact propose an unpardonable abdication of responsibility that owes more to an individualized, privatized and modernized account of the faith than to anything in the tradition. Cultural Christianity has dominated the Western world for the better part of two millennia, and we believe it is very much worth defending once more.

Historic Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, is a mass, public religion, and it has ever sought to encompass civilization. From the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus of Nazareth was drawn to the company of the masses, to weddings and funerals and other scenes expressing the ordinary joys, aspirations, and sorrows of ordinary people. We must not forget that even as the crowds turned against him when his teaching got hard, and even as they voted to crucify him, it was precisely the masses he sought, and seeks, to save.

In the Church’s early years, Christians faced intense persecution for their faith in the crucified God-Man; their ranks gradually swelled, all the same. The martyrs became heroes of an emergent Christian order that the Roman Empire simply couldn’t suppress. Then, suddenly, Christianity had the legal support of the emperor Constantine, and the Christian share of the Roman population exploded. As the eminent French patrologist and Vatican II peritus Jean Daniélou argued, Christianity didn’t become something different in the aftermath of the Constantinian conversion. Rather, the faith became “more fully itself.”

Despite the brief rebellion of Julian the Apostate, there was something unstoppable about the universal expansion of Christianity throughout the known world—something the emperor Theodosius ratified in the late fourth century by stamping out the last vestiges of paganism and ruling that the justice of Rome would be united to the true religion of Christianity.

Yet even as the universal nature of Christianity was becoming evident within the very order of this world, even as a surge of souls rushed the ark of the Church, and even as emperors funded new basilicas and shrines, the public conversion of empire didn’t mean that every single Christian would have been blessed with a profound and spiritual faith. Christianization entailed something structural, embodied, material. It entailed cultural Christianization. This didn’t guarantee the salvation of every soul, but it laid down structures that made such a thing easier. What emerged was something profoundly public: a Christian people.

The civilizational anxiety that followed the sack of Rome in A.D. 410 did nothing to change this trajectory, even though many Romans blamed Christianity for Roman decline. Saint Augustine welcomed the challenge. He emphatically wasn’t prepared to return to the catacombs, nor did he yearn for a church radically “purified” to the size of a mustard seed. Augustine proposed, rather, the “picture of the Church as a net in which all sorts of fish are caught, where the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels, not for men,” as Daniélou put it. This certainly raised a new set of challenges, such as how to correct heretics and how to deal with the relatively new problem of “the middling Christian.” But Augustine never wavered from the view that the expansion of Christianity with the assistance of temporal power belonged to the very providence of God.

While the bishop of Hippo celebrated the spiritual achievements of Christian leaders, most notably Theodosius’ penance, Augustine did not disdain the apparently “political” conversions of Roman elites. They, like the newly Christianized masses, benefited from efficacious sacraments and were now charged with upholding a humanely Christian order, even if they often did so only in the breach—a reality not lost on the supremely realistic Augustine. As the empire disintegrated around him, Augustine continued to insist that it is the alliance of justice and true religion that gives peace to both the soul and the city, as the Theodosian Code and later medieval Christendom, in fact, did.

The thoroughly anti-gnostic Augustine, moreover, viewed Catholic cultural Christianity as an elongation of the Incarnation. It was its incarnational, anti-gnostic realism about our social and political nature that lent the Christian order of Europe its radiant vitality, its longevity and strength. The sacramental imagination illumined culture with a vision of God’s active presence in time: in sacraments, in material culture, in feasting and fasting, in the structure of time itself. The result was a culture that can be inhabited and enjoyed even today.

The same couldn’t be said for deracinated, gnostic deformations of Christianity. These can’t sustain a true cultural Christianity, precisely because both the “Christianity” and the culture it engenders are immaterial, disembodied, individualistic—which is to say, perfectly suited to liberal order.

In our time, the ruling class of liberals treats Christianity as useful only to the degree that it recapitulates the flabby global humanitarianism to which the European tradition of Christian democracy has been reduced. As long as President Biden supports unrestricted abortion rights and climate action, the media do everything short of surrounding him with a halo—though public religion was treated as a dangerous threat throughout Trump’s presidency. Meanwhile, right liberals and libertarian Christians routinely mock the idea that Christianity could master the public square prior to widespread conversions.

Yet woke ideology, including in its pseudo-Christian iterations, has decisively taken hold of the Western public square, though its true-believing adherents form a minuscule share of the population. Could cultural Christianity become again politically relevant, not for the further extension of liberalism, but for the protection of traditional Christian life? We answer yes, that the very political examples criticized as “insincere” betoken Christianity’s enduring importance.

The tradition of cultural Christianity recognizes—and embraces—key elements overlooked by liberalism’s transmutation of Christianity into global humanitarianism. As the French political philosopher Pierre Manent put it in describing his own country, we live in nations marked by Christianity—not to the exclusion of other religions, but stamped nonetheless by the Gospel and the Cross. Christian nations take care of the sick and the poor, preserve life from conception until natural death, incarnate their faith in holidays and festivals, and inspire public life with hope for eternity. Because of that, traditional Christianity stands to regain importance whenever and wherever liberalism falters.

This Christianity remains latent but palpable, a vestigial structure whose importance has been overlooked. During the month of November, cemeteries across Europe are aglow with candles in memory of the souls that have gone before. Even in parts of Western Europe where Mass attendance has waned, annual festivals preserve the cult of local saints and patrons, as late June’s feast of Saint Peter is commemorated by fishing villages dotting the Mediterranean coast. In secular Germany and Austria, Sunday remains a day of rest defended by the law. Like the quiet country shrines still visited by the faithful, these vestigial practices could become functional parts of Christian politics once again.

In some countries, that renewal has already begun. Representing a country with strong Catholic and Calvinist theological traditions, Orbán has emphasized that Hungary’s Christianity lies not in a particular set of doctrines, but in a Christian way of life shared and enjoyed by church-goers and non-communicants alike. After the successive ravages of communism and liberalism, Hungary has embarked on a policy of including Christianity in public culture anew: through state cooperation in rebuilding hundreds of dilapidated churches, and through official inclusion of religious education in public schools. Abroad, the Hungary Helps program teaches young people to care for victims of humanitarian disasters, particularly among the devastated Christian communities of the Middle East and Africa.

Cultural Christianity acknowledges that religion has taken such deep root that it can’t simply be excluded. On the contrary, for countries that seek to bolster their national communities and encourage the hopes that spring from connection to one’s roots, cultural Christianity is essential. Even China has begun to see that Christianity provides cultural resources that barren communist doctrine can’t.

Over the last 50 years, liberal consumerism has inculcated the feeling that personal expression is the highest good, sincerity its only measure, and hypocrisy the only sin. Because of this, the claims of political Catholicism are met with skepticism: Christianity, say our critics, can only be publicly important when sincerely embraced and spontaneously expressed. Perhaps surprisingly, our position is far more at home with cultural Christianity—and the view that it can once again save the countries that embrace it.

As liberal consumerism leads to ever greater cultural absurdities, driven by platforms that make consumer “choices” express ever more woke corporate values, it becomes clearer that our public culture doesn’t “sincerely” reflect us at all. It is time for American conservatives to grasp what their European counterparts already know. The deep wellsprings of Christian culture offer a permanent source upon which good government can draw, so that, as the psalmist sings, “we may know thy way upon earth: thy salvation in all nations.”

Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University’s Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.

Gladden Pappin is associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest.

Chad Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.