Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno
What Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society Is About
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, the only magazine to which I subscribe and read regularly. His book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” For Reno, this grand idea of the possibility of a truly Christian society has been rejected by, and therefore lost to, American culture, much to that culture’s detriment. This is not to say that America ever was a genuine Christian society, but that the mere thought of such a society has vanished.
At the heart of the American story, one discovers the idea of freedom. But what is freedom? Reno argues that the meaning of freedom has shifted over time, and is now understood as “unimpeded choice and self-definition.” Freedom has become an end in itself, a sort of circular reasoning that never escapes the orbit of its own justification. We understand ourselves as free for freedom’s sake, not to perform a duty or responsibility for some higher good beyond ourselves. This, he argues, is a dangerous misunderstanding that deconstructs social norms upon which the poor and weak depend for stability and livelihood.
We need a Christian society because only Christ offers the freedom that is full and true. Apart from him, haunted by the half-truths of post-protestant preaching, a culture’s pursuit of freedom becomes militant to the point of tyrannical. “Securing a total freedom – always only for the sake of freedom – will require us to criminalize nature.” (p. 31) Nothing, even nature itself, can withstand our quest for absolute autonomy. This is seen most clearly in progressivism’s sudden and militant campaign for transgender rights, in which nature’s most basic (and forthright) indicators of gender are despised as oppressive transgressors of the individual’s right to self-definition. But the self is not a reliable telos of freedom. True freedom is discovered only in the service of something beyond the self. “In order to be free we need a higher truth to serve. …Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves.” (p. 36-7)
In its reckless pursuit of this false freedom, secular liberalism has destroyed the moral framework of our society, upon which families, and especially the poor and weak, have depended for stability and dignity. Moral relativism and nonjudgmentalism are the ideological weapons of the elite aimed at uprooting traditional moral codes seen as oppressive and marginalizing. But this “old-fashioned” morality was precisely what gave the weak and poor their dignity, allowing them to create strong family ties and social capital. Now demolished by the elites (who, ironically, still practice traditional morality while simultaneously denigrating and destroying it), the morality of self-definition has failed to create a culture that allows the weak and poor to live with dignity. Disastrously, no-fault divorce and the indoctrination of the Sexual Revolution have ravaged the lower classes, robbing them of stable families and the social capital necessary to navigate an ever-changing culture and economy.
Toward the end of Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Reno states, “This book is essentially an argument that post-protestant WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants] culture is failing, that it promises freedom, but delivers tyranny. It may work well for the top end of society, but it’s hell on the weak and vulnerable. It makes a fuss about diversity but can’t deliver solidarity.” (p. 181) The people whom secular liberalism claims to protect are the very people it is unwittingly destroying.
What I Learned from Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
Reno’s idea of a Christian society is built upon five pillars, representing the middle five chapters of the book. First, in a Christian society the weak are defended from those who would seek to do them harm. America works for the well-educated, but, as evidenced by the opiate epidemic and the election of Donald Trump, it is not working for the weak and vulnerable. What the weak need are “clear rules that direct them toward decisions that help them lead dignified lives. Nonjudgmentalism, now obligatory, refuses to meet this need, treating clear moral strictures with suspicion, if not outright hostility. …But we can’t have a society that serves the weak if we don’t end our war on the very possibility of clear rules. …We need to criticize the critics for their often unconscious but all too real service of the powerful. A Christian society judges nonjudgmentalism unjust.” (p. 64)
The second pillar of a Christian society is the call to raise up the poor. Poverty, however, must be understood anew. It is not limited to a lack of economic resources. There is such a thing as moral and spiritual poverty. Reno proclaims, “The most pressing social justice issue today is the moral exploitation of the poor and vulnerable by the well off and powerful, an exploitation masked by the rhetoric of liberation.” (p. 66) The poor don’t simply lack the economic resources to get ahead in life. Now, through the effects of the Sexual Revolution, they lack the moral and rhetorical resources to combat the effects of elitist moral relativism and nonjudgmentalism.
The third, fourth, and fifth pillars of a Christian society are these: The promotion of solidarity, the limitation of government, and the pursuit of higher things. Each of these chapters offer helpful insights into what a Christian society ought to do and be. I will not summarize them, here, however, as I have already written over 1,000 words on the book, and I’d like to leave the rest for you to discover, should you choose to read it.
My Recommendation of Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society is a book soaked in faith, not dripping with fear. Reno is not a “hell in a hand basket” preacher. Rather, he holds out hope for the possibility that we can form a society that truly cares for the weak and vulnerable, that serves a cause higher than the self, and that values sacred institutions. Reno’s is a sane voice amidst the hysteria of the culture wars, and if you find yourself despairing over the future of the nation, perhaps this book will pull you back from the brink.