The culture wars are over, and the conservatives have lost: This assessment has become conventional wisdom across the political spectrum, as the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution, the steady growth of the state, the marginalization of social-conservative views in the media and most social institutions, and finally the triumph of same-sex marriage in the Obergefell decision have left traditionalists feeling beleaguered and desperate. Traditional Christians and Jews find themselves debating whether to retreat to their cultural bunkers or to prepare for widespread persecution. Some are doing both. Many religious conservatives now take for granted that American society is effectively lost, and that the great task ahead will be to rebuild from the ashes after the structures of society have collapsed.
R. R. Reno takes a different view. His new book offers a far more optimistic assessment of Christian culture and its potential to continue “seasoning” the ground of our increasingly chaotic society. His book won’t tell us how to win the next election, but it’s an uplifting read in a time of widespread demoralization. Reno still thinks it’s possible to revitalize American society, using Judeo-Christian ideas and mores as the foundation.
The book is two parts apologia and one part pep talk. The apology is for religious conservatism, and although the title references Christianity, most of what he says is applicable to Judaism also. In the midst of ongoing discussions about the toleration of religious traditionalists, Reno steps in to insist that, in fact, they are the medicine that modern society needs. Traditionalists have real answers to the questions that are plaguing the West today. Their subcultures have a breadth and depth that liberal progressivism cannot begin to match. Furthermore, they have a proven capacity to endure. Today’s cheeky technocrats will be eclipsed and then forgotten, while their Judeo-Christian compatriots will continue passing on their traditions, always old and ever new. The future is God’s.
Reno’s gentle, chin-scratching style might almost lead readers to overlook the audacious nature of these claims. But this isn’t mere Bible-thumping triumphalism; it is coupled with an extended (and not explicitly theological) social critique. As Reno sees it, an excess of material comforts and a dangerously powerful state have enabled time-honored American values (especially freedom) to assume totalitarian forms. Our moral and cultural mores have eroded, leaving us to the ravages of an unbalanced autonomy that wages war on nature herself. Having lost so much of what makes life genuinely worth living (traditional family, community life, high culture, God), we become susceptible to the fearsome narrow-mindedness of G. K. Chesterton’s madman. Somewhat ironically, “freedom” becomes the weapon we use to shred vital sources of order and discipline that are the necessary foundation of real liberty.
In the resulting cultural wasteland, people are easily enslaved by lesser goods. We see this especially in America’s less wealthy demographics, which are plagued by a rash of addictions (not just to alcohol and drugs, but also to junk food, junk sex, and junk media). Now, however, we notice an interesting thing: The progressive elite, despite its apparent moral bankruptcy, has fared far better than its less prosperous compatriots. It has protected itself and its offspring by forging a kind of neo-traditional culture that embraces marriage and community and instills a serious work ethic and healthy life habits. Kids from upper-middle-class families are doing well in life for reasons that go beyond money. They are more disciplined and in better health both physically and psychologically. Meanwhile, the poor are left to the patronage of mostly ineffective government programs.
Why is our reigning elite (or, as Reno impishly labels them, the “post-Protestant WASPs”) so competent at ordering its own house and yet so feeble when it comes to helping others? Reno never clearly answers this question, though he tips his hat to elite hypocrisy, snobbish indifference, and even self-conscious status-preservation as possible explanatory factors. In the spirit of Reno’s critique, though, another explanation suggests itself. Might our post-Protestant WASPs be showing the limitations of the metaphysically rocky soil on which their prosperous subculture is built? Maybe they aren’t helping the poor because they genuinely don’t know how.
Post-Protestant WASPs are, after all, post-Christian. Their neo-traditionalism is largely the product of trial-and-error efforts to find life patterns that facilitate material prosperity, with a minimum of metaphysical mess. For instance, the divorce revolution started among educated elites but turned out to be draining, expensive, and psychologically bruising to children. Accordingly, the wealthy adjusted their lifestyles, and their divorce rates fell. They’ve developed similar strategies to avoid the scourges of obesity, substance abuse, and, most recently, technology addiction. Parents in Silicon Valley closely monitor their children’s use of iPads and video games, while poor kids spend ten hours a day mesmerized by glowing screens.
In short, our elites have reinvented the wheel, embracing traditional-ish lifestyles on utilitarian grounds. The door still gets slammed on conventional morals, but they’re permitted to sneak in the back under the guise of “healthy living.” Unfortunately, pseudo-morality isn’t so easily transmitted across class lines. Far more than traditionalism proper, neo-traditionalism is closely conjoined with markers of material success, and with the sociologists’ “success sequence,” wherein a young person cements his future by completing adult milestones in the appropriate order (education, good job, marriage, children). Somewhat ironically, then, it may turn out that elites actually aren’t behaving hypocritically when they pour their energies into preaching good nutrition and demanding free college and birth control for all. Governmental largesse (in the form of free IUDs and free college) really does look to them like the cutting-edge solution to social collapse.
That brings us to the pep talk. Progressive elites may seem to hold dominating control over all of society’s centers of power. But can that really be true, considering how short-sighted and clueless they are? Reno notes that the strength of the post-Protestant WASPs is really quite hollow. In too many ways, they have failed to fill the shoes of a true upper class, and now they have the disadvantage of being “the Establishment” at a time when establishments are hated.
Meanwhile, traditionalists have lost some battles, but their numbers are still holding strong. The apparent decline of religion in America really reflects the loss of the lukewarm middle; committed, regular churchgoers have been impressively tenacious across the last half century, and their numbers approximately match those of committed liberal progressives. Traditionalists show high levels of cultural confidence and a determination to buck mainstream culture, especially in the way they raise their children. They will not be easily assimilated. Progressives fear them for a reason.
It’s worth noting, when picking up this book, that Reno doesn’t offer a clear blueprint for reviving a Christian society. He’s still working on the idea, and on convincing traditionalists that they both can and must continue to salt the earth. That is hardly a trivial project, however. Religious conservatives might read this book as a reminder of why cultural battles are still worth the effort. Small-government conservatives might read it by way of considering whether this core of traditionalists, with their commitment to family and church, may in fact be the strongest and most reliable bulwark against the advances of Leviathan.
Religion may seem to be losing ground, but that’s happened innumerable times over the past few millennia. Orthodox Christians and Jews are still walking the earth by the millions. Bet against us at your peril.
– Rachel Lu is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.