Perhaps the first thing one should note about R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society is that he’s not calling for a return to some imagined Christian government for the United States. The title might lead some to believe that, given it’s a presidential election, year, and given that it’s this presidential election, with people talking of whom they’re voting against rather than whom they’re voting for.
No, Reno, editor of First Things Magazine, isn’t writing about a Christian government. He’s writing about the idea of a society informed by the values of justice, mercy, and protection of the weak, as opposed to what the United States has become – a society informed by social Darwinism; a political, cultural, and economic elite that makes the rules for everyone except itself; and a culture of nonjudgmentalism that permeates our education system. Among other things. Among a lot of other things.
Reno completed this book before the political primary system got fully underway. And so it’s surprising to see just how well he anticipated, without once mentioning their names, the rise of the anti-elitists in both major parties – Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party and Donald Trump in the Republican Party. He has much to say about America’s elites – corporate elites, political, elites, cultural elites – and none of it is good.
“Visit the poorest neighborhoods of a major American city or an impoverished rural town and you’ll quickly discover a misery more profound and pervasive than simple material want,” he says. “Drugs, crime, sexual exploitation, divorce, fatherlessness, streams of expletives, pornography, violent images – they are everywhere. The sheer brutality and ugliness of the lives of countless Americans – not only poor but middle-class as well – is shocking.”
And the worst impoverishment of all, and the one he lays at the feet of American elites, is spiritual impoverishment. Through actions like movies, news media, corporate CEO’s lobbying on social issues, social engineering in public schools, and more, American elites ridicule the values of family, honesty, hard work, caring for the weak, and decency – while often typically practicing those very same virtues in their own families.
It’s fine to make often ridiculous rules and issuing directives for the children of the middle class and poor when your own children are in private schools and will be exempt. It’s normal to contemplate major changes to Social Security when you yourself have another pension system (Congress) and won’t be affected. (Those brilliant legislators in California – the ones so sanctimoniously passing gun control legislation – are exempting themselves from the bill because, as one of them explained, “We need protection.”)
What Reno is doing here is tearing away the hypocrisy of what passes for elite thought – right and left – in this country. One small example: “There is a far greater range of moral and political opinion in American churches than in a typical newsroom or editorial board.”
Reno’s suggestions for change recognize the difficulties of that change. It’s relatively easy to pass rules or make bureaucratic decisions out of the public spotlight; it’s quite another to change hearts. And it’s hearts that must be changed. It doesn’t take a “moral majority” to do that, either, for Reno understands something else, something profound: It doesn’t take a lot salt to ensure sufficient seasoning. A small number of people, standing with moral authority of doing what is right, doesn’t need political judges, people rewriting laws behind closed doors. And the hysterical rants of newspaper editorial writers to create change.
If you want to understand what is happening in this wild and crazy political season, and why there is hope no matter who wins the White House, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society is a good place to start.
Photograph by Martin Birkin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.