The truth of the matter is that, generally speaking, things are typically getting better and worse. We conservatives have a standard based in human nature or the whole human person—the free and relational being–by which we can evaluate political, moral, and technological change. Our social or historical “narrative” is neither progressive nor reactionary. True human progress occurs over particular lives in the direction of wisdom and virtue. And that progress can occur just about anywhere. Solzhenitsyn experienced it in the Gulag. Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full shows how it can occur after reading the Stoic Epictetus in a maximum security prison. And we know that the real experiences of Admiral James Stockdale and John McCain as POWs weren’t so different.
If we say it’s hard to be a saint in the city, that’s because it’s hard to be a saint anywhere. It’s true we live in radically untraditional times. But that’s both good and bad for authentically Christian life. As Walker Percy wrote, today Christians really have to think about who they are, and that’s because we live in a time where’s there’s little to no real guidance when it comes to “lifestyle choices.” It’s surely in some ways better to have to think than to live in a time a more traditional time when most people didn’t give the truth (or the “commitment”) of Christianity a second thought.
It’s easy for us to see that Christianity is, in some ways, quite the untraditional religion, depending as it does on wonderfully spectacular unprecedented events—such as creation, the Resurrection, the unique irreplaceability of each of our created personal lives, and the grace and the salvation given to particular persons.
We conservatives also see clearly, of course, that the truth about God is necessarily and beneficially embodied in the traditional, relational institution we call the church, and we see the idiocy (in the precise sense) and so the unsustainability of the “individualistic” Protestant view that it’s possible to know the personal, relational God all alone through one’s own conscience. But we also marvel at what’s genuinely, if quite incompletely, Christian in the Spirit-driven enthusiasm of America’s Pentecostals and many of our Evangelicals. The practice of the genuinely relational virtue of charity flourishes among many of our believers.
It is easy to see contradictions in the combination of bourgeois individualism, strong senses of place and fammily, and genuinely and often quite “otherworldy” Christian belief we can see in the South today. But even in the best cases, most good people in a free country are going to be living contradictions. It’s utopian in the bad or nonselective sense to romantically believe that people once–in the polis or the medieval village–led noncontradictory or perfectly integrated lives. Even good people, after all, were sinners then and sinners now.
Lives oriented by orthodox religion—by genuinely countercultural religion—may actually be becoming more common. Consider that the number of Jews in New York City is actually on the rise, thanks to the huge orthodox families. The observant Catholic Church in America has become smaller, but also more genuinely observant. Our prosperous, high-tech, online society makes homeschooling increasingly more easy. It also has facilitated working from home, and even, as Rod Dreher has shown us, moving home to work from home, without returning to the drudgery of living off the land. It’s possible, we’ve seen, to combine “organic” and high-tech features in genuinely “postmodern” forms of appropriately relational lives oriented around family, church, and meaningful work. Being a good father, for example, is getting harder for some but also easier for others. Family life is both dissolving and regenerating in somewhat unpredictable ways.
There’s still plenty of opportunity to live virtuous—even heroically virtuous–lives as free and prosperous men and women in a society such as ours. Everyone is challenged by the relational responsibilities of love and the invincible necessity of one’s own death. It’s tougher in some ways to live well—to find humanly worthy happiness—in our time, when so much human effort is directed toward thinking through the “how” (technology) and so little directed toward thinking about the “who” and the “why” (who we are and what we’re supposed to do). It’s tougher to live well when human institutions in which our relational places and so personal happiness are most readily found—such as the family—are more unstable than ever. But it’s easier than ever in others—due largely to the techno-successes of modern science and the effective justice of the modern science of government–and far from impossible overall.