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Things could conceivably be far worse. The brief ebullition of indignation that followed Janet Jackson’s rather pathetic exhibitionist display during the Super Bowl’s halftime show was no doubt sincere, but surely it was nothing compared to the fury in Poland earlier this year after Polish state television aired a concert by a Norwegian “black metal” band in Krakow. The entertainment reportedly featured, among other whimsical conceits, naked women hanging from crosses (one of whom had to be hospitalized when she lost consciousness), a dozen sheeps’ heads impaled on stakes, perhaps a hundred liters of sheep’s blood poured over the performers and their audience, a stage festooned with satanist sigils, and songs of praise to the devil. Not that this concert was in any sense a departure for Norwegians: such bands are perhaps Norway’s chief cultural export these days, and among their giddily irrepressible devotees they enjoy a celebrity of the sort once accorded to Paganini. Their performances invariably involve roughly equal measures of cruelty, obscenity, sacrilege, diabolism, and Norse paganism (thus accomplishing the difficult feat of simultaneously blaspheming both the Christian God and Odin). But it was certainly a departure for Polish television. 

This, for me at least, places the episode of Ms. Jackson’s outraged bustier in a somewhat more forgiving light. Diversions and delights similar to the Krakow concert are not entirely unknown in America, but they appeal to a rather select and fugitive company; as yet, the nihilisms we allow to disport themselves at the center of our culture are more anodyne, or at least less explicit regarding their spiritual wellsprings. National television has not yet treated us to satanists cavorting among dismembered animals and obscene mockeries of the crucifixion, and our chief cultural export—in terms of profits generated, at least—is not yet blasphemy (it remains, if one is curious, pornography). Measured against other degenerate cultures, we are still, in some respects, at the stage of a touchingly maladroit infancy. 

Of course, it is always easy to flatter ourselves by reflecting upon the depths to which we have not yet descended, but we should resist the temptation to do so. In the nations of Scandinavia the Western European attempt to strike a happy balance between scrupulously amoral free-market consumerism and intrusively moralistic bureaucratic state socialism may have achieved something like a perfect synthesis: a sugar-soaked and narcotic totalitarianism so enveloping in its providence and so libertine in its materialism as to threaten to reduce its peoples to an almost brutish pliancy. It is not surprising, then, that many of Norway’s young, when they choose to cast off the placidity of sheep, can imagine no better model for their rebellion than the pitilessness of wolves (this, at any rate, might explain the peculiar malice towards sheep exhibited in Krakow); when human existence has been winnowed down to an oscillation between ignoble complacency and shameless appetite, the golden mean between the ovine and the lupine can become elusive. 

The question that interests me, however, is whether our cultural crisis in America is any less acute. It is true that things could be worse; it is also true that they probably will be very soon. It is heartening, naturally, to live in a country where so much righteous ire can be stirred by a fleeting glimpse of something the unarrested sight of which, on almost any summer day along certain sandy banks of the Seine, nourishes the noonday reveries of many a Parisian schoolboy. It attests to the persistence among us of the kind of social virtue—call it bourgeois respectability, or puritanism, or simple decency—that is too often appreciated only in the aftermath of its disintegration. That said, however, there is still something odd in the symbolic importance this event has assumed for many, given that far worse evidences of the rapid coarsening of our culture surround us on every side all the time (examples are too numerous and obvious to cite). I suspect that among those who professed their dismay at the halftime show there were many who as a rule are willing to tolerate most of the corrosive influences that invade family life—from advertising, films, popular music, the Internet, video games, the language we have all become accustomed to hearing every day—so long as those influences continue unobtrusively to operate in their “proper” places.

This is not to say that there is not a real division in American society between those of devout and traditionalist temperament, who try to abide by some common standard of decency or courtesy, and those who regard any cultural resistance to vulgarity, or vicious fantasy, or explicit violence, or sexual degradation as an obstacle to be surmounted. Nor should one fail to deplore the sheer boorishness with which the latter class feels free to impose the refuse of its imagination on the former (what was truly appalling about the recent halftime show was simply its incivility). The true depth of our social division is, however, difficult to ascertain. It is one thing to lament the discourtesy of those who delight in giving offense, but another thing altogether to provide an effective remedy for it; and only when we honestly ask ourselves what remedy we are willing to contemplate will it become clear whether as a people we are truly engaged in a “culture war” (as we are often told we are) or are simply witnessing the effects of a genuine but transient tension between more refractory and more energetic elements within a single cultural process.

I say this because my first impulse is to suggest that the simple (if not sufficient) answer to our cultural dilemma is probably censorship, against which almost every argument in the abstract is predictably fatuous. Upon this, it seems to me, any sane society should be able uncontentiously to agree. And yet ours cannot. That such a prescription should be either controversial or scandalous—as in fact it is—suggests that something is profoundly amiss in our culture, some defect that runs far deeper than any mere division between the pious and the profane, or between the puritanical and the hedonistic. Certainly there is nothing in the constitutional charter of free (political, religious, ideological) speech that obliges us to permit any product, no matter how depraved its content, to be created, sold, promulgated, procured, or kept. More importantly, though—and this should be obvious—a society that refuses all censorship is in some very crucial sense extremely unjust. 

Every nation with any pretense to civilization must be governed by some regime of civic prudence, possessing the power to place certain restraints upon public transactions. Without such a regime, a society cannot assure its citizens any measure of genuinely civil freedom, by which I mean the freedom that only a rigidly observed social courtesy, necessarily confining and somewhat artificially ceremonious, provides: freedom from other people’s bad taste. There is almost no such thing as purely private expression under the best of circumstances; in the age of mass communications, when every venture into a public space quickly becomes complete immersion in a world of jarring noise and garish pomps and shrill distraction, it is folly to imagine that one can if one chooses simply “turn things off” and go unmolested by the worst elements of popular culture. It is folly also to believe that the cause of freedom is advanced when a society’s citizens cannot demand, with the full force of law and custom on their side, that others not be given license to subject them constantly to offensive materials or to corrupt their children with impunity.

This is, one could argue, the simplest matter of moral stewardship. The forces of barbarism that are always eager to assail civilization—from without and within—are, if not tireless, at least remarkably resilient. Where no codes of civil conduct govern cultural production, it is inevitable that those who are coarsest and most conscienceless—those who are most wanting in shame, restraint, imagination, modesty, consideration, or charity—will prevail. What, then, of everyone else whose peace and dignity a just political order should be concerned to protect? I think it safe to say there has never been a society where the lewd, the dissolute, or the perverted have not been able to find some place for their recreation, and this is a reality to which we are wise to be in some degree resigned. But we live now in an age in which indecency refuses to be confined within its own sphere, but rather forces itself upon us, and indeed demands (almost sanctimoniously) that it be embraced and granted social legitimacy, and that it be subject to no strictures other than those of the free market. Anyone so quaintly retrograde as to want to escape the deluge must retreat to some jealously insulated domestic realm, guarded with almost martial vigilance against any intrusion by the encircling culture. 

It is difficult to make sense of many of the conventional arguments against censorship. The objection that in my experience tends to be adduced most promptly (and with the greatest degree of hysteria) is that of the “slippery slope”: grant some agency the legal power of censure, the argument goes, and before long political speech will be suppressed, privacy invaded, legal protections eroded, republican liberties abridged, schools taken over by fundamentalists from Alabama, women reduced to chattels, and the demonic ferment of fascism lying always just below the surface of American life set loose upon the world. This, at any rate, was the case that a depressingly earnest civil liberties attorney in North Carolina once made to me, with such an air of catechetical exactitude that it was clear she was merely giving voice to a deeply entrenched professional orthodoxy. It was simply inconceivable to her that a humane regime of censorship could be evolved in such a way as to make abuse of its authority all but legally impossible. Apparently, as a society, we are poised precariously upon the narrowest precipice of a sheer escarpment as smooth as glass, overlooking a vast chasm of totalitarian tyranny; so much as a single step towards censorship will send us hurtling into the abyss, and nothing will be able to stay our fall.

This is, of course, nonsense. In the days when the U.S. Post Office had the authority to prosecute those who delivered obscene materials through the mails, and cinema was subject to the Hayes Office, and communities were permitted to ban books, there were certainly cases of excessive zeal in the application of these powers, and instances when provincialism triumphed over art, and perhaps many miscarriages of justice; but, mirabile dictu, we were not at the mercy of a secret police; warrantless incarceration in nameless prisons, torture, murdered journalists, the cult of the Great Leader, the rule of clandestine tribunals, the bullet in the back of the head at dawn—all of these things remained miraculously absent from our society. Were there any historical example of republican freedom weakened or subverted by public and commercial codes of decency, this line of argument might command some force. As it is, it seems to me that any people that honestly believes political despotism to be the inevitable consequence of any constraints being placed upon the dissemination of popular artifacts—say, forbidding the sale of recordings made by some sullen thug fantasizing about raping his girlfriend’s daughter—is a people that has elevated the cult of personal liberty to a new and oppressive fanaticism.

A somewhat more plausible objection is that a public censor will as often as not turn out to be some well-intentioned philistine who cannot distinguish artistically or conceptually accomplished treatments of delicate themes from simple pornography; and this, in turn, will have a stifling effect on artists and thinkers. Here, one must acknowledge, there is enough historical evidence to render this anxiety credible. It does require a fairly perceptive and finely discriminating eye to judge intelligently the intrinsic qualities of any work of art. It is somewhat embarrassing to recall the legal perils that delayed production of an American edition of Lolita , which is really, quite apart from its extraordinary aesthetic merit, a rather moral and even slightly prudish work (though Nabokov would bristle at those words). That Ulysses ever had to appear before an American bar of justice now rightly seems ridiculous. Of course, we would all have been better off to have been spared the overrated, intellectually arthritic, and incompetently written Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but two cases out of three are sufficient to make the point.

Even here, however, I am still largely unconvinced. For one thing, great art endures, and over time distinguishes itself from all the lesser accomplishments with which it might initially have been confused; and it is not necessarily a bad thing for the artist who wishes to treat of things usually left decently veiled to have to submit his work to the ordeal of prevailing moral prejudice: it is likely, for one thing, to inspire more ingenious art, as well as to test the mettle of the artist. There were many inconveniences suffered by the “urbane” bibliophile in the days when the unexpurgated Aretino or Rochester was available only in private editions, and Burton’s complete Thousand Nights and a Night existed only in limited printings, and volumes of Pierre Louÿs were sold exclusively out of back rooms and in borrowed dust-jackets by booksellers of dubious character, and Frederick Rolfe’s Venetian letters could bring fines and imprisonment to their purveyors; but I am not convinced that the cause of civilization was grievously impaired by such inconveniences. Nor does it seem plausible to me to suggest that our national literature has noticeably improved since these fetters were struck off. There is, after all, a kind of philistinism on either side of this issue. Is good art suppressed more by rules of public decency (even when applied with a heavy hand) or by the barbarism of a culture whose sensibilities have become so debauched by constant exposure to the scabrous and the vile as to have become incapable of any discrimination, or of any due appreciation of subtlety or craft?

Consider one of the more obvious cases of commercial standards abandoned, that of cinema. For all the ponderous parochialism of the old motion picture code, it did at the very least demand of screenwriters the kind of delicate technique necessary to communicate certain things to mature viewers without giving any hint of their meaning to the children also watching. Thus films had to be written by adults, and the best films required writers of some considerable skill. After all, everyone of a certain age in the audience was well aware of what things occurred between men and women in private. They understood, therefore, what may have happened between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman when the camera cut away to the watchtower’s revolving beam of light; what had failed to happen when Spencer Tracy quietly slipped out of Katharine Hepburn’s apartment, neglecting to take his hat with him; what it was that Katharine Hepburn was both relieved and offended to discover had not happened when, on the previous evening, her inebriation had required Jimmy Stewart to carry her to her bed; what Bogart and Bacall were really discussing under the veil of their equestrian metaphors; why Glenn Ford was treating Rita Hayworth with at once such tenderness and such malice; and what Barbara Stanwyck was implying when she wrapped her arms around Fred MacMurray’s neck and murmured, “But, darling, we are at Niagara Falls.”

Well, nostalgia can be a particularly toxic opiate, perhaps. Obviously many extraordinary films have been produced since the Hayes Office vanished—there was even a brief golden age of sorts in the early 1970s—and among them have been many that could never have appeared under the old code. Even now, one is occasionally astonished by some gold amid the dross (my life would have been somewhat poorer, I think, without O Brother, Where Art Thou—though, as a Preston Sturges aficionado, I had little choice but to like it). Nevertheless, the current state of cinema seems to suggest that where good (or at least clever) writing is not a commercial necessity, and where there are no artificially imposed limits within which writers must work, the general intellectual quality of the medium cannot help but decline, and do considerable cultural damage as it descends. It would certainly be hard, if nothing else, to argue credibly that artistic expression has been well served by the revolution in standards that has made scriptwriting an occupation dominated by sadistic adolescents, and hard to claim that the art has flourished in an era in which it has been proved that immense profits can be generated from minimal dialogue but plenteous bloodshed, and in which practically nothing is considered too degraded or degrading to be offered to the public. 

All my bitter musings aside, however, let me stipulate that, in an ideal situation, the practice of censorship would be undertaken only by persons properly educated and formed, whose decisions would be under some form of collective review. But, precisely at this point (alas), I encounter an obstacle to censorship that makes a creditable regime of public standards seem so unlikely as to be, for all intents and purposes, a utopian fantasy. For while it really is not that difficult to recognize irredeemable obscenity when one encounters it, as things now stand it is difficult to say whom, what class of persons, one would care to entrust with a censor’s authority. We live at a time, after all, when even the humanities departments in our universities are frequently populated by scholars of rather exiguous learning, who think that épater les bourgeoises is a significant cultural and moral achievement, and who—in their insatiable craving for ever greater frissons of the subversive—can make an “artist,” “philosopher,” and “martyr” out of an ineffably tedious mediocrity like the Marquis de Sade. Censors drawn from those ranks might prove eager and indefatigable in searching out and suppressing every form of “hate speech” (that is, anything you are likely to find in a papal encyclical), but little else. I do not believe that, if we were to create some sort of board of censors, we would be likely to suffer the reign of the American equivalent of Soviet realist art; but this is in part because the persons we would choose for the office might not be sufficiently sophisticated to rise to so plausible a level of philistinism. Simply said, it may be that we no longer have enough civilization left to save. 

At least, in my darker moments (which are frequent), that is what I think. At the end of the day, however, it does not matter whether I am right to do so; all of these considerations have about them something of the fabulous and absurd. Obviously no new laws of censorship will be passed in America; even among those who sincerely wish that the circumambient culture could be purged of its ever more aggressive coarseness, there are many who would see such laws as somehow contrary to the principles of their democracy and a threat to liberty in general. This is why I suspect, as I hinted above, that the real malady afflicting our culture lies not primarily in the division between those who would prefer and those who would resent more rigid social standards of decency, but far deeper down, in many of the premises that both parties share.

As it happens, by far the worst argument against censorship is the one likely to carry most weight with persons on both sides of the cultural divide: that, were certain cultural products legally proscribed, we would be denying people things they want, denying them the right to choose for themselves, putting limits upon expressive freedom, refusing to trust in the law of supply and demand—all of which is, of course, quite true. But to find this a compelling argument, one must already be convinced of the inalienable sanctity of choice, over against every other social good, and convinced, moreover, that freedom and choice are more or less synonymous. It is indeed true that many of us manifestly do want unimpeded access to explicit depictions of sex and violence, and to mindlessly brutal forms of entertainment, and to artifacts born solely from the basest impulses of the imagination; but surely, in point of fact, no society that simply concedes the prior right of its citizens to have whatever they want can ever really be free.

This is the crucial issue, I think: not what we understand decency to be, but what we mean when we speak of freedom. It is a curious condition of late Western modernity that, for so many of us, the highest ideal of the good society is simply democracy as such, and then within democracy varying alloys of capitalism, the welfare state, regionalism, federalism, individualism, and so on. And what we habitually understand democratic liberty to be—what we take, that is, as our most exalted model of freedom—is merely the unobstructed power of choice. The consequence of this, manifestly, is that we tend to elevate what should at best be regarded as the moral life’s minimal condition to the status of its highest expression, and in the process reduce the very concept of freedom to one of purely libertarian or voluntarist spontaneity. We have come to believe, more or less unreflectively, that the will necessarily becomes more free the more it is emancipated from whatever constraints it suffers; which means that, over the course of time, even our most revered moral traditions can come to seem onerous nuisances that we must shed if we are to secure our “rights.” At the very last, any constraint at all comes to seem an intolerable bondage. But it was not ever thus.

Obviously any sane organism is predisposed to resist subjugation to forces outside itself—which is to say, forces related to it only by their power over it—and every healthy soul has a natural prejudice in favor of its own autonomy. Moreover, any rational person naturally prefers the local to the general, the familiar to the abstract, the intimate to the universal, and so resents the intrusion of any alien or usurpatious power (the state, or large corporations, or heartless bureaucracies, or unjust laws) upon the independence or integrity of his person, or family, or native place, or culture, or faith. But this is to say no more than that it is natural to rebel against purely arbitrary or extrinsic constraints, either upon oneself or upon what one loves. What distinguishes the specifically modern conception of freedom from earlier models, however, especially in its most extreme expressions, is that it seems often to presume that all constraints are arbitrary and extrinsic, and that there is no such thing as a natural or intrinsic constraint at all.

And yet—and I would not even go so far as to call this a paradox—freedom is possible only through constraints. That sane organism of which I spoke above can be solicitous of its autonomy only because it is some particular thing; and for anything to be anything at all—to possess, that is, a concrete form—it must acquire and cultivate useful, defining, shaping limits. True freedom, at least according to one venerable definition, is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is. An absolutely “negative liberty”—the absence of any religious, cultural, or social restrictions upon the exercise of the will—may often seem desirable (at least for oneself) but ultimately offers only the “freedom” of chaos, of formless potential. This is enough, admittedly, if one’s highest model of life is protoplasm; but if one suspects that, as rational beings, we are called to a somewhat more elevated moral existence than that, one must begin to ask which impulses within us should be suppressed, both by ourselves and by the cultural rules that we all must share.

For instance, if one wishes to become “honorable” (a word so quaint and antique as now to have the power to charm but not to compel), one must accede to any number of elaborate restrictions upon one’s actions and even thoughts; and these restrictions unquestionably confine and inhibit desire and volition, and are themselves often more a matter of ritual comity and factitious grace and painful reserve than of practical necessity. And yet, as one learns to consent to a common and demanding set of conventions and duties, one also progressively acquires an ever greater purity of character, a stability and hence identity, a unified “self”; one emerges from the inchoate turmoil of mere emotion, and is liberated from the momentary impulses and vain promptings of the will, and arrives at what can truly be called one’s essence. The form, as Michelangelo liked to say, is liberated from the marble. In this way, precisely through accepting freely the constraints of a larger social and moral tradition and community, one gives shape to a character that can endure from moment to moment, rather than dissolving in each instant into whichever new inclination of appetite or curiosity rises up within one. One ceases to be governed by caprice, or to be the slave of one’s own liberty.

This understanding of freedom, however, requires not only the belief that we possess an actual nature, which must flourish to be free, but a belief in the transcendent Good towards which that nature is oriented. This Christians, Jews, and virtuous pagans have always understood: that which can endure in us is sustained by that which lies beyond us, in the eternity of its own plenitude. To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which, in the deepest reaches of our souls, we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end—even if it be our own power of choice within us—is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well. And to choose well we must ever more clearly see the “sun of the Good” (to employ the lovely Platonic metaphor), and yet to see more clearly we must choose well; and the more we are emancipated from illusion and caprice, and the more our will is informed by and responds to the Good, the more perfect our vision becomes, and the less there is really to choose. The consummation for which we should long, if we are wise, is that ultimately we shall, in St. Augustine’s language, achieve not only the liberty enjoyed by Adam and Eve—who were merely “able not to sin” ( posse non peccare )—but the truest freedom of all, that of being entirely “unable to sin” ( non posse peccare ), because God’s will works perfectly in ours.

Which is why it is not only perplexing but deeply disturbing that so many Christians and Jews in the modern world unthinkingly embrace and defend a purely libertarian understanding of freedom, even as they decry the constant gravitation of modern society toward ever more arbitrary, decadent, and extreme expressions of just this kind of freedom. They cannot be acquitted on the grounds that the cultivation of virtue is the work of individual souls and not of society at large, for there is no such thing as private virtue, any more than there is such a thing as private language, and fallen creatures vary enormously in their capacity for obedience to the Good. Though to say this might make me seem like an unregenerate Christian Platonist (which is not too dreadful a fate, since that is precisely what I am), a society is just precisely to the degree that it makes true freedom possible; to do this it must leave certain areas of moral existence to govern themselves, but it must also in many cases seek to defeat the most vicious aspects of fallen nature, and to aid as far as possible in the elevation in each soul of right reason over mere appetite and impulse, which necessarily involves denying certain persons the things they want most. A just social order, that is to say, would be one devoted to what might be called a “pedagogy of the Good,” and would recognize that there can be no simple partition between the polity of the soul and the polity of the people, and that there is in fact a reciprocal spiritual relation, a harmony, between them. When appetite seizes the reins of the soul or the city, it drives the chariot toward ruin; so it is the very art of sound governance to seek to perfect the intricate and delicate choreography of moral and legal custom that will best promote the sway of reverent reason in city and soul alike.

Democracy is not something intrinsically good, after all. Where the moral formation of a people is deficient, the general will malign, or historical circumstance unpropitious, democracy is quite unambiguously wicked in its results. All of Plato’s warnings against “ochlocracy” have been proved right often enough, even within the confines of duly constituted republics, and even he could not have foreseen the magnitude of the evil that can be born from a popular franchise (the Third Reich leaps here rather nimbly to mind). The only sound premise for a people’s self-governance is a culture of common virtue directed towards the one Good. And a society that can no longer conceive of freedom as anything more than limitless choice and uninhibited self-expression must of necessity progressively conclude that all things should be permitted, that all values are relative, that desire fashions its own truth, that there is no such thing as “nature,” that we are our own creatures. The ultimate consequence of a purely libertarian political ethos, if it could be taken to its logical end, would be a world in which we would no longer even remember that we should want to choose the good, as we would have learned to deem things good solely because they have been chosen. This would in truth be absolute slavery to the momentary, the final eclipse of rational dignity, the triumph within us of the bestial over the spiritual, and so of death over life.

When all is said and done, however, as I have already more or less acknowledged, I am trading here not merely in speculation, but in extravagant fantasy. We are very far removed indeed from a culture capable of such pedagogy, perhaps farther now than at almost any other point in Western history. And in the age of the omnicompetent liberal state, when government is at once more intimately invasive of and more airily abstracted from the concrete reality of communities and families, even to speak of moral pedagogy is likely to invite any number of pernicious authoritarianisms. Moreover, we are very near to a consensus as a society not only that choice and self-expression are values in and of themselves, but that they are perhaps the highest values of all; and no society can believe such nonsense unless it has forsaken almost every substantial good.

This is why, as I say, I am not convinced that we are in any very meaningful sense in the midst of a “culture war”; I think it might at best be described as a fracas. I do not say that such a war would not be worth waging. Yet most of us have already unconsciously surrendered to the more insidious aspects of modernity long before we even contemplate drawing our swords from their scabbards and inspecting them for rust. This is not to say that there are no practical measures for those who wish in earnest for the battle to be joined: homeschooling or private “trivium” academies; the disposal or locking away of televisions; prohibitions on video games and popular music; Greek and Latin; great books; remote places; archaic enthusiasms. It is generally wise to seek to be separate, to be in the world but not of it, to be no more engaged with modernity than were the ancient Christians with the culture of pagan antiquity; and wise also to cultivate in our hearts a generous hatred toward the secular order, and a charitable contempt. Probably the most subversive and effective strategy we might undertake would be one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant childbearing. Given the reluctance of modern men and women to be fruitful and multiply, it would not be difficult, surely, for the devout to accomplish, in no more than a generation or two, a demographic revolution. Such a course is quite radical, admittedly, and contrary to the spirit of the age, but that is rather the point, after all. It would mean often forgoing certain material advantages, and forfeiting a great deal of our leisure; it would often prove difficult to sustain a two-career family or to be certain of a lavish retirement. But if it is a war we want, we should not recoil from sacrifice.

In the end, however, no matter how much we would like to win back the culture around us, we can hope for no “victory” at all—no matter what practical measures we take—if we are not resolved first and foremost to extirpate the habits and presuppositions of secular modernity from within ourselves. What we call the “culture war” is, after all, only one outward manifestation of a spiritual war that is being waged at all times and in all places, but whose first battleground is the heart. We have become, all of us, so accustomed to thinking like modern men and women, to believing that it is the power of the arbitrary in ourselves and in others that defines for us at once our dignity and our political freedom, that we may lack the moral resources necessary to alter the course of our culture, or even to frame intelligible arguments for wishing to do so. If we are serious Christians, or Jews, or even virtuous pagans (assuming any still exist), we should know that mere libertarian license is as often as not quite nefarious in its employment and its effects, and that our political rights are the products of a charter agreed upon for the common good (nothing more or less), and that we have no rights at all not wedded to responsibilities and to the moral claim of our neighbors upon us. Even when we know all this, we probably do not know it deeply enough.

And if we insist on being moderns, or Americans, or democrats, or consumers first, rather than Christians, Jews, and virtuous pagans above all, whose spiritual loyalties transcend all other associations, and if we allow ourselves to believe that true freedom is anything other than the liberation and perfection of a definite nature in conformity with the highest Good—with God Himself, that is—then we will always be divided against ourselves, and will be to some degree accomplices of those very forces whose defeat we think we desire. Indeed, we cannot really affect the course of the nation at all, or even properly imagine what kind of political or social future we should want, so long as we fail to remember (and to fashion our lives according to the knowledge) that we exist only because there is One who has called us from nothingness to be what He desires us to be, not simply what we would like to make ourselves, and that we shall truly be free—and know what freedom is—only when we have no choices left.

David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite (Eerdmans, 2003).