If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn into the very unsure world of political conflict? If our victory is assured, why enter the current fight about same-sex marriage, abortion, or anything else? If we are to worship Christ the King, why worry ourselves about presidential elections? Why let ourselves get waylaid by a world that is passing away? The strife is o’er, the battle done, as the old hymn puts it. Why exercise ourselves in the public square?
The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus follows up with lots of specific exhortations. We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and much more, including the duty to work for what we think best for society as a whole.
There is peril in this. We might be wrong about the common good and which policies will best realize it. Moreover, power and influence intoxicate, and we can become enthralled by the world’s measure of victory, forgetting that the most important battle has already been won, and won by the cross.
Jesus warned us that his kingdom is not of this world. “The world” is the formulation the New Testament uses to refer to the soul-structuring regimes of fallen humanity. The worldly man, the one who lives according to the flesh, as St. Paul puts it, makes pleasure, wealth, power, and even physical survival his ultimate goods, thus turning them into idols. Disordered by sin, we need to train ourselves to renounce the world so that we can obey the first commandment without reservation. This training may require us to withdraw from entirely legitimate but spiritually tempting dimensions of our natural lives—hating our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, as Jesus says in one of Scripture’s hard passages.
He was not rejecting the commandment to honor our father and mother, which epitomizes our natural duty to seek the good of our families and serves as the kernel of our broader duties to the political community. But we need to be prepared to die to our natural loves, as it were, so as to enter more fully into the supernatural love of Christ. That’s why St. Benedict went into the caves of Subiaco as a young man, not because the affairs of men and the realities of everyday life aren’t capable of sanctification, but to break the spell that leads us to imagine them supreme.
So we must be double-minded in our political engagements. On the one hand we’re to be committed to our natural duties of citizenship, and on the other hand we need to recognize that the final victory does not depend upon us. It’s a double-mindedness that protects us from both dangerous urgency and debilitating despair. To know that Christ is victorious delivers us from a political works righteousness that imagines the future to be entirely in our hands to shape and control, a mentality that tempts us to break laws and bend principles for the sake of political victory, because we’ve allowed that victory to become our only hope. It also protects us from political defeatism, a mentality that tempts us to give up on the proximate and imperfect good that we can do in public life. The future is not in our hands, and so we need not imagine that our present impotence makes our cause hopeless.
Therefore, instead of making politics pointless for Christians who believe in Christ’s victory, this double-mindedness rencourages a passion for the common good without tempting us to imagine that every election is the finally decisive one. In the concluding weeks of World War II, countless people died while the victory was not in doubt. Had we been directing the Allied armies, we certainly would have bent our wills to try to save lives, perhaps by intervening or shifting resources, or simply by working to hasten the victory. This exemplifies a salutary double-mindedness. The Allied triumph is secure, and so the moral focus changes. Free from responsibility for the larger strategic goal, preventing unnecessary suffering and death becomes more urgent, not less so. The victory won and the future no longer in our hands, we can focus on what can be done here and now.
In these and other ways, to know the ending, to have confidence in Christ’s victory, heightens the moral urgency without tempting us to a Manichean view of political life. That’s a spirit of engagement we very much need today. As I argued last month, we’re at the end of an era. A great deal is at stake. Christians have a natural duty to try to shape the future as best we can to accord with our vision of the common good. If we keep Christ’s lordship in mind, our political activism won’t be pointless, but it also won’t be supercharged with ultimate significance.
That’s one reason why Christians and other believers are especially well suited to play productive roles in the inevitable give-and-take of democratic politics. They have good reasons to be engaged—and good reasons to resist the temptations to make an idol of their political convictions, good reasons not to turn elections into cosmic struggles for final victory.
Last spring, as I was on the subway riding home, a conversation between two twenty-somethings captured my attention. It was during the primary season, before Mitt Romney gained his insuperable advantage. They were talking about Rick Santorum. “He’s a fanatic,” one said. “He’s disgusting,” the other added.
Their tone was mildly urgent. They clearly didn’t like Santorum, or any Republican for that matter. But they weren’t frenzied and I certainly didn’t feel as though I was observing two people in the grips of an ideological mania. They were just passing time. They didn’t seem to care too much about their dire pronouncements. Instead, “fanatic” and “disgusting” served to excite their political appetites for a few moments before they became bored with the topic and moved on to talk about something else.
To a certain extent, that’s you and me. We watch the political shout-shows on TV or troll the internet for commentary. Yes, we want be responsible, well-informed citizens. That involves learning about the issues and knowing where candidates stand. But every day? And on issues or candidates we’ve already made up our minds about? If we’re honest, we’re often out to rouse and excite our political appetites. We tickle our partisan palates, as it were, with our favorite sound bites. We pant after the latest polling results. We savor the take-down. We read the latest analysis of the campaigns like regulars at Churchill Downs or Pimlico who want to know what the handicappers have to say about the horses.
To what end? I’m sure it varies from person to person, but like the young people on the subway, there’s a strong trend toward using politics as a titillating distraction, something akin to the use of pornography. Politics have an urgency that can arouse our bored and ambivalent souls.
Man is a political animal. We’re hard-wired for communal life. For the most part, our social instinct is a blessing. It encourages us to take up the difficult, demanding tasks of communal responsibility. That’s why in some moods Aristotle designated the political life our highest good.
When we’re only responsible for ourselves, we can be tempted to cut corners and aim lower. We think: It’s my life, and if I want to trade excellence for relaxation or pleasure, I’m the only one who gets shortchanged. But as a parent or citizen, what I do helps or harms others I care about. My social instinct makes me want to promote their good as well as my own, and that means I need to know their needs, which forces me to become informed and discerning, as well as develop a whole range of skills to actually get things done. To do all of this well, I have to increase in virtue and be a better man. Being drawn into roles of communal responsibility often brings out the best in us.
But not always. A primitive excitement can accompany strong feelings of social solidarity. The small hairs on the back of our necks prickle as the fans in the football stadium reach their full frenzy. Our throats thicken and tears come to our eyes when the speaker’s voice reaches a climax at a political rally. These moments of vulnerability remind us that although our social instinct has a different object and purpose from our other instincts, it too needs strong discipline.
The social instinct rightly disciplined involves a proper degree of civic commitment. Perversion comes about when we deviate from the mean. One vice involves zealotry, the other disengagement and apathy. In the modern era, excessive political passion has threatened. Nationalisms and ideologies of various sorts encouraged a frenzy of communal excitement, overrode reason, and silenced the voice of conscience. Nazism provides the most obvious example, but by no means the only one. Marxism offers another. In the 1930s, a period of dark ideological passion, E. M. Forster expressed dismay: “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
Forster was not criticizing the deep loyalties of true patriotism, a habit of the heart that holds the quirky qualities of one’s home and native culture as dear as the easy familiarity of an old friend. He was rejecting our exaggerated political commitments. It was a time when stances on the Spanish Civil War dictated who could and could not be your friend. As events unfolded, not only in Spain, but also in Russia, Germany, and Italy, the same political passions dictated who should live and who should be killed. In that context, I hope that I would have sided with Forster, not Franco or Mussolini. Politics should serve our humanity, not the other way around.
Intense ideological fervor isn’t much of a danger today. Instead, as befits our postmodern condition of ironic detachment, we’re more likely to be bemused or superficially agitated observers than fanatical participants blinded by ideological commitments. Occupy Wall Street has been more spectacle than movement. Whatever we thought of its goals, the protests were something to comment on rather than participate in. That’s broadly true in politics today. For example, the grassroots aspects of political parties have diminished in significance. Today, campaigns see us primarily as potential donors who need to be stimulated by political rhetoric to part with our money—or as voters to be motivated to go to the polls. There are exceptions, such as Tea Party populism. But to a great degree, television has turned citizenship into passive viewing rather than active doing.
And we watch! The media provide news from the campaign trail, the latest polling results, and the day’s spin. Talk radio carries on endlessly about politics. Bloggers tap away day and night. Partisan rants bring their own special pleasures, and we open our throats to take in endless political analysis. We graze the commentary, which is now 24/7, to stimulate our political appetites. We forward videos of politicians’ gaffes or comedians’ send-ups of politicians, like carnival-goers who want to share the freak show with their friends.
Perhaps, therefore, we’re fascinated with political reporting, political commentary, and political partisanship in the same way we’re attracted to pornography. We enjoy the emotional ups and downs as we think about our candidate winning or losing. We salivate as the political pugilists strike blows. For most of us, this serves no purpose. We already know which side we’re on. Yet we still want to pant; we still want to groan. Bloggers engage in mock debates with imaginary adversaries, cheered on and heckled by strings of comments.
Our engagement is at once very passionate and has real public consequences—and yet it feels disembodied and fantastical, more a form of entertainment and distraction than an occasion for responsible citizenship. It’s arousal without action, the roaming unrest of our desire for solidarity and communal purpose that we’re satisfying for a moment before moving on.
“Literature, art, conversation, society—everything lies dead beneath its black shadow,” Henry James wrote of politics one electoral season in England. I’m not so pessimistic. But I do have dark moments when I think that, by decade’s end, our dominant idea of entertainment—the formula that sells—will be equal parts sports, pornography, and political commentary.
Any conservative who expends energy denouncing relativism is wasting his time fighting the last war.” So argues the bright young author Helen Rittelmeyer in the American Spectator, and she does so with wit and not a little insight.
In the Yale English department, many of the professors have the PC seal of approval, focusing as they do on Marxist literary theory, “gender and sexuality,” and postcolonial studies. However, the graduate students are more likely to list actual literary topics as the focus of their interest: Romanticism, for example, or Victorian literature, or Milton. As Rittelmeyer observes, the rising generation recognizes that the PC cant about how everything is a mask for power is “like noodly jazz: fun to play, dreadful to listen to.”
The highly theorized moral relativism that once put the “po” into “po-mo” may be on the wane, but all is not well. By Rittelmeyer’s way of thinking, a utilitarian mentality is ascendant today, and it gives new expression (and new vitality) to the progressive war on traditional morality. “Relativism claimed that we could sidestep moral controversies by letting everyone decide ethical questions for themselves; the new utilitarianism claims that there are no moral controversies, just empirical ones.” Not long ago we’d hear that “people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it,” as well as lots of talk of “cultural differences.” Now “the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is social-scientific analysis, as if a person can’t speak with authority without citing economics or sociology.”
Rittelmeyer gives the examples of pornography and gay marriage, both of which put pressure on us to make a moral judgment. Is pornography immoral in a robust sense? It’s an existentially hot question, because it involves many judgments about the moral significance of our sexual imaginations as well as our behavior. The question of gay marriage is even hotter, implicating as it does a whole range of judgments about sex, gender, and reproduction.
Faced with questions of right and wrong, the relativist shifts to what people “feel,” or to some form of cultural analysis (“from a white, male, middle-class perspective . . . ”). “The same evasive maneuver can be seen” in utilitarian arguments.
Morality isn’t about “taboos,” we’re told, but instead about the empirical consequences of behavior. In this way, utilitarianism does the same work as moral relativism: It changes the subject. The utilitarian mentality focuses on social costs and promoting health. “The idea that something might be spiritually harmful (or beneficial) in a way that can’t be demonstrated statistically has been written out of the conversation.”
I’m not convinced that moral relativism is as passé as she imagines, but Rittelmeyer’s remarks about the spiritual logic of utilitarianism are very perceptive, and she may well be right about the direction of the trend. Few have ever been consistent moral relativists. Most think that there needs to be a bottom line. Therefore, utilitarianism can be more appealing than moral relativism, because its focus on empirical data creates a reassuring feeling that we’re dealing with objective truths rather than mere opinion.
But that feeling comes at a very low cost to our freedom to define right and wrong as we see fit. “The greatest good for the greatest number” turns out to be a remarkably open-ended and plastic principle. Smoking for the smoker? There’s no way to conclusively calculate the units of pleasure that come from smoking over and against the potential pain of sickness and early death. For society? People who smoke die sooner, and by some ways of calculating utility this reduces rather than raises the social costs of smoking. For every calculation of utility, there’s an equal and opposite calculation. There are utilitarian arguments for and against our abortion regime, for and against gay marriage, for and against euthanasia.
So the difference between moral relativism and utilitarianism isn’t all that great, at least not when it comes to the underlying, therapeutic goal of a great deal of the secular West, which seeks to take the soul-defining power out of moral language. Questions of right and wrong aren’t really about right and wrong. They’re about Oedipal fixations, or will to power, or social costs. Rittelmeyer describes this move with the perceptive image of “moral abdication.” Both the older “I’m okay, you’re okay” relativism and the newer utilitarian outlook help us keep moral questions at arm’s length, allowing us to keep our souls as untroubled as possible.
A Lilla out of Touch
Mark Lilla’s recent review in the New Republic of Brad Gregory’s new book, The Unintended Reformation, is written with his usual élan. It’s an engaging read, but a number of passages ring false. For example, Lilla places Gregory among a “new generation of anti-modern Catholics (and some Anglicans) on the left and the right, from members of the postmodern Radical Orthodoxy movement in Britain to conservative American writers around First Things magazine.”
Lilla doesn’t read us very carefully. Ephraim Radner’s recent review of Gregory’s book (“The Reformation Wrongly Blamed,” June/July) follows along the same lines as Lilla’s own. Radner positively rejects an anti-modern mentality. As he writes, “The story of modernity is a story of Christian love’s ongoing embodiment, and this often in spite of and against official Christian practice. It turns out that a chastened Whig interpretation of history, when reformulated in terms of Christian moral irresponsibility, continues to have merit.”
First Things does not provide much in the way of comfort to anti-modernists. In fact, we’re often seen as neo-conservative, which many think of as a betrayal of true conservatism for the sake of currency and influence in the modern world. A tendentious way of putting it, but not altogether inaccurate. First Things is published for men and women committed to the living truths of orthodox Christianity and Judaism (we’ve recently added Muslim voices as well) who are very much at home in the twenty-first century.
That doesn’t make us cheery about the present. Like Brad Gregory (and Ephraim Radner as well), we’re not happy with the liberal regime that dominates a great deal of American culture. It’s becoming increasingly parochial, aggressive, and intolerant. For example, Lilla reflects the usual liberal conceit that anybody who does not sign on to the liberal project in politics, culture, and religion is opposed to modernity and “against progress.” In point of fact, we’d like to progress beyond the progressives by replacing liberalism with a new governing consensus, one that defends human dignity from conception to natural death, recognizes the importance of religious vitality in a free society, and supports the institution of marriage.
We don’t nurture restorationist fantasies at First Things. We know that we face challenges. How can we square our trust in religious authority with our commitment to religious pluralism? What roles do the virtues of patriotism and loyalty to the Western tradition play in our vision of responsible global citizenship? How can economic freedom be disciplined by the strong sense of solidarity and communal responsibility that all religious traditions encourage? Answering these and other questions won’t be easy. But trying to do so isn’t remotely anti-modern.
On the contrary, it involves a contest for the future of the modern world.
Tradition’s Proper Authority
As Thomas Aquinas recognized, social changes, even reasonable changes, involve intrinsic harm. “The mere change of law,” he wrote, “is itself prejudicial to the common good.” Progressives often forget that our obedience to law rests more in habit than reason. We tend to conform, not because we analyze and assent to every detail of the governing consensus, but because we largely trust in the basic justice of existing laws. Changes disrupt our habits and throw our trust into doubt, and too much change weakens our law-abiding impulse, in which case even changes for the better count for little, because laws we don’t obey can’t promote justice.
Edmund Burke recognized the same need for constancy in public life when he observed that social change undermines the majesty of law. The passage of time burnishes the governing consensus, and the longer it has lasted, the more it seems to participate in deep and lasting truths.
Neither St. Thomas nor Edmund Burke advocates social stasis. Glaring injustices should be remedied, even if the majesty of law is thrown in doubt. The civil rights movement provides a good example. But in most circumstances we should make incremental changes rather than dramatic ones, and we should be very suspicious of the progressive mentality that rolls from one supposedly urgent issue to another without pause.
I count myself a social conservative because I’m concerned about the harms done by promiscuous social change in recent decades. As Amy Wax observed in the last issue, when it comes to social norms, “bright-line rules work best,” especially rules that have the authority of tradition behind them. Again, that doesn’t mean no change, but it does require us to count the costs of change. Bespoke moral principles that are hand tailored to their sensibilities allow progressives to redefine marriage as they see fit. Gay rights has become a luxury good for elite culture, with the costs paid by the most vulnerable in society, whose poverty and lack of opportunity are compounded by moral disorder.
Our capitalist system’s creative destruction puts a great deal of life into play, often ripping up our neighborhoods to build shiny new buildings, offering lucrative or interesting jobs that lure us away from our extended families, and generally acting as a solvent on all forms of communal permanence. The way in which contemporary liberalism reinvents moral truths reflects another kind of creative destruction, one that reinforces rather than remediates the worst aspects of modern economic life. Moral revolution tears down our mores as completely as a real estate developer destroys a settled neighborhood.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.