Begin with a sobering fact. During the past ten years, some of the sharpest observers of our time have come to believe that the tectonic plates underlying Western civilization have shifted momentously. One result is a deep, creative struggle among the thoughtful for new imagery and fresh analogies to illuminate what’s perceived as a darkening time.
Thus, nine years ago, the late Richard John Neuhaus called this new place “American Babylon.” Today, in another eponymous book, Rod Dreher speaks of a “Benedict Option.” George Weigel called in his 2017 Simon Lecture for a new Great Awakening, and elsewhere for what he dubs “the Panula option” after the recently deceased Fr. Arne Panula, a tireless evangelizer. Using T. S. Eliot as a touchstone, First Things editor R. R. Reno argues for Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput develops an analogy between our time and that of the Book of Exodus. And in yet another book just published, Anthony Esolen evokes the image of the phoenix with Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.
As this profusion of literary and historical analyses goes to show, to be Christian today is to be a sailor in search of an astrolabe. And no wonder: We are in open, roiling, uncharted waters, so looking up to fixed points would help. One other way to orient ourselves is to peer down beneath the currents and focus on what’s done most to shape the “post-Christian” or “ex-Christian” world: the sexual revolution.
That the revolution is what’s catapulted us to this place is a fact that more and more analysts now affirm. What may be less obvious, though just as important, is what the widespread Western embrace of the revolution has wrought not only in individual lives, but macrocosmically: It has given rise to an increasingly systematic, zealous, secularist faith. We cannot understand either the perils or opportunities of Christianity today without first understanding this developing, rival body of beliefs with which it contends.
To begin with a point to which many Christian thinkers would agree, the United States and other nations rooted in Judeo-Christianity have entered a time of paganization—what we might also call “re-paganization.” The gravitational pull of traditional religion seems to be diminishing, even as a-religious and anti-religious elements accumulate mass. This paganization is especially ascendant among the young, now famously more prone than any other group to checking “none of the above” when asked for their religious affiliation; according to the Pew Research Center and others, the combination of self-described atheists and self-defined “nones” is now the fastest-growing “religious” group.
Wider manifestations of this ongoing paganization have also become commonplaces: the proliferation of religious liberty court cases, legal and other attacks on Christian student groups at secular universities, demonization and caricature of religious believers, intimidation aimed at those who defend Judeo-Christian morality, and other instances of what Pope Francis himself has dubbed the “polite persecution” of believers in advanced societies. Paganization is also evident in the malignant conflation of Christianity with “hate speech,” a noxious form of ideological branding destined to unleash new forms of grief on believers in the time ahead.
So far, so familiar. And yet, we’ve not fully understood this new paganism after all.
According to the dominant paradigm shared by most people, religious and secular alike, the world is now divided into two camps: people of faith and people of no faith. But this either-or template is mistaken. Paganization as we now know it is driven by a new historical phenomenon: the development of a rival faith—a rival, secularist faith which sees Christianity as a competitor to be vanquished, rather than as an alternative set of beliefs to be tolerated in an open society.
How do we know this? We know it in part because today’s secularist faith behaves in ways that only a faith can.
Consider, for example, the scene on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States on June 27, 2016, following the announcement of the decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a decision about Texas abortion clinics that was taken as a victory by proponents of abortion on demand. After that decision was made public, videos documented the outdoor party that resulted, spilling from the court steps on out into the city: a gyrating, weeping, waving, screaming sea of people, mostly women, behaving as if they were in the throes of religious ecstasy. Occam’s razor says they were in religious ecstasy—their kind of religious ecstasy, in which abortion on demand becomes the gnostic equivalent of a central sacrament, the repetition of which is judged essential to their quasi-religious community.
Or consider another snapshot: the so-called Women’s March on Washington following the election of Donald Trump. This public demonstration, too, was driven in large degree by a single force: animus against traditional Judeo-Christian moral teaching—specifically, teaching about sex. The totemic hats used to brand the event were named not for any conventional political concern—jobs, taxes, defense, the economy, health care, immigration—but for female genitalia. To clinch the point, the only women’s organization disinvited from this supposedly universal “women’s march” was a pro-life group. When forced to choose between women and abortion on demand, the women in charge chose abortion. That’s because, within this new church of secularism, pro-life women are heretics: despised transgressors of a religious community’s teaching and norms.
If the so-called right to choose were truly an exercise of choice—if the rhetoric of the people who defend it matched the reality of what they actually believe—one would expect its defenders to honor choosing against it here or there. But this does not happen: No “pro-choice” group holds up as an example any woman who chooses not to abort.
That this doesn’t happen tells us something noteworthy. For secularist believers, abortion is not in fact a mere “choice,” as their value-free, consumerist rhetoric frames it. No, abortion is sacrosanct. It is a communal rite—one through which many enter their new religion in the first place. The popular, Internet-driven rage for “telling one’s own abortion story”—the phenomenon known as #shoutyourabortion—illustrates this point. Each individual story is a secularist pilgrim’s progress into a new faith whose community is united by this bloody rite of passage. Add the suggestively popular term “woke”—today’s gnostic version of “awakened”—and there’s more evidence that secularist progressivism has erected a church.
So the fury directed at Christianity can be pressed into a single word, sex. Christianity today, like Christianity past and Christianity to come, contends with many enemies. But the adversary now inflicting maximal damage on the Church is not dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy. It is instead the absolutist defense of the sexual revolution by its faithful.
Christians and other dissidents aren’t being heckled from Hollywood to Capitol Hill for feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, or defending the commandments against lying and stealing. Bakers aren’t landing in court because of trying to follow what’s said in the Song of Songs. All of the expressions of animosity now aimed against Christianity by this new secularist faith share a common denominator. They are rooted in secularist dogma about the sexual revolution, according to which that revolution is an unequivocal and fundamental boon.
This substitute religion pantomimes Christianity itself in fascinating ways. It offers a hagiography of secular saints, all patrons of the sexual revolution: proselytizers for abortion and contraception such as Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem. Every year, Planned Parenthood confers on pro-abortion journalists, politicians, activists, and others prizes known affectionately as the “Maggies,” for Margaret Sanger—its “highest honor,” in the organization’s words, awarded in recent years to luminaries such as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.
This brings us to another feature of the new secularist faith: its lack of transparency. For decades, scholarship has established Sanger’s moral roots in eugenics, her faith in the inferiority of certain other people, her cynical use of African-American ministers to evangelize the black population about birth control in the hope of bringing their numbers down, and related beliefs out of odor today. Yet in a moment when Confederate statues are targets in the name of scrubbing racism from the public square, Margaret Sanger remains immune from moral revisionism. Why? Because she is the equivalent of a secularist saint of the revolution, off-limits from second thoughts.
Similar status and protection are accorded to pseudo-scientist Alfred C. Kinsey, founder of the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, whose fabled “reports” on human sexuality included allowing so-called research “subjects” to inflict what is now called child sexual abuse. According to biographer James H. Jones in Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, the icon also filmed sex acts of employees and subordinates, walked in on students as they showered, had sex with people involved in his “research,” wrote letters of erotica to assistants and others, and otherwise appears to have fallen short of today’s standards concerning sexual harassment and coercion. Even before “Harvey Weinstein” became global shorthand for such depredations, Kinsey’s legacy would have been reviled—were he anything but Kinsey, a founding father of the new secularist faith. Instead, Kinsey and all his works, like Sanger’s, remain untouchable.
The rival faith sports foreign “missionaries,” too, in the form of progressive charities and international bureaucracies—those who carry word of the revolution and the pseudo-sacraments of contraception and abortion to women around the planet. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to name one prominent example, recently made the provision of contraception a centerpiece of its overseas work. It hopes thereby to reach “an additional 120 million women and girls in the poorest countries by 2020.”
Who, exactly, are these women? Judged by the photos on the Gates Foundation website, they do not hail from Iceland or Denmark. As the foundation explains, “Less than 20 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and barely one-third of women in South Asia use modern contraceptives”—making these women targets of quasi-religious zeal.
In fact, preoccupation with the fertility of certain other people is a constant theme in the church of the new secularism. In July 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron revealed his own fealty to the faith when he dilated at an appearance in Germany—of all places—upon the “civilizational” challenges facing Africa, singling out the fact that women in some countries still have “seven or eight children.” Elsewhere that same summer, Canada’s minister of international development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, called abortion “a tool to end poverty.” In 2009, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a similar slip in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, reflecting that “at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”
Again, it’s the lack of transparency that makes this faith go round. Under any other circumstances, if well-heeled white people were to proclaim that the solution to the world’s problems is to have fewer dark people, public outrage would be the result. Yet in secular quarters, these statements above, and others like them, get a pass. This is what happens when one’s religion takes as its cornerstone the teaching that the sexual revolution and its consequences are beyond question—eugenics, sexual violations, and other transgressions be damned.
Traditional religious believers should strive to bring the hidden premises of this rival faith into the open. For example, when people say that they hope the Church changes its position on marriage or birth control, they are not talking about one religious faith—i.e., the Christian one. What they really mean is that they hope the Church will suborn or replace its own theology with the theology of the new church of secularism. Or when politicians say they are “privately opposed to abortion”—even as they vote for policies that will ensure its ubiquity—they are using language to conceal rather than clarify their intention. What they really want is to enjoy a kind of dual religious citizenship, according to which they are “Catholic” or “Christian” in some circumstances, and followers of the church of secularism in any circumstances bearing on the sexual revolution.
This effort to keep a foot in both churches won’t work, any more than one can be simultaneously Muslim and Buddhist. Even so, the effort to enjoy dual religious citizenship, particularly among politicians and others in the public eye, remains commonplace. It should be understood for what it is: an attempt to serve two very different—indeed, competing—religious masters.
The fact that two faiths now compete in the West also explains the vehemence aimed at public figures who are practicing Christians—in particular, practicing Catholics. In September 2017, at the confirmation hearing of judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic, several senators remarked upon and denounced her faith. The most telling rhetorical moment may have been Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s declaration that “the dogma lives loudly within you”—an expostulation more fitted to an exorcist preparing for battle with Satan than to an American elected official charged with ascertaining the judicial fitness of a highly qualified candidate. Which is exactly the point.
In sum, secularist progressivism is less a political movement than a church, and the so-called culture war has not been conducted by people of religious faith and people of no faith. It is instead a contest of competing faiths. One believes in the books of the Bible, and the other in the evolving, figurative book of orthodoxy about the sexual revolution.
What does this tour of the new church of secularism mean for those outside its congregation? First, traditional believers need to distinguish the competitive character of this new religion from the cooperative qualities of other, more familiar ones. At long last and after great troubles, Americans have grown accustomed to the peaceful coexistence of multiple faiths and denominations. The rival church of secularism seeks no such comity, as today’s unprecedented attacks on Christian schools, charities, colleges, and other works go to show. The new church of secularism serves a very jealous god.
We see this, again, in the new church’s chronic, self-perceived imperative to interfere with the fertility of other people. This spectacle—of pale people in increasingly barren societies telling certain other people not to have their own children—is going to look grotesque in history’s rearview mirror. It also shows that the Christian idea of the intrinsic dignity and worth of all human beings stands as an especially vivid sign of contradiction to secularism’s understanding that certain people would be better off dead, or otherwise not among us. And it’s at least ironic that a movement known by the slogan “keep your rules off my body” has no trouble telling other people what to do with theirs.
Its missionary aggression also explains why the new secular faith has insinuated itself successfully into many Christian institutions, and why this insinuation has been invariably destructive. At the micro level of personal behavior, the new faith tempts people toward disobedience and cafeteria Christianity. At the macro level, it’s institutionally divisive like no other issue of our day. It turns the followers of Christ into political interest groups. The scramble over doctrine in the Catholic Church today, conducted entirely by advocates who mistakenly believe that the dogmas of both faiths can be somehow reconciled, is a powerful example of the sexual revolution’s virulent workings within Christianity itself.
The most insidious threat to the real Church, and even to religious liberty, is not the new secularist church in itself. The greater threat is self-censorship. There is understandable temptation, including among Christians, to preemptively accommodate to this new faith, for all kinds of reasons: saving face, not being “judgy,” preventing the ostracism of one’s children, and other motivations plumbed so searchingly in Rod Dreher’s work, especially. As he also proves, it’s hard to find comity with a foe that wants to drive one’s own Church to perdition. Christians need to know that what’s paramount is confronting secular religion and its sex-fixated dogmas, not accommodating them.
This vocation of religious opposition is necessary not only for the protection of the Church, but also for the sake of the sexual revolution’s real and many victims. The new church of secularism, rooted in a false anthropology that mismeasures humanity and deprives it of redemption, generates human misery throughout Western societies. The malign consequences of secularist doctrine are playing out especially tragically among the young. The scene on many American campuses, to offer one example, has become surreal, replete with demonstrations and high emotional drama and seemingly inexplicable animosities. But why are more and more students behaving so bizarrely in the first place?
One novel thought is this. Maybe they’re claiming to be victims because they are victims—not so much of the “isms” they point to as putative oppressors, but of the church of the new secularism and its toxic works. Up until the sexual revolution, expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; that one would have parents and siblings and extended family in the first place.
The revolution has upended every one of these expectations. It has erased the givenness into which generations are born. “Who am I?” is a universal human question. It becomes harder to answer if other questions are out of reach. Who is my brother? Who is my father? Where, if anywhere, are my cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, and the rest of the organic connections through which humanity up until now channeled everyday existence—including our relations with God?
It’s this loss of givenness that drives the frenzied search for identity these days, whether in the secular scholasticism concerning how to speak about ethnicity, or in the belligerent fights over “cultural appropriation.” Such phenomena are indeed bizarre, if we examine them under the rationalist assumptions of the pre-revolutionary world. But if instead we understand them against the existential reality of today—one in which the family has imploded, and in which many people, no matter how well-off or privileged, have been deprived of the most elementary of human connections—we can grasp why “identity politics” is the headline that just won’t go away.
“Who am I?” An illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages was better equipped to answer that question than many people in advanced societies in this century. He may only have lived until age thirty—but he spent his days among family and in towns, practicing a shared faith, and thus developed a vivid sense of those to whom he was elementally connected, not just in the course of his life but before birth and after death. Post-Pill, confusion rules the earth. No wonder itinerant erotic leanings and ethnic claims have become substitute answers to that eternal question, “Who am I?” Many people, especially younger people, experience these as the only reliable answers to that question of identity—or at least, as the answers that seem less ambiguous and fraught than answers that refer back to their family, or families, or lack thereof.
In this ongoing catastrophe over the fundamental question of who we are, there is great opportunity. It is shocking but true: The overbearing secularist culture is itself sowing the seeds of a religious revival.
The wide range of fresh cultural and religious analysis mentioned earlier is one measure of a counterculture that’s thriving in this hour of paganization. Even the dominance of the secularist church in familiar venues looks to be less monolithic than is usually understood. Witness again how the conflagration that started with Harvey Weinstein has gone on to illuminate wrongdoing elsewhere, on the part of others who have acted on the premise that women are available for recreational sex anywhere and anytime. Meanwhile, new Catholic and other Christian associations proliferate on campuses and elsewhere, despite fierce secularist pushback. If the rise in “nones” is one emblematic story of our time, so too is the birth of countercultural campus communities like the Thomistic Institute, the Love and Fidelity Network, and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students); the sharp rise in high schools grounded in classical education; the Leonine Forum for young professionals in Washington, D.C., now expanding into other cities; related ongoing intellectual projects like the Tertio Millennio Seminar in Poland, the Free Society Seminar in Slovakia, and more; and many other organic responses, both protective and proactive, to competition from the rival church of secularism.
These and other platoons like them will transform the American landscape. They encourage the search for transcendence in a world where neo-paganism insists there is none; they help those damaged collaterally by the sexual revolution to find answers to the question “Who am I?” The rival church of secularism shortchanges humanity, and humanity, plodding and delinquent though it may be, still shows signs of wanting more than the church of the new secularism can deliver.
Two such witnesses to that reality appeared in Washington, D. C., a few months ago, in the middle of a heat wave. They had gotten in touch with me to discuss a documentary they were creating to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Their studio in D.C. turned out to be their hotel room. The entourage for the shoot included their three very young children, with whom they took turns throughout the interview. They had made many sacrifices and traveled hundreds of miles because, they said, they were on a mission to tell the truth.
The young woman had grown up without knowing who her father was. Her mother, a radical feminist, raised her to fear and hate men. The young man came from Scandinavia, growing up as secular as Scandinavians can be. Both, if encountered earlier in their lives, would have been categorized as “nones.”
In their own estimations, they had escaped from behind enemy lines of the sexual revolution. Somehow, they found each other. Somehow, falling in love led them to question what had happened in their pasts. Somehow, they encountered a priest. Somehow, they read some books by faithful authors. And what with one improbable development and another, both ended up converting to Catholicism. Now they want to share with others the truths they discovered the hard way. That’s how the Church of the future will be rebuilt: stone by stone, picked up from the rubble, by witnesses to the initial blast.
Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles has connected our moment in the West to Juan Diego’s in Guadalupe, almost five hundred years ago. Today’s world, like Diego’s then, overflows with human damage. Today’s world, like his, has now raised up whole generations of men and women subjected to an inhuman account of human life. The resulting deformations are everywhere, and confusion can’t help but abound. Even so, the secularist faith remains vulnerable for the same reasons that a once-triumphant Marxism did: because its promises are false and its anthropology deluded.
The church that the sexual revolution has built is thriving, all right, and those outside need to know what’s in there. But its pews are packed with casualties—every one of them a convert waiting to happen, for the Church that does keep its promises.
Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of several books, including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God. This essay is adapted from a speech delivered to the Napa Institute in California in July 2017.
Photo by Mark Dixon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.