Recently, I met a Wall Street trader. He was in his late thirties, perhaps his early forties. I was impressed by his active intelligence. We spoke of the current political situation and its odd combination of hysteria and complacency. Everybody seems to feel oppressed in some way. Many worry that “liberal norms” and “free markets” are imperiled, or that fascists (or socialists) are poised to gain power. Yet, at the same time, they carefully plot their next career step or investment move on the assumption that nothing important will change. Perceiving my sympathy for his way of thinking, my new acquaintance confided in me his personal philosophy. “You’ve got to get rich if you’re going to have any hope of protecting yourself and your family.” The ease of our conversation prompted me to ask, “Protect against what?” He waved his hand dismissively and replied, “Come on, you know. Protect against the fact that the system doesn’t care one wit [in truth, he used a spicier scatological formulation] about your well-being.”
I’ve heard such sentiments expressed before, though never quite so brutally. The impulse to self-protection is widespread. The fabric of trustworthy institutions has unraveled. Marriage is no longer a sturdy foundation for domestic life. Boy Scout troops, Little League baseball, and Elks Lodges have receded. The churches are diminished and, in the minds of many, discredited. To a striking degree, we are forced to go it alone, not because we’re ideological individualists in the manner of Ayn Rand, but because the old frameworks have broken down.
It’s not just a matter of weakened mediating institutions. Our free-market system has always been competitive, but these days it seems inordinately hostile. A great deal has been written about wage stagnation for working-class Americans, which is perhaps one reason why polling shows that young people expect to be worse off than their parents. Paradoxically, having money does not seem to lower anxiety, for the prosperous are disquieted as well. Upper-middle-class parents fret over the fates of their children in a hypercompetitive marketplace, investing in expensive schools, buying homes in protected enclaves, and inculcating a high-achiever mindset.
Even something as reliable as national solidarity is in doubt. In this century, the people who run things often speak of their fellow citizens with derision. The Republican nominee for president in 2012 characterized 47 percent of the country as deadweight “takers.” Four years later, the Democratic nominee alluded to “deplorables,” implying that nearly half the population is made up of racists, bigots, and moral cretins. These were rhetorical missteps, but unsurprising ones. Those perched atop America’s powerful political institutions have become displeased by the people they rule. Americans outside the top 20 percent are thought to be too dependent on government handouts, too ignorant and unskilled to compete with Chinese workers, less willing than immigrants to do grueling work for low wages, too isolationist, culpably slow to acknowledge that their heritage is based on genocide and slavery, too complacent to address the coming climate catastrophe. Even when they are not these things, they are hopelessly boring and white-bread.
In the 1950s, a black American might have reasonably concluded that he was living in a country governed by people who were hostile to his well-being. If polling is to be believed, that mistrust has remained. A 2019 Pew survey reports that fully 50 percent of black Americans believe they are unlikely ever to enjoy equal rights in the United States. What has changed is the attitude among white Americans, many of whom now believe that America is run by elites who are also hostile to their well-being. They are not misjudging their circumstances.
I recently spoke with a graduate student in social policy at Harvard who could not affirm that he had a greater duty to an unemployed worker in Youngstown than to a man in Lagos who wants to immigrate to the United States. His frank admission was a disturbing indicator of how the rising generation of technocrats views its responsibilities. Like the financier who told me that the first imperative is self-protection, the idealistic Harvard student can conceive of no discrete public good that commands his loyalty. Both have demythologized and desacralized the national covenant that would bind them to their fellow citizens. Had I sought to remind the financier of what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” that tie us together as a people and ask of us more than the pursuit of private gain, he would have laughed at me for being a romantic who lacks a clear view of reality. The graduate student went one better. When I challenged him, he responded by stating what he regarded as a transparent truth: The nation-state is a recent modern invention that in the American context is a mask for white power and privilege.
There is a danger in praising our earthly homes too highly. There is also a danger in withholding the praise due them. This peril—of disenchanting our earthly homes—was on my mind as I reread Michael Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative.” In the mind of the conservative, he argues, “familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments.” The conservative ambition, if one can call it that, is “to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection.” The ideal is one of repose in the trustworthiness of the tried, in the actual rather than the possible. We should cherish the satisfactions of settling in.
Settling in—sadly, few people these days seem able to. It’s not that we’re being forced into the town square to stand at attention during the Supreme Leader’s speeches. We are, for the most part, at liberty. But a great deal is in ruin, and we find few moments or places of repose. For the successful, the need to gain the credentials and earn enough money to be “safe” demands unstinting labor. For the less successful, drug addition, alcoholism, disordered sexual relations, and children scattered along the ragged edges of broken bonds make it difficult to enjoy the familiar and find rest. Meanwhile, those who lead and to whom falls the task of repairing the social fabric are quick to deny that the nation deserves anyone’s devotion—conveniently leaving themselves free to pursue their private goods (or moralistic dreams of a world “community”) without pangs of conscience.
How has it come about that our present circumstances are so uncongenial to the conservative life as Oakeshott pictures it? Why do marriage and children seem remote to so many? Why are civic, educational, and religious institutions lamed? Why do we seem to need to be ever on alert, always seeking safety? How did civic life, with its rightful demand for our loyalty, come to be seen as a threat to private life rather than its enabling framework?
Patrick Deneen and others have labored to answer these questions. They trace our lack of repose to a liberal ideology that encourages us to think of ourselves as isolated individuals, and they call for the restoration of the communal life that gives us a home. Perhaps they are mistaken, or at least too one-sided. The Christian tradition identifies seven deadly sins, not one, and by analogy we should suppose that our cultural and political troubles, like the cankers on our souls, have many causes, not just liberalism or some other singularly fatal “-ism.”
Yet it is important to recognize that Oakeshott, writing more than a half-century ago, enjoyed a luxury Deneen does not. He could take for granted a society full of strong institutions and attractive loyalties: private clubs with soft leather chairs where like-minded men could gather, the institution of marriage undamaged by no-fault divorce, universities steeped in tradition, stolid war veterans and their civic organizations, gardening clubs, a class consciousness not yet exploded by promises of upward mobility, and much more.
Of conservatives, Oakeshott wrote: “They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else.” This is good counsel, but it becomes unhelpful when less and less is available to use and enjoy. There is a virtuous complacency, one that does not war against human finitude. But there is also a vicious complacency, one that, satisfied with old truisms and fearful of the pitfalls of action, will not rouse itself to address the problems we face, many of which revolve around the lack of stable places, reliable institutions, and lasting bonds where we can settle in.
Not a few Christian thinkers, inspired by St. Augustine, have described settling in as idolatry. It tempts us to love worldly goods rather than devote ourselves heart, mind, and soul to love of God. We are pilgrims in this world, and if we make ourselves too comfortable, if we are conservative only in the manner Oakeshott commends, we become citizens of the city of man, not the city of God.
There is truth in this criticism. But it is not the whole truth, about either our pilgrimage through this world or Augustine. In City of God, Augustine shows how the great accomplishments of Rome were the empty results of self-love, which take us back to the dead end of ourselves rather than toward God, our true and final end. We are to learn from Rome’s example that false gods can rouse our hearts to misadventure. But there is another danger, one of lassitude and lack of spiritual ambition. Many commit themselves to seek God, but delay departure or tarry along the way. As Augustine records in his Confessions, when it came to renouncing his vices and following Christ, he would say, “I will, but not yet, not yet.”
Because Augustine knew the danger of a love too weak to move the soul, in book 5 of City of God he pivots to commend to his Christian readers the virtues of Rome. “We may profit from the kindness of the Lord our God by considering what great things those Romans despised, what they endured, and what lusts they subdued.” If the citizens of that city were so ready to sacrifice their wealth and even their lives for the sake of earthly glory, then how much more should we be willing to subdue our pride and give up all to follow Christ! Augustine does not deride the full measure of sacrifice that the Romans offered for their city; rather, he holds it up as a mirror for Christians.
Augustine insisted that without faith’s full devotion we will misprize as ultimate that which is penultimate, setting us on the path toward idolatry. But God is not stingy. If love is properly ordered, if we refer the goods of this world to our final end in God, then powerful natural loves can enliven our souls and prepare our hearts for the supernatural love of God. Indeed, God has arranged things so that we can enter into a pedagogy of affection, which includes devotions evoked by civic life, devotions that are sometimes called “nationalist.” “Let us not attribute the power to grant kingdoms and empires to any save the true God,” Augustine warns. As St. Paul puts it, “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Augustine demolishes any pretense that worldly authorities are divine, but he follows Scripture in referring our earthly homes and their claim on our hearts to God. Christianity rules out a “naive unity” between religion and politics, but it also rules out a modern, secular “naive disjunction” between religion and politics.
We cannot legislate happiness. We can’t even legislate justice, if by that we mean a society in which no injustices can occur. At best, we can cure gross defects in the body politic. To that end, Oakeshott urged a “politics of repair” rather than of redemption. In this modest but important undertaking, accurate knowledge of what needs restoration and renovation is of utmost importance. No doubt the pilgrimage of faith is imperiled by ardent worldly loves that manufacture powerful idols. But a world stripped of love’s proximate objects is perhaps a greater danger to the life of faith. Neither today’s ceaseless labor to be “safe,” nor dissipation and enslavement to self-destructive vices, suggests movement. Both conditions train our souls to remain in neutral, never engaging the gears of love that draw us out of ourselves to work in solidarity toward ends greater than our private goods. Trained to stay self-enclosed, we domesticate the call of Christ and delay our departure.
For all things there is a season. There is a time to break down, and a time to build up. As I argue in Return of the Strong Gods, after 1945 the dominant consensus urged breaking down the solidarity that unites men, especially the solidarity of the nation. Theologians participated in this de-consolidation, formulating theories about the intrinsically secularizing and disenchanting significance of Christianity. That consensus has been all too successful, and now it is time to build up. This building up will produce idols of pride if we imagine it as flowing from our creativity or the calculations of utility. Let it be, rather, that we warm to the loves to which we are called, purifying them with our reason and ordering them to God by receiving them as providential gifts, sacred in the sense of coming from the mysterious purposes of the divine. For Americans, this means loyalty to our liberal traditions. But let us not be deceived by the spirit of disenchantment so dominant today. This loyalty to our national heritage is transcendent, because its intensity—the bonds it creates and the duties it imposes—are, happily, greater than anything we can justify by political theories, liberal or otherwise.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.