The woke revolutionaries get the headlines. A psychologist speaking at Yale fantasizes about killing “white people.” Princeton’s classics department eliminates Latin and Greek as requirements for undergraduate majors. The media bombard us with warnings about “white supremacy.” It’s easy to become demoralized. Not a day goes by that we don’t rue the damage done to our country.
But bad news is not the whole story. In May and June, family and work responsibilities took me to three parts of the country on consecutive weekends. Each Sunday brought remarkable experiences. The winds of change are blowing in the Catholic Church—blowing in an auspicious direction.
Pentecost Sunday found me in St. Joseph’s Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The liturgy was perfectly ordinary, keeping to the post-Vatican II norm of correct but unexceptional celebration of the new order of the Mass. The sermon, however, broke the mold. Over the course of twenty-five minutes, the priest detailed Old Testament sources for the Jewish Festival of Weeks—the feast of fifty days (“Pentecost”). He explained the connections between God’s “coming down” on Mount Sinai in smoke and fire and the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire. “The Holy Spirit,” he observed, “fulfills Jeremiah 31:31, which prophesies the new nation God will make by writing his law, not on tablets, but on our hearts.”
This was unusual. Not often do I hear a detailed instructional or “catechetical” sermon. I also rarely hear sermons constructed on a firm foundation of scriptural citations. For two generations, priests have been taught to preach from personal experience, or in some other way to make the assigned readings “relevant.” But the priest in Lancaster was from Africa, where preaching is more biblical. So, as I filed the experience in the “excellent sermon” folder, I assumed he was an exception.
Imagine my surprise when, on Trinity Sunday, I was in St. Hilary’s Church in Tiburon, California, listening to another sermon anchored in apt biblical quotations. The priest threw Scripture verses onto a screen as he developed his theme. (It was a PowerPoint sermon, a concept that makes my skin crawl, but this particular priest pulled it off quite well.) The sermon in Tiburon, like the one I had heard the week before in Lancaster, lasted twenty-five minutes. And it, too, was catechetical, expounding a vital truth about the Christian life. All of us are missionaries, called to bring others to salvation in the Church: “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). We are especially called to be missionaries to our children: Faith in Christ, the priest concluded, is the most precious inheritance they can receive from us.
The style of music at St. Hilary’s is “contemporary praise,” a genre I disfavor. When I’m traveling and attend an unfamiliar parish, my heart sinks when I see a guitar. But from the first chord my prejudice was contradicted by the excellence of the musicians. After the service, I spotted one of them and introduced myself, saying that, though my taste runs to Palestrina more than contemporary praise music, the service music had been quite beautiful. She smiled and modestly replied, “I prefer Palestrina, too, but when we play together, it seems to work.”
I stood beside my car, looking south past Sausalito to the fog-blurred skyline of San Francisco. Tiburon is in Marin County, one of the richest places in the world. In these sorts of locales, post-Vatican II Catholicism became complacent over the years, then weak, and finally empty. Yet in the spiritual rubble something new is happening. Musicians of the highest caliber are praising God in song. A priest is directing his congregation toward the ancient, ever-new faith. I turned the key in my rental car. The engine leapt to life.
A week later, on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I was in Colorado Springs at St. Patrick’s Church. And I was listening to another twenty-five-minute sermon firmly rooted in the Scriptures. The priest explained how Christ’s institution of the Eucharist fulfills the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. It was the final typology that arrested me. God covenants with David, promising that his progeny will be kings of Israel forever, a promise fulfilled in Christ, our Lord and sovereign. The priest developed his theme with rhetorical urgency. Christ does not remain in heaven. In every sacrifice of the Mass, he comes to us. He is a not a general who stays behind the lines at headquarters. Our Lord goes before us with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, leading us into battle.
Tears began to form in my eyes. I entered the Catholic Church more than fifteen years ago. In that time, I can’t remember hearing the slightest hint of the Church militant (aside from the recitation of the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel after Mass, a practice recently encouraged by Pope Francis). Yet at this moment, a young priest is preaching. He is fully aware that the Church’s view of sex and marriage, and even of the male-female difference, is embattled. He is disabusing his flock of the notion that the Son of God is a cosmic therapist sitting at the right hand of the Father issuing plenary affirmations. He is the Lord. The light of the Incarnate Word conquers the darkness, and before him all things are destined to bow. Even now, even in the ruins of our spiritual mediocrity, he is marshaling the faithful, outfitting us with the full armor of God.
I don’t wish to be over-optimistic. All is not well. A great deal is broken. We’re stumbling, not striding; limping, not marching. But society’s total mobilization against the coronavirus—which I opposed as unwise and damaging—has accelerated existing trends and started new ones. We saw as much in June 2020, when cities were aflame with protests. No doubt our churches and our souls have been affected as well, perhaps for the better. Something is stirring.
Seven Ranges: Ground Zero for the Staging of America is an achingly honest love letter to our country. Its author, Will Hoyt, was a carpenter in Berkeley and a hiker in the remote reaches of the High Sierra. Truing doorframes and navigating boulder-strewn glacial moraines, Hoyt came to see that when we oppose the purity of wilderness with the artificialities of civilization, we create a false juxtaposition, imagining that we need to refresh ourselves in contemplation of the ancient sequoias in order to endure the contrivances of culture. It’s a polarity encouraged by life in California, a state of stunning natural beauty that can overpower and humble our efforts of settlement, however grand (or, in many cases, grandiose). Visit San Simeon, north of San Luis Obispo: There, you can see that even the limitless ego and wealth of William Randolph Hearst could not compete with the sublime power of the California coast.
In search of synthesis (and a lower cost of living), Hoyt uprooted his family. His inner compass guided him to Harrison County in eastern Ohio, where he bought a bit of land north of Cadiz. At first, he merely thought that he had found affordable acreage and soil to turn. But he soon recognized that he was building a home on the rim of a boiling cauldron of historical significance, a place where worlds have been made and unmade. Let me explain.
Seven Ranges takes its title from the first survey of land west of the Ohio River. Needing funds to pay off its war debt, the new national government passed the 1785 Land Act to establish land parcels that could be sold to settlers (and speculators). Starting near what is now Calcutta, Ohio, the surveying team ran a latitudinal line westward from the Ohio River into the nation’s interior, dropping longitudinal lines southward every seven miles. These downward running lines (which were soon enough matched by upward, northbound ones) mark “ranges,” which are divided into mile-square “sections” (six hundred and forty acres), which can in turn be sub-divided into one-hundred-sixty-acre quarter-sections. In this first U.S. government-sponsored survey, seven ranges were established with stone benchmarks laid down at regular intervals.
This method of land platting, pioneered in eastern Ohio, would soon run to the Mississippi River, and then beyond, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, a man standing on the bluffs on the east side of the Ohio River overlooking Steubenville can cast his eyes eastward and see the hodge-podge of old-world colonial settlements. Turning west, he beholds the beginning of the world’s largest checkerboard, a device of Cartesian reason laid down upon nature to facilitate the buying and selling that fueled America’s restless westward expansion.
As Hoyt explains, cutting up the vastness of the continent into range and section was at once marvelous and extraordinarily efficient. The 1862 Homestead Act marked the apogee of its genius: a quarter-section of federal land to anyone who would claim and work it. But range and section also turned land into a commodity, disrupting our very human need to settle in a particular place and form deeper attachments, our need for place that owns us as much as we own it.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Settlement, dwelling, the making of a home—these are crucial notions for Hoyt, and rightly so. But by his reckoning, as Americans we are doomed to live within unstable polarities: wilderness and civilization, restless enterprise and settlement, disembodied spirit and sensual embodiment. He’s surely right. I remember, while studying in Germany, that one of my tutors repeated the cliché that Americans are “materialistic.” I contradicted him, observing that he washed and waxed his BMW regularly. Like so many Europeans, he cherished his car, caring for it as a distinct material object. The same can be said for Europeans in relation to their homes and businesses. By contrast, Americans are profligate. We churn through our possessions, buying, selling, and discarding. This suggests a distinctively American “spiritualism” of getting and having, not materialism.
Our spiritualism was supercharged in the Ohio River Valley. Hoyt documents the central role played by the Second Great Awakening. This religious revival, which burst into flame in the first years of the nineteenth century on what was then the western frontier, stamped American Protestantism with its distinctive “born-again” character, which is now a global phenomenon of incalculable influence. In further chapters, Hoyt recounts the contributions of abolitionists and the role of eastern Ohio in the Civil War, America’s born-again moment played out in a political key (“a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln put it). But what most occupies him is the industrial supernova that burned so brightly for nearly a century on the banks of the Ohio River, only to collapse into a black hole of environmental degradation and human suffering.
I’ve been to Steubenville many times to visit friends. The place never fails to depress me. And I sigh not just because the decayed downtown looks like a bombed-out German city after World War II. Nor because chain stores in gimcrack shopping malls have destroyed Main Street shops. Nor because opioids have wreaked havoc on the young, and working-class families are, more often than not, broken. I weep because, as The Seven Ranges explains in detail, this part of America—flown over, neglected, and pilloried as “deplorable”—is an apocalyptic mirror of a great deal of our country.
Go to Baltimore, Maryland. The decay and collapse are evident. Visit Berkeley, California, and ponder the vast homeless encampment by an I-80 exit. Consider the tent cities under freeway overpasses in Seattle. Drive around East L.A., and ask why hundreds of broken-down RVs are parked one after another. Take in the acrid smell as you walk down sidewalks in cities that have legalized marijuana. And the feral, unwashed youths with matted hair living on the streets with their dogs—where are their parents?
And don’t stop with the visible, malodorous ruin. Consider the recent declines in life expectancy driven by so-called deaths of despair. Reflect on the striking fact that today’s young people have less sex than previous generations did at their age, an indication of how dysfunctional male-female relations have become. To this add the usual observations about income inequality, wage stagnation in the working class, and erosion of middle-class prosperity. We’re not living in happy times.
What went wrong? Hoyt makes deft use of intellectual sources. Nominalism impoverishes our metaphysical imaginations. Technology alienates us from reality. Liberalism encourages an individualistic solipsism. Yes, distorting philosophies and ill-conceived ideas dominate the modern age. But Hoyt opts for a simpler explanation. We’re caught in our very American false polarities: wilderness versus civilization, body versus spirit, individual initiative versus state action, a free life versus a settled life. Boom and bust, enterprising and careless, idealistic and cynical, we can’t give enduring stability to our creative achievements.
Hoyt does not despair. As a builder, he knows that he must often make do with the materials at hand. Those who homesteaded in Nebraska built sod huts, not because they liked living in dark and dank quarters, but because there were no trees to provide lumber. It would be nice to imagine that we could go to Home Depot and purchase a citizenry that is more steady, sober, and virtuous than twenty-first-century Americans are. We can fantasize about trading in our restless, democratic spirit for old-world sensibilities, or perhaps for utopian, new-world unity of the sort socialists dream about. But Hoyt is wise enough to recognize that this is not possible. A man who lives by his hammer rather than a computer keyboard knows that he cannot select his countrymen or his political inheritance the way he chooses two-by-fours at the lumberyard. If America alone is on offer, then we must build with who we are and what we have, vices as well as virtues.
This crucial fact is what makes eastern Ohio and places like it so important. As he contemplates his migration to one of the epicenters of post-industrial ruin, Hoyt is thankful. Elsewhere, he might be enjoying a well-made cappuccino and averting his eyes. “Here, though, we are able to wake up as Americans who are at risk of losing our newfound country and the hope for which it stands.”
Seven Ranges ends with a parable. On a whim, Hoyt visits Harrison State Forest, a preserve set up in a region devastated by surface coal mining. Driving into this postage-stamp-sized park, he notices that the engraved wooden signs are exactly the same as the National Forest signs that mark vast mountain wildernesses. He leaves his car and heads down one of the trails. Finely ground rock, detritus of the surface mine that once occupied the land, crunches under his feet. The sky is fair above. The trail turns; there are new vantage points. White pines offer shade. A meadow opens before him. Memories of pristine wilderness and vast mountain landscapes return in Ohio’s morning sunshine. Back at his car, he spies a faucet. He drinks the cool water, and it is as satisfying as deep gulps from a snow-fed mountain stream.
I strongly advise visiting the Ohio River Valley. In that place, no patriot can avoid the sad truth that we have allowed ourselves a long season of neglect. We have entertained a perverse reading of Jesus’s words: Let the dead bury the dead. Ahead lies the difficult labor of reclamation. And get a copy of Seven Ranges. It’s a beautifully written meditation on that labor. For good and for ill, we must make our future as Americans.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ An acquaintance had to endure mandatory New York City anti-harassment training. One of the slides in the presentation concerns “women in the workplace.” The first line reads: “Men: Do not avoid working with women because you are afraid of sexual harassment complaints. That is gender discrimination.” But given talk of micro-aggressions and other sins against “equity and inclusion,” isn’t it wise for men simply to steer clear of women in the workplace? Not a problem, the anti-harassment training slide assures: “To avoid sexual harassment complaints, do not sexually harass people.”
♦ In the late 1990s, my employer, Creighton University, required sexual harassment training for faculty that amounted to informing us of the legal implications of sexual relations with students. I told my department chair that I would not attend. When he asked why not, I noted that I was married, which was sufficient reason not to make sexual advances in the workplace (or anywhere else). And in any event, I was not going to subject myself to moral toilet training.
♦ Yale Law School is being shaken by accusations and counteraccusations surrounding the personality and behavior of law professor Amy Chua. This summary in the New York Times suggests something of the poisonous atmosphere:
At the law school, the episode has exposed bitter divisions in a top-ranked institution struggling to adapt at a moment of roiling social change. Students regularly attack their professors, and one another, for their scholarship, professional choices and perceived political views. In a place awash in rumor and anonymous accusations, almost no one would speak on the record.
♦ In early June, I editorialized in the Wall Street Journal about my sense of the diminished value of degrees from elite universities (“Why I Stopped Hiring Ivy League Graduates”). When I see a supposedly top school on a young person’s resume, I no longer regard it as positive, but rather see it as a red flag. The report about the atmosphere at Yale Law School reinforces my changed judgment. Why would a law firm that wishes to maintain a professional atmosphere of trust and collegiality hire a Yale Law graduate?
♦ This summer, George Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk will publish One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America. The book presents the results of their research into the growing divide between progressive and conservative Christians. Yancey summarizes some of the key findings for The Gospel Coalition in “Who’s More Political: Progressive or Conservative Christians?” Readers will not be surprised to know that theologically conservative Christians trend in a politically conservative direction, and theologically liberal Christians are aligned with political progressivism. Yancey adds, however, that the two sides of the theological divide do not differ only in their political loyalties. They also hold political views with different degrees of intensity: “One of our findings is that progressive Christians prioritize political values more than conservative Christians do. Political conformity is more important for progressive Christians than for conservative Christians.”
Because progressive Christians draw a tighter connection between theology and politics, they tend to see political activism as an urgent demand of the gospel. This makes progressive Christians more hostile to non-progressives than conservative Christians are to non-conservatives. As Yancey reports, “Our quantitative and qualitative analysis indicated that conservative Christians are more likely to create social out-groups based on theological than [on] political differences.” This means “they’re also quite willing [to] see different types of Christians as friends,” and they “often see progressive Christians as brothers and sisters with slightly different beliefs.” Not so for progressive Christians: “They’re more likely to create social out-groups based on political differences.” As a consequence, “Progressive Christians are less likely than conservative Christians to have different types of believers as friends. Progressive Christians are more likely to reject conservative Christians than conservative Christians are to reject progressive Christians.”
I don’t wish to discount bilious accusations that circulate on Twitter from all sides. But in my experience, Yancey and Quosigk’s research highlights important realities. The patrons of diversity insist upon ideological homogeneity. The party of inclusion is quick to cancel political heretics, which is what progressive Christians are doing when they slander conservative Christians as “haters,” as those who make an “idol of the nation,” or as craven toadies who “sell out to power.”
♦ At its June meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of drafting a document about Catholics receiving Holy Communion. The secular press (and the usual suspects in the American episcopacy) protested against “weaponizing the Eucharist” and otherwise using the Church’s sacramental life as a political tool. This mischaracterized the proposed document. It will not address elections, court decisions, or executive orders. True, the need to clarify conditions for reception of Holy Communion stems from political realities, not the least of which has been the intensification of the pro-abortion stance among American liberals. But the document’s purpose will be to explain the Church’s duty to protect the integrity of her inner life, for which the Eucharist is source and summit—a theological necessity, not a political agenda.
♦ On May 24, the Biden administration demanded the resignation of four members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, including its chairman, Justin Shubow (who, among his many accomplishments, is also a First Things author). The Commission was established in 1910 in order to oversee public architecture on federal property and in the District of Columbia. All four members purged by the Biden administration had been appointed by Trump. In its more than one-hundred-year history, no sitting member of the Commission had been removed. It’s interesting to note that this violation of “norms” was not commented upon by the “principled” guardians of “democracy” who were so vociferous in their warnings about the peril posed by the previous administration.
♦ Canceledpeople.org maintains a list of individuals who have lost their jobs or had their careers damaged because of coordinated efforts of shaming and denunciation—attempts to silence them for having made reasonable observations or proposed sensible ideas that cut against the grain of political correctness. More than two hundred people are listed, including some who have written for First Things (Roger Scruton, Ryan Anderson, Amy Wax, and Fr. Daniel Moloney). It’s not a literary masterpiece like The Gulag Archipelago, but canceledpeople.org performs an important public service by documenting the victims of today’s progressive totalitarianism. Coming as they do from the left, these reputational assassinations win only indifference from Big Tech censors.
♦ Ours is a crazy country damaged by self-inflicted wounds. But it’s also a great country full of potential for self-repair, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Our fellow citizens don’t wait to be directed by their betters. They take initiative. A good example is the Declaration for Life, which affirms the dignity of the human person and reminds us of the grave evil of abortion. You can visit the website (declaration-for-life.org) and sign the declaration. It’s good for us to signal our commitment as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case that allows the Court an opportunity to overturn Roe.
♦ In June, Pastor Ed Litton was voted president of the Southern Baptist Convention in a hotly contested election. I wish him the best in what I’m sure is always a difficult position, all the more so in our fractious times. But I don’t think he should call me for advice. A visit to the website of Redemption Church, where Litton serves as senior pastor, reminds me of how remote I am from the Baptist world. In the church’s statement of belief, one reads: “God is One, the Creator and Ruler of the universe. He has eternally existed in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are co-equal parts of one God.” God with parts? My inner Cappadocian grimaces.
♦ Our fact-checkers tell me that Redemption Church has revised its statement of belief: “The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.” I might quibble with “personal attributes,” but my inner Cappadocian is relieved.
♦ For years, media elites sustained the false claims that Trump’s 2016 campaign had colluded with Russia to gain electoral advantage. Now we learn that the same media elites were equally gullible (or corrupt) when they denounced entirely reasonable speculations about the role of a Wuhan research lab in the origins of COVID-19. And people wonder that tens of millions doubt the now obligatory media description of Trump’s allegations of electoral illegalities as “false” and “unfounded.”
♦ This month I recount experiences at Mass in a number of different locales. My travels meant a good deal of time in airports and on airplanes. One aspect of travel stands out: the barrage of demands that one don a mask, along with long and detailed explanations of the various penalties to be meted out should one fail “to comply with federal law.” Recorded announcements, with their threats of punishment, are repeated on airport PAs. Gate agents recite them. Flight attendants intone the script as you board. I have a sense, now, of George Orwell’s dystopia, enforced by loudspeakers.
♦ Ivan Illich once observed that totalitarianism was impossible before the invention of the loudspeaker: “The encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you now are silenced.” I draw the reader’s attention to my past criticisms of the use of microphones in liturgical celebrations. In church we should be able to find sanctuary from the assault of amplification. I am not an absolutist. In some circumstances, a microphone is necessary. But more often than not, churches are small enough and acoustics are good enough that we can praise and honor God without loudspeakers.
♦ Robespierre in a 1794 speech:
The springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a splendid principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.
♦ I’d like to welcome Micah Mattix to First Things. Micah teaches poetry and literature at Regent University and is widely published as a literary critic. He joins us as poetry editor.
♦ I’d also like to welcome Shalom Carmy and Dan Hitchens as contributing editors, joining our long-time stalwart (and peerless podcaster), Mark Bauerlein. Rabbi Carmy has taught at Yeshiva University for many years and his work has been featured on our pages throughout our more than thirty years of publication. Dan Hitchens has served as editor of the Catholic Herald.
♦ After four years as Litvak at Large, Shalom Carmy has passed the columnist’s baton to Liel Leibovitz, featured this month as Leibovitz at Large. Like the editor of First Things, Leibovitz is a recovering academic, having taught in the Media, Culture, and Communication department at New York University. He is presently senior writer at Tablet magazine and co-host of Tablet’s podcast, “Unorthodox.”
♦ Eduardo Andino served for more than three years as director of development. He did a superb job, but he has been lured away to take a job elsewhere. I’d like to thank him for his devotion to our cause. Thankfully, First Things enjoys an abundance of talent. I’m delighted to announce that Carter Skeel is our new director of development.
♦ Carter recently nudged me: Remind readers to join the Richard John Neuhaus Society, which is made up of readers who have designated First Things as a beneficiary in their wills or estate plans. Consider yourself reminded!
♦ Andrew Henrick in Los Alamos, New Mexico, would like to form a ROFTERS group. If you are interested in joining for monthly discussions of First Things, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ As we go to press, we continue to receive donations for our spring campaign. Preliminary totals suggest great success this year. I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to our cause. Your generosity ensures that First Things remains a strong voice for men and women of faith.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.