The truth of the matter is that, generally speaking, things are typically getting better and worse. We conservatives have a standard based in human nature or the whole human personthe free and relational being—by which we can evaluate political, moral, and technological change. Our social or historical narrative is neither progressive nor reactionary. True human progress occurs over particular lives in the direction of wisdom and virtue. And that progress can occur just about anywhere. Solzhenitsyn experienced it in the Gulag. Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full shows how it can occur after reading the Stoic Epictetus in a maximum security prison. And we know that the real experiences of Admiral James Stockdale and John McCain as POWs werent so different.
If we say its hard to be a saint in the city, thats because its hard to be a saint anywhere. Its true we live in radically untraditional times. But thats both good and bad for authentically Christian life. As Walker Percy wrote, today Christians really have to think about who they are, and thats because we live in a time wheres theres little to no real guidance when it comes to lifestyle choices. Its surely in some ways better to have to think than to live in a time a more traditional time when most people didnt give the truth (or the commitment) of Christianity a second thought.
Its easy for us to see that Christianity is, in some ways, quite the untraditional religion, depending as it does on wonderfully spectacular unprecedented eventssuch as creation, the Resurrection, the unique irreplaceability of each of our created personal lives, and the grace and the salvation given to particular persons.
We conservatives also see clearly, of course, that the truth about God is necessarily and beneficially embodied in the traditional, relational institution we call the church, and we see the idiocy (in the precise sense) and so the unsustainability of the individualistic Protestant view that its possible to know the personal, relational God all alone through ones own conscience. But we also marvel at whats genuinely, if quite incompletely, Christian in the Spirit-driven enthusiasm of Americas Pentecostals and many of our Evangelicals. The practice of the genuinely relational virtue of charity flourishes among many of our believers.
It is easy to see contradictions in the combination of bourgeois individualism, strong senses of place and fammily, and genuinely and often quite “otherworldy” Christian belief we can see in the South today. But even in the best cases, most good people in a free country are going to be living contradictions. It’s utopian in the bad or nonselective sense to romantically believe that people once—in the polis or the medieval village—led noncontradictory or perfectly integrated lives. Even good people, after all, were sinners then and sinners now.
Lives oriented by orthodox religionby genuinely countercultural religionmay actually be becoming more common. Consider that the number of Jews in New York City is actually on the rise, thanks to the huge orthodox families. The observant Catholic Church in America has become smaller, but also more genuinely observant. Our prosperous, high-tech, online society makes homeschooling increasingly more easy. It also has facilitated working from home, and even, as Rod Dreher has shown us, moving home to work from home, without returning to the drudgery of living off the land. Its possible, weve seen, to combine organic and high-tech features in genuinely postmodern forms of appropriately relational lives oriented around family, church, and meaningful work. Being a good father, for example, is getting harder for some but also easier for others. Family life is both dissolving and regenerating in somewhat unpredictable ways.
Theres still plenty of opportunity to live virtuouseven heroically virtuous—lives as free and prosperous men and women in a society such as ours. Everyone is challenged by the relational responsibilities of love and the invincible necessity of ones own death. Its tougher in some ways to live wellto find humanly worthy happinessin our time, when so much human effort is directed toward thinking through the how (technology) and so little directed toward thinking about the who and the why (who we are and what were supposed to do). Its tougher to live well when human institutions in which our relational places and so personal happiness are most readily foundsuch as the familyare more unstable than ever. But its easier than ever in othersdue largely to the techno-successes of modern science and the effective justice of the modern science of government—and far from impossible overall.