I wrote last week about some of the contributions made by R. R. Reno’s new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Today I quibble. To be sure, it takes pluck, given the current political climate in the U.S., to devote a book to Reno’s subject. So it may seem churlish that my main quibble with his argument is that I wonder what is distinctively Christian about the society he envisions.
Reno’s argument strikes me as an argument more for resurrecting a conservative society, or a generically “religious” society, rather than a distinctly Christian society. Early on, for example, Reno writes that the U.S. needs to
recover solidarity, limited government, and a sense of the transcendent. These are natural goods that one finds in many cultures. Christian societies do not have a monopoly on them. But ours has been a Christian history, and it is by renewal of Christian influence that we are most likely to restore these humanizing qualities to our society.
For Reno, Christianity is sufficient to address the concerns he has about the U.S.—but it is not necessary. Reno advocates Christianity as historically incidental to American culture. If he were writing to Japan rather than to America, he might focus on renewing Shintoism. In some parts of India, Hinduism; in other parts, Sikhism or Buddhism or Islam. This is a conservative argument in the root-word sense of the term: There is a past that Reno seeks to conserve and revitalize. In the U.S., that past happens to be a Christian past. In other regions, not necessarily.
In his argument here, Reno likely has in mind the discussion of non-Christian religions in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium or Pope Paul VI’s declaration Nostra Aetate. There is also a practical benefit to Reno’s ecumenism, in that anyone speaking of “Christian society” in this day and age invites being tarred with words like “theocracy” and “inquisition,” as if Christian society necessitated those forms. So taking care winsomely to underscore one’s ecumenical bona fides has practical value as well as theological justification.
So with a nod to considerations both theological and practical, my main criticism of the argument in Reno’s book, as with the religious right more generally, is not that it’s too Christian, but that it’s not Christian enough. And this matters. Ultimately, the Church’s social teaching is connected to the Church’s distinctive Christology; it is not merely concomitant with her moral witness or the generic religiosity she has in common with other religions.
My initial thought upon seeing the title for Reno’s book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, was that we already have a Christian society, and she’s called the Church. That may sound glib, but I don’t mean it at all glibly.
To be sure, churches don’t make much of an explicit appearance in Reno’s book. When they do, they’re praised, but there’s also the caution that Christian impact on society will be short-circuited if Christians bury themselves in their churches:
There is much talk among Christians these days about a pessimistic withdrawal from public life. … We need to be realistic about the challenges posed by the present age, and we certainly need to repair our communities of faith. There can be no Christian society without vital churches. But let’s not sell the public potency of Christianity short. The renewal of our society as a whole is possible, even today, even in a hyper-individualistic society like America.
Here Reno seemingly frames activity in the churches as essentially private activity; at least, it’s without “public potency.” We hear much the same message from culture-warring Christians, and from secular conservatives who covet Christian votes. Indeed, the modern religious right was birthed by the idea that Christians needed to get out of their churches and exercise political power and influence.
Without discarding an appropriate regard for political engagement on the part of Christian citizens, I would insist that Christian power and influence are maximized before the altar and in self-abnegating service. God’s work in the Church is where the real culture war occurs.
The idea that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, or that human action does not fully control the public square, is of course rejected as an absurdity by many, if not most, people today. And certainly among the vast numbers of influential Americans, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not.
Yet Jesus tells the Roman Governor of Judea shortly before his execution, “You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above.” So, too, Paul reminds the Christians at Ephesus that it is “through the Church” that God’s wisdom is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” and that it is with these rulers and authorities that the Church wrestles primarily, not with powers of “flesh and blood.”
In his own letter to the Church at Ephesus, on his way to Rome for his own execution, Ignatius of Antioch encouraged the Ephesian church to
Take heed to meet together frequently for thanksgiving [eucharis] to God and for his glory. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are cast down, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith.
So, too, the bulk of the Book of Revelation is written to the small band of Christian faithful in the early days of the Church. They looked around them and saw their tiny movement opposed by the greatest empire the world had known, opposed by local political and religious leaders, and riven by internal schism and heresy. But John’s vision shows that, far from their being impotent, the very altar of heaven responded to the prayers of this nascent movement.
The first Christian society is the Church. Broader society is renewed by the movement outward from the Church. As a Catholic, Reno undoubtedly has a high ecclesiology. But he writes to American Christians, and to those who identify with the American religious right—most of whom, at best, think of the Church as a “voluntary organization” or, at worst, hardly think of her at all.
My suggestion for resurrecting Christian society? Get thee to an altar. Political opponents will cheer, political allies will criticize your impotent promises of “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Let them. If the Faith is in fact true, that’s where the real action is.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.