It’s been a remarkable year. The success of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump signal significant changes in the political culture of the West. The mainstream press would like us to believe that these events were driven primarily by the economic stresses of globalization. That's wishful thinking. Globalism is a cultural project oriented toward realizing a very modern, cosmopolitan vision of universal peace and prosperity. It's a secular theology, which secularists refuse to see as theological. And it is this theology, along with the blindness of secular elites, that is stirring up populist rebellions—not closed steel mills.
Here's what I see going forward: The postwar era is ending. Since 1945, our culture has been characterized by a pattern of weakening. Established institutions, inherited social forms, and traditional authorities have been subjected to a long season of criticism. A great deal has been loosened and dissolved. We now live in a fluid society in which nearly everything is a matter of choice—even one's sex! We like all this freedom, true, but we also don't like it. Very few people want to live without solidity and permanence. Which is why we're witnessing dramatic events in the political sphere. Populism is a cri de coeur: No more weakening!
What we need in 2017 and beyond is a renewal of covenant, of the paradoxically empowering bondage of loves and loyalties we gratefully affirm. Faith's covenant with the divine is most important. It anchors our communities of faith. Next is the covenant of marriage, which gives stability to domestic life. In the middle is our civic covenant, the affective union that puts the solidity into solidarity.
As the postwar era ends and populism tilts toward nationalistic themes, we have a special role to play. As religious people who understand the importance of faith and the truth about marriage, our job will be to broaden the desire for strong loyalties. We need a covenantal future in all its fullness.
This is not going to be easy. Our political culture is almost entirely captive to the postwar era. The Left advocates an administered, bureaucratic unity, characterized by state-sponsored identity politics and multiculturalism. The Right is captive to free-market ideologies that promise commercial unity organized around maximized self-interest. Neither program can meet the challenges of our time.
We need to be patient with our myopic political and cultural establishments. They are invested in the certitudes of the postwar era. As that epoch ends, they are disoriented—as are we, if we're honest. But we have an advantage. We're not victims of presentism. We're not so foolish as to imagine that the social sciences, brain science, and postmodern cultural theory are the beginning of wisdom. The Bible limns a larger world, as do the classical sources from Athens and Rome. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Luther, and Calvin are living voices. Because we can see deeply into the past—and have a sense of the Eternal—we can peer beyond the horizon of the present.
As a young adult, I became convinced of the centrality of religious faith for a full life. Later, I came to see that a healthy society needs communities of virtue in order to sustain a vital culture of freedom. These convictions made me a First Things conservative, someone inspired by the vision of Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and the rest of the founding gang of this bold enterprise. I still believe those things. I'm still a First Things conservative.
But the world is changing. Today, I find myself unsure about how we are to remain faithful to these enduring principles—as we must. I'm not convinced that I fully understand what we experienced in 2016. I don't know what is coming in 2017. But I know this: We must not be complacent. We need to have the courage to venture fresh ideas and new proposals. What is the role of the nation in our globalized world? How can we sustain free markets that work for everyone? How can our religious communities renew the culture of marriage in a society burnt over by the sexual revolution? These questions and more need answers, however partial, however tentative.
The uncertainties are daunting, but we should look forward to 2017. In the postwar era of weakening, religious orthodoxy was always on the defensive. Perhaps that too is ending. In which case, let's rise and shine. Our fellow citizens half-knowingly want a renewal of covenants. They need our voices.
Thanks for being readers. And thanks for contributing to our fall campaign, if you’ve already done so. If you haven’t, there’s still time to help us reach our $500,000 goal. It’s an opportunity to remain faithful to first things, and to First Things, in 2017.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.