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Here’s a simple fact: Many American believers, including some of our best religious leaders, assume that we live in a country that, in reality, no longer exists—at least, not in the form they imagine. Demographic, technological, legal, and cultural changes have transformed the United States over the past seventy years. But the “delusion” of America as a religious nation, a biblically grounded one, persists. And it’s strongest among boomer-aged practicing Christians like myself who still have a reasonably accurate knowledge of the founding. Members of this age group are now dying out. And they’re the people most actively committed to their religious convictions and communities.

As their numbers decline and religious practice diminishes, so does the influence of biblical moral thought. The “common good” according to secular thinkers is often very different from that same idea according to Scripture. No “common good” can exist without a shared understanding of who and why the human person is, and what defines his or her proper destiny. American culture now orders itself against any such defining narrative in the name of individual autonomy. This has huge civic implications, because politics builds on anthropology. 

As a result, the most important political thing Christians—but not just Christians—can do is focus on forming faithful leaders (including readers) who can witness their religious faith persuasively to a new cultural environment that is not pagan, but worse than pagan. As C. S. Lewis once said, the pagans of antiquity at least had a sense of an enchanted world and the supernatural realities behind it. Today’s “post-Christians” lack even that. 

So what can we do about it? The philosopher Rémi Brague notes in The Law of God that the two great “political” religions—Islam and Christianity—differ radically in their historical encounter with civil society. Islam conquered and imposed itself politically, by force, from the outside. Christianity converted society gradually from within, one person and one community at a time, with no explicit political intentions. 

That happened once. It can happen again. The same challenge of conversion presents itself today, but with an added and serious obstacle—because the supernatural dimension of life seems removed from the modern imagination. Restoring it is the work of a new generation of leaders. Forming and sustaining that generation, educating its mind and conscience, and inspiring its spirit and public engagement—these tasks are the work of First Things. No other religious journal, anywhere, covers the intersection of faith and public life with the intellectual scope, depth, and excellence that mark First Things. 

First Things relies on your help to pursue its mission. Mission runs on resources. So this Christmas, please support First Things with a financial gift. And please be as generous as you can.

Francis X. Maier is the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, and a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Photo by SaleD76 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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