A Mountain or a Marathon?

Reflections on Rusty Reno's proposals for a Christian society

Reno is clear on what needs to be done to rebuild society. His vision is not of a return to the Christian-Right politics rooted in the alleged faith of the Founders or consisting of shouting Bible verses louder in the public square. Nor is it that of a confident pluralism that assumes that decency and thoughtfulness will win us a hearing. Reno’s resurrection of Christian society involves that renewal of humanity which goes hand-in-hand with the strengthening of the family, the revival of patriotism, and the revitalization of the church. It depends on concepts that are still in common use as words, but that have been stripped of any real meaning.

 

Last year, when Rusty Reno invited me to a seminar on Christian responses to transhumanism, I responded that if we were going down fighting then, yes, he could count me in. His reply was laconic but eloquent: “I intend to fight, but I do not intend to go down.”

That spirit of positive defiance informs his latest book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Christians face an uncertain future—not because our survival is in jeopardy, but because the long-term shape of society is unclear, as is our position within it. Persecution is very unlikely, but marginalization and irrelevance loom large. And Reno addresses the problem with brio, clarity, and learning, throwing in countless quotable sentences along the way.

The basic argument will be familiar to First Things readers. Reno sees the policies of modern progressivism as an elite enterprise, pursued for the convenience of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. Particularly in the realm of sexual behavior, the elite can enjoy the freedoms that the dissolution of taboos allows, while yet being shielded from the resultant social evils, most notably the collapse of family and community.

Absolute relativism, as Reno observes, ultimately serves the powerful. The collapse of metaphysics in social and political thought disempowers the weak and destroys the possibility of transcendence. The resulting impoverishment of ambition creates a moral and cultural void that damages the most those who are the least equipped to handle it: the poor and the vulnerable. What strikes Reno, and perhaps worries him most, is that this anti-metaphysical ethos is now a hallmark of conservatives as much as of progressives. The difference between left and right will thus increasingly come down to differences over trivia, not over things that really matter. The reason is simple: There are no things that really matter anymore. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on this critique, of course: Intellectuals on the Left, such as Terry Eagleton and Nick Cohen, would be in full agreement.

Reno rightly sees sexual identity politics as central to public debates today. He views this centrality as indicating the real question we face, which is about the authority of the body and, by extension—with a touch of Pascal—about the reality of mortality. I would agree, but I would supplement this narrative by pointing to the psychologizing of human identity and political struggle over the last century. It is important to understand this point, in order to grasp the depth of the problem.

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