From its founding, First Things has been the premier journal of high Christian engagement with the public square in the West. The basic proposition of the journal has been that American liberal democracy could be domesticated to Christ by a concerted ecumenical effort of philosophical evangelism. First Things intended to provide a forum for that discourse, and a rally point. Much good has come of this project. But with the recent spate of stunning reversals on sexual policy, and with Christianity ever more clearly in the crosshairs of our secular overlords, the writers of First Things seem to be recoiling from the profane culture of the West and its liberal cult of Moloch. They begin to see that their project has failed, and that perhaps it was doomed to fail from the start. More and more, they seem to realize that rapprochement with liberalism is in any case a pact with the devil.
It’s not just that the editors saw fit to publish an article by our own Jim Kalb back in December. In the February issue, First Things took a decided turn toward orthogony to secular political discourse, as if they all with one mind awoke to a realization that dawned on most traditionalists several years ago: America is too far gone to be saved. As Lawrence Auster then began to say, “It’s their country now.” Likewise also for the West in general.
First Things seems now to have reached the same conclusion.
In the February issue, Michael Hanley (a professor at the Catholic University of America) argued in a major essay that the public significance of Christianity in the West has changed. We have stopped being in any sense a truly Christian culture, except insofar as inertia prevents us still from such blasphemies as cannibalism and human sacrifice in the town square. We are now already a post-Christian culture, and daily more and more therefore an anti-Christian culture. Thus there is no longer any possibility of real détente between Christians and secular liberals. Rather, we must prepare for a time of persecution. Our preachers may expect to be met, not with respect, but with hatred. We should prepare for martyrdom.
There will be for orthosphereans nothing new in Hanley’s essay. But it is well worth reading, if only because it is brilliantly argued from first principles all the way out to the bitter end, and so therefore a wonderfully succinct and complete presentation of the basic arguments and proposals of the orthosphere. It is also beautifully written.
Some key passages:
… a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act.
The prevailing nominalism, voluntarism, and mechanism infected eighteenth-century assumptions about nature and nature’s God with a built-in obsolescence. Therefore, it is fair to say that the ontological presuppositions of liberal political theory were fated to undermine the classical and Christian moral inheritance and the nobility of liberalism’s own ideals. For instance, inasmuch as the founders’ notion of free self-government rests on an essentially Lockean conception of freedom as power outside and prior to truth (however much God or truth imposes an extrinsic obligation to obey, and however reasonable it is to do so in view of future rewards and punishments), then American liberty will eventually erode the moral and cultural foundations of civil society inherited from Protestant Christianity.
John Locke in the Second Treatise remarked that law enlarges the scope of freedom. He does not appear to have considered the converse, that freedom enlarges the scope of law. But insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself.
… in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions. In redefining marriage and the family, the state not only embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its powers into realms heretofore considered prior to or outside its reach, and not only does it usurp functions and prerogatives once performed by intermediary associations within civil society, it also exercises these powers by tacitly redefining what the human being is and committing the nation to a decidedly post-Christian (and ultimately post-human) anthropology and philosophy of nature.
Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
This labor is contemplative before it is active. It is not primarily political; indeed, everything in our politics and in our culture seems predisposed against it. To the extent that we Americans can be said to have a philosophy, it is pragmatism, which is less a philosophy than a trick the devil uses to entice philosophy into killing itself. One need only note the sheer absence of thought that has accompanied the revolution of liberal absolutism to see how successful this trick has been. To speak of freedom as something more than immunity from coercion, to speak of nature as something other than so many accidental aggregations of malleable matter at our disposal, to speak of truth as something other than pragmatic function, is to place oneself outside the rule of public reason and to risk becoming a stranger to the public square. To undertake this labor, in other words, is to risk becoming what liberal absolutism would make of each of us anyway: a man without a country.
… the liberal state cannot really limit itself; its act of self-abnegation is the very act by which it refuses integration into an order of nature or grace that precedes and exceeds it. Only the Church can really limit the state, which is why the existence of the Church is a perennial problem for it. Ultimately, the Church’s limitation of the state depends on our ability to recover a genuine understanding of the Church’s true nature and to regard ourselves not simply as a so-called intermediate association within the state and civil society but as the true whole, the heavenly city, that precedes and transcends them. This contradicts the implicit ecclesiology of liberalism, which recognizes no universality but itself. Knowing only “denominations,” it can acknowledge no truly catholic Christianity. And yet, to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.
… to see the truth of God and the human person, even through a glass darkly, is already to begin to live in accord with something greater than liberal absolutism. It is already to limit the state in some measure, for it is already to see beyond liberalism’s immanent horizons.
It’s a wonderful, sad, noble essay. I encourage you to go read the whole thing. To gauge the reaction of the men of First Things, you might also want to read the responses by George Weigel and Rod Dreher. They don’t disagree.