“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life, in fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.” – Vaclav Havel
“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?” – Justice Scalia
The Evangelical world has been winning a lot in the courts. A Christian baker does not have to bake a cake for a gay wedding, and Trump has nominated a devout christian to the highest court of the land. A man whose history has contributed greatly to religious freedom. (I for one celebrate this trend in Trump’s Presidency, even though I wanted a more radical judge, with more respect for the fourth amendment and the rights of the unborn.) Nevertheless, many in my tribe are ecstatic at the new pick, as the trend of public wins begins to continue.
But the courts have always been seen as a kind of safety net for those who believe that the country is devolving into moral degradation. In this sense, we hope the court will be the beacon of hope and sanitize our low standard. We want a SCOTUS option. And yet, America is not the country it once was. We may not have slavery anymore (thankfully!) but we are no longer a fledgling nation-state attempting to struggle our way to independence in hopes of a more just and free society. We are an empire. As the separation of powers begins to break down, and a more streamlined version of the State begins to legislate from the bench and the oval office, without any regard for due process or the American constitutional grid-lock, the odds of a reversal of these trends becomes and impossibility. Rome will always fall.
We may be appreciate Rome and its body politic, with its form of government and revolutionary human rights. In many ways we are inheritors of that long Western tradition. But just before you start getting nostalgic for the return of Christendom, just remember: Rome fell to the barbarians. The structure could not hold back the wave of moral decay – with its tribalism and hatred.
One book that every Christian needs to read in this season of confusion and despair is The Benedict Option. Partisan politics aside, we all feel the odd mix of despair and hope, loss and gain. Despite the value for religious expression afforded, and extended, by the election of Donald Trump, and the appointment of SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh – oh the times, they are a changing.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I may not celebrate everything Trump has said or everything he does, but I think he has done a good job picking these nominees. Besides channeling his inner-exorcist, this is one of the main things he is actually good at. But this won’t save us.
As Dreher has said elsewhere, the appointment of a conservative judge, who will most likely rule in favor of religious conscience and expression is not a proper disinfectant (no court is!) for the banal reality of a church that has been thoroughly colonized by modernity/secularism. Tradition was replaced by slogans like “just Jesus,” and meantime, students passionately worship with hands raised, and at the same time can’t articulate the faith, nor live in such a way that is recognizable to New Testament Christianity (see Christian Smith on the subject).
Just the other day, a friend of mine was explaining how she was talking to someone who was known for being a passionate Christian, and yet doesn’t understand why her brother would get married to his wife before they lived together to “test things out before taking the plunge.” No irony. No “I’m just kidding.” Just – “this is obvious, and clearly you must feel the same way.” (Did I mention than this person was a leader in the church?)
It may be anecdotal, but it is a perfect snapshot of the kind of hollowed out practice that has relegated the faith to a series of emotional rock concerts with Jesus’s name in lights.
A conservative judge is not going to be able to salvage the years of secular catechesis that has completely transformed our radical and revolutionary faith into a personalist niche, co-opted by Scrooge on one end, and Mr. Rogers on the other. (Apologies to both Mr. Scrooge and Mr. Rogers. At least they knew who they were!)
“What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.” – Havel
What’s the answer?
Christians (according to Dreher) should use the next two more years of temporary reprieve to build strong institutions that run together, not simply against, the norms and structures that are already in place. This is what Dreher and his sources of inspiration (Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Benda) call the “Parallel Polis.” We are already such a movement, whether we realize it or not.
In other words, we should not rely so heavily on electoral politics and the existing structures to continue to provide the social support we need to truly live as a people who freely associate with one another, without fear of hearing and speaking the truth. We run less of a risk of ghettoizing the faith if we instead seek to run parallel institutions that do a better job at facilitating truth, virtue, and dissent, than the existing structures, which have failed.
(The retreat into religious ghetto’s, as well as religious tyrannies, would make the church completely unrecognizable to itself.)
I’m not saying that America is a dictatorship. We have the separation of powers, the one miracle of the constitution. But I do believe that given our obsession with the technocracy, and willingness to become completely servile to modern technology, completely reliant upon its corporate whims and decisions, makes us servants of the most totalizing system known to mankind. (It is a unique turn in the history of totalitarianism that an entire people would become their own tyrants.)
What good is “freedom” if its ultimate objective is to do whatever one wants to do – to live according to desire alone? The individual may be “free” in the temporal sense, but a complete slave in the soul.
The church who focuses on more than just heaven is the “church militant.” She fights in the realm of transcendence, but also in the immanent, for re-souling of the world, and the salvation of peoples. As Havel says: “While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states.” If we have life, we should produce structures.
Rod Dreher says this, from his blog: “The Benedict Option is about getting ready for what is here now, and what is yet to come. If you’re only retreating, and not fighting, then you are wasting one of the few chances we likely have left. But if you’re only fighting, and not also retreating (in the sense I mean: to within a defensible perimeter), then you are leaving yourself, your family, your church and your community vulnerable.”
1. Churches should practice dissent and freedom of speech within its own walls.
2. Churches should celebrate limited government, not because they are filled with Republicans (who are no longer for limited gov’t anyway, just look at their spending habits when they are in power), but because a limited State makes the religious community more empowered to take up more space in the public life, which, I’m arguing, is always a good thing.
3. Churches should practice more solidarity with the victims of immigration, violence, divorce, abortion, and general societal decay. The family should once again be lifted up as the pre-political good in society.
4. Churches need to bolster their efforts in education, not only creating new classical schools in the area, but making sure that they are affordable for poorer families. Why can’t churches with loose associations, with their multi-denominations and philosophies, come together and fund a school whose goal is to build virtue within its young people? (I’m sure their SAT scores would exceed every public and private competitor!)
5. Churches should unite in more than just prayer and worship, but also in church discipline and in the construction of a parallel polis (society). This gives me the most hope.
6. The church should see acts of mercy as an eschatological hope, which we don’t expect to get much in the immediate, except that we continue to radically sow seeds of love within the hearts of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. In this, we would all do better to learn from the radical catholic socialists, such as Dorothy Day, and the more conservative, but still radical, Heidi and Roland Baker.
7. And finally, the family home should be re-ignited as the primary “school of conversion,” by which people outside of the atomic family are brought in, and children are taught the ways of the Kingdom of God.
Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’m sure I’ve missed some things along the way. This is just a post. It probably will not make much of a difference in the long run. But if I have glossed over anything then please forgive me. I cherish your thoughts and questions.