This will be the last Sunday Night Journal, at least in this form—I'm holding open the possibility of reviving it as a simple journal, not a weekly essay. I’ve kept it going for eight years, from 2004 through 2012, with a year off in 2009. And now I want to turn my attention to other projects, including longer forms of writing, which I’ve found myself unable to do with the weekly deadline of the Journal always facing me. The blog will continue, only without that weekly feature, and I hope those who have enjoyed the Journal will still find the blog worth reading.
I’ve produced quite a number of words in those eight years and some of them are worth preserving. My daughter Clare and I are working on a book which will include what we consider the best of them. To be called Sunday Light, it will be produced in both electronic and paper forms, and should be available within six months at least.
I said after the election in November that I wasn’t going to write about politics until the end of the year. I’m going to jump the gun by a couple of days now, as it seems fitting for the last Sunday Night Journal to be an attempt to discern the direction of the broad sweep of history even as we are swept along with it.
The Dearest Freshness
The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.
That remark is the opening of an essay, “A March of Folly,” from a recent issue of The New Criterion. The essay concerns the true nature, implications, and effects, including those not necessarily intended or foreseen, of the feminist and homosexual rights movements. (It’s not available online.) It’s an interesting and I think mostly accurate view, the gist of which can be inferred from the rest of the paragraph:
That is why I have only just begun to understand what is actually at stake in the proposal to recognize civil partnerships as “marriages.” And the clue came when I discovered that Stonewall, the homosexual rights group in Britain, was proposing a memorandum that the terms “husband” and “wife” should be removed from the 1973 Marriage Act and replaced by “parties to the marriage.” This apparently trivial bit of semantics carries a large moral significance.
Hardly trivial, and “large moral significance” is an understatement. This is official madness, and already those who object to it are being treated as the mad ones, suffering from “homophobia,” which is, conveniently for those wishing to eliminate it, both an illness and a moral fault. Should such proposals become established norms in our society, it will have undergone a change at least as far-reaching as, say, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.
It’s also an understatement to say that we live in an age of great change, some for the better and some for worse, and it is often difficult to discern what the most significant and powerful forces are: as that opening sentence says, “What is actually going on?” I’ve thought about that question a lot over the course of my life, and in relation specifically to my country it has been particularly on my mind since the recent presidential election.
A great many people on both sides think the election marked a decisive shift. Progressives rejoiced at the apparent solidifying of their hold on power, and conservatives mourned for the same reason. What really happened? It is certainly not the case that the election alone decided anything permanent, and those to the left of conventional progressives scoff, with good reason, at the notion that it represents some sort of triumph of their views. At any time during George W. Bush’s presidency many on the left were convinced that the nation was turning into a “theocracy.” Or at least they said they were—personally I never really believed that they really believed it; it seemed rather a sort of ghost story they told themselves, enjoying the thrill of fear without actually being threatened, and justifying in their minds the feverish hatred they felt toward their political enemies. Similarly, I’ve heard many conservatives say that we’re now a “socialist” country, which makes actual socialists laugh. But to say that each of these charges is greatly exaggerated doesn’t mean that something big isn’t happening. For the most part broad and deep social changes do not happen suddenly or turn on one or two major events; rather, an incident such as Luther’s propagation of his famous theses becomes in retrospect a symbolic moment.
Supposing Barack Obama’s second term were to be seen, a hundred years from now, as having a similar importance, what would be the change that it was deemed to signify? What is actually going on? It is most certainly not the case that progressive forces have now achieved their final victory over conservative ones. But it may be that the balance has tipped in that direction.
I’ve discussed here before my view that when the religious right emerged in this country in the mid-1970s it was fundamentally mistaken about the nature of the situation. Jerry Falwell’s choice of a name for his organization, The Moral Majority, encapsulates his assumptions. Rather than reformulate that appraisal I’ll quote myself:
[Falwell] thought that a small number of radicals—hippies, feminists, etc.—had seized control of some of our most visible institutions (the press, especially), and were forcing the agenda of the sexual revolution on a mostly unwilling, mostly conservative Christian population. And that the task before him was to awaken those people to the fact that their society was under attack, and get them to use their political strength to reverse the sexual revolution, at least to the extent that it was becoming institutionalized, most obviously with the legalization of abortion.
But he was wrong. The sexual revolution may have flowered in the ‘60s, and hippies and feminists may have been its most visible advocates (along with Hugh Hefner), but its roots were much deeper. And in any case much of the mainstream soon embraced it quite readily. By the time Falwell attempted to rally socially conservative Christians, they were not the majority (if they ever had been).
Something similar has, I think, occurred in the secular arena regarding the common conception of what the United States is and what people believe it should be. The two contending forces, which are broadly labelled conservative and progressive, right and left, Republican and Democrat, now seem to have very different visions, two very different things in mind when they speak of American ideals.
The conservative view—again, speaking very broadly—is that this nation is a fundamentally good thing, that its Constitution defines an admirable form of republican government which assumes a citizenry competent and responsible enough to make its own decisions, and that the powers of the government are delegated to it by the people and strictly limited. Moreover, at one remove from formal government, conservatives admire American culture: its entrepreneurial spirit, its dynamism, its commitment to the twin virtues of liberty and responsibility, its diversity (in the real and not the cant-racial sense), its religiosity—and, of course, its wealth and power, Sensible conservatives recognize the dark side of American history and the great number of things that are always in need of reform, but wish to preserve, not replace, the fundamental structure and character of what they like to refer to as the American idea. (“A nation with the soul of a church,” Chesterton said.)
Progressives in general do not value these things very much, or do not believe that they actually exist, or define them in altogether different ways (e.g. “diversity,” which means racial diversity only and expects uniformity of thought). They regard the American idea as an endlessly unfolding promise of liberation. Above all, the dominant forces of progressivism as it exists today reject the idea of a competent and responsible citizenry, and of sovereignty as residing ultimately there. It sees the state, in the form of the national government, as the competent and responsible party, and the people as its clients, almost as its children. (Years ago I heard the very progressive Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., make this analogy explicitly, and favorably.) It divides the people into three classes: oppressors, victims, and those enlightened ones who know how things ought to be run, and who should rightly exercise political and cultural authority in the best interests of all. It sees the great task of politics as involving the duty of the third class to protect the second class from the first class.
Those who once constituted the American norm or type—middle-class people of European extraction—are loosely considered to be in the oppressor class (except when it is useful to treat them as victims). They are seen as always ready to inflict some sort of harm on some one, and left to their own ways would make most of the nation outside the big cities an arena for their oppression of others (“women and minorities”). They must be restrained by Washington by means of a uniform code of finely detailed law regulating almost every aspect of life, the one major exception being sexual expression of any sort. The requirements of this task, not the Constitution, are the final determinant of what is permitted to the government. (The oppressor class does not, as one might expect, in the progressive scheme include rich people as such, because quite a large proportion of the very wealthy hold progressive views, which as generally held today do not include anything which would make them less wealthy.)
This, in a nutshell, is the conservative view of the situation, and I think it’s roughly accurate, though one necessarily paints with a broad brush to cover a large area quickly. A common analysis, often similar in substance from both sides, holds that progressives and victims now constitute a permanent majority which will permanently seize power and remake the country—fundamentally transform it, as Mr. Obama promised before the 2008 election.
Like the Moral Majority in the 1970s, the conservative faction had thought that it could counter this force by appealing to old American virtues, or at least to a consensus of what those virtues ought to be: self-reliance, self-restraint, religion, reverence for the Constitution, voluntary and local action for the common good, personal responsibility, etc. But it may, like the Moral Majority, be mistaking the nature of the situation: believing that what is needed is simply to remind Americans of who they are and what their country means, when in fact such ideals no longer mean much to a very large number of people, who view appeals to them as either amusing in their simple-minded earnestness or sinister, a cover for oppressive intentions.
If this change is permanent, it’s a big one. In essence it is another in a long series of proofs of the adage that people who will not rule themselves will be ruled by others. It changes the nature of the relationship between the people and their government, who are now properly to be called rulers; the people are not citizens in the old sense but dependents whose essential relationship to the state, which is considered to be identical with “society,” consists in paying taxes and receiving “benefits.” It carries along with it a redefinition of what the word “democracy” means in the American context. The conservative meaning is that it denotes the power of the citizenry to decide who will operate the machinery of which the Constitution is the design. The progressive meaning is that the majority is entitled to make the rules. And the rules they want to make are circumscribed not by the Constitution, but by the needs of the day.
(The extent to which the Republican Party, as the electoral representative of the conservative side, constitutes a terrible witness for the virtues it espouses is certainly a part of the picture, but my guess is that it’s not a decisive part. That is, I don’t think it would have much more appeal than it does even if it did not have this problem.)
I don’t mean to be painting this as a question of good vs. evil. The traditional view of America certainly has its problems, and progressives are often honestly attempting to address them (as opposed to pursuing utopia). Call it bad vs. worse, then, from the Christian point of view, because progressivism is now a fundamentally anti-Christian force, and is becoming more aggressively so. It views Christianity as one of the oppressors from which the state must protect the people, and seeks to eliminate it as a cultural and political force. And so if this election really did represent a turning point in American history, we can expect many more attacks on religious liberty like those made by the Obama administration (in the cause of sexual freedom, of course, as that seems to be the one progressive absolute).
Even if it’s too early to tell whether progressivism has really achieved any sort of permanent victory, the increasing secularization of society can’t be denied, and moreover what I’m broadly calling the conservative force has strong anti-Christian elements (e.g. most varieties of libertarianism). So it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best.
But I’m not here to play Cassandra. All the above is only a prologue to a thought suggested by the title of this piece, from a line in Hopkins’ well-known poem “God’s Grandeur,” a line which has come to me often over the past few months:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
He was speaking of nature, but his words are equally true of the Christian faith—and why shouldn’t they be, since both spring from the same source? The American system may indeed pass away, and if I live to see the time when the change can’t be denied, I’ll mourn it. But this country is, after all, one of the many temporary and at best partially successful human attempts to establish a decent worldly order. The life of faith will continue, alongside the life of the world but apart, and the new situation will be accompanied by new expressions of it. The living waters will continue to feed the green shoots of new life, producing flowers never seen before by human eyes, though familiar and beloved in the eyes of God.