Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C.
October 23, 2019
Robert P. George
It was the distinctive claim of late-20th century secular liberal political philosophy that sound principles of justice require that law and government be neutral as between controversial conceptions of the human good.
Critics, including me, argued that the “neutrality” to which the orthodox secularist liberalism of the period aspired (or at least purported to aspire) was neither desirable nor possible. That political philosophy was, we argued, built on premises into which had been smuggled controversial substantive ideas—liberal secularist ideas—about human nature, the human good, human dignity, and, indeed, human destiny—ideas as substantive and controversial as those proposed by Catholicism, Judaism, and other so-called “comprehensive doctrines,” be they secular or religious.
Today little effort is made by secular liberals (or “progressives,” as many prefer to be labeled) to maintain the pretense of neutrality. Having gained the advantage, and in many cases having prevailed (at least for now), on battle front after battle front in the modern culture war, and having achieved hegemony in elite sectors of the culture (for example, in education at every level, in the news and entertainment media, in the professions, in corporate America, and even in much of religion—including making inroads into the Catholic Church), there is no longer any need to pretend.
Take, as an example, the issue of marriage. Today virtually no one on either side doubts that marriage as redefined by the Supreme Court embodies substantive ideas about morality and the human good—ideas that differ profoundly from those embodied previously in marriage law, ideas that, according to partisans of the redefinition of marriage, are to be preferred to competing ideas, such as the biblical and natural law understandings of marriage, precisely because they are superior to the ideas they supplanted.
So now that the pretense of neutrality has been more or less abandoned, and is on its way to being forgotten, what is the substance of the perspective (or ideology or, perhaps, religion) that is now fully exposed to view—and not merely to the view of its critics? And what shall we call it? In an important recent book Steven Smith gives it a name: paganism. Now, this label is, of course, provocative. Professor Smith’s reasons for choosing it, however, go well beyond a mere desire to provoke. What he perceives (rightly in my view) is that contemporary social liberalism (“progressivism’”) reflects certain core (and constitutive) ideas and beliefs—ideas and beliefs that partially defined the traditions of paganism that were dominant in the ancient Mediterranean world and in certain other places up until the point at which they were defeated, though never quite destroyed, by the Jewish sect that came to be known as Christianity.
Of course, some progressives will suppose that Smith is, and I now am, deploying the term “pagan” as an epithet. But we mean something quite specific by the word—we use it to characterize ideas and beliefs that a great many people today, especially those in the ideological vanguard, have in common with people of, for example, pre-Christian Rome. This does not mean that contemporary secular progressivism shares all the ideas and beliefs of ancient Romans (such as belief in gods like Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus), but rather that some of the central ideas and beliefs that distinguish secular progressives from orthodox Christians and Jews—and, one could add, Muslims—today are ideas and beliefs they have in common with the people whose ideas and beliefs Judaism and Christianity challenged in the ancient world.
Secular progressives, no less than people of other faiths, hold cherished, even identity-forming beliefs about what is meaningful, valuable, important, good and bad, right and wrong. They may not believe in God, or a transcendent and personal deity, but certain things are nevertheless sacred to them—things they live for and would be willing to fight and even die for (for example, what they regard as racial justice, LGBT rights, environmental responsibility, etc.). They have faith—and a faith. Just look at the child-preacher Greta Thunberg. But what is it about the secular progressive faith that warrants our labeling it “pagan”? After all, though not theistic, it is certainly not (in any literal sense) polytheistic. Professor Smith explains:
“Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect transcendent religiosity; they place the sacred, ultimately, outside the world.”
Now, Smith concedes that this characterization oversimplifies things a bit. But the oversimplification is mainly in the description or characterization of Judaism and Christianity, not secular progressivism. The biblical faiths conceive God as transcendent, to be sure, but not in a way that excludes elements of divine immanence. In Jewish and Christian doctrine, a transcendent God sanctifies the world of human affairs by entering into it, while still transcending it. And God’s transcendence means that for the believer this world is not one’s ultimate home—we are, in a sense, “resident aliens.” Smith contrasts Jews and Christians with pagans on precisely this point: “The pagan orientation . . . accepts this world as our home, and does so joyously, exuberantly, and worshipfully.”
Now, Christianity, had it been a religion of pure and exclusive transcendence, might have simply rejected this world and not concerned itself with its affairs. The authorities of pagan Rome might then have left it alone, treating it as one more odd or exotic religion. There were many of these in the Roman empire. But it’s not that kind of faith. So it took an interest in the world’s affairs and developed ideas about such things as authority, obligation, law, justice, and the common good—ideas that challenged pagan ideas and practices in a variety of areas, some of them profoundly important. A central area was sex.
As Smith notes, within the pagan “matrix of assumptions, the Christian view of sexuality was not only radically alien, it was close to incomprehensible.” This is certainly true historically. But consider that the Christian view of sexuality is today, within the “matrix of assumptions” of secular progressivism, perfectly aptly described as “not only radically alien, but close to incomprehensible.” Consider again the debate over marriage, as just one of many possible examples. The biblical and natural law conception of marriage as conjugal, that is, as the one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses, is not only “alien” to secular progressives, who understand “marriage” merely as a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, but nearly incomprehensible—except, that is, as what they suppose is bigotry against people who are attracted to and wish to marry (as progressives understand the term) people of their same sex. Or consider the view that non-marital sexual conduct and relationships, including homosexual ones, are inherently immoral. That, too, is regarded by a great many secular progressives as not only unsound, but unreasonable, outrageous, scandalous, even hateful. They can account for it, if at all, only as religious irrationalism, bigotry, or, as many today now claim, a psychopathology.
As the historian Kyle Harper notes in a recent book on the transformation of beliefs about sexuality and morality in the ancient world, sexuality “came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world.” Christian ideas, rooted in Jewish thought, about sexual norms (rejecting fornication, adultery even by men, homosexual acts, pornographic displays, and so forth) were revolutionary; and the pagan establishment was no more welcoming of revolutionaries—even nonviolent ones—than any other establishment is. So paganism could not, and did not, tolerate the Christians—even when Christianity was far too weak to pose any real challenge to political authority. It was not that Roman authorities refused to allow minority religions of any kind in the empire; those that could co-exist with the dominant paganism were allowed to do just that. But the Romans always found the Jews to be troublesome, and they perceived Christianity—a convert-seeking religion—when it came along as a grave threat. And Christian ideas about sex (and, in consequence, about Roman sexual practices) figured significantly in that perception. They feared that Christianity would, in Steven Smith’s evocative phrase, “turn the lights out on the party.” And that, of course, is what Christianity eventually did.
But in our own time the lights have been turned back on and the party is going again. In the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey convinced a lot of people that sexual satisfaction is a human need—that psychological health and wholeness generally require frequent regular sexual activity, which may be inside or outside of marriage, and that Judaeo-Christian norms of sexual morality, when embraced, result in stilted, even twisted, personalities. In the 1950s, Hugh Hefner persuaded people that pornography was, or could be, innocent fun and that the “Playboy philosophy” of sexual indulgence was the way for up-to-date, sophisticated people to lead their lives. The “gay rights” or “LGBT” movement has made the affirmation of homosexual conduct and relationships the “civil rights cause” of our day. Dissent is not permitted. Claims to religious freedom are dismissed as mere excuses for discrimination. “Bake the cake, you bigot!”
Christians, observant Jews, and other traditional religious believers have been knocked back on their heels. Reversing the sexual revolution (despite the growing evidence of its baleful social consequences, especially for children) seems nearly inconceivable. Few believe that its forward march can be paused or even meaningfully slowed down. The vast majority of Christians think that the most they can hope for in this new epoch of pagan ascendancy are some protections for their own liberty to lead their lives as they see fit, in conformity with their faith, and not to be forced to facilitate or participate in activities that they cannot in good conscience condone. Progressives say, after all, that they are all for individual autonomy and liberty. In pushing the redefinition of marriage, they insisted that all they were seeking was “live and let live.” Of course, that claim has already proven to be, if I may borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, “no longer operative.” Many Christians and other believers despair even of the possibility of protecting their children from being indoctrinated into the beliefs of the governing elite, the new ruling class (or what perhaps might better be described as the old, but re-paganized, ruling class). They believe we have entered a new Diocletian age. They not unreasonably suppose that it is precisely this reality that is being signaled when progressive intellectuals, such as Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law School, say things like this:
“The culture war is over; they lost, we won. . . . Taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.) I should note that LGBT activists in particular seem to have settled on the hard-line approach, while some liberal academics defend more accommodating approaches. When specific battles in the culture wars were being fought, it might have made sense to try to be accommodating after a local victory, because other related fights were going on, and a hard line might have stiffened the opposition in those fights. But the war’s over, and we won.”
So there you are. The neo-pagans are in no mood to be “accommodating.” Christians and others who dissent from progressive orthodoxy can expect “the hard line approach.” We are to be treated like the defeated Germans and Japanese after World War II.
For faithful Catholics and our allies in dissent from neo-pagan orthodoxy, then, the question is “what is to be done?” How should we respond to the “hard-line” approach—an approach that will indeed be, and in fact is being, implemented by people who want to ensure that we never again get near the light switch and that we are properly punished for having switched off the lights to the party in the first place?
Some Catholics and other religious folk, including some entire denominations, have already taken the path of capitulation and acquiescence. They maintain the visible forms of faith while yielding its moral substance. They have made themselves the “useful idiots” of neo-paganism (to borrow Stalin’s famous characterization of the anti-anti-Communist liberals of his time). Obviously that is not an option for serious believers. So what do we do?
Often the question is posed as “flight or fight?” I’ve never been completely clear about what Rod Dreher, whom I admire, has in mind by the “Benedict Option.” He has described it as a “strategic retreat,” but also says that it doesn’t mean that we should not stay involved in the world. I certainly agree that we need to stay involved in the world—we have an obligation as believers to bear faithful witness to the values and principles we know are integral to justice and human flourishing—but I don’t see what we should be retreating from, even strategically. And to what–or where—could we retreat? To our families, religious communities, civil society associations? That won’t work. They’ll hunt us down and dismantle our institutions. Beto O’Rourke, in his characteristically charmingly hapless way, let the cat out of the bag on that point in a recent Democratic presidential debate, and none of his rivals contradicted him in any serious way. They are determined that our children or at least our grandchildren will think the way they think, not the way we think; so permitting us to retreat to the functional equivalent of the monasteries where we can quietly tend the gardens of our own families, and transmit to our children our own values, is not an option for them. Again, remember that we are to be treated like the defeated Japanese and Germans after World War II.
So flight, really, is not an option; we have no choice but to fight. And it is, and will continue to be, hard. There will be casualties. Lots of them. As I observed when I spoke in this city at the Annual Catholic Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, the cost of discipleship is a heavy cost—and it has only gotten, and will get heavier. The days of comfortable Catholicism are over. We are back in the position of our forebears in imperial Rome. If we are true to our faith—if we are true to ourselves—then we are quite literally intolerable, as far as the Mark Tushnets and Beto O’Rourkes are concerned. And they are legion. And they hold massive cultural, political, and economic power.
So the question and challenge we face is simply this, can we muster the courage to be faithful, to boldly bear witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political, and economic power? Are we willing, if necessary, to pay the costs—the heavy costs–of discipleship? Of course, without God’s help, nothing of this kind would be possible? Yet we have it on the authority of Christ himself that God’s grace is superabundant. No one who asks for the courage to bear faithful witness will be denied it. No one who is prepared to take up his cross and follow Jesus will find the burden too great to bear. So, shall we flee from the battle? No. Quite the opposite. Onward, Christian soldiers.