Steven D. Smith’s *Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac*

Published Date: November 20, 2018 | Topics: Religion

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By Robert George

Steven D. Smith’s long-awaited book Pagans & Christians in the City is now available. I was delighted that Steve invited me to provide a Foreword. I’m reprinting it here in the hope that it will encourage you to read the book. Steve has produced a truly extraordinary work of scholarship–one with profound implications for contemporary cultural and political life.


It was the distinctive claim of the most influential late twentieth-century liberal political philosophers, including most notably John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, to be proposing theories of political morality that identified principles of justice (and suggested institutional structures and practices to implement those principles) that were neutral as between controversial conceptions of what makes for or detracts from a valuable and morally worthy way of life. This was liberal orthodoxy for something approaching forty years. Of course, it had its critics, including conservatives, natural law theorists and other neo-Aristotelians, certain sorts of utilitarians and libertarians, and even a few unorthodox (“perfectionist”) liberals; but it was far and away the dominant view.

Like a number of other critics, I argued (first in my 1993 book Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality and then in many other writings) that the “antiperfectionism” (or “neutrality”) to which the orthodox liberalism of the period aspired (or at least purported to aspire) was neither desirable nor possible. What Rawls would eventually dub and defend as (merely) political liberalism was—unavoidably—built on premises into which had been smuggled controversial substantive ideas about human nature, the human good, human dignity, and, indeed, human destiny—ideas that competed with those proposed by alternative religious and secular “comprehensive views.”

Today little effort is made by liberals (or what are these days more often called “progressives”) to maintain the pretense of neutrality. Having gained the advantage and in many cases having prevailed (at least for now) on battlefront after battlefront 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 and in corporate America, and even in much of religion), they no longer feel any need to pretend.

Take, for example, the issue of marriage. When, in the 1990s, the effort began in earnest to redefine marriage to include same-sex partnerships, advocates of that position frequently claimed that they merely sought to establish a regime of matrimonial law that was neutral as between competing conceptions of what marriage is or ought to be, and similarly neutral as between competing ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, in the domain of human sexual conduct and relationships. This reflected the orthodox liberal political theory of the day—or, in any event, its rhetoric. But twenty-five years or so later, with marriage having been redefined by the Supreme Court of the United States (and by referenda or legislative action in a number of other nations), virtually no one on either side doubts that marriage as redefined embodies substantive ideas about morality and the human good—ideas that differ significantly (indeed, in key respects profoundly) from those embodied previously in marriage law, ideas that, according to partisans of the redefinition of marriage, are to be preferred 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 the book you are now reading, Steven Smith sets for himself the task of describing and analyzing it, and he gives it a name: paganism. The label is 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 deploying the term “pagan” epithetically, that he is resorting to disparagement or a kind of rhetorical abuse of his religious or political opponents. The term “pagan” (despite being claimed—or reclaimed—by followers of certain New Age movements) continues to have largely negative connotations in our culture, so few people (outside New Age circles) formally identify themselves as pagan. But the first and most important thing for a reader to understand in approaching this volume is that Smith means something very particular in using the word—he uses 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 the modern people Smith has in mind share 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 them from orthodox Christians and Jews—and, one could add, Muslims—in our day are ideas and beliefs they have in common with the people whose ideas and beliefs Christianity challenged in the ancient world.

Secular progressives, no less than other people, or people of other faiths, have cherished, deeply held, 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 (as Professor Dworkin expressly acknowledged—indeed, asserted—in work published near the end of his life) are sacred to them—things they live for and would be willing to fight and even die for (racial justice, LGBT rights, environmental responsibility, etc.). They have faith—and a faith. They generally regard it as a reasoned and reasonable faith, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a faith. (Many Christians and Jews regard their faith as reasoned and reasonable. Indeed, it is a doctrine of Catholicism that true faith is reasoned and reasonable.) So what is it about the secular progressive faith that warrants Smith’s labeling it “pagan”? After all, though not theistic, it is certainly not (in any literal sense) polytheistic. 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 true or ultimate home—we are “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. 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, including natural law; justice; and the common good—ideas that challenged pagan ideas in practices in a variety of areas, some of them profoundly important.  A central area was sex.

Smith argues that within the pagan “matrix of assumptions, the Christian view of sexuality was not only radically alien, it was close to incomprehensible.” About this he is certainly right 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 the one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses is not only “alien” to secular progressives, who understand “marriage” as a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, but nearly incomprehensible—except as a form of 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 nonmarital 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 passage of his recent book on the transformation of beliefs about sexuality and morality in the ancient world (quoted by Smith), sexuality “came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world.” Christian ideas 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 coexist with the dominant paganism were allowed to do just that. But the Romans perceived Christianity as a threat—and Christian ideas about sex (and, in consequence, about Roman sexual practices) figured significantly in that perception. They feared that Christianity would, in 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, the Saint Paul of the modern sexual revolution, convinced a lot of people that sex is a human need—that psychological health and wholeness generally require it, and that Judeo-Christian norms of sexual morality, when embraced, result in stilted, even twisted, personalities. In the 1950s, Hugh Hefner, neopaganism’s very own Saint Augustine, 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. Disagree? “Bake the cake, bigot!”

Christians and other traditional religious believers have been knocked back on their heels. Reversing the sexual revolution (despite the growing evidence of its doleful social consequences, especially for children) in any of its major dimensions seems 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. Of course, that claim will likely prove to be, to 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 repaganized, 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 neopagans are in no mood to be “accommodating.” Christians and others who dissent from progressive orthodoxy can expect “the hard-line approach.” They are to be treated like the defeated Germans and Japanese after World War II.

For Christians and other dissenters from neopagan orthodoxy, then, the question is, What is to be done? How should they respond to Professor Tushnet’s “hard-line” approach—an approach that will indeed be, and in fact is being, implemented by people who want to ensure that Christians never again get near the light switch and that they are properly punished for having switched off the lights to the party in the first place? It’s a question that, for Christians, is as urgent as it is important. But to even begin answering it, we need a sober, penetrating, deeply insightful diagnosis of our condition and account of where we are and how we got here. Professor Smith deserves our deep thanks for providing it.

Robert P. George

McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence

Princeton University

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