Book review: A shocking cultural collapse has occurred among America's poor. RR Reno points the way to renewal
I groan a little when I read an opening sentence like: “Our country is entering a crisis.” There is always someone, it seems, who thinks their age is an age of great, unprecedented crisis.
But hold on. I shouldn’t be so smug. In Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, RR Reno (a Catholic convert from Episcopalianism and editor of First Things magazine) reports that the life expectancy of a white woman in America without a high school degree declined by five years between 1990 and 2010. This statistic alone sounds both baffling and ominous. Reno sees it as suggestive of a crisis among poor whites akin to that in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is “an indication of a shocking cultural collapse. It’s a sign of the perversion of our age that we ignore it.”
Once into his stride, Reno is compelling. While there is barely an ounce of malice in his writing, time and again he lands his punches. Market deregulation – but more importantly, “moral deregulation” (“the seemingly innocent expansion of lifestyle choices”) – are wreaking havoc in America. The rich are OK. They get to practise “disciplined hedonism”: vice in moderation with money to spare for safety nets like professional treatment. They outwardly observe the “pieties of non-judgmentalism” while sticking closely to traditional morals when it counts.
The difference in marriage rates at either end of the social scale is telling. Many young Americans who now live “without a Father in heaven” are also without “even a father at home”, their losses compounded by political correctness which has prised away “a workable cultural inheritance”. Yet to discuss the “moral and spiritual poverty” of the poor is prohibited as “blaming the victim” by the very elites who, in Reno’s eyes, caused these things in the first place and whose remedies have failed.
Reno knows very well the damage done by material hardship, economic change and consumerism. But he wants to turn the spotlight where American progressives fear to look. It’s “moral chaos” out there. The poor are locked out of one thing above all: dignity. Today’s progressivism is waging “class war” on the weak. Putting an end to that war is “the most important social justice issue of our time”.
The preferential option for the poor of modern America means a renewal of social conservatism, inspired by Christianity. No invisible hand will correct and guide the moral marketplace. Let’s start with a divorce tax, Reno argues, and take it from there.
He has intriguing things to say about the roots of the malaise. It all goes back to the American Dream, which he is at pains to decouple from the pursuit of big bucks.
The American imagination, Reno argues, was captivated by the frontiersman and the cowboy not because they were rich, but because they were free.
From this seed, a kind of “hyper-Americanism” has now grown up in the form of moral relativism, intent on stripping away all the limits and hierarchies imposed by established authority, thus freeing up new psychological space to be explored at will. Conservatives need to come to terms with this evolution of the American Dream, Reno reckons, but most don’t.
How far can all of this go? Reno thinks that efforts to overthrow “the gender assigned to us at birth” are a foretaste of more to come. We’ve already reached the point where we are thinking about overthrowing the “mortality assigned to us at birth”: the right to doctor-assisted suicide represents the “triumph of freedom over mortality by willing one’s death rather than suffering it”.
Securing total freedom, Reno observes, “will require us to criminalise nature”. But this, he insists, will be impossible to achieve: “Nature resists arrest.”
Cleverly, Reno begins his own fightback against the American Dream in its newly rampant form on another patch of sacrosanct American ground: the Declaration of Independence, which says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Not choosing, that is, “but holding; standing fast in truth, not making it up”.
We are freest “when we acknowledge the authority of the truth”. The fabled cowboy, after all, is “not free because he’s free”. He’s free because of his belief in honour, in his vocation, in a higher loyalty to something in “the red-streaked sunset”.
The chapter titles give a fair sense of where Reno takes his argument: promote solidarity; limit government; seek higher things. Sometimes big-ticket social commentators can leave the reader bobbing around upon a sea of brash generalisations, desperate for dry land and a few hard, humble facts. Reno largely avoids this by leaning on the work of heavyweight social researchers from both left and right.
He rallies to finish on a confident, optimistic note. There is still enough Christianity around to leaven a fairer and more fulfilling society for the poor of America, who now have a new and different kind of champion in Reno.
This article first appeared in the September 23 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.