R. R. Reno

Dr. R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things magazine, one of America’s most influential religious journals. He was formerly the professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University and is the author of several books. Praxis Circle interviewed Dr. Reno because he consistently offers an informed, imaginative, and insightful view of American politics from a Christian point of view. His analysis of the fundamental trends in American society and an America divided are telling about the future, with an eye toward possible solutions.

Introduction

Doug Monroe:

All right. Well, just in a formal way, thank you for doing this. I’ve been really excited and wanting to do this now for six months after having lunch with you and COVID intervened and all kinds of things, but here we are. And so it’s just a real thrill. We think a lot alike, and I also think our mission as a nonprofit fits well with the bent that I see First Things taking.

R.R. Reno:

I hope so.

What is the mission of First Things?

R.R. Reno:

Indeed. Yeah. First Things, our mission is to provide a religiously informed public philosophy for future of American society. So we want to be a vehicle for religious voices speaking to the matters of controversy in our current moment, I mean, as well as speaking of our own theological issues. So in the magazine, I try to include, if you will, insider talk for Christians and Jews about our traditions as well as what you might say is outsider talk about how we ought to think about current events and trends in our society.

Can you tell us about the founder of First Things and how you became editor?

R.R. Reno:

Well, so when I was a graduate student, one of my buddies was doing a PhD in political philosophy, Matt Burke. And I remember having lunch with Matt saying, “So how’s the job search going?” He said, “Oh, I’m not going to get a job as an academic. I’m going to work for this new magazine in New York called First Things.” And so it was through Matt that I got introduced to Father Richard John Neuhaus, who’s the founder of the magazine, and did some writing for the magazine as a young college professor. And one thing led to another. Neuhaus liked the things I wrote, asked me to do book reviews, write feature articles. And then in the late aughts, I worked part-time doing some editing remotely, living in Omaha, Nebraska, where I was teaching at Creighton University. And then when Father Neuhaus died, my friend [Jody 00:02:27] Bottom took over and he asked me to come to New York full-time.

And one of the luxuries of being a college professor is you can go to your dean and say, “I’d like to take a year-long leave of absence.” And as long as you add the addendum “without pay,” the Dean says, “Oh yeah, that’s great. Go ahead,” because they can hire an adjunct for less than they’re paying you. So it’s money in the bank for the dean. So I came here to New York and then Jody left and then they put me in charge in 2011. So it wasn’t a plan that I had, but one thing led to another, and here I am.

Mainline Protestantism and Tradition of Responsibility

R.R. Reno:

Jody’s a birthright Catholic, so to speak, whereas I was raised as Episcopalian, and worked hard to remain in Episcopalian in spite of many of the heterodoxies of the Episcopal church in the United States, but then became Catholic in 2004.

Doug Monroe:

Interesting. Okay.

R.R. Reno:

And part of the founding mission of First Things or part of the DNA of First Things is I would say it’s mainline Protestant in its ethos. And why do I say that even though Neuhaus was a Lutheran pastor and became Catholic right in the first year of the magazine in 1990 and then was ordained as a priest a year later? And then as I mentioned, Jody was born and raised Catholic. But many of the major voices in the magazine were Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Episcopalian. And that’s the tradition in American society that we were speaking earlier about, Reinhold Niebuhr, that’s the tradition in American society where religious folks saw themselves as having responsibility, if you will, for the future of the nation. And so that was the tradition that had the most well-developed vocabulary to, if you will, meld together theologically informed thinking with current matters of political importance for the future of the country [crosstalk 00:04:46]-

Doug Monroe:

Which goes back to inception of the country, and I would say since 1621, for sure, and probably 1607. Okay. Let’s face it.

R.R. Reno:

Yes. I mean, obviously, the people who came to the new world, whether they were ardent or lukewarm, they thought in terms of a larger Christian view of society. And there’s no question about that. And when the magazine was started, mainline Protestantism had declined in its significance and Neuhaus saw a unity of Catholics and evangelicals to emerge and to provide a sophisticated voice to replace that mainline voice, to provide the religious leaven to American public life.

How is First Things unique from other Christian publications?

R.R. Reno:

Yes. I hold to the Peter Thiel, Warren Buffett view that I don’t like competition. So I like that wide moat. And so we’re really unique. There are denominationally affiliated publications that have strong theological content, and there are politically conservative publications that are very influential. But First Things is unique in having an ecumenical profile that is influential in matters of public debate, but is also very clearly internally rooted in a religious sense of its own mission. And so our readership is really made up of people. One of my readers described subscribing to First Things as like getting a master’s degree. It’s not easy reading often. It can be very demanding intellectually. But what differentiates us from so many other conservative publications is this unrepentant, unapologetic theological dimension to what we’re doing.

Coming of Age and the Search for Truth

R.R. Reno:

There are religious dimensions to my trajectory, and then there are, I guess I would say social-political. For me, I mean, I grew up as an Episcopalian in what I would call a liberal Protestant milieu, but the minister at my church had a PhD in New Testament. And so it was biblical liberal Protestantism. And I looked back, and I was very fortunate in that regard. So it wasn’t just New York Times editorials punched up as sermons. They were really about the Bible. And so that was an important formation for me. And then I read Karl Barth as an undergraduate at Haverford College. I attended Haverford College. And that was like a punch in the gut. And I realized I had to decide whether I actually thought Christianity was true or not. Did Jesus rise from the dead?

And so it was the truth question, not the meaning question, but the question that I had to confront as a young person. And that really set me on this trajectory. Went off and did a PhD in theology. And I was a theological conservative before I was a political conservative, and that the authority of God had to be honored. And that automatically put me at odds with the surrounding milieu in university culture. And through that, that gave me enough freedom to start to think about social and political matters in fresh ways. And I wound up on the right side, not on the left side. And I think another factor for me was also working in a kitchen during high school at a restaurant washing pots, working on construction crews. I worked on an oil rig in Wyoming after I dropped out of college to go chase my tail as a rock climber.

And so these sorts of experiences were… Also, I went to a big public high school, and I realized how lucky I was in terms of my own family background. So just realizing the heterogeneity of our crazy quilt country was a big help because once I went to college and grad school, I was off in these fancy pants, elite institutions that it’s not a bad thing, actually, ivory tower, as they say. That’s not bad because it’s an opportunity to be insulated from ordinary pressures of life, and that’s a great blessing for education. But the downside or the curse of that is that it often blinds you to the reality of the way that most people in our country actually live.

How would you describe your worldview?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. That’s not a language that I use typically. I would say that I’m kind of Aristotle when it comes to philosophy and St. Augustine when it comes to theology. What do I mean by that? Aristotle is a kind of common sense realism. Men and women are different. Society has different functions. Human beings are… we’re animals on one level with natural instincts, but we also have souls and have capacity for free choice and free decision. And San Augustine and theology, more there it’s the stark contrast between the authority of God and the authority of men, which I think I draw from San Augustine. And so that gives you a sort of sober sense of the fallibility and fallenness of human affairs.

I remember when I was young and I was here in New York and I visited Neuhaus in his office, much like this office, and I was anguished. It was probably the ’06 midterm elections and the Republicans had been hammered by Democrats. And I was kind of anguishing over this. Neuhaus just waved it off and said, “Oh, Rusty, stop worrying about these things. The Republicans are going to betray us eventually anyway.” And that was a good Augustinian sense of the fact that put not your trust in princes or political parties or political movements. I mean, yes, put your shoulder to what you think is right, but don’t theologize civic affairs. It’s a good Augustinian counsel and warning.

Question on Pope John Paul II

Doug Monroe:

This is a question about John Paul II. And I was reading The Public Square, which was a shortened version of Mr. Neuhaus’s works, The Bottom Put Together. The first chapter, the very first excerpt was right on this point of JP II and what he brought to the world in his Centesimus Annus, all of his encyclicals, and how he really wanted… I call it new Christian thinking. He says that in Centesimus Annus, May 1st, 1991, he was really wanting the world to do that. It started off gangbusters, I would say. And I’m just curious what has happened to that from your point of view.

Influence of Pope John Paul II on Worldview Thinking

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, John Paul II, I mean, really in my conscious… He became Pope in 1979. And so really my conscious awareness of Catholicism really is John Paul II, and then Benedict. I call it the long pontificate, the two of them together. They were partners. He brought Ratzinger in, who became Pope Benedict, early on in his own pontificate. And so I see this, one of his signature phrases was, “Be not afraid. Be not afraid.” And there was, I think, an intuition that we have to have the courage of our convictions and a willingness to plunge into the proclamation of the gospel and not to be tentative and partial and halfhearted. And I think that was one reason he has such a influential figure. People, they saw that. And even if they themselves didn’t have that ardent faith, they envied it because we live in a time of weak, tentative half-steps, I think when it comes to the deep questions of the heart. So I think that was his great contribution to world culture, really.

And then in a more specific way, he argued in many of his encyclicals that we face what he called an anthropological crisis, which is a fancy way of saying we’ve lost really any track of what it means to be human, which is ultimately tied to St. Augustine’s observation that, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.” And as we lose touch with our ultimate religious orientation, we wind up actually unable to bring into clear view the more ordinary aspects of our humanity.

Have words lost their meaning? The problem of “God terms.”

R.R. Reno:

Richard Weaver, he coined this notion of God terms, and he recognized that in public debate, there are certain terms that are, they’re trump words. You trump people. “Oh, that’s anti-democratic,” or, “That’s not progressive,” or, “That’s not liberal,” whatever it might be with the God term of the moment, or, “That’s not conducive to diversity. That’s not inclusive.” Diversity and inclusion are God terms in our time. And so yes, you feel as though they’re ciphers that do little more than capture whatever the dominant sentiment is, correct opinion, what we would call politically correct opinion, say. And one reason that I think First Things, I gravitated towards it as a young person reader, is that I think we should be rooting our definitions in the Christian tradition because we have a vocabulary to talk about these things. And so we should use that vocabulary and work up from that vocabulary to engage the contemporary issues of our time.

Doug Monroe:

And that would be definitely mission-central to you. And good luck with that. I think it’s an important thing.

R.R. Reno:

You look at diversity or inclusion or things like that, and I want to think about biblical notions of hospitality or love of neighbor and not something so vague, because we have a very rich tradition in the Christian tradition of reflection on how we are to live the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, as opposed to inclusion. I mean, what does that really mean? As one of my friends… He was very funny. He sent me a picture of a sign in front of a church saying, “We include everyone who includes everyone, which turns out to be only people just like them.”

How did society go wrong in the 1960s?

R.R. Reno:

I look back on my life, and I think the big change was… It’s very difficult to put clearly into words, but we’ve reorganized society around the interests of the top 10 or 20% of society… that’s the way I would describe it… over the last two generations. So a lot of people have made this argument in terms of economics and how income inequality and wealth inequality and so on and so forth. And that’s really not my area of expertise. I’m interested more in the moral and social atmosphere in which we live.

So when I was a kid, I had to put on my little clip-on tie to go to church. What was going on there? I was from a prosperous family. My dad’s an attorney. Well, part of the job of people who are from them that… From those to whom much is given, much is expected. And so you had to project social standards to the rest of society. You had to live in accord with what the ’60s contemptuously called bourgeois values. And so you had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk of respectability.

And what the ’60s did is to argue that, “Oh, that’s just superficial and it’s not sincere.” Many different criticisms of it. It’s repressive, et cetera, et cetera. And so you have this situation where the most elite factions of society, the ’60s was… Changes were really driven, many of them, by university students. So they’re automatically at that point only probably 20% of young people were going off to universities. So top 20% reorganized the moral culture of society to serve their interests, is what I’d say. So I used to tell students, “You could take LSD, have sex with your girlfriend, and chalk it up as a great blow for freedom and moral progress.” So you could compliment yourself that you were getting what you wanted and you were on the moral vanguard of the new society.

So just looking back, it’s comical. And I put it in a very comical way, but that’s kind of what happened, seems to me. I mean, I look at tech billionaires wearing t-shirts and trying to look like dock workers. Or here in New York, who are the guys with the tie on? They’re the doormen, the servants, and then the wealthy people wearing casual clothes when they go out to work. And when I was a professor and I would wear a coat and tie, the students say, “Well, Professor Reno, why do you wear a coat and tie?” [inaudible 00:24:04] “To show you respect.” And they first misheard me. They thought it was to make them respect me. But I said, “No, no, no. It’s my way of showing you respect.” And so I think that that kind of transformation of our society has been very troubling, I think, and has had lots of very negative consequences because social order is a trickle-down, if you will. And if the people at the top are not maintaining social norms, then the people in the middle and at the bottom lack leadership, moral leadership.

The 1960s: A Generation That Broke the Rules

R.R. Reno:

I get into it in Return of the Strong Gods. I came to see the ’60s, while it felt revolutionary, was really the young people holding their parents accountable to what they were actually teaching their children. Question authority. Think for yourself. These sorts of notions were already in the post-war settlement, if you will, after 1945, but the parents were trying to balance… There was a big return to normalcy after the war, and move to the suburbs, middle-class life, married. Church-going was at a peak, I think, in the 1950s. But at the same time, there was a lot of anxiety about conformism. There was the book by David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, [inaudible 00:26:02] whites, The Man in the Great Flannel Suit, Organizational Man, all these different books, and The Stepford Wives.

These are ’50s books that were quite influential, insinuating, or some cases outwardly saying that we’re being were being made into soulless automata by these social rules. And so the kids go to college and they say, “Well, let’s stop talking the talk. Let’s walk the walk of breaking the rules.” And this was part of a larger trajectory that’s played itself out over the last, well, I think three generations. It’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, and I think we should not underestimate the significance of this time period and also how it’s not going to go on forever.

Humanity, Social Norms, and Reformation

R.R. Reno:

Well, you do have a… No social system is perfect, right? So the law of Christ is imperfectly suited to the human. This is what John Paul II was arguing, that obedience to Christ will fulfill your humanity. Obedience to, I don’t know, the manners… I grew up with the kind of people anxious about using the right silverware or things like… Remember I gave a sermon my Episcopalian days at this church in St. Louis. And some of the old ladies got upset when I took my sport coat off because it was very hot, and that was undignified. And so are those rules really perfectly suited to help us fulfill our humanity? No. We know that every society has misaligned. And so there’s something right. This is why the prophets emerge, the prophets of Israel. Socrates questions morays and norms of Athens. So it’s part of our Western tradition.

But typically, you have to achieve a balance and recognize the necessity and importance and the humanizing function of really any system of social norms, as opposed to anarchy, versus the inevitable lack of fit. So you’re always trying to reform without destroying or revolutionizing. And that balance was lost, it seems to me, over the last 75 years, and we can see nothing but the harm that these social rules do and not the good that they do.

Which worldviews are damaging the West the most?

R.R. Reno:

When I was reading Karl Barth as a young college student and graduate student, I really imbibed this idea that the great threat was this Promethean arrogance of modern man. The enlightenment think for yourself, we’re going to do this all under our own steam. And so the Promethean man reaches like the tower of Babel to try to make a God of himself. And as I taught in the ’90s and into the odds, I looked at my students and I did not see overweening arrogance or Promethean vain ambition. Instead, I saw a kind of self-protective impulse, a tendency to go small and to avoid risk. And so I began to see that really it’s the materialist. And I mean that in the metaphysical sense, not in the moral sense that we’re nothing but our DNA, or we’re nothing but our self interest, or we’re nothing but our selfish genes that this is actually the greater threat than, John Paul Sartre and French existentialism of the 1950s or for that matter, Jack Kerouac and a beatnik, Dionysian quest for perfect fulfillment.

So a lot of the clichés of the ’60s were Promethean, I think. Be all that you can be. And whereas I look at our time and I think it’s a sign of how false that promise was that the actual upshot has been a culture where people try to minimize risk in their lives. We see this with love and marriage. Young people are very anxious. They see romance as a minefield to very carefully navigate that minefield and your career. You’ve got to carefully manage that minefield or nowadays with social media and political correctives and getting canceled. Your own private thoughts you have to carefully monitor and only express and control protective environments. What really drove this home to me was, again, it’s very important. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do try to pay attention to what people say. And what really drove me, brought me up short was this call for safe spaces.

It emerged at first at elite universities. So these are the most successful young people in our society, potentially. They have the world open before them. They’re likely to be very successful in life, but they’re calling for safe spaces and that needs to be taken seriously. It’s not a cynical. I don’t think it’s a cynical. I think it’s heartfelt. So what kind of society have we created? Can you imagine what it feels like to be less talented? You have less career prospects than somebody at Yale or Harvard. They’re even more under assault it seems to me, or they feel even more vulnerable, even more at sea treading water, trying to keep their head above water. And so this strikes me as the greatest threat we face now is the feeling that there’s nothing out there that’s solid that I can rely on, that I can stand upon. There’s nothing really worth striving for, giving myself to, loving, being loyal to.

The West’s Biggest Challenge Today: A Society Without Guardrails

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. I look and ask myself what’s the biggest problem. That’s kind of silly. Life is full of problems. But you do have to try to find out how to focus. And I read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, came out, I believe in 2012. And I read it right when it came out. He didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t already know, but he put all the pieces together in a way that just knocked me back. And what he brought out is just how disordered the lives of people on the bottom third of our society have become, that they suffer from enemy, which is what Emile Durkheim, great sociologist at the turn of the last century described as a world without strong norms, and they’re kind of lost and wandering.

This kind of all came together in my mind, I was having a conversation. So it’s hard to put your fingers on it like, how did this come about? And I had a conversation with a young friend of mine, not that young, he’s maybe 10 years younger than I am. And he wanted me to give him advice on some, I don’t know, could be romance. I can’t remember job, whatever it was. And I said, “Sean, I got to say, I’m not sure I can really help you here. For me, life was like a train ride. You go to a college, you get a job, you get married, you have kids, you retire, you die. And the train went from one station to the next station. I mean, I didn’t think about what I was going to do.”

And he said, “Oh, it’s not like that at all.” He says, “Life is like you’re on a sailboat. You got to tack back and forth to get to destination of your own choosing.” And I thought, oh my gosh, that’s exhausting. Because obviously it was for him. He’s you know, and then I thought, wow, it’s not just exhausting, but for most people that’s impossible. Or another image I have is that there are a lot of twists and turns in life, but if there are no guardrails on the road, then unless you’ve got a very fancy sports car, as I say, you’re really well educated, high IQ, lots of social, family support. It’s really easy to slide off the road into the ravine, car blows up. So, what we’ve done is we’ve created a society without guardrails.

The Cost of a De-regulated Society

R.R. Reno:

So there’s no train ride to get young people from station to station to station and there are no guardrails. And so in the twist of turns of life, we get a lot of wreckage. And this to me is the, that’s the deepest source of unease in our society in the 21st century is that people, they don’t like living this way. It was sold to them as greater freedom. And in some sense it is, but it’s actually experienced as an exhausting effort of self-invention or what I would call trying. Everybody’s got to live a bespoke life. John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty argued that we have to give room and scope for the talented to undertake experiments in living, the term he used. And what we’ve done is reorganized society so that the talented can undertake their experiments in living, but at the price of everyone else having a clear trajectory for their life path.

And we have a lot of wreckage, 50 years ago, 7,000 people died from drug overdose death. In a time, this is the French connection. Heroin was, it’s seen as a scourge and a crisis in our urban centers. Well, in 2020, 50 years later, 100,000 people died of drug overdose death. That is a stunning condemnation of our society and the trajectory that it’s on or Angus Deaton and Anne Case. The two economists at Princeton have documented the decline in life expectancy, especially among working class Americans, white working class Americans, it’s a population that doesn’t bring with it… Immigrant populations often bring social capital from their country of origin. These are people who have nothing to live on other than what our elite are feeding them through Hollywood and social media and other sources of entertainment and their life expectancy is plunging.

I mean, that is a flashing red light. It’s like going to the doctor and the doctor saying like, whoa, your blood pressure is through the roof, buddy. You got to go in for some tests. To have a rich country like ours, where we have declining life expectancy is again, a tremendous condemnation of whatever trajectory we’re. We need to stop going in this direction. And it’s not just that the abortion license has led to millions of unborn who have been killed. It’s not just that there’s moral objections to gay marriage and other things, but rather the deregulation of our society has cost lives, people’s lives in the real world. And it still is. And it’s not going to get better until we start moving in another direction. And re-regulate our society.

How do we renew society? How do we encourage people to seek higher things?

R.R. Reno:

I mean, everybody has their different task, and there’s certainly… I’m mean I’m the first one to call for the churches to evangelize and that’s all good and well, and I think obviously is fundamental to the church’s mission. But I think we need to think, I mean, this is what First Things magazine is committed to not just theological truth and we’re called to go forth and make disciples of all the nations, but also to think in matters of public policy and public affairs. And so I think, I mean, people laugh at me when I say this, but I think we should work to overturn the Supreme court decisions in the early ’60s that ruled school prayer on constitutional public schools. And I think it was a part of the deconstruction of just an atmosphere in which young people…

I mean anodyne ecumenical prayer, but at least it tells them that life is not all about getting, getting, getting consuming, consuming, consuming, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure. So I think that’s part of it. I think we should have as a goal that we require high school students seniors to take a class in philosophy. When I was teaching, the International Baccalaureate Program has a senior philosophy component in that program. And so school districts that adopt that voluntarily and the students that went into those program, I really just noticed that they had a vocabulary to talk about things other than scientific material facts, if you will, or the other default in our society is economic thinking in terms of interests. And they had a vocabulary to talk about the human things that transcend our interests, narrowly understood. And so I think there are different ways we need to think creatively about how to restore that.

Social Justice as a Surrogate for Higher Things

R.R. Reno:

People intuitively sense this. And typically what they do is social justice becomes a kind of surrogate. And when I was teaching at university, this was often put forward as a kind of a higher thing. I’d never objected. I mean I objected substantively. I thought they had the wrong view of social justice often very extreme left in their understanding, but be that as it may, but that’s horizontal if you will. That’s about changing the world. We also have to have this vertical dimension because we’re never going to get rid of suffering. We’re never going to get rid of death and people need to be able to think about those inevitable realities, which are not going to be solved by welfare programs. They’re not going to be solved by diversity seminars. They’re not going to be solved by black lives matter marches. I mean think what you want about those things positive or negative, but you have to say that the reality of suffering and death are not going to be solved by those measures.

And I think that vulnerability that all of us have as human beings it’s a source of our solidarity at a deep level. I mean, we share that. We share, we all know that we’re kind of in this together, so to speak and to be able to think about that is I think if we don’t give that ability to young people, however imperfect our answers may be however partial they are. When I propose these philosophy things my friends say, oh, well, but they’ll be taught by people who… They’ll just turn it into some, whatever Sartreian whatever thing. I say, look, something is better than nothing.

The Four Family Types: Striver, Detached, Faithful, and Progressive

R.R. Reno:

Right? No. The University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies, James Davison Hunter’s operation at University of Virginia sponsored a study of the American families, plural. And they brought out these different categories of the American family, the faithful family, the progressive family, the striver family, and the detached, or that you would call it the kind of disoriented family maybe if you will. And basically a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, a quarter is one way of thinking about it. And the dreamer family is basically often immigrant. I want my kids to succeed. You tell me what the rules are and I’ll try to get them to jump through the hoops. The detached or disoriented family, these are often broken families. Parents are just, they’re too messed up at problems that they don’t really invest in their kids. There’s like, they’re in the school system what have you.

So that leaves the faithful family and the progressive family as what you would call the… They’re the families that have real clear view about what they want their kids to believe and how they want their kids to live and grow up to become. And a lot of people think that, well, progressives we’re going to outnumber them through more children. But if you look at the total children in these two families, they’re roughly the same. I mean, one thing about the Charles Murray book Coming Apart is that the Belmont world, the world of the successful is pretty kind of neo-traditional. Divorce is not common, out of wedlock birth is extremely rare. And so the progressive family and the faithful family are actually intact families. They’re strong families, but one is oriented towards a future that is organized around progressive goal.

R.R. Reno:

Hate has no home here. The signs you see in people’s yards and the faithful family is increasingly self-consciously counter-cultural and Christian, and you get to see the culture wars in our society are these two families fighting for the future of the country and the other 50%, or it’s more like 60%. It’s like 20% progressive, 20% faithful families. The other 60% are kind of, or at least the strivers and the dreamer families, they’re going to go with whomever winds up winning this struggle. So for me, it really helped me understand the cultural battle in our time. And then if we look back, we step back another step here, the faithful family, really, this is a Protestant evangelical phenomenon at its core. Progressive family, this is a Protestant mainline Protestant, secularized, mainline Protestant phenomenon.

And so I just think we’re still a white Protestant country in our political structure where we have evangelical Protestants descendants of the people that H.L. Mencken derided during the Scope’s trial, at odds with the mainline Protestant, the people who brought us prohibition, the same do-gooders, perfect America, bring light and progress to all the people. It’s the same [inaudible 00:50:24]. So the woke business is really a kind of grandchild of mainline Protestant do-goodism from the middle of the 20th century and the faithful family and the religious right are the grandchildren of the Billy Graham Christianity today. We’re not going to let these progressive Christians determine the future of our country folk and the rest of us are bystanders, because Catholics kind of divide 50/50 on a lot of these issues. And minority communities are usually clients of one or another political movement or party.

How does family culture influence politics/religion?

R.R. Reno:

George Lakoff. He was the guy that writes about, he kind of made it as a social linguistic about the power of metaphor in public affairs. And I remember going to, I was on sabbatical Princeton and I went to a talk he gave, and it was so partisan and oh, it was awful at one level. Another level was really quite brilliant because he had read James Dobson’s, Focus on the Family and he argued that the authoritarian, he called it, of course pejorative. The authoritarian model of the family versus the companionate model, male, female companion versus authority of the father. He said that will determine your political views. And I think that fits with this faithful family, progressive family. I think there’s a lot to that. There’s a lot to that, that our family cultures have a very powerful influence on our political outlook.

And I think the Hunter that Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture study was really quite good in that regard. And of course, Mary Eberstadt has made very powerful observations about out the way in which family and faith trajectory and trends of family and its disintegration for many in our society are closely correlated with the trajectory of faith, that they interact with each other. As I see, no father at home, no father in heaven. And I think that if there is no father at home, then you’re not likely to trust that there’s a father in heaven. And conversely, if you have some sense of the father in heaven, then you might be more likely to be the father who remains in the home and these things, it’s chicken and egg. It’s wrong to think that one causes the other, they interact with each other in powerful ways.

Importance of a Father

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, Christian Smith, who’s a sociologist of religion at Notre Dame. His studies suggest that the most powerful determinant of whether your children retain the faith is whether the father goes to church, not the mother. So the mother can take the kids to church. And then the likelihood that they fall away is much greater than if the father takes the children to church even if the mother doesn’t go. It’s an interesting, not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s a fact that, that I think, I mean it’s important. As we deregulated our society, the physical and powerful emotional bond of the mother with her children remains. But as we deregulate society, we’ve dramatically weakened the bond between fathers and children. And we see this with the absent father in so many homes. I mean, I think if your mother has a high school degree and you’re born in last year, your likelihood of being in a home without a father is more than 50% at this point.

How do we share the country? The problem with progressivism and cancel culture

R.R. Reno:

Yes. The same study indicated that the progressive family values diversity and inclusion with one exception, the only friends that these parents do not want their children to have is an evangelical Christian friend. So that really speaks to this deep kind of tension. It also, I think from my perspective, people talk about the religious right as the aggressors in the culture war. No, no, no, no, no. The progressive family has got a lot of aggression and it’s very punitive of those who disagree with its values. So where do we go from here?

It’s an interesting question. I think that one of the problems is the progressive family, the very notion of being progressive you are on the side of history. So there’s a kind of arrogance and sense of ownership of the future. And so we’re not going to learn how to share our country and our civic culture until the progressive family suffers, if you will, stinging defeats in the public square and is forced to recognize that no, instead of running the table and driving out, the faithful family, it has to find a motives for [inaudible 00:57:18]. And I mean, I think for instance, these signs, hate has no home here. I just think, what are these people thinking? I mean, would you share your country with haters or this quick turn to fascist and racist and all that sort of stuff.

These are cancel words. I mean, you don’t share your country with people who are morally repugnant as opposed people who are maybe morally mistaken or certainly politically mistaken, that’s perfectly normal state of affairs. And this is why I think the Dobbs case that’s coming up in the Supreme court on abortion is very important and not just on the moral matter, which I think is obviously hugely important about the sanctity of life. A moral matter, which I think is obviously hugely important about the sanctity of life, but just politically for the progressive family to feel a stinging reversal may sober them up and realize that no, they need to figure out how to actually share the country.

Universities and Polarization

R.R. Reno:

I mean that is a religious right in its most rebarbative phase of 9/11 as punishment for our affirmations of homosexuality or something like that. But science is science. Love is love. That is as crude of a denunciation as anything that has ever emanated from the religious right in my lifetime.

And I think that, and part of the blame here needs to go on to the universities. They’ve become so ideologically homogeneous that young people are not trained on how to actually exchange different views, argue or dispute about fundamental matters without… they’re just not trained to do it because there are no voices of dissent that are permitted at this point. So a lot of the polarization in our society, I put in the lap of our universities. They have not modeled civil debate.

What is populism?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. I mean, populism, it’s got a bad name, but we should be thinking about populism scientifically or social scientifically. Populism is when the many lose confidence in the few, when the populous becomes skeptical, that the leadership class has their interest at heart. And so then they shift their loyalty towards unauthorized leaders.

And Donald Trump was certainly an unauthorized leader in the sense that he had no experience of political office. He was disliked and criticized by all mainstream figures, which only seemed to enhance his appeal to many of his voters. That’s just a sign that our society has divided.

If we go back to Charles Murray, Belmont, top 20%, Fishtown, the bottom 30% and how much they have separated, you begin to see, well, yes, actually the people who run the country, the people in the leadership class are now living in a isolated way. They’ve become detached from the ordinary citizen, gated communities as a kind of euphemism for that detachment. Murray documents how there are these super zips, he calls them super zip codes where wealthy people congregate now in a way that was not true when I was young. It was always the different wealthy neighborhoods, wealthy towns, but there was a lot more, he documents growing up in Iowa where the town he grew up in was the host for Maytag company.

And so, the CEO lived in the same town as the school teacher. And now there’s no school teacher who lives in Bronxville, New York. It’s too expense. So anyway, we’ve got this problem of the leadership class that is either indifferent to, or ignorant of the concerns of the general population. They’re in rebellion. Populism is the appropriate word to describe that rebellious sentiment, as it attaches itself to these rogue leaders who promised to give the voters what the leadership class refuses to give them.

What do “the people” today want?

R.R. Reno:

And so what does the leadership class, I mean, what does the populous want? I mean, as I argue in return for the strong gods, they want a renewal and reconsolidation of the solid centers of life. They want economic reconsolidation so that there’s better prospects for high school educated people to flourish in our economy.

They want reassurance that the nation is going to remain a object of loyalty and devotion. They’re concerned about immigration as a fragmenting, a society, undermining its unity. And I would argue too, that I think, although it’s not as politically evident, the general population is aware that they’re living in a world without guardrails, and they want a reregulation of society to some extent.

Americans are notoriously reluctant to accept much in the way of external authority. So it is not like we’re heading towards some sort of collectivist nightmare, but people do want some kind of, they want a path for their kids.

Looking out for the Middle Class

R.R. Reno:

For me, I’m an avid rock climber. That’s kind of my avocation. And it’s nice because it puts me in touch with the kind of wide range of people. And I got to be friends with a young fellow who grew up in Gary, Indiana, and his dad was an electrician at the steel mill.

So a union guy, lived in the same home for 30 years, married to the same wife for 30 years, four sons, one son, this young fellow has a computer program. It’s done pretty well. Another son, very well in finance and the other two sons have been in and out of prison, illegitimate children, drug addiction.

And so he’s been unable to reproduce his life for his kids. So you either are going up, or you’re going down. The middle is just doesn’t seem to be able to be, isn’t stable. And to me, that just epitomizes the problem facing our country.

Not everybody can become a computer programmer. Not everyone can get a job with McKenzie. Not everyone can go to college. Not everyone can be above average to use the Lake Wobegon conceit from Garrison Keiller, you have to have a society where people at the medium, people in the center can do well by themselves. And even more important can be assured that their children will do well.

Society’s Booby Traps

R. R. Reno:

And we do not have that kind of society right now, economically and morally, there are just all these booby traps that people can fall into all too easily. I mean, here’s an example. We’ve had this college or bust mentality in schools.

And so lots of people who would be better off learning how to weld have gone off to the local state university, racked up 30 or $40,000 in student loan debt, gotten their BA or maybe even not gotten their BA, maybe got stalled in the process.

And they’re working at Walmart and they got the student load debt overhang instead of at age 18, going into the workforce in a blue collar job that actually has a trajectory towards a very decent wage with the prospect of owning your own home, getting married, having kids, sending them to a decent school.

I mean, I lived in Omaha, Nebraska for 20 years and it was a very sane environment politically and socially. You could be a UPS truck driver. Your wife could be a nurse’s aide and you could buy your own home, your split level in a suburb and send your kids to decent public schools.

This is not true in vast stretches of the country at this point. I mean, is there a single home in California that doesn’t cost a half a million dollars? I mean, sure there are in Northern California, but you know what I mean? A place that’s within commuting distance of a decent job in California?

I think half a million… And who’s going to, unless you have parents have money, where are you ever going to get enough money to make a down payment? And then how are you going to get married in this disordered date and fornicate culture that we have? I mean, even the word dating is so outdated in the current climate.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

RR Reno:

It’s this sort of online hookup sort of thing that is not conducive to actually settling down, having a wife and kids. And I think a lot of folks are sold a bill of goods. They don’t realize that actually family really is a source of satisfaction for most people, faith and family.

RR Reno:

Those are the two ones, not everybody’s going to have a rewarding career. In fact, very few people have rewarding careers. Most peoples just have jobs, not careers. And they work to live, not live to work. And so, I see populism as a growing rebellion against the objective reality of life for middle class Americans.

The Metaphor of Strong and Weak Gods Explained

R.R. Reno:

We’re made for love and love seeks to unite itself with that which it loves. So love always seeks something outside of the self. And so my metaphor of gods are the objects of our love and they can be, I think in one of my books, I identify what I call the hearth gods of our time and their health, wealth and pleasure.

And they’re weak. One of the great things about polytheism is what you can play one god off against the other. You can go to the gym in the morning, work your 10 hour day at the law firm and go out to the wine bar in the evening and you’ve served health, wealth and pleasure.

But those things, although they can have a powerful grip on people’s lives, they’re not strong in the sense that I see whether it’s patriotic loyalty, or truth is a strong god. Justice is a strong god and that these things really galvanize us and often evoke from us great sacrifice as we serve and honor that love, the thing that we love.

And so, as I see in our time, part of what is the dissatisfaction that people feel is that they’re not given these strong gods, the option of strong gods. And they default to these weak ones that ultimately provide very little in the way of satisfaction.

The Problem of Societal Prosthetics

R.R. Reno:

I mean, you do have the problem, prosthetics. One of the problems with a prosthetic or a crutch is that it’ll substitute for the healthy leg. And we all know we have to push ourselves at the gym or whatever we’re doing, rehab to use the injured member. And one of the problems with a lot of our efforts at providing people with social services is that we’ve created these prosthetics.

And so people have a difficult time standing on their own two feet because they’re not forced to. And I think this is a, I mean, it’s an inevitable part of when you substitute for the function of family with a government program that provides a surrogate, you’re going to get weaker family life, that muscle, so to speak has to be exercised in order to be strong.

 “Return of the Strong Gods” and Limitless Openness

R.R. Reno:

I mean, the historical thesis of the book is that the period we’re living in has been deeply influenced, profoundly influenced by the civilizational disasters that start in 1914, terrible slaughter of World War I, the ideological fevers of the 1930s that ultimately culminated in yet another war, even more destructive in scope, kind of epitomized in its inhumanity by the notion of Auschwitz and concentration camps and the show act, and the many millions ruthlessly killed.

So coming out of that, the consensus was all this was brought by fact that people believed they were too swept up in their ideological passions. So we have to lower the temperature. How do we lower the temperature? We lower the temperature by having a public rhetoric and education that diffuses, undermines questions, critiques, deconstructs, to use that kind of language and what initially, maybe it was appropriate corrective took on a life of its own.

So by the time we get to the 21st century, we have paradoxically, obligatory non judgementalism, and obligatory inclusivity, diversity becomes the great word. So these are dissolving notions that are meant to break down barriers. In fact, that becomes a very common language, open trade, open borders, open minds, that was George HW Bush in front of the United Nations after the end of the Cold War.

And so limitless openness, I mean, the prestige in the word open is really powerful in our time to be open, open-minded, openhearted, open, open, open, open borders. So I look at the political environment and populism and say like, wow, when the person can win the presidency in 2016 promising to build a wall, that is a direct negation of this limitless openness idea that seemed to become the dream.

Rusty Reno – Do people want to worship strong gods? (RR-31)

R.R. Reno:

If we could just break through to this utopia, and also it’s a kind of, there’s some reason to it, right? If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight. If nothing is worth judging others about then no one will be judged. If there’s nothing worth sacrificing for, then no one will have to make sacrifices.

And so there is a kind of gospel here, a gospel of peace, a gospel of self-acceptance, a gospel of not having to make sacrifices. But as I said before, we’re just not made as human beings for living that way. We are made for love.

And so we want to actually organize our lives around things that are worth sacrificing for, and that the strong gods is a metaphor for the things that actually offer themselves as worthy of our sacrifice. Nobody is going to die for diversity, right? But they certainly might die to protect their children.

I mean, the parental love for a child is extremely powerful, or they might die to protect their spouse from being attacked or they’ll die for their country. And obviously, we have the great tradition of Christians who die for their faith. And so we are living in a kind of cultural atmosphere where we’re denied these more powerful loves.

And this is kind of underneath the political debates about immigration policy or economic policy or the Iraq war and all those things. Underneath that is I think the seething kind of unease that people have as they’re trying to reach, they want to be given things, or rallied around things that are worthy of their love.

Now, this is a very dangerous situation. And so critics of populism are not mistaken to see this as a very unstable moment. And part of the argument that I make is that if we do not give people strong gods, loves that are noble and worthy of sacrifice, they’re going to latch on to more de basing loves.

And I see identity politics, for instance, as example of that, I mean, at least I can be loyal to my race, or I can be loyal to my sexual orientation or whatever it might be. And so this does appeal to people’s desire to have community, to be loyal, to be in solidarity, but it strikes me as it’s kind of rooted in DNA. And that’s, to me, the blood and soil kind of solidarity that we need to avoid, not a more noble one based in ideals and the truths that we share.

Tower of Babel and Utopianism

R.R. Reno:

There’s a Tower of Babel aspect in our time. I mean, one of the curses of the modern era is our tendency towards utopianism. So that what that does is it secularizes the scatological promise of fulfillment and ultimately the consummation of all things in Christ when he returns in glory.

So we secularized that and turned that into a political project. And that has, I think been one of the curses of the modern era and a consequence of secularization, by the way. It’s not that it gets rid of religion, but rather it makes politics often into a religion.

And I think one of the contributions that Christians can and should make to the future of American civic life is to keep the secular secular. And if you recognized that God is your final end, and that God is the source of our ultimate final happiness, you’re not going to make an idol out of some political candidate or some policy or what have you.

And I think that this is something that we desperately need in our time. It’s a great paradox. You would think that an unbelieving population would be… And that was the promise of the open society. If we just take the temperature down, people will be at peace with each other, because they won’t want too much.

And as I say, nothing’s worth fighting for no one will fight. But we were just not made that way. And so we’re made to, we’re created to give ourselves, and this is John Paul II often said this we were created to give ourselves a way in love.

And so we’re going to find a way to do this whether we want to or not. And so the ultimate endpoint of the open society project I think is actually to become a factory of idols that bewitch people and they do terrible things to each other in service to these idols.

And so it’s my hope that we can restore a proper order of love in our society. Because it works as a general atmosphere, love of your family, those who are near to you, your fellow citizens, and then love of God. There’s a ladder of love, so to speak, that we climb up and also that we descend down from as well, move up and down the ladder of love.

And I think a lot of church leaders and so forth recognize that it’s not the case that love, I mean, obviously people can make an idol of the family and certainly people can make an idol of the nation, but an atmosphere of love and devotion to limited goods that are genuine goods actually prepares the heart for the highest love, which is love of God.

How do we pursue strong gods well? The Three Fs

R.R. Reno:

Faith, flag and family. And we live in a society where separation of church and state, it’s not the purposes of political life to evangelize. Now I do think that our political culture should be organized towards promoting the religious life of the American people, and tax deductions, favorable treatment, so on and so forth, promotion of religious liberty, all good things. We need to emphasize that. And then to renew a vocabulary of national dignity and the nobility of our national project, I think is crucial. I get very angry at some of my elite secular friends who are poo-pooing American patriotism, oh, it’s so crude, worshiping the flag, blah, blah, blah. And I have told them, “Look, half of the country has a zero net worth. They don’t own anything. And so the most precious thing they have is their American citizenship. And to run down the country is to really basically say, ‘Okay, you’re not happy that they’ve been shortchanged by globalization economically. Now you want to strip them of this, too.'” And so I think it’s very important that people be given permission and not just permission, but encouragement to think that the country they share with all the 330 million Americans is a noble place.

And then obviously family, and I think that we should be pursuing policies to encourage marriage, and I proposed a divorce tax, a sin tax on divorce, and I think there are many other creative, there’s a lot of creative thinking that needs to go into how we can create a more family/marriage friendly culture. And this can be done. We created a marriage unfriendly culture over the last three generations and C.S. Lewis said when you’re going in the wrong direction, the first thing to do is to stop and turn back and go back the way you came.

Is America post-Christian?

R.R. Reno:

In my lifetime, I went to fancy pants universities, and I started college in 1979. And almost all of my classmates had exposure to religion in their childhood. This has changed now and so we have a leadership elite culture where people were born and raised in Westchester County, went off to Yale University in 2010, have just no exposure to church or synagogue. And this is new in the history of our country. And I think that our public culture or the people who set the tone for our society are post-Christian. If you go to Seattle in Portland, I think you see, you get the paganism bookshops and things like that. Back to our point that it’s not the case that as G.K. Chesterton said, “It’s not the case that after Christianity people believe in nothing, rather they’ll in believe in anything.”

And you see this in places like Seattle and Portland and the Pacific Northwest has always been the least churched part of the country. So they’re the leading edge of what a post-Christian society, these urban areas, what a post-Christian society looks like. And to be frank, it’s not appealing. So I would say, do we live in a post-Christian society? No, because there’s Christianity remains a very powerful and vital force throughout the country at many different levels. Church going is at, 25% of the country is in church on any given Sunday. That’s quite extraordinary. But again, it’s more those who set the tone for society are increasingly post-Christian or even anti-Christian I would say. And that poses a challenge to us as Christians, which is that that has to be confronted seems to me, rather than accepted, but also it has to be, if you will acknowledge, we can’t presume that our Christian sensibilities are widely shared among the leadership class of the country.

RR Reno:

So we have to speak and challenge the vacuum or the void, but not just imagine that we can recreate a world that has passed away over the last two generations.

The Recent Loss of Biblical Literacy

Doug Monroe:

And by the way, that’s one of the problems I see in Christian terminology that used to be commonplace and was widely understood, even if you weren’t a Christian. You can’t even get them, you can’t necessarily speak in the same terms. You have to attract them to the whole idea base to get them to even look at it, because they may not get it. Creation, fall, redemption.

R.R. Reno:

Oh look, I think I would-

Doug Monroe:

You have to believe it to actually look at it.

R.R. Reno:

No, I know this from faculty friends at elite universities that most students have no idea what the Sermon on the Mount is, never heard of it and have no idea what its contents are. Like I said, this is new.

Doug Monroe:

It was unthinkable and impossible in the 1800s in this-

R.R. Reno:

It was unthinkable in 1970 or 1980. Was there unbelief? Of course there was unbelief, but people, they were exposed. They knew about the three wise men. I mean, they had some sense of the biblical story. And as we’ve lost the biblical story, that’s the DNA of Western culture. It’s the golden thread that runs through all the ebbs and flow of our 2,000 year or history. And you could say that the philosophy of Athens provided the concepts for the West, but the Bible provided the story. It provided the images, the widows mite, that allow us to use a common idiom. But also the creation, fall, redemption thrust of things. So instead we get progress, which is a kind of mechanical, inevitable sort of thing. And not even progress now. We don’t even believe in progress, which is a kind of oddly Christianized view of consummation in Christ. Instead, now the most we can hope for is sustainability has replaced progress. So we’ve returned to a pagan idea of the cyclical history, things disintegrate. And then they come back and they disintegrate and they come back, as opposed to history having an arrow that points towards fulfillment and consummation.

How should Christians operate in the public realm?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, no, I know what you mean. I think that you have a moral majority language from Falwell and his friends in the ’70s when they really came on strong and it harkened back to the Richard Nixon Silent Majority language that we are a Christian nation and we’re being hijacked by secular elites. By the time you get to James Hunter’s To Change the World, there’s a sense in which it’s not a Christian majority, but it’s a kind of neutral zone and things are up for grabs. And we have to, I think that’s where he coined this notion of faithful presence to be voices. Now we seem to be in a world where there’s active hostility and Katie bar the door sort of… And certainly my younger Christian friends with children are acutely aware that the world that they send their kids to get educated in is not remotely neutral. So they have to be much more active in posing an alternative.

And so I think that this should characterize how we as Christians operate in the public realm. We have to be more open, more articulate, maybe more pugnacious at times, but not always, but if I’m right about the Return of the Strong Gods, what the world wants is some truths, truths strongly stated. A number of years in the summer, we’ve had Dominicans work in the office as interns, they’re in their formation, Dominican brothers or young men, and they wear their white habit and I’ll go out with them, take them to lunch or something. And I mean, New York City is full of people wearing a lot of crazy clothing. You got the guy with his guitar in his underpants in Times Square. People in New York are used to, you don’t even pay people any notice for their crazy get ups and piercings and tattoos.

Doug Monroe:

If you do, you’ll never get to work.

R.R. Reno:

But this guy walks, I’ve noticed with these Dominicans, they walk down the sidewalk with their habit on and people are like, “Whoa.” And so what they sense is that this is not just a costume or an ornament, but actually a symbol of a deep commitment. And there’s a sort of, it’s scary, but also kind of appealing. And I am optimistic about the future of the church in the coming decade. I think that the church, insofar as we have the courage of our convictions and insofar as at least in some way, we walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk, I think that people are going to find that in a world where nobody stands for anything and everybody’s out for themselves, it’s going to be very appealing, very appealing. And a lot of my friends say, “Oh, clerical abuse crisis, corruption in the… Evangelicals have their own version of this.” And my reply is in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Sure the church suffers from self-inflicted wounds, but we live in a time where everybody’s using everybody. Everybody’s judging everybody on social media. Everybody’s selling to everybody.

R.R. Reno:

And the church isn’t in that game. Even the universities that used to be a medieval institution oriented towards the life of the mind and the teacher-student relationship, when I was teaching and they moved from student to customer. And wow, so the university’s been subsumed into the marketplace and this great scramble of getting, getting, getting. And the church is not selling anything. And that’s going to be a very powerful reality as our society becomes thinner and thinner and thinner.

What’s your critique of the conservative movement?

R.R. Reno:

When William F. Buckley burst onto the scene in the 1950s and founded National Review magazine in 1955, he led with freedom.` Made sense with communist suppression in the East, made sense with this post-war economy that was dominated by this government, big giant corporations. Made sense in terms of people’s sense of this liberal establishment, censorship, I mean, a lot of the things we experience today. But freedom in this way was a kind of breaking things open. And Ronald Reagan, of course, I think fulfilled the promise of that vision. The baby boomers coming into their peak years. Take some of the limits, deregulate, lower taxes, let the creative juices run. And we actually got a lot of good out of that, but it’s not 1980. And we’re living in a time where things are de-consolidated, dissolved and we need a period of re-consolidation. And so instead of deregulation, we need re-regulation so to speak. Not stupid re-regulation and obviously some things should of be deregulated for purposes of efficiency, but in the broader scheme of things, I have written that we need a language of solidarity, what we share, and not a language of sort of individual entrepreneurship.

I remember Romney during the convention in 2012, a series of these videos of small business owners and ending with, I built that. This is meant to play off Obama’s you didn’t build that. And I just thought, wow, what a missed opportunity. Why aren’t the 20 employees of this little company saying, “We built that.” So the language of we is the language that the conservative movement needs to find, a powerful language of what we do. That’s typically the language of the left actually.

But interestingly, the left has become preoccupied with its own sort of radical liberation projects. Where is the we in transgender rights? So it strikes me as that the conservative movement needs to find the we that we can move forward with. And there’s a lot of resistance to that. There’s nostalgia for the Reagan years. It’s natural. You go back to your heroes, but it’s my conviction that Ronald Reagan’s smart enough to know that, he would be smart enough to know that 40 years is a long time and the problems in the country have changed significantly since that time. And also we should always remember that the solutions of today create the problems of tomorrow. There are no permanent solutions in the affairs of men, and if I’m successful and we do have a return to the strong gods, the we becomes more powerful. People are more united in these common shared loves, that my grandchildren will curse me because they live in an over-consolidated, overly restrictive, overly culturally homogenous world from our own, to which I’m willing to say, well, such is the fate of every proposal. You have to cure the diseases of the present. And the disease we have today are the diseases of de-consolidation, disillusion, fragmentation, lack of solidarity. I’m an American optimist. We’ll find a way out of this.

The Language of “We”

Doug Monroe:

One comment is I think the young people, and I’d say millennials down, they want the we. That’s what they really want. And that’s what they’re criticizing the boomers [crosstalk 01:46:52] for is being too individualistic.

R.R. Reno:

Part of the appeal of wokeness is that you have these utopian, again, there’s a utopian temptation where we’re not going to unite around common loves. No, we are going to unite around this kind of socially engineered perfect world where everybody’s affirmed in exactly the way that they want. It’s not going to work, but you can see the sentiment. The sentiment is to find a way to be together.

What is the Far Left really after?

R.R. Reno:

I see transgenderism as a kind of gospel, unable to deliver trans-humanism and immortality are… Progressivism, for Marx, the future is a future without limits. I mean, that’s the whole idea about you could fish in the morning, write poetry in the afternoon. So the world of scarcity is gone. Limits are eliminated. Because the only thing that’s preventing this from happening is the selfishness that is standing in the way of this utopia, limitlessness.

And so I think that’s this dream of limitlessness, which is ultimately related to a desire for immortality. And if my gender’s assigned at birth, then my mortality is assigned at death. And if it’s assigned and not just part of what it means to be human, then maybe we can revoke that assignation, just as I can revoke my having been assigned male. So I think it taps into some deep desire to escape from the reality of suffering and death.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America?

R.R. Reno:

But if you know what I’m saying, I worry that the pessimistic/optimistic thinking is, am I going to be, at the end of the day, I’m loyal. Like I say, it’s the only country I have. I’m just going to… It’s where I’m at. So I don’t think in terms of optimism or pessimism, I’m by nature an optimistic person. I think we have powerful forces of renewal latent in our society. I think that our problems are [officiarates 01:51:07] from the head down and our problems are with the people who run things, not with ordinary people. I think actually William F. Buckley said he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Cambridge phone book than the Harvard faculty. And I share that sentiment. There’s a powerful role, important role for people with technical expertise, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to judgment about what really matters in life, my experience is that if you poll truck drivers, you’re going to get better advice than if you poll college professors or investment bankers or McKinsey consultants, or what have you.

The people who are most deeply perverted by the principalities and powers that rule the world are those who serve those principalities and powers. And that’s elite people like me. I’m the closest to those principalities and powers because I’m networked, if you will, into the system. And ordinary people, as I’ve said earlier, they don’t live to work, they work to live. So as a result, they have a skeptical view of the principalities and powers that rule the world and that skepticism holds them a good stead.

Closing Remarks

Doug Monroe:

Well, they not tempted by false glory. They live in real glory. They live in authentic glory that they make and share, and that’s all there is. And they look for that. And that is just a wonderful thing. And I want you to finish what you have to say, and then we’ll be done.

R.R. Reno:

Some of my friends say, “Well, yeah,” but their marriages are in tatters. They’re addicted to drugs, they’re addicted to pornography. And okay, true, true, true. But those are, how should I say, deeply human vices in a way that our elite, smug, arrogant confidence that we can somehow engineer things and hold things in our command. That’s an extraordinary vice. That’s actually much more damaging to the soul, seems to me.

Doug Monroe:

I couldn’t agree more. And out of the 33 times I’ve asked this question, you gave an answer that I hadn’t heard before now. I’m going to award you with the blue ribbon as of now for that answer. Thank you. I think we just kind of maybe topped the interview yesterday. We’ll have to see. Thank you very much.

R.R. Reno:

Good. Well, thank you.

Doug Monroe:

Appreciate it.

Overview

R. R. Reno

Dr. R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things magazine, one of America’s most influential religious journals. He was formerly the professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University and is the author of several books. Praxis Circle interviewed Dr. Reno because he consistently offers an informed, imaginative, and insightful view of American politics from a Christian point of view. His analysis of the fundamental trends in American society and an America divided are telling about the future, with an eye toward possible solutions.
Transcript

Introduction

Doug Monroe:

All right. Well, just in a formal way, thank you for doing this. I’ve been really excited and wanting to do this now for six months after having lunch with you and COVID intervened and all kinds of things, but here we are. And so it’s just a real thrill. We think a lot alike, and I also think our mission as a nonprofit fits well with the bent that I see First Things taking.

R.R. Reno:

I hope so.

What is the mission of First Things?

R.R. Reno:

Indeed. Yeah. First Things, our mission is to provide a religiously informed public philosophy for future of American society. So we want to be a vehicle for religious voices speaking to the matters of controversy in our current moment, I mean, as well as speaking of our own theological issues. So in the magazine, I try to include, if you will, insider talk for Christians and Jews about our traditions as well as what you might say is outsider talk about how we ought to think about current events and trends in our society.

Can you tell us about the founder of First Things and how you became editor?

R.R. Reno:

Well, so when I was a graduate student, one of my buddies was doing a PhD in political philosophy, Matt Burke. And I remember having lunch with Matt saying, “So how’s the job search going?” He said, “Oh, I’m not going to get a job as an academic. I’m going to work for this new magazine in New York called First Things.” And so it was through Matt that I got introduced to Father Richard John Neuhaus, who’s the founder of the magazine, and did some writing for the magazine as a young college professor. And one thing led to another. Neuhaus liked the things I wrote, asked me to do book reviews, write feature articles. And then in the late aughts, I worked part-time doing some editing remotely, living in Omaha, Nebraska, where I was teaching at Creighton University. And then when Father Neuhaus died, my friend [Jody 00:02:27] Bottom took over and he asked me to come to New York full-time.

And one of the luxuries of being a college professor is you can go to your dean and say, “I’d like to take a year-long leave of absence.” And as long as you add the addendum “without pay,” the Dean says, “Oh yeah, that’s great. Go ahead,” because they can hire an adjunct for less than they’re paying you. So it’s money in the bank for the dean. So I came here to New York and then Jody left and then they put me in charge in 2011. So it wasn’t a plan that I had, but one thing led to another, and here I am.

Mainline Protestantism and Tradition of Responsibility

R.R. Reno:

Jody’s a birthright Catholic, so to speak, whereas I was raised as Episcopalian, and worked hard to remain in Episcopalian in spite of many of the heterodoxies of the Episcopal church in the United States, but then became Catholic in 2004.

Doug Monroe:

Interesting. Okay.

R.R. Reno:

And part of the founding mission of First Things or part of the DNA of First Things is I would say it’s mainline Protestant in its ethos. And why do I say that even though Neuhaus was a Lutheran pastor and became Catholic right in the first year of the magazine in 1990 and then was ordained as a priest a year later? And then as I mentioned, Jody was born and raised Catholic. But many of the major voices in the magazine were Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Episcopalian. And that’s the tradition in American society that we were speaking earlier about, Reinhold Niebuhr, that’s the tradition in American society where religious folks saw themselves as having responsibility, if you will, for the future of the nation. And so that was the tradition that had the most well-developed vocabulary to, if you will, meld together theologically informed thinking with current matters of political importance for the future of the country [crosstalk 00:04:46]-

Doug Monroe:

Which goes back to inception of the country, and I would say since 1621, for sure, and probably 1607. Okay. Let’s face it.

R.R. Reno:

Yes. I mean, obviously, the people who came to the new world, whether they were ardent or lukewarm, they thought in terms of a larger Christian view of society. And there’s no question about that. And when the magazine was started, mainline Protestantism had declined in its significance and Neuhaus saw a unity of Catholics and evangelicals to emerge and to provide a sophisticated voice to replace that mainline voice, to provide the religious leaven to American public life.

How is First Things unique from other Christian publications?

R.R. Reno:

Yes. I hold to the Peter Thiel, Warren Buffett view that I don’t like competition. So I like that wide moat. And so we’re really unique. There are denominationally affiliated publications that have strong theological content, and there are politically conservative publications that are very influential. But First Things is unique in having an ecumenical profile that is influential in matters of public debate, but is also very clearly internally rooted in a religious sense of its own mission. And so our readership is really made up of people. One of my readers described subscribing to First Things as like getting a master’s degree. It’s not easy reading often. It can be very demanding intellectually. But what differentiates us from so many other conservative publications is this unrepentant, unapologetic theological dimension to what we’re doing.

Coming of Age and the Search for Truth

R.R. Reno:

There are religious dimensions to my trajectory, and then there are, I guess I would say social-political. For me, I mean, I grew up as an Episcopalian in what I would call a liberal Protestant milieu, but the minister at my church had a PhD in New Testament. And so it was biblical liberal Protestantism. And I looked back, and I was very fortunate in that regard. So it wasn’t just New York Times editorials punched up as sermons. They were really about the Bible. And so that was an important formation for me. And then I read Karl Barth as an undergraduate at Haverford College. I attended Haverford College. And that was like a punch in the gut. And I realized I had to decide whether I actually thought Christianity was true or not. Did Jesus rise from the dead?

And so it was the truth question, not the meaning question, but the question that I had to confront as a young person. And that really set me on this trajectory. Went off and did a PhD in theology. And I was a theological conservative before I was a political conservative, and that the authority of God had to be honored. And that automatically put me at odds with the surrounding milieu in university culture. And through that, that gave me enough freedom to start to think about social and political matters in fresh ways. And I wound up on the right side, not on the left side. And I think another factor for me was also working in a kitchen during high school at a restaurant washing pots, working on construction crews. I worked on an oil rig in Wyoming after I dropped out of college to go chase my tail as a rock climber.

And so these sorts of experiences were… Also, I went to a big public high school, and I realized how lucky I was in terms of my own family background. So just realizing the heterogeneity of our crazy quilt country was a big help because once I went to college and grad school, I was off in these fancy pants, elite institutions that it’s not a bad thing, actually, ivory tower, as they say. That’s not bad because it’s an opportunity to be insulated from ordinary pressures of life, and that’s a great blessing for education. But the downside or the curse of that is that it often blinds you to the reality of the way that most people in our country actually live.

How would you describe your worldview?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. That’s not a language that I use typically. I would say that I’m kind of Aristotle when it comes to philosophy and St. Augustine when it comes to theology. What do I mean by that? Aristotle is a kind of common sense realism. Men and women are different. Society has different functions. Human beings are… we’re animals on one level with natural instincts, but we also have souls and have capacity for free choice and free decision. And San Augustine and theology, more there it’s the stark contrast between the authority of God and the authority of men, which I think I draw from San Augustine. And so that gives you a sort of sober sense of the fallibility and fallenness of human affairs.

I remember when I was young and I was here in New York and I visited Neuhaus in his office, much like this office, and I was anguished. It was probably the ’06 midterm elections and the Republicans had been hammered by Democrats. And I was kind of anguishing over this. Neuhaus just waved it off and said, “Oh, Rusty, stop worrying about these things. The Republicans are going to betray us eventually anyway.” And that was a good Augustinian sense of the fact that put not your trust in princes or political parties or political movements. I mean, yes, put your shoulder to what you think is right, but don’t theologize civic affairs. It’s a good Augustinian counsel and warning.

Question on Pope John Paul II

Doug Monroe:

This is a question about John Paul II. And I was reading The Public Square, which was a shortened version of Mr. Neuhaus’s works, The Bottom Put Together. The first chapter, the very first excerpt was right on this point of JP II and what he brought to the world in his Centesimus Annus, all of his encyclicals, and how he really wanted… I call it new Christian thinking. He says that in Centesimus Annus, May 1st, 1991, he was really wanting the world to do that. It started off gangbusters, I would say. And I’m just curious what has happened to that from your point of view.

Influence of Pope John Paul II on Worldview Thinking

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, John Paul II, I mean, really in my conscious… He became Pope in 1979. And so really my conscious awareness of Catholicism really is John Paul II, and then Benedict. I call it the long pontificate, the two of them together. They were partners. He brought Ratzinger in, who became Pope Benedict, early on in his own pontificate. And so I see this, one of his signature phrases was, “Be not afraid. Be not afraid.” And there was, I think, an intuition that we have to have the courage of our convictions and a willingness to plunge into the proclamation of the gospel and not to be tentative and partial and halfhearted. And I think that was one reason he has such a influential figure. People, they saw that. And even if they themselves didn’t have that ardent faith, they envied it because we live in a time of weak, tentative half-steps, I think when it comes to the deep questions of the heart. So I think that was his great contribution to world culture, really.

And then in a more specific way, he argued in many of his encyclicals that we face what he called an anthropological crisis, which is a fancy way of saying we’ve lost really any track of what it means to be human, which is ultimately tied to St. Augustine’s observation that, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.” And as we lose touch with our ultimate religious orientation, we wind up actually unable to bring into clear view the more ordinary aspects of our humanity.

Have words lost their meaning? The problem of “God terms.”

R.R. Reno:

Richard Weaver, he coined this notion of God terms, and he recognized that in public debate, there are certain terms that are, they’re trump words. You trump people. “Oh, that’s anti-democratic,” or, “That’s not progressive,” or, “That’s not liberal,” whatever it might be with the God term of the moment, or, “That’s not conducive to diversity. That’s not inclusive.” Diversity and inclusion are God terms in our time. And so yes, you feel as though they’re ciphers that do little more than capture whatever the dominant sentiment is, correct opinion, what we would call politically correct opinion, say. And one reason that I think First Things, I gravitated towards it as a young person reader, is that I think we should be rooting our definitions in the Christian tradition because we have a vocabulary to talk about these things. And so we should use that vocabulary and work up from that vocabulary to engage the contemporary issues of our time.

Doug Monroe:

And that would be definitely mission-central to you. And good luck with that. I think it’s an important thing.

R.R. Reno:

You look at diversity or inclusion or things like that, and I want to think about biblical notions of hospitality or love of neighbor and not something so vague, because we have a very rich tradition in the Christian tradition of reflection on how we are to live the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, as opposed to inclusion. I mean, what does that really mean? As one of my friends… He was very funny. He sent me a picture of a sign in front of a church saying, “We include everyone who includes everyone, which turns out to be only people just like them.”

How did society go wrong in the 1960s?

R.R. Reno:

I look back on my life, and I think the big change was… It’s very difficult to put clearly into words, but we’ve reorganized society around the interests of the top 10 or 20% of society… that’s the way I would describe it… over the last two generations. So a lot of people have made this argument in terms of economics and how income inequality and wealth inequality and so on and so forth. And that’s really not my area of expertise. I’m interested more in the moral and social atmosphere in which we live.

So when I was a kid, I had to put on my little clip-on tie to go to church. What was going on there? I was from a prosperous family. My dad’s an attorney. Well, part of the job of people who are from them that… From those to whom much is given, much is expected. And so you had to project social standards to the rest of society. You had to live in accord with what the ’60s contemptuously called bourgeois values. And so you had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk of respectability.

And what the ’60s did is to argue that, “Oh, that’s just superficial and it’s not sincere.” Many different criticisms of it. It’s repressive, et cetera, et cetera. And so you have this situation where the most elite factions of society, the ’60s was… Changes were really driven, many of them, by university students. So they’re automatically at that point only probably 20% of young people were going off to universities. So top 20% reorganized the moral culture of society to serve their interests, is what I’d say. So I used to tell students, “You could take LSD, have sex with your girlfriend, and chalk it up as a great blow for freedom and moral progress.” So you could compliment yourself that you were getting what you wanted and you were on the moral vanguard of the new society.

So just looking back, it’s comical. And I put it in a very comical way, but that’s kind of what happened, seems to me. I mean, I look at tech billionaires wearing t-shirts and trying to look like dock workers. Or here in New York, who are the guys with the tie on? They’re the doormen, the servants, and then the wealthy people wearing casual clothes when they go out to work. And when I was a professor and I would wear a coat and tie, the students say, “Well, Professor Reno, why do you wear a coat and tie?” [inaudible 00:24:04] “To show you respect.” And they first misheard me. They thought it was to make them respect me. But I said, “No, no, no. It’s my way of showing you respect.” And so I think that that kind of transformation of our society has been very troubling, I think, and has had lots of very negative consequences because social order is a trickle-down, if you will. And if the people at the top are not maintaining social norms, then the people in the middle and at the bottom lack leadership, moral leadership.

The 1960s: A Generation That Broke the Rules

R.R. Reno:

I get into it in Return of the Strong Gods. I came to see the ’60s, while it felt revolutionary, was really the young people holding their parents accountable to what they were actually teaching their children. Question authority. Think for yourself. These sorts of notions were already in the post-war settlement, if you will, after 1945, but the parents were trying to balance… There was a big return to normalcy after the war, and move to the suburbs, middle-class life, married. Church-going was at a peak, I think, in the 1950s. But at the same time, there was a lot of anxiety about conformism. There was the book by David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd, [inaudible 00:26:02] whites, The Man in the Great Flannel Suit, Organizational Man, all these different books, and The Stepford Wives.

These are ’50s books that were quite influential, insinuating, or some cases outwardly saying that we’re being were being made into soulless automata by these social rules. And so the kids go to college and they say, “Well, let’s stop talking the talk. Let’s walk the walk of breaking the rules.” And this was part of a larger trajectory that’s played itself out over the last, well, I think three generations. It’s been 75 years since the end of World War II, and I think we should not underestimate the significance of this time period and also how it’s not going to go on forever.

Humanity, Social Norms, and Reformation

R.R. Reno:

Well, you do have a… No social system is perfect, right? So the law of Christ is imperfectly suited to the human. This is what John Paul II was arguing, that obedience to Christ will fulfill your humanity. Obedience to, I don’t know, the manners… I grew up with the kind of people anxious about using the right silverware or things like… Remember I gave a sermon my Episcopalian days at this church in St. Louis. And some of the old ladies got upset when I took my sport coat off because it was very hot, and that was undignified. And so are those rules really perfectly suited to help us fulfill our humanity? No. We know that every society has misaligned. And so there’s something right. This is why the prophets emerge, the prophets of Israel. Socrates questions morays and norms of Athens. So it’s part of our Western tradition.

But typically, you have to achieve a balance and recognize the necessity and importance and the humanizing function of really any system of social norms, as opposed to anarchy, versus the inevitable lack of fit. So you’re always trying to reform without destroying or revolutionizing. And that balance was lost, it seems to me, over the last 75 years, and we can see nothing but the harm that these social rules do and not the good that they do.

Which worldviews are damaging the West the most?

R.R. Reno:

When I was reading Karl Barth as a young college student and graduate student, I really imbibed this idea that the great threat was this Promethean arrogance of modern man. The enlightenment think for yourself, we’re going to do this all under our own steam. And so the Promethean man reaches like the tower of Babel to try to make a God of himself. And as I taught in the ’90s and into the odds, I looked at my students and I did not see overweening arrogance or Promethean vain ambition. Instead, I saw a kind of self-protective impulse, a tendency to go small and to avoid risk. And so I began to see that really it’s the materialist. And I mean that in the metaphysical sense, not in the moral sense that we’re nothing but our DNA, or we’re nothing but our self interest, or we’re nothing but our selfish genes that this is actually the greater threat than, John Paul Sartre and French existentialism of the 1950s or for that matter, Jack Kerouac and a beatnik, Dionysian quest for perfect fulfillment.

So a lot of the clichés of the ’60s were Promethean, I think. Be all that you can be. And whereas I look at our time and I think it’s a sign of how false that promise was that the actual upshot has been a culture where people try to minimize risk in their lives. We see this with love and marriage. Young people are very anxious. They see romance as a minefield to very carefully navigate that minefield and your career. You’ve got to carefully manage that minefield or nowadays with social media and political correctives and getting canceled. Your own private thoughts you have to carefully monitor and only express and control protective environments. What really drove this home to me was, again, it’s very important. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do try to pay attention to what people say. And what really drove me, brought me up short was this call for safe spaces.

It emerged at first at elite universities. So these are the most successful young people in our society, potentially. They have the world open before them. They’re likely to be very successful in life, but they’re calling for safe spaces and that needs to be taken seriously. It’s not a cynical. I don’t think it’s a cynical. I think it’s heartfelt. So what kind of society have we created? Can you imagine what it feels like to be less talented? You have less career prospects than somebody at Yale or Harvard. They’re even more under assault it seems to me, or they feel even more vulnerable, even more at sea treading water, trying to keep their head above water. And so this strikes me as the greatest threat we face now is the feeling that there’s nothing out there that’s solid that I can rely on, that I can stand upon. There’s nothing really worth striving for, giving myself to, loving, being loyal to.

The West’s Biggest Challenge Today: A Society Without Guardrails

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. I look and ask myself what’s the biggest problem. That’s kind of silly. Life is full of problems. But you do have to try to find out how to focus. And I read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, came out, I believe in 2012. And I read it right when it came out. He didn’t tell me anything. I didn’t already know, but he put all the pieces together in a way that just knocked me back. And what he brought out is just how disordered the lives of people on the bottom third of our society have become, that they suffer from enemy, which is what Emile Durkheim, great sociologist at the turn of the last century described as a world without strong norms, and they’re kind of lost and wandering.

This kind of all came together in my mind, I was having a conversation. So it’s hard to put your fingers on it like, how did this come about? And I had a conversation with a young friend of mine, not that young, he’s maybe 10 years younger than I am. And he wanted me to give him advice on some, I don’t know, could be romance. I can’t remember job, whatever it was. And I said, “Sean, I got to say, I’m not sure I can really help you here. For me, life was like a train ride. You go to a college, you get a job, you get married, you have kids, you retire, you die. And the train went from one station to the next station. I mean, I didn’t think about what I was going to do.”

And he said, “Oh, it’s not like that at all.” He says, “Life is like you’re on a sailboat. You got to tack back and forth to get to destination of your own choosing.” And I thought, oh my gosh, that’s exhausting. Because obviously it was for him. He’s you know, and then I thought, wow, it’s not just exhausting, but for most people that’s impossible. Or another image I have is that there are a lot of twists and turns in life, but if there are no guardrails on the road, then unless you’ve got a very fancy sports car, as I say, you’re really well educated, high IQ, lots of social, family support. It’s really easy to slide off the road into the ravine, car blows up. So, what we’ve done is we’ve created a society without guardrails.

The Cost of a De-regulated Society

R.R. Reno:

So there’s no train ride to get young people from station to station to station and there are no guardrails. And so in the twist of turns of life, we get a lot of wreckage. And this to me is the, that’s the deepest source of unease in our society in the 21st century is that people, they don’t like living this way. It was sold to them as greater freedom. And in some sense it is, but it’s actually experienced as an exhausting effort of self-invention or what I would call trying. Everybody’s got to live a bespoke life. John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty argued that we have to give room and scope for the talented to undertake experiments in living, the term he used. And what we’ve done is reorganized society so that the talented can undertake their experiments in living, but at the price of everyone else having a clear trajectory for their life path.

And we have a lot of wreckage, 50 years ago, 7,000 people died from drug overdose death. In a time, this is the French connection. Heroin was, it’s seen as a scourge and a crisis in our urban centers. Well, in 2020, 50 years later, 100,000 people died of drug overdose death. That is a stunning condemnation of our society and the trajectory that it’s on or Angus Deaton and Anne Case. The two economists at Princeton have documented the decline in life expectancy, especially among working class Americans, white working class Americans, it’s a population that doesn’t bring with it… Immigrant populations often bring social capital from their country of origin. These are people who have nothing to live on other than what our elite are feeding them through Hollywood and social media and other sources of entertainment and their life expectancy is plunging.

I mean, that is a flashing red light. It’s like going to the doctor and the doctor saying like, whoa, your blood pressure is through the roof, buddy. You got to go in for some tests. To have a rich country like ours, where we have declining life expectancy is again, a tremendous condemnation of whatever trajectory we’re. We need to stop going in this direction. And it’s not just that the abortion license has led to millions of unborn who have been killed. It’s not just that there’s moral objections to gay marriage and other things, but rather the deregulation of our society has cost lives, people’s lives in the real world. And it still is. And it’s not going to get better until we start moving in another direction. And re-regulate our society.

How do we renew society? How do we encourage people to seek higher things?

R.R. Reno:

I mean, everybody has their different task, and there’s certainly… I’m mean I’m the first one to call for the churches to evangelize and that’s all good and well, and I think obviously is fundamental to the church’s mission. But I think we need to think, I mean, this is what First Things magazine is committed to not just theological truth and we’re called to go forth and make disciples of all the nations, but also to think in matters of public policy and public affairs. And so I think, I mean, people laugh at me when I say this, but I think we should work to overturn the Supreme court decisions in the early ’60s that ruled school prayer on constitutional public schools. And I think it was a part of the deconstruction of just an atmosphere in which young people…

I mean anodyne ecumenical prayer, but at least it tells them that life is not all about getting, getting, getting consuming, consuming, consuming, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure. So I think that’s part of it. I think we should have as a goal that we require high school students seniors to take a class in philosophy. When I was teaching, the International Baccalaureate Program has a senior philosophy component in that program. And so school districts that adopt that voluntarily and the students that went into those program, I really just noticed that they had a vocabulary to talk about things other than scientific material facts, if you will, or the other default in our society is economic thinking in terms of interests. And they had a vocabulary to talk about the human things that transcend our interests, narrowly understood. And so I think there are different ways we need to think creatively about how to restore that.

Social Justice as a Surrogate for Higher Things

R.R. Reno:

People intuitively sense this. And typically what they do is social justice becomes a kind of surrogate. And when I was teaching at university, this was often put forward as a kind of a higher thing. I’d never objected. I mean I objected substantively. I thought they had the wrong view of social justice often very extreme left in their understanding, but be that as it may, but that’s horizontal if you will. That’s about changing the world. We also have to have this vertical dimension because we’re never going to get rid of suffering. We’re never going to get rid of death and people need to be able to think about those inevitable realities, which are not going to be solved by welfare programs. They’re not going to be solved by diversity seminars. They’re not going to be solved by black lives matter marches. I mean think what you want about those things positive or negative, but you have to say that the reality of suffering and death are not going to be solved by those measures.

And I think that vulnerability that all of us have as human beings it’s a source of our solidarity at a deep level. I mean, we share that. We share, we all know that we’re kind of in this together, so to speak and to be able to think about that is I think if we don’t give that ability to young people, however imperfect our answers may be however partial they are. When I propose these philosophy things my friends say, oh, well, but they’ll be taught by people who… They’ll just turn it into some, whatever Sartreian whatever thing. I say, look, something is better than nothing.

The Four Family Types: Striver, Detached, Faithful, and Progressive

R.R. Reno:

Right? No. The University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies, James Davison Hunter’s operation at University of Virginia sponsored a study of the American families, plural. And they brought out these different categories of the American family, the faithful family, the progressive family, the striver family, and the detached, or that you would call it the kind of disoriented family maybe if you will. And basically a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, a quarter is one way of thinking about it. And the dreamer family is basically often immigrant. I want my kids to succeed. You tell me what the rules are and I’ll try to get them to jump through the hoops. The detached or disoriented family, these are often broken families. Parents are just, they’re too messed up at problems that they don’t really invest in their kids. There’s like, they’re in the school system what have you.

So that leaves the faithful family and the progressive family as what you would call the… They’re the families that have real clear view about what they want their kids to believe and how they want their kids to live and grow up to become. And a lot of people think that, well, progressives we’re going to outnumber them through more children. But if you look at the total children in these two families, they’re roughly the same. I mean, one thing about the Charles Murray book Coming Apart is that the Belmont world, the world of the successful is pretty kind of neo-traditional. Divorce is not common, out of wedlock birth is extremely rare. And so the progressive family and the faithful family are actually intact families. They’re strong families, but one is oriented towards a future that is organized around progressive goal.

R.R. Reno:

Hate has no home here. The signs you see in people’s yards and the faithful family is increasingly self-consciously counter-cultural and Christian, and you get to see the culture wars in our society are these two families fighting for the future of the country and the other 50%, or it’s more like 60%. It’s like 20% progressive, 20% faithful families. The other 60% are kind of, or at least the strivers and the dreamer families, they’re going to go with whomever winds up winning this struggle. So for me, it really helped me understand the cultural battle in our time. And then if we look back, we step back another step here, the faithful family, really, this is a Protestant evangelical phenomenon at its core. Progressive family, this is a Protestant mainline Protestant, secularized, mainline Protestant phenomenon.

And so I just think we’re still a white Protestant country in our political structure where we have evangelical Protestants descendants of the people that H.L. Mencken derided during the Scope’s trial, at odds with the mainline Protestant, the people who brought us prohibition, the same do-gooders, perfect America, bring light and progress to all the people. It’s the same [inaudible 00:50:24]. So the woke business is really a kind of grandchild of mainline Protestant do-goodism from the middle of the 20th century and the faithful family and the religious right are the grandchildren of the Billy Graham Christianity today. We’re not going to let these progressive Christians determine the future of our country folk and the rest of us are bystanders, because Catholics kind of divide 50/50 on a lot of these issues. And minority communities are usually clients of one or another political movement or party.

How does family culture influence politics/religion?

R.R. Reno:

George Lakoff. He was the guy that writes about, he kind of made it as a social linguistic about the power of metaphor in public affairs. And I remember going to, I was on sabbatical Princeton and I went to a talk he gave, and it was so partisan and oh, it was awful at one level. Another level was really quite brilliant because he had read James Dobson’s, Focus on the Family and he argued that the authoritarian, he called it, of course pejorative. The authoritarian model of the family versus the companionate model, male, female companion versus authority of the father. He said that will determine your political views. And I think that fits with this faithful family, progressive family. I think there’s a lot to that. There’s a lot to that, that our family cultures have a very powerful influence on our political outlook.

And I think the Hunter that Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture study was really quite good in that regard. And of course, Mary Eberstadt has made very powerful observations about out the way in which family and faith trajectory and trends of family and its disintegration for many in our society are closely correlated with the trajectory of faith, that they interact with each other. As I see, no father at home, no father in heaven. And I think that if there is no father at home, then you’re not likely to trust that there’s a father in heaven. And conversely, if you have some sense of the father in heaven, then you might be more likely to be the father who remains in the home and these things, it’s chicken and egg. It’s wrong to think that one causes the other, they interact with each other in powerful ways.

Importance of a Father

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, Christian Smith, who’s a sociologist of religion at Notre Dame. His studies suggest that the most powerful determinant of whether your children retain the faith is whether the father goes to church, not the mother. So the mother can take the kids to church. And then the likelihood that they fall away is much greater than if the father takes the children to church even if the mother doesn’t go. It’s an interesting, not quite sure what to make of it, but it’s a fact that, that I think, I mean it’s important. As we deregulated our society, the physical and powerful emotional bond of the mother with her children remains. But as we deregulate society, we’ve dramatically weakened the bond between fathers and children. And we see this with the absent father in so many homes. I mean, I think if your mother has a high school degree and you’re born in last year, your likelihood of being in a home without a father is more than 50% at this point.

How do we share the country? The problem with progressivism and cancel culture

R.R. Reno:

Yes. The same study indicated that the progressive family values diversity and inclusion with one exception, the only friends that these parents do not want their children to have is an evangelical Christian friend. So that really speaks to this deep kind of tension. It also, I think from my perspective, people talk about the religious right as the aggressors in the culture war. No, no, no, no, no. The progressive family has got a lot of aggression and it’s very punitive of those who disagree with its values. So where do we go from here?

It’s an interesting question. I think that one of the problems is the progressive family, the very notion of being progressive you are on the side of history. So there’s a kind of arrogance and sense of ownership of the future. And so we’re not going to learn how to share our country and our civic culture until the progressive family suffers, if you will, stinging defeats in the public square and is forced to recognize that no, instead of running the table and driving out, the faithful family, it has to find a motives for [inaudible 00:57:18]. And I mean, I think for instance, these signs, hate has no home here. I just think, what are these people thinking? I mean, would you share your country with haters or this quick turn to fascist and racist and all that sort of stuff.

These are cancel words. I mean, you don’t share your country with people who are morally repugnant as opposed people who are maybe morally mistaken or certainly politically mistaken, that’s perfectly normal state of affairs. And this is why I think the Dobbs case that’s coming up in the Supreme court on abortion is very important and not just on the moral matter, which I think is obviously hugely important about the sanctity of life. A moral matter, which I think is obviously hugely important about the sanctity of life, but just politically for the progressive family to feel a stinging reversal may sober them up and realize that no, they need to figure out how to actually share the country.

Universities and Polarization

R.R. Reno:

I mean that is a religious right in its most rebarbative phase of 9/11 as punishment for our affirmations of homosexuality or something like that. But science is science. Love is love. That is as crude of a denunciation as anything that has ever emanated from the religious right in my lifetime.

And I think that, and part of the blame here needs to go on to the universities. They’ve become so ideologically homogeneous that young people are not trained on how to actually exchange different views, argue or dispute about fundamental matters without… they’re just not trained to do it because there are no voices of dissent that are permitted at this point. So a lot of the polarization in our society, I put in the lap of our universities. They have not modeled civil debate.

What is populism?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah. I mean, populism, it’s got a bad name, but we should be thinking about populism scientifically or social scientifically. Populism is when the many lose confidence in the few, when the populous becomes skeptical, that the leadership class has their interest at heart. And so then they shift their loyalty towards unauthorized leaders.

And Donald Trump was certainly an unauthorized leader in the sense that he had no experience of political office. He was disliked and criticized by all mainstream figures, which only seemed to enhance his appeal to many of his voters. That’s just a sign that our society has divided.

If we go back to Charles Murray, Belmont, top 20%, Fishtown, the bottom 30% and how much they have separated, you begin to see, well, yes, actually the people who run the country, the people in the leadership class are now living in a isolated way. They’ve become detached from the ordinary citizen, gated communities as a kind of euphemism for that detachment. Murray documents how there are these super zips, he calls them super zip codes where wealthy people congregate now in a way that was not true when I was young. It was always the different wealthy neighborhoods, wealthy towns, but there was a lot more, he documents growing up in Iowa where the town he grew up in was the host for Maytag company.

And so, the CEO lived in the same town as the school teacher. And now there’s no school teacher who lives in Bronxville, New York. It’s too expense. So anyway, we’ve got this problem of the leadership class that is either indifferent to, or ignorant of the concerns of the general population. They’re in rebellion. Populism is the appropriate word to describe that rebellious sentiment, as it attaches itself to these rogue leaders who promised to give the voters what the leadership class refuses to give them.

What do “the people” today want?

R.R. Reno:

And so what does the leadership class, I mean, what does the populous want? I mean, as I argue in return for the strong gods, they want a renewal and reconsolidation of the solid centers of life. They want economic reconsolidation so that there’s better prospects for high school educated people to flourish in our economy.

They want reassurance that the nation is going to remain a object of loyalty and devotion. They’re concerned about immigration as a fragmenting, a society, undermining its unity. And I would argue too, that I think, although it’s not as politically evident, the general population is aware that they’re living in a world without guardrails, and they want a reregulation of society to some extent.

Americans are notoriously reluctant to accept much in the way of external authority. So it is not like we’re heading towards some sort of collectivist nightmare, but people do want some kind of, they want a path for their kids.

Looking out for the Middle Class

R.R. Reno:

For me, I’m an avid rock climber. That’s kind of my avocation. And it’s nice because it puts me in touch with the kind of wide range of people. And I got to be friends with a young fellow who grew up in Gary, Indiana, and his dad was an electrician at the steel mill.

So a union guy, lived in the same home for 30 years, married to the same wife for 30 years, four sons, one son, this young fellow has a computer program. It’s done pretty well. Another son, very well in finance and the other two sons have been in and out of prison, illegitimate children, drug addiction.

And so he’s been unable to reproduce his life for his kids. So you either are going up, or you’re going down. The middle is just doesn’t seem to be able to be, isn’t stable. And to me, that just epitomizes the problem facing our country.

Not everybody can become a computer programmer. Not everyone can get a job with McKenzie. Not everyone can go to college. Not everyone can be above average to use the Lake Wobegon conceit from Garrison Keiller, you have to have a society where people at the medium, people in the center can do well by themselves. And even more important can be assured that their children will do well.

Society’s Booby Traps

R. R. Reno:

And we do not have that kind of society right now, economically and morally, there are just all these booby traps that people can fall into all too easily. I mean, here’s an example. We’ve had this college or bust mentality in schools.

And so lots of people who would be better off learning how to weld have gone off to the local state university, racked up 30 or $40,000 in student loan debt, gotten their BA or maybe even not gotten their BA, maybe got stalled in the process.

And they’re working at Walmart and they got the student load debt overhang instead of at age 18, going into the workforce in a blue collar job that actually has a trajectory towards a very decent wage with the prospect of owning your own home, getting married, having kids, sending them to a decent school.

I mean, I lived in Omaha, Nebraska for 20 years and it was a very sane environment politically and socially. You could be a UPS truck driver. Your wife could be a nurse’s aide and you could buy your own home, your split level in a suburb and send your kids to decent public schools.

This is not true in vast stretches of the country at this point. I mean, is there a single home in California that doesn’t cost a half a million dollars? I mean, sure there are in Northern California, but you know what I mean? A place that’s within commuting distance of a decent job in California?

I think half a million… And who’s going to, unless you have parents have money, where are you ever going to get enough money to make a down payment? And then how are you going to get married in this disordered date and fornicate culture that we have? I mean, even the word dating is so outdated in the current climate.

Doug Monroe:

Exactly.

RR Reno:

It’s this sort of online hookup sort of thing that is not conducive to actually settling down, having a wife and kids. And I think a lot of folks are sold a bill of goods. They don’t realize that actually family really is a source of satisfaction for most people, faith and family.

RR Reno:

Those are the two ones, not everybody’s going to have a rewarding career. In fact, very few people have rewarding careers. Most peoples just have jobs, not careers. And they work to live, not live to work. And so, I see populism as a growing rebellion against the objective reality of life for middle class Americans.

The Metaphor of Strong and Weak Gods Explained

R.R. Reno:

We’re made for love and love seeks to unite itself with that which it loves. So love always seeks something outside of the self. And so my metaphor of gods are the objects of our love and they can be, I think in one of my books, I identify what I call the hearth gods of our time and their health, wealth and pleasure.

And they’re weak. One of the great things about polytheism is what you can play one god off against the other. You can go to the gym in the morning, work your 10 hour day at the law firm and go out to the wine bar in the evening and you’ve served health, wealth and pleasure.

But those things, although they can have a powerful grip on people’s lives, they’re not strong in the sense that I see whether it’s patriotic loyalty, or truth is a strong god. Justice is a strong god and that these things really galvanize us and often evoke from us great sacrifice as we serve and honor that love, the thing that we love.

And so, as I see in our time, part of what is the dissatisfaction that people feel is that they’re not given these strong gods, the option of strong gods. And they default to these weak ones that ultimately provide very little in the way of satisfaction.

The Problem of Societal Prosthetics

R.R. Reno:

I mean, you do have the problem, prosthetics. One of the problems with a prosthetic or a crutch is that it’ll substitute for the healthy leg. And we all know we have to push ourselves at the gym or whatever we’re doing, rehab to use the injured member. And one of the problems with a lot of our efforts at providing people with social services is that we’ve created these prosthetics.

And so people have a difficult time standing on their own two feet because they’re not forced to. And I think this is a, I mean, it’s an inevitable part of when you substitute for the function of family with a government program that provides a surrogate, you’re going to get weaker family life, that muscle, so to speak has to be exercised in order to be strong.

 “Return of the Strong Gods” and Limitless Openness

R.R. Reno:

I mean, the historical thesis of the book is that the period we’re living in has been deeply influenced, profoundly influenced by the civilizational disasters that start in 1914, terrible slaughter of World War I, the ideological fevers of the 1930s that ultimately culminated in yet another war, even more destructive in scope, kind of epitomized in its inhumanity by the notion of Auschwitz and concentration camps and the show act, and the many millions ruthlessly killed.

So coming out of that, the consensus was all this was brought by fact that people believed they were too swept up in their ideological passions. So we have to lower the temperature. How do we lower the temperature? We lower the temperature by having a public rhetoric and education that diffuses, undermines questions, critiques, deconstructs, to use that kind of language and what initially, maybe it was appropriate corrective took on a life of its own.

So by the time we get to the 21st century, we have paradoxically, obligatory non judgementalism, and obligatory inclusivity, diversity becomes the great word. So these are dissolving notions that are meant to break down barriers. In fact, that becomes a very common language, open trade, open borders, open minds, that was George HW Bush in front of the United Nations after the end of the Cold War.

And so limitless openness, I mean, the prestige in the word open is really powerful in our time to be open, open-minded, openhearted, open, open, open, open borders. So I look at the political environment and populism and say like, wow, when the person can win the presidency in 2016 promising to build a wall, that is a direct negation of this limitless openness idea that seemed to become the dream.

Rusty Reno – Do people want to worship strong gods? (RR-31)

R.R. Reno:

If we could just break through to this utopia, and also it’s a kind of, there’s some reason to it, right? If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight. If nothing is worth judging others about then no one will be judged. If there’s nothing worth sacrificing for, then no one will have to make sacrifices.

And so there is a kind of gospel here, a gospel of peace, a gospel of self-acceptance, a gospel of not having to make sacrifices. But as I said before, we’re just not made as human beings for living that way. We are made for love.

And so we want to actually organize our lives around things that are worth sacrificing for, and that the strong gods is a metaphor for the things that actually offer themselves as worthy of our sacrifice. Nobody is going to die for diversity, right? But they certainly might die to protect their children.

I mean, the parental love for a child is extremely powerful, or they might die to protect their spouse from being attacked or they’ll die for their country. And obviously, we have the great tradition of Christians who die for their faith. And so we are living in a kind of cultural atmosphere where we’re denied these more powerful loves.

And this is kind of underneath the political debates about immigration policy or economic policy or the Iraq war and all those things. Underneath that is I think the seething kind of unease that people have as they’re trying to reach, they want to be given things, or rallied around things that are worthy of their love.

Now, this is a very dangerous situation. And so critics of populism are not mistaken to see this as a very unstable moment. And part of the argument that I make is that if we do not give people strong gods, loves that are noble and worthy of sacrifice, they’re going to latch on to more de basing loves.

And I see identity politics, for instance, as example of that, I mean, at least I can be loyal to my race, or I can be loyal to my sexual orientation or whatever it might be. And so this does appeal to people’s desire to have community, to be loyal, to be in solidarity, but it strikes me as it’s kind of rooted in DNA. And that’s, to me, the blood and soil kind of solidarity that we need to avoid, not a more noble one based in ideals and the truths that we share.

Tower of Babel and Utopianism

R.R. Reno:

There’s a Tower of Babel aspect in our time. I mean, one of the curses of the modern era is our tendency towards utopianism. So that what that does is it secularizes the scatological promise of fulfillment and ultimately the consummation of all things in Christ when he returns in glory.

So we secularized that and turned that into a political project. And that has, I think been one of the curses of the modern era and a consequence of secularization, by the way. It’s not that it gets rid of religion, but rather it makes politics often into a religion.

And I think one of the contributions that Christians can and should make to the future of American civic life is to keep the secular secular. And if you recognized that God is your final end, and that God is the source of our ultimate final happiness, you’re not going to make an idol out of some political candidate or some policy or what have you.

And I think that this is something that we desperately need in our time. It’s a great paradox. You would think that an unbelieving population would be… And that was the promise of the open society. If we just take the temperature down, people will be at peace with each other, because they won’t want too much.

And as I say, nothing’s worth fighting for no one will fight. But we were just not made that way. And so we’re made to, we’re created to give ourselves, and this is John Paul II often said this we were created to give ourselves a way in love.

And so we’re going to find a way to do this whether we want to or not. And so the ultimate endpoint of the open society project I think is actually to become a factory of idols that bewitch people and they do terrible things to each other in service to these idols.

And so it’s my hope that we can restore a proper order of love in our society. Because it works as a general atmosphere, love of your family, those who are near to you, your fellow citizens, and then love of God. There’s a ladder of love, so to speak, that we climb up and also that we descend down from as well, move up and down the ladder of love.

And I think a lot of church leaders and so forth recognize that it’s not the case that love, I mean, obviously people can make an idol of the family and certainly people can make an idol of the nation, but an atmosphere of love and devotion to limited goods that are genuine goods actually prepares the heart for the highest love, which is love of God.

How do we pursue strong gods well? The Three Fs

R.R. Reno:

Faith, flag and family. And we live in a society where separation of church and state, it’s not the purposes of political life to evangelize. Now I do think that our political culture should be organized towards promoting the religious life of the American people, and tax deductions, favorable treatment, so on and so forth, promotion of religious liberty, all good things. We need to emphasize that. And then to renew a vocabulary of national dignity and the nobility of our national project, I think is crucial. I get very angry at some of my elite secular friends who are poo-pooing American patriotism, oh, it’s so crude, worshiping the flag, blah, blah, blah. And I have told them, “Look, half of the country has a zero net worth. They don’t own anything. And so the most precious thing they have is their American citizenship. And to run down the country is to really basically say, ‘Okay, you’re not happy that they’ve been shortchanged by globalization economically. Now you want to strip them of this, too.'” And so I think it’s very important that people be given permission and not just permission, but encouragement to think that the country they share with all the 330 million Americans is a noble place.

And then obviously family, and I think that we should be pursuing policies to encourage marriage, and I proposed a divorce tax, a sin tax on divorce, and I think there are many other creative, there’s a lot of creative thinking that needs to go into how we can create a more family/marriage friendly culture. And this can be done. We created a marriage unfriendly culture over the last three generations and C.S. Lewis said when you’re going in the wrong direction, the first thing to do is to stop and turn back and go back the way you came.

Is America post-Christian?

R.R. Reno:

In my lifetime, I went to fancy pants universities, and I started college in 1979. And almost all of my classmates had exposure to religion in their childhood. This has changed now and so we have a leadership elite culture where people were born and raised in Westchester County, went off to Yale University in 2010, have just no exposure to church or synagogue. And this is new in the history of our country. And I think that our public culture or the people who set the tone for our society are post-Christian. If you go to Seattle in Portland, I think you see, you get the paganism bookshops and things like that. Back to our point that it’s not the case that as G.K. Chesterton said, “It’s not the case that after Christianity people believe in nothing, rather they’ll in believe in anything.”

And you see this in places like Seattle and Portland and the Pacific Northwest has always been the least churched part of the country. So they’re the leading edge of what a post-Christian society, these urban areas, what a post-Christian society looks like. And to be frank, it’s not appealing. So I would say, do we live in a post-Christian society? No, because there’s Christianity remains a very powerful and vital force throughout the country at many different levels. Church going is at, 25% of the country is in church on any given Sunday. That’s quite extraordinary. But again, it’s more those who set the tone for society are increasingly post-Christian or even anti-Christian I would say. And that poses a challenge to us as Christians, which is that that has to be confronted seems to me, rather than accepted, but also it has to be, if you will acknowledge, we can’t presume that our Christian sensibilities are widely shared among the leadership class of the country.

RR Reno:

So we have to speak and challenge the vacuum or the void, but not just imagine that we can recreate a world that has passed away over the last two generations.

The Recent Loss of Biblical Literacy

Doug Monroe:

And by the way, that’s one of the problems I see in Christian terminology that used to be commonplace and was widely understood, even if you weren’t a Christian. You can’t even get them, you can’t necessarily speak in the same terms. You have to attract them to the whole idea base to get them to even look at it, because they may not get it. Creation, fall, redemption.

R.R. Reno:

Oh look, I think I would-

Doug Monroe:

You have to believe it to actually look at it.

R.R. Reno:

No, I know this from faculty friends at elite universities that most students have no idea what the Sermon on the Mount is, never heard of it and have no idea what its contents are. Like I said, this is new.

Doug Monroe:

It was unthinkable and impossible in the 1800s in this-

R.R. Reno:

It was unthinkable in 1970 or 1980. Was there unbelief? Of course there was unbelief, but people, they were exposed. They knew about the three wise men. I mean, they had some sense of the biblical story. And as we’ve lost the biblical story, that’s the DNA of Western culture. It’s the golden thread that runs through all the ebbs and flow of our 2,000 year or history. And you could say that the philosophy of Athens provided the concepts for the West, but the Bible provided the story. It provided the images, the widows mite, that allow us to use a common idiom. But also the creation, fall, redemption thrust of things. So instead we get progress, which is a kind of mechanical, inevitable sort of thing. And not even progress now. We don’t even believe in progress, which is a kind of oddly Christianized view of consummation in Christ. Instead, now the most we can hope for is sustainability has replaced progress. So we’ve returned to a pagan idea of the cyclical history, things disintegrate. And then they come back and they disintegrate and they come back, as opposed to history having an arrow that points towards fulfillment and consummation.

How should Christians operate in the public realm?

R.R. Reno:

Yeah, no, I know what you mean. I think that you have a moral majority language from Falwell and his friends in the ’70s when they really came on strong and it harkened back to the Richard Nixon Silent Majority language that we are a Christian nation and we’re being hijacked by secular elites. By the time you get to James Hunter’s To Change the World, there’s a sense in which it’s not a Christian majority, but it’s a kind of neutral zone and things are up for grabs. And we have to, I think that’s where he coined this notion of faithful presence to be voices. Now we seem to be in a world where there’s active hostility and Katie bar the door sort of… And certainly my younger Christian friends with children are acutely aware that the world that they send their kids to get educated in is not remotely neutral. So they have to be much more active in posing an alternative.

And so I think that this should characterize how we as Christians operate in the public realm. We have to be more open, more articulate, maybe more pugnacious at times, but not always, but if I’m right about the Return of the Strong Gods, what the world wants is some truths, truths strongly stated. A number of years in the summer, we’ve had Dominicans work in the office as interns, they’re in their formation, Dominican brothers or young men, and they wear their white habit and I’ll go out with them, take them to lunch or something. And I mean, New York City is full of people wearing a lot of crazy clothing. You got the guy with his guitar in his underpants in Times Square. People in New York are used to, you don’t even pay people any notice for their crazy get ups and piercings and tattoos.

Doug Monroe:

If you do, you’ll never get to work.

R.R. Reno:

But this guy walks, I’ve noticed with these Dominicans, they walk down the sidewalk with their habit on and people are like, “Whoa.” And so what they sense is that this is not just a costume or an ornament, but actually a symbol of a deep commitment. And there’s a sort of, it’s scary, but also kind of appealing. And I am optimistic about the future of the church in the coming decade. I think that the church, insofar as we have the courage of our convictions and insofar as at least in some way, we walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk, I think that people are going to find that in a world where nobody stands for anything and everybody’s out for themselves, it’s going to be very appealing, very appealing. And a lot of my friends say, “Oh, clerical abuse crisis, corruption in the… Evangelicals have their own version of this.” And my reply is in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Sure the church suffers from self-inflicted wounds, but we live in a time where everybody’s using everybody. Everybody’s judging everybody on social media. Everybody’s selling to everybody.

R.R. Reno:

And the church isn’t in that game. Even the universities that used to be a medieval institution oriented towards the life of the mind and the teacher-student relationship, when I was teaching and they moved from student to customer. And wow, so the university’s been subsumed into the marketplace and this great scramble of getting, getting, getting. And the church is not selling anything. And that’s going to be a very powerful reality as our society becomes thinner and thinner and thinner.

What’s your critique of the conservative movement?

R.R. Reno:

When William F. Buckley burst onto the scene in the 1950s and founded National Review magazine in 1955, he led with freedom.` Made sense with communist suppression in the East, made sense with this post-war economy that was dominated by this government, big giant corporations. Made sense in terms of people’s sense of this liberal establishment, censorship, I mean, a lot of the things we experience today. But freedom in this way was a kind of breaking things open. And Ronald Reagan, of course, I think fulfilled the promise of that vision. The baby boomers coming into their peak years. Take some of the limits, deregulate, lower taxes, let the creative juices run. And we actually got a lot of good out of that, but it’s not 1980. And we’re living in a time where things are de-consolidated, dissolved and we need a period of re-consolidation. And so instead of deregulation, we need re-regulation so to speak. Not stupid re-regulation and obviously some things should of be deregulated for purposes of efficiency, but in the broader scheme of things, I have written that we need a language of solidarity, what we share, and not a language of sort of individual entrepreneurship.

I remember Romney during the convention in 2012, a series of these videos of small business owners and ending with, I built that. This is meant to play off Obama’s you didn’t build that. And I just thought, wow, what a missed opportunity. Why aren’t the 20 employees of this little company saying, “We built that.” So the language of we is the language that the conservative movement needs to find, a powerful language of what we do. That’s typically the language of the left actually.

But interestingly, the left has become preoccupied with its own sort of radical liberation projects. Where is the we in transgender rights? So it strikes me as that the conservative movement needs to find the we that we can move forward with. And there’s a lot of resistance to that. There’s nostalgia for the Reagan years. It’s natural. You go back to your heroes, but it’s my conviction that Ronald Reagan’s smart enough to know that, he would be smart enough to know that 40 years is a long time and the problems in the country have changed significantly since that time. And also we should always remember that the solutions of today create the problems of tomorrow. There are no permanent solutions in the affairs of men, and if I’m successful and we do have a return to the strong gods, the we becomes more powerful. People are more united in these common shared loves, that my grandchildren will curse me because they live in an over-consolidated, overly restrictive, overly culturally homogenous world from our own, to which I’m willing to say, well, such is the fate of every proposal. You have to cure the diseases of the present. And the disease we have today are the diseases of de-consolidation, disillusion, fragmentation, lack of solidarity. I’m an American optimist. We’ll find a way out of this.

The Language of “We”

Doug Monroe:

One comment is I think the young people, and I’d say millennials down, they want the we. That’s what they really want. And that’s what they’re criticizing the boomers [crosstalk 01:46:52] for is being too individualistic.

R.R. Reno:

Part of the appeal of wokeness is that you have these utopian, again, there’s a utopian temptation where we’re not going to unite around common loves. No, we are going to unite around this kind of socially engineered perfect world where everybody’s affirmed in exactly the way that they want. It’s not going to work, but you can see the sentiment. The sentiment is to find a way to be together.

What is the Far Left really after?

R.R. Reno:

I see transgenderism as a kind of gospel, unable to deliver trans-humanism and immortality are… Progressivism, for Marx, the future is a future without limits. I mean, that’s the whole idea about you could fish in the morning, write poetry in the afternoon. So the world of scarcity is gone. Limits are eliminated. Because the only thing that’s preventing this from happening is the selfishness that is standing in the way of this utopia, limitlessness.

And so I think that’s this dream of limitlessness, which is ultimately related to a desire for immortality. And if my gender’s assigned at birth, then my mortality is assigned at death. And if it’s assigned and not just part of what it means to be human, then maybe we can revoke that assignation, just as I can revoke my having been assigned male. So I think it taps into some deep desire to escape from the reality of suffering and death.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America?

R.R. Reno:

But if you know what I’m saying, I worry that the pessimistic/optimistic thinking is, am I going to be, at the end of the day, I’m loyal. Like I say, it’s the only country I have. I’m just going to… It’s where I’m at. So I don’t think in terms of optimism or pessimism, I’m by nature an optimistic person. I think we have powerful forces of renewal latent in our society. I think that our problems are [officiarates 01:51:07] from the head down and our problems are with the people who run things, not with ordinary people. I think actually William F. Buckley said he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Cambridge phone book than the Harvard faculty. And I share that sentiment. There’s a powerful role, important role for people with technical expertise, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to judgment about what really matters in life, my experience is that if you poll truck drivers, you’re going to get better advice than if you poll college professors or investment bankers or McKinsey consultants, or what have you.

The people who are most deeply perverted by the principalities and powers that rule the world are those who serve those principalities and powers. And that’s elite people like me. I’m the closest to those principalities and powers because I’m networked, if you will, into the system. And ordinary people, as I’ve said earlier, they don’t live to work, they work to live. So as a result, they have a skeptical view of the principalities and powers that rule the world and that skepticism holds them a good stead.

Closing Remarks

Doug Monroe:

Well, they not tempted by false glory. They live in real glory. They live in authentic glory that they make and share, and that’s all there is. And they look for that. And that is just a wonderful thing. And I want you to finish what you have to say, and then we’ll be done.

R.R. Reno:

Some of my friends say, “Well, yeah,” but their marriages are in tatters. They’re addicted to drugs, they’re addicted to pornography. And okay, true, true, true. But those are, how should I say, deeply human vices in a way that our elite, smug, arrogant confidence that we can somehow engineer things and hold things in our command. That’s an extraordinary vice. That’s actually much more damaging to the soul, seems to me.

Doug Monroe:

I couldn’t agree more. And out of the 33 times I’ve asked this question, you gave an answer that I hadn’t heard before now. I’m going to award you with the blue ribbon as of now for that answer. Thank you. I think we just kind of maybe topped the interview yesterday. We’ll have to see. Thank you very much.

R.R. Reno:

Good. Well, thank you.

Doug Monroe:

Appreciate it.

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