"Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society" by R.R. Reno. A Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Given the bombastic and melodramatic hotness of the past several months, a book promoting the resurgence of a Christian Society in the United States might well be taken as simply the dying gasps of a glum devotee. Yet R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine, past professor at Creighton University, and accomplished author, boldly jumps through the flames to present his 215 page hardback, “Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society”. It is a volume written to stimulate stability, arouse civility, and awaken creativity. The title of the book is a tipping-of-the-hat to T.S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society” penned in the 1930’s as World War II and Nazism were looming large on the horizon. Reno’s reworking of Eliot’s theme, though, is written in a different era, with contemporary concerns.
The author’s unease is that when “a culture of freedom becomes a cult of freedom, injustice, suffering, and social dysfunction get explained away as “choices”” (4). Further, that those who normally put themselves forward as socially progressive are actually “waging a war on the weak” through unimpeded choice, self-definition, and deregulation of cultural mores (5). Additionally, the pursuing of these liberation projects – consistent as they may be with the American dream – are also consistent “with a powerful, coercive government” (30) because moral deregulation “serves only the interests of the powerful” (85). Similarly, if “government can define marriage and parenthood as it sees fit, the personal is the political, which is one of the definitions of tyranny” (129). The author works this all out in well-reasoned detail through seven chapters.
On the other hand, Reno espouses the logic of faith, which “runs counter to the cult of freedom” (5). The author does not promote a resuscitation of some Nouveau Christendom to be shoved down unwilling throats. Instead, the bulk of the manuscript seeks to reclaim the importance of our “speaking up in the public square as Christians” (6). For the way forward, the way to renew our society is “by restoring our voices as Christian citizens” (7), which he fills out in the following seven chapters. As he does so, he is careful to give sober and sane reminders that salvage the reader from falling into fanatical idealism, or disenchantment: “We are called to do what we are able, not to succeed” (8); “Christians are called not to win debates and elections but to build a civilization of love – never an easy task, certainly not today” (184).
“Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society” has some surprising twists. Reno takes several of his directions from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, as “one of the most important Christian movements of the twentieth century” (66). Also, the author regularly turns the statistical and ideological table on those who are clamoring for moral deregulation and nonjudgmentalism as the way to empower the people;
“It’s hard to imagine a moral system more conducive to elite domination over ordinary people than nonjudgmentalism, which leaves poor people literally demoralized. Increasingly dysfunctional, the poor and near-poor can’t form communities and social institutions capable of representing their interests, making it easier for [the elites] to dominate…politically, culturally and morally” (85).
In the end “Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society” is a book for Christians of every clique and coterie. It is a book needed by those who are passionate about social justice. And for those alarmed by the secularizing decrees that have become systematized and standardized. It is a book that clarifies the importance of liberty, limited government, resilient morality and renewed faith. “The most powerful limits to government power are found below and above political life: a strong culture of marriage and family, and robust, assertive religious institutions. A free society depends on strong family loyalties and faith’s indomitable resolve” (138). I highly recommend the book!
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