Monday, June 6, 2016

Religious Subculture in a Fractured Society

Notwithstanding the challenging economic transformations of what Yuval Levin (The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Liberalism) calls "our age of fracture," he considers the cultural transformations to have been even more so. "The postwar diffusion of American life began in the culture and has proceeded furthest there, and the accompanying economic and political changes have in many cases been responses to vast changes in mores, norms, beliefs, social expectations, and mental habits."

Levin covers familiar ground, e.g., the loss of common television programs once watched by 2/3 of the nation now leaving us "with less in common at every level of our culture." He notes how even the few "still relevant elite institutions" promote cultural and moral individualism. The challenge is especially serious for what he calls "institutions of moral formation," whose proper (and increasingly counter-cultural) task is "to shape and structure our desires rather than to serve them."

Examining religion, Levin notes something the implications of which have only recently been widely recognized. That is the changing attitudes not of the highly committed but of those of more nominal religious affiliation, those who in the past would have identified at least formally with traditional religious values, but who now feel freer to reject them. Because in the past social conservatives could presume more commonly shared values in society, they tend today to come across as trying to enforce a once widely shared consensus that no longer exists. They do this instead of highlighting a desirable moral ideal and trying to convert people to it.

In my experience, this has long been a criticism of how some Christians, for example, have conducted themselves over several decades of cultural warfare - which they have now largely lost, without apparently learning any lessons from the experience. It could be argued that Pope Francis' apparent attempt to reset the style of Roman Catholic participation in these debates reflects a similar insight to Levin's.

Of course, culture war over-reach characterizes both sides. Levin sees the controversy over mandatory insurance coverage for contraception as an example of such over-reach on the Left - "a culture war of choice initiated by the president." In general, he regards this as one of the disadvantages of our increasing tendency to remove such issues from the legislative arena - which requires persuasion and compromise - in favor of judicial resolutions, which cause both sides "to paint their opponents as irrational, and to deny that their concerns have merit." 

Levin warns both sides agains over-reach and bullying, which American history shows usually tend to alienate the public in the end .

So what, positively, does he recommend as an alternative strategy for religious subcultures? 

Fist of all, he stresses the need for belief in "a vision of the good life and a deep conviction that it would be good for everyone." While "religious liberty" is important, he regards it as important primarily not as an inward-focused, defensive end in itself, but rather as a precondition for being able to appeal to the larger society with precisely such "a vision of the good life and a deep conviction that it would be good for everyone." In the absence of a now lost ability to dominate the culture, religious subcultures need to offer "living models of their alternative to the moral culture of our hyper-individualist age."

If this sounds suspiciously like Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option," Levin considers what he is proposing to be by comparison a "more aspirational form of the quest for moral community." The model for the "Benedict Option" was, after all Saint Benedict's 6th-century response to a world order which was literally coming apart. Levin's perspective is less apocalyptic. "The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there."

What is key here is the idea of building out - rooted in the fact that such alternative subcultures seek "to embody ideals that their members take to be best for everyone, not just for themselves." That, of course, is the classic aspiration of a church - as opposed to a sect.

Levin believes that, as an alternative to radical individualism, his vision should appeal even to those (such as myself) who are still strongly attracted to more traditional social cohesion. Levin is convinced that "in a nation as large as ours, it is not possible to live in actual community with the entire society." So "what is required to address the particular excesses and troubles of our age is a new rootedness that will be communal before it is national."

Apart from his dismissal of the possibility of truly national community, I believe Levin's analysis has much to commend it. However committed one may be to recreating as much national cohesion as possible, it probably is always going to be the case that effective cohesion is more likely to be achieved within comprehensible communities. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church, which, prior to its existence in local Churches, is first and foremost a universal Church both in principle and in its aspirations. Yet it should escape no one's notice that the day-to-day life of that universal Church - and much of the vibrancy it displays - exist primarily in comprehensible communities. In the Church's case, such communities are primarily parishes (and also for their members religious institutes), which is where most of the action is, so to speak. To be authentically Catholic, parishes and religious institutes must remain connected to the universal Church and must nurture in their members a sense of wider global connectedness. Still, the day-to-day life of the members is formed and experiences primarily in those locally comprehensible communities.

It will, therefore, largely depend less on political action and more on the character and quality of such communities - subcultures in terms of the larger national culture - how effectively religious witness will influence the larger society.  

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