A Manifesto for 2021
By Casey Chalk | January-February 2021
Casey Chalk, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is a contributor to The American Conservative and The Federalist.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someday historians were to look back at 2020 as one of the worst years of the 21st century? That would be a lot better than our descendants’ comparing it to, say, 1914 or 1939 — the beginning of years of global chaos, death, and destruction. Perhaps such a hope is naïve, given the trends facing the nation and the Church.
No doubt, the coronavirus was the pre-eminent story of the year. It killed more than 350,000 Americans and wreaked terrible damage on our economy, our families, and our mental health. Adding to that distemper were increased racial tensions, which reached heights not seen in the United States since 1968, as protestors and rioters filled the streets, demanding justice not only in particular cases of alleged police brutality, but in reference to the “institutional racism” that allegedly pervades American society. The final act of 2020 was one of the most bitterly contested elections in our nation’s history as Donald Trump and his supporters claimed the presidency was stolen from them by an unholy alliance of election officials, the Democratic Party, and Left-leaning legacy media, casting doubt (or trying to) on the legitimacy of a Joe Biden presidency.
All these events had serious effects on the Catholic Church and ordinary American Catholics. In response to the pandemic, many states and local jurisdictions enacted regulations that unfairly burdened religious institutions: Nevada’s capacity limits were harsher on churches than casinos, for example, while Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone successfully protested San Francisco’s draconian measures against places of worship. Meanwhile, “anti-racist” agitators turned their rage against the Church, desecrating statues of saints such as Junípero Serra and Thérèse of Lisieux, as well as statues of “white” Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and even defacing and torching church buildings. Conscientious Catholics wondered what truth there was to claims of “institutional racism” in the Church, and, if valid, what should be done about it.
The major events of concern to Catholics don’t end there. On January 20, 2021, the United States will have, in Joe Biden, its first Catholic president in more than half a century. The Democratic Party and the mainstream media exerted great effort in portraying Biden as a “devout Catholic” to the American electorate. There was an appreciable irony in this: They lauded Biden’s Catholic faith for its influence on various Left-leaning policies — such as immigration, health care, and, well, just common decency — while alternately assuring Left-leaning voters that Catholic teachings on abortion and family life would definitely not influence his platform. Roughly half of Catholic voters lent their support to “decent man” Joe Biden.
Right-leaning Catholics, on the other hand, viewed Trump as either a political savior, a stopgap measure, or a “best worst option.” They lauded his pro-life measures, including reducing federal funding of Planned Parenthood and signing the so-called Mexico City Policy, which mandates that nongovernmental organizations receiving U.S. aid not perform or promote abortions in developing countries. Catholic Trumpers also commended his administration’s pro-religious-liberty efforts and warned that a Biden victory would reverse these and the recent pro-life gains, especially as Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, has a record of anti-Catholic statements and actions, including against the Knights of Columbus and pro-life activist David Daleiden.
Whatever truth there is to this narrative, any sober-minded assessment of Catholicism in America must acknowledge the many troubling signs for the future of the Church. Mass attendance has been declining since the 1950s, and about 30 million Americans (almost ten percent of the population) are either former or non-practicing Catholics. This is on pace with broader national trends: The number of Americans who identify as Christian decreased 12 percentage points in the past decade. More than a quarter of the country is now religiously unaffiliated, and that number is growing quickest among younger Americans.
There are many reasons why Catholics should be concerned about these trends. One is that the religiously unaffiliated are less knowledgeable about not only the doctrines of Christianity but also the manifold social and economic benefits that religious institutions provide to secular society. The Washington Post reported that the number of faith-based charities in America — which perform such functions as tutoring schoolchildren, feeding the hungry, and sheltering the homeless — is also shrinking (Oct. 23). And religiously unaffiliated Americans are not picking up the slack as volunteerism, whether religious or secular, is likewise decreasing, especially among the young.
A populace unaware of the socioeconomic value of religious institutions will be less sympathetic to religion in general, especially if they are told that such organizations are built on homophobic, racist, and sexist beliefs. When Catholic adoption agencies close because the jurisdictions in which they operate cannot countenance their refusal to place children with same-sex couples, new adoption agencies don’t suddenly materialize, and adoption-eligible kids suffer, languishing longer in the foster-care and child-welfare systems. (And, it should be noted, research has shown that Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt as the general population.) When Catholic grade schools close, public school districts have to absorb hundreds, if not thousands, of new students, and education in general suffers.
COVID-19 will only accelerate these trends as religious institutions buckle under the economic pressures of government lockdowns. Churches themselves will feel the strain too as Americans who go without attending religious services for months or even a year discover they don’t really miss them, and never return. The continued churn of scandals, whether in the form of revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Vatican’s “McCarrick Report” (released in November) or in the lawsuit against the Boy Scouts, will further undermine public trust in institutions once perceived to be foundational to American life and civic formation.
Unfortunately, it’s not as if the growing numbers of “religiously unaffiliated” have no ideological commitments. Rather, they’ve swapped out Christianity for a secular, progressivist religion with its own dogmas, catechesis, and narratives. This “woke” religion, or whatever you want to call it, commends “goods” like sexual liberation, intersectionality, and the prioritization of BIPOC (black, indigenous, persons of color) while condemning as heretical “patriarchy,” “power structures,” and “white privilege.” If you want to see the zealotry of its adherents in action, try offering a nuanced commentary on the slogan black lives matter, or the organization of the same name, and then witness the subsequent opprobrium and calumnies leveled at you. As the NOR has documented, these zealots are increasingly directing that fanatic energy against the Church and her members.
Prominent conservative writer Rod Dreher, a former Catholic who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, has mapped out the dangers of this woke religion in his latest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. They include the ironically named “anti-racist” movement (which is, in truth, racially reductive), political and legal attacks on religious persons and institutions that adhere to traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, and so-called diversity and inclusivity programs in corporations and government institutions (including higher learning) that ensure ideological conformity. Dreher, citing political philosopher Hannah Arendt, refers to this as a “soft totalitarianism” that is paving the way for a more aggressive, coercive society and state. Certain conditions are necessary for totalitarianism, and they are becoming more common in America: loneliness and social atomization, a loss of faith in hierarchies and institutions, a desire to transgress and destroy, a willingness to believe useful lies, the valuation of loyalty over expertise, and the politicization of everything.
Dreher’s commentary is primarily social and cultural. Another recent book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return by Michael Anton (of “Flight 93 Election” fame), is more political. Anton, a Catholic, warns of the inevitability of Democratic political consolidation (the book was published shortly before the November election) as the Left already controls the administrative state, the media, academia, and the tech and entertainment industries, which provide it disproportionate control over messaging. Once conservatives are deprived of institutions like the Senate or state governments, they will lose their last weapon of resistance, and America will effectively become a one-party state in which conservatives are permanently disenfranchised.
Dreher’s solutions — which are oriented at a broad, conservative audience that includes Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, as well as non-Christian “fellow-travelers” — will sound familiar to anyone who read his 2017 bestseller, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. They include the need to be uncompromising in the protection of truth, in the cultivation of cultural memory that honors the best of the Western tradition, in bolstering the family as a form of resistance, in reinvigorating religious faith and devotion, and in building strong communities of like-minded anti-totalitarians.
Anton’s solutions are, unsurprisingly, more political. He calls for an unashamedly populist political agenda that promotes pro-natalist policies, nationalist industrial and trade policies, immigration reform, and outreach to minorities who perceive the threat of progressivism. The latter seemed to pay off in small ways in the latest election: Trump did better among Latino voters than any Republican since George W. Bush in 2004, while a significant number of black men (though still proportionately small) also voted for Trump. Yet one might counter that even the best, wonkiest solutions still require a leader who is politically savvy, ideologically consistent, and results-driven. The outgoing president, as most Trump supporters should admit, was an imperfect instrument for Anton’s hopes. As always, when contemplating the political order, we should keep in mind the psalmist’s exhortation: “Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 146:3).
But one thing is certain: The contemporary woke-dominated sociocultural landscape is normative and expanding. It is difficult, if not impossible, to envisage a political agenda, regardless of how pro-Catholic, that could overturn the secular progressivism that has come to dominate American culture and its formative institutions.
That’s not to say that orthodox Catholics shouldn’t try to use every social, cultural, and political lever of power at their disposal to promote an authentically pro-Catholic polis, one informed by the truths of the natural law. Christ has called us to remake the world in His image, bringing His kingdom into the here-and-now, and that includes not only our own families and parishes but every social and political institution, whether local, national, or international. There’s a reason Catholics build schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, food pantries, adoption services, and many other wonderful organizations that bless not only Catholics but society writ-large. Yet we must be realistic about what is achievable in this post-Christian, increasingly anti-Christian, culture. We must also be careful not to allow the alarmism and pessimism popular in much of contemporary conservatism and orthodox Catholicism to obscure the fact that (1) Christ has already defeated Satan and evil, and (2) the Church has survived times of widespread heresy, sociopolitical upheaval, and terrible violence.
In his allegorical critique of the Nazi regime, On the Marble Cliffs (1939), German author and decorated World War I veteran Ernst Jünger wrote, “While evil flourished like mushroom spawn in rotten wood, we plunged deeper into the mystery of flowers, and their chalices seemed larger and more brilliant than before.” That image describes precisely what serious Catholics should be doing in this time of chaos. We need to preserve and cultivate pockets of love and beauty in a world darkened by sin, vulgarity, and hatred. Jünger, an eventual Catholic convert, saw the worst years of the 20th century; in response, he contemplated flowers.
Such an aesthetic project need not be done in separation from a broken, prodigal America. Rather, we should nurture these communities of faith and fellowship in the very heart of the ruins as we tirelessly labor in the public square to protect human dignity. While our fellow Americans feed on the cheap, dissatisfying gruel of sexual libertinism, hedonism, and identity politics, we will choose from a different menu. Yes, we will pray, read our Bibles, and frequent the sacraments (when they’re made available). But we will also read the great works of literature, classic and contemporary; we will consider the best art, architecture, and iconography of the Christian and Western traditions; and we will listen to music that authentically and elegantly reflects the human experience and orients us toward the transcendent.
We will expand our imaginations with the appreciation of beauty in its many forms while our fellow citizens ravage theirs in pornographic self-congratulation and self-gratification. We will demonstrate selfless, self-sacrificial love for our families and our neighbors, spurred on by St. John’s exhortation that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). Some, perhaps many, God willing, will be drawn to the transcendent agape and beauty in our homes, neighborhoods, and parishes, and join us. Others, enraged by our intransigence, will double down on trying to destroy us. Perhaps they’ll succeed. But either way, we will choose love over hate, truth over falsehood. We will remain faithful, preparing ourselves for eternal life and bequeathing to our children something worth living for on this earth, and, if necessary, dying for. What our enemies build, meanwhile, are monuments of ash and dust.
The year 2020 has come and gone. Let us declare to those who would direct the course of 2021 with the confidence of those who know they’ve already won, “Do your worst!”
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