I’m happy to publish this brief column from my friend Brandon McGinley.
I remember watching the 2008 election returns in a conference room at Princeton University with fellow conservative students and faculty members. The general mood declined quickly as the presidential results trickled in; when the anchors called my home state of Pennsylvania within minutes of polls closing, it was clear how the night was going to end.
But the importance of that night in my political journey was not so much about the elections that took place, but the referendums. Despite the Democratic landslide, across the country nearly every state that took up questions of same-sex family-formation—whether marriage or adoption rights—voted in favor of what we called traditional values. That night was the high point, and thus the beginning of the end, for my hope that we—that is, conservative Christians—could “win” the culture war.
Now in this post-Windsor, post-Obergefell world, it’s strange to think that less than a decade ago we seemed to have all the momentum. Sure, cultural lodestars in Hollywood and New York were trending conspicuously away from us and voting margins in our favor were narrowing, but still every time it was put to a vote, marriage prevailed. It seemed that there might be, just as progressives had angrily lamented for so long, a deep-seated conservatism in the American people that could resist the mounting cultural, social, and increasingly economic pressure to get with the LGBT program.
In retrospect, of course, this all looks quite silly. While we want to resist historical determinism, the truth is that the prevailing assumptions about marriage and family in American society left people with no principled ground on which to oppose the coming innovations. While the constitutional imprimatur given by the Supreme Court certainly broadened and deepened the current consensus about what marriage is (and isn’t), to a great extent the court merely ratified the facts on the ground—the view of marriage implied in the way most Americans live the institution.
It has been in the context of this rapid change that a cohort of young Christians has come of age politically and spiritually. The result, I have observed, are some broad similarities in the trajectory of members of this cohort—say, 35 or 40 years of age and younger—in their views of politics and theology. Of course these observations will not describe every single young Christian in America—especially because my focus will be on my fellow Catholics—but I have received enough affirmation of them to be confident that I’m not simply projecting my own trajectory onto a generation.
Among young Catholics who are serious about the Faith, I would be hard-pressed to name very many who over the past few years have become more committed to American conservatism—that is, right-wing liberalism—or who have become more enamored of modern trends in theology and liturgy. Some of these people are moving left, toward a re-examination of socialism or at least social democracy; others are moving right, toward a reexamination of aristocratic, monarchic, or corporatist (or, less benignly, ethnonationalist) political and economic arrangements. (Very few, I should note, are moving toward the left-liberalism of the Democratic Party.) Nearly all of them, as other writers have noted, are exploring and embracing the depth of the Church’s theological and liturgical traditions.
We could very quickly lose ourselves in very precise descriptions and definitions of these trajectories. What exactly do we mean by “conservatism” and “corporatism” and “liberalism” and so forth? What specific areas of the Tradition are attracting young people? I expect, though, that the basic trajectories toward tradition and away from mainstream American politics are recognizable enough to readers that I don’t need to get bogged down in definitional minutiae and can move on to the more interesting question: Why is this happening?
This is the unifying conviction that brings together the encyclical-reading eggheads and the everyday nine-to-five working men, the Marx-reading quasi-leftists and the Falange-curious corporatists, the homeschooling stay-at-home moms and the vocation-discerning bachelors: Living the Faith seriously is no longer compatible with respectable, mainstream American culture. This may seem like an obvious, even trivial observation. But its implications extend out and into just about every aspect of how we live and think about our lives in contemporary society.
First of all, though, let’s look back only a few decades to the America in which the previous generation came of age. The old Catholic ghettos still existed, but the reason for their existence was no longer clear. The Second Vatican Council signaled rapprochement with the American mainstream, and racial migration patterns spurred the agglomeration of old ethnic identities into a white bloc. The generation who was raising children in this era—the grandparents of today’s young Catholics—didn’t one day decide to pursue the bourgeois American ideal independent of their Catholic identity; the structures that kept the old way of doing things in place simply faded away.
The parents of today’s cohort, then, came of age in a time of great anti-bourgeois tumult, but the bourgeois itself seemed to remain safely Christian. Few serious believers would have considered Christian living and the American bourgeois to be coextensive, but only (apparent) cranks would have considered them to be in deep conflict. For Catholics, all this took place during the height of the attempt at rapprochement with Western liberal societies. From suburban dinner tables to university seminar rooms, it seemed that a great synthesis between the ancient Church and modern America was at hand.
It’s not a mistake that so many of the young Catholics I know are converts and, more often, reverts, myself included. Bougie Catholicism, it turned out, is thin gruel. We deemphasized the challenging, the mysterious, the confounding. We raised up the comfortable, the simple, the commonplace. And now eighty to ninety percent of teenagers stop practicing the Faith after Confirmation, because what does Catholic-bourgeois syncretism have to offer that the secular mainstream doesn’t—with fewer rules?
Every last one of my Catholic friends have watched friends and, most distressingly, family members leave the Faith or cool their practice of it to a respectable but emetic lukewarmness. These apostates and cultural Catholics aren’t patronizing crack houses or getting body piercings or quitting their jobs to become buskers: They are successful, respectable Americans. Indeed, part of achieving that status is, very often, not being seen as uncomfortably religious.
And so young Catholics who take the Faith seriously—and who wish to raise children who take the Faith seriously—regard this state of affairs in our culture and in their own families and they wonder: What, exactly, do we gain by conforming our politics to a mainstream ideology or pragmatic coalition? What, exactly, do we gain by muting those aspects of our tradition that are most dissonant with the prevailing culture? Not only have we gained nothing enduring from this strategy, but we have lost much—our distinctiveness, our patrimony, and, we suspect with anxious grief, a great many souls.
Rejecting any compromise with bourgeois respectability, this cohort then feels free to explore the depth of the Church’s intellectual and theological tradition—including the treasury of social teachings that open up horizons well beyond what everyday Republicans and Democrats can view. This exploration comes with risks, of course. The rejection of the boundaries of respectability opens up some frontiers better left unexplored. And the embrace of radicalism can easily become a prideful end-in-itself that relishes shock and transgression.
All these theological and political trajectories, therefore, must be founded in the most important trajectory of all: growth in holiness. This—not preparing for the modern economy or maintaining a becoming social standing—is the primary purpose of the communities that make up an integral Catholic life: families and friend groups and parishes. And the emerging consensus—one that I hope will form the future of the Church—is that the surest way to pursue holiness amid the ruination of secularism is to embrace our distinctive tradition without any regard for the judgments of our secular society.
Brandon McGinley writes about faith, culture, and politics from his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in print in National Review, The Human Life Review, Fare Forward, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the Pittsburgh Catholic and online at First Things, Public Discourse, The Week, The Federalist, National Review Online, Aleteia, Ethika Politika, Acculturated, and The Imaginative Conservative. He has also contributed to and edited books for Our Sunday Visitor Catholic publishers.