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.

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  • Google User

    So, I hear there’s this book called The Benedict Option …

    :) Just joking; thanks for the column.

  • Very good article.

    I have a number of quibbles, but your point is well made. For instance:

    “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.”

    Well, yeah. But religious practice is declining among all socioeconomic cohorts more or less evenly. Poor people and uneducated are no more likely to be religious, despite the slurs of progressives, than are affluent and educated people.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/20b3b72f3c4119e182cb41e5e495dc456ccef7e8e1f9c714dc44095a0b1eb434.png
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8682a67c9597bde939b79de2e6e4c9bc39d87180edc48c6db4b780df224e0184.png
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f24d702e9b5b1300e058eca4c4f1b20882673668edf8a49a1418c730e788d9f3.png

    So that’s very good news.

    There a number of things like that – but your main point, that going along to get along won’t cut it anymore if we want to get to heaven, is sound. Very sound.

  • hoosier_bob

    I’m not sure that the change on this issue was all that rapid. I entered the professional world in 2001, and was working in a rather middle-of-the-road metro area in the Midwest. I’d guess that >70% of my colleagues at that time had no objection to same-sex marriage. Among those of us under 30, the numbers were probably more like >85%.

    At that time, though, many gay people were still relatively discreet. In many cases, only their very close friends knew that they were gay. Many people had gay friends and relatives, and didn’t even know it. I think this led social conservatives to overplay their hand. They bet all their chips on this issue in the 2004 election. The vicious and dishonest attacks on gay people at that time led many otherwise normal-seeming gay people to come out of the closet. Before 2006, few mainstream male celebrities had come out of the closet. By 2012, so many mainstream celebrities had come out as gay that it had become boring. So, long as Elton John was the face of the gay male, it was easier to oppose same-sex marriage. It’s harder to do when that person’s Anderson Cooper.

    People didn’t oppose same-sex marriage because they had reasoned arguments concerning the teleology of marriage. No. They opposed it because they believed that gay people were disgusting. Once normal-seeming gay people started making themselves more visible, the disgust was invariably bound to fade. After all, the culture had long since acclimated itself to no-fault divorce. Without the AIDS crisis, I suspect that nationwide same-sex marriage would have come along 20 years earlier than it did.

    That said, I don’t see why this requires conservative Christians to retract into their own subculture. Conservative Christians overwhelmingly believed that interracial marriage was wrong at the time of Loving. And interracial marriage is still rare within conservative subcultures. So, I don’t see why same-sex marriage can’t take the same course.

  • Mark

    But…no one was “uncomfortably religious” in the Catholic-ghetto days either. Indeed, self-conscious “identity” religiosity only seems to spring up (with all its dangers of fundamentalism and reactionary ideology) when people are challenged. The “taken for granted” Christianity of the medievals and the “Catholic ghettos” alike was at once incredibly pious and incredibly broad-minded.

    My grandmother, for example, was a product of the ghetto days. She’s one of the most religious people I know, but she’s no consciousness-raised lay theologian. She’d never knowingly reject Church teaching, but there’s a lot of benign superstition, and her notions of doctrine are foggy. She prays constantly and her house is filled with images and she loves visiting shrines, but she’s no daily Mass goer, and stopped Friday abstinence as soon as Vatican II came around.

    Her morals are conservative and I’m sure she votes Republican, but all the Catholic Guilt in the world never turned her into a nun, nor stopped her children (all of whom still identify as Catholic) from fornicating, divorcing and remarrying, using contraception, or becoming lesbian (though they all go to confession before communion; they just don’t do that very often). She herself is vaguely (but also profoundly) vain and cranky and often surprisingly petty…but it’s all harmless in the end, she owns up to some of her character flaws, and the rest she just lacks any psychological awareness of and so can’t be culpable for.

    Trying to find a way to live this “taken for granted,” deeply *in*ternalized Catholicism has been the goal and course of my spiritual life during the past decade you reference (I’m almost 30 now) and I think it’s sort of insulting to assume such a move has anything to do with achieving status or a respectability (I don’t have either of those, for reasons unrelated to any question of faith) or “lukewarmness.”

    For me it’s been because it became clear that “hard identity” religion was itself *spiritually unhealthy*, and since I valued and value my relationship with a God and His grace and the integrity of my soul above all else…I had to stop making an idol out of it all (this was the big realization for me: that you can make an idol out of The Truth even when it is, in fact, the truth…because you can wind up emphasizing the “The” part rather than the “Truth” part.)

    • hoosier_bob

      My German-American pietist grandparents could be described in much the same way. They were deeply religious without being excessively judgmental of others. I recently came across Richard Rohr. Rohr talks about the two halves of life. During the first half of life, you build your container; in the second half of life, you fill it up. My grandparents were conservative Christians, but they were also second-half-of-life Christians. They woke up each day with a zeal to fill their containers with more and more of what their gracious God had to offer them. Today, most conservative Christians are first-half-of-life Christians. They obsess over perfecting their containers and judging whether others’ containers are as good as theirs. So, they never get around to putting anything into it.

      Conservative Christians would like you to think that their practices represent the most pious forms of religious devotion. I don’t see it. In many cases, conservative Christianity is a recipe for remaining in a perpetual state of spiritual adolescence. When I walked away from the PCA a few years ago, I can honestly say that my faith hadn’t grown in 10-15 years. Since leaving and joining the ECUSA, my faith has grown immensely. I would recommend affiliating with a conservative parish until you’re about 22, then move on. It’s a good foundation for further growth, but it can’t help you to grow.

  • Cal P

    I’m not sure how any of the above is rejecting respectability for edgy, anti-bourgeois position. The US has a pretty well established, and entrenched, imperial plutocratic oligarchy wearing a quasi-democratic mask and pressing full-steam ahead into becoming a market-state, where the state apparatus and global capitalism become welded together. Most socialist positions and other “conservative” that people are “investigating” (e.g. monarchy, aristocracy etc.) are not feasible positions; they are thin fantasies representing discontent and disgust for the present system. But it doesn’t mean you have any real political risk for holding these positions. The boogeyman of Communism in the US has been a helpful tool, a scare tactic both major political parties have utilized to squeeze and direct the electorate one way or another.

    The only actually imaginable political posture that has caused some pundits to sweat is the tongue-in-cheek support for a Donald Trump dictatorship. In the early days, when Trump seemed to offer a radical dressing down of American policies (e.g. advocating imperial contraction, protectionism, populist direct democracy opposed to formal American institutions), some sort of hoped for a turn. Now, it’s clear Trump’s administration is hopelessly mired in factional infighting between the establishment types he had made deals with. However, it raised the specter of Carl Schmitt’s wise analysis that for counter-revolutionaries, monarchy is a dead option and the dictator was the only possible future option, a kind of popularly elective monarch (he had hoped Hindenberg to be something of the sort). MO sneers at Trump, but he offered the possibility of an anti-bourgeois counter-revolution. The fact that no contributor has offered a report on it is a sign that much of this revolt is just empty posturing, the way ETC and First Things style conservatism has been a thin veneer for Reagan-esque neo-liberal global imperialism.

    I’m not endorsing Schmitt or counter-revolutionary politics, I’m only seeking to highlight contemporary conditions. In fact, Slavoj Zizek is correct to say that the end of global capitalism is not imaginable as an option (per the current spate of apocalyptic film, we have an easier time thinking about the end of the world!). However, I’m with the anabaptistic position that the only “political” option the church should take is a negation of temporal powers. It’s, in Yoder’s term, revolutionary subordination which has not alternative platform. Instead, as Jacques Ellul noted decades ago, Christian churches are always tempted to run with fads, and disgruntled imaginary political theories being very much with the ‘zeitgeist’ of an American population who has a majority that does not vote. Per Ellul, when the church is partisan, it is worldly.

  • Cal P

    I’m not sure how any of the above is rejecting respectability for edgy, anti-bourgeois position. The US has a pretty well established, and entrenched, imperial plutocratic oligarchy wearing a quasi-democratic mask and pressing full-steam ahead into becoming a market-state, where the state apparatus and global capitalism become welded together. Most socialist positions and other “conservative” that people are “investigating” (e.g. monarchy, aristocracy etc.) are not feasible positions; they are thin fantasies representing discontent and disgust for the present system. But it doesn’t mean you have any real political risk for holding these positions. The boogeyman of Communism in the US has been a helpful tool, a scare tactic both major political parties have utilized to squeeze and direct the electorate one way or another.

    The only actually imaginable political posture that has caused some pundits to sweat is the tongue-in-cheek support for a Donald Trump dictatorship. In the early days, when Trump seemed to offer a radical dressing down of American policies (e.g. advocating imperial contraction, protectionism, populist direct democracy opposed to formal American institutions), some sort of hoped for a turn. Now, it’s clear Trump’s administration is hopelessly mired in factional infighting between the establishment types he had made deals with. However, it raised the specter of Carl Schmitt’s wise analysis that for counter-revolutionaries, monarchy is a dead option and the dictator was the only possible future option, a kind of popularly elective monarch (he had hoped Hindenberg to be something of the sort). MO sneers at Trump, but he offered the possibility of an anti-bourgeois counter-revolution. The fact that no contributor has offered a report on it is a sign that much of this revolt is just empty posturing, the way ETC and First Things style conservatism has been a thin veneer for Reagan-esque neo-liberal global imperialism.

    • Cal P

      I’m not endorsing Schmitt or counter-revolutionary politics, I’m only seeking to highlight contemporary conditions. In fact, Slavoj Zizek is correct to say that the end of global capitalism is not imaginable as an option (per the current spate of apocalyptic film, we have an easier time thinking about the end of the world!). However, I’m with the anabaptistic position that the only “political” option the church should take is a negation of temporal powers. It’s, in Yoder’s term, revolutionary subordination which has not alternative platform. Instead, as Jacques Ellul noted decades ago, Christian churches are always tempted to run with fads, and disgruntled imaginary political theories being very much with the ‘zeitgeist’ of an American population who has a majority that does not vote.

      A radical posture does not begin with politics, but with a lifestyle that begins to decouple from the dominant structure by not buying-in.

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