In his book Return of the Strong Gods, First Things editor Rusty Reno suggests that we are nearing the end of the long 20th century and, with it, the end of the American-centric global order that defined the latter stage of that era. It was a world pervasively defined by a fusion of capitalist economics and liberal democratic politics. The Pax Americana protected and preserved this order, with America seeking to draw as many nations into it as possible because the alternative was seeing plausible trading partners instead brought into closer alignment with the Soviet Union. And so it was ultimately a world marked by what the political commentator Peter Zeihan describes as a bribe, a bribe much of the world accepted. Trade in thick national or regional identities, trade in strong religious claims, and trade in any other sort of thick communal markers that instill a sense of purpose and grandeur in your community, give all that up to join the American liberal free market revolution, and in return you will receive personal peace and affluence.
Many took the bribe because, for a long time, the Americans were able to deliver. Under the globalized order, wealth, standards of living, life expectancy, and public health soared. Beneath the hood, as it were, there were reasons to worry. Mass industrialization transformed the way people worked and the conditions under which they worked. (And the first generation or two of industrialization is often especially hellish.) Mass urbanization meant collapsing birth rates. And increased use of and dependence on fossil fuels meant a warming, changing planet. But the benefits of life under the American peace were so great that most people tended to minimize or accept these costs as a necessary evil if one wished to lay hold of the bounteous benefits of the American-led order.
The difficulty is that this regime was never going to be able to last. The Soviet Union collapsed. So the reason for the order, from an American perspective, was gone. Moreover, post-industrial, post-urban birthrates cannot be indefinitely sustained and the threats of climate change meant that our way of life was always going to have to change.
So: What happens when living standards flatline or begin to dip, when life expectancy declines, and the state-backed benefit system cannot be adequately maintained due to a lack of workers? In short, what happens when the bribe that made the trade worthwhile stops delivering?
Answer: We’re about to find out.
The End of Personal Peace and Affluence and Emergence of the Civilizational State
The global market crash of 2008 was a body blow to the global economic order which suggested that the era of indefinite prosperity aided and abetted by global markets, industrialization, and urbanization was not permanent. Then came Brexit, the Trumpist turn in American politics (which actually continued the trend of growing American isolationism that began with President Obama), and COVID. In each case, circumstances arose which suggested to the world’s nations that perhaps this globalized order was no longer serving them as it once did. Then the power that had been the defining reason for that order’s emergence in the first place, Russia, went to war with Ukraine and the gears of the order were further jammed by a large-scale land war in eastern Europe—something which hadn’t been seen in decades—and which came with massive ramifications for European industry. Pair the economic disruptions in Europe with the long-standing issues in China due to Xi’s zero COVID policy, and you have significant breakdowns in the global economic system.
When that happens, people start trying to unwind the trade their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents made. People start trying to regain what they lost, just as Herman Bavinck warned they would in an address to the Dutch church given in 1911. If you unleash the dissolving acid of liberal capitalism on the world, eventually people are going to miss what they have lost and will start trying to get it back. This has led to the slow emergence of what Australian pastor Mark Sayers, channeling political theorist Samuel Huntington, calls “civilizational states.”
Civilizational states might be understood as the reassertion of national politics over and against the globalized order but, crucially, coming after globalization has done its work. So the things that industrialized capitalism dissolved are mostly still dissolved. But now we want meaning-making communities back, we want thick community life back, we want rich shared common life back. But it cannot be picked up like something set aside in a box long ago, now to be reclaimed. Rather, the goods those now forgotten communities offered must be rediscovered through contrived communities. Enter “the civilizational state.”
Sayers continued to define the “civilizational state,” in this way:
Huntington’s argument is that modernization will lead to a cultural resurgence. Modernization means a society increases its economic, military, and political power. So we become more modern, we can conquer nature. We advance in science. But for the individual this means that they will be alienated and disconnected from the things which gave them meaning—place, religion, culture… those tribal bonds. This would lead to an identity crisis.
He goes on to say:
Huntington said that we would go through (the end of history) and then try to negotiate a new kind of modern living, a new kind of modern being, of interacting with the world, which would try to bring back identities of the past and lead to this cultural and religious resurgence. So modernization will inevitably not lead to a secular future where people aren’t animated by culture and civilization but actually it would lead to a rediscovery of those previous things.
In other words, the apparatuses of modernity would be put in service of many of the pre-modern “strong gods,” thereby creating something largely new: “civilizational states.”
Russia, of course, is one model of a civilizational state—it attempts (dishonestly and rather fruitlessly so far) to present itself as a vehicle for sustaining the old world of European Christendom contra the ascent of western progressivism. Hungary and, to some degree, Poland fill a similar niche here. And, of course, there is more than a little of this same appeal in the ascent of white Christian nationalism in the United States.
The argument these actors make is that we can regain our national vibrancy if we ditch the multiculturalist pluralism of the post-1960s world and return to a thicker sense of American identity, one in which propositional nationhood is either marginal or outright rejected in place of something driven by “culture,” which is often a shorthand for ethnicity and race. In this frame, we need to recover the sort of folk civil religionwith its modified and accommodated Christianity that defined our nation for much of its history.
On the other hand, the states central to the globalization project are also evolving toward their own sorts of civilizational states. But in their case, the civilizational state being created is essentially neo-liberal open society economics wedded to a more hard-line and explicit social progressivism, what many on the American right now refer to as “woke capital.”
The hope for those states attempting this task is that appeals to social justice will neutralize any calls for economic justice, thereby allowing the neoliberal system to grind on. The most striking symbol of this, perhaps, is the fact that the author of the bestselling book on racial issues during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 was a… white corporate diversity consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies.
But there are far more examples we might consider. Recall how Britain has linked sexual progressivism to its “British values” campaign in its targeting of Christian schools. Or note how Canada has aggressively moved against sexual traditionalists in its own politics, by doing things such as refusing to admit graduates of orthodox Christian law schools to the Canadian bar. Ross Douthat described the move two years ago when this attempt to fuse social progressivism with neoliberal economics became unmistakably obvious.
Should this version of a civilizational state triumph in America or elsewhere in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, then the managerial elite that oversaw globalization and benefitted economically from its success will remain entrenched and in place. They will just be slightly more diverse in terms of race and gender identity (but far less diverse intellectually) and they will pay fealty to the right progressive causes, which in turn gives their movement a veneer of justice through which they can make their own sort of civilizational state-style appeal.
There is more than an echo here of Emmanuel Katongole’s radical critique of the nation-state in African politics. In The Sacrifice of Africa Katongole argues that the nation-state failed in Africa because it effectively re-entrenched colonial norms by simply changing the last names of the colonial overlords from European surnames to African. Likewise in our own moment, the progressive account of the civilizational state effectively amounts to changing the last names and gender identities of the capitalist class in hopes that workers won’t notice that the interests of capital are still being preserved and advanced at their expense.
This is the moment we find ourselves in. The strong gods are back and their aesthetic appeal to the masses is undeniable. We lived without the strong gods for decades and now as they return many predictably find them deeply appealing. Whether calling people toward the rainbow flag or the stars and bars, both represent the reassertion of humanity’s need for a collective, common pursuit of truth and the desire to order common life to reflect these higher goods.
Whither Christianity Under the Civilizational State?
This poses a challenge for Christian believers on several distinct levels.
To begin, the return of the strong gods forces us to confront a foe that we have, in some ways, forgotten how to fight. The Christian response to the claims of the strong gods is not to make Christianity subservient to them, as some recent books have done, but rather to insist that the claims of the strong gods are not ultimate, that the claims of Christ stand over and above them, and that if the strong gods will not repent and be baptized, which will also mean that their claims must be relativized by the divine claims made known to us through revelation, then they too will go to hell. But because we are somewhat out of practice at resisting such foes, too many western believers are now embracing one iteration of the civilizational state or another, sometimes willfully and sometimes out of ignorance.
This raises another more pressing problem. Another reason many are now being seduced by these ideologies is that we in the American church have long struggled with basic Christian discipleship. The challenge before us is the natural consequence of our failures in this task. How did we come to fail in such a basic element of the Christian life and Christian communal formation?
Well, in many ways we took our own version of Zeihan’s bribe. For the vast majority of churches, the globalized moment was a comfortable one in which the hard claims of Christian morality, whether those ran toward sexuality or toward wealth and generosity, were largely muted to better accommodate the order. Christians essentially found ways of reconciling themselves to the system in ways that ostensibly maintained their Christian commitments while also avoiding any real consequences or conflict with the neoliberal regime.
There are many examples we might cite of this failure. Managerial jobs and practices that almost certainly violated Christian conceptions of work and wealth were effectively baptized and deemed licit without a great deal of thought or reflection, becoming just another kind of vocation, no different than any other. As long as you didn’t do obviously wrong things at the company Christmas party and as long as you thought the right way about your job, what the company actually did was largely immaterial.
Likewise, cultural scripts and practices that normalized contraception, the redefining of sex itself, and the breakdown of the family were, likewise, accepted by many Christians without a great deal of thought or critique. This all had the effect of conditioning many Christians to situate their Christianity within some larger ideology, constraining and limiting the claims of Christ to better accommodate their place in the world.
As civilizational states have risen, those old tendencies have simply reasserted themselves, though the problems inherent in them are far more obvious today because the claims made by these states have become more all-encompassing. The globalized order was in many ways engineered to maximize lifestyle options for individuals. The civilizational state is very much not built for that. And so the veneer of neutrality under which Christian convictions were often concealed is wearing away and the conflicts between Christian teaching and civilizational state proclamations are becoming sharper, with the predictable outcome being that Christian partisans of each civilizational state are now searching for revisionistic methods of accommodating Christianity to their preferred civilizational state.
The unhappy outcome is that many pastors and Christian leaders now find themselves confronting mass right-wing political capture in their churches, complete with the reassertion of racism, xenophobia, and ethnic hatreds. Meanwhile, others find themselves facing mass left-wing political capture in their churches, and the reinterpretation of Christianity to accommodate therapeutic culture and sexual progressivism in which Jesus essentially becomes a therapeutic crutch and pastors are synonymous with therapists. Thus the Christian life comes to be seen as a means for helping us be “our best selves” as defined by therapeutic concepts, such as mental and emotional health, self-actualization, and so on.
Churches, then, must confront these problems, which ought to have been taken more seriously decades ago, and attempt to disciple their people away from both right-wing and left-wing civilizational states. And yet precisely because we are now facing civilizational states rather than a kind of naked neoliberalism, the problem becomes that much harder, for the claims of the civilizational states are stronger and more robust than anything the post-Cold War era could offer.
But that raises a second problem, which is the problem of common life and Christian faith. We will not be saved by a kind of automated reflex that simply positions ourselves opposite to whichever civilizational state is ascendant in our home place. If your church is in a blue community, you will not be saved by embracing Christoamericanism. And if your church is in a red community, you will not be saved by adopting the norms of therapeutic culture and expressive individualism. Both moves will, rather, destroy your church by encouraging your people toward discipleship to something that isn’t Jesus.
The Church Against the Civilizational State
What is needed is something more careful, more rooted in historic Christian thought, and more grounded in the life of actual Christian community, for it is only such community that will give each of us the resilience and strength we need to survive this moment.
Indeed, part of the difficulty is that both dominant civilizational states on offer right now contain elements of truth. The left-wing civilizational state is right to recognize that older forms of managerialism were often corrosive of mental and emotional health, that they left virtually no space for weakness and vulnerability, and that just societies are ones which can provide a sense of place and purpose not only for the gifted and healthy, but for the weak and the marginalized. Likewise, the right-wing civilizational state is right to recognize that we owe particular and unique debts to those closest to us and that a certain joy in the distinctiveness of one’s home place is good.
Thus the church needs ways of helping her members to name and recognize real goods that our various sub-cultures outside the church are pursuing, while also warning them off against the inherently idolatrous way in which the civilizational states are distorting those goods.
What is needed, then, is a recovery of a properly Christian conception of not just ecclesial life, but the common life of peoples more generally. Fortunately, we have ample reasons to draw from in attempting this admittedly challenging task.
One fruitful approach, though not the only one we might take, comes from the 17th century Reformed theorist Johannes Althusius. For Althusius, the purpose of politics is simply this: It is to take our necessary and unavoidable social relationships and insure they are delightful and mutually beneficial. His core insight, though it is not unique to him and is really ubiquitous in Christian political thought prior to the modern era, is that none of us can live entirely autonomous lives. We eat food we didn’t grow, wear clothes we didn’t make, live in houses we did not build, and so on. “We didn’t build that,” you might say, if you wanted to be provocative about it.
But the fact that we can’t live autonomously does not in itself mean that our relationships will be healthy, enjoyable, or even necessarily beneficial. Relationships can be extractive or parasitic just as easily, perhaps even more easily, as they can be symbiotic or mutually delightful. So the work of politics, understood this way, is the work of making our necessary and unavoidable social relationships healthy.
A second insight, also from Althusius, follows from the first: Healthy societies are built out of many smaller societies. Though many forms of modern politics often act as if the only entities that exist in a society are “individuals” and “the state,” this is not so if you’re a Christian. Christianity at minimum would suggest that we have three types of societies in the world—the family, the church, and the government. Those, at least, are all explicitly established and endorsed in Scripture. But you can easily argue that there are a variety of other small societies you and I might be part of.
To take three examples, those of us who for a firm of some kind are part of a community there that is pursuing some good together in our work. Another form of community might be organized labor—what we might have called “guilds” in the early modern era and today might refer to as labor unions. In a capitalist society, unifying workers is an important form of social solidarity that helps to protect the masses from the predations of the capitalist class.
Finally, we might also speak about philanthropic social bodies that exist for some sort of altruistic social purpose that exists outside of or tangential to the market economy. That said, in order to keep this initial foray as short as I reasonably can, I want to limit my proposals for now to three primary arenas.
Families and Home-Based Economies
First, we need to consider the lives of households. The family, after all, is the first community any of us will belong to. In this particular sense, the family then comes before the church, for we are baptized into the church after we are born and the local Christian congregations we belong to must be created synthetically by people banding together to plant a church. Not so the family, which will reproduce itself organically across time. What makes for strong families?
Well, one answer that springs immediately to mind is families that spend time together and share common work together will be both more relationally connected and potentially more economically self-sufficient. To be sure, there’s no shortage of bad thinking about what this can look like in practice. Many of the champions of “home-based” economies are either residential landlords or have some other unusual financial situation, such as a past as a professional gambler. Expecting most Christian families to be landlords or to benefit from the proceeds of gambling winnings is not realistic. Further, many of the communities that most loudly champion the home-based economy are themselves existing parasitically off the very sort of big government or big tech firms they so regularly criticize: Learn more about my financially independent agrarian family by joining my 10,000 Substack subscribers for only $5/month! So what I am saying here shouldn’t be mistaken as a blanket affirmation of everyone who talks about family-based economies. There is no shortage of LARPing in that world.
Even so, the baseline principle that families ought to spend time together and that they ought to work together seems correct to me—and is deeply in keeping with historic practices of many human communities across time.
What this will look like in practice can vary dramatically, so there shouldn’t be a hard law of what the “right” structure is, nor should families for whom this is not possible be ostracized or regarded as second-class. We have spent the better part of two centuries building an economic system founded on inhumanity and so it would be foolish to expect a small cadre of Christian families to deconstruct all of that in a generation. Even with all these caveats in mind, a few principles seem worth articulating:
- If possible, it is good for fathers and mothers to find ways of working from home at least part of the time so as to allow more informal day to day interaction with each other and their children as well as more regular meals together at home. Failing that, finding ways to live in close proximity to their office is the next best thing.
- It is good for families to build up assets in the form of physical goods that can provide long-term, multi-generational security to a family, rather than simply working for wages.
- Where possible, it’s good to have small, home-based businesses that bring in some extra income and allow the family to work together doing actually productive economic work.
- It is also good if church members can support one another in these endeavors through both their buying habits and other forms of counsel and aid.
The idea here is simply that we should find ways of locating our work within a more human scale.
A further benefit from this approach is that it encourages a certain sort of entrepreneurialism and self-belief that is badly needed in healthy orthodox Christian communities. One effect of living under neoliberalism was that it became easy to develop the idea that Christian discipleship could lead one to a life of relative comfort, despite all the plain teachings of Scripture that tell us this is not so. The civilizational state era is going to remove that illusion of easy discipleship. But if we are to survive under harder circumstances, we will need to be more resilient, both spiritually and economically. A greater emphasis on simply being present in one’s home, living close to work and church, being available to one’s neighbor, and building up some measure of entrepreneurial self-sufficiency would all be enormously helpful.
Churches and a Common Rule
One of the chief difficulties that arose for church life under the neoliberal order is that churches became program-driven. There are a variety of reasons for this that I’ve written about elsewhere. The main point to understand here however is simply this: In program-driven churches, the chief way one participates in the life of the church is either through helping run and maintain programs or by being a consumer of the programming. In the former, your participation has more to do with availability and competence than Christian maturity. In the latter, your participation is almost entirely passive and asks very little of you. It should come as no surprise that an era of church life functioning under these rules did not generally produce robust, mature, well-formed followers of Jesus.
So as we enter this new era, we will need to adopt practices individually and communally that help us actually grow in Christian maturity, rather than simply developing habits of participating in and consuming church programming. The best tool I’ve seen for doing this so far is the concept of a “common rule” or “rule of life”, which I’ve seen articulated most clearly by Justin Whitmel Earley and John Mark Comer, though I don’t know how much, if at all, the two of them have worked together. For both of them, a rule of life is understood not as a collection of rules (plural), but rather as a single guide to life that is anchored in certain practices aimed at cultivating certain habits. (In this sense, I suspect there’s actually a great deal of overlap between Earley and Comer and someone like Charlotte Mason.)
These practices are specifically aimed at helping us to grow more like Jesus—more defined by the traits Paul lists as the fruit of God’s spirit in us in his epistles, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. John Mark Comer’s work on this can be heard on his podcast. Earley’s work can be found in his book The Common Rule. This resource may also be helpful for defining what a common rule could look like as adopted in both an individual household or in a church community. Specifically, I think we need to adopt practices collectively within churches of detaching ourselves from our phones, dining together regularly, and adopting other communal practices together. Here a reinvigorated interest in traditional liturgical practices and the church year may both be helpful as somewhat less arbitrary ways of giving shape to our common life.
A Different Kind of National Greatness
Finally, we turn to politics. Rightly understood, there is no conflict between household economies, churches committed to a rich common rule, and an involvement in local or national politics. This is because the government is ordained by God to fulfill certain roles—to reward the good and punish the evil, to be a “nursing father,” as the Westminster Confession puts it, and to help make it easier for the citizens of that polity to be good through the enacting of wise policies and preservation of civil peace.
The difficulty before us in our politics now is that both parties frequently behave as if they are not governed by the rule of law, do not much care about the rule of law, and also routinely promote policies and norms that run against Christian ideas of what the law ought to be, either through their cold indifference to the plight of immigrants and the poor or through a shockingly violent posture toward the human body, marriage, and the family.
One common response to this in the church has been an attempt to double down on a kind of Reaganite Christian conservatism founded on a basically libertarian attitude toward civil society and markets wed to a high concern with character in civil servants. Amongst the champions for this strategy are David French, Paul Miller, and Brian Mattson. (Russell Moore might also fit here, though he’s a bit harder to pin down in some ways both because of his past working for Blue Dog Democrats and because of his deep appreciation for Wendell Berry, which usually implies some more critical postures toward Reaganism.) It’s also a view you’ll find regularly expressed in places like The Dispatch and The Bulwark, which is likely not a coincidence as those two magazines are effectively rebooted versions of Obama-era (or earlier) National Review and the now defunct Weekly Standard.
This strategy will fail. The reason is simple: The sort of Reaganite Christian political theology these men affirm thrived, if one can even give it that much credit, in an extremely particular sort of political soil. Under the conditions of Zeihan’s bribe—exchange the strong gods and receive personal peace and affluence—the Reaganite political theology not only was plausible, it was almost necessary if Christians were going to participate in the system. But once that soil has been swept away by winds and erosion, there is nothing left to sustain that project. And so here we are today. Many of the critiques these men make of the current offers before us are not wrong—Mattson’s critiques usually being the sharpest and most helpful to me, at least.
But what I have yet to see any of them propose is the very thing they have to solve if they want their vision to be taken seriously. They need to establish one of two things for their theory to be viable: Either a) they must explain how their theory can survive when the moral consensus it was built on has collapsed, or b) they must explain how we can reestablish that moral consensus and, given its rather sharp departure from historic Christian political thought, why we should want to reestablish that consensus. So far I have yet to see anyone do this in a satisfactory way.
In contrast to this project, we might consider a forgotten but perhaps still relevant example of a kind of positively defined national project, something that can be pursued together by a pluralistic America, contra the increasingly explicit ethno-centrism of the right as well as the arch individualism of the left. In particular, I am thinking of the approach taken by John Quincy Adams, our nation’s sixth president and son of our nation’s second president and co-writer of the Declaration of Independence.
Quincy Adams is a fascinating figure in American politics: He was a robust abolitionist, arguing against slavery before the Supreme Court. Quincy Adams said plainly that the text of that Declaration destroyed any possibility of slavery as a legitimate legal institution. He will be no friend to those seeking to revive “Christian” America by reviving racist conceptions of what our nation is.
Further, Adams was an unapologetic champion of the American project as he understood it, which meant neither a naked public square nor a sectarian church-dominated regime. For example, he wrote vociferously against the anti-democratic writings of Fisher Ames, an early American politician from Massachusetts who took a strongly-anti democratic turn in response to Jeffersonianism and the French Revolution.
Adams sought to model an approach to common life that was neither French populism, if you can call it that, or British elitism, but something different and distinctly American. Thus he affirmed both the capacity of the American people for virtuous self-government and the necessity of a shared national project to unify and aim us as a people toward some shared common ends. What you might end up with, at the end of this synthesis, is a kind of historical precedent for Augustinian liberalism: a Christian commonwealth grounded in positively stated ideas about the good life but also defined by a modest, restrained understanding of the role of government in enacting that life. Adams did not seek a national church or any sort of sectarian Christian supremacy. But he did propose a series of national projects meant to elevate and unite America’s people. In his first speech to congress he called for the creation of a national system built around roads, canals, a national university, and even a national astronomical observatory (with full-time staff that published regularly on their findings, for the education and benefit of the American people).
The need in our politics, it seems to me, is something that can be positively stated, such that the American people really are pursuing certain goods together (rather than pursuing purely private goods mediated to us by predatory capitalist firms) but also a positive vision that is limited enough so that it can appeal to a wide range of people and so that it will not cross over into one species of totalitarianism or another. I think such a thing is possible because for much of our nation’s history it was not uncommon to speak of our nation having such a project. Indeed, the last such project happened with the lifetime of many Americans still alive today: the 1960s space race.
It’s possible, of course, that such a project is impossible today. Perhaps we are divided, too enslaved to our devices, and too locked into industrial rather than convivial habits of thought. Be that as it may, if we should reject the new right, the successor ideology, and the Reaganite recovery, then it seems to me the best thing to do is to attempt something like a renewal of the Adamsian project, recovering a kind of Christian commonwealth, knowing that it is better to fail in the pursuit of something good than to join our labor to the cultivation of something wicked.
This is, admittedly, an ambitious and more than a little unwieldy as an essay, even perhaps by the odd standards we have at Mere O. But it is an initial foray, an attempt to begin thinking aloud about a problem pressing in on all of us. If social life is in decline in our country, if our churches are emptying out, and our beds are barren, then some new fresh word must come or there will be no future for us.
The two dominant answers on offer to this question right now, Christoamericanism and technocratic progressivism, are both deeply at odds with Christian faith and must be rejected. And so it falls to us to try and articulate something that is both actually responsive to the realities confronting us today and clearly opposed to the principalities and powers that would sweep our nation away if given the chance to do so. Thus this is meant as an attempt to begin a conversation, not to end it.
We need mature, healthy families. We need churches in which people actually are apprenticed to Jesus and learn to take up his yoke. We need a politics capable of aiming in a limited way our shared capacities and desires as a nation so that we can pursue the good together, rather than merely accumulate private goods separately. And so we need a pervasively Christian account of common life.
Mere Orthodoxy is a reader-supported publication. Support our work by subscribing to our print edition.