Freedom and Popular Culture

R.R. Reno | First Things

Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society
By R.R. Reno
Salem Books. Pp. 256. $27.99

Review by Neil Dhingra

There is something deeply wrong with the American dream. In 1982, President Reagan declared, “We believe in the workingman’s toil, the businessman’s enterprise, and the clergyman’s counsel.” In Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, bracingly presents the clergyman’s counsel. However, Reno, who worked on an oil rig, pronounces the dream of sheer possibility arising from the workingman’s toil to be heretical.

While Reagan claimed that “the individual was sacred” and “God himself respects human liberty,” Reno worries that an American dream of unbounded liberty lets us distort created reality and cruelly neglect those whose “destinies were largely fixed at birth.” And, as for the “businessman’s enterprise,” in June 2015 First Things published “The Power Elite” by Patrick Deneen, an indictment of a libertarianism that now spreads social liberalism, consumerism, and “creative destruction.” Reagan’s triumvirate has broken apart.

Like Reagan, Reno dislikes the “administrative-therapeutic state,” but his argument is against an entire “metaphysical dream of freedom” dreamt by our “post-Protestant elite,” as well as their “foot soldiers,” those so-called Nones who have a “central commitment to the freedom of each individual to define the meaning of life for himself” and vote Democrat. If Reagan bemoaned the individual’s loss of agency, Reno now worries that untrammeled individual agency culminates in the fragmentation of relativism. If we dream of freedom, we will transgress the rigid norms that once supplied a “sturdy set of guardrails” for the working classes; we will end up not only “post-religious,” but also “post-patriotic,” alone in our “pursuit of private self-interest.” We will then need that “administrative-therapeutic state” to pick up the scattered pieces.

Like David Brooks, Reno claims that our “freedom” and solidarity have indeed worked at cross-purposes because our liberation from social norms — our nonjudgmentalism — has come at a very high cost to the working class and poor. (Both Brooks and Reno make use of the same profile from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids.) The upper middle classes, to Reno, can carefully negotiate the brave new world of nonjudgmentalism by supplementing it with “strong habits of self-discipline,” not least those necessary to earn high standardized test scores. They are also very good at flexible moral codes because they “are good at talking” and access the right therapists. Those, however, who require “clear rules,” who do not have the “luxury of questioning,” find themselves on the losing side of a “class war,” as their need for restricted codes is sacrificed for upper middle class “freedom.” Not having to “put on a tie” may not result in a relaxed, casual workplace, but in the abandonment of any “standards of deportment” altogether.

Thus, in this fluid world, Reno does not repeat Reagan’s conservative call for economic freedom, which to him even “seems perverse,” the source of even more fragmentation. Reno calls for solidarity. If the workingman’s individualistic dream of possibility is heretical, Reno applauds the workmen who collectively hang “the “largest American flag I’ve ever seen” at One World Trade Center. He also recommends the formation of mediating institutions to rebuild “a thick local culture that encourages our free, responsible participation,” especially strengthening marriage.

In place of the “illusory freedom” of nonjudgmentalism, Reno offers real “social standing, a sense of earned dignity” that comes from knowing that one is an “honorable man” — authentic freedom comes from service to one’s neighborhood and family, from being a good coworker or teammate, from doing those things that matter. Amid the fragmentation of the post-Protestant establishment are those “Faithful” who grasp that freedom comes from respecting moral authority; they — not free-market enthusiasts — are our counterculture.

Reno knows that some liberal readers will question his claims about “moral and spiritual poverty” and his limited discussion of those material conditions that may warrant government intervention. In response to Brooks, Reno’s fellow Catholic Elizabeth Bruenig has claimed that we cannot detect different “baseline moral values” among American social classes; it is just that the “stressors of poverty” tend to overwhelm social norms. We might suggest that the absence of good jobs can itself bring about moral disorder.

The narrator of Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” finds his sense of purpose through a steel-industry job that “fed my children / made my pay” and connected him to a deep sense of place and history — the Ohio Works had “built the tanks and bombs / That won this country’s wars.” After the plant’s closure, his religious faith is shaken; he notes, “I would not do heaven’s work well.” George Packer has written about the seeming absurdity of arguing for mediating institutions in the face of the acidic heartlessness of global capitalism, writing of striking Ohio steelworkers, “There is no ‘common life’ except for the workers’ desperate effort to stick together as they look ahead to weeks or months without pay — or, perhaps — a future without a job.”

As Reno writes, “It’s an argument worth having.”

Some of Reno’s interpretations are also questionable, as everything seems determined by its acceptance of or resistance to the “metaphysical dream of freedom.” While his most controversial judgments are likely about matters of sexual identity, Reno even suggests that Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial exemplifies a “personal” approach to mourning which only works “against a background of clear and forceful patriotism.” This is arguable. The descending walkway of the wall — and the quiet of the visitors — seems to separate the memorial from its political environs. Lin presented the engraved names collectively as if to be read as an “epic Greek poem,” and so that searching for a name would be like looking, with other survivors, for a loved one on a battlefield. Even if, as Reno suggests, the memorial does not present a collective meaning, or moment of closure, for the war (How could it?), the wall may serve to unite Americans in the shared experience of loss. There may be more — and more elusive — sources of solidarity than Reno imagines.

While he writes movingly about the importance of “honor” above “paycheck” or a “vocation above society’s fickle acclaim,” Reno needs to write about our institutions’ failure to foster that authentic freedom. For instance, if we were to invent an embodiment of the American “metaphysical dream of freedom,” it would be Don Draper of Mad Men, who takes a new identity, claims only to move “forward,” and tells another character, in her moment of acute distress, “It will shock you how much it never happened.” Yet, at series’ end, Don is stripped of all of his prestige, confesses his sins to Peggy “with a list of admissions that might as well have started with ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned’” (Matt Zoller Seitz), and meditates, finally to come up with a vision of the world singing in “perfect harmony.”

Of course, it’s a commercial for Coke. But this is not to question the desire for “perfect harmony,” only the lack of a suitable vehicle for it. Why can’t Don convert to Reno’s — and my — Roman Catholicism?

Catholicism appears in Mad Men through its most compelling character, the Norwegian (!) Catholic from Brooklyn, Peggy. One of Peggy’s earliest ads even repurposes the phrase “You take it, break it, share it, and love it”; later in the show, she will ask, “What if there was a place where you could go where you could break bread and whoever you were sitting with was family?” Catholicism also appears, at least for a three-story arc, through the Jesuit priest, John Gill, who “is a Vatican II Catholic even before Vatican II convenes” (Seitz). Father Gill plays folk music on his guitar and even takes Peggy’s advice on a sermon.

But Father’s fascination with Peggy, however innocent, means that he wants her to be a good Catholic and to confess having had a child out of wedlock. Father Gill and Peggy inevitably conflict. Gill ends up shouting, “Don’t you understand that this could be the end of the world, and you could go to hell?” Peggy responds, “I can’t believe that’s the way God is.” That’s their last conversation.

This is a fictional show, of course, but the late Father Andrew Greeley noted that the “principal motivational resources” for the pre-Vatican II church were in fact “the Church (or the pope) says so and you must obey without question, and second, you will commit mortal sin and go to hell if you don’t.” Arguments were made “in an abstract and ecclesiastical language.” This conversation should have gone otherwise. Father Gill isn’t necessarily wrong, as Peggy does confess in a sort-of way by episode’s end, and Peggy still believes in God. But Peggy was seemingly faced with two forms of arbitrariness: following her will or “blind obedience” to a traditional authority.

Perhaps, in general, one can argue that a traditional authority is better than one’s own will. But, recently and tragically, we have seen the failure of many forms of traditional authority. Reno does not discuss the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. Rod Dreher, a fellow critic of the “metaphysical dream of freedom,” has written that his Catholic faith “cracked” when a parish council member told him that a priest’s past had to be concealed “for the good of the church” and that Dreher was a “betrayer of the tribe.” There can be a lonely emptiness to our own dreams of freedom, but there is another form of emptiness in “for the good of the church.”

Reno is right to speak of freedom as requiring love, lest it become nothing more than individualism and transgression. He is right to separate his “clergyman’s counsel” from the “workingman’s toil” and the “businessman’s enterprise.” But I look forward to another book from him to show the actual, sometimes elusive, shape of this freedom in our broken world and with the Church as it is.

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.


Online Archives