Emblazoned with a cross formed of people on the cover, Rusty Reno’s book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society pulls no punches in its attempt to provide a vision for Christians engaging in society.
It’s intentionally parochial, looking at the United States in detail, examining studies and trends in US culture and public life as well as religious behaviour. Addressing the dissatisfaction in US society, Reno sets out his intention early on: “Which is why, in this time and in this place, a relatively small number of Christians can inspire and reinvigorate the public imaginations of the disoriented majority. We can renew our society by restoring our voices as Christian citizens.”
This book promises a great deal and is a fascinating read for anyone interested in how Christians can affect society for the better on either side of the Atlantic. And yet at the same time it’s a let-down.
Reno seeks to resurrect the concept of a Christian society as advanced by TS Elliot immediately before the outbreak of Second World War:
“It seemed as though the liberal democratic project had run its course, superseded by more up-to-date ideologies that could forge masses of men into powerful movements and vast armies. Turning back these threats would require tanks and airplanes, strategic planning, and the mobilization of entire nations. But Elliot saw that a more fundamental response was required as well – a decision. Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one? We face a similar decision today.”
Looking at several core ideas Reno examines how US society would benefit from a reenergising of Christian values in public life, from caring for the weak, helping the poor, building solidarity and providing a higher vision for corporate life. As James KA Smith notes in his review of the book: “While he should be commended for encouraging Christians to speak into public discourse from the specificity of their Christian convictions, the problems that Reno diagnoses will not be solved with ideas.”
It’s an easy critique to make, but one that resonates. The book is provocative and impassioned, and offers food for thought as to the problems in contemporary society and why it’s important to work out the Christian faith in practical political ways. Reno also offers an important take on how contemporary liberalism fails those in greatest need, taking away the structures and traditions of society that have provided stable families and the norms that have regulated society, replacing them only with a nonjudgementalism that serves the affluence, but leaves those without without a guide to the good life.
Smith also notes that Reno’s ire is more targeted at the over engagement of the state in public life, taking over from traditions and societal norms and regulating family and community life through legislation, commenting: “The Right has undertaken its own revolutionary demolishment of constraints on capitalism, industry, and the economic habits that shaped earlier expressions of market practices.”
Anyone who has read Smith’s You Are What You Love, or his more in depth volumes on cultural liturgies will not be surprised to find his wish that Reno had gone beyond proposing ideas and engaged with the habits that are needed to see a Christian society resurrected, and the role of the Church in developing that.
That a book can have significant weaknesses for UK readers (too US focused, from a particular ideological position, and limited in its applicability) and yet still be thoroughly worth reading suggests something of its promise.
One thing that I have become aware of in recent months is that despite the talk of the need of Christians to engage in public life, we’re not quite sure what effective engagement looks like, or what end we’re working towards. Terms such as flourishing and wellbeing are bandied around, but with a looseness that confines them to near meaningless. Usually we just want things to be better. In that Reno attempts to put some flesh on the bones and off a vision for a Christian society is to be welcomed.
The challenge for public leaders in the UK is to step up and offer a coherent vision of British society that thrives and serves all people. A vision rooted in the Christian faith, but which works for the good of all people, a vision that can be rallied around, a vision that goes beyond vague niceties but doesn’t slip into partisan preference. Not much.