First Things magazine editor Dr. Rusty Reno launched Christendom College’s Major Speakers Program on October 3, delivering a lecture entitled “Christianity in Public Life.”
“Educated members of society once looked to theology for some orientation in regards to the pressing questions of the day. We lived in a culture in which Christianity was entwined with the national project,” said Reno. “In my own educational background, I went to a small liberal arts college. At that college, which was secular, nevertheless I was able to take religion classes. Today, things have changed, and today, if you don’t go to a place like Christendom, it is nearly impossible for you to take a class in theology,” said Reno.
Reno, who is a critically acclaimed author of several works, began his talk by praising Christendom, asserting, “While it is my first time here, it does not take long for a visitor to be impressed by the spirit of this place, which is so positive and welcoming.”
A convert to Roman Catholicism in the early 2000s, Reno set the tone for his lecture by stating up front that one of the biggest changes in his lifetime has been the recession of Christianity from public life. While the Christian dimension previously played a large role in the public debate, now it is increasingly marginalized in favor of more secular thought.
Reno approached the question of why this change has taken place in two parts: sociological and speculative. Beginning with the latter, he presented statistical data revealing a dramatic increase in the population that has no religious affiliation. These people, who Reno dubbed the “nones,” make up more than 20% of the general populace and 30% of millenials, making it the single biggest change in the composition of American religious society in fifty years.
“Church going has not declined in fifty years — 25 to 35% of the people still go to Church any given Sunday. What’s changed is an increase in the number of people who are alienated from Christianity, who don’t regard it as integral,” explained Reno.
According to Reno, this growing demographic is frustrated with Christianity’s influence on public life, and how America has been saturated with Christianity for over two centuries. They see the morals of Christianity as being in their way, and seek to push Christianity to the wayside of society.
“It’s funny how religion remains at the center of public life — the irony is that this group is defined by their rejection of it. Christianity has so much less of a role in public life, because it’s in competition with an alternative view of society. This is a growing cohort that is anti-religious, because we are in the way of a future that they seek. A future of abortion on demand, of ever-expanding gay rights. We are in the way of things that powerful people want,” he said. “Christianity used to provide an umbrella under which we fought politically — a moral, imaginative umbrella. Now, Christianity is no longer the canopy above, and is a protagonist in the bitter political struggles of today.”
Turning to the speculative mode of his talk, Reno suggested that many of these changes are due to the culture of the post-war period, following World War II. Since 1945, the project of western culture has been to weaken things— to “drive the strong gods out of public life.” These “strong gods,” such as the desires for blood, soil, or for God, were part of the great civilization crisis of the West from 1914-45, and they had to be driven out, moving forward in the post-war period — leading to the famous suggestion that it is “forbidden to forbid.” This paradoxical statement, according to Reno, implies the ultimate weakening of society.
“Critique and unmasking is the norm now. We’re taught to look for truth underneath things, rather than above, and our thinking is now to go down, and never up in the West,” said Reno. “Obviously, Catholic public witness runs counter to an era of weakening. The Christian tradition is that God comes down to aid us in this ascent. We live in an era — the post-war era — that asks us to do the opposite.”
While things are difficult right now, Reno concluded his talk by suggesting that students look to the future, recognizing that this era of weakening is coming to an end.
“People want to be enchanted again, and it seems to me that, as we move forward, our job is to encourage this desire for re-enchantment — recognizing its dangers, such as of idolatry. We need to prepare for that, and encourage the restoration of things of nobility, such as family, community, and a proper love of country oriented to the supernatural love of God,” said Reno.
Reno is one of the nation’s foremost Catholic authors, with his essays and opinion pieces on religion, public life, contemporary culture, and current events appearing on Commentary and the Washington Post, amongst others. Reno has appeared as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire, EWTN’s Faith & Culture, and numerous other radio shows.
This lecture was part of the college’s Major Speaker’s Program, an important aspect of the academic life at the college that offers the students and community an opportunity for cultural, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment beyond the classroom. Through the program, students are able to gain greater insights and depth of understanding of important issues, and to interact personally with a wide range of men and women who are shapers and critics of our society.