Strangers in a Strange Land

by Charles J. Chaput

February 22, 2017


Resident Aliens

We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.
—Madeleine Delbrêl

Christians have many good reasons for hope. Optimism is another matter. Optimism assumes that, sooner or later, things will naturally turn out for the better. Hope has no such illusions.

That sounds like an oddly nervous way to start a book about our life as Catholic Christians. After all, the Gospel is supposed to be good news, a message of joy. And so it clearly is. The Christian faith is expanding rapidly across the Southern Hemisphere. In Africa, 9 million converts enter the Catholic Church each year. By 2030, if current trends hold, China may have the largest Christian population in the world.

Even in France, once the “eldest daughter of the Church” and now the secular heart of an aging continent, signs of a living Church persist—small, implausible, but real. And in the United States, while many parishes are struggling to survive in the nation’s Rust Belt and eastern cities, many others in the South and West are thriving. The Church in America has an impressive number of movements and new communities energetically alive, and some extraordinary young leaders, both clergy and lay.

In other words, outside Europe, Christianity is very much alive and growing. And it’s not a passive faith. Jesus left us with a mandate to transform creation.

But doing that, of course, is easier said than done, even—or maybe especially—in a nation like the United States.

My goal when I wrote Living the Catholic Faith (2001) was simple. I wanted to help Catholics recover the basics of their faith so they could live it more fully. In Render Unto Caesar (2008, 2012) I wanted to help readers apply their religious and moral convictions more vigorously in the public square as good citizens. Looking back, I think much in both books remains useful. But if that’s so, why do a new book?

The reason is time. Time passes. Times change. Watersheds happen. In June 2015, in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must license same-sex marriages and recognize similar marriages when lawfully performed out of state. The Court struck down the nation’s traditional understanding of marriage. That much was obvious. But in its effect, the Court actually went much further. It changed the meaning of family by wiping away the need for the natural relationships—husband and wife, mother and father—at the heart of these institutions.

With Obergefell, marriage and family no longer precede and limit the state as humanity’s basic social units grounded in nature. Instead, they now mean what the state says they mean. And that suggests deeper problems, because in redefining marriage and the family, the state implicitly claims the authority to define what is and isn’t properly human.

Buried in Obergefell is the premise that who we are, how we mate, and with whom we mate are purely matters of personal choice and social contract. Biology is raw material. Gender is fluid. Both are free of any larger truth that might limit our actions. And the consequences of that premise will impact every aspect of our shared political, economic, and social life.

Why so? Benedict XVI explained it simply and well: “[The] question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself—about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human . . . When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child—essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”

Obviously Obergefell is only one of many issues creating today’s sea change in American public life. But it confirmed in a uniquely forceful way that we live in a country very different from that of the past. The special voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is now absent. People who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family have gone in just twenty years from pillars of mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots.

So what do we do now?

Patriotism, rightly understood, is part of a genuinely Christian life. We’re creatures of place. The soil under our feet matters. Home matters. Communities matter. The sound and smell and taste of the world we know, and the beauty of it all, matter. As G. K. Chesterton would say, there’s something cheap and unworthy—and inhuman—in a heart that has no roots, that feels no love of country.

Thus, believers don’t have the luxury of despair. And the idea that we can retire to the safety of some modern version of a cave in the hills isn’t practical. Our task as Christians is to be healthy cells in society. We need to work as long as we can, in whatever way we can, to nourish the good in our country and to encourage the seeds of a renewal that can enliven our young people.

Americans learn from an early age that democracy is the gold standard of human governance. And its advantages are obvious. Every citizen has (in theory) an equal voice in the course of our nation’s affairs. But if America is (or was) “exceptional,” something unique in history, it’s not because this country is a New Jerusalem, or a redeemer nation, or has a messianic mission. Those things are vanities and delusions. When John Winthrop wrote his famous homily for Puritan colonists nearly four hundred years ago, the “city upon a hill” he imagined building in the New World was something genuinely new. It was the hope of a common life that had its foundations in humility, justice, mutual support, and the love of God.

That biblical vision has always helped shape the American story. The very idea of the “person” has religious origins. Even the concept of the individual—the building block of Western political life—has its early seeds in biblical faith. America has always been a mixed marriage of biblical and Enlightenment ideas.

The trouble is that liberal democratic states also have a less visible, internal dynamic. In a democracy, political legitimacy comes from the will of sovereign individuals. Their will is expressed through elected representatives. Anything that interferes with their will, anything that places inherited or unchosen obligations on the individual—except for the government itself, which embodies the will of the majority of individuals—becomes the target of suspicion.

To protect the sovereignty of individuals, democracy separates them from one another. And to achieve that, the state sooner or later seeks to break down any relationship or entity that stands in its way. That includes every kind of mediating institution, from fraternal organizations, to synagogues and churches, to the family itself. This is why Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French observer of early American life, said that “despotism, which is dangerous at all times, [is] particularly to be feared in democratic centuries.”

Tocqueville saw that the strength of American society, the force that kept the tyrannical logic of democracy in creative check, was the prevalence and intensity of religious belief. Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse. Religion moderates democracy because it appeals to an authority higher than democracy itself.

But religion only works its influence on democracy if people really believe what it teaches. Nobody believes in God just because it’s socially useful. To put it in Catholic terms, Christianity is worthless as a leaven in society unless people actually believe in Jesus Christ, follow the Gospel, love the Church, and act like real disciples. If they don’t, then religion is just another form of self-medication. And unfortunately, that’s how many of us live out our Baptism.

Until recent decades, American culture was largely Protestant. That was part of the country’s genius. But it also meant that Catholics and other minorities lived through long periods of exclusion and prejudice. The effect of being outsiders has always fueled a Catholic passion to fit in, to find a way into the mainstream, to excel by the standards of the people who disdain us. Over time, we Catholics have succeeded very well—evidently too well. And that very success has weakened any chance the Church had to seize a “Catholic moment” when Catholics might fill the moral hole in our culture created by the collapse of a Protestant consensus.

As a result, Tocqueville’s fear about democracy without religious constraints—what he called its power to kill souls and prepare citizens for servitude—is arguably where we find ourselves today.

Many factors have added to the problem, things we can’t easily control. To cite just one example: The political impact of new technologies has been massive. They shape the nature of our reasoning and our discourse. They’ve moved us away from a public square tempered by logic, debate, and reflection based on the printed word, to a visual and sensory one, emotionally charged and spontaneous. And given the nature of our culture—as we’ll see later in these pages—technology’s influence will continue to grow.

The credibility of a liberal democracy depends on its power to give people security and freedom—with “freedom” measured largely by the number of choices within each person’s private control. The goal of modern technology is to expand those choices by subduing the natural world; to put nature at the service of society in general, and individual consumers in particular. As a result, modern democracy isn’t just “open” to modern technology; it now depends on it. The two can’t be separated.

Their cooperation leads in unforeseen directions. As the progress of democracy and technology go hand in hand, the political influence of polling, focus groups, behavioral experts, and market research grows. The state gradually takes on elements of a market model that requires the growth of government as a service provider. The short-term needs and wants of voters begin to displace long-term purpose and planning.

In effect, democracy becomes an expression of consumer preference shaped and led by a technology-competent managerial class. It has plenty of room for personal “values.” But it has very little space for appeals to higher moral authority or shared meaning.7 For the state, this is convenient. Private belief—unlike communities of faith—can fit very comfortably in a consumer-based, technocratically guided democracy. Private beliefs make no public demands; and if they do, those demands can easily be ignored or pushed to the margins.

Where does that lead?

Judges 2:6–15 is the story of what happens after the Exodus and after Joshua wins the Promised Land for God’s people. Verse 10 says that Joshua “and all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel.”

It’s a Bible passage worth pondering. Every generation leaves a legacy of achievement and failure. In my lifetime, many good men and women have made the world better by the gift of their lives to others. But the biggest failure of so many people of my (baby boomer) generation, including parents, teachers, and leaders in the Church, has been our failure to pass along our faith in a compelling way to the generation now taking our place.

The reason the Christian faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young people is that—too often—it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to suffer for it. As Catholic Christians, we may have come to a point today where we feel like foreigners in our own country—“strangers in a strange land,” in the beautiful English of the King James Bible (Ex 2:22). But the deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are “foreigners.” It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.

Read the full excerpt here.

Copyright © 2017 by Charles J. Chaput. Excerpted from Strangers In A Strange Land
Strangers in a Strange Land Cover
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Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., was named archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. As a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, he was the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States and is the first Native American archbishop. Chaput is the author of Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics and Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life—as well as numerous articles and public talks.