Replacing the Religion of Progressivism

By W. David Montgomery

January 25, 2022

I start with an apology for my delay in publishing this issue.  This article is about one of the most interesting essays on the relation between religion and public life that I have read in many years.  It was written by Professor C. C. Pecknold of Catholic University, under whom I was privileged to study several years ago.  After reflecting on Professor Pecknold’s essay for a while, I threw away the article I had been writing and started over. 

My plan is to summarize Pecknold’s argument while adding my own commentary on its relevance.  My hope is to introduce you to his work and that of his friends Adrian Vermeule (Harvard Law), Patrick Deneen (Notre Dame Law), and Gladden Pappin (University of Dallas), some of which is found here.  I hope you will be attracted by their thinking about conservatism and hope for America. They also make great comments on Twitter.

I hope I will be forgiven for summarizing his (their) thesis in one paragraph. The idea that church and state must be separate is an illusion.  All societies have been linked together by some religion; the new state religion in the Western world is wokeism, for lack of a better word; classical liberalism is what gave birth to this new worship of identity and individual desires; it is only by replacing this false religion with a true religion that we can turn things around.   I also agree that the true religion is Christianity.

Pecknold, in addition to being a prolific political commentator, is an authority on St Augustine and in particular his City of God.  His essay, “The Religious Nature of the City” comes from that background.  Augustine wrote that there are two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God, according to Augustine, is the perfect community that we aspire to and that will never be achieved on earth.  The City of Man is the society in which we live.  Here is the key point on which Pecknold relies in this essay: every City of Man has a religion.  We know the nature of any particular City by identifying what it worships.  What it worships can be true or false.  

Rome, Augustine observed, followed a false religion, with gods whose immoralities celebrated in spectacles and degrading ceremonies shaped “the soul and the city alike.” Christianity, on the other hand, teaches a true religion that points the way toward the City of God.  Augustine is quite clear, contradicting progressive belief both religious and secular, that this can never be achieved on earth, but that following Christian faith and practice takes us in the right direction.  

Pecknold is convinced that the current religion overtaking secular America, as taught by the progressive left, is also a false one that shapes national character in harmful ways and has obscured our understanding of and desire for a nation that pursues the common good.  That term is one that occurs frequently in his writing and others in the school of “common-good conservatism.”  Pecknold and his friends emphasize that change in political life must involve recovering a concept of “the common good” which is defined by our religion.

Just to emphasize how important these new ideas are, I confess that it has taken me a long time to accept the idea of the common good, even after Pecknold’s tutelage.   Most of us have internalized an anthropology that dates back to the Enlightenment – the radical individualism of Locke, Hume and Mill.  Religion is a private matter and should be kept out of politics.  Governance should do no more than make it possible for the wants and desires of those autonomous individuals to be satisfied as fully as possible.  That crunches up against the other basic principle of economics that with limited resources, even the best system has no way to make everyone better off.  In this economics of individualism, there always comes a point when making one better off makes another worse off, and politicians work out who gets more and who less.  Indeed, and this is the real killer, the pathbreaking work of Kenneth Arrow revealed that no system of voting or representation could create an outcome on which these autonomous individuals would all agree.  In the philosophy of radical individualism, there is no room for “common good.”

Pecknold and his brothers-in-arms point out that radical individualism is not turning out well.  We are seeing how American society — our City of Man — has lost the ties that bind its citizens together.  Those ties were fundamentally religious, however prejudiced Protestants were against Catholics or Irish against Italians.  We shared a sense of a common good. As church attendance and generally a sense that we are all Americans vanished — about which John Briggs has written in this journal — competition for a greater share of the pie has become more and more pronounced.  Even the religion of wealth — that it is better to grow the pie than fight over it, that increasing wealth for the nation will make everyone better off — has been rejected except by a declining segment of conservative thought.  Now it is replaced by deadly competition of increasingly splintered identity groups not only to take from outside their group but to eradicate the better off as oppressors.  Grotesque displays of immorality and decadence are not only tolerated in public but imposed on school children.   Rome revisited.

Now to Pecknold’s deep and brilliant essay.  He diagnoses this sickness and proposes a different way of curing it.  In hopes it will keep you reading, I will reveal the ending: 

“America needs a new vision — it needs a new religious vision. As I’ve argued elsewhere, with my friends Gladden Pappin and Sohrab Ahmari, we must not be afraid of political action which is predicated upon the ancient wellsprings of a classical and Christian vision for political and cultural order. We are in a vastly better speculative position that those 1970s transgressive minorities [by whom he means the progenitors of the present woke agenda]: we have a true vision of the good, and the religion that truly integrates and elevates.”

Pecknold begins with the central role of religion in the ancient City based on the 1864 study “The Ancient City” by Fustel de Coulanges.  The family was organized around a religion, epitomized by the “sacred fire” maintained on domestic altars.  Each family belonged to a “City”, whose foundation was not only natural bonds but worship.  Even in later Rome, divided into patricians and others, each had religious duties to perform.  Pecknold quotes Cicero “What is there more holy, what is there more carefully fenced around with every description of religious respect, than the house of each individual citizen? Here is his altar, here is his hearth, here are his household gods; here all his sacred rights, all his religious ceremonies, are preserved.” 

In ancient cities the family, then the city, then the country were oriented around their gods. The practice of religion organized community life.  Religion was the natural and universal defining character of society, and following Augustine, the nature of that religion differed and made those societies better or worse.  Pecknold’s startling conclusion is that “Every city is religious by nature because the human person, and thus human community, is naturally, essentially, and unavoidably religious… and so we must never ask whether a city is secular or religious, but rather the only question we must ask whether the religion of the city is true or false.” 

After discussing how Augustine observed the civil and religious shifts as Christianity replaced pagan religion in Rome and some controversies about how to read Augustine, Pecknold gets to Augustine’s diagnosis of the cause of Rome’s fall: “Augustine argues that Rome’s fall is due to a civic-religious corruption of the Roman soul which has been mediated by the false gods of the city. Rome’s political problem is at root a religious problem.

Rome, Augustine observed, worshiped gods that repeatedly failed them. Even while they worshipped them, Romans portrayed their gods as decadent fools, whose worship included degrading ceremonies and entertainments.  With these gods, Augustine observes along with other classic Romans, the ancient civic virtues of patria, family and honor decayed and the civilization fell.  Augustine quotes Cicero: “What remains of that ancient morality which…supported the Roman state? We see that it has passed out of use into oblivion, so that far from being cultivated, it does not even enter our minds…We retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago; and this was not through any misfortunate, but through our own misdemeanors.” What Rome worshiped was false.

Pecknold concludes the section on Augustine and ancient Rome saying: “Augustine’s aim in the whole work was precisely to show that religion is essential to political morality, but Roman religion was simply not fit for the purpose of uniting souls, or the city, together. His deepest aim then is in proposing true religion as most proper to the civic-religious structure of Rome.”

Pecknold moves to the present with the statement “America is now in a position similar to Rome after it’s ‘torrential downhill rush into immorality.’ While we may know many Americans who have lived better than the errant theories undergirding America’s own fancy picture of itself, over time, people become what they see, the soul conforms itself to the regime, and if the regime is disordered in its civic-religious order, so will disordered souls perpetuate the disorder the regime in a vicious downward spiral.” 

Pecknold continues “Today we are ruled by a liberal dictatorship who demands of us a most perverse kind of worship …America has “progressed” from an earlier, protestant civic-religious structure to a late-liberal religious regime that is profoundly fragmenting.”

We then reach the key insight of Pecknold and his post-liberal friends:

“The progressive civic-religious regime is … an inverted parody of Christianity. The good news is that this has exposed something. It has exposed the lie that a religiously neutral polity is possible at all. For all of human history, political and social order has sought religious unity precisely because religion is a precept of the natural law — we cannot do without it. The liberal dream of religious neutrality is an anomaly [emphasis mine] of a couple hundred years that is simply not natural, and so it’s simply not sustainable. So how should we live, then?”

The progressive, woke, whatever you call it political agenda is following its religion and imposing it on the American people through the activity of a deeply committed, highly organized and untiring minority. For those who have read these pages, the elements of that religion and what it is trying to impose should be quite clear: political dominance of identity groups each demanding an equal share of everything, the LGBTQ agenda to indoctrinate children, the CRT agenda of teaching children that their worth, or lack of it, is determined by the color of their skin, and the enforcement of draconian penalties for violating changing standards of hate speech.  

A very strong conclusion of Pecknold and his friends is that this was the logical outcome of the Enlightenment rejection of religion in public life and belief in radical individualism.  The ban on religion in public life has been applied only to true religion—false religion is given free rein to take over.

In consequence, Pecknold suggests a list of political demands that we should not hesitate to make: 

We can reclaim blue laws which are absolutely constitutional, and have a long history of legal support, structurally privileging at once God, the family, and the human need for worship and rest. 

We can recover American blasphemy laws. [Already] …if you offend the pieties and values of the progressive civic religion, you will be punished, canceled, censored. This is all deeply unjust not because we should not care about blasphemy, but because their religion is toxic, the gods they seek to defend are false. … we need … a recovery of anti-blasphemy legislation that protects Christian speech, that discourages profanity against God’s Name. 

We should rethink school choice in a way which privileges schools which privilege an understanding of those pillars of western civilization: Greek Philosophy, Roman Law, and Christian Religion. 

…we should not only be trying to make toxic Critical Race Theory illegal and fight against “the gods of social justice”  but we should legislate in ways which privilege the recovery of opening and closing every school day with a prayer that recognizes the one true God as the benevolent cause and end of all things. 

We should absolutely recover regular public processions and public festivals on great Christian Feasts, and work to gain city, state, and even national recognition for special days of Christian remembrance. 

I just find that tremendously refreshing.  It answers the repeated question “so what can we do about it?”

“But I know what you are thinking: it can’t happen.”

Pecknold continues that “you must stop to consider the reality that American life has been radically altered within a single generation on views which were once fringe. Absurd things which were thought up in dorm rooms by a tiny minority of trangressive postmodernists in the 1970s are now federal laws which determine everyday life for ordinary Americans. Things which would not have garnered ten percentage points of support in 1988 are now considered so essential for civic belief that to oppose such views is criminal.”

It is the rapid takeover by what remains a small minority in all polls that in fact gives Pecknold hope: “As my friend and colleague Adrian Vermeule so persuasively has reminded us, ‘our political world is far more fluid, far more malleable and susceptible to shaping through intentional action, especially the action of committed political minorities, than the putative realists can conceive at any given time.’”

Thus, there is hope and reason to act, unashamedly advocating our own values in the public square.

Pecknold ends with this: “Our most fundamental political conflicts are religious and theological. Thus, Christians who care about their neighbor must not be indifferent to the sacred bonds of the city, but must oppose civic sacrilege, and work to reorient the domestic and civic altars alike to God’s heavenly city.” 

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Montgomery intends to follow this essay with a longer look at definitions of common good, and the complex controversies among “Common Good” or “post-liberal” conservatives, classic free-market conservatives exemplified by those who write for the National Review, and hard-to-classify conservatives such as Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher.

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