Strangers in a Strange Land
Strangers in a Strange Land is not the first time that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has commented on the political and cultural problems in the United States. Nearly a decade ago, he authored Render Unto Caesar, a book about the role of Catholics in the public square. But even in that short span of time, liberal elites, government, and the media have pushed conservative Catholics and Christians out of the public sphere, silencing them with allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry, and foisting a progressive, anti-Christian culture on this society.
In this brave new world, traditional Catholics and other Christians are truly strangers in a strange land. The book’s title comes from Deuteronomy 2:22: “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
This passage refers to Moses, who, after killing an Egyptian who was attacking his kinsman, fled to Midian and married Reuel’s daughter. Literally, “the stranger in a strange land” refers to Moses moving from Egypt to Midian, but the spiritual interpretation is that we are strangers in a strange land because we live in a fallen world rather than in heaven. And, as the Archbishop demonstrates, the land in which we live is growing stranger and more hellish by the year due to this country’s increasing hostility to Christianity.
The Archbishop spends the first several chapters explaining the move from the relatively pro-Christian founding of America to the modern hostility towards Christians. Some, including traditional Catholics, may disagree with the Archbishop’s portrayal of early America as a Christian country as they will argue that America was founded primarily along deist, Masonic, and Enlightenment lines. To be fair, the Archbishop discusses the very limited role that Catholics played in the founding of America, and he explains why the Protestant culture and ethos that dominated early America made it a friendly place for Protestant Christians. And many of these Protestants still retained Catholic beliefs on a number of important cultural, moral, and spiritual issues. But this Catholic capital would eventually be spent, and replaced by an aggressively secular system.
The connection between sexual intimacy and procreation is an example of a united Protestant/Catholic front that was severed in the 20th century. Until 1930, Christians agreed that the primary purpose of human sexuality was procreation. In 1930, Anglicans shattered this unity when they allowed birth control. Once our culture accepted the pill and separated sexuality from procreation, the libertine floodgates were opened. Not only does it follow that couples other than married couples can engage in sexual relations, but anyone can engage in sexual relations with anyone since sex is a recreational pastime disconnected from procreation. Also, when we do not pass on life and seek to nurture the next generation, we become more and more narcissistic as individuals and as a culture. As the birthrate among Americans—especially white Americans—continues to drop, we become more focused on material possessions, careers, and the non-permanent things. A culture without a next generation is a death culture.
Today, those who stand for traditional views of sexuality are targets of vitriol from the elites, government, and the media. Traditional views of sexuality—which to the Progressives are outdated, bigoted, and discriminatory— are perhaps the favorite weapons that progressives and liberals use to attack conservative Christians and Catholics today.
The Archbishop highlights a number of weaknesses of the American culture and government that pushed us toward the precipice on which we teeter. For example, following similar thoughts by Alexis de Tocqueville, the Archbishop comments, “Democratic man depends heavily on public opinion as the source of his own convictions... It follows that shaping public opinion can shape the course of the culture.” Homosexual activists, for example, have quickly moved public opinion on the issue from negative to positive, primarily through using media and government to manipulate people. Coupled with the idea that man is his own lord and master and no person, institution, or divine power has any authority over him, we rapidly devolved into an “anything goes” culture.
The modern craze with self-invention—that is, modifying our bodies, claiming that gender is fluid, and refusing to live as God created us—is more evidence of this society’s spiritual sickness. As Archbishop Chaput says, “For Aristotle, what it means to be human is not a matter of self-invention; it depends on our network of human connections and responsibilities.” We are not isolated individualists who define ourselves; we are part of a community, we depend on others, and they depend upon us. Many conservatives recoiled at the title of Hilary Clinton’s It Takes a Village, but the idea, though not the messenger, is conservative and traditional. Perhaps it is better to cite John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” or Rick Santorum’s It Takes a Family to highlight our interdependent nature. For it is in the best interest of a child to have a strong family, a network of friends, and a healthy community supporting and encouraging him. The radical individualism encouraged in today’s America—often from the political right—would seem strange to previous generations of conservatives and traditionalists. As the Archbishop points out, recent traditional thinkers such as Robert Nisbet and Christopher Lasch were concerned about America’s move away from traditional community and its embracing of radical individualism.
Calling on the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Archbishop makes astute critiques of American society and brings Catholic social teaching and political philosophy to bear on modern American cultural and political issues: “In American life, democracy and capitalism, despite their advantages, tend to erode the place of traditional authorities (families, religious faith, and other institutions), while putting new authorities (public opinion and market forces) in their stead.” This is a great strength that Catholic social teaching brings to modern American discussions. As de Tocqueville was a Frenchman and could stand outside of American culture and offer constructive criticism, so too American Catholics are “strangers in a strange land” and can offer ways of thinking about critical issues that break through the rigid left-right ideology that is prevalent today. The Archbishop also says, “Catholics who seek to live their faith seriously don’t fit into the categories secular society provides because the Gospel itself doesn’t.” Our political categories, therefore, may not align with the liberal/conservative dichotomy. For instance, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum argues for a living family wage and a strong defense of private property. He struck a third way between the socialism and unfettered free market capitalism of his day. He showed that the economy was made for man, not man for the economy, and that Catholic social teaching is often boldly original.
Though the book tends towards a recitation of modern problems, which, in my opinion, is justified and entirely appropriate given our dire religious, cultural, and political situation today, the Archbishop also puts things in historical perspective. As he says, “Christianity was born in a world of abortions, infanticide, sexual confusion, and promiscuity, the abuse of power, and the exploitation of the poor.” In other words, our times are not that different from those of the early Church, and we can learn from how early Christians handled their problems. At the same time, we need to remember that prior to Constantine’s conversion, the Church was essentially underground and did not possess wealth and power. We may be returning to that status soon. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise, for it is harder to stand for truth when one risks losing money, power, reputation, and influence. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Let’s close with a quote from the beginning of the book that strikes a hopeful but not optimistic note: “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.” I am reminded of Frodo’s struggle to destroy the ring of power in The Lord of the Rings. A seemingly impossible task, it nearly costs Frodo and Sam their lives, but, in the end, after many toils, struggles, and disappointments, they finally succeed, with the assistance of grace. It is a determined, active hope that keeps them struggling forward. We as Catholics have the same hope and knowledge that Christ and His Church will win in the end, but our journey will resemble Frodo’s long and difficult journey to destroy the ring. As Catholics, we are not filled with a silly optimism but a dogged and determined hope that Christ and His Church will prevail in the end against the powers of hell.