An American can hardly move anywhere in Europe these days without being asked how the 2024 election is going to go. Is Trump going to return? Will Biden drop out? The truth is, nobody really knows. One year away from election day, the political ground is wildly unstable.
Things came a bit more into focus on Tuesday night’s off-year elections, which, alas, were very bad for conservatives. You can put away any talk of elderly, often confused, Joe Biden dropping out. And you can expect likely Republican nominee Donald Trump, the man who appointed the Supreme Court justices who overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision, to run as far away from the pro-life cause as he can.
Last year’s fall of Roe is proving to have been a Pyrrhic victory for social conservatives. Last year, in the first voting since the Supreme Court tossed out Roe, voters in red Kansas and red Kentucky both refused restrictions on abortion. And Tuesday’s Ohio result was one more powerful post-Roe defeat for pro-life social conservatives. The pro-abortion side won in a 57% to 43% landslide. (In exactly the same proportion, Ohio voters chose to legalize cannabis in the state.)
What’s more, Kentucky returned to office its Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, who made supporting abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign. His victory in that GOP-dominated state was surely boosted by strong pro-choice turnout. And Virginia voters flipped control of the state legislature back to Democrats, arguably in response to GOP governor Glenn Youngkin’s support of restrictions on abortion.
As painful as it is for pro-lifers to accept, America is not a pro-life country, and not really a conservative country. It is a libertarian country. Sometimes libertarianism lands on the political right (e.g., gun rights); other times it lands on the political left (abortion rights, drug legalization). What unites the disparate positions is a belief that individuals should be more or less left alone to do what they want to do.
It is a superficially attractive position, but it’s hard to run a cohesive society on the basis of libertarianism. It is a philosophy that appeals to highly educated people who have a greater capacity than most to control their appetites.
For example, libertarianism generally favors drug decriminalization. Yet the U.S. is at the moment being devastated by addiction to heroin, fentanyl, and other deadly drugs. Scientists have pointed out that the cannabis now available on the market is far stronger—meaning it has much higher levels of THC—than the pot that Boomers smoked in the 1960s and 1970s. It has been tied to a rise in psychosis, especially in young people who are heavy users.
It puzzles many conservatives why the American people have been largely accepting of the transgender phenomenon. It comes from their basic libertarianism. They may not like transgenderism, but they accept it insofar as they believe that it is up to each individual to decide for himself who he is. The Ur-libertarian sentiment was articulated in Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s statement:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Kennedy, now retired from the Court, penned that line in writing the majority opinion in 1992, reaffirming Roe. It is morally incoherent. You cannot have a society in which every person is at liberty to define their own reality. That’s anarchy. But if you put it to a vote, I suspect most Americans would agree with Kennedy, as long as they don’t think too hard about it.
Pro-lifers and other social conservatives had better think about it, because that is the society in which we Americans live. Europeans are often baffled by how thin the social safety net is in the U.S., but at the same time find the particularly American sense of freedom from unchosen obligations to be appealing. The two are connected. As European countries with generous welfare policies and high immigration levels are discovering, you cannot sustain both without a culture of strong social solidarity.
The Tuesday results ought to disillusion U.S. social and religious conservatives—or rather, ought to continue to disillusion them about the kind of country America is. My 2017 book The Benedict Option is about learning how to live as faithful Christians in a post-Christian nation. It sold well in the U.S., but I found it was much more embraced among conservative European Christians. Why? Because Europeans have lived through several generations of de-Christianization. They understand that they no longer live in a Christian society, and are eager to discover how to live to ensure the faith survives in a hostile culture.
Conservative American Christians, however, still cling to the fantasy that the United States remains a Christian culture. To be fair, there is lots of evidence that Christianity is more robust in the U.S. than in Europe. This is superficial, however. Lots of survey data show that the Christianity embraced by most Americans is shallow and therapeutic, amounting to a lightly Biblicized form of therapy. God is a kind of cosmic butler who exists to help us when we ask him to. The point of life is to be happy and successful, and nice to others.
It’s an ideology that appeals to middle-class consumers, but it has very little to do with the religion of the Bible. It’s hard to generalize, but most of the time, when Christian teachings impose a demand on one, and require a sacrifice of personal liberty, American Christians tend to rationalize doing what they want to do.
A real-life example: a few years back, I sat at dinner next to a very conservative Christian woman who talked about what a blessing God had given her and her husband in the life of a child she had borne from a frozen embryo they had stored. This woman considered herself pro-life, and had evidently not made the connection that in vitro fertilization would result in the death of many unborn children she and her husband consented to conceive in the laboratory. Abortion, in her mind, was something unpleasant that took place in clinics. Yet for Christians who believe life begins at conception, there is no moral difference between IVF and abortion.
Telling this story to an upper middle-class Evangelical friend in the same city, she responded with the story of a woman on her conservative e-mail prayer network who sent out a request asking for prayer. What was the issue? Whether or not she should “selectively eliminate” one of the three unborn children in her womb. The pregnant woman asked for prayer to help her discern God’s will in the matter.
You see the point. Two years ago, the English writer Mary Harrington cheekily declared that America had gone Satanist. Her claim was that the U.S. had gone so far in its worship of individual will that it was hard to distinguish mainstream American values from the radical libertarianism of Lucifer. She wrote:
At least on the now majority post-Christian East and West coasts of America, this sacralisation of individual freedom and desire is increasingly assertive in its efforts to expunge Christianity as America’s official faith.
Harrington was joking, but not really. On abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, euthanasia, and related issues, the American people have abandoned bedrock Christian teaching, and have endorsed laissez-faire libertarianism. This is only a surprise to American Christians who haven’t been paying attention.
There is a controversial Protestant movement in the U.S. now called ‘Christian nationalism.’ Its adherents conceive of American as an explicitly Christian nation, and believe that government officials should labor to make laws and policies based on Christianity. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has undertaken a similar program, but he is working with a far more homogeneous populace than exists in the America—one that may not be especially religious, but that is still generally conservative on social matters at issue in the United States. Even so, it is clear (at least to me) that Christian social policies cannot long be sustained without a living Christian faith among most of the people.
This is why Christian nationalism (and integralism, its Catholic analogue) will fail in America. The American people are, in fact, post-Christian. This is not to say that Christians should not be politically active for the causes we believe in, but only that we should understand that our prospects for victory are not great—especially given the rapid disaffiliation from Christianity of Generation Z, the youngest generation of American adults.
This is why, at last week’s ARC conference in London, when people would ask me for my solution to the current crisis, I could only offer the Benedict Option: that is, the formation of strong small communities of belief and practice, to build resilience in the trials to come, so that Christianity can survive. Like the early Benedictine monks of post-collapse Rome, we should endeavor to live in ways that pass a robust and demanding Christian faith to the coming generations, so that in the distant future, when the world opens itself to the possibility of following Jesus Christ again, we are there to tell it who He is, and what it means to be a Christian.
It might be the case, then, that the ascent of libertarianism is the only real political hope we have. Libertarians believe in the right to be left alone. Fighting for effective religious liberty protections for churches, schools, and other religious institutions might be the only meaningful possibilities open to us. It’s a bleak thought, perhaps, but nothing is more depressing than fake cheerfulness based on groundless optimism.
Strange as it may sound, American Christians will soon discover that we have a lot to learn from those believing Christians who still remain in Europe, and who can share with us strategies for staying faithful when the world around you has repaganized.