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The Problem of Christian Safetyism by Kurt Hofer

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The Problem of Christian Safetyism

"Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins" (1744), a 64 x 84 cm oil on canvas by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), located in the Hermitage Museum.

Long before COVID hit and safetyism became the undisputed dogma of public discourse, traditional Christians had taken up a different form of masking in public spaces–a masking of their beliefs. Particularly within the halls of academia, big media and tech, and woke corporations the Christian’s masking of his beliefs preceded from strongly encouraged to mandatory, from loosely fitting cloth to tight, suffocating KN-95s. In affluent urban areas across the West, Christians—like the smokers of yore—sometimes exchanged knowing glances and met in semi-secrecy outside to breathe the fresh air of open expressed faith. 

Just as the masked face deprives society of meaningful social interaction, the masked Christian, by virtue of his public invisibility, becomes the sterilized, supple subject of liberalism’s intellectual health experts–the globalists, the climate catastrophists, and the sundry modern gnostics who would make nature the toy of untethered instrumental reason. Christians, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, are called to be “the light of the world … your light must shine before others” (5:15-17). Our masks are Matthew’s “bushel basket,” choking the light of Christ like a flame deprived of oxygen.  

Well before the pandemic, in his essay “Faith in the Flesh,” R.R. Reno asks himself if his own faith is undetectable to the world. Seeing the “ruthlessly physical act” of his son’s circumcision at 8 days old, in accordance with Judaic teaching, Reno begins to wonder about “the invisibility of my own faith”:

Christ was in my heart and on my lips, but was I unmarked in my flesh, unchanged in the brute reality of my life… Where had God’s commandment set me apart and marked me as Christ’s own? Do we—no, do I—make the commandments of God empty, ‘spiritual’ and pious commitments that the currents of culture erode and obliterate the moment I leave the church?

Reno’s doubts were mine too: Was my Chrisianity indistinguishable to the naked eye? Was mine a strictly private, compartmentalized faith which nobody could see behind a mask of go-along-to-get-along multiculturalism? What, if anything, did my faith risk? In public, with my face covering hiding my true Christian identity, I feared my faith wagered nothing; for all intents and purposes I was indistinguishable from somebody “spiritual but not religious,” or from an atheist. That is: I feared my faith was invisible in the public square. 

The final section of Yoram Hazony’s new book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, is dedicated to the art of living—not writing about—a conservative life, a life that is so distinctively dedicated to conserving the good in the world that others see it as so:

Imagine a young man in his thirties, living with a woman year after year, deferring marriage and children, engaged in the life of no congregation, reading no scripture, and keeping no Sabbaths… He feels that no great harm would be done if he fails to commit to marriage and raising children, to joining a congregation and keeping the Sabbath, for another ten or fifteen years. He is the kind of man who is not overly troubled by the fact that he has, in effect, left God sitting in the waiting room with a stack of conservative magazines to look at.

I would add: this man may very well have a Bible on his shelf. He might even occasionally read it in times of duress for solace, only to toggle back to the safe spaces of career and uncommitted sex once things are going well again. His is a Christianity that costs him nothing, but also illumes nothing; no one else sees anything by the light of his faith, because his faith casts no light. Rather, he reaps the harvest without tilling the soil and sowing the seed for the next generation, and no one will reap anything from him. In Hazony’s piercing assessment: “What does such a person know about conserving anything? He copies conservative words from others, but his life is that of a liberal.”

Every day, my own Christian life bifurcates. I drop my daughter off at her Catholic school, where she stands in the courtyard in the morning and learns how to pray and says the Pledge of Allegiance. In a case of metaphor and life oddly reflecting each other, I quite literally cross the street to the secular college preparatory school where I teach. I’d like to think that my mental mask doesn’t go on, that it stays in my pocket, even if I occasionally fiddle with it to make sure it’s there in case I need it. But lately, I’m not so sure. 

In the fallout from the recent leak of the then draft decision from the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, a colleague approached me, knowing that I was one of only a few conservatives and even fewer conservative Christians on campus. He proceeded to tell me that in America church and state were separate and therefore, any mention of the Bible should disqualify the draft decision a priori as a violation of the constitution. This person then explained that if a woman is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy, then maybe the Civil Rights Act will be overturned next. He went on to claim that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means that women should be able to terminate any unwanted pregnancy because that pregnancy would be in violation of the “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Then he asked what I thought.

What I thought is this: What kind of a culture do we live in, when children are seen as impediments to liberty and happiness, not vessels for their fruition? Is not our “culture”—a culture of sterility, of death?—fundamentally misanthropic, if not evil?

But what I said was very different. Instead of explaining that not all the American founders were deists; or noting the overt references to religion’s key role in the American republic in the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s letters and speeches; or contending, along with Robert R. Reilly, that the very concept of secularism itself is the product of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its painstaking, centuries-in-the making synthesis of Hellenic philosophy and the Bible (reason and revelation)… instead of any or all of these answers, I cowered behind feeble generalizations. “There’s a debate about how religious the founders were,” was all that I could muster. 

This, I think, illustrates Christian safetyism nicely. In an attempt to not offend others but also to safeguard my own standing among my peers, I chose safety over truth. I, like many Christians, fear the label of fundamentalist, extremist, or zealot almost as much as I fear death. The fear is unwarranted and detrimental to my spiritual health and yet it remains, a stubborn testament to the anodyne nature of the Christian “witness” permitted by progressive culture.  

The Christian safetyist response to our liberal-progressive culture stands in sharp contrast to the Catholic Church’s Sunday readings during the season of Easter from the Acts of the Apostles. In this book, the Apostle Paul crisscrosses the known world—Athens, Jerusalem, even Rome—to preach the word of God despite the risks. 

“I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in Lord Jesus,” Paul says in Act 21. This is after he has already been imprisoned for his faith and met with persecution, indifference, and in some cases genuine, if skeptical, curiosity. “May we learn what this news teaching is that you speak of? For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean,” his Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, surely the Harvard and Yale savants of his day, ask him.

Paul is undeterred by his trials and compelled by curiosity. He wears no mask; he mutes and stifles no truth that might advance the Gospel—no matter the cost. He says, 

But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem. What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the Holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me. Yet I consider life of no importance to me, if only I finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the gospel of God’s grace.

The worldly stakes of Christian courage in the West today are generally not as great as they once were—with notable exceptions such as that of Päivi Räsänen. Death or imprisonment have been replaced by social stigmatization and career ruin. But perhaps, even as COVID lockdowns have shed light on our concomitant technocratic-managerial dystopic governments and awakened a renewed appreciation for traditional Western freedoms, so too the institutional-bureaucratic overreach of Western progressivism may stir Christians. Perhaps, in the same way that Paul miraculously escaped prison to preach the word of God even in the public squares of Rome, we too can escape the prisons of our own making: prisons of silence, of shame, and of fear. 

Christians, take off your masks!

Kurt Hofer is a Contributing Editor at The European Conservative.