The pervasive tone of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, is one of Christian hopefulness. Avoiding the temptation to despair to which many of today’s Christian cultural commentators succumb, Chaput instead exhorts Christians to be people of hope who transform and leaven an apostate western world. Of course, Christians often disagree about how that hope should manifest itself in our public and cultural engagements. Chaput’s book is a serious and thoughtful contribution to that crucial question.
I would divide the book’s twelve chapters into four sections. After an introductory chapter in which Chaput frames his project, he devotes two chapters to surveying American history and its relationship to Christianity and Catholicism, underscoring the cultural developments that have led to today’s hostilities. The next four chapters unfurl Chaput’s wide-ranging diagnosis of contemporary American life and the various ways in which it has gone off track. In the final four chapters, the book’s strongest and most enriching section, Chaput develops an impressive and sound vision for how Catholics should live their faith in our post-Christian world.
The argument of Strangers is levelheaded and well-researched. The book itself is an inspiring act of public witness by one of the American Church’s most prominent bishops. Crisply written, it is an accessible read in spite of the author’s learnedness. Its chapters on revitalizing and renewing ourselves and American Catholicism and culture are markedly balanced, espousing a vision of personal vocation that goes deeper than most presentations. The book’s contemporary diagnostic account (as opposed to its historical surveys and contemporary prescriptions) was so diffuse as to seem both scattered and redundant at times, and the book could have done with fewer illustrative citations. On the whole, we can be grateful to Archbishop Chaput for producing another able and perceptive response to some of the most urgent questions besetting American Catholics today.
Catholicism and the American Project
Chaput opens the book with the premise that whatever congruence there might once have been between important shared Christian beliefs and American public life has been largely shattered. “The special voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is now absent,” he asserts. So what should Catholics do about it?
To answer this question, Chaput first goes back to the American founding. He traces the development of the relationship between American Christianity and American culture and life, analyzing where we went wrong and how we might get right again.
Chaput articulates an incisive critique of the development of American society in the past half century that avoids uncritical negativity, frequently pointing out and praising the goods that were sought, however imperfectly, in failed social maneuvers, and also the genuine improvements of the past fifty years. In this section and throughout the book, he consistently anticipates and answers the question “so why does any of this matter”?
Chaput argues that the founders drew their realism from a biblical sense of humanity’s fallenness, not blithe dreams of the perfectibility of man. Chaput highlights the religiosity of the founding era, the founders’ acceptance of natural law, and their belief in the importance of religious practices for maintaining public morality and a citizenry able to sustain a constitutional democratic republic.
Although “America is a child of both biblical and Enlightenment spirits,” Catholics were not among America’s favorite sons. The targets of persistent Protestant suspicion and prejudice, Catholics nevertheless strove to “fit in” to the American project. Some went so far as to argue that Catholics were uniquely equipped to model the principles on which America was built. In the 1950s, “Church and national interests seemed to logically coincide.” With Kennedy’s election and the “lavish patriotism” of Catholic primates such as Cardinal Spellman, “Catholics had finally arrived.”
That arrival proved short-lived. Vietnam opened deep cracks in how Catholics understood their patriotism, and the widespread acceptance and use of the birth control pill played a significant role in shifting understandings of sexuality and family. Cultures can be transformed from the inside out, Chaput observes, and the surest way to do so is by “colonizing and reshaping the culture’s appetites and behaviors,” as the pill paradigmatically did. These and other factors contributed to the rift between faithful Catholics and American life—a rift that has deepened in recent years due to ill-considered judicial decisions and aggressively secularizing executive administrations.
A spirit of “progress” and an instinctive distrust of authority, coupled with an “American trust in the promise of technology” that is “robust and naïve to the point of being a character flaw,” has generated a “modern secular urge to improve the world and break away from its past . . . a kind of Christian faith scrubbed of its supernatural content.” When Christian hope is secularized and stripped of its divine referent, it necessarily takes on new referents. The result is that a “central fact of modern American life is idolatry” in its various and sometimes subtle forms.
Such forms of secular idolatry are not the tolerant neighbors of authentic Christian faith. They are hostile competitors. As Chaput reminds us, “No man, no society, and no nation can serve two masters.” “The devil is real,” and he is as eager as ever to recruit opposition to the God in whom Christians profess their faith. Evil aggressively seeks out and hunts down the good. Chaput calls gender ideology an example of the “imperialism of bad science on steroids.” Similarly, genetic screening for fetal flaws, and the rights language invoked to justify the subsequent decision to abort the child, are eerily reminiscent of eugenics and the Nazi era. In the economic realm, without virtuous actors who can presume good faith and rely on others’ self-restraint, the market tends to cannibalize and commodify human needs and to subordinate human goods to profit. Similarly, our institutions of government flourish only when they are peopled by a responsible citizenry whose moral formation is not itself the fruit of the market or these institutions.
The steady decoupling of American public mores from Christian faithfulness and biblical morality, Chaput maintains, has left the machinery of democracy unchecked, giving way to a world of technologically advanced consumerism with little regard for morality. In such an environment, “creating and enforcing a new ‘truth’ is simply a matter of mobilizing enough public opinion to make it so.” Words are manipulated by the powerful, weaponized for their expediency rather than revered as communicators of truth. Like Anthony Esolen, Chaput thinks that our “culture of lies thrives on our own complicity, lack of courage, and self-deception.” The result can be seen in recent cultural phenomena such as the explosion of transgender theory. “People don’t need to be ‘religious’ to notice that men and women are different,” Chaput writes. “The evidence is obvious. And the only way to ignore it is through a kind of intellectual self-hypnosis.”
The Road to Recovery
For a book built on hope, this all sounds rather bleak. Thankfully, Chaput also lays out the necessary path to recovering from our culture’s ills. First and foremost, if our nation is to recover, we must return to the Christian faith: “Our wholeness, our integrity, depends on the health of our friendship with God,” Chaput stresses, and “things work as they should when they’re conformed to the designs of God.” Among those divine designs are the moral norms that guide upright choices and commitments. We would do well to remember that with rights come duties, and that our choices affect not only ourselves but also our neighbors.
Chaput’s hopefulness is built on the conviction that we can transform the culture by first reforming ourselves. “We can’t simply blame ‘the culture’” for our woes. “We are the culture.” Chaput echoes Chesterton: “The real problem with the world is us.”
Believers don’t have the luxury of despair. We have many good reasons, even “every reason,” to hope. Hope is not optimism: it suffers from no illusions that the world’s affairs will naturally work out for the best. It takes root in a divine act and promise far less fleeting, more enduring. Christian hope blocks the despair that manifests itself in ennui and in a failure to confront and combat the evils we find in ourselves and our communities. Hope also blocks contentment with oneself as one is, for Christians must avoid presumption. Like Abraham, we need always to remember our dependence on God. If we forget that, we think of ourselves as self-sufficient. And then we forget the needs of the least of these, as the rich man did who ignored Lazarus all his life and then died and ended up in Hades. Like him, Chaput says,
If we don’t love the poor, we will go to hell. If we let our possessions blind us to our dependence on God, we will go to hell. If we let food and clothes and all other distractions of modern life keep us from seeing the needs of our neighbors, we will go to hell.
One is not accustomed to seeing such assertions coming from the pen of an American Catholic archbishop. Heaven is not a foregone conclusion, Chaput reminds us. We need to bear fruit or we will be cut down. This is one very good reason not to despair of bearing good fruit in the world. When we stand before our judge, “we’ll each be called to account for our stewardship” of the gifts God has entrusted to us for the Kingdom’s sake.
Between Despair and Presumption
So how does Christian hope steer a middle path between despair and presumption? Chaput advises us to take note of how the ancient Christians lived. They didn’t retire from or abandon the world; instead, they baptized the world with a new spirit and a new way of living. The important thing for these Christians was not to cultivate a “unique culture” parallel to mainstream culture, but to Christianize elements of wider society. Since God calls us to be “the soul of the world,” we must love the world “and remain in it, as [Jesus] did, to work for its salvation.” “We can’t simply withdraw from public affairs,” Chaput insists. Saint Benedict retreated to the Italian countryside, but Augustine was a bishop tied to his people and society, and it is Augustine to whom Chaput steadily turns in the book’s final chapters.
So, “Christians shouldn’t worry. We should be happy.” We are called to endure this vale of tears with courage and integrity, confident that our Lord has already conquered evil and will do so definitively on the last day, understanding our work in the Lord’s vineyard as cooperation with the divine transfiguration of this broken world. This is not easy. “We’ve forgotten that Jesus promised that if we’re faithful to him, even in a kind and loving way, other people will hate us.” But while the cost of faithful discipleship is high, its rewards are great beyond telling. We labor on because charity and its fruits will endure into the next life, and no good fruits borne by our carrying out of God’s plan will be lost.
As “resident aliens,” strangers in a strange land, our home is not here. But the road to the City of God leads through the City of Man. And what we do here makes all the difference, for the world and for ourselves. “What the world needs from believers is a witness of love and truth, not approval,” counsels Chaput. “We prove what we really believe by our willingness, or our refusal, to act on what we claim to believe.” Strangers in a Strange Land gives American Catholics—and all Christians—many good reasons to act on the hope we have been given.