Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World
by Charles J. Chaput.
Henry Holt and Company, 2017.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $26.

“If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” So goes a popular bumper sticker displayed by liberals in response to the politics of the last few decades. In recent months, this mantra can be said to have shifted and been hoisted pejoratively upon conservatives: “If you are not alarmed, you are not paying attention.” “Alarmism” has become the word of choice to criticize several recent books that chronicle the unraveling of an American nation that was once sincerely Christian in its culture and social mores, but is now no longer. A review in a prominent national newspaper labeled three such books fear-inducing polemics intended to rouse the choir while conveying “a refusal to hope.” One of these, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, is clearly sounding an alarm. But to claim that Chaput refuses to hope is not to have read his book.

In 2007, a Pew Research Forum survey announced that the number of Americans who called themselves Christians had fallen to 78 percent. In that same year, Archbishop Chaput published Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. This book was no alarmist jeremiad: it explained in simple terms the nature of the Catholic Church in particular and the principles of how church, morality, and state ought, and ought not, to interact. But within a period of eight short years, the American landscape had shifted dramatically: a new Pew survey declared that the number of Christians had fallen to 70 percent, while noting that the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation had risen to 22 percent, the highest percentage ever; this group of one-in-five Americans was quickly dubbed “The Nones.” Then, in 2015, the Supreme Court declared in Obergefell v. Hodges that, for the first time in human history, the law recognizes the marriages of two people of the same sex. Christians, watching as their numbers were shrinking and their millennia-old teachings were repudiated, had every right to be alarmed.

Chaput wrote Strangers in a Strange Land in response to the changing times, and, in particular, to the “watershed” case that is Obergefell. The crucial issue here, Chaput makes clear, is not only that the natural understanding of marriage and the family have been changed. More fundamentally, “marriage and family no longer precede and limit the state as humanity’s basic social units grounded in nature. Instead, they now mean what the state says they mean. And that suggests deeper problems, because in redefining marriage and the family, the state implicitly claims the authority to define what is and isn’t properly human.” Put differently, Pontius Pilate could have answered his own question for Jesus of Nazareth: “What is truth? Truth is whatever Caesar wants it to be.”

Chaput recognizes that “we live in a country very different from that of the past. The special voice that biblical belief once had in our public square is now absent.” Strangers addresses this new state of affairs in three parts: First, it briefly recalls America’s founding governmental and social principles, noting that in the nascent United States “religion and the Enlightenment intertwined.” Chaput insists, as he did in Render unto Caesar, that “[w]e can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it.” In the case of these United States, “there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.” At the same time, he realizes that “American culture has moved miles from the assumptions of the Founders” and that “America can’t be the way it once was.”

In a book that went to press just before November 2016, he also provides a warning to those on both the Right and the Left who think the most recent election ushered in dramatic change: “surface political changes can obscure deeper cultural contradictions.” Christians have become “strangers” in America not because of an election, but because the country has shifted away from Christian-centered living in fundamental institutions such as marriage, family life, schooling, government, and rule of law. For Chaput, “God has never been more cast out from the Western mind than He is today.”

Second, it surveys the current cultural landscape with an eye to how we have fallen into our current predicament. Some of these assessments are familiar: the rise of radical autonomy; the sexual revolution and the changes it brought to family life; the crisis of faith and the decline of institutional religions; the American obsession with progress and technology that has brought us to “worship ourselves and our tools” in service of power-hungry ambition. All of these societal changes are examined from a Christian prospective and they are considered for their impact on the country as a whole. His most unique and reflective analysis comes with his critique of our progress and technology-driven culture, which he traces to America’s religious roots that “have stamped America with an appetite for results and a distrust of contemplation.” His sober, easy-to-read analysis also includes several rhetorical flourishes: The Western idea of progress “is often a kind of Christian faith scrubbed of its supernatural content”; gender ideology is “the imperialism of bad science on steroids”; and for a society unmoored from nature, “the body is now little more than animated modeling clay.”

On several occasions, Chaput does not hesitate to blame Christian believers for the current state of affairs: “We can’t simply blame ‘the culture.’ We are the culture.” At the same time, he does not mince words when assessing “[t]he White House elected to power in November 2008,” which delivered “a brand of leadership that was narcissistic, aggressively secular, ideologically divisive, resistant to compromise, unwilling to accept responsibility for its failures, and generous in spreading blame.”

The third part of Strangers seeks to overcome any gloom that has arisen in the face of this cultural landscape. One overarching question drives this final section: “How can we live in joy, and serve the common good as leaven, in a culture that no longer shares what we believe?” In fact, Chaput asserts that “Christians shouldn’t worry. We should be happy.” Christians can be happy because of the virtue of hope. Hope is not optimism, which is guilty of the illusion “that, sooner or later, things will naturally turn out for the better.” Nor does hope yield to its two opposing extremes, despair or presumption. Rather, hope is a gift from God that “creates in us a desire for heaven and eternal life as our happiness. It’s an act of trust in God’s future” and it “rests on God’s strength and the truth about Jesus Christ.” Hope, therefore, invites us to look beyond our immediate circumstances toward the risen Christ coming on the horizon. Only then will we avoid becoming overwhelmed by the current cultural landscape.

Without naming it specifically, Chaput repeatedly insists that the popular caricature of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option”—the withdrawal from society by Christians so they may live according to their own beliefs and customs apart from secular pressures—is not an option for Christians in today’s society. Chaput instead wants Christians to imitate the earliest Christians, who “took elements from the surrounding society and ‘baptized’ them with a new spirit and a new way of living.” At the heart of Chaput’s practical advice for living as Christians in the new America is some old advice: Christians should be in the world, but not of the world. Programs, offices, projects, and new initiatives, Chaput states clearly, are not necessary for restoring the vitality of Christianity nor for bringing the Gospel to the world. The two things that are necessary follow from each other: resolute faith in the person of Jesus Christ and “a reform of our own hearts” that will help each believer “to be a saint.” For her part, the Catholic Church seeks only two things from the world: an openness to the possibility of redemption and the freedom to act unencumbered by regulations of the state.

Although clearly alarmed at the present state of America, Chaput is hope-filled for the prospect that “we can live as a conscious minority in a nation whose beliefs, culture, and politics are no longer our own, yet still nourish our identity, witness our faith with zeal, and add to the common good.” Fellow believers and alarmists would do well to read Strangers both to obtain a clear view of the challenges ahead and to be reassured that the battle is far from lost.  

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.