I’d turn Catholic for RR (Rusty) Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, I really would. In his latest book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, he pinpoints what is really at stake in the elite liberal culture’s agenda when pushing social change.
And it’s a timely book for today, as our country faces the churn of an increasingly bitter debate over same sex marriage.
Today, as the Australian Labor Party signs the death warrant for a SSM plebicite, we need to realise that what is at stake is a far bigger game than “merely” SSM, or the redefinition of the family, or the requirement of religious organisations to sign off on anti-discrimination legislation or face financial cuts. No, those are merely distractions to the main game.
And what is the main game? The growing desire among the late modern liberal political class to dismantle or co-opt the mediating institutions of our culture that stand between the government and the people. The insatiable appetite of progressive governments to deconstruct the barricades that keep its citizens safe from its zealotry.
Simply put, the liberal elites despises the independence of mediating institutions because they cannot control them. What do I mean by “mediating institutions”? Well, as Reno states, it’s often the religious institutions, but also includes other organisations such as unions, Rotary Clubs, neighbourhood associations etc.
The modern welfare state, absorbing one social function after another, has become a grave threat to mediating institutions. It tends to crowd out or co-opt them. Federal education grants are increasingly conditioned on compliance with any number of social policies.
Whilst Reno is speaking into the US model, that’s exactly the scenario in Australia at the moment. And mediating institutions that won’t play ball with the liberal elite agenda must take their punishment.
Why else would Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten state that there can be no exemptions for religious organisations if SSM gets up? That’s a complete about-face by him, and a harbinger of further restrictions down the line.
Why else would the Victorian state Government, led by the most socially progressive leader it’s ever had in Daniel Andrews, be pushing hard for sign off on anti-discrimination legislation by Christian schools, announcing that unless a specific teaching role requires a Christian input it should be open to all employees? It’s a classic case of government overreach, fueled by a hostility towards mediating institutions.
Why this hostility? Why can Premier Daniel Andrews not live and let live? Why does he feel the need to impose from above?
Reno gives the answer:
Mediating institutions are themselves “political” in the broad sense of being self-governing, civic organisations and they can have more influence on our daily lives than what’s happening at the state capital or in Washington.
Or Canberra for that matter. In other words there’s a layer of organic politics between us and the behemoth of political power and its desire to control every aspect of our lives. And elite progressives in government in particular, just don’t like that.
Think of these mediating institutions as the atmosphere, precariously and fragilely wrapped around the blue planet of our lives. This atmosphere is protecting us from the sheer naked brutality of the dark, cold space of the political machine that would suck the life out of us.
That’s why the Chinese government, for example, is so insistent on shutting down and harassing the local, autonomous house churches that litter that country. What harm are they doing? Aren’t Christians honest workers, less likely to be out late drinking?
Sure they are, but that good is outweighed by the bad. And what is the bad? The fact that these mediating institutions operate under a different politic – one that refuses to recognise the government as the supreme power over their lives, and in the case of religious institutions, the Supreme Power over their lives. And for Christians in particular, that means the politics of Jesus, the one who was crushed under the wheels of despotic government in his day.
Elected and unelected ideologues alike, hate it when pesky things such as these mediating institutions get in the way. It is only those in government who have a self-critical suspicion of big government who have any regard for mediating institutions.
That’s why federal government MP, Tim Wilson, a gay man who is a strong advocate of SSM, has worked hard to promote the freedoms of those institutions that oppose his viewpoint. As a classic liberal – rather than a progressive – he doesn’t see those opposed to SSM as his enemies. No, he sees them as belonging to mediating institutions that have an alternate politic that protects their people – and the consciences of their people – from the tyranny of government absolutism. That’s the stuff of a healthy society right there.
Reno’s words need to be heard. He worries that as social capital disappears in swathes of the US (and in parts of Australia too), we are losing more than just the local P&C, or the local Rotary Club; we are losing the oxygen required to sustain a healthy social ecosystem. He states:
As mediating institutions weaken and disappear, we become more docile to the ministrations of our betters. The Bill of Rights still protects us. the constitutional separation of powers remains. But as our capacity for self-governance declines, we lose our sense of what it means to be free.
Reno’s argument hinges around the renewal and strengthening of two mediating institutions that limit government power – those of marriage and religion. He argues that “properly” understood, these two can keep government in its place, marriage acting from below, and religion from above.
I’ll tease out what he means by this in a later post, but you can see how, if big government can kill – or at least maim – two birds with one stone – the pre-political institution of marriage, and the counter-politics of the religious institution -, it will be well on its way to absolutism over those it governs.
It’s a worrying time.