Father John Kiley’s “Quiet Corner” column in the June 25 issue of Rhode Island Catholic helped me bring together a few thoughts that have been drifting in and out of my mind lately.
As somebody who works to develop and research public policy for a living — proposals like eliminating the sales tax and implementing school choice programs that bring private school within reach for all families — I’ve found my observations of the younger generation, the “Millennials,” discouraging.
On one hand, they seem to have replaced a full sense of pluralistic freedom with intolerance for views that differ substantively with their own. They insist on redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, for example, but think that business owners who do not wish to provide services for such ceremonies should have no choice — not just in their own communities, but anywhere across the country.
On the other hand, they find justification for this dogmatism in the narrative that they are at war with powerful, oppressive forces. As Father Kiley suggests, they have been enculturated with “an anti-establishment mood.” It’s what they were taught, and it’s been reinforced in countless television shows and movies.
These two hands fold together neatly. Without a full sense of history and the value of intellectual diversity, “the oppressor” is just a character in the latest HBO series. He is defined not by his actions — by actually oppressing people — but by certain political views that he might hold.
Somehow, when the government forces a photographer to participate in a particular event or a religious employer to fund abortion, that is part of the righteous battle against “the establishment.” But when a bishop tells people who voluntarily adhere to his religion what it requires of them, that’s an act of oppression.
Surely this self-contradiction is so clear that it shows through, even with all of the smoke of modern society filling the chamber. The truth may only be an indistinct light, but it can be made clear with confidence and love.
Truth be told, we’d do better to see this “anti-establishment mood” as a faint shadow of our faith in the superficial imitation of a secular religion. Christianity is fundamentally “anti-establishment.” Who in all of history has stood in greater contrast to purely human establishments than our Lord?
“Whoever finds his life,” Jesus said, “will lose it” (Matthew 10:39). He gives the examples of a builder determining whether he has the resources to complete a tower and a king assessing his chances in a battle before it begins, suing for peace if they are slim. “In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all of his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). That which we have established is but so much sand, and it is to be destroyed, if it points us away from Truth.
The Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, strives to imbue itself with that authentic Word, and it appears that its role, right now, must be loving and confident contradiction of the modern establishment. The most stunning developments, in recent cultural battles, have come with the uniform mission of the powerful forces: All three branches of government, the news media, Hollywood and multinational corporations have aligned themselves to establish America in their privileged image.
In the wake of recent developments, some have suggested that (small-o) orthodox Christians should turn inward and fortify the walls of their community, so to speak, to wait out the coming assault. That’s half right.
We do need to turn to our religious community for fortification, but only so that we can better project our voices outward. Our publications and media, like the Rhode Island Catholic, have to become more like alternatives, rather than complements, to the larger news establishment. And our organizational church should begin brushing off the sense that it must play by human rules; we must take some risks, even if secular powers scream about preachers’ playing politics.
For two millennia, our Church has heard what Christ whispered and proclaimed it on the housetops (Matthew 10:27). That’s what it will take if we are going to make Millennials hear.
Justin Katz is the research director of the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity and managing editor of OceanStateCurrent.com.