Battle of the Milvian Bridge, by Giulio Romano, 1520-24
Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
by Steven D. Smith
Eerdmans, 2018, 384 pages
On October 28, 312 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The day would be remembered for more than just its military significance. Constantine credited his success to a strange God whose miraculous Chi-Rho symbol had been delivered to him in a vision. From that point on, Constantine refused to worship any other deity.
This is a famous story. Less familiar to many is the aftermath. Though Constantine’s conversion was surely a turning point for persecuted Christians, pagan religion remained very much alive in the subsequent decades. In Rome itself, pagans and Christians vied for dominance, sparring over symbols, laws, and social status. Even after Christianity claimed a decisive upper hand, pagan spirituality remained a real force in the West, albeit in subtler and more covert forms.
Sixteen centuries later, the pagans may be staging a counter-revolution. This, at least, is the thesis of Steven D. Smith’s newest book, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac.
Under a Secular Flag
Before saying more about this book, I should acknowledge myself to be a somewhat biased critic. Smith is my father, so he naturally represents an important influence for me personally. (I’m also rather fond of him.) Readers could certainly be forgiven for mistrusting a daughter’s assessment of a book’s general caliber. Still, I do hope to offer more here than just an exercise in filial piety.
To my eyes, Pagans and Christians is fascinating for the way that it extends some of my father’s familiar themes, while also moving beyond them to offer a provocative new thesis. Throughout his scholarly career, Smith has called attention to the deficiencies of secular discourse, while also arguing that the American Constitution (for good and intentional reasons) declines to offer substantive premises for moral reasoning, the sort that are ultimately needed to ground a full-blooded vision of the common good. In this book, he turns to a further question. Why are progressives so intent on winning control of the public square?
This question has become ever more pressing in recent years, as America’s culture wars have intensified. At first glance, it is hard to understand why progressives should be so threatened by a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman(who declined to supply services for same-sex weddings), or by an American company that offers only sixteen different forms of contraceptives to women through its health plan. No sober-minded person could seriously be concerned that these few, scattered traditionalists are preventing liberals from living as they choose. The real issue, therefore, must be ideological and symbolic. But under what flag are progressives fighting? If secularism is as bloodless and unsatisfying as Smith himself has typically argued, it is hard to explain why the foot soldiers of the activist left would display such zeal.
In naming them “pagans,” Smith probably won’t endear himself to many progressive liberals. Only a very few would identify themselves with ancient paganism, and modern readers may associate the term with superstitious practices and antiquated rituals. However, the classification is not intended as a smear. Smith goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of an “immanent” spirituality, which embraces this-worldly goods with zest, accepting their fleeting nature with stoic courage. It makes sense that the heirs of secular humanism and scientific rationalism would return to these ancient sources of meaning, as part of an effort to re-sacralize the world. If that is what is happening in the West today, it would help to explain why modern progressives have so much hostility toward Judeo-Christian religion.
Tolerance and Tradition
Were the ancient Romans a tolerant people? The answer may depend on whom you ask. Some historians, such as the great Edward Gibbon, viewed Rome (particularly under the Antonine dynasty) as a kind of superlative exemplar of human civilization, benevolently blending an array of ancient traditions into one thriving whole. The early Christian martyrs would likely take a different view. Roman cosmopolitanism had its limits.
What made the Christians so different? As a rule, they were peaceful and law-abiding, prepared to submit to the political authority of non-Christian rulers. That compliance ended, however, when it came to the worship of pagan deities. Where pagans tended to be flexible about incorporating newly encountered gods and mythologies into one pantheistic picture, the Christians were doggedly unyielding when it came to theology and morals. They insisted on the exclusive divine sovereignty of their own “jealous” God, and on the rightness of idiosyncratic moral practices that seemed bizarrely fastidious to the more libertine Romans. In a very real sense, the Christians were radicals, though their dissent was not political but rather moral and metaphysical.
The pagan response to this was not consistent. Some Christian communities were tolerated for considerable periods. Others, however, were given a choice: participate in the civic life of the pagan community or die.
Some early Christians, such as Tertullian, protested that these extremities were entirely unnecessary. As a peaceful and public-spirited faith, Christianity represented no threat to pagan Rome. Arguably, history has proven him wrong in this assessment. The Christians never staged a coup, but the Chi-Rho did eventually triumph, and pagans were the ones watching as their gods were torn down and their temples shuttered. Metaphysical radicals can be destabilizing to cultural norms, even if they do not harbor seditious political ambitions. This may be especially problematic for pagan spirituality, which is often communal, performative, and focused on this-worldly goods and pleasures. If the here-and-now is not what it should be, pagans cannot necessarily console themselves with the reflection that they will ultimately be rewarded for keeping the faith.
Flashing ahead several centuries, consider contemporary progressives and their reactions to Judeo-Christian faith. Overwhelmingly, progressives regard themselves as a tolerant group of people. Yet it often seems reasonable to them to take drastic steps to curb “microaggressions” or combat the “dignitary harm” that religious traditionalists ostensibly do to others by retaining longstanding moral views. Increasingly, progressives want public spaces to be “safe spaces” where they do not have to encounter upsetting ideas (which often just means Judeo-Christian ideas). Also, like ancient pagans, they are enormously concerned about sex. Religious traditionalists are frequently charged with being “on the wrong side of history” simply for maintaining Judeo-Christian sexual mores.
Traditionalists often observe, reasonably enough, that this is a very intolerant-seeming brand of tolerance. Looking through the lens of the ancient conflict between “immanent” (pagan) and “transcendent” (Christian) spirituality, we can add some nuance to that complaint. Progressives do embrace a kind of cosmopolitan ideal, within certain boundaries. They are prepared to sanction a fairly wide range of beliefs, preferences, and lifestyle choices, just as long as certain “sacred” lines are not crossed. They can have genuine curiosity about global cultures, cuisines, and customs, and are sometimes very interested in history, high culture, or the arts. That broad-mindedness, though, finds its limit when it encounters its ancient Christian rival. Orthodox Christianity is seen as authoritarian, inflexible, and joyless. Progressive cosmopolitanism, like its Roman forebear, has its limits. Transcendent religion is deeply in tension with the social vision of our progressive neo-pagans. That is why, in the eyes of many, Christians must be converted, or else marginalized to the point where they can pose no real threat.
Reading the Tea Leaves
Invoking ancient paganism may not seem like a promising way to start an interfaith dialogue. In reality, Smith’s analysis is fairly generous to progressive liberals, at least by comparison with other theories that have recently been put forward by Christian social critics. Where some traditionalists have viewed progressive social crusades mainly as a product of irrational moral panic, Smith is more prepared to see the struggle over public symbols as understandable and genuinely consequential.
In the transitional pagan-to-Christian period, ancient Romans engaged in similar debates. They fought about statues and imagery, the proper use of public funds, and appropriate religious requirements for teachers and public servants. In a culture war, these are often the debates on which longer-term outcomes depend. Orthodox Christians (like modern-day Tertullians) may feel that they are too down-and-out to represent a real threat to the progressive left, but history suggests that their cultural and spiritual reserves are considerable. The battle between “immanent” and “transcendent” true believers has already taken a number of surprising turns, so it’s hard to blame progressives for continuing to feel threatened.
Smith is also more generous than many in allowing that progressive combatants may have some real goods in view. Paganism, after all, has brought real meaning to the lives of many people across history. It is not obvious that a post-Christian society would have to be brutal and devoid of beauty or joy. Though Smith is an established partisan of Team Transcendence, he is more willing than many of his contemporaries (such as R. R. Reno, Anthony Esolen, or Patrick Deneen) to consider that the rival team may have at least some genuinely attractive ends in view in its quest to establish a new, neo-pagan society.
Having said that, Smith remains skeptical about whether “the imminent immanent city” can truly be brought to life. In his final chapter, he doubts whether neo-pagans are truly equipped to vanquish their long-entrenched Judeo-Christian opponents. Until very recently, they seem to have been naïvely optimistic about the difficulties involved. It is comparatively easy, in a materially comfortable society, to win over the lukewarm middle, and progressives were understandably excited by the stunning progress they made over the last two generations in shifting social norms. But true believers are more resistant, and we still have a sizable number of those in the transcendent camp. Do today’s neo-pagans really have the stomach or broad-based popular support that they would ultimately need to win this culture war?
Beyond that, it may turn out that the pagan analogy is a bit too generous, at least in what it implies about the depth or substance of neo-pagan commitments. Over the long run, people tend to demand a faith that can infuse their lives with real meaning. Can they truly find that in the quasi-religious musings of a Ronald Dworkin or a Barbara Ehrenreich? Spiritual-but-not-religious mores can have a ready-made appeal for modern people, precisely because they do not demand very much of their “adherents.” Yet that appeal comes at a cost: undemanding belief systems tend not to offer much guidance when discernment is truly needed.
This brings us to another fascinating question. Are neo-pagans actually ready to shed their own post-Christian commitments, to the extent that would likely be necessary for the realization of a new “immanent city”? As Friedrich Nietzsche explained (to his great regret), Christianity has changed man’s relationship with the world in ways that cannot entirely be undone. That is not in itself a rebuttal of Smith’s thesis, because it may well be possible for neo-pagans to develop a modified strain of immanent spirituality, translating certain Judeo-Christian ideas into a form that can coexist more comfortably with their other commitments. Christianity, over the first several centuries of its history, went through a process of this kind, baptizing some elements of its pagan heritage and banishing others. That was rather a magnificent achievement, though. How likely is it that modern-day progressives can respond in kind? It would be interesting to put Smith in dialogue with a thinker like Joseph Bottum, who has written at length on the impact of Christian spirituality on today’s post-Christian progressives.
One way or another, our present culture wars will continue into the foreseeable future. For traditionalists, this might actually be good news; their struggle is by no means lost, and they have already managed to triumph from what appeared to be a position of much greater weakness. It may also be possible for modern-day combatants to learn from history, negotiating a more peaceable détente than the Romans managed to find.
Whatever the long-term outlook, it is generally prudent to strategize with the benefit of far-seeing historical perspective. For that purpose, Pagans and Christians is well worth the read.
Rachel Lu is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in The Week, America Magazine, National Review, The American Conservative, and other publications. She has a PhD in philosophy from Cornell University, and is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. This book review has been republished with permission from Public Discourse.