Book Review: ‘Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac’ by Steven D. Smith

Review by Peter Leithart

In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), T. S. Eliot saw a conflict between Christianity and paganism shaping the 20th century. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City applies Eliot’s map to today’s culture wars, especially in the United States.

It’s common to portray the culture war as a battle between people who favor a public role for religion and people who want to keep religion locked securely in the private realm. Smith argues, however, that our frameworks and language obscure a deeper reality: The real fight isn’t between religion and secularism, but between two kinds of religion. His book makes the case that today’s culture war shares much in common with the culture war that rocked ancient Rome.

The Romans were pragmatic and worldly, yet they believed their greatest strength was devotion to the empire’s gods. This was evident in public rituals, architecture, the role of divination, and the military. Rome, in short, was a “city of the gods.”

The paganism of Rome treated the world itself as sacred. But Christianity introduced a radically different perspective. Christians—while affirming the world’s goodness—located the sacred in another world altogether. In other words, paganism was an immanent form of religiosity, while Christianity embraced the transcendent.

Take, for instance, their competing approaches toward sexuality. For the Romans, sex provided pleasure and progeny, but they also viewed it as a divine imperative that shared in the energy of the universe. (Some pagan religious festivals included sex shows.) Christians did not claim that sex and reproduction were wrong, though Augustine and others insisted that sexual desire in its earthly form was deeply disordered. Yet having pledged their loyalty to a different world, they thought it idolatrous to make earthly sexual fulfillment the highest good; even reproduction and family weren’t ultimate goods. Christianity demanded a degree of sexual control and renunciation that was nonsensical to many pagans.

The Romans were, in some ways, tolerant of this new transcendent religion. But over time they came to regard Christianity as incompatible with Roman values. Christians refused to pledge allegiance to the emperor. By rejecting Roman religion, Smith writes, Christians “actively and affirmatively subverted” the foundations of Roman order, the “social contract” between the empire’s gods and its people. Christians “defied and insulted the gods,” a desecration Rome could not tolerate. Christian morality, especially its sexual morality, was resented for interfering with Roman liberties.

Rome did make Christians a counter-offer: If they would be reasonable and keep their faith a private affair, they could live in peace. Christians rejected the bargain, and Roman tolerance evaporated into sporadic but bloody persecution. Christianity exposed the fact that the Romans were tolerant in theory but not in principle.

A Pagan Public Square

Smith doesn’t attempt to adjudicate historical debates about the causes of Christianity’s eventual triumph. He’s more interested in the kind of triumph Christianity achieved, and the degree to which it extinguished paganism. Christianity won in that it eventually shaped the symbols and norms that defined public life. Yet paganism persisted in art, in periodic renaissance movements, and in nostalgia for the shimmering glow of the ancient gods or resentment against Christianity’s suppression of pagan exuberance.

Modern secularism understands itself as an immanent movement that relegates religion to a purely private role. Political secularism attempts the virtually unprecedented experiment of establishing political order without reference to God or, in theory, any form of sacred. Philosophical secularism claims that rational scientific explanations of the world have made religion obsolete. If Max Weber is to be believed, we inhabit a disenchanted world.

But Smith isn’t buying it. Somewhat like Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, he sees pagan forms of religiosity popping up in surprising places. The late legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, for instance, endorsed a pantheistic “religion without God,” and writers like Sam Harris and Barbara Ehrenreich advocate modes of re-enchantment.

In two chapters about “counterrevolution,” Smith examines the internal tensions of contemporary American law, sexuality, and religious freedom. Why, for instance, are Christian symbols purged from public spaces while “sacred” national symbols (like the flag) are permitted? Why can we only tolerate public religious expressions that have lost their religious significance (in the view of what former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called a “reasonable observer”)? Once they’ve won their civil rights, why can’t LGBT activists permit Christians their religious freedom?

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Source: Christianity Today