Serious consequences have arisen from the lapse of the right’s elite commentariat into inarticulateness on the topic of religious authority. David Brooks — like Frum, another careful thinker and charter member of the target market for “Coming Apart” — uses Murray’s diagnosis to write the polar opposite of prescriptions. “I doubt Murray would agree,” Brooks sighs, “but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.” Only government can “jam the tribes together,” and without that reunion, all is lost.
Alas, the verdict of history is that in a free society nothing unifies the decadent, the degenerate, and the dogged in a way that redeems the whole except religion — and a specific sort of religion at that. The positive, ecumenical religion of loving and serving all does not cut it. At the level of a culture or a civilization, unity is found together with freedom only where vast majorities in every class feel the inescapable weight of a divine burden — a commandment to be bound intimately to the destinies of those who would otherwise be strangers, on pain of eternal damnation.
The harsh truth is that when elites no longer believe this, they lose the authority to enforce it, and when the enforcement is gone, the unity — and the uncomfortable work it requires — melts away. (This is true at the largest of scales and the smallest. We really must dispense, for instance, with the indulgent fiction that romantic love is adequate to keep a marriage and a family together.)
That’s why libertarians are on such solid ground when they reject both the unity forged by the state and the unity forged by a pious officer class. They recognize that there’s something distinctly un-American in both. Unfortunately, their taste for abstract principles sometimes distracts them from grasping that these unities are un-American because they are foreign to our identity as it developed through history. We just don’t have an officer class of the sort that Europe lost. And we just aren’t able to love the state as the consummation of the nation in the way that people in the Old World can.
As the reactionary sociologist Philip Rieff has put it, America confronts two key cultural facts. On the one hand, “the rot starts at the top, always.” But on the other, America has never had a true cultural officer class and, unless something cataclysmic happens, we never will. Our “natural aristocracy” is a fickle and fluid slave to fortune. It can’t save the working class or any other — because, in America, it’s never a class that needs saving.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.