Had Charles J. Chaput been raised Baptist or Methodist in his native Kansas, he might today be a circuit-riding, finger-wagging stump preacher, calling folks to repent their evil ways and “come to Jesus.”
But this fierce evangelist was raised Roman Catholic. He would become a priest, then a bishop, and today, at 72, is archbishop of Philadelphia.
America of the 1950s, where families prayed together and stayed together, is rapidly disappearing, Chaput laments in his latest book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, being published Tuesday.
Underscoring its Catholic identity, the book’s front cover is of amaranth purple, the clerical color worn by bishops.
Despite the cover’s warmth, the tone of Strangers is anything but serene.
Across the land, Chaput, who declined a request for a sit-down interview, sees “an unraveling of bonds, an aging of the spirit, a fatigue with the world,” and “a loss of purpose and hope.”
Our nation might wear “In God We Trust” on its currency, but its soul has been hijacked, in Chaput’s view, by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview with little place for Jesus, religious worship, or traditional morality.
“How many public figures, or even personal friends, do you know who genuinely place God first in their thinking?” he asks.
To a degree unimaginable just decades ago, the archbishop laments, the nation has embraced divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, invasive government, casual sex -- and gay marriage, which he views as the inevitable outcome of an unrelenting liberal agenda of personal freedom masquerading as civil rights.
And it's not stopping there, he adds.
The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision of 2015, that required states to allow same-sex marriage, was “a collapse of sane reasoning,” writes Chaput, yet it seems only to have whetted the “mainstream” media’s appetite for even more destabilizing folly.
What he calls the “sexualized” and “angry” media (that would be us) are now bombarding a laughably pliant public (that would be you) with a view of gender fluidity and transgender rights he calls “lavish and lopsidedly positive.”
In short, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The United States is sliding into a dystopian Oz where the Wicked Witch and her ilk are in charge, Chaput contends, and he is not speaking in metaphor.
“Satan is a real personal being, a supremely intelligent spirit, a rebel against God and an enemy of everything human,” he writes. To smirking liberals who would dismiss his words as the ranting of an embittered arch-conservative, Chaput notes that the smiling and inclusive Pope Francis likewise regards the devil as ontologically real, and dangerous.
Democracy is the devil’s playground, in Chaput’s view. “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths,” he writes, in part because it is so vulnerable to “mass media emotional conditioning.”
Across his book’s 270 pages, he presents an erudite and overwhelmingly male chorus of scholarly thinkers that includes St. Augustine, George Orwell, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel, Alexis de Tocqueville, philosopher David Hume, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, social activist Dorothy Day, Plato, Jesus, popes, and more than 100 others. (Apart from some journalists, only two primary authors cited in the 341 footnotes appear to be women.)
Most of the writers are brought forward to speak for Chaput or add weight to his argument.
Ethicist Leon Kass tells us, for example, that “we are in turbulent seas without a landmark” because of our “infatuation with scientific progress.” Lutheran theologian Daniel M. Bell Jr. asserts that a “commodified” economic system has led Americans to view marriage as “short-term contracts subject to a cost/benefit analysis” in which “children become consumer goods or accessories.”
Readers whose own circle of acquaintances do not seem populated by children being raised as accessories, or by married couples who view one another as commodities, might wonder in what social orbit Chaput travels to know the America he writes of.
They will find no clue in the pages of Strangers in a Strange Land. In its pages there is never the voice of the widow raising children alone in the suburbs, no voice of a Center City gay man accepting his sexuality, no immigrant family in Port Richmond frantic with fear of deportation, no pastor or nun who has created a popular youth outreach program, no pregnant teenager anguishing over abortion.
Only the disembodied voices of fellow writers make their way into Chaput’s jeremiad. The ordinary people of America seem an anonymous crowd viewed through a telescope, and are found wanting.
“American life is a … teeming mass of consumer appetites,” the archbishop wants us to know.
But there is a way out, he writes in the latter part of Strangers, and that is for Christians, and especially Catholics, to rededicate themselves to their faith, to traditional notions of morality, and be the “leaven in the bread” of a benighted culture.
The Catholic must “never tire of engaging [people], of persuading them, of pointing out in their lives the signals of the transcendent glory for which they were created,” Chaput admonishes, quoting from the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert to Catholicism.
He urges his readers to live out their baptisms as “the people of God” they were made to be, and devotes several pages to explaining how Jesus' Beatitudes can serve as a guide for living in his light. He quotes Francis, who once urged a gathering of priests to ask themselves “if you have a heart that wants great things, or a heart that is asleep.”
Chaput devotes the penultimate chapter of Strangers to a little known letter of the Early Christian period written to a young man, Diognetus, struggling to understand how to be Christian in a pagan world.
“Pack away all the old ways of looking at things that keep deceiving you,” the author instructs Diognetus.
Chaput reaffirms this theme. “Each of our lives matters,” he tells readers, even if that means living “as a conscious minority in a nation whose beliefs, culture and politics are no longer our own.”
To do this requires “building real Christian friendships,” having many children, and “cultivating oases of silence and prayer in our lives.”
“Each of our lives lifts up or drags down the soul of the world,” Chaput writes at the very end. ”What we do here makes all the difference.”