In his recently released book, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age, Monsignor James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary in North Dakota, argues that it’s incumbent upon Christians to engage with the wider culture differently than they once had because Christendom—“economic, political, and social life as inspired by Christian principles”—is at an end. Christians, Shea argues, can no longer count on the help of a culture that has been broadly shaped by their worldview to buoy their goals along to fruition.
Rather, just as the Christians of the Apostolic Age converted Imperial Rome to Christ, so too must contemporary Christians toil hard to (re-)convert their nations to Christ. For Shea, the work of the Christian within Christendom amounts to maintenance via small course corrections, like when one is paddling a canoe downstream to a destination: to get there, a paddle stroke here and there will suffice. But in an Apostolic Age, the Christian’s work is akin to trying to get somewhere in a canoe upstream: It requires constant, strong exertion.
It is within this meta-context—i.e., the realization of Christendom’s demise and our collective grappling with what that means for how Christians should practice politics—that Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family and Human Rights, has given us Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic. The title says it all: We face enormous challenges, but God Himself has “sent us right here and right now,” and Ruse implores us not to “miss this moment,” our “mission”—which is “yours alone.”
Under Siege progresses like an ascent from a deep cave: We begin in the deepest, darkest part and gradually ascend, at which point we’re able to see that there might be hope for our country, after all. The book is mostly diagnostic, though near the end, Ruse makes an effort to offer some tactical steps we might take to fight to reclaim our culture. But, to the book’s detriment and ours, Under Seige fails to offer any kind of grand strategy plotting the way ahead. Perhaps because there isn’t one.
In chapter one, Ruse names the evils we face—abortion, adult and child photography, anti-religious hostility, and transgenderism—and he urges us, even though it’s difficult, really to see what is around us: “One of the themes of this book is that we must look.”
In this, Ruse is quite Lincolnian. Abraham Lincoln, when he was running in Illinois for a U.S. Senate seat, gave his famous “House Divided” speech, in which he said, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” We should take these words to heart and truly look, with eyes wide open, at just how deep the rot goes; if we don’t, we’ll never restore the nation. Too few on the Right truly care or want to know who our friends and enemies are, what is working and what isn’t, and what we should be about.
But to do anything less is to fail to take seriously this critical moment in our nation’s history.
The New State Religion
Ruse makes a strong case that “[w]e are facing a new religious orthodoxy, one imposed by the government.” It is virtually impossible to doubt this: Our culture is awash in pornography, we kill millions of our children each year with millions of abortions, and we are forced under pain of destitution to say that boys are girls and vice versa—all of which the government supports, more or less explicitly, as the case may be. On the substance of these issues, such as they are, Ruse is thankfully not graphic, but he does not shy away from the horror.
In chapter two, Ruse explains how we got here: state-imposed orthodoxy of secular progressivism. As with so many things, the Supreme Court of the United States is at the crux of the problem. As Ruse notes, “It should be obvious . . . that the school prayer [Engel v. Vitale] and Bible-reading [Abington School District v. Schempp] decisions of 1962 and 1963 were about more than religion in public schools. They were about the Supreme Court’s choosing a side, a side against Christianity.”
Ruse conceives of the conflict as an open contest between “providentialism” and “secularism”—on matters such as God’s existence and activity in history and the role of religion in public life, “what one constituency views as imperative, the other views as forbidden.” Ruse makes clear that we have lost a winnable fight; that there was nothing preordained about the state of affairs we’re in.
The Church of the State began its assault on Christian America, which had stood tall since the founding, in Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing (1947). Everson upheld funding for sectarian schools but explicitly excluded “religion” from the public square, and it elevated Jefferson’s rhetorical “wall of separation,” which he had briefly mentioned in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, into a legal doctrine. (Professor Phillip Muñoz superbly debunks the notion that this “wall” is part of the original Constitution, but, even so, as Ruse mentions was the case with his own wife, many of us have imbibed the notion that prayer-less schools are just “what the Constitution demands.”)
After the religion-in-schools decisions, we got Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) (holding that a “right to privacy” could be inferred from the Constitution’s “penumbras” which prevents states from making the use of contraceptives by married illegal), Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) (same, but for unmarried couples), Roe v. Wade (1973) (holding that the 14th Amendment’s “right to privacy” protects a woman’s right to an abortion according to a trimester framework), Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) (upholduing Roe but establishing the “undue burden” test for abortion regulations), Lawrence v. Texas (2003) (striking down a Texas law under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause that made it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) (holding that the 14th Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriages), and Bostock v. Clayton County (2019) (holding that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits against employment discrimination “because of . . . sex” encompass discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity).
Ruse reminds us that
there was no groundswell of public opinion for any of these decisions. . . . [T]hese cases did not come from the ground up. They came from the top down. Just as there had been no public call to eliminate school prayer, there was no call to strike down laws on contraception, to make abortion a constitutional right, and certainly not call to constitutionalize sodomy, and or [sic] to invent sodomitical marriage. These were decisions that found their warrant only in the elite opinions of lawyers, corporate chiefs, news professionals, and the academy.
That observation has particular resonance for our current moment, one in which corporate, tech, and media elites have fomented a rolling revolution against America that broke out into the open with the “1619 Riots” of last summer. Time published a story in which these same people gloated about subverting the 2020 electoral process for the sole purpose of ousting Donald Trump. All of these radical changes are enforced, as Ruse explains early in the book, through political correctness, social isolation, and “cancel culture,” in service of the Church of the State’s “culture [which] is a reflection of its’ ‘cult,’ that is, the core religious idea that animates it.”
Where Ruse shines is with his analysis of how sexual issues are a clear indicator of the spiritual, Christianity-versus-paganism dimension of this conflict, and, later, he vigorously skewers the “wellness” religion that has taken elites by storm, the existence of which serves to demonstrate that ours is not a secular age but, rather, an intensely religious one in which the gods Christianity had thought were dead are now returning.
Even so, the new orthodoxy is full of tension. Wellness must give way to sex. At one point, Ruse notes that New York City did everything in its power to ensure that even during a “global pandemic” random strangers could still hook up with one another. (Oregon was particularly explicit.) The new orthodoxy is contradictory, too. As Ruse acidly observes:
Sex fiends are always au courant. Of course they have a Black Lives Matter initiative that seeks to “de-fetishize” skin color. It is a complicated sexual world. If you reject someone who is black, you are a racist. If you prefer someone who is black, you have fetishized them. They will need their own St. Thomas Aquinas to parse these difficulties.
I would have liked to have seen more analysis of education. Ruse spends only a couple of pages on the effect that the rolling progressive revolution has had on education. That’s a shame, as the health of schools sits near the center of this mess—for it is in school that we are taught what is good and evil, just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable.
In the final chapter, Ruse tells us that God Himself has called each of us to this particular time to live out His commandments and defend His Church, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the very nature of the human person. To be successful, we must resist certain temptations to fear, nostalgia, golden-age thinking, integralism, and distraction. Each of these dispositions takes us out of the present moment—which, for all its challenges, at least is real—and places us in abstract fantasy worlds.
If we stay the course, Ruse tells us, future Christians will look upon us with awe, in the same way we look upon those who, centuries ago, were fed to lions or had to endure the Arian heresy. Here and now is the only place we can make a difference.
Thus, for Ruse, the way forward is to live out our faith with fidelity. Certainly, we should pray, go to Mass, frequent the sacraments, and draw strength in all this from the fact that saints have lived in our day, such as Pope Saint John Paul II. In a temporal sense, there are different ways to help. We can help silently, especially with our donations, those organizations that defend the unborn, fight pornography, help the family, and stand up for the West’s values. If you can, you should “fly the flag,” i.e., speak up about the issues of the day and refuse to use the Left’s duplicitous language to do it. But the most heroic thing to do would be to become fully involved and face the many slings and arrows that your opponents will send your way.
While he’s short on both tactical specifics and a grand strategy with which to win the war, it’s also true that, in some sense, Ruse suggests doing the only thing that we can do (and which I have recognized in a different context): Act to achieve our desired outcomes when and where we can, according to prudence. After that, it’s in God’s hands, and we must hope that God, seeing these efforts, will see fit to bless us with success.