Review- Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City”

Steven Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac” (2018) – I read this one as part of a piece I’m writing prompted by another (better, shorter) book on millennial religious/spiritual practices. I’m going to be reading some speeches and writings by Senate creep Josh Hawley next for that project, so really treating myself here!

At first, I was excited for this book. Reviews and the author of the better millennial spirituality book made it sound intelligent. “Aha, perhaps here, we will get a contemporary intellectual conservative!” I was thinking. Still that Michael Mann impulse to find worthy opposition, a Neil in a world of Waingros… This Steve Smith guy is no Waingro, no reichsadler tattoo and (probably) no dead sex workers (one of the weaknesses in “Heat,” they just… threw that in and did nothing with it- I love “Heat,” but it has holes you can drive a truck through). He’s a Christian conservative law professor. Alas, he is no Neil. He’s… I dunno… one of the people ducking when the big gunfight spills into a grocery store parking lot? It’s just a metaphor.

Beyond reviews, I thought “Pagans and Christians in the City” sounded promising because it seemed to promise a look at the perennial political problem of how people with radically different ideas of the sources of authority and rules of conduct might live together. I dreamed it might get into the nitty-gritty of how different cosmopolitan societies arranged these things, and used that knowledge to analyze the culture war situation of today. It is that relationship between millennial spirituality and civic life — such as it is today — that I intend to interrogate in my piece.

Alas, what I got instead was… well, I’ll say it was an interesting experience, my emotional state through reading this book. We begin with excitement. Smith says he’s going to show that today’s culture wars align with the culture wars in imperial Rome, a conflict between Christians and pagans. More abstractly, the conflict is between believers in a transcendent spirituality — the ultimate source of power and authority comes from something outside of the world, as believed by the Abrahamic religions (my understanding is that it might be a bit iffier than that in Judaism, but ok) — and believers in immanent spirituality: the idea that the sacred inheres in this world. Most of the “pagans” don’t worship ye olden gods nowadays, and, as Smith and many others note, neither did many of the pagans of antiquity, especially the educated types who left their ideas for us to read. But they do have a distinct attitude to the world and the hereafter that transcendent spirituality does not share. Ok, so far, so good- maybe not all the way “right” but coherent and interesting.

Then, the erudition. I’m fine with people flashing their learning around. It’s fun. I do it. But A. the sententious gentleman-scholar affect conservative intellectuals put on gets old, fast and B. it’s tone unsuited to content. Don’t come the classics scholar when you’re not reading in the Latin and Greek originals. All of Smith’s arguments about what Rome was like come from secondary sources. As best I can tell, they’re mostly legitimate, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with structuring an argument from them. But I’m relating the subjective experience of reading, and it got annoying as he went on and on in this performatively judicious tone (lawyers gonna lawyer I guess) that he hasn’t got the erudition for…

So, disappointment is, I guess, the theme going forward. Especially once he stops noodling on the classics and gets down to brass tacks, several different types of disappointment hit at once. First, he quickly dismisses the concept of secularism. Very few people are truly secular, he says, because it’s too hard to face the universe that way. There’s some truth in that, the first part, anyway, and there is a long list of supposed seculars, from smart people like Richard Dworkin to stupid people like Sam Harris, who find their way back to some acceptable spirituality. Smith says that spirituality tends to be a worldly, “immanent” one, and while that’s true in some cases, the Harrises of the world, for all their flirtation with things like Buddhism, also clearly believe in forces at work transcendent and vengeful enough for any bearded Semitic sky god… but the real stupid line Smith uses is that you can tell no one’s secular because so few people agree with strict utilitarianism- so few are fine with violent eugenics, basically. It’s basically “you can’t be a good person without god” gone to law school.

It’s basically downhill from there. Things get more lawyerly and myopic as Smith focuses on his instances of the ways in which transcendent-Christians (and Jews and sometimes Muslims, he hastens to add) and immanent-pagans can’t live together without conflict over public space, and how it’s all the latter’s fault for pushing their immancence-religion-posing-as-secular-fairness on people. At this point, I was mainly hoping for some entertaining freakouts. If the dude couldn’t bring real insight, at least he could amuse us all with some good shrieking about “ethical sluts” and trans people in bathrooms, right? That’s an established pattern- pseudo-erudite maundering followed by the freakout. But no such luck. There’s just the amusement factor of him fighting the last war, the gay marriage war. Forget Japanese soldiers abandoned on Pacific islets still thinking the war is going on- this is like a salaryman at Mitsubishi not getting the war is over after the side that won agreed to reconstruct his country (like how gay marriage has partially domesticated queerness).

The stupid thing is, there is a story here. There are legitimate questions of collective life that “live and let live” — my go-to answer — doesn’t answer. You’d figure the right, with its interest in the details of hierarchy, one of the main arrangements used in organizing society, would have something to say, here. But no. I’ve said before how the right’s embrace of sentimentality since the Reagan era has kneecapped it intellectually, and this exposes another liability of power to thought: they fuel their rule-making machine with the petty grudges of pedants and martinets, letting them climb the ladder and telling them they’re smart when really, they’re just widgets. I give this an extra star for groping towards a real set of questions, but ultimately, it was a big disappointment. **

Review- Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City”

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