How the Conscience Destroyed Christendom

A Review of Steven D. Smith’s Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

Steven D. Smith’s Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity concerns the crisis of Christendom. Our civilization no longer believes in itself. Our country is rent with ever more fundamental factions. Common Christian faith, once almost taken for granted, is fraying. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men seem unable to put Christendom together again. 

Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the LDS church, traces social disintegration to successive efforts to realize the goods of conscience and to modernity itself. The book chiefly concerns Thomas More, James Madison, and William Brennan, all of whom centered conscience at a pivotal moment in history (More at the Reformation; Madison during the establishment of America; Brennan in the social tumult of the 1960s). Yet the book’s subtext also allows readers to consider how these distinct ideas of conscience were reactions to the disintegrating world around them and how each actor sought, with varying success, to re-order it. Are the problems endemic to the conscience or in liquid modernity—or both? 

The Christian idea of conscience contains mysteries and tensions. Conscience seems innate, directing human beings toward the right and making people feel guilty when they do wrong (1 Peter 3:16). Yet it is shaped too. Demons and liars can “sear” the conscience as with hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2) or weakened (1 Corinthians 8), so corrupted conscience can guide action. It is no easy matter to know whether we are suffering pangs of conscience, following conscience within a mad world, or hearing our misshaped minds in a corrupt world. 

More’s exercise of conscience took place against two backdrops: the Reformation’s attack on Christian unity (beginning in 1519) and Henry VIII’s decision to divorce Queen Catherine (completed in 1533). More had actually punished heretics and protesters before his defiance of Henry, despite the fact that conscience motivated protestors.  For that persecuting More, “the collective understanding of Christendom” forms conscience and cracks in Christian unity, so, he worried, protestant defiance would destroy “collective understanding.” More’s test arose when Henry demanded affirmations of loyalty to his new position as head of the Church of England. More remained silent as a matter of conscience, though he, problematically, did not stop his family from taking such an oath. Few at the time, indeed, saw More’s position as one of high principle. Yet stand he did, in defense of a tradition and “collective understanding”—and he paid for it with his head. His dedication to tradition (against reformers and against Henry’s baptizing of divorce) kept conscience from devolving into a free-wheeling do-what-seems-right-by-your-own-lights spirit. 

Guidance from “collective understanding,” however, would not survive the post-Reformation world. Madison elevated the “dictates of conscience” as central to what we owe our Creator while advocating for religious toleration. Yet he abandoned the idea that conscience is formed and he made each man the judge of orthodox belief. This approach seemed reasonable, as Smith writes, since the contagion of pluralistic ideas had “passed any point of containment” at the time of the Constitution, so that only “the Gospel of Conscience” could provide an architecture of unity. The fact that this new gospel punts on ultimate questions of the truth and goodness of practices would produce a whelming flood. 

Brennan, the liberal Catholic Supreme Court who served from 1956 until 1990, founded conscience for a godless era. Conscience became synonymous with “a person’s deeply felt convictions or commitments regarding how he or she should live.” Draft-dodging became a matter of conscience, when hippies or cowards, as opposed to Quakers, were asking for it. “The sanctity of the self” allowed individuals to ask for exemptions for general laws so people could “be authentic” or follow their inner light. What began as More’s defense of conscience grounded in a dogmatic appeal to tradition became, under Brennan, a legal blessing for law-breaking, revolution, and abortion. God was no longer the ground of conscience; conscience floated free. Human dignity became an arbitrary assertion, ever more difficult to maintain in light of Darwinism and social scientific views. 

Smith does not exactly see Brennan as the dark prophet of social disintegration. In fact, he nearly exonerates Brennan since the sources of moral order were “increasingly unavailable to many in the emerging secular republic that the justice was helping to shape.” Perhaps only de-ontological liberalism could bind America after its cultural revolution. 

The aura of crisis pervades this book. Smith begins Disintegrating with Jacques Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence and ends it with reference to Catholic novelist Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Our age is, as Smith, following Percy’s hero contends, “demented.” It is also fragmented. Liquid modernity clashes with the theological and political basis for human thriving. These teachings of conscience may well be effects of this disintegration, rather than its causes—though as effects they cause even more disintegration. 

Thus our civilization’s trap. On one hand, a political community and civilization must be united on some deep, abiding principles and attributes in order to thrive. Those principles are maintained partly through law, but also through informal customs that guide the civilization. The truer those principles are, the better. On the other hand, the weakening of Christendom, which precedes the Reformation and of which the Reformation is but a symptom, shatters the “collective understanding” within, and objective basis of, Western Civilization. Enlightenment concepts, from rights to conscience to scientific progress, are inadequate of themselves to sustain a new civilization. Assertions of conscience, abstracted from anything good or true, are more likely, in our context, to destroy what remains. The fact that we need such truths hardly means that they are available, on a wide scale.

The crisis of modernity—the crisis of faith, faith in God and faith in ourselves—is upon us. Conscience itself, potentially a disruptive and disintegrating force, can be a source of moral order within a healthy unified culture. Our reliance on human nature—our very human thirst for righteousness and for genuine love as manifested in politics (with a love of justice) and in religious practice (as manifest in worship, repentance, an awe for a Holy God, and a strong hearth)—provides ground from which to proceed in a world that needs unity but spurns its preconditions. This thirst for righteousness is the basis for what Rusty Reno calls The Return of the Strong Gods—where dedication to family, country, and faith forge a unity in the face of a weak, uninspiring world. Liberal Christians worry that these “strong gods” lead to apocalypse or idolatry and deny that they have any relation to one another. 

Human nature works differently than such liberals suppose. When a hostile world is crumbling, political expressions of the thirst for righteousness and an overflowing love for our neighbor guide us. Faithful Christians will be more likely to increase in zeal in all their spheres of life, rather than compartmentalize their thirst for righteousness to church. The path to Christian unity and civilizational health runs alongside politics and through a forward defense of the family.

More’s great insight about the importance of Christianity in the educative project presents an uncomfortable challenge to Protestants: Christians cannot respond to the crisis of modernity without deep Christian unity. Protestantism has long downplayed the priority of Christian unity or embraced a mere Christianity. Protestantism is always fragmenting more and more, into smaller and smaller segments and denominations and into “nondenominational” churches. This fragmenting, done in the name of “conscience,” compromises institution-building and the educative project. Smith forces us to ask: What would a Protestantism that is part of the solution look like?  

Smith’s conclusion is mine: it is impossible to know if or how our civilization will exit this crisis of meaning. Smith’s aporetic book shows that conscience alone cannot save us, since it is as likely to disintegrate as to integrate civilizational aspirations. What will inform conscience is the question. Conserving what is healthy in our lives is only a start and a step. But what that next step looks like. . . that is why we get up in the morning.

Image Credit: Unsplash