Ideology

Christian Heresies

November 30, 2009

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Christian Heresies

Matthew Roberts suggests that there are presently two understandings of Christianity on the real right. One is the view taken by youthful neopagans, critically tracing our democratic egalitarian politics and culture back to primitive Christian sources. The pursuers of this fashion are happily reviving Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, as a particularly long-lasting form of slave morality. The other view, recently championed by Thomas Fleming, and the one that Matthew Roberts prefers, is that the Enlightenment and Christianity are clean different things. If I understand Roberts and Fleming, the two world historical forces are so antithetical that we are forced to assume that Christianity was radically uprooted in order for the Enlightenment to take over.

Presumably our present-day politics of human rights, global democracy, and social equality have nothing to do with anything faintly resembling Christianity; and only an aging Jewish intellectual or a “guru” (yours truly) surrounded by metrosexual Nietzscheans and eliminationist anti-Semites would argue differently. Or so Fleming suggests while trying to destroy several birds all at the same time: my reputation, the honor of my disciples and friends, and any identification of Christianity (particularly in its preferred Catholic form) with leftist, democratic beliefs.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never held the view that is ascribed to me. Two of my books, one on multiculturalism and the other on the post-Marxist Left, should make this clear. My writings present my perspective on the relation between Christianity and the Enlightenment and between both of these and our current neoconservative and multicultural afflictions. What I do not deny in my work is the obvious. There is, indeed, an egalitarian, universalist side to Christianity, unlike Judaism or Hinduism, and it can be found in the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. This remains the case, however much Fleming’s confession incorporated Roman hierarchical structures and distinctions and however much the Protestant Reformation became identified with European nationalist movements. Nor does the recognition of these anti-elitist elements signify the belief that Christianity is reducible to them. A specific divine revelation and the very unprogressive doctrine of Original Sin most emphatically distinguish Christianity from modern political dogmas, although here attention must be paid to the usability of the belief in inborn sinfulness in its transformed version as the doctrine of inherited social guilt. It is this transformed sense of individual and collective culpability that characterizes most current forms of Political Correctness.

The important thing to note here is that I have never condemned Christianity because of its anti-elitist elements. In fact these elements have occasionally led to human amelioration, seen in the humane treatment of women and children, the gradual abolition of torture as a method of extracting confessions, and the transformation of the ancient institution of slavery, as Father Francis Canavan used to point out, into medieval serfdom and finally into a more generalized human liberty in the nineteenth century. Without Christianity, it is unlikely that any of these developments would have occurred.

Grant Havers in his carefully nuanced study Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love argues that Lincoln opposed the institution of slavery, by appealing to a distinctly Protestant understanding of the politics of Christian love. Havers does not defend Lincoln’s decision to invade the seceded South or the destruction that decision caused. And he most certainly does not fault Lincoln for not being a modern liberal or neoconservative. To the contrary: he finds his opposition to both slavery and full citizenship rights for former slaves to be consistent with his notion of “Christian charity.” In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln hoped to put slavery on the road to extinction, but his concept of Christian charity did not require him to treat the former slaves as political or social equals.

I would further note that contrary to what some have suggested, my book on multiculturalism is not a blistering indictment of Calvinist theology. My work attacks the collapse of Calvinism into the American politics of guilt. It most definitely does not consider Luther and Calvin, who were brilliant and learned Christian theologians, as precursors of our current antiracism or antisexism. Although certain Protestant attitudes and sentiments have survived in modern leftist reformulations, it would be foolish to assume a close continuity between this replacement theology and what it replaced.

But what seems to me undeniable is that some degree of connection does exist between Protestantism in its purest form and its current American liberal manifestations and between Christianity in general and the Enlightenment. Muslims or Jainists did not develop Enlightened or democratic ideas, except to the extent that they borrowed them from Western Christian cultures. Most of the leaders of the French Enlightenment were Jesuit-educated; and as Carl Becker shows to my satisfaction in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, the leaders of the Enlightenment in both Catholic and Protestant countries drew their millennial view of earthly rationality after a period of struggle from biblical visions of the end times. The only noteworthy living person who argues for a different position, that is, one closer to Fleming’s albeit from distinctly different premises, is the Jewish leftist anti-Christian Peter Gay in his volume The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1969). But Gay’s view of paganism is so fraught with modern progressivist values and his picture of the Enlightenment so radically de-Christianized that his book seemed to me a hoax when I first picked it up forty years ago.

The Western Left may be unthinkable without a Christian reference point, unlike neopagan forms of fascism, which are unmistakably non-Christian in their inspiration. One may try to hide those radical elements in Christianity by focusing on the Germanic or Roman institutions that blended with historical Christianity. But they are there nonetheless; and if in the past these constituent elements occasionally encouraged sound moral achievements, by now they have turned into a raging heresy from which the Christian world cannot seem to recover.

About two years ago, a Catholic intellectual told me that he had come to accept the notion that the modern Left is a Christian heresy but one that is still identifiably Christian. Although I have been credited with this perception, it is not my own view but one that the Protestant theologian Karl Barth expressed after the Second World War. My Catholic friend seemed to embrace Barth’s value judgment about the greater moral acceptability of the Left as opposed to the real Right, given the Left’s Christian derivation. Note that Barth became a Communist fellow-traveler once he had come to identify the Left with the Gospels. My friend also assumed that the ultimate enemy for Christians must be the Right, to the extent it was not totally Christianized. What this skewed perspective ignores is political reality. Heresies destroy religious institutions much faster than an entirely different set of beliefs, and the heresy that my young friend was cozying up to, or at the very least condoning, is consuming the Christian world much faster than neopaganism, racism or sexism.

For the record, it is hard for me to imagine how the Western world could be anything other than Christian. Even now it seems to be identifiably Christian, in a more traditional or in an utterly debased updated form. But I’ve already said all these things multiple times. It is therefore distressing to note how a white-bearded critic has misrepresented my views, while counterfactually depicting me as the guru of would-be Nazi killers.

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