In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, Lord Voldemort is so frightening that he’s referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named”.
Those who think Western Civilization still has something to offer the modern world, a minority in today’s academic and intellectual milieu, have been trying to make sense out of the declining attraction of liberal democracy, and the rights traditionally embedded in democratic societies: free speech, religious freedom, freedom of association, free elections, property rights. Instead of being a superior form of government, many now consider classically defined liberal democracy to be just another model, not inherently better or worse than many other models, even praising alternate models for their economic efficiency, streamlined decision making, or ideological purity. In an April 21stessay titled “The Crisis of Western Civ”, David Brooks—who lauded the “humanistic ideal” that underlies liberal democracy—writes, “According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely necessary to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to 57% today.”
It’s hard for me to find fault with anyone who champions Western civilization, but there’s something missing in Brooks’ analysis, and others I’ve seen like his, and that something is the modern age’s He Who Must Not Be Named, namely, Jesus Christ, the source of the humanistic ideal. Before Jesus, how could one imagine marred and damaged humans as beloved sons and daughters of the Creator of this 100 billion light year wide and 100 billion galaxy universe? That’s pretty bold talk, then and now, no matter how you cut it. And distinct from the pre-Christian classical virtues that were intended to produce human contentment and orderly societies, Christianity promoted religious beliefs and moral norms that were objectively true and good, even when they troubled people and societies.
Outside of explicitly religious conversations, we’re not supposed to talk about him, or the effect he had on Western civilization and the world. In high-minded secular conversations and writings, he must not be named, and if he is, it must be muted or constrained. As to his practical effect on individuals, societies, and cultures two millennia ago, two hundred years ago, and today, that’s a no-go zone.
Secularists have convinced Western societies that Christianity was an impediment to humanism and liberal democracy, convinced us to such an extent that even many believers now hold this view, with the practical consequence being a privatization of faith, another way to describe an impotent faith. The secularists accomplished this by defining Christianity by its worst moments and worst acts, though for every Cardinal Richelieu or Borgia pope there were thousands of people-serving, self-sacrificing Christians, and for every Crusader or clergy depravity there were thousands of works and institutions of mercy and generosity. Contrary-wise, non-Christian civilizations are judged by their best moments and achievements, with few words about the anti-humanism that coursed through these societies: tribes in the Americas and Africa that enslaved, murdered, and mutilated each other; Muslim armies repeatedly invading Europe and enslaving non-Muslims; Asian kingdoms with “divine” rulers, and human beasts of burden to provide for them and their pleasures, and to fight their wars.
I distinguish between a Christian ethos that informs and forms individuals, societies, and states, their decisions and actions, and explicitly theocratic states of any flavor that invariably damage human freedom and authentic religion.
Let’s take slavery. Even when accepted or tolerated within the Christian world, it was always a troubled acceptance, with plenty of prominent objectors and regions that wouldn’t tolerate it. Contrast this with the broad acceptance of slavery in pre-Christian and the non-Christian world, even to this very day.
Forced or coerced conversions of Jews and other non-Christians? Certainly this occurred, but without institutional or theological sanction. Augustine said, “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us,” meaning conversion involves our willful cooperation, something Thomas Aquinas called “cooperative grace”. For Aquinas, conversion is incomplete or invalid if the “converted” does not freely and fully accept the Creator’s invitation to allegiance. While the human temptation to convince or make others believe what we believe is powerful, Christianity recognizes that correspondence of the human will is necessary for true allegiance to the Creator, and this understanding of the importance of free will was a necessary ingredient in the development of liberal democracy.
As for the intellect and reason, where Christianity flowers, one finds a melding of reason, clearheaded faith, and an insistence on the preeminence of human dignity and objective moral norms, with countless exemplars throughout the centuries: Augustine, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth of Hungary, G.K. Chesterton, Georges Lemaitre, Thomas Aquinas, Patrick of Ireland, Blaise Pascal, Catherine of Sienna, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, Thomas More, Gregory the Great, Gianna Molla, John Paul II, Joan of Arc, Edith Stein, and on and on.
As for art and beauty, can anyone in their right mind suggest that today’s culturally lauded, and often ideological, art, architecture, literature, poetry, and music can hold a candle to that produced in societies infused by the Christian ethos?
And with what ethos have we replaced the Christian ethos? With soft or hard nihilism, where everything is allowed, and almost nothing is wrong, if it gets me what I want, or gets my ideological allies what they want, or achieves some “noble” end. Though the Islamists are an extreme example of this attitude, a softer nihilism is common in the Western democracies. An ISIS terrorist who kills and maims strangers can’t be said to have committed an evil act, since there is no such thing, objectively speaking. Therefore, he must have been psychologically damaged, or economically or socially victimized. When you open the doors to nihilism, there’s no keeping out his brothers and sisters: materialism, relativism, and anarchism. For all our lofty talk about liberties and rights, human beings are now weighed in relation to their productive value—how much they earn me versus how much they cost me; the “burden” they impose on the planet; their usefulness in pushing an ideology or electing someone; their value dependent on what they produce or consume, rather than who they are.
Look at modern France and its frustrated, confused, and alienated citizens, emblematic of the malaise of modern liberal democracies. How do citizens rally around an avowedly soulless, secular welfare state? Though conditioned to feed at its trough, they’re not inclined to give this faux-liberal democracy their allegiance, much less their trust. As for secular France’s motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, to quote Fulton Sheen: “To believe in the brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God would make men a race of bastards.” If demography is destiny, Islamist hard nihilism will supplant European soft nihilism, and the only hope is The New Evangelization, generous Christian families and 21st century Patricks, Cyrils, and Francis Xaviers.
How can one defend any humanistic ideal unless it’s undergirded by an inspiring ethos a civilization embraces, even when falling short of achieving its ideals? This is the irreconcilable dilemma when embracing humanly derived ideals, no matter how noble, lofty, or tolerant, in that such ideals cannot be incumbent on me if they don’t provide what I desire, or if the majority chooses to replace them with murkier standards.
Brooks closed his article with, “All I can say is, if you think this (Western civ) was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.”
Brooks is on to something, but cultural blinders don’t allow him and likeminded defenders of Western civilization to go deep enough. It’s as if they’re determined to make delicious beer, but refuse to use yeast. What’s more, they disdain the need for yeast, as it infringes on their freedom to make beer as they desire. Finally, they convince themselves that yeast damages the beer. When the West kicked out the Christian ethos, it kicked out the legs that supported the table of true humanism, and without He Who Must Not Be Named and his vision of the human person, liberal democracy can’t be sustained.