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Christianity’s struggle for survival
Why is there such a contrast between
Dr. David R. Carlin
Homiletic and Pastoral Review - July 2001
If you want to get rid of Christianity, it isn’t enough to try to kill it off. You have to have something to replace it with. In the course of the 20th century, three great attempts were made in the Western world to find replacements for Christianity. Two of these experiments failed, Communism and Nazism. The third, moral liberalism, is still going strong. Today it is an open question whether Christianity will be able to survive.
Beginning in the 4th century A.D., when Constantine was emperor, Christianity has supplied the intellectual and moral foundation for Western civilization. Our world has of course undergone many changes during the centuries since then — first the empire, then the German invasions, then the Dark Ages, then the high Middle Ages, then the Renaissance, then the coming of the modern world, etc. But through it all, Christianity provided the moral and intellectual foundation.
Or at least it did so until relatively recently. The first great crack in the Christian structure of our world came nearly 500 years ago, with the Protestant Reformation. Christianity found itself plunged into a great religious civil war. The Western world was suddenly divided between Protestant and Catholic halves. Although the shooting and even the hatred has long since stopped (at least outside of Northern Ireland), the division remains to this day.
This Catholic-Protestant split weakened the cultural authority of Christianity, and it led some people to start looking for another basis for our civilization. In the mid-18th century the men of the Enlightenment felt they had found a new intellectual basis in modern science; and by the end of the century they felt they had found a new moral basis as well, in the Revolution which, beginning in France, was sweeping Europe. But the Revolution came to grief, and the search for a new moral basis continued.
In the 19th century it was almost taken for granted among secular intellectuals that Christianity was, if not dead, then at least dying. It was Nietzsche who said “God is dead,” but a thousand other thinkers said the same thing in less epigrammatic form. Christianity’s disappearance was only a matter of time. It seemed clear that we could no longer count on the old religion to provide our civilization with its moral-intellectual foundation.
But if Christianity was dying, what would replace it? What would become the new moral-intellectual basis for Western civilization? Half the answer seemed obvious: modern science and a science-based worldview would provide the intellectual foundation. But what would be the new moral foundation?
In the 20th century three great moral “mutations” have, Darwin-like, appeared on the scene, each proposing itself as a workable successor to Christian morality.
The first was Communism or Marxism-Leninism. For a time this looked like a winner, carried along by a wave of militant enthusiasm the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days when, 13 centuries earlier, Islam had swept across Western Asia and Northern Africa and into Europe. But Communism, despite its bright promises, proved to be inseparable from tyranny, from mass murder, and from economic inefficiency. As a result, “natural selection” has by now largely killed it off. Today even most remaining Communists (i.e., those in China) have given up on it. Communism lives on only in the dreams of certain European and American university professors.
The second was Nazism. If Communism was a leftwing alternative to Christian morality, remarkably successful at persuading a nominally Christian people to embrace its central moral values — dictatorship, racism, mass murder, aggressive warmaking. If it had been able to win the Second World War, we’d have had a chance to see how well it could persuade non-Germans to embrace these values. But it didn’t win; and so, after a run of only a dozen years, it failed the “natural selection” test. If Communism lives on only in the dreams of professors at elite universities, Nazism today lives on only in the ravings of white supremacists holed up in vulgar enclaves in woods and mountains.
The third is moral liberalism, today the dominant cultural force among America’s social and intellectual elites, and rapidly becoming the dominant force among Americans generally, especially those of the younger generations. If Communism was leftist and Nazism rightist, this is centrist. If they were extremist, this is moderate. They worked through violent coercion, this works through persuasion and seduction.
The content of moral liberalism is mainly negative. Its Golden Rule is what may be called “the personal liberty principle,” which holds that people should be free to do what they like provided they don’t infringe on the freedom of others to do what they like. Hence moral liberals endorse rights to the following: abortion, gay marriage, assisted suicide, pornography, no-fault divorce, sexual freedom. What they oppose is anything that tends to restrict freedom of choice, e.g., attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia, and intolerance generally, as well as practices and policies based on such attitudes.
Moral liberals believe that society has no right to demand that its members prefer any particular substantive goods, only certain procedural goods — free speech, free press, free elections, freedom of religion, trial by jury, nondiscrimination in hiring and promotion, etc. As for substantive goods, it’s up to the individual to choose these. Would you like to live a life of sexual promiscuity combined with fine dining, or would you prefer a life of monkish asceticism? Do you want to strive to be a multibillionnaire, or would you rather live, Thoreau-like, at some equivalent of Walden Pond? Do you like rock music, or would you prefer spending your leisure time listening to (or performing in) Beethoven’s late quartets? All that is up to you, not society. The responsibility of society is simply to provide a framework in which all of us can conduct our lives in accordance with the personal liberty principle.
Will moral liberalism succeed where Communism and Nazism failed? Will it be able to supply a new moral basis for Western civilization, allowing us to get rid of Christianity once and for all? Personally, I doubt it, since I’m skeptical that a society can flourish when it is so radically permissive. But this is merely a personal doubt. Nobody can know for sure what will happen until the experiment is tried. And certainly moral liberals won’t, in the absence of such an experiment, be persuaded that their ideal won’t work. Maybe one or two centuries from now — after we’ve given moral liberalism an extended trial and discovered that it (like Communism and Nazism) ends in disaster — everyone will be convinced that it’s an unworkable alternative to Christianity. But until then we have to expect that moral liberals will keep pushing, and pushing hard, to expel Christianity from our world and replace it with their radically permissive moral ideal.
The point of this essay is not to convince moral liberals that their ideal won’t work, For, with very few exceptions, they are beyond the reach of persuasion. No, the point is to convince Christians that what’s at stake in the current “culture war” struggles — struggles about abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, etc. — is the survival of Christianity as an element in Western civilization. When Americans fight about abortion, for instance, its not simply abortion we’re fighting about. We’re fighting about whether Christianity should be eliminated from our world and replaced by moral liberalism.
Note, by the way, that I define the struggle in negative terms — as intended “to prevent Christianity from being eliminated from our world.” Today’s struggle is not about whether Christianity will prevail in our civilization. If it ever again prevails, that day will not arrive for hundreds of years. The fight now is for survival. The issue is whether, in America and Europe, traditional Christians will be allowed to continue to preserve their way of life, to keep up their very unfashionable beliefs and values and practices. The threat to survival does not come from the government, at least not to any great degree. The chief threat comes from the culture. As moral liberalism comes more and more to dominate our cultural atmosphere, it becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to find cultural breathing room. It is not difficult to imagine a day coming when Christianity will die out because of a lack of cultural oxygen; it will die of cultural asphyxiation.
It must be acknowledged that there are some Christians (or I should write “Christians,” for they are Christian only in an equivocal sense of that word) who are of the opinion that Christianity can be reconciled with moral liberalism — just as, it should be noted, there used to be certain “Christians” who were of the opinion that Christianity could be reconciled with Communism or Nazism. These are the so-called ‘liberal Christians.” For a long time they have been an important and expanding element in the mainline Protestant denominations, and since Vatican II they have been a significant presence in the Catholic Church in Europe and America. A morally permissive Christianity — a Christianity that tolerates, among other things, abortion and homosexuality and euthanasia — doesn’t seem to them a contradiction in terms. But of course it is a contradiction, and if they were not hopelessly naive they would understand this.
To arrive at this point of mental confusion, liberal Christians have subjected Christianity to an interesting transformation. They have largely dropped the dogmatic elements of the religion, reducing it instead to a kind of morality (rather in keeping with Matthew Arnold’s old definition of religion: “morality touched with emotion”). And this morality they have reduced to a single commandment: “Love your neighbor.” This sounds very much like the teaching of Jesus Christ, until we realize that for the liberal Christian love of neighbor is pretty much equivalent to tolerance of neighbor. Take abortion, for instance. From the liberal Christian point of view, the loving response to a woman contemplating abortion is not to prevent it, not to talk her out of it, not to picket an abortion clinic; rather it is to tolerate abortion, to make it “legal and safe.” The same with regard to homosexual conduct: the loving response is not to offer reparative therapy, is not to urge sexual abstinence; rather it is to work for a change in the law so as to permit gay marriage or “civil unions,” it is to create a Christian ceremony that will bless or consecrate these unions. In short, the liberal Christian adopts what is essentially the same view as the moral liberal, except that the Christian cloaks his or her view with a fine robe of Christian poetry, while the secularist moral liberal omits the poetry and calls things by their right names.
In the struggle to prevent Christianity from being eliminated from our world, then, Christians must not expect any help from liberal Christians, who, in their simplicity, are leagued with the enemy.
If we are to prevent the disappearance of Christianity, an indispensable step is to recognize the nature of the struggle we are engaged in. In the United States, Evangelical Protestants, it seems to me, recognize this pretty well, and they are fighting for survival energetically, if not always effectively. By contrast, the great majority of Catholics — including priests and bishops — seem not to recognize this. Or if they do recognize it, they seem not to care. Hence Catholicism, which went into decline in America about a third of a century ago, shows no signs of revival; while Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is flourishing.
Why is this? Why is there such a contrast between the Catholic and the Evangelical Protestant response to moral liberalism?
Evangelicals belong to denominations that either are, or used to be, sects. In other words, they inherit a sectarian mentality. Now, the sectarian mentality is, by definition, suspicious of the “world,” which it regards as given over to sin. It looks upon the world as a great enemy; it constructs a “wall of separation” between the world and its own religious community; and it is mindful that if it doesn’t keep this wall in good repair the world will soon encroach upon the community and overwhelm it. At its most extreme, the sectarian mentality can become a kind of collective paranoia, imagining nonexistent enemies, or imagining that true enemies are much more hostile than they really are. When more moderate, however, this mentality will be sensitive to the presence of real enemies; it will rarely mistake them for friends or even for harmless neighbors. Thus Evangelicals have little or no difficulty in recognizing that the program of moral liberalism entails the elimination of Christianity.
By contrast, Catholics inherit a churchly tradition and a churchly mentality. That is, they feel at home in the world, they don’t regard the world as a mortal enemy. True enough, there was a long time in American Catholic history — from the beginning of a significant Catholic immigration in the first half of the 19th century until the early 1960s — when the American Catholic mentality took on something of a sectarian color, when Catholics built a wall of separation around themselves: the era of the so-called “Catholic ghetto.” But this wasn’t truly a sectarian mentality, for the object of Catholic suspicion and fear was not the “world” but Protestantism. The purpose of the “ghetto” wasn’t to prevent Catholics from entering the world, it was to prevent them from turning Protestant. When it became clear that Protestantism was no longer a temptation, the walls of the ghetto came down, and Catholics embraced the American world. Consequently, lacking the sectarian mentality of suspicion, and inheriting a churchly mentality of openness to the world, Catholics find it hard to believe that worldly forces are bent on getting rid of their religion. Oh, they can believe this when the worldly forces in question are Communism and Nazism; but these were not just worldly, they were un-American; so it was easy to believe in their evil intentions. But how can American worldly culture be the mortal enemy of Christianity? This is exceedingly hard for most Catholics to believe.
There’s another reason for the differing responses of Evangelicals and Catholics. Catholicism is a worldwide religion. If it fails in the United States and Europe, it will continue to flourish in Asia and Latin America and Africa. Hence, even among Catholics who recognize the threat that moral liberalism poses to Christianity, there isn’t a sense of desperation. For all is not lost if Europe and America are lost.
By contrast, Evangelical Protestantism, though it has spread throughout the world, counts the United States as its home country. Although it may have commenced in Europe, it is in America that it flourished. European Protestantism has always found it difficult to make a clean break with its Catholic past; it always tended to remain, as for example in the Lutheran and Anglican churches, semi-Catholic. For centuries it has been in America that you could find, far more than in Europe, what Edmund Burke called “the dissidence of Dissent, the protestantism of the Protestant religion.” Moreover, the spread of Evangelicalism throughout the world, even its reflux spread in an old-world country like England, has chiefly been the result of American missionary efforts. Thus there is a very understandable feeling among American Evangelicals that if their religion fails in its homeland, America, it will probably fail altogether. Hence the intensity, sometimes even the desperation, of the Evangelical response to the threat coming from moral liberalism.
If Christianity is to survive in America, it will be necessary, it seems to me, for two things to happen. First, Catholics will have to wake up to the danger their religion faces from moral liberalism. Second, both Catholics and Evangelicals will have to abandon (or at least put on the shelf) their old prejudices against one another, and recognize that that their common foe, moral liberalism, is far more dangerous to each of them than either is to the other. Will these two things happen? I hope so. but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Dr. David R. Carlin is a professor of philosophy and sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island (Warwick). He was a member of the Rhode Island Senate for 12 years and Senate Majority Leader for two of those years (1989-90). Dr. Carlin is the author of many articles some of which have appeared in Commonweal, America, First Things, and Our Sunday Visitor. This is his first article in HPR.