In last week’s article, I discussed how in the United States conservatism has ended up becoming warped by a product of tribalism, where you have ultra-reactionary politicized Christianity (which is fundamentally collectivist, authoritarian, censorious and favors government intervention in all their pet projects) unnaturally married to free-thinking ‘libertarian’ conservatism (which is individualist, anti-authoritarian, rabidly defensive of free speech, and generally opposes government intervention in people’s lives; or rather, it would hold all these values were it not for the aforementioned tribalism).
The case for why these two don’t really belong together was presented in that article, but I envisioned a couple of criticisms and retorts to that basic statement: first, that conservatism, even secular rational free-thinking conservatism, should be in some way ‘supportive’ of Political Christianity because of the role Christianity has played in Western Civilization; and second, the pragmatic question of whether it is even possible for conservatism to effectively divorce itself. Could it really do so, when that alliance has always been there in U.S. History? And even if it did, could it ever hope to succeed as an electable political force?
So, let’s begin with the first of these concerns: Christianity and Western Civilization. Now, no one will deny that Christianity has been tremendously important and a big formative part of what modern Western Civilization is all about. But some people have a tendency, highly incorrectly, to presume that it is synonymous to Western Civilization; or to claim that it was Christianity that created Western Civilization, or that the decline of Christianity’s power and influence led to the decline of Western Civilization. All three of these are wrong. Christianity did play a tremendously important part in the process that led to our modern Western Civilization and the values that we uphold; specifically, it was the middle part.
The middle. Not the start, not the end. To start with, we need to be clear on something: Christianity is NOT a religion that created our civilization. There are some religions that essentially created the civilizations they formed: Islam, for example, created Muslim civilization; absorbing elements of Greek/Byzantine and Persian precursors, but the civilization of the middle-eastern Muslim world would never have existed without Islam. Likewise, China was largely created by Confucianism, and India through the Vedic system, though both of the latter two are so ancient that they’ve undergone at least a couple of civilizations each (you can divide India into Vedic/Brahminical/Hindu; and you can divide China into pre- and post- Song dynasty civilizations, at the bare minimum).
Christianity, however, integrated into a fully-functioning civilization, that had already existed for about eight or nine centuries by the time it came along and took over the Roman Empire (and really, the second you remember that the Roman Empire existed and wasn’t Christian for most of its history, that pretty well settles the argument, because you’d have to be a raving idiot to claim that Rome wasn’t a civilization, and wasn’t in fact the foundation of our civilization). The core values of our civilization were present by the time of the Aurelian Emperors, who were not influenced by Christianity.
Some – shall we say – excessively fervent cheerleaders of Christianity-as-synonym for Western Civilization like to talk about how it was Christianity that infused “reason” into our civilization’s values, and how other cultures don’t have that reason or how once we stopped being mostly Christian we lost reason. Even the most ardent of these cheerleaders tend to be a bit quieter about Democracy, given that Institutional Christianity spent most of its history, right up until the late 19th century (and even well into the 20th if you count the Church’s support of certain brutal dictatorships) arguing vehemently against democracy. But reason and the rational world was not something that originated with Christianity or even Judaism, it was on the contrary adopted into these religions through the Hellenic worldview. The core concepts of Reason and Democracy were produced by the Greeks, and the most revolutionary notion of all: Citizenship (that is to say, citizenship as condition of merit and not by tribe-of-birth), was produced by the Romans. Again, by the time of the Aurelian Emperors, we saw the birth of an entirely new and crucial way of thinking: where you weren’t just the property of a king, nor were you only a citizen with rights (like the Greeks had) if you were born within certain geographical limits and belonged to the right type of caste. Instead, the Imperial (pagan) Romans invented something absolutely astounding: you could be born in a mud hut into a near-barbarian tribe, but if you provided service and proved meritorious, you could be a citizen with the same rights as someone born two blocks away from the Capitoline Hill.
Christianity did introduce some important virtues into Western Civilization, and was a major contributor to it over the next 1500 years, but we should not confuse the contributions for the core. We can value Christianity’s contributions, not just to religion but to our literature, symbolism, music, art, and shared western culture in general, without making the mistake that our civilization begins there, or ends there.
Several of the core values of our modern Western Civilization, like reason, democracy, tolerance, or individual liberty, not only were not the invention of Christianity, they didn’t even particularly flourish during the peak period of Institutional Christianity (which has had enormous shares of opposition to reason, and has acted at varying times as an enemy of reason and liberty alike; there’s a reason why many of the U.S. Founding Fathers were members of an organization dedicated to opposition to the tyranny of both Kings and Popes). What Christianity contributed most to Western Civilization was the concept of individual relationship to the divine — the idea that you had to have a personal ownership over your spiritual world; that the Gods didn’t just care about kings and great heroes but cared about everyone, equally. That every little human being matters. That’s a tremendously important concept for the foundation of Human Rights, to be sure. Don’t get me wrong here and think that I’m arguing that Christianity has done nothing for us.
You see, lots of other cultures present or past practiced Reason, some as well as the West did, though maybe not always as long or to as much effect. I defy anyone who wants to say that there wasn’t tremendous dedication to reason among Jewish, Muslim, Indian and Chinese philosophers, among others. No more and no less so than the dedication shown by the great Greek philosophers. There’s nothing particularly more “reasonable” about “the giant sky fairy made all the stuff in seven days” than in saying “our world is a hologram, a fantasy story created in the mind of a dreaming super-entity” (the Hindu origin story), or “The world began from a state of absolute emptiness, and then it spontaneously exploded into everythingness, split itself in two fundamental forces, then four underlying universal forces, then eight elemental forces and from the combination of these eight everything in creation gradually formed” (the Chinese origin story). In fact, the latter two represent a significantly deeper level of thinking that “Beardy Guy in the Clouds did it.”
Now before you get your rosary in a knot, the above is an irony on my part because, of course, I’m not being fair there. In the Hindu and Confucian cases I used the deeper mystical initiatory teachings, of their esoteric/magical systems; instead of talking about Giant Cows and Oceans of Milk or about Dragons laying eggs or whatnot. But for most of Christianity throughout history, the exoteric/literalist anti-reason “don’t need no book learnin ‘cept the Bible” has been what dominated ideas. There were always Augustines and Aquinases, but to pretend the West was a continent of Aquinases while everywhere else was full of sky-cow followers is significantly inaccurate.
But what did make the West different, thanks to Christianity (even at its worst) was this idea that God gave a crap about EVERYONE. Many civilizations have equally advanced notions of Reason; none I know of has as advanced a notion of Human Rights. And that part we owe to Christianity. But even in this case, that notion of personal spiritual ownership has had to constantly struggle against Institutional Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) and its instinct to demand adherence to the collective norms.
Regardless of that, and not to disparage its importance, Christianity’s role in Western Civilization was very important in that intermediate stage between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Age of Enlightenment. While some fundamentalist Christians want to push the blame on the decline in Institutional Christianity’s temporal influence on the latter, the truth is that the Enlightenment was a product of that decline, not its cause. The corruption of the Catholic Church in the medieval period (long before the Enlightenment) led to Humanist movement and then the Protestant Reformation, which was originally an attempt to specifically move religion away from worldly politics (though it quickly “sold out” to the allure of protestant princes and institutional authority).
This led to the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, which wrecked untold devastation on Europe — but also led to the rise of a group of freethinkers seeking to restore the promise that Protestantism originally held, of the “priesthood of all believers,” of a personal faith based on reason and self-examination, with a vision of an intellectual movement of a universal religion. This was what Frances Yates called the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment” of the early 17th Century. This movement gave birth to important and innovative schools of thought and of spiritual and intellectual revolution, leading to the Enlightenment. And it was these schools of thought that produced the modern ideas and values of our Western Civilization: the triumph of reason over dogma, and the rebirth of those values of Democracy and Citizenship that had laid mostly dormant throughout the period of temporal Christian dominance. And, because of the Rosicrucian concept of universalism, the virtue of religious tolerance emerged, something that certainly hadn’t been a feature of Christianity for most of its institutional history. Even by the time of America’s founding, the dominant ideas were not coming from Institutional Christianity but from the counter-current that brought forth the Enlightenment. Contrary to what some people might claim, America was not founded as a Christian nation; it was certainly a nation full of Christians, but it was not so much a “Christian Nation” (in the sense of ideological underpinnings) as it was a “Post-Rosicrucian Enlightenment-Thinker Deist Freemason Nation.”
So, as it turns out, this essay has already gotten too big to finish here. In the third and definitely final part, I’ll take a look at whether it is really politically possible, or pragmatically feasible (in the sense of ‘electability’), to have the U.S. Right divorce itself from Political Christianity.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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