U.S. Conservatism Needs a Divorce Part II: Christianity and Civilization

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Tue, Feb 10 - 9:00 am EDT | 4 years ago by
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Riposte Modernism - Conservatism needs a divorce

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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  • FaerieGodfather

    Speaking as a non-Christian religious minority living– and politically active– in the United States… thank you for this.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      Thank you!

  • http://spacecockroach.blogspot.co.il/ Omer G. Joel

    What I do not understand is why free-thinking ‘libertarians’ insist on calling themselves ‘conservatives’? Unfettered capitalism like most right-libertarians want will fly in the face of most things your typical conservative holds dear. For example, if you remove the state involvement from marriage and make it a simple contract between willing parties, you’ll have all the single-sex and multi-partner marriages you can imagine possible and then some. If you remove the regulations preventing people from starting their own small-business or micro-business (i.e. zoning, health codes, business licensing, most tax systems), the big-business “job creators” whom the typical conservative champions will be mostly a relic of the past – as a huge percent of the population will return to self-employment. If you abolish all victimless crimes and limit the authority of the police in order to maximize the liberty and privacy of the citizenry, the “broken windows doctrine” and similar “law and order” conservative propositions will collapse. If you go for non-intervention, the Neo-Conservative empire-building project will be a thing of the past.

    I’d say that Libertarianism is its own political alignment which is neither “conservative” nor “liberal” – but rather simply “libertarian”.

    IIRC Hayek once said that he isn’t a conservative as he supports a free market and a free market “goes somewhere” – i.e. creates (to his opinion and the opinion of most libertarians) a better future. Which is opposed to the conservative support of a return to the “good old days”.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      There is a certain point to what you say. Which is why I keep emphasizing that the only real division that actually matters is Individualist vs. Collectivist. Christian Conservatives and Radical Social Justice Activists are similar in that both want to be able to have a large and powerful government that imposes their agenda on everyone by authoritarian force. They WANT a Nanny State that tells you what to do, they only disagree on some of the particulars of the nanny in question. So they both serve the Leviathan.

  • Oswald Spengler

    Christian theology is the grandmother of Bolshevism

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      Well, kind of, sure.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I think you are underselling the Protestant revolution and it’s influence on the enlightenment thinkers that influenced the founders.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      Thank you for your comment, Kenny. If you think modern “Religious Right” Christians ‘don’t think we need to pray to the Bible’, you haven’t been paying enough attention to what they’re saying. U.S. Protestanism, particularly the Politicized movements (Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Catholic League) therein, have a very particular interpretation of the Great Commission (to go and preach to all nations) that suggests an authoritarian imposition of, first, “Christian Values” and second the Christian religious itself on the government and society of the United States.

      My article above makes clear my position vis-a-vis what you wrote in your second paragraph: the part of your statement I have issue with is “is”. Christianity played a vital role in the middle-period of western civilization. Christianity certainly does continue to influence our civilization, but it is an historic influence, there hasn’t been much of anything NEW coming from Christianity itself that has had a major effect on our civilization in quite some time, just a continuation of influences (not just religious, but artistic, literary, and philosophical) that have been ongoing for several hundred years now; anything really new over the last few centuries has come from specifically post-Christian sources, from the Enlightenment onward. So again, the relationship between the real value of that historical influence and the need to cater to the demands of Rev. Billy-Bob Podunk’s Televangelist Church of Young Earth Creationism is pretty much nil.

      Since I was trained as a religious scholar, I’m sure you’ll see a lot more articles in the future regarding religion; you’ve already seen my position on Islam and now on Christianity, and sometime in the next couple of months there will be one where I tackle “New Atheism” and its own absurdities. What you’re seeing is not hostility toward Religion, but a hostility toward Religious Collectives and their dogma.

    • Kenny Johnson

      Thanks for the reply. I guess I’m a little adrift because I do not interact much with political Christians. I’m Roman Catholic but I was educated by Jesuits.

      I guess when it comes to Christianity and you talk about the founding did you mean that the founders and the other colonists were less devout than Americans were 100 years later during the revivals that went on during the later have of the 1800′s? If that’s what what you meant when you talk about America not being founded as a Christian nation, I completely agree. How the founding generation viewed Christianity versus how it was viewed just 100 years later are very different. I think a lot of modern Christians, especially political Christians, think of the revivals and not about how the Founders viewed Christianity. The founders were completely on board with biblical non-sectarianism. Which is why the Founders mention religion more than Christianity by name in our founding documents. But, I do think Christianity is irremovable from Western Civilization. I’m really big on Alexander Hamilton and when I was in high school we had to read a lot about him in our religious studies class. He was not a fan of the French Revolution due to how anti-Christian it was. He proposed a Christian Constitutional group to counteract Jacobinism in the United States.

      I am interested in your future articles about religion. I’m fascinated by religion. I’m an engineer by training and most of my studies were from high school and university.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      I meant two things:
      First, that if we described the beliefs and spiritual practices of most of the founding fathers to a typical fundamentalist christian today, but didn’t say who it was, said fundamentalist would almost certainly in all cases say that the anonymous founding father in question is either a “bad christian” or “not a christian”.

      The majority of the founding fathers were universalists, who felt that there is an approach to truth in all religions; a very large number were freemasons (and one was a member of the Hellfire Club, and another a member of the Bavarian Illuminati). A few practiced what a U.S. fundamentalist christian today would call “the Occult” (even among those fundamentalists who wouldn’t automatically describe Masonry as “occult”). Virtually all of the founding fathers were believers in a clockmaker god, not the modern fundamentalist version of “Jesus really really cares who wins the football game”. Several of the founding fathers had views or discussed subjects in Christianity and religion that would outrage the hell out of Pat Robertson, and one famously cut out more than half of the bible and described what remained as the “parts that were probably true”.

      But in the second sense, i also mean that the founding fathers did not establish America as “a Christian nation” in that most of the ideals and values they were applying for the formation of the U.S. system of government and rights did NOT come from Christianity, but from POST-Christian Enlightenment thought. From stuff that had its origin with the Rosicrucians and the Royal Society and went from there. There’s nothing super ‘christian’ about the idea of Democracy, or Citizenship, those were pagan ideas, largely ignored during the period of Christian dominance throughout the dark and middle ages and the renaissance, and only restored as civilizational values AFTER the wars of religion had led the intellectual elite to find guideposts outside of Biblical Law for their political ideas. And ideas like Freedom of Speech were directly anathema to Christian thought, and a product of Enlightenment innovation.

      As for Hamilton, who was always kind of an outlier among the Founding Fathers in so many areas (and was pretty much the founder of the Collectivist streak in American politics, so not one of my favorite guys) was NOT in fact particularly religious for most of the time he was influential in the founding of the U.S. He did become more specifically orthodox in his Christianity in the last couple of years of his life, in reaction to the horrors he saw from the French Revolution (which he blamed on the abandonment of religion). That’s what you’re referring to above.
      But he also would never talk about Jesus. He is generally credited for being the one who made sure that George Washington’s farewell speech at the end of his term as president would talk about “religion” and NOT “christianity”. Even Hamilton was a universalist. Even Hamilton’s views, when presented (without naming him) to a modern U.S. fundamentalist Christian, would be found to be “unchristian”.

      Hamilton was also the one who famously mocked the people who felt the U.S. constitution should have been more religious. Once, when asked why there wasn’t mention of “God” in the constitution, Hamilton grinned and bitingly replied “we forgot”.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      Some people try to argue that Hamilton’s insistence on the appointment of Army Chaplains in the Continental army was proof of his religiosity; it wasn’t. It was purely something he saw as a pragmatic decision for morale purposes.

      In a letter to a friend in 1780, he talked about a military chaplain, citing him as the example to follow. He said that he’s “just what I should like for a military person, except that he does not whore or drink”, and that “he will fight, and will not insist on your going to heaven whether you will it or not”. So the type of chaplains he wanted were ones who wouldn’t try to force people into religion.

      Incidentally, that was only one of two letters (out of a great many) where Hamilton mentions religion at all in the 15 year period between 1777 and 1792. During the key periods of the actual founding of America, Alexander Hamilton was probably the LEAST religious of all the founding fathers.

  • Emilio

    You mention that “most of the ideals and values they were applying for the formation of the U.S. system of government and rights did NOT come from Christianity”

    Which founding values don’t come from Christianity? Separation of Church and State is a uniquely christian value, it comes from Saint Augustine, and Render unto Caesar.
    Individual Rights coming from the creator are also uniquely christian values.
    Democracy is not a christian value, but then the founding father’s didn’t like democracy that much, look at the electoral college and who could vote, not even all white males were able to vote. Slavery? That comes from the old world, or from the reformation and the enlightenment. Humanism? that’s christian.
    Freedom of Expression, that come from Greece.
    I would say most of the founding values of America come from Christianity.

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