Christianity was a key element, if not the only element, in the founding of the United States. It may also be the country’s undoing.
That is the provocative thesis of an essay by David Bentley Hart in the August/September issue of First Things magazine. Hart is something of a genius, and a man who is far more erudite than I am, so I am simplifying his argument. But the basic thrust is that Christianity offers a proposition that is so radical that by it’s very nature it is a contradiction to the world and worldly power. When it gets mixed in with politics, it can do wonderful things — universities, art, feeding the poor — but also can result in terrible, even catastrophic, ends.
The accomplishments of Christianity are numerous and wonderful. The idea that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and has inherent dignity can ignite in the human conscience a force for miraculous social change, whether it’s the civil rights revolution or faith-based programs that help feed and educate the poor. Yet on the left, Christianity’s revolution in how we view humanity has resulted in a radical egalitarianism that sees virtually every instinct or desire as a “right” bestowed by God, and charges that society is failing if it doesn’t provide food, clothing, shelter, and happiness to every citizen. The golden rule of this philosophy, if you can call it that, is not to judge. Ever. About anything. Except people who aren’t liberals, and they are the devil.
How did we get to this place? According to Hart, it’s because “modernity … understands itself as the history of freedom.” This is due to the revolution caused by Jesus Christ. That is to say, whether one is a believer or not, Christ altered the concept of the human person, and his philosophy had a deep impact on Western thought and in turn Western political order.
By declaring that God could be found in the inherent dignity and beauty of each person, no matter what their station in life, and most especially in the face and lives of the poor, Christ turned the world upside down. Suddenly slaves were not slaves, but the children of God who demanded freedom. Race was no longer important. The poor were not pathetic, but the face of God himself. Over time and as the freedom revolution unfolded, people wanted more and more of it. Christianity saw the birth of hospitals, the university, anti-colonial movements, the civil rights movement, even changes to language itself. There were also, notes Hart, “moral failures [that] were no less astonishing or numerous,” usually brought on by people willfully misinterpreting what Jesus said. But it has been the great movement towards freedom that had been our story for the last two thousand years.
Hart notes that “it is the great cultural narrative that determines for us our highest value, to which all other values are subordinate.” And while the story of liberty has been grand, an amazing “ascent of the individual out of the shadow of hierarchy and subsidiary identity into the light of full recognition, dignity, and autonomy,” we have reached a point in history where the idea of freedom has come to mean something quite new and revolutionary. Hart argues that “the word ‘freedom’ has generally come to mean … libertarian autonomy and spontaneous volition, the negative freedom of the unrestrained or, at least, minimally restrained individual will.”
That observation would normally be nothing you wouldn’t read on any number of conservative websites or on the lecture circuit, but Hart adds a perspicacious, even startling, idea: “All of our modern fables of liberation, in all their contradictory diversity, have sprung up in the shadow of the of the very particular Western history of the Gospel’s proclamation. Resistance to or flight from the law — or rather a sense of the law’s ultimate inadequacy, or even nullity over against us — has from the very first been a vital part of the moral sensibility of the Gospel.” The Gospel gave us Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who gave us the courage to fight unjust laws. But it may have also given us Al Sharpton. No justice, no peace.