Christians occasionally daydream about winning the culture over for Christ. But this would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason. Any teacher is impressed by the degree to which cultural doctrines are thoroughly and universally believed and flawlessly applied in all particular situations; and they are not merely mouthed by children who, though really skeptical of what they are saying, mouth the words anyway. They really believe all that stuff – they even see it as self-evident. Is that how I want someone to believe in Christ? Would I feel better if I could just silence dissent with a taboo word or the confidence that the thoughtcriminal would lose his job?
No, no, no. No way. I would not want to be like them.
This is not quite the same thing, but this is the place to mention it. One of the most surprising things about The Divine Comedy is how passionately Dante denounces the popes of his era — not as a Catholic dissident, but as a faithful, believing Catholic. If you thought separation of church and state was a modern idea, read Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy in the 14th century. For Dante, worldly power passing into the hands of the Church, and in particular to the Bishop of Rome, was a disaster for both Church and State. When the Sacraments became instruments of statecraft and geopolitical maneuvering, as they certainly did under the papacy in Dante’s day, the means of salvation is profaned and compromised. Prue Shaw says that in this way, Dante was like the Solzhenitsyn of his day: someone who put his life at risk by denouncing abuse of power. It is impossible — well, impossible for me — to read Dante, and to learn details of what led to his prophetic stance against papal abuses, and believe that the marriage of Church with State is ever good for the Church.
Reading Dante these past few days, I’ve thought about my Russian Orthodox theologian friend in Russia, who has been telling me for a couple of years now that the Church’s close relationship with the Russian State is ravaging the Church’s soul. He tells me that we American Orthodox are too naive about the rebirth of Christianity in his country. Yes, it’s happening, and thank God for it, but the way it’s happening is coming at a high cost to the Church’s moral integrity. Or so he says. A Russian Orthodox émigré friend emphatically agrees, telling me that America, for all its problems, is a far, far better place to be a practicing Orthodox Christian. I confess that having grown up in a country in which the State and the Church(es) are constitutionally separated, it is hard for me to understand in detail what they mean, but I take their word for it.
Back to the original point, from the Just Thomism blog. All churches, by definition, conceptualize and defend a concept of the Sacred. But you don’t have to be formally religious to believe that some things are Sacred. And you don’t have to be any sort of religious believer to be a self-righteous prick. A useful thing for all of us to think about, no matter where we are in the culture war: What would victory look like? How would we treat the defeated? Would we impose a Versailles-style peace, thus setting the stage for a terrible backlash and resumption of the war? And, what would victory — the achievement of cultural hegemony and commanding power over the defeated — do to us? Would we become that which we hate?
As I write this, I’m thinking about a secular liberal I used to know. We weren’t friends, but we moved in the same circles. He was a smart guy and a paragon of crusading righteousness. You couldn’t joke with him about anything; he was always looking for signs of deviation. He was the sort of person who, if ever he gained power, would be ruthless with his enemies. This sort of person recurs through history, in all guises. It was easy for me to see this guy for the nasty piece of work that he was, because his beliefs were so antithetical to mine, and he made such an ass of himself defending them. But if we held to the same basic views, it’s possible that I would have seen him as somebody who was wound a little too tight, maybe, but basically on the right side, and therefore not someone to be feared.
But he really was, and is, someone to be feared. People like that always are. They tend to be effective culture warriors, because they are tireless and uncompromising. Their moral ardor is not compromised by a sense of tragedy, of their own fallibility, of basic humanity, or even something as trivial as a sense of humor. I’ve been around people on the conservative side of the culture war who are like that; in those instances, I would rather be having a drink at a gay bar. I’m serious about that.
[H/T: First Things]
UPDATE: This, by the way, is why Sam M. is right about me in saying that I’m a lousy cultural policeman.