Yesterday, Joe Carter cited an interesting passage from a recent address by the Catholic Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput:

Two of the biggest lies in the world today are these: first, that Christianity was of relatively minor importance in the development of the West; and second, that Western values and institutions can be sustained without a grounding in Christian moral principles.

Archbishop Chaput was speaking in Slovakia, whose government was subjected to pressure from the EU in recent years because Slovakia’s government had made a treaty with the Vatican that would require Slovakia to allow Catholic hospitals in the country to refuse to perform abortions. Indeed, the Slovak coalition government collapsed four years ago on account of this pressure. The archbishop’s remarks may have been alluding to that specific dispute, and they also touched on the broader question of whether the current European project has any relationship to Europe’s Christian heritage. The unfortunate irony is that the European project has been a favorite of many Christian Democratic parties in western Europe, and it has ended up becoming the bane of those Christian Democratic parties in central and eastern Europe that are still more firmly-rooted in their Catholicism.

There is much in the address that I agree with, but what struck me about the passages Carter cited was this paragraph:

Our societies in the West are Christian by birth, and their survival depends on the endurance of Christian values. Our core principles and political institutions are based, in large measure, on the morality of the Gospel and the Christian vision of man and government. We are talking here not only about Christian theology or religious ideas. We are talking about the moorings of our societies – representative government and the separation of powers; freedom of religion and conscience; and most importantly, the dignity of the human person.

Whenever I see or hear politically conservative and religiously traditionalist Christians make an argument like this, it brings me up a little short. There is some truth in this claim, but it seems to me that it is especially important for traditionalist Christians to distinguish between arguing for the undeniable Christian heritage of Western societies and the importance of Christianity for the flourishing of those societies, which Christians should argue for, and making claims for the direct link between modern political arrangements and the Gospel.

For one thing, the latter claims are very debatable, and I doubt that they are persuasive to anyone who is not already inclined to accept them. For most of Christian history, the Fathers of the Church and Christian theologians would have rejected the idea of freedom of religion as we mean it, and they would have been mostly indifferent to or agnostic about the relative merits of one system of government compared to another. To the extent that the Fathers of the Church shared the philosophical assumptions of their times, they would have regarded democracy with the same horror that the Founding Fathers generally did, and they might or might not have regarded a Polybian constitution as a good way to organize a polity. On the whole, modern Orthodox Christian polities only very belatedly and grudgingly accepted ideas of representative government and separation of powers, and in Catholic Europe the proponents of these ideas were as often as not virulently anti-Catholic.

One of the things that always bothered me about George Bush’s revolutionary rhetoric was how he identified the expansion of political freedom with God’s design for man, which makes God’s plan one of narrow political deliverance rather than deliverance from death. These claims that representative government and separation of powers have some grounding in Christianity bother me in a different way. Probably the most thoroughly Christianized state in the medieval world was Byzantium, but it retained a late Roman autocratic system of government for its entire existence, so what is the connection between political structures and Christianity? Because the experience of most of Christian history in most parts of the world does not fit this picture of Christianity as the foundation of modern constitutional government, these claims have to privilege the Christianity of certain parts of western Europe and North America as the norm when it was clearly the exception. Furthermore, the reason for privileging Christianity from these parts of the world becomes an expressly political one. In other words, the quality or acceptability of one’s Christianity becomes dependent on the extent to which it complements the political values of modern Western states. Tying the importance of Christianity to the instrumental claim that Christianity is necessary because it created or undergirded our political culture takes us closer to defending Christianity in terms of little more than “Christian-flavored civic religion.” Even if it were true, I’m not sure that Christians should want to make that argument.

I had the same reaction after reading this column by William Murchison. Murchison makes a similar claim:

Where on earth do claims to liberty under law arise if not from the heavily plowed ground of Christian belief concerning man—and, as we would add nowadays, woman—as the special creation of God, worthy of protection against tyranny, oppression and other awful incidents of existence? No God—no Christian God at any event—no liberty, no freedom, no personhood, is the rule of thumb.

Islam’s claim to partake of “Abrahamic faith” falls short of the Christian understanding in all its fullness. Were it otherwise, wouldn’t one expect to see robust democratic republics throughout the Islamic world, full of Barney Franks and Nancy Pelosis (with maybe the random Mitch McConnell) instead of the despotisms that squash and mismanage their peoples? Where are they?

The first paragraph can be defended, but the second makes no sense. Possibly Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh are insufficiently robust democratic republics, or perhaps there aren’t enough of them to satisfy Murchison, but that isn’t the main problem with this second paragraph. If Islam falls short of the Christian understanding in all its fullness, and both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches clearly teach that it does, it is because Islam does not recognize the full divinity of Christ or the unity of the Three Persons of the Godhead. From the Christian perspective, if Muslims around the world accepted those fundamental teachings (i.e., accepted the central truths of Christianity), the present political arrangements in many Muslim countries would tell us very little about their religion, which should tell us that there is not necessarily a strong connection between the religion people profess and the political structures that prevail in their countries. It seems to me that Christians can resist the falsehoods that Archbishop Chaput identified without endorsing claims of questionable validity.