Already this election year, fretting about the impact on the life of the Republic of “theocons” and “theocrats” (a.k.a., “serious Christian believers”) has become a blood sport with more bloodletting likely in the months ahead. That makes it a good moment to reflect, with British historian Michael Burleigh, on what Christianity gave the West, of which the United States is one important expression.
Professor Burleigh proposes that Christianity gave the West cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism, for it recognized “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free” as relevant social categories and thus blazed a path beyond tribalism and toward the end of slavery, that ubiquitous human institution. Modern feminism notwithstanding, Christianity also gave the world… feminism, for St. Paul completed his instruction on Christian egalitarianism by reminding the Galatians that, in Christ Jesus, neither “male nor female” had a superior dignity which, in that context and in much of the world today, means that Christianity is the great liberator of women.
Christianity, as Pope Benedict reminded us recently, gave the West the idea of charity as a personal and social obligation; think of the world of cruelty graphically captured in Gladiator and you’ll see the point. Christianity also gave the world a politically viable concept of peace, the peace that St. Augustine first defined in the fifth century as the “tranquility of order.”
Christianity taught that rulers were responsible, not to themselves alone (as so many rulers like to think, then and now), but to transcendent moral norms. Would the concepts of the rule of law, and of rulers responsible to the law, have evolved in the West if, as Professor Burleigh reminds us, “the redoubtable Ambrose, archbishop of Milan…[had not] tamed the Emperor Theodosius?” Or, to cite the more familiar example, if Gregory VII had not confronted Henry II and forced him to recognize the freedom of the Church a freedom that implies limits on state power? It seems unlikely, not least because these ideas didn’t gain currency in the rest of the world until they were brought to the rest of the world by Christians.
Why was this insistence on the Church’s liberty so socially, and ultimately politically, important? Because the freedom of the Church meant that the state (or some other form of concentrated political power) would not occupy every available social space that there would be room in society for other institutions and other loyalties. And that, in turn, made both civil society and the limited, constitutional state possible.
There is more. The bishops of Rome, Professor Burleigh writes, “determined how people thought of time, whether through the calculation of Easter or, from A.D. 525, how they divided human history.” Benedictine monasticism gave the world a new appreciation of work and, with other religious orders, played “a vital role in reclaiming bleak regions for human habitation.” Important as monastic agriculture was, however, there was still more: for “just as early Christianity had eradicated men slaying each other in arenas, so the medieval Church endeavored to create oases of peace within endemically violent societies.”
Burleigh, the Oxford don, argues that Christianity’s contributions to the civilization of the West have been ignored or caricatured as “divisive, fraudulent, or oppressive” by “people with little or no historical knowledge” of the subject. (Dan Brown, call your office.) Worse, this caricature of a vibrant public Christianity as inherently dangerous for democracy is a caricature in service to the idea that secularism is the only possible “neutral” ground on which a democratic political community can conduct its life. But when, Burleigh asks, did those arguing this case “last visit the Vendee, Auschwitz, or Vorkuta to see secular rationality in all its glory”?
An increasingly godless Europe lives in a disenchanted cosmos from which even the mystery of life itself seems to have fled hence, Europe’s catastrophic fertility rates. America is Europe’s child. Perhaps it is now time for the child, in an act of filial piety, to return the life-giving and freedom-sustaining gift of biblical faith to its parent while modeling “the Church in the modern world” at home.
This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.