The political religion of modernity

We have often spoken at VFR about how liberalism, in its crusade to eliminate all discrimination and make more and more of society conform to a single, universalist idea, progressively thins out the culture until nothing is left. In a talk given in 1996, I approached this reductive aspect of liberalism from a different point of view: the transformation of the Catholic religion of the Middle Ages into Protestantism, then of Protestantism into modern secular democracy, and then of modern secular democracy into the postmodern religion of the self.

Here is the talk, which I have somewhat modified and expanded:

Or, from Corpus Christi to the Macarena
Lawrence Auster
Catholic Renaissance
New York City
October 1996

The other day I saw Governor Roy Romer of Colorado give a speech on tv in which he argued that, because of computers, we now have the ability to change the environment so that we can raise children’s IQ scores by 25 points. Listening to Romer I was struck, not by his vapid utopian ideas, but by the excessive, evangelical fervor with which he expressed them. It was as though he actually felt that computers were going to save the world. As I observed his intonations and facial expressions, the thought came to me more vividly than ever before that there is an emptiness in the soul of modern man, namely the absence of any experience of the divine order of reality, and that modern man attempts to fill that void, not by turning back to God and his divine order, but by worshipping with ever more desperate insistence man’s own ability to transform the world.

The political religion of modernity, which is the topic of our discussion this evening, is not just an abstract intellectual concept, but a concrete experience that takes place in the psyches of its adherents. It is this psychological dimension of the political religion of modernity, or rather one thread of it, that I would like to speak about.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk and noticed two pieces of paper which happened to be lying next to each other. On one paper was a crude sketch I had made of a wall detail in the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England, where I travelled last summer. To stand in the Lady Chapel of the Ely Cathedral, the largest Lady Chapel in England, even with almost all of the original stained glass gone and the heads of the wall carvings knocked off by the Reformation, is like an experience of heaven. There was one minor architectural feature of the Lady Chapel that especially caught my attention, the wall decorations framing the carvings, a familiar element in Gothic architecture, with two moldings in a sort of zigzag pattern forming a boundary around the space for the wall carvings. But it was done in such a way, the way the two lines interacted, that it had this deep effect on me as a communication of divine truth. So I had made a crude sketch of it to remember it by.

On the other piece of paper was a remark by Jack Kemp which I had written down from an interview Kemp had given on C-SPAN. Speaking with great fervor about the idea of freedom as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Kemp had said: “Jefferson did not write that just for white people but for all people, not just for America but for all countries, not just for one time but for all times.” As I looked at these two pieces of paper, one with the sketch of the architectural detail of the Ely Cathedral and one with the quote of Jack Kemp, I thought, here are two completely different types of truth. How Western man went from the truth as expressed in the Ely Cathedral to the truth as expressed by Jack Kemp is the story of the political religion of modernity.

For the men and women of the late Middle Ages, the truths of Christianity were not communicated primarily through Bible reading and sermons, as it was for the Protestants who followed them and who created the United States, but through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, through liturgy and music, through sacred art and architecture, and through the pilgrimages, plays, and processions that made up much of the multilayered fabric of medieval life. Touching all sides of human sensibility, these ritual acts and aesthetic forms were designed to awaken in men’s souls an experience of the reality of God and the kingdom of heaven. They outwardly expressed the inward core of Christian experience, the transformation of our sinful nature through participation in the life of God and the conforming of our will to his: “God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.” “Abide in me, and I in you.” “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

For the medieval Christian, truth could never be merely a matter of abstractions, because divine truth was experienced through the concrete acts of the sacraments and through the concrete images of art and architecture. God’s truth was infinite, but man, experiencing that truth through particular forms, and as a member of a particular community, knew himself to be limited.

The Protestant Reformation changed the Christian experience on a profound level. For Protestants, salvation comes less through communion with God than through faith in a proposition about God, namely the proposition that Christ by dying for us has saved us from our sins. According to Luther, the mass is not an act of communion with Christ, but the sign of our faith in Christ’s promise of salvation. Even though Luther affirmed the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine, he radically reduced the meaning of the Real Presence, insisting that it was nothing more than a “memorial sign” of the validity of the divine promise: “You have seen that the mass is nothing else than the divine promise or testament of Christ, sealed with the sacrament of his body and blood.” [Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.]

The Calvinists of course abstracted the Faith even further. By stripping Christianity of its outward form and beauty, and reducing the Eucharist from an act of participation in God’s being to a sign of faith in God’s promises, the Reformation made words the central focus of salvational experience. For the great eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards, the proof of grace was an individual’s experience of “the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God.” [Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine And Supernatural Light”]. The divine word, and the assurance of salvation as experienced by the individual in his own conscience, rather than sacred acts and liturgy and images experienced through participation in the collective body of the Church, had become the primary vehicle of truth.

Protestantism did not constitute the political religion of modernity, but it prepared the way to it, by taking the multileveled, embodied spirituality of medieval Christianity and concentrating it, as it were, on the divine word alone. It was the Enlightenment which completed the process by secularizing the promise of salvation. French writers in the eighteenth century propounded laws based on rational, universal principles by means of which a perfect society could be created. As de Toqueville writes in The Old Regime and the French Revolution:

[T]here was gradually built up in men’s minds an imaginary ideal society in which all was simple, uniform, coherent, equitable, and rational in the full sense of the term. It was this vision of the perfect State that fired the imagination of the masses and little by little estranged them from the here-and-now. Turning away from the real world around them, they indulged in dreams of a far better one and ended up by living, spiritually, in the ideal world thought up by the writers.

In the more conservative American experience, the fountainhead of this secularized word-magic was the Declaration of Independence—or rather it was Abraham Lincoln’s cult of the Declaration of Independence, in which he re-interpreted that political document as a mandate for world redemption. In the Declaration (at least as those who came after Lincoln saw it), a nation dedicated to human equality had brought itself into being by words alone, words that two centuries later still have the power to thrill the soul of any sensitive person, even one who is alert to their harmful implications. The Declaration has thus exercised a quasi-religious power over the American mind. In America, all of Western man’s capacity for religious experience, all his capacity for piety and honor and loyalty, have become centered in the words of the Declaration, engendering a restless desire to keep repeating the thrill by repeatedly invoking those words and ideals. For the believers in modernity, phrases such as “All men are created equal” (or its mandatory contemporary equivalent, “I have a dream”) create such a deep impression of excitement (the modernists’ verbal, abstract substitute for religious experience) that the only way they can express those feelings is to seek to impose those ideas, at least rhetorically, on the entire world. But it is an experience increasingly abstracted from real life and ordinary rationality, not to mention from the divine order of existence. It is a purely mental, verbal experience, yet so powerful to its adherents that it becomes the motivation for tireless efforts to transform the world.

The fervor set in motion by “All men are created equal” never burned in any soul so brightly as in Abraham Lincoln’s, nor did anyone else communicate it so articulately. Lincoln was St. Paul to Jefferson’s Jesus, he was the man who turned Jefferson’s phrases into a political religion that is still with us today. That religion consists in the belief that America is not a nation and a people but an ideological project designed to achieve liberation and fulfilment for all persons everywhere. In February 1861, while on route to the nation’s capital to assume the presidency, Lincoln stopped over at Philadelphia to give a short speech at Independence Hall. Declaring that he had never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln then wondered what great principle or idea it was that carried the men of the American Revolution through the dangers and hardships they faced:

It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. [Great applause.] It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. [Cheers.] That is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.

Lincoln thus redefined the American Revolution as the beginning of a utopian global crusade, to which Americans must devote themselves. And what is the goal of that crusade? It is that all persons should have all arbitrary obstacles to freedom and self-realization removed from their path and thus be given an “equal chance”—every person in the whole world.

There are several problems with this noble sentiment. Most importantly, Lincoln did not say anything about the social and moral order within which this individual fulfillment is to take place—and without which true fulfillment for human beings is impossible. To make a religion of individual opportunity, while remaining silent as to the moral limits and cultural distinctions that are the bedrock of social order, was to set in motion a dynamic that must ultimately result in the destruction of all social order. Lincoln could not imagine that as a result of his words the day would arrive when the whole substantive content of American and Western civilization, which he himself took for granted, would come to be seen as among the “weights” that must be removed in order for men to become truly equal and free.

Lincoln also could not have imagined a problem that is all too familiar to us today: that claims made in the name of “equal opportunity” have no inherent limit. To take a concrete example, “equal opportunity” now means the inclusion of women with men in the military forces, so as to allow women the chance to have a military career, which in the past has been denied them by irrational and invidious discrimination. “Equality of opportunity” has also come to mean that the illegitimate children of these female soldiers, conceived in liaisons with male soldiers and born while their mothers were in military service, are to be cared for by the military establishment at taxpayer expense. While Lincoln would have been shocked at this radical interpretation of “equal opportunity,” it has been effected in the name of a principle that he would have difficulty opposing, since it was his own: that “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all [wo]men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

Nor does the potential meaning of equal opportunity stop with the absurdities just described, because according to Lincoln all people in the world, not just Americans, must have this equal chance. Indeed, so urgent is Lincoln’s call for universal equal opportunity, that if we were to apply his rhetoric to our own situation, we should be “willing to be assassinated on the spot” rather than give up the hope that women in every country on earth should one day have the equal opportunity to serve with men in their nation’s armed forces and have their illegitimate children taken care of by the military services. As silly as that may sound, it is but the logical extension of the Lincolnian idea (as stated by Republican Newt Gingrich, echoing Lincoln’s 1861 Philadelphia speech) that it is America’s mission to lead a global order dedicated to “freedom and opportunity for all humans.” This mission to impart America’s extreme ideology of individual rights and entitlements to all of humanity can only be accomplished by displacing every existing moral code and culture on earth, as well as every natural and common sense understanding of sex differences.

Similarly, when Jack Kemp says that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence “not just for one country in one time, but for all countries in all times,” the suggestion is that America is not to be understood as a finite human society under God, but as the incarnation of ideals to be imposed on all time and space. Christ said: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The worshippers of Americanism have appropriated the divine authority of Christ’s words for their own secular project of global democracy.

The religion of good intentions

But we haven’t reached the end of this strange process. As the secular democratic word, divorced from its divine origins, becomes increasingly inflated, abstract, and hysterical in the mouths of people like Kemp and Gingrich, and as the actual society we’re living in becomes ever more incoherent and alienating, the word begins to lose its power to move people, and a new and very different cult starts to take its place.

In this case, the ideological focus shifts from the universal “word” of democracy to the self who believes in that word. Love of ideas, the form of classical liberalism or neoconservatism, devolves into love of oneself for believing in those ideas. The emphasis of liberalism shifts more and more away from the external good the liberal is trying to achieve to the internal feeling of goodness of the liberal himself. Everything liberals do is done to confirm this feeling in themselves. And the main thing modern liberals love about themselves is their politically correct, liberal intentions. This smug narcisism—seen in many prominent contemporary personalities as well as in every fashionable magazine and advertisement—is the proof of liberal virtue. If you love yourself, you’re a success. And, once again, this self-love justifies and confirms itself through embrace of the “correct” liberal views. That is why the glaring failures and contradictions of liberalism never weaken the liberals’ faith in it. The disasters resulting from their policies never discredit the policies because the liberals’ demonstration of their good intentions is their policy. And that policy always succeeds. Just as Luther’s writings moved the center of Christian experience from the objective reality of Christ and the truth of the Church’s teachings to the individual’s subjective feeling of being saved, so modern liberalism moved the center of political experience from the universal ideas of classical liberalism to the individual’s experience of being a good person.

The above considerations may help us answer a troubling question. How is it that the modern liberals, who don’t believe in God or moral truth, have inexhaustible energy and certainty, while people that do believe in God and moral truth have less energy? And the answer is: the liberals have so much energy because they don’t believe in God. Liberalism is a religion of immanence. Christianity or conservatism places the truth above the individual and his desires; transcendent truth is hard to attain and live by. To seek to order one’s life according to the will of God or some other objective standard higher than oneself is difficult and filled with uncertainties. Constant failure makes the self seem inadequate. By contrast, the psychic charge one gets from believing in one’s own goodness is immediate and satisfying. The religion of good intentions works. Mrs. Clinton, for example, as dull and boring as she is, glows with a self-regard that is almost erotic. Many other leading liberal figures and celebrities have a similar quality, if not at quite so high a wattage as Mrs. Clinton. So modern liberals have an energy that Christians and conservatives don’t have—it is the energy of immanence—a love of the self, the self that is sanctified by its own good intentions.

This is why liberals always aim at abstract utopian ideals that can’t be pinned down or even realized in this world. “Diversity,” “equality,” “peace process,” are objects of one’s good intentions. No failure can ever be attributed to such an ideal. Both the ideal, and the self that derives its self-esteem from it, are immune to any objective test. It is a self-enclosed, self-feeding system.

To summarize the three stages of liberal decadence:

1. Instead of believing in God, the classical liberal believes in a secular “idea” like democracy.

2. The focus then shifts from the objective idea to the goodness of the person who believes in that idea.

3. Finally, the focus becomes simply the person himself, his own sense of immanent grace and chosenness. Politics becomes the politics of self-love, expressed through ritualized celebrations of one’s own compassion.

The 1996 Democratic National Convention was a striking illustration of this emerging cult and culture. The Convention offered, in place of political ideology, a bath of feminized sentiments; in place of words, a choreographed dance of images. Instead of a group of like-minded individuals responding to the quasi-divine word of democratic truth, there were sentimentalized rituals and endless processions of crippled movie stars, AIDS sufferers, and other assorted victims, climaxing with the Vice President of the United States describing in a hushed pious voice how his sister had died from lung cancer. This whole spectacle was projected onto giant screens by the most advanced techniques of electronic imagery, and accompanied by the sound of soft rock, while the people in the hall kept dancing to a sleazy Latin American song called the Macarena.

In short, we seem to be undergoing a reversion from the secular culture of the democratic word to an image-based, sentiment-based, and sensation-based culture which in some curious respects resembles the culture of the late Middle Ages. Far from expressing Christian truth, however, the images and sounds of this new culture communicate the New Age cult of human self-worship and victimhood, the cult of Pop-Cultural, Multicultural Man, the religion of Sexually Liberated, Totally Compassionate Humanity. President Clinton, with his shameless yet empathetic persona, is the perfect representative of this new culture.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 01, 2003 02:00 AM | Send


Thank you for posting this, Lawrence.

There is no disagreement between us concerning the nature of the liberalism we oppose. I am less certain, however, that I agree with you concerning what we should support.

If the liberals want to abolish all distinctions, does it follow that we ought to preserve them all, or give them equal weight? Might not some distinctions be more important, more worth defending, than others? Is it really true that abandoning any single distinction puts us on a slippery slope to liberalism?

Posted by: charlie on August 1, 2003 12:01 PM

The new issue of Policy Review has an article, “The Liberal Spirit in America,” by Peter Berkowitz. It is more or less an ode to liberalism, though it does spend a great deal of time examining the possibility of liberalism choking itself off. On the other hand, there is next to no self-reflection on the ideal of liberalism, liberal freedom, beyond championing that freedom as an obvious goal. The real problem with the ideal of freedom as it is presented there is that it simply describes an absence of restraint; the article does not present a concept of freedom as the opportunity to follow a transcendent good. At least not a good beyond that of more liberal freedom.

I find your description of modern liberalism as being primarily motivated by self-worship interesting in view of this article. Reading carefully, one can see that Berkowitz is describing a state where human beings have made themselves gods. He writes that some limitations remain, of course, but he is bullish on the promise of their removal by genetic engineering. Yet the main characteristic of divinity is already available – perfect goodness through obedience to the liberal spirit. Though antiquated ideals of good and evil still exist, liberal freedom removes the need to trouble ourselves over them.

The article is here:
It is not technically released yet, but they have placed it on the website, though there are no links that would allow one to find it normally.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on August 1, 2003 12:12 PM

Charlie writes:
“Is it really true that abandoning any single distinction puts us on a slippery slope to liberalism?”

I don’t see where Mr. Auster said that it does, but it is an interesting question. What truthful, factual, actual distinction is it possible to abandon in all conceivable circumstances? If it isn’t really abandoned in all conceivable circumstances then it isn’t really abandoned, is it?

Posted by: Matt on August 1, 2003 12:57 PM

This notion that there are factual distinctions that can be universally abandoned — treated as if they do not exist and are not a part of the truth of our being — is indeed liberalism or proto-liberalism. It assumes that we have attributes that universally don’t matter, and constructs a political religion with a nihilistic mode (what we are doesn’t matter) and a narcissistic mode (my assertion of the meaninglessness of your attributes is what makes me an unassailably good person).

Posted by: Matt on August 1, 2003 1:02 PM

The issue, of course, is race and Mr. Auster’s demand that we identify ourselves as whites and, what’s more, take some unspecified political action in defense of “white” culture.

He sometimes writes as if de-emphasizing race is a fatal step into liberalism. When I said I didn’t find race a very useful or important distinction, his response was that my comments illustrated a typical liberal pathology, and he seized the occasion to rehearse his by-now-familiar analysis of the liberal mind.

Posted by: Charlie on August 1, 2003 1:21 PM

Matt wrote: “… my assertion of the meaninglessness of your attributes is what makes me an unassailably good person.”

Wow! Talk about boiling liberalism down to its essence!

As for Charlie’s criticisms, I wonder why he’s going after me on race in this thread. My article doesn’t mention race specifically and doesn’t say anything about a white racial identity. It deals with the evolution of the modern liberal psychology out of Protestant and secular democratic propositionalism.

Let us hope that Charlie has not embarked on a search for the White-Racist Whale. That is a perilous journey from which few people return. :-)

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 1, 2003 1:36 PM

There is reason to believe that actual reality subsists in a middle ground between “race is everything” and “race is nothing”. Liberalism makes the human will the “is everything” attribute in its political religon, and places race in the “is nothing” bucket along with everything else. An Aristotlean middle ground that repudiates equality and propositional ideality can be found in far too few places, but one of them is in the writing of Lawrence Auster. A far as I can tell Charlie is with the “race is nothing” crowd although as always there is an unprincipled hedge. That may be wrong, but it is my impression of Charlie’s posts: sure race is a valid real distinction, but it really doesn’t matter.

Posted by: Matt on August 1, 2003 1:40 PM

My last comment about Charlie is unfair, since, in agreeing with Matt’s critique of the liberal attack on our attributes, I was implicitly including race among the attributes that are being wrongfully attacked.

So, Charlie, fire away, though I don’t think this thread is the best place for it.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 1, 2003 1:44 PM

Thanks to Mr. Auster for encouraging Charlie even though it is off topic. The other article has dropped off “the charts.” These things need to be hashed out. (The above article though cries out for attention.)

Which reminds me. I agree with Mr. Auster’s productive expressions to Abby and hope she will return with her superior mind in order to continue asking hard questions.

Posted by: P Murgos on August 1, 2003 6:27 PM

Lawrence, I’m sorry if you see my comments as an attack. I meant them, in all sincerity and respect, as a request for clarification.

I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that the reason you dug up and posted a talk you gave several years ago was that you thought it relevant to the discussion in that other thread. Just as, for example, you have now posted another note about a truly racist site you found while doing some web searches. Your posts have common, related themes, and so it seems appropriate for your readers to carry some threads of discussion from one to the other. (I’m not the first to have done so.)

This site has devoted a great deal of space to analyses of the liberal mind. I agree with most of those analyses, and I join everyone here in standing against liberalism. But what hasn’t been talked about as much, or in as much painstaking detail, is what a traditionalist conservative should stand *for*. So I’m keenly interested to know what you mean by “white” culture when you say we ought to defend it.

When I offered some possibilities in that other thread, you said that I was making the mistake of reducing everything to religion. It seems to me that the talk you posted here runs the same risk. So I ask you once again: what is it —- if not reverence for the transcendent and the traditions (or concrete objects) which teach about it —- that you mean by “white” culture, and why should we defend it?

But let me put the issue another way: is a de-emphasis of the concept of race consistent with a traditionalist conservatism? Or does an emphasis on racial distinctions go to the heart of what traditionalist conservatism is?

Matt, I don’t think “race is nothing” accurately describes my position. “… race is a valid real distinction, but it really doesn’t matter” is an accurate paraphrase, but I don’t see how, without exaggeration, you get from there to “race is nothing”.

Mr Murgos, apparently you find my questions non-productive, or the result of an inferior mind. I am a simple soul, I admit. But I had hoped that my questions, no matter how plodding they might be, would elicit some clarifying remarks of interest to everyone. But if this is not something of interest to most readers, and if Mr. Auster is willing to instruct me privately, I would welcome his email response.

Posted by: charlie on August 1, 2003 10:12 PM

Charlie writes:
‘Matt, I don’t think “race is nothing” accurately describes my position. “… race is a valid real distinction, but it really doesn’t matter” is an accurate paraphrase, but I don’t see how, without exaggeration, you get from there to “race is nothing”.’

If something really doesn’t matter then it can’t be allowed to have any political consequences. If it can’t have any political consequences then it is politically nothing.

Liberals do allow for all sorts of “private” things, where “private” means “cannot be allowed to have any authoritative public consequences”. That equivocation — that something can be something as long as it has no consequences, i.e. is nothing — is a main driver of the Hegelian Mambo discussed elsewhere.

Posted by: Matt on August 1, 2003 10:43 PM

To Charlie,

I think your questions and challenges are legitimate. I don’t think anyone here was saying those points were not legitimate or inappropriate, only that they thought they were wrong. Well, let me qualify that slightly. Maybe there has been a slight suspicion that you were being a bit disingenuous, since it seems incredible that an intelligent person would have absolutely no understanding of what is meant by the white race and its civilization.

To answer the first question: White culture means the culture of white, Western, European man.

To answer the second question: We should defend it because it is everything that we and the people who who preceded us have been. It is Greece and Rome, it is the Germanic tribes who converted to Catholicism and formed Christian nations and created Europe and Western culture; it is the Middle Ages; it is the Renaissance; it is the modern world. In a narrower sense it is the Northern European and British tradition and people which gave birth to the United States. In a wider sense, it is our entire civilizational heritage, including both the European part and the cultural and religious antecedents of Western culture in the ancient Near East and Israel.

Christianity is central to the heritage and spiritual being of Western or European man, with two qualifications: (1) Christianity is not the totality of the West; and (2) there are other forms of Christianity that are not Western. So there is not a simple identity between the two. The Christianity of black Africans and of South American indios is quite different from the traditional Christianity of the West.

As for the purely racial aspect, Samuel Francis said it succinctly at the 1994 American Renaissance conference: “I do not suggest that race as a biological reality is by itself _sufficient_ to explain the civilization of European man—if race were sufficient, there would be no problem—but race is _necessary_ for it.”

However, race is not just a matter of capabilities; it’s a matter of the continuity and identity of a people and their culture. There is now a conscious world movement to destroy the white race; to render whites a powerless minority in every country where they have been the historic founding people and majority. Even if this movement were unconscious, it would be just as destructive. If the people who carry a certain tradition, heritage, memory, way of being, way of doing, is broken up and replaced by other people, that heritage and memory, that continuum, will come to an end. This would be a disaster unparalled in history. In any case, it will be the end of everything that WE are and have been.

Now, I say to Charlie, that faced with these actualities, what I’m saying about white Western culture and the manifest threat to it ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone. It is the people who profess not to understand these realities that have some explaining to do.

However, if you still really don’t understand, I would recommend that you read my speech reprinted in the August 1994 American Renaissance, which you can read online at the below link, or my booklet The Path to National Suicide, which you can order at the second link.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 1, 2003 11:15 PM

Thank you, Lawrence. I appreciate your answer, and will follow up on your references.

Posted by: charlie on August 1, 2003 11:26 PM

Matt wrote: “If something really doesn’t matter then it can’t be allowed to have any political consequences.”

When I first heard this articulation of the problem from Jim Kalb, that race and other particulars are not allowed to have any public or social importance (that’s a close paraphrase), it clarified the issue enormously.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 1, 2003 11:58 PM

Charlie, I was not thinking less of your intellect when I encouraged your questions. My thought was the opposite. I thought you capable of asking hard questions, which I was encouraging. And you did ask hard questions. Thanks for taking the time.

Misunderstandings are so amazing. Charlie’s muted reaction sets a good example.

Posted by: P Murgos on August 2, 2003 12:41 AM

Now that we’ve dealt with issues that were only tangentially related to the article, I hope there is some discussion of the article itself.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 2, 2003 1:51 PM

It’s a good article. It is long, however, and the real juice is at the end, so I’ll add my small bit in hopes that the article is discussed.
I think that love of self for believing in something is actually unrelated to the precise ideals of liberalism. I am somewhat informed by a non-standard religious experience during my youth (I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses). Though you might understandably find my opinion to be colored, I feel that this hyper self-love is a consequence of any evangelic organization. It is quite apparent among some movement conservatives – listen to either Limbaugh or Coulter for an hour, for example.

The necessary conditions seem to be a profound sense of a disordered world, and a trust in a certain organization or set of people to fix it. In order to evangelize effectively, a significant part of the message must be praise of the group members for being part of the special group. And, of course, the way to get ahead in such an organization is to re-excite the already converted with the original message – this in particular involves appeal to the ‘chosen people message.’ This causes a natural self-selection process which creates a particular type of leadership.

The modern liberal does certainly seem to suffer from this particular disease to a great degree. I think part of it is the lack of self-denial that is found in Christianity, which tends to act as a natural antidote. Liberals have only two legs of the evangelical Christian tripod: non-judgmentalness towards individuals, and belief in an evil world. The other problem is the entirely ideological nature of the liberal enterprise. The self-selection process mentioned before is almost entirely self-referential, rather than depending on social standing to any degree. All that matters is faithfulness to the message.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on August 2, 2003 3:25 PM

Thrasymachus is making several interesting points, but I’m especially interested in his comment that evangelicals are non-judgmental toward individuals. I hadn’t heard this before. Can he explain further? Where does this come from? How does it manifest?

This matters because, notwithstanding the general notion that evangelicals are among the most politically conservative people in the country, I have noticed some real softness in them, regarding immigration for example. Also, I was recently shocked when a friend with high-up contacts in the conservative movement told me that the evangelicals were not opposing homosexual marriage.

As for my article, the part about self-love is not the main point but the last of four psychological stages in the transformation of Western man that I outline: Catholic concreteness; Protestant propositionalism; secular democratic propositionalism; and post-modern self-esteem.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 2, 2003 3:50 PM

Mr. Auster,

Non-judgmental in the sense that everyone is a potential candidate for acceptance by the group, and that the ties of brotherhood are meant to be stronger than ties to any particular outsider. In some ways, Christianity has always been quite revolutionary — a religion for the poor and slaves. In non-Christian societies Christianity is quite hostile to group differences. This is naturally extended into the ideal of pure equality. Early Christianity was quite evangelical, and that was quite a revolutionary force against the social groups of the time. Paul says that Onesimus remains Philemon’s slave, only now he is also his brother. That is not a stable condition. Indeed, Christianity destroyed the system of Roman slavery.

In a Christian society, Christianity is a conservative force, and equality is given less importance, which is why slavery could be re-created later.

The argument that I was attempting was that the final stage of liberalism you describe doesn’t seem to be an outgrowth of what had come before so much as it is a symptom of how it is organized.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on August 2, 2003 5:25 PM

What you’ve said would help explain the wide-open attitude of evangelicals toward immigration, but how would it explain their (as I’ve heard) lack of support for conservatives opposing homosexual marriage?

BTW, all this backs up the idea that Christianity, by itself, does not provide the form of a concrete society that can survive in this world. Something from outside Christianity is needed. I think this point is fundamental to understanding and preserving Western culture, since Christianity is the spiritual core of Western culture, and therefore people are the more likely to fall into the delusion that Christianity is the sufficient principle of Western culture.

The problem as always, is the refusal or inability of most people to count beyond one.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 2, 2003 5:47 PM

In light of my last comment, it occurs to me that some wag from the anti-Christian right might come along and say that Western culture has been nothing other than a series of unprincipled exceptions from Christianity. :-)

In fact, non-Christian racialists HAVE made that argument. They’ve said that Christianity was not destructive of Western culture in the past because it wasn’t being consistently followed, but that it is being consistently followed today (i.e., in the form of the demand for the total equality and blending of all people), and therefore has become dangerous to Western man.

I reject that of course. The Christianity of today is a Christianity that has been largely taken over by liberalism. But even a more normative Christianity would still exist in tension with the demands of political existence.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 2, 2003 5:57 PM

That’s all right. According to Paul, Christianity is just an unprincipled exception to Judaism, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.”

My guess about the softening of opposition to homosexual marriage is that even the evangelicals are still part of society. Children are given up by their parents to the government run school system for most of the year. After they turn 18, if they want a decent job, they go to live in a student community called a college where no social rules are enforced (beyond mandatory thought-control in the interests of diversity). The mass media has one and only one message. The number of people who can resist that siren’s wail is extremely small, no matter what faith they are raised with. Indeed, if faith was all that we needed to protect society from disaster, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. (But you made that point already, didn’t you?)

In that vein, I think real social reform will come when people begin to realize that the school system does not teach anything so well as it does dumbness. The parent of average intelligence is able to impart basic literacy to their children in a time period orders of magnitude shorter than the school system ever does. Any parent with an interest in their child’s education will do at least as good as the school system. Moreover, college could quite efficiently be replaced with standardized tests. Basic intelligence tests that don’t need to be studied for would be given to the liberal arts people so corporations could weed out the stupid. (That’s what the majority of college degrees are for today.) The sciences would require a body of knowledge, of course, but it would be entirely up to the student to get that knowledge. He could read books, or sign up with a private instructor, or attend a class for the purpose.

Without the government school scam, there wouldn’t be the constant attack on the ability of parents to transfer the codes civilization on down to their children. And the government wouldn’t be able to decide what those codes are, either.

Whenever I hear a parent say about home schooling, “I admire the parents who do that, but I sure couldn’t spend that much time with my children,” I am amazed at how far our society has gotten away from the basic business of civilization: raising children to carry it on.

One side-point, however. Although public schooling decreased literacy in most of America when it was implemented, it did increase it for the black community. I think that their community has certain problems that are to some degree foreign to our own, and they should be left to determine for themselves which solutions they think are best.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on August 2, 2003 6:37 PM

And as an addendum to the above.

Japan is the only first-world nation that hasn’t tried to solve its under-population problem through mass immigration. Which means that they are the only country that has to seriously think about why their women have stopped having children.

I recently read what a number of Japanese politicians are blaming the problem on: over-education.

Of course, in Japan, college is even more of a joke than it is here. All of high school is preparation for the standardized tests that will decide which college you can go to. College is a period of relaxation between high-school and career. Hiring is done almost completely on the basis of standardized tests and the name of the college that you attended (how good you did on the standardized tests after high school).

Posted by: Thrasymachus on August 2, 2003 6:50 PM

Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter were mentioned as examples of overt self-love among conservatives. I have been contemplating this for some time, as I get more and more turned off by listening to Rush.

My summary is that we exist in a culture that values self-promotion and celebrity status. In order to gain the audience Rush has, one must be a celebrity and must communicate one’s personality, not just ideas, to an audience. In other words, Rush communicates conservative ideas, but operates entirely within an ethos that is anything but conservative.

I often asked myself, as a thought experiment, to picture a mid-1950s radio talk show featuring Bill Buckley, or Richard Weaver, or James Burnham, or Russell Kirk, in which the host was so self-indulgent as to prattle on about the golf he played last weekend, or the football game he went to. It is a measure of how the culture has been degraded in a few decades.

In the postmodern world, in order to be as rich and famous as Rush, or Ann Coulter, or whomever, one must be a “public personality” who is at the center of public controversy against the Left, thereby attracting attention to oneself, rather than merely being a good communicator of ideas and insights. Conservatism needs both the big-audience celebrities and the serious providers of insights in order to succeed in the long run. But, I wonder sometimes if someone like Rush even comprehends my point about 1950’s versus today.

Posted by: Clark Coleman on August 23, 2003 10:38 AM

While I like Rush, I haven’t listened to him in years. (In fact, I don’t listen to talk radio at all.) From the start, I was turned off by Rush’s gabbing about what he was doing last weekend and what football game he went to. But Coulter is much worse. She presents a vulgar, self-promoting personality that is the opposite of what conservatism should stand for. I’m sick of seeing her image on every conservative web site. Also, her arguments are becoming embarrassingly crude and sweeping.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on August 23, 2003 10:43 AM

Very interesting stuff. I was particularly struck by the anti-protestant streak in it. For you, Protestantism is merely a perversion of Cathoicism. While your comments about modern liberals seemed to hit near the mark, I found your comments about Protestants objectionable. An example would be the statement: “…the Reformation made words the central focus of salvational experience.” which is wholly incorrect. The Word is not a mere reference to words (the building blocks of language) but to The Word (the revelation of God in Jesus and in the Bible). From reading your article not only is there no doubt of your derision of Protestants, but there is also a profound lack of understanding of the Protestant faith. It is too bad you have to pound potential conservative allies with this kind of stuff.

Posted by: William Chadwick on February 28, 2004 7:43 PM

While the article contains elements that are critical of certain aspects of Protestantism, I don’t think it’s anti-Protestant per se. That was certainly not my feeling or intention. As I say at the beginning, the article has no pretense to being a definitive view of its subject. I was attempting rather to trace just one dimension of the psychological development from medieval Christianity to modern liberalism. Also, by “words,” I was not at all trivializing the words or the Word. I was saying that in the Protestant experience, the divine words of the Bible, as suggested in the quote by Edwards, become a principal focus of religious experience in a way that I don’t think is true of Catholicism.

I am not anti-Protestant, but I am critical of some of the ways that the Reformation thinned out the Christian experience. In feeling that way, I am in line with the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Anglican church (I attend an Anglo-Catholic parish myself) which felt that the English Reformation, in giving birth to the Anglican Church, had gone too far in ditching Catholic tradition. Thus Anglo-Catholics are highly critical of the founders of their own church such as Cranmer, especially in his extreme Calvinist phase. Yet that same Cranmer, in his more moderate phrase, was also the author of the Book of Common Prayer that we use to this day.

In any case, if I am wrong in anything I’ve said, Mr. Chadwick is welcome to correct me. But nothing useful is gained by his calling me anti-Protestant. It is even sillier of him to characterize my position as a personal “derision of Protestants.”

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 28, 2004 8:23 PM

Having been silly a great many times in my life, I hesitate to defend myself on that score.

If one views a religion (Protestantism) as merely an evolutionary step from the truth (some form of Catholicism in your view) toward a ridiculous and even dangerous political philosophy (modern American political liberalism, in my view), it might reasonably be argued that this is derision for that religion (although of a non-emotional variety).

I hardly should complain about Mr. Auster’s characterizations since I personally see Catholicism and similar religious traditions as a perversion of Christianity. In my view Martin Luther and, to some extent, Calvin are serious heros in the tradition of the Apostle Paul. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the common language of his countrymen. And for that alone he is a hero. But also for his declaration that we are justified by faith. You spoke of “the sacraments” which I believe means things that save. For Protestants there is only one thing that saves: the one time simultaneous act of confession of sins to God, acceptance of Christ’s redemption and the invitation of Him to be ruler of our lives. Our lives will then be lived with the knowledge that everything that is not sin is part of worship. Then true fellowship with God is experienced not through a liturgy but though all of life.

The term anti-Protestant was applied to a “streak” or a line of thought in the essay and was not intended to apply to Mr. Auster’s person. More clearly worded, I might have written: “portions of the essay unfavorablely color Protestantism.” If Mr. Auster wants to say that his essay casts Protestantism in a *favorable* light, then he would join me in silliness.

Having read a great deal of material on VFR, I must say that I am favorably disposed toward Mr. Auster and have no wish to say unkind things to or about him.

Apologies for any spelling or gramatical errors. All of which I blame on my poor application to my studies and my public school education.

Posted by: William Chadwick on February 28, 2004 11:16 PM

It seems that Mr. Auster was focusing on one aspect of Protestantism (its emphasis on the written word) and the fact that such a development within Christendom was a necessary precursor to certain aspects of modernity and postmodernity. That need not be a criticism of Protestant Christianity, just an observation.

Similarly, one could say that the invention of the printing press was a necessary precursor to the development of rationalism and modernity. That is not to say that the printing press is evil or that we should all wish that it had never been invented. It is just to observe a fact of historical development. Much of history is the story of unintended consequences. Such consequences can be traced to the Reformation, to the invention of the printing press, and numerous other things.

Posted by: Clark Coleman on February 28, 2004 11:27 PM

Expanding on Mr. Coleman’s point, we could say that the earlier American democracy of individual rights under law and under God was a precursor to the multiculturalism and nihilism we have today. To make that observation wouldn’t necessarily make one anti-Democratic; in fact, one would greatly prefer that older form of society to what we have now. Yet things do lead to other things.

Mr. Chadwick writes:

“You spoke of ‘the sacraments’ which I believe means things that save. For Protestants there is only one thing that saves: the one time simultaneous act of confession of sins to God, acceptance of Christ’s redemption and the invitation of Him to be ruler of our lives.”

I think both the Catholic Church and the Episcopalian Church (which I personally now refer to in the historical rather than the present tense, since in my opinion the ECUSA’s ordination as a bishop of an openly practicing homosexual means that it has ceased being a Christian church) have a somewhat more nuanced view of salvation. According to the Catholic Catechism, “Faith is the beginning of human salvation. It is the foundation and root of all justification.” The Catechism continues: “The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Greek ‘mysterion,’ which St. Paul uses for the mystery of God in Christ. In this mystery God redeemed mankind through the visible saving act of the Son of God, who was himself visible in our midst as the saving Lord. A sacrament then is a visible reality through which the Lord accomplishes the saving task which that visible reality signifies and promises.”

Similarly yet also differently, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1801) says that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation … We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings…. For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” Concerning the sacraments, the Articles continue: “Sacraments ordained of Christ … be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.”

Thus for Catholics faith is the beginning of salvation, and the sacraments the visible reality through which salvation is accomplished. For Episcopalians (who are, after all, Protestants), faith in Jesus Christ is alone sufficient for salvation, but at the same time the sacraments help quicken and strengthen the Christian life within us. This is the great difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism/Episcopalianism on one side, and low-church Protestantism on the other. For the Catholics and Anglicans, faith is the beginning of salvation (Catholics) or is sufficient for salvatation (Anglicans), but salvation is carried out (Catholics) or strengthened and quickened (Anglicans) through the sacraments. Both faith and the sacraments are intrinsic to the Christian life. For the Protestants, by contrast, the only thing that matters is the individual’s experience of faith, described by Mr. Chadwick as a one-time experience after which the person is simply saved and nothing more needs to be done. In my opinion, Protestantism’s sole emphasis on a one-time experience of faith, combined with its rejection of the sacraments, of the sacramental life, of visible enactments through which the mystery is God in Christ is made concrete and brought more effectually into our lives, not only thins out the Chrisian life terribly, but has a great deal to do with the thinning out of culture—and increasingly the loss of all culture and all national identity—which has happened in the modern world.

I fully recognize the tremendous creative energies that Protestantism released, without which there wouldn’t have been the modern world or the United States of America. On the other hand, I feel painfully the loss of the deeper, more concrete sense of Christian life and Christian culture that was connected with the the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and the Anglican Church up to the mid twentieth century.

This comment has run over length, but I felt the information was necessary to flesh out the Catholic-Protestant difference which was discussed in the original article, and which Mr. Chadwick brought up.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 29, 2004 1:06 AM

Mr. Auster writes:

“In my opinion, Protestantism’s sole emphasis on a one-time experience of faith, combined with its rejection of the sacraments, of the sacramental life, of visible enactments through which the mystery is God in Christ is made concrete and brought more effectually into our lives, not only thins out the Christian life terribly, but has a great deal to do with the thinning out of culture”

It is a frequent misconception about Protestant conversion that it’s quickness and simplicity take away it’s meaning.

I would compare it to a marriage. The vows and the consummation are all that are necessary to produce an official marriage, which appears to make it look easy. American pagans and Christians alike sometimes have a weak view of marriage and are prepared to dump their spouse at any opportunity. But the God of the Bible clearly states his hatred for divorce. If marriage were practiced in the way that Catholics practice salvation, you would never know if you were married or not. You would have to make sure you performed the proper rituals every day and even then you would be told that you are not absolutely assured of your marriage.

True marriage is a lifetime commitment that is not trivialized by the absence of rituals. If you are not physically intimate with your spouse on a given night or even for an extended period of time, it does not alter your marriage state.

When a person enters into a relationship with Almighty God, God takes up residence in that person’s heart. That person is related to God in the most intimate way possible. If that person fails to produce evidence of the presence of the Almighty (love, joy, peace, etc.) it can be reasonably assumed that he has *not* truly entered into a relationship with God. “…He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.”

The result of God dwelling in a human heart are songs, hymns, spiritual songs that are sung spontaneously, but not necessarily ritualistically.

If Mr. Auster only knows Protestants whose lives are not rich with the presence of God then they are not truly Christians. Perhaps the thinning he speaks of is related to knowing people whose lives do not truly belong to God, yet call themselves Christians. Or perhaps Mr. Auster merely likes the old fashioned Catholic services. The music is to his taste. The actions are more enjoyable to him. After all, the phrase “thinned out” is a pretty subjective phrase.

It is hardly fair for me to continue in this vein, since the main point of the essay was to say something about modern liberalism and not to slight Protestantism- even if the slight is a by-product of the argument. No religious conservative of any stripe wants his faith to be branded as the one that naturally progressed to modern American liberalism.

On this last we might all agree: Down with the relativistic, anti-God, secular humanistic worldview of the left. If they all simultaneously converted to some form of conservative Catholicism the country would likely be demonstratively better.

Of course, if history is to be a guide, that might put the Protestants in danger, but at least we could rule out “gay marriage”, abortion, easy divorce and big government as the solution to all problems.

Posted by: William Chadwick on March 1, 2004 2:46 AM
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