The liberal-democratic challenge to Christianity

Nov 6, 2016 by

Many pundits have bemoaned the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in the process wondered if their rise to the top of their respective parties is an anomaly or a sign of deep problems. The book excerpted below, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter Books, 2016), has received little attention in the United States, but WORLD put it on its short list for 2015-2016 Book of the Year in the current events category because Polish scholar Ryszard Legutko goes deep in explaining one big surprise of recent decades: “If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their anti-religious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been.” The selections from the book below give a sense of his argument. —Marvin Olasky

Today it is the legislators and the judges who decide what is and is not permitted, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil in matters of life and death. Until recently, the family ethics was to a large degree shaped—and with good results—by the Christians who continued and developed the teachings of the classical thinkers. But during the last decades this ethics was taken away from them and incorporated into the liberal-democratic mechanism. Dozens of legal decisions were taken directly affecting family and even sexual life, and those decisions, blatantly diverging from Christian teachings—for example, about abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia—became law. Christians were forced to accept the humiliating subordination to a law they thought immoral but whose disobedience is penalized. Quite often, the grounds for these decisions have strong anti-Christian overtones: Christian arguments are dismissed as merely “religious” with the implication that as such they are irrational, parochial, anachronistic, and unrepresentative. In many countries the conscience clauses protecting Christians were either scrapped or made invalid by the courts.

There is virtually no area in which the influence of Christianity has not been challenged. Everything that Christianity imbued with its spirit, legacy, and wisdom—education, morality, sensibility, human conduct, even diet—the liberal-democratic order put to question and in many cases eliminated. Sunday has become a day off from work, not a holy day. Organized actions have been taking place—so far successfully—to lift the ban, still existing in a few regions in Europe, on public disco events on Good Friday. Ash Wednesday is no longer honored and the Christmas season has become a commercial paradise, while Christmas Eve with friends over a beer is more and more encouraged as something chic. The laws and mindsets have been restructured in such a way that no custom or rule having its root in Christianity can withstand the onslaught of liberal democracy.

If the old communists lived long enough to see the world of today, they would be devastated by the contrast between how little they themselves had managed to achieve in their antireligious war and how successful the liberal democrats have been. All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong antireligious bias in which a priest must be either a liberal challenging the Church or a disgusting villain. Is not—one may wonder—this nonreligious and antireligious reality of today’s Western world very close to the vision of the future without religion that the communists were so excited about, and which despite the millions of human lives sacrificed on the altar of progress, failed to materialize?

The triumph of anti-Christianity seems to favor the conciliatory strategy. A lot of Christian communities overpowered by the march of time gave up any idea of a head-on confrontation with liberal democracy, or even of any energetic defense policy. Those that capitulated unconditionally had to perform theological acrobatics to justify their position, and in so doing, agreed to suppress any formative ambitions of their own and remained silent when before their eyes the Christian practices and ideas were being destroyed. After making some timid gestures of resistance at the beginning, they soon agreed to recognize so-called homosexual marriage, to condone abortion, or even to tolerate euthanasia. The ubiquity of liberal-democratic rights and ethical permissiveness may have generated, in a lot of Christians, such a feeling of resignation that any vigorous resistance must have seemed to them futile. The only option left for Christians to maintain some respectability in a new world was to join the great progressive camp so that occasionally they would have an opportunity to smuggle in something that could pass for a religious message.

But this conciliatory attitude on the part of Christians is certainly wrong if it is motivated by the conviction that the current hostility to religion is a result of a misunderstanding, social contingencies, unfortunate errors committed by the Christians, or some minor ailments of modern society. The truth is that all these phenomena, as well as other anti-Christian developments, are the genuine consequences of the spirit of modernity on which the liberal democracy was founded. Modernity and anti-Christianity cannot be separated because they stem from the same root and since the beginning have been intertwined. There is nothing and has never been anything in this branch of the European tradition that would make it favorably predisposed to Christianity. The waves of hostility appeared and disappeared, ranging from outward aggression to indifference mixed with contempt, but never did the tide turn into an open and sincere sympathy. There have been several Christian authors of liberal persuasion who tried to find common elements between Christianity and liberalism, which occasionally produced interesting theoretical insights, but generally the inexorable tendency to liberalize and democratize the world that we have witnessed over the last centuries always supported the forces of anti-Christianity.

Therefore, whoever advocates the conciliatory strategy today fails or refuses to see the conditions in which Christians have been living. It is utterly mistaken to take the position that many do: namely that the Church should take over some liberal-democratic ingredients, open up to modern ideas and preferences, and then, after having modernized herself, manage to overcome hostility and reach people with Christian teachings. One can see why this plan has gained considerable popularity, but whatever its merits, it cannot succeed. During the Second Vatican Council and in the years that followed it, some Christians chose a similar path to be in tune, at least externally, with the liberal-democratic sensibilities so that the enmity would become less acute and the anti-Christian trend be reversed.

The idea of aggiornamento was far from self-evident and a lot of contradictory theories and strategies were put into it. But the long-term effects, whether intended or not, were quite clear. The church architecture became community-centered rather than monarchical; liturgy was simplified so as not to be too absorbing to a modern man who has less and less time for religion; Latin, incomprehensible and unpleasantly elitist, was replaced with the vernacular languages that everybody could understand; the priests ceased to behave, during the mass, like leaders and commanders, and turned versus populum to make an impression of being an equal among equals. All these changes, however, did not blunt the anti-Christian prejudices that the liberal-democratic spirit had been feeding on, nor did they entice more people to enter the Church to strengthen the already-decimated army of the faithful. The good things that were expected to happen did not happen. They did not—let me say it again—because they could not. An aversion to Christianity runs so deep in the culture of modernity that no blandishment or fawning on the part of the Church can change it. Going too far along this road actually threatens the very essence of Christianity. Since the Second Vatican Council, the tendency to obsequiousness has been increasing rather than diminishing, also in Poland, despite the fact that the liberal democrats never made any conciliatory gestures and their demands, paradoxically, became more peremptory. …

All Christians who believe that the liberal-democratic ideology is like an ordinary coat, no different from any other, that they can put on to be able to move around more easily and comfortably but inside which they will still remain the same Christians, make a mistake—and a double one to boot. The first mistake is a wrong choice of strategy. The liberal-democracy ideology uses—no matter that it does so fraudulently—the rhetoric of multiculturalism, which is supposed to give justice to the existence of different “cultures,” which, precisely because they are different, are said to contribute to the richness and diversity of society. But if this were true, then Christians should compete with others for a visible presence and for influence—after all, this is what the coexistence of different groups in a liberal democracy should amount to—and in order to be a successful competitor they should act as an energetic and full-blooded group, strongly committed to their cause, openly determined to imprint their mark on the world. The opposite strategy—obliterating the boundaries, diluting their message in liberal jargon, cajoling the idols of modernity, paying homage to today’s superstitions, self-effacing their identity—condemns Christians to a sad defeat with no dignity and no progeny.

The second mistake is to ignore the fact that the liberal-democratic ideology has long since ceased to be open (if it ever was) and has entered a stage of rigid dogmatization. The more conquests it makes, the less the victors are willing to show clemency to anyone outside the winning forces. The Christians who put on humble faces and declare their readiness to seek a common ground of action for a better world stand no chance to survive, regardless of how far in their self-repudiation they go. Sooner or later they will have to sign an unconditional surrender and to join the system with no opt-out and no conscience clauses, or, in the event of a sudden declaration of non possumus, they will be instantly degraded to the position of a contemptible enemy of liberal democracy. So far, nothing indicates that the regime will lose its ideological momentum.

But the fate of Christianity in a liberal democracy can also be viewed from an external, non-Christian perspective. Those who are not Christians and, as sometimes happens, do not like Christianity, can feel Schadenfreude looking at the problems this religion encounters in the modern world, particularly a disturbing rapidity of secularization. However, such a reaction is shortsighted. Christianity is not just a religion, but a vital spiritual element of Western identity, something that allowed Europe to maintain a strong sense of continuity, linking the ancient with the modern and absorbing into itself a variety of intellectual inspirations. By rejecting Christianity—after having marginalized the classical heritage—Europe, and indeed, the entire West not only slides into cultural aridity, a process noticeable for some time, but also falls under the smothering monopoly of one ideology whose uniformity is being cleverly concealed by the deafening rhetoric of diversity that has been pouring into people’s minds at all occasions and in all contexts.

Christianity is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology. In this respect it is closer to the classical rather than the modern view of human nature. With Christianity being driven out of the main tract, the liberal-democratic man—unchallenged and totally secure in his rule—will become a sole master of today’s imagination, apodictically determining the boundaries of human nature and, at the very outset, disavowing everything that dares to reach beyond his narrow perspective. The only thing he will be capable of doing is occasional, albeit capricious generosity in tolerating some form of dissidence at the far peripheries of his empire. Without a strong competitor the liberal-democratic man will reign over human aspirations like a tyrant. There will appear no one who would dare or be ready, in compliance with the existing rules, to call his reign into question; the rules that exist do not permit such extravagant acts, and a supposition that there might be other rules has long since been discarded as absurd.

One can, of course, imagine that the liberal-democratic monopoly will eventually begin to crack and that new centrifugal forces, from causes yet unfathomed, will be set in motion. Common sense and experience tell us that it is not possible for people to be lulled by one ideology forever and to have their emotions and thoughts organized always in the same way. The war against the Christian heritage, however, may have this unpleasant consequence: when the renewal comes, it will start from a much lower level than the one reached previously by European culture through Christianity. Liberal-democratic man, in order to shake out his habits, superstitions, prejudices, dogmas, self-mystification, hypocrisy, and many other faults, inborn as well as those acquired through a prolonged period of monopolist rule, will have before him a much harder road than did the previous rulers of the human imagination. He is more stubborn, more narrow-minded, and clearly less willing to learn from others. The rediscovery of the Revelation, after denigrating that part of human nature that allowed its prior acceptance, will require new stimuli and a new surge of spiritual energy, of which we cannot, in the time of growing secularization, say anything definite, or even whether they will be at all possible.

From The Demon in Democracy by Ryszard Legutko. © 2016. Published by Encounter Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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