Just recently I read a really good, and interesting, piece by Mary Harrington over on Unherd entitled ‘Cultural Christianity an Empty Idea’. Which makes a convincing argument addressing the crisis of conservativism attempting to dress itself in Christian clothing in Europe. A big point in it is the fact that a good number of those who identify as Christians, may not actually be Christians. Harrington writes:
And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd
Christianity to these conservatives is, to borrow from Martin Buber, an ‘It’ that might appear expedient rather than a ‘Thou’ one has a deep relationship and experience of. When reading I couldn’t help but think of the recent conference on National Conservativism Conference that recently took place in Italy. In attendance was Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini who are both singled out in the piece as being examples of Cultural Christianity, this is in addition to Marion Marechal who wasn’t mentioned but might well fit under the label. Helping to head up the conference was Yoram Hazony, the Israeli academic who published the book The Virtues of Nationalism. It is Hazony, however, who I think helps contextualise how Christianity is being exercised in this context.
If we look at the phenomenon that Harrington describes I think we can get a bit more mileage by looking through the lens of Hazony’s nationalist politics, principally in its rejection of liberalism. Hazony writes in his book:
The new world they (imperialists) envision is one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights – all of which evolved in the domestic context of national states such as Britain, the Netherlands, and America – are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
So when Harrington states that the only sure-fire way for Christian Conservativism to define itself is via negativa (‘The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners’) this is only half true. The late and great Roger Scruton wrote of conservativism more broadly:
For Conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is attachment – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs.Roger Scruton, Why it’s so much harder to think like a Conservative, The Guardian
Cultural Christianity in this sense is really speaking about a European nationalist conservativism. Yet the problem with conservativism, and cultural Christianity, is that is isn’t fixed. Harrington points to the example of this in the UK’s SDP party:
Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life, stating that “Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.”
Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban religious non-stun slaughter — a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock “the otherworldliness of these Men of God”. Instead of insisting on “out of touch” doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd
Such incidents are a good example of the contradictions that exist for institutions and individuals that wish to wear the clothing of Christianity but stop short of actually practising it. This is a distinct way of viewing the world and I think can be seen in Hazony’s own writing:
The desire for imperial conquest has a long history of being fueled by universal theories of mankind’s salvation. Christianity, Islam, liberalism, Marxism, and Nazism have all served, in the recent past, as engines for the construction of empire. And what all of them have in common is the assertion that the truths that will bring salvation to the families of the earth have at last been found, and that what is needed now is for all to embrace the one doctrine that can usher in the longed-for redemption.Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
Such a statement from Hazony is essentially reiterating the sentiment expressed by O’Flynn that Christianity, rather than telling people how to live, should rather acknowledge how people live and adjust accordingly. This is consistent with the conservative principle to reject what it perceives as abstract thought for precedent and custom. Hazony appreciates Christianity to the degree to which it doesn’t make universal appeals, or in the words of Harrington goes about ‘imposing actual obligations’.
In such a setting a practising Christian like myself has more in common with a Brother or Sister in the faith who doesn’t share my nationality or my culture. These things might be important to me but they are secondary compared to what unites me to say a believer in India, China, or Brazil. Indeed I would be at odds with a conservative who might support the practices of the BJP in India, in the name of conservativism, who persecutes a Christian under the pretext that Indians can’t, or shan’t, be Christians. My own parish church is made up of a majority of people who hold to Christian doctrine and anthropology and whose ethnicity isn’t traditionally British, let alone Europe.
So the cultural Christians in Harrington’s piece I think are better stood as national conservatives in Europe. She finishes the piece by writing:
Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called “conservative” needs to find a new name for their yearning. “Constructionists”, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd
Constructionists as a term is a little vague, a little universalist, but reaching for the term highlights the very valid point that conservativism isn’t going to dig us out of this hole. We need to be working towards something. This is the same realisation that a number of Christians wrestled with at the close of the Second World War and is beautifully captured by Alan Jacob’s The Year of our Lord who recounts the struggle of Christian luminaries like TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Simone Weil, WH Auden, and Jacques Maritain who struggled, and failed, to find a post-war way forward for Europe as Christians. They were, in essence, the true Cultural Christians who did not merely wear Christianity but were professed Christ for themselves and the society they lived in. Jacobs aggregates these individuals under the term of ‘Christian Humanism’ which one reviewer summarises as:
The Christian God, we’re told, delights in human variety and leaves man “in the hands of his own counsel” in many areas. These thinkers therefore pursued their different muses and put their talents at the service of their Lord, their fellow man, country, and civilization. There is a second lesson to be found here as well: respect for conscience. These days, however, one needs to add: “informed conscience,” perhaps even “trembling conscience.” These men and women were acutely aware that they were under their Lord’s judgment. Public judgments about war and peace, social order and disorder, the formation and deformation of the human person, were not to be lightly rendered. And talents were given to be exercised and to bear fruit. We will be “required to give an account of ourselves” is found twice in the New Testament.
The Christian God thus bestows gifts and freedom and conscience upon his favored creature and Christianity calls its adherents to employ them in tandem for His glory and the salvation of men. Moreover, since Christians belong to two cities, they owe duties to both. And finally, since Western civilization is a civilization deeply bound up with Christianity, having absorbed paganism and spawned modernity, its fate is of concern as well. Something of a first sketch or indication of Christian humanism emerges: It is the thoughtful Christian’s response to his manifold duties and complex vocation.
It needs to be further specified, however. Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself. The rise of fascism, the outbreak of total war, the dangers to and decadence of the democracies—all these were parts of the modern phenomenon. These talented and thoughtful Christians tried to rise to the level of the challenges they posed. To do so, they draw from deep wells, while adapting them to the times.Paul Seaton, Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken, Law and Liberty
Amongst those mentioned even they were not immune to the appeal of cultural Christianity. TS Eliot wrote in his series of lectures, The Idea of a Christian Society:
A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more ‘good Christians’ than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity … The rulers, I have said, will, qua rulers, accept Christianity not simply as their own faith to guide their actions, but as the system under which they are to govern. The people will accept it as a matter of behaviour and habit. In the abstraction which I have erected, it is obvious that the tendency of the State is toward expediency that may become cynical manipulation, the tendency of the people toward intellectual lethargy and superstition. We need therefore what I have called ‘the Community of Christians’, by which I mean, not local groups, and not the Church in any one of its senses, unless we call it ‘the Church within the Church’. These will be the consciously and thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority.TS Eliot, The Idea of A Christian Society: Lecture Three
Under which definition a society like Orban’s Hungary could, arguably, be called Christian despite only 12% attending church regularly. In any case it is greater than the 5% of the UK and the 2% of a country like Finland, despite 70% of people paying the Church tax in that nation. So if we struggle for an absolute definition, relatively speaking there is an argument that Hungary is more Christian than Britain is according to TS Eliot. Especially if we talk about the ‘operating system’ a country works under. After all, Humans are religious creatures and if we do not have a good one it will inevitably be bad and I think it is a rather flat view of religion that objects to a society’s stated wishes on this.
Yet Eliot imagined a way forward which essentially involved a Christian aristocracy gently dragging a nation kicking and screaming back to the cross. Hungary might manage this but countries like the UK cannot even if we wanted to. Eliot’s proposed methodology reflected the approach of many of those mentioned by Jacobs, they wrote but nothing happened, and thus moved on. They were academics, not activists, with the exception of Weil. Their biggest obstacle was what they considered technocracy. The centralisation of power in a world increasingly dictated by data to ends progressively outside the control of growing numbers of people. Seaton writes:
Many of them, however, foresaw their defeat, or at least named the enemy: technological rationality, with its attendant dimming of the intellect and dazzling of the will with the prospect of power and earthly paradise. Jacobs recounts a telling vignette of an encounter between the technocratic Harvard University president, James Conant, and W.H. Auden. Auden later wrote: I saw him as the enemy and I’m sure he saw me likewise. As always, clashing anthropologies and social philosophies were implicated in educational debates. The Christian humanists saw this clearly.
They also saw that modernity could assume various forms: pagan nationalist, Christian humanistic, or deracinated techno-progressive. Their proposal was that only Christian humanism could safeguard the best of paganism and of modernity in a way worthy of man.Paul Seaton, Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken, Law and Liberty
Christian Humanism, therefore, is the sole means to charting the via media between the dehumanising and deforming rocks of nationalism and liberalism. It is a step away from the opportunistic adoption of Christianity by conservatism in the West and a return to a fuller and more enchanted vision of Humanism than that which we see in liberalism.
As if hinting at a way forward, Jacobs, in his afterword, points to another figure who emerged a generation later than those he followed in his book. This was Jacques Ellul, a radical French Protestant Pastor, Local Politician, and Academic who Jacobs offers as someone who names the beast and provides the tools by which to fight it. Ellul in the epilogue of his most pointed work on the topic, The Betrayal of the West, states that the West is in the midst of a culture of death, of suicide, and that it is consumed by self-negation. A post-liberal response is to reject this self-negation, but we must not fall into the opposite trap of the conservatives by trying to appreciate the gift without the giver. We must not be like Lot’s wife who looks back as Sodom is consumed. The West was the fruit of a society baptised in Christ and this generation, along with its institutions, must be baptised again if things are to be made aright. To create a new society, in the shell of the old, that runs in parallel and will one day will be delivered from captivity. Ellul wrote that, like the Christians in Rome, we can’t escape the trappings of this culture we find ourselves in, we can’t escape technique, but we can mitigate it and we can redeem it.