In the year 65 A.D., the Roman Emperor Nero got in a row with his second wife, Poppea, and viciously kicked her in the stomach. Poppaea was pregnant and died from her injuries. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that, grief-stricken by the loss of his murdered beloved, Nero sought a replacement. He found a youth named Sporus who he felt resembled Poppaea, castrated him, “married” him in a formal and public ceremony, including all of the customary recitations hoping for progeny, and, “used him in every way like a woman.”
This might have been Western civilization’s first same sex marriage, except that Nero, at the time of the wedding, was already married to another man, a former slave named Pythagoras. As historical precedents go, this doesn’t have quite the romantic resonance of Adam and Eve. But I’m sure the decorations were lovely, and that the bakers all knew better than to object. The pre-Christian Romans, like the post-Christian moderns, found the concepts of male, female, and marriage, to be loose, subjective, and fluid. Or at least, when their rulers told them to think that way, they got on board if they knew what was good for them.
Nero’s views on marriage never really stuck. Perhaps because they violated the prior understanding of what marriage was, and what marriage was for, as previously held by earlier generations of Greeks and Romans and every other civilization on earth, and perhaps because a new religion, little noticed by Nero until he needed someone to blame for the fire which destroyed much of Rome, was growing in influence, and would, some generations later, become the majority religion of the Western world which emerged from Roman ashes.
That new religion, Christianity, would have very strict views about marriage, which would eventually come to be adopted by the West, making marriage between a man and a woman the centerpiece of the Western world’s long-held child-centered and family-centered sexual ethic.
But Christianity’s integration with and influence upon Western culture has now officially ended, and if we want to know what life is going to be like in the future, in our new non-Christian, but nevertheless Western, world, going back in time to study ancient Rome is one good place to start. For the pre-Christian Romans resembled today’s post-Christian moderns in other ways as well.
They were comfortable with a form of allegedly Republican government in which the Senate, as a polite fiction, still pretended to exercise its former legislative functions, but had in fact, since the time of Julius Caesar, ceded all real authority to the Emperor, whose pronouncements they rubber-stamped into law.
In similar fashion, modern state legislatures, and our federal congress, still like to pretend that Americans live in a democratic republic, but have long since ceded all real power to a judicial oligarchy, over the strenuous objections of earlier American Catos such as Jefferson and Lincoln, and to a President who makes law by executive order.
Other similarities abound. Like Roman Emperors, who controlled the doctrines of the official State religion, our own Presidential office holders and candidates have recently become quite comfortable in making pronouncements on what churches should teach, with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama having recently lectured us on the need for a change in religious beliefs on subjects such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Also, like Nero, our own judicial oligarchy gets a kick out of putting us in our place from time to time, and reminding us that our pretense to government by the consent of the governed has long since gone out of fashion, and that the judiciary’s votes are the only votes which actually matter.
Our judicial overseers most recently reminded us of how things really work in their decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, issued June 26th, 2015.
Obergefell overturned a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which even the Court which was otherwise liberal and arrogant enough to give us Roe v. Wade, took all of one sentence to explain that the U.S. Constitution does not mandate same sex marriage, and that claims to the contrary do not even raise a serious federal question. The proverbial toad has been in the increasingly hot water for a long time since then though, and its brain is long since boiled.
Of course, what happened in recent weeks was more than just yet another act of raw political power, exercised by Judges supposedly occupying a non-political branch of government, who insist that their own personal policy preferences are Constitutional mandates, even with respect to subjects on which the Constitution is silent. It was also the culminating act in the sexual revolution, which began in the 1960s, and has brought our nation such happy statistics as an illegitimacy rate which increased from less than 10% to almost 50% within my lifetime, a youth suicide rate that has increased threefold since 1950, and a welfare state whose non-discretionary expenditures now exceed 100% of the annual GDP.
But what happened two weeks ago was more even than that. What happened two weeks ago was also a final and culminating act in a drama which has unfolded over a much longer period of time: Call it the death of Judeo-Christian America if you will, or call it the official displacement of religiosity with secularism, or call it the creation of an official American Establishment of Religion: the Church of Secular Humanism, whose sermons and homilies are taught in movie theaters (hence the steeples in the architecture of so many Cineplexes) and written on Supreme Court letterhead.
Call it what you will. What is clear is that Western civilization is now post-Christian, and, in many ways, closer in spirit to the pre-Christian Western civilization of Rome, than to the Christian era which just ended. That Christian era began in roughly the third Century A.D.; flourished most successfully in an America governed by Madison’s vision (as set forth in his Memorial and Remonstrances against Religious Assessments) of a secular government, distinct from and holding no authority over faith, but nevertheless recognizing that the demands and rights of faith were “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of” that distinct government; and finally ended, and was given its funeral, on June 26th, 2015.
To be sure, just as there were additional battles and skirmishes after Yorktown, there is still some mopping-up to do. The Obergefell decision will not be the final cultural skirmish in the sexual revolution or the battle of precedence between the secular and the divine, but it is nevertheless the decisive moment.
What follows next will be ugly but is largely preordained. Churches must be emptied, either of their adherents or of their doctrines. This will be easy in a world where the secular left holds all the fortresses: publishing, the news and entertainment media, universities, government, and the governmental and quasi-governmental bureaucracies which license citizens in their professions, accredit colleges, and oversee public education. It will be extremely easy to stomp down on dissenters in a world where, as a very non-Madisonian New Mexico Judicial Oligarch recently explained, the loss of religious freedom is now the “cost of citizenship.” If people of faith fail to resist, the mopping up effort will not take long.
But there is still some cause for hope, albeit distant, at least for those of us who take a long view of history. Everything the secular left is about to impose upon American Christians –the editorial attacks against reactionary religious forces in the newspapers, the inability of a believer to get into the right college, or be accredited or licensed in her profession if she graduates from the wrong college, the co-opting of private civic organizations, such as the BSA– has been done by secular leftists before, in Eastern Europe between 1947 and 1949.
Whether it will get even worse after that, here, as it did after 1950, there, remains to be seen. But if you want to know the broad outlines of what’s coming, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum’s amazing book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, needs to be put on your must-read list. Cold War Eastern Europe, like ancient Rome, is another helpful subject to review in analyzing what a non-Christian Western society will look like.
But the story of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe brings us some glimmer of hope: the Catholics of Poland refused to give the government and the Party the same legitimacy, in their hearts, that they gave to their Church, and in the end, after whole lifetimes were lived under militantly secular oppression, freedom was restored. So follow up Applebaum’s book by reading, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, by John O’Sullivan, which tells the end of the story, and may give you hope that totalitarian left-wing secularism can be endured long enough to someday be defeated by faith. Give these books to your grandchildren, to read in secret in the basement.
What We Have Lost
In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to contemplate what we have lost, as the hope for its restoration may give us the motivation to fight on, if only in secret, in hopes for a better tomorrow. Herewith, a non-exhaustive list of key principles which Post-Christian Western civilization has decided to forego, and the consequences of these losses to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren:
Loss 1: The Abandonment of Christian Sexual Morality and the Best Interests of Children which Were Advanced Thereby.
I have written elsewhere on the history of the decline and fall of the Christian sexual ethic, which displaced and prevented (well, . . . at least postponed) Nero’s vision from becoming that of the entire Western world:
Suffice it for present purposes to note that the Christian sexual ethic which has governed the outlook of humankind in the West for most of the past 17 centuries could be thought of as an arch which protected the children who were sheltered beneath it. Christian sexual morality performed this function by ensuring that the bonding right of every child to know and be loved and reared by her own mother and father, would never be intentionally taken away, except when in the best interests of the child, and not merely to gratify the desires of any adult.
The keystone of that child-protecting arch was conjugal marriage between a man and a woman, and with that keystone removed, the arch has fallen, and the children previously sheltered by its protections will be the victims of that calamity, deprived of either their mother or (almost always) their father, and told that they must not only accept and adapt to this loss, but may not mourn it, and must instead celebrate it. It seems that every generation perpetuates its own new lies about the separate but supposedly equal institutions it establishes for its children, in the name of what the adults want to do.
Loss 2: The Loss of Respect for Objective Reality
The West advanced beyond other corners of the globe based on its discovery and implementation of the scientific method: observe those material realities which are capable of observation, hypothesize about those realities, test the hypothesis, determine if the test’s outcome can be recreated and is therefore demonstrative of the true nature of that which is being tested. Niall Ferguson has called the scientific method one of Western civilization’s “Killer Apps”, which led to the West’s ascendance over the rest of the globe in the past five centuries.
But science requires working and living in the world of objective reality. And that is no longer permissible.
Instead, we now live in a world where words have no objective meaning, and a reader’s personal understanding of a text trumps the author’s intention, not just in poetry, but also in law. Subjective reality now trumps all sorts of objective facts. A white woman can insist that she is black. An able bodied person can insist that he is disabled. And Bruce Jenner can insist he is a woman, despite the evidence of his chromosomes, his anatomy, and the children he has sired. Such fantasies would be no cause for any real alarm if they were maintained privately. But when a United States Governmental Agency, such as OSHA, declares that the nation’s private employers must jump through the same looking glass, as they implement restroom policies and assess the diversity, rather than the competence, of their staff, something has gone amiss. And woe be to the man who fails to prove his virtue by keeping silent, and instead ventures to question whether the new subjective emperor has any clothes.
The mindset can best be understood by studying the history and meaning of the left’s fascinating new term: “Cisgendered” which is used to describe a person who “identifies” with the sex she was “assigned” at birth. The word “assigned” is the key to the imagery meant to be invoked. You are not male or female in any objective sense. Rather, shortly after your birth, an aging white male member of the patriarchy in a lab coat walked into your nursery, and, while you were innocently sleeping, arbitrarily and capriciously “assigned” you your sex, cackling away as he wrote it on your Birth Certificate.
And so we have school districts in North America implementing policies preventing teachers from using words like boys, girls, men, women, or their accompanying gender pronouns. Will there be exemptions for biology teachers, so they can teach the basics of human sexual reproduction? I wouldn’t count on it. Allowing biology teachers to teach the basics of human sexual reproduction would destroy the whole point of banning gender pronouns in the first place. Heaven forbid that young biologically informed Patrick, upon meeting Heather and her two mommies, might stumble upon the depraved thought that Heather doesn’t really have two mommies, and must have a daddy somewhere, who has been treated as expendable, and of whose presence Heather has been deprived.
Loss 3: The Loss of Respect for Faith, and of Legal Protections for the Faithful.
Science is not the only way to learn about truth. There are also immaterial realities for which we rely upon revelation, rather than observation. As Dallin H. Oaks put it, “we believe there are two dimensions of knowledge, material and spiritual. We seek knowledge in the material dimension by scientific inquiry and in the spiritual dimension by revelation.”
As G.K. Chesterton (another author whose books will be vital reading in our children’s secret basements) similarly explained: “The man who cannot believe in his own senses, and the man who cannot believe in anything else, are both insane.” They are both boxed in a cell of their own devising, said Chesterton, on which can be written “He believes in himself.”
This is a perfect description of the modern West, which exalts the subjective, and rejects both objective reality and religious faith as legitimate sources of truth, in favor of personal opinion. Justice Kennedy made the exaltation of subjective opinion official in his notorious magical mystery passage from Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Chesterton would recognize this as a long-winded way of saying “he believes in himself.” Where can we turn for truth? To the Bible? To Aristotle? To science? To the Declaration of Independence? To the Constitution? No, no, no, no, and no. To one’s own personal subjective conceptions and opinions.
And if one’s own personal conceptions, enshrined as the heart of Constitutional liberty, are offended by another’s religious beliefs, when publicly exercised? Then of course, the latter must give way to the former. (The First Amendment speaks of the “free exercise” of religion, but certain politicians and jurists are increasingly uncomfortable with that terminology, and prefer to employ the phrase “freedom of worship” not of “exercise”. The majority in Obergefell for example, in claiming that their decision would not unduly impact faith, made no reference to free exercise. Perhaps some words really do have objective meanings after all, and must therefore be ignored and avoided.)
The great analogy repeatedly made and employed by the same-sex marriage movement has been a comparison to the civil rights movement. It is a false and an evil analogy. But it has been accepted. And that means the rest of the story will play out as follows: If you oppose same-sex marriage, or did so before the Supreme Court’s recent diktat, you are deserving of the same kind of scorn which we have heretofore reserved for members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Your right to dissent, to speak out, to exercise your own religious beliefs in how you conduct your own personal or business affairs is simply not worth preserving. You may go to Church, if you must, but what you say and do there must be kept within the walls of your own Church and your own home, and never acted upon any where else. Contra Madison, the demands of the secular state now take precedence over the demands of faith. Step into the street, and you must not only tolerate, but celebrate and perpetuate and embrace your neighbor’s personal concepts of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of marriage, of gender, and of the mystery of human life (so long as those personal concepts are not based in religion). Or else.
Loss 4: The Loss of Checks, Balances, Separation of Powers, and the Rule of Law.
We now live in a nation which still calls itself a democratic republic, but is in fact only governed as such with and by the leave of the other two branches of government, when they find it convenient. And when they do not find it convenient? The Executive branch issues Executive Orders, and its vast bureaucracy issues kabillions of pages of annual federal regulations, to override the laws passed through merely democratic processes. And the Judicial branch no longer even pretends that it must tie itself to the text of the Constitution as understood and intended at the time the provision in question was written or amended, to validate their decision to strike down a law they happen to personally disagree with, as supposedly Unconstitutional.
Instead, they strike down disfavored laws based on how they the Justices determine the words of the Constitution should be read today, in a process of perpetual judicial amendment. We claim to honor the rule of law, but in fact honor the rule of lawyers, especially lawyers in robes. When Judges act like legislators, real legislators, and the voters who put them there, become obsolete. And when men are governed by laws written in words which judges and bureaucrats can read as meaning something entirely different than what the words actually say (because words mean whatever, subjectively, a judge or a bureaucrat wants them to mean) then men are not governed by laws at all, nor by the elected legislators who enacted them, but are governed instead by sympathies and emotions and refs with money on the game.
It has been said that bad laws are among the chief enemies of the rule of law. So are bad lawyers, especially the ones wearing robes. I was not and am not a fan of Cliven Bundy and his Jacobin resistance to the rule of law. But every time the judiciary makes stuff up (which they did not do in Bundy’s case, but have done in many others), they encourage more such Jacobin resistance among a populace which cannot fathom why they should be bound by laws if their government is not.
The modern citizen agrees or disagrees with a Supreme Court Decision depending on whether or not he likes the outcome, not based on whether the outcome was in fact compelled by the language and intent of the Constitution.
Our world no longer employs or understands the analogy of different hats, such as: When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a Judge preside over a trial. When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a journalist report the news. When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a college professor teach history. A nation without hats is a nation without separation of powers. A nation without hats is no longer made up of three governmental branches and a fourth journalistic estate to act as checks and balances upon each other.
The root source of this loss of hats is easily found: the self-anointed’s belief that the virtuous cause of social justice (however they are defining it this week) is more important than the ends utilized to obtain it. The ends they seek are so righteous and so virtuous and so important, that any means justify these noble ends: Gay marriage is more important than the proper role of the judiciary in a constitutional republic. And so are a lot of other things.
Getting a favored Presidential candidate elected is more important than practicing honest and objective journalism about any subject which might discomfit the cause. And so are a lot of other things. Telling the next generation what to think, and training them up to be warriors for social justice is more important than teaching University students facts and how to think. And so are a lot of other things. Challenging the traditions of the patriarchy is more important than a federal government which is sovereign solely as to its own limited and enumerated powers. And so are a lot of other things. Shutting people up who do not think the way they are supposed to think, so we can silence them, rather than debate them, is more important than the First Amendment. And so are a lot of other things.
We have forgotten some of history’s most important lessons: that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; that no matter how virtuous the ends are which a beneficent dictator may seek, or even realize, relying on dictatorial power to achieve such ends leaves the populace at risk of the evil ends which the next dictator may use his power to achieve. A Marcus Aurelius will inevitably, eventually, be succeeded by a Commodus. The same judicial power grab which gave us Obergefell previously gave us Dred Scott. The doctrine of ends which justify procedurally improper means is fit for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
But not for America as its institutions were once understood by anyone who had passed 5th grade civics. The whole point of the clunky procedural safeguards, separation of powers, and checks and balances in our Constitutional system is to differentiate America from nations where the government’s most powerful officer or officers, can do whatever they want to, just because they think it’s a marvelous idea. To live in a world where any officer of the government can do whatever it thinks would be a marvelous idea, is to live in pre-Christian Rome or post WWII Eastern Europe. As post-Christian America becomes increasingly similar to such places, it won’t just be the elderly believers in our culture’s former Judeo-Christian values who find it an unfortunate place to live. It will be everyone who holds no government office.
Christianity and Society
Each of the losses described above are, in their own way, based on the loss of a Judeo-Christian frame of reference.
The Christian not only believes in a Child-centric sexual morality, and a Government which protects his rights to religious liberty. He also has little use for placing too much power in the hands of too few elites. It is no mere coincidence that the French Revolution, steeped in anti-Clericalism, rejected a system of separated powers which might have checked and balanced the new regime’s leaders, and prevented the bloodshed of the Terror into which that revolution fell as it consumed its own children. Or that America rejected not only the Anti-Christianity of Thomas Paine, but also his call for a unitary government led by a single assembly.
The Christian understands that humanity is fallen, and that Eden may not be reclaimed by human efforts, but only by divine grace in God’s due time. This tragic understanding makes him suspicious of major societal transformations, in an attempt to build a tower to God, or create a new Utopian Eden through the efforts of man. Such societal transformations inevitably come with unintended consequences, far worse than whatever evil is sought to be remedied through their implementation. Knowing that man is not an angel, but is fallen, and prone to corruption, the Christian citizen fears the evil the all-powerful can do, more than he cherishes the hope of the good they might accomplish, and favors diffused and separated powers. He doubts the ability of any one fallen man, or few fallen oligarchs, to govern wisely and show the way to a better future, unrestrained by tradition or majority opinion.
History has proven this Christian view to be correct. But a Nation which no longer reads history, and gets its values from cable television rather than Judeo-Christian scripture, has set a new course.
DarlaGJuly 22, 2015
Excellent. Insightful, thoughtful, and succinct. Thank you!
ralphJuly 19, 2015
From my point of view as a practicing Christian, it seems that true Christianity has to do with how we treat people -- friends, enemies, etc., on an individual level. The early Christians were famous for "how they love each other" ,according to Tertullian. I have not heard anyone make a comment like that about current Christians. While the conditions that you describe about our civilization's morality are indeed disturbing, I believe it would behoove us to "love one another as Christ has loved us" -- and to learn better and better ways to follow Him in that.