Speaking in Fulton, Missouri, seventy years ago, Winston Churchill famously said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Three paragraphs later he referred to the dangers arising from Communism and its fifth columns, which “constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization.”
Churchill was not a Christian—while he in believed in Providence, he did not think Jesus was the Son of God—but still, at that late date, could refer, not inaccurately, to “Christian civilization.” We, living a lifetime later, also can use the term, but no longer in the present tense.
Not that the term fully applied when Churchill spoke, but in 1946 most Americans and most Europeans, even those coming under Communist subjugation, considered themselves and their societies (no matter how battered by war) to be Christian, at least in some sense. That is a view that ceased to be tenable years ago. No one not engaged in wishful thinking can talk that way today. We live in a society that is inhabited by many Christians, but it is no longer a Christian society.
The perfume of an empty vase
Of course, even at the end of World War II the term “Christian civilization” applied only in an aspirational sense. Christian civilization had been hollowed out a long time before. Ernst Renan (1823-1892) wrote of “the ruin of supernatural beliefs.” Already, he said, “We are living on the perfume of an empty vase.”
Jacques Riviere (1886-1925), a prominent man of letters in post-World War I France, wrote to Paul Claudel, the playwright and future French ambassador to Japan and the United States, that Frenchmen of his generation could stare out train windows and wonder what the passing steeples were for, so tenuous had the Faith become. Already, a century ago, Christianity seemed to have lost its meaning for many intellectuals, even those, like Riviere, who wished to believe but could not find the means.
None of us has lived in an authentically Christian civilization. It is almost impossible to conceive that any of us will live to see one. It even is hard to believe, with whatever optimism we can muster, that our grandchildren will fare any better. We have entered a long night, but the entry wasn’t sudden. The long night began with a long, progressive dusk that developed over many generations.
No political solution
Now we have gone through an election that people on both sides of the political divide spoke about in apocalyptic terms. “It’s the most important election of our lifetime!” was heard from conservatives and liberals alike. It may be true, in some ways, yet it is nearly certain that even reasonable hopes will be dashed, and it is certainly certain that those who hope for a revival of Christian civilization will be disappointed.
In an imprudent off-the-cuff comment, Pope Francis, several months ago, implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Last February, in one of his airborne press conferences, the pope was asked about Trump. He answered without naming the candidate: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Later the pope’s spokesman backtracked for him.
Was the implication correct? Is Trump not a Christian? We know from basic catechesis that one becomes a Christian through baptism and remains a Christian until rejecting Christianity for another faith or for no faith. Trump describes himself as a Presbyterian. He doesn’t seem to attend church much or at all, and he makes no references to the Divine beyond what an agnostic politician might make. Nevertheless, he meets the basic requirements, so he’s a Christian.
Likewise for Hillary Clinton, who has said she is a Methodist, the faith she was brought up in. Apparently she, like Trump, was baptized, and there is no evidence that she overtly has abandoned Christianity, so we must afford her, like him, the title of Christian.
A temporary reprieve
Not a few Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, breathed a sigh of relief at the unexpected outcome of the presidential election. They would be amiss to think the result is anything more than a temporary reprieve. Even if their chief hopes are confirmed, our society will remain post-Christian. There was not a candidate in either major party who, if nominated and elected, could make much of a difference in that.
None of the candidates seemed aware of the depth of the problem, which is a civilizational problem for which there is no short-term solution. We are in a situation not dissimilar to that of St. Augustine, who lived during the long-drawn-out decline of his civilization. Most people around him had no sense of decline. Some even thought things were improving. Looking ahead fifteen centuries, they could have quoted Emile Coue (1857-1926): “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” It is possible to imagine that even amidst civilizational decline.
Augustine knew that the solution to the decline of Roman civilization was conversion to Christianity. That also is the solution to the decline of our civilization. No amount of bureaucratic tinkering or economic manipulation or extension of various “rights” will arrest the decline. At most, such things will slow it, not reverse it. The decline is not so much structural or economic or political but spiritual and moral, and the spiritual and moral are fixed by conversion, not by politicking.
The answer is Catholic, not Protestant
I should be more specific. I said that Augustine saw that what his civilization needed was Christianity, and I said that ours needs the same, but I mean by that Catholicism. Protestantism, for all its inherent strengths (and it has many) is not the soil in which a civilization can grow or reform.
A straight line can be drawn from Protestantism through the Enlightenment to modern secularism. It is no accident that Unitarianism sprang from Puritanism. Protestantism is trapped in theological entropy and thus in perpetual flux. What is required for a Christian civilization is the full form of Christianity, not the partial form.
“Make America Great Again”? How about “Make Christian Civilization Christian Again”? That is the real task, but nothing leads me to believe that any real attempt will be made in that regard for years to come. There will be action at the peripheries, but that’s about it.
Not that such action is valueless. Often it is quite necessary, to soften a coming crash or to give people time to reflect and to muster forces. But we should not harbor false optimism. We should not expect much from those we elect to govern us.
The Archangel Gabriel was not on any ballot this year.