Is Western civilization white? Both leftist elites and alt-right bigots seem to think so. When Donald Trump celebrated Western cultural achievement in Warsaw last summer, critics like The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart thought the president’s words amounted to “white-nationalist dog whistles.”
This notion that “Western” actually means “Caucasian” is shared by far-right extremists, who think defending the West is the same as defending the white race. “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America,” proclaimed ethnic chauvinist Samuel Francis, “could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people.”
Alt-right apologists like Richard Spencer and Pat Buchanan peddle this warped understanding of the West, which motivated fatal violence two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many on both sides of the political spectrum apparently agree that because Western civilization developed largely among light-skinned Anglo-Europeans, Western identity is reducible to “blood and soil” — to whiteness.
Ideas that Transcend Race Are a Western Achievement
This could not be more wrong. Nothing about the West is inherently white. In fact, a crowning achievement of Western thought has been to conceive of a nationhood that unites all peoples. Ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato already posited that a universal logos or “rational structure” pervades the entire cosmos.
From there the Stoics imagined a society to which all humans can belong by virtue of our conformity with that logical and moral framework. Later, the Roman statesman Cicero agreed that “one eternal and unchanging law” can “bind together all races in every era.”
The Bible relates that shortly after Cicero died, “the logos became flesh and dwelled among us”: the overarching order of the universe was embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Obedience to Christ’s righteous teaching constitutes membership in a human family that transcends genetic and national allegiance: “whoever does God’s will” is the Messiah’s “brother, and sister, and mother,” a true heir to the “kingdom not of this world.”
So when Saint Paul evangelized to the Stoics, he told them that Jesus was the logos in which they already believed. Many Greeks effectively agreed that every person owes ultimate loyalty to a worldwide society ruled by one God, “for in Him we live and move and exist.” Now Paul professed that this very God had walked the earth. Thus erudite Athenian scholars found themselves swearing fealty to an impoverished Israeli carpenter: in Christ, “there is no Jew or Greek.”
The West Is the Opposite of ‘Blood and Soil’
The gospel’s spiritual claims override our demographic differences. That is what enabled classical ethics to merge with Judeo-Christian theology and create the true West: a multi-ethnic, intergenerational civilization. Western tradition is the exact opposite of “blood and soil.” It leads directly from the Stoics, to Paul, to Christian intellectuals like Augustine of Hippo, who revived Cicero’s global society as the transnational “heavenly city”.
This is not to say that being Western means cherishing quixotic dreams of a world without borders. To the contrary, the foundational Greek thinker Aristotle believed all morality is enacted within the boundaries of an interrelated community, the polis. A hallmark innovation of Western political theory is the nation-state, that Goldilocks of civic institutions: neither too large nor too small to defend individual liberties against hostile forces. Nation-states allow us to acknowledge the reality that cultural unity within physical borders is necessary to thrive in a fallen world.
But a definitive aim of Western thought is to reconcile this reality with the vision of a worldwide society. That project led the seminal Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas to propose that earthly governments model their own laws after the eternal order in which we all participate.
America was expressly intended to realize that union between nationhood and natural law. The founding fathers envisioned a credal country whose rules would emulate those that govern all creation. Freedom, justice, legal equality: American ideals are universal ideals, and that is why people from every background can become American by espousing them.
The alt-right drastically misunderstands: precisely because America is essentially Western, it is not essentially white. We are defined by our imperfect but relentless effort to guarantee all citizens the rights with which they are endowed — not by their skin tone, but by their creator.