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America’s Conflicts Are Not Primarily Political Or Ideological, But Religious

Without a civic life shaped by Christianity, there can be no American republic.

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The conflicts roiling American society today are not primarily political or even ideological, but religious.

America is supposedly a secular country, with separation of church and state, free exercise of religion, and so on. Yet we find ourselves in the middle of what amounts to a religious war. How could this be?

Because America, like all nations, is founded on religious claims, and relies on those claims for its coherence. We’ve long been accustomed to talking about America as a “propositional nation,” a phrase taken from Abraham Lincoln’s famous line in the Gettysburg Address that America was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The idea is that America is fundamentally different from the ethnic nation-states of Europe, which were based on blood and soil and religion. America supposedly transcended all that. It was based instead on an idea — a proposition. Anyone could become an American if he agreed to the proposition. 

And this is true. But nearly everyone who says America is a propositional nation is wrong about what the proposition is. America is not a collection of Enlightenment tropes at the intersection of Locke and Rousseau, a grab bag of philosophical sentiments about the rights of man. America is the creation of Christian civilization.

The proposition at the heart of America, undergirding our nation’s existence, is not just “all men are created,” but Christianity and all that comes with it. Without Christianity, you don’t get free speech, liberty, equality, freedom of conscience. All of it relies on the claims of the Christian faith, none of it stands on its own.

Some will acknowledge the Christian inheritance of America but insist that it’s a point of departure, that once the American experiment was launched, it could be safely separated from the religion that launched it. They think it’s possible to take the “best” parts of the Christian faith without the need to continually affirm Christ. “Christless Christianity,” you might call it.

But it doesn’t work like that. A few months ago the famous atheist Richard Dawkins wondered aloud in an interview why his own country, England, could not just go on having “cultural Christianity” without actual, believing Christians. He said he liked the cathedrals and the Christmas carols, and would like to enjoy them without the bother of actual Christianity. He wants fewer believing Christians and more cultural Christians.

It never occurred to Dawkins that you don’t get to keep the culture without the cult. The sad spectacle of modern England should suffice to prove the point. If there is no one to worship in the cathedrals, they will become concert halls or, in England’s case, mosques. If no one really believes what the Christmas carols proclaim, eventually people will stop singing them.

The same goes for us here in America. The American proposition that all men are created equal is a religious claim, specifically a Christian one. Not to belabor the point, but the American founders only ever believed that all men are created equal because they believed that we are God’s children, created in His image. Our entire system of government flows from that belief; without it the whole system collapses.

The idea that every person is in some way sacred, created in the image and likeness of Almighty God, is “self-evident” only to a moral conscience formed and awakened by the teachings of Christianity down through the millennia — teachings that came from Christ Himself.

The American founding is therefore not comprehensible in strictly secular, rationalist terms. Our nation begins with a proposition about the nature of God and man. If that proposition is discarded or denied, whatever comes after that isn’t America. It might call itself America, it might even deploy the familiar vocabulary of rights and liberties, but it is not America.

So when I say we are engaged now in a religious war, this is what I mean. We are either going to be a nation based on Christian claims about what man is and how society should be ordered in light of that, or we are going to revert to a societal state that existed before Christianity, one that is based on pagan claims about man and that posits a very different vision of how a nation should be ordered in light of those claims.

To be clear, the contest is not between secularism or “wokeism” and Christianity. If we reject Christianity, the future of America will not be a secular liberal utopia, where we go on living off the capital of our Christian inheritance without replenishing it. It’s going to be a new version of paganism, and you’re not going to like it. 

This post-Christian paganism might not outwardly look like the paganism of the past, but it is no less hostile to and incompatible with Christianity. Its tenets, then and now, constitute an inversion of Christian claims and commitments: a rejection of transcendent truth, moral absolutes, and even objective reality. These are all at the root a rejection of God.

Above all, the new paganism rejects the claim at the heart of the American nation: that all men are created equal. It posits a different claim, from an older, pre-Christian order: men are not equal; by nature some are slaves and some are masters. Inequality is inherent in our nature, and should be reflected in our government and laws.

So the Christian retreat in the West heralds something both new and old: a de-Christianized political order emerging from the ruin of Christendom. What comes at the sunset of the Christian era rises up from the distant past, appearing in new guises and names but nevertheless heralding the return of a pagan order, one based not on the reality of Christ but on the raw power of His fallen angels. Under its banners march the old gods, the lesser deities and principalities that were original enemies of Christ’s church since the beginning of time.

To fight this new paganism, Christians in America will have to shed the false notion that their religion is a purely private matter, that there must be a “wall of separation” between our religion and our politics. We have to argue, without apology, that public life in this country should be shaped by Christian morality and ordered by its dictates, as it was for most of our civilization’s history.

Most of all, we have to accept that our American culture of self-government and liberty under law cannot long survive cut off from its source, which is and always was the Christian faith. 

Without that faith, alive and active among the people, there can be no American republic. If we want to save the republic, we’ll have to become a Christian people once again. And that means we’ll have to fight — and win — a religious war for America.

The stakes for the nation are as high as they can be. We see now that there is more than one way for a nation to fall. There is the Roman way: a centuries-long decline eventually succumbing to wave upon wave of invaders. There is the British way: a dwindling to irrelevance and impotence, passive in the face of an assertive Muslim immigrant population.

And then there is the American way: not to decline and fall, not to dwindle into irrelevance, but to become evil.

A version of this article was delivered at the NatCon conference in Washington, D.C., this week.


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