If it prevails nearly everywhere in the West today, the fundamental liberal belief that men may and even should organize society and lead their own lives without reference to God began to take hold in the minds of some Christians almost five centuries ago. That was with the first stirrings of the Protestant Revolt commonly referred to as the Reformation. Once the revolt actually erupted was when very many who would persist in calling themselves Christian — more than any number had ever done before — arrogated to themselves a right that belongs exclusively to the Church: to decide what is Christian teaching. Though it would be another two centuries before that usurpation of authority found political expression in the overthrow of Christian government and its replacement by government according to the “will of the people,” we can still say that the effort to “free” men from the constraints and ancestral bonds that mark civilized living and are necessary to it (at least as Christians conceive civilization) has been more or less continuous in the West for 500 years.
That it has now finally become largely successful is due to the accelerated rate at which the forces propelling it have been able to operate during the past half century and somewhat more. An example of this acceleration: Anyone old enough to remember when a President could still describe the U.S. as a “Christian nation” (Harry Truman as recently as 1948) has lived long enough to see it become mandatory to speak, instead, of America’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage”. Before much longer, one supposes, the reference is liable to be to Islamo-Judaeo-Christian. This even as Americans have ceased altogether to speak of their government as a republican one. Nobody today calls the U.S. anything except a democracy.
There have been similar developments elsewhere in former Christendom, including in the remaining monarchies. Have you noticed, for instance, that Englishmen seldom any longer call themselves subjects? They are all “citizens” now, as if they had no monarch. (Citoyen Robespierre1 would approve.) Not being personally acquainted with a practicing member of the Church of England (there aren’t many of them left, after all, or not in England), I don’t know if those people still address their prelates as “Your Grace”. It has certainly been a longer time than I can readily remember since I last heard a Catholic in this country call a bishop “Your Excellency”. The social leveling required by our democracy, now that it is full-blown, scarcely even allows room to call anybody “Mister”. We are all now on a first-name basis as soon as we meet, and even when we don’t. (Sen. Clinton’s current presidential campaign officially refers to her as Hillary.)
What point am I trying to make here?
My subject is the transformation or decline of the West from the Christendom it once was to what we have now, but that devolution is marked in many ways, including by changes in the language and the way we use words.
Since we think in words, language also shapes our ideas and perceptions. When men believed truth exists, language was meant to convey it. Those recognized as having an especially strong purchase on truth used words to do that. They included popes, theologians, philosophers, some poets, great novelists, a fair number of historians, teachers of various kinds and even statesmen. (Others — you and I if we’d been around in those days — stood prepared to learn from them.)
Now democracy has taught us that nobody can have a special purchase on truth, for that would denote superiority or at least distinction (as do titles like “Excellency” and “Mister”). As a result the general conclusion is that truth itself must not exist. What we have left is opinions, and they are all equal, as equal (democracy tells us) as all the individuals holding them. “Your opinion is as good as mine,” we say. (This makes learning nearly impossible.)
Since language no longer conveys truth but opinions only, it is bound to happen that words are employed often as not to obfuscate, evade or outright deceive, and by no one more than the mere politicians who are now the ones who do what statesmen once did: lead. This is never more the case than when they say they want to tell us “where I stand”. That is, in their campaign speeches.
A political campaign, as we are told incessantly, is “democracy in action,” and a campaign speech is the very essence of democracy itself. Listen closely to one, any one of them. Some are more skillfully crafted than others (Sen. Barack Obama’s speech announcing his candidacy was a masterpiece), but as expressions of democracy, all will sound three central themes. Hardened by now by their politicians’ usual obfuscation, evasion and deceit to the point that they shrug it off or even laugh over it, most Americans won’t notice, or would be incapable of recognizing, a truth hidden by these themes like a precious gem outshone by tinsel.
A candidate will promise to give us bread. He or she will speak in terms of providing “full employment” or “job training” or “education for the 21st century” or “help for those who have real need,” but what is being promised is bread, another word for which is security.
But men do not live by bread alone. They may no longer have the truths taught by religion to provide it, but they also want, not simply material security, but moral certainty, something in which to believe. A candidate will promise this. That is, he (or she) will promise “leadership for the 21st century.” What the candidate is really saying is, “Believe in me. You can be certain I won’t let you down.” Beyond that, miracles, or something that seems close to one, will be promised. Maybe it will be a cure for AIDS or cancer, or an inexhaustible energy source, or knowledge you won’t have to work to obtain (because everyone will be provided with broadband). Whatever, convincing voters of his or her ability to provide more than bread makes “change,” or a variant like “innovation” or “transformation” or simply “new,” one of the most trumpeted words in any candidate’s campaign oratory.
Another is “unity”. It is the third theme invariably heard in any campaign speech. The candidate will promise to “bring Americans together” or to “build consensus” or to “heal divisions”. What is really being promised with this invocation of “unity” is the peace that arises from everyone thinking and feeling alike. This is vitally important to democracy, since nothing is more threatening, and therefore intolerable, to it than distinction. That is why “diversity” is trumpeted. It is a substitute for distinction. As long as everybody remains equal, all can be as diverse as they want without distinction (or anyone being distinguished). It is also why, among presidential candidates themselves, there is never any real difference anymore, nor is any really desired by voters. A truly different candidate could never secure a major party’s nomination or, if somehow he did, would be rejected by voters as “too radical”. (Pat Buchanan in 2000 and 2004 comes to mind.)
What is interesting to the Christian (it was to Fyodor Dostoyevsky; see the famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in his great novel The Brothers Karamazov ) is that the three themes identified here correspond exactly to the three temptations presented to Christ by Satan, as related in Scripture, when Our Lord was in the wilderness.
Satan stupidly believes he can make the Son of Man one of his own, first, by offering Him bread. Then the Devil urges Him to throw Himself down from a great height, this to show that He will be miraculously saved. Then Satan lays out before Him the kingdoms of this world, promising that He can have power over all of them, that they will be united under His rule.
When the Son of Man rejects these temptations, what He does is affirm through His own person the freedom given by God to all men to choose between what is right and what is not, between what God offers (besides Himself, their very freedom) and what the world will offer, the world including everything of the sort that presidential candidates promise.
This can all be put another way, especially in view of “freedom” being another word never far from all candidates’ lips: What we learn from the Scripture account of the three temptations presented to Our Lord is that the real thing, true freedom, is fundamentally incompatible with the security, certainties and unity promised by democracy. That is the truth hidden by the campaign speeches. That they hide this truth, replacing it with lies, makes them diabolical.
Another truth, now forgotten when not positively denied, is that to the extent real well-being, moral certainty and human solidarity have been known in this world, or can be, it was when Christendom existed and baptism, not a supposed right to vote, made men members of the political community as well as the Church.
1 “Citizen” was used as a title by the French Revolutionaries, in contempt of titles of nobility.