Religion

Fallen Statues, Fallen Men

Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
Only a culture soaked in a belief in original sin can honor men for the good they did, for the events at which they were present.

This magazine’s former Washington editor, George Will, is displeased at the sight of his nation’s statues toppling all over the country. He accuses the topplers of tearing down statues of Grant in an orgy of self-congratulation, thinking themselves better than the man who quickly freed the slave he inherited and “went on to pulverize the slavocracy.”

Drawing on the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, Will attacks what he sees as a barbarian conviction that ideas are “nothing more than appetites in words.” Colleges and universities teach their students that there are no real intellectual and moral standards, just narratives or discourses of power. There is no principled argument at all, just assertion.

Will thinks the solution to the iconoclasm of this “hurricane of hysteria” could be found in a properly reverent and moderate elite: “An admirable intelligentsia, inoculated by education against fashions and fads, would make thoughtful distinctions arising from historically informed empathy.” This elite would have an education that gave them the gift of humility, one that could “tug them toward tentativeness and constructive dissatisfaction with themselves.”

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. Will could and should go further. Barely beneath the barbarian conviction is a poisonous spiritual malady. If all talk is empty discourse on the reality of power, intellectuals reduce their own work to that of crude and deluded propagandists. The worldliness of a few cannot save the artifacts of this or any civilization.

In his recent tome The Conservative Sensibility, Will defends what he sees as the good irreligious reputation of our Founders, who sought to divert the religious energies into a purely private realm. “The Founders aimed to do so not by establishing religion but by establishing a commercial republic. They aimed to submerge people’s turbulent energies in self-interested pursuit of material goals. Hence religion was to be perfectly free as long as it was perfectly private — mere belief. It must, however, bend to the political will (law) as regards conduct. Thus, Jefferson held that ‘operations of the mind’ are not subject to legal coercion, but that ‘acts of the body’ are.”

Will’s reading is an anachronistic and parsimonious read of what the free exercise of religion really means. But if he shares Jefferson’s neat divisions between acts of the mind and acts of the body, private belief and public action, it is he who is deluded. For private belief does matter to public action.

Will only countenances religion in the way his beloved Locke did, as a social expedient for reconciling the masses to a political order. John Locke would only have one doctrine in his “reasonable Christianity”: that Christ is the Messiah. John Edwards believed that Locke’s impulse toward religious simplification and subordination would end in atheism, and predicted “thus brought down to One Single Article, it will soon be reduced to none: the Unit will dwindle into a Cypher.”

One of the articles of faith lost was the belief in the fallen nature of man, and the consequent ability to forgive sinners and even admire them.

Only a handful of men, like George Will or Roger Scruton, ever become atheists who nevertheless are immune to ideology. But one wonders if they could become so without deeply imbibing of a Christian culture. Will admits that “the regime is founded on precepts, many of which are congruent with, or buttressed by, Christian doctrine, which taught the universal equality of individuals capable of moral choices informed by faith.” It also taught, and habituated people to, humility through the preaching of its Scripture, its liturgies, and, in some cases, the practice of confession.

The biblical account stands out from the sea of paganism by exhaustively chronicling the failures of its human protagonists. Jonah refused to preach God’s message. King David fell into adultery and murder. The people of Israel constantly defect from a God who is faithful to them. The Apostles scatter and cower after the arrest of their teacher. Saint Peter denies Christ three times. Saint Paul is present at and approves of the stoning of the first Christian martyr.

All these “problematic” figures fill up the great frescoes of Christian churches, from Moscow to Cairo to Montevideo, because of the belief that Providence nevertheless acts through sinful men and women.

Irving Kristol warned us: “Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.” What is the experience of meaning in a merely commercial republic if one is not getting ahead and has no prospects of getting ahead? If one is stuck with the human impulse to redeem the world, and to rid it of injustice, one will simply attack the past, and attack those who failed to prepare them for a world that is a vale of tears.

The striking thing about this moment’s radicalism is that it is aimed not just at the great constitutional order, or at Christianity itself, but also at the Boomer generation. They played with radicalism, but settled down into homes they defend with policies of real estate inflation, and jobs they defend with tenure and work protections that will not be afforded the next generation. The moral impulses and turbulent energies at work will not be satisfied by “material” pursuits alone.

Only a culture soaked in a belief in original sin can honor men for the good they did, for the events at which they were present. Michelangelo’s David stands in Florence, and it does not stand as a tribute or endorsement of the murder of Uriah the Hittite. Just as George Washington’s name does not grace our capital city or the names of our schools because he owned slaves.

The Christian faith allows us to appreciate the ironies of history. A creed that enjoins its adherents to sweetly sing the name of an obscure Roman viceroy, Pontius Pilate, will make a people who can appreciate that Providence will bring forth a land of liberty from those who enslaved other men. It is also a faith that will dam and channel religious impulses toward religious objects, rather than investing every civil gesture with angelic or demonic energy. If George Will wants a nation led by cultured, worldly atheists who study history with reverence and humility, he should hope the next generation is surrounded by the Christian liturgies and hymns he has lately deemed unnecessary.

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