‘And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.’
From Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold
All things considered, Mark Twain was probably right in observing that history ‘doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’
The current state of the world seems to suggest some elements of the late 1960s and the 1970s: the so-called West in seeming weak decline; a new Cold War heating up through proxy wars; radical identitarian ideologies wreaking havoc on a Left ever more indulgent of extremism; a resurgence of nationalism on the Right; an ascendant China; an aggressive Russia; and inflation and oil price volatility.
The temptation for those in the broad pro-freedom camp – the anti-socialist, anti-Leftist coalition of classical liberals and American conservatives – to look to the wings in excited anticipation of the arrival of a new Thatcher and a new Reagan is almost palpable.
Surely, the thinking might go, the stage is set for such charismatic figures of the economic centre-right of American conservatism and British classical liberalism to stride forth and set the wrongs to right – to harken back to Thatcher’s Downing Street tenure: where there is discord, may they bring harmony; where there is error, may they bring truth; where there is doubt, may they bring faith; and where there is despair, may they bring hope.
There certainly is a lot of discord, error, doubt, and despair on the global scene. And, in answer, there seems a desire for harmony, truth, and hope. But one thing there seems to be little appetite for in a world increasingly conscious of the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of its retreat, is faith – especially the Christian faith Matthew Arnold reflected on in Dover Beach, and that lay so centrally in the shared world view of Reagan and Thatcher.
Without seeking to be missional or evangelical as a Christian writing about the Christian world view, it is worth considering the consequences of the decline of an idea that dominated Western civilization and its social and political structures for two thousand years. The decline of Christianity as political and social phenomenon, considered here not as a spiritual phenomenon, has weakened the ability of what has long been considered ‘the West’ and ‘western values’ to mount, at this perilous time, a muscular counter in defense of the essentials of the human freedom that fueled the conservative and classical liberal movements of Reagan and Thatcher when they faced global circumstances similar to our own.
Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher, Alfred Roberts. Roberts’s sermons, writings, letters, and notes are infused with the moral conviction of some of the most potent themes of Christian Methodist teachings: the virtue and value of hard work, of service, of charity, of custodianship of talents, strength, opportunities, and time given by God to man to do good and to love others in service.
Thatcher’s reverence for her father and his convictions never seemed to waver, and it is notable how she never underwent what might be considered political maturation – she appears to have arrived on the political scene, after secondary and tertiary education, with a world view fully formed.
What was wrong with the world and what ought to be done to set it to rights were not topics on which she entertained uncertainty. It was in her inherited world view, so coloured by the Wesleyan Methodism of her father’s Christian faith, that she saw with steadfast (to supporters) or obstinate (to detractors) conviction the clarity of her political purpose, defined in clearly Christian terms.
Somewhat unusually and, it has to be said, unfashionably for a British politician, Thatcher never squirmed from founding her political conviction, and appealing to the public to join her in sharing them, on the basis of Christianity – her own and the systemic Christianity that even as recently as 2011 was asserted by Baroness Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and a Muslim, to be the cultural and social foundation of the United Kingdom.
However, while the fundamental structures of the United Kingdom might be culturally Christian, and the broader morality of the United Kingdom be based on the foundations of Judeo-Christian ethics, there is no denying that Christianity in the United Kingdom is a shadow of the political, moral, and symbolic force it once was.
Within the space of half a century, British politicians have gone from blatant appeals to the Christian faith of Britons to win the Second World War, to the advice of Alastair Campbell to Tony Blair that, in British politics, ‘we don’t do God’.
Among the most notable and blatant appeals to the faith – implicitly, the Christian faith – of Britons one finds in the 3 September 1939 radio broadcast by George VI:
‘But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail. May He bless and keep us all.’
Yet, it was the Christianity of Tim Farron, then leader of his party, that basically derailed the 2017 election campaign of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. Jacob Rees-Mogg is often treated as a historical artefact for his unashamedly professing his Catholic faith in sparring with BBC presenter Jo Coburn in 2018 over religious intolerance and religious bigotry in relation to Rees-Mogg’s personal views on marriage.
In the United Kingdom the capacity for Christianity as a social phenomenon to foster or be a basis on which to build political, moral, and symbolic unity has decreased so much as to be negligible. Any doubt about this should be swept aside by the deafening irrelevance of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on any social or political ill – sermons that no-one will hear.
In the United States, Christianity has seen a distinctive yet comparable loss of unifying political potential. While the phrase ‘God bless the United States of America’ remains the exclamation mark of all presidential addresses, Christianity has gone from shared value and common component of the identity of the majority of Americans from mainstream political persuasions to essentially a blatant party-political asset for conservatives and those to the right of the traditional political spectrum.
While the American founders as group had their fair share of agnostics and deists, with even the odd atheist in the mix, the majority of prominent politicians from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were unashamed in their Judeo-Christian rhetoric and the faith-based political appeals from causes from all sides of the political spectrum. Where there was once a contest to seek to associate a vast array of political positions with Christianity – in favour of the Civil Rights Movement and against it, in favour of military intervention in Europe, Korea, and Vietnam and against it – there remains today little appetite for the same eagerness of Christ’s perceived endorsement.
Ronald Reagan was unashamedly biblical in his description of the United States as the ‘shining city on a hill’ and, like Thatcher, freely invoked the morality of Judeo-Christianity in mobilising his country to stand against the secular moral evils, as he saw it, of the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire.
Even in European countries like Germany, Christianity as political phenomenon saw great influence over the twentieth century. But the consideration by the Christian Democratic Union party, one of the largest parties in Germany, to drop ‘Christian’ from their name shows that the potency of Christianity as political force is spent in Germany, once the seat of the blatantly Christian Holy Roman Empire.
Vats of ink can be spilled, and are being spilled, over the reasons for the decline of Christianity in the West, but a consequence rarely given attention to is the political vacuum left by this deterioration of Christianity (and its accompanying Judeo-Christian morality as political force for leaders and movements to appeal to) as a moral or symbolic unifier.
Whether saddened or elated by, or indifferent to, the decline of Christianity in the West, a consideration of Christianity as social phenomenon, leaving the spiritual to one side for a moment, must alert observers of politics to the reality that the likelihood of a Thatcher or a Reagan for our times is severely diminished by the vacuum where once was a political force on which the historic Thatcher and Reagan relied as the fertile ground for their ideas and the moral motivation to undertake just causes.
There is little getting away from the perhaps philosophical, but definitely numerical fact that the moral impetus of Christianity as political force allowed Thatcher and Reagan to lead their respective Christian nations, and lead them, whatever errors they might have committed, under the banner of freedom.
Whatever one’s religious or existential persuasion, acknowledgement must be given that the political and moral cause of freedom is unlikely to find in humanist morality the potency of conviction that Christianity allowed the West, when last the world was gripped in a conflict of visions, of liberty versus control, to mobilise and claim victory.
Few of these soldiers left
Now, we face the reality that no leader will emerge to rally with the cry of ‘Onward, Christian soldiers!’ because there are so few of these soldiers left in the West.
Lamenting the decline of Christianity as a political force in the West, a motivator for nations and leaders, one can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? – Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
‘How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last, he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’
West’s political decline
In the context of the West’s political decline, we might imagine the madman crying in the midst of the laughers: ‘How now can the West find common moral cause, the West having seen to the diminishment of a sacred and potent shared moral framework? How can we now seek unity when we have unmoored the West from a social, cultural commonality that carries in it the potential to transcend many other divisions, to motivate beyond the mundane materialism we so decry people to oppose the madness of crowds? How can we hope for leaders to lead new moral crusades if we have eradicated and blotted out from our dictionaries and vocabularies arguably the most historically potent shared manifestation of morality and the very meaning of crusade?’
Hoping for leadership that can unite people in morality, we perhaps have no other choice but to mourn the decline of Christianity as social and political phenomenon that allowed historical liberal leaders of greatness to emerge, mobilise, and triumph.
We are today left with a disunited West, its member countries themselves existentially divided and hollowed out, seemingly irreconcilably so. What a pity it is that one of the most potent political bonds of unity that once allowed the West and its people to, at the existential least, find common cause across lesser divides to confront the evils of socialist and collectivist oppression under the leadership of the Thatchers, Reagans, and Wilberforces, that this most potent bond has frayed in the West beyond much hope of repair, crawling into tombs and sepulchres.
If the hope is that the hour cometh and the man with it, and that history’s rhyme might resurrect in spirit and nature leaders fit for the moment and the current plight of the West, imbued with moral conviction to inspire nations, I fear this hope is hollow.
The political potency of Christianity as social phenomenon, taken for granted too long by too many, has receded in the West like the faith itself. And now, in the words of Matthew Arnold, we only hear its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / retreating, to the breath / of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / and naked shingles of the world’.
‘And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.’
Hope for freedom
If there’s a hope for freedom to rise as a moral cause, I doubt it lies in the West. Perhaps the continent of Africa offers the greatest scope for moral leadership for the sake of freedom, for here Christianity might still bear its historic social and political potency. But that is a topic for another day.
[Image: Jost Haller, Saint George slaying the dragon, from the Tempelhof Altarpiece, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10291069]
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