One more word on that long searched-for Chesterton quote. And since Dale Ahlquist is, after all, the president of the American Chesterton Society, perhaps this can be the last word. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with a find that has eluded so many others. Mr. Ahlquist writes:

Dear Fr. Neuhaus,

When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything .

One of Chesterton’s most famous quotations. Except he didn’t say it. Which is wonderful. Because Chesterton was so often accused of misquoting others. It is the supreme irony that he should be so famously misquoted.

Here is the explanation. It comes from two different quotations from two different Father Brown stories.

It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense. [“The Oracle of the Dog” (1923)]

You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief—of belief in almost anything. [“The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)]

In the book, The Laughing Prophet by Emile Cammaerts, published the year after Chesterton’s death in 1937, he discusses “The Oracle of the Dog” and, quoting Father Brown, writes:

“Its drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: “And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.” [p. 211]

Note that our epigram is not presented as a quotation, but rather as a paraphrase. It is set between two quotations. The switch is very easy to miss in the original printed text.

In 1970, Christopher Hollis wrote, in The Mind of Chesterton ,

As Chesterton said, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.”

Hollis lists but 13 books in his bibliography of secondary sources. The Laughing Prophet is among them.

And so, we here at the American Chesterton Society are convinced that the source of the fugitive quotation is Emile Cammaerts, whose ambiguous typography misled Christopher Hollis and through him others (including, at last, all of the rest of us) into the mistaken conviction that a thought repeated over and over by Chesterton had a specific epigrammatic form that Chesterton never precisely gave it. And to give credit where credit is due, it was two of our members, Robin Radar and Pasquale Accardo, who did the detective work on this.

And for the record, here are some close misses to the famous quotation from the pen of Chesterton himself:

There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe in anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything . [Illustrated London News, March 21, 1914]

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority . [Illustrated London News, April 26, 1924]

A man who refuses to have his own philosophy will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy. [“The Revival of Philosophy,” The Common Man (1930)]

None of this detracts, of course, from the truth of the quotation. And the source is still Chesterton. Except he didn’t say it.

Your servant,

Dale Ahlquist
President
American Chesterton Society


Ted Olson on Christianity Today Online, addresses the question of why Catholics are so prominent in the judiciary, while evangelicals are scarcely to be found.

“Welcome to ‘the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft,’ Franklin Foer wrote in The New Republic . ‘Evangelicals didn’t just need Catholic bodies; they needed Catholic minds to supply them with rhetoric that relied more heavily on morality than biblical quotation.’

“‘At one level, Mr. Foer’s argument is a repeat of the notorious Washington Post claim of several years ago that evangelicals are poor, uneducated, and easily led. And, of course, we crafty Catholics are doing the leading,’ Neuhaus responded on the First Things website. Evangelicals, he said, still have ‘formidable minds’ and the legacy of politician/preacher Abraham Kuyper.

“The evangelical legacy also includes minister John Witherspoon, founder of Princeton and mentor to James Madison. Modern evangelical Protestantism doesn’t lack qualified candidates for the Supreme Court. But it is true that the movement is only recently getting serious about recapturing the legacies of Kuyper and Witherspoon, and of ending ‘the scandal of the evangelical mind.’

“When it comes to government, evangelical energies seem drawn to positions where Christian beliefs are part of decision-making. It’s easy to list conservative Protestants in the legislative and executive branches. But judges? Roy Moore gets rallies for erecting a Ten Commandments monument while Michael McConnell’s work goes unread. Is that because evangelicals don’t want to do intellectual heavy lifting? Or is it because we disagree with Justice Antonin Scalia’s argument that ‘a judge … bears no moral guilt for the laws society has failed to enact’? Does moral duty always trump job description?

“Activism is usually mentioned as one core distinctive of being an evangelical, but we oppose it on the bench. Is this why there are so few top-level evangelical judges? If so, thank God for conservative Catholics.”

Permit me a couple of points:

Michael McConnell, an evangelical, hardly goes unread. He is one of the most respected judges in the federal judiciary and was, as I wrote, my choice for the Supreme Court nomination that went to Sam Alito—a nomination with which I am very pleased, I hasten to add.

Second, it is certainly not a matter of letting one’s job description trump one’s moral duty as a Christian. It is precisely one’s moral duty to do the job that one is sworn to do. Judges involved in a web of laws entailing evil (the abortion license is the most obvious example) do not violate their moral duty unless they directly and voluntarily support and approve of such evils. This is the classical distinction between material and formal cooperation with evil.

Third, it seems almost certain that those great evangelical judges of the future are now students in law schools around the country, as were the likes of Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito forty years ago.


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