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Christopher Dawson was an English historian in the middle of the last century, one of those intellectuals prominent in his own day—T. S. Eliot called him “the most powerful intellectual influence in England”—but mostly overlooked in ours. Which is the usual treatment posterity gives to intellectuals, and usually for the best. But as to Dawson, it’s a shame. At this troubled juncture in American history, he is worth recalling. His lifelong subject was the study of religion and culture. And his lifelong thesis was this: Every great culture in the history of mankind has depended on “a common moral order and a common religious ideal.”

America’s ideal has been the religion of the Bible, Christianity in particular. That is changing now, obviously, and not for the better. As the left works to impose an arid secularism, American culture increasingly has no memory of the religious tradition that made it and, without that tradition, no moral order to bind us together. 

Care to see the consequences? Look around. Our politics are bitter. Our culture wars are intractable. We can no longer agree even on the definition of “man” and “woman.” Fewer Americans bother to marry or raise children; ever fewer regard it as worth their time. Those who do take vows and start families must contend with an economy that is, to put it mildly, less than hospitable to hearth and home.

There are darker trends still. Unfamiliar with the moral and spiritual foundations of their society, American students take to campus quadrangles and social media to mimic the violent rhetoric of terrorists. They parrot Osama bin Laden and Hamas, whose virulent diatribes have at least one thing in common: a pulsating hatred for Jews and Christians and the religion of the Bible that unites them. Meanwhile, a startling percentage of American youth are medicated for psychiatric disorders. They struggle beneath the burden of drug and alcohol abuse: Drug overdoses now account for more than 100,000 deaths nationwide each year. They commit suicide in shocking numbers. 

To the extent that the chattering class sees any of this as a problem—and many do not—they blame various villains, from globalization to social media. Surely there is blame to go around. But might our predicament stem from something more fundamental? Isn’t the real culprit the loss of our “common religious ideal,” the demise of Christianity as America’s cultural and moral anchor?

America as a Christian nation—that’s a heretical notion by today’s lights. We are a secular country, the experts have insisted—demanded—for decades. But that was never true. The Founders read Roman historians, yes. Some were influenced by Enlightenment philosophies. But the Bible has been the main source of our national ideals. From the age of the New England Puritans to the Great Awakening that prepared the ground for revolution, Scripture has molded our common life from the first. Consider: Our ideal of the individual has Christian roots. So too does our constitutionalism. Our great traditions of progressive reform were animated by an ardent Christian spirit—as was conservative resistance to their excesses. Even in our most bitter conflicts, Christian culture has been America’s common ground.

We need to recover that common ground today. Why? Because America as we know it cannot survive without biblical Christianity. The rights we cherish, the freedoms we enjoy, the ideals we love together—all are rooted in and sustained by the tradition of the Bible. Christianity is the electric current of our national life. Turn it off, and the light will fade. If we care about the future of our country, we must renew the influence of biblical faith in America. 

One need not be a churchgoing believer to recognize the importance of Christianity for America’s future. In a time of global crisis, Franklin Roosevelt emphasized America’s biblical heritage. After the devastation of World War II, European leaders embraced Christian democracy in order to rebuild their countries. But there can be no revival of Christian influence in America without Christian believers who are willing to bring the gospel to bear on every corner of our culture and politics. We need fresh Christian thinking—and Christian action—on our economic arrangements, on business and labor, on family life and education.

Unfortunately, Christians these days are out of practice at articulating a truly Christian politics. The conservative “fusionism” of yesteryear, that combination of anti-communism, free-market economics, and social conservatism, taught too many Christians that their faith was relevant only to “cultural issues,” whatever that means. But the rot across our society now reveals that social norms and economic policies cannot be easily separated. The gospel concerns the whole of society and life.

Recently, some on the right have initiated a more holistic Christian approach to our present challenges. A few claim the title “Christian nationalist,” a term usually deployed as abuse by the left. The debate has become mired, however, in false starts and bad ideas. Some want to write the Apostles’ Creed into the Constitution (one such bad idea). Others pine for a “Protestant Franco” (disastrous). Still others hint at ethno-racial separatism (absolutely not). Amid this confusion, I fear that we will lose sight of Dawson’s central insights: that every nation depends on a shared moral order; that ours is Christian; and that to renew that order, we must strive to make our society reflect again, in our day, the principles of the gospel. 

There’s nothing “sectarian” in this task. For no nation is truly secular. The claim that it can be has been a mainstay among the liberal intelligentsia for nearly a century. Even some conservatives repeat it now. The secularist argument is that government must be neutral about competing conceptions of the good life. We are regularly instructed that this neutrality is the only way to hold together a pluralistic nation and respect citizens’ personal choices. According to this conception, the individual’s right to choose his own moral ends must take precedence over any notion of which ends are good and true. Isaiah Berlin famously warned in this connection that a society organized around a common moral ideal is essentially authoritarian. 

But all societies are organized around a moral vision. It’s what makes them societies. Aristotle had it right two and half millennia ago. “The end and purpose of a polis”—a city, a society—“is the good life,” he said, “and the institutions of social life are means to that end.” Further: “Any polis which is truly so called, and is not merely one in name, must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness.” It’s not so complicated, when you think about it. Society is forged by bonds of mutual loyalty, mutual affections and loves, and those affections are nourished by a shared idea of what is good: a moral vision. Society is a venture in shared meaning. 

Today’s liberal theory, by contrast, invests society with all the warmth and charm of the multinational business corporation. It makes no room for affections, let alone moral purpose. It pictures the nation as an alliance of otherwise isolated individuals pursuing pecuniary gain. But that’s not a society, that’s General Electric. Aristotle again: “Easing exchange” is the aim of an “alliance,” not of a polis. Edmund Burke made the same point centuries later: “The state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern.” He went on, “It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” The life of a nation is, in short, a moral enterprise.

My point is not that a society or nation ought to be so constituted. My point is that it is, always. For decades, liberals have ignored this reality, living off the Christian culture they inherited but now disdain. But the idea of a “procedural republic” that merely provides rights for individuals to do as they wish, with no reference to any shared purpose or meaning, is a mirage. What rights we hold and what they amount to involve inescapably moral judgments.

Conservatives have their own version of the secular myth, one that usually comes with appeals to the market or James Madison or both. Some conservatives—the neoliberal types—argue that free-market exchange supplies all the common meaning we will ever need. We can unite in the cause of moneymaking, they say. But you don’t need a society for that. Corporations and trading zones will suffice. Other conservatives look to the Constitution for salvation, as if that document were a perpetual motion machine that can operate on its own, no common affections or moral purpose needed. Set faction against faction and the republic will endure forever! But Madison never said any such thing. He presumed a baseline of shared culture, language, and moral outlook—a very robust baseline, by modern standards. The truth is that no constitution, however well designed, can unite a people who do not hold a common conception of the good. No system of checks and balances can replace a common moral vision.

And yet it is perhaps Christians, of all people, who most need reminding of society’s spiritual foundations. We have long been tempted to divide the world into “sacred” and “secular,” the City of God and the City of Man, with society and government written off as necessary evils. This mentality gives Christians a pass, an out, an excuse to do nothing when instead we have a duty, to our neighbors and our Lord, to work for a just society leavened by the gospel. That duty has never been more urgent.

I will go further. Not only do nations in general depend on a shared moral order; our nation’s moral order has been distinctly biblical and Christian. What Christopher Dawson said of Europe, that there is nothing in its past “that has not been formed or conditioned by Christian influences,” can be said with equal force of the United States. This is a message that needs to be heard by both left and right. By the (atheist) left for obvious reasons: They reject the Christian influence as oppressive and screen it out of our history whenever possible. But as to the right: One sometimes gets the impression, reading those who call themselves Christian nationalists, that they regard America’s constitutional project and our long-standing commitment to individual liberty as misguided, as the children of Enlightenment liberalism and somehow foreign to Christianity. That view is deeply mistaken. The concept of the individual, the idea of individual freedom, and the notion of constitutional government are in fact each a consequence of, not an exception to, Christian culture. Christians should be defending these pillars of the American experiment, now increasingly under assault from the left.

Observers since at least Tocqueville have identified individualism as quintessentially American. Nothing like it was known to the ancient world. As the French historian Fustel de Coulanges demonstrated at some length, the ancients prioritized order and stasis. Every city was composed of social classes that existed in the strictest hierarchy. Some people were born to rule, most to be ruled. This pattern was the order of nature, they believed, eternal and immutable. The individual had little standing. Fate, reason, nature—name it what you will—shaped, said Seneca, “the greatest and smallest events” and drove “the fortunes of nations.”

Christianity introduced a new and disruptive doctrine: God’s call to the individual. Christianity taught that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, had died for sinners as individuals. God calls each person individually, and those who repent and believe are empowered to achieve his purposes in the world (and in eternity). In short, through faith in Christ, individuals become agents of history. We cannot underestimate the importance of this change. Class, tribe, and even nation paled now in import compared to the call of God: The idea of the individual was born. The West would spend centuries working out its implications, and Americans would, in time, construct an entire social order around it.

Individual liberty, a closely related concept, is equally dear to Americans. It, too, bears an inescapably Christian impress. Just as the concept of the individual was unknown to the ancient world, so too was individual liberty, at least in any form recognizable today. The Romans prized property rights—for certain people—and the Greeks and Romans both praised the liberty of the citizen to share in ruling the city, but the advent of individual liberty accompanied by personal rights awaited the New Testament’s announcement of freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” the apostle Paul announced. This was deeply personal freedom of a radically new kind.

The freedom Christ bought by his sacrifice is profoundly interior—it penetrates to the depths of the individual’s being. Indeed, Christ’s liberation reconstitutes the individual’s very self. (“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”) This freedom is at once personal, belonging directly and uniquely to the individual, and inalienable. No master, no magistrate, no government can take it away. Peter and his comrades resisted the authorities in Jerusalem who wished to prevent them from preaching, saying, “We must obey God, not men.” History had not heard of a freedom like this.

This personal, individual liberty brought in its train the notion of individual rights. Christian liberty is not merely freedom from sin, moral decay, and death. It is a positive freedom, one exercised as we serve God and answer his call. What God has commanded, no government is at liberty to deny. The Ten Commandments (for example) are moral duties, to be sure, but they also adumbrate individual rights. They define the obligations of individuals, which entail the political freedoms individuals must enjoy in order to meet them. Over time, Christian theorists would come to see that God’s injunctions require the rights to worship, to marry, to pursue an honest profession, and to live generally in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

Moreover, Christianity taught that these rights belong even to the common man. The Greeks had praised liberty, but only for the “reasonable”; the Romans lauded self-government, but only for the few. Christ, by contrast, died for all. In him, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female,” for all are called of God, regardless of status. And if this is true, why should the work of the common laborer be despised? Why should the domestic sphere be looked down upon? Charles Taylor spoke of Christianity’s “affirmation of ordinary life,” a phrase that, if anything, underplays the explosive implications of God’s call to the individual. The seventeenth-century Puritan radicals understood the consequences perfectly. “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he,” one of them said at the famous Putney Debates in 1647. The common man’s right to earn a decent wage, to labor under fair conditions, to advance his station and that of his family, to have a say in his government—these ideals, so central to American life, all begin with the gospel. 

Then there is constitutionalism, another Christian contribution to our nation’s identity. On board the Arbella as it was sailing for a new world, John Winthrop told his fellow colonists that they were making a covenant with God; they would be a “city upon a hill,” a light to all the world, a community committed to God’s law. Winthrop came by the idea of covenant naturally. Christians had been reading it in their Bibles for centuries. God made a covenant with Noah, and then with Abraham, and then with Moses and David after them. The God of the Bible was a covenant-making God. By the 1600s, Christian theorists had come to explain God’s purposes for government in terms of covenant.

God gave rulers authority to command and coerce, but only insofar as they protected the liberties of the people. God instructed the people, in turn, to obey “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), but only insofar as the rulers honored their liberties. Winthrop envisioned a covenant made with God: Only a godly nation would win God’s favor and prosper under his direction of human affairs. But the political covenant was also—and this is crucial—an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. Should the authorities break the terms of God’s delegation of governance and assault the people’s freedoms, then the people had a right to defend themselves, even to rebel.

It is a small step from covenants to constitutions, and if this rehearsal of the evolution of early modern political thought brings to mind John Locke, it should. Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists and converted it (sometimes dubiously) to his own use. Thus, whether from the Puritan settlers or from the Calvinist-influenced Locke, covenant has long been in the American bloodstream. American reformers from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. would appeal to this tradition to argue that human constitutions and laws are legitimate only when they are in accord with the divine law—only when they are just. This high standard is the heritage of Christianity.

I have attempted only the barest sketch of the Bible’s influence on America’s most enduring ideals. Others have traced the argument in greater detail. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism demonstrates the Christian taproot of Western rights. In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Eric Nelson identifies the biblical ground of our political institutions. There is real value in getting this history right, because it tells us what sort of society America has truly been. We have never had a national establishment. Christian confessions have never been written into our law. But the nation’s ideals, social institutions, and habits have all been Christianly shaped. And this is a good thing, maybe especially for Americans who are not Christians. Precisely because of the Christian influence, American society has protected the liberty of all to speak, to worship, to assemble and petition, to share in self-rule.

But things are changing now. The atheist left has embarked on a program of social transformation, an effort to replace our biblical heritage with an ersatz religion of secularism and state, leavened by more than a little social Marxism. Their project is far from complete, but already the consequences are apparent, and disastrous.

In the left’s hands, individualism has become “personal autonomy,” the right to do as you please, to make your own meaning, to define your pronouns—provided, of course, that you faithfully observe the new and mandatory moral dictates handed down by, well, them. Every decent person must be pro-trans, pro-abortion, against the supposedly oppressive nuclear family, and ready to renounce the evils of organized religion, especially the Bible. Yet “autonomy,” as the left defines it, is less about liberty than about self-entertainment. That is no coincidence. As we become ever more distracted and self-involved, the liberal ruling class runs the country.

Today’s left also undermines constitutional government. They embrace censorship—there is no First Amendment right to “disinformation,” we are instructed. They reject religious liberty—a mere shield for discrimination, they say. They marshal the authority of the state against those who challenge them—just ask the parents designated “domestic terrorists” for speaking up at school board meetings. And they celebrate concentrated power, whether in the hands of bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci or of the megacorporations that do the left’s bidding.

The left seeks salvation, but in political activism. They demand repentance, but of “oppressive” tradition rather than personal sin. They preach a gospel of intersectionality, of victimhood as a means to power. It’s all fairly nonsensical, a poor facsimile of biblical religion. But that does not make it harmless. Just look to the students schooled in such nostrums who in recent months have shouted down Jews and Israelis as “colonizers” and “oppressors” while rehearsing Osama bin Laden’s diatribe against America as the Great Satan. The left’s progressive secularism is a religion of moral rot. 

What is to be done? Not religious establishment. Those Christians who argue that America needs a Franco or, from a different quarter, that the Creed should be inscribed in the Constitution have misunderstood our history—and court danger. America’s Christian culture has never depended on a strong man or on established churches or legally prescribed statements of faith. Nor has it depended on racial homogeneity, another thing some calling themselves Christian nationalists appear to advocate. No! The gospel of Jesus Christ destroys every form of racialism. The church of Christ has never been premised on race, nor has America.

What then? We must re-Christianize the great institutions of our society by rearticulating the gospel’s meaning for every aspect of life. In the late nineteenth century, an earlier generation of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, tried precisely this. Some called their project “Christian democracy.” The gist of it was that Marxism was a curse, socialism must be rejected—but consumerist laissez-faire was no answer. The nation must be recognized for what it was, they said: a moral partnership. And to make it endure, Christians must work to shape modern conditions according to the gospel. That’s the right impulse, for their day and ours.

Step one: Dismantle the legal regime of secularism the left has tried for decades to impose. Children should be able to pray in public-school classrooms. People of faith should be able to pray, witness, and wear signs of their religious devotion in the workplace. Christian business people should be free to incorporate their faith into their enterprises, including by refusing to fund abortion drugs or serve in the planning and celebration of ceremonies, such as same-sex weddings, that violate their convictions. More broadly, Christians must stoutly defend the seminal Christian influence in our history. We need to talk about it, point it out, and teach it—and fight to see this heritage honored in public places. Laws and public symbols are educators, whether they are acknowledged as such or not. For this reason, the Ten Commandments belong in courtrooms and courthouses and city halls, just as one can find Moses holding the Decalogue in marble at the Supreme Court of the United States. 

It is not enough merely to oppose legal secularism, however. We need a Christian politics that addresses our most pressing social challenges in unapologetically Christian terms. And I don’t mean the tired talk of “family values” that politicians, usually Republicans, offer up ceremonially every two or four years. No, a truly Christian politics must think architectonically. We must scrutinize the whole structure of our deteriorating social order by the light of the gospel and determine what must change to make it sound. When we do, we find this: “Social issues” and economic issues cannot be divided. A Christian society requires a Christian economy.

Take the family. The two-parent home is the foundation of any thriving society. Its near-collapse in America is a national catastrophe. More children grow up with a single parent in this country than nearly anywhere else in the world. And why? For one thing, fewer American men marry, and when they do, they marry later. A leading reason is that many cannot find decent, steady, well-paying jobs. Men without good work are not “marriageable,” as the sociologists say. Those couples who do get married have fewer children, because many feel they cannot afford larger families. Both parents must work full time to scrape together a middle-class life.

Some say there are plenty of jobs at excellent wages. Perhaps that’s true—if you are a graduate of a fancy university with powerful alumni. But I remind those who fit that bill of this: Two-thirds of American men do not graduate from a four-year college. And over the last half century, the real wages of these blue-collar men have risen not at all. To save marriage and the family in this country, the stagnation of working-class wages must change.

I’ll say it again: A Christian society requires a Christian economy. Why should we be hesitant to insist on this obvious truth? And why would we hesitate to insist that a Christian economy is one in which a man can support himself—and his wife and their children—by the work of his own hands, independent of government or charity? A Christian economy is one in which parents—and I mean everyday folks, not just the most talented and well-placed—can afford to have children and raise them, without turning to a government day care so that both parents can rush back to the service of the global corporations that claim every second of their waking energy, often in return for paltry wages.

Today we have the opposite of a Christian economy, one that privileges hedge funds and global capital over workers, the childless banker in Manhattan over the welder and his family in Missouri. The dirty little secret of Washington, D.C. is that for decades now both parties have embraced largely the same agenda: the free flow of global capital, unlimited imports of cheap foreign goods, tax handouts to corporations that ship away American jobs, and the ready supply of cheap labor. These policies add up to a massive system of preferences for a tiny set of industries—Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, principally—and one social class, the tippy top. This is not right. It is not just. And Christians who care about marriage, family, and labor should not stand for it.

This is what I mean by thinking architectonically. And this is only the beginning, the barest of beginnings. We must do far more—rebuild the kind of American industry that pays good wages, reward marriage and child-rearing in our tax policy, stop the fleecing of American families by the pharmaceutical industry, and break the control of our public discourse by Big Tech. I could go on. Instead, I’ll make my point one last time. America has been a Christian nation. We can be again—if Christians will recover again their confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to every facet of our common life. For the future of the nation, and the honor of the gospel, we must.

Josh Hawley is a U.S. senator for Missouri.

Images by David, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added. 

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