Christianity and freedom: a personal view

By Philip Vander Elst.

For decades, many observers of the contemporary cultural scene have been rightly concerned about the growing evidence that materially advanced Western societies are experiencing a process of moral breakdown and social fragmentation resulting in high levels of crime, anti-social behaviour, and cultural decay. At the same time, our generation is confronted, as never before, by a bewildering proliferation of alternative cultures and lifestyles – from Islamic fundamentalism and Eastern Religion, to New Age paganism, secular humanism, ‘gay liberation,’ and most recently, ‘transgenderism’.budha two All this raises an all-important question: What is the proper moral and cultural foundation of a free and civilised society? What framework of values justifies and sustains liberty, and helps to ensure that it benefits the individual and the community?

The answer of secular liberal humanism, the dominant ideology of 21st century Western intellectuals, is a simple one. Since there is no (allegedly) convincing evidence that God exists, and the human race follows a wide variety of different religions and belief systems, it is obvious that there are no moral and cultural absolutes – no demonstrably objective truths outside the narrow realms of mathematics, formal logic and the natural sciences. It therefore follows that the only proper attitude to adopt is one of neutrality and tolerance. All creeds, cultures and moral codes are equal and should be treated as such. None should be regarded as being superior to the others, and the law should not discriminate between them. In particular, children should be educated as far as possible in a ‘value-free’ environment, so that their ‘freedom of choice’ as adults is not compromised by early ‘indoctrination’. By contrast, belief in God and moral absolutes is typically regarded as bigoted and ‘authoritarian’, and therefore a threat to tolerance and freedom – a conviction reinforced by the erroneous belief that religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular, has always been an obstacle to the advancement of liberty and science.

This dominant secular humanist outlook explains the hostility aroused by the ‘Religious Right’ in the United States, especially within the ‘liberal’ media, and helps to account for the general spread of political correctness within Western educational and cultural institutions. As a result, there is everywhere a frantic anxiety to flatter and appease – in the name of equality – every conceivable minority, except, of course, Christians and Conservatives.

 

The inconsistency and incoherence of secular humanist ‘liberalism’

The glaring contrast between its commitment to ‘tolerance’ and its censorious attitude towards those who challenge its precepts, however, reveals the internal incoherence and inconsistency of humanistic ‘liberalism’. Even when its belief in choice and toleration is sincere, it is inconsistent with its other assumption that all values are relative, because if nothing is objectively right or wrong, tolerance becomes an arbitrary prejudice rather than a moral virtue, and its rejection by others cannot be logically condemned – a point to which I will return.

In reality, careful philosophical reasoning and close study of the historical record do not support the assumptions of secular humanism, even if one ignores its internal contradictions. They show, on the contrary, that the growth of liberty, the advancement of science, and the general progress of society, have been intimately linked with the development of Judaism and Christianity. Just as belief in a Divine Creator stimulated scientific discovery because it implied that Nature was orderly and therefore open to systematic investigation, so, in a similar way, the belief that we are all God’s children, made in His image, paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery and the recognition that all human beings have a right ‘to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

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Acton, briefly MP for Cavan!

Sceptical readers who doubt these claims but are willing to investigate them in detail, should consult three outstanding books among the many which could be recommended. They are (1) Essays In The History of Liberty (Liberty Fund Books), by the great 19th century liberal and Catholic historian, Lord Acton; (2) Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730 – 1805 (Liberty Fund Books), and finally, (3) The Theme is Freedom: religion, politics and the American tradition (Regnery, USA), a wide-ranging and penetrating analysis of the religious foundations of Western liberty (complete with an exhaustive bibliography) by the late American Conservative writer and scholar, M. Stanton Evans.

 For the benefit of those with little time or leisure to read these books, the historical case for linking the growth of freedom with the development of Judaism and Christianity begins with the observation that the world of classical pagan antiquity was almost entirely hostile to the idea of liberty. With the rare exception of some Stoic philosophers, it had no conception of human rights, let alone respected them in practice. Not only was despotism practically universal, with political power concentrated in the hands of absolute monarchs, but slavery was an omnipresent institution whose raison d’être was not even questioned in the Athens of Pericles.EMEA-athens

World of pagan antiquity almost entirely hostile to the idea of liberty

The common view of pagan antiquity, expressed most clearly by Aristotle, was that slavery was justified because “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right…” In addition to regarding more than half the human race as little more than animals, whose lives and persons belonged to their owners, the world of classical antiquity had no real concept of limited government but believed, instead, that the individual only existed to serve the State – whether that political community was a single city or an empire. Hence, for instance, the failure of Athenian democracy to recognise or respect the rights of dissidents and minorities, demonstrated most famously in the trial, condemnation and death of Socrates. Indeed, this example underlines the point at issue with particular clarity, since it shows that despite the existence of freedom of thought and speech – the glory of ancient Athens – and the ability of Athenian citizens to participate as equals in the political process, there was no sense that individuals were ends in themselves or possessed any right to life, liberty or property which could be regarded as imposing moral limits on the power of the State. The idea that rulers were subject to a Higher Law and ought to exercise power and authority in the interests of the governed, was propagated by some of the Stoics, but their ‘still small voice’ had no countervailing impact on the customs, mores and institutions of the ancient world.

Western civilisation only really began to accommodate and assimilate the ideal of liberty and equality before the law, as a result of the gradually unfolding impact of the Biblical view of God and Man. Thus whereas pagan religion regarded Humanity as the passive victim of essentially amoral natural and supernatural forces which could only be appeased and controlled by elaborate rituals and sacrifices designed to win the favour of the ‘gods’, the Bible presented a radically different picture. According to the Biblical conception, there is only one God, and He is the eternal, self-existent Creator of the Universe. As such, He is the source of all life and consciousness, and the Father of all mankind. In addition, says the Bible, God is the Voice that speaks to our conscience and therefore the source of that Moral Law we find written on our hearts. This difference in theological perspective, compared with paganism, had dramatically contrasting consequences for politics and society. Of these consequences, two deserve special attention.

The first was the change that gradually took place in people’s attitude to the State and towards authority in general. Whereas paganism was saturated with the worship of power and the pursuit of pleasure and success as ends in themselves, encouraging the fusion and concentration of temporal and spiritual power in the hands of the ruler, Biblical Christianity emphasised the superiority of God’s Law over all kings, princes and human authorities, and insisted that the possession of power and responsibility at any level was a sacred trust which should not be abused out of pride or vanity, or for personal gain. Secondly, Biblical Christianity’s emphasis on the universal Fatherhood of God powerfully reinforced the ideal – shared by some Stoic philosophers – of the brotherhood of Man, while the notion that every human being is made in God’s image, introduced the idea that every individual is precious and has God-given rights which may not be violated by the State. Christianity’s additional stress on the weakness and sinfulness of human nature, and its affirmation that Christ died for the redemption of all men and women, also suggested extra reasons for limiting and preventing the abuse of power, and loving one’s neighbour.

Although the underlying logic of Biblical Christianity has been libertarian in its political and social implications, its pivotal role in the centuries long struggle against torture, slavery, tyranny and inhumanity, has often been obscured not only by the slow pace of historic change, but also by the human failings of Christian statesmen, theologians, and denominations. In particular, Christians have added their own terrible contribution to the sum of human cruelty whenever they have fallen prey to the temptation to use the power of the State to coerce the consciences of individuals, instead of imitating the example of Jesus and the Early Church by loving their enemies and combating error and heresy with the spiritual weapons of prayer, argument and evangelism. But despite these failings, and their responsibility for Christendom’s ugly record of persecution and intolerance during the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era, no impartial historian can deny the Biblical and Christian roots of freedom and liberal democracy.

To quote Lord Acton’s summary of the progress made during the Middle Ages: “Representative government, which was unknown to the ancients, was almost universal. The methods of election were crude; but the principle that no tax was lawful that was not granted by the class that paid – that is, that taxation was inseparable from representation – was recognised, not as the privilege of certain countries, but as the right of all…Slavery was almost everywhere extinct and absolute power was deemed more intolerable and more criminal than slavery. The right of insurrection was not only admitted but defined as a duty sanctioned by religion…”

 In the subsequent centuries, the Protestant emphasis on the individual’s personal relationship with God and his right to read and interpret Scripture for himself, coupled with the New Testament view of the Church as the ‘priesthood of all believers’, encouraged the gradual growth of freedom of conscience, as well as the advance of democracy in Church and State. old bibleMost important of all, the Christian notion that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore endowed with the gifts of reason and free will, produced a powerful theological argument in favour of freedom of thought, worship and speech: namely, that if God Himself gives us the freedom to choose whether to accept or reject Him, neither the Church nor the State has the right to interfere with that freedom. This is a particularly vital insight given the fact that both the pursuit of truth, and the cultivation of virtue, require that individuals be free to compare and discuss ideas and choose between good and evil.

The link between Christianity and liberty is perhaps most clearly discernible when one examines the political consequences in the twentieth century of the anti-Christian atheism of philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, and their subsequent disciples: Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler (For a full analysis of this issue, see: Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom, chapter 3).

The link between atheism, nihilism, and totalitarianism

Denying the existence of God, these prophets and architects of totalitarianism explicitly rejected the idea that there is an objective and eternally valid Moral Law. They asserted instead that human beings must create their own values, and that the supreme manifestation of human freedom and significance lay in the ruthless conquest and uncontrolled exercise of power, since human autonomy could only be affirmed and demonstrated by the forceful exercise of the naked will, untrammelled by the external restraint of traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The result? The Nazi and Communist holocausts and the increasingly murderous record of the State in the twentieth century, so graphically documented in Professor R.J. Rummell’s landmark study, Death by Government, Death by govermentTransaction Publishers, USA, 1996).

Despite the historical evidence, many deny the philosophical connection between atheism, nihilism and totalitarianism, on the grounds that the value of human life provides an objective foundation for morality without invoking the idea of God. What these critics fail to understand, however, is that it is impossible to justify our conviction that human life is valuable unless we treat it as a self-evident moral axiom reflecting an eternal (and therefore Divine) Reality outside ourselves. Otherwise it is nothing more than an emotional prejudice on a par with our liking for strawberries.

For all these reasons, those who cherish liberty and wish it to survive in the 21st century, ought to resist the continuing erosion of the Judeo-Christian ethic and the spread of secular humanism.

Philip Vander Elst (copyright)

The Queen’s speech

Opening-ParliamentHere is something else for Mrs. May’s desk. What will the Queen’s speech say about Brexit? If it backtracks or even gives the appearance of doing so then Britain could face a crisis of legitimacy, with frustrated leave voters saying, with some justification, that they had been betrayed. If though Mrs. May puts enough robust pro Brexit language into the Queen’s mouth to allay the fears of UKIP, then is there not a danger that an unsympathetic Brussels will deem article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to have been invoked- something Mrs May does not want to do- at least yet.

I’m glad I’m not the one drafting the speech! Or have I missed something?

Gunfire in Dallas

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FDR visits Dallas in 1936

The murder of five policemen in Dallas was a atrocious crime. Those they loved must be comforted; and the perpetrator brought to justice. But this is a crime which raises uncomfortable questions. It raises questions because it was a crime which emerged from a troubling context, namely the all too numerous killings of black men by the police in the United States. This is not an invention of the liberal media. It is a sober, and sobering fact. I do not know what is going on. Knowing the United States as I do, I very much doubt that white racism alone is responsible, although it may in some instances be a factor. But whatever the facts, however disturbing they may be, we badly need to know what they are. The whole matter including all its ramifications needs to be thoroughly investigated perhaps by a presidential commission. The best monument we can build for those so cruelly killed in Dallas would the knowledge that we had broken the terrible cycle of violence of which they were the victims.

Statism and Supranationlism

By Philip Vander Elst.

The article below is an amended version of one originally posted on the IEA blog on 10 July 2009.

Is there a strong connection between statism and supranationalism? At a time of rising taxation, increased State control over the banking system, and ever closer European integration, it is a question that ought to concern anyone who cares about the survival of freedom in the 21st century.

The first and most obvious link between the two is that supranationalism, by definition, involves the extension of State power to a new and higher level above formerly independent self-governing nations. The prime example of this, of course, is the European Union, whose governing institutions – principally, the European Commission – originate about two-thirds of the laws now rubber-stamped each year by the Westminster Parliament.

Less apparent but more interesting, however, is the similarity between the assumptions and ideological reflexes of the supporters of big government, and the attitudes of contemporary supranationalists

Both groups, for instance, share a common distrust of voluntary co-operation and an instinctive unwillingness to rely on it for the achievement of economic and social objectives. Statists prefer the action of government to that of civil society when confronting particular problems. Similarly, supranationalists prefer the centralised decision-making of a European or global government system to voluntary agreements between self-governing countries. Not surprisingly, given these attitudes, both groups tend to be deeply hostile to economic liberalism, and ever anxious to limit the scope of markets.

Underlying the authoritarian mindset of statists and supranationalists is an implicit assumption that State officials and supranational bureaucracies are wiser, more knowledgeable and better motivated than ordinary citizens, the business community, or national governments and institutions. But what evidence is there for this assumption? The sacrifice, on the altar of European monetary union, of mass youth unemployment in Italy, Greece and Spain?

In reality, of course, the moral and mental conceit of so many intellectuals is closely related to the fact that they are precisely the class of people who are most likely to seek and find employment in government bureaucracies at all levels. As agents of State power and supranational institutions, intellectuals feel a natural sense of superiority over the common herd of humanity and tend to think that their educational qualifications, and their lofty ideas about how the world ought to be run, give them the right to direct and control the activities of others.

The expansion of governmental power, both within the nation-state and above it, not only attracts the support of intellectuals because it offers them secure jobs and opportunities for engaging in social engineering. It is also psychologically appealing because it increases their ability to build a reputation for altruism and enlightenment by ‘doing good’ with other people’s money.

Finally and most dangerous of all, statists and supranationalists share a common tendency to use economic and other crises (for which they are often largely responsible) to stoke up fear, thus building support for new restrictions on liberty. After a century like the 20th, in which, according to Professor R.J. Rummel, 170 million people were killed in internal repression by tyrannical governments, and millions more economically ruined by socialist planners and State officials, that is a tendency that must be fiercely resisted.

Philip Vander Elst is a freelance writer and lecturer. His many publications include Power Against People: a Christian critique of the State (IEA, 2008), The Principles of British Foreign Policy (Bruges Group, 2008), and Vindicated by History: Statism’s 19th century critics (Cobden Centre, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The British vote.

This is a difficult moment for Ireland and for Britain. In such moments calm is essential. No one should rush into premature judgements. However the first immediate problem for Ireland will be in the tourist and hospitality industries. These will be impacted because the low pound will make Ireland a much more expensive destination for visitors from The United Kingdom. In this area at least our government might well have to act sooner rather than later. More broadly though, nothing should be done to erode the wonderful progress that has recently taken place in Anglo-Irish relations.

Prejudice and folly in South Africa

Laurence Ticehurst.

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President Zuma ( Born 1942 ) has sometimes spoken more wisely of white South Africans.

A little story from South Africa tucked away on page 37 of The ( London ) Times last Saturday caught my eye. Apparently President Joseph Zuma has got himself into trouble by attacking the first Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck by saying that South Africa’s problems are all the fault of the whites. As a result he has been referred to the human rights commission for stirring up racial hatred.

A storm in a teacup you will say. Well, no. The point here is not the fact that Mr. Zuma’s white opponents are accusing him of lacking political correctness- which given the history does make my raise my eyebrows a bit. Rather it is that Mr. Zuma’s remarks betray a deep misunderstanding of his responsibilities as President of South Africa. Of course he has a responsibility not to exacerbate the animosities existing between the various groups which inhabit his beautiful country. But as importantly he has a responsibility as President to ensure that the debate in South Africa focuses on the correct issues. In this instance he has clearly failed to do this, as he has not understood that there is a crucial difference between the cause of an historic injustice, and the most prudent way of putting it right.

It is certainly true, ( and not denied by any sensible observer, )  that black South Africans were for many years subject to a regime of injustice which was quite unacceptable. This has led to a huge gulf between the way of life enjoyed by black and white South Africans. No one denies the cause of this, and Mr. Zuma is correct when he attributes it to the policies of the various white governments before 1990.

The question though which now presents itself to any government of South Africa is how this gap can be closed. Of course a part of the answer is for wealthy whites ( and blacks ) to pay more tax than they might like. Of course part of the answer is for the ownership of land to be spread more equally between white and black. But neither increased government services, nor land reform will be anything like enough to provide a decent way of life for the rapidly increasing black population of South Africa.

This can only come through economic growth. There is no alternative solution. The socialist model of development has been tried again and again, and it has always failed. It has failed not because of a lack of enthusiasm, hard work, or dedication on behalf of the socialists. It has failed, we now know, because we can use resources effectively if and only if we have a system of prices to make it possible for us to make rational economic choices.

This is a truth universally acknowledged and applies not simply to Mr and Mrs Bennet in the Northern Johannesburg suburbs, but in every township fromsoweto-roofs-1 Soweto to Khayelitsha near Cape Town. Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that Black South Africans do not to have their hopes destroyed and their lives further messed around by the kind of policies that have failed everywhere they have been tried. South Africans, black white, and coloured alike, need and can only prosper in a free society. They need the rule of law. They need property rights. They need economic freedom, and only those regulations that are absolutely necessary.

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First edition, London, Cape Town and Johannesburg, 1979

This is the road to prosperity and self respect for all South Africans. We know from Colin Bundy’s ( b. 1944 )remarkable book  “The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry” that, if given such opportunities to prosper through their efforts, black South Africans will seize them with enthusiasm. Bundy ( who writes from a broadly Marxist perspective )  shows that in the nineteenth century many black South Africans were making a tremendous start at building prosperous lives for themselves. For example they by were growing maize and selling it more cheaply than their white competitors thanks to their lower overheads. Their efforts were only frustrated by the government that did everything it could to protect the interests of the white farmers.

The real objection then to President Zuma’s remark is not that it violates the canons of political correctness; but that it reasserts the foolish fable that the only way forward for South Africa is through redistribution. The point here is not just that Mr and Mrs Bennet’s swimming pool is not big enough to accommodate everyone, but that by arousing hatred of the Bennets, President Zuma has distracted his fellow black South Africans not simply from one of the most remarkable chapters of their own history, but from the only way that they have of escaping from the poverty that still so stunts their lives. South Africa deserves a President who does better than that.

The murder of…

…. Jo Cox the popular British Labour Member of Parliament is of course a disgrace. Such gross immorality must be repudiated  utterly by every Conservative. We can only offer our deepest sympathy to her family and friends who have been so cruelly deprived of her presence and company. May she rest in peace.

After the Referendum

polling stationLeave may be ahead for the moment in the polls. But Remain is still likely to win the British referendum. Like a dodgy accountant the government in London has cooked the electoral books and will get the result it wanted. That’s how it goes, although I must say spending nine and half million pounds of the taxpayers money on pro EU propaganda just before the spending limits came into operation was rather pushing it even by the relaxed standards of the Bullington Club!

All is fair, though, in love and war, and the United Kingdom will stay within the European Union- for now. This, of course, is not the end of the story.  Although Remain is going to win, British politics has been changed. Boris Johnson has emerged as a serious and important figure. His emergence as the leader of “Leave,” and potentially too leader of the Conservative Party is as important as Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule in December 1885. GladstoneMr. Johnson’s break with the establishment raises the possibility that Britain will elect a government explicitly committed to leaving the EU. And at that point the serious action will begin. ( There will, of course, always be a few pro- European Tories, just as there were Liberal Unionists in late nineteenth century Britain.)

In the meantime the scene of the action has moved to the rest of Europe, where ( except in Ireland ) “populism” is advancing. Of this three things should be noted. Firstly some of its exponents do have roots in the darker recesses of the European right.  Secondly, that freely confessed, they have shown themselves adaptable, politically astute, and appealing to moderate voters concerned about uncontrolled immigration. Other less emotionally charged forms of Euro- scepticism are also on the rise. Thirdly, important as these developments are, the anti European right is still on the margin. The liberal need not be unduly frightened by the True Finns. In France, Germany, and Italy, the Europeanist establishment is still in power and in control of events. There is then no immediate crisis of legitimacy in Europe. For this at least the supporters of the European idea ( among which I am not numbered ) can be thankful. Their project still has some popular appeal. The establishment can still win on a good day.

However the fact that the system is not in immediate danger should not delude us into believing that it is stable, or that the model cooked up after the war is still an appropriate architecture for Europe. The peoples of Europe value their individuality and their various identities far more than can be accommodated by a single state; just as their economies are too different to flourish within one currency. This much, at least, would surely be obvious to an observer whose vision had not been moulded by Europeanist propaganda, and the memory of the very unusual conditions that prevailed in Europe in 1945post war damage when much of the continent was a gigantic bomb site, and what was left of the railway stations were packed with refugees.

On the other hand there are real difficulties with European nationalism. As the “Europeans” never cease to point out it can be and often is very unattractive. In Ireland we have recently been reminded of this by the blood soaked language of Patrick Pearse. But he, of course, was far from being alone. There were Jingoes all over Europe in the nineteenth century. And their activities played a part in forming the conditions which led to the first world war and to the subsequent disasters all over Europe. The ugly right remains ugly, despite being ( sometimes ) correct about the European “project.” The far right’s offer of protectionism and prejudice is far from attractive or realistic. Nor is it in any serious sense conservative.

Unattractive as the far European nationalism can sometimes be we should never forget that it is to some extent it derives from the reaction to Napoleon’s attempt to create what was in effect a super state in the form of French client kingdoms. ( Indeed some of the silly talk from Germany about excluding Britain from the single market reminds me of Napoleon’s Continental System )  In this “take” Europeanism and nationalism are images embossed on different sides of the same coin. The one brought forth the other. Neither take account of the complexity of the reality with which are faced, and consequently both are certain to give rise to grave errors.

The Europeanists are right ( or at least half right ) when they depict nationalists as being narrow minded bigots who cannot see the big picture who risk plunging Europe into another war . The Nationalists are right ( or at least half right) when they depict the Europeans as being fanatics prepared to sacrifice everything including democracy and the economies of countries such as Greece in pursuit of their delusions.

Are these though in truth the only alternatives? Are things rally so bad that we have to choose between Norbert Hofer and Jean- Claud Juncker? The real problem with post war Europe was that those who founded the Community were so frightened of nationalism that they failed to understand that love of the local can be a honourable emotion, and one that is quite compatible with liberalism. Above all they did not realise that it is the seemingly endless bureaucratic meddling from the centre which provides the explosive fuel for the very xenophobia that they wished to eradicate.

How then should we now proceed? It seems to me that the choice we now face is clear.  The result of the vote in Britain means that we now have the time to build a more modest and institutionally restrained Europe that respects national divergencies. If the elite ignores the message from the leave voters and continues along the path of continued integration, multiplied regulation, increased centralization, all disguised beneath a smokescreen of  Euro waffle, then, frankly this is going to get ugly.

Mr. Hofer may have been defeated in Austria. Mr. Johnson may have been thwarted in Britain. Mrs Le Pen may yet be defeated in France. But the finger is writing on the wall. It will only take one nation to break free, for the instability of whole structure to become clear. The choice is between genuine reform and a horrifying crack up crisis driven by xenophobia. We then have no alternative but to begin the laborious process of rethinking what it means to be Europeans, what it means to be a members of a nation, and to work out ways that properly reflect both poles of our identity. We have time. But not much time.