Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Judeo-Christian Illusions

In Dennis Prager's latest column in his series defending "Judeo-Christian values," Prager argues that
The cultural civil war in which America is engaged is, in large measure, about American exceptionalism. Conservative America generally believes in the concept; liberal America generally finds it chauvinistic and dangerous.
I'm certainly sympathetic to the Conservative side of this debate, or perhaps more accurately, I'm vastly more opposed to the Liberals on this than to the Conservatives, even if I do find American moral judgment at times inadequately "chauvinistic". What prompted me to write about this column however is not its main topic but a throwaway line at the end of the column in which Prager notes that
Too bad more Europeans did not place a Judeo-Christian morality above secular law. There would not have been a Holocaust.
I have no problem with the fundamental principle involved here, namely that the moral and legal are separate domains and that there are clearly times when the legal code of a given locality is morally wrong and therefore, morally, ought to be opposed, sometimes even violently opposed. That is after all, the point of the Declaration of Independence which essentially argued that a legal authority can and ought to be changed if it violates the higher moral law.

My issue is with the claim that specifically a greater allegiance to "Judeo-Christian morality" would have provided the necessary resistance to the goals of the Nazis and thus prevented another Holocaust. If "Judeo-Christian morality" is to have an influence in the culture, it would have to be through its two main component religions, namely Judaism and Christianity, and of the two Christianity would be the more important since to the extent that Europe was religious on the eve of WWII, it was Catholic or Protestant. Judaism, only recently emancipated, did not, I dare say, play a significant role in shaping the ideas of most Europeans.

Let's assume the following assumptions of Prager are true: That Europe was largely secular on the eve of WWII and that a greater allegiance to "Judeo-Christian values" would have stopped the Nazis. Well, if the representatives of "Judeo-Christian values" in Europe were the Christian clergy, whether Catholic or Protestant, then we would expect them to be the centers of opposition to Nazism. We would expect them to have been the voices in the wilderness opposing the Nazis in the name of "Judeo-Christian values" that they support. What is the historical record?

Mixed, at best, as it turns out. Paul Johnson's History of Christianity is instructive in this respect. On the Catholic attitude toward Hitler he writes:
...Catholics felt no loyalty to Weimar; it was not 'nationalist' enough. And towards Hitler, who was, they were ambivalent. It is true that some bishops were initially hostile to the Nazis...In any case some of the Bishops refused to take a stand against the Nazis, and especially against Hitler, who was becoming increasingly popular...The fact is that most of the bishops were monarchists. They hated liberalism and democracy much more than they hated Hitler...Moreover once Hitler attained power, German Catholicism dropped its 'negative' attitude and assumed a posture of active support. This was carried through by the bishops as early as 28 March 1933, on a firm indication from Rome (advised by Pacelli) that there would be no Vatican support for a policy of opposition.

There's more that could be said and interested readers can read some of the details of Catholic response to Hitler in Johnson's book. Turning now to the Protestants, Johnson informs us that
...if the Catholic attitude toward Hitler was apprehensive and pusillanimous, many of the Protestant clergy were enthusiastic. The collapse of 1918 and the end of the Protestant monarchy had been a disaster for the Lutherans...most Lutherans were afraid their church would collapse once state support was completely removed. So they hated Weimar...Some of them, therefore, looked on Hitler and his movement as saviours.
Johnson also details various attempts by Lutherans to remove "the Jewish background to Christianity." The Lutherans, apparently, would resist any description of their values as "Judeo-Christian."

Nevertheless, even if we grant that much of what passes for Christianity at that time was hypocritical, it remains true that for a large number (the majority?) of devout Christians, Nazism presented little or no moral difficulty. Perhaps Prager should keep that in mind the next time he argues that that an increase in religious values can protect us from the evils of this world.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Too bad more Europeans did not place a Judeo-Christian morality above secular law. There would not have been a Holocaust."

When Europe did embrace Christian morality it gave us such wonderful things such as the Inquistion, the burning of heretics, and a war against science (ie Galileo). Prager is completely blind on this issue.

Gideon said...

It's worse than that. Prager and other Conservatives have for some time tried to minimize the evils in Christianity's history including the Dark Ages (the "so-called Dark Ages") and consider the Enlightenment anti-religious propaganda.

As far as I'm concerned the flirtation of Conservatives with religion is completely analogous to the Liberal appeasement of Communism during the 20th century and just as dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand said in "The Missing Link" that the anti-conceptual mentality regards abstractions as perceptual concretes. I think when people speak of Judeo-Christian morality as if it is a tylenol pill that, had it been taken, would have done this or that, they are displaying the anti-conceptual mentality. They say the J/C morality as if it's self-evident what they mean. To them, the J/C morality is approximately what they believe, and that if people would just listen to them, and since they think they would have opposed the Nazis, J/C morality would have saved the day. Basically it is a form of subjectivism, that allows them to not identify the causes of Nazism, but to take credit for it's eradication. Also, "secularism" is a straw-man package deal. It allows a subjectivist to seem against subjectivism; being in tune with religious morality is supposed to be the opposite of the subjectivist "no absolutes" secularists. In reality it is still whim worship.

Gideon said...

Well put!