Nuclear Deterrence, Christian Conscience, and the End of Christendom

July-August 1988By John Finnis

John Finnis is Reader in Law at Oxford University, and Fel­low and Praelector in Jurisprudence at University College, Oxford. His latest book is Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (co-authored with Joseph M. Boyle Jr. and Ger­main Grisez). Copyright © 1988 John Finnis.

“If there is, as I believe, a temporal mis­sion for the Christian, how would it be possible for the terrestrial hope by which such a mission is quickened not to have as its most comprehensive aim the ideal of building either a better or a new Chris­tian civilization?… At each new age in human history (as is, to my mind, our own age with respect to the Middle Ages and the Baroque Age), it is normal that Christians hope for a new Christendom, and depict for themselves, in order to guide their effort, a concrete historical ideal appropriate to the particular cli­mate of the age in question.”

Lecturing On the Philosophy of History in the United States in 1955, Jacques Maritain thus re­stated a theme he had elaborated in Spain in the high summer of 1934, 23 months before Franco’s uprising. And he added a concrete assessment: “As a matter of fact, America is today the area in the world in which, despite pow­erful opposite forces and currents, the notion of a Christian-inspired civilization is more part of the national heritage than in any other spot on earth. If there is any hope for the sprouting of a new Christendom in the modern world, it is in America.”

I shall argue that we should answer Maritain’s rhetorical question, No: it is a philosophical and theological mistake to suppose, as he did, that the temporal vocation of the Christian — or the Chris­tian’s conscience in political matters — requires a “comprehensive aim” such as the “concrete histor­ical ideal” of building a new or a better Christen­dom. And the facts, properly assessed, suggest that, even if it did, the hope of locating such a “really and vitally Christian-inspired civilization” in the U.S. is firmly blocked.

In March 1955 Prime Minister Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons, used words which have survived as expressing the reality of the nuclear age, and the hope which has guided the masters of the age: “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihila­tion.” The threat of annihilation would, he was warning, become mutual, reciprocal, when the So­viet Union acquired the thermo-nuclear weapons then recently unveiled by the U.S. Still, the West’s new armaments would increase “the deterrent up­on the Soviet Union by putting her…scattered population on an equality or near-equality of vul­nerability with our small densely-populated island” — a vulnerability matched by the equal, mutual vulnerability of the West’s populations.

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