Judeo-Christian Westernism: An Impossible Triangulation
The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
By Ben Shapiro
Publisher: Broadside Books
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
The Person of Jesus Christ is the hinge of all human history. The Messiah for whom the Jews had waited broke into our world in Bethlehem and called everyone to Himself. The law of the jungle was overturned like the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple; the people living in darkness were shown a new light of reconciliation to the living God. What had been foretold by the prophets, hoped for by the Baptist, and announced by the angel came true in the baby born to die. Henceforth, we have all had to make a choice: whether to take this all as it is or refuse the redemption offered us in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Holy Book about Him is in two parts, prolegomena and consummation, precisely because He is the center point of the human drama. The Old Testament gives way to the New because the old world was overcome by the Resurrection. Challenges to the unity of Christ and His Church have been not cultural but doctrinal. Albigensianism, Lutheranism, Docetism, Islam: these heresies distort the Church and her Head, Jesus. Particularly noxious have been Lutheranism (and its various Protestant iterations) and Islam, which claim to go beyond Jesus in founding a new church, an ape of the real thing. For 2,000 years, however, Christians held firm. Neither Saracen nor Wittenbergian succeeded in adding a third scroll to the Bible. Christ and His Church have been the final word, and the Catholic missionaries who went out over the millennia have desired that all men be baptized into the true Body of Christ and thus saved.
The civilization that was built up in celebration of Jesus, the world that arose to glorify His Name and consecrate His resurrected Body and Blood for all to partake of, was, fittingly, named for Him: Christendom. Christendom had no azimuth; it was rooted in Jesus and His Church, not in a particular culture or set of customs. Adherents of the Risen Christ have communicated in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Amharic, Slavonic, Magyar, Vietnamese, Korean, Quechua, and a host of other tongues. The Body of Christ was tragically split along linguistic, interpretive, and political fissures as the Roman Empire disintegrated, but the Church remains today as she was when the Son of God first walked with Galileans and Samaritans: universal. Babel was vanquished at Pentecost, and ever since, there has been no east or west, no Jew or Greek in the Ecclesia.
It is, therefore, curious now to hear all this summed up as “the West.” It is even odder to learn that the West is “Judeo-Christian.” Judeo-Christianity ended with the Acts of the Apostles and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. And the West — Gaul, perhaps, or Hibernia, or Morocco across the Mediterranean — was inconsequential: churches and their altars were built facing east, because Easter had changed everything about the way humans understood themselves and their place in the world. When I hear politicians and pundits speak of the “Judeo-Christian West,” I wonder what they are talking about. I think what many of them mean, whether they admit it, is a “third Rome,” a third part to Scripture, the same old attempt to overcome the Church with a revamped brand that was tried by John Calvin and later by the Sankt Galen group.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s book The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great serves as the manifesto of the heresy we might call “Westernism.” The heresy is simple: It substitutes the remains of Christendom the civilization for the Church that Christendom has largely abandoned. It does this to accommodate the so-called Enlightenment, which was the rebellion, to include Protestantism and every darkness that flowed from it, against the Church, against dogma, against the Magisterium, and against the “Judeo-Christian” anthropology that sees man created in the image and likeness of God. Westernism wants to keep the benefits of this arrangement while maintaining the Enlightenment conceit that man can have the world on his own terms and not God’s. For those of finer conscience than the usual Enlightenment devil, there is “Judeo-Christianity,” the Enlightenment religion the only tenet of which is that Jesus was not really God and so there is no need to make the choice the Crucifixion demands of us.
To be sure, Shapiro is not trying, intentionally, to do any of this in The Right Side of History. He has done excellent work in arguing for sanity in American politics and for a respect for the dignity of all men. Shapiro is a fearless pro-lifer and has been in the cockpit fighting the worst of the worst of our rotten culture in every conceivable media. I admire him and hope he will continue doing so. It is not Shapiro’s intentions that mar The Right Side of History but the things he is unable to see.
The problem is not that Shapiro is fighting the enemy but that he doesn’t realize that he, too, is on their side. Here is Shapiro on how he understands his mission: “In order to fix ourselves…we must examine what we believe. We believe freedom is built upon the twin notions that God created every human in His image, and that human beings are capable of investigating and exploring God’s world. Those notions were born in Jerusalem and Athens.” So far, so good. But notice Shapiro does not go on to say that Jerusalem and Athens were combined in the Church, that it was not Jerusalem or Athens — both of which were forgettable backwaters for most of the past 2,000 years — that “built science [and] human rights,” or that “lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose.” That was Rome.
And then comes the Enlightenment bait-and-switch, the moment that makes the heresy. “Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia,” Shapiro writes. But the Treaty of Westphalia was not a product of Jerusalem or Athens. It was an attempt to contain the destruction of Christendom, the revolt against Rome, being wrought by proto-Enlightenment hero and arch-heretic Martin Luther. Westphalia was the atomization of Christendom, and it set into motion the horrors we have witnessed ever since.
Shapiro sees clearly that we have lost something tremendous and are suffering greatly as a result. But he gets both the time scale and the lost treasure wrong. “We believe we can reject Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law and satisfy ourselves with intersectionality, or scientific materialism, or progressive politics, or authoritarian governance, or nationalistic solidarity,” he writes. “We can’t.” Hear, hear. But then he writes, “We’ve spent the last two centuries carving ourselves off from the roots of our civilization.” The Protestant revolt was openly countenanced in 1517, over 500 years ago, not 200. Earlier in the book, he writes, “We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion. And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism.” But it was not “Judeo-Christian values” against which Luther, and then Voltaire, Tom Paine, the Bible-snipping Thomas Jefferson, the Masonic George Washington, and the rest of the Enlightenment crew were rebelling. It was against the Church; it was against Rome. Rome have they hated; Rome have they sought to destroy.
The Right Side of History begins with a false premise — namely, that what we have lost is not Rome and the Church but their odd and slivered avatars, Athens and Jerusalem — and so the rest of it is off-center and unbalanced. Shapiro tries to remedy this by including in his narrative a heaping sheaf of Big Ideas, but in the end, the one bad idea on which the book is based undoes all his hard work.
Sometimes, it must be said, Shapiro works far too hard. For much of the book he goes on a quickie tour of the Great Books, trying to make each thinker fit into “the Judeo-Christian West,” which postdates nearly everyone he considers. Beyond some bad lip-reading of the philosophers is some downright misunderstanding, such as when Shapiro tries to have the hell unleashed by Marsilius of Padua, Niccolò Machiavelli, Luther, and Calvin culminate, via the Protestant pseudo-internationalist Hugo Grotius, in “human rights.” Shapiro forgets to mention that human rights has long been the handmaiden to totalitarian nightmare. Likewise when Shapiro introduces John Locke as the corrective to Thomas Hobbes. “The American Triumph,” the capstone of the entire saga for Shapiro, comes for our intrepid philosopher when a new dogma was brought forth upon our continent in 1776 with the Locke-cribbed drivel of the Declaration of Independence.
This is more than just half-baked theorizing. It sets up a neo-Hegelianism of the Right, a “History” of the Geist variety on either the right or wrong side of which men can stand. If history has a “right side,” and the United States occupies it, then that seems not too different from history having a right side and its being held by the Soviet Union. Shapiro tries to walk this American-style neo-Hegelianism, this red-white-and-blue dialectic of progress eventuating in the platform of the Republican Party, through Christianity and the collapse of Christendom. But time and again, the well-intentioned Shapiro wrecks on the rocks of his Americanist, Westernist commitments. He can’t understand the disaster of the Reformation because he can’t give up the Lockean, Rousseauan, Hobbesian liberal regime the Founding Fathers set up to contain the endless splintering following the loss of true unity in the Church.
In order to get from Jerusalem and Athens to Philadelphia without passing through Rome and coming to a true reckoning with Protestantism, Shapiro has no choice but to paper over the theological and historical gaps with a mythical force, “History,” ever striving to arrive at its proper place: gathered about the skirts of the Statue of Liberty in adoring worship. If pagan goddesses as centerpieces of metropolises was the thing in Athens, then so it is in New York — Parthenon, meet Lady Liberty — but it was never the thing in Christian Rome, which conquered paganism and broke the back of Olympian “History” by worshiping, instead of impotent gods and goddesses, the Second Person of the Trinity in the Eucharist. The statues lining the top of St. Peter’s are not Hephaestus, Apollo, and Jove but the human saints whose Old Glory was God, not cloth. Fail to understand that, and you have failed to understand what America is, and why liberal-Protestant America is fundamentally incompatible with the true Catholic vision of man and the cosmos.
At one point, Shapiro calls Immanuel Kant’s laughably fake metaphysics “the closest thing philosophy has ever crafted to a serious sense of meaning and purpose.” Then he excuses the Enlightenment that Kant championed by dividing it into two kinds: American and European. The French Revolution is bad Enlightenment, the American good. Not just good but “Judeo-Christian Western” good, with the United States eventually taking the place of Rome as the omphalos of creation.
Thus, we have Ben Shapiro, a Jewish man, desperately trying to apologize for the wreck of Christendom that Protestant and Enlightenment rebels brought about by appealing to those same Protestant and Enlightenment rebels for some fitting substitute for the peace of Christ, a peace that was only obtainable while Christendom was still intact. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, he says, “creedal unifiers.” It used to be, before the dawn of the “Judeo-Christian West,” that Jesus was the fulfillment of the heart’s deepest desire, the unity of man and the unity of truth. Those days, apparently, have been laid aside for something more suitable to Enlightenment tastes.
It is most astounding, and deeply disheartening, when Shapiro turns to the Bible. For example, he attempts to defend the binding of Isaac — roundly criticized by New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins as showing the immorality and irrational danger posed by religion — by explaining that God has all along been asking Abraham, whether by separating from Hagar and Ishmael, circumcising himself, or preparing to sacrifice Isaac, to show his “commitment to his ideals.” Abraham’s predicament is our own, Shapiro says, as he shifts from the stark horror of the Old Testament story, showing the utter otherness of God, to Enlightenment tropes about “values.” In just a couple pages, Shapiro turns the binding of Isaac, and the premise of all of Judaism — radical reliance on a jealous God — into “Western virtue,” and he then distills that down further into Reaganesque sloganeering about a city on a hill, itself a Puritan whitewash of the forces set in motion by the destruction of Rome and the subsequent religious wars that sent the Pilgrims off in a self-righteous huff to live among the Algonquins. The Pilgrims, their African slaves, the Algonquins, and all the rest were thrown together into a Westphalian idyll, at the end of which their progeny authored an atomic apocalypse because some people somewhere were not paying sufficient attention to Westphalianism and human rights. Choose whichever Enlightenment lineup you please, you still end up with a cruel mockery of the Christendom that was destroyed so that America, and the “Judeo-Christian West,” might be born. If this is the trajectory Shapiro sees running out of the Judaic past, then it is no wonder he is so popular among the neoconservatives in Georgetown. To be fair, Shapiro touches on much of the crimes of the Enlightenment, but there is no redeeming that heresy no matter how many times one lists its transgressions.
Shapiro is to be commended for all he has done to push back against the subheresies of the age: feminism, racism, transgenderism, socialism, and a dozen other bundles of anti-human nonsense. But his fight is futile unless he gives up “Judeo-Christian Westernism.” There is no such thing. It is an impossible triangulation. The conceit of the Enlightenment, as Shapiro (almost) points out, was that we could have the good of Christendom without the Church. The conceit of “Judeo-Christian Westernism” is that we can rebuild from the Enlightenment’s wreckage using the same bad methodology. The binding of Isaac, and the God-man hanging from a tree at Golgotha, demand that we make a choice. God does not deal when we are hedging our bets.
I pray that Shapiro will convert to Catholicism, but if he does not, then I pray that he will at least be fully Jewish. Shapiro takes Spinoza to task for saying Moses did not write the Torah. By the same token, Shapiro might ask himself whether Moses brought down from Mount Sinai a signed copy of The Federalist Papers.
The Right Side of History is the work of a sincere, earnest, and good-hearted seeker trying to make sense of a ruined world. God bless Ben Shapiro for his patriotism, his love of country that led him to try to discover whence his homeland came. Shapiro says America is the culmination of the West, and the West is the creature of Jerusalem and Athens. This is an ahistorical jumble. America is a Protestant country, and Protestantism is the rejection of Rome, of Christendom, of the Church. The link between Abraham and the present is not Western “virtue” but Christ, who lives in churches still. Return to Him, and we find everything “the West” has to offer — and infinitely more.
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