Lose the Story, Lose the Culture
How American civilization lost its way
By Michael Novak — Published on National Review on July 2, 2016
We normally encounter morals through the language of moral codes and commandments. Do this, Don’t do that. But it is much more illuminating to approach ethics and morals through stories and narratives. The reason narrative is more helpful than a code or set of commandments is that it brings into play imagination, manner, style, and even tonal quality. For example, the Commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother.” But the Commandment does not tell us in what manner, with what tone of voice, with what degree of gentleness and/or firmness, or whether with renewed devotion or simply by routine.
Sometimes, to do the right thing in the wrong way, or in the wrong manner, is to spoil it. Perhaps that is why Jesus so often chose to talk in stories, rather than in blunt commands. He wanted to teach about the manner and style of actions, not only their substance. To be gentle, to be kind, to be forgiving, to temper your treatment of the weak reeds — all these were essential to His message. To act as a Christian is not only to perform certain abstract duties to the letter of the law, but also to live according to the spirit and temper of the law. In some ways, it is more illuminating to speak of imitating Christ than of merely obeying Him. We are all skillful at the little child’s trick of performing exactly what the parent tells her, while at the same time mocking the task.
Sometimes, we learn narratives from family or an outstanding teacher. But sometimes narratives come to us through a surrounding community or even a whole culture. It is said that within five minutes, foreigners can pick out an American from his dress, speech, and manners. In a similar way, one can speak of a culture losing its historic story-line, and slowly replacing it with another. It is in this sense that we speak, for example, of developing a “more secular” or, on the contrary, “more Christian” culture. In fact, many cultures shift their zeitgeist every few decades.
Let me go immediately to certain examples of recent moral decline. Just two or three generations ago, the worst epithet was to call a man an “abortionist.” That is not the case today. Today one often hears feminists suggest that to have an abortion is a heroic moral act, almost like receiving a sacrament. Still again, just in my own lifetime, I have heard homosexual behavior go from being described as “queer” to being admired as a good passionately to be pursued, honored as a basic human right, and praised as a noble cause. Still again, I remember when divorces went from being difficult to obtain and morally frowned upon to being granted as “no fault divorces” quite easily obtained by the consent of only one person in the marriage.
In all four of these examples, one sees an immense shift from a Christian culture to a secular culture, even an anti-Christian culture. The moral sea change between these two cultures has not been just a matter of shifting imperatives, codes, and commandments. It has brought with it enormous changes throughout the whole of moral life: changes in perspective, in feeling, in aspiration, in moral insecurity, in transitoriness.
Let me now point out that this same contrast between abstract imperatives and a full narrative of action also applies to larger human bodies such as the national policies of whole states. For example, the abstractly stated aim of United States policy in World War II was the “unconditional surrender” of the rights-abusing dictatorships of Japan and Germany. Yet almost immediately upon the cessation of hostilities, the United States and its allies cooperated generously in rebuilding the economic systems of our former enemies, entering into peaceful and cooperative pacts with them, and drawing them into the circle of international allies. Whereas the abstract imperative “unconditional surrender” could have led to abject punishment, humiliation, and submission across generations, that code was tempered by a guiding narrative that demanded forgiveness, cooperation, and the rebuilding of ties of friendship, even brotherliness.
So today, we are seeing with our own eyes a sea change in fundamental cultural narratives.
CONCRETE IMPLICATIONS FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
When the leading elites in a culture lose their belief in God, the conception of religious liberty loses its inner force. If there is no God, what possible importance can religious liberty have? Today, more and more of our contemporaries seem to look on religion as a moral condition of ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance. They are left with no plausible reason at all for valuing religious liberty. On the contrary, they gain a reason for revivifying the contempt expressed by Voltaire: “Expunge the infamous thing! Wipe it out!”
Actually, the more an atheist might think about this issue, the more she might conclude that not only “religious liberty” but even the concept of “liberty of conscience” might be done away with. For if there is no God, where is the moral North Pole? If our choices are only a matter of personal preference — not reasoned conclusions — who is to say who is right and who is wrong?
Some very far-seeing atheists, to be sure, have seen that the whole intellectual structure of the defense of liberty of conscience has actually rested for some centuries on the spine of two Jewish and Christian principles: namely, that there is a God, who is Spirit and Truth; and this God peers into the hidden byways and crevices of the human mind and heart, and is satisfied with nothing but the blazing truth about each.
Where the ancient Greeks and Romans could, without any crisis of conscience, bow their knees to gods in whom they did not believe, Christians were forbidden to do so. “I am the Lord, your God, thou shalt not have false gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Neither the Jew nor the Christian could get away with performing the external act of burning incense to a false god. Jews and Christians are responsible for the inner alignment of their conscience with their outward acts. This conception is at the very heart of the principle of religious liberty.
Thus, for instance, Thomas Jefferson asserted, with reference to the Jewish and Christian God, that “Almighty God hath made the human mind free, and free it must remain.” And he further asserted that it is self-evident that any conscious creature, aware that she is a creature, feels the surge within her to be grateful to the Creator, and, more than that, to be in awe of the disproportion of power between Creator and creature. From this natural surge of gratitude and worship, the conscious human being senses a personal duty to the Creator. Naturally, for Jefferson, the way in which each human being fulfills this duty belongs to the conscience of each.
Furthermore, if the duty must be paid to the Creator in person, inalienably, without shucking it off onto any other person (mother, father, spouse, friend), this duty to the Creator must be a right in which no other person or institution (neither state nor civil society) may interfere. What is here an inalienable duty must also be an inalienable right.
Now, in his own Remonstrance, James Madison reiterated this same argument. The right to fulfill one’s duty of gratitude and worship is “inalienable” in two senses. First, it is inalienable because this duty “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” For “the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.” Thus, this duty inheres singly in each person.
Second, this right is inalienable precisely insofar as it is a duty written into human nature, prior to the conventions and obligations of civil society. Madison writes: “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” This duty to God cannot be interfered with by any lesser authority. Even to attempt to do so would be an abuse both of the Creator and of the individual.
These are the foundations of the American theory of rights to religious liberty. The beauty of this formulation is that the same rights of conscience belong to atheists as well as theists, to non-Jews and non-Christians, as well as to the Jewish and Christian peoples from whom these conceptions emerge. They rightly belong also to Muslims and Hindus. For Almighty God (as Jews and Christians conceive of the Creator), can and must be worshiped only in spirit and in truth, from the inner heart and mind; there cannot be any compulsion whatsoever.
Of course, if there is no such Creator, then this conception of religious freedom collapses of its own weight. With what, then, will secular thinkers replace it? On what basis and how will they construct a theory of liberty of conscience? We wait and see. None of those theories so far presented — not by Hobbes, nor Locke, nor any other more recent writer — stands to reason. None convinces the inquiring mind. The theories of Hobbes and Locke, for instance, do not go deep enough. They rest rights on the social compact formed in civil society, but Jefferson and Madison rest their concept on a basis prior to civil society.
THE RISE OF CHRISTOPHOBIA
Within the European community, the Christian contribution to the formation of Europe has been more and more dropped down the memory hole. The European community prefers to forget its Christian foundations and to regard itself as being built on a “secular” foundation. There are important forces in the United States today that are aggressively moving to forbid any public display of Christianity in public schools and other places. The philosopher John Rawls even went so far as to insist that all valid public speech must be secular, not religious. Both in the European community and in the United States there are more and more signs of hatred for anything that helps Christianity. The secular Left seems to abhor dissent. Its partisans sue Catholic hospitals to force them to live solely by a secular sexual morality by confronting them with an either/or: either perform abortions or lose federal funding and their public standing as good and admirable institutions. Their dissent from secular morals is branded as “bigotry.” The partisanship of secular morality is not branded as bigotry.
Newly aggressive anti-Christian organizations appear to suffer from dread at the public mention of God. Why should this be? For atheists, God does not even exist. So why should anybody be afraid of something that does not exist? It could be that the bare thought of being judged by an all-seeing, undeceivable Judge is more than secularists can bear. One can understand why they would not wish to pray to God in any traditional, public way. Therefore, they have mentally blocked out all the ways in which the generations since the American Founding spoke publicly of God, Providence, the Creator, the Divine Judge, in, say, the Declaration of Independence, in the official public decrees of the Congress and the president of the United States, in declarations of national days of prayer, and even in the national Day of Repentance.
They have omitted prayers of the Congress, the inclusion of prayers in the inauguration of our presidents, the appointment of chaplains to the Congress, the inclusion of prayers at virtually all public, civic remembrances, such as for Memorial Day, national days of thanksgiving, celebrations on Independence Day, and the swearing in of public officials. They have omitted the enduring practice of placing religious symbols in national cemeteries of those fallen in war, both overseas and at home. They have omitted virtually constant public invocations of God to “bless America.”
Secularists have tried to erase from history such crucial facts as these: that the largest church service in the United States during the Jefferson administration was held in the U.S. Capitol building, and that President Jefferson himself provided the Marine Band to supply appropriate music, at government expense. President Jefferson justified his actions by saying that Christianity is the best religion for forming the citizens of a republic, and that it was his duty as supreme magistrate to support that service to republican government. During the last 60 years or so, secular thinkers have tried to blot out from national memory the mandatory distribution (under Jefferson’s authority) of the “Jefferson Bible” to the Indian tribes of North America, in order to prepare them for responsible life in a republic.
Many secularists today claim that the Founding Fathers were deists, but they fail to reflect on the countless public prayers of supplication and thanksgiving by various arms of the U.S. government in official proclamations and also in the private lives of most of the leaders of the founding generations. [See my book with my daughter, Washington’s God.]
If these traditions were good enough for the generation that authored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and all the generations since, why are they not good enough for loyal Americans today? With mutual goodwill, practical compromises might well be struck between those who want to maintain the long traditions of the past and those who prefer to be silent about those traditions, while remaining loyal to the universal principles and proven laws of our land.
It is true that the spate of books by the “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) have begun demanding not only more open space for themselves, but also the branding of Christian believers as “bigots,” enemies of science, and threats to public life. It is hard to avoid the inference that there is some inner force driving the new generation of secularists into an intolerance of their own, especially toward members of the Christian religion.
Thus, insofar as leading spirits of our age have abandoned the Jewish and Christian reality of a Creator, they have undercut the cult of the Creator God, rooted in Western culture, as it has been known by Americans since their beginnings. If for that cult you substitute another cult, then for the culture we have known until now, you substitute another culture. Cult is the beginning of culture. It is so in reality, not only etymologically.
The Jewish cult is a reliving of the Exodus narrative about the rescue of the enslaved Jewish people from the Pharaoh, the miracle of God’s powerful love for a tiny, outcast people. The Christian cult is the remembrance of the unique love of the Creator for weak and fallen people, who know that they have done what they ought not to have done, and have not done what they know that they should have done. In the Christian story, the human race is thought of as habitually hurting its own noblest purposes, devotedly observing the laws of God for two or three generations, then falling away. The fundamental story is one of freedom and responsibility — freedom misused, responsibility evaded. Nonetheless, God loves His chosen ones and calls them back to their duties and responsibilities.
By contrast, today’s secular cult is exemplified in the halftime show of an American Super Bowl (the most internationally watched of all television broadcasts). The Super Bowl entertainment does not honor the responsibility, duty, and triumph over one’s own desires that characterize the heroic moments of American life. On the contrary, Super Bowl entertainment displays passion and desire, “letting go,” and purposelessness. It is a liturgy of spontaneous desires, wants, and longings.
The Super Bowl does not celebrate the heroism of the young flyers of the Battle of Midway in 1942, who gave their lives to strike a decisive blow against the four carriers of the mighty Japanese fleet. Or the sheer bravery of the men who stormed Normandy and scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, or of the “battered bastards of Bastogne” who to the Nazi demand for their surrender, replied in a single word: “Nuts.” The Super Bowl does not honor the spiritual resources of this “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” Rather it honors the new cult of expressive individualism.
There are two huge reasons for the recent disconnect between America’s rich past and its flat, insipid present. In the souls of tens of millions of Americans, contact has been lost with the fiery urgings of the Jewish prophets and the cultural narrative bequeathed to us by the Gospel stories of Jesus Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Letters of Paul, John, Peter, James, and Jude. Contact has been lost with the rollicking adventure of the trials and tumultuous events of Christianity’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. Inexcusably, too, contact has been lost with the acts of humble wisdom, faith, and heroic deeds of the American adventure, which Hannah Arendt called the greatest of all the adventures of European peoples (cf. On Revolution).
For people who have been ignited by this grand vision of human misery and glory, of both sin and heroic virtue, of heights and depths, of declines, falls, and awakenings, the contemporary world seems flat indeed. A world without a Creator, without any inspiring intellect, with mockery for the human spirit and soul, views the human being as merely a lump of stuff with no more substance than a sack of earth.
For those who view the human being as without spirit, blind to truth, with no sense of an abiding good or of eternal beauty, there remains only flickering evanescent desires. Human life is reduced to acts of changeable will. Nothing remains but the individual’s pursuit of one distraction after another, trying desperately to escape inner emptiness. Life is reduced to boredom, and the itch to escape from it. “What do you want to do tonight, Ernie?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
THE LOSS OF THE CHRISTIAN NARRATIVE
The only cure for this emptiness of souls is the relighting of the inner journeys of the human spirit. Every culture must find this ignition within the embers of its own past.
I have heard many voices counsel us that we should retreat from the political and cultural struggles of our dismal time, and seek refuge, peace, and renewed energy from some analog of the Benedictine monasteries that arose during the fall of the Roman Empire. These inspired monasteries blew life back into ancient texts, brought ancient classics out of oblivion, cast the light of a new learning, a new and haunting form of Gregorian music, a deep sense of contemplation and learning and teaching, agricultural experimentation, and a new Aristotelian zest for empirical discovery.
Many today have forgotten the great thrust forward of an early industrial revolution which invented the shoulder harness (and thus gave immense new power to horses and oxen); the compass and time pieces that leapt from sundials on the wall to the earliest clocks; telescopes and magnifying glasses; the multiplication of cog wheels of many sizes and strengths, pulleys, catapults, and powerful levers; the invention of new millstones and presses for olive oils, ciders, and grapes; and distilling instruments for making wines, liqueurs, cognacs, and beers. The great medieval cathedrals of Notre Dame, Rheims, Canterbury, Westminster Abbey, Milan, Seville, Cologne, and Chartres were not built without great, newly discovered technologies.
After the rebuilding of the libraries of the ancient world, and the first translations of Aristotle into Latin, the builders of Western civilization came to be called “the children of Aristotle.” During the many, many generations from the beginning of the Crusades in the late 900s and on through the 1200s, while the men were fighting at war, most of the greatest estates of Europe were run by women. In addition, many leaders of women arose to head new groups of religious women, educators, hospitals run by women religious, and huge organizations numbering in the tens of thousands of women activists, committed to the tasks of building a new kind of civilization. It was the Age of Women and its greatest driving spirit of some 700 years was the Virgin Mary, the heroine among the Apostles, the Mother of the God-Man, the chaste, the true, the loyal, the suffering servant.
From this devotion sprang the knight, courageous and bold, moved by ideals of “charitie, courtesie, and courage.” The knights were a new kind of warrior, unafraid to face death, and yet also gentle and totally considerate of the feelings of others. They were followers of a new kind of human ideal, formed in the model of the Virgin and her Son, willing to bear all manner of sufferings, afflictions, pains, humiliations, and death itself, for the sake of those they loved. From the ruins of the cult of the pagan warrior they created the cult of “the gentleman,” a new type of male. Nietzsche bewailed this “feminization” of the male. But these new gentleman warriors were as brave and successful as any in the past, and many of them feared death less than did warriors of the past.
From this age, too, were born the powerful energies of the myth of romantic love, a new kind of love between man and woman, unheard of outside the Christian world, built on passions rebellious against Christian monogamy. No one has written more wisely on the role of Mary in chivalry and bravery than Henry Adams, in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. And no one has written better on romantic love than C. S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love. Lewis even dared to judge that in Western culture the myth of romantic love was like an ocean, on the surface of which the Protestant Reformation was but a ripple. If you doubt this, ask: Which more deeply moves young women and men today: self-denial or the love story which ends in “happily ever after?” Consider also the love stories, romances, masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet and Anna Karenina, and multitudes of popular movies, magazine stories, and novels. Romantic love conquers all obstacles. It promises the beguiling impossible.
Real love is not romantic but realistic. It is ready for the hard stretches. It is willing to include dirty dishes, bad breath, disheveled hair, and the burdensome fact that children need their own transportation service every day. Real love is less a flight into romantic sentiment than a willingness to share together the hardships of life.
In all Christian cultures, there is the central story of the Crucifixion. Almighty God does not promise Christians a rose garden. On the contrary, He teaches that each of us must take up a cross and die along with Jesus. Contemporary secular culture tells no story so truthful or deep. There is realism deep at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. There is illusion at the heart of secularism. The future of this illusion is bleak. Secular liberal politics has now organized itself around sexual issues — first abortion and its lies, and then the redefinition of marriage, and its duplicities and evasions. Being on the left today seems less centered on economic issues, as was traditional, than on redefining sex and marriage.
In short, American civilization has lost its way. America’s struggle for independence took flight on two wings: commonsense reason and humbled faith (faith humbled into turning from the narrow way of self-centeredness and persecution into the broad uplands of religious liberty and pluralism). [See my earlier book, On Two Wings.] Today the American eagle is trying to remain aloft solely on its secular wing. In tolerance for one another, in morals and manners, in national morale, in mutual amity, its decline has been steep and swift.
Americans have lost the thread of the American story.
Lose the story, lose the culture.
— Michael Novak is the co-author of Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. He will be teaching a course on “Human Ecology” for the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America this fall.