Seeing Things: Counselors for the Defense

In case you haven’t already noticed, for some years there has been a growing effort in diverse educational and cultural circles to paint Christian history as a blot on human existence. There are more than a billion Catholics and several hundred million Protestants in the world today—very few of whom are self-evidently wicked or convinced that their beliefs are malign. Indeed, religious organizations provide substantial social services in many countries, contribute to education at all levels, and promote the kinds of virtues that any free society needs to flourish. But for many of the cultured despisers of religion, this goes all but unnoticed. In a civilization that is so imbedded in Christian ways of thought—often unconsciously so—anti-Christian bias looks like nothing so much as intellectual, moral, and spiritual suicide.

The indictment runs the whole course of Christian history. Christian offensiveness is assumed to have come on strong and stayed strong. And the threat posed by the Faith excuses even the worst excesses. A Denver newspaper columnist, for example, once sympathetically characterized “the frustration and general fatigue that compelled the Romans to throw select Christians to the lions. It’s not just that the lions were hungry; it was that the Romans were tired of listening to the self-righteous babbling of the Christians who claimed to be experts on everything, and had egos the size of…well…God.”

The centuries when Christians were more center stage fare no better. In many tellings, the medieval Church, in addition to being corrupt, seems to have done little more than sponsor bloody crusades and inquisitions. When those had largely run their course, the Church set itself up against science and progress beginning with Galileo and down through the development of modern societies. Paradoxically, the same Church that was responsible for opposing science is also somehow to be blamed for the technological destruction of the environment in the West. Catholics and Protestants produced bloody wars in the 16th and 17th centuries and collaborated with the Nazis in the 20th. Such decency as currently exists in the West required the throwing off of Christian superstition and its hatred of all that was noble and forward-looking. Recent attempts to reenergize faith, primarily by conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, are a threat to American democracy. You get the impression that, all in all, the human race would have been far better off had Christianity never appeared.

These charges are so familiar that it is remarkable that no one has taken them all head-on, until now. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett have just published Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (Encounter Books, 2001), a systematic and fair-minded examination of the facts. The authors do not attempt in the least to explain away the many failings and shortcomings of Christian churches over the past two millennia. In fact, they document Christian wrongdoing where it occurred. But in a series of solidly researched, consistently balanced, and beautifully written chapters, they fill in many historical lacunae in the skewed common view, set the record straight on several major subjects, and provide a sane understanding of the many tangible benefits Christianity has brought to the world.

Against all the claims that Christianity, and its parent Judaism, introduced oppression into the classical world, they demonstrate that biblical religion lies behind many of the principles we most value. It was out of the biblical belief that all of us are children of God that the first seeds of equality and liberty were planted. We know, for example, that high-born women often played a major role in the early Church. There was good reason for their attraction to the new faith: The early Church gave them more autonomy, protected them from forced abortions (which caused many deaths), and forbade infanticide of both girls and deformed boys. Christian charity also attracted all those repelled by pagan brutality and inspired new virtues such as humility, while conspicuously caring for widows and building orphanages and the forerunners of hospitals.

Nor did Christians operate solely at the bottom rungs of society. They introduced the notion—perhaps for the first time in the West’s history—that no leader, whether of Church or state, was all-powerful and beyond the laws God had instituted for all his creatures. St. Augustine raised the status of the individual conscience even as he set limits to the power of empire. When Rome collapsed, the monasteries preserved what survived, and transformed much in classical and barbarian culture. Representative institutions, property rights, and the rule of law were extended as far as Christian civilization could exert its influence or push back barbarian chaos. The dynamism of the West and its belief in progress owes much to the Bible’s view of human beings as created in the image of God.

Carroll and Shiflett describe the effects of these early developments in subsequent ages. For instance, though slavery existed all over the world and in some Christian societies, including the United States, until relatively recently, there is no question that it was a violation of Christian views of the human person and was early viewed as such. St. Patrick seems to have first stated the principle in the fifth century. The slave trade flourished after the voyages of discovery, but the reaction against it came quickly, most notably among the Dominicans at the University of Salamanca. That same Christian stand emerged again in 19th-century British Evangelicalism, which effectively ended the slave trade; in the American abolitionist movement; and in the civil rights crusade of the 1960s.

The authors devote a whole chapter to the relationship between Christianity and science. Though science and technology developed in the West as nowhere else, few people now seem to believe there was a long connection between science and the Faith until 19th-century Darwinism and ideological materialism set them at odds. Take the Galileo case. The Church made a serious error in arresting the controversial scientist (Protestant authorities, like their Catholic counterparts, thought Galileo’s contentions both absurd and dangerous). But what we have heard far less about is the way that the Church, despite its hesitations, supported astronomy, and does to this day. J. L. Heilbron’s 1999 book, The Sun in the Church, contends that the Church “gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other institutions.” Church buildings themselves were often adapted for solar observations. Given Christianity’s confidence in creation as ordered by a benevolent Creator, it was only natural that astronomy and the other sciences were valued in the West.

This book also includes chapters on the churches and Nazism, Christianity and the environment, and the development of charities. But perhaps its strongest contribution concerns Christianity and American democracy. Anyone with even a modest acquaintance with early American history knows that religion played a major role in the American Revolution and in the Founders’ thinking about the nature of the new nation. In addition, American churches often provided a model for the kind of democratic deliberation that became a characteristic of American life as lived concretely in small communities. All of this runs counter to the notion prevalent among elites that it has only been since we threw off the shackles of Christian dogmatism that America has become tolerant and free—a view often reflected in textbooks.

Carroll and Shiflett’s achievement is remarkable; a brief review cannot do it justice. If you have been annoyed at some of the things that your children have been picking up in school, or have not known how to respond to criticisms of Christianity that seem wildly off-base, do not miss this book.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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