Lead Us, Please, Into Temptation

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Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), famous in his time but hardly ever read and nearly forgotten today, wrote two brilliant satirical novels (Main Street and Babbitt) and one gentle, bittersweet, and genuinely moving one (Dodsworth, about an uncultured Midwestern automobile executive who takes his socially and culturally ambitious wife to Europe, where she betrays him with another man). Lewis’s other novels, progressively banal, uninspired, and sloppily written, include Elmer Gantry, whose protagonist is modeled on Billy Sunday. Gantry, a preacher of the type known in the early 20th century as a Holy Roller, perfectly fits Mencken’s description of Woodrow Wilson as “the perfect model of a Christian cad.” He is a religious salesman with no religion, a showman, a hypocrite, a philanderer, and a cheat. His precise denomination is left unspecified, but he is—of course—a Protestant. Were Lewis—an atheist who once invited God to strike him dead at a public meeting—writing the book today he would probably make Elmer a Catholic priest, assuming he found Catholicism sufficiently American to include in his catalogue of salient national institutions in the interwar period to be debunked.

For American liberals, Catholicism is a favorite butt and target of their enlightened and civilized scorn, as the Church was for Voltaire and the other philosophes in 18th-century France. Catholics in that period had not yet learned to take their contempt and mockery in stride, as we more or less do today. Ridicule is simply what one expects from liberals. Even so, the pleasure—the malicious glee, actually—that anti-Catholic liberals find in the spiritual and institutional woes from which the Church suffers today on account of the personal sins of too many of Her clergy, Her institutional corruption and confusion, and the consequent falling away in large numbers by Her once-faithful members is considerably more than annoying. Rome’s trials, liberals imply and often say, are the natural fruits of an ignorant, superstitious, oppressive, hypocritical, bigoted, misogynic, morally twisted, puritanical, anti-humanist, and anti-human religion that is an outdated relic of unenlightened and barbarous times. The Roman Catholic Church is just reaping the whirlwind of Her own creation! Given that modern liberals are no good at history, religious history especially, it is unsurprising that they have the story exactly backward. It is not Her dark and desperate past that has corrupted the contemporary Church. It is the bright secular liberal present that is responsible—deliberately. Its war against Catholicism is an adjunct of its onslaught against the wider civilization of the West and, beyond that, humanity.

The Church Militant is an historical as well as a supernatural institution, on a pilgrimage toward Her heavenly goal. She is thus an intensely human one as well, whose members remain imperfect, weak, and fallible beings, including those—one prays they are the majority—who are nevertheless destined for sainthood. They are as susceptible to the wiles and temptations of the Devil and to carnal promptings as anyone else. Catholics, like all Christians, pray to God that He may not lead them into temptation. Yet temptation continues to abound, and modern liberalism’s religion is the worship of temptation (and ultimately the Tempter, though it doesn’t believe in him), whose consummation amounts to grateful surrender to it. Liberalism, which began as the project of intellectual and political freedom, later added religious freedom to its agendum and merged them a century and a half later with commercial freedom in commerce’s quest for material plenty. Once political, religious, and commercial freedom had been realized, the further project to achieve moral autonomy and freedom of behavior in an affluent and godless society was inevitable. Taken together, these five freedoms amount to freedom in every aspect of life—including temptation of every sort. But it is temptation untempered and unrestrained by religious faith, which, though officially free of formal legal and political restrictions, has been nevertheless weakened and discredited by the dominant ethos of freedom and reduced to an object of mockery, making political opposition and persecution clear possibilities.

Yet oppression and persecution are far less dangerous to the Church than the temptations offered by a nearly totally permissive society. Is a parish priest, bishop, archbishop, or pope—his clerical duties excepted—not human like the rest of us, i.e., endowed with a lay Catholic’s “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” as a layman is? If you prick him, does he not bleed? If you tickle him, does he not laugh? If you poison him, does he not die? And if you tempt him with an attractive woman (or a man or boy, if he is so unfortunately inclined), can he not yield? His Church and his God say that to do so is to sin. The world, beyond the confines of the Church, assures him that to err is only human, and that in any case to sin carnally is not to err at all, but rather to acquiesce to his full humanity by freeing himself from arbitrary moralistic constraints that stunt and warp his human development. “Just do it!” (And perjure yourself later, should you happen to get caught.)

 

What sort of a world sets up men and the Church—to which they have pledged their lives and their souls—to sin deliberately; tempts them to the act and then excuses it, but afterwards publicly brands them, and by association their coreligionists, as hypocrites? The answer is: the world that liberalism has formed through its pact with the Tempter.

Image: a scene from Dodsworth, a 1936 based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review.

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