For most of our history, the American liberal consensus held that the nation’s God was Christian. However, modernists undermined this consensus by welcoming in secular idols through the back door. They turned the temple into a pantheon.
A great debate is raging among conservatives about the future of the movement. At stake is the classical liberal tradition that created our pluralistic society. This model holds that the public square must be morally neutral. It establishes a religious indifferentism that avoids the great life questions that assign meaning and purpose to life. This system celebrates individual autonomy inside a sterile secular consensus. The latter is now frayed.
In theory, such a system should level the playing field and allow everyone to compete in the marketplace of ideas and religions. However, in practice, Christian social conservatives rightly complain that the liberal dispensation has now led to the erosion and defeat of all that is moral, certain, and sacred.
In the present debate, Christianity is not even being treated as another god in the liberal pantheon. All things Christian (like public crosses) must be uprooted. Conservatives claim that something drastic must be done if Christian ideals are to survive.
They are right. Something is wrong with this system that helped provide both massive material prosperity and spiritual collapse over the past centuries. The rules are not working anymore. It will do no good to go back to past times or formulas when things appeared to work. The present phase of the liberal project has reached such a point of decay that our crisis can no longer be addressed inside its crumbling framework.
The Nature of Pantheons
Perhaps the problem lies in the nature of pantheons, for that is what the liberal order has now become. Pantheons were temples dedicated to all gods as a means to placate everyone yet rarely satisfy anyone. The liberal pantheon is a kind of legal fiction, which avoids the absurdity of saying there is no God by recognizing whatever you want god to be. It likewise holds there is no moral law save what you determine it to be.
This situation resembles the ancients who built pantheons to placate all the gods of their times. Anyone who has studied mythical gods knows that they were imperfect beings—personifying many destructive passions and vices. In the ancient temple, any god could have a place as long as the god did not claim to be the One True God.
Thus, the ancients lived their lives marked by the most abhorrent vices and cruelty to others. Wherever pagan civilizations existed, we find idols that reflect the dark miseries of our human nature and an ignorance of the charity and justice that would later shine over the world.
Christ Vanquishes the Gods
The coming of Christ, the One True God made man, changed everything. Christ could not be added to the pantheon as just another god. His Divinity and infinite moral perfection created an incompatibility with the pagan gods. Indeed, Christ did not want to enter the pantheon, and above all, the gods did not want Him among them.
Where Christ or His messengers appeared, the idols and their oracles went silent or exploded with rage. Wherever Christianity spread, the pagan gods and their priests incited hatred and violence against the Prince of Peace. The gods were so intolerant of Christ that the Roman martyrs died simply for refusing to deny Him. Later, missionaries paid with their lives for their efforts to bring the good news of the Gospel to all peoples.
Eventually, Our Lord Jesus Christ prevailed in the West. When Christ finally entered the temple-now-consecrated-as-church, all the pagan gods were vanquished. Whole populations abandoned the tree worship, blood sacrifices, and bizarre rituals that enslaved so many populations in darkness and superstition. Jupiters, Thors, and Apollos disappeared almost without a struggle, remembered only in ruins or ancient legends.
The Civilizing Action of the Church
Then, the civilizing and sanctifying action of the Church was felt. Christian civilization was the foundation of the progress of the West. While so many condemn the West in these politically correct times, they cannot avoid acknowledging the great debt we owe to the triumph of Christianity over the pagan pantheon.
If today we glory in our hospitals and medicine, it is because the Church established history’s first health systems as it practiced Christian charity. If we applaud the learning of modern scholars, it is because the Church founded the university system in pursuit of eternal wisdom that gave rise to systematized education and knowledge. From this unified civilization centered around the One True God, we find a core of ordering principles that brought us so many of the institutions and concepts that are now fading—the rule of law, ordered liberty, human dignity, representative government, traditional family, and subsidiarity.
So strong is this influence upon modernity that Lord Acton reduced modern history to a four-hundred-year chronicle of how “the last four hundred years have modified the medieval conditions of life and thought.” Even today, so many modern institutions are only intelligible in light of their medieval Christian origins.
Modernity and the Building of a New Pantheon
Modernity developed from the decadence in Christian society and an arrogant rejection of its core principles. It led to the construction of another pantheon.
Although the Enlightenment rejected Christian civilization, Christianity still ruled in the hearts of many. Western civilization still lived off the social capital and ordering principles of its Christian past. These facilitated great prosperity and progress.
It might be said that Christ was grudgingly allowed to reign inside liberalism’s initial temple of religious sentiment. For this reason, many have claimed that America was founded as a Christian nation. Indeed, for most of our history, the American liberal consensus held that the nation’s God was Christian. The Founders, including those that were Deists, assumed that Christian morals would guide the country, for John Adams claimed that only “a moral and religious people” could safeguard the Constitution. To the degree that America unified around this much too vague Christian consensus, we prospered.
However, modernists undermined this consensus by welcoming in secular idols through the back door. They turned the temple into a pantheon.
The gods of this modern secular pantheon—individualism, materialism, unbridled sexual freedom, diversity, and technological utopianism, among so many others—now dominate. Indeed, they have even opened the doors to the return of old pagan-like gods in the form of Wicca, witchcraft, and the occult. They have brought back the unnatural vices, blood sacrifices in the form of abortion and hallucinogenic experiences.
And like the idols of old, the new gods personify the vices that enslave whole peoples. Likewise, they cannot tolerate Christ in all his moral perfection and glory. Either Christ is adapted to modern times, to appear like the other idols, or he must be brutally expelled.
That is where we are now. That is why the liberal dispensation has failed us. The idols are demanding that Christ and His law change. And He will never change.
The Failure of the Gods
Some might assume that the failure of the liberal order is, therefore, a problem for conservatives that they must resolve among themselves. The rest of the nation could continue on its merry liberal way ignoring the disgruntled Christians. Such a conclusion is far from true.
The new idols have failed everyone. Their cacophony fragments and divides us. A great emptiness has descended upon the land as so many are afflicted with the stress, anxiety, and uneasiness of living in a world without God. Appeasing the neo-pagan gods is tearing people and society apart. We are descending back into darkness. As we approach our great crisis, we are left in a vacuum without clear direction or oracle.
Thus, the real debate transcends our classical liberal model. It involves long-avoided questions about the roots of the crisis that engulfs us.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Fantasy View with the Pantheon and other Monuments of Ancient Rome” (1737) by Giovanni Pauolo Panini (1691-1765), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.