Many scholars, heroes, and even martyrs among great Christian figures have either been forgotten or “sanitized” to meet modern standards. Others, like G.K. Chesterton, have simply become “deplorable”—i.e., utterly unacceptable to contemporary sensibilities.
This past year Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton opted to drop G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization, in part because “even allowing for the context of G.K. Chesterton’s time, the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom.” What His Excellency was referring to was the undeniable fact that Chesterton occasionally made offhand quips in his writing about “shady Jew stockbrokers.” In his mild but firm response to the bishop, Dale Ahlquist of the Society of Glibert Keith Chesterton pointed out that many of the converts who have been drawn to Christianity by Chesterton’s witty apologetics have themselves been Jewish, and that Chesterton vocally objected to the persecution of Jews in Russia, Germany, and England. Whatever offensive remarks Chesterton may have made need to be balanced with statements such as “The world owes God to the Jews,” and “I will die defending the last Jew in Europe,” suggested Mr. Ahlquist. Even if Chesterton “says things that are awkward by our modern standards of political correctness,” the famous Anglo-Catholic journalist “is the model of lay spirituality” insofar as he exhibited an “abiding sense of wonder and joy,” performed “tireless labor for social and political reform,” and “lived a theology of thanks.”
Is Mr. Ahlquist correct in deeming Chesterton a saint whom we might pray to rather than for? I leave that question up to wiser and more theologically-informed heads than mine. I stick instead to themes and issues with which I am more familiar, such as a tendency for an ever-shifting Overton window to cause great Christian figures of the past to become “deplorable”—i.e., utterly unacceptable to contemporary sensibilities. As a result, many scholars, heroes, and even martyrs have either been forgotten or “sanitized” to meet modern standards. In this particular case, Bishop Doyle could easily have found plenty of other reasons for throwing cold water upon the Chestertonians.
After all, Chesterton did pen the poem “Memory,” which reminisces about the time
When Lee the last of the heroes came
With the Men of the South and a flag like flame,
And called the land by its lovely name
In the unforgotten song.
Those who dismiss the preceding as mere poetry still have to address Chesterton’s explicit, carefully-reasoned defenses of Southern honor, for among other things he loudly objected on historical grounds to the overshadowing of Jamestown by the Puritans’ hallowed Plymouth Rock:
Long ago I wrote a protest in which I asked why Englishmen had forgotten the great state of Virginia, the first in foundation and long the first in leadership; and why a few crabbed Nonconformists should have the right to erase a record that begins with Raleigh and ends with Lee, and incidentally includes Washington. The great state of Virginia was the backbone of America until it was broken in the Civil War. From Virginia came the first great Presidents and most of the Fathers of the Republic. Its adherence to the Southern side in the war made it a great war, and for a long time a doubtful war. And in the leader of the Southern armies it produced what is perhaps the one modern figure that may come to shine like St. Louis in the lost battle, or Hector dying before holy Troy.
As an aside, for all his personal praise of Robert E. Lee Chesterton does not agree with those of us who might regret Union victory, but rather counsels against being petty and “kicking Southern Secession when it is down,” and urges his fellow Englishmen to reflect that “Sumner and Stevens crushed the most English part of America.” That distinction is not terribly relevant, however, for pundits of our age have almost as much trouble distinguishing Chesterton’s pro-Union yet broad-minded outlook from the position of a secessionist as they would have distinguishing the secessionist’s from that of a skinhead. It is not stretching things much at all to say that Chesterton was quite literally a Confederate sympathizer. Nor is it difficult to imagine what the media uproar might be were it to come out that the Church planned to canonize the author of the preceding remarks. “Prospective Saint Thought That The Confederacy Was ‘Holy,’ ” the ever-creative New York Times headline writer might put it.
In any event, Chesterton was also a “nationalist,” at least if we employ the prevailing usage of the word, which once upon a time meant the ideological proponent of a centralized modern nation-state, but is now used to stigmatize anyone who seeks to defend his national heritage from the deracinating forces of globalism. In retort to those who “have a horror of nationality as the mother of wars,” Chesterton grants that “in a sense it is, just as love and religion are,” for it is undeniable that “men will always fight about the things they care for.” Chesterton was no warmonger, though, and in light of militarists who regard Flyover Country with contempt while worshiping the U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence services, Chesterton’s common-sense patriotic rebuke of enlightened imperial hubris is well worth repeating. “Colonies are things to be proud of, but for a country to be only proud of its extremities is like a man being only proud of his legs. Why is there not a high central intellectual patriotism, a patriotism of the head and heart of the Empire, and not merely of its fists and its boots?”
Other Chestertonian commentary about patriotism seems as if it were tailor-made to correct those neoliberals and Republican establishmentarians who celebrate America as the land of opportunists, glorious because people from all over are welcome to come and get rich quick:
On all sides we hear today of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word “love” means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam.
For Chesterton it was obvious that the mystical dimension of patriotism is neither about power nor wealth nor democratic ideology, but about the sublime reality of home. Metaphysically speaking, patriotism
begins the praise of the world at the nearest thing, instead of beginning it at the most distant, and thus it insures what is, perhaps, the most essential of all earthly considerations, that nothing upon earth shall go without its due appreciation. Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.
Hopefully such pronouncements seem innocuous to the reader, but we must remember just how violently Chesterton’s commonsense perspective on patriotism conflicts with the status quo, insofar as Chesterton expresses precisely the kind of patriotic devotion that has been explicitly rejected as intolerable and out of bounds not only by the ruling secular elite but also by their fellow-travelers within the Christian wing of the conservative establishment. Regarding the man who would condemn old-fashioned blood-and-soil patriotism as an evil of which we must purge ourselves, Chesterton replies that “he has a code of morality so different from ours that the very use of the word ‘sin’ is almost useless between us.” What G.K. Chesterton might once have called loyalty, quite a few Catholic public intellectuals would now call bigotry.
We could go on, observing how Chesterton’s thought is incompatible with even the pro-life version of feminism (“Almost every despotic or oligarchic state has admitted women to its privileges. Scarcely one democratic state has ever admitted them to its rights”), yet to compose a comprehensive list of all of Chesterton’s many politically-incorrect opinions would distract us from a much more important observation. My fundamental point in dwelling upon such jarring statements is not that we ourselves must mimic G.K. Chesterton’s amusing if provocative tone, much less that he was always and exactly correct about everything.
Rather, the point is that the level of cognitive dissonance within Christian circles is positively dystopian, as the majority of Christian thinkers and journalists are governed by liberal sensibilities which are not merely different from those of their predecessors but downright incompatible with the inheritance of Christendom. E.g., we can be people who acknowledge Saint John Chrysostom’s authority as a Church Father and Doctor of the Church, or we can be people who believe that continually walking on eggshells vis-a-vis Jewish-Christian relations is a necessary condition for sanctity; only an illiterate or a liar will insist that we can be both. For that matter, let all who cherish human dignity recognize that “antisemitism,” “white supremacy,” “misogyny,” “homophobia,” and other such terms are carelessly defined, incredibly loaded, and routinely used by hysterical propagandists and unscrupulous actors to manipulate rather than illuminate. Whenever someone uses such contentious labels pretending as if their meanings were straightforward, he excludes himself from any serious, honest discourse about right and wrong.
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