The Mirror Test and the Case against Christianity
Totalitarianism arises from a deep-seated desire to make the world perfect. As such, it invariably mobilizes against the messiness of human affairs, and in particular against any power which suggests that society is healthier when it flowers, wildly and profusely, from deeply-rooted principles. By definition, totalitarianism requires total control. This control must be exercised according to a program, which is always derived from an ideology—that is, a myth which describe both the perfection that is to come and the disaster which will befall human society if the ideology is undermined.
No Abstractions Here
An essay like this can sound far too abstract. I don’t believe that the tendency toward totalitarianism is just something we’ve observed in France in the eighteenth century or Germany and Russia in the 20th century. Rather, I think it is implicit in philosophical liberalism, which sees man as self-sufficient and naturally perfectible, and so puts its faith for the future in control of education and, in its more extreme practical forms, in bureaucratic control over all of life according to “the best ideas”. So when I refer to totalitarian ideologues here, I’m referring in only a slightly exaggerated form to a very large number of people in contemporary American and European society, people who often think that the key to solving human problems is another layer of government and another level of control.
Creeping totalitarianism has been a prominent feature of Western culture for the past several hundred years. Since the 18th century, in Europe and America, two cultural viewpoints have been at war. On the one hand, we have had the essentially Christian vision which holds that fundamental truths about the nature of man, when grasped by any social group, tend to be freely actualized in largely unpredictable yet very rich cultural developments. On the other hand, we have the totalitarian conviction that the particularly clear-headed among us must impose a natural program of social perfection on human culture, and that this program is in fact mankind’s only hope.
It will be seen at once that Christianity and totalitarianism are intrinsically at odds. This isn’t only because Christianity depends on a vigorous defense of human freedom for the very spread of its Gospel, since Faith and Love are free movements of the soul which can never be coerced. It is also because all totalitarian ideologies are unremittingly secular. Contrary to Christian hope, totalitarian hope is firmly rooted in this life, indeed largely in the life of each new generation. Contrary to Christian salvation, totalitarian salvation comes not from a free response to the Creator’s love but from the implacable imposition of a program to realize particular worldly goals, and to realize them now.
The Myth about Christianity
Because Christianity is intrinsically opposed to such ideology—and because Christianity represents the injection into history of something greater than politics—it is an inescapable part of every totalitarian myth that Christianity is a great cause of human troubles—often the great cause—so that its marginalization or outright suppression is an essential element of human progress. Such mythologies are nearly too numerous to mention: We have been carefully taught at one time or another that the Christian emphasis on the after-life prevents people from devoting the necessary energy to solving the world’s material problems (despite the fact that Christians invariably take the lead in solving such problems); or that the benighted Christian moral code, particularly its sexual moral code, prevents true human freedom and prosperity (despite evidence which shows, for example, that sexual liberation increases most material problems, including epidemic disease, socio-economic isolation, and impoverishment of women and children); or that commitment to religious doctrines leads to intransigence, intolerance, denial of human rights, and war.
This last would be particularly humorous were it not so widely believed. The terror of Christian religious fundamentalism is great enough among secularists in Europe and America that the culture wars, or what is left of them, are generally fought in shrill hysteria over what will happen to human rights if genuine believers ever succeed in governing again. Why the streets would run red with blood! Meanwhile, this hysteria provides a wonderful excuse for secularists to implement ever increasing bureaucratic requirements to eliminate the possibility that anyone will ever form a desire not inculcated by the regnant ideology which protects us all (that is, the ideology du jour).
Roots of Violence
Every time there is an explosion of sectarian violence somewhere in the world, we are treated to the thesis that wars of religion have taken more lives than wars for any other cause. Insofar as secularists are still allowed to call attention to Islamic fundamentalism, it is chiefly to point out that Christian fundamentalism is even more dangerous and despicable. And of course the 17th century Wars of Religion in Europe are still a favorite case study. No one considers how inextricably linked are politics and religion in all of these cases, making it difficult for those with modern prejudices to recognize the full range of motivations at work. Worse, such commentators must ignore nearly three centuries of mainstream European history, leapfrogging enormous non-religious wars involving unparalleled loss of life, to arrive at these historically or culturally distant indictments of religion.
Indeed, the history of the twentieth century alone ought to be enough to give the lie to the current totalitarian mythology that is so frequently used to banish religion from public life. Here again, the reality is much deeper than merely noting the numbers of people who were sacrificed on the altar of nationalism (pardon the religious language) or exterminated in the crucible of the brave new world. For in fact what happened as religion and politics became unraveled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that the dominant public loyalty ceased to be the Church (for religion became increasingly recognized as a purely private affair) and instead became the State. Whereas it used to be considered heroic and even salvific to die for a religious cause, now it was a heroic and even quasi-religious sacrifice to die for one’s nation, or even for one’s official national ideology, complete with secular ceremonies and monuments. In terms of noble human motivation for war, the period from 1789 to the present has shown us one of the great riches to rags story of all time.
While I’m on this subject, let me pause to recommend a recent book by William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, as being particularly effective at dispelling the reigning myth of religion as our deadliest enemy. Yet this myth is essential to the triumph of secular ideology because it enables secularists (whether avowed or merely subconscious) to emasculate Christianity and banish it from public life with the claim that it is all for our own protection. Indeed, so many of us apparently believe that as soon as Christianity gains influence it will inevitably bring bloodshed and war in its wake, that we find it hard to argue against the benevolent efforts of our betters (the “clear-headed” among us) to save us from ourselves. And of course that’s what totalitarianism always promises to do, isn’t it? To save us from ourselves.
When the Mirror Lies
The great problem, of course, is that secularist ideology never includes a perspective for self-correction. Perhaps I can best illustrate what I mean by referring to my own deeply Christian political views. These views are quite simple, and may be stated as follows: I prefer to be ruled by those who know they are limited, fallible and weak. When all is said and done, I am really quite self-centered in my own way, and so I prefer each of my rulers to be exactly the sort of person I see in the mirror—someone who has learned from Christianity that he is vain, foolish, prone to error, incapable of getting things exactly right, and notoriously dependent upon grace.
Now the contrast between this deeply Christian view of governance and the views of totalitarian ideologues does not consist in the use of a mirror. As in my own case, you need never doubt that the totalitarian ideologue prefers what he sees in the mirror when it comes to giving somebody the power to rule. But unlike myself, what he sees is someone who is clear-headed, superior and deserving of the mantle of the culturally elite. And why? Because he hasn’t taken advantage of either human experience or Christianity to learn the truth. The problem, then, is not that totalitarian ideologues prefer what they see in the mirror. The problem is that they don’t know what they see in the mirror is limited, fallible, vain, foolish, confused, and weak. They don’t see their own image as deeply flawed. They do not understand that it is dangerous.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Our Spring Challenge Grant
Progress toward our Spring Challenge Grant goal ($16,534 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!