I recently read the final volume of Manchester and Reid’s biography of Winston Churchill. In it Churchill spoke with passion about the need to defeat Hitler as the only way to save Christian civilization. On Sunday nights I’ve been watching the PBS series on Churchill that featured a portion of one of his speeches in which he spoke those very words. Was it really Christian civilization he wanted to save, or something else to which he blithely appended the name of Christ because it was the culturally expected thing to do? Churchill was a nominal Christian at best, a man who appreciated the form of Christian religion as expressed by the Church of England not as worship, but as an important mark of the best of European civilization and empire.
Old newsreels make it seem a bit quaint, but it’s not dissimilar to contemporary American calls for restoration of prayer in school, the insistence that America was founded mainly on Christian principles, and a conviction that malevolent forces are at work to destroy all that is good and right about America. I don’t believe it has much to do with with restoring or following Christ in a Christian America. It has every thing to do with fear that the dominance of Western civilization defined by white, European standards as interpreted and led by the United States cannot be maintained.
For several decades the Cold War provided the reliable boogyman of Communism to support that conviction. There was always some evidence to lend credence. America had a Communist Party. There were a few spies and agents wandering around. The Soviet Union was bellicose toward the U.S. We fought a number of proxy wars by shuffling dictators around the chess board of global politics like so many pawns. It was never enough to warrant the hysterical fear mongering that went on. Then they were gone.
Radical Islam has taken their place, and with the same distribution of evidence to support the conviction that Christian civilization is at stake. Muslims are a rapidly growing segment of our population. Many remember the fiery Black Muslim and Nation of Islam leaders who used violent words to oppose white rule. There are foreign organizations of radical Islamists who have demonstrated that they can and will use any form of violence to disrupt American interests. To them are added a wide variety of domestically grown nuts of whom a few are also radical Islamists. They are all there, and they provide all the fuel needed for people who get their kicks out of stirring up public fear and hysteria, prompting them to save America’s Christian civilization.
The idea that Christian civilization is at stake is little more than a thin patina of religiosity to hide the greater fear that white, American (European) culture, under which all else is subsumed, is being eroded away. All the handwringing about God being forced out of public life is not really about saving American Christianity. It's about sustaining an established social and political order. For instance, it isn’t just any prayer that some want in our schools and at public gatherings, but a non-denominational, patriotic prayer in Christian dress that combines something like The Lord’s Prayer with the Pledge of Allegiance in one indivisible liturgy that defends the established and historically dominant Euro-American culture into which all others are expected to take their appointed place.
Churchill was right about the threat to what he called Christian civilization, by which he meant 19th century English civilization, but it came from another direction. The age of empire was coming to an end, and the old century had passed long ago. Colonies wanted independence. They were not interested in perpetual existence as the white man’s burden. Britain’s economic domination of the world could not be sustained. Its own population was rapidly changing with the influx of peoples and cultures from throughout the Commonwealth. England of today remains the repository of all that is worthy of English heritage and culture, it always will be. It is learning to share that, not without problems, with other cultures while not losing its essential Englishness. They’ve been through this before. The Picts had to put up with the Celts. The Celts with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Anglo-Saxons with the Normans, and so on. Good grief, a ruling family of Germans has sat on the throne for two centuries, the Queen’s husband is Greek, and the world’s best kimchi and curry are in London.
Churchill was wrong about saving his version of English civilization, unchanging in a changing world, and so are we if we think we can impose a romanticized version of early 20th century America on the decades ahead. The most obvious symbol of that is the Christian black man in the White House, a man from mixed parentage, one of whom was a real subsaharan African, and a Muslim at that. The president’s not even descended from genuine American slaves. I think that scares some people right down to their toes because whatever they thought their rightful place in society was, is no longer theirs to be had just because that’s the way it is.
So where is Christ in all of this? I’m not sure, but it isn’t in saving American Christian civilization.