Wesley J. Smith Analyzes the Election

Granted, the ideas expressed in Wesley J. Smith’s commentary below are preliminary, but the (still to be developed) core of the essay is this: a large part of the last election dealt with cultural shift particularly how we understand of the individual and community.

Yet, even formulating the problem in this way is incorrect because strictly speaking the individual does not exist. A person is born into a family, and the family into which he is born constitutes the first definition of who he is. Self-identity in other words is necessarily relational. Framing the shift as “individual and community” then doesn’t really work although it’s the language we use to describe politics and culture. Maybe the difficulty in grasping the shift has to do with the limitations of the language we employ. Or maybe as the mediating institutions lose their moral authority collectivism is the end of the march into decadence.

Smith also hits on something that bothers me as well (and has for years): much Democratic Party politics is enervated with the spirit of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the totalitarian impulse that it hides. The more that government stakes a claim on your life, the more of your life it will claim. The term of references the battle cry (self-evident to the true believers at the time) of the French Revolutionist who thought they were creating a more just society. It ended of course in the Reign of Terror and finally Napolean. Rousseau was the philosophical godfather of the Revolution and thus earned the title of the father of modern totalitarianism by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn warned that any moral system that does not reference God will referenced the state in the end and lead to a gulag.

On the other hand, as Smith alludes to below, the Protestantism of the Radical Reformers that has in large part shaped Western consciousness is incapable of resisting the seduction of secular collectivism. I think that is the result of Calvin’s de-sacramentalized universe. Rousseau is the political godfather of modern secularism, but Calvin is modern secularism’s progenitor who tilled (despoiled?) the theological soil that made secularism possible to prevail in our day. The first marshals the power of the state, the second is impotent to resist it.

This modern conflict between a sacred and de-sacralized universe was foreshadowed in the great debates between Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli over the real presence in the Eucharist. Luther argued yes, Zwingli (Calvin’s theological heir) argued no. Luther won the debate, but Zwingli won the war. As the memory of medieval certainty faded the revolt against the Christian ordering of culture began. Nietzsche’s prophesy that “God was Dead” (by which he meant that the Christian ties holding culture together were unraveling) was correct as was Dostoevsky who warned of the resultant darkness that would ensue once the revolt was complete.

Here Orthodoxy and Catholicism have much to say and offer to a culture that has lost its spiritual moorings. Most of the Orthodox mother churches don’t really see this except for the Russian Orthodox Church who, chastened by her own weakness and in some cases apostasy during the Communist oppression, understands the materialist darkness for what it is. Those that don’t understand the historical dynamics of the Christian West locate it in other things: ethnic nostalgia, the idealizing of Orthodox forms, and so forth. None of these things are bad or undesirable in and of themselves. They are just insufficient to meet the challenge of collectivism that has faced Christendom since the French Revolution.


Source: First Things

My funk on election night was deepened by an email from a younger, liberal friend. Conservatives lost, she told me sternly, because they have become badly “tarnished” with “Latinos, young people, Asians, single women,” and “all key demos for the next twenty years.” Her blunt warning: “Fix that or keep losing.”

I was initially angry. It seemed to me that these are the very people most hurt by the president’s economic policies, supposedly the key issue in the election. But resisting the impulse to reply bitterly, I instead pondered her words. Then the proverbial light bulb: The real issue for these crucial voters, I realized, wasn’t economic at all. It was cultural, perhaps something even more existential.

One widely circulated Obama campaign music video illuminates the subject. It depicts throngs of diverse supporters—young with old, white with people of color, men with women—leaving their daily activities to joyously march together to an uplifting rock anthem—Forward—accompanied by excerpts from an Obama speech assuring that we “leave no one behind.” Here are a few of the lyrics:

You can’t give up on hope
Each other’s hand we hold
We’re on a long hard road 
But we travel it together

We pull each other up
We fill each other’s cup 
So we all have enough
We’re all in this together

When I first saw the video, I sniffed, “Catchy tune, but really, do they think people are leaving restaurants, stores, and jobs to march together for Obama?” But I’d missed the point. Obama’s campaign—and indeed, his presidency—promotes a powerful and primordial message, best embodied in the national motto of France; liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Collectivism is always a potent message for those who feel a sense of oppression and/or economic strain. Thus, it was the very economic difficulties experienced by my friend’s touted demographic cohorts that made Obama’s message of inclusion and “fairness” resonate more deeply than did Mitt Romney’s free market/equality of opportunity/importance-of-the-individual arguments.

Of course, the dynamic tension between the relative importance of the individual and the group isn’t anything new. Indeed, Christianity has long faced similar tensions. I am certainly no theologian—and please forgive me for stating it very roughly and too generally—but it seems to me that Protestantism emphasizes individualism, e.g., the direct relationship between God and each person, sola scriptura, the downplaying of tradition, the excising of intercessory prayers to saints. Some take this much further, even believing that dogma can be altered because “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing:” Me and my walk with Jesus, if you will, with prime worship focus placed on “the Word.”

Pre-Reformation churches, on the other hand—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic—embrace a far more collective approach. Yes, salvation is individual, but it is also mediated through the Church as the Body of Christ, albeit in the service of each person as well as for the whole. This means accepting Apostolic Tradition to interpret Scripture, a belief in the intersession of the saints (Hebrews’ “invisible cloud of witnesses”), and the emphasis on Sacraments: We and our walk together with the Trinity, with prime worship focus placed on Holy Communion.

Whether in the secular or religious sphere, these differing emphases really matter to people, cultures, and societies. Indeed and alas, many wars have been waged over the tension between them. Thus, they bear continual pondering and unending mutual efforts by differing factions to understand and bear with the other.

As for me, I am a very strong proponent of individualism in the secular sphere. I believe in the Declaration of Independence as the best promoter of liberty, and in the Constitutional structure of limited government as its guarantor. I embrace equality of opportunity, not result, as the optimal approach to maximizing human flourishing and prosperity. And I reject the collectivist approach as potentially oppressive to the individual and ever threatening to unleash a dangerous Utopianism, undeniably an historic problem with the French model.

But in my faith, ironically, I have taken the other road, converting some years ago to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some might see this as a paradox. To the contrary, the two are complimentary since each operates best in the context of free will. I am liberated coming and going. Political individualism allows me (and others) to embrace or reject religion, while my faith’s ultimate meaning only arises when it is willingly accepted.

Thus, in American Orthodoxy, I am both free and secure. Not bearing the burden of interpreting Scripture (because the Church has) liberates me to explore its meaning more deeply. Choosing to be a literal member of the organized Body of Christ offers love, acceptance, belonging, protection, and salvation. Knowing that I receive His Body and Blood, I am continually renewed and strengthened for the race. For, as St. Paul wrote: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”

Or to put it another way: In my politics, I am free and I do not oppress. And in my faith, I am not left behind. Forward.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.


  1. I must admit that upon beginning the introduction, I nearly moved on without reading this essay. This would have been a major injustice, but proof-positive of Bernard Shaw’s commentary that sometimes, it is best to simply remove one’s hat and let things speak for themselves. This is a very thoughtful, very sober essay, and I am glad I chose to read on.

  2. Michael Bauman :

    At a certain level, Neitzche lamented the loss of the God-centered culture. The Christianity of his father, legalized and hypocritized was no option for him. The only alternative was the ascendency of the gifted and the will to power. It is actually quite logical: to replace God one has to be god-like.

    The fact that totalitarian states became the ascendent ones rather than individuals would probably have bothered him.

    He longed for the freedom that God created us with, he simply did not recognize how to attain it. The struggle that his Supermen must go through can quite easily describe the Christian struggle for holiness in the context of the Church.

    A Christianity that diminishes or negates stuggle and spiritual warfare will not be attractive to those who would be saints. Even we Orthodox, at least here in the US, tend to paint to easy a picture of the Christian life. How else to we fall for the political ideologies and the demand to pay, pray and obey?

    Only recognizing the nihlist intoxicants for what they are and engaging our hearts and minds to not partake of them will make a difference. It is a personal battle joined together with our fellow communicants. We do not stand or fall as ‘individuals’ whatever that is. As Fr. Hans points out, we are relational beings designed for communion with God. When the primary relationships are denied (God and Church and family) we look for something to fill the void. Something that we need to think about: the state is always the enemy of faith in God unless the people who constitute the state are His friends and lovers.

    Fake replacements:
    Aggressive Wars
    Relativism (moral and religious)
    Et cetera, Et cetera, Et cetera……

    Of course retreat into a triumphalistic ethno-centric community is not the answer. That just gives the ideolgies that ravage our souls more space.

  3. Mr Bauman – I think you hit the nail on the head: it was Nietzsche alone who understood the coming age: the enormity of Christ, the existential ruin of nihilism in a post Christian age:

    Damon Linker says:
    November 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm
    I love the “I just can’t seem to find the energy to be angry or jealous.” Like she wants to prove she’s one of Nietzsche’s last men! And I quote:

    And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people:

    It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.

    His soil is still rich enough for it. But that soil will one day be poor and exhausted, and no lofty tree will any longer be able to grow there.

    Alas! there comes the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man — and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whiz!

    I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you have still chaos in yourselves.

    Alas! There comes the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There comes the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.

    Lo! I show you the Last Man.

    “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” — so asks the Last Man, and blinks.

    The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest.

    “We have discovered happiness” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

    They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him; for one needs warmth.

    Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbles over stones or men!

    A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death.

    One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.

    One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

    No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

    “Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

    They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

    They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

    “We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

    And here ended the first discourse of Zarathustra, which is also called “The Prologue,” for at this point the shouting and mirth of the multitude interrupted him. “Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra,” — they called out — “make us into these Last Men!

  4. NY Times: Orthodox Leader Deepens Progressive Stance on the Environment


    Talk about doubling down on some bad ideas.

  5. Does anyone know anyting about the White House Conference on Orthodox Engagement to be held on December 14th in Washington DC? Newly consecrated Bishop Gregory has posted that he will be attending on http://www.acrod.org.

    What is this?

  6. disappointed orthodox man :

    After the election, it was totally clear where the American Christian Church stands. It is nothing more than the blind leading the blind. You people who so faithfully attend church on Sunday and vote for candidates who stand for abortion and same-sex marriage, SHAME ON YOU!! You are wasting your time being scribes, pharisees, and hypocrites. To the clergy and hierarchy who do likewise, the Lord will spit you out like it says in the Bible. As for me, I will save my money and henceforth not donate to any so-called “Christian” church. A Christian charity whom I can trust will receive it. I would actually love to know how all American Christian clergy voted. Or maybe it’s best that I don’t know. The American Christian Church is a dog without teeth, ineffective, useless and pusillanimous. Actually, a dog barks, but I don’t hear anything on the issues from the pulpit of “the best-kept secret.” You guys are too embroiled in money and sexual scandals. YOU HAVE FAILED!! I have to pay taxes, for it is the law. I don’t have to give you whited sepulchers anything, only to those who truly need it. I feel like the Al Pacino character in “Scent of a Woman.” It is clear to me, in closing, that the American Christian Church is empty ritual.

  7. D.O.M. (Disappointed Orthodox Man) :

    After the election, it was quite clear to me what the American Christian Church stands for – NOTHING! It is a dog without teeth, a sword without the double edges, useless and ineffective. Well, at least a dog makes noise, but I rarely heard a peep from the many pusillanimous pulpits about the major biblical issues concerning abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriages. To those who attend church regularly on Sundays and voted for those candidates who support the anathemas clearly mentioned in The Word – SHAME ON YOU!! Why bother going to church?! And to the clergy and hierarchy who have cowered too long – you will be spat out, as it says in The Bible. Actually, it would be interesting to see how the American “Christian” clergy voted. Then again, maybe it’s good that I don’t know because I’d probably be more disappointed. As for me, I will henceforth cease and desist from contributing my hard-earned dollars to your buildings, chanceries, fancy robes, Prada shoes, golden chalices, etc., and will only give it to those who truly need it whom I can trust. Enough of the sex, power and money scandals. I am tired of the b.s. and only have to pay the government because it is the law. I don’t have to give the American Christian Church (all tens of thousands of denominations of you) another red cent. So be it!

  8. Well, Barthelow its ok to be in enviromential causes but the mind people have that God created can to wonderful things readLondon – The Sixth Century builders of Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral still standing in Istanbul, discovered cement with earthquake-resistant properties 1 300 years before anyone else, a research team revealed on Wednesday.

    Hagia Sophia, built as a church and subsequently turned into a mosque, still stands only because its creators discovered the cement.

    Many of the surrounding buildings have long since succumbed to the ravages of time, including earthquakes, according to a report in the New Scientist.

    The structure has withstood quakes of up to 7,5 on the Richter scale, according to the team, headed by Antonia Moropoulou from Athens’ National Technical University.

    ‘They were very advanced scientists’ The team found that the cement contained a calcium silicate matrix similar to that found in Portland cement, although the architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, came up with their mix in 532.

    Team member Ahmet Cakmak of Princeton University said volcanic ash or other silica was deliberately added to the mixture, producing a material that could absorb seismic activity.

    “The Byzantians knew exactly what they were doing. They were very advanced scientists,” he said.

    The group hopes the mortar can be recreated to allow faithful restoration. – Sapa-DPA

  9. I don’t mean to address this directly to Patriarch Barthelow it just came out that way.

  10. Why a woman who procured an abortion would be punished:

    -Because “it might appear scandalous that she should be able to deprive her husband of children without being punished”.

    -Digest 47.11

    From a Roman Catholic website.
    Because the thing is a bad example, lower-class people who give a drink to cause an abortion or to excite passion (although they do not do it deceitfully), are to be condemned to the mines, and more distinguished persons to be relegated to an island and deprived of a part of their wealth. If by this drink a woman or a man has died, they are condemned to capital punishment.

    -Digest Not saying that people should be punished for abortion as stated in the Justinian Code but that the Justinian Code formed the legal moral law in both eastern and western europe. I
    I also recently read an article by a classicist on the Roman-Justinian law on preventing owenerhsip near the shoreline that was adopted into the common law code as well. In the 1960’s a politician from Texas adopted this law for public beaches. In the west it was adopted more than the east. This law would appeal to the liberal while the abortion law would not. If Justinian code use in the 1960’s on public beaches why not the use of it on moral law with not as severe punishement.
    atristic Quotes

  11. Fr. John W. Morris :

    I completely agree that Calvinism is at the root of many of our modern problems. However, I must make one correction. Calvin was the heir to Zwingli. It was Zwingli even more than Luther who threw out what Christians had believed for almost 1500 years and invented a completely new religion with no place for traditional Christian worship or the sacramental. Zwingli gutted the Munster of Zurich and remodeled it on the pattern of a medieval university lecture hall thus making the sermon the focus of worship and denying the sanctification of matter and making the human mind and or emotions the center of Christianity. The result is both the excesses of Protestant Fundamentalism and Protestant Liberalism. You are right eventually this leads to the kind of apostasy one sees in the Episcopal Church and in the anti-Christian policies of the Obama administration.


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