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Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’?
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Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’?

Christian sensibility, but without the belief, is very little more than niceness inflated to the point of metaphysical comedy.

Interior view of Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, with marble columns and high arches. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket/Getty Images)

A peculiar phenomenon of our time is the so-called cultural Christian or even “Christian atheist,” by which is meant someone who finds the moral claims and cultural sensibility of Christianity sympathetic but who does not (will not, cannot) accept the fundamental claim of Christianity, i.e. that the Creator of the universe embodied Himself in the form of a first-century Palestinian Jew who was tortured and put to death before rising from the dead to provide a fallen humanity with a path to redemption. 

I do not much blame these “cultural Christians,” a breed that is increasingly common in conservative political circles, inasmuch as the supernatural claims of Christianity are—I write this as a believing Christian—positively absurd on first hearing. Also on second and third hearing, and for many more hearings, and sometimes (often, I think) to the committed and convinced Christian. There are lots of true things that sound crazy. The basic physical mechanism by which an airplane flies has been observed for a few thousand years (the Chinese have been flying kites for a long, long time) but if you tried to explain to some Elizabethan sophisticate,  unfamiliar with the technological achievements of our time, that we routinely launch vehicles weighing 1 million pounds (the top flying weight of the 747-400ER freighter is just short of that, and there are much larger aircraft) into the air, under their own power, with very little danger, that one may travel from Baghdad to Athens in one of these in less time than it takes to watch a performance of Hamlet—and that nothing on the exterior of the thing even moves very much, while the whole thing runs on something extracted from the same substance found in that “Pitch Lake” that Walter Raleigh observed in Trinidad—he might think you were pulling his leg. 

Of course, Christianity isn’t like that: The man who thinks he would never believe in such a thing as an airplane might be “converted,” easily, by flying on one. Christians, in spite of a whole library full of such boneheaded books as The Case for Christ, do not have evidence of that kind. Jesus performed miracles when it pleased Him to do so, but He wasn’t an entertainer and did not perform party tricks. Some of His followers apparently were able to perform great miracles, too, but Jesus had a different view of persuasion: “If you love each other, then everyone will know that you are my disciples,” He said, and, in light of that, Christians who are being honest with ourselves must not wonder too much that many people doubt our story. 

So, why the “cultural Christian”? Where does he come from, and what does he want? 

People who take an instrumental and political view of Christianity, however well-meaning (Dennis Prager is an example of this kind), sometimes argue that only “Judeo-Christian religion”—and there is no Judeo-Christian religion, nor are there “Judeo-Christian values” in any meaningful sense—provides a possible basis for a sound moral life, including the moral basis of national political life. This is, of course, what T. S. Eliot called the “dangerous inversion,” i.e., the argument that we should accept the supernatural claims of Christianity because they are useful for fortifying a moral sensibility when we should, instead, derive our moral sensibility from the truth of Christianity, if we believe it to be true, or from something else that we believe to be true rather than merely convenient. In a sense, the non-believer who sympathizes with Christianity is more of an enemy than is the frank atheist who hates Christianity—because the “cultural Christian” trivializes Christianity. The cultural Christian believes that Christianity is false and that this does not matter, while an evangelical atheist such as the late Christopher Hitchens believes that Christianity is false and that this does matter—that it matters a great deal. In that much, I am with Hitchens: Better to have a cruel and unforgiving society founded on the truth than to practice kindness based on a lie. 

(I met Hitchens only once—in church, ironically enough. And not just any church, but St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was William F. Buckley’s funeral, and Hitchens, true to form, was drunk at 10 a.m., and balefully eyeing Henry Kissinger across the nave. As it happens, I had ridden the train in from Connecticut that morning with another man headed to St. Patrick’s—not for the funeral but because he was one of the men working on the ceiling, bits of which had been falling down on worshipers for years. I imagined Hitchens and Kissinger running into one another and, in the ensuing explosion of ego and Johnnie Walker fumes, the fragile roof collapsing on the congregation, transporting Hitchens and Kissinger and the rest of us all instantly to the hereafter and to the judgment of what we had better all hope is a truly merciful God—with a sense of humor.) 

Some of you will be stuck on the fact that I wrote that there are no Judeo-Christian values in any meaningful sense. I know that this flies in the face of the conservative catechism, but I think it is true. Christianity and Judaism are very different religions, but they have a great deal in common when it comes to moral prescription—but they have this in common not only with one another but with many other religions and with the moralities of many other cultures. With apologies to my learned Christian friends who sometimes insist that it is otherwise, Christianity is not especially radical as a purely moral position. Those Christians who take a view of life based on “natural law”—which really means only that we can use reason to discover how it is we should live—should not be surprised to find that Christianity is not a moral outlier, inasmuch as the ancient Greek philosophers and Hindu sages and Confucian scholars had fully functioning powers of reason, too. It is not that there is nothing at all distinctive about Christianity, but even its most radical moral demand—that we should love our enemies—would not be alien to a pagan Stoic. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder, etc., are as near to moral universals as you will find. Christians may have taken a somehow more demanding view of sexual purity and marital fidelity than did first-century Romans, although the Romans took a narrower view than did the Old Testament patriarchs, for instance in prohibiting polygamy. In his view of marriage, Paul the apostle might have been morally closer to a virtuous Roman such as Antoninus Pius than to Solomon with his 1,000 wives and concubines. What we call the “Judeo-Christian values” are for the most part values commonly shared with many peoples from many nations practicing many religions. For all the talk (often fatuous) of Jesus as a “great moral teacher,” it was His supernatural claims, not His moral advice, that was distinctive: He was not crucified for saying that we should love one another, or for pointing out that the man with lust in his heart is an adulterer in spirit if not in fact, or for saying that we should forgive one another as we hope to be forgiven, or for any of that—He was crucified for claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah of prophecy. These are religious rather than moral claims. 

Of course, the religious claims of Christianity must necessarily transform its moral sensibility. And thank God it does—there is almost nothing in this world as insipid as Christian solicitousness divorced from the brutal facts of Christianity itself. If Christianity is not true, then the Christian sensibility is very little more than niceness inflated to the point of metaphysical comedy—and if it is a matter of choosing your own adventure, then there are lots of other Levantine wine cults to choose from, many of them a lot more fun on a Sunday morning. 

When people say they are sympathetic with the Christian sensibility, what they often are saying is that they take a sympathetic view of Western civilization, and that they prefer a traditional (but not too traditional!) approach to culture and community life. Christianity did in a profound sense create Europe—previously only a geographic term—but the two are not synonymous, and Christianity is Christianity everywhere in the world it is practiced. Those who want to use Christianity as a bulwark of national identity are even more wrongheaded—Christendom has always been a thorn in the side of nationalists, who from the time of the Reformation forward felt compelled to build their own national churches precisely to insulate national feeling and defend national power from the competing claims of a multinational religious communion. The Catholic Church was the original European Union in its princelier period—even down to the fact that the English eventually grew so irritated by it that they Brexited their way out of it during the reign of Henry VIII. (Henry II had walked halfway down the same road three centuries and some earlier.) If “cultural Christianity” means that Christians should happily cooperate with American nationalists who wish to use Christianity the way Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses Islam, then “cultural Christianity” must be not only rejected but defeated. 

What else is there to this idea? Nostalgia, of course. There is probably something to be learned from the fact that one kind of civilization produces Caravaggio and Chaucer while another kind of civilization produces Twitter and The Bachelorette, but modern Christianity is not going to start producing Renaissance art and literature or anything like it (not much of it, anyway), and that is not what it is there for. 

What should we think about this? I asked Michael Kruger, who is the president of the Reformed Theological Seminary campus at Charlotte, who shared some valuable observations. 

Because of the history of Christianity in America, many Americans have a certain set of values that come from that Christian history—even if they don’t realize it, or don’t even consider themselves Christians. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.  We are certainly glad that Christianity has had a “preserving” influence on our culture that can still be felt generations later. We should be glad when people behave morally, even if they don’t know why they are doing so. The problem is simply that this state of things won’t last. To believe in Christian morals, without actually believing in Christianity, can only be sustained temporarily. Eventually, something’s got to give. While political actions can perhaps slow the shift, it cannot stop it completely. Morality works best when it flows from a transformed human heart, not when it is merely forced by external laws. That is not to suggest external laws don’t matter. We should still make good laws and enforce such laws.  But the healthiest cultures are the ones where morality flows naturally and internally.  …

We should not be content with people simply “playing” Christian for a time, because such an approach will not last in times of resistance and persecution. While it might be nice to have large churches with full pews, it would be better to have smaller churches that were filled with people who genuinely believed and understood the implications of their faith.

Christianity, particularly in its more rarefied, intellectual, and high-church forms, enjoys a certain kind of prestige and cultural cachet, but being a believer, as such, does not—in many circles, ordinary orthodox Christian belief is more of a source of intellectual stigma. (If you enjoy stories of callow, youthful vanity, consider that I decided that I might be open to Christianity in part because of my interest in T. S. Eliot, whose beautiful and austere way of writing about his faith made the religion seem, to my foggy young brain, more intellectually respectable than the mush I had been served by Methodist church ladies in Sunday school. The church had enjoyed the services of Augustine and Aquinas, Dante, Cavalcanti, Cervantes—yeah, yeah, but I was the third-smartest senior at Lubbock High School.) Politicians, activists, and culture warriors are very much in the prestige business, because their whole game is status. One Christian-friendly atheist of my acquaintance sometimes worries that his attitude will seem condescending or patronizing, not wanting to suggest that he thinks that a 2,000-year-old institution with a couple billion or so members is just waiting around for him to pat it on the head and offer his approval. Christianity uses prestige, too—it is a very useful advertising tool, hence the robes and the pointy hats and the splendid churches with the Caravaggios in them. And in Rome, they are happy to have the tourists come and look at the pictures and the sculptures and the architecture, hoping that they will absorb the underlying lesson: that there is something serious and real behind this, something that is ineffable, and so we build cathedrals not because these are even a sketch of God’s greatness but simply because this is the best thing we know how to do—you can be the Magi or you can be the little drummer-boy, but, in any case, you bring the best of such gifts as you have.

But Notre-Dame de Paris is not a temple to niceness, or even to goodness or good civil order or public morality or “Judeo-Christian values.” St. Sebastian did not take any arrows for the cause of social conservatism

If by “cultural Christian” we mean an atheist who is pro-life, who prefers a traditional model of marriage and family life, who believes that Western civilization is superior to its competitors, that hedonic consumerism is not the highest good, etc.—in that case, why not leave Christianity out of it altogether? Christians do not believe the same things as Jews, but pro-life Christians work easily with pro-life Jews toward pro-life ends, and they do not have to trivialize either their own religion or the Jewish religion to do so. (For that matter, the community of pro-life Christians contains within it rival religious communions that, if pressed, might not concede that some of the others are in fact Christian at all.) My advice—and my preference—is that the atheists should go and be happy atheists and not worry about being some sort of ersatz “Christian atheists.” 

As Elijah did not quite put it: If the Lord is God, then follow Him, but if Baal or Ron DeSantis or good public order is what you really care about, then you know what to do. In any case, you should stop fooling yourself—you aren’t fooling anybody else. But if you are an atheist who is pro-life, who prefers a traditional model of marriage and family life, who believes that Western civilization is superior to its competitors, that hedonic consumerism is not the highest good, etc., then you might ask yourself why you believe these things and upon what basis your beliefs stand. Maybe it is because you grew up in a (still barely) Christian civilization, or in something that was one until very recently, and you think that what this has produced is good—which only leads you back to the first question. If your answer is “culture”—culture only, and not one step farther—then you’re looking at turtles all the way down. 

So I’m Not the Only One? 

As a novel, The 120 Days of Sodom is utterly singular, being both utterly vile and also, somehow, utterly tedious. It is unreadable because it depicts unspeakably depraved acts, and it is unreadable because it manages to do so in the most boring ways imaginable. To try to read Sade’s masterpiece is like entering Castle Silling, the chateau where it is set: Once inside, you’re trapped in an abyss from which you cannot escape.

Economics … Against English Majors

Economics 1, English majors zero. From the Washington Post:

Marymount University, a Catholic institution in Northern Virginia, would eliminate undergraduate majors in English, history, philosophy and several other subjects under a controversial restructuring plan its trustees are scheduled to consider Friday.

Update: The maniacs approved it. 

Even the major in theology and religious studies — a staple at many colleges but especially those with Catholic affiliation — would be cut. The plan, which has spurred fierce faculty protest, represents a pivotal moment for a 3,700-student institution in Arlington that describes itself as a “comprehensive Catholic university.”

Marymount President Irma Becerra endorsed the cuts in a Feb. 15 letter to the university’s Faculty Council. In all, the plan calls for phasing out nine bachelor’s degree programs. Among other majors that would be eliminated: art, mathematics, secondary education and sociology. For economics, the Bachelor of Arts would be cut, but the Bachelor of Science would remain. Also proposed to be cut: a master’s program in English and humanities.

Economics is not a field that simply asks, “What can you sell it for?” It is not as dismal as those who talk about the “dismal science” suggest. Ludwig von Mises called his big, definitive book not Economics or Hurray Free Markets or anything like that—he called it Human Action, and he described his method as praxeology, which is a fancy way of saying “the study of human action.” In economics, “What’s the price?” is an important question, but that question is, in a sense, subordinate to the bigger question: “What is it you are trying to do?” 

Being a conservative, I have over the years spent a good deal of time listening to Fox News and talk-radio types—and conservative donors—mocking money-losing magazines and nonprofit institutions. Rush Limbaugh, who grew to be a singularly ungracious man toward the end of his life, mocked National Review on the air for being a money-losing magazine. (Most magazines of that sort do not make money; The Dispatch is a for-profit business supported mainly by subscription revenue, which is why you should subscribe if you haven’t.) Never mind that Limbaugh had filled countless hours of airtime reading National Review articles word-for-word on the air—not infrequently, these were mine, and I will note for future historians that he was not always what you would call scrupulous about attribution. Limbaugh, of course, made lots of money, and, like a lot of people who make a lot of money, he came to believe that this was a mark of excellence, never thinking very much about the fact that there are pornographers against whose earnings those of talk-radio and cable-news superstars are hangnails. Some enterprises are meant to make money, and some aren’t. If your church is turning big profits, you probably should find a new church. If your presidential campaign does not finish the race a good deal to the south of broke, then you didn’t do it right. Harvard enjoys the fruits of a splendid endowment, but it is not there to make money. (Harvard occasionally needs to be reminded of this.) There are many spheres of human action. 

A university in which there are no undergraduate studies in literature or history is not a university, and cutting these programs is not evidence that the university is being managed economically—it is evidence that the university is being managed incompetently. (Almost-aptronym alert: One of the critics of this proposal is the director of the school of humanities, Ariane Economos, who is, alas, a professor of philosophy rather than economics.) The first thing in setting an organization’s affairs in order is figuring out what it is the organization is there to do. 

And this is not always straightforward: As the Wall Street Journal reports, Stanford now has more staff than students—and seven administrators for every faculty member. Stanford is an excellent university, but most of its resources are not oriented toward teaching. (Stanford is a private school; this is not mostly a question of government spending.) Schools provide a lot of jobs, and not only at the university level. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, likes to boast about how many pay raises for teachers he has approved and how much education funding he has appropriated; it is good to have well-funded schools, but the politics there is not about education—it is about the fact that public school districts are large employers and, in many rural (which is as good as to say “Republican”) areas, they are the largest employer. “Big government?” Sure, but Gov. Abbott is a practicing politician. 

If Marymount cannot afford to teach literature or history, then what is it that Marymount is there for? If it is to be a Catholic jobs-training program, then let it call itself that rather than pretend that it is a university. 

A Little More Economics … 

Perhaps you have seen this interview, in which Tucker Carlson makes the case for banning automated trucks in order to save truck drivers’ jobs. Carlson has a point, of course, but he misses the real enemy: Sure, we could save some jobs by preventing technological progress in transportation, and we could create a lot more jobs in transportation by taking the proactive step of banning trucks and making everybody use donkey carts, but the real problem—the real job-killer!— is, obviously, the wheel. Make people transport goods with bindles like medieval serfs and we’ll have more transportation-sector jobs than we know what to do with. Of course, we’ll have a medieval-serf standard of living, too. 

(Some of you are hearing these words in your heads: “Why not use spoons?”)

This is nonsense, and I know Carlson doesn’t actually believe this. If he did, he would quit his job. As in transportation, technology has radically increased the financial returns to a successful career in asinine demagoguery, but it also has put a lot of asinine demagogues out of business. There would be a lot more jobs for asinine demagogues if they had to travel around the country—on horses, of course, if not on foot—giving speeches on soapboxes and stumps the way they did in the early 19th century. (“Stump speech” and “on your soapbox” are linguistic survivals from this era.) Of course, Tucker Carlson is not going to propose any such thing. As Robert Conquest famously observed, everybody is a conservative when it comes to his own area of expertise. As Kevin D. Williamson less famously observed: Everything in life is really simple, provided you don’t know a f—–g thing about it. 

You know how these so-called nationalists will rarely ever tell you exactly what it is they want as a policy matter? This is why. Their ideas are backwards and stupid, and their backwardness and stupidity is obvious enough that even the Fox News crowd will see it, given enough time. 

Words About Words

“Useless as teats on a boar hog,” was one of my late father’s best contributions to my verbal catalog, and you had better believe that, with his heavy north Texas accent, it was pronounced tits. 

Question: Is “boar hog” redundant? 

Maybe, maybe not. If you say “boar” or, especially, “wild boar,” then everybody knows you are talking swine. But there are non-pig species in which the male is known as a boar—bears, famously, but also peccaries, badgers, and racoons. Sex-specific words and seemingly sex-specific words have a way of sometimes being generalized—for example, a lot of people will refer to a flock of peacocks (or, if you prefer, a pride, a muster, or an ostentation of peacocks) rather than to peafowl, the males of which are peacocks and the female peahens. There are competing etymologies, but the word hen probably survives in chicken, and we refer to a clutch of chickens even when both hens and cocks are included in the group. As the terribly heteronormative saying goes: In language as in life, man embraces woman—by which it is meant that such expressions as “May the best man win” are not meant to be sex-specific. 

(Please do not say or write gender when you mean sex. Being precise there will save much confusions.)

What is undeniable, at least to my ear, is that “Useless as teats on a boar” is only about 20 percent as funny as “Useless as teats on a boar-hog.” That extra syllable—and the fact that the syllable is hog—is a humor multiplier. 

I don’t remember my father ever calling me “useless as teats on a boar hog,” though he did once inform me that I would, if left unsupervised, “f— up an anvil.” Also pretty good. 

“Teats on a boar hog” is funny because vestigial nipples on males are generally funny. I used to have a friend who had six of them in two rows, like a dog, the lower ones barely visible. (He was one of the craziest people I knew in my youth, but also brilliant; of course, he became a psychiatrist.) But, not to give you whiplash—isn’t there something profound there, too? 

I mean this: As you probably know, human males have vestigial nipples because this part of the anatomy develops before the rush of hormones that transforms the unborn child. As they put it over at the National Library of Medicine: “All fetal genitalia are the same and are phenotypically female.” Until they aren’t. In that sense, the part of men that marks us as meant for nurturing new children precedes the parts of men that are involved in making new children—a general parenthood precedent to fatherhood per se. But, of course, fathers do not have the ability to do what mothers do and provide direct sustenance from our bodies to nourish newborns, and so we must find other things to do, or else feel—well, useless as teats on a boar hog. 

Hence war and literature and civilization. 

I’ll tell you briefly why this is on my mind, and I write briefly because I do not intend to write very much about my family, this fallen world being full of lunatics. But, as some of you know, I have a little baby boy at home, and he has started to crawl—he is, for the first time, really mobile. And, sometimes, when I leave the room, he follows me. I am used to Pancake following me around from room to room—she wants the pack to be intact and together at all times. But a little baby boy following you around and looking up at you expectantly—between us, that hit me harder than the drive home from the hospital with the little potato strapped into the car seat for the first time. The first few months of a baby’s life are pretty much the motherhood show—6 million years of evolution have set her up pretty well for that, and I was already taking out the trash, more or less regularly, and now there was just more of it. (So much trash. We get so many Amazon deliveries that I feel like we’re raising a kid with a nanny named Jeff Bezos, PBUH.) But we have a little boy who is starting to figure some things out, and the fact is that he is going to follow me around the house and look up to me—literally and figuratively—for at least some part of his life, including the most important first years, and he is going to do this whether I am the sort of man who should be looked up to or not. 

You ever have that feeling of the universe tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, dummy—pay attention, now. This is important.” That was one of those. 

In Other News … 

On a good day, Pancake gets some yogurt. On a great day, she gets a little ice cream. 

FYI: The AI-generated caption on this photo says: “A dog on a bed reading a book.” I think my job is still safe from the chat-bots. 

Elsewhere

A thing I should have mentioned in my column on “national divorce” as espoused by Marjorie Taylor Greene and others: Where you find an American secessionist movement, you will almost always find Russians and Russian money. From National Review in 2017: A report on “Calexit.” 

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto, here

You can buy my other books here

You can see my New York Post columns here

Please do yourself the favor of reading James Kirchick on literary denunciations

In Closing

Fifteen years ago today, William F. Buckley Jr. passed away. Fifty-five years ago today, Walter Cronkite broke away from his usual pose of journalistic objectivity to editorialize against the Vietnam War. I met both men and admired one of them—both of them were in the opinion journalism business, but Bill was the only one who was honest about the fact. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.