Counselors for the Defense

ROBERT ROYAL

In case you haven’t already noticed, for some years there has been a growing effort in diverse educational and cultural circles to paint Christian history as a blot on human existence. If you have been annoyed at some of the things that your children have been picking up in school, or have not known how to respond to criticisms of Christianity that seems wildly off-base do not miss Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett’s new book Christianity on Trial; Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry. It is a comprehensive, systematic, and fair-minded examination of the facts, a truly remarkable achievement. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the book and Robert Royal’s inspiring review.

Excerpt from the introduction

Christianity inhabits a strange space in American life. It is by far the predominant religion in the most religious country in the industrialized world, with more than 90 percent of its citizens professing belief in God and a large majority claiming allegiance to a Christian denomination or sect. Yet Christians are regularly targeted for ridicule and vilification by a significant portion of America's cultural elite, a situation all the more striking in view of the prevailing hypersensitivity toward other religious, ethnic and lifestyle groups. When a presidential aide in the Clinton administration sought to discredit an independent prosecutor, for example, he instinctively denounced the churchgoing attorney as a "religious fanatic" — a career-ending insult had it been directed at a devout Jew or Muslim. The fact that the aide kept his job while the White House refused to issue even a perfunctory apology illustrates the impunity that surrounds casual bigotry against Christians.

In isolation, such put-downs are relatively harmless. The problem is that similarly harsh judgments have become so commonplace and are asserted so aggressively that they threaten to distort Christians' own view of themselves and their past. Perhaps this has already happened. How else to explain the largely passive reception of a sound-bite version of history in which Christians' religious forebears are considered notable mainly for intolerance, superstition and oppression?

Even mainstream news stories, to the extent that they address Christian history at all, often dwell on conflict and controversy. For instance, the 900th anniversary of the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 occasioned a spate of stories reflecting on Christian culpability in that blood-soaked adventure. The quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage to the New World provoked an even more damning torrent of articles and commentaries on Christian complicity in the demise of America's natives. Allegations against Pope Pius XII regarding his behavior during the Holocaust, no matter how vitriolic, qualify as major news stories more than half a century after World War II. Americans who have scarcely ever cracked a history book are likely to have heard a great deal in the mass media about the church's suppression of Galileo and the horrors of the Inquisition, but next to nothing about Christianity's role in ending infanticide and slavery.

Even the apparent good news of an agreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in 1999 to resolve their nearly five-hundred-year doctrinal dispute became, in more than one report, yet another opportunity to recapitulate in grim detail the body count of the Wars of Religion. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since interfaith conflict is probably the most common theme in news coverage of religion. According to a 1999 study by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media in Evanston, Illinois, such conflict "was the main news value" in half of the page-one stories in the four newspapers examined (New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and Chicago Sun-Times). Overall, conflict "was found in 25 percent of the stories about religion, spirituality, or values in daily newspapers, television news, and weekly news magazines."

The moral failings of the clergy, especially Catholic clergy, are also a staple of the media. In early 2000, for example, a widely reprinted series in the Kansas City Star asserted that priests were four times more likely to contract AIDS than the general population — a conclusion based on a paltry response to a mail survey that was a laughable parody of social science. Yet because the series vented against such fundamental church policies as priestly celibacy, its empirical defects were largely overlooked by the editors who selected it. Derogatory depictions of Catholic priests have become stereotypical in our media culture. In a 1998 article about a sexual predator among the Catholic clergy (to cite just one of many examples), the New York Times permitted the sole expert it quoted to assert that "there's a deep systemic problem in Catholic culture," without so much as raising an editorial eyebrow.

A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs confirms the popularity of that kind of reporting. In a review of religion coverage in the major news magazines, network evening newscasts and the New York Times and Washington Post, researchers found that the most frequently discussed topic in the 1990s was sexual morality, while a remarkable one in fourteen stories concerned "crimes or other wrongdoing" involving churches or clergy.

It is true that many news organizations have consciously increased their coverage of religion and spirituality in recent years. Some articles on Christianity's role in history have been complex and first-rate, such as U.S. News & World Report's cover story in January 2001 entitled "The Year One A.D." It conveyed not only the cultural distance between Roman society and our own, but also of the timelessness of many ancient concerns, and it provided reasons why Christianity might prosper in such a world. But when a major story breaks the mold — for instance, when the New York Times reported on Professor John L. Heilbron's revelations about the medieval church's unappreciated support of astronomy — it often has a man-bites-dog tone of wonderment. What, forward-looking Christians?

In mainstream news these days, the word "Christian" most often appears in connection with politics. Because the "Religious Right" provides many of the shock troops for one side of today's "culture wars," it encounters sharply abusive rhetoric in return. Politics being what it is, some of this abuse is inevitable, and is relevant to this book only insofar as it veers into a wholesale condemnation of Christians or a large subset of them — and it often does. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura's gibe that "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people" who "stick their noses in other people's business" was prompted (his office later tried to explain) by animosity toward the religious right in particular. The shower of insult directed in recent years at evangelical and fundamentalist Christians is typified by the Washington Post's sneer that they are usually "poor, uneducated and easily led." Such pronouncements apparently resonate with a large segment of the population: according to a study published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1999, a remarkable 37 percent of highly educated white Americans hold "intensely antagonistic feelings" toward fundamentalists.

This book is not about the Religious Right and its agenda. Nor is it about the Religious Left, as represented by, say, the National Council of Churches. Christian ethical thinking draws no well-marked map for the great bulk of public policy questions — whatever some Christians, of both the Right and the Left, occasionally suggest. Christian opinion on such provocative issues as the teaching of evolution, prayer in school and the death penalty spans a wide spectrum of conviction. Let future historians assess the impact of Christians on contemporary politics; our purpose here is to rectify the common distortions of Christianity's role in history and tell the neglected story of its contributions, particularly where these have been most maligned.

For that reason, our discussion is necessarily both broad and selective. It covers much ground, but is not intended to be a condensed history of Christianity, or anything close to it. Rather, it focuses on the favorite topics of Christianity's fiercest critics. They say that Christians have spent the better part of two thousand years suppressing freedom, individual rights and democracy, while choking off science and most other forms of intellectual inquiry. They say that Christian intolerance has been a major cause of war and oppression, and Christian disdain for the natural world a primary force behind environmental degradation.

That such an indictment goes largely unchallenged is surprising, especially when its particulars are either plainly false or so stripped of context as to be purposefully misleading. We refute this sophistry not by whitewashing the past, but by reminding readers of the overlooked side of the ledger: the wide-ranging achievements and works of mercy that are rarely acknowledged in contemporary discussions of Christianity. We also take the provocative step of making comparisons, where appropriate, with other religions and cultures. Thus we argue that the world is better off in many ways for the rise of Christianity, without whose influence the past two millennia quite probably would have been crueler, poorer and more provincial, as well as less democratic, creative and informed — in a word, less civilized.

Anti-Christian bigotry relies on forgetfulness and loss of perspective. Its antidote is historical memory.

- Excerpt offered by permission of the publisher, Encounter Books.


Counselors for the Defense - A book review
by Robert Royal

In case you haven't already noticed, for some years there has been a growing effort in diverse educational and cultural circles to paint Christian history as a blot on human existence. There are more than a billion Catholics and several hundred million Protestants in the world today — very few of whom are self-evidently wicked or convinced that their beliefs are malign. Indeed, religious organizations provide substantial social services in many countries, contribute to education at all levels, and promote the kind of virtues that any free society needs to flourish. But for many of the cultured despisers of religion, this goes all but unnoticed. In a civilization that is so imbedded in Christian ways of thought — often unconsciously so — anti-Christian bias looks like nothing so much as intellectual, moral, and spiritual suicide.

The indictment runs the whole course of Christian history. Christian offensiveness is assumed to have come on strong and stayed strong. And the threat posed by the Faith excuses even the worst excesses. A Denver newspaper columnist, for example, once sympathetically characterized "the frustration and general fatigue that compelled the Romans to throw select Christians to the lions. It's not just that the lions were hungry; it was that the Romans were tired of listening to the self-righteous babbling of the Christians who claimed to be experts on everything, and had egos the size of…well…God."

The centuries when Christians were more center stage fare no better. In many tellings, the medieval Church, in addition to being corrupt, seems to have done little more than sponsor bloody crusades and inquisitions. When those had largely run their course, the Church set itself up against science and progress beginning with Galileo and down through the development of modern societies. Paradoxically, the same Church that was responsible for opposing science is also somehow to be blamed for the technological destruction of the environment in the west. Catholics and Protestants produced bloody wars in the 16th and 17th centuries and collaborated with the Nazis in the 20th. Such decency as currently exists in the West required the throwing off of Christian superstition and its hatred of all that was noble and forward-looking. Recent attempts to reenergize faith, primarily by conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, are a threat to American democracy. You get the impression that, all in all, the human race would have been better off had Christianity never appeared.

These charges are so familiar that it is remarkable that no one has taken them all head-on, until now. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett have just published Christianity on Trial; Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (Encounter books, 2001), a systematic and fair-minded examination of the facts. The authors do not attempt in the least to explain away the many failings and shortcomings of Christian churches over the past two millennia. In fact, they document Christian wrongdoing where it occurred. But in a series of solidly researched perfectly balanced, and beautifully written chapters, they fill in many historical lacunae in the skewed common view, set the record straight on several major subjects, and provide a sane understanding of the many tangible benefits Christianity has brought to the world.

Against all the claims that Christianity, and its parent Judaism, introduced oppression into the classical world, they demonstrate that biblical religion lies behind many of the principles we most value. It was out of biblical belief that all of us are children of God that the first seeds of equality and liberty were planted. We know, for example, that high-born women often played a major role in the early Church. There was good reason for their attraction to the new faith: The early Church gave them more autonomy, protected them from forced abortions (which caused many deaths), and forbade infanticide of both girls and deformed boys. Christian charity also attracted all those repelled by pagan brutality and inspired new virtues such as humility, while conspicuously caring for widows and building orphanages and the fore-runners of hospitals.

Nor did Christians operate solely at the bottom rungs of society. They introduced the notion — perhaps for the first time in the West's history — that no leader, whether of Church or state, was all-powerful and beyond the laws God instituted for all his creatures. St Augustine raised the status of the individual conscience even as he set limits to the power of the empire. When Rome collapsed, the monasteries preserved what survived, and transformed much in classical and barbarian culture. Representative institutions, property rights, and the rule of law were extended as far as Christian civilization could exert its influence or push back barbarian chaos. The dynamism of the West and its belief in progress owes much to the Bible's view of human beings as created in the image of God.

Carroll and Shiflett describe the effects of these early developments in subsequent ages. For instance, though slavery existed all over the world and in some Christian societies, including the United States, until relatively recently, there is no question that it was a violation of Christian views of the human person and was early viewed as such. St. Patrick seems to have first stated the principle in the fifth century. The slave trade flourished after the voyages of discovery, but the reaction against it came quickly, most notably among the Dominicans at the University of Salamanca. That same Christian stand emerged again in the 19th century British Evangelicalism, which effectively ended the slave trade; in the American abolitionist movement; and in the civil rights crusade of the 1960s.

The author's devote a whole chapter to the relationship between Christianity and science. Though science and technology developed in the west as nowhere else, few people now seem to believe there was a long connection between science and Faith until 19th-century Darwinism and ideological materialism set them at odds. Take the Galileo case. The Church made a serious error in arresting the controversial scientist (Protestant authorities, like their Catholic counterparts, thought Galileo's contentions both absurd and dangerous). But what we have heard far less about is the way that the Church, despite its hesitations, supported astronomy, and does to this day. J.L. Heilbron's 1999 book,The Sun in the Church, contends that the Church "gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other institutions." Church buildings themselves were often adapted for solar observations. Given Christianity's confidence in creation as ordered by a benevolent Creator, it was only natural that astronomy and the other sciences were valued in the west.

This book also includes chapters on the churches and Nazism, Christianity and the environment, and the development of charities. Bur perhaps its strongest contribution concerns Christianity and American democracy. Anyone with even a modest acquaintance with early American history knows that religion played a major role in the American Revolution and in the Founders' thinking about the nature of the new nation. In addition, American churches often provided a model for the kind of democratic deliberation that became a characteristic of American life as lived concretely in small communities. All of this runs counter to the notion prevalent among elites that it has only been since we threw off the shackles of Christian dogmatism that America has become tolerant and free — a view often reflected in textbooks.

Carroll and Shiflett's achievement is remarkable; a brief review cannot do it justice. If you have been annoyed at some of the things that your children have been picking up in school, or have not known how to respond to criticisms of Christianity that seems wildly off-base, do not miss this book.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Royal, "Counselors for the Defense." Crisis 19, no.11 (December 2001): 50-51

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962

THE AUTHOR

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2001 Crisis




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