Religion & Liberty Online

Pagans, Gnostics, and Christians—Oh My?

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Two new books offer a frightening diagnosis of what ails contemporary America. But are their prescriptions truly the cure?

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Conservatives, conscious of the past, disturbed by the present, and worried about the future, often ask: Where did it all go wrong? The polymathic aristocrat Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn argued that the “genuine historian” would trace our present ills to the French Revolution. Traditionalist academic Richard Weaver blamed the medieval English monk William of Ockham (of razor fame). German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin identified a different, earlier religious figure, the Italian Joachim of Fiore, as the culprit.

But Whittaker Chambers, one of America’s most famous defectors from communism, went earlier still. For him, everything went astray in the Garden of Eden. In his 1952 memoir, Witness, Chambers described communism as a form of “man’s second-oldest faith” and “the great alternative faith of mankind,” whose “promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’”

Two books, You Shall Be as Gods: Pagans, Progressives, and the Rise of the Woke Gnostic Left by talk-radio host Erick Erickson and Pagan America: The Decline of Christianity and the Dark Age to Come by The Federalist senior editor John Daniel Davidson, do more than dwell on the Garden as the origin of man’s discontent. They also confront two pressing, related problems: the weakening of Christianity in America and the rise of a competing belief system. The authors themselves, though both on the right, differ on much (having recently disagreed on, for example, the viability of Reaganite conservatism). But their books are strikingly similar in diagnosis. There is much wisdom, both in their agreements and in their disagreements. And there is further truth to be gleaned by discerning what they overlook and where they err, if the problem they describe is genuine and requires addressing.

Both authors are fairly persuasive as to that problem. Erickson laments that “over the past fifty years, American society has tried—with some success—to push God, faith, and Christianity from public life, schools, businesses, and politics.” Davidson decries the “precipitous decline of Christianity in America.” And because man is dispositionally inclined to believe something, a new worldview is increasingly taking Christianity’s place—or, rather, an old one in new garb. Erickson calls it an updated Gnosticism, that early heresy of Christianity that saw the physical world and the human body as things to be overcome through secret knowledge to access the world’s inner truth. Davidson labels it “a post-Christian, neopagan ethos” that harks back to the moral universe Christianity, blessedly, destroyed.

Both survey the negative results of these interrelated phenomena. The decline of Christianity, both in number of church attendees and in the orthodoxy of the faith when practiced, has contributed to widespread social dysfunction: family breakdown, declining fertility, widespread abortion, transgenderism, a growing reliance on euthanasia, the seeking of transcendent meaning in faulty causes (especially in politics), and more. And the new faith, backed not infrequently by government power, has made the public square increasingly hostile to Christianity.

In short, marginalization and silencing are real; even worse is government action against pro-lifers and the Job-like fate of Christian baker Jack Philips of Colorado, back in court yet again after more than a decade of government-backed harassment by people angry that he would not supply cakes for same-sex weddings and gender-transition celebrations. Paraphrasing Orwell to describe our future, Davidson asks us to “imagine a boot stamping on Jack Philips’s face—forever.”

As Christianity played an essential, stabilizing role during the founding of this country and up to the present, both authors prophesy escalating chaos in a post-Christian America. The French Revolution looms large in their minds, both as a specter of what America avoided in its own revolution (with Christianity as “the main difference between the two,” according to Erickson)—and of what horrors might await America. Davidson, for his part, sees something even worse in store for us: “state-sponsored religious persecution on a scale not seen since the Diocletianic Persecution of the early fourth century.”

Erickson and Davidson extend their historical perspectives beyond America’s history, to the very beginning of the Christian era itself. Doing so helps illustrate the moral revolution it effected; each identifies, as just one example, early Christians caring for the newborn infants so brutally discarded by Romans. But Davidson’s use of history, at least as evidenced in his book, outdoes that of Erickson. Relying on, among other works, Tom Holland’s Dominion, Davidson shows a powerful civilizational confidence about the world Christianity created and embraces a triumphalistic interpretation of church history (more so than Erickson, certainly), noting how the faith ushered in “a moral revolution that broke asunder the pagan world’s unquestioned worship of power and its pitiless embrace of violence.” His treatment of the eighth-century missionary St. Boniface, who converted both pagans and backsliding Christians, claiming and reclaiming vast swaths of Germanic territory for Christianity, is a highlight.

Davidson has a similarly straightforward and largely helpful view of Christianity’s history in America. Defying such critics as Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, he sees the American founding as not just compatible with Christianity but dependent on it. His arguments that this country, up until fairly recently, saw widespread “public support” for Christianity, which was essential to our success, are well-made and worthy of consideration.

There are some things Davidson himself should consider, however. Intra-Christian conflict, a feature of American life and sometimes even instantiated into law (see, for example, state-level Blaine amendments), fits uneasily into his portrayal of a halcyon Christian America, as does the fact that many of the very rights he says originated and were protected in that America came under threat during times of more openly professed Christianity. The extent of his entangling of America’s political tradition with its religious one, moreover, leaves it unclear to me whether he thinks non-Christians can be good Americans.

He could also benefit from a helping of Erickson’s perspective, not necessarily on the nature of the challenge Christians face today (on which they largely agree), but on how to face it. “Evil is not partisan,” he stresses; God sees things differently from how we do. “Not everything you dislike is disliked by God, and God will not find fault in everything simply because you find fault in it.” The problem we face is “not a partisan problem, a political problem, a social problem, or an economic problem,” but “a spiritual problem,” one that requires a spiritual solution.

Erickson is willing—to a fault—to acknowledge that the irreligious trends he describes have affected the right as well (see, for example, Costin Alamariu, a.k.a. “Bronze Age Pervert,” and other vitalists). Though Erickson himself is occasionally guilty of reflexively lumping his political antagonists in with his religious ones, Davidson does it frequently. He describes detractors of Donald Trump’s presidency, for example, as “the forces of neopaganism.” Such a framework—dare one call it Manichean?—has limitations.

On what to do, at least politically, Erickson and Davidson seem to concur once more. Neither trusts the Supreme Court to be the eternal backstop of the constitutional order, including for religious believers. Both disdain Washington, D.C. But while Erickson prescribes a “radical federalism” that would permit and even encourage intense political and cultural differences between California and, say, Georgia (where he lives), Davidson calls for conservatives “in their small towns and city councils to reassert traditional Christian standards and orient communities towards the public good.” But if the two agree on the extent of the problem, and that it is national in scope, then even Erickson’s radical federalism would be insufficient; eventually, an all-powerful, uninhibited central state would not tolerate the differences he would.

Thus, one can be forgiven for inclining toward Davidson’s bluntness. His resort to a kind of federalism is premised on what he considers a realistic assessment of our present situation: “America is a post-Christian country just as the West is a post-Christian civilization. Absent a miracle from God, things are going to get worse before they get better.” He envisions himself and like-minded Christians not as modern-day St. Benedicts (he is a friendly critic of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option), retreating to their monastic communities, but as modern-day incarnations of St. Boniface.

Is he right? Yes and no. Christianity faces serious headwinds today; an America without Christianity would indeed be an unpleasant, even dystopian place. Certain truths, however, incline me to be more hopeful (in the short term, at least; Davidson expresses a kind of optimism in the long term—it might just be very long). One is that religiosity has undulated throughout American history. By one measure, it was actually at a historic ebb right around the American founding.

Another solace is that serious evils have arisen even in more-Christian eras, and this country has defeated them: consider slavery and eugenics. Both found elite succor and even Supreme Court approval in their heyday.

And yes, elites do matter. I share Davidson’s contempt for “our new post-Christian elite, freed from the constraints of the old constitutional system.” But when in the same paragraph he argues that our “people have abandoned the Christian faith and the moral virtues required to sustain a self-governing republic,” I am unwilling to follow him there. I believe the American people retain or can regain great virtue, that even amid our challenges we still have plenty to work from, and that it’s not impossible to ameliorate our problems “in the lifetime of anyone alive today,” as he asserts. For example: One can quibble about the extent of America’s de-Christianization, but I’d agree with Davidson that things are worse in Europe. He believes we are headed in its direction. Are we also headed, then, for Europe’s growing rejection of transgenderism, which he highlights but whose significance he seems not fully appreciate?

By his own lights, Davidson ought to agree that headway is possible. He describes the denatured condition of many denominations today as afflicted by “heresies” and refers to religious “nones” as “modern pagans.” But his own assessment of the situation Boniface faced was similar: both pagans and wayward Christians were his audience. And in modern America, there are, in fact, more of the latter than the former. Yes, there are the “godless” and even outright witches and Satan worshipers among us today. There are also many who retain a diluted or distorted residue of Christian belief. Yet Davidson counsels retreat from areas that faithful Christians no longer dominate. Such a course strikes me as more Benedict Option than Boniface Option, and a potential missed opportunity to salvage what can still be salvaged.

Take decadent Washington, which nonetheless claims nearly 700,000 Catholics and 140 parishes. That’s something to build on. Davidson could use some more of the very confidence he shows elsewhere in his book, and here Erickson offers a helpful perspective. Davidson, a Catholic and an excellent student of history, recalls the origins of Christianity in a pagan empire. But Erickson, a Protestant, is more explicit about what that meant for the first Christians: “When Jesus was telling the disciples to love their neighbors, they lived in a world controlled by a polytheistic Roman Empire.” While Boniface provides an excellent role model for us today, so also should the mercies of Christianity in its early days, which so set it apart from the world surrounding it that the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate failed in his attempts to imitate it (as Davidson himself notes). These are at least as much a part of the Christian inheritance as visible religious displays in the public square. If they had such power then, surely they can again.

Davidson’s apparent counsel of retreat, whether intended or not, helps illustrate a defect of both works. It can be useful, for historical and even theological purposes, to identify modern iterations of ancient infidelities. But we conservatives would be resorting to paganism ourselves if we believed that labeling our opponents Gnostics or pagans could function as incantations that magically disarmed them—especially if Erickson and Davidson believe ours is an age in which Christianity has receded in its power.

Such labeling is only worthwhile as an intellectual exercise if it helps our age find “its own language for an eternal meaning,” as Whitaker Chambers believed was the task of every time, and helps us speak to Christians and nonbelievers. Both Erickson and Davidson have made important contributions to that task. Chambers also believed he “knowingly chose the side of probable defeat” by leaving communism. He resolved, however, to act as if he were wrong, “if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.” It can be valuable for conservatives to discuss where things went astray. But as conservatives also believe that, since the Garden, we have lived in an imperfect world, we ought not to get lost in contemplation. May we also have the courage to act as Chambers, and others, have.

Jack Butler

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online, a 2023–2024 Leonine Fellow, and a 2022–2023 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.