What Is the West without Christendom?

The modern West is post-Christian in the same sort of way that it is postindustrial. Neither Christianity nor industrialization have been truly left behind, for all that our use of “post-” language implies they have. Their cultural footprints remain enormous, even when the churches and factories have been turned into flats. What has happened, rather, is that society has been so irrevocably shaped by their influence that we can think of their legacy as secure and begin to contemplate moving “beyond” them into a wide variety of new possibilities, according to the demands of the market.

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking him to edit the Declaration of Independence in time for a meeting the following morning. “The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved of by the committee,” Jefferson explained. “Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”1

Franklin was at home recovering from gout and made very few changes. But one of them would have epochal significance. Jefferson had originally written that “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

Franklin crossed out the last three words and replaced them with one: “self-evident.”2

It was a portentous edit. Jefferson’s version, despite his theological skepticism, presented the equality of men and the rights they held as grounded in religion: they are “undeniable” because they are “sacred” truths that originate with the Creator. By contrast, Franklin’s version grounded them in reason. They are “self-evident” truths, which are not dependent on any particular religious tradition but can easily be grasped as logically necessary by anyone who thinks about them for long enough.3

To which the obvious response is: no, they are not. There are plenty of cultures in which it is not remotely self-evident to people that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, let alone that these rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the prerogative to abolish any government that does not preserve them. Most human beings in 1776 did not believe that at all, which is partly why the Declaration was required in the first place. (This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” as opposed to saying simply “these truths are self-evident.”) Some of the founders had not quite believed it themselves just fifteen years earlier. Billions of people today still don’t.

The fundamental equality of human beings, and their endowment with inalienable rights by their Creator, are essentially theological beliefs. They are neither innately obvious axioms nor universally accepted empirical truths nor rational deductions from things that are. There is no logical syllogism that begins with undeniable premises and concludes with “all people are equal” or “humans have God-given rights.” The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov expressed the non sequitur at the heart of Western civilization with a deliciously sarcastic aphorism: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”4

Many of us find this unsettling. We are inclined to see equality and human rights as universal norms, obvious to everyone who can think for themselves. But in reality they are culturally conditioned beliefs that depend on fundamentally Christian assumptions about the world.

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