By Dr. Boyd D. Cathey
“At the base of all political issues, there is a religious question.” There have been numerous writers credited with first writing or using those words. While studying in Spain, my dissertation director asserted that the great Spanish thinker, Juan Donoso Cortes, had said them in the 1840s; other sources indicate that Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote them at about the same time. And there are other accounts and other authors who apparently said more or less the same thing.
In the end, it really makes little difference who said or wrote that phrase: its truth and profound reality percolate throughout the history of Western Christianity, whether written down or not. And the observation is ever more significant in our turbulent contemporary times.
The history of Christianity over the past 150 years, if not longer, clearly illustrates the existence of an immense ongoing battle—a war—between those who defend the traditions and orthodoxy of their faith and those who believe that that faith must be continuously updated and open to the intellectual currents of the times. Witness the great struggles in the 19th century between theological “liberalism” and “higher criticism,” opposed to “traditionalism” and Biblical inerrancy. And in the 20th century this combat continued as “Modernism” threatened the very nature of the Catholic Church and social gospelism and assaults on Biblical fundamentals gnawed away at the various Protestant communions.
Early on traditionalists seemed to maintain their own in these debates. Whether by the conservatism of the Prussian Lutheran establishment in Germany, or with the staunch response by the Catholic Church under pontiffs like the Gregory XVI, Bl. Pius IX, Leo XIII, and St. Pius X, liberalism, socialism, and other challenges to orthodoxy were mostly held at bay. It was St. Pius X who definitively condemned theological Modernism in his powerful encyclical Pascendi gregis Dominandi in 1907.
In the United States, the theological debate perhaps reached its zenith with the great Calvinist Presbyterian theologian, Graham Machen, who had been a professor of theology at Princeton University, but finally left that school because of its embrace of theological liberalism. He then founded the Westminster Seminary in 1929, based on more orthodox and fundamental beliefs. Machen’s very public combat, in many ways, signaled a revival of fundamental orthodoxy within various Protestant denominations.
Yet, like a virulent infection—a cancer—that refuses chemotherapy, the attacks on Christian orthodoxy did not disappear or go away. Throughout the 1930s into our own times the conflicts continued, if sometimes just below the surface. Indeed, by the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican/Episcopal Church began to give way to more “modern” views on such issues as sexual morality. Methodists, divided one hundred years earlier between Methodist Episcopal Churches, North and South, re-united in 1938, in a union through which liberalism soon gained the upper hand. Northern and Southern Presbyterians formally re-united in 1983, once again submerging a more conservative (Southern) confession within a dominant, more liberal (northern) one.
The most significant, unrelenting, and universal opponent to theological liberalism and modernism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries had been the Catholic Church. Yet, it too, despite formal condemnations by St. Pius X and the continual opposition to various theological errors, witnessed internal subversion and, at the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), the validation of what can be termed a kind of “pastoralism,” that is, the application in the apostolate, if not in official doctrine, of a practical liberalism. The case of the Catholic Church is unique in that its historic and doctrinal anathematization of liberalism, modernism, Biblical “higher criticism,” as well as its condemnations of socialism and communism, are irreformable. Thus, the attempts to subvert its mission and teaching involved a pro forma, perfunctory acknowledgment of settled doctrines, while at the same time implementing a practical “pastoralism” that in effect rejected those doctrines: ecclesiastical schizophrenia writ large.
At its origins, Marxism found itself in abrasive opposition to traditional Christianity. It was only in the early 20th century that Marxists developed a concerted approach—a philosophy—of forming cooperative “united fronts” with more liberal Christians on issues where they believed “collaboration” possible. But just what kind of “collaboration” was envisaged? Early on, Marxists understood that their political triumph would not be complete unless the traditional opposition of the Christian church was neutralized and Christian culture, itself, conquered. For international Communism that meant that cooperation and the “united front” efforts would be a means of weakening and eventually subverting not just theological orthodoxy, but also significantly politicizing the culture and its traditional basis in Christianity, pushing it to the political and cultural Left. In that way, formal Christianity, once the most steadfast opponent of Marxist ideology, would be neutralized and, in many cases, become its most notable collaborator.
In a very real sense, the subversion and fall of establishment Christianity was the last major conquest of a continuing anti-Western Marxism, even after of its collapse in Russia. Indeed, as Paul Gottfried has carefully explained in his fascinating volume, The Strange Death of Marxism, while the older, more establishment Soviet Communism disappeared in the late 1980s, a more virulent strain of Marxist belief—Cultural Marxism—continued even more aggressively and successfully in Western Europe and in the United States.
Among major Protestant denominations, the Southern Baptists have been, arguably, the most resistant to the leftward drift and theological deterioration that have characterized so many other communions. Yet, in more recent years, they, too, have been subject to assault, and most specifically on social and political questions. Indeed, increasingly the contagion of cultural Marxism, disguised generally as a renewed “concern” for “social justice,” has gained a foothold in the SBC.
The essential problem is that many otherwise orthodox Evangelicals are also subject to the Progressivist appeal and narrative on social issues and the dominant linguistic template that imposes a mode of communication and resulting pastoral action that carries with it an eventual decay in traditional theology as well.
Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted resolutions condemning: “racism,” the so-called “Alt-Right,” and, finally, the “Confederate flag.” Although Southern Baptist congregations enjoy a great deal of autonomy, such declarations indicate something deeper and more profound that is occurring within the denomination, and it should raise serious red flags among Baptist conservatives.
The success of cultural Marxism in “turning” much of Christianity, infiltrating its institutions of learning and its seminaries, altering its pastoral messaging, and weakening its theological resolve, confirms the aphorism of the historic “united front” approach: “pas d’ennemis a gauche” (first said by French socialist Rene Renoult in 1919)—“no enemies on the Left.” This ongoing process reflects the success of cultural Marxism in creating a template, an inexorably progressivist view of history, a standard where intellectual thought and language have been dogmatized, and even those who supposedly oppose its announced aims and objectives are forced into accepting its ideological parameters and grounds of debate. And in doing so, they fatally limit the effectiveness of their response, and insure the continued advance of the Revolution.
There is, however, hope for counter-revolution. And it is seen in the increasing—and untainted by the politically correct culturally Marxist straight jacket—reaction on the part of such organizations as the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X in the Catholic Church, the various continuing Anglican confessions that reject the heretical inanity so rampant in that denomination, the proliferation and incredible growth of conservative Presbyterian churches, and the refusal of millions of Baptists to accept the political dictates of the SBC. And, more fascinatingly, by the tremendous revival of traditional Orthodoxy in Russia and Slavic countries.
The battle—the War for Belief and for our civilization—continues. The tide of advancing Progressivism continues to wreak its havoc and destruction across the entire West. Yet, the assurance of traditional believing Christians is certain: even in the depths of the most unprecedented darkest times, the light of Faith will conquer. The Blessed Marco d’Aviano entreated the small Christian garrison at the siege of Vienna in 1683, facing, as they were, 300,000 fanatical Muslims: “If you believe, you will be victorious.”
And thus it was on September 11, 1683; and it can be so again.
~ Dr. Boyd D. Cathey is an Unz Review columnist, as well as a Barely a Blog contributor, whose work is easily located on this site under the “BAB’s A List” search category. Dr. Cathey earned an MA in history at the University of Virginia (as a Thomas Jefferson Fellow), and as a Richard M Weaver Fellow earned his doctorate in history and political philosophy at the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain. After additional studies in theology and philosophy in Switzerland, he taught in Argentina and Connecticut before returning to North Carolina. He was State Registrar of the North Carolina State Archives before retiring in 2011. In addition to writing for The Unz Review, Cathey writes for The Abbeville Institute, Confederate Veteran magazine, The Remnant, and other publications in the United States and Europe on a variety of topics, including politics, social and religious questions, film, and music.