Ignorance is often hidden behind an urbane surface. Many otherwise
educated people lack the most elementary understanding of certain subjects.
One of these is religion.
When I was an aspiring Shakespeare scholar during my college days,
I was surprised to find that most commentators on Hamlet missed the
play’s religious aspect. Prince Hamlet is evidently a Catholic,
but he has been a student at Wittenberg, home of the Reformation. He
puns on the Diet of Worms. His father’s ghost laments that he
was murdered without a chance to receive the sacraments, a fact Hamlet
recalls when he hesitates to kill his uncle at prayer; Hamlet later
sends two former friends to their deaths without confession. Ophelia,
an apparent suicide, is given a Christian burial, to the scandal of
None of this would have been lost on the ordinary Elizabethan playgoer.
Whether the ghost comes from purgatory or hell, whether the old sacraments
are efficacious, whether Ophelia is damned — these are questions
that would have occurred to everyone in the audience, Catholic, Anglican,
or Protestant. Modern scholars consign them to footnotes. But Elizabethans
would have agreed with the Anglican Samuel Johnson (writing two centuries
later) that Hamlet has descended to a diabolical level by seeking the
damnation of his enemies.
Public discussion of three current topics shows how ignorant most
Americans have become about religious questions that would have electrified
their ancestors. Pope Pius XII and Patrick Buchanan were accused of
pro-Hitler sympathies because their critics didn’t realize that
Communist persecution of Christians would take precedence, for them,
over all other considerations. And in New York, a tax-supported art
show stirred controversy because it featured a blasphemous picture
of the Virgin Mary, splattered with elephant dung; for liberals, as
usual, the only issue at stake was “artistic expression.”
The great vice of liberal thinking is its failure of imagination with
respect to Christians. For all their preaching of “sensitivity” and “multiculturalism,” they
are belligerently ignorant of Christian culture and Christians’ feelings.
In fact they seem to think that there is something specially “artistic” about
offending Christians. Offending blacks, Jews, feminists, or homosexuals
is “insensitive,” while offending Christians is “irreverent” — a
word that has come to suggest a rather cute sassiness.
Yet the whole history of Western Civilization is rooted in religion.
Unless you understand Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism, along
with the rise of Islam, you don’t understand the events that
shaped the modern world. The issues of the Reformation were still alive
when the United States was founded, when slavery was debated, when
the Civil War tore the country apart, when Prohibition was adopted,
when Joe McCarthy assailed “godless Communism,” when John
Kennedy became the first Catholic American president.
The Christian Right is closer to its own historic roots than most
Americans, yet the media and the history textbooks treat it as a marginal,
virtually un-American movement. This isn’t “multicultural”;
it’s anti-cultural. It refuses to take America’s real origins
seriously, adopting the Supreme Court’s shallow and ahistorical
interpretation of the separation of church and state.
Liberal diatribes against “McCarthyism” leave out the
crucial fact that American Christians felt deeply betrayed by the outcome
of World War II, when our “Soviet ally” won control of
a huge section of Christian Europe, just as Pius XII had feared
it would. The war began when the Soviets and Germans had invaded Catholic
Poland; it ended with Roosevelt’s turning Poland over to “Uncle
Joe” Stalin’s tender mercies. It took the leadership of
a Polish Pope, John Paul II, to win back Poland’s freedom.
Yet the young pass through our entire educational system without being
taught what the Christian perspective was, and is, or how it has shaped
the great events of history. Few of them know that many of the authors
of the Constitution were clergymen; fewer still realize that the separation
of church and state applied only to the federal government, not to
the states. (The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion,” leaving the
states free to do so.)
Like Soviet history, American history has been rewritten, with inconvenient
facts deleted. In both countries, the “progressive” forces
have subverted their subjects’ sense of the past.
This column was originally published by Griffin Internet Syndicate
on September 28, 1999.
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