Sobran Column -- Christianity & History
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Christianity and History

September 28, 1999

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 her gravediggers.

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 are being accused of pro-Hitler sympathies because their critics don’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 has stirred controversy because it features a blasphemous picture of the Virgin Mary, splattered with elephant dung; for liberals, as usual, the only issue at stake is “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.

Joseph Sobran

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