Humanity has been surviving plagues for thousands of years, and we have managed to learn a lot along the way.
A lot of English people believed 1666 would be the year of the apocalypse. You can’t really blame them. In late spring 1665, bubonic plague began to eat away at London’s population. By fall, roughly 7,000 people were dying every week in the city. The plague lasted through most of 1666, ultimately killing about 100,000 people in London alone — and possibly as many as three-quarters of a million in England as a whole.
Perhaps the greatest chronicler of the Great Plague was Samuel Pepys, a well-connected English administrator and politician who kept a detailed personal diary during London’s darkest years. He reported stumbling across corpses in the street, and anxiously reading the weekly death tolls posted in public squares.
In August of 1665, Pepys described walking to Greenwich, “in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in [a field] belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it, but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing.” To ensure that no one — not even the family of the dead person — would go near the corpse or bury it, the parish had stationed a guard. “This disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.”
It felt like Armageddon. And yet it was also the beginning of a scientific renaissance in England, when doctors experimented with quarantines, sterilization and social distancing. For those of us living through these stay-at-home days of Covid-19, it’s useful to look back and see how much has changed — and how much hasn’t. Humanity has been guarding against plagues and surviving them for thousands of years, and we have managed to learn a lot along the way.
When a plague hit England during the summer of 1665, it was a time of tremendous political turmoil. The nation was deep into the Second Anglo-Dutch War, a nasty naval conflict that had torpedoed the British economy. But there were deeper sources of internal political conflict. Just five years earlier in 1660, King Charles II had wrested back control of the government from the Puritan members of Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell.
Though Cromwell had died in 1658, the king had him exhumed, his corpse put in chains and tried for treason. After the inevitable guilty verdict, the King’s henchmen mounted Cromwell’s severed head on a 20-foot spike over Westminster Hall, along with the heads of two co-conspirators. Cromwell’s rotting head stayed there, gazing at London, throughout the plague and for many years after.
War and social upheaval hastened the spread of the plague, which had broken out several years earlier in Holland. But when he wasn’t displaying the severed heads of his enemies, the king was invested in scientific progress. He sanctioned the founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a venerable scientific institution known today as The Royal Society.
It was most likely thanks to his interest in science that government representatives and doctors quickly used social distancing methods for containing the spread of bubonic plague. Charles II issued a formal order in 1666 that ordered a halt to all public gatherings, including funerals. Already, theaters had been shut down in London, and licensing curtailed for new pubs. Oxford and Cambridge closed.
Isaac Newton was one of the students sent home, and his family was among the wealthy who fled the cities so they could shelter in place at their country homes. He spent the plague year at his family estate, teasing out the foundational ideas for calculus.
Things were less cozy in London. Quarantining was invented during the first wave of bubonic plague in the 14th century, but it was deployed more systematically during the Great Plague. Public servants called searchers ferreted out new cases of plague, and quarantined sick people along with everyone who shared their homes. People called warders painted a red cross on the doors of quarantined homes, alongside a paper notice that read “LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US.” (Yes, the all-caps was mandatory.)
The government supplied food to the housebound. After 40 days, warders painted over the red crosses with white crosses, ordering residents to sterilize their homes with lime. Doctors believed that the bubonic plague was caused by “smells” in the air, so cleaning was always recommended. They had no idea that it was also a good way to get rid of the ticks and fleas that actually spread the contagion.
Of course, not everyone was compliant. Legal documents at the U.K. National Archives show that in April 1665, Charles II ordered severe punishment for a group of people who took the cross and paper off their door “in a riotious manner,” so they could “goe abroad into the street promiscuously, with others.” It’s reminiscent of all those modern Americans who went to the beaches in Florida over spring break, despite what public health experts told them.
Pepys was a believer in science, and he tried to follow the most cutting-edge advice from his doctor friends. This included smoking tobacco as a precautionary measure, because smoke and fire would purify the “bad air.” In June of 1665, as the plague began, Pepys described seeing red crosses on doors for the first time. “It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell,” he writes, “so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and chaw, which took away the apprehension.”
Quack medicine will always be with us. But there was some good advice, too. During the Great Plague, shopkeepers asked customers to drop their coins in dishes of vinegar to sterilize them, using the 1600s version of hand sanitizer.
Just as some American politicians blame the Chinese for the coronavirus, there were 17th century Brits who blamed the Dutch for spreading the plague. Others blamed Londoners. Mr. Pepys had relocated his family to a country home in Woolwich, and writes in his diary that the locals “are afeard of London, being doubtfull of anything that comes from thence, or that hath lately been there … I was forced to say that I lived wholly at Woolwich.”
By late 1666, the plague had begun its retreat from England, but one disaster led to another. In autumn, the Great Fire of London destroyed the city’s downtown in a weeklong conflagration. The damage was so extensive in part because city officials were slow to respond, having already spent over a year dealing with plague. The fire left 70,000 Londoners homeless and angry, threatening to riot.
While the mayor of London issued orders to evacuate the city, Pepys had more pedestrian concerns: He wrote about helping a friend dig a pit in his garden, where the two men buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” Even in the middle of a civilization-shaking event, people will still hoard odd things, like toilet paper — or cheese.
Despite the war, the plague and the fire, London survived. Urbanites rebuilt relatively quickly, using the same basic street layout. In 1667, Pepys was bustling around the healing city, putting his rooms back in order and turning his thoughts to new developments in politics.
Pepys survived. Scholars are still not sure whether he ever retrieved his cheese.
The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life.
- Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew
- God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
- The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
But other evangelical options were also available. While Federalists like Boudinot and Morse railed against Jefferson and his followers, frontier evangelicals—mostly Baptists and Methodists—flocked to Jefferson in droves. They understood that Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom would allow evangelical faith to flourish in America. They were right. When religion in America was separated from state sponsorship, it resulted in a massive religious revival which historians have described as the Second Great Awakening.
In the antebellum South, evangelicals, according to some historians, made up close to 80 percent of the region’s population. Southern evangelicals were caught up in a slave system that kept them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Slave rebellions against their white masters were relatively scarce, but when insurrections did take place they brought paranoia and panic. One South Carolina widow claimed to lie in bed each night fearing that at any moment one of her slaves would break into her house and hack her to death with an axe.
The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery.
But other evangelical options were available. Modern-day attempts by Southern evangelicals—especially those in the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to terms with its slaveholding and racist past imply that the Northern abolitionists, the thousands of evangelicals who came to South during Reconstruction, and those who fought for racial equality during Jim Crow, were on the religious high ground. They represented a much more consistent evangelical ethic on this moral problem.
The very short history of evangelical fear would certainly need to spend some time in the decades following the Civil War as evangelicals waged intellectual and religious battles against Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible. Some of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism converged in the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. It was stridently anti-Catholic, and on occasion worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan to guard the white Protestant character of the country.
Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it. They promoted a theology of the “end times” that led them to spend considerable energy trying to identify the appearance of the Antichrist on the global stage.
In defending the “fundamentals of the faith,” these anti-modernists relied on authoritarian clergymen. These fear-mongers gained followers, built large congregations, and established national reputations by sounding the alarm of the modernist threat whenever they saw it rearing its ugly head. They took on the role of ecclesiastical strongmen, protecting their congregations from outsiders who threatened to destroy their faith and the Christian identity of the nation.
But once more, other evangelical options were available. Those concerned about doctrinal drift could have learned something from the biblical virtues of love and humility. The sense of certainty that defined the fundamentalist movement in America might have been replaced with a sense of mystery and the embrace of a God who could not always be confined to man-made doctrinal formulations and end-times speculations. Perhaps such an approach might have tempered the militancy of the movement and provided fundamentalism with a more respected public platform in the decades following the 1925 Scopes Trial.
Since World War II, evangelical anxiety has intensified. In 1947, in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court announced a “wall of separation between church and state [that] must be kept high and impregnable.” The court drew on this decision when it banned prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and 1963 respectively.
The demographic makeup of the country was also changing. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened American shores to millions of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Many of these new immigrants brought their non-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, creating unprecedented religious diversity.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Supreme Court efforts at desegregating Christian academies and colleges led to fierce resistance from Southern evangelicals who viewed the federal government as taking away their local autonomy and the religious freedom to control their own admissions policies. (These arguments were not unlike to those put forth by the Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.) By the late 1960s, the feminist movement was posing a threat to the long-held conservative evangelical commitment to patriarchal households, and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. For those who saw all these things contributing to the decline of a Christian culture in the United States, there was much to fear.
Any effort to make sense of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump cannot ignore evangelicals’ fear of the Barack Obama administration. Obama was an exotic figure to many white conservative evangelicals. He grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country. He was the son of a white woman and an African man. He had a strange name; that his middle name was “Hussein” did not help.Obama had a Christian conversion story, but it was not the kind of conversion story from which many white conservative evangelicals would find inspiration. His embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation in Chicago under the guidance of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins of slavery and racism.
Obama’s social policies alienated conservative evangelicals. Though “pro-life” could be used to describe his views on
- health care,
- the death penalty,
- the fight against poverty, and
- civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities,
Obama was “pro-choice” on abortion and, for most evangelicals, that was all that really mattered.
And then there was gay marriage. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he supported same-sex unions, but defended marriage as a union between a man and woman. During his first two years in office, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.
But in February 2011, he changed his position on the Act and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it in court. In a May 2012 interview with ABC News, Obama announced that he had gone through an “evolution” on the issue. He was now willing to affirm that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared the Defense of Marriage of Act unconstitutional and the Obama administration began extending federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples. By 2015, when the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States government would recognize same-sex marriages, the practice was legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. On the evening after the Obergefell decision, Obama showed his appreciation by illuminating the White House in rainbow colors.
The LGBT community saw the Obergefell decision as the culmination of a long struggle for civil rights. Conservative evangelicals cringed. For them it all happened too fast. In the hours after the decision they turned to their blogs, websites, and media outlets and wrote apocalyptic opinion pieces on how to cope in a post-Christian society.
This history of evangelical fear would come to an end, at least for the moment, with a chapter on Hillary Clinton. After a recent lecture on Trump and his evangelical supporters, a woman approached me at the lectern and identified herself as an evangelical who voted for Trump. “I am part of the 81 percent,” she said, “but what choice did I have?” I have heard something similar many times from evangelicals who voted for Trump.
Evangelicals are not supposed to hate. But many hate Hillary Clinton. The history of that antipathy is long, reaching back at least to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But it was solidified among white evangelical baby boomers when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced in 1998. Conservatives who challenged Bill Clinton’s character were outraged when Hillary attacked her husband’s accusers and went on The Today Show and claimed that the impeachment charges against her husband were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”Hillary Clinton did not help herself among evangelicals in the 2016 election campaign. She lied about using a private email server in her role as secretary of state. She placed Trump supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She made no effort to court evangelical votes, a strategy that the progressive evangelical writer and Clinton supporter Ronald Sider called “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid.”
On the policy front, Clinton was, for most white evangelicals, an extension of the Obama presidency—a candidate who would steamroll their long-cherished conservative values.
Faced with a choice between Clinton and a race-baiting, xenophobic, lying adulterer who promised to support conservative Supreme Court justices, white conservative evangelicals chose the latter. In 2016, American evangelicals were looking for a strongman to protect them from the progressive forces wreaking havoc on their Christian nation. Donald Trump was the strongman.
Most evangelicals did not believe more traditional candidates of the Christian right such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson could protect them as well as the bombastic big-talking New York real-estate tycoon. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and early Trump supporter put it, “I couldn’t care less about a leader’s temperament or his tone of his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”
Ironically, some evangelicals have found a savior. They sought after Trump, he answered them, and he delivered them from all their fears.
But other evangelical options are available. Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.
The Trump era presents a host of new challenges for evangelicals who believe in the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. The first step in addressing these challenges must come through a reckoning with our past. Evangelicals have taken many wrong turns over the decades even though better, more Christian, options could be found by simply opening up the Bible and reading it. We must stop our nostalgic gaze into a Christian golden age in America that probably never existed to begin with and turn toward the future with renewed hope. It is time, as the great theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann taught us, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”
It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.
Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.
Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public square. Rod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.
Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularism” is actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.
Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”
This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it
- rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
- Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.
In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion.
Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.
More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.
Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.
Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.
But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”
For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.
Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”
The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.
The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”
For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”
Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.
To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.
A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.
First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.
Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as
- unrestrained capitalist greed; as
- authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
- callous environmental degradation; as a
- superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
- petty “sanctimonious nationalism.”
In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:
We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.
But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
And here’s another:
In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.
By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”
If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.
But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today.
Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?
This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.
We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.
But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.
This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”