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The Towering London

A brief but telling account of the soup of moral and intellectual confusion into which a significantly telling number of us Americans have currently gotten ourselves.

By From the April 2009 issue

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America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion
By Herbert London
(Encounter Books, 100 pages, $20)

G. K. Chesterton once observed that people who cease to believe in God will not then believe in nothing but will rather believe in anything. Who can offer better confirmation of what might have been Chesterton’s most brilliant aperçu than those of us living in the United States of America in the 21st century? For consider some of the many beliefs about man and his nature that have come with resounding passion to be adopted against all experience by otherwise intelligent and educated people among us. To mention only a few of the more "serious" articles of current faith that have replaced both hard-earned understanding of human experience and knowledge of the way the world has been fashioned to work: the belief that increasing government control of the economy will result in both more virtuous and more widespread forms of wealth; the belief that the various policies subsumed under the rubric of "affirmative action" will increase selfconfidence and hence a greater sense of equality among people formerly held in contempt; the belief that the ability to have an abortion is the truest sign of a woman’s freedom to control the circumstances of her life; the belief that little children can thrive equally with two fathers or with none; or the recently widely spreading belief that little boys who can’t sit still with hands folded are in need of daily, and what may very well turn out to be lifelong, psycho- medication. There are many more of these, of course. And about that ever multiplying collection of less serious articles of faith—call them fads—that bob to the surface of the culture, as it seems, every month, there is only this to say: these "beliefs" are seldom permanent, yet the need to subscribe to them seems to be growing ever more so.

Recently, as we know, certain highly educated thinkers in our midst—the name Christopher Hitchens comes prominently to mind—have made so bold as to eliminate the social-policy middleman and have taken on the issue of the nonexistence of God directly by writing books enumerating the various crimes and misdemeanors that have for so long and with such dire persistence been committed against their fellows by those speaking in His name. Hitchens and company are what were once known as "village atheists," and their arguments have often succeeded in stirring among their audiences a considerable frisson of daring enlightenment. But such philosophers seem to recur in every time and clime and serve primarily as a kind of naughty entertainment. It remains that the far more consequential forms of substitute piety are those that have found their way into the current list of the country's public truths. And it is primarily these that Herbert London has undertaken to spell out for us in America's Secular Challenge, a brief but telling account of the soup of moral and intellectual confusion into which a significantly telling number of us Americans, otherwise to be accounted the luckiest people on earth, have currently gotten ourselves.

Herbert London’s catalogue of Chestertonian “anythings,” while brief, is impressively comprehensive. There is to begin with a seemingly everspreading conviction that unlike scientific truths, limited as every honest scientist recognizes they must necessarily be, the free-floating individual’s moral convictions are to be arrived at by no more humbling or instructive means than looking into his own conscience. Small wonder, then, as London points out, that this process so often results in an understanding not of what is good but rather of what is most convenient for him. And writ large, such a mindset (if one may for convenience be allowed to call it that) results with almost perfect directness in the idea that ultimately it is something called "the government" that must rightly be one’s brother's keeper of first, last, and ultimate resort. Now, apart from a long and sometimes very costly process of learning that government cannot satisfactorily serve as mankind's (or, for that matter, one's own) keeper, London reminds us that the very idea can be transformed from a mere refusal of responsibility into truly positive ugliness. He cites for an example the early 20th-century enthusiasm for that so-called science known as eugenics, which set out to improve mankind by manipulating the genetic stock of the world’s inferior peoples, especially but not exclusively people of color. Eugenics fortunately went the way of faith in séances (except of course in Auschwitz). Nevertheless the idea that to make men healthy, wealthy, and wise is first and foremost the responsibility of government has if anything become more firmly entrenched. By now, indeed, the philosophical as well as psychological refusal of individual moral responsibility has become no less than the founding credo of the new national religion referred to in London’s subtitle.

NOW, IT MIGHT JUST BE that this condition is actually less severe in the United States than in other Western countries—the process of research needed to ascertain whether this is so being something almost too depressing even to contemplate—but, as London reminds us, our very particular history as a willed-into-being nation, an invention, with a founding Declaration and a Constitution spelling out what the government is required to do and, perhaps even more important, required not to do, has provided us with a set of governing principles intended to leave us as a nation of individuals both politically free and morally responsible. It is the latter, as London so graphically illustrates, that the secularism which has been overtaking us as a nation is making fair to destroy. "Take away the precept of an ethical structure whose genesis and moral authority is external to man," writes London in what is perhaps the book's key sentence, "and he is left with a pernicious relativism of his own making or with a cold, all-encompassing scientism unable to give sufficient answers to man's ontological questions." Thus, he continues, "…in our time 'self-actualization' and 'reaching one’s potential'—which elsewhere in history would have seemed clichés nearly devoid of meaning—have come to represent a significant, if not the most significant, goal of human existence."

Examples of what this goal has come to mean in various areas of our national life—economic, educational (if one can actually use such a word nowadays), and cultural—provide most of the material of the book. (The reader is constantly tempted to wish the book had been longer, for the author has been an educator, a figure in New York State politics, and is currently the head of a think tank, and he has thus undoubtedly experienced many vividly concrete examples of what he writes about, as it were, on his own pulses.)

Chesterton, of course, did not specifically mention that there might be contradictions among the "anything" substitutes, but, as London illustrates, they do abound, from the ridiculous to the sublime. There is, for instance, the contradiction, which to judge from the current state of our politics seems to have taken hold among the rich more than among the poor, between the ambition to grow ever richer and the avowed belief in a fairer income distribution (to be accomplished, of course, without undue effect on the country’s economy by the federal government). Then there is this writer’s own favorite among London's examples—seemingly less important but in a cultural sense important indeed. And that is the way the well-to-do, who by means of a very expensive and time- and energy-consuming process euphemistically called "cultural and pedagogic enrichment" ensure their children’s acceptance into one or another of the country's elite universities while at the same time believing themselves to be ardent supporters of a process euphemistically called "diversity"—again, of course, to be undertaken by means of government policy. Nor need it be said that the diversity so sought has not in the smallest degree been extended to that desired university's, or just about any American university's, teachings. And to cite just one more example among many, perhaps in its way the most penetrating of all, there is the way that for what will soon be half a century the ideas of courage and honor have been associated with the refusal of the most privileged of the country's young to defend it, either in warfare or even merely in rhetoric. Since the onset of the war in Iraq, to be sure, many kind things have come to be said about those killed or wounded in battle, but rather more in tongue-clucking sympathy than in gratitude, let alone honor.

And now with this book Herbert London too has waded into battle. Though truth to tell, warring against the cultural enemy has long, probably forever, been his occupation of choice. And he, as Shakespeare once put it, has done the state some service.

Great, great service, actually. Nevertheless, one finds it hard to imagine that the ideas whose perniciousness he has devoted his political and intellectual life to battling will soon, if ever, be given the burial they deserve and we need. But as Irving Howe once remarked about waiting for the Messiah, it is steady work. And in the meantime, the author of America’s Secular Challenge has cleared a heap of refuse from the ground on which others, and may our tribe increase, can take our stand.  

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About the Author

Midge Decter's books include Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait; Liberal Parents, Radical Children; and An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War.