September 28, 1999
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 plays 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
fathers 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 dont 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
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
dont 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
isnt multicultural; its anti-cultural. It
refuses to take Americas real origins seriously, adopting the
Supreme Courts 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
Roosevelts turning Poland over to Uncle Joe
Stalins tender mercies. It took the leadership of a Polish Pope,
John Paul II, to win back Polands 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.
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