The church of San Salvador in the abandoned village of La Mussara, Spain on October 28, 2021. Fabian A. Pons/Europa Press via Getty Images.
The Nones have arrived. When asked their religious affiliation, Americans who answer “none” have been on the march for two decades. Now their ascendancy is a fact, confirmed by a Gallup poll showing that, for the first time since 1937 (when Gallup began to ask the question), fewer than half of all Americans—47 percent—belong to a church, synagogue, or other house of worship. As the share of both Catholics and Protestants in the population shrinks, the share of self-identified “nones” grows apace. The most precipitous change has occurred in the two decades between the turn of the present century—when the then-fairly constant figure still stood at approximately 70 percent—and today.
Not that Americans are alone; to the contrary, Gallup’s findings only reinforce the worldwide survey data summarized by the late political scientist Ronald Inglehart in “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion” (Foreign Affairs, September-October 2020). Between 2007 and 2019, 43 of the 49 countries studied by Inglehart had become steadily less religious. The United States, long an outlier as one of the world’s more religious countries, is now conspicuously among the vast majority.
In accounting for this historically sudden American decline, Inglehart cites some reasons given by his survey’s respondents. These range from, among lapsed Catholics, ongoing Church abuse scandals to, among evangelicals, the uncritical support given by some of their leaders to Donald Trump. A less frequently mentioned but, according to Inglehart, a more potent contributing factor lies in other data showing that multitudes of Americans, and especially younger Americans, have ceased to uphold the moral values concerning gender and sexuality sanctioned by religion. Thus, between 1981 and 2019, on a “values” scale of 1 to 10, the U.S. moved upward from a reading of 3.49, reflecting mainly conservative and religious views on issues like divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, to a reading of 5.86, passing the midway tipping point of 5.50 and entering the realm of predominantly liberal moral values.
And here another phenomenon enters the picture. In America, the former, religiously sanctioned values had long underpinned high fertility rates, even as, in secularized Europe, fertility rates were plummeting. But now the latest statistics suggest that American population growth has itself fallen almost to zero. Contributing to the falloff is the practice of delaying motherhood; since 2007, the birthrate among American women in their 20s, the peak childbearing years, has fallen by an average of 28 percent, and by even higher percentages in prosperous areas with high employment.
The connection between religious decline and demographic decline is difficult to demonstrate, but hard to deny. As the political economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has put it, America’s tumbling fertility rate, now “veering well below the replacement level,” is “entirely consonant” with the downward turn in religious affiliation. Religious people, Jews and Christians alike, not to mention those of non-biblical faiths, have tended to have large families; it is no accident that God’s commandment “Go forth and multiply” is the first to be mentioned in Genesis. By contrast, empty churches mean empty cradles; empty shuls mean empty schools. Here, too, the U.S. has undergone in just a few years a process that took place over generations in most of Europe.
Of course, the decline and fall of religious affiliation in America does not mean that religious and spiritual longings have themselves gone dead. Rushing into the vacuum left by the general collapse has been a vast new arena of experimentation. Some of these new expressions of faith may possibly acquire the social forms to endure. Many others, however, look like nothing so much as the plethora of existing faith-fads, from yoga to kabbalah to witchcraft, of which Tara Isabella Burton writes in her 2020 book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. These ersatz religions attract people seeking not a communal but an individual experience, and bent less on uplift and moral improvement than on personal fulfillment through one or another form of self-worship.
And that is to say nothing of the way in which, for many, political activism has filled the void once occupied by religious devotion. For some in today’s West, partisan alignments and antipathies have come to serve as a greater marker of one’s identity than religion.
What does all of this mean for America—for a people pioneered by religiously inspired pilgrims, a republic founded to protect religious freedom, and a society sustained by its faith-based “little platoons”? There is nothing theocratic about the United States, but its secular character has itself been historically predicated on the Judeo-Christian virtues of the men and women who designed and built the nation, and its civilizational architecture is that of a great temple, capacious and welcoming to all denominations.
This is the America that so entranced 19th-century visitors from Europe like Alexander von Humboldt, Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, James Bryce, and Robert Louis Stevenson. To them it was plain that the New World could teach the Old a few lessons in what Benedictine monks called ora et labora, the command to pray and work. Indeed, Max Weber’s famous thesis of the Protestant work ethic as the engine of capitalism was very much inspired by the example of the United States, which in Weber’s lifetime (1864-1920) was already overtaking the great powers of Europe in the marketplace.
So what will remain as “the Sea of Faith” retreats and Americans, too, hear what the English poet Matthew Arnold, in the mid-19th century, was already calling religion’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”? How will young people whose lives have been hermetically sealed off from the culture of religious observance learn to recognize holiness when they encounter it? And how can a society that has voluntarily renounced even the mildest acquaintance with the Bible muster any inner resources when confronted with unbelief?
I live in such a deprived society. So do virtually all Western Europeans. What we have left is the simulacrum of sanctity, not the genuine article; we have allowed our rich inheritance to wither into a husk. It is as though the free nations on our side of the ocean had collectively turned their backs on an ancient and venerable civilization in which the inheritance of Greece and Rome had been elevated by Abrahamic monotheism and the idea of a covenant with God. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, have we begun to appreciate just how much was displaced by the pursuit of freedoms unbounded by the moral guardrails of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For anyone steeped in the intellectual history of the West, it is impossible to address this act of existential self-harm in anything but an elegiac mode.
So I must apologize to readers who may have been hoping for something more dispassionate. But, to this British Catholic, the anemic term “secularization” is simply inadequate to express the magnitude of the break with the past. What follows, therefore, is a lament in the form of a historical and personal meditation—but ending, I promise, in words of consolation and (guarded) hope.
My fondest wish is that this exercise, which proceeds in an episodic manner, with each numbered section centered on a few representative actors and thinkers, will prove helpful to Americans. Where Tocqueville once came from the Old World to the New in order to describe for his fellow aristocrats how the democratic future would look, I now send this postcard from the melancholy European present in hopes of deterring my American friends from venturing any farther down the same path.
I. The Great Disenchantment
In the winter of 1918, humanity emerged bloodied and blinking from the devastation of World War I. Catastrophic for the global economy, the war also proved, especially in Europe, fatal to the continent’s spiritual economy. In Munich, then in the throes of postwar revolution, the aforementioned Max Weber, eminent political sociologist and pioneer in the then-new field of the sociology of religion, delivered a public lecture warning of the “disenchantment of the world.” Titled “Science as a Vocation,” the lecture adduced the “increasing intellectualization or rationalization” of modern thought, exemplified by the quasi-scientific certitude that, “were one to wish it, one could know anything at any time” and that, “above all, there are no mysterious, incalculable forces in play” in the universe. Of this intellectual movement, then beginning to infect the social sciences, the disenchantment of the world was at once the product and the price.
In hindsight, Weber’s gloomy conclusions might strike one as obvious. At the time, his insights were uniquely prescient. The project of disenchantment would soon embrace not just the social scientists but the humanists and even the theologians—that is, those whose own, sacred vocation was to safeguard “the deposit of faith” from being contaminated by infidelity or, worse, reduced to a lifeless artifact suited only to forensic examination.
The new, disenchanted scholarship of religion quickly colonized the universities and, from there, the seminaries. Two generations later, in interviews for the New Yorker (later published in book form as The New Theologian, 1966), Ved Mehta would offer up for inspection “the profoundly religious thinkers in the vanguard of today’s ‘religionless Christianity.’” By then, the practitioners of liberal theology were increasingly detached from their role as Doctors of Divinity. Instead, they saw themselves as latter-day incarnations of Plato’s “guardians and watchdogs of the herd,” summoned, in their case, to disillusion those still under the spell of traditional religion.
One such “new theologian” was the late Hans Küng, a Swiss Catholic priest who in the 1960s made his reputation at the Second Vatican Council and rose to become one of the few household names among theologians of the late 20th century. Küng’s long-running dispute with the Church began over the doctrine of papal infallibility, but he came to defy Catholic orthodoxy on many other issues as well, from celibacy and female ordination to contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. His defiance led in 1979 to the loss of his license to teach as a Catholic professor (though his university at Tübingen immediately created a new chair for him). In later years he became increasingly inclined to syncretism, or the amalgamation of different world religions: his Global Ethic Foundation focused on the “golden rule” and other doctrines common to most major faiths and philosophical traditions.
Seeking to redefine Christianity for modernity, Küng succeeded only in undermining everything that distinguished it from mainstream secular opinion. The paradox was that by setting himself in diametrical opposition to the Church, and thus abandoning his sacerdotal duty to be a “sign of contradiction” to the world, he instead became profoundly conventional. When I interviewed him for a newspaper some twenty years ago, he made clear his resentment of the fact that “Wojtyla” (he never gave John Paul II his pontifical name) and “Ratzinger” (then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and later Pope Benedict XVI) had risen in the ecclesiastical hierarchy while he, by his lights a far more distinguished theologian than either of them, had not. His response was to question not only the hierarchy but also the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church.
Christians are bidden to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but Küng seemed unsure what, if anything, was supposed to stay reserved for God. Our interview proved unsuitable for my newspaper, and I can no longer find the tape or transcript, but l recall that he repeatedly questioned my right to interrogate his arguments against Church doctrine, reasserting his own right to describe his heterodox positions as more Catholic than the pope’s. “Who are you?” he asked me with a curl of the lip. “Some kind of conservative Catholic?”
II. Religious Belief and Political Orthodoxy
Alexis de Tocqueville could have been thinking of Küng’s “religionless Christianity” in a passage in Democracy in America (1835) discussing the influence of religion on democratic institutions, and vice-versa. Religion, Tocqueville writes, as long as it remains on a universal level, “may defy the efforts of time” to erode the hold of faith on people’s hearts and minds. But, he cautioned, “when religion clings [instead] to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of the earth.”
The strict separation of church and state, which was a novelty to a European like Tocqueville, still protects religion in America from the danger of too closely identifying with one or another political faction. But the eroding “efforts of time” cannot be denied, and neither can the polarizing results. Granted, today’s situation is not without its ironies: thus, Barack Obama’s dismissal of small-town Midwestern Americans as rednecks “cling[ing] to guns or religion” has been seized by traditionalists of every stripe and worn proudly as a badge of resistance. To that extent, it might seem that the bid by liberals to monopolize the domain of moral values has not only failed but backfired.
But only to that extent. In the present cultural situation, to defend traditional orthodoxies in either Christianity or Judaism is to defy the orthodoxy of the regnant progressives, to the point even of risking exclusion. Hence another grim irony: the “new” atheists on either side of the Atlantic are today not the authentic radicals. That role is played instead by the faithful and the observant, who must suffer the penalties once reserved for heretics. Religious adherence has become a touchstone for expulsion from the intellectual mainstream and a cue for (at best) condescension from the arbiters of taste.
Things were not always thus. In The Unbroken Thread, Sohrab Ahmari’s recent paean to tradition, a chapter is devoted to a remarkably prescient dispute between two genuinely eminent Victorians: John Henry Newman and William Ewart Gladstone. As a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism (and now, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, a figure revered as a saint), Newman in his lifetime incurred far more disapprobation than Gladstone, a four-term prime minister of the United Kingdom and a pillar of liberal reform and respectability—if also one who lately has himself fallen afoul of the cancel culture on account of his familial connections with slavery.
Ahmari’s focus is on the debate between the two men triggered by Pope Pius IX’s proclamation of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870). Gladstone, a high-church Anglican, deployed the full weight of his own prestige to argue that Roman Catholics could not simultaneously owe obedience to the pope and allegiance to their own countries. In claiming otherwise, he averred, they were betraying their own hard-won civic rights, since the Church was opposed to “liberty of the press, of conscience, and of worship.”
Newman, by contrast, first the greatest Anglican churchman of the 19th century and then its greatest Catholic churchman, held that people needed the wisdom of tradition to guide them. True, as creatures made in the image of God, we instinctively know the difference between right and wrong; conscience, for Newman, was the universal moral law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” But the role of the pope, the voice not of individual conscience but of authority, was to interpret the wisdom of the ages, embodied as it had become in ecclesiastical tradition and in doctrine hallowed by time. Was such authority a threat to liberty? On the contrary, Newman asserted: it was the divinely instituted guardian of the rights of the oppressed—for example, the factory workers whose exploitation was denounced by successive popes in what would come to be known as Catholic social teaching.
Newman thus saw authority and tradition as safeguards against the extremes of Gladstonian liberalism: that “false liberty of thought” which in our own time, as Ahmari writes, has led to children and teenagers being exposed to a riot of evils on social media. Nor was Newman claiming that conscience should always yield to authority, not even the authority of the Catholic Church—but only that we should listen to the wisdom of Scripture and tradition rather than pretending we can make up morality as we go along.
As is commonly the case in battles of ideas, there was no clear victor in this debate. But by accusing Catholics of “dual loyalty,” Gladstone, whose brand of liberalism is still celebrated in contradistinction to the corrupted liberalism of our own day, was himself giving succor to some of the most illiberal forces in Europe. A case in point was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (the original “culture war”), which mobilized Protestants against the Catholic minority in the then newly unified German Empire.
III. Europe, America, and the New Culture Warriors
But the issue of papal infallibility faded, and Catholics, in Britain at any rate, held their own. By contrast, the ascendancy of today’s secular morality, with its doctrine of self-cultivation and hyper-individualism, has left no space for a distinctively religious place in the hierarchy of moral arbitration. The position held by the eternal verities has instead been usurped by the claims of temporal exigencies; the God of Abraham and Isaac has been banished not only from the physical but also from the moral universe.
What strikes me about the Gladstone-Newman disputation is that such an encounter simply could not happen today. It is not merely the fact that the trajectories of a modern prime minister and a Catholic cardinal would never intersect, or the yawning intellectual gap between these two immortals and our all-too-human contemporaries. The fact is, rather, that what might best be called political theology, still dominant or at least salient in the public square in the fairly recent past, has almost been entirely eclipsed. The privatization of religion has gone hand in hand with its public marginalization.
To repeat: the separation of church and state has been, on the whole, a blessing for both parties. But what this has come to mean, in Europe at least, is that there is no legitimate common ground on which the res publica can be debated, sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of the biblical commandments and the insights of prophetic wisdom. The delegitimization of those whose vocation is to study and teach scriptural exegesis or moral theology has led to an impoverishment of our public life.
Almost imperceptibly, a miasma of moral and cultural relativism has come to pervade the atmosphere of our institutions. We no longer thrill to the invigorating trumpet blasts with which a Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Pope John Paul II could blow away festering injustice or suffocating despotism. Instead, we must endure the secular messiahs, the eco-warriors and racial revolutionaries who preach a splenetic gospel of hate and guilt. They, too, have a dream, but it is nightmarish: the sleep of reason that brings forth monsters.
The new culture warriors use the language neither of reason nor of faith. They appeal, instead, to the lexicon of exclusion, dehumanization, and demonization with which Jews in particular have been familiar for millennia. It is no accident that anti-Semitism so often merges seamlessly with the apocalyptic, conspiratorial mentality of those in search of a new political theology. Today’s rigidly amoral values are altogether untethered from the moral law embodied to a greater or lesser extent in all the world religions, but most purely and sublimely in the Hebrew Bible.
In Europe, as I intimated early on, where the experiment of banishing God to the periphery of society has been tried for a century or more, the results are already in. The collateral damage, from the collapse of the family to the decay of community, has been incalculable. Absent the moral foundations nurtured by regular worship, those “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke called the infrastructure of voluntary associations, have declined. The vacuum left by the desuetude of churches and synagogues, of local clubs and charities, has been filled in part by radical movements of activists but above all by the dead hand of government agencies. In European social democracy, the bureaucratic state flourishes while civil society, deprived of its spiritual and moral taproot, has withered away.
America, thankfully, has only recently fallen prey to this sinister negation of Abrahamic faith, and religious congregations still remain the most common form of association—or at least they still did in 2010, when Robert Putnam and David Campbell published American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam and Campbell also found religious people to be likelier than their secular counterparts to show altruism, social trust, civic engagement, and neighborliness—and to be, in addition, happier.
Tocqueville was right that democracy in America owed in large part to the decentralized, pluralistic, grassroots nature of religion in the New World. What made the difference was less piety than, in Putnam’s words, “religion’s network of morally freighted personal connections.” In Europe and to a worryingly increasing extent in present-day America, such networks of connections are less likely to arise, especially in urban areas; religious people are just too marginal, and there is no critical mass of observant families to make joining a congregation the best way for newcomers to feel that they belong. Does that experience of social acceptance, of belonging in a place and a community—an experience that regularly eludes my fellow Europeans but was long taken for granted by Americans at every level—still survive?
IV. The Price of Godlessness
Human beings are hard-wired to be religious. The American sociologist Robert Bellah is only one of the eminent thinkers who have studied the prehistory of religious observance. His Religion in Human Evolution (2011) traces the emergence of such observance from tribal, to archaic, and finally to historical societies, at first embodied in ritual, music, and myth and then in narrative, symbolism, and theory. His conclusion is supported across a wide range of disciplines. The most ancient human artefacts often had a sacred function, just as art and architecture, poetry and play, have often achieved their supreme meaning in a sacred context.
The concept of the “numinous,” indicating pure holiness, minus any moral or rational elements, was elaborated by the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto, who borrowed it from the 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin. In his seminal book The Idea of the Holy (1917), Otto shows how that quality of numinosity, the sudden irruption of the divine presence, is indispensable to spiritual well-being, enabling us to transcend the mundanity of our lives. In the Catholic Mass, for instance, the Eucharist, the simple act of offering bread and wine as a sacrifice, is transfigured into a sublime mystery that unites Catholics everywhere. The numinous is, above all, ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible—the supreme textual achievement of the age during which most of the surviving world religions were founded. The Bible, writes Bellah, is “a metanarrative that no culture that has received it has ever been able to escape.”
Until now, that is. In my own country, the coronavirus pandemic brought with it the enforced closure for months on end of British churches and synagogues, mosques and temples. That state-mandated interruption, the longest in England since a papal interdict some 800 years ago, suggested to some that humanity can function perfectly well without the observance—the rituals and readings, the ceremonies and benedictions—of collective worship. (With the recent arrival of the Omicron variant, many legally reopened churches, often with seriously reduced numbers of regular worshippers, have voluntarily re-instituted precautions like social distancing while also continuing to livestream services to those who have taken to staying home, and who may or may not be tuning in.)
So, all things considered, are we in Europe now utterly past the point of departure from that great Judeo-Christian metanarrative that has conferred meaning on our lives for millennia? Are we now finally confronting what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his 2007 magnum opus calls A Secular Age? And is the United States, as some signs suggest, about to follow Europe into the abyss of unbelief?
Taylor offers a powerful analysis of what differentiates Americans and Europeans in the realm of religious observance. He explains the time lag between the two sides of the Atlantic by the exceptional resilience of the American trinity of flag, faith, and family, summed up in the phrase “one nation under God.” In Britain, by contrast, the trauma of World War I was much more profound, precipitating not only a challenge to patriotism but also a religious crisis. The gravitational pull of “civil religion,” reflecting a collective spiritual and moral “coding,” has thus faded much more rapidly in the UK than in the U.S., a nation founded on religious freedom. In addition, whereas Europe has had a horror of religious novelty, or “cults,” Americans have always been relaxed about their constantly evolving forms of belief. The ethics of authenticity, manifested in quasi-religious protest movements of left and right, has merged more easily into the rich tapestry of American spirituality than Europe’s more traditional, state-sanctioned religious forms.
But, over time, to cite once again Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites, this same pursuit of authenticity has resulted in a dilution of the very concept of what a religion is. Another striking example is Religion without God (2013): a posthumous primer, by the late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, for liberal agnostics bereft of belief but in dread of death and in search of everlasting life. For Dworkin, a life well lived is a work of art; it, in itself, confers a kind of immortality. And this, he writes, “is a religious conviction if anything is. It is available to you whichever of the two camps of religion, godly or godless, you choose to join” (emphasis added).
Dworkin thus posits a religion without laws, without prayer, without ritual, and without God. It entirely lacks that numinous quality which differentiates the encounter with the holy from any sensual or aesthetic experience. It also lacks the quotidian quality of faith that expresses itself in daily service to God, in giving thanks and saying sorry, in the calendar of festivals, and above all in the Sabbath. Dworkin’s is an etiolated simulacrum of a religion, a preaching without practice.
A perhaps even more momentous consequence of succumbing to the lure of a religion without God is that it is also, necessarily, religion without the Bible. That overarching metanarrative—the ur-text of Western civilization—has been essential for the preservation of our fundamental moral framework. The core teachings of the Hebraic matrix were incorporated into the daughter faith of Christianity and thence, in modern secularized form, established as the universal values of humanity. But the many peoples who have at least nominally adopted these values are in constant danger of drifting away from the biblical mother ship—and, in the process, also turning against its modern incarnation in, specifically, the state of Israel.
Indeed, both aggressively secular ideologies and progressive forms of Christianity-lite are often viscerally hostile not only to any manifestation of biblical orthodoxy but also to the Jewish people and their state. By contrast, staunchly evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics tend to be philo-Semitic and pro-Zionist, seeing Jews as “elder brothers” and allies in the defense of the West. Without God, without Scripture, history is drained of chronological and eschatological significance. Without Jerusalem, Athens and Rome lose their own privileged place in the story we have told about our civilization.
V. The God Benefit
In Europe, shrinking populations are old news. The relative effects of falling birthrates have for decades been masked by those of aging populations; but now the former are impossible to ignore.
And the pandemic has heightened the tensions between the generations as never before. During the first lockdown in London last year, a notice appeared on the padlocked doors of our parish church: “Closed by order of the Government.” Shuttered places of prayer—in the case of the established Church of England, closed even to their own clergy—revealed that something had gone badly awry in our urban society. For the closing-down of collective worship elicited scarcely a murmur of protest. It seemed to symbolize an even deeper closure: not merely of minds, but of souls. As I’ve already suggested, many wavering worshippers will never come back.
One eminent Catholic priest told me that he estimates an average permanent loss of 20 percent of congregations. Yet his experience of the pandemic also reminds us why faith still has an essential functioning in our social as well as our spiritual economy. His own central London parish in Soho has always been a magnet for the homeless and the hopeless. From a room in the belfry of his Italianate campanile, he runs a 24-hour suicide helpline manned by volunteers and maintained throughout the pandemic.
During the first lockdown, the “down-and-outs,” as George Orwell called them, were deserted by government services and even most charities. For those too wretched to help themselves, social distancing turned out to mean social abandonment. And so the church stepped in, as it has always done. With the help of mainly young volunteers, the priest found himself feeding up to 400 homeless a day. If they ever were rich, Catholic churches in this country are rich no longer. (Actually, the same is true almost everywhere in Europe except Germany, where there is a “church tax,” and true even in the United States where the clergy-abuse scandals have drained the coffers.) Yet somehow, as in the Gospel parable, the loaves and fishes kept coming and the thousands were fed.
A miracle? Indeed; but we should all have become aware the recent years’ interruptions in global food supplies that if we did not give thanks for our daily bread before, we have eminent reason to do so now. Only when we wander in a desert of our own making, it seems, are we reminded that although God is necessarily hidden from our sight, our own sense of entitlement is what has blinded us to the inexhaustible abundance of His blessings and the contingency of His grace.
VI. One Man’s Example
Lest these reflections seem too inclined to descend permanently into a minor key, I would like to strike a more intimately personal, retrospective, and even hopeful note. Charles Taylor and other scholars may be correct in locating the years between the two world wars as the time when religious observance went into irreversible decline in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. But that was not the lived experience of everyone, and certainly not of British Catholics, Jews, and other minorities.
My father, the journalist and historian Paul Johnson, was born during that period, in 1928. He will be known to many readers of Mosaic for, not least, his monumental A History of the Jews (1987). Less familiar, perhaps, is a slimmer volume: The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries (2004). Exquisitely illustrated by the author himself with pen-and-wash sketches, this memoir evokes a lost time and place then overshadowed by the squat smokestacks of the ceramics industry.
It is, however, not merely a landscape that has vanished: vanished, too, is a culture no less dominated by religion. In my father’s case, that meant the Catholic Church, then still in its triumphalist, pre-Vatican II pomp. With its anti-Semitic American demagogue Father Coughlin, its Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious Jews,” and its supersessionist theology, this era of Catholicism still has the power to make Jewish readers shudder. The fact that much has changed since those days is, I hope, evident—thanks in part to the example set by philo-Semitic Catholic intellectuals like my father.
Yet even for those without the least curiosity about the pre-World War II Church Militant, there is something to be learned from the immersive experience of my father’s remembrance of things past. For, whatever the denomination, what gave the religious life of the mid-20th century its extraordinary strength was the rock-solid confidence of its priests, pastors, and rabbis that they and their flocks were doing the Lord’s work. “God knows what He is about,” wrote John Henry Newman, who in his long-drawn-out conversion to Rome never doubted that his own purposes were encompassed within and subordinate to God’s, and whose vast corpus of work exercised a profound, if subterranean, influence on the ecclesiastical subculture in which my father grew up.
My father’s parental home in Tunstall, Staffordshire, was almost next door to the parish church. His father William, my grandfather, principal of the main school for ceramic art and himself a considerable artist, had been appointed by the priest as his artistic adviser. And so “Little Paul” (as my father was known) was constantly in and out of this great edifice—“it was a sacred playground for me,” he writes in A Vanished Landscape—and Father Ryan, its priest, was “in and out of our house constantly. I recognized him from the start as a great man, the first I had met, apart from my father.”
Father Ryan had raised the money to build this parish church, the size of a cathedral, in six years. He had never decided whether it should be built in Gothic or in Baroque style. “The truth is that he wanted both,” my father writes, “and he had both!” My grandfather William, a fastidious draftsman with a keen eye for architectural form, did not approve. My father transcribes his reaction: “There you have it, Little Paul, a Gothic tower with three-and-a-half domes. An architectural hybrid. An aesthetic mongrel. A piece of artistic nonsense. But, I’ll grant you, a remarkable one.”
“I love it,” Paul said. “That’s a good boy,” his father replied. “Always love art which is honest in spirit and energetic in execution.”
I love this exchange, which evidently made a sufficiently deep impression on my father that he could recall it seven decades later, along with many other such precocious conversations. Father Ryan’s own speech patterns, however, were altogether less elevated, and they seem to have dismayed Little Paul’s adored mother:
[Father Ryan] had been in New York. “Now, [he reported to the Johnson family], that’s a terrible place. I’d not been there five minutes when I saw a priest strolling down Fifth Avenue, bold as brass, smoking a cigar. A cigar, l tell you, in the streets. Oh, that was a frightful thing to see. If a priest smokes a cigar at one end, he’ll find the devil smoking it at the other.”
My mother, seeing my alarm, added hastily, “Father doesn’t mean it literally, Paul, but metaphorically.” That did not satisfy me, but it silenced me. I was beginning to know a bit about metaphors—they were lies grown-ups were allowed to tell.
My father also does not disguise Father Ryan’s militancy, aimed primarily at the Protestants. He would lead Sunday processions,
banners displayed, the Blessed Sacrament carried aloft and all the congregation trudging behind, singing “Faith of our Fathers.” This is a [Catholic] recusant anthem celebrating the steadfastness of papists during the [post-Reformation] penal times. It is forbidden now, in the interests of ecumenicalism, but then we sang it at the tops of our lungs, to annoy the Protestants.
The parish curate, Father Corcoran, summed up this muscular Christianity in a figure of speech my father would later often use himself: the Church was “going great guns”:
Father Ryan was evidently no saint, even though six bishops came to his funeral. He left, it seemed, £50,000, an enormous sum then, and all to his family in Ireland. My mother, paradoxically, was gratified by this news. It confirmed her low views of the Irish clergy.
When, many years later, in her nineties, she lay dying and I held her in my arms, I said: “You’ll go straight to heaven, Mother, you’ve never done wrong.”
She replied: “I’ve often criticized the clergy.” These were, I think, her last words.
What can we conclude from these fragments? My father is trying, I believe, to convey to a younger generation what it was, not merely to observe but to live the “faith of our fathers.” His parents did not bring him up to be uncritical of that faith, and certainly not to be uncritical of the clergy. Yet, man and boy, he really loved the Church—his Church—and that love shines through his occasionally mischievous observations.
Love also suffuses his History of the Jews. Only love can explain not just the books—biographies, personal reflections, and full-scale histories—he has devoted to religion, and not just the preaching but a long life of practice. It is evident in the thousands of watercolors he has painted, for they, too, celebrate the beauty of creation.
Love has its obverse in hatred, of course, and my father has always been a great hater as well. Whether hatred is always wrong is a question for moral philosophy. But he has mainly hated what he called, in the title of one of his books, the “enemies of society.” To fight evil is the duty of all God-fearing people, and my father has fought that good fight for nigh on a century, inspired by an unshakable faith in God’s justice.
In his studio there is a huge painting, too large for his home, which once hung in his office at the New Statesman while he was that magazine’s editor; he later lent it for many years to his friend, the playwright Tom Stoppard, who had a hall spacious enough to display it. The picture is a copy of a work by the 17th-century Italian painter Guido Reni showing the Archangel Michael trampling Satan: a depiction of the celestial war described in the New Testament’s book of Revelation. Another version of this famous painting is the mosaic that adorns the altar of Saint Michael in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
I’ve often been puzzled by my father’s purchase of a canvas too large to hang in his own house. It is, alas, too late to ask him: Alzheimer’s has played havoc with his memory. Now, however, I think I understand. Michael is the symbol of divine retribution, punishing the hubristic pride of the fallen archangel Lucifer—a Latin name that derives from the passage in Isaiah referring to the “son of morning” or “morning star” who has “fallen from heaven.”
This biblical back story, which inspired epics by poets from Dante to Milton, must have appealed to my father. He himself, after all, was a mighty scourge of the European intellectuals, so many of whom during his postwar youth had turned violently against Western civilization and especially its Judeo-Christian roots. Christians see Michael as a saint as well as an archangel, but in the biblical book of Daniel he is “the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people.”
For a warrior of faith and imagination like my father, what better guardian angel to invoke during the long fight for freedom that we know as the cold war—a colossal cultural conflict that has never really ended? During the years he has suffered from Alzheimer’s, I have been struck by the fact that his faith is one of the most enduring facets of his personality. Now in his ninety-third year, he still prays frequently.
VII. What Now?
And so we return to the conundrum with which we began. Is America destined to follow Europe down the path from gradual secularization to ideological secularism? Does the decline in religious observance reflect an even deeper malaise? Despite everything I have written here, my view, influenced by the example of my father, is that it is a mistake to succumb to fatalism. Militant secularism exists, but a religion that believes in itself has nothing to fear. And while the decline in religious practice may be a malaise, it is not an incurable one.
Communism tried to extirpate and supplant Christianity in the Soviet Union; it failed there and is failing in China, too. Religious observance may change, but the human need for divine protection, peace, and salvation does not. Of course it matters how and to whom we pray. But America is still building churches, Europe is now building mosques, and the United States still has numerous thriving Jewish communities. Although Europe has become a less welcoming place for Jews, it does not follow that the decay of once-powerful denominations like the Episcopal and Anglican churches will necessarily lead to the desertification of the biblical ecosystem, and hence to a harsher religious climate inimical to Jewish existence. There are also signs that the more muscular Christianity of Latin America, Africa, and Asia may yet reinvigorate the mother churches of the transatlantic nations.
Above all, we have been here before. The crises that gripped Catholicism in the Reformation and that gripped both Christianity and Judaism during the ages of Enlightenment and Revolution were at least as deep as the present one. As the Catholic writer Ross Douthat has suggested in his 2012 book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, we suffer less from a loss of faith than from counterfeit, dumbed-down reinventions of our great religious traditions. Orthodoxy has become a dirty word in liberal discourse, but it implies true or correct knowledge; orthodox religion is true because it is tried and tested. A return to modernized forms of orthodoxy is surely a more promising and hopeful way forward than heresy or apostasy.
As we have seen repeatedly, we live in an age when, in the West at least, not only has politics in various forms usurped the role of religion in defining one’s identity but the rigidities of one’s politics now frequently surpass anything on offer from the most orthodox variants of Christianity or Judaism. Whereas marriage between Catholics and Protestants was once rare but is so no longer, people now decry marriage between Democrats and Republicans; meanwhile, in this century, political hero-worship among Americans on both sides of the partisan divide has soared to apocalyptic heights.
Will this polarizing politicization of identity continue? Or has it reached its natural limit? Compared with religion, after all, politics leaves much to be desired as a definition of identity. A faith is a way of life and also a way of death; it is a tradition and a culture, a vital connection between times past and times future. Even at its best, politics in whatever mode or manifestation—electoral or ideological, practical or theoretical, sectarian or cosmopolitan, cautious or dreamy—offers none of this.
Sigmund Freud titled his dissection of religion The Future of an Illusion. But it is the hopes invested in the redemptive power of idols that have proved to be an illusion, and a painful one at that, while the future of faith is a fact. Must we doom ourselves to drift ever farther from the paths of sanity? Surely it cannot be too much to hope that the balance may one day be redressed.