The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, by Robert Royal
Encounter Books, 311pp, $25.95
With brevity and charm, Robert Royal guides the modern reader through two millennia of Western history, deftly slaying one false god after another. He dispatches the illusions of the 18th-century Enlightenment, 20th-century Marxism, and postmodern cynicism by invoking the enduring truths of the central Judeo-Christian tradition.
He asserts “that religion has been one of the most consistently — and profoundly — dynamic elements in human history.” And he notes that three key architects of post-World War II European unity — “Robert Schuman in France, Konrad Adenauer in Germany, and Alcide De Gasperi in Italy — were deeply inspired by Christian views of man and history.
Indeed, Adenauer went further. He called for a Christian party in Germany that “embraced all denominations” that valued the importance of Christianity in Europe, insisting that this “also applied to our Jewish fellow-citizens.”
Prominent religious figures were also active in writing what became the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, including the French Catholic intellectual, Jacques Maritain, a French Jewish lawyer, Rene Cassin, and Charles Malik, a Greek Orthodox philosopher from Lebanon.
Mr. Royal points to the failure of several modern “gods” that “offered themselves as candidates to replace the old Deity.” He mentions Arthur Koestler and other ex-Marxists who had lost their faith in “the god that failed.” At the same time some previous disciples of Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud also surrendered their earlier faith in these men who saw no need for God and regarded all religion as atavistic.
But now, Mr. Royal maintains, many secular intellectuals are prepared to question their old faith in men who sought to deliver humans from the bondage of “religious superstition.” He cites Susan Sontag’s recent abandonment of her earlier Marxist sympathies. In a 1952 speech to her liberal New York audience, she said:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or New Statesman. Which readers would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Could it be that our enemies were right?”
In his lively march through history, Mr. Royal invokes biblical thought, the wisdom of Aristotle and Saint Augustine, and modern thinkers as varied as America’s Founders, Tocqueville, Reinhold Niebuhr and Andre Malraux.
Although he is a sturdy Catholic, the author acknowledges the singular contributions of John Calvin and Martin Luther to enduring Christian thought and their relevance to the contemporary situation in Europe and America. He specifically mentions the constructive impact of the Puritans in England and the New World, along with the Methodists and Baptists, who after years of struggle rejected a state church in favor of freedom of religion.
On the persecution of infidels and “witches” by Catholics, Mr. Royal condemns the Spanish Inquisition, which “in the course of three centuries” killed “around three thousand,” fewer than the Soviet Union killed on an average day.” Indeed, millions perished by the officially atheist regimes of Stalin and Mao to say nothing of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Mr. Royal does not mention the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that erupted in Paris on Aug. 24, 1572, and spread to other French cities. Historians disagree, but in the frenzied months that followed as many as 100,000 Protestant (Huguenots as they were known), including women and children, may have been martyred by zealous Catholics, often in the streets.
In contrast to the deliberate Spanish Inquisition, the French Catholics, motivated in part by politics, held no clerical tribunals to determine guilt or innocence.
I may be sensitive on this point because a century later members of my Huguenot family in France suffered the same fate. Six children in one LeFevre family were martyred by the Catholics. Only Isaac (born in 1669), my direct forebear, escaped by fleeing to Germany and then to London. With his wife and the French LeFevre family Bible, he migrated to freedom in Pennsylvania in 1708.
Fundamentally, Mr. Royal sees history as drama, a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. God created man with sufficient freedom to choose the right and reject the wrong. Like Niebuhr, he holds that humans are endowed with original sin and original righteousness, and that “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice, makes democracy necessary.”
In short, he sees man is a religious animal, God’s highest creation. This was vehemently denied by the architects of the French Revolution, leaders of the Enlightenment and an assortment of secular utopians, culminating in the God is dead cult, and postmodern thought.
This well-documented book is a convincingly argument against the claims of secularists who want abolish God from public life and of those American and Europeans Christians and Jews too lazy to stand up for what they believe. Let the issues be joined.
We may be living, as Mr. Royal suggests, in a postmodern moment pregnant with possibilities. He quotes the ominous yet hopeful words of the former French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux: “The twenty-first century will be religious, or it will not be.”
This is a hopeful book. After all, Western civilization may not be going to hell in a hand basket.
It should be pondered by religious leaders and informed laymen, including apostles of irreligion. It can also serve as a worthy text for university classes in philosophy, religion and history.
Robert Royal’s vocation is symbolized in the title the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., of which he is the founding president.
— Ernest W. Lefever is founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of a new book, Liberating the Limerick: 230 Irresistible Classics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.