Michael Burleigh: What Christianity gave the West

Historians in the News

This Fourth of July comes during a year in which fretting about the impact on the life of the Republic of "theocons" and "theocrats" (a.k.a., "serious Christian believers") has become a blood sport - with more bloodletting likely in the months ahead. That makes it a good moment to reflect, with British historian Michael Burleigh, on what Christianity gave the West, of which the United States is one important expression.

Professor Burleigh proposes that Christianity gave the West cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism, for it recognized "neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free" as relevant social categories - and thus blazed a path beyond tribalism and toward the end of slavery, that ubiquitous human institution. Modern feminism notwithstanding, Christianity also gave the world ... feminism, for St. Paul completed his instruction on Christian egalitarianism by reminding the Galatians that, in Christ Jesus, neither "male nor female" had a superior dignity - which, in that context and in much of the world today, means that Christianity is the great liberator of women.

Christianity, as Pope Benedict reminded us recently, gave the West the idea of charity as a personal and social obligation; think of the world of cruelty graphically captured in the film "Gladiator" and you'll see the point. Christianity also gave the world a politically viable concept of peace, the peace that St. Augustine first defined in the fifth century as the "tranquility of order."

Christianity taught that rulers were responsible, not to themselves alone (as so many rulers liked to think, then and now), but to transcendent moral norms. Would the concepts of the rule of law, and of rulers responsible to the law, have evolved in the West if, as Professor Burleigh reminds us, "the redoubtable Ambrose, archbishop of Milan ... [had not] tamed the Emperor Theodosius?" Or, to cite the more familiar example, if Gregory VII had not confronted Henry II and forced him to recognize the freedom of the Church - a freedom that implies limits on state power? It seems unlikely, not least because these ideas didn't gain currency in the rest of the world until they were brought to the rest of the world by Christians....

Burleigh, the Oxford don, argues that Christianity's contributions to the civilization of the West have been ignored or caricatured as "divisive, fraudulent, or oppressive" by "people with little or no historical knowledge" of the subject. (Dan Brown, call your office.) Worse, this caricature of a vibrant public Christianity as inherently dangerous for democracy is a caricature in service to the idea that secularism is the only possible "neutral" ground on which a democratic political community can conduct its life. But when, Burleigh asks, did those arguing this case "last visit the Vendee, Auschwitz, or Vorkuta to see secular rationality in all its glory"? ...

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John Edward Philips - 7/18/2006

Maybe you should find out what the Churchmen did with all that wealth Charlemagne gave them, and how the Dark Ages in western Europe actually ended.

Besides, why can't a Christian be a Deist?

C Good - 7/18/2006

I suppose that anybody can select and twist facts to fit the argument they want to make, which Burleigh seems to have done. Christianity gave the west egalitarianism and feminism?! Anglicans and Catholics today are still against have women as religious leaders and the bible has for years been used to say women suffer in childbirth as a punishment for Eve's original sin. The idea that Christianity was the origin of the idea of charity in the west is also ridiculous; Judaism, which came several thousand years earlier, has long taught the idea of tzedakah, or charity, as a religious obligation (see http://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm).

In fact, most of the modern, western traits Burleigh credits as originating in Christianity are ancient Greek and Roman ideas that came from texts that Jews and Muslims saved during the Christian dark ages. I have nothing against Christianity, but I think the Deism of our founding fathers served us just fine in America.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/14/2006

The Germans were Christian and The Russians were and are Christian as well. What was missing was the Humanism necessary with tolerance & compassion. Even the Bolshivicks merely removed religion instead of coopting it. You can't force a religionist to be an a-theist.The NAZIs weren't secularists either. I want a defenition of "secularist" vs "a-theist" for a comparison.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/12/2006

Too bad none of that stuff was original with Christianity and it took a few millenia for Christians to realize it was there. Lots of great Roman and Greek culture represented there, though.