The bombings in Belgium, just days before Easter, were a potent reminder of something we, in the postmodern West, now have a hard time expressing. President Obama, on a visit to Argentina, said in response to the attacks: “Our values are right.” And that we must tell the terrorists, “you are not going to change our values of liberty and openness and the respect of all people.”
Politics is not philosophy and presidents are not philosophers. There was nothing wrong – and a fair amount right – with that, as far as it goes. But there is also no little tension, as we know only too well, among “values” like liberty, openness, and respect. (We can’t, for example, seem to decide whether restricting marriage to a man and a woman is mere common sense or the rankest prejudice, or whether abortion is killing the innocent or female liberation.) Values only make sense – only have identifiable “value” – when we have a settled view of the world and the people in it.
Liberty ungrounded in reality, as our Founding Fathers knew, becomes license; openness can become vacuousness, and an inability to distinguish right from wrong; and respect can shade into a kind of indifference that doesn’t really take others’ views, especially their religious views, seriously. We all, after all, believe the same thing, don’t we?
Still worse, today, we no longer have an idea of why we value liberty, openness, and respect. We just do. It’s no coincidence that Belgium and France and the Scandinavian countries that most embraced these “values,” are now troubled.
And an American president who watches a baseball game after a terror attack or does the tango while an ally is in mourning might fairly be regarded as failing in respect, and really not all that invested in large, abstract values. That’s how an otherwise intelligent man can seem to think that showing terrorists that they aren’t going to “change our values” also means that attacks should not change our plans. Or policies.
In his Commentaries on the Gallic War , Julius Caesar famously wrote that “all Gaul (France) is divided into three parts,” and that the Belgians were the strongest (fortissimi) and bravest “because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war.”
That was long ago, and not only the Belgians but many Europeans have for some time believed that their “values” – and futures – lay instead precisely in increasing wealth and turning away from martial virtues. As a reaction to two catastrophic world wars, that’s understandable. As a residual Christian inclination to eschew violence as much as possible, it’s only natural. But as a basic stance, given the challenges that not only ISIS, but the world and human nature perpetually present, it’s suicide.
Anyone acquainted with history knows that it’s happened before. Once robust Roman and Christian North Africa, the birthplace of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, Sts. Cyprian and Augustine, Felicity and Perpetua, lacking a strong secular state after the fall of the Western Empire, disappeared under Muslim assault. Except for their moral and intellectual achievements, in today’s North Africa those great figures might as well never have existed.
Something similar is occurring all over the Middle East. It would be foolish to think it cannot also happen, in the longer run, in Europe or the Americas, especially given the West’s demographic collapse.
Obama often says that ISIS isn’t an “existential” threat. By that, he may mean that terrorists and their armies are, for now, too small to conquer or destroy us. But there are many ways to be destroyed – and one of them is by undermining those very “values” the president thinks are “right.” Sometimes the undermining comes, unintentionally, from the very people who think they are defending them.
Other nations may explain their values as they will. We Americas know – or used to – whence they come: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men have been endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, though well aware that the United States only carries on part of the natural law tradition, argued, nevertheless, that the Declaration made certain claims. There are truths; we can know them; and we, we Americans, hold them. They don’t just exist in some abstract realm. They make a difference – perhaps all the difference.
Such rights and truths did not exist in the pre-Christian ancient world. And they mostly do not exist, as they were once understood, in the post-Christian modern world, which has a hard time accounting for where “rights” come from and agreeing on what “values” might be, other than preferences.
They certainly don’t come from the rationalists. Christopher Dawson once pointed out that a seminal Enlightenment figure like Voltaire only cared for reaching “rich polite educated people.” The central Enlightenment current thought itself the flower of civilization. For Voltaire, Plato was a madman, Thomas Aquinas’s work “like taking a course at Bedlam,” Shakespeare was “a low savage.”
Only “the Brights” of his day, Voltaire thought, were worth addressing: “We have never claimed to enlighten shoemakers and servant girls, they are the portion of the apostles.” To the enlightened elite, ordinary people are always “bitter clingers” to guns and religion.
Yesterday at Easter Mass, Pope Francis encouraged the use of the “weapons of love” against terrorism. That, too, is one of our values. But we’ll need other, more tangible weapons as well, if our values are going to survive.
The terrorists have done us a favor, in a way, by reminding us of an urgent task: relearning that without a foundation in something that transcends mere values and even ourselves, our values are just a habit we happen to have retained from the latter days of the Christian West. Without a deeper foundation and more serious commmitment, our values – and we – won’t last very long at all.