Holier than Them

My friend, the inestimable Robert George, likes to ask his college students how many of them, if they lived in the South before the Civil War, would have opposed slavery. They all raise their hands. “Bless their hearts,” says he, and then he advises them what their opposition would have cost them: ridicule from the most visible political and intellectual leaders of their society; slander of their motives; incomprehension at best from their families; loss of employment; loneliness; and scant gratitude from the people they aimed to help.

Nor is it clear how they could form a moral position running athwart so much of what they must have taken for granted from the time they were born. That too would require something akin to self-surgery without anesthesia: to tear some feature of your errant culture out of your flesh, down to the roots with all their spikes and barbs. Nor will you take up that scalpel on your own initiative alone. You have to embrace an authority over against what everybody knows, what everybody says, what everybody does; and this authority must do more than recommend. It must command, even in the face of suffering, doubt, and failure.

Ah, the daydreams of self-congratulating man! What other people would be, no one can tell, but if we lived in Nazi Germany we would all be an Oskar Schindler or Corrie ten Boom; we’d never have caught the nationalist and socialist disease; we’d have seen through the lies, even when presented in such bland and moderate and scientific and patriotically reasonable terms as you could find in the best newspapers – not the Nazi papers, no, but the tag-alongs, those that a decent man could write for while patronizing his Jewish haberdasher.

Nor would we have danced to the Bolshoi balalaikas. We’d have seen all those churches confiscated and turned into museums or barns, or razed to the ground, and we’d never have nodded along with twelve years of school teachers slandering the old faith and congratulating us for living in the most progressive land the world had ever seen.

We’d have done what is rarer than to accept reproach: we’d have rejected praise. We would have checked out maps of Siberia from the library, rejoicing in our hearts that we would soon join the genuine patriots there; looking forward to the gulag, mildewed bread, a mattock for chopping at frozen mud, gloves without fingers, and a two-inch square scrap of paper every day for wiping your posteriors.

The Women of Ravensbrück by Helen Ernst, 1946 [Corrie ten Boom was a prisoner there]
The Women of Ravensbrück by Helen Ernst, 1946 [Corrie ten Boom was a prisoner there]

That’s what we’d have done, and we’d have come to our determination all on our own – self-judging, self-commanding, self-obeying.

We don’t get to choose the public evil of the society into which we are born. Some of us, if we remain true to Christ, will be called by that public evil to endure the martyrdom of blood. So did the innocent and fiercely loyal Carmelite nuns in Paris, as they ascended to the guillotine during that great secular heaving-up of madness, cruelty, vainglory, blasphemy, and lust.

Others will be called to make a far less terrible sacrifice. What is the public evil of our time? What single “good” will cost you the most, through public ridicule or persecution, if you reject it and act accordingly?

That is easy to answer: the Sexual Revolution. “But the Sexual Revolution is nowhere near as cruel and wicked as Nazism was. It’s absurd to draw an equivalence between them,” I hear the urbane objection coming. But I don’t say that the two are the same.

It is actually difficult to claim that, take it all in all, Nazism was responsible for more bloodshed, and for more contemptible reasons, than the Sexual Revolution has been. But I’ll shrug and concede for the sake of argument that it is worse to be a clerk in a Nazi train station than to be a clerk in a Planned Parenthood clinic.

My opponent then must also concede that the risk of not cooperating with the Nazis was far greater than that of not cooperating with the abortion regime, so that those who do cooperate with the Sexual Revolution cannot plead for mercy on that score.

In any case, the point is that we are not called to oppose, notionally, comfortably, the characteristic evils of other ages, basking in the glow of a righteousness that costs nothing. We are called to suffer in opposing the characteristic evils of our age. And we will not begin even to conceive of how such a thing is possible, if we do not obey an authority that transcends mankind.

A Catholic pastor in Providence, Rhode Island, recently fired his music director, because the man had “married” another man, as was known to the people in the congregation. Had the priest not fired him, I can tell you what every teenage boy in the pews would have concluded: that the Church doesn’t really believe what she says, and that when it comes to sex, you may do as you please, so long as it isn’t cruel in those more flagrant ways that offend the sensibilities of the “right” people. Such would be the snare in that boy’s path.

But several people in the congregation decided to interrupt the Nicene Creed at the next Sunday Mass, singing “All Are Welcome,” knowing they would be showered with praise by the people who matter, namely reporters for the local television stations and newspapers, and leaders of opinion in the best “progressive” and “inclusive” societies.

They float along the river. They choose their judgment, which is only the judgment they have derived from years of imbecilic schooling, mass entertainment, mass media, and chatting with one another in material comfort, against the judgment of the Church and the express words of the Scriptures. They cut the Scripture to fit their sexual cloth.

That, and not the Church, is to bring them victory and salvation: Sieg, Heil.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.