Some Solzhenitsyn for Saturday

[I]n early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . . All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (Harvard Address 1978)

Much has changed in the 40 years since Solzhenitsyn delivered those words, including the number of Christians open to the idea that the American Founding had much of anything to do with God. There is a small but vocal minority of Catholics (and a few Orthodox and Protestants) who oppose all liberal-democratic institutions on the grounds that they are essentially godless and, further, that their triumph has meant the decline of Christian belief in the West. Most still claim to be Christian, but very few live it out in any discernable manner. God, at most, provides some soft spiritual comfort, but that type of belief really has very little to do with Christianity and much more to do with trite existential security. As for the moral poverty of which Solzhenitsyn speaks, I believe we can all agree that none of the technological achievements of this century, which has given us iWatches and unfettered access to “revenge porn,” has done anything other than bankrupt the entire culture. A few decades ago it was still possible to believe that the most rank and unnatural absurdities would never be front and center in society; now they are enshrined in law. Some still say it didn’t have to be this way. Others, contra Solzhenitsyn, hold that this was inevitable. God’s glory and truth weren’t radiant at the Founding; they were eclipsed by it.