Saturday, December 21, 2013

Politicans and Values

A major portion of David McCullough's In The Dark Streets Shineth are the two Christmas Eve speeches at the White House in 1941: one by Roosevelt and the other by Churchill, who had arrived in secret.  The video is here. The text of Churchill's speech is here, Roosevelt's here, if you prefer that format.

Of the many interesting observations people have made about these speeches over the years, one seems oddly missing:  no American or British politician today would draw such a tight equivalency between the cause of the English-speaking people and the meaning of Christmas.  There is little of Christ in either of their Christmases. There are the forces of good battling the forces of great evil, which celebrating Christmas seems to embody.  I don't think it is mere reticence to make doctrinal statements which might be too rich or might offend.  I think they were accurately reflecting the general values of the Christian West at the time.  That's how politicians get elected, after all, by expressing (whether truly or manipulatively) the values of the electorate.

In that era, only the fundamentalist groups would have objected to the Western Civ = Christ expression, and not all of those.  Many of the fundies would have been the strongest endorsers of the equivalence.  The communists had objected loudly to any equating of the American experiment with holiness, but when we turned to fighting fascists they piped down and signed on with the majority. In the 1950's during the Cold War they switched back, and that "separation of church and state," not just in institutions, but in the set of mental associations of the average Joe, began to spread through the culture. It wasn't only the left that agreed with them, either.  The re-emergence of evangelicals into politics in the mid 1970's made very clear distinctions between the cause of America and the cause of Christ. Part of the rhetoric may have been that America used to be a particularly good expression of Christ's work in the world and should be again, but no one was tying the two ideas as tightly together as Roosevelt and Churchill did in 1941.

Dickens's A Christmas Carol barely mentions Christ, and the English gentleman's comment in "Chariots of Fire" that "In my day it was country first and God second" had much truth in it, and would not have been an occasion for derision, as was clearly intended in the movie. (Liddell was rather the type of fundamentalist I mentioned above.)

Left or right, I think some separation is the much more common view today. We warm to parts of those speeches of 70 years ago, yet feel distant from others.  It would be easy to plead duress on their part - England was indeed hard-pressed by a very real and physical evil, and America was only a few weeks post Pearl Harbor.  To feel that all which was good in the world was under siege, in danger of vanishing beneath the waves of non-Christian enemies, and that Christ must necessarily be on their side would seem quite natural. Perhaps.  Perhaps I am asking too much theological nicety of folks who faced fears which I have not.


Relatedly, the hospital had its annual celebration of employees who have racked up many years in the place, and Governor Maggie Hassan came to personally shake the hands of those who had 40 years or more and to say a few words. I hadn't met her before.  She sat at the next table and seemed pleasant enough. The gist of her encouragement was that the important thing about America is that it has proceeded by welcoming more and more people into the wider community, and we were doing great work because we were helping the mentally ill be welcomed in.

I don't think that's an insane way of reading American history, but it interests me that absolutely no one would have said that was the point of it all during the first 200 years of the republic.  I think if people had been presented with that framing in 1976, most would understand it and some would like it. It certainly has been adopted very rapidly on the left as the central narrative of America. All our history has pointed in the direction of one group after another being brought into equal status with the powerful ones.

I seem to like taking ideas and shoving them into other eras and observing how they might fit.  It certainly has been a useful exercise in reading Christian history. 

I do wonder how much of a vote our ancestors get in what America is, or what Western Civilization is, or what the church and the family are. Do they get to have a word, or is it only us left to interpret now, free to make it up however we like?


james said...

"absolutely no one would have said that was the point of it all during the first 200 years of the republic."

"The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex which civilization and philosophy have painfully struggled up the pyramid of time from a desert of savagery." GBShaw
or their little political fad...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Shaw, of course, would have focused on the religiously-loaded words like parish or chapel, rather than one which would have struck home for himself, such as "political reform group," or "philosophical discussion."