The Past is Another Country, but Rather Like Ours

One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:

To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look around for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.

Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, ‘See how these Christians love one another’ (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now), they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have ever had since.

I know from experience that it is “not thus” with all Christians today. One of my most formative experiences was attending a high school run by fundamentalist Pentecostals, the sort who believe that virtually every word in the Bible is literally true, that the universe is about 6000 years old, that Christ will very probably return in their lifetimes, and that demons routinely accost people and even take possession of their bodies (indeed, I was deemed to have been possessed by a demon in 10th grade on the powerful evidence of chronic migraines and a taste for Metallica and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles). Needless (I hope) to say, I have not retained, and never really had, much respect for these people and similar sorts of beliefs. But one thing that impressed me and continues to provoke real, if complicated, admiration is that these people were genuinely serious Christians. A few of them were pretty awful people, and all of them were seriously misguided, but many of them really did succeed in putting into practice the “collection of ethical maxims” that Mill identifies: they were mostly poor and without ambition of worldly riches, preferring to use what wealth they acquired to help those in need; they were strict and severe in their condemnation of many people’s behavior, and were certainly intolerant in many respects, but they largely abstained from ‘judging’ people in the wholesale way that rejects them as unredeemable; their ideas about what it meant to love someone were certainly questionable, but they really did strive to love their neighbors as themselves. Much of what was bad about these folks came from taking the Bible absolutely literally, but they didn’t exempt the Sermon on the Mount. Sure, they spoke in tongues, but if anyone was ever in need, they did what they could to help. In an intellectual, doctrinal sense I do not think that these people were actually Christians as the main stream of 2000 years of that religion has usually been understood. But they’re certainly on the short list of people I’ve met who would have had the easiest time fitting in if they were suddenly transported to a Corinthian house church in the time of St. Paul.

As virtually everyone knows, however, Mill’s description of Christians in 1859 still reads as though it were written last week. We do not need to look very long to find people who self-identify as Christians but who answer perfectly to Mill’s description. This is not to say that most self-identified Christians are bad folks; in my experience, they’re good, bad, and everything in between about as often as anybody else. After all, one might think, as Mill himself did, that there is more than a little bit about Christianity as presented in the teachings of Jesus that is very far from ideal; one hardly needs to be a Nietzschean Antichrist to suggest that we all might be better off not selling all we have and giving it to the poor, not giving our coats to people who rob us of our cloaks, not being poor, not refusing to judge, and not loving our neighbors as ourselves. So perhaps it is a good thing that the vast majority of nominal Christians today fail so miserably to live up to the teachings of the man who they take to have also been God.

Nonetheless, it is striking that even in the United States today, despite considerably greater religious pluralism than what even Mill could have thought possible in England during his own lifetime, self-proclaimed Christianity continues to be consistent not only with a remarkable indifference to any possibility of putting traditional beliefs into practice, but with naked contradiction to anything that could plausibly be mistaken for an answer to the question “what would Jesus do?” Most of us fail to live up to our ideals, and Christians differ widely and for good reason over what Christians should do; combined with the widespread tendency of self-identified Christians to instead do whatever it is that people in their specific social environment conventionally do, it’s no surprise that non-Christians are no more likely now than in 1859 to find themselves saying, ‘see how these Christians love one another!’ What is striking is how easy it is to find oneself thinking, ‘see how these Christians hate other people!’ Hence we can encounter things like this:

The high (or low, rather) point is probably at 0:51, where our supposed disciple of Christ tells the beachgoers whom he presumes to be Muslim, ‘You will never, ever stop me, my Christianity, from rising above this Sharia Law!’ As words on a page that might not look so odd, but combined with all the crotch-grabbing and the string of ‘motherfucker’s, this doesn’t look much like imitatio Christi. Sure, Jesus liked to call people hypocrites and he once got really angry and threw some tables around in a marketplace. I have a hard time seeing him grabbing his crotch at people, though.

This sort of thing is, to be sure, not remotely representative of self-identified Christians in the United States. But the attitudes our pal here expresses are not nearly so rare among self-identified Christians as one would expect from, well, anything that is in the New Testament. Though mainstream Christian culture in the U.S. does not endorse this kind of belligerent harassment of people, it says something about that culture that it is possible even for an idiotic jackass to think that one of the things a good Christian man does is make lewd gestures and shout obscenities and threats to strangers on a beach because they happen to look vaguely similar to some people guilty of terrorist acts and because they stepped in to prevent him from bothering some women. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus says “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court, and anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” One can imagine that our drunk friend’s response would be that Muslims are not his brothers and sisters.

But of course even this is nothing new, but just another instance of religion being enlisted in the service of irrational hatred. Frankly, even to talk about it feels a bit cliché. Earlier in On Liberty, Mill appealed to such things as “a most striking instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense: for the odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal cases of moral feeling.” Perhaps sincere bigots and their moral intuitions will, like the poor, always be with us.

6 thoughts on “The Past is Another Country, but Rather Like Ours

  1. This is good stuff. I have two somewhat different sorts of comment, which I’ll post separately.

    Part of the issue here turns on a topic we’ve inconclusively half-batted around at PoT before: what, exactly, is a religion? More specifically, what (for any X) counts as an instance of “X is Christian” or “X is a Christian”? There are, for one thing, too many competing denominations to make the question easily manageable, but even if you sought the “least doctrinal common denominator” among them, you’d face two problems: (a) Christians disagree even about that, and (b) I’m not sure that a least common denominator is the right thing to focus on. But both Mill and Locke seem to adopt this “LCD” approach to Christianity. Mill’s account of Christianity in the passage above is very stripped down, and Locke’s in The Reasonableness of Christianity is yet more stripped down.

    At the other end, Catholicism has a Catechism, a Vatican, and a Pope specifically designed to carve out a doctrinal essence for Christianity that isn’t a(n) LCD. But whenever I read or teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church (as I do, believe it or not) I find myself startled by the ad hoc approach it adopts to Scripture. I’m hardly an expert, but I can’t, for the life of me, identify any principle behind the Catechism’s use of Scripture. If a bit of Scripture serves to make this or that doctrinal or polemical point–whether from the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament–well, they’ll cite it. But if not, they’ll ignore it.

    I wonder whether the problem, ultimately, is that Mill is holding Christianity to a standard it cannot possibly meet–or at least has never historically met, and may never meet. Here again is part of what he says:

    By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession.

    Well, verbal formulations aside, is it really clear that there is any such thing as the “Christianity…accounted such by all churches and sects”? Mill says that the doctrines of Christianity are “accepted as laws.” But there are Christians who might dispute that Christianity is a set of laws, or accepted in that form or spirit. Like so many philosophers, Mill seems to default to the idea that Christianity = Natural Law Theory. Maybe not one in a thousand Christians guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws either because (a) they aren’t laws, or (b) even if you treat the claims of the New Testament as though they were laws, you couldn’t successfully guide your conduct by them. So Mill’s comment strikes me as naive. Just as philosophers default to a natural law conception of Christianity, plain persons default to nationalist, ethnic, or class-based one. But the need for a normative gap-filler seems to be inherent in the enterprise.

    In the case of our friend on the beach, Christianity has just become a kind of tribal ethno-nationalist identity. His “nigger” comment suggests that “Christianity” has (like “American”) become a proxy variable for whiteness (or maybe, Whiteness). I wonder how far we can go on one tragic-comic anecdote, but I think it’s safe to say that he’s not alone.

    The irony here is that we’re constantly told by religious conservatives that only religion can save us. My hypothesis is that religious identification is relatively epiphenomenal. The real action is taking place elsewhere, and then shaping the content of the religious conception people adopt.

    I have one more comment, but have to run, so I’ll post it later.


    • OK, here’s the second comment. This is really a kind of digressive observation loosely related to your original post, but still obviously related. It’s always hard to know how much to make of a given eye-catching video-anecdote. The anecdote you’ve chosen uses Christianity for bigoted purposes, but in my experience, it’s not Christianity but Western Civilization that more frequently serves that purpose. And I suspect it does so because despite its indeterminacies and its checkered history, it’s a little harder to enlist Christianity in the cause of bigotry than it is to enlist “Western Civilization.” The latter term ranges over far more than Christianity, and does so in both a more rhetorically useful and vacuous fashion. Plus, “Western Civilization” simultaneously includes both the ancient Hebrews and the Roman Empire, which gives its user the resources of one plucky but belligerent nation with a direct line to God, and one semi-secular empire. As Americans, it’s often useful to see ourselves in the one vein or in the other, but rarely useful to take up the perspective of, say, the early Christians.

      Here’s an example from my Facebook (and proof that I’m willing to throw my Facebook “friends” under the bus at whim, especially when I don’t really know who they are, and they’re not real friends). The person in question is commenting on a story about Muslim high school girls in Detroit having a separate, all girls prom.

      Grant Jones
      May 12 at 8:53am ·
      Surprise! The savages aren’t assimilating. There must be something wrong with Detroit’s magic dirt.

      Detroit School to Hold ‘Muslim Girls Only’ PromIt’s a ‘safe space’ for them to let their hair down in public.

      The relevant concept of “savagery” is of course civilizational. So is the relevant conception of “assimilation.” The “savages” aren’t assimilating to our culture, whether broadly Western or specifically American. I suspect that the relevant concept is Western, not American; I doubt that thoroughly “Westernized” people would be accused of being insufficiently American. It’s non-Westernish-seeming people who are being accused of being insufficient Western. But it’s a close call, and it may be six of one and a half dozen of the other.

      Now here are the comments on Grant Jones’s post:

      Stuart Toomey
      Stuart Toomey And now it begins…………..
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 1 · May 12 at 5:10pm

      Steve Wedge
      Steve Wedge Scroom.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · May 12 at 5:53pm

      Dennis Wade
      Dennis Wade People should be able to associate with those they like. I have no problem with this except that similar events for Christians, Jews or devil worshipers would most likely not be tolerated.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · May 12 at 7:18pm

      Grant Jones
      Grant Jones Members of the Death Cult never assimilate. They’re here to conquer and rule. The same is not true for any other religion.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 3 · May 12 at 7:29pm

      Steve Wedge
      Steve Wedge Lock-N-Load.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · May 12 at 8:15pm

      Greg Davis
      Greg Davis Ugly bitches anyhow
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · May 12 at 11:21pm

      Scott DeSalvo
      Scott DeSalvo Supporters of immigration in our current context are fucking morons.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 1 · May 13 at 10:49am

      Jeffrey Meek replied · 1 Reply
      JP Miller

      JP Miller Hmmmmmm….will there be public funding involved in any way? Where or where is the ACLU or American Atheist Org??

      Meanwhile, each girl will be escorted by a male family member…fully Shari’a compliant.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · May 13 at 12:00pm

      JP Miller
      JP Miller Seriously, I’m ALL for the Freedom of Association thing. Just make it “Free” for everybody. Therein’ likes the rub.
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 2 · May 13 at 12:03pm

      Steve Butterbaugh
      Steve Butterbaugh Boo!
      LikeShow more reactions · Reply · 9 hrs

      The upshot is pretty clear. Western Civilization is so deeply threatened by its non-Western antagonist, Islam, that any Muslim, no matter how apparently innocuous, has to be seen as a threat–especially if that Muslim does anything that marks her out as failing to “assimilate” to Western norms. Indeed, it makes perfect sense to threaten to shoot a bunch of high school Muslims (Steve Wedge), not because having a separate prom is particularly threatening on its own, but because the separate prom expresses an underlying threat of separatism–a fifth column, a nation within the nation, etc. And not only are they a threat, but they are–by Western standards–a bunch of “ugly bitches” (Greg Davis). I suspect that the idea is not just that they happen, coincidentally, to be ugly, but that they’re congenitally ugly, ugliness being an expression of the ethno-national type, “Muslim.”

      The rhetoric here almost exactly parallels the rhetoric of the Nazis vis-a-vis the Jews of Europe: they were a separate nation, and they were ugly, but most of all, their culture was alien and inferior to the High Culture of the West. The relevant contrast for the Nazis was not “Jew vs. Christian” but “Jew vs. Aryan,” where “Aryan” was a stand-in for “member of Western civilization.” “Aryan” was just a rhetorical device intended to de-Judaize Western Civilization. “American” (in the nationalist sense) is now becoming a rhetorical device intended to excise Islam from “Western Civilization.” The point of the exercise, of course, is not semantic but political: it’s to excise Muslims from the body politic.

      Though I’ve been highly critical of it in various places, Edward Said’s work (mostly Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism) is quite perceptive on these points, and very much worth reading. Particularly interesting is his account of how European thinkers first contrast Islam with Christianity and then with “the West.” I’m teaching Orientalism this fall, and if I ever get off hiatus (which I’m thoroughly enjoying) I may blog about it.


    • I think some of that is right and some of it not quite right, but I’m not sure it has too much bearing on Mill’s point or my riff on it, and what does seems to complement it.

      I myself don’t know what a religion is, and I’m skeptical about the coherent unity of the concept; what people use the concept to say strikes me as varying widely depending on context, such that while ordinary uses of it often aren’t problematic, any deployment of it in theoretical contexts is likely to be so unless it’s purely stipulative. But I don’t think that issue matters for us here.

      I don’t think Mill takes himself to be identifying the essence of Christianity in any deep sense, and so I don’t think that his “least common denominator” approach is unsuited to his purposes. For one thing, in one way it isn’t a least common denominator. All the people he’s including in the category ‘Christian’ believe in God and the afterlife, too, but of course that isn’t what distinguishes them as Christians from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, deists, Platonists, or what have you; acceptance of the New Testament and its teachings as authoritative does so distinguish them, and so serves his purposes. More importantly, in Mill’s time and place acceptance of the New Testament as a divinely revealed authority was in fact a point agreed on by all the major Christian denominations; if you had asked the educated members of any of those groups whether they accepted the New Testament as a divinely revealed authority, they’d have said yes, whereas if you’d asked them even if they accepted the Nicene Creed or even the Apostle’s Creed, some of them would have said no. Further, by choosing to single out the New Testament rather than some definite set of propositions drawn from it, Mill is, I take it, allowing for disagreements about how to interpret what is said there; whether those books, taken together, teach that justification is by faith alone, say, would be disputed, but whether they contain the authoritative teachings of Jesus and the Apostles would not have been. Finally, Mill is aware of disputes about whether even some groups that accept the authority of the New Testament are genuine Christians; later in the book he discusses Mormonism, and though his emphasis there isn’t on whether they’re Christians, he’s not unaware that many of their persecutors deny it. So, in short, I think all Mill is trying to do here is to identify a non-trivial belief that is shared by all the major Christian groups of his time and that distinguishes them from those who do not even claim to be Christians. I think he succeeds in that.

      So too, Mill does describe the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament as “laws,” but I don’t think we should read too much into that. He also describes them as “ethical maxims,” which is rather weaker than “laws” taken as exceptionless commands, and as I read his argument all he need be claiming is that the sorts of things he cites are supposed to be somehow action guiding. He can readily allow that their application is often complex and nuanced, and since he had read the New Testament carefully, I find it highly doubtful that he thinks the teachings of Jesus are supposed to be treated in the narrowly legalistic way associated there with the Pharisees. Certainly I don’t think that Mill, or many other thinkers in 19th century England, would have conflated the teachings of the New Testament with Natural Law, since Natural Law was (and is) a tremendously controversial idea among Christians, with a great many (perhaps most) Protestants rejecting it outright or at least denying that it can be identified with the moral teachings of the New Testament (or the Old, for that matter); even Aquinas does not identify them, as he thinks even Aristotle had knowledge of Natural Law but no knowledge of the New Law. You’re of course right that most Christians, particularly most Protestants in 19th century England, thought about morality ultimately as a matter of law, but they were far more likely to see it grounded in divine commands rather than in Natural Law. So I don’t think Mill is making that kind of mistake. What matters for him is that the teachings of the New Testament, on some interpretation, should have some real role in determining what people who believe them do, and his point is that for a great many self-identified Christians, those teachings play no discernible role in determining what they do.

      As for the Catechism, I think its principle for the use of Scripture is exactly what you describe; appeal to it when it illustrates a point, otherwise ignore it. But the Catechism might not be intended to play quite the role you’re expecting from it. It’s supposed to be a basic summary of Christian teaching for ordinary educated believers, not a systematic theoretical treatment. Scripture really doesn’t play a more fundamental role in the formation of that teaching than reason and tradition, and it’s just as legitimate to interpret Scripture through reason and tradition as to appeal to Scripture when reasoning or assessing tradition. More biblically oriented Christians find this sort of approach intolerable, and I’d imagine to someone raised with Islam it looks similarly perverse. I’m of two minds about it; on the one hand, Catholicism remains attractive to me in large part because it does not engage in biblolatry and does not commit itself to the absurdities of sola scriptura; on the other hand, among the strongest reasons why I’m not a Catholic is that I can’t reconcile much of what those texts say with what I believe on much stronger grounds, at least not without engaging in intellectually dishonest hermeneutical adhocery. I can almost see how Augustine could do it, but, well, I’m not Augustine. In any case, this is a side issue; however perverse Catholic treatments of Scripture might be, Catholicism is definitely committed to the authority of the New Testament, portions of it are read at every Mass, and while ordinary Catholics tend to know their Bible rather less well than Protestants, they’ve heard all the things Mill refers to many, many times. So they fit the bill.

      As to whether one could successfully guide one’s conduct by the teachings of the New Testament, I’ll remain agnostic on that point, to which I think Mill is probably sympathetic; the important point for Mill is that it doesn’t even look like most Christians try to do so, except very occasionally and selectively, and usually only as a post hoc rationalization. I wouldn’t sign on to his “not one in a thousand” claim, but I do think the phenomenon is quite common.

      Your explanation of it — that religious identification is relatively epiphenomenal — seems exactly right, and exactly to Mill’s point. Many Christians are Christians only because that is the thing that is done, and what really drives their actions has little or nothing to do with Christianity as a set of doctrines or moral teachings.


    • I think you’re right that “Western civilization” more often does this kind of work than “Christianity” does these days. I’m not a big fan of the whole concept of “the West” for a few reasons, but I usually get grumpy when people claim that the very concept is inherently racist and imperialist. There’s no question, though, that it is often put to racist and imperialist uses, and it is especially well suited for those uses. I’m not inclined for that reason to object to every use of it, many of which seem entirely innocuous, but I don’t think “Western civilization” is a concept that illuminates the real character of anything. In any case, even if we succeeded in abolishing the concept, people would just invent or latch on to another one to do the same kind of work.

      I suppose one of the interesting things about the concept is that it serves racist and imperialist purposes quite well without appealing overtly to any notion of racial or religious superiority. I don’t think that everyone who believes in the inherent superiority of Western culture actually believes in racial or religious superiority, but it’s probably no accident that those who do so believe appeal so often to the notion of Western culture, which at least until recently would not have been seen as beyond the pale in the way that notions of white or even Christian superiority would.

      Really, though, what strikes me most is that Christianity can be enlisted in the service of the kind of bigotry that “Western Civilization” can be. Of course mainstream Christian teaching historically includes several things that many people these days will want to describe as bigotry; traditional Christian sexual morality is a case in point. But opposition to fornication and sodomy is quite different from the sort of attitudes that Alexander Downing was expressing, or the sorts of things you’ve pasted from Facebook (those quotations do not appeal to Christianity, but virtually the same things are said regularly by people who claim to be Christians). That expressions of vile hostility and hatred can be seen as compatible with Christianity should be striking, if not exactly surprising given how common it’s become. By contrast, consider how absurd it would seem if Alexander Downing had identified himself not as a Christian, but as a follower of Gandhi, or as a Buddhist, or as a Hippy; it’s not that it’s a surprise if people who claim to belong to these groups do things that are inconsistent with what these groups are supposed to be about, it’s that it would seem blatantly incoherent to claim to be acting in the spirit of those groups when screaming obscenities, thumping one’s chest, and grabbing one’s crotch at someone. If he had so identified himself, the only interpretations available would be that he was being intentionally ironic or that he’d really lost his mind and didn’t understand what he was saying. Neither is true in the case of Christianity; even committed Christians who can only see his behavior as a direct contradiction to what Christianity is about nonetheless have to admit that what he said was not on the same level of sheer nonsense as if he had said, “You will never, ever stop me, my Buddhism,” or “You will never, ever stop me, I’m a Hippy, motherfucker!” One simply can’t use those labels with a coherent meaning to express the thoughts and attitudes he was expressing. “Christianity,” however, works, no matter how perverse it looks.

      “Western Civilization,” on the other hand, is such a nebulous idea that it can be cited in support of just about anything.


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