From Never-Trump to Never-Protestant: a Review of Ben Shapiro's 'The Right Side of History&#
Ever since the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, pundits across the country have struggled to understand what has changed about America’s political landscape. A broad, consensus view is that something has gone terribly wrong—that the changes brought about by Donald Trump’s presidency represent a grave threat to progress. Some even go so far as to suggest that the very survival of the West might be in danger. One of the more hopeful members of this group, psychologist Steven Pinker, worries that young people are not grateful for the technological benefits brought about by Enlightenment science. Less hopeful pundit Jonah Goldberg thinks that the West might be committing suicide, because people no longer assume “that ideas matter and character matters.” Yes, that is a potshot at the political pragmatism and moral failings of the current president.
Ben Shapiro’s diagnosis is more nuanced than either Pinker’s or Goldberg’s. Pinker largely blames a malfunctioning news media for the fact that people have lost faith in the global ruling class which he believes is the force behind the steadily improving quality of life in the world. Goldberg blames people’s lack of faith in “a bundle of ideological commitments” (limited government, natural rights, etc.) which sustain the West’s commitment to capitalism. Ben looks deeper and finds the problem in the fact that the West has lost touch with traditions which, until recently, defined and sustained it: Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion. His solution involves more than merely learning to be grateful or adhering to a few, hard capitalist dogmas. It is only by educating citizens about the importance of Athens and Jerusalem that we can… make the West great again!
In Shapiro’s view, Greek philosophy contributed three fundamental ideas to the West.
Natural Law—the belief that morality derives from the purposes of things that are discoverable in their very nature.
Objective Truth—the belief that the reality of the world outside oneself is discoverable through reason.
Political Government—the greek city-state set an example of democracy, civic virtue, checks and balances, the social contract, and much more.
Jewish religion contributed four fundamental ideas to the West.
Monotheism—the belief that all of nature is one unified thing (a “universe”) because it was created by one God.
Revealed Morality—the belief that there are some moral truths which human beings cannot access through reason alone, but require divine revelation.
Linear History—the belief that human progress is possible because history is not an endless series of repetitive cycles.
Man as the Image of God—the belief that every human being, not just imperial dictators, have free moral agency.
The combination of Greek and Jewish ideas established the foundations of the West. When the Greek idea that there are objective truths discoverable by reason mixed with the Jewish idea that everything was created by one lawgiver, the foundation of modern science was laid. When the Jewish idea that every individual has free moral agency was added to Greek ideas about political governance and civic virtue, the modern understanding of democratic politics began to develop. The combination of Greek Natural Law and the Ten Commandments became the cornerstone of Western morality.
By now, we’re a third of the way through The Right Side of History. And, so far, so good.
In chapter four, Ben Shapiro begins to describe the historical period from 0 to 1776 AD. Unlike typical narratives which feature a prominent decline into Dark Ages followed by recovery during Reformation or Renaissance, Ben’s narrative looks more like a gradual progression toward ever greater Enlightenment. In some ways, Ben’s unusual description of this period reflects a needed corrective to anti-Catholic or anti-Christian historical bigotry—for instance, he admits that “the age of scientific progress didn’t begin with the Enlightenment” but instead began “in the monasteries of Europe.” In other ways, however, Ben’s narrative merely perpetuates typical Enlightenment-era errors.
The most disappointing aspect of Shapiro’s description of this period of history is the unnecessary distance he puts between Judaism and Christianity. For instance, Ben insists that the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ makes Jesus “no longer a Jewish figure.” He fails to acknowledge any connection between the Christian concept of incarnation and the Jewish understanding of God’s indwelling in both the temple and the tabernacle. Ben also incorrectly describes Christianity as antinomian, insisting that Christianity “dispensed with the need for [commandments]” because of its focus on faith. This is quite an odd assertion given the centrality of faith to Judaism. In the Old Testament, the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people is based on mutual faithfulness—God remaining faithful to His promises and His people remaining faithful to His commandments. The Torah was given precisely so that Israel could demonstrate its faith.
Similar problems saturate the remainder of The Right Side of History. The places where Ben believes his Judaism is deeply divided from Christianity are precisely the places he should acknowledge fundamental agreement between the two faiths.
Ben Shapiro and Protestant Evangelicalism
I suspect that Ben’s desire to distance Judaism from Christianity stems from a deep-seated disdain for Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer who infamously harbored anti-semitic views. In Ben’s account of history, the Reformation sparked by Luther was not a flowering of religious piety but instead a “rise in religious fundamentalism” which turned the Christian religion into “an obstacle to secular learning.” The reader is never informed exactly how Ben squares this viewpoint with the Protestant founding of America’s great Universities or the fact that Protestant pastors traditionally wear academic robes (as opposed to clerical ones).
Ben’s unfriendly understanding of Protestantism colors his perception of the early history of Western Christianity, as well. In one of Martin Luther’s many fits of overblown piety, he insisted that Reason (especially the philosophical reasoning of the Scholastics) was “the devil’s prostitute” sent to seduce the faithful. This outburst was not representative of Protestant faith, let alone the historical Christian faith of Church Fathers like Saint Augustine. However, by reading Luther’s anti-scholastic views back into early Western history, Shapiro insists that, because of Christianity, “reason had been made secondary to faith.”
Ironically, despite his desire to distance himself from Protestant faith, much of Ben’s perspective on politics springs from Protestant evangelicalism. His cultural analysis mirrors the counter-countercultural conservatism of his parents’ generation (the heyday of the “religious right”) which tended to see society’s increasing moral and cultural relativism as the work of the devil. The influence of the evangelical perspective is obvious in Ben’s earlier works which complain that young Americans live in a Porn Generation, that students have been Brainwashed by secular college professors, and that conservatives swim upstream against the entertainment industry’s Primetime Propaganda. But, it is also noticeable in The Right Side of History when Ben argues that the cultural Marxists of the 1960s were engaged in “pagan revelry” with slogans (e.g. “make love, not war”) which encouraged “unbridle[d] Dionysian paganism.”
It is worth illustrating how Ben attempts to connect Marxism to paganism. Monotheism, he argues, “require[s] that logic govern the universe,” while “the [polytheist] universe must be an interplay of various minds battling with one another for supremacy.” For pagans, “all logic could be deconstructed into interplay of social forces,” which is why pagan empires could absorb an infinite number of gods into their pantheon while the Jewish people believed in absolute truth (tolerating “no other gods,” per Commandment 1). Voila! Tolerance, relativism—these are the values held dear by cultural Marxists, aren’t they?
Not quite. First off, mere relativism is not paganism; it is, in fact, closer to nihilism. Confusion on this point is understandable because nihilists can very quickly become pagans. Humanity abhors nihilism the way nature abhors a vacuum. People tend to believe in something, and paganism—the worship of the self immortalized in the tribe—is the most natural belief system for human beings to fall into. This is why a Nietzschean philosophy of overmen quickly filled the gap left by the “death of God” in Europe.
Secondly, Marxists are neither nihilists nor pagans—although they will weaponize both relativism and tribalism against cultures they want to subvert. Marxists are true believers in a pseudo-Christian utopian vision for society based on principles excised from the Western tradition. Thus, Marxism is best understood as Christian heresy or false messianism. It is no accident that the intersectional culture on America’s left-leaning college campuses perversely embodies Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God, where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Shapiro is right to see both Marxism and fascism as enemies of Judeo-Christian values and religious belief, but he is wrong to think that this makes both ideologies equally pagan. Ben uses the word “pagan” the way those of us on the religious right use it: as a stand-in for the unfashionable term “infidel.” Religious conservatives sometimes call Marxists pagan when we really mean to say that Marxists are infidels who reject the truth of the Bible and reduce Christian values to expressions of bourgeois class status. We also call fascists pagan when we really mean to say that they are infidels who reject religious belief and subsume religious traditions under the direction of the state.
Despite the confused terminology, Protestant evangelicals instinctively oppose both the neo-pagan fascists on the alt-Right and the neo-messianic Marxists on the far-Left. In order to defend the West against these twin enemies, some on the religious right have elevated a quick-witted Orthodox Jew into a prominent leader of their Culture War. Is it too much to ask that, in return, Ben Shapiro refrain from describing their Protestant faith as an obstacle to Western greatness?
Ben Shapiro and Protestant Nationalism
An appreciation of Protestantism would also improve Ben’s understanding of nationalism. As it stands, Ben’s view falls somewhere between Jonah Goldberg’s distaste for “romantic nationalism” and Yoram Hazony’s praise for the kind of nationalism that respects basic human rights and other nations’ borders. However, in order to make his middle position cohere, Ben needs to resolve a dissonance between their disparate perspectives. Yoram insists that the problem with history’s worst nationalist regimes was their universalism; Goldberg insists that the problem was their tribalism. In reality—and Ben should like this—the heart of the problem was their rejection of Judaic values.
For all of Yoram Hazony’s criticism of universalism, he is actually a closeted universalist. That fact is hidden in the title of his book: The Virtue of Nationalism. Without a conception of value that is universal, how could he possibly judge nationalism to be a virtue? Yoram’s respect for “the Protestant construction of the West” is really an endorsement of the way Protestant nations followed the Biblical example in their conception of nationhood. His judgment that Westphalian nationalism is virtuous involves the universalization of his own Judaic values that are derived from the Hebrew Bible.
That said, Yoram Hazony’s perspective on nationalism provides a needed corrective to Jonah Goldberg’s orthodox understanding of the Thirty Years’ War. Pro-Enlightenment thinkers like Goldberg tend to assume that the Peace of Westphalia resulted, not from ideological development, but rather from the sheer exhaustion of both sides of an internecine religious conflict. I found it surprising that Ben Shapiro agreed with Goldberg’s view in his book, since he is typically loathe to reduce historical forces to a material substrate. I expected Ben to endorse the perspective put forward in Yoram’s book, which says that the Thirty Years’ War, far from reflecting religious divisions, actually fell along national lines and reflected Europe’s growing national consciousness. If Yoram’s view is correct—and I think it is—the conflict was not so much a “religious war” as the birth-pangs of nationalism.
What really exhausted itself during the Thirty Years’ War was not religion, but paganism. During previous centuries, a decline in the moral legitimacy of the Catholic papacy coincided with growing infidelity and religious schism. By the 17th century, paganism had filled much of the space left open by a decline in Christian belief. Renewed interest in pagan classicism during the Renaissance period was not, as pro-Enlightenment theorists often believe, a flowering of “secular learning” over and against “religious superstition.” On the contrary, this period saw a surge of pseudo-science and spikes in witch-hunts and inquisitions. The leaders of the Thirty Years’ War, although nominally Protestant and Catholic, were fighting to replace the dominant position once held by the Catholic Church with empires ruled by their own particular “chosen” ethnicities—a truly pagan ambition.
The Protestant construction of the West was not merely a side-effect of the failure of neo-pagan empires to gain the upper hand in Europe. It was also a return to the Judaic values embedded in Christianity which circumscribed the pagan ambitions of European nations. For centuries after Westphalia, when Western nations made appeals to “international law,” they did not refer to a multilateral body with enforcement powers, but to a generally-acknowledged moral minimum endorsed by Nature and Nature’s God. It was to this standard that America’s Founders appealed in order to justify their revolution against the British Crown.
Ben Shapiro considers the United States of America to be the “crown jewel” of the West, but he gives most of the credit for its founding to the Enlightenment philosophy of one particular Englishman. He never acknowledges Locke's debt to Puritanism. He never mentions that nearly every one of those who were willing to risk their lives for a new birth of freedom by signing the Declaration of Independence were Protestant. Is it too much to ask for Ben to acknowledge the role played by Protestantism in the founding of America?
Ben Shapiro and Protestant Existentialism
Cheerleaders for the Enlightenment tend to agree with Ben that a shift in the West from an Aristotelian conception of the universe to a humanist one “obliterat[ed] mankind as the jewel of the cosmos, bringing him low, returning him to the animals rather than allowing him to aspire to join the divine.” In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. Humanism turned man into the only thing of value in the cosmos, making him “the measure of all things,” and transforming the very nature of morality into concern for humanity’s material well-being. To this day, the only thing secular humanists will consider quasi-divine is the brain’s ever-mysterious spark of consciousness—leading some to even start calling themselves “sentientists.”
The advent of humanism transformed science into a project with the sole purpose of promoting human flourishing through technological advancement. As Francis Bacon put it, knowledge should be “a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort,” and not “a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only.” Ben correctly notes, in his book, that “Francis Bacon dispensed with the Aristotelian notion of final causes in science” which had provided the basis for the belief that nature has ends of its own which must be respected. Ben does not mention that this philosophic change corresponded with colonial expansion and the displacement of an old, feudal order—one which respected natural law and claimed to be legitimized by it—by a new, increasingly powerful bourgeoise.
Ben claims that the historical trajectory set in motion by the new science of Francis Bacon culminated in the atheistic philosophy of David Hume, which represented “the final step away from ethical monotheism and Greek teleology and toward outright atheism.” Yes and no. While it is true that the removal of form and purpose from science disenchanted nature, the new scientific understanding of the natural world was hardly a threat to “ethical monotheism.” In fact, it strengthened it. Deism placed God safely outside of nature, where He (and only He) could be the source of moral purpose. So long as humanity continues to conceive the natural world as it is described by humanist science, David Hume will remain precisely correct: no description of what is (what scientists will agree to be objectively true) can ever tell us what ought to be.
In the face of this cold and morally indifferent scientific cosmos—which would become increasingly brutish and cruel with the development of Darwinism—religious existentialists took a leap of faith. Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber described the scientific outlook on the world as an “I-It” relationship to the cosmos, which he contrasted with a religious “I-Thou” relationship that is open to revelation. I find it shocking that Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew seeking to bring together Greek reason and Judaic revelation—never once mentions Buber. The only religious existentialist Ben discusses is Kierkegaard, whose Christian philosophy he curtly dismisses as equivalent to “the view of Nietzsche” which “would lead not to God, in the end, but to worship of subjectivity.”
However, only pages after unjustifiably dismissing religious existentialism, Ben unwittingly recapitulates the religious existentialist view. In imitation of Kierkegaard, Ben explains his own personal exegesis of Genesis 22. The true meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Ben explains, is that all parents “are asked to put [thei]r own children in danger for the sake of a higher ideal.” “What God asks of us,” he continues, “is not only that we become defenders of valuable and eternal truths, but that we train our children to become defenders of those truths as well.” In other words, as for Ben and his house, they will remain faithful Jews even if the Nazis rise again and threaten the Jewish people with annihilation. God bless him. That requires a real, existential leap of faith.
When the Nazis did rise, that very same leap was taken by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who resisted Nazi policy in Germany by standing firm on a theology that was existentially committed to Judaic revelation. Once again, Ben Shapiro fundamentally agrees with faithful Protestants who risked their lives to preserve the very values he holds dear. Is it too much to ask for Ben to refrain from dismissing their faith as mere Nietzschean subjectivism?
The Problem of Antisemitism
Ben Shapiro says—and I agree—that one of the most important values of the West is found in Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make man in our image.” As a Protestant, I am tempted to follow Ben’s interpretation of this verse as being primarily about individual rights, but I do not think that this understanding is correct. The Judeo-Christian perspective on rights is that they come from God’s inviolable covenant with His people, whereby God binds Himself by His promises and remains faithful to His Word. As Ben says in his book,
“...the patriarch Abraham asks God to abide by His own rules for right and wrong … Abraham argues with God over right and wrong, and asks God whether collective punishment is appropriate … God answers him; God doesn’t merely ignore Abraham or silence him. Rather, He engages with him.”
In Judaism and Catholicism, God covenants with His people as a group, protecting the whole community against rulers and powers of this world. In Protestantism, God covenants directly with every individual believer. This is why, in the American conception, a personal connection with the Creator becomes the source of individual rights—especially the right to be free from coercion in religious matters. If we remove the Protestant gloss from Genesis 1:26, the verse still powerfully undermines the claims of kings and emperors. However, it does so not by making every individual a tiny sovereign, but rather by insisting on a radically egalitarian vision of humanity that pulls powerful men down to the level of the common person (a theme that saturates the whole Bible). Nietzsche reacted against this Biblical vision when he said,
“It was the Jews who, in opposition to the aristocratic equation (good = aristocratic = beautiful = happy = loved by the gods), dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, and indeed to maintain with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of weakness) this contrary equation, namely, ‘the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation.’”
Nietzsche is right—Judaism flipped the moral equation on the powerful. Rather than blessing the powerful with victory, as pagan gods would do, Jehovah sent His wrath against those who preyed upon the weak and the lowly. The blood of those unjustly killed “cries out to me from the ground,” says the Lord in Genesis 4:10. Ben Shapiro and the evangelical Christians who comprise the bulk of his audience fundamentally agree on this point, which is why we all deeply oppose abortion. We know that any justification for killing the weakest and most undesirable members of society is a step out onto the slippery slope which descends into the eugenic evils of Nazism.
Nietzsche also correctly recognizes that Christianity is a branch from the root of Judaism. Ben agrees, but worries that a nefarious kernel is buried within Christianity which occasionally springs forth in outbursts of antisemitism. He cringes at the Apostle Paul’s criticism of “Judaizers” and at Jesus’ condemnation of Pharisees and money-changers because he knows that these words were used to slander and persecute Jews many times in European history. Ben’s fear is understandable, and only slightly misplaced. The problem of antisemitism is not inside Christianity, but inside Christians. Within every Christian believer (and every Christian nation) is a man (or a people) that is naturally pagan, and must be converted anew with every passing generation. All too often in the history of the West, the trappings of Christendom existed as a thin veneer or tribal identifier covering essentially pagan peoples who had not absorbed Judeo-Christian values.
It is not hard to tell the difference between Gentiles who are Christians and those who remain unconverted pagans. For one thing, their understanding of the New Testament is entirely opposite. A pagan who reads the book of Matthew and hears about Israel’s rejection of Jesus gets angry at the Jews. If he watches a passion play, he jeers at the conspiring Jewish Sanhedrin because he imagines that he belongs to a superior stock that would be incapable of such actions. A converted Christian reading the same story or watching the same play directs his anger inward. He does not holler at Christ’s Jewish persecutors, because he realizes that he shares Israel’s tendency to fall away from God. The inner pagan scoffs at the prideful Pharisee, but the Christian recognizes, as did King David, that “I am the man who has sinned against God.” In other words, while a pagan thinks Jesus was crucified because they sinned, a Christian knows that Jesus really died because I sin.
Christians who have absorbed Judaic values seek to emulate the Jews, not replace them. Protestant Separatists who landed at Plymouth Rock deeply identified with Biblical Israel and its journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land. At the height of Europe’s greatness, Protestant nations deliberately modeled themselves after the Kingdom of Israel as described in the Old Testament. Today, Protestant evangelicals who desire to make America great again stand allied with Ben Shapiro in staunch support of the nation of Israel. I hope that, going forward, Ben will recognize that any antisemitism that comes from those who profess Christ is really a backslide into paganism caused by the sin of ethnic pride.
Modern-day pagans often voice support for Western greatness. But, they do not love the West for what it is; they love it for being Caucasoid. Modern-day secular humanists also support Western greatness. But, they do not really love the West at all; they just want to be able to continue enjoying the material comforts afforded to them by Western technology. The former are parasites who corrupt the West from within. The latter are freeloaders who cannot be relied upon to defend the West in the breach. Ben Shapiro is neither of these. Like the counter-countercultural Protestants of the “Silent Majority” generation, like the Protestant signers of the Declaration of Independence, like the Protestant existentialists who resisted German Nazism, and like the Protestant evangelicals who make up the bulk of his audience, Ben is a real defender of the West and a true believer in the values that make it great.
Sometimes, defending the West can be a messy business. Sometimes it requires associating oneself with an obnoxious figure who has deep, moral failings. This gives observers a chance to confuse our principled stance with hypocrisy or an endorsement of immorality. Unfortunately, that is a price defenders of the West often have to pay. Some people—especially those who pride themselves in their Judeo-Christian moral purity—find that price to be too high. Their timidity is understandable. It is far more comfortable to retreat into an intellectual monastery than to get one's hands dirty with the realities of the political world.
We Protestants have never had much use for monasticism. We have chosen to fight. We cannot and will not recant—for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here we stand. We can do no other. God help us.