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?