Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Created Equal

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Okay.  I sat around looking at the comments on yesterdays post this morning, and I was struck, again, by that thing I’m obsessed with–we have as much a need for intellectual history as we do for the history of events.

Let me start with one thing:  there’s a lot about the Texas curriculum standards what is indeed ignorant and bigotted, but there is a lot that is not.  I see nothing ignorant and bigotted about teaching that free enterprise is a good thing and generally has worked better than the alternatives–it’s true.  And we’ve had forty years of skewing American history towards the critical, we could do with a little more tilt on the side of  acknowledging what we’ve done right.  And the issue of international organizations and national sovereignty  IS an issue, a big one.  Why not discuss it as an issue instead of cheerleading for the UN?

But let me go to the two other things–Mary F says that she’s sure that lots of people besides Christians had thought of helping the poor and equality.

And to that I say:

As to feeding the poor:  yes, with qualifications, and the qualifications are important.

As to equality:  no.  Equality as we understand the term, without regard for race or creed or sex, enters the culture with St. Paul.  As far as I know, it has never existed anywhere else, and no culture has ever developed it independently of being influenced by the Christian West.

But everything is complicated, so let me get into some details.

Charity is indeed an old idea, and almost every culture has developed some form of it.  It is certianly very important in Judaism, and it would help to remember that Christianity is, in the end, an aberrant form of Judaism.  It started as as Jewish sect. Its original members were all Jews. 

That said, Christianity’s form of charity was distinct, and especially distinct in the Roman empire.  Pagan civilization saw charity as the obligation of a free man, part of his honor.  He was exhorted to give to increase the honor attached to his name.  He was not urged to give indiscriminately, though.

Pagan civilization definitely made distinctions between the worthy and unworthy poor, and insisted that it was important that the man who gave alms distinguish between them.  What’s more, pagan charity often came with strings attached.  You could have food and shelter if you cleaned up your act.  You could have food and shelter if you agreed to run around praising your benefactor.  Something.

The great peculiarity of charity in the early Christian Church was precisely that it was anonymous (as to individuals) and open to all comers, no strings attached and no questions asked. 

Virtually every ancient author who came into any direct contact with early Christianity at all makes a point of this fact:  that the Christians gave freely to all comers, that they did not put condiitions on their generosity and that they did not look for individual praise for doing it.

It’s an interesting point,  I think, that so much of Christian charity today, especially those organizaed by Christian religious organizations (rather than practiced by individuals) does indeed put all sorts of conditions on its recipients.  It’s also interesting to note that a lot of those conditions result from fear of getting a bad reputation among non-Christians–if you just give these people food and shelter with no quesitons asked, you’re enabling their addictions!

It’s one of the reasons for the explosive growth of Christianity in its early years that it did give so freely and without conditions.  It made the behavior of Christians so distinct, and so counter-intuitive to everything in pagan society, it became a “proof” of the validity of the claims of the Savior in and of itself.

There’s a use for intellectual history for you:  getting young Christian men and women to ask whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Christian charities now behave exactly like the secular kind, with the name of Jesus thrown in just to spice things up a little, like pepper on Alfredo sauce.

There’s an image.

Now to equality, because this is a really important point.

I think part of the problem is that we’re so used to the idea of equality, and so used to thinking of it as a good thing, that it feels “natural” to us.  Of course all people, everywhere, must have felt the same way, must have seen that it is only right and just that all people should be equal before the law (and sometimes in lots of other ways).

In the real world, however, no civilization before this one has every conceived that kind of equality, and none has ever advocated it.  In the Greek and Roman “society of free men,” it was only men who were to be equal, and not all men.  Aristotle said that some men were born with the souls of slaves. 

And it wasn’t just political  rights that were at stake here.  All ancient civlizations considered some people (aristocrats, the king’s family) as having more worth morally than others, and all men as having more worth morally than women.   The world, the pagans would have said, has a natural hierarchy.  Some human beings are, by definition, less human than others.

The first indication that this was not how we should think of human beings–the first anywhere in history, ever–arrived in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  You are all one in Christ Jeus.  You are all sons of God.

The “sons” is important, and in spite of what twentieth century feminism would say, it’s not sexist.  In ancient societies, and especially in Rome, daughters did not inherit.  Only sons were heirs to anything, never mind heirs to a kingdom. 

In Christianity, for the very first time, anywhere, all human beings by virtue of being human beings and for no other reason were equal in the sight of a God who had recognized them each and every one as sons who would inherit His kingdom.

To say that this principle did not work out to its logical conclusions right away–and probably hasn’t even now–is to state the obvious.

But here’s the thing about intellectual history.  Ideas, like events, have consequences–but where the consequences of events are often immediate (or close to it), the conseqences of ideas can take centuries to work themselves out. 

And those meanings can also be hotly contested, and the meaning of “equality” is.  But that’s another discussion for another time, and we’ll get to it.

Paul’s declaration of equality had some immediate and secondary consequences, in spite of the fact that the man himself couldn’t seem to wrap his mind about what he’d just said. 

And since, contrary to what many of us think today, “equality” in any universalized sense is a deeply unpopular idea, the history of the Christian Church after around, say, 200, is a history of deepening political and social inequalities–of the Church becoming what the world around it already was.

But the idea of “equality” never entirely went away, and it threw up, over time, a number of heretical sects that did indeed treat men and women as well or (more often) treated all people as equal to priests and denied the necessity of the Church, as an institution, to salvation.

And then came the kicker–October 31, 1517, and the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Because the first and most important thing Protestantism did was to declare that any man or woman could interpret the scrptures on his or her own account, by the use of his faith and his reason.  It was good to have learned men to help in this process, but those men were not better or worse than anybody else in the congregation, and the fact that they were called “pastor” didn’t mean that their interpretation of scripture was better than yours.

This idea took a little time to work itself out, too, but it did–and it”s not an accident that every single one of the successful movements towards Republican government (that is, government as a Republic, not the modern political party) over the next three centuries was Protestant in origin.

The  French Revolution failed for a lot of reasons, but one of them is almost certainly that its leaders were Catholics before they ever became anything else.  They thought of the world in terms of the necessity of an elited and separated priesthood.

Okay, THAT would be a good subject for a post some day.

At any rate, the idea of “equality” as we know it (in fact, BOTH of the ideas of “equality” as we know them) came from St. Paul, and the idea of representative government as we know it came not only out of Protestantism but largely out of Puritanism.  This was, after all, a religious movement that expected congregations to “call” their pastors by…electing them to the office.

And then firing them if they didn’t suit.

Representative democracy as we understand it–political equality as we understand it–exists only in those states that were either founded on Protetantism, or deeply committed to Protestantism, or overwhelmingly influenced by Protestantism. 

These ideas have never existed anywhere else under any other conditions, and have never been spontaneously thrown up by any other culture that we know of. 

And, even today, they remain deeply unpopular ideas. 

If I was the Texas Board of Education, I wouldn’t bother with a textbook that pointed all this out–although it’s true, and since it’s true there’s no reason not to point it out that I can see.

I’d just give the students a copy of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and have them read it.  There’s no question that this was a seminal book for the Founding generation, and it does a very good job of outlining both the Christian roots of the idea of political equality and representative government, and the limitations of any particular set of Christian ideas for those same things.

But then, I come from a tradition where “go to the original sources” is the great rallying cry, so there’s that.

I really need to go get some work done. 

So let me leave everybody with just one very incendiary idea, but an idea which is a fact, whether we like it or not.

Do you know what ELSE exists only in societies that were founded on Protestantism, or deeply committed to Protestantism,  or overwhelmingly influenced by Protestantism?


Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2010 at 7:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Created Equal'

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  1. It is extremely unfair to make a statement like that and then not say what the something else is! It’s driving me crazy.

    I’d guess either the modern welfare state (grown out of the work of a lot of 19th century reformers, who were – in Protestant countries, anyway – Protestant, or Protestant-influenced) or possibly the Protestant Work Ethic – the whole constellation of ideas involving the importance of work, the need for everyone to have some type of productive occupation, the value of even humble or low-status work if done well and honestly (but I don’t think that’s particularly Protestant) etc.

    Or maybe the idea that prisons should be places of rehabilitation rather than punishment, or merely places to hold people until they could be tried and hanged or whipped or subject to some other punishment.

    Of course, the Catholics did a lot of this stuff too, although they tended to do it through their own organizations rather than persuade the governments to take over, especially in Protestant countries where they often had no civil rights. I don’t know much about the history of Catholic countries, or for that matter, areas in which the eastern churches predominated.


    22 Jun 10 at 9:48 am

  2. Um, Cheryl? I doid answer it. The answer is the last word in the post.



    22 Jun 10 at 1:13 pm

  3. Obviously, I read too quickly and miss things!

    I wouldn’t have thought of science at all. The early developments in science were under the Catholic church (Hart also discusses the Galileo business in ‘Atheist delusions.) On the other hand, the counter-reformation, or whatever you call it sometimes had a very deadening effect – just look at Quebec culture before the
    Quiet Revolution!

    Why (aside from in places like Quebec) would Protestantism be associated with scientific development? It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t quite see where you can go with it. A good book on the origins of the industrial revolution should talk about it.


    22 Jun 10 at 2:21 pm

  4. Catholicism depends on “received wisdom” and a hierarchical system of authority. This tends to make people look to those above them for approval, knowledge and direction. It doesn’t tend to encourage experimentation or invention, as bureaucracies everywhere are more interested in maintaining the status quo than in innovation or progress. After all, look what happened to Galileo. Do not piss off the Pope. Do not refer to the ultimate Original Source, the natural universe. The priests will tell you what to think.

    The Protestant concept of individual self-determination would have been much more attractive, and much more nurturing, of the inner-directed types of people who do go off the reservation and just try things out to see what happens when….

    That’s what I figure it means, anyhow. The Reformation was like a tremendous charge of dynamite thrown into society. It’s not hard to imagine that the blast also stirred up all the invention and ingenuity of the people it touched.


    22 Jun 10 at 3:42 pm

  5. I think you’ve got the idea, Lymaree, although I’m not sure I agree entirely. Galileo, in spite of his iconic status in the history – or mythology – of science is a poor example of a heroic forerunner of science. He got into trouble mainly because both he and the Pope of the time were arrogant contrary old bastards. There were other scientific thinkers as original as Galileo – or more so – at the time and earlier, and they were all Catholics, all educated in Catholic schools and most (pre-Reformation) didn’t end up on the outs with the Pope. We remember the one who did.

    The Catholic church was more rigid and hierarchical in the later years than in the first few centuries. (Well, thinking about, say, 300-400, I suppose internecine battles don’t count as evidence of a single rigid hierarchy, at least!) I do like the comparison of the Reformation to dynamite – but dynamite destroys as well as stirs things up. I sometimes wonder if the people who think there’s a new Reformation going on now have ever read any history – if they have, I’d hardly think they’d welcome the idea so much!

    And, of course, as I hadn’t realized until recently, the Reformation is also the time when those new powers, the nation-states, begin to flex their muscles and use the upheavals to increase their own power and break any rival power – such as, for example, that of the church.


    22 Jun 10 at 5:44 pm

  6. I am in nearly complete agreement with the post, but I’d like to put in a kind word for the Jacobins. I’m not sure it’s protestantism they lacked. I am sure it’s time.

    Ignore the English-speaking world, which developed representative democracy over three or four centuries. Go through modern history and note the year at which a nation first had an elected assembly, however toothless, then the date from which they have had a stable democracy–conquered, perhaps, but never again overthrown by internal forces. For France, that would be the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 and the founding of the Third Republic in 1870. For Germany, that would be the Reichstag of 1871 and the Federal Republic of 1948. Italy from 1859-60 to 1945, Japan from the Meiji restoration to McArthur. Spain from the Cortes following the Spanish-American War to the death of Franco. All the new nations of 1919 emerge as democracies in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.

    Protestant or Catholic, Orthodox or Buddhist, the minimum time seems to be 70-80 years. Latin America lagged, but I have some hopes for the “post-colonial” states of the Middle East and Africa in the next few decades.

    Why? I don’t know for sure. My guess is that it literally takes a lifetime to grow politicians and an electorate who understand and abide by the rules of the game. But while I dislike many of the French politicians of the First Republic, I have no evidence to support the notion that Huguenots would have done better.


    22 Jun 10 at 6:07 pm

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