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Is Bill Barr’s unusual fondness for an all-powerful president based on a religious fable?

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(Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals)

A prestigious lecture before the Federalist Society’s annual convention was not an opportunity Attorney General William Barr would miss. But even conservative attorneys in attendance might have wondered why Barr chose the occasion to launch an attack on “the grammar school civics class version of [the American] Revolution,” that it was “a rebellion against monarchical tyranny.” The Declaration of Independence’s ringing proclamation that the “History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” seems to have fled Barr’s memory. Instead, Barr alleges that “the patriots well understood that their prime antagonist was an overweening Parliament.”

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This article was originally published at Religion Dispatches

The Declaration’s unambiguous charge that King George was “unfit to be the Ruler of a free People,” likewise leaves Barr unfazed. So much for Federalist Society allegiance to originalism, I suppose. But why does Barr seem so allergic to congressional—conciliar—authority? Why is he unable to let go of fealty to The Strong Leader, no matter that The Declaration itemizes 40 separate grievances against a “Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant”? What has poisoned Barr’s mind against congresses and parliaments? Barr just keeps hammering away at the fecklessness of today’s Democrats, as well as yesterday’s Whigs and (real) Republicans—indeed, anyone who would assert the rights of a Congress against the strong Unitary Executive, against an all-powerful president.

As a Catholic myself, I thought I recognized an analogous ethos surrounding the doctrine of strong papal authority, criticized notably in Hans Küng’s Infallible? An Inquiry. Was Bill Barr’s quasi-religious fervor for The Strong Leaders who occupy the offices of a Unitary Executive actually religious? We know of Barr’s serious Catholic piety, his close association with Federalist Society’s Catholic president, Leonard Leo, as well as rumors of membership in Opus Dei. Was Barr’s promotion of the theory of the Unitary Executive just his transposition of his high papalism from the religious into the political sphere? I didn’t think much of such a wild possibility of high papalism invading secular history until I read what purported to be just an intelligent and readable history of Christianity—Tom Holland’s best-selling Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019). Far from being a ‘plain vanilla’ history of Christianity, I would argue that Holland, like Barr, offers a ‘high papal’ vision of the way things have been and should be.

In his latest book Tom Holland serves up an example of a literature affirming Europe’s ‘deep Christianity,’ though tilted very much in what I call a ‘high papal’ direction. An astonishingly brilliant and productive polymath, Holland has authored acclaimed popular histories on the end of the Roman Republic (Rubicon, 2003), the 5th Century BCE Persian-Greek wars (Persian Fire, 2005), the advent and culmination of the Papal Revolution (Millennium, 2008), and on the rise of Islam (In the Shadow of the Sword, 2012). Still just 51, Holland also claims seven novels to his name, several TV documentaries, a number of radio broadcasts, a play or two, and a translation of Herodotus’s Histories, all the while holding down a staff position with The Guardian. Taken as a whole, Holland’s entire oeuvre seems a colossal myth-making enterprise geared to reintroducing the West to its own formation.

Taken in itself, Dominion often maddeningly, sometimes entertainingly, rambles through two millennia of freely-associated historical events and personages, arguing for the persistence of a ‘deep’ Christianity lurking in the otherwise secular history of the West. The broad arc of Dominion’s 612 pages defines a disarmingly simple story. Rather than provide a “panoramic survey of the West’s evolution,” however, Holland promises “instead to trace the currents of Christian influence that have spread most widely, and then most enduringly into the present day.” Dominion attempts nothing short of exploring “how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way that we do.” “To live in a Western country is,” therefore, “to live in a society still actually saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions… [that is] moored to its Christian past.”

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But Holland aims to tell more than just a local European story. Christianity has become “universal” and “continues to structure the way much of the world organizes itself.” Holland seconds Daniel Boyarin’s claim in A Radical Jew that Christianity is “‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world.’” Such hegemony suggests Christian origins of commonplace modern Western assumptions that the “workings of conscience are the surest determinants of good law”; that “Church and state exist as distinct entities”; or that “polygamy is unacceptable”— values that frame what’s understood worldwide as “modernity.”

To these one might add Isaiah Berlin’s suggestions about the Christian bases of the optimism inherent in the project of global liberal modernity. Berlin sees Christianity’s elder brother, Judaism, standing for a sober, tragic acceptance of a world where many different, conflicting values remain unreconcilable. Berlin’s best hope for the future is to tolerate this uneasy plurality of conflicting values. Modern liberalism—Christianity’s secular heir—insists upon basking in the sunny belief that conflicting values will be overcome. A humanity, fundamentally enlightened by Christian optimism, believes it can perfect the human realm by overcoming differences. Christianity’s legacy to the world, then, is the liberal faith that insists that conflicting values can be resolved into a harmonious, if eschatological, unity.

I see no particular reason to quarrel with Holland that many generic Christian values persist unrecognized in secular form in this way. Other such Christian beliefs arguably alive in modern secular culture and thought also come to mind. The imperatives of human equality and individualism, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, moral ambiguities regarding the use of violence, misgivings about the absolute goodness of pleasure, the obligation to offer hospitality to the stranger, and to forgive contrite transgressors, and so on — all plausibly took their rise from the theological moral culture created by Christianity.

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The rub comes when Holland tries to identify the cardinal elements of the Christian culture that decisively “made Christianity so subversive and disruptive”—namely, those that “completely… came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom.” At this point, I believe that Holland converts his general appreciation for Christianity’s generic contributions to Western culture into a sectarian story.

For Holland, the most consequential, yet paradoxical, image inscribed into the Western imaginary was that of the suffering, dying crucified Christ. By contrast, an imperious, triumphant risen lord (or Christ Pantokrator) dominated the religious imaginary of the Eastern Empire. This new Western focus on the suffering, crucified Christ prompted a revolution in religious consciousness—a “new and momentous understanding.” In contrast to the world of ‘winners,’ the crucified Christ proclaimed that God sided with ‘losers.’ Christ, cast in his “loneliness and nakedness and persecution” paradoxically promised that through these sufferings the “savior had redeemed” humanity. In effect, “the new suffering Christ made Christians aware that God was closer to the weak and poor than to the mighty and rich”—a truly absurd notion to the worldly-wise at the time. Thus, around 400 CE, as “the tortured Jesus gradually became prominent,” it set the modern secular Western world on its present course.

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As enchanting as this scenario may be, we still need to be alert to its theological peculiarity. Holland’s viewpoint would cause considerable discomfort for Reformation leaders, who, for instance, had deliberately displaced the crucified Christ in favor of the ‘bare’ cross for theological reasons of their own. In Holland’s case, as an adult convert to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England, Holland’s assertion of the cardinal importance of the crucified Christ carries its own theological message. Is it too much to suggest then that a more accurate summary of Holland’s argument is that modern secular society is “actually saturated” primarily in a deep Roman Catholic, or even ‘high papal,’ Christianity? Here’s why I think this analysis of Dominion makes sense.

Consider how Holland treats—or does not treat—certain critical events in his history of Christianity. While it’s unfair to have expected the scores of vignettes in Holland’s Dominion to have been exhaustive, he gives conspicuously little or no attention, if any, to Catholic reformers such as Erasmus; conciliar thinkers, such as Nicolas of Cues, Gregory of Heimburg Socinius, Conrad of Gelnhausen, Henry of Langenstein, and Jean Charlier Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris; or to a host of others, such as Felicité de Lammenais, Richard Simon, Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred Loisy, Louis Duchesne, Hans Küng, John Courtney Murray, or John Henry Newman. Nor does Holland bring out the Christian moorings of such great movements of Christian reform as Catholic Modernism or the Higher Criticism of the Bible, much less the shameful events of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the ‘destruction of the Indies,’ Pope Alexander III’s Northern Crusades, the Teutonic Knights’ forced conversions of Europe’s last pagans in the Baltics, or Juan de Mariana’s treatise on the Christian’s obligation for tyrannicide that guided the Jesuits seeking to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.

Particularly telling is Holland’s skewed reading of the Council of Constance (1414-1418). For Holland, Constance interests him for its condemnation of Jan Hus and little else. But Constance bears an especially hefty weight in the ecclesiastical history of Christendom. For one, the Council of Constance ended the Great Western Schism by deposing two papal contenders and seating a third to the See of St Peter. Arguably, even more significantly, it affirmed the superiority of councils to the papacy. Leading political historians see this assertion of conciliar rights over papal monarchic privileges as foundational for Western constitutionalism and parliamentarianism. In the Council’s final declaration, it said:

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This holy Council of Constance… declares, first, that it is lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, that it constitutes a General Council, representing the Catholic Church, and that therefore it has its authority immediately from Christ; and that all men, of every rank and condition, including the pope himself, are bound to obey it….

In effect, the council’s decree determined the pope to be “a constitutional ruler,” as Francis Oakley writes in Kingship, and in doing so, produced nothing short of “the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world,” according to John Neville Figgis. This is no small thing. And, for someone like Holland, a likely partisan of ‘high papalism,’ the first official statement of the rights of the people or popular sovereignty over the pope would be a most inconvenient truth.

Another weakness in Holland’s claim that the emergence of “the new suffering Christ” was a “new and momentous understanding” is that so many of the cases recounted in the book’s 21 chapters have actually little or nothing to do with “the new suffering Christ.” If this new image matters as much as Holland claims, why not all the principal cases, instead of just some? Yet, even those cases in which the “crucified Christ” figures don’t always quite seem to work. Holland, for instance, cites Marx’s compassion for the “miseries” of the suffering victims of the Industrial Revolution as having “profounder depths” than his secular interpreters imagine.

But were these “depths” a result of the Christian imaginary of the crucified Christ, or perhaps of lingering Jewish ones—Marx’s survival of his father’s conversion to Lutheranism? Holland implies that Marx’s passion for cosmic renewal and social justice ought to point to the crucified lord, yet Marx himself attributes it to the “biblical prophets”! What’s become of the decisive impact of the “new and momentous understanding” of the crucified Christ?

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Holland then alludes to Darwin’s concern for social reform to alleviate the plight of the poor. Indeed, this too might well show some moral formation by way of identification with ‘losers,’ like the suffering savior. But Darwin abandons the position in short order because the logic of natural selection dictates Christian charity to be a “misplaced” sentiment.

Or consider Holland’s use of crediting Jesus with the ideal of monogamy by “conceptualizing desire” in binary homo-/hetero- fashion. Holland celebrates the way that Jesus’ teaching here permits Kraft-Ebbing to put his compassionate stamp of approval on homosexuality. How, one might ask? Well, provided that homosexuals remain monogamous, they are all right with the savior! Is this a variant of “the seamless union of Christian sin with Christian love,” or just clever dialectic?

How, as well, does the humbled, suffering Christ figure in the imperious Gregorian reforms of 12th century? As a spectacular display of Papal assertion, it hardly seems to model “the tortured Jesus,” the suffering, crucified Christ. Hildebrand’s papal revolution stands out rather for the Pope’s thundering political will to drive the church and empire in the reformed direction of his devising. At least, for the period of the Res publica Christiana—from as early as the 5th century until the 17th century—the Church was a  ‘winner’s’ church—a “compulsory, all-inclusive, and coercive society, comparable to what we call a state and, in its totality, well-nigh indistinguishable from it,” according to Oakley.

Since Holland has raised the subject, it’s worth asking in what precisely did the 5th century emergence of the image of the suffering, crucified Christ actually consist? Was it only to affirm a theologically egalitarian view of Christ as partner with “suffering humanity, not a remote figure of triumph”? Or, did “the suffering tortured Jesus” just subsume Jesus’ death to sacrificial discourse, entailing a human ethic of renunciation, submission, self-denial, and suspicion of the body and pleasure? In any event, the values of sacrifice and submission arguably have been more firmly impressed upon the modern mind by the moral casuistry of the Council of Trent than the crucifixion imagery of 5th century Rome.

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Recent events such as the fire damage done the Notre Dame and the public debate over what the secular French Republic should do about it, bring into sharp focus the issues that concern Holland’s Dominion. It is because the relation of the Christian heritage of the West to the present day continues to challenge serious minds that Holland’s book matters. But precisely for that reason, people of good will need to understand the nature of proposals made for squaring the Christian past of Europe and the West with its post-Christian present. That I think Holland’s Dominion takes the ‘high papal’ side of the argument does not, ipso facto, disqualify it. But that Dominion represents itself as unproblematic in respect of its biases, does. All players need to lay their cards out clearly on the table of this critical cultural debate. I have merely tried to show what sort of hand Holland may be holding.


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