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Twilight of the Idols

False gods exert a strong appeal, but they always fail – eventually. The false gods of tribalism, nationalism and race are ancient; we’ve had them with us always, in every part of the globe. The modern mentality has generated its own gods, more deadly than the old. The most potent of these new gods are the idols of political ideology and scientistic utopianism. Minions of these gods attempt to politicize every sector of life. According to their creed, every individual belongs to the State; no one may exercise his private inclinations except when Big Brother looks the other way. The Rule is: “Whatever actions are not commanded are forbidden.” Today is made worse so that tomorrow might be perfect. People endure a dreary present, having been duped by the contrived myth of felicity tomorrow in a classless society.

There were three totalitarian states two generations ago, fascism, Naziism and communism. These were basically alike with only superficial differences. After fascism and Naziism were destroyed the Soviet state gained the ascendency and Moscow became the fountainhead of world Communism, spawning, in time, an Oriental version called Maoism. The mortal god of Moscow had missionaries who fanned out into every nation, peddling dogmas which exerted an obscene fascination over the intellectuals and discontented of all lands, and attracting types as diverse as a Fifth Avenue millionaire, a coal miner in Europe and a coolie in the East. An American journalist made a pilgrimage to Moscow shortly after the Russian Revolution and returned to tell his eager public: “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

Communism expanded its power and reach during the decades which followed. It became the most fervent, fanatic, widespread,proselytizing and persecuting religion of the twentieth century. Taken straight or in various dilutions, Marxist Materialism became the common faith of our time. Its god demanded blood: upwards of a hundred million lives have been snuffed out thus far to appease this secular deity – more than fifteen million per decade.

There have been dissenters and defectors from the beginning. The Moscow Treason trials of 1935—37 extorted preposterous confessions from old line Party stalwarts and put many to death. This thinned the ranks of Soviet sympathizers. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 decimated the ranks of the Party still further. Some of these lost souls recovered the honeymoon spirit for a time when the Soviets became our World War II allies; but their ardor cooled when Stalin grabbed the fruits of victory by enlarging the Soviet imperium at the expense of neighboring nations.

The American intellectual world was further shaken in 1948 with the appearance of The God that Failed . Six top-flight writers and thinkers told their stories in this book – why they had become Communists and why they could no longer stomach the Party.

The cracks in the Kremlin wall widened when Kruchshev delivered his “secret speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. The hideous misrule and cruelties of the Stalin era, hitherto revealed only in writings of limited circulation by non-Communist and ex-Communist scholars – the names of Souvarine, Wolfe, Nicolaevsky, Shub and Dallin come to mind – were now laid out in excruciating detail by Stalin’s successor for the world to read.

A couple of decades later the full story of the Soviet death camps was spelled out in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three volumes, The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn had been committed to one of these slave labor camps along with tens of millions of other political prisoners. He added extensive research to his personal experience as a prisoner to produce a work of great moral and literary power.

The collapse of Communism goes on before our eyes, faster than any of us could have predicted. And it is total. The Soviet system produced ballet dancers, weight lifters, arms in abundance, and propaganda by the ton. But its economy has never provided more than a bare minimum of sustenance for its citizens, even with help from the free world. A socialist economy cannot work, as Mises demonstrated in 1922 in his magnificent book, Socialism. But Marxism is not just a failed economic system; it is a failed god. Its ideology is unable to meet the intellectual and spiritual needs of people. There is unrest, even armed resistance, within the Soviet Union; former satellite nations struggle to get out from under Communist tyranny. What is the role of the Church, and of individual Christians, in all of this?

We can give our moral support to efforts of the nations formerly Communist to bring about the only productive economic system,the market economy. We can applaud efforts to introduce the private property order, so that people may own their own homes and government-owned industries may be converted to private ownership. We might be able to help meet the growing demand from intellectuals for the books of Mises, Hayek and Friedman – in Russian, Polish or Rumanian. But these are not the areas of our expertise. What might be our unique contribution?

Communist man is a creature deliberately shorn of this roots in the Transcendent. Trying to operate without God, in a kind of self-idolatry which is self-defeating, collectivist man erects social structures which are bound to fail because they are built in defiance of the pattern laid down for us in the nature of things. Man is not a mere end product of the blind working of physical and chemical forces; he is a created being. He is a work of divine art and the signature of the Creator is upon him. There is a portion of the divine in each man and woman, a sacred precinct within us. This is our God-given right to be free from arbitrary trespass, our God-endowed “Rights”of the Declaration of Independence. Man as a created being is the key idea of the free society, and it is a uniquely Christian idea.

Christ said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” These words in the fullness of time, Acton pointed out, “gave liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free.” The civil order is certainly included in God’s plan for man, and the integrities of its several disciplines – economics, political philosophy and law – must be respected But these matters, important as they are, constitute but a province in the total kingdom which is God’s. “We have here no continuing city” (Hebrews 13:14).

Human beings come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, talents and so on; but in one respect we are equal. We are, each of us, created; there is “that of God” in every man, woman and child. Equality before the throne of God leads to the idea of equal justice before the law; there is one law for all of us alike because we are all one in our essential humanness. The Rule of Law provides a standard to which our constitution—making and our law—making should conform. Men are free in society, Locke pointed out, when they “have a standing rule to live by,” one not made by human hands, independent of the arbitrary will of any man, any majority or any minority.

The Bible was a textbook of liberty for our forebears, and may become so again, in our own country as well as among the people of the formerly Communist nations whose hunger for religion has been suppressed for so long. The Bible has a lot to say about the rules for living our lives well and in peace with our neighbors, but it never promises salvation by human contrivances. Christian thought has always been profoundly anti—utopian. The Kingdom of God is not of this world; life here is probative, a schooling for life eternal, as St. Augustine observed. We are to work for justice, freedom and goodness in human relations, seeking to make our pilgrimage here more meaningful, more lovely, more joyful; aware all the while that there is no earthly utopia. Ultimate felicity is for another dimension of reality.

Do we have it in us, as churches or as individual Christians, to meet the demands of our faith in these days? Christopher Dawson, pondering a similar situation some years ago, wrote: “It is the intellectual and social inertia of Christians that is the real obstacle to a restoration of Christian culture.…Christians can hardly say that they are powerless to influence society. It is the will, not the power, that is lacking.” Before, in times of crisis, the Church has always provided a springboard for the emergence of a self-renewing Remnant who affected their times with a power out of all proportion to their numbers. It can happen again, with us.